Misery keeps three 1946 bestsellers on top

My choices for the three bestselling novels of 1946 for today’s readers have little in common except that somebody in them is miserable. My top picks are Arch of Triumph, This Side of Innocence, and The Snake Pit.

Arch of Triumph

Quote: "To their native country [refugees]they are traitors. And abroad they are still citizens of their native country " against a background of a stone wall.

Arch of Triumph the third of Erich Maria Remarque’s novels to make the bestseller list in America. Each is about some aspect of the the German people’s experiences in World Wars I and II.

The most famous, of course is All Quiet on the Western Front, which tells about the disillusionment of schoolboys who believed Germany’s might would make a quick end to the Great War and that dying for one’s country was glorious.

Remarque’s second bestseller, The Road Back, examined what happened to such soldiers when, their innocence drowned in the blood of WWI, they returned home to a defeated, demoralized, bankrupt Germany.

Set on the cusp of the Second World War, The Arch of Triumph tells of a Jewish surgeon who, unable to practice medicine legally in Germany, has fled to Paris.

He’s not safe there, either.

Dr. Ravic is a dark character, keeping to physical and emotional shadows. There’s something heroic about his refusal to bend to tyranny, but his doom is so certain that it dims even heroism.

All three of Remarque’s novels remain important books. Read in sequence, they  provide insights about 20th century history.

Arch of Triumph will also help us understand aspects of our own day, such why Angela Merkle has been so determined that Germany welcome migrants.

This Side of Innocence

Photograph of bustle on woman's dress, symbolizing historical setting of This Side of Innocence

Taylor Caldwell’s novel This Side of Innocence exposes a family whose members are  as unpleasant a clutch of characters as readers would want to find in- or outside of  a book cover.

As fascinating as they are revolting, the characters make their own lives so miserable that they can make others miserable effortlessly.

Caldwell reveals, occasionally comments, but neither judges nor preaches.

She doesn’t need to: Their ends are predictable from their beginnings.

The Snake Pit

Barred window in stone wall of building suggests setting of The Snake Pit.

Mary Jane Ward’s novel The Snake Pit is a study of a different type of misery, the misery of mental illness.

Ward herself had a mental breakdown at age 34, which she drew on to create the fictional experiences of another young writer, Virginia Cunningham.

The treatment Virginia receives in the novel, was standard practice in the ’40s: medication, shock treatments, body-temperature baths.

Ward’s description, and the film version of her novel, created a movement for legislative reform of the institutional care of the mentally ill.

The fictional Virginia, who drifted into mental illness, is institutionalized and recovers.

The uncertainty in the novel about what caused Virginia’s breakdown and which—if any—of her treatments was responsible for her recovery suggests the same misery could happen to anyone, even to the novelist’s readers.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but I find that possibility more frightening than anything invented by Stephen King.

That’s the best of the best for 1946. If you haven’t read one of these, please give one of them a try.

Next week we’ll move on to the bestsellers of 1936.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Your picks of 1946 bestselling novels

Well, this is embarrassing. I forgot to post the poll Tuesday.

Since you’ve had extra long to think about which of the 1946 bestsellers you think are best, I’ll expect really good work here.

As always, you can pick up to three novels, and you can add comments in the comments section.

The poll will remain open for a week. (There are always a few slackers who leave everything to the last minute.)

I’ll post my choices for the best of the bestselling novels for 1946 tomorrow, so we get back on schedule.

We’ll start looking at the 1936 bestseller list next week.

@2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Snake Pit still terrifies 70 years later

Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit is a powerful story about mental illness, as terrifying in a quiet way as anything by Stephen King.

The novel takes readers inside the mind of one mentally ill person, Virginia Cunningham.


The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward

Random House, 1946. 278 p. 1946 bestseller #10. My grade: A.


Virginia was living in New York and working on a novel when she began having trouble sleeping.

She recalls saying to her husband “Robert, I think here is something the matter with my head.”

As the novel opens, Virginia doesn’t even know where she is. She thinks she must be in prison doing research for a book, but she isn’t sure.

She wonders if blurred vision is causing her fuzzy thinking, so she asks a nurse for glasses.

“If I’m without them much longer I’ll go crazy,” she says.

When she says crazy out loud, she realizes she has been refusing to acknowledge she is in a mental hospital.

That realization is the beginning of her road back to mental health.

Virginia’s recovery isn’t smooth.

She is given medication, shock treatments, confined in body-temperature baths, moved from ward to ward.

Virginia never knows what caused her problems or why they recede.

She only rarely realizes she is seeing a doctor.

The Snake Pit is a classic. Don’t miss it.

B.F.’s Daughter is old at 70

I suspect the reason B.F.’s Daughter made the bestseller list in 1946 had more to do with post-war malaise than with John P. Marquand’s writing, good as it is.

Though its story seems out-of-date, the novel is still good reading.


 

B.F.’s Daughter by John P. Marquand

Little, Brown, 1946. 439 p. 1946 bestseller #9. My grade: B.


After her wealthy industrialist father dies, Polly Brett goes to Washington where her husband is churning out war propaganda.

She and Tom quarrel.

He goes off, ostensibly to take refuge in his work.

Polly has no trouble meeting men who are also alone in Washington. Although Polly sees a certain attraction in an affair, she backs away.

Then Polly runs into a long-time acquaintance who tells her “nothing matters that happened before the war.”

When Polly learns Tom has a mistress, she begins to feel perhaps her pre-war marriage doesn’t matter.

The characters in this novel are well-drawn, complex people. Contemporary readers may find them old-fashioned—imagine not having sex just out of a sense of personal integrity!—but they are none the less believable individuals.

Today the idea that one simply walks away from an unhappy marriage is taken as a truism rather than an epiphany.

That’s not a criticism of B.F.’s Daughter, but of our culture.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Arch of Triumph dark for refugees on eve of WWII

Arch of Triumph is Erich Maria Remarque’s psychological novel about a German refugee in Paris on the eve of World War II.

Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque

Unable to practice medicine legally after the Gestapo seized his identity papers and tortured him, a once-famous surgeon has fled to Paris. Between deportations, Dr. Ravic performs illegal operations for inept doctors and treats whores in a brothel.


Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque

Walter Sorell & Denver Lindley, trans. D. Appleton-Century, 1945. 455 p.

1946 Bestseller #7. My grade: A. 1946 Bestseller #7. My grade: A.


Ravic drifts into a relationship with singer Joan Madou but remains emotionally dead, a “refugee from everything that is permanent,” including love.

His only hope is for revenge.

Encountering his Gestapo enemy, Ravic kills without regret, but also without satisfaction.

As soon as France declares war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, refugees are packed off to a concentration camp on a night “so dark that one could not even see the Arc de Triomphe.”

But Ravic goes into the darkness carrying his instruments and medicine, telling others, “Don’t be afraid.”

Arch of Triumph is not easy reading.

Remarque deliberately makes readers unravel the characters’ histories: Refugees must conceal themselves.

And the idea of civilians caught in a military operation is gloomy and painful.

In ’39, the German refugee was interned in France. Today, the Syrian refugee is interned in Turkey or Greece.

Same song, different verse.

And that is why Arch of Triumph is still worth reading today.

 © 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Foxes of Harrow not worth digging out

Steven Fox arrives in New Orleans in 1825, broke and friendless.

By his gambling and his good looks, he makes a fortune and buys land, working along side his slaves to make it prosper.


The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby

Dial Press, 1946. 408 p. 1946 bestseller #6. My grade: C-.


Before long Harrow is the greatest plantation in Louisiana, its manor house a gem on the Mississippi.

Steven marries Odalie Orceneaux by whom he has two children.

After her death he marries her sister, Aurore.

And on the side he has a quadroon mistress.

As Harrow grows more prosperous and influential, the South prepares for war. Steven lays aside his anti-secession principles to fight for the South.

In the introduction to The Foxes of Harrow, Frank Yerby makes the glory and ruin of Harrow Plantation almost palpable, but the story never lives up to its setting.

Yerby starts out writing about people in the pre-Civil War South, and ends up writing an historical novel about the South.

The characters, too, are not consistent.

Initially conniving, thieving, self-centered, and cruel, Steven magically becomes loyal, generous, and statesmanlike by the book’s end.

The best thing to be said for The Foxes of Harrow is that it’s better than its sequels.

But it’s no Gone With the Wind.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Hucksters empty tale of empty life

As World War II winds down, Victor Norman resigns his military propaganda job.

A New York ad agency hires him to handle the Beaute Soap account.


The Hucksters by Frederic Wakeman

Rinehart, 1946. 307 p. 1946 bestseller # 5. My Grade: C-.


Beaute Soap CEO Evan Evans, is a cruel, controlling, old coot whose only joy in life (aside from selling soap) is making people’s lives miserable.

Vic finds he loathes advertising and radio.

He’s not particularly interested in money either.

Vic doesn’t really know what he wants.

All goes well until Vic falls for Kay Dorrance, a rich, sexy woman with two children who is waiting for her husband to come home. Vic becomes sugar daddy to the kids and bedfellow to their mother.

Vic wants Kay to divorce her husband and marry him. He’ll need a bigger salary to support her and the kids.

Vic’s need for money gives Evans a way to control him.

Vic sees himself poised to become a huckster like the people around him.

Will he fall?

Will readers care if he does?

Frederic Wakeman’s novel is as much a piece of hucksterism as any commercial.

The plot is complex and subtle as a billboard, the characters no more than billboard-deep.

In fact, if you strung together a series of billboards, you’d have as good a novel as The Hucksters.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Good entertainment on The River Road

Gervais d’Alvery comes home from World War I to marry his sweetheart, Merry Randall, and make his Louisiana sugar plantation profitable again.

Gervais sees state politics as a means of improving the economic climate for planters like himself. His war-hero status, family name, and good looks make him a natural.


The River Road by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Julian Messner, 1945. 747 p. 1946 bestseller #3. My grade: B.


Workers load long stalks of sugar cane on a wagonBy their 10th anniversary, the couple have five children, a huge mortgage, and a none-too-well-hidden secret.

As Gervais tries to resuscitate his family fortunes, other men with less aristocratic origins —and some with far fewer principles — are making their mark in business and politics.

Louisiana in World War II will be far different than in World War I.

In The River Road, Frances Parkinson Keyes displays the story-telling flair that made her one of the top names in fiction in the middle of the last century.

The plot is intricate, but nothing seems extraneous in this well-crafted novel.

The characters are complex individuals. They have annoying foibles as well as some outright flaws, but they are believable, likable human beings.

A few weeks after you close the covers, you’ll have forgotten what The River Road was about,  but while you’re reading, it will give as much pleasure as it did in ’46.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

This Side of Innocence made riveting by unlikeable people

Taylor Caldwell sets This Side of Innocence in the era of bustles and Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, but this odd tale of a dysfunctional family packs all the punch of a Netflix® drama.

Seeking happiness, the characters try the old standbys—sex, fulfilling work, filial duty—and still there’s something missing.


This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell

Scribner’s 1946. 499 p. 1946 bestseller #2 .My grade A-.


After his son opts for a life of profligacy, a widowed banker adopts a cousin, Alfred Lindsey, as his heir.

When it appears Alfred may marry, Jerome comes back to the family home.

Unable to stop Alfred’s marriage, Jerome experiences a sudden desire to go into banking. Soon, he finds he like banking almost as much as he likes Alfred’s wife, Amilie.

When Amilie becomes pregnant by Jerome, Alfred divorces her.

Amilie marries Jerome.

They all live unhappily ever after.

The qualities that put This Side of Innocence on the 1946 bestseller list are untarnished by time.

The unusual plot is peopled by fascinating—though not likable—characters with complex and often confused motives.

Caldwell adds insightful musings on timeless themes like love, integrity, and tact.

The result is a novel with real staying power.

Look for it at your local library.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The King’s General too nasty for lover’s role

The King’s General is an intricate tale of love and suspense told by its heroine.

It’s set against the background of the English Civil War, a series of political and military actions between 1641 and 1651 to determine whether king or parliament would rule the nation.


The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier

Doubleday, 1946. 368 p. 1946 bestseller #1. My grade: C+.


Mounted soldier raises sword against enemy
Hand-to-hand combat, 17th century style.

Honor Harris falls madly in love with Gen. Richard Grenvile, who is attempting to wipe out the Parliamentarians and control England for Charles I.

Crippled in an accident, Honor refuses to marry Richard rather than be a life-long burden to her him.

Richard is furious.

To spite Honor, Richard marries a wealthy woman, but learns too late that he can’t get his hands on the wife’s money. Richard physically abuses her and verbally abuses their son.

When Richard reappears in Honor’s life, she doesn’t turn him away.

Honor’s affair with the King’s general places her entire family in danger.

Although The King’s General has elements to thrill and chill—secret passages, midnight intruders, marauding army deserters, a defenseless woman in a wheelchair—it never manages to do either.

That’s mainly because du Maurier doesn’t make it credible that anyone as nice as Honor could stand Richard Grenvile.

He’s a nasty piece of work in the novel as he was in life.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni