A Matter of Life and Death, by Virgilia Peterson

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'A Matter of Life and Death'')
Cheryl Crawford’s 1978 memoir, Mommie Dearest set the benchmark for mothers from Hell with its portrayal of Joan Crawford’s unique terror-and-saccharine approach to parenthood. Yet Cheryl Crawford on her worst day pales beside Virgilia Peterson when it comes to “having issues” with her (step)mom. Peterson’s 1961 memoir, A Matter of Life and Death, is 334 pages of relentless mom-bashing.

But this is frightfully crass of me. The daughter of one of America’s first practicing psychologists, Peterson was born into the heart of New York City society, raised in a brownstone mansion in the East Seventies and rating a notice in the New York Times’ social column for her coming out party. Graduating from a Seven Sisters college, she travelled the Great Tour and took classes in Grenoble. Her father decorated their home with his priceless collection of Chinese art. And her mother would never have bothered about wire hangers — how the clothes were stored were for the servants to worry about.

No, the contest of wills between Peterson and her mother was far more subtle and refined than that between Joan and Cheryl Crawford. Mrs. Frederick Peterson must have learned her techniques at the same places where her husband bought his art. As her daughter relates it, her approach to abuse was understated, elegant — and unrelenting. Like Chinese water torture, in which no single drop does much but the cumulative effect is unbearable pain, decades of her mother’s corrosive influence would have been enough to drive anyone mad. Indeed, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Virgilia Peterson did, in some ways, go mad. Certainly her need to write out what is, in effect, a 300-plus page monologue to her dead mother — 300 pages unrelieved by a single moment of humor and rarely focused on anything but how her mother reacted or judged some event in her daughter’s life reflects a degree of obsession at least bordering on the pathological. “I always knew you were insane” are the last words her mother spoke to Peterson. And by that point in the book, you’d probably concede her at least half-right.

Not that this obsession blinds Peterson to her own faults in this relationship. This is a searingly honest book.

Unfortunately, while passionate obsession and searing honesty add up to a powerful combination, it’s the kind of power a jackhammer has, especially when it’s been going for hour after hour. This is not a book you pass along to a friend. This is a book you hurl out the window at a yowling cat.

It’s bad enough that the focus of the book is a bitterly negative relationship that never once came close to a reconciliation. But take that story and relate it in Peterson’s hyperbolically intellectual style, and you have a combination that will drive all but the sturdiest readers away. Here, for example, is a representative Petersonian sentence:

At the same time, however, because of my father’s marked reluctance ever to apply the word insane; because of his insistence that his patients — no matter how they might appear to us — were not lunatics but ailing friends; because of his tenderness toward them and his reluctance to laugh at them, which, even as a child, I recognized as a kind of consideration he did not feel called upon to show to me; above all, because he was continually pointing out that between sanity and insanity lay the most delicate, the most shrouded, the most poignant of fulcrums, we knew better than other people that insanity was more tragic than any other tragedy that could befall.

Maybe it’s just me, but I had to reread that sentence several times before I could convince myself that the printers hadn’t dropped out a word or two at the end. Indeed, the tendency to string wandering dependent clauses together until one forgets what the subject was is only one of her stylistic pecadillos.

It’s a true shame, for both Peterson and her readers. For the bare facts of her life are not without interest. Travelling Europe in style with her first husband, she meets with and falls in love with a Polish nobleman. After much hand-wringing and scenery-chewing her family consents and they marry. They return to Poland and the near-medieval life of a rural estate. Hitler invades; Peterson’s husband is trapped along with most of the Polish Army. She and the children become refugees. They eventually make it back to America. Peterson publishes (as Virgilia Sapieha) a best-selling memoir of the experience, Polish Profile. A third marriage, to another member of the upper crust, follows. She starts reviewing books and becomes an established fixture on the East Coast literary scene, hosting a weekly show, “Books in Profile,” on WNYC radio with fellow Neglected Books Page writer Harding Lemay.

Her influence in the publishing business might have helped critics view the book in a positive light when it was first published. Reviews feature such phrases as “… a shining example of the proper use of candor ….,” “… continuously engrossing, often eloquent, and always serious …,” “… an impressive book,” and “… one of the outstanding autobiographies written by American women.” The book was nominated for the 1962 National Book Award. But even the favorable reviews are clouded with shadows of doubt: “… an almost obsessive — sometimes morbid — fascination …”; “… the unkindest comic valentine to the deceased I have run across …”; “… if it was written to exorcise her mother’s influence or achieve a posthumous reconciliation, these ends have not been accomplished.”

If only as case study material of a self-consciously literary form, A Matter of Life and Death has some value. And perhaps more diligent and empathetic readers than I will find the book worth rediscovering. My copy, however, is up for grabs for anyone who wants it. I am happy now to be working on Hermes Nye’s irreverent fictional memoir of life in 1930s Dallas, Fortune is a Woman. As Coleridge wrote of reading Fielding after Richardson, it feels like “emerging from a sick-room heated by stoves into an open lawn on a breezy day in May.”


Postscript: I had some belated confirmation from this entry in Helen Bevington’s Along Came a Witch, her journal from the 1960s:

Virgilia Peterson’s autobiography, A Matter of Life and Death, is motivated by hate, an emotion for which I have no respect. She addresses her mother in cold fury as “you,” an evil woman, and is herself touched by pitch. This is a self-wounding book with no healing in it, no cure, filled with revenge, the desire to hurt and destroy a dead woman.

Post-postscript: A Matter of Life and Death also got a thumbs-down from poet Louise Bogan, who mentions it in a letter to her friend (and later executrix) Ruth Limmer:

— The Virgilia Peterson, on the other hand, is a sort of Electra-complex nightmare. The old girl has absolutely no insight into her situation, and she writes like a simple-minded Proust — all curly sentences, which sometimes do not come out right. This you should see, as well, if only for the wry laughter it engenders

From What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-70


A Matter of Life and Death, by Virgilia Peterson
New York: Atheneum, 1961

Clutch and Differential (AKA Highway Episode), by George Weller

Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of 'Clutch and Differential' (retitled 'Highway Episode')George Weller’s Clutch and Differential is an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful experiment. Indeed, it bears at least one trademark of experimental fiction: an obvious design to which all other elements of the work are subservient. Time magazine’s review provides a good explanation of Weller’s plan:

Written in a technique that owes something to John Dos Passos, something to James Joyce, Clutch and Differential is made up of 35 long episodes dealing with characters who bear little apparent relation to each other. Stripped of its complicated gadgets, it could be mistaken for a collection of old-fashioned, high-wheeled short stories. But 18 of George Weller’s episodes are subtitled “clutch” and 17 “differential” and apparently the clutch stories deal with people who are hanging on to money, love or dreams, while the differential ones deal with people who are letting go. Each “clutch” episode is introduced with a little discussion called Shift of Gear and followed by one called Universal, made up of technical automotive instructions directly or obliquely related to the material of that particular episode.

In addition to the alternation of his “clutch” and “differential” motifs, Weller adds the constraint of arranging the stories in order of the age of their protagonists: the first story, “Irene Herself,” is written in the voice of a girl of about 5; the last, “Mark My Words,” in that of Julia, an aging widow somewhere past seventy.

Weller places his overall theme at the book’s start, quoting a supposed automobile sales circular that states, “Beneath American-made bodies that are tastefully refashioned every year, power transmission has gained a standard performance. New bodies come and old bodies go but clutch and differential now change but little.” The message that human nature persists despite changes in technology has become more familiar since 1936, but even then it was a slender branch on which to hang a 400-plus page magnum opus.

Weller deserves an E for effort. He strenuously embraces and attempts to project the unique voice of each of his characters, whether it’s a clueless high school football player missing his first chance at making out to a passed-over Foreign Service officer musing over his many failures to make the right career moves. And you can’t help but admire his breadth of vision, as he ranges all over the social and geographical map of the United States.

Unfortunately, all this good work comes to no great end. One finishes story after story wishing Weller had applied his impressive techniques to a character or situation of real substance and interest rather than an theoretical construct. None of the 35 Americans in Clutch and Differential is half as believable as any of Joyce’s Dubliners and certainly none of its stories comes close to an “Araby” or “Two Gallants,” let alone “The Dead.” In all his earnest design and construction, Weller forgot to include some heart and soul.

Clutch and Differential was reissued as “Highway Episode” in an early paperback edition that featured a woman in stereotypically-ripped bodice fleeing from some unknown threat, alongside text that claimed, “No novel before or since has so nakedly revealed our automobile age! Here is the pulsing drama of penthouses, hobo jungles, summer camps, country clubs … of mad pleasures and promiscuous passion ….” It was also reissued for the academic market in 1970.

Weller went on to work as a journalist during World War Two and after, earning a Pulitzer Prize in 1943 for an account of an emergency appendectomy performed on a submarine in enemy waters. He died in 2002, but his work will soon be in print again, thanks to his son Anthony’s compilation of his father’s long-withheld account of the devastation of Nagasaki, First Into Nagasaki — which has already sparked some contrarian comments in his Wikipedia bio.

Clutch and Differential, by George Weller
New York: Random House, 1936
New York: Royal Books, 1936 (as “Highway Episode”)

Tom Fool, by David Stacton

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Locate a Copy

Excerpt

Cover of UK first edition of 'Tom Fool'
At Fairbanks he learned that he was not to be allowed to deliver at Minneapolis, as he had planned, a public address on his trip. Security reasons, said the President, who had to bottle him some way, and perhaps in this instance was not altogether wrong, but was getting tired of the way in which, no matter how we had defeated, the man came bouncing back. Report to Washington first.

There was also an offer to speak over the radio on October 26th. Well, thought Tom, that would take care of the bottling operation, if he had his way.

Unfortunately, the world, like the mouse’s tale in Alice, has a tendency to dwindle away to nothing, when you got back to America, except that in this case it was no mouse, but a lion they had by the tail. Didn’t they realize that?

He glanced at the mountains, whose snows were gold with sunset. Who was it, somewhere during his travels, a wit, so perhaps it had been in Turkey, where Noumen Bey, the Foreign Minister, had seemed, like his mind, a little sad, a little cynical, very strong, and very subtle, had referred to life in America as “Life behind the Gold Curtain”?

He could not remember, but he remembered the remark.

There were forces abroad (the war had let them out, as ghosts come out in a thunderstorm), out there, across the seas, which would have to be reckoned with, and which, if they were ignored, would distrub the whole world.

The trip had taken forty-nine days. That was almost exactly the length of that other trip he had taken, during the election campaign. That had not occurred to him before, but now he saw that they were the same trip, or at any rate, one on one side of the mirror, and the other through it; the one through a world that preferred to dream, the other through a world that was the nightmare America feared. It is true: the dream of reason produces monsters. But in this case it was an irrational dream. In this case it was the monsters who had reason on their side.

America is fenced with mirrors. They are our spiritual defence against the truth. And since we refuse to shatter them, there was nothing to be done now, but wait until they had been shattered from the other side, which would happen soon enough; though what would the world fine on the inside, then, but broken glass? The creature was shrivelling away from sheer mirror vanity. It was too late.

It had no dignity. Therefore it was a comedy, but only because one forced one’s self to smile. For it was also a tragedy, which broke for good hearts of those who still loved the place, no matter how ashamed they might be of what their government had done. There are a good many of those, and always will be, for the land means everything, even when those who rule it mean little or nothing at all. So it is sometimes nobler to be Tom Fool. Nobler, and of better use.

Editor’s Comments

David Stacton seems, from his Wikipedia biography, a fascinating case of the neglected writer. In the space of eight years, between 1957 and 1965, he published eleven historical novels, ranging in subjects from ancient Egypt (On a Balcony) and medieval Japan (Segaki) and India (Kaliyuga) to the Cannes film festival (Old Acquaintances). He also wrote a good share of pulp fiction under pseudonyms such as Bud Clifton, Carse Boyd, and David West. He died at the young age of 42, having lived a fairly itinerant life, and his work quickly vanished from public and critical sight.

Among Stacton’s works was what he referred to as his “American triptych”: A Signal Victory, a novel about the Spanish conquest of Mexico; The Judges of the Secret Court, about the assassination of Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth’s flight and death; and Tom Fool, about Wendell Wilkie, the unlikely Republican presidential nominee. Having a long-standing interest in FDR, I thought I would start my investigation of Stacton by trying out this novel about the man who gave him his toughest competition in all his four presidential campaigns.

Wilkie came into the 1940 Republican convention with virtually no organization and absolutely no delegates, but a combination of strong support from several influential newspaper publishers and a three-way gridlock among the official candidates — Robert Taft, Thomas E. Dewey, and Arthur Vandenberg — enabled him to emerge after six ballots as the nominee. The old guard Republican party, in Stacton’s words, “wanted something like the Bourbon Restoration in Naples. They wanted to be reactionary. They wanted to punish.” Instead, the convention led to, in the words of one newspaper writer, “the most revolutionary thing the Republican Party had done since the nomination of Lincoln.”

Stacton portrays Wilkie as something of a holy fool. His motive is pure and simple — protect the land and the people from the many dangers of “that man”. Unfortunately, he quickly finds that modern politics is less a crusade than a circus, and no different from the lions and elephants, he is at the mercy of his handlers:

He was beginning to learn how much the professionals hated him. That left him the people. Unfortunately, as his advisers told him, it was first necessary to get to the people. He had to turn to such of the professionals as he could gather in, after all.

And so he winds up with a bevy of professionals at a retreat in Colorado. “The term is religious,” writes Stacton, “but the event is not. The event had about as much spirituality as a locker-room conference twenty minutes before the big game. It also had the same jockstrap, hard soap, sheep dip, and sweaty-armpit smell.” From the retreat, the Wilkie circus then takes off on an epic train journey around the country. Unlike Truman’s legendary whistle-stop campaign, Wilkie’s was less a matter of plain speaking and more one of media manipulation. Professionals such as “Sideboard,” who ghost-writes articles and forces canned speeches on Wilkie, or the Pattersons, who “had traits, but no character.” “Indeed,” Stacton continues, “they were not people at all, only a bank account and that odd, vacant look in their eyes.”

Wilkie’s crusade is not just a simple “back to roots” plea for folk democracy. He might argue against Roosevelt’s third term, but he shares FDR’s abhorrence of isolationism:

He could only tell such people that theirs was not the only country in the world, and that it behoved them to act accordingly. But that is never a popular message. Xenophobia saw to that, xenophobia is an act of ignorant pride, and pride, after all, goeth before a whole man.”

Still, Wilkie manages to misread the people’s will almost as consistently as the professionals do. He finds himself booed in Michigan: “… the workers, though better paid than the office staffs above them, were sullen with class hatred. He had never seen class hatred before.” He tells his listeners, “… if we do not prevail this fall, this way of life will pass.” But “Half the people … didn’t care. All they wanted was their salaries and hand-outs.” This half was already lost, at least in Stacton’s eyes, and with Wilkie’s loss, the other half — the good people of the land — lose their last chance:

The great ranches are going. The farms are gone. The highways lead nowhere; and the suburbs are worse and worse built; they cost more and more; and everybody drives.

The second half of Tom Fool seems a bit deflated. Despite his defeat, Wilkie carries on. Roosevelt sends him around the world as a personal investigator, a series of journeys Wilkie described in his 1943 best-seller, One World. But as Stacton characterizes the trip, which in the novel mirrors Wilkie’s campaign tour as precisely as described in the excerpt above, it is a journey through lands as spiritually defeated as America. The Soviets are neither the great red enemy nor the great hope for mankind. The Chinese masses are pulled between two leaders — Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao — more concerned with ambition and ideology than their peoples’ needs. Fascism comes to seem only slightly the greater of two evils. Wilkie’s vision has no outlet, even if Stacton considers it “Nobler, and of better use.”

The problem with Tom Fool, though, is that it claims to be a novel and yet comes across as a tract. Stacton may write that the Pattersons have no character, but Wilkie himself is more spirit than substance. The figures in this book have attitudes and positions, not features and habits.

In a review of another Stacton novel, Naomi Bliven wrote in the New Yorker, “Although Mr. Stacton is a good writer, his work is extremely disheartening, because he will indulge his talent for twisting perspectives so as to make human life appear to be nothing more than a grotesque and malignant practical joke.” This tone certainly pervades Tom Fool, and by the end of Wilkie’s journeys, the reader grows weary of Stacton’s relentlessly acerbic commentary. One biographer noted that Stacton’s characters

… are often two-dimensional figures, selected to illustrate a thesis, and drawn without much sympathy or understanding. By way of compensation there is his baroque and waspish style, studded with epigram, apothegm, and aphorism, ‘one of the most massively complex and convoluted styles of our time.’

In Tom Fool, however, this style bludgeons narrative, protagonist, and reader, leaving all with various scratches and bruises. Imagine one of Gore Vidal’s wonderful historical fictions, such as Lincoln, with all the intelligence and insight but almost none of the grace and wit. Or a cocktail party hosted by a brilliant but overbearing host — who drives his guests to the bar for another martini to tune out their host’s insufferable banter.

I plan to give Stacton a try again sometime. But if you care to give Tom Fool a try … well, then, you’re no wiser than Wilkie was.

Locate a copy

Tom Fool is fairly rare. Neither Amazon.com nor Amazon.co.uk lists any copies for sale, so if you’re desparate to read this book, you’ll need to search for it at a major university library or consider plunking down $75 for one of the few copies listed on AddAll.com.

Tom Fool, by David Stacton
London: Faber and Faber, 1962

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

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