Reader's Choice

Rosamond Lehmann begins The Echoing Grove (Harcourt, Brace, $3.95) with a scene in which two middle-aged sisters, newly reconciled after a long estrangement, join forces to dispose of a rat mangled by a dog that doesn’t properly belong to either of them. The episode looks like the start of an elaborate exercise in symbolism, but proves to be nothing of the sort. It is direct revelation of character through action. Madeleine, full of complaints and feminine terrors, can nevertheless take action with a blunt instrument. Dinah, tougher on the surface, cannot kill the rat but is able to rise above the messy remains and cart them away on a shovel.
In retrospect, this scene is typical of the novel’s quality. It evokes emotion and atmosphere; it contains landscape description of immense, almost, poetic charm, and an infinity of detail laminated into controlled elegance. It is vivid, inconclusive, and rather unpleasant. It also reveals that Miss Lehmann views her characters as people who act, in all circumstances, from the same level of their natures, all of a piece — no sly resort to the multiple standards with which most of us combat the world. The view is sound in regard to the private crises with which the novel as a whole is concerned; but to apply it to the way of a woman with a rat verges on contrivance, and this too is typical, for the book is prone to one-in-a-million coincidences and has the structure of an onion.
The intricate construction is justified by a difficult objective — the revelation, from several viewpoints, of the interlocking effects of a series of love affairs covering almost twenty years. On second thoughts, the book is not an onion, but a maze in which the reader is drawn forward and pulled backward, glimpses what seems to be the exit only to blunder into a blind alley, reaches the goal at last and finds it enigmatic. Did Madeleine love her husband or Jocelyn, did Rickie love Dinah or Georgic or death, did Dinah love Jo or Rickie or Rob? Is love possible in the twentieth century?
In unraveling the relationships among her characters, Miss Lehmann covers a great deal of recent English history. She does it by implication and entirely in individual, emotional terms. It would be easy to pin type labels on Rickie, the landed proprietor turned businessman, or Dinah, the gentlewoman turned bohemian turned Marxist. It would also be unjust, for the novel is no sociological treatise. Rickie and Dinah are not types, but individuals responding to the events and theories of their time. The extra dimension adds conviction to their muddled private lives.
Miss Lehmann has succeeded remarkably in rendering the exact tone of half a dozen quite different love affairs. They all resemble each other in two respects, however. Each ends unhappily, and all the participants are appallingly garrulous. They talk well, but furiously; they analyze, compare notes, and overhaul their reactions. Most of the conversations ring true even in their repetitiousness. Dinah and her mother, discussing Rickie after his death, are beautifully done, with all the quirks and fierce candor and illogical reticences of gossip between generations.
The one conversation which fails to convince is Rickie’s air-raid idyl with Georgic. There is something essentially ludicrous about lurking on a lumpy cot in a cellar and regaling one’s new mistress with the history of one’s former loves while the buzz bombs hover overhead. The occurrence of this liaison is entirely plausible. The talk is unbelievable, which does not alter the fact that The Echoing Grove is a most accomplished novel, intricate, subtle, very feminine and very sad.

The oldest profession

Since some Atlantic readers may possibly be as uninformed as the Atlantic reviewer, it seems reasonable to follow the example set by Polly Adler in the foreword to her autobiography, A House Is Not a Home (Rinehart, $4.00), and identify the author at once as the retired proprietress of what the newspapers used to call “New York’s most famous bordello.”Any reader led by this introduction to take up the book in search of cheerful pornography will be disappointed. It is hard to imagine a more discreet treatment of a subject generally viewed as the ultimate in indiscretion.
Searchers after scandalous revelations about wellknown people will fare poorly, too. ‘The friends Miss Adler names are firmly ticketed as nonbusiness associates. The authorities wilh whom she carried on a running feud for twenty-five years are, in the nature of things, safely on the side of the law. Miss Adler, no babe in the legal woods, identifies her clients only by fragments of the alphabet.
The few exceptions to the fog of anonymity surrounding Miss Adler’s patrons are based on a principle laid down long since by T. E. Lawrence. A conscientious proofreader altered “Meleager the immoral poet” to “the immortal poet,” inquiring if perhaps the author did mean immoral? “Immorality I know,” retorted Lawrence. “Immortality I cannot judge. As you please; Meleager will not sue us for libel.” I doubt that Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano will sue for libel, either.
Most of Miss Adler’s facts are, aside from the exceptional authority of their source, what may fairly be called more of the same. She has a lot to say about the hard lives of her employees, her own struggles to keep them sober, moderately sane, and away from dope, and their generally unpleasant ends. While she writes of her girls with real sympathy, her case histories are standard stuff. Even the neophyte who, to Miss Adler’s eternal amazement, talked a customer out of both his intentions and his money seems to have come straight out of fiction. The author is bitter on the subject of corrupt police and weak-witted racketeers, but her detailed, often witty reporting cannot entirely obscure the fact that the Kefauver committee beat her to the draw in this field. Even when she describes the infestation of her premises by Dutch and his crew of gunmen, the affair reads like part of an old gangster film.
Although Miss Adler hasn’t added anything of particular note to the lore of her profession, her book is interesting as a criminal version of the classic American success story. Immigrant makes good, or from Ellis Island to Park Avenue. Miss Adler had the courage to come to this country alone, at the age of twelve, surviving indifferent strangers, a new language, and a job that paid three dollars a week. Back in Russia, America had been Goldine Madina, the golden land. It didn’t take the enterprising kid long to see that three dollars as a discrepancy. Rootless, clever, and ignorant, she set out after the golden fleece and found, say, a reasonable facsimile. A satirist could do something fairly devastating with the story of Polly Adler. She herself has managed to see the whole thing as strictly a matter of course.

What is man?

In You Shall Know Them (Little, Brown, $3.50). Verrors, author of the haunting Silence de la Mer, has conducted an inquiry into the nature of humanity. What is man? is a sober question. There is little sobriety in the fantastic, impish uproar that goes on in this novel.
The necessity to define man exactly arises because a scientific expedition goes astray on a fossil hunt in New Guinea and blunders into a tribe of completely new creatures. The Tropis have no necks to speak of and sometimes run on their hands.
They have apelike faces and feet and short, plushy fur. They also build fires, smoke meat, bury their dead, chip stone axes, and talk in a limited way. After heaving a few rocks at the expedition, they become friendly and prove disgracefully easy to tame.
The scientists, at first delighted with this spectacular find, are soon at loggerheads over what, precisely, they have found. The expedition splits into an ape faction, an indifferent faction, and a possibly man faction, the last consisting of the journalist, Douglas Templemore, and Father Dillighan. The father is in a spiritual as well as a scientific quandary since, if the Tropis are human, he should baptize them; while if they are apes, such an act would be downright outrageous.
The members of the expedition form a solid front, however, when certain businessmen in Australia propose to collect the Tropis and put them to work en masse in woolen mills. Action is taken and Templemore kinds in the dock back in England, charged with the murder of an infant Tropi. If he is convicted, the Tropis must be human; if not, they are apes and headed for slavery.
As no exact line has ever been drawn between man and ape, the trial proceeds in a hullabaloo of conflicting scientific notions. Vercors has clearly had a fine time inventing the learned gentlemen called to testify on the nature of Tropis. The dour old police surgeon declines to admit any opinion whatsoever. A Professor Knaatseh, deafish and peppery, declares: “’Course they’re human. . . . Ever seen an ape with an astragalus like that? . . . It s a bone in the ankle. . . . The upright posture: that’s man. And consequently, the shape of the astragalus, which supports everything: narrow and slender, it’s an ape; large and thick, it’s a man.” He is followed by Professor Eatons, who regrets to have to assure the court that it has “just been listening to a great deal of nonsense,” and labels the Tropis an exceptionally advanced species of ape.
These gentry are succeeded by an expert in primitive psychology who decides, prodded by the court, that the difference between man and ape lies in the former’s capacity for metaphysical thinking. The next witness, Captain Thropp, is a counterexpert specializing in great apes. He complains: “All these people take animals for nitwits,” and unconsciously demolishes the metaphysical thinking angle by proving himself flatly incapable of it although demonstrably a member of the human race.
What with the war of the experts and the judge’s sly determination to get Templemore off, the trial ends with a hung jury and the intervention of Parliament, which, on a first things first basis, appoints a committee to draw up a workable definition of man. Those people prove to be another collection of eccentrics, who finally simmer down into a definition which defines nothing and proves entirely satisfactory.
You Shall Know Them no more settles the question of man than any of the previous attacks on the question have done, but it tosses up a number of provocative ideas. It keeps up a lively, witty needling of the absurdities of law, logic, science, and human nature and achieves a monstrous air of plausibility for its unlikely plot. Altogether, an amusing, intelligent novel which misses being true satire because Vercors is too fond of mankind to use a rapier. He confines himself, softheartedly, to foils.

Light in neglected corners

A Name to Conjure With (Macmillan, $3.75) is the fifth of what G. B. Stern calls “the ragbag chronicles that apparently I am under some compulsion to write every three or four years.” The offhand description does less than justice to the matter of Miss Stern’s book; it is dead right on her method, which is like primeval chaos only more amusing.
Names are the thread holding together a jumble of memories, comments, and speculations. She meditates on names in fiction, why she is addicted in her novels to characters called Nicholas, Blake, and Maitland, and whether a Nicholas Blake-.Maitland will ever pop out of her typewriter. She discovers that if Mr. Toad, of The Wind in the Willows, had a first name it would be Natterjack, which is a flight of pure genius. Of course he was Natterjack. What a pity Grahame forgot to mention it.
Reflecting on romantic names. Miss Stern decides that Rupert is the sort of thing that cannot safely be hung on a character, but she is uncertain whether this is purely a matter of connotation. If the name hadn’t belonged to “a dashing hero of history; a more obviously dashing rogue of fiction . . . ; and a poet who died young” — what then? Somehow Rupert leads to R. L. Stevenson and Miss Stern s inquiries of an Edinburgh landlady about the town of Kirkcaldy, which sounded so romantic that she didn’t want to go there and be disappointed. “’Och aye, Kirkcaldy,’ said Mrs. M. And after a long pause, ’They mak’ linoleum there.’”
The book bristles with quotations, all of the sort that make the reader want to rush out and buy somebody’s collected works. They are full of odd information and endearingly human confessions, like Miss Stern’s longing to lump all the bores at a large dinner and let them proceed to take it out on each other.
There is no cataloguing A Name to Conjure With. It belongs to no known literary form and follows no rules.
The charm of the book depends entirely on the author’s ability to arouse interest in whatever interests her, to cut new facets on old ideas and throw light into neglected corners. The performance is carried out with such dexterity and grace that it is only in retrospect that one can estimate the wide reading and sympathy that make it at all possible. No one ever wore much learning more lightly than Miss Stern.

In search of home

The Moon and the Bonfires (Farrar, Straus & Young, $3.00) is the last novel Cesare Pavese wrote before his suicide in 1950 and the first of his works to he translated from Italian into English.
Without being in any sense a stereotype, the novel employs an intellectual idiom which seems familiar. The grab-bag sweep of the action, the preoccupation with time, and the view of the individual as an outcast trying to put down roots in a society which is itself unsettled are all prevalent in American fiction. It’s perfectly true, however, that they are not exclusively American, and the direct impressiveness of The Moon and the Bonfires may be primarily due to Marianne Ceconi’s translation, which achieves the effect of colloquial speech without national overtones.
Pavese’s narrator, whose name, if he has one, makes no impression, has returned to the Piedmontese village where he grew up. He has no family; in fact, he is a bastard, brought up by a poor farmer who took him in for the sake of a small allowance paid by the authorities for his keep. Later he worked as a farm hand in the neighborhood, moved to Milan, and finally, with the police after him for some mild Communist activity, bolted to the United States. Here he drifted across the country, did odd jobs, made some money bootlegging, and sat out the war in comparative comfort. He never felt at home, believing that all Americans were wandering, dislocated people like himself. He has come back to Italy hoping to establish some sort of personal solidarity in the village from which he started.
The three segments of his life are revealed as parallel to each other, like ribbons unrolled simultaneously. It’s not a new device, but well handled it can be a moving one. Pavese shows the harsh, handsome landscape, poetically beautiful in the hero’s childhood, through a shadow of its later shape, trees cut down and prosperous farms falling to ruin. The awed, envious farm hand at La Mora, listening to the chatter and music of the boss’s daughters, is at the same time the exile listening for a train in the American desert, and the pretty girls laughing on the terrace are already dead, half forgotten except by a stout middle-aged stranger loitering aimlessly along the roads he knew as a boy.
In his own mind, Pavese’s hero is not aimless. He is looking for a place or a person to say to him. This is your home, stay here. He cannot make the first move himself, for he is too detached from life to try. He sorts over his memories. He argues with his old friend Nuto, who used to be worldlywise and play in a band but now sticks close to his carpenter shop. He strikes up a friendship with a crippled boy, the son of the man scratching for a living on the tiny farm once rented by his own foster father. He asks after old acquaintances, finding some of them merely older and poorer, most of them missing or dead. He can find out almost anything, but he never hears the magic words he is waiting for.
The events of the novel happen with the unpredictable idiocy of real life and settle nothing. Each inconclusive episode has its own excitement, however, and is followed by another equally exciting on a different level. The fact that life as a whole stagnates in Pavese’s world doesn’t prevent him from introducing rows, dances, carnivals, love affairs, arson, a family massacre, and an execution. For a novel about a man going nowhere, The Moon and the Bonfires contains a lot of action.