The Younger Set

FROM England and Paris come three novels from the younger set of writers which have been variously received on their arrival at New York. Doctor Serocold was adopted by the Book-of-the-Month Club; Brothers and Sisters has been much talked about by the discovering few; while the gay humor of The Selbys seems to have made the summer pleasanter for a good many readers.
A CAPABLE new novel by an almost unknown English novelist is Doctor Serocold, by Helen Ashton (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50). The placidity and the drama of a provincial British town are all in the day’s work for its family doctor. The twenty-four-hour period through which we follow him begins at the deathbed of his elderly partner and ends with the birth of a baby to one of his patients. By means of descriptions which are often sensitive and graceful, and retrospective passages which are sometimes tedious, we learn all there is to know about the doctor’s life and character, and also much about the friends and fellow townsmen into whose lives he has ready access.
The rather shopworn subject escapes the obvious because Dr. Serocold has been conceived as a real person. He is well endowed with the conventional virtues of his calling, kindliness and devotion; but be is also a clear-thinking, slightly cynical, humane individual, often impatient, and subject to the human frailties of pride, ambition, and doubt. He can look upon suffering with professional aloofness when necessary, and yet be a man with a sense of personal sympathy. The death of his partner awakens in him an awareness of his own approaching old age and a question of his effectiveness. These doubts are set at rest by the day s events, but they color the reflections that pass through his mind and give an overtone to each episode. The effect is often poignant without being tragic; in a larger sense it conveys a moving suggestion of the meanness and the meaning of mortal business. It is a satisfying though unexciting piece of work, which lingers pleasantly in memory. The author errs in a tendency to use three sentences where one would do, and to affront the reader by making points explicit which are already clearly implied.
Also by an unknown Englishwoman, and also set in a provincial town, Brothers and Sisters, by I. Compton-Burnett (Harcourt, Brace, $2.50), cuts an entirely different pattern. Four pairs of brothers and sisters inhabit this town, and for us their families constitute its entire population. They form a small aristocracy of intelligence set coldly apart in such communities; within the group each pair lives a self-sufficient life. The events of their existence are calls, walks, dinners, chiefly discussions — nothing more; but through their conversations we discover the interweaving of fact and emotion which bind them and keep them apart. Though nothing consciously perverse or morbid appears, the hidden theme is incest, and the tragedy of the central story is the discovery by one of these pairs that their heredity makes marriage impossible.
More important than the story, however, is the original method of its telling. Nothing is told directly; almost everything comes out through indirect comments and snatches of dialogue, which is harsh, terse, subtle, and always natural, Greater economy has seldom been exercised by a novelist; the reader’s quick perception is counted upon at every point. The concentration is as intense as in Wuttering Heights. One feels that this is the work, not of a practised writer, but of someone much more interesting — an individual intelligence guided by a sort of inner choice. A practised writer calculates his effects, writes with his eye on the reader. An author like this knows nothing about the reader, but sets down the parts of a character or scene that have spoken to his own mind and seemed important to himself. His selection is not representative and fails to give a complete or balanced picture; consequently each of its effects carries the mark of the author’s character upon it. Emily Brontë, Melville, Samuel Butler, had this quality in different degrees; it never produces the greatest geniuses of literature, but it marks a kind of genius set apart and peerless in its kind, and without it our literature would be immeasurably poorer.
Gay innocence enlivens The Selbys, by Anne Green, the light-hearted sister of Julian Green (Dutton, $2.50). This is the tale of a grown-up American child in Paris, a Southern girl who lives with her kindly and well-endowed uncle and aunt, and goes the rounds of cosmopolitan life, mingling with the foreign colony and with the French as well. She trips it on an easy foot and has a gay and innocent good time from beginning to end, despite an abortive elopement in which she fails to see the humor. The book is full of comedy characters and farcical incidents that almost suggest the more sophisticated French humorists such as Maurice Bedel. The aunt and uncle quarreling when most in love and celebrating their quarrels with banquets; the wisecracking practical joker with his penchant for arranging things — these and a dozen others are everyday beings, well understood, and played up, without burlesquing, for all the ironic comedy that they hold. Vet the honest naïvetée and the complete lack of sentimentality have a youthful American tone. One feels that the author must have lived much of this simple gayety herself and enjoyed it all immensely, to be able to report so many of its homely and fetching details. A little editing would have helped: the book is impetuously and carelessly written, badly organized, without the slightest sense of style, and full of crudities — which only leads to the reflection that these things matter very little to one’s enjoyment.