I’ve been rereading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, my favorite of her books. As it opens, lovely, graceful, and without money of her own, Lily Barth needs to find a husband. She’s already 29, old for the job. But it’s hard for her. She attaches herself to Percy Gryce, a rich, eligible bachelor and draws him out on his favorite books, but he is so boring that just thinking about him later brings his droning voice clearly to mind, and she imagines the work of getting him to propose, summed up in this sentence.
“She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce–the mere thought seemed to raise an echo of his droning voice–but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life.”
Funny, but ultimately tragic for Lily, who can never quite bring herself to this wholly mercenary level. A wonderful read to finish up the summer.
I subscribe to Ben Dolnick’s occasional posts about fiction, which I love. His recent missive on “the likable narrator” made me think of Tom Ripley, one of the most underrated characters in 20th century fiction. Patricia Highsmith created a complex, haunted character, with a shakey moral compass. Not likable. Nonetheless, you can’t help rooting for him as he murders and cheats and steals his way across Europe, longing to be someone better. Here is a passage at the center of The Talented Mr. Ripley, that I think is stunning:
Now Tom stopped. He had an impulse to go back, not necessarily to go back to the Italian, but to leave Dickie. Then his tension snapped suddenly. His shoulders relaxed, aching, and his breath began to come fast, through his mouth. He wanted to say at least ‘All right Dickie,’ to make it up to make Dickie forget it. He felt tongue-tied. He stared at Dickie’s blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him. You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, to see love through the eyes, the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and in Dickie’s eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be that illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear. He felt in the grip of a fit, as if he would fall to the ground. It was too much: the foreignness around him, the different language, his failure, and the fact that Dickie hated him. He felt suddenly surrounded by strangeness, by hostility. He felt Dickie yank his hands down from his eyes…
Dickie yanked him by the arm Tom tripped over a door step. They were in the little bar opposite the post office. Tom heard Dickie ordering a brandy, specifying Italian brandy because he wasn’t good enough for French, Tom supposed. Tom drank it off, slightly sweetish, medicinal-tasting, drank three of them, like a magic medicine to bring him back to what his mind know was usually called reality: the smell of the Nazionale in Dickie’s hand, the curlycued grain in the wood of the bar under his fingers, the fact that his stomach had a hard pressure in it as if someone were holding a fist against his navel, the vivid anticipation of the long steep walk from here up to the house, the faint ache that would come in his thighs from it.
‘I’m okay,’ Ton said in a quiet, deep voice.’ I don’t know what was the matter Must have been the heat that got me for a minute.’ He laughed a little. That was reality, laughing it off, making it silly, something that was more important than anything that had happened to him in the five weeks since he had met Dickie, maybe that had ever happened to him.”
It’s unfortunate that the four subsequent Ripley novels are disappointing. But this one is a masterpiece. It ranks with the best books of the 20th century. And I also loved Ben Dolnick’s most recent book, The Ghost Notebooks.
For several months I had been reading Ben Dolnick’s posts on literature, which I enjoyed greatly, before discovering his fiction. The Ghost Notebooks, a perfect read for this season, is what I’d call a literary thriller. Here are two excellent sentences from that book. As I was listening to it as an audio book, they were so good I had to stop driving to write them down:
“But morning always comes no matter what sort of a night you’ve had. This is an under appreciated fact.”
It’s that last observation that drives this home (not sure if there should be a hyphen there). And,
“So this is how homelessness begins. Not with a momentous decision but with a gradual surrendering. A rest becomes a nap becomes a night.”
I love the way that last sentence has an almost nursery rhyme inevitability. Sadly, he’s stopped his posts for now, but hopefully that will lead to more of his fiction.
I get The Writer’s Almanac from Garrison Keeler daily, and rarely read anything but the poem. But today there was this lovely photo of Agatha Christie, whose work has given me a lot of pleasure. She was born in 1890. From the detailed article about her, I selected this to share with you:
She set her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in Cairo and used the pen name “Monosyllaba.” The book was rejected by numerous publishers. She tried again with a book called The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), which featured an extravagantly mustached Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot. The book was a hit, and Christie was off and running. Hercule Poirot would be featured in more than 33 of Christie’s novels, though she admitted she found Poirot “insufferable and an egocentric creep.” She actually killed off Poirot in a novel titled Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, in the early 1940s, and had it stored in a bank vault to safeguard it from Nazi destruction during World War II. When the book was published in 1975, the New York Times ran Hercule Poirot’s obituary on the front page.
If you are looking for a bon bon of a book, The Enchanted April is delectable. Not overwhelmingly sweet, amusing, light, but well-enough written that it’s not a guilty pleasure. I especially enjoyed this paragraph, the musings of a woman who has long been ignored by her husband:
“Why, if Frederick did come, she would only bore him. Hadn’t she seen in a flash quite soon after getting to San Salvatore that that was what kept him away from her? And why should she suppose now, after such a long estrangement, she would be able not to bore him, be able to do anything but to stand before him like a tongue-tied idiot, with all the fingers of her spirit turned into thumbs? Besides, what a hopeless position, to have as it were to beseech: Please wait a little–please don’t be impatient–I think perhaps I shan’t be a bore presently.”
Oh that position, the fingers of one’s spirit turned into thumbs! Haven’t we all felt it, just when we wanted most to be brilliant and dextrous? I’ll have to take a look at her other novels.
Thanks to Ben Dolnick, I have discovered the mystery writer Lawrence Block. Oddly enough, he’s not in my local public library catalog, but only at UC Library. Unusual for a mystery writer, even one with literary talent. His books are a little hard to find. I love this passage from his Matthew Scudder mystery, Out on the Cutting Edge. In it, the narrator, an unabashed criminal is describing a young woman:
” ‘She was a nice Protestant girl from Indiana,’ he said. ‘She’d steal, but she stole for the thrill of it. You can’t trust that, it’s almost as bad as a man who kills for the thrill of it. A good thief doesn’t steal for the thrill. He steals for the money. And the best thief of all steals because he’s a thief.’ ”
In another vein entirely, but equally pleasurable, here’s a quote from Eliot Weinberger from his essay in In Translation:
“Translators sometimes feel they share in the glory of their famous authors, rather like the hairdressers of Hollywood stars.”
I just finished reading all four of Katie Kitamura’s novels, in reverse order. I love her writing. Here is a sample, the first paragraph of her new (and I think best) book, Intimacies.
“It is never easy to move to a new country, but in truth I was happy to be away from New York. That city had become disorienting to me, after my father’s death and my mother’s sudden retreat to Singapore. For the first time, I understood how much my parents had anchored me to this place none of us were from. It was my father’s long illness that had kept me there, and with its unhappy resolution I was suddenly free to go. I applied for the position of staff interpreter at the Court on impulse, but once I had accepted the job and moved to the Hague, I realized that I had no intention of returning to New York, I no longer knew how to be at home there.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve posted an exemplary sentence, but The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard, is full of them. Very arch, and often funny. I’m only about half-way through, but here are a few:
“Dora sat on a corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned a task so she could resent it.”
“She need not say, she said, that she loved them.”
“Saturday afternoon in England is a rehearsal for the end of the world.”
Of course the novel takes place largely in England.
I just finished this book, Darwin Comes to Town by Menno Shilthuizen, about adaptation and evolution in urban environments, which seemed somewhat hopeful. It’s a discussion about how quickly certain species change to thrive in cities. Stories include the hawksbeard dandelion, which evolved to produce heavier seeds so their little parachutes would keep them in the island of green instead of floating off onto asphalt and how crows learn to throw heavy-shelled walnuts into intersections, wait for cars to run over them and then when the light changes, run out to grab the walnut meat after the cars crush the shells.
But most encouraging was his chapter on the way cites are cooperating globally to understand and improve urban environments. He notes that cities all over the word have similar soil compositions, microbes, insect, bird, and plant life. So “cities as far apart as 2,500 miles share about half their birds, while the avifaunas of natural areas that distant are almost completely different.” The author states that “cities worldwide are beginning to exchange information and undertake concerted action.”
Given the pace at which the natural world is disappearing, at least it’s heartening to know that there are many groups working on innovative ways to make urban spaces more habitable for plants and animals, including humans. My only quibble with the book is the often anthropomorphic language of the anecdotes. Still, worth a read.
I’ve been reading The Shadow Lines, by Amitav Ghosh, and have come across so many well-written passages. Here’s one about watching beggars scavenge a mound of waste and sludge for usable debris:
“It was true of course that I could not see that landscape or anything like it from my own window, but its presence was palpable everywhere in our house; I had grown up with it. It was that landscape that lent the note of hysteria to my mother’s voice when she drilled me for examinations; it was to those slopes she she pointed when she told me that if I didn’t study hard I would end up over there, that the only weapon people like us had was our brains and if we didn’t use them like claws to cling to what we’d got, that was where we’d end up, marooned in that landscape: I knew perfectly well that all it would take was a couple of failed examinations to put me where our relative was, in permanent proximity to that blackness: that landscape was the quicksand that seethed beneath the polished floors of our house; it was that sludge which gave our genteel decorum its fine edge of frenzy.”
There is a new book of Bette Howland’s stories out, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and I immediately purchased a copy. Since posting about her last year, I have come to know her son, Jake, and was so pleased to see a review of this book last weekend, and see him quoted about her. The new book contains some of the stories from Blue in Chicago, and some I hadn’t read.
It contains the same quality of writing that I loved so much in the earlier book. Here’s a sample, talking about a walk through the park in Chicago peopled by the old and the minders. I love the quality of her observation, and how she paints a picture that ends in beauty:
“They come from the Shoreland, the Sherry-Netherland, Del Prado, Windermere–hotels once famous for the ballrooms, dance bands, steak houses, now providing package care for the elderly. My favorite of these couples is an old gent with a hooked back, houndstooth check cap and plus fours and his young pregnant nursemaid. He likes to get out of his chair and push; she dawdles at this side. Her belly lifts the front of her coat; her legs look gray in white stockings. Meanwhile the great yellow maple is shaking its branches, squandering leaves. They scatter like petals. It’s raining beauty; the air is drenched with gold.”