Fragebogen (Doubleclay, $6.00) by Ernst von Salomon is a detestable but fascinating personal history, which confronts us with the boast and the sneer of unrepentant German nationalism. The fact that it has become the No. 1 post-war best-seller in West Germany is a sharp reminder of how dangerously distempered the German mind remains.
Ernst von Salomon was a military cadet when the First World War ended, He enlisted in the Freikorps, a revolutionary formation of die-hard nationalists who sought to overthrow the Weimar Republic; and he was imprisoned for his part in the murder of Foreign Minister Rathenau. The Freikorps made an important contribution of ideas, tactics, and personnel to the National Socialist movement. But von Salomon himself, after 1930, withdrew from direct involvement in politics. He became a well-known novelist and film writer, and his work as historian of the Freikorps received the official endorsement of the Hitler regime. Arrested by the Allied Military Government in 1945, he spent a year in American camps and was eventually released as “an erroneous arrestee.”
Von Salomon’s 525-page book is cast in the form of answers to 131 questions of the Fragebogen (Questionnaire) which the Allied Military Government served on Germans suspected of being active Nazis. Fortunately, it comes to us with a first rate preface by Goronwy Bees, former political adviser to the British Commander in Chief in Germany, who shows us the author in his true light and warns us that von Salomon is a virtuoso in the art of persuasion whose story must not be taken at its face value.
Von Salomon goes to work on the naïve assumptions of the questionnaire with a savagely humorous mixture of mockery, pedantry, and cynicism. He counters the conquerors’ simplifications with a welter of political detail, which obfuscates the truth by what might be complication ad absurdum. He cannily keeps shifting his key from blunt avowal of discredible fact to arrogant self-righteousness or sad-eyed consternation at man’s inhumanity to man.
What emerges is an autobiography which is not only a vindication of the author — who from a legal standpoint has to be pronounced not guilty of collaboration with the Nazis — but which also implicitly vindicates the German people and very cleverly puts their accusers in the dock.
Although, the preface tells us, von Salomon once boasted of his contempt for the standards of civilization, he now pictures himself as a civilized dilettante — a gourmet, bohemian, and gay lover — who has retained an abiding faith in the old fashioned Prussian principles and virtues. He intimates that most of the Germans who knew what was really going on shared his disgust for the Nazis. This much, of course, is standard apologetics. But the fundamental point in von Salomon’s answer to the democratic powers projects us into the stratosphere of effrontery. Hitlerism, he says ruefully, merely carried to “feverish” extremes all the “methods and thought processes” of that fuzzy and infantile system known as democracy. In effect, von Salomon proclaims that the AngloAmericans arc the guilty ones; that it is their ideas which have spread contamination. His whole book is an invitation to his countrymen to face up to their conquerors with an impudence as brazen as his own.
Yon Salomon’s diabolic triumph is that he has brought off a four de force of dialectical hocus-pocus within the pages of a graphic and dramatic personal history. The author’s political adventures; his relationship with his mistress (who toward the end is disclosed to be Jewish); his amusing exchange’s with his publisher; his romance with a French girl in the Basque country; his experiences in the hands of the Americans — all this and much more is absorbing stuff, brilliantly handled.
The youth of a genius
Recently published in English for the first time, The Private Diaries of Stendhal (Doubledav, $7.50) are perhaps an even more arresting closeup of a singular human being than the Journals of Boswell. Robert Sage’s translation has admirably captured the dry intensity of Stendhal’s style, and the background material supplied by Mr. Sage is a model of enlightening editing.
Begun in 1801 — when Henri Beyle (who later adopted the pen-name, Stendhal) was a sublieutenant in the French army of occupation in Milan — the diary runs from his eighteenth to his thirty-first year. Like Boswell, the youthful Stendhal records his petty vanities, humiliations, and successes; jots down rules and admonitions for self-improvement; gives details of his expenses, his health troubles and health theories (“I have a pam in the mesentery from drinking a cup of coffee”), his everlasting pursuit of women — all this with a total lack of self-consciousness. It might be Boswell speaking when Stendhal writes: “Last night I was a man of the best society, a brilliant man . . .” But Stendhal’s journal differs from Boswell’s in two important respects. It was dashed off with a determination not to polish or even erase and consequently it reads less smoothly. On the other hand, it displays a far greater insight: its author is a man of much deeper intelligence and larger powers of analysis than Boswell.
Early in life, Henri Beyle resolved to become a professional “observer of the human heart. “ He methodically set about perfecting himself in this domain by studying the works of great writers; by busily frequenting society and observing the mores and passions of real people with cool-eyed detachment; but above all by relentlessly honest self-analysis, which was his basic purpose in keeping a diary. His specific ambitions were to be “the successor of Molière” and also a dashing “seducer of women”; and here he sadly misjudged his capacities. For his literary talents were neither comic, poetic, nor dramatic; and his only asset as an amorist was a boundless capacity to keep trying. But when Beyle later turned his hand to the novel, his cultivation of what we would now call psychological insight bore fruit, in two masterpieces. And time has vindicated the uncompromising demand he made on himself as a writer—“I must always work for the twentieth century.”
The Private Diaries of Stendhal have a number of notable facets; the author’s planned pursuit of happiness— first in accordance with the formula, ambition gratified plus love equals happiness, later through the formula, love plus work; the extremely diverse love affairs, recounted with a piquant mixture of romantic exaltation, cynicism, and analytic detachment; the lively panorama, ranging from Naples to Moscow, of the Napoleonic, era; the intimate communion with a young man who is systematically forming himself into a literary genius.
Set in a decaying country mansion in the southwest, of Ireland, The World of Love (Knopf, $3.50) by Elizabeth Bowen is a finely drawn study of dissonant relationships in a household dominated by the romantic image of a man long dead. Antonia s favorite cousin, Guy, from whom she inherited the estate of Montfort, was engaged to Lilia when he was killed in the First World War. Antonia more or less adopted the girl, a contemporary of hers; eventually married her off lo a farmer; and entrusted him with the management of Mont fort. Despite a suspicion that Guy may have deceived her, Lilia has invested all of her emotion in the memory of her youthful romance, and has made the worst of her marriage to a man who passionately loved her. At the story’s opening, Lilia’s twenty-year old daughter, Jane, discovers in the attic a package of Guys love letters, which — highly improbably, to my mind — she refuses to surrender. The image of Guy now takes possession of Jane’s imagination, and the mystery surrounding the letters remains the central tension of the novel.
Miss Bowen is a writer of consummate artistry. Her superb talent for the re-creation of place colors The World of Love with a glowing evocation of the Irish countryside in June. The values of her story are registered in small, subtle ways— brief scenes; moments of low-keyed drama; sharp, shapely asides. She achieves a marvelous delicacy of shading in presenting a complex relationship — the bond, for instance, between Lilia and Antonia: a compound of shared memories of Guy, long intimacy, and a persistent but almost cozy animosity. But having said all this, I must add that Miss Bowen’s book seems to me a somewhat disappointing work for a major novelist. The bits and pieces are brilliant, but the totality is slight, the final impact rather weak. The novel’s drama and its meanings are decidedly lacking in resonance.
Another of the most gifted British novelists, C. P. Snow, has written a book that is as subtly shaded in its treatment of human relations as Miss Bowen’s; but in the case of The New Men (Scribner, $3.50), the subject — the discovery of atomic fission and its aftermath —is a large and intrinsically dramatic one. The author has himself done advanced work in physics, and during the last war he held an important government post having to do with the allocation of scientists. In its main lines, his story is clearly a pretty faithful account of what happened at Harwell, Britain’s Oak Ridge, in the years leading up to and immediately following America’s production of the atom bomb.
But The New Men is far removed from the journalistic novel of contemporary history, in which mechanically constructed characters are manipulated for the purpose of dramatizing political issues. Mr. Snow is an artist, and he is concerned with particular truths, not with projecting a thesis. His characters are highly individual human beings, convincingly created — the scientists and government officials involved in the atomic drama. He has presented their conflicts of ambition, loyalty, and responsibility in all their complexity, and with a calm understanding of the different attitudes which emerged — an understanding which extends even to the motives of the traitor. The New Men handles a fateful new theme with challenging insight and impressive moral sensitivity. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first novel which searchingly explores the moral dilemmas created by the atom bomb.
My huge aversion for the massive historical novel — a prejudice rooted in the conviction that history and fiction are mutually injurious— prevents me from saying more than a few words about The Cornerstone (Pantheon Press, $4.50) by Zoë Oldenbourg. This chronicle of the lives of three generations of knights of the House of Linnierès re-creates a crowded panorama of thirteenth century France — the tournaments and world of courtly love; the ravages of religious warfare; the spirituality, ruthlessness, and squalor. Miss Oldenbourg’s first novel, The World Is Not Enough, was enthusiastically reviewed and widely read in 1948; and I suspect that her present saga will fare even better with those on the lookout for historical fiction of the highest order. The novel has won the Prix Femina in France; it was a Book Society choice in England; and it is a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in the United States.