1950 is assured of at least a mite of fame in the literary textbooks. It will be remembered as the year in which Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize; Hemingway made a bid to be “champ” of the new decade; and the first, installment of James Boswell’s great autobiography was offered to the general public.
The output of good reading matter in the past twelvemonth was, in my guess, roughly the same as in the best years of the (lean) forties. A strikingly high percentage of the year’s better fiction came to us from abroad — a keen-eyed statistician of the New York Times noted that, of forty-one leading novels on the fall lists, thirty-one (or 75.6 per cent) were by foreign authors. Still, a year which produced The Wall and World Enough and Time was not a discredit to American fiction, and U.S. writing showed remarkable vitality and class in the field of the short story. In spite of the customers’ notorious coolness to this brand of literary goods, some twenty volumes of short stories were published in the latter part of 1950, among them fine collections by Faulkner, Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, Irwin Shaw, Mary McCarthy, and Paul Bowles.
In the nonfiction department, there were several breath-taking accounts of high adventure in war and peace; The Wooden Horse, Ill Met by Moonlight, Kon-Tiki, and others. The foreign correspondents, meanwhile, have shown no sign of recapturing the initiative on the literary battlefield from the statesmen, generals, and admirals: the men who have had a hand in making current history seem to have taken warmly to the idea of writing it, too. In history proper, biography, and belles-lettres, we have had a fairly generous allotment of distinguished items — The Peabody Sisters of Salem; John Adams and the American Revolution; Jacques Barzun’s scholarly and stylish Berlioz and the Romantic Century; Maurois’s Proust; Newton Arvin’s Herman Melville; Sir Osbert Sitwell’s Noble Essences; and Marchette Chute’s refreshingly down to earth Shakespeare of London, to make just a fragmentary listing.
On the best-seller list, as in the preceding few years, religious works were much in evidence; there also appeared to be no significant change in the voracious demand for costume romance liberally daubed with sex. The accent, in sum, was both on sexiness and godliness, with diet and Dianetics making a vigorous contribution to the ring of the cash registers.
Mr. Boswell goes to town
“It would be impossible to invent a detective story so fantastic as the history of the Boswell papers,” Christopher Morley says in his preface to Boswell’s London Journal, 1762 — 1763 (McGrawHill, $5.00). Mr. Morley has done that story up proud — the romantic saga of papers cached and forgotten in Scottish and Irish castles; letters sold by a junk peddler to a small shop in Boulogne; momentous discoveries in an ebony cabinet, a croquet box, a barn; and heroic effort on the part of a devoted collector, Lieut. Colonel Ralph Isham. Boswell’s text has been edited by Professor Frederick A. Pottle, who has served the reader splendidly in his introduction and notes. And the publishers have contributed an attractive job of bookmaking.
This overture to Boswell’s private papers, which promise to run to forty-five volumes, is the diary of a warm-blooded young man setting out to make a splash in the world. Even at twenty-two Boswell was a very great diarist ; and precisely because he has discharged his task with such magnificent candor, one finds him, at times, impudently vain and pushing, tiresome about his ambitions, snobbish, naïve, smug, and vulgar in his lechery. More often than not, though, he offers us a fascinating spectacle; and to the unsqueamish reader, Boswell’s shamelessness can be very diverting.
Boswell journeyed south from Edinburgh in November, 1762, with the idea of obtaining a commission in the Guards, a position which would keep him safely in London and help him to cut a “genteel” figure in Society. Eventually he recognized defeat, and at the close of this volume he is leaving for Utrecht to study law.
Meanwhile for nine months Boswell savored to the full the “felicity” of London. He frequented great houses. He collaborated on a pamphlet and enjoyed for the first time the sight of his name in print. He became acquainted with Goldsmith and Garrick, and (in the last three months) won the friendship of the great Dr. Johnson. He flirted with ladies of fashion. He indulged in “the female sport” with prostitutes, grubbily and copiously. He conducted an exciting — and, he congratulated himself, “safe”—affair with a Covent Garden actress, which, ironically, gave rise to distressing symptoms already familiar to him. This “intrigue” with the fair Louisa is a superbly told story, all the more piquant for our knowledge that Boswell, who did not write up his diary daily, was lyrically recording the period of rapture just after the affair had reached its farcically disastrous ending.
One of the Journal’s many delights is Boswell’s meticulous inclusion of the “little details" that give precision and concreteness to the picture of a man’s daily life and his period. Boswell tells us, for instance, that he wore “a plain suit of pink color, with a gold button"; he tells us exactly how he budgeted his expenditure, allowing himself a hair powdering and complete change of linen daily but a meager shilling for dinner. He shows us Boswell at the theater, brawling over the mob’s insults to two fellow Scotsmen; Boswell defending his dignity in a witty exchange of notes with Lord Eglinton; Boswell in church, astonished that a man with his “sincere feelings of religion” should find himself, in the midst of divine service, “laying plans for having women”; Boswell solemnly enjoining Boswell, “Keep plan in mind and be earnest.”
There was in Boswell’s make-up a pronounced streak of instability. At times he is quite enchanted with himself — “I think there is a blossom about me of something more distinguished than the generality of mankind” — and enchanted with his writing: “Words come skipping to me like lambs upon Moffat Hill. . . . There’s fancy! There’s simile! I am at present a genius.” But periodically he is assailed by “the Demon of Despondency,” and he thinks of “going to Spain and living there as a silent, morose Don.”
To a generation which has absorbed, unconsciously or otherwise, at least part of the ideas of Freud, Boswell does not appear to have had any deep psychological insight into himself. His genius as a diarist is that of an incomparable recorder, whose artistry gives bustling life to the chronicle of his thoughts, his feelings, and his sensations; who shapes anecdotes, meetings, and adventures into tiny works of art.
Portrait of a prophet
It is only four years since H. G. Wells died, but I suspect that (with the exception of The Outline of History) he is not much read today. During the past decade, though it has seen prophecies he made thirty or forty years ago come true — mass aerial bombardments, the swift sinking of battleships, atomic explosions — Wells’s popularity has suffered the decline that inevitably overtakes the writer whose work is closely bound up with the issues of his day; who uses fiction primarily to project sociological ideas. His literary career, though, certainly remains an arresting phenomenon: he himself has justly summed up its significance in the phrase, “The trace of the flow of thought during the past, half-century.” The first posthumous booklength appraisal of Wells’s life and work, H. G. Wells: Prophet of Our Day (John Day, $4.00), now comes to us from Antonina Vallentin (translated from the French by Daphne Woodward).
Mme. Vallentin — the author of biographies of Leonardo, Mirabeau, and Goya — has turned in a disappointing job which, though she knew Wells, gives the appearance of being almost entirely based on his published writings and facts already in the public domain. Admittedly the author has been handicapped by the need for discretion — Wells was notorious for his many mistresses, and Mme. Vallentin has had to camouflage and tread lightly where living persons are concerned. Her whole approach, however, is uncritical and unimaginative. She makes no serious attempt to evaluate Wells’s work and discard the chaff; she summarizes book after book, with crashingly dull results. Pretty much the same applies to her breathless exposition of Wells’s ideas, some of which (his police-state Utopia) look cranky at best, some of which retain an impressively keen edge.
As for the man himself — the pudgy little Don Juan with the high-pitched voice and the cockney accent; the ardent Socialist who couldn’t stand Karl Marx: the self-styled “scientificaristocrat ” who proudly said he was “no gentleman”; the (in William James’s sense) “tender-minded” meliorist who invented those wildly sadistic fantasies — his complex and eccentric personality remains just beyond his biographer’s reach. Mme. Vallentin’s is a painstaking and sympathetic but somewhat fuzzy portrait, which betrays her bafflement in such remarks as, “There was nothing morbid about him, but he was a prey to fears.”
The interest of this biography — and, flaws notwithstanding, it is considerable — is that its subject was such an extraordinarily interesting figure. The first third of the book, which is “straight ” narrative, is thoroughly absorbing; Wells’s povertyhaunted childhood (he was the son of a gardener and a housemaid); his apprenticeship to a draper; the amazing battle he heroically fought and won to obtain a higher education; his break-through as a writer; his two marriages; and his humorous embarrassments as money and celebrity took him into polished social circles — at his first literary reception he heaped his plate with caviar as though it were mashed potatoes.
The immense knowledge that Wells mastered was a miracle of self-education, and there is something very affecting about his lifelong crusade to educate his fellow man. He was the last great exponent of the nineteenth century’s optimistic rationalism, with its faith in the perfectibility of human life through science and the spread of enlightenment. In Wells, this faith was tempered by the realization that science would wreak appalling havoc if man didn’t get enlightened in a hurry. In his very last years, he bitterly concluded that it was the twenty-fifth hour: “Homo sapiens,” he wrote, “in his present form is played out.”
Espionage in Ankara
Operation Cicero (Coward-McCann, $2.75) is the true story of the most spectacular and ironic episode that has so far come to light in the cloak-and-dagger history of the Second World War. Between October, 1943, and April, 1944, the valet of his Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to Ankara skillfully photographed and sold to the Germans a raft of topsecret Allied documents, among them detailed reports of the Moscow, Cairo, and Teheran Conferences and material bearing on the coming invasion of Normandy.
The prodigious irony is that the enemy never profited by this stunningly successful piece of espionage. For a variety of reasons — the fierce rivalry between Ribbentrop’s and Kaltenbrunner’s Intelligence Services; fear of a British “plant ” (despite conclusive proof the dope was authentic); refusal to face up to the harsh truth about Allied power; and, in the last resort, crass confusion and stupidity—the Nazis never put their rich haul of crucial information to strategic use. The second ironic twist to this weird tale of intrigue within intrigue is that the 300,000 pounds sterling which Berlin paid the valet — his code name was Cicero — were, for the most part, counterfeit.
The author of Operation Cicero,L. C. Moyzisch, is a former attaché in the German Embassy (headed by Von Papen) in Ankara, the man who dealt directly with Cicero. The valet — his real name was never discovered — was an elderly Albanian who hated the British, so he said, because an Englishman had killed his father in a hunting accident. Moyzisch, more’s the pity, never managed to learn much about him. Just about the only human details he gives us are that one evening, in a relaxed off-moment, Cicero sang some arias from I Pagliacci, and that shortly before his timely downfall he had ordered a large supply of the fanciest silk shirts available in Ankara. How he managed to photograph the Ambassador’s most important papers in the face of stringent security measures remains an absolutely baffling — and tantalizing — mystery. The Ambassador soon suspected a leak, and sent a highly confidential warning to London; thirty hours later, Moyzisch was reading, “Non Papen knows more than is good for him.” While I have no idea of the standard of talent prevailing in the cloak-and-dagger business, I would hazard the guess that Cicero belongs among the geniuses.
Moyzisch is annoyingly vague on a number of matters which he could certainly have clarified by greater thoroughness, but for all its gaps Operation Cicero remains a top-drawer spy story. One piece of information which heightens the drama has been revealed since the book’s publication. Cicero’s extracurricular activities with a Leica became known to the British not, as Moyzisch suspects, through the hysterical blonde who was working for him, singularly ineffectively, as a second-string secretary and who vanished mysteriously just before Operation Cicero blew up. The tip-off reached the British from a secret agent who was working, singularly effectively, for the OSS — not in Ankara but right in the German Foreign Office.
Old England, New England
It is a relief, these days, to come upon an historical novel not designed to titillate the reader with gaudy fantasies— phonily flamboyant amours and impossible deeds of derring-do. Shirley Barker’sRivers Parting (Crown, $3.00), a Literary Guild selection, though not exactly notable for its literary merit, is notable for its freedom from synthetic lustiness and gustiness, and for its sensible characterizations. Admittedly, the ghost of one of Robin Hood’s merry men puts in an appearance which, though fortunate for the hero, proved disconcerting to this reader; and a deus ex machina gives the tale a Pollyanna ending. But in the main, Miss Barker’s fictional world bears conspicuously more resemblance to reality than is customary in the historical romance.
Rivers Parting is a novel of the settling of New Hampshire during the middle seventeenth century. John Scarlock of Nottingham, England, had been happy on his farm, Old Thorny, until he heard a sea captain talk of the undeveloped riches lying in wait for an adventurous young man in the New Hampshire “plantations.” After a struggle with his patriotism, Scarlock crosses the Atlantic and soon afterward he marries. The Scarlocks prosper as farmers and raise a family. But John does not quite forget his ties with England: just before his death he asks his son, Will, to return to Old Thorny and see how it has weathered the past thirty-five years.
In England — it is the period of the Plague and the Great Fire of London — Will marries a barmaid; a gay, affectionate girl, and really a very decent one, though she is, regrettably, a bigamist. Will, of course, does not know this; nor does his American sweetheart, Nan, who follows him to England. Like so many American girls of a more recent generation, Nan is understandably chagrined that her man should have so readily succumbed to foreign love. The story now moves back to New Hampshire, and here, eventually, Miss Barker tidies up the situation to the satisfaction of all her characters, with the exception of the dour Puritan preacher who wished to make Nan his wife and instead was left in England to wage war on sin.
Rivers Parting is written with greater finesse than a bare outline of the plot is likely to suggest. Miss Barker has put some genuine feeling into her quiet, workmanlike chronicle of two generations of pioneer settlers and their conflicting loyalties — of an English family turning into Americans.