Wednesday 14 September 2022

Review: Anthony Adverse: The Roots of the Tree by Hervey Allen

 I was both high and low when I found Anthony Adverse. Down the basement of a bookshop but up the ladder, looking at the highest shelf. On closer inspection it appeared to be a 1930s bildungsroman set in the late eighteenth century and in three parts. I thought I’d make it my summer challenge read.

Volume One: The Roots of the Tree

Although the book is split into three ‘volumes’ mine was published in two and is supposed to be read as one. Although I’m reading it as one, I’ll review it as three. It’s nice to split these things up, especially when this story takes up so many pages. 

The first volume sets Anthony Adverse up for his big adventure, gives us his backstory, introduces us to the people he loves and who shaped him and sets up his drives, dreams and obsessions. The book doesn’t feel slow but it is deliberately paced, in the style of a film epic from the time. Anthony isn’t born until a hundred pages into the story but his pre-story is an interesting one, filled with forbidden love and a nuanced (ish) and engaging villain. I saw he's nuanced, he does want things other than badness, but Don Luis isn’t a subtle villain, he kills a dog by purposefully telling his driver to run over it with a carriage. All of these melodramatic shenanigans happen so Anthony can be born, lose his parents and be deposited in a convent with nothing but an old Madonna statue and ten pieces of gold.

Allen has this peculiar skill, where he’s able to throw in something arrestingly odd every now and then. This breaks up the slightly inevitable nature of the story (it is playing with some really old tropes and structures) and unsettles any judgements the reader might be making about the book. 

For example, Anthony is the only orphan of a convent which is pivoting from orphan-care to teaching and the Mother Superior can’t decide whether to keep him or let him go, the key event which makes her mind up is that he accidentally walks on her without her headdress and sees that she’s bald. The spark to get him out the convent could have been anything, but it’s a nun’s alopecia that does it.

Another little bolt of strangeness is how Anthony is introduced. In the previous part, Anthony has been dropped off in a hole in the convent wall that was built for that purpose (incidentally, the US are bringing such holes in the wall back). The new part starts with a description of the garden, how the convent started as a temple to Castor and Pollux and how there is now a bronze statue of one of them, repurposed as Jesus, next to an ancient fountain and a huge tree. Then attention is drawn to “a pair of eyes hung on a wall post”. It’s not as macabre as it would seem, those eyes are in fact attached to a baby and the baby is hung in a bag in the courtyard. Nor is the description of the baby as ‘a pair of eyes’ completely inappropriate, hanging in his bag, Anthony can only interact the world with his eyes.

He grows up an odd boy, with a language of Tuscan and church Latin, an outfit of an oversized cassock and a thorough understanding of myth, the classics and church history but no experience of ever standing in a field or playing with other children. His best friend is either his reflection or the bronze statue of Castor or Pollux. He needs some wising up and, this being a novel, he finds himself in the perfect position, the merchant company of the wonderfully named John Bonnyfeather. As well as being a merchant and the descendent of a Scottish nobleman ruined by the ’45, Bonnyfeather also happens to be Anthony’s grandfather. It does seem strange that the crafty Don Luis would deposit the unwanted baby in the same town as that baby’s grandfather but I feel this is a book that will have a few more coincidences as we progress.

Another surprising moment is when Anthony rediscovers Angela, the young love of his life after events have taken her away and make an actress of her. They meet in Signora Bovino’s apartments (astrology upstairs ‘satisfactory amatory entertainment on the first floor’) and sleep together. Then they are treated to a generous and joyful breakfast by her sugar daddy who is simply happy that Angela’s happy. Whilst such arrangements were possible in the eighteenth century, and even matter-of-factly talked about, I found such flexibility of sexual roles surprising to find in a book from the thirties and in so conservative a genre as historical fiction.

So far, sex is one of the main themes of the book. Anthony is himself a product of extra-marital sex and he’s deeply ambivalent about it. He’s frightened of sex when it’s a pure animal pleasure, a young man proudly masturbates in front of him and he’s horrified by the lack of soul. However, he’s delighted by it when he feels it’s a joining of souls and experiences it on almost religious terms - having visions of a strange mashup of Maria, his mother but also the virgin Mary and his ideal self, “the way his soul thought of itself, if only the world would let it be.” There’s also a Jungian element of seeing his true self as a women as well as a confused mother/madonna religious element which runs throughout the book.

The dark sexual element of the book is represented by the provokingly named Faith. She’s first introduced as the faithful lady’s maid to Anthony’s mother, who wasn’t allowed to join her in her new marriage. The implication is that Faith would have been able to solve all the problems at the beginning of the book, that she is capable, kind and loyal. When we meet her, things might not be so straight forward, she’s withdrawn with almost green skin and ‘lemur’s’ hips. These hips are described as, ‘an obstruction to life’ being made for love affair but not pregnancy. It’s revealed more and more that she is a nymphomaniac, and a jealous one at that. She encouraged the ill-fated match of Maria and Don Luis so she could shtup him, she also has her way with Anthony and he hates her for it. That said, as much as the book is trying to set her up as an antagonist, she doesn’t actually do anything particularly evil, it’ll be interesting to see where her character goes next.

Indeed, I’m interested to see where all of the book goes next. Napoleon’s invading and Anthony is off to wrap up some business with a slaving company in Havana. I’m sure there’ll be religious and pagan imagery, I’m sure there’ll be good and bad sex, I’m sure there’ll be crises of identity - it’ll be a fun journey.

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