Be a dragonfly on our wall.
Taking off the ‘Mask’
The Age of Innocence
Sierra: Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence in 1919, but, in the novel, she’s mostly looking back with a complicated nostalgia (and a hint of acidity) on the 1870s. That’s when she came of age and it’s also the same general period in which her friend Henry James wrote and set Daisy Miller & Four Meetings. And now it’s our turn to look back with nostalgia on our experience recording this book, nearly a year ago during a very hot summer—because life intervened and we haven’t been able to release it until now. So what’s stuck with you?
Serafim: Remember how we understood the title differently? I envisioned these characters as innocent because of their young age, because they weren’t yet married or were about to marry and lose that innocence. Or they had married, but it hadn’t work out. So the more literal title, for me, might have been: The Age of Lost Innocence. But you thought of it as describing the ‘epoch of innocence,’ the time period itself.
Sierra: I guess they can both be true, but yours might have been the more useful interpretation, because it’s more personal. This is a coming of age story and a love story as well as a thoughtful assessment of a society and its values. And there are aspects of it that are (faintly?) absurd, which suggests that the author looks at the whole idea of “innocence” with a gimlet eye. That family matriarch Mrs. Manson Mingott especially comes to mind. I had forgotten how funny this book can be!
At some point, I recall we talked about The Truman Show . . .
Serafim: Yes! The way the story begins, at the opera, and how everybody in the book takes on a certain role, the roles set forth by class, gender, family. Because these people are on display all the time.
Sierra: And mostly very aware of it! And there’s also this sense of moving through a fog until something disrupts that. It’s almost a violent experience for Newland in particular. Clearly, he was quite a different person before Ellen enters the story.
Serafim: Why do you think this book has aged so well?
Sierra: Well, for one this is not a book we had to work to find dimension in. To me, it felt like wandering through a vast mansion in which there are new rooms to discover at every turn.
Serafim: I remember also feeling this sense of something grand, something epic about it, almost Tolstoyan.
Sierra: That said, like James (and Tolstoy), Edith Wharton wouldn’t necessarily fit right into today’s world. But all three were genuinely interested in people. Wharton in particular had that sort of passionate fascination with anthropology that she gives to Newland. It’s almost as if the life she was living, when she went to put it on the page—it was easier just to write it as a man. And to some extent that may still be true. So there is a gender fluidity to the book that made me feel very comfortable narrating it. And there are a handful of wonderful female characters in May Welland, Newland’s fiancée, and Ellen Olenska, not to mention Mrs. Manson Mingott.
You’re much more familiar than I am with this world of opera. Why do you think she chose to start the book at the opera?
Serafim: As Shakespeare said, our whole life is theater, so she opens with this masquerade that’s being enacted by performers at the opera and also the characters themselves. There are people throughout the book who have clearly chosen—or maybe it wasn’t a choice—to live their lives totally immersed in this masquerade. They don’t seem to think of their feelings.
Sierra: They don’t want to think of their feelings! And you’re reminding me of a primary challenge to recording—and another reason we both fell in love with the book: It requires you to show both the mask and what lies behind the mask, even at the very same time, because that’s really where the energy of the book comes from.
I think it’s worth emphasizing that we didn’t really talk about this much while recording. And you don’t need to, because one thing that Edith Wharton does brilliantly—she writes dialogue so well! You don’t need to think about it, this is not something—
Serafim: ‘Now she’s wearing the mask, now she’s not.’
Sierra: Yeah, it’s not mathematical. You just speak from the heart of each character. Whether you have a mask or not, you still have a heart.
Serafim: And the only way for the mask to show itself and to come off is through the intonation of the voice. How, for instance, May and his mother present themselves, always in the socially approved way, strikes a contrast with Newland and Ellen, whose vulnerability increasingly shines through.
Daisy Miller & Four Meetings
Sierra: I remember immediately thinking ‘We should do James!’ because he is this American who is an international figure, and I thought that was sort of a bridge between you and me. So I remember reading Daisy Miller and taking it to you, and being like: ‘What do you think? What do you think?’
Serafim: Yeah and I think what struck me about Daisy Miller, and then Four Meetings after that, is that although they were written by a male writer and even told from the perspective of male characters, the centers of both stories are women: Daisy Miller and Caroline Spencer. It felt right to give these women your voice.
And I was immediately drawn to the way both stories feel very applicable to today’s culture. Because you have what appears to be a period divide between classes. But on the other hand, you look around now and things haven’t changed that much. You can very easily have a situation today where it’s less ‘Where are you seen and with whom?’ and more what you put on your social media. So it’s very current in that way.
Was it easy for you to relate to these characters? Did you draw on people you knew to play them or did you pick up on some types from movies and TV?
Sierra: I could imagine how someone might stereotypically cast or play Daisy Miller, where she’d be blond—you know, of course she would speak in a certain way. I felt like there was this tendency— I mean, in theory, you read books to relate to people, to imagine you’re that person, to leap a divide. But often with certain kinds of characters, the exact opposite happens and a wall springs up between you. Because I would tend to look at someone like Daisy Miller and I might think: ‘Oh, no, no, no, she’s nothing like me, I’m nothing like that.’ And I wanted to see what would happen if I thought: ‘What if we have a shared emotional core?’ So I just spoke from that. And when I was speaking as her, I just sort of instinctively latched onto the thing I could most connect with. It literally felt like it was coming from the center of my solar plexus. And…it felt right? I mean, the listener decides.
And, I did the same thing with other characters as well and this is, of course, the magic of audiobooks. It’s one of the last few remaining art forms where someone is asked to conjure up many characters in themselves. And it is strange—you discover you have a lot more in common on a basic emotional level. Maybe it’s just everyone’s reptilian brain is similar, I don’t know.
It’s sort of a transcendental experience.
Serafim: Would you say that Caroline Spencer and Daisy Miller have more in common than the two male protagonists in the two novellas?
Sierra: I would say it’s hard not to see the men as being surrogates for James a little bit.
Serafim: Yeah, I had the same experience. It’s almost like they easily could have been the same character where I think Daisy Miller and Caroline Spencer could not be further away from each other.
Sierra: I’m just trying to think what they have in common now… Yes, it’s obvious they are very different but what qualities do they share?
Serafim: I think Daisy Miller has basically that nerve and a sort of naughtiness, this desire to be different, stick out, prove something to the world. That is very appealing in a way that we’re sort of used to looking at people through the lens of their own insecurity. Although she definitely seems vulnerable in some ways, she is very much a bird in a cage that can’t wait to get out of the cage. Whereas Caroline Spencer – I think she is much more of a reserved person with dreams and desires and hopes that are very limited in her own self-realization. She’s obviously thinking of other people before she thinks of herself. And that is the very reason why she struggles to fulfill her dream.
Sierra: Just listening to you describe them, I can’t help but think that the one thing they have in common is they’re both very stubbornly romantic. And I think that James might have been trying to say something about the American character—also through the male characters.
I mean the books are international, they’re about Americans traveling to Europe, living lives in Europe but I think James—and I’m actually really curious to know if you have this experience because I certainly—when I was living overseas, in Beirut, in my case—I really felt very American and I looked back on the United States from a certain vantage point, which I hadn’t enjoyed from inside the country and I’m curious for you, having lived outside of Russia now for more than 10 years, to what extent do you feel more Russian and to what extent do you look back and have a greater grasp on the Russian character than you would have when you were just growing up there?
Serafim: It definitely makes you feel more connected to your roots when you are away from it and especially when you’re recognizing some of these traits in other people who could be from the same culture as you are; when both of you are removed, it’s more pronounced. But I personally never felt very Russian just due to my own family history. We were raised with the idea that eventually we want to immigrate so if I ever have felt this, I try to either mask it or to not get too attached to this feeling. But it’s very interesting what you’re saying about the Americanism of both Caroline Spencer and Daisy Miller because, although Henry James is American of course—the books don’t read necessarily like American literature, they have this international feel. And yet both stories are about the Americanism of people whose very features are coming into the spotlight when they are not at home.