David Leavitt and Meg Wolitzer

Staying at a friend’s place, I saw on the shelf Martin Bauman, a novel by David Leavitt published in 2000 that I’d never heard of. I read it and it was excellent. I’d call it “Jamesian”: I’ve never read anything by Henry James, but the style seems to fit the many descriptions of James that I’ve gathered from literary critics over the years. Comparing to authors I’ve actually read, I’d say that Martin Bauman is similar to The Remains of the Day and other books by Ishiguro: a style that is so simple and open and guileless that it approaches parody. Indeed, The Remains of the Day is clearly parodic, or at least a classic of the “unreliable narrator” genre; Martin Bauman falls just short of this, to the extent that, when I looked up reviews of the book, I found that some labeled the book as satire and others took it straight. I’m not sure what Leavitt was intending, but as a reader I’d prefer to just take the book’s sincerity at face value, with any parodic elements merely representing Levitt’s recognition of life’s absurdities.

In any case, I’m reminded of a couple other authors we’ve been discussing recently. First is Ted Heller / Sam Lipsyte, whose style is in some way the complete opposite of Leavitt’s (straight rather than gay, brash rather than decorous, etc.) but is telling a similar story. An amusing comparison is that Heller/Lipsyte describe male characters in an accurate way, while all the women are pictured through the prism of sexual and social desire. With Leavitt it’s the reverse: the female characters get to be simply human, while the men are viewed through the prism.

The other comparison is to Meg Wolitzer. I’ve read several of her books recently, and she has a style that’s direct and open, similar though not identical to that of Leavitt. I get the impression that Leavitt is a bit more ruthless, willing to let his characters hang in classic British style (e.g., Evelyn Waugh or George Orwell), in contrast to Wolitzer who likes her characters so much that she wants to give them a happy ending. But, still, lots of similarities, not just in biography (the two authors, close to the same age, had literary success while in college and then each wrote a series of what might be called upper-middlebrow novels about families and relationships) but also in style.