As of this minute I am both restless and hungry and those two were never good bedfellows. Hungry because a stretch of ghastly Andheri traffic is probably keeping my food from me and restless because I have just this minute finished Edith Wharton’s The age of innocence and I am bursting to discuss it with someone. Well, I suppose I could always get on to the internet and read reviews, blogs and discussion forums but what I really, really, really want to do is discuss it with a man. Sadly I may never do this. And I say this knowing the unhealthy revulsion many twenty something Indian male readers have for amazing women authors that frankly ought have shrines erected in their honour. It’s an uncomfortable truth and we may as well suck it up.
Show me one man who openly chooses Austen over say, Dickens and I’ll show you ten women who have had to righteously defend their favourite women writers against arguments as insipid as “But Austen plots are like every K Serial ever”, “The story is bound to be depressing.” or (honest to goodness you can’t make this stuff up) “Women can’t write as well as men because they’ve never been master of a house,” I don’t know what it is. Insecurity? Defiance? A we-boys-stick –together-our-penis-strongest notion? Ignorance?
Just to clarify, I am not against male readers who genuinely dislike whichever Austen or Woolf novel they have read. I am against the existing mindset that forces a woman author to in some way prove that she’s not some random bad chick lit writing airhead while still writing (intelligently and mind numbingly well) about subjects like marriage, love, divorce and relationships.
I have finished The age of Innocence barely a month or two after Francesca Segal’s The innocents won the Costa Prize for first Fiction. Segal’s book takes theme and plotline from the Wharton classic and by the author’s own admission, was a sort of nod to the greatness of The age of innocence. For those of you, more familiar with film than literature, a screenplay of the same name won actress Winona Ryder the best female actor in supporting role Oscar in the nineties. The books plot, really a love triangle, is set in New York and is also really a comment on the kind of rigid old-money society that the main characters in the story have to operate within. It is also so masterfully written that though narrated from the perspective of only one character, each action and consequence is open to multiple interpretations. The narrative flows smoothly and while action is not a particularly a strong point, I found myself riveted by the depth at which Wharton explored emotions like obligation, passion and obsession. I also found the way she handled the thoughts and customs of the society of which she wrote, truly tactful. At no point, at any part in the story, did I blame the exacting and complex demands of Mrs so and so and Mr so and so, who frankly were the cause for the star struck lovers to be forever apart.
P.S: If you need one more reason to read The age of innocence it’s to get acquainted with Mrs. Mingott, the old matriarch of the Welland clan. She’s a clever, outspoken, manipulative ancient thing who has the best lines and who is the coolest character I’ve read in a while.
P.P.S: The Guardians has a book podcast, which a couple of weeks ago held a lively discussion on the woman writers place in today’s literary world and her accomplishments. The debate of “womeny books” was duly dug up and aired out. Its good stuff, talks about much of what I’ve written here and since I was in the middle of The age of innocence when I listened to it, it struck me as most insightful.