Tuesday, August 23, 2016

This Twilight of Innocence

The Château by William Maxwell

…wherever one looks twice there is some mystery.

                                            Elizabeth Bowen

In speaking of Italy as the setting for his novel The Marble Faun (1860), Nathaniel Hawthorne (referring to himself in the third-person) wrote, “Italy [he might have said Europe], as the site of his romance was chiefly valuable to him as affording a sort of poetic or fairy precinct, where actualities would not be so terribly insisted upon as they are, and must needs be, in America. No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case in my dear native land.” Overlooking, for the moment, the glaring innocence (read: ignorance) of this observation (think of slavery, think of the forced removal and genocide of native peoples), Hawthorne nevertheless captures a sentiment that has resounded powerfully throughout the history of this still-young nation he called home. From Hawthorne’s own The Marble Faun, Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, Henry James’s Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady, and Edith Wharton’s “Roman Holiday’ and The Buccaneers to Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and Darryl Pickney’s Black Deutschland, the story of the innocent American abroad is a theme that has figured prominently in our literature since the nation’s bold if uncertain founding. 

The Château by William Maxwell, first published in 1961, is a brilliant variation on this beguiling, seemingly inexhaustible theme. Set in war-torn France, in the years immediately following the Nazi Occupation, Harold and Barbara Rhodes are among the first tourists to venture there, eager to absorb and bear witness to the sort of history they, as Americans, have never known. Once in  France it beckons them from everywhere; it throbs for them like a missing limb, as they tour the ruined villages of Normandy, as they take in the fabled Mont-Saint-Michel, and finally as they accustom themselves to the quirks and austerities of Château Beaumesnil, where—innocent of everything but their desire to see (a desire colored mostly by novels and films)—they have reserved a room for a proper two-week stay. 

Almost at once the disappointment and confusion set in: “Was something not here that used to be here and everywhere in France? Had they come too late?” Harold wonders, early on in the story. Of course, as most travelers know, one seeks an adventure in part for exactly that feeling, for the mystery of it, the bumbling, the sometimes fearful confusion of signals and signs. One seeks such experiences for the way they unravel one, distort one’s reflection, for the way they humble and bewilder one. Each time one travels one is forced to learn the world again, to see it freshly; one can take little for granted. One is forced to entrust oneself to others, in whom even the simplest gestures and expressions must be reckoned anew.

At heart The Château is a novel about just that, about the human need to periodically disrupt one’s own life, to quicken one’s senses, to challenge one’s complacency—one’s opinions, one’s values, one’s routines. Good traveling—like good fiction—shakes one; it muddies the water in which one’s truths and certainties swim. Merely the anticipation of arriving somewhere strange is sometimes enough. In fact Harold’s perspective, his perception, is altered even before he steps foot on French soil, setting the tone for all that is to come. Looking out the porthole of their ship on the morning of their arrival, he considers the city of Cherbourg rising dreamlike beyond the breakwater:
The light splintered and the hills and houses were rainbow-edged, as though a prism had been placed in front of his eyes. The prism was tears. Some anonymous ancestor, preserved in his bloodstream or assigned to cramped quarters somewhere in the accumulation of inherited identities that went by his name, had suddenly taken over; somebody looking out of the porthole of a ship on a July morning and recognizing certain characteristic features of his homeland, of a place that is Europe and not America, wept at all he did not know he remembered.

Read this novel, then go to France, go to Europe, and see.

Peter Adam Nash

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