Friday, April 20, 2007

Improving Updike?

The aristocratic social set into which she was born expected its women to be ornamental, well-sheltered, intellectually idle agents of their interwoven clans, whereas Edith was an awkward, red-haired bookworm and dreamer, teased by her two older brothers about her big hands and feet and out of sympathy with her intensely conventional mother, nee Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander--a mother-daughter disharmony that rankled in Edith's fiction to the end.

This remarkable sentence, from John Updike's review of a new biography of Edith Wharton in the April 16 New Yorker, reminds me of what my husband's grandma would say when he tried to carry a few too many feed sacks at once: "That's a lazy man's load." Updike's sentence, like a lazy man's load, packs in a little too much information and suffers from a bit of slippage around the edges.

The sentence works pretty well until we encounter the phrase "out of sympathy." Who is out of sympathy? The first time I read the sentence, I interpreted it this way:

[Edith was] teased by her two older brothers
1. about her big hands and feet, and
2. out of sympathy for her mother.

But this implies that the brothers are teasing her because they sympathize with her mother, which is not, I think, what Updike intends. But if "out of sympathy" does not follow from "teased," where does it belong? If it describes Edith, we have to look way back to the "whereas" clause, where Edith is already described as an "awkward, red-haired bookworm and dreamer." Both "teased by her brothers" and "out of sympathy," then, could modify "dreamer," which makes sense, but why did I have to work so hard to figure that out?

Perhaps I'm a poor reader, or perhaps the sentence is trying to say too much. Sometimes the only way to carry all the feed sacks without slippage is to put a few down and come back for them later--or break the unwieldy sentence into two. On the other hand, if we pack up the feed sacks neatly enough, maybe we can make it in one trip. So far, I haven't found a way to pack all this meaning into one sentence without confusion, but perhaps my faithful readers can meet the challenge. Anyone want to try to improve on Updike?

1 comment:

Joy said...

As an awkward, red-haired bookworm and dreamer – which was completely opposite of the expectations of the aristocratic social set into which she was born that expected its women to be ornamental, well-sheltered, intellectually idle agents of their interwoven clans - Edith was teased by her two older brothers about her big hands and feet and had fallen out of sympathy with her intensely conventional mother, nee Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander, which created a mother-daughter disharmony that rankled in Edith's fiction to the end.

See now why YOU'RE the professor?