Postmarked Moscow (Scribner’s, $3.00) — the diary kept by Lydia Kirk from July, 1949, to October, 1951, when her husband was U.S. Ambassador to the Kremlin — is something of a novelty in the long procession of books about Russia: it is the first report angled from the perspective of an American woman running a large household in Moscow.
Mrs. Kirk, confining herself to personal experience and firsthand observation, writes mainly about concrete particulars: the ways in which Burobin, the department to which foreign diplomats address their needs, is making domestic conditions intolerable for the diplomatic missions of the West ; the nervousness of Madame Vishinsky, a product of the Old Order, when she had Mrs. Kirk to tea under the chilling chaperonage of two Soviet ladies of the new generation; visits to the opera, the ballet, and official Soviet celebrations; the price of food and clothing; a showing of Soviet haute couture — triumphs of dowdiness, displayed by a stout model pushing fifty; the few and repellent items of female underwear on sale in the stores; the stunning inefficiency of Russian plumbers and repairmen; the beggars in and around Moscow; the groups of young women, toiling with utter impassivity, at the heaviest sort of manual labor. A record of this kind, compiled by an intelligent and spirited observer, conveys to us with exceptional directness at least some of the realities of Soviet life.
Mrs. Kirk’s observations about the taste of the Soviet élite in architecture, furniture, and dress suggest a piquant insight into one aspect of Stalinism today. The leaders of the Kremlin have reverted to what seemed fine and elegant when they were growing up forty years ago. In matters of taste and manners, you find “a kind of aspidistra, turn of the century atmosphere" — buildings that alternate between “pillared brownwtone and whiteplaster wedding cakes"; music that is cloyingly sweet; and the stiff formality, the snobbish emphasis on status, of the parvenu determined to be genteel. There is an increasing resemblance, in certain respects, between the mentality of the Communist hierarchy and that of the prissy, ultraconservative petit bourgeons who was the special object of Marx’s loathing and a prime target of the revolution.
With its graphic details of how foreigners and Russians live in Moscow and its many amusing anecdotes, Mrs. Kirk’s book is strong in human interest. And periodically an image or an incident, points up some aspect of Soviet pathology more tellingly than pages of discourse by the experts in ideology. Madame Gromyko, for instance, once innocently remarked that her young son, in order to keep up the English he learned in the United States, “sometimes locks himself in his room, just to talk English to himself.”Mrs. Kirk leaves one with a grimly heightened awareness of the lengths to which the Kremlin has gone to isolate Russia from the West. One wonders how much longer there will be an American Embassy in Moscow.
The emergence of Byzantium
In Theodora and the Emperor (Doubleday, $4.50), Harold Lamb — the author of a string of popular biographies drawn from Asia’s history — chronicles the life of the Macedonian shepherd who became the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I (527-505), famous for the codification of Roman Law; and that of the onetime harlot whom Justinian made his Empress.
Mr. Lamb has had to contend with the fact that there are numerous gaps and uncertainties in the source material on Theodora and Justinian. He sticks strictly to the historical record as far as characters, events, and incidents are concerned; but he uses a great deal of invented dialogue, and attributes to his people thoughts, feelings, and gestures, in the manner of a novelist dealing with his own creations. To my mind this fictional technique has a disconcerting effect: it vulgarizes and makes less convincing a book which, basically, is a seriously researched history and a carefully considered portrayal of an extraordinary human partnership.
Theodora grew up in Constantinople as a child of the circus; at ten she was winning Aves for her clowning and her rudimentary strip-tease. She drifted to Egypt; had an illegitimate child; took refuge with the priests; and wandered back to Constantinople, where she became Justinian’s mistress, and later, though she told him about her past, his wife.
Ever since Justinian had been summoned to Constantinople at eighteen and adopted by his uncle —an old soldier whom he succeeded as Emperor— he had devoted himself single-mindedly to study and palace affairs: he was an abstemious, lonely, hard-working man, lacking in physical courage. Although he and Theodora had nothing in common, they became the first notable man and wife team in history, each gaining in stature from the other. The ignorant girl, fearful of falling back into the gutter, rapidly grew into an effective ruler — firm-willed, practical, and gifted with legerdemain in intrigue. Of stronger fiber than her husband, Theodora stiffened him at moments of crisis and greatly influenced his decisions.
Justinian’s obsessive ambitions were the reconquest of the West — which his general, Belisarius, achieved; but which did not endure after his death — and the union of the Christian Churches in a Universal Church. His great dream was to give the world one empire, one law, and one Church, over which the Emperor would be supreme, even in matters of dogma. We see clearly in his life the beginnings of that Byzantine attitude which, Professor Toynbee has stressed, was to become the heritage of Russia and which persists in Soviet thinking today .
Mr. Lamb’s book brings vividly before us the background and mores of the epoch — its political struggles between the “Blues" a nd “ Greens ”; its intricate religious controversies; its far-flung military campaigns and the huge taxation problems that went with them; its palace rivalries; its rowdy diversions at the Hippodrome; and the splendor of its art, which was entering into its Golden Age. Theodora and the Emperor re-creates a highly colored slice of Byzantine history: a turning point in a civilization which Western historians have tended to neglect.
Dunkerque to Berlin
This being the “in-between” season as far as publishing is concerned,
I have a chance to catch up with Chester Wilmot’sThe Struggle for Europe (Harper, $5.00), which, inexcusably, I let go by when it appeared some months ago, and which is sure to be read for quite some time to come. Mr. Wilmot, an Australian, covered the reconquest of Europe as correspondent for the BBC, and later he spent several years studying, with enormous thoroughness, the war documents of the Allies and of the enemy. What makes his book so fascinating is that, to a greater degree than any of the generals or even Mr. Churchill, Wilmot records the conduct of the war by both sides — an approach which enables the reader to see events in their totality and leaves virtually no question unanswered.
Wilmot, in effect, gives us a kind of God’s-eye view, in which fateful miscalculations, portentous accidents, unsuspected sequences of cause and effect, and piercing ironies stand out in bold relief. We are continually making such discoveries as the fact that Germany’s flying bomb raids on London had a curious and momentous by-product: the heavy Allied bombardment of flying bomb sites in the Calais area hardened the German conviction that the Normandy landings were a feint and that the main blow would come north of the Seine.
Mr. Wilmot is both an immensely skillful writer and a man of powerful intellect. While chronicling events with a revealing fullness of detail, crisscrossing smoothly from one side to the other, he has succeeded in keeping the narrative orderly and dynamic, and in bringing out clearly the main lineaments of the great, drama. His treatment of certain phases of the war — the Battle of Britain in particular — is more enlightening than even Winston Churchill’s.
The Struggle for Europe is also notable for its critique of Allied generalship and over-all strategy, of which we have formed our picture mainly from the memoirs of U.S. generals and their aides. From Wilmot - whose whole book shows him to be scrupulous and searching — we get a less congratulatory appraisal. And his criticisms are too challengingly documented to be brushed aside as just “anti-American.”
Wilmot has two main theses. The first is that U.S. generalship wasted lives and prolonged the conflict bytrusting in sledgehammer warfare rather than in brains, and by not giving due weight to the hard-earned experience of the British. Bradley’s heavy losses at Omaha Beach were largely due, says Wilmot, to his refusal to use the mine-clearing tanks and other machines which kept down British casualties. Wilmot argues, with stout support from German records, that if Montgomery’s policy of making a swift, concentrated thrust into Germany had prevailed over Eisenhower’s “broad front” approach, the Allies could have finished off the war in 1944.
The second thesis is the familiar one that, Roosevelt and Marshall were disastrously naïve in insisting that military victory be sought without regard to post-war political eventualities— an error which Wilmot regards as the inevitable result of America’s long tradition of aloofness from power politics. It is possible, of course, to work up a strong case to the effect that, whatever the strategy and diplomacy of the Allies, the defeat of Germany would automatically have made Russia the dominant power in Europe. But, granted that some of Wilmot’s judgments are highly controversial, it still seems to me that his book is easily the best single-volume account of the struggle for Europe.
The world of Faulkner
Most books of literary criticism are of interest only to those with a professional stake in literature. But the first book-length study of a great living novelist who is also a “difficult" novelist—Irving Howe’sWilliam Faulkner (Random House, $3.00)—should prove of wider utility, especially in view of the sharp rise of interest in Faulkner’s work since he won the Nobel Prize.
Mr. Howe is a young critic who has written a searching book on Sherwood Anderson and a good deal of able criticism in the literary journals. His William Faulkner is certainly an excellent job. My only complaint is that it is a bit unexciting, by which I mean that Howe, who elsewhere has shown himself an adventurous critic, has possibly erred on the side of restraint in interpreting Faulkner — and many may account this a virtue.
Faulkner’s achievement is summed up on the opening page_ “Among American novelists of the present century, only William Faulkner has created an imaginary world that is complete in itself. . . . Not since Henry James has any American novelist provided so many living characterizations.”The first half of Howe’s book analyzes this imaginary world — its classes and clans; the role played in it by “the Southern tradition” and its other themes; Faulkner’s treatment of the Negro; the nature of his moral vision. Mr. Howe effectively rebuts the fashionable and nearsighted view that Faulkner is the spokesman for something piously called “traditional values”: he shows that Faulkner sometimes writes in opposition to his tradition and that he struggles with the Southern myth even when he celebrates it. In Faulkner’s moral outlook, fatalism and idealism are perhaps equally strong. The opposition of man’s doom and man’s affirmation of his manhood in the face of that doom forms the distinctive dramatic and moral pattern of Faulkner’s work.
The second part of Howe’s book discusses the novels and the best stories individually. Howe fortifies the reader for the taxing stretches in Faulkner by showing that the difficulties for the most part have their raison d’être. He points out, for instance, that “the principle behind Faulkner’s gargantuan rhetoric is an effort to capture experience in immediacy and flux, the past entangled with the present, and the present with itself.” But there is no pussyfooting about Faulkner’s failings — the looseness and self-indulgence of some of his writing; the alarming fondness for platitude ("moldy odds and ends of cracker-barrel pessimism”) when he steps forth to “talk philosophy"; his inability to achieve moral depth in his portraiture of young women; and other weaknesses.
All in all, Mr. Howe has turned in a readable, levelheaded, and illuminating guide to the novelist who, as Howe says, “has restored to our writing a region of feeling largely lost to it in recent decades.”This book will send the reader back to Faulkner’s work with sharpened perceptions which will bring him new rewards.
Fausta and the Dictator
When The Fancy Dress Party (Farrar, Straus & Young, $3.00) by Alberto Moravia was first published in Italy, its scarcely veiled satire of Mussolini’s police state and love life gave it an audacious topicality. Today, it still stands up pretty well as a sardonic opéra bouffe with two interlocking plot lines, the one having to do with the farcically atrocious ways of secret police, the other with the atrociously farcical ways of love.
The setting is a mythical country in which, after a ruinous civil war, General Tereso Arango has emerged as dictator. Arango, though tough and canny as a Duce, becomes an eager old sap under the influence of amore. As the story opens, he has fallen for the ravishing widow, Countess Sanchez. When he hears that Fausta Sanchez is going to the house party and fancy-dress ball which Duchess Gorina is giving at her country place, he swallows his loathing of the nobility and agrees to attend.
Arango’s reptilian Chief of Police, Cinco, whose importance has waned in the absence of subversive activity, decides that the Duchess’s party is the perfect locale to rig up a phony attempt to assassinate the General, which Cinco will dramatically forestall, thereby earning great kudos. Cinco’s leading agent provocateur instructs a zany would-be revolutionary to slip, disguised as a butler, into the Duchess’s house, where he is to liquidate the General with a (fake) time bomb. This willing moron has a handsome half-brother, Sebastiano, who happens to be Fausta’s lover — I’m afraid the intrigue is beginning to sound as involved as Il Trovatore, but actually Moravia keeps it moving along quite tidily. Only one detail need be added to round out the situation: Fausta, while tantalizing the sentimental General, ditches the tiresomely romantic Sebastiano in favor of a golf caddy, who utterly enchants her with his brutality. All concerned get their pay-off at the fancy-dress ball.
The moral of the finale is that the will of tyrants and the best-laid plans of their police are no match for the power of the Absurd in human affairs. This novel is one of Moravia’s minor works — but a minor work by one of Europe’s best novelists. Within the operatic story, a keen eye and a shrewd mind are at work.
Journey to the Far East by Thomas E. Dewey, which was published on July l4, was reviewed in the May issue. Publication of the book was postponed after the May Atlantic had gone to press.