A review of Manhattan Monologues by Louis Auchincloss

Auchincloss is an inheritor of the territory once handled by Henry James and Edith Wharton, territory that is sometimes dismissed without the understanding that it remains an important literary and social realm. Marginally observed, the rich are rarely discussed with knowledge or depth. Their money and the consequent range and impact of their choices on the rest of society are what make them different and important – still: they are the traditional patrons of lasting forms of culture; and laws are changed and wars waged for this moneyed class. Auchincloss’s presentation of the minds, morals, and manners of his people produces moments that are not only interesting but satisfying.

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

Manhattan Monologues
Stories
Louis Auchincloss
Houghton Mifflin (Boston, New York)
2002, ISBN 0-618-15289-X
$25.00, 226 pages

In the short fiction story “Collaboration” by Louis Auchincloss the people feel as much for the world and for each other as they can, they know it and they speak of it. Tony, a quiet, privileged boy, neither overtly charming nor athletic, explores the marshes and birds near his home. He is befriended by an older man, Arthur Slocum, who tells him, “You have the marshes, Tony! You’ve had the sense to grab hold of them and make them your own.” Slocum, a poetry lover, tells him that out of this, he’ll have “visions.” (pg. 92) The boy understands that Slocum values solitude as part of a soul’s cultivation. However, Leopoldine, or Polly, the man’s wife, represents “the jolly world, full of laughter and fun and good spirits, and success,” and for these things and her feminine beauty her husband, who himself hasn’t always felt manly, loves her, and she is discomforted by his retreat to nature, especially one that can be shared with the boy but not herself. (p.95) (It doesn’t occur to her to genuinely embrace nature.) Polly, who is devoted to art and decoration, decides to take her husband away to France, where they can together restore an abbey he’s inherited; and they do this, and during World War II when France is occupied, they are friendly toward the Germans and considered collaborationist. It turns out that this is more complicated than it seems, and what Tony learns from Slocum on Slocum’s deathbed Tony puts in his own memoir for disclosure upon Polly’s death. So, this is a story of the loyalty of friendship, the fulfillment and betrayal of love, and the press of history as lived among the wealthy; and its pleasures are the pleasures of character, dialog, situation, and idea, pleasures to be found in other Auchincloss stories.

In Manhattan Monologues, Louis Auchincloss’s new collection of fictional stories featuring “Collaboration,” Auchincloss’s characters have a criticality about each other’s motives and habits that’s intelligent and funny. They try to make decisions that will keep them safe and prosperous, and sometimes outsmart not only each other but themselves. There are scenes of alienation and deception, and intimacy and charged revelation, in these stories told in conversation or more often in written memoirs for family, posterity, or even for a psychiatrist. Many of the stories are simple in structure but they are about significant things: money, marriage, family, love, sex, law, business, and war; and, not least, they explore how a man or woman’s personality or ethics sometimes differs from expectation. Auchincloss locates the vulnerabilities of privileged people.

Auchincloss is an inheritor of the territory once handled by Henry James and Edith Wharton, territory that is sometimes dismissed without the understanding that it remains an important literary and social realm. Marginally observed, the rich are rarely discussed with knowledge or depth. Their money and the consequent range and impact of their choices on the rest of society are what make them different and important – still: they are the traditional patrons of lasting forms of culture; and laws are changed and wars waged for this moneyed class. Auchincloss’s presentation of the minds, morals, and manners of his people produces moments that are not only interesting but satisfying.

The stories in Manhattan Monologues span the twentieth century. In “All That May Become a Man,” a father-impressed son fears disappointing his father, a man who sees war as “a blessing in disguise to preserve our national virility”(pg.4) and the boy wonders “Why, I sometimes agonized, in the deep, dark, deluding safety of the night, had I not been born a woman?” (pg.4) When World War I comes, and the boy is a married man with children, he does not enlist and feels his father’s disapproval. After his father dies, he confesses his shame and misery to his mother, who counsels him to accept his own nature while still respecting his father. Just as he felt challenged or limited by gender roles, so do the leading women characters in other stories, such as Aggie in “The Heiress” and Alida in “The Treacherous Age.”

“Harry’s Brother” is Charles, an unpopular, even laughed at, but capable brother who allows his popular and incompetent embezzler brother to go to jail, when Charles could have replaced money Harry stole. Charles finds this perceived toughness earns him social respect. A charming, smart woman of a pedigreed family with diminished resources, Kate, “The Marriage Broker,” tries to place her beloved son Damon into a marriage for his and his family’s financial gain, and her manipulations end by botching what was likely to happen without her interference. Whereas Henry James might have made of this an exquisite tragedy, “Marriage Broker” is a bracing comedy, with sharply truthful comments exchanged between the matchmaker and her son and prospective, often liquor-guzzling, daughter-in-law.

At first “The Justice Clerk” seems as if it will be not only a story of character but of political ideas, and indeed the conservative activism of the judge in it is revealed as profoundly ignorant of ordinary people in society and consequently negatively prejudiced, but it is really about how a man avoids the conservative ideas of his employer and the radical ideas of his wife to create a safe, if dull, existence as a tax lawyer. Safety is what many of the characters in these stories choose, but not the man, Robin, in “He Knew He Was Right,” who attends an all-boys school where he participates in mutual masturbation before graduating to women when he has an affair with a teacher’s wife, deciding sex should be had without guilt. Possibly his atheism is part of what frees him from conventional morality (and thinking for himself, he moves from being stirred by his own violent impulses and enjoying fighting to being repelled by war). Robin says that the people in his social set “put up with much more than I’m willing to: lying, cheating, exploiting, getting ahead of each other any way they can, pushing, shoving, showing a minimum of compassion or generosity. But when it comes to sex, whoa!” (pg. 139) This attitude will get him in trouble when he marries; and it is remarkable for contesting the sexual blankness and even the contempt for sex that some of the characters in certain stories have, as if sex is too close to an animal nature. (The stories are independent, not interlinked, but this collection works so that one story might answer a question that began to arise in another, regarding for instance the place of sex, work, or politics.)

Gary, a businessman in “The Merger,” keeps his family distracted from his business practices with card playing, art appreciation, and yachting, and those business practices, which include exploitive international hiring, get attention from activists and the press. He is surprised when his family rebels, but finds a way to maintain his business practices and dividends, and, though alienated from his family, he becomes even richer.

Only once or twice, maybe three times, did I question Auchincloss: for the extremely opposed points of view of characters in some stories (traditional conflict, also very dialectical); and when Gary’s wife failed to warn him about the content of a planned family meeting; and in the last story, “The Scarlet Letters,” when an older man imagines he and his protégé as Hadrian and Antinous, too emphatic a clue, in what was to be, among other things, a restrained consideration of possibly repressed homosexual attraction. The last story in the collection may be the most ambitious in terms of how many characters are featured and in terms of its themes. I like it but I’m not sure that it’s entirely successful. The sacrifice a husband makes to spare his wife and father-in-law disgrace is unusual, and yet it is also precisely the kind of thing characters in earlier stories would be incapable of – a leap of courage and imagination.

For more information visit: 
Manhattan Monologues: Stories

About the Reviewer: Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in World Literature Today, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Art & Antiques, Audubon Activist, IdentityTheory.com, AllAboutJazz.com, and 24FramesPerSecond.Com. He has written a play, The Art of Losing.

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