The Exploration of Space (Harper, $3.50) might be described as a how-to-do-it manual on reaching the Moon and the stars, an illustrated Baedeker for the armchair astronaut, and a short course in astronomy, all rolled into one. It is an exceptionally lucid job of scientific exposition for the layman; one that offers non-space-conscious adults an opportunity to remedy, in a few agreeable hours, their ignorance of a new science, astronautics, to which the small fry have been hep for quite some time. The author, Arthur C. Clarke, is Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society and a respected authorily on space-travel. His speculations, he says, are “firmly founded upon facts or at least upon probabilities”; and he reminds us that in the history of scientific prediction, the wildest flights of fancy have fallen short of subsequent realities.
It is a reminder the reader needs to hang on to tenaciously, for he is invited to envisage five-day rocket flights to the Moon; refueling stations in space, and, in due course, space “colonies” with such adjuncts as gravity-free hospitals bathed in continuous sunlight; elaborate space-ship terminals on Venus and Mars; sixyear-long flights to Jupiter; and even, in the remote future, travel to stars twenty light-years distant from the earth.
Mr. Clarke discusses, very intelligibly, the difficulties that have to be overcome before space-travel gets under way; he does not suggest that there will be interplanetary Cook’s Tours this century or next. But since the appearance of the German V-2, manless space-travel has been theoretically quite feasible. No fundamental discoveries in rocket design are necessary to build rockets with sufficient velocity to soar beyond the earth’s gravitational pull. Clarke believes that such rockets — the precursors of man-carrying space-ships — will certainly be developed in the next few decades. The navigation of space-ships, I gather, presents no inordinately baffling problems; in fact Clarke makes it sound almost simpler than driving and parking an automobile in mid-town Manhattan.
There is one rather depressing aspect to this otherwise intoxicating preview of cosmic travel. The Moon and the other planets appear to be infernally uninviting. And as for the frontier life in the wide open spaces of space, it will be about as constricted an existence as living in a straitjacket, judging from the picture of what well-dressed space-colonists will have to wear to stay alive.
Love in a warm climate
Lael Tucker’s first novel. Lament for Four Virgins (Random House, $3.50), is a lively tale of the pursuit of love in a warm climate and a sharply drawn picture of place, the place being the “medium-small, middle-aged” Southern town of Andalusia, U.S.A. Here is a novel of the South with a fresh and refreshing accent. It is free from the luridness and the extremes of oddity so often found in Southern fiction; and though its heroines’ lives give cause for lament, it is not another of those threnodies celebrating decay to an insistent counterpoint of nostalgia. Miss Tucker’s prose is crisp and quick with humor, her temper buoyant and gently ironic; but she also knows how to convey with quiet poignancy her heroines’ hurts and the failure of their youthful hopes.
When the story opens in 1927, Angela, Ellen Terra, Carrie, and Hope
— the daughters of Andalusia’s four leading families are love-struck maidens not yet twenty. All four girls are in love with the same unconscionably handsome young man: the Reverend Mark Barbee, the new rector of the Episcopal Church. The clergyman, being a Southern gentleman, can’t disappoint a lady wanting to be kissed; but being, too, an earnest servant of the Lord, he soon feels constrained to flee from the daughters of Lilith. And flee he does — to a parish of tough hombres in Montana.
The four girls’ private dramas through the next two decades; their conflicts with their mothers, the doyennes of the town’s society; the wonderful gossip of the Negro servants; the subtle changes in Andalusia as it moves forward, cautiously, with the times — all this is skillfully fused into an unusual and spirited chronicle of life among the Southern gentry. Miss Tucker’s novel does not dig deeply into the problems of the human heart. But it is admirably written, stamped with individuality, and extremely entertaining.
Candide in Harlem
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (Random House, $3.50) is a work of much greater seriousness and does look deeply into the problems of the human heart —or rather, the human condition. My admiration for it is qualified, which puts me in a dissident minority: in many quarters it has received the most high-powered praise accorded to a first novel in a long time.
Invisible Man might be described as a picaresque account of a young Negro’s “journey to the end of the night.” The nameless hero is a kind of black Candide who — after a series of nightmarish misadventures in which he is degraded, exploited, and betrayed, perhaps as much by blacks as by whites — emerges stripped of all illusions and ready to face the world again, feeling “painful and empty.”
As an adolescent in the South, Ellison’s protagonist is given a scholarship to a Negro college by the leading whites in his community; then at the stag smoker to which he goes to receive the award, he and other Negro boys are revoltingly humiliated. He is thrown out of college by the Negro president for letting a white philanthropist, whom he is chauffeuring, see the seamy side of Negro life. In New York, he finds after a while that the letters of introduction given him by the college president are a cruel double-cross, which has barred him from getting a job. Down and out in Harlem, he is enrolled in the “Brotherhood” (Communist Party), which for a time makes a hero of him. But gradually he discovers that the Brotherhood is simply exploiting the Negro for its own ends. He comes to the conclusion that he has always been an “invisible man” : no one has looked beyond his skin and seen him as an individual human being. The novel implicitly generalizes the plight of its protagonist. Its point is that this age, with its passion for categories and its indifference to the uniqueness of the individual, is reducing all of us to a condition of invisibility.
Unquestionably, Ellison’s book is a work of extraordinary intensity — powerfully imagined and written with a savage, wryly humorous gusto. It contains many scenes which are brought off with great brio and a striking felicity of detail. To my mind, however, it has faults which cannot simply be shrugged off—occasional overwriting, stretches of fuzzy thinking, and a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.
Clearly Mr. Ellison is seeking to achieve the effect of controlled hysteria— and he does: but the results, I feel, sometimes signify less than meets the eye.
The totalitarian mind
Fact presented in the form of fiction is seldom, as far as I’m concerned, more interesting than fact as fact; but The Time of the Assassins (Lippincott, $3.75) by Godfrey Blunden is an exception to my point. The author, who was a war correspondent in Russia, has written a novel that vividly describes the grisly happenings in Kharkov during the sixteen months between its capture by the Nazis and its recapture by the Red Army. The SS finds the NKVD files intact — “ for each and every individual a dossier” — and it proceeds to murder indiscriminately all members of the Party it can lay its hands on. Soon, however, a Communist underground unit is re-formed, and starts maintaining “Party Vigilance.” When the Russian forces re-enter the city, a new set of assassins precipitously liquidates anyone accused of disloyalty.
Mr. Blunden’s main character — an old Ukrainian anarchist who is collaborating with the Germans thinking they will free the Ukraine — is an interesting creation. Fomin, a fanatical teen-age Communist — one of what Koestler has called the new Neanderthalers — is probably about as real as such human robots can be made to appear. And there are several well-drawn lesser characters: a touching little girl who spies for the Germans because her dead parents’ terror of the Party has made her hate Communists; a dreamy Ukrainian philologist; an ice-cold SS general, in whom the assassin typo reaches monstrous perfection. Mr. Blunden has done a vigorous and quietly eloquent job of storytelling. The Time of the Assassins belongs among the relatively small group of novels which have arrestingly depicted the workings of the totalitarian mind.
When the late George Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia (Harcourt, Brace, $3.50) — an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War
— it took extraordinary courage for a member of the Left to speak up, as he did, about the treacherous policy of the Communists toward the Republic cause. Orwell’s book, published in England fifteen years ago, is now issued here for the first time. It is memorable both for its graphic picture of the fighting front and for its uncompromising honesty. Orwell was that very rare specimen: a man willing to die for a cause and unwilling to lie for it. As Lionel Trilling says in his Introduction, “He was a virtnous man.
Orwell arrived in Spain to write some articles, and “common decency” immediately drew him into the fight against Fascism. More or less by chance, he joined the militia of P.O.U.M., a dissident Communist party; and he was sent to the Aragon front with a company of untrained, ludicrously armed, teen-age ragamuffins. After several months at the front, Orwell was almost fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet in the neck. When he got out of the hospital, friends warned him that the Stalinists had denounced P.O.U.M. as “Trotskyite-Fascist ” and were arresting its members. For a few days Orwell led a queer, hunted life in Barcelona; then he escaped into France.
NATO vs. the Kremlin
Drew Middleton’sThe Defense of II estem Europe (Appleton-Century-Crofts, $3.50) contains no striking disclosures and no large novel ideas: its value is that it is a responsible and informed report on matters of great urgency. The author has for the past twelve years been a foreign correspondent of the New York times in various parts of Europe, including Russia, and he is now the Times’s top man in Germany.
Middleton draws up, first, a balance sheet of the strength and weaknesses of the enemy: he scrutinizes in turn the Red army, air force, and navy; Soviet productive capacity; and the contribution of the satellites. Then he surveys, country by country, NATO’s military resources with special attention to the U.S. Seventh Army in Germany and to the problems of creating a European army. Middleton believes that there is grave danger of a Russian attack this year or next unless the build-up of Allied strength moves into higher gear — he gives little weight (far too little, it could be argued) to U.S. atomic superiority as a deterrent. If war were to break out now, he says, the U.S. troops in Europe would have to fight “less well armed” than the Russians, and American fliers would be shot down in planes that are obsolete “because the Smiths got a new television set and the Browns a new convertible.”
With survival at stake, American self-righteousness toward Europe is a dangerous luxury, Middleton suggests; it contributes to anti-Americanism and thereby damages the program which is costing us billions of dollars. Middleton points out that in the fiscal year ending last June, the United States delivered only 65 per cent of the amount (measured in dollar value) promised under the Mutual Security Defense Program. He says that chauvinistic writers have caused Americans to underestimate, considerably, the British Army and Field Marshal Montgomery — a source of bitterness among the British. He argues that the Pentagon blundered badly in its tactless handling of German rearmament, which is understandably an explosive issue in Europe, and not merely to the French. Middleton himself stresses that German rearmament, though necessary, contains far greater risks than most Americans realize.
The Defense of Western Europe is a mine of information. It offers an answer to, or at least clarifies, a host of crucial questions which many Americans are asking.
There is possibly no man, with the exception of Harry Hopkins, who collaborated with the late F.D.R. so closely over so long a period as Judge Samuel I. Rosenman. HisWorking with Roosevelt (Harper, $6.00) covers the oft-told Roosevelt story from a fresh angle. It is neither a biography nor a history of the Roosevelt era. Its subject is, essentially, Roosevelt’s speeches — how and under what circumstances they were written; the ideas behind them; the reaction to them; and their translation into policy and action. “ This is a partisan book,” the author declares. “It is written by one who believes that Franklin D. Roosevelt . . . was one of our greatest Presidents.” I should add that Judge Rosenman’s is an extraordinarily modest, even self-effacing book; that it is good-tempered and undogmatic; and that I found its 550 pages thoroughly engrossing.
Samuel Rosenman was one of Roosevelt’s chief speech-writers from 1928 down to the time of the President’s death (except during the years from 1932 to 1936). Roosevelt, he says, worked hard on the drafts submitted to him: “[He] made so many corrections and inserted so many paragraphs of his own, that by the time a speech was delivered it was thoroughly impregnated with his own style and personality.” All those who worked on speeches for any length of time became able, unconsciously, to imitate the President’s style. Rosenman was struck by the difference between Sherwood’s own prose and his drafts for F.D.R.; and I was struck by the fact that Rosenman, the dean of Roosevelt’s speechwriters, is far from being a felicitous writer when speaking for himself.
Some of Roosevelt’s famous phrases now receive definitive attribution: “economic royalists” —Stanley High; “rendezvous with destiny” — Corcoran; “new deal”— Rosenman. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” was a last-minute insert made by Roosevelt, who may have seen the similar phrase of Thoreau’s in a book by his bedside.
When Roosevelt felt himself unfairly attacked, he would work off steam by dictating a vitriolic speech which he never delivered. His most trying habit was to give two men the same assignment without letting them know it. The pledge he violated most often in his career was the pledge to his speech-writers not to ad-lib.
In the political sphere, Rosenman fills out the record on a number of points; for instance, Roosevelt’s feelings about Farley; the background to his running for the Third Term; the tangled struggle over the VicePresidential nomination in 1944. The most important political disclosure is that Roosevelt and Willkie corresponded in the summer of 1944 — the letters are reprodueod here — about a plan to form a coalition between the liberals in the Democratic and Republican parties, leaving the conservatives in each party to unite. At Willkie’s request, a proposed meeting to discuss this realignment was deferred until after the election; and by that time Willkie was dead.
Innocents in the U.S.A.
One of Britain’s popular exports to the United States has been a certain type of fiction with a peculiarly British accent — the kind of comedy (produced in different literary grades) by such writers as Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Angela Thirkell, and P. G. Wodehouse. A new practitioner in this field, René MacColl, has written a keen-eyed burlesque of British wartime propaganda in the United States. Assignment Stuffed Shirt (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $3.00) has to do with a Fruit and Vegetables Processing Mission sent over to study American canning methods. Only one member is an expert on fruit and vegetables, and its youthful public relations man, Anthony Cleft, gets the appointment on the strength of a single published article on horse racing.
Mr. MacColl has a nice flair for the devastating capsule portrait. The Mission’s chief, Professor Plankette, has a voice “like the chirp of one of the lesser birds.” Dame Emma Quantum is a bemonocled Hermann Goering of a woman, with “the slowly bouncing menace . . . of a battleship making a courtesy call at a foreign port in times of international stress.”
The Mission starts off in New York with a catastrophic press conference. Its quarters in Washington put it in close proximity to a brothel disguised as a massage parlor, and farcical complications ensue. Plankette and Cleft make two sorties into the Middle West to bring the light to diehard Anglophobe newspaper publishers, and ludicrously muddle through to accidental triumph. His Majesty’s cloak-and-dagger boys enter the proceedings; and the story reels along to a frantic climax in San Francisco, where Anthony Cleft, now madly efficient, succeeds in wrecking the cunningly laid plans of the British Secret Service. The cream of the jest is that the Mission was never meant to go to the United States, but to Australia.
After getting off to a genuinely satirical start, MacColl lets his plotting lapse into outright farce. But throughout the novel there is a telling insight into the elements of absurdity and hokum in the U.S. press and radio, and into the bumbling in British wartime public relations. Putting the “Innocents Abroad” theme into reverse, MacColl has come up with a summery novel that is fresh, fast, and sometimes very funny.
THE VILLAGE by Marghanita Laski. Houghton Mifflin, S3.00.
The setting of Miss Laski’s novel is Priory Dean, a village near London, and the time is just after the war. Most of the village gentry are impoverished, and cling all the more tenaciously to their sense of class; most of the working people are earning good money, but they, too, have a strong respect for class distinctions. The only person with no sense of class is eighteen-year-old Margaret Trevor, whose parents are excessively poor and excessively snobbish. Margaret, who loves to cook and keep house and is pining for a man to look after, falls in love with a young typesetter. When they announce that they intend to get married, a social cataclysm grips the village.
As a love story, Miss Laski’s novel is rather small beer; but as a study of mores at the beginning of Britain’s social revolution it is moderately interesting. The plot moves along in a pleasant, crisply competent way, and you find yourself getting quite steamed up over the drama of love versus caste.
RACE OF THE SOUL by Vincent Sheean. Random House. S3.0.
Elizabeth Redwood, wife of a State Department official, has broken up her happy marriage because, in a moment of uncontrollable desire, she was unfaithful to her husband. She finds the existence of this devil in her flesh exceedingly degrading, and betakes herself to India in search of spiritual therapy from a Yogi. Her husband, meanwhile, is in a spot of trouble in Washington, D.C., through helping a satellite diplomat and his wife to go into hiding. Presently, the Redwoods unite lovingly in Rome, where the husband decides to dedicate himself to his painting, only to discover that he’s a rotten painter. And now, presumably, they live happily ever after, though how Elizabeth has been changed by her exposure to mysticism remains extremely hazy. It’s all pretty silly, I’m afraid.
FLEE THE ANGRY STRANGERS byGeorge Mandel. Bobbs-Merrill, S3.75.
A first novel depicting the nightmarish little world of drug addicts in Greenwich Village. At the story’s opening the eighteen-year-old heroine, Diane Lattimer, has just escaped from a detention home. She has been escaping all her life — from a selfish, sanctimonious mother and a world whose people seemed to her angry strangers. And she has found a refuge in marihuana and the crazy, dope-happy friendship of other lost souls such as young Dincher, the trumpeter; Lukey the Swede, philosopher of “escapeology”; Buster, a sinister, moronic giant forever playing with a knife. In a whirling succession of ghastly episodes, the story chronicles Diane’s steady descent into the inferno. She switches from marihuana to heroin; takes to prostitution; and sees one of the normal men who love her killed and the other turn away from her in despair. A one-track story of such unrelieved grimness would have gained in impact, I think, if its 480 pages had been somewhat pared down. As it stands, the book documents very vividly a sector new to the novel — its jazzy lingo, its weird loyalties, its chaotic habits and surrealistic horrors.