The full title of this book is “The Style’s the Man: Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal, and Others” and there’s lots of others. In fact, the essays here about William Gaddis, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and the failures of Henry James’s theater career are the more interesting of the essays here, because of the more obscurity of the subjects. This is a small collection of literary essays by the (mostly) novelist and lawyer Louis Auchincloss. It’s exactly the kind of book I really enjoy about literature, often by writers themselves, where they eschew the scholarship of the times (here the 80s and 90s…which eesh) for the more older World historicism (and some New Historicism) and New Criticism of past ages. Is it moving fields forward? Not really. Is it compelling and insightful? Here, yes!
We begin with an essay about Ivy Compton-Burnett in which Auchincloss disagrees with Joyce Carol Oates that Compton-Burnett was writing disembodied Victorian novels with little plot or characterization. She’s very much wrong, and Auchincloss’s focus on language is the right one. Compton-Burnett wrote novels that were basically Samuel Beckett plays set in Victorian houses. They are super weird, super funny, and often amazing.
Other stand out essays here are a brief career assessment of William Gaddis. An essay analyzing the “perfection” of The Scarlet Letter, Wuthering Heights, and The Great Gatsby. There’s also a really interesting essays about an unknown, and failed novelist and critic who started his career writing about Edith Wharton and ended writing about Edith Wharton and in the middle tried to make it as a poor substitute for Edith Wharton. The Henry James essay about his failed turn to theater in the 1890s is great too. Auchincloss is also an historian, and this shines through in a lot of these essays which split their time with historical context as well.