Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Satire of American ex-pats in Florence (Books - World so Wide by Sinclair Lewis)

Sinclair Lewis is an American writer best known for Main Street, Babbitt, Dodsworth, Elmer Gantry, and Arrowsmith, but he authored 22 novels in all between 1914 and 1951. World So Wide was his last. I picked it up the original, jacketed Random House edition pictured to the left in an antique store in Indiana last summer.

By his last book, Lewis has cultivated an elegant, confident narrative voice. Much like the film scripts of the same era, it had an almost singing tone. And his polished technique knew how to establish and plot and character in a stroke, without the song ever stopping. This is the novel's opening:
The traffic policemen and the two detectives from the homicide squad, examined the tracks of the car and were convinced that a soft shoulder of the road had given way.

They had been returning from Bison Park, after midnight but quite sober. Hayden Chart was driving the convertible and hating his wife, Caprice, and hating himself for hating her. He was not given to grudges and, despite her glitter of pale-green dinner dress and her glitter of derisive gossip, Caprice was a simpleton who no more deserved hatred than did a noisy child. But she did chatter so. It wore Hayden down like a telephone bell ringing incessantly in an empty house.
Quite an opener; but the contemporary reader must tolerate Lewis's overt patriarchal sexism to appreciate his prose and storytelling. I found it grating, but not without self-awareness, and Lewis's satirizing spares no one. Lewis sets up the entire plot in one compact paragraph at the end of the first chapter so that the reader knows where they are going.
He came clearly to in a hospital, with his head bandaged and Dr. Crittenham, their mild indecisive family physician, by the bed. He felt miraculously safe, and not for two days did he know that Caprice had been buried the day before, and that he was desolatingly free to wander in a world too bleakly too intimidatingly wide.
And wander he does, to Europe, mostly to Florence, in a plan to recover his sense of having a future. Today we might call it achieving closure. Lewis creates a musical refrain, with the repetition of melodious passages featuring the phrase "world so wide" to close many chapter sections. It reads like nothing so much as a monologue in a Broadway play of the 1930s or 40s:
He was not to think back fifteen years to the time when he was twenty, credulous and enthusiastic, when he was strong for walking, for singing, for making love. He was to look fifteen years ahead to the time when he would be fifty - and a fine, sound, competent age that was, too, when he ought to be able to eat and laugh and make love as well as ever. Compared with fifty, he still was young, he had recovered youth. Ah, the blazing wonders he was going to experience in these fifteen years ahead, with perhaps another twenty-five years on top of that! He was going to see all of the world so wise.
Corny, I know, but bold. Who would dare write "Ah, the blazing wonders he was going to experience..." today? Or:
The whole house was a dead thing now that it was deserted by Caprice's yelling and flouncing and running up and downstairs and telephoning violently and for hours. A dream and a languid, draining dream then was his hasty giving-away of Caprice's clothes, and her poor treasures: the silver-gilt vanity case, the onyx desk-set, her stout little ski boots, the flimsy bathing suits that she had loved. It was a dream of a life in which he had been busy and important and well-bedded and well-fed and had glowingly possessed everything except friends and contentment and any reason for living: a dream, a fable, a caricature of grandeur.
And so, off to Florence goes Hayden Chart, where he meets a cast of thoroughly-satirized ex-pats, including Lorenzo Lundsgard, who hopes to package old world culture for Americans with no time to read, and a cold, dusty historian of Italian princes - Dr. Lydia Lomond - who has smooth hands even while she practices unforgiving scholarship. Ah, but that is the rest of story, which I wouldn't want to spoil if what I have told you so far is at all enticing. Lewis is a wonderful painter of characters, who wrote at a time when, if a good American novel was to be entertaining, then it was expected to be part-Hollywood film or part-Broadway play. I found World so Wide of-its-time, to be sure, but delightfully entertaining.

5 comments:

Thomas at My Porch said...

I don't think I have a copy of this one. I love cover. Lewis' Kingsblood Royal has similiar corny language but still packs an emotional punch.

Ted said...

On this cover I especially love "this, his twenty-second novel, was completed..." That parenthetical phrasing is so urbane. It would never be used today!

Sheila O'Malley said...

I absolutely MUST read this, on the basis of this paragraph alone: // They had been returning from Bison Park, after midnight but quite sober. Hayden Chart was driving the convertible and hating his wife, Caprice, and hating himself for hating her. He was not given to grudges and, despite her glitter of pale-green dinner dress and her glitter of derisive gossip, Caprice was a simpleton who no more deserved hatred than did a noisy child. But she did chatter so. It wore Hayden down like a telephone bell ringing incessantly in an empty house. //

wow!!

Ted said...

Sheila - I think you would love this for the same reason you love the classic films of the period. Miss you, dear friend, we MUST meet up soon!

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ted - yes, it's been way too long! I'm coming to the end of the Tribeca FF marathon. I never knew that there would actually be a point where I would think, "Okay, I'm good. I don't see to any movies anymore for a while." I can't believe I've only written 9 reviews so far - it feels like much more!! But yes: definitely in May! Let's get together!!