Gotham Diary:
9 May 2012

Having written quite a lot yesterday, I’m inclined to take it easy today. It is also the case that my mind is fairly blank. All I can think of is packing, connectivity in an Amsterdam hotel, and how easily a concierge’s instructions will get me aboard a streetcar.

I wore my new green pants to lunch yesterday, and I told my friend that I was thinking of taking them to Amsterdam. She recommended against it. “I want to be remembered,” I said. “Well, in that case…”

The other thing that I’m certain to do is to visit Scheltema, or whatever it’s called now (if it’s still there!) and ask for a copy of Nescio’s stories. I’ve had a very hard time with the Amsterdam Stories, because they fly me back so powerfully to my own feckless youth and I don’t want to revisit the period. Again, at lunch yesterday, a pearl of wisdom dropped onto my tongue. I told my friend that I didn’t mind being old, because for so long I was afraid that my youth would never end.

It doesn’t bother me that our Amsterdam hotel, on the Amstelkanaal, lies outside the purview of tourist maps of the city (the DK guide that I picked up stops a few blocks to the north, at Sarphati Park), but I’m somewhat disheartened to note that St Pancras Station Hotel, where we’ll be staying in London for a couple of nights, is always just out of sight, beyond the edge of most Central London maps. Euston Station, next door, usually makes it in. I should note that staying at St Pancras was all my own idea; I’ve wanted to stay there ever since the pile was restored to its Victorian splendor. A case of answered prayers…


At bedtime last night, still in the mood, after “The Turn of the Screw,” for something dark and rich, I couldn’t decide between James and Wharton. For a minute. I chose Wharton. I read the first section of “Bunner Sisters” before falling asleep. I read the rest of the story, which is just shy of novella length, this afternoon.

My usual response to reading something wonderful for the first time is dismay: how did it take me so long to get to this? I didn’t have that feeling about “Bunner Sisters,” though; I was grateful to have had it waiting for me. I was wholly engaged by the melodrama, which at first seemed not to be as bad as I feared, but then got much, much worse. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I won’t say anything about it — only a word about Eliza Ann Bunner, from whose point of view it is told (in the third person, happily.)

What’s thrilliing about this unassuming dress-maker is how extravagantly — how just short of extravagantly — Edith Wharton imagines her highly circumscribed life. To some degree, the woman’s life is narrow because she is superstitiously pious. “I always think if we ask for more what we have may be taken from us,” she says to Evelina, the prettier sister, whom she hopes to see married one day. But it’s not all timorousness. Eliza Ann is truly at home in the barely genteel back room that she shares with Evelina, and Wharton takes pains to cleanse her prose of any trailing pity that she might feel for someone so comparatively disadvantaged.

The infrequency of her walks made them the chief events of her life. The mere act of going out from the monastic quiet of the shop into the tumult of the streets filled her with a subdued excitement which great too intense for pleasure as she was swallowed by the engulfing roar of Broadway or Third Avenue, and began to do timid battle with their incessant cross-currents of humanity. After a glance or two into the great show-windows she usually allowed herself to be swept back into the shelter of a side-street, and finally regained her own roof in a state of breathless bewilderment and fatigue; but gradually, as her nerves were soothed by the familiar quiet of the little shop, and the click of Evelina’s pinking machine, certain sights and sounds would detach themselves from the torrent along which she had been swept, and she would devote the rest of the day to a mental reconstruction of the different episodes of her walk, till finally it took shape in her thought as a consecutive and highly-coloured experience, from which, for weeks afterwards, she would detach some fragmentary recollection in the course of her long dialogues with her sister.

The composure of this recollective habit is really enviable. When the story really gets going, Eliza Ann is as dear to you as any character you’ll ever know. This is the sort of bravura call for sympathy that Dickens used to trumpet by the hour, but either too sharp or too flat and in any case always too loud for pleasure. There is enormous sadness in “Bunner Sisters,” but the story resists dismissal as “pathetic” with all of Eliza Ann’s remarkable force of character.