Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Miss Lonelyhearts / The Day of the LocustMiss Lonelyhearts / The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This slim volume includes two classic works by Nathanael West, one of the most important American writers of the 1930s, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939). I am curious - not that it is of any importance - why both works are marketed as novels rather than novellas which they clearly are: would it be to increase the sales? Being too old to have time to read regular-sized novels I love novellas but I am guessing that most people prefer longer works. Anyway, two separate mini-reviews:

"Pain, pain, pain, the dull, sordid gnawing, chronic pain of heart and brain."

"Miss Lonelyhearts" is the pseudonym of an advice columnist for a New York paper. Each day he receives many letters from the "sick and miserable, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent", from readers signing themselves as "Desperate, Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned". They all ask for advice what to do about their pain and Miss L. himself gets depressed with the enormity of human suffering. Although he tries various avenues to seek solace and strength to help others - art, love, sex, religion - everything fails and even a deeply spiritual episode he experiences does not bring deliverance. All this is happening with the darkest times of the Great Depression in the background, amidst raging poverty and hopelessness.

It does not sound like a comedy, does it? Yet Miss Lonelyhearts is a black comedy, one of the blackest I have ever read. It is very funny, albeit funny in the same way as the rictus smile on a corpse's face or the jerky dance of muscle convulsions in a person dying a violent death. Not only are we served the full cruelty of human fate, but the author also masterfully manipulates the reader's discomfort in several sickening vignettes, like the cruel sequence of dinner at the Doyles juxtaposed with Miss L's spiritual revelation.

The novella must have been considered a groundbreaking work when it was published 83 years ago. Despite the top-notch dark humor, several virtuoso passages and bravura pieces of writing, we the readers have gotten so accustomed to depictions of human suffering that we may not see anything particularly noteworthy in Miss Lonelyhearts. Yet it is still a very good novella, and I am recommending it highly. By the way, I would love to know what Mr. West meant when he wrote "Mussolini of the soul."

Three and three fourth stars.

"The man in the checked cap was making a fatal error. Mont St. Jean was unfinished. The paint was not yet dry and all the struts were not in place. [...] It was the classic mistake [...], the same one Napoleon had made. Then it had been wrong for a different reason. The Emperor had ordered the cuirassiers to charge Mont St. Jean not knowing that a deep ditch was hidden at its foot to trap his heavy cavalry."

One would hesitate to call The Day of the Locust a comedy, yet it has its share of very black humor as seen in the quote above. This classic book is widely considered the best "novel" about Hollywood, not a much exaggerated claim. The universal (and inexplicable) phenomenon of people's fascination with the world of movies is shown with insight and ridiculed as deserved. The properly sparse plot is well known, partly because of the very good 1975 movie adaptation by John Schlesinger, so I will just mention that the three main characters are Tod Hackett, a young painter employed in a Hollywood studio, Homer Simpson (sic) who came to California on his doctor's advice, and Faye Greener, a beautiful young woman, a forever aspiring actress, with whom most everybody falls in love.

One can view the novella as a series of vignettes, some of them absolutely unforgettable: Homer Simpson watching a lizard trying to catch flies, the drunk dancing scene after the quail hunt and feast, the extremely brutal cockfight sequence, and - of course - the most powerful scene of all, the stampede of movie fans waiting to see the stars at a movie premiere. The madness of thousands of individual people combines to form a powerful tornado that can destroy everything in its path. The novella was published in 1939 and the atmosphere in Europe had undoubtedly influenced the author.

I do not find the male characters particularly convincing - especially Tod does not quite seem a real person. On the other hand, I feel I have known Faye all my life: "[...] she refused his friendship [because] he has nothing to offer her, neither money nor looks, and she could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her." Faye is a tireless manufacturer of cliché dreams; could any occupation be better in Hollywood, the ultimate cliché factory?

One problem I have with the novella is a reflection of my main literary pet peeve: strong dislike of artists explicating the meaning of their work. An artist's work should stand on its own, without any commentary. Books should speak for themselves, without the authors telling us "what they wanted to say." The authors have failed in their job if they feel the need to explain. The Day of the Locust would be an outstanding book if not for four long paragraphs towards the end that crudely clarify "the point." So much great stuff wasted!

Three and a quarter stars.

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