The Age of Innocence

age04

My friend Bill and I choose a novel to read and discuss online. This time it’s Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, which I find vexing. Published in 1921, Age of Innocence is a look back at New York society of the late 19th century’s wealthy class. It starts with the main character, Newland Archer a callow, complaining young man, who fancies himself superior to all around him. He takes no serious interest in his work or any endeavor. When Newland is about to announce his engagement to the pretty and docile May Welland, her exotic cousin Countess Ellen Olenska appears fleeing Europe and her aristocratic, boorish, brute of a husband. Soon Newland is captivated.

Most of the story is about Newland’s infatuation with the passionate Ellen, whom he’s willing to desert his young wife May for. Ellen goes back and forth between tempting and repelling Newland.

Much of the book consists of Newland’s thoughts on how awful New York society is. This slice of the upper crust is insulated and vapid and it’s easy for Newland, who doesn’t realize he’s no better, looks down on all around him. He’s cultivated no friendships. Unlike many of his era, he doesn’t strike out on his own creating new ventures or exploring new interests. For the most part he spends his time mentally criticizing May and plotting to find time to spend with Ellen, who under her surface of panache doesn’t seem to offer much substance that’s original or creative. She’s a flibbertigibbet in a Worth gown.

While Welty has a knack for wit and description, she aims at a view of a past society that excludes its finer points, such as charity and inventiveness. I wish she had taken a shot at her own era more directly and that she had included at least a couple characters I could admire. Because it featured so much sniping at tedious, stereotypical characters I found the book a chore to get through.

Advertisements

Poem of the Week

dog-525956_1280

Dog Around the Block

by E. B. White

Dog around the block, sniff,
Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating,
Sniffing, always, starting forward,
Backward, dragging, sniffing backward,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Leash in people’s feet entangle—
Sniffing dog, apprised of smellings,
Love of life, and fronts of dwellings,
Meeting enemies,
Loving old acquaintance, sniff,
Sniffing hydrant for reminders,
Leg against the wall, raise,
Leaving grating, corner greeting,
Chance for meeting, sniff, meeting,
Meeting, telling, news of smelling,
Nose to tail, tail to nose,
Rigid, careful, pose,
Liking, partly liking, hating,
Then another hydrant, grating,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Tangle, sniff, untangle,
Dog around the block, sniff.

Poem of the Week

May Day

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daughter of Heaven and Earth, coy Spring,
With sudden passion languishing,
Maketh all things softly smile,
Painteth pictures mile on mile,
Holds a cup with cowslip-wreaths,
Whence a smokeless incense breathes.
Girls are peeling the sweet willow,
Poplar white, and Gilead-tree,
And troops of boys
Shouting with whoop and hilloa,
And hip, hip three times three.
The air is full of whistlings bland;
What was that I heard
Out of the hazy land?
Harp of the wind, or song of bird,
Or clapping of shepherd’s hands,
Or vagrant booming of the air,
Voice of a meteor lost in day?
Such tidings of the starry sphere
Can this elastic air convey.
Or haply ‘t was the cannonade
Of the pent and darkened lake,
Cooled by the pendent mountain’s shade,
Whose deeps, till beams of noonday break,
Afflicted moan, and latest hold
Even unto May the iceberg cold.
Was it a squirrel’s pettish bark,
Or clarionet of jay? or hark,
Where yon wedged line the Nestor leads,
Steering north with raucous cry
Through tracts and provinces of sky,
Every night alighting down
In new landscapes of romance,
Where darkling feed the clamorous clans
By lonely lakes to men unknown.
Come the tumult whence it will,
Voice of sport, or rush of wings,
It is a sound, it is a token
That the marble sleep is broken,
And a change has passed on things.

Continue reading

Poem of the Week

There’s a Certain Slant of Light

by Emily Dickinson

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

 

The Moviegoer

THE_MOVIEGOER

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer excels at presenting New Orleans at Mardi Gras from an aimless, skirt-chaser who’s about to turn 30. Binx, the protagonist is asked by his aunt to watch over his cousin Kate, who’s battling depression.

There’s a lot of well-written passages on movie watching, New Orleans, Binx’s complicated family and his pursuit of each of the three secretaries he’s employed. The book doesn’t have a plot with momentum as it’s more of a slice of life. At the end there’s a little action for which Binx get’s chastised, but while in 1960, it might have been a big deal, now it isn’t.

Good style wasn’t enough to win me over with The Moviegoer. I need more engaging characters and I need some sort of obstacle for the hero(ine) to overcome. Binx’s ennui grew tiresome. He wasn’t as witty or perceptive as Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. For a rather short novel, this story dragged.

As time has passed, The Moviegoer’s vocabulary regarding race and work relations between men and women has certainly gotten dated. Binx gets romantic with all his secretaries and they’re shown to welcome the boss’ rambling hands. Percy doesn’t expect us to like Binx completely, but for me he wasn’t just flawed but overprivileged and boring.

Quotes

“Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world.” Binx, protagonist

“Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions. No orgies, no blood running in the street, no babies thrown off cliffs. No, we’re sentimental people and we horrify easily. True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever. No prostitute ever responded with a quicker spasm of sentiment when our hearts are touched. Nor is there anything new about thievery, lewdness, lying, adultery. What is new is that in our time liars and thieves and whores and adulterers wish also to be congratulated by the great public, if their confession is sufficiently psychological or strikes a sufficiently heartfelt and authentic note of sincerity. Oh, we are sincere. I do not deny it. I don’t know anybody nowadays who is not sincere.” Binx

“The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives…” Binx