“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!