The Age of Quiet

June 16, 2015

I wrote this essay for a Bennington College course called “William Maxwell: Writer and Editor.” The teacher of the course was a friend of Mr. Maxwell and is a person whose opinion I respect greatly, and she commended my essay, so I thought I would share it.

Time Will Darken It, Book CoverThere is a quote, attributed most often to Claude Debussy but at other times to a flock of other composers, that reads, “Music is the silence between the notes.” If we think of every word as having a little brass weight dangling from it, the lightest ones are the closest to a literary “silence.” The more these delicate words congregate in one place, the more substantial the silence. William Maxwell weights his words well in Time Will Darken It. Where there is a sublime wispy passage, there is assuredly a weighty one resting in the other pan of the scales. This prose structure does not exist purely for the harmony, pleasing as that harmony is; it reflects one of the novel’s themes: the presence of a divine delicate state, and then the very human spoiling of it.

Sometimes this divine delicate state opens a chapter. Like one link in a chain, a single chapter is its own unit; it is—or should be—strong on its own, perhaps capable of hooking into a heavy object and lifting it without breaking. Naturally, when hooked into a series of other links, it can lift a much more heavy object, and so does a chapter when it joins other chapters and makes a novel. But first let us appreciate one chapter alone. Chapter Nine, Part Two of Time Will Darken It whispers the following opening:

Between quarter to two and quarter past three an age of quiet passed over the house on Elm Street, over the richness contained in cupboards, the serenity of objects in empty rooms. The front stairs creaked, but not from any human footstep. The sunlight relinquished its hold on the corner of an oriental rug in the study in order to warm the leg of a chair. A fly settled on the kitchen ceiling. In the living-room a single white wheel-shaped phlox blossom hung for a long time and then dropped to the table without making a sound. On a dusty beam in the basement a spider finished its web and waited. (94)

Silence. First, there is the afternoon’s natural lull. Then comes the sound of a house’s old bones as the stairs creak. (Similar nonhuman noises emanate from it, particularly from the stairs, elsewhere in the novel: “This creaking of the stairs, so like the sound of someone trying not to make a sound, often caused Abbey King’s heart to stop beating for several seconds” [178].) The phlox has appeared before, and it never will appear again. With the dropping blossom and the fading summer, this is the reader’s last sublime moment with “the bouquets of white phlox, just as they had appeared to the innocent eye, the eye that sees things as they are and not the use they are put to” (57).

Now the lightest moment, which William Maxwell renders with such beauty, hangs in the balance. Here comes the contrast: “Just when the arrangement of the furniture, the disposition of light and shadow, the polish and sweet odour of summer seemed final and the house itself a preserved invaluable memory, Ab awoke and called out to her mother” (94). A human sound shatters the silence. And this time it is not the “ghost” of the house; it is a person, forcing us outside and into the business of human lives as Martha King arranges daisies, Abbey King pulls flowers from a trumpet vine, and Rachel the cook’s son Eugene comes to talk with her and walks away with buttered, sugared bread. Here the human has not only broken the silence of the nonhuman; it has given the nonhuman a loudness it lacked. Outdoors, with Martha, Abbey, and Eugene, the locusts are louder, the leaves more lively. The gossamer vignettes that opened the chapter have been spoiled, a scene change beckoned by the human touch.

So it is with the whole novel, in thematic terms. Here, the “silence” takes the form of the Child ideal—not to be confused with a particular child—and it is broken more metaphorically. Maxwell renders the quiet house scene so delicately that were someone to bump into it in the dark, it would shatter into a thousand pieces; a careful person would shy away similarly from Thelma, from Ab, from the Kings’ new baby, if any of those three little ones was poised precariously on a mantelpiece. The following is the reader’s first good look at Thelma, a girl of 12, through her mother’s eyes:

As a piece of sculpture, Thelma was astonishingly beautiful. The receding slope of her forehead, the relation of the cheekbones to the slanting, dreamy eyes, the carving of the thin arms and legs, the rounded shoulders, the hollow chest were the work of a tormented artist who had said, in this one fully accomplished effort, all that there is to say about childhood… (55)

Maxwell establishes the Child ideal in this passage. But the particularity does come in immediately after, accompanied, no less, by my verb “spoil”: “… said (unfortunately, from the point of view of a work of art) a little more, spoiling the generality of his design by something personal” (55). What is generality but “space,” in an abstract sense? Thinking in metaphor, this generality is another form of “silence.” It follows from this that particularity, or the “something personal,” is a filler of silence; it is the heavy to balance the light. Lest we stop here, however, a few important inches remain on the “childhood” thread. A deeper thematic understanding is close at hand.

What is there “to say about childhood”? Maxwell has plenty. Consider Ab, who sits still and overhears a conversation between her mother and Mrs. Potter (the likes of which she had waited to hear). After Mrs. Potter stops speaking, the perspective changes. If dialogue can be called “closer” to a character and narration “further away,” then here Maxwell seizes the moment and removes his reading glasses: “In those moments when life is a play and not merely a backstage rehearsal, children are the true audience … Although children are not always equipped to understand all that they see and overhear, they know as a rule which character is supposed to represent Good and which Evil, and they appreciate genuine repentance” (128-129). This moment and others like it (which appear across the novel), in their use of the general term “children” and otherwise broad language, call to mind and describe the Child ideal once again. Maxwell frequently uses Ab as the agent whose experiences prompt these passages.

While Thelma is the reader’s window into what children could be, and Ab is the window into what they are, the Kings’ new baby is the window into what they will be. The last chapter of Time Will Darken It contains the novel’s clearest perspective on children from a single character, and not insignificantly it comes from an adult. Martha King vows to herself to protect this child from all the world’s cruelty. Her method is to destroy the delicacy, to stomp out the “silence”: “She would bring him up not to be nice, not to be polite, not to make the best of things, but in full knowledge of what life is, to make his own way, fight for what he wanted, and above all else to feel. To be angry when he was angry, and when he was happy, to bring the house down with his joy […] This child would have a chance. She would make it possible. It would be so” (367). And so we arrive at the thematic “loudness,” the heavy to the light, the fullness to the emptiness: the spoiling of a childly innocence with all the force in the great tide of—to use Maxwell’s own word—Evil. The Child ideal’s rise and fall is, like the prose, “the presence of a divine delicate state, and then the very human spoiling of it.” Time Has Darkened It.

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