Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Wonderful World of Wharton

I was thrilled last night to attend a reading by one of my academic idols - Hermione Lee - who was in town on a book tour. I loved her biography of Virginia Woolf and am deep into her latest book on the fascinating, rich (and long) life of Edith Wharton. Lee was a marvellously entertaining speaker who talked about some of the difficulties with her research because Wharton had destroyed so many of her letters. So while she could grasp concrete things like the colour of her bedsheets (pink silk) or the depth of her grave, more personal subjects such as the true nature of her unhappy marriage with Teddy, eluded her, or had to be gleaned from Wharton's fiction, which in Lee's words reflected, "oceans of vulnerabilty and pain".

What Lee does so wonderfully in her writing is to merge the life with an intelligent and enthusiastic reading of the work - Wharton wrote over forty books and numerous short stories. I have temporarily put the biography aside to pick up Wharton's novel The Reef, simply because of Lee's descriptive endorsement. At the reading last night, she quoted liberally from Wharton's letters and fiction to convey the true flavour of her frequently humourous and still extraordinarily contemporary voice. And I have come across passages in The Reef that have literally made me gasp with their beauty -such as this description of rain falling outside a Paris window:
"There were no variations of rhythm, no lyrical ups and downs: the grey lines streaking the panes were as dense and uniform as a page of unparagraphed narrative."

Wharton had a lifelong fascination with interior design (much of her fiction compares her female characters' lives to certain rooms and passages in houses). Her first book was The Decoration of Houses and Rizzoli has just published a fascimile.

I immediately turned to her section on designing one's library and unlike most modern decorating magazines that think of books as simply incidental to some aesthetic design scheme, Wharton gives them their proper worth:
"The general decoration of a library should be of such character as to form a background or setting to the books, rather than to distract attention from them. The richly adorned room in which books are but a minor incident is, in fact, no library at all."
In the fall, NYRB Books will be publishing a collection of Wharton's New York Stories, which I am eagerly anticipating. In one of those strange literary coincidences that happens often when I think I'm reading completely disparate subjects, I also discovered this week that Brave New World (see my earlier post) was even in part inspired by Wharton's novel The Twilight Sleep. Now why isn't that common knowledge?

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