‘The Thistles In Sweden’ by William Maxwell

The Thistles In Sweden by William Maxwell, 1976

The magic trick:

Building a feeling of time passing and sentimental longing for the past in the reader

The story really shows its hand about halfway through. One of the sections begins with the narrator wondering how many years he and his wife lived at the apartment in question. He says, “… time was not progressive or in sequence, it was one of Mrs. Hinkley’s horizontal surfaces divided into squares.”

So there’s your key to the puzzle.

That’s how the story is arranged. The plot isn’t necessarily a progression. It’s a series of different events, and because of that the story can move slowly for the reader (at least it did for me) and we don’t get very much narrative momentum created. It’s moving horizontally without any particular direction.

But if you stick with it and stay open to it and keep reading, I think you’ll find that all of those different squares – as he calls them – really add up to something beautiful. It’s really a powerful story, and there are enough memories here that by the time our couple is graduating out of this apartment and leaving the city, we feel the passage of time somehow too. You feel like you are leaving this apartment as well.

It really snuck up on me. I didn’t even really think I was enjoying the story very much as I was reading it, and so it was a pleasant surprise at the end when I realized that it had an effect on me. Those are neat stories, and it’s rare to find and certainly not easy to pull off as a writer. And that’s quite a trick on Maxwell’s part.

The selection:

How many years did we live in that apartment on Thirty-sixth Street? From 1950 to – The mere dates are misleading, even if I could get them right, because time was not progressive or in sequence, it was one of Mrs. Hinkley’s horizontal surfaces divided into squares. On one square an old woman waters a houseplant in the window of an otherwise blank wall. On another, Albertha, who is black, comes to clean. When she leaves, the apartment looks as if an angel had walked through it.

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