I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game? — Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (1970)
I doubt if any portrayal of the sordid side of Hollywood (the entertainment industry) equals the brutal scathing honesty of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play it as it Lays. Certainly Didion built upon Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, which gave us a gritty, grainy portrait indeed of Hollywood’s fiends, misfits, and lost souls. Presumably other works such as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice helped lay the appropriate setting and mood for Didion. But she reached new heights (depths actually) in her dramatization of the ruthlessness and decadence that we have come to associate with the so-called Hollywood lifestyle. Play it is a book of intense realism, heightened by its understated narrative. In that respect, and also in its structure and use of alternate narrators, it reminds me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But Didion’s prose is much more accessible than Faulkner’s, and nothing is lost by its unadorned frankness. I was altogether “blown away” by this stark little Hollywood gem.
I recently read a very powerful and disturbing novel, The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France. The story is set in the same historical context as A Tale of Two Cities (probably my first choice for greatest novel of all time). Anatole France does not have Dickens’ wit (who does?), but he crafts an intricate and well-woven drama about the French Revolution and its unspeakable Reign of Terror. France’s comprehensive knowledge of history, as well as theology and ancient mythology, make the novel more challenging to read, but a richer experience. If you appreciate the tradition and style of Victor Hugo, you will probably enjoy The Gods and place it in the same distinguished class.
I don’t know what book was the first to be written about Nazi aggression and the Holocaust. Certainly The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was one of the first. But I would guess that The Trespassers by Laura Zametkin Hobson, which was published in 1943, was also among the earliest. Considering that it was written in the midst of World War II and the Holocaust, Hobson’s novel is quite remarkable. She captures much of the terror and misery that pervaded Europe during the very end of the 1930’s. She also foreshadows the increasing magnitude of that terror and misery, which the 1940’s would spawn through war and genocide.
The book especially dramatizes the plight of Europe’s innocent refugees in the face of worldwide immigration policies fraught with xenophobia. I have to say that that theme struck a personal chord in me and made me do a little soul-searching, because of my work. Although Hobson’s style may be a bit soapy or schmaltzy, her book is a very moving saga and as timely now as it was then.
Just out of curiosity, does anyone know of any earlier-published books about the Holocaust?