Friday, March 11, 2016

back in time we go again to the 1880s: The Truth About Tristrem Varick & Mr. Incoul's Misadventure, by Edgar Saltus

Underworld Amusements, 2015
294 pp


Before I even turned the first page, I knew what I was in for just by reading the quotation on the cover:
"Truth is not always in white satin like a girl on her wedding-day. And when it is of mud and of blood, when it offends the nostrils, so much the worse; I, for one, will not sprinkle it with ottar of rose. Besides, I am not here to tell fairy tales and pastorals." 
Somehow I just knew that things weren't going to be rosy here, and I was definitely right. These are two novels focused on corruption and pessimism, and they're dark. Very, very dark.

Beginning with The Truth About Tristrem Varick (1888)  Saltus describes this story as an "attempt in ornamental disenchantment" in his dedication.  And indeed, that is what we get here time and time again.  Tristrem Varick is the ultimate poster boy for disenchantment, and Saltus sets up his character quite nicely -- he makes Varick the ultimate idealist who  fails to see what the reader knows right away,  and takes a big fall because of it.  His main failings here are that he truly believes that life carries with it some sort of meaning and value, but  he has ultimately placed his trust in the wrong people. His sentiments are noble, but at the same time unrealistic, especially in regard to the woman he loves, but the poor dupe just doesn't get it.   In that sense, with Saltus bringing Tristrem to an otherwise less than perfect ending, the reader can't help but feel sorry for this poor guy who is about as delusional as they come -- the saddest sort of "hero" one can possibly imagine. It's just painful to watch.

On the other hand, Mr. Incoul's Misadventure (1887)  makes Tristrem seem  tame, and the titular character is as opposite of Tristrem Varick as any two men can be.   Mr. Incoul is a very wealthy (think millionaire)  widower, who, unlike Tristrem Varick, holds very little in the way of ideals. He believes in "refinement," since he disavows any connection with being a "Puritan," but on the other hand, he doesn't hold with "immorality," since according to him, "refinement and immorality are incompatible." He is also a man of action when he thinks he's been wronged, and has been since childhood, whereas Varick was often seen as an "umpire," whose ability to judge a situation fairly gained him respect from his peers.   Incoul is in love with his much-younger second wife Maida, who had once been the lover of a Mr. Lenox Leigh, and who agreed to marry Incoul because her mother forced her to accept his proposal owing to their financial situation. Maida puts a condition on this union, though:  he must accept her terms of a platonic sort of relationship, to change only when she is ready to move to the next level.  Things begin to come to a head while the two are on a trip to Europe, where Incoul discovers the disenchanting  truth behind the woman he married, leading him to manipulate things so that he becomes the one in control.

If someone reads these two books as a commentary on both European and American societies of the time, I think that would be an incredibly accurate judgment. They also, at least to me, come across as a misogynist commentary on the folly of placing faith in a woman's virtue --   the deceptions of the two main women characters here are at the root of  the men's problems in both stories. On the other hand, this misogyny as well as the sheer narcissism  I see here isn't far off the mark from some of the European writers of the same era (a really good example is found in Lorrain's Monsieur de Phocas, which I've recently read) revealing Saltus' flair for and appreciation of  European decadence, highlighted in Mr. Incoul's Misadventure.  For example, in that book,  Incoul and Maida take up residence in rented villa belonging to a French nobleman, whose library is just chock full of works by such decadent writers as Verlaine, Beaudelaire, The Marquis de Sade, Mirabeau; even the paintings reek of decadent strangeness.  It's all over Maida's head, though, which turns out in a way to provide some of the best irony found in this novel, since it seems that she's not quite finished with her "man of appetites," absinthe-drinking, debauched former lover.

Again, there's way more in this book than I'm capable of evoking here, and it is my first experience (although likely not my last) with this author.  When Saltus says he is "not here to tell fairy tales and pastorals," he definitely means it in this book.  There is absolutely nothing pretty, nothing redemptive and definitely no happy endings to be found anywhere.  In other words, it's just my kind of book.  It's extremely dark,  pessimistic, and  tough to read at times since Saltus doesn't hold back, but very well worth every second.

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