Tag Archives: americans abroad

The Children: Edith Wharton (1928)

“Something clear and impenetrable as a pane of crystal seemed to cut him off from her, and from all that surrounded her. He had been to the country from which travellers return with another soul.”

I discovered Wharton many summers ago. I read several of her marvellous great novels and was annoyed that I hadn’t read her sooner. Since then, I’ve read her lesser novels from time and time, and then recently I stumbled upon a copy of The Children, tucked away in a corner of a shelf. There’s a problem when you’ve read ‘the best’ (or at least the acknowledged best) of an author; you expect everything else to be a disappointment.

The children

In The Children, 46-year-old American engineer Martin Boyne is sailing to Europe to join widow Rose Sellars, the woman he loves, who is in the Dolomites. They haven’t seen each other for 5 years. She was stuck in an unhappy marriage, but now, following the death of her husband 7 months earlier, Rose is free. Martin has every intention of having a wonderful holiday, mostly spent with Rose, proposing and then finally settling down

In his homeless years that sense of her stability had appealed to him peculiarly: the way each time he returned, she had simply added a little more to herself, like a rose unfurling another petal.

Now their moment has come. Or has it?

In the port of Algiers, other passengers embark, and leaning over the deck, Martin spies a young woman who herds several young children. Looking at her face, he literally “gasps” and murmurs to himself  “Jove– if a fellow was younger.” He begins to count the children and decides that this girl “must have been married out of the nursery.” Over the course of the trip, he learns that this young girl, Judith Wheater, is the oldest child of old acquaintances: Cliffe Wheater, one of “the showiest New York millionaires,” and the former Joyce Mervin.  At one point, Martin was one of the young men who circled Joyce but she married Cliffe and his money instead. Martin is intrigued by 15-year old Judith–especially when he learns that Cliffe and Joyce married and divorced, married other (unsuitable) people and then subsequently patched things up and married each other again. Judith heads a troupe of 7 children which includes her brother Terry, who has frail health, several ‘steps’ and Chipstone, the latest child from the Wheater’s (re)union.

Cliffe and Joyce Wheater’s former spouses include a shifty Italian prince and an actress; two of the children are Italian and aren’t the Wheaters’ children at all. As the Wheater parents, part of the glittering social set, traverse Europe, the 7 children are moved from one location to another, rather like luggage, with a-too-malleable governess and various servants in tow.

During the sea voyage, Martin and Judith strike up a relationship, and when the situation between Cliffe and Joyce Wheater turns south (again), Judith turns to Martin for help. The children are about to be separated and sent off to various households, and Judith begs Martin to help her keep the children together. Martin has been enjoying a wonderful, peaceful reunion with Rose, but in the company of Judith and her siblings, Martin’s opinion and relationship with Rose shifts. …

But already, too, he was beginning to wonder how he was to fit Rose Sellars into the picture of his success. It was curious: when they were apart it was always her courage and her ardour that he felt: as soon as they came together again she seemed hemmed in by little restrictions and inhibitions.

Martin is a classic Wharton character whose actions sometimes undermine his security, his respectability, and certainly his future. Also as with Wharton characters, Martin doesn’t examine his (uncomfortable) murky motives too closely. Is Martin, who’s loved Rose from a distance, now looking for excuses to slip the yoke of domesticity? It’s one thing to love someone who is unavailable and quite another when the woman who is worshiped, the ‘perfect’ unattainable woman, is suddenly up for grabs. Marrying Rose means moving to New York and joining the society he despises. Plus now Rose is courting an elderly aunt who has promised her niece a legacy, and this is a relationship that repels Martin.

he had schooled himself to think that hat he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within himself he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more

Then what of Rose? When we first see her through Martin’s eyes, she’s elegant, patient, calm, understanding, mature, but as Martin becomes more involved with the children, Rose’s disapproval alters how Martin (and we) see Rose. Her perfection slips.

All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains.

And then there’s Judith. … 15- years-old, an ill-educated girl who, due to the tawdry aspects of her parents’ lives, seems mature beyond her years, and yet her spelling reveals both her immaturity and the sad lack of a proper education. Is Judith as naive and innocent as she appears? Martin, a middle-aged bachelor who has avoided commitment his entire life, suddenly assumes the responsibility of 7 children. This is extreme behaviour, and it’s completely impractical. Does he agree to help because of his infatuation with Judith or is he deliberately sabotaging his relationship with Rose? Is Martin attached to the children partly because this is the family he never had? Is it a coincidence that Judith happens to be the daughter of a woman he once courted? Is he, in essence, trying to step back into the past? That’s for the reader to decide.

One of the memorable scenes in this memorable novel takes place when Rose’s lawyer, the much older Dobree, travels to Cortina to see her on the excuse of business. Dobree, Rose, Martin and the children go on a picnic, and there’s Martin staring at Judith’s sleeping face when he spies Dobree, also watching the girl. It’s classic Freudian projection:

As Boyne continued to observe him, Mr Dobree’s habitual pinkness turned to a red which suffused his temples and eyelids, so that his carefully brushed white hair looked like a sunlit cloud against an angry sky. But with whom was Mr. Dobree angry? Why, with himself, manifestly. His eyes still rested on the dreaming Judith; but the rest of his face looked as if every muscle were tightened in the effort to pull the eyes away. “He’s frightened–he’s frightened at himself,” Boyne thought, calling to mind –with a faint recoil from the reminder–that he also, once or twice, had been vaguely afraid of himself when he had looked too long at Judith.

On the (minor) down side of this novel, the children are annoying–especially the ‘steps’ who all sort of merge into each other. While the Italian children are described unpleasantly at times, I saw this as a reflection of the children’s unfortunate upbringing and lack of structure which became increasingly fragmented with each marriage and divorce. So Judith and Teddy, for example, had the benefit of at least some early structure while the younger children did not. One of the subtle questions asked by this novel is: should the children stay together? Obviously Judith runs the governess, not the other way around. The younger children are wild. Would they be better separated?

Wharton’s focus on the psychological aspects of Martin and Rose’s actions make this novel well worth reading. Martin is attracted to Judith but he can’t admit it to himself. At one point, he plies her with alcohol and cigarettes and then there’s a walk in the moonlight. Martin, who doesn’t examine his feelings for Judith, can’t say no to her, and that places his relationship with Rose is jeopardy. One of the themes of Wharton’s work is the individual in society, and here we see Martin, who has spent his entire career working across the globe. At several points in the novel, Martin is depicted as an outsider watching various social situations, questioning and longing for the choices he passed by. Marriage to Rose means settling down in New York, and as the prospect moves closer, it becomes unappealing.

Finally: the dream sequence towards the end of the book along with the book’s final scene … both are exquisite.

There’s another, excellent, review at:

Tredynas Days

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Nate in Venice by Richard Russo

In the novella Nate in Venice, former English professor Nate, now in his 60s, is persuaded to take a tour of Italy by his semi-estranged brother Julian. First stop Venice where he joins the Biennale tour group “most of whom, like Nate, hail from central Massachusetts.” We know, almost immediately, that something has gone wrong in Nate’s life when we learn that he worries “his social skills may have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude.” If the tour is supposed to help with Nate’s depression, it’s not working. The tour group members are a sorry lot, and “a few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen.” One couple is “extremely elderly” and very fragile while others have to stop and rest every few feet and appear to be “heart-attack candidates.” But things begin to look promising when Nate spies another member of the tour, Rene, an attractive older woman who has an air of fragility and anxiety. Interesting that Nate’s drawn to a woman who’s so obviously damaged while he overlooks the much more confident Evelyn:

The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men but work up one morning, said fuck it, and was immediately happier.

Nate, a lifelong bachelor, isn’t smooth with women, so it’s not too surprising that Nate’s older brother, salesman Julian swoops in and takes over Rene. This move, probably inspired by deeply-rooted sibling rivalry, is a repeat of history as far as these two brothers are concerned. While Julian’s invitation to Nate seems both unusual and unexpected, the minute the two brothers meet at the airport, all their troubled history floats to the surface:

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in years, and he already wanted to strangle the man.

There are many clues about trouble in Nate’s recent past along with hints that there’s some disgrace connected to his retirement. Accompanying this is Nate’s fundamental fear and preoccupying thought that he took the wrong path in life and that he should never have been a professor in the first place.

Say this for Julian, a career salesman: he’s lived the life he meant to live. He’s sold cars, time shares, stocks, television advertising. Indeed, people are always impressed by the wide range of things Julian has sold, but as he always explains, selling is selling. It’s all about knowing people better than they know themselves. Figure out who they are and that they really want and they’re yours. Julian always makes a fist when he says this, as if inviting people to imagine themselves in his grasp. Knowledge is power, he maintains (though apparently not the kind of knowledge that leads one to a Ph.D. in English). Julian claims his head is full of the kind of algorithms Google would pay millions for. In Nate’s opinion, it isn’t just algorithms Julian’s full of. And he disagrees that his brother can sell anything. He’s known Julian a long time, and he’s only ever sold one thing: Julian.

Nate is a self-confessed “career bachelor,” but he’s happy to admit that “his true love has always been Jane Austen.” There’s a back story on both of those admissions, and that back story leaks out gradually over the course of the novella as the scandal concerning Nate’s career emerges.

This novella, one of those kindle singles, is a story of life’s disappointments, and it offers a Richard Russo short read in about 90 minutes. While it’s not as satisfying as his novels, Nate in Venice offers a sample of the author’s style. Some sharp observations of academic life emerge in these pages, but this is not Straight Man— one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Nate is a bit of a depressive hence the medication he takes, and while many of us would consider Nate’s life successful, he still isn’t convinced that he took the correct career path, and it’s as though his decision to stick with academia somehow left part of Nate behind. It’s of those the road-not-taken scenarios. Most of us don’t end up with the sort of life we imagined in our youth, but in Nate’s case, there’s an emptiness and a general lack of involvement as he failed to engage in his own choices.

As a main character, Nate is problematic: mired in depression, he’s not very appealing, and then there’s his almost complete disengagement from his own life–until the one moment he reached out…. The ending seemed a little too arranged–although at the same time, questions about Julian remain unresolved.

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The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

With the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January on my watchlist, I moved the novel to the top of the TBR pile. I haven’t read a great deal of Highsmith, and I’ve yet to get to the Ripley novels, but Strangers on a Train was a fantastic read as well as being my favourite Hitchcock film. So I began The Two Faces of January with some high expectations which weren’t quite met.

Rydal Keener is a law school graduate, the son of a Harvard Law professor who’s spending a small inheritance idling in Europe “as long as it lasted.” Now 25, he’s been away for 2 years, and not even the death of his controlling, perfectionist father has persuaded him to return home. Rydal is the black sheep of the family, and with a very unpleasant incident involving a 15-year-old cousin in his past, Rydal is in no hurry to return to America. It’s as though he’s waiting for something to happen. …

The two facesFate throws Rydal into a collision course with married couple: Chester and Colette MacFarland. Middle-aged Chester, a con man whose lucrative specialty is stocks, is in Greece hoping that the heat in America will cool down in his absence. He wants to show his young wife, Colette, on her first trip to Europe, a good time, and he’s stifled her complaints with a “new set of luggage and a mink jacket.

After a few days in Greece, Chester found that he breathed more easily. He enjoyed the strange meals at the tavernas, the little oily dishes of this and that, washed down with ouzo or a bottle of wine that usually neither of them liked, though Chester always finished it. Colette bought five pairs of shoes, and Chester had a suit made of English tweed in a fraction of the time and for less than half what it would have cost him in the States. Still, it was a habit, a nervous habit, for him to glance around the hotel lobby to see if there were anyone who looked like a police agent. He doubted if they would send a man over for him, but the F.B.I had representatives abroad, he supposed. All they would need was a photograph, the collected testimony of a few swindled people, and, by checking with passport authorities, they could discover his name.

Rydal becomes swept up in MacFarland’s affairs when a man is killed. Since Rydal speaks fluent Greek and has plenty of contacts, he helps Chester and Colette with new, forged passports and an escape….

Colette is attracted to Rydal, and the feeling is mutual, so to Chester and even outsiders (the police, Rydal’s friends), Rydal’s involvement is easily explained, and so a triangle emerges with Colette in the middle of a young man she’s attracted to and her much older father-figure of a husband.

Men whom she looked at usually felt transfixed and fascinated by her gaze; there was something speculative in it, and nearly every man, whatever his age, thought, ‘She looks as if she’s falling in love with me. Could it be?’

Highsmith makes it quite clear that this is not a standard love triangle. While Rydal appears to be drawn to Colette (and it’s true that there’s an attraction), she seems to be just another means of resolving Rydal’s past, but primarily she’s an object that ‘belongs’ to Chester with little intrinsic value of her own. We know, from Rydal’s thoughts, that Colette reminds him of his cousin Agnes and the unresolved relationship he had with her years ago, but also, and much more significantly, Chester is almost a mirror image of Rydal’s father. But whereas Rydal’s father was the epitome of self-righteous respectability, Chester is a smarmy con man, and Rydal is drawn to Chester in order to resolve and relive his relationship with his father on a different playing field.

We know almost immediately that Chester and Rydal play games with fate. Chester pressed his luck when he began selling “Walkie Kars,” and “something–temptation, bravado, a sense of humour? had compelled him to try peddling the damned things” even though he had no supply. Rydal is a game player, and allows his choices to be dictated by random events. Rydal’s life was shaped by his domineering father, and Chester’s life took a specific turn after his father’s bankruptcy:

the girl he had been engaged to, had broken the engagement–instantly, on hearing of the bankruptcy–so that the shock of his father’s situation and the loss of Annette had seemed a single, world-shattering catastrophe. Chester had left school and tried to apply what he had learned of business administration to the saving of an artificial-leather factory up in New Hampshire. He hadn’t saved it. Flat broke, he had sworn to himself he would get rich, and fast. So he started to operate, more and more shadily, he could see it now, though when he had started out, he hadn’t intended to get rich by being crooked. It had been a gradual thing. A gradual bad thing, Chester knew. But now he was stuck with it, really deep in it, hooked on it like an addict on dope.

In Strangers on a Train, Highsmith drops remarks about the two main male characters, Bruno and Guy being “opposites,” yet there are also times when they seem to be two halves of the same person. Shades of that sort of strange chemistry exist here in The Two Faces of January, but it’s much less successful. The father-son dynamic is seen through Rydal’s relationship with his father and also in his relationship with Chester, but at the same time there’s the feeling that just as Chester took the road to crime after bitter adversity, Rydal is also capable of making the same sort of poor choices. And in fact that’s just what Rydal does when he becomes involved with the MacFarlands. Could Rydal become like Chester in another 15 years or so?

No shock here since this is Highsmith, but this is a psychologically complex tale. A great deal of the plot is a story of flight as Rydal organizes and arranges escape for the MacFarlands. Unfortunately, for this reader, in spite of the fact that these characters are on the run with the police in hot pursuit, there’s remarkably little tension until the novel’s excellent conclusion. The idea of the plot is good: three characters thrown together by fate who connect for reasons that are both obvious and not so obvious, but the execution lacks tension in spite of the high stakes situation.

The title evokes the image of the two-faced god who looks to the future and the past. When we first meet Rydal, he’s at a crossroads in his life–a phase of non-action that he’s spun out as far as he can, and, while he’s in no hurry to reconnect with his past, he is about to finally return to America. Chester has fled from his past to Europe. Both Chester and Rydal have murky pasts and their futures, whatever futures they may have, are connected. While Chester reminds Rydal of his father, both Chester and Rydal’s father are, in a sense, men with two faces: Chester appears to be an affluent man but in reality, he’s a cheap con man running out of steam, and Rydal’s father, the eminently respectable law professor leaves a monstrous impression on the reader.

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