For some time now I have promised, and not yet delivered, a book review of one of the two following books: THE ENORMOUS ROOM, by E.E. Cummings, or THE GARGOYLE, by Andrew Davidson. Voters weighed in and ultimately the scales tipped in favor of Cummings’ classic, rather than the nouveau contemporary. I’m a little surprised – I rather suspected that, generally, people would be more interested in hearing about a modern work than an old classic, for which I’m sure there are many, most likely far better, book reviews available. But, any rate, the decision has been made, and so I am finally delivering on my promise, and so without further ado I present to you my review of THE ENORMOUS ROOM.
In my opinion, THE ENORMOUS ROOM is absolutely a must-read for every aspiring writer. Whether you aim to be a journalist, a novelist, a biographer, or even an academic, writing books and essays for formal journals, this book is an essential study in portraiture. Perhaps because Cummings was an artist as well, fond of sketching the characters and situations he describes in his book—indeed, the edition I read was a typescript edition with included illustrations from his sketchbook—he has a gift, better than any author I have ever read, for capturing and recording both the physical aspect and the personality of each of his characters.
THE ENORMOUS ROOM is an eclectic jumble of many things. On the one hand, it is a war story. It takes place over the three months of autumn, roughly, of 1917. Cummings’ and his friend B had volunteered to serve in the French Red Cross, Section Sanitaire, No. 21, during World War I, and they had completed three of their requisite six months of service when the book begins. On the other hand, the book is far less about the war itself, and far more about the administrative idiocy of the French Government during the war. The book is, perhaps, a prison story—it is Cummings’ general account of the three months he spent with his friend, B, at La Ferté-Macé, which was sort of a temporary holding place for those people the French government suspected of wrongdoing but who had not yet been proven to be criminals. And while the story certainly includes a good deal of description of foul living conditions, mistreatment by the guards, and tales of the prisoners’ laughing attempts at rebellion, the whole account is told with such joy, such cheerfulness and amiability, that one almost forgets how horrifying the conditions really were for these not-yet-proven-guilty “criminals”.
Cummings and his friend B had been imprisoned because B wrote what was apparently a treasonous letter to one of his friends, which was subsequently intercepted by a censor, and the two of them promptly arrested, hauled off (separately, though they are reunited later) through a series of prisons, interrogated multiple times, and then finally deposited at La Ferté-Macé. But ultimately B and Cummings are so overjoyed to have escaped “Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un,” that they accept their trials and punishments with a light and easy heart. Cummings, for example, when he learns he is going to be arrested and sent away, finds himself proud and ecstatic:
“’For Christ’s sake, Cummings, what’s up?’
‘You got me’ I said, laughing at the delicate naïveté of the question.
‘Did y’ do something to get pinched?’
‘Probably’ I answered importantly and vaguely, feeling a new dignity.
‘Well, if you didn’t, maybe B—- did.’
‘Maybe’ I countered, trying not to appear enthusiastic. As a matter of fact I was never so excited and proud. I was, to be sure, a criminal! Well, well, thank God that settled one question for good and all—no more section sanitaire for me!”
Later, when Cummings happily finds that his friend B has also come to La Ferté-Mace, the two have a beautiful reunion, eagerly discussing the great pleasures of being a condemned criminal:
“’Do you mean to say we’re espions [spies] too?’
‘Of course!’ B said enthusiastically. ‘Thank God! And in to stay. Every time I think of the section sanitaire, and A. and his thugs, and the whole rotten red-taped Croix Rouge [Red Cross], I have to laugh. Cummings, I tell you this is the finest place on earth!’ […]
I laughed for sheer joy.”
But, war tale or no, prison tale or no, at its heart the book is a series of portraits. They might even be called caricatures, for their peculiarly laughable and exaggerated quality. It is a marvelous collection of in-depth, often chapter-long descriptions of the various characters from all walks of life who have been deemed, for some reason or other, a threat to the French government and therefore worthy of imprisonment. It is for this reason that I say that the book is a necessary read for all aspiring writers: If nothing else (though it is, in fact, many other things as well) it is a technical study in how to describe personalities and physiques engagingly and accurately; how to paint a visual picture of a character and at the same time study his or her psychology.
He and his friend B give nicknames to everyone. In fact, throughout the entirety of the novel, we really only learn the names of about three or four of the characters, of whom I count Cummings himself as one. These nicknames vary in depth and complexity, from Apollyon (the Devil, the Director of La Ferté-Macé and the one who is responsible for keeping them all in such miserable conditions) to the Spanish Whoremaster, from complexity and curiosity in the Machine Fixer, The Zulu, or the Trick-Raincoat Sheeney, to simplicity evident in the Wanderer and the Hat. (Don’t tell me the nicknames alone aren’t enough to convince you to read it.)
In some ways, the climax of the book is Cummings’ eventual release and return home. Perhaps that’s the most obvious direction of the plot. For me, however, the stories directed, slowly but surely, not towards Cummings’ release but towards the portraits of the Delectable Mountains, that is, four characters that Cummings and B encountered in their prison, semi-convicted criminals, personalities who were so strange and charming that Cummings devoted a chapter to each of them.
Take, for example, the description of Cummings’ first sighting of The Zulu, one of the Delectable Mountains:
“The first thing the fourth nouveau did was to pay no attention anybody; lighting a cigarette in an unhurried manner as he did so, and puffing silently and slowly as if in all the universe nothing whatever save the taste of tobacco existed.
A bevy of Hollanders were by this time about the triangle, asking him all at once Was he from so and so, What was in his box, How long had he been in coming, were on the point of trying the lock—when suddenly with incredible agility the unperturbed smoker shot a yard forward, landing quietly beside them; and exclaimed rapidly and briefly through his nose
He said it almost petulantly, or as a child says ‘Tag! You’re it.’ […]
All this time the incognizable nouveau was smoking slowly and calmly, and looking at nothing at all with his black buttonlike eyes. Upon his face no faintest suggestion of expression could be discovered by the hungry minds which focused unanimously upon its almost stern contours. The deep furrows in the cardboardlike cheeks (furrows which resembled slightly the gills of some extraordinary fish, some unbreathing fish) moved not an atom. The mustache drooped in something like mechanical tranquility. The lips closed occasionally with a gesture at once abstracted and sensitive upon the lightly and carefully held cigarette; whose curling smoke accentuated the poise of the head, at once alert and uninterested.” (138-9)
I mean, answer me, please—do character descriptions really get any better than that?
Take also, perhaps, our introduction to Jean le Nègre, the only black man to pass through La Ferté-Macé, and in whom Cummings and B take great delight:
“Even as the plantons fumbled with the locks I heard the inimitable unmistakable divine laugh of a negro. The door opened at last. Entered a beautiful pillar of black strutting muscle topped with a tremendous display of the whitest teeth on earth. The muscle bowed politely in our direction, the grin remarked musically; ‘Bo’jour, tou’l’monde’; then came a cascade of laughter. […] “J’mappelle Jean, moi” the muscle rapidly answered with sudden solemnity, proudly gazing to left and right as if expecting a challenge to this statement: but when none appeared, it relapsed as suddenly into laughter—as if hugely amused at itself and everyone else […].
Thus into the misère of La Ferté-Macé stepped lightly and proudly Jean le Nègre.” (197-8)
Hopefully by this point you have picked up on Cummings’ eloquence and immense command of the English language, his singular vision and descriptive abilities, and the captivating joy with which he describes the events and characters that he encountered during his (relatively) short prison tour. For me, this alone would be enough to convince me to read the book.
If, however, you require more convincing, or you require something more sophisticated than pure technical talent to interest you in a book, then I might also point out the undercurrents of political commentary on the nature of wartime treatment of prisoners and the blatant and overwhelming idiocy of bureaucracy; the themes of innocence and simplicity that run through the book like little silver streams; or the fact that Cummings was the first author to use two languages at the same time in this style, for French is incorporated easily and fluidly alongside the English (after all, they were in a French prison, maintained by French gendarmes, and at the mercy of the French government), with a full glossary at the end of all the French terms and their translations. Though I won’t go into detail on these additional factors, perhaps one (or two or three) of them will intrigue you enough to pick up the book and give it ago.
My very greatest thanks to Ralph Wheatley, my extremely sophisticated and generous friend from Gimios, France, for not only recommending that I read it and lending me the book, but also for subsequently gifting the book to me when I insisted I had to underline and annotate in order to fully appreciate its marvels. Thank you, my dear friend.
5/5 stars. I derived nothing but simple pleasure from reading this book.