LAST week-end I read the advance proofs of a plucky book, A Princess in Exile (Viking, $.‘3.50). In it Marie, once Grand Duchess of Russia, now a Princess without a country, speaks for Russian womankind in exile. Despite a glittering education at Court (an education which when described and published in book form wiped out her most pressing debts), Grand Duchess Marie shared the common fate of refugees, when in middle years and on foreign soil she was compelled to begin another education for life. That she did reeducate herself tenaciously, and — one gathers — without much help from her menfolk, is a matter of admirable record. The first half of her memoirs stirred the American imagination, which, being democratic, loves to dwell in palaces. In this second volume, we catch further glimpses of the nobility, illuminating especially of Queen Marie of Rumania, Princess Paley, the Grand Duke Nicholas, the King of Sweden. But what, stirs one most here is the self-portrait: why Paris was a more congenial place than London for an emigre, how a princess sells her jewels, of the apathy that comes with exile, how knitting, embroidery, and endless persistence linked her name with Chanel’s; finally, and a little ingenuously, how the Grand Duchess and her brother followed the rainbow to the United States and lived happily ever after. Cinderella with modern variations.
I have known for some time that Manuel Komroff was at work on a novel about old New York, and a glance at his reading notes last winter gave me some idea of the deep foundations that were being laid. Now in A New York Tempest (Coward-MeCann, $2.50) the job is done, and excellently done. In his early short, stories Mr. Komroff show ed his hand as a creator of original situations which for all their simplicity did beguile the reader into the realm of imagination. In Coronet, which introduced him to a larger audience, we have a novel on a panoramic scale marvelously held together by the skill of its characterizations and by the beauty and intricacy of the allusions which give the story its inner meaning. Confined to a smaller scope, A New York Tempest cuts with a deeper impress. The novel is bound up with a murder which actually occurred in New York nearly a hundred years ago, a murder which brought into cruel opposition the forces of society and the underworld. New York, as we read of it in these pages, seems a quaint place, with its fire laddies, its gangs from the Five Points, its rat pits, dueling, and high beaver hats. The past, when so well portrayed, is apt to lull us into a mood of superiority, until by the art of the novelist we are made aware that the heartless brutality which we condescend to in these pages is the very same brutality which society and the underworld have opposed in a crisis of only yesterday. Mr. Komroff has at heart the abstract verities, justice, loyalty, hypocrisy, and as these are revealed within the action one realizes that the book has as wide arid immediate application to-day as it would have had a hundred years ago.
There is nothing very obscure about Obscure Destinies, the three short stories by Willa Cather which have just been printed (Knopf, $2.00). The life that takes hold of Miss Cather’s characters is the life that I know and can interpret by my ow n experience. And these are really notable stories, make no mistake. Against their Western background, Rosicky the Bohemian, Old Mrs. Harris who ‘came up from’ Tennessee, and Dillon and Trueman, the two friends, are people made memorable in print. In the first two in particular there is that union of strength and compassion without which no great sacrifice of the flesh is possible.
For sheer, unadulterated entertainment I hand the palm-loaf fan to Max Miller, whose volume, I Cover the Waterfront (Dutton, $2.00), deserves the widest acquaintance. It ’s a book as refreshing as a summer breeze. Mr. Miller does what he says: for a number of years he has ’covered’ the Pacific harbors and waterfronts as a special reporter on the San Diego Sun. Most reporters have it at the back of their heads to w rite books. Here’s one who has done so, modestly, humorously, at times ironically, setting down with a peculiar blend of his own the strange craft and people whom it has been his business to observe. These skits, seldom over five pages in length, have what few news stories possess — a marked individuality and delicious wit. To be gulped down with or without ice.