The Authors Call It Fiction, but in These 2 Novels the Facts Don’t Lie


Dear readers,

Back before the memoir boom, when the barbarous neologism “autofiction” was not yet in vogue, a more titillating vocabulary was deployed when works of fiction flirted with personal disclosure. The facts of life were “thinly veiled.” Stories were “semi-autographical,” their gossip value suggested by the French term roman à clef. You could imagine someone, possibly the author, whispering in your ear: “But you know who that’s really supposed to be…

A degree of self-exposure — not quite baring all, but not quite staying fully clothed either — used to be part of the business of the novel. Rewriting personal experience as fiction can be a way of processing trauma, exacting revenge or asserting control over emotional chaos. Some novels work hard at transforming the material, and show the work. Others, like the two below, wear the cloak of artifice lightly, creating an intimacy with the readers that carries a hint of prurience. Are we really supposed to know about this? In the age of perpetual TMI, it’s good to be reminded that decorum can be its own kind of transgression.

And who doesn’t love to be let in on somebody’s family secrets — especially if the somebody in question is witty, elegant and ruthlessly honest? Other people’s parents can be wonderful monsters, and the act of depicting them that way combines Oedipal rebellion and filial loyalty. In these books, dutiful children turn the tables on their parents, giving birth to them as terrible, pitiful, unforgettable characters.

A. O.

Merrill gained prominence in the 1950s and ’60s as a poet. His father, Charles, was a founder of the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, a man of enormous wealth and influence whose marriages and divorces were fixtures in the society pages in the first half of the 20th century. In this slender novel, the first of two that James Merrill published in his lifetime (both of them included in a 2002 omnibus along with Merrill’s plays), Charles becomes Benjamin Tanning, a bluff charmer with acute heart problems and chronic woman trouble.

His son, Francis, cuts short a sojourn in Rome to help care for his father, alighting in a Hamptons ménage awash in cocktails, generational resentment and heavily euphemized sexual intrigue. What ensues is a comedy of upper-crust manners with decidedly sinister overtones, as if Edith Wharton, Patricia Highsmith and the Marquis de Sade had sat down to a round-robin parlor game.

Readers of Merrill’s memoir “A Different Person” (1993) or Langdon Hammer’s comprehensive biography will recognize many of the characters and incidents. Perhaps most striking, apart from the patriarch himself, is Guitou Knoop (Xenia in “The Seraglio”), a flamboyant sculptor commissioned to create a heroic bust of papa Merrill. But be warned: A shocking act of self-inflicted violence catapults the novel out of proto-autofiction into the realm of gothic psychodrama. Though possibly that’s what it was all along.

Read if you like: Chintz, Cinzano, chilled lobster, chinoiserie
Available from: Your rich bachelor uncle’s summer house; an exquisitely curated used bookstore in a not-quite-ruined New England coastal town


Fiction, 1992

On the back of my hardcover copy of Hobhouse’s posthumously published novel is an effusive blurb from Philip Roth, praising the book as “a considerable moral as well as literary achievement.” About two-thirds of the way in, the narrator, Helen, newly married and living in New York, has an affair with a downstairs neighbor, a well-known novelist named Jack who bears a strong circumstantial and temperamental resemblance to … Philip Roth.

“I admired his fasting,” Hobhouse writes in a wink toward Kafka, one of Roth’s heroes. “I admired his stony separateness and self-sufficiency. I admired the smallness of his needs, the steadiness of his routines: his exercise weights, his evening runs, his early nights. All the symptoms of his current loneliness and depression I read as choices, heroic and exemplary.”

Their dalliance — Helen and Jack’s, just to keep the thin veil in place — is a brief, memorable chapter in a bildungsroman wrapped in a multigenerational matriarchal epic. Hobhouse traces the rise and fall of a family’s fortunes by focusing on its women, on the wives and mothers who might be consigned to the margins of the official story.

She starts with Mirabel, Helen’s great-grandmother, the kind of imperious New York dowager whom Edith Wharton might have appreciated (even if Wharton might have found her Jewishness distasteful). The central figure, though, is Mirabel’s granddaughter Bett, who raises her own daughter in precarious circumstances as she drifts from job to job and man to man, squandering her potential even as her own mother and aunts had let the family fortune slip away.

Bett’s story is terribly sad, and is told with an astonishing mixture of pity, rage and affection. Hobhouse’s story is also sad: The author of three other novels and two books about art, she was in her 40s when she died, of ovarian cancer, leaving “The Furies” not quite finished. Helen, her alter ego, shares her illness, and also a kind of buoyant, sharp-eyed clarity that goes far beyond resilience, the default word for people who have suffered. Roth calls this quality verve — the italics are his — and I don’t know many books that show so much of it, in such harrowing circumstances.

Read if you like: Dawn Powell, Mary McCarthy, Eve Babitz. Compare and contrast with “Asymmetry,” by Lisa Halliday.
Available from: A good used bookstore, or from New York Review Classics, which reissued it in 2004, with a perceptive introduction by Daphne Merkin


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