Book Review: The Chateau, William Maxwell

The ChateauThe Chateau by William Maxwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a rare gem of a book. It is so perfect in its depiction of traveling and falling in love with another country that, not only would I not change a word, I found section after section I wanted to absorb into my skin. Although written sixty years ago and set just after World War II, the interactions and reactions of a young American couple with the French and in France remain relevant, painful, hilarious, and true.

Its peaceful pace belies the profound transformation of its principal characters, Harold and Barbara, and of the painful recent history from which the French were so eager to shake loose in the fragile years of the late 1940’s. It is counter to French nature to turn away from history and move on with assertive hope; Barbara and Harold arrive at the border just as France accepts that breaking the habit of reflection and debate and marching in concert with their European neighbors- including Germany- is the only way out of the post-war depression.

Whether or not it was the writer’s intention, Maxwell’s characters personify specific national characteristics or conditions that were present in France during this tender and uncertain time.

Mme Viénot is the face of dignity. She endeavors to preserve the gentility of the rapidly disappearing class of landed gentry. Hers is the eponymous château, which suffers the indignities of no hot water, no heat, and a larder limited by ration coupons. She is wily, a survivor, one foot trailing in the France’s past, the rest of her thrust forward, ready to grasp what she can to keep her home and legacy intact.

Eugène Boisgaillard encapsulates a nation emasculated by war, and its co-conspirators helplessness, guilt, and frustration. He runs hot and cold- a character you don’t trust and but somehow you come to understand. He is surely suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition not spoken of in a nation that had lost so many of its young men to war. He resents the vitality and hope of the American naïfs as he comes to terms with the loss of his gracious pre-war lifestyle.

Mme Straus-Muguet is a reminder that all is not as good as it seems in the land of your dreams. Pulling back the curtain of Emerald City to see an insignificant blunderbuss at the controls is a keen disappointment. But once you accept the flaws and the ordinariness of it all, you also begin to feel more at home.

Her awkward social status is also a painful but unspoken reminder that, although united during the war by hunger, fear, resistance, or mere survival, the different social classes would sort themselves out in peacetime. Peace means never having to say “I’m sorry,” to someone beneath your standing.

Sabine and Alix are the face of the new France: young, strong, independent women. Sabine is blazing her career path without the help of her connected family or a paramour; Alix is a busy mother in a passionate but difficult marriage with the mercurial Eugène. These women realize there is no time to stop and reflect on all that was lost in two generations of war; their lives are rich and full, the demands on their intelligence and heart too great to tarry.

It often feels that Harold and Barbara are more conduits than characters, particularly the winsome and vague Barbara. Harold works so hard to understand and to be understood, to fit in, get along, adapt; he wants desperately to be French, but understands that he is the quintessential American. The passages showing Harold falling helplessly in love with France, encountering the inexplicable and the maddening, and finally, saying goodbye to Paris are heart-wrenching to any one who has known and loved that beautiful, proud, contrary, gracious country.

The Château is a love letter to France, and an homage to the baffling, intoxicating experience of traveling abroad. It is also an astute portrayal of post World War II Europe, of a country that was on the losing side of the victorious.

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Feeling the Pull

Vacation is about doing things that you can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t do at home; tossing routine out the window and letting loose the child you once were- the one who simply lives in the moment, the one who lives simply…the one who sleeps with abandon, who eats only when she’s hungry, who anticipates with giddiness the day as it dawns, knowing it is full of adventure and play.

For 2 1/2 weeks I didn’t talk about work (not an easy feat when you work with your husband). I didn’t run, swim or strike a single yoga pose. I didn’t write, I hardly read. I remained untouched by and unconnected to the digital world.  I didn’t swallow any cod liver oil, worry about my low iron stores, or my weight. I didn’t care about paying $8 for a gallon of gas, $200 a night for a hotel in Paris, or splitting a $400 bill for dinner with friends.

I did eat chocolate. Every single day. I drank wine. Bottles of beautiful, rich, refreshing Corbières, Minervois, Picpoul, St. Chinian, Saumur. Even at lunch. I gorged on red meat, salmon, chèvre, fresh bread, Charentais melon and Italian gelato. I slept. Oh my, did I sleep.  Eight to ten hours of deep, peaceful, gorgeous slumber, hours past my usual 4:30-5 a.m. internal clock.

I did watch television. Our mornings began slowly, with thick, black coffee, and Télématin. The evening news came on at 8:00, just as we sat down to dinner after a long day’s adventuring through the Languedoc. We munched and sipped silently, captivated by the exquisite Laurence Ferrari, the world’s most divine news anchor (Hugh Laurie was a puddle of blush the evening Laurence interviewed him about his new blues album. It was a treat to see House squirm under the spell of a beautiful woman). We played “La Roue De La Fortune” – France’s Wheel of Fortune, feeling smug and silly for correctly guessing the French word or phrase before the contestants. I never did make it through an episode of ‘The Closer.” Lieutenant Provenza’s acerbic wit  just doesn’t translate well in dubbed-French.

Chateau de Termes

I played. The day’s biggest decisions were which Cathar castles we would seek out and where to stop for lunch. Brendan drove, I navigated, and we made certain to stop and smell the coquelicots. There were hikes to ruins where the history whispered achingly in the ever-present winds. There were naps along shaded riverbanks, picnics in silent meadows, ice cream cones while perched on Roman walls.

I did speak French, to the degree that I lost my English words, where it was more natural to speak French with Brendan when we were in public, and Franglish when we were alone. It was easier to read Midi Libre than the International Herald Tribune. Easier still to let the newspaper slip away and simply stare into the distance, whether it was into the meadows outside Couiza or into the crowds passing our café table in Paris.

I did dream. In each village we wandered,  as we hiked the foothills of the Pyrénées, I wondered “Could I live here?” I dreamed of the hectares of vines outside Montséret or near Limoux that Brendan would tend, of the stone cottage with blue shutters in tranquil Minerve where I would write, of a cheery red front door in the village of Félines-Minervois that would open to our visitors from near and far, a cold pichet of rosé waiting on the table. I plotted a garden and my cycle route to work in Capestang, including a stop at Francisco’s tabac for the morning paper. I planned for summers on the coast in Gruissan while Brendan toiled (happily, I should add) in the heat of the Corbières garrigue only 20 miles west.  I answered that question time and again with a definitive, exuberant, and wistful, “Oui, sans aucun doute.”

Corbieres vineyards

Alas, vacation is just that. A break from what is, what must be, most of the time. I was grateful to return to my bed, to snuggle with Lola, to eat a simple meal of toasted quinoa and steamed broccoli (with a glass of Touraine, of course), to return to job I love, to see friends and colleagues, to hug my dad after he loaded my suitcase, heavy with bottles of wine and books, into his van. And hey. Vacation is paid for. I weigh less than before we left on our hedonist holiday, I’m back in half-marathon and tri training mode. I submitted a story for publication and I’m plodding through this post.  It’s back to normal. At least for the part of me that is back in Seattle.

*Title from The Swell Season song, Feeling the Pull