Friday, July 15, 2005

Not Fit for Listening

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, Read by Alyssa Bresnahan, Books on Tape, Inc., 2001

There are some books that simply can not be done well as audiobooks. This is no fault of the author or the text themselves. Some books simply are not that kind and were never written with that in mind. I’ve explained my outlines for what makes a book a worthy audio addition previously in this space, so I’ll spare you that for now.

Suffice to say, slow-moving books with few events in them fall quite specifically in the category of Not Good. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t perhaps the worst novel adaptation to be made; it is, however, the worst one I’ve yet to listen to on the merits of the text alone. Alyssa Bresnahan’s reading is quite enchanting and you can almost feel how she caresses each word, how she clearly loves the novel dearly, but love alone can’t save this novel of manners from its transformation into an audio torment.

As a confession, I will quite clearly state that I’ve not read the book and only ever read one Wharton novel previously. The idea of sadistic English teachers foisting the vaporous Ethan Frome on teenagers is enough to make me seriously consider homeschooling my own child. I still bear the scars of that particular trauma. In those days my taste ran to rather more melodramatic fare. My prior experience with The Age of Innocence comes from the 1993 Scorsese film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer, and Winona Ryder.

What makes it unappealing as an audiobook is the kind of quality that makes many books themselves deeply interesting — leisurely pace and a focus on minutiae. This book moves at a glacial pace in which the biggest event of the day is someone is invited to a party without the best guests showing up. Yawn. My God get on with it! I felt like shouting. By disc six I was ready to throw in the towel, give up on the book, and listen to some music instead. Call it a defeat for me. But no, what I suffer for you, dear readers.

A great deal of nothing happens in The Age of Innocence, a great deal of nothing is discussed, and a great deal of dithering among New York’s upper crust takes place, but Wharton’s ironic skewer is done with such subtlety that if you weren’t reading a heavily underlined copy of the text you’d likely miss it. Bresnahan’s reading could have benefited from some aural nudges or variation to give it punch and a bit more overt slyness, but that might have been too obvious and cheesy. It’s clear that Wharton’s intent was to expose these stuffed shirt phonies, these patronizing bluebloods, but her proximity left her no room to really wield the axe to best advantage, so instead we’re treated to minor bloodletting, the kind easily dabbed away and just as easily hushed up.

The torments experienced by Newland Archer, engaged to Mary Welland, but secretly and not so secretly coming to love her cousin, the disgraced Countess Olenska, are not particularly compelling. He dissembles and hides his love for so long that you really question how strong his feelings can possibly be. All of society around him conspires to not talk about this and to gently nudge him along the pre-ordained nuptial path. Mary is portrayed as not particularly bright, but focussed and cunning enough to get the marriage she wants (the casting of Ryder in this role is particularly apt) while the Countess is all feeling and gentle iconoclasm.

These ingredients could have been pressurized to form a novel on the chilling nature of conformity — and no doubt that’s some of Wharton’s intention — but she just never brings out the sharpest blades she has. Instead we are treated to dull dinner parties, duller conversations, and the possibility that someone might at some point take a carriage ride with someone they shouldn’t.

The lovely tragedy of the book is that Newland and the Countess find each other, fall for each other, just as their lives are going in opposite directions. She, having spent so much of her life breaking conventions and rules, wants to fit in, wants to be protected by tradition and habit. He, having spent his life constricted by just this thing, is attracted to that previous life of hers and wishes to live more of a bohemian existence. Newland’s days are filled with keeping up with appearances and a “narrow margin of life in which his real experiences were lived,” meaning his dilettantism in art, literature, and culture. He keeps a few “slumming” friends in these circles in order to feel something other than the daily grind of waking, going to work, dressing for dinner in the evening, and going to the theatre, but he never, not even years after the fact, finds the inner courage to actually do more than fiddle with this business. Newland is one of those characters you sympathize with, up to a point; but at every opportunity to prove himself as anything other than a conventionalist coward, he skitters back to safety. A protagonist who never engages our admiration, fondness, or affection, nor our begrudged disrespect, isn’t particularly compelling or worthy of our attention.

The Countess and May are perhaps Wharton’s most sympathetic characters even if May is seen as the ideal society wife, a tricky schemer after what she wants, but with an open, innocent face. Countess Olenska has been badly burned by her scorning convention, burned both when she did it and when others heard of it, and this makes us understand, to some degree, her seeking shelter back in New York. The two portraits are meant to show us the two extremes of paths available to women in that realm, the entire world open to the Mays and a slow, suffocating crush for the Olenskas. Yet neither of them are made out as silly and as foolish in their vacillating as Newland, ostensibly the novel’s hero.

This is one of those books in which I wish to slap a great deal, if not all, of the characters. That may have also served to stoke my disgust with this audiobook. A dinner party in which the in-set talks about their disreputable lessers, those who don’t kowtow to every etiquette, is best epitomized in Newland’s mother groaning that ladies no longer let their new Paris dresses sit in tissue paper for two seasons but wear them right away in defiance of How Things Have Always Been Done. This is a society in which “bohemian” is said with a sneer — or a snarl. This feeling became tiring through the middle of the book, and when I began to regain interest in the story and characters by the last two discs I wasn’t sure if it was Finish Line Enthusiasm or if perhaps the middle really did flag considerably under the weight of these unbearable Richie Bitchs.

Wharton writes like an anthropologist describing the mores of a long-extinguished tribe. She explains, never overdoing it, giving the necessaries to sketch out what is and isn’t done. For the reader from the future, the massive transgressions of the time seem so small and so irrelevant which underscores one of the many aspects of Wharton’s title. It’s excellent writing, definitely nothing to interest or broaden the mind of the high school set, and definitely too refined for the mere audio experience, but impressive nevertheless. The impression I was left with at the finish of this book is that under certain circumstances, I could possibly enjoy Wharton’s sedated pace and actionless plotlines, but only on the page, only on the page.

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