April 16, 2008

John O’Hara: Appointment in Samarra

Posted in O'Hara John at 8:07 am by John Self

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.

Appointment in Samarra

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.

Death Speaks:

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.

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29 Comments »

  1. JRSM said,

    If (and by your review you may well not be) you’re at all interested in John O’Hara still, try some of his novella or short story collections; ‘O’Hara on Hollywood’ is a good starting spot. He works best (and sometimes brilliantly) at shorter length.

    What you really, really SHOULDN’T do is read one of his later 800-page bonkbuster-style novels. When he no longer had to be cagey about “Can I say this in print?” he basically lost the plot.

  2. John Self said,

    Well I did pick up his second novel BUtterfield 8 [sic] at the same time as Appointment in Samarra, JRSM, so no doubt I’ll give that a go soon. Interesting you should mention what he could say in print: I was quite surprised at how forthright Appointment in Samarra was about sexual matters in particular for a novel published in the 1930s.

    I’ve read elsewhere that he was regarded by some as a bit of a hack, which is presumably what comes out in the later books. Thanks for the recommendations.

  3. Daniel said,

    It’s true that O’Hara’s short fiction are better than his novels, particularly “Graven Image,” probably his most famous story. As luck would have it, The New Yorker started up a short story podcast late last year, for which it invites high-profile contemporary authors to read and discuss their favourite stories from the New Yorker archives; and for the first podcast of this year, E.L. Doctorow chose “Graven Image” — you can hear it at http://www.newyorker.com/online/2008/01/14/080114on_audio_doctorow. His voice is deep and gravelly, and perfectly suited to the atmosphere of the story… and it’s a great little piece of fiction, at any rate.

  4. John Self said,

    Oh thanks for that Daniel, I will have a listen soon. I think that might be the same podcast which featured Richard Ford reading John Cheever’s ‘Reunion,’ which Steve Mitchelmore of This Space kindly sent me earlier this year – which was also terrific.

  5. JRSM said,

    I must listen to that: and the book I meant is actually “John O’Hara’s Hollywood”–sorry about the title mix-up.

  6. Daniel said,

    Yeah, that’s the same podcast. All the episodes are great, but the best of the best, for my money, are Ford’s reading of “Reunion,” Donald Antrim’s reading of “I Bought a Little City” by Donald Barthelme, and, in particular, T.C. Boyle’s reading of “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, one of the most surprising and moving stories I have ever encountered. Full list is here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/podcasts/fiction.

    One more thing about O’Hara: I think I remember reading somewhere about a brief correspondence he shared with John Steinbeck at around the time Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize. Just an anecdote, really, but one that struck me as a symptom of a bygone age in which, for all their faults, both authors — authors! — could so accurately measure the political pulse that Roosevelt himself thought it wise to lend them his ear. Would that it were the case in today’s world, eh?

  7. John Self said,

    Indeed – our last Prime Minister here felt it better to consort with great thinkers such as Noel Gallagher.

    I consider myself a fan of Wolff’s and must have read ‘Bullet in the Brain’ but can’t recall it – I look forward to browsing the podcast list.

    By the way Daniel, your comments keep being marked by my system as spam and I have to fish them out of the pond manually. I don’t know why this is but if a future comment doesn’t appear immediately, you’ll understand!

    JRSM: Thanks for the title. I had in fact seen that book when browsing O’Hara stuff on Amazon, but didn’t realise it was a collection of stories (Amazon.co.uk provides no information on it). It looked more like some sort of ‘memories of O’Hara by his Hollywood chums’ thing.

  8. Stewart said,

    Indeed – our last Prime Minister here felt it better to consort with great thinkers such as Noel Gallagher.

    And George Clooney for our current incumbent.

  9. Scope out for the latest on O’Hara.
    Cheers!
    Richard

  10. James MacDonald said,

    “Graven Image” O’Hara’s most famous story? His later novels bonkbusters? It’s clear to me that these readers have come recently to O’Hara and don’t know that much about his work overall. There areat least 50 stories that are the equal of “Graven Image”. Among my favourites are “The Doctor’s Son”, “Over the River and Through the Woods”, “The Gentleman in the Tan Suit”, “Now We Know”, “Bread Alone” and, among his post-1960 stories, “The Man With the Broken Arm”, “In the Silence”, “Afternoon Waltz”, “You Fah Neefah Neeface”, “The Way to Majorca”, “Fatimas and Kisses” and “We’ll Have Fun”. His stories got longer after he returned to The New Yorker, and many of the best qualify as novellas (“Ninety Miles Away”, for example. As he admitted, there was scarcely a story that was not somebody’s favourite, judging from letters he received. And the tragedy is that the stories are so little anthologised now, though it’s probably a tragedy of O’Hara’s own making.
    For almost as many years as I’ve been reading O’Hara (and I read the stories when they appeared in The New Yorker and in The Saturday Evening Post), I have been fighting this notion that the novels from A Rage to Live onwards are “bonkbusters”. O’Hara himself regarded From the Terrace as his best, and a Modern Library panel recently named it as one of the best English-language novels post-1950. Ten North Frederick won the National Book Award in 1956, and Malcolm Bradbury named The Lockwood Concern among his selection of best English-language novels. Bonkbuster writers are Harold Robbins, Irving Wallace, James Michener, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk and now John Grisham. O’Hara belongs in a different category entirely, as even his detractors will concede.

  11. John Self said,

    This is terrific, James, thanks; it’s always a pleasure to hear from someone with such a wide-ranging knowledge. The only other O’Hara book I have to hand is BUtterfield 8, which I believe was his second. Do you rate it? You’ve given us some of your favourite stories (I hope many of them are in O’Hara’s Hollywood, which seems to be the only easily available collection!), and novels which have been praised by the Modern Library panel and others, but can I ask which of his novels you would place most highly?

  12. James MacDonald said,

    Many thanks, John, for responding to my blog and for the nice things you say. I do rate BUtterfield 8. In fact, I was tremenously lucky in finding a first American edition of it in a secondhand shop in Exeter, of all places. It bears only incidental resemblance to the film, though, as you probably know. I’m not familiar with which stories are included in O’Hara’s Hollywood. Among my favourite of these would be “Natica Jackson”, made into a Michelle Pfeiffer television film in 1987. The story has a knockout ending. Of O’Hara’s other novels, it’s more a case of the few I don’t much care for: The Farmers Hotel (1951), The Lockwood Concern (1965) and Lovey Childs (1969). Except for Pal Joey, there isn’t much humour in O’Hara either. He’s not an author I can read late at night. Oh, I can understand readers who say the longer novels are hard going. From the Terrace takes a good deal of stamina, and my problem with The Lockwood Concern is precisely that the protagonist is so unsympathetic. Amazon features most of the story collections, very reasonably priced, too. The early stories “The Gentleman in the Tan Suit”, “Bread Alone” and “Now We Know” I find very poignant. The Instrument is a late Broadway novel, fairly short and very effective. But then I don’t find O’Hara a sexy novelist either. There’s no sex, to speak of, if you compare him with Henry Miller. Relations between men and women may be his main theme. But the dialogue is predominantly about fidelity or betrayal, not about the sexual act as such. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Anything you care to say about O’Hara will be most welcome.

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks again James. For those interested, I see from the Amazon US page that John O’Hara’s Hollywood contains the following stories: ‘Mr Sidney Gainsborough: Quality Pictures’, ‘Saffercisco’, ‘Brother’, ‘Richard Wagner: Public Domain?’, ‘Reunion Over Lightly’, ‘The Magical Number’, ‘Adventure on the Set’, ‘Fire!’, ‘Everything Satisfactory’, ‘Drawing Room B’, ‘Eileen’, ‘The Industry and the Professor’, ‘In a Grove’, ‘The Glendale People’, ‘Yucca Knolls’, ‘The Answer Depends’, ‘James Francis and the Star’, ‘Natica Jackson’, ‘The Way to Majorca’ and ‘The Sun Room’. All I can tell from the contents page is that the stories, which are in chronological order, seem to get longer as his career progressed. The first dozen are no more than a handful of pages each, whereas some of the later ones such as ‘Natica Jackson’ are pushing novella length. I see a couple of the stories you (James) rate among these.

    I’ll certainly be reading BUtterfield 8 and commenting on it here.

  14. James MacDonald said,

    Many thanks, John. I’m afraid I’m a bore about O’Hara. He used to be my favourite writer, and I read him exhaustively at the expense of many other (and many would say better) writers. Butterfield 8 is based on the actual case of a young New Yorker named Starr Faithful, and most reviewers thought it was a terrible let-down after Appointment in Samarra. Incidentally, Dorothy Parker gave O’Hara the Samarra title; at least she showed him the passage of Sheppey with the Samarra legend, and O’Hara said, “There’s the title for my book.” (He relates the anecdote in the preface to the Modern Library edition of Samarra.) When I was starting to write myself, a friend of my parents, “You have an ear for dialogue; you ought to read John O’Hara. I’m sure she didn’t mean I should devour O’Hara. But I was flattered that an adult would take me seriously. O’Hara hasn’t fared at all well since his death in 1970. I closed out my undergraduate career with an extended essay tracing Julian English’s appearance in post-Samarra work. But the most frequent character in all O’Hara is the writer James Malloy (an autobiograhical figure). I’ll be very interested to read what you think of any O’Hara you read.

  15. Brad said,

    It is good to see a positive discussion happening about O’Hara nowadays–thanks to all. I wonder if I could put in a word for the anthology *Gibbsville, PA*. As an eastern Pensylvanian, this is what first drove me to read O’Hara, and I’ve since enjoyed *Appointment*, *Butterfield 8*, and *Ten North Frederick*. Whatever quibbles I’ve had with his plotting are overcome by the clarity of his prose, his subtle and honest treatment of class, and, of course, his dialogue.

  16. John Self said,

    Thanks again James: very interesting story about how O’Hara came by the title of Appointment in Samarra.

    Yes Brad, you may recommend Gibbsville, PA! – the more I hear about O’Hara, and read the words of folk like you and James, the more I think I need to try more of him, not just BUtterfield 8 which I already have to hand. The dialogue, I agree, is special.

  17. Jill said,

    “A Rage To LIve”, “From the Terrace” and “Ten North Frederick” are all worth it! Though not widely praised, these later novels are very fine. I love O’Hara and my favorites are “Appointment in Samarra” and “Gibbsville, Pa: The Classic Stories”. The Hollywood short stories are my least favorite.

    I consider “Appointment in Samarra” up there with Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” as one of my favorite novels.

  18. John Self said,

    Thanks so much for your comment, Jill. I am delighted to see that there is clearly a large rump (if you see what I mean) of interest in O’Hara’s books today, and as is often the case, it becomes confusing to a newcomer as all dedicated fans seem to like different examples of his output! I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of his books anyway, after BUtterfield 8.

  19. James MacDonald said,

    Matthew Bruccoli, O’Hara’s best biographer in my view, compiled the stories in “Gibbsville, PA”. I agree they’re among his finest. May I also commend the three novellas in “Sermons and Soda-Water”? They’re narrated by James Malloy and are a fine example of late O’Hara. So is the Malloy story “Fatimas and Kisses”.

  20. John Self said,

    You may of course commend those titles, James, and welcome back. I suspect much O’Hara will be difficult to find in the UK but that’s why we have the wonders of the internet, I suppose!

  21. f.pixley said,

    Nobody reads our own American contemporary classics much anymore. They may be dated in there time set but they still say true things. Has anyone read )’Hara’s ” Hope of Heaven”? There is much more there than meets the eye.

  22. John Self said,

    Thanks for bringing this one back to the top, f.pixley. I haven’t read Hope of Heaven but I do still have BUtterfield 8 to get to – so will pull it out soon.

  23. Wet Saw said,

    All of the novels of John Grisham are very good, i love all the stories ;*~

  24. Chadley Baxter said,

    Is this a thread about John’s in general? What about John Major, he was good wasn’t he? John Lennon? Not bad. Johnny Rotten, shame about the butter ads tho. Jonjo O’Neill, can I have that one? John Cusack has sold out. You can’t have it both ways, John, and climb into bed with Roland Emmerich John Thaw as Morse and in particular the under-appreciated Home To Roost with Reece Dinsdale and, making an occasional cameo appearance, his wife at the time, Sheila Hancock.

  25. John Self said,

    Haha, yes Home to Roost was indeed a classic. Who can forget the pigeon in the title sequence? I’m ashamed to admit I liked it at the time, but then I also liked Fresh Fields with Anton Rogers and Julia McKenzie. Who can forget the hilarity each time their neighbour came in the kitchen door without knocking and uttered her timeless catchphrase, “It’s only Sonia!” (Disclaimer: I was 11 years old.) Tripper’s Day, there’s another one – not Leonard Rossiter’s finest hour, alas, and he was replaced for the second series (Slinger’s Day), by Bruce Forsyth of all people, on the very good grounds that Rossiter was too dead to film it. Still, funny to think that in those days, ITV still made sitcoms. Admittedly they were all terrible, but it’s the thought that counts.

    Now, John O’Hara. Ah yes, I really must read BUtterfield 8 one of these days, as it’s now over two and a half years since I first said I would.

  26. Chadley Baxter said,

    Fresh Fields had the apex, THE APEX of sitcom theme tunes. By turns homely, smug, naggingly earwormish and really quite chuffed with itself and 80s Britain, where intensely dull people talking at each other was watched by millions sat by the hearth. Anton Rodgers and Julia McKenzie – Philip Larkin meets Nicholas Soames vs Margaret Rutherford meets Bonnie Langford’s mum. Glorious. And dare I detonate all kinds of halcyon pangs with the following. TIMOTHEEEEEEY!

    John O’Hara: brilliant dialogue.

  27. Lee Monks said,

    And the mother: oft-mistaken for Molly Sugden, but was, in fact, somewhat less hefty and, in any case, Barbara Lott.

    On O’Hara: apparently ‘Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times dismissed him as “a well-known lout.”‘ I’m not the biggest fan of Kakutani, it must be said, and she does seem to gallop down such autobiographical furrows at the merest possibility. How can such a judgemental (lout? We’re not talking ‘anti-semite’ or ‘flagrant racist’, are we?) stance permit respectful consideration of said critic’s mutterings? She was at it again (when isn’t she?) recently with an all-too-easy pop at Amis, It’s tiresome. Talk about the work, Kakutani!

    From The Terrace is meant to be one of the lost masterpieces. I’ve never seen a copy. 987 pages I think.

  28. [...] Appointment in Samarra [...]


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