To SPARE the impatient reader the rigors of music criticism, Jacques Barzun has organized his twovolume Berlioz and the Romantic Century (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $12.50) in such a way that the nonspecialist can, without break in continuity, skip the twenty-five essays on the composer’s major scores which flank the biographical chapters. Even in these essays, and more conspicuously elsewhere, Mr. Barzim seeks to transpose the discussion of music, insofar as is possible, from the hermetic jargon of the musicologist to the universal language of general ideas (an altogether different enterprise from the oversimplifications of the “ popularizer”).
Berlioz and the Romantic Century is not, Barzun points out, so much a “musical life’ as a work of cultural history in which there are, so to speak, several different books: “The life of a man who was at once artist, thinker and doer; a concert or record guide to twelve great works increasingly valued by connoisseurs; an essay on esthetics; an account of nineteenth century culture; and, I dare say, a tract for our times as well.”
Barzun’s Berlioz is a splendid achievement, whose failings are those of a labor of great love. In his fervor to rebut the welter of misrepresentation and to give impet us to the Berlioz “revival” now well under way , Barzun tends to overstate his claims for his hero; and I suspect that he could, without lowering his sights, have exercised slightly more selectivity. His study runs to 874 pages plus 210 of supplements and bibliographies; for the reader to “take only so much as meets his needs ˮ is easier said than done. These considerations, though, are dimmed by the book’s shining merits — monumental scholarship; elegant and eloquent writing; the pervasive imprint of a deeply civilized mind; and a wealth of insights into the life of art. Biographical work of this stature and stylishness appears only a few times in a decade.
Stretching from 1803 to almost the close of the Second Empire, the life story of Hector Berlioz — the first truly modern mind in music— is the story of one of the world’s few complete artists. Endowed with stunning native gifts, Berlioz was master of his style and his intention at twenty-four; at twentysix he had composed his Symphonic Fantastique, and the daemon that possessed him remained infinitely prodigal. He enjoyed historic triumphs, but throughout his career he had to struggle, exhaustingly, to earn a living. In his public life, he ranged over the whole domain of music, as composer, theorist, critic, conductor, and producer; his private life had its intense dramas of passion. For forty years he was a strenuously embattled leader in the fight for the modern art of his time, and he carried his standard to most of the great capitals of Europe. “It would be difficult,”Mr. Barzun observes, “to find any other [contemporary] European whose activity spread over wider territory or engaged the attention of more, and more diverse, minds than Berlioz.”
The “life and times" of this protean genius make a fascinating text and one that provides the cultural historian with wide scope for readings pertinent to the present. There is, to cite a single instance, a fine “tract for our times" in Barzun’s chapter on “The Artist in Society" — a telling answer to the prattling about “the divorce of the artist from society, and the accompanying litny that art, to be truly great, must be palatable to “the great audience" which democracy has brought into being. The great artist, says Mr. Barzun, is by very nature a revolutionary (“a civilizing revolutionary”), and so inevitably “divorced" from society, whose interests — ease, stability, and peace of mind — are all threatened by innovation. It is the natural fate of “modern" art, whether of Beethoven or Berlioz, Delacroix or Blake, to be greeted with incomprehension and distaste; and it never conquers by compromise but by militantly going its way until there comes a time of understanding.
As for the relation between the artist and political “progress,”we see very vividly in Berlioz’s era that, with the beginnings of the populist trend in politics, there arose a growing hostility to the highest art. “It is not,”as Barzun says, “that reactionaries love art more than radicals,ˮ but simply that art and politics serve divergent ends: “From the point of view of politics, art is always irresponsible; from the point of view of art, polities is always irrelevant.”
Cold war à la Milanese
Politics and religion are the two adversaries in The Little Word of Dan Camillo (Pellegrini & Cudahy, $2.75), a book of short stories which cheerfully depict the opera bouffe happenings in a minute sector of the cold wara village in the Valley of the Po. The author of this entertaining item, an August Book-of-the-Month Club selection (generally available in mid-August), is Giovanni Guareschi, editor of a magazine of humor in Milan.
Guareschi’s tales have three main protagonists: a lovable and bellicose priest, Don Camillo; a bellicose and not unlovable Communist, Mayor Peppone; and the author’s conscience, represented by Christ, who from a big cross in the village church keeps an eye on the proceedings and dispenses counsel and reprimand to Camillo.
A zealot in the service of the Lord and the possessor of a deadly pair of fists, Camillo cannot bring himself to turn the other cheek—he even tries reminding Christ that there are more congenial precepts in the Old Testament. When Comrade Peppone, in a rare appearance in the confessional, discloses it was his stick which knocked Camillo unconscious one dark night, the priest beseechingly asks Christ if, then and there, he may at least hit Peppone with a candlestick. Told that his hands were made for blessing, he cannily replies, “But not my feet" — and Christ concedes the point. Camillo, however, is sternly overruled when he refuses to baptize Peppone’s son; he fails to make Christ see that to give an infant called Lenin an entree to heaven would endanger heaven’s reputation.
A former Partisan, Don Camillo has quite an arsenal stashed away in his church, and happily adds to it a Tommy gun stolen from Communist headquarters. This same Tommy gun causes the Mayor to divert 3 million lire from the Party’s fund for a workers’ recreation center to the Church’s fund for a children’s recreation center; and he is denied the solace of knowing that Christ, too, calls it unconscionable blackmail. Peppone, though, has his occasional triumphs. When a soccer match is staged between the Church’s Knights and the Party’s Dynamos, Peppone waits till Camillo has bribed the referee and then outbids him by 500 lire.
However uninhibited the war of harassment between Communist and priest, a devious code of sportsmanship prevails. Having induced the bishop to banish Camillo (temporarily) from the village. Peppone forbids a farewell demonstration—and stages one himself at the next stop on the line. These two enemies, the author says, “agree about essentials” (including the delights of poaching). Peppone, for all his ferocious bluster, is quite as distraught as the priest when an unidentified Communist kills one of the villagers. This, by the way, is the only somber episode in the book; elsewhere everything turns out for the best.
Guareschi strikes me as being an Italian approximation to Saroyan (with the advantage of novelty). His people, clearly, are heavily sentimentalized and his plot-twists are often on the “cute" side. Even so, The Little World is an engaging collection with a great, deal of charm.
Accent on youth
Also from Italy comes Alberto Moravia’sTwo Adolescents (Farrar, Straus, $2.75), a pair of novelettes, Agostino and Disobedience, which deal with the emotional turmoil of adolescence. The author, widely considered by Italian critics to be their country’s foremost novelist, last year attracted a good deal of attention here with his ruthlessly candid closeup of a prostitute. The Woman of Rome.
Moravia is well endowed with two qualities which do not often come together in equal proportions: he is both an extremely vigorous, sharply realistic storyteller and a shrewd, searching psychologist. Though written in colloquial and rather graceless prose, his work has a strongly distinctive individuality — harsh, energetic, and supercharged with sexuality; and more often than not it achieves a pretty powerful impact.
It certainly does in Agostino, a brilliantly realized portrayal of the sexual awakening of a thirteen-yearold boy, a sheltered member of the wealthy bourgeoisie. Agostino, vacationing at the seaside with his mother —a widow, still youthful and splendidly beautiful — is bitterly resentful when she allows a young man to come boating and swimming with them, and he hates the “strange” way she behaves toward the intruder. To punish her, Agostino goes off on his own and falls in with a gang of low-class adolescent toughs, who, among other things, jeeringly instruct him in the facts of life. Now he discovers in himself horrifying feelings about his mother’s beauty, and, desperate to dispel them, he plucks up enough courage to visit a brothel, where he is laughingly patted on the head and told to run back home.
Disobedience, a rather disagreeable story, perceptively explores a different crisis of adolescence, a sudden leaden inertia and consuming hatred of life itself. Moravia’s fifteen-yearold Luca masochistically sets out to deprive himself of everything he likes, of everything which still attaches him to living. Eventually he works up to a total physical breakdown, and, while convalescing, is seduced by his nurse, which more or less dispels his neurasthenia.
Of books and places
“Collections . . . are the severest test a writer can face,” says Elizabeth Bowen in her own Collected Impressions (Knopf, $3.50). “Too many collections are scrapheaps. . . . Too few writers are right in throwing nothing away.” Miss Bowen might have done well to throw away some of the short book reviews in this volume, but by and large her miscellany —critical prefaces, essays on places, a broadcast on Trollope, “Notes on Writing a Novel,” and other literary journalism —emerges from the sev ere test of collection pretty handsomely.
One item — a report on an opening of the Royal Academy &emdash is a masterpiece of comedy. The pictures “beam with a mediocre sincerity,” and the august, dowdily overdressed assemblage prompts the devastating comment, “It was inconceivable that beings, all human, should vary so much in shape and style, and so few be quite right.” The essays on places — London at the height of the Blitz, Dover in 1944, Folkestone in the first months of peace — show none of the tarnish that almost inevitably blights this kind of topical reportage. A sense of the importance of place, of the individual’s need for moorings, is strong in whatever Miss Bowen is writing; it is the foundation and buttress of an outlook acutely sensitive to our time’s disintegration but resistant to its neuroses and despair.
Miss Bowen’s reviewing, as she herself points out, is apt to be “morbidly over-clementˮ; she is distinctly lavish with the strong “plug.” At its best, though, her criticism has a similar quality to that of Virginia Woolf. Impressionistic rather than analytic, its distinction is a brilliant precision of feeling and aptness of expression. Confronted with a congenial talent —E. M. Forster’s, say, or Virginia Woolf’s—Miss Bowen brings her subject vividly to life and warmly illuminates it. Here, for instance, are a couple of sentences which convey the special quality of D. H. Lawrence more effectively than a chapterful of studious dissection: “In writing, now, a sensuous concreteness is demanded. We want the form of naturalism, with at the same time a kind of internal burning — in Lawrence every bush burns.”
Miss Bowen’s method has its limitations. There are meanings it is not well suited to explore and authors who respond poorly to the impressionistic approach. The results are meager, for example, when Miss Bowen is dealing with a coldly cerebral, nastily brilliant novelist such as Montherlant.
As a critic, Elizabeth Bowen has a virtue that is rather rare nowadays in this field of operations, which, like everything else, has become enormously specialized. The bulk of contemporary criticism of any seriousness is distinctly forbidding to the layman, and even to the reader fortified by professional interest it is often flavorless fare. Miss Bowen’s critical writing", always graceful and lucid, is a pleasure to read.
“The greatest living writers”
The World’s Best (Dial, $5.00), an ambitious anthology edited by Whit Burnett, claims to represent the hundred and five “greatest living writers in the world" and does so with selections of their own choosing — essays, history, biography, drama, poetry, short stories, and more or less self-contained extracts from novels. This is a sumptuous package of fine reading, but the claim in the title is another matter.
The writers included were chosen by polling 643 selected readers (about a hundred of them authors)—a procedure which, the editor stresses, gives a unique authority to the nominations. Here, it seems to me, he is bowing to the Lord God of Statistics in a province where that bumptious idol has least claim to respect. Polls on the subject of literary greatness are an intriguing parlor game, but the collective verdict of 643 is not necessarily more discerning than the individual choice of a single widely road anthologist of really exacting taste.
This particular poll has turned in some highly dubious nominations — the listing occasionally makes one wonder whether a number of the voters were not thinking of sales figures rather than of talent. Among the first-rate talents omitted from the chosen hundred and five are Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, E. E. Cummings, Sir Osbert Sitwell, and Evelyn Waugh, to mention just a few. Then, too, the great majority of the voters being American or English, the literature of other countries is decidedly underrepresented for a volume which calls itself The World’s Best.
At any rate, here are one hundred and five prominent writers — novelists, poets, philosophers, essayists, and journalists — all graded by vote, like race horses by their earnings or baseball players by their batting average. There, for instance, is Arnold Toynbee in twenty-seventh place, three lengths behind Pearl Buck and one behind Van Wyek Brooks; there is Faulkner, a poor thirly-sith at the finishing post, just a head in front of Lin Yutang. Steinbeck (eleventh) is six places above Andre Gide, ten above Dos Passos, fourteen above E. M. I. Forster; Auden is bunched with Noel Coward and Upton Sinclair.
The most interesting aspect of this anthology is that the authors have made their own selections. The main point about it, however questionable its claims, is that it assembles a large and highly diversified amount of memorable writing.