"Two Tales About Men and Women" by William Maxwell Originally published in the June 21, 1958 issue of The New Yorker.
I loved and still love William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. I think it is a classic of American literature and should be more widely read. So, when looking toward my next glimpse into the archives of The New Yorker for this feature, I wondered whether Maxwell had ever published any short stories in his own fiction section of the magazine. Well, not only has he, he also published what could be considered a series of stories, entitled “Two Old Tales About Men and Women” (and other varieties such as “Two Old Tales About Women,” “More Old Tales About Women,” “Further Tales . . . ,” etc.). In 1958, these tales made the part of four of the magazines. In 1965, the series returned with five more offerings. Meaning to start at the beginning by reading “Two Old Tales About Women (Found in a Rattan Tea Caddy c. 1913),” published March 15, 1958, I instead accidentally picked up “Two Old Tales About Men and Women,” the second appearance of this strange series, published June 21, 1958.
As the title suggests, there are two stories. If you’ve read So Long, See You Tomorrow, a beautiful narrative by a man looking back on his youth, you might be surprised, as I was, by the way the first tale begins:
Once upon a time, there was a country so large that messengers journeying from the capital to the frontier were often never heard from again.
I wasn’t expecting the tale to be a kind of fable. I had been expecting something lonely, something a bit more reflective. But here the main character is the King who rules a land with no regard for time. Everything that happens happens drawn out over hours or even years.
It took the King a long time to realize that something was wrong and another five years to consider carefully what he ought to do about it. The council of state had not met since his father’s time, and when it finally convened, at his order, the King’s opening remarks took three weeks, after which the council adjourned and met again in the following autumn.
The solution to the problem (the coffers are empty and spending is going up) is to build a big marble watch. Before the watch can be completed, though, the kingdom is overthrown by some enemy. The King goes into hiding for a while, until finally news comes:
The enemy — never, it seemed, very large in number — had grown weary of subjugating so inactive a country, had provoked a war with another small neighboring state, and had not been heard of for nearly six months.
This is a strange little story, more strange because it just wasn’t what I expected from Maxwell or The New Yorker. I don’t want to suggest it is slight, though, just because it takes the form of a fable. Furthermore, the writing is top-notch, very fluid and very clever.
The second story is a bit more what I expected from Maxwell. Here’s how it begins:
Once upon a time, there was a half-crazy woman who lived off the leavings of other people, who shook their heads when they saw her coming, and tried not to get in the conversation with her. They wanted to be kind, but there is a limit to kindness, and the half-crazy woman was so distracted that anyone listening to her began to feel half-crazy, too.
It still has a friendly-narrator tone to the telling, but it is a bit darker, a bit lonelier and a bit more intimate than the first tale. Here we watch the woman talk to her pig, the fire, and finally death, yet this is a strangely intimate tale. It kind of felt warm, like a good holiday story.
I don’t want to talk much about the stories themselves. They are very short and to summarize them is to simplify them and take the pleasure out of Maxwell’s voice. What I’d like to find out is what Maxwell’s motive was? Why did he publish two series of these tales which read like fables, one in 1958 and one in 1965? I’m anxious to read the others, and I hope to get a better idea about the work as a whole. If anyone has any insights, they are very welcome.