Manhattan Monologues: Stories by Louis Auchincloss

[4 December 2002]

By Sarah Tan

It Just Gets Better

“And will you promise not to reveal what I say?”
“I promise. Unless you authorize me.”
“Very well. I’ll do it for you and for your ears alone. Because you so seem to care.”

There is something alluring about the notion of being confided in. The idea that someone has chosen you to be the recipient of personal thoughts and feelings. It is even more flattering, and one cannot help but take more interest in the process of exchange, when the person sharing is of higher status in life. Admit it or not, our value as individuals lies to some extent in other’s people’s opinions.

With his first novel, The Indifferent Children, published in 1947, Manhattan Monologues: Stories is Louis Auchincloss’ fifty-seventh book. Like a seasoned merlot or Gruyere, Auchincloss’s subtle yet distinct prose ages well. There’s depth and a taste that can only be attributed to a well-cultured insight refined within the headiest caskets.

Reading Manhattan Monologues makes one feel like an honorary member of America’s most affluent society. Auchincloss’s stories conjure visions of intimate moments shared with characters that smile at us from the back pages of the glossies. Even though they are fictional, one cannot help but hold the thought that the characters are based on real people. Maybe it is the effect of his vivid descriptions that makes these visions so real. His work draws physical profiles, twitching and sauntering across the room—revealing subtle hints of personality underneath.

“If tall and slender, he was also firmly built and smartly clad, even for a country hike, usually in soft gray, as if to match the thick and prematurely whitening hair that descended in a triangle over a high clear brow, pointing to the thin tip of his aquiline nose. His voice was low and grave, his articulation precise, and his blue-gray eyes twinkled with a mockery that was inconsistently gentle.”

Manhattan Monologues is a set of ten stories that read like confessionals. Divided into three periods (Old New York, Entre Deux Guerres, and Nearer Today), Auchincloss attempts to depict the “moral paradox” that has plagued the uppermost tiers of American society in the time frame of almost a hundred years. The protagonist of each story shares their thoughts to paint pictures of particular stations n life, and the dilemmas, hopes, and complications that confront them.

It is the structure of each monologue that draws one into the book. Each story makes the reader the confidante, an insider, and that strengthens the determination to understand the nature of the characters found on each page. Auchincloss pulls you into an intricate web of familiarity. One finds oneself in hiatus with the protagonist, and feelings of suspicion are aroused when it comes to the motives and actions of others. One relinquishes the ability to be subjective about the described situations because of the depth of involvement with the characters.

One of the book’s finer points is the different landscapes in which we find ourselves engrossed. In one of the pieces, we are trudging through the New England marshes just before World War II, and by the end of the book, we’re observing the disintegration of a legal empire. Auchincloss takes us within the walls of American homes and lets us listen to men and women struggle with notions of war, love, consequence and survival. The ideals and conflicts are still fresh in today’s modern society. The questions are timeless.

Auchincloss’s book reads like a skilfully crafted social commentary. His pieces give insights to characteristics most often associated with aristocratic America—status, class, loyalty, honour and scandal—and questions our ideas on success and the credibility of perception. Manhattan Monologues accords a sordid shallowness to society’s desire for wealth and prestige. In each piece, once gets a taste of regret and compromise that look like a cold empty room surrounded by Art Deco engraved mirrors; an environment filled with beauty that reflects a certain nothingness.

Elegantly written and rich with character, Manhattan Monologues is eloquent and a pleasure to read. It explores the depths of human character with such beautifully written character pieces, that one cannot help but personalize them and feel a dreaded sympathy for society in general. Auchincloss’s language is refined and stylised in good taste, which is a nice contrast considering much of contemporary fiction available today is sloppy.

The conversations we read are precise and introspective. They give insight into the complicated socio-psychological aspects of human nature. We taste the clashes that occur between personal desires and that of class and overall community. And as for society as a whole, (reworking the comment of one if his characters) nobody will ever fathom the depths of its arcane personality.

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