IT IS not merely a hangover from Sironia, Texas which prompts me to suggest that there is a trend toward corpulence in American fiction. One striking difference between today’s American and European novels is that the former, on the average, are much fatter. AIr. Hemingway, lo be sure, has recently given us a shining example of how much can be achieved in a small compass; and there certainly are plenty of American writers whose work is admirably compact. But by and large, big novels are becoming more prevalent — possibly because, though most people complain they can’t give enough time to reading, popular taste, paradoxically, runs to novels that are fat.
This trend toward more wordage seems to me unfortunate, not because it makes more work for reviewers, but because selectivity and compression are the essence of literary virtue, and prolixity is the shortest cut to dullness: as Pater said, “All art does but consist in the removal of surplusage.” To produce a novel that is genuinely big takes a big talent, which is necessarily rare. Even the better-than-average big novels that come my way often owe a sizable part of their girth to artistic indiscipline — to non removal of “surplusage.” A case in point is a first novel with some remarkable qualities, The Devil Rides Outside (Smiths, $4.00) by John H. Griffin.
The nameless narrator is a young American musicologist who has been educated in France; and who, leaving behind a mistress in Paris, comes to a French Benedictine monastery, as a guest, to pursue his studies in Gregorian chant. There is little religion in him and abounding last, but as he shares the harsh life of the monks he is drawn to the ideal of saintliness. The story feverishly records with abrupt transitions from erotic fact and fantasy to the searching for God — the hero’s struggle with the devil in his flesh.
The novel’s basic weakness is that the hero, though a man in years, is a juvenile figure who has not outgrown the sex-turmoil of an adolescent, and whose spiritual conflict sounds more like a crisis of puberty than an adult drama of the soul. For his conflict hinges on the naïve idea that if he can once resist fleshly temptation — and the woman he finally resists is peculiarly untempting — he will be all set to become a saint. Most of the novel’s sound and fury is bound up with the medieval notion that sex is the domain of Satan; and the hero’s morality is of roughly the same order as that of an alcoholic in whose eyes all evil is lodged in a bottle of booze. From the purely literary standpoint, the novel is marred by excess — it is full of redundancies and of passages overblown with emotionalism.
But when all this has been said on the negative side, there remain very considerable literary merits — the convincing description of life in the monastery; individual scenes that have a powerful impact; a superb portrait of a vain, nasty, insanely possessive woman; above all, energy and a sense of life intensely felt.
The ways of love
The Loved and the Unloved (Pellegrini & Cudahy, $3.00) by François Mauriac — winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize for Literature and France’s leading Catholic novelist — is an exemplary case of “the removal of surplusage.” This 143-page story (translated by Gerard Hopkins) has the classic virtues: brevity of style; concentrated plotting; and a well-defined dramatic progression. The setting is a dreary little French provincial town, and in a few pages we are steeped in its atmosphere — its petty snobbery, its malice, and its worship of the almighty hectare. An idyll between a boy and a girl starry-eyed about each other is interwoven with the drama of an unloved, middle-aged woman’s sordid pursuit of a young man who finds her disgusting. The repellent Madame Agathe — an arresting specimen of Mauriac’s women who are “damned” — is the instrument whereby the austere young man is freed from his false image of himself and of the unworthy friend whom he has idolized.
Of Mauriac’s more than twenty novels, eight have been published in the United States and all are at present in print. Though widely read in France, Mauriac’s books have had but a limited following in this country. The reason may be that, in a certain sense, he makes the worst of both worlds. In a Postscript to The Loved and the Unloved which explains its Christian orientation, Mauriac says; “The picture I have painted is indeed black. It shows humanity untouched by Grace.” To the reader who does not share his religious beliefs, there is an aridity in Mauriac’s vision of the world, pervasively imbued as it is with the notion of Man’s guilt; I can’t help feeling that the Bon Dieu would probably approve if Mauriac could forget Original Sin long enough to show a bit more human love. At the same time, Mauriac has been reproached by Catholic critics for not showing, sufficiently, the victory of Grace. His distinctions as a novelist are that, despite the militancy of his faith, he has refused to force his talent to prove theological points; and further, that he is often a keen psychologist and certainly one of the finest craftsmen of our time.
A strong contender for last year’s Nobel Prize, along with Ernest Hemingway, was Madame Colette, currently represented by a collection of three short novels, entitled Colette (Farrar, Straus & Young, $3.50). Gigi (successfully dramatized on Broadway) is the story of an entrancing adolescent who is being groomed to be an expensive courtesan, and who is such an inept pupil that her exasperating innocence snares her an enormously rich husband. Julie de Carneilhan deals with the complex, somewhat elusive relationship between an elegant Parisienne of forty and her ex-husband. In Chance Acquaintances Colette appears in person, accompanied by her beloved cats, as the narrator of two dramas which take place at a French spa.
While only Gigi is close to representing Colette at her best, the other two novelettes bear witness to her extraordinary gifts. Colette’s domain — and she sticks to it exclusively — is love, or more precisely, those relationships which have to do with the bed. Her special genius is that she writes about those relationships with an utterly matter-of-fact and utterly feminine truthfulness, which knows no shame and yet is never shaming. It might be said of her that she considers love too serious a business for the novelist to treat it with romanticism or sentimentality, with eroticism or even passion. But though her eye is cool and clear, her heart is warm. There is wit in her work and a sense of fun; and she brilliantly renders the world of the senses. Her celebrated style — Maugham once said no one in France wrote better — inevitably loses in translation. But even in the English it conveys with economy no end of subtle nuances, and it retains considerable charm.
Memoirs of war and peace
Turbulent Era (Houghton Mifflin, 2 vols., $15.00) tells the story of Joseph C. Grew’s fortyone years of diplomatic service. The first four chapters and a few other passages have been newly written by Mr. Grew; the rest has been drawn from the 108 volumes of papers which he accumulated. The formidable editorial job of selection has been so skillfully done by Walter Johnson that Turbulent Era comes fairly close to reading like a regular autobiography.
Mr. Grew’s career started in Cairo in 1904, and by 1914 it had taken hint to St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Vienna. He was in Berlin again during the years preceding America’s entry into the First World War; in Paris during the peacemaking; in Tokyo, as Ambassador, during the critical decade before Pearl Harbor; in Washington, as Under Secretary of State, during the fateful last four months of Roosevelt’s Presidency and the equally fateful first four months of Truman’s.
Grew reveals himself as a man, not of arresting intellect or vision, but of steadfast integrity, tolerance, and dedication to the Foreign Service. The special value of his book is that it grinds no political axes: it is truly a diplomatic record. Thus while Mr. Grew believes that the United States could have averted war with Japan, possibly even as late as summer 1941, his scrupulous and immensely detailed account of U.S.-Japanese relations could readily be taken as bolstering the opposite conclusion; as showing, even, that Grew was consistently overoptimistic about Japanese policy and erred disastrously in encouraging appeasement in the 1930s. Occasionally, Mr. Grew actually points up errors of judgment, as when he writes in a footnote: “It shocks me profoundly to remember that on the outbreak of war in 1914 most of us in the Embassy in Herlin accepted the German point of view hook, bait and sinker.”
Mr. Grew’s diaries and letters (in which he was sometimes “thoroughly indiscreet”) give Turbulent Era a strong leavening of informality. The earlier chapters — with their picture of diplomatic social life before the First World War; their vignettes of the Tsar, the Kaiser, the Emperor Franz Joseph, and the delicious glimpses of Theodore Roosevelt having a bully time in Herlin — are especially rich in human interest. Although the writing is pedestrian, I found the greater part of these 1500 pages thoroughly engrossing.
I cannot say the same, I’m afraid, in regard to Ernest J. King’s autobiography, Fleet Admiral King (Norton, $6.75), which has been written in the third person by a collaborator, Commander Walter Muir Whitehill. The story of a great career climaxed by top-level involvement in one of history’s greatest dramas emerges as a ponderous dossier, cluttered with superfluous detail and ploddingly put together. Incidents worth a few lines run on to several pages. But on the big issues — for instance, King’s sharp differences over strategy in the last war with Marshall, with other U.S. military leaders, and with the British — the book’s rigorously impersonal, tight-lipped statement of the salient facts is distinctly unsatisfying.
An anonymous wit once said of King, “He’s so tough he shaves with a blowtorch"; and John Gunther has referred to him as a “formidable old crustacean,”who could raise “holy hell with F.D.R.” In these discreet pages we never get very intimate with King as a human being and we do not see much “holy hell” being raised. One is tempted to say — with due apology for frivolous exaggeration — that the Admiral won’t talk and the Commander can’t write.
But to the student, amateur or professional, of naval affairs, this autobiography is obviously a document of first-rate importance. It furnishes a close-up of the U.S. Navy’s growth since the turn of the century — King went to sea as a naval cadet during the Spanish-American War. And it offers a uniquely comprehensive and authoritative account of the U.S. Navy’s role in World War II.
Conquest of a continent
The Course of Empire (Houghton Mifflin, $6.00) by Bernard DeVoto is a narrative of prodigious sweep which tells how, over three centuries, the North American continent was bit by bit explored. The Year of Decision: 1846, Across the Wide Missouri, and the present volume form a trilogy whose central theme is the role of continental geography in the creation of the American nation.
To the writing of history, Mr. DeVoto brings an appetite for research as voracious as any scholar’s, a journalist’s ebullience, and something of the spirit of the frontiersman. As a preparation for The Course of Empire, he journeyed along the trails of the continent’s explorers, even unto navigating the shallows of the Missouri in a dugout. And his reading ranged, in time, back to the Paleozoic Age; in space, as far afield as China; in language, to documents translated from the Welsh. The resulting volume contributes discoveries, clears up uncertainties, polishes off one or two tenacious myths, and furnishes fresh insights into how geographic realities have shaped American experience.
But such insatiable curiosity, such thoroughness as DeVoto’s are not without liabilities. The story he has to tell is by its nature a complex one, made up of hundreds of episodes and containing a halfdozen motifs; and by elaborating each episode and each motif so richly, DeVoto has let his narrative get enormously intricate. I was hard put to keep my bearings and sometimes found the going a bit strenuous.
The Course of Empire shows how a beautiful dream, rooted in myth, led to the discovery of a different but glorious reality. The book begins with Cortes and the Spanish explorers who pushed northward and westward out of the Valley of Mexico in search of the passage to Cathay and the legendary country of the Seven Cities, flowing with emeralds and gold. The final tableau is of Lewis and Clark camped beside the Pacific.
The drama focuses, at the outset, on adventurers propelled by wondrous misconceptions, whose frightful experiences established the first footholds on truth — Cabeza de Vaca, probably the first white man to glimpse the Mississippi; De Soto, who reached it thirteen years later; Coronado, who found his way into Kansas; and others. Then the accent is on the struggles of four empires, a contest which quickened the march of discovery. In the foreground, throughout, are the Indians, who affect every stage of the white man’s westward expansion. The drama has a central protagonist, the Missouri River. For it was the Missouri that yielded the answers to the mysteries of the West and was the highway to conquest of the continent.