The Peripatetic Reviewer
Arrow in the Blue (Macmillan, $5.00)—the personal history of Arthur Koestler up to his entry into the German Communist Party in 1931 — is a remarkably successful synthesis of self-examination, political analysis, and lively chronicling. In this first volume of what is to be a two-volume autobiography, Koestler has analyzed more discerningly than any of the other celebrated ex-Communists the inner tensions and obsessions which, acted on by contemporary history, led him to embrace “the new faith.”
Koestler does not minimize the rational element in his joining the Party. The political constellation of 1930 made it appear to many of his generation — he was born in Budapest, in 1905 — that Communism was the only effective force that could stop Fascism. Of those who turned Communist in those days, Koestler says: “It was an honorable error.”
But Koestler’s primary concern is to anatomize the emotional pathology which led him and others to surrender themselves totally to the Party. His childhood, filled with “guilt, fear and loneliness,” left him with a sense of isolation and the protective habit of cultivating a “false personality.” (A shrewd Russian agent once said to him: “We all have inferiority complexes of various sizes, but yours isn’t a complex — it’s a cathedral.”) At fourteen, precociously well-read in science, Koestler ran up against the paradox of Infinity and it started to haunt him until it became “sheer torture.” This obsession with the unsolved riddle of Infinity was the beginning of a quest which was to make him a “Casanova of Causes”; a Casanova in search of the ideal Helena; a disciple in search of the all-knowing mentor; a pilgrim in search of Utopia — “The form of the rash changed, but the disease remained the same . . . absolutitis.” Koestler defines this “disease,” more specifically, as a longing for the certainty afforded by a “closed” system of belief, of which Communism is only one — a system which furnishes all-embracing answers and a logic of its own which annihilates all criticism.
Coming as it does from Koestler, this analysis has devastating implications in regard to precisely the kind of ex-Communists — the absolutists who surrendered body and soul to the Party — who have been dramatizing themselves as the oracles of our day. The symptoms change, but the disease remains the same — an all-or-nothing mentality which finds it repugnant to live in an intellectually open world.
Koestler’s first cause was Zionism. One semester before graduating from the Vienna Polytechnic, he abruptly took off for Palestine as an agricultural worker. After a probationary period on a collective settlement, he was rejected as unsuited to the life, and for a year was a starving vagabond in Haifa and Tel-Aviv. Between long stretches of unemployment, he put in brief stints at a fantastic assortment of jobs —among them, lemonade vendor, architect, and writer of Hebrew fairy tales. In 1927, the Middle East correspondent of the great Ullstein chain passed his job on to Koestler. There followed four years of lightning success— in Jerusalem, Paris, then Berlin. At twenty-six, Koestler had reached one of the pinnacles of European journalism. At this time he joined the Communist Party.
Koestler’s personal history seems to me on the whole the most convincing, and certainly the most human, of his books. It has lapses into intellectual flashiness, but they are less frequent, and there is less stridency, than heretofore. V. S. Pritchett has said that Koestler gives the impression of writing with a pneumatic drill and wishing it were a machine-gun. Arrow in the Blue sounds as though it might have been written with a fountain pen.
The Atom Traitors
There is one crucial point which Koestler, surprisingly, fails to explore in his self-analysis: the idealistic aspirations which have led men to embrace Communism have often been a sublimation of an unconscious wish for power. I mention this clinical point only because it possibly has some bearing on the motivation of the men whose story is told in The Traitors (Scribner’s, $3.50): Allan Nunn May, Klaus Fuchs, and Bruno Pontecorvo.
The author, Alan Moorehead, is one of Britain’s best journalists; and as a reportorial job his book is fascinating — offhand, I can’t think of any recent thriller which competes with the drama of Klaus Fuchs. But as an attempt to “explain" the traitors, Moorehead’s book doesn’t get very far. The author can’t quite reconcile himself to the proven fact that a man’s everyday behavior does not necessarily indicate whether he is the sort of person for whom the Communist mystique might have an overpowering magnetism. (At times, Moorehead sounds as though he were thinking, “Dashed unsporting of these chaps not to give themselves away.”)
Moorehead makes much of the fact that Nunn May was not, so far as is known, a member of the Party; and that Fuchs, after taking refuge in England, did not associate with Communists. The crucial facts, however, are that Nunn May had “imbibed the [Communist] philosophy,”and in a quiet way had steadily supported the Communist line until he took up his war work; and that Fuchs, in Germany, had been an embattled Communist. Both were shy, rather lonely men; and there are indications (such as Fuchs’s comments on Marx) that they harbored the kind of Utopian longings described by Koestler. In short, their faith in Communism is less problematic than Moorehead suggests and would be sufficient to account for their treason. But there was possibly also another motive at work. Nunn May and Fuchs found themselves, as few men do, in possession of knowledge which gave them enormous potential power. By turning their knowledge over to the Russians they could actualize that power -they could see themselves as history-makers doing the right but painful thing to serve mankind.
Tallulah: Myth and Semi-myth
When a famous actress who is the subject of a scarlet legend — in this case Tallulah Bankhead — comes out with her memoirs, there is a vulgar but human tendency to wonder: How much does she tell? The answer is neatly summed up in Miss Bankhead’s concluding remarks about her love life. The gist of this essay is: “I’ve rejoiced in considerable dalliance ... I found no surprises in the Kinsey report.” And the parting shot; “Does that clear up everything? I don’t think so. What do you want? Forever Amber?”
Miss Bankhead’s Tallulah (Harper, $3.95) is not so much an autobiography as a dramatic performance which simply reverses the customary relationship between actress and script. Tallulah has played Tallulah before a dictaphone in the celebrated Bankhead manner, and the artful hand of Richard Manev (to whom acknowledgment is made) has helped transcribe the performance into a book. The book is not as memorable as Miss Bankhead’s “God-awful laugh.” But it’s lively entertainment — witty, pugnacious, and uninhibited in every department.
In Tallulah, there is none of the romantic fervor for the theater, none of the sentimentality about “the profession,”which is traditional in the memoirs of famous stage folk. “I loathe acting,”says Miss Bankhead heretically. “. . . it is sheer drudgery.” She made her professional debut as a mute child in a complete flop. “No aspirant for fame and its alloys,”Miss Bankhead writes, “was ever more stage-struck than I. . . . But once I achieved stardom — which she did at twenty-one — “the whole apparatus of the stage palled on me.”
Miss Bankhead indignantly repudiates some of the more heinous vices with which legend has credited her, but she admits to being co-author of the legend. When she was a youthful virgin posing as a femme fatate, she used to go around saying: “My dear, cocaine is simply divine”; and it has frequently been her pleasure to proclaim herself a virtuoso of sin. The rumor that her consumption of alcohol taxes the output of the distilleries is, we are assured, a libel. She concedes, however, that “You’ll not find me in the two-cocktails-beforedinner-file. After two cocktails, I don’t want any dinner.”When Miss Bankhead has had her final tussle with the Tallulah myth, she adds the postscript “All right, semi-myth.”
The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, 1929-41 (Macmillan, $5.00), subtitled “The Great Depression,”is the third and concluding volume of Mr. Hoover’s autobiography. It strengthens my conviction, I’m afraid, that history has shown Mr. Hoover to possess a singular talent for being wrong, and a genius for so misreading history as to conclude that he has invariably been right. I will try to sum up Mr. Hoover’s thesis as nearly as possible in his own words, appending, as I go along, some notes of dissent.
The main reason for the boom and crash of 1927-29, says Mr. Hoover, was the cheap money policy adopted, against his protest, by the Federal Reserve Board. (A drastic oversimplification whereby Hoover absolves the economic philosophy of the era of normalcy from any responsibility for the conditions it encouraged.)
Mr. Hoover sees six phases in the evolution of the depression. The first, lasting from the stock market crash to April, 1931, was a “normal recession” from which the country was recovering “when the earthquake of financial panie, reached us from Europe.” (Mr. Hoover puts B before A: what happened was that the American crisis knocked the European economy off the shoulders of the Atlas which had been supporting it. It was principally through American loans that the European economy had held together in the twenties and had paid for purchases from the United States. The U.S. speculative boom siphoned off money formerly invested in Europe, with the result that Europe’s difficulties became acute before the crash; and the crash, by drying up loans to Europe, precipitated the financial “earthquake” whose tremors made themselves felt in the United States.)
In the second and third phases of the depression — April through November, 1931 — the United States was hard hit by Europe’s Might from the gold standard and by a slump in European purchases of U.S. exports. But Hoover’s remedial measures oroduced “a few rays of sunlight.” (Hoover’s Administration, the previous June, had erected the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, whose restrictive effect on Europe’s exports to the U.S. reduced Europe’s capacity to buy U.S. products.)
In the fourth period — December, 1931, to November, 1932— the depression reached the bottom of the pit. Though hampered by a Democratic Congress bent on the destruction of the Republican Administration, Hoover forced through great measures— among them creation of the R.F.C., banking and stock exchange reforms, unemployment and agricultural relief—which “started us on the road to recovery.” (It is widely recognized, now, that Hoover put up a better fight against the depression than he was credited with in the thirties. But his claim that the U.S. was “on the road to recovery” in mid-1932 is pretty shaky: industry was operating at less than half its 1929 volume and stock market prices were far below the low point of the ‘29 panic.)
In the fifth phase, recovery was checked by “public apprehension over the heterodox policies announced by the New Dealers”; and by the unwillingness of Roosevelt as President-elect to coöperate with Hoover in assurances that would have averted the bank panic. (How come Roosevelt carried forty-two states if the public was so apprehensive of his policies?)
The sixth phase of the depression began with Roosevelt’s inauguration and lasted until 1941. If the New Deal had continued Mr. Hoover’s policies instead of trying to impose a collectivist system on America, this country “should have made complete recovery within eighteen months . . . as did all the other nations with a free economy.” (Among the nations cited as recovering, thanks to a free economy, are three pioneers of the welfare state: Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.)
Mr. Hoover writes about the depression with what might be described as a slide-rule approach; and his book as a whole leaves the impression that things were really not too bad until the New Deal came into power. Hoover piles chart upon chart, quotes his inimitably starchy memoranda and addresses for page upon page, in a dogged attempt to prove he did not make a single major mistake as President. The fantastic lengths to which Hoover goes in pursuit of total self-justification are responsible for the few moments of humor in the book. We are assured, for instance, that the apple-sellers of the Hoover years, so far from being unemployed unfortunates, were astute entrepreneurs who had spotted a good thing. Says Hoover: “Many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.”
Cain and Abel
East of Eden (Viking, $4.50), the new novel by John Steinbeck, has most of the ingredients that make for popular success. It is a capacious (602 pp.) saga of an American family, stretching in time from the Civil War to World War I. It offers something which is in short supply in the contemporary novel — several wholly admirable characters. Its subject, in Steinbeck’s words, is “the permanent war between good and evil.” And it makes the triumphant assertion that man, for all his weakness, is free to choose the righteous course; and that, by recognition of his soul’s freedom, he gains the knowledge that he can fight through and win. In short, Mr. Steinbeck, in whose previous work guardians of morality have discerned a hideous depravity of outlook, is now clearly on the side of the angels. But literary virtue is an altogether different matter, and I’m sorry to say that East of Eden seems to me a highly disappointing novel for a writer who has already found a place in the literary histories.
The story’s binding motif is the following drama twice enacted. A father has a favorite son, who grows up to be “ the good son ”; and another son — hungry for his father’s love and jealous of his brother —who grows up under the curse of those who feel themselves unloved.
At the outset Steinbeck has a firm command of his materials, but the novel degenerates as it goes along. The improbabilities grow more flagrant, the sentimentality thicker, the intellectual naïveté more exasperating. Two of the major characters seem to me preposterous creations. The first is the hero’s wife, a beautiful monster who has burned her parents alive, and who deserts a wealthy and admirable husband for a career in a brothel. The second is a Chinese cook into whose mouth Steinbeck puts much of his moralizing and philosophizing. This minor-league Lin Yutang is a translator of poetry in his spare moments, and once learned Hebrew in order to clear up his doubts about sixteen lines in the fourth chapter of Genesis. He talks pidgin at first, but as we get to know him he switches to Mr. Steinbeck’s best English, and unburdens himself copiously of pseudo-profound nuggets of wisdom.
There is a wide variety of action and there is momentum in Mr. Steinbeck’s story. But it is not convincing enough, not created with sufficient freshness and cohesion, to make its moral point deeply felt.
Edward Weeks, who has been away, will return as the Peripatetic Reviewer next month.