The Merry Month of May
a novel by James Jones published in 1971
Text by Michael Mullen, Professor of English, Vincennes (IN) University
Jones conceived his war trilogy at the time he was writing From Here to Eternity. It took him so long to complete it because more than once he set it aside for other writing projects. One of those was The Merry Month of May. Published in February of 1971, the novel uses the student revolution in Paris in 1968 as a backdrop for Jones's characaters.
Jones's decision to write The Merry Month of May was a sudden one. Eugene-Braun-Munk, a friend of Jones's, recalled the student revolution, saying: "We were overtaken by this event which happened right in the heart of the city where we were living. All of the young people were exalted by what was happening." Jones too was overtaken, and the novel grew naturally out of his interest in the revolution. Braun-Munk, who was employed by a French company, reported daily to Jones and explained the latest developments. Jones also received news about the revolution from his friends' children who were involved in the unrest.
Merry Month of May is not an unlikely successor to Go to the Widow-Maker since Merry Month is only superficially concerned with the student revolution. The real subject of the novel is the sexual maladjustment of Americans. While the novel is as concerned with the sexual revolution which destroys screenwriter Harry Gallagher and his family as it is with the student revolution, the relationship between the two is unfortunately never clearly defined.
Reviews of the book were typically uneven, though never in Jones's career would the gulf between the most favorable and the least favorable reviews be so wide. At one pole were reviewers who claimed Merry Month was Jones's best novel since Eternity, while at the other pole were reviewers who claimed that Merry Month was such a bad novel that it should never have been published.
One of those praising the novel was Daniel Stern, who wrote in The Village Voice:
...The Merry Month of May is a graceful, witty, beautifull written book, a book with tender insights alternating with tough-minded thinking, all of it embedded in one of the richest portraits of a great city and the life led in that city since the early Hemingway stories.
What? Graceful, witty....Isn't Jones supposed to be writing tough ... Army stuff...--or at least of the nomenclature of that noble and least literarily expressible of human activities? The answer is that in this book James Jones not only proves himself a stayer but a 'grower.'"
Among those who attacked the novel was the reviewer for Newsweek, identified by the initials G.W., who said: "Jones writes so badly that his offenses constitute as great a crime against nature as against literature. A book written this badly shouldn't be called a book. It should be called a reading instrument, or a money maker, or a thing." "The Merry Month of May" is a brilliant, perfectly structured novel which was misunderstood when it was first published, and is apparently still misunderstood. Like Jake Barnes in "The Sun Also Rises," Hartley is a wounded man who finds himself emotionally impotent to help the people he loves most, even when his own godchild's future is in question. He is an observer, in the tradition of Barnes, or Nick Carraway, and to observe is his JOB. His own feelings of guilt and shame come from the very fact that he can't bring himself to act, take sides, or take a stand, even when his friends demand it of him. This is actually, in my estimation, one of the few novels of its time that deals honestly and compassionately with women's true roles in the "sexual revolution" of the Sixties.
A classic that stands the test of time. Note the parallels with Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Courageous, unflinching portrayals of Americans in Paris. Bertolucci's upcoming film covers the same time period. But this novel's the Real Thing.
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