The caption might be misleading, but as I intend to make this post an annual tradition, and last year’s bore the identical title, I will keep it, despite measly progress with my Pulitzer for Fiction reading list – one lone work. In response to my request for suggestions in January 2017, I heeded M. Miles’s enthusiastic recommendation and chose the “Pulitzer of Pulitzers”, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1921 Pulitzer). I am glad about my long-overdue acquaintance with the author and hope to deepen it over time.
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is considered literary heir to Henry James (1843-1916). Their writing focused on American “aristocracy”. Even though both are claimed by America as some of her greatest literati, both left their native country to take up residence in Europe where they lived out their years. Edith Wharton is buried at Versailles Cemetery in France (she was appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for services rendered to her adopted country during WWI). The novelist was the first woman in a (slowly) growing line of female Pulitzer recipients (30 to this point, out of 90). She knew the settings of her prolific output (15 novels, 7 novellas, 85 short stories) well, having grown up in a “blue blood” New York family. Her words frequently assume an ironic tone not unlike Jane Austen’s, who might be considered a second literary role model. It is helpful to read this novel with the bemused air the author herself assumed when delineating human foibles from the safe distance of time and space.
The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, but is set in “Old New York” of the 1870s, the waning era of new-world nobility, arranged marriages, suffocating societal strictures, crumbling morality under a thin veneer of respectability. Newland Archer, the novel’s hero (if he deserves this designation) grew up within the narrow confines of this society’s expectations. While he prides himself to be a free thinker and more broad-minded than his contemporaries, whenever the opportunity presents itself to turn onto the path less trodden, he follows the well-worn tracks of his peers, while deluding himself with his supposed independent state of mind. Upon meeting the “love of his life”, an unconventional, free-spirited woman, instead of breaking up his betrothal to an attractive yet orthodox bride, he resigns himself to the conventional life, to a liaison condoned by their mutual family circles. He pursues a reasonable profession, fathers successful children, and plays the societal games, all the while compromising his ideals. Even after the death of his wife, when the opportunity to reconnect with his muse presents itself, he does not have the courage – but clings to the safety and comfort of the known over the unknown.
Overall, a tone of resignation pervades Archer’s life. Despite his shortcomings and compromises, his life is accomplished in the eyes of a superficial society that keeps up appearances, at the cost of individualism. I am not sure if Edith Wharton supported Archer’s safe choices, or simply portrayed the pointlessness of personal choice for those who wish to remain part of the world she had chosen to leave herself.
With 12 Pulitzer novels down, and 79 (soon 80 – the 2018 recipient will be announced on April 16) to go, I am again open to suggestions. Even though I fell foul of my goal to make a significant dent, I read much – both fiction and non-fiction. I am blaming (or crediting) my favorite literature bloggers for leading me astray (or for broadening my reading horizon), as I encountered literary genres not routinely on my radar. These blogs are written in German but have the world as their theme.
I thank Ira for presenting mouth-watering global recipes on her blog Frankfurter Kochbuchrezensentin, and for introducing me to Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti mysteries on her second blog Frankfurter Buchrezensentin.
Anna’s reviews and literary quotes at the well-organized Buchpost with lists of authors, countries and major book awards are always stimulating and thought-provoking and have added to my ever-growing reading roster.
Last, but not least, is Ulrike’s blog Leselebenszeichen, teeming with inspiring works and reviews. Thanks to her, I have visited London with Ben Aaronovitch’s modern-day wizard police apprentice who fights ghosts and other non-human life forms, am still stuck in the labyrinthine world of Walter Moers’s “Zamonia” where indescribable books reign supreme, and have reveled in lovely, heart-warming children’s literature reviews too numerous to count, all written in words that constantly remind me how rusty my own German language skills have become.
I hope my favorite literature bloggers will take up some Pulitzers, so I can make progress on my list in 2018.