Five Great Literary Homes, From Pemberley to Ruth’s
The debut novelist Stuart Nadler, whose book ‘Wise Men’ is out in paperback, picks his favorite literary descriptions of domesticity.
Our culture is packed full at the moment with aspirational domesticity––home improvement television shows, inside peeks at celebrity houses, a general collective madness for expensive mid-century sofas and artisanal hand-woven rugs and organic wallpaper. All of this reminds me of Lorrie Moore’s terrific story You’re Ugly, Too. When Zoë Hendricks finally buys her first home near the liberal arts college in Illinois where she teaches, her mother sends her a box of old decorating magazines in the mail. “It was like getting her mother’s pornography,” Moore writers, “…inheriting her drooled-upon fantasies, the endless wish and tease that had been her life.”
The flip-side of all this catalogue envy, of course, is the realization that you have more clutter in your life than is probably practical, or that you have bad taste in organic wallpaper, or that a handsomely low-slung mid-century couch doesn’t exactly offer a comfortable perch from which to watch football. Perhaps this is why I have always enjoyed reading about houses rather than flipping hopelessly through the Design Within Reach catalogue. For me at least, a house described in print can linger longer in the mind than the endless array of homes available to us online to click through and ogle over. Surely this has something to do with our brains, or how it is exactly that we store what we see, as opposed to how it is that we store what we imagine. Part of the fun of writing my novel Wise Men was building the house where my main characters lived, on a secluded beach on the far edge of Cape Cod. A great side-benefit to the gruel of writing fiction is the fleeting moments of wish fulfillment the empty page provides. And while we certainly have enough lists in our lives to clutter a nice home, here are five houses I have read about and not forgotten.
Pride and Prejudice
I read this while living in Los Angeles, mostly on the balcony of my apartment building in Hollywood, while my neighbors fought constantly and chain smoked and occasionally came out to the adjoining balcony and seethed while pretending to read Steven King books. A good memory, and a great, typically arch passage: “She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration and that moment shelf, that to be mistress of Pemberly might something!”
Countess Olenska’s House
The Age of Innocence
I love this book, and I have always loved the way the Countess’s house is described in Wharton’s formidable, droll tone: “It was certainly a strange quarter to have settled in. Small dress-makers, bird-stuffers and ‘people who wrote’ were her nearest neighbors.” If that was not good enough, a paragraph later, there is this: “Madame Olenska’s own dwelling was redeemed from the same appearance only by a little more paint about the window-frames; and as Archer mustered its modest front he said to himself that the Polish Count must have robbed her of her fortune as well as of her illusions.”
Recently in the Times, Dwight Garner remarked that five years after his death, “Updike seems like a Very Dead White Male indeed.” Perhaps it has become somewhat déclassé to admit liking Updike, or perhaps my liking him still, and remaining thrilled by his prose, means that I am déclassé. Whatever. I read Rabbit, Run at 23 years old, and I remain as enthralled now with the book as I was then. Here is Rabbit waiting in the hallway of Ruth, who is just about to maybe become his girlfriend, and is maybe a prostitute. “She lives one flight up. Her door is the one at the far end of a linoleum hall, nearest the street. He stands behind her as she scratches her key at the lock. Abruptly, in the yellow light of the streetlamp which comes through the four flawed panes of the window by his side, tall panes so thin-seeming the touch of one finger might crack them, he begins to tremble, first his legs, and then skin of his sides. The key fits and her door opens.”
I am lucky enough to have had Marilynne Robinson as a teacher, and to have had the ridiculous good fortune to have sat in her classroom and listened to her talk about whatever was on her mind that day, Moby-Dick or The Book of Genesis or Faulkner or Shakespeare. She is, I think, our very best living writer. I read Housekeeping the summer before I moved to Iowa City for the Writers’ Workshop. From the beginning of the novel: “If she had asked me, I could have told her that we lived in two rooms at the top of a tall gray building, so that all the windows––there were five altogether, and a door with five rows of small panes––overlooked a narrow white porch, the highest flight of a great scaffolding of white steps and porches, fixed and intricate as the frozen eke of water from the side of a cliff, grain gray-white like dried salt.”
E.I. Lonoff’s House
The Ghost Writer
I think The Ghost Writer, with its combination of concision and daring and wild ambition, might be a perfect novel. And it’s not even my favorite of Roth’s. Here is a prophetic Nathan Zuckerman taking in the living room of the great writer E.I. Lonoff. “Beyond the cushioned windowseats and the colorless cotton curtains tied primly back I could see the bare limbs of big dark maple trees and fields of driven snow. Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion. All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling. I looked around and I thought, This is how I will live.”