The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Vicente Blasco Ibanez, was a best-seller during the early part of the twentieth century. The novel arrived in the United States in 1918 when Charlotte Brewster Jordan translated the text from its original language, Spanish. Americans were at the time culturally surrounded by authors such as Virginia Woolf, Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. Ibanez had a lot to live up to. Unbeknownst to Ibanez, he was connected to these authors in a very big way. Modernism exploded onto the international scene in the early part of the twentieth century. The movement was "a transitional period during which artists and writers sought to liberate themselves from the constraints and polite conventions we associate with Victorianism" (Online source). Artists were altering their take on life and expressing it in their work as such. The movement coincided with World War I in a big way. A Serbian fanatic's assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, engulfed the world in the first man-made catastrophe of the twentieth century. As a "transcontinental event that physically devastated and psychologically disillusioned the West", the war sent reverberations of its turmoil everywhere, especially in literature (Online source). In keeping with the Modernist movement, works from every corner of the globe reflected the pervasive sense of loss, disillusionment, and even despair in the wake of the Great War. But what made best-sellers out of this period if almost every work of literature was imbued with the characteristics of Modernism? Taking The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as an example, best-sellers were made by those authors that countered the disintegration of the war through their works. Out of a factioned globe, "they viewed art as a potentially integrating, restorative force, a remedy for the uncertainty of the modern world" (Online source). We learn, from this book, that best-sellers take control of a situation, or an event, and manipulate it to serve a purpose. In order to better explain this idea, I will address what qualities reviewers praised about the book, what the public persona of the book's author was, what factors explain the book's lifespan, in an effort to prove how The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse countered the disintegration of the war to become a world famous best-seller.
What qualities did the reviewers praise in this book? Publishers Weekly praised the book as a "superbly human story told by a genius". The war was a horribly inhumane concept. Men killing men for dominion over territory seemed so mechanical. World War I gave new meaning to death on the battlefield; it was nothing less than a slaughter. In the Battle of Verdun, for example, "the goal of the German commander was not territory, but to bleed his enemy to death" (Online source). People were driven to act in appalling ways. When the United States joined the war in 1917, they became a part of the blood bath. They were introduced to a life outside of human imagination. Ibanez brought humanity to an inhumane existence. He manipulated the war to give him a backdrop for a heart-wrenching story about family and unconditional love. Out of the disintegration he brought an uplifting story to the dejected masses dealing with the war and its effects. The novel reached out to people looking for anything that connected with their pain. All of the pain, anguish, strength, and determination exhibited in Don Marcelo as he faces a war come so close he can see it and a son somewhere in its midst become the reader's pain, anguish, strength, and determination. Readers have a character that embodies the human condition in the face of an inhumane existence, and it soothes them. Reviewers also enjoyed the novel for its convictions. The New York Times hails Ibanez for plainly showing in this vivid novel of the war "that his sympathies are wholly enlisted in opposition to the German cause and the German people". Taking sides in the war was a new concept for literature, and Ibanez made no attempt to soften the blow when he introduced readers to the concept. Ibanez portrayed the Germans as calculating, callous, mechanical men. They had no reservations throughout the novel in putting aside human emotions so to follow orders. American readers were given a tangible, concrete expression of their animosity toward the Germans. They opposed the Germans and would fight against them. But to have an accomplished, well-respected writer thousands of miles away voice their same opinions brought a surge of conviction. Readers connected to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to make it a best-seller since they read its message for the abolition of all enemies to progress and freedom in light of losing their family and friends to the war machine.
What was the public persona of the book's author? Ibanez was well known for his previous novels, set in his hometown of Valencia. The novels were artistic masterpieces, describing the land in all its beauty. He had a way of describing things so that they became visible, more than words on a page. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse helped to support that persona. The women and few men left at home saw the war with their own eyes thanks to Ibanez. He brought the surprising and chaotic elements of the war home for civilians. The battle occurring in view of Don Marcelo's castle at Villeblanche was riveting as it described the war scene "vomiting forth something noisy and penetrating?a bubble of vapor accompanied by a deafening report. Something was hurtling through the air with a strident curve. Then a roof in the village opened like a crater, vomiting forth flying wood, fragments of plaster and broken furniture. All the interior of the house seemed to be escaping in a stream of smoke, dirt and splinters" (195). The destruction of war encapsulated in the image of vomiting, an image readers could easily conjure in their minds, followed and preceded many other attempts to relay war in terms the reader could grasp. At another time in the novel, the war became "a cyclone . . . sweeping the length of the wall, tearing up the groves, overturning cannon and carrying away people in a whirlwind as though they were dry leaves. He inferred that Death was now blowing from another direction . . . Now, with the swiftness of an atmospheric change, it was blustering from the" opposite direction (246). Cyclones, dry leaves, atmospheric transitions, the war became a beautiful act of nature. He countered the disintegration of war once again by putting the destruction on his terms. The senseless act of destruction became an artistic display of masterfully used language. Readers became engaged in the way Ibanez wrote The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in much the same way they were by his previous novels.
What factors help explain the book's lifespan? Translated into English in 1918, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is, as of 2002, still in print, easily accessible, and well known. The New York Times, around the book's publication, noticed its unique appeal in that it portrayed the war "through Spanish eyes and with Spanish feeling". The reading public appreciates the perspective of the outsider. Readers are exposed to a culture beyond their own. They hear the thoughts of a different mind surrounded by a different environment. It is appealing to hear a different perspective. Most Americans opposed the war, in agreement with Ibanez, but Ibanez created an opposition wholly and completely his own. The Americans fell in love with the Spanish family, with their values, with their traditions. They united with the father, tortured by his son's involvement in the war, with the son, torn in his decision to enter the war, with the mother, forced to leave everything she knows to seek safety, and they unite with each of these characters across cultural and physical divides. Besides its success in countering the disintegration by offering a connection across cultural and physical divides, the novel remains popular even today due to its subject matter, a warring people. America suffered involvement in another global war only a couple decades after the first. The world continues to deal with conflict even today, whether it is a conflict between countries in the Middle East or between America and another country in the Middle East. Conflict is inevitable when countries have a deep history of conflicting goals, ideals, and beliefs. Ibanez resists the chaos by putting it in the shape of art. He imbues the horror of war with touching Spanish characteristics, elaborate descriptions, and benevolent convictions. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse endures time as a classic by making the novel surpass the limited scope of war. It touches us on a creative level.
In conclusion, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a bestseller because of its transformative nature. The war becomes something more than death and destruction. Using war to facilitate a larger message is important because it remains pertinent across time. It must be said that the title of the novel has something to do with its popularity. It is strong, interesting, and mysterious. It encapsulates the transformation of war into art, of a mechanical existence into something creative. A large part of the way through the novel, the reader remains ignorant to the meaning of the title. Ibanez finally reveals its meaning through a conversation between Tchernoff, a Russian revolutionary, Don Marcelo's son, Desnoyers, and Desnoyers's companion, Argensola. Tchernoff begins the explanation of the title while the world around them seems to stop, as if everyone has ceased activity in order to concentrate on Tchernoff, and an eerie quality comes to the novel:
And when the sun arises in a few hours, the world will see coursing through its fields the four horsemen, enemies of mankind . . . Already their wild steeds are pawing the ground with impatience; already the ill-omened riders have come together and are exchanging the last words before leaping into the saddle. (116)
The horsemen were explained to proceed the beast of the Apocalypse, the end of everything. The first horseman was Plague, riding on a white steed, the second was War, riding on a red steed, the third was Famine, riding on a black steed, and the fourth was Death, riding on a pale-colored steed. Horrid monsters and deformities were believed to swarm above their heads, "like a repulsive escort" (118). God would sleep while the horsemen coursed through the world, leaving in their wake "the athletic man  hearing the crashing of his broken ribs, the nursing baby  writhing at its mother's breast, and the aged and feeble  closing their eyes forever with a childlike sob" (118). The catastrophe of the world was inevitable in the presence of this fourfold doom. The novel attains its greatest example of transforming war into something more by using a title imbued with large structures of mythic meaning. The carnage of World War I made it hard to claim the modern world as civilized. Barbarism was more parallel than anything to the modern world. So, by attaching large structures of mythic meaning to that carnage, there became "a way of making the modern world possible for art", as explained by T. S. Eliot. Ibanez connected the modern world and art with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.