May 12, 2016
The Art of the Novella Challenge 42: The Touchstone
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Touchstone
Author: Edith Wharton
First published: 1900
Page count: 124
First line: “Professor Joslin, who, as our readers are doubtless aware, is engaged in writing the life of Mrs. Aubyn, asks us to state that he will be greatly indebted to any of the famous novelist’s friends who will furnish him with information concerning the period previous to her coming to England.
Can this really be the first Edith Wharton in the novella challenge? It seems as if her particular skill set and approach has hovered over much of the series – a series, that, now that I am beginning to be able to see it in the round, seems to show a certain geo-literary balance between the American-Wharton-Cather-Jamesian and the Russian-Tolstoy-Dostoevsky-Chekhovian.
And yet yes: here she is taking her novella bow, for what was her first published novella, and in fact her first publication longer than a story or poem, a full five years before The House of Mirth. The Touchstone is dense and poised in its production, and darkly compelling in the setting out of its particular moral tangle, and – oh to hell with it! – obvious in its emulation of Henry James.
Wharton came to tire of the comparisons, but to the casual eye she is, here at least, most definitely following in ‘The Master’s’ footsteps. The subject is the same: the love affairs and self-deceptions of the moneyed (and the not-so-moneyed, but still, y’know, the not-UN-moneyed). The prose style, too: that mixture of punctiliousness and diffuseness that seems to operate something like the dolly zoom in cinema, playing queasily with the relationship between figure and ground, character and theme. (I wrote in an earlier blog post about how James’s prose seems to hover above its own meaning, “as if James had inserted another level of semantic operation between that of signifier and signified”.) Here’s a description from early in the book:
To beauty Mrs. Aubyn could lay no claim; and while she had enough prettiness to exasperate [Stephen Glennard] by her incapacity to make use of it, she seemed invincibly ignorant of any of the little artifices whereby women contrive to palliate their defects and even to turn them into graces. Her dress never seemed a part of her; all her clothes had an impersonal air, as though they had belonged to someone else and been borrowed in an emergency that had somehow become chronic. She was conscious enough of her deficiencies to try to amend them by rash imitations of the most approved models; but no woman who does not dress well intuitively will ever do so by the light of reason, and Mrs. Aubyn’s plagiarisms, to borrow a metaphor of her trade, somehow never seemed to be incorporated with the text.
Why won’t you say what you mean, you want to yell! But it’s only on the second pass (the second parse?) that you see she’s getting you to do the work necessary to supply her meaning. We’re at such a distance now from these writers – in both time and reading habits – that the reason for their difficulty is unclear: would this stuff have been as hard, as Mandarin, for readers then, as now; would people have been scratching their nouveau-siècle heads as we scratch ours? The highflown-ness of the prose is akin to the Russian Formalists’ ‘estrangement’ or ‘distancing effect.’ If Jakobson famously called literature “organized violence committed on ordinary speech,” then this is the most civilised and elegantly organised violence in history – the Royal Prussian Army of the sentence.
The story is based around a moral quandary as delicious as any in James. Stephen Glennard, a quiet, doltish, no longer young man, with no money to call his own, precipitately decides to sell a large stash of love letters written to him by the now dead, hugely famous novelist Margaret Aubyn, so as to put himself in the position to be able to marry the woman he now loves (though he never really loved Margaret). The letters are published, with Glennard’s anonymity preserved, to huge acclaim and publicity, and he marries accordingly, but his initial happiness is soured by the sense that he has betrayed the confidence of a woman better and greater than himself, and by the persistent fear that someone – either Alexa, his wife, or the wonderfully named Flamel, the friend through whom he sold the letters – will find out.
It’s a brilliant conceit, and there are portions of the book that speak directly to us, today, in our literary world, with its Knausgaards and Krauses, its Cusks and Carrères and Calloways (hm, a connection there, perhaps?):
Alexa’s voice came suddenly out of the dusk. “May Touchett was right – it is like listening at a keyhole. I wish I hadn’t read it!”
Flamel returned, in the leisurely tone of the man whose phrases are punctuated by a cigarette, “It seems to us, perhaps; but to another generation the book will be a classic.”
Wharton, too, is unsparing in her critiques of personality – though less sparing of the women than the men. Glennard is a weak, uninspiring man, but Wharton’s X-ray of his soul does show us the shadow of tragedy. Alexa is permitted to be angelic, to be well above what the spineless Glennard deserves, while the treatment of the great, dead Margaret Aubyn verges on misogyny:
The young woman so privileged combined with a kind of personal shyness an intellectual audacity that was like a deflected impulse of coquetry: one felt that if she had been prettier she would have had emotions instead of ideas. She was in fact even then what she had always remained: a genius capable of the acutest generalizations, but curiously undiscerning where her personal susceptibilities were concerned. Her psychology failed her just where it serves most women, and one felt that her brains would never be a guide to her heart.
One felt that if she had been prettier she would have had emotions instead of ideas. “One felt”? Who, exactly, is that ‘one’ — Edith? It’s perhaps the biggest failing of the book that it never explains quite how two such remarkable women, one a genius of the intellect, the other of the heart, should both fall for such a useless man.
When it’s good, though, it’s really good. The damage done to Glennard by his bargain makes the book’s middle pages burn with the sulphurous fire of bad faith. For a good part of the novella Glennard has all the haunted presence you would expect from a murderer in a Patricia Highsmith novel, but the tension cannot be sustained, and the dilemma plays out in a less controlled fashion than James would have engineered. There is an entire (though short) chapter, in which Glennard visits Mrs Aubrey’s grave, that shouldn’t be there at all.
(The other thing the novella reminded me of, in terms of its moral preoccupations, is David Foster Wallace’s ‘Octet,’ the series of “short belletristic pieces” in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men that savagely parody and critique the very idea of fiction as an ethical gymnasium where writers and readers can work out the rights and wrongs of human behaviour via invented mills through which to put made-up characters.)
For James, I think, this would have been a story, rather than a novella. Wharton’s narrative runs to slack, and to sentimentality, in a way that he would never have countenanced. It just covers too much ground. James, like Wallace, dug down into a story, rather than shunting it forwards. What I find most astonishing about James is the way his attention is sustained. His fictions operate like fractals: the further you move into them, the more the pattern returns and repeats, but – and here’s the genius – always eliciting the same degree of imaginative and exegetic attention. He invents a situation, analyses it; then performs an act of literary calculus whereby he enlarges and focuses one aspect of that situation, which, incredibly, comes to show the same level of intricacy or detail, and requires and gets the same level of psychological insight to elucidate it; and then that particular corner of the pattern opens up, or enlarges, or unfolds, and we are deeper again inside.
I feel bad about spending so much of this piece on Wharton talking about James. Hermione Lee, in her biography of Wharton, spends some pages exploring Wharton’s relationship to the older writer, suggesting that she often inverted or critiqued his plots and situations; she points out, for instance, that The Touchstone “turned The Aspern Papers on its head” in terms of the gender of the dead letter writer and the “publishing scoundrel” who seeks to expose them. This may be true, so far as situation and plot are concerned, but Lee doesn’t really address the question of style, which is where Wharton, it seems to me, is flat-out imitating James – and failing to reach his heights.
When I talk about the slackness of the treatment, I am thinking of descriptions like this, from late in the book:
He [Glennard] was rapidly losing all sense of proportion where the Letters were concerned. He could no longer hear them mentioned without suspecting a purpose in the allusion: he even yielded himself for a moment to the extravagance of imagining that Mrs. Dresham, whom he disliked, had organized the reading in the hope of making him betray himself – for he was already sure that Dresham had divined his share in the transaction.
The second half of it is fine, but the “rapidly losing all sense of proportion” and “could no longer hear” are just so vague, so wedded to the imperfect, so tell-not-show, that you feel yourself drift away from the character.
The ending, too, is a disappointment, not structurally, but psychologically. Wharton provides the kind of sentimental apotheosis that James would have shuddered to read, let alone consider writing. Wharton did know how to be vicious (see The House of Mirth), but she didn’t let entirely loose here. I wish she had. It might have translated a great flawed novella, into something more.