Germain-Fabius Brest. ‘Mosque in Trebizond’. Oil on canvas, 1870. Orientalist Museum, Doha, Qatar.
John Dos Passos (1896-1970) is of course best known for his so-called ‘U.S.A. Trilogy’, the three novels entitled ‘The 42nd Parallel’ (1930), ‘1919’ (1932) and ‘The Big Money’ (1936). But he was also an accomplished painter and travel writer. The painting was something he practiced throughout his life, beginning before he became a well-known novelist and continuing well into his final years. His work as a painter drew attention and, though toward the end he focussed on painting scenes set near his homes in Maine and Virginia, for many years he depicted the places and things he saw in his travels throughout the Middle East and in Europe. He had a style all his own: florid, vivid, warm with sunlight, his buildings, landscapes and people blocked out with what appear to be rapid strokes of the brush in unexpected and sometimes conflicting directions. A Dos Passos painting is to me a very curious thing. There is something alimentary and nourishing about it, something almost baked and crackling. It is like hot crusty bread you are afraid to touch, lest you get burned. The Fahrenheit level is high. It seems to have just been slid forth from the oven.
Dos Passos’ travel writing is like that too, it seems to me. His ‘Orient Express’ based on his trip to the Balkans, Turkey, the Caucasus and the Middle East during the second half of 1921 is a good example. It first appeared serially in various publications before the sections were gathered together and printed by Harper and Brothers as a book in 1927. Oddly, though the settings which form the backdrops for the sketches are thousands of miles away from the America of his novels, a major theme is the same in both: a decay of society and culture which cannot be corrected, which exists in a precarious balance doomed to teeter and fall, the whole societal malaise of the first quarter of the 20th century which was Dos Passos’ special preserve. Only in these travel writings there is the mystique of the exotic, the splash of color of a series of complex and intriguing cultural and historical worlds.
In his three-page essay ‘Trebizond’, which is a short chapter of ‘Orient Express’, Dos Passos depicts himself, first dozing on, then pacing the deck of an Italian steamer just off the Black Sea Turkish city of Trebizond in the chaotic aftermath of World War I. In the end, from fear of attack by a Greek cruiser which was just then sinking fishing boats and taking potshots at Turkish villages, the passengers are not allowed to land. Here is a quote from the essay itself, just to illustrate the style:
‘The Russian soldiers in the bow of the boat looked very happy. It was like looking down into a pit full of bear cubs. In their cramped quarters they played and wrestled and rolled each other about, big clumsy towheaded men in dirty tunics belted tight at the waist. They throw each other down with great bearlike swats, pick each other up laughing as if nothing could hurt them, kiss and start sparring again. They are restless like children kept in after school.’
Scenes like this, along with scenes in which Dos Passos describes the sea (‘I can sleepily see a great expanse of waves grey and green like the breast of a pigeon’) and the landscape (‘and beyond the khaki hills of Asia Minor rising in enormous folds up to bloated white clouds that float in slaty reaches of mist’), seem like so many paintings to me. Since I’m not so fond of Dos Passos’ novels, finding them quite dated and at times even slangily annoying, I’m tempted to think he should have stuck to the travel writing and pictures. But really I’m glad he did all three.