Sunday, February 3, 2013
Pultizer Project: Dragon's Teeth
When the novel opens, the Roaring Twenties are winding down and Lanny is pacing nervously in the waiting room of a French hospital while anticipating the birth of his first child. Other than anxiety about the ordeal his wife is experiencing, he seemingly doesn't have a care in the world. The son of a wealthy American gun manufacturer, he's spent most of his life in Europe. His mother, a beautiful socialite, apparently left his father to live with a French artist when Lanny was quite young. As a result, Lanny is far more cosmopolitan than the typical American. He's fluent in multiple languages and has also been fortunate enough to move in social circles where he became acquainted with some of the leading intellectuals and political figures of the time. Several times in the novel, for example, Lanny mentions having been present as a staff aide at the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, no doubt because of his language skills.
The novel is vague about how Lanny spent the decade between the Versailles negotiations and his first child's birth, but somewhere along the line he did manage to acquire an extremely wealthy wife. Lanny's father is well-to-do; Lanny's wife is a multimillionaire, the equivalent of a Vanderbilt. The marriage had apparently been semi-arranged by mutual friends. The courtship period was brief, the marriage sudden, and the pregnancy completely unplanned. Nonetheless, when the book opens, they're happy. They're infatuated with each other and overjoyed at being new parents. They're both content to drift contentedly, one day running into another on the French Riviera. The only annoyance for Irma is that Lanny has "Red" tendencies. Politically, he's a socialist and supports a worker's school in the town where they live in the south of France. Irma flat out doesn't want to be bothered with politics. She doesn't want to think about political theories, she doesn't want to hear about downtrodden workers, and for sure she doesn't want anything to interfere with her continuing to live the life she's always enjoyed, a life that includes lots of parties and designer gowns and someone else being available to diaper the baby. Her idea of the perfect life is one that revolves around associating with the "smart set" and not worrying at all about petty details like just how much the maids are getting paid.
As for Lanny, although he's enjoying married life, he finds himself becoming increasingly bored and restless. He doesn't like the idea of living off his wife's money -- he wants to be an art dealer, even if it's just to sell his dead stepfather's old painting. He'd also like to spend more time hanging out with musicians and intellectuals playing good music and arguing political theory. He fears he may be what his less affluent socialist friends would consider a parasite, a useless slacker who's contributing nothing to society.
Things continue to drift amiably for a year or two, although there are intimations of bad things to come. Lanny and Irma travel to Berlin to visit Lanny's sister's in-laws, a wealthy Jewish family. Lanny is worried about the increasing influence of Hitler and the Nazis -- he's read Mein Kampf so has a clear idea of how Hitler feels about a number of subjects -- but everyone he talks with scoffs at the notion that Hitler could ever achieve any real power. Besides, even if he did, the wealthy classes in Germany, both the industrialists and the landed gentry, would keep him in line. Because of Lanny's connections and his expertise in art, he eventually is granted the honor of private meetings with the Fuhrer as well as socializing with Goering and Goebbels. Goering even invites Lanny to spend a weekend hunting with him at Goering's Bavarian lodge. The more he sees, the more worried he becomes, and he urges Johannes Rabinowicz (his sister's father-in-law) to take steps to protect himself. Persecution of the Jews has begun, but Johannes believes his wealth and his connections will protect him.
He's wrong, of course, and the second half of the book focuses on Lanny's attempts to help Johannes and his family. At the same time, the evidence is mounting that his wife is a shallow bitch who doesn't care about anyone but herself, although Lanny doesn't recognize that fact nearly as quickly as readers will. When she refuses to believe the Nazis are as bad as Lanny says, he ascribes her disbelief to her basic goodness rather than the fact she simply doesn't want to bothered with anything that doesn't revolve around her. If it was up to Irma, Johannes and his entire family could go to the ovens and she wouldn't blink an eye. She views his concern about people he's been friends with for many years as an inexplicable irritation -- after all, why should he care about them when they're just Jews? I kept hoping Lanny would wake up, smell the coffee, and DTMFA, but it didn't happen in this book. [I may read the next one in the series just in the hopes of seeing the two of them in divorce court.]
The book ends shortly after the Night of Long Knives, the bloody purge of Ernst Roehm and his Brown Shirt followers from the Nazis. By then, Lanny has seen enough of the inside workings of the Nazis to know that there is no way he can avoid doing everything he can to help German Jews, Socialists, and other victims of persecution escape from Germany. Irma, in contrast, is dismayed that Lanny won't drop his silly interest in helping other people and pay attention to her and her alone.
One of the intriguing things about the book was seeing some of the parallels between events in the 1930s and the tactics and language employed by the extreme right-wing today. Back in the 1930s, the Nazis kept hammering away at Jews and other non-Aryans as being the cause of all of Germany's problems until eventually enough of the populace bought it and then when the atrocities began, no one objected too loudly. Today Mexicans and Muslims get demonized, and too many people believe the lies -- Mexicans are stealing jobs or all Muslims are terrorists. Under Hitler, workers had their union rights stripped and anyone who tried to organize labor was called an enemy of the state and sent to a concentration camp. We're not imprisoning labor leaders now, but one by one all the workers' rights are being erased. The right wing in the U.S. is trying to do incrementally what Hitler did in one fell swoop, but of course Hitler had an advantage -- he was a charismatic leader who believed his own propaganda.
When Sinclair talks about people not believing what's happening even when it's right in front of them, he could be writing today. Through the character of Lanny, he describes it being clear to any intelligent observer that Hitler and a number of his cronies were batshit crazy and should have been in asylums rather than running for political office, but no one was willing to believe that someone with such a public profile could actually mean what he was saying. The politicians in other countries all scoff at warnings about Hitler. They discount it as "just campaign rhetoric" and "once he's in office, he'll tone it down." We all know how well that worked out.
Although Sinclair was a prolific writer, this was the first of his novels that I'd read. When I think of Upton Sinclair I usually remember what might be his most famous (as well as one of his earliest) work, The Jungle, which was based on his own experiences as a muckraking journalist working incognito in meatpacking plants in Chicago. I've never read The Jungle -- it's one of those books that is a little too famous. I have no burning desire to read graphic descriptions of the disgusting stuff that occurs in abattoirs, especially in the days before regulation and USDA inspections. Having read Dragon's Teeth, however, I may go looking for some of Sinclair's other books. Dragon's Teeth was definitely readable.
Next up on the list is another author and book I'd never heard of until I started this project: Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin. It's another obscure winner; there is no summary on Wikipedia, although there are reviews on Amazon.