Book Of A Lifetime: The Chateau, By William Maxwell

Reading 'The Chateau' is like meeting a very old friend with whom the conversation is always spontaneous, intimate, restorative and unpredictable. The narrative line is simplicity itself: Harold and Barbara Rhodes, a young American couple, decide to take a long vacation in post-war Europe. While we are told that they visit other countries, the action takes place in France, most centrally, though not exclusively, in the chateau where they spend two uncomfortable weeks as paying guests.

This augurs Henry Jamesian themes but Maxwell's is quite another key, no less profound for being apparently lighter. One element of this book which I admire is that the couple are happy together. They have sadnesses – they are childless – but they love each other and this is realised without sentimentality, a feat hard to pull off.

There are dramas, little and large, but no secrets from each other except – and this is Maxwell's special perception – in the ways human beings are ineluctably, and tragically, opaque even when the will to openness is paramount. The account of their misunderstanding of the French is shrewd, poignant and funny. These are not the Americans of today's imagination, colonising and self-confident. The Rhodes are tentative, diffident and heart-breakingly polite. They are puzzled and hurt by the French refusal to respond to warmth and charmed when it is given unexpectedly.

Maxwell is that rare thing, a kind writer (like Trollope, he knew that "kindness" is a correlate of "kin"). But what has made him so influential in my own work is his habit of interspersing his subtle accounts of character with sharp observations about human nature. George Eliot does this, but more portentously. Portentousness is a million miles from Maxwell's sensibility.

Here are two examples, the first a characteristic counter to the more general theme of human unknowability. A distinguished Frenchman and his wife, guests at the chateau, are leaving after having apparently cold-shouldered the Americans. At the last minute, the Frenchman hands Harold his card, offering his help in Paris. This seeming slight gesture is, we know, tantamount to an embrace and Harold is astounded as he has been nursing the wound of rejection. The aloof Frenchman has perceived this and Maxwell comments, "human thought is by no means as private as it seems, and all that you need to read somebody else's mind is the willingness to read your own".

Later, the couple go south and spend ten days of unalloyed enchantment, briefly but satisfyingly described. Suddenly, needlessly, they pack up and leave and we are aghast at their foolhardy waywardness after their tough treatment at the chateau. As Maxwell says, and understood deeply, "It is impossible to say why people put so little value on complete happiness." And yet this is just what this book achieves. For it allows us to experience why difficulty is often finally more generative than ease.

Salley Vickers's collection of short stories, 'Aphrodite's Hat', is published by Fourth Estate