Reading: Iris Owens

A novel with a narrator who is both unreliable (and blind to it) and also has a gritty, funny, sarcastic voice: that’s exactly what I like.  I didn’t take to the ending, nor do I buy Emily Prager’s suggestion in the introduction to the NYRB edition that Harriet isn’t as maddening as she seems.  She really is hell on your doorstep; the emotional tension sits right between her observational and reportorial acuteness and her obtuse refusal to understand what she is showing us. After Claude was originally published in 1973,  which explains why the cultural references in the second passage below are sadly outdated; that, and everyone smoking, are what reveal it’s not taking place in New York this week.  Oh, and she is Jewish.

From After Claude by Iris Owens:

To Claude’s prejudiced eyes everything and everyone American was revolting, with the possible exception of migratory workers and Hopi Indians (you can imagine how they hung around us in droves.)  This business of Claude being so madly in love with the so-called underprivileged is a joke I’d like to clear up.  He made innumerable Communist speeches about injustice and corruption, but when it came down to real life, all he actually cared about were titles and tits.  His voice would go hushed and worshipful when he spoke of anyone who came from a family, in quotes, as if the rest of us had emerged fully formed from garbage piles. All these real people from real families were French, naturally, because for some mysterious reason, when it came to Americans, he made no distinctions between inspired intellectuals and the bums blocking their doorways.

— p. 16

“Has anyone ever told you that you look just like Barbra Streisand?”
“I once had her on Flight 47, coming out of Vegas, and really, you’re the spitting image.”
“I’m a foot taller than she is, and my nose is a foot shorter.”
“Not so much her actual looks . . . .”
“I’m not Jewish, if that’s what you’re insinuating.  But Lauren Bacall, Rex Harrison, Piper Laurie, Claudette Colbert, Natalie Wood, Charles Boyer, Tony Curtis, Dinah Shore, Sammy Davis, Paulette Goddard, Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey are.”  I had a list of Jews as long as your arm.
“Not Rex Harrison,” she wailed.  The rest I was welcome to.
“I had him on Flight 912, coming out of Heathrow, and he bought champagne for all of us.”
“Tough, honey, that was Jewish champagne you guzzled.”
— p 97

(It looks like Alexandra Kingsley felt pretty much the way I did about this book. She has some promising-looking links on her post.)


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