“So passed a pleasant period in the well-cushioned limousine in which Lanny Budd was rolling through life.”

That’s right, I’m back on the Pulitzer train!  After a very, very long delay, I’ve picked up Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, the 1943 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, and am charging through as fast as I can just to get it over with.  I’m about a quarter of the way through now, and thought I could share at least a few of my reflections, although truthfully Sinclair doesn’t give me much to talk about.

The reason for that is something I discussed last year when I began the novel—Sinclair’s more a propagandist than a prose stylist, and the novel is therefore more an opportunity for him to talk about politics and economics than it is a work of literature.  The Budds and Robins (our two principal families) are still doing their respective things as American and Jewish-German munitions dealers during the interwar period (specifically, 1930, at this point in the book), and it’s still giving Sinclair plenty of opportunity to talk about all the things he cared about in the aftermath of WWI and the slow rise of the conditions that created WWII.  I still don’t think these characters are very deep or interesting, and I still find that a shame, since there ought to be scope for some really artful psychological stuff here, especially for the Robin paterfamilias whose status as a rich, arms-dealing Jew in Berlin society as the National Socialists rise to power should give him a lot to chew over.  We just don’t see it.

What we do see, jarringly, is the first fictional depiction of Adolf Hitler I’ve ever read.  Oh, of course I’ve seen him on television and in film portrayed by actors, I’ve read non-fiction about him, and I’ve certainly seen some of the footage taken of his speeches in the 1930s.  It’s just odd to have him as a character in a novel I’m reading—a man Lanny Budd is invited to luncheon with, and with whom Budd then has a long, strained conversation.  In some ways I liked it—Hitler is so clearly one of the most important men in world history, and the notion that a novel might explore what he was like outside the carefully scripted world of speech-giving and military planning is kind of intriguing.  But of course I have Sinclair’s limitations as a writer of character, and unfortunately, with Hitler, even slightly wrong tones can start to feel really odd—you wonder if the novelist is being too sympathetic to a genocidal maniac, or too sloppy in caricaturing a complex man, or any number of other things.  In short, a good novelist should try this (and maybe they have), but this isn’t a good idea for Sinclair.

I do like that Upton allows us some complexity in the main characters, at least.  For instance, when they spend the summer of 1930 at their villa, Lanny and his wife have a real liberal argument about the poor.  Lanny sees them starving and wants to buy cheap food and distribute it to them.  His wife, Irma, thinks it’s better to buy their usual expensive food, which puts more money in the hands of locals who will use it in the local economy, and not to bother with charitable handouts, which she thinks will at best encourage laziness and at worst will make people feel disrespected and dependent.  As much as I feel more sympathy to one side of the argument, there’s undeniably a case on each side, and Upton, to his unexpected credit, lets both sides have their say.

One complaint, and a common one for me: if you can’t, as an author, get the little details of your setting right, don’t bother writing at all, because it wrecks my concentration to see badly misrepresented reality.  For instance, Sinclair in a passage I just read notes that Lanny’s infant, which is a few months old, just said her first word and is now trying to learn to stand.  But the timing of these events is weirdly backwards, as I know now (as a parent of an infant).  It’s a small thing, Upton, but because it’s small, can’t we fix it?

I will keep plodding—there are much better books ahead, and I want to get to them!  But the above is all I have for now.

8 comments on ““So passed a pleasant period in the well-cushioned limousine in which Lanny Budd was rolling through life.”

  1. SilverSeason says:

    The only book I have read by Sinclair is The Jungle — the one everyone reads. What he is attempting here sounds interesting, but I think I’ll skip it. If you want an affecting novel about the position of Jews in 1930s Germany, I recommend The Oppermanns, in which a prosperous and well-connected family have to come to terms with the fact that they are no longer considered Germans in the country they love.

    Are there any other novels where Hitler is a character? Stalin appears in several by Grossman, Solzhenitsyn, Rybakov and mostly they convinced me. Stalin was as evil as Hitler, but his ideas were not as crazy, so maybe that makes him easier to portray.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the comment, Nancy! I definitely will make note of your suggested novel, since I do think the subject would make for a great novel. As far as Hitler as a character, there must be other examples, but I can’t think of any—certainly none I’ve read before. Yes, I think it’s the mania that’s hard, since it’s both difficult to imagine having a conversation with the raving ideologue you see in those Riefenstahl films (how you talk to a man shouting at you?), but it’s also hard to imagine what it’s like when that raving ideologue calms down (how do you depict that without making him seem suddenly reasonable? or did he, in fact, seem reasonable?). Truthfully, once you’ve decided to depict Hitler, it may be that Sinclair’s effort is at least reasonably close to as good as a novelist can do with the material…I’m not sure. Anyway, I hope I’m done with Hitler scenes, although I really suspect I’m not.

  2. Donna says:

    Yay! Back to Pulitzers!! Slowly but surely you will finish this.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I will! 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement, Donna!

      • Donna says:

        I was just looking at the History list to see if I wanted to start a similar project, but many of the oldest winners are multi-volumed. That’s way too much reading! And I think the early History books would be too dated to recommend.

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          You know, I get that, but I also think it would be fun for you to try a list like this — I know I’d read your posts! Maybe just start the History list at a key date — the end of WWII or something — if the early stuff is too long and outdated? 🙂

        • Donna says:

          I could start with my birth year 1953. “The Era of Good Feelings” by Dangerfield. While I’ve never heard of this book before, there are lots of others on the list I’m dying to read.

          When you eventually get to Pulitzer books you’ve already read will you read them again and blog your thoughts in the context of this project? There are some on the History list I have read and in fairness I think I will need to reread them.

          I’ll go back and check your blog, but have you been posting more than once per book?

  3. jwrosenzweig says:

    Beginning in your birth year is a neat concept—I like it. 🙂 I do fully intend to re-read any Pulitzer books I get to, and talk about what’s new (or not new) about them in the light of all this context I’ve given myself. I won’t face that until 1953’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, though, and truthfully it’s been so long since I read that, I’m not sure I remember anything at all. The first book I know I’ll have comparisons to make is 1961’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”.

    I have been posting more than once per book, in part to record my reactions as I go, and in part because otherwise I’d barely ever post about Pulitzer books, given how slowly they go by. 🙂 I think the most I ever posted on a book was ten times, on “Arrowsmith”, of all novels—one I neither loved nor hated. The least I ever posted was on “Years of Grace”, which had the merits of being a page-turner (so I moved fast), unmemorably average (so that there was little to say), and being read while I had just started a new job (less blogging time available)—and even then I posted three times on the book. I know it’s a bit unusual….certainly I haven’t seen a ton of book bloggers out there adopt this approach, at least….but it works for me. 🙂

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