‘The Château’ by William Maxwell

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 416 pages; 2012.

Do you ever finish reading a book and then feel totally ambivalent about it? When I came to the end of The Château, by William Maxwell, I really didn’t know what to make of it. Did I love it, or did I loathe it? A couple of weeks later and I still don’t quite know how I feel about it.

First published in 1961, The Château was Maxwell’s penultimate novel (he has six to his name, plus a handful of short story collections and books for children).

It’s about a young American couple, Barbara and Harold Rhodes, who go to France on holiday in 1948 as the country is still finding its feet after the Second World War. On the recommendation of a friend, they plan to stay at Château Beaumesnil in Touraine, where they will base themselves for the summer, exploring the local area, heading to Paris and other European cities (Venice, for instance), while bettering their use of the French language.

But after a long, complicated journey to get there, they don’t receive the warm welcome they had expected from the château’s owner, Mme Vienot, who seems a little “off” and neglectful of her hostessing duties towards them. They soon figure out she’s a social climber and a snob. And the other guests staying there are similarly distant and aloof.

Over time, as they settle in and come to terms with French culture, they realise they may have formed the wrong impression about Mme Vienot and her guests. They form friendships and alliances, get invited to parties and people’s homes and catch up with acquaintances in Paris, but the sense of being Other, of always being seen as privileged Americans never quite leaves them.

Not much happens in the novel; it’s not plot-driven but character-driven. It feels a little like a travelogue because it follows the ups and downs of Barbara and Harold’s travels, including their day-to-day encounters with new people, the little cafes and restaurants they visit, the tourist sites they pay homage to, the art and souvenirs they buy and the domestic dramas that ensue, usually involving Mme Vienot or misunderstandings with taxi drivers or officials.

All the while you are privy to their most intimate conversations, their indecisions about whether to stay or go, their confusion over how much to tip people, their inability to complain about service, their puzzlement as to why people they meet along the way do or say the things they do. Anyone who’s ever gone on holiday with a loved one to a foreign country will recognise a lot of those same conversations and experiences.

It’s all beautifully rendered and written in a very subtle, observant way using elegant prose, reminiscent of Richard Yates’ understated style.

But there’s a weird twist at the end. Just when you think the story has finished, Maxwell introduces Part II — entitled Some Explanations — that spans around 50 pages of meta-fiction. In it, he explains some of the unanswered questions that haunt Barbara and Harold’s trip. Why, for instance, did their friend Eugène act so horribly towards them on the train, and why did his wife Alix not say goodbye?

It makes for an interesting change in perspective and serves to highlight that the American couple’s lack of worldly experience and their linguistic and social difficulties meant they often misunderstood what was happening around them. This meant they sometimes jumped to (unfair) conclusions. It’s an interesting exercise in showing how travel can broaden the mindset, but I admit it felt quite odd coming at the end of a rather long novel about characters that — if I’m honest — weren’t especially interesting.

This is my 10th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 29th for #TBR40. I purchased it in the early 2000s in paperback form and, forgetting that I owned a copy, I also bought it on Kindle last year. (Does this happen to anyone else? I seem to buy multiple copies of books because I forget I already own it.)

14 thoughts on “‘The Château’ by William Maxwell

  1. I’ve really loved the two Maxwells I’ve read, but this does sound a bit of a departure. Part of what I like is how concise he is, but I see this is more than double the length of the two I’ve read, For that length, its a shame the characters weren’t more interesting!

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  2. I have read two Maxwell novels which I really loved. This does sound a bit different, and page count is definitely higher. I quite like character driven things, so while I may not rush to get this one, I’ll look out for it.

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    • If you’re a fan, I think this is probably worth your time. I think I might have been better to start off with his early, or at least his more concise, novels.

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  3. It sounds like the kind of novel that might not have been published if he hadn’t already had some novels published already.
    Maybe he was doing what good novelists try to do, to experiment with style, or modernism?

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    • I actually think this would be a brilliant novel if (1) part II was deleted and (2) the story was reduced to around 250 to 300 pages. The prose style is gorgeous and I enjoyed seeing France through the Rhodes’ eyes… it was a bit long and the experimentation bit seemed unnecessary.

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  4. This actually sounds quite interesting. I have been meaning to try Maxwell for a while now, but maybe this won’t be the one I’ll start with (So Long, See You Tomorrow is the one I keep fancying). Actually, I remember my Dad reading The Chateau about twenty years ago, and reading your review I am baffled by that idea: if this was a film he’d absolutely hate it – mind you, back then I’m convinced he only read to send himself to sleep!

    As for feeling totally ambivalent about books when you’ve finished them: yes, I felt exactly that way when I finished Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer-winning Angle of Repose – I could recognise that it was ‘A Good Book’ and I could admire much of it, but I was also bored silly by it. Oh, and AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I never did finish, was such a strange reading experience! It alternated back and forth between ‘brilliant, best thing I’ve read this year’ (the bit about buying new boots – I still remember it), to ‘please don’t make me read any more of this tedious nonsense’.

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    • I’ve not read either of those books so can’t comment but I love your description of wavering between ‘brilliant, best thing I’ve read this year’ and ‘please don’t make me read any more of this tedious nonsense’ — it made me laugh out loud. I’m sure we’ve all read books like that!

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  5. Interesting post! I’ve read several reviews praising him (and this book) but more recently posts saying very much what you say. It sounds kind of odd and the fact that it left you ambivalent has confirmed me in my decision to donate my copy recently….

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  6. Very interesting. I remember admiring So Long, See You Tomorrow. I haven’t read other Maxwells but this review piqued my curiosity and I looked around to see what other reviewers made of it. Found that Salley Vickers, whose work i like, praised it very highly in the Independent, and other reviewers have raved about it too. I haven’t yet found anything specifically responding to the effectiveness or otherwise of the “meta-fiction’-y part II, which interests me in your account…will keep looking, and may well read the book itself. Thank you for a thought-provoking review.
    Yes, I often buy, in hard copy, books I already own!

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    • Oh, I love Salley Vickers too… I haven’t looked at other reviews of this, but I know Maxwell is a very well regarded writer (although I think he was better known as an editor). I liked the book a lot, I just think it dragged on for too long… and that bit at the end was all very odd indeed. I think I need to read So Long, See You Tomorrow as by all accounts that’s a very good novel indeed.

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  7. Pingback: 20 books of summer 2019 recap – Reading Matters

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