Friday, June 26, 2015

Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair

Lanny Budd meets Hitler
Dragon’s Teeth, published in 1942, is the third book in Upton Sinclair’s eleven-volume Lanny Budd series. It won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1943. The story takes place from 1929 to 1934. Lanny and his wife, the multimillionaire heiress formerly known as Irma Barnes, are back to their life of leisure, ensconced in their villa on the French Riviera when they’re not out yachting or motoring around Europe. Lanny’s political views are becoming more and more openly Red, much to his bride’s chagrin. In addition to playing classical music on the piano and dealing in valuable artworks, one of Lanny’s hobbies is keeping abreast of political matters. On one of their trips the Budds venture into Germany, and what else should a young married couple do on a visit to Berlin but attend a Nazi rally? Thus Lanny, the curious dabbler, finds himself present at one of Hitler’s most important early speeches. Later, through a mutual acquaintance, Lanny is introduced to the Führer himself.

While looking back now we may wonder why on earth anyone would want to hobnob with Hitler, keep in mind that this was prior to World War II and the Holocaust. In their early days, many people around the world saw the Nazis as either a harmless fringe group that would never amass any real political power or just another useful tool for keeping the Bolshevik menace out of Western Europe. Lanny, on the other hand, catches a glimpse of the madman to be. Sinclair chronicles in detail the political struggle between various factions in Germany in the early 1930s and Hitler’s eventual rise to power. Though Lanny is an American and his family is safely tucked away in France, his old friends the Robin family are residents of Berlin, and as Jews they do not go unscathed by the Nazi ascension. Using his occasional career as an art dealer as cover, Lanny must venture into Nazi Germany and undertake a perilous mission on their behalf.

As is typical of the books in this series so far, it takes forever to get there. Despite the obvious excitement value of the subject matter, I actually found Lanny’s adventures among the Nazis less harrowing than his encounters with Mussolini and Italian Fascism in the previous book of the series, Between Two Worlds. Part of the problem here is too many distractions. Just when we are getting caught up in Lanny and Irma’s German intrigue, we get pulled away to focus on their families’ financial troubles. Also, as in Between Two Worlds, there’s at least a hundred pages unnecessarily devoted to the paranormal. Séances were apparently all the rage, and Lanny and his friends are constantly consulting the dead for news and advice. Sinclair expresses skepticism towards a medium’s ability to make contact beyond the grave and speculates that what may actually be occurring is telepathy, a subject with which he was fascinated. (In 1930 he wrote a book on telepathy called Mental Radio.) Regardless, it’s out of place here, and the novel would have been better served without this lengthy, dull hurdle to jump over before arriving at the good stuff.

After three Lanny Budd books, I can say for certain that they are consistently good, but I haven’t yet met one that really blew me away. You definitely learn a lot about history, though. Because of its Pulitzer, Dragon’s Teeth may be the most famous book in the series, but if you want to read this novel, you really need to go back and start with the first installment, World’s End, or you’re going to be lost. I, meanwhile, though not without some reservations, will be moving on to book number four, Wide is the Gate.
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