In 1940 Upton Sinclair returned to the literary scene with World’s End, a novel which delighted thousands of readers and caused H. G. Wells to remark of it:
“A great and well-balanced design…I think it the most competent and most faithful picture of that period that has been done, or is likely to be done.”
In his new novel, Between Two Worlds, he presents another thrilling narrative of Lanny Budd’s human journey, carrying his young hero through that turbulent, brutal, wealthy era that began with the Treaty of Versailles and ended with the 1929 crash.
The book is so rich in action and varied scent that a mere catalogue of its contents reads like a novelist’s lifetime repertoire. It includes six full-length love stories; four weddings and two separations; two murders and one near-hanging. The scenes include a Riviera village, a German Schloss, three French chateaux and an imitation one on Long Island; three yacht cruises, and many visits to Paris, London, Berlin, Munich, Geneva, Genoa, Rome, and Leningrad. Historic characters include Hitler, Mussolini, John Sargent, Anatole France, Lincoln Steffens, Isadora Duncan, and Sir Basil Zaharoff. Historic events include six great international conferences; the early days of Italian Fascism and of German Nazism; the Great Bull Market in New York and the panic of 1929 which broke it.
Around Lanny are all the characters that have won the affection and respect of thousands of readers in the months just past–Beauty and Robbie, Kurt and Rick, Jesse Blackless and Rosemary Codwilliger–and with them a rich new cast. But though readers of World’s End will renew their acquaintances with pleasure, it is not necessary to have read the first book to appreciate the second. Upton Sinclair’s theme is the world of the twentieth century, and it is enough to have lived in that time to understand and enjoy his story wherever he picks up its thread.
Picking up shortly after the end of World’s End, Between Two Worlds continues the story of Lanny Budd as he manages to find himself in the middle of every important world event in Europe and the United States over between 1919 and 1929. Lanny attends a number of conferences in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles as the nations involved attempted to clarify, adjust, and amend the treaty. Lanny finds himself interacting with Mussolini, Hitler, and others as he attempts to navigate his own political and economic beliefs while faced with Russian communism, Italian fascism, German Nazism, American capitalism, and any number of other beliefs and systems and protests.
Unlike the first book in the Lanny Budd series, which revolved around the time immediately before, during, and after World War I, Between Two Worlds did not seem to have as clear a focus. Being set in the time between the world wars, and ending years before the Second World War would officially begin, it may merely be that there was not a single unifying focus for the book to revolve around, and it may have been the intention of Upton Sinclair to instead capture the attitudes of people between the wars, and describe the events built into that time period. But this book still felt like a placeholder, a book that works better as a bridge from the first book to later books. Written after the start of World War Two, Sinclair lays the political, social, and economic foundations for the future he already knows is coming, and Lanny Budd becomes once again the means for which to describe those.
Thus, Lanny finds himself in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch, when Hitler is arrested, and sees his German friend Kurt become more enamored and more caught up in the rising Nazi party over the next few years. Lanny finds himself on the wrong end of Mussolini in the newly fascist Italy and is forcibly removed from the country and banned from returning. And Lanny even finds himself in the New York Stock Exchange itself on Black Thursday, and personally witnesses the stock market crash from the beginning.
However, this book also focused much more on the personal and romantic lives of Lanny Budd and his family, focusing more on Lanny as a person instead of Lanny as a literary device. Lanny becomes an art critic and broker, and facilitates the sale of art from older European wealthy families to the new wealthy classes in Europe and America looking for culture and even investment through collecting art. Lanny finds himself in a number of romantic relationships, and even finds himself married by the end of the novel (although this marriage to a wealthy New York heiress was perhaps a device to move Lanny to New York and involve him and those around him more fully in the market crash). Lanny’s mother and half-sister both celebrate weddings over the course of the novel, and, especially in the second half of the novel, the story become more predominantly personal, instead of a story primarily about world events.
Ultimately, I felt Between Two Worlds was not as successful as World’s End, because of that lack of focus. It could not even decide if it wanted to be a novel primarily about the larger world events going on around Lanny Budd (like the first novel had been) or a more personal story about the person of Lanny Budd and the people around him, and instead seemed to try to be both at different points in the story, further reducing any chance at a unity of theme or purpose. I enjoyed the larger world events more in the novel than the more personal aspects of Lanny Budd’s story, perhaps because I still find Lanny Budd more of a literary device than an interesting character, but also because Upton Sinclair is providing a slightly fictionalized first-hand account of the time between the wars, a time he lived through and experienced himself. Thus, I was able to see Italian fascism as a response to socialism and communism in the country, and as something primarily praised by the American capitalists as a successful solution to what they saw as a problem. I was able to get a better sense of the political, social, and economic problems in Germany in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles that led to the rise of Hitler and Nazism, more so than I was ever able to understand in reading the much drier history textbooks in school. It gave a more personal bent to the history, making it informative in a different manner than textbooks, and gave me a fuller understanding of that period of time than I had before.
“What is the curse that rests upon me, that I can give happiness to millions of other people but cannot find it for myself?”
A profound question to put to one who had spent such a short time on earth–half Isadora’s time. Lanny could only say what he had observed, that artists didn’t seem a happy tribe; perhaps it was that they were meant to suffer so that they might turn it into beauty. Maybe the right thing to say was, not that artists suffered, but that people suffered, and thus became artists.
Why you should read it:
Though I didn’t enjoy it as much as World’s End, Between Two Worlds still holds much of the same historic interest, filled with an abundance of people and events from the 1920s, and captures the tumultuous time between the World Wars in an interesting and compelling manner.
Currently reading: Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair