January 2012

Kevin Frazier


Star-Crossed: Edith Wharton and Julian Barnes

Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses two or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work. 

January Birthdays: 

Edith Wharton – born January 24, 1863, New York City
Julian Barnes – born January 19, 1946, Leicester, England

1 – Wharton: The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton’s first major novel, was published in 1905. Lily Bart, the main character, is smart and energetic. She’s destroyed, however, by the petty malice of the New York social circles that first accept and then reject her.

A test model for the usual F. Scott Fitzgerald hero, Lily is transfixed by wealth and high society yet aware of the hazards in her position. She has the talents to remain in this world but can’t decide if it’s quite what she wants. Her uncertainty and recklessness cause her to make mistakes that allow the better-protected members of New York society to attack her reputation. In Wharton’s novels, reputation is largely a joke. Gossip, reputation’s message system, tends to be a force of vindictiveness and dishonesty. It’s less a method of apprehending the truth than of inflicting pain and exercising power. A good reputation isn’t, for Wharton, something you earn through being gifted or hardworking or reliable. It’s either a birthright, part of your family name and fortune, or a partial fraud, one that can be reinforced by exaggerating evidence of other people’s misconduct. Wharton understands high society’s charms and approves of what she finds best in it. But she usually approaches any issue of reputation with great skepticism. Her presumption is that social judgments are self-serving and inaccurate.

Lily has, at bottom, a personal sense of honor and responsibility. She refuses to save her reputation by using the one strong piece of gossip she holds: damaging proof of someone’s secret love affair. The decision ruins her. It sentences her to poverty and devastation. She thinks she’s fighting against opponents who value generosity and fair play. In reality, she’s fighting against opponents who take casual pleasure in their license to hurt her.

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. Even where it exists, she feels it appears mainly when it matters least, retreats when it matters most. Lily’s family and friends make few serious efforts to help her. They let the unrealities of gossip dictate their attitude toward her. Many of the people around Lily could save her by defending her, but they prefer not to inconvenience themselves. It’s too much trouble for them, too socially awkward to resist in public the flippant ugliness of a system of judgment they know to be spiteful and false.     

Wharton is an expert on those privileged Americans who are unworthy of their advantages, the ones with a boorish compulsion to impose their wealth-and-power fetishes on everyone else. Lily Bart doesn’t have to be destroyed. No rule of nature decrees it. No eternal law of social relations demands it. Certain individuals in New York society choose to wreck her or take advantage of her because they enjoy making her a human sacrifice to their own sense of power. They manipulate her to prove that their vision of personal superiority isn’t a total fantasy, damage her to give their delusions of distinction a semblance of fact: “Lily bleeds, therefore I am.” In the urbane satire of Wharton’s novels, the splash of sadism spiking the cocktail of high society is ludicrous and childish, but the suffering this sadism imposes on others is real. Cruelty is often the favored tool of the inept and the insecure, mainly because it’s so easy to inflict. One of the incidental strengths of fiction is its ability to remind us how obscene this is: how ashamed we should be to hurt others without sufficient reason, and how determinedly we should resist the attempts of the cruel to justify their (and our) actions.   

2 – Barnes: Flaubert’s Parrot and Staring at the Sun

Julian Barnes is the son of two French teachers, and French literature and French culture inform all of his work. Born in England, he spent three years as a lexicographer for the supplement of the Oxford English Dictionary. He was doing freelance journalism when his first novel, Metroland, appeared in 1980. Before She Met Me followed two years later.

It was only with his third novel, though, that Barnes became well-known. Flaubert’s Parrot, from 1984, was nominated for the Booker and received favorable and high-profile notices in both the US and the UK.

I blame Flaubert’s Parrot for the fog of perceived blandness that still obscures our view of Barnes and makes many readers reluctant to give him a try. Wharton would have understood the problem. Barnes established his reputation with a book that has offered everyone a seriously misleading notion of what most of his writing is like. Flaubert’s Parrot isn’t bad. It’s just several shades too predictable for its own good. Once you know that the story is about a literary enthusiast investigating the mysteries of Flaubert’s life, you can pretty much figure out what’s coming. You can anticipate the send-up of Louise Colet’s devotion, the riddles surrounding the actual stuffed parrot that Flaubert put into Un coeur simple, and the updated version of the Dictionary of Received Ideas. It’s all like something Nabokov or Borges never quite got around to writing. We’re deep in the territory of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Barnes is good at this. He knows his Flaubert. His jokes are funny. His observations are smart. Yet the novel lacks urgency. How much time do we want to spend chewing this already masticated cud, digesting the paradoxes and inadequacies of literary biography? By now, any new work on the topic needs to freshen up the precincts if it wants to quicken much interest in most of us. Flaubert’s Parrot does this, to some extent, with the cunningly recessed story of the investigator’s life, a gentle counterpoint to all the book’s literary and biographical convolutions. But it’s not enough. The novel is a piece of diligent homework mocking the inadequacy of diligent homework. It’s almost as if Barnes wanted to prove how easily this sort of writing comes to him so he could spend the rest of his career moving beyond it.

The real importance of Flaubert’s Parrot is that it cleared the way for his next book, Staring at the Sun. I doubt any publisher would have touched the novel if it hadn’t been produced by a Booker nominee. It’s immensely entertaining, yet all its best points resist quick summary or easy marketing tags. If Flaubert’s Parrot is snugly postmodern, Staring at the Sun follows its own line of interest.

That interest is the bittersweet pattern a woman’s long and varied life takes from the manner of her apparent end. “After Rilke,” which prefaces Heather McHugh’s Hinge & Sign, might serve as a marker for the novel’s concerns, both in theme and in the delicate passion with which the theme is enacted:

The roses will lose themselves tonight,
too full of petalling, in gentle agonies.
My child, my friend, do not refuse the sight:
for death gives life its clarities.

This evokes in turn some of the lush intimations of Shelley’s “Music, When Soft Voices Die,” which suggests another possible way into the novel:

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

Barnes is so lucid and amusing that the poetic and suggestive substance of Staring at the Sun takes time to seep into us. The story advances along the connected impressions of flight and death in the remembered experiences of a ninety-nine-year-old woman, Jean Serjeant. It starts as it ends, with an airplane flying toward the sun. In 1941 a British fighter pilot sees the recently risen sun drop below the horizon due to the speed of his descent. Then he pulls up and views “the same sun coming up from the same place across the same sea.” He watches “the smooth, weightless lift of the sun as it rose from the waves for the second time that morning.” The double sunrise is “an ordinary miracle he would never forget.”

He describes the sight to Jean, who’s a teenager when the war starts. He also tells her what combat flights are like, in a set of delightfully detailed discussions. The conversations suffuse Jean’s future, and stimulate many of the links Barnes follows for the rest of her story. The pilot dies, crashes over France. Jean grows up, marries, realizes her husband is stupid and cruel, and eventually leaves him. Barnes covers these decades swiftly, almost offhandedly. The plot points that would dominate most novels matter less than the secret shape of Jean’s consciousness, the mental and emotional sensations she accumulates.

Much of the novel is given over to her relationship with her son, and to the way she passes down to him her largely unspoken fusion of flying with mortality. As a boy, the son builds model planes and a model rocket. Yet he stays at home as Jean starts to travel around the world. For Jean, the idea of flying will always have some of the romantic transcendence of the fighter pilot’s double sunrise tale. She flies to Egypt. She flies to China. She visits the Grand Canyon. She looks out from the top of the Canyon and sees an airplane dropping below her: “It was somehow against nature, the idea of an aeroplane flying beneath the surface of the earth; as it would be if some surfacing submarine continued to rise out of the water and leaped into the air, a monstrous flying fish.” The plane’s appearance leads Jean to another link between flight and the sublime, the possibility of something beyond the ordinary presumptions of her reasoning: “Against nature. Was that right? We said ‘against nature’ when we meant ‘against reason.’ It was nature which provided the miracles, the hallucinations, the beautiful trickery.”  

For Jean’s son, flying has very different associations: “When he took Jean to the airport he would smell the kerosene and imagine charred flesh; he would listen to the engines at take-off and hear only the pure voice of hysteria.” The certainty of death in a crashing passenger plane terrifies him. “Even before the nuclear bomb,” he thinks, “the aeroplane had introduced the concept of overkill.” He imagines hitting the ground: “the jolt from your seat-belt would induce a fatal heart-attack; then fire would burn you to death all over again; then an explosion would scatter you over some forlorn hillside…”

These thoughts prefigure the obsession with suicide that will come over the son later. Jean’s mind is more cautious but also more robust. Pursuing the afterimage of her childhood talks with the fighter pilot, she questions the meaning of courage and fear as lit up by the prospect of death. She’s always partly engaging with people, partly detaching from them. She lets one of her son’s girlfriends begin to seduce her, breaks things off before the seduction is finished. She’s not squeamish, but she has started developing her own approach to things, one she examines the first time she goes to a movie with the girlfriend, Rachel:

The film, which Rachel had chosen, was harsh, Germanic and political; even the moments of tenderness in it were swiftly revealed to be illusory or manipulative. Jean disliked it strongly, but she also found it completely interesting. This sort of response was something she increasingly noticed. Previously -- a word which covered all her life -- she had been interested in what she liked, and not interested in what she disliked; more or less, anyway. She had assumed everyone was like this. But a new layer of responsiveness seemed to have grown; now she was sometimes bored by what she approved of, and could sympathize with what she disapproved of. She wasn’t entirely sure how beneficial this development was; but the fact that it was taking place was undeniable, and surprising.

The novel’s comic highpoint is the son’s series of sessions with a global computer system, a prediction of something like the modern Internet. (Staring at the Sun was published in 1986, before the 1991 launch of the World Wide Web, but Barnes plays the low-key futurology of the novel not for accuracy so much as for Swiftian humor.) The son’s fascination with suicide drives him to interrogate the computer system about all kinds of metaphysical issues. The sequence is a broad burlesque of Shakespeare: the system’s answers are as engagingly askew as the gravedigger’s responses to Hamlet.   

The double sunrise that opens the novel is balanced and intensified by the double sunset that closes it. Jean’s son joins her for her final flight. The flight changes our reading of the book, not with an O. Henry plot twist but with an unusually powerful heightening of the elements that have been present all along. After the second sunset, with its many possible meanings for mother and son, Jean smiles toward the “post-mortal phosphorescence” continuing to glow from beneath the horizon. What we make of this phosphorescence is up to us, but the final pages cast their light backward through the entire novel, and illuminate every line.

3 – Wharton: Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome, Wharton’s 1911 story of claustrophobic practical problems, is as bleak as its wintery New England landscapes, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. I’m not so wild about this kind of self-consciously grim dissection of provincial lives, where the author seems a bit complacent in crushing the small, quiet dreams of small, quiet people. Yet Ethan Frome works. It’s a triumph of timing and execution, like an old joke told so well that we laugh at the performer’s sheer confidence and skill.

Ethan Frome isn’t funny: it might be a better book if it were, a precursor of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. Still, Wharton’s training as a satirist helps her do stark laboring-class melodrama with exemplary discipline. The novel is like a Hardy tale sped up and stripped down for maximum impact. There’s an element of reverse slapstick in the way Wharton pushes Ethan and the other characters along their track. As a reader, you sometimes feel like you’re riding a high-speed conveyor belt toward disaster.

It’s this conveyor-belt quality which has given rise to the idea that Ethan’s story is a study in determinism. Ethan, however, isn’t a simple victim of forces beyond his control. The novel is less self-righteous and more disturbing than that. Ethan’s most admirable quality -- his serious, hardworking commitment to his duties -- brings him so much pain that he eventually buckles under his suffering and makes a disastrous choice. The choice ruins the woman he loves and sentences him to a protracted lifetime of personal shame. Since Ethan has been a decent, caring person, it’s especially horrifying to see how completely he not only demolishes his future but everything honorable from his past.

If The House of Mirth concerns lighthearted sadists who are too irresponsible to care about anyone they hurt, Ethan Frome concerns a man whose sense of responsibility to others is so strong that it drives him briefly and catastrophically mad. His long, unhappy devotion to his hypochondriac wife (one of those passive-aggressive figures Wharton writes so well) is like an evil spell, broken by the feelings he develops for Mattie, the wife’s cousin. Ethan isn’t a masochist: he decides to leave the wife for the woman he loves. But compounding his marital commitment is his commitment to the people around him. One of the novel’s many Hawthorne connections is its awareness of the Puritan New England conscience, the culpability that Ethan feels over even the thought of sin. He doesn’t have the money to run away with Mattie. The only way he could raise the cash would be to lie to his neighbors, the Hales. He contemplates taking an advance payment from the Hales for lumber, even though his flight with Mattie would make it impossible for him to provide the lumber in return. Quickly, however, he realizes that his guilt would be unendurable: “He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him.”

Ethan is trapped less by circumstances than by his conscience. Mattie understands his feelings. She’s the one who suggests they commit suicide together. It’s a desperate solution, and Ethan is reckless and crazed in acting on it. He drives downhill in a sled with Mattie, rushes them straight toward a tree at a pace they think will kill them. Instead of dying, though, Ethan ends up partly crippled and Mattie ends up paralyzed and permanently embittered. The wife has to start taking care of them both, in a grotesque turnaround of her original dependency on their assistance, their former submission to her hypochondria.

Ethan Frome must be one of literature’s harshest deterrents to suicide. Rejecting the tragic magnificence of Anna Karenina’s death beneath the wheels of a train or the grandeur of Othello stabbing himself at the height of his most sumptuous monologue, Wharton forces us to remember that suicide is a specific physical deed with specific physical risks. Apart from everything else, suicide is hard to execute. The body isn’t as easy to discard as we might think. Acts of self-destruction are at least as likely to leave us injured as dead, are at least as likely to increase our problems as end them. Literature has a habit of romanticizing suicide exactly where we shouldn’t, in circumstances where most of us would be better off deciding to live. Ethan Frome is a powerful corrective to this.

4 – Barnes: A History of the World and Talking It Over

A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters is a strange beast, even for Barnes: part essay, part fiction, part history, part myth. Termites offer their perspective on Noah’s Ark. Terrorists take over a Mediterranean tourist ship. An ecclesiastical court considers a petition against insect infestation in an ancient French village. A woman goes to sea in an effort to escape what might be a nuclear or environmental holocaust. A film crew moves through the Venezuelan jungle, adventurers search for the Ark, the Titanic sinks, and a whale swallows Jonah. An account of the shipwreck of a 19th Century naval frigate gives way to a long essay on the Géricault painting that stylizes the incident, “The Raft of the Medusa.”

If this sounds like a mess, it’s not. Barnes has his materials under control. He combines them so skillfully that we always know we’re reading a single unified narrative, building from section to section. The nearest modern comparison I can think of is W. G. Sebald’s writing. Sebald was based in England, and he published his first novel, Vertigo, in 1990, a year after A History of the World appeared. It takes little away from Sebald’s originality to speculate that Barnes might have influenced Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn. Like Barnes, Sebald relies less on conventional plot than on offbeat historical associations and surprising thematic repetitions. Both authors elegantly cross nonfiction and fiction, treatise and narrative, biography and imagination.

Yet the differences between Barnes and Sebald are as enlightening as the similarities. Sebald strains not just for profundity but for the appearance of profundity. Much of his work flows from his showy refusal to acknowledge the usual range of human feelings, and from his confidence that there’s a vast amount of observation to be made outside that range. Love has no place in Sebald’s world. The horrors of his version of history hollow out any illusion we might have that we’re bound to each other by anything except bloodshed and pain. Sebald isn’t humorless, but his jokes are heavy, loaded down by his commanding grimness, his layers of skulls grinning at us from mass graves.

Barnes is as thought-provoking as Sebald but much warmer and livelier. He has a delicate feel for the beauty and humor of our smallest shades of emotion, the significance of each kind and degree of human reaction. In the tour-de-force Géricault chapter, Barnes describes how the painter has refused the obvious choice of making the shipwreck’s starving survivors pathetic. The painting avoids “suppurating wounds” and “Belsen cheeks,” details “impelling us to an easy desolation” as well as “an easy consolation.” (Ethan Frome exhibits precisely this kind of facile pathos.) Géricault instead makes the survivors muscular and animated, and Barnes justifies the decision in terms that elucidate the humane richness of A History of the World itself:

What has happened? The painting has slipped history’s anchor. This is no longer “Scene of Shipwreck,” let alone “The Raft of the Medusa.” We don’t just imagine the ferocious miseries on that fatal machine; we don’t just become the sufferers. They become us. And the picture’s secret lies in the pattern of its energy. Look at it one more time: at the violent waterspout building up through those muscular backs as they reach for the speck of the rescuing vessel. All that straining -- to what end? There is no formal response to the painting’s main surge, just as there is no response to most human feelings. Not merely hope, but any burdensome yearning: ambition, hatred, love (especially love) -- how rarely do our emotions meet the object they seem to deserve? How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us. Catastrophe has become art; but this is no reducing process. It is freeing, enlarging, explaining. Catastrophe has become art; that is, after all, what it is for.

Barnes takes his cue from Géricault. He turns A History of the World into a contemplation of many shipwrecks, many catastrophes, but always with a surging oceanic sense of how everyone in those catastrophes is “washed between hope and despair.”

The vast scope of A History of the World tightens to a trio of young Londoners in the 1991 novel Talking It Over. Barnes uses their love triangle to take on not merely three different people but three different ways of handling life and experiencing the world. Talking It Over is one of those novels where you feel everything going right for the author, not just all the things a writer can plan but all the things no writer can completely anticipate. The main characters are precisely detailed individuals in precisely detailed circumstances, yet their relationship comes to feel elemental, a meeting point for fundamental forces we’ve never noticed in quite this way before.

It’s a novel of voices. Oliver and Stuart and Gillian explain themselves to the reader. Oliver, the most flamboyant of the three, tries to convince us he’s got the recent marriage of Stuart and Gillian all figured out, completely understood by his superior intelligence and snarky wit:

Stuart was looking particularly smug, I thought. He is my oldest friend, and it was his wedding, but he was looking mogadonic with self-satisfaction, so I purloined the camera and announced that what the wedding album needed were a few art shots. I pranced about and lay on the ground and turned the lens through 45 degrees and stepped in pore-scouringly close, but what I was really doing, what I was after, was a good shot of Stuart’s double chin. And he’s only thirty-two. Well, maybe double chin is a little unfair: let’s say a mere jowlswipe of pork tenderloin. But it can be made to bulge and glitter with a maestro behind the lens.

Stuart, plodding and introverted, wants us to believe his view of Oliver and Gillian is based on honesty and loyalty and tolerant generosity:

Please don’t take against Oliver like that. He goes on a bit but he’s basically very good-hearted and kind. Lots of people don’t like him, and some actively loathe him, but try to see the better side. He hasn’t got a girlfriend, he’s practically penniless, he’s stuck in a job he hates. A lot of that sarcasm is just bravado, and if I can put up with his teasing, can’t you? Try and give him the benefit of the doubt. For my sake. I’m happy. Please don’t upset me.

Gillian, self-critical and concerned with appearing to consider all sides at all times, assures us that her attitude toward Oliver and Stuart is sensible and fair, balanced among all the different possible responses:

I don’t know why they’re doing this, Stuart and Oliver. It must be another of their games. Like Stuart pretending he hasn’t heard of Picasso and Oliver pretending he doesn’t understand any machinery invented after the spinning-jenny. But it’s not a game I want to play, this one, thank you very much… All I’d say is that I don’t quite agree with Stuart’s description of that summer with Oliver. Yes, we spent quite a lot of time alone together, started going to bed and all that, and yes we were sensible enough to know that even when you’re falling in love you shouldn’t live entirely in one another’s pockets. But this didn’t necessarily mean, from my point of view, that we had to go around with Oliver. Of course I liked him -- you can’t not like Oliver once you get to know him -- but he did tend to monopolise things. Almost telling us what to do. I’m not really complaining. I’m just making a small suggestion.

Oliver is jealous of his friends’ marriage. He falls in love with Gillian. She falls in love with him. She then divorces Stuart and runs off with Oliver. That’s the whole story, but what matters are the competing descriptions Oliver and Stuart and Gillian give us as their feelings for each other turn and shift. The disagreements are never just disagreements: they’re battles over Chekhov’s dual concern with what we believe life is and what we believe life should be, between how we recognize the actual and how we pursue the ideal. Gillian is the quietest member of the trio, but also the most intriguing. As one of the novel’s secondary voices brings to our attention, “it’s all about Gillian” in the end, though Oliver and Stuart are too blinded by their rivalry to notice.

Barnes wrote a sequel to Talking It Over nearly ten years later, Love, etc., which is so successful that I always think of both books as one story. The continuation finds Gillian leaving Oliver for Stuart this time. Among its other points, the sequel enhances the original book’s metaphor of reversibility. The metaphor comes from Gillian’s work restoring paintings: reversibility means you try to preserve the possibility of going back to the state of the painting before the restoration. Since another decade has now passed, I keep hoping Barnes will bring out a third volume sometime soon, for one final pass at the painting, a group portrait in constant transformation, reversibility upon reversibility.

5 – Wharton: “Coming Home”

I’m an American who lives in Europe, in a city on the Baltic coast. When I pick up my two young daughters from their daycare, we pass buildings that still show some of the scars from the Soviet aerial bombardments leading up to World War II. In the Hemingway story “Soldier’s Home,” Krebs returns to an America that can’t begin to understand his memories of warfare. Wharton’s “Coming Home” pinpoints some of the critical differences in the European experience: the returning soldier, a French lieutenant, discovers that he’s the one who can’t adequately absorb the war episodes his family and his fiancée have endured. As Americans, we haven’t fought extended battles in our cities and towns since the Civil War era. The two largest military conflicts of the 20th Century took place far away from our bedrooms and playgrounds. For Europeans, as well as for much of the rest of the planet, the conflicts were local: intimate violence on an industrial scale.

When World War I started, Wharton was residing mainly in France. Her war record is impressive. She fed and employed women in Paris who were desperate for work, arranged lodgings for hundreds of Belgian orphans, visited the Front repeatedly, and wrote books and articles to inform Americans of how the French were suffering.

“Coming Home” is part of Wharton’s 1917 collection Xingu and Other Stories. An American soldier narrates his cross-country journey with the French lieutenant. They go from Paris to the lieutenant’s hometown of Réchamp. Along the way they see the devastation that the Germans have inflicted on the occupied areas. One German officer, Scharlach, has imposed especially extreme destruction everywhere he has gone. “Murder, outrage, torture: Scharlach’s program seemed to be fairly comprehensive,” the narrator says.

The French lieutenant is coming home to see both his family and his fiancée, Yvonne. The family rejected Yvonne in the past because she had a bad reputation. She was, the narrator explains, an example of the “artistic-emancipated” woman “who comes and goes as she pleases, reads what she likes, has opinions about what she reads.” Local gossip had accused her of having an affair with a man who then left her a great deal of money upon his death. The lieutenant had never believed the rumors about the affair, and had gone out of his way to clear Yvonne’s name and expose the gossip’s falsehood.

Now, on his return to Réchamp, the lieutenant learns that Scharlach, the notorious German, came to the town but didn’t administer any of his usual slaughter and destruction. The lieutenant’s grandmother says Yvonne was directly responsible for protecting both the family home and the entire town. The grandmother claims that Yvonne immediately made a favorable impression on Scherlach through playing the piano with him and treating him and his other officers to “refreshing drinks and cigars, melons, strawberries and iced coffee.” The family and the town now consider Yvonne their savior. They’re eager for the lieutenant to see her conduct in the most favorable light.

The lieutenant, however, is left with doubts. Yvonne says to him: “We’re safe; the place is untouched. Why brood on other horrors -- horrors we were powerless to help?” The remark is deliberately imprecise. It refers both to the horrors that Scherlach wreaked on other villages and to the possibility that she was forced to sleep with him in exchange for the town’s protection.

After the lieutenant leaves to continue his military duties, the narrator keeps “hearing the echo of the question he was inwardly asking himself.” In one of the story’s many fine touches of implication, the inward question isn’t just whether Yvonne slept with Scharlach but whether she was also guilty of the earlier adultery of which she’d been accused. In exactly the circumstances where the town starts to approve of Yvonne and grants the highest possible reputation to her, the lieutenant struggles with suspicions that he knows are unworthy of him. Although Wharton has too much tact to spell it out, the lieutenant clearly thinks Yvonne has done the right thing if she did sleep with Scharlach, and that it’s wrong to project this necessary sacrifice back onto her past before the War. Yet given the circumstances, the lieutenant can’t escape his rage over her possible violation, and his added rage over the mistrust toward her former conduct that this has provoked in him, despite his best efforts to dismiss his fears.

As part of their military responsibilities, the narrator and the lieutenant are ordered to transport a wounded German officer from a second-line shanty hospital to one of the main bases, where his serious abdominal injury can receive proper treatment. The German officer dies en route, when he’s alone with the lieutenant. The narrator discovers that the German was Scharlach, concludes that the lieutenant murdered him while the narrator was fetching gas for the vehicle. But in a final twist, it turns out the lieutenant couldn’t have known the German’s identity at the time of the killing. The murder wasn’t an act of specific revenge against Scharlach. Instead, it was an expression of the lieutenant’s uncontrollable hatred for all Germans, his willingness to kill someone with no direct connection to Yvonne in retribution for Scharlach’s mistreatment of her (which might not have even occurred).

Step by step, and so discreetly that we don’t see how far the story has gone till after it’s over, Wharton traces the lieutenant’s decline from the amiable and honorable figure we meet at the start to this sly and dishonest murderer consumed by violent prejudice. If many American writers would present the lieutenant’s action as defensible and triumphant, Wharton knows better. It appalls her, appalls her narrator, and disturbs us even more than a completely unjustified atrocity would do, because Wharton sympathizes with the lieutenant and sees the damage that has been done to his earlier compassion and integrity. “Coming Home” is an acute study of the aftermath of wartime occupation. It’s also, however, a study of the fury any of us can feel when we’re required to tolerate irrevocable abuse, and of how this fury can distort us so deeply that in time we might not recognize ourselves any longer.     

6 – Barnes: England, England and Arthur & George

The weakest Barnes novel is The Porcupine, about a dictator undergoing a show trial in an imaginary country. The country is a former Soviet satellite state, a blurry double-exposure of Bulgaria. The story is airless and thin. The essayistic dialogues about the similarities between collapsing communism and conquering capitalism are interesting, but far too skeletal for a novel that has so little flesh to fill out its theories.

England, England, on the other hand, is terrific. A business tycoon, Sir Jack Pitman, decides to recreate all of England on the Isle of Wight. The project, a combination of theme park and historical center, is intended to attract tourists who find the actual England troublesome and off-putting.

Sir Jack is an invincible egomaniac. He has an instinct for ruthlessness, for work that rewards him by hurting others. He loves listening to himself, revels in everyone’s worst image of him, makes his vulgarity and narcissism part of his strength:

“What is real? This is sometimes how I put the question to myself. Are you real, for instance -- you and you?” Sir Jack gestured with mock courtesy to the room’s other occupants, but did not turn his head away from his thought. “You are real to yourselves, of course, but that is not how these things are judged at the highest level. My answer would be No. Regrettably. And you will forgive me for my candour, but I could have you replaced with substitutes, with… simulacra, more quickly than I could sell my beloved Brancusi. Is money real? It is, in a sense, more real than you.”

Sir Jack starts as a comic grotesque, but the novel makes him progressively stranger and fuller by sifting him through the consciousness of a much more sensitive and intelligent person, Martha Cochrane. The first part of the book is an impression of Martha’s childhood. The final part, from which Sir Jack is largely absent, takes us through her old age. Both sections wrap the hardnosed comedy of the main storyline in the self-doubting warmth of Martha’s personality. Martha is cynical, but even her cynicism is warm, responsive to other people and their needs, just as Sir Jack’s optimism is icy and callous.

Sir Jack’s project reduces English history and culture to structured performances for the visiting audience. The island becomes an independent entity, run under free-market principles. No welfare programs exist. Healthcare is private. “The system of socialized medicine, once popular in Old England, has been replaced by the American model,” Barnes writes. The World Bank and the IMF approve. A Swiss banker enthuses:

“It’s a pure market state. There’s no interference from government because there is no government. So there’s no foreign or domestic policy. It’s a pure interface between buyers and sellers without the market being skewed by central government with its complex agendas and election promises… Without making any predictions, let’s just say that I think I’ve seen the future, and I think it works.”

A Chinese-American journalist concludes, in a Wall Street Journal article:

The present writer has visited what is increasingly referred to as “Old England” a number of times. From now on, only those with an active love of discomfort or necrophiliac taste for the antique need venture there. The best of all that England was, and is, can be safely and conveniently experienced on this spectacular and well-equipped diamond of an Island.

Martha starts as a consultant to Sir Jack, but finds a way to control him and take the project over. We expect her to reform the island, to make it into something more reasonable and compassionate. She doesn’t. She’s as cynical about Sir Jack’s vision as she is about everything else, but she can’t imagine any real alternative to the cultural and market forces that are in play. She has replaced “an egomaniacal autocracy with a relatively accountable oligarchy,” but recognizes that “the Project itself had scarcely been affected.”

She’s in love with one of her subordinates, Paul, and they run the island together. Her love for him, however, begins to subside: the slow deflation of her passion shows how good Barnes is at bringing out the flavor of even the most attenuated feelings. Martha becomes disenchanted with Paul’s passivity at the same time as she becomes disenchanted with the practical problems of keeping the island in operation. She doesn’t grow into a tyrant, another Sir Jack. Rather, she struggles to maintain a balance between control and common decency, between running the island with clean efficiency and making gestures of sympathy and consideration. She refuses to fire a seemingly muddled advisor, indulges an actor who takes his role as Samuel Johnson too seriously, puts up with signs of local rebelliousness as the Robin Hood performers start behaving unpredictably. Yet when Sir Jack takes his revenge against her, with Paul’s help, it’s no great tragedy for the island’s future. It’s mainly a personal tragedy for Martha. She fades away into a quiet sadness that’s also a form of endurance and strength, much as the actual England fades away, biding its time as it turns aside from the island’s gaudy triumphalism.  

England, England and Love, etc. were the last two novels Barnes wrote in the 20th Century. His first substantial work of the new millennium was the 2005 historical novel Arthur & George.

Arthur is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Born into a wealthy and respected Irish-Catholic family in Edinburgh, Arthur demonstrates the virtues that Wharton finds lacking in the conduct of privileged Americans, and that Barnes finds lacking in Sir Jack. Arthur has an invigorating sense of privilege’s responsibilities, including the responsibility to sometimes act independently of his social circles. He makes the most of his advantages and displays a generous-spirited audacity that combines foolishness with something like wisdom. He’s unafraid to make an ass out of himself, to take up unpopular causes, to pursue evidence of an afterlife even if it leads him in directions that make him look silly and easily deceived. His buoyant confidence grows on us regardless of whether we agree with him, because he’s cheerfully committed to following his strongest beliefs. Through his lifelong outpouring of goodwill, he ripens from apparent shallowness to a bracing, full-bodied excellence.

George Edalji, in contrast, is stiff and self-conscious in almost everything he does. His mother is Scottish and his father is an Indian vicar, but George neglects his foreign heritage and strains to maintain his position as a young Birmingham solicitor and his self-image as an English gentleman. Barnes takes an insecure, snobbish character we’re predisposed to dislike and exposes the pettiness of our rejection. Arthur quickly apprehends why George is so vulnerable to attack, to the false accusation that he has slashed a pony. George is innocent of any crime except acting awkwardly and pompously in an English village that mistrusts his mixed parentage. Yet the legal system and the villagers aren’t prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, and he never fully recognizes the solidity of their bias against him. He does, however, win our admiration: his quiet reserves of strength emerge during his years of imprisonment, and through his long struggle to clear his name.

Arthur comes to George’s highly public assistance, and the novel mimics a heartwarming tale of injustice righted. Barnes, though, is more interested in the undercurrents of tension between the two men and in the ironies of their situation than he is in exploiting the story’s potential for maudlin uplift. When Arthur and George first meet, they have the same goal but talk about it at cross-purposes. Arthur, secure in his success, feels free to criticize the notion of the perfect English gentleman. George, in his much less protected situation, clings to the notion of the English gentleman as his ideal. What it means to be an English gentleman is one of the novel’s themes, though Barnes strips the subject of the customary sentimentalities. Arthur thinks the complications of his background make him an outsider: the belief energizes his drive to overturn George’s conviction. By the time Arthur dies, however, he is recognized by most people as the very model of an English gentleman, the banner-holder for the system he always criticized and sometimes openly opposed. George, desperate to be seen as a gentleman himself and to have a respectable career as a solicitor, succeeds in fulfilling a modest version of both goals. Against the considerable influence of the social forces that have assaulted him, he upholds his devotion to the attackers’ own standards of good conduct.

The troubling paradoxes of George’s actions expand as our affection for him deepens. Is he a self-hating victim who has been brainwashed into accepting his oppressors’ worldview? Is the stoicism that he shows throughout his ordeal, in a conscious display of his vision of English fortitude, a sign of his blindness? Or is it one of the qualities that saves him and allows him to survive his many years of persecution? The prejudices enshrined by the concept of the English gentleman lead to George’s unjust conviction in the first place, but do they also provide the principles that lead to his exoneration? Though the specific terms in which Arthur and George think are dated, the questions remain as important as ever: How do we create a stable system of honorable, decent conduct that doesn’t end up enshrining ugly favoritisms and bigotries as part of its solidity? How do we hold on to lasting touchstones of morality and fairness while maintaining the flexibility to criticize those touchstones and correct their weaknesses? At what point do we give up on an old system altogether, and how do we decide what to salvage from the past? The questions come down to our most personal choices: Has George wasted his life by devoting it to a society that uses his loyalty to hold him down and to hold others down? Or has he succeeded in improving the society by finding a place for himself and helping future generations avoid the same struggle? When George makes me uncomfortable, is it because he’s wrong or because he’s showing me a difficult and necessary patience that I would prefer to sweep aside?

Questions as broad as these are often answered as much by faith as by intellect, and the difficulties of faith are the novel’s semi-concealed obsession. Arthur & George, like many Barnes books, takes place in the gap between what we know and what we believe, the gap that faith in one form or another has to bridge whether we like it or not. Arthur, in line with Sherlock Holmes, has a powerful commitment to rationalism but an equal commitment to faith. He believes in his instinctive judgments before he has gathered the evidence to support them. Is this delusion? Does delusion sometimes help us accomplish things that rational doubt might hinder? Barnes raises the possibility that we sometimes nurture unreasonable faith because otherwise we would always be paralyzed by our uncertainty and ignorance. Some dimension of faith is almost always a prerequisite to discovery, particularly the discovery of those breakthroughs that contradict what society thinks it already knows.

Faith inhabits the novel in many guises: faith in family, nation, class, other people, the possibility of secret planes of existence, the chance of life after death. During their first meeting, George asks if Arthur thinks George is innocent. Arthur replies: “No, I do not think you are innocent. No, I do not believe you are innocent. I know you are innocent.” He gives his unqualified support to George though he doesn’t yet have any conclusive reason to do so. In the same conversation, George says his time in prison has destroyed his former belief in Christianity. Arthur responds with a self-absorbed monologue on his interest in Spiritualism. He is convinced Spiritualism will take the place of all organized religions, and will prove that “death is not a door closed in our face, but a door left ajar.” George doesn’t accept Spiritualism, and is still too rational and conservative to lend it any credence years later, when Arthur is dead. He attends a Spiritualist event where it’s claimed that Arthur’s ghost might appear. “A child wants to see” is the novel’s first line, and in the final chapter Arthur decides that sight is partly another act of faith. At the Spiritualist gathering, George learns that the only people who can expect to see Arthur’s ghost are those who look “with the eyes of faith.” George’s instinct is to reject this as nonsense. Yet his debt to Arthur is so great that he tries to evade his skepticism, tries to have as much confidence in Arthur as Arthur had in him. It’s a moment that makes him question his entire life:

The eyes of faith. The eyes Sir Arthur brought with him when they met at the Grand Hotel, Charing Cross. He had believed in George; should George now believe in Sir Arthur?... Sir Arthur carried with him an enviable, comforting sense of certainty. He knew things. What does he, George, know? Does he finally know anything? What is the sum of knowledge he has acquired in his fifty-four years? Mostly, he has gone through his life learning and waiting to be told. The authority of others has always been important to him; does he have any authority of his own? At fifty-four, he thinks a lot of things, he believes a few, but what can he really claim to know?

The event shakes him, but what are we to make of it? Is he being jarred out of his prejudices, or is he simply substituting Arthur’s authority for the authority of ordinary society, which finds Spiritualism risible? Is he starting to see with his own eyes, or is he setting aside one pair of faulty lenses and replacing them with another, just as flawed? Only faith can help George escape his doubts, and he isn’t sure he’s even capable of possessing what Arthur always possessed without effort: belief in the value of belief, faith in faith.

7 – Wharton: The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence is, like Arthur & George, a historical novel that revisits an earlier era’s outlook on honor and propriety. Barnes, however, describes events he never experienced. Wharton recalls her youth, the 1870s as she sees them nearly half a century later, in 1920.

Wharton writes out of mixed feelings, the conflict between her love for Old New York and her anger at its injustices and limitations. With each generation, we sacrifice the world to our failures: only gradually do we grasp the impact of our mistakes. It’s a process that can be seen right now in the increasingly common declarations of mea culpa from those Baby Boomers who think their generation has mishandled its responsibilities. Wharton’s youth overlapped the height of the Gilded Age. She would have understood the pain many of the Baby Boomers seem to feel, the anguish of their fear that much of what their generation has done is decaying into irrelevance or dishonor, stacks of gold downgraded to giant junk-heaps. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think we should be too quick to devalue the Baby Boomers. I’m not sure criticizing an entire generation can ever be much more than boxing with a phantom, and anyway we’ll all end up with plenty of mistakes of our own to look back on.)

Newland Archer renounces the one great liberating possibility of his youth, and makes the renunciation in obedience to social rules that largely evaporate after it’s too late for him to start over. The Old New York through which he moves is a magnificent apparition. On the one hand, Wharton’s tone is cool, anthropological. “These are the rites of a vanished species,” she seems to say, “and I will explain their habits for you in scientific detail.” On the other hand, we feel how much all of this means to her, the admiration and disapproval and remorse that time has not diminished but enhanced for her.

The satire frequently rises to sublimity. Wharton appreciates the soon-to-be-extinct mutations among the structures of Old New York’s cruelties and confinements, as in this vision of the magnificent Mrs. Mingott:

The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to the mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation.

Newland is engaged to May Welland. The novel’s title hints that May’s customized mask of innocence typifies the age in which she lives. In contrast to this innocence, Wharton sets the experience and knowledge of Ellen Olenska. Ellen is May’s cousin. She has left her husband, a Polish nobleman who abused her. She has now returned from Europe to her roots in Old New York. Old New York, however, doesn’t want her back. Her abandonment of her husband is held against her. Even more scandalously, she apparently intends to go ahead with a formal divorce, an unacceptable act at that time in American high society. Much of Old New York snubs her, and all of it gossips about her.

Newland, though, falls in love with Ellen. Her independence fascinates him. At the opera, she looks at the members of high society gathered in their boxes and says to Newland: “I see everybody here in knickerbockers and pantalettes.” Her more worldly and varied background causes Newland to feel, when he’s with her, that New York is “much farther off than Samarkand.” Her vision of the city changes his vision of it: “Viewed thus, as through the wrong end of a telescope, it looked disconcertingly small and distant; but then from Samarkand it would.” Newland fears he will become “a man to whom nothing was ever to happen” and he thinks Ellen is above all someone to whom things happen. Ellen has courage. And maybe the most genuinely aristocratic thing about Wharton is that, like Mrs. Mingott, she has “always liked courage above everything.”

Newland’s tragedy is the doubt he feels over the importance of his own courage. He’s almost but not quite heroic. Ellen returns his love. By acting more decisively, he could find a way to be with her, either before or after his marriage to May. But he hesitates. His commitment to the rules of Old New York is too strong. And in his hesitation he gives Old New York the chance to separate him from Ellen forever. May is the one who takes action. She turns out to be no more innocent than the society around her. She’s skilled at archery, as Wharton shows us, and she takes down both her husband and her rival with a single arrow.

But the main responsibility for the shot, as Newland’s last name reminds us, is his. In the novel’s heartbreaking last chapter, Newland is an old man. Much has changed. World War I has ended. The Twenties are at hand. Old New York no longer exists. In the new American high society, leaving May for Ellen would be allowed: abandonment and divorce are no longer unthinkable. Newland doesn’t even have the consolation of believing that the rules he followed in giving Ellen up are innate and unchanging. They were just the fashion of a now-vanished society. He has sacrificed his greatest desire to a passing style, a trend that will come and go like other trends. Yet Newland’s mourning is intricate. He mourns the loss of Ellen, but he also mourns the loss of the New York that took Ellen away from him. He goes to Paris to visit her, but he also refuses at the last moment to see her. He loves and misses May, but he also loves and misses his dream of the life he might have had with Ellen. That dream is a ghost which has been with him for decades, and he loves the ghost more than he ever loved Ellen. All he has now are the specters of his memories. In the end, they’re all he wants. He has lost too much to risk losing them as well.

8 – Barnes: The Sense of an Ending

The latest Barnes novel, The Sense of an Ending, is short and concentrated. Barnes has always fit his abundance into tidy and elegant spaces. His longest novels are Arthur & George at 357 pages and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters at 309 pages. Most of his books are in the 200-to-275-page range, and one reason he’s sometimes overlooked, especially in the US, is because he has never produced a big, heavy volume that declares its importance through its size. The Sense of an Ending is the culmination of the Barnes gift for compression. It’s a large work in everything but length.

Barnes, born in 1946, belongs to the first wave of the Baby Boom, and The Sense of an Ending can be added to the ongoing spate of Baby Boomer apologies, these spreading expressions of generational guilt. Yet Barnes has been writing in a guilt-ridden, fault-haunted mode from the start. His premature maturity has developed over so many years that he takes for granted some of the more common insights of age (“We thought we were so smart, and we weren’t!”) and continues his advance into the mysteries of our behavior.

It’s a frightening novel, uncanny rather than nostalgic. The narrator, Tony Webster, is trying to sort out bits of his past. Barnes renders the bits in impressionistic pulses: a shiny inner wrist, a hot frying pan, and a plughole come back to us in the story’s disturbing movement from the frustration of unfulfilled desire to the fruition of carelessly handled eggs. Self-involvement washes away the characters’ recognition of their actions and leaves behind an unexpected legacy of damage and pain. The plughole water flows together with the upstream sweep of the Severn Bore and the “bathwater gone cold behind a locked door.” The Severn Bore is a surge wave in the estuary of the River Severn, but when Tony sees it with the woman he loves, Veronica, it becomes the novel’s governing image of the unknown and the unexpected: “it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for these minutes, nature was reversed, and time with it. And to see this phenomena after dark made it the more mysterious, the more otherworldly.”

The entire novel is a Severn Bore, a mysterious and otherworldly surge in what looked like an ordinary river. Tony has experienced a painful lost love and the suicide of a friend, but he doesn’t know how little he has understood those events, how much more guilt and revelation they hold for him. The aging Newland Archer won’t meet the aging Ellen Olenska because he sees there are dangers in revisiting the past. The Sense of an Ending is about those dangers. Tony discovers that some of the people he has known weren’t what he thought they were. More devastatingly, he discovers that he isn’t what he thought he was either. Incidents that once seemed minor take on a new significance for him. A conversation with Veronica’s mother becomes filled with so many different possibilities that it turns into a pivot point for his reevaluations of everything else. Was the mother warning him against Veronica, as he thought at the time? Was she expressing resentment toward her daughter, or was she instead revealing something about herself and her relationship with her husband? Was she giving him a premonition of her involvement with one of his best friends, Adrian? Did he understand her better than he now realizes, and did this understanding contribute somehow to Adrian’s suicide, and to the birth that provided the final cruel twist to that suicide? How much of Tony’s misconduct was planned, consciously or subconsciously, and how much of it was an unfortunate accident? How, in the novel’s slowly revealed webs of suffering, can he figure out the pattern and extent of all the sticky, nearly invisible threads of motive and circumstance? As in Arthur & George, the questions are open-ended but not pointless: the mysteries are rewarding because they constantly tell us more about the characters, and because we learn so much along the way. We don’t fully understand Tony’s experiences any more than he does. Barnes, however, allows us to run alongside the nighttime surge of everything we’ll never quite know about ourselves, the dark Severn Bore of our past.