In times of unhappiness my mind rummages around in the past for poignant or painful memories, as though seeking some kind of brotherhood or solidarity; they need not be alike, the present feeling and the memory, in any way other than sharing the quality of being hurtful. Indeed, I may lose a job or a girlfriend and what my mind will turn up, will nose out like a bloodhound, will be something like Marc Richardson standing outside Thomas Rotherham College one afternoon. Marc was an ugly ginger-haired boy who had been in my class at school, who, despite the fact that we had no common interests, had somehow managed to become my friend, in the way that children make friendships by seemingly stumbling blindly, mindlessly into them. One day, while still at school, he had turned up with a squirrel’s tail as a present for me. He had shot the creature himself and thought I would appreciate the gift as I had spoken of my admiration for the animals. I hadn’t the heart to tell him how much what he had done disgusted me.
I hadn’t seen him since leaving school, hadn’t, in truth, really given him that much thought. Until that day, the day I spotted him outside the entrance to my college. I have no knowledge of why he was there, because I did not ask him, although I knew that he was not a fellow student. I do not know, either, how he felt upon seeing me, whether it caused him any distress, like it did me. It was not, as may be anticipated, the encroaching of one world, my school-life and my childhood, upon another, my college-life and my adolescence, that so distressed me, although I cannot say that that was pleasurable, it was his missing tooth, one at the very front of his mouth. Marc’s missing tooth, I see now, although I didn’t see it then, was significant only in so much that it was missing, in other words it was the fact that it was once there, that I had seen it, that meant that I felt its absence so strongly. As embarrassing as it is, it made me terribly sad to see that space in his upper gum; and for some reason I have lived with a kind of guilt ever since, I have clung to it as though it was the breast of a stout motherly woman. Where is his life taking him, that once tough little boy who had tried to win my affection? What else has he lost along the way?
[Alberto Giacometti’s Palace at 4 a.m., which is discussed in the novel]
William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow trades upon similar feelings and ideas, albeit the story involves far more drama. It begins with a murder, although it cannot be called a mystery. We know almost straight away that the culprit is Clarence Smith, the victim his friend Lloyd Wilson. The narrator, however, soon moves away from the murder to discussing his own childhood, which was affected by the death of his mother. The narrator was a deeply sensitive child, almost something of a loner, but certainly quiet and thoughtful. His mother’s passing appears to have made of his childhood something of a labour, something to press on through, rather than a joy. He struggles to connect with his father, his brothers, other children. Yet one day he meets a boy, Cletus Smith, the son of Clarence, the murderer. The two play together, without communicating much.
“Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.”
On one level the novel is about grief and about how you cope with what happens to you, or around you, as a child. The landscape of the narrator’s childhood was irrevocably changed by his mother’s death; Cletus’ was altered by his father’s actions [and his mother’s – who cheated on his father, which provided the motive]. We like to think that children are robust, that they take everything in their stride. Indeed, that is the message of another book I read recently, Hughes’ High Wind In Jamaica. Maxwell disagrees. He suggests that children don’t shrug bad things off, they don’t plough on hardily. They endure, yes, they get through it, because they must, because what other option do they have? It is interesting that the adults deal with their grief differently, that they, unlike the two boys, find a solution or a way out: the narrator’s father remarries, and Clarence Smith – whose grief is losing his wife to his best friend – kills a man and then kills himself.
“Who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.”
So Long, See You Tomorrow is also, quite clearly, about memory and guilt. The narrator, who at the time of writing is an old man. admits that what he remembers of his childhood might not be entirely accurate. How can it be? No one’s memories are flawless. In the second half of the novel he actually recreates, tells the story of, what happened between the Smiths and the Wilsons, how the relationship developed between LLoyd and Fern etc, events that he could not possibly have been privy to. This is something that we all do, or certainly I do. I hear about certain incidents, and I cannot help but try and act out the before, during and after, in my imagination. What did such-and-such say, how did such-and-such feel, how did this event even come about? It’s a kind of theatrical empathy, I guess. In terms of guilt, the narrator feels as though he let Cletus down in some way, just as I do with Marc Richardson. It’s funny how powerful childhood experiences are. He barely knew Cletus; I knew Marc only superficially. Both of us wish we could have said something, done something, reached out….but we were kids ourselves, and even adults don’t know how to behave, so what chance did we have?
“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”
So far, I imagine I have given the impression that the book really touched me. To a certain extent that is true. Yes, I saw something of myself in it, and that always troubles my emotional equilibrium, but large parts of the book also bored me somewhat. For example, the narrator gives us the bones of the Wilson-Smith story in the first half, and therefore much of what he relates in the second half feels like unnecessary repetition, even if it is fleshed out a little. Moreover, Maxwell’s prose is frequently praised, and while I like the general tone and I thought he provided some nice insights and some impressive lines, it never really got my pulse racing. In short, I think the dubious quality of this review is, in a way, a representation of my experience of what I read: a bit so-so, a bit lacking in inspiration.