This and the following three posts cover books published in 1954, though they were not necessarily bestsellers. I chose to read these books because they are by authors who interest me or who contributed to the culture in some significant way.
The Ponder Heart, Eudora Welty, Harcourt Brace & World Inc, 1954, 156 pp
Eudora Welty is the antidote to William Faulkner. Each delves into the mind and soul of the South but Welty usually comes up happy and while a Yankee like me might still feel out of place in one of her stories, I wouldn't feel afraid or even baffled.
Uncle Daniel Ponder is perhaps not quite right in the head, perhaps a tinge simple minded, but ultimately lovable. His family was wealthy and Daniel likes to spread that wealth. He is so fond of giving away things and money that he is protected by his loving niece, who claims to be the only one who really understands him. He is also kept in check by the family banker who keeps him on a small allowance.
In a light-hearted comedy of errors, Uncle Daniel outsmarts them all when he marries a 17 year old airhead, who has no trouble spending his money but somehow ends up dead. There is a hilarious trial scene with Uncle Daniel as the accused killer which results in his acquittal but life is never the same again. So in fact the happiness does not last, I suppose it never can in good fiction, but Welty lets you down easy.
A Proper Marriage, Doris Lessing, Simon and Schuster Inc, 1954, 344 pp
A Proper Marriage is the sequel to Martha Quest (1952.) In fact it is the second volume of a series of novels called The Children of Violence. At the end of Martha Quest, she had just married Douggie, a young man from the middle class of English people living in South Africa. As A Proper Marriage opens, Martha and Douggie have just returned from their honeymoon, settled in an apartment, and Martha is learning to be a wife at home while Douggie goes to work.
Soon enough she learns that she is pregnant and while she does not feel ready for a baby and even considers an abortion (it is around 1939!), she is too far along. So she goes thru pregnancy, birth, trying to breastfeed on a schedule with a baby who constantly cries, switches to bottles and watches her daughter grow. It was all so much like what I went through in my first pregnancy and my son's early years. Bored, stuck at home, battles of will, worry about schedules, feeding, naps. God. I thought I was the only one who felt those wild swings from loving my baby completely to feeling I would lose my mind if I had to spend another minute with him.
Then comes the war, Douggie goes off, Martha figures out a bit more about how to balance out her life. Mother, mother-in-law, even girlfriends are no help and Lessing shows that all these women are trying to appear happy and competent while they suffer inside about their identity, wondering what happened to their dreams.
After Douggie returns, things go more and more wrong as Martha decides not to have another baby and gets involved with left-wing activities. Of course, no one approves and when she decides to leave Doug, he descends into all manner of childish and jealous ploys to try to keep her, just like my ex-husband did!
Reading this novel was exhilarating and devastating. I relived my early married life and remembered how tough I had to become even in the late 70s to withstand the censure I got, to figure out how to survive and to suppress how lonely I felt. No other book I've read has so accurately given voice to what I experienced. Doris Lessing is a goddess to me, a beacon of truth and a trail blazer for Western women.
Under the Net, Iris Murdoch, The Viking Press, 1954, 279 pp
This is Iris Murdoch's first novel and the first I have read by her. I was highly anticipating getting started on Murdoch and I was not disappointed. I may be somewhat ignorant of any influences she had as a writer, so to me this novel had a uniqueness about it, though I would say that perhaps Muriel Spark, Zoe Heller and Kate Atkinson were influenced by Iris Murdoch.
Jake is a sort of writer/philosopher who makes his living doing translations. In first person, Jake details his life, which is unstable; his friends, who are all quirky characters; his finances, shaky but never somehow depleted; and his escapades, which are desperate and hilarious at the same time.
Jake is a somewhat worried guy who is fussy about his living arrangements. He relies on the kindness of women but is so self-centered that he can't really love any of them. Throughout the story, he is constantly on the move partly because he has lost his most recent dwelling place and mostly because he is a hyper sort despite his depressive's outlook on life. Wherever he goes, havoc mostly ensues. He attempts several crazy plans and almost always pulls them off which seems to be because he is oblivious of "normal" behavior.
I liked the book and it made me feel free somehow. I marveled at Murdoch's ability to get inside the heads of all the male characters. In fact, the females were rather flat and stereotypical. There is a brilliance in this short novel and I am looking forward to more.
Messiah, Gore Vidal, E P Dutton & Co Inc, 1954, 250 pp
Gore Vidal writes a completely different book every time. Messiah is a sort of literary sci fi. A nondescript guy from Washington State, while working as a mortician's assistant, had a revelation that death is not bad. When he tells people about this, his hypnotic eyes win them over and he gets followers.
He is not a leadership type though, so between an intellectual historian, a PR man, an odd woman who claims to be 2200 years old and knows millionaires plus another female devotee, a major world religion is built.
The intellectual historian tells the story from Luxor, Egypt, where he is in hiding at the end of his life. He had a falling out with the "church" after lots of bad stuff happened and had to get away fast. This is satire of a high order and pretty well done. 1954 saw the rise of Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham as well as television. Vidal just took all that to the limits of "what if" while exploring the tendency to religious fanaticism in our culture.
What is amazing is that Messiah was shocking and titillating in 1954 and now seems rather mild. The other night I saw Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center". As bad as 9/11 was, it was made so much worse by television. Could we lose our religious freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria? You bet.
Black Power, Richard Wright, Harper Brothers, 1954, 351 pp
In a non-fiction account of his visit to the Gold Coast, Africa (now Ghana), Wright covers the history of the slave trade and the current state (circa 1954) of this country. I suppose the book takes its place in the body of literature about Africa which began in the 1940s with Cry the Beloved Country. I am getting a picture from these books of the scene there in the years leading up to the liberation of African countries from their colonial masters.
Wright is quite the intellectual and has come full circle since his autobiographical Native Son, 1940 and his autobiography, Black Boy, 1943. He is a better writer, though Native Son was one powerful novel. In Black Power, he analyzes the effects of the breakup of native tribal culture and the difficulties of making the transition to 20th century Western industrial culture.
I was impressed and intrigued throughout. Wright's descriptions of the jungle, the weather, the tribal rites and the poverty were devastatingly rendered. I was left wondering if mankind was not better off in ancient times when though primitive and superstitious, people lived a more wholistic life somehow. Nature, spirituality, family, community were more aligned it seems, but that may be wishful thinking when looking back from these stressful and spiritually bleak times.
The Greek Passion, Nikos Kazantzakis, Simon & Schuster Inc, 1954, 432 pp
In a small Greek village in the early 1920s, a tradition among the inhabitants is to choose certain residents once every four years to re-enact the Passion of Christ at Easter. These persons are selected a year early so that they may get into character during a year of preparation. Kazantzakis uses this device to show how a corrupt priest, the resident Turkish lord, and other town notables deny the true teachings of Christ while the persons chosen find themselves dramatizing the Passion story in their very lives.
The book starts slowly and I thought it would be a complete slog but the story drew me in. It is much more a political polemic than a religious tale, though the author's Christian views are clearly an influence. The main characters are rich and complex though the writing (at least in translation) is a bit lumpish. The lightheartedness of Zorba the Greek is nowhere in evidence.
I would have to say that while Kazantzakis had a good idea for a story, he didn't quite pull it off.