Etched in Moonlight

by James Stephens. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1928. 12mo. viii+199 pp. $2.50.
SINCE both art and humor depend on a sense of proportion, anyone who recalls James Stephens in his Crock of Gold mood will not be surprised at the perfection of the seven short stories that compose this volume. Some of these tales deal with everyday themes, others with the supernatural, but all are told with a flawless economy of words and situation.
The opening story, ' Desire,’is frankly weird and, as the saving goes, must be read to be appreciated, ‘Hunger’ is the painfully vivid description of an impoverished Dublin family sinking deeper and deeper into misery. It has all the sensitive objectiveness of Chekhov as well as a dramatic tension and an almost palpable sense of form that the Russion story-teller seldom achieved. ’schoolfellows’ describes in the first person a scries of encounters with a downand-out childhood friend whose skill and tenacity at begging drinks nearly drive the teller mad.
‘Etched in Moonlight,’the title piece, occupies about half the book. It is the purest tour de force,— art for art’s sake with a vengeance,
—being the description of an imaginary character’s dream and therefore one further move away from the material world. The opening paragraph of the speaker’s narrative may help to give some idea of Mr. Stephens’s prose: —
‘ My mind was full of disquietude, impatience, anger; and as the horse stretched and cased under me I dwelt on my own thought. I did not pursue it, for I was not actively thoughtful. I hatched it. I sat on a thought and kept it warm and alive without feeling any desire to make it grow.’
The dream deals with the inward and outward relations between the dreamer and a married couple of whom he is jealous and whom he imagines for a number of years that he has killed. In an introductory conversation the speaker has already described how a dream that flashes through one’s brain like lightning may well appear to last for twenty or thirty years. Indeed, the idea of time is one of Mr. Stephens’s chief concerns.
‘Time ceases when emotion begins, and its mechanical spacings are then of no more account. Where is time when we sleep? Where is it when we are angry? There is no time, there is but consciousness and its experience.’
This simple philosophizing and his still more effective descriptions of emotional and imaginative states of mind are broken by passages of purest poetry, such as the following:—
‘Afar, apart, in lovely alternating jet and silver, the sparse trees dreamed. They seemed as turned upon themselves. As elves they brooded; green in green; whisht and inhuman and serene.’ The story ends with a supremely convincing attack of the horrors.
The last three stories deal with three types — an old clerk, a drunkard, and a ‘boss’ who comes to grips with one of his employees. This final piece illustrates Mr. Stephens’s skill at condensed description. The tale is two-thirds told before we have a single word of conversation, yet we feel we know the situation perfectly, and when talk does come it flows into the narrative as naturally as if it had been going on all the time.
But no review, long or short, can begin to do justice to the qualities of these tales. Etched in Moonlight is more than one of the books of the year— it is a book for all the years, and one must do more than write about it or talk about it to discover that. One must read it.