Thursday 15 January 2009

Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit – a fast-track process

I regret to announce that I have given up reading Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt after only five chapters. And here’s my verdict:

Did I like the book?
Not really – not what I have seen at least. It was a huge disappointment, as this was one of Elisabetta’s favourites (but she admits reading it in translation many years ago, when she was at university). Perhaps what killed it for me was reading it straight after Salinger, who is almost the opposite from a stylistic point of view, and vastly superior in my opinion.

What did I like most?
I liked the sound of it. The premise was promising, but the delivery is poor, I think.

What didn’t work for me?
Essentially, the style, but also the language. The prose is verbose, and scarcely a noun goes by without three or four adjectives appended to it. Just a quick example: “He dragged his thick legs, in faded baby-blue pyjamas, from under the khaki blanket; he sat on the edge of the cot, running his fingers through his wild hair, while his plump feet mechanically felt for his slippers.” Strange that the author didn’t say “soft slippers” or something here. This kind of prose gets on my nerves.

Would I publish it?
Not really, not even in 2022, when it goes into the public domain. I was reading from the 1987 Penguin edition. Now I see it’s Vintage who does it – I can’t blame Penguin for letting this one go.

What if it came as an unsolicited manuscript?
I’d be intrigued by the story, but would probably turn it down. Unless I could do swingeing cuts. But I couldn't do it without checking with the author, so I'd need a medium.

Did it sustain my interest throughout?
I got bored immediately. The story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. I soon lost my interest. And the way the story is told is too grotesque.

The best bit in the book?
Couldn’t find one to be honest, in the fifty-odd pages I read.

The best scene in the book?

Comments on the package, editing, typesetting?
This Penguin edition is a dreadful affair: it’s all yellow and falling apart. I wouldn’t pick it up for 20p at a car-boot sale, that's how bad it is. I can’t really comment on pricing, but I think that with £4.95 in 1987 you could have bought a frozen turkey. I can see that there are orphans and widows all right, and I picked up a couple of typos. So, overall, it’s not a thing of beauty. The editing is not too bad: they’ve anglicized the text, which I think was the wrong choice, but left Americanisms such as “toward” instead of “towards”.

My final verdict?
Not one for me. I don’t think Babbitt will be read by many in fifty or a hundred years’ time. But then maybe few people will read at all in fifty or a hundred years’ time. At least I will no longer feel guilty when I see the book unread on my shelves.

The next book I’m going to try will either be Murphy or Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett. I haven’t read any of Beckett’s prose works, so I am curious to see what I will make of them.


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