1944: Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin

Literary Style:

This book took me less long than the last one, but still much too long—especially because it’s a much better novel, and deserved better from me.  My chief complaint (already described at some length in a previous post) is Flavin’s weirdly circuitous style, that depends so heavily on flashbacks and informing us of sudden, shocking information off-handedly in retrospect that it can be a bit irritating at a plot level.  You can only read passages that go like this—“His mother had arrived by hired limousine, although he didn’t know it at the time.  She looked well when she walked in; so well that neither of them would have suspected this was the last time they saw each other before her untimely death.”—a few times before you start grousing out loud to the narrator.

And yet Flavin makes it work.  In part he does manage at times to achieve that almost Tristram Shandy effect that I imagine he’s going for, where we move back and forth around some key times in the life of our main character, Sam Braden—the sound of an old iron fence being brought down one afternoon punctuates I don’t know how many chapters late in the book, and it comes to take on a certain significance as he keeps bringing us back to Sam in his study that afternoon.  But more importantly, Flavin has such a sure hand on these characters that, even when I know startling news about them in that narrator’s shorthanded asides, finally seeing that same event play out in real time is still gripping to me.  Even when I know what they’ll say in the end, I like to hear them say it.  Life has distracted me away from this book more than once, but Flavin’s hold on the characters—and on me, the reader—is so strong that I never need to retrace my steps.  I am immediately and vividly right back with them, I remember why we are where we are, and I want to observe them again just as intensely as when I set the book down last.

This really is the book that The Late George Apley set out to be and failed at—a long rambling walk through the life of an almost-great man and his family and friends, that illuminates a lot about America from 1900-1940 and has something left to say to a wartime home front.  Sam is remarkable, with just enough flaws and just enough virtues to be interesting to watch, sometimes a good guy to root for, but never the expression of wish fulfillment or some silly notion about “the ideal American businessman”.  Through his eyes we see poverty, opportunity, race, class, gender—you name it.  Flavin isn’t quite progressive enough to give us a novel that could withstand our modern sensibilities, but this is light years beyond the Pulitzer winners of the 1920s and 1930s, dealing very calmly with interracial romance, religious bigotry, and extreme political and class struggle tensions between characters.  It will never be read and dissected like a Steinbeck or a Fitzgerald, but it ought to be better remembered than it is: the story is expansive, the characters fragile and unpredictable in their humanity, and ultimately more than one scene moved me emotionally to the point that I felt at least misty-eyed.  This is a good novel.

Historical Insight:

A well-thought-out book on this front—it certainly captures the sea change that a small Midwestern river town would have gone through over fifty years, including the rise of the railroads, the impact of two wars and the intervening depression, and ultimately the rise of commercialism and factory production.  Sam is reflective enough (and involved enough in a lot of this change) to help us imagine what this looked like to Americans passing through it, and he has two close friends on opposite sides of this America—a grizzled, American Legion type businessman with a fire for competition and an idealist, leftist newspaper man with no head for numbers or accounting but a passion for the rights of the working poor—whose conversations help draw some of these images out in more detail.  A lot of the story of Sam Braden and his family is about class, too—what America will let you overcome and what it won’t, what money will buy and what it won’t—and given this particular era in American history, that makes a real difference to me as the reader.  This doesn’t quite rise to the level of a novel like my last one by Upton Sinclair, but it’s not trying to: what Flavin wants to do on this front, I think he succeeds with, and it certainly is more than good enough at evoking America in this time period to make me happy with it as a Pulitzer winner.

Rating:

My unscientific scale calls this “a great read for anyone who enjoys well-developed characters, especially if you like a longer family saga or a historical novel”.  Not among the very best Pulitzers I’ve read, but close behind them, totally worth reading, and a book I’m glad won an award, since I want it to be remembered.

The Last Word:

As is my custom, I give the last word to the author, and let you be the judge of what you find.  Here, late in the story (after World War II has already engulfed America), Sam Braden is writing a letter to his son, Hath:

“He did not mean, he said, to accuse himself uniquely, for it was his generation which much be indicted; he, himself, was no more than a reflection of the world in which he’d lived, not atypical at all.  He could only be convicted of having realized the fruit which his fellow men had coveted, of being a winner in a race in which, as it turned out, there were not any winners, since there were not any stakes—no real reward for winning; but only the winners had a chance to find that out.  He would plead guilty to success—the very same in pursuit of which most people lived and died, never knowing that the stars at which they grasped were fireflies and marsh lights.  And success had this advantage: once in your hand you could examine it and appraise its actual value—a benefit denied to less successful men.

‘Values,’ he wrote, ‘that’s where we have been wrong: bad accounting methods, confusing liabilities with assets; the books are in a mess.  But I think that it is changing—not just for the duration, as many people say.  And I believe in you, Hath, all you fine young men who must suffer for our faults, who must fight and win a war which you had no part in making, and who must remake a world which we have wrecked—I believe that you will not repeat the old mistakes.'”

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“Sooner or later people suffered for their sins. The neighbors might forget, but God remembered—“

I know it’s been a while since you heard from me on Journey in the Dark, my current Pulitzer novel.  Truthfully, that’s because it’s been going fine—not outstanding, but a solid reading experience.  I finally realized I was more than 3/4 of the way through and hadn’t posted since my initial post on the novel: apologies!  I’ll try to capture in broad strokes why it’s gone well but not memorably enough to make me say “Ah! I must write about that great moment!” or “AAAHHH!  I MUST write about that AWFUL passage!”

The setup, as I wrote initially, was good.  I thought at the time that I was being set up for some thoughtful exploration of race, in particular, maybe also class.  As it’s turned out, the race element has moved to the back: it’s not so much that Flavin mishandles it as that it’s just not what he’s interested in.  Instead, he’s pretty taken with just exploring the character of Sam Braden: what does it take to be a self-made man, and what kind of people do you encounter along the way?  Flavin does have the consistent habit of taking away tension by narrating the ends of stories in flashback before popping back to tell the middle of those stories in “real time”.  I find it irritating, although less so than when it was the consistent device in The Late George Apley.  I have no idea why that would be so, but it is.  For the most part, though, he’s just tracing all these elements he set up at the beginning to their logical conclusion—what would life be like for Sam’s flighty, dreamer sister who was (probably inaccurately) informed by some posh girls in their small town that she had a voice good enough for opera?  Where would it take Sam’s Estella-equivalent (Great Expectations definitely looms large over big stretches of this novel) childhood obsession, a young woman too beautiful and aware of her talents to really be willing to settle, but also a young woman who seems unsure of what it is she wants in the first place (critically important for anyone afraid of “settling”)?  Where would it take Sam?

It’s taken Sam on a sort of picaresque journey through American capitalism—winning his way into the railroad business (at a very low level) as it’s conquering the West, then flopping into sales in the era when advertising and PR become dominant market forces, shifting then into manufacturing and importing/exporting as the world opens up for American mass-produced goods.  He serves in the army in WWI, watches a business fail and then resurface, and makes the miraculously fortunate decision to give up being a business owner—selling all his shares—a few weeks before the Great Crash in 1929 destroys most of the families he knew.  It’s less politically and historically aware than Upton Sinclair’s novel (Dragon’s Teeth, my long-time nemesis, chronicled extensively here), but in some ways I don’t mind that at all: it lets me focus on Sam as a real person dealing with real issues whose magnitude he can’t always assess accurately.

I chose the title I did for this post because the sentiments—expressed by Sam’s spinster elder sister, Madge—rings so true for so much of the novel.  Without seeming vindictive about it, Flavin certainly ensures that his world is a “just” one, at least by some standards.  People who flout convention will reap the consequences.  Everything catches up to you eventually.  Sam’s relatively consistent devotion to ethical behavior—not totally consistent, but certainly more than a lot of his acquaintances—allows him to escape most of this, so far, but I think I see a reckoning coming.

My only concern at this point is that I don’t see this novel signifying much.  Flavin isn’t trying to make Sam emblematic of much of anything, as far as I can tell.  Other than some vaguely positive (while clear-eyed) assessments of capitalism, maybe some general leanings towards supporting society’s strictures about sobriety, modesty, and fidelity, I can’t see that Flavin is trying to say much beyond the flat details of the story—that America is a place where a Sam Braden can make a life, and a successful one.  If that’s all I get from the book, it certainly will have been a better reading experience than a lot of the things I’ve read.  But I can’t say it will stick with me.  I’m already fading on a lot of details earlier in the novel, without having even reached the end yet.  I think I can understand the Pulitzer committee responding to this well in the moment, but I wonder if, even just a few months later, they realized it didn’t have the challenge and controversy that distinguishes real art (most of the time), and came to regret their choice.

We’ll see.  Sam still has a few chickens to come home to roost yet.  I doubt very much I’ll post again until my review, which hopefully shouldn’t take too much longer.  I’ll ponder the calm tone and simple success of the characterization, as opposed to the relatively slim joys of the plot and its underlying significance, and see what it adds up to, in the end.

1943: Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair

Literary Style:

It’s been two years since I wrote one of these reviews.  Of course, right after I reviewed the 1942 novel, In This Our Life, we found out we were expecting our little daughter, so there’s a reason this stretch of my life was so devoid of Pulitzer reading time.  Still, I’m glad to finally finish this one, and with the momentum I picked up, I’m already close to 1/4 done with 1944’s selection (post on that upcoming, probably tomorrow or Monday), so I hope this is the longest gap I ever hit between reviews here at FP.

Of course, it wasn’t all my daughter’s fault.  Upton Sinclair’s book is maddening in its first half—slow-paced, shallow, crammed full of characters that are hard to distinguish, formless, seemingly aimless.  If not for the blog, I’d have given up all hope of sticking with it entirely.  But that would have been to miss out on some good story-telling, it turns out.  The last half of the book succeeds at least in being gripping and page-turning, and to some extent in digging deeper into characters, by shedding most of what makes the first half bad.  Once the Robins are endangered by the rise of the Nazi state, and one in particular is imprisoned in a concentration camp (n.b.: not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz, since we’re still only in 1933-1934…that’s not to say anything about the camp is less than horrifying, but I think we do tend to conflate “concentration camp” with “extermination camp” in casual usage), Lanny Budd and his wife Irma become our central focus.  Sinclair mostly forgets his jabs at wealth and class, or else figures out how to work them into a more thoughtful examination of the character of Irma in particular, whose wealth and class have a real bearing on her willingness to risk on behalf of some Jewish in-laws who’ve run afoul of powerful German capitalists.  The stakes are high, and the book gets far more up close and personal with the gruesome, dehumanizing violence of the Nazi agenda that I would have guessed.  I expect that Sinclair’s fearlessness in depicting these horrors probably worked to his advantage in the voting for that year’s Pulitzer—a novel that makes Hitler and his henchmen look this blandly evil, written by a noted American propagandist, must surely have felt “right” to a lot of people on the board.

That’s not to say it is obvious to me, taken as a whole on its literary merit, that this ought to be a prize-winning novel.  I don’t have personal experience with the other likely contenders from that year (maybe one of Steinbeck’s less well-known titles, The Moon is Down, or Lloyd Douglas’s big popular success in historical fiction, The Robe? It’s hard to say), but Sinclair’s novel has at least as many weaknesses as it has strengths.  Certainly as a work of literature (which is all I consider in this section of the review) it is weakly executed in narration, characterization, and consistency of tone—of all the many characters I’m asked to keep up with, only two really feel alive to me.  If you like a well-written novel (and not every reader cares; I happen to, but I’m not judging people who are more taken by setting, plot, etc.), this will fall short of the mark.

Historical Insight:

The ugly, appallingly evil world into which Sinclair lets us peer

The ugly, appallingly evil world into which Sinclair lets us peer

The strength of the book, as I have said all along (more so recently), is Sinclair’s unflinching look at the desperate state of Europe in the 1930s through the eyes of a lefist American (Lanny Budd, ostensibly, although really most of the actual commentary/insight is expressed by our allegedly 3rd person narrator, a thinly-veiled Upton Sinclair).  Given the second half of the book, really the deepest looks are aimed into the crumbling Weimar Republic in Germany, and how the cruel peace imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919 planted the seeds of revolution that Hitler would grow into a garden of his own devising, and for his own purposes.  We see the violence of the Nazi state, the duplicity with which Hitler used real revolutionaries to seize power (only to double-cross those same revolutionaries when they threatened his ability to win over the powerful tycoons who ran big business in Deutschland), even down to the minute details like Goebbels’s wife being the highest ranking Nazi woman (given that Hitler and Göring are bachelors in 1933) or Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, being a homosexual (a fact blandly commented on by the characters who know it: while no one could call this a gay-friendly narrative, it’s strikingly devoid of homophobia, especially given the era).  Lesser insights are given into French and English politics and social movements of the era.  In fact, if I have one complaint, it’s a damning one (for a Pulitzer winner)—Sinclair barely explains anything about America at all.  He’s poised to comment—Lanny and Irma are heirs to various American businesses and fortunes, and have extensive ties on that side of the Atlantic.  They even visit on one or two occasions, but Sinclair sweeps them back to Europe before they can really engage with the Great Depression, the right-wing unrest in the States that in some ways mirrored Nazism/Fascism on the European continent, Roosevelt’s surge into leadership and his bold actions in pushing through his 100 Days of the New Deal.  I’ve certainly enjoyed revisiting the 1930s—as a history major, most of this is review for me, but some of it is new and all of it is interesting.  I just wish it was telling me something more about America.

Rating:

On the unscientific scale, I give this a “If you are interested in the time period, like a good pot-boiler, and aren’t fussy about writing style”.  As someone who is interested in the 1930s (and likes a thriller at least some of the time) but IS fussy about style, I’m pretty ambivalent about this one.  I wouldn’t recommend it too widely, but I did find myself liking the last third, especially, and am much more positive about it now than I was only a month or two ago.

The Last Word:

As is my custom, I give the author the last word in the review, choosing a passage I think shows some of the better side of what I read (although, in this case, it’s showing some of the worst sides of a character’s personality).  The context is a conversation from late in the book (but not the end), in which Lanny and his wife, Irma, are arguing about what to do for the member of the Robin family imprisoned by the Nazis.  Irma’s character is finally being developed—we can see some of this emerge as the narrator explains her reactions to her husband, and I think this is a good example of Sinclair actually working out how someone different from him sees the world.  It’s also not devoid of his moralizing—none of his narration is—so if you don’t mind that, you might be great with this book, and if it really irritates you, this novel will not work for you.

Anyway: Lanny has just gotten news identifying the camp to which this poor Robin was taken, and has announced to his wife his determination to save the prisoner—she has attempted to put her foot down, but Lanny has dismissed her attempts to stop him:

“So Irma had to give up.  She had told him what was in her heart, and even though she would break down and weep, she wouldn’t change; on the contrary, she would hold it against him that he had made her behave in that undignified fashion.  In her heart she knew that she hated the Robin family, all of them; they were alien to her, strangers to her soul.  If she could have had her way she would never have been intimate with them; she would have had ehr own yacht and her own palace and the right sort of friends in it.  But this Socialism business had made Lanny promiscuous, willing to meet anybody, an easy victim for any sort of pretender, any slick, canting ‘idealist’—how she loathed that word!  She had been forced to make pretenses and be polite; but now this false ’cause’ was going to deprive her of her husband and her happiness, and she knew that she heartily despised it.

It wasn’t just love of herself.  It was love of Lanny, too.  She wanted to help him, she wanted to take care of him; but this ‘class struggle’ stepped in between and made it impossible; tore him away from her, and sent him to face danger, mutilation, death.  Things that Irma and her class were supposed to be immune from!  That was what your money meant; it kept you safe, it gave you privilege and security.  But Lanny wanted to throw it all away.  He had got the crazy notion that you had no right to money; that having got it, you must look down upon it, spurn it, and thwart the very purposes for which it existed, the reasons why your forefathers had worked so hard!  If that was not madness, who could find anything that deserved the name?”

“I cannot believe that God is still alive.”

Well, we’ve hit the intense portion of Dragon’s Teeth.  Hitler is bringing down the hammer on the Jews of Germany, and it’s striking just the characters that have been sitting in its shadow this whole time—in particular, arms dealer Johannes Robin, who has been insisting to Lanny Budd that he knows how to handle the Nazis and stay on their good side.  And it really is the first part of the novel that works (although not without its issues).  I’ll try to say why without giving up too much of the plot, given that I’m nearing the end of the novel—close enough that this may well be my last post before writing a review.

One of the problems with Upton Sinclair’s novel, in my estimation, is that it’s the 3rd novel in an incredibly long series of books on Lanny Budd (Sinclair will wrap up with the 11th book in the series in the early 1950s).  In works of this kind, an impossible number of characters are floated because the author needs to keep everyone hanging around in case they become useful again.  Then add to this the fact that the novels are really just Sinclair’s pretext for being able to opine about world events, and you have to add in all the real people he needs them to interact with—Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring both make extended cameos in this section, for example.  The result, for much of the book, is a sea of names marching in and out, and if you can’t remember the difference between Zoltan and Zaharoff, neither of whom have actually appeared in a scene in hundreds of pages but both of whom will be referred to casually by their last names multiple times in situations where context cannot possibly help you, dear reader, work out who in the heck they are….well, let’s say it’s been frustrating and leave it at that.

But in this scenario, suddenly the world has telescoped down to something very small—really it’s just Lanny and his wife Irma, making their way into Hitler’s Germany to try to secure the freedom of Lanny’s Jewish relatives (in-laws via his sister’s marriage to one of the Robin boys) without either endangering them further or risking their own lives too hastily.  Upton is forced to spend a lot of time with the two of them, to the exclusion of the parade of other characters who (for various sensible reasons) can’t really gallivant into Nazi Germany on a whim.  So we actually get to know them, and to understand how differently they see the world.  And we get to see them try to “play” the Nazis and lose terribly, since fundamentally a man like Göring—monstrous, lacking all conscience and utterly unrestrained by what little was left of law and decency in the Nazi state—held all the cards and knew it.  In the end, they must leave at least one innocent man in Germany because they cannot secure all the freedoms they wanted, which gives cause to Mama Robin’s despairing borderline atheism that provides me with the post’s title.  I’m at the point where they’re now exploring their options for another German rescue, while simultaneously trying to work out how to care for everyone they know in need during a massive worldwide depression.  It’s exciting, page-turning stuff, and it makes for a fairly rewarding experience.

And yet.  The two things that still bug me are the things that will bug me to the end—they’re not accidental on Upton’s part, they’re almost integral to his project, and so even now at his best, they’re in the way.  The first is that almost all the characters are cardboard—they exist to drive the plot and to allow him to make meaningful commentary as the narrator.  Mama Robin is an excellent example—he gives her a couple of heart-breaking lines (like the one I quote above), but he never really deals with her grief.  She agrees to leave Germany with some of her loved ones despite the fact that she’s leaving someone else behind she loves dearly….how can she do that?  What toll does it take?  It has no bearing on Upton’s project and so he literally doesn’t deal with it at all.  When (most of) the family is reunited, he brushes it off with some narrative sentence like “there were many tears, but they eventually subsided” since he couldn’t care less, really, how these characters feel or what they’re going through.  Not unless their feelings can be plumbed for some trenchant political commentary.

And the second issue is that he still doesn’t really like Lanny and Irma, and has made the colossal error of making them his central characters.  In the hands of another author, we might not notice or care, but he really can’t help being snide about them, Irma especially, and it’s irritating.  He hates her naivete and the inherited wealth that made it possible, and now, while he is at least (to his credit) letting her voice her opinions, he makes it clear how vapid and heartless a woman like her really is, without even meaning to be.  And that would be fine—it really would (I think of how Fitzgerald treats Daisy Buchanan)—except that it distracts him from really developing her character much beyond what is needed for the immediate purposes of the plot (Lanny fares only a little better), and since he’s only given the two of them a vital task to do now, at the end and in the heart of a terrible crisis, the sliver we get of their personalities is necessarily limited and therefore frustrating.

Really, again, it goes back to the issues I raised in my last post.  The Holocaust is such rich and tragic emotional territory than any artist worth his salt (and a few unworthy of it) can turn a little paint-by-numbers story into something that feels very profound and significant just by setting it in Nazi Germany with some major Jewish characters.  Upton has at least chosen to make this situation the central focus of the story, at last, and so is getting all he can out of it.  I just feel that his frequent boredom with the characters, combined with his condescension and his political agenda, leaves the story short of what it could have accomplished.  The novel’s reputation with me is getting better—I can’t deny I’m riveted by what’s going on, and I desperately want to know how this turns out.  I just feel that, given the reputation of the author, and the high praise implied by the awarding of a Pulitzer, I deserve something better than a potboiler with some stock characters and an author who plainly thinks he’s smarter than me, maybe than everybody else.  If the whole book were like this section, it would be worth recommending (maybe as an airplane read), but since I had to slog a ways to even get here, I’m not sure what to make of it yet.  We’ll see how this last stretch goes.

1942: In This Our Life, by Ellen Glasgow

Literary Style:

This novel was a strange trip for me—at various times over the course of reading the book, it becomes really distinct and different stories.  Is it a romance?  A reflection on aging and generational values?  A “problem novel” grappling with race and class?  A sort of bildungsroman for young women in the late 1930s?  In the end, it does none of these things really consistently or well.  A more charitable reader might argue that the novel is intended to be complex, and to straddle a lot of different kind of stories in order to represent “this our life” in all its multiple guises.  This reader thinks it’s a poorly managed novel that shows just how important it is for a novelist to not only have talent at the sentence level (that is, crafting nice turns of phrase, etc.) but at the level of the plot outline.  Now, you can get away with a plot that isn’t really well plotted and still create art, if you are a genius doing something totally daring and non-linear—if you are, say, Umberto Eco, or Italo Calvino, maybe David Foster Wallace.  But if this novel proves anything, it’s that Ellen Glasgow and Italo Calvino should not be mentioned together in any sentence.  Other than that one.

So, what is this work?  I’d argue, based on the ending, that Glasgow ultimately decides she wants to be writing an existential novel—the universe she finally articulates is cruel and meaningless.  There are essentially two kinds of people in the book: selfish people who steamroll everyone around them in the name of finding their own happiness, and the selfless people who get walked on as a result.  The selfish people find the happinesses they achieve to be so fleeting and hollow that they ultimately would have been better off never aiming at it in the first place.  The selfless people find that sacrifice brings nothing but heartache and the realization that they will never even know fleeting happiness.  I can’t remember the last time I read a bleaker novel, a book more thoroughly pessimistic about the human condition and its hopelessness.  When, by the book’s end, one of our more “selfless” characters walks out into the night because she cannot imagine how to go on living, or what to go on living for, within the confines of the novel’s picture of reality, I honestly think she’s right.  In a world that looks like this one, suicide is probably the best option—she may not avail herself of that outcome, but someone else does, and it’s hard to argue that they aren’t luckier than most of the people Glasgow kicks around in the whole last half of the book.

Søren, you look like a candy striper when compared with the Timberlake family by the end of this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Søren, you look like a standup comedian when compared with the Timberlake family by the end of this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, existentialism is a proud tradition—you might be thinking I’m being pretty narrow-minded and unfair to bash this book because it’s existentialist.  But I really have to emphasize this: I don’t think this is good existentialism.  I’ve read some Kirkegaard, and some Sartre.  They’re not necessarily my cup of tea, but they were grappling with something real, and however tough it might be to handle what they say at times, they’re never as pointlessly abusive as this book gets.  It’s not clear to me that Glasgow had any real purpose for this project: it certainly doesn’t start out existentialist.  Like I said, she goes through a ton of novels as the book progresses—she starts all sorts of threads that just get dropped or badly “wrapped up” in the final chapters.  Somehow she wrote herself into an ending that’s just ugly to slog through, with a bunch of characters being vile for no real purpose that I can see, and with absolutely no attempts on her part to try to really illuminate any of this and help us understand anything more usefully.  It would be one thing if the novel was a clear attempt by a novelist who sincerely wants to dramatically explore the idea that “man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains”.  But it’s something very different to feel like you’re reading a book written by someone who was either uncreative enough or depressed enough (or both) to end up chaining all the characters down accidentally, and who decided to just ride that train to the very bottom of the valley and see how dark it could get.

At least three of these characters would make my list of the 10 worst human beings I’ve encountered so far in the 20+ Pulitzer winners I’ve read, and that’s despite the fact that (at most) only one of them is responsible for the death of another human being.  And I’ll take the criticism openly that I do prefer novels where I find something to admire in the characters—that’s true, and it’s certainly a bias that operates.  But I think it’s only fair for me to argue that truly meretricious characters, characters whose lives really are cruel and heartless and almost irredeemable, are characters that the novelist at least needs to explore.  You want to make a 20 year old girl into a monster, someone who has been so spoiled by her family that her insatiable appetite for pleasure destroys the lives of everyone she touches?  Fine—but make her real.  Force me to see how she might get that way, what it might be like for her to sincerely see the world that way.  Let me learn something from having known her.  Don’t just make her a cardboard character so awful I cringe whenever she shows up and practically boo and hiss her “off stage” until she disappears.  I can name plenty of bad, even evil, characters in fiction that I think are great to read, and whose books/plays/poems I think are fantastic.  Those characters are written in a way that Glasgow can’t manage.  In the end, as I said from early on, too much of this is soap opera—unworthy of the Pulitzer brand, and unworthy of most people’s time.

Historical Insight:

I’ll say this much—I think that a lot of the issues this novel raises were real issues in the 1940s.  Racism covered with a (very thin) veneer of alleged “open-mindedness”.  Licentiousness, infidelity, broken families, suicide, alcoholism, homicide.  The works.  And I think it’s useful for a society that has idolized that particular generation (this so-called “Greatest Generation“) and that has cloaked that era in sepia-toned awe of the beauty of middle-class American life in its golden age to really confront what it was like then.  I know from researching my family’s history (and my wife’s) that we only think that our “modern” social problems started with the Pill and rock’n’roll and hippies, or whatever it is that America’s moral scolds want to wave around as the reason American culture and American families are the way they are today.  All of those things I listed at the beginning of this paragraph are in our two family trees (well, I may be wrong about homicide, but certainly the rest) from 1960 stretching back to 1860 or so.  I’ll credit Glasgow with writing a book that doesn’t sugar-coat what it’s actually like to live in Virginia in the late 1930s.  But it’s really weak where it should be strong—while the problems are there, the novel is too shallow to really try to make sense of what they are or how they come to be.  The suicide, for example, involves a character we do not know well, whose inner life is never explored, and the suicide occurs well “off screen” several chapters after the last time we saw the character.  We do get at least some kind of realistic contemplation of the aftermath of suicide on an allegedly respectable Southern family, but too much is unexplored.  Racism should be the perfect topic for this book to address, given the events that occur, but the novel only wallows in (and, to some extent, reinforces) racist ideas and attitudes, and never really confronts race, much less provides any African-American character with psychological depth and importance.  In the end, the novel raises some really useful questions about our image of America in the 1930s/1940s, but it does very little to shed light on them.  Certainly it gets better marks here than other novels do, but it’s well below the best in this category.

Rating:

By my unscientific scale, I give this a “Why bother thinking harder about these characters than the author did?”  There are some good moments in the novel, a couple of which I’ve written about earlier.  And I think there could potentially be some value in trying to work with the existential crises that grip our two most central characters late in the novel.  But really, I had to read a long time before I hit anything worth my time, and I felt the final chapters were terribly constructed, a forced ending that waves its hands screaming “Isn’t this oh so very deep and provocative?!?” but without really earning that kind of serious reflection.  Ultimately most of the characters are too thin to serve as anything but cutouts for the plot, while the plot itself is too threadbare and slapdash to provide any real satisfaction.  The ending, furthermore, undercuts what little energy the plot has at that point, by sabotaging the novel’s few options for a meaningful resolution of any of the book’s central conflicts.  So I wouldn’t waste my time if I were you.  I can recommend many better Pulitzer winners (to say nothing of the non-Pulitzer-winning novels) and I hope you’ll spend time with one of them instead.

The Last Word:

By custom, the review finishes with Glasgow’s words—her final appeal (admittedly, one curated by me) to win you over if she can.  Here’s a passage from relatively late in the novel that at least captures some of the depth I think Glasgow was trying for by that point: Sidney Timberlake (the aforementioned monstrous 20 year old girl) is in a tense conversation with her father, Asa.  He’s just returned from seeing their rich relative, Uncle William—he was supposed to ask William for money so that a heartbroken Sidney can travel the world and “forget her problems”, but Asa has to deliver the news that William is unwell, and unable to accommodate her request.  Asa says,

“Wait until he’s himself again, and feeling his oats.  There are times, though you’ll never believe it, when waiting is the best policy.”

“You don’t know,” she cried angrily, and burst into tears.  “You don’t know how it feels to be wasting your life.”

There was a sudden chill in his heart, a streak of ice, as he looked at her.  With all the piled-up agony in the world, with all the pain and the bitterness and the destruction which she had caused, had nothing ever made the faintest dent in her armor of egoism?  Is there any hope for humanity? he thought.  Is there any hope of making a civilized world so long as we are imprisoned in a multitude of separate cells?  “Why are you so sure?” he asked.  “How do you know what I have felt?”

Her face quivered, and she looked up at him through a rain of tears.  “You’re cruel.  Oh, you’re cruel, all of you!  Even Mother, who used to love me best, has turned against me since I came home.”

The chill melted within, and the old irrational softness invaded his thoughts.  She would always win in the end, not with him alone, but with other men also; and she would win, he told himself, not through strength, but through some inner weakness, whether her own or another’s.

1938: The Late George Apley, by John P. Marquand

Literary Style:

The trouble with Apley, as I’ve already chronicled in some detail in my reflections along the way, is that I don’t feel John Marquand successfully negotiated the fuzzy boundary between fiction and non-fiction that he took on in this novel, which presents the character of George Apley over the course of his whole life, through the eyes of a close friend and the documentary bric-a-brac he left behind him.  Marquand isn’t ambitious enough with the fictional details to turn the story into something just slightly larger-than-life, more vivid than what ordinary biography can provide.  But he wasn’t energetic enough to pitch the idea of fiction altogether, and research an actual figure—I understand why that seemed daunting, but it would have had the advantage of being genuine, which Apley in its current state does not earn.  As it is, I feel I am getting a very incomplete picture of a man not quite real.  As I’ve mentioned earlier, even when George takes interesting actions, there is no means by which to examine his motives, to consider what may be happening inside George (or any other character).  The format precludes any kind of engagement with the cardboard cut-outs that comprise the dramatis personæ.  What few insights Marquand has to offer seem to me very pedestrian—yes, fathers are often overbearing and ungentle to their promising young sons; yes, the strictures of upper-class American society cause some people to reach the end of their lives and find that, to borrow from Thoreau, they had not truly lived; yes, on some level the older generation never does understand the younger generation, or the world in which they live.  Did it really take a novel to accomplish that kind of trite epiphany?

The problems are not devastating, in one sense—the book is rarely offensive, its characters occasionally turn a phrase worth pausing over, there are times when it glimpses something about human lives that I was not quite expecting.  But in another sense this is really damning, because Marquand is so tentative with the premise and so bound by the rules he establishes that the book isn’t worth getting excited about on any level.  The Pulitzers’ more wretched fare—Scarlet Sister Mary, to take but one example—at least has the merit of exuberance and almost cheekiness in its failure.  I really disliked that book, but I remember it.  I doubt very much that I will remember Marquand’s little story.  Devoid of meaningful conflict (it’s hard to be interested in the lives of people you never meet), reined in by an insufferable narrator character who can’t even manage to be boring enough to be funny, walled in by a strict chronological march of decades that saps the energy (or at least it did mine)—the novel is really a strange little work.  That this effort beats out Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a bafflement.

Zora Neale Hurston, American author. Deutsch: ...

I get that Zora was too cool for the Pulitzer squares, but still, what an injustice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d go on at more length—this review’s a bit shorter than usual—but I’ve rung the changes on this book every way I know how in my previous posts.  Unlike many of the other novels I’ve encountered on the journey so far, this one’s like plain oatmeal, and I’m out of adjectives to describe how it fails to inspire much in me.  Some folks like Marquand, I know, and they’re welcome to him.

Historical Insight:

To the extent that the novel is a successful experience for me—which is to say, not very—it’s the fact that Marquand does explore some interesting New England (especially Bostonian) upper class phenomena.  The gentlemen’s club dinners, the ladies’ sewing circles, the family plots in ancient graveyards, the Copley portraits hanging in the hall and Revere silver on the dining room table, etc., etc.  I didn’t really feel I was breaking a lot of ground that I hadn’t already covered in a slightly more rural high-income old New England family in Early Autumn, or in a more or less equally high-income old family in New York in The Age of Innocence, but there were certainly a few new glimpses of that world, which I found useful.  I liked the fact that we get a little idea of how Harvard University changes over time (and how its alumni see it, in this period), and I think there were some nice things done with World War I and Prohibition.  But all of this is very slight—because I never really connect to the characters, these little pieces of trivia about the time and place are never quite as real as I want them to be.  It’s a bit sad, since I think “historical insight” is really Marquand’s motivation for writing the novel—it’s the only sense I can make of why he wrote what he did.  But he never gets there as successfully as I would have wanted, and in trying for it he loses too much.

Rating:

My thoroughly unscientific ranking scale being what it is, I can only give The Late George Apley a “pass this by, as it fails to be interestingly bad”.  It’s by no means the worst of the Pulitzers.  Certainly it has its defenders, who I hope will speak for it (either here in the comments, or in other venues), since I feel no particular animosity towards the book.  But by virtually every measure I can come up with, this book generally failed to get my attention or to do anything worthwhile with it, when it did.  It might be fun to read a really bad novel and have a nice loud banter-filled conversation about it with a friend.  This novel won’t give you that experience (or much of any other kind of experience, either), so given the world of books and your limited free time, just keep on walking.

The Last Word:

To finish, as usual, with the author getting the final say, I’m going with one of George Apley’s last letters to his son, in which he comments on an essay by Emerson that he’d been reading, and applies some of it to his life.  If this grabs you, maybe you ought to give the book a try.  It comes closer to working for me than most of the rest of the book, and I can’t say it works, even then.  At any rate, here it is—the words of the late George Apley (though the ellipsis is mine):

“I have been amusing myself to-day by reading Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance.  There is a brave ring to the words.  There is a courage about them which I like to think that Emerson and the rest of us, in a lesser measure, have drawn from the rocky soil and from this harsh climate.  I like to think we are all self-reliant in a way, but sometimes Emerson leads one’s thoughts along disturbing channels.  Emerson disturbed me this afternoon.

He made me do something which I have never really done.  He made me examine my life objectively, and I cannot say that I liked it very much; however, I could see myself as perhaps you and some others see me.  It seems to me that, although I have tried, I have achieved surprisingly little compared with my own father and his father, for instance.  I repeat that this negative result has not been for want of trying.  The difficulty seems to have been that something has always stepped in the way to prevent me.  I have always been faced from childhood by the obligation of convention, and all of these conventions have been made by others, formed from the fabric of the past.  In some way these have stepped in between me and life.  I had to realize that they were designed to do just that.  They were designed to promote stability and inheritance.  Perhaps they have gone a little bit too far. . . .

I have known the satisfaction of accomplishing something on which I have centred all my energies and hopes.  I have known the feeling of warm earth.  I have heard sleigh bells in winter.  All this has been very good.  Yet somehow I seem to have enjoyed very little of these pleasures, for I have never seemed to have had the time to enjoy them.  More than this, I will tell you frankly I have sometimes deliberately tried not to enjoy them.  I have turned away from them because I have believed that most of these were pleasures of the senses rather than of the intellect.  I have been taught since boyhood not to give way to sensuality.  I think this afternoon, now that it is almost too late, that this viewpoint may be a little wrong.  There has been too much talk in my life.  There has been too little action.”

“Most people in the world don’t know who the Apleys are, and they don’t give a damn.”

Ah, Uncle Horatio.  If only you and I were among the blissfully ignorant on that score, ourselves.  But no, time passes and our intimacy with the Apleys continues to grow, no matter how little we “give a damn”, to quote you (and to borrow from that Charlestonian charmer, Rhett Butler).

I think this will be my last reflection on The Late George Apley, since I’m finding my ideas about the book are settling into place, and I doubt there will be anything sufficiently new as to be worthy of reflection before I’m finished and it’s time to write a review.  So, what can I say about Marquand’s novel, at this point?  George is becoming less likable—which is not necessarily a fault from my standpoint as a reader looking for something to interest me—as he slowly turns into the pompous toffee-nosed ass that his father was.  I see some differences between the two characters (to the extent that I really know anything about either of them), but I also see the trajectory and take Marquand’s point.  We have advanced almost to America’s entry into World War I, and while I do take interest in the time period and some of the occasional details the novel puts forward, overall the boredom I described in my last reflection is still very much the norm.

Marquand just doesn’t seem to know how to establish meaningful conflict and resolution.  A character is introduced, their life thrown into a crisis, George responds, and then we’re in the aftermath with ruminative letters and diary entries pondering the meaning of this episode, all in the space of about 3 pages.  This happens with regularity.  The effect is not gripping.  It’s hard to be moved by the end of a marriage you didn’t really know about, or to see the tragedy in the death of a character whose life was opaque to you.  I do see some recurrent themes that I’m sure Marquand intends to use to add depth to the proceedings, but they all feel very thin.  Maybe in 1938 it was shocking that a high-society man would almost fall for a lower-class Irishwoman in his early 20s, and then, 30 years later, look back on rare occasions and wonder if he could have been happy with her.  I confess I find the banality of it all almost laughable.

I see that the novel’s point is to trace all sorts of things relating to the feelings and tensions in upper class Bostonian life in this era, but it doesn’t connect because it’s too busy wrapping things up neatly and moving on suddenly.  None of the characters are easy to get to know, and frankly Marquand’s borderline misogyny is a bit hard to take (I don’t think there’s a single woman who is portrayed with any complexity, and almost all of them come across as overbearing busybodies who emotionally dominate weak-willed husbands for no apparent motive other than thinly-veiled malice—I’m fine with one woman like this, but having four or five of them is a bit much).  Underneath all of this is my recurring appeal to Marquand on the question of why he wrote this as fiction: the topic lends itself to a non-fiction account very easily.  If you’re going to lose the benefit of talking about actual people and their actual relationships and problems, you need to make up for it by using one of the many advantages fiction can provide over the limits that non-fiction imposes.  But I don’t see that he’s doing that—certainly if there is anything deeper to this novel than some fairly simple reflections about how circumscribed the lives of the rich are, how oppressive a “family name” can be, how easily society turns us into replicas of our parents, I can’t see it.  It’s probably unfair to compare Marquand to Wharton, but I can’t help it—she moved in a fairly similar world in her fiction, and yet the depth she was able to explore was so much greater than this.  I can’t fathom why I would read this over anything she wrote.

Ultimately I’m uninvested in the events of the book because the format prevents me from being invested.  To take one recent example from my reading, the usually complacent and mild-mannered George Apley has become incredibly active and almost vituperative in his denunciation of the German cause in World War I, and his support of the Allies—going so far as to deplore the efforts of charities to feed starving German infants (yeah, George, let those babies die—that’ll teach them for, uh, being born German, I guess?).  But why does he suddenly feel this way?  Is it a love for England, expressed briefly chapters ago in a letter written while traveling there?  Is it a projection of his feelings of anger and frustration at the somewhat autocratic authority of his wife in their home?  Is it a longing for the moral clarity of his father’s generation, which had been so shaped by the conflict of the Civil War?  It could be any or all of these reasons, or dozens more I’m not expressing.  The point is that the novel is so little bothered with actually exploring characters and their interactions with each other that it’s impossible to answer this question.  It’s not clear to me that the question even occurred to Marquand—certainly if it did, the device of the narrator, Willing, interposes itself between the question and anything that could pose an answer to it.  I’m left intrigued on a vague level, but unable to muster much enthusiasm for that intrigue since I know any speculations will only be disappointed.  There’s not enough here to go on.  Having said that, I won’t go on any further about the novel.  A charge forwards over the next day or two, and it will be time for a review, at last.