WHATEVER the season, here in America we know we’re in for it. That is not an amiable thing to say. One finds his interstice of forgetfulness, by either going to the cinema for Hitchcock’s latest or having one’s closest friends over for the iciest drinks or, for the twenty-seventh time, marveling at the spectacular originality of Berlioz’ musical ideas. The forgetfulness is fleeting and, alas, lacking in autonomy. Even as one pursues his entertainment, his sociality, or his art, he hears, as did Andrew Marvell’s gallant lover, Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.
“But at my back I always hear,” Marvell had it; today, what is imminently at our backs and what causes us distress is totalitarianism, which has found its most alarming and subtle and confounding expression in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Whatever it is, whether it is North Koreans and Chinese in South Korea, or acute political agitation in France, or dilemma in Berlin, or oil in Iran, one feels that Stalinism is in back of it or will be soon enough. Have we become paranoidal? Out of abnormal, fantastic fear are we creating a Stalin that is monstrous, superhuman, ubiquitous, altogether too potent and clever?
I think that is the point and those are the questions at the heart of Cracks in the Kremlin Wall (Viking, $3.50), a stylistically brilliant, intelligent, refreshing, and contradictory study, written by Edward Crankshaw, best known here for his earlier book, Russia and the Russians. Crankshaw has had firsthand experience with the Russians: he was attached to the British Military Mission to Moscow during the war and he returned to Russia in l947 as a writer for the Observer.
Now, it would be unfair to say that Crankshaw wants to console us by pointing out that Stalin is human, only too human, and therefore capable of mistakes and muddles; formulating it that way is to imply that Crankshaw is indulging in wishful logic. It is fairer to say that Crankshaw, after years of observation and thought, has made the discovery that the Politburo is opportunistic, pragmatic, planless, and subject to tremendous day-to-day pressures that force it to move in various directions very often not to its liking. But if Crankshaw’s logic isn’t wishful (he admonishes us because we are not realistic), it is elusive and downright evasive.
The author’s polemical style is simplicity itself — and it is an instrument of beauty. When he is on immediate grounds, he appears cert ain and devastating: “In addition to being a born materialist, Lenin was also a born conspirator. He was also a born Russian. To be a conspiratorial Russian and a natural materialist into the bargain offers unparalleled opportunities for chicanery of every kind.”The immediate logic and wit create an impression of absolute lucidity. But then, looking into it a bit, one wonders: what does he mean, a born materialist ? a born conspirator? These are the first cracks in the Crankshaw wall.
There are others. Here is Crankshaw explaining the Russian character: “It is all take with him, or all give; it is all domination, or all submission.” This is a case of having your cake and eating it too. When Russia moves on Finland or Poland, it is all take: when Russia retreats in Germany or Greece, it is all give. If the Russian people cannot have total anarchy, they will take total despotism. Crankshaw himself says it. But then he says the Russians don’t want total anarchy. And so. according to nonCrankshavian logic, the Russians are doomed to total despotism until they can change their Russianism, Crankshaw doesn’t tell us how that can happen.
Evidently, not even the revolution can change the Russians’ “Russianism.” “This [the world revolutionary aspect] is something quite new; but actually we shall see that it is simply one manifestation of the [Russian] messianic aspect.” On the same page Crankshaw hands off another notion: “But to say that Russia is traditionally an expanding power is not at all to say that she is a war-like power.” The distinction may have been true a century ago; in the present, constricted world, in which even nationalism is obsolescent, expansionism obviously does mean war.
A few pages later Crankshaw begins an extraordinary idea: “The minds of the Soviet leaders, with the exception of Stalin himself, are Russian minds.” Stalin, the author reminds us, is a Georgian. There are several fascinating paragraphs in which Crankshaw demonstrates that the non-Russian Stalin has a far more realistic attitude towards Marx and the Communist ideals than his Russian colleagues — all of which proves that Stalin isn’t as bullied by Marxism as his friends are.
Crankshaw tells us “if Tito had not occurred it would have been necessary for Stalin to invent him.” But why would it have been necessary for Stalin to invent Tito? Tito, Crankshaw says, is living proof of Stalin’s capacity for blunder. It is one of his best mistakes. The author enumerates what Tito has cost Stalin: killed the spirit of Communism in Eastern Europe, thrown overboard that hard core of convinced fanatics, and so forth. The bungling with Tito, Crankshaw concludes, “is a characteristically Russian, as distinct from Bolshevik, performance.” But Crankshaw has by this time forgotten that Stalin is not a Russian. There is a good deal more of this opportunistic, will-o’the-wisp logic in Crankshaw than I have demonstrated.
I hope I have not been unjust. The book needs to be treated just in this detailed way — not because of what Crankshaw aims at, but because it is so brilliant a book in its parts that it is apt therefore to dazzle, as well as to throw away too many hard-won and plodding notions that we hold; for example, that the Russians are distinct from the men who rule them — to name but one. From a reading of this book the reader will be certain that its author has admirable qualities: he is obviously honest, he is excitingly independent, and he has considerable knowledge; and, of course, some of what he says is undeniably true and undeniably helpful.
Against these, one comes away from the book with the sense that the author has attempted to do an overwhelming job singlehanded: that he has rejected (out of the Lord knows what, perhaps egotism) the coöperation of economists, political scientists, biographers, historians; that he has banked on his own energy and his own everyday psychological insights. He has made an excellent and stimulating contribution. But what he banked on is not enough. Instead of a revelation, Crankshaw has created an interesting and dramatic fiction, something that a minor and conservative Stendhal might have tossed off.
From ridicule to reverence
One of England’s greatest statesmen gained considerable prestige by blocking out Russia’s expansionism in the nineteenth century. His name, of course, was Disraeli; and in Hesketh Pearson’s warm and admiring but not always adulatory biography, Dizzy (Harper, $4.00), the biographer brings this fact out nicely. Gladstone was whipping up sympathy for the Russian against the Turk: for Disraelis rival, Russia’s manipulations were interpreted as a war for Christianity. Disraeli summed it up as neatly as one could hope for: “he (the Tsar) and all his court would don the turban tomorrow, if he could only build a Kremlin on the Bosphorus.”
Pearson’s study of the great prime minister is an engaging one. It is memorable only in so far as the subject is memorable. Disraeli himself is sure-fire: a Jew who came closer to Queen Victoria than perhaps any man except the men in her own family; a frightful novelist and poet, who insisted on writing his books even during times when crucial events challenged his authority in Parliament; a statesman who loved England more than Englishmen; an aphorist in the tradition of La Rochefoucauld; a loyal friend, a devoted husband, a courageous fighter, a colorful and dazzling figure. Who could wish for better?
Most of the time, Pearson does it justice. But sometimes he doesn’t. His chief failure, perhaps, is that the reader at the end of the biography has not true conviction that Disraeli was a superb statesman and figure.
I would guess the reason — that Pearson’s approach is too consistently a surface one; it is lacking in ideas, in density of detail, in manipulating complex and contradictory facts; it is too easily contented.
But, it must be confessed, its very failure as a work of real significance makes it highly readable and engaging. One does get from Pearson elegant vignettes and an appreciation of the drama in Disraeli’s life. The biographer is most superior in drawing the tender and extraordinarily moving relationship between Disraeli and his wife; he shows a keen understanding of it and paints it with profound recognition of its touching qualities.
There is hardly any question that Disraeli was perhaps the only figure in English political history “who started public life as an object of ridicule and ended it as an object of reverence.” Pearson follows out this patient evolution with devotedness as well as intelligence — factors that fundamentally shape the book’s excellence.
Imagery in Gide
I find nothing basically wrong with Albert J. Guerard’s André Gide (Harvard University Press, $4.00) except that it is uninspiring. It is quite antithetical to Hesketh Pearson’s study of Disraeli. Though they are different attempts — Pearson’s being biography and Guerard’s literary analysis — their virtues and defects complement each other. Whereas Pearson gives the reader vista without sufficient foreground, Guerard gives him foreground and insufficient vista. I find it unfortunate. Guerard possesses an admirable amount of information about Gide and the Gidean works, and, even better than that, he has a keen sense of the measure and value of the man and his work. He is truly at home in the world of letters, certainly of European letters; his language is exacting and distinctive; his analysis is distinguished. The trouble is that Guerard fails to transmit his knowledge and judgment with excitement or stimulation. He is invariably intelligent and too often merely erudite; the adventure — and for André Gide life was an adventure — is completely missing.
Schematically, the key terms in Gide’s life and work are the warring “longing for freedom” and “submission to authority”; the protection of the self and the dissolution of the self. In the wonderful Journals, Gide notes time and again his submission or resistance to one or the other of these diametrically opposed impulses. It made living not easy, and he wrote with great difficulty. I think it is a key to the work, and accounts for the hideous perfection of The Immoralist, which Guerard, I feel sure, overestimates. “The novel,” he writes, “offers very little ‘neutral’ or innocent imagery. . . . The question poses itself when we recall the amount of ‘wasted’ imagery in Mann and Dostoevsky, wasted for the sake of realism.” But it is precisely this “wasted” imagery that gives Death in Venice, not to speak of The Possessed, scale and scope; and the absence of “waste” in The Immoralist gives it a rarefied and precious charge. It is disproportionate, somewhat as an overlong prose-poem might be, and even embarrassing.
For the same reason, I think Guerard underestimates Lafcadio’s Adventures, a novel that is Gide at his novelislic best because it is comic and sardonic and gets away from Gide’s interminable confession; in short, because of its “wasted” imagery, its related irrelevancies.
The human and divine
A famous British publisher, Victor Gollancz, proves — and the point needs proving these days — that a publisher not only reads, but is vitally interested in what man has thought and written since the beginning of civilization. Gollancz has put together an anthology he calls Man and God, subtitled Passages chosen and arranged, to express a mood about the human and divine (Houghton Mifflin, $3.75). The anthologer shows excellent taste and ranges wide; he draws from the Scriptures, saints, poets, philosophers, from the Oriental and Occidental, from the old and new. He has attempted to construct a moral chronology, not an anthology; he believes, for example, that the book should be read as a book with a beginning, middle, and end, not as a grab bag to be dipped into. He has attempted a survey, without frivolity, whose findings would support the memorable experience the young Gollanez; had when he “sniffed the air and sang for joy amid the late autumn leaves in a narrow London garden.” Now, most of us hold with this sort of experience. We remember it, nurture it, shore it against the horror that nearly drowns us. 1 think of Eliot’s
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow? Quick, said the bird, find them, find them, Round the corner.
But an anthology is another thing. It is asking too much of us to read it through, in inexorable sequence. An anthology is by its nature fragmented and truncated, and what the anthologer asks is contradictory. Eliot’s Four Quartets expresses more satisfactorily a mood about the human and the divine. Gollanez is successful not through any particularized exploitation of a vision, but rather in that he has assembled a varied and perhaps related number of approaches to human wisdom. He has created a superior anthology, but an anthology nevertheless.
The innocent and the guileless
William Sansom is a young English author who has an undebat ably immense talent. His earlier novel, The Body, was a brilliant and intense capture of a nightmare experience. His newest, The Face of Innocence (Harcourt, Brace, $3.00), is a subtle reversal of the earlier story. The humor and wit of his first novel was subsidiary and held back; the humor and wit in this second novel is primary and the psychological detection is held back and merely supporting. The novel is concerned with precisely the face of innocence — the face belonging to a handsome young lady who early in the story marries an old friend of the narrator. This trinity makes a nicely modulated triangle: though the triangle threatens to lose its neat shape when they get to Cannes. That it ends well is almost a necessity: the tone is not one of tragedy, and the characters — well, the groom is a man who looks as if he were always wearing a splendidly tailored overcoat, even when he is in a bathing suit.
Sansom, I believe, writes as ably as anyone writing in English today. His language is quietly distinctive, effortless, and exact. He sees with an unstrained and a fresh eye. He has superb control of his material and he doesn’t try what he can’t do. Maybe that is the reason he hasn’t written a great novel. So far his works have been minor ones. But this modest phenomenon is pleasing within the current context of egomania. I have the feeling that Sansom is still going to school, and that one day, given a sufficiently complex idea that he is anxious to transpose into fiction, he may very well be the novelist to fill the particular vacuum that, since early Maugham-Huxley and late Orwell, has remained unfilled.
We are told that Ti-Coyo and His Shark (Knopf, $3.00) is the first book by Clément Richer to be published in the United States. Richer is Martinique-born (1914) and French-educated. This small and charming fable is so expertly written that it would have been something of a surprise if it had turned out to be his first novel. It isn’t; the author, it seems, has published a half-dozen novels in France.
Ti-Coyo’s beginnings, according to his creator, are of a most unpromising nature; he is the offspring of a humpbacked father and a squint-eyed mother who are ridiculed and despised by the townspeople. But Ti-Coyo becomes friends with a shark — a baby shark, of course. As the shark becomes svelte and murderous, TiCoyo’s fortunes swell for the better. It is an “immoral fable"; a fairy tale; a Horatio Alger story, a from-rags-toriches ritual. The sole problem that remains at the end of the tale is about as serious as this: how will Ti-Coyo apportion his hours of affectionate play — since now he is in possession of the shark as well as a lovely young wife? But Ti-Coyo, the reader knows, will solve it with effortless distinction.
Aside from its inconsequential, amusing story, what is attractive in the novel is its air of sophisticated guilelessness. There is a triflingly wicked candor that spreads its harmless wings over the story. That Richer has retained what must be a native memory and has managed to sustain it for novella length constitutes an admirable work, if not of art, then of craft.