Last weekend, I was at my parents’ house and I saw a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons on the shelf. I’ve stared at the book since I was a kid, but I never bothered to pick it up, much less read it. In the last several years, though, my friend Adina has been singing the praises of Durrell as one of our great writers of place. So I decided to spirit the book away with me back to Brooklyn. (Sorry, Mom! I also have your copy of Rebecca.)
I’m glad I did. It’s a terrific read. I’ve just finished the chapter on Durrell buying a house in Cyprus. I haven’t laughed out loud, that loudly, in some time. The elaborate dance between the broker, the seller (really, an extended family in a Cyprus village), and Durrell, as they argue about the house over the totem of the house key, had me in tears.
She [the seller] wore the white headdress and the dark skirt of the village woman, and her breasts were gathered into the traditional baggy bodice with a drawstring at the waist, which made it took like a loosely furled sail. She stood before us looking very composed as she gave us good morning. Sabri [the broker] cleared his throat, and picking up the great key very delicately between finger and thumb—as if it were of the utmost fragility—put it down again with the air of a conjurer making his opening dispositions. ‘We are speaking about your house,’ he said softly, in a voice ever so faintly curdled with menace. ‘Do you know that all the wood is…’ he suddenly shouted the last word with such force that I nearly fell off my chair, ‘rotten!’ And picking up the key he banged it down to emphasize the point.
The comedy here is that the wood is not rotten at all—in fact, the broker had just been praising the Anatolian timber as some of the hardest wood in the world—and everyone knows it. Yet they argue as if they don’t.
The Durrell got me to thinking about another literary treatment of buying a house: those hilarious opening chapters in A Hazard of New Fortunes where Isabel and Basel March slowly watch their ballooning fantasy of the perfect home in Manhattan settle back down to earth, and Isabel finds her sense of what is absolutely necessary in a house gradually shrinking to fit the reality of their finances. Adam Gopnick had a smart article in The New Yorker a few years back on this wonderful mis-en-scène.
I’m not sure what it is about the act of buying a house that makes it so amenable to story-telling. It can certainly be funny, almost comically absurd: the elaborate performance of bargaining, the histrionic prices, the outsized battle between fantasy and reality, the marriage of money and home, family and market.
Maybe it’s the last that makes buying a house such a tempting source for literature: it stages a confrontation between one’s sense of what is personal and intimate with some of the most impersonal forces in our society. Buying a house is supposed to be a shrewd move, yet it’s caught up in embarrassing fantasies and all kinds of family romance. (That’s certainly what you find in Howard’s End, another wonderful novel about property. Didn’t Lionel Trilling talk about this?) I suppose in this respect it’s a bit like being a professor in an academic department, which is a literary genre in its own right: on the one hand, it’s just a job; on the other hand, your colleagues are a bit like family, around for a very long time.
Out of curiosity: what are some other depictions of buying a house in literature that you’d recommend?