Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Henry and Edith

I finished The Europeans and Confidence over the past few weeks and haven't said anything about it because I'm not sure I have all that much to say, except that they're both somewhat slight books that I rather liked. Good, easily digestible James books, I think, for people who hate James and want to say they've read him. Well, the first one, anyway; I can't see a lot of readers lining up for Confidence.

I think all his early novels are the work of a young man finding himself, meeting his literary ambitions as often as he stumbles over them. I think it may be they succeed when he doesn't overextend himself, when he doesn't try too much. The Europeans, for example, is a fairly slim book with a manageable number of characters, and it seems to follow the model of those Shakespeare comedies where everyone gets matched and married off in the end.

The critical consensus of Confidence is pretty negative; a lot of people think it is his worst book. I could see why, as it's very talky and the end is extremely stagy and unconvincing. It took me awhile to get engrossed in it, but I found myself getting quite involved with the two main characters, and it seemed to me that James had broadened his outlook more.

As the title indicates, it's preoccupied with the theme of trust, as it's about a pair of friends, one of whom trusts the other with his fiance and, well, you know how that winds up. It's also a title you can slice several ways; it's about people who are a little too trusting of each other and not at all trusting or confident in themselves and their own emotions.

Neither of these were as entertaining as The House of Mirth, which I started on a whim about a week ago. I've never read much Edith Wharton, just "Ethan Frome" and the odd story here and there. The book was a really interesting, rather intensely readable story of turn-of-the-century New York, in which the beautiful Lily Bart gradually goes from near-riches to rags. It's a prototypical moral tale of life in society in that regard, as Lily loses everything trying to make it with the Boston swells, first trying to attach herself to a man who will bring her money and then to a man who will get her out of debt.

Every page is richly descriptive of people, places, dresses, homes -- Lily's life is a gradual descent, its phases registered by the increasingly shabby homes she lives in, where the class of people are increasingly immoral. Lily is very much of a schemer, but she reminded me a little of Scarlett O'Hara -- you want her to succeed and you wince at her comeuppance. She stays very much within the reader's sympathy. I'd like to read it again with a lot more attention to the particulars.

This morning I started reading Wharton's "The Reef," which is supposedly not as good although I haven't yet figured out why.

No comments: