First Person Singular

by EDWARD WEEKS
THERE are two ways of reading W. Somerset Maugham’s new novel, The Hour Before the Dawn (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50). You can take it as pure narration, the story of an English family who have had their roots deep in Sussex for two hundred years and who must now submit to the disintegration which has affected so many county families since Dunkirk. If you take it for its story alone you have well-bred fiction which piques the curiosity and gives you a cousinly feeling for England in her plight.
The second way to take this book is as a living pattern of England in wartime. I believe Mr. Maugham intended his people to typify those elements in England’s top layer who have thrown themselves and their heritage into the national effort, gambling all on the consequence. Mr. and Mrs. Henderson stand for the squirearchy, who cared for their tenants and sent their sons into the Services. Roger, their eldest and a graduate of Sandhurst, stands for the new, tough-minded army. Jane, with her harlequin make-up and her coarse, witty tongue, is a hangover from the irresponsible twenties, just as young Jim, the conscientious objector, fresh from Oxford, stands for the revulsion against all that.
But do these people stand as types or do they develop into individuals? I find difficulty in attaching myself to them: I am curious about them while the story is in motion, but my intentions toward them, as Oscar Wilde once said about the Squire’s daughter, are honorable but remote. In short, it seems to me that the characterization in this book lacks force, partly because Mr. Maugham’s dialogue is more perfunctory than it ought to be (hear the flat notes on pages 20, 26, 41, and 84) and partly because the experiences through which the Hendersons are living are overfamiliar — they do not seize fresh hold upon the imagination.
Old Soldiers Never Die (Lippincott, $2.50), by James Ronald, is, as the title implies, another novel about England with her back to the wall. The book is not to be taken as seriously as a new work by Mr. Maugham: its story is one which invites the lighter side of human nature. Here is an old general such as Bateman used to caricature in the last war, choleric, white-haired, and valiant, who tries to get
back in service but is simply brushed off by the War Office. While he is still fuming in his old Elizabethan manor, his good man Bates (half Crichton, half Jeeves) surreptitiously invites thirteen young evacuees to fill up the empty rooms. How this little ragged army invades Farthing Knoll, what they do to the general and what the general does to them, is the story. Rather gay, convalescent reading for tired minds.
The most endearing quality in James Gould Cozzens’s new novel, The Just and the Unjust (Harcourt, Brace, $2.50), is the almost effortless way in which he makes you identify yourself with a small Connecticut village. The village could be any little town, anywhere along the North Atlantic coast. ; Cozzens gives you the feel of it perfectly — the elms, the frame houses, the state highway, and the courthouse of 1880 Romanesque which everyone knows is the symbol of law and order. When court is in order, and townsfolk are in the gallery, there is a kind of town-meeting geniality about the proceedings, but the spirit sharpens to hostility when four racketeers, city rats, are brought to trial for the murder they forced upon Childerstown.
The story unfolds in the courtroom. You come to know the Judges; Marty Bunting, the District Attorney, and Abner Coates, his likable assistant; Joe Jackman, the patient clerk; and Harry Wurts, the clever, sarcastic counsel for the defense — you see each man as he reacts to this ugly case of the foreigners in their midst. The story follows them to their homes; it shows you the indiscretion of Judge Vredenburgh’s daughter; it shows you the care Abner takes of his stricken father, the old Judge, and his casual, teasing courtship of Bonnie; it shows you what a night’s drinking will do to Harry Wurts’s argument. The legalities are sometimes musty, sometimes elephantine. But don’t be discouraged; lawyers have an interior humanity. What gives this book its vitality is the interplay of law and life. Mr. Cozzens has woven together the technicalities of a murder trial and the homely pattern of a village community. In tangy, humorous writing he has dramatized the legal process in scenes so human and so clear that at the end you realize you have been watching democracy at the core — and almost at its best.