Monday, September 3, 2018

A World to Win by Upton Sinclair

Around the world with Lanny Budd
A World to Win is the seventh of eleven novels in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series. Published in 1946, this historical novel covers events in world history from the Summer of 1940 to early 1942. Lanny, the wealthy and well-educated son of an American arms manufacturer, was born and raised in the South of France. Working as an art dealer, Lanny has traveled throughout Europe and America, meeting many famous and powerful people along the way. Though a leftist at heart, in the past couple books Lanny has pretended to be a Nazi sympathizer in order to gather intelligence from prominent Nazis with whom he has struck up an acquaintance, including Adolph Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Rudolf Hess. In A World to Win, Hitler’s power continues to increase. Germany has invaded and occupied a large portion of Europe and now has its sights set on Russia.

There’s no denying that the Lanny Budd series is a monumental achievement in American literature. The grand scope of the narrative is truly impressive, and the intricate detail with which Sinclair chronicles historical events is immensely educational. Nevertheless, the books in this series are often quite frustrating due to the glacial pace with which they proceed and the myriad subplots which digress from the main narrative, including Sinclair indulging his own avid interest in psychic communication with the spirit world. The first half of A World to Win is discouragingly slow, but the latter half is far more engaging, enough to grab the reader’s attention and hold it captive until the very end. While all the Lanny Budd books have their flaws and frustrations, overall I’d have to say that this may be the series’s best volume yet.

Thankfully, this novel contains fewer séances than the previous installments, and the paranormal does not play as integral a role in the plot as it has before. Lanny’s love life, however, does feature largely in this novel’s narrative, and the reader is often diverted from the events of World War II in favor of matters of the heart. Sinclair likes to point out that Lanny is one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, and here our hero has three or four women, all of them about twenty years his junior, vying to be the next Mrs. Budd. Because of his secret agent responsibilities, Lanny is reluctant to commit to any of these prospective brides, but that doesn’t stop him from making constant mental comparisons of their merits and faults. About halfway through the book, I finally got what I have been waiting for in this series: a genuinely exciting secret agent mission! Soon, however, circumstances rob the reader of such easy gratification, and the narrative reverts to romantic comedy mode, though as far as rom-coms go, one must admit that Sinclair sets up a pretty ingenious scenario.

While Lanny has been concentrating his efforts on the Nazis, Japan has begun to assert its military might on the world stage. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor takes place during this novel, though Lanny does not witness the event first-hand. This marks America’s official entry into the war, which will likely put a damper on Lanny’s ability to enter Germany and work among the Nazis. Lanny travels to Asia for the first time, as a tourist. Not surprisingly, given his socialist inclinations, Sinclair paints rather rosy pictures of Communist China and the Soviet Union. Mao and Stalin, our allies in the war, are portrayed as mostly benevolent rulers, their atrocities only hinted at as Sinclair focuses on the worldwide brotherhood of those opposed to the Axis powers. As always, Sinclair gives an interesting alternative perspective on world events and combines fact and fiction into an educational and entertaining reading experience. If you’ve already made it this far in the Lanny Budd series, you will certainly not be disappointed by A World to Win.

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