[classic Penguin classics]
Apart from the fact that so much of it is bleak, depressing, and soulless, one of the reasons I don't read a great deal of contemporary fiction is that I feel the classics are classics for a reason. I often find myself waiting a couple of years after publication before picking up a 'new' book, almost to allow it time to prove itself. But the wonderful thing about true classics is that they have already stood the test of time, risen above the era in which they were written, and still speak to us across the decades or centuries.
I was so dedicated to reading when I was a teenager and student, that in my free time I pretty much only read the classics, although these did span several centuries from Austen to Amis, Waugh, Greene, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. I read Thomas Hardy in Biology lessons, William Makepeace Thackeray after exams, and DH Lawrence in private. I just couldn't see the point of reading fly-by-night books when there are so many genius books to be tackled before I die/give up and turn to Barbara Cartland.
I still struggle with most modern novels, which is why I was so delighted to make a new classic discovery on holiday. I hadn't read any Edith Wharton before, knew virtually nothing about her and, crucially, had no idea of the plots of her books. What a reading treat, therefore, to be engrossed in The House of Mirth and not know what happens to Lily Bart. Or to enter the world of Fifth Avenue in The Age of Innocence with no clue as to Ellen Olenska's fate. The problem with so many classics is that the endings are so well known (Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist) and have been used so often in popular culture (films, musicals, plays) that it's hard to read them in the same way they were read when first published (if in instalments, even the author him/herself often didn't know the ending). So I revelled in a reading experience I hadn't had for years, in the not knowing, in the sheer delight of turning pages to find out what happens.
And my goodness, are these good endings. Edith Wharton is such a brilliant writer and these two novels must be her masterpieces (I have yet to read the Old New York Stories) as I can't imagine anything better. She is undoubtedly grand American but with touches of Zola, Balzac,and the great C19 Russian writers which is why the stories of these phenomenally rich and rigid New Yorkers still have something to say about society, snobbery and, most forcefully, about women's lives. Her style is beautiful, amazingly visual and textural, and she weaves her themes and sustained but subtle metaphors with a very sure and elegant touch.
I also hadn't realised quite how grand a grande dame she was, and how influential in the world of interiors and gardens. I took Hermione Lee's biography with me on holiday, read The House of Mirth (1905) first, then up to 1905 in her life, then The Age of Innocence, then almost the rest of her life - although I did fade towards the end as this is a huge biography and the descriptions of her later years (all the lists of books, plants, wines, petty quarrels) began to wear me down. So I stopped before I was disillusioned, and now have the memory of reading two crystalline, classic novels and an equally classic life story imprinted on my brain.