Road of Ages

[Alfred A. Knopf, $2.50]
THEAtlantic has already acknowledged the courage, the increasing suspense, and the never mawkish sympathy with which The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is written. Clearly in that novel Franz Werfel’s mission has been, as he once said, ‘the desperate task of teaching men to love one another,’ and, as a Jew living through the post-war and Nazi days in Vienna and Germany, he has had cause to be compassionate. Yet I wonder if there are not hindrances which prevent his Forty Days from taking complete hold of our imagination. Books lose something of their inner warmth when they come to us in translation. What is more, there are long unenergized passages in the story of Musa Dagh when the interest wavers and when the feeling steals over us that Turks and Armenians both are too remote from our way of life. Good editing might have eliminated twenty-five thousand words from this book and so quickened its vitality.
Now appears the American equivalent of Franz Werfel’s novel — I mean Road of Ages, by Robert Nathan. Road of Ages I think also takes its inspiration from the recent persecution of the Jews. But Mr. Nathan projects us not into the past but into the future. His novel begins with these words, ‘The Jews were going into exile,’ and without a trace of incredibility he sets himself to describe the world-wide expulsion of the Jews from every civilized country; he makes us participants in that struggling army of shopkeepers, scholars, farmers, and musicians, prize fighters, rabbis, poets, and doctors, passing in a swollen stream across the mountains and plains of Central Europe, bound for the Gobi Desert which the world has granted them as their last refuge. An idea utterly fantastic, yet one which Mr. Nathan makes pitifully real. Here are people you know, and no matter if they do come from the four quarters of the earth, no matter if their babel of tongues prevents a common speech, their love of life, their suffering, their quarrels, and their devotion are illustrated in terms so familiar and so compassionate that you actually believe in the tragedy of this Exodus.
Life goes on with undiminished courage in this grim migration. You see the volunteer soldiers stand off the attack of the hostile natives. You see the marriages and deaths, the religious ceremonies and the improvised concerts; you see the strife between the orthodox and the liberal rabbis and the quarreling (although they are equally dispossessed) between the Jewish Communists and the Jewish bankers. Plucky Mrs. Ninian, aged seventy-three, takes care of her infirm old friend, Mrs. Bluthenthal; Sonia, the musical prodigy, stumbles through the snow with the expelled conductor, Herr Kamp, talking of how she will some day play before Menuhin; David, the poet, declares his pathetic love for the New England Amanda—such as these are simple episodes, but deeply stirring.
To say that Mr. Nathan is a Jew is not in the least to explain the understanding and tenderness of this exceptional novel. The development of his special gifts in the course of his ten earlier books has reached its maturity: the gentle humor, now pitying, now sardonic, which plays upon the surface of his story quite removes the possibility of either melodrama or special pleading. In searching out so unerringly the persecution and the aspiration, the natural comedy and the heartache, of this huge caravan, he has contrived to tell a story which applies to every downtrodden race, to every overburdened individual who struggles along the road of ages. To say that this is Mr. Nathan’s best book will mean little to those unacquainted with his work. But it should mean a good deal. And, incidentally, his story is but one quarter as long as The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.