- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

Two newly released novels weave thick webs of atmosphere and mood around dissimilar characters and relationships. In Louis Auchincloss’ Last of the Old Guard (Houghton Mifflin, $24, 192 pages), we are among the privileged elite of New York City, considering an elderly lawyer’s musings occasioned by the death of his law partner. Adrian Suydam thinks back over a life-time of incident; the book’s “action” is all in his head.

Similarly, in Damon Galgut’s The Impostor (Black Cat, $14, 256 pages), the pace is slow. Adam Napier, a poet trying to recapture his creativity in a remote South African village, is drawn into a strange, passive friendship that leads to a joyless love affair. The settings of Suydam’s memories are wood-paneled offices, an elegant library or the dining room at the club while Mr. Galgut’s characters are mostly outdoors, having drinks around the barbecue on sultry evenings, driving in cars or bumping into each other on city streets. But in each book the effect is similar — it feels as if the characters, locked into intense relationships, and even the stories themselves, are suffocating for lack of air.

With more than 60 volumes of stories, criticism, biography and fiction to his credit, not to mention long service as an estates lawyer at a prestigious firm, Louis Auchincloss is still vital enough at the age of 91 to appear occasionally in the social columns of the New York Times and to describe with a vulgar epithet the president who presented him with the National Medal of the Arts at the White House in 2005. This vitality notwithstanding, the present book has an elegiac feeling. In the opening paragraph of his new book’s first-person narration Mr. Auchincloss evokes the “peculiar loneliness [that] waits on one who is still surrounded by a persistently friendly world, but also the kind that is flooded by the ungovernable tide of mixed reminiscence that inundates the emptiness of old age.” The protagonist of “Last of the Old Guard,” Adrian Suydam, is an elderly man mourning the death in 1942 of Ernest Saunders, who he describes as his “famous law partner” and “lifelong friend.” Suydam is considering material he omitted when he wrote the official history of their firm, Saunders & Suydam; he remembers episodes he had decided not to include there, discovering others as he rereads letters and memoirs. His ruminations prompt uncomfortable questions. “Have I made the best use of my unquestioned advantages?” he wonders a few pages into his narrative. “Have I even made a respectable use of them?”

Of his meeting with Saunders when both were Harvard undergraduates, Suydam writes that it was “the most important event of my life.” The reflections that follow paint a portrait of Saunders that shows him to be a brilliant but brittle man, chillingly remote but also meddlesome, wary of and disdainful toward women, cruel to a beloved child, infatuated with a sense of his own importance, hopelessly unable to change and grow. Thinking about their shared past, Suydam comes at last to sense, though not quite to acknowledge, just how profoundly he has given himself to the relationship with Ernest and how much it has cost him. He has lived his life in a room that was beautiful and well ordered but where the windows were never opened to admit fresh air.

“The Impostor” is set in contemporary South Africa where the “trendy and vibrant and multicultural” Johannesburg neighborhood Adam Napier inhabits has been “sliding for a few years,” becoming home to gangsters, squatters, crime and drugs. Recently let go from his job, (his boss tells him it’s nothing “personal,” it’s all about “racial quotas”), finding himself “alone and futureless in the middle of his life,” Adam flees to the countryside, to live in a shack that belongs to his slick, successful brother. There he tries to reconnect with the literary inspiration that had led to a book of poetry when he was much younger and there real depression sets in.

At the local hardware store, Adam bumps into Canning, a man who claims to be a friend from long-ago days at boarding school. Though Adam can’t quite recall him and finds him faintly repellent, he accepts an invitation to visit Gondwana, the lush estate Canning has inherited from his wealthy businessman father and where he lives with his slightly mysterious beautiful black wife, Baby. Despite the fact that, “in Canning’s company, Adam doesn’t feel like a real person so much as a symbol from long ago, whose full significance he doesn’t understand,” an arid, dreamlike relationship develops among the three of them. Events finally force Adam to break free of Canning’s bizarre hold over him but they leave him with uncomfortable questions and a sense of having surfaced after a long period of suffocation.

Mr. Galgut, the author of five previous novels, including “The Good Doctor,” which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best book about Africa and was short-listed for a Booker Prize in 2003, is a half century younger than Mr. Auchincloss yet the two men’s work is pervaded by a similar nostalgia for the moral clarity associated with the past but that may, in fact, never have existed. Ernest Saunders mistrusts the inroads of modernity, from “casual Friday” (which, anachronistically, is adopted by his firm in the early 1940s) to the female lawyer he reluctantly accepts as a partner. He spends his last years railing against FDR and his “scrapping” of the Constitution. Similarly, Adam chafes under certain excesses of South Africa’s new regime (government regulations insist the non-indigenous trees must be rooted out of the garden in front of his house) yet even as he is confused and challenged by them, he approves the changes. He finally understands the nature of Canning’s business dealings and sees the danger to himself in them when his “friend” Canning threatens him saying, “I can’t have you messing things up with your silly principles.” Yet even as he despises Canning and the new order he represents, he realizes that he has unwittingly colluded with both.

In each of these two very different books the present and the past, the personal and the cultural, are tightly woven together. Ernest Saunders is secure in his intelligence and in the place it (and his partnership with the well-connected Suydam) have earned for him. He is the last of the old guard, highly self-controlled, valuing tradition and public opinion over all else. Writing in extreme old age, Mr. Auchincloss is stylistically and thematically settled, reworking themes and locales he has visited before in the straightforward prose that has served him so well for so long.

Mr. Galgut, in midcareer, is more dynamic. His protagonist, Adam, is out of control, reeling from the changes in his personal life and in his country. Galgut’s writing reflects this energy. His language is rich with words redolent of South Africa — “rondawel,” “kloof,” “koppie,” — and with strong, poetic images. Trying to clear his yard of weeds Adam “has a melancholy insight into powers that he cannot understand: there are thousands and thousands of weeds, a rising green tide made of numbers and fecundity, and through them an intelligence is at work, larger than each individual plant, replenishing itself through secret strategy.”

“The Impostor” is short but it is a dense, literate novel that repays close reading with a fascinating evocation of contemporary South Africa and a compelling portrait of a man struggling to retain his foothold — social, emotional and moral — as he and the world around him change.

Stephanie Deutsch is a writer and critic in Washington.

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