Sunday, April 8, 2012

age of innocence

Edith Wharton writes about what she knows, I guess. The book jacket states that she was born in New York in the late 1800s, was married early in the 1900s and by 1913 had moved to Paris, divorced her husband, and set about writing some of the best fiction of the time.

I can only speak for myself but based on what I've read of hers (only this one) I would have to agree. The lady can write a story. In the introduction--which I skipped, then scanned afterward--Paul Montazzoli compares Wharton to her friend, Henry James. I can see that. Wharton seems to delight in the thorough examination of a character: a study, one could say, similar to her friend's Daisy Miller: A Study, or Portrait of a Lady.

The Age of Innocence is a carefully painted portrait of a young man who both enjoys a privileged life as a member of New York's exclusive society, and is trapped by its rules and etiquette. Wharton seems to rail against the strictures that she as a young woman in New York, must have had to deal with and ultimately escaped to Paris. She draws society as an almost mindless swarm; moving in concert to an unspoken set of rules like a brightly colored company of parrots, or pact of lemmings.* Unspoken, simply because it would be bad form to speak of such things!

Its was the underlying tension, just barely visible below the surface that really struck me about this story. Wharton torqued the tension up until it sang. But not that high-pitched, keening wail that so many stories have. This is that low F note, way over on the piano that tolls like a bell, or that thrilling organ note that can shake a church to its foundations.

Yeah. That's some tightly-laced stuff you've got there Edith. I'll keep an eye out for more.

Read this book.

* Collective nouns! Love 'em! A company of parrots I found at the link given. Pact of lemmings? I made that one up.** Its sure to be adopted in a flash.

** Further investigation has unveiled one source that not only has a collective noun for lemmings, but its actually a suicide pact of lemmings. [scooped!] I like mine better. They don't kill themselves on purpose, but they do hang together pretty tight, and can die in groups. And I think 'pact' refers to that without stepping outside the reality of the matter.*** Go figure.

*** Plus; 'suicide pact'? That's two words! How many collective nouns are two words? Let me see... ? Ah, none. That is so made-up. But, you know, not as good made-up as my made-up, which is one word. And good.
Suicide pact [p-tooey!] No subtly.

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