Reader's Choice

Igor Gouzenko, who has been living in Canada under an assumed name since his sensational defection from the Soviets in 1945, has written what seems to me the most impressive large-scale work of fiction about Soviet Russia published to dale: The Fall of a Titan (Norton, $4.50), the midsummer Book-of-the-Month Club choice. The qualifies of Gouzenko’s novel, his first, are if anything conservatively summed up in the tribute by Clifton La dim an printed on the jacket: “A work of notable energy and power with a sweep which often recalls the classic masters of Russian fiction.”
Gouzenko’s book is not, as I had rather expected, another of those thinly fictionalized accounts of personal experience, hut a massive product of the creative imagination. Gouzenko, born in 1910, was still a student at the Moscow Architectural Institute when Russia entered the Second World War; his chief protagonist, secret agent Feodor Novikov, fights as a youth in the civil war that followed the Revolution, and the drama that forms the core of the novel is played out in the middle thirties.
Novikov is one of the outstanding agents of the Politburo in the academic world. Correctly gauging the nationalistic trend of Stalinism, he has written a thesis on the origins of the Slavs which has become Party gospel and has won him rapid promotion to the post of Dean of History at Rostov University. Now, the Politburo has thrust on him a formidable assignment. Mikhail Gorin, the worldfamous humanitarian whose writings inspired the Revolution and who, out of gullibility, has been an invaluable propagandist for the regime, has lately fallen silent. Novikov’s job is to make this national hero — a figure who resembles Maxim Gorki—rejoin the servile chorus.
The plot hinges on this assignment and its attendant inner dramas — that of the old lighter for freedom cleverly steered by Novikov into renewed myth-making and goaded by his conscience to recognize and proclaim that he has served the blackest tyranny: and that of the new Soviet man who finds himself deeply in love with the daughter of the great writer he must corrupt or discreetly destroy. A spoiled idealist fully alive to the evil of Stalinism, Novikov is not quite inhuman but cannot afford to be human.
The Fall of a Titan is a novel of tremendous compass, with a multitude of characters, a multitude of poignant individual dramas, a multitude of memorable scenes and powerful episodes. Its parts coalesce into a firmly integrated whole, and from it there emerges an immensely telling picture of Soviet life and of the absolute corruption of the Party hierarchy. But what gives Gouzenko’s book its stature is not so much its documentary achievement as its stirring treatment of the human passions, and the intensity with which it dramatizes man’s revolt againsl overwhelming evil. It would be extravagant to say that Gouzenko emerges as the Dostoevski of our time, but he has certainly written a novel worthy of being placed in the Dostoevskian t radition.

Bombinating Ben

Ben Hecht — to use his favorite verb — has bombinated through life with the energy of ten ordinary mortals. At twelve, Mr. Hecht appeared as a violin virtuoso in a Chicago concert, and at fourteen he was trapeze soloist in a circus. As newspaper reporter, fiction writer, playwright, publisher of a literary review, irrepressible amorist and crony of the wild hearts, he was a hero of Chicago’s literary renaissance. His script-writing for the movies earned him $1500,000 a year— David Selzniek once paid him $3500 for a day’s stint. — but debt, he claims, has been his boon companion. During the Florida land boom, he promoted Key Largo real estate by burying and then discovering a pirate treasure. In the middle nineteen-forties, he turned crusader for the Palestine Jews, and became the American champion of the terrorist Irgun Zvai Leumi. And now, at sixty, Mr. Hecht has published an outsize autobiography: A Child of the Century (Simon & Schuster, $5.00).
The title, to my mind, is something of a misnomer. Granted that Hecht has changed since the days when Chicago dubbed him “the Pagliacci of the fire-escapes,” his autobiography, in its style and outlook, is essentially the product of an enfant terrible of the twenties. At its best which is much of the time — it is colorful, bursting wilh clan, and fearlessly independent; at its worst, it runs to juvenilia and bombast.
As a political thinker, Mr. Hecht has not yet graduated to the sophomorie. As a thinker on life in general, he writes with an exhilarating contempt for cant and sometimes shows genuine insighl; sometimes he is slickly clever or jauntily cynical in a manner that sounds quaintly old-fashioned today. All in all, he is a difficult man to size up precisely. At one point, for instance, he gives Hollywood a murderous trouncing; elsewhere he hands out Hollywoodian bouquets to his cinematic buddies and 1o the guff peddled by the Broadway columnists.
The sketches of Ilecht s friends (among them, Fan in Brice, Maxwell Bodenhcim, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Charles MacArthur, Helen Hayes, Jed Harris, Gene Fowler, Harpo Marx) amount to several score, and for the most part they are first-rate copy. The portraits of Hecht’s aunts and uncles are altogether wonderful — warm, touching, funny, and marvelously original. But good though he is as a portraitist, it is as a raconteur that Ilecht s talents reach their finest flowering. His autobiography contains literally hundreds of superb anecdotes and stories tales of crime, of hangings, of promotion stunts, of the methods and mores of Hollywood; tales farcical and fantastic, gruesome and grotesque; tales in which tragedy and comedy are brought into joint relief with the touch of a master.
In spite of the blemishes in its 654 pages, A Child of the Century is a large parcel of high-powered entertainment. I doubt that a livelier autobiography will be published in 1954.

Period piece

Early in the Morning (Harper, $3.00) is a slight, charming period piece, a vivid memoir of a happy childhood in the eighteen-nineties. As John Mason Brown says in his Introduction, Marion Edey, now in her seventies, has the rare gift of being able to re-enter the magic world of early youth and relive the long-ago yesterdays as though they were still todays.
Mrs. Edey — daughter of the artist, Maitland Armstrong; sister of the author of Fanny Kemble and of Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of Foreign Affairs — spent most of her childhood at Danskammor, an old farm sixty-five miles from New York with a half mile of river front on the Hudson and “our own lighthouse.” To Marion and her small brother, Noel, it was a world full of lovely pastimes — skating, sledding, driving themselves around behind Midget, the roan pony; a world rich in delectable discoveries — bloodrool, which could be used to streak the face so gorily; baby raccoons, plump and glossy: turtle’s eggs; a “nice, little garter snake,” beautifully shiny, with which Marion scared ihe daylights out of Mrs. Dilloway, the laundress.
In the background, Papa and Mama preside lovingly but firmly over a contented household. On the side lines, there are Barney, the hired hand, who never removes the ancient derby he brought with him from Ireland and uses the hatband as a carrier for his matches; Martha, the cook, who, not being one for weeping, carried an onion to her uncle’s wake in order to muster a show of proper respect for the corpse; and Mrs. Dilloway, fascinating to the children because one of her eyes is blue and the other brown.
In the latter part of the book, the scene shifts to ihe New York of the horse-drawn buses, when Fifth Avenue was paved with cobblestones and Tiffany and Brentano were on Union Square. Here the children, on their own, formally call on Mark Twain, who lives around the corner; and Marion, now going on fifteen, hero-worships another of her father’s friends, William Dean Howells.
Noel used to say that their world was “a pretty nice place,” and Mrs. Edey has re-created it graphically, glowingly, and humorously.

Fiction: three flavors

The Eternal Smile And Other Stories (Random House, $4.50) is a collection of short fiction by Pär Lagerkvist, winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize. These twenty-one tales, which range in length from one page to eighty, encompass many forms — allegoric and symbolic fantasy, parable, character sketch, realistic narrative — and many moods — oracular, idyllic, satirical, macabre, searching. But all are animated by an underlying concern with the ultimate question: What is the meaning of Life?
In his otherwise helpful Introduction, Richard R. Vowles makes what seems to me a misleading statement when he says that Lagerkvist’s stories are “the creations of a mystic and a seer, rather than a writer of fiction.” Lagerkvist, to be sure, is not. a conventional writer of fiction in that he does not focus on the particular and the concrete in human experience — he seeks out the typical, the elemental. Nonetheless, he is a writer working in the most ancient of fictional traditions — a teller of tales about the riddle of man’s lot. His originality and his importance lie precisely in the fact that he combines the vision of a seer with the art of the authentic storyteller and with a prose style which even in translation has a classical purity and spareness.
The title story, situated in Eternity, delineates man’s search through the ages for the reason of existence and surges to a surprising climax, in which God appears as a little old man sawing wood and replies to the questioning chorus: “I have done the best I could.” “The Lift That Went Down into Hell,” a parable of adultery, is perhaps a trifle slick for Lagerkvist, but theatrically highly effective. “The Hangman” is a strange tale which moves from medieval superstition to the blood lust of Fascism — a complex treatment of man’s age-old search for salvation through violence. Fascism is more directly satirized in “The Children’s Campaign,” a brilliantly imagined fantasy about a nation which trains its children for war and sends them to conquer a neighbor.
With the exception of several of the shorter pieces, which seemed to me unimpressive, this is a striking collection. It unfolds to us a fictional world powerfully charged with the terror, the mystery, and the anguish of man’s fate; but powerfully charged, too, with a belief in the supreme value of life for its own sake — a belief in work, love, and the “quiet everyday radiance in life that mankind always has difficulty in noticing and setting a value on.”
L. P. Hartley is an English writer whose fiction has been appearing since the twenties in his own country and who numbers among his partisans a good many distinguished novelists and critics. Although three of his books have been published in the United States, Air. Hartley remains little known to the American public. He is now represented by The GoBetween (Knopf, $3.50), and while it is a somewhat old-fashioned novel, I suspect that a good many exacting readers would find it highly seductive.
The narrator, Leo Colston, a man of sixty, is prompted by the discovery of a diary which he kept as a schoolboy to recall three fateful weeks in 1900 which irrevocably shaped his life — caused him to grow up a stranger to love who has immured himself in work. Mr. Hartley’s artistry minimizes the hamminess of this overture, and what follows is a beautifully written and absorbing story.
Just before his thirteenth birthday, Leo is invited by a school friend, Marcus Maudsley, to spend July at the Maudsleys’ stately country place. Here Leo, in all innocence, becomes the indispensable message-bearer in a passionate love affair between Alarcus’s lovely sister, Marian, and a neighboring farmer. It is a dazzling summer for Leo, enchanted by the pleasures of the great estate and the friendship of such glamorous grownups as Marian and the peer her parents expect her to marry, Viscount Trimingham. But at the pinnacle of his bliss — when his performance in a cricket match and his singing have made him a hero, and Marian has become engaged to his idol Trimingham — Leo finds himself caught in an agonizing dilemma.
He knows that, now, it is wrong for Marian to go on visiting the farmer, but they insist that he be their “postman” just once more — and catastrophe ensues. The melodramatic outcome and the permanence of its effects on a normal boy are not made entirely convincing, but this is not. a major issue. What matter are the vivid chronicle of those .July days at Brandham Hall and the marvelous insight into the feelings and thoughts of a likable small boy.
The Bird’s Nest (Farrar, Straus & Young, $3.50) by Shirley Jackson is the coolly precise chronicle of a young woman’s breakdown into four conflicting personalities. Eliza bet h Richmond — a passive, purposeless girl who works in a museum and lives quietly with her maiden aunt suddenly receives several vicious unsigned notes. At the same time, she starts to sufler from incrcasingK severe headaches, which drive her to a doctor. Under hypnosis, a totally different personality emerges — aggressive, cunning, and contemptuous: the writer of the notes. Presently, two more submerged personalit ies come to the’ surface and a weird struggle follows between the four Elizabeths and her doctor and aunt.
A tour do force such as this is, prolonged beyond its high point, pays rapidly diminishing returns. To my mind. Miss Jackson’s story is enormously intriguing and brilliantly handled up to about the halfway mark. But I began to find it contrived and overdrawn after Elizabeth the fourth had stepped into the act.


The Four Continents (Harper, $4.00) by Sir Osbert Sitwell is a book of orotund diseursions on “Travel, Art and Life" which ranges, geographically, from Manhattan to the Moon, Amalfi to Angkor Wat, Niagara Falls to the Great Wall of China. The topics discussed are diverse enough to include phrenologists and soothsayers, the possible effects of Hitler’s return, and the musical taste1 of elephants, who, regrettably, show a Philistine preference for Ielibes to Stravinsky. The choicest morsel in this Sitwelhan plum pudding is an account of how the author once cunningly saved his inimitable fat her from a reckless marriage at the age of seventy-seven.
There is a saying among British mountaineers, “Only The Times is interested in climbers actually climbing mountains; other newspapers are merely interested in climbers falling off them.” The London Times had secured exclusive coverage rights to the Hunt Everest expedition, and in order to scrounge some copy for his paper, Ralph Izzard of the Daily Mail, no mountain climber, trekked independently on the heels of the expedition to a height of 18,000 feet. His story, An Innocent on Everest (Dutton, $3.75), is a slight but pleasant item in the folklore of journalism — high-altitude department.
The fifth issue of New World Writing (New American Library, $.50) is possibly the best to date. Among the more notable items are an extract from John Lehmann’s autobiography-in-progress, describing his association with Virginia and Leonard Woolf on the Hogarth Press; four poems from the Arabic; stories by Dylan Thomas, Ralph Ellison, and Sean O Faolain; and a line story by a hitherto unpublished writer, Clare McGrath Butler. This series continues to be lively, highly varied, and intelligently adventurous. The editors consistently come through with some pleasant surprises and a talented new writer or two.
For patrons of unconventional writing, there is a new novel by Anais Nin:A Spy in the House of Love (British Book Centre, 83.00). The story’s structure and rhythms are somehow suggestive of a ballet in which the heroine, Sabina, acts out her relationships with live very different men — her husband and four lovers — seeking all the while to understand why mobility in love is the condition of her existence: to understand what it is in each man that she so deeply needs and what makes her eventually reject him. The self-knowledge Sabina finally arrives at is a bit patly presented; but the swift denouement should be read as a chapter ending rather than a terminal point, for all of Miss Nin’s work is a continuing chronicle of Sabina’s inner development.
UNESCO’s “World Art Series” — whose purpose is to make available top-quality reproductions of masterpieces hitherto little known except to specialists — has opened with a beautiful and exciting volume: India Paintings From Ajanta Caves (New York Graphic Society, $15.00). The 1500-year-old Ajanta frescoes derive their main themes from the legends of Buddha’s reincarnations. Their dramatic coloring — red and yellow ochers, terra verde, lamp black, lapis lazuli — has been sumptuously rendered in the thirty-two large reproductions. Madanject Singh, who photographed the frescoes, supplies a useful introduction; the series as a whole is being edited by Peter Bellew and Anton Schulz.