The New York Times gave a nod to my good taste a few days ago. They didn’t identify me explicitly, or even obliquely. But they did so by featuring a story they headlined “How Can We Read Edith Wharton Today?” What followed was an essay by novelist Claire Mussud about Wharton’s 1913 novel “The Custom of the Country”.
By coincidence, I’d just finished reading the book myself. Or rather listening to it. A few years ago my daughter suggested a cure for my intermittent insomnia. Not pills or cough syrup or even milk warmed in the microwave at 3 a.m.
And it worked like a charm. The literature in question needed fill only two requirements. That it be in the public domain, meaning old and free, and that it not do anything to keep me awake. Entertainment wasn’t the goal. Peaceful slumber was. But so was general edification and passive self-improvement. During that hopefully brief interval between the time I inserted the earplugs and dozed off I wasn’t willing to suffer any old – you’ll excuse the expression – crap.
I wanted the words to transport me to a different time and place, one where the pace of modern life, its pressures and pandemics, resided in some distant future.
Over the last few years my choices have included “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Women In Love,” “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and several works by Dickens, most recently “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”.
The volunteer readers of the books vary widely in talent, not to mention dramatic intuition and simple enunciation. In some cases a single reader leads you through the myriad chapters. In others, a bunch of amateurs take their best shot.
They can often be quite excellent. I’m thinking in particular of the narrator behind the version of Nicholas Nickleby I downloaded from Librivox, a free audiobooks library. Her range – from the sober Nicholas, to his cruel uncle Ralph Nickleby, to the skin-crawling schoolmaster Wackford Squeers and dozens of other male and female characters of all ages – was absolutely remarkable. So much so that I looked her up after the 65th and final chapter. Her name’s Mil Nicholson, she’s a British actress known for her Dickens’ novels, specializing in accents of the British Isles.
At the other end of the spectrum is the volume I’m currently working on, Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady.” It’s a delightful novel, filled with humor and glorious passages such as this one about the young protagonist Isabel Archer: “Her nature had, in her conceit, a certain garden-like quality, a suggestion of perfume and murmuring boughs, of shady bowers and lengthening vistas, which made her feel that introspection was, after all, an exercise in the open air, and that a visit to the recesses of one’s spirit was harmless when one returned from it with a lapful of roses.”
Unfortunately, this is one of those novels with a multitude of readers, some, for example the one who read the above paragraph, more articulate than others. One of the volunteers, I believe they’re all volunteers and thus drawn to the assignment by their affection for the work, has an almost impenetrable accent that I judged to be Italian. Stacked against the precision and subtlety of James’ English, and because I keep the volume dialed as low as possible, that didn’t make for a winning combination.
What are you complaining about, you might ask? I thought the point was to fall asleep and what better way to do so than listening to something incomprehensible? Not quite. Seduction is required, something that draws you in with its tentacles, the poetry and pacing lulling you to sleep.
That was both the likely charm and risk of “The Custom of the Country”. I picked it because I’ve loved other books by Edith Wharton: “The House of Mirth.” “The Age of Innocence.” I was under the impression that “The Custom of the Country” was one of her lesser works. Actually, I had no idea what it was about.
It’s a novel of manners, more melodramatic than comic, about Undine Spragg, from the fictitious Midwestern city of Apex whose beauty, ambition and moral indifference allows her to ascend to the pinnacle of wealth and society, first in New York, then Paris.
If I have any criticism of the novel it’s only that it’s so compelling that it refused to put me to sleep. I spent hours in the middle of the night listening to it, driven on inexorably to the next chapter. And I understand why the New York Times adopted it. As American society fractures along economic lines, money, power and Instagram followers the metric of our era, the novel couldn’t feel more timely.
As soon as I finished it, sad it was done but grateful I might finally get some rest, I did an Internet search to see whether a movie had ever been made of the book and discovered that Sophia Coppola, apparently also finding relevance in its story, is developing a series adaptation for Apple. I’m counting on “Portrait of a Lady” to be slightly less riveting. I need my sleep.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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