About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

St Feock: the saint, the church, the parish

St Feock

St Feock: window inserted in 1930

Church seen from beside tower

Church seen from beside tower

On Sunday the rain finally stopped and the sun shone. Mrs TD and I went for a walk starting at Feock church. I knew nothing about this obscure saint and this, I think the only church dedicated in his name in England (correct me if I’m wrong). There are some parishes in Britanny with similar names, like Lanveoc, whose patron is St Maeoc. The earliest written lives of saints venerated in Cornwall were written in Britanny, the oldest being that of St Sampson.

The nave

The nave

The oldest saint’s Life written in Cornwall is St Petroc’s. Some scholars have suggested that the –oc(k) element in these names is from the Celtic for ‘oak’, and that ‘Lanfeoc’ may be a composite word signifying ‘holy man living on top of an oak-covered hill’, but this is disputed.

There is no surviving ‘Vita’ or Life of this saint. The first reliable written record of St ‘Fioc’ is from c. 1160,

Sts Kea, Feock and Piran

Local saints Kea, Feock and Piran (from L to R)

where he is cited as a male saint living at Lanfioc – but there is some speculation that Feock might have been female. Later historians settle on ‘he’. Where he came from is therefore unknown, although there is a legend that (like Piran, Cornwall’s patron saint) he arrived by sea, floating on a millstone. The origins of this common hagiographical motif may possibly be that early missionary saints from Ireland, Wales and elsewhere often brought with them a large stone to be used as the altar or foundation for the church they intended establishing in these pagan regions.

The tower seen from the church porch

The tower seen from the church porch

Another suggestion is that he emigrated, as others did, from Cornwall as a missionary to Celtic Britanny – St Sampson, for example, became Bishop of Dol; his disciples, saints Austell and Mewan (now place names in mid-Cornwall), migrated there with Kea – now the name of a part of modern Feock parish; there’s a tasty local variety of plum named after it.

Celtic cross

The Celtic cross

The earliest record of a church at Feock is 12C, although it’s probable there was some sort of important religious site there before then. The font is dated 1130, the oldest artefact in the church. A Celtic cross stands in the churchyard near the south porch. This has been dated 13C, but again this is uncertain.

At the south entrance to the churchyard is a traditional lych-gate. It has a room above it, locally known as the Smuggler’s Vestry or the Schoolroom. The original raised slab on which coffins would have been rested before entering the church grounds has gone, but a part of it, or its foundation, was discovered during maintenance work.

Lychgate

Lychgate

An unusual feature of the church’s design is the separate tower (although there are several examples of similar detached towers in Cornwall), located at the top end of the sloping grounds outside, beside the road that runs through the village. This too has been dated 13C. It may have been an early church in its own right, but the writer of the guide admits this is speculative. It doesn’t have regular windows, just window-shaped openings covered by louvred slate. It’s now a bell-tower.

The present church building was entirely rebuilt in 1875-76.

The parish of St Feock spreads across a fairly wide district, and according to Wikipedia had a population of over 4000 in the 2011 census. The village of Feock itself is much smaller.

The tower with church roof below

The tower with church roof below

We walked from the church down a lane to the end of the promontory. The sumptuous houses on either side of the lane command magnificent views over the Carrick Roads (and the sea beyond) on the SE side, and over Restronguet Creek on the other.

There’s a bench at the furthest tip of the promontory – a very pleasant spot to sit and admire the tranquil scene. The only sounds are the curlews’ liquid calls and the slapping of the mast-ropes (I know that’s not the mariner’s term) on the moored boats.

View across Restronguet Creek towards Pandora Inn jetty

View across Restronguet Creek towards Pandora Inn jetty. Clouds already gathering

Across the creek is the jetty projecting from the yard in front of one of the most attractive pubs in Cornwall: the Pandora Inn. Parts of the building date back to the 13C. It was named after the HMS Pandora, the ship sent to Tahiti to capture the mutineers of Capt. Bligh’s Bounty. It struck the Great Barrier Reef in 1791 and sank with the loss of crew and mutineers. Its captain, who survived, was arrested on his return to Cornwall where he is reputed to have bought the inn.

A fire in 2011 destroyed much of the first floor, but it has been sympathetically restored and re-thatched. It’s a lovely place on a summer’s day to sit and have lunch outside on the jetty, watching the yachty folk coming and going. Mrs TD’s sister’s friend held her wedding reception there.

Yew tree

This impressive yew tree in the churchyard is said to be 500 years old

I am indebted for much of the information in this post to the 92-page printed guide by C.D. North, available from the church. There’s no place or date of publication, but it seems to be from 2003.

 

 

 

 

Caspar the friendly dog

Caspar

Caspar trying to look pensive

I’m on dog-sitting duty today. Mrs TD has gone into town shopping with our friend M, who’s visiting for the weekend. As usual she’s brought her charming little schnauzer, Caspar. He and I have just returned from our morning walk, and I haven’t finished another book to discuss in this post, so I thought I’d offer a few random thoughts on Caspar.

The name ‘schnauzer’ derives from the German for snout, with the extended colloquial connotation ‘whiskery snout’. As you can see, Caspar has a splendidly whiskery muzzle and eyebrows.

This miniature breed was popular in Germany as ratters; the larger varieties of course tended to be used as guard dogs or in the military. Like most small dogs, Caspar thinks he’s a giant.

I asked M where his name came from. She said the litter he came from all had names to do with magic and magicians. Of course: Caspar was one of the Magi, the Three Wise Men of the epiphany story.

I looked him up: his name comes from Persian or Scandinavian (not sure how that works) and means ‘treasure bearer’. Appropriate for a magus who brought the precious gift of frankincense.

Caspar taking possession of the sofa

Caspar taking possession of the sofa

What exactly is frankincense? As its name suggests, it’s an aromatic, but I had to resort to Wikipedia again. It’s aka “Olibanum”, and is based on a resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia in the family Burseraceae. So now we know. Our English word derives from the Old French franc encens, glossed as ‘high quality, noble or pure incense’. Folk etymology suggests a connection with the Franks and Frankish Crusaders, who apparently brought the incense back from their travels in the Middle East (which is presumably where the magus Caspar came from).

The resin is collected by a process of slashing or striping the tree’s bark; this sappy resin hardens into what are called ‘tears’. The Roman Catholic church sources most of its frankincense (burnt in censers) from Somalia. It’s also used in perfumes and aromatherapy.

Caspar

Caspar surveying the road below for possible miscreants

We agreed that Caspar’s association in popular culture with the friendly ghost is also appropriate: he’s a very sociable, equable little chap – though he does take exception to people walking past his window without permission.

Btw, myrrh (ridiculous spelling; it derives from Aramaic for ‘bitter’, and entered English via the Old Testament), one of the other three gifts of the Magi, is another aromatic derived from a tree resin. It was highly prized as an incense in ancient Jewish religious ceremonies.

It’s less valued as incense today, but is an ingredient of a number of medicines like analgesics and antiseptics. It’s used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine, and was prized by the ancient Egyptians as an embalming ingredient for preserving mummies.

I just ran all this past Caspar, but he carried on snoozing.

 

Using illusion to depict truth: Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine

Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine. Translated from the Dutch by David McKay. Vintage paperback, 2017. First published in the Netherlands, 2013. Long listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017

It was the two excellent translations from the Dutch by David McKay that I read earlier this year that inspired me to take up this Flemish novel: they were Max Havelaar by Multatuli, and Adrift in the Middle Kingdom by J. Slauerhoff.

The subject matter could hardly be more different across the three novels. War and Turpentine is an interesting, largely successful blend of autofiction and the highly traditional device of using a ‘found MS’ as the basis of the narrative.

The Flemish poet and novelist Stefan Hertmans writes that he was given a set of handwritten notebooks by his much-loved, deeply devout Catholic maternal grandfather, Urbain Martien, shortly before the old man’s death in 1981 at the age of ninety. He’d started writing them in 1963 when he was seventy-two, and spent the next seventeen years on them.

But it’s not that simple. We learn that his marriage had not been idyllic, and that there was a ‘personal tragedy’ during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919, after which his handwriting – like his life – became ‘deformed’. The first notebook is full of ‘copious detail’ about the ‘humiliating poverty’ of his childhood, with ‘too many personal anecdotes’. The reader is likely to disagree with this harsh personal criticism.

Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine cover We learn about the hunger, deprivation and squalor in which Urbain and his siblings grew up in Ghent. Franciscus was a ‘lowly’ painter of religious frescoes and murals in churches and chapels. Urbain’s mother, Céline, is in some ways the true heroine of the novel. There’s a stirring scene when she walks for days to intercept Urbain’s army unit and browbeats his commander into letting her spend some time with her son; even the bullies of officers grudgingly respect her bravery and devotion.

Born into a wealthy bourgeois family, she married the penniless artist in defiance of her family’s disapproval. It was a true love match, and the marriage gave Urbain a model of marital harmony and contentment that he was sadly unable to replicate.

Urbain learned from his father Franciscus a love of art, painting and copying. He was ‘staunchly traditional’ in his approach, and deprecated modern ‘daubers’ like Van Gogh and Ensor. It’s notable that he specialised in copying the old masters; his own original work was accomplished, but of limited scope and ability.

This diffidence about creating something original out of others’ handiwork is seen also in the author’s metafictional approach to producing this novel. How far should he adapt Urbain’s error-strewn blend of ‘old-fashioned grace and awkwardness and authenticity without falling into mannerism?’ Adapting ‘his long-winded narrative into modern idiom’ was like ‘betraying him.’ He has to ‘rediscover’ the ‘authentic story’ in his own way: the basis of any ‘literary work.’

Like Franciscus with his fresco restorations, or the less talented Urbain copying the Rokeby Venus.

The novel is full of vivid set piece anecdotes that would work very well as film. There’s a gut-wrenching, infernal scene where Urbain is taken to see a gelatine factory at work. Also memorable are Urbain’s painful experiences as a lad working in another hellish location: an iron foundry. He sees some terrible things, and is physically scarred by the boiling hot molten iron.

But these scenes are eclipsed by his searing account of combat in Flanders. In the second notebook Urbain set out to:

write only about the war, truly and sincerely, not to glorify it. So help me God. Only my experiences. My horror. [Author’s emphasis]

This included his ‘traumatic scenes on the Yser’, how he was wounded three times and sent to convalesce in France and England. In Liverpool there’s one of the most transcendent and moving scenes in the novel, when he finally discovers the murals that his father had been commissioned to paint in a chapel there. Urbain recognises in the faces of some of the religious figures members of the artist’s family; Franciscus evidently felt able to indulge this loving impulse, believing that no-one who knew him would ever see them.

Later, the Hertmans-narrator has a similar, equally poignant epiphany when he recognises a familiar face in one of his grandfather’s meticulous copies of an old master’s famous painting.

There are the terrible descriptions we’ve become too familiar with from other accounts of WWI. The squalor, rats, filth, disease, slaughter, and constant fear of sudden death, witnessing the ‘torn-up limbs’ and desecrated corpses of comrades who’d moments earlier had been vibrantly alive.

There’s an astonishing scene when Urbain is startled by the sight of countless terrified wild animals swimming across a body of water in the polder to flee the carnage in their habitat. (Hertmans throughout the narrative has a poet’s and artist’s eye for nature, like the skeins of wild geese that fly overhead at several key moments.)

What distinguishes this long middle wartime section of the novel from most other accounts of WWI combat is that Urbain is recounting the decimation and defeat of a culturally/ethnically divided Belgian army fighting to defend its homeland. The rank and file like Urbain are Flemish-speakers; the Walloon officer class are francophone, who treat their men – these ‘cons de flamands’ says one commander – with patronising disdain.

Instilled with the values of the 19C, the soldiers are trained in outmoded military techniques like fencing. Knowing he’d spent four years in the military before the war, Urbain’s commanders exploit his combat skill and ingrained sense of discipline to send him on suicidal missions the others shrink from – this is what gets him wounded. Yet his restrained response to his incompetent, scornful officers’ incompetent commands is to salute and say, in the language they arrogantly insist on, “à vos ordres.”

They are outnumbered by a vastly better equipped, ruthless 20C enemy that uses the latest, most deadly machine-guns, heavy artillery and tactics, without ‘moral scruples’. They employ dirty psychological tricks and hideous new technology, like mustard gas. The Belgians are doomed from the start.

There’s a Sebaldian quality in Hertmans’ approach: the focus on history haunting the present day. He even incorporates, like Sebald, grainy monochrome photographs of characters, scenes and paintings featured in the narrative.

Near the end is one of many ecphrastic accounts of a painting by Hertmans’ grandfather, but the old man ‘couldn’t expel the soldier from his first self-portrait, and thus failed to do himself justice’. Hertmans goes on with another such account, about one of Urbain’s copies – of a Rembrandt portrait of a helmeted soldier (also reproduced on the page). There’s another epiphany-recognition by the narrator about the distracted, wistful expression in the eyes of this soldier. This expressive substitution enabled his grandfather to achieve ‘an extraordinary victory of the painter over the soldier’. The conclusion the narrator draws has a Sebaldian resonance:

The truth in life often lies buried in places we do not associate with authenticity. Life is more subtle, in this respect, than linear human morality. It goes to work like a painter-copyist, using illusion to depict the truth.

It’s a powerful, original and affecting novel, less richly nuanced and psychologically complex than Sebald’s fiction – but that’s true of most other novels.

There’s an interesting pair of essays by David McKay at his own website, Open Book Translation, on his methods and problems in translating this novel; he discusses how he struggled to reproduce authentically, for example, the Edwardian and military slang of the characters without traducing the original. Another layer of metafictional commentary on the literary arts of copying, verisimilitude and originality.

 

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field. Viking Penguin hardback, 2019

This was another novel passed on to me by Mrs TD. She thought I’d like something less arduous after the rigours of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries.

She was right, I did; Agent Running is an entertaining, tautly plotted spy thriller by the master of the genre, still doing the business in his 88th year. But its complex, twisting, hall-of-mirrors plot takes some attentive reading or the thread is lost. The Iron Curtain has gone, but Moscow centre remains a threat to western interests. The cold war has become a cold world, where enemies and friends are no longer distinguishable.

Le Carré Agent running coverIt’s been described as le Carré’s Brexit novel. True, Britain’s controversial departure from the EU after a contentious referendum three years ago, the result of which, a narrow victory for leave, has divided the country catastrophically, is a central theme in the novel. Interestingly, le Carré puts the most forthright, angry response to the result into the mouth of one of the more annoying, unattractive characters.

This is Ed, a callow, awkward young man who challenges the protagonist, the former ‘runner’ of agents in the field, the half-Russian half-Scots spy, Nat, to a game of badminton at Nat’s Battersea sports club. Nat is forty-seven, just back from what seems to be his swan-song in the field (excuse my hideous mixed metaphor): running agents under diplomatic cover in Estonia. Back in London he’s been given the kind of job he dreads: unexciting, low-status bureaucracy in a dingy Camden house, base for a subsection of ‘the Office’ (it’s no longer Smiley’s Circus) unflatteringly described as ‘a home for lost dogs’. Nat’s been put out to pasture, and he hates it.

So he’s not entirely unhappy when things hot up. The novel takes a while to get going, I found, but there are some stirring set pieces and an exciting last third.

One of the most bracing sections takes place in Karlovy Vary (formerly Carlsbad) in the Czech Republic. I wonder if this is a phonetic nod at one of his most famously ambivalent villains, Karla? Nat goes there to meet the former double agent he once ran to pump him for information on the complex plot he’s beginning to uncover. Arkady is now a stereotypical former Soviet agent turned crook, living in a heavily guarded enclave to protect his stash of ill-gotten loot and even dodgier lifestyle.

Other dramatic scenes involve what le Carré does so well: codenamed projects and (double- or triple-) agents, dead-letter drops and covert operations in crowded urban locations, surveillance with a hundred field observers in disguise, field craft carefully observed ‘by the book’ enacted by the participants being watched, secretly filmed and listened to. Their conversations are as encoded as their encrypted, invisibly palimpsest written communication.

The main weak point for me were the not-too-convincing characters of Nat and his wife Prue, a rather cardboard cut out liberal-left pro bono lawyer, a supporter of anti-Big Pharma and other noble lost causes. The other was Nat’s obtrusive, present-tense, first-person narrative that gives the game away from the start about the main plot twist.

He’s the typically morally compromised le Carré hero, but far less engaging or sympathetic than that long line of jaded, spiritually and emotionally wounded spooks, from Leamas to Smiley, all looking for some kind of meaning in the murk. And why does Nat hint that the beautiful young probationer agent Florence working with him might have been a lover of his had he put his mind to it? Come on, Nat. You shouldn’t believe all that Richard Burton stuff you like to muse on in the HR file you obviously scrutinise carefully.

Nat’s is a world of duplicitous motives, state-sanctioned mendacity, shifting loyalties, multiple betrayals and evanescent morality. It’s now everyday life in Brexit Britain.

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Post 2

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Translated from the German by Damion Searls. NYRB paperbacks, 2 vols., 2018. First published in German in 4 vols, 1970-83

Post 2

The section dated Nov. 22, 1967 begins as so many do: news stories, partly modified, according to the translator (see his essay where he discusses this; link at the end of yesterday’s post) from the Times – events in Vietnam, draft-dodging in Oklahoma, hippies ‘provoking the Establishment’ east of Denver and a drug-fuelled infanticide.

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Box setMost of the rest of this seven-page entry deals with the protagonist Gesine Cresspahl’s unconventional relationship with a fellow Mecklenburger called Erichson, but dubbed ‘D.E.’ by Gesine’s ten-year-old daughter, Marie. Gesine had met him before they both escaped to the West, in his case in 1953; he found her after she’d been in Manhattan for eleven months (1961-2). He’s a professor of physics and chemistry, and an adviser to the Defense Department on matters of secretive ‘Distant Early Warning’ radar technology (but maybe some of these systems ‘might be designed for other than defensive purposes’, Gesine suspects; it’s still the Cold War).

He’s a sophisticated and worldly man of nearly forty, a brilliant linguist as well as scientist. Formerly a ladies’ man, he’s now desperate to marry Gesine – or at least to live with her if she won’t commit to matrimony. It’s a narrative strand in this meandering, fragmented collage of a novel that embodies a central theme: parents and children. Anniversaries is, in some respects, about daughters’ quests for fathers; Marie, Gesine’s precocious, Americanised daughter, never knew hers, while Gesine lost hers too soon.

Uwe Johnson, AnniversariesWe see in this section how D.E., this possible surrogate father for Marie, whisked them away on exciting trips to Europe, often as surprises. He’s well off, drives a Bentley and spoils them with treats and expensive meals in smart restaurants. Marie likes and admires him, and he clearly likes her, and this causes Gesine difficulty; she’s as keen as he is not to become too committed. It’s one of the most interesting aspects of the novel, this on-off relationship. You have to wait for almost the last page to find out how it works out.

We’re given, as is unfortunately a fairly regular problem with Anniversaries, far more detailed information in this section than anyone could need, in this case about a small Irish town they visit, its topography, history, etc.

Seamless switch to Richmond, and Gesine hesitates as she goes to write out a telegram form, observed by D.E. in ‘a careless, pensive attitude’:

And yet he’ll conceal that he’s troubled. In such moments, he sees in me not the person he wants to live with but someone at risk of going insane. And wants to live with me anyway.

That first-person voice of Gesine’s often morphs into the third person, or even ‘we’; at times it’s difficult to tell whose voice we’re getting, and I found this confusing and rather annoying at times.

She goes on to reflect that the two of them are living together, just in different places, ‘an arrangement where his need for perfect solutions overrides my mistrust of settled finality: what was planned as loose has become fixed.’

Her narrative then drifts off into a speculative fantasy of what could or would happen if he she submitted to his ardour; a long list of modal verbs shows her unease with the matrimonial ménage he craves. Why is she so reluctant to commit to this man who in many ways would enable her to give her daughter the kind of life she longs to provide?

Maybe because her doubts arising justifiably from the gap between where she stands morally and politically and his apparent amorality (that dubious ‘defense’ work; some of his political views).

She muses less critically on his equitable, ‘consistent’ temper. He’s not ostentatious about his wealth, and never presumes to be anything more than a guest when he visits Gesine and Marie in their Riverside Drive apartment:

He’s not jealous: it’s only what goes on in my thoughts that he wants to be the only one, or at least the first, to know. There are many things he is the only one to know. What else does he want? Can’t he rest on the laurels of his famous affairs, and conveniently acquire a family that already has a child, one who already understands him too? He says: No. Am I supposed to do at my leisure, financed by him, what he can’t do: live for one person alone? He would say: If it were up to me.

In this day’s entry her misgivings are perhaps further explained when Gesine describes how he’s erased his past (whereas hers is always present – hence those long accounts to Marie):

He’s converted his memory into knowledge. His life with other people in Mecklenburg, only fourteen years ago after all, has been tucked away as though into an archive, where he continues the biographies of people and cities down to the present, or else closes the file in case of death. Yes, everything’s still there, and he can call it up at will, only it’s not alive. He no longer lives with it.

Maybe this is why Marie gets on with ‘this elegant gentleman’ so well: they’ve both become American, while Gesine clings to her European past. So although he doesn’t pry or make demands on her, she feels hemmed in, even though she acknowledges his relaxed approach to courtship:

If I ended up in a cage with him, at least it would be a cage made to my measure and furnished according to my requirements…The only thing is, why does he need someone in his life? Marie could do it. She could stand to live with him in one apartment, in one house.

That ‘cage’ metaphor is oddly similar to one used by Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth: Lily Bart also fumes about the ‘great gilded cage’ women in New York society are caught in, waiting for a wealthy husband to maintain them in the luxury they’ve become used to but fear they are in danger of losing if they stay single. Gesine’s plight isn’t very different from Lily’s, as she sees it.

This narrative section about Gesine’s struggle to deal with how to resolve this situation with D.E. ends enigmatically:

That I believe. The other thing I don’t believe.

What does she mean? Presumably ‘that’ is Marie’s being able – even happy – to live with him as a family. ‘The other thing’?: her own capacity to accede to his desire to live with her.

The entry ends with another fragment of random reportage.

 

 

 

 

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries

Uwe Johnson (1934-84), Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl. NYRB, 2018. Translated from the German by Damion Searls. First published in German in 4 vols, 1970-83

Post 1 of 2

Antoni Gaudí took over work on the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona in 1883; when he died in 1926 it was far from finished – and won’t be for another decade. There were times when I was working through this enormous novel, Anniversaries – almost 1700 pages in a handsome two-volume box set from NYRB – that it felt a bit like that seemingly never-ending project. My mixed reactions to the novel were similar to my response to Gaudí’s architectural masterpiece when I first saw it: a weird blend of ugly, bizarre and glorious. Anniversaries is equally radical, experimental and innovative: a polyphonic work of astonishing ambition and beauty, but also of a not entirely harmonious blend of features, at times a bit of a mess (like life?).

It has two main narrative strands (and hundreds of minor ones): foremost is the story of Gesine Cresspahl and her ten-year-old daughter Marie and their life after six years in New York City, told in daily entries, one per day, from Aug. 21, 1967 to Aug. 20, 1968. They’re not diary entries: more like scrambled, collated fragments of texts, conversations, thoughts and urban encounters with random people.Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Box set

Interspersed in this fragmentary narrative is a second: that of Gesine’s father, Heinrich, his courtship of and marriage to her mother, followed by the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s, and the second world war and its immediate aftermath.

Gesine was born in 1933, the year that Hitler became Chancellor. This strand of the novel relates, again in highly fragmentary form, the destructive impact of this terrible era in history on her family, friends and fellow inhabitants of the small fictional town of Jerichow, Mecklenburg, near the Baltic coast in northern Germany (not the real town of that name in Saxony-Anhalt). When the war ended, the town was occupied briefly by the British, and then by the Red Army. The punitive, doctrinaire Soviet regime was as brutal as that of the Nazis, with executions, persecution (and suicides to avoid it) and social divisions rife.

Meanwhile the strand set in New York in the sixties involves the effects of the huge social upheavals in America and beyond at that period. Social divisions are the main feature here, too. African Americans are discriminated against by white citizens, with Jews not far behind. It’s simplistic to see this as history repeating itself, but the parallels between Europe in the thirties and the USA in the sixties are striking.

This was also the time of the Vietnam War, assassinations (Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy) and a rising counter-culture. In Europe there were signs of the political change that culminated in the évènements in France and the Prague Spring.

All of this is mediated through the endless conversations in which Marie elicits the story of her mother’s past: how Heinrich worked as a carpenter in Richmond, Surrey, then returned to Jerichow with his homesick wife for the birth of their daughter. Marie has adapted more successfully than her mother to their new culture: her English is better, more idiomatic and American-accented; she’s forgetting her German. She knows the Manhattan subway system ‘by heart’, and loves riding it. She also delights in her regular Saturday outings on the Staten Island Ferry with her mother.

Gesine, for her part, has an uneasy relationship with America and its culture: she’s more comfortable with the guy who runs the cafeteria in the building where she works (in a bank, with a creepy boss) than with her colleagues. Visits to friends often end in social disaster or increased isolation.

Gesine’s slowly-accreting, tangled historical account covers events in her family’s life before, during and after WWII. Even more gradually revealed is the story of Marie’s father; Gesine is very reluctant to give too much detail about him, and the full picture is never entirely clear in focus, and its unfolding only ends in the very final pages of this huge novel. This is a key feature of the novel: it withholds or occludes as much as it reveals.

Uwe Johnson, AnniversariesOften the narrative is taken up with scraps of unidentified voices in dialogue with others, sometimes in italics, and it can be confusing to try to figure out whose they are. At p. 1343 Gesine’s voice sort of explains:

I hear voices…don’t know when it started. I assume in my thirty-second year but I don’t remember a particular reason it would have started. I don’t want to. But it takes me back (sometimes almost completely) into past situations and I talk to the people from back then as I did back then. It takes place in my head without my directing it. Dead people, too, talk to me as if they’re in the present…in these imagined conversations… I hear myself speaking not only from the subjectively real (past) position but also from the position of a thirty-five-year-old subject today.[First ellipsis in the text; others mine]

Many of these voices, she goes on, are from before she was born, yet she hears them as clearly as the others; it’s a ‘special ability’ of hers, and she can respond to them in her mind, too, as she can with Marie’s unspoken thoughts. Even with strangers ‘the unsaid becomes perceptible, I mean what the other person doesn’t say or just thinks’. This second, ‘imagined strand’ of discourse sometimes displaces what’s “really” taking place, without quite paralysing it. Like a novelist’s mind, in fact.

Another main narrative component is the stories printed in the New York Times each day, and given in often exhaustive detail – after a while I tended to skip these interruptions to focus on the characters I was more interested in. Gesine is an avid reader of this paper. This aspect of the novel is magnified enormously compared with, say, Döblin’s Alexanderplatz or Dos Passos’ USA, both of which also incorporate such mini-narratives in their collage approach. OK, so they add context and often ironic commentary on American life seen through Gesine’s sceptical, seen-it-all European eyes, but I didn’t need several hundred of these long, repetitive texts.

Gesine had fled the communist regime of the GDR, but has an ambivalent view of the divisive politics and culture of her adopted country. She deplores the casual racism and isolationism she perceives there, and how her daughter is adopting some of these views (there’s a fraught relationship, for example, between Marie and one of her black classmates; with their German Jewish neighbours they’re a little more at ease – within limitations). She also collaborates with a friend back in divided Germany to assist dissidents or the persecuted in escaping from the communist East, while disapproving of Marie’s adherence to the prevailing anti-communist feeling in an America still engaged in the Cold War.

I also found myself skimming many of the sections in vol. 2 which dealt with the Soviet occupation of Jerichow. We’re given interminable accounts of seemingly every child in Gesine’s school and their attitude to the oppressive new order. This too I found (like the newspaper stories) tediously repetitive – an admission I’m not proud of, given the serious subject matter. But I think a novel shouldn’t bore me, and at times this one did.

These tedious sections are worth toiling through, however: the novel as a whole offers a fascinating insight into the collision of a damaged European sensibility with a decadent, stimulating American world. The parts that deal with the rise of Nazism and then communism are a refreshing change from other literary accounts that tend to be located in the big cities. Johnson explores in minute detail the lives of ordinary rural people who take pride in their provincial lives, and are suspicious of people from the regional capital; Berlin is another world.

I must praise the translation by Damion Searls. It’s a monumental effort, to render such an enormous novel into highly readable, idiomatic and fluent English. His task is made extra difficult by the obsession of Johnson with linguistic matters. Mecklenburgers often speak in Plattdeutsch, which is conveyed with a sort of eye-dialect technique that works pretty well. Main characters are sensitive to the nuances of their mother tongue and its difference from the “standard” forms, or the American English they are required to master. This aspect of the novel is an important and illuminating feature, given its preoccupation with social and cultural divisions. Language is explored as a means of connection and separation; a medium for social coherence, and for establishing identity as social outsiders.

Anniversaries has such a vast panorama, social, political and historical, and a massive cast of characters, most with lengthy and meticulously detailed back stories, it’s difficult to discuss it meaningfully here in brief. Instead I’ll focus on just one entry, for the date I started drafting this post: November 22 (1967, in Gesine’s world). That’s for tomorrow.

For useful insight into the translation (and Searls’ take on the novel) I’d recommend three essays by him in The Paris Review; link HERE to the third part, which has links to the first two.

Also check out the “readalong” hosted by Trevor at his Mookse and Gripes site (he calls the novel ‘a masterpiece in world literature’; I’m slightly less enthusiastic); readers are commenting on weekly entries in Anniversaries on the corresponding dates in 2019-20 (I’ve submitted a few myself).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edith Wharton: New Year’s Day

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. New Year’s Day (pp. 227-306). The 1870s

Before I discuss this last of the four novellas in Old New York, here are some thoughts about the collection as a whole. Although each story stands alone, there are links and connections that cohere across the volume.

All of them deal with an infraction against the social laws/code/traditions of upper-class New York society, which is exposed as deeply hypocritical and cruelly rigid and judgemental in its reaction to it; even some of the participants in the infraction share some of these views.

In False Dawn it’s young Lewis’s presumption in buying artworks in Europe that don’t conform to his philistine father’s idea of heirlooms for his gallery that other wealthy, aesthetically challenged socialites will recognise as works by the Old Masters.

In The Old Maid it’s the giving birth to an illegitimate child, and then pretending it’s a foundling so that the mother can help raise it incognito. In The Spark it’s the deceived husband’s thrashing his wife’s lover in public; society accepts concealed adultery that obeys the rules of appearances, but not openly exposing them to cause a scandal it can’t ignore.

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

New Year’s Day is a little different; more about that in a moment.

All four have a complicated, syncopated time-frame. Each story has a dramatic set-up at the start, then in the second part, usually some time later, a revelation is made about the secret or issue that was the topic of the first part; this serves as ironic commentary on that topic that causes it to be seen in a new light.

There’s a common narrator in three of the stories: the young Harvard graduate also features in New Year’s Day. Only The Old Maid is narrated by a woman.

The attitude to art and literature, noted above in connection with False Dawn, serves as another index of society’s snobbery, philistinism, moral atrophy and obsession with going along with received opinions. Again, the participants in the action are often guilty of such narrow-mindedness and insensitivity to the arts.

Now for New Year’s Day. It’s difficult to say much about this novella without spoilers. I’ll focus on its slippery narrative structure and themes. As it’s focalised on the young man mentioned above, we are given only his partial account. It has the usual dramatic opening, in which his mother is remembered condemning Mrs Charles Hazeldean (Lizzie) as ‘bad’, an adulteress who used to meet her lover in The Fifth Avenue Hotel. Lizzie is seen, when the narrator is a child of twelve, leaving the hotel, which is across the street from the house he’s visiting for the titular family gathering, with her lover. They were fleeing a fire in the hotel.

Later, as a callow graduate of twenty-one, he becomes infatuated with the disgraced Lizzie, now a widow. She’s been ostracised by society, which was as usual outraged that she’d had the bad taste to let her affair become public knowledge – not for having the affair. That would have been fine if she’d played by the hypocritical rules of marital infidelity.

What follows is the young man’s breathless recounting of the story Lizzie tells him about that affair. Her version, which he swallows unquestioningly, is that she was using her lover to bankroll the medication, care and travel to warmer climates her sick husband needed. Although he suffers from a heart condition, his symptoms also resemble TB, the symbolic significance of which I discussed in The Old Maid post. (There’s another of those references seen in the earlier novellas to people being ‘shipped off to die in Italy’.)

She portrays herself as a saintly, loving wife who sacrifices her virtue and reputation in the eyes of the venomous, narrow-minded hypocrites of society to save her dying husband, like a New York Nora Helmer. She’s heroically prepared to pay the price for this sacrifice, and spends her later years, during which the narrator becomes a doting confidant, isolated as a social pariah, a tainted woman whom no other woman will call on; what’s venomously known as ‘a professional’ (ie a courtesan). This version is revealed through a complicated sequence of flashbacks over a period of time, as in the other three novellas.

The narrator repeatedly stresses how naïve and innocent he was, ‘an overgrown boy’, and how desperate to believe this glamorous, faded beauty’s melodramatic “confession”. He’s also at pains to tell us how skilful she’d always been at winding men round her little finger, using her beauty and charm as a weapon in the gender and social war; her husband Charles was her first major conquest.

Again we see how unequal the struggle is in this society for a woman born without fortune or vocation, only ‘put in the world to please’ (men); her only asset is her ability to look pretty and prosperous, provided she can find a husband to fund the look. It’s a struggle that’s been a central theme not just in much of Wharton’s writings, but in Victorian and later fiction (George Gissing’s The Odd Women, for example).

Like Delane in The Spark, she’s depicted as animated, independent and uncaring about what society thinks of her, with her own egregious moral code. Also like him she’s incapable of loving books as her husband had. This literary blind spot is perhaps another indication of her disingenuous story about her fall from social grace. She may not read fiction, but she can certainly ‘read hearts’, and this enables her to manipulate the gullible, sexually predatory men around her. The price she pays, the ‘cold celibacy’ of her widowhood, is probably genuine.

The final message is one seen throughout this collection: New York society affects not to find wealth important, ‘but regarded poverty as so distasteful that it simply took no account of it.’

 

 

 

Edith Wharton, The Spark

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. The Spark (pp. 173-226) (1860s)

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

This third in Edith Wharton’s collection of novellas, Old New York, each of which is largely set in successive decades of the mid-century, 40s-70s, deals centrally with the effects of the Civil War (1861-65) on some of its ageing veterans in the upper echelons of New York society.

My father was an artilleryman in WWII. He endured much of the war as a POW. Not surprisingly he was traumatised by his experience, and rarely spoke about it. I was poignantly reminded of him in Wharton’s portrayal of Hayley Delane in this novella – another ‘shut-up fellow’ who ‘wouldn’t talk about the war.’

The Spark depicts him through the eyes of the young Harvard graduate who narrates three of the four novellas. He’s attracted to Delane by his standing morally aloof from the shallow, ethically bankrupt society of ‘well-to-do and indolent New Yorkers’ in ‘the archaic nineties’, yet being more than content to engage with them in their senseless social activities.

Our narrator is curious to discover what is the ‘hidden spark’ that motivates mild, ‘soft-hearted’ Delane to behave with such undemonstrative moral probity, while turning a blind eye to his wife’s heartless treatment of him, and seeming content to conform to the shallow pleasures of his social world. Furthermore, he seems once to have been a keen reader of poetry, and yet now shows no interest in literary matters. There’s a puzzling dichotomy in the man that he’s determined to get to the bottom of.

Delane’s wife Leila is a trivial, frivolous, flirtatious woman, fifteen years younger than her husband, who is besotted with her. The narrator is intrigued to see how ‘it was she who ruled and he who bent the neck’. She treats him with undisguised contempt in public, while making no attempt to conceal her serial flirtations – or perhaps affairs.

A crisis comes when Delane thrashes Leila’s most recent conquest for mistreating his polo pony. Delane is forced by his hypocritical friends to apologise to his rival; they assume it was a jealous outburst. The narrator is more inclined to believe Delane’s quietly insistent explanation: ‘”It’s the cruelty. I hate the cruelty”’.

Furthermore, having heard the wronged husband talk eloquently and knowledgeably about literature, he can’t believe ‘it was his marriage which had checked Delane’s interest in books.’ His ‘limited stock’ of quotations and allusions indicates his literary interests ceased long before he’d met Leila.

After showing an early interest in reading, especially of poetry, ‘when his mind had been receptive’, it had:

snapped shut on what it possessed, like a replete crustacean never reached by another high tide.’

When he discovers that Delane ‘ran away from school to volunteer’ to fight in the Civil War (hence this story’s billing as ‘the sixties’) and was wounded, he begins to understand what now sparks Delane’s soul into being. He’d ‘stopped living’, in a sense, aged about nineteen, at a date roughly coinciding with the end of the war, when he’d returned ‘to the common-place existence from which he had never since deviated’ – the vacuous, unthinking life he clearly now enjoyed, like the ‘merest fribble’: polo, cards, hunting and social gatherings in which his unfaithful wife could shine:

Those four years had apparently filled to the brim every crevice of his being.

The war had made him different – in a way not seen by most other veterans in his circle who bragged about their war experiences. Although indistinguishable in most ways from the rest of his narrow-minded social set, with their empty libraries and obsession with sensual pleasures, ‘it was only morally that he had gone on growing.’

Hence his calm defence of his unfaithful wife, of the cruelly abused horse, and of unfashionable moral principles and causes, ‘careless of public opinion’ in ‘important matters’ – even at the expense of his own reputation: ‘To Delane, only the movement itself counted’; he wasn’t interested in the social standing of those who supported it, or what society thought of him.

Fresco at Siena of GuidoriccioDaFogliano

The fresco at Siena, attributed to Simone Martini. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1046283

There are parallels here with the depiction in other Wharton fictional works of the roles and shortcomings of parents and children. The narrator of The Spark looks up to Delane with the devotion of a son to his father. This New York banker ‘of excessive weight’, mounted ‘heavily yet mightily’ on his polo pony in a ‘gaudy polo-shirt’, contrasted unbecomingly with the young rival for his wife’s affection, as Leila heartlessly points out. Yet he’s intrigued by some quality in this unusual man, and he senses depths beneath ‘his lazy, torpid’ ways, that would justify his love for the man. He ‘whimsically’ perceives him as an image of the 14C condottiero Guidoriccio da Foliagno, ‘the famous mercenary, riding at a slow powerful pace across the fortressed fresco of the Town Hall of Siena’ on ‘his armoured war-horse.’

Given what he discovers about Delane’s wartime experiences, this apparently incongruous image takes on greater significance. Despite his trauma, which atrophied much of his personal development, Delane has matured morally in ways that most of his peers can never match, and which the loving narrator instinctively perceives.

This develops in interesting ways the theme found in other works of fiction by Wharton, in which parents and surrogate parents vie for the devotion of their children, as in A Son at the Front, published in 1923, around the time of the first appearance of these four novellas in magazine form.

There’s another twist at the end, when we finally learn the identity of the person who was the catalyst for this ‘spark’ in Delane: it was the gentle, humane influence of Walt Whitman, who nursed him when he’d been wounded early in the war, at Bull Run. It’s well known that Wharton greatly admired Whitman’s poetry. The final irony of this strange story is that Delane blithely admits to his young friend that he considers his poetry ‘rubbish’.

Edith Wharton, The Old Maid

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. The Old Maid (pp. 75-172) The 1850s

Running through three of the four novellas comprising Edith Wharton’s Old New York is the fear and presence of disease, in particular tuberculosis; it seems to be a metaphor for a number of things (as well as being an ever-present danger and cultural motif, as so many Romantic poets, Victorian novelists and artists attested in their own lives and work).

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

In The Old Maid the disease has a central significance: Charlotte Lovell, an impoverished member of one of the ‘prosperous, prudent and yet lavish society’ of New York, falls ill and is feared to be “going like her father” – he’d died at thirty of ‘lung-fever’ – another name for TB or ‘consumption’. She has ominous ‘rounds of brick-rose on her cheek-bones, which almost (preposterous thought!) made her look as if she painted’.

This description early on in the novella is focalised through the narrator, her married cousin Delia Ralston. Delia’s patronising appraisal – that hint of the ‘painted woman’ or courtesan – invokes perhaps the stereotypical Camille/Violetta figure. Charlotte’s sickliness arises from her contaminated character in Delia’s old New Yorker’s eyes.

Robert Koch published in 1882 his microbiological findings on the tubercle bacillus (hence TB) as the contagious cause of tuberculosis. Until then it was believed to be inherited – hence the assumption about the physiological (as well as the metaphorical) etiology of Charlotte’s disease. Susan Sontag points out in Illness as Metaphor (1978) that TB was long thought to produce ‘exacerbated sexual desire’, afflicting ‘the reckless and sensual’ – a disease of passion or, paradoxically, repression.

Having the disease was ‘imagined to be an aphrodisiac, and to confer extraordinary powers of seduction.’ Charlotte could therefore be seen as representing a dangerously sexual woman, ‘consumed’ by passion. Her confession to Delia that she had an illegitimate baby daughter would confirm such a view.

It would also add weight to the interpretation that her disease is a consequence of the suppressed secret of her shame. A melodramatic plot follows (it was made into a stage play in 1935, and filmed in 1939 with Bette Davis in the title role, and Miriam Hopkins as Delia; life imitated art, in that they apparently strove to upstage each other on set with barely concealed mutual jealousy).

The baby’s father is revealed to be the man Delia had rejected as being too ‘reckless’; he was that unthinkable combination as a potential husband: a penniless artist and living in Italy. He’d not consented to ‘give up painting and Rome’. As in all the novellas in this collection, Italy is perceived as only good for taking the Grand Tour (as in False Dawn) and a suitable climate for consumptives to be shipped off to. As Italian-born Treeshy Kent says to her lover in False Dawn:

“My uncle Kent says the European countries are all wicked, even my own poor Italy…”

Delia chose instead the safe, unadventurous Jim Ralston, a stalwart of her ‘safe, friendly, hypocritical New York’, and settled for ‘the insidious lulling of the matter-of-course’, a marriage to a dull man whose forebears ‘had not come to the colonies to die for a creed but to live for a bank-account’. His ancestry is described in one of Edith Wharton’s more acerbic images:

Institutional to the core, they represented the conservative element that holds new societies together as seaplants bind the seashore.

As I suggested in my post on False Dawn, there’s an obsession with breeding in these top New York families that verges on eugenics. This is made clear in the opening pages of The Old Maid, and the description of the Ralston heritage. Marriages with Dutch Vandergraves:

had consolidated those qualities of thrift and handsome living, and the carefully built-up Ralston character was now so congenital that Delia Ralston sometimes asked herself whether, were she to turn her own little boy [after four years of marriage she’s the mother of two children] loose in a wilderness, he would not create a small New York there, and be on all its boards of directors.

The wittiness of this image is darkened by Delia’s uneasy acceptance of the underlying snobbishness and moral atrophy – characteristics of old New Yorkers that are skewered throughout the four novellas.

As for that racial purity: Delia warns off Charlotte’s fiancé, Joe Ralston, her husband’s cousin (there’s that obsession with blood purity again) – not by telling him about Charlotte’s baby, but that she’d recently coughed up blood. She knows what the outcome will be:

The bridegroom who had feared that his bride might bring home contagion from her visits to the poor would not knowingly implant disease in his race…[W]hich one [of the top New York families] had not some grave to care for in a distant cemetery: graves of young relatives “in a decline”, sent abroad to be cured by balmy Italy? The Protestant grave-yards of Rome and Pisa were full of New York names; the vision of that familiar pilgrimage with a dying wife was one to turn the most ardent Ralston cold.

The gender inequality in what were considered acceptable social mores is spelled out starkly when Delia justifies to herself her action in thus ‘sacrificing’ Charlotte as the only honourable thing to do:

Social tolerance was not dealt in the same measure to men and to women, and neither Delia nor Charlotte had ever wondered why: like all the young women of their class they simply bowed to the ineluctable.

One would hope that Delia’s subsequent taking in Charlotte and baby Tina to her household results in a rare case of female solidarity in Wharton’s world; instead their ménage becomes unbearably strained. Delia is fondly called ‘Mamma’ by the growing girl, which makes her biological mother jealous (she calls her ‘aunt Charlotte’); meanwhile Delia is jealous of Charlotte because she’s the biological mother. Charlotte’s acquiescence and abasement in the dowdy title role, sacrificing the possibility of a loving maternal role with her daughter to take on that of a shamed, sterile outcast, and is treated with condescending pity by the other two women, is painfully dramatized by Wharton.

 

 

 

 

Fleas and nightingales: Edith Wharton, False Dawn #NovNov

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. False Dawn (pp. 3-74): The ‘Forties.

I was intending a post on all four of the novellas in this collection together, but I decided it was worth devoting a whole post to each one. They deal respectively with the New York of the 1840s, 50s, 60s and 70s. These can serve as my contribution to bloggers posting on Novellas in November #NovNov (no particular host; I learned about it from Bookish Beck)

This is the same complacent, morally bankrupt New York world that Wharton indicted so trenchantly in novels like The Age of Innocence (link to my post HERE). Some of the characters and motifs reappear from that 1920 novel across this collection.

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

The plot is simple: a bastion of conservative, wealthy New York, Halston Raycie, sends his son, whom he considers a weakling, on the European ‘Grand Tour’ to make a man of him, but also to buy a collection of artworks that will fill his planned Raycie Gallery. He’s an ignorant philistine, and wants only those universally acknowledged Old Masters that mean nothing to him, but that he has learnt are esteemed as “acceptable taste” and considered worthy as ostenatious domestic ornaments by his equally ignorant, mercenary peers. He’s not interested in the aesthetics of the mission, just the anticipated glory acquired by owning ‘a gallery of Heirlooms’. On this he is ‘dogmatic and explicit.’

No surprises how all this turns out. More interesting is the depiction of this monstrous patriarch and his family. Here’s how we first hear about his own marriage and lineage:

He thought well of most things related to himself by ties of blood or interest. No one had ever been quite sure that he made Mrs Raycie happy, but he was known to have the highest opinion of her.

As for his two daughters, ‘fresher replicas of the lymphatic Mrs Raycie’,

no one would have sworn that they were quite at ease with their genial parent, yet everyone knew how loud he was in their praises.

The son Lewis, however, is a disappointment to the ‘monumental’ father (in physique as well as public image). He’s rather a puny specimen, and like his submissive mother and downtrodden sisters has had most of the stuffing knocked out of him by his bullying father; but he’s determined to defy the bully. His sister Mary Adeline also shows signs of pluck and decency by secretly supplying alms to the destitute and ailing Mrs Edgar Poe, of all people, who lives nearby. The father, of course, despises the decadent author, considering him ‘a blasphemer’.

Raycie snr adheres to the views of the New York élite that Wharton has skewered in her novels set in that city: be ‘prudent and circumspect’, take no risks and behave entirely conventionally (morality is less important than appearances and wealth). Only marry into the most respectable (and wealthy) families, and disparage anything outside of this narrow, self-approving social circle and its cruelly rigid moral code.

So it’s with some trepidation that we read of Lewis’s love for dowdy orphan Treeshy. She’s had the misfortune (in the Raycie view) to be born in Italy – a susipiciously foreign background – and to be less than beautiful. A society wife should adorn and magnify her husband like a trophy (as Mrs Raycie does with her expensive imported clothes and impeccably conventional household décor and customs).

Lewis’s bravado increases the further away from New York he travels. He thinks of his father’s ‘fussy tyranny of his womenkind’. Mrs Raycie is given a pittance of pin-money by her husband out of the fortune she herself had brought to the marriage, and which he’d taken over. This was of course the era when all of a wife’s property became the husband’s after marriage. What little she’s allowed by him is expected to be spent on the fripperies that make her look the part of such a grand husband.

The account of young Lewis’s tour is entertainingly done. Here’s how ‘the East’ is described:

so squalid and splendid, so pestilent and so poetic, so full of knavery and romance and fleas and nightingales.

When he meets John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and other forward-thinking aesthetes in Europe he’s rashly inspired to buy the paintings that the philistine New York-Raycie world will deprecate. Poor Lewis; his rite of passage into manhood is doomed from the start. To his credit, he sticks to his principles, and tries to behave ‘humanely’. So many of such social rebels in Wharton’s fiction, though, end up crushed by that snobbish, inbred social élite, ‘encased in [its] security and monotony’, adorned by its ‘pearls and Rolls and Royces.’

It’s a privileged, snobbish, self-perpetuating society that Wharton shows engaging in a kind of social eugenics – the theme of tainted lineage crops up again and again in Old New York and her other fiction. Like that of impoverished Treeshy, brought up among ‘ignorant foreigners’. It’s a xenophobia that is shown not just towards foreigners, but to anyone deemed socially ‘not one of us’, as Mrs Thatcher so memorably, chillingly put it.

Link to my posts on seven more works of Wharton fiction HERE.