MAXWELL’S SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW: “THE DOG HOWLS. THAT IS THE SOUND OF THIS NOVEL FOR ME.”
Good news for the new year! A podcast for our inaugural “Another Look” event is now available here: AnotherLookBookClub-11-12-12. It will also be available on Stanford iTunes soon.
The November 12 session discussed William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, with award-winning author Tobias Wolff; Bay Area novelist, journalist and editor Vendela Vida; and Stanford Assistant Professor Vaughn Rasberry.
Enjoy these excerpts from the discussion, offered by one of the top-ranked English and creative writing departments in the nation:
Tobias Wolff: In 1979-80, this book appeared in three installments in the New Yorker. I still remember the excitement of reading them. I was absolutely stunned by what I was reading. I have to admit I read it as a memoir, despite all his warnings, such as, “In talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.” And “this memoir, if that’s what I’m writing…”
We must pay attention to the word on the cover: “novel.” So how do we read this? How seriously do we take his warnings that this is perhaps to be read with a little bit of caution as to its utter veracity? When you read it are you drawn in to give it a little more credulity than you would a novel?
Vendela Vida: Maxwell took years of analysis – and he talks about that in the novel as well – to really realize that we are the architects of our own lives. … For me, the book is all about how our memories are also designed by us. Of course, there are so many architectural references in here, references to building and corridors. In a way, it’s a very empowering book – and I don’t use that word lightly – about how we can reshape our past, our stories and the way we see them. The book is born out of shame, and how he can come to terms with that. It’s also his apology …
Vaughn Rasberry: Despite an apparent simplicity of diction and the apparent straightforwardness of the narration, there were moments in the novel that stopped me dead in my tracks. … There’s one sentence, in particular, that I just has kept me up the last couple of nights. It’s on page 30, and I’ll read it: “She had a son who was a year or two older than I was and everything a boy of that age ought to be – open and easy with adults, bright in school, and beyond being pushed around by his contemporaries.” When I read that phrase “beyond being pushed around by his contemporaries,” I didn’t know what that meant, exactly. Does this mean that he has never been pushed around? This is a really extraordinary thing to claim about someone. Can anyone here claim to be beyond being pushed around by your contemporaries? Raise your hand. I’d like to shake it afterwards.”
Tobias Wolff: The pulse that animates this book is this sense of absolutely, devastating loss, and inexpressibility of that loss, in this case his mother. In fact, if you think about it, all the boys in the book lose their mother, every one of them. … The mother’s sudden removal from the life is a kind of violence that registers on this narrator and resounds through his whole life. At the end, when he records that conversation with his analyst and starts to say, “I couldn’t bear it” – and he’s elderly man now – he says, “I can’t bear it.” It’s still with him, that hole that this has been blown into his soul … It is the kind of organizing emotion – the pulse, really – of this novel.
All these losses! It’s as if he cannot trust his story to convey the full power of his loss and grief. He lives in a middle-class home, his father has a job, and there’s no sense of disunion in the family. How does he find a story that will convey this? Then it becomes this terrible thing, also associated with sexuality, where he feels his own self divided. Even that doesn’t carry the power of grief that he wants to convey, so he gives it to the dog, who cannot give any reason for his own suffering, and so finally, one of the most powerful things in this novel. This whole funnel of suffering and loss and grief becomes a howl. When that man leaves that dog tied up – the words are gone, there are no words to express it – the dog howls. That is the sound of this novel for me.