Friday, September 19, 2014

World’s End by Upton Sinclair

The education of Lanny Budd
In the 1940s, Upton Sinclair wrote an immensely popular series of eleven novels starring Lanny Budd. Lanny, the son of an American arms manufacturer, is born and raised in Europe, where he receives a cosmopolitan upbringing that leaves him well-versed in foreign languages, fine arts, and the leisure activities of the rich and famous. Throughout the series, Lanny not only witnesses but participates in many major historical events during and between the two World Wars. Along the way he interacts with many famous celebrities and important political figures. Through the life and adventures of Lanny, the series provides readers with an in-depth examination of early 20th-century world history, as viewed through Sinclair’s liberal lens. World’s End, published in 1940, is the first novel in the series. It covers Lanny’s adolescence during World War I.

When we first meet Lanny, he is at a boarding school in Switzerland studying, of all things, modern dance. When not in school he lives with his mother, Beauty Budd, on the French Riviera, just down the road from Cannes. His parents are divorced. His father, Robbie Budd, head salesman for the family munitions business, makes frequent visits to Europe on business. Like many young men, Lanny is trying to find himself. He can’t decided whether to follow his father in the family business, or to chart a course of his own. He spends many of the early chapters traveling around Europe with his mother and her jet-setting friends. Then World War I breaks out and rains on everyone’s parade.

I had heard great things about the Lanny Budd series—Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells were big fans—but I was a little disappointed with this first installment. I think much of the problem lies in the fact that Lanny is a teenager, so the novel must occupy itself with adolescent concerns, like learning the facts of life, losing one’s virginity, and coming to terms with the responsibilities of impending adulthood. Sinclair somehow manages to make even World War I seem boring by concentrating too much on the exploits of Beauty’s rich socialite friends. One wise choice the author makes is making Lanny’s two best friends from school a Brit and a German, thereby providing three differing perspectives on the war. Also to the book’s benefit, Lanny gains an awareness that his privileged upbringing is not the norm, and he starts to develop a consciousness of class issues. He begins to consider the merits of socialism vs. capitalism, which of course is the major theme running through Sinclair’s life’s work. Famous figures stop by for brief appearances: Anatole France, Isadora Duncan, Lawrence of Arabia, Lincoln Steffens, not to mention all the important heads of state. Only in the book’s final third does it live up to expectations in its coverage of world affairs, as it examines the peace conferences that followed World War I, and the wheeling and dealing in the future of nations that occurred there. Still, those pertinent scenes are interspersed with a lot of soap opera drama.

I don’t wish to make World’s End sound like a bad book, because it’s not. It does, however, feel more like a prelude of things to come rather than a complete novel in itself, even though it’s 740 pages long. It lays the groundwork for what’s to come in this acclaimed series, and for that I’m glad I read it, but don’t expect to be blown away by it. The decisions made, agreements reached, and deals struck in Paris at the end of the First World War had important ramifications for the world’s future, which will no doubt be explored later in the series. Lanny will move on to bigger, better, and more interesting things, but here he’s still just a kid.

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