21 August 2007

Sinclair Lewis - Babbitt

I was recommended this a little while ago, and tracked it down secondhand. I'm very glad I did, it's remarkably good, and much funnier than I expected.

It's a satire of American urban life, written in 1922, and feels in many ways very contemporary. George Babbitt is a real estate salesman in a fictional town in middle America in 1920. He's averagely prosperous, has a wife and 3 kids, and a car, and is involved in the community. Everything's going quite nicely for him, and he doesn't question it.

But then Babbitt starts to feel that maybe his life isn't so satisfying, and maybe he's lacking something. As he considers what he might be lacking, he breaks with his routine, and resists the conforming pressures of his social group. He even starts to sympathise with socialist agitators, to the horror of his colleagues at the club. When he refuses to join a nationalistic society made up of businessmen of the town, he finds his career threatened.

Lewis's satire is very adept, drawing with wit a man of limited scope but enough depth to be sympathetic. The ending is surprising, and a little pessimistic - the conclusion is that the forces of conformity will always win, and that conservatism is the prevailing force in the US.

The influence of Lewis is plain. As an early satire on suburban life, it prefigures Updike (was Rabbit deliberately echoing Babbitt?), and the focus on the ordinary man anticipates Arthur Miller. But the value remains not just in his relevance, but in the quality of the writing and the humour.


20 August 2007

Constance L Hays - Pop

This is a short history of Coke, subtitled Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company, from its origins in the 1880s as a restorative served in pharmacies, to the glory expansion years of the 80s under Roberto Goizueta, and to the troubled 1990s.

It's a fascinating story of how a simple soft drink came to represent America throughout the world - cunning marketing in World War 2, where Coke bottling plants were set up alongside troop bases, identified Coke alongside the valiant liberators of Europe and Asia.

The legendary Goizueta was an exiled Cuban, who was a school contemporary of Castro, and whose family lost everything in the revolution. He was already working for Coke at the time, and found a substitute job in Florida, progressing through the 70s to become President, then Chairman and Chief Executive. Modern corporate governance rules advise against the combination of both roles, but in the 80s big autocratic personalities were in, and there were few bigger than Goizueta. His stated aim was for Coke to become the liquid of choice by the majority of people in the world - his market place was not just the cola market, or the soft drink market, but all beverages, including water, tea and milk. He used this argument to counter anti-monopoly suits in Europe, some of which were proposed by Pepsi, and many of which curtailed Coke's attempts to control the entire sales chain.

Hays describes well the central relationship between Coke and its bottlers, a legacy of the initial franchising decisions in the 19th century. The bottlers were the local distributors of Coke - they bought Coca Cola syrup at a fixed price, bottled it and sold it to outlets within a geographical franchise. The local Coke bottler became a significant social figure in America, wealthy, well connected, symbolic of enterprise, community, healthy living, and America. But for Coke, they restricted the potential for growth. Many of the contracts were perpetual, so that the relationship between the Coke company and the bottler couldn't be broken, and the price was tied to the price of sugar. This last was broken by Coke switching from sugar as its principal ingredient to high-fructose corn syrup, a change which has had significant health impacts in the Us not touched upon by Hays.

The former problem was solved by buying up bottlers, and allowing some to consolidate, so that there were fewer, bigger, bottlers. This helped Coke's ability to control marketing and pricing, and Coca Cola Enterprises (CCE) was created as the largest bottler. This was the basis for the growth in the 80s, but also of many of the problems faced by Coke in the 90s.

Hays spends half of the book on the period from 1981 to the present, allowing only one half for the history of almost a century before. This is partly because the recent period has been the most dynamic in Coke's history, but also because her undoubted in-depth research focused on interviews with key personnel from this period. She is good on the personalities of Goizueta and his hardworking but inadequate successor, Doug Ivester, but has a shaky grasp of finances. She says that Coke was doing better than Pepsi at one point because the share price was higher, and throughout attaches great significance to share splits, which are just rebases and have little intrinsic worth. These undermine her credibility a little - how can she be asking the most penetrating questions of ex-Coke executives if she doesn't understand these fundamentals?


Honore de Balzac - The Unknown Masterpiece

This short story by Balzac is very famous and influential, and was adapted into a film by Jacques Rivette (La Belle Noiseuse) It concerns an old painter, a fictional mentor to two historical painters, Pourbus and Poussin. He has spent 10 years trying to complete a painting, originally of a mistress, but he hasn't had a suitable model to complete it. Poussin's mistress, of uncommon beauty, is offered as a model on the condition that the other artists can see this painting, perpetually locked away in the painter's study.

The argument over the display of the mistress and the painting is a commentary on the transience of corporeal beauty against the permanence of art, and the possessiveness of each man to their 'mistress' upon the value of art. The final revelation of the painting provides a further twist, and anticipates arguments about art which would be held a century later.

The companion story in this collection, Gambara, is similarly about the nature of creativity, although in this case about a composer and instrument maker. I found this less successful, and the long explanations of an opera composed by the title character tedious and hard to follow.

In both stories Balzac describes the obsessiveness of the creative act, and the delusions that artists express in support of their works. There are also parallels between the first story and Sarrasine, with direct allusions to Pygmalion in both stories - both are about an artist trying to replicate his ideal of beauty, but in Sarrasine he is deceived by the object, and in The Unknown Masterpiece by the replication.


13 August 2007

Emile Zola - Germinal

I approached this book, which has legendary status in France, and in world literature, with no preconceptions and little knowledge of its subject. It's quite refreshing to approach the classics in this way, and it rarely happens with English novels.

The first thing that strikes you is Zola's narrative skill. The first 10 chapters or so are set on one day, when Etienne Lantier arrives in a mining village looking for work, and finds food, accommodation and a job. In those chapters Zola sets up the novel, presenting the physical aspect of the mine, and the history and politics behind it, but always through the narrative, using the characters naturally to develop and expand the scene.

It's a large and complex novel that Zola keeps control of for most of its length. There is a descent into sentimentality towards the end, and implausibility, but for the first half the rigorous realism, and vigorous action, are compelling. It's a very physical book, all about the striving of the men and women underground, and their hunger, and lots of sex. The sex is just a part of the narrative, it's treated in an unsensational way, remarkable for the period, and startling when compared to contemporary English literature, such as Hardy.

The politics in Germinal is directly Marxist - Marx is quoted, and the International is in the background supporting the strike. This may be the reason for its continuing popularity in France, more Socialist than Britain, and perhaps why Zola is less popular in England than he once was. Maybe there's an assumption that, stripped of its dated politics, there's little left of Zola, but that's certainly not true.

Zola's recurring theme of the inheritance of personality traits, which features throughout the Rougon-Macquart cycle, is not very significant in Germinal, although it is mentioned. Etienne is supposedly hotheaded and prone to rages, which isn't an implausible character trait of itself, and the inheritance of it appears unnecessary.

Zola's thorough research is evident throughout, from the details of working down a mine, to that of the life of miners during a strike. There is some implausibility and inconsistency though - a family who were near starvation living upon the earnings of several mining family members manage to survive for several months without any income beyond charity, which runs out soon. Zola doesn't address that issue with the closeness he applied to the first few chapters.

The scenes of the uprising and the strike are hugely energetic and vivid, and show Zola at his best - vigorous action supported by strong characters.As the narrative develops, the tragedies become a little relentless, and the ending is excruciatingly sentimental, and indeed implausible - Zola is unaware that lack of oxygen would have killed the trapped miners before lack of food.

But that's a quibble when set against the huge ambition, and success, of this novel. Zola is often accused of being too political, and lacking humour, but in Germinal his intense attitude has its greatest expression.