The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton

Many moons ago I had read Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and was blown away by it. It was the novel that earned her the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman to do so. It is one of those novels I plan to revisit sometime soon.

The Age of Innocence is one of the three ‘society’ novels that Wharton is famous for, the other two being The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, and it was the latter that tempted me first.

The protagonist, or should we say anti-heroine of The Custom of the Country is the uniquely named Undine Spragg, easily one of the most appalling and yet highly fascinating characters in fiction.

We first meet Undine in the Hotel Stentorian in New York where she has recently moved in with her parents. The Spraggs are originally from Apex City (a fictional town somewhere in the Midwest), but they shift to New York so that Undine can realize her ambition of being part of the elite society in the city.

Undine is tremendously beautiful, a fact she is well aware of and knows how to use to her advantage. But there is much she is yet to learn about the codes and customs of Old New York. In the meanwhile, she captures the imagination of Ralph Marvell, who belongs to an old and respectable family in the city and they marry.

Undine is soon to realize that people who constitute Old New York are not necessarily well moneyed. The Marvells live comfortably but they have modest means and it is not enough to whet Undine’s rather expensive tastes. Ralph is a gentleman with no eye for business or work, and aspires to become an author. He receives a monthly allowance from his grandfather, but Undine’s insatiable desire for rich clothes and a decadent lifestyle means that they are also compelled to rely on the support of Undine’s father Mr Spragg.

Ralph and Undine are as different as chalk and cheese, which becomes increasingly apparent during their honeymoon. They travel to Europe. While Ralph is content to be alone with Undine, appreciating the quiet countryside and looking for inspiration to begin his novel, Undine is unhappy. She craves the life of big hotels, of being surrounded by people, dining and socializing. Ralph relents and they head to the Alpine town of St Moritz in Switzerland, where Undine, with her newly acquired set of friends, delves headlong into a life of dining at smart restaurants and umpteen shopping expeditions, a charade that continues subsequently in Paris as well.

As her extravagant lifestyle eats into their finances, despite Ralph’s many attempts to rein her in, cracks begin to appear in their relationship.

During their first days together it had seemed as though pecuniary questions were the last likely to be raised between them. But his marital education had since made strides, and he now knew that a disregard for money may imply not the willingness to get on without it but merely a blind confidence that it will somehow be provided. If Undine, like the lilies of the field, took no care, it was not because her wants were as few but because she assumed that care would be taken for her by those whose privilege it was to enable her to unite floral insouciance with Sheban elegance.

The arrival of their son Paul does nothing to soothe Undine, who feels constrained by their limited circumstances. Ralph, meanwhile, also tries to reconcile himself to Undine’s many moods which keep oscillating depending on the money at her disposal and various amusements at hand.

Then there’s also the looming presence of Elmer Moffatt, a self-made man and a go getter. He is a man from Undine’s past in Apex City – much before she makes her entry into New York society. We are given an inkling of this right at beginning of the novel in a conversation between Mr and Mrs Spragg when they apprehensively discuss Mr Moffatt’s appearance in New York, a man Undine wants to have nothing to do with.

I won’t dwell anymore on the plot, although a lot more happens.

Undine Spragg, meanwhile, is a quite a character. She wants to be at the pinnacle of fashionable society, the talk of the town during the season and finds marriage as the fastest way to do it.

But, alas, while she expects wealth and respectability, she ends up getting only one of them, never both.

She wanted, passionately and persistently, two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability…

Undine believes in the power of her beauty and with it the ability to get what she demands. This takes a toll on Ralph who is driven to dabble in business to support her even though he has no aptitude for it.

On one hand, Undine has a single-minded focus of attaining material possessions and getting them despite suffering various setbacks in the process. Yet her idea of success also depends a lot on how she perceives herself in the eyes of others. She is always yearning for the unattainable with the result that she remains unhappy in most of the situations she finds herself in. She is frankly horrid to poor Ralph, and yet it is perversely fascinating to watch how she takes her failures on her chin and to just move on.

In many ways she has quite a few common traits with Moffatt – both refuse to be bowed down by setbacks and while Moffatt strives for success and wealth in business, Undine aspires for it in her married life.

In this way, Wharton gives a wider view of the newly rich in America and their zeal for money as a key driving force. Undine, in a way epitomizes this, in her wanting to spend the money now, on the spot rather than save it for a distant future. In the later sections of the novel, Wharton also successfully contrasts the American obsession with material wealth with the European ideals of traditions and age old customs. With respect to this point particularly, here is Frenchman Raymond de Chelles speaking to Undine…

‘You come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they’re dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have – and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us.’

Divorce is also a key plot device and a dominant theme in the novel. Wharton subtly encapsulates the implications of ending a marriage for a woman and how it restricts her standing in polite society. Interestingly, this novel was published around the time Wharton herself had just divorced her husband. Clearly, while more and more women had begun to opt for divorce across America, it was still unheard of in Old New York at the time.

Wharton’s prose as ever is top notch, elegant and incisive. This is an incredibly immersive novel where the pace never lets up. It is packed with fully realized characters and Wharton’s keen and subtle insights into society – both American and European – at the time.

Overall, The Custom of the Country is an absolutely brilliant novel and I would place it right up there with her masterpiece The Age of Innocence.

Madonna in a Fur Coat – Sabahattin Ali (tr. Maureen Freely & Alexander Dawe)

Sabahattin Ali’s brief biography on the inside flap of my edition makes for interesting reading. He was considered one of the most influential Turkish writers of the twentieth century, and owned and edited a popular weekly newspaper, which became a target of government censorship. Ominously, he was assassinated in 1948 while travelling secretly to Bulgaria. But by whom he was murdered and where he was buried remains a mystery.

Madonna in a Fur Coat became a bestseller in Turkey, but it was little known outside the country before it was translated for a larger English speaking audience.  This is a book I read in January but am only reviewing now as the present worrying state of things have hampered my blogging a little bit.

Madonna in a Fur Coat begins in Ankara with our narrator reminiscing about the novel protagonist’s Raif Efendi – a humble and unassertive man.

Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression. Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts. As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance, but ready nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile. Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man. Indeed, he was rather ordinary, with no distinguishing features – no different from the hundreds of others we meet and fail to notice in the course of a normal day.

Our narrator has lost his job, but manages to secure a new position in a factory where Efendi is working as a translator of German. At first, our narrator finds Efendi’s lack of confidence annoying, but slowly the friendship between them grows. He is even invited to Efendi’s home. What he sees though is not a family living in harmony. Efendi lives not only with his wife but also with an extended family for whom he is responsible financially. What makes matters worse is that while these family members expect Efendi to provide for them, they display an utter lack of respect for him. Efendi takes it all on the chin and it is this passiveness that puzzles our narrator.

Things come to a head, when Efendi on falling very ill, calls our narrator by his bedside with a request to burn his diary. Our narrator, however, manages to convince him to read its contents before destroying them.

And this is where the second part of the story begins, set mostly in Berlin and written in his diary, as Efendi recounts his earlier life and the chain of events that culminate in his present tragic state.

Efendi in his early days is expected to join the family business of manufacturing soap, but he shows no aptitude for it. He decides to head to Berlin instead to study painting.

On one of his visits to a museum, he is captivated by a particular painting – that of a Madonna in a fur coat – a painting which draws him to the museum repeatedly. It is a self-portrait by the artist Maria Puder, of whom he knows nothing.

Suddenly, near the door to the main room, I stopped. Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat. Others pushed past me, impatient to see the rest of the exhibition, but I could not move. What was it about that portrait? I know that words alone will not suffice. All I can say is that she wore a strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression, one that I had never seen before on a woman.

So caught up he is by this work of art that he fails to recognize the artist in person when she approaches him. Eventually they strike up a conversation and gradually this transforms into a relationship. But while Efendi is able to express his innermost thoughts very eloquently in his diary, he is unable to actually convey them to Maria. And this in a way proves to be his undoing.

It is hardly a spoiler to say that their relationship is doomed given what we know right at the start of Efendi’s present circumstances.

One of the themes Sabahattin Ali explores is the stereotypes prevalent in relationships between men and women. It is Maria Puder who takes the initiative in her romance with Efendi. She is attracted to him precisely because he is sensitive, kind and leaning towards the arts, which means that he is very unlike the typical man she normally comes across.

She said: ‘Now don’t you dare start thinking like all the other men…I don’t want you reading volumes into everything I say…just know that I am always completely open…like this…like a man…I’m like a man in many other ways, too. Maybe that’s why I’m alone…’

She looked me over before exclaiming: ‘And you’re a bit like a woman! I can see it now. Maybe that’s why I’ve liked you ever since I first set eyes on you…Yes, indeed. There’s something about you that makes me think of a younger girl…’

Madonna in a Fur Coat then is a beautifully written novel tinged with melancholia – the thought of what could have been, of things left unsaid and the consequences of not taking charge. Sabahattin Ali’s prose is languid and captivating and makes the reader feel sorry for Efendi’s plight despite his passive demeanour. There is a fascinating psychological depth to the novel, particularly in the way we learn about what continually torments Efendi’s mind and soul.

Indeed, while I read this novel in January, it continues to linger in my mind even now.

Actress – Anne Enright

Some years ago I had read Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz and was quite bowled over by it. The premise of the book was a theme done to death a countless times – the examination of an extra-marital affair. But Enright with her smart and spiky writing transformed it into something special. Thus, the release of her new novel Actress made me quite eager to savour her writing once more.

In Actress, our narrator is Norah FitzMaurice, now a middle-aged woman, and a writer who has been married for many years with kids. When the novel opens, her mother Katherine O’Dell – the famous actress – has been dead for some years and Norah begins to reminisce about their relationship, her ascent as a movie star, followed by her descent into madness.

In a way Norah is writing about her mother, a fictionalized biography if you will, and it is addressed to her husband, the ‘you’ in the narrative.

The first chapter begins with a snapshot of Katherine and ends with her shooting a well-known producer Boyd O’ Neil in the leg after which she is committed to an asylum.

People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like as a mother, or what she was like an actress – we did not use the word star. Mostly though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might, themselves, be secretly askew.

Gradually in the subsequent chapters, Katherine’s personality and life is revealed to us in layers.

Katherine is attracted to the stage at a young very age influenced by her father who is a small time actor at the time. Katherine, however, is destined for bigger things. These are days just after the war and she rises to stardom in Ireland led by her stellar performance as a nurse in a war movie that enamours audiences. Thereafter, a stint in Hollywood and all the trappings of glamour follow. It means that Katherine’s home is often frequented by men and admirers, which carries on even when her daughter is born.

Katherine does not reveal the identity of Norah’s dad, and Norah often wonders why although she imagines her father to be some sort of a hero.

I woke up one spring morning with a sudden urge to discover my DNA before I tried to pass it along. This was the missing thing. This was the rope I needed to haul my baby out of the universe and into my body. I needed to find out who I ‘was’.

Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself pandering to the men in the industry for quality roles and this in many ways gradually begins to take a toll on her mental health. For Norah, her mother’s fame and company of men bring another set of problems – unwelcome sexual advances that Norah has to grapple with.

But the book is not all about Katherine. We learn something of Norah’s life as well – the revolution in Dublin in the 70s, her own sexual awakening and her subsequent marriage. Norah goes on to build a life different from Katherine’s. In a way, she opts for a more conventional life centred around marriage and motherhood in stark contrast to Katherine’s bohemian existence.

While Katherine does enjoy the sweet fruits of success, it does not last long – a bitter truth that she struggles to accept. Actress, then, is a beautifully written novel that explores fame and the price one has to pay for it.

The nuances of the connection between Katherine and Norah is sensitively evoked – despite many challenges, mother and daughter share a deep bond.

Among the images of my mother that exist online is a black-and-white photograph of me, watching her from the wings. I am four or five years of age and sitting on a stool, in a little matinee coat and a bowl haircut. Beyond me, Katherine O’Dell performs to the unseen crowd. She is dressed in a glittering dark gown, you can not see the edges of her or the shape her figure makes, just the slice of cheekbone, the line of her chin. Her hands are uplifted.

Enright does not give too much weight to plot, and she also chooses not to tell her story in a linear fashion. Rather, the book is a more like a meditation on a mother-daughter relationship and their contrasting personalities. As usual, Enright’s writing is smart and suffused with enough wisdom and perception to bring out something new in the tale.

Overall, the novel has a very reflective feel to it, which in a way makes sense. After all, the narrator is also an author because writing about her mother gives her the time to dwell on the past and try to understand her mother more deeply in a way that will enable her to convey it all in her book.

I have read two Enrights now – Actress and The Forgotten Waltz – the latter examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is an author who has been on my radar for quite some time but whose books I never got around to reading until now. And I am so glad I did.

I started with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the last novel she wrote and published, and what a fabulous book it turned out to be.

The first chapter in We Have Always Lived in the Castle is brilliant. Here’s how it opens and draws the reader in…

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood is walking to the village to borrow books from the library and buy supplies from the grocery store. Merricat lives on Blackwood Farm with her elder sister Constance and their Uncle Julian. Constance is uncomfortable going beyond the confines of their home (possibly due to agoraphobia) and Uncle Julian is quite frail both physically and mentally.

So the task of doing the grocery shopping falls on Merricat. It is a ritual she follows every week, but not something that she enjoys doing. The reason is all too clear. She hates bumping into the villagers, who jeer at her and pass comments behind her back. The children are even worse as they chant strange rhymes when she walks past.

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?

Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.

Already the reader is aware that something is amiss and feels a bit of the fear that Merricat is experiencing.

Why do the villagers behave the way they do? The answer lies in a gruesome incident that occurred in the Blackwood family six years ago. The sisters’ parents, aunt and younger brother die of arsenic poisoning when having dinner at the family home and Constance is charged for this crime. Merricat is not present then, and Uncle Julian manages to survive.

Due to lack of evidence, Constance is acquitted, but the stigma surrounding the Blackwood sisters remains. Fearing the taunts of people outside, the three of them lead a solitary existence in their home, and rarely mix with outsiders.

Some of the wealthier inhabitants in the village do make the effort keep in touch. One of them is Helen Clarke who visits the sisters every Friday for tea.

The elder sister Constance comes across as a gentle person and keeps herself busy by cleaning the house and cooking scrumptious meals for the family. Uncle Julian is gradually losing his faculties and is obsessed with the details of that fateful day when the Blackwood family was poisoned. He is jotting it all down in his papers hoping to publish it as a book.

But the star of the book is really Merricat. As a narrator, she is very strange and fascinating; traits which are accentuated by her skewed and childlike way of viewing the world at large. For the most part it feels as though we are reading the narrative of a child only to be reminded that Merricat is actually a young adult of eighteen.

Merricat adores Constance and is fiercely protective of their simple and solitary way of living. She indulges in her own make-believe world, a world to which she will one day be transported and find some modicum of safety and happiness. Here she is talking to Constance…

“On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All the locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts. On the moon Uncle Julian would be well and the sun would shine every day. You would wear our mother’s pearls and sing, and the sun would shine all the time.”

Her life is made up of routines that involve going to the market, helping Constance with the cleaning, running wild and spending time by herself on the vast family property, the cat Jonas being her only companion.

Merricat’s limited world is made up of superstitions. She believes chanting certain words or smashing mirrors will ward off evil influences on the family. She leaves totems around the family property all in a childish effort to seal the family off from strangers.

On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us.

Until one day Merricat’s world is shaken up when their cousin Charles Blackwood shows up. This sparks off a chain of events that disrupt the lives of all the three inhabitants of the house.

Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could re-seal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased. 

The two sisters are both different and similar at the same time. Constance in some sense is the grown up as she buries herself in the comfort of preparing meals and doing household chores. Merricat is the untamed one, as she spends considerable time outdoors even sleeping in the woods in her secret hiding place sometimes. And yet they are similar – both shun outside contact, while at the same time find solace in everyday rituals.

All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply coloured rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women. Each year Constance and Uncle Julian and I had jam or preserve and pickle that Constance had made, but we never touched what belonged to the others; Constance said it would kill us if we ate it.

Even though this is an unsettling novel, Jackson expertly sprinkles doses of dark humour. There are two set pieces which are particularly wonderful and both of them involve Uncle Julian. The first is in the early pages when Helen Clarke visits the Blackwoods for the customary Friday tea. This time she brings another guest unannounced – the meek Mrs Wright. Mrs Wright, against her better judgement and manners, is fascinated by the poisoning case and Uncle Julian sensing this exploits her curiosity to maximum effect. The other set piece involves Charles, the two sisters and Uncle Julian where the latter feels threatened that Charles is out to destroy his beloved papers. These flashes of comedy are perfect in relieving some moments of claustrophobia.

There are two themes that are strongly on display in the novel.

The first is how badly conventional society perceives those who are cut from a different cloth largely labelling them as outcasts. It’s a society riddled with prejudices where people who deviate from certain accepted norms are not looked upon kindly.

The novel also examines how as individuals we can be resistant to change and the degree to which we will react if we feel threatened. We see this in Merricat’s behaviour who will go to any lengths to preserve her distorted ideal of family happiness.

Jackson’s writing is simply brilliant. She is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present. Her dialogues also crackle as does her penchant for wit.

In my Library of America edition of Jackson’s work, there is a chronology of her writing and personal life which makes for fascinating reading.  At the time of writing this novel, Jackson was essentially housebound and in frail health, and I can’t help but think that some of what she was experiencing possibly found its way into this book.

Indeed, I can firmly say that We Have Always Lived in the Castle will easily find a place in my ‘Best of’ list this year.

Library of America Edition

A Month of Reading: March 2020

March was easily the strangest month ever, one that felt like it would never end. Despite the coronavirus crisis only worsening, I took solace from the fact that the books I managed to read during the orders to mandatorily stay at home were all very good.

I read six books and could have read more had I not been incessantly checking my phone for the latest news. Of these, I have reviewed two, and should hopefully write about the others in the coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, here is a brief round-up of what I read in March…

Every Eye – Isobel English

Awkward Hatty Latterly is the protagonist in Isobel English’s superb novella Every Eye. It focuses on two pivotal periods in Hatty’s life – the past when she is a young adult in a relationship with a considerably older man, and the present when she is on a honeymoon with her husband who is much younger to her.

Eventually both the past and the present will merge in an unexpected way. You can read the full review by clicking on the title.

Fate – Jorge Consiglio

Fate focuses on four individuals – or rather two couples – one pair who is gradually falling apart, while the other is seemingly coming close.

Karl and Marina have been together for ten years and have a young son, Simón. Karl is a German-born oboist at Argentina’s national orchestra, and Marina is a meteorologist. On a field trip, she meets fellow researcher Zárate, and begins a fling. Then there is Amer, a dynamic and successful taxidermist. At a group therapy session for smokers, Amer falls for the younger Clara.

By focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, this was an interesting tale which showcased all the characters trying to control their lives or their destiny in some way or the other but not always succeeding in doing so.

A Quiet Place – Seicho Matsumoto

When on a business trip to Kobe, Tsuneo Asai, a hardworking government bureaucrat, receives news of his wife’s death due to a cardiac arrest. This is not wholly unexpected given that she suffered from heart ailments. But yet, there are some aspects of her death that seem out of the ordinary to Asai.

As he delves deeper into the matter, he realizes that his wife – who he thought was shy and mostly by herself – had a kind of a secret life he was not aware of.

This was an absorbing tale where more than the death/ crime, the psychological depth of the characters – notably Asai – carried more weight. The last section particularly had shades of a typical Patricia Highsmith novel (I am a Highsmith fan).

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

With the coronavirus raging all over the world, I felt the urge to pick up something topical and when I checked my shelves, I felt quite drawn to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

The premise in ‘Station Eleven’ is eerily familiar to what we are witnessing right now. It centers around the Georgian Flu disease that sweeps over America, its aftermath and the events leading to it, all the while focusing on a certain group of characters.

It is a vividly imagined and unique novel with a focus on humanity at its heart. And you can read the full review by clicking on the title.

Actress – Anne Enright

In Actress, Norah FitzMaurice is narrating her mother’s story in the form of a book she addresses to her husband. Her mother is Katherine O’Dell and we learn of her ascent to stardom, her gradual decline, and her descent into madness further accentuated when she shoots a renowned producer in his leg.

That is the bare bones of the tale, one that explores the relationship between mother and daughter and the price each has to pay for being in the limelight. Enright’s prose shines on every page – intelligent, wise and sensitive and it was a pleasure to lose oneself into the book.

I have read two Enrights now, the other being The Forgotten Waltz, which examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.

The Wycherly Woman – Ross Macdonald

Here’s what the blurb on the book states…

“Phoebe Wycherly was missing two months before her wealthy father hired Archer to find her. That was plenty of time for a young girl who wanted to disappear to do so thoroughly–or for someone to make her disappear. Before he can find the Wycherly girl, Archer has to deal with the Wycherly woman, Phoebe’s mother, an eerily unmaternal blonde who keeps too many residences, has too many secrets, and leaves too many corpses in her wake.”

This was another excellent Macdonald novel – the ninth in the Lew Archer series – with a tightly woven plot, surprising twists and turns and beautiful descriptions of California as well as the seedy world of blackmailers.

That’s it. I thought all the books were well worth reading but my favourites of the bunch were Station Eleven, A Quiet Place and The Wycherly Woman.

As April begins, I have embarked on my first Shirley Jackson novel – We Have Always Lived in the Castle – and I am already intrigued.