Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Sailing on the Ship of Fools

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Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools was the bestselling novel of 1962, and when you read it again today, fifty years later, it isn’t hard to see why. It’s kind of big, ambitious, socially relevant book that still wins awards and appeals to a wide range of readers, and it was one of the most anticipated novels of its era—its release was announced by its publisher on an annual basis, only to be repeatedly postponed by the author, who worked on it for more than twenty years. (It’s as if Jonathan Franzen had spent two decades, rather than one, writing Freedom.) And it remains an impressive technical achievement, a novel of five hundred dense pages that tells us something about thirty different characters on an ocean voyage from Mexico to Germany in 1931. Porter moves easily from one passenger’s thoughts to another, often within a single paragraph, and she has a keen eye for the telling detail or exchange that fixes a character vividly in one’s imagination.

It’s over the course of the entire book that the technique starts to pall. Porter’s characters are as fixed and unchangeable as the shades in the Inferno, but while Dante gives us a few unforgettable moments with each figure and then moves on, we’re stuck with Porter’s passengers for many more pages to come. Each character is identified from the start with a single personality trait—Baumgartner is a drunk, Denny a Texan boor, Rieber a ridiculous anti-Semite—and although we initially expect the author to gradually reveal their complexities, instead, they only become more fixed in their behavior as the novel progresses. Porter seems to be reacting against the idea that fiction has to be about change, when in fact people are trapped by history, circumstance, or qualities of soul; and perhaps it was just too difficult to convincingly render such a large cast. But the fact remains that of all novel’s characters, only two—Dr. Schumann, the ship’s doctor, and the aging but attractive Mrs. Treadwell—have any capacity to surprise us.

On that level, the novel struck me as a disappointment, and indeed, it isn’t nearly as highly regarded as Porter’s short fiction. But then I watched the 1965 movie version, and I realized that disappointment is a relative quality. Porter’s novel, while full of incident, comes off as tediously static, but at least she doesn’t overemphasize the story’s allegorical elements, although the temptation must have been enormous. The film, by director Stanley Kramer and screenwriter Abby Mann, has no such qualms: it shifts the setting from 1931 to 1933, in order to indulge more easily in historical irony, and takes Porter’s characters, who were already fixed and flat, and turns them into total caricatures. In the book, the only Jewish character, Herr Löwenthal, is self-righteous and unsympathetic; the movie makes him patriotic, humorous, and brave, a war hero with an Iron Cross, the better to score easy points over his evident complacency toward the rise of the Nazis. (At its low point, Löwenthal says: “There are nearly a million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do—kill all of us?”)

Porter, to her credit, doesn’t indulge in this kind of cheap effect, and the movie’s willingness to do so tells us a lot about the difference between the two kinds of storytelling. Ship of Fools is far from a perfect novel, but if anything, it errs on the side of frustrating our expectations: the characters remain in their moral and spiritual ruts, they don’t go out of their way to endear themselves to us, and by the end, nothing has been resolved. The movie version is the clear ancestor of Oscar-winning prestige pictures like Crash: technically proficient films that are judged largely by how they confirm our own social assumptions. We walk out of the theater, as David Mamet says, humming how virtuous we are. And this kind of moral simplification extends to the purely sentimental side. In the book, the love affair between Dr. Schumann and La Condesa, the ship’s beautiful exile, remains unconsummated, and Schumann’s heart condition stays in the background; in the movie, not only do they share a passionate embrace, but Schumann dies soon thereafter. If the novel doesn’t give us enough; the movie gives us too much, and then some. And looking at the movies and books we have now, fifty years later, it’s hard to see how anything has changed.

Written by nevalalee

July 19, 2012 at 9:48 am

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