Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Penguin no. 106: Now East, Now West
by Susan Ertz

His mind seemed to shy away from new facts like a horse refusing a five-barred gate. Well, he wasn't going to pretend to be anything but what he was, just an average American citizen, and as such he had a deeply rooted belief that the world that moved dimly and somewhat inefficiently about the rim of the American Continent was of only secondary interest and importance anyway. This belief, acquired in early childhood, lay, and had always lain, undisturbed at the bottom of his mind. He was full of lazy goodwill and certain prejudices that did him credit chiefly because they were instinctive and not the result of mental effort. Had he arrived at them by way of thought they would have reflected unfavourably on his reasoning powers, for there was little or no reason in them.

George Goodall has never wanted to be anywhere other than in his native New York. Its ways are familiar to him; its lifestyle provides him everything he could need or want. And he has always believed with a vague, unquestioned certainty that American ways are superior to all others, and nothing but an increase in trouble and discomfort could be gained from travelling abroad. Although he may be insular and inclined to misinterpret the familiar as the ideal, he is a decent man, and generally satisfied and content with his life. Perhaps he feels the occasional misgiving at his lack of education, but it is a concern he can easily dismiss, for he is a successful businessman with accumulated wealth far beyond his needs, and financial success seems the sole measure of a man in the New York of the 1920s.

In contrast, a woman living in New York at that time seems judged entirely by her social standing, and George's ambitious wife Althea is determined to dedicate every moment to improving hers. With a nanny to take care of her young son Cleve, and servants to see to the running of the house, her life is one of leisure unconstrained by financial concerns. She can have anything she wants; she is free to indulge her social ambitions, and to buy all the dresses, and attend all the lunches and concerts she desires. She cultivates her friendships not for the pleasure of the company, but for the increase in status that each friendship confers, and she makes it her business to know who to pursue, and who to avoid. Her interest in painting and literature is similarly based entirely on utility. It is the knowing that matters, and nothing else. The possession of knowledge is a way to feel superior to others.

Poor George loves Althea, though it is never clear why. Most of his contentment derives from his ability to provide her with the things she desires. But the list of her wants seems without end, for she is the complete opposite of George in her outlook: she is always dissatisfied, and always certain that real excitement is to be found somewhere else. Over time, everything she has comes to seem inadequate when compared to everything she doesn't have.

Inevitably, New York seems less exciting than London, and Americans seem less exciting than Europeans. Without a moment's reflection on how George feels about anything, she decides that she wants a Rolls, and a house in Knightsbridge, and summer holidays in Biarritz. He gives in, just as he always gives in, and the family moves to London. George begins quietly counting down the days until he can return to his home town.

With characters as shallow and weak as this wife and husband, I found it a difficult story to enjoy much at first. It seemed just a little too obvious. It was clear that we were to be given an examination of the differences between the moneyed classes of England and America in the 1920s: one idle and overly enthusiastic about holidaying and hunting, and the other too dedicated to capitalism and making money. And there would be an explanation of how England appears at first to unenlightened and prosperous American eyes, and in turn, how Americans appear if they are too eager to renounce their American traits and mimic those of a differing culture. And finally, this American couple would clearly be changed by their exposure to European culture, and would come to benefit from the time spent overseas in ways that they couldn't appreciate at the outset. This is very much what the author does deliver, although the story does manage to travel down a few avenues which cannot be so easily foreseen.

Althea's dissatisfaction with all things American extends in time to include her husband, with European men appearing so much more cultured than their American counterparts. At first it is only a game, an allusion to courtly love; she longs simply for an admirer, with no intention of taking it any further. By today's standards, the affair doesn't really progress at all, but it captures her thoughts, and amplifies her never-diminishing dissatisfaction with her life.

The story becomes an examination of what is required to live a worthwhile life. The answer it suggests is an open mind: the willingness to expose yourself to new ideas, and to the thoughts of superior minds. Living requires reflection and experience; a culture based entirely on worshipping the accumulation of material wealth is a narrow one, with little to offer. Left to fend for himself, George forms a friendship with a  middle aged woman, and begins to blossom. He adapts himself to his new surroundings and begins to see that there are other ways of doing things; American ways are simply different, not better. He becomes adaptable, independent, and resilient, and while his wife's behaviour may be difficult to endure, he finds that he is not crushed by it. In the end, the story is made interesting only by the inherent decency of this one character, and by the opportunity to watch his journey towards enlightenment and understanding.

1 comment:

  1. Really cool blog with a really nice title. I liked it a lot. And; its so good to read about new books, and new authors. I'll surely be visiting here often to read more posts.



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