Friday, February 9, 2018

The Glimpses of the Moon – Edith Wharton
When Wharton was guided by her steely intelligence, she was wonderful; but this contrived and foolish novel shows how precarious excellence is. The premise of Moon is interesting. When Nick and Susie get married they have an agreement: they’ll spend a year together, sponging off rich friends; but if one of them finds someone who can advance them socially/financially, they’ll be free to take the offer and dissolve the marriage. They first stay at a villa on Lake Como (they chose that over places in Versailles and Monte Carlo). Their idyllic honeymoon is marred by one problem: Nick has scruples that Susie doesn’t. While he’s a non-paying guest at the villa he has no problem smoking the expensive cigars of his absentee benefactor; yet when they leave and he finds Suzie packing four boxes of cigars, he sternly orders her to unpack them. At their next stop, a palace in Venice, Susie – who has a practical approach to “managing” the people she depends on – mails four letters at intervals in order to deceive a husband as to his wife’s whereabouts. When Nick finds out about this, he abruptly leaves Susie. For over six months they’re apart, not even writing to one another. Both continue to live in luxury, thanks to the generosity of friends. They also form relationships, but they’re superficial; they moon about each other. In a sort of comedy of errors, each believes that the other has found someone else, and that their agreement to let the other free is still in effect. This whole scenario is rife with problems. Wharton wants us to believe that a deep and everlasting love exists between Susie and Nick; why, then, couldn’t their initial differences be settled with a sensible conversation? She has Susie look to Nick as a moral compass, but he comes across as a stiff-necked hypocrite. And she wants to make the point that material goods aren’t of true value, yet she saturates the novel with the trapping of the ultra-wealthy. She winds things up with Susie living in a humble abode, taking care of a friend’s five children (and learning all about true values). There Nick finally seeks her out, and they declare their eternal love; they will, we’re to assume, live happily ever after. “ ‘Nick!’ Susie sighed, at peace, as if the one syllable were a magic seed that flung out great branches to envelope them.” Which brings me to the prose, which is exceedingly wordy, and the words are often purple.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Hurari
What makes this far-ranging study of man so unusual is Hurari’s perspective: he looks at our species as an analytical alien might. His lack of commitment to accepted norms allows him to move away from conventional ways of thinking. One of his major points is that much of what we hold onto as bulwarks of our lives is imagined. Christianity, democracy, capitalism, our homeland – all are concepts manufactured by the mind of man and thus can be categorized as delusions. And he gives full legitimacy to any other set of delusions that a different culture may believe in. Hurari goes into origins – mainly the Cognitive, Agriculture and Scientific Revolutions that allowed our species to become dominant – but it’s only to show the path that led us to where we are today. It is today (and the future) that concerns him. Hurari acknowledges how disturbing his undermining of the status quo can be. He writes, “Perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.” To him this is “quite a depressing conclusion.” His commitment is to the truth, as he sees it, and he’s equipped with persuasive arguments to back up his views.

I Thought of Daisy – Edmund Wilson
Wilson’s intellectuality undermined his strengths as a novelist. He encumbers Daisy with a schematic framework aimed at presenting different life views; the narrator goes on tangents about Sophocles, politics, metaphysics; the long descriptive passages are Proustian attempts at evoking moods. The plot consists mainly of a series of Greenwich Village parties in which eccentric types – poets, revolutionaries, hangers-on – drink and talk. Though aspects of this were fairly interesting, they obscured what should have been the book’s main focus – namely, the person the narrator is thinking of in the title: Daisy. She’s an emphatic creation, fresh, lively, sparkling. That sparkle is sometimes dulled (due mostly to her problematic relationships with men), and I felt the absence because I cared for her and wanted her to be happy. When the narrator is with Daisy he has an appeal that’s otherwise absent. The same can be said for the author; unlike his other characters Daisy is earthbound, and when she’s present Wilson is pleasingly earthbound too. At the end the narrator expounds on what Daisy offers him: “. . . if only I could hit off, in prose, her attitudes, her gestures, her expressions, the intonation of her voice – preserve them so they should not vanish, as Degas had done for his dancers . . .” In sections Wilson fully succeeds in doing this. But Daisy makes brief appearances in which she reflects the man she’s presently with (that schematic framework at work); only in the last section do we get her undistilled. In his Foreword, written in 1953 (the novel came out in 1929), Wilson says that he had an idea for a sequel, one which he abandoned when he couldn’t find his notes. He considers this “no great loss. By the time you have finished this book, if you do, you will no doubt have had enough of Daisy . . .” Though he’s wrong there, I should be grateful for what I got of her. And maybe his offhand words account for his meager output of fiction. Which is a shame, because in parts of Daisy and in the stories that make up Memoirs of Hecate County he could be remarkable in a unique way.

Orley Farm – Anthony Trollope
In this flat second installment of the Orley Farm saga the characters I found invigorating are either absent or watered down. Early on Mrs. Mason confesses to two close friends that she forged the will. There’s much moralizing about her dastardly act, but the repentant woman is forgiven. The trial proceeds and she’s found not guilty. Trollope has sympathy for Mrs. Mason, but he also has a problem with a legal system that allows justice to be subverted by wily lawyers. The main dilemma involves her righteous son, who believes passionately in his mother’s innocence. It’s determined that he must be told of her guilt, and how will he take this blow? He agonizes, considering what she did to be “the foulest fraud that practiced villains can conceive!” – but he too winds up forgiving her (in his stern fashion). It has been decided that, after the trial, Orley Farm must be returned to its rightful owner. This is done, and there things end, leaving the fate of a handful of characters up in the air. Not that I cared much; the novel was too emotionally overwrought and high-minded for any but Victorian readers. In regard to that high-minded tone, there’s a matter that Trollope chooses to gloss over. It has to do with a side story: Felix, who is portrayed as exceedingly upright, is to marry Madeline, who is a paragon of virtue (and beautiful and wealthy to boot). But there’s an obstacle. Before he met her, Felix had been grooming a lower class young woman to be his wife. He had entered into a legal document with the neer-do-well father stipulating that a marriage is to take place; he has hired someone to teach Mary Snow the niceties of manners and to watch over her activities. This lady informs Felix that Mary exchanged letters with a young man and met him once under a lamp-post. Felix has a talk with a contrite Mary in which he gently proposes that they aren’t meant for one another and that they should call off their union. The angry father is appeased by a considerable sum of money (which he will drink away). Thus Felix is provided with a convenient “out” from his entanglement. Trollope the moralist expresses no misgivings about an episode that struck me as thoroughly unsavory.

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