Wednesday, September 9, 2009

NYRB Challenge Book #1 - Indian Summer

Despite the political incorrectness of the title, it was the word "summer" that jumped out at me from the shelves and made Indian Summer by American author William Dean Howells my first of fifty NYRB books I'm trying to read in a year. Mind you the book was first published in 1886 and it doesn't take place in a North American autumn at all, but during one winter and spring in Florence, Italy. As Wendy Lesser notes in her introduction, the title, "a veiled reference to the weather's deceptiveness" is the same concept behind the idea of Indian giving, "the sense of promise offered and then snatched away" and these are some of the themes that embed themselves into Howells' novel.
Theodore Colville has returned to Florence at the age of 41, nearly twenty years after he was rejected by the young woman he fell in love with. Her friend at the time, Mrs. Lina Bowen, is now a widow living in the city with a young woman named Imogene in her care. Through a series of rash impulses and misunderstandings caused by an adherence to society's moral codes, Theodore finds himself engaged to Imogene in what is perhaps one last attempt to regain - and redeem - his lost youth. But that is only the beginning of his problems in this restrained comedy of manners. The American abroad is a common motif also depicted by Howells' contemporaries, Henry James and Edith Wharton and you can certainly recommend this novel to fans of those two luminaries. But Howells has a lighter narrative touch and is much funnier (Colville's main charm is his sense of irony and enough self-deprecation to make one think he should have been born English). Howells' Americans may adapt to the Italian city more easily than E.M. Forster's Brits in A Room With a View but they share the same sensibilities in creating a community that rarely is inclusive of Italians themselves. Readers of a certain age will also take umbrage (or chuckle ) at the many references to people in their forties being "old". Fortunately there is the wise retired Rev. Waters, a man in his seventies, who offers this apt summation (not only of the age, but to the novel as a whole):

At forty, one has still a great part of youth before him - perhaps the richest and sweetest part. By that time the turmoil of ideas and sensations is over; we see clearly and feel consciously. . . We have enlarged our perspective sufficiently to perceive things in their true proportion and relation. . .Then we have time enough behind us to supply us with the materials of reverie and reminiscence; the terrible solitude of inexperience is broken; we have learned to smile at many things besides the fear of death. We ought also to have learned pity and patience. . . Yes, it is a beautiful age.

If you agree with any aspect of this passage, then this is a novel whose time has come for you.

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