Monday, October 1, 2007

Modern Library Top 100: #100 - The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (1918)

A few years ago I was on an Orson Welles kick, which started with a chance viewing of Citizen Kane at an old girlfriend's house. Like anyone with a pulse, I was aware of the film's existence but had always brushed it off as something not worth my modern sensibilities.

Obviously I was wrong, because the film is probably the best thing ever to be committed to film. I don't feel sheepish for having doubts, though, since part of the fun of growing up in the 90s and Aughts is that there's always going to be a vast expanse of the unexplored arts to surprise and delight.

So I went through Welles' oeuvre, finding equal parts wheat and chaff until stumbling on to The Magnificent Ambersons, which was actually Welles' next effort.

(Parenthetically, Welles was obviously a colossally talented guy, but he peaked pretty early on (he was only 23 when he broadcast War of the Worlds, and only 26 when he made Citizen Kane) before becoming a minstrel for the talk show circuit.)

Anyway, to bring a long story to its point, I liked the movie enough to buy the book, and liked the book enough to read every other novel on Modern Library's list, starting from the bottom and working up.

By all rights, I should have hated The Magnificent Ambersons. It's got everything I find distasteful in a novel: highfalutin dialogue, aristocratic intrigue, long descriptions of cotillions in excrutiating detail.

But I loved it. Tarkington somehow managed to cobble together a great, compelling story about redemption and the acceptance of responsibility while simultaneously weaving in an elegy for the death of small town America by the cold hand of industrialization.

If that sounds like one serious novel, it is, but it's also quite a fun jaunt over a few hundred pages. The Magnificent Ambersons tells the story of a once proud family, whose patriarch was also the city's main powerbroker, as it struggles to keep its dignity and fortune intact against time and obsolescence. The protagonist, George Amberson Minifer, is a loathsome, entitled young punk who even the Hilton sisters would find overprivileged. Yet he's showered love by all, and Tarkington has a way of detailing it in such a way that it never feels false.

It helps that the book's other protagonist, Eugene Morgan, is the most empathetic and understanding character this side of Atticus Finch. Morgan is the erstwhile lover of George's mother and the father of George's paramour. He's also one of the captains of industry encroaching on the Amberson fortune, and he's one of the few characters in the book who's genuinely likable.

And when George loses everything, submerged in the expanding city his family once ruled, his rebirth is unexpected and appropriate. It's a good journey, an epic one, even, and I can see why Orson Welles chose to follow up Citizen Kane with it.

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