The Magazine

Debunking Delbanco

Sometimes style can impede the story.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By BARTON SWAIM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

And yet, and yet--Delbanco has managed to put his finger on what, so far as I'm aware, no other contemporary writer of fiction has touched: The ways in which well-meaning people inherit the self-absorption of their parents and, despite their intentions, find themselves incapable of behaving selflessly to their husbands and wives and children. Hermia's thoughts, occasioned by Lawrence's youthful inability to love her exclusively, announce the book's theme:

"Fidelity meant faithfulness; it meant wanting only one thing. It meant there was no difference between what you had and what you wanted, no space between the space you occupied and where you hoped to be."

But in her self-absorbed confusion, Hermia finds another, more attractive, abstraction: "Integrity meant oneness; it meant staying faithful and true to yourself." We want another, but mainly we just want ourselves.

For the next four decades Lawrence and Hermia, both decent and well-intentioned people, stay faithful to themselves. They help their friends; they provide for their children; they don't lie--or anyhow, don't lie without good reason. But somehow, in the confusing and heartbreaking situations in which everybody sometimes finds himself, they always manage to choose their own interests over those of their spouses and children. Lawrence, understandably but also rather conveniently deciding he's "not cut out" for fatherhood, goes his own way and lets his ex-wives raise his children. Hermia genuinely loves her daughter, but not sufficiently to direct her.

So had their parents done before them. Indeed, as any post-Boomer might suspect, it is possible that the "greatest generation" was not. Just look at their children. It is a melancholy fact that catastrophic wars make survivors more interested in making themselves comfortable than they would have been otherwise: In Europe, the war generation set up socialist governments; in America, people let their children raise themselves.

Lawrence and Hermia are textbook Boomers. At several points Delbanco subtly raises the point that his two principals are (though they're far from realizing it) merely living out the soft narcissism handed to them by their parents. Asked by his sister whether he's ever thought of himself as having repeated the mistakes of mom and dad, who also divorced, Lawrence at first pretends not to hear the question, then spouts off some contemptible banalities about believing in marriage but not his own particular marriages. Both Lawrence and Hermia were made to find their own ways, morally and in every sense but financially, and both have spent their lives wondering why their chief pursuits never satisfy: in Lawrence's case, sex and academic accomplishment; in Hermia's, unrequited love for a daughter. In the absence of moral direction, they live by clichés, glib slogans, and thoughtless political allegiances--the true legacies of the sixties.

Barton Swaim is writing a book on 19th-century Scottish literary critics.