World’s End (Lanny Budd #1), Upton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published 1940).
Summary: First in a series of eleven novels, introducing the character of Lanny Budd, a precocious youth on the eve of World War 1, his German and English friends and their respective fates during the war while Lanny divides his time between his glamorous mother and artist step-father on the Riviera, and in New England with his father’s Puritan munitions-making family, ending up as a secretary to a geographer at the Paris Peace Conference.
Several months ago, I read and reviewed A World to Win, number seven in the Lanny Budd novels. There, a decidedly adult Lanny Budd functions as a secret agent for the president (Roosevelt) during World War 2. This novel, the first in the series, introduces us to Lanny Budd on the eve of World War 1. Raised by Beauty, his mother, he grew up in the mix of art and culture of Paris and the French Riviera. Although she was a preacher’s daughter, she was rejected by Lanny’s father’s New England Puritan family because she had posed several times in the nude for Parisian artists, and never married Lanny’s father. He acquires the artistic tastes and cultured manners of his mother’s circle, and the savvy of his munitions-salesman father. He also acquires two friends at boarding school, an English boy named Rick, and a German boy of high birth named Kurt. Like other pre-pubescent teens, their discussions range from philosophy to the mysteries of girls.
All this ends with the onset of the Great War. Rick eventually ends up as an RAF flyer, married, and wounded, never to walk without pain. Kurt fights for Germany and eventually becomes involved in espionage at war’s end that catches up Lanny. Beauty retreats to the Riviera, marry an artist, Marcel Detaze, whose greatest work comes after he is severely wounded, before he returns to the front, never to come back. Lanny has his first love affair with a girl destined to marry into an English house, and his first heartbreak.
After assisting his father for a period, learning to code and decode documents and meeting numerous famous figures, even Zaharoff, his father’s main competitor, he returns with his father to New England, meeting his stern old grandfather, his very correct step-mother, and an enlightened old great grandfather, who kept company with the New England transcendentalists. He is used for his connections by another woman, and returns with his father to Europe wiser and sadder.
Due to language skills and his savvy and facility in meeting the rich and powerful, he serves as a secretary to a geography professor who is part of the US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. He witnesses the high public ideals of the Fourteen Points, and the private maneuvering among Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George, for land and oil and the utter subjugation of Germany. At a point of disillusionment, he dabbles with Kurt and the socialists in a dangerous set of liaisons.
Sinclair portrays Budd against the backdrop of the Great War–the folly of the great powers who stumbled into this conflict, and eventually drew in the US. Lanny’s father tries to keep him out of it all, even as his company profits greatly, as do all the munitions manufacturers. He gets an education in the power politics, and the business interests that profit by war. This sets up a tension for Budd, raised among artists and caring for the fine and noble things of life. Does he join his father in an enterprise even his father approaches with cynicism, or pursue another path?
Budd also meets the socialists, and those who have ties to the revolution in Russia, through a socialist uncle, Beauty’s brother and becomes aware of the ways the rich exploit workers in every country. Lanny’s father tries to protect him from such influences as well. In this first novel, we see the tensions and influences at war in Lanny, while the world is at war. Sinclair sets us up for succeeding novels in introducing us to Lanny, able to travel with and identify with artists, the wealthy capitalists, even the socialists, moving through all these circles. We wonder if he really belongs to any of them.
If there is any criticism to be laid to this novel, it is that it seems more preparatory than anything to the stories to follow. The war and the Peace Conference really are the plot, with a bit of suspense toward the end around his relationship with Kurt and his uncle. But the book serves as a great summation of World War 1 and what pre-war Europe was like. It portrays the tragedy of Paris and Versailles that made the second World War inevitable and carved up the Middle East in ways that are still having repercussions. We glimpse the graft and folly behind noble statements and patriotic sentiment. And, similar to “Pug” Henry in The Winds of War, we wonder at what famous events, and with what famous people, Lanny will turn up next.