(from the Guardain
by Matthew Spencer)
Refresh yourself on the first half of the opening round
Check out the final 32 novelists in the tournament
The last bout saw Willa Cather's Death Comes to the Archbishop triumph over F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned. Who will become the last winner of this round?
Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry v Wallace Stegner's The Spectator Bird
Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (Signet Classics)
Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, the first American to do so, "for his ability to create, with wit and humour, new types of characters". This is Lewis' "preacher novel" and concerns the gamboling fraudster Elmer Gantry's fluctuating success within the clergy. He is golden-haired, golden-tongued and charismatic but he cannot avoid his own hypocritical impulses. Gantry lusts for power yet can't resist the desires of the flesh and, although he preaches the gospel in many forms, he does not believe a word of it.
Although this book was scandalous at the time, it feels its age now. The novel still stands, however, as a record of a grotesquely decadent period in American history. Although entertaining enough, Lewis' Elmer Gantry lacks any real depth; a single drum banged loudly and repeatedly.
Wallace Earle Stegner, The Spectator Bird (Penguin Classics)
As early as 1944, Sinclair Lewis himself hailed Stegner as, "one of the most important novelists in America" but the national book award winning novel was not published until 1976. The Spectator Bird was written when Stegner was sixty-seven and resonates with the cranky, retrospective musings of an older writer.
It tells the story of Joe Alston, a retired literary agent who feels that "he has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year. He knows nothing that posterity needs to be told about." He is, of course, the "Spectator" of the book's title.
A postcard from an old friend in Denmark sparks memories of a trip, back to the "homeland", that he and his wife made twenty years before. Whilst there, they found themselves living with the alluring Astrid, a subjugated Danish aristocrat; a situation which inspires awkward memories. Joe reluctantly revisits the difficult trip by reading his journals aloud to his wife and, in so doing, reveals that he was less of a spectator than we were first told.
It is a fabulously written account of regret, memory and the subtleties and challenges of a long successful marriage. Stegner deals with the dual threads of the novel with aplomb and produces a thoughtful, crystalline book.
Winner - The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner