Books, Fiction

Quotes from Nathanael West.

Nathanael West, sadly, didn’t write as much as he should have – in his lifetime he wrote reviews, essays, screenplays (for he wrote in the 1930s glory-days of Hollywood biz), short stories, novellas, novels – but he died at the young age of 37 in a car crash, possibly because he was distraught at learning about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death the day before.

His writing has won him many famous fans, from Auden to Johnny Depp (!) to Dorothy Parker (who famously said: ““Wildly funny, desperately sad, brutal and kind, furious and patient, there was no other like Nathanael West…”). But for some reason I get the impression that he’s still fairly underrated in terms of the public consciousness; he seems to be quite a niche part of modernist studies on English Literature courses, and oftentimes missed out even there in favour of the heavyweight modernists (naturally).

Book Cover, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West - Cover design by Alvin Lustig.

Book Cover, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West – Cover design by Alvin Lustig.

Well, whatever it is – Nathanael West is pretty extraordinary. He writes about the shallow glitz & glamour of LA and Hollywood, focusing not on the starshine though but instead on its seedy, ugly, underbelly. Writing soon after the Great Depression, the little stick figures who dot West’s LA or New York are the unemployed and the overworked, the harried and the hopeless. It is bleak, but – and this where West’s genius lies – it can also be very funny in a blackly comedic sort of way.

Some quotes from West’s two most famous novels, The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts (this latter may count as a novella, I’m not sure.)

From The Day of the Locust (1939):

It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty & romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.


She wasn’t hard-boiled. It was just that she put love on a special plane, where a man without money or looks couldn’t move.


One evening they talked about what she did with herself when she wasn’t working as an extra. She told him that she often spent the whole day making up stories…..She would get some music on the radio, then lie down on her bed and shut her eyes. She had a large assortment of stories to choose from… While she admitted that her method was too mechanical for the best results and that it was better to slip into a dream naturally, she said that any dream was better than no dream and beggars couldn’t be choosers.


…They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks & counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine & oranges?

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? 


Their boredom becomes more & more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked & burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds & bodies. They have been cheated & betrayed. They have slaved & saved for nothing.


From Miss Lonelyhearts (1933):

His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves. At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money & fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men.


He fled to the street, but there chaos was multiple. Broken groups of people hurried past, forming neither stars nor squares. The lamp-posts were badly spaced and the flagging was of different sizes. Nor could he do anything with the harsh clanging sound of street cars and the raw shouts of hucksters. No repeated group of words would fit their rhythm and no scale could give them meaning.


He sat in the window thinking. Man has a tropism for order. Keys in one pocket, change in another. Mandolins are tuned G D A E. The physical world has a tropism for disorder, entropy. Man against Nature… the battle of the centuries. Keys yearn to mix with change. Mandolins strive to get out of tune. Every order has within it the germ of destruction. All order is doomed, yet the battle is worth while.


Prodded by his conscience, he began to generalize. Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst.




One thought on “Quotes from Nathanael West.

  1. Pingback: The sordid sadness of Nathanael West. | rambler

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