The Peripatetic Reviewer
SHE was slender, dark, and animated, and with her wedding ring and wings clearly a flyer’s wife. The lounge car was crowded, and as we sat smoking side by side, the talk came eagerly, as it does in these uninhibited days when so many of us show our hearts on our sleeves. “He is in the Marine First Wing,” she said in reply to my question. “A fighter pilot. He went out in June as a replacement. But in his last letter he warned me not to expect to hear from him for a long time. That was two months and a half ago.” I watched her mouth as she said it. That is a long silence.
“Our home is in Oregon, but I have been living here in Cleveland, doing Home Service for the Red Cross. We help the wives and check up on the returned veterans. Some of the boys come down to your office and just sit and talk — about their allotments, about their girls or their outfits. Some are back on Compassionate Leave. Seems they can confide in a stranger more than they can at home. One fellow’s girl had married while he was away in the South Pacific. He just sat there and cried and cried. You don’t realize it, but as you listen to other people’s troubles day after day, your own begin to knot up inside you. So I asked for a week’s leave to visit my sister — and to get away from watching and listening and waiting for that mailman when there isn’t any mail. But this Red Cross work has brought me closer to him. However he comes back, I feel now I can help him.”
Later we went into the diner, where we were joined by a psychologist in uniform, on his way to one of the new Separation Centers. He was full of praise for the work that is being done in the reconditioning of Army aviators. “The treatments they are carrying out at a place like Pawling should set an example for the entire Army,” he said. “Of course the Air Corps are ahead of the Ground Forces. Many of their nervous cases and wounded have had to be dealt with earlier, and then, being a younger service, they have been able to move with greater freedom. One thing I believe,” he said, turning to the pilot’s wife, “is that by no means all of the mental breakdowns can be traced to combat experience. Many of them are caused by worry added to battle fatigue. The worst thing that can happen to a boy under strain is to hear of troubles at home which he can’t do anything about. The home front has got to learn not to pass along its gripes.” I thought to myself I’d like to give a course in letter-writing for service wives and mothers.
But as I rode circuit through the Middle West, my respect grew for the women at home. Most of them are living two lives: the one, the small busyness of household or office which burns up the surface energy; the other, that self-dedication to the national front and to the men who are fighting.
I remember one spectacular blonde whose dark eyes, low voice, and air of authority mystified me until she explained that she was the nurse in charge of the Operation Room in one of our great metropolitan hospitals. She had been back to the family farm for her first vacation in a year. “Stopped at the city on my way home,” she said, “ but I couldn’t get any real rest there. Every time I heard the fire siren or the police car, I was wide-awake, ready to dress for the emergency call.” On the farm at last, she found the deep sleep — and the answer, I suspect, to the problem which had been worrying her: where would she be of greatest use — overseas as part of an operating unit, or here at home, supervising the student nurses and helping to hold together the hard-driven staff.
IN THIS ISSUE
REPORT FROM RED CHINA · BY HARRISON FORMAN Reviewed by Owen Lattimore
A RISING WIND · BY WALTER WHITE Reviewed by Wallace Stegner
“FIRST WITH THE MOST” FORREST · BY ROBERT SELPH HENRY Reviewed by Howard Douglas Dozier
WRITTEN IN SAND · BY JOSEPHINE YOUNG CASE Reviewed by Richard Ely Danielson
TWO MYSTERY NOVELS · BY ELLIOT PAUL Reviewed by Charlea W. Morton
In my lectures I spoke rather frankly about the inevitable casualties in the war marriages. In this protracted struggle the heart lines are being tangled or broken as they seldom were in 1917-1918. “You just give me ten minutes with my Johnnie,” said one young bride whose husband was in Task Force 58, “and I’ll know if there’s anything wrong between us.”
A woman defiant.
The Ballad and the Source, by Rosamond Lehmann, is the story of an impulsive Victorian beauty who broke all the rules of her generation and who, by the early 1900’s, when the novel opens, has come down to us as a white-haired but still dominant grandmother, a woman both fascinating and sinister to her grandchildren and their friends.
We see Sybil Jardine (to give her the name of her last husband) through adolescent eyes: the secret details of her scandal and ostracism are pieced together by a schoolgirl, Rebecca, partly from the talk of an old servant, partly from the disapproval of the elders, partly from the rebelliousness of the grandchildren now in Mrs. Jardine’s care. For this is the fall and rise of Mrs. Jardine or, as the title suggests, the song and the reality behind it. Sybil, once so young, so lovely, so selfish, so theatrical — and so wronged! — who was once an outcast, has come back to respectability. She has her tabby-cat husband, her country house and gardens; she has her past; and, defiantly, she still has her charm. “Experience has signed her face with a secret, a promise whose meaning people still would watch, still desire to explore and to possess.” Thus she exerts her spell, even unto the third generation.
The Ballad and the Source is a detective story of morals. The reader is asked to join in the pursuit of beautiful Sybil’s reputation. The search leads us back into England’s Indian summer, to the spaciousness and snobbery of Edward’s realm. The clues the children pick up, their parents’ gossip, and the backstairs talk point the way into a feminine maze of loyalty and vanity and feline power. I feel that Miss Lehmann has scored her greatest success in the character of Sybil, who certainly through the first half of the novel is both mystifying and attractive. Her career as it is exposed to us by inference and tattletale is a melodramatic one, and it is just as well for the verisimilitude that the more lurid scenes all take place off stage. But this method of talebearing, which is so skillfully conveyed by Tilly the little maid, becomes noticeably artificial as it is prolonged into the third generation. For none of the youngsters — neither Malcolm who goes to war, nor Maisie the rebel, nor Rebecca the narrator — has enough individuality to prop up our interest when Mrs. Jardine begins to fade. By this time we have picked her reputation clean, and it really doesn’t seem to matter very much.
A woman preoccupied
I can imagine that a number of people will have their teeth set on edge by Gertrude Stein’s recollections, Wars I Have Seen — just as I can imagine that others will enjoy the exercise of running through her sketchily punctuated but more lucid than usual sentences for the curiosity and amusement of seeing where her thoughts arrive. The ends of Miss Stein’s sentences are important, and the ends of her paragraphs even more so, for if she has a contradiction or a joke or a reflection to exploit, there it will be. The topic sentence which the Reader’s Digest so carefully superposes upon its contributors has no attraction for Miss Stein. It is the tail of the prose that wags her dog.
The irritables will find plenty to fume at. In her first person singular Miss Stein is as discursive as she is egocentric. Her chronicle meanders rather like Salvador Dali on a bicycle; yet it is always clear in its focus, for in the meandering the world is seen to be revolving around Gertrude Stein: she is the perpetual center because, as she charmingly puts it on page one, she was petted and privileged as the youngest of an indulgent family — “that is the way I was and that is the way I still am and anyone who is like that necessarily liked it. I did and do.” In a world which has reduced so many egos to the size of a small potato, this is momentarily hard to take.
Miss Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas, were living on their farm in Bilignin in the Rhone valley when the Germans smashed through the French armies of 1940. Their first impulse was to join the slow serpentine of refugees, but prudence prevailed and they turned back to share with the villagers and country people of Haute-Savoie the duress of German occupation. One gathers that the two Americans were little molested by the Germans. They were free to come and go. Food and coal became their daily concern, but they had the esteem of the country folk, who foraged for them; and in the long run they and Basket, their poodle, seem to have made out fairly well. Miss Stein, rheumatism or no rheumatism, would walk the fourteen kilometers to the next village and come back with “ some very good cake, and cake is a comfort, cake is certainly a comfort.”
Prisoners tell us that writing and play-acting are the two sanest preoccupations for those in captivity, and Miss Stein took refuge in both. She began these recollections in 1940, keeping them “in manuscript as my handwriting is so bad it was not likely that any German would be able to read it.” These pages, particularly the first two thirds of them, were written in a national climate very different from what we know today. Petty details here will be infuriating to our champions of democracy. The tepidness of some of the French, which Miss Stein observes without disapproval, her justification of Pétain, her preoccupation with Basket, and her asides, as when she likens the Americans going off to the SpanishAmerican War with the French youth going into German labor camps — these are just a few of the irritants I mean.
But this is only half — and, to those who admire her work, the superficial half. However detached she may have been at the outset, there is no doubt that Miss Stein kept in key with the French villagers. Their changing temper, their daily anxiety, the resentment growing into calculated resistance, the pride and relief as the Russian armies advanced, the distrust of the English so skillfully enlarged by the Germans, the wild, uncertain hopes as the Americans landed, the final “rabbit drive” of the maquis — all this is the record of France within, which she has set down with fidelity. The solace which she found in Shakespeare, the nostalgia with which her thoughts turn back to this country or to France before the war, her passionate interest in our fight back across the Pacific, are evidences of a true and likable spirit.
Ballet of life and death
Against the waning interest in war books, please enter this exception: Carrier War: Task Force 58 by Lieutenant Oliver Jensen, USNR. It is the authorized biography of the fighters and the dive and torpedo bombers on a carrier of the Essex class; it is the vivid story of the most vivid ships the war has produced. “To see a carrier in action in the sunlight of the Pacific,” wrote a friend of mine, “is to see the most magnificent ballet man ever created.” A ballet of life and death.
This book is printed in that paperbound magazine format which Simon & Schuster have made peculiarly their own. The air photographs, many of them in color, and the maps show by what arrowhead assaults we have retaken the Pacific. They suggest the black hazard of the take-off before dawn, the fiery violence of our bombing, the gaunt, burned faces of the airmen rescued after eleven days at sea. These pages are alive with the grinning appearance of those who have made their last strike and with the echoes of their talk over the intercom or at mess. Lieutenant Jensen’s prose makes this the personal book it is. He writes as the Navy talks: the ease, the banter, the scuttlebutt and technicalities, the pride of ship, and the affection for the Skipper are threaded together to give the fabric of carrier life.
The ghost in the closet
They tell the story of an American who was being shown the new Moscow subway. His Russian host pointed with pride to the broad entrance, the corridors and platforms of marble, the decorative murals, as they walked the length of the station. There was a pause. “But where are the trains?” asked the American. “Have I said anything about the race problem in America?” protested the Russian.
The ability to laugh at each other would help to relieve the hypersensitiveness which now exists between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. We have sent some of our ablest observers to Russia today — men like Leigh White, Henry Cassidy, John Hersey, and W. L. White. But when they are ready to sum up their findings, I wish they would conscientiously avoid this new American habit — the habit of judging other people by the standards of sanitation and efficiency which we have made our own. For it seems to me that in our attitude toward the Soviet we are in danger of assuming the same condescension, the same sharp-tongued dissatisfaction, which we have so bitterly resented in the British who visited us this century past.
W. L. White’s Report on the Russians was by necessity written on the run. He flew to Russia with Eric Johnston in June of 1944, and during the six weeks of their visit he worked indefatigably to size up the “whole Soviet show.” He looked at it through his own eyes and those of the president of the Chamber of Commerce, and he made his judgments as an American journalist jealous of any censorship of speech or print or picture. It irked him to see the allusions to the American Communist Party deleted from the published version of Mr. Johnston’s speech; it infuriated him to hear how the American correspondents were restricted, and to see how partial a version of American life was available to the Russians in books or films.
Because of this indignation he has made scant, allowance for a country which is wounded and at war. When Mr. White compares Russia’s industry to our own, the results are always in our favor. Mr. White is outspoken in his liking for the Russian people and equally outspoken in his dislike of their “sub WPA standard of living.” The shabby clothes, the lack of roads, the absence of taxis and toilet paper, the bad plumbing, the dirt and the waste of material in the factories, the cheapness of life, and (again) the censorship at the front— all this provokes the tone of exasperation in Mr. White’s pages. But between the lines of this criticism one can detect, both envy and admiration — envy of the Russians’ resources and of their passionate loyalty to their government, admiration of a fighting machine which did what we thought was impossible. One would like to see the counterpart of this book, criticism as frank as it is friendly, written by an experienced Soviet reporter after a six weeks’ tour of t his country. Judged by his standards, he would doubtless find here things to criticize.