“On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. …”

Regular visitors, accustomed by now to my habits, may have already guessed that the above sentence is the first line of the novel The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, which won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1921. (But wait, you say, we were just on 1919?  Apparently in 1920 the Pulitzer board didn’t find a novel deserving of the prize, which speaks badly for either the year’s novels or the taste of the Pulitzer board.  I’ll investigate 1920 later, when I feel a little more aware of what it is the board looks for.)

This new novel, though, is a delight so far—Wharton is a skilled stylist, and her interests are clearly to take New York high society and very carefully, very slyly, show it for what it really is.  I don’t know whether to call this “satire” since I feel as though satires are generally a lot more broad and overstated.  Here, Wharton’s very subtle in her digs at these folks, but so many sentences make me smile that I want to sit here and quote them.  Her opening scene (detailing simply what happens at the opera, which has more to do with people watching other people in the audience rather than anything on stage) kept me intrigued.  The brief reference to “Mrs. Manson Mingott, whose monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible for her to attend the Opera” has me, I have to admit, very interested in meeting this ponderous lady.  And Wharton tosses off so many little observations of people, attitudes, and institutions that it’s hard to keep up—at one point she notes “an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world … that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.” And before I know it (and while I’m still playing out the complicated dig there–the fake “culture” of this opera audience that would rather hear something incomprehensible than admit themselves to be less cosmopolitan than they are), she’s on to describing an old gentleman who is very discreet about the secrets of many people in attendance, partly because of his deep sense of honor which forbids him to reveal such things…but also because “he was fully aware that his reputation for discretion increased his opportunities of finding out what he wanted to know.”

I know all this sounds very tame, but in context (for me, at least) it’s clear that she’s using this stylized but honest narration to be very harsh about this little world of “Old Money” New York.  Strangely, the last two novels (each of which have disappointed on at least some level, one much more than the other) seem to be fusing in this one–a book that captures the spirit of New York, with its eye fixed very much on the very rich.  But in this case, I have no doubt that, if Newland Archer turns out to be the arrogant fop that Georgie Amberson Minafer was, Wharton and I can be on the same side, at least, in cutting Newland down to size.  I have no idea if that’s where this is going, but I’m having fun–if you haven’t picked up one of these novels yet to read, this one’s pretty readily available (Wharton’s still considered “classic” enough to be on bookstore and library shelves), and I’m thinking it’s going to be a good read.  We’ll see.

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6 comments on ““On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. …”

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    Dangit, James, you’ve quoted stuff that makes me laugh at a moment I don’t think I have time to read this…

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’m sure you’re busier than I am, my friend, but for the next four weeks, we’re both high school teachers — for this reason, I’ll be moving a bit more slowly, if that does anything to encourage you giving it a shot. 🙂 And if not, I of course completely understand.

  2. Daniel Castro says:

    I think I just found the next book for me to read. This lady is hilarious.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’m enjoying it, at least. If you do get the chance to read it, I hope you will also–certainly Wharton has a sense of humor, and one she’s not at all afraid to employ.

  3. Paul Hamann says:

    Wow. I highlighted the same passage you quoted. I’m intrigued a little bit by what sorts of issues cause scandal in this society, and (for the reasons you cite) I trust Wharton to present them with a detachment that enables me to laugh a bit. It looks like there may eventually be quite a bit at stake here.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Paul, I think the stakes do rise, although Wharton intentionally constrains herself to the level of what would be believable realistically, given the social setting. I loved this book (and find, when I look back at my blog posts, that I wasn’t as good at blogging it as I would be now—you live, you learn, I suppose), and I think the notion of scandal is really important to understanding what Wharton’s after. I look forward to any other progress updates you share!

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