Dear Readers,

I now consider this blog to be my Juvenelia. Have fun perusing the archives, and find me at my new haunt, here.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

There's Good Books... and Then There's Great Books

<----Michelle and Daniel Day: maybe a bit more explicit than Wharton intended, but not by much.

While nosing around my childhood bedroom on Friday I came upon a dog-eared, crumbling copy of Wharton's The Age of Innocence. I thought I might entertain myself for a few minutes by re-re-reading the first few pages, you know, the ones where Newland Archer takes his opera glasses and scans the crowd, first settling satisfactorily upon May, his placid wife-to-be, and then landing with consternation upon a strange woman in a dress with a too-plunging neckline. But once his eyes, and mine, had made contact with the figure of the Countess Olenska I was hooked again, and spent much of the weekend absorbed once again in Wharton's rigid Old New York, her ironic, deceptive descriptions, and the trapped desperation of Newland's love. I also picked up a few sexual references where I hadn't last time (have I really not read this since high school?) including a key discreetly mailed in an envelope, some wild-oat sowing, and other not-so-veiled overtones. I find the sexuality in this story more realistic than the Selden/Lily interplay in the House of Mirth, and have to wonder if Edith Wharton was more, ahem, experienced in the ways of passion when she wrote it.

Regardless, there was something about reading such a great book that put everything else I've read in the last few months-- all the gripping bestsellers and thought-provoking Pulitzer-Prize winners and sensational debuts--in a different light. My rabid consumption of The Age of Innocence tripped by with such intensity, such belief in every word I was reading, such conviction on my part that I was in strong hands, that I kept putting it down and saying "This is a Book." Does that make me not egalitarian after all, and a snob?
Perhaps. But I don't find Wharton a snobby read-- what keeps me moving through the pages is a constant, bubblng sense of passion and rebellion, that although frustratingly thwarted, carried immense emotional momentum. So yeah, I read it for the sex and anger that never materializes, in other words.

So what of Wharton's insistence on an always-tragic, always disappointed ending? I think she reason she always handed the victory to Society and Morality was evidence of self-hatred on her part, a sort of stockholm-syndrome esque identification with the society that condemned her and choked her when she was younger. And somehow, even though every time I read her books and hope for a better ending, I know they wouldn't be the same books if they had them. They would be fantasies, not realities, or they would birth Anna Karenina or Scarlet-Letter-like tragedies of trangression. (Or am I just justifying?)

Ah well... if I want to read a Wharton story with passions acted-upon, I can always read or watch the Buccaneers, whose posthumously-tacked on ending is entirely un-Wharton-esque and utterly delightful. And Scorcese's adaptation of Age is now No. 1 on my Netflix queue. Word.

1 comment:

  1. Susan Tolbert2:49 PM

    Who would think that a review of "The Age of Innocence" would end with "word"?! lol Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed your take on Wharton's masterpiece, though I'm more familiar w/her short stories and Ethan Frome (with yet another great film version-Liam Neeson and the Northeast Kingdom of VT...starkly beautiful!).

    I was poking around for pics from Age of Inn. when I found your blog. You read this in HIGH SCHOOL? I'm impressed. My kids' hippie-tree-hugging school (I'm a hippie, so this is a real condemnation) makes them read things like Luis J. Rodriguez' "Always Running", no doubt thinking the wannabe "homies" will read anything about gangs. Sad.

    Back to "Age": your assessment was dead-on! I had never thought of Wharton herself as "weak", yet since all her books end with the iconoclast giving on or being defeated, I guess you're right. She was sort of a rebel, building a hideaway mansion in the remote Berkshire hills, but maybe it was for show.

    If you enjoy this kind of literary torture (forbidden love that you KNOW will be denied and scathing criticism of Victorian morality), try John Galsworthy's "The Forsyte Saga", which is like a sociological study of the upper-class in London from 1885 to the 1930's. The first 3 books ("A Man of Property", "In Chancery" and "To Let") are the most well-known and most tragic. In the late 60's the BBC did an EXCELLENT black+white version of this and more recently, PBS put out a very watered-down version, not at all faithful to the original (they couldn't even get the heroine, Irene's, appearance right.

    Also known for his insistence on tragic endings was Thomas Hardy, who dealt more with England's middle and lower classes. Try out "Far From The Madding Crowd", "Tess" (exc. film version by Polanski) and "Jude, the Obscure".