Sunday, January 31, 2010

Top 100 Books - #100: The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. 1918, 520 pages.


So last night I finished up The Magnificent Ambersons a little after one, and then spent about 90 minutes wringing out a rather wordy reaction to it, before recalling—with my cursor hovering over the "publish" button—that I am not a book critic.

I think this little project of mine will go a lot more smoothly for both of us, Blogreader, if I confine myself to my own experiences with the book, rather than 100 somewhat disjointed book reports. After all, this project was never intended to be a cosmic make-up exam for all the book reports I failed to complete in school.



Honestly, that was my main thought when I decided to tackle this list. To color it in a bit, you should imagine me saying that with a sideways grin and a pirate's glint in my eye.

I love books, of course. I've been reading since before I can remember, and I have some pretty old memories. I have spent most of my life voraciously devouring anything readable in my path. But a curious thing happened a couple of years ago when I made the conscious decision to write: I all but stopped reading at the same time. I just sort of fell out of the habit. At first, I suspect it was because I was struggling to find my voice, and didn't want a bunch of other voices clouding me as I did so, but even when I stopped writing, I only read actual books occasionally. This made me a bit sad.

The list is not only my way back into my blog, but also a rekindling of a lifelong passion.


The Magnificent Ambersons, it turns out, is only barely in print. Unable to locate a copy that was less than $15, and being quite cash-poor at the moment, I was pretty delighted to find a scanned copy for free over at Google Books. I was a bit daunted as well, as I've never attempted to read a book on my laptop before. At 520 pages, Ambersons promised a lot of quality time with glasses and screen.

It was not, frankly, an experience I would like to repeat. I like the feel of a book, and the fact that I can move it around, move myself around while reading it. I like that I cannot check my email on it, or read what various people are making for dinner on Facebook. I'm certainly no Luddite, but a good old analog book makes a world of sense to me.

I'm not sure how long it took me to plow through The Magnificent Ambersons. It was 520 pages, sure, but some rather generous typesetting leads me to conclude it would be less than half that under normal, contemporary publishing rules. I took quite a few breaks to do other things, and each new pair of pages took a few seconds to fully resolve, and I still managed to get through in far less than 12 hours. My guess is about four or five hours of concentrated reading.

I had no preconceptions heading in. Like a handful of others on the Top 100 list, it was one I had no real awareness of before I sat down to read it. I had some foggy recollections of a film version floating around in my head, but nothing to do with plot or characters or even when it had originally been published. (The film version, it turns out, was an Orson Welles Joint [as I believe he called his works] from 1942 which would have also been on my Top 100 Films list had I opted for the list from 1998 rather than the one from 2007.)

I hoped, of course, that our Ambersons were going to be a troupe of trapeze performers or magicians or something (perhaps with a mischevious pet monkey?), but instead found rather quickly that they are the richest family in a town which is already, in the opening lines, threatening to become a city.

Tarkington wastes no time establishing that the Ambersons are...uh...magnificent. He cleverly uses that word or a variation no fewer than four times in his opening paragraph, even while he is qualifying the term and explaining that such things are relative. Then he ditches his charges and goes on about fashion styles and buildings and popular songs for a while.

The opening, largely Amberson-less chapter contains some lovely, wryly humorous odes to the town. It also contains the first of several passages which are not especially kind to anyone with a different skin tone or national origin. I won't dwell on this, as the book came out in 1918, and it's hardly fair to judge such passages by the standards of today. They were a bit distracting when they did crop up, but largely because they pop up out of nowhere from time to time and have virtually nothing to do with the main plot.

There is a dark mirror of the opening passage much later in the book, where we once again leave the Ambersons for a bit and see what happens to the town over the passage of some time. These sections, although powerful, pulled me right out of the book. Suddenly, the narrator has all sorts of opinions about everything, which is a sharp contrast to the main body of the book. And since his opinions coincide with our protagonist, who is also clearly our antagonist, it felt like a bit much.

I'm sure there's something interesting that I haven't quite caught in the fact that almost none of the major characters in the book still carry the name "Amberson." George and his mother are Ambersons by blood, but their last name is Minafer. I kind of took this, in addition to all the opening magnificence-qualifying, as a sign that the inevitable downhill run of our poor Ambersons begins long before that mansion has a chance to decay.

Also, as a side note: If you are writing a book with exactly six main characters—three men and three women—try not to name two of the men George. It's just creating problems for yourself. Especially in a book with "Ambersons" right there in the title, when your main George is a Minafer and the secondary George is named George Amberson. I dunno. Just seems like an odd choice.

So anyway: Main George is sort of a prick in his callow youth and there are many in the town, we are told repeatedly, who would like nothing more than to see him receive his comeuppance. I have to count Tarkington among those rooting against George to some degree, as the plot which unfolds involves him growing up and making some pretty horrible decisions over the course of a couple of impetuous days. He imagines himself as Hamlet in one of the darker passages late in the book, attempting to project some nobility on his actions, which will end up costing most of our characters—including himself—any chance they had for happiness.


Yeah. Spoiler alert, I guess. The book is nearly a century old, though, so I don't feel cripplingly bad about it.


I had some problems with the characterizations. Many of them are a bit two-dimensional, acting within their prescribed attributes and possessing no others. But this is a town, or a world, or a time when all of the characters have met the only person they will ever love romantically before they turn 20, and nothing that ever happens in their lives can alter these original loves. Which implies pretty strongly that none of them are capable of any change in other areas either, except by force, which happens to Main George late in the book. That most of the dialogue is of the "I shall now proclaim to you the things that I currently think and feel" variety doesn't help. I want to peg a lot of this on the time in which the book was written, but given that Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain all came before Tarkington, and never seemed to have much trouble creating characters that have the power to feel real and move me, I can't blame all of it on the times.

At its heart, The Magnificent Ambersons is about a boy who learns far too late how to be a man. Indeed, once he has burned down the lives of more than a few of our main characters, he is still stubbornly committed to his belief that he has acted rightly. It is only years later, once the family fortunes are revealed to be so much quicksilver in a nest of cracks (to borrow a phrase from the book), that he engages himself to take care of his aunt and assume responsibility for something beyond his own whims.

Or possibly, the book is about the gradual decay of a statue of Neptune. Or it could be about how unbelievably dirty cities are, and how they tinge and destroy the beauty of formerly great Midwestern towns, erasing the names of those who built it in the first place and replacing them with foreigners and strangers. Mr Tarkington makes it plain that much of the "progress" that came about near the turn of the century—when automobiles began to replace horses with their dirty, dirty dirtiness and their noisy noises—is just another knife plunged into the wholesome and decent world that certainly existed up until then. Except, of course, that—aside from the narrator, who clearly believes this to be the case—the only one who seems to be on that side of the argument is our petulant man-child hero-villain.


So, yeah: a bit of a mixed bag. It was a brisk enough read. There was quite a bit roiling underneath the main narrative which seemed contradictory to me, but, for what it was, I found I enjoyed the ride. Overall, I'd probably give it a solid C.

The "reading on a laptop" aspect was a bit distracting. I also had no idea how many pages were left, which proved a bit of a drag in the last hundred pages, when the end of every chapter felt for all the world like the book was over, and then I'd click to be sure, and...nope. Yeah, I could have scrolled down to see how many pages there were, but I was so sure I was close to the end that I didn't bother.

I feel like I probably missed a lot of stuff in this one, which may have been partially due to my own eagerness to get started on the project without a clear understanding of what it is, exactly, I am doing. The idea of getting a book read and posted served as both a motivator and a distraction in this instance.

There was a lot of very good stuff in this book, and I suspect my writing mostly about the aspects I didn't buy into or enjoy stems from feeling like I didn't really get this one. The mere fact that it's provoking a lot of thought is a decent sign that the book was a success, and I do not begrudge it its Pulitzer or anything.


I expect I will get better at this as I progress, but please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments if there was something you would have liked me to touch on, or something you would have preferred I didn't bother with. Not promising I will take all suggestions, of course, but I'll certainly read them and ponder them.


Tarkington was from Indianapolis, which is almost certainly the town he's describing in this book. My only exposure to Tarkington before this was references from Kurt Vonnegut, also from Indianapolis, who seemed to truly admire Tarkington. Between this fact and my own shaky grasp of the book I just read, I think it is quite likely that I might revisit this book later in the project.


Next up is #99, J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, which was apparently banned in the U.S. when first published in 1955. From what I can glean from the back cover, it seems to be a "wildly funny" bawdy romp through postwar Ireland, which sounds about as different from The Magnificent Ambersons as I might hope. There seems to be a dearth of humorous novels on the list in general, so I'll be trying to embrace the levity when I can.


Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

Yes, your post is long! But very good take on the Ambersons. It is not a book that has aged well, in my opinion.

I found your blog when looking for bloggers reading the books on the Modern Library list. This list inspired me to start my Rose City Reader blog, so I like finding book bloggers with similar interests.

If you would like me to link to your ML progress reports on my main Modern Library post, please leave a comment with the link and I will add it to the list.

Also, if I have reviewed any of the ML books, there are links to my reviews in my main post and I will add a link to your review if you leave a comment with the link on my review (does that make sense?).

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