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Sunday, January 22, 2012

You Can't Go Home Again

Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again is a big tome of almost 700 pages that I had initially only picked up because of its descriptions of Berlin  in 1936. That part - even though a highlight for me - only makes up the last fifth of the book though, most of the rest deals with the self-styled protagonist's relationship with his - Southern - town of origin, then his life in New York as as an emerging famous writer and then in a self-induced exile in Brooklyn. 

Wolfe is a strong writer capable of portraying the society around him and especially his protagonist's unease with it in a powerful manner.
He wanted to see the town as he remembered it. Evidently he would find it considerably changed. But what was this that was happening to it? He couldn't make it out. It disturbed him, vaguely, as one is always disturbed and shaken by the sudden realization of time's changes in something that one has know all one's life.
He never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.
Yet, I felt that his novel got out of hand at times, losing itself in the details and minutiae of a party or the antics of the young writer's editor. More importantly maybe, I was deceived by the latter part of the book consecrated to Berlin and Germany. To start out, the protagonist - in a friendly manner - mocks his German friends accents in English when they are taking him to the train station, even while it becomes obvious quickly that he - as far too many Anglo-Saxons I fear - has at most a basic understanding of the language himself. In turn, how am I to take his assessment of anything going on in Germany at face value if his primary mode of communication in the country is a language other than the native one?

Still, his description provides a powerful imagery of the Olympic Games in Nazi Berlin:

And there were great displays of marching men, sometimes ungunned but rhythmic as regiments of brown shirts went swinging through the streets. By noon each day all the main approaches to the games, the embannered streets and avenues of the route which the Leader would take to the stadium, miles away, were walled in by the troops. They stood at ease, young men, laughing and talking with each other - the Leader's body-guards, the Schutz Staffel units, the Storm Troopers, all the ranks and divisions in their different uniforms - and they stretched in two unbroken lines from the Wilhelm-strasse up the arches of the Brandenburger Tor. Then, suddenly, the sharp command, and instantly there would be the solid smack of ten thousand leather boots as they came together with the sound of war.
It seemed as if everything had been planned for this moment, shaped to this triumphant purpose. But the people - they had not been planned. Day after day, behind the unbroken wall of soldiers, they stood and waited in a dense and patient throng. These were the masses o the nation, the poor ones of the earth, the humble ones of life, the workers and the wives, the mothers and the children - and day after day they came and stood and waited. They were there because they did not have money enough to buy the little cardboard squares that would given them places within the magic ring. From noon till night they waited for just two brief and golden moments of the day: the moment when the Leader went out to the stadium, and the moment when he returned.

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