First Person Singular
This month I have been reading two novels which emphasize what an enormous difference there is between the pre-war and the post-war novelist. Reflections in a Golden Eye, by Carson McCullers (Houghton Mifflin, 2.00) is a short novel that literally not one person in a hundred would have understood in 1913. In it Miss McCullers enlarges upon the promise which was clearly to be recognized in her first book, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. But, for all her virtuosity , the author has still an imperfect control of the novel. Her work needs both development and experience, and I am not sure that it serves her fairly to pour out the lavish encomium which appears on the jacket.
Reflections in a Golden Eye is the story of a murder in an American army cantonment in the South. It concentrates your attention upon six people, five of whom are accessories after the fact. They include one woman who is a ‘ feebleminded nymphomaniac and one who is a hypochondriac ‘on the verge of actual lunacy,’ one homosexual who steals silver, one philanderer, one Filipino who imagines he is a ballet dancer, and Private Williams, who enjoys more liberty than I ever knew existed in any army. He wanders in and out of houses, avoids K. P., latrine duty, and roll calls, and rides horses at large with an enjoyment I never had in 1917.
I have tried to indicate in this brief category the first and most serious shortcoming of the book I mean the author’s tendency to stick labels on her people and to keep them thereafter in a state of suspended animation. When Miss McCullers writes of Captain Penderton that ‘he had a sad penchant for becoming enamored of his wife’s lovers,’you know she is writing for effect; when she says that the Captain’s wife Leonora ‘feared neither man, beast, nor the devil: God she had never known,’ you realize that again the author has compressed into a showy sentence facts which her characters would do better to reveal themselves. The more the pity when you see with what vivid economy Miss McCullers does her best writing. When she shows you the Major going to bed, tells of the runaway through the forest, touches ever so skillfully the capricious and unexpected Filipino, when she gives you the very press and heat of the buffet supper, you know that you have seen an artist at work — but an artist who has still a good deal to learn about reality. For if this is a fair sample of army life, and if the country is soon to pour itself into the army, then God save the Union!
My admiration for Booth Tarkington makes it no easy matter to pass judgment on his new novel, The Heritage of Hatcher Ide (Doubleday, Doran, 2.00). I he author of The Gentleman from Indiana, The Midlander, Penrod, and Gentle Julia has already given us so much that it smacks of ingratitude to compare this new novel with what has gone before. In this story Mr. Tarkington comes courageously to the rescue of that minority who have had very little said in their defense since 1929: ‘the Haves’ — the people of wealth and cultivation who put their money in real estate and their faith in the Republican Party; the people who were pretty well scarred, some of them, in 1917-1918, and who today have lost all but their shirt and are finding it hard to readjust themselves in a world that doesn’t ask their help. Mr. Tarkington feels the injustice of this situation; indeed he writes it up in the form of a dramatic sermon, and with this sermon his new book begins. Not until page 90, not until young Hatcher (a Penrod fresh front college) meets the grass-stained Widow from Paris, does the storyteller gain the upper hand. Then, with a skill which he has made famous, come those scenes in which the adolescent mimics the grand passion — with results by turns laughable and pathetic. ’The ‘affair’ between Hatcher and Mrs. Florian is well worth waiting for. So is his rescue by Uncle Victor.
Two months ago I criticized Charles Morgan’s new novel for being, as I considered, too prolix. But this admirer disagrees: —
May I be permitted to register my amazement at your review of Charles Morgan’s The Voyage.
It happens that I am French-born and very familiar both with the country described and with the sort of people portrayed. I have read all of Charles Morgan’s books, even those little known in this country, such as Portrait in a Mirror and My Name Is Legion, as well as The Fountain and Sparkenbroke, and do not hesitate to say that The Voyage is much the best. There are so many wonderful character studies that it is hard to find the best. I suppose one would have to be French to understand the possibility of such a person as ‘ Barbet’ existing. To me, the most remarkable feat is that an Englishman could write such a French book.
You also pass up the soul agonies of the priest, the differences in the reactions to the same situations of both mothers, all terribly important to the French scene, the attention given to small details, which make the book live for me — and you call it ‘prolixity.’
No, your review is not fair, and I wish you would read the book again. I am going to, and look forward to it. — Jeanne Bradbury