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Louis Auchincloss, truly a New York voice

From its very title, the late author's memoir paints vivid and unflinching pictures of his city's high-society heyday.

A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth

Louis Auchincloss
HMH DH98

In one of his rare forays into historical fiction, Louis Auchincloss has two old friends meet for a casual bit of lunchtime gossip in fourth-century Rome. Lentulus, a "lover of old Roman ways and traditions", is being urged by his ambitious friend Marcus to abandon his stately villa and move to the empire's new capital in Constantinople, what he calls "the city of the future". "It's going to be more splendid than Rome. And you should see the building plans. And, of course, everyone of any importance will be there. Not that you care about politics or power. I know that."

Auchincloss wrote The Grandeur That Was Byzantium more than four years before his death in 2010 at the age of 94, but it was clear even then that the vulgar new city shining before him was not a place but a time - the future, which in Auchincloss's vast body of fiction is always the enemy of the past. Change is always something to be voted in by the mob, and the wit, wisdom and elegance of the traditional ways are always the first things to get trampled in the heady rush to modernity.

All of Auchincloss's 50 or so novels are perfect little slivers of resistance to that headlong rush. They range widely in actual subject matter (readers who know Auchincloss only as an ancient literary figure tend to forget that when he was a young man he wrote a young man's books, full of action and even sex) but their lesson, their moral, is always the same: if you dispense with the traditions that have guided your people, you lay yourself open to all the dangers of chaos. Auchincloss's final book, the slim, graceful memoir A Voice from Old New York, signals its sympathies right there in its title: not a voice for old New York, no strident advocacy, but also not a voice in old New York, not a bottled anachronism, but a voice from old New York, speaking to anybody, anywhere, but never forgetting its origins or letting readers forget.

Those origins are the main tale of this book, and readers who quickly flip ahead to the later pages dealing with Auchincloss's literary life do themselves a disservice. For here Auchincloss writes not just, as he puts it, about his own "terrors and complaints" but of "those I have passed my time with, those who showed me that there is so much to admire the people I have been fortunate enough to encounter, the voices I remember and would like to introduce you to". Those people were the first families of pre-Depression New York's upper class, the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Goulds, Roosevelts, Alsops and Astors who built their fortunes in the new era and raised their glittering mansions along the Upper East Side. Their children were given enormous allowances, their wives headed prestigious charities, and their husbands commanded the law firms and investment brokerages that shaped a nation. Auchincloss, a frail, bookish boy relentlessly picked on during his time at prestigious Groton, from an early age seems to have had the quiet reflection and sensitive ear that would mark his fiction: to all these stories he is the perfect witness. He writes of a society matron who "saw all and forgot nothing", but it applies equally well to himself, and when he makes his case for that old world, we listen.

Of those enormous allowances he reminds us of duties attached: "The father of my friend Bill Scranton, former governor of Pennsylvania, gave Bill, when we were at Yale, a much larger allowance than other students. But with it went the responsibility for two poor relatives who would presumably be destitute if Bill blew it all." Of those prestigious charities we're warned of the labour involved: "Don't kid yourself, it can be real work, and the other board ladies will have a sharp eye out for cheats." And of those magnate husbands and the world they created, Auchincloss's unassuming literary talents and his extreme longevity combine to give him a perspective shared by no other American writer. "And it is possible to put ourselves in the mind of long-dead people who, with perfect complacency, did things of hideous cruelty, if those things happen to be described by a vivid and sympathetic writer." That Auchincloss himself is such a writer he's too modest to tell us, but this volume, like all his others, bears out the truth of it.

He knows perfectly well the reactions most working Americans have to entitled affluence, but he also knows the stories unfolding behind the facades: "A common objection to inherited wealth is that it stifles the urge to work. I have not generally observed this to be true, except in cases where the individual involved would probably not have achieved very much had he toiled in the vineyard. My richest friend and contemporary, Marshall Field IV, whom I met in law school, is sometimes cited as a victim of wealth; he succumbed at the age of fifty to drugs. But his nervous troubles were a matter of tragic inheritance; the story of the Fields is like that of the House of Atreus."

The complacency and cruelty of those long-dead people are on full display in A Voice from Old New York. This is not a picture postcard or sentimental photo album. Gore Vidal, Auchincloss's only American rival for verbal precision and perception (and also a product of that same social world, albeit an apostate), once speculated that Auchincloss was driven to write about his moneyed class because he hadn't figured it out to his satisfaction, but if that was ever the case, such irresolution has been purged away by time and thought. When Auchincloss came to write this final memoir, he was able to fill its pages with the glow of complete confidence. He writes of his time at Groton, at Yale, in the Second World War at sea, in the law firms where he served for decades as an estate lawyer, of his early days writing novels, and through it all there's the same clarity and concision that always adorned his fiction.

Of course, those novels and short stories often baffled his contemporaries and critics, and no doubt this memoir will baffle them, too. When Auchincloss writes of the old world of his upbringing, he writes it warts and all; the offhand thoughtlessness of some families towards their domestic help, the omnipresent cruelty of the very young towards each other, even the generational brusqueness towards blacks, Jews and gays - all are reported with a mix of unflinching honesty and stubborn affection that's at times uncanny.

Reading this book is like listening to many evenings full of stories told by a smart old raconteur, one who recognises the bitter pill some of those stories will be for some of his listeners but who possesses ample charm to pull things off regardless. To this end some choice zingers, long treasured, are deployed like landmines. In kind remembrance of the wartime celebrity idiot Stuart Preston, Auchincloss quotes Nancy Mitford: "Never forget, my dear, that we're a nation of warriors and don't number among our close friends young men who spent the war having tea with Sybl Colefax."

When recalling his brief stint teaching at NYU, he gives us a glimpse of his pedagogical method, not unlike his prose in its knowing insinuation:

"In reading a student's paper I frequently had to ask, 'This sentence - do you mean A or B?'

"The student would look at it. 'Why A, of course.'

"'Read it for B.'

"'Oh.'

"'Now let's rewrite it so it can mean only A.'"

There are tantalising glimpses of other famous names as they pass through the parlour of Auchincloss's memories on their way to history - Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Nancy Astor and even FDR all make appearances, as do many lesser lights. But in the end the diffident star here is Auchincloss himself, or perhaps his stylised portrait of himself, so carefully presented. Given his history, his final benediction comes as something of a surprise, a clear winner declared between the two worlds that had always divided his attention: "I will leave you with that. Society matters not so much. Words are everything." Or perhaps it's not so surprising that a life's work of fiction would win out over the world it immortalised. There have been precedents.

Steve Donoghue's work has appeared in the Columbia Journal of American Studies, the Historical Novel Review and Kirkus. He is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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