In This Our Life


ByEllen Glasgow. Harcourt, Brace, $2.50.
INTERESTING to consider why the South has been so fertile in novelists over the past twenty-five years. A hasty list of those novelists born in or identified with the South in their maturity would include Willa Lather, James Boyd, Margaretl Mitchell, William Faulkner, James Branch Cabell, Clifford Dowdey, DuBose Heyward, Erskine Caldwell, Stark Young, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Pearl Buck, and Ellen Glasgow. What other quarter of the country can match that writing?
No one of these twelve writes a better prose than Ellen Glasgow. Her style is clear and smooth as amber. Her delineation of the Southern City (which might as well he Richmond), her pleasure in the back country, her sympathy for the Negro and the authenticity with which she follows his thought and dialect — these are accomplishments instantly recognized in her work. And beneath the surface one is aware of two forces which inform her fiction: first, her very Southern attachment to lost causes, and then the nobility of standard with which she reveres the past and scrutinizes the present. This is what I mean by the quality of Miss Glasgow’s writing.
Asa Timberlake, the leading character in her new novel, In This Our Life, is a lost cause from start to finish. Like a spaniel, he enjoys rolling in the odor of decay. You are told at the outset that he, a relic of an old family, is a failure in his job and a misfit in his marriage; from that point the story revolves about his ability to save something from his personal defeat and to supply some order to the muddled careers of his children. Asa Timberlake’s is a success story in reverse.
I shall be an evasive reader it I fail to report my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of this book. I miss in it any feeling of suspense, and I find myself wishing time and again that the author had written with more economy. Miss Glasgow stacks the cards against Asa — you know that from the start. Then — to make things worse — she deals the hands face up. Within the fifty first pages you have a pretty clear intimation of what’s going to happen to Roy, to Stanley, and to Asa — and happen it does, with a minimum of mystification and a maximum of overemphasis. The inevitable ceases to be the inevitable — or any fun — in a novel if the author keeps reminding you of it at every turn. I am sure that some of this neon writing could have been avoided had Miss Glasgow been willing to condense her dialogues. They make the book a third longer than it need be, particularly those between Asa and his daughter Roy.
And is our modern world really as lugubrious as Asa sees it? Has all virtue died out of us? Are the oncoming as reckless and selfish as Stanley and Peter, as irresolute as Craig? Must the only welladjusted person in the household be Minerva, the colored cook? Life was never as black and white as that. ‘I’m damned tired of being sorry tor people!’ says Asa on page 84 — which are my sentiments exactly as I close this novel! At least, such people as these.
No novelist of our time can tell a better story in briefer compass than Robert Nathan. He is indeed a master of economy, and to anyone interested in the technique of writing it is a joy to see with what power of suggestion, what fleeting touches of humor and tenderness, what flashes of irony and skillful transitions, he achieves his effect. The author of One More Spring, The Enchanted Voyage, and Road of Ages is at his best in They Went on Together (Knopf, $2.00), a poignant story which will haunt many an American mind this spring.
When asked for a foreword to his novel, Mr. Nathan said, ‘I’ve tried to write a book that wasn’t simply an escape from what was going on — and at the same time didn’t just give in to it. In other words, a book that wasn’t either a washing well or a pit of desolation,’ He takes for his story a reality which has already left its mark in our minds — the story of how people are driven from their homes before the crushing, ruthless power of an invader, the story which we see when we remember the road to Bordeaux. Suppose this were to happen in the United States; suppose there really was an invasion. What would it feel like to our women and our children? So the story begins with a naturalness and a sympathy so engrossing that within a few pages you have identified the neighborhood as your own.
Paul is sorting out his treasures as the book begins. He has room in his pockets tor only a few — ‘the stuffed finch, his fishing line with its hook and sinker, the watch with the broken minute hand, an old medal which had belonged to his father. He had five or six keys he didn’t want to leave; there was nothing for them to fit into, but they might come in handy some day. Suppose he came to a house and the door was locked. Probably one of them would open it.’ Then his mother calls; they stow Marie Rose into her baby carriage with her doll, a tew bits of food, and a blanket, and start trudging, away from the sound of the guns. It is as simple as that. What makes the story ominous, what gives it depth and pity, is the courage of the evacues, the way they hold on to their homely things before the rising tide of disaster. ’It was such a nice little home,’ says Mom to herself. . . . ’How am I going to get through?' ‘That’s your lookout, sister.’ . . . ’You can go fishing with me when we get to the river,’ says Paul to Sylvie, who has lost her folks. And the author adds, ’To children, grief is a catching trouble; they go around it it they can.’ It is the truth of that observation which turns this story into Something other than a record ot an appalling flight, which gives it its sunlight and shadow — the absurd irrelevance as Marie Rose talks to herself, the inexhaustible courage with which Paul picks himself up after the bombing. ’You up there, he thought, talking to the men in the sky, you think you’re so smart. You think you’re smart because you go around hurting people, so they’ll do what you want. Well, they won’t; they won’t ever do it.’ To read this is to hold in your heart the tender, finite pity of the helpless and the in nocent.
In accordance with Atlantic policy, Atlantic Monthly Press books are not included in the Bookshelf. Readers will find their presentation elsewhere in each issue.
Up at the Villa (Doubleday, Doran, $17.75), by W. Somerset Muugham, stands on the border line between a long short story and a vest-pocket novel. Personally, I should call it a long short story, having in mind that the action is confined to forty-eight hours and that the characters are determined primarily by their reactions to a single situation. Mary Panton, the heroine, is an English widow ot thirty, beautiful as the dawn (and about as cool), who has settled up her husband’s estate and now, after a period of delicious vegetation in pre-war Florence, is trying to make up her mind what to do with her beauty and her time. At the outset the choice seems fairly evident. She has had the proposal ot an old friend, a self-possessed Empire builder who is soon to go out as the Governor ot Bengal: his person and prospects are so much more alluring than those ot the only other eligible Englishman — the young divorce, Rowley. But at this point Mary indulges in a whim (more, I suspect, at the prompting of Mr. Maugham than of her own volition), and the consequences are, to say the least, provocative. The narrative is so dextrous that you won’t mind the sleight ot hand. The talk is crisp; the irony, especially when it is at the expense of the Empire builder, has a keen edge; and what chiefly fixes the story in your mind is Rowley, the unreliable scamp, who proves to be so irresistible to the ladies. He is an individual who stands out, as the others do not.
An optimist, so runs the new definition, is a man who thinks that the future may be uncertain. Since 1930 we have lived through a decade of rapid change and often painful readjustment, and surely the next ten years will be no less dynamic. But there comes a time in life when you resent change, when the decades behind you have a golden glow compared with which the present seems out of joint. This tendency to lament the faded magnificence I have already observed in the new novels by Mr. Tarkington anti Miss Glasgow, and we shall certainly see more of the same in the forthcoming fiction and autobiographies of our elder authors. Let’s hope it doesn’t get too bilious. One would never expect Irvin S. Cobb to write a conventional (and certainly not a bilious) autobiography, and I intend it as a compliment when I say that his actual performance, Exit Laughing (Bobbs-Merrill, $3.50), exceeds even mv rosy expectations. What he has written is a smiling and anecdotal book, salty with common sense; shrewd and affectionate in its thumbnail sketches ot men he liked — Henry Watterson, Will Hogg, William T. Jerome, P. G. Wodehouse; biting in his condemnation of a Democrat like Woodrow Wilson who disappointed his Southern fervor; amusing in his account ot his writing habits, his quest tor source material, and his encounter with English novelists; prejudiced, as in his hatred of motors and his fondness for Hollywood, and agreeably garrulous, as a man who loves a good story and sometimes tells too many.
One reference work which has appeared this spring deserves to be recommended to the specialist. I think there is only one way to learn how to write and that is to teach yourself, but there is no doubt that the apprenticeship can be sped up by keeping in mind the rules of thumb, the lessons from experience which are occasionally jotted down by authors in their prime. The Writer’s Handbook, edited by A. S. Burack (The Writer, Inc., $3.50), has put together in an accessible, readable format some fifty-five chapters of do’s and don’ts and a nation-wide appendix of markets for beginning authors.