April 16, 2008
John O’Hara: Appointment in Samarra
I’m a real sucker for reissues of old books, particularly when they have lovely covers. Vintage Classics in the UK were just such an example: I’d never have discovered Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow or Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt if it hadn’t been for their striking, elegant, timeless – Classic! – design. Then someone at Vintage suffered a head injury and decided to ditch that design after just three years. The new look has a vivid red spine, more flexibility in the cover design, and the colossally boneheaded policy of replacing the author’s forename with the word VINTAGE on every cover. VINTAGE AUSTEN. VINTAGE McEWAN. Geddit? Except as well as being gimmicky, it’s frustrating when the author is less well-known. The Aerodrome by VINTAGE WARNER, anyone? (Rex, it turns out.) Or how about this: Appointment in Samarra by VINTAGE O’HARA: that’s John to you and me.
I was sure I’d heard of John O’Hara before anyway. Wasn’t he one of those New York poets? Actually no: I was conflating John Berryman and Frank O’Hara. My boycott of the new Vintage Classics (and just when Random House were beginning to feel the pinch too!) had to end when I saw this title being reissued earlier this month: I’d read somewhere recently, as an aside in an article about Brian Moore I think, that Appointment in Samarra (1934) was one of the ‘great short novels’ of the 20th century. Sold.
The title comes from an Arabic fable, retold by Somerset Maugham in his 1933 play Sheppey (either O’Hara already knew it, or he was a fast worker). It’s worth quoting here in full, as it forms the epigraph to the novel – and frankly it has a laconic quality that the book fairly lacks.
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
So by extrapolation an ‘appointment in Samarra’ is a date with death, and it comes as little surprise when the blurb tells us that O’Hara’s novel charts “the rapid decline and fall of Julian English.” In fact the decline is and is not rapid: O’Hara spends so much time detailing the lives of others that the sense of progress in Julian’s demise is choppy, and so when it does come it seems too sudden.
At the same time this digression into the history and sensibilities of every passing character is virtuosity of a sort, and there’s a Yatesian quality to O’Hara’s unflinching – some might say cruel – eye:
Constance Walker, the little fool, was not wearing her glasses again, as if everyone in the club didn’t know she couldn’t see across the table without them. She was known on the stag line as a girl who would give you a dance; she was at Smith, and was a good student. She had a lovely figure, especially her breasts, and she was a passionate little thing who wasn’t homely but was plain and, if she only knew it, didn’t look well without her glasses. She was so eager to please that when a young man would cut in on her, he got the full benefit of her breasts and the rest of her body. The young men were fond of saying, before leaving to cut in on Constance, “Guess I’ll go get a work-out.” The curious thing about her was that four of the young men had had work-outs with her off the dance floor, and as a result Constance was not a virgin; yet the young men felt so ashamed of themselves for yielding to a lure that they could not understand, in a girl who was accepted as not attractive, that they never exchanged information as to Constance Walker’s sex life, and she was reputed to be chaste.
This sort of solipsistic (“We begin our story in the head of…”) character demolition runs through the book: author and characters seem to share the same misanthropy. Which takes us back to the loose centre of the book, Julian English, a successful young man in the prosperous town of Gibbsville, who is slowly filling with rancour and bitterness. He comes to realise that he is surrounded by
terrible people, who didn’t have to do anything to make them terrible, but were just terrible people. Of course, they usually did do something, but they didn’t have to.
We can’t quite work out what Julian’s employer Harry Reilly has done to make him so terrible in his eyes, but whatever it was, it earns Harry the insult of a drink thrown in his face, a rash and meaningless act which Julian will spend the rest of the book trying to recover from. Julian becomes aware of Harry’s power in the small community, and the only perverse good that comes out of the situation is that now Julian, like Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal, has something to feel guilty about:
Julian … felt the tremendous excitement, the great thrilling lump in the chest and abdomen that comes before the administering of an unknown, well-deserved punishment. He knew he was in for it.
However as mentioned before, the process of his decline is uneven, and punctuated too heavily with other character portraits. O’Hara’s characters occupy the same country – and years – as Fitzgerald’s, but are a few rungs further down the social ladder, with an associated edginess and lack of certainty in their lives. The dialogue that spits between mismatched couples and fairweather friends is well done, and there’s something admirable in O’Hara’s attempt to keep so many plates spinning. It’s this quality which breaks the flow of the story, and makes it seem much longer than its 250 pages. It seems terrible to say it of such a well written book, but as ‘great short novels’ of the 20th century go, it doesn’t half seem to drag at times.