The Great Desire

by Alexander Black. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1919. 12mo, x+396 pp. $1.75.
THATThe Great Desire is going to turn out not quite a masterpiece, one becomes aware when, nearing the end, one perceives that Mr. Black is about to marry the hunchback philosopher who is his hero to a young woman of really extraordinary beauty and worth. Not that hunchbacks do not sometimes marry beautiful women: simply, in the given instance, this dénouement strikes one as a sop to sentimentalism, kindred in variety with that which Mr. Kipling granted when, in order to be amiable, he ‘ edited’ the conclusion of The Light that Failed. One is distressed by the outcome, not because it is in the very least degree revolting, but for the opposite reason, that it is quite too sweetly wholesome.
The merit of Anson Grayl’s philosophy lies to a great extent in the slight acidity which one tastes in it, even in the altruistic parts of it. Grayl is a believer, but a skeptical believer; a participant, but a detached participant. One does not want him solaced or in any way appropriately rewarded: one only wants him to keep on being himself. But one’s resistance to his absorption into conventional romance is the measure of how much one cares for his personal flavor, and for the integrity of this book which purports to be his private journal. Only a fine book can ravage one’s sensibilities by the false touch here and there.
It is unlucky that, in review and advertisement, The Great Desire has been dealt with as some sort of pretentious answer to the riddle of human destiny. It propounds, not answers, the riddle, and demonstrates the insufficiency of each tentative answer. ‘The Great Desire’ is simply the title of the book which Anson Grayl proposes to write, and which he fails to complete during Mr. Black’s 400 pages because he becomes more and more deeply preoccupied in living the material for it. Grayl goes to New York to be spectator, analyst, writer; he remains to be the adequate brother to his sister, nephew to his aunt (the most drolly delightful person of a long list), friend to his sister’s lover, and vicarious soldier in France, which last he becomes by taking over the work and domestic responsibilities of an able-bodied man.
The plot, which becomes in some passages a veritable orgy of coincidence, is not the prime distinction of The Great Desire. Its prime distinction is the whimsical originality of its comment on a miscellany of affairs, and the oddities of humor and truth revealed now and again by light shed from new angles. A dissertation on tipping concludes: ‘Probably we all will end by paying the waiter and tipping the restaurant.’ Philanthropy, in the person of Aunt Portia Rowning, remarks that somebody must do the work and find the money for the Society for the Aid of Wayward Girls. ‘It would be dreadful,’ muses Grayl, ‘ if they did n’t find the waywardness; if suddenly, without a decent warning to anybody, waywardness ceased to be.’ ‘We wrap traditions about people and believe in our own scarecrows,’ says the poet Pine. The book is sprinkled generously with these dry felicities.
To have written it, Mr. Black must be, among other things, a non-practising essayist of notable wit.
H. T. F.