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I hadn’t read The House of Mirth since college. When I picked it up again for this column, I kept seeing Lily’s story through my sense that much of America has now endured a similarly frivolous yet devastating betrayal. Wharton examines the way that successful class warfare, in our country, is practiced not so much by most people against the wealthy as by certain members of the wealthy against nearly everyone else. Wharton came from what used to pass for American aristocracy. She also knew the more established aristocracies of France and much of the rest of Europe. Partly because of this background, she’s pitiless toward US approximations of the upper crust. Noblesse oblige is one of the more attractive traits the rich and the well-born can claim for themselves. Wharton, however, finds noblesse oblige rare among her patrician New Yorkers.
“Telling stories about what makes us human can be fun, vicious, mischievous, reassuring, disheartening and fulfilling,” writes Joanna Bourke. And she’s probably right. Reading stories about what makes us human can be all of those things, too, but it can also be devastating. Somehow even with the truth, or various truths, right out there in the open, right under our noses, with people starving in the streets right now in our own glitzy cities, with privately-owned prisons filled with beaten prisoners, somehow it’s possible, it’s even easy, to look away.
There has been, Phillips argues, little enthusiasm for exploring sanity or what a sane life would look like. The concept has to be teased out from madness, about which there has been considerable zest and many volumes of ink spilled. This in itself is part of the problem as Phillips sees it with regard to modernity: “It is worth wondering why, given the sheer scale of contemporary unhappiness, there are no accounts of what a sane life would look like. Or why a sane life might be more worth living than, say, a happy life, or a healthy life, or a successful life.”
None other than Philip Larkin called her “The Great Gladys,” and she also counted among her friends GK Chesteron -- whom I admire greatly, and who welcomed Mitchell into the prestigious Detection Club, alongside the likes of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Indeed, throughout the 1930s, Mitchell was considered one of the “Big Three” female detection novelists. My curiosity was further piqued when I read that Mitchell studied the works of Sigmund Freud and had an abiding interest in witchcraft. The real mystery for me, and the reason I devour the novels, isn’t whodunit, but who is she?
Throughout this cheery book, Cheever’s sympathies seem to rebound between his protagonists’ points-of-view -- between the outlook of the suburban stiff, on the one hand, slightly mystified by his interior world (he thinks of suffering as “a principality, somewhere beyond the legitimate borders of Western Europe” that sometimes sends him postcards) but well-intentioned nontheless, and the alienated malcontent who would nail him to a cross. “Oh, damn them all,” rages an adolescent in the book’s early pages. “Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards, damn their discounting the wilderness of the human spirit, damn their immaculateness, damn their lechery and damn them all for having leached from life that strength, malodorousness, color and zeal that give it meaning. Howl, howl, howl.”
"I don't think it's changed that much, but it doesn't make me want to break things. I'm more concerned with what's going on in the world and in my family. There's never enough money, there's never enough time. The culture overall has completely flat-lined. You have such economic inequality, and someone who tries to make his living as a writer certainly feels that. Maybe I've grown into myself a little more. I'm not raging against literary culture now. I'm just trying to keep my family afloat."
"The Bombay that I grew up in was a very cosmopolitan, secular place. For instance, I was a Parsi kid who went to a Catholic school, in a pre-dominantly Hindu city. My classmates were Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Catholics. It never once occurred to us to even question each other's religion, and to their credit, none of our parents seemed to make an issue out of it. Same thing in college. Nobody ever claimed their religion was better than someone else's; no one ever said they were the ones who'd go to Heaven and the rest of us would be left behind. It wasn't until I came to the U.S. that I heard people talk like this."
Writing with an agenda creates bad literature. This is a consistent idea in contemporary writing about writing. Book reviewers, critics, and writing teachers all tell us an agenda leads to preachy works that insult the intelligence of the reader, restrict the reading experience, and assert the dominance of the writer's vision over the reader's imagination. Whatever the agenda, having one turns a conversation into a monologue.
When I read The Waste Land for the first time, I was in my final year of college. It was my first experience with Eliot, and I read the poem a couple of days before we were going to talk about it in class. Since that day I have re-read, read about, and studied The Waste Land probably more than any other poem. But I can remember what it felt like to read it for the first time, when I had virtually no idea what the poem was doing or what Eliot's notes meant. I can remember where I was sitting on campus, what the weather was like, which four girls I was in love with; the poem did things to me and the world stopped for just a little while.