Coronet, a Novel
THE MAN of the MONTH
FIVE years ago I heard Mr. Komroff describe this novel, then unwritten. The recital lasted through an evening, and from it the listener emerged thoughtfully. Now when I have come to the end of the printed volumes I feel again the struggle for the long view that possessed us who listened that night. For this is a novel of ideas and pageantry both tender and stunning, a book larger than the little analytical novels of to-day as a continent is larger than an island. Very plainly the author’s sympathies lie with the Russian, not with the English, novelists; the sweep and scope of his work, therefore, has little parallel in American fiction.
Beyond most novels I have read, this novel is spectacular. It begins in Florence in 1600 and ends in Chicago in 1920; the story dwells for long in the France of Napoleon, Chopin, and Balzac, and in Russia from the time of ‘the Great Retreat’ to the 1917 Revolution. Time affords no more spectacular epochs. And fortunately the novel is saved from kaleidoscopic confusion by a device as simple as that employed by Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A rickety bridge made Mr. Wilder’s diverse stories one; a coronet does the same for Mr. Komroff. Outwardly the novel follows the fortunes of a Renaissance coronet, a jewel which tends constantly to bring evil out of goodness; we follow it in its passage from the original owner, the Due de Senlis, down the ages until restored to one of his descendants in 1920. Inwardly and subtly the story pictures the decline of aristocracy, of which this coronet is a symbol. There have been, the novelist shows us, four aristocracies: the aristocracy of birth, as personified by the Due de Senlis; the military aristocracy, as personified by Napoleon; the aristocracy of art, which Chopin represents; and the aristocracy of culture, as it existed in Germany before the war. The novelist pictures the decline of each before the power of money.
This digest has a formal sound, whereas the book itself is alive. It is an ant hill of people, full of human passions, motives, and eccentricities, speaking what one must occasionally reread in order to understand, acting scenes which one will nol soon forget. Leaving out the Florentines, who do not matter much, we have the dukes, monks, a jeweler, a scavenger, and an innkeeper of Senlis: Napoleon’s army from field marshal to corporal; Parisian actresses; Russian nobles and peasants; Chopin, Balzac, Nietzsche, a Chicago pork packer — and half a hundred more. These people are related sometimes by blood, sometimes by coincidence, always by their proximity to the coronet. Very actively they touch our sympathies and hold our interest.
Komroff’s episodes and especially his dialogues are touched with the mysterious, the allegorical, often making it necessary to reread, and sometimes straining credulity. At any time moments of inner sight may occur, dimming the reality of the episode in which they are present with a curious half-light which, though it may confuse the reader at first, is in the end more explicit than plain statement. This touch of the mystic is essential to Komroff’s art, as it is essential to that of the great Russians; for me it. invests the book with passages worth much more than one reading.
So vast a design must at times ride coincidence pretty hard, as in the drummer boys’ escape and the final purchase of the coronet. The call, on the imagination may sometimes lead to extremes such as the overwrought picture of the Retreat and the incredible frozen horse. Impersonation may he sometimes overburdened with artifice, as in Napoleon’s soliloquy and Jobey’s gravedigging. These are minor points and may not trouble other readers. To tip the scales the other way, I need simply allude to the brilliant description of the occupation of Moscow, the death of Chopin, Andrè’s ringing denunciation of nobility, and the acuteness of the conversation between Alex and Paul’s wife.
In a letter describing his preparation the author wrote: ‘How many characters, events, dialogues, and devices I threw away because they did not dovetail into the general design I cannot say, but I should estimate that they would make five or six volumes. Some people think that a two-volume novel is exactly like a onevolume novel, only longer. This is a mistake. A twovolume novel must have the material of four or more; otherwise it should be compressed into one. . . .’
And rich this material certainly is. All in all, this is a big book, intellectually and physically.