THE constant reviewer, like the colonial official in the tropics, runs a grave risk either of going native or of playing the great white Raj. He is liable to become infatuated with the flora and fauna of the literary jungle, and find power and beauty, wit and adventure, between the covers of every book. Conversely—like those colonial gentlemen of Maugham’s who cling to black dinner jacket and haughty isolation on the tropical outpost— the reviewer may take Flaubert and Tolstoy as his test of fitness, ignore the moderately good, and devote himself to finding fault with the best that is available. This being the season for soul searching. I have tried to check up on my sins in both direct ions.
of the white sahib’s isolationism I find no evidence, though the reader who has a brief for historical novels and inspirational works—both shunned by this department — may disagree. The sin I feel guilty of has been a form of going native— a tendency to let well-deserved praise become overpraise. This inflationary conduct calls for a resolution to be more austere. On the other hand, only a sadist would fasten on titles that deserve to be pilloried; and only a book-hater could fail to find, out of so large and diversified a field, three or four titles a month worth recommending. These are usually not the books launched with a heavy promotion budget, and some of them will get precious little attention unless reviewers express their approval in no uncertain terms. Every time I look at the best-seller list, it strengthens the temptation not to stint praise on an exceptional novel or distinguished biography that is going to have a hard time reaching five thousand readers.
Journey into the Sahara
Although pledged to austerity, I can’t say less of The Sheltering Sky (New Directions, $2.75) than that it seems to me one of the most interesting American novels published in 1949, a complex and subtly wrought piece of work. Two years ago the author, Paul Bowles, stepped out of an enviable niche in New York’s musical and theatrical community and took off for North Africa. In this first novel of his, the doomsday climate of the modern world is hauntingly reproduced in the landscape of the Sahara, and the tragedy of today’s “hollow men" is played out in a strange and terrible adventure story.
Porter Moresby is a young American with enough money to spend most of his time traveling. When he planned an expedition into the Sahara, it was with the subconscious hope that, away from the mechanized world and alone with his wife, Kit, he might break through the intangible barrier that has shut him off from emotional contact with her. At the last minute, though, he invited a friend to join them. For Porter clings to the inner isolation which, he knows, is the basis of his unhappiness: his “glacial deadness” has become the very core around which he has built his being. And the core of Kit’s being is fear — fear and haunted fantasy. “We’ve never managed, either one of us,” Porter says to her, “to get all the way into life. We’re hanging on to the outside for all we re worth, convinced we’re going to fall off at the next bump. ... I always imagine that I’ll be able to penetrate to the interior of somewhere. Usually I get to the suburbs and get lost.” The dense inner drama of this couple is dramatically externalized in their journey into the interior of the Sahara, where they lose themselves in an appalling nightmare.
The book’s opening in a North African seaport is almost matter-offact, but there is a suggestion of mystery and suspended disaster. As the journey gets under way, the atmosphere grows charged with the squalor and the exoticism, the strange intensity and the decay, of the Arab world. the fever that strikes Porter brings fever into the printed page. And finally the story lakes on a somnambulistic quality.
The last part of the novel seemed to me to verge on the preposterous. Kit Moresby thumbing a ride to nowhere with an Arab caravan: Kit riding àa deux on ihe chieftain’s camel clutching her Mark Cross week-end bag; Kit crazed by torrid love-making in belqassim’s harem in the French Sudan — all this smacked of the absurdities of The Sheik. Possibly my objections to this fantastic sequence are in part due to a prosaic mind; the reader with a freewheeling imagination may find that it fulfills has surrealistic purpose. Mr. Bowles has certairily written a book which, in the main, bears the hallmarks of real art. He has achieved a changing texture and tone which in themselves state ideas and explore meanings, and he has given to his topography and incidents a rich symbolic allusiveness.
The music of this novel is that of unfullillment —of loneliness and terror. guilt and frustration; and some will account it a weakness that there is no answering counterpoint. As for the Arab scene, I can say, having once lived in it, that Bowies imprints it on the reader’s senses with vivid fidelity and poetic brilliance —the breathless, dust-laden air and the implacable legions of flies; the sundrugged stupor of a small town; the dirty hotels with their barefoot servants, their weevils in the soup, and their pervasive odor of latrines; the cafés with hashish smoke hanging in the air and the voice of an Arab crooner pouring from a loud-speaker; the clean smell of mint and wood smoke in a desert oasis; the gardens with their fig trees and tall, swaying stalks of papyrus; the sudden horror of coming face to face with a leper.
Journey into faith
In Sicily (New Directions, $2.50) is also the record of a “hollow” man’s journey into a primitive world. But in this case the happenings are commonplace and the consequences healing: the traveler discovers a faith. The author of this unusual book, Elio Vittorini, one of Italy’s most highly esteemed novelists, is making his first appearance in this country with the benefit of an introduction by Ernest Hemingway, which doesn’t say very much about In Sicily. Hemingway’s two-page preface celebrates the outdoor life and reilerates his well-known distaste for “New York literary reviews,” in which, it so happens, Vittorini’s talent was warmlyappraised by several indoor types a long time before Mr. Hemingway discovered him.
The narrator of Vittorini’s story, Silvestro — a poor linotype operator working in the north of Italy — learns that his father has deserted his mother, who lives in a mountain village in Sicily; he decides to pay her a brief visit, the first since he left home fifteen years earlier. This narrator introduces himself as a man buried alive in emotionless nihilism: “My life was like a blank dream, a quiet hopelessness. That was the terrible part: to believe man to be doomed, and yet to feel no fever to save it. I was calm, unmoved by desires.” The traveler who sets off for Sicily is, in effect, an empty vessel, a being without identity, whose disembodied sensibility makes him theperfect receiving instrument.
What follows is a series of conversations: firsl with the people Silvestro meets on the train, then with his mother and the people of her village, Silvestro accompanies his mother as she goes around giving injections (always of the same drug) to the sick (“a touch of malaria or a touch of consumption ”). Later, he gets drunk. He falls asleep in the cemetery and meets a dead soldier, Ins brother. That is all, and Vittorini makes of it a stirring chronicle of rebirth rebirth through pity for a hungry peasant; through hearing a landowner speak of “new duties toward men”; through contempt for two fascist, officials; through coming to know his mother as a woman and through contact with his native landscape; through the salty humor of the Sicilians and the metaphysics of a knife-grinder and a saddler who suffer “ for the out raged world"; through wine and tears and dreams.
In solidarity with the hungry, the humble, the persecuted, Silveslro rediscovers the identity which civilization has effaced. The void in him is filled with the religion of man, with a deep compassion for suffering humanity.
In Sicily, which was actually written during the late thirties, has been very highly praised on the Continent and in England since the war. In the American context, so far removed from the climate of Fascist Italy, the prophetic coloring will no doubt strike some as naive and sentimental. There is a hint of a Latin Saroyan in Vittorini, but there is proof he is much more than that. His style— bare realism overlaid with lyricism and Biblical rhetoric — presents another difficulty. Frequently it achieves a simple eloquence and effects that are poetic or extremely humorous (In Sicily contains a great deal of wry comedy). At times, though, the writing sounds inexcusably mannered; a parody of Hemingway or of the Old Testament or of both combined. Vittorini’s translator, Wilfrid David, has done a difficult job extraordinarily well.
Studies in murder
Compassion for human beings— in particular the ignorant, the dimwitted, the persecuted—is also the guiding principle of William Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens, the discursive county attorney who has been a leading character in Faulkner’s lapestry of Yoknapatawpha County. “I am more interested in justice and human beings [than in truth],”Gavin Stevens says in Faulkner’s latest book, Knight’s Gambit (Random House, $2.75), where he plays the role of detective-sage throughout a cycle of stories hinged on murder. He is a wise and an attractive character, this Harvard graduate “who could discuss Einstein with college professors and who spent whole afternoons among the squatting men against the walls of country stores, talking to them in their idiom.” And his outlook and speech give to these stories a unifying tone.
Here are six studies of murder (or attempted murder) in which not the crime but the motive is the thing. If Gavin Stevens is concerned with such clues as cigarette smoke and insurance policies, he is much more concerned with emotions and loyalties stretelling into the past. Thus in each story the “solution is not essentially the explanation of a crime but the explanation of a personality. And the human mysteries are unraveled by a storyteller who goads the imagination — gives and withholds with a virtuosity which continually heightens curiosity and excitement.
In “ Monk” the mystery centers on the motive of a cretin who kills the man he worships; in “Tomorrow" on the motive of a quiet little farmer who hangs a jury that wishes (justifiably) to free a man charged with homicide. A steely, self-possessed character deliberately gets himself jailed for murder — and then escapes from jail. Gavin Stevens clears up this enigma in “An Error of Chemistry,” unfortunately with the aid of a standard detective story prop, a weakness also present in the climax of “Smoke.” In the novelette which gives the book its title, the mystery is found to connect up with the detective himself. The unemotional, white-haired sage is revealed as a lover, and then is happily married off to a wealthy boyhood sweetheart.
Knight’s Gambit is Faulkner in a relatively sunny mood: justice usually comes out on top and goodness is found in men. To Faulkner’s aficionados, this book will be minor stuff but it should gain him new disciples. For in these stories he has imposed some check on his penchant for interminable sentences and on his tendency to be obscure.
While on the subject of murder, I should like to pay my respects to H. E. Bales’s brief novel, Dear Life (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $2.00), a masterly melodrama told in superlative prose. Bates’s tough, sordid story poignantly spotlights the tragedy of a young girl of the English slums, Laura, whose life has been fatally scarred by (he war. Her father was killed in the bombing, and now she lives in the basement of a ruined building with her shrewish mother, a gross and sadistic stepfather, and a crazy uncle. To escape this horror, site teams up with a dashing ex-sailor, who accosts her one night on the street; and she finds herself the partner of a killer. From here on, the story is a single spasm of violence and terror — a hypnotic piece of writing.
Perhaps the most important development in American publishing during the forties has been the spectacular boom in reprints. Not only has a w hole new world of low-priced reprints come into being — a world of mass production which has shown remarkably good taste and often real daring in its choice of titles—but there has also been a great expansion in the volume and variety of reprints at standard prices — new editions of famous classics, of classics that are little read, of “modern classics’' that have gone out of print, of foreign masters (sometimes freshly translated); and an ever widening range of “omnibuses,” “readers,” and “portables” of masters old and new. The reprint houses have, in fact, set a fashion. More and more of the regular publishers are launching into reprint projects or stepping up the output of existing projects.
Simon and Schuster, for instance, has just brought out The Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman ($5.00), edited by Louis Lniermeyer, and an extremely handsome edition of ’The Pickwick Papers ($5.00). The latter is embellished with two hundred spirited illustrations and with end papers showing the peregrinations of the Pickwick Club. It is also fortified with a chart identifying each of the characters and with a long introduction by Clifton Fadiman, who edited this volume, using the Nonesuch Press text. Mr. Fadiman has thrown in, as a bonus, three chapters from Dickens’s Master Humphrey’s Clock, in which many of the Pickwickians appear. Two other pleasant items for Dickensians are ihe Oxford University Press’s new editions of A Tale of Two Cities ($3.00), with sixteen of the original illustrations by “Phiz”; and of Bleak House ($3.50), with forty “Phiz” illustrations and an introduction by Sir Osbert Sitwell.
The past fifteen months have been a boom period for Melville. In addition to several new biographical and critical works about him, they have produced reprints of Pierre (Hendricks House, $5.00), Piazza Tales (Hendricks House, $3.50), Billy Budd (Harvard, $5.00), and Moby-Dick (Oxford, $3.50); and The Complete Stories of Herman Melville (Random House, $4.00), edited and with an introduction by Jay Leyda.
Nineteen-fifty is likely to witness some sort of Balzac boom, this being the hundredth anniversary of his death. Anyone inspired to reread him had better have a care as to the English edition he or she picks out, since some of the old translations are atrocious (I’ve just suffered through one of Lost Illusions). Two of Balzac’s greater works — Cousin Bette and The Fatal Skin — are now available in an inviting format (and sound translation) in the Pantheon Press’s year-old “Novel LibraryThese hooks fit into a coat pocket, yet they are clearly printed and attractively bound. Among other titles in the series are Tolstoy’s Resurrection, Gogol’s Dead Souls, Henry James’s The Awkward Age, and Jane Austen’s Emma (all $1.75). Another new library of classics — A. A. Wyn’s “Mermaid Series” of English dramatists — now runs to seven titles: Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Webster & Tourneur, George Farquar, John Vanbrugh, William Congreve, and William Wycherley (all $3.00). Meanwhile, the Viking Press has come up with four new “Portables” ($2.00) — The Portable Charles Lamb edited by John Mason Brown; The Portable John Milton edited by Douglas Bush (who includes both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes); The Portable Chaucer edited by Theodore Morrison; and The Portable Medieval Reader edited by James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin.
Even this sketchy sampling of the reprint list suggests that American publishers are serving literature rather better than is generally conceded. If they sometimes print and ballyhoo I he worst, they now also busily reprint the best.