First Person Singular
A Thousand Shall Fall, by Hans Habe (Harcourt, Brace, $3.00), is the first valid book to come from that portion of the French Army which faced the Blitzkrieg and did fight. This is what the infantry went through — an infantry that had no planes to defend them overhead, and at their back an artillery that soon ran short of shells. Yet Habe’s division held on for three long weeks, and their story is an epic of dogged, weary men contending against overwhelming odds.
The author is a young Hungarian editor who, because of his hatred of the Nazis, had to find sanctuary in Geneva when Hitler came to power. There he wrote his novels, which were later burned in Germany. At the outbreak of the war he was one of that body of aimless, desperate men who enlisted in the French Army and became the 21st Infantry of Foreign Volunteers. His personal courage and his power of observation made him valuable as a scout; his reportorial instinct made him a confidant of the other soldiers of fortune in his outfit. These faculties enable him to write a narrative which is remarkable for its tension, its despair, and its understanding.
Habe answers in no uncertain fashion the question of why an army that had in it so many veterans of a superb organization could have collapsed so completely. Here, and in a spectacular fashion, one sees why the integrity of the best veterans and the staunchness of the peasant poilu could never withstand the blunders of the French command, the ferocity of the frontal attack, and the Fifth Column contusion at their rear.
Americans have long been wondering what the English talk about when they are driven to their bomb cellars and there endure the present by thinking about the future. Rumors have reached us of a new fusion among Britons — a fusion which in the white-hot crucible of war will certainly result in a different England. What these differences may be is hinted at by J. B. Priestley in his short book, Out of the People (Harpers, $1.50), in which he is thinking aloud — unofficially and with blunt Yorkshire candor—about the problems of the British people, their future and ours. Mr. Priestley’s radio talks have had a tonic effect at home, and as one reads this book one sees why. When he discusses the blunders of a conservative administration and the hard truths with which men must build when the grim struggle is over, he does so with a racy common sense which is at once cheering and invigorating. He does not indulge in rubber platitudes, he does not profess to know all the answers, and the remedies which he proposes on page 140 would seem familiar but not radical to a New Dealer. Here is no profound blueprint, but, as I have said, the thinking aloud of a man who is honest, energetic, and constructive.
Editors have long been puzzled by the problem of how to avoid the duplication of a single theme in biographies or in fiction in any given season. There is no clearinghouse in publishing, and so no one ever knows until the last minute how many new biographies to expect about Napoleon, Washington, or Lincoln. Often they come in pairs, sometimes in triplets. A similar coincidence brings us within a year three novels about the early settlement of Australia. The first to appear — Jennifer , by Janet Whitney — told the story from the point of view of a woman prisoner, and I suspect it may have had to be gentled somewhat to avoid the coarser realities of that experience. Meantime, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall have finished their collaboration first attempted six years ago on Botany Bay, a novel which takes a young Loyalist turned highwayman through the Hogarth hardship of Newgate Prison, then to the prison ships and so to New South Wales for a new lease of life. Their narrative is masculine. It leaves with one a vivid picture of Newgate, the prison ships, and the first grim year in the bush.
Now comes A Timeless Land, by Eleanor Dark (Macmillan, $2.75), a third novel on this same theme, this one written by a native Australian. Much of the story is told through the eyes and thoughts of the aborigines, and this technique is at once an asset and a handicap. It brings into the picture a psychology and a hostility that are essential to any unromantic version of the colony. Yet at the same time it faces the reader with the necessity of using a glossary and of trying to sort out odd-sounding names and idioms. Finally — and this may be a fallacy on my part — it always seems to me that when a white author writes about the aborigines he puts on an act of impersonation that is lust a little short of being lifelike. Mrs. Dark evidently knows her Australian tribes from the ground up, and there are many fine passages about Bennilong in which I forget my reservation. But the difficulty is there none the less. It seems to me that Mrs. Dark is clearly at her best when she is writing of the country which she knows like the palm of her hand, and in her magnificent portrait of Governor Phillip. There one can have nothing but praise. EDWARD WEEKS