Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Loving Frank's Fountainhead of Achievement

Last month one of my reading groups discussed Loving Frank, Nancy Horan's historical novel based on the love affair between the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick.

The story, told in the third person but interspersed with "letters" written ostensibly by Borthwick, is told mostly from Borthwick's point of view. Borthwick met Wright when she and her husband, Ed Cheney, hired Wright to design a Prairie Style house for them in Oak Park, Illinois. For some reason, Horan decided to cover the crucial, initial interactions between the future lovers in a forward "written" by Borthwick and the novel suffers for this decision.

We are told in Borthwick's forward that, with the encouragement of her husband, she took on the task of working with Wright during the construction of the house and soon "was part of the team". Then the story shifts to the third person omniscient and we learn that those six months had seemed "enchanted" to her. At no time do we experience any of this enchantment and, in fact, throughout the novel it never became apparent to me what the attraction was between Borthwick and Wright. We are never shown the atraction, we are simply told by Borthwick that it exists.

It seems odd that Horan cannot convey any of the passion in a relationship that must have been passionate. In real life, the affair between Borthwick and Wright was a sensation covered extensively in the local Chicago papers. She left her husband and children for him and he left his wife and children for her. They stayed together for seven years. He built Taliesin, in Wisconsin, for her. They were together until she died.

Horan tells this story with as much detail as research will allow, and yet their relationship was a mystery to me. He was vain, arrogant, a liar, and a spendthrift. She was unhappy with a husband who she admits there was nothing wrong with (and whom Horan presents as an eminently decent man) and she claims to love her children even though she abandons them far from their home (and father) during an extended holiday in Colorado.

The novel suffered from too much exposition and not enough "scenes". It also suffered from lack of a dramatic arc. One of the problems with writing historical fiction is that history is history and lives don't always have dramatic arcs although they may have dramatic moments. To make a better story the author might have to alter history. Since Horan obviously didn't want to do that, it seemed to me that she really wanted to write a nonfiction work but didn't have enough research to make a whole book.

During our discussion, two members of my group said that parts of the story reminded them of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Since no one else in the group had ever read any Ayn Rand, we decided to give it a shot for our next discussion.

Rand's story does not suffer from lack of dramatic arc. But I found myself just as bewildered by the relationship of the fictional architect Howard Roark and his lover Dominique Francon as I was with the fictionalized Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick, although for different reasons. While Horan relied extensively on exposition, Rand relies heavily on dialogue. Although I read all of the words that Roark and Francon said to each other, I often had no idea what they were talking about. As I wrote earlier, Rand's novel read like a script of a film from the late 1930's-early 1940's. Lots of long speeches with lots of thinking aloud - except of course from the strong silent hero. (I was not surprised to learn that Gary Cooper played Roark in the movie version, it seemed written for him.) I felt that I might have understood the motivations of the characters a little better if there had been more exposition.

I was unaware that Ayn Rand had a philosophy and a following when I began the novel. I'm still not sure what that philosophy is because I decided to judge the novel only as a novel and not do any research into Ayn Rand and her beliefs. As I told friends that I was reading The Fountainhead, I found that the reactions were varied but always intense. Most people I know didn't like the novel although their reasons varied. A few people said it was one of their favorite novels. Almost everyone seems to have read it when they were young – except my sister cb who read it a few years ago after watching the movie Dirty Dancing and deciding she wanted to understand the fleeting reference to it made by one of the characters.

My own reaction was not intense at all. I didn't like it but I didn't intensely dislike it. I thought it was a better novel than Horan's because my bewilderment kept me wanting to read the story in the hope that things would become clearer; my bewilderment at the actions of Horan's characters simply made me exasperated with Horan. Rand made me think there was something wrong with my reading comprehension while Horan made me think there was something wrong with her writing.

I would not, however, read this novel again or even be tempted to read any other Rand novels. I disliked the characters and found that I didn’t care what they did or what happened to them. I found their motivations hard to follow, perhaps because of the lack of exposition or perhaps because I would lose track of the point of many of the long speeches. By the last 150 pages I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

As I read The Fountainhead I thought about the parallels with Loving Frank. Of course, the principal male character, Howard Roark, is an architect and apparently designed buildings in the style of Wright. I understand that many people think the character is modeled on Wright. But where Roark seemed mysterious, the Wright of Horan's novel just seemed pompous and annoying.

Where the stories intersect is in the absolute certainty of Borthwick and Wright that their happiness is the most important thing and far outweighs any unhappiness they might cause others. Borthwick was, for a time, the American translator of the Swedish feminist writer Ellen Key. In the novel, even Ellen Key tries to make Borthwick see that, perhaps, abandoning her children in the way that she did was an act of selfishness. But Borthwick has none of it.

In that way, Borthwick and Wright are similar to the principal characters of The Fountainhead, whose philosophy is summed up in Howard Roark's long courtroom speech at the end of the novel: There is nothing wrong with selfishness because true selfishness means staying true to your ideals, whereas selflessness means losing your own self. And certainly this is the way that Borthwick and Wright lived.

In the end, Wright created great works of architecture just as the fictional Howard Roark created great works of (fictional) architecture. It is tempting to say that real genius is selfish and justifiably so; that the world is better for what they create despite their selfishness.

But not everyone is a genius. And Borthwick is a good example of that. She is simply a smart woman who lived her life for herself and no one else. Like Dominique Francon, she didn't even live her life for the benefit of the man she loved. Mamah Borthwick left no lasting original work unlike Wright, or even Ellen Key. Dominique Francon created nothing lasting in The Fountainhead. Is it justifiable to live a life of selfishness if one has no genius to mitigate the hurt caused to others by your selfishness? Perhaps not. But in life people do what they do.

Although I did not enjoy The Fountainhead, I’m glad that I read it. Especially since the economic times seem to have brought out quite a few blog posts with Ayn Rand references. One might as well understand the allusions – even in economics.