Jennie Gerhardt – Theodore Dreiser
Dreiser began Gerhardt in 1901; it wasn’t completed until 1911. During this time he led a tumultuous personal life and had health problems. The novel shows the adverse effects of its long gestation. Even the quality of the writing changes; the second half is more polished. But can one use the word “polished” in referring to Dreiser’s prose? He’s a plodder piling up the bricks for his massive edifices. A strength he had was a compassion for the downtrodden that comes across as sincere. And he had scope – in covering many decades in a life a weightiness is generated. Still, major flaws were present throughout this book. The plot is disjointed (probably due to his leaving and coming back to it over all those years). And Dreiser constantly tells us how Jennie feels, but he doesn’t show those feelings being developed. This is a love story, but we get no scenes of intimacy between Jennie and Lester. The same omission involves Jennie’s daughter. We’re told that she’s devoted to Vesta, but we don’t see them interact. Vesta is an offstage presence whose primary purpose is to die at age fourteen (and for poor, bereft Jennie to grieve). The core of the novel involves a conflict between two very different personalities. Jennie is simple in that she can love wholeheartedly; it’s her gift. It’s not in her nature to be angry, or demanding, or assertive. She gives herself fully to a man who is above her in the hierarchy of society. But Lester cannot respond by committing to her; his indecisiveness drags on and on while Jennie waits. I was involved enough in their dilemma to stick around to the maudlin ending. But I don’t see myself reading anything else by Dreiser. His best work was his first, Sister Carrie, which he spent one year writing. Not ten. In that book his strengths – his compassion and scope – prevailed over any flaws.
The Surrounded – D’Arcy McNickle
The author of this novel, which came out in 1936, was half Indian and half white, as is his main character. The book opens with Archilde Leon’s return to his home after living for years in Portland, Oregon, where he eked out a living from his talent as a violinist. He intends this to a be a brief last visit. When he left he had been on bad terms with his volatile Spanish father. Max Leon had married an Indian woman who, as a child, had fully accepted the white man’s god (she was known as “Faithful Catherine”). But in her old age she had returned to the Indian ways; now she and Max live apart. Max is also estranged from his seven sons; none fulfilled his hopes of taking over his ranch, and some turned wild and dangerous. Archilde is definitely not of that ilk; he’s mainly an observer who keeps a tight rein on his emotions. During his stay he reaches an understanding with both parents. They die, and Max leaves Archilde a considerable sum of money. With this inheritance Archilde could pursue his dreams of traveling and developing his musical skills. Yet he hangs around aimlessly (there’s a woman involved, but this is a weak aspect of the story). Ultimately he becomes a victim of the violent acts of others. This ending seems imposed. It’s as if the author was out to make a point: since the Indian culture was set upon and destroyed, Archilde must suffer the same fate. McNickle denies his character the future that he achieved; at the age of seventeen he left the Flathead Reservation and began an academic career. Perhaps he saw his life of accomplishment as an anomaly. Yet, though he made Archilde an anomaly, he still has him wind up in shackles. McNickle succeeds in showing the plight of the Indian in the 1930s, especially insight into their way of thinking. But this is a case of the sociologist taking precedence over the novelist. Interestingly enough, the most vital character in the book is a white man: Max Leon.
When I Whistle – Shusaku Endo (Japanese)
Finally, at long last, a novel that got to me emotionally. It begins with Ozu recalling the day – some fifty years ago – when a new student named Flatfish entered the study hall of Nada Middle School. The depth of the friendship which develops between the two teenage boys was believable, as was the romantic attachment Flatfish has for a girl with whom he has only a few bumbling encounters. Though he has no chance of winning her heart – Aiko is way above him in social class and has a naval academy suitor – Flatfish’s feelings for Aiko remain strong throughout his short life. When he’s a soldier stationed in China (WWII has broken out) Ozu becomes the bearer of a gift which Flatfish wants the now married and pregnant Aiko to have. This encounter with Aiko carries Flatfish’s love, and she responds by giving Ozu a pen to send to Flatfish. A few years later Ozu again seeks out Aiko, who has lost both her husband and child to the war; she’s now living in a mountain village. Ozu had been sent Flatfish’s possessions after his death; one item was the pen, and Ozu had come to return it to her. That pen, a gift which shuttles back and forth, takes on a symbolic aspect: it denotes Flatfish’s devotion and Aiko’s kindliness. These feelings from the past are revived in the present when Ozu discovers that Aiko is a patient in the hospital where his son is a doctor; she has cancer. This humane story has its dark counterpart in the person of Ozu’s son, Eiicho. Half the book is given over to the deceptions and manipulation of this heartless, ambitious man. The medical profession as a whole isn’t portrayed in a positive light. Drugs are dispensed not because they can help a patient but because the pharmaceutical firm that produces them has deep pockets (note: the novel was written in 1974). Also shown in a highly negative way is how Japan treated its soldiers: brutally, as if they were the captured enemy. Flatfish died from pneumonia, but malnutrition and constant beatings from his superiors were contributing factors. The novel isn’t a complete success; at the end Endo is unable to close with the emotional focus he was obviously searching for. Another problem involves something that was out of the author’s hands. There must be unique difficulties in translating Japanese into English. I don’t think the clumsiness of the prose is Endo’s, and at times it was distracting. But despite those minor issues Endo wrote a moving novel about the enduring power of friendship and love. *