Justin Cartwright

Decline in New York

A connection between poetry and blindness is a classical trope.

Decline in New York
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Homer and Langley

E. L. Doctorow

Little Brown, pp. 208, £

A connection between poetry and blindness is a classical trope. Homer was thought to be blind — if indeed he was one person — and Milton of course suffered torture by going blind. Blindness is also associated with special powers of insight and intuition, very useful attributes for a poet. Blind poets had to develop long memories, too, if they wished to recite their works. The Odyssey is thought to have been the work of Homer’s old age.

Homer and Langley is the work of E. L. Doctorow’s old age. There are fewer Homeric references than you might have expected, given that the narrator is called Homer Collyer and is blind, although, like the classical Homer, not born blind. Homer Collyer’s chosen form of self-expression is the piano, although late in life, when his hearing also goes, he takes to writing. This book purports to be the account of his and his brother’s life.

Just before the opening of the 20th century, the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, are born into great privilege on the Upper East Side of New York, in a mansion overlooking Central Park. Langley is old enough to go off to the first world war, but comes home having suffered the effects of mustard gas, which have ruined his lungs. Both parents have died in the flu epidemic of l918 and the two brothers, one blind, one gassed and probably shell-shocked, are left to make a life in the mansion. Langley, deranged by war, is a man who follows Homer’s precept that ‘Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another’: he is a veritable volcano of theories and antipathies. A growing estrangement from the world sets in, thanks to his obsessions.

Like Doctorow’s great novel, Ragtime, Homer and Langley sets out to record some of the events of the time, as seen from within the mansion. As the servants leave and the house deteriorates, Langley collects more and more junk, including a complete Model T Ford which he installs in the dining room. He also believes that he will be able to compile the complete newspaper, because all events are duplicated and each one is a repetition of another. The idea becomes an obsession: he starts buying every edition of every newspaper published in New York. Initially, Homer plays the piano in a silent film theatre and they have a perfunctory friendship with a gangster in a speakeasy, but more and more the brothers become reclusive and eccentric and rarely leave the house. For a while, Homer teaches piano, and falls in love with his best pupil.

This probably sounds quite interesting; the problem is with the writing. I have noticed over the last few years with Bellow, Roth and even Updike, that the late novels tend towards a sophomoric preoccupation with explication — I left the house with my raincoat on, which I buttoned up because it was raining outside — so that sentences become repetitive and even tautologous. Doctorow’s sentences are often shockingly clunky. I have marked scores of them, but here are two at random:

After all, we were living original self-directed lives unintimidated by convention — could we not be a supreming of the line, a flowering of the family tree?

When I wasn’t sluggish, I was harshly self-critical, as if no one else noticing that I was a useless appendage, I would warrant that I was.

It is almost unbearable to wade through this kind of thing, as well as the vaguely philosophical and Pooterish observations for page after page while lamenting at the loss of Doctorow’s original talent.

Anyway, as the century unfolds and events such as the second world war, the appearance of the Beatniks and the Vietnam war arrive on the doorstep, the Collyer household unravels, the house begins to fall down and the brothers achieve a kind of Howard Hughes celebrity. The city and the utility companies and the mortgage holders are after them, but Langley is determined to make life as difficult as he can for everyone who pursues them. Homer briefly acquires a muse, a French woman who saves him from being run over, and it all ends rather abruptly with total disintegration

The last few chapters, particularly, have some fine moments, but this book is sad evidence that even great writers decline.