Reader's Choice

THE new novel by William Faulkner, A Fable ( Random House, $4.75), has been nine years in the Writing. Loosely speaking, the story is a reenactment in modern terms of the week of the Passion — the setting is the trenches of the Western Front in 1918. Against this background of dissolution and degradation, Faulkner dramatizes the beliefs expressed in his Nobel Prize speech and later amplified in an address he delivered to his daughter’s high school graduating class. A paragraph from the latter is worth quoting here because it defines precisely the spirit which animates this large, complex, and passionately felt novel: —
It is not men in the mass who can and will save Man. It, is Man himself, created in the image of God so that he shall have the power and the will to choose right from wrong, and so be able to save himself because he is worth saving; Man, the individual, man and woman, who will refuse always to be tricked or frightened or bribed into surrendering, not just the right but the duty too, to choose between justice and injustice, courage and cowardice, sacrifice and greed, pity and self; —who will believe always not only in the right of man to be free of injustice and rapacity and deception, but the duty and responsibility of man to see that justice and truth and pity and compassion are done. So, never be afraid. Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion. . . . If you . . . will do this . . . as individuals . . . you will change the earth.
This is a noble creed, but the novel in which it is dramatized seems to me among the most inaccessible that Faulkner has written. Here, in brief, is the gist of the central drama: A French regiment designated to make a foredoomed attack mutinies; the Germans in the opposite trenches welcome a lull; and a sort of armistice descends on this sector and spreads along the front. The Allied High Command discovers that the ringleaders of the mutiny are a corporal and his twelve acolytes. This corporal (a somewhat miraculous figure) has been telling the men that they can put an end to the slaughter and the degradation merely by choosing not to fight, and his message has been repeated as that of a saviour. The Supreme Commander sends for the corporal, whom he knows to be his illegitimate son, and offers him pardon and worldly glories if he will go out and repudiate his preachment. The corporal elects martyrdom.
This central strand in the novel is clear enough, but the other characters and the subplots which they introduce complicate matters sufficiently to provide a field day for specialists in Faulknerian exegesis. There are three women —the corporal’s elder sister, his younger one (an idiot), and his wife, a prostitute. There are three other soldiers: an enthusiastic young American aviator; an English runner; and an English sentry who figures in a long, retrospectively narrated episode about the stealing of a famous stallion in Mississippi, and who also has miraculous powers of persuasion. There are two other generals (another trinity). And there is an old Negro preacher, who was associated with the sentry in the Mississippi horsetheft and who now seeks him out at the front as head of an organization entitled Les Amis Myriades et Anonymes a la France de Tout le Monde.
All of those characteristics of Faulkner’s writing which, as even sympathetic critics have conceded, he sometimes carries too far, are present here in full force — the rhetoric which twists and turns through an interminable series of convolutions, losing all contact with the concrete situation which started it off and dissolving into mere sound and fury; the tortured syntax and tortuous punctuation; the insistent use of “he" or “she,”or of designations such as “the general" which apply to more than one protagonist, in preference to proper names, a practice which often makes it difficult for the reader to keep his bearings; in sum, a kind of obsessive avoidance of directness and clarity. The plot and subplots are poorly integrated, and the people are for the most part only vaguely suggested — blurred images which fail to take shape as real human beings. There are, it need hardly be stressed, passages and episodes in which Faulkner’s talent powerfully asserts itself. But the novel as a whole seems to me spurious and unreal — a heroically ambitious failure.
Personal histories
One of the reasons, I think, why there has been a marked turning away from fiction toward nonfiction is a hankering to find in our reading more of the spirit expressed in Faulkner’s statement: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” There are first-rate novelists who are writing in this key, but they are decidedly in the minority. It is silly, of course, to berate the serious novelists for not nourishing us with works of glowing affirmation. The somber truths which oppress so many of today’s most talented fiction writers may represent an incomplete vision of human Truth; but these writers are honestly reflecting the climate of an age in which large-scale catastrophe and pervasive anxiety have overshadowed the triumphs of individual men and women. The glib affirmativeness of the popular novelist seems to have lost much of its tonic effect — even indulgent readers become skeptics when faced with the happy ending for which they are so nostalgic. But fact convinces; true stories of noble endeavor and triumph against great odds revitalize our sorely tested belief that man is neither a soulless monster nor a helpless mouse. And so we have become increasingly receptive to personal histories which show that somdimes the individual does prevail — over mountain, jungle, and ocean; over persecution and tyranny; over crippling injuries and dire infirmity.
My next three books belong in this category. First, there is Doctor to the Islands (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $4.50) by Tom and Lydia Davis, a story of a one-man medical crusade in Polynesia and, for good measure, of an extraordinarily adventurous crossing of the Pacific.
Tom Davis, part Welsh and part Polynesian, left Rarotonga as a boy to study medicine in New Zealand. There he married; and when his training was completed he secured a government appointment as medical officer to his home island. Husband and wife have taken turns in chronicling their six years on Rarotonga, and this unusual form of collaboration has produced a vivid, high-spirited narrative. In Lydia’s pages we catch the impact of Polynesia on a newcomer responsive to its seductions and to its people but forthright about its discouragements; we follow the problems of a housewife with two small children struggling to cope with strange customs, with a tropical dwelling in which everything disintegrates, and with a disapproving mother-in-law who is a Polynesian princess. In Tom’s chapters, we follow his campaign to improve the health of the islanders in the face of formidable obstacles—ignorance and superstition; lack of drugs; and official inertia and conservatism.
Dr. Davis destroyed the fear of inoculation; gained the confidence and help of the witch doctors; reduced the ravages of filariasis by instituting mosquito control; trained islanders to be assistant medical practitioners, and showed his people ways in which to revive the depressed economy of their plantations.
When Dr. Davis was offered the opportunity to do postgraduate work in the United States, he decided to sail there with Lydia in their 45-foot ketch Miru. Their story concludes with an account of this adventure — probably the first west-east crossing by a small craft of the fearsome South Pacific: a 12,000-mile journey which took them through the midwinter hurricanes of the roaring forties and landed them intact in Boston in 155 days.
Somewhat belatedly, I should like to say a few words about Lillian Roth’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow (Frederick Fell, $3.95), written in collaboration with Mike Connolly and Gerold Frank. This is the story of a glamorous and talented performer who rocketed to stardom, then sank into sixteen years of progressive alcoholism, in the course of which she experienced every sort of degradation. She was a total derelict when a visit to Alcoholics Anonymous started her on the long, agonizing climb out of the snake pit. She went on to regain health and good looks, find happiness in marriage, and make a successful comeback in the entertainment world.
From the writing standpoint, the book has the synthetic ring which so often afflicts “as told to" stories; and as a human document, the level of perception is altogether commonplace. What, in spite of this, makes Miss Roth’s book such compelling reading is the incredible and inspiring fact that a human being has not merely survived this descent into the abyss: she has, to revert to Faulkner’s word, prevailed.
Tell Freedom (Knopf, $4.00) recounts the story of a man who fought, his way out of a different kind of inferno— the abject existence of the penniless Cape Colored (that is, half caste) in the slums of Johannesburg. This is the fine, very stirring autobiography of the first twenty-two years in the life of the talented South African novelist, Peter Abrahams. The paramount fact of life for the Cape Coloreds was beaten into Abrahams when he was a small child — that the white man was his superior to whom he must invariably be servile. He became leader of a gang of slum Arabs who pilfered from the stalls of Indian traders. At the age of eleven he could neither read nor write his name.
One day, a kindly white girl read him one of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, “Othello,”which aroused in him an urge to go to school so that he could learn “to make stories like that.”As a Colored boy, his struggle to get an education and support himself while doing so was a herculean effort. While still in his teens, he started publishing stories and won recognition as a poet. He moved to Cape Town; was taken up by the Communists; but soon became dissatisfied with Marxism. Eventually, through sheer determination, he realized his dream of escaping from South Africa, with its ubiquitous FOR EUROPEANS ONLY, to a freer life in England.
Dark Continent
In the past few years, there has been a marked rise in the number of books from and about Africa south of the Sahara. The latest entry, Oden Meeker’sReport on Africa (Scribner’s, $5.00), is a lot more inviting than its title might suggest. The author is offering us a somewhat novel kind of reportage which, besides being immensely informative and genuinely enlightening, has the virtue of being consistently entertaining.
Roughly speaking, Mr. Meeker combines the style and temper of The New Yorker with the range of an encyclopedia and the fair-mindedness of a modest, intelligent political reporter. In addition, he has a genius for spotting diverting oddities such as the fact that the ads for Raleigh bicycles in Nigeria show the happy owner speeding away from a lion; or that in some African languages the phrase “to eat" is the same as that for “to be happy.”
Mr. Meeker’s book covers some thirty countries, and is fortified by an acquaintance with the texts of the pioneer explorers. The author has interviewed political leaders; pored through economic reports; roamed the markets; made friends with the native newspapermen; studied tribal ceremonies; visited with the Pygmies; and observed the ways of the animal kingdom, from the chameleon fo the gorilla. He writes pleasantly about art and architecture, folklore, and the spread of fashion-consciousness among tribal ladies whose mothers had added little to the costume of Eve. In dealing with the headline issues such as Malan and the Mau Mau and with the political problems elsewhere, Mr. Meeker’s main endeavor is to chart the broad currents which are gaining momentum and will determine the future of Africa. He has succeeded, I think, in putting together the best allround introduction to this continent that has appeared to date.
The unimportance of being Noel
Future Indefinite (Doubleday, $4.50), Noel Coward’s second volume of autobiography, covers his activities from 1939 to 1945. Though I am a keen admirer of Mr. Coward’s talents in the theater, this volume of personal history struck me as pretentions, silly, and drearily egotistic.
It is one of those books which prove precisely the point that the author is determined to rebut. Mr. Coward has for some years been deeply aggrieved by the image of himself as no more than a master of light entertainment. But unless patriotism drenched in sentimentality is a certification of seriousness, almost every page of this book shows up its author as a lightweight, afflicted with a fatuous sense of self-importance.
After the outbreak of war, Mr. Coward sought out Winston Churchill, and “I emphasized repeatedly that my brain and creative intelligence could be of more service to the Government than my theatrical ability.”Churchill, who apparently was not paying much attention, caught the word intelligence and irascibly exclaimed: ‘You’d be no good in Intelligence. . . . Go and sing to them when the guns are firing — that’s your job.”After some frustrating attempts to help win the war with his intelligence fortified by “my celebrity value,”Coward decided that he had no choice but to follow Churchill’s advice, and he unstintingly threw his energies into doing what he was good at —entertaining
the troops all over the Empire, raising money for war charities, boosting morale with films such as In Which We Serve.
His record was highly creditable, but his account of it is that of a man so fascinated with himself that he misses most of what might fascinate the reader. Too much of the linage reads like an itinerary plus a directory of the people with whom the author had lunch, cocktails, and dinner, who met him at airports and saw him off at railway stations. Mr. Coward’s profound distaste for the use of surnames makes it hard at times to know who’s who, and on one scrumptious occasion, the author has to admit he doesn’t know himself. “Drinks at the Berkeley with Eric and Bob" he transcribes from his journal, adding “ Eric and Bob who?" It doesn’t much matter, of course, since only a peasant such as this reader could fail to he interested by the mere fact that Noel had drinks at the Berkeley with Eric and Bob.
Sawdust Caesar
Paolo Monelli’s Mussolini (Vanguard, $4.00) is an informal biography by a topflight Italian journalist who has painstakingly dug up a great deal of firsthand information about Il Duce’s private life. This is the fullest biography of Mussolini published in English to date, and I found it thoroughly absorbing.
The account of Mussolini’s youth presents a picture of a grubby, vengeful anarchist: hyperexcitable and melancholic; burning with a thousand grievances; boastful, superstitious, and unsure of himself. At this time, Mussolini was violently antimilitarist and antinalionalist. But though his political credo diametrically reversed itself, the neurotic traits of the adolescent persisted behind the Caesarian façade of the dictator.
As a human portrait, Mr. Monelli’s book is graphic, in most respects convincing, and rich in piquant detail. Insatiable in his appetite for women, Mussolini remained—according to abundant testimony—a hasty and uncouth lover. He almost never gave his mistresses a gift and—while he unhesitatingly wasted millions on spectacular parades — he spent so little on himself that his linen was frayed and his footwear down at the heel. He was not too partial to washing, preferring a splash of cologne. Although he played the fiddle with some competence, he displayed a deep-seated hostility to art. One of his disastrous failings as a chief of state was a boundless absorption in trivia and an incredible indifference to essentials: on the eve of taking Italy into the war, he was more concerned about the army’s performance of the goosestep than about the parlous state of Italy’s armaments.
Among other contributions to the record, Mr. Monelli gives us the first carefully documented account of the gruesome finale to Mussolini’s life. However great one’s disgust for the tyrannical Duce, there is a terrible pathos about the broken old man captured by the partisans, and his devoted young mistress, Clara Petacci, as they spend their last night together and are suddenly hurried off to a sordid execution.
There is one major weakness in Monelli’s biography: it fails to make comprehensible how Mussolini, as portrayed in these pages, could have succeeded in dominating Italy for two decades.
The Midnight Patient (AppletonCentury-Crofts, $3.00) by Egon Hostovsky is an original and highly intriguing psychological thriller. The plot centers on a Czech psychoanalyst in New York who is approached by a mysterious Colonel working for the U.S. Psychological Warfare Institute, and is offered a large sum to restore the shattered nerves of a super-duper secret agent known as Alfons, so that Alfons may complete the execution of a great idea as devastating to Russia as an atomic onslaught. The doctor is warned that both Soviet agents and the American agents trailing them will show up as patients, and that he won’t know one from the other or from the normal run of neurotics. This forecast is fulfilled, with the added complication that everybody, including the Colonel, is double-crossing everybody else.
Seth (Scribner’s, $3.50) is a first novel by David Brynley set in the Dylan Thomas country. Although the author is no Dickens, his story of the grim childhood and youth of a poor Welsh boy is in certain respects reminiscent of Oliver Twist. Born out of wedlock and orphaned at an early age, Seth grows up in dreadful squalor, surrounded by drunkenness and prostitution and brutally exploited by the women who take him in as a slavey. The characters reek of wickedness or shine with virtue; the plot is continually on the boil and steaming with melodrama; and the happy ending is in the best possible Victorian tradition.