Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Savoring a good read



It's quite possible I will keep coming back to and quoting from Hermione Lee's excellent biography of Edith Wharton. It's simply a terrific mix of research, smart writing, compelling subject and synthesis of material.

That sounds so academic, but what I really mean is that I dig this book.

In the chapter, "Republic of Letters," there are number of fabulous stories about her publishing, including a letter to Scribner's after the publication of her book, The Greater Inclination:
"Gentlemen, Am I not to receive any copies of my book? I have had no notice of its publication, but I see from the New York papers that it appeared last week, and I supposed that by this time the usual allowances of copies would have been sent me. Yours truly, Edith Wharton."

Well-documented throughout is her philosophy on writing novels.
"My last page is always latent in my first." A work of art must make you feel that "it could not have been otherwise." These qualities had to be produced though "a perpetual process of rejection and elision."

Sort of reminds of of the great writing teacher William Zinsser's admonition to select, focus, reduce. Her writing is never gratuitous. She has a point to make.
"No novel worth anything can be anything but a novel 'with a purpose,' & if anyone who cared for the moral issue did not see in my work that I care for it, I should have no one to blame but myself."

There are sections of the book in which Lee demonstrates Wharton's editing style, demonstrating the development of scenes and dialogue to which she paid such careful note.
"In the conversation between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in the carriage in The Age of Innocence, for instance, the manuscript develops like this:
1. 'Is it your idea, then, that I should be your'
2. 'Is it your idea, then, that we should go off together'
3. 'Is it your idea, then, that I should be your mistress'
4. 'Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress since I can't be your wife?' she asked abruptly.
(This, but without 'abruptly,' was the final printed version.)"

Isn't that cool? Maybe you just have to be a writing freak like me to appreciate such process. But it gives me a glimpse into her head and a chance to learn from her as if she were standing before me.
"In the scene at the end of The House of Mirth when Lily slips out of consciousness, imagining that she is holding Nettie Struther's baby, the manuscript changes read:

1. She settled herself into a position
2. She settled herself into an easier position, pressing the little
3. into an easier position, hollowing her arm to receive the little head, and holding her breath lest a sound should disturb the child's sleep
4. should disturb the sleeping child

"The final version is: 'She settled herself into an easier position, hollowing her arm to pillow the round downy head, and holding her breath lest a sound should disturb the sleeping child.' "


Wharton's stories are often of "a man who has failed to love a remarkable woman." What I found and keep finding as I make my way through her life (again) are the many deliberate things she did as a writer that draw me to her work, whether that is depth of subject matter or snappy dialogue or conflicted, struggling characters. Often it's what she leaves out of the story, the blanks I must fill in, that strike me most deeply.

She rarely wrote happy endings. And she never insulted her readers' intelligence. That is why were are still reading her books and still reading about her.

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