(A Midsummer Week's Dream: August in Italy & Paris To Poitiers)
There's something about picturing Edith Wharton peering out the window, in Italy, in France, and interpreting the views, in the moment, the same way she writes of them that I just find absolutely mesmerizing, enchanting even. The images she allows my brain to conjure up are so vivid, so arresting. An integral aspect of what makes her descriptions so beautifully perceptible is her ability to weave in seasonal context. The month, the season, the weather, sometimes even the time of day are consistently noted as an essential backdrop to the interpretations of the pictures she paints. "[T]he furrowed peaks bathed in subtle colour-gradations of which, at other seasons, the atmosphere gives no hint" (601). "It is in August that one understands the wisdom of the old builders, who made the streets so narrow, and built dim draughty arcades around the open squares" (606). "[W]hich we reached at the fortunate hour when sunset burnishes the great curves of the Loire and lays a plum-coloured bloom on the state roofs overlapping, scale-like, the slope below the castle"(610). I could go on...
I was also mesmerized by her vast knowledge of art and architecture that she brought to her descriptions. I must admit, most of them went right over my head but I still appreciated them. I don't understand how the publisher decided what and what not to give an endnote. Things that I wanted to no more about were left out. Things that seemed trivial and unimportant got an endnote. Whatever, anyway...She's incredibly aware of the trends and styles of architecture that dominated the time periods in which many of the churches and buildings were built. It's as if she's staring at these old buildings, in awe, yet through greatly educated lenses. "The marble church, a late fifteenth-century building by Battagio (the architect of Incoronata of Lodi), has the peculiar charm of that transitional period when individuality of detail was merged, but not yet lost, in the newly-recovered sense of unity" (602). And it's not just a vast knowledge of architecture she brings; it's art too. "No one who has not looked out on such a prospect in the early light of an August morning can appreciate the poetic truth of Claude's interpretation of nature: we seemed to be moving through a gallery hung with his pictures" (603). The first few times she related views or sculptures or wood carving to an artist I thought of her letter to Edward Burlingame in which she discusses her discovery of the original terra-cottas in a monastery in Florence. That, to me, is just the most vehement testament to her artistic eye and intelligence.
I really enjoyed her personification of France, as a face. "The French physiognomy if not vividly beautiful is vividly intelligent; but the long practice of manners has so veiled its keenness with refinement as to produce a blending of vivacity and good temper nowhere else to be matched. And in looking at it one feels once more, as one so often feels in trying to estimate French architecture or the French landscape, how much of her total effect France achieves by elimination. If marked beauty be absent from the French face, how much more is marked dullness, marked brutality, the lumpishness of the clumsily made and unfinished!" (609-10).
First of all, I cannot believe how close she is to the fighting! When she was near the garden with Sister Rosnet, watching through a field-glass the "rush of French infantry up the slopes, the feathery drift of French gun-smoke lower down, and, high up, on the wooded crest along the sky, the red lightning's and white puffs of the German artillery" (619). Can you imagine American tourists traveling throughout Iraq and Afghanistan that close to battle? No way!
I thought her descriptions of the wartimes, as a neutral, mostly objective spectator, were wonderfully refined and offered a great perspective. She was simultaneously aware of the hideousness of the war and the undeniable historical significance of the war. This quote is just great, "War is the greatest of paradoxes: the most senseless and disheartening of human retrogressions, and yet the stimulant of qualities of soul which, in every race, can seemingly find no other means of renewal" (615). I also loved this quote, "These poor wretches, in their thousands, are daily shipped back from the front to rest and be restored; and it is a grim sight to watch them limping by, and to meet the dazed stare of eyes that have seen what one dare not picture" (614).
I also really enjoyed that she described the evacuated towns and villages that she drove through. I thought these descriptions were integral in portraying an all-encompassing tone and the ripple effects. She describes "deserted villages," "the curious absence of life," "villages along the road [that] all seemed empty--not figuratively empty but literally empty," and stretches of travel where "we had the road to ourselves." I think these descriptions really help drive home the expansive impact of the war, not just on those fighting, but also on those trying to live their normal lives.
I just finished reading Wharton's travel writing and wanted to jot these thoughts down while they were fresh. But I have class now, I'll get to James's later tonight.