Reader's Choice

Under Milk Wood (New Directions, $3.00) — “A Play for Voices” completed by Dylan Thomas not long before his death — is a work of comic genius; a rollicking, fantastical celebration of life. Written in a gaily capering, loosely poetic prose, Under Milk Wood chronicles the happenings of an ordinary spring day and night in the Welsh village of Llaregub — a “small, decaying watering-place which may, indeed, be called a ‘back-water of life without disrespect to its natives who possess, to this day, a sally individuality of their own. Speaking through forty-one characters and twenty-two anonymous “voices, Thomas conjures up the texture of human life with an amused appreciation of the fleshly facts and appetites. His awareness of man’s absurdities is mordant without being corrosive. He pokes fun at human frailty with understanding and with love.
Here are just a few glimpses of Llaregub, a few intimations of the author’s magic. First it is “night neddving among ihe snuggeries of babies ; and Mr. and Mrs. Floyd, the cocklers, are “sleeping , . . side by wrinkled side, toothless, salt and brown, like two old kippers in a box.”Morning introduces Mr. Mog Edwards, “Samson-syrup-gold maned, whacking thighed and thunderbolt-bass’d,” bending over Miss Myfanwy Price with eyes like blowlamps”; “I am a draper mad with love. I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candle wick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, cretonne, crépon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the World. I have come to take you away to my Emporium on the Hill, where the change hums on the wires. And Miss Myfanwy Price tenderly promises: “I will knit you a wallet of forget-me-not-blue, for the money to be comfy.” Later, children crowd to her sweetshop to buy “ brandyballs, winegums . . . liquorice sweet as sick, nougat to tug and ribbon out like another red rubbery tongue, gum to glue in girls’ curls, crimson coughdrops to spit blood, ice-cream cornets, dandelion-and-burdock, raspberry and cherryade, pop goes the weasel and the wind.
In this small masterpiece, Thomas gives a display of verbal pyrotechnics which suggests a deity disporting himself with the element he rules. Mercury playing with fire or Neptune with water could hardly turn in a more virtuoso performance than Dylan Thomas making with the Welsh blarney.

Of love and death

In The Black Swan (Knopf, $2.75), Thomas Mann returns to the compact dimensions and to the subject matter of Death in Venice (transposed into heterosexual terms) — the infatuation of an aging person for a young one. The current novella (translated by Willard Trask) — though it is not nearly as memorable a piece of storytelling as the masterpiece of 1913— is a provocative addition to Mann’s writings. At once strangely tender and unpleasantly, unsparingly clinical, The Black Swan explores the mysterious realm where the spirit and the body meet. It represents the most concisely articulated statement—and the most explicit resolution—of a theme that has haunted Mann’s work: namely, that the seeds from which great love or great creativity flowers are seeds of disease and destruction.
The setting is Düsseldorf in the twenties. Rosalie von Tümmler, a pleasant-looking widow of fifty, is profoundly troubled at having reached the change of life. A romantic worshiper of Nature, she feels that, in Nature’s eyes, she is about to become superannuated. Her highly intellectual daughter tries to comfort her with the assurance that her psyche will soon adjust itself to the changed condition of her body. But Rosalie is in no mood for adjustment, for she has just fallen passionately in love with a very handsome young American expatriate. And now she experiences a seemingly miraculous rejuvenation.
But the miracle is a terrible deception: what has seemed to Rosalie the reward of her youthful ardor turns out to be the symptom of a fatal disease. The diagnosis pronounced by the surgeon, as he is operating on Rosalie, implies t hat her grande passion itself derived its impel us from organic processes caused by the proliferation of malignant cells.
A good deal of the story is unfolded in lengthy passages of stilled dialogue between Rosalie and her daughter; but the very stiltedness of the characters heightens the tone of compassionate irony in which the novel is keyed. Rosalie’s last words suggest a mellowing of Mann’s outlook, a reconciliation of sorts with the workings of Nature. Nature, says Rosalie, has not been cruel to her but merciful: death — by assuming the guise of a resurrection which brought with it the joys of love—has actually been “a great instrument of life.”
Erich Maria Remarque’s new novel, A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Harcourt, Brace, $3.95; translated by Denver Lind ley), is an enormously expert reworking of materials in which the author has proved himself a specialist — the horrors of twentieth-century war and persecution, and the romanticism of love on borrowed time against a background of crisis.
The first panel is a picture of the hard-pressed German lines in Russia, the April alter Stalingrad. In the second panel, the hero, Private Ernst Graeber, returns to his home town on three weeks’ leave to find that his parents have been bombed out. While struggling to trace them, he meets the daughter of his family doctor, who is now in a concentration camp, and they fall deeply in love. In the third panel, Graeber is back on the eastern front, and the advancing Russians overrun the remnants of his regiment. Mr. Remarque’s novel is a gripping story, full of vivid incident, and at times genuinely moving. But all in all, it has a slightly glib, faintly manufactured flavor.

Reflection in mirrors

With his four previous books, Louis Anchincloss has won a solid reputation as a polished and eminently civilized writer with a cool, discerning eye and a quietly satiric sense of humor. The Romantic Egoists (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00), in addition to these qualities, has a somewhat higher voltage than Mr, Anchincloss has hitherto succeeded in generating. The writing is more pointed; some of the characterizations are stronger; the storytelling has more pull and it achieves a sharper impact.
The Romantic Egoists — subtitled “A Reflection in Eight Mirrors”— brings together eight stories with a common narrator, Peter Westcott, and a common theme. Most of these stories are about individuals who insist on going their own way with unbending tenacity — a cousin who fearlessly befriended the narrator when he was a “new kid” at a smart prep school in New England, and who pursued the logic of nonconformity to a desperate conclusion; a wartime naval ensign who vociferously proclaimed his determination to avoid sea duty; an uneducated seaman who had become skipper of an LST in the Pacific and who could not forgive his officers for being college men.
“The Great World and Timothy Colt” is an item for the anthologists — a powerful story of a brilliant young lawyer who, after being forced to compromise with his savage pride, fiercely turns his back on his democratic principles and human feelings, and transforms himself into a relentlessly ambitious careerist .
The narrator, who is neither a rebel nor a conformist, admires the misdirected courage of such people but perceives in it a core of stultifying egotism. He recognizes, too — carried to the extreme — impulses in himself which he could not bear to live with. These stories felicitously combine exact and telling observation with acute psychological insight. The Romantic Egoists is among the halldozen works of fiction I have most enjoyed this year.
Christopher Isherwood’s new novel, The World in the Evening (Random House, $3.50), seems to me a very disappointing performance for the author of Good-bye to Berlin. It further substantiates the thesis that salubrious California, where Mr. Isherwood has been living, is apt to be more debilitating to the serious writer than journalism, Don Jnanism, or the demon rum.
Mr. Isherwood’s story is a rather mushy chronicle of a man’s awakening to the truth that, at thirty-six, he is an arrested adolescent. The best that can be said for the book is that it has a brilliant opening chapter — a description of a Hollywood party and a marital breakup. After this episode, the hero, a wealthy AngloAmerican rentier, takes refuge in the Pennsylvania home of the Quaker lady who was his guardian when he was young. Here — confined to bed for ten weeks by a subconsciously willed accident —he rereads the letters of Ids first wife, now dead, a famous English novelist. These letters lead him into a searching reexamination of his life; and he emerges from it with a new insight into his weaknesses and betrayals, with a more mature and invigorating sense of responsibility.
The novel, to be sure, has passages in which one glimpses the hand of an artist. But by and large Mr. Isherwood has sagged to a level not greatly above that of the more earnestminded best sellers serialized in the women’s mass magazines. The movie makers should find here a perfectly dreamy scenario for one of those hollow and pretentious dramas of psychological regeneration with which Hollywood self-righteously pays its due to Proud and Mammon.


Although the social critics allege that this machine age is stiffing the spirit of adventure, accounts of high adventure have occupied a conspicuous place in the nonfiction published since the war — Kon-Tiki,Annapurna, The Conquest of Everest, Seven Years in Tibet; and now Alain Gheerbrant’s Journey to the Far Amazon (Simon & Schuster, $5.00). This extraordinary book (illustrated with thirty-four remarkable photographs) tells how three young Frenchmen and a Colombian struggled through a vast area of jungle never before traversed by white men — the Sierra Parima between Venezuela and Brazil, an inferno whose hazards include bloodsucking bats, man-eating fish, and primitive tribes with a weakness for massacring intruders.
In a remote recess of t he Colombian jungle — a region through which the legendary “golden road" of the Incas is supposed to have passed — Gheorbrant’s party discovered a rock face 100 yards long and 90 feet high whose ent ire surface was covered with amazing drawings, hundreds, or possibly thousands, of years old. Among the Piaroas, the explorers participated in a horrifying initiation rite preceded by a weird drinking orgy. Undeterrod by the fearsome reputation of the Guaharibos, they made contact with this almost unknown tribe and found themselves among dwarfish barbarians with no implements of stone or iron, no agriculture, no huts or canoes — subhuman creatures subsisting off berries, insects, and even earth. Of the various phonograph records which the four men took with them for diplomatic purposes, they found that a Mozart symphony outdid all others in charms which soothe the savage breast.
I doubt that, any of the numerous books about the South American back-of-beyond has told a more fascinating story. But what, above all, makes Gheerbrant’s chronicle a classic of Amazonian exploration is that the author is not only an intrepid spirit; a knowledgeable student of ethnology and anthropology; a modest, humane, and perceptive personality — ho is also a poet whose writing does justice to his great adventure.
The late Alfred North Whitehead was one of this century’s greatest adventurers in the world of the mind. The essence of his teaching, he often said, was that “the vitality of man’s mind is in adventure"; and his conversations— recorded for fifteen years by Lucien Price and published in Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $5.00) —make a stimulating, far-ranging chronicle of intellectual exploration. The demolition of Newtonian physics by Einstein left Whitehead with a profound skepticism toward all claims to final certainty; a profound abhorrence of dogmatism. “There are no whole truths,”Whitehead maintained. “All truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat t hem as whole truths that plays the devil.”
Mr, Price’s book conveys to the reader a portrait of a likable old gentleman who looked like “an angel whose halo had slipped,”and who was a large-hearted genius with an indefatigably probing mind. There is a quietly sustained note of wit in Whitehead’s talk, an abundance of provocative generalize ions and aphoristic sayings. Sayings such as: “It would be impossible to imagine anything more un-Christlike than Christian theology.” Or: “[A man] may be a man of conscience but his conscience may be a damned bad conscience.”