Having read three more of David Bowie’s favorite books, I thought it’d be nice to write a little. The three books, the plots of which, unintentional on my part at least, had something to do with the far left, were The Leopard by Di Lampedusa, Darkness at Noon by Koestler, and The 42nd Parallel by dos Passos. I figured it’d be good to put some notes down while they’re fresh.
The Leopard (Wikipedia) is about a minor Sicilian prince facing the end of his small kingdom to a coming social movement, starting in 1860 (apparently called the Italian unification). From the Wikipedia:
Most of the novel is set during the time of the Risorgimento, specifically during the period when Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of Italian unification, swept through Sicily with his forces, known as The Thousand. The plot focuses upon the aristocratic Salina family, which is headed by the stoic Prince Fabrizio, a consummate womanizer who foresees the upcoming downfall of his family and the nobility in Italy as a whole but finds himself unable to change the course of history. As the novel opens in May 1860, Garibaldi’s Redshirts have landed on the Sicilian coast and are pressing inland to overthrow the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies… The novel is the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a 19th-century Sicilian nobleman caught in the midst of civil war and revolution. As a result of political upheaval, the prince’s position in the island’s class system is eroded by newly moneyed peasants and “shabby minor gentry.”
I read this as a book about a wealthy man who secretly-or-not-so-secretly knows that the days of his and his family’s aristocratic standing are numbered thanks at least in part to class warfare. He has some choices in how his future will go, but other aspects of the demise are inevitable. This duality is embodied by a quote from the prince’s ambitious young nephew: “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”
It’s a broad, old-money family novel, full of foreign, seemingly-small problems– a plot tent-poled by coordinated social gatherings and displays of manners that appear inconsequential to my modern sense, but some of which have terrifyingly far-reaching repercussions. But inevitable, old things die and new things come.
Darkness at Noon is a fable-feeling novel by a man whose Wikipedia entry, I have learned, groups together “personal life and allegations”. An older member of a semi-fictitious Communist party is arrested for treason on dubious grounds and then held and tortured by sleep deprivation into making confessions his betrayal of the party. Again from Wikipedia, because we only have so much time:
Set in 1938 during the Stalinist Great Purge and Moscow show trials, the novel does not name either Russia or the USSR, but the characters have Russian names. Joseph Stalin is represented by “Number One”, a menacing dictator. The novel expresses the author’s disillusionment with the Soviet Union’s version of Communism at the outset of World War II.
I didn’t like the book much– I don’t mean to be insensitive to the Old Bolsheviks who died at the hands of Stalins during the Moscow show trials, but the main character’s demise was a cold, dark, and, I thought, uninteresting one. Rubashov himself, the main character, isn’t much of hero himself, as we learn from his numerous betrayals of others in the Party. Maybe the best I can say about the book is that it could be instructive for what an overgrown revolution or movement looks like. Also, I found the Morse code-like system the inmates had for communicating through the walls.
A break! Around the time I was reading The Leopard I found an article about a modern French commune, who had recently produced this manifesto about their mission of defending a piece of land in France known as the ZAD from developers intent on building an airport:
We frantically run around our homes and cabins wielding makeshift shields and climbing gear to perch in the treetops, with stones, fireworks and a few Molotov cocktails to push back the assaults, lemons to protect ourselves from the tear gas and laptops to counter the mainstream media propaganda… We run and run, in the deep mud, breathless, trying to hamper the police’s maneuvers and then we vanish behind the hedgerows and into the thickets that we have got to know so well. We wait for hours under the pouring rain crouching behind barricades that burst into flame as the troops approach….
Finally, we can get to the book of the three I liked the most. The write-up on the back of my paperback copy of The 42nd Parallel (first book of a trilogy) reads: “… Dos Passos is said by many to have written the great American novel. While Fitzgerald and Hemingway were cultivating what Edmund Wilson once called their ‘own little corners,’ John Dos Passos was taking on the world.”
The prose is stylish! especially when you consider it was published in 1930. The style of it alone made me think less of the Beats that came decades later.
Most of its characters of working class, and they are lured by socialism. Many of their pitfalls in life are the result of them or someone in their family getting sick or injured– As I was reading it I couldn’t help but read it as an American advertisement for universal healthcare. At some points the life derailments and plot turns (too slow and almost inevitable for “twists”) were so frustratingly preventable with a more forgiving system that I thought maybe book would not make sense to generations that had only known universal healthcare, in the same way some horror movies are ruined if you ask “what if they had a cell phone?”
It made me want to smoke a cigar. It made me want to network my way into big money. It made me want to be a traveling reporter. To be an American. It made me want to write profusely and quickly and boldly, both in private and in public– long, grammatically-questionable words and sentences full of life, but not in the in-your-face-obvious-Kerouac way, or Hemingway’s self-loathing. Dos Passos struggles with society and its promises much more. Maybe it is the great American novel.
What made it even more intriguing– combining the socialist sympathies and the Beat-like style, it was not hard for me to imagine that this book is purposefully kept out of American high schools in order to leave room to ingrain Kerouac’s brand of individualism and rebellion in that particular sort of youth, that that is the preferred brand, the preferred rebellion, that modern American capitalism was built to handle, to mold.
This review of the U.S.A. trilogy in the New York Times (from 1997) offers some more educated perspective:
Unlike Fitzgerald or Hemingway, whose writing, whatever its failures, issued from distinct sensibilities, Dos Passos was basically a reporter on a mission, wielding a style whose chief virtue was efficiency. The job at hand, as he saw it in the 30’s, was to encompass in literature the whole wrongly organized communal life of America, the betrayal of “our storybook democracy.”
Dos Passos and the times changed; the communal air darkened and lightened, throwing up new criteria, as it always does. “U.S.A.” once struck some very intelligent people as powerfully instructive, a bold kind of fiction. In a different atmosphere it feels rather dated, labored, in its best places no more than a ‘‘good try.’’ It has a permanent place in our histories, I think, but only a precarious one in our literature.
Yes, it is cold. And yes, some of the “Camera Eye” asides seem like failed experiments. But maybe most pointedly of all, the suffering in 42nd Parallel does seem really meaningless as Gilman cites McLuhan: “Seeing nothing inevitable or meaningful in human suffering, he confronts it neither in its comic, intelligible mode, nor in a tragic way. It angers and annoys him as something extraneous.” A reporter. How America (“the real protagonist”) sees these characters, these individuals. Its eye is unsympathetic.
But despite all this the writing still stirred me. Nevertheless the review is insightful!
It is perhaps notable that during the time I was reading Parallel I had an old friend over and we got drunk and wrote a email about Dash Snow, gleefully juggling the keyboard between each other, yelling like youths, while (fucking of course) re-watching those Levi’s / Ryan McGinley “Go Forth” ads a bunch of times in a row on YouTube, loud. STRONG. AMPLE. FAIR. The way Whitman says STRONG.
Maybe Kerouac sold me on Levi’s. Dos Passos’ Mac probably couldn’t afford them.
If The Leopard is a slow, navigable march of a manageable upheaval, and Darkness is a dire warning of the excesses of revolution, Parallel seems to me to be a somewhat-forgotten history of American labor– something I realize I don’t know too much about.
In 42nd Parallel a variety of famous figures make cameos, including Eugene Debs, but Thomas Edison’s is my favorite (and a good example of a sort of circular refrains that Dos Passos used pretty regularly):
Whenever he [Edison] read about anything he went down cellar and tried it out… He rigged up a laboratory on the train and whenever he read about anything he tried it out… whenever he read about a scientific experiment he tried it out, whenever he could get near an engine he’d tinker with it… Thomas A. Edison at eightytwo worked sixteen hours a day; he never worried about mathematics or the social system or generalized philosophical concepts… he worked sixteen hours a day trying to find a substitute for rubber; whenever he read about anything he tried it out; whenever he got a hunch he went to the laboratory and tried it out.
Work is hard– it should be messy and time-consuming. Gaining knowledge is not elegant, and it is not wholly contained in books or even in the mind of a genius that is not you or older than you. You try things in the real world, amass experience– the source of an inspiration be damned. There is something of America in that I think.
We may even choose to believe that Edison’s hard work let us hear Whitman read his poems this many years later.