Author Louis Auchincloss Tells Tales, Critiques Colleagues

FOR almost half a century, Louis Auchincloss has been the polished chronicler and shrewd anatomist of the waning New York WASP society that Edith Wharton portrayed in its heyday. A practicing Wall Street lawyer during most of his literary career, Auchincloss has some 50 books of fiction and nonfiction to his credit. Detractors have accused him of being facile - perhaps sometimes rightly. But much of his writing exhibits a depth and subtlety often missing from the work of authors more laborious and pretentious than he.

The 19 stories that make up ``The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss'' were chosen by the author as representative of his best work in that genre. They range from ``Maud'' (1949), the first story he published under his own name (he had previously used the pseudonym ``Andrew Lee'') to his recent story, ``They That Have Power to Hurt.''

All 19 have appeared in previous collections. Revived and reassembled, these stories demonstrate the consistency of their author's artistry and of his world-view, an outlook at once ironic and nostalgic. Auchincloss portrays a milieu that is snobbish, insular, superficial, and hypocritical, yet not without what might be called redeeming social value. Or, as the octogenarian narrator of ``The Fabbri Tape'' (1980) remarks: ``The tragedy of American civilization is that it has swept away WASP morality and put nothing in its place.''

The child of Italian immigrants, Fabbri associates his own ethnic ``roots'' with the oppressive system that prompted his parents to flee the old country. As a promising young attorney, he is only too pleased to assimilate into the predominantly WASP culture of the time, its code of manners, orderliness, and self-restraint. His admiration is so great that he not only becomes an Episcopalian, but even involves himself in a coverup to save a colleague's reputation - an action that leads to his disbarment.

Looking back, Fabbri finds it ironic to have survived in an era when people no longer even pretend to follow codes of ethics and the only sin universally stigmatized is ``discriminating against an ethnic or religious minority.''

Irony of one kind or another is a hallmark of Auchincloss's fiction, whether it is the sometimes heavy-handed irony of illusion being overturned by reality or the more interesting irony of a character's own self-contradictions. Rutherford Tower's hope of becoming the prestigious administrator of a vast trust proves worse than illusory in ``The Colonel's Foundation'' (1955). But the character and situation of ``Maud'' are more complex: Is this young woman who resists her family's forced joviality a higher, more refined soul or merely a person lacking in vitality?

Many of the stories draw on Auchincloss's experiences as a lawyer. Others explore the ramifications of the literary or aesthetic life. Some do both. And if lawyers and other professionals like Fabbri and Tower fail to live up to an ideal code of ethics, Auchincloss's aesthetes (on the whole a less morally dubious group) are afraid of not coming up to the highest artistic standards. This anxiety and disappointment are the themes of stories like ``The Wagnerians'' (1966) and ``The Gemlike Flame'' (1953).

Not surprisingly, many of the themes and issues that engage Auchincloss the storyteller have also attracted his attention as an essayist. The 18 brief pieces in his latest collection of nonfiction, ``The Style's the Man: Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal, and Others,'' offer a fair sample of his direct, sensible, and insightful views on classic and contemporary writers, along with some thoughts on one of America's last aristocrats, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: ``He may have regarded God as a kind of senior partner who did not really want to be consulted in pragmatic political decisions....''

Auchincloss, who has been praised for his ability to describe what goes on in the corridors of power, finds kindred spirits in William Gaddis and Gore Vidal, both chroniclers of what Auchincloss calls ``the decline and fall of American civilization.''

Examining other authors he admires, Auchincloss proves an appreciative, sometimes tart, reader of literature and history. He expresses a mildly heretical preference for T.S. Eliot's first and longer version of his masterpiece ``The Waste Land,'' pointing out how the excised sections added meaning and coherence.

He sees absolutely no merit in Henry James's unsuccessful stint as a dramatist: ``[T]he theatre,'' he wisely observes, ``never forgives those who condescend to it.'' He is less interesting on the topics of William Congreve, Emily Bronte, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who seem to require more in-depth analysis than he is prepared to give them.

There are graceful tributes to Ivy Compton-Burnett and Marguerite Yourcenar among others, as well as a suggestive, if inconclusive, look at Jacobean revenge tragedy. On a lighter note, Auchincloss examines the life of Edith Wharton's sometime friend, Percy Lubbock, a talented minor novelist who seems rather like a character from one of Auchincloss's own short stories.

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