Alison Lurie Lurie, Alison (Vol. 4) - Essay

Lurie, Alison (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lurie, Alison 1926–

Ms Lurie, an American, is a witty and intelligent novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Alison Lurie's … novel [The War Between the Tates] is the neatest bit of literary kung-fu since we have known that name to call it by: at the end of the book the characters are laid out in rows. Yet at the beginning they seem an amiable, deserving enough lot….

The whole operation is performed by Miss Lurie with great dash and readability, and, up to a point, persuasiveness. But there is one source of ambiguity and unease in the book that seriously limits it. Is Miss Lurie offering this devastating account of some very ordinary middle-class Americans as a mirror in which everyone, herself included, must see a reflection of themselves? Or does she feel them to be an utterly different species from herself, mere objects for her proper scorn and malicious pleasure? We don't know what expression there is on her face as she stands back and contemplates the field of slaughter—and we wonder, in fact, if she does, either.

Derwent May, "Campus Consciences," in The Listener, June 20, 1974, p. 808.

The ironic elision in the title of Miss Lurie's latest conceit [The War Between the Tates] is only the first inkling of its small scale; it is, you might say, a mock-Homeric battle between frogs and mice since the intelligent lady has a fastidiousness which reduces small events to miniature. This fits quite neatly with the romance of her suburban heroes, and I was relieved that there were thin walls between me and their ungainliness….

Miss Lurie wields a relentless prose which it is more than a duty to read. It is a pleasure. She has a solid appreciation of the richness of her own intentions, and both style and construction are realised with a strength and tact that remind one of the finest excesses of the early nineteenth century. With a judicious and ironic use of perspective two or three voices are able to come back to haunt both themselves and the narrative, and it is not the merest coincidence that The War Between The Tates should concern itself with the hiatus between the perceptions of each character, that variation which is enough to make and unmake different worlds or what Brian Tate would call "spheres of influence" in the interminable book on the Cold War which he is writing throughout the novel….

The authoress is so invisible that you see her everywhere, her interventions couched in a discreet present tense which is the literary equivalent of pursed lips….

And as the net of her prose, transparent though it is, slowly begins to tighten the protagonists are seen to be the breathless and exhausted creatures which they always were…. What The War Between the Tates has done is to derive intellectual comedy out of a war between ages and sexes that owes more to Thurber than it does to international politics and the 'urban situation.' It defies contemporary America with lucidity and with charm.

Peter Ackroyd, "Miss American Pie," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), June 29, 1974, p. 807.

For 10 years, Alison Lurie has regularly produced insightful and witty novels about The Way We Live Now, drawing on a large talent for social verisimilitude. In her fifth book, with the effortless grace of a real ironic gift, she has raised The Way We Live Now into the Human Comedy. "The War Between the Tates" is a novel not only to read, but to reread for its cool and revealing mastery of a social epoch; something "light and bright and sparkling," in Reuben Brower's phrase for "Pride and Prejudice"; a near-perfect comedy of manners and morals to put on the shelf next to "Vanity Fair" or "The Egoist."

Miss Lurie has been working steadily toward "The War Between the Tates." I have not read her first book, "Love and Friendship"; the other three are all variations on the same theme and the same device for bringing it to life. Miss Lurie's protagonists are always academics or writers; well-read and well-controlled, thoughtful and successful, people of good taste—and hence people especially susceptible to the Call of the Wild and the perfectly rational processes of self-deception. In each case, their carefully-constructed lives and self-images, glowing with conscious enlightenment, break up on the rocks of the irrational, to which they have been lured by the siren song of sheer sexual energy. The resulting splinters reveal the real nature of the personal material….

"The War Between the Tates" is a thing to marvel at, very nearly all that the novel was meant to be.

Sara Sanborn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 28, 1974, pp. 1-2.

"The War Between the Tates" will make [Lurie] famous. Having read it, latecomers will want to search out her academic comedy "Love and Friendship," her sharp-edged Los Angeles novel, "The Nowhere City," and her send-up of sociologists and spiritualist cranks in "Imaginary Friends."…

The Tates' domestic war breaks out in the spring of 1969 and continues—with truces made and broken, attacks, retreats, defections and battle fatigue—into the summer of 1970. Ninety pages into the book Lurie rolls out a dazzling piece of equipment: a detailed parallel between events in the Tate household and the progress of the war in Vietnam. This metaphor, of Miltonic grandeur and epic absurdity, ascends from the embattled Tate home and floats over the campus of Corinth University like a majestic balloon….

None of Alison Lurie's earlier books was so cunningly plotted…. Lurie is a baleful comic artist; in "The War Between the Tates" she is at her most corrosive.

Walter Clemons, "Uncivil War," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), August 5, 1974, p. 64.

The War Between the Tates is Alison Lurie's fifth novel, her longest and most ambitious, yet it is a sober, witty, modest book, like all her others, better perhaps, very touching in places, no "break-through," for her or for fiction….

In The War Between the Tates Lurie cheerfully takes on the standard plot—an ambitious professor, his well-educated wife, their domestic boredom and strain, a student mistress for the husband, futile attempts at retaliation and freedom by the wife, and whenever these figures and actions move into the surrounding community, we have clarity and brightness where others usually have managed murky expositions and cute tricks….

In The Nowhere City and Imaginary Friends Alison Lurie relied with considerable success on neat and clever plotting; in Love and Friendship she assayed a romance with markedly less success. In The War Between the Tates she has given herself space for her witty observing, she has kept her plot unobtrusive but timed within an inch of its frail life, and she offers another romance, at least of sorts. Since she herself is older, so are her characters, and sadder, too….

When the characters are asked to play parts of some consequence,… and Lurie's method with them still remains the same as it does with the background figures, the results are caricatures that can be embarrassing in their simplicity…. [Characters] named Jeffrey, Matilda, and Wendy reappear many times without once being anything but utterers of fantastic sounds…. Lurie treats [Brian Tate] throughout with the same cool ridiculing air she gives her background characters, and so he becomes a bloated oafish weight around his creator's neck, and she does nothing to relieve herself of it.

Roger Sale, "The Way We Live Now," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), August 8, 1974, pp. 32-3.

The "Silent Generation," now in its 40s, is like a piece of sandwich meat pressed between the icy slab of its parent's emotional impermissiveness, and the hot toast of the hippie revolution. It has long since become the Garrulous Generation, but those who do the talking have usually identified with the hot side of their lives.

It is the distinction of Alison Lurie's novel [The War Between the Tates] that, uncruelly and unsatirically, it is not encouraging about the degree of humanity on either side….

This novel could use more grounding in nature and in a sense of the texture of places as counterpoint to social realities…. But the strength of the book is in Lurie's detached ability to describe rather than judge, with results far more devastating than denunciations. While Alison Lurie has been compared to Austen, she seems to me closer in spirit to Colette; though not yet as fine a writer as Colette, she could be, and like Colette she has that inestimable icy warmth which is a literary and human accomplishment of high order.

Martin Washburn, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), August 8, 1974, p. 27.

I imagine Alison Lurie puts on surgical gloves before sitting down at the keyboard of her typewriter. She comes equipped with scalpel, hemostat, forceps, rongeurs. She operates on her characters. Their hopes, illusions, pretensions and rationalizations are tumors to be removed. Whether, after the operation, they will recover or relapse is generally left to the reader to decide. In her four previous novels—Love and Friendship, The Nowhere City, Imaginary Friends, Real People—she seems to have wearied of her elegant work and to have gone home before the anesthetic wore off. The War Between the Tates is no exception….

Now there are a great many pleasures to be found in The War Between the Tates. There is, for one thing, the faultless prose, like an English lawn. One could play polo on such prose, swatting ideas with a mallet up and down the pastoral field. There are brilliant scenes, dozens of them…. After the horses have galloped through each scene, Alison Lurie slips back on the lawn, tamps down the divots, smoothes the way for the next chukker.

There is, as we've come to expect from a Lurie novel, a detachment so profound that we might be looking at tropical fish in a tank instead of people in extremis; an irony so heightened that we're embarrassed for her characters and for ourselves; a comedy so grey that it tickles the frontal lobes while chilling the gut. On her turf—the evasions and self-deceptions of our upper middle classes, the strangled cries of artists and academicians—she is masterful and savage. She bends conventional narrative techniques to her scourging purpose; it is surprising that they do not break, that her well made novels can support so much disdain.

And yet The War Between the Tates is an annoying book. Alison Lurie is punishing the Tates for their having thought themselves better than other people, "exceptionally handsome, intelligent, righteous, and successful young people." They end up the novel "ugly, foolish, guilty, and dying." Then why was it necessary to drag in the Vietnam war? Analogies between that war and the war between husbands and wives drag through the pages; the metaphor weighs a ton. Containment, escalation, guerrilla warfare, hostages are not so much alluded to as forced down the reader's throat. Even the rapprochement of Erica and Brian is made to occur at a peace demonstration. Yes, adultery is the obsession of American novelists, and maybe it has something to do with our finding out that we aren't the perfect children of the Enlightenment that we believed ourselves to be, but, no, our foreign policy is not an extension of our boredom in the bedroom or our loathing of teenaged ingrates or our self-righteousness about marriage vows.

More significantly The War Between the Tates is populated by people who are never permitted to experience their own possibilities, cerebral or visceral. Alison Lurie's clamp is on them….

In their different ways John Cheever and John Updike have covered this turf, too: Updike seeking some lyrical equivalent of the joy of discovery and the pain of betrayal, Cheever finding even in our failures a redeeming humanity, sorrow instead of disgust. Alison Lurie refuses to sympathize, and so this marvelously polished, splendidly crafted novel creates an antiseptic space in the mind: no one can live there.

John Leonard, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 10 & 17, 1974, pp. 24-5.

If Alison Lurie's novel [The War Between the Tates] is a triumph in familial realism executed by the use of an extraordinary, scornful intelligence, it is also a beautiful example of good writing, perfectly suited to what it is saying. The device of sliding back and forth between the present and the past tense, so annoying in the hands of a lesser writer, here suits her purposes exactly. It gives the novel a simultaneous past and present, moving it at crucial moments out of the narrative past and bringing it into the often-painful immediacy of the current moment. Further, her ear for dialogue at every age level is impeccable, from the shrill ingratitude of adolescents to the self-absorbed egoism of faculty members. Every word of the speech she records rings true. So, there is no possible way we can escape the truth of her observations about the discontents and disappointments of their lives; the shock of recognition is absolute.

Lurie has taken a set of ordinary characters, or at least not exceptional ones, submitted them to the strains and battles of time, sex, legal alliances, generation gaps, politics and work: all the ingredients of a popular novel. But her sensibility and talent are so superior that she has given us an artistic work, which every one will read because it is "common" to us all, but which some will perceive to have the crafted look and feel of first-rate work.

Doris Grumbach, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 11, 1974, p. 3.

Miss Lurie writes … coolly and wickedly … about all the highly contemporary moral, psychological, sexual, and, above all, practical problems her characters are constantly grappling with. Almost everybody in [The War Between the Tates] is a victim of crumbling institutions, self-deception, and half-baked ideas, and when she is finished with them there is very little left but bones and hair. But her tone is not exultant—merely matter-of-fact.

The New Yorker, August 19, 1974, p. 89.

[When] one gets past the klieglight superlatives [festooning the dust jacket of The War Between the Tates] and proceeds to wade through the book itself, one discovers a handful of chestnuts that have seen better days in better hands. Despite [Miss Lurie's] attempts to be as sharp and mercilessly satiric as she was in her earlier, far superior efforts—The Nowhere City, with its scathing portrait of Los Angeles, and Imaginary Friends, with its unrelenting mockery of sociologists and quack psychics—Miss Lurie has in fact produced her weakest, most tedious work to date. In part this is because of her subject—the human comedy enacted in an American university….

Though Miss Lurie has tried to update the genre with hippies and peace marches and Women's Lib, not to mention an elaborate but unsuccessful metaphor linking domestic strife with the Vietnam War, all these devices sit leadenly on her trite novel like an undigested meal….

Unfortunately, almost all the wit and wisdom in The War Between the Tates has the facile glibness and smug complacency of … machine-tooled profundity about the ages of man. The characters are predictable in their mediocrity and unimportant in their fatuousness. Miss Lurie at her best is a lesser Mary McCarthy—much lesser because her scorn is consistently blunted by the cliché lineaments and responses of her cartoon people; her icy distaste is entirely out of proportion to their dull insignificance.

For this reason her new book, though stuffed with the sardonic observation that is Miss Lurie's trademark, seems finally without a point of view. Whenever someone—usually a woman—appears in danger of engaging the reader's sympathy, Miss Lurie retreats into a diffuse, unfocused derision that vitiates judgment altogether. Feeling is the enemy, the meticulously aimed jab the means for keeping emotion at bay. Randall Jarrell wrote of the McCarthy-like lady novelist in his book [Pictures from an Institution] that she did not murder to dissect, she dissected to murder. Even this repellent but fascinating cruelty is absent from The War Between the Tates, for the objects of its homicidal dissection were dead at the start.

Pearl K. Bell, "The Overblown and the Overlooked," in The New Leader, September 2, 1974, pp. 17-18.