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Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

Ship of Fools (1962)

by Katherine Anne Porter

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (14)  Spanish (1)  All languages (15)
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
A novel that took her over twenty years to write, Ship of Fools is a large sprawling thing with many characters (you will be grateful for the passenger manifest at the begining) and a grand ambition to illustrate the world in the early 1930s in the form of a group of people on an ocean liner en route to Germany from Veracruz.

All of the people on board are guilty, with the possible exception of the mostly faceless, nameless people in steerage. But even they allow themselves to be herded from one destination to another, taking down the few who would thumb their noses at authority. In first class the passengers gravitate to groups or (in the case of a lone Jewish seller of Catholic furnishings) isolation, if sometimes unwillingly. They go along, they make the motions, they shrug off unpleasantness. The passengers in first class from the whimsical American artist Jenny to the unsavory racist Herr Rieber appear almost equally by the end of the voyage complicit in the shape the uncertain future is taking.

Jenny, the American divorcée Mrs. Treadwell (who I see as Porter herself), and the homely, unhappy Elsa are where most of my sympathies lay while reading, but the way narrative shifted it was possible to see them as others saw them, and most importantly, Porter gave them ample time for self-criticism and doubt. Even while they acknowledge what they're doing, they get in the way of their own happiness. Porter exactly describes those strong, temporary ties experienced by a group of people who must keep each other's company for a long period.

Some characters, particularly the Spanish dance/prositution troupe, were given no leeway for positive action. The twins Ric and Rac are the best sociopathic children I've read since A High Wind in Jamaica. I don't think Ship of Fools is as universal an allegory as Porter was hoping for, but the book can be very funny and shocking, has a trove of well-drawn characters and scenes, and is certainly worth the attention it demands. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
A bunch of horrible people take a transatlantic voyage from Mexico to Germany, treat each other horribly, and end the voyage nearly as horrible as when they first arrived.

Okay, if you haven’t figured it out from my synopsis, I did not like this book. I suppose I understand why it is so revered. The details and the characterizations are excellent. There is a build to what I saw as the climax (the night of the big party) that is slow, deliberate, inevitable, and revealing. But I cannot care about any…any of these people. They are pathetic, mean, spiteful…they are not characters I care enough about to want to invest my time. (And I did invest my time; trust me.) Occasionally, I would start to become interested in a story thread, and then realize that interest was of the “train wreck” variety. And, upon the realization, I would again recognize that I just didn’t care.

Perhaps the most interesting portions of the book are those that speak of the rampant racism that was occurring in the times this book was set – 1931, between the wars. And, it being a German ship, you can imagine just how much hatred is spewed for anyone who falls outside the racially accepted norms. This reflects a little too painfully on the times we face today.

But, even those insights were no match for how much I detested being a part of these people’s lives.

(Mind you, that isn’t going to stop me from now watching the movie. It will be interesting to see how it all gets translated.) ( )
  figre | Jan 21, 2019 |
Assorted characters meet on a ship sailing from Veracruz to Bremerhaven in 1931, a not uncommon plot device but unique in this instance in that on the ship of fools, there really are only fools. No happy endings here, none of the warm fuzzies of the movie version, just a group of deeply unpleasant people one would hope never to meet individually, let alone collectively.

Porter divides her passengers into 3 rough groups: American, Spanish and German. The Americans are by and large the most human of the groups: the lovers Jenny and David lacerating each other with their unreal expectations, the genteel widow Mrs. Treadwell who would be happy ‘if not a soul looked at her for the (entire) voyage’ and the drunken racist, Denny.

The Spanish, represented in the main by a zarzuela dance company being deported from Mexico and medical students traveling from Cuba to France have made an art form of cruelty and are larcenous, jeering and rude. ‘They had a way of sitting together and without warning they would laugh dreadfully, with mirthless faces… always laughing at somebody.’ Included in this troupe are Ric and Rac the 6 year old twins, psychopaths shaped by the cruelty of their parents, evil ‘to the egg of their souls’, who spend their time on board torturing animals and indulging in incestuous sexual play.

The worst of this pack, however, are the Germans, with their surface veneer of respectability barely disguising the fascism and anti-Semitism below the surface. As front men for the cause we have Herr Rieber, a pig faced man with a nose like a snout, and Fr Spockenkieker who embodies ‘to the last trait and feature everything most positively repellant in womankind’. With these two characters Porter is guilty of stereotyping but it is in her other more respectable Germans that we find the roots of the Holocaust: Herr Freytag who is married to a Jew but keeps quiet so as to maintain his seat at the Captain’s table. Fr Rittendorf who believes ‘it is an offense against morality to overlook or condone insolence in an inferior’, the Huttens who live in an ivory tower of intellectual superiority and the ship’s doctor Schumann – perhaps the most decent person on board – who nevertheless chooses the path of least resistance and sidesteps all political confrontation.

Nor does Porter spare the Jews. Lowenthal, her token Jew, is uncharitable to the core and riddled with his own equally ugly prejudices; definitely not the ‘hero of a Cause’ but rather the sort of Jew other Jews don’t like. Freytag’s in-laws in Germany are not much better, attacking ‘him from all sides at once, some of them with open contempt, or a genuine personal dislike’ because he has made a mixed marriage.

Racism aside, Porter also gives us a healthy dose of 1930’s sexism. David is in the process of destroying Jenny’s self-confidence right down to the colors of her clothes and her style of painting, and the dance troupe is merely a front for a thriving ring of prostitution. But it is left to the Germans to give us a real taste of the pre-war marriage ethic. Women are ‘children of a larger growth’. ‘All associations between women, even of the most casual and passing kind were unnatural, morbid by nature, hotbeds of complicity against men, leading to divisions between husband and wife… A woman’s loyalty must not, cannot ever be (therefore) to her own sex, but to her men… above all, and before all, to her husband.’ The German females on board accept this as an article of faith, as do the Spanish dancers, handing over their hard earned money without question to their pimps. In fact the only woman who puts up any show of emancipation is the American girl, Jenny, and being a passenger on the ship of fools, even she makes a very poor showing of it.

Porter’s central theme therefore is man’s inhumanity to man and each group expresses this either through the personal or the political. Her prose style is excellent – she is a Pulitzer Prize winner – and yet one moves from page to page with all the squirming pleasure of an evening’s viewing of ‘Melrose Place’ or ‘Dynasty’. ( )
  romain | Nov 14, 2017 |
" . . . Her 'Ship of Fools' is the ship of humanity, and it is an unforgettable masterpiece. . . "
  MerrittGibsonLibrary | Jul 6, 2016 |
Porter's idea of the ocean of life (instead of Twain's life as a river for example) and how wretchedly petty and selfish we have become - we float along at our own peril... ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Katherine Anne Porterprimary authorall editionscalculated
Đekić, OlgaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bati︠u︡k, ViktorTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Blomkvist, TorstenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dlouhý, KarolTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gal, NoraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Greiff, TrygveTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hansen, HagmundTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kauppi, KaijaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kōstelenos, D. P.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kudō, AkioTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lu, JinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marian, Eugen B.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Motti, AdrianaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Porta, BaldomeroTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rademacher, SusannaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Róna, IlonaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schmitter, ElkeAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sibon, MarcelleTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Šuklje, RapaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Studená, ZoraAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tarnowska, KrystynaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vallandro, LeonelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Quand partons-nous vers le bonheur?
For Barbara Wescott, 1932: Paris, Rambouillet, Davosplatz, Salzburg, Munich, New York, Mulhocaway, Rosemont :1962
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August, 1931 - The port town of Veracruz is a little purgatory between land and sea for the traveler, but the people who live there are very fond of themselves and the town they have helped to make.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316713902, Paperback)

The story takes place in the summer of 1931, on board a cruise ship bound for Germany. Passengers include a Spanish noblewoman, a drunken German lawyer, an American divorcee, a pair of Mexican Catholic priests. This ship of fools is a crucible of intense experience, out of which everyone emerges forever changed. Rich in incident, passion, and treachery, the novel explores themes of nationalism, cultural and ethnic pride, and basic human frailty that are as relevant today as they were when the book was first published in 1962.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:44 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The 48 first-class passengers and the 900 Spaniards in steerage on a passenger-freighter crossing from Mexico to Germany in 1931 are traveling on a voyage of life.

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