Six Novels in Woodcuts

Volume I: Gods' Man, Madman's Drum, Wild Pilgrimage
Volume II: Prelude to a Million Years, Song Without Words, Vertigo

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By Lynd Ward

Edited by Art Spiegelman

Library of America. 1,408 pp (2 vols.) $70

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson


For The Inquirer

nolead ends You can easily "read" Vertigo, Lynd Ward's last and longest novel, in less than an hour, provided you don't spend too much time turning back and "rereading."

The words reading and rereading are in quotation marks because Ward's novels contain hardly any words. These narratives are a series of images - woodcuts, to be exact.

Ward (1905-1985) was one of the leading illustrators of his day, well-known to those familiar with the Heritage Limited Editions Club's volumes of the classics (Robinson Crusoe and Les Miserables were among the many he illustrated).

But Ward didn't go to work for Heritage until 1938, nine years after he produced his first woodcut novel, Gods' Man - which may also be his best. As with all of these books, much of the interest lies in deciphering the story, but a more complete synopsis of Gods' Man may be helpful to those who have yet to lay eyes on them.

It begins with a young artist adrift on the sea of life - we first see him managing a sailboat in a tempest. He makes it to shore, gives a peg-legged beggar his last coin, then stops into a dive for a meal. When he tries to pay for his repast with one of his paintings, the proprietor laughs him to scorn, whereupon a black-clad, masked figure enters, pays the artist's tab, then looks at his artwork. He offers him a brush - one that has apparently been in the possession of other artists over the ages - in exchange for which he must sign a contract. Success follows, but proves bitter; the artist flees to the country, marries a beautiful goatherd, and everything goes swimmingly - until the guy in the top hat, cape, and mask comes to collect on his contract.

The work is not without its cornball elements. As Art Spiegelman admits, in his admiring but honest introduction, "the depiction of Our Hero skipping through the glen with the Wife and their child makes me snicker." But Spiegelman is also right when he says that "the two plates of Our Hero in the desolate canyons of the city after fleeing the Mistress . . . are indelible."

Its flaws notwithstanding, Gods' Man works pretty well precisely because of its archetypal Faustian bargain premise. Unfortunately - though with the best intentions - Ward decided to follow a different tack for his second novel, Madman's Drum. What he was aiming at, he later wrote, was "a more sophisticated relation to the world and more inevitability in the encounters between the characters." Put very briefly, the book is largely about a slave trader and his family - and the effect of that trader's evil on his family - but more characters and more plates do not a better narrative make.

The real problem is that Ward seems to have had no feel for what makes a character memorable, whether living or fictitious: a unique wholeness mixed with inconsistency and contradiction. Ward thought in types. The black and white of woodcuts perfectly matched his cast of mind. Inspector Javert was right up his alley. Anna Karenina, not so much.

This is especially evident in Vertigo, which takes up about three-fourths of Volume II. It is divided into three sections: "The Girl," "An Elderly Gentleman," and "The Boy." The gentleman featured in the second section is a wealthy industrialist. He loves fine art and music. He is religious. He gives away baskets of goodies at Thanksgiving. But when it comes to business, he is ruthless, cutting wages and laying workers off when his profits decline. Ward has the contradictions down for sure, but the wholeness is missing, and what is left is a character so schizoid as to be practically two altogether different characters.

All of Ward's novels were produced during the Great Depression, and signs of that great economic dislocation abound in their pages: breadlines, cops and goons beating on strikers, sad mugs on the unemployed. Ward was also very much his father's son: Harry Ward was a Methodist minister who was also a staunch defender of the Soviet Union and resigned his post as the first chairman of the ACLU when the organization banned communists from membership.

Lynd Ward's depiction of socio-economic matters is strictly good guys (workers, unions) vs. bad guys (management, police). This not only makes for tiresome oversimplification, but also turns the books into period pieces.

And yet . . . one can only be grateful to the Library of America for honoring them. They may not work all too well as fiction, but the woodcuts themselves are mostly wonderful. The portrayals of the city as a dark and towering megalopolis display a certain, perhaps unintentional, grandeur, and one of the plates in Song Without Words, as Spiegelman notes, proved terrifyingly prophetic: an image of naked children peering from behind a barbed-wire fence topped with a swastika, done in 1936.

Ward's reach may have exceeded his grasp, but he deserves a lot of credit for trying something new, different, and hard. And he did grab hold of a lot on the way.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer books editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq.-The Epilogue." E-mail him at presterfrank@gmail.com.