New York, New York

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

  1. July 7, 2014 at 6:24 am

    I’m so glad to see someone reading Dos Passos, a major 20th century American writer who almost never gets mentioned in the U.S. when people talk about great 20th century American writers (though if memory serves me right, he was among the most popular American authors translated into Russian in the post-war Soviet Union). I have this but have not read it, though I did read the U.S.A. trilogy with great enthusiasm – and in which the stream of consciousness technique figures prominently. He’s a strange figure for a U.S. author – a communist who went on to support Ronald Reagan with a fervor bordering on pathology (but for all that, seemed permanently tagged by his earlier leftist politics). It’s funny – just this morning I was thinking about Dos Passos, since I was on a tour of the New Deal murals at Coit Tower in San Francisco; I think the U.S.A. books are something like those murals in prose. He also wrote a great little book about Easter Island, the only other thing by him I’ve read.


    • July 7, 2014 at 9:12 pm

      On the cover of my copy it’s written : Je tiens Dos Passos pour le plus grand écrivain de notre temps. (Jean-Paul Sartre)
      I really loved Manhattan Transfer, I’m tempted by the USA trilogy but I’m reluctant to embark on a trilogy now.

      How a communist can support Reagan is beyond me, but what do I understand of American politcs, right? Some get elected on a bad joke and even get re-elected afterwards.

      I don’t remember the murals at Coit Tower, unfortunately but I checked them on Wikipedia. I understand why they made you think of Dos Passos.
      PS: I’ll be in SF by the end of next month, I might have the opportunity to go and see them for real.


      • July 7, 2014 at 11:02 pm

        JDP wasn’t a communist anymore when he supported Reagan; that shift resulted largely from a personal disillusionment with communism (and especially, if I remember right, horror at the betrayal and killing of one of JDP’s closest party colleagues) – just one of only a few things I remember from a biography of JDP I read years ago.

        Yes, go see the murals at Coit Tower – they’re real treasures of the New Deal. And if you find time to meet up for coffee while in SF, let me know – I expect we’ll be around then.


        • July 7, 2014 at 11:23 pm

          I understand he was disullusionned but still, what a change.

          Thanks for the recommendation and I’ll email you about coffee.


  2. July 7, 2014 at 11:51 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. I thought it was absolutely brilliant (my review is here if you’re curious: I think it’s an absolute classic, not read nearly as much as it should be, and I absolutely agree it captures the essence of the city. I see it as a jazz novel, which makes your Fitzgerald comparison interesting too (I really do have to read the Fitzgerald short stories).

    You haven’t read Berlin Alexanderplatz I think, or have you? I’d be interested to see what you thought of that having now read this.

    It sounds like you got a decent translation this time, which is a mercy. This would be a tough book to read in a poor translation.


    • July 7, 2014 at 9:27 pm

      Thanks for mentionning your review, it’s excellent. (as usual)
      I see you’ve read it after a trip there too, that’s a great moment to read it.
      I think you’ll like Tales From the Jazz Age. The style is brilliant, the stories unusual and the ones in NY depicts a side you wouldn’t expect from Fitzgerald.

      I have Berlin Alexanderplatz on the shelf. I had to abandon it but I’ll go back to it. Perhaps I should visit Berlin first. 🙂 (Although visiting Dublin didn’t make me jump (not leap) on Ulysses) It’s been released in a new translation.

      And yes, the translation of Manhattan Transfer was excellent. I found it excellent when I was reading and after reading your post and the quotes you added, I know it’s excellent. Lucky me, I wasn’t bothered by all the French words Dos Passos used in his text.


      • July 8, 2014 at 11:25 am

        I think modern Berlin has less in common, thankfully, with Doblin’s Berlin than modern New York does with Dos Passos’s New York. I mentioned it though as I thought the Dos Passos seemed a really obvious influence, much more so than Ulysses which is usually held out as the obvious influence.

        On the politics, I had a follow up piece at mine where I quoted the writer Paul Morand who wrote about Dos Passos in 1970. The quote’s as follows:

        October 1970. Sheltering from an autumn storm in the Cafe de la Fenice, I perused the newspapers; I learned of the death of Dos Passos: : “My ambition is to sing the Internationale”, Dos Passos used to say, as a young man; he was then the equal of Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and Faulkner; Sartre considered him the best novelist of the time. From 1930 on Dos Passos opposed the “New Deal”; he considered the Second World War to be a catastrophe. “We can only regret that such an accomplished literary technician should have adopted such a narrow viewpoint and that the brilliant constellation of 1920 now shines so dimly …” (Herald Tribune, 29 September 1970). “In 1929, Dos Passos unleashed a virulent critique of capitalist society; his work had a considerable impact. The Second World War was to bring about a true conversion in the writer…. At the same time as he altered his political views, Dos Passos seemed to lose his creative powers.” (Le Figaro, 30 September 1970). Yesterday evening, on France-Inter, I listened to Le Masque et la Plume: “How can Ionesco still go on telling us about his death? He’s been dead for ten years.” I’m not very lucky with my friends who have advanced opinions.


        • July 8, 2014 at 10:20 pm

          Thanks for this.
          I see that Le masque et la plume already existed at the time.


  3. Brian Joseph
    July 7, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    I really want to read this.

    Your commentary makes me think that, beside well crafted characters, that this exudes a certain atmosphere that sounds very appealing.

    P.S. – I hope that your trip to NYC was a good one.


    • July 7, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      It’s worth reading Brian, especially for you who knows the city well.

      We had a wonderful trip, thanks.


  4. July 8, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    I’m still only in the middle but I love it as well. Especially for the style. I’m not sure at all it can be translated though. On the other hand, reading it in French for the first time might have been a good choice, you can always re-read it in English.
    While reading it the first thought I had – and I knew nothing about Dos Passos – was that he must be a communist and when i looked it up I saw he was right. He’s so compassionate in the way he writes about the “little people”.
    I’m annoyed with myself because I put it aside for too lon and can’t get into it now. I have to try. Everything I’ve read was so amazing. Like watching a movie.


    • July 8, 2014 at 10:28 pm

      From the quotes I’ve read on Max’s post, the translation I’ve read is really good. You knew it wasn’t originally written in French but it sounded wonderful in French too. The translator got the accents, the New York things weren’t all translated. Really good.

      I agree with you, he’s compassionate about “little people”. I knew he was a communist but you can feel it in the way he describes small lives, hard jobs and struggles to improve working conditions. (he talks about strikes, the fight to get pensions for veterans…)

      It’s a book you can easily get in and out. I thought more about watching TV than watching a movie but we both agree, it’s very cinematographic. You can see the city really well.


      • July 9, 2014 at 9:39 am

        I’m glad to hear the translation is so good. I was worried about the accents.
        Maybe TV is a better comparison.
        I’ll try to pick it up again as I want to read Döblin but I’m not going to start that before finishing this,


        • July 10, 2014 at 6:57 am

          Since German lit month is in November, if Döblin is scheduled for this year, I’ll have the chance to hear your thoughts about Dos Passos in a couple of months.


  5. July 8, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    I have a very old set of novels by this author, and I’ve always meant to get around to reading them, but haven’t. It’s a case of telling myself that these are books I should read, but I’ve passed them over.


    • July 8, 2014 at 10:34 pm

      So you’ve never read anything by him?


  6. leroyhunter
    July 9, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Fine review Emma – inspirational, if I may say so. I was fascinated by this book when I was younger, but never read it. I used to read snatches in the bookshop and put it back. Must get it sometime – your enthusiasm for it is infectious, and I recall how highly Max praised it as well.


    • July 10, 2014 at 6:59 am

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked my billet. You’ll probably like it and if you read it, come back to share your thoughts about it.


  7. July 12, 2014 at 12:15 am

    Existe-t-il d’autres traductions en français que celle de Maurice-Edgar Coindreau ? Je l’ai lu quand j’étais au lycée (il y a donc plus de 30 ans) et je pense qu’il est grand temps de le lire enfin en anglais. J’avais été attirée par le titre à l’époque. Je me souviens que j’avais beaucoup aimé, puisque j’avais ensuite commencé sa trilogie. Il me reste toujours le troisième tome à lire. 😉 Ton billet m’a rappelé pourquoi je l’avais tant aimé.


    • July 12, 2014 at 6:56 am

      Je ne crois pas qu’il existe une autre traduction en français. Juste avant de lire Manhattan Transfer, j’ai lu trois livres américains avec des traductions désastreuses. Honnêtement, celle-ci semble excellente et d’après les extraits que j’ai lus du texte original, elle semble fidèle au texte et à son atmosphère.

      PS: je ne les vois pas lire un texte aussi difficile au lycée de nos jours…


  8. Jackie Brown
    July 12, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    OK, merci. Je comprends mieux ton commentaire sur la traduction. Je me souviens encore de certaines phrases dans les traductions de Babbitt et de L’attrape-coeurs qui m’avaient fait bondir !

    A mon époque, nous avions juste un extrait de Manhattan Transfer dans le livre d’anglais de terminale. C’est comme cela que je l’avais découvert.


    • July 12, 2014 at 4:57 pm

      Si tu veux avoir un aperçu de mes mésaventures avec certaines traductions, c’est ici


  9. Jackie Brown
    July 12, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    Très intéressant ton billet, ainsi que les commentaires à la suite. Ca m’intéresse d’autant plus que je suis moi-même traductrice. Il faut de bons yeux, mais j’avais posté sur mon blog la lettre d’une de mes anciennes profs de trad au magazine Lire à ce sujet.
    Sinon, le magazine ActuaLitté publie souvent des articles à propos de la traduction et du travail dans le milieu de l’édition.


    • July 13, 2014 at 12:48 pm

      Mes yeux ne sont pas assez bons pour le premier article mais le deuxième est passionnant. Merci pour le lien.
      Est-ce que cela veut dire qu’on ne peut pas retraduire tout de suite un texte si on juge que la traduction est mauvaise? Il faut attendre combien de temps?


  10. July 13, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Je ne sais pas du tout, mais c’est une bonne question. Ce que j’ai retenu de l’article, c’est que maintenant, on fait plus attention au choix du traducteur. Avant, j’ai l’impression que les traducteurs étaient “recrutés” par piston.


    • July 14, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      Sais-tu comment ça se passait pour les traductions au 19ème? En Angleterre, certaines traductions de Zola ont été édulcorées à cause de la censure et le traducteur a eu un procès. Je me demande si cela s’est produit en France également.


  11. Jackie Brown
    July 14, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    Je me souviens de ce billet sur le blog des Piles qui donne une idée de ce qui se pratiquait à cette époque.


    • July 15, 2014 at 10:40 pm

      MERCI pour ce lien. L’article est passionnant. Je n’ai jamais lu Walter Scott, il faudra que j’essaie (en anglais!)


  12. February 15, 2023 at 10:04 pm

    I enjoyed reading your take on this, Emma. You’re right, the descriptions of the city and the broad range of characters are what make it so successful. It really captures the energy and chaos of New York City.


    • February 18, 2023 at 9:48 am

      I should read another book by him. Which one would you recommend?


  1. November 9, 2014 at 7:21 pm
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  3. December 30, 2014 at 10:35 pm
  4. July 26, 2015 at 8:14 pm
  5. November 5, 2016 at 3:08 pm

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