Reader's Choice

JUST off this locked-up room I can hear my eightyear-old son’s indignant and semihysterical voice. He is engaged in what is perhaps his first effort at criticism. “Here is a man, he is saying, “that has written a great story. And then there comes along a man from Walt Disney’s studio — and he changes it and makes it worse. There is no pirates’ song and there is no arrow that wounds Tink. I thought this Peter Pan was going to be wonderful. But no! I’m really mad. He leaves out the wonderful pirate song and takes out Tink’s dying. Oh!”
Now, implicit in this angry monologue (converted from a dialogue with his mother) are two fundamental tenets of literary criticism that I hope to retain throughout all my waking hours. The first principle is to have a lively recognition of the masterpieces of the past. The second is to be young enough, intolerant enough, to be dismayed by the shoddy. The danger of reading “summer” novels in the summertime is that we relax our innermost demands on the literature in hand. I can hear a question from the wings: What is wrong with that? My reply is simply that pleasure derived from the suppression of the intelligence is a diluted pleasure very much akin to dissipation. At any rate, I don’t think I can, at this juncture, relax whatever standards I have in my possession: the impact of a sermon not addressed to one’s self but that enters intact through a shut door is all the more powerful for its accidental and innocent nature.
The two summer novels I have just read, J. D. Salinger’sThe Catcher in the Rye (Little, Brown, $3.00) and Kenneth Fearing’s Loneliest Girl in the World (Harcourt, Brace, $3.00), are nearly good enough of their kind for the reader to be immensely grateful — and to let it go at that. What is more interesting, and necessary, is to attempt to find out why Salinger’s novel is a near miss and Fearing’s a loud one.
Somewhere about halfway in Salinger’s novel, the bright, terrible, and possibly normal sixteen-yearold protagonist follows a little boy who is singing quietly to himself “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” Later when the youthful hero’s younger sister challenges him, demanding to know if there is anything in the world that he likes or wants to be, he can only think he wants to be “the catcher in the rye.” It is significant because the novel, for all its surface guilelessness, is a critique of the contemporary, grown-up world.
It isn’t important whether Salinger had it in mind or not, but reading The Catcher in the Rye made me think of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Holden Caulfield struck me as an urban, a transplanted Huck Finn. He has a colloquialism as marked as Huck’s: “You remember I said before that Ackley was a slob in his personal habits? Well, so was Stradlater, but in a different way. Stradlater was more of a secret slob. He always looked all right, Stradlater, but for instance, you should’ve seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap.” Like Huck, Holden is neither comical nor misanthropic. He is an observer. Unlike Huck, he makes judgments by the dozen, but these are not to be taken seriously; they are conceits. There is a drollery, too, that is common to both, and a quality of seeing that creates farce.
What is crucial is where Huck and Holden part company. T. S. Eliot once pointed out that we see the world through Huck’s eyes. Well, we do not see it through Holden’s. We see Holden as a smiling adult sees a boy, and we smile at his spectral, incredible world. I think that is the decisive failure: whatever is serious and implicit in the novel is overwhelmed by the more powerful comic element. What remains is a brilliant tour de force, one that has sufficient power and cleverness to make the reader chuckle and — rare indeed — even laugh aloud.
The only masterpiece Loneliest Girl in the World may conjure up is Fearing’s earlier The Big Clock, or possibly those wonderful Graham Greene champions in the genre of psychological suspense. Fearing, in the thirties, was one of the most inventive of the young poets. In his new novel he reveals an easy mastery over language, and in the business of creating atmosphere and expectancy, a mastery possibly too sure-fire.
For just about one half of his book Fearing holds the reader. He has developed an absorbing situation. An attractive, shy, rich girl (who almost is the loneliest girl in the world) comes into possession of a fabulous “thinking” machine and a roomful of recordings, one of which — or some of which — appears to hold a powerful and valuable secret. It was time that a smart author fastened on to cybernetics, and Fearing fastens on with convincing adeptness. But the author succumbs to the temptations of the genre: the easy solution, the intoxicatingly gay resolution — and the jig is really up. Howcan an author who introduces the idea of cybernetics and uses it as an intrinsic part of his novel ignore it totally in his resolutions? Does facility, an engaging style, excuse such shoddiness? The poet Fearing knows better. Does the reader of a novel of suspense derive more pleasure than the operator of a crossword puzzle? I suspect it is the same kind of pleasure, at any rate, the source of which is the minimal engagement of our complex total selves.

Into the arms of the bear

The stuff of a sound, contemporary novel is to be found in Charlotte Haldane’sTruth Will Out (Vanguard, $3.50). Mrs. Haldane is a literate Englishwoman, a former journalist, a novelist, and once a convinced and responsible member of the Comnntnisl Party. The book, another in the flourishing series of confessions that stamp this era as one predominantly concerned with the question of loyalty, takes on a double significance because her ex-husband, J. B. S. Haldane, is still one of England’s leading Communists and highly regarded in the scientific world.
This is one of the better books of its kind because it is lacking in ostentation, it is innocent in many respects, and, without too much subjective torture, it suggests the process by which a reasonably cultivated woman could get herself entangled in the tentacular Communist network. Mrs. Haldane was, first of all, sensitive to racism and subsequently grew conscious of the threat and peril of Hitlerism. The Communist Party, sensitive to that sensitivity in people like Mrs. Haldane, accelerated its propaganda on those two counts: there was no racism in Russia; no anti-Semitism, no anti-Negro, no anti-minority anything in Russia; and the Soviet Union was the only country genuinely fighting Fascism and Nazism. Mrs. Haldane, because she believed the agitprop campaigns, drifted into the arms of the nice bear.
It is one of the peculiar things about the book, by the way: Mrs. Haldane never lets you know just when she did join up. She was doing peripheral jobs, fellow-traveler jobs, and then one day she is a member. She is given the real job of taking care of the English chaps in Paris from where they are to be smuggled into Spain to fight with the International Brigade against Franco. Perhaps that is how the Communist Party operates: you gel somebody who is idealistic (gullible in the language of double-truth) and you give him jobs to do that are consonant with any open and legal act he might do outside the Party. Then, one day, pop! You have got the fellow across from open to conspiratorial action just like that. The fat’s in the fire.
I found Mrs. Haldane’s book to have the virtue of consistency. Just as she entered the Party without I melodrama, and deals with her actions for the Party without theatrics, so she left the Party for a set of rather insignificant reasons all of which accumulated after she got to Stalin’s Paradiso. It rings true: it’s all sort of muddle and casualness. What is touching is Mrs. Haldane’s account, after her disaffection, of her meeting with her husband and several of the Party whips and her careful efforts to explain to them why she can no longer be a party to the Party. What is disappointing is her failure, perhaps out of a too nice sense of propriety, to deal with the emotional life and ethical sense of her famous husband.
One fact is revelatory. Haldane loved and respected the great Russian geneticist Vavilov. But there was no comment from him when he learned that Vavilov had been definitely liquidated; only a rationalization, a spurious and inadequate reasoning. And, ironically, an oblique defense of another geneticist - the geneticist he had once dismissed, the political dictator of Russian geneticists, Lysenko. If only for that, Mrs. Haldane has done the reader a service. It is another turn of the screw — but a vastly corroborative one considering the once large stature of the British scientist. It was written in Samuel: How are the mighty fallen.

An anti-communist Russian

In 1933 an author who was never mighty but who knew the mighty, who was an anti-Communist from the opening gun in 1917, was awarded the Nobel Prize. The Russian émigréIvan Bunin, in a fitting last chapter to his new book, Memories and Portraits (Doubleday, $3.00), records the fact that he was in a movie house in Grasse when an usher whispered in his ear, “A telephone call from Stockholm.”It is indicative of the nature of this small book — really a series of unorganized notes—that when the reader comes upon this news, he experiences pleasure for and with the author.
For the American reader Bunin is famous only because of his short novel The Centleman from San Francisco. Memories and Portraits turns out to be a happy reintroduction. In it the author recalls some of the great and talented and untalented but famous people he has known.
I find it exciting that someone as gifted as Bunin is alive to recall the living Tolstoy and can remember the long intimate days and nights he spent with Chekhov. The last scene with Tolstoy reads a little like a Russian novel: —
About ten years later I saw him for the last time. On a terribly cold night, walking along the Arbat among the dazzling lights in the ice-covered shop windows, I suddenly bumped into him running straight at me with his springy, sauntering step. I stopped and pulled off my cap. He stopped too and recognized me at once.
“Ah, it’s you! How do you do? Please put on your cap. . . . How and where do you live? What are you doing?”
His aged face was so stiff and blue with cold that he looked pitiful. The knitted pale-blue thing that he was wearing on his head looked like an old woman’s. The large hand which he pulled out of a paleblue woolen glove was as cold as ice. After a few words he shook my hand firmly and affectionately, and again looked sorrowfully into my eyes, with lifted brows.
“Well, Christ be with you, Christ be with you. Good-by.”
The portrait of Chekhov is far and away the best piece in the collection. One gets inside the short story master, beneath the impersonal, reticent man, is introduced to his gaiety, his crotchets, his heroism, his gloom.
“You’ll see,” Bunin has Chekhov say, “when Tolstoy dies, everything will go to the dogs.”
“You mean literature?”
“Everything. Including literature.”

The multifaced ocean

Of course, Chekhov was not in a position to know the kind of wonderful thing that could happen here in 1951 — for example, that a marine biologist would write what is a first-rate scientific tract with the charm of an elegant novelist and the lyric persuasiveness of a poet. Rachel L. Carson, in The Sea Around Us (Oxford, $3.50), shows us the sea in all its faces and in so engaging a way that the reader will not believe how many facts and theories he has absorbed during his prolonged but invigorating swim against planetary tides and submarine waves and the long snowfall that has deposited two miles of sediment — a lush rug—on the floor of the Atlantic.
Some sections of this book have appeared in the New Yorker. I cannot vouch for the validity of Miss Carson’s findings — or, rather, her synthesis of her and other oceanographers’ findings—and possibly neither can the New Yorker. For, the story goes, when the editor of the New Yorker was congratulated on running the profile of the multifaced ocean, he replied that he had asked a staff man to check Miss Carson’s facts in the fact bin. And who had gotten the dope together in the fact bin but Miss Carson herself! The facts, though, sound right. And Miss Carson is scrupulously discerning between what is accepted as fact and what is proffered as hypothesis.
This summer the reader can find himself a completely metamorphosed beach lounger. If he sees a steep, peaked shape, and if bits of foam are spilling down and boiling and bubbling over the advancing face, it is probably a young wave, and one needn’t do much more than yawn. But if, as it approaches the surf zone, it rears high, if the crest forms all along its advancing front and then begins to curl forward, if the whole mass of water plunges suddenly with a booming roar into its trough, receive it with humility. It comes a long way, from a very distant part of the ocean.
Among her other astonishing virtues, Miss Carson quotes with elegance, and her book wears one of the most charming front end-papers I’ve seen in a “length of fetch.”