At the turn of the 20th century, novelist Edith Wharton built The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts; a vast, Italianate villa of more than 16,000 square feet, finished according to Wharton’s own characteristically rigorous theories of architectural and garden design. New Yorkers of the Golden Age would drift languidly to the Berkshires in summer, to escape the sweltering Manhattan heat. They came for just such grand estates of manicured lawns and formal gardens; for the clear air and breezes; they came for the lakes, and the woodland; for the tennis courts, and courting rituals.
I, by contrast, came to the Berkshires in January. The snow lay thick and undisturbed, muting the landscape like dustsheets in a home shut up for winter. Beneath it everything was democratised, disguised, submerged and snow-softened into soft indistinguishable hummocks. Among empty summer homes, the houses of hardy, year-round residents were easily identifiable—many locals take the quite sensible precaution of shrink-wrapping their clapboard houses in plastic sheeting, to insulate against the bitterly cold wind. On the day I drove into Lenox, the local radio announcer seemed exercised. It’s below zero out there, today, folks, he warned a few times, in between Bon Jovi and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Pfff, I said to myself, it’s always below zero in London. I was feeling jolly, testing the limits of the four-wheel drive, skidding merrily around treacherous corners overhung with snow-thickened elm and oak. Then I realized he meant that it was below zero Fahrenheit. I slowed the car out of respect. This was a cold too cold for my mild English comprehension. For three hours I had been snug in my rented Ford Explorer, a steaming New York coffee and a bag of donut Munchkins beside me. How was I to know it was polar, out there?
I was coming to Lenox on a Wharton pilgrimage. The previous summer I had given a talk at the Mount, now restored and preserved as a museum and cultural center. My first novel, The Innocents, is a contemporary recasting of Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, set in Jewish North-West London. I had come from Boston just for the afternoon to find French windows thrown open onto a glorious wide terrace, overlooking a formal, Italian-style garden, connected to the French garden by an avenue of pleached lindens. Sun-stunned drunken bees lurched and buzzed languidly, and Susan Wissler, the Mount’s director invited me to look out across this paradise and to imagine it in winter. Frigid January was their quietest month, but for staff the house was heated, and open. The off-season had its own charms. Susan wondered, would I like to come and write there? I would, I told her, without pausing for breath, and here I was. In my suitcase was a large tin of Marks and Spencer’s shortbread, to serve as a bribe, just in case she had forgotten her promise.
I made a home in Edith’s sewing room where the silence was broken only by the hiss and steam of radiators. The window looked out upon the terrace and the formal garden of topiaried box that had won my heart. For the most part, I was entirely alone. Almost certainly more alone than Edith had ever been there; I did not have an army of silent maids and butlers busily lubricating the household wheels. Instead, I had Boots.
Occasionally I would hear claws skittering on parquet and Boots would appear, the resident Alsatian on benign patrol, checking on my morning’s progress. It felt right to have a dog beside me as I worked though Edith herself would have preferred it to be a rinky-dink Chihuahua or a Papillion, small enough to balance on a tasselled silk cushion, on a lap. A postcard I particularly cherish shows her with a tiny dog erect on each shoulder, like a pair of parrots. These were Wharton’s beloved Chihuahuas Mimi and Miza (now buried out there beneath the snow, in Wharton’s well-populated pet cemetery). Her leg of mutton sleeves are substantially larger than each dog. Close together, all three faces fit beneath Wharton’s feathered hat, and while the canines gaze aristocratically off stage right, Edith meets the eye of the camera, humourless, demanding and commanding absolute respect.
Often I took a break from work and drifted through the empty museum that now fills her many rooms, if one can be said to drift in tire-soled North Face snow boots. Day after day I became more enraptured with the house. Ethan Frome was written here. The House of Mirth, Wharton’s greatest success, was written in this house, upstairs, in bed (with dog du jour). As she finished pages she would drop them on the floor, for a scurrying secretary to retrieve and transcribe.
And it was here, thanks to Susan, that I now began to write The Awkward Age , my own second novel, its title borrowed shamelessly from Wharton’s friend and frequent guest at The Mount, Henry James, who wrote rapturously of the house, ‘I am very happy here, surrounded by every loveliness of nature & every luxury of art & treated with a benevolence that brings tears to my eyes.”
As I worked, I wondering at Wharton’s seeming fluidity, and ease. I longed for the house to yield up her essence: her elegance, her determination, her focus. In a sense it did. If I caught myself on Twitter, I would cringe at the thought of Edith’s scorn, shut my laptop with a guilty slam and return for a moment to her window, to remind myself what it was that she had here achieved. I did more work under Edith’s influence than I had done in the six months preceding it. I admit it—I was slightly scared of her.
In the evenings I would scoop fresh snow into a highball tumbler to make cocktails. Whiskey and birch syrup; or bourbon, bitters and maple, a series of grown up New England Slurpees. I had received another, less grown up New England tip: boiling maple syrup poured on firm-packed snow turns to glorious taffy. I don’t think ever Edith did this, I thought, with rebellious delight, crouching in pale moonlight in pyjamas and boots and a fur trapper hat, extending a spitting saucepan to watch the steam rise as I poured with hands made clumsy with the cold. I retreated inside and silenced my chattering teeth by gumming them together with taffy, by the fire.
The Mount’s trustees liked a living author making use of the house for its proper purpose: fiction. Since that magical winter, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, The Mount has created a formalized program of Writer-in-Residence, available every February and March to “writers and scholars of demonstrated accomplishment” who “are invited to create, advance, or complete works-in-progress.” I am wild with envy, jealous of all of those lucky so-and-sos with the experience ahead of them. I envy them the winter-hushed Narnian estate, the borrowed but intoxicating sense of luxury and privilege; the stark beauty, the solitude, but most of all, the union and intimacy with one of America’s great novelists. I was there first, I huffed to myself, upon learning of the new program, but even then I knew it wasn’t at all true. Edith Wharton was there before all of us; disdainful, imperious, brilliant foremother.
Photos courtesy of the author.
One of my favorite magazines, which I now finally subscribe to thanks to a surplus of frequent flier miles, is The Week. It’s done in the “digest” format, taking the week’s news, events, and cultural goings on from hundreds of sources – newspapers, magazines, etc. – and distilling it down to about 45 pages. It’s a great way to fill in the small gaps left by my other two standbys, the New Yorker and The Economist.One of my favorite features in The Week is called “The Book List,” (not available online) in which the magazine asks a notable person to recommend a handful of books. This week’s featured recommender was Lionel Shriver, whose new book The Post-Birthday World comes out soon. Her list of six books caught my eye because it includes two of my favorite books, Atonement by Ian McEwan and Paris Trout by Pete Dexter, as well as a book recently read and enjoyed by Mrs. Millions, Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (which I hope to read soon, too). So, naturally, I was curious to see what else Shriver was recommending since our tastes seem to be aligned.As it turns out, rounding out her list are two more books I’ve wanted to read and a third I’ve never heard of. The first two are The Age of Innocence and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. The third book – new to me – is As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann.
I’m glad to see my last post got people talking. I guess I have to get into specifics now. Keep in mind that I’ve only read about ten books this year because it took me all of January and February to read Robert Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Incidentally, if you’re looking to tone up for the summer months, I recommend all of Caro’s books. Even the paperbacks come in weighty volumes perfect for curls or bench presses). After that it was a real relief to read a couple of books people have been hounding me to read: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.I’d read Atwood’s Cat’s Eye before and like it a lot, but The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterpiece. My girlfriend has been teaching it to her ungrateful undergraduates, and I read it and got a few free lessons on the fascinating language play that goes on in the text. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was so filling for both my heart and my head.Housekeeping had been lying around my apartment, and, to be honest, I didn’t want to read it. Nobody could really tell me what it was about or anything about it, for that matter, other than that they read it in college, it was beautiful, and they loved it. I read it in twelve hours. It’s the kind of book that really ought to be read in a burst like that because its physical world is so distinct and so engrossing, it invites the reader to wander in and stay for awhile. I don’t think I’d have liked it as much if I’d nibbled at it for a couple of weeks, but it was the perfect book for me at the perfect time. (Note: I was also, no doubt, caught up in the Marilynne Robinson zeitgeist. I heard her read from her new book Gilead, and for a while here in Iowa, it seemed like Marilynne was all people could talk about).After these two terrific novels, I read Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss. It’s a shame that congress passed that law that mandates everyone who writes about Krauss to refer to her as Jonathan Safran Foer’s husband in the first three sentences (There, I’ve done it… I fear the man), because she’s an incredible writer. Read the prologue to the book and see what I mean.Of course no year of reading would be complete for me without a couple of books about genocide. Max had a great post on historians and journalists who write about the ugly moments in history, and I seem to be working my way through most of the books on his list. Two years ago I read Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You… about the Rwandan genocide. Last year it was Anne Applebaum’s Gulag (a woman!), and this year it was Samantha Power’s book A Problem from Hell. I confess that I forced myself to start this book (even while I was buying it I was apprehensive), but I didn’t have to force myself to finish it. Power writes with clarity and precision about American foreign policy in a way that is easily understood without being too simplistic or dumbed-down. I saw Power on Charlie Rose last year and thought she was so smart and interesting. Her book didn’t disappoint.And now I’m tearing through Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (I’m ashamed to say I’d never read it). So I’ve only read a handful of books this year, but I must say that the women are walking all over the men (and that’s with Robert Caro and JF Powers on Team Penis). I do find that my “To Be Read” list is still male-oriented, so if anybody has any suggestions of books by the fairer sex, let me know. I’m open to anything.