Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Touchstone

It was lines like this--
Through the open door he saw young Hollingsworth rise with a yawn form the ineffectual solace of a brandy-and-soda and transport his purposeless person to the window
--that had me asking, less than two pages into Edith Wharton's novella The Touchstone (1900), why I'd not read more of her books. Until I picked up this one at the Melville House booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival, the only Wharton I had read had been a pleasantly creepy volume of her ghost stories. I'm going to have to rectify that, and soon.

The Touchstone is brief, but full of interesting thoughts about honor, honesty, and intimate relationships, all related in well-honed prose. Take this description of a wealthy book collector, which leaves us in no doubt as to the sort of man he is:
Some people are judged by their actions, others by their ideas; and perhaps the shortest way of defining Flamel is to say that his well-known leniency of view was vaguely divined to include himself. Simple minds may have resented the discovery that his opinions were based on his perceptions; but there was certainly no more definite charge against him than that implied in the doubt as to how he would behave in an emergency, and his company was looked upon as one of those mildly unwholesome dissipations to which the prudent may occasionally yield.

Even her more descriptive passages often reveal character; here her protagonist, Glennard, with a lost love on his mind, returns home:
In his sitting room, the tacit connivance of the inanimate had centred the lamp-light on a photograph of Alexa Trent, placed, in the obligatory silver frame, just where memory officiously reminded him, Margaret Aubyn's picture had long throned in its stead.
Glennard is trying not to think about the late Margaret Aubyn because she used to love him and he has a cache of her letters to him--a cache that, because she was a famous writer, could be sold to a publisher, solving his money problems and making possible his marriage to the woman whose photo has displaced hers. Knowing that he is betraying a trust, he sells the letters, and what follows is an unshakable, obsessive guilt that comes close to destroying the very marriage that his betrayal enabled.

Wharton describes Glennard's states of mind, and in particular the emotions and deceptions that fuel his discussions with his wife,with a penetrating acuity similar to that of Henry James--but without the sense one gets from James of an extended worrying about a point before landing on it, like a dog turning circles before lying down. Instead, Wharton's sentences are balanced and precise, and her metaphors, while striking, are clear and insightful. Here, for example, in the midst of an argument with his wife, Glennard realizes he has been too harsh, angering her:
He felt her close on him, like a panting foe; and her answer was a flash that showed the hand on the trigger.
And later, when Glennard finds himself on the verge of confessing his guilt to his wife, their conversation tiptoes up to the revelation, and
something in her voice made him feel that he and she stood at last in that naked desert of apprehension where meaning skulks vainly behind speech.
Other novelists of dialogue as combat, such as Barbara Pym or Ivy Compton-Burnett, leave the emotional ground underlying conversation up to the reader to infer; Wharton instead draws out every shift in that terrain with a marriage counselor's focus on nuance and intention.

So Melville House's Art of the Novella series is now two for two, and it's set me on the Wharton trail. But where next--The Age of Innocence or Ethan Frome?

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