Frederick Rolfe, the Yellow-Bookish Englishman who titled himself Baron Corvo and is remembered chiefly for Hadrian the Seventh, ended his days writing The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (New Directions, $4.00) in and about Venice. He died there in 1913, but the novel has been published only recently because it is a thunderously bad-tempered, libelous work which had to wait for printing until most of Corvo’s victims had passed beyond the realm of lawsuits.
As a novel, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole is a freak, demonstrating the exact opposite of what the author intended to prove. It is also unbalanced, full of loose ends, and peppered with fairly dreary turn-of-the-century witticisms. The heroine is as close to a seventeen-year-old boy as Corvo could make her without actually admitting that she was one, as in reality she would have been. Corvo was a homosexual as well as a thoroughgoing paranoiac, and this novel, which is plainly the story of his own life as he wished to see it, is fascinating because it reveals how such a man views the world and his proceedings therein. Corvo intended to write a self-justification and turned out a confession by mistake.
Corvo called himself Nicholas Crabbe, for fictional purposes, with a perfectly clear understanding of the name’s implications. Crabbe is represented as the noble hero, austere, accomplished, generous, reserved, intelligent, and invincible, with just enough fallibility of judgment to subject him to the continual persecutions of the vulgar. It is the nature of these persecutions and the extravagance of Crabbe’s reactions (at one point he resorts to a plate of risotto as a weapon) which betray an addled mind. A casual word about the weather becomes evidence of a plot against him, while a letter from a kitten-witted friend in England is a studied insult.
Much of the book is therefore devoted to retaliation, usually by letter. Crabbe-Corvo was a genius at invective, and while one would hardly want him for a correspondent, his literary demolitions are a joy to a reader safely out of the line of fire. He had a sharp eye, an imagination like a distorting mirror, and an immense, esoteric vocabulary. His caricatures of the English colony in Venice, of a fraudulent financier, a sloppy hospital, women’s clothes, and worried Italian landlords (Corvo could never forgive a landlord for expecting him to pay rent) are as wickedly funny as his letters to publishers, lawyers, collaborators, and the grand master of a particularly absurd secret society which he takes with utter solemnity.
All these people are Crabbe’s enemies for one reason only. They refuse to give him w hat he wants, which is unquestioned status as the most important object in their lives. He gets this status from ZildaZildo. The girl is an orphan, and when Crabbe fishes her out of a disaster she becomes dependent on and selflessly devoted to him. She is probably the only pure invention in the novel, and in a quiet way she is horrifying, an infantile daydream, faithful hound in ambiguous human form. She speaks only Venetian, and it is interesting that she sounds like Maria of For Wham the Bell Tolls. Corvo hit upon the slightly wrong word as a device for conveying the flavor of foreign dialogue in English well ahead of Hemingway.
The autobiography of a psychotic with delusions of persecution should make depressing reading, but The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole is, on the contrary, indomitably gay, partly because Crabbe fights his windmills with such joyous gusto, and partly because Corvo’s sketches of the Venetians and their city glitter with life and affection. On Venice, Corvo was as sane as anybody.
In search of an heir
In The Schirmer Inheritance (Knopf, $3.00), Eric Ambler is back at his old game of selling a simple Anglo-Saxon adrift in Central Europe. ‘This time it’s a lawyer from Philadelphia. George Carey is shipped to Germany by his firm, which has been saddled with a missing heir ease, thanks to an old lady who kept bonds under her bed and never made a will.
The heir, if there is one, must be a cousin in the German branch of the family, and the situation is not clarified by the fact that an ancestral dragoon changed his name after deserting from the army during the Napoleonic wars. Accompanied by a dour female interpreter, Carey sniffs about Germany and finally follows an almost cold trail to Greece. Any reader with memories of Mr. Ambler’s earlier books will have hopes that once in the Balkans all this slow legal investigation will end, and that trouble will hover, bullets will fly, and suspense will rack his nerves. They do nothing of the sort. With a little face-slapping and a bit of midnight mountain climbing, the tale trundles to a peaceful end.
It’s shocking to have to report that Mr. Ambler has written a book on his own fine formula without raising a single chill or inventing a single memorably terrifying character. The difficulty may be that Carey, whose advent ures one is following, is a placid type and never in any real danger. The Greek military, while scandalous, are beside the point. The Schirmerheir, a Nazified replica of the old dragoon, appears late and the female interpreter is notable only for sour temper and a capacity for brandy. Something has gone very wrong here.
The weight of confusion
Hubert Creekmore’s novel. The Chain in the Heart (Random House, $3.75), is a four-generation panorama of a Southern colored family’s efforts to survive and progress in a society determined to keep the Negro in his place. The novel begins in the 1890s with the death of old Lizzie Murchison, who was brought up in slavery and trusted her former owners to the last as friends and protectors; it ends in the mid-1930s with young George, who has earned a college degree but is so suspicious of all whites that even kindness throws him into a panic.
Reduced to a bare outline, the activities of the Murchisons are very like those to be found in any chronicle novel about a poor family, while the Murchisons themselves are familiar types. Annie, old Lizzie’s daughter, is a quiet, conscientious woman who wants to improve the family standing. Henry, her husband, is a kind man given to vague yearnings and silly mistakes. One son is bovinely content, the other imaginative and unhappy. The daughter drifts off to be a singer and vanishes for good.
These commonplace ingredients have uncommon force because they are the actions of Negroes who have no elbowroom in a white-controlled world. Henry’s silliness gets him lynched, and George’s imagination, coupled as it is with ignorance, makes him a sucker for crooked labor organizers and phony Ethiopian princes. The second George, intelligent, ambitious, and college-trained, is almost paralyzed by the inherited weight of injustice and bewilderment.
Mr. Creekmore believes that the material progress of Negroes has been accompanied by increasing psychological strain, and that better wages and freedom from physical violence are not enough while spirit ual isolation and confusion remain, It’s a good point, made with restraint and skill.
Days without Stalin
Russia: What Next? (Oxford University Press, $3.00) contains Isaac Deutscher’s analysis of Stalinism and his speculations about the luturo course of Russian policy, lisa short hook which frankly assumes that the author’s reputation as an authority on Russia entitles him to omit some documental ion and the rehashing of episodes discussed in detail in his biography of Stalin.
It is Mr. Dcutscher’s belief that Stalinism succeeded in imposing its rigidities on Russia because something of the sort was needed if the country was to function at all. The early revolulionists were international in their outlook and assumed that Communist revolutions in the West would shortly give them external support. They were intellectual and logical in a country populated largely by illiterate, superstitious peasants. They believed that political deviations should be tolerated, and clung to the belief even while expediency led them to muzzle the opposition. By the time Stalin came to power, it was clear that there would he no immediate Communist revolution in the West and that the peasants did not appreciate logic, while the opposition was already out of action. When Stalin turned Russia in on itself, created the ritualistic Lenin myth, and extended autocracy to barbarous lengths, he was acting on conditions that already existed.
Mr. Deutscher argues that Stalinism has ended with Stalin’s death because the conditions on which it operated no longer exist. Nationalist isolation is not practical with a fringe of satellite allies around the border; the forced conversion of large numbers of peasants into urban factory hands has broken the hold of superstition and with it the usefulness of the Lenin myth; as for autocracy, it has simply worn out its welcome. He assumes that the cannier wing of the Soviet government understands this and that Malenkov represents that wing in spite of his record as a loethe-line Stalinist. Mr. Dcutscher’s evidence, in unjustly simplified terms, consists of a slight show of Russian traetabilily in foreign affairs since Stalin died and such internal moves as the discrediting of the doctors’ plot and the bundling off into minor posts of certain secret police officials. The author expects a period of increasing liberalism in Russia, provided, of course, that Malenkov and his supporters remain in power. He does not rule out the possibility of some sort of palace resolution, army coup, or what have you. In short, while Mr. Deutscher’s analysis of recent Russian history is informed and persuasive, his speculations about the future necessarily carry no guarantee.
Sketches of an empire
The Man Without Qualities (Coward-McCann, $4.00) is impossible to review in the normal sense because it is not all there. Robert Musil, the author, had been working on it for almost twenty years when he died, in exile from his native Austria, in 1942. He left an enormously long unfinished novel, of which the volume now published under the author’s full title is only the beginning. Short of dredging up the out-of-print German edition, the reader is left in the position of a non-Shaksperian confronted with the first third of Hamlet.
Ulrich, the man without qualities, is an ex-cavalry officer and voluntarily unemployed mathematician, living alone in Vienna in 1913. A detaehed observer and impartial philosopher, all men in one, he serves as a window on the last days of the Austrian Empire, drifting in its ramshackle way toward Sarajevo.
Two actions run through the book: the case of Moosbrugger, a sexual maniac and murderer, and the proceedings of a committee to “create an organization to prepare the way for the framing of suggestions leading towards" a celebration of the emperor’s birthday in 1918. These two matters stand at the opposite extremes of the human mind. Moosbrugger is very nearly the subconscious in overt action. The committee is conscious intelligence refined to the ultimate pitch of uselessness. UIrich is a reluctant official of the committee because it has been tinkered together by his fashionably intellectual cousin Diotimn and her friend Count Leinsdorf, a wonderfully comical old gentleman, naive, idealistic, warily bewitched by the shimmer of political ideas that were in fact a trifle rusty in Voltaire’s day. Ulrich is also bothered by a guilty urge to do something about Moosbrugger, who is plainly too mad to he hanged. Presumably Musil intended to fit the whole range of human thought and experience, plus a re-creation of the old Austrian Empire, into the space between Moosbrugger and the committee.
This huge project resulted in a novel vaster than empires and almost as slow’, hut very far from dull. A fusil was a formidably intelligent man, witty, ironic, and acute, with an arbitrary approach to the construction of fiction. He is quite capable of going on amusingly for three chapters about ideas which have no connection with any visible part of his story, but when he chooses to set a scene and report conversation in the traditional way, his characters spring to life instantly and their surroundings are real to the last fat chair and the smell of soap and polish.
Inconclusive as it is, The Man Without Qualities is unmistakablv the work of a brilliant, original writer.
To write Icebound Summer (Knopf, $3.95), Sully Carrighar spent throe years in Alaska studying the behavior of animals and birds during the short northern summer. While she sometimes describes what she saw in suspiciously emotional terms, she has on the whole steered a straight course between sentimentalizing her wild subjects and dissecting them.
The book covers the affairs of loons, whales, terns, seals, foxes, walruses, and lemmings. Miss Carrighar hunted up a colony of lemmings, and her account of their jittery migration to the sea, a flowing ribbon of small brown animals with an army of predators trailing at its flanks, is thoroughly absorbing. Her writing is delicate and precise, and she has a fine touch with the physical maneuvers of her subjects and the look of the country itself, the visual effects of cold, sunlight, wind, and water.
Miss Carrighar’s approach is entirely impersonal, however, and she gives no hint of her reasons for assuming that an animal’s particular action means some particular thing. The reader must simply take her word for it that the fox can think ahead to a meeting with his mate and that the tern destroys an enemy’s eggs as part of a campaign rather than by instinct. This requires a certain amount of faith, which the cynical and the scientific may not be able to muster.