Monday, November 07, 2011
5:41 PM |
Undone by Manners
The classics in literature seem to suffer something from their greatness: the sheer intimidation of their reputations most often propels us to keep them as graceful tokens in our bookshelves, often unread. (Every day I stare at my copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses
and Vladimor Nabokov’s Lolita
, to take two examples, and I repeat my mantra: “Someday, someday…”) I think it takes a certain kind of innocence to tackle the classics — which is probably why the great period of my own voracious reading of them (Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Robert Louis Stevenson, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and even the more contemporary ones like John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway) was in my grade school years. Later on, we found that just because we were told they were “important” was enough reason to stay away.
I’ve had my copy of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence
for a decade now. I was casually reading Anthony Lane’s Nobody’s Perfect
, his erudite compilation of New Yorker articles, and one of the articles he included in his book was his review of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation, which I loved — and which he found beautiful, but deficient, but certainly better than the “failures” of The Last Temptation of Christ
and Cape Fear
, both of which I found exhilarating. I remember howling at this, and when I put down the book, somehow I found myself going to my shelves … and taking down my copy of Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winner from 1921.
I began reading the first chapter, aiming only to skim it and to put it down after sleepiness would take over — but did sleep come? Noooo.
I was hooked. I could not stop reading the travails of Newland Archer and his innocent “affair” with Countess Ellen Olenska, even as he tries to make a go with his engagement with May Welland under the eyes of 1870s New York society whose means to uphold strictures of form and manners was a violence of a totally different sort. It was violence, not without guile, but carried out with impeccable courtliness and subtlety — but violence nonetheless, which may be why Scorsese, he of Mean Streets
and Taxi Driver
, probably felt compelled to helm its film adaptation. I love the book, and I loved discovering how faithful to the source Scorsese was. But I found myself surprised that I found the “villainous” May Welland — she of the timid intellectuality but sharp regard for societal propriety — blameless. Didn’t she give Newland so many chances to escape their betrothal? And in the end, after their marriage, wasn’t she only fighting for what was rightfully hers? I found Archer completely like a fool, timid and arrogant and blind, sure only of his indecisions which he mistakes for gentlemanly striving for dignity.
I’m glad I gave this great work of literature a chance. It was an education, and now I’m thinking I will really have to make a go at that Nabokov…
Labels: books, life, society
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