Tuesday, 10 February 2015

So Big by Edna Ferber

So Big by Edna Ferber is a sly and duplicitous book. It subverts by a studied ambiguity the values of the religion of beauty and art for art’s sake. Selina claws out of the vile clay of a failing truck farm a good living and can send her son Dirk to college and then to Architecture school. Just post the Kaiser war there was little building in Chicago and the firm that he works for keeps him at mere draughting. The other woman, Paula, who rejected Dirk for a rich banker regrets her decision. Her relationship with Dirk is founded on her money loving character, natured and nurtured because Daddy is a world size meat-packer. Using her influence she gets Dirk who is malleable into the bond sales racket. His handsome solidity makes him a natural and before long his cleanly limbs are English tailored. Anglophile America is mocked and the native born flapper is filleted in this book. Fox hunting is taken up by the North Shore gilderatti but the men won’t wear the scarlet coat. When Ferber allows herself to point her pencil she’s better than the pastel crayon of sentiment that pinks the sunset over the prairie.

Selina’s late husband a stolid, phlegmatic Dutchman one of the many of that truckfarming area just outside of Chicago is the other element of Dirk’s genetic inheritance. Selina’s father was a gamblin’ man with a taste for the finer things of life that he indulged when he was in ‘velvet’. This was the era of genetic science and determinism and it is taken for granted that it will out except for rare mutations. Such is Roelf the son of the Pooles with whom Selina lodges during her time as a school marm. His artistic flair makes him run away to study art in Paris (France). Rather unrealistically all the artists in this book after an initial garret tempering become famous and successful. Dallas O’Hara from Texas is the love out of reach for Dirk the Bond-wallah. She’s the free spirit who finances her higher art with advertising illustrations which run to $1500 a pop. There’s an Indian english word for transparent fantasy - ‘filmy’. Hollywood has made two versions of this book but I do not by that suggest that it is any sort of trash. It’s quite well written and at 215 pages prior to steriod enhanced Americana and one is grateful for shorter mercy. Tart at her best -
'It's terrible," she said. "I think there ought to be a Movement for the proper pronunciation. The people ought to be taught; and the children In the schools. They call Goethe Street 'Gerty'; and pronounce all the s's in Des Plaines. Even Illinois they call 'Illiwois' She was very much In earnest. Her breast rose and fell. She ate her salad rapidly. Dirk thought that large blondes oughn't to get excited. It made their faces red.

On Flappers and typists:
BETWEEN these girls and the girls that worked in his office there existed a similarity that struck and amused Dirk. He said, "Take a letter, Miss Roach," to a slim young creature as exquisite as the girl with whom he had danced the day before; or ridden or played tennis or bridge. Their very clothes were faultless imitations. They even used the same perfume. He wondered, idly, how they did it. They were eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and their faces and bodies and desires and natural equipment made their presence in a business office a paradox, an absurdity. Yet they were capable, too, in a mechanical sort of way. Theirs were mechanical jobs. They answered telephones, pressed levers, clicked buttons, tapped typewriters, jotted down names. They were lovely creatures with the minds of fourteen-year-old children. Their hair was shining, perfectly undulated, as fine and glossy and tenderly curling as a young child's. Their breasts were flat, their figures singularly sexless like that of a very young boy. They were wise with the wisdom of the serpent. They wore wonderful little sweaters and flat babyish collars and ridiculously sensible stockings and oxfords. Their legs were slim and sturdy. Their mouths were pouting, soft, plnk,
the lower lip a little curled back, petal-wise, like the moist mouth of a baby that has just finished nursing. Their eyes were wide apart, empty, knowledgeous. They managed their private affairs like generals. They were cool, remote, disdainful. They reduced their boys to desperation. They were brigands, desperadoes, pirates, taking all, giving little. They came, for the most part, from sordid homes, yet they knew, in some miraculous way, all the fine arts that Paula knew and practised. They were corsetless, pliant, bewildering, lovely, dangerous. They ate lunches that were horrible mixtures of cloying sweets and biting acids yet their skin was like velvet and cream. Their voices were thin, nasal, vulgar; their faces like iiiose in a Greuze or a Fragonard. They said, with a twang that racked the listener, *'I wouldn't of went if I got an Invite but he could of give me a ring, anyways. I called him right. I was sore."

I like ‘knowledgeous’. This is a good read which won a Pulitzer in 1925 when ‘wholesome’ was part of the criterion for consideration but there’s an outsider’s mockery there too that arose out, and I speculate here, of her Jewish alertness. Selina’s pert nose and her ‘Mayflower’ physiognomy is mentioned more often than strictly necessary . I recommend it as an example of how working within constraints can develop nuances and counter-stories in fiction.

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