Trust – Hernan Diaz

After many years, the Booker Prize longlist in 2022 has looked quite interesting. I thought Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These was great (it was recently shortlisted for the Prize), as was The Colony by Audrey Magee. To this, I will now add Trust by Hernan Diaz, another excellent read from the list.

Set in early 20th century New York, Trust by Hernan Diaz is a cleverly constructed, fascinating tale of money, deception, power and the ultimate question of who controls the narrative.

The book comprises four sections of which the first is called “Bonds”, a book written by the author Harold Vanner, who has seemingly sunk into oblivion. “Bonds” narrates the story of Benjamin Rask whose astounding success on Wall Street and the stock markets during the heydays of the 1920s, transforms him into one of the richest men in the world.

Because he had enjoyed almost every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied to Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise: his was not a story of resilience and perseverance or the tale of an unbreakable will forging a golden destiny for itself out of little more than dross.

We are told of his privileged background – a gregarious and sociable father whose success has come from running the family tobacco business and cultivating relationships in gentleman’s clubs, the haven where men smoke cigars; and Benjamin’s mother, a woman always surrounded by her coterie of wealthy friends, who spend their days in each other’s homes. Compared to his parents’ need for company, Benjamin grows up as a lonely child with a remarkable aptitude for mathematics and an outlook that differs sharply from that of his father’s.  On the death of his parents, Benjamin begins to chart his own course of success, one that is largely determined by his flair for numbers and staying ahead of the game in the world of high finance despite his awkwardness in social situations.

He was an inept athlete, an apathetic clubman, an unenthusiastic drinker, an indifferent gambler, a lukewarm lover. He, who owed his fortune to tobacco, did not even smoke. Those who accused him of being excessively frugal failed to understand that, in truth, he had no appetites to repress.

We are also introduced to Helen Rask, Benjamin’s wife – a reserved, introverted, deeply intelligent woman born into a family of eccentric aristocrats, parents who are often at odds with one another.  We learn of Helen’s precociousness as a child; her closeness to her father, who nurtures her talent and her thirst for knowledge; and her strained relationship with her mother, a woman with impeccable networking skills and a thirst for a vibrant social life.

Helen had left her childhood in Albany. Being constantly on the move, she met few girls her age, and those casual encounters never had a chance to blossom into full friendships. To pass the time, she taught herself languages with books she shifted between different homes and hotels…When books proved insufficient, she turned to her diary. The dream journals that her father had made her keep for a few years had instilled in her the daily habit of recording her thoughts. Over time, her writings turned away from her dreams and toward her musings on books, her impressions of the cities thy visited, and, during her white nights, her innermost fears and yearnings.

Benjamin and Helen’s marriage becomes a union of mutual respect and understanding given their respective solitary natures rather than love and passion, and while Benjamin goes on to amass unimaginable wealth from the soaring financial markets, Helen focuses her attention on philanthropy, culture, books and music. Until there comes a point when things begin to unravel as Helen’s health deteriorates and she is committed to a medical institute in Switzerland.

The second section titled “My Life” is an autobiography by Andrew Bevel, who is the chief protagonist of Trust (or is he?), an unscrupulous and powerful man willing to go to any lengths possible to restore his public image which he believes has been unfairly tarnished. It quickly becomes clear that Benjamin Rask is a fictional version of Andrew Bevel himself.

My name is known to many, my deeds to some, my life to few. This has never concerned me much. What matters is the tally of our accomplishments, not the tales about us. Still, because my past has so often overlapped with that of our nation, lately I have come to believe that I owe it to the public to share some of the decisive moments of my story.

Bevel’s autobiography is an account written in rough draft of his accomplishments as a financier par excellence, focusing mostly on his illustrious family history, his thoughts on the American economy and the rise of high finance, his instrumental role in shaping up the markets and the most important woman in his life, his wife Mildred Bevel.

These two narratives have similarities and yet differ significantly on crucial aspects. Andrew Bevel and his fictional avatar Benjamin rise to the pinnacle of wealth not only during the unsustainable boom of the stock markets in the 1920s, but they also earn immense profits during the massive Wall Street crash in 1929. But the stories differ on how Bevel’s meteoric rise is perceived. Vanner’s novel paints Rask as an opportunist, his greed for wealth and power starkly apparent and resented at a time when the country is plunged into the doldrums, while Bevel painstakingly paints a picture of a highly intelligent gifted man, who having engineered the country’s economic success is now unfairly accused of instigating its downfall.

The biggest anomaly in both the accounts is the depiction of Mildred Bevel (Helen Rask in Vanner’s novel), who remains an enigma, all the more because there are marked differences in how her personality and her circumstances have been highlighted by both men. Is the fictional woman real or is the real woman a figment of the imagination?

The third section focuses on Ida Partenza, an Italian immigrant, employed as Bevel’s secretary chiefly to type out his autobiography as per instructions given by him personally. After a few sessions with Bevel, Ida is disconcerted to find that rather than give a shape to the facts of Bevel’s life, Ida’s job is really to invent a narrative that aligns with the story Bevel wishes to tell, a large part of it centred on projecting Mildred’s “watered-down” personality to the world. This fuels her quest for the truth, a research that she secretly carries out on the side, if only to untangle fact from fiction.  

“Miss Partenza, I am writing this book to stop the proliferation of versions of my life, not to multiply them. I most emphatically do not want more perspectives, more opinions. This is to be my story.”

And in the fourth section titled “Futures”, we hear from Mildred Bevel herself.

In terms of structure, Diaz’s Trust employs a slew of narrative devices that add depth to the book – a novel within a novel, an unfinished autobiography, memoirs and journals – conjuring up varied perspectives on the same set of events.

With respect to subject matter and themes, in replaying the events of the halcyon years of Wall Street and the debilitating crash thereafter that sparked the depression of the 1930s, one could say that Trust is an exploration of the enigmatic and competitive world of finance, the immense greed and corruption that fuels it, the inequality bred by concentrated wealth at the hands of the very few. Diaz has excellently captured the milieu of the rich – the hush and the quiet, the aura of awe and invincibility that it exudes. One could also say that the novel takes a closer look at the topics of mental illness, deception in relationships and limited roles for women during the early part of the 20th century who languished in the shadows of men.

But at the end of the day, Trust is really a novel about how stories are told (what is revealed, hidden, enhanced or diluted), how viewpoints often differ and how power can warp reality and ultimately influence the narrative.

“It seems to me that you don’t understand what any of this is all about.”

“I do.”

“Is that so?”

“Bending and aligning reality.”

Time: The Present Selected Stories – Tess Slesinger

Boiler House Press has simply outdone itself with the publication of two superb works under the Recovered Books imprint. Earlier this year, I read Gentleman Overboard, a splendid, psychological tale of a man faced with the terrifying prospect of drowning at sea, and now it’s Time: The Present by Tess Slesinger, an American author who sank without a trace during her time but is now seeing a revival. In a nutshell, this is simply the best short story collection I’ve read this year, and a shoo-in to my end of the year list.

Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences  where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable.

Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.

In this piece, rather than comment on each of the nineteen stories, I will focus more on those that to me were real standouts.

We begin with “White on Black”, the second story in the collection, a sharply observed tale on race, the difficulty of assimilation that comes with it; a look at how outsiders are always perceived as outsiders. Set in a private school attended by “nice” children, our narrator recalls a particular time when schools were starting to plant the seed of diversity in the minds of its students.

One of the private schools attended by the “nice” children of the West Side some twenty years ago followed not only the liberal practice of mixing rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, but made a point also of including Negroes.

This is particularly exemplified in the tale of the Wilsons, Negro siblings and central characters whose arrival at the school cause quite a stir. Paul, exquisite with striking features, quickly makes his presence felt with the boys, while Elizabeth makes similar strides with the girls. Boisterous and confident, both Paul and Elizabeth fascinate their peers, and contrary to being left out because they are black, they go on to become extremely popular in the school. But the innocence of childhood rarely carries itself into the harsh, cruel world of adults. As the children grow, so do their attitudes change with the dawning realization that it is not easy to practice the ideals of inclusiveness and diversity in the real world. Paul resents this fact, Elizabeth tries to adapt to it with varying results.

Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky” – a prescient tale of ruthless corporate culture, mindless consumerism and joblessness. It’s a masterclass of character study, the stream of consciousness technique, satire and tragedy. The scene of action is the book section of a departmental store during Christmas rush and here is its principle cast of characters…

Mr Keasbey is the archetypical aggressive, competitive and experienced salesman, who always “signed in daily at eight-forty (ten minutes before the deadline).” Miss Bodkin is irreverent and a tad cocky, what she lacks in punctuality and discipline she more than makes up for in her superior sales skills. Joey Andrews is the new young man on the block, eager to please and massively relieved at finally bagging a job. Miss Paley, a teacher in her previous role, is a misfit in the book department, not really adept at selling, the pressure of being fired hanging like a Damocles sword over her head.

There’s so much going on in this story – the crippling impact of the Great Depression, the disintegration of the American Dream, a fiercely competitive and vacuous corporate life…and it’s astonishing how expertly Slesinger coalesces these various threads into a polished, unforgettable whole. The depiction of the commercial world replete with clichés is spot on – the customary, meaningless speeches given by the bosses at the start of everyday, the fear of not meeting targets and being laid off; as well as the rush of the Christmas season where customers behave like “animals stampeding in panic inside a burning barn.”  

The machinery starts with a roar; unorganized come into conflict with organized; the clerks are over-powered, the floor-walkers swept along with the stream of customers; the aisles are drowned; arms reach like fishing-rods into the piled bargains on every counter. But gradually the frantic, haphazard customers are subdued and controlled by the competent motions of well-trained officers, who reason, who separate, who mollify and implore. Still mad, but under direction at last, the crowd settles around counters creaming to be fed.

Brilliantly enmeshed in the story are Joey’s inner thoughts which highlight the crucial points of his former life – the ambition of securing a good education, the depression era turning those dreams into dust in a heartbeat,  followed by scrounging on the streets and finally gratitude at being employed at the department store. Also poignant is Miss Paley’s plight, another victim of the Depression era, fired from her long-held teaching post. Poor Miss Paley is out-of-sorts in a sales role rousing both pity and embarrassment in her fellow colleagues. The story ends with two dismissals – one hardly surprising, but the other one pretty unexpected.

 “The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation. The titular character Annie is a loyal housemaid at the Friedmans’, a well-to-do Jewish family in New York. In their employ for many years, Annie is sincere and efficient, takes her work seriously and it is a matter of great pride to her that she is indispensable to the family. Annie also feels a sense of achievement in the hardwork and discipline involved in being elevated to that position. From a newbie (Greenhorn) many years ago to an experienced maid now, that successful transition is a product of the Friedmans’ training and Annie’s will of iron.

And yet we learn that something is amiss; a sense of loneliness and emptiness that wells up in Annie every now and then. For Annie desires a happy married life and a home of her own. The mornings are busy and buzzing with work as are the evenings, but the lonely afternoons with the hours stretching endlessly accentuate feelings of uncertainty and fear; we see a gamut of emotions raging in Annie’s soul as she contemplates hanging up her working boots and settling down.

The dining-room looked gloomy and dead through the window in the swinging-door. When there was no longer work to be done in these big room beyond the kitchen, they seemed too strange to enter alone…Oh yes, the afternoons were lonely, and it was too bad that she wouldn’t be going out tonight with Joe to Trommer’s.

She is already seeing a man called Joe who is crazy about her, but he resents how Annie is always at the beck and call of the Friedmans’ and how uppity she has become after years of working there. Joe feels Annie is being exploited while Annie, fiercely loyal, is always defending them. Thrown into this mix are Mrs Friedman and her daughter Mildred. Mrs Friedman expertly manipulates Annie’s feelings agreeing to her decision to marry but also subtly conveying how important it is for a woman to remain financially independent. Mildred, leaning towards the left, hates her privileged life and her mother taking advantage of Annie, but she is unable to make Annie understand her position. As the tale progresses, the sense of distress in Annie reaches fever-pitch as she is confronted with the frightening prospect of Joe possibly leaving her out of sheer frustration.

“Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a marriage, the erosion of self-esteem and the burden of dependency that this development involves. Taking place over the course of an afternoon, this is a tale of Ben Grader, a young man with a successful career who one day is unexpectedly fired from his job. At first, Ben displays a fair amount of bravado but as the day progresses as do his wanderings around the city, this bravado transforms into uncertainty, loss of self-esteem and resentment, the latter particularly aimed at his wife who would now take on the role of sole provider.

“Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage. The story opens with Margaret Flinders on the front steps of the hospital waiting for her husband Miles to hail a taxi to take them home. We learn that Margaret was in the hospital for an abortion, and she is stricken with grief at the step she has taken. Margaret and Miles are left-wing intellectuals immersed in a life of exciting ideas, freedom, and independence. To them, raising children is not an option, it is simply too bourgeoisie and an unnecessary burden.

But when Margaret gets pregnant, she realizes that she wants to keep the baby, while Miles is against it. During an evening of drinks that leaves them both intoxicated and exhilarated, Miles convinces her to abort the pregnancy. Margaret goes through with it but she is devastated at the irreversibility of her actions. What deepens her sadness is the uncomprehending reaction from the other residents in the maternity ward – the women who have delivered babies, whether alive or stillborn – who can’t fathom Margaret’s decision to abort. Moreover, when she observes these womens’ husbands excited at the prospect of fatherhood and their indulgence towards their wives, she begins to wonder whether there is any substance to her married life with Miles.

…intellectuals, with habits generated from the right and tastes inclined to the left. Afraid to perpetuate themselves, were they? Afraid of anything that might loom so large in their personal lives as to outweigh other considerations? Afraid, maybe, of a personal life?

“In The Times So Unsettled Are”, Heinrich and Mariedel are Socialists who refuse to leave Vienna during a time of great political upheaval, when the Socialists are hell-bent on transforming the political and economic landscape of the country. But their dreams and plans are perennially in the threat of being torn to shreds. During endless conversations over cups of coffee in a traditional Viennese café, Heinrich and Mariedel become entranced by the American couple Richard and Mahli (Molly) – their infectious humour, love for one another and the aura of happiness that they convey warm the hearts of the Austrians. Richard and Mahli try to convince Heinrich and Mariedel to begin life anew in America, but they refuse. Several years later, Heinrich is killed and his death leaves Mariedel in a state of shock she is not willing to acknowledge, but it provides her with the impetus to finally leave Vienna for America, reunite with Richard and Mahli and live vicariously through their happiness. But things don’t turn out as planned and what Mariedel witnesses disturbs her even more. This is a beautifully written tale of love, loss, friendships and broken dreams.

Fractured relationships and mismatched wavelengths of both husband and wife are running themes, the myriad facets of which shine in many of these tales. Yet Slesinger is not keen on taking sides, both the men and women she portrays are flawed. For instance, in “Kleine Frau”, a young couple on a honeymoon is disconcerted by the drowning of a child belonging to one of the local families, but while the husband is bereft at not doing his best to help, the wife in her selfishness is unhappy with him for ignoring her in the mounting cold. “Mother to Dinner” wonderfully captures the intense conflict in a young woman who is torn between pleasing her cold, intellectually superior husband and her bourgeoisie mother who the husband never fails to deride. In “After the Party”, Helene Colborne, a wealthy upper class woman is tormented by her husband’s Socialist tendencies and later by his sympathies with the working class; and suffers a nervous breakdown when he pledges all his wealth to the Communist Party.

What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. Slesinger is as adept at painting a picture of the economic perils and complex social issues of her time as she is at showcasing the nuances of marriage and relationships, expertly weaving these elements together to form a rich tapestry of stories. Often written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is accessible and engaging, most of these stories are set in the 1930s but the topics that form the nucleus of these tales exhibit a timeless quality. These topics carry much weight even today – the travesty of race and its non-inclusive aspect; disparities of class and that unbridgeable economic divide; a bleak corporate culture that epitomizes soul crushing competition and mind-numbering drudgery; politics with its clear demarcation between socialism and capitalism; not to mention life changing events such as job loss, abortion, death and divorce that expose cracks in the relationships of ill-matched couples. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.

Old New York – Edith Wharton

I have been on a bit of an Edith Wharton spree over the last couple of years. In 2020, I read and wrote about The Custom of the Country and The New York Stories (the latter published by NYRB Classics in a handsome edition). And this year, earlier on I wrote about The House of Mirth. All are wonderful books to which Old New York is another worthwhile addition.

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none.

FALSE DAWN (The ‘Forties)

In False Dawn, the first novella in this collection, we meet Mr Halston Raycie, whose “extent in height, width and thickness was so nearly the same that whichever way he was turned one had an equally broad view of him.”

Mr Raycie has a formidable personality and is generally well-respected in his social circle, although in many ways he is a tyrant at least where his family is concerned. The novella opens with a garden party at the Raycie residence in honour of the young Lewis Raycie, who is about to embark on his first Grand Tour to Europe. It is intended that Lewis should travel extensively since his father strongly believes that “a young man, before setting up for himself, must see the world; form his taste; fortify his judgement.”

But the senior Raycie also has a project in mind for his son. He wants to build a Raycie gallery with as many Italian art masterpieces as possible, and Lewis has been entrusted with adequate capital to select and purchase some of the finest works of art from the Italian masters in vogue then. Domenichino, Albano, Carlo Dolci, Guercino are some of the names thrown about, even a Raphael, if possible.

The dream, the ambition, the passion of Mr Raycie’s life, was (as his son knew) to found a Family; and he had only Lewis to found it with. He believed in primogeniture, in heirlooms, in entailed estates, in all the ritual of the English “landed” tradition.

Temperament-wise, Lewis could not have been more different from his father – he is impressionable, malleable and remains in awe of Mr Raycie’s imposing persona. Lewis is a bit apprehensive about his upcoming trip, but the mission of building a Raycie gallery fills him with a sense of purpose. Once on his travels though, Lewis befriends a fellow called John Ruskin who introduces the former to some stunning paintings, but from relatively obscure artists. Lewis is mesmerized and suddenly takes the bold, innovative step of buying these artworks. But when he returns home with them, both father and son are in for a rude shock.

Lewis is sure of gaining his father’s approval, but the latter is strongly of the view that his son has “wasted” the capital at his disposal by not buying the famous art paintings as was his mandate. Senior Raycie leaves no stone unturned in expressing his deep disappointment with Lewis, and resorts to actions that have deeper repercussions for his son. But will Lewis end up having the last laugh?

False Dawn, then, examines the set ways of New York society and how it values collective opinions rather than individual views. Halston Raycie is no art connoisseur by any yardstick, but insists on his gallery displaying works of Italian masters that are the talk of the town simply because he wants to keep up with his peers. It is ultimately a question of status and not aesthetics. The fact that every painting can communicate something personal and unique to every viewer is a concept lost on him. Lewis Percy’s individual thinking has no place in New York society and he is derided for his so-called foolishness, not to mention that he must bear the brunt of his father’s subsequent actions.

THE OLD MAID (The ‘Fifties)

The second novella, The Old Maid, to me, is the finest in the collection and alone worth the price of the book. It opens thus…

In the old New York of the ‘fifties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. Of these were the Ralstons.

Within the limits of their universal caution, the Ralstons fulfilled their obligations as rich and respected citizens. They figured on the boards of all the old-established charities, gave handsomely to thriving institutions, had the best cooks in New York, and when they travelled abroad ordered statuary of the American sculptors in Rome whose reputation was already established.

We are introduced to Delia Lovell who has married James (Jim) Ralston at the tender age of twenty. Prior to her marriage, Delia had romantic feelings for Clement Spender, an aspiring painter in Rome, who was also passionately in love with her. However, their union does not come to fruition largely because of his uncertain financial position and his inability to provide for a family.

Now, as part of the Ralston fold, Delia, at 25, is “established, the mother of two children, the possessor of a generous allowance of pin-money, and by common consent, one of the handsomest and most popular ‘young patrons’ of her day.”

Delia is grateful for her comfortable life and her established position, and yet somewhere she is gripped by a sense of discontent, that fleeting notion that life is somehow passing her by.

She was too near to the primitive Ralstons to have as clear a view of them as, for instance, the son in question might one day command: she lived under them as unthinkingly as one lives under the laws of one’s country. Yet that tremor of the muted key-board, that secret questioning which sometimes beat in her like wings, would now and then so divide her from them that for a fleeting moment she could survey them in their relation to other things.

Meanwhile, there enters Charlotte Lovell, Delia’s impoverished cousin, “the old maid” of the title. Charlotte’s upbringing is in sharp contrast to Delia’s despite coming from the same family. Charlotte’s father was in fact branded as one of the “poor Lovells.” Due to their constrained means, not much of a bright future is expected for her. Indeed, we are told “poor Charlotte had become so serious, so prudish almost, since she had given up balls and taken to visiting the poor!” It is generally agreed that Charlotte is destined to be an old maid.

But then to everyone’s surprise, Charlotte’s engagement to Joe Ralston is announced. However, instead of experiencing the joy of a promising future, Charlotte’s woes only deepen. In the weeks leading to her betrothal, Charlotte makes a dramatic confession to Delia that alters the course of the former’s life. Delia learns that Charlotte has borne a child out of wedlock as a consequence of a brief love affair, and has managed to keep it a secret. It also explains why Charlotte had devoted so much of her time to poor children, her daughter – Tina – has been placed among them, and it’s the only way for her to remain as close to Tina as possible.

What torments Charlotte is the future of Tina. Should she part herself from her? Or should she reject marriage and happiness to continue her furtive care of her baby?

Charlotte’s dilemma is particularly fuelled by the fact that after marriage, Joe Ralston expects her to give up her time with those poor children. Why visit them when she can focus on starting her own family? But that would mean abandoning Tina, which Charlotte cannot bring herself to do. Delia suggests a way out. She offers to provide a comfortable home for Tina and for Charlotte to be with her, but for this she has to make a sacrifice – Charlotte cannot entertain any hopes of marrying Joe Ralston.

At the core of this gorgeous, layered novella is the relationship between Delia and Charlotte, how they are as different as chalk and cheese, and how they envy each other on certain aspects. Having married safely, Delia hasn’t experienced sexual passion like Charlotte has. Similarly, Charlotte, despite being a mother, cannot really experience the joys of motherhood like Delia can, because her secret cannot be revealed at any cost, not even to her daughter. It’s a story where Wharton does not entirely rule out the idea of human happiness; it’s only that this happiness is always narrow in its scope, confined within strict boundaries. One can’t help but think that all things considered, it is Charlotte to whom Fate deals the cruellest hand.

THE SPARK (The ‘Sixties)

The third novella called The Spark, was my least favourite of the lot, but still very interesting, delving into the theme of the moral compass of Old New York.

The narrator here is a young male from a good family who is fascinated by an older man in his parents’ set, a man called Hayley Delane. What catches the narrator’s eye is how different Delane is from the other men of his ilk. For instance, Delane marries Leila Gracy, a woman fifteen years his junior, despite the fact her father is in disgrace to the point where “he had to resign from all his clubs.” Delane, however, loves her unreservedly and does not seem to be too perturbed even when she is brazenly flirting with other men.

Two particular incidents form the focus of this novella, which display how Delane can rebel and be at odds with his social set. The first is when he slaps one of Leila’s lovers for ill-treating a horse. But because this would be perceived as an act of revenge of a jealous husband, Delane is forced to apologise so that his wife’s reputation is not sullied. The other incident where Delane draws much flak is when he decides to provide a home to his father-in-law under his own roof and undertake the responsibility of his care, an act which sees Leila distancing herself from Delane as well.

Delane has differing opinions when it comes to social questions, or the relation between “gentlemen” and the community. And his typical response tends to be along the lines of…

“After all, what does it matter who makes the first move? The thing is to get the business done.”

NEW YEAR’S DAY (The ‘Seventies)

In New Year’s Day, the spotlight is on Lizzie Hazeldean, a married woman, who is spotted leaving a Fifth Avenue hotel with a man who is not her husband. This development immediately sets tongues wagging, and Lizzie is in danger of being completely excluded from society.

A lot about this novella reminded me of The House of Mirth, where Lily Bart’s downfall is precipitated when she is unfairly judged for leaving the house of a married man, and how society gradual shuts her out with tragic consequences.

Interestingly, Lizzie’s circumstances are subsequently revealed to the reader and the reasons that compel her to hook up with another man. But in the claustrophobic world of Old New York, conventions and decorum are meant to be adhered to, and there is a heavy price to pay for deviating from conformity. Unconventional behaviour is a surefire recipe for doom.

This is also a novella which shines a light on the plight of women who due to their single-minded upbringing are not equipped for an independent career but must rely on marriage for financial support.

Marriage alone could save such a girl from starvation, unless she happened to run across an old lady who wanted her dogs exercised and her Churchman read aloud to her. Even the day of painting wild-roses on fans, of coloring photographs to “look like” miniatures, of manufacturing lampshades and trimming hats for more fortunate friends – even this precarious beginning of feminine independence had not dawned.

Some more thoughts on these novellas…

In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. In her introduction, Marilyn French dwells on how appearances matter a great deal and if a man lost his money or a woman lost her reputation, they simply fell out of society, they were treated as if they did not exist.

The women, as ever, are always given a raw deal. A married woman seen with another man means that the woman’s image is guaranteed to be tainted, the man is never judged. Similarly, a man with a child out of wedlock hardly causes much flutter, and if he separately provides for it, the matter is considered closed and swept under a carpet. But a woman in exactly the same situation is sure to be ruined and treated harshly.

What makes it all the more worse is that these so-called rules of society are also upheld by women. There is a particular scene in The Old Maid where Charlotte is yet to divulge to Delia the gravity of her problem. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between the two…

“Well?-Oh, Chatty,” Delia exclaimed abruptly illuminated, “you don’t mean to say that you’re going to let any little thing in Joe’s past-? Not that I’ve ever heard the last hint; never. But even if there were…” She drew a deep breath, and bravely proceeded to extremities. “Even if you’ve heard that he’s been…that he’s had a child-of course he would have provided for it before…”

The girl shook her head. “I know: you needn’t go on. ‘Men will be men’; but it’s not that.”

Delia seems to be okay with the irritating, misguided notion that “men will be men” and that Charlotte can brush aside Joe’s affairs and offspring from them, if any. But when it’s clear that Charlotte is the one with an illegitimate child, Delia feels that it is dishonourable for Charlotte to wed Joe without revealing the truth of her situation to him. Delia may have taken the unconventional step of providing for Charlotte’s child, yet she is also prone to double-standards that are troubling.

In all the four novellas, Wharton’s prose sparkles with intelligence and deft touches of irony. Nowhere is this more apparent than in False Dawn and The Spark, both of which end on a visibly ironic note, while there are subtle hues present in the other two novellas.

Old New York, then, is Wharton’s brilliant, scathing depiction of a society “where sensitive souls were like muted keyboards, on which Fate played without a sound.”

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

I adore Edith Wharton. The first novel I read by her was The Age of Innocence, which blew me away. Since then, I have read the marvelous The Custom of the Country as well as her New York Stories, an excellent publication by NYRB Classics. Not surprisingly, The House of Mirth is another brilliant read, fully deserving of its classic status.

The House of Mirth is one of Edith Wharton’s top-tier New York society novels showcasing the social trajectory of its unforgettable heroine, Lily Bart, and the ultimate price she pays for defying convention.

Our protagonist Lily Bart is beautiful, sophisticated, witty – the cynosure of all eyes. In her late twenties, Lily is now an orphan. But despite her impoverished means, Lily is cultured and discerning, a product of her upbringing that values wealth and luxury and abhors dinginess in all its forms.

Being a part of the elite New York social circle – a world of Trenors, Dorsets and Brys – demands verve and personality of which Lily has plenty, and money of which Lily pretty much has none. Lily now resides with her aunt Mrs Peniston, a woman whose ideas of Old New York and its mores are at odds with Lily’s. While Lily relies on the generosity of her well-heeled friends, she is conscious that this can’t be a permanent solution. The only course of action that can relieve her of financial cares and elevate her to an equal footing with her peers is a good marriage.

It seems simple, straightforward enough and Lily even chances upon a potential prized catch – Percy Gryce. Gryce is one of those shy, awkward young men but from a family blessed with immense wealth. Lily is confident of her charms in making Gryce fall in love with her, and even succeeds as per plan. Yet when the time comes to seal the deal, she chickens out.

And this is what makes Lily a complex but fascinating creation – she craves for wealth and security but can’t bring herself to marry if she’s not in love. She is attracted to Lawrence Selden, a lawyer, who does not much care for the trappings of the rich and is content being on the fringes of elite society, but he does not have enough means to cater to Lily’s upwardly mobile aspirations. In a way, Lily is aware that she can’t marry Selden, even if she greatly enjoys their conversations and the playful banter between them. It is precisely one of these encounters with Selden that provides Lily an unflattering glimpse of the likely dullness of her existence were she to marry Gryce, even if it means a secure future for her.

That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic…Sometimes, I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.

It’s an opportunity missed, but Lily takes it in her stride. Lily’s appetite for leisure and luxury, though, does not wane and her proclivity for playing bridge – a wealthy pastime – causes her to amass gambling debts. To pay these off, Lily commits a big blunder, a grievous mistake, the ramifications of which will haunt her for the rest of her life. She turns to Gus Trenor – her friend Judy’s husband – and entrusts her income to him to invest in stocks. Her lack of business experience means that she fails to understand the consequences of her actions before it’s too late.

She was realizing for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

The House of Mirth, then, is a scathing portrayal of New York Society in the early 20th century with its ridiculous emphasis on how things ‘appear’ rather than how things ‘actually are.’ Reeking with double-standards, it’s a society governed by rigid moral codes and social customs, stubbornly resistant to new ways of thinking. The newer set that Lily moves in possibly seems more unconventional, atleast when it comes to modes of entertaining and the idea of marriage than what was acceptable in Mrs Peniston’s time. Yet, in many ways, certain viewpoints failed to evolve. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the status of single women.

Men could do as they pleased, their actions were never judged. Even married women enjoyed some license – a married woman could be a harmless flirt, something that was tolerated if her husband did not make a big deal about it. But a single woman had to be tremendously careful and on her guard lest she be judged wrongly. Clearly, it was a society where gender inequality was at its peak, where a single woman could be harshly treated by both men and women alike for even a minor misstep. It also brought to the fore the lack of opportunities for women, their only ambition being to secure a wealthy match for a life of perennial comfort. A woman living independently did not get the credit it deserved.

In this scenario, Lily Bart makes for an unconventional, tragic heroine – vivacious and witty on one hand, and incredibly naïve on the other. Given the aspirations of her mother, Lily’s upbringing has been fed on a diet of how to conduct herself in society, a largely ornamental role with the sole purpose of marrying. Lily knows only how to see herself through the eyes of her social set, and when they unforgivably turn against her, it increasingly becomes a monumental task to rehabilitate herself.

Always accustomed to the rich and their ways, Lily has not learnt to do anything else, and she lacks the aptitude to eke out an independent living. And yet it’s the nuances in her character that set her apart from the social circle she moves in. For one, she is quite self-aware of her position, and secondly it’s the central dilemma plaguing her (whether to marry for love or for money) that makes her so interesting. It’s her uniqueness that attracts Lawrence Selden to her even if he knows that he can’t satisfy her financially.

While reading this novel, I could not help but compare Lily Bart to Undine Spragg of The Custom of the Country. Both heroines want to be a part of the pinnacle of society, but while Undine is driven by blind ambition caring little for how her actions impact others, Lily’s desires are more complex, which is also why she cuts a more sympathetic figure.

Edith Wharton’s writing as ever is marvelous and incisive, and the novel brims with fully realized characters and brilliantly rendered scenes and set pieces. Wharton dissects the inner workings of New York society with consummate skill and precision, and her astute observations on its various hypocrisies are spot on especially the point on how women are always at the mercy of the perceptions of others. A novel of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, Lily’s inevitable downfall takes on a whole new level of poignancy that is quite heart-rending in the final section. All in all, another stunning novel from Wharton’s oeuvre!

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.