Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Lives of Others

The jacket copy for this biography proclaims Wharton ‘a fiercely modern author’, yet the very thoroughness with which Lee attends to cultural context keeps vividly before us how much of her time and place she managed to resist. Old New York may have given way to Paris in the 1920s, but chronological and geographical proximity no more connect Wharton to Picasso and Gertrude Stein than to Cole Porter, George Gershwin or Josephine Baker. ‘I do not write “jazz-books”,’ Wharton announced defensively in 1923; and all that jazz, as Lee makes clear, took in a lot of territory. ‘If Wharton had gone to visit the Eluards, just down the road,’ she observes,
she might have encountered Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, Man Ray, Duchamp, André Breton, or Max Ernst, with whom Gala [Eluard’s wife] was having a passionate affair. But Wharton confined her social life to her old friends from America, Paris and England, rather than making a life in the town. She was the lady of the manor, keeping her eye on the convalescent homes at Groslay, giving a donation to the curé of St-Brice and paying out sums to local schools and charities.
R.B. Yeazell, "Self-Made Man", London Review of Books, April 5 2007.


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