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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Wharton, Multatuli, Aridjis: Update 2

After succumbing to the mystery infection a few weeks ago, I’ve now had a problem with a torn retina, so have not been able to write or read much all week. So thanks to LibriVox I’m listening to an audio version of Northanger Abbey, which is huge fun – just what I needed. Meanwhile, here’s another update on recent reading while recuperating before the eye problem:

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), A Son at the Front (1923). Library of America eBook Classic (downloaded free from their website some while ago). This is very different from the New York society novels I’ve posted about previously: The House of Mirth (1905); The Age of Innocence (1920); The Children (1928); and the two companion pieces not set in high society New York, both about thwarted, painful love: bleak, wintry Ethan Frome (1911), and the ‘hot Ethan’, Summer (1917). A Son at the Front is clearly born out of the author’s selfless work during WWI supporting refugees and others in need. The grateful nation of France made her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Her experiences on the home front and travelling to the front lines clearly influence the narrative. What’s so unusual about it is the singularly unsympathetic nature of its protagonist, the vitriolic Paris-based American artist John Campton. He and his wife Julia had divorced years before the novel opens, days before the outbreak of war. Julia had married a wealthy financier, and Campton is disgruntled and jealous that his poverty until recent times when he’d finally become successful has prevented him from spoiling the lad as the stepfather’s millions had enabled him to. His and Julia’s beloved son, having been born, by accident, in France, is called up for military service. His sense of duty impels him to participate.

Most of the novel relates Campton’s increasingly desperate efforts to use his influence as a successful society portraitist to extricate his son from the front. He has to compromise his artistic and personal ethics to further his career in a corrupt wartime world behind the lines, and in order to further his campaign to protect his son. This adds to his rancour, and makes him more spiteful and selfish than usual. Most interesting is the way his spiky relationship with Julia softens, as they find common cause. This is complicated by his irrational detestation of her self-effacing husband, sensitive to Campton’s jealousy (he has much more clout with top politicians and military) and capacity to save his stepson.

This is not yet another grim war novel, then; it relates with stark frankness Campton’s slow discovery of a warmer, more human and sympathetic version of himself that the personal catastrophes he experiences bring about. The home front is shown to be less than completely noble, and the ineptitude and corruption of those who wield political, financial and military power is revealed in ways not usually found in other ‘war novels’.

Multatuli, Max Havelaar, or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. NYRB Classics, 2019. First published in Dutch 1860. Translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay. Introduction by Pramoedya Ananta Toer provides useful context. The author’s real name was Eduard Douwes Dekker, a former colonial officer in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia); his pseudonym is Latin for ‘I have suffered much’ – appropriate for this narrative of the exploitation of the native Indonesians at the corrupt, exploitative hands of the European colonisers. But it’s not just a bromide against imperialist oppression; the outrage and moral indignation is wrapped up in an extraordinary Tristram Shandy kind of satire. The first and liveliest part of the novel is narrated by a sanctimonious, avaricious, stupid prig called Batavus Drystubble, whose chief aims in life are to further his career in an Amsterdam coffee house, and to pose as a pious, efficient functionary. His account reveals him to be a pompous hypocrite and fool. He comes into possession of the manuscript which forms the bulk of the novel, relating how Havelaar’s experiences as a colonial official in mid-19C Indonesia cause him to write an exposé of the criminal abuses, corruption and greed of the colonisers, who treat the locals appallingly: they endure slavery, extortion, cruel punishments and even death to maintain the lucrative trade in coffee, indigo, pepper and other luxuries coveted by their duplicitous overlords.

Multatuli Havelaar coverIt’s an extraordinary novel, combining hilarious satire with incisive criticism of the injustices exposed. Like Sterne, the author employs a wide range of digressions and narrative modes, from lists and letters to redacted versions of the ‘found MS’, with disclaimers from the appalled Drystubble at what he considers to be its ‘fake news’ content. Ch. 19 is a heartbreaking account of one representative young man’s sufferings under the brutal Dutch regime, which corrupts the indigenous leaders and makes them complicit in the colonists’ systematic exploitation of their people. There’s an enormous, pseudo-serious apparatus of footnotes provided by the author at the end, where his genuine anger reveals itself unmitigated by the satiric pose in the body of the novel.

There are some passages which labour the moral point at excessive length, and some of the digressions weaken the flow – but it’s at times a gut-wrenching critique of inhumanity in the pursuit of wealth.

Aridjis Sea Monsters coverChloe Aridjis, Sea Monsters. Chatto and Windus, 2019. I was disappointed by this novel, which is inferior to its two predessors by this interesting and usually reliable author. It’s a whimsical account of a 17-year-old’s flight from her privileged Mexico City life with loving parents to indulge a passion for a fickle Goth boyfriend whose sullen charisma she mistakes for the real thing. There’s some lovely imagery and prose that’s more sustained in the earlier novels, and an interesting interlude early on in the flat where William Burroughs conducted his ill-fated William Tell experiment.

In radio and podcast interviews Aridjis has said the plot is based on events in her own life, which probably explains why it reads like a self-indulgent adolescent’s fantasy. I felt for the poor parents as she languished moodily on a gorgeous tropical beach, lusting after new, more glamorously seedy male idols (boyfriend has lost interest in her, not surprisingly) without a thought for the pain she was inflicting back home.

Links to previous Aridjis posts – Asunder and Book of Clouds.

Edith Wharton, Summer

Edith Wharton, Summer. First published 1917. Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1993.

There are only two major works of Edith Wharton’s that aren’t set in her own world – high society, affluent New York and Europe. Last time I wrote about the winter-set Ethan Frome. Summer, published six years later, is its counterpart, her ‘hot Ethan’ she called it. Gone is the bleak iciness of the earlier story – this short novel begins with scenes full of the warmth of this season. Until later, when autumn comes and events take a darker, chillier turn.

Wharton Summer cover

Now that’s a better cover: from a painting also called ‘Summer’ by Thomas Wilmer Dewing

It opens with a seventeen-year-old girl emerging from lawyer Royall’s house in North Dormer, Massachussetts (again it’s set in the area similar to the Berkshires where the author had built a house and got to know the locality and its dour rural inhabitants), and the lyrical description sets the tone for the first part of the novel:

The springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on the pastures and larchwoods surrounding it. A little wind moved among the round white clouds on the shoulder of the hills…

She shrinks away from the figure of a young man in the street, a stranger with a ‘holiday face’, and looks critically at her ‘swarthy face’ in the hall mirror, wishing she had blue eyes like Annabel Balch – a society girl who sometimes visits.

“How I hate everything!” she murmured.

She repeats this statement more than once in this opening chapter: clearly she is discontented. We soon find out why:

North Dormer is at all times an empty place, and at three o’clock on a June afternoon its few able-bodied men are off in the fields or woods, and the women indoors, engaged in languid household drudgery.

So there’s her reason: drudgery is her lot, and all she has to look forward to in this torpid, desolate, repressed place. There’s more:

There it lay, a weather-beaten, sunburnt village of the hills, abandoned of men, left apart by railway, trolley, telegraph, and the forces that link life to life in modern communities. It had no shops, no theatres, no lectures, no “business block”; only a church that was opened every other Sunday if the state of the roads permitted, and a library for which no new books had been bought for twenty years, and where the old ones mouldered undisturbed on the damp shelves.

Soon we learn that this is Charity Royall, adopted daughter of the burnt-out, hard-drinking lawyer who’d “brought her down from the Mountain” – a wild, lawless region nearby where no respectable person ever goes. Her ‘tainted origin’ adds to her sense of estrangement; ‘she was the child of a drunken convict and of a mother who wasn’t “half human” and was glad to have her go.’

She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormer represented all the blessings of the most refined civilization.

The young man she’d glimpsed in that opening page turns out to be Lucius Harney, a rare sight in this village, for he’s from the city, educated and artistic. He’s an architect who while visiting his cousin is researching and sketching the old houses in the area; these were once grand and imposing, but were not valued by the locals, and have fallen into disrepair or been abandoned. This is the moral and cultural void which has inspired in Charity such dismal feelings of ennui and longing for escape – a theme prevalent also in Ethan Frome.

All seems set for a romance that will enable her to find fulfilment and escape to a fuller life, one with love and prospects. Sadly, as in Ethan Frome, dreams shatter, love brings pain and humiliation.

So what’s its significance? Elizabeth Ammons in her introduction sets out in detail the historical and biographical context: Wharton had been working with refugees in war-torn France as she wrote the novel, hence perhaps some of the key motifs and situations in it. She’d found passionate love at last after an arid marriage – which would explain the passionate sexual and emotional awakening that Charity experiences – and the misery that tends to accompany such cataclysmic changes when the loved one is fickle or flawed.

But is it, as Ammons suggests, a sort of allegory for the colonial oppression and racism of the white European nations blowing themselves apart in WWI? Or of the shameful racism and xenophobia of early 20C America in its dealings with former slaves and later with the huge numbers of immigrants? Both are plausible readings.

How then to interpret the Mountain? The ‘savage misery of the Mountain farmers’ which made the impoverished crudity of North Dormer’s villagers seem comparatively affluent and desirable? Near the end of the novel the girl travels there, vaguely in search of her mother and some new connection, and experiences instead a ‘tragic initiation’:

Charity vainly tried to think herself into the life about her. But she could not even make out what relationship these people bore to each other, or to her…mother; they seemed to be herded together in a sort of passive promiscuity in which their common misery was the strongest link. [my ellipsis to avoid spoilers]

She tries to picture what her life would have been if she’d stayed in this purgatorial place, ‘turning into a fierce bewildered creature’ like the wild girl she’d encountered on arrival – yet she feels a weird ‘secret affinity’ with that girl – who may even be a relative of hers.

Wharton seems also to be appraising the ahistorical, amoral underbelly of rural America at that time, the capacity of the uneducated, alienated, indifferent villagers like those of “dormant” North Dormer, to be surpassed in their primitivism and state of socio-cultural atrophy by these inbred hillbilly close cousins. The theme of incest that Ammons discusses is clearly a feature in this Mountain world. It’s as if the rural poor that Wharton had seen in the Berkshires and discussed as she passed such places with Henry James in her large car had impressed her with the bleakness and animality of their lives.

Is this snobbish elitism? In some ways, yes. But the richness and empathetic warmth of Wharton’s portrayal of Charity, and the growth and changes she undergoes, the exploration of life’s constraints and barriers for most women at the time it was written, lifts the novel into a higher artistic realm, where we learn what it is to be fully human, even when all around us humanity (and sexual and marital relations in a dysfunctional patriarchal  world) seems absent, selfish, cruel, even obscene.

It lacks the visceral punch of Ethan Frome, but is still a powerful, moving depiction of a strange but recognisable, dying world.

 

 

 

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (first published 1911; OUP paperback, with Summer, 1982, reprinted 1989) 

These two short novels are counterparts, Ethan Frome being set in a bleak, snowy New England winter (the story’s title is Hiver in the French translation), while Summer’s title indicates its contrasting atmosphere.

Unlike the majority of Edith Wharton’s best-known works (links at the end to those I’ve written about in previous posts) neither is set in the high society worlds of New York and Europe that the author, a wealthy woman, and close friend of Henry James, knew so well. Their setting is the remote, impoverished rural villages and small towns of Massachusetts: Starkfield (aptly named), and North Dormer respectively.

Edith had a large house (The Mount) built at Lenox in the Berkshires in 1901 as a place where she and her incompatible husband Teddy might reconstruct their marriage. The attempt failed, but it brought her into contact with the austere country settings and stoical, inarticulate people who populate these two stories. There’s maybe something of their dysfunctional relationship in the two novels under discussion here.

Wharton Frome Summer cover

What an awful cover. It depicts the pickle dish that’s broken by the cat, an accident that’s important in the plotting – but this image does the subtlety of the narrative no favours

Both tell of tragically thwarted love affairs. Ethan, a dirt-poor farmer and failing sawmill owner, inept at expressing himself or his feelings – to himself or to others – is married to the whining, needy Zeena (Zenobia – an ironic name, for the third century queen and empire builder was both regal and cultured – qualities which Zeena palpably lacks). Once married, she’s lapsed into self-obsessed hypochondria and constant complaining and fault-finding.

When she leaves to consult yet another quack doctor in a neighbouring town, she leaves Ethan and Mattie – Zeena’s orphan cousin who has lived with them for a year as an unpaid skivvy – alone together overnight for the first time. Their unstated, furtive love for each other leads to tragic conclusions.

It’s interesting to see the patrician, urban socialite Wharton portraying lives of these taciturn characters, as dour as the granite outcrops of the landscape, like those in Wuthering Heights. But she does it with aplomb.

Here’s a passage where the neurosis and perverse passions that seethe beneath the bland surface of this remote, backward region are anatomised; it narrates how Zeena responded to her move to Ethan’s house:

She chose to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her…And within a year of their marriage she developed the “sickliness” which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances. When she came to take care of his mother she had seemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but he soon saw that her skill as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms.

There’s a little trace of the potentially patronising scrutiny of the sociologist or entomologist here, but the power of the portrayal carries the reader through such qualms, and it’s impossible not to read on in fascinated horror as the story plays out to its inevitably painful conclusion – one almost as heartbreaking and cathartic as great tragedy.

The evocation of the landscape and climate of the New England winter is done with exceptional skill; key images recur – blackness, whiteness, ice – all of which play a crucial part in the terrifying, gruesome climax. And this is followed by a less dramatic but even more gut-wrenching conclusion, a generation later, mediated through the poised, interpreting voice of the frame narrator. Like the one in Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, which I wrote about last time, he’s engaged in constructing and reconstructing this story out of fragments and narratives of others – a pleasing effect again reminiscent of Emily Bronte.

I’ll turn next to the companion text, Summer.

 As noted above, here are links to previous posts here on Edith Wharton:

The House of Mirth

The Age of Innocence

The Children

 

A Divorce Novel: Edith Wharton, The Children (1928)

‘The incurable simplicity of the corrupt’: Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The Children

Edith Wharton’s nineteenth novel The Children, published in 1928, is less impressive than the others by her that I’ve posted about here recently: The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. It’s still interesting, and highly unusual in its central theme – the attraction an older man feels for a girl who at the time they meet is not yet fifteen.

Martin Boyne is a globe-trotting engineer who takes on projects in exotic places.
Wharton carefully presents him from the start as a ‘critical, cautious man… whom nobody could possibly associate with the romantic or the unexpected.’

This complacent timidity is about to be sorely tested when a troupe of seven children with their nanny boards his ship and he first sees the eldest child, Judith, who acts as surrogate mother to her siblings and ‘steps’, as the offspring of her feckless parents’ numerous other marriages and acquired stepchildren are known.

“Jove – if a fellow was younger!”
Men of forty-six do not gasp as frequently at the sight of a charming face as they did at twenty; but when the sight strikes them it hits harder…it rather disturbed [Boyne] to be put off his quest by anything so out of his present way as excessive youth and a rather pathetic grace.

My Virago Modern Classics edition

My Virago Modern Classics edition

Wharton is often unfavourably compared to her friend and mentor, Henry James, and at times she did indeed imitate his sophisticated psychological probings of his characters’ subtly described thoughts and actions, and he too was to explore the girl-woman type in a corrupt adult world in stories like ‘What Maisie Knew’. As the above extract shows, however, she writes here in a plain, even colloquial style, and makes little attempt to explore her male protagonist’s musings; they are simply presented to us as free indirect discourse, with no narrative comment. Neither does she enter into Judith’s mind: we’re simply told frequently how ‘charming’ she is, and are given her animated, precocious but often immature dialogue.

This sets up the central feature of the novel: Boyne’s vacillating motives and impulses are largely a mystery even to himself, and it is this that gives the novel its most compelling aspect.

Boyne quickly learns that these are the children of Cliffe Wheater and his wife, whom he remembers as ‘rather aimlessly abundant’ – an apt description, we later learn – both of whom he had known at Harvard and subsequently in ‘the old social dance of New York’. Wheater had since become ‘one of the showiest of New York millionaires’ whose only interests since his marriage had been in ‘Ritz Hotels and powerful motor-cars’ – and a ‘steam-yacht’.

It’s the depiction of this egregiously selfish, idle and shallow rich set that’s another of the most interesting and successful features of this uneven novel. They pass their time trying to stave off boredom by following each other from one fashionable Mediterranean watering hole to another, indulging in ‘wasteful luxury’ on the quest for pleasure, while flirting, divorcing and sleeping with each other and neglecting their children. This is very much a Divorce Novel, dealing with ‘the compromises and promiscuities of modern life.’

Their children are allowed to run wild, largely untutored. Judith, we learn, is barely literate, and one of her closest friends had killed herself while her drug-addled mother and Judith’s were ‘heaven knows where’.

Boyne is shocked to learn, early on, that one of the Wheater children, Blanca, had been engaged ‘to the lift-boy at Biarritz’ when at the time of meeting her she’s ‘barely eleven’. Judith blithely points out that she’d been engaged to ‘a page at a skating-rink’ at about the same age. The guidance that their corrupt parents should have provided is non-existent, and they have become superficially sophisticated, but profoundly morally adrift – like their parents.

Not surprisingly the Wheater children and their antics dominate the novel. The trouble is I didn’t find them at all amusing or charming. There is some distasteful national stereotyping about the two who have an Italian parent – they are lazily presented therefore as volatile and passionate (‘”don’t be foreign”’, their nurse admonishes one of them at one point – I don’t find this as funny as Wharton seems to expect me to). The ones with circus-performer parents are forever engaging in acrobatics. They are consistently depicted with just their one identifying characteristic. Blanca is obsessed with ‘chic’ couture dresses; her twin, Terry, is studious and sickly. Zinnie, whose mother is a glamorous movie-star, is vain, sly and selfish.

Their dialogue is set out with toe-curling whimsy: the first example of many occurs when Martin offers the children oranges as an incentive to visit a cultural site and this exchange ensues:

“An’masses of zoranges?” Zinnie stipulated, with a calculating air…and Bun…turn[ed] handsprings on the deck, [and] shrieked out: “Noranges! Noranges! NORANGES!”

Although like Martin we feel sympathy for their plight, left to fend for themselves as their fickle and crassly materialistic parents pursue their hedonistic and amorous adventures – they are aptly called ‘hotel children’ – their histrionic antics become tediously repetitive, their attitude importunate, manipulative and greedy, as cartoonish as their parents’ .

The plot is driven by Judith’s fierce maternal devotion to her little brood, and her passionate attempts to keep them together, while their various parents change partners and threaten to take back the offspring who originally belonged to them.

When Judith and her wild bunch of siblings burst into Boyne’s tranquil, adult world, he loses all sense of decorum and judgement, and takes on the role of guardian, apparently unaware of the probable true motive for his doing so: his sexual desire for adolescent Judith. Here he is as early as p. 35, when his attempt to cultivate in her a love of art and culture by visiting an Italian cathedral has ended in failure – she’s both bored and bemused by it:

…he was disappointed, for he was already busy at the masculine task of endowing the woman of the moment with every quality which made life interesting to himself.

“Woman – but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business.

Here Wharton’s narrator offers a rare incisive comment on Boyne’s moral confusion, though even here it can be seen as his own self-castigating thoughts.

Even Rose points out to him that he’s in love with Judith, but he refuses to entertain the possibility. The portrayal of this pretty but vacuous girl is troubling: she’s too naïve and ingenuous to convince us that Boyne is attracted to her mind; she’s innocently childish and ignorant, despite her premature exposure to corrupt, amoral adult behaviour and decadence. Neither is she a Gigi type who will blossom under his tutelage. She has a certain impulsive charm, but Boyne’s real motive is clouded in his own mind.

One of the most peculiar scenes, which arouses in me a certain disquiet, is the one in which Judith turns to Boyne in a crisis and he plies her with two cocktails and a cigarette, and then realises this may have been ill-advised. What was he thinking?

Even worse is when Rose’s 60-year-old lawyer visits and Boyne watches him watching Judith as she sleeps during a country picnic, projecting his own desire jealously on to the slightly older man. The narrative as usual gives us his thoughts, which begin with his reflection that the girl ‘looks almost grown up – she looks kissable’. Then he turns his gaze on lawyer Dobree, the other man:

…it was manifest that Dobree’s thoughts were racing; and Boyne knew they were the same thoughts as his own. The discovery shocked him indescribably.

This duplicity is compounded when, that evening, Boyne tells Rose his suspicions:

“Dobree looks at her like a dog licking his jaws over a bone.”
“Martin — !”
“Sorry. I never could stand your elderly men who look at little girls.”

After this adolescent outburst Boyne goes on to ask sarcastically why Dobree doesn’t ask Judith to marry him if he’s so ‘dotty’ about the girl. He’s dumbfounded when Rose tells him Dobree has just proposed to her. The ‘tumult of his own veins’ turns to confusion at this announcement, and he laughs:

[but] his laugh had simply mocked his own power of self-deception, and uttered his relief at finding himself so deceived.

Rose goes on to tell him that Dobree said to her that he thought Boyne was in love with Judith; Boyne is furious:

“Shows what kind of a mind he must have. Thinking that way about a child – a mere child – and about any man, and decent man…as if I might take advantage of my opportunities to – to fall in love with a child in the schoolroom!”

Even Boyne at this point realises he’s protesting too much, as that little hesitation so tellingly indicates, and he sinks into a chair, ‘hot, angry, ashamed’.

Although the hedonistic selfishness of the parents’ circle is portrayed with venomous narrative power, none of the characters is rounded or fully convincing – they are types, not individuals. Only Boyne, who focalises the story throughout, comes across with any kind of complexity. But ultimately his self-evasions, emotional timidity and sexual murkiness are more annoying than sympathy-evoking.

That this worldly, middle-aged man should ditch a sophisticated and beautiful woman his own age, with whom we are often told he’s been in love most of his adult life, in favour of a callow child with a mildly pretty face and no depth of character, is a situation that’s presented with inconsistent success, as I hope my quotations reveal. Judith is no Maisie.

There is some excellent writing, however, and the novel is worth reading. For example when Judith escapes with her brood in search of Boyne’s protection, he and Rose are incredulous at the circumstances the girl describes that led her to adopt such an extreme course; she sums these up with the precocious perception of which she’s capable when examining the amorality of her parents’ circle:

“If children don’t look after each other, who’s going to do it for them? You can’t expect parents to, when they don’t know how to look after themselves.”

There’s poignancy in this child’s premature wisdom, expressed with such heartbreaking lucidity.

I’ll finish with one passage that is worthy of the earlier, more satisfying novels of Wharton’s that I’ve read. Here is Boyne about to meet Rose in the flesh after the interval of five years during which he’d travelled and worked, and she’d been widowed:

He could never think of her [Rose] as having been really young, immaturely young, like this girl about whom they were exchanging humorous letters, and who, in certain other ways, had a precocity of experience so far beyond Mrs. Sellars’s. But the question of a woman’s age was almost always beside the point. When a man loved a woman she was always the age he wanted her to be; when he had ceased to, she was either too old for witchery or too young for technique.

That aphorism with its symmetrically patterned syntax is a rare moment of an omniscient, observing narrative voice commenting with almost Wildean wit on Boyne’s psycho-sexual ambivalence, and it shrewdly shows him as both clever and perceptive while blind to his own defects of character: he goes on to admit to ‘a faint return of the apprehension he always felt when he thought of his next meeting with Mrs. Sellars.’ Maybe he was never really going to commit to her, and the dalliance with pert, pretty little Judith was more of an excuse to run away, and to resume his melancholy, solitary existence far away from messy human entanglements.

These are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear if any of you had a different reaction.

Others to write about this novel include heavenali here, and Tom’s blog Wuthering Expectations discusses Wharton’s short stories in several perceptive posts here.

He had missed the flower of life: Edith Wharton, ‘The Age of Innocence’

The names of the characters aren’t exactly subtle in this vitriolic portrait of upper-class New York City society in the 1870s (though the novel, Edith Wharton’s twelfth, was first published in 1920): the protagonist’s is the doubly Jamesian Newland Archer, while his pretty but vacuous fiancée is May Welland (may well land) – tellingly described as a ‘young girl who knew nothing and expected everything’.

Virago Modern Classics edition

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics paperback edition

The plot is equally straightforward: the upright (almost smugly so) Archer, from one of that small, intermarrying set of wealthy socialite families to which May also belongs, has his complacently mapped-out life upset when the beautiful, troubled Countess Olenska comes back into his circle. He had known her before her marriage to a dashing but morally corrupt Polish count collapsed, amid stories of her husband’s brutality and serial infidelity. She escaped back to the city of her birth, where she believed her family and former friends would support her. Instead they treat her as a pariah, as if she is the guilty one; in their world it is not done for wives to desert their philandering husbands – they’re supposed to endure everything with a sweet smile and pretend all is well.

It’s a more plot-driven novel than The House of Mirth, about which I wrote recently. The style is less aphoristic and adorned, too; this makes its tone of moral outrage more powerful. Ultimately, however, I found the heroic stoicism and indomitable sense of honour of Newland Archer a little hard to take. He professes to be disgusted by the hypocrisy of his male peers, and therefore finds it impossible to compromise the honour of the woman he truly loves, or his own sense of duty. Here’s an early narrative comment about him that hints at this thinly concealed arrogance:

In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility…Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented “New York”, and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine in all the issues called moral.

That he continues to live in this corrupt world of venal indulgence makes his honourable stance seem less noble. It’s not so much that he can’t act as immorally as everyone else – he seems almost to lack any kind of truly moral agency.

It’s an interesting and largely rewarding read, however. There are still some wonderfully witty and penetrating comments on American mores and society, like this on the very first page; the privileged rich are leaving the opera house, which they frequent largely to see what the rest of their set are up to, and to be seen and gossip about the latest peccadillos. The narrator points out that it’s better to catch a ‘Brown coupé’ after the performance than to wait for one’s own coachman –

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Newland is swayed by generous thoughts about the lack of freedom enjoyed by women in his social circle, but

Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

 He can readily foresee that his marriage would become

What most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

 And so it turns out: his and May’s marital existence is one of ‘deadly monotony’, in which appearance was everything, and Newland is unable to break free from what’s expected of him –

It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…

It’s a mad world they live in, and there seems no impulse to do anything to change it:

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…

 More echoes of the Master there (also, weirdly, of Saussure). Maybe Edith Wharton was too angry with that dull group of the tediously wealthy in which she’d moved (until she could stand it no more and decamped to France for the latter part of her life, ditching her good-for-nothing husband on the way) to come closer to emulating the penetrating gaze and measured psychological insight of her friend Henry James.

The ending is shocking, and aptly rounds off this withering indictment of the New York social set that would soon be even more tellingly portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.