Beau Geste


Appreciating the national popularity of reading clubs and circulating libraries, the Editor of the Bookshelf has compiled a list of the most prominent books, fiction and non-fiction, that have appeared in the last twelvemonth. This list has been selected from the suggestions of the nine librarian advisers of the Atlantic; it will be sent with our compliments to committees and members of reading clubs and other interested persons. Requests should be addressed to the Editor of the Bookshelf, Atlantic Monthly, 8 Arlington Street, Boston, Mass,
by Percival Christopher Wren. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1925. 8mo. vi+410 pp. $2.00.
IF one may judge by the amazing sales which this English story has enjoyed, there are a great many people in the United States who like a book to be full of happenings. They get what they like in Beau Geste. After a long succession of novels about men and women whose only interest lies in sex, and whose only activity is incontinence, there is a glorious sense of emancipation in a good stout volume, full of hairbreadth adventure, undisturbed by the flutter of petticoats. Its one trifle of love-making fills just three pages and a half out of a total of four hundred and ten. Sir Walter Scott could hardly have been more casual. When Beau Geste meets its appointed fate, and is turned into a ‘movie,’ the adapter will have a hard time softening its robust masculinity into the passionate insipidity of the screen.
The first part of the story is the best. A French fort in an African waste, garrisoned by dead soldiers, every man upright at his post, with a sous-officier bayoneted in their midst, is, to say the least, an unusual opening scene. That it should lead up to nothing more impressive than the theft of a great sapphire, the ‘Blue Water,’ is a distinct disappointment. Stolen gems have played a heavy part in fiction since Wilkie Collins enthralled us with The Moonstone, and much repetition has dulled our interest. Innocence shouldering guilt is also a timeworn and peculiarly exasperating device, though it must be admitted that three innocent people collectively shouldering guilt, in order to confuse and mystify, is an original conception of self-sacrifice.
But, after all, controlling motives count for little in a tale of adventure. The worth of Beau Geste lies in incident, in its atmosphere of dreadful reality, in its admirably told details of a soldier’s life under exceptionally hard conditions. The book is not calculated to win recruits for the Légion Éfrangère; but neither is it a diatribe against war. Reading it, one is reminded on every page of Mr. Henry Sedgwick’s penetrating words: ‘Physical danger has in it a magic quality. It doubles the strength of the strong, the craft of the cunning, and the nobility of the noble.’
The soldier, as Mr. Wren sees him, is one who enjoys a species of peace because he has escaped from the perpetual worries and fears of the civilian. His economic affairs are settled for good, which gives him a chance at light-heartedness. He is sure of his supper and his bed. His creed is a simple one. ‘Resist the decrees of Heaven, if you will,’ says the French Sergeant to John Geste, ‘but not those of your Corporal.’ His life — in Africa at least — is stripped bare of every pleasant accessory; but, such as it is, he deems it worth preserving — and defending. If the soldier be a quixotic and finely bred English boy, with a taste for setting things right, and no sense of proportion, he also deems it worth surrendering.
This is his ‘character of nobility’— none the less noble because the confident and unripe judgment of youth builds a sacrifice on the altar of futility.