Good read from the past.
It’s been some time since I last read pages from this novel with my students. And this is one of my favourite American novels ever. I got to hear of it during a beautiful show dealing with words, good books & music I saw on Tv and, since then, I’ve tried to read at least part of it to as many young people as I have been able to. Not in the last three years, though.
It’s a story built on very simple facts, very ordinary people, very simple words which aims at transforming history and reality into unheroic epic mythology. That of everyday battles and sufferings. It is a story set in California in the time of WWII but it is actually a story beyond space and time. There is a Homer ( the 16 year old protagonist )and a Ulysses (his little brother) and a Marcus (his elder brother at war). They live in Ithaca, San Joaquin Valley. They’ve got a sister and a mother. But there are no heroes. The Macauleys’ struggles and dreams reflect those of America’s second generation immigrants but- and especially- also those of any human being at any time in any place. No , they are not heroic epic figures but real life protagonists of THE HUMAN COMEDY.
My favourite character is Homer, the protagonist, in his teen, determined to become the fastest telegraph messenger in the West, happy to be the man of the family in a difficult moment. Happy to ride his bycicle in the wind. But it’s wartime. Time to grow – up for him. Childhood ends when we realize sufference and death exist and are there inescapably for all of us. Homer becomes aware of that little by little: he is a messenger of death. A mother opens the door, he gives her a telegram and …
“It wasn’t Homer fault. His work was to deliver telegrams. Even so, he felt awkward and almost as if he alone were responsible for what had happened (… )He was on his bycicle suddenly, riding swiftly down the dark street, tears coming out of his eyes, his mouth whispering crazy young curses. When he got back to the telegraph office the tears had stopped, but everything else had started and he knew there would be no stopping them” (pp.26/28)
(Homer and Ulysses playing)
But the passage I like best in this novel is Marcus’s letter from the front to his younger brother Homer. Unforgettable. Touching.
I do not feel like a hero. I have no talent for such feelings. I hate no one. I do not feel patriotic either, for I have always loved my country, its people, its towns, my home, and my family. I would rather I were not in the Army. I would rather there were no War. I have no idea what is ahead, but whatever it is I am resigned and ready for it. I’m terribly afraid – I must tell you this – but I believe that when the time comes I shall do what is right for me. I shall obey no command other than the command of my own heart. (…)
More than anything I want to come back to Ithaca. I want to come back for Mary and a family of my own. We leave soon – for action, but nobody knows where the action will be. Therefore this maybe my last letter to you for some time. I hope it’s not the last of all, but if it is, hold us together. (…) I am glad I am the Macauley who is involved in this War, for it would be a pity and a mistake if it were you.
I can say in a letter what I could never say in speech. You are the best of the Macauleys. Nothing must stop you. Now I’ll write your name here, to remind you: Homer Macauley. That’s who you are. I miss you. I can’t wait to see you again. God bless you. So long. Your brother, Marcus” (pp. 166 -168)
So simple, so compelling.
I can’t say exactly why, but it moves me to tears. Each time. Each time I read it silently. Each time I ask one of my students to read it loud. Even now… typing it here for you.
THE HUMAN COMEDY (novel)
THE HUMAN COMEDY (film)
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