How’s this for squeaking in under the wire? When I learned about the NYRB Reading Week hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons, I had just received a review copy of one of the newest NYRB books through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. The book, After Claude by Iris Owens, was first published in 1973. In it, the main character and first-person narrator, Harriet, recounts the final days of her relationship with the titular Claude and the aftermath of their breakup.
My first impression of Harriet was that she is hilarious. Offensive, very offensive, but hilarious. Here she tells us about Claude:
Claude, who had learned his English in England, spoke with one of those snotty, superior accents, stuffed into a slimy French accent, the whole mess flavored with an occasional American hipsterism, making him sound like an extremely rich, self-employed spy. I forgive myself for not instantly despising him, because one: it’s not my style to pass hasty judgments on people, and two: it was my luck to meet him under circumstances that made anyone not holding a knife to my throat look appealing.
Before long, though, I realized that this bit of snarkiness is really just a piece of Harriet’s extreme self-centeredness and meanness in which everyone who tries to be a friend to her is pushed to a breaking point. She is a nasty piece of work, mooching off friends and lovers and ignoring anything they say that might possibly indicate that she is anything other than an ideal person. Her sense of entitlement knows no bounds.
It’s fascinating to watch how her mind operates. She never once seems to believe that she is doing anything wrong, even when she tells outrageous lies and takes over other people’s homes. There is nothing in her thought process that indicates guilt or a conscience. Harriet herself is sublimely unaware of her own nastiness. She knows what she’s doing and sometimes deliberately plans her attacks, but she always feels justified because she is the most important person in her world, and the world owes her happiness. Once in a while, she does make an effort to help others, but her idea of “helping” depends on her illusions of what is appropriate and what constitutes happiness. Thus, her help is no help at all. (But it does make for hilarity!)
There are a few moments when you get the sense that Harriet wasn’t always this way. Harriet has recently returned from Paris, where she spent five years—leaving only after the American consulate put her on a plane to New York and took her passport. Her friend Maxine worries that something happened in Paris to turn her into the angry woman she is now. There is something about her actions that seem out of control, and the knowledge that she wasn’t always so nasty made me wish she would get help. But this is no inspirational book in which the nasty person grows a heart. And, really, I don’t think I would have liked it much if it had been. Harriet without the snark would just be boring. If she could lose the nasty and keep the wit, we’d be in business. That’s not, however, the story Owens is telling. She chooses a different route.
The final chapters, set in the Chelsea Hotel and involving a group that I suspect was inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory, are somewhat stranger than the rest of the book. We still have Harriet’s oddball inner monologue, but the stuff going on around her is even more bizarre. I didn’t like this part as much as I did the earlier chapters, but it did leave me with a different impression of Harriet’s situation.
As annoying as Harriet’s self-absorbed nature is, it carries with it an extreme neediness. She wants freedom, but she isn’t willing, or perhaps able, to do the hard work that allows a person to be free and independent. By choosing to depend on the kindness of others, Harriet has left herself vulnerable, without any inner resources. Extreme self-confidence (or self-delusion) will only get you so far. What happens when there’s no one left to rely on? That’s the question I was left with when the book ended.
Other Bloggers’ Views
“… it can be a bit like watching a train wreck, but certainly an interesting one.” —Bibliographing