New Fiction

THE two novels which are the subject of the present review illustrate a common demand that we make of the contemporary novelist—a demand that has a significance beyond the art of the novel. We demand intensity of emotion, a description of overmastering and absorbing passion, not only as a criterion of credibility, but as a criterion of human value as well. As a result many novelists are led to heighten their descriptions of feeling, to rely too entirely on an intensification of sensibility, and character tends to be lost, as in the work of Thomas Wolfe, in emotion. But if it has its defects, this demand produces some excellencies as well; it heightens our awareness, it makes the moment of individual perception more consciously alive. These virtues and defects are both evident in the two novels before us.
For Life, by Nathalie Colby (Morrow, $2.50), is, as we should expect from Mrs. Colby’s greater experience, much the more successful. Her earlier books showed a deft and competent mastery of material and technique, a technique which owes something to Mrs. Woolf, but which she has definitely made her own. In some respects her new book is the best she has written. She has chosen for her setting a New England village called Silverbridge, and against this background she describes the life of Elinor Prendergast, whose girlhood was spent among the charming but sterile aristocratic traditions of the family mansion, who ran away with an energetic young man from the Middle West, and who came back to the village when her husband had become a multimillionaire. Much of Elinor’s life is revealed to us through her own thoughts, and the chief thing that is in her thoughts is her desire to recapture the richness of her early relationship with her husband, now buried under the suave and polished surface of his material success. This is the main theme of the book, and all the subsidiary characters, who are clearly and interestingly described, are seen in relation to it.
The novel is interesting and memorable for the manner in which we are convinced of the reality of Elinor’s desire, of the contrast between her husband as a young man and the man he has become, of the way in which her one great experience colors her whole life. Only occasionally do we feel — it is the chief fault of the book — that Elinor’s desire is dwelt on too much; there are moments when it seems almost hectic, and hence unreal. But this does not, in the end, destroy our first impression of force and of truth.
A further fact that makes this book stand out from the usual run of novels is that Mrs. Colby has managed with much success to give us the sense of passing time, the movement of life from one generation to another. This awareness of the flow of human events seems to be a more important part of the background of our thoughts than it has been to previous generations; it is interesting to notice how many modern novels have had for their subject matter as much the mere passing of time as the description of human beings. That Mrs. Colby has been able, to describe this so well and so movingly, in so graceful and vivid a style, is another indication of the way in which she has mastered the traditions of our time and created a successful medium of her own.
Some We Loved, By Edward Harris Heth (Houghton Mifflin, $2.50),. is also an attempt — a first attempt — to describe intensity of emotion and to make characters real mainly on the strength of their feelings. But, unlike Mrs. Colby, Mr. Heth has not yet succeeded in developing for this purpose a satisfactory individual technique. The ghosts of several contemporary writers drift across the surface of his style, and are not assimilated. Mr. Heth has a genuine gift for description; his account of Carl Matthias and the first performance of his symphony is rich and exciting. But Mr. Heth’s danger is that he tries to describe all his characters with the same amount of force. As a result his chief character does not stand out firmly enough against the others, and, lacking this focus, the emotional panorama the author is describing becomes blurred.
I may be doing Mr. Heth an injustice, but I do not feel that he has sufficiently risen above the events he describes to be able to see them in more than a literal relation to each other. His novel has more of the incoherence to be found in actual experience than such a work should have if it is to be a work of art. His anxiety for emotional vividness has destroyed his sense of proportion. But he has a clear perception of the difference between one human being and another, and he writes well. If he can blow away the ghosts of Miss Stein and of Thomas Wolfe, which now seem to haunt him, and give his material a more artistic and less directly emotional treatment, we may look forward to his next work with pleasure and anticipation.