The Book Class
For more than thirty years, in nearly as many published works of prose fiction, Louis Auchincloss has experimented frequently with both viewpoint and form in order to present best his personal, often satirical perspectives on New York society. Several of his books have been written in the “dispassionate” third person. Still others, like Portrait in Brownstone (1962) and The Embezzler (1966), derive considerable effect from the author’s skillful use of multiple viewpoints, often managed through a collage of diaries and letters; the net effect upon the reader is not dissimilar to that produced upon the jury in a courtroom, presented with the facts and left to decide who actually did what to whom. The most successful of Auchincloss’ novels, however, have tended to be those in which the action is recounted by a single (here the term is ironic) viewpoint character, bachelor or spinster, who is invested with a kind of omniscience by dint of being sidelined from the battle of the sexes (which latter subject often forms a large part of the action described). In The House of Five Talents (1960), the ugly-duckling narrator-protagonist, Miss Gussie Millinder, presides with affectionate dispassion over the eventual collapse of her family, a collapse which results in part from sexual misadventures and/or inadvisable marriages. The Rector of Justin (1964), perhaps Auchincloss’ best-received and best-remembered novel to date, is narrated primarily by the frail, fussy (and single) Brian Aspinwall, who struggles for most of the novel with a possible call to the Anglican priesthood. More recently, in The House of the Prophet (1980), narration passes into the hands of a custodian who, although demonstrably male, is utterly sexless, having been rendered impotent by a diabetic crisis sustained in early adolescence. In The Book Class, at last, the narrator is quite plainly homosexual, even to the point of caricature, although he remains sufficiently circumspect and canny to leave most details of his proclivity to the reader’s carefully directed inference. The subject of Christopher’s memoir, after all, is not his homosexuality but rather his unbiased, “objective” observations of the American woman, subspecies New York matron, as exemplified by his own mother and other members of her monthly book class during the years of Christopher’s own adolescence and early adulthood.
As an experienced writer of both long and short fiction, Auchincloss has more than once attempted (and almost managed) a true fusion of the two genres, offering volumes of short stories that can be read with satisfaction either piecemeal or as a well-ordered, interrelated totality; indeed, such volumes as Powers of Attorney (1963), Second Chance (1970), and The Partners (1974) appear to partake of both genres, accessible as individual tales yet offering additional readerly satisfaction when taken together. The Winthrop Covenant (1976), consisting less of short stories than of sequentially related novelettes, is somewhat less successful, although it remains among the author’s own favorite works. Even less successful as a specimen of either genre is The Book Class, demanding to be read as long fiction yet without ever delivering the promise implicit in the novel. Following the twists and turns of Christopher’s recollection, the narrative is episodic in the extreme; nevertheless, the structure of the novel forbids that any one of its parts be addressed separately, as is possible with The Partners, say, or even The Winthrop Covenant.
As the younger and less-favored son of Mansfield and Cornelia Gates, Christopher, by his own accounting, has been a keen observer and occasional meddler for most of his sixty years. During the Depression, at fifteen or sixteen years of age, the Diogenesque Christopher intervened personally to advise his mother against implicitly condoning Mansfield Gates’s sharp practices as an officer of the Gallatin Bank, founded by Cornelia’s own family. Although acquitted of eventual charges on the basis of insufficient...
(The entire section is 1695 words.)