I have, roughly, a hundred pages left to go in The Age of Innocence. I think I've started prolonging my read because I'm enjoying the book so much. The first half is slow, but in a really good way. Wharton writes with such coiled, controlled fury that I could have spent the book watching her warm-up:
As he dropped into his armchair near the fire his eyes rested on a large photograph of May Welland, which the young girl had given him in the first days of their romance, and which had now displaced all the other portraits on the table.
With a new sense of awe he looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes and gay innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul's custodian he was to be. That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas.
And then in the second half the thing accelerated, and I understood that I had delivered my imagination to an artist who was in such command that it felt like she could do anything. I don't mean to trivialize the work, but The Age of Innocence is athletic and heroic to me--like watching Jordan in the flu game. All the weapons are brought to bear--humor, economy of words, tragedy, rhythm, timing. It's all assembled and what I am left with is some of the most romantic writing I've ever beheld:
Four months had passed since the midsummer day that he and Madame Olenska had spent together; and since then he had not seen her. He knew that she had returned to Washington, to the little house which she and Medora Manson had taken there: he had written to her once--a few words, asking when they were to meet again--and she had even more briefly replied: "Not yet."
Since then there had been no farther communication between them, and he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions.
Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room. Absent--that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there.
There is very little physical contact in this book. And that lack of contact makes every page smolder. The bodice never rips. Kisses are generally reserved for hands. And we are left with the intense eroticism of our unrequited imagination.
And it's subversive. This is a deconstruction of the bounded society presumably from the perspective of its most privileged member--a rich white male. As most of you know, I've tried to move past hierarchy as the sole way to understand freedom and individuals. It's something to see that angle executed by a master.
The relationship to The Great Gatsby is striking to me.