Reader's Choice

BY CHARLES J. ROLO
IN HIS new novel, John Dos Passos returns to the quasi-documentary technique of the trilogy, U.S.A. The Grand Design (Houghton Mifflin, $3.50) is a fictional statement of the author’s farewell to reform (already explicit in his political articles)—an acidulous collective portrait of New Deal Washington. Despite the conventional remark, “Any resemblance to real people is accidental,”no one not insulated from the press and radio throughout the Roosevelt years will be in doubt as to who inspired some of the major figures in the book. It marks the conclusion of a second trilogy, whose earlier installments were Adventures of a Young Man and Nomber One, the Spots wood family providing the connecting link.

Life with reform

As in U.S.A., the narrative is distributed among several characters whose lives crisscross each other Millard Carroll, a Southern businessman who sacrifices half his income to enter “public service" in 1932; Paul Graves, an agricultural expert enthusiastic over a project to save the family-sized farm; Paul’s secretary, Georgia Washburn, who comes to Washington to forget an unhappy love affair with an adolescent Communist; and Herb Spotswood, a Caspar Milquetoast who has become a breastheating radio celebrity. Their several stories are supposed to objectify the case against the novel’s collective “hero” (or rather, villain), the New Deal. Its achievements find no place in Dos Passos’s desolate and embittered picture, which suggests the perspective of a John T. Flynn.
The New Deal, meanwhile, has been re-created in multifarious detail — the bureaucratic madhouse, the cocktail-hour politics, the glib phrases and grand ideas, the posing and the feuding, the soggy Washington summers and ihe slimy Washington Gommunists preaching and spying, and, always in the foreground, the brain-trusters, their knowing aides, and the news pundits. The gallery of sour portraits is dominated by the sickly figure of Walker Watson, a member of the Cabinet, who plays the horses, dabbles in astrology, spouts his mothers homely wisdom and the Boss’s lofly slogans, and who, next to ihe President, is the chief executor, in peace and war, of the grand design. Dos Passos imparts an added dimension to the over-all picture by prefacing each chapter with a sort of commentary in which the collective voice of America speaks its piece — a record of deepening disillusionment which, judging from the election results, is historically at least partially false.
The Grand Design is a much more impressive novel than its two predecessors, in which Dos Passos turned to the traditional story centered on an individual character. Here the special talent which has made him a major novelist his gift for sharp, pulsing documental ion of the social scene — is fully exploited and achieves savage effects. But one is also confronted with his serious limitations — limitations, that is, in a writer of the first rank.
The most serious of these, it seems to me, is that Dos Passos writes novels of political protest in which the protest is never properly dramatized in political terms (as, for instance, in Koestler or Malraux). A radical when “the system" was conservative, a conservative when the system embarked upon a new deal. Dos Passos has always damned the system primarily by showing that people are disgusting and by chronicling their frustrations and defeat. His description of physical details continually suggests that “loathing of living forms" which Ortega y Gasset wrote of as symptomatic of the “dehumanization" of modern art. One suspects, iu fact, that Dos Passos’s chronic protest is not political at all, not a matter of ideas, but at bottom ;m expression of disgust with human beings, with Being it self — a painfully sincere, acrid, totally anonymous disgust, which is impelled to celebrate failure.
When things start to go well with one of his characters, the narrative switches to somebody else. Like Thorstein Veblen, his special hero in The Big Money, Dos Passos seems to suffer from “a constitutional inability ... to get his tongue around the essential yes.”His positive message is always a species of “no” — desertion from the army in Three Soldiers, revolution in U.S.A., and now the wistful notion of a return to the “plan" of the early settlers, a strangely nano primitivism with isolationist overtones.
In The Grand Design, to be sure, there is some relief from the black pessimism of U.S.A. — a major character, Paul Graves, who is not unsympathetic; tender glimpses of married love and family life; an admiration for economic self-reliance. But (except in the commentary, where the author’s opinions are explicitly articulated) the individual values never become an effective counterpoint to the collective nastiness because of Dos Passos’s inability to create a three-dimensional character. His protagonists, as usual, remain impersonal. We sec them from the outside in hard outline and sharp detail, but we never share their inner life they do not seem to have one. As Sartre has observed, they have not set up housekeeping in their own consciousness. And here, surely, is a fundamental contradiction in Dos Passos’s work: the only values he sees any hope in are individual values, yet he cannot endow his characters with a subjective reality, with a selfconscious individual will.

Life without Father

“All right we are two nations,” Dos Passos wrote in The Big Money, and the novel ended with the hungry “Vag” thumbing a ride on the highway while overhead the big-money men sat back in the transcontinental plane. The climax was symbolic of identity as well as contrast; the extremes met in a common characteristic — they had no anchor anywhere. They were, not geographically but spiritually, Displaced Persons.
This idea of American rootlessness, so insistent in U.S. writing since the First World War, is the theme of a first novel by Edward Newhouse, whose two books of short stories garnered superlatives from the reviewers. The Hollow of the Ware (Sloane, $3.50), as the jacket states, “presents a group of people deeply engaged in an old American quest, the search for a sense of belonging. These people are looking for love, faith, morals, and commitments to live by.”
It is something of a triumph that Mr. Newhouse, who has handled this familiar theme in a familiar environment (the Manhattan publishing world) and in terms of reasonably familiar types, should have turned out a novel with a distinct individuality. We have an immensely wealthy young publisher, Larry Holland, who cannot get along with his lovely wife; but they are nice people, with a wellbehaved neurosis, who just don’t know what to do with their lives. We have a couple of fellow travelers who run Holland’s publishing house, and a pukka Communist who tells them how to run it; but the author knows that such people, by definition, are a bundle of cliches, and he keeps their palaver under strict surveillance.
The hero, Neil Miller, illegitimate son of a famous radical who died in Russia, is a young man whose life has been a series of economic and emotional makeshifts; but his is by no means the usual brassy portrait of the hero as something of a heel. He does have an affair with the Boss’s wife, which betrays a conventional streak, but having wisely burned his paintings on page 8, he shows a marvelous singularity by evincing no further twinges of the creative urge.
Mr. Newhouse steers these people (and two or three others) through a story of love, politics, and war, and devises an unexpected aftermath to war for Larry Holland and Neil Miller, who find a niche but discover they are still spiritually Displaced Persons.
The Hollow of the Wave is written with feeling, restraint, and a pleasing integrity. It has no comment of great consequence to make—the theme is reported, not really explored but what it does say is intelligent and very readable. The author’s pubfisher has given him the benefit of an outstanding job of bookmaking.

Life with Mother

A theme at least as familiar as Mr. New house’s inspires the fourth novel by Gore Vidal. Still in his early twenties, Mr. Vidal has behind him last year’s best-seller, The City and the Pillar, anil two previous novels which established him as one of the most gifted of the new writers. In The Season of Comfort (Dutton, $3.00), he deals with the emotional conflict arising from ihe tyranny of a selfish and possessive mother a gadabout divorcee, daughter of a Vice-President—over her growing son.
I referred last month to the increasing prevalence of novels which are ably put together, thoroughly readable, and yet not specially worth reading—because the writer brings no “new seeing” to bear on his material. The Season of Comfort comes dangerously close to being that kind of novel. Mr. Vidal shows signs of relying on his “know-how, which is considerable, rather than on creative effort. His story is deftly told, his characters are skillfully described, but no deep tensions, no deep emotions, are generated. What is clearly intended to be a novel of acute psychical conflict reads in large part like a brisk account of growing pains.
At school Bill Giraud is usually in the gang that runs things. At home, its true, when scolded, he’s apt to say “Yes, Mother with a twinge of guilt; but it takes more than that to make a mother-complex. Even when the adolescent Bill displays a firm lack of interest in girls, the reader is not seriously perturbed. As Dr. Kinsey might, put it: in the highest educational group the expression of heterosexual eroticism is frequently delayed. Sure enough, Bill later forms an attachment to a girl which promises to lead to eros. He also succeeds, despite his mother’s nagging that he be “practical,” in devoting himself to painting, which his father abandoned. He has his troubles with “momism,” of course, but they do not become a novel-size predicament.

Life with Ireland

the Man Who Invented Sin (Devin-Adair, $15,75) comes as a reminder that good writing continues to be one of Ireland’s staple exports. The particular merits of Irish fiction, and you will find them in Sean O’Faolain’s collection of his best stories, seem to be those which are growing scarcer elsewhere: beauty of style; characters who live and who move us; sharp comedy of morals and manners; and the ability to harmonize the view that life is essentially tragic with a sense it is sometimes magical and always worth living.
Some of Mr. O’Faolain’s stories are humorous, some melancholy, and some gravely lyrical. The comedy, which is not as vigorous as Frank DC on nor s, succeeds in being diverting with tragic overtones. “The End of a Good Man” is the story of a man destroyed by competition. Larry Dunne was contented, because without ambition, until his father gave him a racing pigeon. Brian Born was the fastest pigeon in the club, but it bad a flaw: it would not come to earth until some other bird had walked off with the race. Larry finds a way to make it win—and breaks his heart doing it.
The title piece is a tender fable with the moral that the Serpent is sometimes a cleric. Two young monks and two young nuns on holiday are enjoying themselves in perfect innocence until a meddlesome curate brands their merriment sin. Twenty years later one of the monks, reminded of that lovely summer in the mountain hostel, says: “I’m not sure that I altogether approve of young people going out to these places.” Innocence invaded by the worm of conscience is a recurring theme, along with memories of childhood and the idea of death.
The finest tale is “The Silence of the Valley.” I can’t improve on the comment of an English reviewer: “It is poetry without blarney, incantation without the wand displayed, and the valley when we leave it is a place richly known and poignantly experienced.”

The new Zion

Dr. Chaim Weizmann, born seventy-five years ago in the Russian ghetto, the son of a log hauler, has been the prophet of modern Zionism. To him its animating impulse was not the need for a refuge, or the political idea of a Jewish state—the idea of Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement. It was the mystique of a “folk renaissance” through re-creation of the Jewish homeland.
This concept has shaped a life whose monument is the state of Israel, which made Weizmann its first president. Trial and Error (Harper, $5.00) is the embattled autobiography of this very great man, in whom three divergent strains have coalesced and reinforced each other: the prophetic spirit, scientific genius, and political realism. Weizmann, the prophet of The Return, has been severely practical as a statesman. Even before he negotiated the Balfour Declaration, his primary concern was the concrete enterprise of pioneering a country. When Britain, in 1905, offered the Zionists territory in southern Palestine—ironically, the area Mr. Bevin has fought hard to detach from Israel Weizmann (unsuccessfully) urged acceptance despite the apparent absence of water. No concrete beginning could be too small.
( ’learly Weizmann’s scientific training, with its vindication of “trial and error,” had shaped the statesman’s attitude. If Weizmann were not known as a Zionist, he would be famous as a chemist. His numerous discoveries include a process for synthesizing acetone which averted a critical shortage in Britain’s out put of explosives in the First World War. In the last war, he made an important contribution to America’s synthetic rubber program.
It was as a teacher of chemistry that Weizmann made his beginnings in England just after the turn of the century. Within a decade the young Russian, who had to learn English from scratch, had met and made allies of many of the most prominent figures in the country, among them Lloyd George, Churchill, Leopold Amery, the editor of the Times, and the future Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour. Later he won the support of General Allen by, Lawrence of Arabia, and the Emir Feisal, then leader of the Arab world.
The strangely contradictory role of Britain in the history of Zionism occupies a special place in Weizmann’s story. He rejects the view that Britain championed Zionism as a cloak for imperialism, and remains convinced that, whatever the practical considerations, it was moral sentiment which activated the Balfour Declaration.
Despite the Palestine Administration’s flagrant obstruction of Jewish development, Weizmann resisted Zionism’s rising hostility to Britain; despile Bovin’s vindictiveness, he speaks of the Labor Government’s betrayal of explicit promises more in disappointment than bitterness. What sparks his anger is the undercover struggle against Zionism waged by many of the world’s assimilated Jews.
Trial and Error is written with a modesty which on occasion (in the case of Weizmann’s wartime contributions) is actually misleading. It is filled with vivid glimpses of great persons, with sharply remembered details of history, and pervaded by the spirit that moves mountains. Dr. Weizmann has given us a human and stirring account of the birth of a nation.