The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion
A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks
WHEN a critic — a man who has pronounced judgment on three or four thousand novels — publishes a work of fiction of his own, he risks a good deal more than the average first novelist. ‘Come on,’ say reader, writer, and fellow reviewer, a little bristling, ’let’s see you practise what you preach! ’ It is a pleasure to report that the Sensitiveness and sanity which have recommended Harry Hansen’s book reviews for fifteen years are easily to be recognized in his novel,Your Life Lies before You (Harcourt, Brace, $2.50). The very restraint of his undertaking is enough to disarm the captious. Here is a story of outset, a story of a young newspaperman in a drowsy town on the Mississippi and of the events which in a few months carry him from youth to experience. It is easy to identify yourself with David Kinsman, easy because Mr. Hansen with a few unerring touches makes us see David as his editor, his parents, his music teacher, and his girl saw him. David is that other self we leave behind us sometime in our twenties; his story kindles reminiscence and touches the heart.
In The Inquisitor (Doubleday, Doran, $3.00) Hugh Walpole returns to a setting which no writer in England knows better than he — the cathedral town. Apart from his Russian novels, surely the best of his work is centred in Polchester, that town of his imagining (part Durham, part Lincoln) to which he has already devoted three delightful books, The Cathedral, Harmer John, and The Old Ladies. I confess to a thoroughgoing disappointment with the Herries chronicles; for all the beauty with which the Lake Country was described, those novels seemed to me sprawling, lazy-minded, and too full of actors in fancy dress. But when Mr. Walpole comes back to his natural province, to Polchester with its old maids, clergy, and ruffians, I regain my confidence in his storytelling, so bland, shrewdly observant, and facile.
It is Mr. Walpole’s versatility to fill the canvas with a host of characters whose number alone would exhaust the average writer. The Cathedral set — the Bishop, Archdeacon, canons, curates, organist, sexton — all are here with their wives and relations; and then the townsfolk and the birds of passage — the mayor, the merchants, the moneylender, and an artist or two; and, still lower in the scale, the inhabitants of Seatown, that slum which no new housing could reform — laborers, unemployed, and troublemakers whose unrest is ever a threat to the Cathedral on the heights. Mr. Walpole has, as he says, brought the whole town into the story. For the most part he is content to typify its citizens. Yet against the background of ‘flat’ characters there emerge individuals — Elizabeth Furze, the daughter of the moneylender; Lampiron, the sculptor; Penny Marlowe — individuals who grow in our understanding as the story develops. This skill of characterization is what impresses me first and last.
But Mr. Walpole intends that the atmosphere of this novel should be more important than its people. If I read him aright, he intends that this sleepy town be a microcosm of the world without: in Polchester selfishness, lust for power, and the discontent of the dispossessed beat like human waves against the sanctuary of the Cathedral. From teacup serenity (which he does to the late Queen’s taste) the novelist passes you into melodrama, and thence from mystery (Who killed Stephen Furze?) into a kind of mysticism. The melodrama does n’t make me hiss, the mystery is easy to guess, the mysticism is so dim that I grope for its hidden meaning. So, in retrospect, I come back to the people who seem to me so much more important than the atmosphere: Bird and Lampiron for friendship, the Bishop and Coniston for loyalty, the Pageant factions for their humor, the Carol Service for its Christian beauty.
A limited number of copies are still available of the Atlantic’s List of Recommended Books for the last six months of 1935. This list will not be published in the magazine, but institutions or individuals may obtain it on application.