Posts Tagged ‘William Maxwell’

The Stanford book club that rocks the news

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Toby Wolff’s Another Look send-off last spring. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Author Peter Stansky‘s “A Company of Authors,” the annual event where Stanford authors present their books, had its best day ever last Saturday. As I told Stanford Report“The author presentations were eloquent and excellent, without exception, and the audience questions ensured the discussion was spirited and intelligent.” And longtime Hoover fellow Paul Caringella even gave an impromptu pitch for my forthcoming René Girard biography. What’s not to like?

“I always find these occasions extremely exhilarating,” Peter said. “The heart of the university is the life of the mind and you could not have a better example of that than in the books that their authors presented here today.”

Well, you can read the whole thing here. Nearly everyone stayed through all the presentations, and the excited and audible buzz in the lobby afterwards told the story.

And I told a story, too, during my ten-minute solo for “The Wonderful World of Books at Stanford.” Peter introduced me as “the leading figure at Stanford in keeping us involved in so many exciting ways in the world of books.” So I took up the cause of the Another Look book club it has been my privilege to manage for four years. Here’s what I said:

I’m here to tell you the Another Look story. It’s a good story, and I’ve been proud to be part of it. I think you’ll like it because it’s a story about books finding their people.


Founder Tobias Wolff. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Four years ago, the distinguished author Tobias Wolff – who was recently named a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts – approached me with an idea: he wanted to create a forum where members of the community would interact with Stanford writers, scholars, and literary figures in the world beyond, to talk about the books they love. He wanted the first book to be a beloved favorite, William Maxwells So Long See You Tomorrow. He asked me if I could make all this happen. Frankly, I have to say, I was doubtful. The term “book club” did not have good associations for me. But as we hashed it out, I realized my issues were two-fold: first, I figured most people, like me, didn’t have the hours and hours to read long books of other people’s choosing; and second, the books tended to be mainstream, middlebrow, middle-of-the-road “safe” choices.

Inspired by Maxwell’s novel, we decided that we would focus on short books – short enough for Bay Area professionals who are pressed for time, and who may spend their days going through legal briefs or medical documents. Also, we would focus on books that were forgotten, overlooked, or simply haven’t received the audience they merit. We would call it “Another Look.” It would be for people who wanted to be part of the world of books and literature – a world they may have lost touch with once they left university. They would be connoisseurs’ choices for books you must read – discussed and even championed by the people who love them.

Not delusional. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Nobless oblige. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

We had a full house the first night, and our audiences have been steadily climbing upward ever since. One highpoint: for Philip Roth‘s The Ghost Writer, we were joined by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. It was the only time to date we have had a living author. And although he had become something of a recluse, I decided to see if I could interview him. The subsequent Q&A was published on The Book Haven and republished in La Repubblica, Le Monde, and Die Welt. It made the international press, and the high-profile Another Look was featured in The Guardian.

Toby retired … or said he was going to retire … last year (he was recalled for another year, but that’s another story). When we announced that Another Look was going to close shop a year ago, we got record numbers of people attending our event for Albert Camus‘s The Stranger – a book, Toby claimed, that was more honored than read. One member in the audience, the acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, stepped forward that night to offer to assume the directorship of the program. We’ve developed subscribers’ list pushing up to 1,400. Our February’s event with Werner Herzog at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, discussing J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine, is now on youtube, in both highlights and full-length version. (The event was covered by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Caille Millner here.) The repercussions of that powerful book event will continue to unfold in the months to come.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event.

Legendary film director Werner Herzog discusses J.A. Baker’s book The Peregrine at the Feb. 2 Another Look book club event. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

It’s been enormously gratifying for me personally to be the point of contact with all of you in our book-loving Bay Area community – and sometimes around the nation and world, too. We have one aficionado driving in from Carmel – others write from far-flung places to tell me they’re reading along with us. And Toby has talked about this program, during his speaking engagements around the country. He’s proud of his brainchild, too.

Why am I so keen on this program? Because it’s rocked my world. Those who know me as a literary journalist know that I’ve sunk my time into the world of Eastern European poets, particularly Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, and more recently, into the French theorist René Girard, a longtime Stanford faculty member, a dear friend, and the subject of my biography. Hence, there are huge holes in my knowledge of modern fiction, and particularly American fiction. Without too much investment of time, I’ve caught up with a lot of writers I’d somehow missed. No membership fees, no meetings with minutes, no commitments – just show up, please!

So please join us next month, on Tuesday, May 10, at the Bechtel Conference Center, when we discuss Joseph Conrads novella The Shadow-Line. The story will run in Stanford Report Monday and be on the Stanford news website – we have books in the lobby. Meanwhile, take some freshly minted bookmarks – and take a few for your friends who might be interested, too.

So long see you tomorrow, Toby! An evening of Camus, crowds, and many fond farewells.

Saturday, June 6th, 2015



I present some surprises to Toby. Another Look’s graphic designer Zoë Patrick at left. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Stanford’s Another Look book club was born of one man’s love for a short novel – that is, acclaimed author Tobias Wolff‘s love of William Maxwells So Long See You Tomorrow, which became the first book discussed in the three-year series. He wanted to share the book not just with colleagues, but the the world. He called Another Look “a gift to the community.” (We’ve written about it here and here and here and a zillion other places). So it was fitting that we concluded the era Toby’s directorship with a Maxwell tribute. Why “see you tomorrow”? Because he’s not going far. He’s simply beginning his well-earned retirement. He’ll be around. Meanwhile, the future of the highly successful program he founded is uncertain. We’ll see what happens. Cross your fingers. Burn incense. Whatever works.


Toby begins – a little amazed at the turn-out. (Photo: D. Schwartz)

The Monday discussion of Albert CamusThe Stranger was a knockout event – the turn-out beyond anything we had anticipated. It was way beyond standing room only. The room was impassable, with a mob in the doorway, and another outside the sliding doors to the patio, opened so a smaller crowd could listen in. People sat on the floor in the aisles. There was no place in the room that didn’t have people in it. (I squatted behind the podium and couldn’t see anyone on the panel – you could say I had audio, but not visual, reception.) It was, in short, a love-bomb.

The photos above and below don’t quite capture the size of the crowd – photographer David Schwartz, who happened to be in the audience, didn’t have much choice about what he could capture at all. The fans who were lucky enough to have seats were so jam-packed that he couldn’t move.

David couldn’t photograph all three panelists together – so we augment his photos with one of Marie-Pierre Ulloaa scholar of French intellectual life in 20th-century Algeria, taken by Remmelt Pit.

No surprise that the discussion was lively and wide-ranging. Intellectual and cultural historian Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center, and Toby are old friends, as their spirited exchanges show in the photos. The audience was bubbling with questions – more than the panelists could possibly answer. Many of them focused on the four extra shots fired by Meursault into the Arab – in Matthew Ward‘s esteemed “American” translation (read about him here) is rendered “And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”

camus-9All in all, it was a wonderful send-off for Toby’s retirement – we presented him with a signed first edition of the late William Maxwell’s The Outermost Dream, a collection of his essays from The New Yorker – fitting, because Toby himself is a regular contributor to the magazine.

But the biggest surprise of the evening was the edition of Maxwell’s later novels from Brookie and Kate Maxwell, the author’s daughters, who have appreciated Toby’s attention to their father’s legacy, and his efforts for Another Look more generally. Brookie, also a photographer, included a photograph of her father that she had taken – the photograph with the kitten; you can see it here.


Teamwork: Toby and Caroline. (Photo: David Schwartz)


A spirited exchange between Toby and Caroline (Photo: David Schwartz)


Toby makes a face; Marie-Pierre giggles. (Photo: Remmelt Pit)

Remembering William Maxwell: “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Sophisticated? He didn’t think so. (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

In preparation for Stanford’s “Another Look,” a new book club launched by the English department at Stanford, I wrote a retrospective on author William Maxwell, whose  masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow, will be the inaugural book for  “Another Look”  on Monday, November 12.   The book will be discussed by award-winning author Tobias Wolff, with Bay Area novelist, journalist, and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford’s lit scholar Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.  More on “Another Look” here


“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995.  His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.

Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries.  He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death.  Maxwell wrote six novels, many short stories, a memoir, two books for children, and about forty short, whimsical pieces, which he called “improvisations.” Three volumes of letters have also been published.

Others have readily compensated for Maxwell’s modesty.  Christopher Carduff, editor of the Library of America edition of the author’s complete works, once called him “a kind, wise, quiet voice. One of the essential American voices of our time.”

“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist.  He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

“He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation,” wrote John Updike in The New Yorker.  “His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.”

The path of Maxwell’s life took few sharp turns. He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, on August 16, 1908. His professional life was almost entirely bound up with the New Yorker, where he worked for four decades – in a sense, he became the “company man” his father would have approved. After an intensely long and lonely bachelorhood, he married the most beautiful woman he had ever met.  Their marriage lasted until her death, a week before his own.  He and Emily (universally called “Emmy”) had two daughters – the first born when he was 46.

His work habits were relentlessly predictable:  According to his daughter Katharine Maxwell, he was consistently in bed at 10 p.m., and up at 6 a.m.  He didn’t like the superficial chitchat of cocktail parties.  He excused himself abruptly from dinner parties at 9.45 p.m. – he wanted to be fresh to write the next morning.

About four-fifths of his oeuvre is set in or around his hometown. Thanks to him, Lincoln has become a landmark as indelible as Hannibal, Missouri, in the annals of American literature.

“The shine went out of everything”

There was one defining peak on the otherwise rather flat landscape of Maxwell’s life: his mother’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was 10. He never really got over it; almost all his friends and acquaintances speak about it when recalling him. “He couldn’t speak of her without tears welling up in his eyes,” recalled his daughter, Katharine Maxwell. She said it resulted in a sort of flinty atheism, a grudge almost – “yet he said he thought God could write a better story than he could.”  Maxwell’s friend and fellow writer at the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson, described him as “melancholy-minded.” Said Wilkinson: “His mother’s death stamped him forever with an awareness of the fragility of human happiness.  It kept him away from any religions. I remember him saying that ‘no one can fail to be astonished by creation – that’s as far as I’m going to go as to a governing faculty to the universe.’”


William Maxwell: “In talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.”

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Alberto Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 a.m.” (Photo: Antonio Villar Liñán)

Earlier this week, I announced “Another Look,” Stanford’s book club for the best books you’ve never read.  But I didn’t have a chance to give my pitch for William Maxwell‘s masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow.  Let me make amends now.

I read the book on the strength of Tobias Wolff‘s powerful recommendation several months ago.  The graceful, elegant, and melancholic writing is infused with the Midwestern attitudes and turns of phrase still extant in my own Michigan childhood.  As I read, I wondered where those phrases, metaphors, and mindsets have gone since.  Maxwell’s excavation of memory has become more urgent with the passage of time. “I didn’t want the things that I loved, and remembered, to go down to oblivion. The only way to avoid that is to write about them,” he said in an interview.

Toby called the book “a beautifully written, complex, haunting story of a boy’s attempt to find warmth and companionship following the death of his mother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic — which killed more people than the Great War it so quickly followed. It is a work of consummate literary artistry, and a cry from the heart that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.”

When I read the book, I hadn’t yet seen the work Maxwell uses as a metaphor for his childhood, Alberto Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 a.m.,” in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Google found it for me, and when assembling materials for the Another Look website, I thought I would do new readers the favor of including an image of it.

I prefer some of Giocometti’s other work, which is reminiscent of the work of his mentor, the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle.  My own father was a sculptor;  Bourdelle and Sir Jacob Epstein were perhaps his favorite masters of the medium, and hence became my own. But for Maxwell, Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 a.m.” had a special poignance.

Here’s his ekphrastic turn in So Long, See You Tomorrow.  I liked the last line so much, I used it in our bookmark for the event – you can pick up one of the bookmarks at the Stanford Bookstore, or at the Stanford Libraries – or drop me a line and I’ll save one for you.

From Maxwell:

“When, wandering around through the Museum of Modern Art, I come upon the piece of sculpture by Alberto Giacometti with the title ‘Palace at 4 a.m.,’ I always stand back and look at it – partly because it reminds me of my father’s new house in its unfinished state and partly because it is so beautiful. It is about thirty inches high and sufficiently well known that I probably don’t need to describe it.  But anyway, it is made of wood, and there are no solid walls, only thin uprights and horizontal beams.  There is the suggestion of a classic pediment and of a tower.  Flying around in a room at the top of the palace there is a queer-looking creature with the head of a monkey wrench.  A bird?  a cross between a male ballet dancer and a pterodactyl?  Below it, in a kind of freestanding closet, the backbone of some animal.  To the left, backed by three off-white parallelograms, what could be an imposing female figure or one of the more important pieces of a chess set.  And, in about the position a basketball ring would occupy, a vertical, hollowed-out spatulate shape with a ball in front of it. …

“I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms.  It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than an actual experience.  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.  Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.  In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”

Best books you’ve never read: “Another Look” explores overlooked masterpieces

Monday, October 15th, 2012

"I didn't want the things that I loved, and remembered, to go down to oblivion. The only way to avoid that is to write about them." (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

Finally, the news is out! For several months, I’ve been working with author Tobias Wolff on a new idea for a book club, “Another Look.” First book we’re going to feature on November 12 at Stanford:  William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.  Here’s the announcement:

Book clubs have proliferated across the United States, though most stick to middle-of-the-road bestsellers. Once in a while, however, you run across an off-the-beaten-track book you may not know about, praised by a leading literary figure. Where do you go to talk about this unfamiliar, top-notch fare?

Look no further. Stanford is allowing readers to get an insider’s look at literature via a seasonal book club, “Another Look,” which will be offered by one of the top-ranked English and creative writing departments in the nation.

“Another Look” is the brainchild of award-winning writer Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English, who will kick off the event with William Maxwells 144-page novel So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Interested readers are invited to a discussion of the book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, in the Levinthal Room of the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free. Wolff will talk about the book with Bay Area novelist, journalist and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford Assistant Professor Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.

For Wolff, “Another Look” started in a conversation with colleagues: “We had occasionally held lunchtime discussions of a story or novel or poem for interested students and members of the department, and these had proved popular. Well, why not open our arms a little farther and invite the university community to participate; or, better yet, open our arms out wide to the community at large?”

Said Wolff, “Each of the faculty members are choosing books that really matter to them, and that they feel have not earned the readership they deserve.”

The books will be on the short side as well. “We recognize that the Bay Area is a busy place – and we recognize that people have limited resources of time. We don’t want to suggest books of discouraging length,” said Wolff.

So Long, See You Tomorrow was originally published in two parts in The New Yorker in 1979. The book, set in rural Illinois, describes the effects of a murder on the friendship of two boys – one of whom, in old age, narrates the story. Wolff called it “a beautifully written, complex, haunting story of a boy’s attempt to find warmth and companionship following the death of his mother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic – which killed more people than the Great War it so quickly followed.”

He called it “a cry from the heart that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.”

“It’s been a project of mine since 1980 to make people read that book. Whenever I sit down with people to talk about books I love, I always make sure that I mention that one. I give it to people as a gift,” he said. “This is my attempt to give this novel to the whole Bay Area as a gift.”

Wolff hopes to encourage a rich community discussion of the book on Nov. 12. “The conversation will be much richer if people have read and thought about the book first,” he said.

“The book club offers a wonderful opportunity for the writers and scholars of the English Department and the Creative Writing Program to introduce these neglected classics to a broader audience,” said Gavin Jones, chair of the English Department. “I’m excited at this opportunity to continue our literary conversations beyond the classroom.”

For the second event in February, poet Kenneth Fields will present Janet Lewis‘ 1941 The Wife of Martin Guerre, a 109-page novel. The name might ring a bell with some Bay Area readers: Poet Janet Lewis was also the wife of Stanford’s eminent poet-critic Yvor Winters.

On Lewis’ death in 1998, the New York Times wrote: “There are many who will assure you that when the literary history of the second millennium is written … in the category of dazzling American short fiction her Wife of Martin Guerre will be regarded as the 20th century’s Billy Budd and Janet Lewis will be ranked with Herman Melville.”

Although the Nov. 12 event is free, seating is limited. Reservations on the website The website includes Wolff’s introductory remarks, as well as Cynthia Haven’s [dat’s me – ED]  retrospective on Maxwell’s life, with interviews of his colleagues and daughter.