The Reader's Den: After Claude by Iris Owens
I came to Iris Owens and her 1973 novel, After Claude, after looking through seemingly endless lists looking for the perfect literary antiheroine, in keeping with this year's Reader's Den theme of superheroes and antiheroes.
After Claude's Harriet might be the ultimate anti-heroine: rude, racist, delusional, manipulative, but above all, sharp as a tack, and very, very funny. She opens the book with the line, "I left Claude, the French rat," but we soon learn that Harriet's version of reality doesn't fall into line with that of anyone else. Not Claude, who has finally succeeded in throwing her out of his Greenwich Village apartment, not with her former friend Rhoda-Regina, committed to Bellevue after Harriet's insane attempt at matchmaking goes predictably awry.
It's easy to draw comparisons between the fictional Harriet and Iris Owens: both were from Brooklyn, and returned to New York after spending some years in Paris. Owens supported herself while she lived in Paris by writing erotic fiction under the name Harriet Daimler. After coming back to New York, she lived for years in an apartment on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village, which at some points in her life she rarely left. In a lengthy and fascinating interview with the writer Stephen Koch, he describes his complicated friendship with Owens, her "wide sadistic streak," her ability to manipulate her friends, and above all, "the spell" that she cast over people.
When After Claude was published again as a NYRB classic in 2010, Emily Prager described in the introduction the difficulties in maintaining a friendship with Owens. She had a long list of falling outs with a long list of well-known people, "including Samuel Beckett, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Ad Reinhardt, Rudy Wurlitzer, and Robert Mapplethorpe." She played poker with Woody Allen, who may have based Anjelica Huston's character in Manhattan Murder Mystery on her. Koch describes her intelligence, her beauty, and her ability to manipulate and even humiliate the people around her.
In the next Reader's Den post, we will look more closely at After Claude, both its setting in the Greenwich Village of the 1970s, its wild ending in the Chelsea Hotel, and Harriet, the anti-heroine who brings drama and turmoil to everyone she meets! Please leave your comments below.