First Person Singular

Long after Hitler has gone to his St. Helena, the story will be told and retold of how Europe collapsed and of how England rallied under the Nazis’ blows. Years from now historians will give us a balanced judgment. But for the present it is up to us to read and test those eyewitness accounts, the source of future history, which have in them the testimony and intensity of the actual experience.
I look for greater honesty in the books which come to us now than in those which were written so hastily after the fall of France. Those early apologias were stained by the anguish, the bitter condemnation, and the self-defense of their authors. A man like W. Somerset Maugham can give us a much more dispassionate and incisive report, not alone because he writes more clearly than any Frenchman in translation, but because his sympathies have all his life been so evenly divided between England and his ‘other country,’ France. His Strictly Personal (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50) is not a pretentious book. It is simply an account of those incidents which have changed the whole course of his life, incidents which are charged with irony, shrewd discernment, and pity.
Strictly Personal begins in that lovely decorative villa at Cap Ferrat where the outbreak of the war caught Mr. Maugham, with his houseful of guests and his inflammable staff of French and Italian servants. How he closed his house, protecting as best he could his lares and penates of a lifetime; how he took his last lingering look at his library (three books went with him: Esmond, Villette, and the Dialogues of the Trial and Death of Socrates); what he said to Erda, the Dachshund — these are the little human touches which kindle our sympathies. Mr. Maugham joined that corps of professional writers who were doing their best to stiffen the morale of the Allies. He visited the armament factories, the aviation fields, the Maginot Line; he had access to the ‘ big shots’ in Paris — all by way of securing material for his series of articles. Loyally he suppressed the misgivings which occurred to him along the way as he noted the dispirited attitude of the younger officers, labor’s sullen, sometimes outright contempt, and a political life so corrupt and selfseeking as to be treasonable. Until the crash came he believed, as everyone did, that the French Army would prove its invincibility and that the politicians would patch up their differences in the face of a crisis. But he was wrong. And now, as he retraces his steps, he points up the moral failure that led to the material failure of France. His remarks on England form a no less salty parallel, and he is at his best in his description of the complaisance of Chamberlain, the short-sightedness of the English civil servants, and the infuriating stupidity with which the Ministries of Information in both countries suppressed what the people should have been told.
This book is by turns nostalgic, castigating, and coolly illuminating.
From England Margaret Kennedy sends us an account of what it felt like to live through those months from May to October, 1940, when England stood at the very verge of defeat. Margaret Kennedy is a novelist; she is a musician ot ability, a wife happily married for fifteen years, and the mother of three children. Now in her chronicle, Where Stands a Winged Sentry (Yale University Press, $2.oo), she speaks not as a specialist but as a typical sensitive and intensely English woman whose whole being is up in arms against the Nazis. Her journal is full of the color, the humor, and the indignation of the moment. You see the almost helpless fury of the parent and the naïve courage of the very young. You feel the new force which is generated, the resolution, as Miss Kennedy puts it, which is ‘simply terrific.’ None of this shrill or hysterical; all of it set down in the very human terms of an affectionate household.
Like many others, Miss Kennedy suffers from insomnia. ‘ I haven’t asked the doctor for a bromide yet,’ she writes. ‘But I shall if I don’t sleep better.’ ‘We must just creep on from day to day, doing faithfully that day’s task, using to the utmost what strength and courage we have, and hope to get more from the Lord when our own runs out.’ Her husband, David, is a Fire Warden. One of his friends, another warden called Mr. Gamble, is blown up and wanders in a dazed condition down a darkened street which has been roped off because of the tottering houses. Mr. Gamble walks smack into the rope, falls over it, and both the houses connected with it fall down. In the Warden’s log the entry reads: ‘At 3:30 A.M., Mr. Gamble collided with two houses and demolished them.’ The author is in constant communication with friends in America, and their letters give her the chance to say some very sensible things about us ‘in our bomb-proof pulpit.’ If there is any strain in our present AngloAmerican relations, it is, I think, owing to the lack of plain and reasonable talk between us. This book in its delightful way goes far to make up that omission.