Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review - "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton

About a decade or so ago I had seen on TV for the first time the 1993 film adaptation of this novel that starred Michele Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis. It had made a deep impression on me, especially the performance of supporting actress Wynona Ryder, who played May Welland. After that I saw TV repeats of it a few more times, which left me ever more bewitched. Last week, I finally came round to reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The power of Wharton’s beautiful prose, along with the pathos of a tragic-ending love story plotline, made it a sublime reading experience.

What the author brings into the novel, set in 19th century New York, is much more than pathos of forbidden love. Her clear-eyed insight into the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of high-society New York in what was called the “Gilded Age”, which insight her upper-class up-bringing had chanced to cultivate, gave that much more emotive profundity and even raison d’etre to the storyline.

During the reading, I had that nagging feeling that the author seems to treat the devious and cold-hearted May Welland and her lot with too much leniency. Then I found out from Wikipedia that Wharton meant for The Age of Innocence to be an “apology” for her earlier novel The House of Mirth, which had been much more critical and brutal about the same theme - how social dogmas restricted individual freedom. It just goes to show how unforgiving and oppressive certain moral fetishes can be, under the guise of preservation of family/social traditions.

I don’t know if I’m the odd one out here, but the one character in the novel whom I admire is the joyously obese Mrs. Manson Mingott, if only because she is as generous and non-judgmental in her compassion as in her appreciation for food.

Lastly, I just have to say that I love the satirical ring to the title name. Allegedly the title was inspired by a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was originally named A Little Girl and later changed to The Age of Innocence. It makes me think that the story’s protagonist should be May Welland rather than Countess Ellen Olenska. Welland’s innocence is the “invincible” kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Book Review - "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy

I had expected this novella to be all dark and depressing. But it turned out to be dark with a silver lining. Through telling a story about the life of a Russian judge, who falls ill at the height of his career and life accomplishment, Tolstoy leads the reader into the inner struggles of the protagonist as he is confronted with the threat of death. The writing is simple and calm but has an intimacy and immediacy about it that it rattles one's nerves and fibers. The questions raised about life and death will haunt the reader probably for as long as he/she lives, but there is still a glimmer of hope and salvation.

Book Review - "De Profundis" by Oscar Wilde

This is a piece of beautiful, honest, philosophical writing that flows from a chastened soul. It is a long letter that Oscar Wilde wrote while he was in prison, addressed to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. At the time of the letter's first publication, parts of it were suppressed (the parts where Wilde recounted his relations with Douglas and how he was utterly swayed by his influence). When Douglas failed in his libel action re: the letter against the publisher, he resorted to writing a venomously bitter rebuttal called Oscar Wilde and Myself.

These passages in Wilde's letter tug at my heartstrings:-

"To regret one's own experiences is to arrest one's own development. To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul."

"Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit."

"Of course when they saw me I was not on my pedestal, I was in the pillory. But it is a very unimaginative nature that only cares for people on their pedestals. A pedestal may be a very unreal thing. A pillory is a terrific reality. They should have known also how to interpret sorrow better. I have said that behind sorrow there is always sorrow. It were wiser still to say that behind sorrow there is always a soul. And to mock a soul in pain is a dreadful thing."

"Now it seems to me that love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world. I cannot conceive of any other explanation. I am convinced that there is no other, and that if the world has indeed, as I have said, been built of sorrow, it has been built by the hands of love, because in no other way could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but pain for the beautiful soul."

"Time and space, succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of thought, the imagination can transcend them and move in a free sphere of ideal existences. Things also are in their essence of what we choose to make them; a thing is according to the mode in which we look at it."