Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton has yet to disappoint me!  I loved Ethan Frome, a beautiful tragedy about snowy New England that made quite an impression on me.  So I was eager to read a full-length novel by Wharton, since Ethan Frome is really more of a novella.  The Age of Innocence is rich with layers of relationships, social critique, and class divisions, as well as an abundance of character development.

The protagonist of the story is Newland Archer, who lives on the Upper East Side of New York City in the late 1800s.  At the beginning of the novel, he is the embodiment of upper class society, making all of his life decisions to reflect the image of a beautiful, successful man.  He has proposed to May Welland, often described as being the "Helen of Troy" in the room with her magnetic beauty.  He is employed as a lawyer, though he exerts minimal effort in his position, as is proper in his circumstances.  He is fluent in all the hidden codes and meanings within his society and has perfected them.  Naturally, the plot must thicken, and so he falls in love with a woman who is deemed socially inappropriate in his society.

In all honesty, if I were reading this plot summary, I would crinkle my nose and avoid the book.  I mean, we've heard this story line a thousand times, haven't we?  Star-crossed lovers from different social classes fall in love despite the disapproval of their families.  Hell, that's even the plot of Titanic.  However, Wharton brilliantly undercuts her novel with a subtle but throbbing critique.  She uses her language brilliantly, with descriptions both humorous and tragic.  Without stating it directly, she shows us the foolishness of their chatter, their clothing, their events, and their lives.  Eventually, Newland's eyes are opened to the inane hypocrisy that we have been able to see all along, but he cannot escape it.

While immersing themselves in Wharton's New York City, readers might be inclined to wonder about the frivolity in their own lives.  How do we spend our time?  How do we spend our money?  What do we worry about?  Why do we worry so much?  I did not like this novel because I was captivated by the romantic relationship.  In fact, their relationship is erratic at best, with few swells of joy and connection.  Instead, I liked the social commentary and rich descriptions.  I enjoyed watching each of the characters change, because several of them did experience drastic transitions in their attitudes, actions, and self-awareness. And the ending had all of the ambiguity of a good Henry James novel.  Left in a climax of emotion, I stared at the book in my hands, willing it to give me a few more pages, with a sound of dismay escaping my lips.  Yet for this reason, I couldn't imagine a better ending.

I always do a bit of research before I write about the books I've read, so I have only just discovered that Edith Wharton earned a Pulitzer Prize for this novel.  Moreover, this was the first time a woman had ever won a Pulitzer.  I can't help but pause and appreciate this accomplishment, as well as the example she set for future female authors.  This novel has all the wit and gossip of a Jane Austen novel, and yet it is stuffed with an undercurrent of irony and embedded social critique.  I'm sure Wharton wanted to entertain her readers with this story, but I think she had more desire to pull the wool from before their eyes.  By design, she didn't write it so that young girls could hold the romance in their hearts and dream of their own Newland Archer.  On the other hand, she makes us aware of the decisions we make in our lives that set our path in motion and affect those around us.  And she does it beautifully.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Green Hills of Africa

“Your first seeing of a country is a very valuable one.  Probably more valuable to yourself than to any one else, is the hell of it.  But you ought to always write it to try to get it stated.  No matter what you do with it.”

This is one of the many great lines in Ernest Hemingway's nonfiction account of his time in Kenya, Green Hills of Africa.  I am currently writing this to you from Nairobi, moving in on my third week in this beautiful country.  I brought this book along with me, knowing that I wanted to save it for when I could see his descriptions with my own eyes and better grasp his message.  It was the perfect setting to read this wonderful book, as it tossed in some words I'm learning in Swahili along with the descriptions of the people, animals, and landscape that I am likewise seeing.

At the beginning of the book, Hemingway says that he wrote Green Hills of Africa to see whether an "absolutely true book" could compete with a work of imagination.  We are all familiar with his many fictional masterpieces - A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc - but it is entirely different to read him in this book.  In between his tales of hunting buffalo and rhinoceros, he shares the conversations he had with those in his traveling company.  In many of these conversations, he discusses what makes a good writer and a bad one.  He analyzes the breakdown between a true masterpiece and the "slop" that comes from hurry and/or arrogance.  He specifically names a number of authors, many of whom were alive while he wrote, and labels their work as good or bad.  Hemingway lived in what we may consider the "Golden Age" of writers, nestled in the community of ex-patriots in Paris.  On a regular basis, he conversed with Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and many others.  For a literature lover like myself, it is a real treat to get some of this inside scoop.

I also love this book because Hemingway truly loved Africa.  Unlike many mzungu (white) writers of his generation, he really portrays each of the Africans as real people and unique individuals.  He admires some of the Africans he met greatly, awed by their tracking skills and physical capabilities.  Others annoy him to no end, to the point that he frequently dreams of punching them in the face.  This is true of people anywhere, and I love that he doesn't blanket them in one description or stereotype.  He enjoys learning Swahili until the words sound completely natural to him, as do the tribal marks and African traditions he often encounters.  He loves the suspense and adventure of hunting wildlife, and he shares his embarrassing mistakes as well as his impressive accomplishments.  He just loves Kenya:

“I loved this country and I felt at home, and where a man feels at home, outside of where he’s born, is where he’s meant to go.”

I should note that this book does not touch on the tension in Africa, nor its problems and poverty.  Hemingway's account is quite limited to his personal experience while on a long hunting journey.  But I don't mind that he focuses on the beauty and adventure, because sometimes that aspect of Kenya gets lost somewhere in translation to the West.  As a foreign mzungu, he could never grasp the complexities of this country and fairly identify them in a short novel.  So in this case, I think it is better that he didn't even attempt to do that.  Other novels, like Things Fall Apart, are much better equipped to do it.

Reading Hemingway's perspective on his time in Kenya inspires me to want to do the same thing.  Here I am, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching these wonderful sights.  Here I am, carefully observing the people and surroundings I encounter.  Here I am, witnessing the good and the bad together.  Here I am, likewise falling in love with Kenya.  I am forming my own perspective of this country, though I realize that I may not be forming an accurate one.  But it is nevertheless unfolding before me, and it will contain value for me regardless of what I am able to do with it.  This is one of those parts of my life in which real life is greater than fiction, and I want to hold on to that and make it last as long as possible.  Like Hemingway, I ought to find a way to "get it stated."

To my fellow readers, I do think you should check out this book, but I also think you should come see Kenya for yourselves.