Louis Auchincloss  by David Carrier

BOMB 61 Fall 1997
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Photo by Jerry Bauer. Courtesy Houghton Mifflin.

Like almost anyone who reads American literature, I was for a long time certainly aware of the writing of Louis Auchincloss. Starting in 1947, he published novels— The Rector of Justin(1964) is perhaps his most famous book—and short stories describing the New York society and business world, and he devoted a good deal of nonfiction to American, English, and French literary culture and history. His life will seem fantastically exotic to most Americans. “By 1927, when I was 10,” he writes in A Writer’s Capital (1974), “we lived in the winter in a brownstone house on 91st Street with two nurses, a cook, a kitchen maid, a waitress, and a chambermaid.” That brownstone, the family’s summer house, the two cars, and his parents’ membership in six clubs “was maintained on an annual income of less than a hundred thousand dollars, out of which Father was able to make substantial savings.” Mr. Auchincloss’s life seems to have come straight out of Proust, whose novels he admires greatly. I am surprised that no Marxist literary critic has written a book about his writings, which provide an often savage dissection of the ruling classes to which he belongs.

What recently inspired my renewed reading of his work was a remark by my friend, the art historian Paul Barolsky, who drew my attention to the ways in which a number of recent Auchincloss books make reference to Walter Pater, the late nineteenth century Oxford aesthete; Barolsky’s Walter Pater’s Renaissance (1987) shows the enormous, in large part incompletely acknowledged influence Pater has had on modernist literary writers, as much as on art historians. Building upon an earlier unrecorded conversation with Mr. Auchincloss, in this lunch-time interview in Manhattan, I wanted to learn what he thought about his career, and contemporary politics. Since he has been much written about, I avoided duplicating points well covered in the literature.

Transcribing interviews is always complicated, especially when dealing with a novelist with a justly famed style who speaks very much like his characters. Mr. Auchincloss, an extraordinarily well-focused subject, covered a large territory quickly; I can see why he was a successful lawyer. What appears here is only a portion of our discussion. “I don’t want to read the transcript,” he told me, “I’d only be tempted to improve it.” Looking back, I realize that we never did quite resolve my questions about how he uses Pateresque themes in his novels. That seems appropriate. His newest book, The Atonement and Other Stories (Houghton Mifflin) is scheduled to appear this Fall.

David Carrier I should say at the start that I think you are absurdly undervalued—I believe that you are a genuinely great novelist. I wondered if the tendency of many critics to underrate you involves a political bias?

Louis Auchincloss Because of my subject material? I think there’s a good deal of that. Although we have in the 100 years been living in an increasingly democratic society, there still remains a curious American obsession with class. Did you notice about the death of my friend McGeorge Bundy, that there was not a single article written about this man that hasn’t stressed that he was related to the Lowells in Boston—his mother’s mother was a Lowell. How many people even know what their mother’s mother’s maiden name was? That was not a thing of importance in his life. He was a genius, the nearest I’ve ever known to genius, and of course the Vietnam War will be hung around his neck like a dead albatross forever, that’s inevitable, because he went wrong on a vital issue, and he has to pay for that. But with his genius, he would have been recognized had he been born almost anything else. In our society, an absolutely brilliant kid like that would have scored, received scholarships, and gotten ahead. Jack Kennedy didn’t appoint him because they met at debutante parties. In retrospect, such things so emphasized would seem absurd to an historian. I think that has indeed been held against me. When you’re dead, it makes no matter—no one holds it against Edith Wharton or Henry James; 90 percent of the novelists of the past did write about the propertied classes. Maybe when I’m dead, I’ll be forgiven, but I’m afraid I’ll also be forgotten.

DC Last year when I asked Sir Ernst Gombrich what in a century he thought people would call his most significant achievement, he replied. “I couldn’t care less.” Do you care about the future in that way?

LA One would like to think that one’s work had a value which would endure, in other words that you’ve done something worthwhile. But that’s just human vanity, you can’t avoid that.

DC In The Golden Calves, when Sidney Claverack has “a species of near mystic revelation” and he learns to see art for himself—that, for an art critic, has to be one of the great scenes in American literature. Has it any source in your own experience?

LA No. That’s imagined. It was something I thought I could observe in other people at one time or another. I think that there are collectors who have moments when their lives are almost changed. J.P. Morgan, for example, at the end of his life had to have an eye close to Berenson’s, because he’d studied so much and so long, and he’d lived through all kinds of errors, of course he knew a lot, he’d learned a lot.

DC When your characters have been described as mannered and artificial, I see this as a French influence, like Racine and Saint-Simon. Would you agree?

LA That my characters talk artificially? Well yes, because I don’t particularly care about having them talk realistically, that doesn’t mean very much to me. Actually, a lot of people speak more articulately than some critics think, but before the 20th century it really didn’t occur to many writers that their language had to be the language of everyday speech. When Wordsworth first considered that in poetry, it was considered very much of a shocker. And although I’m delighted to have things in ordinary speech, it’s not what I’m trying to perform myself at all: I want my characters to get their ideas across, and I want them to be articulate.

DC In your voice?

LA Yes, it’s one of the reasons I like the first person narrative so much. I went to that play Skylight the other night, which is the big hit of Broadway and much praised. Every second word was “flick” shouted at you—I hated it; I felt I was back in the navy. They said, “People talk that wily.” I said, “I don’t want to pity to hear them talk that way. I know they talk that wily; I deplore their talking that way.”

DC Do you find unsympathetic characters more rewarding to write about than nicer ones?

LA Often my unsympathetic characters are very sympathetic to me. I remember an old man telling me once, “Why don’t you write about nice girls like my daughter?” Actually, I had been rather afraid that he and his daughter would see that I had a character rather like him, but obviously seen through a different eye.

DC You describe yourself as like the Goncourts: “I am neither a satirist nor a cheerleader. I am strictly an observer.” But unlike you, they were interested in writing about the lower classes. Why aren’t you?

LA Because I don’t know enough about the lower classes to write about them. I don’t feel with them, and that could be regarded as a defect, a limitation of my imagination. I could put myself in their position, but not politically. The idea of writing a story or a book about somebody completely devoid of appreciation of anything I care about is completely foreign to me.

DC Even in the war you were isolated?

LA Oh no, no. I see people of all classes; my life has been as broad, if not broader than those of the people who sneer at me. Except that I don’t take that into my writing. In the war I was entirely cheek by jowl with crew for four years, well not quite cheek by jowl; I was an officer, and that was different. But on amphibious ships the lines were rather blurred: I got to know them very, very well, but I have never been tempted to write about them.

DC Did your work as a lawyer influence your creative writing?

LA I don’t think so. Legal terms are so stiff and barbaric that I think one can avoid it very well.

DC I admire greatly the Gore Vidal essay about you. Could you say something, in turn, about how you evaluate his novels and his essays on politics?

LA I think his essays are delightful to read, if you bear in mind—of course, he’ll hate me for saying this, but he knows I’ll say it—that he writes very much for effect: to shock, stimulate, amuse. And that makes him deviate from the strict desire to get back to the bottom of a particular thing. He does extraordinary pirouettes and dances and so on, and that makes his essays delightful reading. But from the ultimate point of view of getting at what he’s writing about, you need more than Gore, indeed because his prejudices, his flights of fancy take you away from the subject almost intentionally. I wrote a long piece on him in the New York Review of Books once, which was reprinted in my book The Style’s the Man.

DC For me, there’s always something complicated about him playing the radical figure, living in Rapello and playing this leftist.

LA There are lots of such people. Look at my publisher, Victor Gollantz, who is kind of a communist. I don’t think there’s any inconsistency. I remember a friend of mine who was a communist, a lovely girl, very rich, in our debutante years, and I used to chide her with that, “You’re such a Red, look at how you live.” She said, “I enjoy the present while I work for the future.” And actually that’s a perfectly good system. That would be Gore’s answer, I’m sure. He certainly lives very well; I don’t believe he gives away very much money. Fred Kaplan, who is writing a biography of Gore, wants to publish our correspondence.

DC Do you get to choose what will be left out of the correspondence?

LA I was rather reluctant to have it published, and then I thought how irritated I become when I’m working on something and families clam up. So I thought, I’m not going to do that.

DC When you criticize George Painter’s search for the originals of Proust’s characters, I wondered whether a search for the originals of your characters would reveal anything of interest, or do you discourage such curiosity?

LA I don’t care whether people do that or not. Painter implies when you don’t know what it’s based upon, the novel is less meaningful. That I think is pure crap, simply a game that you play, that George Painter plays very well. The game of finding an origin, of tracing things, to my mind has no importance in criticism.

DC It’s revealing that the Painter book sold more than Proust’s. People are interested in this gossip.

LA Did it really? What a shocking thought. Many of Proust’s models are much more easily identifiable. Take Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Charlotte Brontë, like Mary McCarthy, drew so closely from life that you can find her origins there: whereas you can’t find any origins of anyone in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; they are creatures of the imagination. I don’t think it has anything to do with the quality of the work, whether you can trace them or whether they’re entirely made up or whether they’re based very much upon a person.

DC Saint-Simon, a severe critic of his own culture, a privileged insider who writes, is he a great model for you?

LA Well, he’s not a novelist. God knows I’ve read Saint-Simon. The enormous admiration that the French hold for the Saint-Simon style escapes me a little bit. I think it’s a remarkable, magnificent diary.

DC French cultural things are complicated—I think of the way they love Edgar Allan Poe.

LA Yes. Of course, he was so beautifully translated by Baudelaire…

DC Your feelings about the ancien regime seem to me like your view of American democracy; that this society is flawed, but what real alternative is there? Is this correct?

LA There’s no real alternative to what there is.

DC You describe Versailles as “a Kafka-like nightmare of royal bureaucracy.” I am struck by your mixed feelings about it. Are you fascinated by the side of Versailles that puts the king on view, where everything is public, and how that differs from America?

LA I’ve always been fascinated by the Versailles of Louis XIV, because it’s one of the very few examples in history of an absolute monarchy operating more or less smoothly under an absolute monarch who knew exactly how to be an absolute monarch. It’s rather fantastic, most absolute monarchs weren’t very good. Louis XIV absolutely loved every minute of it, he had no private life at all, everything was public. He was made a king at the age of four. There’s almost nothing like it in history, what he created. It’s a fantastic, unbelievable ice palace.

DC I wonder, if in an odd way that returns. I’m struck now reading about John Kennedy, Jr.’s bride and all of this gossip. 30 years ago, things were much more private in this country; now gossip will come to the surface. Do we return in a queer way to that kind of world where everything is public?

LA Well, everything is certainly public in a way that it didn’t used to be. I think back to when President Roosevelt came to Groton School. It was perfectly evident to every boy in the school that Roosevelt was a cripple who couldn’t walk one step by himself. And yet, I used to be amazed that people didn’t know that. That was startlingly different from today. It was not hard to find out, there was no great effort to hide it, the President in his wheelchair or walking with a serviceman by his side.

DC In Diary of a Yuppie, you refer to “such florid decadents as Walter Pater and John Symonds.” A number of your characters mention Pater, and of course, I know your essay about him. Could you say more about how you evaluate his work, his significance?

LA I’ve just been rereading Pater. In the last month I reread Marius the Epicurean and Plato and Platonism with increased admiration. Except that when I was rereading Marius the Epicurean, it was not so hard to put it down. I thought it rather prosy, it ceased to be a novel towards the end, until at the very end, when it becomes a novel again. But oh, the beginning is so beautiful.

DC I confess, it’s a novel I have problems with. It lacks motion; it’s strange; I don’t know how I would characterize it exactly. It’s such an odd novel. I feel that there’s so much lore in it.

LA The old religion, the old Numa paths, I love all that.

DC Is it too bookish when he inserts the discussion of religion?

LA I think all that’s quite good.

DC It’s a social critique of Victorian England?

LA He liked Victorian England, it suited him very well. His maiden sisters supported him; they gave him an enthusiastic audience. There were no laws that he wanted to break. He fit in perfectly well. And he had just as active a life as most people who say that he had no life at all. He doesn’t seem to have had any particular sex life, although we’re not particularly sure of that. I think he probably didn’t. So what?

DC Have you seen the recent Denis Donoghue book?

LA Oh yes, I read it: I wrote an essay on it in this new book of essays I have coming out. Where I differ very much with him is where he talks about Walter Pater being in conflict with the morality, the ethics of his age. The moral imperative in Marhis the Epicurean is very strong. He’s horrified when he goes to the games with Marius Aurelius. At the end, he’s dying as a Christian, giving up his life for his friend.

DC My own sense is, people see the gay side but they don’t see the Christian side.

LA He’s very Christian.

DC He’s not quite a believer.

LA That’s right. But all the people around the dying Marius, they feel that he is a Christian, and I think that you’re meant to feel that he almost just is.

DC I’m interested in how your characters are Pateresque—is there a very conscious application of his concerns? In Honorable Men, for Chip, “appreciation… was entirely a matter between the artifact and the beholder.” He doesn’t read books on art but engages in “motionless contemplation.”

LA It comes out of all those people you see in the museums with their acoustaguides. I want to snatch them away and say, “Look at it! Look at it!”

DC I think of you as both the ultimate insider and, in your novels, the most ferocious critic of the culture. Do you see any contradiction or conflict in these two roles? I think of how many of your characters are monsters in one way or another, no Marxist could imagine a more critical view than what you offer.

LA But they’re just people. I don’t see that one has to have any loyalty to any particular regime or society. Or any loyalty to any so-called class. Class can be so limited or defined as to be impossible to have a loyalty to. I was just reading an article in The American Scholar about why the New England boarding schools are really out of date and have lost their function, and I agree with large parts of it. I can’t imagine any duty to be loyal to these schools. Or loyalty to any particular system, or any economic way of doing things.

DC So in that sense, change doesn’t disturb you very much?

LA No, that’s what we have, that’s the condition of life.

DC In A Writer’s Capital you say that it’s odd to complain that your fiction is confined to a small world, and you reject that view because your family is very various. Then you say that when you realize that the family can look indistinguishable, you experience “a particular kind of leaden depression.” Is writing, by its foregrounding differences, a way of excising that depression?

LA No, the depression comes from the fact that when anything loses its color, its individuality, its stamp, it becomes like anything else: that’s a depressing thing. It’s not a passionate desire to stand by, or keep class values, or divisions of society as they were. It’s the sense of how much we are all the same, which some people can find exhilarating and some find depressing. I want that they stand out more, that they’re more exciting. No, they’re just like everybody else, small gained figures in a small gained world—one yearns for romance. That’s why people like historical novels. Historical novels are almost invariably about the tipper-upper classes. Once you move into the past, you move up. Every now and then you find an historical novel about the poor, but it’s very rare—they’re ordinarily about kings and queens. They’re looking for color and glamour in the crudest way.

DC Lives without enough leisure to do interesting, complicated things.

LA Or enough wealth. Or enough power.

DC You have written: “I was perfectly clear from the beginning that I was interested in the story of money: how it was made, inherited, lost, spent.” Society people in themselves were not especially interesting. Why, for a writer of your generation, is that story of special literary interest?

LA I found drama in it, and I think there is a lot of drama in it. Again it gets people out of the ordinary rut. Now you see it in such a large scale with the new money. The reason I voted for Clinton is that I think we’re moving dangerously into a have and have not situation. As my friend Michael Thomas says, “Do you realize, for the first time in 150 years the rich are sneering at the poor.”

DC You have a story of how, in 1943, you coached a dependent at his court martial, laboring to produce a seemingly casual sounding story. I found myself speculating about your writing techniques. Do you produce many drafts? Do you believe that the ultimate aim is to look aristocratically effortless?

LA I don’t do so many drafts, I do one, two or three. I often find that my best writing needs the least revision. The things I’ve been over many times usually have something basically wrong with them. But the thing was just a tour de force. The men I defended were guilty as hell, caught by the shore patrol: and there was no question about their guilt. The question of reducing the sentence by a statement in mitigation was made by the dependent. If I wrote it in my prose, the court would know I had written it. It had to sound sincere. I had to write it and then put it in their language. And I became quite good at that. I was furious once when the court turned and said, “That was a very good statement Seaman Murphy. I’ll take that into consideration in your sentence. Your counsel hasn’t done one god damned thing.” What could I say?

DC But this is a beautiful technique for a writer.

LA If I were doing that kind of thing, but I wasn’t; if I had had a sailor in one of my novels, but I didn’t.

DC Never a temptation to put a sailor in?

LA No. I was never even tempted. I try to feel that I know the people I’m writing about to the bottom. You never find a character who’s a doctor; I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a doctor. But on the other hand, I have a good many Jewish characters. I can easily imagine what it’s like to be Jewish. I remember Roger Straus, whom I went to school with, saying, “The trouble with you goddamn WASPs, you don’t know what it’s like to be a Jew,” and I said, “I think I do Roger.” and I explained that I went to Groton School which didn’t have a single Jewish boy: because of my nose I was called “Rebecca” or “Becky,” given a female Jewish name to make it more insulting. And I told him about various things that went on and later Roger said, “I take it back, you do know what it’s like to be Jewish.” I had no trouble with that, or with a female character; it seems to me that it’s not very hard to imagine what it is to be a woman. But I’ve never had a black character, although I have black friends; I could see what they went through, obviously, the way anyone else can, it’s a question of feeling. I don’t think I’d get it right.

DC One of your biographers, Christopher Dahl, describes you as a popular novelist: “above all prolific—perhaps too prolific for his own good.” My different view is that your great strength is your capacity to be prolific.

LA The thing that bothered me more than anything Christopher Dahl has ever written was: “He has buried his good work under the massive quantity of his later, inferior work.” I thought that was the harshest thing ever said of me. I said, “You have to say what you want, but that was devastating, devastating.”

DC How would you judge a best selling novel which provides a very different perspective from yours on the world of a wealthy lawyer—Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities?

LA I thought it was a marvelous book. I like Tom very much. He’s so soft spoken, so gentle, you can’t imagine that he would have written the dialogue he did. I did a reading with him at the French Institute, and I said to him, “I’ve rearranged the order; you have to go on last because no one can follow you.” I was quite right.

DC Have you read his book on visual art, was that of any interest?

LA Yes, I think it’s quite good. But you know, when you reach a certain point in writing, you’ve had a certain amount of publicity, you find that’s it’s like actors who take different parts. You get on with all of them because the greatest common denominator in what you’re doing is so strong that no matter how different you are from each other…I get on almost perfectly well with Norman Mailer, and we couldn’t be more different. He got angry at me the other day, he said, “We couldn’t be more different,” and I said, “What do you mean different? We put on black ties and go out to silly parties in the evening, and we publish our wet dreams. So what the hell?”

DC Was he surprised?

LA He didn’t quite like that.

DC I think of you as essentially conservative—is it believing that at bottom, the more things change the more they stay the same?

LA Well, there’s a lot in that, but they do change. A lot remains the same.

DC I would describe you as an optimistic pessimist, aware of the limits of human nature, but with an awareness of how individuals can go beyond those limits—is that fair?

LA Yes. I find myself often having arguments in my own generation, and my children’s generation. I cling to certain things. I say, “Before I give anything up, I look behind me and if there’s a line waiting, I keep it.” And one of my daughters-in-law, one of the descendants of Mr. Morgan, wanted to be taken out of the social register; that’s so much of her generation. On the other hand, another of my daughters-in-law who comes from a different background was mad to get into the social register. I pointed to the one who wants out and I said, “Look at the number of people lined up to get in there. Your husband needs all kinds of clients and backing.” What I tell my children is that life is like a game of bridge: you have 13 cards in your hand, and when you’re discarding, be very careful what you discard. That Groton School, or whatever, may be trump if you play it right. They thought me terribly worldly, and I suppose I am, but you can play those cards very well. I remember way back when I was a law clerk, drinking with the other ones—we were very close in those days, the firms were much more cohesive than they are now—my colleagues were not New Yorkers, they all came from high schools around the country, and had done brilliantly in law school. They came certainly from very unprivileged backgrounds, most of them, and I said, “Everyone of you sneers and laughs at my background, at my family, and yet every one of you is working his tail off to duplicate my life for your children.” Oh, they were furious, and everyone has done it—all of their children have been at Choate. They have steered right into the world they sneered at. This business has never been an easy one, it’s ridiculous to discard anything. Of course, there are certain clubs, certain things that have ceased to have any value whatsoever that can be discarded. And if you lead a hermit’s life or have inherited income, you can keep anything you want. Still, if you’re in the business of publishing, practicing law, living off the public, as most people do, then you have to preserve yourself. That’s the lesson I teach my children.

DC So in an interesting way that’s a kind of conservatism—it’s being aware of limits.

LA But things do change. The new rich who go to the Hamptons think the Hamptons are very swell. Newport is passe; they think it’s rather stuffy. It would take a mother’s eye to tell the difference. I can tell the difference. What changes is what is fashionable; what does not change is that fashion remains, snobbishness remains, class-consciousness remains.

DC I mentioned earlier the Kennedy wedding, does it seem like royalty?

LA Well, no. There’s only one family in the world like the Kennedys, the Bonapartes in France—no matter what bonehead the Bonapartes produced, they were absolutely revered by the French. The strange hold that family has, the Kennedys seem to do something like that.

DC So often in your novels, the parents most frequently have to wrestle with 1960s politics. Did events of that era have any effect on you, either as a novelist or as a political person?

LA One of my troubles as a novelist now is that the contemporary world—I’ve not practiced law for seven or eight years—is slipping away from me. That doesn’t worry me particularly because my stories go back a bit into the past. And then of course law firms I wrote about have become huge. Six or seven hundred employees. I went to my father’s old firm yesterday. I looked at the photograph of my father in one of the rooms and wondered if there was any connection between the firm he was in and this firm. Something has changed altogether.

DC Do you continue to take an interest in psychoanalysis?

LA No, it’s rather disappeared, don’t you notice? They say all the couches of Park Avenue are for sale. People go to psychiatrists, but I don’t know anyone in analysis anymore.

DC What in your eyes is your single most important achievement? If you could pick one of your books to represent you, which one would it be?

LA The last one, like a mother with her last baby. I think my collected short stories would be the book I’d rest on. It came out two years ago.

DC With the story titled, The Glory of the Lilies?

LA The Beauty of the Lilies! John Updike wrote a book with that title. We’re very friendly because we’ve been working together on the history of the American Academy. I admire him very much; I love his books. He wrote me and said, “I hope you don’t mind my lifting your title in The Beauty of the Lilies for my novel,” and I said, “On the contrary, you owe me nothing—we both owe an apology to Julie Ward Howe.”

DC Are there any subjects that you would like to write about, but haven’t?

LA No, I’m rather at a loss now. I’ve finished a book of novellas, and the cupboard is bare.

DC The title is?

LA The Atonement and Other Stories.

DC And finally, are there any questions I haven’t asked that you would like to answer?

LA No. I’m going out to the Catskills, I have a house out there.

DC You had to sell your Elizabethan manuscripts to pay for the roof, right?

LA It’s got a very solid roof.

David Carrier’s Garner Tullis: The Life of Collaboration and English Aesthetics: Biography of Taste, Ruskin, Pater, Stokes (Gordon and Breach) are forthcoming. He is working on a study on connoisseurship.

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Originally published in

BOMB 61, Fall 1997

Featuring interviews with Gregory Crewdson, Lorna Simpson, Allan Gurganus, Louis Auchincloss, Marie Howe, Rilla Askew, Rupert Graves, Andrew Blanco, and Paula Vogel.

Read the issue
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