Tales of a waning world

Auchincloss probes the emptiness behind lives of privilege.

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Say "morality," and many Americans assume you must be talking about sex. Not so Louis Auchincloss, who has been elegantly detailing the moral failings of upper-class New Yorkers over the course of 44 novels and short-story collections. He chronicles the kinds of compromises - professional, ethical, and personal - that cause his moneyed protagonists to lead tragic lives despite their outward privilege.

His new collection, The Young Apollo and Other Stories, combines 12 previously unpublished stories to quietly impressive effect.

The title story is a memoriam for Lionel Manning, a young man who used his wealth, personal beauty, and influence to inspire artists and poets around him until his untimely death just before World War I. Unfortunately, as the deceased's wife delicately points out, Manning's own poetry is dreck. "Maybe his life was genius," muses the historian hired by Manning's father, a wealthy senator, to write Lionel's biography. "But it had to be lived, not printed."

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In "The Attributions," the narrator, an Italian expatriate who acquired works of art for wealthy patrons, describes his professional downfall as a desire for beauty rather than provenance. He finds the ultimate collector in Leila Chanler, who shares with him "the quest for the perfect thing." When introducing her to the reader, he remarks, "My point is that she had never encountered poverty or need."

This description holds true for most of Auchincloss's characters, and it has caused some critics to regard his subject as limited. (In interviews, Auchincloss has countered that that just means the critics don't like the topic.) Auchincloss does repeat himself on occasion in this collection - such as duplicate references to portraits that immortalize "the wife of the American goldbug," Henry Adams's jab at money-grubbing capitalists; repeated mentions of French court painter Nattier; and two characters who "could have been an actor in a repertory company, playing Othello one night and Iago the next." (In the other version, it's Hamlet one night, and Lear the next.) But "limited" seems like an unnecessarily harsh assessment of a fine collection.

What the unvarying wealth does is hit a mute button that muffles raw emotion. In a curious way, this lack of inner intensity just adds to the characters' tragedy - although those surviving from paycheck to paycheck may feel like bopping the occasional Auchincloss socialite on the nose. My personal candidate would be the wife of a disgraced stockbroker who airily informs her aunt that the $60 million in fines won't adversely affect their lifestyle. They may have to sell their Arizona home, but "I was getting a bit sick anyway of all that sand and cactus."

One of the collection's standouts, "Her Better Half," chronicles the marriage of an idealistic young heiress. After watching her beloved dad wilt in the stifled existence demanded by his temperamental French wife, Evalina is determined to use her considerable wealth to grant her husband the life denied her father. In return for her largesse, he cheats on her. Instead of giving him up as a bad job, Evalina ultimately returns - once she has freed herself of the need to believe in her husband.

Until his retirement, Auchincloss had a second career as a lawyer, and as in his 2004 novel, "East Side Story," many of his characters spend their days in elegantly paneled offices. Also like that novel, which chronicled roughly a century in the lives of the Carnochan family, fathers are estranged from sons whom they love sincerely, but silently. The patriarch of the Daly family in the well-done "A Case History," for example, concealed his feelings so successfully that his children had no idea how much he loved them until he died. "After his death, they were dismayed to find in his secret diary how intensely he had concerned himself with their problems and futures, but they could only try to love him in retrospect."

"A Case History" also features one of Auchincloss's most memorable zingers, when he describes the main character, Martin, at boarding school: "His moderate good looks, his moderate competence in sports, and his moderate good nature caused him to be moderately accepted." This may be one of the most barbed uses ever of the old Greek maxim, "Moderation in all things."

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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