Alison Lurie: “She was quite fond of all her characters, despite the myriad flaws they insisted on displaying.”

From a New York Times obit by Margalit Fox headlined “Alison Lurie, Novelist of Manners Who Won a Pulitzer, Dies at 94”:

Alison Lurie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose mordant novels punctured pretension, deflated dogma and illuminated the staggering talent of smart people for self-deception, died on Thursday in Ithaca, N.Y. . . .

Ms. Lurie, who was also a folklorist, a writer and scholar of children’s literature and a longtime Cornell University faculty member, was the author of 10 novels, as well as short-story and essay collections.

As a novelist, Ms. Lurie was an anthropologist of contemporary absurdity. Praised by critics for her crystalline prose, her dry, delicious wit, and her microscopic powers of observation, she dirtied, and then gleefully aired, her protagonists’ elegant linen in book after book. In novels that were small morality plays, characters (educated, often self-regarding men and women) couple, have buyer’s remorse and recouple with new partners, often with disastrous consequences, in a ceaseless recombinant two-step. . . .

Reviewers often compared her fiction — with its eye for the domestic and its concern with the artifice of a certain social set — to that of Henry James and, in particular, Jane Austen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ms. Lurie, American born and bred, by all accounts enjoyed an even larger reputation in Britain than she did in the United States.

On both sides of the Atlantic, she was best known for two novels of intellectual and corporeal folly: “The War Between the Tates” (1974), a best seller, and “Foreign Affairs” (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1985.

Set against the background of the war in Vietnam, “The War Between the Tates” centers on Brian Tate, a professor of political science, and his wife, Erica. . . .He embarks on an affair with a psychology graduate student, who, Ms. Lurie writes, looks upon him with none of “the hard glaze of self-concealment as a prelude to self-advancement — the yellow signal ‘Caution’ which glowed so often in the eyes of his own graduate students.” Instead, “Her gaze was pure green light.”

In “Foreign Affairs,” Ms. Lurie follows two academics — Vinnie Miner, a dowdy middle-aged authority on nursery rhymes, and her younger colleague, the caddish Fred Turner, a scholar of 18th-century English literature — on a sabbatical leave in London.

Against her better judgment, Vinnie begins a passionate liaison with a man she has met on the flight over: Chuck Mumpson, an American boor as lumpish as his name. Fred, meanwhile, engages in a torrid and high-toned affair of his own.

Both novels, like much of Ms. Lurie’s work, are meticulous ethnographic reports on a particular tribe, the set of well-read, well-heeled intellectuals she knew firsthand. Both are organized around themes pivotal to much of her fiction: campus shenanigans (often of the bedroom kind); matrimonial betrayals; class and intellectual snobberies and the essential solipsism underpinning them; and the failure of utopian communities, however pre-emptively constructed, to keep disappointment and anomie at bay.

Both novels were made into television movies: “The War Between the Tates” in 1977, with Richard Crenna and Elizabeth Ashley, and “Foreign Affairs” in 1993, with Joanne Woodward, Brian Dennehy and Eric Stoltz. . . .

Some critics found Ms. Lurie’s characters brittle and unlikable, little more than archetypes. But as Ms. Lurie made clear in interviews, she was quite fond of all her characters, despite the myriad flaws they insisted on displaying. After all, she said, she had known from a very early age that she wanted to spend her life conjuring worlds whole, and peopling them in whatever way she chose. . . .

Ms. Lurie earned a bachelor’s degree in history and literature from Radcliffe in 1947 and the next year married Jonathan Peale Bishop, a literary scholar, with whom she had three sons. She embarked on the life of a faculty wife, following her husband from Harvard to Amherst College to the University of California, Los Angeles, to Cornell, writing in stolen moments.

Her first novel, “Love and Friendship,” about affection and disaffection in the lives of faculty couples, was published in 1962. The title is a deliberate homage to that of an early Jane Austen novella.

Ms. Lurie’s other fiction includes “Women and Ghosts” (1994), a volume of stories whose specters are more psychological than supernatural but no less real for that, and “Imaginary Friends” (1967), a novel about sociologists behaving badly.

Her books for children include a collection of retold stories, “Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales” (1980), illustrated by Margot Tomes.

A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Ms. Lurie was also esteemed as a writer of nonfiction. In “The Language of Clothes” (1981), she examined the semiotics of dress. In two volumes of criticism, “Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups” (1990) and “Boys and Girls Forever” (2003), she explored the subversive qualities that, she argued, are inherent in the best literature for children. And in the memoir “Familiar Spirits” (2001), she recalled her friendship with the poet James Merrill and his lover, David Jackson. . . .

Because Ms. Lurie skewered zealotry of every stripe, readers attempting to divine her ideology from her books were sometimes misled. A string of modern “isms” incurred her tart scrutiny, and because an exclusionary brand of 1970s feminism was one of them, she was sometimes taxed as anti-feminist.

“I consider myself a feminist and not a separatist,” Ms. Lurie told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 1994, invoking “The Truth About Lorin Jones.” “There’s a character in the book who tries to stay as far away from men as possible. She regards men as being the enemy. I’m against that.”

“Even if you think there are things wrong with men,” Ms. Lurie added, “you owe it to them to help them improve.”

Margalit Fox is a former senior writer on the obituaries desk at The Times. She was previously an editor at the Book Review. She has written the send-offs of some of the best-known cultural figures of our era, including Betty Friedan, Maya Angelou and Seamus Heaney.

Also see the Washington Post obit by Phoebe Connelly headlined “Alison Lurie, Pulitzer-winning novelist of mordant wit and boundless empathy, dies at 94″—the ending grafs:

A few years into her first marriage, Ms. Lurie recalled in her Times essay, her writing had stalled, and she felt “false and empty” as a wife and mother. She was “restless, impatient, ambitious” but had no clear path forward.

Then her friend Bunny Lang died. On impulse, she spent frenzied weeks recording everything she could remember about the poet and playwright. The story of a woman morphed into a meditation about art, love and power — some of the defining themes of her work.

“I began to see that the point of Bunny’s life was that she had done what she wanted to, not what was expected of her,” Ms. Lurie wrote in her essay. “She knew perfectly well that most people thought her difficult, immature, selfish, neurotic — yes, sometimes even wicked or crazy. . . . As far as I could tell, it had never occurred to her to arrange her behavior so as to be approved of or suit the current idea of what a woman should be.”

She added: “I realized that I too was not immortal. . . . What I wanted to do was write. Very well then, that was what I would do, even if — as then seemed probable — I would never again be published.”




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