THE HOUSE OF THE PROPHET by Louis Auchincloss


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The life of Felix Leitner, a columnist/sage very much like Walter Lippmann--as presented through dovetailing narrative fragments by Leitner himself, his two exwives, his stepdaughter, one friend, one colleague, and Leitner's longtime assistant Roger Cutter (a would-be biographer who's gathering all this material while 84-year-old Leitner nears death in a nursing home in 1974). Manhattan-born, half-Jewish Felix grows up smart but cold, self-righteously spurning his slum-landlord father, cultivating WASPy social contacts at Yale, marrying well-born but radical Frances, always carefully preserving his sense of self: ""I intend to select the association I want and join the clubs I want and live the life I want, regardless of what labels and motives small people may attach to my acts."" But after clerking at the Supreme Court and writing a small book on war-and-peace, Felix goes to Versailles as a Peace Commission staffer--and (while taking a French mistress) he's traumatically disillusioned: ""I had believed passionately in man and his ability to create a good life on this planet. . . now I had awakened to a realm of horror, a dark sewer where black grubby pieces of insect life dug in and out of the mud and slime to eat each other."" So Felix's moral rigor thereafter is colored with cynicism: he supports the New Deal (as a ""brain-truster""), then denounces it; he briefly joins a fat-cat law firm (his irreverent analyses of constitutional law become an embarrassment); and his columns remain uncommitted (""Felix belonged to nothing but his concept of human liberty""), though both of his wives (while summering in Maine, he illicitly links up with, then marries, his old Yale chum's wife) accuse him of pandering to his social betters. And finally, after Felix dies (having penned some senile, unpublished pro-Nixon Watergate columns), biographer Roger--a eunuch who has lived vicariously through Felix--is faced with a double-edged portrait: ""Did he care more for truth or for the fame he derived in perceiving it? Did he love mankind or mankind as personified in Felix Leitner?"" A familiar paradox--and Auchincloss never fills it in or out, failing to give a sense of achievement to balance the unattractive, one-dimensional personality. Nor is there much novelistic texture: the narrative voices are barely differentiated, and all of them pause now and again for the familiar Auchincloss dilettante-isms (pallid discussions of Shakespeare, cute in-jokes. . . like a law firm called Harris, Tweed). Still, it's a sizeable improvement over Auchincloss' recent parlor melodramas--always readable, generally skillful, often engaging; and those who followed Lippman with feeling may supply enough remembered texture to give this glossy run-through some of the dimensions it so sorely lacks.

Pub Date: March 20th, 1980
ISBN: 0887388574
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin