While painting the Dorgone River Valley landscape, Richard Graham encounters a witch-like old woman who looks like a portrait by Goya. He accepts the Comtesse de Lomoudrie’s invitation to come to tea and bring his wife.
On the way, Richard and Jill visit a cemetery where one grave, that of Marthe Ludérac, stands isolated from the rest.
The Old Countess by Anne Douglas Sedgwick.
Grosset & Dunlap, 1927. 373 pp. 1927 bestseller #9. My grade: B+.
At the Manoir, they find Mme. Lomoudire’s landlady is also a Marthe Ludérac. She’s the daughter of the woman in the lonely grave.
Jill, sensitive to suffering, feels sorry for the Countess, but knows instinctively that Marthe needs her as a friend.
Richard agrees to paint the Countess’s portrait to get a chance to see Marthe, which puts him in conflict with the jealous countess, his wife, and the attracted but self-controlled Marthe.
Anne Douglas Sedgwick portrays the four characters using tiny dabs of facts, details, and emotions. Jill and Marthe are straightforward, caring and incredibly good people; Richard and the Countess are manipulative and selfish and nasty.
Gradually the tiny bits add up to a crisis.
The atmosphere of The Old Countess is creepy, the plot contrived, the characters too all-of-a-piece to be believable.
And without a pretty good command of French, readers will miss much of the story.
Many novelists have written about what it takes for a writer to become good enough to create art.
In Work of Art, Sinclair Lewis attempts, with minimal success, to turn that familiar plot on end.
Ora Weagle aspires to be a renowned — and rich— Master Artist. He sees himself as too talented to need to learn anything.
Ora ends up pandering to a public that can’t recognize either quality or plagiarism.
As a teen, Ora’s older brother, Myron, seems to have no aspirations at all. He goes to school and does whatever is needed around the rural hotel their parents run.
Unsure what he wants to do with this life, Myron asks a traveling salesman if hotels are a good business. J. Hector Warlock paints a vivid picture of the importance of hotels and the vast learning hotel-keeping requires.
Myron is inspired.
He will work to become a Master Hotel Keeper.
Unfortunately, Lewis doesn’t make Myron’s story inspirational. Heaping sarcasm on the rubes who fail to appreciate the quality of Myron’s meals, beds, and service doesn’t make readers value the man more.
Myron appears to readers as he appears to Ora: hardworking but boring.
Lewis fails to to prove that any job done superbly is a work of art.
Work of Art
By Sinclair Lewis
Doubleday, Doran, 1935
1934 Bestseller #6
My grade: B-
Photo credit: Going, Going, Gone by kmg
In a first class compartment of a night train into Paris, a standoffish youth in common Russian clothes attracts attention. The following day, one of the passengers, Ned Blake, runs into the lad again. Thinking the lad too inexperienced to be left on his own, Ned offers to show him Paris.
Ned and Max become chums, despite the difference in their ages and outlooks. Intelligent readers realize almost immediately that Max is really the run-away Russian Princess Davorska, though Ned never has a clue.
Max says he has come to Paris seeking fame as an artist. Ned warns, “Failure may be cruel, but success is crueller still.”
Is Ned right? Will fame be cruel to Max?
Readers never find out.
Katherine Cecil Thurston takes the novel in a quite different direction.
Instead of presenting Max as ambitious artist, she presents Max as an emotionally scared victim of an abusive husband, posing as a male to avoid a physical relationship with a man.
But Thurston also has Max willingly strolling arm in arm with Ned, spending hours with him. That’s not the behavior of a man-hater. Nor is Ned’s failure to recognize Max is a female the behavior of the observant man Thurston made him out to be in the opening chapter.
In the end Max turns out to unsatisfactory as a love story and equally unsatisfactory as feminist propaganda.