Tuesday, September 28, 2010

U.S.A. Trilogy

“I always felt that it might not be any good as a novel, but that it would at least be useful to add to the record. ~John Dos Passos

In 1938, Jean Paul Sartre called John Dos Passos the “greatest living writer of our time.” A contemporary and sometimes frienemy of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he was an obvious influence on Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, Truman Capote, and Jack Kerouac. Sinclair Lewis said of one of Dos Passos’s first novels (Manhattan Transfer) that he had invented a whole new way of writing.

I had never heard of John Dos Passos, or any of his writings, prior to delving into all of these book lists. And on these lists his name, in connection with the epic U.S.A. Trilogy specifically, keeps popping up again and again. Eventually, I came around to the first book in the trilogy, 42nd Parallel and was completely blown away. (See my review here).

In U.S.A., Dos Passos merged a four unique styles in a manner that (as far as I am aware) had not been attempted before. In addition to the intertwined narratives of a dozen different characters, he incorporated poetic, staccato biographies, culled three decades worth of newspaper headlines and popular songs, and his own autobiographical, Joycean impressions in the section titled “Camera Eye.” All to give us a “picture” of America from the beginning of the 20th century to the stock market crash in ’29. It is truly an impressive undertaking – one that I found amazing in its technical aspect and moving in its emotional impact. My review for 42nd Parallel really could serve as a readers response to the entire novel, so I don’t want to rehash the effusive praise I gave the novel there…so this post is much less of a review than a discussion of additional relevant material.

Influence of Soviet Film

It’s hard now to conceive of what a revolution and revelation the advent of film. I – as I suspect most people reading this blog – have always had movies around. They have always been part of the landscape of my life, and in a set form, or sets of forms, such as documentary or narrative. But at the beginning of film, probably until at least the 1930s, by which time “talkies” had been developed, the medium was an entirely new art, and everybody was trying to figure out how film should “be” or what it should express.

This was also a time of great political and social unrest and experimentation and everybody was trying to find ways that this new medium could be used for their own purposes. One of those groups attempting to use film for societal and political purposes was the socialist and communist movements both in the United States and in Russia. Because of the camera’s ability to objectively capture the economic disparity of the world, the leftist political movements saw the documentary style as being an opportunity to bring their “revolutionary consciousness” to the people. There were things going on in the world that those with all the power (and all the money and the means of distribution) didn’t want the populace to see, but with the availability of the camera, now they could. Two chiefs filmmakers of this tradition are Eisenstein (famous for “The Battleship Potemkin”) and Dziga Vertov, whose Man with a Movie Camera could in some ways be seen as the cinematic precursor to U.S.A.

Dos Passos was directly involved in this cinematic movement. He co-founded in a group called the New Playwrights in the late 1920s which drew upon the ideas set forth by the leftist cinematic faction, specifically a group known as the Workers’ Film and Photo League. The League’s intent was to use the movie camera to document the disparity in the economic conditions of the proletariat versus the, well, Big Money. Vertov’s concept of the Camera Eye (or Kino Eye – here to distinguish it from the U.S.A. section) was very influential on this group. The Kino Eye was an experimental technique of filmmaking that used montage and other methods to explore the visible world.

The Film and Photo League created another organization called Nykino (New York Kino) in 1934. Dos Passos joined forces occasionally with Nykino and a later incarnation called Frontier Films by cowriting subtitles and commentary for their films. He was named as an advisory board member and consultant to Frontier Films in 1937, but shortly thereafter had an ideological falling out of sorts with the “official” left, and this shift in loyalty was a defining factor in Dos Passos’s subsequent falling out with the literary critics of whom he was once a darling.

Dos Passos is one of the first writers (that I know of) to integrate the methods used in filmmaking into literature. The concepts and techniques developed by Vertov and his contemporaries (specifically montage) are most evident in the Newsreel sections, and Dos Passos gives an upside-down nod to this influence in “Camera Eye” section. The interesting part of these “nods” is that neither are true depictions of what the workers’ cinema philosophy intended them for. I said the Camera Eye sections were upside-down since the intent behind the Soviet concept of the Kino Eye was pure documentary, but the Camera Eye in U.S.A. is the only part of the text that is subjective and not objective. (Dos Passos, in an interview with the Paris Review stated that the Camera Eye was the valve for his subjective feelings, allowing the rest of the novel to be approached objectively.) Newsreels in the workers’ cinema were used to show the relationship between the workers economic conditions to an overall worldwide class struggle. Dos Passos uses the newsreels to give public context to the private events in the narrative sections – tying together what is happening in the background – History with a capital H – while the lives of the characters march on (or not). Some have expressed frustration over the occasional puzzling nature of the Newsreels, but I felt they simply gave a general idea of the buzz, like a transcript of flipping through television stations.


The U.S.A. Trilogy is not without its problems. The “Camera Eye” sections were the weakest in execution. A reader needs a good understanding of Dos Passos’s own biography to get anything out of them. Otherwise, it’s as disorienting as being thrown into Joyce’s Ulysses without a road map. The section was included to give the novel a personal perspective to counterbalance the documentary style, but it’s often confusing at best. I can’t say that the novel would be better without it, but I didn’t feel that these portions added something necessary to it.

Richard Gilman in the New York Times wrote, "U.S.A. isn’t tragic, which is precisely why so much of it feels cold and mechanical; tragedy implies personal destiny, moral choice, existential dilemma, and these conditions are almost wholly missing. Instead of fates we have personal disasters arising from involvements or confrontations with the vast, corrupting power of social reality, particularly economic reality… U.S.A. filled a need for a collective novel, whose real protagonist…was the entire nation. And bringing this off – at any level – called less for the talents of a true novelist than for those of a reporter, a sharp observer. This is why his biographies and Newsreels are the best parts of U.S.A. and the Camera Eyes and narratives, demanding invention, are the worst.”

I cannot argue with those criticisms, except that I did found the narratives much more on par with the rest of the novel (minus the Camera Eye) than Gilman gives Dos Passos credit for. But it’s true the narratives are cold – they are objective, and Dos Passos offers no redemption, no real crisis and no sympathy for the characters. Some he clearly views with contempt (Barrow, for instance). The author here simply records their lives, from the enthusiasm and brightsidedness of the dawn of the 20th century through the bitterness that culminated in the crash and the depression –all their triumphs which turn to failures, leading to the great failure, once again the personal reflecting the public and vice versa. There is no plot, really, other than the march of time. In this manner his style is much more journalistic than one might desire in a Great American Novel contender. But it's a condender nonetheless.


There are so many different angles that someone could come to this text from. The influence of the Machine Age; the influence of the documentary movement generally (and not just in film) of the 1930s and its role in Dos Passos’s popularity as a writer of the public/political sphere versus Fitzgerald or Hemingway, who were writing about the private sphere and whose popularity did not gain critical success until decades later; the idea of the reclamation of language for the masses (“USA is the speech of the people”); the influence of Dadaism; the influence of the media, particularly as portrayed in the Newsreels and the life of J. Ward Moorehouse. This novel is ripe for term papers.

Which brings me to my final point. With American English literature courses so heavy on the Lost Generation, why has Dos Passos become, well, lost? Once a contender for the Great American Novel (at least of the 20th century), how has U.S.A. come to be forgotten? To quote the New York Times: “At the time of his death, at 74 (in 1970), some people were surprised to learn that he was still alive. In a literary sense, his death had been decreed by critics during the last two decades of his life. He was considered a museum piece, a totem admired behind glass but not to be touched. Three American writers of his generation – Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck – had received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dos Passos, once considered their equal, received only diminishing respect.” Dos Passos continued to write well beyond the 1930s, publishing eighteen books after The Big Money appeared in 1936. As mentioned earlier, within a few years of the publication of the final volume in the trilogy, Dos Passos broke with the radical left movement in America, and with that fell out of critical esteem within a decade as his political opinions moved farther and farther to the right. Some critics claimed his shift in political ideology came from a cowardly inability to follow through on his socialistic ideals once he became a literary celebrity, and of course had some money.

In that externally imposed fall from critical grace, he was banished from the canon, but would likely have fallen out of favor anyway along with other more naturalistic writers such as Dreiser and Lewis. Again to quote Gilman in the New York Times, “Dos Passos and the times changed; the communal air darkened and lightened, throwing up new criteria, as it always does…It has a permanent place in our histories, I think, but only a precarious one in our literature.” (As Dos Passos himself stated decades earlier.)

U.S.A. is tricky. It's history driven (as opposed to being plot or character driven). It's unique among its contemporaries. It is decidedly different than the personal narratives put forward by Fitzgerald and Hemingway. It's part modernist and experimental in the style of James Joyce, though not entirely. It has many elements of naturalism in the style of Dreiser, or a Sinclair Lewis - particularly in the journalistic prose, though I felt Dos Passos was a better writer technically - certainly better than Dreiser. It internalizes cinematic devices and philosophies, the aesthetic appreciation of the machine, and melds it into something truly different, truly its own. What results from this amalgam of styles and influences, both literary and non-literary is the cadance of a modern age just dawning upon America.

I truly loved The U.S.A. Trilogy. I not only found it compelling in all aspects, it inspired me to look deeper, to find the story behind. It led me to seek out Vertov and Soviet film theory and all other sorts of obscure topics that I never would have bothered with otherwise. I want to learn more about other events that influenced or passed by the characters in the narratives, such as the workers strikes and Sacco & Vanetti. That said, without a basic understanding of the background – of what Dos Passos was doing with the structure of the trilogy, the average reader would likely be turned off or completely lost. Because what average reader wants to watch Russian montage films from the 1930s as research just to understand a novel? As literature itself, it has its legitimate criticisms. Nonetheless it contributed something very important to the 20th Century novel, and for that alone it deserves its spot among any top list. Personally, I really liked it despite its flaws. It’s experiences such as this that make my whole “reading a list” a worthwhile endeavor.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Kreuzter Sonata

I’m sure that most people come to Tolstoy through one of two novels: Anna Karenina or War and Peace. Though both of these novels are on my TBR list followed by asterisk after asterisk, I haven’t gotten around to them. Nope – my first venture into Tolstoy is the bizarre novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

My reaction to this story is easily summed up in four words: Tolstoy was messed up. It begins innocently enough: a few strangers in a compartment together on a train strike up a conversation that comes around to love and marriage. It quickly becomes obvious that one of the travelers is really odd and begins a diatribe against love and marriage.

His argument goes all over the place. We have set up marriage as an ideal, but really it is virginity and chastity that should the ideal – the ideal advocated in the New Testament – for all one’s life. We are told that men “need” women, which essentially turns all women into whores trained to believe that being the object of men’s desire and fulfilling those desires is the highest ideal. Marriage is legal prostitution. Women are able to rule over their husbands, making them “wear the petticoats” because of this desire to be object within marriage. Men are subject to many more corrupting influences than women, but they then corrupt the women by their own debauchery. The woman is pure when she gets marriage, the husband debased. By engaging with her in “marital relations” she becomes debased as well by drawing her into his own debauchery. Coming into marriage, the pure woman is superior to the man. And then, THEN! She has children! And when that occurs, a woman realizes that her job in rearing children is more important than the jobs in which men engage to earn money. But men think that they are superior, and this contention leads to hostility and hatred, which is exacerbated by the bodily desires for one another. Also, by entering into “relations” with one’s spouse, jealousy naturally arises, which causes further suffering. In summary, every problem within marriage revolves around the fact that they ever consummated the relationship – any relationship – in passion to begin with.

And to make everything worse, doctors give information to women about how to avoid having children. And this makes women like a “horse without a bridle!”

The people in the compartment are wondering, “Who is this guy?” Over the course of the conversation, a certain recent trial is mentioned, in which a husband murdered his wife in a jealous rage. The bizarre dude (Pozdnyshev) speaks up and say, “Oh, I see you have recognized me as the murderer.” Nobody recognized him as the murderer…the case was just mentioned because it was pertinent to the conversation, but that doesn’t matter. Most of the compartment occupants leave eventually (Run Away! Run Away!), leaving the strange man alone with our narrator.

The murderer starts the conversation back up saying, “I’m sure you wonder how I came to murder my wife.” No, we really didn’t, but if the narrator told Pozdnyshev that, we wouldn’t have a story, would we? So, he goes on to tell us what happened.

Of course, Pozdnyshev comes from a decent family. In his youth, like most men, he has his dalliances on the primrose path. Then he fell in love and got married, had children, etc. Then the doctor told his wife how to avoid having children, and this musician starts coming around to “play” with Pozdnyshev’s wife. Pozdnyshev has to go away for a bit to another city. While he is away, the musician comes to visit, and his wife casually tells him of the visit in a letter. Pozdnyshev comes home early and murders his wife in a jealous rage. After she dies, Pozdnyshev is put on trial (and is acquitted because his wife may have really been having an affair with the musician) and over the course of the time between the murder and the train ride he came to realize that the concept of love, and marriage for any reason other than to have children for manual labor was the source of all his problems, including his jealous rage that caused him to murder his wife. The end.

Seriously – that’s where the story ends.

Authorities around the world found “The Kreutzer Sonata” offensive and banned its distribution. (What? Ban Tolstoy? Yes.) It was so maligned that Tolstoy had to write an explanation of its message. Which is that love is bad and we should follow the New Testament in its prescriptions for relations between men and women. Love stands in the way of men attaining the only aim worthy of attaining, which is service to God, because love of a woman is a distraction. “A Christian…cannot view the marriage relation otherwise than as a deviation from the doctrine of Christ, - as a sin. This is clearly laid down in Matt. V. 28…A Christian will never, therefore, desire marriage, but will always avoid it…If the light of truth dawns upon a Christian when he is already married, or if, being a Christian, from weakness he enters into marital relations…he has no other altnerative than to abide with his wife (and the wife with her husband, if it is she who is a Christian) and to aspire together with her to free themselves of their sin.” I’ll let those of you who believe the Bible to be the authoritative word on how we should act in the world duke it out over whether Tolstoy was right.

What gets me about this whole thing is that Tolstoy was married when he wrote “The Kreutzer Sonata.” I don’t know anything of his life, but I know if my husband wrote something like this, I would be very very worried. I might have to start sleeping some place else, armed. Just bizarre.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence is my second – no, third – foray into the world of Edith Wharton. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with either The House of Mirth or Ethan Frome. The Age of Innocence covers much the same ground as those other novels: men and women who are trapped within the conventions of society and who are left unable to pursue the life that would truly make them happy. With The Age of Innocence, however, I immediately felt settled into it, much like I felt with Lord Jim. Just coming out of my year-and-a-half with The Alexandria Quartet and the pseudo-philosophical hilarious poppycock that is Women in Love, and staring in the face of the remaining 10 novels on the Modern Library list, none of which are under 450 pages, perhaps The Age of Innocence was just what I needed: short and light. Not light in terms of subject matter, because I found it to be heart wrenching (more on that below), but because there isn’t any hidden meaning, no subtext. It’s straight-forward, conventional storytelling.

Newland Archer is a smart young lawyer and part of New York’s upper crust society. He has just been promised marriage to May Welland, a smart young lady of the same Old New York hoity-toities, though their engagement hasn’t been officially announced yet. Newland and May are the perfect couple. But a scandal erupts in the family when May’s cousin, Ellen arrives. She had married a European Count and had recently run away from her husband, with the Count’s secretary (as protector? as lover?) under suspicious circumstances. Not only is that the material for 1870s shock-and-awe, the family has dared – DARED, I tell you! – to allow Ellen out into the world of theater, opera, and balls, as if they had no sense of decorum. This requires Newland and May to announce their engagement earlier than anticipated – in order to add “backup” to the public outrage at this break from tradition.

Ellen and Newland were old child playmates, and in light of his connection to May’s family he feels it is his duty to some extent to help Ellen. Slowly they begin to spend a bit more time together than perhaps they should, and it becomes clear that they harbor feelings for each other.
Newland is torn between the life his “people” expect him to live – a life so expected that he probably never wondered if it really was the life that he truly wanted for himself – and the life he has now discovered his heart wants him to pursue. He tries – really he does – to let go of Ellen, but he keeps getting pulled back in. They should have been together – all their life they should have been together, but because of their own limitations and the rules and commitments of their own lives, they simply couldn’t be. The rest of their lives – or at least Newland’s – was going on with the life that was chosen for him, so to speak, by his not questioning it until Ellen came along – and wondering what might have been. And when, in the end, he has the chance to strike it back up again, when they are both older, Newland is a widower, he decides not to try. He has locked that time up in his heart, and to see Ellen again would be to shatter the place she held in his heart. Nothing would be as he had imagined it for decades. And Newland chooses to live with his dreams and illusions locked away rather than pursue a reality that would only be disappointing.
Archer had pictured often enough, in the first impatient years, the scene of his return to Paris; then the personal vision had faded, and he had simply tried to see the city as the setting of Madame Olenska's life. Sitting alone at night in his library, after the household had gone to bed, he had evoked the radiant outbreak of spring down the avenues of horse-chestnuts, the flowers and statues in the public gardens, the whiff of lilacs from the flower-carts, the majestic roll of the river under the great bridges, and the life of art and study and pleasure that filled each mighty artery to bursting. Now the spectacle was before him in its glory, and as he looked out on it he felt shy, old-fashioned, inadequate: a mere grey speck of a man compared with the ruthless magnificent fellow he had dreamed of being....

I can see two factions of people arising over this novel: those who think Newland is scum for pursuing Ellen as much as he does both before and after (but mostly after) his marriage to May, and those who think Newland is a coward for not bucking the hoity-toities and running away with Ellen and living happily ever after, as he had planned to do many times. But I’m not mad at Newland – in fact, I completely understand, because to some extent I’ve been there. More than once, in more ways than one.

Let’s see…there was the time when I was engaged (not to Shawn),set to graduate college, get a job, get married, and live a conventional life. And then, during my final finals week, a German exchange student showed up on my doorstep for a party. In this case, it was the Ellen/Newland situation, and it ended like Ellen and Newland ended. He and I have kept in contact over the 8 years that have intervened since, have both gotten married, had children, etc. Though there have been mention of someday getting together, I don’t want to. I have that memory – of us in our early 20s, trying to navigate through our not-really-a-relationship-but-something, and I know that meeting his wife and his son would not be beneficial. It’s adding an unnecessary epilogue to our long ago completed story. I do hope our children become penpals, though.

"It's more real to me here than if I went up," he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.

At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

And then there was the time when I was married (not to Shawn), terribly unhappy because the situation was abusive in all ways except physical, and I know that wasn’t far behind, and then someone showed up in my life, well, emerged from the background more than showed up, that showed me that it didn’t have to be that way. It gave me the confidence to resist within my marriage, which lead to a complete breakdown and I got out of that nightmare. And that relationship ended up like Newland and Ellen should have. Well, should have by some people’s romantic notions.

And then there were the multiple times when I projected the Ellen/Newland situation onto various relationships of varying seriousness. Because I’m like that sometimes. I suppose this cynic really does have a romantic streak, but it’s always of the tragic nature.

But really, what Newland does is what most of us would do. Because it takes a lot of effort, courage, and money to go against what is expected of you, and it’s difficult to start your life over from scratch.

"For US? But there's no US in that sense! We're near each other only if we stay far from each other. Then we can be ourselves. Otherwise we're only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska's cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer's wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of the people who trust them."

"Ah, I'm beyond that," he groaned.

"No, you're not! You've never been beyond. And I have," she said, in a strange voice, "and I know what it looks like there."

And let’s face it, if Newland had left pregnant May to run away with Ellen, there would be few who sided with him, not only in the reality of the book, but in the reality of the readers. Here’s a man who did not follow his heart – he stood by his responsibility. Outside of romantic books, isn’t that what we always expect of people? Newland even says so himself:

Yet there was a time when Archer had had definite and rather aggressive opinions on all such problems, and when everything concerning the manners and customs of his little tribe had seemed to him fraught with world-wide significance.

"And all the while, I suppose," he thought, "real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them ..."

Wharton published The Age of Innocence in 1920 – already at the dawn of the age of Fitzgerald, the roaring 20s, and “new money.” The world of Innocence, set in the 1870s, was long gone – the age of old money, ruled by long-standing Dutch and English families with strict rules of behavior, decorum, and honor. A world in which it was “daring” to live above a certain street. Now there was long-distance telephone, and the Met was no longer an out-of-the-way haunt that he and Ellen could have escaped to unnoticed for their clandestine meeting. Remember, this was only five years before the publication of The Great Gatsby.

Up until around Chapter 22 or 23, I enjoyed The Age of Innocence – much more than I thought that I would. I found the story compelling, captivating, interesting, the writing excellent. But then I got to, like I said, Chapter 22 or 23 and BAM. Wharton turns up the emotion – an emotion that totally hit home – and I was in love. There are certain novels that can just speak to you – it’s as if they know what’s in your heart and just grab it, reflect it back to you. Perhaps –no, probably- in the hands of a lesser wordsmith, I would have found the whole thing would be cheesy and passionless, and this would be a very different review. But The Age of Innocence worked for me – totally, completely. It’s now one of my favorites of all time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A House for Mr. Biswas

There were times when I felt that I would never finish V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. It wouldn’t be the worst novel I could imagine getting stuck in. In fact, I kind of liked Mr. Biswas.

The fact that I actually did enjoy it came as a surprise. Three summers ago I read A Bend in the River - also about Indian emigrants – and did not particularly care for it. There wasn’t anything specific that I didn’t like – it just did not resonate at all for me, and there wasn’t anything in particular that stood out. Biswas, however, was a delight - the complete opposite of A Bend in the River. The voice of the novel – distant yet engaged – was unique, the characters unforgettable, the entire 500+ pages – charming.

Poor Mr. Biswas could have been the mantra of this tragicomic clunker. After a sad beginning (his father drowns in a lake while trying to save Biswas – even though Biswas wasn’t in the lake – Biswas gets sucked into marriage to one of the Tulsi clan. And the Tulsi’s are a clan if I ever saw one. All Biswas wants is to get out from under the economic dependence on his in-laws and have a house of his own. And through many trials and tribulations, he finally does. It ends sadly for Mr. Biswas – we know within the first few pages that he does get his house, but dies shortly after – the story is essentially humorous, and only tragic when you are able to sit back and look at the bigger picture. Sort of like a Michael Moore documentary.

Mr. Biswas is sometimes belligerent, sometimes abusive, sometimes silly, a lot ridiculous. The guy writes a column for a newspaper called Deserving Destitutes, for goodness sakes. The give and take between him and his long-suffering wife is hilarious, sad, but they are clearly meant for each other. You are rooting for him against her family, but you have to love Shama despite the fact that she is a Tulsi. Except when she throws out the doll house. That’s when I didn’t love her. But oh well. They got over it, and so did i. There is also genuine affection between Mr. Biswas and his son, though the relationship becomes distant when Anand moves to England. Thinking about this group of characters, I feel genuine affection for them. And it’s rare that I come out of a novel feeling like that. The only other example that pops into my mind is the Finch family, though I’m sure there are others. The Joads as well.

In the end, A House for Mr. Biswas has left me confused about Naipaul. A number of his other novels, including The Enigma of Arrival show up on other lists, and even outside of my OCD-list obsession, I am sure to encounter him again in the coming decades. On one end of the Naipaul spectrum we have one novel considered to be his best, which I enjoyed and wouldn’t mind reading more like it. On the other end, the other contender for Naipaul’s best – a novel that left me lukewarm at best, just one of the crowd of many, many novels I feel indifferent about. So, I don’t know what to think, or what to expect. I suppose we’ll see – and maybe I’ll be surprised again.