EVERY now and again someone rises up to complain that the American mind has gone tabloid, and that American readers have neither time nor patience for what cannot he told in a headline and paragraph or two, or the loosely printed pages of a ‘standard’ novel. Here three publishers affirm their faith to the contrary, offering books in which one has room to spread out one s imagination and unpack one’s thoughts.
In Growth of the Soil, Knut Hamsun wrote of the taproot through which a peasant society lives — that love of the land wherein a man becomes as much a part of it as a tree. In Vagabonds (Coward-McCann, $3.00) he has chosen another aspect of the Norwegian scene — the birds of passage who go up and down its coast and occasionally sally out to far seas, restless in one place, yet returning, as the seasons roll round again, to revisit the haunts of other summers. His vagabonds are Edevart and August, who sail or fish or peddle or keep store as the winds of their impulses blow.
August has a feckless splendor; he it is who can pull ideas out of the blue to make the fortunes of others, while his own dollars slip through his fingers to leave him only with a disconcerted boast. He knows how the marsh can be drained, and how to play on the terrors of the neighbors to make them do the work; where the wharf should be built so that the steamers will stop and bring goods and money to the forlorn little trading post; where a mill will some day harness the waterfall to fatten the trader’s young son. But scheming girls get his own watch, his gold ring; they dance to his accordion, but no one pays the piper. Edevart, simpler, more persistent, plays henchman to the picaresque hero; gathers up the bright ideas and coins till prosperity again and again seems almost around the corner for both of them; then trips himself on the conflict between the wanderer and the man who might have loved the stability of a peasant.
Vagabonds has not the epic poise of Growth of the Soil, for its concern is not with the main stream of its society, but with the wayward eddies. These wanderers cannot sail the charted course, nor yet can they break from it to explore new seas of their own. They have neither the fixed goal of a Ulysses nor the whole-hearted freedom of a Don Quixote. Yet possibly for that very reason they are far more appealing than many a hero who sails by chart and compass. Vagabonds is a clear, honest, and substantial story; what is more, it is endearing.
In this country Lion Feuchlwatiger is known almost solely for his two historical novels, Power (Jew Suss) and The Ugly Duchess. In Success (Viking, $3.00) he has turned his gift for historical perspective to modern times — the years of domestic revolution in Bavaria following the Great War. The result is a vast and intricate book, involving scores of people and composite pictures of men whose names have been in the headlines of the past decade. Beyond that, moreover, he has drawn his multitude of people into a panorama of the present, within the boundaries of a well-knit story which becomes increasingly absorbing as the reader follows the fortunes of Martin Kruger and Johanna Krain.
Krüger, the subdirector of the National Gallery of Modern Pictures, was imprisoned by his political enemies on a false and petty charge of perjuring himself by swearing that he had not spent a certain night three years before with a certain woman, lie told the truth when he declared he had not done so — and the whole matter, whether false or true, was of no importance to his work or to public policy. Yet by bought testimony his enemies destroyed him.
It is about Martin Krüger’s trial, imprisonment, and death that the story centres. In it there is a curious mixture of objectivity and anger. On the one hand the author seems impelled by the feeling that now all can be told; he will rid his spirit of the weight of disgust that those reactionary years bred through their political corruption, profiteering, double-dealing; the suffering of the many, the cant and wirepulling at the top. He will show how sentimentality and false patriotism are entwined in the love of ‘art’ that Munich boasts; how selfinterest and opportunism belie the mouthing of ‘justice’ and give honest men no room for peace, sometimes no room for life. On the other hand, once he has determined to cut through the corruption of this time and people, he looks with some detachment at what he finds, to see how it is that men can be so swinish, what it was in the year 1920 that brought to pass so sorry a state of human affairs. He can savor the trials of these people without becoming sentimental over them; can tolerate stupidity if it is not linked with power and cruelty.
From time to time a brief chapter in the book casts the whole scene backward into a distant perspective, like looking through the wrong end of opera glasses, by discussing the state of justice or art or morals in ‘those times’ as one would talk of the ancient Romans or the inhabitants of a South Sea Island. The device is effective in keeping the great book within the bounds of its setting and guarding its emotions from sprawling toward a polemic. It is more than a device, however: a witness, rather, of the rein which an historically-minded man has placed on himself in treating a subject which touched him so deeply.
Success is not a book into which one can dip lightly; it demands a concentration in the reading not unlike that which must have been necessary in the writing to keep so large and complicated a stage in hand. But one who is willing to give himself to it will find, I think, a trenchant and satisfying return. Its matter, allied with its emotion, makes it an even sharper and more touching book than its predecessors.