David Leavitt

“Would you be willing to ask Siri how to assassinate Trump?”

That’s the opening question in David Leavitt’s daring new comedy of manners, Shelter in Place, which revolves around a group of New Yorkers who have gathered in a stately Connecticut home just four days after the 2016 election.

That question itself is not what it seems – rather than an invitation to murder (Siri can’t do that, yet) it is a test of the group’s moral compass and its willingness to speak freely – and neither is the novel.

What seems a perfect set-up for a depiction of the angry angst suffusing contemporary American politics (and there is plenty of that) becomes the launching pad for a more universal portrait of what happens to people when the rug is pulled out from under them. It is about the human desire for safety, security and stability – the search for shelter from the storm.

But upending expectations once again, Leavitt does not take the easy way out. Instead of creating an, I know just how they feel portrait of sufferers, he makes his players - a gaggle of semi-creative types who work in publishing, the arts and finance – spoiled and entitled. As Michael Callahan observed in his splendid New York Times review:

There is an art to writing about unlikable people while still engaging the reader to invest in their indulgence, vanity and, yes, happiness. … His dissection of the pampered New Yorkers’ reaction to Trump’s election, which they treat as a personal affront, is lethal and also kookily endearing. These poor rich people, wringing their hands at a country they no longer recognize, when what they’re truly mourning is the death of their own relevance.

While Publisher’s Weekly described the novel as an “irresistible, laugh-out-loud romp,” critic Drew Gallagher paid it a higher compliment when he submitted that “Shelter in Place is the novel John Updike would have written about the 2016 presidential election.”

David Leavitt’s Top Ten List

1. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27).
2. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72).
3. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915).
4. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962).
5. The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald (1992).
6. A Legacy by Sybille Bedford (1956).
7. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895).
8. A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988).
9. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988).
10. The stories of Grace Paley (1922–2007 ).


Appreciation of Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy by David Leavitt

A Legacy, Sybille Bedford’s remarkable first novel, might most simply be described as the story of two houses. “One was outrageously large and ugly,” Bedford tells us in the opening paragraph; “the other was beautiful. They were a huge Wilhelminian townhouse in the old West of Berlin, built and inhabited by the parents of my father’s first wife, and a small seventeenth-century château and park in the South, near the Vosges, bought for my father by my mother.”

So Bedford sets us down, with remarkable velocity and confidence, right in the middle of the world to which she is going to devote the next 360 pages. This is the world of Germany before the Second World War. The owners of the Wilhelminian townhouse are Jews; the heroine’s father is a Catholic aristocrat living in a sort of splendid rural poverty. As she is “bundled to and fro” between these two houses, our narrator —a version of Bedford herself—describes for us not just the struggle of her own growing up, but the complex intermingling of three very different families, as well as the rumblings of social and political change that underlie and ultimately disrupt the domestic and marital dramas in which she is enmeshed.

Because Bedford published A Legacy in 1956, her knowledge of what was to come invests the novel with an air of fragility and foreboding. The prose is stunning; raised in a mire of European languages, Bedford clung to English as a life raft, and she shows her gratitude by employing her adopted language with a grace and agility to rival Henry James’s. Yet what is perhaps most astonishing about this astonishingly rich novel—more memorable, for me, even than E. M. Forster’s Howards End, the other great English novel about houses—is the deftness with which its author reconciles two literary virtues that in other hands might seem irreconcilable: intimacy and grandeur.