Louis Auchincloss Auchincloss, Louis (Vol. 6) - Essay

Auchincloss, Louis (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Auchincloss, Louis 1917–

Auchincloss is an American novelist, playwright, short story writer, and critic, as well as a practicing attorney. Critics would not all concur that his numerous works are subtle social criticism, or that he is more than superficially concerned with moral issues; but he is, to be sure, a novelist of manners, a chronicler of his own milieu—that is, of New Yorkers having patrician prestige and money. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Predictably, Mr Auchincloss places his tale [I Come as a Thief] in a precisely drawn social situation. Tony is half Irish and somewhat Jewish. He has charm and guts, but is no gentleman by the standards of his wife's parents, an exquisitely upper-class couple, dedicated to order and appearance, who are perfectly prepared to accept Tony until he exposes himself and them to the grimy winds of reality. They, and Tony's briefly glimpsed ferret of an Irish grandfather, are assured creations which serve to expose the author's uncertainty about his main character. So much is Tony's raffish, disorganized background insisted upon that one is inclined to suspect his fatal flaw of having to do with a lack of that training in stoicism and duplicity thought essential to a ruling class. His kindness and concern are considered wishy-washy, unreliable, creating conflicts which he is not equipped to suffer. An aristocrat in his position might accept more easily the contradictions implied by his affair with a rich woman, his desperate need for money and his thriving, as a lawyer, on the misfortunes of others. When he breaks down it is his airing of pain and his toying with God which offend the tastes of his father-in-law.

Tony's predicament is clearly put at a social level but never explained as a phenomenon of his own nature. The author suggests—though he doesn't explore the idea—that a man so apparently devoted to the interests of others may doubt himself and need, therefore, to challenge his most fundamentally held view of himself. Despair obliges him to abandon decisions for visions, forces him to proceed by impulse. The novel ends with a line intended to clinch matters: "But monsters could still be men"—a confusing affirmation, which hardly enables the reader to know whether or not Mr Auchincloss agrees with the view that Tony has no business wrestling with his conscience, let alone succumbing to it.

"On the Slippery Slope," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 28, 1973, p. 1100.

The Partners brings to mind Marquand's H. M. Pulham Esq, the best of C. P. Snow, and George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life. Auchincloss writes seriously and with inside knowledge of the community, the profession and the place to which he belongs. It is too late now, perhaps, to expect a Middlemarch from Auchincloss, but his 23rd book marks solid achievement. (p. 156)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), August 1, 1974.

The Partners is less the novel it's billed as than a loosely connected set of sketches about a firm of New York lawyers. Constantly popping in and out is the firm's chief partner Beeky Ehninger—rather unconvincingly put across as a gentleman of the old school who would prefer to do without the cut and thrust of modern legal life. The idea that the practice of law has ever been higher on gentlemanliness than on cutting and thrusting appears, rather surprisingly, to be accepted by Mr Auchincloss—himself a lawyer—but it is not even borne out by Beeky's own early, and machiavellian, careerism. Still, the pretence is needed to sustain the fiction's own view of itself as a brisk rapper of knuckles for the modern adulation of commercial go-getters and smart-asses, and the divorcing of moral considerations from the law. So far, however, from attacking like a dose of salts, these vignettes from the law offices are about as bland as a soft-sell, as punchily social-critical as those late night American telly serials intended to wash warmly down like cocoa. Only two of the stories stand out as having any sort of hard edge; one about a couple of middle-aged office chums, anxious to add sexual compatibility to their mutual interest in music; the other about a lawyer in Paris who gets a flunked-out novelist writing again only to appear, maliciously portrayed, in the new production. But even the more unusual pieces manage to endorse the resolute antileftism of the collection, prone to swiping at the greyness of communist states, knockers of the President, and befrienders of 'Reds'. (p. 163)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 2, 1974.

Mr Auchincloss has employed a great many words to make New York City a capital of Europe, a pastoral spot where lawyers may play the role of madeleine and psychiatrists become the cups of tea, and where Edith Wharton stands veiled as a statue of liberty bodices. The Partners is written by a lawyer, about lawyers and presumably for lawyers but, unlike their miserable counterparts in this country, the Manhattan breed are intelligent enough and sophisticated enough to provide the perfect microcosm of an over-developed society. This particular credo is a novel only in the sense that a television series can be said to be a film, consisting as it does of a number of stories which are related only because the same characters reappear from time to time. In non-literary circles this is a rhetorical effect known as 'life.' But for Mr Auchincloss life is a phenomenon which can only be understood on the smallest of possible scales….

[The stories all] explore similar corporate themes with an elegance which belies their content, which principally concerns the dullness of the men and the fatuity of their wives….

Its quiet and distinguished prose is, like quiet and distinguished people, mainly composed of wet cardboard but Auchincloss has a feeling for those fantastic, battered or gloomy surfaces which normally lie underneath the thickest enamel. The image of his world is the dinner party, that ritual in which we atone for our sins by having to hide them from other people. Certain passions which have filled innumerable minor volumes of Anglo-Saxony, principally the fear of death and the fear of sterility, are here treated with the tact and the formality which put them in their appropriate niche some way down on the scale of priorities….

Auchincloss creates entertainments, sometimes verging upon the mask, in which character is perfectly congruent with story and story with that lack of conclusiveness which is Auchincloss's hallmark. The Partners is one of those occasions in which a dry and even dessicated social prose is able to rise to something higher than itself. (p. 150)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), August 3, 1974.