Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Favorite Read: DODSWORTH by Sinclair Lewis (1885 - 1951)

Until DODSWORTH I hadn't read a Sinclair Lewis book since high school. So, I've read a total of two books by Lewis in my lifetime. Loved one, disliked the other. Yes, I am going to read more Lewis at some point. In high school we read his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, ARROWSMITH, and I wasn't so taken with it probably because I was too young to get what Lewis was doing (and who cared about a Midwestern doctor anyway). I'd originally thought the book was about cowboys and Indians and boy was I victim of disappointment.

I'd seen the film version of DODSWORTH with Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor (as well as David Niven in a very small early role) and loved it. It remains one of my favorite films. Mary Astor is actually sympathetic and likable in her role as 'the other woman'. The screenwriters did a great job adapting the book to film.

Anyway, once I'd seen the movie I decided to read the book but kept putting it off until a couple of years ago when finally I picked up a paperback and began reading. Between you and me I thought I'd find the book boring or hard to get into. But the truth is, I had no problem. 

I know that Sinclair Lewis isn't much appreciated today but that doesn't apply to me. The man won two Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize for Literature in his lifetime, so how bad could he be? Times change. Fashions in reading change. I have a suspicion that the Lewis ennui is due to the fact that the world he wrote about has mostly disappeared. And let's face it, he was not the most razzle-dazzle of writers. Yet, I am more inclined to read Lewis than, say, one of Hemingway's manly little tales.

Back to the book:

Sam Dodsworth is a victim of his own early retirement. He's a millionaire, an automobile magnate, who, at 50 years of age finds himself willing to grow old gracefully, happy with who he is and what he's become. His wife Fran, however, is fighting age tooth and nail. She is a difficult character who really, borders on the satirical. She is much younger than Sam (she stresses the much whenever and wherever she goes) and now that Sam is retired, she want to LIVE life to the fullest, she want to travel and see the world. In a way, you can't blame her. But it's her motivation that's suspect. The woman is so childishly self-centered that you wonder almost immediately what Sam ever saw in her, why he married her. She totally disregards Sam's cheerful acceptance of a life he likes; his dignity and elegance of spirit escape her understanding. (In the film, Walter Huston plays this beautifully.) In fact, she goes out of her way to belittle Sam's quiet good nature in private and in company.

Their two children grown, their daughter Emily married, Sam and Fran finally sail to Europe, despite Sam's misgivings. Yes, he is a bit of a stick-in-the mud, but he is willing to acquiesce to Fran's desires, to make her happy. Despite her obvious faults, he loves her.

As you read further, you begin to realize how desperate Fran is and you slowly realize that Sam feels sorry for her. Aboard ship he indulges her need to be the center of every male attention because he understands she is terrified of growing old. He looks the other way when Fran encourages the attentions of the unattached younger males aboard the ship. He's convinced himself that these are harmless shipboard flirtations. When Fran appears to go too far with one of the young men, Sam reins her in, despite her denials and protestations.

When reading about this marriage, I found it most interesting that I was forever in Sam's camp. I understood Fran's terror at the passing years, but not her complete selfishness and self-absorption. It's obvious that Sam's devotion merely bores her.

Once they arrive in London, Sam tags along after Fran as she spins from one flirtation to another. In Europe she pretends a sophistication she does not possess embarrassing herself as well as Sam as she tries to run away from her middle-class upbringing, her Americanism. In this part of the novel author Lewis makes much of the many differences between the American way of doing things versus the European: two differing outlooks easily misunderstood.

Later, when they arrive in Paris, Sam and Fran grab a cab to their hotel.

He had been accustomed to 'sizing up' American towns;he could look from a Pullman window at Kalamazoo or Titus Center and guess the population within ten per cent. He could, and with frequency he did; he was fascinated by figures of any sort, and for twenty years he had been trying to persuade Fran that there was nothing essentially ignoble in remembering populations and areas and grade-percentages and the average life of tires. He had been able to guess not too badly at the size of British towns; he had not been too greatly bewildered by anything in England, once he was over the shock of seeing postmen in funny hats, and taxicabs with no apparent speed above neutral. But in Paris, as they bumped and slid and darted from the Gare du Nord to their hotel, he could not be certain just what it was that he was seeing.

Fran was articulate enough about it. She half stood up in the taxi, crying, "Oh look, Sam, look! Isn't it adorable! Isn't it too exciting! Oh, the darling funny little zincs! And the Cointreau ads, instead of chewing gum! These bald-faced high white houses! Everybody so noisy, and yet so gay! Oh, I adore it!"

But for Sam it was a motion picture produced by an insane asylum; it was an earthquake with a volcano erupting and a telephone bell ringing just after he'd gone to sleep; it was lightning flashes and steam whistles and newspaper extras and war.

Yes, you grow impatient with Sam's reluctance to enjoy himself, but he is who he is. He is slow to change. Fran's constant impatience with him, her zeal for their surroundings, her forced gaiety is fatiguing - both for Sam and the reader.

When Fran gives in to the attentions of another young man, a minor aristocrat, it is the last straw. A heartbroken Sam has no choice but to give her her an ultimatum. She either comes back home with him or he's leaving without her.

Fran stays in Europe, convinced she's found true love. Sam heads home, disconsolate and alone.

But Fran still hasn't quite released him. She sends letters detailing her new life in Europe. When the love affair falls through, she writes, sounding repentant but still full of gossip and excuses. This is a woman sure of her power, still needing attention, still pretending she's done nothing wrong, apparently not having learned a thing from her mistakes.

Sam decides to head back to Europe and, despite her behavior, to try and bring Fran back with him.

When he had finished her letter from Deauville, he had suddenly grasped something which he had never completely formulated in their twenty-three years of marriage: that she was not in the least a mature and responsible woman, mother and wife and administrator, but simply a clever child, with a child's confused self-dramatizations. The discovery dismayed him. Then it had made him the more tender. His other children, Brent and Emily, did not need him, his child Fran did need him! He thought of her, awaiting him there in Paris as he had thought of her in the uncomplicated days of their courtship.

In Paris, Fran again refuses to give up her friends and her frivolous existence. Clearly Sam's devotion and love are not enough of a lure for her. Finally, they separate once again.

In Italy, Sam hangs around, at loose ends, lonesome for his wife, willing to wait around for her if he must even though they've signed divorce papers. Then at the American Express office in Venice, he meets up with Edith Cortright an attractive woman (played in the film by Mary Astor) who had sailed across from New York on their first trip to Europe and whom he remembers vaguely. They begin talking and, as a fellow American, she invites him to dinner at her small villa.

It is through this friendship that Sam begins to see the possibility of a life without Fran. As they grow closer, he sees that Edith possesses the unique ability to enjoy life as it happens. She is more European than American and her point of view delights Sam. He throws caution to the winds and moves into the villa with her, finally the story seems headed for a happy ending.

But Sam's wife isn't through with him. She poo-poos his involvement with Edith and sends Sam a letter begging his forgiveness and letting him know she's finally going home and will he come with her.

This is a totally engrossing tale of a disintegrating marriage, proving once again that unhappy people are unhappy each in their own fashion. I think Sinclair Lewis also means to say that we each carry within ourselves the capacity for a fairly specific sort of happiness. The last line in the book is both touching and exasperating but very human.

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