Each to the Other

by Christopher La Farge
Coward-McCann, $2.75]
A NOVEL written in verse is no new thing; almost from the beginnings of English literature, narratives have been told in verse form. W hat is surprising to-day, as in any day, is to find a book that is able to hold its own, for sheer narrative excitement and shapeliness, as a novel, and, for intensity and music, as poetry.
Christopher La Fargo’s Each to the Other is the story of Tom Cottrel from his birth to his acceptance of the death of his wife. It is a story built up and told in a series of episodes seventy-five in all — which hang in his mind, and the mind of the reader, like living images. ‘Here’s the first image,’ Tom says, recalling his first memory of his grandfather’s house and a riding lesson; here’s the last image of love, at the end, still glowing in the dark. Scene after memorable scene stays in the reader’s mind — the hunting scenes; the furtive appearances of mad Jake; Tom’s first awareness of friction between his beautiful, rigid mother and his worldly artist-father; his first experiences in love, and his later ones. La Farge can get down in words with equal success a painting and a delicate emotional crisis, a dance and a violent death.
For all their variety, the episodes are not spotty or detached. They are firmly and naturally linked by two things — the chronological development of Tom, and the theme. Made fearful of love by the growing differences between his parents, who cannot understand each other and who are equally blind to the terror and insecurity the dissolution of their love and marriage creates in their youngest son, Tom determines to keep free of love — until he meets Judith, and, through the relationship of marriage with her, frees himself of his fear. This theme is developed with a glowing conviction and beauty that are both rare and welcome, and, what is more, it is set forth as dramatically as the tensions of unhappy love or of tragic defeat. Every reader who wishes once in a while for relief from murder and morbidity will find the triumphant joyousness and faith of this book reassuring and quietly convincing. The book is more than a story of one life; it is a substantial picture of part of American hie the life of country and city, of war and work, of poetry and painting, But it is as a story of married love that it is most distinguished.
As poetry, Each to the Other is equally reassuring. Like John Brown’s Body, it uses a variety of metrical forms — a necessary variation in so long a poem. Like a symphony, it uses sound patterns to recall theme, mood, place, or person — but it uses them less formally. Though a sonnet is used to begin each main section, and set its theme, almost twenty other metrical variants are used, each adapted to the episode, blank verse as effectively as the more nervous, quick, and freer forms.
It is inevitable in any long poem that flat passages should fall between the moments of highest tension, and in more than one passage the lines are near prose in their directness and in their speech patterns. But that very simplicity of accent prevents any effect of artificiality, of words forced to fit the meter. Another flaw in the technique — and this may be because of t he allusiveness and imagery of the verse form — is that the action is occasionally a little fuzzy. Like a photograph softened too much, or a painting blurred by impressionism, a few scenes — such as the one where Tom finds his mother being possessed by Ethel Darnby, or the one in which he discovers that his father is missing—are told so much in terms of feeling, allusion. and symbol that it is difficult to tell immediately what has happened.
But on the whole it is an engrossing story — and that is still the main test of a novel in any form.