Which book is considered an American classic
The first son
Süddeutsche Zeitung | Discussion of June 27, 2014Once Upon a Time in America
Philipp Meyer's “The First Son” tells the story of Texas in an epic widescreen format.
The book is, if not that, a great American novel
BY CHRISTOPHER SCHMIDT
Jeannie thinks the question is tactless. In Texas, where she's from, you don't ask how much land you own. That would be just as absurd as wearing a cowboy hat - these things only came into vogue when it was over for the cowboys and the cattle had long been rounded up by helicopters. Nevertheless, she gives the correct answer to her classmates at the elite boarding school in New England, where she was sent. The punch line, however, is in how she does it. Topsy doesn't find that number particularly impressive until she learns it isn't from acres , but from sections the talk is because acre she is taught that it is too small a unit of measure for the ranch of Jeannie's family.
Now the Yankee girls have heard that everything is a little bigger in Texas. However, in order to get an idea of the factor that has to be multiplied by here as a German reader, it should be mentioned that the farm in question covers 1400 square kilometers; the urban area of Munich would fit into it about four times, and there would still be room for the Vatican. This is a good piece of Texas, enough for a kingdom, and yet only the soil of this second largest US state, which in turn can hardly be literarily accommodated in less space than that of a 600-page novel. The American Philipp Meyer, born in 1974, has now written this novel.
"The First Son" rolls up Texan history, from the proclamation of the Republic in 1836 to the present day, representing the founding myth of the United States. When the Comanches hear that there are already twenty million settlers in the country, this news is more devastating to them than all the wars they waged against the white man. Eli becomes the chronicler of her downfall; he is the "first son", born in the same year that Texas declared itself independent from Mexico, the progenitor of the McCulloughs, a mythical dynasty of cattle and oil barons whose saga the novel tells in epic breadth - with apocalyptic tremolo and clever Time leaps at the same time.
Three generations of the McCulloughs take turns speaking in this decay novel. The change of perspective zoom in on historical turning points - from the secession through the era of the "bandit wars" between Mexicans and Texans to the end of the oil boom. The historical wide angle signals Meyer's claim to not only write a great American novel, but also the great American novel, "The Great American Novel" or GAN, as Henry James ridiculed the genre in the nation-building years, shortly after John W. De Forest coined the term in 1868.
In his voluminous book "The Dream of the Great American Novel", the retired Harvard professor Lawrence Buell shows that the GAN label was never a burden ( Harvard University Press, Cambridge / Massachusetts 2014. 567 pages, 29 euros ). The term was ironically broken in its early days and had no greater nimbus than "other great American things like the great American sewing machine, the great American private school and the great American sleeping car," said a contemporary. The label has always served less as a pathos formula for symbolic exaggeration than as an instrument for critical questioning. At the same time, Buell warns against taking this ironic reserve at face value. "The pissed-off of some critics suggests that the spring is still gushing vigorously," he writes in a rather unacademic manner about the Great American Novel, this American specialty that grew out of the need for self-assurance and has survived every death sentence.
There is also irony with Philipp Meyer when he gives Edna Ferber a cameo, the author of the novel "Giants", which was later made into a film with James Dean. Or when he enriches the color of the time with the mention of popular TV series such as “Bonanza” or “Dallas”. Even the Komantschen, with whom Eli spent three years, prove their humor. Hates Work is the name of the most beautiful squaw in the camp who crawls into his tipi one night, because that's exactly what makes her: Hate work. In addition, Meyer lets contemporary history run along more seriously. The abolition of slavery does not improve the status of blacks, who are now called servants. The fatal shots at John F. Kennedy in Dallas do not come as a surprise, as people who saw their parents being scalped were still alive at the time. And when the oil business shifts to the Middle East, Texans are involved again.
The novel by the former investment banker Philipp Meyer, who narrowly lost to Donna Tartts “The Distelfink” at this year's Pulitzer Prize, has been compared with great models in the USA. Cormac McCarthy is reminiscent of the archaic force of Meyer's story, his mastery of the technical language of the prairie with its arroyos, chaparalls, mesas, remudas and brasadas, as well as the idea that an unlocked 38er is the best creed. John Dos Passo's ‘“ U.S.A. ”trilogy made Meyer's debut“ Rost ”think about the decline of the American working class.
Most aptly, however, is the comparison with John Steinbeck's grim realism. Philipp Meyer's “First Son” convinces with the power of his narration, anti-heroism and meticulous research. Anyone who has read the book will immediately understand why the author had to spend five years on it. In one of the strongest scenes, Meyer describes how Indians kill a bison. When they are done with the animal, there is no part of the body that has not been used, even the dung is collected as fuel. The detail of this description does not serve to romanticize a primitive people who still live in harmony with creation, on the contrary: Meyer is about how intelligently the ancestors used their living conditions. And that the violence that ruled this life had nothing to do with cruelty - that first brought the whites into the country - but with the inexorable law of the wilderness.
After an attack by the Komantschen, in which his family is massacred, the teenage Eli grows up with the Indians and is eventually sold to the whites - a human life is the original currency in Texas, it is said once. The novel devotedly delves into the depiction of the Indian way of life, including their sexual practices and torture practices that are difficult to bear for the reader. More than the settlers' repeating rifles, they are defeated by the epidemics they have brought in, and the ongoing land grabbing is destroying their habitat.
Of course, Eli is lost to civilization and remains half an Indian. He doesn't last a single day at school; he prefers to steal horses, hunt pets with a bow and arrow and sleep with the judge's wife. He learned from the Komantschen to be self-sufficient, conditioned to fight for survival. Eli joins the Texas Rangers, later the Confederate Rebel Army. After the war he becomes the most powerful man in the area. The hundred-year-old colonel does not spend his twilight years in his cathedral-like villa, but in a simple mud hut without electricity or running water, Indian-style.
It is strange that Philipp Meyer originally wanted to forego the portrayal of the patriarchal portal figure; the actual founding myth should remain a blank space, but these passages are the best. He intones the other two narrative strands much more cautiously. Eli's melancholy grandson Peter is the prodigal son of the novel, the black sheep of the family. Artistic and misanthropic, he looks like a Texan Hanno Buddenbrook. When the cowboys, led by the now eighty-year-old Eli, attack their Mexican neighbor's ranch and shoot men, women and children, it is a traumatic experience for Peter. Years later, María, the Mexican's daughter and Peter's childhood sweetheart, whom he was not allowed to marry, knocks on his door and a shadowy, late happiness begins for the two of them.
A hundred years later, Peter's Mexican great-grandson will return to the ranch as the avenging angel of poetic justice. Jeannie hadn't wanted to acknowledge him. After a stroke, she looks back on her life, which was determined by the lonely struggle to assert oneself in a man's world, in which, in the 1960s, you wouldn't leave your property without a revolver and put the earth in your mouth to see if it tastes like oil.
As smoothly as Philipp Meyer subverts genre clichés, it is just as incomprehensible that he sometimes over-comments on his story, which would not be necessary in view of the narrow motif. Sometimes he hits his eschatological furor with clenched fists in the buffalo lard: “A new great ice age would have to come and sweep us all into the sea. So that God gets a second chance. "
However, he has succeeded in writing a book that impresses with its material wealth and lack of illusions. Philipp Meyer debunks the Frontier myth and shows that American history has always been driven by greed and murderous energy, that there is no dollar that is not stained with blood. But he also points out that the pre-colonial period, when the Indians fought among themselves, was ruled by violence. “The First Son” is a modern classic that asks the human condition in the plumage of the historical novel, a test drilling in which the pitch-black insights gush out.
In the end, Eli remembers the shield of the chief whose tribe killed his wife before Eli killed him. As a reinforcement, the shield is stuffed with a heavy symbolic copy of Edward Gibbons “Decay and Fall of the Roman Empire”. Eli makes a beautiful tobacco pouch from the Indian's bladder. But he is pursued by a boy who survived. "A child like that would be worth a thousand men today," they say. Because this child is looking for Eli to kill him, and he recognizes in this “last son” the image of himself.
Philipp Meyer: The first son. Novel. Translated from the English by Hans M. Herzog. Knaus Verlag, Munich 2014. 608 pages, 24.99 euros, e-book 19.99 euros.
The unlocked 38er
is still here too
Sometimes this becomes pathos
with clenched fists in the
Carved bison lard
"Buffalo Hunt" is the name of the painting by Frederick Walker (1840-1875). And that he also knows something about the bow and arrow, Philipp Meyer proves with his second book, a novel in bison format. Photos (2): Getty Images, Elizabeth Lippman
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