Alison Lurie

Alison Lurie

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 20 1997 3:30 AM

Alison Lurie

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       San Francisco, alternately hazy-hot and foggy-cool. Pretty, pale gingerbread houses with fronts like starched Victorian nightgowns. Fantastic bay and ocean views from the vertiginously steep hills. Driving here requires great skill and equanimity: Not everyone attempts it.
       Dinner party last night at the hilltop house of the novelist Diane Johnson and her husband, Dr. John Murray. John is now working most of the year for the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease in Paris. (Sometimes it seems a losing battle, since there are more drug-resistant cases every year.) One of his colleagues, he told me, is a brilliant woman doctor from Algeria. She left her country almost overnight after receiving the news that she would be "executed" for crimes against Islam on a specific day a few weeks later. Her crime was that she worked outside of the home, wore a dress, and associated with men who were not her relatives.
       Also at the party was John Beebe, the distinguished Jungian analyst, author of many technical articles in his field, and recent editor of the Journal of Analytical Psychology. His current interest is in significant, life-changing dreams, and he is thinking of writing a book for a wider audience, a collection of (suitably disguised) case histories that might be called Seven Dreams. I look forward to it very much.
       Another guest was Jack Leggett, a novelist and biographer who many years ago, as a young editor at Houghton Mifflin, rejected my first (never published) novel. For a long time I was annoyed at him because of this. Then last year I reread the manuscript and (as I told him) became deeply grateful instead. I realized that Jack had saved me from a fate worse than literary rejection: the publication and relentless distribution of a second-rate book, which would still exist in libraries everywhere. Jack has just finished a biography of the writer William Saroyan, now held up because of legal hassles. For one thing, the Armenian association which sponsored his access to Saroyan's papers is distressed, even furious, because Jack's portrait of Saroyan is far from wholly positive.
       I am staying with the writer Alice Adams, whom I met in the first writing seminar ever given at Harvard. It was taught by Albert Guerard, and we were the only two women in the class. Alice was a stunning Southern brunette, and when she entered the classroom it was as if a huge bunch of red roses had been brought into the room: The men in the class were struck silent. She was also already a talented writer. Her latest novel, Medicine Men, is a devastating portrait of the self-importance and bossiness of expensive medical specialists who never really listen to their patients. Now, she says, her mail is full of letters from readers who have had experiences like those of her heroine (who nearly dies because of a misdiagnosis) or even worse. ... The Times recently said that fewer and fewer medical students are choosing to become specialists--which, judging by this evidence, may be a good thing.

Alison Lurie is a novelist and a professor of English at Cornell University.