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The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Other Comments
· Find Out More
· Locate a Copy


Cover of the first U.S. edition of 'The Moonflower Vine'

To his daughters as they grew up, Matthew Soames was God and the weather. He was omnipotent and he was everywhere — at home, at school, at church. There was no place they could go where the dominating spirit was not that of their father. And, like rain or shine, his moods conditioned all they did.

With other people around, he was pleasant as could be, full of laughter and witticisms and conversation marvelous to hear. Ladies often said to them, “Your father is just the nicest man!” The girls could hardly help observing that he turned his sunny side to his public and clouded up at home. There, he was often preoccupied and short-spoken, indifferent to his children except to command or reprove. “Daughter,” he called each of them indiscriminantly; it was a little more authoritative than the given name, which might not occur to him at the moment anyway.

“Papa’s nicer to other people than he is to us,” Leonie once said.

“Yes, sometimes he is, honey,” said her mother. “But he’s got to be. Your Papa’s an important man in the community. That’s the way he’s got to act.”

His importance might have been a comfort to the girls if it hadn’t been such a nuisance. There were so many things they were not allowed to do “because it wouldn’t look well.” And they couldn’t get out of his sight and do them, because he was everywhere. For the most part, they resigned themselves to the situation and did as Papa said. The purpose in life, he said, was to work. “Laborare est orare,” he said; and work meant to study your lessons and help Mama.

They had many good times in between. Relatives came often to visit. On the farm they could play in the woods and go fishing. When they moved to town they had girl chums and Sunday School parties. They had no toys to speak of (one doll, handed down from one to the other); but living as they did a good deal out-of-doors, they didn’t need such props. They played with what they had or found or made up and enjoyed themselves hugely. But very early they understood that playing was somewhat suspect, allowed only through indulgence, a trivial pastime soon outgrown, and only about twice removed from sin. Pleasure was only once removed. The girls grew up before they realized that pleasure was not an ugly word. In their father’s vocabulary it meant joyrides, dancing, card games, cigarettes, and other things to dreadful to define.

Editor’s Comments

I read The Moonflower Vine after coming across Jane Smiley’s discussion of it in her Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. It wasn’t so much what Smiley had to say about it as that it was essentially the only genuinely little-known novel she saw fit to include in her list of 100 great novels. In there amongst Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, and Ulysses was this book with a completely unfamiliar title and by completely unfamiliar author. To see a neglected book rate such high-profile coverage alone made it worth a try.

Cover of the first U.S. paperback edition of 'The Moonflower Vine'I can’t say that The Moonflower Vine would have stood much chance of a second look from me had it not come with such a sterling recommendation. Its marketing, back when it was picked as a Literary Guild selection and condensed in a Readers Digest collection, was definitely aimed at a feminine audience, and its first paperback edition featured a small picture of a big, strong, dark-haired man embracing a delicate young woman — the sort of image that’s become the cliche of gauzy romantic novels.

As Bo Diddley sang, though, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. There’s barely a lick of romance in the whole of The Moonflower Vine. Carleton grew up on a Missouri farm perhaps not too unlike that described in her novel, and no farm family that survives a hard winter or a bad harvest has much romanticism left in its veins. The pragmatism of farm life is multiplied by the stern morality of the Midwest Methodist, with its clear-cut sense of right and wrong (and none of the Southern Baptist’s taste for a little melodramatic back-sliding).

The Moonflower Vine is a multi-dimensional tale of the lives of Matthew Soames, his wife, Callie, and their four daughters — Jessica, Leonie, Mathy, and Mary Jo. Mary Jo is probably closest in profile to Carleton herself. The youngest of the girls, she is roughly the same age as Carleton and, like her, left rural Missouri for a career in the world of television in New York. She narrates the introductory section of the book, which takes place one summer Sunday when the daughters (with the exception of Mathy, who dies before the age of twenty) have come back to the family farm for a visit. This section is gentle, lightly comic, and bucolic in its description of rustic pleasures such as skinny-dipping in the creek.

The rest of the book, however, is related in the third person. Starting with Jessica, it deals in turn with each of the other members of the family — Matthew, who struggles throughout his career as a teacher and principal of a small town school with a lust for bright young women in his classes; Mathy, the family rebel, who elopes with a barnstorming pilot; Leonie, the dutiful daughter, who never quite manages to find her right place in the world; and finally, Callie, the mother, whose brief moment of adultery mirrors her husband’s own private sin.

Sin is a constant presence in the book. Everyone in the family, with the possible exception of Mary Jo, commits one or more sins, in their own eyes or those of the community, that prevents any form of love expressed in the book from being completely unequivocal. Matthew never fully forgives Mathy for quitting school and running off with one of the local renegades, nor Jessica for marrying a drifter Matthew takes on briefly as a hired hand. The Soames are a God-fearing family, stalwart members of the Methodist Church, very much Old Testament Christians.

At the same time, though, progress makes its own changes in their lives. While Matthew and Callie refuse to install indoor plumbing, planes, trains, and automobiles all bring the outside world a little closer to their doorstep. Jessica and her new groom catch a train for his family home in southern Missouri — genuine hillbilly country — and though he dies less than a year later, she remains with his people thereafter. Ed, one of Matthew’s old students, returns to town with an old biplane and proceeds to sweep daughter Mathy off her feet, only to kill her a year or two afterwards in a crash landing. Some time later, Leonie takes a trip to Kansas City, meets a somewhat reformed Ed, and eventually decides to marry him.

Though The Moonflower Vine is full of lush descriptions of the trees, birds, flowers, and plants that fill the Soames’ world, it’s very much a Midwestern, rather than Southern, novel. The comedy and tragedy are always moderated with a spare sense of realism. Missouri is, after all, the “Show Me” state — that skepticism prevents any of the characters from leaping headlong into any of their passions for more than a moment or two. Or, rather, it makes them look before leaping, if leap they do.

As the reviews of The Moonflower Vine on demonstrate, this novel, though long out of print, continues to hold a fond place in the hearts of readers who’ve discovered it. Carleton never wrote another book, though she did publish over 100 others through the Lightning Tree, a small press she founded with her husband, Jene Lyon, after she left the television business and moved to New Mexico. She died there in 1999.

Other Comments

· Jane Smiley included The Moonflower Vine among the classics she read (or reread) and then discussed in her 2005 book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and wrote of it:

This novel may be the most obscure contemporary novel on our list, but those who have read it, if the customer reviews at Earth’s Biggest Bookstore™ are any guide, are very loyal to it. Jetta Carleton wrote only this novel, which appears to be autobiographical, at least in part, but Carleton’s style is so dense and precise and her method of imagining the inner lives of each character so daring that she seems to have been unconstrained by fears either of remembering things wrongly or of offending her relatives….

Carleton mostly avoids the perils of this material, which, baldly summarized, sounds scandalous and best-sellerish, a Peyton Place of the Midwest, by depicting the southern Missouri landscape of the family farm in exceptional detail. The farm is small but much beloved, full of fields and grasses, trees and shrubs, rocks and flowers that present a seasonal drama to the members of the family. All admire and appreciate their natural surroundings, sometimes in spite of themselves. Since most of the novel takes place in the summer, when the family is settled on the farm, the characters frequently suffer from the heat, which has the effect of making the scenery palpable and especially sensual.

The five characters are a convincing family in several ways. They resemble one another but are ill-assorted, as members of families often are. Their contrasts to one another are exaggerated by proximity. Matthew loves Callie and she is essential to his sense of his identity and self-confidence, but her lack of interest in intellectual things (she can’t read, though she pretends sometimes she can) means that he can’t share things with her that are important and satisfying to him. Callie is sexy but submissive, and hardly ever dares to challenge Matthew, or even ask anything of him. She recognizes, though, that he had been the best bet of all the young men she might have chosen, and in the end he is a good husband even though he hasn’t shown her the tenderness she might have liked. Carleton excels at depicting the personalities of the girls, who often don’t understand one another at all, and would never, they think, make the choices that the others have made, or even have similar relationships to their parents. And yet there is familial loyalty and attachment, mostly arising out of a shared sense of the enjoyment of the farm and each other.

To my mind, this is a novel characteristic of its time, the 1950s, because it completely avoids all political themes. To read it you would never know that black people existed in southern Missouri, that the area was still a hotbed of post–Civil War resentments, that the Cold War was raging, and that World War II had taken place. The novel exists in a timeless world of seasons and of girls coming of age, love their greatest concern, with earning a living teaching school or giving music lessons a distant second. The Soames family thinks only of religion, love, nature, and sometimes music. They are American innocents in spite of their lustiness, quite untainted by the compromises of American history. The novel is neither liberal nor conservative — more, perhaps, tribal, in the sense that while the characters do make authentic connections, these connections are only within their own family rather than with anyone outside (except for Jessica, who moves away). In addition, the world is repeatedly redeemed, not by human action but by natural renewal, as symbolized by the nightly flowering of the moonflower vine (a relative of the morning glory). In the end, none of the characters comes to an understanding of Christianity or Christian precepts — doctrines of fundamentalist Protestant religion don’t seem to fit what they have learned — nor do they embrace their sexuality (though they seem to learn that they can’t get rid of it), but they do come to an understanding of the nature and purpose of forgiveness, and each character achieves a feeling that happiness, even fleeting happiness, is to be recognized and cherished. Several American novels on our list — The House of the Seven Gables, The Awakening, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Moonflower Vine — gain considerable dramatic tension from secrets that the characters are required to keep to maintain respectability in the towns where they live. The conflict between who a character feels herself or himself to be and what is acceptable to friends and colleagues is as constant a theme in American novels as, say, a character’s relationship to the state is in German novels. In exploring the romantic secrets of each member of a single family, Carleton offers something of a catalog of ideas on the subject of secret desires — The Moonflower Vine could have been a scandalous novel. But by presenting each character’s desire as a moral dilemma for that character, and especially by consistently depicting the bonds of love that eventually hold the family together, she succeeds in arousing both empathy and sympathy in the reader. At the same time that she portrays the abnormality of her family, she demonstrates that abnormality is always more complex than it appears on the surface.

· H. C. Gardiner, America, 2 February 1963

The amazing thing about the people who come so alive in this novel — it is called a novel, but despite the author’s statement that it is mostly fiction one cannot escape the feeling that it is all recaptured by a loving memory — is the fact that they had so much fun, uder circumstances that seemed to promise anything but fun…. Perhaps the second most remarkable aspect of the book is that this sense of serenity is achieved without sliding into Pollyanish sentiment.

· M. Moriarty, Best Sellers, 1 February 1963

Whether or not it will be a critical success, The Moonflower Vine is a well done picture of a more innocent, simpler era, when sin was sin and duty was duty and God in His heaven was acknowledged and worshipped.

· Barbara Fielding,, 2003

Jetta Carleton’s autobiographical novel captures the mood and times of midwestern rural life and brings it to life. From the idyllic, heartwarming beginnings springs dark and hidden truths; truths only the reader will see and know. The gentle revelations of the secrets, fears and heartaches that drive these wonderful and endearing characters is storytelling at its best.

Find Out More

· Rosina Lippi, who writes under the nom de plume Sara Donati, on reading The Moonflower Vine:

I first read this book in German when I was living in Austria. I loved it so much I tracked down the original English, and ever since I’ve been re-reading it on a regular basis. Whenever I see a copy in a used bookstore I buy it to give away. This is the story of a farm family in Missouri, set in the early part of the last century. Each section is told from the perspective of a different family member. This is a beautifully written, carefully constructed story that I have never tired of over the years.

· A page on the Lightning Tree Press, the small press Jetta Carleton set up with her husband in New Mexico in 1973

Locate a Copy

The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962

This Slavery, by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

Chris Lynch writes to recommend the 1925 novel This Slavery by the British writer Ethel Carnie Holdsworth.

In Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory, Bridget Fowler writes of This Slavery:

It centres on women workers in a Lancashire textile mill. Their experience is conveyed through the story of two sisters: Hester, who enters a loveless marriage to a mill master, and Rachel, who becomes a strike leader. At the climax, as the workers starve in a bitter strike, Hester unexpectedly retails news gained confidentially from another employer; thus, despite her own death, she helps the strike succeed. In this novel, it is a woman, Rachel, who criticises the economistic narrowness of many trade unionists, and Rachel who reads Capital and dreams. Less lyrical but more compelling than her dreams are the novel’s small realist details, of women’s tiredness, for example, or of hunger: “We seem to do nothing but talk and think about grub…. Our bodies get in the way. We’re a set of pigs kept grovelling in the ground.” Or again, in ironical reflections on workers’ endurance: “To starve quietly, unobtrusively and without demonstration, is perhaps the greatest art civilisation has forced on the masses.”

Chris adds, “I have been collecting her books for a couple of years now (a very difficult task as they are almost impossible to find). I plan to contact publishers to see if any of them would be interested in reprinting this remarkable book.” A quick check through the obvious sources (,, and produced a sum total of two books by Carnie-Holdsworth, neither of them This Slavery.

Chris has written an article on Ethel Carnie Holdsworth on Wikipedia. Two others articles on her life and work, one by Dr. Kathleen Bell and one by Nicola Wilson can be found on, a site about the history of the cotton milling industry in Blackburn, England, once known as the weaving capitol of the world.

He also mentions that Trent Editions will republish her last novel, All on Her Own (1929) in 2007.

Three Recommendations from Chris Kearin

Chris Kearin writes to suggest a few neglected books he’s discovered:

· Flying to Nowhere, by John Fuller

Photo of John FullerA very short novel that got lost in the shuffle when first published because it had the misfortune to appear at roughly the same time as Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a much longer, louder, and easier to read book with which it has some superficial things in common (monks, murder, Middle Ages). Fuller is the British poet, not to be confused with the American writer of the same name. The book begins with an amazingly vivid description of an unsuccessful attempt to land a horse on a rocky island from a small boat, and the writing remains at the same level throughout, even as the story gets stranger and stranger.

· The useful plants of the island of Guam, or, to give its full title, Contributions from the United States National Herbarium Vol. IX: The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam; with an Introductory Account of the Physical Features and Natural History of the Island, of the Character and History of its People, and of their Agriculture, by William Edwin Safford

Kearin writes about this book on his “Dreamers Rise” blog. There, he quotes the botanist Edgar Anderson, who wrote of Useful Plants:

Under this modest title is hidden one of the world’s most fascinating volumes. The author, who apparently came as close to knowing everything about everything as is possible in modern times, was professionally both a botanist in the United States Department of Agriculture and a lieutenant in the United States Navy. In this latter capacity he served for a year as assistant governor of Guam. In somewhat over four hundred pages he not only takes up all the native and crop plants of any importance, but also touches on such subjects as the history of pirates in the Pacific, how floating seeds led to the discovery of ocean currents, the grammar of the native language, the actual anatomical means by which stinging plants attain their devilish ends, and the aspect of the various kinds of tropical vegetation on the island, each of these digressions being developed with finicky regard for accuracy and appropriately embellished with authoritative footnotes.

Oliver Sacks also discovered this odd classic, and wrote of it in his The Island of the Colorblind:

I had thought, from the title, that it was going to be a narrow, rather technical book on rice and yams, though I hoped it would have some interesting drawings of cycads as well. But its title was deceptively modest, for it seemed to contain, in its four hundred densely packed pages, a detailed account not only of the plants, the animals, the geology of Guam, but a deeply sympathetic account of Chamorro life and culture, from their foods, their crafts, their
boats, their houses, to their language, their myths and rituals, their philosophical and religious belief.

All in all, it sounds like one of the few things the Government Printing Office has published you’d care to take to a desert island. Most of Safford’s other publications were articles for scientific journals. Among them is the intriguingly titled, “The Potato of Romance and Reality,” from the Journal of Heredity, which can be downloaded for Oxford Journals’ outrageous single-article price of $23.

· Los autonautas de la cosmopista (o, Un viaje atemporal París-Marsella), by Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlap

A travel journal, done in mock-heroic style, of a six-week journey along the autoroute from Paris to Marseilles. Unfortunately it’s never been translated, but I did post a sample here.

The General Is Older Than the Capital, from Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech

I. The General Is Older Than the Capital

Cover of 2001 reprint of 'Reveille in Washington'That winter, the old General moved from the rooms he had rented from the free mulatto, Wormley, in I Street to Cruchet’s at Sixth and D Streets. His new quarters, situated on the ground floor–a spacious bedroom, with a private dining-room adjoining–were convenient for a man who walked slowly and with pain; and Cruchet, a French caterer, was one of the best cooks in Washington.

In spite of his nearly seventy-five years and his increasing infirmities, the General was addicted to the pleasures of the table. Before his six o’clock dinner, his black body servant brought out the wines and the liqueurs, setting the bottles of claret to warm before the fire. The old man had refined his palate in the best restaurants in Paris; and woodcock, English snipe, poulard, capon, and tête de veau en tortue were among the dishes he fancied. He liked, too, canvasback duck, and the hams of his native Virginia. Yet nothing, to his taste, equaled the delicacy he called “tarrapin.” He would hold forth on the correct method of preparing it: “No flour, sir–not a grain.” His military secretary could saturninely foresee that moment, when, leaning his left elbow on the table and holding six inches above his plate a fork laden with the succulent tortoise, he would announce, “The best food vouchsafed by Providence to man,” before hurrying the fork to his lips.

From his splendid prime, the General had retained, not only a discriminating palate, but the defects suitable to a proud and ambitious nature. He had always been vain, pompous, exacting, jealous and high-tempered. Now that his sick old body could no longer support the racking of its wounds, his irascibility had dwindled to irritation, and his imperiousness to petulance. His love of flattery had grown, and he often declared that at his age compliments had become a necessity. While taking a footbath, he would call on his military secretary to remark the fairness of his limbs. In company, he spoke of the great commanders of history, and matched with theirs his own exploits at Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane, at Cerro Grande and Chapultepec. Near his desk stood his bust in marble, with shoulders bared; classical, serene, and idealized. The walls were brilliant with his portraits at various ages, from the young General Winfield Scott who had been victorious over the British in 1814 to the already aging General-in-Chief who had defeated the Mexicans in 1848. They were arresting figures, those generals on the walls; handsome, slender, heroic, with haughty eye and small, imperious mouth. Gold gleamed in spurs, in buttons and embroidery and huge epaulettes, in the handle of the sword which had been the gift of Virginia; and one portrait showed the superb cocked hat, profusely plumed, that had earned for Scott the sobriquet of “Fuss and Feathers.” He stood six feet, four and a quarter inches in height, and had been wont to insist on the fraction. But, swollen and dropsical, he spoke no longer of his size. He pointed instead to the bust, to the portraits, to show what he had been.

Such was the commanding general of the Army of the United States in December of 1860, but not so did his compatriots see him. His eye had lost its fire and he could no longer sit a horse, but in huge epaulettes and yellow sash he was still his country’s hero. Europe might celebrate the genius of Napoleon; the New World had its Winfield Scott. For nearly half a century the republic had taken pride in his achievements as soldier and pacificator; and if he now lived in a glorious military past, so did his fellow-countrymen. He was the very figure to satisfy a peaceful people, fond of bragging of its bygone belligerence. The General was as magnificent as a monument, and no one was troubled by the circumstance that he was nearly as useless.

Reveille in Washington is back in print (at $39.95 list — Ouch!), so, for the moment, it can’t be considered completely neglected. But as the above excerpt suggests, it’s a richly detailed and wisely comic narrative that ranks as one of the best pieces of American historical writing around. Used copies can be found for as little as $0.01 plus postage, although I suppose it’s hypocritical to write about neglected books and then encourage you not to buy your own copy from a publisher that’s keeping it in print. Multi-Pulitzer winner David McCullough often cites it as one of the books that inspired him to become a historian, and it’s difficult not to believe that Gore Vidal didn’t have a copy close at hand while he was writing his Lincoln. An excellent book for some winter nights’ reading.

Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941

The World of the Thibaults, by Roger Martin du Gard

Cover from first U.S. edition of 'The Thibaults'Reader Chris Leggette recommends Roger Martin du Gard’s family saga, Les Thibault, a series of seven novels published in the U.S. in two volumes: The Thibaults and Summer 1914, and then in a two-volume set, The World of the Thibaults. Clifton Fadiman included it in his compilation, Reading I’ve Liked, but as you can see from his New Yorker review below, the work held second candle in his eyes to Jules Romains’ Men of Good Will. Contemporary reviewers such as Mary McCarthy and Malcolm Cowley also had mixed feelings about The World of the Thibaults — ironically, feelings not dissimilar to those expressed by other reviewers by the time Romains reached the end of his own saga.

A few years ago, Timothy Crouse, best known for his comic account of the press coverage of Nixon’s second presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus, helped translate and revive Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort, a massive novel Martin deu Gard left unfinished at his death. Its release in 2000 led John Weightman to write in The New York Review of Books,

The 1930s now seem so far away that many members of the younger generation outside France, and even in France, may never have come across the works of Roger Martin du Gard. Yet, in his day, he was famous enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but even that international accolade is no guarantee of survival. Witness the case of René-François Sully-Prudhomme, the very first winner in 1901, who is now no more than a name in the reference books. But Iremember how eagerly we read Martin du Gard’s novels before the war. Now, having looked at them again, together with this unfinished, posthumous volume, which has taken so long to appear in English, I feel that they have a permanent quality. They may seem rather staid and old-fashioned compared to the overpowering intellectual and emotional fluency of Proust, but they have the merit of defining a certain kind of average Frenchness — that is, bourgeois anti-bourgeoisism — which existed strongly at the time, although it may have evaporated to some extent since then, just as Englishness is no longer what it was in those days.

Other Views on The World of the Thibaults

· Andre Gide, letter to Roger Martin du Gard, 17 March 1936

I do not want … the weekly mail to leave tomorrow without telling you of the immense joy, the profound satisfaction I felt after the first reading [of Summer 1914, the seventh volume of Les Thibault]. It was a difficult contest; you have won….

Dear friend, I believe that this book is destined to create a stir, to have a considerable success. Everything is said in it that needed to be said, with a perfect honesty in its presentation–so that even the most stubborn reader’s deepest convictions will be shaken…. Yes, I believe that this book has a considerable power of persuasion aside from its literary merits. But it is as a man of letters that I want to speak to you, and I can find nothing to say but praise. Some chapters are tours de force of skill and precision. You have written nothing better.

· Mary McCarthy, The New Republic, 26 April 1939

The machinery of the plot works with extreme awkwardness. It is, an a sense, a novel about time, yet the author’s only notion of conveying time’s passage is, after each gap of several years, to have two characters tell each other the events of the interim….

But The World of the Thibaults is not simply the study of a French family. Martin du Gard has taken Tolstoy for a model and, with this family for a center, has attempted to show a society as a whole. Thus the work contains, besides the usual elements of a novel, generous trial samples of modern science, modern literature, modern art, practical politics, religion, war, socialism and pacifism. The difficulty is, however, that these topics have not really been woven into the novel, but merely added to it. The result is not so much a novel of history as a historical grab-bag.

For all its encyclopedic qualities, The World of the Thibaults is not an important book. It is, however, a genuine literary curiosty. Industry and seriousness have been called in to substitute for talent, and the result is a work whose learned obtuseness is, so far as I know, unequaled in fiction.

· Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic, 10 March 1941

With glazed eyes and swollen lids, I have just finished The World of the Thibaults in the complete English translation — both volumes and all the 1,900 pages. It isn’t fair to blame Roger Martin du Gard, a kindly man and a conscientious writer, for the dull headache that comes from reading too much. Yet I wonder whether this business of writing oversize novels hasn’t been carried much too far, since Marcel Proust first set the fashion. Is there any human subject that can’t be treated in a hundred or at most two hundred tliousand words, instead of spinning the story out to nearly a million? Is there any reason for believing that a novel published in eleven books — as this one was in France — is eleven times or even twice as good as a novel in one reasonably large volume with a beginning, a middle and an end, and not too many extraneous incidents?

Isn’t it possible that giantism in fiction is quite as unhealthy a symptom as giantism in business or architecture or armies? The least one can say is that the author who writes an inordinately long novel is like the orator who delivers an inordinately long speech; he is disregarding the capacity for attention of his audience. Either the book must be leisurely sampled over a period of .weeks, in which case the reader is likely to have forgotten the beginning before reaching the end; or else it must be read as a reviewer’s chore, hour after hour and day after day, in which case it leaves one with aching eyes and perhaps a blurred picture of the author’s intentions. And the author, too, is running a risk. Any man who sets out to write a 2,000-page novel is betting against fate and human experience that he can remain unchanged until the book is finished….

Summer 1914 is the work for which Martin du Gard will be remembered and for which he deserved to receive the Nobel Prize. In the easy-running translation by Stuart Gilbert, it can be enjoyed almost as much as in the author’s pedestrian French. Yet it would have been better, I think, if it had been written quite independently, without regard to the family affairs of the Thibaults and the Fontanins. Standing alone, without seven other books as an introduction and without an epilogue, it would be even more impressive. It could then be read for itself, and with clearer eyes.

· Clifton Fadiman, The New Yorker, 1941

In 1939 there was published in this country The World of the Thibaults a book containing rather less than half of his Thibault series. Now, bearing the title, Summer 1914, the remainder is available in another book. The entire series, under the general heading, “The World of the Thibaults,” thus appears in two thick volumes, equivalent to eleven in the original French. Those who have not read “The Thibaults” may find “Summer 1914” somewhat puzzling. It is advisable to tackle the whole job or not tackle it at all. That means a total of 1,879 pages, but they are 1,879 pages that offer you a solid, almost tangible experience. They are pages for grown-ups….

In “The Thibaults” the emphasis was all on individuals and their relation to society; in Summer 1914 society itself almost ursurps the canvas. For me, there is a certain loss of power and originality….

But when du Gard concentrates he approaches magnificence: in his study of the Fontanin family, in his agonizingly perceptive account of the love between Anne and Antoine, in his heartbreaking record of the slow decay of the mind and body of Antoine. As a whole, The World of the Thibaults is unquestionably an impressive work. That world is now dead, its final hours having lasted from 1918 to 1939…. Someone had to write its epitaph, and for that epitaph to be clear it was necessary to go back to the roots of the Thibault world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was du Gard’s task, to which he has now devoted two decades of his life. The task, one presenting almost insuperable difficulties, has been presented with honor…. You may not read him with absorption; you will read him with respect.

· Time magazine, 24 February 1941

In 1937 when Martin du Gard’s award was announced, the question arose why — if the Nobel committee wanted to pick a long, social French novel — it did not crown Jules Romains’ longer, as yet unfinished Men of Good Will. The question is still valid. Both works cover the same period, both are fraught with the desire of idealists to stop the war, both are written with objectivity approaching self-effacement. The general impression left by Men of Good Will is rich, vascular, forthright; of Les Thibault nervous, sinewy, tangled. Men of Good Will chronicles a whole society, Les Thibault a family and its immediate connections. Romains cut into French life at scores of levels, pulled out hundreds of characters. They are alive, but they are polished as flawlessly as marble. Some are almost too pat to his purpose.

Martin du Gard’s people have the puzzling surfaces of real people whom he has studied closely but not entirely understood. At times their motivations stretch thin to the vanishing point, and their behavior seems perverse and arbitrary. But in some ways they are even more alive than Romains’ people. Doubtless Romains’ book is a greater work of art; but Les Thibault may be the better novel.

· Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays

Perhaps, in Martin du Gard’s eyes, the only guilty person is the one who refuses life or condemns people. The key words, the final secrets, are not in man’s possession. But man nevertheless keeps the power to judge and to absolve. Here lies the profound secret of art, which always makes it useless as propaganda or hatred…. Like any authentic creator, Martin du Gard forgives all his characters. The true artist, although his life may consist mostly of struggles, has no enemy.

· David Tylden-Wright, The Image of France: Studies in Contemporary French Literature, 1957

When in 1937 Roger Martin du Gard was awarded the Nobel Prize for Summer 1914, the seventh part of The Thibaults, it seemed a fitting reward to mark not only the completion of a mammoth and magnificent achievement but also a life or remarkably disinterested devotion to literature…. He has never attempted or wished to be an exceptional writer in the sense of shunning the duller, more ordinary side of life. Rather the reverse. his aim, it has always seemed, has been to reflect life itself, with its tedium, its limitations and its complexity, not raised on the pedestal of a particular point of view but life in the round, in the rough, as it appears to, and affects, ordinary people such as, for example, the Thibaults.

· Masterplots, Revised Second Edition

The eight-part novel cycle The World of the Thibaults was inspired by the author’s desire to emulate for his own time the accomplishment of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In fact, the work’s style and pessimism is closer to Roger Martin du Gard’s countryman Gustave Flaubert than to the Russian author. Although the historical background of the action in the novel is of interest, it is the powerful depiction of human relationships that constitutes the book’s chief merit.

In many respects, the most influential character in the vast novel is old Monsieur Thibault, the patriarch of the Thibault family. A complete hypocrite, he announces to the world that his conscience is clear, yet he is concerned only with his own convenience and peace. Cloaking his craving for power and authority under a guise of fervent religiosity and philanthropy, he actually has no sense of either religion or generosity. He possesses no love for his sons, demanding only that they be completely docile. Any contradiction or sign of individuality throws him into a rage. For all of his big gestures, he is a petty man. Everyone automatically hides feelings from him, for one never can tell what his reaction might be. He forces his family into hypocrisy. By avoiding all introspection, Monsieur Thibault unknowingly condemns himself to a life of petty pride and cruelty, a life so alone that he must find his only consolation in public honors and the “knowledge” that he is a “good man.” As he grows older, however, the fact of approaching death terrifies him increasingly, and he desperately seeks some kind of immortality, as if he subconsciously realizes how futile his busy life actually has been.

The volumes of the series are crowded with fascinating, well-drawn secondary characters. These include Monsieur Chasle, the middle-aged secretary of Monsieur Thibault, who is suddenly revealed to have his own life, his own preoccupations, fears, and miseries. The reader becomes aware of many other lives lurking in the background, and beyond them still others. In the volume entitled The Springtime of Life, the adult Daniel and Jacques experience the bohemian life of Paris, encountering characters such as Mother JuJu, the retired prostitute, and many colorful girls of the streets, as well as the rich Jew Ludwigson, who sells Daniel’s pictures. Earlier, in a powerful scene at young Jenny’s sickbed, the Rasputin-like pastor Gregory chants and prays and condemns with equal fury and somehow saves the girl’s life….

The graphic realism of the sickbed and death scenes, and, in the seventh volume, Summer 1914, the dramatic buildup of the war, as the European nations are swept relentlessly to destruction, are impressive achievements. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that as the focus of the novel expands, the author never loses sight of the individuals who make up the world. For this vast, panoramic survey of society and the meaning of life, as well as for his earlier novel of the Dreyfus affair and atheism, Jean Barois (1913), Martin du Gard was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1937.

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Constructions, by Michael Frayn

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  1. For as much of the time as possible, we shut ourselves up in our notations and refuse to come out. It’s when we are forced to observe and think afresh that the discrepancy between this simplicity and that complexity overwhelms us.
  2. By our inmost animal nature we are readers. We read the world around us continuously, obsessively, necessarily. Reading our notations is a late specialization of that skill.
  3. Our reading of the world and our mastery of notations are intimately linked. We read the world in the way that we read a notation — we make sense of it, we place constructions upon it. We see in the way that we speak, by means of selection and simplification. I should like to end up by saying (gnomically, metaphorically) that we read the world by developing from it a kind of notation of itself. You see your hand by seeing it as a hand. You see the branches of the tree against the blueness of the sky by seeing that the branches of the tree are against the blueness of the sky. I say to you (in all the relative simplicity of the language notation), “The leaves on the tree are shaking in the wind,” and, given a context, you take the sense of this (directly — you don’t have to form a mental picture to understand what I say). There is an unremarked parallel between what you do here and what you do when you look at the tree yourself, in all the immeasurable complexity of the natural world, and (without formulating any thought in words) take the sense that its laves are shaking in the wind.

  4. We are significance-seeking organisms.
    We seek out significance from our environment as we seek out food. We crave meaning as we crave warmth.
    If we didn’t find significance and meaning we shouldn’t find food or warmth, either.

  5. We look at the taciturn, inscrutable universe, and cry, “Speak to me!”

Editor’s Comments

  1. The complexity of the universe is beyond expression in any possible notation.

    Lift up your eyes. Not even what you see before you can ever be fully expressed.

    Close your eyes. Not even what you see now.

This is the first of the 309 statements — most just a few sentences long, none more than a few paragraphs — that comprise Constructions. Published just a year after Sweet Dreams, Constructions was practically guaranteed to vanish with barely a trace soon after its few copies hit the book stores. Works of philosophy written by philosophers go almost unnoticed outside a few academic circles, and works of philosophy written by non-philosophers rarely even qualify for that, unless they’re a once a generation fluke like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (published, coincidentally, within weeks of Constructions). The problem is that such a work isn’t “serious” enough in the eyes of the philosophy professionals, but it’s too serious for the reading public. Combine these drawbacks with a completely unsexy cover (nothing but text!) and an obscure publishing house, and neglect is assured.

Cover of the first edition of 'Constructions'I must admit that I only special-ordered my copy of Constructions, back in the late 1970s when Wildwood House still had a few copies in stock, in hopes that it might have something of the flavor of Sweet Dreams. To that extent, I was confirming a view of the reading public Frayn himself offered a few decades later:

The only advice that I could think of giving to a young writer is to write the same thing over and over again, changing things very slightly and going on delivering it until people accept it. Very simply, people want reliability and continuity in a writer. If you buy cornflakes you want cornflakes.

Well, Constructions is most definitely NOT the cornflakes of Sweet Dreams, at least not at first glance. And so, after thumbing through a few pages, I stuck it into the bookcase. And aside from a dozen transfers to and from moving boxes, there it remained for the next 25 years.

It was after reading Ray Monk’s wonderful biography of Wittgenstein that I finally gave Constructions another try. I knew I’d read something similar to Wittgenstein’s precisely numbered and aphoristic philosophical statements, and some digging into the unpacked book boxes soon produced it. The pages might have been a bit weathered, like aged newsprint, but my copy was just as crisp and undiscovered as it was upon delivery.

It will not serve Constructions very well with professional philosophers to describe it as a poor man’s substitute for Wittgenstein, but in my case, that’s what it was. I couldn’t get past 3 point something in Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Yet I think Frayn’s opening construction above is not that far removed from Wittgenstein’s attempt “to draw a limit to thought — or rather, not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts….” I also have a feeling Wittgenstein would not disagree with Frayn’s answer to the question, “Is there an order in the universe?”: “There are orders. And disorders” [#233].

Like Wittgenstein, Frayn sees language as the key with which both we unlock the world and lock off the world that falls outside language:

  1. You can translate out of the German, or out of the Aramaic. But only into another language! Not into the world of which the language treats!
    Moving from one myth to another is in some ways a little like translating between languages. A particular language has its own idioms, its own voice; a topography which favours certain ways of speaking, and makes others awkward.

These differences ensure there is always a certain amount of miscommunication and confusion inherent in any exchange between people of different tongues. This tendency towards miscommunication is one of Frayn’s favorite themes, going back to his earliest novels (The Tin Men and The Russian Interpreter). “Even if lions could speak, we couldn’t understand them,” Wittgenstein once wrote. For Frayn, one doesn’t have to leave our own species to encounter this problem.

Construction #248 offers an illustration of this, one he would later develop into one of the major themes of his play, “The Benefactors”:

The people who move us from myth to myth are like the reformers who hoped to cure all social ills by taking people out of the slums, which were the context of their diseases and crimes, and installing them in new, disease- and crime-free housing estates. It was a terrible blow to discover that these estates in their turn developed a characteristic pattern of social disorder.

“What is your aim in philosophy? To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle,” Wittgenstein wrote in #309 (another coincidence) of his Philosophical Investigations. Frayn is skeptical of mankind’s ability to escape the fly-bottle. Our fascination with the truth that lies hidden at the heart of things is, in his view, one of the handicaps that guarantees our continued captivity:

  1. … It’s true that in life people sometimes do surprise us at such moments [of stress and crisis], by revealing flaws or virtues we had not known about before….
    … But in most cases the truth that is revealed about us by our behavior in a crisis is just this: the truth about our behavior in a crisis.

Which leads him to this droll, quite un-Wittgenstein-ian parable:

  1. The secret police arrest us all. I, who have been a well-mannered and amusing guest at your dinner parties these past ten years, betray you as soon as they show me the electrodes. That bore Puling refuses, heroically.
    If ever we all get out again, don’t make the mistake of inviting him to your dinner parties instead of me.

To Frayn, the fly-bottle is what makes us human, rather than something else. We cannot get outside it:

  1. What would we be like if we put all our roles off, and emerged from behind them? We smile and stretch, reborn, untrammelled: Now we are playing the role of one who has put his roles off.

Frayn is nothing if not an elegant writer. Elegant in the sense that the term is used in mathematics: balanced, spare, aesthetically pleasing. Take the efficiency with which he encapsulates these paradoxes:

  1. Our complexity is such that we can understand many complex things. But not our own complexity!

  2. A capacious suitcase. We can get everything we want in it: clothes, books, a folding table, a bed, a bicycle…. This suitcase is infinitely flexible! The only thing we can’t get in is the suitcase itself.

I suppose that a professional philosopher could easily demonstrate that most of Frayn’s constructions are derivatives — and low-quality ones — of statements made by Wittgenstein and other thinkers from Pascal to A.J. Ayer. So I feel I am in no position to justify the merits of Constructions as philosophy. Recent scientific research does suggest that there is some truth to Frayn’s statement that “We read the world in the way that we read a notation” than he may have suspected. Mark Changizi and other scientists, as reported in The American Naturalist, found that “… visual signs have been culturally selected to match the kinds of conglomeration of contours found in natural scenes because that is what we have evolved to be good at visually processing.” In other words, it appears our notations themselves derive from the way we read the world.

But Constructions couldn’t make the grade as “serious” philosophy in 1974, so it probably stands little better chance of making it on this basis today. It may not help us know how to think or what to think, but it certainly does stimulate us to think.

“[T]he glory of writing is its dependence upon the world — the necessity it puts us in of coming back again and again to confront the complexity of what lies before our eyes” [#308]. And to that extent, this slight sliver volume, long out of print, qualifies as a glorious book. A dip into just a few of its pages always serves to remind me of the complexity what lies before my eyes; my own limitations in grasping it — but also my infinite opportunities to try to. Having finally worked through its unnumbered pages, I find I turn to it often to remind myself of the never-ending paradox of trying to understand the world around me.

Thirty-two years after Constructions, Frayn published another foray into the world of philosophy. At four times the length of Constructions, The Human Touch has already managed to attract more reviews and cross the Atlantic, with a U.S. edition coming out in early 2007, but this is certainly due to the growth in Frayn’s reputation since 1974.

Other Comments

· Jonathan Raban, “Is God a Novelist,” Sunday Times, 3 November 1974

These 309 numbered homilies, reveries, and speculations make nods of acknowledgement to Wittgenstein and Pascal, but they are actually the secret marginalia of a novelist who understands how the world works because he has created worlds too.

· Philip Toynbee, The Observer, 20 October 1974

Constructions is a fascinating and endlessly thought-provoking little book of a kind which is so difficult to categorize that it might almost be described as unique. It is poetical; it is philosophical (yet almost anti-philosophizing!); and it is a genuine contribution to psychology…. This is not only an unusually cheerful book; it is also a witty one.

· Jonathan Bennett, Times Literary Supplement, 20 June 1975

It is a philosophical treatise, a wrestle with a set of identifiably philosophical problems, and sometimes the method of sober, prose argument is used in it. More often, though, it works with aphorisms, jokes, metaphors, analogies, questions: the final effect of the work is enlightenment, which is comparable with what linear argument can produce; but the means of its production are more like poetry than prose and there is also something special about what is produced. For example, when Mr. Frayn remarks that “A man dominates his environment by establishing a unifying principle — himself,” and compares this with “a tank laying its own tracks across the wilderness,” something is achieved, for me anyway, which lies outside the reach of the prosaic means of academic philosphy.

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Constructions, by Michael Frayn
London: Wildwood House, 1974

A Talk about Neglected Books

Source: Syracuse University Library News

On Friday, December 1, 2006, Nicholas Birns will give a talk entitled “When Neglected Books Are Revived: The Cases of William Godwin and Dawn Powell” at the E. S. Bird Library at Syracuse University.

Using William Godwin’s 1793 novel Caleb Williams and the novels of the 20th-century American novelist Dawn Powell as test cases, this talk will explore what it means for a book to be lost and to be revived, the different ways that revived books are received in academia and in the general literary culture, and the nature of revivals themselves as cultural phenomena. The talk will close by drawing lessons from these cases for considering “revivals of neglected books.”

Birns is on the faculty of Eugene Lang College, The New School, in New York City.

Men of Good Will, by Jules Romains

27 books published in 14 volumes in English between 1932 and 1946

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Editor’s Comments

Cover of the first U.S. volume of 'Men of Good Will'One of the longest novels ever written, Men of Good Will seemed to some, at least, to be one of the greatest creative works of the twentieth century. Clifton Fadiman was perhaps its most enthusiastic critic in the U.S., but he stopped reviewing the series well before its last volume, so we have no record of how well Romains’ art sustained his enthusiasm until the end.

Of the 14 English volumes of the work, only Verdun has held its head up against the changing tides of criticism and readership, coming back into print within the last ten years as one of the titles in the Prion Lost Treasures series. For the rest, the consensus today is that Romains (in the words of one bibliographer) “went too many rounds with Tolstoy and Marcel Proust.” Still, Romains’ efforts deserve more than entry stub he’s currently earned on Wikipedia.

Jules RomainsFor my own part, I have to admit that I’ve cracked The Sixth of October and Verdun a few times without getting past the third chapter. Details there are galore. Whether there is a narrative energy to pull a reader through them is another matter. But it would be unjustly neglectful on my own part to put this website together and fail to give Men of Good Will a spot that gathers together more words about this magnum opus than currently appear anywhere else on the Internet.

Other Comments

• from Captain Nicholas, a novel by Hugh Walpole, 1934

He had been brought up, like every intellectual young man of his time, on Proust, and now he had been reading the four volumes of M. Jules Romains’ endless novel. The fourth volume in its cheap French paper was lying beside his bed now. That was exactly what his life seemed to him at the moment. Bits and pieces. He had never supposed that he could write, but now it occurred to him that he could write a very good novel indeed about himself in this present manner. Very easy. No wonder so many of his friends were writing novels! Not of course that he could be as clever as M. Romains, but he need not worry about arrangement or form.

• Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic, 29 January 1940 (review of Verdun)

Cover of the first U.S. volume of 'Verdun'It is true that I haven’t read every one of its 4,256 pages, having sometimes been overcome with yawns in the middle of Jerphanion’s arch and soulful letters to his fellow student Jallez. On the other hand, I have read every word of Vols. I, II, III, IV (in French and English), VIII, and the greater part of Vols. V, VI, and VII. The eight volumes
stand before me as I write — 612 cubic inches of reading matter, fully indexed, with more than half again as much to follow. Yet I can’t convince myself that this is a work
that belongs somewhere between the “Comedie Humaine” and “Remembrance of Things Past.” I can’t convince myself that it ranks much above ordinary novels in any quality except sheer size.

Of course its size in itself is a real achievement, and one for which I didn’t give Romains proper credit when I wrote about the novel some years ago. I doubt that there are a
dozen novelists in the world today who could plan such a gargantuan work, then patiently carry out the plan, at the rate of approximately five hundred pages a year. I doubt that there are half a dozen novelists who could give such a complete picture of their nation; Men of Good Will is almost an encyclopedia of modern French life, from aristocrats, financiers, commanding generals and Cabinet ministers down to slum rats, murderers and pimps.

• Jack Ferry, from The Ubyssey, the student newspaper of the University of British Columbia, 1942

To most of you the name of Clifton Fadiman signifies the program “Information Please”. He is much more to me. Fadiman is responsible for introducing me to one of the great experiences of my life, and certainly the greatest experience I have had in literature. For that I love him. Because to me a thing may be good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, but still desirable if it is a memorable experience. You see, he introduced me to Jules Romains’ Men of Good Will.

It all started last year with one of those Christmas books, which in this case was Fadiman’s Reading I’ve Liked. Halfway through it I came to the statement: “Jules Romains is the greatest of collective novelists, and to my mind one of the greatest of living novelists. His Men of Good Will is the most gigantic unified effort in the whole world’s literature.” This was a challenge. But it took this to cinch it for me: “Romain endeavors in Men of Good Will to portray not characters, but ‘life in the twentieth century, our own life as modern men.’ Obviously he must choose a terrain: it is France from 1908 to, one may presume, the present, or very close to it. He is writing, he says, one single novel, and its plot has been drafted in advance.”

Cover of the first U.S. volume of 'Escape in Passion'Once I returned to Varsity after Christmas I lost no time in starting upon volume one. In this book alone I met about sixty characters, most of whom appeared throughout the series. On and on I went. I paused for the Easter exams; and then while I sought volume four, missing at UBC, at the Public Library. Through most of the summer 1 read volume after volume. Each day, clutching my book, I passed the guard at that west coast aircraft factory. I think he thought I was smuggling blueprints. Each volume encompasses two books of the original French version. I read through The Sitxth of October, Passion’s Pilgrims, The Proud and the Meek, The Depths and the Heights, and so on. I followed two young college students through the problems of early manhood. I saw the birth of socialism in France. I saw the automobile-oil combines emerge. I learned a system for writing poetry. I met a man who could stop his heart action. I learned how it felt when a child was born—from the point of view of the baby. I saw a young man search for a faith. I stepped into the inner sanctums of Freemasons and Roman Catholics. I watched four crooks float a bond issue that ruined a million simple Frenchmen. I saw the Great War come, and learned why Verdum (like Stalingrad) could hold — one of the most magnificent passages ever written. I challenge anyone to deny it. And now — I’ve finished the ten volumes completed to date. Over 8,000 pages. There is no question about it “being worth it” In those pages so it seemed, I learned as much as I had during all of the past eighteen years.

Yes, parts of it were dull — just like parts of a summer sunset are dull. Here’s a suggestion: If you want to read about the most important things that have happened since 1900 without discussing dates, and treaties, and agreements, and economic trends, and social trends as such, and still digest all these things — then give this great work a try.

• Denis Saurat, Modern French Literature, 1870-1940, 1946

Romains’ poetic gift is at the bottom of all that is successful in his immense production, but it is obscured and may be unnoticed under the mass of his writing. In the novel his truly amazing effort in Men of Good Will, a series of twenty-seven volumes, relegates to the second rank, as far as quantity in one novel goes, even Balzac himself, who does not connect his pieces so well, or Zola, whose artificiality in construction is too obvious nowadays.

Yet is Jules Romains’ series the really great this is the description of the battle of Verdun in two volumes which are truly an epic presentation of war. The description of the superhuman silence that descended on the front before the world grashed in the great German attack will have a permanent place in literature; it is an achievement of imagination rendered possible by the absence of the writer from the field of battle, which permits the deployment into genius of his capacity for being there in spirit.

Two or three volumes on Quinette raise the detective novel to a height which perhaps that kind of writing does not deserve, and enrich it by the annexation of Gide’s “gratuitous crime.” The description of the mentality and intrigues of professional literary men rivals Lost Illusions of Balzac (not the best Balzac, it is true). Every type of reader will find something in this extraordinary series.

Time magazine, 2 December 1946

Put out more flags; this is the end.

Jules Romains’ colossal super-novel, Men of Good Will, has at last ground to a wordy stop, after 14 volumes (the original French runs to 27), some 7,500 pages, and about 1,000 characters.

The most grandiose literary project of a generation, introduced to the U.S. public more than a dozen years ago, Men of Good Will has been admired from a safe distance by many, praised to the skies by a few, actually read in its entirety by still fewer. It stands as a monument to the almost incredible industry and endurance of Novelist Romains and his readers. A vast, inchoate panorama, as broad as all Europe and 25 years long, its net effect is more nearly that of a giant notebook than of a novel.

Many of the individual chapters are subtly, brilliantly managed; here & there (as in Volume VIII, entitled Verdun) they blend into a more or less related whole. But ordinarily Author Romains moves his characters about by whim or wind, endows his chance encounters, political musings, philosophic sermons, fancy seductions with no more apparent interrelation than that of news stories in the daily press.

Author Romains once explained that the grand strategy of Men of Good Will was to “reflect a whole generation.” That it does, as faithfully, as arbitrarily and almost as indiscriminately as a mirror set up in a public square.

Vercors, Les Lettres Francaise, 30 August 1972

Men of Good Will is an extraordinary work, an extraordinary novel. It is not flawless — how could it have been? Pierre Daix said that after its twelfth volume, after the pinnacle of Verdun, it seems more or less to have taken a turn for the worse. Perhaps this is true — but not all that true. If the last volumes gave people at the time an impression of decline, I believe it was in part because these volumes were published a year apart, as if they were separate novels; thus, everyone expected what is generally expected of the latest novel by an author, something different from his preceding novel, be it a deepening or a revelation. But in this novel of twenty-seven volumes, since each book was the equivalent of a chapter, it was not intended to bring something different….

I decided to reread Men of Good Will, to reread this immense novel at one stretch from one end to the other — without being sure I would not stop on the way, especially toward the end, because I remembered my disappointment, during the war and afterward, in reading the last volumes.

This time I was not disappointed…. To be sure, the same shortcomings are there. While Romains is perhaps without equal in depicting male friendship, he is much less at ease in depicting love. The dialogue is dry and even a little awkward, both too sugary and too intellectual….

What had formerly seemed to me to be a rather haphazard structure now appeared a very rigorous design, and one executed by a master. And what a language, what rich expression and vocabulary! The style is perhaps not beautiful, not “elegant.” But it is better than beautiful. It is rich and full, with a precision and an apprpropriateness that have rarely been equaled and never surpassed.

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Below is the complete list of English volumes of Men of Good Will. Alfred A. Knopf published the series in 14 volumes, each, with the exception of the final one, incorporating two books as originally published in French. The volume titles link to listings of used copies available for purchase through

Volume 1: Men of Good Will

Book 1. The Sixth of October

Book 2. Quinette’s Crime

Volume 2: Passion’s Pilgrims

Book 3. Childhood’s Loves

Book 4. Eros in Paris

Volume 3: The Proud and the Meek

Book 5. The Proud

Book 6. The Meek

Volume 4: The World from Below

Book 7. The Lonely

Book 8. Provincial Interlude

Volume 5: The Earth Trembles

Book 9. Flood Warning

Book 10. The Powers That Be

Volume 6: The Depths and the Heights

Book 11. To the Gutter

Book 12. To the Stars

Volume 7: Death of a World

Book 13. Mission to Rome

Book 14. The Black Flag

Volume 8: Verdun

Book 15. The Prelude

Book 16. The Battle

Volume 9: Aftermath

Book 17. Vorge Against Quinette

Book 18. The Sweets of Life

Volume 10: The New Day

Book 19. The Promise of Dawn

Book 20. The World is Your Adventure

Volume 11: Work and Play

Book 21. Mountain Days

Book 22. Work and Play

Volume 12: The Wind is Rising

Book 23. The Gathering of Gangs

Book 24. Offered in Evidence

Volume 13: Escape in Passion

Book 25. The Magic Carpet

Book 26. Françoise

Volume 14: The Seventh of October

Book 27. The Seventh of October

Messiah: A Neglected Book by Gore Vidal

In a review of Gore Vidal’s new memoir, Point to Point Navigation, in the New York Review of Books Larry McMurtry drops his nominee for unjust neglect:

One reason I wouldn’t mind taking my near-complete holdings of Gore Vidal away to a far place is that there maybe I could just enjoy reading the writer and not always be having to ponder the Personality. There’s not much wrong with the Personality: he’s usually on the right side, and eloquently so. But the best of the writing is much more telling than the Personality—or any Personality, is likely to be. I refer particularly to Julian, to Homage to Daniel Shays, and to the excellent Messiah, a book that’s not remotely had its due.

Messiah deals with the rise of the next great religion of Western civilization, and the collapse and destruction of Christianity. It takes the form of the memoirs of Eugene Luther, a former apostle of Cavism. Founded by one John Cave, a California Undertaker, Cavism holds that it is a good thing to die–a holy thing, in fact, preferable to living. After the experience of the Jonestown massacre, David Koresh, and the Heaven’s Gate cult, Vidal’s distopia seems less fantastic than it did when the book was first published in 1954.

Oh, yes, and note the sly jokes: John Cave (J. C.) and Eugene Luther (Vidal’s full name is Eugene Luther Gore Vidal).

What’s fantastic is to imagine Myra Breckenridge or Duluth written by Luther Vidal.

The Visions of Nicholas Solon, by Monroe Engel

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'The Affairs of Nicholas Solon'Monroe Engel has been a novelist, critic, editor, and teacher for the last 50 years and I picked one of his novels at random to see what kind of work such a multi-talented writer could produce. The Visions of Nicholas Solon (retitled The Affairs of Nicholas Solon for its paperback release to match its suggestive cover) tells the story of a college instructor in his mid-thirties and his struggle to find happiness.

Let’s take a look at this poor guy’s lot: he’s managed to hold a paying job on the faculty of a small Eastern university without the benefit of any graduate degree purely through selecting a subject — Sanskrit — so rare that the usual prerequisites have been dispensed with. He’s married to an attractive younger woman who’s provided him with a house courtesy of her late father. He’s had a few affairs with the wives of other faculty members over the years prior to his marriage, and he may or may not be the father of a child by one of them. His father is ill as the story opens and dies soon afterwards, apparently at peace with the world in his last days. One of his best friends, something of a drifter, shows up, hangs around for a while, gets into a great funk, and eventually commits suicide. One of his old lovers leaves her abusive husband and decides to move to France to make a new start.

Overall, not the most uplifting of occurrences, but not that worse than befalls plenty of people in the course of a couple of years in mid-life. Yet throughout the book Solon wanders around in as if in a haze, not sure what to do, looking for some great revelation that will show him the way ahead. It never arrives, and in the end, he shuffles offstage as dull and clueless as he entered. I wanted to smack him for the self-absorbed ingrate he is and to kick myself for having wasted a couple of days reading about him.

For once, I wish I had read the reviews before giving this book a try:

· Booklist, 15 February 1959

A mature novel; the detached air of its major character limits is appeal, however.

· Samuel L. Mott, Library Journal, 15 March 1959

The book is written in the first person, and there are excellent introspective passages when Nicholes vainly tries to solve his confusion and hopelessness. But the author’s attempt to show how a group of completely lost, unhappy people slide deeper ito despair with drunken deaths and broken marriages, and drag Nicholas with them, fails to arouse either sympathy or disgust. Unfortunately, the story of these people … leaves the reader wondering if they were worth writing about at all.

· Robert Phelps, New York Herald Tribune, 19 April 1959

At least a half dozen of his marginal characters are so sharply realized that I wished Mr. Engel had written a novel about any one of them, instead of his rather too static narrator…. [I]n spite of these virtues, there is something missing — a vision, a focus, a selected pattern — which makes the books seem more like haphazard parts than a decisive whole.

· New Yorker, 28 March 1959

Mr. Engel writes in a slow, blunt, sour way…. An unbelievably lugubrious book.

“An unbelievably lugubrious book.” That about sums it up.

Perhaps Monroe Engel’s other novels are more deserving of another look, but I cannot recommend The Visions of Nicholas Solon to anyone — ever.

The Visions of Nicholas Solon, by Monroe Engel
New York: Sagamore Books, 1959

John Baker recommends The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Cover of early UK edition of 'The Hole in the Wall'

Novelist John Baker puts in a plug for this site in his own blog.

He also recommends a neglected book not yet listed here: Arthur Morrison’s The Hole in the Wall. Morrison, a novelist and short-story writer, is most often remembered for a series featuring the detective Martin Hewitt, but before that, he wrote several grim and violent books about life in the London slums. Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago are still in print, and you can find one of his Martin Hewitt collections at Project Gutenberg.



JFK’s Favorite Books

From Mrs. Kennedy, by Barbara Leaming:

Jackie, starved for conversation about books and ideas, was captivated when, early on, Jack gave her two of his favorite books as a way of explaining to her who he really was. None of the young men touted by her mother had ever done anything like that. One of these books was John Buchan’s Pilgrim’s Way (Memory Hold the Door in the U.K.), from which Jack had derived the credo that public life is “the worthiest ambition,” politics “the greatest and the most honorable adventure.” The other was Lord David Cecil’s The Young Melbourne, set in a world of complex and fascinating political men, the Whig aristocrats of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who moved constantly and determinedly between episodes of high political seriousness and those of intense pleasure.

Three Recommendations from Patrick Kurp

In his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp gives a nice plug for this site and offers three recommendations of his own:

The Pleasure of Ruins, by Rose Macaulay

A wide-ranging travel book, in which Macaulay considers ruins from Tintern Abbey in England to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Normandy Revisited, by A.J. Liebling

Liebling’s war reporting on DDay through the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944, a day he called “the happiest in my life.”

The Old Forest, by Peter Taylor

A 1986 PEN/Faulkner Award winner, this collection of stories by an author thought by some to be the finest American short story writer of the 20th century, tells of life in the South in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Voyage of Forgotten Men, by Frank Thiess

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Cover of the first U.S. edition of 'The Voyage of Forgotten Men'

The clock of world history showed October 14, 1904.

In order to celebrate the historic moment, the Czar had torn himself away from Tsarskoe Selo and from the cradle of his infant son, and had come to Libau to bid his fleet farewell. He was accompanied by a strange-looking, ascetic man, with clever eyes in a hard, cold, merciless face. The words that came from his thin lips were in strange contrast to his forbidding face; they were gentle and pious. He was one of the most powerful men in the empire, the Czar’s trusted adviser and the most hated man in all of Russian: Pobiedonostzeff, Chief Procurate of the Holy Synod. He had arrived to pray for the success of the expedition, and to assist the Czar, as supreme head of the church, in bestowing God’s blessings upon it.

There were flags in every window. People crowded the streets leading to the water front, climbed upon lantern poles, strained against the ropes. Galloping Cossacks cleared a path for exalted visitors, policemen shouted, women fainted, salutes were fired from the ships in the harbor and gaily-colored flags and pennants flew from every masthead.

It was an overcast, gray October day. The brassy strains of military bands cut sharply through the cold autumn air. The men who were lined up on board the ships to receive the Czar’s blessing stood motionless, filled with a numbing, speechless sorrow. The harbor was crowded with steam pinnaces and launches carrying relatives who were trying to get a last glimpse of their loved ones. But the blue-jackets who stood at attention high up on the armor-clad decks of the gray hulls avoided looking down at their wives and fathers and children. They did not wish to open up their hearts which they had sealed against further pain. They knew that they were going to their death. They wanted no tears, they did not wish to go again through the grief of parting. Life and hope were left behind. Thus they set ut — the men whom Russia had defeated.

At last the hour approached for which the whole world had been waiting. In every church throughout Russia prayers were offered up for the success of the expedition. The bells in Libau began to toll; and the emaciated ascetic in the black robes with the gold chain lifted his white claw-like hands to the forbidding sky to invoke the Lord’s blessing and protection upon this armada which was to bring defeat upon the unbelievers.

And beside him stood Czar Nicholas II, a pale, handsome man. His lips moved but no one could understand the words.

And finally a last greeting rumbled over the water as the guns fired their parting salute. Anchor chains rattled, hawsers were loosened and the screws began to turn. The bridges of the ships were lined with officers standing at salute, their eyes staring toward the land, toward the teeming masses of people, the cranes and houses and sheds and churches, and at the white face of the Czar who stood motionless, his hand raised to his cap, watching his fleet sail to make this dream come true. His figure was growing smaller and smaller, and became a tiny speck as the squadron moved out to sea.

Editor’s Comments

John Lukacs’ comment about The Voyage of Forgotten Men (titled Tsushima in the original German, led me to locate a copy and see how it compared with some of the other “nonfiction novels” he mentioned, including In Cold Blood and Ragtime. I must admit that I at first doubted Lukacs’ identification of the book as a novel. It reads as colorful history recounted by an omniscient narrator and has a bibliography of sources at the end. Nowhere in the U.S. edition is it called a novel, and the reviews of some U.S. critics at the time of its publication suggest that many readers of the English translation believed it was a work of history.

But the German edition clearly states right there in the title: Tsushima: Der Roman eines Seekrieges (The Novel of a Sea Battle). Knowing that this is a novel and not a strict work of history, one can accept more easily those aspects of the book that critics such as Lincoln Colcord complained about. For Thiess is a passionate writer who displays openly his loyalties and dislikes. The Czarist state is “lazy, corrupt, indolent”; the members of the growing revolutionary movements are “microbes,” “a malignant growth in the body of Russia.” His omniscience allows him to describe unrecorded scenes and conversations. He knows the thoughts of the leading figures and can even take a God’s eye view of the battle:

The truly terrifying character of a naval engagement lies in the fact that it is a clash of machine against machine. An airman flying high above the battle area would see only a seemingly calm procession of little ships, following one behind the other in accurately spaced distance, and emitting white puffs of smoke and darker clouds from belching funnels…. But he would not be able to see what is going on deep down in the bellies of the ships.

There the stokers are shoveling mountains of coal into the glowing furnaces, working as fast as they can — and yet they might be working thus on any peaceful day in May…. Fortunately they do not know what is going on above them. They cannot see the number of wounded carried to crowded sick-bays and improvised dressing stations.

Thiess begins his story with the onset of the Russo-Japanese War, the siege of Port Arthur and the entrapment and destruction of much of the Russian First Pacific Squadron. By a combination of general underestimation of Japanese military and naval strength and skills and a circle of advisers of dubious integrity, Czar Nicholas II rejects the obvious option of a negotiated settlement with Japan. Instead, he decides to assemble a Second Pacific Squadron, rushing new ships through the last stages of constructions and hastily patching up long-obsolete old ones, and to sent it on a twenty thousand mile voyage from the Baltic, down around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, and up past the Philippines and into the Sea of Japan. There, his naval experts tell him, the superior military abilities of the Russian fleet will wipe out the Japanese force and restore Russian control over Korea and Manchuria.

It was a plan gigantic as the country in which it originated, exhilarating in its fantastic, utopian appeal. Whether it could be carried through no one could tell. There were immense obstacles in the way of its achievement. Many naval experts throughout the world considered the whole enterprise an unparalleled piece of lunacy.

In reality, despite its ambitions, Russia was a minor naval power with a force as riddled with inadequacies and corruptions as every other element of the Czarist regime. Few officers, let along sailors, had the experience of a long ocean voyage. The ships were masses of imperfections: armor too thin, drafts too deep, guns and radios too short of range. Their shells had little penetrating power, their torpedoes failed, and their gunners had precious little experience with live firing. Anything but the most rudimentary battle tactics was beyond the limited skills of the crews.

And, Thiess adds, “Then there was the food and supply problem for a fleet of some forty ships which represented a floating city of ten thousand inhabitants. Would it be possible to take along sufficient ammunition, in addition to the other huge stores which were required for a twenty-thousand-mil trip without bases? And lastly, where was the leader for such a gigantic venture?”

With this, in walks the hero of the story, as told by Thiess. From the moment he is given command, Admiral Zinovii Rozhestvensky finds he has to fight two battles. Before he can take on Admiral Togo and his fleet in the Pacific, Rozhestvensky must first overcome the politics and corruption within the Russian government and the limitations of his officers, crews, and ships. Just to muster up an adequate force was challenge enough, but he had also to lead that force on an epic voyage despite the lack of any logistics infrastructure to sustain the fleet.

When Rozhestvensky does manage to assemble and prepare a fleet, two or three key ships are forced to drop back for repairs within the first 24 hours of sailing. Thanks to the many holes in Russia’s patchwork set of alliances, he has to avoid more ports than not. Despite an international incident over an accident off the coast of England, constant breakdowns and repairs, and severe weather, the expedition gets as far as the tiny port of Nosi Be in Madagascar before things fall apart.

There, to the existing supply problems is added an unraveling of the arrangements for coal refueling. As the fleet festers in the tropical port, the situation tips from the difficult into the absurd. The scene resembles something from a novel by Garcia-Marquez:

As the days lengthened into weeks, and the weeks into a month, disease and decay began to attack the ships themselves. These armor-clad giants had been the last reality in the African nightmare, the last tangible link with Russia. And now they themselves became afflicted with tropical sores. Sea moss grew on the hulls, and barnacles, algae and a slimy underwater flora clung like parasites to the bottoms and sides of the ships. On the deck, too, alien creatures had taken possession, increasing with tropical fecundity, and turning the warships into an ill-kept menagerie. The officers had brought animals of every description on board to while away their time, but soon these animals became the real masters of the ships. Screeching monkeys scurried up the masts, swung from the tackle and jumped about in the rigging. Multi-colored parrots perched on the rails, croaking and furiously beating their wings when anyone tried to approach them. Shiny lizards crawled out of the gun barrels and sat on the armored turrets.

After weeks of delay, a series of coaling rendezvouses are set up and the fleet resumes its journey. It evades a Japanese trap as it passes through the narrow straits around Singapore, endures a daily round of expulsions from the French Indochina port of Cam Ranh Bay, and finally takes on its last stores of coal before steaming up the Chinese coast towards the Japanese fleet. Waiting in a line ranged around the island of Tsushima between Korea and Japan, the Japanese — repaired, reinforced, and ready for the fight — have virtually all factors in their favor. Defeat, Rozhestvensky and his crews know, is inevitable.

Yet, as Thiess describes in a riveting account of the battle, the Russians fare better than the Japanese — or they — expect. For a moment early on, before his fleet’s inexperience with battle manouevres leads to a fatal error, it even looks possible that some Rozhestvensky’s squadron might reach Vladivostok. In the end, however, the combination of superior forces and Russian mistakes results in the almost complete destruction of the squadron. Even the torpedo boats are chased down and destroyed or scuttle themselves to avoid capture.

As Thiess relates the story, the remaining command ship surrenders while Rozhestvensky lies aboard, unconscious. Imprisoned in a Japanese hospital, he is finally released after the completion of the Portsmouth peace conference, at which Russia agrees to terms no better than it might have achieved before the Second Pacific Squadron even set out. Rozhestvensky returns to St. Petersburg via the Trans-Siberian railway:

In Tula the train was again stopped by workers and soldiers who had heard that Rozhestvensky was on board and wanted to see him. A voice, a nameless voice, cried out from the throng: “Tell us, Zinovii Petrovich, was there any treason in this?” Rohestvensky called back in a firm voice: “No, there was not treason. We simply were not strong enough, and God did not send us luck.”

Again there was a deathly silence, and once more an unknown voice shouted: “Look at him! Here is one man who has sacrificed himself for our country!” … They were grateful to the one man in high position who had not betrayed them as the rest had done.

While Thiess’ characterization of Rozhestvensky never tips into hagiography, it’s clear that one reason he called this a novel instead of a history is that he deliberately develops the view of Rozhestvensky as the protagonist. Aside from a few arch-villains within the Russian political elite and military, most other figures in the book are enigmas. The men of the squadron are treated as a collective character — the simple, trusting, but lazy serf who proves, in the final test, to have reserves of resolution and sacrifice to outlast most opponents. Written before World War Two, The Voyage of Forgotten Men foreshadows the kind of suffering and resilience seen through four years to fighting on the Eastern Front.

The Voyage of Forgotten Men is perhaps a more subjective account than current tastes appreciate, but there’s no denying the dramatic worth of the story. It’s a gripping tale — even with the ultimate fate of the fleet known from the very beginning of the book, Thiess manages to achieve a remarkable degree of narrative tension — enough to lead one reader reviewing a recent account of the Battle of Tsushima to write, “Without doubt, the best book on this subject is one written by a German between the world wars, Frank Thiess….”

Other Comments

Lincoln Colcord, Books, 7 November 1937

The present work, denying once more the human aspects and going far beyond the question of exoneration, attempts at this late date to build Admiral Rozhestvensky up into a hero, a great naval commander, a strategist of superlative ability, the one-eyed public servant in a welter of bureaucratic confusion and national disaster. At times the author grows almost lyrical; faults of character are tossed aside with perfect ease, or turned into virtues by a swift rationalization; facts are cheerfully twisted or evaded. At other times he indulges in sheer fiction, quoting the admiral and others as if he had been present at the scene. The result is a curious hodge-podge of truth and falsehood, and all concerned with a matter so far removed from the present problems and relations of humanity that one can only wonder at it.

Hanson Baldwin, New York Times, 5 December 1937

This book has a peculiar topical timeliness in view of the undeclared war in China…. [It] helps to make the present intelligible, and it again pays homage skillfully to events that will never die. But although it describes a great epic, it is itself far from epic quality…. Nevertheless, The Voyage of Forgotten Men is a brave though hopeless tale, well worth the reading.

Time, 1 November 1937

Solidly dramatized history of the Russian navy’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, with background emphasis on the Tsarist corruption which led to the fleet’s annihilation at the battle of Tsushima after its epic 20,000-mi. voyage under command of much-maligned Admiral Rozhestvensky, whom Author Thiess attempts to vindicate.

John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past

… the protean manifestations of this kind of “semi-documentary” or “novelized history” or “documentary novel” or “nonfiction novel” (none of these terms is really satisfactory) is itself the strongest evidence that such a tendency is indeed in the making; and that others may come to create a more perfect model of a genre that may be the genre of the near future, perhaps eventually dominating all forms of narrative literature.

Here is a very random sample of these “new kinds of novels: Tsushima by Frank Thiess …
The Horrors of Love by Jean Dutourd….

What do these books very bad, perhaps only two of them very good (Tsushima and The Horrors of Love) — have in common?

… they represent attempts to construct or even to break through to a new genre — something of which some of their authors are more aware than are others.

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The Voyage of Forgotten Men, Frank Thiess
Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1937

Capitol Hill, by Harvey Fergusson

Frontispiece of Borzoi Pocket Books edition of 'Capitol Hill'
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The folding room was a long narrow compartment in the basement of the House Office Building, with rough walls and a cement floor, provided with long tables of unpainted lumber and high stools. It looked more like a factory than an office. Its atmosphere was dank, and the small high windows up against the ceiling gave so little light that electricity was kept burning all the time. Here the printed speeches of congressmen were folded, placed in envelopes, and sacked for mailing to their constituents.

The amount of this printed oratory was a thing to appall. Speeches bound into bales were piled to the very ceiling. Other bales were always being hauled in on hand trucks, which went back loaded with tons of speeches folded, sacked, and ready for shipment. At the long tables sat rows of men in their shirt sleeves, folding speeches and putting them into envelopes with swift deft movements. They were the very lowest grades of patronage employees — the minor faithful ones, rewarded with these positions at seventy-five dollars a month for work at the polls, for marching in political processions and whooping and clapping at political meetings and conventions. Here in the very bowels of government they toiled, stirring futilely and incessantly, like colon-bacilli, among its profuse excretions.

Mr. Folard, superintendent of the folding room, to whom Ralph reported for duty, was a man whose politeness, discretion and equability of temper should have won him some higher reward in the game of politics where those virtues are so important. A stout man with a large, concealing grey moustache, he resembled nothing so much as a country undertaker. He always wore black clothes and a black derby hat, which he seemed never to remove. It was a favorite pleasantry of the folding room to speculate as to whether he slept in it. He moved about silently on rubber heels, and when speaking to an employee always laid a hand upon his shoulder and addressed him in a low confidential tone as “my boy.” Ralph learned that Mr. Folard had been appointed to his position many years ago under a Democratic administration, and had held it throughout the long Republican regime by reason of his diplomatic bearing toward the Republican congressmen. Any one of them might demand his head at any moment, so that this position could be given to a deserving Republican. Mr. Folard had a large family to feed and had developed his manner of extreme politeness can care in self-defense. He seemed to feel that any slight jar of movement or utterance on his part might precipitate a political explosion which would blow him out of his berth.

Editor’s Comments

Although Harvey Fergusson certainly qualifies as a neglected writer, what lasting reputation he has is based largely on his historic novels of life in New Mexico, particularly Wolf Song, which some consider the finest “mountain man” novel written. Before devoting himself full-time to creative writing, though, Fergusson worked through the years of the Taft and Wilson administrations as a newspaperman in Washington, D.C. , and his second novel, Capitol Hill, draws heavily upon those experiences.

Capitol Hill tells the story of the rise of Ralph Dolan, and his mastery of the success system of insider Washington politics. Finding himself near-broke after getting rolled by a prostitute on his first night in Washington, he decides to stick around a bit, if only to rebuild his bankroll. Ralph’s sex life is just one example of Fergusson’s remarkably (for its time) frank and world-wise account — among other things, he depicts the evolution of illicit sex in D.C., as various reforms usher the trade along from whore-houses to hourly hotels to discreet private apartments.

Rung by rung, he works his way up the ladder of success, learning the peculiar logic of reward within the political system. After stints as a bus-boy and bill collector, he finally wins a spot in the very basement of government: the Congressional folding room described above. From there, he moves on to become the secretary of an idealistic and ineffective Texas congressman. Ralph plays to the congressman’s vision of pushing a minor bit of populist legislation through the House, but his own instincts are both purely political and utterly lacking in ideology.

Ralph’s approach is studiously pragmatic: find his master’s weakness, and exploit it. He quickly learns to “follow the money,” as Woodward and Bernstein put it. From the populist he ascends to the office of another representative, this one a self-made millionaire interested mostly in climbing the social ladder. Ralph learns how to use legislation to achieve a wholly selfish effect:

The bill was introduced and widely noticed in the press. Most of the papers ridiculed it, and all of the butchers assailed it. Mr. Rauschuld had none of the big packers in his district, so he was not at all fazed. He produced his authority and his figures in reply, thus getting a second allowance of publicity, and fairly overwhelming his enemies, while the measure went to slumber with many of its fellows in the files of the document room.

Unfortunately for Ralph’s aspirations, though, a romance with the congressman’s typist gets him fired. An old room-mate from the YMCA gets him a job as a street reporter on a small Washington daily. Here he covers the “many minor events which were of little news value, but still required the presence of a reporter.” The work does little to further his career until he spots an untapped opportunity. Selling the editor on a weekly automotive section, he trades a cut in salary for a percentage on advertising sales and quickly wins the accounts of the major Washington dealers. “Although both his salary and his prospects for advancement were good,” Fergusson writes, Ralph is unsatisfied with this progress: “The thing that interested him in Washington was the government, and the opportunities it afforded for easy advancement in wealth and social prestige.”

Ralph fits precisely into one of the two stereotypes Fergusson draws of reporters:

The allure of newspaper work lies in the fact that is requires no preliminary training, and offers quick and easy advancement to a certain point. There are two easily distinguishable types who enter it, expecting to leap from that point to a foothold in some other occupation. One of these is the ambitious young adventurer who uses the newspapers as away to useful acquaintances and information, and eventually graduates into politics or business by way of a job as press agent or secretary. The other type is a man with an aptitude for words and an aspiration toward one of the literary arts. These fare much harder.

Fergusson, we assume, was one of the few of the latter type who, “by terrible toil, do evolve into novelists or playwrights,” and not one of those “cynical men” who “get drunk about once a week.”

Ralph uses his vantage point as a reporter to map out his own way ahead. “In general,” he concludes, “the way to advancement in this, as in most lines of endeavor, was to win the friendship of older men who had already succeeded and to serve them faithfully. If this formula sounds simple and old-fashioned, a glance at the career of Dick Cheney shows it’s still put to good use almost a century later. He uses connections among the Washington press corps to win a Capitol Hill beat with a minor Midwestern paper and continues to expand his circle of contacts: “The senators and congressmen with whom he came in daily contact knew him as a polite and accommodating young man, who was perfectly willing to do a favor and who wanted to get ahead.”

Over the next few years, Ralph hitches his wagon to a series of successful older men: a star reporter, a political operator, an honorary “colonel” full of grand ideas for the Red Cross as America edges closer to entry into World War One. By the war’s end, he manages to gain for himself the spot of head of an industry lobby known as the National Commercial Association.

He reflects with satisfaction at his progress:

Life was sweet to him, it was infinitely kind to him. He loved things — concrete, tangible things — money, women, good food, and drink and tobacco, cars and houses. And he knew how to get things. His life was a simple, greedy gathering up of things he very much wanted. All of the world as he knew it seemed to be organized for the very purpose of giving him things. What was Washington but a great crowd of men and women struggling for love and money and security? Most of them were weak and stupid and did not get much. He was strong and clever and got a great deal. That was all of life as he knew it.

Yet, as he takes the podium to deliver his first speech as leader of his association, he falls for his own publicity:

He saw himself in a new light, discovered in himself a new power. He was a brave young knight going forth to save the Holy Grail of property from the infidels and barbarians of Bolshevism…. It came upon him suddenly, as inspiration comes to a prophet, that he was an important man — perhaps, — even (Oh, sweet and daring thought!) — a Great Man!

Throughout the book, Fergusson contrasts Ralph’s advancement with that of Henry Lambert, his old room-mate from the YMCA. Lambert is one of the second type of journalist defined by Fergusson, the literary type. Despite his ability to write easily and well and rise in the newspaper business, Henry ultimately values the work as little and spends much of the book frustrated and unhappy. Only at the end, as he describes the novel he’s begun to write, does he begin to find some satisfaction and purpose: “It’s a full-length portrait of Democracy in action — of this magnificent explosion of misdirected human energy which is our capital.” His book has no hero, he announces, “But it has a central character. And the central character is going to be you, Ralph, or at least a man like you….”

One might imagine, for a moment, that Fergusson here crosses over into the territory of experimental fiction, as with the very writing of Capitol Hill, he was to abandon journalism for fiction. However, as several of the excerpts above illustrate, Capitol Hill suffers from some of the most common traits of early novels: most notably the tendency to tell instead of show. Ironically, the strengths of the book owe more, in my opinion, to Fergusson’s past as a reporter than to his future as a novelist. His main characters are more stereotypes than fully-fleshed personalities. From his years as a newspaperman, however, Fergusson is able to create the gallery of minor portraits and observations about places, manners, and morals that make Capitol Hill a picture of Washington life still worth reading today.

Other Comments

Time magazine, 5 May 1923

A rapid, interesting story, revealing, with satire and veracity, the hidden, unacknowledged mechanics of our governmental machine—centered about a typically American character not much dealt with in recent fiction, the vivacious modern buccaneer who neither saves his pennies nor makes any genuine contribution to the world, but is enormously successful nevertheless.

H. L. Mencken

The first novel of Washington life that attempts to describe genuinely typical Washingtonians and the essential Washington.

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Capitol Hill: A Novel of Washington Life, by Harvey Fergusson
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923

Sleuthing in the Stacks, by Rudolph Altrocchi

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Sleuthing in the Stacks'
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Excerpt, from “Lust and Leprosy”

Here, then, is the plot [of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s The Crusade of the Innocent (La crociata degli Innocenti)].

The dramatis personnae are five, with names sonorous and pregnant with symbolical significance: Odimondo (Hate-the-World), a young man; Novella (New-Girl), his passive adorer; Gaietta (the Cheerful One), his infant sister; The Mother, anonymous genitrix of Odimondo and Gaietta; Vanna la Vampa (Johanna-the-Blaze or, shall we say, the Vamp), the contaminated, but ever-pure-at-heart enchantress; a mysterious Pilgrim, plus a Celestial Chorus and White Voices. Even in the list of characters one must make allowances for poetic imagery.

Act I. Place: A dismal swamp, in which rises (geological license) a huge rock full of cavernous recesses; at right, a chuch (architectural license); in a “breath of gold” — which is the miasma rising from the dismal swamp — are heard the noises of innumerable birds, the dirge of snipes “which whimper like juvenile gnats” (insectile license), and the twitter of “divine buzzards” (ornithological license). Time: That melancholy, crepuscular hour, you know, Saturday before Palm Sunday, 1212.

New-Girl is doomfully sitting in the swamp by a cattle-trough which, as always in Italy, is a Roman sarcophagus. (Why a watering-trough in the midst of water? But don’t ask embarassing questions.) Enters Hate-the-World, carrying a horribly heavy little bundle of olive sprigs. The bundle is heavy, as New-Girl soon discovers by thrusting into it her hand, which collides with an icy little foot, because it contains the corpse of the Cheerful One. For Hate-the-World has just cut the throat of his infant sister, fortunately before the rising of the curtain….

Act II. Dewy sunrise, though the “bluish darkness is as silent as at the bottom of the sea.” The mysterious Pilgrim, emerging from the thick timber, approaches the doomful tower and instinctively makes for Johanna, the still much-lepered Vamp….

Act III. Front stage: One of the many boat loads of mystic infants sailing on their voyage to the Holy Land. They are packed “as a herd doomed to slaughter,” and though tortured by hunger, seasickness, and vermin, they are full of heroic fortitude and still singing…. Hate-the-World, who happens, for no reason at all, to be on deck too, has been lashed to the mainmast by the jealous sailors for casting amorous glances at the still beautiful, though pure, ex-leprous enchantress….

Act IV. Two of the infant-laden vessels are wrecked on the rocky shore of a deserted island. The shore, the decks, the sea as far as naked eye can penetrate, everything is bestrewn with innumerable defunct babes. Hate-the-World is again carrying the heavy corpse of his infant sister, the Cheerful One. “It seems,” says the uncertain author, “that in his delirium he has sacrificed her once more.” He was pure again and now he is again guilty, so, according to this subtle symbolism, he must again carry the heavy burden, and Sister must again have that wicked wound in her intermittently molested jugular vein….

… [D’Annunzio] must have been convinced, judging from his words, that this play was full of high emotion. Emotion without restraint, and that is the trouble, without that artistic restraint which Dante called “il fren dell’arte,” and Babbitt “the inner check.” D’Annunzio was far more interested in another kind of check.

Editor’s Comments

Sleuthing in the Stacks collects seven essays by Rudolph Altrocchi, a professor of Italian and long-time member of the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. Altrocchi describes them as accounts of literary detection, but literary archaeology might be more accurate, for he consistently uncovers layer after layer of precedents behind each piece of “original” work he examines.

Despite Altrocchi’s considerable expertise and serious studies, in no way does he attempt to make any profound claims for this book:

The research scholar who has lots of fun in his bookish hunting also wishes to share this fun. Although he does his happy hunting, he sleuthing, alone, he wants to share his game….

Some might say that in this time of global war [the book was published in 1943] literary research acquires, by comparison, a petty significance. That may well be so. But it also acquires the value of “escape.” The author hopes that this book may be a jolly, bookish escape to readers as it was to him.

“A jolly, bookish escape” is the perfect description of Sleuthing in the Stacks. In each essay, Altrocchi starts with a particular text, usually obscure. In “Handwriting in Search of an Author,” it’s a small collection of poems by one Monsignor Giovanni della Casa, a patrician member of the Florentive clergy from the mid-16th century. The book is filled with tiny marginal notes that the bookseller speculates belonged to a much-better-known poet, Torquato Tasso. He graciously loans the book to Altrocchi, who proceeds to unravel its provenance and then, the rightful source of the notes.

“Now somebody might ask: Why question the authenticity of it at all? Why go to so much trouble?,” Altrocchi admits. But forged handwriting, he explains, is so common that it’s riskier than not to assume authorship without a thorough investigation. His own follows two lines: the handwriting itself, and the content of the notes themselves.

His suspicion was fed by the fact that one Mariano Alberti, a captain in the Papal Guard, had been convicted of forging Tasso’s handwriting in the 19th century. Altrocchi locates the suspect book in the inventory of Alberti’s belongings included in the record of his trial “magnificent folio volumes (oh the grandeur of those Papal days).” Not satisfied, though, he then carefully matches up the notes against those in an authoritative compilation of Della Casa’s works, meticulously commentated, amounting to an “oppressive total of 2018 pages.” He finds that 75 per cent of the notes attributed to Tasso match those written between 1707 and 1728 by one Sertorio Quattromani. The last nail (literally) in the coffin is provided by a chemical analysis, which finds the aged, reddish ink isn’t ink at all, but hydrated iron oxide — the water Vatican authorities found filled with rusting nails in a glass in Alberti’s apartment.

This gloss makes “Handwriting in Search of an Author” sound far too pedantic. Altrocchi lightens every step along the way to his conclusion with wry asides and gentle judgments on all parties. There are no great villains or saints in his world, and after resoundingly demonstrating Alberti’s guilt in forging the annotations, he passes the mildest of sentences: “May his rascally soul and his clever, extremely clever hand rest in peace.”

The other pieces in Sleuthing in the Stacks take similarly esoteric subjects for entertaining rides. In “Lust and Leprosy,” excerpted above, he deconstructs a truly awful bit of kitsch by the Italian poet and proto-fascist, D’Annunzio, and traces its roots in a variety of Catholic miracle plays. In “Where there’s no Will, there’s a Way,” he recalls a play he once wrote with a fellow alumnus in hopes of winning a prize offered by the Harvard Dramatic Club. The play won no prize and was promptly forgotten. But Altrocchi proceeds to unravel the long literary tradition behind its principle dramatic event, in which an heir conspires to gain the rights to his just-deceased father’s estate. He convinces a neighbor who resembles the father to take to the recently-vacated death bed, recite a last will and testament, and then play out a convincing death scene. Altrocchi’s source is none other than Dante’s Inferno, where among the Maleboge (“Evil Pockets”) in the eighth circle of Hell he spots one Gianni Schicchi, who impersonated a rich man and dictated a false will in his own favor. From that source, however, he traces a wealth of derivations, adaptations, and reinventions, concluding:

Wherefore I stopped this line of sleuthing, which make me now stop my discussion. But haven’t I proved how much jollity can come out of Dante’s Hell and from a corpse?

Upon this sleuth, who now feels qualified for the exalted title of “third grade digger” or perennial (through seven centuries) literary undertaker, may the forgiveness come of the reader … (oh no, there is no reader left).

If you Google Altrocchi’s name, you’ll find he’s best remembered on the Internet for his essay, “Ancestors of Tarzan,” which appears in Sleuthing in the Stacks. In it, he uncovers dozens of accounts, reaching all the way from antiquity to contemporary “factual” accounts of jungle life, in which one or more of the essential elements — the abandoned child, the nuturing she-beast (gorilla, wolf, dog, etc.), and the mastery of survival skills and eventual rediscovery — are blended. The ur-story behind Tarzan, he writes,

… survived not because of casual animal foster-mothers, but by virtue of its essential humanity. Young maidens who succumb to passion; secret fruit of their transgression exposed and saved by miracle, surviving through coincidence and adventure for heroic accomplishments in history or philosophy — this is of the very tissue of life, at all times and in all places, and therefore also of literature.

Sleuthing in the Stacks is certainly the “jolly, bookish escape” Altrocchi hoped for. But as each essay proves in its own special way, it’s also a sly and subtle revelation of the depth, breadth, and intricacy of the web of connections that can be found beneath the surface of just about every work of literature, whether great or small, authentic or forged.


· J. T. Frederick, Book Week, 16 July 1944

Prof. Altrocchi writes so frankly of his hobbies, with so much humor and pleasant personal detail that there is much enjoyable reading in Sleuthing in the Stacks even for the person who knows little or nothing about the field of the researches described.

· Robert Altick, New York Times, 23 July 1944

To the unsympathetic bystander these discursive essays might almost represent the reductio ad absurdum of literary source-investigation, but they are nevertheless fun to read. It can never be sufficiently deplored that so few academic men can deliberately write unacademically and get away with it. Professor Altrocchi is carried away in his zeal to be companionable.

· E. L. Tinker, Saturday Review, 26 August 1944

The book is full of unlimited scholarly research, and an acute reasoning worthy of Dr. Holmes. It is often very interesting in its breadth of learning with its varied and recondite facts….

Find Out More

  • Wikipedia entry on Rudolph Altrocchi
  • You can find a brief biography of Altrocchi at “Guide to the Rudolph Altrocchi Papers” from the University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center.

  • After a long and distinguished career as a neurologist, Altrocchi’s son Paul Hemenway Altrocchi published his own work about a murky figure from literary history. In this case, his novel, Most Greatly Lived, he recounts the life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, often claimed as the true author of Shakespeare’s works.

Locate a Copy

Thanks to an enthusiastic boost from San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Joseph Henry Jackson, Sleuthing in the Stacks sold far better than most academic books when it was first printed in 1943. Although it was reprinted in 1968 by the small Kennikat Press, there are still dozens of copies of the original available for as little as $5 from online dealers.

Sleuthing in the Stacks, Rudolph Altrocchi
Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 1943

Richard Yates on Fellow Neglected Writers

Source: An Interview with Richard Yates by DeWitt Henry and Geoffrey Clark, Ploughshares, Winter 1972

Here, in an interview from 1972, Richard Yates, who was one of America’s better-known neglected writers during much of his career, nominates some candidates of his own for overdue recognition:

Q: Who among your contemporaries do you feel have been seriously neglected? What about the work of Edward Lewis Wallant?

A: A fine writer; and yes, seriously neglected today, though he was by no means overlooked or unappreciated when his books first came out. Wallant worked with tremendous energy and tremendous speed. He didn’t even start writing until he was over thirty; then he managed to produce four novels in five years before he died very suddenly of a stroke at the age of thirty-six, ten years ago. He and I were pretty good friends, though we used to argue a lot about working methods: I thought he ought to take more time over his books; he’d disagree. It was almost as if he knew he didn’t have much time. If he’d lived, God only knows how much good work he might have accomplished by now. Anyway, the four books are there, and I do believe they’ll last. [Editor’s note: Wallant’s four novels are The Pawnbroker, The Tennants of Moonbloom, reissued in 2003 by New York Review Classics, The Human Season, and The Children at the Gate.]

Q: What about the novels of Brian Moore?

A: Another very fine writer, also seriously neglected, though he’s very much alive today and still going strong. I just don’t understand why he hasn’t yet won a wider audience. Every good writer I know admires his work. I’ve always thought Judith Hearne is a masterpiece, and An Answer from Limbo comes pretty close. Even in his lesser books there are always fine things — great scenes, fine characterizations. And he’s such a steady producer, a real professional. He’s never yet allowed more than three years to go by without getting out a new book since he began, back in the Fifties.

Q: What about Evan S. Connell?

A: All I’ve read of his work so far is Mrs. Bridge, which I thought was beautiful, and a number of excellent short stories, but I know he’s produced a large body of fiction that’s much admired by people whose judgment I trust; so yes, sure, he too deserves to be much better known. Another excellent, underrated writer is Thomas Williams — or has he become well-established by now? If not, he ought to be. [Williams is best known for his 1975 National Book Award-winning novel, The Hair of Harold Roux

Q: Who do you consider some other good, neglected writers?

A: Read the four spendid books by Gina Berriault, if you can find them, and if you want to discover an absolutely first-class talent who has somehow been left almost entirely out of the mainstream. She hasn’t quit writing yet, either, and I hope she never will.

And read almost anything by R.V. Cassill, a brilliant and enormously productive man who’s been turning out novels and stories for twenty-five years or more, all the while building and sustaining a large influence on other writers as a teacher and critic. Oh, he’s always been well-known in what I guess you’d call literary circles, but he had to wait a long, long time before his most recent novel, Doctor Cobb’s Game, did bring him some widespread readership at last.

And George Garrett. I haven’t read very much of his work, but that’s at least partly because there’s so very much of it – and he too has remained largely unknown except among other writers. I guess his latest book [Latest in 1973, that is: The Death of the Fox, his long and ornate novel about Sir Walter Ralegh], like Cassill’s, did make something of a public splash at last, but that too was long overdue.

And Seymour Epstein — ever heard of him? I have read all of his work to date — five novels and a book of stories, all expertly crafted and immensely readable – yet he too seems to have been largely ignored so far.

But hell, this list could go on and on. This country’s loaded with good, badly neglected writers. Fred Chappell. Calvin Kentfield. Herbert Wilner. Helen Hudson. Edward Hoagland. George Cuomo. Arthur J. Roth — those are only a few.

My God, if I’d produced as much good work as most of those people, with as little reward, I’d really feel qualified to rant and rail against the Literary Establishment.

Three Cities, by Sholem Asch

Book One. Chapter I. The Capital

Cover of 1983 Carroll and Graf reissue of 'Three Cities'
From the Warsaw Station a long trail of little one-horse sledges lined with straw was slowly making its way through the soft, watery slush of the Vosnessensky Prospect towards Issakievsky Square. The sledges straggled in several long, apparently endless processions. The sheepskin coats of the drivers, some of whom had clouts tied round their feet with pieces of string, while others wore felt boots, were steaming like the flanks of their spirited black horses. Men and beasts breathed heavily as they struggled through the dirty gray gutters flowing along the ice-covered bridges in the dark thick fog which, rising from the canals, was gradually enveloping the whole of Petersburg.

Now and then a light troika flew through the slow-moving lines of sledges. The swift horses splashed the drivers from head to foot with the mud that flew from their hoofs, and gave them something to swear at. The drivers took liberal advantage of the opportunity; when they were not pelting each other with free samples from their stores of abuse, they addressed their horses, bestowing on them at one moment the tenderest terms of endearment and the next cursing them to the tenth generation with the most fluent oaths.

These little one-horse sledges were conveying the riches of the south into the capital of the Czar. The plains of Champagne sent their choicest vintages, of which Petersburg consumed more than all the rest of the world. Closed wagons bearing roses, carnations and violets were brought from the Riviera to the metropolis of Nicholas the Second; crates of the earliest fruits from the forcing houses; exquisite perfumes, soaps, and other cosmetic accessories from France’s best factories; rare jewels; cooling mineral waters: in short, the finest and most expensive luxuries that Europe possessed came in prodigious abundance to the Warsaw Station and thence to the capital. From the Warsaw Station the riches of the whole world streamed into Petersburg; the other railway stations of the city received and distributed the wealth of Russia itself.

In a narrow side-street off the Vosnessensky Prospect, through which the one-horse sledges were now lugging their crates and baskets of wine, fruits and flowers, stood an old and spacious building. It dated from the time of Alexander I and was built in the typical Petersburg Empire style. The yellow-washed facade had two entrances which were guarded day and night by liveried doorkeepers. The front of the gigantic building, which was so long as to be almost uncanny, stretched nearly to the end of the street. The side, which faced on another cross-street, was almost as long. Yet there were only three families lodged in this huge structure. The whole of the ground floor was reserved for a general’s widow, to whom the house belonged. The first floor was rented by a rich land-proprietor, and the top floor–that was occupied by the advocate, Solomon Ossipovich Halperin.

The corridor that led to the reception-rooms of the celebrated advocate had been packed with clients ever since three in the afternoon. It was a corridor such as was often to be seen in Petersburg, well lighted and heated, with long rows of sofas covered with red plush, and large Empire mirrors on the walls. It was pleasant to wait in that corridor, and clients who had secured admittance by bribing the attendants waited there until four o’clock, so that, when the advocate’s reception-rooms in front were thrown open, they might be among the first to enter.

And when the tall doors opened, the great rooms soon swarmed with human beings–peasants, land-proprietors, Jews. From every province of the Russian Empire came a stream of litigants; people who had been wronged, who were oppressed by the Czar’s officials, goaded by the pitiless laws, persecuted by judges and attorneys, tortured by the petty ill-will of local authorities–they all sought refuge in the capital and there appealed for justice to the supreme court or the highest State officials. Petersburg, the seat of the Czars and their officers, mistress of a hundred million human beings and tens of thousands of people drawn from the remotest corners in the whole breadth of Russia, pilgrims to this European Mecca in search of justice, safety and protection, concessions and privileges; for all affairs concerning the boundlessly great and rich empire of Russia were decided in Petersburg alone. And quite a respectable proportion of the pilgrims filled the corridors and the official and private reception-rooms of the advocate Halperin. For, though a Jew, Halperin was celebrated far and wide in Russia for his acuteness, his eloquence (he was counted one of Russia’s best orators) and his influential connections.

Editor’s Comment

I struggled with Three Cities for months. It looks, at first glance, to be a terrific story: the epic saga set in St. Peterburg, Warsaw, and Moscow in the years before and during the Russian Revolution. It has a cast of thousands, or at least hundreds, from millionaire railroad tycoons to homeless beggars, from Hassidic Jews to anti-semitic Russian noblemen. There are love affairs, jealousies, greedy schemes, worker’s strikes, famines, troika rides on moonlit nights.

And Asch has the capacity, even when filtered through double translation (from Yiddish to German to English) of producing passages remarkably vivid color and characterization. Every few pages, there are wonderful sketches in which he takes best advantage of the freedom of a long and complicated novel, taking time to inventory the residents of a Warsaw tenement or to lead us through the thoughts of a Russian estate owner on his way to his mistress in Moscow. For these passages, the novel rises to great heights of accomplishment.

Unfortunately, in between, the reader is subjected to endless and repetitive dialogues about the meaning of life and the value of life and whether the meaning of life has any purpose and whether a purposeful life has any value and whether the value of purpose is…. If you’re starting to doze off at this point, you’re not alone. After one too many of these discussions, you simply gives and skip on to the next descriptive passage.

The problem is with the protagonist. After putting so much energy into scene-setting, philosophical dialogues, and sketches of peripheral characters, Asch seems to have none left for his lead character, Zachary Mirkin. Mirkin is a young lawyer, left motherless at a young age, who discovers in his teens that he is a Jew. His father, a powerful industrialist, has worked hard to distance himself from his Jewish roots. The narrative follows Mirkin as he grows disenchanted with the materialism of Czarist St. Petersburg, seeks a mission in the ghettos of Warsaw and Lodz, joins a revolutionary movement, ends up in the midst of the Bolshevist take-over in Moscow, then finally abandons the revolution and returns to Warsaw. All around Mirkin Asch colors in a rich setting of places, smells, sounds, and people. Mirkin himself, however, is a void:

In this building filled with unfettered energy, Comrade Mirkin walked about with hesitating steps like a sleep-walker, as if he were in a dream. Everything seemed to him real and unreal at the same time, clear and yet indistinct; he knew what has happening round him, and again did not seem to know.

This comes on page 626, when the Bolshevisks and Whites are battling in the streets of Moscow. Meanwhile, our hero is wandering around in a fog, which is where he’s been since being introduced on page 18. And there are still 230 pages left to go! One academic has argued that most critics fail to understand the real character of Zachary Mirkin, the brooding protagonist of Asch’s novel. His struggle shows us, so the writer claims, that the hardest path in life is that of sticking to one’s beliefs. But Zachary spends virtually the whole novel wondering what he really believes. A good bitch-slapping is what the boy needs, and by the end, the reader is ready to give him one.

I’ve never thought much of Reader’s Digest condensed, but in the case of Three Cities, the approach has its merits. Chuck the soul-seeking and the clueless protagonist and preserve the scenery and supporting players, and you have the makings of a rich and satisfying read.

Locate a Copy

Three Cities, by Sholem Asch
Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1933

Sightings: Neglected Books in Scotland

We spent the last couple of weeks in Scotland — a few days in Edinburgh and a week or so in the Highlands. Although not part of the agenda, neglected books cropped up on several occasions.

In a small bookshop near Edinburgh University, I found a few titles new to me:

The Seizure of Power, by Czeslaw Milosz

The Nobel Prize-winning poet’s first novel, about the Soviet-orchestrated establishment of a Communist government in Poland at the end of World War Two.

My Sinful Earth, by William Gerhardie

A copy from the 1947 “Uniform Edition” of Gerhardie’s works. One could hardly consider Gerhardie neglected in 1947 if he had a uniform edition of his works being published. However, among neglected authors Gerhardie is one of the hardiest perennials, coming back into critical bloom (and print) every decade or so. In an essay collected in Power of Delight, John Bayley writes that:

[Evelyn Waugh’s] favorite William Gerhardie novel was to be Jazz and Jasper. This almost forgotten work appeared in 1927, two years earlier than Vile Bodies. Its author wanted to call it Doom, a title not adopted until the 1974 edition. In 1947 it made a brief appearance as My Sinful Earth, and the 1928 American edition was called Eve’s Apples [in fact, it was Eva’s Apples — Ed.], the American publisher having decided, no doubt wisely, that the word “jazz” had been “worn threadbare” in crossing the Atlantic.

The Tragedy of the Korosko, by Arthur Conan Doyle

A short novel about the capture and rescue of a group of Western tourists by Muslim extremists. A remarkably contemporary book, reissued in 2003 as a Hesperus Classic.

The Life of Samuel Belet, C.F. Ramuz

An autobiographical novel. Ramuz is considered by many the greatest Swiss writer of the 20th century. His best-known book in English is When the Mountain Fell, which was a Book-of-the-Month club selection in 1947. Time magazine wrote of the novel, “U.S. readers will get here what few other recent books have given them — a genuine literary experience.”

Then, in the bookcase of the small house we rented in the Highlands, I came across a few more. Amongst the best-selling thrillers and romances one usually sees in such holiday rentals, I found some unexpected titles:

Assassins, by Nicholas Mosley

An early novel by this great English experimental writer, about the abduction of a diplomat’s daughter in the midst of a crucial summit meeting.

The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross

A collection of mostly autobiographical short stories by an Estonian writer recommended by Doris Lessing and others.

So Many Loves, by Leo Walmsley

The autobiography of a novelist best known for his books about life on the north Yorkshire coast. From the excerpts I read, it seemed a lively and entertaining tale, ranging from his apprenticeship on a fishing boat to travels through Africa.

The Ballad and the Source, by Rosamond Lehmann

In this 1944 novel, Lehmann tells the story of Sibyl Jardine — her unhappy marriage, her flight from it, her life as a single mother, and the descent of her daughter into mental illness.