Untitled Book Review

THESE early fall novels which have Been selected for review could not by any twist of circumstance Be regarded as a homogeneous group, yet by sheer force of contrast their merits and their widely different themes have been made clear so that all who run may choose what they will read.
A Note in Music, byRosamond Lehmann (Holt, $2.50). shows far more maturity than its remarkable predecessor. Dusty Answer. The lyric beauty in it is richer, though less pervasive; and the study of character goes deeper.
On the title-page stands this quotation from Landor: ’But the present, like a note in music, is not lung but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come.’ The novel is concerned with the brief apparition, among certain unsatisfied lives, of a vivid, fascinating, and upsetting personality. Young Hugh Miller is empty, purposeless: he is gnawing his heart over the wretched collapse of a neurotic friendship; but with his good looks, his assurance, his vitality and superficial gayety, he makes a false effect of radiance. To a dully unhappy married woman approaching middle age, he seems to embody all romance and beauty.
Early in the novel, it seems impossible that Grace Fairfax will ever touch one’s sympathy. Her sluggishness, her greediness, her charmlessness (except for the odd charm of her smile), her apathy toward her conscious ineptitudes and shortcomings, and a certain ruthlessness in her, are too repellent. But in her farewell to the young man who sees her only as an ‘extraordinary, rather worrying woman,’and who casually tears her heart out as he goes, one must concede her something close to heroism. With even greater skill,
I think, one is brought to an understanding of Gerald Mackay, the professor; seen first as a nervous system in continuous explosion, and a poisonous spirit made up of resentments and a formidable malice; seen at last as having in him something pitiful and something manly.
As the canal theme is the heart of Rome Haul, so old Ralph Wilder’s ‘almighty big barn,’ ’bigger than a church,’ is the heart of Walter Edmonds’s new novel, The Big Barn (Little, Brown and Atlantic Monthly Press, 82.00). It is the symbol and embodiment of difficult success; it is the promise of continuance. More than this: as its timbers rise, its shadow lies longer and longer across the meadow, it becomes a presence curiously alive.
Ralph Wilder is a rough and domineering but not altogether un-endearing character. His hopes for the future are vested precariously in his two sons: the ineffectual Henry, who believes himself to have talents thrown away at home, and the handsome rake Bascom, not greatly interested in anything but his rather shabby adventures. Later the old man puts his trust in Henry’s young wife, a girl whose imagination is touched by the farm. But many storms are to break before the evening serenity of the last chapter.
The author lapses too often into slackness of diction and sentence structure; but he can use words effectively and beautifully. As in Rome Haul, the more dramatic episodes show a strong narrative power. Foremost among these I should put Bascom’s flight from his murderous enemy in the dark wood, while his hound runs faithfully at his heels, a betraying whiteness, and will not be driven away. In this novel Mr. Edmonds reveals again his knowing love of the earth and his power to make a country setting real. A palpable coolness falls as the sun sets behind Tug Hill and the cowbells sound here and there in the night, pasture.
The chronicle of the Wilders is wistful with the hope of an heir. Not so the book called Seed, by Charles Norris (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50), which tells how ill-judged multiplying makes a singularly clean sweep of the Carter family. The theme of this work — part novel, part symposium — is the disastrousness of overreproduction; its problem is the proper status of contraceptives. Mr. Norris discusses the question thoroughly. It is noteworthy that he puts his argument for the opposition into the mouth of the one fine character in the book, the priest. But Father Francis says his say on his deathbed; the rejoinder of his hearer is ‘Well, well, don’t tire yourself.’ A reader symbolically-minded might wonder whether this part of the debate has not been staged with a certain cunning.
The novel begins with a picture of the large Carter tribe on their ranch in California, then focuses upon the history of Bart Carter, youngest son of the senior branch, and only toward the end sweeps back into family chronicle and traces the degeneration and destruction of the Carter stock.
Bart Carter is something of a weakling, and, at a pinch, a facile liar. Seduced by a woman more interesting than his wife, he proves a rather caddish lover. Much sympathy is demanded for him — and some is felt — as he desperately struggles to support his rapidly increasing family, struggles in the pandemonium of his home to practise his talent for writing, struggles to break down the obduracy of his wife, whose religious training sets her in opposition to his desires and his convictions. For the wife no sympathy is demanded. Mr. Norris has a superlative gift for portraying women at their most unappealing and exasperating, and for showing them as inept and inopportune even when well disposed.
Seed is a consistently charmless book. But to charm is not its purpose.