Monday, April 26, 2010

wharton, wharton and ashraf

#37 The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

Books are generally a tissue of lies. Old age and hard use inure your finer feelings to their manipulative effects, especially if you are reading them on the 9.10 Churchgate fast local. So it is an unpleasant surprise to come across a book that can not only pierce through the calluses of a lifetime's experience of Books That Lie, but do it so thoroughly that it can ruin your whole week. This is exactly what The House of Mirth achieves. For an unpleasant and untrue book, its effect on the tear glands is remarkable. It is almost as though the reader has a secret self-indulgent, self-pitying streak buried deep, hidden away alongside the beauty and brilliancy underappreciated by a dishonest world.

What am I describing here? What did I just read that so affected me? A novel about a rich woman incurring gambling debts that she is eventually unable to pay? Trying and failing to catch a wealthy husband? Falling into social and financial ruin thanks to a villainous and unfeeling world that consists of about thirty people who seem to lie about giving parties all day? A doomed romance? Oh girl. Are you kidding me? A heroine who is 'bred for ornamentation only'? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I mean maybe its just me, but if George Eliot went before me in telling the stories of rich women [and men] whose education and philosophies can completely betray them, sometimes even to the point of death, I would have some shame before I sat down to write The House of Mirth, you know?

I'm not trying to pull some version of the BOOTSTRAPS! argument on this book and on Lily Bart. Of course, women's lives are circumscribed in ways that not even the most liberated, or even the recklessly brave, are able to always escape. Of course anyone who fell into ruin in the way Lily does in the course of the book could not always pick herself up and dust herself off and become an adventuring pirate with numerous devoted and buff gentleman callers crowding the deck of the barge. And of course - to acknowledge the soul of the book - I do not mean that a person in a book, any more than one in life, is to be despised for being unable to exchange ideas for expediency. But surely such characters are not to be pitied, either. And Lily is not a principled ideologue*. She's really not very much of anything, as Wharton is keen to emphasise. Not much of anything, that is, except a victim of her circumstances. I leave it to you to guess how much I love books in which heroines have nothing left to do in the last five pages but die protracted deaths for no fault of their own.

Of course a big and perhaps quite well-highlighted flaw in the Wharton worldview is its insufferable snobbishness. Perhaps no reader of novels can justifiably escape being a snob of some sort, but Wharton's is not the Ideal Snobbery. It's more - well, more a tissue of snobbery. While symptomatic in books like the one I describe below, which is set in a world where poor people don't exist, the tissue is present and pulsing in The House of Mirth, which must perforce describe the scenery flying past as Lily tumbles down the socio-economic ladder. Equally unforgivable to me, in spite of Wharton's partially-redeeming use of the character later in the book, is her 'that little Jew' treatment of Simon Rosedale.

And yet, WTF. There's just something so compelling in this elegant trainwreck, in this tissue, indeed, of trainwreckery, that by the time you've caught the 8.52 Borivali fast and are nearing home you have to shut the book on the last few pages, when Lily, betrayed and bereft by those she once considered friends, is fucking up sewing sequins on a hat in a millinery factory, because you can't cross the overbridge with streaming eyes. There is something so thrillingly sad about Lily's downfall, because she both does and does not deserve it, and because Wharton is so mercilessly able to sacrifice her in order to criticise the falsehoods of the alien, ancient world Lily - and once, Wharton - depended on, you find yourself compelled by the strange notion that whether or not this tragedy deserves your pity, it is completely justified in evoking your terror.

But what a cheat, nonetheless. What the hell, woman, EVERYONE ELSE IN THE FACTORY IS MAKING HATS FOR A LIVING. Why are you so bad at it that only an OD in a strange bedroom can close your story with proper eclat?

#38 The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton [re-read]

As I have hated The House of Mirth on first read [and will return to it time after time to examine more closely what it is about it that is so readable nonetheless], so I have loved The Age of Innocence, which I first read as an impressionable young person who liked anything with Daniel Day-Lewis in its movie version. A foolish, sentimental, manipulative, gorgeously-written book - just like The House of Mirth, actually - it had, when I first read it, something miserably sweet about it; the idea that two people doomed never to be together could find a way to be principled and even happy, in spite of doom etc., for the sake of the world around them. You know, men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

But again this book shocked me in a way it did not a decade ago.

WTF is up with May Welland?

How is this doomed etc. romance, set up between two people of grace and sensibility, so thoroughly wrecked by someone characterised so poorly by Wharton that she can only be described as a POD PERSON?

May Welland is bland. May Welland is stupid. May Welland is narrow-minded. May Welland is a mean bitch. Is there anything she does not do to oblige Newland Archer - her eventual husband and one half of the doomed etc romance, the other being May's cousin, the married and melancholy Ellen Olenska - to despise her? Could a book with such a sharp eye for how a family or a society can repress individuals be MORE clueless when it comes to the treatment of one of its own central characters? At the end of the book Daniel Day-Lewis was a forgotten fancy; Michelle Pfeiffer was a gorgeous dream. I was rooting to SET MAY FREE. Send her a cruise to Monte Carlo! Bring on the rakish gamblers! The inheritance! The underground archery club! Run, Winona, run!

Someday I will write that story.

Until then, I just hope no one is still teaching Edith Wharton in classes on feminism.

#39 The Beast (Numberdar ka Neela), Syed Muhammad Ashraf, trans. Musharraf Ali Farooqi

What a satire. This is a fantastic novella about a village in which the rapacious Thakur Udal Singh takes advantage of a rare blue bull to evoke fright and doubt among the people of his village, and how his plans - and Neela the bull - eventually slip out of his control. The narrative voice is almost dispassionate, but it frames a very righteous anger burning its way through the book, about how power accrues with the powerful, and how religion, poverty and corruption can serve a very narrow but instiable greed. It is also a great story about the madness of the exploiter meeting the madness of the exploited. This is not a story concerned with justice, except in its reliable absence.

The translation was curiously jaw-droppingly good at some points, and frustratingly clumsy in some details, but on the whole, I thought it was an excellent, even-handed job: it borrowed some of the authenticity of a setting so alien to English. Good stuff, and it is one of the few books from this quarter of Book Munch that I can wholly recommend.

* - Man, I hate those.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
Alice in Bhuleshwar
The Yacoubian Building
Human Voices
Roman Noir
Heir to the Glimmering World
Chasing the Sun: Stories from Africa

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