Edgar and Emma

John Sutherland

  • World’s Fair by E.L. Doctorow
    Joseph, 275 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2685 8
  • The Adventures of Robina edited by Emma Tennant
    Faber, 165 pp, £9.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 571 13796 2

I take the following details from Current Biography, July 1976. Edgar L. Doctorow was born in New York City on 6 January 1931 to David R. and Rose Doctorow, whom he has described as ‘old-fashioned social democrats’. His grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants from Russia. Doctorow grew up on Eastburn Avenue, in the Bronx. His mother was a pianist and his father had a store in the old Hippodrome building that sold musical instruments, radios and records. According to Doctorow, there was never any money, and his father would have to be considered a ‘failed man’. Nevertheless, he retains pleasant memories of his childhood.

World’s Fair is a novel told in the first person (with some interpolations from other family members) by Edgar. Edgar’s birthday is 6 January 1931, and the narrative covers the first nine years of his life, largely spent in a house on Eastburn Avenue. His parents, called Dave and Rose, are the offspring of Russian Jewish immigrants. They are social democrats: in earliest infancy Edgar realises that ‘one had as resources oneself, one’s brother, one’s parents and possibly President Roosevelt.’ Rose is a pianist. David co-owns a music store in the Hippodrome, and his free-and-easy ways with money cause constant worries for his family. But, on the whole, Edgar has a sheltered and enjoyable childhood.

World’s Fair, not to labour the point, melts the generic boundary between fiction and autobiography to the point where neither label will conveniently fit. One can, of course, propose some aesthetic justification for Doctorow’s little game. At the level of its foundations all fiction is autobiography: we can invent nothing that we have not experienced, if only vicariously. But normally the novelist goes through certain decent forms. Names are changed, material is shuffled around, ritual invocations about ‘any resemblance’ are made. Doctorow brazenly flouts the traditional customs of his craft. He is known to love tricks which victimise his reader. (Often these take the form of buried literary allusion.) Legerdemain is, it would seem, the Doctorovian badge of authorship. The trait was evidently inherited. In World’s Fair, Edgar goes on at some length about his father’s love of language games and visual illusions:

he did sleight-of-hand things. He could appear to remove the top joint of his thumb, for example, and then put it back ... Like all good tricks it was horrifying ... He was full of surprises, he punned, he made jokes.

Retrospectively, the adult hero concludes that his father’s trickery derives from a peasant vision of life: ‘it had come from the old country.’ Doctorow’s literary trickery fulfils the same function that Yiddish does for Singer. It connects him, if only remotely, with his pre-immigrant origins. At the end of World’s Fair the only object that Edgar keeps from his childhood is a manual on ventriloquism: his other childish things are ritually put away in a hole in Claremont Park. He will carry into adult life a talent for amusing by cleverly confusing.

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