Tag: wharton

Wharton, “Coming Home” (1915)

verdun 1916

Verdun, 1916.

This is Edith Wharton’s idea of an “atrocity story,” fiction’s equivalent of the propaganda newsreel crafted to touch nerves and stir up emotions. It’s beautifully written, it’s exquisitely plotted, but it’s agenda-driven writing with two purposes: advertising German atrocities and making the point that “there is something to be said for the new way of bringing up girls.” It’s a girl who saves the estate near the front–a save that further undermines the realism of the story with melodramatic pandering to the reader: atrocities have their limits. It’s all “sentiment and cinema scenes,” those words Wharton uses derisively at the beginning of the story, returning to them as if self-consciously trying to neutralize her own doing: “I know you affect to scorn the cinema, and this was it, tremolo and all.” It is it, the front’s version of Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers,” but not as emotionally accomplished.

Jean de Rechamp, 27 or 28, wants news of his family at Rechamp, and his girlfriend Mlle Malo. He fought, was wounded and put out of action (though he can still drive), and gets to know Greer, an America supply man who refers to the Germans as “brutes” and whose “eyes see so much that they make one see even what his foggy voice obscures.” The narration is his.

Wharton gives the backstory of Rechamp and his girlfriend, a free-spirited artist who’s lived alone after being fostered by a rich man. Jean asks his parents and grandmother permission to marry Malo. They refuse. She lives alone. She travels. She’s never been married. Ergo, harlot. But she wins his heart. Malo is the New Woman, a Wharton hero.

“Soon after Mlle. Malo’s return to Paris he followed her and began to frequent the Passy studio. The life there was unlike anything he had ever seen—or conceived as possible, short of the prairies. He had sampled the usual varieties of French womankind, and explored most of the social layers; but he had missed the newest, that of the artistic-emancipated. I don’t know much about that set myself, but from his descriptions I should say they were a good deal like intelligent Americans, except that they don’t seem to keep art and life in such water-tight compartments. But his great discovery was the new girl. Apparently he had never before known any but the traditional type, which predominates in the provinces, and still persists, he tells me, in the last fastnesses of the Faubourg St. Germain. The girl who comes and goes as she pleases, reads what she likes, has opinions about what she reads, who talks, looks, behaves with the independence of a married woman—and yet has kept the Diana-freshness—think how she must have shaken up such a man’s inherited view of things! Mlle. Malo did far more than make Réchamp fall in love with her: she turned his world topsy-turvey, and prevented his ever again squeezing himself into his little old pigeon-hole of prejudices.”

Jean’s attempt to win permission is described in the same language of trench warfare. He’s up against “a heap of vague insinuations, baseless conjectures, village tattle,” all based on a maid’s sing single slander: That Mlle Malo slept with her foster father. But he disproves the slander and wins the family’s approval. During the war she improbably stays with the family.

And so back to the present, Rechamp’s quest for Rechamp, the road trip with Greer as they hear “the stories we all refused to believe at first, and that we now prefer not to think about….”

“But you know well enough,” I insisted, “that the Germans are not all alike—that it all depends on the particular officer….” Greer tells Rechamp. Thy speak of one German in particular, the murderous Scharlach.

As they approach the front all the old landmarks down to the names and distances on mile-stones have disappeared, as have village church steeples, as have villages. Rechmap thought he knew where he was. He was where he thought he was, a village neighboring his own. But the where was no longer there. “The place looked like an abandoned stoneyard. I never saw completer ruin. To the left, a fortified gate gaped on emptiness; to the right, a mill-wheel hung in the stream. Everything else was as flat as your dinner-table.” They run into an old woman whose house was spared because the Germans used it to bivouac. She tells them of various atrocities.

They drive on. But Rechamp is intact: the whole family is there. They all credit Yvonne Malo for saving them with her wiles after Scharlach shows up. Those wiles are never described in details: she wined and dined them, but the implication is that she did more than that: she screwed the German to save the village. She’s happy to see Jean but eager to see him leave on the improbable excuse that he’s not ready to know of the horrors yet, as if he hadn’t seen them–unless she means the horrors she performed. Jean and Greer leave. On the way they pick up a German wounded from a French hospital. The German dies on the way, though he wasn’t supposed to: the car runs out of gas, Greer has to walk on to get some, Jean may have killed the German during Greer’s absence. Murdered him. The German is supposedly Scharlach. Talk about schematized. The story by this point is held together by very thick nails and sledgehammers.

Scribner’s, December 1915

Reading the Ruins: “Coming Home,” Wharton’s Atrocity Story of the First World War, by William Blazek

edith-wharton-coming-home-analysis

Edith Wharton, “The Lamp of Psyche” (1895)

edith whartonDelia and Laurence Corbett are a pair of do-nothing rich, part of that “richly upholstered and intellectually barren world,” as James Mac Gregor Burns described Wharton’s frequent characters. They live in Paris. It’s her second marriage. Her first died, much to her pleasure: “Her husband often reminded her of the poodle, and, not having a whip or its moral equivalent to control him with, she had long since resigned herself to seeing him smudge the whiteness of her early illusions.” Her aunt Mary Hayne in Boston is a hyperactive liberal advocate. She falls and gets water on the knee. Her niece decides to go to Boston to be with her–and also to show-off: “She was really very glad to be returning to Boston as Corbett’s wife; her occasional appearances there as Mrs. Benson had been so eminently unsatisfactory to herself and her relatives that she naturally desired to efface them by so triumphal a re-entry.” Mrs. Hayne’s over-activity is a burdensome contrast to Delia’s laziness. ” In its light her own life seemed vacuous, her husband’s aims trivial as the subtleties.” More burdensome is the question her aunt asks Delia: what did your husband do in the Civil War war? Nothing. Why? “I really don’t know,” she said, coldly. “I never asked him.” How could she possibly not? Because she was an indolent northerner who couldn’t give a shit. It would not have happened in the South, or in any northern family affected by the war (in the 99 percent):

But the matter weighs on her heavily enough that it pushes her back to Paris, where she thinks the “torment of the question,” and not knowing Corbett’s own answer, would dissipate. It does not. Corbett himself triggers the confrontation when he comes home with the framed picture of a soldier killed at Chancellorville, picked up in a little shop on Rue Bonaparte. He meant it as a present for his wife. The gesture has all the elegance of the goon who piously cheers the war wounded on display at an NFL game. His wife feigns being touched, but the gesture begs the question, which she poses directly. He answers it astoundingly: “I don;t think I know.” And: “Well — it all happened some time ago,” he answered, still smiling, “and the truth is that I’ve completely forgotten the excellent reasons that I doubtless had at the time for remaining at home.” That home strikes as the loudest Berlioz-like knell of his cowardice. She calls him a coward. The picture drops, breaks its crystal cover. She later apologizes. “Her ideal of him was shivered like the crystal above the miniature of the warrior of Chancellorsville. She had the crystal replaced by a piece of clear glass which (as the jeweller pointed out to her) cost much less and looked equally well; and for the passionate worship which she had paid her husband she substituted a tolerant affection which possessed precisely the same advantages.”

Scribner’s Magazine, October 1895.

Edith Wharton, “Xingu”

A fabulous, funny story about the pretentiousness of high society women and their book clubs. (Here’s a summary.) Xingu is a river in Brazil, but the reader doesn’t know that. Five of the six women in the club don’t know that, nor does their guest, the imperious novelist Osric Dane who’s deigned be the guest of the book club to talk about her latest novel, about which no one talks. The group is flummoxed, unable to talk about much of anything seriously, it is ridiculed by Dane, until Mrs. Roby, seemingly the least intellectual of the bunch, saves the discussion by allusively referring to Xingu. No one knows what it is but they all seize on Xingu as their life raft and get lost in it, including Dane, until Roby and Dane leave together for a bridge party. The women, after more pretending that they know what Xingu is, finally look it up, realize it’s a river in Brazil, where Roby once lived, and realize they’ve been had. They decide to kick Roby out of the group.

There’s some thought that Wharton was getting back at Henry James in the story: could there possibly have been a more pretentious man in America?

Of the head of the group, Mrs. Ballinger: “Her mind was an hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board.“ The line reminds me of an equally cruel line in Cheever:

“Alice Malloy had dark, stringy hair, and even her husband, who loved her more than he knew, was sometimes reminded by her lean face of a tenement doorway on a rainy day, for her countenance was long, vacant, and weakly lighted, a passage for the gentle transports and miseries of the poor.”

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Edith Wharton, “The Fullness of Life”

A seemingly hoaky premise turns into a surprising and really affecting story, all hinged on the creaking of the boots of the protagonist’s husband. A woman is dying in the first page and a half, actually dying, whether from illness or suicide is not quite clear: “she had swallowed her noxious last draught of medicine.” She then finds herself in the afterlife, speaking to the Spirit of Life. The story risks being very silly at this point. But this is Wharton, who is not capable of silliness. The Spirit explains it all to her: she is to find her soul mate now, since she didn’t have one while Aline. Her husband certainly wasn’t it. She is ecstatic. She meets him. She connects. Florence, art, literature. He’s the one. He then tells her to come along so they can live in their dream home for eternity. Then it strikes her: it can’t be home, without the creaking of those boots. Can’t be home without husband. She was his soul mate, even if he wasn’t hers. Her loyalty is to him. She can’t bear to know that when his turn comes, he’d arrive and not find her there. This delicious, surprising passage:

Edith Wharton, “Mrs. Mantsey’s View”

Mrs. Mantsey is an aging, stuck-in-her-ways woman whose only pleasure in life seems to be the views of the city from her boardinghouse in New York. Mrs. Black plans to build an extension of the building in front of Mantsey’s view, which would be blocked. Matsey panics, offers $1,000 to Black not to build. Black had offered her a room in the extension, which would have fixed the problem. But Mantsey doesn’t want to move. Black takes Mantsey for nuts. She’s right. Mantsey next sets fire to the construction’s wares after the first day. But she catches pneumonia and dies–happy, because she was able to look at her view one last time. (Compare to Carver’s “The Idea.” Why do we assume that looking out from a greater distance is OK, but looking from a nearer distance is voyeurism, at least when one is within one’s own home?)

The story reminded me of this recent item in The Times: “That Noise? The Rich Neighbors Digging a Basement Pool in Their $100 Million Brownstone: The extremely loud and incredibly expensive renovations that have shattered a formerly quiet residential block in Manhattan.” (See the picture above.)