Saturday, June 18, 2011

Edith Wharton's Muscular Prose

Back from Atlanta, this time without a cold. DAMOP was dreary, despite being in some ways nicer than March meeting -- fancy hotel vs. convention center, fewer parallel sessions, infinitely more free stuff -- and I'm getting more and more reluctant to go to these things. I used to think they were useful: abstracts are due a long time before the meeting, so (I used to think) committing to talk about something you haven't yet done gives you a strong incentive to do it by a certain date. Unfortunately one gets quite good at damage control over time, so that the objective incentive to finish up by a certain date loses its force; eventually conferences and talk prep take up time that would have been better spent writing papers.

Glad to report that the Kindle has put an end to my habit of traveling with the wrong books. Two things of interest that I read (dept of free e-books): The Age of Innocence and Gissing's Odd Women. (Still have a small amount of the latter to finish, I meant to finish it on the train from Chicago last night but the train was sold out so I had to take the bus, which was too dark to read in.) I had avoided Wharton she always sounded like a Henry James clone, and was surprised, or more accurately disconcerted, by the actual book. What is most disconcerting is the disconnect between the ostensible plot (which is about subtleties, silences, etc. in the canonical Jamesian way) and the style, which is vigorous, heavy-handed, "broad" and ungainly. Sometimes it is a little like reading The Golden Bowl as rewritten by Dr. Johnson: the writing is strongest at the level of the phrase, but the arrangement is often monotonous ("Civic Virtue" is more like Wilde, but Wharton doesn't do paradox):
Perhaps that faculty of unawareness was what gave her eyes their transparency, and her face the look of representing a type rather than a person; as if she might have been chosen to pose for a Civic Virtue or a Greek goddess. The blood that ran so close to her fair skin might have been a preserving fluid rather than a ravaging element; yet her look of indestructible youthfulness made her seem neither hard nor dull, but only primitive and pure.
The "thought" is good but it is expressed too monotonously, too many of the descriptors come in pairs -- a fault that is perceptible throughout the book. Then there is her fondness for lurid irrelevances, of which perhaps the best example is the running gag about Mrs. Manson Mingott's obesity:
The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation.
(I like this sort of thing as a rule. But note the redundancy, the heavy-handedness of the first sentence.)

Wharton's description of Boston in summer is reminiscent of Eliot's in "Preludes," written around the same time (though Wharton's novel is set some years prev.):
The streets near the station were full of the smell of beer and coffee and decaying fruit and a shirt-sleeved populace moved through them with the intimate abandon of boarders going down the passage to the bathroom. ... every few moments the doors opened to let out hot men with straw hats tilted far back, who glanced at him as they went by. He marvelled that the door should open so often, and that all the people it let out should look so like each other, and so like all the other hot men who, at that hour, through the length and breadth of the land, were passing continuously in and out of the swinging doors of hotels.
I am intrigued by her weirdly heterogeneous sensibility; I'll have to read more of her books.

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