A Group of New Novels

A REVIEWER, if he is properly modest, knows that he cannot pretend to be much more than a taster of books and that his taste is certain to be sadly limited, not only by his personality, but by his mood. He cannot, if he would, shake himself free from his own preferences and prejudices, and even these are changeable from time to time. He is lucky, therefore, if he is called upon to taste a book at a time when his mood is hospitable; when he feels ready and eager to read just that kind of book and is prepared to have a good time doing so. It so happened that when the editor of the Bookshelf sent me this batch of novels I was both ready and eager to read them, for I had not read anything at all for over six weeks. The truth is that they gave me so much pleasure that I feel ungrateful in saying anything derogatory of them. They were great fun.
I shall not apologize for speaking of ‘serious’ novels as great fun. It is a view of fiction so oldfashioned as to be quite new that a novel is written to give the reader an enlivening experience, even though for some time past we have been rather inclined to take our serious fiction solemnly, even sadly. One might go further and say that a novel is, or should be, written to be readable, and that to be readable it must tell a good story. This again is an old-fashioned view, which threatens to become novel. It is certainly time that novelists gave more care to their stories. There is a logic of fiction which consists mainly in the satisfaction of anticipation, and this logic cannot be violated with impunity. When the reader’s expectation is defeated, as I think it is in more than one of these novels, he feels cheated, and rightly so. He feels the same chagrin that he feels in a shot that misses, a putt that is foozled, or a trout that escapes.
I began with The Assassin, by Liam O’Flaherty, because I had admired this author’s short stories and felt certain that his novel would have power. It had. It is an intensely concentrated study of a political crime, or, more accurately, of the mind of a political criminal. The startling picture on the jacket is of a spectral face within the skull of which is visible a congeries of cogwheels, like the works of a clock. The book conveys the same impression, as of a brain at high tension, very near madness. Compared with Crime and Punishment, which it inevitably recalls, the story is told with stenographic brevity, but, like the older book, it leaves one exclaiming, ‘The pity of it!’ and, what is worse, ‘The uselessness of it!’ These young Irishmen all seem able to write. I suppose it is because they have lived first and lived hard. I did not like The Assassin as well as Spring Sowing, perhaps because its roots are in a mind or an idea. The roots of Spring Sowing are deep in Irish peat and sod.
Next I turned to Louis Brumfield. After The Assassin,The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg was like vichy after strong drink. Seldom have I read with more persistent chuckles than during the first half. It is brilliant. The second half, after a glorious burst in the story of Aunt Bessie, — and that is quite a masterpiece, — loses its effervescence, like vichy. As a series of ironical portraits the book is excellent, but as a satirical narrative the plot seems a little bungled. I suspect that Aunt Bessie ran away with it, and I cannot be entirely sorry, though I wish the author had cared to carry out his satiric plan more neatly, One
might fill much space in discussing the method which he has followed in making clear the antecedents and the consequences of Miss Annie’s death. His is chapters are segments of a wheel of which her death is the hub; and, since the circumstances of the death suggest a miracle, they afford him an opportunity to present the effects of the inexplicable upon an assortment of twentieth-century minds. The trouble is that the minds are negligible, and this fact detracts from whatever significance their thoughts may have. But the result is quite new in our literature, and for analogies one would have to go to Heine and Anatole France.
H. G. Wells’s Mr. Blettsworthy by is also satire, but it is nearly spoiled by an intrusion of propaganda. Here is as good a story of adventure as one could wish, told with manly zest and relish. Mr. Wells, when he is spinning a yarn, simply cannot help being interesting, because he thinks only of the yarn and is never distracted by what may lie beyond. Here he takes his hero to sea, wrecks him on an island among cannibals, saves him from serving as pièce de résistance by having the savages elect him a kind of court fool, and recounts his life there, his love, and his escape, all with praiseworthy enthusiasm. And then, at about page 200, he reveals that it was all a dream or species of amnesia. Such things really should not be permitted. We might forgive him, however, if his satire were less obvious. I suspect that the tale was written prematurely and too fast; but half of it is a good story. The other half readers will like who have not read it all before in half a dozen of the author’s other books.
Asacalm but steady admirer of Francis Brett Young, I was prepared to be caught up by My Brother Jonathan and carried away, but my translation was continually postponed. The fault in such a case is just as likely, of course, to be in the reader as in the writer; and yet I seemed to perceive throughout the book an evidence of strain which gave to the whole an air of falsity. It was as if conscientious industry had not been able to conceal itself. Jonathan is obviously portrayed out of full knowledge, but even he is a little exasperating. The other characters, excepting Old Hammond, — who is a doctor, like Jonathan, — never quite carry conviction, and the story seems constantly to veer off from the central theme of self-sacrifice, which might give it meaning. There is, nevertheless, an absorbing narrative of the life of a doctor in a small city. I am still a little puzzled to know why a novel that is undoubtedly rich in knowledge and emotion and is written with such honesty and dignity fails to work the spell that I felt and still feel in Love Is Enough.
By this time everyone knows that The Happy Mountain, by Maristan Chapman, is a remarkably successful experiment in a manner. One cannot say much for the story, but the style is a delight, and the reader, lingering over phrases, experiences a pleasure like that of the pungency of wood smoke or the whistle of a thrush. The author has welded out of the mountain speech a literary language, as Synge and Stephens did out of the folk speech of the Irish. It is a lovely thing to have made. The speech of Elizabeth Madox Roberts is very good too, but Jingling in the Wind will be a surprise and perhaps a disappointment to those who admired The Time of Man. It was written in high spirits — a nonsense fantasy, wild as a dream and as inconsequential as that; a kind of American Crock of Gold. It took me many pages to enter into the fun, but at last I began to be interested and then pleased. Jeremy’s journey in the bus and the story-telling of the passengers is excellent fooling that, like all good nonsense, seems as if it ought to mean something whether it does or not. I think it might be proposed as a rule, however, that in fantasy the more preposterous the incidents are, the more soberly actual the personages should seem. The characters here never seem real. There is no person like the Philosopher, the Thin Woman, Meehawl MacMurrachu, or the Policemen of Stephens’s superb extravaganza. One has the impression that the book was written when the author was quite young, for the entertainment of her family and intimate friends.
In the older criticism of the drama a great deal was said about the ‘enveloping action,’ by which term was meant the great forces of nature, civilization, race, mankind, which surrounded the particular action narrated and of which the latter was typical. It was held that the particular action was significant only in so far as it illustrated the larger human, or divine, issues. We do not hear much of the enveloping action in the criticism of the novel, and yet I suspect that we ought to, and that if we should examine the great novels of the past and present we should find that some essential part of their greatness lies in their constantly suggesting that the drama which we are witnessing is really the drama of sublime forces that lower and impend just beyond the border of the story. Certainly of the books I am discussing the two that seemed most impressive have this quality.
Pilgrims of Adversity, by William McFee, is ostensibly the story of a group of officers and engineers on a tramp steamer sailing from Scotland to Central America, and as simple story it is absorbing. The characters, too, especially the men, are drawn with rare power, humor, and pathos. And yet the sense of wide horizons that
one has during the reading is the fruit not merely of description but of the constant suggestion of two races and two orders of civilization in conflict, Similarly, The Coming of the Lord, by Sarah Gertrude Millin, owes a large part of its immense impressiveness to our feeling that the situation developed is only one act of a larger tragedy that may in the end involve the entire civilization of South Africa. That which these two books have beyond most is, I suppose, wisdom.
Mr. McFee unfolds his story with almost ponderous exactitude. He is never hurried. He loads his vessel with detail. He circles and retraces his course as if against a heavy head wind. But he nevertheless progresses, and he finally arrives. And his captain and first and second officer and second engineer are superb creations. Mrs. Millin, who has apparently trained herself in French narrative methods, reminding one of de Maupassant as much as any, wastes not a word. Her economy is classical: —
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’erflowing full.
Her story, which deals with a religious movement among the African natives, full of irony and pathos in which tragedy is constantly latent, is told with a calmness, a serenity, which can be the product only of absolute mastery. I had not read twenty pages before I knew that I was in the presence of a fine craftsman, and long before the end I knew that I was reading a noble book. R. M. GAY