Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Between Two Worlds by Upton Sinclair

Lanny went a-courtin’
Between Two Worlds, originally published in 1941, is the second novel in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series. The first novel, World’s End, covered Lanny’s teenage years through World War I. This second installment, as the title indicates, covers the period between the two World Wars, following Lanny through his twenties and around the corner into his thirties. Lanny is still living the life of leisure on the French Riviera. His former schoolmate Rick, a wounded British war vet, is now a journalist, and his trade grants him access to all the important diplomatic conferences taking place in Europe. Lanny, who never can seem to stay out of political matters, goes along for the ride. Meanwhile their old classmate Kurt, a former German agent, is licking his wounds over his homeland’s defeat in the Great War. Like many of his countrymen, his disgruntlement over the political and economic beating Germany received in the post-war treaty negotiations leads him to sympathize with his nation’s rising radical right wing.

Lanny’s political views are drifting more and more to the left, and he begins to think of himself if not as a “Red” at least as a “Pink.” The rest of the world, on the other hand, is moving in the opposite direction. Fascism and Nazism arise in opposition to the Bolsheviks, and many around the world perceive these movements as either harmless or good for business. Lanny and Rick encounter both Mussolini and Hitler in their travels and witness firsthand the anti-Red brutality doled out by their followers. For today’s readers, looking back almost a hundred years at this period, Sinclair provides an invaluable perspective on how these two dictators were able to rise to power unchecked.

If this book has one major flaw, it’s long-windedness. The first couple hundred pages basically recap World’s End and catch up with all the characters introduced in that volume. If you haven’t read that one, however, you’re still likely to get lost here. Mussolini doesn’t show up until about page 200, and Hitler maybe a hundred pages later, and they both make limited appearances. Like its predecessor, Between Two Worlds concentrates less on world affairs than on affairs of the heart. Although this is only the second book, Lanny and his mother are both already on their fourth potential life partners, and the ones that they finally settle on leave the reader a bit dissatisfied. Over the course of the book, Lanny revisits every old girlfriend he’s ever had, sometimes more than once, as well as pretty much every acquaintance he made in the first book. The ensemble cast is constantly changing as Lanny and his entourage sail around Europe, play classical music at his villa, or rendezvous in New York City. At times everything seems like a digression, but you can’t help getting involved in these character’s lives. The amount of detail Sinclair stuffs into his narrative is staggering. He reports upon what everybody wears, eats, reads, or listens to, and all this minutiae coalesces to form a vivid experience of the time period being pictured. With this second book, I’m really starting to understand the rave reviews that Sinclair got for this series and the comprehensive depiction of world history it provides.

The next book in the series, Dragon’s Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943 and is rumored to be the best of the Lanny Budd books. Since it deals with the rise of the Nazis and the start of World War II, one would expect it to focus more closely on historical events than this one. I will confess, however, that even if I have to sit through another parade of Lanny’s girlfriends, Sinclair has already got me hooked.

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