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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

August 30, 2012 20 comments

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. 1920. French title: Le temps de l’innocence.

We start our new reading year with The Age of Innocence and it’s a breathtaking start. If the other books are half as good as this one, this new Book Club year is going to be a treat. I had seen the film by Martin Scorcese (1993) but I didn’t remember all the details so it didn’t spoil my reading. Except that I couldn’t think of the main character, Newland Archer differently from picturing Daniel Day-Lewis, who proved to be a good choice of actor. But back to the book.

New-York, 187– Newland Archer is a young member of the high society, well-bred, well-integrated, a perfect model of the New-York gentleman.

Newland Archer was a quiet and self-controlled young man. Conformity to the discipline of a small society had become almost his second nature. It was deeply distasteful to him to do anything melodramatic and conspicuous, anything Mr. van der Luyden would have deprecated and the club box condemned as bad form.

He’s in love with May Welland, a beautiful product of the society he’s accustomed to. May is young, innocent, pure; Newland sees her as the lily-of-the valley he sends her everyday.

Countess Ellen Olenska is May’s cousin; they have the same grandmother, the eccentric and domineering Catherine Mingott. Her realm is her family and she’s a tough sovereign. Ellen was raised abroad by the black sheep of the family, Medora Menson. Ellen married the Count Olenski in France and has now done the unthinkable: she left him and came back to America. The Mingotts show their support by taking her to the opera, where everybody can see her and their intention to reintegrate her in the high society. Newland knows her, he used to play with her as a child and he thinks the Wellands quite daring to expose her to the eyes of the society after what she’s done. He frowns at the idea that the Mingotts back up Ellen but soon feels he could help his future in-laws in a move. If they announce his engagement to May, two families will be behind Ellen and ease her return.

That’s what he does, that’s what happens. The only problem is that Ellen doesn’t slip that easily into a New-Yorker’s clothes. She’s been living abroad for too long and unconsciously disregards many unspoken rules with unaffected manners. Newland tries to help her into fitting in her new environment. Ellen has the intellectual vitality May is lacking. She’s more spontaneous in her language and her actions, less willing to abide by the rules if they go against her moral integrity or what she thinks is right. She’s a catalyst for Newland. He already ached for a more satisfactory life. In his New-York, the intellectual life and the high society life exist in two parallel universes, contrary to Paris where Ellen used to live. No literary salons there, despite Medora Manson’s attempt to settle one:

Medora Manson, in her prosperous days, had inaugurated a “literary salon”; but it had soon died out owing to the reluctance of the literary to frequent it.

So Newland meets with writers in their neighbourhood and endures dull diners in his world. He’s drawn to Ellen and genuinely tries to help her find a middle ground between her need for freedom and the level of independence the social will tolerate. They soon fall in love. She’s married and can’t get a divorce as it would be a society suicide. He traps himself into a marriage with May. What’s going to happen to them?

I love Edith Wharton. The whole story is told through Newland’s eyes and she has a talent for sensitive young men. I was fond of Ralph when I read The Custom of the Country and I’m fond of Newland now. Her male characters appear to be trapped in their lives, not freer than women to live their lives as they wish. The mothers are manipulative and families keep young people in iron claws. Nothing escapes their attention. They will do anything needed to avoid scandal and preserve peace.

Newland has modern expectations about his wife. He’d like May to be more curious about books, to be willing to learn new things but she’s not. And as he admits it years later, how could she be?

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.

I don’t know why, but I don’t like the word wifely. It might be perfectly neutral in English but to me it sounds like a condescending word to talk about a brainless married woman. Is it because it rhymes with silly? May wasn’t raised to use her brain for abstract thinking. She was raised to be pretty, well-bred, knowledgeable in all kinds of social rules. She’s more outdoorsy. She wouldn’t be an accomplished woman in the Austen world: she can’t stitch and she can’t sing or play an instrument. She lives in a narrow world and is perfectly happy with it. She’s a mystery to me. How can she cling to a fiancé who only likes her? Perhaps she does because she has a very practical vision of marriage: on paper, he’s a catch. She knows everything and lives with it. And she’ll participate to anything that will her world stay as it is.

Edith Wharton paints a scary picture of the New-York society of that time. It’s a spider’s web knit with tight family knots. Don’t try to walk out of the admitted path, don’t threaten the web with liberal views on women and marriage, don’t try to change the rules. Why did that microcosm put so much effort to part Ellen and Newland? It’s a world where the individual has no weigh, no importance. Only the community counts. Yes, Newland was well-read but ill-prepared to face the world anyway. He’s too innocent: he thinks he hides his feelings but he doesn’t. (Strange as you always think you can conceal your interest in someone and always fail because whatever you do, you never behave naturally). And May isn’t as innocent as it appears. Like in The Custom of the Country, women are more shrewd and manipulative than men.

If I had read The Age of Innocence twenty years earlier, Newland and Ellen would have infuriated me. I would have liked them to elope, put everything behind and be happy or at least take the chance to be happy. Now I understand them. I’ve had enough years of compromising to understand that you cannot just do what you want and disregard the consequences of your choices for the people who love you. The tone is melancholic and this novel made me think. Is their choice wisdom, generosity or cowardice? Is it worth it? Is their sacrifice worth it? It might as it keeps their love beautiful. I also understand Newland and his questionning. He lived his life as an active member of his community but the best part of him was dead all along. He wasn’t strong enough to liberate himself from the impact of his education. And if he had? He didn’t have it in him to live as a pariah; he wasn’t adventurous enough to start over abroad. He would have been like a fish out of his bowl and he had the insight to acknowledge it. Is his life a waste?

This novel is a masterpiece written in a delicate prose unravelling feelings, motives and the workings of a smothering society. It shows the violence hidden in the smooth politeness of boudoirs and dining rooms. In French, we say, “an iron hand in a velvet glove”. As for the relationship between Ellen and Newland, now I want to read La Princesse de Clèves again.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

December 6, 2011 23 comments

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. 1913. French title: Les beaux mariages.

The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing.

I’m really happy my 200th post is a review of a book I truly loved. This one will be my last read for Sarah’s Challenge Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge, category A Book Previously Abandoned.

Undine Spragg, the beauty queen of Apex, has just arrived in New York with her parents. Her father enriched in his Western city of Apex through some shady business. Her parents adore her and spoil her. She’s young, gorgeous, ambitious and in search of a rich and aristocratic husband. After a few months, she manages to break into the New York high society and marries Ralph Marvell, a well-bred man but not rich enough to satisfy all her fantasies. Will she manage to adapt to her conventional step-family? How will she accept that Ralph has a good breeding and open access to the most select salons in New York and nonetheless not enough money to afford all her whims? But who is Elmer Moffatt, a ghost from her past, looming over her recent success? I don’t want to tell too much about the plot, even if it’s a classic that many people have read.

Undine is a perfectly disagreeable character. She infuriated me; she’s vapid, shallow and blatantly materialistic. She assesses people and things through the double lenses of their cash value and their society usefulness.

Undine’s estimate of people had always been based on their apparent power of getting what they wanted–provided it came under the category of things she understood wanting.

She has no interest in other people but for what they can bring to her, feels no love for anyone but herself and is as selfish as the daughters in Le Père Goriot by Balzac. She lacks compassion, motherly feelings and ability to listen. Nobody and nothing is sacred, neither family jewels or tapestries or not even a son. Her reactions and her actions horrified me. She’s perpetually dissatisfied with what she has. She has no conversation of any kind since she has no interest in books, politics, music, domestic issues or business. She can’t embroider, draw or play an instrument. Getting involved in charities is totally out of her character. She has no curiosity for anything but buying clothes and showing off at parties. She has no scruples and will bulldoze out any obstacle that could lie between her and what she wants. But she’s gorgeous, knows how to use her beauty and men are stupid enough to consider it a sufficient quality. Undine has incredible survival skills and in the surface adapts to her environment. But as she doesn’t really care about other people, she fails to understand them deeply and it backfires on her sometimes. She has a tendency to enjoy vulgar company and above all, she has no sense for Beauty.

All is said about the difference between Ralph and Undine when Mrs Spragg explains where Undine’s name comes from:

Her visitor, [Ralph] with a smile, and echoes of divers et ondoyant in his brain, had repeated her daughter’s name after her, saying: “It’s a wonderful find–how could you tell it would be such a fit?”–it came to her quite easily to answer: “Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born–” and then to explain, as he remained struck and silent: “It’s from Undoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take.

Ralph is the kind of man who thinks of the water divinity when he hears Undine. But Undine wasn’t named after a divinity. She was named after a hair-waver. Everything is said. He’s more intellectual, sensitive and poetical; she’s materialistic, uncultured and happy to be so.

I thought that Ralph Marvell was a wonderful character. It’s not often that a male character is described with so much sensibility. The description of Ralph’s disappointment with Undine, the strings she pulls thanks to her beauty and the different shades of his moods are really touching.

An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it. He was beginning to understand this, and learning to adapt himself to the narrow compass of her experience.

Ralph moved me, because he felt so much, was so lucid about his circumstances and yet couldn’t fight against the tide.

Apart from the private drama of Undine’s life, The Custom of the Country is also a harsh criticism of the emerging aristocracy of new money in America. It’s an X-ray of the American society, its interest in business and money, its vision of marriage and women. Undine invests in husbands like businessmen invest in Wall Street. She’s Elmer Moffatt’s feminine counterpart; they are made of the same clay. The novel takes place in New York and in France and Edith Wharton excels in describing characters and settings. She knew France very well and she portrays perfectly the difference of culture between France and the USA. Some of the ideas she develops in French Ways and their Meaning are already present in The Custom of the Country. The title refers to the difference of custom between Apex and New-York, between America and France. Edith Wharton preferred the French vision of marriage, more of a partnership. In French, you don’t belong to your spouse; you share your life with them. She tried to explain that the American vision of marriage and women creates monsters like Undine:

“The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.” (…) How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance–you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman–what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.” “To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!” “Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man’s again–I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.”

(…)

 “YOU don’t? The American man doesn’t–the most slaving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing–?” “Yes; and the most indifferent: there’s the point. The ‘slaving’s’ no argument against the indifference To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.” “Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?” “Not necessarily–but it’s a want of imagination to fancy it’s all he owes her. Look about you and you’ll see what I mean. Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she’s so important to them that they make it worth her while! She’s not a parenthesis, as she is here–she’s in the very middle of the picture.

(…)

“Isn’t that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we’d give them up as readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what’s the result–how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male–the money and the motors and the clothes–and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT’S what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you’re going to say–it’s less and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they’re more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there’s one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she’s paid for keeping out of some man’s way!” Mrs. Fairford presented an amazed silence to the rush of this tirade; but when she rallied it was to murmur: “And is Undine one of the exceptions?” Her companion took the shot with a smile. “No–she’s a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph. It’s Ralph who’s the victim and the exception.”

Divorce is actually a central theme of the book, a very modern one for a 1913 novel. Its modernity echoes that of What Maisie Knew. I wonder what Edith Wharton would make of the French divorce rates I heard the other day on the radio (67% of marriages in Paris and 50% in other regions) Undine, as a representant of the new generation thinks it a normal event in life. The older generation, like Mr Spragg and higher social classes, like Ralph’s family still regard it as dreadful.

Mr. Spragg did not regard divorce as intrinsically wrong or even inexpedient; and of its social disadvantages he had never even heard. Lots of women did it, as Undine said, and if their reasons were adequate they were justified. If Ralph Marvell had been a drunkard or “unfaithful” Mr. Spragg would have approved Undine’s desire to divorce him; but that it should be prompted by her inclination for another man–and a man with a wife of his own–was as shocking to him as it would have been to the most uncompromising of the Dagonets and Marvells.

Edith Wharton came from the same social circles as Ralph Marvell. They have strong values and this is why in life or business, the end doesn’t justify the means. But she blames his family traditions because they repress feelings and don’t want to face his misery. Edith Wharton had suffered physically from that oppressive atmosphere. She broke free when she came to France and that might explain why she’s such a blind Francophile.

Reading The Custom of the Country might be easier for a French than for an American, with all the French words included in the text and all the undercurrent comparison between French and American ways. Sometimes the words have a fantasist orthography (Allow me to escort you to the bew-fay. I had to pause to realize that bew-fay was buffet or undoolay for ondulé in the quote before.) or are correctly spelled (divers et ondoyant; réunions de famille, tisane and biscuits de Reims). I’ve read the free Kindle version, I suppose there are proper footnotes in the Penguin edition. Edith Wharton writes simply and manages to create powerful images with few words (He leaned over to give Marvell’s hand the ironic grasp of celibacy.) Her descriptions of homes and places are excellent and vivid, always giving an insight of the owner’s character through their home. There aren’t superfluous words or endless sentences like in Henry James. It runs and flows like cristallyne water.

The plot is gripping; I was impatient to read the twists and turns of Undine’s life. It’s wonderfully written, engrossing and intelligent. I found it thought provoking and entertaining. A masterpiece.

French Ways and their Meaning by Edith Wharton

February 24, 2011 29 comments

French Ways and their Meaning by Edith Wharton. (134 pages)

Edith Wharton had been living in France since twelve years when she wrote these articles about France in 1917. These essays were aimed at American readers and their purpose was to explain how French people behave and think.

When I started to read Edith Wharton’s book, I had two available options: either take her uncontrolled enthusiasm for France literally and shut the book immediately or try to catch whatever was relevant in her exposé. Here is what I mean with “uncontrolled enthusiasm”

 French people “have taste” as naturally as they breathe: it is not regarded as an accomplishment, like playing the flute.

Or

As life is an art in France, so woman is an artist. She does not teach man, but she inspires him. 

I laughed at the possibility of being anybody’s Muse and mused over my above mentioned options with this book. I chose to keep on reading, taking what I was reading “au second degré”, which means with some distance and not literally at all.

It also took me a while to figure out how I would write about this book. Though it’s rather short, there’s a lot of material in it. So I decided to give an idea of the general tone of her essays and then unleash some of the spontaneous comments that came to my mind when I was reading. It is what we call in French a “liste à la Prévert”, which means a random list of items with no particular sequence or obvious link between them. I’m not sure it’s of interest to anyone but me, though. Anyway, back to the book.  

After a brief introduction, Edith Wharton details in six chapters the main particularities of French ways.

  1. First Impressions

  2. Reverence

  3. Taste

  4. Intellectual Honesty

  5. Continuity

  6. The New Frenchwoman

She is well aware that writing about a people is tricky and begs the reader to accept the use of “Anglo-Saxon vs Latin” conventions as it is convenient. I will use them too, even if it is simplistic. Her main argument when comparing France to America is that France is an adult country whereas America is only a child. I first thought this statement ludicrous then recalled the childish “Freedom Fries” and revised my judgement. Then in each chapter, she explains how great the French are. That’s it, the general tone is of an undeserved and ridiculous great praise of France. I will not cover all the generalizations she wrote.

However, as I’m reading and writing in English, I was very interested in her conclusion, where she discusses the meaning “the four words that preponderate in French speech and literature”: Amour, Gloire, Plaisir, Volupté and how their immediate translation, Love, Glory, Pleasure, Voluptuousness doesn’t convey the same images and background than in French. I wish she had added Séduction to her list, I would have loved to read her take on this one. I’m not going to rephrase everything but I think it’s worth reading for someone who enjoys French literature and wants to understand it better. She has a point here and it was very educational for me. I’ve experienced difficulties to translate the concept of “pleasure” and the verb “jouir”, either in posts or in comments. Here is what Edith Wharton writes :

And from their freedom of view combined with their sensuous sensibility they have extracted the sensation they call “le plaisir,” which is something so much more definite and more evocative than what we mean when we speak of pleasure. “Le plaisir” stands for the frankly permitted, the freely taken, delight of the senses, the direct enjoyment of the fruit of the tree called golden. No suggestions of furtive vice degrade or coarsen it, because it has, like love, its open place in speech and practice.

It’s something that can be applied for very different situations such as enjoying the sun caressing your face, spending an afternoon with a good book, quietly walking in the nature and of course to sex. Is she right to say it’s a different meaning than “pleasure”?  

In some ways, her enthusiasm blurred her vision but she does have a point on several subjects I don’t know if I must rejoice that these things are still relevant one century after she wrote them. Perhaps it proves her right when she assesses that the French are conservative. I don’t pretend to hold the truth. This is only my opinion and it should be taken as such.

Let’s start by clichés: wine and relationships between men and women.

 About Wine.

Above all, the rich soil of France, so precious for wheat and corn-growing, is the best soil in the world for the vine; and a people can possess few more civilising assets than the ability to produce good wine at home. It is the best safeguard against alcoholism, the best incentive to temperance in the manly and grown-up sense of the word, which means voluntary sobriety and not legally enforced abstinence. All these gifts France had and the French intelligently cherished.

Um. Has she read Zola or was he too dirty? Sure binge drinking – now coming here too and regularly worrying the authorities – is not a French custom. But to say we don’t have any problem with alcoholism is wrong.

 About casual relationships between men and women.

The French have always been a gay and free and Rabelaisian people. They attach a great deal of importance to love-making, but they consider it more simply and less solemnly than we. They are cool, resourceful and merry, crack jokes about the relations between the sexes. (…) They define pornography as a taste for the nasty, and not as an interest in the natural.

I can’t tell how it is abroad but what she writes about us is probably true. Take our presidents. One apparently died in action, meaning here, not arms at the ready but between the arms of his mistress. Another had a secret family. The current one got a divorce and married a former model when he’s still in charge. And no one is shocked.

About jokes about the relations between the sexes, sure, we have a lot of them. But I never considered this as a French thing. Should I?

As for the latest part, pornography, I’m sure comparing the rating of films regarding the age of the audience would be fascinating. Which makes me think I’ve always been astonished by the “explicit lyrics” stickers put on CDs in American stores.

About Theatre and Cinema.

“What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.”

This is exactly the sentence I was looking for to explain why Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas would have had another ending if it had been shot in America. But I’d rather talk about “Hollywood films” vs “Indie films”, whatever their nationality.

About L’Académie Française and the fight for French language.

And Richelieu and the original members of the Academy had recognised from the first day that language was the chosen vessel in which the finer life of a nation must be preserved.

The Academy still exists and is still in charge with inventing new French words to address to new realities. Our government advertises about the proper way to say in French foreign words, mostly coming from the English. I blogged about that once here. I’m not sure that we keep a proper balance  between “preserved” and “kept in mothballs”, though.

 About Americans and Art.

It is the pernicious habit of regarding the arts as something that can be bottled, pickled and absorbed in twelve months (thanks to “courses,” summaries and abridgements) that prevents the development of a real artistic sensibility in our eager and richly endowed race.

Whereas I don’t agree with her on the last part of her statement and reject the word “race”, I chose this quote because it reminded me of the discussion about creative writing Max started on his blog. Somehow, Edith Wharton shows that a fertile soil for those classes has been there in America for a while.

In addition, when I first read it, I also thought about our position named “cultural exception” and the way our government usually refuses to consider art as any consumer goods in trade agreements.

About morality.

It distinguishes, implicitly if not outspokenly, between the wrong that has far-reaching social consequences and that which injures only one or two persons, or perhaps only the moral sense of the offender. The French have continued to accept this classification of offences. They continue to think the sin against the public conscience far graver than that against any private person. If in France there is a distinction between private and business morality it is exactly the reverse of that prevailing in America.

This reminded me I discussion I’ve had with Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers on Madame Bovary. She asked me if it was taught in school and wondered how teachers would handle the moral/ethical issues in it with school kids”. My answer was “This is a very Anglo-Saxon question! For me, and I believe for a French, it’s not a moral or ethical question. It’s a personal matter. It’s private and unique as these people are unique.”

I couldn’t properly explain why “private” was the word that came to my mind. Edith Wharton has put words on this. Emma’s cheating on Charles has no consequences for the society. It is sure a misfortune for Charles but I can’t blame her or judge her – Flaubert doesn’t either. It’s a “sin against a private person”. Teaching about this can’t have consequences on the morality of the students. There is nothing subversive in openly talking about cuckooed Charles in class.

That’s also why we don’t care about our presidents being faithful to their spouse – I was about to write “wives” but let’s be optimistic, someday a woman will be president – or not. 

Women, men and business.

In small businesses the woman is always her husband’s book keeper or clerk, or both; above all, she is his business adviser. France, as you know, is held up to all other countries as a model of thrift, of wise and prudent saving and spending.”

This hasn’t changed and I see it everyday at work. Is that something really French? After the divorce rate exploded and left women working with their husbands without any money, the law was changed to give them a status. It is aimed at protecting women and giving them social protection and a retirement pension if they get a divorce after working “for free” in their husband’s business.

The second part explains our incomprehension regarding junk bonds and the sub-primes crisis in America and also strikes against any attempt to change the retirement system to an Anglo-Saxon one, ie with money invested in the stock markets.

 Leisure.

This point assured, they want only enough leisure and freedom from material anxiety to enjoy what life and the arts of life offer. This absence of financial ambition should never be lost sight of: it is not only the best clue to the French character, but the most useful lesson our own people can learn from contact with France. (…) The requirements of the average French man in any class are surprisingly few, and the ambition to “better” himself socially plays a very small part in his plans. What he wants is leisure to enjoy the fleeting good things of life, from which no one knows better how to extract a temperate delight, and full liberty of mind to discuss general ideas while pursuing whatever trade or art he is engaged in.

In presidential election of 1997, one of the slogans was “Work more to earn more.” OK, the candidate pushing that slogan won the election and put it into practice as soon as he could. He increased the possibility of doing overtime hours, allowed retired persons to work. It doesn’t seem to be a success. People would rather work less and earn less than lose free time. Somehow I thought it was a new tendency coming from a general eagerness for leisure. So I was surprised to discover this in Wharton’s little book.

 Fortunately, everything is not as perfect as she says.

 About the status of the Frenchwoman.

The French wife has less legal independence than the American or English wife, and is subject to a good many legal disqualifications from which women have freed themselves in other countries.

At least, some critic. Yes French women had to wait until 1944 to have the right to vote, years after American women (1919), British women (1928) or Brazilian ones (1932)

About politeness at tourists.

The complaint of Anglo-Saxons that, in travelling in France, they see little of the much-vaunted French courtesy, is not unjustified. The French are not courteous from any vague sense of good-will toward mankind; they regard politeness as a coin with which certain things are obtainable, and being notably thrifty they are cautious about spending it on strangers.

I’m sorry to say this hasn’t changed much. Stand in a street in San Francisco with a map and someone will come and help you. Do the same thing in Paris and see how long you wait until someone finally comes by you. I promise I don’t leave tourists in distress whenever I meet some.

In the end, she can’t avoid caricature, but it’s difficult to avoid short-cuts, clichés and generalizations in that matter. She’s really carried away by her enthusiasm, which is harmful to her thoughts. Most of the compliments are really undeserved. I far from agree with everything she says but it was interesting and thought-provoking anyway. So I’m glad I’ve read it.

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