Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington


Booth Tarkington is another double Pulitzer like Marquand who has dropped into obscurity. Though I have read only The Magnificent Ambersons (pub. 1918) his sepia oval portraits seem more Victorian than they ought to be. As you might expect there is no tumult in the knickerbockers or bother in the bustle of his upper class dramatis personae though there is intimation of genteel blenching and the manly firmness of jaw. That’s just a surface which is a challenge to the artist’s depiction of a profound Oedipal drama. George Amberson Minafer adores his mother who having produced him stopped, knowing that such perfection was not to be exceeded. The Minafer that she married is a mini-vir, a good grey little man who works in business of an unspecified sort. The man she might have married is Eugene (well born) Morgan who fell through a bass fiddle under the influence and fell out with Isabel Amberson, Mother Machree. He comes back 20 years later as an inventor and a developer of the snorting monster, the horseless carriage. With such adventurous competition in the vicinity Minafer pere does the decent thing; he dies. Minafer fils who paid no attention much to his father which he lived now finds himself the guardian of his mother’s honour. Greek drama is broad.

By way of gender equality there is an Electra, Lucy Morgan, daughter of the inventor, who is his housekeeper ever since her mother died. She sees clearly (Lucis) what George is, a monster of family pride and bumptious as a rook, yet she loves for he is a handsome lad with a gallant side to him. When it is brought to his attention by his scheming aunt, the sister of his late father, that Eugene Morgan is courting his mother, George is willing to cast his love for Lucy aside to protect his mother from scandal and the unspeakable.

Those are the deeps of the novel, the surface is light, witty and mocks the pretensions of the late Victorian moneyied classes, not real gold but gilded to a good depth. The capers of George who is a spoiled brat aren’t hated because both you and the author share the knowledge that the longed for comeuppance must happen. How it does I found quite realistic and you share or are tempted to the view that there is something to good old stock.

Certain social aspects may grate on the modern and one gets the sense that whatever was the reason that the Civil War was fought liberation of the ‘darky’ was not a major factor in it. A genial patronising which might be worse than outright contempt pervades their mention.

They have passed, those darky hired-men of the Midland town; and the introspective horses they curried and brushed and whacked and amiably cursed—those good old horses switch their tails at flies no more. For all their seeming permanence they might as well have been buffaloes—or the buffalo lap robes that grew bald in patches and used to slide from the careless drivers' knees and hang unconcerned, half way to the ground. The stables have been transformed into other likenesses, or swept away, like the woodsheds where were kept the stove-wood and kindling that the "girl" and the "hired-man" always quarrelled over: who should fetch it. Horse and stable and woodshed, and the whole tribe of the "hired-man," all are gone. They went quickly, yet so silently that we whom they served have not yet really noticed that they are vanished.

It’s a good novel. An American classic with Greek forbears.

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