Tuesday, June 06, 2006


The gilded age sure was depressing

After reading (and being wowed by) Embers a few weeks ago, I read another novel set largely in the 1890s - George Paston's A Writer of Books, which was reprinted by Academy Chicago in 1999. Paston was in actuality Emily Morse Symonds (1860-1936). Under the name Paston she wrote several novels and then left fiction behind and turned to writing social history. She produced a book I dearly love, one of the first antiquarian-type books I ever bought myself, after having it out of the library long ago, Side-Lights on the Georgian Period. But back to her novel - it starts well, with a young woman raised in a library, by a librarian father, and after his death she goes to London determined to earn her living as a writer:

"Her solitary studies and the atmosphere of the library so wrought upon her growing mind that in time books became to her the realities of life, and human beings merely the shadows.... (Her father) a book-worm of the worst type, a book-worm with a speciality, unconsciously encouraged this strange obsession. The library was his world, and the books his best-loved children." (p.5)

Her book quickly becomes a woman's version of George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891): an inside look at the shabby world of hack writers in London during the 1890s. A good story, but boy, it was depressing as hell. I wonder how much of it was autobiographical. I don't know why I thought Edith Wharton would cheer me up after that, but I did in fact read The Age of Innocence (1920) last week, and right now I'm in the middle of The House of Mirth (1905). I don't think Wharton lets anyone be happy in any of her books. I think, for example, that she must have gotten some sort of bitter satisfaction out of not letting her aged hero have one last look at his lost love at the end of The Age of Innocence, and I know what happens at the end of The House of Mirth, so I don't particularly want to finish the book at this point. I don't have to have a happy ending in every book I read, but I will admit to liking a hint, just a morsel somewhere, a crumb, of HOPE. Not much hope, but in The House of Mirth I am at least able to marvel at the relentlessness of the web that closes around Lily Bart. Each event in the book comes with two choices for the heroine to make, and Wharton has Lily choose badly, even catastrophically, every time, chapter after chapter. Wharton's plots are like hard diamonds: faceted, sharp, cold, rare. For my next book, I'll find something warmer.

Yep,Wharton's not a happy gal-the closet I've come to a somewhat of an optimistic book of hers is Custom of the Country(a very loose defination of optimism,mind you). Ethan Frome is too sad for me to even reread.

In a weird way,she reminds me of Graham Greene-I've only read End of the Affair but they seem to have the same knack of writing about emotional pain in a brillantly beautiful way.
I haven't read "Ethan Frome" yet. I just re-read "The Great Gatsby" though, and am about to embark on "Tender is the Night" - set later in time, but still in that rarified air of the often-unhappy upper class. Fitzgerald based "Tender" largely on the lives of Sara and Gerald Murphy, and I've read that wonderful book about their life together - "Living Well is the Best Revenge" - surely one of the greatest book titles out there. But again, not *happy* books, to simplify dreadfully.

For a close-up look at Greene - I loved Shirley Hazzard's memoir "Greene on Capri" which came out a few years ago.
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