Mauve Gloves & Stoics, Thackeray, Wolfernby Andrei Navrozovrn”The only reward to be expected from the cultivation of literaturernis contempt if one fails and hatred if one succeeds.”rn—VoltairernA Man in Fullrnby Tom WolfernNew York: Farrar, Stmts & Giroux;rn742 pp., $28.00rnWhen Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire ofrnthe Vanities came out in Englandrnmore than a decade ago, 1 reviewedrnit in the Times with that special elationrnobscure Soviet dissidents once reservedrnfor their brethren mentioned by name atrndisarmament conferences and peacernsummits. Here, after all, was one of ourrnown, yet so famous he was now safe.rnHere was a sartorial rebel, an avowed syntacticrnguerrilla, a wolf in wolfs clothing,rnan insouciant raconteur who not onlyrndid not give a damn about the half-truthsrnof the moment, he dared to expose thernhalf-lies. Here was a bad boy with his fingerrnin the dyke, a devil-may-care moralistrnholding back a universal flood of immoralrnbanality. Here was a stain of purityrnon the covers of whorish magazines,rnspitting sardonic paradoxes in the face ofrna reading public that their editors didrntheir best to corrupt. Later, of course,rnsome of those famous dissidents turnedrnout to have been KGB stooges, but that isrnnot the point. At least I don’t think it is.rnNot only was The Bonfire of the Vanitiesrna splendid novel which had slippedrnthrough the cordon sanitaire of the Americanrnpress to spread its moral contagion,rnit was a novel about the American press.rnOr, to put it more accurately, about thernlife and fate of the individual in a politicalrnand cultural environment where allrnmechanisms of redress, and all culturalrntrappings, are travesties, while the powerrnAndrei Navrozov is Chronicles’rnEuropean correspondent.rnof the press is as real as that of a monarchrnunder absolutism. This was what I saidrnin my Times review, at any rate, withoutrnwasting valuable column inches onrnwhether the author was a new Thackerayrnor Tolstoy. A few days later, an exquisitelyrncalligraphic letter arrived from Wolfe,rnthen in London on a promotional tour,rnagreeing with me that this was, indeed,rnwhat his novel was all about.rnThe one essential observation thatrnmade my reading convincing and, as itrnlater turned out, conclusive, is that everyrnsingle character in Wolfe’s “novel ofrnNew York” is a hypocrite. From myrnMoscow childhood, I exhume the imagernof those huge round presentation boxesrnof assorted chocolates, each a differentrnshape and each wrapped in a differentrncolor of foil. No matter which shape orrncolor you chose, they all tasted like soya.rnThis Orwellian image is both memorablernand plausible, because of course allrnthe chocolates used to come from thernsame candy factory, which, like everyrnother candy factory in Russia at the time,rnoperated under the same set of commercialrnand social—that is to say, politicalrnand cultural—rules, circumstances, orrnconditions.rnIt would have been wholly implausiblernif the dramatic conflict of Wolfe’srnnovel had centered on what one mightrncall the plight of an honest man, just asrnsome ecstatic reminiscence of the onernpiece of candy that did on occasion subvertrnthe uniformity of those boxes —arnchocolate bottle filled with Cuban rum,rnas I recall—would only lead the readerrnaway from the one point worth makingrnon the subject of Soviet confectionaryrnand the soya sameness of life under totalitarianism.rnNo, The Bonfire of the Vanitiesrnwas all tarantulas in a bottle. Givenrnthe absolutist pressure of the press on itsrncharacters—from Yale to grave and fromrnadolescence to Wall Street, reaching intornevery crevice of private morality andrnintellectual makeup, limited by nothingrnsave its own corporate interest—wherernwould that “honest man” have comernfrom? Unlike its 19th-century, pre-totalitarianrncounterpart, living literature inrnthis century is not written as a story of exceptions.rnNor did the cosmic hypocrisy at therncore of the novel’s microcosm ever workrnto diminish the human complexity ofrnWolfe’s characters. Why would it?rnWhen one is describing Sodom, it standsrnto reason that everyone there should bernportrayed as some kind of catamite.rnMARCH 1999/31rnrnrn