The Accused (Simon and Schuster, $4.00) by Alexander Weissberg is one of the more remarkable items in the voluminous literature on Stalin’s Russia. As Arthur Koestler says in his preface, “This book is in several respects unique ... a tale which brings closer to the reader than any other published before the inner mechanism of the most extraordinary terror regime in human history.”
In 1931, Weissberg, a 30-year-old Austrian physicist and engineer active in the Communist Party, was summoned to a post at the Ukrainian Physical Technical Institute at Kharkov, where he soon earned an outstanding reputation. When the Great Purge got under way in 1936, Weissberg’s wife, from whom he was separated, was arrested on preposterous charges. He appealed to influential friends on her behalf, and presently he was arrested himself.
The Accused describes the thirtythree months that Weissberg spent in Russia’s “inner prisons.”The high point of the story, dramatically, is Weissberg’s experience of “The Conveyor" — the nonstop system of interrogation by which the G.P.U. transformed the toughest personalities into automata who played out, faithfully, the guilty role assigned to them. Weissberg’s role was to testify that he had conspired with the “ Bukharinite Block” to assassinate Stalin, sabotage plants, and so on. After seven days and nights of The Conveyor, he signed a confession; later he withdrew it. There followed four days of The Conveyor and a second confession, which was also repudiated. Weissberg was again put on The Conveyor, but this time the G.P.U. gave up after twenty-four hours. It was probably his Austrian citizenship which saved him from the normal sequel: a bullet in the neck. His ston ends when the Russian police, following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, turned him and other Austrian and German Communists over to the Gestapo (from whom he eventually escaped into the Polish Underground).
Koestler describes Weissberg as “a kind of human jack-in-the-box”: a phenomenally resiliant man with a certain thick-skinnedness, great presence of mind, and an unquenchable optimism and sense of humor. All this is apparent in The Accused, which, though it deals with a witches’ Sabbath of modern despotism, is not, amazingly, depressing reading. Weissberg has recorded his ordeal with the zestful curiosity and analytic objectivity of a scientist writing up some fantastic experiment —and he impresses one as a completely reliable and keen-eyed witness. His long, rambling, highly discursive narrative is studded with masterly sketches of the procession of characters whom he met up with in the various prisons. In parts, The Accused is even gruesomely funny: Weissberg’s dialection! tenacity so bedeviled his inquisitors that one of them exclaimed: “Alexander Semyonovitch, why do you keep torturing us?”
In the early stages of the Great Purge no physical violence was used on The Conveyor; when the mass arrests began, word went down from the Kremlin that beatings might be introduced to speed up confessions. But Weissberg, in his experience with interrogators and prison officials, encountered virtually none of the sadism which flourished in theSS and the Gestapo.
Weissberg estimates (by an ingenious system of computation) that eight million people were arrested in the Purge years: the overwhelming majority were quite innocent of socalled “counter-revolutionary activity,” yet all confessed to fantastic crimes. In Weissberg’s view, the Purge started out as an attempt by Stalin to liquidate those groups most likely to remember the failures of his regime and most likely to retain an attachment to freedom. The practice of making every prisoner incriminate others caused tin; Terror to get so completely out of hand that eventually it bore down on many of the most ardent. Stalinists.
The Acheson record
The campaign to force Dean Acheson out of office, and the scurrilous attacks that went with it, have sown a great deal of confusion as to what manner of man Acheson is and the course he has pursued as Secretary of State. For such as care to make a thoroughgoing inspection of the record, McGeorge Bundy, a Republican, has brought together in The Pattern of Responsibility (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00) a collection of Acheson’s statements — speeches, press conferences, reports to the President —and has organized them, with a succinct commentary, into a connected account of U.S. foreign policy since Acheson’s appointment on January 7, 1949. Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman has contributed an introduction.
The statements made in the political arena are usually so full of platitude, turgidity, and even had grammar that the most striking thing, perhaps, about the Acheson papers is the high specific gravity of their content; the quiet force and clarity with which they marshal facts and arguments; the aptness with which Acheson draws on his wide learning; and, not least, his dry and telling wit.
I find it hard to see, on the basis of the printed record, how the charge that Acheson is an appeaser of Communism can be regarded as anything but a classic example of what the late George Orwell called “doublethink. After playing a leading role in the formation of the Truman Doctrine, Acheson has steadily worked to build up “situations of strength” against Communism; he has consistently maintained that top-level negotiation wit h Stalin is useless until the West is in a posilion of decisive supremacy. His attackers, for the most part, have demonstrated their “toughness” toward Russia by seeking, ever since the U.S. began to get tough with Russia, to whittle down American military and financial aid to Europe.
As far as the China fracas is concerned, Mr. Bundy reminds us that the great defeats of Chiang Kai-shek occurred at a time when Acheson was not in the State Department at all. When he took office in 1949, the big question was whether to make a last great effort to save Chiang; the Administration decided against this on the basis of the facts set forth in the White Paper which made Acheson the target of the infamous China Lobby. Acheson’s statements about China policy can now be conveniently examined: they may well contain errors of judgment, but there is no sign of tenderness toward the Chinese Comniunists.
The record shows Acheson to be a staunch exponent of the philosophy that “politics is the art of the possible.” He once said to the House Foreign Affairs Committee: “In this particular age . . . we do not have the choice between something that is highly desirable and something that is undesirable. We have choices between undesirables,” His views — notably on the subject of German Rearmament and Spain — have evolved in response to the pressure of events. But he is guided by one all-embracing principle: “We must deal with . . . problems within a pattern of responsibility. We must act with the consciousness that our responsibility is to interests which are broader than our own immediate American interests. Great empires have risen in this world and have collapsed because they took too narrow a view.”
Agnes de Mille’s outspoken autobiography, Dance to the Piper (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $3.50), an abridgment of which has appeared in this magazine, is the most spirited and entertaining personal history I have read in quite some time; and one of the few books which glowingly project the magic of the dance without romanticization or any trace of chi-chi. It is, incidentally, the first work of nonfiction to be a Literary Guild Selection since 1943.
Miss de Mille writes with crisp vigor and an astringent wit —and her story is a natural; it has the pattern of a three-act play with three dramatic “curtains.” A child, the daughter of wealthy, cultivated parents, becomes infatuated with the dance. Her family insists on raising her to be “a lady,” but consents to dancing lessons. She begins the long, relentless discipline — the daily physical agony— that goes into the making of a dancer’s body. After graduation (cum laude) from college, there are hideously discouraging auditions in New York. She gives a recital; the applause is enormous, the Times notice glowing — “ To my dumbfoundment, I found I was a comedian.”(First Act Curtain.)
There follow, however, years of frustration and harrowing struggle. Her first assignment to compose the dances for a Broadway show ends in heartbreak. Recitals in Paris and Brussels are dismally handled by her managers. In London, in Marie Rambert’s Ballet Club, she becomes associated with Antony Tudor and Hugh Laing and wins sustained recognition by the British public; but her career is costing her money, and her family’s finances are on the downgrade. Back in the United States, she runs into a cycle of disappointments. Then she composes Rodeo for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and scores a smashing success. (Curtain.)
In the Third Act she takes Broadway by storm with the dances in Oklahoma! and the story ends: “I went west to my bridegroom.”
Interwoven with the personal history, there are fascinating pages about every aspect of the dance world about choreography, ballets in rehearsal, backstage intrigue, sexual mores, the grueling life of dancers on tour. There are forthright sketches and appraisals of many of the leading figures in the ballet (I especially remember the vivid pictures of Pavlova and Martha Graham). Miss de Mille’s verdicts are, of course, sometimes controversial, but she unquestionably has the rare gift of being able to write expressively and lucidly about the dance.
Dance to the Piper is, in effect, an informal history of the ballet’s renaissance in the United States in the past two decades, and of the emergence of a new tradition in the dance. “Ballet gesture,”writes Miss de Mille, “had always been based on the classic technique and whatever deviated from this occurred only in comedy caricatures. . . . We were trying to diversify the root impulse . . . we were adding gestures and rhythms we had grown up with, using them seriously for the first time. . . . The vounger choreographers believethat every gesture must be proper to a particular character under particular circumstances. . . . The line between dancing and acting is no longer clearly marked.”
Jean Stafford’s third novel, the Catherine Wheel (Harcourt, Brace, $3.00), while vastly superior to most current fiction, is a somewhat disappointing work for a writer who, with Eoston Adventure and The Mountain Lion, has proved herself to be one of the most talented novelists of the generation now in its thirties. Miss Stafford’s theme — treated in two keys, each of which modulates the other — is the shock of rejection, the emotional isolation that ensues, and the eventual recognition that the cause of the suffering was not worthy of it. This is not a slight theme, but despite beautiful writing and meticulous craftsmanship, the novel seems a bit lacking in force and in size.
Twelve-year-old Andrew Shipley has come with his twin sisters to spend the summer holidays at Cousin Katherine’s mansion in a staid little seaside resort called Hawthorne. Smothered by school and a pedagogical governess and parents “whom he barely knew and did not understand,” Andrew, since childhood, has passionately looked forward to the summers spent at Hawthorne while his parents are in Europe. At Hawthorne he has found the perfect friend, Victor, the seamstress’s son, a worldlywise, ragged, raffish boy, prodigiously adept at making life exciting. But this summer Victor’s older brother, Charles, a sailor whom be heroworships, has come home sick, and Andrew finds himself forsaken.
Some twenty summers earlier, Katherine Congreve had lost Andrew’s father, John, to her bewitching cousin, Maeve. John and Maeve, thinking she had deliberately brought them together, had insisted they must always remain a triumvirate; and they had bruised her, unsuspectingly, until the hurt became the armature of her whole thought and conduct. She grew into a graceful, beautifully poised woman, much admired by men, but firmly settled in an old-fashioned, spinsterish pattern of existence. And now John Shipley — irascible and self-pitying in his middle age—has discovered that he loves Katherine and has made her promise to start a new life with him when he returns from Europe.
The situation I have outlined is, in fact, a rough summary of what has been unfolded just short of the ending: there is little dramatic progression in the present. I was left with a sense that the author had spent most of her time “briefing” the reader about her protagonists; that the novel, for all the brilliance of its detail, had never got under way.