- Thy Neighbour’s Wife by Gay Talese
Collins, 568 pp, £7.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 00 216307 1
Like most people with a Polish grandfather. I used to hang around a lot waiting for him to say something wise. Born in 1885, surviving until 1978, he looked, certainly during his last decade, like the repository of all the aggregated arcana of Central Europe: squat, neckless, ice-eyed and almost entirely silent, he spent his latter days sitting in a burgundy moquette fauteuil, gazing out at the Manor House traffic-lights, while who knew what flickered and crackled across his ancient synapses. Give or take the odd skin-tone, he might have been a displaced lama waiting for the Chinese to get out of Tibet, so that he could go back home and live forever. Unfortunately, he was very dumb. He passed nothing on to his heirs, or to their heirs, because he didn’t know anything. It was perhaps the most interesting thing about him: I have never met anyone who was simultaneously so old and so ignorant. Yet for all that, there was one occasion on which he actually came across with the goods: an authentic axiom, a shimmering aperçu, a musical saw.
Vol. 2 No. 17 · 4 September 1980
SIR: May I congratulate Alan Coren, as writer, and you, sir, as publisher, on the outspoken and uncompromising strictures directed at Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbour’s Wife (LRB, 17 July). It is something that has needed to be said, loudly and clearly, about this vulgar and ubiquitous category of modern writing these many years past, and it is to be hoped that Mr Coren’s fearless example will be followed in an equally forthright manner by other reviewers writing for the serious literary journals, who, nowadays, all too often lower their standards and pander to the latest, and usually basest, tastes. One assumes, charitably, that this is done in a misguided attempt to maintain popularity (and therefore circulation), or, less charitably, that it is done in order to avoid the taint of prudery or puritanism.
If I were to take issue with Mr Coren at all, it would be on the grounds that he is somewhat unfair to American men. I am an Englishman and I recognise, regretfully, that my latterday countrymen are far from blameless in the encouragement given to this tawdry commerce. While it is true that a large proportion of new mores and habits, good and bad, have their roots in America and spread eastwards, it is equally true that no self-respecting Englishman (or Frenchman or German or Italian, for that matter) is denied the opportunity of exercising his powers of discrimination.
The Lion Bookshop, Rome