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.


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.

“Then Göring, President of the Reichstag, declared the session adjourned, and so a great people lost their liberties while rejoicing over gaining them.”

There’s a conventional wisdom about Holocaust movies and the Academy Awards—namely, that if you can just manage to set your movie in that ghastly genocidal event somewhere, the overwhelming emotions associated with it will lend your film a gravity and importance that it might not deserve, and earn you some nominations/awards you otherwise wouldn’t get.  And there’s some truth to it.  For every Schindler’s List, which is a truly great movie, there’s a The Reader or The Pianist (arthouse films that, set in almost any other historical era of oppression and violence, probably wouldn’t get quite the notice), and then the occasional Life is Beautiful, a film that almost no one likes as well in retrospect as they did when it came out, a film that (for many of us) really cheated its way into our hearts by dialing up our emotions to 11 but without giving the subject matter the depth of understanding it deserved, now that we think about it.

Welcome to the rise of Nazi Germany, then, in the hands of Upton Sinclair, because that’s right, dear readers, James is back on the Pulitzer trail and half-way through the 1943 winner of the prize, Dragon’s Teeth.  I’m making more headway now, and it’s time to come up for air and share a few thoughts with you all.  Sinclair’s approach to the novel is still not totally successful for me, but somehow the story is becoming more and more engrossing.  Yet, if I step back to think about it, I worry a little that it’s a Life is Beautiful phenomenon.  The story is set in such an urgent and important time period in German and Jewish history, and several of our main characters (though not the protagonists) are German Jews, and it can be easy to get swept up in the power of what the actual lives of those characters would have been that I don’t think as much about whether Sinclair’s work with them is actually successful writing.  And it’s hard to say exactly where I stand.

Sinclair does some things well—the quote that serves as the post’s title is a nice example.  He does great with these sweeping movements of history, noting what the famous real-life people are doing, sneaking notes about their intrigues and scheming into conversations wherever he can, and moralizing extensively about them in the voice of the narrator—“The Germans gained an empire and lost their souls”, stuff like that—without it being remotely tied to any individual character’s perspective on the situation.  Much of it feels like just a memoir written by a thoughtful and aggressive partisan, which really it is: Sinclair’s perspective on the gross errors made by Americans and Western Europeans in the 1930s which had led to the position the world is in as he writes, engulfed in the second world war, the war they’d sworn to avoid in 1917 and yet had somehow planted the seeds of in the very peace they signed in 1919.  Honestly, I’d rather read his memoir.  He’s much better at dicing up the leftist movements into factions and explaining how they thwarted each other, or examining the ways in which Fascism could present itself as respectable in so many different lights, than he is at writing meaningful dialogue or constructing characters we care about as people.  Sinclair, in other words, could easily have written half of The Grapes of Wrath—the non-Joad chapters, in which Steinbeck told the story of the people and their movements and what it all signified—but would have found even the worst Joad chapter hopelessly above his reach.  That’s my impression as it stands now.

And it’s such a shame, because he sets himself up beautifully.  We’re in 1933, and Hitler has seized power—Jews are fleeing the German Republic as it loses the very name of “republic”, and some of our central characters are among them.  I’ve just read about how the young German Jewish musician, Hansi Robin, fled with his wife across the border into France (with the Budds’ assistance), and then played the music of his people with tears in his eyes before a crowd as an act of political protest once the abuses of the Nazi party against Jews in Germany are starting to make the news.  And it really is powerful, right up until I realize that the character I’m sympathizing with is a guy I personally am constructing.  I’m piecing him together from some of the movies I mentioned, and some stories I’ve read, and the words of a couple of Holocaust survivors whose stories I was privileged enough to hear in person, more than a decade ago.  If I knew nothing about this era other than what Sinclair is giving me, I’d have almost no emotion to bring to the table—unless he has a violin in his hands, I literally cannot even tell one Robin brother from the other, let alone remember which one is socialist and which one communist.

The result is difficult to characterize.  The art of the West is now well steeped in Holocaust memories and events—most potential readers could bring a rich palate of emotions to these chapters just as I can, and get something out of them that Upton never put in.  So, does that make this a good reading experience?  But then every time I try to really grab hold of someone—to ask myself who this American heir to a munitions manufacturer, Lanny Budd, really is, or what I think his rich wife, Irma, really thinks about the power struggle in Germany—I realize they’re just paper people.  I turn them in my hands to try to see them better, and they are so thin that they disappear to me almost entirely.

So, am I enjoying myself?  I’m getting something from the reading, that’s for sure.  At least some of it is new to me—Sinclair knew the politics of leftist movements internationally very well, and I’m sure I can trust those details in the story.  Much of it resonates with other non-fiction books I’ve read, maybe most centrally Erik Larson’s (he of The Devil in the White City: if you haven’t read Larson, you need to hunt something down) In The Garden of Beasts, which is about a real American family, a wealthy one, that came to Germany when the paterfamilias was appointed ambassador to the new Nazi state, and his adult kids came piling along with him to meet these fresh-faced young Aryans and learn more about the young German empire as it was being reborn.  It’s exactly the book Sinclair wants to write, truthfully, and the fact that I’ve read it means that I really can add dimension to some of the conversations he’s supplying.  The novel itself isn’t terrible—it’s just sloppy, because he doesn’t really care about these people as people.  They’re there solely to serve Sinclair’s agenda, like characters in a Dan Brown novel, who are there only to help Dan tell us his latest “insights” into world religion or history or whatever he thinks he’s an expert on this year.  Now, again, as I said earlier, I think Sinclair is fascinating, and I’d have read his memoir about the 1930s with interest—he’s well ahead of Brown in that regard, for me.  So I forgive him more, I think, for the fact that this is more a piece of propaganda, combined with a bit of a scolding tone aimed at the middle-class folks who should have listened more to people like Upton Sinclair in the ’30s, than it is a work of art.  That’s the way it feels now, at any rate: we’ll see if the last half can move me from this position at all!

Poetry Friday: 1938, part 3

Sketch of Gottfried Benn

A sketch of Gottfried Benn, a poet silenced by two societies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I was preparing to finish my 1938 Pulitzer winner, and enter into 1939 and the years of war, a poet caught my eye with whom I was totally unfamiliar: Gottfried Benn.  Benn was a German expressionist poet who had become so openly appalled by the tactics of the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany that his poetry was banned by the German government in 1938–he was literally forbidden to write.  In a weird irony, Benn’s work was banned again immediately after World War II, when the Allies sought to silence him as one of many German writers who had initially supported the Nazi movement—Benn, as an anti-Marxist, thought initially that Hitler and his revolutionary crowd would create space for the kind of expressionist art that Benn wanted to flourish.  As a writer doubly silenced for his politics (and silenced particularly in this year of 1938 that I’ve been contemplating), I thought I should track down some of his poetry, and share a poem for our collective reflection.  For obvious reasons I couldn’t unearth anything he wrote in 1938—this is a poem he wrote in 1934, entitled “Einst” in its original German, and “Yesteryear” in the English translation I’ll post below, by Alexandra Chciuk-Celt:

Yesteryear: winter came down,
You would hang onto the shadows
Left by the ponds and meadows
And twilight towns.

Sphinx-blue the cities would glimmer,
Marking the ocean-snow track—
Where has that gone now, I wonder?
There’s no way back.

Those ancient gifts and that grieving
Which always made us so tough—
If we have truly suffered,
Is that enough?

This is my first opportunity on a Poetry Friday to really grapple with both sides of a translated work: that is, I know enough German from my years and years of Saturday morning German classes as a kid (and my college German work, both as student and tutor) that I can comment somewhat knowledgeably about the differences between the original and the translation.  (Side note: To those capable enough in German that you’d like to see all of the original, it can be found, among other places, at this German poetry site: Gottfried Benn’s “Einst”.)  While on the whole I think Chciuk-Celt does a really nice job of preserving the original’s rhythm and rhyme patterns (for the most part) as well as its content, I have a few quibbles I’ll voice along the way, and the first of these is the choice of “Yesteryear”—such a showily poetic word, never used in conversation—when Benn had chosen the much more prosaic “Einst”, or “Once”.  Sure, from context, he may well be referring to “Once” in a “once upon a time” sense, but her choice feels a bit forced to me, and really clangs on my ears.  “Once” is, to my ears, a much more dramatic and interesting word, both as a title and as the poem’s first word, and I really question the choice of “Yesteryear”.  But on to what Benn himself is saying.

I am intrigued by the ambiguity of the subject in this poem—Benn is talking to “you”, but who is that, exactly?  Is it a lover or friend, with whom he has a past worth looking back on with some nostalgia?  Is he talking to his country as a whole?  The German uses the singular pronoun—in English “you” is irritatingly both singular and plural—which may help a little, but that doesn’t mean the “you” isn’t “Deutschland”.  It also uses the informal pronoun, the word used for a friend or intimate acquaintance, but again the poem suggests that level of intimacy, I think, even in English.  It may seem that I’m being overly obsessive about trying to pinpoint the subject, but the last stanza of the poem makes me feel that it’s important: what is this shared suffering he references?  Can it be his country’s decades of debt and turmoil in the wake of World War I?  Or is it a more personal suffering?  And regardless, what would it mean if the poem’s subject thought it was “enough”, or didn’t?

Perhaps the finish of the stanza, with its emphasis on suffering, would make more sense if we had a better hold on the stanza’s first two lines: here I think the translator has really dropped the ball.  Her choice of “Those ancient gifts and that grieving / which always made us so tough” is to me a really poor rendering of “Alles des Grams, der Gaben / früh her in unser Blut”—granted, I really have no qualifications as a translator, but I think a much more literal rendering of that passage would read something like “All those griefs, those gifts / that were early in our blood”.  Chciuk-Celt’s inversion of the gifts and griefs, and her altering of their grammatical relationship to each other (for the sake of the slant rhyme) really takes some of the wind out of the sails, for me, and “early in our blood” is much more evocative (and really very different) than “always made us so tough”.  There may be a German idiom that she’s hip to there (and that I am not)…I don’t know.  It seems more to me like she really needed a rhyme for “enough”.  Anyway, taking my admittedly amateur reading back to the stanza, I find an interesting layer to the poem—grief as a gift.  A gift that, strange as it may seem, may be “enough” for someone—the word Benn actually used is “gut”, which certainly can mean “enough” (and may well mean that in context), but which of course carries the heavy connotation even for a native English speaker with “good”.  Is there something good, or at least sustaining and sufficient, about having lost—lost those twilight towns, the shadows of winter.  Lost the sphinx-blue light on the snow.

The alteration of the type to emphasize “suffering” and whatever is being referenced as “that” is original to Benn’s poem.  I continue to struggle with it, a bit, and find it both moving and a little remote.  I like the juxtaposition of griefs and gifts, and the images early in the poem, but I do wonder a little if what I’m making is less the sense that Benn intended, and more an invention of my own psyche.  If you have any thoughts to offer on the poem, I hope you will—given how many tried to silence this poet and his work, I think giving it a little voice this weekend would be a lovely thing to do for art, if not for ourselves.  And given my feeling that I have reached a sort of impasse with the work, I’d be especially glad to hear other takes on the poem, even very different ones from mine (maybe especially very different ones), in the hopes that it will add to my reading of the lines.  Vielen Dank, Herr Benn, for a poem that makes me think.