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Posts Tagged ‘novel

“She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them”*…

Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country” (1913), like much that Edith Wharton wrote, can be described as a novel of manners. That’s to say, a social fiction in which the carefully observed customs of a particular society shape the characters’ actions and the plot. The designation somehow implies frivolity, or at least, traditionally, the feminine or domestic sphere (Jane Austen could be considered the first author of such works); and in this period of profound crisis in American society, it might seem easy to dismiss the relevance of such diverting works…

In this case, Wharton follows the social rise (and rise) of beautiful young Undine Spragg (named after her grandfather’s patented hair-crimper), who arrives in New York City from the fictional town of Apex City, Iowa, in the company of her newly moneyed, wide-eyed parents, Abner and Leota. She initially takes instruction on New York society’s hierarchies from gossip columns and her manicurist, but Undine’s looks soon gain her entrée into conversation with a fashionable portraitist named Popple, and then an invitation to dine at the home of the elegant Fairfords, where Mrs. Fairford’s brother, Ralph Marvell, pays her particular attention. On their eventual honeymoon, he’ll introduce her to European and in particular Parisian society, thereby widening the horizons of Undine’s social ambition: New York comes to feel provincial and dull next to Paris.

The fact that “The Custom of the Country” is entertaining — that it seems to whisk us, as readers, to a faraway time and to glamorous places — doesn’t mean that Undine Spragg’s dogged rise through the social ranks of the early 20th century is irrelevant to our times. Wharton’s clear but complex vision (whether Undine is ultimately heroine or antihero is not entirely obvious) follows her protagonist as she navigates ever more rarefied realms, from the dining rooms and opera boxes of Manhattan to the spas and châteaus of France, each with its own language and conventions, in search of the ultimate triumph — though what that may be, beyond enormous wealth, is never entirely clear, and remains just out of reach… A quick study, she busily absorbs the conventions wherever she lands (she proves a masterful code-switcher, as we might say now), but she’s also resolutely, selfishly, intractably herself, ready to flout convention if and when she can get away with it. Always gorgeous and elegantly dressed — her husband, Ralph, describes her face when in society as “like a theatre with all the lustres blazing” — Undine is nevertheless limited by her vapidity. As an American friend married to a French aristocrat explains, “You’re as handsome as ever; but people here don’t go on looking at each other forever.”…

Wharton’s genius lies in her novelistic ability to allow her characters their perspectives while seeing the situation from all sides. Both in her lifetime and since, she has been maligned for being born rich (Franzen complains that “privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage”); and Janet Flanner accused her, in a waspish 1929 New Yorker profile, of lacking sensuality and sympathy, of “formally proving that the wages of social sin were social death.” But in fact Wharton — who could well have sat around in her fancy houses eating bonbons with her feet up rather than writing wonderfully entertaining, humanly true novels that have stood the test of time — turned her critical eye equally upon transgressors and upholders of convention alike. That’s not to excuse her snobbery or to overlook the limitations of accounts of high society; but now, as then, we’re fascinated by the lives of the wealthy, and shouldn’t project our own secret shame about it onto Wharton. Her sharp wit is hard on all her characters, and crucially, she captures also their redeeming qualities, their humanity. She sees and understands Undine’s laser-focused ambition, her parents’ trembling and self-sacrificing indulgence, Ralph’s highly cultured but weak romanticism, Elmer’s robust desire for material success. And she appreciates also Undine’s splendor, her vitality and allure, Ralph’s delicacy and tenderness, Elmer’s frankness and generosity. Like the novel’s discreet and cheerful Mrs. Heeny, masseuse and manicurist to the rich, who travels from house to house with her bag full of press clippings, Wharton observes and records it all. In this new Gilded Age, when the disparities between rich and poor are again, and disastrously, as great as they were in Wharton’s time, we could do with such a novelist, a cultural anthropologist who might hold up a mirror to our failings and our future, with eagle-eyed clarity and a small measure of compassion…

Novelist, essayist, and professor Claire Messud on the contemporary relevance of the chronicler of the Gilded Age: “How Can We Read Edith Wharton Today?

[image above: source]

  • Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

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As we peer into the not-so-distant mirror, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Marie-Henri Beyle; he was born on this date in 1783. Better known by his pen name “Stendahl,” he is remembered especially for his novels The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) and The Charterhouse of Parma (La Chartreuse de Parme). One of the first practitioners of acute explorations of his characters’ psychology, he is considered a pioneer of realism– and with Wharton, one of its finest examples.

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“I keep pressing the space bar on my keyboard, but I’m still on Earth”*…

The Nation of Celestial Space’s flag is a #, which is the proofreader mark for “space.”

Anyone can start their own micronation. The hard part is getting the snobbish macronations to accept you into their club. Wikipedia has a list of about 90 micronations from the past and present…

The founder of the Nation of Celestial Space (aka Celestia) wanted nothing more than to have the United Nations recognize his micronation. James Thomas Mangan, a 52-year-old Chicago publicist, self-help author, and industrial designer founded the Nation of Celestial Space in 1948, claiming the entirety of outer space, ‘‘specifically exempting from claim every celestial body, whether star, planet, satellite, or comet, and every fragment.” In other words, Celestia owned no matter — just the empty space the matter occupied. (Celestia’s charter made an exception for the Moon, Venus, and Mars and its two moons as “Proclaimed Protectorates.”)…

Mangan registered Celestia with the Cook County, Illinois Recorder and mailed letters to the secretaries of state from 74 countries and the United Nations asking them to formally recognize the Nation of Celestial Space. They ignored him. “Only my wife, my son, and my partner see the depth of it,” he told a reporter in the May 1949 issue of Science Illustrated. “This is a new, bold, immodest idea.” In 1958 Mangan took it upon himself to travel to the UN building in New York City and run the Celestia flag up a pole alongside the other national flags flying there. UN security personnel quickly removed the flag and told Mangan not to try it again…

From the remarkable Mark Frauenfelder (@Frauenfelder), the tale of the man who declared the entire universe to be a country under his protection: “Dictator of the Vacuum of Space“– a feature in Mark’s newsletter, The Magnet, eminently worthy of subscription.

* anonymous

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As we celebrate sovereignty, we might rejoice in the naively noble: it was on this date in 1605 that El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha ( or The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha— aka Don Quixote), the masterwork of Miguel de Cervantes (and of the Spanish Golden Age) and a founding work of Western literature, was first published. Widely considered the first modern novel published in the Western world, it is also considered by many (still) to be the best; it is in any case the second most translated work in the world (after the Bible).

Original title page

“I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a very useful little chap.”*…

 

semicolon

 

Consider the semicolon. It’s beloved by some and assailed by others; in the annals of punctuation lore, no other symbol has sparked as much debate. A handful of years ago it was even the subject of a very funny parody song by The Lonely Island and Solange that poked fun at hashtag rap. (Though, in fairness to the semicolon, the song’s punchline is that it was using the semicolon incorrectly all along.) In her new book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, Cecelia Watson ventures into the long history and usage of semicolons, and the results are tremendously enlightening.

Semicolon is a slim book, but it deftly covers a lot of ground. Watson explores the origin of the semicolon, demonstrates how it’s gone in and out of linguistic favor over the centuries, and thoughtfully explored how a host of disparate writers — including Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — have memorably used it in their work. Watson also explores some of the surprisingly severe impacts the semicolon has had on society, such as the semicolon in a Massachusetts law that wreaked havoc on the state’s alcohol consumption, or the way the semicolon in a judicial sentence caused one man’s life to hang in the balance…

Tobias Carroll gets the lowdown from Cecelia Watson on how she learned to stop worrying and love the semicolon: “My Teachers Said We Weren’t Allowed To Use Them.”

* Abraham Lincoln

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As we pause to connect, we might spare a thought for Georges Joseph Christian Simenon; he died on this date in 1984.  A prolific author (who published nearly 500 novels and numerous short works), he is best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret.  His work is featured in the collection La Pléiade (inspiration for the Library of America), and in 1966 he was awarded the Mystery Writers of America’shighest honor, the Grand Master Award.

Georges_Simenon_(1963)_without_hat_by_Erling_Mandelmann

SIMENON, Georges, 1963, Ecrivain (F) © ERLING MANDELMANN ©

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Written by LW

September 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Don’t just do something, sit there”*…

 

cows

You’ve heard of slow food and slow fashion. Now the BBC is spreading the gospel of slow radio.

The British public broadcaster’s Radio 3 programming this autumn will invite listeners to relax to the sounds of Irish cows being herded up a mountain and leaves crunching on walks through the country. Radio 3 controller Alan Davey tells The Guardian this “meditative, slightly old fashioned” radio will provide audiences with “a chance for quiet mindfulness.”

That sounds a lot like autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), or the pleasant calming sensation many people feel when listening to a range of gentle everyday noises, from softly spoken words to someone raking a zen garden…

More on soothing sound at: “The BBC is getting into ASMR.”  And for those who can’t receive Radio Three…

* Buddhist saying

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As we’re muse on mindfulness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1597 that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, then a tax collector in the province of Grenada, was imprisoned in the Carcel Real, the royal prison in Seville, Spain.  Apparently a subordinate had deposited tax receipts with an untrustworthy banker.

Forced to slow down, Cervantes took good advantage of his free time: he started plotting (but probably not actually writing) “El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha” (“The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha“)– or as we have come to know it, Don Quixote.  As Somerset Maugham said,”casting my mind’s eye over the whole of fiction, the only absolutely original creation that I can think of is Don Quixote.”

cervantes source

 

Written by LW

September 15, 2018 at 1:01 am

“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered”*…

 

Perhaps understandably, most people tend to ignore scraps of paper they see lying on the ground. But Sydney-based artist Laura Sullivan has always found herself intrigued by the promise of scrawled handwriting, and has been picking up stray to-do lists, IOUs, poems, and angry letters for the past twelve years.Now, a selection of the 400 notes she has collected in public spaces around the world will be exhibited in a gallery show that puts the intimate concerns of anonymous strangers on display for all to see…

The serendipitous story in full at “Turns out, Other People’s Shopping Lists Are Oddly Poignant.”

* Edgar Allan Poe

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As we celebrate chance, we might send thrilling birthday greetings to Ross Thomas; he was born on this date in 1926.  The author of 20 novels under his own name, and another six as “Oliver Bleeck,” Thomas specialized in building yarns around the machinations of professional politics and the intrigues of global corporations– so successfully that he is considered by many to be the Len Deighton or John Le Carre of the U.S.– only funnier. As the Village Voice put it, “what Elmore Leonard does for crime in the streets, Ross Thomas does for crime in the suites.”  His debut novel, The Cold War Swap, won the 1967 Edgar Award for Best First Novel; Briarpatch earned the 1985 Edgar for Best Novel; and in 2002, he was honored with the inaugural Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award, one of only two authors to earn the award posthumously (the other was 87th Precinct author Ed McBain in 2006).

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Written by LW

February 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

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