Misery keeps three 1946 bestsellers on top

My choices for the three bestselling novels of 1946 for today’s readers have little in common except that somebody in them is miserable. My top picks are Arch of Triumph, This Side of Innocence, and The Snake Pit.

Arch of Triumph

Quote: "To their native country [refugees]they are traitors. And abroad they are still citizens of their native country " against a background of a stone wall.

Arch of Triumph the third of Erich Maria Remarque’s novels to make the bestseller list in America. Each is about some aspect of the the German people’s experiences in World Wars I and II.

The most famous, of course is All Quiet on the Western Front, which tells about the disillusionment of schoolboys who believed Germany’s might would make a quick end to the Great War and that dying for one’s country was glorious.

Remarque’s second bestseller, The Road Back, examined what happened to such soldiers when, their innocence drowned in the blood of WWI, they returned home to a defeated, demoralized, bankrupt Germany.

Set on the cusp of the Second World War, The Arch of Triumph tells of a Jewish surgeon who, unable to practice medicine legally in Germany, has fled to Paris.

He’s not safe there, either.

Dr. Ravic is a dark character, keeping to physical and emotional shadows. There’s something heroic about his refusal to bend to tyranny, but his doom is so certain that it dims even heroism.

All three of Remarque’s novels remain important books. Read in sequence, they  provide insights about 20th century history.

Arch of Triumph will also help us understand aspects of our own day, such why Angela Merkle has been so determined that Germany welcome migrants.

This Side of Innocence

Photograph of bustle on woman's dress, symbolizing historical setting of This Side of Innocence

Taylor Caldwell’s novel This Side of Innocence exposes a family whose members are  as unpleasant a clutch of characters as readers would want to find in- or outside of  a book cover.

As fascinating as they are revolting, the characters make their own lives so miserable that they can make others miserable effortlessly.

Caldwell reveals, occasionally comments, but neither judges nor preaches.

She doesn’t need to: Their ends are predictable from their beginnings.

The Snake Pit

Barred window in stone wall of building suggests setting of The Snake Pit.

Mary Jane Ward’s novel The Snake Pit is a study of a different type of misery, the misery of mental illness.

Ward herself had a mental breakdown at age 34, which she drew on to create the fictional experiences of another young writer, Virginia Cunningham.

The treatment Virginia receives in the novel, was standard practice in the ’40s: medication, shock treatments, body-temperature baths.

Ward’s description, and the film version of her novel, created a movement for legislative reform of the institutional care of the mentally ill.

The fictional Virginia, who drifted into mental illness, is institutionalized and recovers.

The uncertainty in the novel about what caused Virginia’s breakdown and which—if any—of her treatments was responsible for her recovery suggests the same misery could happen to anyone, even to the novelist’s readers.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but I find that possibility more frightening than anything invented by Stephen King.

That’s the best of the best for 1946. If you haven’t read one of these, please give one of them a try.

Next week we’ll move on to the bestsellers of 1936.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Arch of Triumph dark for refugees on eve of WWII

Arch of Triumph is Erich Maria Remarque’s psychological novel about a German refugee in Paris on the eve of World War II.

Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque

Unable to practice medicine legally after the Gestapo seized his identity papers and tortured him, a once-famous surgeon has fled to Paris. Between deportations, Dr. Ravic performs illegal operations for inept doctors and treats whores in a brothel.


Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque

Walter Sorell & Denver Lindley, trans. D. Appleton-Century, 1945. 455 p.

1946 Bestseller #7. My grade: A. 1946 Bestseller #7. My grade: A.


Ravic drifts into a relationship with singer Joan Madou but remains emotionally dead, a “refugee from everything that is permanent,” including love.

His only hope is for revenge.

Encountering his Gestapo enemy, Ravic kills without regret, but also without satisfaction.

As soon as France declares war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, refugees are packed off to a concentration camp on a night “so dark that one could not even see the Arc de Triomphe.”

But Ravic goes into the darkness carrying his instruments and medicine, telling others, “Don’t be afraid.”

Arch of Triumph is not easy reading.

Remarque deliberately makes readers unravel the characters’ histories: Refugees must conceal themselves.

And the idea of civilians caught in a military operation is gloomy and painful.

In ’39, the German refugee was interned in France. Today, the Syrian refugee is interned in Turkey or Greece.

Same song, different verse.

And that is why Arch of Triumph is still worth reading today.

 © 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Recommended 1920, 1929 bestsellers

Since I just recently reviewed a few of the bestsellers of 1920 and 1929 I missed when their anniversary years came up in my schedule, I’ll update my picks for the best of the lists now.

None from the 1920 bestsellers

There are really no titles among the 1920 bestsellers that are more than just mildly interesting today. The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim kept my attention while I was reading it, but aside from recalling that it’s about two men that exchange identities I can’t recall anything about it now.

I can recall a few impressions about others novels on the 1920 list, but none that calls me to reread them. You can check out the entire list on the bestsellers list page.

The 1929 list is another kettle of fish entirely.

Three durable novels from the 1929 list

Cover of All Quiet on the Western Front shows young German soldierThe top selling novel of 1929,  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, is still a powerful novel that deserves to be reread. And it’s still timely as the western world commemorates the 1914-1918 war that was to end all wars.

The story about German soldiers who left the schoolroom for the trenches draws on Remarque’s own experiences.

Before the war, he had been training to be a teacher. He was conscripted and fought for Germany on the Western Front, where he received shrapnel wounds that confined him to a hospital until the war ended.

His novel shows how the war changed schoolboys into soldiers, hardening them, but not quite destroying their sensitivity.

Although none of the other nine titles comes close to being as good as All Quiet, several are better than average.

Inside cover of Scarlet Sister Mary
Inside cover of Scarlet Sister Mary

Scarlet Sister Mary by Julie Peterkin is the second of my top picks for the year. It explores the experience of a proud, Southern black woman who by her early 30s has five children by five different fathers and two grandchildren to raise on her own.

Although the novel is set on a plantation just after the end of the Civil War, the story is not about race relations but about interpersonal relationships. That alone makes it worthy of rereading today.

Mary’s promiscuity makes her unwelcome in the church that called her  “Sister Mary” when she was a teen and there is no other support system she can call on as she sees herself growing old.

cover of Dark Hester is dark blueMy third choice from the 1929 list is Dark Hester by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. It is the story of a mother who has built her entire life around her son.

Monica can barely stand her daughter-in-law. Hester ruined all the plans she had for a happy life as the center of her son’s universe.  Monica thinks, “No one cared if old hearts break.”

The principal characters tip-toe around their distrust and resentment until events conspire to bring mother and daughter-in-law to a confrontation.

Despite its creakily concocted plot, Dark Hester has an air of reality. There’s no happy ending, only a slightly-less-unhappy-than-expected one.

And that is realistic.

1931 top novel picks are not for those who skim

My choices for the most enduring novels of 1931 are an odd lot. Though very different,  each is difficult reading for readers accustomed to stereotypical characters and happy endings.

Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth surely belongs on the list both for its vivid prose and its glimpse into nearly extinct Chinese culture. However, I don’t think the novel is appealing to most people in the world today. In a metropolitan world that values  property, The Good Earth celebrates an agrarian society that values land.

Maid in Waiting by John Galsworthy has a similar set of vitues and deficits. I’m afraid the self-controlled, cultured, public-sprited citizens who keep populate this and others of Galsworthy’s 9-volume Forsyte saga will appear as preposterous to today’s readers as farmer Wung Lu. However, Galsworthy has amazing facility to reveal character in undramatic contexts, and he’s a wonderful writer.

The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque is a glimpse of Germany after World War I. As soldiers return home, they find their country and themselves changed forever. The novel provides  insight into the origins of World War II. It also is a powerful glimpse into the effects of post traumatic stress.

Equally compelling reading is Fannie Hurst’s Back Street. This novel about  a kept woman might better be called a novel of an ill-kept woman. Even the son is appalled by the conditions in which his father’s mistress was forced to live while her financier-philanthropist lover lived in luxury.

Linda Gorton Aragoni