Reader's Choice

THE first half of Graham Greene’s new novel is a tale of adultery and obsessive jealousy ; and into it comes matchless comedy in the shape of a conscientious but bumbling private detective, a model father who is teaching his small son the trade of shadowing unfaithful ladies, all the while vigilantly preserving the boy’s innocence. The second half of The End of the Affair ( Viking, $3.00) reveals how an irreligious, sensual young woman arrives at faith in God; and it is attended by intimations of the miraculous. Critically speaking, the sinful part of the proceedings is vastly more satisfactory than the journey into the Light.
Mr. Greene, I suspect, has made things tough for himself by courageously trying to show us a religious awakening through a pane of rigorous skepticism. But all in all, Greene’s novel, which explores the peculiar kinship between hate and love, is an absorbing piece of work, passionately felt and stirringly written. There are exceedingly few novelists who can match Greene’s superb command of language, mood, and suspense.
A year after the death of his former mistress, Maurice Bendrix, a London writer, is retracing his wartime love affair with Sarah Miles and its surprising sequel. After an air raid in which Bendrix was knocked unconscious, Sarah walked out of his life with no word of explanation. Two years later, he accidentally meets her husband again, a stuffy civil servant, who miserably confides to Bendrix that he suspects his wife of having a lover. Bendrix’s jealousy, which often poisoned his relationship with Sarah, is rekindled, and he engages a detective to spy on her.
My questionings began when Bendrix, who gets hold of Sarah’s diary, begins to learn the truth about the end of their affair. On the night of the air raid (he discovers), Sarah thought for a moment he was dead; and, without believing in God, she found herself praying to God to make him alive and promising to give him up forever. The diary then skims through two years of terrible unhappiness, during which Sarah feels she is ruining two people’s lives out of mere superstition. It reveals that, one afternoon, she was on the point of going to live with Bendrix and was stopped by her husband’s early homecoming. It tells of the friendship she formed with a disfigured, unhappy man, and how this soapbox crusader for atheism was the instrument of her conversion to Belief. In all of this and even more so in the concluding section, with its miracles and its pat tokens of the hand of God I could not help feeling that Greene was blatantly stage-managing his characters and his action in order to put across his theological message.
But, except for Sarah, whose personality is blurred, the first part of the book is just about flawless (and much that is admirable carries through, of course, to the end). The atmosphere has a high charge of mystery and a curiously appropriate touch of seediness, which Greene is so adept at suggesting. The narrator (“I am a man known by his surname”) comes graphically to life. Sarah’s husband is marvelously right in every detail. And the detective,
the admirable Parkis, is a gem.

Across the river and up a tree

The stringent laws of probability which apply to a realistic novel such as Graham Greene’s are erased as one enters the world of Truman Capote. I was not in the least incredulous when, in Capote’s new novel, The Grass Harp (Random House, $2.75), a posse of strangely assorted characters march off into the woods and take up residence in a tree-house, where they repel the Sheriff’s attempts 1o haul (hem back to town. Mr. Capote creates a world in which it seems perfectly natural for people to lodge in tract ops; and equally natural for a retired judge to propose marriage to a dotty old spinster while the two of them are perched on a branch.
In Capote’s lexicon, rationality is the token of a drab and shrunken soul, and eccentricity, preferably a touch of battiness, is a sure sign of grace. The beautiful are those generally accounted misfits, derelicts, and gypsies; and the damned are those who embrace the prosy ways of the conventional order. This is a juvenile heresy, with an ounce of truth in it to a pound of silliness; it readily leads to intolerable cuteness and orgies of whimsey and esotericism.
Fortunately Mr. Capote, in this second novel of his, has kept a firmer grip on the products of his imagination. The style is more direct, the action brisker and free from obscurity. The Grass Harp is a beguiling tale, full of happy inventions and often very funny.
The story is narrated by sixteenyear-old Collin Fenwick, who has grown up with two old spinster cousins, Dolly and Verona Talbo. Dolly’s pride and joy in life is a herbal dropsy cure which she brews herself and sells by mail. When Verena, who lives for the accumulation of riches, announces that she is setting up a factory which will make the dropsy cure big business, Dolly refuses to come through with the formula and secedes from the household. Dolly, Collin, and an ancient servant hide out in a tree-house in River Woods, where presently they are fortified by two allies and receive an entertaining visitor, Sister Ida, a comely revivalist with a raft of illegitimate children. A jolly and adventurous time is had by all, but eventually the old demon, Reality, wins out.
The ending, which leaves Collin glumly entering the age of manly pleasures, is wan with nostalgia for the dear, departed days and dear, departed Cousin Dolly; but it does wrap things up fairly appropriately. Within its own terms, The Grass harp comes pretty close, I should say, to being a complete success. It charms you into sharing the author’s feeling that there is a special poetry — a spontaneity and wonder and delight — in lives untarnished by conformity and common sense.

Under cover

In January, 1948, John Roy Carlson, the pseudonymous undercover man, went off to take an undercover look at the Arab World. After some thought about disguise — over and above the pretense of being a Jew-hater—Carlson hit on a dazzling solution: he switched to his real name and went disguised as himself, an American Christian of Armenian descent. Equipped with first-rate Arab press credentials, he accompanied a group of Egyptian volunteers into Palestine and saw the fighting in and around Jerusalem from the Arab side. In Cairo and points East, he hobnobbed with Egyptian Green Shirters, Moslem Brothers, henchmen of the Mufti, Lebanese Falangists, Armenian terrorists, Arab Communists of all nationalities, and a former Nazi general training units of the Syrian Army. Now he tells all in Cairo to Damascus (Knopf, $4.50).
Carlson’s book occasionally reminded me of a story I heard during the war about an alert F.B.I. man from Texas who was transferred to New York, He took the wrong subway one day and, finding himself in the German section of Manhattan, dashed to a telephone and reported that he had uncovered “some mighty subversive characters.” On page after page, Carlson breathlessly quotes the unneighborly remarks about the Jews made to him by Arab leaders; and in general his reaction to the Middle East is that of a dyed-inthe-New Republic Innocent Abroad; which is rather comic when you remind yourself that here is a demon sleuth at work. Then, too, Carlson suffers from an occupational failing of the undercover business: he cherishes the devious approach, loves to make things sound tougher than they need be. I myself wandered around the Middle East just after the war, and got to see a good many of the sinister characters mentioned by Carlson simply by identifying myself as a correspondent of this journal.
Still, I have to hand it to Carlson: he has a genius for pushing beyond the conventional reportorial track and he has exceptional guts and stamina. The story he has brought back from the Middle East is full of high adventure and strong in human interest. On the strictly political side, it is not a balanced picture and some of it is old stuff. But Carlson does present a fair amount of littleknown and fascinating information; and he presents it with a lively flourish.
Out of Bondage (Devin-Adair, $3.50) fills out the story which Elizabeth Bentley has told and retold in Congressional hearings, grand jury investigations, espionage trials, and newspaper interviews — a story whose reliability every reader must judge for himself. In the body of confessional literature by ex-Communists, Out of Bondage belongs in what might loosely be categorized as the juvenile delinquent bracket. Miss Bentley, though in her middle twenties when she joined the Party, never got beyond the high-school stage in Marxism-Leninism before she made her debut in the underground, where she was too busy being a spy queen to catch up on her dialectics. Whenever the Party Line switched (she tells us), she would ask the man she loved, an agent of the N.K.V.D., to please explain; and in a few minutes it would all make perfect sense. Unless her book misrepresents her, Miss Bentley must he one of the most naïve human beings who ever walked the path of conspiracy.
In spite of the schoolgirlish tone and a compositional device which breeds mistrust — half the book is in dialogue, and it is inconceivable that Miss Bentley can have remembered, word for word, hundreds of conversations ranging from 1934 onward — Out of Bondage is an interesting and instructive picture of the life of a Communist secret agent and of the workings of the Communist underground in the United States. Returning from studies in Italy in 1934 and unable to find a job, Miss Bentley became “haunted by the problem of our maladjusted economic system.” An earnest idealist, she felt compelled to work for social betterment, and soon gravitated into the Communist Party, which charmed her with its simple explanation of the world’s ills and the concrete solution it offered. Using in each case (as was customary) a different alias, she became a member of so many Communist groups that once, when she arrived late at a Workers’ Class and was asked her name, she had to answer: “I don’t know, Comrade Professor.”
Miss Bentley moved on into the underground after meeting and falling in love with Jacob Golos, one of Moscow’s top agents in this country. In due course, she became the “contact “ with several important groups in the Federal government who were allegedly turning over information to the Russians. During the war, says Miss Bentley, so much highpowered material was flowing her way that Golos had to rebuke Moscow for keeping him inadequately supplied with microfilm. After Golos’s death, Miss Bentley found herself reporting to a Russian. The appalling cynicism of the new Russian bosses and the ruthlessness with which they treated members of the American underground eventually opened Miss Bentley’s eyes to the wickedness of Communism. She took her story to the F.B.I.; and after this, working in liaison with the F.B.I. and fixing under frightful strain, she remained another year and a half in the Communist underground.
There is one important aspect of Miss Bentley’s book which I find irresponsible: when she names the people who collaborated with the Communist apparatus, she fails to indicate whether they have since left the Party. There is a trivial detail which tickled me to death: one of Miss Bentley’s most exhausting chores as a conspirator was Christmas shopping — the N.K.V.D. had the highest regard for the value of Santa Claus.

The possessed

The Conformist (Farrar, Straus & Young, $3.50), the new novel by Alberto Moravia (author of The Woman of Rome, Two Adolescents, and Conjugal Love), is about a man whose whole life has been governed by an obsession —“a desire for normality, a wish to conform to a recognized, general rule; a longing to be like everyone else, inasmuch as to be different meant to be guilty.”Interwoven with this theme is a second one: the seeming absurdity of happenings which fatefully shape human lives.
As a small boy, Marcello Clerici derived an inordinate pleasure from destroying things — first flowers, then lizards. But he began to be tormented by a sense of abnormality and guilt. This was hardened into an obsession by a sinister event in his boyhood. A homosexual made advances to him, and, after a scuffle, Marcello ran home thinking he had killed the man.
Now, however, at thirty, Clerici feels securely entrenched in the normality he has tenaciously pursued. He has molded himself into a calm, colorless man, rigidly conventional in his tastes and ideas. His career as a Fascist official —it is l937—has led him into the Secret Police; and though he dislikes the regime’s immorality, his spirit of conformity makes him unquestioningly loyal. Clerici marries a girl who appeals to him as the prototype of bourgeois conventionality, and his honeymoon furnishes a convenient pretext for a trip to Paris, where he has a mission to discharge: he has to look up a former professor of his, Quadri, now a leading fighter against Fascism, and point him out to a pair of professional killers.
During the journey, he discovers that his bride, Giulia, is not what he had imagined — she was seduced at fifteen by the family lawyer and for six years remained his mistress. Clerici reconciles himself to this, only to find that he himself is in danger of destroying everything he has struggled for: he falls absurdly in love with Quadri’s wife, a Lesbian infatuated with Giulia. The events which follow lead Clerici, years later, to the realization that the sense of guilt which hounded him toward normality was senseless, because no man is innocent; he recognizes that he has bound himself to a mean, devitalizing conformity for t he mirage of a normality which does not exisl.
Every book of Moravia’s — and The Conformist, with its consummate craftsmanship, is, I think, his most impressive—increases my admiration for his rare combination of talents: for the sharp individuality and driving energy of his storytelling, and the depth, subtlety, and richness of his psychological perceptions. 11 is is a corrosive vision which bites like acid through the cant notions about human nature. He brings to light the devil in the flesh and in the psyche, and he tells us, without moral indignation and without despair, that that is the way Homo sapiens is. His work may often have a harsh flavor but it is refreshingly adult and virile. The Conformist seems to me one of the outstanding novels of 1951.
Moravia’s wife, who writes under the name of Elsa Morante, is also represented with a novel which centers on a lifelong obsession. House of Liars (Harcourt, Brace, $4.00), winner of a literary prize in Italy and a runaway best-seller there, is a capacious family saga (set, apparently, in Sicily), in which the main strand is Anna do Salvi’s extraordinary passion for her cousin, Edouardo — a handsome, wealt by young aristocrat, whose energies are ruthlessly devoted to feeding his monstrous self-love. Anna, who belongs to a decayed branch of the de Salvis, has inherited her parents’ fatal propensity for illusion; and she sees in the lordly Edouardo her ideal of perfection. After he has left her and poverty has forced her into marriage, the fantasy which she conjures up out of her brief relationship with Edouardo remains the most vivid and binding reality in her life. When she learns that he has died, abroad, she starts writing herself passionate letters in his name. And finally she has hallucinations that he has returned to become her lover.
At the start, House of Liars struck me as contrived and overextravagant. But the characterizations turn out to be rich, vivid, and arresting, and Anna’s obsession is made sufficiently persuasive. My feelings about the book are very tidily summed up in the endorsement of it vouchsafed by Robert Penn Warren: “Elsa Morante has the real fictional magic, and once you step inside her orbit you might as well submit.”
More than a hundred thousand readers would say, unhesitatingly, that Sholem Aseh has “the real fictional magic.” If any of them happen to be reading these lines, I can best serve them by suggesting they skip the next paragraph, and simply take note, if they haven’t done so already, that Mr. Asch has a new novel out, Moses (Putnam’s, $3.75)—a loving reconstruction, on the grand scale, of the Old Testament story.
I have to confess that my past and present efforts to step into Mr. Aseh’s orbit have not resulted in submission to his spell. As I plowed through the massive solemnity of Moses I felt a certain kinship with the Hebrew slaves lugging around blocks of stone for Pharaoh; and the neo-Biblical rhetoric, with its incongruous lapses into colloquialism, beat upon me like the overseer’s lash. It gives me no pleasure to disparage the enormous creative effort which has gone into Mr. Asch’s novel; and his passionate dedication as a writer commands respect. But it would be hypocrisy to profess that I can see what Asch’s telling of the Moses story has that the Old Testament version does not have — except for roughly 100,000 additional words and the fact that we did not have to read it in Sunday school.

“Roughhouse Ross”

Harold Ross, founder and editor of The New Yorker magazine, now in its twenty-sixth year, has accomplished the neat, trick of becoming one of the least-known celebrities in the United States. Until a few years ago, when he sparked a successful protest against the broadcasting of commercials at New York ‘s Grand Central Terminal, Ross had an almost unblemished record for preserving his anonymity — his name does not even appear anywhere in The New Yorker. But within a tight little sector of the magazine world, Boss has long been the storm center of a wildly improbable and marvelously diverting legend, nine tenths of which is solidly rooted in fact. Now the facts about Ross are set forth between the covers of a book: Ross and The New Yorker (Doubleday, $3.50) by Dale Kramer.
When Boss launched his new magazine in 1925, he had the unlikeliest possible background for the founder of a journal which was to become the bible of sophisticates and would-be sophisticates. He had started his career as “Roughhouse Ross,”tramp newspaperman in the West, expert freight hopper and loudest man at a poker game. In World War I, he had been one of the soldier-editors of Stars and Stripes, and his post-war years in New York as editor of the American Legion magazine had not softened his monumental contempt for “eastern dudes.”Even when The New Yorker had grown into a smashing success, Ross betrayed guilt-feelings about running a faney-pants magazine. He himself, despite expensive tailoring, managed to retain something of the backwoodsman in his appearance: Alexander Woollcott, with his usual barbed affection, once said that Boss looked like a dishonest Abe Lincoln.
Everything about The Sere Yorker is touched with paradox and improbability. Its aloof, coolly ironic, meticulously polished prose has been the end product of an editorial bedlam seldom equaled in magazine publishing— staff members have compared its offices, with their cell-like cubbyholes, to the slum area, of a rabbit warren. One of Ross’s disruptive idiosyncrasies, in earlier years, was a passion for “efficiency systems,”which were notably efficient at perpetuating chaos. Another was his firm belief in the war-of-nerves technique for getting the best out of his staff and contributors. A third was his mania for tearing down and making over the intraoffice topography he has sometimes found himself deskless and forced to give dictation by the water-cooler.
Boss has frequently betrayed a morbid concern that the coexistence of male and female on The New Yorker would bring disaster to the magazine. When hiring Wolcott Gibbs, Ross sternly laid down the policy, “Don’t seduce the contributors.” This, Gibbs stated years later, was the only consistent editorial policy he had known lhe magazine to have. But four qualities more crucial than consistency of policy have made Ross the very great magazine editor he is — a boundless interest in fact; an indefatigable perfectionism; a hatred of ballyhoo and bunk; and an inflexible insistence on the separation of business and editorial departmeats.
Mr. Kramer’s profile of Ross and his magazine is, unfortunately, the work of an outside operator; it does not match up to the dead-pan brilliance and devastating finality of the profiles in The New Yorker. But the subject contains a prodigiously rich lode of choice anecdote and intriguing fact, and Mr. Kramer has competently shaped it into an extremely entertaining book.