Novels With a Difference
Charles Morgan labors under two difficulties in his new novel, Sparkenbroke (Macmillan, $2.75), both of which might baffle a genius: that of portraying a poet in such a way that one shall believe in him, and that of conveying a private mysticism in such a way that one shall not necessarily accept it, but merely understand it. A long experience in dealing with poetry as a teacher suggests to me that a poet is intelligible only in his poetry; his objective life, even his subjective life, apart from his poetry, is likely to be puzzling — perhaps because it records his deeds, while his poetry records his intentions and aspirations.
Mr. Morgan has seen that this is so — indeed, it is his theme; but, although he dares to give some short specimens of Sparkenbroke’s verse, these are hardly impressive or extensive enough to serve. As for the mysticism, it seems to consist of some vague idea that love, imagination, and death ‘are aspects of the same transcendence,’ all forms of the same ecstasy, ‘a dying to be reborn.’ They are all, apparently, the fruit of ‘hunger for perfection.’ As his hero says: ‘There are ways, while we live, if not of putting the candle out, at least of hiding it a little while, in love or poetry. . . . In death, I think the walls go down, the lights blow but; that is all, for death is not a change of state but a change of lodging; it is an incident in a continuous immortality.’ If I understand him, in ecstasy one can actually live for a time sub specie œternitatis; while in death — the permanent ecstasy, so to speak — one stays in eternity.
No one can object to such a belief, and it may give comfort to some. The trouble is that it is presented in a style so continuously self-conscious and at times so precious that one has an uncomfortable feeling that the author is brooding over his own sweet voice. One could believe more easily in his hero and heroine — a poet who spends nights of trance in the family vault and who seeks in the love of woman an experience unsullied by fleshly desires; a girl who is torn between a human attraction for him and a desire to help his art, — one could believe in these two if they did not always speak so pithily or wittily or beautifully. It is a curious fact that the characters one does believe in are mundane or professional — the Rector, George, Lady Sparkenbroke, Celli, the doctor. The Rector is a fine characterization, and no scene in the entire novel is more successful than that near the beginning in which Piers is reading Tacitus with him. But on the whole the novel leaves the impression of an iridescent surface overlying a soft core. Mysticism, to be interesting, must be more fibrous than this. It is an august and at times a terrible experience, and the great mystics have chosen august and terrible symbols. They are believing men in an unbelieving world, and their experiences are quite different from vaguely poetic discussions conveyed in a rhythmical, elegiac style.
I was afraid, after I had read a little of Sylvia Thompson’sThird Act in Venice (Atlantic Monthly Press arid Little Brown, $2.50), that it was going to be merely clever. Miss Thompson’s ability in phrasemaking, indubitable wit, and chosen subject matter have tended at times to betray her into a kind of writing brightly sophisticated but a little lacking in substance. In the present novel she has, however, as her title suggests, a tragic theme, playing through a little world, the monde, peopled by the forlorn people she knows so well, who have too much money and not enough to do. This world, so unimportant yet so convinced of its importance, is made up of men and women who try to be natural and achieve only a perpetual self-consciousness, eschew everything that the low-born admire and yet attain only a kind of fashionable mob-mindedness, aim always at being smart and end by being bored; or others who achieve a kind of Henry James fastidiousness or niceness; or still others who have lost not only the bourgeois morals but the polite manners, and have taken to a sort of carefully cultivated rowdiness. All of these types she portrays with knowledge, as well as others who live on the fringe of Society and mistake shamelessness for smartness and pretentiousness for style.
Among these people who are trying to be patrician without any fidelity to the noblesse oblige of their caste, her hero, Sir Francis Radnor, vacillates between his better and worse natures. A likable weakling, he lets his lusts destroy his love. He makes a mistress of the French girl, Josephine, returning to her even after he has fallen in love with Adria Leigh; with the result that, after he has broken with her and gone to Venice with Adria, he discovers too late that lie cannot escape the consequences of his doings. Adria’s death at the hands of Josephine is only symbolic of the tragedy that has already taken place in his spirit. As Charlotte, Adria’s mother, says of him: ‘To have a fine conscience and a weak will was to be . . . a stalemate in your own character; to be a poor hero — and an uncomfortable villain.’
Miss Thompson’s style is like etching in dry point — sharp and succinct, but suggesting a great deal. Her economy in presenting character is admirable. The peasant Josephine, the awful aunt Léonie and her paramour Harrison, Charlotte, Benedict, the four Pleasure Seekers, are all clearly seen, recognizable and amusing. Alone among the personages I found the heroine, Adria, eluding me.
R. M. GAY