Monday, January 4, 2016

2016 plans - some readalongs, some American literature

First, planting some flags:

The long Spanish novel La Regenta (1886) by Leopoldo Alas aka Clarín in July.  I remember that there was some interest in a readalong.  Please see seraillon for more on this tempting novel – “belongs with the greatest of psychological novels,” “something memorable on nearly every page,” etc.

Goethe’s travel memoir Italian Journey (1816) in November.  A subtly strange book, with a Goethe quite unlike the one known by readers who for some reason think The Sorrows of Young Werther is “autobiographical.”  For one thing, the author of Italian Journey is alive.  This book may also belong with the greatest of psychological novels, even if it is not a novel.

Maybe I will follow along with The Little Professor’s Nineteenth-century Gothic literature course, at least the texts I have not read.

Second, the American literature non-Challenge:

For several years, I have picked some easily and narrowly defined literary tradition to read around in and attached to it a phoney baloney, parodic “challenge,” which mostly involved me reading books I wanted to read anyways.  But as I approach the end of the 19th century – the chronological creep of my reading is obvious, right? – I see that many of the books that I want to read soon are American – the United States kind of American – and from the 1880s and 1890s or a bit later.  Books I have never read, or last read in college, or even, like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, since my childhood.

I have never had any particular interest in American literature, which in a way is a shame.  It is my tradition, the one in which I live, the one in which I do not need to learn everything from scratch as I have done with Russian and French literature and even English literature.  Pounds and shillings, dukedoms and baronetcies, Suffolk and Norfolk, rotten boroughs, that sort of thing, rather than the deeper understanding I could have of American literature (rereading this sentence - who am I kidding?).

My college American Lit II class and its assigned Norton anthology served me well, too.  There are good arguments against worrying too much about “coverage” in literature survey courses, but boy did coverage ever work for me, in the sense that I crammed in a little bit by a lot of American writers which later allowed me to read magazine articles with a reasonable level of understanding.  Go ahead and refer to Vachel Lindsay or Hamlin Garland, I’ve read them.  A poem, a story, something.

Well, I am ready to do better.

In practice this means a lot of Mark Twain and Henry James.  I will test my appetite for both writers.  Say The Bostonians (1886), What Maisie Knew (1897), another short 19th century novel, and one of the three long late novels.  A good sampling of the tales.  That sounds like a lot of Henry James.  We’ll see.

A commenter suggested I save James’s ghost stories for an October readalong.  What a good idea.  Yes, let’s do that.

Twain is easier.  Huckleberry Finn (1885), Connecticut Yankee (1889), Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), the Joan of Arc novel (1895), some of the later, darker works, lots of his shorter stuff, stories and speeches and throwaway jokes.  Maybe another travel book besides Life on the Mississippi (1883), which I am reading now.

A William Dean Howells novel.  The Awakening.  Lots of Stephen Crane.  More Edith Wharton – I’ve read nothing but Ethan FromeThe Damnation of Theron Ware.  Finish Parkman’s history of Quebec.  More so-called Naturalists – Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London.

Poetry is a problem.  The 1880s and 1890s saw the Great Winnowing of the American Poets, with the deaths of Bryant in 1878 and then Lanier (1881), Emerson and Longfellow (1882), Dickinson (1886), Melville (1891), and Whittier and Whitman (1892).  Some were retired; others, like Melville, were still writing good poetry.  Much of the next generation of talent died young, like Crane.  The casualty rate of poets born in the 1870s is horrifying.

I want to get to know Edwin Arlington Robinson and Paul Laurence Dunbar better.  Any opinions about George Santayana’s poetry?  Things get really interesting in the 1910s, but I doubt I will get that far.  I’ll mostly look elsewhere for poetry.

I am looking forward to reading some high proportion of these books, but I cannot suppress the suspicion that the result will be the most boring year of Wuthering Expectations.  Or most boring nine months, or six months, or however long before I can’t stand it anymore and want to gorge myself on French weirdos.

If anything here looks interesting, let me know and we can coordinate.  A lot of these books are mercifully short.  Suggestions for more books are perpetually welcome.

52 comments:

  1. I am an AmLit vessel searching for a mission and a heading, I hope to sail along with you, Captain. Tell me the itinerary. Anchors weigh!

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  2. "A William Dean Howells novel. The Awakening. Lots of Stephen Crane. More Edith Wharton – I’ve read nothing but Ethan Frome. The Damnation of Theron Ware. Finish Parkman’s history of Quebec. More so-called Naturalists – Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London."

    This is very exciting! As a huge fan of American literary realism and naturalism, this strikes me as a magical paragraph. Minus any magic, of course. The Damnation of Theron Ware (or Illumination) is one of the most overlooked novels in the canon, but, I hasten to add, has never been out of print and is frequently taught in university courses. And The Octopus! And... And... So happy to read with you whether invited or not. Some of us are readin What Maisie Knew next month as a matter of fact....

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  3. I'd probably be open to reading/rereading a Twain or two with you (please pardon the pun!) or maybe something else if time/timing allows. However, you're actually a century too late for me this year; that is, I've been mulling over dipping into colonial U.S. lit and history as a side project in 2016. In any event, will follow your bookish shenanigans with the usual attention. Happy reading to you.

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  4. Maybe I should read What Maisie Knew next month, too. What harm would that do? The Frederic I have meant to read for years. Norris is a minor Humiliation. At least I have read Sister Carrie. I have to say, I wish Dreiser had a little more magic, a little more zip in the tip of the pen.

    Richard, that's terrific. It's like Scott at seraillon reading non-19th century Italian literature last year. So helpful! To me, I mean. We should read a Twain together, maybe one of the late pessimistic ones like The Mysterious Stranger.

    Tim, I might have the book for you (and also for me). Have you read Stephen Crane's The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War (1896)? Six short stories set during the Civil War, about 200 pages in the original edition but more like 90 pages in our current less civilized editions - look at those little pages and huge margins. The Library of America Crane has 4 of the 6 stories. Let me know if you are interested. I could start any time.

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    1. AR(Tom), I've just downloaded the Crane collection (Kindle/Amazon/Free), and I hope it is the correct edition. In any case, I will start with those stories and go from there with a reading list that I am putting together and will post at Beyond Eastrod today or tomorrow (including Howells, Twain, Crane, James, Wharton, and more); I need at this point in my life the discipline/structure imposed by a "syllabus" of reading, and I look forward to the Blogger version of your/my/our AmLit "course."

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    2. If only students would take year-long courses with forty or fifty assigned books. Think how much they would learn.

      When you make that list, don't forget that you're sick of novels, especially "great novels"!

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    3. Yes, the "sickness" is a problem; however, as I am a creature who changes from day-to-day, if the goal is sufficiently interesting and worthwhile (as it was in school when I "suffered" through some reading in order to achieve certain self-improvement and edification goals), then perhaps I can somehow immunize myself against the symptoms/"sickness." I'll let you know. And thanks for the reminder/caution. Your sensible words lead me to consider a short story game-plan. Stay tuned for details.

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    4. FYI:
      http://beyondeastrodredux.blogspot.com/2016/01/reading-stephen-crane-short-stories.html

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    5. The Mysterious Stranger sounds like a plan, Tom, thanks. Will defer to you on the timing as long as it's not in July. Cheers!

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    6. Good. Sometime in (vague waving gesture) the future. There are textual issues with The Mysterious Stranger, so I will have to do some research.

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    7. Dreiser tells quite a story but is stylistically challenged. The newspapermen to-do from that time. Frederic comes from the same occupation but does not throw out the clunkers Dreiser does occasionally. Hope you read What Maisie Knew with us next month.

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    8. The newspapermen? You have some depth in that period.

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  5. I assumed the Library of America Crane was complete. Off to see what I missed in a moment. Robert Frost was the longest-lived of the poets born in the 1870s. Was he too obvious to mention? Another interesting poet - definitely sui generis is Robinson Jeffers - as distinctively unAmerican as he was American - like Whitman and Cormac McCarthy writing a script for Sam Peckinpah. However, a lot of his poems are neither merciful nor short.

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  6. There are books by Twain, James and Wharton sitting unread on my shelves so some parallel reading may be possible this year. It's so long since I read What Maisie Knew it might as well be unread so I might even try that.

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  7. The LOA Crane is not complete. It contains most of Wounds in the Rain, most of Whilomville Stories, etc. I do not know the principles of omission. The missing pieces from The Little Regiment are "Indiana Campaign" and "Three Miraculous Soldiers."

    Frost and Jeffers start publishing too just a little bit too late for my current purpose. I plan to creep into the 20th century this year. They are both good possibilities, though, and Jeffers in particular I want to know better.

    Gertrude Stein is another child of the 1870s who is a possibility. Wallace Stevens (b. 1879) definitely publishes too late.

    Séamus, let me know. Most Wharton is too late, too, but not The House of Mirth, and not a lot of the short fiction.

    Here we see one reason the "challenge" aspect is no fun. Arbitrary rules, meaningful only to me.

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    1. Why isn't the LOA Crane complete? (That question is purely rhetorical.) If you can manage Clarel, Jeffers will be a doddle. I still think Melville wasn;t actually very good as a writer - stylistically clumsy, poor construction, preposterous chacterisation - but he's much more interesting than a lot of better writers. He may not be able to say or even know what he's trying to say but the effort is fascinating - like H.G. Wells on Henry James: "Having first made sure that he has scarcely anything left to express, [Henry James] then sets to work to express it, with an industry, a wealth of intellectual stuff that dwarfs Newton. He spares no resource in the telling of his dead inventions. He brings up every device of language to state and define. Bare verbs he rarely tolerates. He splits his infinitives and fills them up with adverbial stuffing. He presses the passing colloquialism into his service. His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle; they could not sweat and elbow and struggle more if God Himself was the processional meaning to which they sought to come. And all for tales of nothingness.... It is leviathan retrieving pebbles. It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den. Most things, it insists, are beyond it, but it can, at any rate, modestly, and with an artistic singleness of mind, pick up that pea...." but the hippopotamus's efforts are magnificent in themselves.
      Have you come across Maurice Sendak's illustrations for Pierre - a shortened Pierre - which some of us think a virtue? Actually, that is the thing with Melville: Sendak's Pierre is a better novel - or a more coherent novel - but Melville's has all of these strange and interesting bits to it.

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    2. Yes, I have seen the Sendak Pierre. I think one reason I have not read Pierre is that I am confused by the different versions.

      The hippo retrieving a pea - that is hilarious.

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    3. I forgot to say that with Melville there's the opposite problem to James - what he has to say is of overwhelming importance - so important that he can't actually articulate it - but he is still intent on presenting us with it and still has problems picking it up. What's more, it may only be a pea, but the Melville-hippo is convinced it's a pearl. It doesn't matter to us, of course, because it isn't what he's trying to pick up that matters but the way he tries to pick it up.

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  8. On the contrary, your "arbitrary rules" in these challenges are what make them fun. I intend to join all of your group reads - of La Regenta again (probably), of Italian Journeys (already partially read - are you using the W. H. Auden/Elizabeth Mayer translation?) and of What Maisie Knew (almost certainly). As for the rest, I'll see. There's another María Amparo Ruiz de Burton novel - The Squatter and the Don - that falls during your prescribed period and that might be worth exploring.

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  9. Good news. Yes, the Auden/ Mayer translation.

    Maybe arbitrary is the wrong word. Why no mention of Jewett or Bierce? Because I read them too recently. That's closer to random.

    I would like someone else to read Ruiz de Burton and let me know if her books' virtues are artistic or more, hmmm, sociological.

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  10. Maisie is WONDERFUL but who am I kidding, I'll never be able to read it next month. (Semester, ugh.) But La Regenta in July: I'm in for that!

    What about Willa Cather? Publishes too late, I guess.

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  11. Maisie is cuddly, friendly James, yes? A precursor of Polyanna and Anne of Green Gables and so on.

    Glad to hear about La Regenta.

    I read A Troll Garden and O Pioneers! not so long ago, and thus the later novels which I haven't read recede into the mists of the future. Assuming post-World War I is the future.

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  12. Yes, back home Anne is known as The Maisie of Prince Edward Island.

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  13. I'm so glad you're reading Life on the Mississippi; I read it after reading The Innocents Abroad and the book that inspired Twain, Fanny Trollope's memoir that my idol Dickens totally channelled in his American Notes.

    I'm making 2016 The Year of Melville, and reading EVERYTHING in chronological order, even though I have already read virtually all of him at least once. You must consider Redburn, a delightful romp that Melville wrote for a quick buck after the disastrous results of Mardi (a book I approach for the second time with great trepidation, as it is one of Melville's "crazy" books, particularly its allegorial last third). Redburn and its follow-up, White Jacket, are both rehearsals for Billy Budd, but each has its own charms and everyone should realize that Melville is a genius--tortured, yes, but so much more than just Moby Dick and Bartleby.

    My other goal this year is to read the third LOA volume of James Baldwin, his later novels. I LOVED the early novels and the essays, many of which could have been written last week. Ta-Nehesi Coates is a good writer, but the man who inspired him is a magnificent writer. I'm told that the later novels don't have the fire of the early ones, but Go Tell it on the Mountain is a brilliant tour de force, and Giovanni's Room remains a gay classic. Another Country surprised me because Baldwin writes about gender and racial fluidity in 1960 New York City as if it were today, and same-gender/multi-race relationships are taken as part of the cultural landscape, not the plots or shocking revelations of genre work.

    You have so many great choices, and so little time...

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  14. Oh, and one more thing, if you're going to read mid-James, you could do no better than the delightfully louche The Spoils of Poynton, from the same period as What Maisie Knew. Good books to read back to back, and a book with a character named Fleda Vetch is always worth a look, don't you think, especially when it's coming from James and not Dickens or Collins?

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  15. There's a film version of La Regenta. I have it but haven't watched it yet.
    Happy New Year, btw

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  16. You always have such interesting plans! I will happily follow along and may even join in on some of them :)

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  17. I think I have read all of Melville except for Pierre and Israel Potter. The insanity of Mardi did not deter me, but I guess that of Pierre did. Young America needs literature!

    As for Baldwin, I did read Another Country, but that's it.

    Spoils of Poynton, the novel about furniture. I read it a few years ago, during what I guess was my first pass through James at Wuthering Expectations. Phase I. There is so much James.

    Someone should watch the film of La Regenta this summer and report back.

    I am so glad this plan sounds interesting to someone. Doubts, I have doubts.

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    1. The Spoils of Poynton is a novel about furniture in the same way that The Rise of Silas Lapham is about paint; I hope you were being reductive as humor, since it's one of my favorite James novels, and one I tell newbies to read because it's not as "Jamesian" as the work that H.G. Wells clearly dislikes. But you've read it already...You might as well finish off Melville; if you can get through Mardi you certainly can handle the more strange, yet grounded Pierre, and Israel Potter is a potboiler elevated solely by Melville's prose, which I would argue is anything but pedestrian. Of course, you could go in another direction entirely and focus on women--more Cather, certainly more Wharton, and what about giving lesser Alcott her due? After all, Eight Cousins and An Old-Fashioned Girl were good enough at some time to be on the deck of Authors playing cards that I'm sure many of us had as children...I had at one time a goal to read every book in that deck of cards, but I fear I'll never read The Alhambra, The Talisman, or Idylls of the King, among several others. But I've read more than half. BTW--love this blog...

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    2. Oh, "novel about furniture" is a description by the protagonist of Alan Hollinghurst's highly Jamesian The Line of Beauty. The character is thinking about writing his dissertation on Spoils of Poynton.

      Lesser Alcott - not a bad idea. A recent article by Alexandra Mullen was convincing.

      The best reason to read Irving's Alhambra book is a visit to the palace itself.

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    3. "Novel about furniture" - I'll have to read it to see how it applies - is another link between James and Saki. Early in The Unbearable Bassington Francesca Bassingron “if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room.”

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    4. The irony - I take it as an irony - is that only a single piece of furniture is actually described in Poynton.

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    5. In The Ambassadors we never learn what the mysterious Things that made the Newsome fortune were either. Undescribed or indescribable...

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    6. The best kind of literary vagueness.

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    7. Under my pen name, Christopher Lord, I write Dickens-themed mysteries. At one time I was considering writing a modern mystery based on The Spoils of Poynton. One of my British writing friends looked over her pince-nez at me and said, "Carl, the world is not waiting for that book." Or for a thesis on it, either, I suppose...

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    8. The mystery would be the origin of the Newsome fortune, no doubt. I think it's better unrevealed. Dr Watson would agree with your friend: like the Giant Rat of Sumatra, it is “a story for which the world is not yet ready.”

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    9. Nick never does get that thesis written. He encounters, hmm hmm hmm, distractions. Spoiler alert. Ha ha ha!

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    10. Never quote from memory! It is in fact "the
      giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared."

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  18. I'd wondered what you would be getting up to this year. American Lit is one (of many) areas I feel weak in as well, so I'll be interested to read your posts. I do hope you get to reading and post on Dunbar--although I'm really bad at poetry, I read a few of his poems a couple years ago and was intrigued and would be interested in your thoughts. Or maybe, I'll just ask if you have a particular recommendation of where to start with Dunbar's poems?

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  19. I'd like to read La Regenta with you in July. Surely I'll have finished Sentimentsl Education by then.

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  20. Good, more readers for Clarín. A novel so long I'll be glad to have a Twitter support group. "Anyone know what that thing on p. 564 means?"

    For Dunbar, I don't know. His complete poems do not make up a long book, but that does not mean a selection would not be wiser. Good question.

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  21. Happy New Year!

    "Pudd'nhead Wilson" is a favorite of mine: rich, surprising, kind of a mess. I'm curious to see what you'll make of it. Twain in his later years was pathologically undisciplined, spinning out tons of unfinished, aborted projects. The later work is often also darker, bolder, and more imaginative. If you do read "The Mysterious Stranger," do take a look at Twain's original sketches, not just the version cobbled together by Albert Bigelow Paine. The University of California has published several collections of the later scribblings. And I hope you've read "1601."

    Here are a few suggestions from early in the 1900s that few of your followers will suggest:

    Dreiser's more entertaining beer buddy Charles Fort published only one novel, "The Outcast Manufacturers," and it's worth reading. It follows a group of Dickensian oddballs through poverty and homelessness in NYC, told in Fort's lively, visual prose.

    Gelett Burgess's curious "Lady Méchante" follows a trickster sexpot around the world, as she breaks hearts and mounts outrageous pranks, allowing Burgess to lampoon secret societies, hypnotism, religious cults and other beckoning targets. And he did the weird, obsessive illustrations, too.

    I just read O. Henry's only novel (sort-of-novel) "Cabbages and Kings," and found it more ambitious and intriguing than I expected.

    Into the teens, you have the heyday of Greenwich Village, with Harry Kemp, Bobby Edwards, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and other worthies. If you haven't read John Reed's "The Day in Bohemia," do set aside a few minutes; it's a charmer.

    And I look forward to following your forays into other books...

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  22. Thanks for the advice on The Mysterious Stranger. Pudd'nhead Wilson is a must, as a plunge into childhood memories has made me sure that I somehow never read it. "1601" - oh yes, that I have read.

    Thanks for the other suggestions. I was short on American oddballs, and I dang well knew it.

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  23. Great challenge and I'm looking forward to discovering new-to-me American writers.

    I loved What Maisy Knew but I don't think it's "cuddly" at all (or I don't understand the meaning of cuddly, or I missed some irony in the comment)

    I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts about the Whartons I've read and compare notes.

    I just wish my English were better to fully understand what you write. :-)

    Emma

    PS: just read a weirdo French 19thC novel: Souvenirs d'une cocodette, écrits par elle-même by Ernest Feydeau (Georges's father)

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  24. I read _What Maisie Knew_, and "cuddly" is one modifier I never considered.

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  25. Ironic, yes, just a joke about Maisie's genre, pretending that it is a "plucky orphan girl" novel. Although I have observed a kind of cuddly friendliness about the book, in that it seems to be a James novel enjoyed by many people who do not otherwise care much for Henry James.

    I will bet you that most of the Wharton I read will be short stories. I hope to get through the first Library of America volume or something like that.

    I hope you write a note on the Feydau. Sounds fun.

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    1. What Maisie Knew is horrifying and modern. And short. Perhaps that's why more people enjoy it.
      I think Washington Square is more from his time than What Maisie Knew. Really looking forward to reading your thoughts about this one. There's material enough for a series of posts.

      Wharton: Will you read French Ways and their Meaning?

      The Feydeau was fun. I don't think it's available in French though.

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    2. Yes, right from the first words, What Maisie Knew is full of strife, and quite modern:

      The litigation seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal the judgement of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child. The father, who, though bespattered from head to foot, had made good his case, was, in pursuance of this triumph, appointed to keep her: it was not so much that the mother's character had been more absolutely damaged as that the brilliancy of a lady's complexion (and this lady's, in court, was immensely remarked) might be more regarded as showing the spots. Attached, however, to the second pronouncement was a condition that detracted, for Beale Farange, from its sweetness--an order that he should refund to his late wife the twenty-six hundred pounds put down by her, as it was called, some three years before, in the interest of the child's maintenance and precisely on a proved understanding that he would take no proceedings: a sum of which he had had the administration and of which he could render not the least account. The obligation thus attributed to her adversary was no small balm to Ida's resentment; it drew a part of the sting from her defeat and compelled Mr. Farange perceptibly to lower his crest. He was unable to produce the money or to raise it in any way; so that after a squabble scarcely less public and scarcely more decent than the original shock of battle his only issue from his predicament was a compromise proposed by his legal advisers and finally accepted by hers.

      His debt was by this arrangement remitted to him and the little girl disposed of in a manner worthy of the judgement-seat of Solomon. She was divided in two and the portions tossed impartially to the disputants.

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    3. Ooh, I had not hear of that Wharton book. Is it terrible? It looks terrible. In a good way. Not flattering to Edith Wharton.

      "Modern," yes, that does sound like it could have been written recently, in substance, I mean, not prose.

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    4. Yeah, but look how condensed and directly-to-the-point it is. For Henry James, I mean.

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    5. I was being purely descriptive. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Colm Tóibín writes like that now. Never read him.

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