New Wine in Old Bottles

PROMINENT among this season’s novelists are three women, each of whom has become known for a kind of heady wine bottled in her books. Margaret Kennedy, with her Constant Nymph, Rose Macaulay, with Potterism and Orphan Island, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, whose Bent Twig moved Lord Bryce to praise. Have they, we wonder, done it again? And is the vintage as good as, or better than, that of other years?
THESE novels, each sure of its anticipating public, range themselves penseroso and allegro, as might be expected: on one hand the gravity of Dorothy Canfield Fisher; on the other the audacities of Margaret Kennedy and the light-hearted preposterousness that decorates Rose Macaulay’s thesis.
Staying with Relations, by Rose Macaulay (Liveright, $2.50), is a synthetic draft that pricks with the characteristic Macaulay tang. It is wild narrative,
brilliant and beautiful description. Incidentally it is a keen study of a nervously mismated couple, and it is the ancient California joke made new and glorious. It is also, as I have said, a novel with a thesis.
Whenever Miss Macaulay goes gunning, she is after specific game. In Staying with Relations, her game is ‘the facile temptation to classify humanity according to sex, to age, to type, to anything but temperament, which so readily besets the writer.’ (And which, by extension, so readily besets us all.) Catherine Grey, the young English novelist, no sooner comes to visit her cousins in Guatemala than she falls zestfully to work at assigning them their types. Then she is puzzled by their conduct in the extravaganza that shortly involves them. She is indignant when her stepcousin’s husband says to her sternly, ‘ You call everyone a type. That s where you’re hopelessly out. There are no types.... We Can’t even understand or classify ourselves and our own reactions, let alone anyone else’s.’
By a turn that is pure Macaulay, it is this critic himself who presently is voicing the reader’s own sharp surprise as he says of Catherine the observer, ’You’d never suspect her of all that turbulent and disorderly private history she seems to have. All those debts and love and whatnot, I mean.’ His languid stepbrother-inlaw’s rejoinder succinctly restates the thesis: ‘My dear, why on earth not?'
Even the title of this book has its tongue in its cheek.
With The Fool of the Family (Doubleday, Doran, $2.00). Margaret Kennedy has done it again. The Sangers have come back, vehement and vivid and disorganized as ever. But in Caryl, the family fool, there is something exotic, something not altogether Sanger, something that permits him to plan madly but not to execute consistently. In Caryl Sanger we have what is called the artistic temperament hampered by queer tendernesses, queer scruples, by a thing that might be called conscience. In Sebastian Sanger we have the artistic temperament reëforced by a quite sublime ruthlessness and a magnificent endowment of oblivion. In Fenella McLean, loved by Caryl and desired by the beautiful Sebastian, we have the Scotch temperament, captivated by the newly learned phrase ‘living dangerously’ and unhorsed from its habitual prudence by the impact of the mad Sanger brothers.
Out of one of Miss Kennedy’s eyes, as it were, looks an enfant terrible; out of the other, a sage. Their joint findings are reported in this writer’s singularly telling manner. It is equally telling whether she is describing how Caryl, who is playing the piano for the Lido Pier Cinema and has reached the moment when he should begin on ‘ Chiri-biri-bi! storms into the ’Appassionata’ because a flash of lightning has shown him the sea through the window; or how Fenella battles aghast with a quite contraband emotion; or how the little reprobate Gemma sits singing in a queer, shrill voice, —
’Leggie over leggie
The doggie went to Dover,'
over her dead baby; or how the amazing procession of clergymen and other antiquarians comes wending to the old mill where two guilty elopers have sequestered themselves; or how the primroses glow in the orchard by the mill, and the ‘intolerable melancholy sweetness of spring is in the air.’
In The Deepening Stream (Harcourt, Brace, $2.00), Dorothy Canfield Fisher tells of a woman’s difficult progress along ‘the uphill road that led from her childish hardness toward a little understanding of the rich complexity of life.’ She depicts with great skill certain landmarks on this progress: a little girl’s first sense of the miraculous, caught from the sudden brilliant flowering of tulips in a garden above the Hudson River; her first sense of terror, on the night when she is lost with her sister and her brother in the broom on Tzcohébie Hill; the celestial joy of her encounter with great music; the misery and scare of her growing realization that her father and her mother enjoy triumphing over each other, hurting each other; the revelation, at the dreadful hour of her father’s death, that between him and her mother there has been nevertheless a supreme dependence.
Matey Gilbert’s life, in short, like the life of any perceptive and analytical and candid person, is a continuous recognition of one thing more that she has failed to understand. And the process of recognition goes on into her marriage, through the discipline of maternity, through her joy in her children, through the slow ripening of her love for her husband. And last it goes on into her experience in the Great War.
I think it is significant that Mrs. Fisher postponed her war novel so many years. The latter half of this book, which deals with the war as seen and felt by a relief worker in Paris, has authority, of course; it has dignity and reticence; but, most of all, it has perspective. This is felt particularly in Matey’s somewhat dubious feeling over the triumphal entry into Paris of ‘le Président Veelson,’ and the subsequent resolution of her doubt through a new interpretation; and in the post-war groping of Matey and her husband for solid ground for their feet.
The Deepening Stream has all the qualities one has learned to expect of a novel by this writer: reality, seriousness of purpose, and, I think one must add, an unalleviated seriousness of execution, high-mindedness, a sense of deep roots. It has in addition the largeness that comes from the war theme.