A style from the past; The House of the Prophet, by Louis Auchincloss. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $10.95.

The ground rules for reading and enjoying a Louis Auchincloss novel are different from those for most other contemporary books. For this author, you have to put yourself into an earlier time warp, a period in which, quoting Virginia Woolf, "novelist laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things . . . [having] given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there." Woolf came down on these so-called "Edwardians" for not getting beneath the skin of their characters and for settling, instead, for story and idea and dramatic theme. But a lot of readers like these things -- all you have to do is look at the continuing success of Mr. Auchincloss -- 22 books of fiction, 9 of nonfiction, all read by a devoted audience.

While it seems to me that Auchincloss' sensibilities are stuck back around the turn of the century, his style, his formal prose, is so well crafted, so consistent, and so entertaining that you forgive him lapses you wouldn't forgive in a less talented writer: lapses like the fact that his novels lack humor, that all his characters sound the same, and that he is never bursting with anything. If ever a novelist was laid back emotionally, it is Louis Auchincloss.

The prophet in question here is Felix Leitner, a character based more or less on the journalist Walter Lippmann. Like Lippmann, Leitner is German-Jewish, rich, well educated. Like Lippmann, he moves easily in a social class whose strongest identifying feature is snobbery and whose next strongest is power; it used to be known as the ruling class.

This novel traces Leitner's life from boyhood in a grand New York house, through school days and Yale, to a career as presidential adviser and newspaper columnist, and it concentrates on his two marriages. The device Auchincloss has chosen in telling this story is a good one for fiction: Various people who have known Leitner contribute chapters, filling in the spaces. Thus we have Roger Cutter, his official biographer; his first wife, in privately printed memoirs; his second wife's communication to Cutter; Leitner's own autobiography; his stepdaughter, via her journal; and so on. This device, as I said, should work. However, all these people "write" exactly the same sort of prose -- which happens to be pure Auchincloss. You can't tell them apart without a score card.

Auchincloss is very intelligent, and there is an authenticity to his settings: the private school on the wrong side of Central Park; the summer colonies in Maine, where gossip and intellectual activity blend to keep the place going; the dining rooms in Georgetown; the law offices of the powerful -- he's got them all down cold. Moreover, he can be a graceful stylist: "Violence lurked in the potted palms, and peace in the eye of the winter storm outside." Auchincloss is awfully good at juggling abstractions and then pinning them down in a few economical phrases. But the people in this novel -- though their actions make basic sense -- don't really breathe; they carry ideas, rather than blood, in their veins. An interesting book for those who admire grace and intelligence and don't mind an Edwardian heartbeat.

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