Richard Kaufmann, a German who has published only one other novel, has written a remarkable book called Heaven Pays No Dividends (Viking, $3.50). There have been a good many hot-tempered books about Nazis and the war, but Mr. Kaufmann is the first author I have seen who has undertaken a dispassionate report on what the life of a nonpolitical German was like from the twenties to the present. The book is an immense panorama full of sharply defined characters and ranging from Paris to Stalingrad to Sicily to the Faroe Islands. Emotionally it ranges from the lightest comedy to hopeless despair. Mr. Kaufmann has flawless control of this mass of material. With no appearance of effort, he dissects the thousand-year Reich as neatly as a lepidopterist skewers a butterfly.
“Once upon a time,” begins the hero-narrator, “I was very happy.” Rodie Stamm was then a small boy sitting under a table on a terrace overlooking the Rhine and being fed, like a dog, by his parents’ guests. This trivial episode sets a pattern for Rodie’s life. He is not ambitious or active or gregarious, and is quite happy to lurk in the background and snap up any casual pleasures that come within reach. He endures discomfort with stolid patience. Rodie is the perfect example of a man who just came along for the ride, but since he is intelligent and observant as well as detached, he is also a good reporter.
There must have been many such almost innocent bystanders in Germany, too docile to run afoul of the party and so discover the corruption behind the façade, a little bothered at times on the score of good taste, a little discouraged by the disparagement of everything intellectual, but quite willing to go along with the party and delegate all responsibility to HIM. They didn’t do wrong; they merely did nothing. If Heaven pays no dividends, why exert oneself for anything but immediate personal advantages?
Rodie’s reactions are all personal and momentary. The rise of Nazism attracts his attention only because his father, a shy literary man, has suddenly taken to making speeches in public and thumping workmen on the shoulder in a comradely way. Aunt Yevgenia, a kindly, versatile, untidy Russian neighbor, worries over her half-Jewish daughter. Rodie escorts the girl to her father in the Faroes, but views the whole affair as a tempest in a teapot. He turns down a chance to get out of Germany because, of course, Hitler’s armies will be invincible.
There’s a bit of long-range shooting, and Rodie is having a fine time in Paris. After Paris comes the Russian front, and the long, painful debacle begins. The war is lost and Rodie’s life is a shambles before he makes his first constructive, generous gesture. It is a very small one, but he does make it.
Rodie’s acknowledgment of ties with the world outside himself is a great and hopeful change, for Mr. Kaufmann makes it clear that a sense of isolation and personal unimportance were the foundations of Nazism among Germans who should have known better. It would not be fair to say that Heaven Hays No Dividends ends on a note of optimism, but it does suggest that Germany’s future need not be totally black.
The inner truth
Eugene O’Neill finished A Moon for the Misbegotten (Random House, $2,75) in 1943, and the play has now been published in book form although it has never been produced in New York nor, as the author explains in a noncommittal foreword, “are there outstanding rights or plans for its production.” It is almost incredible that any work by a man who is unquestionably one of the greatest living dramatists has waited around for nine years without reaching the New York stage, and the fact is a dismal comment on the resources of our theater.
Admittedly the play presents a casting difficulty. Josie Hogan, the heroine, is described as “so oversize for a woman that she is almost a freak,” but then, many a thin actor has played Falstaff.
The subject of the play is one that Mr. O’Neill has dealt with before and from a variety of angles. It’s the difference between illusion and reality, between the masks men and women show the world and their inner truth. How much truth can mankind stand, and what is gained by standing any? In The Iceman Cometh, Mr. O’Neill explored the same theme at greater length and came to more pessimistic conclusions. A Moon for the Misbegotten reads like a preliminary workout for the longer, more complicated play, but it is also highly interesting in its own right.
The two principal characters are preoccupied with creating a false impression of themselves, but in different ways and for different reasons. Josie, believing that no decent man will ever love a girl as large and as plain as she is and cursed with a cantankerous father besides, conceals her feeling of inferiority behind a swaggering manner, and her hunger for affection behind a tremendous reputation as a trollop. Her father’s landlord, James Tyrone, pretends to enjoy the dissipations which are actually designed to distract his attention from what he considers his horrid betrayal of his mother’s memory. Josie’s troubles are concrete and her misdemeanors purely imaginary; Tyrone’s dissipations are solid, but his troubles are spiritual. Roth Josie and Tyrone have a perfectly sane understanding of why they act as they do. Although neither is willing to admit hitting on the wrong remedy, each can see the other’s mistake.
Under the influence of old Hogan’s bootleg bourbon, Tyrone confesses to Josie the crime against his mother for which his conduct is a neurotic penance. Josie, driven out of her pose as a backwoods Messalina, accepts the role of substitute mother and forgives him in the dead woman’s name. They both gain confidence and peace of mind through their temporary unmasking, but there is no indication that either will give up the mask in public. Masks, as O’Neill reiterated in The Iceman Cometh, are a condition of life.
The play is by no means as serious as it sounds in summary, for it is full of action and argument. The mutual confidence of Tyrone and Josie is brought about by a thoroughly interesting plot. The raucous humors of Hogan pere, who would be maddening in real life, are amusing in print; and the play is on the whole rather more readable than most of O’Neill’s works, designed, as they should be, essentially for the stage and not the armchair.
The thesis of Yon, the Jury, by Mary Borden (Longmans, Green, $3.00), is not new, for it’s a fairly common suspicion that if Christ appeared on earth today He would land in jail. To do Miss Borden justice, she does not make any divine claims for her hero. Martin Merriedew is an idealistic English doctor who determines to live literally by Christ’s laws. He ends in the dock, standing trial for high treason.
It’s no light matter to create a Christ like character, and the author has shrewdly avoided comparisons with Dostoyevsky by circling around Martin rather than portraying him directly. Her narrator is a woman who has known Martin for years and is troubled by his situation. She collects all the facts she can about the man in the hope of deciding whether he or society is at fault.
Martin appears as a child, seriously worried about the world; as a medical student confident that he has found the answer to all problems; and finally as a withdrawn and hopeless prisoner. His effect on other people is described at great length. The narrator’s brother never recovers from his feeling of guilt at not giving up his estate and following Martin into a life of poverty and service. A prostitute is reformed by Martin. He makes the blind see and the lame walk, at least temporarily. These cures, although medically a bit unorthodox, are not represented as miraculous. He is turned over to the authorities by one of his own followers.
It is clear from the tone of the book that the reader is expected to draw a profound moral lesson from Martin’s fate. Whether all readers will is doubtful. Miss Borden has ignored one major question. Does a man’s decision to follow Christ’s laws as laid down in the King James Version automatically confer on him Christ’s right to demand absolute obedience from his followers? Martin assumes that it does and Miss Borden, through her narrator, seems to agree with him. This dogma is not easy to swallow, especially since one only hears about Martin’s power of love, but sees his arbitrary domination in action. On the whole, there is much to be said for the judge’s unofficial verdict of “Crazy as a coot.”
Life on the Monongahela
The Rivers of America series, which in the past has often gone hard aground, is hack afloat on The Monongahela. by Richard Bissell (Rinehart, $3.50). Mr. Bissell is a writer who really knows his river. He used to pilot up and down it on a vessel called the Coal Queen. She was “a piece of marine junk overdue for the scrap yard.” but in his heart Mr. Bissell loves the disreputable old heap and so will his readers.
Anyone who undertakes to write about an American river has two choices. He can go at it like Mark Twain, or he can go at it some other way. It doesn’t make any difference in the end, for the great shadow will fall across him no matter what he does. Mr. Bissell has elected to follow Twain where he can and do a bit of research whore he can’t. It’s sound strategy.
Historical rummaging underlies about half the book, making up a history of navigation from rafts to Diesel boats, with riparian excursions into river towns, the properties of Monongahela rye whiskey, the life of Andrew Carnegie, and the undeserved glory of Robert Fulton who, as every good enthusiast knows, did not invent the steamboat. The other half of the book depicts life on the river as Pilot Bissell saw it, and it’s wild and dirty and wonderful.
Life on the river was filled with near-catastrophe, small feuds with lock tenders, food, and talk. Mr. Bissell has a great gift for talk, He can report a conversation with a halfwitted cook and make it sound simultaneously funny and realistic, which is selective art of a high order. He is a master of rambling river gossip and also of the schizophrenic or rugged individualist conversation, in which A and B courteously exchange remarks about two different subjects and neither party acknowledges the existence of the other’s topic. The effect of genteel chaos produced by this trick is indescribable.
The information assembled in The Monongahela is all available in other places, so the book cannot be recommended as an indispensable historical guide and atlas, but it is an indispensable pleasure for every reader whose heart leaps up at the sound of a steamboat whistle.