Thursday, September 13, 2018

Some American literature I read recently - Edith Wharton, Thornton Wilder, George Saunders

The Custom of the Country (1913), Edith Wharton

Wharton’s divorce novel.  She had gone through it herself, but here she uses it as a comic tool in the ruthless social climb, rung by painful rung, of Undine Spragg, a worthy cousin of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and Trollope’s Lizzie Eustace.  An American cousin.  Her ruthlessness mixed with her genuine American innocence, or ignorance, or both, is a great source of comic energy.

Plenty more comedy.  As a language student, I enjoyed the American traveler “in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her lips, became irregular” (Ch. 12).  Wharton also occasionally finds some fine descriptive language, this hot August day in New York City, for example: “Swirls of dust lay on the mosaic floor, and a stale smell of decayed fruit and salt air and steaming asphalt filled the place like a fog” (Ch. 22).

But it is Undine who keeps this novel moving.  The final chapter is magnificent, turning the book into some kind of dystopian novel.  A triumph; a plunge into the abyss.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Thornton Wilder

Here I find an early use of the Winesburg, Ohio device, with stories connected by place and time.  A bridge collapses, inspiring a priest to learn about the victims.  He hopes to learn something about the problem of God and the existence of evil.  The stories that follow have a lot to say about how to live well, but of course almost nothing about theodicy, nothing the reader did not already know.  Maybe I am wrong about this.  Good for book discussion groups, I guess.  Still good.  See – do not read, but see – the last chapter of The Goldfinch (2013) for a current example.

The bridge is near Lima, and collapses in 1714.  Wilder reconstructs his Peru entirely from books and his imagination, which lets him think big.  I especially liked the third story, about an actress and her manager, or maybe a manager and his actress, the greatest actress in the Spanish-speaking world.

They went to Mexico…  They slept on beaches, they were whipped at Panama and shipwrecked on some tiny Pacific islands plastered with the droppings of birds.  They tramped through jungles delicately picking their way among snakes and beetles.  They sold themselves out as harvesters in a hard season.  Nothing in the world was very surprising to them.  (“Uncle Pio”)

It is almost fantasy, or at least grand opera.

Tenth of December (2013), George Saunders

I have not read any other Saunders, not a word.  In this collection, he is a lot like Kurt Vonnegut except not as funny.  Or to be precise, this book is not as funny as four of the five Vonnegut novels I have read.  Bluebeard (1987) was a dud.  The book is not as funny as that of his student Kathleen Founds.  But funny is not everything.

Several stories have light science fiction conceits, like memory-altering chemicals or the odd business in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” in which young immigrant women from difficult circumstances are used by faddish Americans as yard decorations, voluntarily, for pay.  I guess this one is also good for discussion, although I could not work out the allegory in any direction that was interesting.

The critic Robert Scholes wrote that Vonnegut put bitter coatings on sugar pills, and boy does Saunders ever do the same.  Nothing here seemed very hard to deal with, ethically or linguistically.

I thought the title story, the last one, was unusually good.  The conceit, or gimmick, is only linguistic.  A man with brain cancer wants to commit suicide before he becomes incapacitated.  He is losing his language.  As his consciousness streams along it has trouble:

With every step he was fleeing father and father.  Farther from father.  Stepfarther.  What a victory he was wresting.  From the jaws of the feet.  (230)

Punning as psychology, with the man’s despair a response not just to his own illness but to the frightening illness and death of his beloved stepfather.  A human-scaled story, with little comedy beyond the tone, the voice.  If it sounds dark, well, just let the pill dissolve a little.


  1. Re social climbers in novels: I recall the term 'tuft hunter' used in Trollope (he refers in his Autobiography to Framley Parsonage having fox-hunting and tuft-hunting). My OWC editions glossed this as something akin to social climbing, but Michael Quinion's excellent World Wide Words gives a fuller etymology and indicates it's the origin of the English slang 'toff': a toady, a sycophantic hanger-on to those deemed socially or academically superior. Here's the link to his piece:

  2. You've been ignoring my blog lately!

  3. Undine wants every tuft. A little difference from the English model is that Undine, an American, is more purely consumerist. Tuft-hunting as shopping.

    Di, no! I read it in my RSS reader. Probably have not commented in a while. Congratulations on the film festival.

  4. I loved Custom of the Country, Undine is something else and the divorce part is so American. I can't imagine a French writer of the time writing this.

    I've never heard of the two others.

  5. I would love to read the French equivalent, about the French woman who wants to conquer American society, for some reason. I am not sure why she would. Clever author will solve that problem.

    The Wilder novel, which is short, was once a big best seller and used to be taught in U.S. high schools a lot. I think. But I think not so much now. Wilder is most famous for Our Town, another direct descendant of Winesburg, Ohio. I think you'd like this novel.

    Saunders seems to be taught quite a lot now, specific stories at least. He is Mr. Lincoln in the Bardo, so he is having a big moment. Prizes, prestige. No idea if you would like this book. Looking around the internet, responses vary hugely and unpredictably.

  6. Regarding your reading of Saunders' _Tenth of December_, I just can't imagine how somebody who appears to have read a lot of books can earnestly use the word "voluntary" to describe the Semplica Girls' situation or the word "faddish" to describe the perpetual precarity and utter desperation of the narrator.

    It's one thing to get a good read on a text and dislike it. It's another to just read it really badly and then dismiss it as if the flaw lay in it.

  7. "Faddish" - that's not the narrator but the wealthy people he is imitating. Someday they'll move on to some other kind of conspicuous consumption, likely once they see that people like the narrator now have the SGs, too.

    "Voluntary" - is that not stressed several times in the story? Or is that information false? That would be kind of interesting, if it is marketing to soothe the conscience. The allegory is quite different if the girls are enslaved. Although an allegory against slavery - with whom would Saunders be arguing?

    I am not sure where you are getting "dislike" or "dismiss," but that is no problem, really.

    "appears to have read a lot of books" is a nice touch, thanks, A.