Deferred Literary Gratification

If you want an insight into America today, I have a book you ought to read from America’s yesterday, but first I am going to digress to tell you why I only recently read this great 1913 novel.

This is a kind of a weird admission, but the books I read are dictated in part by the Great Depression. My parents were children, or at least young adults, of that cataclysm and retained vivid memories of it until the day they died. It made them very cautious about overspending and serious about saving.

It wasn’t entirely pleasant to live in this atmosphere of thrift, of deferred gratification, but it became a lifelong habit and a good one. And this is odd, I admit, but it even extended to books. It may be argued that the proper maxim in that regard ought to be, “so many books, so little time.” Surely I will run out before they do, but when I was younger I began to do a little aesthetic hording.

This was in keeping with the Depression mindset. Better safe than sorry, keep a few books in the bank, so to speak. Interestingly this mental calculation never applied to run of the mill genre fiction, thrillers or mysteries or sci-fi.

These are more akin to popcorn or Doritos; they are “bet you can’t read just one” fiction.” So I zoomed through every Oz book or Asimov or Heinlein I could get my hands on, a kind of binge reading disorder. And it was still true when I got older and graduated to Lew Archer, John Rebus, Harry Bosch, Arkedy Renko, Gabriel Allon, Bernie Gunther. Once hooked, I am off and running.

This may be because I realized there might never be another volume starring any of these chaps, but there would always be something similar enough to keep me amused. Classic authors, on the other hands, are inimitable. Once they are gone, there won’t be any books with their unique tang. They don’t have to be high art. There will never be another Elmore Leonard book and no one likely to be able to imitate him. And I wish I’d saved a Dortmunder or two now that his creator won’t be providing new capers gone horribly wrong.

I was cautious enough to put a few Shakespeare plays aside for later, not the most highly regarded perhaps, I’m not crazy, but something to look forward to. Ditto for Dickens. And there’s one Jane Austen in reserve – “Mansfield Park.” Though its time may be coming soon.

I have only recently corrected an oversight. I never really got into Willa Cather, thinking I knew what her books would be like. How wrong I was. How good they are. Less narrative fiction than musical compositions or impressionist paintings. So good I’ve put a couple on ice for later – “A Lost Lady” and “The Professor’s House.”

The other side of the coin comes when it is time to dig up a bit of the buried treasure, take an asset out of the bank, or uncork a bottle long growing more mellow in the cellar. In this spirit, I recently read Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country.”

Though not as well know as some of her other books, it seems to me a masterpiece and a masterly dissection of one aspect of our capitalist republic. It features an unforgettable heroine, if that’s the right word for so calculating, inexorable and rapacious a social climber as Undine Spragg. Perfect name, combining something as elemental as a nature spirit and something as hard and modern as the clashing sound of a foundry.

Undine is the child of moderately well-to-do people from the middle of the country who knows herself to be intended for better. She ditches her unsatisfactory provincial consort and compels her parents to move to Manhattan where she snares the scion of an old family who, upon closer inspection, turns out to have too little old money. He gives her access to a more glittering set, but she soon decides New York is also too provincial and sets off for Paris.

After considerable connivance, having disposed of the encumbrances of husband and child, she is able to marry a French Count and occupy a chateau but the new husband and in-laws expect her to observe the social norms of their country and class. Do we suppose they are going to win that test of wills? Not likely. Undine is soon another rung up the endless ladder of her ambition with a homegrown American tycoon as ruthless as she.

It was Wharton’s brilliant notion to conceive a Robber Baron of the female gender. Denied by the times the ability to accumulate vast wealth and the power that comes with it by scaling the heights of industry and finance, Undine works with the tools at her disposal to conquer. Yet no horde of gold is sufficient to satisfy her itch.

It is a story as old as Cleopatra and as contemporary as “the one percent” and Wendi Deng Murdock. Though a hundred years old, “The Custom of the Country” describes a country we still inhabit and customs that are appalling — in part because of their hypnotic allure. We may deplore Undine Spragg, but are secretly compelled to root for her. Many will wish they could be her.

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