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New York, New York

July 6, 2014 33 comments

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. 1925 Translated into French by Maurice-Edgar Coindreau.

Dos_Passos_Manhattan_TransferI loved Manhattan Transfer. It’s a gorgeous, unusual piece of literature. Dos Passos portrays New York from around 1900 till 1925. He uses the interwoven lives of a series of characters to do so, but the real star of the book is New York. I didn’t try to read Manhattan Transfer in English, I already had an old copy in French at home. It was a wise decision, I doubt I’m able to read that kind of novel in the original. The problem now is that I don’t have quotes unless they come from the first pages of the books, the ones available as sample on Amazon. It’s really frustrating as the prose is gorgeous and the snapshots of the city extraordinary.

I don’t know how to write about Manhattan Transfer, to make you want to read it right away. I could pick one character or the other and tell you about them. It wouldn’t be enough and it wouldn’t do justice to the book. Dos Passos takes us through a gallery of characters and lives. They get lucky and rich. They had the financial world in their hands and lost their magic. They’re struggling journalists, party boys in the bubbling 1920s, simple employees, actresses, hobos and drunkards. They’re immigrants, workers going on strike, or waiters. You could see it as a journey in a maze but I didn’t. Reading this is like spending an evening flipping through channels on TV and picking five minutes of a program here and there, switching from one to the other, not exactly following thoroughly any of them but grasping enough of the content to understand the main thread. More importantly, these characters are New York’s inhabitants. They give the city its soul, its liveliness, its backbone. We follow them and explore the city with its parks, avenues, harbour, and theatres. We see the glitter and the dark places. We see the shops, the milkman, the cafés and the fancy hotels. We feel the energy, the bustle on sidewalks, the lines of cabs, the traffic and we hear the noise. We hop on the highline, on trains and on ferries. We see the impact of its unique architecture on the atmosphere, the way it plays with the light on the streets. We stroll in Central Park, visit Broadway, linger in Battery Park. Each chapter of the book starts with a vignette about New York. This is the one of the second chapter, Metropolis

There were Babylon and Nineveh; they were built of brick. Athens was gold marble colums. Rome was held up on broad arches of rubble. In Constantinople the minarets flame like great candles round the Golden Horn…Steel, glass, tile, concrete will be the material of the skyscrapers. Crammed on the narrow island the millionwindowed buildinigs will jut glittering, pyramid on pyramid like the white cloudhead above a thunderstorm.

The descriptions of the city are marvellous. Dos Passos is like a painter who’d use words instead of brushes. I’ve been to New York a couple of months ago and I’m so glad I read Manhattan Transfer after this trip, while I had the geography in mind, while the images were fresh in my mind. Dos Passos captures the essence of the city. In New York, sometimes buildings seem to have been thrown together by a playful giant. There’s no unity in height, size or materials. Skyscrapers can be neighbours with a church. I was surprised that the DNA of the 21st century city was already there at the beginning of the 20th century. Employees already had lunch in the cemetery in the financial district and lawyers were already suggesting victims to sue companies after an accident and they were already getting paid in percentage of the settlement they’d get. The moments we pick in the characters lives tell us about the society they live in: their vision of marriage, their ambitions, their reaction to WWI, the strikes and the arrival of prohibition. It’s consistent with Fitzgerald’s Tales From the Jazz Age. (highly recommended, btw)

I’m not going to discuss the place of Manhattan Transfer in the history of literature. I know it’s a modernist novel, it uses the stream-of-consciousness method (although I don’t understand where) but I’m not qualified to start a discussion about this. What will stay with me is how the little vignettes, the descriptions of fleeting moments and the characters bring New York to life.

Here’s another review by James at The Frugal Chariot and an excellent one by Max here at Pechorin’s Journal

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