It is a testament to the breadth of James Merrill's influence that one can, without ruffling too many feathers, declare him the greatest living American poet. I often approach his work skeptically, imagining it's going to be precious or ornately solipsistic, but I always turn the last page of Merrill's poems feeling purified, astonished, enlightened. Few writers approach his exquisite knowledge of the English language, its beauty and oddity--he breathes vigor into our most common words--and even fewer have managed to combine a sense of elegance with the momentous intellect and feeling that Merrill, unashamedly, brings to his poems. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to read "The Seraglio," Merrill's only conventional novel, published 30 years ago and now being rescued from out-of-printness by his longtime publisher, Atheneum. The novels of poets--like the poems of novelists--tend to be treated as oddities or artifacts, at least on this side of the Atlantic (to American ears, "novelist James Merrill" sounds as odd as "poet John Updike"), and, when you add to that the peculiarity associated with an old book's resurrection, the result is a novel that's nearly impossible to read as a novel. How can you observe the prose without always looking for the poetry? How can you ignore the gulf of 30 years? And even more important: How can you remove the neophyte novelist from the shadow of the great poet he was destined to become?
The answer is, of course, you can't. Even Merrill himself seems to call for "The Seraglio" to be read as artifact; in his eloquent introduction he refers to the book as "a hybrid" coming to light in an age when "the novel of manners and that of sensibility seem equally outmoded." Still, it is a testament to Merrill's skill as a novelist, as well as to the inherently entertaining character of "The Seraglio," that for extended periods of reading time one forgets all of these things and finds oneself just reading a novel--as Merrill puts it, "simple fustiness (makes) for a unity never before attainable."
At the center of "The Seraglio" is Benjamin Tanning, a version (Merrill admits in the introduction) of his own father. Merrill's family founded the Merrill-Lynch empire; and, in the novel, Benjamin Tanning heads an investment company known as Tanning, Burr. He is a remarkable, vivid character, his life demarcated by three constants: illness, wealth and women. As "The Seraglio" opens, the much-married Tanning has set himself up for the summer at The Cottage, a palatial estate on the East End of Long Island in which he lives surrounded by women, mostly middle-age or even elderly, all of whom are vying on some level for his affections. Yet Benjamin is a far cry from the rich old codger of pulp fiction; he's, instead, an enormously appealing and complex man, at once gruff, gentle, brilliant and incurably sentimental, particularly where his "seraglio" of ladies is concerned. It is in describing life at The Cottage that Merrill demonstrates his skill as a novelist of manners: These scenes veer between the hilarious and the precious, culminating in a christening party at which the women guests must wade through the moral muck of deciding whether it is right to eat the liquor-filled candy babies decorating a cake.
Scandal--small and immense--suffuses the atmosphere at The Cottage. As the novel opens, a portrait of Benjamin's daughter, Enid, has been slashed. Is the culprit his malicious ex-wife, Fern, who refers to him as "the monster"? Or is it the sluttish Irene Cheek, who calls Benjamin "lover-cousin" and, in spite of the presence of her drunken husband, Charlie, flirts with him outrageously? The true answer, of course, is neither: Benjamin's granddaughter, Lily, we learn on the first page, has in fact committed the crime for reasons having less to do with malice than mysterious and inchoate urges, and it is here that "the novel of sensibility" that Merrill describes himself as having "grafted" onto the novel of manners finds its beginning.