The books that made me

I’ve just finished re-reading The Age of Innocence for about the 4th time. I was struggling for something decent to read and went back to the bookcase to see what there I could read again. You go from one title to the next thinking nup, nup, maybe…yes! It’s a vibe thing. It’s a great book, but so too are most of the books that make it to my book case. It comes down to being the right book at the right time, and this was it.

Like many people I had no notion of this book, and little of Edith Wharton, until I saw the Scorcese movie of it. The movie had a profound affect upon me. It was beautifully made and acted, and vivid in its evocation of a particular time and place and very specific milieu. For all of that it was the tragic nature of the story that hooked me, but that’s a very personal thing.

I’m sure there are many who have seen the movie or read the book who, while recognising the poignant nature of the tale, would not see it as being tragic. Newland, after all, was married to a beautiful if dull woman, had a comfortable place in society, and ultimately had a brood of loving children. By conventional mores it’s a very acceptable life – and after all, how many could claim the same?

I could never feel that and in large part that comes down to my nature. I’ve never really been much interested in the conventional, and while the average may be safe it has no appeal to me when the more dangerous authentic is possible. I’ve pretty well lived that ethos too, as my story reveals.

What was tragic is that a man who had unknowingly followed conventional expectations throughout his existence is roused from that dull routine by the arrival of an unexpected and unpredictable woman. She bubbles with life, and with a mystery hinting at other ways of being. In modern parlance he is ‘awoke’.

Once awoke he can’t go back to sleep. He is obsessed and riven by a passion he can’t contain. When before he was prepared to accept a pale and conventional imitation of love he now feels the real thing – and it’s like comparing a Morris Minor to a Ferrari.

That’s both a soaring truth and a cruel deception – for while he now knows the truth of authentic love, he cannot have it. That’s the tragedy. Having become awoke it becomes a taunt as he is forced to return to the convention of a mediocre marriage, and his true love denied. He and Madame Olenska are the only truly enlightened people in the book, but it is because of that – not despite of – that they are forced apart. They most go their own way separately.

It’s a masterfully written book. It is mannered in ways which reflect the rigid rules of a hidebound society, but it has nuance and sensitivity. In fact much of the poignancy comes from the restraint in description.

When I look over the books that have left their mark on me this is one of them, for reasons I’ve described. There are others too. Les Liaisons Dangereuses (filmed as Dangerous Liaisons) I came to in much the same way as The Age of Innocence. I saw the movie, which transfixed me, and from that found the book. I was pleasantly surprised to find the book a masterpiece. It’s basically all letters going backwards and forwards (much of which was lifted straight from the book and into the script) which charts the descent of Valmont, a notorious rake, who stakes a bet on seducing the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, only to find himself – against expectation and desire – falling deeply in love with her. It is his awoke moment, but not one he can live with. He is doomed, and the tale is ultimately another tragedy. (Interestingly Michelle Pfeiffer played both the roles of Olenska and de Tourvel in the respective movies – one of the reasons she was one of my favourite actresses).

There are a bunch more books, but I’ll end with two. A Balcony in the Forest is by Julien Gracq. It’s set in the early days of WW2, in the phony war before Germany invades France. On the frontier in the Ardennes a young French officer is stationed with his troops manning a bunker. He meets and falls for a girl living nearby by, an innocent and natural sprite of a personality who entrances him. He finds something in himself being with her, and it is beautifully described in the book. Of course it must end. Against all expectation the Wehrmacht choose to attack through the Ardennes, and Grange, the officer finds himself in the thick of battle.

The last is A Hero of Our Time, by Lermontov. I remember where and when I bought this. I was staying with my father in Potts Point in the mid-nineties. It must have been late February and I found the book in small, local bookstore and on impulse bought it. Once I started it I couldn’t put it down, reading till finish on my dad’s couch.

It’s only a slim book and in fact is a series of linked stories featuring the same character, Pechorin. Pechorin is an extraordinary character, capable to the point of brilliance, but jaded and cynical. He is charismatic and his acidic attitude draws people to him, particularly women. He’s a man who sees through the illusions of life. He is awoke from the start, but it brings him no pleasure. Instead he is condemned to be the only man who sees clearly in a world of delusion. He is an outsider, not be design or even really temperament, but because of a clear-sighted intelligence. He feels as a result that life is a play, and ultimately worthless.

Of these characters it is he I relate to best, and then Valmont. I couldn’t stop reading in the day because so much that came from his mouth seemed true to me. The difference was that while he viewed it with a dispassionate bitterness I have felt it an illuminating truth I wanted to embody.

The best of these pieces is the longest, Princess Mary, which has echoes of Dangerous Liaisons. This is where Pechorin comes closest to feeling something true, before turning away from it – it can only be an illusion after all, and disappointment. Valmont cannot live with the truth; for Pechorin the truth is something he knows must one day pale. Better to go it alone, to endure the fate decreed to him, left to play his idle games and to defy his foes and humiliate them.

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