Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Cover of The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, a new novel.The narrator of The Razor’s Edge  says he never began a novel with more misgiving.

His apprehension is well-founded.

Invited to a luncheon by an American acquaintance, the narrator meets his niece Isobel and her boy friend. Larry had lied about his age to become a pilot in The Great War. Since the war ended, he’s done nothing.

Isobel’s family refuse let her marry Larry unless he stops loafing and starts working.

Isabel threatens to call off their engagement unless he gets a job.

Larry calls her bluff.

Isobel marries a financier instead.

Larry bums around Europe and India reading philosophy and contemplating infinity, a flower child 40 years ahead of his time.

Why won’t Larry work?

We’d say he had post-traumatic stress disorder. Larry says (much later to the narrator) – that he was grappling with how evil could exist if there is a good God. In this tale of rich Americans in European watering spots between the wars, a  discussion of the problem of good and evil is as bizarre as a singer in a tuxedo at the Woodstock Festival.

The book’s high point is W. Somerset Maugham’s oft-quoted line about American women expecting the perfection in their husbands that English women expect only in their butlers.

The Razor’s Edge: a novel
By W. Somerset Maugham
Doubleday, 1943
343 pages
1944 bestseller # 5
My Grade: B-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

 

The period of the English Restoration, when England rejected the Puritan Oliver Cromwell Puritanism in favor of the profligate Charles II, is the setting for Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber.

Amber St. Clair is the orphaned love child of a couple whose families were on opposite sides during the English Civil War. When the Cavaliers come through town, Amber is seduced at 16 by Bruce, Lord Carlton, who tells her he won’t marry her and proves it by going off privateering.

Left to her own resources, Amber marries for money a man who marries her for her money.

Both are disillusioned.

Amber winds up in debtor’s prison. She escapes through her sexual prowess and begins a series of alliances designed to raise her social status and income.

“The brilliant, lavish, exciting life of an exclusive harlot seemed to her a most pleasant one,” Windsor says.

From then on, Amber’s life is a series of sexual alliances that ultimately take her to the bedchamber of the king himself.

When Amber’s enemies finally figure how to get rid of her, it is 450 pages too late to do readers any good.

Forever Amber is simply an interminable bore.

Forever Amber
By Kathleen Winsor
Macmillan, 1944
652 pages
Bestseller #4 for 1944
Bestseller #1 for 1945
My grade: D+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Interracial couple closeup in monochrome.
Strange Fruit is a simple love story in a setting where nothing is simple.

The girl is Nonnie Anderson, tall, lovely, college-educated. Her family can’t understand why she stays in her dead-end town working as caregiver for a retarded child.

The reason is Tracy Deen, an aimless college drop-out seething with resentment because his mother liked his sister best.

When Nonnie tells Tracy she’s pregnant, his response is predictable: He doesn’t want to think about it.

None of this would be more than mildly interesting except that Nonnie is black, Tracy is white, and they live in 1940s’ Georgia. The sun beats mercilessly, humidity rises, people get edgy, and sounds of a tent evangelist call white sinners to immunity within the church.

Lillian Smith, who lived most of her life in Georgia, knows all the nuances of race relations in the South. She shows us that race is only one factor in race relations. Poverty, education, anti-Yankee sentiment, and religion all play a role.

But the most important factor is human choice.

Our society still hasn’t come to grips with the issues Smith raises in Strange Fruit— all the more reason to read this marvelous 1944 novel today.

Strange Fruit
By Lillian Smith
Harcourt, Brace, 1944
250 pages
1944 Bestseller #1
My grade = A

Photo credit: Black ‘n White Uploaded by alfredo-9

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The best-selling novels of 1944 include some titles that achieved fame or notoriety. Here’s the complete 1944 list with the dates my reviews scheduled in brackets:

  1. Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith [April 12, 2014]
  2. The Robe  by Lloyd C. Douglas
  3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  4. Forever Amber  by Kathleen Winsor [April 15, 2014]
  5. The Razor’s Edge  by W. Somerset Maugham [April 19, 2014]
  6. The Green Years  by A. J. Cronin [April 22, 2014]
  7. Leave Her to Heaven  by Ben Ames Williams [April 26. 2014]
  8. Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge [April 29, 2014]
  9. A Bell for Adano by John Hersey [May 3, 2014]
  10. The Apostle  by Sholem Asch

Film versions were made of all but one novels on the 1944 list. The one hold-out was the novel in last place, Asch’s The Apostle.

The top seller, Lillian Smith’s  Strange Fruit  may be remembered today primarily for being inspired by a  song made famous by Billie Holiday and honored by Time magazine as “the song of the century.” You can learn about the song’s intriguing history in an 2012 NPR “Morning Edition” piece by Elizabeth Blair.  In its era, however, the novel Strange Fruit was notorious for having been literally banned in Boston and even prohibited from being distributed by U.S. mail for a few days.

The number four novel of the year,  Forever Amber, escaped the censors, but its  film version ran into problems.

A Bell for Adano won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1945.

Three of the 1944 bestsellers made the list more than once. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  and  The Apostle, which were bestsellers only in 1943 won top honors again in 1944. 1944 marked the third appearance of  The Robe, which would reappear on the bestseller list for a fourth time in 1953.

Scheduling note: on May 10, I’ll review a well-known 1934 novel that didn’t make the bestseller list.

1954 did not produce a bumper crop of bestselling novels. Even Taylor Caldwell, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Daphne du Maurier — authors whom I usually count on to provide entertainment and a bit more besides — disappointed me.

John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday and Hamilton Basso’s  The View from Pompey’s Head are the best of the lot and neither of them is a novel I want to have close at hand for convenient rereading.  Sweet Thursday is a bit too light, Pompey’s Head a bit too studied.

The best of the novels of 1954 is the one that didn’t make the bestseller list that year: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. It’s a keeper.

Since today is April Fool’s Day, I thought it appropriate to inject a bit of humor into the week by recommending some humorous novels. I chose vintage bestsellers that are funny but not silly.

Statue of fool on building in  Ghent, Belgium

The Fool atop building in Gent, Belgium

One of my favorite light novels is Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley. Kitty is a dutiful Irish Catholic girl who has the misfortune to fall in love with a Main Line Pennsylvania boy who cares less for her than she does for him.

The story is an old one. Morley gives it sparkle by giving Kitty a quick brain, loyal heart, and sharp repartee. Life isn’t easy for Kitty, but she punches it full of wisecracks.

The Letters of a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by George Horace Lorimer is a series of letters supposedly written by a well-to-do owner of a commercial slaughterhouse operation to his son and heir from the time he goes off to Harvard until he announces his engagement.

John Grahman wouldn’t stoop to wisecracks, but he illustrates his advice with personal stories that reveal a sense of humor as keen as his powers of observation. Though droll stories, Mr. Grahman leaves no doubt what he expects of his expensively-educated offspring.

Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico is the story of a London charwoman who makes up her mind to have a Dior evening gown like the one she saw in an employer’s closet.

The plucky woman saves the money for the trip and the gown only to be confronted with a new set of obstacles in Paris.

Mrs. ’Arris calls forth chuckles but she inspires admiration, too, not just for her determination, but also for her essential goodness.

Photo credit: The Fool uploaded by Ulrick at http://www.sxc.hu/photo/186688

Cover of 50th anniversary edition of Lord of the FliesWilliam Golding’s Lord of the Flies is such a familiar novel that many readers would be surprised to learn it was not a bestseller when it was  published in 1954. College students discovered the novel, and gave it the popularity that turned it into a classic.

The novel is about preteen English school boys who crash onto an uninhabited island while being airlifted out of a war zone. Without adult supervision, the boys form their own social groups for companionship. The group magnifies the power of the individual  and lets individuals rationalize their behavior as they’re doing what everyone is doing.

Before long, the boys fall into into the worst kind of adult behavior. Fighting. Torture. Murder.

Golding is a superb storyteller. Every detail has a purpose. The boys are vividly drawn, a realistic mix of memorable personalities — Ralph, Piggy, Jack — and walk-ons.

Golding makes clear that human nature, even that of innocent children, is sinful. Roger, initially just a face in the crowd, finds he has a talent for torture. And Ralph, the best of the boys, paves the way to murder by ignoring the request that he not reveal his new acquaintance’s nickname: Piggy.

Lest you think Golding was just an old crank with a sour view of the world, the same week I reread Lord of the Flies, newlyweds in Pennsylvania allegedly murdered a man because they wanted to do something together.

Golding would not have been surprised.

Lord of the Flies
By William Golding
Originally published in 1954 in Great Britian by Farber and Farber, Ltd.
50th anniverary ed. Perigee book published 2003 by Penguin Group
with introduction by E. M. Forster, biographical and critical note by E.K. Epstein,                                            
illustrations by Ben Gibson
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,096 other followers