IN THIS month’s showing, there are two execptional novels The Plague (Knopf, by Albert Camus and The Heart of the Matter (Viking, $.3.00) — a midsummer Book-of-the-Month Club selection - by the gifted English writer, Graham Greene.
Mr. Greene is something of a dual personality. He writes serious novels whose mainspring is religious — the last being The Rover and the Glory (first published as The Labyrinthine Ways) —and thriller “entertainments" which are classics of their kind: Orient Express, This Gun for Hire, The Ministry of Fear. Greene spent two of the war years as a confidential agent in British West Africa, which provides the setting for bis present novel: a Maughamesque outpost of empire with stewing climate, giant rats discovered in the bathtub, and vultures clanking on the roof. At the center of the story are the immense motives of love and piety, and encircling them dualisms of sardonic contrast: the wily Syrian diamond-smugglers and the British bureaucracy; the unfortunate, exasperating natives and the supercilious, empty-headed club society.
Greene’s hero, Major Scobie — a veteran of the colonial police — is, like all his heroes, a man hunted and haunted. He is haunted not by passion but compassion and, because of it, hunted by fate. Compassion for the blacks has sparked enmities which balk his promotion and humiliate his wife, whom Scobie, after fifteen years of marriage, loves for “the pathos of her unattractiveness.”Compassion drives him to borrow from a diamond-smuggler to finance a trip for her; and the debt puts a confidential agent on his trail. Compassion for a young girl, widowed in a sinking off the coast, insensibly leads Scobie into a love affair. Eventually - trapped by a chain of circumstances forged with flawless logic-Scobie, a Catholic, has to choose between mortal hurt to human beings and sin which his church does not forgive. Out of this conflict between the highest human motive and a higher imperative, Greene wrenches “the heart of the matter,” which, judging from his priest’s verdict on Scobie, has more to do with love than with dogma.
This story is tinged with the sustained expectancy, the nervy atmosphere of Greene’s thrillers; the book might, in fact, be described as a theological thriller. It is also a tragedy of modern love. Novelists seem to find it increasingly difficult to render persuasively the old high-flown romantic ideal. Greene has recognized the importance and the paradoxical nuances of a different kind of love: a mature and binding tenderness, clear-eyed and sadeyed, in which there are community and deep solicitude, habit and boredom and pity and a latent heroism — a love which rings truer to the modern sensibility.
Despite the special circumstances, Greene creates the feeling that this tragedy is rooted in the commonplace complications of life, that his main characters are quite ordinary people. They are wonderfully well drawn — Scobie, his wife, and the young girl — and imbued with a terrible pathos. As a Catholic novel, this book is an altogether warmer and more generous work than Brideshead Revisited. From any standpoint it is an exciting and intensely moving story, the finest that Graham Greene has written.
“No man is an Hand”
The most vigorous personality, alongside of Sartre, among the new French writers is the 35-yearold novelist, playwright, and philosopher, Albert Camus. Known in America only by a remarkable short novel, The Stranger (1946), Camus has been labeled an existentialist, which he is not, though his views have some affinity with Sartre’s. Incidentally, existentialism, marvelously garbled in the journalistic accounts, is expertly discussed in two new books: Existentialism (Harvard University Press, $3.00) by Ralph Harper, a Harvard instructor and an existentialist himself; and Dreadful Freedom. (University of Chicago Press, $2.75), a perceptive exposition and critique by Marjorie Grene.
To return to Camus, we are now offered two books of his: Two Plays (New Directions, $3.00)of which Caligula has been purchased for U.S. production — and The Plague, which calls for some reference to Camus’s philosophical ideas. An atheist like Sartre, he holds that the world is “irrational” and that life has no “ultimate” purpose. What he calls the “absurdity” of the human condition stems from man’s “deep desire” for meaning, which life cannot satisfy. War and pestilence are dramatic illustrations of this “absurdity”; we may know their causes but their ravages do not make sense. The man who sees life with unblinking lucidity will live with “a total absence of hope,” which, however, “has nothing to do with despair.” He will seek to live as intensely as possible, and to that end will practice “continual refusal,” an ambiguous phrase in which Camus’s moral code seems to be rooted. As expounded in The Plague, it means refusal to capitulate to an absurd fate; and, surprisingly, the resulting affirmation is one of human solidarity and communal responsibility. Camus might have prefaced The Plague with the lines of Donne quoted by Hemingway: “No man is an Iland . . . ; never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,”
In the Algerian city of Oran, the rats suddenly crawl out into the open to die in huge numbers.
The warning is neglected. Then bubonic plague strikes. The authorities and the press remain fatuously complacent. When the first countermeasures are imposed, the inhabitants protest them as restrictive. They feel about the plague as men have felt about war: “It can’t last. It’s too stupid.”But fate’s absurdity knows no rules. Soon, the entire life of Oran becomes synonymous with pestilence, which rages on for months, decimates the population, then mysteriously subsides. This visitation is chronicled in the tone of a curious and ironic moralise who. as he reviews the behavior of “our city,” seems to be elaborating Nietzsche’s dictum, “The great problems are in the streets.”For The Plague (while sharply symbolic of what happened to France) is a parable about the condition humaine. Plague, one character remarks, is “just life.” And each of Camus’s characters represents a certain attitude in the face of fate.
Father Paneloux preaches resignation to God’s punishment. A visiting journalist says he does not “belong there" and plots escape. Detachment is comically travestied in Grand, who spends his leisure endlessly rewriting the first sentence of a novel; and in a zany asthmatic, who for years has risen from his bed only to spit at passing cats, and who keeps track of the time by counting peas. All these, according to the philosophic Tarrou, belong in the human category of “victims.” Cottard, a criminal who profits from the plague — “a lonely and therefore an ignorant heart ”— belongs in the category of “scourges.”
Tarrou and Dr. Rieux devote all their energy to fighting the plague, because it is “everybody’s business"— death and suffering are enemies of life. In exposing themselves to exceptional risks, they are not heroic, “merely logical.”But Tarrou has learned, from once being a revolutionary, that without “the intensest clear-sightedness,”even wellmeaning action can turn men into murderers — that is, “scourges” no different from plague. Flawless lucidity is the hallmark of the remaining human category, the small company of “healers” like Rieux. Tarrou is striving to become one by cleaving, with unfaltering vigilance, to “the path of sympathy.”
Gilbert Stuart’s skillful translation comes as close as can be expected to retaining the flavor of Camus’s style. The Plague is a superlative piece of writing — crisp, vivid, punctuated with doomsday effects and oddly humorous “bits of business,”and veined throughout with a wonderfully intense irony. Arthur Koestler speaks of the book as “almost a masterpiece.”It is certainly a novel of the first rank — one that will bear comparison with the work of such writers as Koestler, Silone, and Malraux.
The big money
Some time back Somerset Maugham remarked to Robert Van Gelder, then editor of the New YorkTimes Book Review, that the poor and the Babbitts seemed to monopolize our better novelists’ attention. Why, said Mr. Maugham, didn’t someone give the rich a literary shakedown? Mr. Van Gelder, acting on the hint, devoted the next two years to writing Important People (Doubleday, $3.00). During the interval, the market has been flooded with glib and glamour-struck “satires" — the term is a fetish with blurb men—of the big-money milieu. One uneasy novelist this season even made a character exclaim, “I’m so sick of satiric novels about the rich. . . . .Juicy exposés of their rotten way of life, rich men’s sons flacking off and molding like Roquefort cheese.” Well, Important People (subtitled “A Satire of Tycoon Society”) smacks somewhat of the juicy expose and the familiar flacking and molding of the overprivileged ego. But Van Gelder’s is a more honest, more thoughtful treatment of gilt-edged society than its recent predecessors. It is entertaining and it has a keen edge.
Important People is set in New York and neighboring points. A series of sharply etched social tableaux succeed each other as though on a revolving stage: Liza Grimm’s party, studded with “messenger lions" from places in the news, enough of them “to suit all tastes"; the witching hour, 10 A.M., in a Third Avenue saloon, when the dirtycollared barfly, “with his coat buttoned all the wayup to be sure it will stay on as he twitches,” sucks his beer through the gaps in his teeth to make it last, and wishes that he were dead; Harlem in a period of race riots; the Graustarkian estate of Carter West, aged founder of a magazine empire; West’s leading magazine, Cover, which selects for thirty million readers “what thought and what accent is most meaningful . . . in understanding the world,”and does it with a staff which includes show-offs, Communists, bullies, migraine malingerers, a millionaire’s drunken son, and a man who wanted to be a priest and became a press agent and plans suicide every noon; Dr. Pride’s school, “dedicated to the proposition that the rich could constitute a separate class in America.”
Against this shifting background we watch the growing pains of a fledgling tycoon, West’s grandson, Dixon — lately Army lieutenant, now magazine baron — whose Boy Scout idealism, formidable heritage, and sudden itch for a wife launch him on a singularly muddled if well-intentioned course. He becomes dangerously involved in the tensions of Harlem. He worries about Oswald Boykin, whose editing makes Cover what it is, which is not what Dixon thinks it ought to be. And he attaches to himself Mig Holmes, a slightly tarnished and tortured beauty who finds Dixon’s millions and virility a comfort, but finds toping with his father more gemütlich.
The teen-age bracket is represented by Ike Grimm, a repulsive sadist with a precocious fondness for brothels, whose conduct, in school and out, keeps a shyster lawyer on the Grimm payroll. Two other hirelings of the great ones are neatly profiled in acerb miniature: the Grimms’ hoodlum chauffeur and Dixon’s private Pinkerton. Van Gelder also throws in one devastating glimpse of a woman psychoanalyst, who observes “the reality principle” until evening, then breaks the dam — “Cocktails, perhaps a sexual adventure, brandy, a full pack of Pall Malls.”
Hoover through the looking glass
Our Unknown Ex-President (Doubleday, $2.50) by Eugene Lyons rates attention as a museum piece in modern idolatry. Its portrayal of a controversial figure as a flawless amalgam of saint and seer savors of the ritualism of the totalitarian mythmakers. Like them, the author writes with a catch in his prose which gives it the rhythm of a cracked record repeating the same passage. His hero-worship of the “warm, whimsical, tender” Hoover frequently backfires into caricature, such as: Hoover tenderly (or whimsically?) describing Harding as “a man of noble instincts”; championing “revolutionary” economic ideas; sacrificially refusing “even the symbolic dollar a year” (sic).
It’s an invitation to ridicule (of the author, not the subject) to compare Hoover to “the classic prophet,” and draw the portentous parallel of “crucifixion and a day of resurrection”; to suggest that “ Divine intention ” placed Hoover in the White House in time to meet, with “essential success,” the economic debacle; to stuff a book for adults with such sanctimonious cant as (this in reference to shunning the 1920 Presidency) “his experience and intuitions . . . weighed on his spirits like a public trust ... he felt almost as if he were deserting in the hour of danger.” It’s murder to credit the ex-President with “the golden gift of laughter and the silver gift of satire,” when his humorless prose is there for all to read.
Mr. Lyons contradicts himself time and again. He vaunts Hoover’s executive acumen, yet proclaims his naïveté, quoting the remark, “Why, the Chief even trusted the stock-exchange boys . . . to reform their practices.” As Secretary of Commerce Hoover was “consulting engineer to the nation,” “most influential.” Later it is stressed he had nothing to do with the unfortunate course of the nation’s economy. Whom to believe — Lyons or Lyons?
Mr. Lyons’s account of the Bonus March is a travesty of the facts recorded by independent chroniclers, Frederick Lewis Allen for one. He flatly declares there was no trace of economic recovery until 1940. The Index of Industrial Production — 58 in 1932, 121 in 1936-gives him the lie. The British Government, he avers, shared Hoover’s conviction (in 1940-1941) that “the danger of collapse was remote.” Churchill has many times affirmed the contrary. Dissenting opinion is labeled Communist or is reviled ad nauseam. Nowhere is there a hint of Mr. Hoover’s fallibility.
Dixon Wecter—a Fellow of the Society of American Historians and author of several books on America — does not confine himself to politics in The Age of the Great Depression, 1929-1941 (Macmillan, $5.00). With somewhat vertiginous speed, the second half of his informal history touches on the nation’s changing mores, amusements, and fads; catalogues the high points in the arts, medicine, and science; ranges, in effect, throughout the American scene, pausing to batten on significant fact. Between 1930 and 1941, we learn, 48 per cent of U.S. newspaper managements went, out of business, leaving only 120 cities with competing newspapers. Immigration in the thirties — Hitler notwithstanding — was the smallest since 1820-1830; during 1931-1936 there were more emigrants than immigrants for the first time in U.S. history. The increase in book readers in the early years of the depression was estimated at three to four million. The churches lost roughly three million members during the decade. (The author does not suggest that reading took the place of prayer.) Americans, in 1936, were spending eight times as much on automobiles as on education.
Toward the political record, Mr. Wecter’s attitude is roughly that of the British economist quoted as saying: “Mr. Roosevelt may have given the wrong answers to many of his problems but he is at least the first president of modern America who has asked the right questions.” Wecter gives critical opinion a hearing throughout, and he does not sidestep New Deal failures and mistakes. Though its accomplishments “were impressive,” it did not and could not, he states, solve the basic problem of unemployment, and some of its works, notably the NRA, seem actually to have retarded recovery.
The Age of the Great Depression is temperate, soundly documented, and liberally illustrated. But it is hardly lively reading, the more so since it retraces familiar ground. However, Mr. Wecter’s compact reassessment of New Deal agencies and policies contains a great many facts in danger of being forgotten: the immensely valuable projects among the 34,000 completed by the PWA; the extent of slum clearance by the U.S. Housing Authority; the various advances made by the South — to cite just a few.