“I wish people wouldn’t keep showing me how much I don’t know!”

This is a difficult book to reach a settled opinion about.  (And yes, I know I ended that with a preposition.  First of all, that’s not really a rule of English grammar.  And second of all, “This is a difficult book about which to reach a settled opinion” sounded pretty pompous to me.  Although maybe I tend to be pompous, regardless.  But I digress…)

Lewis, in one sense, finally gets a hold of the book he wanted to write.  Martin’s ability to recognize the bigness and unknowability of the world (as evidenced by the quotation above) is commendable, given how difficult that has been for him to accept, previously.  The story takes an enormous turn as Martin’s work on phages (the work he failed to publish in time to become famous) becomes practically important.  We zoom suddenly away from the U.S. to the Carribbean island of St. Hubert, where the plague has broken out, and Martin is needed.  Lewis bursts into life—the exotic setting forces him to write some really beautiful stuff to help us imagine it.  The politics on the island are somewhat complicated, and he creates some characters with at least a bit of depth.  Martin’s position is complicated by the twin needs of salvation from plague and rigorous experimental design.  And his position is further complicated by medical professionals on both sides of the issue, as well as Leora, who has accompanied him to St. Hubert for no very good reason, and who is forgotten by the plot too often, but who still plays a memorable role.  There’s a nifty little story here—the tensions between human needs and scientific methods, the passing of an old order and the arising of a new one.  It makes me wish Sinclair hadn’t drudged through a 350 page prologue to the short story he really wanted to write, since almost none of the background really matters to the story told on St. Hubert, and what little does play a role feels a bit forced.  I can’t deny it’s been fun to read this book again, but it throws in somewhat sharp relief the dullness of much of what has transpired previously.

I don’t want to give away too much, since the end of the book is nearing.  Suffice it to say that more than one character of some personal importance to Martin dies in this experience, and Martin rightly or wrongly feels a personal responsibility.  I like the depth this forces out of him–his depression at his own failures is intense but totally consistent with the situation.  It has, however, almost nothing to do with who he has been, and what he has done.  I feel I can see a few threads tying the novel together, but as a whole it feels like a failure of purpose and vision.  Lewis had the character of Martin Arrowsmith but not the sense of why his story needed to be told.  He had some images of the life his character lived, but not a way to make the experience urgent and real.  I have a little to finish here, and I hope it finishes strong.  But the review I post (which will be my next post on the novel) will almost inevitably be an exploration of why a good novelist, with a good central character and a decent idea for a setting/theme, can somehow still fail to deliver a successful and rewarding reading experience.  We’ll see.

“The corridors of the vessel had the smell of death about them.”

It was a rough crossing for Claude and the other men aboard the Anchises, here in the late summer of 1918.  An epidemic struck (likely the influenza), and that combined with other various illnesses left the one doctor scrambling all over the boat, conscripting Claude as his assistant.  The series of chapters that detail their journey to France were really fascinating—the initial exhiliaration of departure and the ocean fading as illness descends, followed by burials at sea and the sense that they may never reach their destination.  Claude’s spirits are unsinkable, though—at one point, when the doctor asks him how much he’d give just to be safely home again, Claude pauses, and the doctor looks up at him in recognition.  He tells Claude it’s clear he’d rather be on that boat than back home, and it’s true: Claude loves the sense of purpose he derives from taking care of the sick men, and the deaths trouble him briefly, but never seem to weigh as heavily on him as they ought.  What does it say about Claude that he’d rather be aboard a floating death trap than go home to the farm?  Is he heartless?  Reckless?  Or just young and foolish?

He runs into an interesting collection of people, both on board and on arrival in France.  Perhaps the most notable is a young man from Iowa who ran off to Canada to enlist in 1915 and has seen the horrors of war…though he won’t talk much about them, but rather waxes rapturous about the love of an English divorcee who waits for him in her Chelsea flat (and about the brief loves he finds with French girls…oh, he tells Claude, his English lover understands that pilots can’t be expected to avoid such dalliances, considering how soon they are to die).  The pilot’s one moment of serious reflection comes when he remembers shooting down a German scout plane, only to find the crumpled body of a female pilot trapped in the wreckage.  She lives only a few hours, but long enough to write a letter to her family, which he personally flies across enemy lines and drops into the trenches so it will reach them.  I wonder if he’s meant to represent all American soldiers—tough, a little wild, unconcerned about death but fully aware of it—or if that’s merely his story.  I wonder if Claude will become like him.

And another scene I cannot forget is Claude negotiating for some cheese in French with a grocer, who takes Claude and his men into her larder to sell them some (even though they don’t have the right ration coupons).  The men scarf down almost all of her cheese, despite her protestations, but then show her all their French cash, telling her to take whatever the cheese was worth.  Her deliberations over what to do (in the end, she charges exactly 250% of the cheese’s original price, and not a penny more) are fascinating, as is her perspective on the Americans.  They are invaders, in her mind, barging into France (as into her pantry) to take what they like and fling money around as though that covers the multitude of sins.  She does not resent them, but she does not like them either.  They are too cheerful, too casual, and too well-fed.  Are we any different now, really?

I am anxious for Claude to get to the front, and yet, knowing the horrors of trench warfare, I wonder what it will be like for him once he is there.  He was fairly stoic about the deaths on board ship, but I know it affected him more than he’s willing to admit.  When the Anchises pulls into port at last, and he knows he has survived (as well as the lieutenant he has cared for around-the-clock for weeks), he looks out the window and a little wave of melancholy sweeps over him:

“This grey wall, unshaken, mighty, was the end of the long preparation, as it was the end of the sea.  It was the reason for everything that had happened in his life for the last fifteen months.  It was the reason why Tannhauser and the gentle Virginian, and so many others who had set out with him, were never to have any life at all, or even a soldier’s death.  They were merely waste in a great enterprise, thrown overboard like rotten ropes.  For them this kind release,— trees and a still shore and quiet water,— was never, never to be.  How long would their bodies toss, he wondered, in that inhuman kingdom of darkness and unrest?”