Magazine article The Spectator

Decline in New York

Magazine article The Spectator

Decline in New York

Article excerpt


by E. L. Doctorow

Little Brown, £11.99, pp. 208, ISBN 9781408702154

£9.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

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. …

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