Sometimes I come across the oddest things at the library. This book I found in the art-section, and at first it puzzled me. It seemed to be a travelogue from the 50´s, and everything was familiarily European, and yet very strange. Imagine putting Europe in a blender and then pouring it out again. Yes, Åkerman´s story is set in a parallell universe. It could be called a fake journal! I don´t know if Åkerman is aware of Roz Stendahl´s project (which I have been tempted to join, but perhaps some other year…) but this is pretty much up that alley.
The fake journal writer is called Rocco de Rivarossi, the journey takes place in 1956 and goes through the Svagisch Union. There is a fake map and fake timetables. We don’t know why he is travelling, but it seems like he is going home after something has been done. Nothing occupies his mind but the cities that pass outside the window, as he spikes his coffee with Mister Gordon Watt, smokes cigarrs and eavesdrops on conversations. He admires the ladies. It´s all relaxed and laid back and communicates atmosphere more than anything: a state of mind completely focused on the journey itself.
I like it and find myself returning to it after a week. The whole thing is less than 80 pages and easily read through in a sitting; most of it is paintings and drawings. There is no obvious idea to this project, but it kind of drills itself into my consciousness. I´m not sure what it does there; perhaps it just hums a bit. It´s like being touched by a nostalgic song about things you haven´t experienced but somehow aquired anyway, through cultural osmosis, perhaps. It is a little gem of a book.
So, finally I finished the Wharton novel I have been reading for, what? three months? Worst of all, I have been reading it in tandem with my very patient reading friend – it was my suggestion, being quite keen on it after I got the tip from Divers and Sundry. It´s all due to circumstances, normally I would have finished this within days; Wharton´s writing is absolutely beautiful and perfectly economical: every word counts in this story of social predator Undine Spragg.
Undine is a young woman from the Mid-West, come to New York with her parents to marry well and wealthy. However, she is a bit too self-absorbed to really understand where the loot is, so to speak, and goes for glamour and respectability rather than what she really needs, which is unlimited access to money for dresses, jewels, and fancy recidences. She marries would-be poet Ralph Marvell – from one of the old and respectable New York families – and forces him to go into business to support her. He does not do well, so she deserts him and goes off to land a better (richer) husband. The title of the novel comes from a passage in which one of the minor characters, Charles Bowen, explains one of the problems of American marriages:
“… Take Ralph for instance – you say his wife´s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that´s not what´s wrong. It´s normal for a man to work hard for a woman – what´s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it. […] she´d even feel aggrieved [if he did]. But why? Because it´s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man´s again – I don´t mean Ralph, I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven´t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don´t take enough interest in THEM.”
This sounds rather feminist, and I imagine Charles Bowen speaks for the author. I am not going to tell you how it ends, not that the ending is as important as how she gets there. Wharton dissects Undine and some of those around her with scalpel-sharp precision – this book is full of good bits, paragraphs where she sums up the mentality and drive of her characters.
“The money was hers, of course; she had a right to it, and she was an ardent believer in “rights”. But she wished she could have got it in some other way – she hated the thought of it as one more instance of the perverseness with which things she was entitled to always came to her as if they had been stolen.”
My tandem-reader pointed out that the name Undine means water-spirit, and this could be a reference to her fluid and shifty morals. I was quite delighted with the way Mrs Spragg explains the name to the suitor Ralph Marvell:
“Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born – ” and then to explain, as he remained struck and silent: “It´s from UNdoolay, you know, the French for crimping”.
Love it! (In Sweden this then-fashionable hair-technique was called ondulering, also called marcelling in English.) It is a perfect name for the woman who is the purest embodiment of consumerism I have ever encountered in a novel. I never realized Edith Wharton would be such a funny writer. I highly recommend this – you can find the book for free at Gutenberg – and I am sure I will read more of Wharton later on.