Novels That Are Different

Nine years have passed since Richard Hughes gave us that strange novel, The Innocent Voyage, a story that outraged and enchanted us by its skillful mingling of terror and beauty. Structurally his new book, In Hazard (Harpers, $2.50), may be inferior to it, but it is equally impressive for the same qualities, ground and faceted now, that gave such brilliance to the earlier book. The restraint of the writing disguises its power, and the seemingly casual incidence of the most normal events upon the tension of the plot is craftily planned.
Mr. Hughes is a courageous author to have challenged the sufficiency of Conrad’s Typhoon in this tale of storm in the Caribbean. The parallels are unquestionably deliberate, the proud steamers, the devoted Chief Engineers, the menace of the Chinese in both books. The English reviewers have condoned this arrogance on the assumption that the books are comparable, but here I cannot agree after a rereading of Typhoon. Conrad’s horizon was a broader one, I feel; the overtones of his storm echoed from the hearts of more men than that small shipload. But (Mr. Hughes, better than Conrad, can pull you gasping through his pages. His pace is generally quicker, and the growth or decay of his characters is perhaps more subtly shown.
When the hurricane hit the steamer Archimedes on its way to the China coast, each man aboard was changed by pride or fear, and the distinction of class obliterated. The inside of the funnel belonged to the engineers, the outside to the deck officers, but the tunnel blew out before the 200-mile-anhour gale — a velocity that has, for a moment, actually been recorded. The rudder jammed, the engines died, and from Wednesday to Sunday the men were without food or water, wallowing in one of the most violent and vividly described storms of recent years. Fear spread like a plague over the ship. Chief Mate Buxton’s feet crept backwards under him ’like small rabbits looking for their holes.’ The pet lemur delicately tried to lift the coward’s eyelids, then scurried away ‘nervously folding and unfolding his ears.’ And the junior officer, heroically oiling the sea through the night, had to explain again and again to his imaginary darling just how, if you were expert, you could unstick your tongue from your lips without ripping the skin.

These are terrible chapters that can properly be suggested only by larger quotation than space permits, for it is in the compact implication of a word or a phrase that Mr. Hughes’s drama lies. It may be objected that the death of MacDonald, the engineer, is gratuitous at the end, and that the flash-backs into the lives of young Watchett and the Chinese Ao Ling make you detour needlessly in the middle of the tale, but through all the skillful rest of it you are dragged by your nerve ends behind that desperate ship. This is not a Typhoon, but it is a novel of which the Conrad of Almayer’s Folly might have been very proud.

The Tides of Mont St.-Michel, by Roger Vercel (Random House, $2.50), has the quality of scenes in a Breton mist, of outlines against a background infinitely spacious and indistinct, of luminous edges in a blur of shadow. Mont St.Michel is an island spiritually apart from the world as it is physically removed from the mainland by tide and quicksand and fog. For more than a thousand years it has been a goal of pilgrimage. The barefoot penitents came first, and later the tourists, but few have touched the marvel of it, however casually, without feeling that there between the quicksands of the earth and the tip of the Archangel’s sword, which deflected lightning arose true holiness and beauty.

Henry Adams hymned the praises of the Mount. Roger Vercel has thrust it like a god between Laura and André in this novel, to arbitrate their human conflict, piteously for one and blessedly for the other of them. The sulphurous light of the author’s earlier work has been purified here and its violence restrained to what is barely essential for the development of his characters. The story has been skillfully translated by Warre Bradley Wells.

When André Brelet, broken by the depression, secured the post of guide on the sacred Mount, his attitude was scarcely braver than that of his shallow wife; it was an expedient job to tide him over till he might return to the affluent and cultured society of his birth. St.-Michel loomed as a refuge above him on that winter’s night of rain when he pulled Laura up its ancient stairs, but to her it was a humiliation, a mockery of their defeat. André’s uniform with its bold buttons, his reliance upon tips, the squalor of their dwelling, the homely townsfolk, revolted her pride, but André came day by day towards the realization that his new life was the better suited to him, for it was cleanly as the life of commerce had never been.

Men grew gardens beneath the wind with Saint Michael’s patronage, and there were those like Hulard, the engineer guide, and Docheais, the hunter, who could lift him by their own simple faith to a belief in beauty again. Whether they were shooting on the sands or netting lor salmon, the Mount was forever above their little lives. During the soft March snows ‘everything except what had been carven only for the eyes of God stood out: the exquisite perfection of the pinnacles; the jeweled workmanship of the flying buttresses; the lines of the balusters, with their ups and downs like those of a Gregorian chant; the capitals shaped like shrines. All these were so many fervent joyous prayers in stone.’

Gradually they atoned to André for his past failure and the vulgarity of his wife. Even the danger on the sands was good, when the mist, ’a kind of sickness of the atmosphere,’crept up to stifle and confuse him with images of dead men running, and he would have been lost before the racing tide had not the bells of the abbey saved him. The brutal women who gathered cockles spurred the manhood his old world had denied. The treachery of his fellow guides and the shame of tips were slowly tempered by the magic of the Mount, while Laura, under the tutelage of an exprostitute, bided her time till she could at once abase and challenge him with the comfortable choice of cuckoldry.
It is not the plot of this book that is memorable, nor the characterizations etched thriftily upon it. It is an atmosphere, rare in novels as modern as this, that I can only call spiritual in the hope that ‘mystical’ will not be read. There is no piety here, unless the growth of a man towards the distinction of absolute values be a form of religious experience. The author fails, I think, to graduate this growth, and to make of the physical incidents—the quarrels with Laura, the doomed, distant little men in the sand—the symbols he intends. But exquisitely, and so simply that the translation from the French robs none of its significance, he has written what is surely one of the finest novels of this season.