Saturday, March 22, 2008

Louis Auchincloss at Dawn

Louis Auchincloss

The wind has howled for a full 24 hours. Good Friday here on the Vermont/Quebec border came and went in a blur of sideways snow. We barely left the house. School was cancelled. I started out in midmorning to Burlington for a meeting and turned back at Jay (about five miles down the road). Husband was supposed to go to Montreal (for some party at the Consulate or given by people from the Counsulate - I didn't get the whole picture). He turned back as well, though he hadn't attempted to leave until 3 PM.

The Last House is old and badly insulated so it is cold upstairs.With the exception of the bathroom the upstairs is "heated" only by rising hot air from the first floor - each bedroom has a hole in the floor covered by a register. The sun has just come up- the big pine tree in front of the house is tossing in the wind. In a few minutes the kids will be down and the task of feeding and occupying them for another long day with no school will begin. (Which will include a clamor for the computer).

In these quiet few minutes before they arrive I wanted to set down a few thoughts on Louis Auchincloss's Collected Stories, properly, The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss (Houghton Mifflin 1994). I picked up my copy, looking like new, at the booksale at the Waterbury Library this last summer. I thought I might give it as a present (a cheap one since it only cost a dollar). It has been taking up space around the house until last week when I was looking for something to read and stumbled over it. Strange coincidence. I had just read the profile of Auchincloss in The New Yorker a few weeks ago. Until then I had known nothing much about him - some connection to Jackie O as I recalled. I have had a chance to get through the first few stories. They are arranged chronologically and span Auchincloss's 50-year career. About an hour ago I finished the second story, "Greg's Peg." I am here to say, what a great story and what a wonderful writer. How odd that my own recent reading has plunged me again into the (lost) world of the eastern social establishment. Here's a link to an intelligent review of the book I just found on the web:

If I had been taking a course on the Literary Tradition of American Wasp Hegemony, I would have worked through the first quarter of the reading list in the last few weeks, between Wharton and Auchincloss. It was not by design but it is a happy coincidence. (Kid 2 has just emerged, sounding stuffed up, to ask about using the computer and coloring Easter eggs. I put him off by turning on Jimmy Neutron but there is not much time to write now!) I wanted to record a couple of the turns of phrase in "Greg's Peg" that struck me as particularly cogent. The story is about a social loser, an effeminate bachelor mama's boy, who attains a position in summer society for a season or two by making himself useful and amusing to a cluster of respectable but rapine women. This is Greg. His "peg" is a little dance he does when he is drunk. He is observed by a headmaster of an elite boarding school who has tried to lead him into a bigger world of thoughts, ideas, dignity. Greg figures the best he can do is to be a pet in society. The headmaster watches it all unfold.

It came over me gradually that Mrs. Bakewell [Greg's mother] was right. They were killing him. Their laughter was as cold and their acclaim as temporary as that of any audience in the arena of Rome or Constantinople. They could clap their hands and cheer, they could spoil their favorites, but they could turn their thumbs down, too, and could one doubt for a moment that at the first slight hint of deteriorating performance, they would?

Then one page later:

That he continued to drink too much when he went out, which was, of couse, all the time, did not, apparently, impair his social position. He was firmly entrenched, as I have said, in his chosen category of "character," and to these much is allowed.

Onto the business of the day.