After the blood and guts of Blood Meridian, I needed to add a little civilization back into my reading life - and nobody does over-civilization like Edith Wharton. Whether they meet the challenge by laughing, crying, or overdosing on exhaustion and sleeping pills, her characters are beset on all sides by the constrictions of unimaginative convention - a force with which McCarthy's cowboys are entirely untroubled.
I have a mixed history with Wharton; I found The House of Mirth overwrought, and wouldn't have been inspired to read The Age of Innocence except that I ran across a pristine Norton edition of it for under ten dollars. (Would I read anything if given a free Norton edition of it? Probably anything but Walden.) When I finally got around to cracking it open, I was surprised at my hearty enjoyment: it's a later, more mature novel, and Wharton displays her delightful satiric edge to a far greater advantage. With more distance from her subjects, I felt she could both enjoy them more herself, and allow her reader a bit of breathing room. I felt the same way about the short story collection Roman Fever and Other Stories: Wharton is most enjoyable, to me, when she is in rollicking satirical mode, or at least writing drama with a satirical edge, rather than giving in to full-blown melodrama. One of my favorite stories, "Xingu," is a famous example of Wharton at her cutting, cackling best: a clique of haughty New York society matrons are looking forward to giving a luncheon for a famous female author, and lamenting the necessity of inviting their least fashionable member, as she's bound to spoil the atmosphere. She simply doesn't know how to behave, the ladies tell each other. Why, just the other day she was so outré as to ask Mrs. Plinth her personal opinion of the book they were discussing:
It was the kind of question that might be termed out of order, and the ladies glanced at each other as though disclaiming any share in such a breach of discipline. They all knew there was nothing Mrs. Plinth so much disliked as being asked her opinion of a book. Books were written to be read; if one read them what more could be expected? To be questioned in detail regarding the contents of a volume seemed to her as great an outrage as being searched for smuggled laces at the Custom House. The club had always respected this idiosyncrasy of Mrs. Plinth's. Such opinions as she had were imposing and substantial: her mind, like her house, was furnished with monumental "pieces" that were not meant to be disarranged; and it was one of the unwritten rules of the Lunch Club that, within her own province, each member's habits of thought should be respected. The meeting therefore closed with an increased sense, on the part of the other ladies, of Mrs. Roby's hopeless unfitness to be one of them."
When the author in question turns out to be even more of a pill than her Lunch Club companions, Mrs. Roby manages to get her own by introducing "Xingu" as a topic of conversation: nobody knows what it is, but they're not willing to admit their ignorance, and hilarity ensues.
On a darker satirical note, I also loved "After Holbein," which is almost a ghost story but written about a still-living people. According to Hermione Lee's biography, Wharton loved ghost stories and wrote a number of them throughout her life, and "After Holbein" has many of the tell-tale conventions: huge mansions that used to be grand centers of entertainment, now mostly sheeted and run with a skeleton staff; a dark night; a past estrangement; the impression of a whole world that has slipped into the past. But rather than ghosts, this setting is populated by two ancient denizens of Old New York: Mrs. Jaspar, stroke victim and erstwhile society hostess, and the decrepit Anson Warley (based on Ward McAllister, the super-elite arbiter of Old New York Society and author of the list designating the members of "The 400" who would be invited to Mrs. Astor's yearly ball and therefore be "received"). While Mrs. Jaspar badgers her maid into preparing her, night after night, for the same dinner party she was to give on the eve of her stroke, Mr. Warley engages in an interior monologue about how many invitations he still receives, and how young he still feels. He's planning to go out this very night, despite the disapproval of his valet. He gloats to himself that he's still "in the running" - not like that fossilized Mrs. Jaspar, whom he remembers snubbing wittily in his youth to the delight of all his many society friends. He spares a moment to hope that his barbed witticism didn't get back to the lady herself, but can't be too bothered about it. He shakes off his valet and steps outside - only to forget which of his friends invited him to dine. The outcome of the night for both Mrs. Jaspar and Mr. Warley is deliciously creepy - much more so than if the two friends and rivals were actually coming back from the dead to haunt the dinner tables and ballrooms of their pasts. Their lives as living fossils also allows Wharton, writing from her home in Paris after having forsworn everything her characters stand for, to comment on the few remaining New Yorkers still yearning after the old ways, the old society - and more than that, to comment on people, like Anson Warley, who become so entrenched in their routines of pandering to others, that they are left with little or no inner life of their own. As a character in the final story implies, the only rational cure for over-civilization is to promote a rich inner life, and these relics of Old New York certainly don't have it:
We're all imprisoned, of course - all of us middling people, who don't carry our freedom in our brains.
There was another story in the collection that interested me for more personal reasons, although it was in Wharton's dramatic, rather than satirical, mode: "Souls Belated" tells of a woman, recently divorced, who wants to continue living with her lover unmarried, rather than attempt to rejoin their former stuffy, hypocritical society by accepting the state sanction of marriage a second time. I don't write about it much here, but I live in a long-term, committed relationship in which both I and my partner have chosen, for personal and political reasons, not to get married but to safeguard our legal rights in other ways. I've always felt uncomfortable with the cultural baggage around marriage, and it was fascinating to read a story featuring a character who had a related set of feelings. As you might imagine, it doesn't happen very often: there are scads of happy and unhappy marriages in literature, plenty of illicit love affairs and passionate flings, lots of unrequited love, and a few portraits of people who find themselves happier leading a single life, but not a lot of stories about the attempt to live in a caring, committed way outside the bounds of matrimony - especially when those attempts are chosen, rather than forced. (If you know of any, I would love to check them out.) Unfortunately for Wharton's characters, their particular attempt doesn't end very well: the woman's lover doesn't understand her unwillingness to marry him, and she finds, to her disgust, that they both care more about the opinion of Society than they imagined. Wharton's own attitude toward her protagonist, while sympathetic, seems to me slightly rueful at the woman's idealism. Still, it was an interesting and perceptive read, and made me think about how my own situation would have differed had I been born a century earlier - and, it goes without saying, wealthy.
Overall, this slim volume of shorts was just what the doctor ordered as an antidote to Cormac McCarthy - subtle and thoughtful, often melancholy, sometimes deliciously sardonic.
(Roman Fever and Other Stories was my sixth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1930s. This is a little bit of a stretch, since not all the stories in the collection were published in the 30s, but the titular one was, so I think it counts.)