Wednesday, March 23, 2011

{review} the magnificent ambersons

Booth Tarkington The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)

And in his reverie he saw like a pageant before him the magnificence of the Ambersons--its passing, and the passing of the Ambersons themselves. They had been slowly engulfed without knowing how to prevent it, and almost without knowing what was happening to them.
The Magnificent Ambersons won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919. Orson Welles adapted it into (and directed) the 1942 movie of the same name (imdb). The novel has a wonderful and quite unmistakable American voice (as one might hope from a Pulitzer winner). 

The story involves the slow demise of a wealthy American family, the Ambersons, and in particular the actions of the grandson and heir to the once great fortune. George Amberson Minafer is the son of Isabel Amberson and the nondescript Wilbur Minafer. From boyhood, George is spoiled rotten by his mother and grandfather and grows up with the knowledge that he is to be the master of all he surveys. He has no plans but to be a gentleman. However, the world is changing quickly at the end of the nineteenth century and the Ambersons are out of step with the new world of automobiles, factories and expanding cityscapes which swallow their semi-rural suburban paradise in an unnamed Midland city (likely inspired by Indianapolis according to everyone's friend wikipedia). George is aware only of his own needs and desires and has been riding for a fall from boyhood. Everyone he meets swears that he must eventually get his comeuppance. He is certainly a horrid little boy: "there was added to the prestige of his gilded position that diabolical glamour which must inevitably attend a boy who has told a minister to go to hell."

George's father dies and he is taken aback when a parental friend from the past courts his mother. He is obsessed with maintaining the good family name and aghast that this upstart - the sympathetic Eugene who is to make a fortune with 'horseless carriages' - should couple his name with that of the Ambersons. 
He saw little essential difference between thirty-eight and eighty-eight, and his mother was to him not a woman but wholly a mother. He had no perception of her other than as an adjunct to himself, his mother; nor could he imagine her thinking or doing anything--falling in love, walking with a friend, or reading a book-- as a woman, and not as his mother.
But George is also in love with Eugene's beautiful daughter Lucy. When George intervenes in his mother's courtship, tragedy is not far away, and he has to learn a number of difficult lessons - including losing everything - in the gaining of his promised comeuppance. 
...as he saw her, thus close at hand, and coming nearer, a regret that was dumfounding took possession of him. For the first time he had the sense of having lost something of overwhelming importance.
I loved The Magnificent Ambersons. The narrator's voice is so striking (Orson Welles took this role in the film) and the verbal pictures of the passing of time in the Midland town ("For, as the town grew, it grew dirty with an incredible completeness.") are vivid and lively:
...the "aesthetic movement" had reached thus far from London, and terrible things were being done to honest old furniture. Maidens sawed what-nots in two, and gilded the remains. They took the rockers from rocking-chairs and gilded the inadequate legs; they gilded the easels that supported the crayon portraits of their deceased uncles. In the new spirit of art they sold old clocks for new, and threw wax flowers and wax fruit, and the protecting glass domes, out upon the trash-heap. They filled vases with peacock feathers, or cattails, or sumac, or sunflowers, and set the vases upon mantelpieces and marble- topped tables. They embroidered daisies (which they called "marguerites") and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and owls and peacock feathers upon plush screens and upon heavy cushions, then strewed these cushions upon floors where fathers fell over them in the dark. In the teeth of sinful oratory, the daughters went on embroidering: they embroidered daisies and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and owls and peacock feathers upon "throws" which they had the courage to drape upon horsehair sofas; they painted owls and daisies and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and peacock feathers upon tambourines. They hung Chinese umbrellas of paper to the chandeliers; they nailed paper fans to the walls. They "studied" painting on china, these girls; they sang Tosti's new songs; they sometimes still practiced the old, genteel habit of lady-fainting, and were most charming of all when they drove forth, three or four in a basket phaeton, on a spring morning.
The characters in The Magnificent Amberson are marvellously drawn. I love George's lovelorn aunt Fanny who sets him off on the path to disaster. And George's characterisation is spot-on. He is stubborn as a mule even when he dimly perceives that he may have been wrong:
He would not have altered what had been done: he was satisfied with all that--satisfied that it was right, and that his own course was right.
A quintessential American classic.

Rating: 10/10
I read this on my Kindle, free from manybooks.net (a really useful and well-organised site). It was a Project Gutenberg text originally.

Worst drink ever? "'Please let me have a few drops of aromatic spirits of ammonia in a glass of water,' she said, with the utmost composure."
 
If you liked this... hmmm. American voices? I'm going to take the plunge and read Henry James' What Maisie Knew (1897).

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