New Fiction

WHEN some ten years ago A. S. M. Hutchinson’s If Winter Comes made its prodigious appeal to a public strangely diversified, its enormous popularity was explained on the ground that readers were satiated with the subjective dregs of post-war fiction and wanted to look at life from a more romantic point of view. Times have changed. The best fiction of the past two years has been largely objective both in its material and in its approach, encouragingly universal in its final impression, and, if not always strictly realistic in content, surely so in purport and in tenor. Witness, for example, Walmsley’s Three fevers, Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September, Willa Cather’s Obscure Destinies, Phyllis Bentley’s Inheritance, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, even Charles Morgan’s The Fountain. And thus far many readers have experienced therein only relief and hope for the future.
It is, therefore, going to be of real interest to watch the reception accorded Mr. Hutchinson’s new novel, The Soft Spot (Little, Brown, $2.50). Avowedly romantic and at times a bit unconvincing in its incidents, which range in place from a quiet English countryside to South American jungles and Malay islands, it has yet a definite thesis, and might, in fact, be termed ethical if not spiritual in its mission. Stephen Wain, whose life is here recorded by the sometimes irritating methods of diaries, letters, and journals as well as by the author himself, has been cursed from boyhood by a soft spot in his moral fibre; and Mr. Hutchinson’s book is the story of its depredations upon him and his final conquest of it by means of a new light vouchsafed him under curious, attractive, and surely romantic circumstances. That the story is interesting, even absorbing, few will deny.
In Stranger’s Return (Harcourt, Brace, $2.00), Phil Stong has written a far less convincing book than in State Fair. In the first place, the earlier story was built around a stable, well-rooted institution — namely, the fair. Events arose inevitably out of that all-engrossing situation and were reasonably motivated thereby; people were propelled by such circumstances as do arise at state fairs in Maine, Massachusetts, or Iowa, The book had a real if somewhat acrid quality, and justly merited the enthusiasm of many thoughtful readers. Stranger’s Return, on the contrary, is without any such motivating and unifying situation. Supposedly rooted in the rich Iowa earth, it, nevertheless, impresses one not only as frail and uncertain, but also as wanting any real excuse for being at all. Perhaps this impression is born of the fact that not one of the characters, except perhaps Grandfather Storr (who ought to live by himself, but who constantly needs Mr. Stong), is rooted at all, either in the earth or in his own mind. State Fair had a robust, hale, even lusty reality ; Stranger’s Return, well written as it is, seems to have been evoked to satisfy Mr. Stong’s desire to write yet another book.
All Men Are Enemies, by Richard Aldington (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50), is described in its title as ‘a romance.’ The definition is more incomplete even than are most definitions, unless, indeed, we push the term ‘romantic’ to the furthest limits of its aesthetic and spiritual connotations. Mr, Aldington’s book, as I see it, and as indeed he tells us in a rather needless and enervating Author’s Note, is the story of a ceaseless quest after the beautiful in life, which he believes to be apprehended only by the senses and especially by the sense of touch, unhesitatingly termed ‘divine.’ His repeated contention that god (he is careful to avoid the capital) is ultimately physical is sometimes not a little confusing. Does he not mean rather that his conception of deity,’the not-me of this world,’ is in reality spiritual, but understandable by and operative with men only through the employment of the senses? In any case, the thesis of the book is forced upon us to its own hurt (and ours). Neither the Author’s Note nor the opening section, in which the immortal gods meet together to endow Anthony Clarendon with their gifts, is in the least necessary. Moreover, both take away from the reader the pleasure of discovery for himself what it is all about.
The book is, nevertheless, full of interest, aside from a captivating and moving story. Mr. Aldington’s considerable achievements as a poet, a critic, and a translator are evident in these pages. Like diaries Lamb, in Pater’s words, he knows ‘the genius of places,’ and his sensitive descriptions, whether of an English spring or of the Bay of Naples, alone make his book distinguished. There is evidence, too, of his wide reading and its influence upon him. Pater’s Marius is here throughout, not only in its Epicurean ideal of ‘life as the end of life,’its ‘hard, gemlike flame of ecstasy,’but also again and again in its style and imagery. Keats is here, too, with his apotheosis of sensation, and Plato, and, not least, Homer himself. Nor does Mr. Aldington’s recent connection with the works and thought of D. H. Lawrence come as any surprise, for both are present, in large measure, ‘pressed down and running over.’ These influences, in fact, save this story, with its sinister and not entirely appropriate title, from becoming too much the hawking about of an idea, even though they now and again retard its action and extend it to an undue length.