Novels From Abroad
FROM figures earlier published in these columns it is apparent that American readers are continually being offered books which have been hopefully imported from abroad. Yet, with the exception of those which come from England, these importations seldom make a lasting place for themselves. When they do, it is in part owing to the excellence of the translation, in part to the virility and understandableness of the theme. From Sweden, Selma Lagerlöf; from France, Marcel Proust; from Norway, that rich narrative, Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset — these seem to be of more than temporary attraction. Recently there have appeared three other aspirants to favor, now to be appraised by Mary Ross. ON one’s grandmother’s parlor table, in company with a red plush album, there used often to rest a stereoscope, through which, on a tedious Sunday afternoon, the cathedrals and bridges of Europe could be seen in the startling clarity of three dimensions. In these four novels which deal with foreign scenes, there is a like actuality of breadth and depth and solidity. Here are places and people that one might touch with one’s hand, houses foursquare, But instead of the shiny, faded sepia of the old photographs behind the curved glass, here there are color and movement and air, the inalienable murmur of humanity,
Maxim Gorki’s Bystander, translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney (Cape and Smith, $3.00), is, despite its 700 pages, only the first part of a greater continuous narrative which, we are told, the author regards as his masterpiece, the work by which he would stand or fall. It is a story of a boy growing up in the Russia of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, among people who for the most part are well-to-do, liberally-intentioned, but tired. An earlier burst of humanitarianism had spent itself, and through the period of Clim Samghin’s childhood and youth (this volume ends with 1896, soon after the coronation of Emperor Nicholas II) currents and counter-currents eddied aimlessly among the families of the intelligentsia, the school and university groups of which he was a part. Self-centred and uncertain beyond the natural prerogatives of youth, intelligent but remarkable neither for his brains nor for his courage, Clim plays continuously the rôle of bystander, while about him there flow a richness and variety of life which are confusing and overpowering to one used to the more stereotyped bourgeois adolescence of America. These are people such as we know, yet somehow different: bolder in thought and speech than we are like to meet, yet curiously naïve and somehow timid. The one passion that seems to me to unite this motley pageant of rich man, servant girl, apostle, artist, student, agitator, is an intense preoccupation with morality. They must judge, weigh, evaluate, seek, question — with the almost insane force of an obsession. And because this seething current of search and uncertainty is divorced from action that is acceptable to intelligence, it turns inward to create frustration. Gorki, I would believe, is here playing the rôle of portraitist, not propagandist, and giving to the extent of one individual’s capacities a picture of the many swirling forces that now are fused in the great social experiment of our time. These are the people whose sons and daughters were to make or betray the revolution, but it is not as political dogma or history, but as the mirror of moods and uncertainties common to all youth, that this story of the first third of Clim Samghin’s life is to be read.
If footless thought was the disease of the Russian bourgeois in Clim Samghin’s youth, too concentrated action was no less destructive to the almost contemporaneous Simlers in Jean-Richard Bloch’s ‘— and Company,’ translated by C.K. Scott-Moncrieff (Simon and Schuster, $3.00). With a flare of patriotism they could not confess, they came, patriarch, sons, daughters, grandchildren, and faithful employees, from the Alsace that had become German in 1871 to start again in the smoky little French manufacturing town of Vendeuvre. The very lives of that family were woven with the shuttles that made honest black cloth; set apart from the gossipy, waning town by their Jewish God, their cleverness, their own integrity, the Similers lived for their family and their business, and knew scarcely which was which. In time of catastrophe they were capable of generosities such as their neighbors could hardly believe; but by the limits of their existence, created in part externally, hut more truly by the fixedness of their own aims, they became spiritually inbred. ‘In the beginning there was Simler — alone, like God,’ said Ben, the cousin who broke away to America and came back to look with cool objectivity on the factory now beginning to lose step in industry’s pace. ‘And then Simler grew, and conscious of his solitude, like God, he created the Company as God created the world. Then, the Company also grew. And there happened to Simler what happens to all people who found businesses, the business devours the man, “and Co.” is devouring Simler, and if you don’t take great care there will be no Simler left.’
This book has been many years in the making. It was written before the war, the proof sheets of the first edition revised while the author lay wounded in a hospital, then fully revised and republished in 1925. It is a novel, well reasoned and carefully conceived.
In the trilogy completed in last fall’s publication of Ultima Thule, there is a not dissimilar record of a book conceived and written through many years, and gaining belatedly the recognition of which adverse circumstance at first deprived it. Only now, with the re-issue of Australia Felix and The Way Home (W. W. Norton & Co., $2.50 each), can the American admirers of Henry Handel Richardson read the full epic of the lives of Richard and Mary Mahony. It is a grueling test of any book, — to have read first the final volume of quintessential tragedy, then go backward to the beginning, and only after many months pick up the middle link, — yet through all the thousand closely printed pages of the three books, read perforce in this garbled way, I found an increasing absorption in the fates of these people whom one gets to know far better than one’s neighbors. Though its scene is the furthest removed from ours, — Australia in the days of the gold rush and later, — this trilogy is far closer to American sympathies than the Russia of Tsar Alexander III, or the rise of a Jewish industrialist in familiar France. In Bystander an old stable order is crumbling; in ‘— and Company’ a new forte is growing up invincibly through the outgrown order about it; but in the trilogy starting with Australia Felix a new country is on the make, scrambling diverse races and traditions, snubbing over-sensitivity, rewarding boldness. The figures of Richard and Mary, whom the author follows through that colorful period, through their early poverty, their successes, their domestic happinesses and vexations and final catastrophe, are clear and poignant and wholly individual; their fate is tragedy too great to be gloomy, and I believe that their story, if tardily recognized, will not. soon be forgotten.