A Very Bourgeois Post on Buying a House

by Corey Robin on December 29, 2013

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?

{ 27 comments }

1

Rakesh Bhandari 12.29.13 at 9:37 pm

2

NomadUK 12.29.13 at 10:02 pm

I don’t recall that I’ve ever read anything that included buying a house — except maybe Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour — and I’m not even sure about that — but I remember thinking that The Money Pit was pretty funny at the time.

3

Zamfir 12.29.13 at 10:15 pm

The count of Monte Christo buys a house.

4

nihil obstet 12.29.13 at 10:28 pm

Does building a house count? Soames Forsyte commissions Philip Bosinney to build his house in The Man of Property.

5

Palindrome 12.29.13 at 10:28 pm

I don’t think they bought the house in The Witching Hour, it was inherited. But the descriptions of the rot and decay of the New Orleans mansion were more baroque and involved than even the evil ghost sex scenes, if that is possible.

6

godoggo 12.29.13 at 10:48 pm

Bitwas

7

godoggo 12.29.13 at 10:50 pm

Biswas

8

Jim Buck 12.29.13 at 10:58 pm

The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing, catalogues the earnest practicalities of squatting a London house: shit to be shoveled out of the roof -space because the septic tanks burst; new beams to be heaved into place; utility connection to be negotiated; IRA to be persuaded not to continue using it as an arsenal. Perhaps not bourgeois enough for you?

9

PJW 12.29.13 at 11:54 pm

Not exactly what you asked for but Tracy Kidder’s “House” is worth a mention here.

10

Alex 12.30.13 at 12:05 am

Perhaps not bourgeois enough for you?

1960s London squatting was pretty damn bourgeois, especially when you think of how many of ‘em were Tony Blair’s ministers.

11

Alex 12.30.13 at 12:08 am

Robert Graves buys a house in Goodbye to All That – both traumatised and empowered by the experience of war, he makes a list of criteria and plots an isochrone on a map, then bullies his wife’s parents into coughing up the deposit, always surprised by his own brazenness.

12

MPAVictoria 12.30.13 at 2:33 am

Godoggo I just read that. Pretty good. A little depressing

13

Nabakov 12.30.13 at 4:55 am

“The House On The Borderland”?

14

Nickp 12.30.13 at 1:43 pm

Jim Buck,
I’m baffled by one detail in your description of Lessing’s book: What is a septic tank doing in an attic? To me, “septic tank” means an underground tank which allows solid sewage to settle while effluent drains into the soil via a pipe inserted near the top of the tank. Does septic tank mean something different in the UK? Even if one were to keep a septic tank in the house (!?!), it seems very strange to pump sewage into the attic rather than keeping the tank near ground level where gravity alone will assist the journey from toilet down to the sewers.

15

Peter Glavodevedhzhe 12.30.13 at 3:34 pm

Of course, everyone knows that the plot of Breaking Bad is about cooking meth, but as a group, the characters seem more concerned with residential real estate–how to acquire it, protect it, furnish it, how it situates them into the great chain of American class and status. A second viewing of the series (I’m about 1/3 through Round 2) reveals just how much cultural data on home ownership that Vince Gilligan et al. put inside the show. And all of it finely grained.

And a novel? I’m thinking of Main Street, Sinclair Lewis. I’d say Babbit but I put it aside before I finished. So.

16

Peter Hovde 12.30.13 at 4:29 pm

Borat’s house-hunting bit is one of his best:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnqgmgOJ4iI

Also, on the Durrell/house theme, I recommend Gerald Durrel’s memoirs about growing up in Corfu, in which Lawrence is prominently featured, and the first of which is organized around the series of villas they occupied.

17

Theophylact 12.30.13 at 4:53 pm

I remember Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with a certain degree of fondness. But perhaps that was just the Steig illustrations.

18

Jim Buck 12.30.13 at 5:17 pm

Nickp @14 <i Does septic tank mean something different in the UK?

No, Nick; it’s me misremembering the details of the book. There was no Rube Goldberg sewage system, producing the buckets of shit, in the attic. The suggestion is that council workmen deliberately plonked them there, to discourage squatting.

19

shallowpate 12.30.13 at 7:30 pm

Independence Day by Richard Ford

20

parsimon 12.31.13 at 3:27 am

Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is quite good reading.

21

parsimon 12.31.13 at 3:29 am

Wikipedia tells me it (The Alexandria Quartet) is about quantum mechanics. Good lord, I had no idea.

22

stacks of books 12.31.13 at 3:35 pm

23

DaveL 12.31.13 at 3:55 pm

Didn’t “The Rise of Silas Lapham” have a big section on building a trophy house in the Back Bay? I’m too scared to check, as the PTSD from jr. high might return.

24

Cranky Observer 12.31.13 at 4:38 pm

If we are moving on from print literature to film, let’s not forget “Mouse Hunt” ;-)

Cranky

25

Steve 12.31.13 at 9:21 pm

A House for Mr. Biswas.

26

Jensen Pepperton 01.03.14 at 8:49 am

I have also read house by tracy kidder and it’s a great read. thanks for all the other recommendations, I’m going to have a busy book list this year.

27

CarlD 01.04.14 at 4:07 am

This particular kind of humor, shown to be a genre of its own regardless of topic, is all over Durrell’s brother Gerald’s books.

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