Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #22 Appointment in Samarra

For no reason at all, I always thought this book was about horses and cavalry officers. (This is a good example of why, when you ask me a question and I answer, you should be careful to ascertain whether I know the answer, or if it's just a feeling I have. Especially when I am giving you directions.) So, this novel, which I never wanted to read because I thought it was about horses, piqued my interest when I saw it mentioned in conjunction with Revolutionary Road (which I've yet to read) and forgotten novels about men feeling sad even though they have a lot of nice items in their homes. Because, rather than horses, that's what Appointment in Samarra is about. It is about the nameless malaise of the moneyed man of the modern era - the madness which no Cadillac can assuage. And it's about alcoholism. Two of your popular literary themes, really. So I read it, and it's great. It's like a lewd version of The Beautiful and Damned, but set in Pennsylvania, where people are slightly less fancy. The novel centers around Julian English, a cash-poor upper-cruster, who runs a Cadillac dealership. (Fitzgerald upper-crusters are too posh to even have jobs, let alone jobs in the automotive industry.) Julian drinks to excess with great frequency, and one day he throws a drink in a man's face at the club, because the man is rich and fat and Irish Catholic and just de trop, somehow. And even though everyone in Gibbsville, PA is always doing grotesque drunken things at the club, this is for some reason the limit, and society begins to close ranks against Julian. After that, things go to complete shit very quickly. Julian, through desperation or madness or sheer orneriness, continues to behave badly, digging himself deeper with his peers and his wife, all the while drinking enough to kill an ox. At the end of the novel, his demise (figurative or literal, take your pick) is so inevitable it's not even a spoiler. The title, taken from the epigraph, taken from Maugham, tells all. Two things struck me about this book. One, it's very spicy. I would imagine that it made an absolute scene upon its publication. The story talks a lot about all the fooling around that Julian and his wife Caroline did before they got married, and the romps they have after. It also talks about drunken foursomes, college girls "going the limit," Parisian sex shows, men exposing themselves to helpless females, and "experienced" lady reporters. It's the antidote to talking about the good old days when people cherished modesty. Secondly, and I'm sure I'm not the first person to make this comparison, in addition to having obvious similarities with Fitzgerald (the man and the work), Appointment in Samarra is like a depression-era, mid-atlantic precursor to Under the Volcano. Not in its scope; Appointment in Samarra is a crude, meaningless sketch compared to the insanely complex (although perhaps equally meaningless) cosmologies that Malcolm Lowry wove together around Geoffrey Firmin. But the core of each novel is similar - the last day (or three) in the life of a man who is doomed. Each man (educated, posh), should be able to take himself in hand and pull himself together and stop drinking and stop perpetrating pointless cruelties on their respective wives, but they can't, and they don't, and you know they won't from the first. They share the same fatal trajectory. But while Appointment in Samarra is easier and more fun to read, I thought Under the Volcano was sadder and better (so did the Modern Library, it seems); Firmin feels like a more real character, maybe because he was more of Lowry than English was of O'Hara. Or maybe because Lowry, a doomed, disastrous virtuoso, pulled himself together for one monumental achievement, while O'Hara, who sounds like a more garden-variety pain in the ass, managed to spread his talent out over a longer career. That's just a feeling I have, though.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #97 The Sheltering Sky

In college, for me as for many people, it was psychologically impossible to start anything earlier than several hours before the deadline. The most terrifying papers were the ones for which you were supposed to meet periodically with your professor, revise, talk more, and write again, proving on a regular basis that you had given more than one day's thought to the assignment. At one point, scrambling to think of a topic for the final project in a fairly open-ended seminar class, I searched for novels I had read that would provide ample fodder when I actually sat down to write a paper. Recalling The Sheltering Sky, and recalling that it involves white people traveling in the desert and confronting The Other and having sex, I thought, "This will be so easy. I will write about The Sheltering Sky and Orientalism."My god, what a terrible mistake. To be sure, the main problem was that I had a ham-fisted grasp of the concepts involved to begin with, and that I was a lazy, and subsequently a frantic student. But this novel - this novel is absolutely the wrong choice if you are hoping to plop it down next to Edward Said and make a point about one or the other. Or to answer one with the other, I should say. Every time I had picked up one thread from The Sheltering Sky and typed out a couple of sad little paragraphs, I realized before long that I had toddled directly into a wall. It was if Paul Bowles sat in front of me wearing a Fez, and in between hits from the bong he rasped, "Did you think you could find something in this book that I didn't think of first?," but in Arabic. The paper, which ended up being a series of block quotes from Bowles and Said with very few words in between, got a lukewarm reception.If you are not familiar with this novel, you might not understand how alluring it would be to someone who is looking for that obvious meaty stuff on which last-minute college papers feed. Consider this: Port and Kit Moresby are rich, not particularly likable American travelers (not tourists, we are told early on). World War II has just finished. They go to an unnamed country in North Africa with their good-looking friend Tunner. Kit is neurotic and worries about omens all of the time, and she and her husband have not had sex in at least a year, but they are sort of friendly with one another. Port has sex with a young North African woman in a tent. Kit has sex with Tunner in a train. They meet the Lyles, the most awful people in literature, who are supposed to be mother and son, but they have sex with each other. They all go deeper into the desert. The French official they meet in a desert outpost is married, but he has sex with lots of local girls. Port plots a reconciliation with Kit and sends Tunner away. Port gets typhoid and he and Kit are stranded in a French barracks. Port dies. Kit for whatever reason runs off and falls in with a camel caravan of traders. Two of the traders rape her, she becomes very attached to one of them, he ensconces her in his home, and her mind is basically lost. It just gets weirder and weirder. If you are looking for meaning and symbols, and examples of questionable attitudes, it's the literary version of Ikea. It's vaguely foreign and enormous and so filled with things that it's difficult to know where to start. Most of the stuff is packed up into a box and requires assembly. You aren't sure if the stuff is well-made, but it looks really nice when it's put together. You leave with more than you were hoping to. And so on.I don't usually read with my guard up, waiting to be offended, but this novel has so much provocative material, especially by the time it has gotten to Kit and Belqassim (her Stockholm Syndrome lover), that it is hard not to. I really like the book, even though it's miserable; I like the sparse but not too sparse writing and the whole thing gives me the mostly agreeable willies. But it's the kind of book which makes me wonder if my enjoyment is founded upon my being some kind of asshole. Obviously this dynamic is always a part of the author/reader relationship, but I don't really think about it unless the book is very obviously engaging with a lot of sticky wickets. That said, I was flummoxed to locate any throw-away titillation on Bowles's part. He doesn't pointlessly describe a sexy blind Arab girl; he writes about Port seeing a sexy blind Arab girl and being overcome with lust that is predicated upon her blindness and the creepy way he imagines it will make her helpless to him. Bowles' focus was on the psychology and the basically solipsistic nature of his main characters, and he seems to have thought it through pretty well; whether or not they are fair or accurate representations of anyone's psychology, I can't say. In college, remembering the basic plot points, I thought it would be easy to reread The Sheltering Sky and write a paper saying, "This book is Othering because Africa kills the white man and has sex with the white lady and that's supposed to be scary." But I don't think this novel is like that. It's a horror story, but the horror is that everyone in the story is sort of horrible. If Port and Kit were different people, North Africa would be a different place. At least that's what I finally came away with.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #61 Death Comes for the Archbishop

For as long as I can remember I have kept Willa Cather locked away in the mind-cabinet, filed under Boring. Recently I examined this prejudice and it occurred to me that I cannot remember actually having read anything by Cather, and that, if and when I had, it would have been at a time when Laura Ingalls Wilder satisfied all of my needs with regard to American frontier literature. I know that my mom and at least one of my illustrious colleagues at The Millions are Cather enthusiasts, so it was high time for another look.Now that I have completed Death Comes for the Archbishop, I know that Boring was a designation that my sixth-grade self might have decided on because she had no appreciation for Quiet. The novel is pretty quiet. It is a short history of the life of this Latour and his friend Father Vaillant, two French Catholics in the new American southwest in the middle of the 1800s. Basically, the life of a devoted church man at that place and time consisted of getting on a donkey, riding a thousand miles, getting off, saving souls or making chit-chat with some other church men, getting back on the donkey, and going a thousand miles back. The narrative sometimes skips over a period of years because one of the characters was out running a quick errand. You never forget the men's placement on the American continent; how terribly far away they were from their familiar places. After a lifetime of good deeds in a wild land, they die. That's the story.The novel is quiet, but it is powerful. I might not read it again, but I liked it and it affected me in a couple of unexpected ways. My education taught me to take a very dim view of missionaries, and also that the story of the New World is the story of the white man coming and ruining everyone's good time. I am admittedly pretty suggestible, but a book that makes me think that getting religion (not even my home brand) and taking orders is a good idea, even for one moment, is no joke. That I had a good two minute's worth of daydreaming about myself in rugged garments, riding my donkey to a peach orchard to eat mutton and perform baptisms with my gentle brothers the peasants, is very uncharacteristic.The novel also made me hungry. I am not being facetious. In so many ways Death Comes for the Archbishop is about the various hardships of the landscape, and for a religious man who cannot (or isn't supposed to) take comfort in the arms of a lover, his table (after the Virgin Mary and whatnot) is one of his chief pleasures. Of course, a reliance on any sensual pleasure can go too far, and the novel includes a gruesome cautionary tale about a priest who is a tyrant and a glutton and who gets his just desserts, as it were. Still, Latour and Vaillant don't deny themselves treats when they can find them; they drink wine and French onion soup and dream of chestnuts and salad oil. I think this is why they are lovable characters. I have always felt that pointless abstemiousness is creepy; I have more affinity for Christlike people if they enjoy a stiff drink and a good meal like regular people.The uncomplicated upstandingness of Latour and Vaillant might be too wholesome for some readers; The Power and the Glory this isn't. Furthermore, the novel does not talk about the terrible the things that religion wrought, so if you are wholly and understandably embittered about the Church and its influence, it might not move you. Cather's criticisms of religious practice are confined to the Fathers Martinez and Lucero, the venal, renegade foils to Latour and Vaillant, and she never addresses the fact that even kindly, well-behaved priests were agents of destruction in the Americas and elsewhere. At the very end of the novel, Latour tells his protégé that "I have lived to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have seen the Navajos restored to their own country." Latour and Vaillant are sensible to the power of indigenous religious practices that pre-date Christianity, but he doesn't acknowledge that governments don't have a monopoly on cruelty and heavy-handedness, and that one conclusion of the Christian Mission was the creation of the awful religious boarding schools for American Indians.I don't know what Cather's views on the Church or westward expansion or the treatment of American Indians were, but this is certainly not a political novel. It's a bit like an obscure parable, but more than anything it's a novel of place. It reminded me of Frank Norris and John Steinbeck in that it was very firmly tied to a particular region in the American landscape; the work's beauty is the land's beauty. The most memorable of Cather's characters here is the beautiful and destroying desert, the "light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel light and one's heart cry 'To-day, to-day,' like a child's."
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #70 Alexandria Quartet (Two Durrells)

The four novels (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea) which make up Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet share the #70 spot on the Modern Library list. For various reasons I lay down on the job and only read one of them, Justine, so I am not at all qualified to talk about the series. But I do have an opinion about the first installment, and on Durrell generally, so I'll talk about them and, god willing, get through the rest of the quartet in the future. This first book of the four, Justine, is narrated by an Anglo-Irish fellow who lives on a Greek island and who is writing about the time when he lived in Alexandria and taught English. He seems like he has posh manners and he knows languages so one imagines that although he had no money he had a certain social cachet wherever he went. In Alexandria he had affairs and smoked and pondered heady subjects all the time (think a straight Isherwood with absolutely no sense of humor), and in odd moments managed to scrape together a pittance. Justine is one of the people he has sex with, and she is a (rather too good to be true) femme fatale, who eventually gives up her husband and lover and runs off to a kibbutz. Meanwhile, his other lover Melissa dies of TB and being two-dimensional. I was wary of this novel. First, for a shortish book, it is long on boring paragraphs about astonishing feelings which the narrator seems to assume are universal. I have seen some other fiction of this period when everyone wanted to talk about sex and psychology and call gay people "inverts" and frankly it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between the first-rate (which Justine evidently is) and the awful. Second, the parts I like I suspect I only like because they appeal to the less edifying aspects of my own nature - basically, the orientalist and dirty-minded ones. (Although, in the case of this novel, "dirty" is in fact the operative word. The sexy bits convey nothing so much as a VD free-for-all taking place in an enormous ash-tray.) Third, for some obscure reason I just dislike Durrell and wanted him to apologize for things, even at moments when I was enjoying the book. I think part of this dislike is founded in a pointless jealousy. I was a foreign service brat and I have been a lot of places and I used to marginally identify with the annoying Citizen-of-the-World thing Durrell has going on, but there is a duality to the identification. On the one hand, people like him (through no fault of their own) make me feel like a poseur and that I should have lived fifty years earlier in a really disgusting flat and fraternized with people who owned limousines, and I should have known about child prostitution and smoked more cigarettes, and been a man. Instead of being seven and going to school and putting all of my stuffed animals into a wagon. On the other hand, I resent his pretentiousness and his orientalism and his claims on the city of Alexandria and I think, ugh, horrible expat, and roll my eyes. Hypocrite lecteur and all that. Ultimately, I like for reading to be a pleasurable activity, and reading Justine made me feel too much like I had to put on my Serious caftan. I chose to talk about it here so that I could mention two of the loveliest books I've ever read, which were written by Lawrence's brother Gerald and which are the antidote to all things icky. They are Gerald's memoirs of the Durrell family's sojourn on the Greek island of Corfu from 1935-1939, beginning when Gerald (Gerry) was 10, Lawrence (Larry) 23, brother Leslie 19, sister Margo 18, and their widowed mother "old enough to have four children." The first book is called My Family and Other Animals, and the second is Birds, Beasts, and Relatives. (I have only just learned that there was a third Corfu book called Garden of the Gods, which is out of print but which I am acquiring second-hand with all possible haste.) The Durrells went to Greece to escape England's appalling climate, and Gerry, who later became a very well-known and beloved naturalist, writer, and advocate for endangered species, spent his formative years running about in the island looking at bugs, collecting animals, making friends, and being educated after a fashion by friends of his doting family. Historically, foreign people, especially British ones, have liked to come to Greece and perpetrate arty things in or about it. I think it is because the Greek climate is wonderful, and because Greece has temples and Homeric associations, and because it used to be cheap, and because everyone there was supposed to be virile and mustachioed. Gerald Durrell's books are delightful because they convey the island's beauty so well that one feels it viscerally, while remaining free of self-conscious artiness and condescension for their subject. Above all they are full of fun, written by someone who sounds as if he were a kind-hearted person who loved all animals and most people. Gerry calls out the various family members for being absurd, but in a nice way; I believe that they remained close in Gerry's adulthood, and that it was Larry who eventually encouraged Gerry to write. On page one, Gerry describes his older, literary brother: It was Larry of course, who started it. The rest of us felt too apathetic to think of anything except our own ills, but Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond, firework, exploding ideas in other people's minds, and then curling up with cat-like unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences. The books are full of similar fond tributes. I'm trying to find more rousing ways to say how much I love them, but it's difficult. They are just happy and heartwarming, is all. I'll leave you with a characteristic passage (from My Family and Other Animals), which doesn't include any of Gerry's numerous wonderful descriptions of the island's flora and fauna, but which is a good window into the various qualities of the Durrell family. (I know it smacks of the Patriarchy, but it was the thirties, and Margo ends up fine.) As the summer drew to a close I found myself, to my delight, once more without a tutor. Mother had discovered that, as she so delicately put it, Margo and Peter were becoming 'too fond of one another.' As the family was unanimous in its disapproval of Peter as a prospective relation by marriage, something obviously had to be done. Leslie's only contribution to the problem was to suggest shooting Peter, a plan that was, for some reason, greeted derisively. I thought it was a splendid idea, but I was in the minority. Larry's suggestion that the happy couple should be sent to live in Athens for a month, in order, as he explained, to get it out of their systems, was quashed by Mother on the grounds of immorality. Eventually Mother dispensed with Peter's services, he left hurriedly and furtively and we had to cope with a tragic, tearful, and wildly indignant Margo, who, dressed in her most flowing and gloomy clothing for the event, played her part magnificently. Mother soothed and uttered gentle platitudes, Larry gave Margo lectures on free love, and Leslie, for reasons best known to himself, decided to play the part of the outraged brother and kept appearing at intervals, brandishing a revolver and threatening to shoot Peter down like a dog if he set foot in the house again. In the midst of all this Margo, tears trickling effectively down her face, made tragic gestures and told us her life was blighted. Spiro, who loved a good dramatic situation as well as anyone, spent his time weeping in sympathy with Margo, and posting various friends of his along the docks to make sure that Peter did not attempt to get back on the island. We all enjoyed ourselves very much. So did I.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #12 The Way of All Flesh

An irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the twentieth century. Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh satisfies the letter of the Modern Library's list - "best novels of the twentieth century" - but seems to violate its spirit. The novel was published in 1903, but written entirely in the 1870s and 1880s, and the language shows its age. It's got that sound of, I don't know, post-chaises and swishing crinolines. That's not a value judgment, it's just true. Still, though the facts tether it to the Victorian Age, the novel's narrator, Edward Overton, and its hero, Ernest Pontifex, get to the heart of our pet rebellions. The Way of All Flesh is The Catcher in the Rye, as written by Charles Dickens; it manages to anticipate the Twentieth Century, while not quite being of it. The story begins with Ernest's great-grandfather, who is a nice poor man. He begets a son who becomes a nasty rich man, who begets a son who becomes a nasty comfortably well-off man, who begets Ernest, who ends up being better and richer than all of them combined. Before he can get to this state of grace, he must overcome his religion, shake off his parents, and leave his awful, boring, somewhat violent childhood behind. The real pleasure of reading this novel, though, lies in the narration. Overton, Ernest's sardonic godfather (chronicling the story after the fact) is a disapproving contemporary of Ernest's father. He watches more or less dispassionately as Ernest's parents raise him without fun or affection, and then as Ernest flounders into and then out of Religion, Immorality, Prison, and Matrimony. All the while he husbands Ernest's secret bequest from a benevolent aunt, and hands over the life-changing fortune when Ernest turns twenty-eight. Like Holden Caulfield, Overton makes known his opinions on Phonies. In chapter four he writes of Ernest's nasty grandfather: Mr. George Pontifex went abroad more than once. I remember seeing . . . the diary which he kept on the first of these occasions. It is a characteristic document. I felt as I read it that the author before starting had made up his mind to admire only what he thought it would be creditable in him to admire, to look at nature and art only through the spectacles that had been handed down to him by generation after generation of prigs and impostors. The first glimpse of Mont Blanc threw Mr. Pontifex into a conventional ecstasy. It would be so easy to turn this post into a child's garden of Overton's elegant take-downs, but I will just give another favorite: I was vexed at Ernest's having been ordained. I was not ordained myself and I did not like my friends to be ordained, nor did I like having to be on my best behaviour and to look as if butter would not melt in my mouth, and all for a boy whom I remembered when he knew yesterday and to-morrow and Tuesday, but not a day of the week more - not even Sunday itself - and when he said he did not like the kitten because it had pins in his toes. Overton concedes that Ernest's father Theobald's nastiness stems from grandfather George, who insisted that his Theobald become ordained against his will. Circumstances were against Theobald to begin with, and then, as an unwilling a clergyman, says Overton, he "is expected to be a kind of human Sunday." The end result of his upbringing and his professional requirements is nevertheless "horrid," and poor Ernest feels the effects of Theobald's unhappiness on his person and on his psyche. One of Butler's assertions is that mental and spiritual suffering are awful and against nature, just as physical suffering is. Ernest, like Holden Caulfield a hundred years later, gets plenty to eat. His parents send him to an ostensibly good school. He goes to prison for a pathetic bit of immorality, but his experience there is really quite pleasant. In the grand scheme of things, Ernest is doing okay. But his parents are assholes and his spirit is hurt and sex is confusing, and if this experience were uncommon we wouldn't have the cult of Salinger, or most of post-War American literature. After his prison holiday, Ernest takes a stand and cuts his parents out of his life, but once he has the money to do as he pleases he makes marginal concessions to decency without sacrificing the integrity of his dislike. He doesn't let his mother die without seeing him. He visits his father when the old tyrant is in his dotage, as people do - even ones who don't like their parents. Having money of his own keeps him pure, so his father doesn't die feeling his son's curse. Butler, whose money eventually came from his own despised father, may not have been able to claim the same purity of motive in his continued relation with his own family, but that's conjecture. Anyone who is alive or who has read The Corrections knows that the complex and sometimes awful nature of filial piety is still part of human experience. In that sense, and in others, The Way of All Flesh is sensible in its attacks. Although Overton makes some shocking, impious remarks about religion, they can't have been very different from what many people were thinking. Ernest settles down to a pretty quiet middle age, and no one pays much attention to him. He doesn't grow an unorthodox mustache, or become a performance artist. He doesn't spit in his father's face. If Salinger had covered a few more decades of his story we might have seen Holden drop into Pencey for an awkward but cordial sit-down with his headmaster, just like Ernest does in his middle age. Maybe he bought American, and became a Rotarian. I guess the difference is that Salinger didn't have to write about what happened after Holden's little voyage of discovery. When The Way of All Flesh was published after Butler's death, it was the posthumous making of a career that in life was marked by an eccentric mediocrity. I have not read a biography of Samuel Butler, but my limited research indicates that, while the publication of a satire called Erewhon brought him some notoriety, he remained a fairly minor figure in late Victorian letters. After his death, he became a sensation. In the century which brought us psychoanalysis, support groups, and SSIRs, people marveled at Butler's modernity. V. S. Pritchett called The Way of All Flesh "one of the time-bombs of literature." His point was that it sat in a drawer making quick work of a century of ideas about Children and the Church, without anyone knowing about it. Had it been published during Butler's life it would have, one imagines, brought the house down. But it strikes me that the very fact of its Twentieth Century publication confirms, in a sense, its status as a nineteenth century novel. It is said that the novel was autobiographical. It is also suggested by some that Butler did not publish the work upon its completion because he worried it was too scathing. Of course, refraining from doing things so as not to offend one's family and peers is not strictly a Victorian phenomenon. But it's kind of a neat coincidence that Butler died one year after Victoria herself, and that The Way of All Flesh came out just as a new, ostensibly freer age was getting started.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue #68: Main Street

Modern Library Revue is Lydia Kiesling's irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the twentieth century. Lydia is a graduate of Hamilton College. She is an ardent book-lover and has spent the last two years working in the antiquarian book trade. The Modern Library project was recently born at her blog, Widmerpool's Modern Library Revue.On occasion, my mom and other loved ones have gently suggested that I am a cranky sun of a gun. Sinclair Lewis is a panacea to people like me; I would have loved to hang out with him, drink to excess, and complain vociferously. This might help explain my belief that Lewis is one of our finest American novelists. He was not a particularly stylish or literary writer. A few of his novels were boring or bad. But he gave us a savage portrait of American attitudes in the early twentieth century, and he was, perhaps unintentionally, the most prescient of our authors.In Main Street, Lewis describes the American citizenry as a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race of the world. The novel is about a woman named Carol, who starts out young and breathless and fey - an Anne Shirley with Modern Ideas. Carol goes to college, and then she gets a job. Like most of us, she discovers that working for a living is a drag. She meets a doctor, and they canoodle chastely. They get married, have relations in a tent, and go to live in Gopher Prairie, an up-and-coming Midwestern town. There it is necessary for Carol to comes face to face with American Values. She goes to parties with the smart set, who recite racist stories and complain about labor agitators. They judge her for lacking a foul something called "pep." She fraternizes a little bit with immigrants, overpays the maid, admires Art, and thinks she yearns for city life. Carol is a Liberal Elitist. She tries to Reform the town, but not very hard. It doesn't work, so she learns to play bridge. Everyone is watching her. She has a baby, and then she has enough. She goes to work in Washington, alone like a hussy. It's a little better. Her husband comes to visit and respectfully woos her. Carol goes back to Gopher Prairie. She has another baby. Nothing changes. Life goes on.If you are like me, a hating liberal so-and-so, to read Main Street is to experience the pyrrhic victory of feeling that you are right about everything. Most of Lewis's novels are demoralizing like that, especially right before or after a U.S. election, when everyone feels distinctly uncharitable toward fifty percent of his neighbors and we have heard those eternal sore spots, taxes, immigration, and morals, argued into the ground in fatuous platitudes. Lewis was not a subtle writer, but I will make bold to say that we are not, in many ways, a subtle people. The misinformed xenophobia and racism of Gopher Prairie are alive and well in America today. We still exhibit a distasteful reverence for "pep" in our politicians; we embrace a down-home rhetoric that is not so very different from the skin-crawling turn-of-the-century boosterism. We still feel the meddling hand of religion in our politics. We still (well, until recently), erect hideous buildings across our beautiful country with unbridled enthusiasm. Like the upstanding folks in Lewis's novels, we talk about Family Values and goose receptionists in the back room. We are Gopher Prairie, except with cell phones and The Real Housewives of Orange County.If you think these ideas are tired, remember that Lewis wrote almost one hundred years ago, anticipating with strange accuracy the content of HuffPo or The Nation, as well as the often snobbish aversion of the Left for the Right. Sometimes it becomes necessary to shake yourself out of your high-minded ineffectual outrage and remember that some happy changes have in fact taken place since Lewis satirized those "regular Guys, the fellow with sticktuitiveness, that boost and get the world's work done." Big things like Civil Rights and the Pill, and smaller but still thrilling innovations like trousers for ladies.Main Street is, I think, the slightest bit longer than it needs be. I suppose it was Lewis' intention to really paint that picture of how boring and tedious the life in Gopher Prairie was for Carol or someone like her, but it sometimes feels like rather too many iterations of one conversation. I preferred Babbit, which is a similar story but shorter and told from a man's perspective, and Elmer Gantry, which is about an evangelical preacher and filled me with a really bracing rage. In fact, I have read and enjoyed almost all of his novels, with the exception of something comically terrible called The God-Seeker. I have seen a couple of articles which describe Sinclair Lewis as a forgotten figure of American letters, and I think that is sad. He was an important chronicler of this country's people and ideas - a prosy Fitzgerald of the middle class.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue #8: Darkness at Noon

Modern Library Revue is Lydia Kiesling's irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the twentieth century. Lydia is a graduate of Hamilton College. She is an ardent book-lover and has spent the last two years working in the antiquarian book trade. The Modern Library project was recently born at her blog, Widmerpool's Modern Library Revue.As of last week I had never heard of Darkness at Noon, and I had no idea what it was about. When I found a paperback copy I was tickled by the cover art, which is exceedingly sinister and features a hammer and sickle and a landmine-looking thing with a person's face on it. Knowing, as I did, that the Modern Library list is composed of books in the English language, I expected some sort of hysterical Red Scare novel out of the U.S. of A., and I wondered how this Koestler person had sleazed his reactionary way to a top ten slot. Then, however, the title page informed me that the work had been translated into English, a statement confirmed by many internet sources. Maybe I'm the reactionary here, but this seems like a scandal. Did the judges just not read their instructions? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules? That said, I'm actually very pleased that I read this; I don't hold against Arthur Koestler the fact that some people entrusted with important cultural tasks choose not to fulfill them properly.I think we can all agree that the Communist Party turned out to be one of the most unfun parties ever. And I'm not talking about the "communism" that confused American people to this very day think is the bad thing that will happen if people are allowed to go to the doctor for free. I'm talking about Joseph "Gardener of Human Happiness" Stalin being in charge and turning the hose on everyone. I haven't read any samizdats or anything, and to be frank I get pretty confused about Trostky and Lenin and whatnot, but I can understand these minor distinctions. Darkness at Noon is about the completely unfun kind. It begins as Rubashov, a former high Party official, is thrown in jail (again) for "political divergencies." He is imprisoned for the duration of the short novel, and the narrative consists of his memories of past commie hijinx, and the thought processes which lead to his capitulation, confessions, show trial and [spoiler] liquidation. Throughout all this he uses an insane system of visualizing numbers on a grid and tapping them on the wall in order to chat with the touching moralistic bourgeois monarchist in the next cell. This neighbor mostly wants to hear about naked ladies and is kind of a bore but I liked him all the same. If I was in the cell and was capable of figuring out the tapping system, I would have told him about my favorite Mad Men episodes.In order for me to understand why this book was a big deal, I had to contextualize. If you have read 1984 it is hard to read another book about a totalitarian system without reflecting on certain things, mainly "I read this book already" and "war is peace, bitches." 1984 is part of our collective consciousness; even people who don't like to read have usually read that novel. Now, having read Koestler's, it is hard to overstate the debt 1984 owes Darkness at Noon (which preceded it by nine years). I mean, I don't think I'm overstating. Consider the following: 1. Orwell wrote a long essay about Koestler. 2. Orwell tried to marry Koestler's sister. Obviously Orwell was into him.The characters in Darkness at Noon talk a lot about following things through to their logical conclusions. Rubashov in prison has a series of extraordinarily tedious conversations (to be in, not to read) with his old pal Ivanov who is in charge of his case, and then with a meathead named Gletkin who replaces Ivanov and shines a bright light on Rubashov after Ivanov gets got. Basically, they tell Rubashov, the logical conclusion of heterodoxy is an attempt on the life of Number 1 (that's Stalin), so Rubashov must confess to this crime, which he didn't commit, because he as good as committed it. Hello, Thoughtcrime! Rubashov looks at library shelves, which are constantly being purged, and imagines a world wherein newspapers are rewritten. Welcome to the Ministry of Truth! While Rubashov was important in the Party and 1984's Winston Smith was a nobody, they are both people who witnessed the birth of the current system, and they can recognize what the Party has wrought. They both recall charming little things about the beginning of the upheaval. Winston thinks about his mom, and how he took her chocolate; Rubashov thinks about his dad's cute guinea pigs, and how he ate them. Both Rubashov and Winston also see the new generation rise up, a generation of people in whom the old feelings have been stamped out, who can't remember a time when reactionary activities like hugging and kissing and loving your parents were popular. They both get it in the back of the head.Rubashov is a great character. He is not an unlikable guy, and he demonstrates, as Orwell sez, that people are "rotted by the Revolution they serve." He has all of these very clear thoughts that make a lot of sense and that basically point to Number 1 being the worst, but somehow he still concludes, "I will confess at my show trial," which makes no sense at all. Orwell says I can't understand this mindset because I am not a European person. Anyway, sorry to talk about Orwell so much, but I am in love with him, and I do think that 1984 used Darkness at Noon as a model, and then everyone forgot about it because they were so into 1984 (although not, obviously, the Modern Library judges). 1984 does have the distinct advantage of being written in the future, which makes every story more fun and sexy, while Darkness at Noon is confined to awful things that actually took place, which nobody likes to hear about. In sum, Darkness at Noon rules, Stalin sux, freedom is slavery, but universal health care would still be awesome.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue #66: Of Human Bondage

Modern Library Revue is Lydia Kiesling's irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the twentieth century. Lydia is a graduate of Hamilton College. She is an ardent book-lover and has spent the last two years working in the antiquarian book trade. The Modern Library project was recently born at her blog, Widmerpool's Modern Library Revue.Of Human Bondage is a healing salve for life's pernicious rash. It is a special shoe for the clubfoot of my mind. I have not always felt this way. First I hated the protagonist Philip Carey with what I now realize was the hatred you can only feel for people you think are nerds, who you then realize are just like you. I'm not some kind of sad weirdo or anything, but haven't we all been teased by our schoolmates? Haven't we all thought we were good at something only to learn that we sucked at it? Haven't we all been sick with love for some unsuitable, puppy-kicking wretch? Haven't we, I ask you? After this realization I got to appreciating Philip Carey's modest charms, and I go back to them whenever I have a long train ride or an empty Sunday. So many epochs in orphaned, differently-abled Philip's life to revisit! Let's see some highlights:Philip goes to live with his vile uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable. He only gets to eat the top of the hard boiled egg, and mustn't play on Sundays.Philip goes to school, where the children mock his clubfoot, and the object of his bromantic affection spurns him.Philip goes to Heidelberg and drinks beer with a Byronic nitwit.Philip goes home and gets erotic with a cougar-type person, but it's a disappointment. Women are a drag. Welcome to the world, chum!Now it's time to join the middle-class grind, wherein you pay someone to work in their office. Boring!Philip's off to Paris to learn painting! He wears soft pants and talks to drunkards!Philip is bad at painting. Chuck!Medical school, repeatedly.Philip falls in love with a trashy bit of stuff called Mildred. She's just not that into him. She'll do it with literally anyone except him. Misery!Philip spends his tiny inheritance on Mildred and the stock market. He sleeps on a bench.Philip goes hop-picking, an allegedly fun vacation for the impecunious. There he has relations with a veritable infant. She guesses she'll marry him. Philip is happy! The sun is shining!It's a huge novel filled with embarrassing truths about the various stages of emotional development, about the people one meets and the ways one tries to kick free from society's traces. You can imagine a sardonic arch to the author's eyebrow as he wrote about young Philip's vagaries. I read Of Human Bondage before I read anything else by Maugham, so when I read The Razor's Edge shortly after I said to myself, "What is this malarkey?" Of Human Bondage is much earlier, and belongs to the tradition of Thomas Hardy and Samuel Butler and feeling bad and being Victorian, except that Maugham had a superior sense of humor.The Razor's Edge is later Maugham (1944), written when he was very famous and accustomed to fraternizing with society people and spiritual types. It has the taint of sophistication and of "California Chris" Isherwood. I die for Maugham always, especially the short stories, but his later work can seem rushed and less than fully-realized compared to Of Human Bondage. The Painted Veil, for example, reads as though he thought it up during a short lie-down and wrote it before dinner. It's not a bad novel and I am certainly not calling William Somerset Maugham a hack; nonetheless, beside the massive achievement of OHB, some of the other things look a touch moth-eaten. Maugham himself wrote that he was "in the very first row of the second-raters," which evidently made him sad. I think that assertion is way harsh. I just think that Of Human Bondage was his Ultimate Literary Jam.