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People tend to overstate the case when it comes to fiction and empathy: just as there are lots of nasty writers, there are also plenty of insensitive, clod-hopping readers. But still, novels can be pretty use­ful for teenagers trying to understand the behaviour of certain adults.

In my case, the adults in question were my parents. To be more specific, one of my parents: my father, a man I loved half to death, but whose behaviour was – how to put this? – on the errant side. I was always trying to work him out, but the problem was that I knew no one else quite like him. My friends’ fathers liked washing their cars and mowing their lawns, and never did anything remotely out of the ordinary. My father, however, might have been beamed down from another planet. I would look at him – at this point, you need to picture a small, bearded man in Dr Scholl sandals worn with (horrors) socks, a look which a lot of women seemed to find unaccountably sexy – and wonder at the state of the heart that seemed to be beating so very rapidly beneath his corduroy jacket.

It was this conundrum that led the young me to campus novels for, yes, my father was an academic. The first such novel that I read – devoured would be a better word – was David Lodge’s Changing Places, borrowed from the sixth-form library, where contraband books with ‘adult’ themes were to be found if you looked hard enough. In an instant I recognized its hero, frisky Professor Zapp, as having been cut from the same cloth as my dad.

Naturally, this soon led me to Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, in which a sociology lecturer called Howard Kirk is told that his pro­miscuity may lead to his being sacked for ‘gross moral turpitude’. Kirk, pompous and somewhat foolish, was very different from my father, who was funny and smart. But his appetites were all too fam

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People tend to overstate the case when it comes to fiction and empathy: just as there are lots of nasty writers, there are also plenty of insensitive, clod-hopping readers. But still, novels can be pretty use­ful for teenagers trying to understand the behaviour of certain adults.

In my case, the adults in question were my parents. To be more specific, one of my parents: my father, a man I loved half to death, but whose behaviour was – how to put this? – on the errant side. I was always trying to work him out, but the problem was that I knew no one else quite like him. My friends’ fathers liked washing their cars and mowing their lawns, and never did anything remotely out of the ordinary. My father, however, might have been beamed down from another planet. I would look at him – at this point, you need to picture a small, bearded man in Dr Scholl sandals worn with (horrors) socks, a look which a lot of women seemed to find unaccountably sexy – and wonder at the state of the heart that seemed to be beating so very rapidly beneath his corduroy jacket. It was this conundrum that led the young me to campus novels for, yes, my father was an academic. The first such novel that I read – devoured would be a better word – was David Lodge’s Changing Places, borrowed from the sixth-form library, where contraband books with ‘adult’ themes were to be found if you looked hard enough. In an instant I recognized its hero, frisky Professor Zapp, as having been cut from the same cloth as my dad. Naturally, this soon led me to Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, in which a sociology lecturer called Howard Kirk is told that his pro­miscuity may lead to his being sacked for ‘gross moral turpitude’. Kirk, pompous and somewhat foolish, was very different from my father, who was funny and smart. But his appetites were all too familiar, and after this, there was no stopping me. I had found a rich literary seam, and I was determined to mine it, usually while sitting in an oak tree on my father’s allotment. As he considered his beloved kale (long before kale was fashionable) I would sit on my branch, utterly absorbed by bed-hopping eggheads and their fictional universities. These novels were for me the literary equivalent of I-Spy books. In their pages, you could find every species of clever, over-sexed bloke. Yep, seen that one, I’d think, picturing some wiry-haired colleague of my dad’s. Slowly, the adult world was beginning to make more sense. It was a little while after this that I discovered Alison Lurie. At university I met J, still my closest female friend. Having bonded over our bolter, brain-box fathers – my dad was by now married to his fourth wife – she recommended Foreign Affairs, Lurie’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner. Of course I adored it. Its message, which has to do with the way in which being loved alters a person, moved me then, as it moves me now. But this piece is not about Foreign Affairs, a book that is easy to love. It is about the novel of Lurie’s that I read next, The War Between the Tates, a rather spikier proposition. As it happens, The War Between the Tates was published in 1974, the very same year that my father departed the family home for a love nest – translation: a small, ter­raced house – with one of his former students. This, obviously, is one reason why I cherished it. At its heart is a similar affair. But when I read it again recently, I found it powerful and striking in other ways too. It is a brilliant book, not only about university life, rarefied and febrile, but also about such things as middle age, motherhood and feminism. Above all, it captures something of what it is like to live in the midst of a culture war, when no one wants to be on the ‘wrong’ side and when even the smallest utterance may be misconstrued. This seems to me to give it a weird new life at this point in the twenty-first century – for all that so many hippies with dirty feet appear among its pages. Like Foreign Affairs its setting is Corinth University, a thinly dis­guised version of Cornell. When it begins, it is 8.15 in the morning in a lovely old house not far from the university, and Erica Tate, a some­time illustrator, is sitting with her head on the kitchen table, weeping. Why are her teenage children, she wonders, so horrible? It is, she thinks, as if she is ‘keeping a boarding house in a bad dream’. Meanwhile, in his office on campus, her political scientist husband, Brian Tate, nervously awaits the arrival of a graduate student called Wendy Gahaghan. For the third time, he is about to try and break up with this poor girl. This won’t be easy. Wendy, who favours suede mini-dresses and an excess of beads, and who believes in such notions as astral projection, is, just like the rest of her (to Brian, slightly terrifying) generation, seemingly hell-bent on sexual freedom. The words ‘my wife has found out’ have no meaning for Wendy. What follows – all of it expertly controlled by Lurie – has elements of farce. Events will conspire to ensure that Brian, no matter how weaselly, cannot, after all, wriggle out of his (non) commitment to Wendy. Worse, his own wife will play a part in his fate; feminism, of which he has lately heard so much, now bites him on the bum, mov­ing from mere theory into practical application. Newly liberated, albeit against her will, Erica will now also take a lover: Zed, the drippy proprietor of the Krishna Bookshop that is the bane of Brian’s life (Wendy, you see, regards Zed as her guru). As in any war, many deals must be broken, and many alliances made. On Erica’s side is pugnacious Danielle, another academic who has recently separated from her husband, the waspish literary critic Leonard Zimmern. But the battle between the Tates is, the reader comes to realize, just one skirmish in a wider war. Corinth University, like the rest of America in the era of Vietnam, is in turmoil. Students are protesting against, among other things, Brian’s reactionary col­league Professor Dibble, a character who may or may not have been based on the noted young philosopher and classicist Allen Bloom – and when Brian gets mixed up in their demonstration, he makes an utter berk of himself. At her best, Lurie is properly funny. No one in her world is safe from a skewering; having slowly marinated her characters, she then barbecues them for our delectation. But she is all wisdom and ten­derness too. ‘You have already made your choices, taken the significant moral actions of your life long ago when you were inexperienced,’ she writes of middle-aged women like Erica in The War Between the Tates. ‘Now you have more knowledge of yourself and the world; you are equipped to make choices, but there are none left to make.’ She is particularly good on the sex lives of the long-married and the newly separated; her careful, gentle paragraphs capture emotions (and embarrassments) that, though often felt, are still rarely expressed. If The War Between the Tates is a book about a divorce, and all the terrible rancour that comes with such a rupture, it’s also about renewal, a process that must involve, somewhere along the way, for­giveness – something that applies, in the book, to the shifting sands of politics as much as it does to relationships. Which brings me back to my father, with whom I was often furi­ous as a girl, but of whom I now think – he died in 2004 – only with deep gratitude and an indulgent amusement that is the best kind of love. Getting to this state took, I’ll admit, quite a long time; I had to sleepwalk into my own emotional muddles before I was able to stop playing the puritan. But Lurie, I think, also played her part. Her universe was, and is, deeply meaningful to me: ever sprightly and jumbled, but brimful, too, of understanding and abiding good sense.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Rachel Cooke 2022


About the contributor

Rachel Cooke is a writer and columnist at the Observer, and the television critic of the New Statesman. She is currently working on a new book, The Reckoning, which explores ideas around bad behaviour and good art.

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