‘The Single Reader’ by Louis Auchincloss

Auchincloss was incredibly prolific, writing novels, short story collections, biographies, histories, and criticism, but when you come down to it, his preferred format, and the one he based much of his work on, was the character sketch. Powers of Attorney, which ‘The Single Reader’ comes from, is a collection of stories about the partners and associates of a New York City law firm. Auchincloss himself was a New York lawyer and dedicated the book to his partner Lawrence Morris.

Morris Madison, one of the partners in Tower, Tilney & Webb, begins to keep a diary after his wife leaves him. At first, it’s merely an outlet for his anger against his wife and his clients, but soon its focus shifts from his thoughts and emotions to his observations of the workings of the firm and the ways of New York society. Soon, it becomes the centre of his existence:

It not only demanded its daily addition; it demanded footnotes, appendices, even illustrations. Madison found that he spent as much time editing it as he did writing it, but the former task had the advantage of requiring a constant rereading of his work, a constant reabsorbing of his own glowing, crowded, changing picture of the city, now a Bruegel, now a Hogarth, now a quiet, still Vermeer.

By the time Madison is in his fifties, his shelves are lined with dozens of the red morocco-bound volumes of his diary. When he considers marrying an heiress to raise his position in the firm and society, however, he finds himself unable to choose between her reality and that of the world he’s created – or rather, recreated – in the diary. It’s effectively a Borgesian tale set in the wainscoted world of Wall Street.

Included in Powers of Attorney, Houghton Mifflin, 1963