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International Episodes

Foreign Affairs

by Alison Lurie
Random House, 320 pp., $15.95

The ghost of Henry James hovers over this novel and materializes from time to time. “The idea that he has fallen into a Henry James novel occurs to Fred” and to the reader too. The fable is Jamesian: against a background of alluring, repellent London society a sophisticated American learns from an unsophisticated one that, contrary to appearances, true goodness exists and matters more than beauty, wit, or grace. But if the fable is Jamesian, the explicit yet ironic way it is told suggests a much-abbreviated George Eliot; and so does the author’s irrepressible dislike for her attractive anti-heroine, Lady Rosemary Radley, a modern cross between Gwendolen Harleth and Rosamond Vincy.

The first chapter is one of the most captivating in any recent novel I have read. It describes how Vinnie Miner, an Anglophile fifty-four-year-old professor from a large Eastern university boards a charter flight for London where she will spend a semester collecting children’s rhymes for her next book on the subject. Vinnie is not particularly nice and not particularly nasty, just selfish with the peculiar selfishness of the single. Although she has been briefly married, she is regarded by everyone, herself included, as an unattractive spinster. This is not the same as having no sex life: she has quite a lot of that and quite enjoys it. But she knows that no one has ever really loved her. The knowledge has led to chronic self-pity, which she imagines in the shape of an invisible shaggy white dog. It tags after her with imploring eyes and puts its paws in her lap, ready to climb up should the occasion present itself. It follows her onto the plane and Lurie keeps it going throughout the book. This may not sound like a good idea, but it turns out to be one, so vivid is the dogginess of the dog.

Fido alone, however, is not responsible for the brilliant impact of the first chapter. There is also the exact and comical evocation of the horrors of cheap travel and the stratagems with which some of them can be circumvented. Vinnie

elbows her way deftly past less experienced passengers who are searching for their seat numbers or are encumbered with excess luggage or with children, excusing herself in a thin pleasant voice. By crossing through the galley to the far aisle and back again between two rows of seats, she outflanks a massed confusion of obvious rubes with carry-on bags labeled SUN TOURS. In less time than it takes to read this paragraph she has made her way to a window seat near an exit in the nonsmoking section, pausing only to extract the London Times and British Vogue from a magazine rack. (Once the plane is airborne, the stewardess will distribute periodicals to all the passengers but those Vinnie prefers may vanish before they reach her.)

Still, she cannot prevent the seat next to hers being taken by one of the SUN tourists, a beefy, middle-aged sanitary engineer from Tulsa dressed in Western-style leather and a plastic raincoat. This unprepossessing figure introduces himself as Chuck Mumpson. In the course of the novel he becomes the reluctant Vinnie’s escort and eventually lover, ashamed though she is of him; while he gradually reveals himself as the Jamesian good American with a sensitive heart, a responsive if uneducated intelligence, decent moral values, and—an un-Jamesian bonus—great skill in bed. When at the end he dies of a heart attack, Vinnie—ashamed now of herself—has to acknowledge that he was the first person who really loved her; that she loved him too; and that she could happily have lived out the rest of her life with him. Vinnie’s thoughts tend to dwell on the fact that life and sex go on after fifty; for all her disabused assessment of herself and her situation, perhaps she has an agony auntie inside her trying to get out. On Chuck’s death Fido reappears after months of absence, “looking up at her with anxious devotion and wagging his feathery white tail.

” ‘Well, all right,’ she says to him. ‘Come along, then.’ ” And that is the end.

The hero of the subplot is Fred Turner. Like Vinnie he is on sabbatical leave from the English department of Corinth University. Fred is a nice guy, thirty years old, as good looking as a prewar film star, irresistible to women, and miserable because his young wife, Roo, has just left him. Vinnie invites him to a “drinks party” (she has learned not to call it “cocktails” in England) where he meets Lady Rosemary Radley, the thirty-seven-year-old daughter of an earl who is also an actress and television personality, and known in Private Eye as Lady Rosily Raddled. She is as irresistible to men as Fred is to women, though she works harder at it (meow, meow, inaudibly from the author).

Rosemary introduces Fred to the London society in which Vinnie has long had a slight foothold. It is not exactly James’s high society, but a mixture of literati, glitterati, and media people:

They are everywhere: explaining the human body and international law on television; appearing in plays and films; giving their opinions about cultural events on the radio; being interviewed by newspapers; answering difficult questions with charm and erudition on quiz shows and current affairs programs. Whenever Fred opens a magazine one of them is telling him what to think about Constable or how best to cook asparagus or support nuclear disarmament.

Both actress and aristocrat, Rosemary is the arch-representative of this world, charming and effusive to everyone she meets, bitchy behind their backs, uncaring, and fickle. Poor Fred falls in love with Rosemary and into her bed, until she quarrels with him.

On the eve of his departure for Corinth (his sabbatical is up) he goes to the supposedly absent Rosemary’s house in order to collect some belongings and finds that the horrible, drunken, lecherous, foulmouthed cleaning woman she has told all her friends about, and whom they have never seen, is actually her doppelgänger—the persona she assumes when drink drives her into recurrent nervous break-downs. This scene seems to come from the wilder shores of Victorian gothicism rather than James, and it is not very convincing.

The scales drop from Fred’s eyes and he wires Roo: throughout his Rosemary period he has left unanswered her apologetic letter suggesting a reconciliation. Now he is ready for it. The key scene follows: Roo is on the point of leaving Corinth for New Mexico where she has a professional assignment. She cannot reach Fred because he has cut off his telephone. She rings Vinnie to ask her to convey the vital message that she will meet Fred’s plane in New York on her way through. The call finds Vinnie going to bed. She knows where Fred is spending his last night in London: on Hampstead Heath with his friends the Vogelers, watching the Druids greet the summer solstice. Vinnie has no intention of going to look for him, especially since Roo has just revealed that her father is Vinnie’s unseen enemy, the very L.D. Zimmern who wrote a dismissive review of her last book. “No, most people Vinnie knows certainly wouldn’t expect her to go to Hampstead Heath. But one person would…. Chuck Mumpson would take it for granted that she’d go, without even stopping to consider the great inconvenience and even possible peril of such an excursion.”

So Vinnie climbs back into her clothes and ventures into sinister Camden Town, waits for the empty half-lit tube, and emerges into the threatening darkness of the Heath where in due course she finds Fred. The novel ends happily for him. As for Vinnie, next day when Chuck telephones from Wiltshire where he is hunting for his ancestors she tells him about her expedition: he praises her and calls her a good woman. “For the first time Vinnie almost believed him. She isn’t a good woman; but perhaps she has done one good thing.” The call turns out to be their last conversation; but their affair has taught her that “doing things for other people…has…caused most of the surprise and interest and even in the end joy” in her life. Here we seem to be with neither James nor George Eliot but with Frances Hodgson Burnett. It is significant, too, that when Vinnie tries to fend off Chuck on the plane by giving him a book to read, the book turns out to be Little Lord Fauntleroy, another tale of American innocence abroad. After Chuck’s death Vinnie is no longer ashamed to confess her love for him. But then, neither is Little Lord Fauntleroy anything to be ashamed of. It is very difficult to put down, and so is Foreign Affairs; only Foreign Affairs is much funnier.

Since it is an American novel about London and is being reviewed by a London reviewer, something should probably be said about Lurie’s portrait of her chosen setting and the city and its people. She has given Vinnie the role of social connoisseur and old stager, and is reckless enough to drop identifiable clues in the way of names and addresses, and even real names and addresses. So one cannot help asking whether she has got the Peter York–Nancy Mitford–Private Eye side of things right. The answer is yes, but for one exception: Rosemary’s doorbell is connected to a chime. This won’t do: only scones have chimes.

Vinnie and Fred are not the only American observers on sabbatical in London: there are also Fred’s friends the Vogelers, a disapproving young couple from a minor California university who carry their baby around in a sling and have taken a horrible house in Hampstead that gives them permanent colds in the nose. Every London academic knows the Vogelers. They dislike England as much as Vinnie loves it, while Fred stands open-minded and curious in the middle. Nevertheless, all of them change their positions from time to time according to whether their love affairs and academic work are going well or badly. To all of them, England can be either damp, squalid, run-down, inefficient, snobbish, complacent, hypocritical, and unfriendly; or else suffused with the golden glow of history and full of delightfully subtle, cultivated, gentle-mannered people living with casual elegance in romantically shabby splendor. In addition, academics have their own pathetic fallacy: they fall in love with the England of their special period,

the colorful, vital England of Shakespeare’s time, or the lavish elegance and charm of the Edwardian period. With the bitterness of disillusioned lovers, they complain that contemporary Britain is cold, wet, and overpriced; its natives unfriendly; its landscape and even its climate ruined. England is past her prime, they say; she is worn-out and old; and, like most of the old, boring.

It is Vinnie who thinks these thoughts. Sharp as she is, she seems to have failed to notice that the natives share her view.

True, all those she meets seem unshakably complacent. And two-dimensional. In fact, tiny Vinnie and offstage Roo are the only three-dimensional characters in the book—which doesn’t matter if you choose to read the novel as a social comedy and not as a moral drama. And there are compensations to be found in Lurie’s vivid evocation of the city itself, a portrait as three-dimensional and grainy as an album by Bill Brandt.

One could object that she overemphasizes the “O what a goodly outside false-hood hath” aspect of English society with too much heavy symbolism. For instance. Fred tries unsuccessfully to approach Rosemary while she is filming on location: when she has him thrown out and he slinks off, the house where they were shooting is “bathed in brazen unnatural light. In its front courtyard a man with a bucket and brush is methodically painting the plastic roses a brilliant, glamorous crimson.” Still, one has to admire “methodically”; in fact, part of the great pleasure of this novel is the discreet brilliance with which the author chooses every word.

To a European it seems strange that the Jamesian notion of European Schein versus American Sein should still seem valid to an American writer. Oh dear, doesn’t she realize that it is the British now who feel rough-edged and soft-soaped in America, where they are urged to have a hundred nice days a day? And where the kind of people she writes about seem comparatively better-looking, better-dressed, and better-mannered? Anyway, the theme of Europe versus America is really relevant only to the Fred–Rosemary subplot. Vinnie could as well have met Chuck at Corinth—during the summer term, say, when he might have been attending a conference of sanitary engineers held at one of the student houses. She would have been able to feel even more ashamed of him there: at least in London the natives find him amusing instead of merely embarrassing.

No, the English background is there for fun, and fun it is in a slightly showoff way. Besides, the novel’s construction is so neat, so ingenious and satisfying, with no loose ends anywhere, that you barely notice its two stories operating on different levels of truth and entertainment. Fred and Rosemary’s is melodrama in a ritzy setting; Vinnie’s rueful tale about acquiring moral insight. One thing to be said for England is that it has softened not only Vinnie but also Lurie: though her eye is as penetrating as ever, her heart seems to beat more sympathetically for her minuscule, mouse-faced heroine than it did for any of the grown-up characters of her last novel, Only Children. She views Vinnie with the wry forgivingness that she extended to the Tates; and of course Vinnie’s Corinth is where The War Between the Tates was fought when L.D. Zimmern had only recently left his wife, and his daughter Roo was twelve years old and crazy about gerbils and houses.

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