One of the stranger aspects of An American Tragedy is that Clyde Griffiths, in every scene in the book he is featured, measures himself and his worth against every person in proximity. Clyde lacks confidence and fortitude, and his primal instinct is to know who can help or hurt him. It’s a disturbing trait and it gets more frightening the more it happens, and it happens all the time. Madness! I’m 25% done with An American Tragedy and Clyde’s personality is going to do him in; I know enough about the book without having read it, but I’m glad to be reading this now, for despite its flaws it is a terrifying novel.
I don’t recommend reading two novels at once, but it can be done if the novels are drastically different from one another, separated by what normally separates books; tone, style, setting and characters. The two novels I’m reading at the moment both feature young men on the make who commit murder, and that’s the only thing they have in common.
I’m a third done with Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, and I’m reading a chapter a day in the morning. The Richard Howard translation is flawless, and it’s a novel I could complete over a long weekend if I wanted to–it reads easy and smartly and moves fast as a book with 200,000 words can move.
In the evening I’m reading Dreiser’s 300,000 word novel An American Tragedy, an American novel, written in a not-smooth style of the 1920s. The novel concerns the fate of young Clyde Griffiths, a child of wayward preachers who looks to get past penury and make a place for himself in the glamorous set, a set he sees up close in hotel and club rooms where he is a bellboy, an outsider. Tragedy’s prose is clunky but it’s not badly written, and I’m getting through it quickly.
- Nothing goes right for Calman; his kid is a brat, Clara treats him like shit. Finally he packs up and leaves and heads off to live in piety with Jochanan.
- Clara hooks up with Lipkin, one of Ezriel’s buddies, and gets pregnant by him. He wants nothing to do with Clara. Her father upbraids her, but there’s nothing he can do; Calman signed over his business affairs to his son-in-law Joel.
- Chapter 3 features lots of young people in conversation about the future, politics and religion. Ezriel is the focal point–strange how most of the Jacoby daughters are now minor characters compared to their husbands, but still they loom large, especially Miraim who remains outcast.
- Singer’s good with the shift in perspective of the young. The prose is more lively and deals with harsh matters harshly, not the calm tones of Calman when he was on the upswing.
- 50 pages left
- Calman’s wife Zelda dies, his daughters have all moved out and on
- Clara, daughter of one of Calman’s competitors, makes a flirty play for Calman.
- Miriam’s eloping with Lucian shames Calman, the town starts gossiping about him.
- Felicia, the Count’s daughter, marries a doctor
- Calman and Clara marry in a weird ceremony in Warsaw
- big hubub when the rabbi dies; Jochanan gets the gig after playing that he didn’t want it.
- Calman’s blown away by his new wife’s freewheeling nature, that she dances with other men, that she’s about as pious as a prostitute.
- a multi-character two-family saga, principally that of Calman Jacoby and his 4 daughters
- 1863 Poland, a Polish uprising against Russia has been crushed.
- Jews now admitted into cities; Calman takes over lease of a manor that belonged to the Count
- The Count was sent to Siberia; his son was one of the failed revolutionaries, now in hiding
- Miriam is best-realized daughter; falls in love with the Count’s son and elopes to Paris
- Other daughters marry Jews; Ezriel gets enlightenment bug, likes secular books, goes to Warsaw to study
- lots of good description of nature and business and celebrations. And food
- Lots of silly jokes, good with minor details of minor characters (drivers, cooks, maids)
- a reader is always aware of non-Jews discussing/observing Jews. Not heavy-handed, more matter-of-fact