by Francis Brett Young.New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1925. 12mo. vi+321 pp. $2.50.
THERE is discoverable in Sea Horses, a romance that follows the sea and goes ashore at Naples and in Portuguese East Africa, the quality of distinction that may be felt in writing but rather smiles — in its distinguished way—at definition. Thus, for example, Mr. Young describes the night approach of a vessel to Naples: ‘The secret progress of the Vega, whose submerged hull stole forward with no sound but the lazy plunk of her engines toward that brightening crescent, the mountains meek in starlight that watched her like drowsy monsters — these, of themselves, were enough to make the moment distinct in beauty; but the remote tinkle of the mandoline and the love-song that accompanied it seemed to add something that was personal, human, reproachful, to stamp the whole scene on Glanvil’s mind with the lovely and indelible shape of things seen once in youth and never afterwards.’ This is an attribute independent of plot and characters, though here contributing to build up and express the personality of Captain Glanvil; a novel may or may not have it, but its permeating presence in this case probably enough accounts for a similarity to Conrad that some discriminating judges have found in Mr. Young’s writing.
Few of us sit down to a novel for the sake of the distinction with which it is written. Persons or a situation, or both, that arouse our interest are what we sit down for, with a sequence of events sufficiently interesting to keep us sitting; nor is it always necessary that these persons should be wholly plausible or the situation and sequence altogether believable. Our novel, in short, may belong in one or another of several respectable categories; and we may get up with a sense of having given our valuable time to ephemeral entertainment, or of having gained something in emotional experience and more extended vision of life, feeling, and behavior.
For the present reader, Sea Horses accomplishes this higher business of the novel. It reads from cover to cover as a story dependent on acute perception of individuality and the mystery of individuality in the reactions of one person in contact with others; it expresses beauty, and is carried forward in scenes, places, and under circumstances that are made convincing by art. One might call it ‘psychological,’‘romantic,’ ‘mystical,’ a ‘tale of adventure’ — Mr. Young’s view of life includes all these elements, as, for that matter, did Mr. Conrad’s. It is accepted that Glanvil may honestly say, ‘No miracles in these days,’and yet be guided by ‘a fatalistic — perhaps fantastic — belief in the wisdom of taking all risks and opportunities as they came’; that ‘this superstition was inherent in his nature’; and that ‘he had always relied, in a tight corner, on the efficacy of the moment’s inspiration. Sometimes it had betrayed him — had not the whole of his present predicament, arisen from the seed of such an impulse? Sometimes, beyond hope, as in his encounter with Helen Salvia two nights before, it had succeeded.’ It is accepted, as says Hendry, first officer of the Vega, after a corner whose tightness seemed irrevocable, that
'“This is an Act of God, sir, in the proper meaning of the term. In my opinion, that is,” he added hurriedly.’
One would like to know more about the trader, Almeida, — how he attained his sinister power in East African Panda, — but after all one knows enough, perhaps just enough, for the purposes of the author.