The 1938 Club : The myth of the doomed artist


Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

One of the fascinating things about reading from 1938 is seeing the different world viewpoints that were about at the time; knowing what was to come shortly in the way of world conflict kind of predisposes you to expect everything published in that year to be tinged with foreboding. However, of course, that wasn’t the case, as my next read proved!


Dorothy Baker’s “Young Man with a Horn” comes highly recommended – Jacquiwine in particular has sung its praises. Baker also wrote “Cassandra at the wedding” which I’ve read good things about, although her work was not really rated that highly during her lifetime, after the initial success of Horn.

The book tells the story of the short life of the jazz musician Rick Martin, set mainly in the 1920s. The book opens with the narrator introducing us to Rick and talking about his funeral and so we know from the start things will not end well. An orphan, Rick is raised in Los Angeles by a young aunt and uncle – although raised is a generous word, as he seems to have been clothed, housed and fed, but then left to his own devices. A bit detached from things, school is not something that appeals to Rick and he’s directionless till he discovers music. Practicing on a church piano when he can steal into the building, Rick discovers a natural talent and pursued this with monomania. A job at a local bowling alley, skipping school and trying to earn money to buy a trumpet, brings Rick into contact firstly with Smoke Jordan (who will be his best friend for life) and thence to a whole jazz community.

Here Rick really learns his trade, while coping with the requirement to attend school, holding down the job and playing in every spare moment. We don’t see the complete trajectory of his rise to fame – between sections the story skips on a few years sometimes – but Rick ends up in Balboa, a Californian beach town, playing with an orchestra. He’s obviously the star and soon gets picked out by a big bandleader and shipped off to New York for the big time. Playing and recording with whoever will have him, whenever he can, he seems destined to stay a big star. But fate enters, in the form of the complex Amy North, whom he marries. The relationship is a disaster, Rick’s star begins to wane, and it’s not long before the end is in sight.

He talked man to man with Rick without making the mistake of assuming that he might be a college boy himself. You wouldn’t have made that mistake about Rick at twenty. He dressed like a college boy, his hands were clean, and there was nothing much wrong with the way he talked, but there was something in his face that marked him as no college boy. It was the tight, nervous face of a man who knows something, the kind of face that goes with passion of whatever sort. You see it in revolutionaries, maniacs, artists – in anyone who knows he will love one thing, for good or ill, until he dies.

“Young Man with a Horn” turned out to be a remarkable and perceptive read. The subtle portrayal of the relationship between the black and white musicians, which could have been a major stumbling block, is skilfully done. Despite most of the talent lying with the black players, it’s the white musicians that are more often the bandleaders and the public faces. The racism is there, reflected in the casual derogatory terminology that some characters use about Rick’s friends. But he never displays that racism himself, holding his friends and fellows in great esteem, acknowledging them as the source of the best playing, and always displaying a great sensitivity in his early relations with them.


The writing is wonderfully evocative, capturing the early 20th century jazz scene,  the prohibition, Los Angeles and New York, quite brilliantly. And something needs to be said about the narrator and the style of the book. The narrator is an odd one – presumably male and white, from some of the things said, this person is one of three people who was at Martin’s funeral, yet apart from that fact we know nothing about who they are or what relationship they had to Rick. Instead, they tell the story as an omniscient narrator and I found myself wondering if we were meant to think this was almost Rick’s spirit telling his own life story! The tone of the narrative is quite wonderful; loose, conversational and almost musical itself, the rhythm of the prose adds much to the jazziness of the tale and is always compelling.

After an endless time of standing, he went down, lay back and let the night fall over him, and he was cured, then, of inward rocking. He lay still on his back, looking up, aspiring, and without any fanfare about it he knew everything at once. He thought it out without words, the way music thinks – in depths and currents that have nothing to do with linguistics. In these gracious terms he knew that there was good in the world, and tenderness, and sadness; and when it can be said of you that you know anything at all, you will know what these things are.

When I embarked on this book, straight after “Homage to Catalonia”, it was perhaps something of a shock; to go from a narrative grounded in the reality of the recent present in 1938 to a stylised story with no relation to present world events had me wondering if this was the right time to read “Horn”. But it didn’t take long for the wonderful writing and characterisation to draw me in to the story of Rick Martin and I ended up loving the book, Even if you’re not a jazz fan, YMWAH is a fantastic read and really gets you to understand what it must be like to be a driven musician. Yet another fabulous read from 1938 – what a year it was for books!

The 1938 Club : Elegy for a lost cause


Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

There’s a certain pleasure in returning to an author whose style and work you’re familiar with; there’s that reassuring feeling of being in safe hands, of trusting that you’ll read wonderful prose or an engaging story. George Orwell would be in the top ten of my all time favourite authors; he’s a writer I’ve read since studying him at school in my teens. We did “Nineteen Eighty Four”, “Animal Farm” and “Down and Out in Paris and London”, and I often look back with gratitude at the fabulous, mind stretching (free) State education I received, which pretty well formed many of my tastes for life. I went to explore all his other work over the years and I’ve read “Homage to Catalonia” at least twice before – once in the early days and once in fairly recent memory. So going back to it for the 1938 Club was a welcome re-read – I don’t revisit his work often enough, despite loving it dearly.


The Spanish Civil War, which took place between 1936 and 1939 was a complex conflict. The 1930s was an unstable decade with Fascism on the rise and the threat of Communism and Socialism demonised in the Western press. Things came to a head in Spain, a country deeply divided between extreme right and left-wing beliefs. The country had been badly hit by the Wall Street Crash and a Republican government came into power. However, control of the country passed from left to right and back again and eventually when the Socialist government was threatened by Franco’s German backed Fascist troops, and left wingers from all over the world travelled to Spain to idealistically join the fight against Fascism. Orwell a was one of those idealists, and he and his wife travelled to Spain at the end of 1936, where he joined the forces of one of the many factions fighting, the POUM.

Homage relates Orwell’s experiences of the fighting, and I’m not sure I’ve read a better account of the grimness of old style trench fighting. The mud, the filth, the boredom, the lack of food and tobacco; the occasional skirmishes with a distant enemy; the hopelessness of the weapons and the lack of ammunition. All these elements are conveyed brilliantly in Orwell’s peerless, beautifully constructed yet conversational sounding prose. He’s also unexpectedly dry and witty in places and I found myself chuckling in places which you wouldn’t imagine when the subject of a book is so serious.

It is curious that when you are watching artillery-fire from a safe distance you always want the gunner to hit his mark, even though the mark consists of your dinner and some of your comrades.

What Orwell also captures brilliantly are the tensions in Spain at the time. This was an extremely political conflict, riven by divisions between the different groups involved on the non-Fascist side, and this would be its eventual downfall. Orwell spent just months at the front, but when he returns to Barcelona on leave he finds that in that short time the workers’ control of things has slipped and the rich are back in control. Street fighting breaks out and the various anti-Fascists begin their internecine struggles. Orwell returns to the front but is wounded in the throat, narrowly escaping with his life. While he convalesces, his group is outlawed and staying in Spain presents a danger to his life.

HTC is a remarkable book on many levels. Not only does it get across quite brilliantly what it must have been like living in Spain during those days, it also captures the futility of war. And Orwell’s clear-eyed and sensible gaze cuts through all the nonsense to give such a down to earth viewpoint that you do rather wish he’d been running a few countries at the time. While the struggle was taking place, there was a considerable amount of disinformation and downright lying in the press about the situation in Spain and Orwell used HTC to try to counteract that with facts; in particular, he’s very clear about the causes of the Barcelona rioting and what actually happened.


What shines through in all of this is Orwell’s basic decency and humanity; he’s always trying to give the rational, balanced view on things, despite the provocations and regardless of how angry unfairness makes him. His prose, deceptively simple and straightforward, but actually evocative and lyrical in places, is so good – not having read this for a while I had forgotten just how wonderful his writing is. His description of how it felt to be shot is quite extraordinary, and you always feel he has his analytical eye on things, trying hard to convey the reality of what was happening around him to the reader. The book ends with the author returning to England and on a prescient note of foreboding, as if he was foreseeing what was shortly to come.

Europe in the late 1930s was a fragile place, which had been trembling on the brink of war for ages. The Spanish Civil War was something of a tipping point, bringing left and right-wing forces and ideologies into direct conflict. Orwell’s intensely readable account of the events he witnessed bring the fighting to life vividly, and his credo and beliefs are clear and reasonable and persuasive. He said later “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it” and certainly “Homage to Catalonia” is a powerful argument for both socialism and democracy. Like “Address Unknown”, this book was much more of what I expected to be reading in a book from 1938, reflecting events in the world around it; if only Orwell had been listened to while he was alive…


As an aside, I read my lovely edition from a boxed set I have (gifted by OH some years back) of Orwell’s complete works. I did consider my lovely old vintage Penguin copy, but the current version is re-ordered as per Orwell’s final wishes, with two chapters which give factual, background information moved to appendices. Of course, I could have read the modern Penguin version which is the same, but Eldest Child had borrowed it….

Announcing the 1938 Club!


The 1938 Club

When Simon suggested, towards the end of last year, that we co-host a mini-project of reading books from a particular year, in this case 1924, I was delighted to join in. I don’t know that either of us foresaw how popular this would be, but loads of bloggers had great fun joining in. So we are reprising the event with a new year – 1938! The week concerned is 11th – 17th April and this time you have a reasonable amount of warning in which to start planning and reading.

I think this year might have been suggested by a number of participants (I’m sure Heavenali was one) and it’s a great choice. The thirties were an odd decade, full of fear and trembling and change in Europe, and 1938 in particular was a year where a cataclysmic event was brewing, which will no doubt be reflected in some of the works.

And there are some fabulous books to choose from! I’ve been ferreting through my stacks and I’ve come up with a number of possibles so far. Some would be new books which have been lurking on Mount TBR for a while:

Young Man with a Horn – Dorothy Baker
Enemies of Promise – Cyril Connolly
Antidote to Venom – Freeman Wills Crofts
The Gift – Nabokov

1938 unread

But there are quite a lot of possible re-reads too – for example, these ones, and I had no idea I’d read so many books published in 1938!!

Nausea – Jean-Paul Sartre
Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis
Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell
Appointment with Death – Agatha Christie
Death of the Heart – Elizabeth Bowen
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – Winifred Watson
The Children Who Lived in a Barn – Eleanor Graham
Child of All Nations – Irmgard Keun

1938 read

There are no doubt many, many more and we’ll look forward to your suggestions in due course. So please do join in with The 1938 Club and let’s get more discussion and thoughts and ideas going. I’ll do a separate page here where I’ll link to other reviews and you can leave comments. So here goes with planning for The 1938 Club – get reading! 🙂

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