Monday, September 30, 2013

1949: The Egyptian by Mika Waltari

The Author: 

     Mika Waltari (1908-1979) was born in Helsinki, Finland, the son of a secondary school teacher.  He first novel (jumalaa paossa) was published in 1925, a year before he graduated high school.  He became successful as a writer within Finland in 1928, mainly writing about the cultural and social changes going on at the time.  

      He married in 1931 and later served as a propagandist against the Axis in World War II.  In 1945, Waltari published the first of his historical novels, Sinuhe, Egyptiläinen, which was released in English in 1949 as The Egyptian (or, in England, as Sinuhe the Egyptian), translated by Naomi Walford.  (While I haven't been able to verify this, it seems that Walford may have translated the Swedish translation to English.)

      The international success of The Egyptian made Waltari the world's preeminent Finnish writer.  In 2008, a commemorative €10 coin was issued in honor of the centennial of Waltari's birth, with his signature on one side and an Egyptian Pharaoh's watchdog on the other.

The Book:

Length: 503 pages
Genre/Subject: Historical Fiction; Ancient Egypt

         This is a book written in Finland, translated to English, which became a bestseller in America, and is about an Egyptian who travels to Babylon, Syria, etc.  If that isn't representative enough of the new global outlook post-WWII, I don't know what is.  

         But anyhow, The Egyptian is a first person narrative taking the form of a memoir by the exiled royal physician, Sinuhe.  After describing his exile, the narrator then tells us his life story, starting with his being discovered by a poor doctor and his wife in Thebes.  Like Moses, Sinuhe was abandoned in a basket and sent down the river.  (This is not the only reference to the story of Moses.  Sinuhe's friend, Horemheb, sees a burning bush in the mountains while on his way to war.)  The first quarter of the novel focuses on Sinuhe's education as a physician.  It details his disillusionment with the priesthood (through which he has to receive his training as a physician) and demonstrates the hypocrisy and decadence of the an empire at the height of its power.    

         Above all else, The Egyptian paints a fascinating panorama of the Sinuhe's world.  At times beautiful, bizarre, or atrocious, the customs and actions of the different nations and peoples (however accurately or otherwise) are powerfully drawn.  However, the prose is odd.  Whether this is due to Waltari or the translator, I can't say, but the writing is very rigid.  For example:     

                                     "I have evil swellings on my feet," he said, and he mixed Syrian
                                      words with his speech.  "Your intelligent slave Kaptah recom-
                                      mended your skill in treating such swellings.  Relieve me from 
                                      my torment and you shall not regret it." 

                                      So stubborn was he that at length I led him into my room and
                                      called to Kaptah for hot water to wash my hands.  There was
                                      no reply, but not until I examined the feet of the Syrian, did I 
                                      recognize Kaptah's own gnarled and spavined joints. My slave
                                      plucked off his wig and burst into roars of laughter. (85)

       This quote leads to two things in the novel that I want to talk about.  The first is the character Kaptah, who is the comic relief in the story.  He's clownish, shrewd, gets into misadventures, is crafty but extremely loyal.  Sometimes, though, his antics seem out of place, and although slavery in The Egyptian is not tied to a specific race, Kaptah's antics basically scream minstrelsy.  Which leads to the second point I want to make.   
        What do you do with a historical novel when the society, including the protagonist, have a value system.  that is not only different, but in many ways incompatible with our values?  Where things that we would consider at the very least unethical, and at worst evil, are not only acceptable but encouraged?  Waltari uses some of these (e.g. war and plundering) to criticize their nature.  So, for example, Horemheb is seen within the novel as a great and successful warrior, but his accomplishments are presented in such a way that we see them for how horrific they really are.  But all this leads to a bit of a problem when it comes to identifying with the protagonist, as we end up condemning a lot of his actions, even as we praise others.  
          While this may make personal attachment to the protagonist more difficult, it serves to better draw a picture of the protagonist's world, which it does well enough to have made The Egyptian into possibly the best known piece of Finnish literature, period.   If Wikipedia is to be believed (and some cursory research has turned up no evidence to the contrary) The Egyptian is the only Finnish novel to be adapted to a Hollywood film.

      While the prose can be a bit alienating, The Egyptian is a captivating novel.  I'm not personally a big fan of historical fiction, but this is an excellent sample of the genre.  If you like historical fiction, especially if you like Egyptology, you'll really enjoy this book.

Also published in 1949:

Jorge Luis Borges - The Aleph
Graham Greene - The Third Man
Shirley Jackson - The Lottery and Other Stories
Arthur Miller - Death of a Salesman
George Orwell - Ninteen Eighty-Four


Fleischmann, Wolfgang Bernard, ed. Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century: 
        Volume 3 O-Z. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1971. Print.

Waltari, Mika. The Egyptian. Translated by Walford, Naomi. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 
        1949. Print.

Monday, September 23, 2013

1948: The Big Fisherman by Lloyd C. Douglas

The Author:

This is Lloyd C. Douglas's (1877-1951) third time as #1 bestseller of the year.  A Lutheran minister and native of Indiana, Douglas appeared in the top ten annual bestsellers list thirteen times between 1932 and 1953.  He tops the list four times, the first time with Green Light in 1935.   

The Book:

Length: 503 pages

Genre/subject: Historical fiction; Religious Fiction

         At first I thought The Big Fisherman was going to be a sequel to Douglas's earlier bestseller, The Robe.  Rather, Fisherman takes place before, during, and after the events in The Robe. The novel starts nearly two decades before the Jesus begins preaching, and focuses on an alliance being forged between the Jews and the Arabians, who, we are told, have been unfriendly for about 1,500 years, but must put aside this enmity to make a show of force to dissuade the Romans from plundering the Middle East.  To solidify this alliance, the Arabian king's daughter, Arnon, is married to the Jewish king Herod's son, Antipas.  The marriage is not a happy one, and Antipas's infidelity drives away Arnon (with their daughter, Fara) and inspires the anger of the Arabian people.  At the age of sixteen, Fara, after her mother's death, rides off to take revenge against her father who is now the tetrarch of Galilee.    

        She arrives in Galilee as her father is leaving for Rome, and ends up staying with a successful fisherman named Simon who lives with his mother-in-law (no, seriously, he lives in a house with just him and his mother-in-law).  So, Fara has to put her patricidal plans on hold, but, in the meantime, Simon decides to find out just what's up w/r/t this Carpenter that's going around preaching blasphemies and performing miracles.  Simon eventually joins up with this preacher (spoiler: It's Jesus) and changes his name to Peter.    

       Honestly, Fara's storyline was far more interesting to me than Simon/Peter's.  Perhaps it's largely because we all know how the Jesus and Peter thing turns out.  Then again, I'm not in this novel's target demographic.  As a piece of historical fiction, The Big Fisherman succeeds in creating an atmosphere and setting that draws you in.  The political and social life of Roman colonies and nomadic peoples are a lot of fun to read about, though I can't speak to their veracity one way or the other.  
        While it may sound silly to complain about an explicitly religious novel being preachy, I'm going to do just that.  While Simon/Peter starts out skeptical he becomes convinced of that Jesus is more than just some radical preacher.  As opposed to Marcellus in The Robe, who comes to follow Jesus by the power of his ideas and the effect he (Jesus) has had on others, Simon/Peter witnesses Jesus heal the sick on a couple occasions.  If someone can heal the sick with just a word or gesture, it doesn't take a great deal to convince others to follow.  As such, the emotional/psychological journey Simon/Peter takes is less interesting than Marcellus's.  

       While The Big Fisherman, even with its differences from The Robe, certainly benefited from its predecessor's success.  Like The Robe, The Big Fisherman ended up with a film adaptation in 1959.

It seems that the film has not had a DVD release.  Although it appears that the full film is available on Youtube.

While it has its flaws (e.g. a lack of focus, very stiff prose), if you're a fan of (Christian) religious-historical fiction, you'll most likely enjoy the The Big Fisherman.    

Also published in 1948:   

Pearl Buck - Peony  
Truman Capote - Other Voices, Other Rooms
William Faulkner - Intruder in the Dust   
Norman Mailer - The Naked and the Dead


Douglas, Lloyd C. The Big Fisherman. 1948. Chicago: People's Book Club. 1952. Print.

Monday, September 16, 2013

1947: The Miracle of the Bells by Russell Janney

The Author:
Russell Janney (1884-1963) was born in Wilmington Ohio.  His career was mainly as a Broadway producer, putting on nearly two dozen plays between 1916 and 1943.  And that’s pretty much all I can tell you about Russell Janney.  

Perhaps I should explain how I write the author bio sections of my reviews.  It starts with a trip to Wikipedia, where I find some basic biographical data (e.g. year and place of birth, major works, etc.).  Afterwards, I find a biography of the individual and/or consult a biographical dictionary, to confirm the details from Wikipedia.  If I include information not on the Wikipedia page (and its linked sources, as the case may be), I cite the biography in the ‘sources’ section at the end of the post.  I have been unable to find any sources to even verify the scant information on Wikipedia.  I could find no biographies of the man.  I’ve consulted about half a dozen biographical dictionaries of American writers, and have turned up nothing.  My copy of The Miracle of the Bells doesn’t even have an ‘about the author’ page.  If you are truly interested in learning more about Russell Janney, I hope you have better luck than I have.

The Book:

The Miracle of the Bells tells the story of Broadway manager extraordinaire Bill Dunnigan and the young movie star Olga Treskovna.  The novel opens with Dunnigan bringing Olga’s body back to her home town, a small Pennsylvania coal mining town known only as Coaltown, in accordance with her wishes.  From there, the novel switches between the present in Coaltown and Dunnigan’s flashbacks of the events leading to Olga’s death.

            The title refers to an event near the end of the book, but what’s worth mentioning is that the titular miracle is not a miracle in the classic sense.  A large number of people believe it to be a miracle, and that belief is beneficial to the protagonists. But unlike some of the other religious bestsellers of the 1940s (especially, The RobeThe Keys of the Kingdom, and The Song of Bernadette), The Miracle of the Bells is not primarily concerned with religion in and of itself.  It also is one of the first novels on the list so far to take a stance on the big city vs. small town debate, and land firmly on the side of the big cities.  While Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street did this, the book was largely focused on being an indictment of the small town mythos, while Janney’s novel is less consistently explicit.  The big city perspective is largely part of the background, not the central feature.  It is also the only bestseller on my review list from the 1940s that is not historical fiction.  Besides Strange Fruit, it is the only one from the 1940s to take place in the United States (over 60% of the bestsellers on my list prior to 1940 take place in America).  The most immediately apparent reason for this would be the Second World War.  Events and personages in Europe and Asia were of immediate importance for the average American.    

            The novel itself is part romance, part Hollywood-dream-come-true story.  It got its own film version in 1948, with Frank Sinatra playing the Coaltown’s priest. 

The novel fell into obscurity.  I haven’t been able to find evidence of any printings after 1973.  It’s by no means the worst book I’ve read so far, but it’s by no means the greatest either.  If you’re looking for something sentimental and light (not that light page-wise, although at only 500 pages, it’s a lot shorter than some of the other books I’ve reviewed) and you happen to have an old copy lying around, you’ll probably enjoy The Miracle of the Bells.

Also Published in 1947:
Ray Bradbury - Dark Carnival
Italo Calvino - The Path to the Nest of Spiders
Thomas Mann - Doctor Faustus

Janney, Russell. The Miracle of the Bells. New York: Prentice Hall. 1946. Print.

Monday, September 9, 2013

1946: The King's General by Daphne du Maurier

The Author:

            Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) was born in London, the daughter of an influential actor’s manager, Sir Gerald du Maurier and granddaughter of George du Maurier, a hugely successful author known best for his novel Trilby and the character Svengali.  

            Daphne du Maurier published her first novel in 1931 and went on to publish dozens of novels, short story collections, and biographies.   In 1932 she married Major Frederick Browning (Mr. and Mrs. Browning became Sir and Lady Browning in 1946).  Her marriage was problematic: Browning, a veteran of World War One, suffered psychologically from the experience, and there were affairs.   Browning passed away in 1965.  In 1969 du Maurier was given the title of Dame Commander of the British Empire.  

            Du Maurier was extremely successful, appearing on the Publishers’ Weekly’s list of the top ten bestselling books of the year twelve times, between 1938 and 1969.  Her most famous book, Rebecca (1938) was adapted into the classic Hitchcock film of the same name.  The film adaptation of her short story, The Birds (1952), is still famous as well.

            There is a lot of debate about du Maurier’s sexual orientation and her views thereof.  I don’t feel confident enough in my knowledge of du Maurier to make a definitive statement one way or the other.  There is significant evidence that she was bisexual, but as to her feelings or actions on the matter, may your own research help you draw a conclusion.   

The Book:

First edition cover

            The King’s General takes place during the English Civil War and is told as a reminiscence of the middle-aged Honor Harris.  Those who follow my blog may recognize that this is the second novel in a row to be set in this time period.  But whereas the previous year’s Forever Amber was a romance, The King’s General fits more into the realm of gothic mystery. 

            The narrator, Honor Harris, is the daughter of minor nobility in Cornwall.  Through her brother’s marriage, the family is tied to the illustrious Grenviles.  Honor (quite rightly) sees her new sister-in-law Gartred as manipulative and dangerous.  A few years later, after her brother’s death, Honor is reintroduced to the Grenviles and falls in love with Gartred’s brother Richard, who is thought of as a great soldier, but a cad (e.g. Forever Amber’s Bruce Carlton or Gone with the Wind’s Rhett Butler).  Very early in the novel, they are engaged to be married and the story seems to be leading to a typical romance.  Then, as Honor, Gartred, and Richard are on a hunt, Honor’s horse falls and Honor is crippled for life. 

            While Honor and Richard’s paths cross and there is love between them, this is not at all like Scarlett & Rhett or Amber & Bruce.  Although I can’t help but feel that Amber & Bruce are at least partially responsible for the commercial success of The King’s General.  Based on what people expected from du Maurier based on movies like 1940’s Rebecca, as well as a historical novel that takes place in the decade preceding the previous year’s runaway bestseller, and add to that du Maurier’s name recognition, The King’s General was poised to take the number one spot.  It is the only book of du Maurier’s to do so, despite being one of her marginal works and being one of the only three (so far) books on my list to not have had a film adaptation (the other two: Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells and Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith).  

            As a gothic mystery and as historical fiction, The King’s General is good.  The prose is what you would expect from a gothic mystery (which isn’t personally to my liking, but there’s no accounting for taste).  If either of the above-mentioned genres interest you, The King’s General is certainly worth a read.

Also published in 1946:  
Nikos Kazantzakis - Zorba the Greek
Robert Penn Warren - All the King's Men
Eugene O'Neill - The Iceman Cometh

Auerbach, Nina. Daphne du Maurier, Haunted Heiress. Philadelphia, PA: University of
            Pennsylvania Press. 2000. Print.  

du Maurier, Daphne. The King's General. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. 1946. Print.

Monday, September 2, 2013

1945: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

The Author:

            Kathleen Winsor (1919-2003) was born in Minnesota, but grew up in Berkeley, California.  She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1938.  She married fellow student, Robert Herwig.  She worked for a newspaper between 1937 and 1938, briefly writing a sports column before being laid off. 

            She wrote Forever Amber while her husband was fighting in World War Two, the book being published in 1944.  It was banned in fourteen states and was immediately one of the bestselling books of the decade. 

            She and Herwig divorced in 1946.  Ten days later, she married jazz clarinetist/band leader/author Artie Shaw.  The marriage to Shaw ended in 1948, after which she married her divorce attorney, Arnold Krakower.  She and Krakower divorced in 1953, after which she married Paul Porter.  They remained married until his death in 1975. 

            Although she published seven more novels, none were nearly as successful as Forever Amber. She passed away at her home in Manhattan in 2003.

The Book:

            Forever Amber takes place in Restoration Era England.  Between 1642 and 1651, England was ravaged by a series of Civil Wars between Royalists and Parliamentarians, ending with the execution of King Charles I, the exile of his son, Charles II, and Cromwell’s rise to power.  In 1660, after the death of Cromwell and his heir’s lack of ability to maintain the army’s confidence, Charles II returned to England and the monarchy was restored (hence, the Restoration).  The novel’s protagonist, Amber St. Claire, is sixteen in 1660.  Unbeknownst to her, she is the daughter of nobility, her mother having fled her Royalist parents to be with her love, whose family fought on the opposite side of the Civil Wars.  The mother died in childbirth and the father disappeared.    

            Amber makes her way to London from a small town in the countryside, by joining up with a group of titled soldiers who pass through her town.  She falls in love with one of them, Lord Carlton, and this relationship serves as a throughline for the rest of the novel.   Carlton leaves her to travel to the New World, and Amber marries his friend the Earl of Almsbury. 

            Historical events, such as The Great London Fire of 1666 and The Great Plague of 1665-1666, feature prominently in the story.  The novel also delves into the politics of the time, Amber’s numerous marriages and affairs, eventually even becoming a mistress to Charles II and a political force in her own right. This, as one could guess, caused considerable controversy.  The novel was banned in 14 states. It was condemned by the Hays Office (i.e. the guys who enforced the Hays Code).  The Massachusetts Attorney General, in his account of why the book should be banned as pornography, cited the 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies and 10 abortions.  A film version was made in 1947 starring Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde.

As you could probably guess, the film was significantly toned down for theaters, and has since been pretty much forgotten.      

            There’s one question people who take popular culture seriously tend to ask about this type of work, any answer to which is frequently debated: Is it endorsing or addressing social inequalities?  Does Amber’s reliance on appearances and sexuality to get what she wants support that behavior, or is it criticizing how that was the only avenue society had left open for women with ambition.  A strong argument could be constructed either way, but if you’re just wondering if it’s worth reading, I’ll say this:  In a lot of ways, it seems and reads like a bodice-ripper romance.  I’m not well-read in that genre, but it seems like it would be part of the upper crust, in regards to writing style and character depth.  If you’re not into romances, you probably wouldn’t like it much, but if you are, you would.

Also published in 1945:

George Orwell - Animal Farm   
John Steinbeck - Cannery Row
Evelyn Waugh - Brideshead Revisited   
Richard Wright - Black Boy

Winsor, Kathleen. Forever Amber. New York: Macmillian Co. 1944. Print.