Style and Technique
Maxwell’s considerable skills as a novelist and short-story writer may be less well known than his many years of work as an editor for The New Yorker magazine. Although few of his own works appeared in that magazine, he brings his editing ability to bear on his own polished prose. In “The Gardens of Mont-Saint-Michel,” the language is translucent, allowing the reader to see and feel the main character’s experiences without stylistic disruption. Maxwell portrays a man who is difficult to appreciate, one who experiences chafing dissatisfactions that conflict with his sympathetic instincts. His family acts as a backdrop against which Reynolds appears as a caring and responsible husband and father.
Maxwell’s novel The Château (1961) begins with a chapter in which a different young American couple arrives in postwar France in 1948. The two couples also travel the same route, visiting first Pontorson and then Mont-Saint-Michel. Commenting on his novel, Maxwell expressed concerns that The Château was too much of an autobiographical travel diary. Although the action of “The Gardens of Mont-Saint-Michel” covers a single twenty-four-hour period, it is filled with flashbacks of an earlier trip, one much like that of the couple in the novel. The descriptions of Reynolds as a more mature character add depth to the story, revealing a man suffering from a careworn daily life, one that a mere holiday could hardly relieve.
Through Maxwell’s characterization, Reynolds frequently experiences pointedly ambiguous thoughts. For example, the abbey is airy and visionary, a heavenly site, but one reminiscent of a vaudeville act. The full parking lot near the abbey presages a World’s Fair crowd, and Reynolds fears the family may have to stand in line to see the tide come in. The tide itself is like an emotion, but a disastrous one like the joy of a man falling in love at the wrong time in life. Maxwell concludes the story by showing a somewhat penitent tourist. In a final reversal, Reynolds generalizes that it is the French who choose not to belittle the memories and emotions of others.