Posts Tagged ‘modernist classics’

Initially published in 1925, the book gained dramatic chiaroscuro from the Wall Street Crash.
A book about the new meteoric metropolis of New York, teetering on the edge of success – and collapse.

A modernist classic. This and others of the period influenced writing throughout Europe.
It’s the style: the blurb calls them filmic jump-cuts, which means the narrative consists of episodes, rather than linear stories. We jump from character to character, situation to situation, but within a clearly demarked radius of people.

This works for me – the book is a blend of fact and fiction. But to write of the tragedies of factual lives within a fictional framework, I find steps over the line somewhat . The suspension of disbelief so necessary for a good story; the distancing of an imagined depiction, gain our willingness to trust the author, to take on the book, to go with it. But to present faction – where are we, then?
John dos Passos gets around that with this style, this technique: there is no dwelling on catastrophe, we see it, feel it, oh yes, but we are not mired in it. Because it is part of the whole fabric.

And so, when we read the tragic interludes of Bud, aged 25, coming in from some upcountry farm, to lose himself here, we allow his story.
Bud could not find a job, no matter what he did. He asked an old guy, Any Jobs? The man replied, I’m 65, and worked since I was 5. I’ve never had a job.

Here we begin to glimpse it: how to survive in a city, especially one like this. You have to hustle. Day on day. Hustle.
If you’re like me, and never learned this, or learned it and hated its face, you’d go back home. Except Bud couldn’t.

Then there’s Ed Slatcher, accountant, whose wife died young, and left just him and his young daughter. He had the chance, a big sure-thing laid at his feet: this was it, the chance everyone gets to break it big. But he didn’t chose it; he stayed on as an accountant, even though he could see how fraudulent his clients were.
And here we see it again: Wall Street, waiting to happen.
If he’d gone for it, got the break, could they have got out before the Crash? It wasn’t in his character to either take the chance, or to get out.

John dos Passos was of Portugese heritage; he was far enough outside to see all sides to the city.
Where books of the same period dealt with the top ranks: The Great Gatsby, say, John dos Passos gives us the others as well, the French sailors jumping ship because this was the new metropolis. And so they wait tables, and dream.
In Europe, they said, you live well, but the pay is bad; here, the pay is good, but the life bad.
And so, between the two, what do you do? Like Congo, do you try both, continually? No, Congo stays – becomes successful, through bootlegging: rich.

This brings us to the language: the author gives us the accents, tones, the macro-languages of immigrants and older natives.

I was wondering about this: one book influenced by this was Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.
How would you translate the Germanised English of Mr Zucher, into German? ‘A man vat is ambeetious must take chances. Ambeetions is vat I came here from Frankfort mit at the age of twelf years….

The point is, John dos Passos does not ridicule their speech, their poverty, their weaknesses, he gives us people we can recognise to a great extent.

I was reading Willa Cartha shortly before this, written about ten years previously (maybe the same time as this one, then?) and based in the gothic South, the characters are like caricatures, comic creations by comparison.
If we read Joseph Mitchell’s writing from the 1930s onwards, they work together, open up the period. Joe Gould’s Secret references the old bohemians of Greenwich Village.
Manhattan Transfer was their period – and we see into the actor’s world from the footlights, the back stage. It’s sordid, amoral even, but it’s full of life and energy.

Where G R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is structured on character per chapter, Manhattan Transfer’s chapters illustrate an aspect of hustle/survival/life in N/Y. Each chapter continues several character stories, not necessarily sequentially on the same time frame. We move from character to character, setting to setting, almost seamlessly: the narrative voice carries and combines the movements, the currents, the flow.
The proliferation of characters, whose stars rise and fall, does bear close parallel at times.

Oh, and one of the earlier characters in the book is described as wearing a baseball cap, back to front.
1925.

PS

I would like to know what happened to Ed Slatcher – his daughter Ellen/Helena became a huge and popular stage actor, then editor. Her work was hugely successful; she was a New York beauty – but inside she never found what it was she needed.

There is no mention of organised crime – the Crime Wave that’s flagged up consists of isolated individuals.
Likewise, no mention of The Gangs of New York. Jimmy, as crime reporter, would know about those.