The Seawall by Marguerite Duras – A Review

The Seawall
Marguerite Duras
Herma Briffault, trans
Perennial Library 1986, pg 288

Duras’ The Seawall is one of her earlier works about Vietnam. Published in 1950, as the French empire was about to lose its eastern possessions (Dien Bien Phu was four years away), it captures an empire that had long begun to fade. Set in the mid 1920’s, Duras’ Vietnam is a place where one does not go to make a better life, but rather suffer in miserable penury.  Written at a time when France had been convincing itself that the empire was critical to hold on to, it is powerful work full of cynicism that both questions the social and political dimensions of the colonial project.

Much like The Lover, the central focus of the The Sea Wall is a young woman Suzanne, who has no prospects and whose mother seems intent on marring her of to someone of wealth. It’s a purely commercial transaction, one where Suzanne’s mother in her struggle to eek out a the smallest living, places little value on her. Suzanne has agency, though, and her vacillations between the men who wish to buy her and her search for someone who she wants, give the novel its liveliness and its edge. Suzanne is certainly no prude, although she is a dreamer, her head filled with the dreams found in movie theaters. She lets one suitor, in what becomes a commercial transaction, watch her shower. Druas is frank in her depictions of the back and forth between Suzanne, her mother and the men, and it’s what lets Suzanne breathe.

Duras has sympathy for Suzanne’s mother. While she wants to essentially sell her off, she is a woman beaten down by the illusion of the empire. Moving to Vietnam with her husband to teach, she ends up a widow with two kids trying to run a plantation. The land though is worthless and despite trying to build a seawall to reclaim some of the land she’s in debt to the land agents who knowingly sold her worthless land. She slips into anger and bitterness, always hopping she can rebuild the wall. But its futile. The seas come back every year and salt the land and make it unusable. For her, the dream of an empire where you can go strike it rich don’t exist. For most colons life in the colony is all hard work and little gain. Your only hope is that some rich person who’s well connected and made their fortune years before, will connect you. For the average colon, the question is, why stay in Vietnam anyway? Suzanne’s mother never asks the question, but a reader sure will.

If one can’t make it on their own, finding a someone with means is the answer. Scenes of wealth and extreme disparity run throughout the book. Monsieur Jo, the dandy, is the most obvious example. He offers Suzanne gifts, drives around in a large chauffeur driven car. Her description of the large city (possibly Saigon) near the farm gives you the sense of the differences.

As in all Colonial cities, there were two towns within this one: the white town-and the other. And in the white town there were still other differences. The periphery of the white town was known as the Haut-Quartier—the upper district, comprising villas and apartment buildings. It was the largest and airiest part of the city and was where the secular and official powers had their places. The more basic power-the financial—had its places in the center of the white town, where, crowded in from all sides by the mass of the city, buildings sprang up, each year higher and higher. The financiers were the true priests of this Mecca.

Duras does describe the Vietnamese and the poverty they are subjected to. She also describes a Malay servant, the Corporal, the family has. Stylistically she her writing changes when she describes them, moving from a narrative, to a set piece of description, where the lives of the people are not voiced, but aggregated. Its telling the her description of the city is written in the same way. It makes it even clearer the Vietnamese are an after thought in any French plans, and the layer on layer of oppression dehumanizes everyone. So much for bringing civilization to new lands.

The Sea Wall is an impressive work and is a good start when looking for literature of colonial collapse.

 

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The Arab of the Future by Raid Sattouf – A Reivew

Arab-of-the-Future-by-Riad-Sattouf-on-BookDragon-550x800The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984
Raid Sattouf
Sam Taylor, trans
Metropolitan Books 2015, 153 pg.

Raid Sattouf’s spent the years between 1978 and 1984 living primary in Libya and Syria, with small stints in France. The son of a French mother and a Syrian father who was a teacher, he lived in a quickly changing landscape of languages, cultures, and political systems. Told through the eyes of a young child with little analysis from Sattouf the author, Arab of the Future is both surprising and occasionally disturbing as the family navigates the end of the era of pan-Arabism.

It is both a fascinating and some times disturbing book. On the one hand you have his experiences in two police states. Libya is the most extreme. Sattouf’s father has accepted a position to teach, which grants the family a certain level of status. Nevertheless, there are the usual lines for food and the inevitable shortages. And housing is a problem. On their first day they go out for a walk and return to their to find their apartment newly occupied, because no one was in it and that meant it was abandoned. While Syria has ready food availability, the presence of Assad is every where and when his mother buys foreign magazines, they are completely cut up by the sensors.

What is harder to take, but one of the cores of the book, is his father.  Sattouf’s father is a proud man. He believes in the future of Arab countries, gives up what could have been a comfortable life in France to teach in Libya and Syria. He dreams of having a Mercedes and is a little irritated when he can’t have one. At the same time he is seemingly brutish. He makes merciless fun of a bus driver who is afraid of snakes. He often makes comments about Jews. Within the context of Syria in the 1980’s the father may not be that strange. However, Sattouf’s mother is there. What did she think? It is the story of the boy, but his father is so dominating, it is hard to get a read on her. It makes his father’s behavior that much more pronounced. And placed alongside the poverty and dysfunction of the Syrian state, it is an unsettling story.

That aside Sattouf’s familiy’s mishaps are an interesting read that hopefully the second volume will fill out more.

 

 

Velocidad de los jardines (The Speed of Gardens) by Eloy Tizón – A Review

velocidaddejardinesVelocidad de los jardines (The Speed of Gardens)
Eloy Tizón
Páginas de Espuma 2017 (1992), pg 146

Velocidad de los jardines, published in 1992, is considered one of the key collections from the generation of authors that first began to publish in Spain during the 1990s. On the occasion of its 25th anniversary Páginas de Espumas has brought out a new edition that returned a classic to print. Both in terms of narrative and style, Velocidad is a rich collection from a young author, just beginning to explore the short story.

Velocidad is well known for its verbal richness and  Los puntos cardinales (Cardenal Points) demonstrates that the reputation is well regarded. The narrator is an aging traveling salesman who has spent his career moving from place to place, never spending much time in any one place. His story is the story of a melancholy loner, one whose view of the world is all externalities that have their own life, as if solitude has made them his companions.

Puede decirse que mi trabajo es una rutina imprevista. Noches para la fatiga. Tapioca. Jardines donde las hojas secas son dulces y los codos de las ninfas como escamas transparentes. Mi corazón esta lleno de esquinas con carteles desteñidos, empapelados transitorios, peines sin púas, una puerta giratoria en a que doy vueltas y mas vueltas y no consigo salir a la calle.

You could say my job is an unforeseen routine. Fatigue for the night. Tapioca. Gardens where the dry leaves are sweet and elbows of nymphs that are like transparent scales. My heart is full of corners with  faded handbills, transitory wallpaper, combs without teeth, a revolving door in which I go around in circles and never make it out to the street.

It is a loneliness aware of its surroundings. You can see this sense in his 2013 collection of stories, Technicas de illumination (my review). This sense fills the narrator and he notices the woman who leads an old man through the subways. They are alone, unobserved, but he sees their strange journey. It so fascinates him that when the man disappears he sits with the woman. It is an act of the lost in an artificial and transitory world. Is it permanent? We don’t know, but for a moment, at least, the narrator isn’t alone.

That richness is also on display in Austin, a story that follows an middle aged professor as he drives out of Madrid one night. It is a journey not only a physical journey out of the city, but one that is a journey towards something lighter, less complicated.

Atrás quedaba la ciudad, y áreas de húmeda oscuridad dejaban vislumbrar, entre grandes tubos huecos de hormigón y polígonos de fibrocemento, collares de luces temblorosas e instalaciones fluorescentes que vibraban.

Behind remained the city and areas of a damp darkness that left to be revealed, between great hollow pipes of cement and asbestos-cement plants, necklaces of trembling lights and vibrating florescents.

Its an industrial wasteland, but it is also a present that the journey seeks to erase. As Austin drives into the dark he is driving into his past, finding where he has failed to be the man he wanted to be, to have the loves he wanted. It is a return to the theme of a future unrealized, a present that is only regret:

En alguna parte, a lo largo de otra melancolía, existía, había existido un muchacho indeciso, privado de futuro, atormentado por la idea del porvenir, que llebava su mismo nombre y que pasaba frio en las autopistas del continente.

In some part, throughout the other melencholy, there existed, had always existed a young, indecisive man, lacking much future, tormented by the idea of the future, who carried his name and got cold on the freeways of the continent.

The richness in his writing can also be found in his narration. Los viajes de Anatalia is a journey of a rich family to an unknown country at the point of war. It was the flavor of an early 20th century escape from an eastern country, the wealthy, both oblivious and self entitled, caring on until the end comes suddenly. One cloud easily see the characters as a Russian family. Even Anatalia in Spanish means one from the east. But there is more—a sense of melancholy, of a past that is slipping away and yet was never was.

Los deseos son futuros incumplidos. Todo parece indicar que nuestros antepasados tambien abrigaron deseos humanos, razonables, y todos ellos desaparecieron sin dejar rastro. ¿Son algo? Una galería de bonitos muertos chistosos.

Desires are unreliable futures. Everything appears to indicate that our ancestors also had human desires, reasonable ones, and all of them disapeared without leaving a trace. Are they something? A galery of beautiful and amusing dead.

In that atmosphere, amongst the loss, the disconnection, the fragments the characters also disappear in all senses. And when Anatalia waves goodbye to her family in the empty train station, it is more than metaphorical her disappearance. The dissolution is complete.

Several stories, including the title story, are about coming of age or looking at the world through the eyes of a child. La vida interminente (The Intermittent Life) is a form of love story between two teeneaged students. Tizon plays with the idea of young romance from the begining: ¿Se amaban ellos porque estaban en el mismo curso o estaban en el mismo curos porque se amaban? (Did they fall in love because they were in the same class or were they in the same clase because they loved each other?) For Tizon it’s not the love that motivates, but the miscues, the passing through without really understanding what is happening.

In Familia, desierto, teatro, casa (Family, Desert, Theater, Home) it is not the confusion of love, but family that confuses a young boy. In one of his more subtile and effecting stories, Tizon narrates a boy’s experience among a family of women while one of them, the one he is closest to, slowly fades as she grows near death. It is a special bond that is wound up in the world of drama and make believe. He deftly captures the intersections of the real, the fantastical, and the unknown and how children fill in the gaps between one and the other to come to some understanding of the world.

Finally, the most prescient story is En cualquier lugar del atlas (In Whatever Place on the Atlas), which describes the movement of refugies through a network of smugglers based in cemetaries. The narrator descibes a writer friend who meets a Polish woman Klara who is in Madrid illegally. They fall in love, but her situation becomes untenible and she has to flee and enters the world of the cemetary where the dead and forgotten rule. It also makes the obvious point that those who have entred into this underground world are no more important than the dead. The narrator’s friend describes the world as <> (“A beautiful place where every kind of misfortune happens”). It is a dark story, but it is not out of line with stories like Austin and Los puntos cardinales, which also have their sense of foreboding.

The anniversary edition also comes with a fine introduction where Tizón describes his early years during the Movieda in Madrid and how he came to write the book. It is not a typical first person introduction that relates chronological events. Instead, it is told in second person with an impressionistic tone such that the introduction is less about events, and more about what pushed him to be a writer. As such there multiple quotes on the power of writing:

Toda la literatura es epistolar: necesita del otro para existir.

All of literature is epistolary: it needs the other to exist.

Uno, un poco, se convierte en lo que ama. Un ser humano termina pareciendose a lo que sueña. El carpintero, a su silla. El astrónomo, a su eclipse…Todos somos otros cuando alguien nos ama o deja de amarnos.

One, a little, turns into what one loves. A human being ends up as what she dreams about. The carpinter, his seat. The astronomer, her eclipse…We are all others when someone loves us or stops loving us.

And perhaps my favorite:

Que es mejor tener fiebre que tener bibliografía.

It is better to have passion than a bibliography.

Velocidad de los jardines is a true masterpiece that I am glad I’ve finally had a chance to read.


I have also review his other two books of stories Parpadeos and Técnicas de iluminación

The Abominable Mr Seabrook by Joe Ollmann – A Review

The Abominable Mr Seabrook
Joe Ollmann
Drawn & Quarterly, 2017, pg 296

theabominablemrseabrook_thumbPassion projects don’t always succeed. They can bog down in details that are only interesting to the idiosyncrasies of the author.  Fortunately, Joe Ollmann’s The Abominable Mr Seabrook is the opposite: a well written and sensitive exploration of a forgotten writer from the 1920’s and 30’s.

William Seabrook was a travel writer, adventure journalist, and a best selling author during the 20’s. He was also a self destructive man who drank too much, was in and out of asylums, and ultimately committed suicide.  The Abominable is at times a sad story, but it is an endlessly fascinating one, too. Seabrook’s adventures were impressive. He showed Crusoe around Atlanta. He was an ambulance driver during WWI. He lived with the Bedouins for a couple years, which he wrote about in his book Adventures in Arabia (27). He went to Haiti and studied the rites of Voodoo, the Magic Island (29). It was the book that introduced zombie to Americans. He traveled through West Africa and supposedly ate with the cannibals. Jungle Ways (30).

_seabrook_aWhile those feats might be interesting on themselves, what makes Seabrook interesting is his chaotic life. He was friends with many of the writers and artists of the Lost Generation: Gertrude Stien, the Manns, Man Ray. He was famous and moved amongst some of the famous people of the 20’s and 30’s. Seabrook both enjoyed the fame and let it ruin him. He was constantly at parties and was a raging alcoholic.  On top of all this, Seabrook was a sexual sadist. He derived pleasure from tying women up and though he was married several times, he never gave up his practices. At one point he and Man Ray worked on a project about bondage together.

Ollmann weaves all these threads together with skill and sympathy. While the entry point to Seabrook might be his adventures, its the exploration of his personal life that really makes the story stand out. This is where Ollmann’s extensive research and affection for his subject comes through. While this is not a scholarly biography. Ollmann is clear on his sources and as he narrates Seabrook’s life, he is also narrating the construction of a biography, showing us how each source viewed Seabrooks descent into alcoholism. Ollmann isn’t afraid to call out some of Seabrook’s lies of omission. Seabrook was a complex man and Ollmann shows him as such. It is what makes The Abominable Mr Seabrook such a good book.

My favorite part of the book, the one that shows Ollmann’s dedication to his subject, is at the end. It’s a two page spread. On one side is a photo of a stack of Seabrook’s books that Ollmann has bought over the years. The other is a little one to two sentence description of each. It captures the beauty of a well written passion project and celebrates the world of books. It’s also a bibliophile’s book: Ollmann mentions he has “spent thousands on out of print books and magazines.” A good book indeed.

 

Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream)
Samanta Schweblin
Literatura Random House, 2014, pg 124

9788439729488
I’m not sure what I think of Distancia de rescate. My uncertainty is not a backhanded way of saying the book isn’t that good. Normally I am a big fan of Schweblin as you can see in my writings on her work. Moreover, her approach to writing does not fundamentally differ in Distancia from her short stories. If anything the narrative mystery that propels many of her stories is even stronger in this short novel. Which brings me back to my original statement: I’m not sure what I think about her work and by that I mean is there something I am missing in my reading, or do I think the book is flawed in some way? Let me see if I can answer that for myself and in that way develop an appreciation of the novel that you, my reader, will find useful.

The title for the English language translation, Fever Dream, is more suggestive of what the novel is: a feverish dream from someone who very ill, perhaps about to die. The title also gives away too much, sets a direction for interpretation that while it exists, is more subtle in the Spanish original, roughly means keeping someone close for safety. The Spanish title reflects fear that pervades the novel, the English title the structure of the novel.

Structurally, the novel is a conversation between two voices. One is Carla the mother of a young girl. She is the narrator. The second voice is of David, a you neighbor. Or so we are told. The voice is presented in italicized font and does not identify itself. Only Carla identifies the boy, David. The obvious question is, is this narrative structure as it seems? To answer that you have to go father into Carla’s narrative state. This is where the idea of the fever dream comes. As the novel begins, her narration is even, matter of fact. As she goes deeper into the story, though, her fears mount. Is something going to happen to her daughter? How can she protect her, keep her close? Is the distancia de rescate (safety distance) sufficient to protector? Carla repeatedly wonders in the distancia de rescate is sufficient. Schweblin is an skilled writer and she keeps ratcheting up the tension as Carla slips farther into fear. Which returns us to the question of the narration. The conversation could just be feverish imaginings. Carla is very suspicious of David from the beginning. He is a menacing figure with seemingly supernatural powers. He’s a kind of devil child from a horror movie. Can we trust Carla’s description of events? Despite Schweblin’s facility with the fantastic, you could read the narration as either a conversation between a darkly evil child and Carla, or the feverish imaginings of a desperate mother.

What makes Carla desperate and David so threatening are the poisoned waters. In a recent interview in the Clarian Schweblin talked about the destruction of the Argentine country side with the use of glifosato, which in the English speaking world we know by its trade name: Roundup® by Monsanto. It adds an interesting element to what seems fantastical: poisoned waters that no one seems to know about. David’s mother tells Carla about the time he dipped his hand in a pool of water on the farm where they live, put them in her mouth, and took sick shortly after. The local villagers performed a rite to save the boy, but it mingled his soul with another. From then on David has never been the same. He is threatening. He’s often found burring dead birds and small animals. It is not clear if he killed the animals or if they died in the same way that David almost did.  Carla doesn’t want him near her daughter. The fear and suspense runs through the book and it’s the mark of Schweblin’s skill that it continues to the end of the novel.

As I read through what I’ve written I find that Distancia is a better book than I thought when I first put it down. The multiple approaches to reading is a mark of its many strengths. The narration is open ended and her use of the fantastic and a frantic narrator draws you in. It was the feeling of open endedness of the ending is what gives me pause when I think about the book. The nature of the narative’s construction can probably end as something open ended. All narratives continue after they have finished in the mind of the reader. But Distancia’s ending is unsettling. It is a strength of the book, but for me the unsettling end has the effect making me question if read it well enough. (I’m sure I did) Ultimately, Distancia de rescate is an excellent read, but I might have preferred her short stories just a bit more.

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh – A Review

9781573225434_p0_v2_s600x595The Sorrow of War
Bao Ninh
trans. Phan Thanh Hao
Riverhead Books, 1993, pg 233

If you are coming to Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War after seeing his interviews in Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War, as I did, you may have the impression that you are picking up a war novel. It certainly is that, but it is also something more: an exploration of the toll war takes years after.  Ninh’s comments during the documentary made it clear he had doubts about the wisdom of the heavy losses the Vietnamese suffered during the war. Reading the novel, it’s clear he has been unconvinced for a long time. Published 15 years after the end of the war, it is a raw book that has no illusions about patriotism or heroism.

The Sorrow of War is three novels: a story of war;  the struggle to survive PTSD; and the aftermath of war. Each is interrelated, obviously, but in each he gives you different registers that show a narrator who has survived not only years of war and a post war that only reminds him of war, but who is  completely damaged. Structurally, Ninh has written the novel as a series of unconnected episodes, moving between the war, his days as a relatively happy youth, and the nightmare of the war. The narrative arc for much of the book isn’t that important. Instead the glimpses of the war and his PTSD laced nightmares are woven throughout. The narrator is giving you impressions of a dazed mind. Much of it is quite clear, but in a very narrow view as if his mind is hyper attuned to precise details. In survivors accounts you often see an attention to the immediate detail as the intensity of the experience sharpens their memory. This pervades much of the book and gives it an impressionistic feel, as if we are watching a mind attempting to process what has happened.

When, the narrative is pieced together, The Sorrow of War has the typical arc of innocence, to experience, to dissolution. The innocence is not one of heightened patriotism. The novel follows Kein, a reluctant soldier, naive to its horrors, but at the same time indifferent. What little excitement he has, is quickly lost when the war starts after the Gulf of Tonkin. He spends years in the war, loosing all his comrades in devastating battle after another. It is a savage war that has no quarter, even when he liberates the Saigon airport in 1975 one of his friends dies pointlessly at the hand of a civilian. For Kein, though, the war is not over. He is part of a MIA and graves registration team that goes through the country looking for the dead and missing. Even after the war, the war hasn’t ended, and highlights the complete devastation that the war left. It is from this nearly 15 year long immersion into killing comes the compulsion to drink and write. In general, the arc works well, except for one small issue I’ll come to latter.

The story arc I’ve pieced together is not linear at all. Moreover, Ninh frames the story in several layers of narrator. There is the author of the fragmentary war stories. Maybe it was someone like Kien, perhaps it is meant to be autobiographical. The unknown author, the one who has created the Kien stories lives in an apartment with a mute woman and writes and drinks. Then he disappears, leaving his novel scattered over the apartment. Here we get a new narrator. He doesn’t know where the Kien narrator has gone. He pieces the novel together. The pages are unnumbered and each page seems independent of the other, he says, which gives the book its fragmentary structure. It is a mostly successful literary device. Given the already fragmentary nature of the book and its continual sense of the futility, to have the author disappear, one more casualty of the war, only seems fitting. The final narrator also provides a closure on the war without having to resolve anything. Did the Kien narrator die? Is war so traumatic there are no survivors? It certainly eliminates any kind of heroic uplift.

Those who survived continue to live. But that will has gone, that burning will which was once Vietnam’s salvation. Where is the reward of enlightenment due to us for attaining our sacred war goals? Our history-making efforts for the great generations have been to no avail. What’s so different here and now from the vulgar and cruel life we all experienced during the war?

Is Ninh’s approach successful? I ask because although the first 2/3 of the novel is fragmentary, impressionistic, the last 1/3 is a pulsing narrative that follows Kien and his girlfriend as war breaks out. It is the longest sustained writing of the book and it is horrific, detailing an American bombing of a troop train, and his grilfriend’s rape at the hands of some train workers. It could be easy to dismiss this as laziness on the part of Ninh: an author who couldn’t sustain the full novel. However, Ninh is a better writer than that. He has used different registers to suggest a mind unable to focus on a coherent narrative. Kien can describe specific traumatic events, but he has no overarching sense of story. Why else does the organizing narrator say he had a hard time putting the book together? A war that long and brutal with that many dead is too difficult to make sense of. This is something Hemingway even picked up on in The Soldiers home 70 years before. Personal experience needs to be welded to a larger narrative or it fragments, as it does for Kien.

The Sorrow of War is a successful novel. The only element that seems a little much is the rape. Kien’s reaction to it, definitely complicates the man, but it has, given its placement in the book, the effect of dropping something as traumatic into the middle of the story without really exploring it. That aside, Ninh has constructed a solid novel of war and aftermath that is as brutal, dark, and hopeless as any of the classics of the genre.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton – A Review

The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton
Library of America

At the heart of it, Wharton’s novels are about freedom. It isn’t an existential freedom, it’s a practical one, one that assumes money and love are really what influence a person. For a Lilly Bart in the House of Mirth it is a serious matter, one that leads to her destruction. With The Custom of the Country, Wharton takes a different approach, one that is not as immediately tragic as Mirth, but when looked at from a distance, is as devastating.

Undine Spragg is a young woman from Apex who comes to New York to climb the social ladder and be someone. With Undine, there are only a few things she is interested in, clothing and parties, and those are really just so she can fit in amongst the best people, the ones she reads about in the society pages. She doesn’t belong to New York society and Wharton obviously has fun contrasting her manners against those of the old line New York families.

Nevertheless, she does worm her way into a social scene thanks to her parents who seem to live for her and think nothing of living as high as they can. She marries into one of the old line families, but as often the case with Wharton, that status doesn’t come with money. Her husband Ralph only has a small income and would rather write poetry (I wonder what dreamers in our New Gilded Age will want to do?). It’s not a match for the ages. He makes it for love; she for status. Neither of them get what they want. For Ralph, it slowly destroys him. He has a lover, but he is too bound to convention. Undine, though, doesn’t really care. As long as she has money, she’s happy. She ultimately divorces him, a move that shows her as a scandalous money grabber. She will marry two more times, each time increasing her income.

For Undine, freedom is something to be bought. She is unable to see that is the case. She is a primal person; one who is incapable of thinking beyond the immediate social circle needs. It leads her to surprises when her assumptions fail to be true. Her marriage to the French count is a failure because she assumes because he is rich he can spend his money as he wishes. But for him, the family is an obligation he must honor. Each in their way, is constrained by the structures they are part of and they have accepted as the way the world is. Wharton makes this even more clear when the Count spends a fortune to pay his brother’s gambling debts, but won’t allow Undine to stay in Paris for the season.

Undine, despite her avarice, might seem the most free. She isn’t tied down by convention. She gets divorce three times; doesn’t commit suicide like Ralph; survives every society snub. Wharton doesn’t find anything redeeming in it, though. Her tone isn’t a moralizing, nor is wild like a Thackery in Vanity Fair, although Undine is like a Becky Sharp, but there is a very dry sense of satire. It is so dry it is easy to miss. For readers who want to relate to their heroines, this is not the book; try The House of Mirth. It’s in that dryness, the realistic depiction of a woman so consumed by status and money, that Wharton creates a character who is so untethered to reality, she has no idea what she really wants. She destroys everyone, unintentionally, of course, and when she has gotten everything she wants, or says she wants, Wharton reveals Undine’s true desperation.

The Custom of the Country contrasts the two competing approaches to living: fidelity to tradition, what ever those might be; or a careless disregard for all rules. In both cases, though, the characters are trapped in worlds they come from or think they are joining. While the case of Ralph Marvell holding on to a family honor is tragic, that of Undine who does not know who she is, is even more tragic. It’s an illusory freedom. She has no idea what she truly wants and that leaves her after she has married the multi-millionaire uncertain if she has enough yet. It’s a dark ending. She has bought into fashion without understanding the fashion is always changing.

Wharton’s work always meets at the intersection of wealth and freedom. At her best her works are cautionary tales. Although Undine’s passage through the aristocracy of Europe might seem unrealistic, translate them to pop cultural icons, and you have glimpses into a new Gilded Age. The Custom of the Country is a dark and dry satire, which makes it a little bit more difficult to approach like Mirth and the Age of Innocence. But it is one of her better works and worth a read after Mirth and Innocence.