Category Archives: Lewis Sinclair

It’s a Wrap: 2019

Three novels

Time for my best-of-year round up. For some reason, this year the choices seemed easier.

Three Novels: The Resurrection of Mozart, The Waiter and the Slut, Astashev in Paris: Nina Berberova. 

Berberova never disappoints. 3 novellas here–all quite different from each other, yet they each weave in the theme of  Russian displacement. Berberova deserves far more recognition than she gets.

A Severed Head: Iris Murdoch

My first Murdoch novel and I hit a winner. This is the nastily funny tale of bored privileged people who create drama in their lives by unpleasant, selfish self-focused behaviour. I love reading books about nasty people, so it’s no surprise that I loved this.

Olive Kitteridge: Elizabeth Strout

Ahh… Olive Kitteridge. What a woman. Of course, we wouldn’t want her as a mother or a wife but she’s great to read about. Olive seems the epitome of a person possessing good and bad characteristics. Someone may make a great teacher or neighbour but a lousy relative. It’s no wonder that Olive elicts strong reactions from people. Olive Again is also highly recommended.

The Children: Edith Wharton

It’s been too long since I read Edith Wharton. The Children isn’t considered one of her greats, but it’s wonderful–a study in subconscious human behaviour and how we get what we want without quite confronting our own negative drives.

The Travels Of Maudie Tipstaff: Margaret Forster

Narrow-minded, inflexible, pious Maudie finally leaves Glasgow to visit each of her three children. Her first visit is awful but it goes downhill from there–until finally Maudie finds herself in a surreal situation, living in a primitive hut (without plumbing) on an isolated island.

A Very Scotch Affair: Robin Jenkins

A married man decides to ditch his wife and family in Glasgow and run off to Barcelona with his mistress. The book focuses not so much on his escape but the fallout of his actions.

Artists’ Wives: Alphonse Daudet

I’m glad that a short story collection makes my list this year. The range, the wit, the understanding of human nature–all these things make for marvellous reading.

The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen

My first Elizabeth Bowen wasn’t that great but The Hotel is a treasure. I like books set in hotels anyway but this story is subtle, rich and entertaining.  Post WWI, a hodge-podge of guests, mainly British, socialise with varying results.

Three Obscurities from the Borderlands: Werner Bergengruen, Adalbert Stifter, Maria von Eschenbach.

A fluke find for German Literature month. One story is outstanding, another is excellent and the third has redeeming characteristics. In spite of the fact that I liked these three stories to varying degrees, it still makes my best of year list.

So Evil My Love: Joseph Shearing

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It’s not my typical read but this gaslight noir is very well done indeed. The main character is a missionary’s widow. She’s always led a pious religious life but it was never a choice. When the widow gets choices, her real nature emerges.

Dodsworth: Sinclair Lewis

Certainly not an exciting book, but nonetheless still relevant 90 years later… This is an American Abroad book. It addresses American materialism and subsequent lack of quality of life. Get off the hamster wheel in retirement and boom… what are you left with?….

 

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Filed under Berberova, Nina, Bergengruen Werner, Daudet Alphonse, Fiction, Forster Margaret, Jenkins, Robin, Lewis Sinclair, Murdoch Iris, Shearing Joseph, Stifter Adalbert, Strout Elizabeth, von Eschenbach Marie, Wharton, Edith

Dodsworth: Sinclair Lewis (1929)

Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth is another look at that fascinating figure in literature: the American Abroad, and this time it’s 50-year-old car manufacturer, Sam Dodsworth. In this novel which contrasts American and European values and manners, Dodsworth’s business sells to a larger competitor, and feeling at loose ends, he is persuaded to take an extended holiday to Europe by his wife, Fran. The book opens with a short chapter depicting Dodsworth as a young man courting Fran who has just returned from a year in Europe with a veneer of European sophistication. The first chapter is important as it lays a foundation for the story to come. When Sam’s business sells, Fran, leaps at the opportunity to travel. According to her, the small mid-western town of Zenith, a place they’ve “drained everything from,” offers nothing in comparison to the proposed delights of Europe.

Dodsworth, ambitious and driven, is an extremely successful, well-liked man and yet somehow, his wife always manages to diminish him. It’s clear that a trip to Europe will make Dodsworth, very much a home-body, feel like a fish out-of-water. And at first this seems to be true. Trouble begins for Dodsworth quite quickly in the novel when Fran begins a flirtation on board the liner sailing to London. The flirtation becomes one of a series of relationships Fran, a vain, shallow, selfish, pretentious woman, has with various European men.

Dodsworth and Fran, now in middle age (although Fran is quite a bit younger) are depicted as suffering their own crises. Dodsworth’s identity has long been tied to his automobile company, and so he’s cast adrift when he sells his business. Fran, on the other hand, is frantically trying to escape from her age. From almost the moment she raises the idea of a prolonged European sojourn, the desire is connected to the key, transparent revelation that European men admire older women and appreciate them. Then there’s the way she hides the fact that she’s a grandmother.

One theme in the novel is the topic of American snobbery (yes snobbery is alive and well in America!) We meet several ex-pat Americans, and it’s fashionable, possibly even essential in the company of these ex-pats to denigrate Americans and American culture. This is somehow part of the separation of ‘those’ Americans from other Americans who either want to, or imagine that they can blend in with the locals. Fran is insufferable. As the wife of a Zenith car manufacturer, she was a big fish in a small pond. She ruled the roost, and Sam was fine with that as she had a limited, constricted role. Unleashed in Europe, Fran’s snobbery embarrasses Sam repeatedly, and he discovers that in her new environment, Fran’s worst characteristics emerge. In the marital relationship, she’s in the wrong repeatedly, but with “a genius for keeping herself superior,” she flips the cards and turns herself into a victim who is always trying to ‘help’ Sam learn how to behave. It’s no surprise that genuinely nice people drop Fran so that ultimately she’s surrounded by European versions of her nasty self.

But really this is Dodsworth’s story and the tale of his growth as a human being. At first he doesn’t want to travel to Europe, but he goes along with Fran’s desires. Sam very quickly learns that he’s an unwanted presence at Fran’s side, but he opens himself to experience and all that Europe has to offer while Fran intrigues, flirts (possibly misreads signals), and plays the coy innocent with various men. Then when things with Fran become untenable, Sam returns to America. He toys with an ambition to become involved in building a community but when Fran’s telegrams (demanding more money) become alarming he returns to Europe–which, to his surprise, he liked more than he expected. The man who never wanted to leave Zenith discovers that while he still loves his country, the American way of life is different from the European way of life; the values are different.

Do you know, I had the feeling of leisure in France and England. I felt there as though people made their jobs work for them; they didn’t give up their lives to working for their jobs. And I felt as though there was such a devil of a lot to learn about the world that we’re too busy to learn here. 

One striking aspect of Dodsworth is how prohibition looms prominently in the novel. On returning to New York in the Aquitania, Dodsworth can’t wait to set foot back on American soil, and he and fellow American passenger, Ross Ireland exchange comments about how much they missed and love America. Reality hits when Dodsworth is caught smuggling booze into the country and then, facing a dry evening, he decides to call his bootlegger. The hustle and bustle of American life, while it was longed for in Paris, soon grates on Dodsworth.

He realized that this capital, barbaric with gold and marble, provided every human necessity save a place, a cafe or a plaza or a not-too-lady-like tea-shop, in which he could sit and be human.

This is a slow, imperfect novel, and it took me quite a while to finish it–not to mention that it took me 28 years to pick it up and start reading it. Dodsworth isn’t exactly an exciting or witty fellow. There are some racial slurs and at one point, Dodsworth threatens to spank Fran–a threat that has not aged well. Sam and Fran’s inequitable relationship would have seemed a little unbelievable if not for the first chapter which sets the scene for Sam seen as socially inferior by Fran, but even so I had to remind myself of that first chapter from time to time. And Fran’s whole European trip as a teenager brings up the issue of European exposure as a sort of tainting experience since Fran comes home to Zenith with an inflated idea of herself and then more than 20 years later prances around Europe acting as if she knows everything and can speak French like a native. There are some marvellous, marvellous moments here–at one point, Sam’s friend Tubs comes to Paris with his plump wife, Matey, in tow and when Sam takes them to a posh restaurant, Tubs’ behaviour is horribly embarrassing. He calls the poor waiter a Frog and asks if he “sprechen Sie pretty good English.”

And here’s a final quote as an example why this novel is well worth reading in spite of its flaws 90 years after its first publication.

We boast of scientific investigation, and yet we’re the only supposedly civilized country in the world where thousands of supposedly sane citizens will listen to an illiterate clodhopping preacher or politician setting himself up as an authority on biology and attacking evolution. 

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Filed under Fiction, Lewis Sinclair