THE MAN of the MONTH
IF the thought and prose of Mr. H. M. Tomlinson were not so dangerously brilliant, a congress of small critics would be out to get him on the simple score of ’no novelist.’ Some of them will try anyway and burn their fingers for whatever pains they take. They sniffed at the strange odor of Gullions Reach when it appeared in 1927. It bothered some of them. Was this a novel? It seemed to have a plot. But the plot got lost in the Malay somewhere, and the hero (an escaped murderer) and Mr. Tomlinson fought it out in some passages of. that rare, supporting prose which made The Sea and the Jungle at least a hundredth part as well known as it deserves to be. Mr. Tomlinson, whispered his readers, is not a novelist. He leaves things unfinished. But we can’t leave him unfinished. There was a girl in Gallions Reach. But the author, unused to feminine names and pronouns, gave her up in the third chapter and the incident was closed.
Mr. Tomlinson’s new book, The Snows of Helicon, is more of a novel than Gallions Reach. There is almost a complete plot, and one woman stays the distance. Is this enough? ’His new novel,’the publishers will say. What of this? Forget it as a novel. But you won’t forget it as a book. The author has seen to that. It began, I think, in an essay he once wrote, called ‘ A Lost Wood.’ In this country we are getting so used to ruin in the wake of progress that we doubt whether our daily land and townscape were ever quite unspoiled. But England is going, too. We are surprised and appalled at that. ‘Improvement had come. In the heart of the wood, oaks were being felled, and by the torn roots of one was a dead hedgehog, which had been evicted from its hybernaculum into the frigid blast, of reform.’
Like Samuel Butler and Hudson before him, but with a worldful now of fact, Mr. Tomlinson in his latest narrative assails the machine age in bitter reason. The weapons are fanciful enough. Travers, an English architect, arriving in Liverpool from New York, revolts suddenly from the thought of adding more ugliness, more colossus, to the earth. He leaves his wife in the railway station and goes off ostensibly to buy a book. An astonishing sequence of events carry him to other ends of the globe with the half-apparent idea of saving from destruction a temple to Apollo in the Greek island of Colonna. An unscrupulous power, a man called Lord Snarge (or he might he machine in the flesh), wants to build a wireless station there. The literal-minded will balk at this. A fantastic idea! But the story, skipping material details, moves in a curious boxing of the mental compass toward the desired end. Like all Tomlinson stories, it touches ships, jungle, revolution (this time), and a fine salt character in Bert Byles. Lord Snarge is never seen. He is a presence, like Kurtz in Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness.’ But it is not the individuals or the direction of the book which holds us. It is Tomlinson’s sheer genius at giving the world an ugly look at itself in a strange but unclouded glass. The look is ugly, but the comment is beauty to alarm. ‘On a fine morning, not specially noted in the calendar, an unknown capwearer, merged with his fellows, has a touch of sun. He goes fey. That one point in the stream no longer bobs along the current. It stops and interrupts the regular flow; presently deflects it, dams it up convincingly, gathers the oncoming caps into a deepening threat, swells them into an irresistible opinion fed by all the rills of the countryside, and away goes a flood to alter the landscape forever, and spin every wheel to another purpose. If that were not possible, humanity would be as dumb as a bed of oysters.’
A touch of sun. Whatever it was, it has caught on the snows of Helicon. A lot of us would like to have said this. A lot. of us feel it. We’d save the temple and blast, the machine. But could we? That’s why Travers remains a symbol. He is n’t real. He sees too straight and talks too well. For a few lucid minutes he lives: witness the revolution, and the vividness there. But the undertone is important. Listening to that, we hear strange syllables. Have we heard them before? We burn with the thought that perhaps the gods once wrote like this.