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Monday, 24 February 2020

On blogging and depression

This is one of those days when I’m asking myself: why do I blog? I’ve had this blog for about 8 years now, and been in the blog world for over 10 years. But now I’m asking myself, what exactly is the point?  
Right now, I should be focusing on writing for money. Or, well, doing something for money. The fact is, I’ve been struggling lately. My depression came back last year, for other reasons, and the struggle to get into the film industry just worsened it. Self-doubt and self-loathing fill my head, I have days when I just want to lie in bed and do nothing—I don’t want to cook, I don’t want to do laundry, or I do laundry and don’t want to fold my clothes, so on and so forth. I have days when I just want to sit there, eat Choco Pie and watch stupid videos.   
So I read, these days I’ve been reading and blogging a lot, to drown my own negative thoughts and to be productive in some way. It helped for a bit—especially since I joined Twitter, I have got more people reading my blog, even if most of my readers don’t comment. 
Sometimes I intend to write for the magazine, or some other place, but can’t start, or start and can’t continue, then I end up writing a blog post. But then I start feeling bad again—the energy and time spent on a blog post should be spent on writing something else that brings money, or at least, should be spent on writing a script. 
What am I blogging for? What the hell do I get out of it? 
I know I chose to blog to share my enthusiasm, bring more readers to the books I love, and defend the books I love if anyone takes a dig at them. I know I chose to blog to share my thoughts, have a conversation, and learn from others. I know I chose to blog to find, to reach out to people with similar interests and passions. I know I chose to blog to organise my thoughts, keep track of things, and make notes for later. I know I chose to blog because of the freedom of a blog, where I wouldn’t be edited or censored, where I could write whatever I want without worrying about the audience as much as when I write for the magazine or anything similar. 
I know all of my reasons, and love my blog, and it cheers me up to see a nice comment once in a while. But today is still one of those days when I can’t help feeling that it’s all pointless, time-consuming, and of no use to anyone, even myself. In a sense it has become a distraction, and has allowed me to continue procrastinating. Then I feel like shit. 
To be honest, I don’t even know why I’m writing this blog post. To get some sympathy? To ask for support? Or just to whine? I’m not announcing an end of this blog, or a break—perhaps I might even contradict myself and write a blog post tomorrow. I don’t know. 
But I can’t be the only one out there questioning the point of it all.

Sunday, 23 February 2020

The timeline of The Custom of the Country

1 of my complaints about The Custom of the Country is that Edith Wharton doesn’t specify Undine’s age at the beginning of the story or at different points in the book. How old is she? How much time passes throughout the story? 
I must confess that, whilst reading a novel, I tend to notice details and motifs, but am not very good at keeping track of time (see my blog post about the timeline of Madame Bovary)
I’m currently on chapter 35—Ralph Marvell receives the shocking information that his wife Undine had been married to Elmer Moffatt, and divorced, before marrying him (I’ll get back to this later, possibly). Elmer says, the wedding is 9 years ago. The secret marriage lasts about a fortnight, then Undine’s parents track her down, they “unloop the loop” (how long does this take?), and about a year later, they all move to New York. 
It’s hard to guess Undine’s age when she marries Elmer, as I don’t know the marriage age law in Nebraska around this time—I don’t even know which year it’s meant to be in the story. 
(As I went back, I realised I had missed a detail in chapter 9—when Moffatt refers to “child-bride”). 
In chapter 31, Paul (Ralph’s son) is 6. As only a few months pass between chapter 31 and chapter 35, he’s still 6.  
The timeline for the divorce and Undine’s “exile” in Paris (after the 6 months in Dakota) is not very clear, but Ralph says in the chapter that Undine runs away 2 years ago, and there are also indications here and there that it’s about 2 years, so Paul is about 4 when Undine files for divorce. 
I want to know how long the marriage lasts. Let’s go back. 
In chapter 1, the Spraggs have lived in New York for about 2 years. 
In chapter 14, Edith Wharton mentions that it’s been 4 years since Popple meets Undine the 1st time—I’m pretty sure that in chapter 1, they’ve just met. That means that 4 years pass between chapter 1 and chapter 4. 
She also says that Undine and Ralph have been married for 3 years. 
In chapter 15, Wharton mentions that Ralph sits down in the armchair that 4 years previously, he sat dreaming of Undine. This means about a year passes between that moment and their marriage. 
Later on, when Undine’s in Paris, still married to Ralph, and has met Raymond de Chelles: 
“She still felt it to be her deepest grievance against her husband; and now that, after four years of petty household worries, another chance of escape had come, he already wanted to drag her back to bondage!” (Ch.20) 
They’ve been married for 4 years. This is confirmed when Wharton mentions, in the same chapter, how Peter Van Degen has changed since his 1st encounter with Undine 5 years ago. The phrase “4 years of marriage” appears twice in chapter 21.
In chapter 22, Undine files for divorce.  
This doesn’t look quite right. The marriage lasts about 4 years, but by my calculations earlier, Paul is about 4 when it ends, and a pregnancy is about 9 months. 
Let’s go back—Undine’s marriage with Moffatt is 9 years ago. The following year the Spraggs move to New York. Then 2 years pass. That means that about 6 years (or a few months short of 7 years) pass between chapter 1 and chapter 35. The divorce happens 2 years ago, that leaves us 4 years between chapter 1 and the divorce. But that is wrong, because Ralph knows Undine for at least a year before the marriage, and the marriage itself lasts about 4 years—wrong, unless the following year means a few months later, not a year later (the exact quote is “that was the year before they moved over to New York”). 
So now I’m quite confused. And I still don’t know how old Undine is at different points in the novel. Can anyone shed light on this?

Thursday, 20 February 2020

On Edith Wharton’s essay “The Vice of Reading”

So, Edith Wharton’s a book snob. 
In her essay “The Vice of Reading”, she makes a distinction between “the mechanical reader” and “the born reader”. 
“The idea that reading is a moral quality has unhappily led many conscientious persons to renounce their innocuous dalliance with light literature for more strenuous intercourse. These are the persons who “make it a rule to read.” The “platform” of the more ambitious actually includes the large resolve to keep up with all that is being written! The desire to keep up is apparently the strongest incentive to this class of readers: they seem to regard literature as a cable-car that can be “boarded” only by running; while many a born reader may be found unblushingly loitering in the tea-cup times of stage-coach and posting-chaise, without so much as being aware of the new means of locomotion.” 
Ha ha ha. 
She clarifies: 
“To read is not a virtue; but to read well is an art, and an art that only the born reader can acquire. The gift of reading is no exception to the rule that all natural gifts need to be cultivated by practice and discipline; but unless the innate aptitude exist the training will be wasted. It is the delusion of the mechanical reader to think that intentions may take the place of aptitude.” 
I think she’s attacking a great many book bloggers/ Goodreads reviewers: 
“The mechanical reader, as he always reads consciously, knows exactly how much he reads, and will tell you so with the pride of the careful housekeeper who has calculated to within half an ounce the daily consumption of food in her household.” 
I mean, she writes this: 
“It is a part of the whole duty of the mechanical reader to pronounce an opinion on every book he reads, and he is sometimes driven to strange shifts in the conscientious performance of this task. It is his nature to mistrust and dislike every book he does not understand. “I cannot read and therefore wish all books burned.” In his heart of hearts the mechanical reader may sometimes echo this wish of Envy in Doctor Faustus; but, it being also a part of his duty to be “fond of reading,” he is obliged to repress his biblioeidal impulse, and go through the form of trying the case, when lynching would have been so much simpler.
It is only natural that the reader who looks on reading as a moral obligation should confound moral and intellectual judgments. Here is a book that everyone is talking about; the number of its editions is an almost unanswerable proof of its merit; but to the mechanical reader it is cryptic, and he takes refuge in disapproval. He admits the cleverness, of course; but one of the characters is “not nice”; ergo, the book is not nice; he is surprised that you should have cared to read it.” 
Human beings just don’t change over time. 
Such a delicious essay. Read it in full here: https://www.anthologyshortstories.eu/edith-wharton-the-vice-of-reading/ 

I love Edith Wharton even more now.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Ralph Marvell’s pain, or something you can’t find in Jane Austen

In the blog post about chapter 15 in The Custom of the Country, I already quoted a few poignant passages about Ralph’s illusion. For example: 
“… Since then he had been walking with a ghost: the miserable ghost of his illusion. Only he had somehow vivified, coloured, substantiated it, by the force of his own great need—as a man might breathe a semblance of life into a dear drowned body that he cannot give up for dead. All this came to him with aching distinctness the morning after his talk with his wife on the stairs. He had accused himself, in midnight retrospect, of having failed to press home his conclusion because he dared not face the truth.” (Ch.16)
Edith Wharton’s writing is very good, particularly good when she writes about Ralph’s anguish and illness. 
“…It pressed him down again: down into a dim deep pool of sleep. He lay there for a long time, in a silent blackness far below light and sound; then he gradually floated to the surface with the buoyancy of a dead body. But his body had never been more alive. Jagged strokes of pain tore through it, hands dragged at it with nails that bit like teeth. They wound thongs about him, bound him, tied weights to him, tried to pull him down with them; but still he floated, floated, danced on the fiery waves of pain, with barbed light pouring down on him from an arrowy sky.
Charmed intervals of rest, blue sailings on melodious seas, alternated with the anguish. He became a leaf on the air, a feather on a current, a straw on the tide, the spray of the wave spinning itself to sunshine as the wave toppled over into gulfs of blue…” (Ch.22) 
That is great writing. I know I’ve said it before, but I love her prose. 
“It was an oppressive day in mid-August, with a yellow mist of heat in the sky, when at last he entered the big office-building. Swirls of dust lay on the mosaic floor, and a stale smell of decayed fruit and salt air and steaming asphalt filled the place like a fog.” (ibid.) 
Her writing is sensuous. If this passage doesn’t make you want to read The Custom of the Country, I don’t know what will. Personally I prefer her to Henry James. 
“… Now and then he got into the canoe and paddled himself through a winding chain of ponds to some lonely clearing in the forest; and there he lay on his back in the pine-needles and watched the great clouds form and dissolve themselves above his head.
All his past life seemed to be symbolized by the building-up and breaking-down of those fluctuating shapes, which incalculable wind-currents perpetually shifted and remodelled or swept from the zenith like a pinch of dust.” (Ch.23) 
And: 
“At first he had chafed under the taciturnity surrounding him: had passionately longed to cry out his humiliation, his rebellion, his despair. Then he began to feel the tonic effect of silence; and the next stage was reached when it became clear to him that there was nothing to say. There were thoughts and thoughts: they bubbled up perpetually from the black springs of his hidden misery, they stole on him in the darkness of night, they blotted out the light of day; but when it came to putting them into words and applying them to the external facts of the case, they seemed totally unrelated to it.” (ibid.) 
Now you’re thinking the title is a clickbait, and the post is only an excuse to point at some great passages in The Custom of the Country. Well, that’s partly it. 
Earlier I did a search on Twitter, going all the way back to 2010 (don’t ask me why), and discovered that: a) many people think Edith Wharton’s better than Jane Austen (mostly without explaining the reasons), and b) lots of people call Wharton the American Austen (again, without explaining why). 
I don’t want to compare them, because, except for the juvenilia, I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s work including the unfinished stuff, and am now reading the 2nd Edith Wharton novel. But I don’t think they have much in common. Even though both of their novels might be classed as novels of manners, their approaches are different—Jane Austen tends to stay with her heroine and focuses on her perspective, whereas Edith Wharton tends to switch between perspectives, like Tolstoy or George Eliot. In terms of style, Austen employs free indirect discourse a lot more, and masters it, whilst Wharton, I notice, often uses invert commas to distinguish the character’s phrasing/ language from her own. 
The 2 writers tackle different themes. Even though both are concerned about morality, Austen is more interested in balance, the different virtues, growth, self-awareness, and understanding of other people, whereas Wharton writes about individuality and the constraints of society, moral choice, and dignity. Put it this way, if Austen focuses on the inner world and mental/ moral growth, Wharton writes about the individual in society. 
The worlds they depict are also very different—the main thing, of course, is that in Jane Austen’s England, people know and stay in their places, so to speak, whereas Wharton’s American society has class anxiety, social climbers, and conflicts between old money and new money.  
I mean, I can kind of understand why some readers compare Wharton to Austen. After all, I do group them together in my mind—it’s the acute perception and deep understanding of people, the irony, the sharp tongue and biting satire, the wry humour, etc. Both don’t seem to think much of people, but if Austen seems to be amused by human foibles, Wharton appears more misanthropic, even angry (at least in The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country). 
Still, their styles are different, their methods are different, their concerns and themes are different, the worlds they depict are different, and Wharton seems angrier, less detached than Austen, so I don’t quite know what people mean when they say Wharton is the American Austen. 
Some others say Wharton is the darker and deeper Austen. Let’s rephrase that: Wharton, according to some people, is darker and deeper than Austen. 
Darker? Definitely. Look at the passages above about Ralph’s disillusionment, illness, and anguish. In The House of Mirth, there is plenty of suffering, self-loathing, self-doubt, and despair. Austen avoids such “odious subjects”. She also keeps scandals at a distance and, with the exception of Lady Susan, doesn’t come close to awful characters—imagine Austen placing a character such as Undine Spragg in the centre of her novel. 
Does this necessarily mean that Wharton is deeper, or more serious? I don’t think so. I just sometimes wish there were a bit more anguish in Austen. She does write about jealousy, displacement, alienation, loneliness, shame, disappointment, unhappiness… but not misery, anguish, self-loathing, bitterness… 
But then of course that is a silly thought. Jane Austen’s best works are perfect as they are, and now I’ve discovered Edith Wharton.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

The Custom of the Country: Undine Spragg and sex

Emma Bovary, we all know, is very physical and sensual. Here’s something I notice about the protagonist of The Custom of the Country: she doesn’t seem to particularly care about sex. 
Even though Edith Wharton skips the entire courtship, seduction, and even proposal, we can tell that Undine doesn’t feel physically attracted to Ralph Marvell. She likes him enough, thinking he’s sweet, but marries him for his name—the marriage is her way to get in high society.  
She is indifferent to him, and when she realises that her husband isn’t rich, the marriage is a mistake and doesn’t bring her any nearer to Fifth Avenue, she blames him for everything. 
Look at this moment:  
“"Paris? Newport? They're not on my map! When Ralph can get away we shall go to the Adirondacks for the boy. I hope I shan't need Paris clothes there! It doesn't matter, at any rate," she ended, laughing, "because nobody I care about will see me."
Van Degen echoed her laugh. "Oh, come—that's rough on Ralph!"
She looked down with a slight increase of colour.” (Ch.16) 
That’s a slip.  
I find it interesting that, contrary to my expectations, Undine doesn’t have an affair with Claud Walsingham Popple, the artist that she meets and likes before meeting Ralph. Instead, she has an affair with Peter Van Degen (married to Ralph’s cousin Clare) because he has lots of money, and adores her. He even gives her money. 
Undine goes as far as wanting to marry him: 
“It had become Undine's fixed purpose to bring Van Degen to a definite expression of his intentions. […]
But all about them couples were unpairing and pairing again with an ease and rapidity that encouraged Undine to bide her time. It was simply a question of making Van Degen want her enough, and of not being obliged to abandon the game before he wanted her as much as she meant he should. This was precisely what would happen if she were compelled to leave Paris now. Already the event had shown how right she had been to come abroad: the attention she attracted in Paris had reawakened Van Degen's fancy, and her hold over him was stronger than when they had parted in America. But the next step must be taken with coolness and circumspection; and she must not throw away what she had gained by going away at a stage when he was surer of her than she of him.” (Ch.20) 
I keep a long quote to show that she is not physically attracted to Peter in any way, and doesn’t seem to like him much as a person—she is cold and calculating. 
Look at this moment: 
“It was the first time she had permitted him a kiss, and as his face darkened down on her she felt a moment's recoil. But her physical reactions were never very acute: she always vaguely wondered why people made "such a fuss," were so violently for or against such demonstrations. A cool spirit within her seemed to watch over and regulate her sensations, and leave her capable of measuring the intensity of those she provoked.
She turned to look at the clock. "You must go now—I shall be hours late for dinner."” (ibid.) 
The kiss is part of her act, her game. Undine becomes more scheming and manipulative over time—she knows what to say, how to strike the right note, how to use people and persuade them to give her what she wants. Is it not interesting that she feels a moment’s recoil, but isn’t too bothered about the kiss? 
Peter Van Degen is ugly: 
“He had widened and purpled since their first encounter, five years earlier, but his features had not matured. His face was still the face of a covetous bullying boy, with a large appetite for primitive satisfactions and a sturdy belief in his intrinsic right to them.” (ibid.) 
Wharton keeps talking about how ugly, how repugnant he is: 
“The foremost was Claud Walsingham Popple; and above his shoulder shone the batrachian countenance of Peter Van Degen.” (Ch.5) 
The word “batrachian” means “toad-like”. Ugh. He’s also described several times as “red-faced”. 
Actually, let’s go all the way back to their early meeting: 
“He was so unpleasant-looking that she would have resented his homage had not his odd physiognomy called up some vaguely agreeable association of ideas. Where had she seen before this grotesque saurian head, with eye-lids as thick as lips and lips as thick as ear-lobes?” (Ch.4) 
Think Jane Austen is mean? Read some Wharton. But the point is that Undine feels that way about Peter Van Degen, but has an affair with him and wants to marry him for money. She likes Popple but doesn’t get involved with him, because there’s nothing for her to gain. 
I’m now on Book 3—at this point, Undine has met Raymond De Chelles. Spoilers here and there have told me that Undine would marry him after Ralph, so I paid close attention when the character appeared. He seems to be good-looking enough, but what does Undine think? 
“What she wanted for the moment was to linger on in Paris, prolonging her flirtation with Chelles, and profiting by it to detach herself from her compatriots and enter doors closed to their approach. And Chelles himself attracted her: she thought him as "sweet" as she had once thought Ralph, whose fastidiousness and refinement were blent in him with a delightful foreign vivacity. His chief value, however, lay in his power of exciting Van Degen's jealousy. She knew enough of French customs to be aware that such devotion as Chelles' was not likely to have much practical bearing on her future; but Peter had an alarming way of lapsing into security, and as a spur to his ardour she knew the value of other men's attentions.” (Ch.20) 
Again, she doesn’t seem to be particularly physically attracted to him. As she gets to know him and see his house: 
“Chelles, at once immensely "taken," had not only shown his eagerness to share in the helter-skelter motions of Undine's party, but had given her glimpses of another, still more brilliant existence, that life of the inaccessible "Faubourg" of which the first tantalizing hints had but lately reached her. Hitherto she had assumed that Paris existed for the stranger, that its native life was merely an obscure foundation for the dazzling superstructure of hotels and restaurants in which her compatriots disported themselves. But lately she had begun to hear about other American women, the women who had married into the French aristocracy, and who led, in the high-walled houses beyond the Seine which she had once thought so dull and dingy, a life that made her own seem as undistinguished as the social existence of the Mealey House.” (ibid.) 
She’s not attracted to Raymond De Chelles as a man, as much as attracted to the French aristocracy and Raymond’s castle and money and the distinguished life she always wants to have. 
In fact, apart from a brief episode with the Austrian riding-master when she’s very young, throughout the book Undine doesn’t seem to care that much about physical attraction and sex.It is good for her, of course—something like an interest in sex and attractive men would get in the way of keeping her image and climbing to the top, but I can’t help wondering what kind of existence it is that she only cares about dresses and parties, and doesn’t have any interest whatsoever in literature, art, music, nature, people, and even sex.

Friday, 14 February 2020

The Custom of the Country: chapter 15 and Undine Spragg

With some novels, such as Anna Karenina, War and Peace, or Lolita, you can tell from the start that you’re reading a masterpiece. Some others take longer. Take Middlemarch—it was chapter 42 that made me realise it’s a masterpiece. 
For The Custom of the Country, it’s chapter 15. 
Ralph is now disillusioned. 
“As he sat among them now the memory of that other night swept over him—the night when he had heard the "call"! Fool as he had been not to recognize its meaning then, he knew himself triply mocked in being, even now, at its mercy. The flame of love that had played about his passion for his wife had died down to its embers; all the transfiguring hopes and illusions were gone, but they had left an unquenchable ache for her nearness, her smile, her touch. His life had come to be nothing but a long effort to win these mercies by one concession after another: the sacrifice of his literary projects, the exchange of his profession for an uncongenial business, and the incessant struggle to make enough money to satisfy her increasing exactions. That was where the "call" had led him…” (Ch.15) 
Valentine’s Day is a perfect day to talk about disillusionment and heartbreak. But isn’t that such a moving and poignant passage? I feel bad about the previous blog post. 
This is the scene where Ralph’s in a car with Clare Van Degen, his cousin (and old flame):   
“For a long time now feminine nearness had come to mean to him, not this relief from tension, but the ever-renewed dread of small daily deceptions, evasions, subterfuges. The change had come gradually, marked by one disillusionment after another; but there had been one moment that formed the point beyond which there was no returning.” (ibid.) 
It’s the moment he comes across a bill for resetting pearl and diamond pendant, and resetting sapphire and diamond ring. 
“The pearl and diamond pendant was his mother's wedding present; the ring was the one he had given Undine on their engagement. That they were both family relics, kept unchanged through several generations, scarcely mattered to him at the time: he felt only the stab of his wife's deception. She had assured him in Paris that she had not had her jewels reset. […] 
Soon afterward, the birth of the boy seemed to wipe out these humiliating memories; yet Marvell found in time that they were not effaced, but only momentarily crowded out of sight. In reality, the incident had a meaning out of proportion to its apparent seriousness, for it put in his hand a clue to a new side of his wife's character. He no longer minded her having lied about the jeweller; what pained him was that she had been unconscious of the wound she inflicted in destroying the identity of the jewels. He saw that, even after their explanation, she still supposed he was angry only because she had deceived him; and the discovery that she was completely unconscious of states of feeling on which so much of his inner life depended marked a new stage in their relation.” (ibid.) 
What a fucking bitch. 
Undine Spragg is such an abhorrent character because to her, nothing is sacred. She cares about nobody but herself; if she ever feels bad for anyone’s misfortunes, it’s because they get in her way.  
Chapter 15 is magnificent because it has the best scene in the novel up to this point—the scene when Undine comes home hours after she was meant to take her son to his grandparents’ for his birthday, and meets Ralph. I will not copy the scene here, you have to read the book for yourself.   
By staying with Ralph and narrating from his point of view, Edith Wharton makes us wonder with him: what would Undine do? She forgot her son’s birthday, the boy (Paul) was crying all afternoon, Ralph’s family were waiting for hours, the cake lay uncut, Ralph got told by Clare that Undine was at Popple’s studio for the picture—what excuse could she possibly give? Wharton’s genius is seen in that scene—Undine acts like nothing was wrong, she doesn’t flinch, she doesn’t blush, there’s no sign of regret or shame on her face. 
There is no confrontation. The next day goes on as usual. 
“A stranger—that was what she had always been to him. So malleable outwardly, she had remained insensible to the touch of the heart.
[…] She was what the gods had made her—a creature of skin-deep reactions, a mote in the beam of pleasure.” (Ch.16) 
Undine Spragg is a vivid creation. She is ignorant, thoughtless, self-centred, insensitive to others, manipulative, scheming; she has no principle, no set of values, no understanding, only social instincts. It is perhaps not far from the truth to say that Undine is the most repellent female character I’ve encountered in fiction. Incapable of self-reflection, Undine’s master at justifying her own actions and blaming everyone else, even whilst using people and discarding them when she’s done.   
But she doesn’t seem like a caricature or two-dimensional villain. There is a charm to her as she figures out social rules and makes some blunders on her way to the top, and she appears vivid and full of life when she’s seen by others as well as when we come close to her perspective. The height of her characterisation is in that scene, in chapter 15.   
Chapter 16 has another brilliant scene, in which Undine plays games and tries to manipulate Van Degen, but fails. It is telling—to Undine, everything is a game, an act. But it can’t beat the shameless nonchalance in the other scene. 
“Ralph Marvell, pondering upon this, reflected that for him the sign had been set, more than three years earlier, in an Italian ilex-grove. That day his life had brimmed over—so he had put it at the time. He saw now that it had brimmed over indeed: brimmed to the extent of leaving the cup empty, or at least of uncovering the dregs beneath the nectar. He knew now that he should never hereafter look at his wife's hand without remembering something he had read in it that day. Its surface-language had been sweet enough, but under the rosy lines he had seen the warning letters.
Since then he had been walking with a ghost: the miserable ghost of his illusion. Only he had somehow vivified, coloured, substantiated it, by the force of his own great need—as a man might breathe a semblance of life into a dear drowned body that he cannot give up for dead. All this came to him with aching distinctness the morning after his talk with his wife on the stairs. He had accused himself, in midnight retrospect, of having failed to press home his conclusion because he dared not face the truth.” (Ch.16) 
I love the prose. 
Edith Wharton has now joined my list of favourite writers (George Eliot isn’t a favourite, and I hesitate about Henry James).

Undine- Ralph Marvell marriage and the custom of the country

The Undine- Ralph Marvell marriage very much reminds me of the Lydgate- Rosamond marriage in Middlemarch. The similarities are probably deliberate. In both cases, the man is a decent man but has a narrow, mistaken view on women; he marries a beautiful woman he idealises, but at the same time also looks down on her; she turns out to be selfish, shallow, and incompatible with him, and because he treats her like a child and keeps things from her, she doesn’t understand anything and brings him to his ruin. 
Another strong similarity between Rosamond Vincy and Undine Spragg is that both of them never think they’re wrong. They’re incapable of recognising and acknowledging their own fault—there’s always someone else to blame. 
Chapter 15 of The Custom of the Country has an interesting discussion between Laura Fairford (Ralph Marvell’s sister) and her friend Charles Bowen. 
“He paused. "The fact that the average American looks down on his wife."
Mrs. Fairford was up with a spring. "If that's where paradox lands you!"
Bowen mildly stood his ground. "Well—doesn't he prove it? How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance—you say his wife's extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that's not what's wrong. It's normal for a man to work hard for a woman—what's abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it."
"To tell Undine? She'd be bored to death if he did!"
"Just so; she'd even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it's against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man's again—I don't mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven't we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don't take enough interest in them."” 
Note the appearance of the book’s title (my emphasis).
Blah blah blah, then: 
“"Yes; and the most indifferent: there's the point. The 'slaving's' no argument against the indifference. To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they've ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn't know what else to do with it."
[…] Bowen paused to light another cigarette, and then took up his theme. "Isn't that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we'd give them up as readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what's the result—how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy's with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male—the money and the motors and the clothes—and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT'S what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you're going to say—it's less and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they're more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there's one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she's paid for keeping out of some man's way!"” 
(The discussion is longer, but I’ve kept a large part of it). 
Is this Edith Wharton’s view? I don’t remember Charles Bowen ever opening his mouth before. If this is Wharton’s way of commenting on the marriage and the American way, it is subtler than, you know, George Eliot.  
In a way, it’s true. Undine is mercenary, but she doesn’t think about money in itself, but about comfort, luxury, extravagance, and distinction. She doesn’t understand the value of money, and doesn’t care where it comes from—all she cares about is getting “the best”. That is the way Mr Spragg raises her: 
“All his life, and at ever-diminishing intervals, Mr. Spragg had been called on by his womenkind to "see what he could do"; and the seeing had almost always resulted as they wished. Undine did not have to send back her ring, and in her state of trance-like happiness she hardly asked by what means her path had been smoothed, but merely accepted her mother's assurance that "father had fixed everything all right."” (Ch.10) 
It is, in fact, the way Mr Spragg treats his wife as well as his daughter. 
“He had been "seeing" now for an arduous fortnight; and the strain on his vision had resulted in a state of tension such as he had not undergone since the epic days of the Pure Water Move at Apex. It was not his habit to impart his fears to Mrs. Spragg and Undine, and they continued the bridal preparations, secure in their invariable experience that, once "father" had been convinced of the impossibility of evading their demands, he might be trusted to satisfy them by means with which his womenkind need not concern themselves.” (ibid.) 
Both Mrs Spragg and Undine have no understanding of money and the difficulty in getting it, so when Undine wants something, they gang up on him. 
Look at the scene where she asks him to get her an opera box. 
“Mr. Spragg's brow remained unrelenting.
"Do you know what a box costs?"
"No; but I s'pose you do," Undine returned with unconscious flippancy.
"I do. That's the trouble. Why won't seats do you?"
"Mabel could buy seats for herself."” (Ch.4) 
She doesn’t care how much it costs—she wants it, and she will get it. 
“"A parterre box costs a hundred and twenty-five dollars a night," saidMr. Spragg, transferring a toothpick to his waistcoat pocket.
"I only want it once."” (ibid.) 
But even when she knows the cost, she doesn’t know what it means. The amount is abstract and meaningless to someone who never works and never handles money. This is an important scene because it says everything you need to know about Undine, and also explains why she is the way she is—her family spoil her rotten.
“Undine hated "scenes": she was essentially peace-loving, and would have preferred to live on terms of unbroken harmony with her parents. But she could not help it if they were unreasonable. Ever since she could remember there had been "fusses" about money; yet she and her mother had always got what they wanted, apparently without lasting detriment to the family fortunes. It was therefore natural to conclude that there were ample funds to draw upon, and that Mr. Spragg's occasional resistances were merely due to an imperfect understanding of what constituted the necessities of life.” (ibid.)  
It is no wonder that later on when Ralph and Undine are in Europe and need to return home for lack of funds, she neither wants to sail within the week and lose her fun, nor wants to leave later in an uncomfortable slow boat. She has to have it both ways, she has to have the best, and Ralph yields as he can’t make her understand. 
There is no doubt that Ralph is the victim in the marriage and Undine is an opportunistic, selfish, and manipulative woman, incapable of empathy and self-reflection. It’s understandable as well that Ralph looks down on her—after all, she is shallow, ignorant, and a philistine, having no sensibilities for art, literature, music, or nature. Undine not only has no principle but also lacks a sense of self—she is hollow and imitative. 
But Edith Wharton also forces the readers to see another aspect of their marriage—Ralph looks down on Undine, and does nothing to help her improve herself nor engage her in “the business of life”. 
“[Mrs Shallum] saw at once Undine's value as a factor in her scheme, and the two formed an alliance on which Ralph refrained from shedding the cold light of depreciation. It was a point of honour with him not to seem to disdain any of Undine's amusements […] With her quick perceptions and adaptabilities she would soon learn to care more about the quality of the reflecting surface; and meanwhile no criticism of his should mar her pleasure.” (Ch.12) 
And: 
“Undine's moods still infected him, and when she was happy he felt an answering lightness. Even when her amusements were too primitive to be shared he could enjoy their reflection in her face. Only, as he looked back, he was struck by the evanescence, the lack of substance, in their moments of sympathy, and by the permanent marks left by each breach between them. Yet he still fancied that some day the balance might be reversed, and that as she acquired a finer sense of values the depths in her would find a voice.” (Ch.13) 
He naively thinks she can change, but does nothing to help her change. Just once he takes her to a play, which she’s too ignorant to appreciate, so afterwards he goes to the theatre alone and leaves her to do her things. 
Now look at it from Undine’s point of view: 
“[Mr Popple’s] conversation struck her as intellectual, and his eagerness to have her share his thoughts was in flattering contrast to Ralph's growing tendency to keep his to himself. Popple's homage seemed the, subtlest proof of what Ralph could have made of her if he had "really understood" her. It was but another step to ascribe all her past mistakes to the lack of such understanding; and the satisfaction derived from this thought had once impelled her to tell the artist that he alone knew how to rouse her 'higher self.'” (Ch.14) 
This doesn’t justify her selfishness and lack of empathy (she forgets her own son’s birthday!), but Wharton makes us consider the marriage from a different point of view. Let’s go back to Ralph before the proposal: 
“The clearness with which he judged the girl and himself seemed the surest proof that his feeling was more than a surface thrill. He was not blind to her crudity and her limitations, but they were a part of her grace and her persuasion. Diverse et ondoyante—so he had seen her from the first. But was not that merely the sign of a quicker response to the world's manifold appeal? […] the girl's very sensitiveness to new impressions, combined with her obvious lack of any sense of relative values, would make her an easy prey to the powers of folly.” (Ch.6) 
Ralph sees her crudity and limitations from the start, but chooses her anyway. He himself picks an intellectually inferior, incompatible wife.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

The hand motif in The Custom of the Country

1 of the 1st things I looked for in The Custom of the Country was light—whether Edith Wharton still made use of light. She does, but because I’ve written about light in The House of Mirth, I won’t write about light in this one. 
Instead, let’s look at the hand motif. 
This is Undine’s hand: 
“It was small and soft, a mere featherweight, a puff-ball of a hand—not quick and thrilling, not a speaking hand, but one to be fondled and dressed in rings, and to leave a rosy blur in the brain. The fingers were short and tapering, dimpled at the base, with nails as smooth as rose-leaves. Ralph lifted them one by one, like a child playing with piano-keys, but they were inelastic and did not spring back far—only far enough to show the dimples.” (Ch.11) 
The hands of a spoilt girl, who can’t do anything. Personally I don’t really like the phrase “puff-ball of a hand”, nor “nails as smooth as rose-leaves”. Is that Ralph the writer speaking? 
“Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it.” (ibid.) 
“Infant hands” ugh.
“He told her once that she had a miserly hand—showing her, in proof, that, for all their softness, the fingers would not bend back, or the pink palm open. But she retorted a little sharply that it was no wonder, since she'd heard nothing talked of since their marriage but economy; and this left him without any answer.” (Ch.13) 
What does it mean that “the fingers would not bend back”? On a side note, I don’t think you want to see my fingers (though some people have worse). 
These images are not random, however, as the hand motif runs through the novel. In fact, this is the opening line: 
“"Undine Spragg—how can you?" her mother wailed, raising a prematurely-wrinkled hand heavy with rings to defend the note which a languid "bell-boy" had just brought in.” (Ch.1) 
Later: 
“Mrs. Spragg consentingly slipped the rings from her small mottled hands.” (ibid.) 
This is the scene where she gets her nails done by her manicurist and masseuse Mrs Heeny. 
“A wave of almost physical apprehension passed over Mrs. Spragg. Her jewelled hands trembled in her black brocade lap, and the pulpy curves of her face collapsed as if it were a pricked balloon.” (ibid.) 
Wharton keeps referring to the jewels on Mrs Spragg’s hands. She describes the hands to convey something about the characters. Check out Ralph Marvell: 
“Undine noticed the delicacy and finish of her companion's features as his head detached itself against the red silk walls. The hand with which he stroked his small moustache was finely-finished too, but sinewy and not effeminate. She had always associated finish and refinement entirely with her own sex, but she began to think they might be even more agreeable in a man. Marvell's eyes were grey, like her own, with chestnut eyebrows and darker lashes; and his skin was as clear as a woman's, but pleasantly reddish, like his hands.” (Ch.5) 
Another person who doesn’t do anything. A gentleman, he’s called.  
His grandfather Mr Dagonet: 
“Mr. Dagonet, turning, laid an intricately-veined old hand on, hers…” 
Mr Spragg: 
“Mr. Spragg heard her out in silence, pulling at his beard with one sallow wrinkled hand, while the other dragged down the armhole of his waistcoat.” (Ch.10) 
This is the scene where Undine meets Elmer Moffatt: 
“"Well—this is white of you. Undine!" he said, taking her lifeless fingers into his dapperly gloved hand.” (Ch.9)  
His hands are seen later: 
“He leaned back, crossing his legs, and twisting his small stiff moustache with a plump hand adorned by a cameo.” (Ch.10) 
Such an ugly image. Contrast that with Ralph Marvell’s hands. 
Wharton uses the hand motif in interesting ways. She writes about Ralph thinking about Undine, wondering about her limitations and crudities, but loving her and wanting to save her, and has to stick in the hand motif. 
“But how long would their virgin innocence last? Popple's vulgar hands were on it already—Popple's and the unspeakable Van Degen's!” (Ch.6) 
Then there’s a jump in time: 
“Some two months later than the date of young Marvell's midnight vigil, Mrs. Heeny, seated on a low chair at Undine's knee, gave the girl's left hand an approving pat as she laid aside her lapful of polishers.
"There! I guess you can put your ring on again," she said with a laugh of jovial significance; and Undine, echoing the laugh in a murmur of complacency, slipped on the fourth finger of her recovered hand a band of sapphires in an intricate setting.” (Ch.7) 
As in The Portrait of a Lady, the courtship, seduction, and proposal are all skipped. Undine is now engaged. And how does Wharton tell readers about the engagement? By writing about the ring on her hand. 
And: 
“Could it be that the hand now adorned with Ralph's engagement ring had once, in this very spot, surrendered itself to the riding-master's pressure?” (Ch.9) 
That’s good. 
She also writes about hands to convey the character’s emotions: 
“She moved toward the toilet-table, and began to demolish with feverish hands the structure which Mrs. Heeny, a few hours earlier, had so lovingly raised.” (Ch.8) 
Later: 
“Mrs. Spragg stooped to gather up the scattered garments as they fell, folding them with a wistful caressing touch, and laying them on the lounge, without daring to raise her eyes to her daughter. It was not till she heard Undine throw herself on the bed that she went toward her and drew the coverlet up with deprecating hands.” (ibid.) 
Or: 
“A quiver of resistance ran through her: he felt it and dropped her hands.” (Ch.9) 
I haven’t mentioned all the moments where the characters hold out their hand, lift their hands, lay a hand on someone’s arm, pass their hand through someone’s arm, kiss someone’s hands, shake hands, clasp their hands, place hands in their pockets, take someone’s hands, etc. 
The hand motif runs through the entire novel—Edith Wharton describes hands, and uses hands to say something about the characters’ life, status, personality, and emotions. 
Interesting, no?

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

The Custom of the Country: first impressions

Reading 2 Edith Wharton novels together can be a bit dreary and lead to some infuriating moments, because of the shallow rich people she portrays, and because of her misanthropy. But reading The Custom of the Country right after The House of Mirth can be interesting. 
I’m currently on chapter 12—Undine’s honeymoon with Ralph Marvell. The main character is called Undine Spragg, from Apex (she is U. S. of A.), a spoilt, selfish, shallow, philistine, and mercenary young woman of unspecified age. The blurb of my copy says “Undine Spragg is the most repellent heroine we have encountered in many a long day”. A few glances here and there also tell me that Undine is a lot worse than Lily Bart, and has been compared to Kim Kardashian and called a female Trump. Fun stuff. 
The introduction, written by Stephen Orgel, mentions that in the novel, Undine will have 3 marriages. 
Reading this one right after The House of Mirth is interesting, because I’m starting to have the theory that it is a response to the earlier novel. If The House of Mirth is about women’s limited options, about how a woman (Lily Bart) is crushed by society when refusing to play its game, The Custom of the Country would be about a different kind of woman (Undine), who would play the game and use the system to her advantage, and get everything she wants. 
I also have the theory that The Custom of the Country is Edith Wharton asking, what if Lily had married all the men—Lawrence Selden, Percy Pryce, and Simon Rosedale? At the moment, I know that Ralph Marvell is not Lawrence Selden, but he also studies law, reads books, doesn’t have much money, and can’t satisfy Undine’s thirst for extravagance. I happen to know that Undine’s 3rd husband would be her ex bf, Elmer Moffatt, who is not Jewish, but he’s also a calculating, ruthless social climber like Simon Rosedale. I don’t know who the 2nd husband will be—let’s hope that he’s similar to Percy Pryce to make my theory work. 
But all that is for later. At the moment, Edith Wharton seems to come close to George Eliot in subject and theme (though not in style), as I read about the unhappy marriage between Undine and Ralph Marvell. They are incompatible. 
“He had said a moment before, without conscious exaggeration, that her presence made any place the one place; yet how willingly would he have consented to share in such a life as she was leading before their marriage? […] An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife's spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it. He was beginning to understand this, and learning to adapt himself to the narrow compass of her experience. The task of opening new windows in her mind was inspiring enough to give him infinite patience; and he would not yet own to himself that her pliancy and variety were imitative rather than spontaneous.” (Ch.11) 
Ralph marries Undine for her beauty, and thinks she’s an ideal woman, the same way Lydgate chooses to marry Rosamond Vincy. But naively, he thinks she can change. 
“[Mrs Shallum] saw at once Undine's value as a factor in her scheme, and the two formed an alliance on which Ralph refrained from shedding the cold light of depreciation. It was a point of honour with him not to seem to disdain any of Undine's amusements: the noisy interminable picnics, the hot promiscuous balls, the concerts, bridge-parties and theatricals which helped to disguise the difference between the high Alps and Paris or New York. He told himself that there is always a Narcissus-element in youth, and that what Undine really enjoyed was the image of her own charm mirrored in the general admiration. With her quick perceptions and adaptabilities she would soon learn to care more about the quality of the reflecting surface; and meanwhile no criticism of his should mar her pleasure.” (Ch.12) 
So mistaken. 
Ralph has a more sensitive mind. Look at this: 
“As he lay there, fragments of past states of emotion, fugitive felicities of thought and sensation, rose and floated on the surface of his thoughts. It was one of those moments when the accumulated impressions of life converge on heart and brain, elucidating, enlacing each other, in a mysterious confusion of beauty. He had had glimpses of such a state before, of such mergings of the personal with the general life that one felt one's self a mere wave on the wild stream of being, yet thrilled with a sharper sense of individuality than can be known within the mere bounds of the actual. But now he knew the sensation in its fulness, and with it came the releasing power of language. Words were flashing like brilliant birds through the boughs overhead; he had but to wave his magic wand to have them flutter down to him. Only they were so beautiful up there, weaving their fantastic flights against the blue, that it was pleasanter, for the moment, to watch them and let the wand lie.” (Ch.11) 
I didn’t need to share that to demonstrate my point, but it’s so good so why not? Same with this passage: 
“… Siena grew vocal with that shrill diversity of sounds that breaks, on summer nights, from every cleft of the masonry in old Italian towns. Then the moon rose, unfolding depth by depth the lines of the antique land; and Ralph, leaning against an old brick parapet, and watching each silver-blue remoteness disclose itself between the dark masses of the middle distance, felt his spirit enlarged and pacified. For the first time, as his senses thrilled to the deep touch of beauty, he asked himself if out of these floating and fugitive vibrations he might not build something concrete and stable, if even such dull common cares as now oppressed him might not become the motive power of creation. If he could only, on the spot, do something with all the accumulated spoils of the last months—something that should both put money into his pocket and harmony into the rich confusion of his spirit! "I'll write—I'll write: that must be what the whole thing means," he said to himself, with a vague clutch at some solution which should keep him a little longer hanging half-way down the steep of disenchantment.
He would have stayed on, heedless of time, to trace the ramifications of his idea in the complex beauty of the scene, but for the longing to share his mood with Undine”. (ibid.) 
Even though Ralph can’t write anything (perhaps he’s not much of a writer), it’s so much better to enter his mind after pages and pages of suffocation as we were following Undine. She’s a little philistine. She barely reads, goes to the gallery then forgets everything she has seen, then goes to the opera only to use her opera-glass to watch other people, and is also “insensible to the soft spell of the evening” (ibid.). She is vacuous. 
In the 1st marriage, Undine marries Ralph for his name and gets disappointed as he doesn’t have as much money as expected, whereas he gets disillusioned because of their incompatibility. The point, of course, is that she uses marriage to get forward and move higher in society, and that she doesn’t have the intelligence and sensitivity to understand Ralph. 
But it’s certainly nice to take a break from Undine’s empty, opportunistic mind by entering Ralph’s. Undine is unbearable.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

The House of Mirth: some random thoughts

1/ The House of Mirth has a range of interesting male characters. 
Gus Trenor and George Dorset are well-drawn, especially the latter. When was the last time I encountered such a weak, pathetic, and spineless man in fiction? The way he stays up all night to wait for his wife returning from another man, then collapses and feels sorry for himself, or the way he comes to ask Lily for help, after doing nothing to help or defend her, is so pathetic, and it’s all so vivid. 
The most fascinating male character in the book is Simon Rosedale, the Jew. I’m aware that Edith Wharton’s description of him is tinted with anti-Semitism, but in spite of it, the character is complex and becomes more humane throughout the story. He might be said to be better than most of the people in the book (apart from Gerty Farish). 
Look at the scene where Lily Bart, after the disgrace, hopes Rosedale still wants to marry her: 
“He met this with a steady gaze of his small stock-taking eyes, which made her feel herself no more than some superfine human merchandise. "I believe it does in novels; but I'm certain it don't in real life. You know that as well as I do: if we're speaking the truth, let's speak the whole truth. Last year I was wild to marry you, and you wouldn't look at me: this year—well, you appear to be willing. Now, what has changed in the interval? Your situation, that's all. Then you thought you could do better; now——"
"You think you can?" broke from her ironically.
"Why, yes, I do: in one way, that is."” (B.2, ch.7) 
He explains in more detail. Then: 
“She received this with a look from which all tinge of resentment had faded. After the tissue of social falsehoods in which she had so long moved it was refreshing to step into the open daylight of an avowed expediency.” (ibid.) 
Out of all the characters, including Lawrence Selden, Rosedale is the most honest. He’s a social climber, but he’s perfectly frank about who he is and what he wants. Rosedale’s brutally honest when proposing marriage to Lily, presenting it as a transaction, a win-win situation, without attempting to sugar-coat it in corny expressions. He’s brutally honest when rejecting her, but also presents to her the different options and how the choice he persuades her to take would benefit them both. 
Place him next to Selden—Selden may, in some way, understand Lily better because he, up to a point, still believes in a nobility in her, whereas Rosedale sees everything as a transaction and doesn’t understand that Lily is sick of high society and doesn’t want to blackmail Bertha Dorset. However, Rosedale is the one who tries to help and provides with practical solutions, the one who tries to and can save her from destitution, the one who is open and frank but also shows a tenderness when Lily’s reduced to living in a boarding house and working at a milliner’s. Selden often hides behind a light-hearted tone, and runs away. 
Of course, I’m not saying that Lily should listen to Rosedale’s suggestion and marry him—he’s not right for her. I’m just saying that he loves her, and tries to help, in his way, whereas Selden runs away like a coward. 

2/ I wonder why The Great Gatsby is much more acclaimed than The House of Mirth
Both novels are about a character chasing false values, getting disillusioned, and having a tragic end. Both novels dissect the rich and explore their hypocrisy and rottenness, except that Edith Wharton has a colder, harder tone, her characters are more calculating and ruthless, treating each other like disposables. The House of Mirth, in addition, examines the conditions of women, having limited options and being brought up to be ornamental. 
I used to have a Fitzgerald phase, but The House of Mirth is a greater novel, and Edith Wharton’s writing is much better.  

3/ It’s always nice to discover another writer to like. 
I’m reading The Custom of the Country, another book by Edith Wharton.