William Maxwell’s 1980 semi-autobiographical novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, originally published in The New Yorker in two installments, was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize and won a National Book Award. In 2016, it was included in a list the 75 best books of the previous 75 years.
Maxwell was The New Yorker’s fiction editor for forty years, working with and gaining the respect of such writers as Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, John O’Hara, Eudora Welty, Shirley Hazzard, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. So, the high praise for his novel, published when Maxwell was in his early 70s, is not surprising.
The novel is an exquisitely rendered, jewel-like story that’s told in just 135 pages in its original hardcover edition. It is notable for its extreme emotional reserve and ever-so-delicate craftsmanship.
For me, it was bloodless.
A decidedly bleak view
I’m sure there are many of Maxwell’s fans who will tell me I’m deaf to Maxwell’s artistry. And, truth be told, So Long, See You Tomorrow does have the feel of an intense and elegant poem.
It is made up of two stories. One is about a murder in 1920s Lincoln, Illinois, that results from an adulterous relationship that broke up two families. The other is about a boy who shares many of the autobiographical details of a young Maxwell and has to do with his friendship with Cletus, the son of the murderer.
The narrator is the Maxwell-like character late in life, looking back on his youth and a moment when he failed in his friendship with Cletus.
In discussing the events of his own life, the narrator exhibits a great and quiet restraint and a high degree of carefulness, even cautiousness, to get things just right — as if the feelings bubbling under the surface will explode if not kept securely under wraps. He takes the same approach is visualizing the story of the two families and the murder.
In reading the novel, I could have done with some emotional explosions.
What I mean is that the narrator describes a life that is akin to living in a room sealed up tight with simply a window to the world. He lives in such a room, and the people of whom he writes do, too. The adulterous couple, for instance, live with something of an emotional constipation, even as their bodies betray them and their spouses.
It is a decidedly bleak view of human nature.
Two hundred words
Since So Long, See You Tomorrow has been described as one of the 75 best books since the 1940s, I thought it would be interesting to find a way to compare it with some other great books.
So, at random, I opened the novel to the start of one of its chapters, the 4th chapter as it turned out, and I copied out the first 200 words of so. Then, I did the same with three other books — The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, Hard Times by Charles Dickens and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.
Here are those excepts:
So Long, See You Tomorrow
I have a hazy half-recollection, which I do not trust, of sitting and staring at Cletus’s empty desk at school. Somebody — I think it was my grandmother — said his grandmother came and took him away. It cannot have been true, he had only one grandmother and she was living right there in town. What probably happened is that his mother kept him out of school, and when she left Lincoln he went with her.
I didn’t wonder what the evening paper meant precisely when it said that Cletus’s father had accused his mother of being intimate with the murdered man. I wouldn’t at that age have been so innocent to think it meant they were on friendly terms with each other. When I thought about the matter at all I thought about the car, which was never found. I knew it was a most terrible thing that had happened to Cletus and that he would forever be singled out by it, but I didn’t try to put myself in his place or even think that maybe I ought to find out where he lived and get on my bicycle and go see him. It was as if his father had shot and killed him too.
The Adventures of Augie March
All the influences were lines up waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself.
At this time and later too, I had a very weak sense of consequences, and the old lady never succeeded in open of a way into my imagination with her warnings and predictions of what was preparing for me — work certificates, stockyards, shovel labor, penitentiary rock piles, bread and water, and lifelong ignorance and degradation. She invoked all of these, hotter and hotter, especially from the time I began to go with Jimmy Klein, and she tried to tighten house discipline, inspected my nails and shirt collar before school, governed my table conduct more sharply and threatened to lock me out nights if I stayed in the streets after ten. “You can go to the Kleins, if they’ll take you in. Listen to me, Augie. I’m trying to make something of you. But I can’t send Mama out to follow you and see what you do. I want you to be a mensch. You have less time to change than you think. The Klein boy is going to get you into trouble.”
Not being Mrs. Grundy, who was Mr. Bounderby?
Why, Mr. Bounderby was as near being Mr. Gradgrind’s bosom friend, as a man perfectly devoid of sentiment can approach that spiritual relationship towards another man perfectly devoid of sentiment. So near was Mr. Bounderby — or, if the reader should prefer it, so far off.
He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples,
and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.
A Farewell to Arms
The battery in the next garden woke me in the morning and I saw the sun coming through the window and got out of the bed. I went to the window and looked out. The gravel paths were moist and the grass was wet with dew. The battery fired twice and the air came each time like a blow and shook the window and made the front of my pajamas flap. I could not see the guns but they were evidently firing directly over us. It was a nuisance to have them there but it was a comfort that they were no bigger. As I looked out at the garden I heard a motor truck starting on the road. I dressed, went downstairs, had some coffee in the kitchen and went out to the garage.
Ten cars were lined up side by side under the long shed. They were top-heavy, blunt-nosed ambulances, painted gray and built like moving-vans. The mechanics were working on one out in the yard. Three others were up in the mountains at dressing-stations.
“Do they ever shell that battery?” I asked one of the mechanics.
“No, Signor Tenente. It is protected by the little hill.”
There is a hothouse quality to the excerpt from Maxwell’s novel. It is all taking place inside his head. It is a novel about recollection and rue. The narrator picks at his memories as if they were a scab or a nearly meatless carcass. He doesn’t want to lose any morsel of remembrance about events that happened more than half a century earlier, especially the key event — his action when he and Cletus passed in a high school corridor.
This is thin stuff, compared with the other excerpts. Bellow’s Augie March, for instance, is full of vigor, and his account is soaked with images — “shovel labor” and “penitentiary rock piles” and the threats from his Grandma who moves through these few sentences as a real Presence. Augie is not picking at the subtle shades of his feelings, but looking outward to the great world as symbolized, at this moment, by Jimmy Klein.
“Brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice”
And talk about Presence — consider the character of Mr. Bounderby, “the Bully of humility,” as described by Dickens.
You can’t read these few words of the Dickens excerpt without hearing and seeing the “big, loud man” with his “metallic laugh” and a “brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice” and “a great puffed head,” a “coarse” man” who seems “inflated like a balloon.”
There is more life in those 200 words of Dickens than in all of So Long, See You Tomorrow.
Okay, I know, Maxwell isn’t trying to be lively, and, really, is it fair to compare any writer to Dickens?
I think it is fair to do so with a book that’s been chosen as one of the 75 best in the last 75 years. Also, there are ways to infuse life into a carefully wrought work of remembrance. It simply seems that Maxwell didn’t want to do that. He wants only, it seems, deal with emotions at one or more removes.
Well, nothing brings life into the picture more than the threat of death. This excerpt is about cannon shells flying overhead, so loud that the air comes “like a blow” and shakes the window and flaps the American paramedic’s pajamas.
He goes out to the shed filled with “top-heavy blunt-nosed ambulances, painted gray and built like moving vans.” And his first question is whether the enemy ever sends shells up toward the battery — and threatening to land short of the battery on this particular plot of land.
Maxwell writes about a murder so impassively as to turn it into a dry husk.
Bellow, Dickens and Hemingway write about an everyday life filled with loud noises and dangers, some sought, some accepted. They write about life.
Patrick T. Reardon