Saturday, September 01, 2007

I read so you don't need to

Books now read in ’07: 86
Title: Death of a Writer
Author: Michael Collins
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-31
Pages: 307

Books now read in ’07: 87
Title: Edith Wharton
Author: Hermione Lee
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 9-1
Pages: 762

Give these two books a pass. If you absolutely must read Michael Collins, I recommend The Keepers of Truth. And, instead of delving into Hermione Lee’s tedious biography of Edith Wharton, I suggest, instead, that you read the novels of Mrs. Wharton. The average reader can easily read a half-dozen novels by Wharton in the same span of time it takes to slog through this biography.

Death of a Writer provides few answers to its many mysteries, but that is the least of its shortcomings. It begins as an exploration of and satire on the hypocrisy of the literary/academic world. It devolves into a confusing account of a rogue cop, who may have killed his first wife. Finally, it wants to be a serious meditation on morality and mortality, but the result is one of those tiresome novels in which the narrative is allowed to proceed in fits and starts, interrupted at every turn by the banal, philosophical musings of its characters.

Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton is overly long, largely because neither Ms. Lee nor her editors exercised any judgment in what to exclude. This biography would have benefited greatly by the excision of about 200 pages. As it stands it reads like the efforts of a doctoral student who 1) can’t decide what among her voluminous research she should exclude so, instead, decides to exclude nothing, or 2) wants to demonstrate her considerable erudition on the subject at hand by filling the book with everything.

Edith Wharton is burdened by excessive lists, especially of names, that do nothing to shed any light on Ms. Wharton. Additionally, the emphasis Ms. Lee has given to various aspects of Wharton’s life are, to put it kindly, curious. She devotes an inordinate amount of time to the topic of Edith Wharton as master gardener. I’m absolutely certain that if Edith Wharton had been only a gardener and not a writer, no one would be writing or reading her biography.

One pet peeve for this reader is the treatment of French passages within the biography. Rarely, is there a translation. Occasionally, there are end notes. More often, the reader is left to his own devices. Were it Spanish, instead of French, I might have slowly picked out a translation. As it is, I was left in the dark. Writers and editors have an obligation to offer readers clarity and consistency. This book offers neither.

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