Appointment in Samarra – by John O’Hara, 1934
It’s been perhaps 40 years since I’ve even thought about John O’Hara’s books let alone read him. I had never read this one, but in an act of pure spontaneity, I picked up a ratty old copy at the city library while browsing through the stacks. Oh, what joys we can find purely by accident!
This one apparently became an instant best seller in 1934 but not necessarily a critical success. Hemingway praised it but other notables thought it so-so and it did not win any prizes. Mr. O’Hara thought it tied for second best of his novels but he gave no other details.
I thought it an enjoyable read, with interesting characters, some of which were well developed; and there were clearly passions displayed, plausibly constructed. I loved some of the ideas and phrasings, worthy of expanded thought: In reference to Caroline, “…the Bryn Mawr manner; which means quick maturity and an everlasting tendency to enthusiasms.” I think I know women like that…and such qualities aren’t exclusive to Bryn Mawr. Julian English pondering his problems: “But the trouble with making yourself feel better by thinking of bad things that other people have done is that you are the only one who is rounding up the stray bad things.” How true! Caroline again: “She knew she never would do that, but one part of her threatened another part of her with it.” Julian again, thinking: “When was the last time there had been a change in himself? He thought and thought, rejecting items that were not change but only removal or adornment.”
Regarding the title, “Appointment in Samarra” refers to a little fable, thousands of years old, called “Death Speaks” that W. Somerset Maugham put to paper. O’Hara liked it. And it “fitted nicely into the inevitability of Julian English’s death.”