“Maine,” “Sunrise,” and Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude is tricky.  I find myself caring deeply about how realistic a work of art is in some contexts, not at all in others. A couple of evenings ago I watched the silent film Sunrise, then started the contemporary novel Maine, and I had completely opposite reactions to their lack of verisimilitude.

Sunrise, subtitled A Song of Two Humans, came in fifth in the recent poll of the greatest movies of all time.  It was made in 1927 by the director F. W. Murnau (working in Hollywood for the first time);  Murnau also directed the silent vampire film Nosferatu.  Sunrise is a sweet love story; it is also completely bonkers.

The characters have no names.  The man has fallen in love with the Woman from the City.  Following an unbelievably awesome tracking shot, he meets her by the shore.  She wants him to come to the City with her.  But what about his wife?  Well, you should drown her!

Drown your wife, already!

Er, isn’t there a less drastic approach?  Like, er, divorce?  And, er, what about the man’s baby?  No matter!  He must drown his wife!  So he trudges around thinking about drowning his wife.  Apparently Murnau made the actor wear lead weights in his shoes so he’d look like a man thinking about drowning his wife.  Not that his wife notices.  She tells her maid: “Yay!  We’re going out for a boat trip!  Don’t wait up for us!  Someone else will do the chores on the farm!”  And so on.

But, you know, it’s a great movie.  I wouldn’t put it in my top ten list, but many images from it are going to stay with me.  I haven’t watched a lot of silent movies, but Netflix and Turner Classic Movies are helping to remedy the gap in my education.  The ones I’ve seen seem much like grand opera — big emotions, very static, and completely unrealistic.  (I love it in opera when you get big arias from characters who have just been suffocated, as in Aida and Rigoletto.)  You just have to go with the flow.

And then there’s Maine.  It’s a big, realistic novel about three generations of an Irish-Catholic family with a summer home in Maine.  The structure is to alternate chapters from different points of view among four female characters representing each of these generations.  You see each character in the present, but their memories fill in seventy years or so of family history.  A reasonable structure.  And the characters draw you in–it doesn’t take long for you to want to find out how everything turns out, even though the point-of-view women characters are either jerks or idiots.  But in a novel like this, verisimilitude counts for a lot.  There isn’t much plot–there is just life as it is lived.  And here, the author makes enough mistakes in the parts of life that I know something about that it really interferes with my enjoyment of the novel.  I don’t know about vermiculture in California, or the life of young singles in Manhattan (two areas that the novel covers), but I do know about Irish-Catholic families around Boston, and here I think the author just doesn’t have things quite right.  A few examples:

  • She has the grandmother going to daily 10:00 Mass in her summer home.  But parishes don’t have daily 10:00 Masses anymore.  (And it just takes you a minute to look this up on the Internet.)
  • The grandmother’s parish in her hometown of Canton, MA has closed, so she goes to Mass in Milton, instead.  That’s nuts.  Why would she drive all the way to Milton to go to Mass?  There are plenty of Catholic churches closer to Canton than that.  (The church she would be attending in Milton was the church where I was married.)
  • The grandmother’s son is supposed to have graduated sixth in his class from Notre Dame.  But I’ve never heard of any university publishing a rank in class like that.
  • One of the daughters complains that the son got sent to an expensive private school, while they had to go to public school.  Presumably they went to Canton High–a pretty good school!  And the son went to B. C. High–also a good school!  But not that much better, and actually not that expensive–I happen to know that tuition was $400 per year in the time period when this took place.  Anyone who lived in Canton could easily afford it.

And so on.  OK, all this stuff is trivial.  But it’s more annoying than the more idiotic lack of verisimilitude in Sunrise, because Sunrise doesn’t even pretend to be realistic.  I don’t think these glitches make Maine a bad novel, but the author could have done a little more research and made it a much better one.

Pondering the top 100 novels

Gore Vidal’s recent death led me to the Modern Library’s list of the top 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century.  The list has been around since 1999, but I didn’t realize it was online (as of course it was bound to be).  There are actually two lists–one from the Modern Library board, the other based on votes from readers–and the latter was hilarious hijacked by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard zealots (also Charles de Lint fans, for some reason).

Vidal isn’t on either list.  I hadn’t expected him to be, although I enjoyed the two or three novels of his that I read.  On the board’s list there is no John Updike, no Thomas Pynchon (although V and Gravity’s Rainbow are on the readers’ list), no Don DeLillo, no John Barth, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, or John Irving.  Surprisingly, John O’Hara makes the list, as does Thornton Wilder.  I was pleased to see John Cheever represented, although he was primarily a short-story writer.  The board’s science fiction choices are standard: 1984, Brave New World, Slaughterhouse-Five, Lord of the Flies, and A Clockwork Orange.  No Tolkien. Too much D. H. Lawrence and Saul Bellow for my taste.

I’ve read a little over half the novels on the list.  In particular, I seem to have missed a bunch of early twentieth-century American novels that the board thinks highly of — An American Tragedy; Winesburg, Ohio; Sister Carrie; the U.S.A trilogy; the Studs Lonigan trilogy; The Magnificent Ambersons….  Are they worth my time?

The list-making doesn’t amount to much, I suppose, except to get me (and others) to add books to their endless readling lists.  Same for the new list of the top movies of all time.  Is Vertigo really better than Citizen Kane?  Who cares?  Seen ’em both; liked ’em both.  But I’ve never heard of Sunrise, and it’s now in my Netflix queue.  And I guess I’ll give Sherwood Anderson a try, too.