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Look Inside | Reading Guide
Nov 14, 2006
| ISBN 9780812976311
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Nov 14, 2006 | ISBN 9780812976311
WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE Virginia Miner, a fifty-something, unmarried tenured professor, is in London to work on her new book about children’s folk rhymes. Despite carrying a U.S. passport, Vinnie feels essentially English and rather looks down on her fellow Americans. But in spite of that, she is drawn into a mortifying and oddly satisfying affair with an Oklahoman tourist who dresses more Bronco Billy than Beau Brummel.Also in London is Vinnie’s colleague Fred Turner, a handsome, flat broke, newly separated, and thoroughly miserable young man trying to focus on his own research. Instead, he is distracted by a beautiful and unpredictable English actress and the world she belongs to. Both American, both abroad, and both achingly lonely, Vinnie and Fred play out their confused alienation and dizzying romantic liaisons in Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Smartly written, poignant, and witty, Foreign Affairs remains an enduring comic masterpiece. “A splendid comedy, very bright, brilliantly written in a confident and original manner. The best book by one of our finest writers.” –Elizabeth Hardwick“There is no American writer I have read with more constant pleasure and sympathy. . . . Foreign Affairs earns the same shelf as Henry James and Edith Wharton.”–John Fowles“If you manage to read only a few good novels a year, make this one of them.”–USA Today“An ingenious, touching book.”–Newsweek“A flawless jewel.”–Philadelphia Inquirer
Alison Lurie is the author of many highly praised novels, including The War Between the Tates, The Truth About Lorin Jones (Prix Femina Etranger), and Foreign Affairs (Pulitzer Prize for fiction). She teaches writing, folklore, and literature at Cornell University.
A Conversation with Alison LurieQuestion: Did Foreign Affairs come to you in terms of a characteror of a structure?Alison Lurie: Mostly in terms of a theme. Once I started spendingtime abroad, I noticed that friends and colleagues who moved fromone country to another sometimes got a second chance at life. Iwanted to write about how people, when they are in a new place andnot surrounded by the expectations of others, can change. I thinkthat can also happen when you move from one part of this country toanother. When I see friends from New York in Key West, they oftenseem different there from how they are in New York.Q: You do a lot with allegorical figures and animal equivalents, likethe invisible little dog that follows Vinnie onto the plane in the firstscene. Do you see the characters like animals in your mind’s eye?AL: I must think that way because I find that I keep doing it. By theway, Vinnie’s dog isn’t always little. The thing about Fido is that hissize changes depending on how sorry she’s feeling for herself. He’sstill there at the end of the novel, but he’s much smaller. It would beillogical to think that Vinnie will never feel self-pity again, but she’snot as consumed by it as she was at the beginning of the book.Q: You have taught children’s literature and Vinnie is an expert onchildren’s literature. Why did you choose the same profession foryour character?AL: I’ve taught folklore and children’s literature, so I didn’t have todo a lot of research to show Vinnie as an expert in this field. Also itsuited her as I imagined her: someone who had a happy early childhoodand then a miserable adolescence. I have a theory that peoplewho teach children’s literature tend to have enjoyed being childrenand want to continue being children. When Vinnie was little, it didn’tmatter that she was small and plain, because little children don’t careabout that.Q: When did you start going to England every summer?AL: In 1970, my first husband had a sabbatical, so we were in Englandfrom January to June of that year, and that’s when I reallystarted to get to know the place.Q: And are you as much of an Anglophile as Vinnie?AL: Almost as much. Although, like her, I sometimes get disillusioned.Q: What is it that you like about the British?AL: They read more. They’re better educated. They don’t apologizefor talking about books and art and ideas. Of course, in England I’vemostly met literary people, whereas in America I know all kinds ofpeople, so I may think the English are more educated and intelligentthan they really are. But I do believe they’re more verbal. Their ads,for example, depend on verbal cleverness and literary reference morethan ours do.They may not be intrinsically kinder or gentler in England, butthey’re more aware of the rules and more apt to follow them. Peoplesay the English are getting ruder, and they talk about soccer hooligans.But I haven’t seen that. Not only do people still queue, but ifsomeone tries to jump the queue everyone else will protest. Americans,on the other hand, may be more spontaneously helpful thanthe English. The English are taught not to get involved withstrangers or invade other people’s privacy. In America, we aren’t al-ways taught to mind our own business, so people are more likely tostep forward and help.Q: To me, a central theme of your story has to do with Vinnie becomingmore American.AL: Yes. She begins by rejecting America. When she gets on theplane to Britain, she dislikes America. But by the end, she’s fallen inlove with someone who stands for everything she didn’t like aboutAmerica. The big moment for her is when she does something frighteningand uncomfortable because she wants to do what Chuckwould have expected of her. His view of her is that she’s an absolutelywonderful person. She knows she’s not, but she wants to live up tothat view of herself. And by doing this thing, which she doesn’t thinkof as very important, she has a tremendous effect on the lives of otherpeople.Q: Was Henry James consciously on your mind when you were writingForeign Affairs? You cover some of the same territory, such as thedifferences between Europeans and Americans.AL: Oh, certainly. I don’t think you can write a novel like mine withoutthinking about James. Of course, James was more concernedabout American innocence and European sophistication. I don’tthink that difference is so great any more. In fact, it may be reversedin some cases: Some British people come to New York now and feellike innocents.Q: Which characters in the book are the most Jamesian?AL: What’s Jamesian are the situations more than the characters—the situation with Fred Turner, for example: a very good-lookingyoung man who comes to London and falls in love with an olderwoman. You can’t help but think of The Ambassadors and ChadNewsome, who goes to Paris and gets involved with Mme de Vionnet,who likes him for the same reason that my character RosemaryRadley likes Fred: because he’s young and good-looking and inexpe-rienced. My character, Chuck Mumpson, is a little bit like CasparGoodwood, the noble Midwestern barbarian of The Portrait of aLady. Isabel would have been much better off marrying him insteadof Gilbert Osmond.Q: Is there any other writer whose influence was important to ForeignAffairs? To me, the book is very Austenlike in its texture.AL: Yes, everybody says that, but I don’t think there’s anyone in it thatis like an Austen character.Q: Well I can see a remote similarity between Vinnie and Emma, inthat they’re both a little self-satisfied.AL: Oh, but Vinnie is so unhappy. She is one down at the beginning,whereas Emma, as we are told in the first sentence, is handsome andclever and rich. Vinnie is clever, but she’s never been handsome orrich. She is someone whose personal life has been a failure, and she’sresigned to putting up with that. The only Austen heroine I can thinkof who is disappointed and has given up is Anne Elliot of Persuasion.But she’s not really like Vinnie, either.Q: No, I don’t think there is anyone quite like Vinnie. I wasn’t thinkingof Austenlike characters so much as a texture of observation and wit.AL: Every writer who aspires to write about society and small worldswants to be compared to Jane Austen.Q: Do you believe, as Vinnie does, that English literature is a goodguide to life?AL: Some books are better guides than others. Jane Austen or evenAnthony Trollope is better as a guide to life than Henry James, for example,because James suggests that things are not going to work outand that you almost can’t trust anyone. I’m more optimistic than that.In James, people don’t usually get a second chance after they messup. He is essentially tragic. To me, comedy is essential. If you took allthe comedy out of my books, there wouldn’t be much left. I’m happyto be called a comic novelist, although it’s perfectly true that if you’rea tragic novelist, you get more respect and more awards.Q: Vinnie is fifty-three in the novel. Is this important?AL: It is important, because it’s an age that women are taught meanstheir emotional lives are over, and she accepts that. When she gets onthe plane, she’s given up. And there’s that mean review of her workby L . D. Zimmern, who appears in many of my books, always causingtrouble.Q: Oh, does he always appear as a troublemaker?AL:Well, in the beginning he was a troublemaker. In Foreign Affairs,he’s just very cynical. His attitude toward life is sour. He’s that way becausehe was the hero of my first unpublished novel.Q: So he’s bitter because he never got published?AL: Right. He never got published, never went before the public as hehoped. Of course, in my unpublished novel he’s just a young teacherin a boarding school. But in Foreign Affairs, he’s become a well-knownliterary critic and professor. He’s had worldly success but it’s only softenedhim a little. When he appears in The Last Resort, a recent bookof mine, he’s retired and famous and has softened quite a bit.Q: That must be fun, to invent a character and continue to flesh himout in subsequent novels.AL: Absolutely. I only wish I’d put him in sooner. He’s not in Loveand Friendship or The Nowhere City, but after those he appears inevery book.Q: Roo, Fred Turner’s wife, is Zimmern’s daughter.AL: Yes; she appears in The War Between the Tates as a child. Fred appearsin Love and Friendship as a child of four. He’s the son of theheroine of that book, Emily Turner, and his function is to preventEmily from getting together with this man she is interested in. It’s funto let characters turn up again, and it saves time too, because evenwith a minor character or secondary character, you’ve got to know alot about them. You have to figure out where they came from, even ifthese details don’t show up on the finished page. There are lots of recycledcharacters in my work. Chuck’s daughter Barbie turns up laterin The Last Resort, and so does her awful mother.Q: Which scenes of this novel did you most like to write?AL: It was all fun. I enjoyed writing the scene where Vinnie is collectingfolk rhymes in the school yard, and she’s so shocked by whatshe collects. That’s an issue in the field of children’s literature: Children’ssongs and stories aren’t always as sweet and innocent as somescholars would like them or expect them to be. And the scene whereRosemary pretends to be her own cleaning lady—that was fun.Q: Was there a Chuck Mumpson in your life?AL: Well, at some very distant remove, Chuck has something to dowith Edward [Alison’s husband]. Not because of his character, butbecause in Vinnie’s view, he’s an inappropriate partner. He’s not thesort of man she can seriously imagine for herself. I name the men shedoes sometimes have fantasies about. I made a list of real professorsand writers I knew. They all just loved that. Dan Aaron, MikeAbrams, Alfred Kazin, Arthur Mizener—they’re the sort of men Vinniewould have liked to be involved with: older, intellectual, sophisticated.Not a sanitary engineer from Tulsa in a string tie.Q: How was Edward inappropriate?AL: He’s fourteen years younger than me.Q: Why did Chuck have to die?AL: Chuck had to die for several reasons. One is that if he hadn’tknown he was seriously ill, he would have gone home, where he hadobligations. A man like Chuck would not hang around Englandlooking for his ancestors if he were well. But I also think that, eventhough they loved each other, it would have been difficult for Chuckand Vinnie to be together over the long run. What would Chuck doin a university town?Q: They probably need sanitary engineers there, too.AL: They probably do.Q: We haven’t talked about Rosemary Radley. Do you know anyEnglish actresses?AL: I’ve met several English actresses. I never got to know anyof them well, but I have met them, and I think there’s a kind ofactress—or actor—who doesn’t have much of a self. They havea wonderful act, which is maybe bigger than life. They come into aroom and everyone notices them, but they have this emptiness inside.Some people believe that you need that emptiness in order tobe a great actor. That’s what was said about Laurence Olivier—thatthere was nobody there.Q: Rosemary is really the only English person in the book exceptEdwin Francis.AL: True, there are not many. It would be hard for me to write anovel with an English hero or heroine. It’s hard to write about peoplefrom another culture unless you’ve spent a lot of time there.Q: I was thinking of Matchpoint, the Woody Allen movie. The casthas many English characters and they’re very believable.AL: But maybe it’s easier in a film where you have English actors. Infiction, even a really brilliant writer may have trouble with foreigners.Tony Powell created an American character at the end of A Dance tothe Music of Time and he sometimes would ask me, or other Americans,What would he do? What would he wear? And even with ourhelp, the character wasn’t quite believable, and I can’t say exactlywhy. Somehow, he’s not as real as the English characters.Q: Maybe it’s more difficult when there’s only one and he or she hasto bear the weight of the culture they represent.AL: That may be true. I think Rosemary and Edwin are believable,but I don’t go into their minds. I wouldn’t want to try. That’s a differencebetween me and Diane Johnson. She lives in France most ofthe time, and her daughter has married into a French family. Shefeels comfortable writing about French characters in depth.Q: Did you feel a need to increase the intensity at the end of thenovel?AL: Well, I like a little melodrama if there’s room for it. I thought,if Vinnie is going to have an intense experience, Fred should, too.I didn’t want him to go back to America still in love with Rosemary,because it would have been hard on his marriage. Luckily,with people in a book, you can arrange their lives in a way you can’tin reality.I think to write fiction you have to have a love of making upstories and maybe even have an impulse to interfere in people’s lives.You don’t want to interfere in the lives of your family and friends,because that’s not right, so you interfere in the lives of imaginarypeople.
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