The Woman of Andros, a Novel
THE MAN of the MONTH
THORNTON NIVEN WILDER
[A. & C. Boni, $2.50]
MR. WILDER belongs to the race of closeted authors, those retired persons who pore over many books and arise from them with a circulation set up in their imaginations, from which they distill yet more books, fragrant with literary allusions, bitter with the wisdom of dead masters, and sweet to the taste of the pleasure seeker in style. For his third novel Mr. Wilder, following in the footsteps of Steele, has mused over the earliest of Terence’s comedies, the Andria, dropping characters from it, eliminating complications and knavery, altering the locale, changing the note, and finally devising an altogether different ending — until he has a plot and a meaning characteristically his own. So, while it is interesting, it is not germane to a review of The Woman of Andros to compare Terence’s comedy with Mr. Wilder’s tragic idyll; suffice it to say that Terence, famous so many centuries for his elegance, his purity of dietion, and his smoothness, is certainly an author to whom Mr. Wilder would most naturally turn for a quickening of his own vein of production. And now let US take The Woman of Andros iadependent of its source.
The story opens with a description of a nightfall over the whole Mediterranean region shortly before the birth of Jesus, a device that is charmingly employed to awaken a sense of expectancy in the reader, who presently finds himself in ‘a confused starlight, already apprehensive of the still unrisen moon’, on the little island of Brynos in the Ægean Sea. Here two fathers, Simo and Chremes, discuss the marriage agreement whereby Pamphilus, son of the first, is to wed Philumena, the daughter of Chremes. But Pamphilus, it appears, is slow in reaching a decision as to the wedding day, and Simo, despite the pressure of Chremes, will not force his son to expedite the matter. Meantime Pamphilus is frequenting the house of Chrysis, the woman from Andros, who has brought to the island all the refinements of Alexandria and all the literary memories of Athens in the great period.
Mr. Wilder has made a stately figure of Chrysis, the hetaira, invested her with ‘the remoteness and glamour of a legend,’and put into her mind a number of those maxims in the manner of La Brnyère for which he has been so much applauded. It is not for amorous commerce that the serious young Pumphilus visits her house, but out of a vague love of philosophy. But Chrysis is agonizingly fluttered by a love for tbe priestlike youth.
Now Mr. Wilder lets escape from the hetaira’s house a closely guarded character, — Glycerium, the fifteenyear-old sister of Chrysis. — whose innocent feelings and movements are to suffuse the whole plot with the hues of pain. For Pamphilus and Glycerium fall in love, and on their third meeting ‘those caresses that seemed to be for courage, for pity, and for admiration, were turned by Nature to her own uses,”and Glycerium becomes pregnant. Clirysis, stricken with a fatal illness, learns of this and on her deathbed tells Pamphilus, ‘I want to say to someone . . . that I have known the worst the world can do to me and that nevertheless I praise the world and all living. All that is, is well. Remember some day, remember me as one who loved all things and accepted from the gods all things, the bright and the dark.’
This is the key speech of the novel, and it is to this wisdom — to this acceptance of the ache as well as the joy of existence and the praise of both — that Pamphilus attains at the end of the book when another night, this time a rainy one, covers the Mediterranean, a sadly beautiful complement to the nightfall of the opening passage. But before the narrative dissolves in the rain, Pamphilus has been distraught by a problem which, decided either way, will yield sorrow. To marry the daughter of Chremes, according to the agreement, or to marry the stray girl Glycerium and suffer a lifetime of sullen acquiescence from his family and his neighbors? He reaches his moment of beatific vision in the course of his wretched pondering" when it seems to him that ‘all burned, like the hillside of olive trees, with the perpetual flames of Jove,’ when he cries, ‘I praise all living, the bright and the dark.’ . . . And then Glyeerium dies in childbirth, and her child also.
Many points have been omitted in this summary, but it is obvious that Mr. Wilder has again striven to obey the dictum he set down in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. ‘The whole purport of literature,’ he said there, ‘is the notation of the heart. Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world.’ But is the liquid bitter? ‘Perseverance in affection . . . To have nothing to go by except this idea, this vague idea, that there lies the principle of living’ — this seems to be the root feeling in Mr. Wilder’s work, and it may be the source of that elusive sentimentality that seeps through all his pages. Somehow the draughts we drink from his books are mysteriously not bitter, but rather sweet and even syrupy. He entrances us, but it is a spell we later resent. He has found out where we are vulnerable, the beliefs we cannot bear to be skeptical about, the delusions of our hearts, and there he invades us. Under the studied stroking of his sentences, we fall into a state of Epicurean relaxation, and we are his until we have finished the book.
And yet Mr. Wilder aspires to be more than a minor master of literary delights. He once confided to the public that he thought of ids work as ‘(Jerman in feeling (Buch and Beethoven),’ which means that he desires it. to have emotional power and sweep and intensity. Let the antique gods, whom he fabled in The Cabala as still surviving, answer his prayer. Let them give him. who already is so richly talented, another gift, the gift of passion!
GORHAM B. MUNSON