The Embezzler, by Louis Auchincloss
by Robert A. Parker
This 1966 work is an old-fashioned novel, but is still effective. At least for me. Auchincloss wrote many novels, serious novels, about wealthy Manhattan society, but they were never considered literature on a high level. He was even called a poor man’s Edith Wharton, because they both wrote of the same people. And his era was often hers as well. This author, however, did not claim to be on her level, and was, in fact, more often ranked with John P. Marquand.
But this has to be one of Auchincloss’ better novels. It is about three people: Guy Prime, a handsome, gregarious figure trying to make it in the financial world of New York; Rex Geer, an ambitious young man whom Guy sees has the business skills to complement his own personal skills; and Anglica, who loves them both, sees them objectively, and reveals their weaknesses. Each of them will portray their version of their lives from the turn of the 20th century into the 1960s. Each will also look back with a certain self-justification, and with a conscientious evaluation of one another.
But this novel is more than three character portraits, even as it offers three different ways of evaluating the same people and the same events. Because the three characters do not understand one another as well as they believe they do. And because the author is also interested in what lies beneath the surface of Manhattan’s upper classes: the uncertainties, the self-deceptions, the social climbing, the pretension, the frequent search for money, the self-righteousness and self-deception, an even the back-biting.
The novel begins in 1936 as Guy is caught as an embezzler. He has kept securities that do not rightfully belong to him as collateral for a loan he has received, and he believes the Feds, seeking to expose corruption on Wall Street, have chosen him to put on trial. We see him first through his own eyes, embittered by his trial and sentencing, proud of his business reputation, and unrepentant about his act of embezzlement. The opening section represents this once golden boy of Wall Street writing his memoirs in an attempt to justify himself to the grandchildren he will never see.
But once we are caught up in his dramatic situation, the novel backtracks to how Guy, Rex, and Angelica met, became involved in each other’s lives, and were impacted by Guy’s act of embezlement. It begins with the honest portraits that Guy tries to draw of the three major characters. Which reveals, instead, Guy’s own character, how he assumes he is in good graces with everyone he meets and ends up taking for granted the prestige he feels he has earned. But his success, he realizes, has been aided by the business advice and business contacts that Rex has provided. Which, in turn, prompts a certain resentment of this friend whom he once so identified with.
Rex’s narrative helps us to get to know him better, first with his abortive affair with Alix, who cannot bring herself to marry him. And then with his childhood sweetheart Lucy, who understands him and their situation much better than he does. But the most pertinent observation by Rex is noting that Guy’s biography leaves out what happened between his marriage to Angelica and their divorce 25 years later. This is the period when Guy’s idealism succumbs to frustration at home and at work, then to disillusion, and then to despair, leaving him only his surface reputation.
But even Rex skips the intervening years until the 1930s. This is when he begins horse-riding for exercise; and it comes under Angelica’s tutelage and leads to their affair. His narrative is primarily a story of his three loves, with casual references to his relationship with Guy. Only his final analysis of Guy seems wrong, as he concludes that he has been Guy’s tool, from Harvard to banking to Alix, that Guy used people for his own advancement, and that he used his embezzlement to destroy his world of finance “because he could not dominate it.” And Rex hates him for that, even as he admits it may be childish to do so.
Angelica, on the other hand, reveals other aspects of Guy. That, for example, he worshipped Rex, which is why he wanted him as part of all his endeavors. She also reveals Guy tries to win everyone to his vision, because he realizes he has to overcome his family’s “shabby” reputation. Finally, she says that she loved Guy for only their first ten years together. Then he began affairs geared to advance his career, and he lost her—which left her open to her affair with the man her husband so admired. A final bit of intrigue, she says, is that he used the betrayal of Angelica’s affair with Rex to justify his own embezzlement.
There are aspects of an unreliable narrator here. But the emphasis is on the different interpretations, and what they reveal about each person. It is not on the surprise of the new interpretation. With the result being deeper characterizations for both the observer and the observed. The different viewpoints work because each person seems sincere, both in evaluating their own actions and in their re-interpretation of events that others have described. And most still like and respect the persons they are commenting upon.
And, yes, their different interpretations of how Guy finds himself in each situation, both his business career and his marriage, and how the others view his actions—these lend substance to this tale. But I was more intrigued by the situations themselves, by how each developed, how the emotional relationship among the three principals provided the growing impetus, and how each responded, given the position each had achieved and their personal relationships. Guy has his worldly reputation, Rex his business success, and Angelica emotional commitments followed by betrayal.
This work fulfills my final interest in Auchincloss. Its greatest achievement is the subtle differences with which the three characters see their own reactions to Guy’s personal and financial history. (July, 2018)