The Way of a Transgressor

by Neeley Farsen
[Harcourt, Brace, $3.00]
IT is inevitable that Mr. Farsen’s book, The Way of a Transgressor, should be compared to recent autobiographies which have preceded it — to Vincent Sheean’s, for instance, to Bruce Lockhart’s, and to Duranty’s. All are rather studiedly objective. All cover much the same period. All, indeed, overlap in the ground they cover — the war, Russia, India, and the turmoil of European post-war maladjustments.
In Mr. Farsen’s case the net is flung wider than in most. His haul discloses an astonishing collection which ranges from trivial thumbliugs to whales. The catch, however, is all treated in the same way — it is summarily knocked on the head and thrown casually into the basket.
His book covers his life from early school days to the near present. Athlete rather than scholar, he went from college to sell oil in New York; thence to England and an engineering firm in Manchester, where he was at the outbreak of the war. Then be took up the rather speculative business of selling war material to the Imperial Russian Government. He must have been fairly successful, for lie remained there until Revolution dried up the sources of his profit. But in the meanwhile he had become familiar with the rottenest side of wartime Petrograd. It is a vivid if ugly picture.
Returning to England, he joined the Royal Air Force, which he was to leave at the end of the war with a badly damaged leg as the souvenir of a plane crash in Egypt. This leg was to take him in and out of hospitals many times in the succeeding years. It led him also to the wilds of British Columbia to recuperate; with his English wife he lived on a houseboat on a lake, where rod and gun as much as writing provided the means of subsistence. He writes of this period of his life in affectionate detail. His description of it is simple, unaffected, and absorbing. To many it will he the best part of the whole book.
There followed for him a sales-managership in Chicago. Next a Chicago newspaper launched him on an expedition to northern Europe, Russia again, Italy and Spain, Germany and the Hitler Putsch, and India, to be present when Mr. Gandhi was being smuggled to jail.
Those are the bare bones of a narrative of astonishing diversity which is told not so much as a connected story as in a series of explosions with quiescent intervals. Mr. Farsen is at his best, and it is a very good best, when he is devoting himself to shooting and fishing and sailing. Perhaps that is because no complicated forces influence the actions of trout and ducks and yachts.
He is at his worst, and it is a very’ bad worst, in his tireless enthusiasm for the haunts of the women of the town. One suspects him of a certain naïveté — of a kind which leads him to take a case of athletic medals to wartime Russia as part of his personal luggage and to leave them in Denmark as collateral.
In so personal a type of book as an autobiography it is perhaps absurd to ask a profundity which does not exist. An author’s point of view necessarily depends on his own intellectuality and sensibility. But for that reason Mr. Farsen’s work is bound to suffer in comparison with its predecessors.
A Durauty or a Sheean seemed part of the events which they lived. They had concern and appreciation for more than was merely’ on the surface. Mr. Farsen has written history which is entirely factual — and incomplete. He saw the wheels go round, but he gives no hint that he knew what made them turn. He has come through life undaunted and undented.