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In memoriam: Louis Auchincloss (1917–2010)
by Ben Downing
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For years, the name Louis Auchincloss was no more than that to me, and in fact I think it may have been tangled or conflated in my mind with that of another literary lawyer, Louis Begley—a preposterous mix-up if so, given that the one survived the Holocaust while the other sailed through Groton and Yale. Then one day I stumbled across a used copy of The Rector of Justin (a fictionalized portrait of a Groton headmaster) and bought it on a whim. Deeply impressed by the novel, I wolfed down four or five more, all out of print. How could it be, I began to ask myself, that such a skillful and addictive novelist had such a low profile? And who was he? Although not generally all that curious to encounter writers in the flesh, I make an exception for those of advanced age, particularly when they’ve closely studied or been engaged with their time; to meet such people is to touch history, to feel the full scope and rollercoaster course of the twentieth century. Auchincloss was almost ninety—who knew how much longer he’d be around. And so I mustered up my temerity and wrote him a fan letter that concluded by asking whether I might stop by to pay my respects. To my surprise, he called two days later to invite me over.
His Park Avenue apartment was just as I’d expected, elegant but lived-in, and so, mutatis mutandis, was Auchincloss himself. It’s a good thing I didn’t go expecting to forge some sort of bond, or even hit if off, because he was not especially friendly. Yet neither was he the least bit hostile or unpleasant—he treated me as if I were an interviewer, which suited me just fine. For several hours I peppered him with questions, all of which he answered instantly and expertly, without the slightest sign of wooliness. These answers often led into tangential anecdotes and reminiscences, by no means all literary—he seemed to have known, for instance, every president since Eisenhower. On occasion he’d catch me off guard with quoted profanities, one or two quite filthy, that would make me burst out laughing but not provoke so much as a smile from Auchincloss himself, his manner beyond deadpan.
Prompted by some subtle signal, I suddenly knew it was time to leave. But as I put my coat on, Auchincloss began rummaging and then pulled out something he said he wanted me to have: a privately printed (or rather photocopied—it looked to have been produced at the local Kinko’s) booklet called “The Wit of Ivy Compton-Burnett,” which consisted of a few pages of discerning appreciation by Auchincloss followed by almost a hundred of excerpts from the novels of Compton-Burnett, a writer whose extreme peculiarity has always defeated me, and whom I would not have picked out as a favorite of his. The unexpectedness of both his taste for Dame Ivy (as he calls her in the booklet) and the gift itself made for a pleasantly off-key last note to the afternoon, a reminder that even someone as rounded and of a piece as Louis Auchincloss has his jutting odd angles. Walking out the door, I glanced over my shoulder to see him already back at work, scribbling away on a notepad.
Now that Auchincloss is no longer with us—he died on January 26, the day before J. D. Salinger, who was fifteen months his junior—I wonder what the fate of his books will be. The only one that stays consistently in print is The Rector of Justin, which does have some claim to be considered his masterpiece. To be sure, not all of them deserve eternal life. The man was wildly prolific, cranking out more than sixty books over the course of his career, and while I’ve barely scratched the surface of his output I can confidently say that he had a top drawer and a lower. Though he was one of those rare authors who couldn’t write a clumsy sentence if they tried, his lesser novels are slight indeed, as are some of his works of nonfiction. (The same is probably true of his many short stories, none of which I’ve read.) Yet Portrait in Brownstone and The House of Five Talents, to name the two novels that seem to me to rival The Rector of Justin, are works of art that will stand the test of time. How can it be that only one of this trio, and that to a very modest degree, is widely known and loved?
The answer isn’t far to seek: Auchincloss’s admirers and detractors alike point to his milieu as a barrier to popularity. He wrote almost exclusively about the blueblood world of “old New York” into which he was born, and even his biographical excursions, such as False Dawn: Women in the Age of the Sun King and Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle, tend to be lateral steps into contiguous bubbles of wealth and privilege. The baffling thing is that this should be considered off-putting. As a culture we are, after all, infatuated with plutocracy and all its trappings. Why does this obsession not extend to serious contemporary fiction? Why do readers wallow in the soul-killing properties of suburbia yet spurn Park Avenue and Newport? It’s a strange preference, given that the fictionalized denizens of the latter locales have so much more range and freedom. Well-educated and clever, they’re able to express themselves memorably; well-heeled and cosmopolitan, they get to gad about Europe and make incisive observations about it.
It would seem that there’s a sort of inverse snobbery at work, a sense that the stick-in-the-ass WASP establishment is inferior in terms of human interest—Auchincloss himself complained of “class prejudice.” To whatever extent this is the case, I suspect that those who give Auchincloss a wide berth assume his attitude to be triumphalist, whereas he in fact surveys his own kind with cool objectivity, neither denying the pleasures and advantages of belonging to the ruling class nor glossing over its hypocrisies and self- inflicted torments. I’m reminded of the absurd canard, widely put about in Britain, that Anthony Powell was a frightful snob. As anyone who’s actually read A Dance to the Music of Time knows, the great Powell was as fascinated by the gutter as by le gratin. The same cannot be said of Auchincloss, who truly was narrow in his purview, but it is the same bottomless curiosity about what makes people tick that animates both novelists.
A related charge against Auchincloss is that, as his New York Times obituary put it, “his subject matter was too dated to be of much interest.” This too is bosh. Admittedly, he often lingered in the past, evoking quaint customs and rituals; in The House of Five Talents, for instance, the narrator, Gussie Millinder, goes dawdlingly back to the 1870s to trace her family’s rise. As Auchincloss himself was the first to concede, “old New York” is the special turf of Edith Wharton, who was his primary inspiration as a novelist. But if he encroaches on Wharton’s domain, by no means are his novels period pieces. Far from attempting to preserve in amber the ways of the past, they show the breaking-down of those ways, their collision with, or adaptation to, the new ones that inexorably supplant them. This is particularly true of the mores around marriage and sex. Though you will find no graphically depicted couplings in Louis Auchincloss, there’s boodles of adultery and divorce, and these are made all the more compelling by the pressure from underneath of outmoded conventions; his characters tend to begin in Wharton’s world and wind up in Updike’s. It is precisely their enmeshment in the elaborate social codes of their ancestors, which they try either to shrug off or quixotically to uphold, that gives their actions dramatic relief.
When I heard the news of Auchincloss’s death, I found myself wanting to read a novel of his that had been biding its time on my shelves: The Embezzler, published in 1966. The first half of the 1960s seems to have been Auchincloss’s heyday, with The House of Five Talents, Portrait in Brownstone, and The Rector of Justin appearing in quick succession. Since The Embezzler came just after the last of these, I hoped to find Auchincloss once again at the peak of his game. In the event, it disappointed me somewhat. Still, I’d like to say a bit about it, for it is representative of the fact that even his flawed novels are very much worth reading.
The Embezzler centers around Guy Prime, who in 1936 is caught playing fast and loose with his clients’ securities. The Roosevelt administration decides both to make an example of him—he’s sent to jail—and to seize on his malfeasance as an occasion for imposing new regulations. As Guy puts it, “I am a symbol of financial iniquity, of betrayal of trust, of the rot in old Wall Street before the cleansing hose of the New Deal” (echoes of Madoff and the current Washington-versus-Wall Street tussle, needless to say). In 1960, nearing his end and self-exiled to Panama, Guy decides to write his memoirs so that his descendents will see he’s no monster. In the process of exculpating himself, he meditates proudly on the Prime family, bitterly on his public scapegoating, and with mingled affection and indignation on his former best friend, Rex Geer, a minister’s son who met Guy at Harvard and made it big with his help, and his ex-wife Angelica, with whom Rex had an affair. That is Part I of the novel. In Parts II and III, Rex and Angelica, who have since married, jump in with their own side of the story, composing counter-memoirs to correct Guy’s distortions. (It is telling that Angelica is given the last word, for Auchincloss excels at female characters and adroitly uses their voices to balance out or undercut those of the hard-driving men who crowd his novels.)
Auchincloss is fond of this kind of narrative frame—The Rector of Justin, for example, builds up its portrait of Frank Prescott, the eponymous rector, by excerpting the ostensible journals, memoirs, and so forth of various figures close to him. This time around, however, the device feels gimmicky and unpersuasive. Equally heavy-handed, almost cartoonish, are many of the characters’ names: besides Guy, Rex, and Angelica, there’s Marcellus de Grasse, a dandified banker. And certain scenes in Guy’s “manuscript” ring hollow and formulaic.
But with Rex’s and Angelica’s stories the novel picks up steam, and here, as the contradictory perspectives come into play, we start to see the real strengths of Auchincloss’s approach to fiction. He is a master of looking at things from different points of view. What results is never a Rashomon-like exercise in ultimate unknowability but an intimate study of why people think what they think and do what they do. Perhaps in part because of his legal training, he is exquisitely alert to motive. There are no actes gratuits in his novels, no Meursaults. Though his characters often shoot themselves in the foot, they reflect on even their most foolish deeds—and on those of others—with a calm precision for which Auchincloss’s crystalline style is the ideal medium. It is above all this exactitude, rigorously logical yet urged on by strong feeling, that makes his novels so satisfying.
While it is difficult to illustrate any of this, let me copy out a more or less freestanding passage from The Embezzler that will perhaps show some of what I mean. Rex has been reflecting on Guy’s cousin Alix, whom he’d once hoped to marry:
When Alix was twenty-nine she fell in love with Alfredrick Fowler, one of those morose, blocky young men of good but undistinguished New York families to whom our rich burghers love to entrust their daughters. Freddy Fowler’s reluctance to ingratiate himself with the Primes was taken by them for integrity and his perennial boredom as immunity to the ordinary temptations. Besides, Alix was getting on, and even her father would not have cared to frustrate her twice. Fowler, whose worldly qualifications were little more than mine had been, was given, almost without the asking, the hand that had been so rudely torn from my loving grasp.
Poor Freddy makes his first appearance on page 182 and blows his brains out on page 183, never to be heard from again; he is an insignificant background character. And yet in a mere three paragraphs Auchincloss manages to set him before us as the embodiment of a certain type—a type that, even if we’ve never met with it, seems recognizable and deserving of both scorn and pity.
Few authors bear out better than Auchincloss the wisdom of that hackneyed old dictum “Write what you know.” What he knew, backwards and forwards, was not just the totems and taboos of his vanishing tribe but the universal patterns of human behavior. At the white-shoe law firm where he worked for over thirty years, he specialized in the trusts and estates of the New York gentry; at his writing desk, meanwhile, he dealt with nothing less than Man’s Estate. Unlike Alfredrick Fowler, Louis Auchincloss was successful by day and even more so by night. We are all the beneficiaries.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 April 2010, on page 76
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