SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “Polly's Choice.” New Statesman and Society 84, no. 1331 (8 July 1988): 39-40.
[In the following review, Maitland compares Lurie's fiction to the work of Jane Austen but faults The Truth about Lorin Jones, asserting that the book has a weak ending.]
Alison Lurie is a truly clever writer: sharp eyed and eared for the details of life about her, astringent, witty, and with a stylish control which allows her to use wit rather than be used by it. One very seldom feels that she sacrifices either truth or plot for the cheap joke and this is rare. I would not like to meet her, though; I would feel, as I would with Jane Austen (though Austen is ultimately more tolerant, affectionate, towards her own creations than Lurie) that my every mannerism and movement might well end up as grist for her mill.
The comparison with Austen is not frivolous—both of them take the social comedy, the novel of manners and use it for highly ethical ends, for exposing the triviality and dishonesty in many of our accepted codes and customs; they take the known characters of their daily lives and make the reader see them aslant, differently, better. But The Truth about Lorin Jones is not her best book, though all these hallmarks are present in abundance.
Poor Polly Alter is a New York art historian, nearly 40 and divorced, who doesn't trust men, is trying to write a biography of Lorin Jones—a dead but risingly important painter. As a good feminist she starts wanting to write the story of a delicate genius exploited and destroyed by the men in her life. As she proceeds to meet the men (and the women) who had known Jones she is forced to recognise (surprise, surprise) that this is not the whole truth; more, she is forced to deal with her own subjective identification with Lorin and find that she does not much like it.
The trouble is that the message is a bit simplistic—Polly Alter is so naive about herself and her subject that it is nearly impossible to believe that she could ever have got the job she is supposed to have at her museum, let alone land a commission to write a biography. Perhaps New York intellectual feminists are a different breed from British ones. (Perhaps also I have a subjective identification with New York intellectual feminists and I do not want us presented in this light—this is possible.) But I do not recognise these women: the lesbian scenes are frankly appalling and unfair to the narrative. If my best friends were women like this I, too, would seize the first opportunity to run off with a beach bum who had lied to me and who was the ex-toyboy of the subject of my biographical endeavours.
Offered a crude choice of becoming “an angry, depressed lesbian feminist or a selfish successful career woman” (yes, it is posed as bluntly as that), Polly takes a surprisingly long time (five pages) to decide instead that she will consent to insecurity, sexual passion and complexity. “To your own self be true”—the moral message of this saga—is fairly trite when the alternatives are so deadly.
And yet, on the way to so weak an ending, there are infinite delights. Lurie gives us, for example, “verbatim” the research interviews that Polly conducts: the subtle determination of every character to talk not about Lorin Jones, but about themselves is beautifully done; so is the forgiveness that Polly and her estranged father find for each other—a moment of real sweetness that...
(This entire section contains 674 words.)
makes all the wittier the failures and incomprehensions of their relationship.
Class refinements, opposing viewpoints, the subtlety of self-interest masquerading as truth, and some wonderful dialogue: Lurie is on to us all and converts the knowing into fiction. What weakens the novel is that the point that all perception is subjective, incomplete and “ideologically informed” is hardly worth making any more, and that Lurie doesn't really like women as much as men. A pity.
Alison Lurie 1926-
American novelist, editor, children's writer, memoirist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Lurie's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 5, 18, and 39.
Distinguished for her sophisticated comedies of manners and academic satires, Lurie has earned both popular and critical acclaim for her best-selling novels, such as The War between the Tates (1974), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs (1984), The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988), and The Last Resort (1998). Set in closed communities, typically prestigious eastern colleges and artist enclaves, Lurie's novels repeatedly utilize the themes of adultery and sexuality as means for allowing her characters, especially her female characters, to confront their self-depictions and grow into a greater awareness of themselves and others. Her prose attempts to deconstruct the pretensions and false pride of her characters—at times unmercifully—and works to expose the ways in which cultural ideas and institutions can become obstacles to rewarding lives. Lurie is also a noted scholar of children's literature and has written and edited several volumes of juvenilia, criticism, and fairy tales including Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature (1990) and Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (2002).
Born in Chicago and raised in New York City and Westchester County, New York, Lurie is the eldest of two daughters born to Harry and Bernice Lurie. Lurie's father, a sociology professor, was born in Latvia and later became the executive director of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds. Lurie's mother was an accomplished journalist with the Detroit Free Press before her marriage, a career she left to devote herself to her family. Lurie attended a private elementary school and finished high school at a progressive preparatory school in Connecticut. She attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduating in 1947 with a bachelor of arts in literature and history. Lurie began writing in elementary school and continued composing poems, stories, and reviews throughout her schooling. After leaving Radcliffe, she took an editorial assistant position at Oxford University Press in New York. In 1948 she married Jonathan Peale Bishop, with whom she had three sons. While her husband pursued his doctoral work at Harvard University, Lurie concentrated on her writing career and raising her family. During these years, Lurie became a founding member of the Poets' Theater at Harvard. The group, established in 1950, set out to revive poetic drama and included such notable writers and artists as James Merrill, Donald Hall, Frank O'Hara, Richard Wilbur, Kenneth Koch, and Edward Gorey, among others. After receiving rejection slips for numerous short stories and two novels, Lurie stopped writing for a period but resumed her work in earnest to write a memoir of her friend, V. R. Lang—the poet, playwright, and actress—who died of cancer in 1956. Friends of Lurie privately printed the work, V. R. Lang: A Memoir (1959), which was later included as the introduction to V. R. Lang: Poems and Plays (1975). Lurie's first novel, Love and Friendship, was published in 1962. A series of fellowships from the Yaddo Foundation in 1963, 1964, and 1966 helped support her work on her subsequent novels, The Nowhere City (1965) and Imaginary Friends (1967). Lurie's experiences at the well-known Saratoga Springs retreat for writers, artists, and composers provided the inspiration for her fourth novel Real People (1969). In 1968 she began teaching part-time in the English Department at Cornell University, becoming an adjunct associate professor in 1973 and a professor of English in 1979. During the late 1970s, Lurie focused on her academic work in the area of folklore and children's literature, leading to the publication of several children's works, including The Heavenly Zoo: Legends and Tales of the Stars (1979), Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales (1980), and Fabulous Beasts (1981). Lurie's seventh novel, Foreign Affairs, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1985 and was nominated for the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to these honors, Lurie received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1978 and the Prix Femina Etranger in 1989. Lurie separated from Bishop in 1975 and later married novelist Edward Hower. In 1989 she was named as the Fredric J. Whiton Professor of American Literature at Cornell.
With her first novel, Love and Friendship, Lurie established a satiric style and academic milieu that she would return to repeatedly in subsequent novels. Love and Friendship—its title a reference to an early novel written by nineteenth-century author Jane Austen—relates the story of a disintegrating marriage between a woman and her husband, an English professor at a small, prestigious eastern college. Reminiscent of Austen's novels, Lurie adopts a comedy of manners style to explore such issues as relations between the sexes, female awakening, and the intellectual and personal pretenses in cloistered academic communities. Imaginary Friends examines how fantasy and reality can become blurred, especially when sexuality is involved, and how academic objectivity can be used to foster self-delusion. The novel exposes the arrogance of social science research methods and, in particular, the simplistic beliefs about human relationships that underlie such sociological empiricism. Real People, based on Lurie's experiences at Saratoga Springs, employs the form of a journal to investigate the relationship between an artist and the world around her. The plot follows a writer named Janet Belle Smith during her week-long stay at Illyria, a decadent artists' retreat. Lurie returned to her familiar fictional elements—academic settings, adultery, and marital breakdown—in The War between the Tates, which dissects the lives, relationships, presumptions, and self-deceptions of a married couple. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the novel also contains an explicit political component, embodied in the character of Brian Tate, a professor of political science who is having an affair with a social psychology graduate student. Brian accidentally impregnates the student, causing his wife, Erica, to rebel and briefly experiment with sex, drugs, and Eastern philosophy.
Lurie departed from her trademark academic settings in Only Children (1979), a novel set during the Great Depression and told from the viewpoint of two eight-year-old girls. The novel incorporates Lurie's interest in children's literature and gender discrimination while continuing several of the themes from The War between the Tates, most notably male-female and intergenerational conflicts. Through this child's-eye perspective, Lurie reveals the immaturity of adult behavior and the limitations imposed on adult women. Lurie returned to scholarly protagonists in Foreign Affairs, which revolves around the troubled lives of two academics—a middle-aged female scholar of children's literature and a male junior professor of eighteenth-century literature—who are both on research sabbaticals in London. A comedy of manners that is also reminiscent of the Jamesian-style “international novel,” Foreign Affairs examines the self-deceptions that inhibit the academics' respective relationships and the false assumptions about foreign culture that become part of their illusions. In The Truth about Lorin Jones, Lurie again explores the uncertain boundaries between reality and fantasy, this time through the experiences of a biographer, Laurie Zimmern, who is writing a book about a famous painter named Lorin Jones. While conducting research, Zimmern continually encounters her own faulty preconceptions about Jones, the people in Jones's life, and herself. This new sense of awareness forces her to reexamine the attitudes and ideals that have been shaping her life. Set in Key West, The Last Resort involves an eminent naturalist, Wilkie Walker, and his wife, Jenny, as they travel to Florida with vastly different agendas. Jenny hopes the vacation will restore her husband's warmth, while Wilkie—convinced that he has cancer—has come to kill himself in the ocean. The novel takes a darkly comic turn as Wilkie haphazardly bungles his suicide attempts while Jenny explores a lesbian love affair and becomes friends with some of the island's more colorful denizens. Women and Ghosts (1994), Lurie's only collection of short fiction, features nine stories that follow women haunted by figments of their own psyches. In “Ilse's House,” a woman encounters the ghost of her fiancé's ex-wife, while “In the Shadow” focuses on a young foreign service officer whose love life is interrupted by the spirit of a former lover. “The Double Poet” centers around a writer who is tormented by a mysterious doppelgänger who begins taking her place at literary events.
In addition to her fiction, Lurie has published several analytical works, including The Language of Clothes (1981), a study of clothing as a mode of social communication, and Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, a volume of critical writings on children's literature in which she examines subversive elements of traditional stories such as Little Women,The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,Watership Down, and Harriet the Spy. She continued her scholarly reexamination of juvenile fiction with Boys and Girls Forever, which discusses the inspiration behind and the portrayal of gender roles in many notable children's works. Lurie has also edited The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (1993), a collection of folklore and children's stories spanning from 1839 to 1989. In 2001 Lurie published Familiar Spirits, an affectionate though not uncritical memoir of her friends James Merrill, the acclaimed American poet who died of AIDS in 1995, and his long-time partner, David Jackson.
Frequently compared to Jane Austen by critics, Lurie has attracted considerable praise for her incisive, satirical observations of social conventions and relationships among the educated classes. Many reviewers have concurred that The War between the Tates and Foreign Affairs represent the strongest examples of Lurie's talent in constructing modern comedies of manners. Academics have frequently lauded Lurie's insights into contemporary culture, mores, and politics, while additionally commending her eye for detail, sharp wit, and sense of irony. Several critics, however, have found Lurie's often amused detachment unduly cold and harsh, with some claiming that her satire at its most extreme tends to project an indifferent and contemptuous attitude toward her characters. Others have argued that Lurie's prose style is overly controlled, noting that her authorial dominance over characters and plot can make suspension of disbelief difficult. Moreover, some reviewers have perceived an over-reliance on infidelity and sexual intrigue as melodramatic plot devices in her work. While popular press critics have been favorably disposed towards Lurie's fiction, considering her to be a brilliant satirist and keen observer of human nature, many scholars have asserted that Lurie's importance as a serious writer has been diminished by her mainstream status as an entertaining author of light, comic novels. Despite such reservations, Lurie has been consistently praised for her intelligent plots and skillful pacing of both comedy and suspense in her fiction. Lurie has also earned critical esteem for her scholarly and editorial contributions to the study of children's literature, though some have questioned her inclusion criteria for The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. In the Publishers Weekly review of Boys and Girls Forever, the critic has commented that Lurie's “essays are consistently entertaining, enlightening and erudite, and Lurie's insights into a host of classic titles … bring clarity to an always-evolving form.”
SOURCE: MacCurtain, Austin. “What We Are and May Be.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4449 (8-14 July 1988): 259.
[In the following review, MacCurtain discusses the plot and characters in The Truth about Lorin Jones, calling the novel “entertaining.”]
The epigraph to The Truth about Lorin Jones serves notice that the reader had best be cautious about Alison Lurie's intentions. It is a riddling quotation from a speech of the distracted Ophelia: “They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord! We know what we are, but we know not what we may be.” We might remember, too, that the character who described Ophelia's condition said that her hearers “botch the words up fit to their own thoughts”.
Polly Alter, a recently divorced single mother who works at an art museum, has been given a grant to write the life of an American painter, Lorin Jones, who died practically unknown in 1969 and whose work, thanks to an exhibition mounted by Polly, is now becoming famous. Lorin, a shy, solitary person, is seen by Polly as a victim of the men in her life, exploited as a woman, then neglected as an artist. Polly, since her divorce a doctrinaire feminist who has as little as possible to do with men, must now interview these destroyers of Lorin: her dealer, her half-brother, her ex-husband and the unsuccessful poet with whom she ran away.
Readers of Alison Lurie's novels will find that they have met many of the characters before: Lorin Jones, Leonard Zimmern, Janet Belle Smith, Roo March and others have all appeared, in various roles, in one or more of her earlier books. The connections between all these people and the different roads they have taken establish a world as rich, opaque and inconclusive as life itself; a human eco-system that registers every disruptive moment and reminds us that, just beyond the novel's action, other lives and other interests are in vigorous progress. The novel abounds in what are nowadays called “hidden agendas”. Polly's feminist friend, Jeanne, with whom she has a brief and unsatisfactory affair, insinuates both herself and, later, her lesbian lover into Polly's apartment. They work on Polly to make her wonder if she is not selfish in wishing to keep her fourteen-year-old son, Stevie, at home. Stevie has been on an extended visit to his father in Denver, and his return threatens to overcrowd the apartment and intrude an unwelcome male presence.
As Polly sets about her interviews, she finds that the men and women she talks to all have their own personal or materialistic reasons for wanting her to present their version of Lorin Jones. The politics of writing an artist's biography are deftly outlined. If Polly co-operates, Lorin's ex-husband, a famous art critic, will open doors for her professionally, her employers at the museum will promote her and the dealer who shows Lorin's work will see to it that her book is well and prominently reviewed. Though Polly herself is an angry and unhappy woman, she is honest about her own feelings; this honesty is her salvation, for her identification with Lorin Jones is such that, unsure as she is of her own identity, she runs the risk of losing it altogether and of mistaking Lorin's in the process. Lurie exercises great skill and sureness in moving between fantasy and reality in the development of Polly's character; as the novel progresses, Polly's combination of instinct and intelligence enables her to shake out the truth in what people tell her of Lorin's life and at the same time to direct her own life in counterpoint to what she is learning, both about Lorin and about her informants.
Though full of irony, the book nowhere descends to bitchiness. The irony arises from situations honestly, even charitably, reported. Those involving Polly's feminist lodgers may set one's teeth on edge, yet that is due not to any malice in the language, but the facts of the situation. All Lurie's novels rely on this sense of truth and a very particular kind of personal integrity. In The Truth about Lorin Jones, apart from an examination of the art world and the cramped little orthodoxies of the feminist party line, she conducts a study of the artist's personality and the creative process. She understands very well that reality is not really opposed to fantasy, but is full of it; that people are constantly creating themselves and later discarding all or part of the self they create. The artist is no different, except that she has an awkward ambivalence in her make-up: she is a solitary who yet hopes to be pursued into her solitude. She needs privacy and recognition. A child's vulnerability speaks in both needs, so the artist constructs a painting (or a novel or a piece of music) through which she communicates with the world from a safe distance.
In one of Polly's early interviews, Leonard Zimmern had warned her that “if you go on the way you are going, you could find out things about [Lorin] you don't want to know”. Near the end of the book she is faced with the biographer's (and the novelist's) dilemma:
it was clear by now that none of the people Polly had interviewed were lying, not wholly anyhow: everyone had told her the truth as he or she knew or imagined it. All they agreed on was that Lorin was beautiful and gifted (the two things I'm not, Polly thought sourly). Otherwise, everyone seemed to have known a different Lorin Jones; and most of them also had different versions of the other people in Lorin's life. As Lennie Zimmern had warned Polly, she had found out too much. How the hell was she ever going to make sense of it all?
The knowledge that reticence is as important a part of the writer's equipment as expression has helped Alison Lurie to provide us with a novel both dense with ambiguities and straight-forwardly entertaining.
V. R. Lang: A Memoir (memoir) 1959; reprinted in V. R. Lang: Poems and Plays. With a Memoir by Alison Lurie, 1975
Love and Friendship (novel) 1962
The Nowhere City (novel) 1965
Imaginary Friends (novel) 1967
Real People (novel) 1969
The War between the Tates (novel) 1974
The Heavenly Zoo: Legends and Tales of the Stars [illustrations by Monika Beisner] (juvenilia) 1979
Only Children (novel) 1979
Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales [illustrations by Margot Tomes] (juvenilia) 1980
Fabulous Beasts [illustrations by Monika Beisner] (juvenilia) 1981
The Language of Clothes [illustrations by Doris Palca] (criticism) 1981
Foreign Affairs (novel) 1984
The Truth about Lorin Jones (novel) 1988
Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature (essays and criticism) 1990
The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales [editor] (fairy tales) 1993
Women and Ghosts (short stories) 1994
The Last Resort (novel) 1998
Black Geese: A Baba Yaga Story from Russia [illustrations by Jessica Souhani] (juvenilia) 1999
Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson (memoir) 2001
Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (essays and criticism) 2002
SOURCE: King, Francis. “Painters and Self-Portraits.” Spectator 261, no. 8349 (16 July 1988): 31-2.
[In the following review, King analyzes the plot and style of The Truth about Lorin Jones, claiming the book makes interesting points about the nature of biography.]
Every biographer—Michael Holroyd with Strachey and John, Victoria Glendinning with Victoria Sackville-West and Rebecca West, even (dare one say it?) Ariana Stassinopoulos Huffington with Callas and Picasso—is bound, willy-nilly, to fall victim to some degree of self-identification, however unconscious, with his or her subject. It is this self-identification, carried to remarkable extremes, which provides the theme for Alison Lurie's The Truth about Lorin Jones. Lurie's is a straight novel; but it is also, in a sense, a detective story, since every biographer must play the detective—coaxing out unflattering and even disreputable truths from the survivors; on the look-out for minor but crucial indications of what I call ‘creative memory’ or even of downright lying; and at the same time wary of becoming so much involved in emotional and moral issues that the objective truth gets lost.
The name of Lurie's chief character, Polly Alter, at once in itself proclaims a remarkable degree of identification between biographer and her subject. When a child, Lorin (formerly Laura) was known as ‘Lolly’. ‘Alter’ suggests alter ego, and it is as Lorin's alter ego that Polly increasingly sees herself: both share a Jewish parentage, both have been painters (Lorin successfully, Polly unsuccessfully) and both attract not merely the same sort of men but the same men. There is also, of course—whether intentionally or not, it would be rash to guess—the similarity between the names ‘Lorin’ and ‘Lurie’, so that one is tempted to view the whole novel not merely as an account of how Polly searches for an always elusive Lorin or Lolly but of how the novelist searches, at one remove, for an always elusive self.
The difficulty about writing about a painter of near-genius is to convey the quality of the painting. Lurie is unusually successful at this. Lorin's work, we are told, hovers ‘in a no-man's-land—a woman's land, Polly thought—between representation, abstraction and surrealism’. The artists to whom she is most often compared, we are also told, are Larry Rivers and Odilon Redon—a pair to which one is tempted to add Mary Potter, on the evidence provided by Lurie of the appearance of the works (one of them, for example, merely suggests ‘layers of shore, sea, sky and cloud’). One of the few certain facts that Polly establishes about Lorin is that painting was always of more importance to her than anything else in her life; and in order to pursue her painting, without having to bother about such things as earning a regular wage or cooking and cleaning, she was prepared to exploit her menfolk in precisely the manner in which Polly's feminist, lesbian friends claim that men exploit their womenfolk.
The secondary theme of the book is precisely this ‘exploitation’, handled with the rueful irony to which this novelist so often subjects not merely the opposite but her own sex. While Polly is delving into Lorin's often unhappy life, she must also live her own often unhappy one. Abandoned by her husband, she has admitted into her home a lesbian friend, with whom she soon starts an unsatisfactory affair. The lesbian friend has a lesbian friend of her own, an immature and scatty girl-bride, whom she eventually introduces into the household. Women, Lurie indicates, are just as capable of exploiting other women—as Jeanne and Betsy set about exploiting Polly by playing on her loyalty to her own sex, her natural generosity and her guilt—as men are capable of exploiting them. They are also capable of exploiting men—as Polly sets about exploiting the men with whose cooperation she hopes to dig up the dirt about her subject. In one memorable passage, when she is lying at the mercy of an ‘entodontist’, she sees a parallel between the work of the entodontist, going about his root-canal work, and her own digging up of this dirt. Both must excavate for a hidden corruption and, in doing so, both must go painfully close to the nerve.
What Polly learns about Lorin is that the truth about any person is always maddeningly and fascinatingly various and complex. Has Lorin victimised or been the victim of her menfolk? Has she used them or have they used her? Is she loveable or even likeable? Is she indeed the great painter that people have claimed her to be? Increasingly, what Polly learns about her—her egotism, her lack of even the most elementary gratitude, her reliance on drugs—is less and less to her credit.
In depicting Polly, Lurie shows how much a woman's intellect can be at the mercy of her biology. When the novel opens, she is living a life almost entirely confined to other women. Her doctor, her dentist, her accountant, her bank-manager, her close friends and even her ‘therapist’ (a nice American touch!) are all women. But by the end, she is preparing to shack up with a middle-aged, unsuccessful poet in Key West—the one imperfectly realised character among so many perfectly realised—who might, in his tallness, blondness, physicality and good looks (‘his body, like his face, was long and spare, all steep planes, narrow ridges and clearly outlined muscles’), have stepped out of the sticky pages of a Mills & Boon novel. Polly and Lurie both, of course, have too much self-knowledge not to be aware of this—‘It was her old ignorant desire for the Romantic Hero,’ Polly tells herself before succumbing. Her conqueror, it turns out, was also Lorin's last lover—yet another parallel between two lives separated by time and the capriciousness of the artistic muse.
Lurie writes in the style of somebody quietly confident that she does not have to strain to make an impression. Her book is full of American colloquialisms—people luck out, tune out, make out with other people, talk up their work, are sick to their stomachs. But if relaxed, she is also always precise and vivid. The book has something arresting to say about the writing of biography as an instrument both of self-discovery and of envy. It also has something fascinating to say about the kind of woman who first asks, ‘Men—who needs them?’, and is then obliged in all honesty to answer, ‘I do.’
Bobrick, Elizabeth. “Arrested Development.” Women's Review of Books 20, no. 7 (April 2003): 8-11.
Bobrick evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter.
Busch, Frederick. “What Shall We Tell the Children?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 October 1993): 1, 13.
Busch praises Lurie's intentions in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, but regrets several omissions from the volume.
Givhan, Robin. “Making a Statement.” Washington Post Book World (16 April 2000): 8-9.
Givhan asserts that The Language of Clothes is a careful, astute examination of the messages sent by fashion and the evolving nature and customs of apparel.
Gussow, Mel. “Comedies of Manners, Laced with Morals.” New York Times (5 September 1998): B9.
Gussow provides an overview of Lurie's fiction and critical reception upon the publication of The Last Resort.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Scenes from a (Faltering) Marriage.” New York Times (3 July 1998): E32.
Kakutani offers a negative assessment of The Last Resort.
Kruse, Horst. “Museums and Manners: The Novels of Alison Lurie.” Anglia: Zeitschrift fur Englische Philologie 111, nos. 3-4 (1993): 410-38.
Kruse examines the recurring presence of museum motifs, symbolism, and metaphors in Lurie's fiction, drawing attention to the evocation of the museum as a locus of tradition and self-interpretation and providing a link between Lurie's work and the nineteenth-century novel of manners.
Maslin, Janet. “Once Upon a Time, Yes, But Not So Long Ago.” New York Times (19 August 1993): C15.
Maslin offers a positive assessment of The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales.
Skow, John. Review of The Truth about Lorin Jones, by Alison Lurie. Time 132, no. 12 (19 September 1988): 95.
Skow finds shortcomings in the lack of irony in The Truth about Lorin Jones.
Yardley, Jonathan. “Wasting Away Again in Margaritaville.” Washington Post Book World (19 July 1998): 3.
Yardley judges The Last Resort as one of Lurie's best efforts, asserting that the novel displays sophisticated wit and satire while commenting on such issues as the aging process and environmental concerns.
Additional coverage of Lurie's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 17, 50, 88; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 5, 18, 39; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; and Something about the Author, Vols. 46, 112.
SOURCE: Thwaite, Anthony. “Ruined by Men.” London Review of Books 10, no. 15 (1 September 1988): 24-6.
[In the following excerpt, Thwaite praises Lurie's astute commentary in The Truth about Lorin Jones on the craft of writing a biography.]
Alison Lurie's new novel is, among other things, an anthology of several characters from her earlier novels. Readers unfamiliar with these books need not be apprehensive, however: The Truth about Lorin Jones is perfectly self-contained. Indeed, that self-contained quality helps to account for the powerful, painful oppressiveness of the book, as Polly Alter becomes more and more deeply enmeshed in her quest for the eponymous woman she is pursuing.
For Polly is engaged in writing a biography of Lorin Jones, a painter who died some twenty years before the quest begins. Polly has recently become divorced, has a teenage son whom she adores, and earns her living in a New York museum. At the time the book opens, she has secured a commission to write her life of Lorin Jones and has been given leave of absence to do so. From the beginning, there are parallels, it appears, between Lorin and Polly, making Polly all the more eager to write a book which will be sympathetic, properly feminist, and true. Lorin (1926-1969) died before the advent of true feminism, but it seems that she suffered at the hands of men. It becomes Polly's job to seek out those men (and some women), interview them, discover just how Lorin suffered, and why.
Gallery dealers, fellow painters, school friends, college friends, relatives and former in-laws-all are interviewed. Alison Lurie provides transcripts of their answers, not Polly's questions, these transcripts forming an almost impersonal running commentary on Polly's investigations. Alongside them go Polly's own journeys and returns, discoveries and blank walls, exaltations and miseries. Much of the time her confidante is Jeanne, at first a comforting ear and reassuring antidote to male mendacity, but whose lesbianism begins to be a complication: not so much because of designs on Polly, which Polly finds not entirely unwelcome, but because of Jeanne's tangled affair with the married Betsy. ‘If even two women couldn't be happy together, what good was it all? Maybe if you had to be in love, with all the problems and craziness that involved, it was better to be in love with someone who was dead.’
Indeed, ‘sometimes Lorin Jones's life seemed more real to her than her own.’ But there is also that common experience among biographers, whereby, faced with mounds of ‘evidence’ in the form of papers, reminiscences and, in the case of a painter such as Lorin Jones, works of art, they sometimes have moments of despair at an apparent carapace of material surrounding an enigma. Just as things begin to seem to come into focus, Polly finds herself drifting away from her subject, or rather, Lorin drifts away from Polly into a ‘lumpish amorphous mass’.
Then there are the contradictions, the anomalies, the injunctions made by those whom Polly interviews, such as a gallery dealer who says: ‘But you mustn't put any of this in your book, promise. It'd be fatal. I don't know why I told you anyhow.’ Gradually, as Polly presses on through the fog, she realises that ‘everything that had gone wrong for her over the last few months’ (relations with her son Stevie, with her friend Jeanne and Jeanne's importunate lover Betsy) ‘was because of Lorin Jones.’ Lorin's stepmother says: ‘I'm sorry … but Laura Zimmern wasn't a nice person.’ (Lorin has, or had, several names by which she was known; and Polly's own surname is—perhaps a bit too nudgingly—Alter.) The derogatory descriptions start to accumulate in Polly's head: self-centred and spiteful, self-centred and evasive and untrustworthy, selfish and cold and inconsiderate. One begins to see parallels with Lawrance Thompson's quest for Robert Frost: as Thompson, at first a hero-worshipper, dredged deeper into the material that eventually became his big biography, the hero began more and more to take on the lineaments of a monster.
When she set out on her quest for the truth, Polly already knew who were the most important men in Lorin Jones's life: her husband, Garrett Jones, the influential art critic, who can still make or break reputations; and, after the end of that marriage, Hugh Cameron, a poet of little reputation, with whom Lorin had some sort of affair down in Key West before her premature death. Polly is quite sure that Jones is ‘an old-fashioned male chauvinist’, and almost equally sure that Cameron is an exploiter, a slob. Indeed, Jones, after answering all her questions in a way she didn't expect and doesn't trust, makes a pass at her. Much later, in Key West, she discovers that the helpful and handsome man who has been trying to track down Cameron for her is in fact Cameron himself, now known as ‘Mac’. In the process of getting to know both of these men, Polly finds herself more sympathetic to Jones than she had ever thought possible, and she actually finds herself falling in love with Cameron: ‘though she knew all her informants were probably untrustworthy, whenever she got too close to one of them her vision blurred and he turned into a sympathetic person; in Mac's case, to worse than that.’
Alison Lurie is a very adept novelist, manipulating plot and characters with such consummate ease that it's only after finishing the book one notices how cunningly she has brought together her strands, establishing suspense here and exhaustion there, allowing one to make discoveries and be faced with puzzles as abruptly and with as much bewilderment as Polly. It seems likely that some ardent feminists will take The Truth about Lorin Jones to be an attack on their doctrines, both in view of the Jeanne/Betsy relationship (and how Polly is exploited by that) and, more broadly, in the conclusion of the book: ‘It wasn't Lorin Jones whose life had been ruined by men … Lorin hadn't been deserted and damaged by men, as Polly had; she had deserted and damaged them.’ But it's clear to me that this is evenhanded, neither doctrinaire nor insipid. If the novel is to serve as a text, it does so best as a terrible warning to biographers, forced to see the ‘multiple, discontinuous identities’ of their subjects atomically splitting under their eyes.
SOURCE: Bannon, Barbara A. “Truth Telling.” Commonweal 115, no. 122 (6 December 1988): 690.
[In the following review, Bannon contends that The Truth about Lorin Jones is humorous, sly, and satirical but asserts that it does not match her best work.]
One thing is certain about Alison Lurie's novels. They always entertain. Although The Truth about Lorin Jones is not up to the high standards set by Lurie herself in The War between the Tates and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs, it is quirky, zesty, and funny enough to give enjoyment and amusement to its readers, most of whom will undoubtedly be women.
It is also both sly and sardonic in its satirization of lesbianism. A very polite form is shown here—no graphic physical details are given, only a kind of cozy cuddling, but the intense intolerance some lesbians feel for heterosexuals is made very clear. While this may antagonize some readers, it will ring true to others.
When first we meet Polly Alter she is thirty-nine, divorced, raising a teen-aged son she adores, but who is now off staying with his father. She “used to like men, but she didn't trust them any more or have very much to do with them.” Just what has turned her off them, apart from her contempt for her quickly remarried ex-husband, she doesn't quite know, but is trying to figure out herself.
What most fascinates Polly at the moment, however, is the museum grant she has received to write a book on a now dead American woman painter, Lorin Jones, whose work she admires greatly and with whom she is going to feel a closer and closer sense of personal identification as her research goes on.
Lurie gives us a kind of psychological mystery story as she forces Polly to begin to come to terms with not only the confusions and contradictions in her own life but those she is increasingly encountering in that of Lorin Jones.
Along the way Lurie is constantly reintroducing us to characters we have met in some of her earlier novels, including the ambiguous Lorin Jones herself, but don't worry if you haven't encountered them before.
This, after all, is “the truth about Lorin Jones” and by the time you finish it everything you thought you knew about Lorin, her family, and friends will have changed drastically, maybe even turned upside down.
Alison Lurie is at her best in her exploration of not only the relations between women and women, but women and men. Since Polly no longer likes men (she thinks) she decides to give sex with other women a try.
It doesn't really work for her, but one of the funniest scenes comes when, discovering her bed invaded by a very large, lecherous, and drunken man, she simply announces “I'm a lesbian.” It's a device other women faced with the same predicament might keep in mind. The man exits immediately and is very kind to Polly the next morning.
There is one male figure in Lorin Jones's life about whom Polly keeps hearing from the people she interviews in and out of the art world—Hugh Cameron. And as Polly is likely to do with anyone unknown to her except by rumor, she starts building up a picture of the man as an evil demon responsible for all the problems in Lorin's life. Well—maybe.
It is here, as Polly finally begins to see the truth about not only Lorin Jones but herself, that The Truth about Lorin Jones takes on a touch of an elegant soap opera. A most engaging middle-aged Key West, Florida man, with no apparent artistic aspirations in life and who has loved both women, brings Polly to her senses and persuades her that she is not a lesbian.
Still, one is left with a curious question in mind. Considering Lurie's reputation, this novel has received little review attention, pro or con. Could her devastating satirization of a certain kind of strident lesbianism have anything to do with that? It is an intriguing possibility.
SOURCE: Stark, John. “Alison Lurie's Career.” Hollins Critic 26, no. 1 (February 1989): 1-7.
[In the following essay, Stark provides an overview of Lurie's novels from Love and Friendship to The Truth about Lorin Jones, drawing attention to continuities and consistencies in the themes, settings, and characters of her fiction.]
American fiction would be far richer but for the truncated careers of many of its creators. Early spectacular success exacerbated a few writers' psychological problems. Others sustained development only briefly and either stopped producing or repeatedly wrote essentially the same work. Still others, more adventurous, did experiment but did so by writing types of fiction that were virtually certain to be trivial or that were uncongenial to their talents. Because of this unfortunate high incidence of stunted growth, one contemplates with pleasure the careers of those writers who have developed and who have created a substantial body of important fictional works. One such writer is Alison Lurie, who published her first novel in 1962, who published a fine novel in 1988 and who is likely to continue publishing first-rate novels.
Lurie has formed a career, rather than a mere series of books, partly because she seems to have tried to accomplish precisely that. One example of the shrewd, career-enhancing choices she has made is that of creating characters who are approximately the same age as she. The characters in her early novels are young, and the heroine of Foreign Affairs, published when she was fifty-eight, is a sensitively drawn older woman. That is, because in her fiction she has used her personal experiences of various stages of life she has automatically acquired interesting material as she has aged. She also uses some characters in more than one novel. L. D. Zimmern, for example, appears in four of her novels. By portraying these characters at different ages, in different milieus and while interacting with different characters she increases her understanding of them, and their reappearance makes the body of her work more coherent.
Aside from one or two false steps, Lurie has been able to mature as a writer while exploring basically the same fictional territory. The title of her first novel, Love and Friendship, an echo of one of Jane Austen's juvenile works (with the spelling corrected) suggests that her territory resembles Austen's. Austen's main characters—fairly well off financially and living in a compact society into which a few persons from other social classes intrude—are similar to Lurie's intellectuals and artists. Austen delineates her characters mainly by describing them searching for mates, but she de-emphasizes and only implies very obliquely the sexual components of those searches, whereas Lurie, writing at a time when reticence is no longer fashionable, moves sexual desire to the forefront, bluntly describes it and varies its forms. Both writers have a benevolently satiric attitude toward many of their characters, pointing out their absurdities, often by simply creating dialogue, but also by portraying their humanity.
To be more specific, Lurie's territory has often been a renamed Cornell University. The main characters in Imaginary Friends,The War between the Tates and Foreign Affairs are Cornell professors or spouses of Cornell professors. Cornell has played a major role in recent American fiction. For example, Richard Fariña was a student there and used Cornell as a setting in Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, and Thomas Pynchon was a Cornell student. Moreover, Vladimir Nabokov was for many years a Cornell professor. Lurie has taught creative writing and children's literature at that university since 1969. At times she playfully recognizes her university's literary tradition. In Imaginary Friends, for example, she refers to Professor Jack Shade, who is the mad annotator of Nabokov's Pale Fire. Her access to the intellectual life of a major university, as well as to the beauty of Cornell's campus, have been important benefits for her.
At first, Lurie did not approach Austen's complexity of vision and multiplicity of nuance, but by staying in her territory and usually choosing wisely the part of that territory to explore next, she began to develop. Her prose style reveals that development. In her early novels it is a bit wan, although appropriate to her realistic subject matter and reasonably effective. In her later novels, it is both more graceful and richer in figures of speech that illuminate her themes. Even more important, Lurie began to understand much better the ways in which her characters' intellectual and artistic activities influence the ways they perceive their experiences, which, in turn, influence their behavior. As we shall see, the most important leap forward in this respect occurs in Imaginary Friends.
In the novels that preceded that one, she creates characters who are academics or artists and understand events and persons accordingly. In her first novel the world they see is that of a college. In her second novel she makes a logical progression by bringing academics into a non-academic environment. Her third novel, Imaginary Friends, subtly examines the ways in which the intellectual constructs developed by her main characters, who are sociologists, influence their perceptions. In her most recent novel, The Truth about Lorin Jones, she takes yet another step forward and presents multiple perspectives, each based on a character's life and work and, although they result in conflicting versions of reality, each is partially valid. Lurie takes this most recent step without resorting to pop-Heisenbergianism: belief that a perceiver by interacting with a perceptual field makes it impossible for himself or herself to determine accurately the nature of the things perceived.
Lurie began her career as a novelist with Love and Friendship (1962), which describes the insular world of a liberal arts college in New England and centers on a faculty wife's affair and later reconciliation with her husband. Lurie enlivens her treatment of this familiar material by making Miranda Fenn, another faculty wife, the agent of the affair. Miranda, the first in a series of manipulative women in Lurie's fiction, works subtly, even calls herself a magician, but more closely resembles a Prospero than a Miranda, setting loose the magic force of sexual desire to disturb the bucolic, placid scene. The convincing density of detail makes the setting and plot credible but, notwithstanding Miranda's alleged magic, the plot rarely surprises. Moreover, the setting, plot and themes do not intertwine very elaborately. For example, the fact that the characters are academics does not have much to do with their actions. Nevertheless, the story moves along and indicates that Lurie understands motivation.
In this novel a reader can see the rudimentary form of Lurie's later fully developed use of multiple perspectives. Miranda's son Richard provides a child's view of the action, but in his charming eccentricity he more closely resembles the rustic cleaning woman in this novel than the children in Lurie's later novels, who perceive the action in a genuinely child-like way. Lurie also interrupts the narrative's flow with letters written by a homosexual novelist who is a visiting professor at the college and who sees its life as considerably more comic than do the other characters. The third perspective on the action, a humanities course required of all freshman, does not quite come off. It has something to do with dissolving preconceptions and forcing students to construct their own ethics, but its goals, and their relations to the novel's plot and themes, never become totally clear.
In Nowhere City (1965) Lurie moves to the very boundary of the territory she had begun to stake out in her first novel. She describes a fledgling historian and his wife in Southern California, where he has taken a non-academic job. Lurie eschews the expected academic perspective by having the historian at first like California. Rather than using the opportunity to do historical analysis presented by having the main character be an historian, Lurie has him announce that Southern California is outside time and history. Having renounced those perspectives, she turns on the California scene, but the targets—beatniks, a defense contractor, a society psychiatrist, various Hollywood types, etc.—are so easy to attack that she does not develop any other perspectives. Thus, this book presents social observation, some of it shrewd, but, lacking a coherent point of view, it is not really satire.
The multi-perspective strategy is more jejune in Nowhere City than it is in Love and Friendship. The beatniks inveigh, but not very originally, against “the establishment,” to which most of the other characters belong. Lurie somewhat complicates her portrait of California by having the historian and his wife switch perspectives. Frustrated by his job and the waning of his affair with a beatnik, he begins to dislike California, and at the novel's end he returns to Massachusetts; whereas, initiated into the California life style by the seductive psychiatrist, she begins to like it, and she stays. However, none of the conceptions of California in this novel is very convincing, nor do the simplified pictures of the various segments of the society induce the view that California is so complex that multiple perspectives are needed if one is to comprehend it.
At this point in her career Lurie had shown considerable promise but had not really settled in as a novelist. However, her next novel, Imaginary Friends, fits into her career as does Barbary Shore into Norman Mailer's. It is an interesting but not well known book during the writing of which the author found his or her proper niche, thereby making possible the major works that followed. Lurie achieves a breakthrough probably because she extensively delineates an academic perspective on a radically non-academic environment. This novel is about an established sociologist and a young sociologist who join a group of spiritualists in a nearby village in order to study them. By describing the interaction between these drastically different kinds of person, the only partially successful efforts of the sociologists to maintain their discipline's perspective despite personal attachments to some of the spiritualists and the theoretical differences between the two sociologists and other members of their department, Lurie makes an epistemological analysis of sociology. That is her breakthrough.
Tom McMann, the established sociologist, believes that a small group maintaining a delusionary system will react to opposition by increasing its certitude and becoming more cohesive. Because his reputation has plummeted and his views on sociology are rejected by the majority of the persons in his department, his theories about opposition and certitude have a personal dimension. The young sociologist, Roger Zimmern, begins to realize that McMann, in order to confirm his preconceptions, influences the spiritualists' behavior. To preserve his beliefs McMann even announces that he has absorbed extraterrestrial power, goes berserk and ends up in a mental institution. Roger becomes more confused as he realizes that McMann is far from an objective observer, that his own feelings skew his perceptions, that the spiritualists are a parody of academia and that he does not know whether McMann is insane or merely pretending to be so. In short, Lurie demonstrates that the relation between sociology and truth is very complicated.
As it does in several of Lurie's other novels, in Imaginary Friends sexual desire erodes rational analysis. The most obvious instance is Zimmern's desire for Verena, whose purported ability to communicate with beings from another planet caused the group to form. To a lesser extent she reciprocates his desire, but she is more strongly attracted to a young man who is briefly part of the group but renounces them. When she runs away with that young man the group disintegrates. Moreover, McMann convincingly asserts that her repressed sexuality causes her spiritualistic beliefs. Nor is McMann immune. He reveals that even though he is institutionalized he is having sexual relations with the other dominant woman in the group, which suggests that his desire for her earlier influenced his perception of the group. The scene in which Verena hugs Zimmern and rubs his bare back while she claims to be using spiritual power to heal his bruise and he tries to resist caressing her so that the sociological study will not be disrupted is paradigmatic.
Although Zimmern's conceptions become increasingly addled, this novel does not dissolve into nihilism. Lurie consistently indicates that self-deception, particularly if sexual desire induces it, is dangerous and that a purely sociological view of human behavior is reductionist. Her comic vision also implies that some things are ineluctable. For example, the spiritualists' burning of their clothes made from natural materials and their desperate search for synthetic substitutes that they believe will not block communications from another planet are, by any measure, ludicrous. Also, a reader who thinks that the visitors from outer space expected by the spiritualists will actually arrive is missing the novel's point. Far from demonstrating that truth is unobtainable, this novel suggests that persons who are skeptical about theoretical systems, have an eye for the absurd and are wary about deceiving themselves can understand persons and events.
In Real People (1969) Lurie describes another small, isolated society, an artists' colony resembling Yaddo, where she has been in residence. At first the colony seems to be an idyllic place that will release the artists' creative energy, a place where “one becomes one's real self, the person one would be in a decent world,” but gradually the artists become less productive and more childish. For instance, Janet, a writer of fiction whose diary constitutes this novel, has temporarily left her mundane family, hoping to revitalize herself and her work, but she allows herself to be seduced by a crude sculptor whose material, appropriately, is junk, and, prompted by a friend, she develops serious misgivings about her writing, particularly about her reluctance to write anything that may embarrass her family. A young girl, another of Lurie's manipulative women, by attracting most of the men present with her beauty and flattery, becomes the main cause of the colony's failure.
This novel is a parable about the artist's relation to the world. The girl whose presence at the colony raises this issue is Anna Mae Mundy (probably a reference to anima mundi: the world's spirit). Janet's experiences at the colony teach her that an artist cannot retreat from the world but must learn to reconcile his or her personal and artistic lives. Janet's conception of Anna Mae, the world, changes as she attempts that reconciliation and tries to increase her self-understanding. That is, in this novel Lurie examines her own intellectual discipline, fiction, and its relationship to the world. Because her narrator is re-examining herself and her work, Lurie presents various conclusions. This tentativeness does not vitiate the novel; in fact, Lurie convincingly remarks that fiction, by presenting a topic from various perspectives, creates a condensed version of reality.
Lurie's next book, The War between the Tates (1974), was her first triumph: it was a best seller and was lavishly praised by reviewers. In it Erica Tate discovers that her husband Brian, a political science professor at a university that is easily recognizable as Cornell, is having an affair with a graduate student. Not surprisingly, their marriage dissolves, although at the novel's ending it seems to be re-forming. Lurie has ingeniously chosen as her subject the pressures on the marriage of a political scientist during the era when the pressure on the U.S. government to end the Vietnam war and the concomitant pressures on U.S. universities were near their zenith. This novel realistically depicts sexual, family, academic and national politics and includes a theoretical dimension consisting of Brian's occasional analysis from the perspective of his political theories of the events in which he is caught up. This mixture may sound contrived, but the chain of events is impeccably constructed and enlivened by Lurie's wit.
Thus, the use of multiple perspectives, which has become one of Lurie's trademarks, results from the interaction of the various types of politics. Sometimes she is explicit about the light that one kind of politics casts on another. Brian fashions a witty analogy between the national administration's efforts to deal with the Vietnamese government and his own efforts to deal with his two obnoxious adolescent children. Other analogies are implicit. For example, Brian's affair progresses in almost imperceptible increments, each apparently innocent, until he is in an impossible situation, just as the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam progressed until it, too, became impossible. This elaborate network of interrelations among political realms cleverly indicates that the flaw in Brian that causes his downfall is his adherence to the political theory of “spheres of operation.” Lurie suggests that life cannot validly be compartmentalized.
Only Children (1979) interrupts a sequence of five solid novels, because in it Lurie makes several tactical errors. She uses some of her familiar material—the small isolated group, multiple perspectives and the pressure of sexual desire—but she abandons the academic scene she has depicted so well and, setting this novel during the Depression, sets aside her impressive apprehension of contemporary phenomena. Her second perspective is that of several children, which is created by depicting their reactions and by evoking the world of children's literature, which is a specialty of Lurie's. That perspective unfortunately is neither very interesting nor subtle enough to cast much light on the events narrated. One can admire the risk-taking involved in writing this novel, but the kinds of risks were not right and the execution is not up to her usual standard.
Luckily, she quickly righted her course, producing next Foreign Affairs (1984), a first-rate novel that won a Pulitzer Prize. This novel has two plot lines that occasionally intersect and that implicitly comment on each other. Each is about an American professor of English on leave in England who becomes involved with someone of the opposite sex. Although they are in the same department, they barely know each other. One, Fred Turner, in the tradition of his academic specialty, the eighteenth century, becomes entranced with a glamorous actress. Unfortunately, the qualities that he thinks are charming eccentricities are actually symptoms of mental problems. His pursuit of her exacerbates her problems, as well as spoiling his research and lacerating him. His only consolation is his apparently imminent reconciliation with his estranged wife. When he departs from England he leaves behind chaos because he cannot escape the preconceptions caused by his academic study.
At first Vinnie Miner, a children's literature specialist, is even more a captive of her academic perspective than is Fred. The man next to her on the airplane that takes her to England repels her because he is the antithesis of an academic. However, an encounter with a mercenary, foul-mouthed child while she is collecting children's rhymes somewhat shakes her preconceptions. After her former seatmate seeks her out, she begins to realize that he speaks good sense, although not in her dialect. She comes to think of him not as the quintessence of crudity but as a quaint figure like some she recalls from folklore. After she sees as human rather than absurd his attempts to find some meaning for himself, she realizes that, from another viewpoint, she, too, looks absurd. She wishes to be an English lady as much as he wishes to be an English lord. By developing a double perspective on herself—an interesting development of that Luriean motif—she becomes less self-centered and thus able to respond to his affection, although not as ardently as she wishes she had after she learns that he has died.
In her most recent novel, The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988), Lurie makes her most sophisticated use yet of multiple perspectives. This is the story of the attempts by a former painter, Polly Alter, to write a biography of a dead painter. Narrative sections alternate with the responses of persons whom Polly interviewed, each of whom has a very different conception of Lorin. In addition to presenting a believable account of the world of artists, dealers, critics and collectors, this novel is painterly in that many of its figures of speech are based on painters and paintings. Encouraged in these ways to think in artistic terms, one eventually realizes that Lorin Jones is like an abstract painting in which different viewers see different things. Polly at first is distressed by the multiplicity of viewpoints she discovers, but at last she recognizes that she need not choose among them but can write a biography that accurately presents each of them.
Polly had assumed that she would write an anti-male book, castigating each of the men in Lorin Jones's life for abusing her and terminating her artistic development. Some of her friends, who are shrill radical feminists, abet her in this intent, and one draws her into a lesbian affair. However, she becomes attracted to each of those men, especially the last man with whom Lorin lived, Hugh Cameron, and sees validity in their negative conceptions of Lorin. While trying to understand Lorin Jones, Polly also is trying to decide on her career goals and the relation she wishes to have with men. At this novel's end these three quests converge. She decides that she will present Lorin from many perspectives, that she will accept whatever consequences to her career flow from the resulting book and that she will admit to herself that men are exceedingly complex, too, not simply demons. That last admission allows her to call Hugh Cameron in hopes of continuing her relationship with him. Seeing things from more than one angle appears to be the way of wisdom, as well as the artistic strategy by means of which this excellent novel was composed.
There is no reason why a graph of Alison Lurie's career will not indicate a rise even beyond the point of The Truth about Lorin Jones. She has created several characters that would be worth using again. Most notable among them is Zimmern, who has been a minor figure in several novels and could very well be the focus of a future novel. Lurie has also effectively portrayed characters whose age is close to hers and has written several novels about writers, so a novel about an accomplished writer looking back upon a successful career would be an intriguing possibility. It also would be justified: she has in fact had a successful career.
SOURCE: Toth, Emily. “Questioning the Quest.” Women's Review of Books 6, no. 1 (February 1989): 11.
[In the following excerpt, Toth discusses the plot of The Truth about Lorin Jones, noting the struggles of protagonist Polly Alter to write a biography of Lorin Jones—struggles similar to Toth's own in writing her biography of Kate Chopin.]
No feminist biographer ever starts out from disinterested, “scholarly” motives (if such motives even exist—which I doubt). Usually, we start out wanting to reclaim a sister. We want our subject to be our foremother and our friend, and occasionally even our reader-adviser. Certainly we want a mentor, or at least a cautionary tale.
But sometimes we find out that our subject did dumb things, or mean things. She may simply refuse to fit our definition of what a feminist ought to have done (my current subject, Kate Chopin, for instance, hankered after other women's husbands). And frequently our subject's living relatives can be even more politically incorrect. (After my biography of Grace Metalious appeared, her daughter gave an interview calling my feminist slant a “gimmick,” and bashing her mother's memory.)
So what's a feminist biographer to do?
Alison Lurie, in The Truth about Lorin Jones, presents the problems in clever fictional form; Carolyn Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman's Life, suggests some wise solutions. Both books are intellectual pleasures and feminist treasures—and should we ever run short of women's lives to appreciate, we should all write letters of praise to Alison Lurie and Carolyn Heilbrun. This is mine.
In The Truth about Lorin Jones, as in Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie gives us an unconventional heroine: not beautiful, not young, and definitely not charming. Polly Alter is a museum worker and sometime painter, newly divorced, who has decided there are no “good men over thirty in New York, only husbands and creeps.” Polly is now writing a biography of another painter, the late Lorin Jones—and Polly has an agenda. She will show that Jones was exploited and betrayed by men: by her husband, her lover and the patriarchal art world.
Knowing the pattern beforehand, Polly thinks she needs only a few months to gather the data to prove her hypothesis. (This is a common biographer's delusion, the belief that one can quickly wrap up someone else's life. I began my Kate Chopin biography in 1983 with that same idea—and as I write this, in December 1988, I'm still revising.)
Naturally, Polly runs into obstacles.
For one thing, her witnesses are self-serving. Most were, in their own opinions, innocent and generous and loving people who never did dirt to Lorin Jones. They go on at boring length about their own travails; they blame each other; they try to use Polly for their own vendettas and ambitions. One offers her a job, and two try to seduce her (also not an uncommon problem for biographers). Meanwhile, Polly's own life starts to change its shape. When her best friend moves in with her, they become lovers—and Polly, ever pugnacious, insists on announcing to semi-strangers that she is a lesbian. (She is very annoyed when they aren't shocked.) Polly also thinks that lesbian relationships should be perfect, and hers is not: her Marxist lover is an excellent housekeeper, but disapproves of biography as crass bourgeois individualism.
Polly, like most Lurie heroines, is a quirky character with rough edges who attempts to be a neutral observer of life, a fly on the wall, but often makes a muddle with her insistence on rude honesty. In the transcriptions of her interviews with those who knew Lorin Jones, we glimpse Polly's gross (and hilarious) tactlessness. Her prepared questions are “ranged in decreasing order of harmlessness”; she mentally translates her witnesses' responses to make them seem sexist, cloddish, or boorish. She thinks she loves the dead, and hopes to blow the whistle on the living.
But, inevitably, the late Lorin Jones turns out not to have been a very nice person. Polly has to abandon her hypothesis (Lorin as feminist victim) and instead follow the direction of her own research, which means admitting that many of the negative items in her folder marked “DOUBTFUL—NOT TO BE USED” are actually true.
Polly learns some patience and humility, in a story that is fast-moving, wryly-written and full of echoes for anyone who has ever attempted a feminist biography. Like Polly, we wonder whether to bury our subjects' faults, or trumpet them—and as our notebooks and tapes fill with “facts,” we wonder, as Polly does, whether we're writing about our subjects, or about ourselves. We grow suspicious of everyone's motives, especially our own.
SOURCE: Flower, Dean. “Barbaric Yawps and Breathing Lessons.” Hudson Review 42, no. 1 (spring 1989): 133-40.
[In the following excerpt, Flower notes the difficulties inherent in capturing a life in biography and discusses Lurie's treatment of this theme in The Truth about Lorin Jones.]
Alison Lurie listens to another kind of barbaric yawp altogether, the language of predatory academics, enlightened feminists, complacent male chauvinists, suave psychotherapists, smug art critics, and affluent New York dealers. Her latest novel [The Truth about Lorin Jones] might be understood as a study of these competing jargons. Polly Alter, recently divorced at thirty-nine, sets out to write the biography of a little-known painter of genius, Lorin Jones, whose obscurity and death resulted (Polly will argue) from brutal abuse by the patriarchal system. Armed with her prejudices and a tape recorder, Polly is deflected and altered by everyone she interviews. Each witness creates a different version of Lorin or Lolly or Lauren or Laurie Jones because each witness is already a distinct individual, with a particular slant on the truth.
Lurie's conception bears some resemblance to Nabokov's in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: the zealous biographer always writes his own autobiography, and must even become his subject's double for a time. Polly learns that lesson deeply, ruefully. Her academic book remains unwritten at the end, but she has re-written her own life profoundly. Seeking the “real” Lorin Jones, she discovers her own repellent selfishness, escapism, and death instinct—as well as, more positively, her own independence. Lurie's treatment is more detached than Nabokov's, however. You never know whether she's being scathingly ironic or just disinterested. Lurie interrupts Polly's personal narrative with eight short chapters of her recorded interviews. In these we hear only voices answering questions: one belongs to a writer who was Lorin's friend at Smith, another is Lorin's former sister-in-law, another is Lorin's husband's closest friend. These “documents in the case” are balanced by Polly's subjective narration, a story of many false starts and erasures. She learns to reject the easy categories of other people's jargon. To her great credit, so does Alison Lurie. Few of her characters can be defined by their jargon or dismissed by a categorical label, notably her sharply individualized lesbian lovers, her several different academic artists, and her surprising ex-hippie poet. Some feminists will undoubtedly cringe at the way her story concludes, and some readers will wish Polly had changed more dramatically at the end. But that is as it must be. Lurie's novel is about the irreducible oddity and complexity of persons, something language can only approximate.
SOURCE: Milton, Edith. “The Year in Fiction: 1988.” Massachusetts Review 30, no. 1 (spring 1989): 102-21.
[In the following excerpt, Milton asserts that Lurie employs clever technique in The Truth about Lorin Jones by writing a novel about writing but finds shortcomings in the novel's narrow focus and feminist concerns.]
In any review of the year's fiction what the reviewer thinks about the books he chooses is certainly less important than what books he chooses to think about. I arbitrarily excluded short stories and translations from this piece—on the grounds that these would make a sufficiently complicated task impossible. But once my focus was narrowed to novels written in English and published in this country during 1988, once I was going about the business of making my selection in earnest, I realized my choices may need some defense.
For these ten books, the limit to which a review will stretch, reveal shamefully that my interest lies much less in what people are writing than in what they are reading. Where are the small press books? The post-modernist no longer avant-garde? The thousands of books untouched by The New York Times Book Review? This review is perhaps just where they belong, but they have been usurped here, as everywhere else, by the popular, literate novels you are likely to find among the Book-of-the-Month-Club alternate selections and in the bookshelves built in hallways by people who keep their volumes of history and philosophy alphabetized and in chronological order in their studies. The truth is that I want to get away from the individual quirks and instant inspirations, the time warp of rejections, delays, revisions, which govern the creation and publication of the written word. The read word is more reliable: you can tell from it here and now what the state of the culture is.
So avoiding the edges of creativity I have stayed close to the center of things. If tomorrow's fiction is incubating today on some recondite fringe, waiting to spring to intellectual life, I have probably passed by it unseeing. What I must assume is that for any foreseeable future the health and survival of the novel will depend on that solid, well-travelled, well-respected highroad of the obvious exemplified here by the four American novels where I began my reading: At Risk by Alice Hoffman, Second Chances by Alice Adams, John Updike's S, and Alison Lurie's The Truth about Lorin Jones.
Technically three of these are good novels, and two of them I would count as very good novels indeed. But they share a single vitiating characteristic: a fear of plunging too far into the depths keeps them relentlessly shorebound. Reading them, one after the other, I began to feel beached like some sea creature, choking myself on decompression and a surfeit of surfaces.
Not, you understand, that I demand profundity in all my fiction. Barbara Pym and Kingsley Amis and Robertson Davies would be the first to get packed in my desert island bookbag while Solzhenitsyn might be left at home. I like to frolic carefree in the literary waves. But the problem with frolicking is that, in order to create the sort of waves useful for frolicking in, you need to start at a pretty impressive depth from which to develop them. A great many of the most rewarding pieces of fiction may aim for nothing more than playfulness, with no pretensions of imparting deep wisdom; but if they stay in the mind they were probably conceived a few fathoms down, and born below the accustomed surface we live on. Their voices have echoes and counterechoes and their jeu d'esprit has undertones which call out to things more monumental. …
Like Updike, Alison Lurie has won a Pulitzer Prize—for her last novel, Foreign Affairs—and, like his, her genius is cleverness. In The Truth about Lorin Jones she is writing one of those books about writing a book which allows for several voices, interesting dramatic techniques, and the elegant paradox of presenting different accounts of the same event. In this case she has also recreated a pleasantly varied, cutting-edge segment of contemporary society to conduct us through on her literary ramble.
The novel's main point of view is that of Polly Alter, failed artist and art historian by default. She is about to write a biography of Lorin Jones, a woman Polly has never met, since she died mysteriously in 1978, the year before Polly curated a show of her work. Recently divorced, mother of a young son who is off visiting his father, Polly is lonely and muddled, and she abjectly identifies with a subject she sees as embodying the puzzle she expects her biography to solve: how do men exploit women and keep them from the fame and the success they deserve?
The novel follows Polly's increasingly Byzantine life—as her son decides to stay with his father; as her sweetly lesbian friend, Jeanne, unhappy in love, moves in and takes over her life; as her apartment is invaded and her self-esteem is demolished. Scenes from Polly's disintegrating world alternate with transcripts of her interviews with Lorin's friends and relations: dealer, husband, friend, half-brother, stepmother, niece, teacher, collector. It is these interviews which are particularly sharp, gems of short fiction in different voices reflecting the central puzzle of a difficult and complex woman and the contradictory values of an unkind and complex world. The interviewed subjects—several of whom have, like Lorin herself, appeared at other ages in other Lurie novels—are finely drawn, and as the jigsaw of their evidence comes together Lorin, too, emerges in a compelling, complex portrait of a driven artist betrayed by her fragile human psychology.
There is something almost Victorian in the book's tight arrangement of misplaced affections and abandonments: people fall in love with the wrong generation, misconstrue each other's motives, spurn each other for mistaken causes, misidentify each other and themselves. But though these various confusions and the interweaving of past family patterns into present behavior are beautifully worked out, Polly's story, the central core of the novel, is yawningly banal. Polly herself is so eagerly passive, leaping so easily to fashionably biased conclusions, falling into Jeanne's bed, agreeing with everyone and blaming it all on men, that she becomes an irritant. We know, before she even starts her investigation, that her wishful view of Lorin's victimized life is doomed.
One longs for the good old days before feminism and this sort of counter-feminism, days when Jane Eyre and Little Dorrit and Elizabeth Bennet, knowing no better, negotiated the dangerous currents between personal desire and social expectation with a great deal more courage and imagination than anything offered here.
But Polly is not alone in falling halfway between the tedious and the despicable. Whether by design or through the technical inadequacy of the writing the characters of each of these four novels are all lilliputians, smaller and less courageous in their engagements with life than we might expect ourselves to be. At Risk almost gives us portraits which are at least life-size, but even here the characters who come closest to the random generosity of life, like the gay AIDS victim and Amanda's grandparents, are kept in the background. Smallness reigns triumphant.
It is as though the ideal of American fiction had remained the same since Stephen Crane founded the Great American Realist Tradition, or at least since Nathaniel West, looking through the wrong end of his moral telescope, worked in miniature to impale his human specimens and design the exquisite sharpness of his landscapes: the irony, since then, has dissipated, but the ironic scale, it seems, remains.
SOURCE: Rogers, Katharine M. “Alison Lurie: The Uses of Adultery.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 115-28. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.
[In the following essay, Rogers examines Lurie's dissection of traditional marital inequities and her presentation of sexual infidelity as a catalyst for newfound self-awareness and independence among the passive, self-sacrificing women characters of her novels.]
By entitling her first novel Love and Friendship, Alison Lurie invited comparison with an author whom she resembles in her area of interest, in her disenchanted view of human nature, in her coolly ironic puncturing of pretension. Like Jane Austen, Lurie characteristically focuses on the development of a woman's identity, through increasing self-knowledge and decision-making, and portrays this through her character's relationships with men. But while Austen shows her heroines maturing as they move toward their proper choice in marriage, Lurie shows them maturing afterward, as they try other life choices, typically represented by an adulterous affair. Thus, she can deal with older women: while Austen's heroines, who must be marriageable in nineteenth-century terms, range from seventeen (Marianne Dashwood) to twenty-seven (Anne Elliot), Lurie's can range from twenty-seven (Emily Turner) to fifty-four (Vinnie Miner). Because adultery is no longer so heavily charged, morally and emotionally, as it was in the nineteenth century, Lurie is free to use it as a device for comic satire and intellectual exploration of character.1
When Frances Burney's Evelina writes to Mr. Villars on her marriage day, “All is over, … and the fate of your Evelina is decided!”2 she is only making explicit an assumption traditional in fiction—one which to some extent reflected the actual situation in traditional society—that a woman's whole life was defined by her marriage. It followed that any developing she was going to do had to be accomplished before she chose her husband. Austen uses this crucial choice to reveal her heroine's basic character and force her to reject naive overconfidence and surmount immature limitations. As Elizabeth Bennet learns to distrust her snap judgments and Emma Woodhouse to break through her complacent self-centeredness so as to know herself and other people, Anne Elliot learns to rely on her own judgment rather than deferring to older but not wiser authorities.
Lurie's heroines also assume that their marriages have determined the course of their lives. Coming of age in the fifties, they married right out of college and settled down to be wives to their husbands and mothers to their children. In middle age Erica Tate despondently thinks that she has already made her choices, taken the significant moral actions of her life long ago; now that she has more knowledge of herself and the world, she is “equipped to make choices, but there are none left to make” (The War between the Tates, 58).3 But in fact, unlike Austen's characters, Lurie's can change their partners and their life-styles. She presents them with choices that force them to examine their beliefs and values; whether they ultimately keep these or reject them, they have matured as human beings through having faced and made the decision. Typically, Lurie sets up the alternatives in the form of the heroine's husband and a lover. Such a choice is realistically momentous for these women, who are committed not only to firm and conventional moral principles but to a confident belief that they are happily married. But, at the same time, Lurie uses the lover symbolically to represent a radically different life-style and set of values.
When their stories begin, Lurie's heroines have reason to be pleased with themselves and their situation. Attractive and privileged, they are successfully married to successful men. They are intelligent, well-educated, and sophisticated; they have high moral standards and make a point of living up to them. Katherine Cattleman insists on inconveniencing herself to correct some typing errors, for she “did not like being in the wrong, and badly wanted to put” her obnoxious employer “back there where he belonged” (The Nowhere City, 159). Erica's “greatest ambition is to be right: seriously and permanently in the right. Until recently, that was where she usually felt she was” (WT [The War between the Tates], 25). They have no doubts about what is right or whether they can behave properly. Whether they are being the perfect wife and mother (Erica) or gracefully balancing the roles of creative writer and corporate wife (Janet Belle Smith of Real People), they enjoy “carefully constructed lives and self-images, glowing with conscious enlightenment.”4
Their illusions are so plausible that at first they take in the reader as well as themselves. We do not realize that their apparent control of themselves and their lives is sustained by shutting out what they do not want to see. Nor do we notice that, although they are not totally conventional (Janet publishes stories, Emily Turner has married beneath her), none has seriously questioned the fundamental assumptions with which she has been brought up. Although theoretically they had many choices in life, they have acted as if they had none. Having accepted the feminine mystique of the fifties, they devote themselves wholly to their families and expect marriage and children to provide them with happiness and fulfillment. Erica can be cheered by a banal conversation that “reminds her that she is successfully married, whereas Helen is a widow, and her best friend Danielle Zimmern a divorcée; that Brian is an important professor who receives urgent business letters; and that he calls home every evening when he is out of town” (WT, 16).
Lurie proceeds to demolish her heroines' illusions of rectitude and well-being, usually by disrupting their marriages. The opening sentence of her first book announces, “The day on which Emily Stockwell Turner fell out of love with her husband began much like other days” (Love and Friendship 9). What jolts Emily into this realization is a conversation in which he refuses to talk to her about his work as a college English instructor. Having spent her day doing routine domestic tasks with no society but their four-year-old son and a garrulous cleaning woman, she feels a natural need for intellectual stimulation; but Holman would rather read his newspaper than exert himself in discussion, and then he can't imagine why she is offended. Is she perhaps having her period? So much for the theory that an intelligent woman can live through her husband's work.
Having aroused Emily's dissatisfaction with her superficially satisfactory marriage, Lurie presents her with an alternative in the form of a lover who is very different from Holman, so different that her relationship with him dislodges her preconceptions about herself and what she wants in a husband. The release of her previously constricted sexuality is less important than the opening of mental possibilities. Lurie's married heroines are trapped by their external situation—all but Janet are untrained for careers; their husbands oppose their working outside the home; they are tied down to households and children. But what she is more interested in is the internal factors that trap them: their need to be perfect wives and mothers, their fear of threats to their images of themselves and their situation.
Though the lovers are for the most part believable on the realistic level, they also symbolically represent what is missing in the heroine's marriage (or life situation, in Vinnie's case) and what is essential to eliciting the full range of her personality. Once she has done what had been unthinkable for her, she is ready to rethink her life in general, including the values she has been living by. Even if the woman chooses to remain in her original situation, as Emily does, this time she chooses it in an informed way.
Lurie's insight into the flaws of a seemingly ideal marriage, and into the complicity of even educated women in their own exploitation, is drawn from personal experience. (Her protagonists, from Mary Ann Hubbard in Only Children to Vinnie Miner in Foreign Affairs, are close to her own age at the time the story is set.) At Radcliffe Lurie and her fellow students sneered at the occasional woman who braved convention by attempting to get the professor's attention in a Harvard classroom.5 In “No One Asked Me to Write a Novel,” Lurie tells how family pressures, combined with rejection slips, persuaded her temporarily to give up writing and throw herself into a life like Erica's.” “I organized family picnics and parties and trips; I baked animal cookies and tuna-fish casseroles. … I played monotonously simple board games. … I entertained my husband's superiors and flirted with his colleagues and gossiped with their wives. I told myself that my life was rich and full. Everybody else seemed to think so. Only I knew that, right at the center, it was false and empty. I wasn't what I was pretending to be. I didn't like staying home and taking care of little children; I was restless, impatient, ambitious.”6 Lurie's heroines (except for Janet) do not have a specific unused talent to pinpoint their dissatisfaction. Nevertheless, their lives do not fulfill their intellectual or emotional needs, although they have a strong stake in believing them “rich and full.” Lacking a vocation, concerned only with the personal sphere, they are given the choice appropriate for them: between two men. By involving them in extramarital affairs, Lurie forces them to part with their cherished illusions and to see themselves more realistically.
Although Lurie uses this adultery plot in Love and Friendship,The Nowhere City,Real People, and The War between the Tates, it does not become boringly repetitious any more than Austen's marriage plot does.7 Rather, the repetitive elements enable her to explore varied aspects of her themes of marital discontent and female consciousness-raising. In The Nowhere City, Lurie focuses on the negativism produced by acceptance of the feminine mystique, especially in a punctiliously righteous woman. Defining virtue as sacrificing her self-interest to her concept of ideal behavior, Katherine distrusts all enjoyment; imposing rigid controls on her desires, she fears anything that might unsettle the status quo. She wants men to be “reasonable, predictable, and considerate of her” (118); that is, they must not violate her expectations of proper behavior or challenge the adjustments that both protect and limit her. She is an intelligent and attractive woman, yet she has never been happy; in The Nowhere City, she suffers from a flagrantly unfaithful husband, an intrusive employer, an environment she hates, and sinus headaches. Not only is she convinced that these afflictions are irremediable, but she takes a certain self-righteous pleasure in them: the misbehavior of her husband and her employer highlight her own rectitude, as her loathing for Los Angeles proves her taste; through sinus headaches, which she cannot help, she can give vent to the pain and anger that she is too well conducted to express openly. Thus, her behavior patterns sustain her self-image even though they obstruct her happiness. She collaborates with her husband's inconsiderateness by masochistically expecting it. (In turn, his “impatient tolerance” of her limitations merely confirms her feeling that she cannot overcome them.)
Nevertheless, as the book progresses, she comes to realize how she contributes to her misery and that her protective shell is in fact a prison of inhibitions. It takes an aggressive lover, her exuberant employer, to break the shell. By openly expressing his feelings and sexuality, he forces her to recognize her own and to violate her limiting self-image as an irreproachable person. He makes her see that her concept of love is moralistic and self-destructive: “giving up everything for some other person in a very grudging, painful way” (240). This is not only unpleasant for her, but, since chronic self-sacrifice is no more natural for women than men, it leads to the sinus headaches which so annoy Paul. The result is that she critically examines the rigid standards which she had automatically accepted, opens her eyes to see if there are others which suit her better, and chooses a new life style.
The adjustment of Janet Belle Smith in Real People seems at first to be much more clear-sighted and constructive than Katherine's. Apparently she has achieved a happy balance between her roles as serious writer and wife; she even has a sympathetic male fellow-artist, a painter named Kenneth, with whom she can enjoy a platonic relationship without sullying her self-image. The only flaw she sees in her life is that her writing has become trivial and repetitious—something that will be corrected by a few weeks in Illyria, an idyllic artists' colony where she can become her “real self” (17). Or rather, one can become—Janet's preference for one over I, noted by Nick Donato, an outspoken fellow guest (“Janet has an imaginary friend named Wun. An Oriental,” whom she makes responsible for her feelings ), suggests falsity in her ladylike self-image by giving away her need to disclaim emotion and egotism. At first we suppose, with Janet, that her sophisticated, impersonal style expresses her control over experience; gradually, we realize that it serves to insulate her from it. The first person point of view in Real People directly involves us in Janet's self-deception and the unpleasant self-recognition that follows.
Only a violently upsetting experience would be enough to shock Janet out of rationalizations that seem to serve her so well; and again, this comes in the form of a passionate affair with a man so unlikely that he upsets her deepest convictions about her own nature and possibilities. Unlike her husband and Kenneth, the vulgar pop artist Nick challenges her assumptions about what nice people do, whether she is a nice person, whether she ought to be. Janet enters Nick's studio as a slumming tourist gathering material for a witty anecdote.8 She leaves after a passionate encounter that makes her recognize impulses in herself that do not at all fit her refined self-image: she not only has strong sexuality, but has responded to a man who violates all her standards of acceptable behavior. At the same time, Nick makes her see the truth about her genteel substitute for adultery and her compromise between niceness and artistic expression: Kenneth did not abstain from sexual overtures out of consideration and respect for her but because, as a homosexual, he was not interested; she cannot be a serious writer if she insists on censoring herself in order to maintain everyone's approval. Finally, Kenneth (embittered because her affair with Nick has shattered his illusions about her) forces her to see that the conformist pressure she has been blaming on an unsympathetic husband and stuffy friends is actually within herself: what she is really protecting is not her family, but “some idea of yourself that you're terribly fond of … the idea of this charming, intelligent, sensitive lady writer who lives in a nice house in the country with her nice family, and never makes any serious mistakes or has any real problems” (151-52).
Janet finally acknowledges that her “real self” includes ugly passions and that it is timidity that weakens her fiction and her life as well: between the external pressure to conform to a restrictive role and the internal pressure to behave properly in its terms, she had limited her options and blinded herself to anything that conflicted with her self-image. By the end of the novel, with a clearer picture of herself, she is free to consider alternative choices. Janet thought she would change simply by moving into Illyria, where she could pursue her work without interference and associate with sympathetic fellow-artists; but what she needs is something far more radical than new surroundings: she must be jolted out of her complacent certainties by perhaps the one event that could force her to change her view of herself.
In The War between the Tates, Lurie provides her most brilliant exposure of what her heroine once thought was a successful marriage. It is altogether a subtler work than The Nowhere City: Erica's masochistic self-righteousness is less obvious than Katherine's, Brian's selfishness more finely dissected than Paul's, the Tates' stresses not schematized by a move to another culture, and the ending ruthlessly realistic. Erica, once very satisfied with herself as the wife of a brilliant professional man and mother to two lovable children, now finds her children changed into brutish, ungrateful adolescents; her only consolation is “her friend and husband, Brian” (11). Then she discovers that he is having an affair with a mediocre young woman. This provokes her to reevaluate her “perfect” marriage, to see it for the unequal bargain it is. While Brian does interesting, prestigious work, she, with similar mental capacity and training, is expected to devote her days to the cheerful completion of routine tasks (vividly rendered in step-by-step descriptions and food imagery). If she does her work well, it is taken for granted; if anything goes wrong, she is blamed. She begins to question Brian's plausible doctrine of “separate spheres” in a marriage, whereby “if he lost his job (which had never been very likely and was now impossible, since he had tenure), it was his fault. If the children became uncontrollable, it was hers” (13).
Since her whole life was built around her family, Erica finds herself with nothing—no career, no satisfying social life, badly damaged self-esteem. She clings to behaving correctly herself but finds that this brings no rewards. The only alternative Lurie offers her is Sandy Finkelstein, the owner of an occult bookshop, who has worshiped her from afar since their graduate school days. He is a shabby dropout, a born loser of ridiculous appearance; but he is unselfish and loving, the only character in the book who is not involved in competition or “war.” Erica turns to him in her misery, finds some consolation, and even, very briefly, thinks of going off with him. But though she can now value his freedom from convention and egotism and can recognize the wisdom of his saying that we must all some time adjust to being losers, she realizes that she needs the security and success that Brian offers.
So the Tates reunite, this time with more realistic expectations of life and each other. Erica is no longer trapped in her assumptions that she must listen to Brian because he is a just, objective moralist and must realize his and her own ideal of the perfect wife and mother of a perfect family. In an early scene, she had weakly let Brian talk her out of taking a part-time job by playing on her guilt, though even she recognized that his argument was shoddy (it might damage the children). Now she takes an interesting job and starts to let go of the children (which turns out to improve their behavior slightly). Having seen other possibilities, specifically life without Brian, she will be able to form independent views and defend them.
Sketched in Love and Friendship, developed in The Nowhere City,Real People, and The War between the Tates, Lurie's breaking marriage plot forces her heroine for the first time to examine the assumptions she has lived by. In terms of comic effect, we see the deflation of complacency, delightfully illuminating because the complacency is so high-level and sophisticated. In terms of character development, we see identity emerging as a result of breaking through constraints and facing truth.
Lurie uses surprising adulterous affairs not only to shock her protagonists out of their self-assurance but to explore the potentialities of her characters by mixing and matching them: Does prissy, repressed Katherine have it in her to accept Iz Einsam's open expression of feelings? Is snobbish, self-centered Vinnie Miner of Foreign Affairs capable of opening up to Chuck Mumpson's warmth? (Eighteenth-century women novelists did the same thing, less realistically, by supplying their heroines with five or six suitors.) Honey Hubbard in Only Children flirts with Dan Zimmern, who is more playful and sexually exciting than her stodgy workaholic husband; but in the end she prefers Bill's solid devotion to the casual exploitation that Dan would impose on any woman involved with him. Erica Tate is too conventional and success oriented to feel more than sympathy for Sandy, but her friend Danielle—less conventional and more angry at her sophisticated intellectual husband—can come to love the “pig pediatrician” Bernie Kotelchuk, though she takes care to settle the terms of their marriage beforehand to prevent misunderstandings produced by their different backgrounds. This process of considering possible men and settling for the one who is best for her indicates Lurie's realistically disenchanted view of marriage; she recognizes that every match is a compromise in which, at best, people find those who meet their most important needs.
She has a similarly disenchanted view of love, at least the romantic form; it is not an elevating or even an overwhelming passion in marriage or adultery. Lurie never loses sight of comic aspects, even in Love and Friendship, where she comes closest to presenting sexual passion as ecstasy. Early in their relationship, when Emily and Will are in a diner, Emily feels a marked pressure on her leg under the table; she feels flustered and guilty, knowing she should move her leg but somehow not doing so. How surprised she is when Will gets up and the pressure remains. Then she discovers a large crosspiece under the table.
In Only Children Lurie suggests that love may be both self-destructive and selfish; perhaps it is no more than urgent dependence, manifested as possessiveness by strong people like Bill, as propitiatory compliance by helpless ones like Dan's wife, Celia (252-53).9 Anna, the wisest of the adults, is repelled by the idea of “complete merging of two souls”: to know all another persons's thoughts and expect them to give themselves completely is enslavement. Celia, who thinks giving herself to “the right man” is beautiful, is pathetically exploited in her marriage (76).
On the other hand, in Foreign Affairs Lurie shows the unattractive consequences of not loving or being loved. Again, she uses an adulterous affair to open up possibilities to her heroine and make her question her values. The affair is literally adulterous only on Chuck's side, but considering the importance Vinnie attaches to culture, taste, and gentility, her relationship with Chuck, a crude, half-educated engineer, is as much a breach of cherished standards as were Katherine's and Janet's adulteries. Vinnie clings to her standards of elitism and self-control because they reassure her of superiority in a world that slights middle-aged single women. (At the same time that Lurie dissects Vinnie's single-minded pursuit of her own comfort and self-interest, she mocks the obtuseness of a world that expects “plain aging women” to be particularly self-effacing ). Vinnie has constructed a neat, superficially successful life for herself; but she is patronized by others, centered in herself, and dogged by self-pity, vividly personified as an imaginary dirty-white mongrel named Fido. Her first emotional response to Chuck is reluctantly to feel sorry for him, “perhaps even sorrier than she is for herself” (195); then she begins to appreciate his ingenuous friendliness and finally, as a result of their passionate affair, to recognize his worth.
Vinnie's first experience of mutual love frees her from her fear of emotional commitment and from the self-centeredness that cut her off from others and burdened her with Fido. Chuck's faith in her, produced simply by his ignorance of her social signals, forces her to try to live up to his image of her “as helpful and kindly” (240). At the beginning of the book, it appeared that Vinnie's life was as determined by her plainness as those of the other heroines were by their attractiveness; as they married without thought immediately after college and became dependent on their husbands, she developed a rigid and isolating self-sufficiency. As their identities are defined by their marriage, hers is by her career (10). (Plain men, less dependent on the approval of the opposite sex, are under less pressure than women like Vinnie to protect themselves by shrinking from emotional commitment.) Knowing Chuck makes Vinnie revise her standards and awakens her to her own capacities for joy and generous feeling. She resists the temptation to retaliate upon the daughter of a critic who has sneered at her; she puts herself to considerable inconvenience to help that daughter and her husband to reunite, even though these two young, beautiful, loved people might naturally evoke her envy. Her sophisticated friends would not have expected her to resist the temptation, but “Chuck Mumpson would take it for granted that she'd go” (373).
She is not, of course, totally transformed by her experience of love; when we last view her, she is accepting Fido as a permanent companion (but he is smaller than before). The same is true of Lurie's other protagonists, all of whom but Katherine return in the end to their husbands/life-styles. (We don't get enough detail on the new Katherine to know how radically she may have changed.) In every case, the lover's attractiveness to the heroine is outweighed by his deficiency in qualities essential to her. Lurie is too realistic not to recognize that, by and large, people's basic character and values are sufficiently formed by their late twenties to make total transformation impossible. But intelligent people can be brought to examine attitudes that they had unthinkingly developed and to recognize elements in themselves that they had repressed. Vinnie, Emily, Janet, Erica, and even Honey move toward examining their previously unexamined lives, a movement that is essential to their development as human beings even if not outwardly conspicuous.
Such an examination is particularly significant for women, because of the traditional pressure on them to accept rather than to question. A patriarchal society defines women's roles in terms of service to others and convinces them that not only their virtue but their fulfillment lies in putting other people's needs before their own, regardless of how those others behave. Thomas Gisborne, an eighteenth-century conduct-book writer, blandly asserted that women are naturally qualified by Providence to adapt happily to the wishes of those around them.10 The feminine mystique that shaped the Lurie heroine's attitudes (and has not yet been dissipated by women's liberation) assumes that highly educated women can find fulfillment in caring for small children and promoting their husbands' careers and, moreover, that this job is so easy that it should be accomplished without strain. The less women examine these propositions, the more convenient for society. In the typical Lurie novel, a woman who has always prided herself on being reasonable and controlled suddenly finds herself overwhelmed by sexual passion. But her sexual awakening is less important than her realization that her ideals of rationality and self-control had been defined by patriarchal society and might be replaced by more genuine ones, based on experience and independent thought.
The pressure on women to conform to the status quo has tended to make them cautious and fearful of change. Erica's reaction is typical. “Whenever something sudden happens, her first impulse is to withdraw, consider the situation, regroup her forces” (335). Women are prone to accept their lives as set and may deny problems so as to avoid disbalancing a stable situation. This keeps them back, as has been pointed out by Donna Shalala, the former president of Hunter College. Going on to an even more prestigious position, she shocked her audience by remarking that women should always be prepared to move on. Most women, on the contrary, resist thinking about a major change unless prodded by some outside force such as Lurie provides for her characters. Her women are pushed into unfamiliar situations and end up enjoying them. In ironic contrast, her men, who seek change with virile adventurousness, are discomfited by it. Paul is as ridiculous in disreputable disguise at a beatnik coffeehouse as Brian is at the student pot-party to which Wendy drags him (NC [The Nowhere City], chap. 11; WT chap. 14). It is middle-aged Vinnie who grows and changes in Foreign Affairs, while young Fred comes out from his upsetting affair much as he went into it.
Women's traditional role in the family has sensitized them to other people's needs and led them to attach high importance to maintaining relationships.11 This concern has strong positive effects (explored by Belenky, by Carol Gilligan in In a Different Voice, and others), but it can also impede women's development of individual selfhood, as it makes their concept of self-worth depend on the behavior of other people. Erica expresses this problem when she complains “that identity is at the mercy of circumstances, of other people's actions. Brian, by committing casual adultery, had turned Erica into the typical wife of a casually unfaithful husband: jealous and shrewish and unforgiving—and also, since she had been so easily deceived, dumb and insensitive. Her children, by becoming ill-mannered adolescents, had turned her into an incompetent and unsympathetic mother” (58).12 Enmeshed in their family, women find it particularly difficult to define individual goals and to move resolutely toward them. By separating a woman from her accustomed context of family relationships, the adulterous affair gives her a chance to look at herself and her situation independently.
This concern with awakening her heroines to look critically at their lives is what makes Lurie a feminist author. It is true that doctrinaire feminists disapprove of her work13 and that she subjects their slogans to the same witty deflation she applies to other forms of cant. Nevertheless, her encouragement of radical questioning, symbolized by the respectable wife's trying out of adultery, is liberating. So, in a lighter way, is her deadly accurate rendition of the irritations and frustrations usual in marriage—obtusely self-centered husbands, ungrateful children for whose deficiencies their mother is made to feel responsible, an endless round of routine tasks, none of which are appreciated. It is true that Lurie's husbands also have cause for dissatisfaction—Katherine's perpetual sinus headaches balance Paul's unthinking self-indulgence—but the focus is on men's routine exploitation of women in marriage. Lurie brilliantly exposes the obtuseness of otherwise intelligent, sophisticated men toward their wives. They cannot see that their marriage is an unequal bargain and that their wives have needs comparable to their own. Though Brian shows no interest in Erica's problems, he expects her to listen sympathetically to his. He is aggrieved by his children's misbehavior and doubly aggrieved because Erica is failing to handle them; he does not think of their effect on Erica, who has to see so much more of them. When Emily fails to keep house properly, Holman does not try to find out what is wrong with her but merely reflects, “Women went through these emotional periods, in his experience, and in his experience the best way to deal with them was to get out of their way” (Love and Friendship 222). Lurie's adultery plot not only punishes these husbands as they deserve but highlights the husband's obliviousness to his wife's feelings and needs by contrasting it with the lover's attentiveness. The contrast is even sharper in the cases where the husband feels he is entitled to an extramarital affair because his wife is no longer giving him the devotion or excitement he considers his due.
Lurie has been criticized for exaggerating her characters and maintaining too great an emotional distance from them. Actually, these techniques are totally appropriate for an art that is comic as well as realistic, an art that (like Austen's) aims to deflate pretensions, expose rationalizations, and pinpoint incongruities. Moreover, Lurie is critical but not heartless. She makes us understand why her women are self-righteous and her men obtuse; we realize that these failings are society's fault as well as their own.
This would, of course, be unthinkable in an Austen novel. The only adulterous wife she includes, Maria Bertram Rushworth, is immediately banished from the world of Mansfield Park. Another adulteress, Colonel Brandon's dead sister-in-law, is only mentioned in retrospect in Sense and Sensibility. However, Austen evidently shared Lurie's doubts about marital bliss, since there are almost no examples of it within her novels, even though they culminate in happy marriages.
Frances Burney, Evelina (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 388.
In this essay Alison Lurie's novels will be identified in the following way, and page numbers are given in parentheses in the text. Foreign Affairs (FA); Love and Friendship (LF); The Nowhere City (NC); Only Children (OC); Real People (RP); The War between the Tates (WT).
Sara Sanborn, review of The War between the Tates, by Alison Lurie, New York Times Book Review (July 28, 1974): 1.
Lurie, “Their Harvard,” quoted. Something about the Author, ed. Anne Commire (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1987), 46: 130.
Alison Lurie, “No One Asked Me to Write a Novel,” New York Times Book Review, June 6, 1982, 47.
Foreign Affairs follows a similar pattern, as I shall argue below, even though Vinnie is unmarried. The exceptions are Only Children, which centers on the child Mary Ann, and Imaginary Friends, with a male protagonist. However, Mary Ann's mother, Honey, gets considerable attention; she flirts with adultery and does some examining of herself and her marriage. And even in Imaginary Friends, the protagonist is forced by his strong attraction to a person radically different from himself to question the assumptions he has complacently taken for granted.
H. Porter Abbott, Diary Fiction: Writing as Action (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984), 52.
Cf. Miranda Fenn's opinion: “The real life of romantic love, after its early flights, is nasty, brutish, and short. … Marriage is kinder, but it also lives on lies, little tame ones—one makes the best of the bargain” (LF, 212). Since Miranda has changed her name from Mary Ann, she may be the former Mary Ann Hubbard of Only Children.
Thomas Gisborne, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (New York: Garland, 1974), 116.
Mary Field Belenky, et al., Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1986), 46-47.
It seems inconsistent that the same patriarchal tradition that holds wives and mothers responsible for everything that goes wrong in the household and pities the poor husbands and children driven to misbehavior also ridicules husbands for failing to keep their wives faithful and obedient. The only constant is that women are blamed—whether for withholding goodness or for being so evil that they need to be controlled (and, simultaneously, so weak that a real man should be able to control them).
See, for example, Rachel Cowan's review “The Bore between the Tates,” Ms., Jan. 1975, 41-42.
SOURCE: Bolle, Sonja. Review of Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, by Alison Lurie. Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 March 1990): 6.
[In the following review, Bolle praises Don't Tell the Grown-Ups for Lurie's interesting opposition to feminists who dismiss fairy tales as patronizing to women.]
“There exists in our world an unusual, partly savage tribe, ancient and widely distributed, yet, until recently little studied by anthropologists or historians. All of us were at one time members of this tribe; we knew its customs, manners and rituals, its folklore and sacred texts. I refer, of course, to children,” writes novelist and English professor Alison Lurie in this collection of essays on children's literature [Don't Tell the Grown-Ups]. There are two kinds of children's books, she asserts: improving and subversive. The latter category constitutes the texts her “partly savage tribe” holds sacred.
And rightly so, Lurie maintains. She remembers discovering very early on that the moralistic story books that passed for appropriate children's entertainment in her own youth were quickly proven useless: “The simple, pleasant adult society they had prepared us for did not exist. As we had suspected, the fairy tales had been right all along—the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest. To succeed in this world you needed some special skill or patronage, plus remarkable luck; and it didn't hurt to be very good-looking.”
The best children's stories fly in the face of convention, Lurie argues, and these essays survey the various ways in which this delicious subversion has been practiced. What is Tom Sawyer but the story of a boy who wins a Sunday-school prize by fraud? What good did it do Peter Rabbit to be terrified in the farmer's garden if he returns entirely unrepentant? Lurie also takes up the “watershed” author, E. Nesbit, who wrote in her 1898 The Treasure Seekers: “Of course, as soon as we had promised to consult my father about business matters, we all gave up wanting to go into business. I don't know how it is, but having to consult about a thing with grown-up people, even the bravest and the best, seems to make the thing not worth doing afterwards.”
The goals of subversion naturally change over time. Lurie points out that while today it is generally demure little girls who read Little Women, for at least five generations of girls, the book's heroine, Jo, was “a rebel and an ideal.” When Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet the Spy, published The Long Secret in 1965, it was censured because for the first time in children's literature menstruation was mentioned. And Richard Adams, whose Watership Down was rejected by all the major London publishers, Lurie writes, introduces subversive ideas about ecology.
But by the same token, Lurie takes on feminists who dismiss fairy tales as patronizing to women. Walt Disney's versions may reduce girls to princesses who wait patiently for their prince to come to the rescue, she sneers gently. But in the Grimms' original Children's and Household Tales (1812), she writes in a characteristically playful—and yes, subversive—lampoon of scholarly method, “there are 61 women and girl characters who have magic powers as against only 21 men and boys; and these men are usually dwarfs and not humans.”
SOURCE: Illick, Joseph E. “Telling Another Fairy Tale.” New Leader 73, no. 6 (16 April 1990): 20-1.
[In the following review, Illick finds shortcomings in Lurie's generalized view of children's literature and lack of historical perspective in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups.]
The most intriguing book on children's literature is Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment (1976). Arguing that an acquaintanceship with literature can give meaning to children's lives—not just any literature, not myths of superhuman feats or moralistic fables, but fairy tales that capture human development in symbolic terms—Bettelheim conveys the message evident throughout his writings: Life is a struggle (in the case of the child, a struggle to organize the chaotic unconscious) that can be won. For a youngster, who must win victory at the unconscious level without parental intrusion, fairy tales provide a means of gaining mastery over emotional turmoil and growing toward the achievement of rational decision-making.
The notion that fairy tales have a universal quality was challenged by historian Robert Darnton. He faulted Bettelheim for not grounding the tales he talked about in a particular time and place, specifically 17th-century rural France. Their characters, Darnton observed, exhibit the traits of cunning necessary for survival among peasants in that culture. Without forsaking my respect for Bettelheim, I would agree that it is necessary to consider the milieu in which tales were created, told and recorded.
In Don't Tell the Grown-Ups Alison Lurie pays no attention to such particulars. She assumes that fairy tales have a universal relevance. Analyzing Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911), she tells us that it “is the story of two unhappy, sickly, overcivilized children who achieve health and happiness through a combination of communal gardening, mystical faith, daily exercises, encounter-group type confrontation, and a health-food diet.” This is the favorite book of the students enrolled in Lurie's course on children's literature at Cornell, who have made Burnett's late Victorian world their own.
It is possible (though Lurie does not present the possibility) that “children” at Ivy League schools tend to represent a subculture within contemporary American childhood similar to that of the Victorian, urban, middle-class kiddies. But it is hard to know what age groups we should be comparing, at least partly because Lurie does not make clear what age group(s) she is discussing. Some of her subjects deal with themes that cross age boundaries: the joys of disobedience (Beatrix Potter); adult timidity and hypocrisy (James M. Barrie); adult authority (A. A. Milne); even feminism (E. Nesbitt). Other themes point to an adolescent audience: upper-class pretensions (Mrs. Clifford); capitalist greed (E. Nesbitt); tolerance for evil (J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White); ecological danger (Richard Adams).
About these messages Lurie asserts: “Opinions and attitudes that are not currently in style in the adult world often find expression in children's books of the time,” and the situation upsets adults because they expect children to confide everything, including their discontent. That presumes the adult world (excepting the authors of subversive children's literature and Lurie herself) is monolithic and separate from the children's world, also monolithic. Lurie refers to the “universality and antiquity of children's folklore” as evidence that childhood has always formed a separate culture in our midst.
History tells a different story. At least until the 17th-century, child and adult society could not be differentiated; folklore was the shared province of both. The expression of subversive attitudes in children's books came hundreds of years later. Yet even considering only the relatively brief period that this has been true, relations between parents and children have changed so dramatically as to make generalizations precarious.
The change in relations, in turn, brings into question the concept of monolithic and separate worlds of adulthood and childhood. Certainly I was not unusual as a parent when I read my son that most subversive of kids' volumes, Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book, or when together we composed and recorded tales of disobedient creatures who acted out his own desires. Together we laughed through Mad magazine, too. So I was hardly surprised when my son formed his high school's Charles Dodgson Society (Lewis Carroll is another of Lurie's subjects), though I was taken aback when at 16 and just graduated he turned down a prestigious scholarship to strike out on his own for Europe. Still, in the manner of many of my peers, I did not stand in the way of this autonomous—and in another generation, subversive—behavior.
If Lurie's book fails as a historically-informed account of children's literature, it often succeeds in its descriptions of the authors of these books. Her portrait of prurient John Ruskin prodding prudish Kate Greenaway to undress the little girls in her illustrations makes for entertaining reading—and lecturing no doubt. Don't Tell the Grown-Ups creates a cosmos of adults with childlike frailties, amusing and probably reassuring to college adolescents on the verge of entering a still-mysterious mature society. As such it fulfills one of our professorial tasks.
SOURCE: Smith, Janet Adam. “Unchildish Activities.” New York Review of Books 37, no. 7 (26 April 1990): 45.
[In the following review, Smith offers a positive assessment of Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, calling the work a “witty and enlightening survey.”]
“Somebody's been putting ideas into your head”—there, down the ages, is the voice of authority, in the form of parent, nanny, teacher, when faced with questions that threaten received ideas and their privilege of “Allow me to know best.” That they have been busily putting ideas into children's heads—ideas of behavior, morality, and the status quo—is quite another story. E. Nesbit hit off the type in her invention (in “The Cockatoucan”) of the nurse-maid transformed into the Automatic Nagging Machine, which ejects little rolls of paper carrying messages like “Don't be tiresome.”
Now comes a nice reversal. Here is Teacher herself [in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups] encouraging subversion in the classroom and at home—or at least showing us how many of the best children's books, approved by authority, carry a hidden charge that may put explosive ideas into a child's head. Alison Lurie teaches children's literature at Cornell; she takes children's books very seriously, but without being overly solemn; she resents the apartheid that keeps them in special sections in libraries and in readers' minds; and she has a sense of mission to students who have grown up “with no better nourishment for their imaginations than the crude comedy and plastic adventure stories of films and television,” and who “know the classics of children's literature only in cheap cartoon versions, if at all.”
Subversion is the sign under which she has assembled this collection of her occasional writings about children's books and authors, from fairy tales to Dr. Seuss; many of them first appeared in these columns:
Most of the great works of juvenile literature are subversive in one way or another: they express ideas and emotions not generally approved of or even recognized at the time; they make fun of honored figures and piously held beliefs; and they view social pretenses with clear-eyed directness, remarking—as in Andersen's famous tale—that the emperor has no clothes.
So off we go at a gallop, pursuing the familiar—Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beatrix Potter, J. M. Barrie, A. A. Milne, J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White, and the less familiar like Mrs. W. K. Clifford and Ford Madox Ford—and sniffing out subversion with all the zeal of a McCarthy witch hunter. There are many kinds. Subversion may be open, as in Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain's reaction to the improving tales distributed in his youth by religious and educational bodies. His seditious account of his home town was “intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls,” he wrote in his preface, so nobody had to take it seriously. Huckleberry Finn was not so labeled and was taken seriously enough to be censored here and there. (Kipling's Stalky & Co., I would add, was a similarly subversive reaction to the pious rendering of school life in Dean Farrar's Eric, or Little by Little, and the Christian manliness of Tom Brown's Schooldays.)
Then there are the secretly subversive writers who found the children's book an opportunity for putting across their own unpopular or revolutionary ideas. Frances Hodgson Burnett smuggled into The Secret Garden unorthodox notions about religion, psychology, and health. E. Nesbit infiltrated Fabian views into her stories. The king in “Fortunatus Rex & Co.” is the largest speculative builder in the world—and of course a villain. The working-class boy of “The Mixed Mine” is far brighter than the little gentlemen and deserves as good an education—so E. Nesbit cheerfully ends the tale by sending them both to Oxford. Even Kate Greenaway's idealized little children at play in a rural paradise can be seen as “a silent protest against what the railways and the factories were doing to the English countryside.” In our day Richard Adams has used the rabbits of Watership Down to convey ideas that went against the prevailing ethos of the Sixties—ideas of courage, honor, and dignity, of creatures “who would risk their lives for others, whose love for their families and friends and community was enduring and effective.” There can, it appears, be conservative subversion.
Pacifism is a message that many writers have slipped past the censoring elder. Munro Leaf's “Ferdinand the Bull” refuses to fight—and was immensely popular with children in World War II, when pacifism was a dirty word. A. A. Milne's Pooh stories can be read as propaganda for the peaceable kingdom of animal and child, free from adult authority. In the last book of The Once and Future King T. H. White made King Arthur ardent for peace—and found his publisher unenthusiastic, for 1941 was no time to challenge patriotism. Alison Lurie reflects on White's fate when his chronicle became the Broadway and Hollywood Camelot—“a glossy travesty, sentimental and pretty where the book was skeptical and passionate”:
It is quite appropriate that John F. Kennedy's court, often at the time of his reign compared to the musical and film versions of Camelot, turned out in the end to have been a lot more like White's chronicle, with its flawed heroes, its inspiring public rhetoric and scandalous private revelations—and, of course, its awful end.
Tolkien too questioned conventional views of patriotism and of history as a record of great events and great heroes. His heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo and Frodo, are small men who are indifferent to glory or wealth, who succeed “not through superior skill or strength or wisdom but, like the heroes of the old folktales, by the exercise of the small-town, middle-class virtues of simplicity, good nature, ingenuity, and patient determination.” For William Mayne the past is always round the corner—to be read in a landscape or a building—but it is a past that goes against the received view (such as I was brought up with, in books like Our Island Story):
His best books suggest that the history of the British Empire is sometimes not a chronicle of glory and triumph, but a dark and confused record.
Another kind of subversion comes from writers who go back to their own childhood and settle old scores. The boy-narrator of Kenneth Grahame's Golden Age has a sharp eye for the hypocrisy, stupidity, and sheer boringness of the grown-ups of Grahame's own childhood. E. Nesbit puts words she would have liked to utter into the mouth of Matilda (in “The Cockatoucan”) who refuses to visit her great-aunt Willoughby:
She would be asked about her lessons, and how many marks she had, and whether she had been a good girl. I can't think why grown-up people don't see how impertinent these questions are. Suppose you were to answer, “I'm top of my class, Auntie, thank you, and I'm very good. And now let's have a little talk about you, Aunt, dear, how much money have you got, and have you been scolding the servants again, or have you tried to be good and patient as a properly brought up aunt should be, eh, dear?
Alison Lurie has unearthed some fairy stories by Ford Madox Ford, written for his much younger sister; she is sure that in The Queen who Flew he was getting his own back on the parents of Elsie Martindale with whom he eloped when he was twenty and she seventeen. The ending, with the queen retiring to the country and marrying a plowman, was a way of saying that love in a cottage was better than a stuffy establishment in London. Barrie too was indulging a personal resentment when he put his feelings about Arthur Llewellyn Davies, the real father of the Peter Pan boys, into the creation of Mr. Darling, incompetent husband and deceitful parent.
In a final chapter, “The Folklore of Childhood,” Alison Lurie considers the subversive words of children themselves, in their tribal games and playground chants. “Everything we might want to protect boys and girls from is already in these verses”—drink, sex, the horror of war:
Look, look, mama, What is that stuff That looks like strawberry jam? Hush, hush, my child, It is papa, Run over by a tram.
Here we are in Opie-land, also explored in Alison Lurie's wonderfully funny Foreign Affairs, the novel about the American lady professor doing fieldwork in the playgrounds of Camden Town.
To this witty and enlightening survey I would like to add a further category of subversion: where a writer (who has no illusions about children being nice and good) has entered into a happy conspiracy with a child to expose grown-up morality. Such writers remember their own need to escape from the drab routines of home and school into unimproving books, “chronicles of disorder” as Joyce called the Wild Westerns of his youth. There is Thackeray, entertaining his daughters with The Rose and the Ring, in which kings, parents, governess, the haughty footman all get their comeuppance. There is Edward Lear (banished to the housekeeper's room at Lord Derby's stately mansion) encouraging the children of the house by his limericks and drawings to see life as something absurd. There is Belloc, pretending to his little friends that his Cautionary Tales are “designed for the Admonition of Children” but really saying that he is one of them:
For people such as me and you Who pretty nearly all day long Are doing something rather wrong.
And there is Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Moral Emblems, composed with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, tell a different tale from that of A Child's Garden of Verses. I quote my favorite:
Mark, printed on the opposing page, The unfortunate effects of rage. A man (who might be you or me) Hurls another into the sea. Poor soul, his unreflecting act His future joys will much contract; And he will spoil his evening toddy By dwelling on that mangled body.
Child and grown-up can sometimes be on the same side.
SOURCE: Gerrard, Nicci. “Alison in Wonderland.” New Statesman and Society 86, no. 1428 (25 May 1990): 32-3.
[In the following review, Gerrard commends Lurie's biographical sketches of various children's writers in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups but faults Lurie's overly-determined, excessively narrow critical approach and analysis.]
“‘There's glory for you!’ ‘I don't know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said. ‘I meant, “there's a nice knock-down argument for you!”’ ‘But glory doesn't mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’”
Children love lifting up stones to discover hidden life, poking in rock pools, hiding in long grass where grown-ups can't see them, making up secret languages, introducing chaos or creating their own rules. Crawl under a table, and it is a house; turn it upside down and it is a boat. And books can turn the world upside down for children or, quantum-like, superimpose another, hidden one. Fantasy, for them, is as real as adult “reality” (there are fairies at the bottom of the garden and lands at the end of a rabbit hole). When Alice in Through the Looking Glass says, “One can't believe impossible things”, the Queen is pitying: “I dare say you haven't had much practice … When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
But this kind of immersion in alternative worlds can be terrifying as well as delightful: indeed, the terror is part of the delight. Narnia, Wonderland and Never-Never Land have an other-life that is also—especially in C. S. Lewis's parables—a kind of death. There is always the fear that the children won't be able to return to the regulated safety of the adult world. Alison Lurie—who is tied to the “subversive” nature of children's literature like a goat on a short tether, nibbling a small area of discussion to baldness but never getting her teeth into wilder thickets—neglects the spine-tingling fears of children's fantasies, while ignoring their complicating layers of meaning.
Her essays [in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups], originally published in the New York Review of Books, are mildly entertaining but tame pieces that roll the magic of Winnie the Pooh or Alice,The Secret Garden or even savage folktales, into neat theses: here, she argues, are “underground” tales that defy or satirise social conventions. Actually, many of them also prop them up: Tolkien (who, in one asinine and baffling paragraph, she presents as a kind of crusty Marxist, implying through his mythologies that “property is theft”) is a real Little Englander in his glorification of the shires. Children might be enchanted by the adult-free spaces of Frances Hodgson Burnett's secret garden, but they also adore the sickly poor-little-rich-girl fantasy of The Little Princess. Children love justice as well as disobedience, familiarity as well as its overthrow, absolutes as well as anarchy. In trying to explain children's literature, Don't Tell the Grown-Ups is a bit like the dragon in The Hobbit—sitting stubbornly on top of a mountain of treasure, counting up the riches without seeing them variously flash and glint.
Lurie is at her best when straightforwardly recounting the lives of some of her chosen authors: a gallery of malcontents, eccentrics, emotional retards and social rebels. Many readers of Beatrix Potter's child-sized, child's-eye-view books will know how she escaped from the prison of her Victorian childhood with the help of a rabbit, drawing and writing her way out of stifling misery. Or how James Barrie, creator of the boy who wouldn't grow up, was himself arrested in permanent adolescence: of stunted growth, with a piping voice, impotent and mother-fixated, he believed that “nothing that happens after we are 12 matters very much”. When his brother died at the age of 14, Barrie tried to console his despairing mother by literally taking on the lost boy's identity. And Peter Pan, with his tribe of Lost Boys, is like a supernatural incarnation of Barrie himself: forever in search of a mother, eternally young in spirit, never growing any older, living underground in what may be the land of the dead.
Other lives are less familiar, though their works still beloved. Kate Greenaway—the painter of idealised pubescent girls who drift through smudged pastoral landscapes and now decorate pretty greeting cards—fits only with extreme difficulty into Lurie's “subversive” pigeon-hole. She seems, rather, to embody, the Victorian cult of the virgin-child that is played out in more ambiguous forms in Peter Pan.
But the relationship between Kate Greenaway and that strange Victorian phenomenon, John Ruskin, is riveting for the light it throws upon an age. Greenaway, a kind, careful, awkward and plain woman of doubtful talent, portrayed a world that her public wanted. Her vision was of an idealised childhood in an idealised pre-industrial England: sweet babies and neurasthenic girls in perfectly-tended, sprigged gardens or on the forever-spring village green. At 60, John Ruskin (who is well-known for falling in love with pre-pubescent girls) also fell feverishly in love with the nymphet charm of Greenaway's “girlies” (his term). For years she kept him supplied with drawings, though resisting his plaintive demands that they should wear fewer or no clothes. Ruskin treated Greenaway's radiant second-rate pastorals like soft-core kiddie porn.
The energetic, hot-tempered and scandalous E. Nesbitt, creator of The Railway Children and other children's classics, is an example of the Other Victorian: a witty, rash, wonderful woman whose books recommended bold socialist solutions, presented a thoroughly modern and startling view of childhood and used magic as a metaphor for the power of the imagination. E. Nesbitt was a lifelong socialist, founder and member of the Fabian society, and supporter of many of the radical causes of the day (including Shakespeare's plays). Married to the businessman Hubert Bland, she tolerated their open marriage and passed off two of his illegitimate children as her own. Her books are informal, unpatronising, scornful of the adult world—and feminist.
Lurie's essay on Nesbitt is one of the best in the book, largely because the vigorous and innovative Nesbitt is well-framed by Lurie's thesis, while Tolkien or T. H. White or A. A. Milne are pinched and squeezed by it. It is curious how inert many of Lurie's essays are—the heavy hand of Lit Crit can balk the most light-hearted and quick-footed magic. Winnie the Pooh and Alice, Bilbo Baggins and Peter Pan are fenced in by these very adult explanations. Pooh is round another corner, Wonderland not here at all.
SOURCE: Townsend, Juliet. “The Pure Pleasure of Being Naughty.” Spectator 264, no. 8449 (16 June 1990): 30-1.
[In the following review, Townsend argues that Lurie's linking theme of “subversive children's literature” in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups is neither coherent nor convincing.]
It is E. Nesbit who points out that, in order to succeed as a writer for children it is not necessary to have children of one's own, nor even to know any children. The one essential is to retain a clear memory, unclouded by sentiment or nostalgia, of one's childhood; not just of events, but of feelings and thoughts and attitudes. Very few people have this power of recall, which is one reason why very few people write good children's books. Alison Lurie, in her study of what she calls ‘subversive children's literature’ [Don't Tell the Grown-Ups] makes a clear distinction between subjects which adults have traditionally thought suitable for the young and those, far more robust, which are the true stuff of playground rhymes and the stories which children tell each other. Saki's The Storyteller sums up the attraction of the ‘subversive’ approach perfectly, as the children hang with breathless satisfaction on the fate of the virtuous little girl, betrayed to the ravening wolf by the clanking of the medals she has won for punctuality and good behaviour. Certainly the books that speak most strongly and directly to children are those which talk their own language and think their own thoughts. It is not enough simply to write about naughty children. The author must recreate the exhilaration and pure pleasure of naughtiness—a thing most grown-ups prefer not to emphasise.
[In Don't Tell the Grown-Ups] Alison Lurie claims that ‘Most of the great works of juvenile literature are subversive in one way or another’ and goes on to illustrate this in a series of essays on folk tales and on individual authors, ranging from Ford Madox Ford to William Mayne. As a way of proving her point, this format is not entirely successful. The essays give the impression of having been written independently with the ‘subversive’ argument sometimes introduced as an afterthought. Thus Kate Greenaway is said to be subversive because of the ‘sentimental sensuality’ of the girls in her illustrations, E. Nesbit because of her Fabianism and feminism and Frances Hodgson Burnett because of her unconventional ideas about religion and nature. But this is not a case of ‘don't tell the grown-ups’. These are adult preoccupations. E. Nesbit's views are acceptable to children when they are funny, as when, in The Story of the Amulet, the capricious Queen of Babylon descends on Edwardian London, causing havoc at the British Museum and the Stock Exchange, and scoring a few good socialist points for her creator.
‘How badly you keep your slaves. How wretched and poor and neglected they seem,’ she said, as the cab rattled along the Mile End Road … ‘Why don't their masters see that they are better fed and better clothed? … You'll have a revolt of your slaves if you're not careful.’
But the book loses its impetus and many of its readers when the Amulet transports the children to the London of some idyllic Fabian future where pupils learn at school
I must not litter the beautiful street With bits of paper and things to eat. I must not pick the public flowers, They are not mine, but they are ours.
The interest of the essays in this collection lies less in their supporting a coherent argument than in their individual quality, which is very high. The author is extremely good on fairy tales, and the emasculation which took place in their 19th-century transformation from folklore to literature. I once read my daughter an early version of Red Riding-Hood, in which the story ends abruptly when the wolf has devoured both the Grandmother and Red Riding-Hood, to be greeted by wails of ‘Where's the Woodcutter? I want the Woodcutter!’ Nowadays, as Alison Lurie points out, the Woodcutter arrives all too early on the scene
The wolf is chased out of the door … Grandmother comes out of the closet, where she has been hiding … Nobody gets eaten, nobody gets rescued, nobody gets punished. This is supposed to make children feel safer—even though the wolf is still wandering around outside somewhere, waiting for the next little girl. Which is possibly truer to current social conditions—but hardly more reassuring.
An attribute of the best of the essays is that they make one look at very familiar stories, Winnie the Pooh, for instance, or Peter Pan, in a completely new way. Often we are given a psychological perspective. Who knows what deep subconscious yearnings lie behind Pooh's obsession with honey or Eeyore's gloom or the hyperactivity of Tigger? This approach is more valid and is used to excellent effect in the perceptive essays on Barrie and T. H. White, both of whom were exceedingly rum by any standards.
This is a most enjoyable and illuminating read for anyone who enjoys children's books. It is salutary to see them from a child's viewpoint—the child who, as A. A. Milne has remarked, combines natural innocence with ‘brutal egotism’, as represented in the person of Pooh:
‘Oh, Bear!’, said Christopher Robin, ‘How I do love you!’
‘So do I,’ said Pooh.
SOURCE: Harries, Susie. “Performance Fashion.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4662 (7 August 1992): 10.
[In the following excerpt, Harries compliments The Language of Clothes, arguing that Lurie's statements regarding clothing and dress are witty and authoritative.]
“Clothes hurt us”, writes Quentin Bell, “in a pecuniary, a physical, an aesthetic and frequently a moral sense; they are (very often) expensive, unhealthy, ugly and immodest.” From this perspective, the pursuit of fashion is an irrational activity—and an irresistible subject for analysis. Why do we dress as we do? …
Laying bare the subtext of popular culture has been Alison Lurie's speciality ever since she revealed that Rabbit and Owl were A. A. Milne's parents. And in The Language of Clothes (first published in 1981, now issued in a revised version by Bloomsbury), she is as insistent as [Colin] McDowell that there is more to clothes than meets the eye.
McDowell's argument is “deliberately discursive”. Alison Lurie's is an elegant, well-ordered, unified construct, a full-dress exposition of a single metaphor. Clothes, in her view, are a medium for unconscious communication, a language with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax. We may “speak” with an accent or local dialect: rural British dress, for instance, she finds to be distinguished by its determination to harmonize with the surroundings. “Tweed and wool and homespun repeat the textures of grass and bark and leaf, while corduroy … mimics not only the feel of moss but the look of a ploughed field. These materials are made into baggy, rumpled, rounded garments that echo the uneven rounded shapes of the landscape—of bush, tree and hill.” Some scatter their sartorial speech with archaisms like the cravat and the embroidered waistcoat, with swear words and slang (the trainers below dress trousers), and with the occasional foreign expression to denote sophistication. Others are prone to impediments rooted in psychological disorder—the froth of frills and ribbons on a middle-aged bosom, corresponding to a childish lisp, or the repetitive stammer of a jacket worn week in, week out. Accessories may be viewed as the adverbs and adjectives of the language of dress—“modifiers in the sentence that is the total outfit”.
With wit and authority, Lurie sets out in sequence the ways in which our clothes reveal our status, occupation, sexual preferences, political opinions and geographical origins. After reading The Language of Clothes, one is nervous to walk down the street for fear of the barrage of information being transmitted by others. The wearing of fur, it seems, betrays a yearning for the brute strength of the animal who supplied it. Hence, perhaps, the fall from favour of Persian lamb? Think twice before you zip your handbag neatly, given that it is, like the muff, widely recognized as a symbol for the pudenda. …
Lurie concedes, grudgingly, that practical considerations—comfort, durability, availability and price—may enter into what people wear, in the case of less articulate dressers at least: “Especially in the case of persons of limited wardrobe an article may be worn because it is warm or rainproof … in the same way that persons of limited vocabulary use the phrase ‘you know’ or adjectives such as ‘great’ or ‘fantastic.’” …
Clothes may be donned out of joie de vivre, as well as in deference to bloodlust, capitalist imperatives, class warfare or the Zeitgeist. Then again, as Alison Lurie writes, “Thinking seriously about what we wear is like thinking seriously about what we say; it can only be done occasionally or we should find ourselves tongue-tied, unable to get dressed at all.”
SOURCE: Costa, Richard Hauer. “Alison Lurie and the Critics.” In Alison Lurie, pp. 75-83. New York, NY: Twayne, 1992.
[In the following essay, Costa provides an overview of critical response to Lurie's work and the formation of her literary reputation, particularly as established in discussion of her two most prominently reviewed and debated novels, The War between the Tates and Foreign Affairs.]
THE MEDIA'S MASSAGE
Reviewers, by and large, have treated Alison Lurie well but superficially, as a sampling of dust-jacket endorsements reflects: poet James Merrill called her “the wisest woman in America”; Truman Capote believed The War between the Tates was a book Jane Austen would enjoy; Gore Vidal crowned her the “Queen Herod of modern fiction.” The War between the Tates brought her a place on the best-seller list, an international audience, and a media image as an irreverent satirist of middle-brow America.
Fortunately for sales but unfortunately for Lurie's credibility as a serious novelist, she has for nearly two decades been locked into this image. John Skow set the tone with his flippantly respectful review in Time of The War between the Tates (“In this summer-weight comedy of hanky-panky in a university town, the apple is a little mushy, but worm and novel are in the best of health”).1 The three columns of text framed a photograph of Lurie, looking at once coy and wicked from beneath a wide-brimmed hat. Ten years later she was a tenured full professor at Cornell, and Newsweek, in a review of Foreign Affairs, accentuated her academic persona with an apparently unposed classroom snapshot. But Lurie's “reputation for mordant wit and coldblooded satire,” as David Lehman puts it, remained intact. “I don't think I'm as cruel as I'm made out to be,” Lurie says. “Foreign Affairs is my seventh novel, and it's the first time I've ever killed off a single character. The people in my books may be ridiculed, but they don't lose their jobs, get run over by trucks or succumb to fatal diseases. The worse that can happen to them is that some of their illusions are exposed.”2
THE WAR BETWEEN THE TATES: “AN ANNOYING BOOK”
Reviews in the academic and intellectual press often praise Lurie's virtues before shooting her down for the perceived defects of these virtues. The most searching of this type of critique may have been John Leonard's essay on The War between the Tates in New Republic. After likening her to a surgeon putting on gloves before sitting down at her typewriter, Leonard summarizes the plot with skill and economy. He heralds the style (“faultless prose, like an English lawn [where] one could play polo”), ticks off a half-dozen “brilliant scenes,” and appears to marvel at the novelist's “detachment so profound that we might be looking at tropical fish in a tank instead of people in extremis.”3 He then confesses to having found The War between the Tates an “annoying book.” He charges Lurie with “punishing the Tates” for their anachronistic noblesse oblige, which leaves them at the end, in Erica's words, “ugly, foolish, guilty, and dying.” He deplores the programmatic analogies between war and what goes on between wives and husbands who are unhappy with each other. “The metaphor weighs a ton. Containment, escalation, guerilla warfare, hostages, are not so much alluded to as forced down the reader's throat. … [and] 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” (Leonard, 25).
Leonard makes his points well, but he overlooks Lurie's prerogative to put her characters through a punishing process that may be necessary if they are to move, even tentatively, toward self-knowledge. Leonard concludes by attacking Lurie's coldness, even contempt, in the face of human travail. John Cheever and John Updike have also walked on Lurie's “turf,” Leonard says, “Updike seeking some lyrical equivalent of the joy of discovery and the pain of betrayal” and Cheever finding “a redeeming humanity, sorrow instead of disgust.” In The War between the Tates, however, “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” (Leonard, 25).
Robert E. Scholes has written that “every writer's work offers us a different system of notation, which has its focal limits in abstracting from the total system of existence.” If, then, each significant writer employs “narrative codes” that illuminate—even elucidate—his or her “version of reality,”4 then all accomplished representations of such individual world views merit consideration on their own terms. Perhaps the novelist who has made satire her narrative code runs the greatest risk of producing specimens, coolly dissected. Satire, by definition, chronicles folly to the end that institutions may be improved.
Deceit and camouflage are Lurie's enemies, and she attacks their practitioners without remorse. Sometimes, as Joseph Parisi observes, “the very brilliance of her technique becomes cause for dissatisfaction.” For all her characters' complexities, he adds, the unmasking process often reduces them to stock figures or Jonsonian humours, cleverly but predictably laid bare for ridicule.5
William H. Pritchard, in a brief review of The War between the Tates, finds Lurie “so confessedly pulling the strings (now I'm going to have my character do this) that it is difficult to look past her manipulative gestures, accomplished as always they are, and believe there's somebody really out there in trouble.”6 Or, as John Leonard puts it, The War between the Tates is inhabited by characters who are denied possibility. “Alison Lurie's clamp is on them. … It is not their fault that they are limited; it is hers” (Leonard, 25).
“HOW GOOD IS ALISON LURIE?”
One of the most severe critiques of Lurie's fiction through The War between the Tates is John W. Aldridge's “How Good Is Alison Lurie?” Like many other critics, Aldridge does praise Lurie's style and her powers of observation:
She writes a prose of great clarity and concision, an expository language that efficiently serves her subject but does not stylize upon it. She has many true things to say about the various modes of self-deception and distraction by which we endure the passage of life in these peculiarly trivializing times, and she often says them in a manner she has earned entirely by herself and that represents an authentic fictional voice.7
He then joins a more select group of reviewers who, even when citing what they perceive to be the virtues of her work, undercut their praise with criticism:
There is some firm evidence in the five novels she has so far published that Alison Lurie should be a better novelist than she is. Her reputation up to now does not indicate that she has been widely appreciated for the qualities she does possess, although she has acquired over the years a certain small cult following, and … The War between the Tates appears to be winning her the kind of popular attention which may prove only that her limitations have at last begun to be recognized as seeming more attractive than her virtues.
(Aldridge, 79, emphasis added)
The rest of the essay—about four-fifths of it—seeks to demonstrate that what Lurie has chosen to write about is unworthy of her attention and is rendered even less significant by her treatment. Specifically, Aldridge's criticisms include these: (1) She relies too heavily on sexual intrigue to fuel dramatic possibilities, (2) she works the same infidelity plot from book to book, and (3) her treatment of adultery is suggestive of soap opera—insufficiently revelatory for serious fiction. “Her treatment of adultery suffers, in short, from arbitrariness and inconsequence. The insight it affords us into the natures of the people who commit it is finally reducible to some idea of orgasmic liberation, which is repeatedly seen as in and for itself an apocalyptic experience” (Aldridge, 80).
Katharine Rogers has provided the most penetrating defense so far of Lurie's “adultery plot,” claiming that its very repetitiousness “enables her to explore varied aspects of her themes of marital discontent and female consciousness-raising” (Rogers, 118). She explains that while Lurie's unfulfilled wives “are not totally conventional … none has seriously questioned the fundamental assumptions with which she has been brought up. Although theoretically they had many choices in life, they have acted as if they had none. Having accepted the feminine mystique of the fifties, they devote themselves wholly to their families and expect marriage and children to provide … fulfillment” (Rogers, 117).
Thus, what Aldridge regards as a hackneyed plot in which good sex with someone not one's legal spouse “achieves some temporary sense of rejuvenated identity” is for Rogers a passport out of a false sense of self-assurance to a new potential for growth, whose immediate form may be passion, even ecstasy, but whose long-term achievement is self-knowledge. Rogers, a feminist scholar, concludes with the following observations:
This concern with awakening her heroines to look critically at their lives is what makes Lurie a feminist author. … her encouragement of radical questioning, symbolized by the respectable wife's trying out of adultery, is liberating. So, in a lighter way, is her deadly accurate rendition of the irritations and frustrations usual in marriage—obtusely self-centered husbands, ungrateful children for whose deficiencies their mother is made to feel responsible, an endless round of routine tasks, none of which are appreciated. … Lurie's adultery plot not only punishes these husbands as they deserve but highlights the husband's obliviousness to his wife's feelings and needs by contrasting it with the lover's attentiveness. The contrast is even sharper in the cases where the husband feels he is entitled to an extramarital affair because his wife is no longer giving him the devotion or excitement he considers his due.
Aldridge also takes exception to the value of the academic scene during the latter half of the century as a vehicle for satire. “Nothing is more obvious to anyone familiar with the university scene of the last twenty years than that the dramatic possibilities for a fiction dealing with academic life are not what they once were” (Aldridge, 81). He goes on to list Mary McCarthy (whom he once savaged in his essay “Mary McCarthy and the Trolls”), Helen Howe, Randall Jarrell, Robie Macauley, and Bernard Malamud as the “classic practitioners” of the novel of academe, saying that Lurie, in comparison, lacks “advantages,” none of which he identifies. Nothing is at stake in The War between the Tates, he writes—no risk, no threat, no anguish. “The society in which … [the Tates] exist is much too limited, drab, and morally diffuse to give them consequence. … It is a society made for and by the burgeoning new population of academic Babbitts, and it is the ideal medium for their relentlessly bourgeois pursuit” (Aldridge, 81).
Since the publication of his influential After the Lost Generation in 1951, Aldridge has continually denounced American novelists. He is a critic of the postwar scene whose constant refrain is that triviality in society begets triviality in its commentators. Ironically, Lurie shares Aldridge's view of society. His criticism of an ally raises the question of whether a satirical novelist can be faulted because her choice of evidence does not coincide with his.
The War between the Tates, which rose to the top of the New York Times fiction list in the late summer of 1974 and remained there throughout the fall and early winter, was followed by two books quite different in content and theme from her previous efforts. Only Children and Foreign Affairs are, in craft and language, her best novels to date. On this the major reviews are in agreement. With Only Children, it was for the first time her peers among female writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gordon, and Victoria Glendinning, who paid her tribute.
Only Children (1979) embraced an idea Lurie had been nursing for years. She would blend, Proust-like, recovered memories of childhood and her understanding of the workings of children's imaginations with her scholar's knowledge of folklore and children's literature. She was coeditor, with Justin G. Schiller, of the 73-volume Classics of Children's Literature (1974-75). After the publication of Only Children she compiled three collections of retold stories for children: The Heavenly Zoo (1980); Legends and Tales of the Stars (1980); and Fabulous Beasts (1981).
Neither the Oates nor the Gordon review is a “puff”; each expresses a reservation—Oates on the book's lack of “amusing peripheral characters” evident in earlier works8 and Gordon on perceived lapses in conveying the tone of childhood (Gordon, 27). Gordon, however, is especially generous to Lurie for her rescue of objects from an all-but-lost past that we still crave and for her sure feel for the often unwitting cruelty adults inflict on their children. Oates also praises Only Children's briskness and verve, a triumph in the comic mode by one “who knows its contours and idiosyncrasies and its meticulous pacing exceptionally well” (Oates, 27).
Glendinning called Only Children “a powerful novel. Imaginary friends or real people, her characters live on in the mind. And the clear intellectual framework is effectively embedded in a totally realized world of food and clothes and furniture and weather. … The indecency of love—which is a classical concept, as this is a classical novel—is most people's lot.”9
Foreign Affairs, though it did not enjoy the commercial success of The War between the Tates, is Lurie's most critically acclaimed novel, both here and abroad. In England, Lorna Sage describes the novel as “the kind … that elicits a conspiratorial glow … because it flatters readers unmercifully” by leaving them “well-buttered with irony” (Sage, 109). American though she is, Lurie's writing resonates with the English literary past. Marilyn Butler, writing in the London Review of Books, finds the novel a major advance from the “programmatic naturalism” of previous books. “The nuanced and naturalistically-observed middle-aged love-affair between Vinnie and Chuck shows the kind of writing Lurie still perhaps does best, but her bold and freely-handled alternative plot enormously widens its range of suggestion.”10 It is difficult to conceive of an American novelist writing about London who is not faulted on details by English critics. Henry James did not escape, and neither does Lurie. Richard Boston and James Lasdun enumerate a number of gaffes, none of them substantive.11
Among American reviewers, Dorothy Wickenden notes that Lurie, like most comic writers, relies on startling juxtapositions to illumine the individual's accommodations to the demands of society. She judges Lurie “as deft as ever when she turns to the mortifications of romance. She is an uncannily accurate observer of the ambivalent emotions that enter into unconventional sexual alliances. …”12
The most glowing assessment is Carol Simpson Stern's. She hails Foreign Affairs as “the best of her novels to date [because of] the daring way in which it treats (approvingly) Vinnie's affair with a Western bumpkin from Tulsa, Oklahoma. … hardly a suitable candidate for Vinnie's affections.”13 After faulting her previous novels for being sometimes unconvincing about sexual affairs between different types of people and lacking John Updike's “genius for sexually explicit scenes,” Stern comes down resoundingly in favor of this book. Lurie has found “the right ingredients. Not only do we believe in the sexuality of both characters, but we grow to care very much for Chuck and Vinnie. This facet … is surprising. Lurie's writing is always witty and tightly controlled, but she is usually best at making us laugh at, not with, her characters; in this book, we laugh, and finally cry, with the characters, not at their expense” (Stern, 548).
In Foreign Affairs, the reader is invited to glimpse the truth of Luis de Leon's maxim about the necessity of each person to act in conformity with nature and business.14 Vinnie Miner's sense of herself, fortress-like at the outset of the novel, resists siege and remains essentially intact. Fred Turner comes to recognize that his nature is to seek reconciliation on the homefront rather than find more enrichment abroad. At the same time, writes Margaret Ezell, Foreign Affairs wittily dissects “why we rarely get what we think we see in other people. Lurie takes both our expectations and disappointments and … wryly explores disillusionment [and] unexpected pleasures.”15
FEMINIST RESPONSE TO LURIE'S WORK
Shortly after receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Foreign Affairs in 1985, Alison Lurie told a Dallas interviewer, “Someone who reads reviews will get to know what reviewers to trust. They'll know that if their reviewer likes something they'll probably like it too.” Of their value to writers, she was more problematical: “A critic who likes your work is on your wavelength and one who doesn't is not. You can't possibly please everyone. And some people you're going to annoy very much” (Satz, 196).
It has been Alison Lurie's fate to have annoyed a few critics and reviewers very much while pleasing the vast majority. Katharine Rogers notwithstanding, feminist critics are among those she has annoyed. Several see her heroines as taking bold steps against oppressive marriages only to retreat in the end. Lurie never permits peremptory action against the husbands; the issues between husband and wife are resolved by a reconciliation (The War between the Tates) or by an ambiguous separation (The Nowhere City).
Writing in Ms., Rachel B. Cowen finds that Erica Tate's war, while waged against the backdrop of the women's liberation movement, ends in misdirecting its lessons. Erica deploys the weapons and tactics of the movement against Brian while ultimately failing to use them as “tools for developing her own self-awareness.”16 As mentioned earlier, Rogers believes, to the contrary, that it is in the exploration of the development of self-awareness that Lurie excels (Rogers, 12).
Not all of Cowen's charges in “The Bore between the Tates” are based in feminist theory. She objects to Lurie's “caricatures” of the Tates and, even more, to those of their lovers. No single character of Lurie's has evoked more controversy than that of Wendy Gahaghan, the counterculture innocent who, in company with a kindred spirit, heads for Haight-Ashbury carrying her Indian apparel and Brian's child. Cowen protests: “If this were a popular novel written by a man, many feminists would feel justifiable rage at the scornful, stereotypical way her character is portrayed” (Cowen, 42). By dispatching Wendy, Cowen declares, Lurie has taken the easy way out.
John Skow, review of The War between the Tates,Time, 29 July 1974, 64.
David Lehman, “A Kind of Witchery,” Newsweek, 24 September 1984, 80.
John Leonard, review of The War between the Tates,New Republic, 10 August 1974, 25; hereafter cited in the text.
Robert E. Scholes, coauthor with Eric S. Rabkin, Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 23.
Joseph Parisi, untitled entry, Contemporary Novelists (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982), unpaginated.
William H. Pritchard, review of The War between the Tates,Hudson Review 28 (Spring 1975): 152.
John W. Aldridge, review of The War between the Tates,Commentary 59 (January 1975): 79; hereafter cited in text.
Joyce Carol Oates, review of Only Children,New York Times Book Review, 22 April 1979, 27; hereafter cited in text.
Victoria Glendinning, “Putting Away Childish Things,” review of Only Children,Book World, Washington Post, 29 April 1979, M5.
Marilyn Butler, “Amor Vincit Vinnie,” London Review of Books, 21 February 1985, 5-6.
Richard Boston, review of Foreign Affairs,Punch 288, no. 7520 (23 January 1985): 52; James Lasdun, review of Foreign Affairs,Encounter 65, no. 2 (July-August 1985): 47-51.
Dorothy Wickenden, review of Foreign Affairs,New Republic, 8 October 1984, 34-36.
Carol Simpson Stern, untitled entry, Contemporary Novelists, 4th ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), 548; hereafter cited in text.
Quoted in W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, in The Maugham Reader (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1950), 682.
Margaret Ezell, review of Foreign Affairs, in “Zest,” Houston Chronicle, 25 November 1985, 40.
Rachel B. Cowen, “The Bore between the Tates,” Ms., January 1975, 41; hereafter cited in text.
SOURCE: Chappell, Fred. “Not for Children Only.” Washington Post Book World (9 May 1993): 2.
[In the following review, Chappell offers praise for The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, lauding Lurie's diverse selections of material.]
In such an anthology as Alison Lurie's The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales we should expect to find, as we do, familiar classics like George MacDonald's “The Light Princess,” shining discoveries like Joan Aiken's “The Man Who Had Seen the Rope Trick,” and stories whose classification as fairy tale is debatable—like Ursula LeGuin's “The Wife's Story.” Perhaps also we should be disappointed not to find a genuine clinker or two; here Donald Barthelme's cutesy and embarrassingly self-conscious “The Glass Mountain” fulfills that dutiful dim role. And I suppose that we ought to be able to mourn the absence of old favorites like Rudyard Kipling's “Weland's Sword” and Saki's “The Story-Teller.”
That is because anthologies, and particularly such highly specialized volumes as this one, are supposed to provide a resplendent peacock fan of choices that reassures and intrigues us and provokes our thinking. Is Bernard Malamud's “The Jewbird” really a fairy tale? If we say that it is only a symbolic fable, have we not diminished some of its mordant humor by divesting it of tradition? And if we disallow “The Jewbird” must we not also set aside Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Feathertop” and John Collier's “The Chaser”?
Alison Lurie was correct in her decision to furnish in her introduction only the sketchiest and most general of definitions: “stories of magic and transformation that we call ‘fairy tales’ (though often they contain no fairies).” It was a stroke of canny authority to include fairy-less stories; otherwise, we should have missed LeGuin's “The Wife's Story,” a little masterpiece of reversed sympathies.
It will not divert the impact of LeGuin's tale to reveal that it is a werewolf story told from the point of view of a wife horrified to observe her mate turn into that blood-mad monster, a human being. This story does not depend upon a surprise ending but upon an inversion of the expectations we bring from our knowledge of the traditional fairy tales of Charles Perrault and the brothers Grimm. LeGuin has taken her idea seriously, unfolding it logically and letting her dark ironies develop naturally.
The editor begins her selection with “Uncle David's Nonsensical Story about Giants and Fairies” by Catherine Sinclair. This story was published in 1839; Louise Erdrich's “Old Man Potchikoo,” the final story here, was published 150 years later. Sinclair's story is a straightforward literary fairy tale with some rather heavy didactic baggage; it provides a clear standard by which to judge later and looser usages. Erdrich's radical reworking of a Chippewa legend is a good example of the freedoms contemporary writers are willing to take with tradition.
Most of the stories fall between these extremes of treatment. It is easy to see that a number of modern narrative strategies have become, in a comparatively short time, as conventional as those of the old tales. We have noted one of these in connection with LeGuin's story: the reversal of expectation. A dragon is supposed to be a fearsome and dangerous creature as he ramps huffily about the countryside, but in Kenneth Grahame's “The Reluctant Dragon” he is a peaceable and easygoing old clubman of a reptile. In Jeanne Desy's “The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet” it is the woman who is adventurous, determined and resourceful while the handsome prince is a stupid jerk. In Collier's “The Chaser” the love potion sells for a dollar, but the antidote is very costly. We expect that children shall own dolls, but in “Gertrude's Child” Richard Hughes arranges that dolls own children and the result is an alarming piece of work.
The editor is careful to let us know that her selection is not intended for children, and some of the best stories here are also the most frightening. I would not send a child—or even some of my adult friends—off to dreamland by reading the Hughes story. Or with “The Troll,” T. H. White's deservedly famous excursion into horror. Or with Lucy Lane Clifford's “The New Mother.” This 1882 story was new to me; I'd never even heard of the author. But here is a coolly disturbing tale that will stick with me for a long time, a wonderful discovery.
There are other surprises too. “The King of the Elves” must be Philip K. Dick's only folksy story; I. B. Singer's “Menash's Dream” actually employs the dream frame without cheating—it is a comforting bedtime read. I was a little distressed to find nothing from Sylvia Townsend Warner's magnificent Kingdoms of Elfin, but her gently humorous “Bluebeard's Daughter” is present. Richard Kennedy's “The Porcelain Man” is a nifty fable, as sure and light in touch as a Haydn sonatina.
The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales is the kind of anthology some readers are always longing for. I am thinking of those of us who automatically bypass current bestsellers about Hollywood adultery and knavery in the fashion trade and haunt used bookshops in hopes of finding a copy of Lord Dunsany's Unhappy Far Off Things. Then we pray for a showery autumn afternoon with tea and scones in which to read it.
God bless Alison Lurie! She has done our avid crowd a solid favor.
SOURCE: Barron, Janet. “Frogspawn.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 254 (28 May 1993): 40-1.
[In the following review, Barron faults the selection of stories in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales and criticizes the use of the word “modern” in the title of the anthology.]
The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales is fey and sometimes feisty, but definitely a volume aimed at adults and not young children. Some of these stories would satisfy kids as bedtime beguilement, but there is an undertone of a peculiarly disturbing quality. “Modern fairy tales” is something of a misnomer. The first story in the book was written in 1839, and of the 40 stories, only 14 date from after the second world war. It is packed with princesses and frogs, dragons and demons, and strange countries where forests spring up at the drop of a comb and lakes appear through magical mirrors.
Alison Lurie has a fine sense of the magic of fairy tales, yet somehow the collection she has assembled here fails to enchant. The introduction is less than incisive, and mainly consists of plot summaries of the stories we are about to read. The stories themselves are good, if taken in moderation. Some are political allegories, such as Ruskin's The King of the Golden River or George MacDonald's The Light Princess, which is a philosophical spoof in the vein of Johnson's Rasselas.
The editing is haphazard and tends towards the American, as we see Dickens spelling “neighbour” without a “u”. “Modern” includes Sylvia Townsend Warner writing Bluebeard's Daughter in 1940, though the context for this makes it more interesting than its superficial content. These are writers looking to dreams and nightmares for modes of expression. There is a strong European element, of castles and kings as an escape from the chaos of war, and also, for the Americans, an identification with the homeland of the imagination.
Some of the more modern stories deal, as one would expect, with feminism and role reversal. Jay Williams' Petronella is an amusing tale of a princess who sets out to rescue a prince, finds him boring and goes off with a wizard. Jeanne Desy's The Princess Who Stood On Her Own Two Feet is similarly inclined, and there are some delightful oddities, such as Richard Kennedy's The Porcelain Man, a subversive and surreal story of a man made of china who is constantly changing his shape in the hands of his mistress.
Sexuality hums through some of this writing, often in dark forms, as it does in all good fairy stories. Some are simply anodyne and morally instructive for children, in which girls are sugar and spice and bad little boys are punished. I would have expected Alison Lurie to offer more comment about this. In her novel Foreign Affairs, she had a character researching folklore who is shocked when children in the playground point to their bodies chanting “milk, milk, lemonade, around the corner chocolate's made”.
The collection could have done with more such earthiness; as it is, it steers a haphazard course between bedtime reading and social politics. Flora Thompson wrote in Lark Rise to Candleford about the impossibility of ever recapturing the magic of her mother's stories; once the tale is retold, the Aladdin's cave vanishes. For the adult reader, the cumulative effect is to feel you are living on a diet of strawberry milkshakes in a land where the never-never should have been explained.
Perhaps, in the end, that is Lurie's point, though she doesn't go into it here. Angela Carter's rather staid The Courtship of Mr Lyon is included, along with Joan Aiken's much more bizarre The Man Who Had Seen the Rope Trick, a sophisticated story that would charm anyone who enjoys trickery and mind-bending games. But where does “modern” begin? Lurie has no definition for it, and this arbitrary selection lacks a purpose.
SOURCE: Bayley, John. “Stand the Baby on Its Head.” London Review of Books 15, no. 14 (22 July 1993): 19-20.
[In the following excerpt, Bayley praises the selection of stories in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales.]
What is the point of fairy tales? Morals, politics, economics? Yes, but that gets us nowhere. Poetry, fantasy, romance? Why not archness, whimsy, sentiment? The poetical fairy tale, even a wry modern one like Thurber's ‘The Unicorn in the Garden’, is apt to be soft and-sticky. The best are startling and mysterious but also commonplace. Before she died Angela Carter made a few notes for what was to be the introduction to her second collection of traditional tales. ‘The unperplexedness of the story. Fairy tales—cunning and high spirits.’ That comes as close as anything.
The unperplexedness of the story means that it knows what it is doing and where it is going, but neither knows nor cares what it means. An invisible barrier separates old from new fairy stories, like the glass wall round the princess in Andrew Lang's Crimson Fairy Book. In the new ones, however accomplished and diverting they may be, the meaning is clear but coyly hidden, as in many modern fictions; although the examples sought out by Alison Lurie [in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales] have as much cunning and high spirits in them as the old tales. In Ursula LeGuin's ‘The Wife's Tale’ (1982) it takes us a few pages to spot that the wife is a wolf, her husband a mere man. But the meaning is always there, urging us to spot it, whereas in the old tales it was neither proffered nor implied but intrinsic to the medium. Angela Carter, one of whose jolliest tales, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, is included by Alison Lurie, had a lot of fun with menstrual blood and feminist resourcefulness, but the original Red Riding Hoods and Bluebeard's wives were serenely unaware of meanings. …
The Victorians liked to feel they could use symbolism as easily as allegory, but it only worked if it got out of hand. In Lucy Lane Clifford's ‘The New Mother’ (1882) it gets out of hand in an odd and sinister way. Although the art and the power of the tale are never compromised one feels that the author is quite scared herself by the djinn which has come out of the bottle. The horror is about something trivial but irrevocable: a reversal of the normal fairy-tale pattern in which resourcefulness or magic will always pull the hero or heroine through. Two little girls live with their mother and the new baby, father being away overseas. They meet a strange adolescent girl who fascinates them with a ‘peardrum’, in which, she tells them, live a little man and woman. But she will only open the peardrum if they are very naughty indeed, and smash the glasses at home and stand the baby on its head. They are good children and thoroughly happy at home, but curiosity is too much for them. The more their mother remonstrates the more obsessed they become with the peardrum and its fabulous contents, and the more naughty they are compelled to be. Finally their mother leaves them in tears, telling them that a new mother will come to look after them.
‘I shall have to go away and leave you, and to send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.’
‘You couldn't,’ they cried.
‘While she spoke her eyes filled with tears, and a sob almost choked her—‘yes I could,’ she answered in a low voice, ‘but it would make me very unhappy.’
She does go away, and the children hear the new mother outside the door, which they desperately try to keep closed. They hear her say, ‘I must break open the door with my tail,’ and she does, and the children run away in terror, and exist miserably in the dark woods, sometimes seeing from their old home a flash of light from the glass eyes, and hearing the thump of the wooden tail.
Almost everything fearful in growing up is present in the story, though never explicit. Lucy Lane Clifford came to England from Barbados and married a professor of mathematics, who died, leaving her with two little girls and very badly off. She started to write—romantic novels, plays, verse, stories—and so successfully that she became the hostess of a London literary salon frequented by Kipling and Henry James. Hers was a success story, but one wonders whether her other productions are so riddled as this one with hidden fears and desires. The rare achievement is the identification with both sides: the mother's urge to be free from the exasperating cares of a family, and the otherness and compulsive secret life of ‘good’ children. Alison Lurie, who supplies the information about the author, observes that the story relates to The Turn of the Screw. So it does; and also to David Copperfield and Kipling's ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. But its compression of helpless and piteous elements is in a sense even more shocking, and more raw, than in those famous cases. Angela Carter would naturally be knowing about the peardrum, and the horribly metamorphosed masculine intruder, with his eyeglass and ‘tail’, but hers is an art that depends on mutual knowingness: Lucy Lane Clifford's in the last century genuinely reanimated the dark places of fairy tale while making them remain dark.
‘The New Mother’, from a collection called Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise, was a brilliant discovery on Alison Lurie's part, and makes one want to read the others—couldn't they be reprinted?—as well as books in other genres by Lucy Lane Clifford, though one suspects they might not be so good. Hers are not the only rare and outstanding stories that Lurie has dug up: there are indeed many others, including a couple by those equivocal and highly talented authors, T. H. White and Richard Hughes, published before the war and now forgotten. White's ‘The Troll’, which appeared in 1935 in a collection called Gone to Ground, concerns the narrator's father, who went on a fishing trip to the north of Sweden and was nearly eaten by a professor troll, whom he observed through a keyhole eating his own wife.
The Troll was eating a lady, Poor girl, she was tightly clutched to its breast by those rudimentary arms, with her head on a level with its mouth. She was dressed in a nightdress which had crumpled up under her armpits, so that she was a pitiful naked offering, like a classical picture of Andromeda. Mercifully she appeared to have fainted.
The picture is disturbingly memorable, and White's great and slightly creepy affection for animals makes him observe the troll with great accuracy as it bites off the lady's head.
The creature had a look of thoughtful ecstasy. When the girl seemed to have lost succulence as an orange she was lifted into the air. She vanished in two bites. The Troll remained leaning against the wall, munching patiently and casting its eyes about it with a vague benevolence.
The last sentence is a master's work. Children of course love such things; and Roald Dahl and other professionals of ‘black’ fairy stories have exploited the fact—but they lack the style which goes with a certain inner horrifyingness. T. H. White was, after all, a fairly peculiar and unhappy man, for whom writing was a release: and this element of release—into impossible realities—is part of all fairy tale.
So that it does not surprise us, at the beginning of John Collier's ‘The Chaser’ (he wrote that droll novel His Monkey Wife, which is much better than David Garnett's Lady into Fox), when we meet a very nervous and ordinary young man in search of a love potion. He finds it of course, and is recommended by the old gentleman who sells such things to return if necessary for ‘the chaser’, which is just as effective, quite painless and very terminal. This was a New Yorker story, and so might have been the fairy tales in Richard Hughes's two pre-war collections, The Spider's Palace and Don't Blame Me. Alison Lurie includes the best of them from the second collection. ‘Gertrude's Child’, about a wooden doll who gets tired of being knocked about by her owner, runs away and buys a little girl of her own from the old man who sells such things. The doll Gertrude is not deliberately cruel or vengeful, but she does not realise that children are fragile, and poor little Annie gets a hard time and nearly dies of exposure. Gertrude gives a tea-party for her, to which the other dolls and toy animals bring their pet children (the rocking-horse has to be helped upstairs by the two little boys he owns), and all ends happily. As with all the best fairy tales, it has been a near thing: nightmare is never far away.
Such kinds of inversion or ‘making it strange’ occur in many genres other than fairy tale, but fairy tale can use them unironically, or at least with no appearance of irony; and thus its kind of simplicity can make the moral point without compromising the purity of excitement, fascination or terror. The moral point is obvious in ‘The New Mother’ and ‘Gertrude's Child’, masterpieces as they are, and even ‘The Troll’ shows it a technical deference. The troll is about to eat the narrator's father when it puts its paw on the rosary in his pajama pocket, and collapses into a small blue mewling creature who staggers to the window-sill and falls out. (The irony, here rather too evident, is that the rosary is only used by its owner as worry-beads, in case of insomnia.)
Total send-up is of course no good at all, although I was rather melted by Tanith Lee's ‘Prince Amilec’, in which the witch who does the magic turns out to be a nice ordinary girl who keeps a pet bat. She marries the prince, and the cruel princess who set him impossible tasks finds herself in love with an equally tiresome man and has to go toiling through the forest to find a wizard to help with the tasks he set her. Tanith Lee has a light touch, and a willingness to be amused rather lacking in Angela Carter's more determined fables [in The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales]. Seriousness of a didactic sort is fatal to fairy tales, and makes an aesthetic lead balloon of Oscar Wilde's ‘The Selfish Giant’ and Walter de la Mare's ‘Lovely Myfanwy’, who suffers from an over-possessive father. A pity Alison Lurie did not choose one of de la Mare's real masterpieces in the genre, like ‘Seaton's Aunt’, with its appalling contemporary witch, or the even better and creepier ‘A Recluse’.
The second Virago collection of fairy tales from all over is lively enough in its way, though lacking the real distinction of the Oxford Book.
SOURCE: Warner, Marina. “The Flavour of Utopia.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4713 (30 July 1993): 7.
[In the following review, Warner finds Lurie's selections in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales somewhat arbitrary due to the volume's lack of unifying linguistic, literary, or historical context.]
Children play adult games (pretending to be the Mafia in Sicily, Jack the Ripper in London). Fairy-tales, as a branch of literature, frequently represent the reverse: grown-ups pretending childlikeness in order to make things better. Novalis wrote in his notebooks, “a child is good deal cleverer and wiser than an adult—but the child must be an ironic child”. This kind of child, he continued, could tell stories that were “a prophetic account of things—an ideal account”: fairy-tale. Masked as a young, clever and wise innocent, the writer could imagine the ideal in fantasies; play-acting a child who is an ideal child, the teller of fairy stories could produce a special flavour of irony—the wishful thinking of Utopia.
Alison Lurie's selection of forty-one fairy-tales [in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales] develops the idea of the genre as this kind of social parable, working at several registers, from the eldritch (Robert Louis Stevenson's “The Song of the Morrow”) to the cheerfully loony (Carl Sandburg). In the earliest tale, “Uncle David's Nonsensical Story about Giants and Fairies” (1839), by Catherine Sinclair, the sound of chalk on blackboard is never far off; the last, Louise Erdrich's “Old Man Potchikoo” (1989), offers by contrast a raunchy—and poignant—rag-bag of trickster anecdotes clearly drawn from the oral tradition of Erdrich's Chippewa relations. To some degree, these last stories return the fairy-tale to the anonymous, collective authorship which gave the genre its authority to speak for general yearnings and fears in the first place.
As Jack Zipes has argued in many critical writings since his pioneering book Breaking the Magic Spell (1975), individual writers such as Ruskin (in “The King of the Golden River”) and Frank L. Baum (in his sequence of Oz stories) sought to challenge prevailing ideas about money and marriage and justice through imagining an alternative, disruptive version in fairy-tales. This argument has altered attitudes to the form in the past twenty years or so and significantly raised its standing. Pedagogical realists, who used to denounce sternly the false promises of fairy-tales and their conventional peasant pieties about love and marriage and social hierarchy and money, are heard less loudly today, and the genre more often presents the spectacle of a rich piece of common land, ready to graze and to stock anew. Certainly the filmmakers are flocking there in the wake of the writers, and, on the evidence of Beauty and the Beast (and even Jurassic Park), they are acutely aware of the genre's potential to convey and recast current ideas about gender, about ecology, about politics.
Here, in Lurie's collection, the Utopian impulse finds that love can breathe life into a cruel-hearted wooden doll (Richard Hughes's “Gertrude's Child”), that greed will bring a rich man down (the practical Juliana Horatia Ewing, in a story of 1882, the poetic Jane Yolen a hundred years later), and that a princess can learn to stand on her own two feet (Jeanne Desy). Some tales dramatize satisfying revenge fantasies, others right wrongs through metamorphoses and disappearances (a vivid story of the war between the elves and the trolls from Philip K. Dick); the princes do not fade away, but in the age of enterprising heroines, change character: in Richard Kennedy's “The Porcelain Man”, the prince is finally turned into a set of dishes on which the princess and her new husband dine.
As she fully acknowledges in her preface, Lurie's choices as well as her conception of the genre follows in large part two recent anthologies by Jack Zipes, his Victorian Fairy Tales (1987) and Spells of Enchantment (1991). His Victorian collection rediscovered forgotten writers and presented remembered ones in a new light; six of his stories reappear here, including Dickens's exuberant tale “The Magic Fishbone”, with its brilliant nursery-rhyme cumulative sentences, spilling together grim realities and fairy-tale conventions:
The Princess Alicia kept the seventeen young Princes and Princesses quiet, and dressed and undressed and danced the baby, and made the kettle boil, and heated the soup, and swept the hearth, and poured out the medicine, and nursed the Queen, and did all that ever she could, and was as busy busy busy, as busy can be.
Zipes's volume focused on an English movement, which could be dubbed radical fabulism, beginning with Swift and current still with Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie; Lurie's Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, on the other hand, does not offer any historical or literary context, nor does it attempt to place the tales in relation to earlier or contemporary European practitioners (D'Aulnoy, Hoffmann, Tieck). It also seems arbitrary to observe linguistic boundaries, and then include only North American and British writers in English. The introduction gives only a perfunctory account of each tale, and the notes only the most tantalizing glimpses of the writers: “Frances Browne … became blind as an infant. Yet in spite of these handicaps she managed to get an education … became a popular poet … leavened with wit. …” More, please, of this true-life fairy-tale.
One of the most remarkable—and disturbing—stories, “The New Mother”, by Lucy Lane Clifford, tells of a fey music-maker who bewitches two (good) children until they become so naughty that their mother leaves them and sends another in her place, who has glass eyes and a wooden tail. The children barricade themselves in:
but presently, the two children heard through the thin wooden door the new mother move a little, and then say to herself—“I must break open the door with my tail.”
For one terrible moment all was still, but in it the children could almost hear her lift up her tail and then, with a fearful blow, the little painted door was cracked and splintered.
This is the authentic frisson of the wolf in Red Riding Hood, of the Sandman in Hoffmann; few paediatricians today would approve its naked threat to naughty children. It focuses a question that hangs over the whole Oxford Book. Presented with a Maxfield Parrish jacket illustration of “The Reluctant Dragon”, that looks a little like a 1960s record cover, it seems to be aiming at young readers. Tales explicitly written to mould unformed minds, then and now, are included, from Ruskin to Jay Williams's “Petronella”, a spirited revision from a vintage period of feminist children's rewritings (1973). Yet few children now are used to reading a book this thick and this varied; some of the stories would amuse, many more (Donald Barthelme, Carter) would baffle.
The collection isn't a book for children, but a book for readers who would like to be. Ultimately, they must follow the writers, and become “ironic children” too, losing themselves in the pleasurable make believe that history and society still lie ahead, waiting to be changed into fairy-tale.
SOURCE: Tatar, Maria. “Disobedience.” New Republic 209, no. 20 (15 November 1993): 39-41.
[In the following review, Tatar discusses the diversity and “elasticity” of the fairy-tale genre and praises many of Lurie's choices for inclusion in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales.]
Some years back Roald Dahl pointed out that adults are unyielding in their efforts to civilize “this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” The urge to enlighten, educate and regulate—to reduce the chances for moments of successful truancy—has inscribed itself with particular intensity on the literature we produce and read to children. Some authors, like Dahl in Mathilda or The Witches, resist the temptation to exercise disciplinary power by conspiring with the child against the adult; others, like Maurice Sendak (whose credentials for producing children's books include being a “former child”), are able to resurrect the child within as they write their narratives. Theirs are the books that celebrate those triple evils of childhood—disobedience, an idle imagination and curiosity—cheerfully extolling transgressive behavior and deviations from the social norm. In Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, Alison Lurie called these books “subversive children's literature,” for they challenge the rules set down by adults and endorse a rebellious spirit and spunky determination. Now, in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, Lurie has collected forty stories that reveal how traditional fairy tales have been reshaped, rescripted and reinvented for the past 150 years by successive generations of writers (among them Hawthorne, Ruskin, Thurber and Malamud), with varying degrees of allegiance to the desires of the child.
Traditional fairy tales were, of course, never just for children. Who would want to tell a child the story of a French Red Riding Hood who provocatively asks the wolf what to do with her bodice, petticoat and stockings, then tricks the wolf into freeing her by asking if she can go outdoors to “make a load”? And what parent would dwell in detail (as a German tale does) on the increasing tightness of Rapunzel's clothes just a few months after the prince's first romp with her up in the tower? Adult versions of fairy tales may have depended on ribald jokes and irreverent witticisms for their survival, but there was no room for the good, if not always “clean,” fun of those stories in children's literature. To the contrary, Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, Joseph Jacobs and other collectors of tales went out of their way to identify stories that discouraged disruptive behavior and produced a body of texts that were heavily invested in disciplinary practices predating the more enlightened views of Locke and Rousseau on childrearing.
The case of Little Red Riding Hood reveals just how easy it was to impose a moral and behavioral agenda on stories that started out as adult entertainment. To teach a lesson to the child inside and outside the book, all you had to do was preface the girl's adventures with interdictions about straying from the path, picking flowers, breaking bottles of wine or (as the Grimms told it) being nosy and peeking into the corners of grandmother's house. We know from the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp that every fairy-tale interdiction is followed by a transgression and punishment—hence the endless possibilities for disciplinary interventions, whether they take the form of ravenous wolves, duplicitous stepmothers, homicidal husbands or vindictive fairies. In some cases, the more extravagant the description of villainy, the more compelling the story became. The gory punishments visited on the careless, disobedient children of fairy tales, for example, often misfired in their effort to frighten and intimidate—scenes of surreal violence showing children with their clothes on fire, with their heads rolling and with their torsos in the jaws of wild beasts proved to be a source of unending fascination and riotous (if occasionally nervous) laughter for many young readers.
The opening text of Lurie's collection, “Uncle David's Nonsensical Story about Giants and Fairies” by Catherine Sinclair, leaves no doubts about what the mid-nineteenth century saw as the office of children's literature. At a time when corporal punishment and other disciplinary practices pertaining to the body were being disavowed and discredited, it became all the more important to produce tales that were meant to enlist the consciousness of the child in the project of self-discipline and social productivity. Master No-book, the tellingly named protagonist of Sinclair's story, is an “idle, greedy, naughty boy” who spends most of his time “lolling on his mamma's best sofa” with “nothing to do but to suck a few oranges.” When Master No-book makes the mistake of allying himself with the fairy Do-nothing, he falls into the hands of Giant Snap-'em-up, who hangs him by “a prodigious hook in the larder, having first taken some large lumps of nasty suet, forcing them down his throat to make him become still fatter and then stirring the fire, that he might almost be melted with heat, to make his liver grow larger.” The story's happy ending shows us Master No-book's rescue by fifty “active little boys” and his transformation into Sir Timothy Bluestocking, a model citizen renowned for his “extraordinary activity, appearing as if he could do twenty things at once.” “Though generally very good-natured and agreeable,” Sir Timothy is sometimes observed “beating little boys within an inch of their lives; but on inquiry, it appears that he has found them out to be lazy, idle or greedy, for all the industrious boys in the parish are sent to get employment from him, while he assures them that they are far happier breaking stones on the road than if they were sitting idly in a drawing room with nothing to do.”
What is interesting about this hybrid of cautionary story and fairy tale is its indulgence in carnivalesque violence and grotesque realism. Master No-book gets a good look at the bloated corpses of six other boys who have been fattened in fairy Do-nothing's garden; the cook who serves in Snap-'em-up's kitchen ponders whipping that “great hog of a boy” to death rather than merely goring him to death; and the “good large dish of scalloped children” that will constitute dinner for the giant is described in lavish detail. It is as if the intersection of children's literature with folk culture furnished the site for an explosive proliferation of spine-chilling effects, often so wildly hyperbolic in their grisly details that they entertained rather than alarmed.
This anthology makes legible a variety of nineteenth-century representational practices that positioned the child as an unruly, disruptive figure deserving punishment or death. The hair-raising German Struwwelpeter, which exhibited Pauline going up in flames after playing with matches and showed Conrad the Thumbsucker getting his thumb sheared off by a gigantic set of scissors, was by no means an isolated instance of a coercively cruel children's story that engaged generations of readers. In England, as Lurie shows us, we have Lucy Lane Clifford's “New Mother,” in which a “wild woman” tempts two small children to engage in ever more mischievous behavior until their mother can bear it no longer and abandons them. The figure of the title is a woman with glass eyes and a wooden tail—the children lose no time fleeing from her into the woods. Clifford concludes their story on a soberly pathetic note: “They are there still, my children. … Now and then, when the darkness has fallen and the night is still, hand in hand Blue-Eyes and the Turkey creep up near to the home in which they were once so happy, and with beating hearts they watch and listen; sometimes a blinding flash comes through the window, and they know it is the light from the new mother's glass eyes, or they hear a strange muffled noise, and they know it is the sound of her wooden tail as she drags it along the floor.” What makes this story even more poignantly disturbing is that the children's curiosity and sense of adventure get them into trouble, for the wild woman insists on bad behavior as a condition for seeing her beautiful toys.
After reading a story like this one, in which there is little comic relief and not a flash of redemptive hope, it is a real pleasure to turn to the twentieth-century reworkings of fairy tales in this anthology. But while many modern fairy tales are wonderfully inventive, playful and imaginative, others reveal how intent these stories can be on teaching lessons that ensure the self-subordination not only of children but of women as well. Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1940 sequel to “Bluebeard” features the daughter of Bluebeard repeating the sins of her mother, but learning to harness her curiosity to the service of her husband's scientific investigations: “To this day, though Bluebeard's daughter is forgotten, the wife of Kayel the astronomer is held in remembrance. It was she whose sympathetic collaboration supported him through his research into the Saturnian rings, it was she who worked out the mathematical calculations which enabled him to prove that the lost Pleiad would reappear in the year 1963.” This story may well be an improvement over Charles Perrault's “Bluebeard”—in which a wife's failure to obey her husband (a serial murderer) is treated as an act of delinquency or infidelity—but it is surely more interesting as a reflector of social arrangements and gender hierarchies in the United States during the first part of this century than as a cultural story for children today.
Although many of the texts collected by Lurie document the shifting fortunes of the classical fairy tale as it was reappropriated for adults, there are also stories for children in this collection. The most compelling are, not surprisingly, the contemporary ones—postmodern fairy tales, if you will, that play fast and loose with the traditional rules—inserting ironic reversals into the action, shifting perspectives and, in general, producing an unsettling effect through their playful irreverence toward folkloric and literary ancestors. Jeanne Desy's “Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet” begins by elaborating on that quintessential fairy-tale virtue of sacrificing for love, then turns that notion on its head to end by enunciating the importance of (sometimes) refusing to sacrifice for love. Tanith Lee's “Prince Amilec,” whose hero ends by marrying the “pretty” and “clever” witch who helped him discharge impossible tasks set by an insufferable princess, uses a light touch to subvert our expectations about happy endings. These authors may be as didactic in their own ways as Perrault or Grimm, but they provide a provocative reversal of ground rules for the child familiar with fairy-tale conventions.
For reasons that doubtless have more to do with copyright laws than with quality control, Lurie has not included some wonderfully successful examples of recently published fairy tales. In Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, we meet Little Red Running Shorts, who beats the wolf to granny's house and taunts him with the words “My, what slow feet you have.” “A. Wolf,” author of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, insists that he only wanted to borrow a cup of sugar from the pigs whose homes he inadvertently destroyed with his uncontrollable sneezes. And The Frog Prince Continued features a hero hopping off happily ever after with the princess he has transformed into a frog with a kiss. There are also Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, in which Little Red Riding Hood sports a new fur coat after her encounter with the wolf—Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical Into the Woods must have been inspired by these hilarious spoofs of the old tales. Dahl's Red Riding Hood also ends up with a second wolfskin coat and a handsome pigskin traveling case after racing to “rescue” the last of the three little pigs.
Scieszka, Dahl and others have taken the measure of our cultural stories, interrogating, challenging and contesting their “timeless and universal truths” and thus liberating adult and child from the dreary predictable lessons and humorless prose of many printed versions, engaging them in a series of playful disruptions and critical challenges to cultural traditions. Scieszka's books and Dahl's rhymes give us unfinished texts, stories that destabilize fairy-tale conventions and remind us that there is nothing sacred about the printed word, especially when it comes to stories derived from an oral culture that produced endless variations on themes through interactions between teller and audience. By revealing the cultural gap that separates the stories we construct from those produced in other times and places, many of the authors represented in Lurie's collection create an opportunity for engaging children in the process of storytelling, authorizing them to work with the adult reader to negotiate relevant meanings. If this suggests yet another not so hidden agenda for children's literature, it also reveals the degree to which all storytelling is invested in a subtle microphysics of cultural power.
For centuries now, we have worked hard to foster an utterly passive relationship between children and the texts produced for them. First there were the accounts of pious children's deaths—most notable among them James Janeway's seventeenth-century Token for Children: Being an Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children—all of which end in the cemetery and seem intent on ensuring that children will long for the grave. Theological indoctrination gave way in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to moral instruction that dictated relentless self-improvement, discipline and social accommodation. This was the age that gave birth to the British New Game of Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished, whose game board was covered with such attractive scenes and figures as “The Stocks,” “The House of Correction,” “Faith” and “Prudence.” (Our Chutes and Ladders—which rewards those who land on pictures of children mowing the lawn, sweeping the floor or baking a cake and penalizes those who land on pictures of children eating candy, reaching for cookies or scribbling on walls—is its direct descendant.)
While it is difficult to determine exactly what is at stake for our time and place in the production of children's literature, it is not hard to divine a conspicuous need to position the child as the target of social acculturation and therapeutic interventions. Characters are exposed to adult agendas about friendship, manners and feelings, or they must work through what are perceived to be typical anxieties and hostilities to provide a cathartic experience for the child reading the book. The notion of bibliotherapy for children is epitomized in a succinct formulation from Bruno Bettelheim's highly acclaimed Uses of Enchantment: fairy tales help children “master the psychological problems of growing up—overcoming narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries, becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies; gaining a feeling of selfhood and self-worth and a sense of moral obligation.”
What all of these programs—whether theological, moral or therapeutic—have in common is a belief in the need to improve the reprobate child. Tainted by original sin, marked by sloth and disobedience or disabled by transgressive desires, the child emerges as a monster that must be redeemed, reformed or rehabilitated through the stories told by adults. If our own age seems more benevolently tolerant of children and of their behavior than earlier times, we need only take note of how Bettelheim, in the space of a few pages, accuses Hansel and Gretel of “denial and regression,” “destructive desires,” “uncontrolled craving,” “oral greediness,” “unrestrained giving in to gluttony,” “cannibalistic inclinations,” “untamed id impulses” and “uncontrolled voraciousness.”
Lurie's collection reminds us of just how elastic the fairy tale is as a genre (accommodating didactic stories, cautionary tales, gags, parodies, urban folklore and supernatural thrillers) and how it thrives on persistent subversion of its ground rules. Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Thurber, Angela Carter, Jane Yolen—each of these writers reveals the vibrancy and vitality of the tradition even when it has been removed from oral settings to a culture of the printed word. These authors, along with the many others in Lurie's collection, reveal that fairy tales have as much to gain as to lose in making the transition from folktales to their literary elaborations.
SOURCE: Clark, Alex. “Spectres and Sibyls.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4759 (17 June 1994): 23.
[In the following review, Clark evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of several stories within Women and Ghosts, asserting that Lurie's writing displays wit, irony, and a deft touch.]
Alison Lurie has for many years continued to create quietly explosive comedies revolving around the foibles of upper-middle-class Americans, particularly academics or those in academic communities. Her writing transforms itself through its ability at once to satirize and sympathize, urging her readers towards careful interpretations of complex human behaviour. In this collection of nine ghost stories, her talent for subtlety and equivocation is to the fore, making its force felt in the sheer range and diversity of characters and in the inventiveness of the situations they find themselves in.
Women and Ghosts perhaps has most in common with Lurie's 1967 novel, Imaginary Friends, a story of mental disintegration based on the infiltration of a religious cult by two sociologists. The targets of its sharp and ironic wit were the notion of academic objectivity and the power of charismatic figures, summed up by its seemingly innocuous epigram, “Seek and ye shall find”: if you're looking hard enough for something, you'll probably find it, even if you end up by inventing it. The characters in the most successful of the stories, here, seem to be looking for something-love, marriage, a child, professional recognition, or maybe just attention. The wraiths that appear to them do so in various guises, sometimes appearing to be friendly protectors, warning of the dangers ahead, occasionally simply making an entrance which confuses and disconcerts, and at other times clearly vengeful spirits, providing a moral comment on the behaviour of the protagonists. Throughout, they have clear connections with the psychological lives of those whom they haunt.
As with all collections, some stories exercise a stronger fascination than others. A couple of the slighter pieces (for example, “Counting Sheep” and “Another Hallowe'en”) are disappointingly bland, neither frightening nor amusing. Mostly, however, Lurie's facility for creating characters who simultaneously elicit our support and our criticism makes for robust writing that fits well with the mystery of the ghost theme. Her heroes are nearly always sceptical, self-aware and practised enough to recognize hysterical hallucination and emotional disturbance when it confronts them. In “In the Shadow,” Celia Zimmern, a career diplomat first encountered as a child in The War between the Tates (1974), moves between suitors, elegantly and skillfully evading any form of commitment but refusing to reject anybody outright. When the most prominent of her boyfriends is killed in a car crash, she feels only “a mild sadness, and also, for Dwayne had become quite a nuisance in the final month or so, a little relief”. Dwayne's reappearance from beyond the grave is deliciously apt: he begins to appear to Celia whenever she touches another man. For the first time in Celia's life, her poise and her faith in the measurable, knowable world is shaken, and she flees to a tiny country in West Africa. Lurie develops the irony of this situation—a woman berated by a man for her inability to settle down—to its full potential, and when Dwayne's spirit is finally banished by a mixture of spirit magic and true love the resolution remains uneasy and ambivalent.
The stories are at their best when they combine this sense of mistrust for empirical data with the self-deceptions and vanities of their characters. This happens to humorous effect in the first story, “Ilse's House,” in which a bright young statistician engaged to a charismatic college professor starts seeing his first wife crumpled in a heap on the kitchen floor. Lurie gently parodies the certainties of her professional language: “By Christmas of that year, I'd begun to sense a rising curve of possibility in the relationship.”
There is more parody in “The Double Poet,” the final and perhaps the most interesting piece. The ghost takes the form of that chilling literary archetype, the doppelgänger. Karo McKay, once Carrie Martin, is a poet much given to performing her intense brand of nature poetry, in flowing silk dresses with Satie playing in the background. A self-styled sibyl, she fails to predict the movements of her double, who begins to tour the country, signing books, giving interviews and seducing businessmen. The figure of the double provides Lurie with a starting-point to explore the nature of authorial identity and the idea of the artist as creator but also as salesperson, the onset of the doppelgänger coincides with a decline in Karo's output and an increased marketing drive by her wily new agent. What gives the story its edge is its marvelously playful style, florid and declamatory, as here where Karo considers her position in the religion of poetry: “A religion, yes, or at least a cult, with its own temples and altars, its dead saints, its living hierarchy of priests and priestesses; its deacons vergers and sextons (the critics) and its statistically small but devout congregations. And I am part of it all—a member of the Poetrian clergy: priestess, prophetess.”
Lurie is an accomplished enough satirist to have crafted these stories without an overarching theme. If one occasionally wonders whether the self-imposed structure of “ghost story” is always necessary, or indeed desirable, a faultless touch and delicate sense of irony carry the day.
SOURCE: Hughes, Kathryn. “Good Spirits.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 307 (17 June 1994): 38-9.
[In the following review, Hughes offers praise for the first and last stories in Women and Ghosts but laments the mixed quality of the rest of the collection.]
It is six years since Alison Lurie's last novel, The Truth about Lorin Jones. Since then she has been attending to her other life as professor of literature at Cornell. Women and Ghosts marks her welcome, though slight, return to fiction.
Here are nine short stories about women who are surprised, pestered but not exactly scared by a rag-tag collection of thoroughly modern ghosts. There is the dieting secretary pursued by fat people or the obnoxious middle-aged woman drowned in her swimming pool by the vengeful spirits of two former employees. Sparkiest is Celia Zimmern, who is obliged to go on hot dates chaperoned by the whiny shade of her dead fiancé, the dismal Dwayne Mudd.
Not all the ghosts are human. In “The Highboy” a piece of fancy furniture will do anything—including murdering its owner—to avoid being put into a museum. And then there's the lacklustre postgraduate who takes his devotion to Wordsworth so seriously that he turns into a Lakeside sheep.
The best stories are the first and the last. In “Ilse's House,” a young woman called Dinah Kieran is shocked to find the ghost of her fiancé's first wife slumped drunkenly in the kitchen. As Dinah begins to investigate Ilse's fate, she learns about the darker side of the divine Gregor Spiegelman. Once seemingly so full of elegant old-world class, Spiegelman gradually emerges as a cruel, controlling bully. Taking Ilse's example painfully to heart, Dinah musters sufficient pluck to dash for emotional safety.
Meanwhile, in “The Double Poet” a respected middle-aged poet discovers that a woman who is virtually her twin has been giving readings, signing books and even making love in her name. In a desperate climax, Karo McKay tries to scramble her way onto a stage occupied by the “Not-Karo” who is coolly reading from her latest book.
Both these stories set themselves firmly in the tradition of the gothic ghost story which interrogates the stability of female identity. “Ilse's House” plays against Jane Eyre, with Ilse Spiegelman's incoherent warnings to Dinah gaining extra resonance from Bertha Mason's terrible revelation to Jane. In the process Gregor reveals a past as mysterious and brutal as that of Edward Rochester.
In “The Double Poet,” the disintegration of Karo McKay remains ambiguously poised between the material and supernatural worlds. Is her sense of being pursued by a coarse, phoney poet simply a symptom of her disillusionment with her own work? Or is there indeed a woman out there who has nothing better to do than follow her around? By situating her story within such familiar genres, Lurie is able to suggest that Karo's döppelganger may be some disowned part of herself without needing to tug at the reader's sleeve. The result is a lightness of touch familiar from the best of Lurie's fiction.
In between “Ilse's House” and “The Double Poet,” however, the quality varies. At times the stories verge on the glib: the child who is run over trick-or-treating; the 40-year-old woman who conceives after seeing the goddess of Lakshmi during a desperate adoption trip to New Delhi. Some of these stories first appeared in glossy women's magazines and there is a sense of good behaviour about them that insistently reveals their origins.
SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “Beginning with Revelations.” Spectator 272, no. 8658 (18 June 1994): 34.
[In the following review, Taylor faults Women and Ghosts, contending that the collection suffers from over-explication and laborious detail rather than employing understatement and subtlety.]
What makes a good ghost story? Apart from their scholarly background, which allows antiquarian heroes to delve into matters best left unturned, the classic supernatural tales of M. R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu (whom James acknowledged as an influence) tend to follow a distinctive narrative line. A generally innocuous preamble, often involving the arrival of a stranger in an unfamiliar locale, is followed by a warning: in fact one of James's best stories is called ‘A Warning to the Curious’. This is routinely ignored, whereupon the ghastliness in the wood-shed declares itself, is repulsed, circumvented or otherwise dealt with, and the story rounded off with some kind of explanation. James's stories, in particular, bring off their effects by creating a sense of foreboding which is somehow intangible: the threat is there, but rarely flagrant. The horror, when it comes, succeeds by way of understatement. One of the nastiest scenes in English literature occurs in ‘Casting the Runes’ when, in a darkened room, holding a candle that has just gone out, a man puts his hand under the pillow and feels the outline of a mouth which, as James laconically puts it, does not seem to be a human mouth.
Reticence. Laconicism. Delay. The nine stories in Alison Lurie's new collection [Women and Ghosts] take a rather different tack. Set variously in the US, England and India, but always involving a female raisonneur, they tend to give the game away at the earliest opportunity. ‘The Highboy,’ a tale about a malevolent chest of drawers, begins with the narrator's doomy prefiguration: ‘Even before I knew more of that piece of furniture I wouldn't have wanted it in my house.’ ‘Another Hallowe'en’ has barely entered its second page before Ruthie is confiding that ‘I don't care much for Hallowe'en, not since what happened to a woman I knew called Marguerite Robbins’. This kind of transparency seems self-defeating, and if the reader stays unmoved by the fate of Aunt Buffy, harassed to death by a centuries-old piece of hardwood, or Marguerite, run down by an errant Buick, it is because they never had a chance.
But explication of this sort is a feature of Women and Ghosts. Increasingly dogged explication, too. Alison Lurie's people don't merely have hunches, they recite them in laborious detail. Thus ‘Counting Sheep,’ a faintly risible tale about a vanished Wordsworth scholar, contains a character who obligingly speculates:
I believe Robbie's still here, only we can't recognise him. You remember that afternoon at the stone circle? Well, what I think is, he wished he could stay in Grasmere, like you told us he wanted to; and so the wish stone turned him into a sheep.
Recapitulated, each of its high points held up on a placard for the benefit of the idle reader, the piece grinds sadly to a halt.
As, unhappily, do most of its companions, fatally winded by groaning explanations and laboured dialogue. Even ‘The Pool People,’ an entertaining conceit about a haunted swimming pool, starts curling up its toes at the point where the pool's cleaner haltingly and painstakingly reveals what happens to the labourers who dared to offend their employer by disporting themselves in it. An excess of revelation destroys the menace. There are plenty of good ideas here—a pretentious poet with a mysterious double, a dieting woman haunted by sinister fat familiars: invariably, though, the execution is flat and unsatisfactory.
Here, perhaps, the stories in Women and Ghosts betray their origins. Half of them were initially written for women's magazines: the carefully strewn surface glitter, ‘smart’ but banal dialogue, exotic locations, and the general air of everything having been contrived to arrest the attention of someone who is all too likely to become bored, are pervasive. It is a far cry from The Nowhere City and The War between the Tates or, to return to genre, some real spine-tinglers like ‘Madame Crowl's Ghost’ and ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’.
SOURCE: Newman, Judie. “Paleface into Redskin: Cultural Transformations in Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs.” In Forked Tongues? Comparing Twentieth-Century British and American Literature, edited by Ann Massa and Alistair Stead, pp. 188-205. London and New York: Longman, 1994.
[In the following essay, Newman examines the use of intertextual literary themes and cultural slippages in Foreign Affairs, contending that, rather than reinforcing the fictional stereotypes of Henry James, Frances Hodges Burnett, or John Gay, Lurie subverts traditional clashes between Americans and Europeans and nature and culture to reveal the generative possibilities inherent in such interacting oppositions.]
A critic once divided American writers into two camps, the Palefaces and the Redskins. The Redskins looked west, toward the frontier, responded to the more physical and natural aspects of life, and often wrote in a style which expressed raw experience rather than literary form. The Palefaces looked east, wrote of those peculiarly elusive areas in American life, society and manners, and were preoccupied with craft and formal brilliance.1
With these words, Malcolm Bradbury opens his review of Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs. Following in the footsteps of Philip Rahv, the critic in question,2 Bradbury designates Lurie as a Paleface, noting the enthusiastic reception of her work by the British (Palefaces to a man) as indicative of her true forte as a novelist of manners in the mould of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Rahv's paradigm of the schizophrenic nature of the American literary artist is also, of course, a close approximation to the conventional opposition between America and Europe, and between nature and culture, as it is commonly expressed in American fiction in the ‘International Theme,’ the encounter in one novel between representatives of the two cultures, which is coincidentally also the plot of Foreign Affairs.
Since ideas of what is characteristically American or European, definitions of a national culture, stem as much from literature as from life, the notion of intertextuality is relevant here. In the purely literary sense intertextuality depends upon the idea that ‘every text builds itself upon a mosaic of quotations, every text is absorption and transformation of another text’.3 The relation is not between individual texts but to a totality, creating the sense of a work of art which interacts with an entire tradition. If we define ‘text’ as a system of signs, a text may extend to include folklore, movies, the language of dress, symbolic systems, and the constructions of cultural—or even, if we accept Lacanian notions of the primacy of language—individual identity. The ‘International Theme’ may be defined as itself an intertext, a set of plots, characters, images and conventions to which a particular novel refers. Moreover, its central situation, in which characters are physically translated and transformed as a result of crossing from one culture, one set of signs, to another, itself thematises intertextuality.
Transposition from one intertext to another necessarily brings into question the autonomy of the individual. In interview Lurie described the germ of the novel as an idea which ‘came to me at the Opera. I noticed that when the scene changed behind someone they looked different.’4 The theatrical context is appropriate. If individuals are passive to change, altered by a different cultural scene, they may be considered as acting within a social fiction, a text which is socially evolved, playing a role in a story which is directed elsewhere. The term ‘intertextuality’ can suggest this negative sense of life as repeating a previously heard story, of life predestined by the notions that shape our consciousness. In this sense, human experience may generate literature but such experience has already been filtered through forms of artistic organisation which may militate against—or even taboo—certain forms of experience. As Lurie's own collection of feminist folktales suggested,5 too many women have waited around for a handsome prince, to the detriment of creative experience. Fifty-four-year-old Vinnie Miner (the major heroine of Foreign Affairs) risks the opposite fate, giving up all hope of an erotic existence because ‘in English literature, to which in early childhood Vinnie had given her deepest trust—and which for half a century has suggested to her what she might do, think, feel, desire, and become—women of her age seldom have any sexual or romantic life’.6
Conversely the notion of life as imitating art opens the way for a dramaturgical concept of the self, continually creating itself through role-play. Vinnie Miner's alter ego, Rosemary Radley, a British actress, escapes from typecasting only to undergo a series of rapid transformations which pass well beyond the bounds of creative adaptivity and into the realm of madness. Where Vinnie is more attentive to a past script than to present reality, Rosemary risks the collapse of a self which is already shifting and permeable at the boundaries. In translating characters from one cultural frame (America) to another (London) Lurie investigates whether the result is the regeneration of an ossified individual in a creative rewriting of the scripted self, or merely a chameleon adaptation to different defining norms. By employing the International Theme, Lurie exposes her characters to a variety of intertextual frames, creating comic, ironic or even tragic effects, as characters who have scripted themselves in accordance with one acculturated model undergo slippage into less exalted or more challenging roles.
The International Theme has been a staple of the American novel from Hawthorne's Dr Grimshawe's Secret to Twain's Innocents Abroad and Edith Wharton's Roman Fever. Broadly defined, the situation involves the encounter between the moral consciousness of an American and the rich cultural atmosphere of Europe, with the ensuing clash of values demonstrating either the provincialism of the American, at sea in a European world of established customs and sophisticated manners, or the precarious moral footing of the experienced European. The American innocent abroad may feature (positively) as democratic, spontaneous, natural and sincere, or (less attractively) as crude, vulgar and ignorant, while the European sophisticate is alternatively representative of all that is aesthetic and civilised in culture, or conversely of a decadent world of deceit, artifice and aristocratic corruption. Henry James, past master of the theme, gives it classic expression in The American (1877) in which Christopher Newman, thwarted in his love for Claire de Cintré by the machinations of the corrupt Bellegardes (who include a murderer within their aristocratic ranks), nobly eschews revenge, out of the American generosity of his spirit, thus revealing a natural nobility of worth rather than birth, which is opposed to the false nobility of the Bellegardes. It is something of a fixed fight, as highly idealised American virtue does battle with stereotypical European villainy.7 In less clear-cut fashion, in Daisy Miller (1878) the eponymous heroine falls foul of her fellow American expatriates in Rome, her innocence recognisable only to a young Italian. This shift towards the Europeanised American as villain is also marked in The Portrait of a Lady (1881) where Isabel Archer becomes the prey of the self-centred expatriate Gilbert Osmond. By The Ambassadors (1903) the American himself is culpable. Chad Newsome pursues a love affair with Madame de Vionnet only as a temporary diversion from his business interests. His countryman, Lambert Strether, despatched to fetch Chad home to America, ultimately crosses to the lady's side, transferring his allegiance to the ostensibly corrupting European mistress, whose love for Chad is real. James therefore offers a range of possibilities, from the stereotypical American innocent, corrupted by sinister Europeans, to the vulnerable European, exploited and about to be betrayed by the New World.
Americans do not, however, feature very effectively in James as redemptive of Old World corruption. Ironically, for that particular variation the reader must turn to a less exalted version of the International Theme, by a British writer, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886). A bestseller in its day, when the distinctions between adult and children's fiction were elastic, the novel was much admired by Gladstone who told its author that ‘the book would have great effect in bringing about added good feeling between the two nations and making them understand each other’.8 Despite addressing her as ‘noblest of neighbors and most heavenly of women’9 James was somewhat jealous of Burnett's success,10 unsurprisingly perhaps, given that in Pilgrimage Dorothy Richardson's heroine recommends that one should read ‘as Anglo-American history, first Little Lord Fauntleroy and then The Ambassadors’.11
Although the novel involves a persistent criticism of adult values from the child's standpoint, Burnett is relatively even-handed in her treatment of the two cultures, depicting illness and unemployment among the New York working poor as well as poverty and squalor in Britain. Cedric Errol, a child living in straitened circumstances with his widowed mother, is suddenly transplanted to the home of his rich grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt, a thoroughly selfish English aristocrat, whose heir he becomes. Little Lord Fauntleroy (as he now is) promptly humanises his grandfather by the force of love, bringing out the good in him simply by assuming that he is good, and scripting him into that role. In the comic plot, a false claimant to the title is bested with the help of Mr Hobbs, an American grocer of pronounced democratic views, initially scathing about the aristocracy, who finally becomes ancestor-mad and settles in England. As Alison Lurie notes,12 the appeal of the book depended upon its combination of the ‘long lost heir’ plot with the International Theme, and a form of secular conversion story, involving the regeneration of an older person through the influence of an affectionate and attractive child. Cedric is also the embodiment of republican virtue, whereas his grandfather represents England, the past, age, rank and selfish pride. Lurie herself draws the analogy with The Portrait of a Lady ‘which also features the confrontation between a charming, eager, natural young American and representatives of an older and more devious civilization’13—though Burnett, unlike James, provides a happy ending.
NATURE'S NOBLEMAN: THE AMERICAN AS FROG PRINCE
The reader who turns from nineteenth-century fiction to Foreign Affairs will discover the intertext of the International Theme firmly in place, as might be expected from a writer whose second (unpublished) novel despatched its heroine, Chloe Newcome, to discover crime, poverty and disillusion in postwar Europe.14 In Foreign Affairs two American academics, on sabbatical in London, provide the focus for an exploration of the special relationship, as it obtains in the present, as created by past literary models and, by extension, as an example of the fashion in which literary models may function for good or ill. When Vinnie Miner, sceptical and worldly wise rather than innocent, and in her devout Anglophilia a close approximation to one of James's Europeanised Americans, encounters Chuck Mumpson, an Oklahoma ‘cowboy,’ she learns a lesson in morals. In the more mannered companion plot, Fred Turner, an all-American hero, has an affair with an English aristocratic lady of a certain age and experience, and feels as if he has got into the pages of a James novel, though whether The American or The Ambassadors is a moot point. Any easy binary oppositions of American innocence to European experience are subject to revision in a novel which interrogates the nature of the relationship by setting it within a variety of intertextual frames. Paradigms of innocence are thematised by Vinnie's research topic (children's play-rhymes) and undergo radical transformation in the interplay of dramaturgical and folk motifs, literary texts and intertexts, as the four main characters move from American to British intertexts, from Alcott and James to Burnett, Gay and Dickens, and from literature to folktale.
The characteristic note is struck from the beginning. Vinnie Miner is explicitly signalled as the creation of fiction by a series of authorial asides. The reader is informed, for example, that ‘In less time than it takes to read this paragraph’ (p. 2) she has installed herself comfortably on the flight to London, an experienced transatlantic traveller. The image of a character creating her own cultural reality, enhanced by the capsule effect of air travel which suspends her between two worlds, also reflects Vinnie's Anglophilia. Her dearest fantasy is that she may one day live permanently in London and become an Englishwoman. In advance of her first visit, England had been ‘slowly and lovingly shaped and furnished out of her favourite books’ (p. 15) so that when she eventually reached ‘the country of her mind’ (p. 15) she found it almost akin to entering the pages of English literature. The opening chapter recapitulates the process of approaching England through framing fictions. Entry into a different world is also entry into a series of texts. Vinnie can hardly wait to get away from the aptly named Atlantic in which a slighting reference to her research from a critic (Leonard Zimmern) has filled her with fantasies of revenge. Instead she takes refuge in the ‘cosily confiding’ (p. 8) pages of British Vogue, and is calmed by The Times, compared here to the ‘voice of an English nanny’ (p. 11). Finally ‘the shadows of war darken over Singapore’ (p. 15) as she flies on, engrossed in The Singapore Grip. Briskly classifying her seat-mate, Chuck Mumpson, from the semiotic indicators of his tan suit and rawhide tie as ‘a Southern Plains States businessman of no particular education or distinction’ (p. 11), she fends off his conversational overtures by lending him Little Lord Fauntleroy, mentally casting him as the democratic grocer, Mr Hobbs, whom he slightly resembles.
Vinnie's casual dismissal of Chuck rebounds upon her, however. While she is haunted in the London Library by ‘the portly, well-dressed spirit of Henry James’ (p. 59), and entertains erotic fantasies about writers and critics (starring roles go to Lionel Trilling, M. H. Abrams and John Cheever, inter alia), Chuck allows the fantasy of the long-lost heir to take hold. Predictably his quest ends in apparent disillusion when he discovers that his ancestor, the Hermit of South Leigh (a legendary troglodyte clad in animal skins), was in fact an illiterate pauper acting in someone else's fantasy: Old Mumpson was hired to impersonate a hermit in an eighteenth-century aristocrat's decorative grotto. Later, however, Chuck realises that illiteracy need not preclude wisdom: ‘There's a hell of a lot of learning that isn't in books’ (p. 167). It is a lesson which Vinnie is about to learn. Unwillingly she begins to detect an uncomfortable resemblance between Chuck's fantasy of being an English lord and her own of becoming an English lady. She is slower, however, to recognise that she is as unable as Leonard Zimmern to see the relevance of her field of research—oral folklore—to her own life. While she casts Chuck as Mr Hobbs, he is actually functioning within a very different intertextual frame. With his ancestry, his leathery tan and his garb of animal skins (a cowboy hat trimmed with feathers, a fleecy sheepskin coat and a leather jacket) Chuck figures as the ‘animal groom’ of folktale. Typically such tales centre on the shock of recognition when what seemed vulgar, coarse or ‘beastly’ reveals itself as the source of human happiness.15 (Beauty and the Beast is a representative example.) Originally Vinnie had found sexual activity embarrassing (one relationship foundered on the excessively hirsute nature of her lover) and is now poised to abandon ‘the foamy backwash and weed-choked turbulence of passion’ (p. 76).
The metaphor is subconsciously revelatory. Chuck's greenish waterproof outer layer (a semi-transparent plastic raincoat of repellent design), his pearl studs and habit of slow blinking, identify him as the Frog Prince.16 Even his occupation—as a sanitary engineer conversant with drains and wells—fits the bill, though he has now been ‘flushed out’ (p. 123) by his company's redundancy scheme. Vinnie, like the princess in the story, fails to spot his potential, even when he covers her with green slime (avocado and watercress soup). Eventually, however, she admits him to her table and her bed, and discovers that nature has its points over culture. With the destruction of the loathed outer skin (in favour of a Burberry) Chuck is transformed from frog to prince, revealed as ‘One of nature's noblemen’ (p. 276). The phrase, used by James in The American,17 and something of a cliché of American literature, is given a fresh resonance by the folklore motif. As a Frog Prince, Chuck does come into his own in Europe, in Vinnie's arms, rather than as heir to a fortune. He also negotiates a more objective and productive relation with the past, using his engineering expertise to drain a sunken archaeological site.
Vinnie had read Little Lord Fauntleroy without absorbing its message, that it is never too late for change and regeneration. Through Chuck she too is transformed, realising that she has allowed the defining voices of English literature to overdetermine her existence. Now, ‘English literature … has suddenly fallen silent … because she is just too old’ (p. 199). In the world of classic British fiction, Vinnie sees, almost the entire population is under fifty, as may have been true of the real world when the novel was invented, and the few older women are cast in minor parts as comic, pathetic or disagreeable. It is assumed that nothing interesting can happen to them. Influenced by Chuck's transformation Vinnie refuses now to become a minor character in her own life. For years, she has accustomed herself to the idea that the rest of her life would be ‘a mere epilogue to what was never, it has to be admitted, a very exciting novel’ (p. 199). Now, however, she realises that beyond the frame of fiction life has its own horizons: ‘this world … is not English literature. It is full of people over fifty who will be around and in fairly good shape for the next quarter-century: plenty of time for adventure and change, even for heroism and transformation’ (p. 199). Vinnie, whose research into children's rhymes is largely a product of her own nostalgia for childhood, has also to learn that age and experience have their merits. In a particularly unpleasant encounter with a grasping child, who regales her with obscene verses, she realises that innocence is not the preserve of youth, and that her thesis—that British rhymes are more lyrical and literary than their cruder American counterparts—is untenable.
If the child in question has come a long way from Little Lord Fauntleroy, Chuck, however unprepossessing his initial impression, fulfils the role to a tee. Although he, too, is no stereotypical innocent (driving while intoxicated, he was responsible for a boy's death), Chuck's persistent vision of self-centred Vinnie as ‘a good woman’ (p. 174) eventually scripts her into the role. Much as the Earl lived up to Cedric's expectations, so Vinnie fulfils Chuck's. Like Christopher Newman, when the opportunity for revenge on the hated Zimmern occurs (by proxy through his daughter) Vinnie allows her better impulses to triumph, attentive to the inner voice of Chuck. Appealed to by Ruth (née Zimmern) to deliver a message to Fred Turner which will reunite these star-crossed lovers, Vinnie hesitates. Fred is on Hampstead Heath observing the solstice: ‘most people Vinnie knows certainly wouldn't expect her to go to Hampstead Heath. But one person would … Chuck Mumpson’ (p. 244). At the end of the novel, heroically braving the muggers, Vinnie does bear the message to Fred. Rejecting a false model in classic British fiction, she adopts a better one, the product of the interaction of folklore and children's literature. More importantly she recognises the idiosyncratic, individual nature of human existence, and the potentially coercive nature of literary models. At a symposium on ‘Literature and the Child,’ the lecturer declares that ‘The Child's moral awareness’ must be awakened by ‘responsible literature’ (p. 235). Vinnie is now in no mood to look to literature for guidance. ‘Vinnie yawns angrily. There is no Child, she wants to shout … there are only children, each one different, unique’ (p. 235). The realisation cuts two ways. Though Vinnie has shed her passivity to the discourses of literature which previously wrote her, it is in fact to children's literature that she owes that transformation. Moreover, if the stereotypes of age and youth have been comprehensively revised, the novel none the less appears to conform to the paradigms provided by Burnett and James, as a Europeanised American is redeemed by love, and American virtue triumphs with nature over the rigid forms of European culture. Under Chuck's influence, Vinnie concludes that doing things for others may have caused most of the trouble of her life, ‘but it has also caused most of the surprise and interest and even in the end joy’ (p. 270).
THE REAL THING: THE CHAR WOMAN IN THE BASEMENT
The novel does not end, however, on such a potentially schmaltzy note as Little Lord Fauntleroy. Although Vinnie finally wakes up to the fact that Chuck loves her and she him, it is very much a case of too little, too late. Because of her dogged attachment to her image as English lady, Vinnie fears cultural redefinition by proximity to Chuck. When she is juxtaposed with him, her British friends are likely to equate them as each ‘rather simple, vulgar, and amusing—a typical American’ (p. 206). As a result she fails to join him in Wiltshire, where he dies of a heart attack. Vinnie's story is also only part of the novel, doubled, and its implications to some extent reversed, by that of her fellow expatriate, Fred Turner. Lurie's novel practises what it preaches, offering a choice of outcomes to the International Theme, weaving a plot in one direction and then, Penelope-like, unpicking the threads in the companion plot, so that Foreign Affairs resists reinforcing any one literary model.
Even more than Vinnie, Fred sees himself within a literary frame, thinking of John Gay's Trivia as he walks the streets of London (Gay is his research topic) and imagining himself as a character in a Henry James novel (p. 87).18 Others, however, envisage him in a variety of less prestigious roles, as the hero of a Gothic romance, as an actor in Love's Labour's Lost, a character in an American detective series, or ‘the guy who fought the giant man-eating extraterrestrial cabbage in The Thing from Beyond’ (p. 25). Nobody connects him with light comedy or game shows; his brooding good looks militate against certain parts. Quite the reverse of Chuck, Ivy League Fred, an American aristocratic in terms of ‘entitlement psychology’ (p. 51), is recognised as her handsome prince by his wife Roo (Ruth Zimmern). The latter, now surnamed March in homage to ‘tomboy’ Jo in Alcott's Little Women, whom she closely resembles physically (a long chestnut braid) and in character, unwittingly follows the fate of her chosen model, forfeiting her trip to Europe, like Jo, as the result of independence and frankness. Very much a female version of Chuck, Roo is at home in nature and initiates her relationship with Fred outdoors, following a riding excursion. Just as Vinnie found her world transformed by Chuck, so Fred under Roo's influence sees it as ‘naked, beautiful, full of meaning’ (p. 44). Fred's story, however, is a replay in reverse of Vinnie's, from frankness, sincerity and natural sexuality in America to the constricting European world of manners and culture. Appropriately, as an artist, Roo draws her effects from the juxtaposition of nature and culture, often with satiric results. Her exhibition, ‘Natural Forms,’ includes a shot of two overweight politicians next to a pair of beef cattle, for example.19 Fred, however, is discomfited by a photograph of his own penis in juxtaposition with a large and beautiful mushroom, and even less delighted by the presence of two unidentified others—even if one is juxtaposed with an asparagus stalk, and the other with a rusty bolt. In the ensuing marital fracas, Fred concludes that Roo ‘was not a lady’ (p. 49) and exits sharply for Europe.
In Rosemary Radley, however, he appears to have found the real thing. Herself the daughter of an earl, Rosemary specialises in acting high-born ladies, particularly in Tallyho Castle, a television series of snobbish appeal, which paints a fake picture of upper-class country life. The contrast between the two cultures is expressed for Fred by his two women. Where Ruth flung herself into his arms, Fred has to court Rosemary in traditional fashion. She is sophisticated where Roo is naive, graceful where Roo is coarse, reticent where Roo is outspoken, ‘Just as, compared with England, America is large, naive, noisy, crude, etc.’ (p. 81). Fred's revision of his mental image of Roo is a pompously textual operation, an example in his mind of ‘retrospective influence. Just as Wordsworth forever altered our reading of Milton, so Rosemary Radley has altered his reading of Ruth March’ (p. 81). Roo's previous natural, free behaviour, her rapid sexual surrender, now seem less a warranty of passion and sincerity than ‘hardly civilized’ (p. 82). Significantly, where he and Roo came together out of doors, he and Rosemary meet at the theatre, in a world of artifice and illusion. Fred, the expert on Gay, ascribes his conquest of Rosemary to eighteenth-century virtues of civility and boldness. By politely remaining at Vinnie's party he was able to meet Rosemary, a congenital latecomer, and he subsequently pursues her as a challenge ‘undertaken in the same spirit that makes other Americans expend energy and ingenuity to view some art collection or local ceremony that is out of bounds to most tourists’ (p. 79).
In Rosemary's world—specifically, spending a weekend in an English country house—Fred revels in the sensation that ‘by some supernatural slippage between life and art, he has got into a Henry James novel like the one he watched on television’ (p. 87). In cold fact the televisual metaphor is more apt. Rosemary is not just typecast on celluloid as an English lady, but also in life. Although she complains to Fred that she longs to play the classic parts (‘I know what it is to feel murderous, coarse, full of hate,’ pp. 88-9) he pooh-poohs her, refusing to envisage her in any character other than that of cultured aristocrat. When, however, the assembled house guests play charades, the childish game reveals raw experience beneath its formal surface. Presumably inspired by Dorothy Parker's dictum that ‘You can lead a whore to culture but you can't make her think,’ Rosemary's team chooses to dramatise the word ‘horticulture,’ breaking it down into three component parts, to reveal a coarse subtext beneath the surface cultivation. In the first, to Fred's horror, Rosemary appears as ‘whore’. Since her costume is the identical nightgown in which she has just slept with Fred, the distinction between art and life almost dissolves. In the second (‘Tit’) she is part of a cow, and in the third a sulky schoolchild (reminiscent of Vinnie's ghastly informant) resisting the efforts of a schoolmaster to lead her to culture. The emphasis on language is also significant. Vinnie had previously described Rosemary's conversation as mere musical noise: ‘Words don't matter to actors as they do to a literary person. For them, meaning is mainly in expression and gesture; the text is just the libretto’ (p. 64). Gleefully Rosemary acts on this assumption, transforming her text in order to act out the parts denied her in life. In the charades, her homosexual friend Edwin actually seems ‘more natural as a fortyish matron’ (p. 94) than in real life. Role-play reveals the multifaceted nature of the self in creative ways. The arrival of the hostess's husband, however, reveals even more, as her lover has to be whisked into hiding. Faced with the visible evidence of upper-class corruption, Fred's Jamesian frame of reference wavers:
only an hour ago he thought it was all beautiful, the real thing. James again, Fred thinks: a Jamesian phrase, a Jamesian situation. But in the novels the scandals and secrets of high life are portrayed as more elegant; the people are better mannered. Maybe because it was a century earlier; or maybe only because the mannered elegance of James' prose obfuscates the crude subtext. Maybe, in fact, it was just like now.
Briskly excluding Rosemary from these speculations, Fred readjusts his James, determined to rescue his innocent beloved from these evil influences, and electing himself as ‘the sterling young American champion James himself would have provided. For the second time that day Fred has the giddy sense of having got into a novel’ (p. 101).
Ironically, however, Fred has once more got into the wrong fiction. To become Rosemary's true champion, he should have been less intent on stereotyping her as a lady, and paid more attention to the subtext, as the reference to ‘the real thing’ indicates. In James's story of that title a well-bred couple offer themselves as an artist's models on the grounds that it would be good for him to use ‘the real thing; a gentleman … or a lady’.20 When, however, the painter employs the lady he finds her so lacking in adaptive plasticity and expression that she is inferior as a model to his servants: ‘She was always a lady, certainly, and into the bargain was always the same lady. She was the real thing, but always the same thing.’21 As a result, the real thing turns out to be less valuable for artistic purposes than the fake; art depends upon the transformation of reality rather than reflecting the thing itself. Ultimately the real thing is the product of the creative imagination of the artist, just as, paradoxically, Rosemary is more herself when she demonstrates the power of her creative adaptation of words to role.
Where Vinnie finds a new role by accepting a ‘lower’ subtext, in vulgar Chuck, Fred is determined to expunge it in favour of genteel forms, editing out any aspects of Rosemary's behaviour which he considers out of character. He even insists that she set an appropriate scene for their affair, badgering her to engage a charlady to clean up her grubby house. Meeting the pair at the Opera, Vinnie reflects that ‘The dusty chaos of Rosemary's house would surely seem to him a most unsuitable backdrop for their love duet’ (p. 116), a duet in which, in operatic metaphor, Fred is ‘singing the basso part’ (p. 116). Indeed, in the outcome it appears that Fred's arguments have carried the day. Rosemary hires Mrs Harris, a cockney char, and as a result creates ‘a scene that resembles a commercial for some luxury product: the perfectly elegant party’ (p. 137). Surveying his surroundings, Fred congratulates himself that his rush of moral indignation during the country weekend was merely ‘priggish and provincial’ (p. 131), misled by ‘a too-vivid memory of the novels of Henry James into condemning an entire society’ (p. 131). Although Roo has now contacted him, and convinced him that she is innocent of adultery and guilty only of bad taste, his standards are now those of European manners rather than American morals: ‘in Rosemary's world bad taste is not nothing: it is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual flaw’ (p. 134). Unsurprisingly, when Fred meets Chuck at the party he assumes that someone so inappropriate to the elegant occasion cannot be real but must be one of Rosemary's actor friends trying out a role. Commenting on Chuck's origins, he quips that he has never been to Oklahoma, ‘but I saw the movie’ (p. 138). In contrast, although he has yet to meet her, Mrs Harris ‘sounds like the genuine article’ (p. 140). With his taste for Gay, Fred welcomes the crudity of Mrs Harris's manners (as reported by Rosemary) as if she were ‘a character out of eighteenth-century literature: a figure from the subplot of some robust comedy illustrated by Hogarth or Rowlandson’ (p. 142). As the alert reader may already recognise, the joke is very much on Fred, who finds himself starring in a rather different fictional role in the outcome, scripted in part by the character of Mrs Harris.
The party ends in disaster when Fred's friend Joe Vogeler inadvertently reveals Fred's intention to return to America, on schedule, to teach summer school. Rosemary draws the conclusion that ‘it was only an act with you’ (p. 149) and breaks off the relationship. Fred is less a Christopher Newman or a Lambert Strether than a Chad Newsome. He has encouraged Rosemary to love him unconditionally while intending to love her only as long as it was convenient. Although Fred pleads poverty as his motive for returning, he refuses Rosemary's offer of a loan, on the Victorian moral principle that a man cannot take money from a woman. Although the offer is made on the set of a television historical drama, with Rosemary in full make-up, it is Fred, in her opinion, who is caught in a rigid role: ‘You think you're in some historical drama; it's you who ought to be in costume’ (p. 181). Accordingly, despite his American accent, Rosemary offers him a film role: ‘you could be a silent brooding undergardener or gypsy tramp’ (p. 181). Fred, however, can accept nothing less than heroic status. Instead, he swiftly reclaims the moral high ground by redefining Rosemary. The idea that he has fallen into a Henry James novel recurs, ‘but now he casts Rosemary in a different role, as one of James's beautiful, worldly, corrupt European villainesses’ (p. 194). Like his Australian friends, who describe their convict ancestors as adventurous and risk-taking, ‘Moll Flanders not Oliver Twist’ (p. 187), Fred is quick to cite chapter and verse of a supportive literary model, making an opportunistic choice of literary frame.
Where Vinnie learned the need to escape from overly constricting models, Fred has gone to the other extreme, and gets his come-uppance as a result of his belief that he can pick and choose freely between them. Rosemary also operates intertextually, with tragic results, breaking out of her role as English lady and shifting the frame of reference once more, from America to Britain and from James to Dickens. Once again truth comes into being through role-play. Sharing a taxi with Vinnie, Rosemary takes the opportunity to complain about Fred; her speech alternates between her own upper-class drawl and an accent so vulgar and coarse that ‘if they hadn't been alone Vinnie would have looked round to see who else was speaking’ (p. 209). She goes on alternating between being pathetically ladylike and a low comedy voice, slips into tenor to imitate a male friend, and concludes—to Vinnie's horror—by insulting the latter in a caricature of her own intonation and accent. On one level, of course, the scene appears to confirm Fred's estimation of Rosemary's fundamental falsity. Yet, crying over Fred, Rosemary's face is ‘distorted in a way it never becomes when she weeps on camera’ (p. 211). Rosemary believed that Fred loved her for herself alone, as the real thing: ‘He'd never even heard of Tallyho Castle. … He never even saw the show, he loved me anyhow’ (p. 211). Where Vinnie had been chary of introducing Chuck to her British friends, afraid of being redefined as of similarly American character, Rosemary actively sought role revision by contact with Fred. She has been over-defined, as an English lady, and the cultural definition has constricted her life. Ironically, the fate which Vinnie so feared is actually visited upon her by her association with Fred. Gesturing at souvenir shops and hamburger joints, Rosemary accuses: ‘I've had it with all you fuckin’ Americans. Why don't you stay home where you belong? Nobody wants you comin' over here, messin' up our country' (p. 212). Uneasily Vinnie recognises the low comedy stage character as that of Mrs Harris, whom Rosemary has taken to imitating. For Vinnie the episode reveals that there is ‘something unnatural, really, in the ability of certain persons to assume at will a completely alien voice and manner’ (p. 213); the practice ‘overturns our belief in the uniqueness of the individual’ (p. 213). The comment extends also to Vinnie, who has been acting the alien role of English lady and sacrificing her own uniqueness to the scripts of British fiction. When Rosemary uses her histrionic talents to become Vinnie Miner, she indicates that the two have more in common than Vinnie would care to concede.
If Vinnie's encounter with ‘Mrs Harris’ leaves her shaken, Fred's has even more bruising consequences. Entering Rosemary's house in search of his Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse, Fred finds Mrs Harris, a drunken slut, in the darkened basement drinking Rosemary's gin. Upstairs he recoils in horror at the dirt and disorder. Rosemary's bathroom is ‘littered and foul—the toilet, for instance, is full of turds’ (p. 226). When Mrs Harris makes a pass at him in a drunken imitation of Rosemary's voice, he calls her a ‘dirty old cow’ (p. 228) and shoves her forcibly aside. Giving an edited account of the scene later to his friends, Fred converts it into comedy, ‘a scene from Smollett … a cartoon by Rowlandson’ (p. 229). But as the alert reader may have guessed,22 Mrs Harris is not so much an eighteenth- as a nineteenth-century character. In a moment of dreadful revelation Fred recalls the charlady's telltale birthmark, identical to Rosemary's: Mrs Harris and Rosemary are one and the same. While Fred wandered the pages of James, Rosemary has adopted a character from another novel of transatlantic encounter, Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, in which Mrs Harris features as Sairey Gamp's imaginary friend. ‘A fearful mystery surrounded this lady of the name of Harris, whom no one in the circle of Mrs Gamp's acquaintance had ever seen. … There were conflicting rumours on the subject; but the prevalent opinion was that she was a phantom of Mrs Gamp's brain.’23 Thwarted by typecasting, Rosemary has created in life the part denied her on stage. Fred had allowed the idea of her as cultivated, refined and aristocratically English to become so fixed in his mind that anyone who did not conform to the model could not be Rosemary. Although her role-play has now tipped her over into Gothic delusion—her repressed self finally emerging, if not as the madwoman in the attic, at least as the charwoman in the basement—Fred does little to save her, though he nobly offers to see her once more in the twenty minutes which he can spare before his flight departs.
Cultural transformations can work both ways. Where Vinnie, the stereotypical sexless crone of British fiction, is transformed by love, Rosemary evolves from beauty to hag, in the ‘loathly lady’ motif of folklore.24 Chuck transforms himself from beast to prince, Fred from prince to brute. The parallels are emphasised in the action. In a reprise of the folklore motif, Fred is seen walking by Regent's canal with the Vogelers. The latter equate his passion for Rosemary with their infant's desire for an old rubber ball, its cracked surface patterned with a dirty Union Jack. (They have been discussing Rosemary's advanced age.) As the ball bounces into the ‘frog-green water’ (p. 189) ‘surrounded by waterlogged crap’ (p. 190), the image is associated with the foulness of Rosemary's house and takes the reader back to the starting point of The Frog Prince, when the princess's ball is lost and rescued by the frog. Earlier Vinnie had reminisced about her husband, who had married her when, on the rebound from another woman, he had ‘like a waterlogged tennis ball … rolled into the nearest hole’ only to regain his elasticity, ‘bounce about’ at parties, and ‘hop’ into the arms of another (p. 74). The ball metaphor (with its connections to an even cruder subtext) suggests that Fred is unable to reconcile the ‘beastly’ elements of Rosemary's character with his ideal, or to love anyone who is not young and beautiful. It dawns upon him—too late—that his chosen role of Jamesian hero is altogether less convincing than that of a British rogue—Macheath in Gay's The Beggar's Opera. If his academic work now appears as a mere patching together of ideas from other people's books, ‘his love life is no better. Like Macheath's, it follows one of the classic literary patterns of the eighteenth century, in which a man meets and seduces an innocent woman, then abandons her’ (p. 255).
Lurie, however, like Gay, is merciful. At the end the two plots unite on Hampstead Heath. Clad in a romantically draped coat, a gift from Chuck, Vinnie looks like one of the ‘Druids’ celebrating the solstice, derided by Fred as examples of mummery and phoniness.
Yes, Fred thinks as the foolish figure drifts nearer, this is what England, with her great history and traditions—political, social, cultural—has become; this is what Britannia, that vigorous, ancient, and noble goddess, has shrunk to: a nervous elderly little imitation Druid.
Yet it is Fred, the American champion, who is rescued by Vinnie, braving ‘drifters and tramps and thieves’ (p. 248) to deliver the vital message which will reunite him with Roo. As the dramatic mummery of the Druids indicates, Fred's rescue and Vinnie's regeneration both depend to some extent on contacts with an artificial world in which a new self can be fashioned. Neither Vinnie nor Fred has survived with their illusions about England intact. Vinnie sees a different, potentially violent, London on her way to the Heath; Fred decides that ‘London in Gay's time was filthy, violent, corrupt—and it hasn't changed all that much’ (p. 249). In a last, ironic turn of the plot, however, the cycle of illusion reopens, as the Vogelers declare their enthusiasm for the country: ‘It's like being in the nineteenth century, really. Everybody in the village is so friendly … and they're all such perfect characters’ (p. 250).
This essay began from a consideration of Lurie as a ‘paleface’ writer. Whereas the relation to James may appear to confirm Malcolm Bradbury's hypothesis, it is worth noting that in this novel Chuck and Roo—the cowboy and the Alcott girl—come up trumps, while Jamesian Fred and Vinnie are led intertextually astray. Moreover the robustness of the folklore plot, the directness of its crude subtext, impose different conclusions. Teasingly, Lurie includes as the climax to the romantic plot a scene in which Vinnie (pale but not very interesting as the result of a heavy cold) is contrasted with Chuck in the role of redskin. The latter, minus his clothes on which he has spilled soup, is transformed by a fringed, homespun bedspread into ‘a comic oversized pink-faced Red Indian’ (p. 172), who promptly seduces Vinnie against the backdrop of a singularly inappropriate watercolour of New College, Oxford. Although paleface and redskin—the two halves of the American character—come together for once, the national stereotype does not remain fixed. Confusingly, the couple consume a (British) Indian takeaway, and reference is made to Gandhi.
As these examples of cultural slippage indicate, there can be no real return to nature, nor to some primary state of childlike innocence of language or culture. Culture is textuality. Even Roo is an artist, and in her chosen surname as consciously intertextual as Rosemary. Each of us is always to some extent a role-player; only Fred is so naive as to consider Roo sincere, Rosemary false. Yet although cultural models cannot be ignored, Lurie indicates that wiser choices may be made between them. When Chuck is informed that he is descended from the aristocratic De Mompesson family—of which Mumpson is a contraction—he wisely discards the idea as irrelevant, a sensible contrast to Tess Durbeyfield's papa. Little Lord Fauntleroy turns out to be more productive of happiness for Chuck and Vinnie than Dickens and Gay are for Rosemary and Fred. The fact that he is an expert on The Beggar's Opera does not prevent Rosemary from beggaring Fred. On the other hand ignorance is never bliss, as Fred's inability to recognise Mrs Harris, and Vinnie's to spot her Frog Prince, amply demonstrate. Although Roo features, like Daisy Miller, as the American Girl, Chuck's daughter Barbie, introduced at the close, acts as a corrective to any anti-intellectual glorification of a state of nature. Barbie commits every from of vulgar Americanism, from describing her father's ‘cremains’ while shovelling down a cream tea, to subsequently wishing Vinnie ‘Have a nice day’ (p. 270). So much for the Jamesian heiress of all the ages.
While the novel demonstrates the dangers of looking to literature for guidance, it therefore also indicates the very real advantages of a sophisticated knowledge thereof. Both British and American heroines, for all their differences, are almost equally victimised by literary and cultural stereotypes. Rosemary's English lady reveals depths of feeling, while Chuck, emblematic of ‘Oklahoma crude,’ proves a sensitive lover who enables Vinnie to grow and change. Chuck may be said to civilise Vinnie, whereas Fred comes close to ruining Rosemary altogether. The deconstruction of the fiction of The Child and the stereotype of The Lady is part and parcel of the deconstruction of the stereotypes of national and literary character. As the novel indicates, works of literature are flexibly bound to each other despite national divisions. As a result Foreign Affairs is not merely a novel about two cultures clashing, but about all culture as intertextual, changing and created by individuals, and continually undergoing slippage, reversals and revision. Just as its meaning is constructed and revised, built up or shifted by slippage between intertextual frames, the novel's overall structure allows one plot to form a paradigm, a guide through the labyrinth, which the other is simultaneously unravelling. Even as culture is revealed as a continual process of creative transformation, so Foreign Affairs is careful to preclude the possibility of establishing a single, normative voice. In its imaginative transformations, it may therefore be characterised as in itself very much the real thing.
Malcolm Bradbury, ‘The Paleface Professor’, The Times (19 January 1985): 6.
Philip Rahv, ‘Paleface and Redskin’ in Literature and the Sixth Sense (London, 1970), pp. 1-6.
Julia Kristeva, Séméiôtiké, recherches pour une sémananalyse (Paris, 1969), p. 146 (my translation). I have discussed the importance of intertextuality in relation to Lurie's Imaginary Friends in ‘The Revenge of the Trance Maiden: Alison Lurie and Intertextuality’ in Linda Anderson (ed.), Plotting Change: Contemporary Women's Fiction (London, 1990), pp. 113-27.
Christopher Tookey, ‘The Witch Guide to Literary London’, Books and Bookmen 352 (January 1985): 25.
Alison Lurie, Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales (London, 1980).
Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs (London, 1986), p. 75. Subsequent page references follow citations in parentheses.
For a comprehensive and accessible discussion of the International Theme in James see Christof Wegelin, The Image of Europe in Henry James (Dallas, 1958) and Tony Tanner, Henry James: The Writer and His Work (Amherst, 1985). I draw upon both writers extensively here.
Ann Thwaite, Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett (London, 1974), pp. 107-8.
Ibid., p. xi.
Juliet Dusinberre, Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art (London, 1987), p. 30.
Ibid., p. 30.
Alison Lurie, ‘Happy Endings: Frances Hodgson Burnett’ in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature (London, 1990), pp. 136-43.
Ibid., p. 140.
Private interview with Alison Lurie, Key West, Florida, 19 February 1991. Grateful acknowledgement is made to the British Academy and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne for assistance with travel expenses.
Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Harmondsworth, 1978), pp. 277-310.
Maureen Corrigan is the one reviewer who drew attention to this motif, reviewing the novel in Village Voice Literary Supplement, October 1984: 5.
Christof Wegelin notes that James used the phrase in the New York edition of The American (p. 91) as a revision of ‘a noble fellow’ (Rinehart edn, p. 63). Emerson wrote in his Journal of ‘Nature's Gentlemen, who need no discipline, but grow straight up into shape and grace and can match the proudest in dignified demeanour and the gentlest in courtesy’. Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Howells and Melville all make conspicuous reference to the concept of natural nobility (The Image of Europe in Henry James, op. cit., p. 178).
Readers familiar with Lurie's work will note a further irony. Fred is already a character in a novel—Lurie's first, Love and Friendship—a scene from which is referred to in Foreign Affairs, p. 43, to establish Fred's obtuseness.
Similar juxtapositions were a feature of the British magazine Lilliput. See Kaye Webb (ed.), Lilliput Goes to War (London, 1985).
Henry James, ‘The Real Thing’ (1892) in Christof Wegelin (ed.), Tales of Henry James (New York, 1984), p. 246.
Ibid., p. 249.
Some of the most alert were Ferdinand Mount, ‘The Lonely American,’ Spectator, 26 January 1985: 24; Walter Clemons, ‘Lovers and Other Strangers,’ Newsweek 104 (24 September 1984): 80; Lorna Sage, ‘Adventures in the Old World,’ Times Literary Supplement (1 February 1985): 109; Marilyn Butler, ‘Amor Vincit Vinnie’, London Review of Books (21 February 1985): 5-6.
Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (London, 1858), p. 423
In which either a hag turns into a lovely lady, or vice versa. See Chaucer's ‘Wife of Bath's Tale’, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Spenser's Faerie Queen, Book One.
The author is grateful for an award from the British Academy which allowed the first delivery of the paper on which this essay is based, at the American Literature Association Conference, San Diego, May 1992.
Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Lord Fauntleroy (London, 1981).
Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (London, 1858).
John Gay, The Beggar's Opera (London, 1968).
Henry James, The American,The Portrait of a Lady,The Ambassadors, in The Novels and Tales of Henry James, ‘New York Edition’ (New York, 1907-9).
Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs (New York, 1984 and London, 1985).
SOURCE: Banville, John. “The Un-Heimlich Maneuver.” New York Review of Books 42, no. 2 (2 February 1995): 25-7.
[In the following excerpt, Banville offers a mixed assessment of Women and Ghosts, which he finds characteristically well-written despite its uneven weight and interest.]
The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.
—Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Why do we find ghost stories more pleasurable than frightening? Perhaps because they lull us into a state of coziness by turning our worst fears into the stuff of entertainment. In the ghost story the terrors of childhood and of mankind's primitive past are transformed into a kind of joke—a jest, or gest. As in all jokes, however, there is in this process an element of the scandalous. In his essay “The ‘Uncanny,’”1 Freud cites Schelling's definition of the word: “‘Unheimlich’ is the name for everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light,” and goes on to say, revealing as he so often does his debt to Nietzsche:
All supposedly educated people have ceased to believe officially that the dead can become visible as spirits, and have made any such appearances dependent on improbable and remote conditions; their emotional attitude towards their dead, moreover, once a highly ambiguous and ambivalent one, has been toned down in the higher strata of the mind into an unambiguous feeling of piety.
Freud adduces this operation as an example of psychological “surmounting,” as distinct from repression, of primitive belief. The distinction, however, does not imply a greater degree of success.
Let us take the uncanny associated with the omnipotence of thoughts, with the prompt fulfilment of wishes, with secret injurious powers and with the return of the dead. The condition under which the uncanniness arises here is unmistakable. We, or our primitive forefathers, once believed that these possibilities were realities, and were convinced that they actually happened. Nowadays we no longer believe in them, we have surmounted these modes of thought: but we do not feel quite sure of our new beliefs, and the old ones still exist within us ready to seize upon any confirmation. …
All of the stories in [Brad] Leithauser's anthology testify to the fact that there is no such creature as a ghost story writer: there are only writers (or, as in the case of M. R. James, scholars) who now and then aspire, or stoop, depending on your opinion of the genre, to write tales of the supernatural. Alison Lurie is a respected novelist and critic, and an expert on children's literature. She is also a professor at Cornell University. The stories in Women and Ghosts are well-crafted, artful, sly, often witty, and curiously insubstantial. They are not so much ghost stories as camouflaged observations on the position of women in this time of transvaluation of gender values. As the narrator of one of the stories has it, “I believe women have to take responsibility for other women, even ones they don't much like.” So here is “Ilse's House,” in which a young woman who is about to marry an older divorcé is haunted by the admonitory ghost of his former wife; “The Pool People,” in which a garrulous mother-in-law is dragged down to death in her own swimming pool by the ghosts of a pair of workmen she mistreated; “Fat People,” which is about, well, you can guess; “Waiting for Baby,” which tells of a hitherto barren woman who, in India with her husband to try to adopt a child, pays shamefaced obeisance to the goddess Lakshmi and thereafter conceives; and so on.
The best, and certainly the most interesting, story here is “The Double Poet,” in which a fey performance-poet (“I believe I'll wear the midnight-blue cape again—it has such a fine sweep and flow—and alternate the white lace dress and the sea-green silk that the interviewer in Washington said made me look like a classical sibyl”) suffers the gradual usurpation of her gift and her career by a mysterious double, who goes from success to success while the poet herself declines into silence and becomes that most despised of creatures, an ordinary woman: “She wears reading glasses and has a partial plate.” It is a nice, subversive study of ambition and self-delusion which, like life itself, ends badly.
Alison Lurie has always had a gift for combining genuine warmth with a certain biting sharpness, but too often here the warmth becomes woolly (literally so in one story, in which a young man studying Wordsworth at Grasmere turns into a sheep) and the asperity decays. Her prose, as we would expect, is always cool, deft, elegant, and sometimes smoothly ravishing, as in this description of the fatal pool in “The Pool People”:
Because it was so deep, and heavily shaded most of the day, it hadn't become stale and warm at the end of the season. The water remained limpidly cool, with a shifting pattern in its depths, white reflections on aquamarine like delicate wire netting. Its constant flow was silky, sensual, caressing; and the hum of the filter peaceful, almost soporific.
“Das ‘Unheimliche,’” Albert Dickson, editor, The Pelican Freud Library, Vol. 14, Art and Literature, translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1985).
SOURCE: Hallissy, Margaret. Review of The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, edited by Alison Lurie. Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 267-68.
[In the following review, Hallissy asserts that the appeal of the selections in The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales lies in the stories' variations on established, traditional fairy-tale themes and elements.]
Like the Bible and Arthuriana, fairy tales stimulate creativity in ways that other literature does not; nobody rewrites Hamlet, but Job and Lancelot and Cinderella continually reappear in modern dress. Whereas the original fairy tales can be read on various levels by children and adults, these modern redactions are for adults only. These modern writers employ resonances from the reader's childhood with the conventional characters, images, and situations of the fairy tale as themes upon which they play variations.
The reader of modern fairy tales brings to the experience a mind already well populated by stock character types. As in the tabloid press, the doings of the royals are featured, princesses are beautiful, princes handsome. When people have children, they usually have either one (long-awaited and therefore special) or three (one of whom, usually the youngest, is differentiated sharply from the other two). Adult female types are shaped by the primordial images of the good and bad mother. The mortality rate of natural mothers is high, especially in childbirth, as is their rate of prompt replacement by evil counterparts. Old women—hags, crones, witches—have supernatural knowledge and power. The human characters of the fairy-tale world are supplemented by creatures from the other world: giants, elves, fairies. The landscapes are the familiar ones: the castle, the humble home, the fearful wilderness outside both.
With all the common elements shaken and stirred, the modern tales are inevitably read against the older versions. The fascination of Lurie's collection [The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales] lies in the variations played upon established patterns. Figuring out why, for example, a princess must endure a wicked auntie's curse by being exempted from the law of gravity (George Macdonald's “The Light Princess”), or must be smarter than the average but much too tall (Jeanne Desy's “The Princess Who Stood On Her Own Two Feet”), is the fun of it. The most noticeable divergences from type are the gender-benders. Since fairy-tales princes and princesses represent the essence of maleness and femaleness, to vary their nature is to question the nature of the categories themselves.
Fairy tales deal with elemental human experiences: love and loss; kindness and cruelty; the power of wishes; fear of the darkness, both without and within. In these tales as in the originals, the great revelations, for good or ill, most often take place in the house, within the family—the only setting considered worthy of tragedy by the ancient Greek dramatists. As Naomi Murchison writes in “In the Family,” “It was in the family to be seeing things that are not meant to be seen. And it was not nice for them, not at all. They could have done without seeing the most of what they saw.” Like their great predecessors, these modern fairy tales dramatize the darker side of childhood, the end of innocence.
SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “A Grudge against Men.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4964 (22 May 1998): 8.
[In the following review, Annan finds shortcomings in The Last Resort's treatment of feminism and love.]
Alison Lurie's novels add up to an American Dance to the Music of Time, with the music modulating into a minor feminist key. As in Anthony Powell's sequence, characters from the earlier novels turn up again in later ones. But this is a smaller world. Everyone in it—except for deliberately dissonant outsiders—is an artist, writer, academic, or married to one. They are anchored either in New York or in East Coast Universities called Corinth or Convers, not unlike Cornell, where Lurie is Professor of American Literature. In her fourth novel, Real People (1969), a selection of her regulars are on view at a writers' retreat called Illyria. Writers and artists can escape to this beautiful country estate for a subsidized respite from their normal grind, and get on with creative work. The place once belonged to Undine Moffat, the heroine of Edith Wharton's novel The Custom of the Country; but real people like Milton Avery and Robert Lowell have stayed there (though none is in residence at the time of the action). This crossover between fact and fiction is as modern or postmodern as Lurie allows herself to get; she is a conservative writer.
When Christopher Isherwood reviewed her novel Foreign Affairs in 1984, he decided Lurie was “perhaps more shocking than she knows—shocking like Jane Austen, not Genet”. It is difficult to believe she doesn't know. She knows everything about her characters and their motives. They get no privacy, which means they have no mystery. Her beady eye doesn't spare even her heroines (there are no heroes). In fact, it is their own beady eye that makes these women morally uncomfortable—a chronic condition with them. Lurie is judgmental, and her pronouncements are prominently posted up. No change in fashion escapes her in any domain, from fashion itself to ecology and the use (misuse) of language. She tackles the Zeitgeist, and quite often gives it a bloody nose. In her time, she has taken on the Beat generation, New Age religion and the Peace movement. In her last two novels she is less severe: compassionate about AIDS, sympathetic shading to enthusiastic about lesbianism, and even-handed about environmentalism: she points out that in some circumstances it can be counter-productive. What has always and increasingly concerned her is the position of women. She examines what feminism does to them. From her first novel, Love and Friendship, in 1962, she has stood for the reasonable, nonaggressive kind—new feminism before it was invented.
Lurie doesn't seem to like men much, though, unless they're gay. Straight men are insensitive, vain and either predators or selfishly absorbed in work or birdwatching. They can be good in bed, though in her last two novels sex with women sounds even better. Lurie is a sexy writer on food as well as sex: adjectives like “soft” and “creamy” apply impartially to breasts and scrambled eggs, and sensuous interludes make delightful oases in deserts of inter-gender acrimony. Not that this ever gets boring; her dialogue is witty but completely plausible too, and there is plenty of it. The oddest thing about her novels is the clash between what looks like terminal incompatibility in a couple, and the happy or at least conciliatory ending. In Love and Friendship, for instance, beautiful, bouncy Emmy ditches a fascinating lover to return to a boring husband; in The War between the Tates (1974), admirable Erica takes back her unfaithful spouse after he makes a fool of himself with one of his students; and in Foreign Affairs, fifty-four-year-old, picky Professor Vinnie Miner ends up regretting that she wasn't nicer to the unpresentable elderly hick she met on the plane to London. He turned out to be a good man and good in bed, until he suddenly drops dead when she should have been with him but has selfishly chosen not to be.
Lurie likes her princesses to get happy with swineherds, or other socially or sexually unpromising partners. That is the subplot in The War between the Tates (Lurie's best-known work), and the main story in both The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988) and in her new novel, The Last Resort. In Foreign Affairs, Vinnie prevaricates over her swineherd, so she is punished and the happy ending falls to a pair of minor characters who patch up their marriage. The husband, another American academic on a London sabbatical, has a steamy affair with an aristocratic English actress. She turns out to be a dipsomaniac with a split personality. The drunken harridan with the Cockney accent who sometimes answers her door is her second self. The young man's discovery of this is the bombshell it should be. Lurie is not afraid of melodrama, and the lurid turning-points in her novels deliver shocks more like Genet than Austen.
Vinnie sounds like at least a partial self-portrait: a middle-aged American scholar with a London pad, who researches children's rhymes (Lurie has published a book about them herself). For English readers, this novel must be the most enjoyable. For it is topographically acute on London's communication systems, from bus routes to networking in the upper intelligentsia. Besides, it contains a most appealing invention called Fido, a soppy Welsh terrier who appears whenever Vinnie's self-pity sets in, and snuggles closer and closer. She is always fending him off, but in the end he pads after her on to the plane back to New York.
Vinnie is hardly a feminist at all. Feminism, like dyed hair, has dubious roots. In The War between the Tates, for instance, a woman deserted by her husband “nurses a grudge against men, which she has recently attempted to generalise and dignify as radical feminism”. By 1988, with The Truth about Lorin Jones, feminism ceases to be an undercurrent and becomes the dominant theme. That was Lurie's penultimate novel. In spite of the ten-year gap between it and The Last Resort, the two works are more closely linked than any of the others, if only by their Key West setting.
Key West is the westernmost of the Florida Keys. Hemingway made it fashionable, and the kind of people Lurie writes about like to winter there. She herself figures as a resident in Phyllis Rose's recent memoir, The Year of Reading Proust. They call it the last resort, “not just because it was at the end of the Keys, but because it was where you went when other places hadn't worked out”. This information comes from Lee Weiss, a warm, sensible, good-looking gay in her fifties. She runs a guest house for women in both Lurie's Key West novels, and provides delicious meals, physical and psychological comfort, and charitably reduced terms for the impecunious. She used to be a therapist in New York. Her name was Weissmann, but she dropped the masculine ending during her earlier, fiercer feminist phase which she now deplores; and she stopped being a therapist, because “half the time she was helping people she didn't like to become strong and confident enough to do things she didn't like, such as write deceptive advertising and sell jerry-built condos”. The sentence is an example of Lurie's packaging of information and ideas into neat vernacular parcels.
A rapacious female estate agent typifies the kind of woman Lee Weiss dislikes. She appears in The Last Resort, while Lee herself advances from supporting player to second lead. Lee is one of three exemplary women. The second is Molly, the widow of an academic. Molly is in her eighties, pre-feminist, horribly arthritic but uncomplaining, nicely dressed, charitable and lady-like, though no fool and capable of a sharp remark. The third is the pivotal heroine, Jenny. She is forty-six, beautiful, graceful and gentle, with long silky hair. (Lurie has two favourite female types: one looks like Jenny; the other is usually Jewish, dark, vital, and dressed in vermilion or scarlet, like Lee.)
Jenny has been happily married for twenty-five years to Professor Wilkie Walker, who is seventy to her forty-six and a famous naturalist/environmentalist. She worships him, and he adores and values her, even though he is an old-fashioned male chauvinist pig and homophobic to boot. All her adult life, Jenny has been his efficient cook-housekeeper, secretary, research assistant, editor and proof-reader, rejecting all suggestions from feminist friends that she should have her own career. (She is also the mother of their two satisfactory but uncongenial grown-up children.) It is clear that Lurie does not disapprove of Jenny's chosen way of life, and when someone calls her “a walking anachronism”, that person is noisy and drunk.
The shadow of age has fallen on the Walkers. Wilkie is on the last chapter of his last book, and it won't go right. His environmental theories are going out of fashion. He is still invited to write articles, speak at conferences, deliver lectures, but he senses that his role is now more grand old man than state of the art superstar. Besides, he has seen blood in his stool. It must be cancer. He doesn't want to drag out his suffering or Jenny's, so he decides to commit suicide—for her sake, he thinks, as much as for his. The result is that his behaviour towards her becomes secretive and cold, and she is miserable.
Then Lee enters her life. She rescues Jenny, first from a dangerous jellyfish in the sea, and then from unhappiness. She feeds her delicious shrimps and makes delicious love to her. In her earlier novels, Lurie wrote more about sex than love. Love was important; her characters might discuss it, long for it or lack it, but it happened off the page. In her last two novels, it has crept in Fido-like; and it can be embarrassing. Meanwhile, Wilkie's attempts to drown keep being foiled: by the wrong tide, by friends insisting on accompanying him to the beach, and by another suicide. The man who drowns has AIDS. He is in a wheelchair, and his companion has to position him to roll over the quayside edge. The young man is a charming Chinese waiter, and shattered by what he does. I found this episode more moving than anything else in Lurie's oeuvre.
While this is happening, Jenny is in Lee's house and arms and is planning to leave Wilkie, just as he is rushed to hospital with what looks like a heart attack. The doctor diagnoses a nasty gallstone, not dangerous; while the blood in his stool is not cancer but piles. All the same, shock, guilt and her fine WASP sense of duty persuade Jenny that her place is with her husband. The poor old man—for that is how she suddenly sees him—needs her. Still, the Walkers plan to stay on an extra two months in Key West, and spend half of every year there in future. So Jenny won't lose Lee. The ending is happy-ish, not ecstatic.
The novel doesn't remind one of Austen so much as of Daniel Deronda. Everyone has opinions or problems about the ethics of behaviour, especially their own; and they don't just act them out: they chew them over in their heads, and inflict them on whoever is around. Lee, for instance, pronounces on love: “Love is sort of ridiculous, sure … but it's also not ridiculous. The way I see it, anyone has a right to be in love. It's just a dumb convention that they have to be the same age and race and religion and class, and they can't be the same sex. You're just goddam lucky if you love anyone and they love you back.” I agree with every word, but so would most agony aunts, and they'd phrase it much the same way. Perhaps that is the point. But is lesbianism really just a last resort? Surely most lesbians would rate it higher.
SOURCE: Craig, Amanda. “A Jane for Our Age.” New Statesman 127, no. 4386 (22 May 1998): 56-7.
[In the following review, Craig argues that The Last Resort is a “masterpiece,” contending that Lurie writes with great wit and attention to detail.]
The Last Resort refers to both a location and an action. Wilkie Walker, an eminent naturalist, has come to Key West, an exotic seaside resort at the far end of Florida, to commit suicide. His reason for doing so is that he suspects he has colonic cancer, and does not wish his wife Jenny to know he is a dying man.
If this were Tolstoy or Mann, we would be pretty sure of the outcome: the doomed hero, after much private suffering, would walk into the sea and drown. That, in the male canon, is what literature is supposed to be about. This, however, is Alison Lurie, who never confuses the serious with the solemn. In the past she has written about love, friendship and the relationship between art and life; now, she has written about what age, sickness and the intimations of mortality do to human beings. In doing so, she has produced a masterpiece.
The particular joy of Lurie's writing is her perception that the most intelligent and intolerant are often those whose grasp of events is most faulty: in other words, the very people who are most likely to enjoy her novels are allowed a god-like vision of their own flaws. The only living writer to hold a candle to Jane Austen, her irony is tempered by a deeper humanity.
Here is Wilkie, musing on a retirement home: “It was clear to him that though Skytop resembled an upmarket motel, it had deeper parallels to an expensive internment camp. If you lived there, you couldn't help but be aware that every so often one of the inmates would be taken away to die slowly in what was euphemistically called a ‘nursing facility’. You wouldn't know when your turn was coming, but the longer you stayed, the more likely it would become that you would be chosen. And of course eventually everyone would be chosen.”
In counterpoint to such Larkinesque gloom, we have the sentimental education of Wilkie's beautiful, conventional wife. As endangered a species as those Wilkie studies, Jenny has devoted her life to her husband, contributing to his work as unobtrusively as she has to his comfort. Bewildered and depressed by his sudden coldness, she is rescued while swimming by Lee (one of Lurie's recurring characters, now running a women-only rooming house). Lee falls deeply in love; Jenny perhaps less so. Unlike the lesbians satirised in The Truth about Lorin Jones, this passion, and indeed all the homosexual relationships in the novel, are presented with exceptional tenderness and tact.
How Lee's friend Jaco, infected with Aids by his dead millionaire lover, fends off his mercenary aunt and drippy cousin, how a ghastly ex-beatnik poet inadvertently saves Wilkie's life and how Wilkie's cancer turns out to be something hilariously different from what he fears are things readers will have to discover for themselves. If you buy one novel in hardback this summer, buy this. Every single page is a joy. It is so witty, so Mozartian, so much the product of a lifetime of diamond-sharp observation and experience that its art can be overlooked only by those blinded by testosterone.
The Last Resort is Lurie's first novel for ten years; impossible not to fear that this, like Wilkie's book, is a kind of swansong. She has the perfect pitch which is both the gift and the craft of the consummate artist, breathing new life into the comedy of manners, and refusing to barter all the things that make her so readable (characters, plots, jokes, fairy tales, lucidity, intelligence, joy) for a more “literary” style. One fears that even now she is not appreciated for the genius she is. Despite her Pulitzer for Foreign Affairs, it is tempting to think her work bears the same relation to the rest of modern literature that Key West does to America—a place of recreation, a paradisal holiday from the mundane. It is only after we have left it that we realise, actually, this last resort is life.
SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Death in the Sun Postponed.” Spectator 280, no. 8862 (13 June 1998): 40.
[In the following review, Brookner concludes that The Last Resort will satisfy Lurie's admirers but is lacking in seriousness and edge.]
Into the stagy, semi-tropical setting of Key West—frangipani, hibiscus, bougainvillea, mosquito nets—come two refugees from the icy campus of Convers College, many miles to the north in New England. They are a respectable married couple, Wilkie Walker, famous naturalist and ecologist, heroic populariser and signer of books, and his submissive wife Jenny who does most of his research and all of his secretarial work. He is 70 and, although his wife is ignorant of the fact, a troubled man. He suspects that he may have a mortal illness (illness abounds in this novel [The Last Resort], although it is dealt with rather cutely) and is wondering how to effect his suicide in such a way that it will not adversely affect his reputation.
Since the layout of Key West lends itself to such accidents he has determined simply to swim out to sea and let nature take its course. Nature will do that anyway, but he knows too much about nature, having spent his entire professional life patronising endangered species. It has only now occurred to him that he is an endangered species in his own right, as, apparently, are all the other inhabitants of Key West, the arthritic, the HIV positive, the extremely stupid. This last category is signalled by its ill-matched clothing and its inability to finish its sentences. Jenny herself may be extremely stupid, although she can whip up a dinner party for eight at the last minute and will eventually discover Wilkie's true nature in the not quite time-honoured way of women in contemporary novels. In all her manifestations Jenny has Alison Lurie's full backing.
Not so Wilkie Walker, who is selfish and expansive, a figurehead in his day, but, as an acid young journalist informs him, no longer flavour of the month. His work on the salt marsh mouse has brought him immense acclaim and his opus on the copper beech may bring him more. But now he has weightier matters to consider, such as the correct timing of his descent into oblivion. Jenny will be all right, he thinks: he has left her plenty of tasks to be getting on with, and she has never objected to passages of her own writing appearing under his name. At this point the reader may wonder whether any woman, today, in America, would allow herself to be quite so typecast. This is an old-fashioned comedy, in which misunderstandings abound and it is taken for granted that a wife will never ask her husband a simple question. Why has he become so objectionable? Why does he not speak to her? The reader knows that he is biding his time until he can disappear, leaving all those promised speaking engagements unfulfilled: no more book signings, no more appearances on television. He is almost looking forward to it.
There is a serious bass note to this artifice. A man's reputation declines; his later work becomes sentimental. There are other activists on the scene. There is even another endangered species, the manatee, soon to be the object of enthusiastic fund-raising, this last led by Barbie Mumpson, who will find the manatee more sympathetic than her politician husband. This particular political animal is, predictably, involved with a Las Vegas showgirl. Barbie is not the only stock character to enliven the scene, and one tends to greet them as old friends. There is Jacko, who has Aids, and Lee, who is the wise lesbian owner of a women-only guest house. There is Barbie's mother, Myra, who has arrived to talk sense into her daughter. There is the poet Gerry Grass, with his greying hair and his youthful demeanour. They are all in and out of each other's houses, as if Key West were some version of a university campus. In fact this is a disguised campus novel, and may bring to mind Lurie's marvellous Love and Friendship and The War between the Tates. But the characters—some of them at least—have grown older, and the earlier innocence and knowingness have disappeared.
Wilkie's suicide is thwarted at every turn, as it has to be. Perhaps he is not approaching it in the right spirit. Although the title of this novel is The Last Resort there is little feeling for an appropriate ending. Accommodations will be made, the most potent being provided by nature itself, or perhaps herself, since late awakenings will arrange the fates of Jenny, of Barbie, and of Lee, the boarding-house owner with the degree in counselling. Wilkie himself will be delivered by one of nature's unkind thrusts, delivered in an undignified manner, as they usually are. These characters will live another day. There will be one spectacular death, but not, as it were, of anyone we know.
Alison Lurie is a marvellously natural writer, and this novel will give pleasure to her many fans. But the easy-flowing and affecting humour of, say, Foreign Affairs has not quite lived up to its early reputation. Perhaps there is less room these days for the guileless novel of manners. By the same token this may increase nostalgia for the sort of novel in which a simple plot is plainly worked out, and in which characters are almost recognisable without much hard work being undertaken on their behalf. And sentimental naturalists may have to come to terms with the harder-edged facts of life. A whole novel might have been written on this last point. This is not the novel Alison Lurie has chosen to write. She has allowed the reader a brief holiday in the sun, enabling him to postpone indefinitely a return to a colder climate.
SOURCE: Mantel, Hilary. “Escape Artists.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 17 (5 November 1998): 23-4, 26.
[In the following excerpt, Mantel lauds The Last Resort but cites shortcomings in the novel's supporting cast and narrative structure.]
It is dangerous to stray outside New England, to places where the chill predictabilities of winter are overlapped by the warm ocean currents of self-indulgence and self-deceit: to places where the bracing necessities of shoveling snow are replaced by the velvet and slippery deceptions of bodily warmth. Harry DeKroll entertains mild regrets for Key West in the days when it offered “the great escape,” for days when easily available mind-altering substances adjusted reality more effectively than today's intake of con leche and Oprah. Harry the Housesitter is the narrator of Ann Beattie's new story “The Siamese Twins Go Snorkeling.” He stands by and watches someone else get a life (and employ him to service it), while he himself is occupied with work on “Great American Novel about drifters in Key West; yes, it will have been written before, but ne'er so well expressed.”
Alison Lurie, by contrast, has invented a character [in The Last Resort] who in Key West is at odds with everyone around him. He alone has a stern purpose: it is suicide. For others, day devolves sweetly into day, heat and luxuriance feeding upon themselves, and if—like one character—you are crippled and constricted by arthritis, you think of Key West as a lap into which you can tumble, a salving mama; or if you are gay and HIV-positive, and watching your blood-count the way people in harsher climates watch the barometer, you can choose the moment when the waters will take you under. But Wilkie Walker is the man whom the waves refuse. His egotism is like a life vest, constantly bobbing back, floating him nose-to-nose with the possibility of his professional failure and washing him against the wreck of a twenty-five-year marriage.
His wife Jenny is now forty-six, and Wilkie is seventy. They married just after she graduated, and the marriage saved her from aimlessness. She wanted to devote her life to someone, and Wilkie needed her devotion. At that time he had two failed marriages behind him. Attractive but emotionally selfish, he is a man of high intellectual attainment but scant practical ability. He would rather delegate the business of shopping or household repairs or balancing a checkbook. Besides taking care of his day-to-day needs, Jenny has been his faithful secretary, researcher, in effect co-writer. She has always minimized her role, and allowed Wilkie to take full credit.
As well as a solipsist, Wilkie is a naturalist, and a popular author. He has been working on a book called The Copper Beech, and it is almost finished. Only one chapter is needed, and the book has already been announced in his publisher's catalog. It is to be the culmination of his life's work, drawing together all his interests and concerns. One can easily see that this could be a fateful moment in a writer's life. Because after it, what is there left to do? The writer puts down the pen: he dies, artistically and perhaps actually.
So it is no surprise to learn that Wilkie is dragging his feet. He feels forced to review, to examine his life's work. Is it possible that he has done more harm than good, distracting himself and other people from serious scientific issues, encouraging them in sentimental anthropomorphism? He fears “he had made his point so well that it had become banal.” His books have been taken up by teachers and his environmentalist message passed down the generations. Like many popularizers, he detests his fans; he feels they have taken his work from him and distorted its messages. He is dismayed to find he is “quoted everywhere by those Family Values creeps.” And now the animal rights activists regard him as outmoded, and eco-warriors have stolen his thunder.
All this—his feeling of purposelessness, his sourness at the loss of his reputation, his fear of useless old age—crystallize in Wilkie's conviction that he has bowel cancer. He is determined not to suffer a lingering, humiliating death. Suicide seems the way out, but wouldn't that hurt Jenny? Possibly the best thing would be to arrange himself a fatal “accident.” He believes she could cope with that, just about. The Last Resort now becomes the story of Wilkie's search for death, and its maddening ways of baffling and eluding him.
This is thin ice for a comic writer. Alison Lurie glides over it with elegant expertise. This is her first novel in ten years. Throughout her long career she has struck a perfect balance, as scathing observer of personal relationships and as satirist of the wider society. And so it is in this book. Her wryness, her poise, the painful smiles her text elicits remind one often of Muriel Spark, but she has a fuller humanity and less innate ferocity; shrewd but never shrewish, she has, perhaps, more liking for her characters. She brings the reader into a quick intimacy with them, and does it without fuss; her creations register sharply on the page. She doesn't proffer judgments, but she gives the reader the evidence to form her own. Wilkie is not a foolish figure. He is treated with something better than sympathy—with fairness.
It was Jenny's helpful idea that the Walkers should winter in Key West. She thought it would reenergize them—but as the days pass, she begins to feel despondent and useless. Wilkie is not working, so she is not. He is brooding, snapping at her, shutting himself up alone for hours but making no progress with his final chapter. His attitude undermines her and taps into her deepest insecurities. Is she good enough for him? Was she ever good enough? This devoted wife has very little life of her own. Jenny's friends, of course, accuse her of being a “walking anachronism.” They get angry on her behalf, believing Wilkie exploits her. But “feminism had done nothing for her except make her chosen life seem peculiar and estrange her from her friends.” It's clear that Lurie is not on the side of these commentators, with their simplistic, prescriptive views, so intrusive and useless when applied to the mystery that is a long marriage. On the other hand, she catches very deftly the emotional tone of a woman enmeshed in such a marriage, whose instinct is first to refer everything, however personal and painful, to her spouse, and who in fact does not seem to have a separate identity. When she goes swimming in the ocean and is stung by a man-of-war, her reaction is “My husband will think I'm a total idiot.”
The man-of-war incident is a turning point for Jenny. Floundering in pain, drinking in salt water, she is rescued by Lee, the proprietor of a women-only guest house. She goes to work part-time at the guest house and has an affair with Lee. The reader is given a clear sense of Lee's physical presence, but her character is not convincingly developed; she is far too good to be true. There are several second-rank characters in the book whose purpose fails to clarify, and who loaf about like unwanted extras on a film set. Yet there are two comic triumphs among the minor actors. Barbie is the estranged wife of a Republican congressman who is having an affair with a showgirl. She has come to Key West to sort out her feelings, and—again—with the background intention of drowning herself if life gets unbearable. Damp ineptitude pervades her life. She has never been able to manage anything properly—not even to get born again in the Lord: “… A couple of times she had tried to put her life into the hands of Jesus, but it had never worked out.”
She has, however, an unexpected talent for small appliance repairs, and is able to fix Lee's toaster while contemplating annihilation. A gushingly sentimental fan of Wilkie's, she is saved from death by a suddenly discovered need to Save the Manatee.
Barbie's mother Myra—a bullying grande dame—is an off-stage presence for much of the book, and is trailed extensively before she appears. Can she possibly be as bad as the reputation that precedes her? When she does appear, with “a voice that had some of the characteristics of a leaf-shredder,” we realize that Lurie knew exactly how to play her in; we are in the presence of a memorable monster.
Meanwhile, Wilkie's plans are going badly. There are just too many people wanting to drown themselves, in Key West. He has to control carefully the circumstances of his accident, not only for the sake of plausibility, but because he is worried about his posthumous reputation. But death is not at Wilkie's orders, and will not come at his prompting. Death, in fact, is laughing at him. And so massive is his anger that Jenny begins to feel she hates him. Alison Lurie teases out each paradox in their situation. The novel itself is something of a paradox: a novel about death, in which the author is enjoying herself. Merciless as ever in nailing pretension and self-deceit, Lurie treats the risky subjects of aging and mortality with the ironic detachment that is her trademark. The Last Resort is a melancholy book, which wears its melancholy with a jaunty air, and there is not a clumsy word in it.
Yet it is unlikely that this eighth novel will be seen as Lurie's best book. One weakness is the unsupportive nature of the supporting cast, the multiplication of characters with no real part to play. The other weakness is structural. After Wilkie's discovery—no surprise to the reader—that he has a perfectly sound digestive tract, he has to get used to the idea of living again. At this point, some three hundred pages in, the story loses some of its grip. It was the successive suicide attempts and their thwarting, the successive installments of the farce, that kept the narrative patterned. All the same, the reader is sufficiently involved with the characters to want to know how they will make their various reconciliations with circumstance. Wilkie's mind begins to move on familiar lines, as he contemplates another year, another book, another popular hit. “Manny the manatee. Or did that sound too Jewish?”
During the time he calls “while I was so preoccupied,” he has exposed his own nature and alienated his wife. Wilkie will not learn from his experience. He is probably beyond learning. But Jenny has negotiated herself into a brighter future.
Alison Lurie has a light touch. She uses no shock effects. She is an uncomfortable writer in the way that Jane Austen is uncomfortable: the comparison has been drawn before, and this book strengthens it. There is the same beadiness of eye, the same almost imperceptible smile, and the unspoken questions, left hanging in the air. However small the canvas, her characters inhabit a complete moral universe.
SOURCE: Oldham, Gerda. Review of The Last Resort, by Alison Lurie. Antioch Review 57, no. 1 (winter 1999): 109-10.
[In the following review, Oldham provides an overview of the plot and characters of The Last Resort.]
Key West, the “last resort” of the novel [The Last Resort], is the place where characters in Lurie's tale meet; some of them are year-round residents like Jacko, a gardener who has just learned that he is HIV-positive, Molly Hopkins, who did covers for the New Yorker in the good old days, and Lee Weiss, an ex-psychologist who now runs a B. & B. for women. “Having been a therapist came in useful, Lee said, when neighbors or guests got difficult. It's simple, she had explained. All you do is, you just repeat the last thing they said, and it makes them think you're sympathetic and sort of defuses the situation.” Others are there for a winter vacation or plan to spend the cold months there, like Wilkie and Jennie Walker. Wilkie, a well-known writer on the environment and endangered species, agreed to come with a secret agenda in mind. Since he believes he is suffering from an incurable disease, he plans to drown himself while ostensibly swimming for exercise. Jennie is 25 years younger than he and has been the perfect wife for a productive writer, taking care of all the details of his professional and personal life. Until recently it was a loving relationship; but since Wilkie believed he was slowly dying, he had been silent and withdrawn, and Jennie was bewildered, hoping a change in environment would be helpful.
Lurie, in her first novel in ten years, depicts a large and varied group of characters with various emotional and social problems, all becoming more or less resolved by the end of the book. Lurie is a professor of English at Cornell University. She won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Foreign Affairs in 1985, and is a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters. She divides her time between Ithaca, Key West, and London.
SOURCE: Simon, Linda. “Something That Is Gone.” World and I 14, no. 2 (February 1999): 285.
[In the following review, Simon comments that Lurie displays her talents as an astute observer of quirky, trendy, contemporary life in The Last Resort.]
Since 1962, when she published her first novel, Love and Friendship, Alison Lurie has carved out a special literary territory: troubled marriages in academia, bewilderment among the intelligentsia. As Lurie sees it, being well read and articulate does not guard against bad, bumbling, or silly choices. Erudition does not grant immunity from the longings that beset a wider range of humanity: the desire to transgress the boundaries of one's identity, to break some rules, to seek excitement—even, perhaps, a bit of wildness.
Among her eight previous novels, perhaps the best known is The War between the Tates, published in 1974, which charts the messy marital problems of a political science professor, Brian Tate, and his wife, Erica. The novel is set in the academic community of Corinth University (read Cornell, where Lurie, a professor in the English department, teaches children's literature). Brian, suffering from a typical midlife crisis, has an affair with one of his students; when Erica discovers his adultery, it precipitates her own noisy crisis.
But Lurie is interested in more than turbulence in the Tates' marriage. By setting the novel in the early 1970s, when the Vietnam War and the vociferous feminist movement strained and assaulted personal relationships, Lurie has a chance to explore the way social and political events intersect with private life, the ways that these events shatter cherished illusions and generate volcanic personal eruptions.
Ten years after The War between the Tates, Lurie published Foreign Affairs (which won a Pulitzer Prize), again drawing her characters, Vinnie Miner, a fifty-something professor of English, and Fred Turner, Miner's much-younger colleague, from the Corinth faculty. Miner and Turner spend a sabbatical semester in London, each intent on a research project. But they find their attentions turning to more than literary matters: Sex and sensuality, love and friendship, yearning and regret become their preoccupations.
Although this novel, with its international juxtapositions, inspired some critics to compare Lurie to Henry James, Lurie is far less interested than James was in the covert psychological motivations of her characters; instead, she offers a satiric, ironic, comic rendition of their troubles—what one critic called a “snappy Lurie commentary on trendy contemporary life.” Lurie is, indeed, an acute observer of trends, quirks, and social types—a talent amply evident in her latest novel, The Last Resort.
The last resort of the title is Key West, where Lurie lives for part of each year. “Key West can have a transformative power,” Lurie told an interviewer recently. “Part of it is the tropical lushness, unlike anywhere else in the country. But I think what's important is the people. You can find gingerbread houses in lots of other places. But you might not have the tolerant atmosphere that fosters eccentricity in Key West.” For northerners, of course, Key West is one destination offering a respite from winter, and the transformative power need be nothing more than sunshine. But Jenny Walker, the novel's central character, hopes for a deeper and more pervasive transformation for her husband, her marriage, and herself.
Jenny is the much-younger wife of Wilkie Walker, a 70-year-old naturalist who teaches at Convers College, a small liberal arts institution located in a picturesque New England town. Besides being a professor, Walker also is a famous writer, an environmentalist whose works inspired a movement to save the salt marsh harvest mouse from extinction. Now at the end of his career, Wilkie is frustrated that the environmental movement seems mired in sentimentality, that his own contributions have been commercialized and trivialized, and especially that the environment is still deteriorating at a rapid pace.
But there is more upsetting Wilkie than his professional life. Despite his physician's assurance that he is healthy, Wilkie thinks he is dying of cancer, and he has become inconsolably depressed at the thought of his own imminent extinction. Refusing to discuss his fears with his wife, he simply withdraws; instead of finishing his latest book—a study of a majestic copper beech tree on the Convers campus—he spends all his time hatching a plan to commit suicide and make the act look like an accident.
After more than twenty years of a happy marriage, Jenny does not understand what has happened when Wilkie suddenly becomes irritable and dismissive. She is hurt, she is rejected; taking advice from her daughter, a medical student who diagnoses Wilkie's behavior as clinical depression, she decides that Wilkie needs to rest, to escape the dark and chilly New England winter, to look out on a new prospect. She suggests that they spend a few months in Key West. Wilkie, immediately envisioning the churning sea as a potential site for his demise, agrees.
Now Jenny is an unusual character for contemporary fiction: an exemplary wife. She has sought no sources of fulfillment outside of raising her two children, maintaining a home, and, most important, serving as her husband's confidante, research assistant, secretary, and sometime ghostwriter. If the feminists among the Convers faculty look with disdain at Jenny's choices, she herself has been unusually satisfied and happy living her life as Mrs. Wilkie Walker.
Jenny's selfless devotion to her marriage and her husband's career makes his inexplicable withdrawal all the more distressing for her. What has she done wrong, she wonders? Has he lost interest in her as a woman? Is he tired of her? Has she failed him? Jenny is deeply worried but hopeful that the edenic landscape of Key West will revive the warmth in her marriage.
If Wilkie's fears and Jenny's worries imply a serious and even dour plot, the result is far different. This is a typical Lurie novel: a gossipy, slightly malicious comedy featuring a motley cast of characters. Lurie's strength as a novelist is plot twists rather than characterization, and critics have sometimes accused her of creating unsympathetic—even harsh—portraits of the men and women who people her novels. Here, however, Lurie, now 72, treats the aging Wilkie with some measure of sympathy, although she still portrays him as self-absorbed, elitist, and even misogynist. And though Lurie clearly respects Jenny for the choices she has made in her life, still Jenny emerges as more than a bit naive and even self-righteous in her single-minded devotion to her husband. Not until the last moments of the book does Jenny assert herself, gently of course, against her husband's apparently mild but still insistent direction of her life.
Lurie paints Key West in pastels, with its sun-dappled gardens, open-air restaurants, and long, sandy beaches. Tourists, who arrive throughout the winter, spend their days “splashing in the warm ocean, or lazing in the warmer sand, watching the slow waves lick the shore.” They frolic like children: window-shopping and licking ice-cream cones, throwing Frisbees, and, at night, crowding into bars to listen to loud music.
Lurie contrasts these holiday seekers with the year-round residents, men and women who may have come as tourists but then stayed to assume civic responsibility. Key West, after all, has the kind of problems that beset any community: pollution—in this case, debris floating onto the beaches—a homeless population, and a threatened ecosystem. Still, like the tourists they once were, the year-round residents see Key West as a haven, even a refuge, from their former, less sunny and benign, lives. They have come to reinvent themselves; not all succeed.
Lurie's characters are a predictable group for the 1990s, familiar types that populate much recent fiction. There is Lee Weiss, the strong, independent lesbian and outspoken feminist; Jacko, the attractive, wise, and gentle HIV-positive homosexual; Molly Hopkins, the elderly widow, depressed about feeling irrelevant and tired of witnessing other people's foibles; Barbie Mumpson, who also appeared in Foreign Affairs, the wife escaping her cheating husband (he is a politician, but that should surprise no one); Myra, Barbie's domineering mother (the woman with impeccable fashion sense and a steely will); and Gerry Grass, the self-important, middle-aged poet, accompanied by his ditsy young girlfriend (here she is named Tiffany, and Lurie makes her an accountant).
For Jenny, the most important character is Lee Weiss, who had come to Key West twenty-five years earlier, escaping an oppressive marriage. Discovering her identity as a lesbian, Lee is now the owner of a women's guesthouse. One day, despite a placard warning “Danger: Men-of-War,” Jenny decides to go swimming, is stung by a jellyfish, and is rescued by Lee, who immediately falls in love with her. The two are thrown into each other's company when Jenny, in need of something to occupy her empty days, takes a part-time job at Lee's guesthouse. Desperately in need of a confidante, Jenny turns to the sympathetic Lee. The two women become close friends, and then, although Lurie gives us few details, lovers.
This relationship serves to liberate Jenny from Wilkie's domination and, Lurie implies, to open up new paths of self-fulfillment. Jenny is not the only character whose life is changed in Key West. Gerry, the poet, after being dumped by Tiffany, finds self-enlightenment, limited, of course, by his large ego. Barbie, who arrives feeling emotionally battered and lost, discovers a passion for ecology and mounts a campaign to save the endangered manatee. Despite her mother's admonitions, she will not return to her philandering husband.
The most subtle and believable changes, though, occur for the two eldest characters: Wilkie and Molly. Both face death, both feel useless. But as Molly learns from Jacko, each must make a choice to focus on life or on death. “The way I figure,” he tells Molly, “everyone is living, everyone is dying.” In that case, he decides, you might as well indulge in living joyfully and well. Wilkie, finally convinced that he is not dying but has many healthy years ahead of him, discovers the pleasures of being “a kind of elder statesman” among naturalists. He enjoys his celebrity, finishes his book, and engages in talks, symposia, and a renewed relationship with Jenny. If his former role as activist and gadfly no longer is appropriate, he is persuaded that he can take an important new role: raising money, guiding younger people, and influencing change.
Lurie chose as an epigraph for the novel three lines from Wordsworth's “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.”
But there's tree, of many one, A single field which I have looked upon, Both of them speak of something that is gone.
Wilkie's imagined brush with death teaches him to look not at what might be gone tomorrow but at what is here today: the ancient copper beech tree, his good wife, and the small delights of each moment.
SOURCE: Newman, Judie. “Biographical Introduction.” In Alison Lurie: A Critical Study, pp. 4-27. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000.
[In the following essay, Newman provides an overview of Lurie's early life and education, her formative experiences with the Poets' Theatre, the origin of recurring themes and characters in her fiction, and the inadequacies of her critical appraisal.]
When Alison Lurie was first a student at Radcliffe, only one class in creative writing was available, taught by Robert Hillyer, a handsome minor poet whose manner struck Lurie as courtly, but curiously vague. (She did not suspect that he had a drinking problem.) For several weeks Hillyer collected the students' efforts, but never returned them, preferring to read aloud from his favourite books, slowly but with maximum emotion.
Finally one day he entered the room, pulled from his briefcase what looked like all the work he had ever received from us, heaped it onto the desk and sat down. We waited expectantly. “Yer-all-such-nice-young-ladies. Only you can't write, y'know. Wasting-yer-time.” Then he put his head down among our papers and passed out.1
Hillyer was signally wrong about one, at least, of his students. Alison Lurie went on to produce nine novels, a volume of short stories, a biographical memoir, works for children, a study of the language of clothes, and two collections of fairy tales. She won widespread popularity for The War between the Tates, and became the recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1979) and a Pulitzer Prize (1985).
When John Leonard described Alison Lurie's prose as faultless as an English lawn—“One could play polo on such prose”2—he merely confirmed the prevalent view of Alison Lurie as an Anglophile, even in some ways a very English, type of American writer. Often compared to Jane Austen, Lurie tends to be seen as a paleface among all-American redskins, a writer of comedies of manners more in the mould of Henry James and Edith Wharton than of Twain or Melville. Lurie herself has conceded the influence of the nineteenth-century British novel, but as a product of gender. Given the relative lack of prominence of American women writers during her youth, she turned to British literary foremothers.
For a young American woman who wanted to write in the 1950s, there were very few role models. Hemingway and Faulkner offered me nothing. I wasn't going to write about bullfights or incestuous Southern families. I turned naturally to writers such as Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing, having grown up on the English Victorian Novel.3
None the less it is not for nothing that Gore Vidal dubbed her “the Queen Herod of modern fiction”, for Lurie's irony can be savage, her satiric thrusts all the more deadly for the deadpan manner of their delivery. As Derwent May commented, Lurie's readers often have no idea “what expression there is on her face as she contemplates the field of slaughter.”4 In the contests of her novels, the result of a resounding collision of values is rarely other than Pyrrhic victory; more often the action ends in a standoff among exhausted characters, whose foibles have been ruthlessly exposed.
Throughout her work, and in spite of her “European” reputation, Lurie has none the less focussed on that oldest of American traditions, Utopianism. In each of her novels a Utopian community—a college founded on an innovative Humanities course, a group of Beats, a millennialist sect, a colony of artists, a gay enclave, a group of progressives, feminists or (in several reprises) Liberal academics—provides the means to explore the boundaries between pragmatism and idealism, and to tackle issues of social conformity, engagement or detachment within a carefully circumscribed arena. The university campus is thus only one variant on the miniaturised or microcosmic space within which each plot is set. Influenced perhaps by her sociologist father and her own involvement in the Poets' Theatre, Lurie is particularly adept at delineating the effects of social role-play (or role-play tout court) upon characters whose sense of self is permeable at the boundaries and constantly shifting. When Erica Tate laments the fact that identity appears to be at the mercy of circumstances, she voices one of Lurie's central concerns.
Perhaps inevitably, given the focus upon the social construction of the self in American literature, Lurie also follows Twain and James in an emphasis upon the child as innocent eye, revealing the hypocrisies of circumambient adults. In her case, an informed knowledge of children's literature adds a consciously intertextual dimension to her adult fiction. Women's writing is always particularly sensitive to the ways in which female acculturation and socialisation are promoted by such “texts” as folklore, myth, fairy tales, movies and advertisements. Lurie's retelling of classic fairy tales in her 1980 volume, Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales, deliberately selects tales from the available body of folklore in order to reconstitute a tradition and to promote images of women as brave, clever, resourceful, able to defeat giants, answer riddles, and outwit the devil, rather than as waiting passively for their prince to come. Two other volumes for children, Fabulous Beasts and The Heavenly Zoo, are designed to facilitate imaginative liberation, in the one case in a Borgesian collection of legendary animals and their tales (e.g. “The Vegetable Lamb,” “The Basilisk”), in the other by recounting the stories of the stars, whether Greek, Biblical, Indonesian, or Native American. As well as editing a series of reprints of traditional children's literature, (Classics of Children's Literature, 1621-1932) Lurie has also published a variety of essays, now collected as Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, in which she emphasises the way in which children's literature can be subversive of the social norm, an aid to imaginative and thus to political freedom. For Lurie there is no distinction of seriousness between children's and adult literature—each category deserves equal attention.
Similarly her 1981 volume The Language of Clothes, a serious examination of the history and interpretation of costume, begins from the premise that one set of signs is translatable into another, that clothing may be envisaged as a sign system, and that human beings communicate in the language of dress. In each of her novels Lurie foregrounds a similar interaction—in specific terms, between novel and folklore, sociology, political science, or biography, or more generally between art and life. Despite a concern for craft which satisfies the most demanding formalist aesthetic criteria, Lurie never loses sight of the sense in which art and life interpenetrate, in which paradigmatic plots abound, not just in literary culture, but also in general culture. In consequence her readers gain a sense of real life as being structured according to patterns familiar from literary culture, just as literary culture may be structured according to patterns familiar from real life. As Susan Stewart expresses it in her intertextual study of folklore and literature: “our neighbourhoods are full of Madame Bovarys, Cinderellas, Ebenezer Scrooges, Constantine Levins and wise fools, as much as fictions are full of people from our neighbourhoods.”5 In this sense Lurie is distinct among contemporary American novelists in her ability to conjoin self-conscious forms with thematic meat. By employing intertextual devices, she calls into question received literary and cultural definitions, interrogating the relation of fantasy to reality, and displaying an intense fascination with levels of truth. In interview Lurie argued that
I think any way that we project ourselves into the world is a kind of sign. Like all signs, it can be genuine or false or something in between … When you write, put on a costume, or furnish a room, you are working in a system of signs that have a meaning just as a word has a meaning. It is an indefinite system because no signs will mean the same thing to any two people. But this is nevertheless the system we have to work in.6
It is worth remembering that when we say “novelist of manners” we are in fact often talking about fiction which pays close attention to the reading of social signs. Lurie's novels, like those of Wharton or James, are in some respects semiotic comedies, comedies of the sign.
In typically mischievous fashion, Lurie also offers a bonus for regular readers in the use of “carryover” characters (rather in the style of Barbara Pym or Anthony Powell) who reappear from one novel to another, often at a tangent to the main action. Principal actors in one novel (e.g. Erica Tate in The War between the Tates) may be mere asides in others (Erica in Only Children, Emmy in The War between the Tates, Paul Cattleman in Foreign Affairs) or have walk-on parts (almost everybody in The Truth about Lorin Jones). It is a technique which has two principal effects. Firstly, as the reader “recognises” a character, the impression is created (rather as in popular or series fiction) of a stable fictional world. At the same time the recognition of a character as belonging in another novel highlights fictionality. More generally therefore the technique interrogates the notion of a framed reality, reminding the reader that, in Tom Stoppard's phrase, every exit from the stage is an entrance somewhere else, that beyond the frame of art, life has its own horizons.
Alison Lurie's early experiences offer several clues to the prevalence of the Utopian scenario in her work and the characteristic opposition between idealistic commitment and ironic detachment. Born on 3 September 1926, in Chicago, and brought up in New York and White Plains, Westchester county, Lurie was the daughter of Liberals with left-wing leanings. (She remembers Norman Thomas, repeatedly a socialist presidential candidate, visiting the house). Her father Harry, Latvian-born, was a professor of sociology and became the founder and executive director of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, a social work agency. Sociological issues feature prominently in several of Lurie's novels, particularly in connection with the workings of small groups—fraternities in Love and Friendship, cults in Imaginary Friends—and social workers are major characters in Imaginary Friends and Only Children. Although Lurie's mother, Bernice Stewart, did not work outside the home, she was no conventional housewife. She had had to support herself from an early age following her father's death, had worked her way through college, and was then a journalist for the Detroit Free Press, editing the book and magazine section for some 15 years.7 Married in her early thirties, she was in her 35th year when her daughter was born. Lurie herself has ascribed her satiric viewpoint partly to background:
My father was a sociologist, my mother had been a journalist, and I think both of those professions are ones in which you can't help but take a step back from things. A sociologist is trained to do that and a journalist has to do that or else he or she would be sitting in the city room weeping all day long.8
The influence of idealistic and progressive parents clearly countered any easy detachment from social issues.
A second important influence was the manner of Lurie's birth—by the high-forceps delivery method, which left her damaged in one ear. As Lurie herself puts it:
I was a skinny, plain, odd-looking little girl, deaf in one badly damaged ear from a birth injury, and with a resulting atrophy of the facial muscles that pulled my mouth sideways whenever I opened it to speak and turned my smile into a sort of sneer.9
By the age of eight or nine Lurie was fully aware of these disadvantages and concluded that no one would ever want to marry her, she would never have children and would remain an ugly old maid. She was proved wrong on all counts. (She has been twice married, first to Jonathan Bishop, from whom she separated in 1975 following his religious conversion, and then to Edward Hower, a fellow novelist. She has three sons and three grandchildren). Nonetheless as a child she noticed that adults praised her various creations, from fudge brownies to rag rugs and poems, as “perfectly lovely”, but “No one ever told me that I was perfectly lovely, though, as they did other little girls. Very well then, perfection of the work.” She turned to writing as both enormously enjoyable and as a magically transformative experience, a “kind of witch's spell”: “With a pencil and paper I could revise the world.”10 Lurie was the elder of two sisters. In “Witches and Fairies: Fitzgerald to Updike” she recalls the kind of fairy-tales in which there are two sisters, the older ill tempered, spiteful and plain, the younger gentle, kind and pretty.
I didn't have to read what her name was, I knew already: it was Jennifer Lurie. My baby sister, who everybody said was as good as she was beautiful, would grow up to marry the prince, while I would be lucky if I didn't end up being rolled downhill in a barrel full of nails.11
The barrel of nails is the fate of the malevolent goosegirl in the story dramatised by plain Mary-Anne and beautiful Lolly in Only Children. Lolly goes on to a tragic fate in The Truth about Lorin Jones, while Mary-Anne achieves success, marriage and children. Unlike Jane Austen's world, adult sisters are relatively rare in Lurie's novels—with the exception of the antagonistic Myra and Dorrie in The Last Resort, and the sisters in “Rabbit,” one of whom is responsible for the other's death. Emmy, Verena, Catherine, Lorin, Mary-Anne, and Vinnie, are only children or have brothers, Erica Tate has a younger sister, described as perfectly horrible. No doubt a Freudian would have a field day with this material. The more prosaic explanation may simply be that which explains the high number of orphans in Victorian novels—the need to eliminate characters who would be redundant to the plot. In Lurie's fiction, nevertheless, ugly ducklings may become swans but swans have more of a tendency to turn back into ugly ducklings.
Significantly, like Mary-Anne and Lolly's, Lurie's childhood also included attendance at a day school, Windward, founded by progressive socialists. Lurie was part of this Utopian project from the ages of seven to twelve. She had attended a public (i.e. state) school for a year but the experience had not been a success. Lurie had learned to read at the age of four and was thoroughly bored in the sate system, which at that time in America focussed on the “three R's”. At Windward she had the run of the school library, there were excursions to local factories, pets and an ant-farm, the type of activities which are now fairly commonplace but were then very unusual. After Windward, Lurie went back to the state system for two years and then to Cherry Lawn, a coeducational school in Connecticut (Mike Nichols was a fellow boarder). Almost by accident she then enrolled at Radcliffe, planning to major in English. Once there, she swiftly discovered that if she chose instead to enter the recently created field of History and Literature, she could take Harvard courses, use the Widener library and have a Harvard professor instead of a Radcliffe graduate student as a tutor. The advantages were both intellectual and erotic. Radcliffe was then all-female, in the restrictive sense of the term. Men were allowed to visit only at specified times and in the public rooms on the ground floor. Upstairs the approach of any male (e.g. a plumber) was announced with warning shrieks of “Look out! Man coming.” Two thirds of Radcliffe women were virgins. Harvard did allow women in the undergraduates' rooms but only before six in the evening and providing that the door remained ajar. Lurie found these rules baffling. (“Didn't the Dean of Students know that sex could take place before supper?”)12 Later she realised that they may have been introduced to enforce class principles, since they effectively prevented Harvard men from sleeping with any women with daytime jobs. Radcliffe students remained resourceful; three quarters of them were eventually to marry Harvard men. One room with a window opening onto a terrace was much in demand among the more adventurous women:
One of its occupants during my time later worked for a brief period as a high-priced call girl, while another became an English duchess.13
Lurie clearly enjoyed her years at Radcliffe, and felt lucky to be there, as opposed to her male contemporaries who were fighting in the war.
World War II was a central fact of adult life—it began on my thirteenth birthday, and when it ended I wrote in my journal: “It's not being war is hard to imagine. There's a kind of childish haziness around it, so that being grown-up means there being war”.14
Petrol, meat, butter and sugar were rationed and even in the affluent surroundings of Radcliffe the menu featured such appetising delights as Shrimp Wiggle and Carrot Surprise. The men whom the Radcliffe women met as freshmen had a tendency to vanish at the official draft age of eighteen and a half, Harvard Yard was full of Navy officers in training, and everyone knew, or knew of, someone who had been killed in action.
Though they were not protesting about it, the Radcliffe women knew that they were distinctly second class citizens in the Cambridge academic community, lodged at a chilly distance from the main campus, and invisible to their instructors who addressed mixed classes as “Gentlemen”. There were no women on the faculty, all Lurie's textbooks were written by men, and women could not usually use the Harvard libraries. Since society girls usually went to Wellesley or Smith, it was assumed that Radcliffe women were bluestockings; cartoons in the Harvard Crimson regularly portrayed them as “dogs”, ugly grinds. When Lurie's friends invited B. J. Whiting, a popular Chaucerian scholar, as guest of honour at a dinner, he looked at the design of grotesque exotic birds on his plate and remarked, “At Harvard we have pictures of the buildings on our china. Here, I see, you have portraits of your alumnae.”15 Rather than resenting this, the women laughed appreciatively. Lurie's first tutor, David Owen, dismissed all her questions with the remark, “The trouble with you is you're a worrier like my wife.” She counted herself exceptionally fortunate later to find, in Joseph Summers, a magnificent tutor. Lurie went to the lectures of F. O. Matthiessen, Harry Levin, I. A. Richards and Henry Aiken, and in her final year joined Albert Guerard's fiction seminar. (The group included future novelists Alice Adams, Stephen Becker, Robert Crichton, and John Hawkes). The writing of the present was not itself covered in Harvard courses. “The Contemporary Period” ended in 1922 with Aldous Huxley. Levin's course on Proust, Joyce and Mann was considered daringly modern.
Harry Levin's influence, however, was strong in another sense. If anything, it was drama rather than the novel which marked Lurie's years in Cambridge. Levin's courses on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama were enormously popular, and covered English drama from its origins in church ritual and mummers' plays to the closing of the theatres. Lurie wrote her undergraduate dissertation on the relation between the sexes in Jacobean comedy, focussing on Middleton and Heywood. Entitled “Love and Money” it considered the relation between capitalism and romance in the Jacobean period. (The History and Literature field had been created in part as the product of a feeling that literature had become too specialised and refined, and that one way to connect back to the world was through history). The dramaturgical interest of Lurie's fiction has a long pedigree. More importantly, perhaps, Lurie became involved at Harvard in the Poets' Theatre, founded in 1950, as a loose affiliation of writers determined to revive poetic drama. A fluid and eclectic group, the Poets' Theatre set out to generate work by poets who would also act, administrate, direct and sell tickets, while retaining control of their own writing, and promoting the emergence of a new American verse theatre.16 Already a published poet and the winner of a poetry contest, Lurie was a founder member, having become involved through Edward Gorey, whom she had met at Mandrake, a small arty bookstore run by the wives of two Cambridge graduate students. The group was very much a writers' theatre, and included Gregory Corso, Hugh Amory, James Merrill, John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Frank O'Hara, Richard Wilbur, Lyon Phelps, John Ciardi, Kenneth Koch, Richard Eberhart and V. R. (Bunny) Lang, among others. Dylan Thomas gave his first American reading of Under Milk Wood for the Poets' Theatre in the spring of 1953; Beckett gave them permission to do the first American production of All That Fall. Plays by Lorca, Middleton, Yeats, MacLeish, René Char, Paul Goodman and Louis Simpson were among those produced. Edward Gorey did many of the set designs and artwork, and his late-Victorian taste dominated the visual aspects of some productions. (Frowning cherubs recur on the posters).
The Poets' Theatre was in many ways a highly idealistic and Utopian project, on the part of a group who were deeply serious about the importance of art. Lyon Phelps composed a manifesto “The Objectives of the Poets' Theatre” in which he emphasised the need to foster a theatre which foregrounded language rather than visual effects. In addition:
the training of an audience is inseparable from the training of ourselves as poet-playwrights.17
At the first production (1951, O'Hara's Try! Try!) the audience laughed—and were roundly rebuked at the intermission by Thornton Wilder, who lectured them angrily on the importance of verse drama. Nora Sayre, an early member, saw the group as responding to an acute hunger for European culture. There were strong echoes of surrealism and several members wrote plays about Orpheus (known to the group as “Orpheus things”). Noh plays, which needed little or no scenery and few actors, and were therefore cheap to produce, were also popular. In Lurie's account18 the idea of reviving poetic drama was a response to the feeling just after the war that poetry had become too separated from real life and the common reader, that it should come out of the study and library, to reach a wider audience. Many of those involved in the early days had followed Harry Levin's courses, and had also read widely in Classical drama, particularly Sophocles. Although verse drama may therefore sound somewhat arcane, the Poets' Theatre was in fact looking out from the ivory tower to a wider world. “Orpheus things” were more intertextual or parodic than reverently classical. In V. R. Lang's Fire Exit, Eurydice was in a burlesque theatre, and Orpheus was the mainstay of the Mozartiana L. P. Record Company. Try! Try! may have been a Noh play, but it involved a returning veteran confronting his wife as he arrives back from the war—a highly topical theme. The European influence yielded, however, as the movement tipped towards a more essentially American theatre. The Beats were on the horizon—indeed several members of the group are now thought of primarily in connection with the Beat movement.
Like any theatre group, the Poets' Theatre was fairly tempestuous, the first of Lurie's Utopias to reveal its flaws. As Lurie remarks,
The emotional temperature of the Poets' Theatre in the early days was high, for most of the younger writers and their friends were in love with Bunny and with each other. There were secrets, confidences, collaborations, poems and dramas à clef passed from hand to hand, public quarrels and reconciliations, and the best scenes were not always played on stage.19
Flurries of telegrams of resignation citing “artistic differences” tended to arrive just before dress rehearsals, forcing defeat on the opposition. Money was scarce, and at first the group were essentially strolling players. At their first physical theatre, a small loft, there was so little backstage space that in warm weather the actors waited for their entrances in an alley outside the theatre, dodging garbage thrown out by a neighbouring restaurant. The auditorium held 49 on folding chairs. When a production sold out two more people could perch on a sink—through since it dripped it was a rather dampening experience. During one financial emergency invitations were sent out for a fundraising evening, at ＄2 to attend, ＄5 to stay away, and ＄6 to bring somebody who had not been invited. The group—effectively led by Bunny Lang—could be merciless at demolishing the pretentious. In the spring of 1952 they produced a one-act play, The Center, by Cid Corman, a Boston avant-garde poet. The play was tragic and symbolic. Characters included “The Old Man”, “Second Philosopher”, “A Child”. Lang, infuriated by Corman's lack of attendance at the casting meeting or rehearsals, dressed the actors in union suits (long underwear) dyed salmon pink, and replaced the chosen Stravinsky symphony with the Elephant Polka. The performance went extremely well—but as a comedy. Corman arose shouting with anger at the close, as the curtain went down to thunderous laughter and applause.
Corman was sharing the bill with Alison Lurie. Lurie was involved in the Poets' Theatre from 1950 to 1955, in the years when it was a bohemian and radical group. (Later the increasing need for money was to propel it into a more respectable academic and social milieu). There were a number of gay men in the group and a distinctly countercultural aura. When a fire inspector, about to threaten closure on safety grounds, asked V. R. Lang, “Do you have AC or DC?” she replied “Oh we have everything” and he promptly fled.20 At this point only the most bohemian of Cambridge residents attended the productions. Lurie wrote two plays for it, kept minutes of its board meetings, and did the costumes and make-up for a large number of its productions. Although clearly very involved, she took a clear-sighted view of some of its participants. As she notes,
Among the original members as well as those that joined later not one was single-mindedly anxious to “revive poetic drama”. [Bunny's] motives were less worldly than most, for she did not principally hope to rise in society, to go on the professional stage, to get her poetry published, to become locally famous, or to meet possible lovers. Each of these ends was attained by some member of the theatre.21
This situation, in which young people confront choices between artistic or worldly goals, is treated ironically in Lurie's Smith: A Masque, performed on 21st and 23rd May 1952, as part of an evening of plays which also featured The Center and Richard Eberhart's The Visionary Farms. The production took place in the courtyard of the Fogg Museum, a location with excellent acoustics but no changing rooms. The actors dressed in the arched galleries above, terrifying the curators lest they damage some priceless painting or statue. Lurie appears on the playbill both as the author and (as Alison Bishop) as the costume designer. Smith was reviewed by Michael Maccoby in the Harvard Crimson.
The final piece, as a sharp contrast to the symbolism of the first and the morality of the second, is both superficial and amusing. This fantasy Smith: A Masque, by Alison Lurie, describes the dilemma of a young graduate who must choose a life's work. The graduate, played by Tom Kennedy, must select among Juno and wealth, Venus and artistic fame, or Minerva and scholarship. Smith, an obstinate fellow, will have none of them and the goddesses immediately despatch him to points unmentionable.22
Maccoby found the performance thoroughly enjoyable, suggesting to him that the Poets' Theatre did not need to wrap themselves in “misty clouds of symbolism and obscure verbiage” to please their audience. A photograph (22 May 1952) in the Crimson subtitled “Pleasure or Knowledge” shows Kennedy trying to choose between the rival claims of Venus (Allyn Moss) and Minerva (V. R. Lang). Essentially a vaudeville sketch version of the Judgement of Paris, in rhymed verse, the play included songs for which Lurie wrote the words to well-known tunes (e.g. “Marbles and Chalk” an old blues song which was a favourite of Lang's). Smith, a young man clad in standard Harvard ingenu costume of chinos and seersucker jacket, opens the action by declaring his intention to avoid the fate of his audience and side-step the shackles of social conformity:
None of you live where you would like to live Or do your real desire. You hesitate, Middle-aged, greedy, guilty, second-rate. You all got caught. I'm not going to get caught. I'm not going to do anything I ought. I'm going to live.
Juno's temptations include the attractions of a Cadillac, a perfect tan and West Palm Beach which are roundly condemned by Venus as exemplifying bad taste:
Art after all demands integrity Don't think that means you won't have fun with me.
The picture she paints of the artist's career runs from a rented attic to the editorship of a review:
Which ten years later may devote to you An issue. Half a century from now Bons mots you made during domestic scenes Will be retold in little magazines, And, smiling graciously, you will allow The Authorized Edition to appear.
In response Minerva (in horn-rimmed glasses and an owl-topped academic cap) paints a dreary picture of Smith as a worn-out hack at forty-five, offering instead the delights of a scholastic career culminating in publication in PMLA. Smith remains untempted, proclaims his independence—and is carried off to Hell. “Enter Jones”—and the play begins again. Without wishing to overemphasise a work intended for laughs, the play shows a developed taste for satire and, in the three fates which the goddesses script for Smith, an interest in issues of social acculturation.
Smith was not Lurie's first experience of writing for the theatre. On 20th and 21st February 1952 the group presented “An Entertainment Somewhat in the Victorian Manner” which included tableaux vivants, lanternslides, musical interludes, poetry readings and short plays together with “Full Orchestra And Irish Harps”, according to the advertisements. Admission was free, since the performance took place in Christ Church Parish House, and no charge could be made for admission to a church. The Parish House was filled to capacity, with a big crowd. Lurie's contribution was Sir George and the Dragon: A Marionette Play.24 There were four characters, George, Mrs. Why, Sir Hugh, and the Dragon, each played by two actors, once speaking, one miming. In interview Lurie described the play as a mock Christmas mummers' pageant, transferred to Cambridge with the characters given Cambridge identities. In the play Lurie exploits the disjunction between heroic, male pretensions and the bathetic realisation, in the character of George who opens the action lamenting that
This quasi-military dress Is not authentic, I confess. I bought my helmet at the Coop— They told me it was meant for soup.
From this reference (to the Harvard Co-operative Society in Harvard Square, which sold books, clothes and household items) the play translates the action into contemporary America, where the local community value their dragon as a useful heat source and a handy means of disposing of tiresome citizens. (He eats poets when necessary). Dressed by Brooks Brothers, George is the ultimate preppie, as is his friend Sir Hugh, a product of both Harvard and Groton (New England's most prestigious prep school), played by Hugh Amery who had been to both. Even the dragon has a Christmas box from S. S. Pierce, Boston's equivalent of Fortnum and Mason, and cordially invites his opponent to join him for a civilised drink before the duel. George, however, refuses obstinately. His role is ready-scripted by literary tradition and he will not deviate one whit from it.
You want all the conventions Observed?
Everything Malory mentions. The cry, the challenge, and the taunt.
With the archaic cry of “Avaunt! Avaunt!”, battle is joined, and the dragon struck down, to the horror of the other characters who fail to appreciate the joys of traditional genre and rebuke the hero in no uncertain terms. George is defensive:
An artist can expect no praise From those whose lives he strives to raise. No member of the bourgeoisie Ever appreciated me.
But when Sir Hugh refuses to knight him, on the grounds that he has not committed any good deeds, merely “a mean dragonicide” (p. 6) George changes his tune. Artificial respiration restores the dragon to life, and to the accompaniment of supernatural voices off, drums, trumpets and lightning, the hero gains his title, to general rejoicing. No man is a hero to his dragon, however. The latter has the last words.
But who's congratulating me? I go through this farce endlessly And nobody ever knights me.
Primarily an entertainment, the play none the less demonstrates a firm grasp of the conventions of the mummers' play, intertextually revamped, and a readiness to puncture aristocratic and artistic pretensions. George's slavish belief in the necessity of observing conventions—social or artistic—looks ahead to other characters in Lurie's fiction who find themselves ready-scripted into a damaged—or damaging—social identity. George is a figure of fun, but he follows a macho agenda:
I ought to do some noble deed. I ought to kill something.
Lurie's role was not only that of the dramatist. Costumes for the entire evening were in charge of “Mrs Jonathan Bishop”. The costs (＄18.57) included the rental of a helmet for Sir Hugh, a dragon's head, a Chinese hat and pigtail, and a colander. Arguably Lurie's experience backstage at the theatre may have been even more significant than her two experiences as dramatic author. She did the costumes and make up for a great number of the productions (e.g. John Ashbery's Everyman, Richard Eberhart's The Apparition, O'Hara's Try! Try!, and Lyon Phelps' Three Words in No Time). In interview Lurie commented that the experience of knowing how the theatre works is bound to have had an effect on her work:
You see what it's like behind the scenes and what the contrast is between the Poets' Theatre's (not very immense) glamour of what you see on stage and all the confusion and makeshift that goes on behind.25
The legacy of the Poets' Theatre was a double one, firstly in the influence of drama (and of working in a small group with Utopian aims) on the content of Lurie's fiction, but secondly, and more prosaically, on the fact that her fiction was ever published at all. Lurie's writing career was not all plain sailing; there was a gap of some 10 years between her first short stories and the publication of Love and Friendship. Lurie's first major work, Leonard and Others, a novella written when she was just out of college, focussed upon a young instructor at a boarding school who falls in love with a student. It is striking that in this first work of fiction Lurie situated events within an institution—viewed from a decidedly dystopian perspective. In interview, Lurie commented on the sense at a boarding school of an “upbeat mystique, you know, we're all working together, we're having a wonderful time, we're cheering for the school team, and we're singing in the school choir. Everything is wonderful”.26 Leonard Zimmern featured as a rather sour character, who saw the underside of the myth. Although the novella was never published, he was to survive as a character in almost all of Lurie's later novels. A second, full-length novel, The Guided Tour concerned four young Americans in Europe, Jamesian innocents abroad. Chloe Newcomb, the Jamesian heroine, bored by the guided tour which she is taking with her best friend and the latter's parents, meets two expatriates living on family money. As a result she comes to see the underside of Europe. If the guided tour offers a European proto-Disneyland, with scenery and exotic food as major components, the expatriates provide access to a Europe of poverty, desperation and crime. Set in 1950-51 the novel includes a particularly sinister expatriate living by his wits. It is never entirely clear if he has CIA connections, or is merely involved in black market activities, smuggling cars to Spain. As events unfold towards disaster, one couple remain in Europe, one return to America. Lurie had herself visited Europe in 1950, spending time in Britain and in Paris, Salzburg, Vienna and Munich. (Not merely tourist attractions; Munich had of course been badly bombed). The four chapters of the novel are each set in a different European city and the emphasis is very much upon the disjunction between tourist stage-sets and the historical wretchedness behind the scenes. Astutely foreshadowing later critics' comments on Lurie's coolness, V. R. Lang described it as written in a style of “stark impassivity.”27
Lurie's published fiction also anticipated some of the concerns of her later work. In “A Story of Women,” published when she was just twenty years old, Daisy, a rather literary girl who has just read The Great Gatsby, dreams of going to Europe while submitting under protest to the attentions of her mother and emphatically domestic sister, who are fitting her for a party frock. The dress is made of white silk, closely resembling the mother's wedding dress. The opposition between the sisters' views and life-choices is skillfully dramatised, in an understated fashion, and the central dilemma (art or marriage) presented via indirection. “Hansel and Gretel,” published five years later, is a darker tale, reversing the central situation of the fairy tale, to feature old people, rather than children, at the mercy of authoritative others. Mr. Mahans (Hansel) and Rettie (Gretel) are residents in an old people's home, who walk out of its repressive precincts and into the realms of forest fantasy. The folktale elements are again understated. Rettie is the active figure; Mr. Mahans is passively led. He dreams that he will be eaten, presumably by the sinisterly named Dr. Hex. The twist on the tale is that this witch figure is inside the supposedly safe and protective institution; the witch's house in the forest is actually a welcome destination, a refuge in the flight from oppressive authorities in league with the family. The tale looks ahead to the escape of Vinnie Miner (Foreign Affairs) from the imprisoning conventions of age and sex, again with a mediating fairy tale structure, and to the folklore motifs of Only Children and Women and Ghosts.
By 1951 Lurie was the author of two substantial works of fiction, but had published only two short stories and a small group of poems. It would be 1962 before Love and Friendship saw the light of day. Lurie has given her own account of the years of rejection slips in “No One Asked Me to Write a Novel”28
Twice in my life I deliberately tried to break the habit of writing. The first time I was 26; I hadn't had a manuscript accepted for five years, and my first novel had been turned down by six publishers.
By now married with a two-month old baby, Lurie accepted her husband's breakfast suggestion that she cut her losses and give up:
After all, Alison, nobody is asking you to write a novel.
Abstention lasted less than a May morning in the park.
Now that I wasn't a writer the world looked flat and vacant, emptied of possibility and meaning; the spring day had become a kind of glossy, banal, calendar photography: View of the Charles River. “This is stupid”, I said aloud. I stood up and pushed the baby home and changed him and nursed him and put him down for a nap—and went back to the typewriter.
Two years later, now with two rejected novels and two children in diapers, Lurie gave up again, for over a year. Beset by well-meaning friends and relatives suggesting that she give more time and attention to her family and stop doing something which appeared merely to make her unhappy, she concluded that
Evidently, what we had been taught was true: a woman had to choose between a family and a career; she couldn't have both like a man. By marrying, I had lost my powers. I had published two children, but my two novels had been born dead.
She threw herself into togetherness, family picnics, the baking of cookies and casseroles, and the other pursuits considered appropriate for a 1950s wife.
I told myself that my life was rich and full. Everybody else seemed to think so. Only I knew that, right at the center, it was false and empty … I passed in public as a normal woman, wife and mother; but inside I was still peculiar, skewed, maybe even wicked or crazy.
For some thirteen months this state of affairs persisted. Then in 1956 V. R. Lang died suddenly of cancer. “Disturbed, even frightened” by the suddenness and senselessness of this loss, and by the way in which memories were already fading Lurie decided to put down on paper everything that she knew of her, as fast as possible before it could be forgotten. She wrote entirely without thought of publication, or indeed of any other reader at all.
First, I noticed that I felt better than I had in months or years. Next I realized that I wasn't writing only about Bunny, but also about the Poets' Theatre, about academia and the arts, about love and power. What I wrote wasn't the whole truth—I didn't know that—but it was part of the truth, my truth. I could still cast spells, reshape events.
Above all Lurie realised that the point of Bunny Lang's life was that she had done what she wanted “not what was expected of her”. (p. 47). Lurie determined to write on, even if she were never to be published, since what she wanted to do was to write. Two years later friends who had read the memoir of V. R. Lang arranged for it to be privately printed. Two years after that the brother of another friend passed his copy to an editor at Macmillan, who asked if there was a novel—and accepted Love and Friendship, written almost without hope of publication, entirely for Lurie's own pleasure. The experience is one to which Lurie returns in The Truth about Lorin Jones, in which Polly Alter, a painter whose career has stalled, is kick-started back into creative activity by the experience of writing a biographical memoir of another artist, Lorin Jones. At the close of her story Polly also realises that she cannot tell the “whole truth” about Lorin, but that she can be true to her own knowledge of events. Interestingly Polly makes this decision after a trip to Key West where she also meets her future husband. Bunny Lang spent time in Key West with the man who was to become her husband, Bradley Phillips. Faced with as many versions of Lorin Jones as she has sources—alternately describing her as shy, schizoid, spiteful, unscrupulous or generous—Polly opts for a metabiography in which all her findings are pluralistically presented. In her introduction to Lang's collected poems and plays, Lurie comments that
when someone dies, each of the survivors is left with a slightly different image. With Bunny, who had so many moods and roles, these images were perhaps more different than usual.29
Her memoir also discusses the way in which Bunny could slip smoothly into different parts—as society hostess, chorus girl, Irish charwoman, member of the Canadian WAC, carer for an elderly father, idealistically committed to poetic drama, yet capable of dreadful revenges. She adored disguise and when she turned up on Lurie's doorstep dressed in drab, middle-aged clothes, in her role as commission saleswoman for a “Your Child's Lifetime” photograph plan, she was almost unrecognisable. Rosemary Radley in Foreign Affairs—alternatively playing the roles of English lady and Cockney charwoman—owes something to Bunny Lang. Lang, however, was not just an actress, but also a director. “She spontaneously invented an interesting character for whoever she met.”30 Since most of the young people involved in the Poets' Theatre were impressionable, and none too sure who they were,
They were excited to be told, and often behaved afterwards in line with Bunny's definition. Thus it might be said that today the character of everyone who knew Bunny is partly her creation.31
Lurie's own heroines are often exposed to similar scripting, for good or ill, both by individuals and society. Katherine Cattleman adopts the role of stereotypical California girl, and becomes unrecognisable to her husband. Vinnie Miner finds that Chuck Mumpson's repeated description of her as a good woman actually makes her do a good deed. Bunny Lang's acting abilities also highlight the extent to which role-play can move the actor from frame to picture, eliding the distinctions between life and art. In her final illness, she gave a poetry reading, haggard in black velvet, sobbing out a long elegiac poem until most of her audience were weeping,
but when the lights went up I could have sworn the dark circles under her eyes had been improved with greasepaint. Really dying, she still played at dying, as if she would make death just one more costume.32
Lang's last play, Et In Arcadia Ego, a modern anarchist pastoral, took its central characters to a paradisal island, where utopia promptly went sour. Its metaphors centre upon the image of the Ice Age and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Despite this emphasis, Lang was unaware that the title phrase originally meant “death, too is in Arcadia” and when informed, promptly changed it to I Too Have Lived in Arcadia to dispel the suggestion. Lurie's latest novel, The Last Resort, makes a similar play with the notion of death-in-paradise, as a doomed hero in Key West attempts at several reprises to stage his death, only to be repeatedly thwarted, and eventually reprieved. Death is there only for others. Originally entitled Endangered Species, the novel focuses on the hero's career as a naturalist and his efforts to save the manatee from extinction. (Other species have already gone the way of the dinosaurs, despite his efforts). He is also writing a biography—though an ecological example of the genre, featuring a famous copper beech. As the novel demonstrates, Lurie's debt to V. R. Lang was not short-lived. Reading her memoir is an intensely moving experience. Perhaps because it is such an honest portrait the human being comes alive off the page, undimmed by reverence or sentimentality, and irritating, amusing or enchanting the reader by turns. Above all the book refuses to impose any easy paradigmatic structure on a very various life.
The facts of Lurie's own subsequent career are largely a matter of public record. It is no accident that Love and Friendship is set in Convers, a fictional New England campus which bears a strong resemblance to Amherst, where Lurie's husband taught from 1954-57, that The Nowhere City moves its location to Los Angeles, where he taught from 1957-1961, or that the fictional university in upstate New York of Imaginary Friends and the Corinth of The War between the Tates have been identified with Cornell, where he took up a teaching post in 1961. Along the way Lurie had worked as an editorial assistant for Oxford University Press, in the Boston Public library, and even as a ghost writer, writing up scientific data for articles by meteorologists, psychologists and city planners among others (Bonetti) while bringing up three children. Lurie herself began teaching courses in creative writing and children's literature at Cornell in 1969, and is now Frederick J. Whiton Professor of American Literature. (Children's literature was an astute and to some extent a pragmatic choice, since no other professor had laid a territorial claim to that field at Cornell.) She teaches part-time, allowing her to spend time writing, in her second home in Key West and in the London flat which she bought with fellow novelist Diane Johnson. Lurie regularly exchanges manuscripts with Johnson, for comments. Philip Roth also read a number of her earlier novels and offered constructive criticism. She remains true to her Liberal upbringing. (She allowed herself to be arrested during a sit-in at Cornell in protest against Cornell's investment policy in South Africa.)33 Perhaps because of her progressive background and the strong role models offered by her mother and female teachers, Lurie does not seem to have felt victimised by men and has demonstrated a welcome ability to get round or over the obstacles before her. (Though one might note that it took her 10 years and four novels to get the lowest of teaching posts at Cornell). In interview Lurie made light of the problems faced in juggling work and family at a time when day care was generally unavailable.34 She adopted a strategy of “play-pen pals”—other women who wanted time to paint or write—with whom childcare was shared. She also counted herself fortunate not to face the pressure to “get on” in a conventional career. Unlike other writers of her acquaintance she did not have to write to support herself financially. As a result of this rational and pragmatic attitude, Lurie rarely features among the role models for contemporary feminists. She none the less sees herself as working in a female line and identifies herself as a feminist. To Dorothy Mermin she commented that “I think it's a mistake to believe that there's one female line which is intensely personal, subjective, intuitive, emotional. That's not the only female line. There's also a line in Fanny Burney and Jane Austen that is just as true as the other.”35 Rather than preaching to the choir, Lurie's feminism is intelligently strategic in method. In the same interview she comments that
Suppose you want to write a feminist novel today, and you don't want to convince only the converted. You want to convince people who are not seriously feminists, and you'd even like some men to read it. Well, if you write The Women's Room you're not going to get very many nonconverted readers.36
Comedy poses particular problems for women writers, often triggering accusations of lightness or triviality. Lurie however argues that “that's just as good a way to get at things, to laugh at them, as to shout a them.”37 Where polemical feminist writers tend to be dismissed as overserious (“women have no sense of humour”) women who are comic novelists habitually face accusations of lack of ballast. The cult of the victim (Sylvia Plath as icon) is almost as damaging as the myth of Superwoman. It would be easy (indeed it is akin to what Polly Alter considers à propos of Lorin Jones) to construct a biographical sketch of Alison Lurie which emphasised immigrant background, birth injury, sibling rivalry, academic misogyny, the tragic death of a close friend, domestic drudgery and a tune played on the second fiddle to husband and children. The paradigm is almost as familiar to the twentieth century reader as the “trials and tribulations” formula was to the nineteenth. It would be equally easy to emphasise Lurie's relatively comfortable background, private schooling, Ivy League education, class advantages, European connections and three residences. Life is, fortunately, rather more complicated than biography allows for.
As is fiction. An authentic fictional voice, Alison Lurie has attracted relatively little academic attention, perhaps because her portrayals of campus life are too close to home, perhaps because her sophisticated directness and intelligent wit are highly resistant to easy categorisation. In this respect readers have proved wiser than literary critics. Lurie's novels are eagerly awaited, in very different quarters, and widely reviewed. (After America and Britain, she is particularly popular in France). As one reviewer remarked, “The novels of Alison Lurie are almost enough to make one believe in the dubious notion that reading fiction is fun.”38 Essentially realistic, her richly textured fictions are deceptively readable, their dramatic tone and scenic construction lending themselves successfully to other media. (Both Imaginary Friends and The War between the Tates have been adapted for television). Although sexual intrigue is generally the mainspring of her plots, Lurie's talent for satire, her concern with the interplay of fantasy and reality, her moral seriousness, and her interest in feminist issues make her a distinctive presence on the contemporary literary scene. Critical accounts of her work, however, remind one of the early response to John Updike, as someone who had nothing much to say but said it rather well. Though tending to highlight Lurie's prose style and sharp wit, critics rarely suggest an intellectual agenda to the works, and almost never a specifically American agenda. It is assumed either that Lurie writes comedies about the three M's—marriage, the middle classes and morality—or that she is a campus novelist working with a narrow palette and a restricted range of character types. Is she really “American” in her fiction? Or merely an East Coast paleface with her eyes looking firmly towards Europe? In what follows, I offer a different Lurie, profoundly engaged with intellectual and social questions, and firmly within an American tradition. This Lurie, I will argue, starts her career in Love and Friendship with an extended interrogation of the masculinist basis of American Transcendentalism, and of the homosocial basis of American culture, using a gay novelist and a wicked parody of male fraternity rituals to queer assumptions of heterosexual “normality”, a theme to which her latest novel, The Last Resort returns, satirising the sociobiological assumptions which are the ground of homophobia. The Nowhere City, a Hollywood novel, engages with the Adorno-Benjamin debate of the 1930s, on the significance of popular culture. Imaginary Friends turns its attention to a different version of Utopianism, the religious cult, basing its analysis on American small group sociology. Vietnam through the domestic lens is the topic of The War between the Tates which takes George Kennan's politics as its organising metaphor. Only Children moves back in time to the American Depression, using fairy tale and folklore motifs to underline the adult idiocies resulting from romantic paradigms and wish-fulfilment fantasies. Foreign Affairs, set in Europe, and haunted by Henry James, offers an emblematic rewriting of the “International Theme”, which comprehensively scotches most of the American protagonist's illusions about genteel traditions. Throughout, Lurie has an uncanny ability to serve critical, even radical, aesthetic purposes within a popular form. Even those volumes which appear most aesthetic in their focus—Real People,The Truth about Lorin Jones, and Women and Ghosts with their employment of the genres of diary, biography and ghost story to question the relationship between art and life—interrogate the psychological and the economic bases of art, in order to mount a full-scale attack on the assumptions of genteel good taste, and the literature that compromises with it. As the next chapter will demonstrate, it is no accident that this is a writer who saw her first novel publicly burned in America.
Alison Lurie, “Their Harvard.” In My Harvard, My Yale. Ed. Diana Dubois (New York: Random House, 1982): 41.
John Leonard, “Review of The War between the Tates,” New Republic, 171, 10-17 August 1974, 24-5.
Jay Parini, “The Novelist at Sixty,” Horizon March 1986: 22.
Derwent May, “Review of The War between the Tates,” Listener, 20 June 1974, 808.
Susan Stewart, Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, 1979), p. 26.
Martha Satz, “A Kind of Detachment: An Interview with Alison Lurie.” Southwest Review, 71 (1986): 198.
For this, and for other biographical information I am deeply grateful to the author herself who allowed me to conduct two interviews with her, in London, 7 June 1988, and in Key West, 19 February 1991.
Martha Satz, 195.
“No One Asked Me to Write A Novel,” New York Times Book Review, 87, 23 (6 June 1982), 13.
“No One”, 13.
“Witches and Fairies: Fitzgerald to Updike.” New York Review of Books XVII, 9 (2 December 1971): 6.
“Their Harvard”: 43.
“Their Harvard”: 44.
“Their Harvard”: 36.
“Their Harvard”: 42.
The history of the Poets' Theatre remains to be written. Lurie gives her account in her biography of V. R. Lang. See also Nora Sayre, “The Poets' Theatre: A Memoir of the Fifties.” Grand Street 3, 3 (1984), 92-105; and Frank O'Hara, Selected Plays (New York: Full Court Press, 1978), the appendix to which provides photographs of productions and set designs.
Box VII, Poets' Theatre Collection, Harvard Theatre Collection. Dated 28 November 1950, p. 5.
Key West Interview, 19 February 1991.
Alison Lurie, Poems and Plays by V. R. Lang (New York: Random House, and London: Heinemann, 1975): 14.
A pity in some respects as a fire later destroyed most of the records of the group. The surviving papers in the Harvard Theatre Collection are partly singed.
Poems and Plays by V. R. Lang: 19.
Michael Maccoby, “The Poets' Theatre”, Harvard Crimson, 23 May 1952.
The manuscript is located in the Harvard Theatre collection. It lacks page 9. Page references follow quotations in parentheses.
I am grateful to Alison Lurie for supplying me with her copy of the play, annotated with local references. Page references follow quotations in parentheses.
Key West Interview, 19th February 1991.
Key West Interview, 19th February 1991.
Letter from V. R. Lang to Alison Lurie, 3 November 1954, Houghton Library.
“No One Asked Me to Write A Novel,” New York Times Book Review, 87, 23 (6 June 1982), 13, 46-8.
Poems and Plays by V. R. Lang: xvi.
Poems and Plays by V. R. Lang: 27.
Poems and Plays by V. R. Lang: 28.
Poems and Plays by V. R. Lang: 52.
Molly Hite, “Belles Lettres Interview,” Belles Lettres 2 (July-August 1987): 9.
Dale Edmonds, “The World Seemed So Empty To Me If I Wasn't Writing.” Negative Capability 6, 4 (1986): 152.
Janet Todd (ed.), Women Writers Talking (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983): 83.
Janet Todd: 92.
Janet Todd: 91
Elizabeth Dalton, “Review of Real People,” Commentary 48, 2 (August 1969): 60.
SOURCE: Marks, Jim. “Uncommon Friends.” Washington Post Book World (11 February 2001): 12.
[In the following review, Marks praises Familiar Spirits, judging the book to be an honest and skillful memoir of poet James Merrill and his partner David Jackson.]
A faint whiff of vindication almost inevitably attends Familiar Spirits, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Alison Lurie's totally absorbing memoir of her friends poet James Merrill and his longtime companion, writer and artist David Jackson. After all, she is at some pains to depict herself at the beginning of their friendship, in the mid-1950s, as an ordinary Amherst faculty wife struggling with the ordinary tribulations of limited funds, young children and an academic world in which women are valued primarily (and not too highly) for their skill in advancing their husbands' careers.
In such a world, Merrill and Jackson were anything but ordinary. They were both rich—Merrill, the son of Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill Lynch, considerably so. They were both well-traveled, well-educated, cultured men whose open domestic relationship was decidedly unusual in the '50s, although apparently not scandalous in their closed academic circle. To Lurie, Merrill was the more original character, while Jackson was “wonderfully attractive: blond, tanned, strong.” Yet both these amazing creatures are departed—Merrill, lost to AIDS, Jackson, still alive but “his mind gone.” Only Lurie remains to tell their tale.
That tale falls, almost classically, into three parts: the first happy days of Merrill and Jackson's “marriage” (“It was, I often thought, the happiest marriage I knew”); the middle years, in which Merrill and Jackson communicated with the spirit world via a Ouija board; and the Key West years, in which a renewal of the couple's life took a terrible turn.
Lurie's chapters on the making of The Changing Light at Sandover (Merrill's epic poem about his and Jackson's experiences with the Ouija board) offer powerful evidence of the rightness of Ezra Pound's claim that the highest form of criticism is criticism by new composition. Even many poetry lovers—Lurie among them—find this 560-page book daunting, with its extensive Ouija board pronouncements (all given in capital letters) and arcane spiritual hierarchy and teachings. Lurie enables casual readers to taste both the poem's peculiarities and its strengths by treating Sandover as part of her friendship with the two mediums. At times, she seems to be continuing a running argument she had with the authors, pointing out the limitations of their male- and gay-centered afterlife and, more sinister to Lurie, what she considers to be the fascistic and antisemitic implications of the poem's spiritual universe.
Weird and wonderful as Lurie's chapters on Sandover are, her account of Merrill and Jackson's Key West years grabs the reader by the throat. Bad things happen to Jackson: He turns to rough trade (Lurie uses no such crude term) for sexual companionship; his mind becomes befuddled by alcohol and low brain oxygen brought on by emphysema from years of smoking cigarettes. Still, these things make sense for an aging sensualist. But Merrill's last years read like a 20th-century Picture of Dorian Gray. He falls in love with “a tall, handsome young actor called Peter Hooten, a former featured player in several B-list Hollywood movies.”
First, as Lurie tells it, Hooten begins dressing like Merrill, then aping his manners and conversation, until, finally, he has totally appropriated Merrill's life, producing a monstrous (in Lurie's view) dramatic adaptation of Sandover on video, in which all the roles, save Merrill's, are played by Hooten and actors he has hired. Lurie clearly hates Hooten, and she devotes all of her considerable novelist's skills to etching his portrait in acid.
Lurie discloses that Merrill died of AIDS complications, and so Familiar Spirits may be added to the growing shelf of AIDS memoirs that includes Paul Monette's Borrowed Time and Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast. Yet Lurie's book doesn't quite belong in this company, and not just because it lacks the white-hot anger of Monette's account or the poetic luminosity of Doty's. After such a long friendship with Merrill and Jackson, Lurie is perfectly comfortable with homosexuality, but she has no involvement with any gay political agenda. Moreover, her technique is novelistic and (despite her obvious love for her friends) in some ways dispassionate. Lurie likes to take a subject and view it from all angles (she offers “four sorts of messages traditionally received from the spirit world” and “three possible explanations” for these Ouija board messages). The result is, in a sense, to normalize the AIDS memoir, to take it out of the box of the literature of oppression and protest (clearly inappropriate for creatures as privileged as Merrill and Jackson).
The politics of Lurie's own appropriation of these two lives are complicated, but any objection is trumped, I think, by her enormous literary skill and honesty. There is a splendid insularity in this slender book: Its great charm is that it is so self-aware of its own enclosed literary world. In a sense, this memoir is Lurie's own Ouija board, through which she shares one final, intimate conversation with her much-missed familiar spirits.
SOURCE: Davison, Peter. Review of Familiar Spirits, by Alison Lurie. Atlantic Monthly 287, no. 3 (March 2001): 91-2.
[In the following review, Davison judges Familiar Spirits to be a powerful, moving, and “revealing tribute” to James Merrill and David Jackson.]
Sometimes an impressionistic memoir after the death of a literary figure can be definitive. The precision of a friend's intimate memory furnishes a connection to the senses, a stimulus to intuitive understanding, that a sedulous biographical assembly of documentary facts cannot match. In Familiar Spirits, Alison Lurie has written a revealing, happily far from objective tribute to and critique of the relationship between James Merrill and his life-and-literary partner, David Jackson. It conveys the bitter flavor of lives tried and failed. It rivals the pungency and impact of Lurie's lovely early work, V. R. Lang: A Memoir, which was published forty years ago under a subsidy by, yes, James Merrill and David Jackson.
Merrill and Jackson became lovers and partners in 1954 and shared financially well-endowed lives in Stonington, Connecticut, Athens, and Key West for all the years till Merrill's death (from AIDS), in 1995. Lurie contends (and I find her evidence highly persuasive) that Merrill's verse epic of encounters on the Ouija board, The Changing Light at Sandover, not only rose out of the intimate experiences of both men but also referred, unconsciously, to the uneasy and deteriorating relations between them. Merrill, “a ringmaster of language,” had emerged early into a dazzling literary career; Jackson, a frustrated novelist, never achieved either publication or fame. Lurie's thesis holds that their years of Ouija-board probing dredged up the darkest in each man and left their relationship as drained of life as the hapless beached sea creature at the end of La Dolce Vita. The story she unfolds may illuminate the paired personalities of the two men more boldly than it does the scrambled pages of The Changing Light at Sandover, but it is written with the poignancy of long affection, and it left this reader jolted and distressed.
SOURCE: Holleran, Andrew. “Shrimp Bisque and Yellow Underpants.” Lambda Book Report 9, no. 8 (March 2001): 21.
[In the following review, Holleran contends that Familiar Spirits is a revealing and honest recounting of Lurie's friendship with David Jackson and James Merrill.]
Most of us want the marriages of our friends to be perfect. This, of course, includes gay couples. We like to visit the happy pair, soak up their hospitality, use them as a point of stability in our lives. Yet we can never know the backstage scenes and bargains, the real dynamic behind the facade that married couples, especially when they happen to be our hosts, construct to charm us; and that is, among other things, the subject of Alison Lurie's Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson that recounts her friendship over several decades with the poet, who died in 1995, and his partner David Jackson, who still lives in Key West.
Investigating marriage is something that Lurie has done before in novels like The War between the Tates. The partnership of Jackson and Merrill was by no means a war—it seems to have been particularly civilized—and yet, like all marriages, especially one between two writers with two very different careers, it had its issues. By the time we reach Chapter 10 (“Trouble”) and read the lines “When did it all begin to go bad, slowly at first and then faster and faster?” we hear, if not a smacking of the lips, then a certain inevitable rue that is at the heart of almost all post-mortems of a marriage. Lurie's memoir is not quite a pathobiography (Joyce Carol Oates' coinage for books that prove how miserable successful, famous people really were), “Disturbing”—a judicious, restrained, polite word—is the adjective most often used in this account. Yet there is something unblinking and remorseless about Lurie's assay of this couple and her attempt to rescue Jackson from the artistic oblivion which “bad luck, not lack of talent, ambition or effort, was responsible for …” Like those who felt Zelda Fitzgerald was short-shrifted by Scott in terms of literary fame, Lurie lays her case for Jackson out in almost a lawyer's brief, playing the part of witness and judge, too. Lurie's friendship with both men dates from 1955, when Merrill and Lurie's husband at the time both taught at Amherst College. The young Jackson-Merrill marriage seems to have appealed to Lurie even more than her own. One day at a picnic she cannot help but contrast them to her own work-obsessed husband, who hikes solo on his days off, and at one point actually bursts from the woods like an angry bear into the enchanted soiree Merrill and Jackson have staged. From that moment on, the reader senses, Lurie's own marriage is doomed, but she will be enthralled by the considerable Jackson-Merrill charm forever.
Indeed she is. She even survives a moment that might have turned away a friend with fainter heart. The center of this book deals with the period when Jackson and Merrill began using a Ouija board to contact (or create) spirits in the next world, whose messages Merrill turns into the poem that will make him famous. When Lurie asks one day which spirit is hers she learns: “It turned out I was on a rather low level: stage two, I think. (David and Jimmy had already attained level five.) In my last incarnation, I had been a nineteenth century English spinster named Helena Pons-Toby who was sent to Africa to convert the heathen. After a while the heathen found her so annoying that they murdered her. Though I didn't let on, I was deeply upset by the information. What it meant was that in spite of their affectionate kindness and generous hospitality, something in David's and/or Jimmy's subconscious regarded me as an intellectually and spiritually low-level person.” Though Ephraim, an important spirit, struck Lurie as “foreign, frivolous, intermittently dishonest, selfishly sensual, and cheerfully, coldly promiscuous” (ring a bell?), she became “a kind of Helena Pons-Toby: a prudish, judgmental friend who couldn't be trusted with their innermost secrets.”
Well, at least she's honest—and that's what saves the book. Familiar Spirits is not only a portrait of a glamorous literary couple but Lurie herself; the account of the collision between a straight, earnest, judgmental woman and a pair of gay men who seem to have been worldly, rich, ironic, and sensual. Part of the pleasure of this book is reading between the lines. Yet in her very skepticism about the Ouija board and the doctrines in that poem (“there is the repeated idea that homosexuality is a superior condition”) and her doubts about Merrill's character and conduct lies the book's value. Here is a woman captivated by a gay couple's charm (“… lunches in the garden with shrimp bisque and fresh Key West yellowtail and jokes and gossip; dinner parties with duets on the piano and Jimmy's homemade chocolate mousse …”) who inevitably collides with some things she finds not so charming.
When, for instance, one day Jackson tells Lurie he's been paying young men for sex, Lurie looks down into her iced mint tea to conceal her distaste (“Commercial sex seemed to me corrupt, low-grade, humiliating”) and in so doing realizes this was “the end of my real friendship with him.” Finally: “One morning when I stopped by without calling first, as I had so often done in the past, I was met in the hall by a half-dressed, sullenly embarrassed black teenager in stained yellow silk underpants who mumbled that Jimmy was out and David still in bed. I never visited again at any time of the day without calling first.”
Ah! Where was the stain, one wonders. In that scene is the whole book. Lurie doesn't like Merrill's last boyfriend either: “He was unusually beautiful, if you admire that sort of thing.” But her moral viewpoint, her affection and distaste, are the perfect foil to the sad, messy evolution of this lifelong marriage between two men who survived so much erosion: alcoholism, illness, wildly different levels of success. At times this memoir reads like a John Cheever story, or the last pages of Tender Is the Night. To her credit, Lurie herself isn't sure in the end what to decide of the denouement of both men. “It hadn't been Jimmy's fault,” she thinks as she lies awake one night pondering Jackson's decline, “but maybe there was something about Jimmy that had allowed it to happen: his unworldliness, his aesthetic detachment, his sense that words and ideas were realer than people.” This book is, unfortunately, delicious dish—the sort only survivors, perhaps unfairly, get to write—but it is also a moving portrait of friendship, not to mention a rumination on the collision of morality with aesthetics: the great conundrum of the artist's—and gay—life.
SOURCE: Corn, Alfred. “Merrill Table Talk.” Nation 273, no. 6 (20 April 2001): 28.
[In the following review, Corn offers a negative assessment of Familiar Spirits, noting that the memoir focuses too heavily on Lurie's personal gripes with James Merrill.]
Describing Alison Lurie's fiction as a decades-long debate with James Merrill explains a lot about her and, by extension, American culture in general. This memoir, [Familiar Spirits,] her second work of nonfiction, tells how they met in the mid-1950s, Lurie the bored, intelligent faculty wife of a dullish junior English professor at Amherst, Merrill a visiting teacher of poetry writing. Lurie says that he paid to have her first book privately printed, a memoir of their friend V. R. Lang, which led to the publication of Lurie's first novel Love and Friendship. She acknowledges that her novel includes a character combining traits drawn from Merrill and from his companion David Jackson, though this character appears only in epistolary form, the gay author of witty letters about his visiting gig in a college town resembling Amherst—at least, as a satirist would see it.
Familiar Spirits doesn't recount the remainder of Lurie's career as a fiction writer, but I'll support my opening comment above by pointing out that her third novel, an expose of the world of mediums and spiritualist mysticism, is dedicated to Merrill and Jackson. (Her second novel was a witty satire of life in Los Angeles in the early 1960s.) In Real People, her fourth, the writer heroine, during a residency at an artists' colony based on Yaddo, forgoes the company of a refined writer boyfriend for an affair with a crude but sexy sculptor, who advances his suit by suggesting that her previous attachment is a closeted homosexual. The Lurie-Merrill dialectic continues, under several guises, in later books, including a story collection titled Women and Ghosts. The book under review, as it pursues Lurie's serialized romance with Merrill, vacillates between praise and condemnation, the literary equivalent of a lover's quarrel, with the emphasis on “quarrel.” You can't help asking why, if she came to dislike Merrill and what he stood for, she didn't simply stop seeing him. Instead, she seems to have resolutely kept after him—for example, buying a house in Key West the year after he began wintering there, a vantage point from which she could continue in her preferred role as disapproving spectator of aberrant behavior.
The son of the Charles Merrill who made one fortune by founding a brokerage house and another hefty one backing chain stores like Safeway, James Merrill violated one of the ironclad commandments for American artists: Thou shalt not be rich. Though Lurie doesn't seem to know about Safeway, she talks a lot about wealth and its impact on Merrill's life and work. It's clear that “Jimmy,” as she calls him, liked this new woman friend; and, meanwhile, several benefits connected to his privileged situation trickled down to her—his literate conversation, inclusion in his cosmopolitan social life and funds disbursed for her debut book publication. Still, she resents his freedom from the typical cares of a middle-income household where, for example, the children's education has to be paid for. Here, even the childless can sympathize. In the authorial big leagues, are the touchdowns truly deserved when they aren't scored on a level playing field?
This is the moment for me to state that, without ever quite developing a warm friendship, I was closely associated with James Merrill for a decade and a half, so that my own observations overlap with some of Alison Lurie's. She was his friend nearly twenty years before I met him and for the last part of his life as well, a time when he and I were no longer speaking to each other. Even so, she doesn't seem to be aware that, during their long friendship, he held her somewhat at arm's length. Many of her assumptions about Merrill and Jackson are mistaken, from what I know—beginning with the notion that Jackson himself had a sizable private income. That is apparently what he told her; but (as the late David Kalstone explained to me many years ago) the funds came from Merrill, who settled a fortune on Jackson when they first became a couple. Doing so was probably a kind of test. Merrill was a romantic, but, like most rich people, he tended to mistrust the unmoneyed, and there were solid reasons for his caution. Lurie's unflattering book, which he would have loathed, is a case in point. Once provided for, Jackson (again, according to Kalstone) didn't bolt; but he was the first to step outside the relationship for extracurricular sex. Merrill didn't object to the new format; in fact, he quickly followed suit. We can take a Victorian attitude about their relational contract, but we should also admit that, on that hand, the couple was no different from many others, gay or straight, in artistic circles; think of Elizabeth Bowen and Alan Cameron or W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
Lurie can't be unaware of instances like these, and so you wonder why the term “promiscuity” is laid on so indiscriminately throughout the memoir. Boys in the band who read it will understand right away why Merrill might have considered it inadvisable to allow a roman à clef novelist (and now memoirist) like Lurie access to the whole, awful truth. Faced with her museum-quality obtuseness, they'll want to dig in the bottom drawer and pull out an old T-shirt with the motto, “It's a gay thing: You wouldn't understand.”
While Lurie envies the carefree life her two friends led, she never pauses to reflect on the damage coming of age as a gay man in that period inflicted. Gay sex was a felony and, except among the enlightened, a sin or an illness. Most public venues were closed to artists who portrayed homosexuality as merely a routine variation of the human possible. Merrill fell back on classic, Wildean defenses: He satirized, and he adopted fictive masks. Although many readers were tickled by his comic irony, its pervasiveness in his work meant that he was relegated to the second rank, all the more since the poems were riddled with unpopular characteristics such as an interest in Europe and works of literature, art and music produced before last year. A frequent critical response to his poetry was that it was “elegant,” “brittle,” “mannered,” all of these semi-polite synonyms for “queer.” If you accept Philip Rahv's division of American writers into two groups, redskins (e.g., Whitman and Hemingway) and palefaces (e.g., Poe and Henry James), then you won't hesitate to put Merrill into the second. But maybe those categories are an oversimplification?
It's still too soon to make a balanced estimate of his lyric poetry, but I might as well cast my vote along with Lurie's negative one and say that his own monumental “epic” The Changing Light at Sandover is a failure. A failure with good lines and bits, but still … The central thesis of the Lurie memoir is that undertaking this project was an artistic error for Merrill and a personal calamity for David Jackson. After the opening chapters' praising portrait of Merrill, Lurie becomes hostile, as any reader of hers might have predicted, when she reacts to the publication of a work based on Merrill's literary love affair with the Ouija board. You're always supposed to allow authors their donnée, but it's hard not to lose interest immediately when you consider the premise of the work: That the best and brightest of the great dead, plus several archangels and a deity called “God B,” settled on a middle-aged gay couple in Connecticut as the chosen conduit for an apocalyptic message they wanted channeled to humankind. The poem's weirder characters and episodes include a series of “mathematical formulae” that “look” like bats, one of them eventually turning into the spiritualist equivalent of a peacock. Named “Mirabell” by his new friends, this being is joined by “Uni,” a unicorn lacking his kind's signature horn. At the trilogy's conclusion these two are joined at the hip to form a Pegasus-like creature that can fly and incidentally embody the upward surge of authentic inspiration.
These are typical events along the yellow brick road, and I sympathize with Lurie's distaste for a project removed that far from the consensus universe. Meanwhile, she strongly identifies with Jackson and believes that his own literary gifts (he had published a few works of short fiction) were siphoned off into Merrill's otherworldly epic. She guesses that it was really his hand that moved the pointer to compose the messages they received, and I think the guess is on target. Because the poem is really the product of joint authorship, she's upset that Jackson hasn't received due recognition for his part in it. But, now, wait: If she doesn't like the work, why does she want Jackson to get credit as one of its authors? Besides that, the fact is that Merrill revised almost all the Ouija messages they received to make from them a more coherent work. If the results are still bad, do we assign most of the responsibility to him or to Jackson?
At least most of the raw material they recorded has to be credited to his account, i.e., the misconstrued “science” and faux-mystic verbiage, along with the apology in favor of enlightened despots like Akhenaton and even dictator-murderers like Stalin and Hitler. That, plus the anti-Semitism, race condescension and sexist attitudes that crop up in it. When you add the bald PR campaign for gay male artistic superiority (from Plato to Virgil to Whitman to Proust) harped on by some of the spirit voices, it gets pretty ludicrous. Western Civ was a gay plot? Back to the drawing board, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Vermeer, Bach, Goethe, George Eliot, Kafka, Frank Lloyd Wright, Balanchine. Some of the latter are automatically relegated to second rank because poetry and music are accounted as intrinsically superior to visual art, architecture or dance, which depend more on the material world. Do you laugh or weep when critics widely respected hail this Emerald City cum Fascist re-education center as a masterpiece?
Lurie believes that Jackson's sense of failure when he compared a negligible personal achievement to Merrill's critical acclaim explains his sharp decline, a decline accelerated by all those hours expended in sawing away at the Board. The first assertion is plausible, the second, less so. But you can't discuss either Jackson's or Merrill's travails without factoring in alcohol, drugs, a relentless social and professional schedule, and the general problem of aging (particularly acute for gay men). Jackson was also a chain smoker and eventually developed emphysema, which, because of neural oxygen-deprivation, dulled his mental capacities. He is still alive today, though not lucid. With characteristic tact, Lurie describes him as a “ghost,” a label supporting her thesis, but at the expense of an invalid she describes as one of her closest friends.
Daily immersion in the spirit world probably did take its toll; but I'd suggest that an even greater strain was a social habit current among Merrill's set: communicating by indirect means, hinting, double-entendre. I recall him quoting his mother, who warned him “never to let down the mask.” His words and actions, most of the time, had double meanings, and that was true in spades for the poems. The Ouija epic should be understood not merely as an alphabet soup sent down to mortals from dreamlands somewhere over the rainbow but also as a commentary on his own milieu and on the situation of contemporary letters. Lurie seems to have grasped this, decoding the bio of the Ouija-world “patron” that Merrill and Jackson channeled for her as an allegorical (and none too flattering) thumbnail sketch of herself. Veiled critiques are hard to take; if you challenge them you risk being called paranoid. Lurie could always get up from the table and go back home, of course; but Jackson was already home, and it can't have been comfortable to communicate via masks year after year.
Still, even if Jackson lost vitality through exposure to the kryptonite of Merrill's personality and social manner, he could have decided to split at any moment. Since he didn't, he retains responsibility. Maybe he just needed a push? If we accept Lurie's implied assertion—that she herself has managed to escape the toils of artificiality to become a free and passionate human being—why didn't she urge Jackson to do the same? From a safe height she watched someone she says she cared about begin to drown, and she said nothing, or nothing directly. Her memoir tells us she dislikes Merrill's rarefied Olympian realm of divine beings and spirits, yet her snow-capped vantage point also turns out to be quite a cold mountain itself. In her long lover's quarrel with James Merrill, she is more a “paleface” than she allows, more caught up in his techniques of communication than she acknowledges. I'm guessing that she wants her memoir to comment by inference on the current literary situation just as much as on the life that Merrill and Jackson shared in their day. As such, the book can be read as a protest, no doubt well intentioned, against Merrill's posthumous influence; and who would deny that his habit of communicating through subtexts and literary “masks” is widespread? If Lurie's book is in fact meant as a protest, though, her quarrel with him, as with so many failed romances, is best described as another instance of irreconcilable similarities.
SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “All That Glitters.” New Republic 224 (7 May 2001): 40.
[In the following review, Kirsch compares James Merrill's Collected Poems to Lurie's Familiar Spirits.]
Proust's Madeleine has become the popular shorthand for his novel, the Atlantis of memory resurfacing after a single taste of a cookie dipped in tea. In fact, Proust's metaphor for remembering is much more arduous:
I place in position before my mind's eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed. … Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss.
It is instructive to compare James Merrill's rival metaphor for the process that turns life into art, in his poem “For Proust”:
What happened is becoming literature.
Feverish in time, if you suspend the task, An old. old woman shuffling in to draw Curtains, will read a line or two, withdraw. The world will have put on a thin gold mask.
The poet has made the novelist over in his own image, his very different image: not an anchor but a mask, not the depths but the surface. So perfectly does this image of gilding capture Merrill's artistic goals that he resorts to it, or to versions of it, many times in his poetry: “A changing light is deepening, is changing / To a gilt ballroom chair a chair / Bound to break under someone before long”; “under water all / Becomes a silvery weightless miracle”; “I saw the parents and the child / At their window, gleaming like fruit / With evening's mild gold leaf.”
Reading such lines, it is easy to see why Merrill has often been dismissed as a merely decorative poet, an aesthete playing with form. The charge seems all the more credible because of his great wealth: in the old American contest between paleface and redskin, Merrill's money and status place him firmly in the first camp. The son of a founder of Merrill Lynch, he was as close as his time could show to an American aristocrat, more privileged in any material sense than New England scions such as Henry James or Robert Lowell. (It is suggestive of his family's position that, in “Days of 1935,” he remembers fantasizing, as an eight-year-old, about being held for ransom like the Lindbergh baby.)
Merrill passed unscathed through a Depression childhood, and in his adult life he enjoyed the fruits of his father's labor: leisure, travel, beautiful homes. In her brief new memoir [Familiar Spirits] of Merrill and his companion David Jackson—a small but honest tribute that is not afraid to reveal the tensions that troubled their long friendship—Alison Lurie remembers the air of moneyed ease that surrounded the pair in the 1950s: “I loved visiting Stonington. To go to 107 Water Street from a house cluttered with shabby, worn furniture and toys and dirty laundry and the cries of children was like being transported to another world: one not only more attractive, but more luxurious, calm, voluptuous; more free and leisured—a world in which the highest goods were friendship, pleasure, and art.”
“Luxurious” is also an apt description of Merrill's Collected Poems, a large volume that brings together twelve published collections, as well as some previously uncollected poems and translations. The book is a testament to Merrill's unwavering sense of calling, to his patience and his integrity: in a life in which anything was possible, he wanted only to write poetry. It is also a reminder that, from the death of Elizabeth Bishop in 1979 until his own death in 1995, there was no American poet more artistically serious than Merrill. He has made the perilous crossing into posterity, and he has survived.
If the fact of Merrill's achievement is clear, however, its exact quality and its proper stature are not at all clear. The fear of giving hostages to the Philistines has prevented a recognition that his poetry is, finally and even consciously, superficial; it is profoundly concerned with surfaces. This is its strength and its considerable limitation. This fact of Merrill's art is often euphemized by calling him a comic poet or a Mozartian poet. But such appellations are misleading if they suggest that Merrill was artistically happy, that his gifts found free and ideal expression in his chosen forms and subjects. The Collected Poems only intermittently gives the sense of a complete achievement. Like a Renaissance fresco painter, Merrill often seems to lay his brilliant colors onto a weak and crumbling material; his themes are rarely equal to the language in which he clothes them. He presents the spectacle, rare in the last two centuries, of a serious poet whose language outstrips what he has to say.
To appreciate the limits of Merrill's achievement, it is necessary to understand the substance of that achievement. We might begin with one of the most notable features of this big book, Merrill's puns. He ties hundreds of comic knots in the English language:
My father, who had flown in World War I, Might have continued to invest his life In cloud banks. …
I'm at an airport, waiting. The scar itches. Carving, last month I nearly removed my thumb. Where was my mind? Lapses like this become Standard practice. Not all of them leave me in stitches. On the one hand, the power and the gory Details. …
The god at last indifferent And she no longer chaste but continent.
In life, the pun receives the tribute of a groan; we feel that there is something cheap about drawing our attention to the arbitrary resemblances and double meanings of words. “Continent” means both “a landmass” and “sexually controlled,” but we learn nothing about the world from this accidental fact. Yet it is just this arbitrariness that makes Merrill's puns genuinely poetic: they willfully divert our attention from the signified to the sign, to the materiality of language. If language were entirely transparent, if there were one word per object, there could be no poetry; it is in the resistance or the excess of the medium that poetic felicity resides.
In this sense, the pun is really just the extreme case of a playfulness at work in all verse. As the eighteenth-century poet John Dennis wrote, “Rime may not so absurdly be said to be the Pun of Harmony.” Rhyme asserts that two words do sound the same, just as puns remind us that one word does have two meanings, regardless of logic. When rhyme-words are extremely disparate in meaning or etymology, they come to seem like puns on one another, as in Don Juan. Or as in Merrill: “peacocks / Orthodox,” “sacerdotal / Aristotle”; “one of us / homunculus.” He is so much under the spell of sound that his poems occasionally lose themselves in little epiphanies of assonance, as in a well-known passage from “Flying from Byzantium”:
Up spoke the man in the moon: What does that moan mean? The plane was part of the plan. Why gnaw the bone of a boon? I said with spleen, “Explain These nights that tie me in knots, All drama and no dream, While you lampoon my pain.”
Merrill takes an almost mischievous pleasure in showing that sonic patterning can be taken to such an extreme while still making sense. His metrical repertory is extraordinarily wide: the elaborate stanzas of his early work, sonnet sequences, short epigrams, narrative couplets. (Almost the only thing that Merrill did not write was actual songs—an interesting difference from Auden, whom he otherwise resembles in this respect.) He gives the reader a sense of linguistic riches so vast that he can strew them carelessly about.
But Merrill's very liberality can be a flaw if we being to suspect that, like a Weimar fortune, it is a result of the cheapness of the currency. A poet gives the impression of strength only if his linguistic powers seem to meet and to overcome the challenge of a significant statement. Simple things said simply are graceful; difficult things said with difficulty are impressive; but simple things said with difficulty are merely showy. At times, Merrill consciously tests this imbalance, as when he describes urinating in The Book of Ephraim:
When the urge Comes to make water, a thin brass-hot stream, Sails out into the updraft, spattering One impotent old tree that shakes its claws. The droplets atomize, evaporate To dazzlement a blankness overdusts Pale blue, then paler blue. It stops at nothing.
The passage is carefully constructed, from the striking adjective “brass-hot” to the concluding pun. What it lacks is any kind of surprise, any sense that the poet is urging his subject beyond itself; and absent this pressure, it is just an unusually pretty description of pissing. And the prettiness is complacent, as we can see in Merrill's “dazzlement”: the word is too pleased with itself, with the mild frisson of being applied to something so trivial.
Moments such as this are very common in the Collected Poems. Merrill often seems to alter Dickinson's advice: he tells the facts, but tells them slant. We can see a minor instance in a line of “From the Cupola”: “Old headlines mend a missing pane.” Merrill is describing a window covered with newspaper, but through synecdoche he creates a little puzzle, an easily solved obliquity. Elsewhere the same habit of mind turns whole poems into pegs on which to hang the poetry, as in “Arabian Night”:
Features unseen embers and tongs once worried bright as brass, cool, trim, of a depth to light the way at least who, trusting mirages, find in them the oasis, what went wrong? You there in the mirror, did our freshest page get sent to the Hall of Cobwebs? Or had Rime's Emir all along been merely after your body?
As a description of looking into a mirror, this seems grotesquely overdone. It is, indeed, a kind of Gongorism, reminiscent of Cowley or Crashaw, but more likely showing the influence of French Symbolist poetry. This is one of the many occasions in Merrill when, as he writes in “Verse for Urania,”
such considerations as rhyme and meter Prevail, it might be felt, at the expense Of meaning. …
To object to such a style is not, I think, an objection to beautiful writing. It is an objection to decadent writing. The distinction must be maintained, because Merrill himself often elided it; he often wrote as if the only argument to be made against his manner of complexity were a plebeian political attack. We find such a self-defense in section “W” of The Book of Ephraim, the first part of his Ouija-inspired epic, The Changing Light at Sandover. In terza rima, Merrill relates a Dantesque meeting with Wendell, a painter whose subjects are “ill-knit / Mean-mouthed, distrustful” faces. Merrill asks why he creates such ugly portraits:
“I guess that's sort of how I see mankind,” Says Wendell. “Doomed, sick, selfish, dumb as shit. They talk about how decent, how refined— All it means is, they can afford somehow To watch what's happening, and not to mind.” Our famous human dignity? I-Thou? The dirty underwear of overkill. Those who'll survive it were rethought by Mao Decades past, as a swarming blue anthill. “The self was once,” I put in, “a great, great Glory.” And he: “Oh sure. But is it still?”
Merrill presents himself as the defender of aristocratic humanism against the modern tide of ugliness, brutality, mass thought. As he writes in another poem, “Form's what affirms.”
Yet if we ask what Merrill's form affirms, the answer can only be: form itself. His idea of art is a throwback, it often seems, to the 1890s, to l'art pour l'art. It is not surprising to read, in “Days of 1941 and '44,” that his first literary enthusiasms were for Wilde and Baudelaire:
But viewed from deep in my initial Aesthetic phase, brought like a lukewarm bath to Fizzy life by those mauve salts,
Paradises (and if artificial So much the better) promised more than Matthew Arnold. Faith rose dripping from the false.
Merrill's juvenile “alliterations courtesy of Wilde” were shed over time, but the Wildean idea of beauty remained. Merrill instinctively thinks of the beautiful as though it were an iridescence that can be peeled off any art object. There is a revealing moment in his prose memoir, A Different Person, when he writes of his discovery of early Christian mosaics in Ravenna:
The profusion of motifs, their vigor by now a reflex long past thought, gives out a sense of peace and plenty in the lee of history's howling gale. It isn't the creeds or crusades they tell of, but the relative eternity of villas, interior decoration, artisans. … While empires fell offstage, these happy solutions to the timeless problems of scale and coherence stretched, like flowers to the light, wherever a patron beckoned.
It is not the history, or the symbolism, or indeed the meaning of the mosaics that interests Merrill, but their “solutions” to technical “problems.”
To defend the aesthetic in these terms is, ironically, to abandon what is most genuinely beautiful in poetry. The particular heroism of modern poets since Wordsworth lies in the courage of their self-scrutiny, and in their boldness in expressing what they have learned. To this end, what Leavis called “heuristic poetry” uses form in a destructive-creative way, breaking down conventional or received modes of expression in order to build up new, more accurate modes. Merrill is not a poet of discovery, in this sense. His idea of beauty is static, exterior, and therefore basically conservative.
He provides a perfect emblem of this sort of beauty in “Charles on Fire,” where a glass of “amber liquor” is set aflame:
A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went Above the surface. In a hush that fell We heard the vessel crack. The contents drained As who should step down from a crystal coach. Steward of spirits, Charles's glistening hand All at once gloved itself in eeriness.
This, of course, is another version of the “thin gold mask”—a superficial glamour. It is significant that Merrill describes the flame as “beautiful,” a word that has been steadfastly avoided by most modern poets, on the assumption that real beauty does not need an epithet. But the tag is necessary in this case, because the phenomenon described is inherently nugatory: it means nothing, it discovers nothing. That is, it is not truly beautiful, with the exigent beauty of the best poetry; it is only pretty, or “interesting,” which is a purely aesthetic category.
Merrill's style is not able to create a more primordial beauty. The deficiency becomes clear whenever he attempts large statement:
Tell me something, Art. You know what it's like Awake in your dry hell Of volatile synthetic solvents. Won't you help us brave the elements Once more, of terror, anger, love?
This passage, from “Dreams about Clothes,” cannot vivify the old abstractions of art, terror, anger, love. They are moved about like familiar counters, and so the poet, almost in spite of himself, can only treat them ironically. And we can observe the same limitation in “Farewell Performance,” in which the scattering of a friend's ashes is compared to a concert:
Back they come. How you would have loved it. We in turn have risen. Pity and terror done with, programs furled, lips parted, we jostle forward eager to hail them. …
Pity and terror, the Aristotelian formula, is in silent quotation marks; the emotion is alluded to rather than represented. It is as though Merrill's love for the particular has left him helpless before the universal, whose recreation surely is the highest attainment of poetry.
When the valuable is identified with the rare and the precious, rather than with the common and the profound, it makes sense that the poet will see himself as addressing a select audience. Merrill was an exceptionally generous person (Lurie writes that “no one will ever know the extent” of his benefactions), but in his poetry he has an exaggerated sense of his own particularity, his separation from the rest of the world, which can border on snobbery. In “Tony: Ending the Life,” he writes of
The longing to lead everybody's life —Lifelong daydream of precisely those Whom privilege or talent set apart: How to atone for the achieved uniqueness?
Nothing could be more alien to the self-conception of the “heuristic” poet, who is essentially representative of mankind, even if he lives among them as a stranger. In lines such as these, one suspects that the idea of material privilege has infected the idea of artistic talent, which is not a privilege but a responsibility.
Merrill's feeling of exclusivity, his sense of being “set apart,” can be deeply unattractive. Consider “Bronze,” a poem about a friend who has died, leaving a house behind:
His last will Left it intact to Mario the butler, So long devoted and his brood so great. The house sighed. It had entertained the subtler Forms of discourse and behavior.
We see it also in another form in A Different Person, when Merrill reflects on his love affairs with Greek boys, conducted over decades of part-time residence in Athens.
And the Greek youths we take up with? Don't they have personalities themselves, and histories? No doubt; yet it seems to us that they primarily have humors, choleric or melancholy, sanguine or phlegmatic, as in pre-Renaissance psychology. Also our friends strike us as creations of their Mediterranean society far more than we are of ours. …
But nowhere is this attitude more evident than in The Changing Light at Sandover, which purports to document metaphysical truths communicated via a Ouija board to Merrill and David Jackson. As Merrill began “talking” with a spirit named Ephraim, Alison Lurie looked on with dismay: “From the beginning I didn't care for Ephraim. He was a part of David and Jimmy I hadn't met head-on before, and instantly felt estranged from. He was foreign, frivolous, intermittently dishonest, selfishly sensual, and cheerfully, coldly promiscuous.” Indeed, The Book of Ephraim presents a depressingly narcissistic vision of the world to come.
Merrill allows that Ephraim might have been “a projection / Of what already burned, at some obscure / Level or another, in our skulls”; but it is hardly reassuring to think that passages like the following are addressed by Merrill to himself:
take our teacher told us from sensual pleasure only what will not during it be even partly spoiled by fear of losing too much This was the tone We trusted most, a smiling Hellenistic Lightness from beyond the grave. Each shaft Feathered by head-turning flattery: Long b4 the fortunate conjunction (David's and mine) allowed me to get through may I say weve had our eyes on u —On our kind hearts, good sense, imagination, Talents!
The Book of Ephraim contains some of Merrill's finest writing, but the system that it is meant to expound is intellectually unacceptable and imaginatively complacent. It is not necessary, of course, to write a long poem in order to be a major poet; but there are qualities of the major poet whose absence from Merrill's work is confirmed in his long poem. There is more discovery, and therefore more beauty, in the brief and homely Collected Poems of Larkin than in the many golden pages of Merrill.
Still, Merrill is an undisputed master of certain modes. The aesthetic-aristocratic irony that freezes his largest statements is very rewarding when he writes about his childhood or his love affairs, subjects on which many poets are hysterically single-minded. Indeed, it is not his style, but the tone that his style creates, that is Merrill's greatest achievement. The man whom we come to know in the Collected Poems is witty, clever, cool, urbane; he meets suffering with a self-mocking fortitude. The resigned “Ja, ja” of Strauss's Marschallin is Merrill's characteristic response to tragedy:
Change of scene that might, I thought, be tried First, instead of outright suicide. (Looked back on now, what caused my sufferings? Mere thwarted passion—commonest of things.)
In fact, some of Merrill's best poems are about opera. As he relates in the sequence “Matinées,” attending a performance of the Ring was the beginning of his aesthetic education. Opera taught him that emotion can be performed, that it can be simultaneously sincere and parodic. The artistic consciousness is inevitably a double consciousness:
The point thereafter was to arrange for one's Own chills and fever, passions and betrayals, Chiefly in order to make song of them.
The image of the opera singer, whose rehearsed emotion is paradoxically more real than actual feeling, returns in “The Ring Cycle,” a sequence from A Scattering of Salts, Merrill's last collection:
Brünnhilde confronts Siegfried. That is to say, Two singers have been patiently rehearsed So that their tones and attitudes convey Outrage and injured innocence. …
Merrill's autobiographical sequences—“Matinées,” “The Broken Home,” “The Thousand and Second Night,” “Lost in Translation,” the series of poems titled “Days of …,” “Clearing the Title,” and a few others—are the height of his art. Here Merrill finds a subject important enough to compel interest but not so important as to resist irony; and the pressure of his narrative restrains his tendency to the baroque. These are the poems that will be read when Merrill the individual is forgotten.
Perhaps the best of these sequences is “Family Week at Oracle Ranch,” from A Scattering of Salts. It recounts the poet's trip to a New Age recovery facility to visit his lover, who was a patient there. Here the disparity between complex language and primal feeling becomes Merrill's explicit subject:
Simplicities. Just seven words—Afraid, Hurt, Lonely, etc.—to say it with. Shades of the first watercolor box (I “felt blue,” I “saw red”). …
While the connoisseur of feeling throws up his hands: Used to depicting personal anguish
With a full palette—hues, oils, glazes, thinner— He stares into these withered wells and feels, Well … Sad and Angry?
For a poet so enamored of eloquence, therapeutic language represents a radical deprivation; yet this very loss allows Merrill a way around the ironic self-awareness that his language enforces. It is the first time that Merrill appears discomfited by language, by the disjunction between eloquence and communication. That it came at the very end of his life makes it especially poignant, a token of possibilities never to be realized.
Reading the Collected Poems leaves no doubt that Merrill was one of the finest American poets of the last half-century. His achievement was all the more valuable because he was strong in areas where most of his contemporaries were weak. Yet the book also leaves the suspicion that Merrill's major work was left unwritten. How glad we would be to have, instead of The Changing Light at Sandover, his verse autobiography. It would probably not have been a profound exploration of memory or psychology, like The Prelude, or like Proust; but it would have been sparkling, sociable, eighteenth-century, like Pope.
Indeed, the Augustan age would have been the perfect setting for Merrill's gifts. He was meant for an era in which the poet could take much for granted—his audience, his principles, his forms—and could devote himself to the perfection of what he received. One can well imagine Merrill going to court and to the coffeehouses, writing racy verse epistles, and turning his couplets to a glittering sheen. There would have been no question, in those days, of his poetry being too beautiful to be great.
SOURCE: Review of Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter, by Alison Lurie. Publisher's Weekly 249, no. 48 (2 December 2002): 45.
[In the following review, the critic offers praise for Lurie's observations regarding children's literature in Boys and Girls Forever.]
A perceptive critic, Lurie (Don't Tell the Grown-Ups) has long been a close observer of children's literature. This welcome volume [Boys and Girls Forever] collects a number of her essays on the subject, most of which appeared in other versions in the New York Review of Books. As she wittily deconstructs the lives and works of authors as varied as Louisa May Alcott (“she was the daughter of what would now be described as vegetarian hippie intellectuals, with fringe religious and social beliefs, and spent nearly a year of her childhood in an unsuccessful commune”), Hans Christian Andersen, J. K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss, a common theme emerges, for Lurie contends that those who write best for children are “in some essential way … children themselves.” James Barrie liked to play pirates and Indians: Babar author Laurent de Brunhoff climbed trees into his 70s and John Masefield's daughter described him as “a wonderful playmate—essentially, another child.” Children's book authors may bristle at this assertion, as well as at Lurie's somewhat offhand dismissal of the art of children's literature. Speaking of “established authors” who try their hand at writing for children, for instance, she notes “they are as it were on vacation, and under no pressure to produce a Great Work.” Still, the essays are consistently entertaining, enlightening and erudite, and Lurie's insights into a host of classic titles, including such topics as gender role reversal and social satire in the Oz books, the enduring power of symbolism in fairy tales and changing literary tastes over the past two centuries, bring clarity to an always-evolving form.