Nobel Prize in Literature

Book Review – The Bow and the Lyre by Octavio Paz

Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation. Poetry reveals this world, it creates another. (Location 70)

As one can discern from the quote above, Octavio Paz held poetry in pretty high regard. In his explication on the nature of the poetic, the author presented a high-minded analysis of the reasons why:

…the struggle between prose and poetry, consecration and analysis, song and criticism, latent since the birth of modern society is resolved by the triumph of poetry. (Location 3404)

A heady analysis bracketed these citations.

It is somewhat unusual for a literary figure to write an intellectual tome on his/her field. As Mr. Paz was a poet of great renown, I wanted to explore his take on the topic. Since this April 19th marks the twentieth anniversary of his passing, this month seemed a good time to do so.

The author derived the title from a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He wrote, “The universe is in tension, like the bowstrings or the strings of the lyre. The world ‘changing, rests.’” (Location 2932) That seemed a solid choice. It referenced the bow and the lyre that poets used to accompany their work during ancient times. It also gave an indication of the book’s heavy philosophical leanings.

Some of author’s more thought provoking observations included:

By means of the word, man is a metaphor of himself. (Location 361)

…–the poem is something that is beyond language. But that thing that is beyond language can only be reached through language. A painting will be a poem if it is something more than pictorial language. (Location 229)

The myth is a past that is a future ready to be realized in the present. (Location 804)

Are you still with me, reader? Okay. I’ll continue.

As indicated in the opening, Mr. Paz had a very high opinion of poetry.  He reasoned:

The spoken language is closer to poetry than to prose; it is less reflective and more natural, and that’s why is easier to be a poet without knowing it than a prose writer. (Location 207) … The poet sets his matter free. The prose writer imprisons his. (Location 212)

He added, “When a poet acquires a style, a manner, he stops being a poet and becomes a constructor of literary artifacts.” (Location 140)

Mr. Paz didn’t just like poetry; he used this book as its apotheosis. He believed poetry played a vital role in any community. This is where I found the author drifting from adoration into pretention. He wrote:

Without an epic no society is possible, because there is no society without heroes in whom it can recognize itself. (Location 3302)

At one point, he even suggested the poem on a superior plane to the person who created it.

The poem is not a literary form, but a meeting place between poetry and man. A poem is a verbal organism that contains, stimulates or emits poetry. The form and the substance are the same. (Location 97)

He later wrote:

Poetry is not the sum of all poems, Each poetic creation is a self-sufficient unit. The part is the whole. (Location 114)

I also thought one of Mr. Paz’s observations odd. He noted: “Poetry is the hunger for reality.” (Location 859) That seemed a strange statement as the author wrote surrealist poetry himself.

Mr. Paz displayed both practical and intellectual proficiency in the topic he presented. I still found The Bow and the Lyre a very difficult read. The complexity of thought and amount of information would benefit academics. I wouldn’t suggest this book to people with a general interest in poetry, however. For those readers, I’d advise them to check out a volume of the author’s own poetry. Mr. Paz just may have agreed with that. As he explained:

The poem is a work that is always unfinished, always ready to be completed and lived by a new reader. (Location 2964)…A poem is fully realized only in participation: without a reader, it is only half a work. (Location 437)

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Drama Review – The Bonds of Interest by Jacinto Benavente

In The Bonds of Interest Jacinto Benavente presented a farcical tale of a pair of unconventional seventeenth century conmen. This disadvantaged duo duped everyone they met into believing the quiet member of the team a prestigious nobleman. Because of this, everyone granted them luxuries on credit. When part of the scheme entailed marrying the one off to a nobleman’s daughter, the two would discover whether or not the “bonds of interest” could overcome the desire for retribution.

Even though the comedy described an improbable story, the playwright still adhered to sold writing principles. Whenever a narrative focuses upon the exploits of two main characters, one is always portrayed as the dominant of the two. Benavente employed this method to brilliant effect while applying a twist to it.

The tale presented a scheme concocted by Crispin. While the dominant character, he masqueraded as Leander’s servant. When they encountered people, Crispin delivered most, and sometimes all of , the dialog. He touted the praises of his “master”, while serving as the outfit’s mastermind. The playwright balanced this character’s roles through his words very well.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, but the playwright crafted a brilliant plot twist regarding Leander. He did so by making him a well-developed character. While a fugitive from justice, he still behaved nobly in regard to his love interest, Silvia. Even though he participated in a large scale scam, he allowed his feelings for Silvia to allow him to express himself honestly.

The playwright used a clever technique to express this inner decency. He did so in the form of an insult. Crispin told Silvia’s father:

And after all, the only trouble with my master was that he had no money; no one could out do him in nobility of character; your grandchildren will be gentlemen even if that quality does not extend up to the grandfather. (Location 1683)

Leander’s transition illustrated exceptional writing ability on Benavente’s part. I applaud him even more for working it into a farcical story.

The Bonds of Interest included several memorable lines. My favorites included:

Men are like merchandise; they are worth more or less according to the salesman who markets them. (Location 1779)

It is as foolish to trust a man while he lives as a woman while she loves. (Location 661)

Love is all subtleties and the greatest subtlety of them all is not that lovers deceive others—it is that they so easily can deceive themselves. (Location 1240)

I had rather deal with a thousand knaves than one fool. (Location 1550)

With the understanding that the play was a farce regarding an unbelievable series of events, I only had one criticism of it. I admit it’s not a fair one, either. The drama premiered in 1907 and the writing style reflected that of the early twentieth century. At times I read some excessive exposition.

In the following example, Crispin explained his and Leander’s back story.

…But more than this, have you forgotten that they are searching for us in other parts and following on our heels? Can it be that all those glorious exploits of Mantua and Florence have been forgotten? Do you recall that famous lawsuit in Bologna? Three thousand two hundred pages of testimony already admitted against us before we withdrew in alarm at the sight of such prodigious expansive ability! (Location 1261)

To paraphrase Stephen King: everyone has a backstory. Most of it isn’t very interesting. It becomes even less exciting when a character keeps making the same point through consecutive sentences.

While first performed in 1907, The Bonds of Interest contains humor that still resonates. Combine that with the story of two people struggling to advance their station in life through a preposterous “get rich quick scheme.” That makes it just as entertaining today. To borrow a lesson from the play: don’t believe everything I wrote just because I wrote it. Read Benavente’s drama and decide if it bonds to your interest.

 

Book Review – Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 masterpiece, Babbitt, told the story of a closet liberal living in a world of conservatives. This group of right wingers pursued conformity for conformity’s sake. And here I thought that Lewis’ 1935 work It Can’t Happen Here was a prescient harbinger of twenty first century America.

The story progression read like a bildungsroman. Many times such tales feature a young protagonist. George F. Babbitt aged into his mid-40s during this one. On the surface, the character appeared to experience what we now call a mid-life crisis. Lewis’ prose dug much deeper into the character’s psyche for such a glib description. The novel explored his personal awakening. It progressed into a classic of American tragedy.

The author selected the perfect setting for Babbitt’s conflict. Aside from his inner struggle, Lewis “institutionalized” him, if you will, in the homogenous community of Zenith.  It contained a very conservative social atmosphere.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. If it was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it. (Location 2246)

The residents of Zenith adhered to a circumscribed belief system.

All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. (Location 6163)

The book contained the best examples of Lewis’ satirical wit that I’ve read. The best included:

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor -speeding. (Location 729)

He stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted all the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met. He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking. (Location 632)

The Zenith Athletic Club is not athletic and it isn’t exactly a club, but it is Zenith in perfection. (Location 850)

My personal favorite read as follows.

“Just the same, you don’t want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps ‘em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness,” said Virgil Gunch.

“Yes, that’s so. But the trouble is the manner of enforcement,” insisted Howard Littlefield. “Congress didn’t understand the right system. Now, if I’d been running the thing, I’d have arranged it so that the drinker himself was licensed, and then we could have taken care of the shiftless workman—kept him from drinking—and yet not’ve interfered with the rights—with the personal liberty—of fellows like ourselves.” (Location 1827)

In spite of Babbitt’s moral shortcomings and self-delusion, I still wanted him to succeed. His struggle between individuality and conformity contains relevance almost a century following the book’s publication. That shows the timeless nature of Sinclair Lewis’ work.

 

Book Review – Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in new chapters, fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages. I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why it was that I thought it worth the trouble. (Page 24)

Through Waiting for the Barbarians J. M. Coetzee illuminated the darker side of Empire. The author eloquently showed how the distinction between the savage and the civilized could become blurred when cultures find themselves in conflict. A timeless literary event resulted.

Mr. Coetzee’s novel told the story of an unnamed narrator living in an outpost in the “Empire.” The author never identified the country. He never provided the protagonist’s name; he only identified him as a “magistrate.”

This character possessed a much more realistic view of the society than his countrymen did.

There is a time of year, you know, when the nomads visit us to trade. Well: go to any stall in the market during that time and see who gets short-weighted and cheated and shouted at and bullied. See who is forced to leave his womenfolk behind in the camp for fear they will be insulted by the soldiers. See who lies drunk in the gutter, and see who kicks him where he lies. It is this contempt for the barbarians, contempt which is shown by the meanest ostler or peasant farmer, that I as magistrate have had to contend with for twenty years. How do you eradicate contempt, especially when that contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid? (Page 50)

While critical of the way his people treated the barbarians, this narrator also questioned his own behavior towards them. Here’s an excerpt where his “barbarian” girlfriend confronted him about his lack of fidelity.

“You visit other girls,” she whispers. “You think I do not know.”

“I make a peremptory gesture for her to be quiet.

“Do you also treat them like this?” she whispers, and starts to sob.

Though my heart goes out to her, there is nothing I can do. Yet what humiliation for her! She cannot even leave the apartment without tottering and fumbling while she dresses. She is as much a prisoner now as ever before. I pat her hand and sink deeper into gloom. (Page 54)

When he stopped sharing his bed with her, he explained:

She adapts without complaint to the new pattern. I tell myself she submits because of her barbarian upbringing. But what do I know of barbarian upbringings? (Page 54)

Later in the story, he expressed the following thoughts on another one of his “barbarian” women.

Only days since I parted from that other one, and I find her face hardening over in my memory, becoming opaque, impermeable, as though secreting a shell over itself. Plodding across the salt I catch myself in a moment of astonishment that I could have loved someone from so remote a kingdom. (Page 74)

The author chose to write the book in the present tense. Because of that, it made the narrative much more engaging. It gave the story a sense of immediacy while increasing the tension.

I thought the book very well written and without flaw…until just before the end. I didn’t like the way the author chose to insert Mai as a character. I won’t give away spoilers, but will comment that I found the introduction too abrupt. The character’s presence did contribute to the story’s progression, however.

The narrator made a curious comment towards the book’s conclusion.

Let it at the very least be said, if it ever comes to be said, if there is every anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian. (Page 102)

That statement made me think this book a veiled reference to the author’s take on his native South Africa at the time of its 1980 publication.

Book Review – Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Aside from the years of his birth and death, Sinclair Lewis’ grave marker reads: “Author of Main Street.” That shows the importance the author placed on this one particular work. In it, he presented a critical portrayal of the provincialism he found in small town American life. An unflattering masterpiece resulted.

Main Street introduced readers to Carol Kennicott. An ambitious woman who worked as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, she married a small town doctor, Will Kennicott. She began her new life with him in his home town, a small community called Gopher Prarie; a location the author based on his own birthplace, Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

I liked how the author established the conflict at the very beginning of the story. Carol harbored the following ambition:

“That’s what I’ll do after college! I’ll get my hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I supposed I’d better become a teacher then, but—I won’t be that kind of teacher. I won’t drone. Why should they have all the garden suburbs on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the Elsie books. I’ll make ‘em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street.” (Location 114)

When introduced to the residents of Carol’s new home, one would certainly have thought this would be a rather easy quest for the young protagonist. After all, the community featured some elite organizations such as the Jolly Seventeen and the Thantaposis club. Under her leadership, they even agreed to present a theatrical show. They would undoubtedly have shared the dream of making Gopher Prarie more sophisticated. Not with Sinclair Lewis writing about it they wouldn’t.

The author compared small town American life to a disease. That’s an interesting metaphor coming from somebody who grew up in one. Here’s an exchange between Carol and Mr. Pollock.

She asked impulsively, “You, why do you stay here?”

“I have the Village Virus.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it’s extraordinarily like the hook worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You’ll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I’m a perfect example. But I shan’t pester you with my dolors.” (Location 2400)

Main Street didn’t include as many examples of sardonic wit as some of Lewis’ other books. It did contain a few good ones, however.

Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be. (Location 2365)

It is a “parasitic Greek civilization”—minus the civilization. (Location 4134)

He pressed fifty dollars upon her, and after that he remembered to give her money regularly…sometimes. (Location 1136)

And the most memorable:

Cy was to be heard publishing it abroad that if he couldn’t get the Widow Bogart’s permission to enlist, he’d run away and enlist without it. He shouted that he “hated every dirty Hun; by gosh, if he could just poke a bayonet into one big fat Heinie and learn him some decency and democracy, he’d die happy.” Cy got much reputation by whipping a farmboy named Adolph Pouchbauer for being a ‘damn hyphenated German”…This was the younger Pouchbauer, who was killed in the Argonne, while he was trying to bring the body of his Yankee captain back to the lines. At this time Cy Bogart was still dwelling in Gopher Prairie and planning to go to war. (Location 4216)

I did concur with the usual criticism of Main Street. I found the book very long. At times the author provided excessive details when describing the setting. Had he not done so, the story would have progressed at a better pace.

I also thought Lewis restrained his vitriol in this book. Aside from referencing the “Village Virus” and detailing the variety of characters that moved out of the community, he didn’t deliver too negative an attack on his subject. In Elmer Gantry, he didn’t hold back. I expected a similar tone in Main Street.

It seems ironic that the author of Main Street’s final resting place is in the community he satirized in the book. That’s interesting since he passed away in one of the world’s most popular cities, Rome, Italy. Even death couldn’t prevent Mr. Lewis from succumbing to the Village Virus.

 

Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano Translated by Barbara White

It seemed ironic, yet fitting, that Jean B. made documentaries about lost explorers. He was, after all, a lost explorer himself. Driven by his desire to discover the reason for an old acquaintance’s death, he embarked on a journey. This quest would transcend time and location. He traveled from present day France back to the era of the German Occupation. He did so alone as his wife feared he would “involve her in an adventure that leads nowhere.” (Page 114)

For those not familiar with Modiano’s work, Honeymoon would serve as a good introduction. It included many themes common to the author’s books. It included the elements of memory, the German Occupation and a protagonist searching for the past. He weaved them together to craft an engaging narrative.

As a young man, Jean B. spent a brief period of time with a couple named Rigauld and Ingrid. He discovered the latter’s death several decades later. At the time, he’d felt disillusioned with his own life. He embarked on a search to discover what happened to these two people.

The book included some superb writing.

She took my arm because of the sloping road. The contact of her arm and shoulder gave me an impression I had never yet had, that of finding myself under someone’s protection. She would be the first person who could help me. I felt lightheaded. All those waves of tenderness that she communicated to me through the simple contact of her arm, and the pale blue look from time to time—I didn’t know that such things could happen, in life. (Page 24)

Unless the line of life, once it has reached its term, purges itself on all its useless and decorative elements. In which case, all that remains is the essential: the blanks, the silences and the pauses. I finally fell asleep, turning all these serious questions over in my mind. (Page 36)

It does also happen that one evening, because of someone’s attentive gaze, you feel a need to communicate with him not your experience, but quite simply some of the various details connected by an invisible thread, a thread which is in danger of breaking and which is called the course of life. (Page 88)

As one can tell from the passages, Modiano’s writing is pretty deep. It may not suit all readers’ tastes. My version of the book contains 120 pages. It took longer to read than I anticipated. I found myself re-reading numerous passages because of the writing style.

For my personal preference I don’t mind reading works that challenge me. For that reason I enjoyed Honeymoon and would recommend to others.

In 2014, Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Academy cited his work: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Honeymoon serves as a good example.

 

Book Review – Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow achieved a remarkable feat for a writer. He managed to craft an engaging tale centered on a pathetic protagonist. Just how pathetic was the main character in Seize the Day? Compared to Tommy Wilhelm, Willy Loman would be in the same category as Tom Brady. That’s quite a feat.

I prefer to avoid the use of negative pejoratives when describing even fictional people. Still, it’s difficult to avoid the term failure when describing Mr. Wilhelm. Unfortunately, that would be the kindest way to do so. As the author explained:

This was typical of Wilhelm. After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times. Ten such decisions made up the history of his life. He had decided it would be a bad mistake to go to Hollywood, and then he went. He had made up his mind not to marry his wife, but ran off and got married. He had resolved not to invest money with Tamkin, and then had given him a check. (Page 19)

Wilhem’s father even told him:

“I don’t know how many times you have to be burned in order to learn something. The same mistakes, over and over.” (Page 105)

Aside from giving Mr. Wilhelm the trait of consistency, Mr. Bellow balanced out the character very well. The protagonist made a point to take his sons to Brooklyn Dodgers games on weekends. (Seize the Day was published in 1956.) On one weekend when team travelled, he visited his mother’s grave.

I liked the author’s method of introducing the character. The book opened with the line:

When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought, and there was certainly a lot of evidence to back it up. (Page 1)

Once more I have to extend kudos to Mr. Bellow. He spent the book’s full 133 pages explaining those sentences in detail.

Like many of Mr. Bellow’s works, I found Seize the Day a very difficult read. That made its ‘brief’ length deceptive. I thought the con-man’s, Dr. Tamkin’s, philosophizing very erudite and challenging. The doctor recited an esoteric poem called “Mechanism vs Functionalism Ism vs Hism.” Fortunately, he explicated to Wilhelm which helped me follow its meaning.

As much as the book challenged me, I found it worth the effort. Throughout the story, I kept hoping that Wilhelm would get that one break that would allow him to maneuver his life into a positive direction. I attribute that to great writing on the author’s part.

I did find the book very well written. Mr. Bellow included the following memorable lines:

Mr. Perls put in, “He could be both sane and crazy. In these days nobody can tell for sure which is which.” (Page 37)

Everyone was like the faces on a playing card, upside down either way. (Page 59)

I was the man beneath; Tamkin was on my back, and I thought I was on his. He made me carry him, too, besides Margaret. Like this they ride on me with hoofs and claws. Tear me to pieces, stamp on me and break my bones. (Page 102)

The following description of an old man demonstrated sublime attention to detail.

How old—old this Mr. Rappaport was! Purple stains were buried in the flesh of his nose, and the cartilage of his ear was twisted like a cabbage heart. Beyond remedy by glasses, his eyes were smoky and faded. (Page 82)

So did Wilhelm eventually “seize the day” or did the day seize and strangle him? I’ll allow future readers to experience either that joy or sorrow compliments of Mr. Bellow’s prose. So seize the day and read it.

Book Review – It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis crafted the most dystopian vision of America’s future in the form of It Can’t Happen Here . It illustrated what can happen when a discontented citizenry determined that conventional leaders lacked the capability to cope with an uncertain world. A chilling image of a country rejecting its own political traditions and a culture of freedom resulted.

This 1935 masterpiece included Lewis’ signature writing techniques. The choice of distinct character names made this book one of the author’s best. My personal favorites included President Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip, Senator (later Attorney General) Porkwood and Bishop Paul Peter Prang. The protagonist’s appellation, Doremus Jessup, earned an honorable mention; as did his attorney, Mungo Kitterick.

Lewis possessed a unique genius for the clever use of sarcasm. It Can’t Happen Here contained its share of memorable passages.

Doremus had never heard Windrip during one of his orgasms of oratory, but he had been told by political reporters that under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but that on the way home you could not remember anything he said. (Page 73)

For three nights he was questioned and lashed—once late at night, by guards who complained of the inhumane callousness of their officers in making them work so late. (Page 268)

The D. A. R. (reflected the cynic Doremus Jessup, that evening) is a somewhat confusing organization—as confusing as Theosophy, Relativity, or the Hindu Vanishing Boy Trick, all three of which it resembles. It is composed of females who spend one half their waking hours boasting of being descended from the seditious American colonists of 1776, and the other more ardent half in attacking all contemporaries who believe in precisely those principles for which these ancestors struggled. (Page 18)

The story presented a rather eerie situation for the nation. Ardent populist, Senator Buzz Windrip managed to secure the Democratic nomination for President over incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With the aid of his “satanic” secretary, Lee Sarason’s, proficiency for public relations, he won the White House.

With what’s going on in the US right now, I’m sure some readers think I’m making this up. Here’s a direct quote from the book. In it, the new President spoke to the “Minute Men” who made up his de facto secret police force.

“I am addressing my own boys, the Minute Men, everywhere in America! To you and only you I look for help to make America a proud, rich land again. You have been scorned. They thought you were the ‘lower classes.’ They wouldn’t give you jobs. They told you to sneak off like bums and get relief. They ordered you into lousy C.C.C. camps. I tell you that you are ever since yesterday noon, the highest lords of the land—the makers of the new America of freedom and justice. Boys! I need you! Help me—help me to help you! Stand fast! Anybody tries to block you—give the swine the point of your bayonet!” (Page 127)

And there’s more.

Lewis selected an interesting structure for this book. In the chapters leading up to Windrip’s election, the author prefaced them with a paragraph from the candidate’s book, Zero Hour. The latter allegedly written by Lee Sarason. Here’s a paragraph describing the media that reads like something more contemporary.

I know the press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pockets by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne. (Page 43)

With an antagonist consumed by such animosity for reporters, it didn’t surprise that Lewis selected a newspaper editor (Doremus Jessup) as his hero. As disturbing as I found America’s decent into a fascist state, the true tragedy for me concerned Jessup’s internal struggle with his own disillusionment. He expressed the following thoughts on idealism.

“Is it just possible,” he sighed, “that the most vigorous and boldest idealists have been the worst enemies of human progress instead of its greatest creators? Possible that plain men with the humble trait of minding their own business will rank higher in the heavenly hierarchy than all the plumed souls who have shoved their way in among the masses and insisted on saving them?” (Page 111)

Later in the book, Jessup experienced another sullen realization.

The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest. (Page 169)

While written over 80 years ago, Sinclair Lewis crafted a timeless book that’s relevance never seems to wane. In a preface to George Orwell’s 1984, Walter Cronkite commented something to the effect that: “while 1984 might not arrive on time, there’s always 1985.” In It Can’t Happen Here, Doremus Jessup observed that “it can’t happen here” even while it happened here.

 

Book Review – Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

There’s an old maxim declaring, “Napoleon is the limit of a madman”; meaning that no person could reach a level of insanity greater than the Emperor’s. After reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 classic, it seems that Elmer Gantry established the limit of human ambition. While earning the nickname “Hell Cat” in his youth, he changed his ways upon reaching adulthood; or so it seemed. Following his ordination as a Baptist minister he attempted a series of careers before finding his true calling. Despite myriad ethical failings, the Reverend Dr. Gantry aspired to be the morality emperor of the world. His quest towards that goal made for one of the finest fictional studies of hypocrisy ever written.

One has to credit Sinclair Lewis. He came up with the greatest opening line in the history of American literature. It’s the one beginning I’ve read that really hooked me. The sentence that followed interested me even further. They read: Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. (Location 52) At that point, I knew then that the book would make for one fascinating read.

Sinclair Lewis’ writing style made me enjoy the story much more. The author utilized a writing technique more common to comedy and horror than literary fiction. He expressed many of his ideas by using a set-up and then a twist at the end. Throughout this novel he applied this method to illustrate the protagonist’s insincerity. Some memorable examples included:

His kiss promised it. His heart almost promised it. (Location 4629)

But the diversions—He thought about it so much that he made a hasty trip to Cato, and came back temporarily cured forever of any desire for wickedness. (Location 1325)

He was certain that he would never again want to guzzle, to follow loose women, to blaspheme; he knew the rapture of salvation—yes, and of being the center of interest in the crowd. (Location 1009)

The best line in the book came from another preacher named Frank Shallard. He delivered an intriguing take on his profession. He observed, What a lying, compromising job this being a minister. (Location 7524)

Mr. Lewis used another unorthodox method to liven the narrative. He included a bit of self-deprecating humor. When one of the characters mentioned a series of contemporary authors he expressed the following thoughts on his own author.

Sinclair Lewis (Lord, how that book of Lewis’, Main Street, did bore me, as much of it as I read; it just rambled on forever, and all he could see was that some of the Gopher Prairie hicks didn’t go to literary teas quite as often as he does! – and that was all he could see among those splendid heroic pioneers)! (Location 7560)

In The Art of Fiction Ayn Rand cited another one of Lewis’ works, Arrowsmith, for examples of a story that didn’t seem believable. Elmer Gantry contained several instances of this shortcoming, as well. When he decided to attack vice, Elmer became a de facto police lieutenant who led raids. I found his decision to marry too fast. His subsequent boredom with his new bride occurred much too quickly, as well.

I had to admit that while I didn’t find the story credible I still enjoyed reading it. What it lacked in realism it compensated for with entertainment value.

In the book’s beginning, the author wrote: Elmer assumed he was the center of the universe and that the rest of the system was valuable only as it afforded him help and pleasure. (Loc 167) I’m not sure that “getting religion” dissuaded the Reverend Dr. Gantry from that view. He would’ve disagreed, however. As he eloquently preached:

“–and I want to tell you that the fellow eaten by ambition is putting the glories of this world before the glories of Heaven! Oh, if I could only help you understand that it is humility, that it is simple loving kindness, that it is tender loyalty, which alone make the heart glad! Now, if you’ll let me tell a story: It reminds me of two Irishmen named Mike and Pat—“ (Loc 8135)

 

Book Review – Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Those starving for good fiction should feast upon this offering by Knut Hamsun. It’s a veritable banquet of savory literary techniques that will leave readers returning for seconds. The author’s first book whet readers’ appetites for more of his work. They certainly weren’t fed-up with this one. I’d read Hunger before and just had to return for seconds. It certainly left me feeling satisfied.

When reading Hamsun I find myself recalling a line spoke by Antony in Julius Caesar.

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones. (Act III Scene Two)

Hamsun’s life challenged that expression a bit. To be clear: there’s no excuse for Hamsun’s reprehensible conduct during the Second World War. His support of Adolf Hitler mystifies the mind. A native Norwegian, the Nazis occupied the country from April 9, 1940 until the cessation of European hostilities on May 8, 1945. He had no excuse for not knowing better.

With that legacy, the continued popularity of his work bewilders as well. That is, until one reads it. Isaac Bashevis Singer observed that “The whole modern school of fiction stems from Hamsun.” Writings from an author this gifted just couldn’t become interred with his bones.

It amazes me that a book written in 1890 could possess such relevance today. Hunger contained the most intense character study I’ve ever read. It told the tale of a freelance writer living in Christiana (now Oslo), Norway. The character found himself in financial difficulties while struggling to make a living through his craft. As any writer reading this can guess: this is not a story set to end well.

The author presented the narrative in the first person point-of-view. This gave readers unique insight into the character’s mind. I found it extraordinarily clever how the Narrator utilized every opportunity to avoid giving his name. The following passage shows his most clever evasion.

“I would like to see Mr. Christie,” I said.

“That’s me!” replied the man.

“Indeed!” Well my name was so-and-so. I had taken the liberty of sending him an application. I did not know if it had been of any use.

He repeated my name a couple of times and commenced to laugh. (Page 30)

The quality of writing here impressed me. It showed great talent on the author’s part to craft this passage without giving the character’s name. (By my count the Narrator slipped twice in the story and did reveal it.)

The use of an unreliable narrator is my favorite literary technique. Hamsun kept me guessing with this one. The man lied chronically. While starving to death, he used the following ruse to beg for food.

All at once it enters my head to go to one of the meat bazaars underneath me, and beg a piece of raw meat. I go straight along the balustrade to the other side of the bazaar buildings, and descend the steps. When I had nearly reached the stalls on the lower floor, I called up the archway leading to the stairs, and made a threatening backward gesture, as if I were talking to a dog up there, and boldly addressed the first butcher I met.

“Ah, will you be kind enough to give me a bone for my dog?” I said; “only a bone. There needen’t be anything on it; it’s just to give him something to carry in his mouth.”

I got the bone, a capital little bone, on which there still remained a morsel of meat, and hid it under my coat. I thanked the man so heartily that he looked at me in amazement. (Page 91)

The most memorable passages in the book concerned the subject of hunger. The one that has haunted my nightmares for years follows:

At length I stuck my forefinger in my mouth, and took to sucking it. Something stirred in my brain, a thought that bored its way in there—a stark mad motion.

Supposing I were to take a bite? And without a moment’s reflection, I shut my eyes, and clenched my teeth on it.

I sprang up. At last I was thoroughly awake. A little blood trickled from it, and I licked it as it came. It didn’t hurt very much, neither was the wound large, but I was brought at one bound to my senses. (Page 72 – 73)

I think of Hunger as the literary equivalent to a multi-course meal. This review provides samples from the delicious masterpiece Hamsun cooked up. I think it appropriate to conclude with one of the book’s passages regarding writing. Perhaps it describes the author’s own experience while crafting Hunger:

Thoughts come so swiftly to me and continue to flow so richly that I miss a number of telling bits, that I cannot set down quickly enough, although I work with all my might. They continue to invade me; I am full of my subject, and every word I write is inspired. (Page 20)

Hamsun’s inspired writing has gone on to inspire many others.