ALISON LURIE came to New York the other week, to act as a National Book Award judge, and to talk a little about her latest novel, Only Children (Random House). Like her own books, Lurie is calm and understated on the surface, deceptively simple in language, all covering a ferocious intelligence. She is a writer's writer, greatly admired by her peers, but one of her novels, The War Between the Tates , did make it onto the best-seller lists.
Only Children is set in a single weekend in 1935. Its characters are two married couples-Honey and Bill, Celia and Dan-plus one unmarried woman, Anna, and three children-particularly two young girls, Mary Ann and Lolly. The shifting relationships among the adults are seen sometimes through the observed behavior of the adults, sometimes through the eyes of the children. It's one of those novels in which a series of non-significant encounters and events actually reveal everything.
"All these people, though they love their children, can be good to them only in their own terms. They can give their children only what they have, not what they don't have. I think that if one could combine the abilities that these four parents had, you'd have a perfect pair. But there's no such thing as a perfect pair of parents. Raising children in the '30s was different. I remember my mother telling me that when she picked me up and hugged me she felt that she was being a bad mother, because you'd been told not to indulge your child.
"And so I think that people were more at war with their natural impulses then. But that difference in child-raising was not the main point I was making. What I set out to do was to write about a certain kind of possessive love which I wanted to make a statement against. I picked these two couples as examples of people who really do care for each other, but who have somehow gone wrong because they have the wrong idea of what love is. Instead of love being something which frees people, it's working backwards, and these people are possessed by it.
"Honey and Celia are two intelligent women with unusual and different kinds of ability, but they have no work. And it isn't suggested in 1935 that they should. They therefore get into a dependent position but have too much energy to be content with the lives they're in. I think that's one of the reasons that both of these marriages have gone wrong. I'd like to think that if these women were suddenly and magically transported into 1979, this wouldn't have happened to them.
"Sometimes when I get discouraged, I think it might be a good thing to stop using that word 'love.' Especially I'm suspicious of people who love something they don't like, whether it's cigarettes or another human being." While we talk, Alison Lurie is quietly hemming a dress. I ask her about the two little girls in her novel, who would be women now of about her own age.
"I don't really know yet," she muses. "I'm sort of waiting to find out. Sometimes it occurs to me much later, what happens to some of my characters. But one thing I know will happen is what happened to people in my parent's generation. When the war comes, suddenly women will be more in demand for jobs, and I think that, if it's possible, these women will go back to work. As for the girls, they'll probably be sent off to school, as I was.Then they'll be caught up in the '50s 'feminine mystique,' so I can't really tell what's going to happen. But I do think about it sometimes."
I inquire about the significance of the children being "only children" and Lurie shakes her head. "What I thought of the title I didn't consider its meaning of 'single child.' I thought of the way grownups say, 'Oh, she's only a child,' and I thought of this group of grownups who are acting like children. It was only then that I realized that to simplify the story I'd made all these children in a sense only children."
And where did the adult characters get all the wrong ideas about love, so that they are unable to love except possessively? "From their families and from the culture. One of the reasons I put all the popular songs into the novel was because I think that was a background people absorbed without knowing it." Romance instead of love? "Yes."
And what is Lurie working on now? "Right now I'm working on a short story. But I must say that I always begin by thinking I'm only going to write a short story. It's so nice, so easy and wonderful, only it never happens. Either I give them up or they turn into a novel." She is also currently at work on a retelling of 15 or 16 fairy tales with a feminist slant; she points out that the translations of the fairy tales we read and teach today were all done by Victorian males, with a heavily masculine bias. Her collection of tales will be published under the title Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk tales , and will remind us again that Alison Lurie, who teaches writing and children's literature at Cornell University, is anexpert in the lights and shadows of the world of children. CAPTION: Picture, Photo of Allson Lurie; Copyright (c) , 1979, Edward Hower