Except the Lord (Harper, $3.50) is Joyce Cary’s sequel to Prisoner of Grace, (hat autobiography of a flighty beauty more or less married to a passionate but priggish liberal statesman. The new novel is this same statesman’s story of his childhood and it’s a belter book.
The only signs of the later Chester that appear in Except the Lord are suitable lapses into platform sentiments, references to himself as an aged martyr, and a faculty for ignoring inconvenient moral pressures. He developed the last quality out of necessity, for he grew up in an atmosphere where moral pressure was so heavy that ignoring it was the one alternative to suffocation.
Chester’s father was a lay preacher of the Adventist church and a good man. Because of his strict sense of evangelical duty, his wife died young and their children grew up with minds as warped as they were interesting—the brilliant Richard to retreat into a dream world; Georgina, gay and reckless, to kill herself in attempting to disprove the reproaches that her gentle father had never spoken; Chester to pursue power and money under a pretense of humble public service. Old Nimmo is a remarkable creation, for Mr. Cary succeeds in keeping ibis monster of virtue as sympathetic as be is terrifying.
Although the book is primarily a study of malign influence exerted unconsciously and with the noblest motives, it is anything but dour. The Nimmos are a Lively clan, and the precariousness of their lives involves them in a string of interesting episodes abroad while the collision of family temperaments keeps things forever on the boil at home. The truth is, Mr. Cary has thrown into this one novel materials that a stingy author would have spread over at least four, He ranges from cold comfort farm to a dock strike, from Georgina’s tantrums to union polities, with no crowding or confusion, and he presents his intricate principals, plus a platoon of clearly defined minor characters, with complete conviction. This combination of technical skill and lavish invention produces his best novel since The Horse’s Mouth, which means a very good novel indeed.
Life with Mother
In My Mother’s House and Sido (Farrar, Straus & Young, $3.50), Colette describes her childhood in a small French town some seventy years ago. Madame Colette, with splendid independence, refuses to have any truck with the present fashion for misunderstood little geniuses. She had a lovely time and shamelessly admits it.
Either her childhood was most unusual, or generations of French novelists have been lying about the hidebound gloom of life in the provinces. Colette rambled over the countryside with her brothers, none of them, it. seems, in the least troubled by responsibility, schooling, or discipline. The only action taken against her elusive brothers was her mother’s refusal to allow the younger boy to set up his miniature tombstones on the lawn. Sido seldom interfered with her children’s hobbies, but tombstones, especially when bearing sardonic epitaphs of imaginary corpses, were loo much.
Sido is a charmer from the second she appears in her back garden, rattling a piece of butcher’s wrapping paper to call the eats to lunch. She loves these eats, and dogs, and gardening, and weather, and the odd doings of the neighbors, and the four children that she does her best to let alone, and the husband with whom she conducts a romantic flirtation to the day of his death. In spite of all this sympathy and affection, she has a peppery temper and a taste for low comedy. She hates housework. She badgers the parish priest out of pure impishness, lakes a cynical view of the world, and at moments would clearly like to drown her entire family in order to go gypsying off.
If Colette’s father is less fully drawn than Sido, it is partly because the Captain, like his children, was an adoring satellite, partly because he died before his daughter grew old enough to see him on an adult level, and partly because his nature, for all bis surface gaiety, was more subterranean than his wife’s.
No one has ever yet explained what exactly makes a writer and neither does Colette, but the Captain and Sido between them foreshadow the characteristics of their daughter’s writing in an astonishing way. The book would be interesting for this point alone. It provides a great deal more, recording a whole glittering, moving world, full of sensuous detail and revealing incidents and solid, surprising people.
Cockney Communist by Bob Darke (John Day. $3.00) is reminiscence of a different sort. Mr. Darke is a London bus conductor, living in the Hackney factory district. For eighteen years he was a hard-working member of the Communist Party, loyal to the ideal of a better life for the workingman (the faith in which he originally joined the Communists) but increasingly disturbed by methods and attitudes of which he could not approve. When war broke out in Korea and the parly recpiired him to sneer at the Gloucester Battalion as “capitalist lackeys,”he quit.
His book is notable among ex-Communist memoirs for its lack of hysterical remorse and apologetic selfjustification. It is also unusual because it deals with Communism at the rank-and-file level. Anybody who thinks that chicanery, strained nerves, and the drumhead court-martial are reserved for high Communist officials while lesser men relax should read Mr. Darke and dispose of a romantic illusion.
The party in Hackney devoted just as much thought, forgery, blackmail, and treachery to getting a non-Communist shop steward booted from his job as it did to a national election, and with much more success. It told Mr. Darke where his wife should do her shopping (she didn’t) and when to go to the movies. It worked him like a dog and drained his pockets of every spare penny and some that weren’t.
Why Mr. Darke, who is clearly an intelligent man, put up with this stuff for eighteen years is a mystery until one realizes that between his regular job and his work for the party he was kept on the jump about twenty hours a day. On such a schedule, a man has no time to think, as the party is happily aware. Cockney Communist won’t recover the author’s years of hard work, but in its way it’s a neat counterstroke.
The popular mind
The attitude of the general public toward doers and thinkers is the theme of Leo Gurko’s Heroes, Highbrows and the Popular Mind (BobbsMerrill, $3.50), a book which explores an enormous amount of cultural territory and ends by discovering nothing in particular. When an author reveals that American heroes have usually been on the muscular but thoughtless side and that there is a standing tendency in this country to mistrust or laugh at intellectuals, man cannot be said to have bitten dog.
“Hero" and “highbrow" are fairly definite terms, but “the popular mind" is a nebulous entity and its workings are infernally difficult to pin down. Mr. Gurko makes very little effort to pin them down, moreover, He just tells the reader, ex cathedra, what he thinks they are. For example, he takes the old Leslie Howard film, Stand-in, as a perfect instance of the popular view of the intellectual as a bumbling, fragile incompetent. If this view is right, the picture should have been a notable success with the customers, but it hasn’t occurred to Mr. Gurko to check his claim by comparing the earnings of Stand-in with those of other, contrary, films released at the same time.
Although Mr. Gurko makes a laudable effort to account for one aspect of anti-intellectualism by tracing it back through medicine-show professors to Milton’s Satan to Dr. Fanstus and his ilk, he ignores the many European folk-tale parallels to both the simple, active hero and the clever, slightly absurd weakling. These types are not an American invention, but Mr. Gurko writes as if they were.
Mr. Gurko has piled up a great deal of information, some of it odd enough to be amusing. It’s unfortunate that his book is not thorough enough to be taken seriously, and too serious to be taken as entertainment.
The childhood of Danny O’Neill
In The Face of Time Vanguard, $3.75) James T. Farrell takes his chronicle of the O’Ncill-O’Elaherty family back to the early nineteen hundreds, making the book the chronological beginning of the Danny O’Neill series.
The novel centers on two kinds of death. Old Tom O’Flaherty is dying slowly of cancer and his daughter Louise is dying even more slowly of tuberculosis. The tired, pretty girl wanders through the house dreaming of the future that will never come for her, while tier father putters about with his pipe and his occasional beer, trying to see some pattern in his past and continually surprised to recall that he is now a sick old man. The rest of the family swirls around these two, quarreling, petting the spoiled little Danny, snarling at the neighbors, and worrying about the invalids for whom nothing can be done.
The situation is convincing and ultimately very moving, but the book demands considerable patience. Mr. Farrell’s characters are drawn with large, sweeping strokes and no subtleties at all. Mr. Farrell persuades the reader by repetition, on the theory that a statement made often enough becomes fact automatically. While the method works for him just as it did for Hitler’s propagandists, it results in monotony and the conviction that a more ingenious writer could do the same thing in half the space.
In spite of the limitations of Mr. Farrell’s technique, the novel has, in the end, a powerful emotional impact. The catch is that it has no more impact, and rather less spirit, than the two lines of Yeats from which Mr. Farrell took his title: —
I spit into the face of Time
That has transfigured me.
That has transfigured me.