EVER since the war’s end, there has been a steady stream of novels, with Manhattan as their setting, about book publishing, advertising, and the magazine business. Most of these books (often misnamed “satires”) have followed a pretty rigid pattern, in which Graustarkian furnishings, unbearably glib dialogue, and a tycoon or editor of flawless villainy are among the stock ingredients. The resemblance to reality is roughly of the same order as that of those four-color ads showing a Powers model surrounded by twenty thousand dollars’ worth of kitchen equipment—supposedly a “typical” American housewife preparing dinner.
Some of the post-war novels dealing with Manhattan’s literary, artistic, and promotional sector have achieved flashes of sharp caricature or amusing burlesque. Few have conveyed to me any strong sense of authenticity, even though the authors were writing from firsthand experience. The trouble, I suspect unkindly, has been a striving to dazzle the customers with phony glamour and extravagant exaggeration. Elmer Rice has resisted this temptation in his big novel about the Broadway theater and what ails it — his first novel since Imperial City, a best-seller twelve years ago. The Show Must Go On (Viking, $3.50), whatever its limitations, bears the stamp of authenticity t hroughout.
The book is a quasi-documentary story of the life of a play, a serious drama, from its entry into a mailbox to its closing night. Mr. Rice has put the whole thing down, convincingly, on paper: the reluctant rewriting of The Clouded Mirror, as “suggested” by the producer; the casting; the dismal first reading, with the author squirming in the auditorium; the crack-up, during rehearsals, of the movie star hired for box-office appeal; the troubles with Actors’ Equity and the budgetary problems; the nightmare of last rehearsals and last-minute illness; the Boston opening (rain, laughs in the wrong places, and mixed reviews); and finally moderate success in New York, cruelly cut short by loss of the theater to a cheap comedy which promised to fill the house.
The two central figures in the human dramas connected with The Clouded Mirror are its author, Eric Kenwood, a small-town factory worker seeing New York for the first time; and the play’s producer-director, Leroy Thompson, a harsh, dynamic personality, who combines a genuine devotion to the theater and the people who work in it with a keen commercial flair. Kenwood looked to me like that ever recurring cardboard hero, the gauche and naïve young idealist on the flying trapeze. Thompson is extremely well done: complex, sharply individualized, and completely understandable.
Of the two chief feminine roles in the book, one is played by Thompson’s wealthy mistress, Claire Weir, who has made a tidy profit out of financing his productions. The other goes to Virginia Upton, leading lady in The Clauded Mirror after the movie star’s departure to a sanitarium. The supporting players (there are about a dozen of them) include a high-strung young understudy who falls in love with Thompson, an alcoholic matinee idol, and Claire’s poisonous lawyer (a masterly characterization).
Mr. Rice’s is a fairly conventional but workmanlike and entertaining story and above all, a refreshingly honest treatment of the theater. It fails to be more than that because factual authenticity and realistic portraiture add up to no more than good fictional reporting. Mr. Rice sheds no light in dark places, but I suspect he has written another hit.
The World Next Door (Farrar, Straus, $3.00) is also fictional reporting, but it sheds a bright beam of light on what is perhaps the darkest area of human experience: the world of madness. This first novel by Fritz Peters, a war veteran who served in the infantry, is an account of David Mitchell’s ordeal in a mental hospital for veterans. It is based, the author writes, on actual experience.
It was cold indoors and the sun was shining, so David Mitchell walked out onto the lawn and took off all his clothes. In a little while two men appeared, snapped handcuffs on his wrists, and drove him to a big building: he knew then that he was going to be burned at the stake. “I am the Second Coming of Christ,” he said, when someone asked him his name; and to prove it he burned a hole on the back of each hand with a cigarette. He realized, suddenly, that he was in a mental hospital: where else would they put Christ in 1947? That night the guards beat him up when he badgered them to turn out the light. Later the room was invaded by Nazis, and he, an American spy, lay defenseless, tied to a bed by layers of hot, damp cloth.
That, roughly, is the beginning of David Mitchell’s lonely but gradually successful struggle against himself; against the brutalities, evasiveness, and impersonality of the hospital system; and against his mother, who has had him committed and presses him to put in for a pension, which would hold up his release. In the course of David’s journey through the timeless hell of the “pack room,” with its hideous visitations, and the brutal existence of Ward 8, Mr. Peters brings to life before our eyes the whole world of the mentally deranged: its terrors, its suspicions, its spurts of hatred and violence, its pitiful hunger for affection and pathetic pleasures, its interludes of peace and moments of exaltation. Nothing quite like this gripping and compassionate book has been done before, and I am not forgetting The Snake Pit. Mr. Peters’s reader soon ceases to be a gaping tourist in Bedlam. He goes native, so to speak, and comes to understand the ingenious logic and essential reasonableness of deranged minds, which, out of self-preservation, have fled from a world they find intolerable.
We know of David Mitchell that his mother was once in an asylum, that he once thought himself homosexual, and that he was wounded in the war. But what brought on his crack-up is not explained, and the slow clearing of his mind (so skillfully chronicled) seems to take place largely spontaneously — one of David’s chief complaints is that he doesn’t get much treatment. Many mental breakdowns may begin and end in this way, but here, it seems to me, is one of those instances when fiction should go one better than life and provide answers. A full understanding of Mitchell’s illness would give this book greater significance. As it is, The World Next Door is a brilliant, an astonishing piece of work, written with passion, insight, and great simplicity, and with a subtle humor which provides some very funny pages.
Love in a strange climate
Two of the English novelists whose reputations have increased the most in England during the forties are decidedly “originals” — Ivy ComptonBurnett, first published here in 1948; and Henry Green, whose Loving (Viking, $3.00) introduces him to American readers. Of the two, Henry Green—judged by his work as a whole — is probably the more original; and anyone who has read Miss Compton-Burnett will realize that that is a pretty awesome rating. Loving, however, is Green’s least unconventional novel and his most attractive. One of the soundest English critics, V. S. Pritchett, calls it “the most interesting novel of the past ten years.” That, incidentally, is a fair sample of the sort of tributes which have been showered on Henry Green by the literary journals. For several years now, he has been the object of a passionate cult.
This novelist so much praised for his poetic vision, his virtuosity, and his artistic purity and daring is, ironically, a businessman — a successful Birmingham manufacturer. Henry Green is a pen name that conceals a well-guarded anonymity. Not much is known about him except that he went to Eton and is in his early forties. In addition to Loving, Green has written six novels which are to be published here, along with his future work, at suitable intervals. My guess is that Mr. Green will have the same sort of succès d’estime as Miss Compton-Burnett.
The essence of each of Henry Green’s novels is compressed into their blunt titles: Back, Caught, Party Going. Loving is a book about people in a state of loving, the English servants in a castle in Ireland at the beginning of the war. There isn’t much plot to fasten on; the only catalytic incident is the discovery, by a housemaid, of the chatelaine’s daughter in bed with her lover. What Mr. Green has given us is, on one level, an amusing and sometimes scandalous comedy of manners and morals in that rigid hierarchy, the servants’ hall. But Loving is much more than a backstairs society novel with a cockney accent. The crucial point about Loving is that Henry Green has an entirely original way of seeing things and an entirely original way of making his world disclose its truths to the reader.
“Everything’s incredible,” Aldous Huxley once said, “ if you can skin off the crust of obviousness our habits pul on it.” Henry Green does that and shows us the poetry that punctuates the commonplace and the surprising complexity of a human being seen whole. It is typical of Green that, during a silly conversation between two housemaids in an attic, he should not let us miss a glimpse of “white lilac under leaves,” the light from an ivy-covered window reflected on bare skin. The chief character in Loving, the butler, Charlie Raunce, at first appears to be a petty thief, a lecher, and an unfeeling egotist — then continually disconcerts us with new facets of his character, contradictory but believable, which make him grow continually more interesting.
Mr. Green is an ambitious writer in the truest sense: every book of his has been an attempt to extend the range of the novel. Loving, as I have said, is the most accessible of his works. Even so, it demands a good deal more of the reader than most novels; and I imagine that some would find it rather cold and mannered. The novel consists almost entirely of trivial incident and dialogue— incomparable dialogue; into them Mr. Green packs all of the magic by which art enlarges our experience, wrests new truths from the familiar. In my accounting, Loving is one of the top literary dividends of 1949.
Love’s labor lost
From the standpoint of technique, Alberto Moravia, now widely considered to be Italy’s leading writer, stands at the opposite pole to Henry Green. The Woman of Rome (Farrar, Straus, $3.50), which reintroduces Moravia to the U.S. — two books of his were published here in the thirties— is written in the tradition of the great realistic novel. It is an absorbing, strongly plotted story with several striking characterizations and one that is a tour de force: that of the narrator, Adriana, a young Roman prostitute. I first read Moravia’s novel when it appeared in Rome two summers ago, and was much impressed by it; after rereading it in Lydia Holland’s fluent translation, I remain equally impressed.
Moravia’s is a harsh, somber world in which the cardinal reality is poverty. It is, too, a world highly charged with sexuality. All his people are hounded by the devil in love’s clothing — love seen as lust, eroticism, pride, weakness, or obsession; a compulsive force which sets in motion a chain of disaster.
The story covers four years in the life of Moravia’s heroine. Adriana is a beautiful, courageous girl with a buoyant disposition and a deep streak of conventionality that is counterpointed by an intense sensuality. She has grown up in atrocious poverty, and as soon as she is sixteen and a real beauty, her mother starts prodding her to find “a gentleman” who will keep her in luxury. What Adriana herself passionately longs for is “a normal way of life” — a husband whom she loves and the neighbors respect, children, a neat home of her own. A crushing disillusionment leads her into prostitution, and she makes the shocked discovery that to her nature this way of life is not disagreeable, even though she never ceases to look forward to bourgeois respectability.
Three men, after her treacherous first lover, play crucial roles in her life: a high official in the Fascist police; a brutal murderer, who stirs her physically more deeply than any other man; and a young neurotic intellectual of good family, with whom she falls desperately in love. The narrative turns and twists, feverishly sustained by Moravia’s inventiveness. When Adriana’s hopes have been exhausted, the author seeks relief in violence, a senseless violence which harshly underlines the pointlessness of life and seems to be the author’s obscure revenge on life for its pointlessness.
The Italian novelist is compelled, willy-nilly, to be metaphysical. Two wars and two decades of Fascism have shattered the intellectual’s edifice of established values. He cannot, like his American or British counterpart, explore specific moral problems within a more or less accepted framework. The question for him is not how to be an unconfused Liberal; or how far “creative talent” may compromise with “commercialism”; or how to straighten out a kink in the ego. The question is, How give an accounting of the meaning of existence? How achieve a reconciliation with life? That is Moravia’s underlying concern in The Woman of Rome.
Moravia has written a profoundly realistic and compassionate story which continually transcends its subject; which is, in effect, the story of modern Italy. This, to my mind, is one of the most powerful novels to come out of continental Europe since the war.
Deutschland über Alles
Ever since the cold war started, there has been a tendency to think of U.S. policy in Germany exclusively in terms of the struggle with Russia; and judged by that standard it has begun to look decidedly successful. But while saving Western Germany from Russian authoritarianism, we have — judging from two books by top-rank correspondents of the New York Times — been losing it to German authoritarianism.
“Authoritarianism is returning to Germany, east and west,” Drew Middleton, chief of the New York Times Berlin Bureau, concludes in The Struggle for Germany (BobbsMerrill, $3.00). And Middleton’s predecessor, Delbert Clark, prefaces Again the Goose Step (BobbsMerrill, $3.00) with the observation: “Four years after the surrender of Germany, American correspondents were writing dispatches about jackbooted young toughs marching in political parades and singing Deutschland über Alles; about the recapture of the school system by Nazi teachers; about the restoration of Germany’s highly integrated industry by its old managers; about the unashamed resurgence of anti-semitism.”
Approximately 75 per cent of the teachers in the American Zone are now ex-Nazis, Mr. Clark reports. By December, 1948, Middleton discloses, thirty-three officials who had held important managerial posts under Hitler had been restored to positions of roughly equal importance, in the coalmining industry alone. It’s the same story in every branch of German life: a resurgence of the old faces and the old arrogance. In 1946, 40 per cent of those queried in a U.S. Zone poll believed that National Socialism was a good idea badly carried out; in 1948, the percentage had climbed to 55.5. Both books make it clear that the Western powers have never got to first base with democratization; and now the conquered have started to get tough with their conquerors.
In tone and intent, and on certain matters of opinion, Clark and Middleton differ considerably. Again the Goose Step is an aroused book and a lively one. The present ugly situation in Germany is, Clark declares, “the result of a policy which ignored common sense and the national interests of the United States . . . which went into effect piecemeal, almost furtively. . . . The excuse that [this policy] was forced upon us by the cold war won’t hold water. It is the excuse of ‘better an unreliable ally than none,’ and it makes no sense politically or militarily. The best defense against Soviet penetration would have been an energetic program of genuine democratization in every department. Instead, by the end of 1946, our makers and executors of policy were committed to the thesis that the way to stop Russia was to erect a great wall of ultra-conservatism. . . .”
At the outset, there were a number of first-rate men in Military Government — men working earnestly to reform the Germans—but a high percentage of them were driven to resign out of frustration. Paper was not forthcoming for new textbooks for the German schools, and soon the “reorientation” program for German youth amounted to little more than athletics, a strong point with the Nazis. Militant anti-Nazis were ignored or cold-shouldered by officials whose sole interest was to “get production going.” From the standpoint of political integrity, says Mr. Clark, the best leadership was to be found in the labor unions, always more political in Germany than in most other countries; but the Western powers, Laborite Britain included, preferred to deal with the old managerial class. Now ultraconservatism is in the saddle and, Mr. Clark warns, it is no wall against Russia: an ultranationalistic or neo-Fascist Germany would have strong reasons, strategic and other, for siding with Russia in a third world war. Mr. Middleton, too, notes this danger.
Middleton’s is a more dispassionate, more detached report, which retraces the great powers’ German policies from Yalta to the present time; studies closely the struggle for Germany between Russia and the West; then discusses the current situation and the emergent problems. Mr. Middleton believes that the switch in American policy toward speedier reconstruction of German industry was fully justified by the economic situation in Germany. He believes, too, that democratization failed not so much for lack of trying as because of the Germans’ deep-seated antipathy to democratic ideas.
The Russians, according to Middleton, have played their hand rather poorly in Germany, vis-à-vis both the West and the Germans. The Sovietsponsored Socialist Unity Party is honeycombed with members who privately detest “the Ivans”; it is showing signs of apathy; and it has lately lost prestige. Western Germany or a united Germany might, however, be forced into the Russian orbit by economic pressure. When ERP assistance ends, Germany will have to export or die. But to whom will she export? Several Western European countries are already worrying about German competition. Russia is only too willing to sign trade pacts. The only solution. Middleton concludes, is to face the fact that Germany must be admitted into a Western European association as an equal partner.
A curious contradiction crops up periodically in Mr. Middleton’s reasoning. He pooh-poohs the fears of “excited liberals" about Nazi activity and elsewhere notes that a “neoFascist ” state could come into being (he even predicts that in ten years there will be an immensely potent Hitler legend). “One should not discount the latent dangers of German militarism,” Mr. Middleton cautions, but he is unreasonably irked with the French for fearing a strong Germany. He warns against the “pressure groups in the U.S. and abroad” who are trying to keep alive hostility toward the Germans, and yet he says: “We must take it for granted that the Germans whom the United States will have to deal with in the future are not much different basically from those it has fought and defeated.
There is more than a hint of “forget and forgive” in Middleton’s recommendations, and it seems to me that his own factual report — a first-rate job — makes Mr. Clark’s “viewing with alarm” the more persuasive attitude. At any rate, both these books are among the most urgent published this fall. They deserve a good many readers.