As tempting as it may be to reach for the latest fashion (dear Lord, they are hawking puffed sleeves and hot pants for this spring) there is something so soothing (and sane) about a classic look, say, cashmere and pearls.
Same with literature. In any given year, the top twenty novels will eventually find their way into the dustbin, and rightfully so. It is a strange alchemy that preserves some authors and their works: sometimes, yes, sheer brilliance, but also nostalgia for a romanticized age and a book that somehow defines it.
Six reads in that category for my year:
The Reef by Edith Wharton. Kindle, 334 pages. Published 1912. 3 stars.
Come for House of Mirth and Age of Innocence, stay for Edith Wharton’s lesser, but still acute, take on the peculiar do’s and don’ts of Gilded Age society. Some authors have the gift of recognizing their imprisonment in a particular moment in history and freeze-framing it in their art. Wharton did not rate this as one of her best works, and I don’t either, but there is a compelling tension in the consequences of an illicit love affair between a man of means and a young woman bobbing helplessly on the edges of society. Sophy Viner is an echo of House of Mirth’s iconic Lily Bart, willing to sacrifice herself for truth and true love while Anna Leath is a creature of her times, willing to sacrifice truth, love and whatever else it takes to maintain position and Givré, her French country manse. Wharton wryly demonstrates how George Darrow gets away with making a mess of mostly everything simply because he is a man. Oh well, as he says to Anna “Life’s just a perpetual piecing together of broken bits.”
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Kindle, 150 pages. Published 1919. 3.5 stars.
This was a third re-read of a book that used to be in my “forever top ten”. Somehow the champagne tasted just a bit flat when I popped the cork this time. It remains absolutely a classic; it just did not stir me with the same level of reverence as in the past. The book has not changed; I guess I have. Perhaps the dull, deep ache of the characters’ desperation has become too haunting – or perhaps too real – for me. I used to view their dis-ease as the fault of small town Midwestern life (something I know a little bit about…) but have come to realize it is the fault of life itself. People everywhere can want desperately to speak but remain inarticulate; can want to seek connection but walk or drive aimlessly, wildly in the night, can wish for love but end up hopeless and alone. Still worth reading, but there are no happy endings here.
Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard by Joseph Conrad. Kindle, 588 pages. Published 1904. 4 stars.
Reading Joseph Conrad is, for me, like taking a bitter dose of medicine. I know it’s good for me; I would just, if you please, rather not. Conrad has important things to say but I’m not smart enough to hear them. I find his prose somewhat impenetrable. I struggle. Let’s just say this isn’t a beach read. What it is, however, is an arch and thorough condemnation of colonialism. A silver mine in a fictional South American country has passed down three generations to Englishman Charles Gould, who scoops the treasure from the hills of Costaguana and sends it to his off-shore bank account. He grows ever more wealthy and powerful. It is grumblingly observed, particularly by a pair of rebel brothers, that in this arrangement the land does not really belong to its own people. The character Nostromo finds himself at the center of the unrest, pressed with the responsibility of “saving the silver” for Gould and, ultimately disillusioned, siphoning some off for himself, not that it leads to any kind of happy ending for him. Conrad has harsh words regarding the colonialists: “Kings, ministers, aristocrats, the rich in general, kept the people in poverty and subjection; they kept them as they kept dogs, to fight and hunt for their service.”
The Unvanquished by William Faulkner. Paperback, 254 pages. Published 1934. 4 stars.
I’m way behind on Faulkner. I know that the Sartoris family figures prominently in his literature but I’ve just barely made their acquaintance here, as twelve-year-old Bayard Sartoris absorbs the shock of the fall of Vicksburg in 1863. He and his best friend (and slave) Ringo were, like many Southerners, convinced of the infallibility of the Confederacy, so it is yet another shock when the Yankees arrive and burn down their house. A meandering journey ensues (somewhat reminiscent for me of the one in As I Lay Dying) and Faulkner’s genius for character development is on full display as Bayard’s Granny puts her hat squarely atop her head and bravely sets out with the family silver and a handful of rose cuttings. Faulkner wrote before the straitjacket of political correctness was affixed to modern literature, so he is able to discuss the complexities of the relationships between blacks and whites cogently, lovingly and without censorship. He is also particularly gifted in creating female characters – cousin Drusilla, whose life is upended when her sweetheart is killed, is possessed of an otherworldliness verging on madness that brings Caddy to mind (The Sound and the Fury) Even Faulkner’s minor works shine like the brightest stars.
The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Kindle, 402 pages. Published 1922. 3.5 stars.
The Great Gatsby defined an era. Fitzgerald’s other works wallow in it. Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert wallow mostly in gin and acrimony, but one keeps reading as one reads tabloid gossip, because these are just barely fictionalized versions of Scott “…there was the realization that liquor had become a practical necessity to their amusement…” and Zelda Fitzgerald. “What grub worms women are to crawl on their bellies through colorless marriages!“, Gloria laments in her diary. There is a can’t-look-away quality to the depiction of the downward spiral of alcoholic and financial chaos. There are also iconic New York City locales, particularly The Plaza. F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the term “Jazz Age” and his books basically chronicle its – and his own – demise.
The Long Valley by John Steinbeck. Kindle, 276 pages. Published 1938. 4.5 stars.
Oh what a read this was! I don’t even particularly like short stories, but reading these was like dipping into a box of precious jewels and picking up one at a time to admire. The common thread is the Salinas Valley and Steinbeck’s portrayal of it is almost photographic. He began writing these stories during difficult times; financially pinched and uncertain of his future, he was living in his family home and caring for his ill mother. I can picture him taking long, lonely walks in the valley and memorizing every detail of its features. The stories range from the absurd – “St. Katy the Virgin“, about a bad, very bad, just terrible pig – to the quixotic “Flight“, a coming of age story that ends in death; to the hard edges in relationships between men and women, depicted in “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail“. The most famous, and hardest of the collection to read, is “The Red Pony“, another coming-of-age story that ends in heartbreak.
While these may not all rate among my all-time favorite reads, there is a satisfaction from reading a classic that you just don’t get from a flavor-of-the-month novel. They are the pearls you reach for again and again, perhaps not exactly in style, but never the wrong fashion choice.
Next week: bits and bobs…