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.