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
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
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
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