Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Every Jew in his (or her) humor

Francesca Segal, The Innocents (New York: Hyperion Voice, 2012). 288 pages.

No good word exists for what Francesca Segal accomplishes in The Innocents, which was bedecked last week with the Costa First Novel Award. Adaptation, reworking, imitation, borrowing, appropriation, plagiarism—whatever it might be called, it sounds bad. The Innocents is a 21st-century version of Edith Wharton’s classic Age of Innocence in which the convention-bound gentility of “old New York” become the convention-bound youth of Jewish London. The reviewers have gone out of their way to emphasize that, as Lucy Scholes wrote in the Guardian, “Segal makes the story her own.” The novel is “compelling,” Kate Sullivan reassured the readers of the New York Daily News, “despite its antiquated ties to Wharton’s story.” But such praise misses the mark. Although The Innocents can be enjoyed by those who have never had the pleasure of Wharton’s book, the enjoyment—and the insight—are magnified a hundredfold when the novels are placed side by side.

From the opening pages, Segal acknowledges her debt to Wharton, but also demonstrates just how she will repay it. Adam Newman is engaged to Rachel Gilbert; now twenty-eight, they have “been together” since they were sixteen. They are in synagogue for Kol Nidre when Rachel’s cousin Ellie Schneider, a model from New York who is rumored to have made a porn film, takes her seat in the women’s section. A “half-naked model in shul,” Adam’s best friend stage-whispers. Knowledge of Wharton adds both humor and heft to the scene. The Age of Innocence begins on opening night at the New York opera, where the “world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter,” when a family cousin, newly returned from Europe and disgraced by divorce, shows up unexpectedly. Al tikrei, as the rabbis say: do not read the “world of fashion,” but rather the Jews of North West London; for opening night at the opera—an occasion to display oneself in public—read High Holy Day services in shul. And for the scandal of divorce, substitute porn and a revealing dress. I promise to stop tabulating the themes and variations now. Throughout the novel, though, they add complexity and depth to Segal’s observations. You’ll notice, for instance, that the cousin’s flight in Wharton, from Europe to New York, is reversed by Segal. The plot of The Innocents is not merely an overlay on Wharton’s plot, but a west-to-east reorientation of The Age of Innocence.

Even if you have never read Wharton—or have never seen Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation—you can guess what is coming. Adam is a respectable young member of the Jewish community, “a moral pillar of the shtetl,” as a friend teases him. He enjoys his social position: “There was no life event,” he reflects—“marriage, birth, parenthood, or loss—through which one need ever walk alone.” If he is a conformist, there are advantages to such conformity:

It wasn’t obligatory conformity; simply a question of joining the majority, a subscription to desirable traditions that allowed one to remain supported and cushioned in the bosom of North West London.What Adam is blind to is what Segal sees so clearly: social traditions have a different and less satisfying force than religious traditions (also known as commandments). Adam is a social Jew, not a religious one. “I have no idea what I believe in except randomness,” he remarks tellingly to his fiancée’s scandalous cousin. Ellie is not one of the Nice Jewish Girls who populate his world. She brings out his honesty, but also his inner emptiness.

So naturally he falls for her. Ellie resists for a while (“[I]f things were different I would try,” she says—“I would be with you, if I could”), but in the end, as the year swings round to the High Holy Days again and Adam’s desire does not subside, she yields to him. Wharton’s heroine stands firm where Segal’s relents: Ellen Olenska offers to “come to” Newland Archer “once,” but returns to Europe instead; Ellie Schneider sleeps with Adam once, and then goes back to New York. Between the motion and the act, between the desire and the spasm, falls the shadow—of the sexual revolution. That’s the biggest difference between Wharton’s age and Segal’s, and the emotional effect differs too.

Wharton’s subject was the struggle between marriage’s “dull duty” and adultery’s “ugly appetites.” So deeply tragic was her sense of life that Wharton could find in neither a source of happiness. Segal’s vision is essentially comic, perhaps because she is less at home with the language of morality than of psychology (“always doing the right thing and meanwhile raging and resentful that no one saw the magnitude of that sadness”). Or perhaps because she is so much younger—she is just thirty-two, while Wharton was fifty-eight when she wrote The Age of Innocence—Segal is more hopeful about the outcome of moral conflicts, not yet discolored by human society’s iron demands. Or perhaps the reason is that Segal is a Jew, and believes that repentance and atonement are stronger impulses than “the dignity of duty.” As his future father-in-law says, quoting the Yom Kippur liturgy and welcoming Adam back into the fold: “He does not remain angry forever because He desires kindness.” A Jewish sensibility is a fundamentally comic sensibility.

Segal is part of a literary trend toward “rewriting” or “reworking” older classics. In reviewing The Middlesteins for the New Republic, Adam Kirsch remarked upon Jami Attenberg’s obvious debt to Middlemarch. I myself have called A Changed Man Francine Prose’s Middlemarch, and indeed, her masterful plundering of the English literary tradition is among Prose’s best qualities. The genre is not exactly new, however. Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea is an alternate version of Jane Eyre. The temptation is to ascribe the literary practice to intertextuality. As the French novelist Claude Simon remarked in a 1973 interview, though, an “intertextual encyclopedia” (in Umberto Eco’s phrase) is little more than the literary version of a genre in modern art:Picasso invented the genre, and he has been followed by such outstanding figures as Schwitter and Rauschenberg. Lately, literature has also produced collages, or what we call “intertextuality.”A novel like Francesca Segal’s is not a collage, but a new work modelled upon an old—a parody without the burlesque. Thus I propose the name paratext for the subgenre of fiction that is so delightfully represented by The Innocents.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps see also Vergil's re-working of Homer in the Aeneid.

Andrew Fox said...

I'm a practitioner of what you call "paratext," David. The first half of my novel THE GOOD HUMOR MAN, OR, CALORIE 3501 is a paraphrase/homage/reworking of Ray Bradbury's FAHRENHEIT 451, with the difference being that Bradbury's forbidden objects of desire are books, whereas mine are high-calorie foods. I expect that readers of FAHRENHEIT 451 get much additional pleasure from reading my book, compared with those who aren't familiar with the Bradbury classic. As a writer, I can say that writing this particular book was a true "hoot," an enormous pleasure; the act of "paratexting" is most definitely a way for a writer (who began as an avid reader) to tickle him or herself and add a little extra joy to each writing session.