Friday, 29 August 2003

John O'Hara: Appointment in Samarra (1935)

Edition: Penguin, 1997
Review number: 1183

Set in an American small town during the Depression, Appointment in Samarra is the story of a man who takes to drink and then kills himself after a social faux pas. It was hailed as a great novel by Ernest Hemingway no less when it first appeared (though his praise was in part an attack on Sinclair Lewis, who had described it as obscene). From such a high, O'Hara's reputation could only dwindle, especially as he ended up as an author who outlived his talent. Even so, Appointment in Samarra made it into the Modern Library's list of the hundred greatest English language novels of the twentieth century.

One interesting thing about this novel is the naive style in which it is written. O'Hara is unwilling to introduce a character without telling the reader a great deal about them and their history (something that would-be authors are often warned not to do). In places this is irritating, but O'Hara usually manages to make it fascinating. These little portraits can be quite barbed, as when he says of the local doctor that "some of his patients even lived".

The central character, fairly closely based on parts of O'Hara's own early life, is massively important in this novel. Julian English begins as an insider, a rich young man who spends much of his time meeting other rich young people at exclusive clubs in and around his home town. He gives way to a drunken impulse (throwing his drink in the face of a man he doesn't like very much) and becomes an outsider, unable even really to see why he is no longer accepted. (His crime may seem trivial, but the man he attackes is someone to whom he owes a large sum of money, a particularly strong tie in the Depression, and is a pillar of the town's Catholic community while English is a Protestant, leading others to assume sectarian motives for the attack.) It is one of the strengths of Appointment in Samarra that this slight difference in status is so clearly portrayed.

While this all makes for an interesting read, it hardly amounts to sufficient reason to put Appointment in Samarra in the top hundred novels. What is unusual about it for its date is its sympathetic portrayal of feminine sexuality in the person of Julian's wife. D. H. Lawrence is famous for having introduced the woman as an openly sexual being into literature, but the women I know who have talked about this have told me that he doesn't really describe what, say, a female orgasm feels like; his portrayal is more a masculine idea of what it should be like. It seems to me that O'Hara is more believable in what he says, even if this is the aspect of the novel which was attacked as obscene. (I obviously can't be sure, as I have never experienced sex as a woman!)

The title of the novel deserves some comment. There is a story which I thought was in the Arabian Nights (though my dictionary of quotations attributes it to Somerset Maugham). A man in Baghdad met Death in the marketplace, a sure omen of his death. Although he saw that Death looked surprised, the terrified man leapt on his horse and galloped to Samarra. But there Death took his soul - no one can cheat death. The point of this little story is the reason for Death's surprise - it was because he met the man in Baghdad when he had an appointment with him for the next day in distant Samarra.

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