IN THAT excellent book, Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster refers to the novel as “that spongy tract.”He intended no denigrative meaning. He had reference, rather, to its formidable mass, to its assumptive (but not presumptuous) powers. A novel, he said, was a fiction in prose. He continued: “And if this seems to you unphilosophic will you think of an alternative definition, which will include . . .”Forster then listed a number of disparate works, such as Marius the Epicurean, The Magic Flute, The Journal of the Plague, Ulysses, Green Mansions. Hence “spongy tract.”
A reader, having second thoughts on the matter, will not quarrel with so rudimentary an approach. It is, I think, the only possible one; another, stricter approach would exclude too much. Though there did exist some brief fireworks around John Horsey’s The Wall, we now think of it as a novel. We know it is a novel. The problem of what makes a novel is, at best, a confused by-product of the necessary issues that arise within the “formidable mass" itself; issues such as the division between realism and symbolism, the significance or insignificance of “the story,” the weight we give to, or demand from, the social meanings and how we relate these to their formal realizations.
Obviously, that “spongy mass” creates a problem, a genuine and formidable one, for the critic. He has to account for an incalculable number of diverse fictional prose works, all of them novels. He has to account for, at the same time and with a minimum of predilection, the slender perfection of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the monumental imperfection of An American Tragedy, the dark recalcitrance of The Possessed and tinbright provocation of Cakes and Ale, the audacity of The Red and the Black and the scrupulousness of Madame Bovary, the catalytic bitterness of The Sun Also Rises and the infinite sadness of Tender Is the Night.
The critic, this month, has to account for the rich, ripe work of a, contemporary master, Thomas Mann, and the large, ambitious, and expertly managed first novel of a 20-year-old author, William Styron. How is he to value them? What strictnesses and leniencies is he to bring to bear on each of these? Is he to suppress the notions he holds toward Mann’s past performances because he holds none toward Styron’s, since there aren’t any? And is it desirable to suppress these notions, even if he can, which is doubtful? And hasn’t it too often been that he has made more demands on the major work than he has on the minor? And so it is possible that he will become stricter toward Mann than he will toward Styron. On the other hand, mightn’t he retain so keen an admiration for Mann’s other work that he will tend to overestimate the new, or underestimate any non-Mann work he may read alongside it ?
There is no easy answer. The critic obviously has to learn to see, has (it is Nietzsche’s phrase) to allow things to come up to the eye, after which he can legitimately appropriate Forster’s statement: “The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.”
Let it be said at once, I hold enormous affection for Thomas Mann’s newest novel, The Holy Sinner (Knopf, $3.50). It reads swiftly, and has an absorbing quality that makes you wish there were more — not because it is unsatisfactory but rather because it is so engaging and lovable. Why it, is lovable (the book, after all, is concerned with the origins and nature, and only ultimately with the transformation, of evil) constitutes a triumph of Mann’s art and skills.
The author tells us that his novel is based on the verse epos Gregorius auf dem Steine by the Middle High German poet Hartmann von Aue (c. 1165-1210). It is an Oedipus story with a fillip: Gregor, the abandoned offspring of an incestuous relationship, returns to his native land, becomes a hero, weds his Duchess, is the father of her two children, and only then discovers he is, as well, his own children’s brother. Was it true, though, that only then did he make the discovery? Was it true that the Duchess had no inkling whatsoever that this boy resembled too closely her deceased brother-husband? Such questions, I think, are compatible with the spirit of Mann’s investigation into the nature of evil. His answers, within the façade of the narrative, are deliberately ambiguous; the answers, within the logical and interior progression of the story, are unambiguous nays. Of course they knew, in those labyrinths of the mind and heart that Freud rescued from a nether dimension and Mann explored and exploited in his Joseph novels, as well as in his earlier ones.
How Gregor attains salvation and becomes the great Pope Gregory is a miracle of story-telling. Within the story it is based on a miracle. This miracle is a lovely and crucial and tragic event, and I found myself admiring boundlessly the author’s un, embellished projection (and acceptance) of the phenomenon of Gregor’s survival for seventeen years on a rock in the sea. There is, it is true, a muted metaphysical speculation, but you skip over it as Mann, you cannot help feeling, wants you to. For lo! it is a miracle, and it is sufficient. Obviously, Mann’s art has had something to do with this alarmingly innocent state you find yourself in.
A good part of the art that makes this novel a minor masterpiece is the way in which Mann uses his narrator, the Irishman Clemens, an envoy Irom the cloister of Clonmacnoise. He is not only, as the author tells us, the spirit of story-telling; he is the spirit of story-hearing too. And as he informs us with zest, he listens with alarm; as he continues to narrate simply, he continues to hear complexly: and as the story-teller plunges boldly into the lurid parts, the storyhearer hides his eyes behind hands while yet peeping between fingers. This dual Clemens (made whole by his religion or perhaps by his art) is fascinated — not solely by the transfiguration, for he is story-teller as well as cleric. And being both it is proper, at the completion of his morality, to warn the reader; “Let him beware of saying to himself: ‘Well then, be thou a jolly sinner. If it turned out so well with this lot, how then shall thou be lost?’ That is devil’s whispering. First spend seventeen years on a stone, reduced to a hedgehog.” And then Clemens says: “But truly it is wise to divine in the sinner the chosen one.”
This is the text of The Holy Sinner, but I think il equally true that it is the theme, with minor variations, of the entire distinguished body of Thomas Mann’s work, to which this newest novel makes a charming and altogether satisfactory addition.
Dissolution of a family
Since it was said at once that I had affection for Mann’s novel, let me say at once that I have little affection and considerable admiration for William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness (Bobbs-Merrill, $3.50). And lest this be regarded as a contradictory remark, I remind the reader that Forster was careful to qualify his “test with the word “final.” Let me also add that for the 25-year-old Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks I had more admiration than affection.
Lie Down in Darkness is an appallingly and terrifyingly effective (and sometimes even moving) novel. The author opens his story with a funeral. Milton Loftis, a prominent citizen of Port Warwick, Virginia, is waiting at the railroad station, with hearse, black limousine, and mistress, for the dead body of his beautiful daughter. As he waits, as he a little later almost succumbs to his need to escape the ordeal, as he still later rides to the cemetery in the mortuary car, the terrible, black, black story is unfolded in fragments. Put together, the fragments articulately and eloquently tell a story of the total dissolution of a family: Milton Loftis, his wife Helen, his two daughters, Peyton and Maudie (crippled, innocent, imbecilic, and dead years before her sister’s insane leap from a toilet; window onto a Harlem street).
The trouble in this one house has a number of excellent contributive factors. I think it would be fair to say that chief among them are the drinking and altogether self-indulgent habits of Milton, who loves Peyton and neglects Maudie, as against the ascetic and egocentric “style” of Helen, who protects Maudie and hates Peyton. One is the sin of sloth and the other the sin of pride. In the Loftis household it. makes for a frightful warfare. But it is Peyton who is at the center of the novel and she is harder to understand. I would guess that what Styron has demonstrated is a simplified working out of Mendel’s law: Peyton appears to have inherited the sin of each parent. It is the least convincing element of the book.
If there is a key word in the novel, it appears to me to be “need”: people “need” each other, Milton needs Peyton, Peyton needs her husband, Helen needs Maudie. I don’t mean that Styron isn’t aware of this. At one point, Peyton’s husband says he doesn’t want her to need him, he wants her to love him. The point for me is an ironic one: I felt no “need” — no logical necessity really — for the story to evolve in the way that it does, for the relentless, perhaps willful, dirgelike monotone, not only unrelieved but given an additional turn of the screw in its last drawn-out section dealing with Peyton. It starts out a bleak and black book and it ends as one; there is no catalyst here. That is why I can have no affection for it. I am profoundly aware, though, that in wanting to cite its perhaps inevitable defects, I have placed my criticism in an improper focus.
For example, the book is not bleakly written. On the contrary, it is richly and even (in the best sense) poetically written. If Peyton is improperly motivated, she is nevertheless a fascinating creature and her beauty, her fatal attraction, is visible and tactile and altogether sensory. If the parts seem to succeed each other with no apparent logic or dialectic, each part is brilliantly made and lovingly accomplished. If the long, terminal inner-soliloquy appears immature, there is so much else that is overwhelmingly adult. If, finally, there exists a fugitive sense that the author has gone to Joyce for his structure and to Faulkner for his rhetoric, it is only fugitive and consequently intelligent and probably assimilated. Not least among its virtues, the novel is deeply absorbing. It is a basically mature, substantial, and enviable achievement, powerful enough to stay with you after you have shut it out.
A man of genius
And now to switch it, how very different is V. S. Pritchett. Here, in Mr. Beluncle (Harcourt, Brace, $3.50), one finds at first glance the , uncluttered intelligence, the urbane speech, the satiric viewpoint, the swift prose of what has come to be familiarly known as British writing. The only thing is, it is most heartening to report, England’s distinguished critic does not eschew what Oswald Spengler once called a depth dimension. The truth is that Pritchett manages this dimension with the deftness with which he manages everything else in his novel. Yet it is there, made up of insight, compassion, and tenderness, and all of it consonant with the brisk, mildly comic, no-nonsense air of the whole book. It’s magic, that’s what it is.
I don’t know what Mr. Beluncle is though; he is, first of all, a madman. One isn’t sure that he’s a genius; one is sure, however, that he has genius. Just for what, would be anybody’s guess. He has managed: a wife, a family of three boys (wonderful boys!), any number of homes, plenty of wellbrushed clothes, a copartnership in a furniture firm, an auto (the firm’s though). Mr. Beluncle’s first genius is his ability to get money from women; he is, however, no Monsieur Verdoux. Mr. Beluncle’s second genius is his belief in moving from one place to another and the ease with which he can uproot his family and literally send them packing. Mr. Beluncle’s third genius is his poise, his unnatural ability to cope with any situation, his never once being at a loss for words — even though these contradict precisely what he had said a minute before. Mr. Beluncle’s fourth genius — but one could go on indefinitely.
I don’t know which I value more, the centrality of the book which is Mr. Beluncle’s trials and triumphs, or the odds and ends of the book, which would include some of the doings of the Beluncle childers, the Beluncle wife, and the Beluncle mama; Lady Roads and nephew; the Parkinson Group and its schism; a small view of a Beluncle neighbor; a larger view of a courtship; or the incomparable Mr. Phibbs. I would vote for the odds and ends, mainly because I felt the novel to be inconclusive, to rush too hastily as it were toward its own end. One could put it another way: I would vote for the odds and ends for now, all the while hoping that Mr. Beluncle is the first novel of, at the very least, a trilogy.
The saddest story
At the age of 41, Ford Madox Ford sat down to show what he could do and came up with The Good Soldier. That was around World War I. At first Ford was going to call it The Saddest Story — the novel begins, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” — but his British publisher was worried because of the war and so it was named The Good Soldier and is now reissued by Knopf ($3.00).
In the twenties Ford was an exciting figure, a man of sensibility, Conrad’s collaborator, a brilliant literary editor, and friend to the upcoming, such as Ezra Pound and Eliot, H.D. and Wyndham Lewis. For the first time, I think, Ford is getting a fair reading, divorced as he is now from auras and factions. And The Good Soldier, which the author regarded as his first attempt at “extending” himself, is a good book to sample. It is compact and carries an engrossing theme, it is not literary or esoteric.
The narrator, a wealthy American, and his American wife run into the English Ashburnhams on the Continent, and they become fast friends. All four are “good people,” or so it seems. Bit by bit the story comes out. Edward Ashburnham has been having an affair with the narrator’s wife, who in turn, while apparently denying her husband, has committed a number of indiscretions. The American, Florence, as more bits of her become reflected, makes the flesh crawl; she is a nasty bit of baggage. Edward, as he becomes steadily reflected, gains an extra dimension.
The narrator is the complex key to the events, continuously reversing his own reactions to them, skating between how things appeared and how they truly were. He has had a shock of recognition, he has danced a fateful and tragic dance with evil. How is he to transmit the reality ? He can not simply say, this was evil and the evil was the reality. The point is, I think, that the reality was so thoroughly evil because the appearance was so thoroughly innocent, so convincing, and gave rise to so real a good and civilized time. How, then, is one to judge an appearance that, while it existed, created friendship and good spirit and that, in the light of a later time, has to be interpreted as an ugly thing?
Style, here, as craft, is impeccable, a less rarefied Jamesian. Means and ends are perfectly adjusted to each other. The language is an unostentatious delight. The skills are manifold and, above all, the knowledge and control of the materials are admirable. In spile of these multiple virtues, The Good Soldier is a skillfully ironic minor novel with a major flaw. The narrator’s interpretations come in too frequently and regularly and, alas, make him something of a bore. I found myself, time and again, tempted to skip over his subjective funks and querulousnesses to pick up once again his objective and arresting chronicle.
First person singular
It is not irrelevant that Ford saw something of William Carlos Williams in Paris in the twenties, and later, in the States, started a Friends of William Carlos Williams club. Williams must have been a fine, fresh, indigenously American breath of air lor the expatriates and collective upper bohemia that wrote, painted, drank, and mostly talked in those Paris days. In The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (Random House, $3.75), published on the 17th of last month, which was the author s sixtyeighth birthday, you see the autobiographer plainly. The book is immensely honest, reminding me, peculiarly, of Stendhal’s Memoirs ofEgotism, in which that autobiographer promises the reader he will only put down honest lines.
The autobiography takes in Williams’s childhood, boyhood, and youth, his efforts to become a doctor, his various internships, his in-themeanwhile attempts to write, his eventual triumph as a first-rate doctor and a first-rate writer. It also includes, with complete naturalness, some of Williams’s main esthetic ideas. The result is, first of all, refreshing; second of all, absorbing; and last of all, informative. Ezra Pound, a schoolboy chum of Williams, appears in the memoir frequently and always commands interest. Williams, by the way, has continued to sec Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington. The partial record of these meetings is fascinating. For example, Williams reports that Pound refuses to entertain the idea of reopening his case, because “he knew he would be shot by an agent of the ‘international crew’ the moment he stood outside the hospital gates.” And Williams adds: “Maybe he’s right, for one thing is certain: he’d never stop talking.”
The autobiography contains fascinating vignettes of Joyce (a memorable one, when Robert McAlmon says, “Here’s to sin,” in a half-drunken toast, and Joyce suddenly says, “I’ll not drink to that”); of H.D. (sitting in the grass in the rain, “and I behind her feeling not inclined to join in her mood. And let me tell you it rained, plenty. It didn’t improve her beauty or my opinion of her . . .”); of a hilarious Yeats-Gosse incident. Best of all, the memoir shows you the memoirist, an unembellished, honest man of letters, whose opinions you don’t always agree with, but whose opinions you nevertheless value in themselves and because they are the product of a tough-minded, warmhearted, intransigent, and wonderful human being.
Stark Young, perhaps the most serious and intellectual drama critic we ever had, has written his autobiography too. This one, though, is partial and fragmented. Strictly speaking, it isn’t an autobiography. Young calls it The Pavilion, and subtitles it Of People and Times Remembered, Of Stories and Places (Scribner’s, $2.50). That’s what it really is, a kind of associative reminiscence, in which the author, for example, will deal with a childhood event that took place in the deep South and, within that section, will recall and weave in some incident or person related to his later cosmopolitan life.
Young had a typical, tentacular deep-South family — there are uncles and aunts and cousins by the dozen, many of them amusing, some of them interesting. One wishes, though, that he had made a decision to contain them in a discreet section of the book. As it is, there is too little, say, about his relationship with other writers, including Faulkner, his meetings with the important players in the theater, and so forth. I would argue that Stark Young came to be known to us as a critic and author, and it is there that the interest of his memoir would lie. Apparently, Stark Young did not think so. I believe, unfortunately, his book is the loser.
Although I had looked forward to The Pavilion because I had read with delight and enlightenment his cultivated columns, I found the book disappointing. It is well written, of course; Stark Young couldn’t help writing well. But the book is muted to the point of being muffled; the taste and elegance and cultivation are apparent only in wisps; the brilliancy exits before the powerful entrance of anonymity, though one may take away a possible consolation: in some ways this modesty is admirable, being perhaps a triumph of a form of secular grace. Even so, one wishes he’d take a short and temporary tumble.
I suspect that Schnozzola, The Story of Jimmy Durante (Viking, $3.00), by Gene Fowler, is just about as good as you can get it. Durante’s art is elusive. His comic genius, which is a mixture of gentleness, dismay, insanity, an uncanny rhythm and a canny timing, is difficult to convey. You either get it or you don’t, you are either moved by him or you aren’t. There isn’t any halfway relationship between Durante and the spectator. Fowler obviously has a special feeling for him, though I think he holds an even more special one for the tough, shrewd Lou Clayton, once the hoofer of the incomparable team of Clayton, Jackson, and Durante. Nevertheless Fowler has caught some of the mannerisms and gestures of the lovable clown, he has recorded with sensitivity the data of Jimmy’s life, he has managed to catch the prohibition and gangster-ridden night-club life in which Jimmy was suckled. More than this I doubt that any biographer can do.
The legend of Jimmy’s generosity has its basis in fact: Fowler has seen it, and I can corroborate it. The sensation of merely walking with Durante through a hotel is indescribably intoxicating. Strangers beam and shake his hand, the elevator girl throws her arms around him (He says: “So you waited for me, so you didn’t get married!”), the cigarette girl seems to have every intention of hurdling the counter. The gent leness, the considerateness, the essential respect and love he feels for each individual life, the inexhaustible buoyancy, are a powerful and contagious preachment. He has an instinct for the right thing: I have seen him stand out against vulgarity when he didn’t know what it was. Something of this lovely man Fowler lights up. The comic, tender artist, the piano player, the fellow who can touch you more deeply than anyone else when he walks up and down the stage in front of a line of girls singing his own special “recitative” — that has to be seen and heard — “in person.”
(NOTE: How To Protect Yourself Against Women and Other Vicissitudes by Charles W. Morton, Associate Editor of the Atlantic, has just been published by Lippincott, $3.00. Parts of the book have appeared in our Accent on Living pages.)