Monday, December 24, 2012

Applesauce and raspberry mousse

Anne Bernays, The Man on the Third Floor (Sag Harbor, N.Y.: Permanent Press, 2012). 184 pages.

Anne Bernays cannot decide whether her tenth novel is a comedy of manners or a roman à thèse on behalf of gay marriage. The internal evidence is on both sides of the question, and so is Bernays’s literary reputation. Her best-known book, Professor Romeo (1989), was the first American novel on the subject of campus sexual harassment. It merchandises the thesis that, no matter how unpleasant the faculty lecher—and Bernays’s is very unpleasant—he is still the plaything of changing moral fashions and campus hysteria, a theme Francine Prose developed with greater success in Blue Angel. Bernays’s most interesting and accomplished novel is Growing Up Rich (1975), the tale of a half-Jewish girl who is orphaned at fourteen when her wealthy parents die in a plane crash and must then adapt to the financially straitened circumstances of the loud and messy middle-class Jewish family that takes her in. Bernays was able to flaunt her mastery of detail, her eye for subtle and revealing social convention, in two different milieux.

The Man on the Third Floor threads back and forth between both strains in Bernays’s writing. Set during the ’fifties (with Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee prowling menacingly in the background), the novel is careful to define the homosexual condition in a hostile era:

We were a despised lot; the descriptive “gay” had just begun to circulate. Give enough drink—and only in the company of men like ourselves—we might act “gay” from time to time, but mainly we were anxious, worried that people would discover our secret and punish us for loving men.On the other hand, Bernays also takes elaborate pains to establish the social scene. Her hero, Walter Samson, works for a New York publishing house apparently modeled upon Simon & Schuster (“one of the three clearly ‘Jewish’ publishing houses”). He descends from a family of well-to-do German Jews (“if God chose the Jews, he was partial to the German branch of this tree”). Bernays depends upon a sharp memory for the precise details. A great-grandniece of Freud, she too worked in publishing (serving as managing editor of Discovery, the literary magazine put out by Pocket Books) until her marriage to the biographer Justin Kaplan and relocation to Cambridge. The social atmosphere of the novel—the private clubs, the formal lunches, the parties, the weddings of New York’s “smartest,” who have more status than money—is utterly convincing; as convincing as anything in Edith Wharton or Louis Auchincloss; more convincing, indeed, than the homosexual theme.

Walter has his first homosexual experience at summer camp when he is fourteen. Confined to his tent by a sprained ankle, he is visited by a counselor with a “frankly Aryan glow” and “bulging muscles.” “I’ve brought some Vaseline,” the counselor says, telling Walter to take off his shorts and turn over:“Relax, kid,” he said. “This is supposed to be fun.” Then he instructed me—not in the tone he used while coaching tennis, but in a sweet whisper—what I was supposed to do. When his penis entered me I felt an electric shock so violent it made me scream. He told me “for chrissake, be quiet.” I held onto my voice as the shock melted and turned into a sensation of delight. I almost passed out. “There,” he said finally. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I couldn’t talk. He put on his shirt and shorts. “Can’t say anything. I couldn’t my first time either.”The experience is not repeated for twenty-five years. By then Walter is married, the father of two children, a senior editor at Griffin House. With the fortune inherited from his father (a department store magnate), Walter purchases a three-story house on the Upper East Side.

One day at work he is interrupted by a carpet layer who needs to measure his office. Walter is struck by the young man’s “beauty like that of an Italian noble in a Renaissance portrait.” He is uncomfortably aware of “looking at this man as if he were a woman.” He is reminded of the Aryan-looking counselor and what they had done at summer camp. A “dangerous warmth” floods his body. A thought occurs to him: “somewhere deep there lurked a Walter Samson who might want to be loved by a man more than by a woman.” On an impulse, he asks his Figaro (real name: Barry Rogers) for a drink after work.

Within a few weeks he has persuaded his wife to hire Barry as a driver and install him in a small room on the third floor. For the next decade, as he rises to become editor-in-chief of a major New York publishing house, Walter leads a double life—or, rather, a doubled life, as he prefers to think of it. He considers himself a heterosexual. He remains attracted to his wife, “not so much to her sexual promise as to her spirit,” but what he feels for Barry is different—“a love so ferocious, so mindless, it’s hard to breathe.” He continues to have sex with his wife, but she is not who he thinks about. “Let’s say the difference between applesauce and raspberry mousse,” he ventures.

The ménage cannot last, and of course it does not. While it lasts, though, Walter is not “torn,” he says, but “compacted.” He is fully cognizant of the dangers: “The punishment for engaging in man to man sex was worse in this country than in the Soviet Union.” He realizes that most people would view his living arrangement as “sick,” but he is energized by the sexual variety available to him. The “domestic situation,” he reflects, “gave me everything I needed—or thought I needed.”

The inevitable exposure comes as relief. His wife leaves him, his daughter refuses to speak to him, the Tribune writes up a story on the “cozy Grecian trio.” The public reaction is ill-informed, but predictable:It amused me, in a sick sort of way, that so many people seemed to think homosexuality was catching: don’t let us work for the government, don’t let us into the armed forces, don’t let us drill your teeth, and don’t, whatever you do, let us teach math to your seventh grader.Nothing tragic or particularly vexatious occurs in the sequel, however. Walter and Barry move in together. (Barry does the cooking.) The owner of Griffin House stands by him, and nobody there drops a word about his “unwholesome behavior.” Still, he experiences a “change so complete that I felt as if I had left Walter behind and was someone else.” He finds his work more satisfying. He is more tolerant of other people’s feelings. He loses weight. Life with Barry, taken all around, is pretty darn good. “I can’t help but notice that sometimes we sound like an old married couple,” Walter says, “and I remarked how nice it would be if they allowed people like us to get married.”

It would be even nicer if people like them had as much personality as their social circumstances, but Bernays’s characters are accumulations of traits and experiences instead of real people. For such a short book, The Man on the Third Floor also contains an excessive amount of padding. It’s not hard to see why. The moral dilemma at the heart of the novel—the moral dilemma of homosexuality—is no real dilemma at all, because the moral shame of homosexuality has disappeared. Anne Bernays is unable to summon it back again, and what she is left with is a man who is not “torn,” but merely biding his time until he can live openly with the love of his life.


Unknown said...

You say: "The moral dilemma at the heart of the novel—the moral dilemma of homosexuality—is no real dilemma at all, because the moral shame of homosexuality has disappeared."

I say: You are both right and wrong. The shame has for the most part disappeared, but the moral dilemma surrounding homosexuality remains, especially in a predominantly socially conservative Christian society (i.e., U.S.A.). Perhaps, though, my perception is skewed by belonging to an older generation. On the other hand, if the moral dilemma did not exist, how can we explain the ongoing disagreements about gay marriages?

D. G. Myers said...

The moral shame of homosexuality has disappeared for anyone who is likely to read Bernays’s novel.

Unknown said...

I shall consider my unenlightened self to have been properly scolded.

Lee said...

The moral dilemmas of the past often disappear, requiring the historical novelist to recreate them in ways that resonate with contemporary readers - no easy task, of course. I'm not quite sure what it is that you find lacking in Bernay's depiction of this once very real dilemma: the lack of tragic or vexatious consequences? shallow characterisation? or...?

Susan Malter said...

I am so glad you are thorough! I did not recognize Bernays's name until you mentioned Growing Up Rich from which I call mention of a supernumerary breast and a Calder mobile. I will read her new work thanks to your post.