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Visiting post-war France with William Maxwell

To say that very little happens in William Maxwell’s The Château would be to over-estimate its drama. But that doesn’t matter. Maxwell’s book is principally concerned with the characters, sculpted slowly and deliberately over hundreds of pages. The writer does not make any concessions for the patience of the reader and though I might have quit had I more on my mind while reading, it’s definitely worth sticking around to get to know them.

Harold and Barbara Rhodes are our protagonists, young Americans visiting France in 1948. They are a perfectly ordinary couple but there’s an aura of weary despair about them which is only subtly investigated as the book progresses. Maxwell expertly describes all the supporting cast too, perhaps even more deeply than our two stars. Some we are led to hate; some we pity; some we suspect; some we are perpetually wary of… It’s through conversations with these supporting characters that Maxwell shows us what life is like in a pockmarked, post-war France of rationing, skepticism and political debate.

The almost ghoulish chateau at Beaumesnil, managed by the unpredictable Mme Viénot, is mouldy smelling and uncomfortable in my memory, and the clattering of cramped train carriages is also a visceral image. Paris is particularly vivid in its description, not least through the apartments and hotels the Rhodes frequent, but also in the people met, and food and wine consumed. I didn’t care much for the last fifty pages – a jolting tonal shift – but throughout the novel, the reader gets to know and love (or dislike) the most important characters and locations, recalling the sights, sounds and smells of where the Rhodes have been.

The Château is not high drama nor war story epic, but William Maxwell creates a France full of real characters who will stick in the memory for a long time to come.

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