Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Maile Meloy’s “Madame Lazarus” was originally published in the Jun 23, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
In “Madame Lazarus” a wealthy, retired Parisian banker, who does not tell us his name, does tell us that upon the occasion of his retirement, his lover and partner, James, had given him a dog. We know that they are partners, because the banker refers to their apartment as “our” apartment.
James is glamorous and English, but much younger. During the course of the story, it appears that James is slowly separating from his partner of long standing, taking longer and longer trips abroad for business, coming home only for the parties at which he is so good, so successful. The two men had been together for “many years.” The banker sums up their relationship thus:
When you are the older man, you can be equal, for a time. He has youth and beauty, but you have wealth and experience. You know many people, and you can take him to Portofino, to Biarritz, to Capri. It is an old story.
I liked this story a great deal. I was at first a little ill at ease, knowing that the author, a woman, was writing about a gay man. But I decided that in a way, the story is universal, and just as the banker says, an old story, although perhaps not the story you first think.
Upon first reading, I bought the old man’s take on things; the trophy spouse had moved on. But on second reading, it began to seem that the old man’s isolation might not be due solely to the series of gradual abandonments that James has played upon him. Possibly the older man has had his own part in the disintegration of the relationship.
The old man indicates that the problem between the two men is the way the older man’s aging has altered their relationship, and that may well be the case, or partly the case. But as the story unfolds, it seems that the older man has difficulty focusing on people. His ex-wife, of whom he is fond, for whom he has respect, and whom he still sees, says that he “never really saw her.” The banker protests, and says that Simone is “an elegant woman, all angles, gold bracelets on thin, tan wrists.” He says nothing of the way she cared for him or cared for their children or cared about her work, or was devoted (or not) to God or anything else.
One wonders if James might have felt the same way — that his lover had never really seen him. The banker describes James in this way, remembering him at parties:
He is good-looking, of course, with the well-cut brown hair and the trim body and the bespoke suit. He has a brilliant smile, very warm and interested and sincere, and when he talks to people they feel special.
But the banker goes on to say, “They want to do business with him [. . . .] who he is talking to, this person gets everything.”
The banker says nothing of any lovely intimate moments they might have shared in these “many years”: there is no treasuring of casual breakfasts, dinners out, movies shared, music heard, or any other indication that this was a meeting of minds or souls. Instead, the banker says, towards the end:
I think of James, our long life together, his shoetrees in the closet, his clothes on the floor.
When James gave the banker the dog (so many years ago), he named the dog Cordelia, “not for Lear, but for the English novel.” He might as well have named the dog for Lear, because the old man seems to drink up people like the old Lear, needy and blind and almost mad. But probably, the dog is named for Cordelia Flyte, the youngest sister of Sebastian Flyte, in Brideshead Revisited. Cordelia is the one who truly loves the dissolute Sebastian, the one who might have been a nun. Sebastian, for all his beauty and charm and aesthetic sense, is inaccessible to most people, even the ones who love him. Of course, even the recollection of the novel itself is a recollection of the intense friendship between Sebastian and Charles Ryder, a friendship of soul-mates, except that Sebastian is a hopeless drunkard.
There is thus a sense of love lost in the gift James gives the old man as well as a sense of the need the old man has for love — like Lear — an almost insatiable need for love. So the dog’s name is a message, of sorts.
As for Madame Lazarus, that is what the vet calls the dog Cordelia, seeing as how she has foiled death. The question is, though, who is it that is living a death in life, who is it that has been brought back from the brink?
I have not given the story away, I think. I am merely saying there’s much to hear if you’re listening. The story has several other dimensions: the way the man treats his housekeepers, the way Cordelia, the tiny dog, awakes the banker, and the secrets that the old man has kept for so many years. It is, of course, deeply moving that the fact of these secrets have shaped the old man’s entire life.
You might think, on first reading, that the story is warning the reader about the tragedy of the trophy spouse. I think not. The warning is far different, far deeper, far more touching. The warning has to do with how death, in its many forms, is the natural next step when you must keep silent about a secret that is life itself to you.
I liked the way Meloy interwove all these elements, liked the quietness of the story telling, and I liked the way the story gave me the experience of a series of realizations.