Wednesday 19 June 2013

the noiseless subsidence of opening pages

I think this may be my longest blogging lull since I started ... sorry. I have started two new Coursera courses and they are taking up rather too much of my free time and the reading has taken a bit of a back seat. 'The Touchstone' by Edith Wharton has been a slow starter at the breakfast table but it is a very brief novella and once I got used to the style it was very engaging.

I actually bothered to read the foreword by Salley Vickers and was glad I did because it gave much food for thought. Knowing what happens in the story is not really that important because it's all about the reactions and emotions of the characters. It reminded me a little of Howards End and the notion of propriety that I wrote about when I reviewed it; they were written during the same period so the social attitudes were very similar even though Wharton is american. What was acceptable behaviour in polite society, and the relationship between husband and wife are scrutinised and unpicked.

The story is of a young man, Glennard, and the unrequited love of a woman called Margaret Aubyn. This unrequited love caused her to continue to correspond with Glennard even after her rise to fame as an author takes her from America to London, where she quietly dies. The book begins some years later when Glennard sees an advertisement by a publisher seeking any unknown writing by Mrs Aubyn. He is currently living in somewhat reduced circumstances (not poverty, just that when he is at 'the club' he scouts around for dinner invitations so he doesn't have to pay for himself) and he is unable to marry the woman of his affections because of this financial situation. After discovering by a roundabout conversation the potential value of the letters he has in his possession he decides to sell them to improve his own fortunes. The ladies of his social circle are both scandalised and unable to resist, they censure the man who offered them for publication but read them voraciously (Mrs Touchett: "I'm positively sick of the book and I can't put it down."); we know nothing of the content of the letters but it is obvious they are emotionally intense and revealing. What follows is a very circuitous process by which he deals with the guilt he feels, and eventually becomes a better person. 

Pretentious is the only suitable word for describing Wharton's writing style; why use a nice simple word if there is a more ostentatious one available. To begin with it enchanted me, it felt clever and intelligent, but towards the end the use of long words became almost predictable, not to mention annoying when I didn't know what they meant. I think maybe it is a sign of the times and the kind of writing that was looked up to a hundred years ago. Having said that it was all part of what gave the book it's particular atmosphere and it adds an intensity that is necessary to the emotional impact that is packed in to less than 100 pages.
I loved firstly this description of Mrs Aubyn:

"Her dress never seemed a part of her; all her clothes had an impersonal air, as though they had belonged to someone else and been borrowed in an emergency that had somehow become chronic. She was conscious enough of her deficiencies to try to amend them by rash imitation of the most approved models; but no woman who does not dress well intuitively will ever do so by the light of reason, and Mrs Aubyn's plagiarisms, to borrow a metaphor of her trade, somehow never seemed to be incorporated with the text." (p.13)

And then how he comes to view her (and her continuing correspondence) after she has left for England and become famous:

"The door was never to reopen; but through its narrow crack Glennard, as the years went on, became more and more conscious of an inextinguishable light directing its small ray towards the past which consumed so little of his own commemorative oil. The reproach was taken from this thought by Mrs Aubyn's gradual translation into terms of universality. In becoming a personage she so naturally ceased to be a person that Glennard could almost look back to his explorations of her spirit as on a visit to some famous shrine, immortalised, but in a sense desecrated, by popular veneration." (p.16)

I am not sure where she stood on the subject of women, and on the whole she is a little dismissive of them (not that she is admiring of the men, in fact the whole book has a feeling of a social dissection) but there was this lovely little snip, from a social gathering on Flamel's yacht:

"As for the other ladies of the party, they were simply the wives of some of the men - the kind of women who expect to be talked to collectively and to have their questions left unanswered." (p.39)

and then this, rather scathing comment:

"Alexa was a woman of few requirements; but her wishes, even in trifles, had a definiteness that distinguished them from the fluid impulses of her kind." (p.45)

Having agonised over whether his wife knows the truth (the above mentioned Alexa), if she knows why hasn't she reacted, and whether he should confess all, Glennard then takes himself off to Mrs Aubyn's grave, as if seeking some kind of forgiveness, but it seems he is not going to find a solution that easily; lovely atmosphere in this description (having gone empty handed he goes to the greenhouses to find some flowers):

"The hot air was choked with the scent of white azaleas, while lilies, white lilacs; all the flowers were white; they were like a prolongation, a mystical efflorescence, of the long rows of marble tombstones, and their perfume seemed to cover an odour of decay. The rich atmosphere made Glennard dizzy. As he leaned in the doorway, waiting for the flowers, he had a penetrating sense of Margaret Aubyn's nearness - not the imponderable presence of his inner vision, but a life that beat warm in his arms...
The sharp air caught him as he stepped out into it again. He walked back and scattered the flowers over the grave. the edges of the white petals shrivelled like burnt paper in the cold; and as he watched them, the illusion of her nearness faded, shrank back, frozen." (p.72)

A lovely book, even if stylistically a little old fashioned, it will definitely improve your vocabulary. I was left not sure what he felt or what he wanted, nor what his wife Alexa felt. For some pages they skirt around the issue, talk in vague terms without saying much. It is a game of cat and mouse as he accuses her of having an affair and she tries to explain that she only tried to like Flamel because she thought he wanted her to, it is all very convoluted. It is as if he wanted her to know by osmosis, by reading his mind, and wanted to understand what she thought by reading her mind, there was not a great deal of real communication between them. The final quote kind of sums up the whole of the human condition:

" 'I've imagined that you had reasons for still wishing me to be civil to him, as you call it.'
'Ah,' said Glennard, with an effort at lightness; but his irony dropped, for something in her voice made him feel that he and she stood at last in that naked desert of apprehension where meaning skulks vainly behind speech."

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