“And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.”
It has been a really, really long time since the last Pulitzer Prize winner I successfully finished and wrote about. A lot has happened in the past nearly five months and I was unable to do any significant reading since my books were in boxes and being transported from one city to another. However, in the past month, I have found enough stability to unpack them, organize them on my shelf and start working my way through them again.
Of course, the novel that I chose to restart my Pulitzer journey with was, what I’m guessing, one of the most difficult novels to get through—not because it was a painstakingly dull read like The Magnificent Ambersons, but because it was so deeply profound and so utterly, dreadfully beautiful.
There are no words I can write here to describe Robert Penn Warren’s 1947 Pulitzer winner, All the King’s Men, that would do the novel any sort of justice, but because of the nature of this journey, I have to at least document it.
Let me first of all say that, after reading this novel, I’d really like Robert Penn Warren to be one of my favorite authors of all time. Unfortunately, this one book is not enough of a sample for me to make that sort of call; it is, however, enough for me to say that you can rest assured that once this journey is over, I will be investigating more of Warren’s writings. His style of writing is so dense with beauty—heartbreaking, soul crushing beauty—and it is almost impossible to get through twenty or even ten pages without having to put the book down to take a deep breath and, perhaps even, weep a little.
In the first twelve pages, for instance, Warren embarks on this long narrative—a soliloquy, as it were—about an envelope. Of course, this discourse isn’t really about the envelope at all—the envelope is merely the catalyst that introduces the reader to the theme of “knowing,” and how “knowing” will steal your innocence, your naivete, and this theme will run its course throughout the novel. At first, as the reader, you curse Warren’s name and say out loud, “What the hell are you even talking about?? Just get on with the story already!” Then, the almost stream of consciousness narrative is over and you are left gasping for air, wanting to read the paragraph over and over because of its raw power. You know you have to leave this moment behind, but you are constantly drawn back to it:
You saw the eyes bulge suddenly like that, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You know something had happened inside him, and though: It’s coming. It was always that way. There was the bulge and the glitter, and there was the cold grip way down in the stomach as though somebody has laid hold of something in there, in the dark which is you, with a cold hand in cold rubber glove. It was like the second when you come late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you can lean and pick it up, but don’t open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there’s an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddle up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what’s in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know, too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn’t want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killer, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which if he had it, would save him. There’s the cold in your stomach, but open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know.
Even re-reading it now has winded me and has broken my heart yet again. And the most amazing part about his writing style is that he maintains this level of intensity and beauty throughout the entire novel. Four hundred and sixty four pages of literature that is so profound and so moving that it makes you want to lay down on your floor, turn out the lights, and just stare at the darkness swirling around the ceiling. It’s literature so beautiful that it makes you never want to read again—it’s as if Warren has just given you the ultimate gift and, from now on, you’ll never be in want again. The only difference is that Burden (Warren, rather) was able to articulate the way he hurt in a meaningful way.
When things like this happen to us in real life (and I’m speaking about us, men), we just get angry and leave it at that.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much to say about the story itself. It wasn’t a bad story or anything, I was just indifferent to it. I’ve read better stories, and I’ve definitely read much worse. But this one is really predictable throughout—it is the story of a country bumpkin runs for governor, wins the election, goes mad with power, and his madness is the start of his descent into futility; it is the story of an idealistic doctor whose idealism lands him his dream job of running a major hospital, but whose naivete puts him in the middle of a political system that drives him to corruption; it is the story of a beautiful young woman who forsakes the love that was shown her by the one man that wants nothing but to love her, and becomes the catalyst that undoes the worlds of those she loves most; it is the story of a man who just needs to work and in so doing, becomes a part of a corrupt political machine. These stories are nothing new. In fact, I daresay that there’s nothing really original about these stories—we hear about them in everyday life, literally everyday. In fact, I have even read somewhere that Warren based the characters on real life persons (which, of course, makes this novel an interesting piece where the line between fiction and reality is blurred).
But I am forced to believe that it wasn’t the originality of the story isn’t what garnered the Pulitzer Prize—it was the breathtaking beauty of Warren’s writing that did.