Sunday, September 26, 2010

Compare & contrast

I sold some books yesterday at the funky little Saturdays-only used bookstore in my neighborhood. I hadn't planned to buy any, and I didn't search the shelves, but somehow while I was glancing around as I stood at the counter waiting for the guy to tote up what I'd brought in, one book grabbed my attention and stared me down until I walked over and picked it up. Don't know where the intuition came from that this title, which I'm not conscious of having heard of, was one that would interest me. But wow am I glad I gave it a look.

It is the novel The Stars Look Down by A.J. Cronin. The book, originally published in 1935, was reissued in the U.S. in this 1963 edition by Little, Brown (not the edition featured on It's beautiful, substantial, a sturdy paperback, the cover made of a heavy stock that's got a great weave texture with a stunning black and tan graphic design. Here's how the back cover describes this book:
The Stars Look Down is recognized as one of the most powerful novels of social protest ever written. It is set during the years 1903-1933 in a desolate Scottish mining district which produces both war profiteers such as the ruthless Joe Gowlan and gentle idealists such as Arthur Barras, who becomes a conscientious objector to prove his opposition to his own father's policies. The Neptune mine disaster, where one hundred men are killed and ten trapped miners starve to death in a blocked shaft, is one of many unforgettable scenes.
Sounds great, right? Here's something else to love: the introduction is "by Joseph Mersand, chairman of the English Department at Jamaica High School in New York City." I can't imagine that a Queens high school teacher today would get to write the introduction to a major novel.

And a major novel this is. Little known though it may now be, it had a great impact upon first publication in 1935. The New York Times reviewer, for instance, wrote, "It is impossible to conceive of a reader laying aside The Stars Look Down once he has started the tale. It is equally impossible to conceive of any reader not recommending the book far and wide."

During the Great Depression there was a flowering of proletarian literature such as this novel. People would have laughed in the face of anyone who mouthed some folderol about politics and art being incompatible. Even almost 30 years later, when this edition was published, Mersand wrote in his introduction: "Many works of fiction deal with a trivial aspect of life or superficial people, and they are forgotten almost before the works are finished. The Stars Look Down deals with a universal theme--the theme of capital versus labor and the human relationships involved."

Oh-ho! A universal theme! Right you were, Mr. Mersand, but I wonder if you suspected that a time would soon come when any attempt to express that theme would be quashed, silenced, ridiculed as antithetical to art. And that what you correctly characterized as the "trivial" aspects of life would be deemed the sole suitable focus.

It's interesting to read the few reviews of this novel at Amazon. One derides it as Marxist propaganda. The rest rave, one reader even calling it the greatest novel of the 20th century. Can it be that despite the ruling class's best efforts, their proscription against class-struggle fiction crumples uselessly when readers actually get a chance to pick up and read such a book? That's the rub, of course, that such books no longer get published and readers get no chance to read them.

This book, though, did have quite a time of it. Not only was it hailed as a masterpiece. It was made into a movie starring Michael Redgrave and Lionel Barrymore that is still considered one of the best movies ever. Later, it was a TV miniseries in Italy starring Giancarlo Giannini. A few years after that came another TV miniseries, this one in England. It has also been a stage play, adapted several times. Finally, and this was news to me (well, all this is news to me), it turns out that this novel that I'm now dying to dive into was a major inspiration for the current Broadway musical Billy Elliot, whose opening number is titled "The Stars Look Down."

Compare and contrast, then. On our left: A.J. Cronin and The Stars Look Down. On the right: the  bourgeois-imperialist lit hero of the moment (see previous post) explaining that fiction is about personal relationships. Can anyone still need convincing that the class struggle is playing out all the time not only on the job and the battlefield but on the cultural front as well?

That was more or less a rhetorical question, but in case anyone answered yes, here's more proof. Cronin, a doctor, also wrote a novel called The Citadel. Keeping in mind the pitfalls of crowdsourcing, here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on this book:
The Citadel, the tale of a mining company doctor's struggle to balance scientific integrity with social obligations, incited the establishment of the National Health Service in the United Kingdom by exposing the inequity and incompetence of medical practice at the time. In the novel, Cronin advocated a free public health service ...
OK I need not go on and on. Obviously, I've entered another one of my book excitements. A chance glance at a book garage and I'm all agog about a novel I'd never heard of, itching to enter its pages and be transported.