The Invisible Writing (Macmillan, $5.00), the second volume of Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, describes his seven years, 1931-1938, as an embattled member of the Communist Party; and I might as well say right now that it is among the most interesting works of non-fiction that I have read this year. It is free from the hysteria and the rancor which have disgusted me in the memoirs of certain celebrated ex-Communists, whose much-vaunted spiritual transformation has left them with more fanaticism than Christian charity; and who still fervently espouse the pestilential proposition that the world needs to be saved in a hurry by their own brand of righteousness. Koestler has fought his way to the recognition that it is precisely this all-or-nothing outlook which is the breeding ground for scourges such as Communism, and be writes with a far-reaching insight into the neuroses that underlie the surrender to extremism and “closed systems" of thought.
Even a bare summary of Koestler’s experiences should indicate that his is an altogether fascinating story. At twenty-six, he was the highly paid foreign editor of a leading Berlin newspaper when he became a secret member of the C.P.’s Intelligence apparatus. A freakish episode led to his exposure and the loss of his job; and then he lived fora time in Berlin’s so-called “Red Block” as an open member of the Party. In July, 1932, he went to Russia as a journalist under the sponsorship of the Comintern. He traveled extensively — as far afiield as Bokhara, Samarkand, and the remotest towns of Soviet Central Asia. In Baku, he fell suddenly and desperately in love; and love, as it has to other pious Communists, brought tragedy to Koestler. A grotesque misunderstanding caused him to contribute to the probable ruin of his exquisite Nadesha: she was the first person he had denounced and she remained the last.
Just at the time that disillusionment was setting in, Hitlerism revived Koestler’s Communist fervor. With Germany nazified, he settled in Paris; and there followed years of great poverty and hectic political activity. At one period he slept in a hayloft and lived on bread smeared wilh lard. For two months, he was schoolmaster and nurse in a home for the children of Communist officials, and out of this experience wrote an unpublished novel entitled The Adventures in Exile of Comrade Cheepybtrd and His Friends. He also wrote—under the name of Dr. A. Costler and for a straight fee of $300 — an Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge, which became an international best-seller.
During the Spanish Civil War, Koestler got himself accredited to Franco’s headquarters as a correspondent and narrowly escaped nrrest. On a return assignment, this time to the Loyalist side, he was captured and spent ninety-live days in one of Franco’s prisons under sentence of death he was saved through the exchange of a hostage. The Moscow Purges of March, 1938, destroyed the remnants of his faith in Communism, and in the spring of that year he resigned from the Party.
One of the stirring qualities of Koestler’s book is its high charge of moral drama — its unflinching and penetrating scrutiny of the author’s conscious and unconscious motivation; of his response to tests of personal loyalty and courage, and to three months of awaiting execution. Koestler’s story is rich in curious incident, in melodramatic episodes, and in portraits of striking personalities in the Communist Movement. The Spanish chapters are a searing reminder of the extent to which Franco’s apologists have succeeded in whitewashing a regime guilty of the vilest crimes; and many aspects of Koestler’s book bring to bear a searching light on the history of the thirties.
What surprised me was the evidence of a kind of mellowing on Koestler’s part. The theatrical bent of his intellect; his fondness for flashy generalizations, and for transferring 1o other spheres the concepts and jargon of science; his penchant for the doomsday outlook — all this has played a part in making his work arresting and stimulating; but it has also made him, as an English critic once bluntly observed, a “dislikable” writer. In The Invisible Writing, I find less showiness, less juggling with sweeping abstractions, and a good deal more humanity — a freer flow of feeling; more traces of wry humor; a greater willingness to speak straightforwardly, as Orwell did, in terms of decency and infamy. I have always greatly admired Koestler; now I begin to find him quite likable.
Journey into Islam
The Road to Mecca (Simon & Schuster, $5.00) by Muhammad Asad records a most unusual journey into faith — the conversion to Islam of a European non-religious Jew. This story, which spans the first three decades of the author’s life, is woven around the chronicle of a journey to Mecca in the summer of 1932. On both planes, The Road to Mecca is a remarkable book.
Muhammad Asad was born Leopold Weiss in Galicia in 1900, the son of a lawyer and grandson of a rabbi. He studied in Vienna; went to Berlin to write; and, while still in his teens, got jobs in the cinema and then in journalism. Life was exciting, but he was dissatisfied with the atmosphere of “materialism.” He had read deeply and widely, but the religions and the contemporary enlightenment of the West did not satisfy his needs. When he was twenty-two, an uncle invited him to Jerusalem, and he was instantly attracted to the Arab world. In the years that followed—supporting himself as a correspondent — he traveled throughout the area stretching from the Libyan desert to the steppes of Afghanistan, from the Bosphorus to the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. He embraced Islam in 1926. A few months later, he met Ibn Sand and became attached to his court as an unofficial adviser.
With its intimate and ardent picture of the Arab world, its accounts of adventurous missions on behalf of Ibn Saud, The Road to Mecca, on a more modest scale, makes an appeal to the imagination similar to Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Although the author stresses that strict rationality drew him into Islam, there is clearly much of the romantic in him. Anyone to whom Cairo’s noisome red light district conjures up “luscious ‘ limbs and tempting intoxications is certainly a man somewhat bemused by enrapturement with Araby.
Nonetheless, the author’s attempt to give Westerners a better understanding of the vitalizing elements of Islam is genuinely enlightening — up to a point. Among Islam’s special virtues, he cites its view that the spirit and the flesh are one, and that spiritual growth is bound up with all aspects of nature; its freedom from the concept of original sin; its “emotional lightness of approach ... a supreme common sense of feeling"; its integration of religion with everyday life, and the Prophet’s leaching that the pursuit of knowledge is holier than mere piety. Among true believers, the author found a sense of freedom coupled with emotional security which seemed to him lacking in the West.
He recognizes, however, that in the main Islam has lost contact with the creative spirit of the Prophet’s teachings, has succumbed to a pervasive cultural decay. He deplores its unnecessary backwardness and social wrongs; the stifling scholasticism prevalent among its theologians; the intellectual stagnation. Here, surely, is an acknowledgment that Islam is suffering from the same erosion of its vitalizing beliefs as the West, only in one case the symptom is “stagnation,”in the other “materialism.”The author, moreover, is no arehaist, and the course in which he sees hope for a revival of Islam is one which must lead the Moslem peoples toward the very problem which bedevils the West: how to prevent the pursuit of progress from degenerating into the idolatry of progress.
Muhammad Asad has written an absorbing book which should sharpen our respect for the original message of the Koran. But he has failed to make a persuasive case for his belief that Islam can again become a dynamic cultural challenge to the West.
The letters which Lawrence of Arabia wrote to his family are now published in their entirety (some have appeared before in part) for the first time: The Home Letters of T. E. Laurence and His Brothers (Macmillan, $10.00). These are the letters (T.E.’s) of the type of genius who remains endlessly fascinating by virtue of being a great mystifier. One kind of mystifier is the man who has revealed himself so assiduously that the Truth of him is tucked away at the heart of a labyrinth of truths — of these Gide is the prototype. The other kind seldom explicitly gives clues to his innermost self, and, when he does, proceeds to undercut them by presenting us with some apparent contradiction. Of the latter there is no more complex, elusive, and compelling example than Lawrence of Arabia. He once said: “At an O.T.C. field day, I was told to disguise myself as a battalion in close order; and have done, ever since.”
Lawrence’s letters to his family arc naturally loaded with such trivia as changes of address, details of his expenses, comments on the weather, and so on; few are of the same caliber as the correspondence which he knew would be published and in which he has shown himself a genuinely great letter writer. But this collection has the appeal of letters written by a man boundlessly absorbed in everything he did — studying castles in France, excavating in Syria, crusading for the Arabs, improving his cottage in the English countryside; a man boundlessly interested in an extraordinary diversity of things — the quality of boots, pottery, strategy, literature, motorcycles.
Lawrence’s passionate and meticulous immersion in the task at hand was counterpointed by the nihilism of a perfectionist who, after the Arab revolt and the writing of his masterpiece, was never able to canalize his genius. To Liddell Hart he said: “There is an ideal standard somewhere, and only that matters: and I cannot find it. Hence this aimlessness.” And a year before his death, when his retirement from the R.A.F. was imminent, he wrote: “I shall be 46 . . . too young to be happy doing nothing, but too old for a fresh start. However there is nothing that I want to do, and nothing particularly that I am glad to have done.”
Lawrence’s two younger brothers, Frank and Will, were twenty-two and twenty-six respectively when they were killed in the First World War. But their letters suggest, as Sir Ernest Barker says in his Foreword to Will’s correspondence, that T.E. was one among “a nest of young eagles.” Will combined a great love of beauty with a strong religious sense, and there are some fine pages in the letters he wrote while teaching in India on the eve of the war.
Madame Colette — who at the time of her recent death was considered by reputable judges to be the greatest living French writer—often said that it was unnecessary to write books about her, because all her life was described in her own. But her half-dozen autobiographical volumes are not available in English, and I think that even readers who are not especially interested in her as a great lady of letters would enjoy Margaret Crosland’s biography, the first written in English, of this immensely interesting woman. Miss Crosland has to a large extent pieced together her Colette: A Provincial in Paris (British Book Centre, $3.50) from her subject’s novels, essays, and journals. The result is a minor biography of major appeal. For Colette, as her third husband observed, “C’ est un phénomèna.”
A Burgundian, whose father was a Captain of the Zouaves, SidonieGabridle Colette came to Paris as the young wife of an egregious impresario of letters, who kept a squad of writers churning out copy marketed under his signature. Monsieur Willy soon put his wife to work and her Claudine à l’École was a tremendous hit. Other successes followed, but Colette broke away from a marriage which had disillusioned her.
At thirty-three, she embarked successfully on a career in the music hall and later as a dramatic actress. Meanwhile, the first books published under her own name achieved the celebrity of those credited to Willy. She remarried, First a distinguished diplomat, then, at sixty-two, a man many years her junior. She opened her own beauty institute and worked in it; she lectured in Rumania; she became, after turning sixty, a daily drama critic. When she died at eighty-one, her collected works totaled two million words. She was the first woman to become a member of the Académic Goncourt and a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor.
Only a blend of peculiarly French influences could have produced the phenomenon that was Colette. American lady writers, to be sure, have had as many husbands; and a few have worked as energetically at several careers. But a Frenchwoman alone could have done all this and remained, as Colette did, the quintessence of the feminine sensibility. Firmly lodged in the person of the onetime nude dancer who became the doyenne of French letters there was always a shrewd Burgundian housewife — canny in money matters, an artist in the kitchen, a sapient producer of homemade cosmetics.
Chronic remorse, most moralists agree, is an unsalutary sentiment — the sinner who has genuinely repented does not become any the cleaner by rolling interminably in the mud; and chronic remorse is peculiarly disastrous where novelists are concerned. The novelist obsessed with the errors of his past John Dos Bassos is a case in point, since his political switch from far left to far right — is irresistibly drawn to revenge himself on his past by rewriting it, by showing that what he found good was utterly disgusting. And the literary results of such an enterprise are apt to resemble a dredging operation: the principal yield is mud.
Dos Passos’s latest book. Most Likely to Succeed (Prcntice-Hall, $3.50), is another thesis-novel showing how busily the Communists and their cohorts were at work in the twenties and thirties undermining the fabric of American life. On the score of political enlightenment, it has nothing to contribute which is not known to a consumer of the tabloids. As a novel, though readable enough, it seems to me a rather dismal affair, whose sourness is unredeemed by any qualities of depth or brilliance.
At the story’s opening, Jed Morris — voted by his college class “most likely to succeed” — is a gifted, bumptious, supercharged young man, possessed by the ideals of the proletarian revolution. A play he has written is to be produced by a Communist-dominated theater group in Greenwich Village, and for a time he is hectically embroiled in the group’s ideological efforts and savage intramural conflicts. When his play falls flat, one of the comrades gets him a well-paid script-writing job in Hollywood. He becomes enormously successful, and more heavily engaged than ever in Communist-directed activities. But his absorption in the Movement and his blindness to human values have plunged him into a morass of hypertension and domestic misery, and the Party itself finally condemns him to ruin.
We know that what Dos Passes is describing has had its counterpart in reality, but he has skimped on the creative task; he has not made his people and events really solid and convincing. And to a large extent he has projected his disgust simply by making the physical texture of life in his story almost consistently disagreeable: his people “snarl” and “screech” and “roar" and have a “braying” laugh; they eat in various vastly unattractive ways; they never seem to enjoy anything — everything is just too sick-making. All this, in effect, is the primitive device of giving the villain a devil’s tail and surrounding him with fumes of sulphur.
Jn contrast, The Flint Anchor (Viking, $3.75) by Sylvia Townsend Warner is a novel created with a Solidity and a subtlety of feeling, a fusion of warmth and wit and quietly biting shrewdness, that are reminiscent of the art of Jane Austen. The book is a period piece set in the seaside town of Loseby in Norwich — the story of John Barnard (17901963) and his large family. It has an unobtrusive theme: that the tragic error of John Barnard’s life was an excess of moral ambition. There is no plot in particular, but a great deal happens. Eleven children are born; six of them die; and John’s wife, Julia, takes to the sofa and the solace of increasing nips of Madeira. Joseph, the eldest son, is dismissed from Cambridge and sails off to the West Indies, where he prospers—but never, never will he be forgiven. The homely Euphemia finds a suitor who, though eminently eligible, is not in her father’s good books; and she gives the young man the idea of rescuing Mary, her father’s favorite, from the attack of a tame bulldog. The intrigue miscarries, and its net result is that Mary marries the feckless Thomas Kettle, who is presently disgraced by dreadful scandal and sent abroad with orders never to return.
As the story moves on, the characters grow steadily in the mind’s eye and their world becomes so vivid and substantial that we feel as though we are looking straight into it. At one point the author writes: “Women conduct life as they conduct their needlework —with small stitches, with buttons and buttonholes, with reiteration of small stabbing movements that build up a smooth-faced untearable garment.'’ it is a rather suggestive description of how Miss Warner has painstakingly created this exceedingly fine novel.
The Feast of July (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $3.50) by H. E. Bates is a poignant love story. Bella Ford, a young English country girl, has been seduced and deserted by a visiting shoemaker, who says he is working in Nenweald, sixty miles away. Pregnant, penniless, her self-respect shattered, Bella walks in midwinter all the way to Nenweald only to learn that Wilson is unknown there. She collapses, and is taken in by a poor family, in which there are three sons. Each of the young men pays court to Bella with a gentleness that eventually heals her numbing fear of love. When she has made her choice and her happiness is at its height, Arch Wilson reappears — and the story moves to a dramatic climax.
Mr. Bates has subtly counterpointed the grim and the tender, the colors and delights of summer and the harshness of winter in the scrubby, windy little towns of Bedfordshire. Modest in its compass, The Feast, of July is it finely wrought tale which unfolds with a sharply individual accent a familiar drama of the human heart.
From the standpoint of anyone professionally concerned with literature, this year’s most welcome addition to the reference shelf is Cassell’s Encyclopaedia of World Literature (Funk & Wagnalls, 2 vols., $25.00), edited by S. H. Steinberg. Produced in Britain, it represents the collective effort of 230 scholars and writers of some thirty nationalities. Part I contains histories of the world’s literatures — eighty-three of them and articles on literary forms, terms, schools, and special subjects. Part II consists of biographies of the world’s writers who died prior to 1914, and Part III covers the contemporaries — 10,000 biographies all told. Inevitably, these biographical entries and the accompanying critical comment are decidedly sketchy; but then, the special value of this encyclopedia is its panoramic scope. Few of us may have call to know about Gaucho or Polynesian literature, Kalevipoeg (the Estonian national epic), Ecbasis Captivi (the first European beastepic), or twelfth-century writers such as Ahmad Ibn Omar Nizami Aruzi of Samarkand; but this is just the sort of information which is hard to get hold of when you need it in a hurry. The Cassell encyclopedia is unique in its inclusiveness, and I have found it very pleasant to browse through.
The New Century Cyclopedia of Names (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 3 vols., $39.50), edited by Clarence L. Barnhart with the assistance of William D. Halsey and the collaboration of 350 scholars, supersedes the original Century Cyclopedia of Names, which had not been revised since 1914. This valuable compendium contains information about 100,000 proper names — of persons and places (real and legendary), plays and operas, organizations, laws, treaties, works of fiction and works of art. The typography is excellent, the volumes not too bulky, and — judging from my experience to date the entries provide all one could hope to find in n medium-sized reference work.
A revised and expanded edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford University Press, $8,50) was published last February, and it has become my favorite book in its field. I find it easier to use than Bartlett (the index refers you not merely to a certain page but directly to the quotation, which is numbered); and the compilers’ literary taste and judgment of usefulness seem to me superior more catholic than Bartlett’s, and adventurous enough to include Mae West s celebrated dictum and a page of witticisms from Punch. Another important advantage is the exceptionally well-rounded collection of quotations from the Greek and Roman classics, and from French and German; and these are given in the original as well as in translation. On the debit side, there are two surprising omissions — no index of authors; no quotations from the Koran.
Hammond’s Ambassador World Atlas (C. S. Hammond & Co., $12.50) claims to be the most comprehensive atlas ever published in America 416 pages, 326 maps, an index of over 100,000 entries. I compared it with its most direct competitor, Rand McNally’s Cosmopolitan World Atlas (Rand McNally, $12.50), published in 1951, and there are pluses and minuses on both sides. The Rand McNally Atlas is usually it bit easier on the eye, and its much more extensive “information tables" make it decidedly more useful as a source of factual reference. On the other hand, it lots no physical maps (with the exception of one of the world) and to me an atlas without physical maps is about as defective as a cook book which doesn’t mention weights and measures. The Hammond Atlas at least carries physical maps of each continent and of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain—but that, too, leaves much to be desired. In both cases, the additional space necessary for such maps would have been available if these so-called “world" atlases were not so parochial in their perspective: both volumes devote roughly as much map-space to the United States and Canada as to the whole of the rest of the world. In fairness, I should add that, outside of the limitation just mentioned, these two atlases are admirable productions. For those who need physical maps exclusively, there is The American Oxford Atlas (Oxford University Press, $10.00); but I know of no up-to-date world atlas which is completely satisfactory. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Some years back the British Treasury asked Sir Ernest Gowers to write a couple of handbooks which would fortify civil servants against the seduction of “officialese”; and they now appear in one compact volume, Plain Words: Their ABC (Knopf, $2.50). The publisher says the book might be called “a condensed up-to-date Fowler, and this is not unduly laudatory. Plain Words is urbanely written and loaded with useful information — good reading in its own right.
In the past six or seven years, the volume of first-class books published in paperbound editions has expanded at a phenomenal rate. The latest entrant into the paperback field is the House of Knopf, which has just launched a series, Vintage Books, consisting of outstanding titles drawn from its backlist and priced at $.95. Among the first nine titles are The Immoralist by André Gide, Death in Venice And Seven Other Stories by Thomas Mann, The Stranger by Albert Camus, E. M. Forster’s Howards End, and Alexis de Tocquevillc’s Democracy in America in two volumes.
Knopf “pre-tested” this venture by leasing the rights of Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures to Doubleday’s Anchor Books, started eighteen months ago, a series of high-grade paperbound reprints drawn from all publishers and priced at from $.65 to $1.25. The Gide novel, which had been selling 200 copies annually, sold 30,000 copies in its first, year in the 75-cent Anchor edition. Anchor Books now has a list of thirty-five titles, among them works by George Orwell, Henry Green, Kierkegaard, Conrad, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Santayana, and Stendhal; it embraces history, science, psychoanalysis, anthropology, sociology, and translations from Greek and Roman classics. This is reprint publishing at its best.
Meanwhile, the British firm. Penguin Books, which was one of the pre-war pioneers of high-grade paperbacks and now has the largest list of this kind, continues to bring out distinguished reprints at a brisk clip. Its latest publications ($.50 to $1.00) include The Journals of Arnold Bennett, The Histories of Herodot us, Anna Karenin, and a new translation of the Fables of Aesop.