Sunday, March 4, 2007

Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Get it here
This is just the sort of book I would never have read if it were not free. I wouldn't take the risk on a book that, on the face of it, is not really my cup of tea. The great thing about LibriVox, and project Gutenberg, is that you get introduced to authors outside of your comfort zone. If you have to pay for your media, you tend to play safe.
At first, this book reminded me of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. The same obsession with family history, status, class, and social climbing. I was quite shocked at how American history had one time had an aristocracy, at least in the minds of the characters in this novel. The author has a dry, ironic tone, and at first I was quite jarred by her use of the phrase 'all of New York was agog' or suchlike, when it was obvious that only about 45 people were agog. I was uncomfortable with this until I realised she was being ironic. Well, I think she was being ironic, but I think she meant it at the same time. She is criticising a world she loves.
The problem with the book, for me, is that it is hard to see the romantic disappointments of a wealthy dilettante as a tragedy. Unless you see Newland Archer as a classic existential hero, realising that we are all alone in the the universe, and, at the very end of the book, seeing that his ideal women only ever existed in his imagination. Which is how I chose to read the book, and enjoyed it on these terms. Other people could read it as a straight romance, no doubt, but my overpowering sense of my own masculine pride would never permit me to do that.
Edith Wharton has a great gift for creating seemingly innocuous dialogue which is, in fact, full of subtle meaning. In places, she can spend two paragraphs explaining what a facial expression actually meant, and in other places, she leaves it to the reader to detect the veiled meanings behind the words. I would be terrified to meet such a person, as you feel that all of your inner thoughts would be open to her.
As for the innocence of the title, she no doubt means that the people described in the novel lived with a determined innocence, blocking all unpleasantness out of their lives. At first I thought it also referred to the hero's fiancée, but I realised, long before he did, that she was one of the worldliest characters in the book, and made him look like a schoolboy. Not the first man to have this experience with his significant other, I am sure.

Brenda Dayne's solo reading is flawless. A wonderfully sustained performance, and her voice has a warmth and lightness which accords seamlessly with the material. As I progress through the LibriVox catalogue, I seem to keep finding treasure like this, so I should not be surprised. But I always am - thank you Brenda.

Next: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope.

1 comment:

Joanna said...

Brenda Dayne is a TERRIFIC reader and I want more from her beautiful voice...but

1. It's Tee-shan (Titian) No reader on Librivox seems to get this painter's name correct.

2. Les Invalides (site of Mde Olenska's apartment in Paris and where Napoleon is buried) is Lays Invaleede, not In-val-ahd.

and don't forget it is Ap-po-thee-OS-sis, not. Sigh.

The end of the book was so touchingly read and this was driving me nuts. The entire reading was excellent except for the mispronunciations that cropped up. But I hope Brenda will do more readings.