Amor vincit Vinnie

Marilyn Butler

  • Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
    Joseph, 291 pp, £8.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 7181 2516 9

An American professor of English literature, small, female, fiftyish, moves about in a jumbo flying towards London. Through long practice, she solves the problems of avoiding the film and finding the best journals, though she fails to deflect the conversation of an unsophisticated American fellow-traveller, and she comes near to losing her luggage. Haven’t we read other novels that begin somewhere along this very journey? The question is least academic when the reader is a British woman academic heading for leave in the States, who has moreover on previous transatlantic crossings imbibed, at a conservative listing, Marilyn French’s Bleeding Heart, Malcolm Bradbury’s Stepping Westward and Rates of Exchange, and David Lodge’s Changing Places and Small World. Now, all around the large cabin, other refugees from Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only and from Gene Wilder in The Woman in Red have their noses stuck into novels. Could it be that a certain kind of novel is being produced for this very market, just as a certain kind of film is? Are these other readers encountering looking-glass versions of themselves?

At least Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs turns out not to be the more familiar kind of campus novel. Its heroine Vinnie Miner is going to London to do research, but she is not visiting some windswept new or crumbling old campus, and will not have to cope with superseded elderly professors or thrusting young ones. The new Lurie doesn’t resemble a Bradbury or Lodge, or for that matter an early Lurie, so much as William Boyd’s Stars and Bars, which also investigates how members of one Anglophone culture don’t merely observe but exploit the other one. The protagonists in the new Lurie and Boyd novels are diffident people in mid-life, misfits or at least non-competitors in their own countries, and they view the transatlantic crossing as a mode of escape into a bolder, freer world. The authors pursue them on a journey which tests this preconception, and the two novels are both naturalistic comedies and witty reconstructions of the fictional states which Britain and America become for those who don’t live there.

Vinnie Miner researches into the rhymes, games and songs of pre-adolescent children, and she teaches children’s literature. Being an educated American, employed on the faculty at Corinth, Alison Lurie’s version of Cornell, she has faced up to the psychological implications of an interest in the world of the child. The classic writers in the genre, Carroll, Barrie, Grahame, Kipling, were, she considers, happier as young children than they were afterwards. They wrote for children because they wanted to retain or recover their own childhoods, not because they felt as adults any liking for children – which most did not. Both in her warm feelings about her own childhood and in her cool feelings about the child in general, Vinnie is at one with the authors she most likes to study.

Her present project is more folkloric and comparative – an examination of the differences between the games and songs of British and American children. She has a favourite hypothesis to prove: that British children’s practices are older, more continuous with a remote past, less contaminated by modern commercial culture. For Britain in Vinnie’s eyes is a world still caught up in its traditional social games, peopled with eccentric and charming figures who play at pre-adolescent relationships. Vinnie models her behaviour on theirs, and hopes to be taken for an English lady. As her punning name betrays, she is at once a miner, a delver underground, and a minor, or arrested child. In American terms, this is deviant behavior and the uselessness and regressiveness of her specialism has not gone unnoticed back home. At the airport before takeoff, she opened the Atlantic to find herself and her research singled out as particularly pointless by a New York intellectual called L.D. Zimmern. Zimmern is someone Lurie-readers have met previously: briefly a member of the Corinth English faculty in The War between the Tates, he now stands for the newer American academic professionalism, for its characteristic mid-European impatience with antiquarianism and with the nostalgia for things English. The article makes Vinnie look forward more keenly than ever to the safety of her English play-world.

This time the charm does not work, partly because her sabbatical coincides with that of a younger colleague, Fred Turner. Fred happens to be married to Zimmern’s daughter Roo; his trip to London to research into John Gay starts badly because he and Roo have quarrelled, and he has had to come to London without her. Arriving in damp mid-winter, he at first has to rely on the company of an American academic couple, the Vogelers, who are dispirited by the climate and by their demanding one-year-old. But soon, through Vinnie, the handsome Fred meets a titled actress, Rosemary Radley, who seems twice over a lady since she plays an aristocrat in a current TV soap-opera. Through Rosemary, Fred enters a world of smart restaurants, theatres, parties and country-house weekends. He begins to wonder if he has fallen into a Henry James novel, with Rosemary as the beautiful worldly corrupt European villainness. He turns out indeed to be as spellbound as Chad in The Ambassadors, for when the long-awaited peace-making letter arrives from his wife Roo, he doesn’t answer it.

Yet he isn’t after all a 19th-century or romantic hero. Fred is a professional academic, not too emotionally caught up in Rosemary, not too intellectually absorbed in 18th-century English literature, who takes for granted that he will go home to Corinth at the height of his love affair rather than damage his prospects of gaining tenure there. While his glamorous love life is running into these obstacles, Vinnie’s carefully-protected routines break down.

Her American acquaintance of the plane, a retired sanitary engineer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, called Chuck Mumpson, at first seems to embody most of those features of her native land which she snobbishly deplores, but in fact Chuck turns out to be, like Vinnie herself, an outcast and refugee. Looked down on by his successful and status-conscious wife, he is hanging around in England in the banal hope of finding that he is descended from a lord. So Chuck’s researches, which Vinnie helps with, are a kind of parody of her own aping of English gentility, and, though he seems so much stupider and more pathetic than she, his emotional needs are much the same. The theme of emotional deprivation in aging people is very characteristic of Lurie, and for all her reticence she puts it with force: ‘Plain women often have a sex life. What they lack is a love life.’ Vinnie comes out of her English play-world on account of the sub-literate Chuck.

Foreign Affairs is probably Alison Lurie’s best novel to date, certainly it is a triumph, and much of its success stems from its accomplished plotting. Lurie has known from the first how to tell a story brilliantly through the consciousness of a woman who in type and circumstance resembles the author herself. The classic Lurie heroine is attractive, intelligent, well-intentioned, but also very fallible, which becomes clear as she is subjected to an alert, wry appraisal. But problems arise from Lurie’s tendency to rely on what is really an extended character-portrait as the vehicle of narration. This led in some earlier books to a slow development of plot, at times to virtual stasis, and – in spite of the presence of issues like campus demonstrations, the Vietnam War and the emergence of feminist protest – to a narrowing of social horizons. It was hard to maintain the early novels’ intended critiques of the mental horizons of the educated middle-class American woman while the narrative remained spoken in the voice of such a woman; the hippy generation and the harder-nosed academic were heard all right in the dialogue, but the heroine’s insistent Ivy League tones easily drowned them. Here the use of a double plot neatly resolves that difficulty. Fred’s more active and varied love affair makes the novel funnier, brighter, more compellingly readable than the early Luries. And instead of distracting the reader from Vinnie’s emotional experience, which should and does remain the heart of the book, the presence of the Fred plot helps to focus it. We have an unusually objective view of the heroine, who through the conversations of Rosemary’s friends evolves for us into a quaint, eccentric middle-aged American, not the double of the English lady she herself likes to imagine. This means that she grows more endearing to the reader, who also gives her credit for being more reflective and self-critical than Fred, a more fully-engaged researcher and a more committed lover. Vinnie’s affair and its dénouement would not move us as it does if the love affair of the more presentable couple had not been developed first.

Not that the Fred plot is essentially conventional or naturalistic, as the early Lurie plots tended rather flatly to be. Just as Fred’s adventures land him in a Jamesian country-house party, where charades are played as an elegant cover for sexual misdemeanours, so they also take him back into a world reminiscent of the 18th-century London he is supposed to be working on. Gay is the author of ‘Town Eclogues’, anti-pastorals set in a fallen, seedy urban world, and, more famously, of The Beggar’s Opera, whose hero Captain Macheath lives among villains and loves two women, who each love him more faithfully in return. Rosemary resembles not Lucy Lockit so much as Fielding’s corrupt society woman Lady Bellaston: though, as an actress, and also as it turns out a schizophrenic, she can shift-shape into one of the grotesque and sexually predatory older women beloved of 18th-century literature and caricature, a Wishfort or Slipslop or Mother Needham. Rosemary is a public figure about whom Private Eye is supposed to speculate, and the name the gossip-columnist bestows on her, Lady Rosily Raddled, catches the oddly 18th-century air the Eye’s terminology can assume. Rosemary is always seen acting a part, and her house is a stage set, or at least the elegant middle floor is. The chaotic upper storey, dirty and chaotic, all discarded clothes and spilt make-up, symbolises the break-up or absence of a personality behind the facade. The cellar harbours a darker figure yet: the madwoman or sinister hag of Charlotte Brontë and Poe – or, according to the recent feminist work of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, of women’s writing generally. Lurie incorporates this idea among her other symbolic and literary motifs, leaving them all in the sub-plot and, as it were, in quotation-marks.

The nuanced and naturalistically-observed middle-aged love affair between Vinnie and Chuck shows the kind of writing Lurie still perhaps does best, but her bold and freely-handled alternative plot enormously widens its range of suggestion. Released from programmatic naturalism, she can introduce characters who contrast strongly with one another, while the naturalistic novel demands that characters who are supposed to be denizens of the same social world should seem broadly alike. Though as usual her protagonist is genteel, Vinnie’s gentility and that of her world repeatedly come up against the philistinism of Chuck and his daughter Barbie, or seem far away from Fred’s wife Roo, whose marital offence was to feature several penises, only one of them her husband’s, in an exhibition of her photographs. Rosemary, the stereotypical lady, hitherto a model for Vinnie, can drunkenly insult her, and put Fred off by having unflushed turds in her lavatory. Equally different from what Vinnie believes in and usually persuades herself to see are the novel’s children, disagreeable variants on the picturesque figures of folktale: the Vogelers’ charmless one-year-old Jakie, a ‘retarded infant troll’, or, in his regulation toddler overalls, ‘a dwarf railway engineer’, and, more disturbing to Vinnie, the pubescent Camden Town schoolgirl Mary Mahoney, a punk goblin who demands payment before she will recite her obscene playground rhymes. Not only is this variety of tone a relief: it operates cunningly as the objective correlative of the psychic drama inside Vinnie Miner-Minor’s head, as she tries to sustain her childhood and to defend her priorities.

Foreign Affairs is a novel of economical and effective dialogues, and of insights into British linguistic and social practice, the conceit of the young, handsome and sexually successful, the snobberies of, say, theatre people, and London literary journalists, and American academics. It is also an urbane but unironic study of that Murdochian topic, sexuality in clever older people. In short, the structure and method are in most respects like the opening scene, deeply conventional – and not necessarily the worse for that. For, however we may praise originality, it is at least as important that art should be conventional. The best artists work not for ignorant but for trained audiences, which is why they are properly suspected of élitism. Novelists operate by satisfying certain prior expectations, such as the obligatory love affair, which readers have acquired from other novels – at least, a love affair is something which real-life middle-aged academics going on sabbatical prudently do not bank on. Lurie first tells the large old stories, so that she may introduce her own smaller one. Having met most expectations, perhaps all the vulgarer ones, she is free to frustrate and divert others, and it is through her minor surprises that the practised reader becomes able to tell a Lurie novel from anyone else’s. Writer and readers share a language, or rather several languages spoken in more than one cultural ambience. The qualified reader of Foreign Affairs would know not only early Lurie but Waugh and Powell, Bradbury and Lodge, Mary McCarthy and Randall Jarrell, and preferably also something of the American summer school, the TV comedy To the Manor Born, Private Eye and the Reading Room of the British Library.

Literary transmission would be an intolerably snug coterie procedure if, as some used to think, imitation merely operated as a sincere form of flattery. The American critic Harold Bloom annoyed many traditionalists in the Seventies by his psychoanalytic theory of literary influence, which proffers an aggressive account of how the new writer views his precursors: Bloom’s characteristically violent metaphors for how poetry is created include raping the Muse, and murdering the poetic father-figure. The gentle Alison Lurie seems an odd writer to find proving his point, and she is hardly one Bloom himself would choose: but her acts of appropriation do function in a way that seems hostile rather than benign to earlier works of a similar kind. The new novel competes with and seems to supersede her previous novels, and the narrower kind of campus novel, with its in-jokes.

In one respect, Lurie’s subversiveness goes further than Bloom likes to pursue subversion. He is a promoter of the artist as a strong Promethean figure, a Nietzschean superman, and so he has observed only in passing that younger 19th-century poets often pursue their vendettas against older poets by engaging in apparent professional disloyalty: Shelley and Browning, for example, accuse previous poets of excessive idealism, even of overstating their own importance as artists. Novelists, beginning with Fielding on Richardson, have regularly represented other novelists as foolishly sanguine and unworldly, a charge which actually belittles fiction itself. Alison Lurie in Foreign Affairs uses a similar tactic, which is after all the readiest way for a naturalistic novelist to sink her teeth into the calves of over-eminent precursors. In her Fred-Rosemary sub-plot she responds to the contemporary interest in self-conscious presentation by proclaiming her own literariness: but one can’t help noticing that in the portrayal of the circle of Fred and Rosemary, literariness itself is subject to a sceptical scrutiny, since it is equated with theatricality in its pejorative senses of artificial, superficial and insincere. Most of the book’s characters are one kind or another of intellectual – the Connollyesque English literary critic Edwin Francis, the American academics Fred, Joe Vogeler or L.D. Zimmern – and they are all, like Vinnie, another intellectual, found wanting. Professionalism is not enough. Nor is Art enough to live by: even at its most instinctual, when it is Roo’s art or craft as a photographer, it comes near to smashing up a marriage. This is a novel which means what it says when it makes a hero of the sub-literary Chuck.

If, asked to say what Foreign Affairs is about, you replied by narrating the romance of Vinnie and Chuck, you would have told a sentimental tale apparently designed to prove that simple people can be nicer than clever people, and that real life matters more than pretence. No one reading the Vinnie episode alongside the Rosemary plot would interpret the whole novel as having so banal a message, but some may reasonably suspect that here a literary conservative is making a case for a naturalistic method, and an old-fashioned moralist for humane values. More, and worse, she seems to insist on something nowadays intellectually unfashionable: on the existence outside the confined world of her fiction, not of a proliferating series of fictions, but of a stable and knowable real world. And if the world as Chuck knows it can be allowed to disperse Vinnie’s elaborately-built fantasies, the plot conveys a view of reality which does not flatter artists and writers. To put it in an old way, if all everyone can ever do is to make mental constructs of reality, artists as the most dedicated system-builders become leading citizens: but if, as Plato proposed, the ‘real’ in some sense exists, and artists merely fake it, then there is no place for them in the ideal republic. A number of arguments can be tried to defend the ‘truth’ of what the artist does, but most high-minded claims are out for the naturalist, whose object is to copy mundanity and trivia. It’s hard to tell whether the present low critical repute of naturalism really stems from its being too indulgent to society, as Roland Barthes maintained, or from its being (as observation suggests) less than indulgent to art. At any rate, it is in the anti-professional underground that Lurie has enlisted, by claiming the freedom to continue working with plots in which artists and academics fail to score. Foreign Affairs does what many intelligent works do: it writes a commentary on its own mode, and makes space in the future for more books of this mixed but predominantly traditional kind. At the same time it imposes the burden of the exceptionally good book upon its author: next time she will have to do better still, and raping or murdering the Lurie of Foreign Affairs is not going to be easy.