Ruined by men

Anthony Thwaite

  • The Truth about Lorin Jones by Alison Lurie
    Joseph, 294 pp, £11.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 7181 3095 2
  • Latecomers by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 248 pp, £10.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 224 02554 6
  • Where the rivers meet by John Wain
    Hutchinson, 563 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 09 173617 X
  • About the Body by Christopher Burns
    Secker, 193 pp, £10.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 436 09784 2
  • Stories by Elizabeth Jolley
    Viking, 312 pp, £11.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 670 82113 6

Alison Lurie’s new novel is, among other things, an anthology of several characters from her earlier novels. Readers unfamiliar with these books need not be apprehensive, however: The Truth about Lorin Jones is perfectly self-contained. Indeed, that self-contained quality helps to account for the powerful, painful oppressiveness of the book, as Polly Alter becomes more and more deeply enmeshed in her quest for the eponymous woman she is pursuing.

For Polly is engaged in writing a biography of Lorin Jones, a painter who died some twenty years before the quest begins. Polly has recently become divorced, has a teenage son whom she adores, and earns her living in a New York museum. At the time the book opens, she has secured a commission to write her life of Lorin Jones and has been given leave of absence to do so. From the beginning, there are parallels, it appears, between Lorin and Polly, making Polly all the more eager to write a book which will be sympathetic, properly feminist, and true. Lorin (1926-1969) died before the advent of true feminism, but it seems that she suffered at the hands of men. It becomes Polly’s job to seek out those men (and some women), interview them, discover just how Lorin suffered, and why.

Gallery dealers, fellow painters, school friends, college friends, relatives and former in-laws – all are interviewed. Alison Lurie provides transcripts of their answers, not Polly’s questions, these transcripts forming an almost impersonal running commentary on Polly’s investigations. Alongside them go Polly’s own journeys and returns, discoveries and blank walls, exaltations and miseries. Much of the time her confidante is Jeanne, at first a comforting ear and reassuring antidote to male mendacity, but whose lesbianism begins to be a complication: not so much because of designs on Polly, which Polly finds not entirety unwelcome, but because of Jeanne’s tangled affair with the married Betsy. ‘If even two women couldn’t be happy together, what good was it all? Maybe if you had to be in love, with all the problems and craziness that involved, it was better to be in love with someone who was dead.’

Indeed, ‘sometimes Lorin Jones’s life seemed more real to her than her own.’ But there is also that common experience among biographers, whereby, faced with mounds of ‘evidence’ in the form of papers, reminiscences and, in the case of a painter such as Lorin Jones, works of art, they sometimes have moments of despair at an apparent carapace of material surrounding an enigma. Just as things begin to seem to come into focus, Polly finds herself drifting away from her subject, or rather, Lorin drifts away from Polly into a ‘lumpish amorphous mass’.

Then there are the contradictions, the anomalies, the injunctions made by those whom Polly interviews, such as a gallery dealer who says: ‘But you mustn’t put any of this in your book, promise. It’d be fatal. I don’t know why I told you anyhow.’ Gradually, as Polly presses on through the fog, she realises that ‘everything that had gone wrong for her over the last few months’ (relations with her son Stevie, with her friend Jeanne and Jeanne’s importunate lover Betsy) ‘was because of Lorin Jones.’ Lorin’s stepmother says: ‘I’m sorry ... but Laura Zimmern wasn’t a nice person.’ (Lorin has, or had, several names by which she was known; and Polly’s own surname is – perhaps a bit too nudgingly – Alter.) The derogatory descriptions start to accumulate in Polly’s head: self-centred and spiteful, self-centred and evasive and untrustworthy, selfish and cold and inconsiderate. One begins to see parallels with Lawrance Thompson’s quest for Robert Frost: as Thompson, at first a hero-worshipper, dredged deeper into the material that eventually became his big biography, the hero began more and more to take on the lineaments of a monster.

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