Manhattan Transfer

John Dos Passos (1896-1970) has tried to compose an artwork built of the stuff: NEW YORK, – and it works like a movie script – but written in a time (1925), in which the film industry did not yet have the tremendous technical and financially possibilities available as they owe today.

Dos Passos portrayed the movement, the speed, the unstoppable energy of this city. The title “MANHATTAN TRANSFER” deciphered in the scene as ELLEN sits in a subway and the rhythmic strides seem to sound like “MAN-Hattan TRANS__FER. MAN-Hattan TRANS__FER. MAN-Hattan TRANS__FER”.

ELLEN is on the way in an unhappy partnership, it does not succeed in time to redirect, like a leaf in the wind seems to be the tempo of the city. They are simply unstoppable followers of that tempo. This is also what Dos Passos as the most impressive overall wants to feature.

The fates of many are developing a high tempo – and apparently randomly, BUD, (at the beginning of the novel incoming in the New York harbor) jumps to the end of his life (and the novel) at the same place from the bridge into the water — no into a wedding party, just because a ship below him was passing in the same moment. Fortune and misfortune, random-like are mixed in this scene: happy wedding couple and a man, trying to commit suicide.

The milk man Gus McNiel is covered by an insurance payment to him as a victim of a rich man and self-conscious politicians, Congo Jack loses at first one leg during the war, but by extensive smuggling operations and continues he at least drives jovially in a Rolls-Royce.

John Dos Passos '11, author of Three Soldiers,...

Image via Wikipedia

Jimmy Herfst, butler of Congo Jack, is leaving at the end of the novel disillusioned with the city – others have adapted it. Dos Passos has characterized NEW YORK as normally painters do – of course using other techniques: Piet Mondrian painted at the end of his life against that colorful Big Apple chaos with stripes looking like a city-map of New York. The contemporary artist James Rizzi paints skyscrapers with human faces (Dos Passos compares in his novel the multi-ballet dancer ELLEN with multi-window skyscraper).

Television series like “SEX IN THE CITY” or musical events, like Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel performed in the Central Park, singing “NEW YORK, to that tall skyline I come, flyin in … ” – All those artworks try to explain NEW YORK as a focal point of modern life – and they do not focus the images of September eleven. I hope I will experience in my lifetime, that MANHATTAN TRANSFER once is a movie.

John Dos Passos himself (sometimes compared with James Joyce or Marcel Proust or compared with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein who were friends) – he has after the completion of his novel managed to organize a movie: 1935, “Devil Is a Woman” with Marlene Dietrich

compare: my book review for

10 responses to “Manhattan Transfer

  1. next I want to translate what I’ve written about SAUL BELLOW and his novel HERZOG:
    “Simkin saß in seinem Büro unter endlosen Reihen von juristischen Büchern in einem großen Sessel. Der Mensch wird geboren, um Waise zu werden und Waisen zu hinterlassen, aber ein Sessel wie dieser Sessel ist ein großer Trost, wenn man ihn sich leisten kann.”

    Diese Stelle aus dem Roman “HERZOG” ist mir über 40 Jahre im Gedächtnis geblieben – und hat unter anderem natürlich dazu geführt, dass ich mir einen schönen bequemen Ohrensessel im Oxford-Stil besorgt habe. Die kleine Passage zu Beginn des Romans birgt schon in sich die gesamte Message: Nicht gänzlich verzweifeln, wie es in bestimmten intellektuellen Schichten immer wieder en vogue ist, sondern es genießen, dass es im Leben auch immer wieder kleine Dinge gibt, die Trost, Mut und sogar Freude geben.

    Dazu zählen die erotischen Begegnungen – in diesem Fall RAMONA (aus Buenos Aires; “Sie ging mit schneller Bestimmtheit und klapperte mit den Absätzen auf energische, kastilianische Art. Sie betrat einen Raum herausfordernd, mit leichtem Stolzieren” …) – genauso wie die kleineren Freuden des Alltags: Aufschreiben von Kinder-Gedichten, musizieren, der Besuch eines Fisch-Geschäftes – und sei es nur, weil an diesem Ort mit allen seinen Gerüchen und Geräuschen positive Kindheits-Erinnerungen wieder lebendig werden:

    “Mich hat meine Mutter bestimmt verwöhnt. Einmal bei Einbruch der Nacht hat sie mich auf einem Schlitten über krustiges Eis und das kleine Glitzern des Schnees gezogen. In der Nähe des alten Lebensmittellladens begegneten wir einer alten Baba, die sagte: WARUM ZIEHST DU IHN, TOCHTER? Mama, dunkle Ringe unter den Augen. Sie atmete schwer. Sie trug den abgewetzten Seehundsmantel. Getrocknete Fische hingen bündelweise im Laden, ein ranziger Zuckergeruch, Käse, Seife …”

    Den Nobelpreis für Literatur hat Saul Bellow wahrlich verdient für die Präzision seiner Sprache – und den optimistischen Grundton, zu dem er trotz aller sporadisch durchschlagenden Verzweiflung immer wieder humorvoll zurückzukehren imstande ist …


  2. “Simkin sat in his office under endless rows of juridical books in a big armchair. The person is born to become an orphan and to leave orphans, but an armchair like this armchair is a big consolation if one can afford him.”

    This quotation from the novel “HERZOG” has been remembered to me more than 40 years – and, among the rest, has led of course to the fact, that I have procured a nice comfortable ear armchair in the Oxford style for myself. The small passage at the beginning of the novel already rescues in itself the whole message: Not totally despair as it is in vogue in certain intellectual layers over and over again, but enjoy that there are in the life also over and over again small things which give consolation, courage and even joy.

    In this case the erotic situations – count to it RAMONA (from Buenos Aires; “she went with quick firmness and clattered with the sales in vigorous, Castilian kind. She entered a space challenging, with light swaggering” …) – and the smaller joys of the everyday life: child poems, music, the visit of a fish business: all this is only because by this method of story telling all those positive childhood-recollections come to life again with all the smells and noises :

    “ My mother has spoiled me certainly. Once, at night she has moved me on a sledge about crusty ice and the small glitter of the snow. Near the old grocery we met an old Baba who said: “WHY DO YOU PULL HIM, DAUGHTER?” Mummy, dark rings under the eyes. She breathed hardly. She carried the sharpened lake dog coat. Dry fish hung bundle-wise in the store, a rancid sugar smell, cheese, soap … ”

    Saul Bellow has earned the Nobel prize for literature really for the precision of his language – and for the optimistic tonic to which he is able to return always again amusingly – in spite of all sporadically desperation …


  3. I thought you were writing about the 1970s mucus group by the ssme name!


  4. I thought you were writing about the 1970s music group by the same name!


  5. and this one – from the days, when I was young:


  6. but I have to admit – I would prefer the ROLLING STONES version …


  7. Pingback: New York Ballad « Flickr Comments

  8. Pingback: frizztext-self-portrait « Flickr Comments

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