The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion
A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks
EXCITEMENT is usually good for books. A year ago events in Germany reached the boiling point; the persecution of the Jews, the invasion of private property, the burning of books that roused indignation the world over, are now taking shape in book form. Thus far the most literary product of Hitler’s régime is The Oppennatins, by Lion Feuchtwanger (Viking, $2.50). The author, him-self an exile, is quite aware of his difficult task of acquainting reasonable, even disinterested people of a state of affairs which strains credulity. Restraint he must have and restraint he uses in describing the Hitler persecution that slowly overwhelms a prosperous Berlin family of Jewish merchants. The Oppermanns seem pathetically, almost stupidly unaware of what is happening; as the clouds gather, neither their culture, their loyalty to Germany, nor their scientific attainments are protection from the deluge. Gustav the cosmopolitan, Martin the manufacturer, Edgar the doctor, Berthold of the younger generation — one after another they are swept into the discard. One feels that their story is more factual than imaginative; for artistic reasons it may not stir the emotions as deeply as the story of what happened to the Jew in Power. But the fidelity, the subdued power, and the sadness of The Oppermanns make it a book not easily to be forgotten.
Local color, always strong in American fiction, provides us with two good village novels this year. Village Tale by Phil Stong (Harcourt, Brace, $2.00) has about it the same shrewd, laughable observation of village life that made State Fair go down so easily. I should say that Phil Stong knows how to do two things uncommonly well: he knows how to read the character of our small Mid-Western villages, and he knows how to frame a story with just the proper proportions of laughter and sex, anger and philosophy, to tease the curiosity. Brunswick, Iowa, is the tiny arena in which he places his present narrative— Brunswick, a town of fifty-odd houses which is reached every day by one train, the 6.45 (it’s invariably late); Brunswick, which is presided over by the Somerville family, who live in the big house on the hill and whose rule is jealously resented by the lowlier citizens.
Village Tale is at its best when the author does not force the pace, when he is content to show us the little town in its cracker-box philosophizing, and again as it assembles in solemnity to meet the 6.45. But when passion and petty villainy begin to drive us up the grade toward the climax, Mr. Stong changes from a bucolic writer to a Hollywood producer. He manipulates the plot; he whips his people to fighting and love-making — in short, he screws up the story to such a tension that it no longer sounds like life.
The other novel concerns a village as famous as Concord but much less changed. I mean Gettysburg, the little Pennsylvania town that drowses to-day — as it did in ’63 — in the fertile valley below South Mountain. Gettysburg is remembered because it was the turning point. Pickett’s Charge was the high tide of Southern heroism; but the three days at Gettysburg bled the Army of Northern Virginia weaker than it could afford to be, as Lee must have realized when he began his rain-sodden retreat. All this and a good deal more besides we learn in Long Remember, a novel by MacKinlay Kantor (Coward, McCann, $2.50). The story is brought to us through the eyes and intellect of Dan Bale, a native of the village, something of a philosopher and a determined pacifist. Dan, who has been pioneering in the West, returns to attend his grandfather’s funeral and to dispose of the estate which he has inherited. He tells his townsfolk he won’t enlist, he falls instantly and passionately in love with the woman who has married his neighbor, Captain Fanning, and he is in the midst of this oblivion when the Confederate scouts push into the town. Distracted by his passion (which, incidentally, the lady shares), made stubborn by his pacifism, yet impelled to help his townsfolk and the pitiable wounded, Bale sees the battle both on the fields and in the homes he knew so well. This cellar-door view gives the struggle a fierce intimacy.
It is hard to satisfy oneself on the evidence that big, ruddy Dan Bale was intellectually a pacifist, just as it is hard to believe that Irene would surrender herself so impetuously — almost, as you might say, before Dan took his hat off. Bale’s killing of General Armisted likewise seems theatrical. The personal equation may not be wholly reassuring, but the integrity of this book really resides in the splendid description whereby a drowsing country village with its little squabbles and humors is transformed into a glowing crucible whose terrible heat tempered the American spirit.
It is curious to think that F. Scott Fitzgerald antedates Sinclair Lewis and that This Side of Paradise was frightening parents with its petting parties before Main Street became a byword. For Mr. Fitzgerald’s first book I still have a hearty appetite; it has zest, plenty of good observation, and a sensitive individuality. The novels that followed I felt were overpraised, particularly The Great Gatsby. In recent years Mr. Fitzgerald has confined himself to the short story. Now that the prodigal returns to reassert his abilities in the novel, I, for one, am pleased to welcome Tender Is the Night (Scribners, $2.50). Let it be said at once that Mr. Fitzgerald is a romantic crying in the wilderness of sophistication. He was a romantic in 1920 and he is one to-day. You will find beauty, bewilderment, and gushes of romantic language in this new story of the American expatriates, the Divers, Rosemary Hoyt of Hollywood, and their attending psychologists and alcoholics.
The narrative is needlessly involved. There are duels and shootings to no particular purpose. Yet, as in Ouida, these strained fancies are not important; more serious are the occasional lapses of the central characters. The sisters, Nicole and Baby Warren, are remarkable creations; Rosemary, on the other hand, is only a painted, wooden shell. But even this spasmodic characterization can, I think, be forgiven for the sake of such scenes as the beach party on the plage, the Divers’ dinner, an early morning in Paris, the funicular ride, Gstaad — scenes which show Mr. Fitzgerald at his best, in a mood which no other American could touch. The novel is a triptych in pattern with the central panel the chief subject of one’s delight. Don’t make up your mind until you have read past page 151!