Two Minutes till Midnight (Bobbs-Merrill, $2.75) by Elmer Davis and Civilization and Foreign Policy (Harper, $3.75) by Louis J. Halle are complementary discussions of the problem of survival in the hydrogen bomb age. Mr. Halle, while he was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, came to feel acutely the need for “an applicable body of theory”; and his book is an attempt to meet that need. The political philosophy it sets forth is in effect implicit in the orientation of Elmer Davis’s essays, which focus more directly on concrete issues. Both these volumes, in their different ways, are clear-sighted, penetrating, and above all eminently sane contributions to the continuing debate on U.S. foreign policy.
In his early chapters, Mr. Halle seeks to define precisely what sort of nation we are, and in what sort of world this nation now finds itself. His answers are familiar, and they would probably command the assent of Americans as far apart politically as Adlai Stevenson and Senator McCarthy. The firepower of Mr. Halle’s essay lies in the cogency with which it develops the implications, in the sphere of foreign policy, of widely accepted ideas about the character of the United States.
With unfailing clarity and unwavering logic, Mr. Ilalle shows that to defend the values which constitute our “way of life,” it is necessary to be faithful to those values in the conduct of our foreign policy. By that he does not mean forcing “Americanism” upon the world — in fact, quite the reverse. “If consent and leadership are still to form the basis of our government at home, then they must also form the basis of our dealings with other members of the international community to which we belong. . . . We must not insist on the American way of life for others, thereby identifying [il] with conformity rather than with diversity which is our true heritage. More particularly, if we expect the consent of others to our leadership, we must accept responsibility for protecting [their] interests.”
Another notable aspect of Mr. Halle’s book has to do with “the economy of power.” He incisively discusses the relation between a nation’s power and the objectives of its policy; the liabilities of announcing objectives which, from any halfway realistic standpoint, are beyond our means (for example, the destruction of Soviet power); the hazards of assuming a “posture of threat” over objectives which, while desirable, are not so vital that we are ready to uphold them at any cost.
What Mr. Halle has achieved is aptly suggested in a statement in Dean Acheson’s Introduction: “How does this book help the citizen, baffled and bewildered by the conflicting urgencies of the world about him? It helps amazingly. The three hundred and sixty degree circle of choice narrows down to a small arc as the issues arise. The precise answers to these issues are not and cannot be given, but . . . the attitudes, the means, the conduct which are compatible with the values we arc seeking to sustain, and those which are incompatible, are clearly shown.”
Elmer Davis’s book is inspired by the conviction that people in general, and important people in Washington in particular, are not thinking hard enough about the danger of thermonuclear warfare and what it portends. Like Thomas K. Finletter, Mr. Davis believes that, unless there are certain changes in our present policies, we may rapidly find ourselves in a terrifyingly vulnerable position. From this perspective, Mr. Davis has written seven essays which range freely over the field of foreign policy and national self-preservation.
Scattered throughout Two Minutes till Midnight there is a precise set of opinions as to what might help to prevent a war and/or increase our chances of victory should a showdown take place. Mr. Davis’s prescriptions can be summarized as follows: 1) Stop talking about “more defense for less money” — we need more money for much more defense. 2) Stop “what seems to be an inclination to drive away all our allies whom Truman, Acheson, and the force of circumstances gathered about us.” 3) Recognize that “the world is now largely a little left, of center, [and that] we are not going to win vast support by giving our most enthusiastic backing to people like Franco and Chiang Kaishek.” 4) Put an end to the disastrous disruption of our Foreign Service caused by irresponsible committees and attempts to appease the “Formosa Firsters.” 5) Avoid reckless actions which might precipitate a showdown over some non-vital issue.
Two Minutes till Midnight is not quite as resounding in its impact as the author’s previous book, But We Were Born Free. As always, however, Mr. Davis’s thought has thest rong, steady vibrations of the genuinely free mind. And his prose — with its dry-point clarity, its combative irony, its quietly stinging wit — is as stirring and as deadly in its measured way as any polemical writing on the contemporary American landscape.
Noble Savage (Random House, $5.00) is the first biography of Paul Gauguin to appear in English since 1931. The authors, Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson, have drawn on a great deal of new material, including many illuminating family letters; and the story they have to tell is one of the strangest and most dramatic in the history of art.
Legend has pictured Gauguin as a successful stockbroker who, in middle life, forsook wife, children, and comfort to dedicate himself to painting, and who, despite appalling sufferings, eventually found fulfillment in the primitive life of Tahiti. The truth is rather more complex, more interesting, and more tragic. Gauguin, like most men, had two sides to his character. Profoundly attracted to the primitive and the exotic, he liked to say, “I am a savage.” But behind the Bohemian facade of his extraordinary career as an artist one finds conventional needs and conventional ambitions. He never ceased to long for his wife and for the stability of family life; his constant goal was to win fame and fortune so that their separation might be ended. And although Tahiti in some respects lived up to the idyl he had dreamed of, his letters from the island contained the recurring lament of the frustrated European who finds himself stranded from his true center. What stands out most clearly is that in Gauguin there was a tremendous impulse of destruction — he destroyed almost every important relationship of his lifetime. The miracle is that in his art there is a monumental peacefulness, a bright yet mysterious calm.
This richly detailed biography has a number of arrest ing facets: the littleknown facts about Gauguin’s turbulent Spanish ancestry and his childhood in Peru; the growth of Gauguin as an artist, a story that leads from Paris to Rouen to Martinique, from Brittany to Arles to Tahiti; the relationship with Van Gogh; the vivid scenes and portraits of the Impressionist era; the drama of Gauguin’s last years in Tahiti, with their great artistic achievements and their terrible process of human dissolution. In the American academic world, there appears to exist a fairly widespread Conviction that biography consists pre-eminently in the sheer accumulation of facts — the more the facts, (he better the biography. This encyclopedic approach has certain merits, but it also has grave liabilities. Both are perfectly exemplified in The Intelligent Heart: The Story of D. H. Lawrence (Farrar, Straus & Young, $6.50) by Harry T. Moore.
In 1951, Mr. Moore published a sizable study of Lawrence, and apparently concluded forthwith that more exhaustive treatment was needed. His present book must come remarkably close to assembling every ascertainable fact which has anything to do with Lawrence’s life or work. It quotes at length from 200 hitherto unpublished letters, made available to the author by Lawrence’s widow; and it explores all of the conflicting viewpoints about its subject without passionately taking sides. Such thoroughness and emotional balance make a particularly valuable contribution in the case of a writer such as Lawrence, who has been the subject of so many hysterical, erratic, or slipshod books. Mr. Moore has furnished us with the most complete and the most reliable biography of Lawrence written to date; and it is certain to have a salutary influence on future books about him.
The trouble is that Mr. Moore is much more concerned with telling all than with the way in which he tells it. His writing is pedestrian; and his fetish for inclusiveness clutters up the narrative with details which are of questionable interest even to the specialist, and are certainly of no interest to the general reader. The net result is a book quite lacking in flame — and that book is about a man best remembered by all who knew him for his flame-like quality.
Gertrude Lawrence as Mrs. A. (Greystone Press, $4.95) — Richard Stoddard Aldrich’s intimate portrait of the woman to whom he was married from 1940 until her death in 1952 — is a book which, as the saying goes, has everything: romance, conflict, humor, sadness, extravagance, choice anecdotes and incidents, and above all the eclat of an extraordinarily vital personality whom Noel Cowward once aptly described as “seven women under one hat.”
Mr. Aldrich’s story is the story of a love match entered into in the middle years of life, which triumphed — but not without considerable storm and stress — over formidable differences of temperament and long separations caused by war and work. To be married to Miss Lawrence was often a taxing privilege and occasionally an ordeal. When so inclined she could be a model of the compliant wife, but to object to a wish or whim of hers was likely to produce charges of insufferable tyranny. To a proper New Englander such as Aldrich, reared in the tradition that only criminals and madmen live up to their income, it was terrifying to witness Gertrude’s vertiginous zest for conspicuous consumption, which, despite her huge earnings, had once reduced her to bankruptcy. Whatever the role which Gertrude felt was required of her, she played it to the hilt. A distinguished clergyman — not knowing who she was or that the harangue she so eloquently addressed to him came straight out of Susan and God — assumed that she must be a visiting British evangelist, and made inquiries as to whether she would be available to preach in his church.
Some men, one suspects, would have found Miss Lawrence an unendurable wife—impossibly self-willed and incorrigibly theatrical. To Mr. Aldrich, the outstanding thing about her was a “generosity of love” which softened the Puritan sternness he had inherited. She had a quality, ho says, much more arresting than beauty—“the word that comes closest to it is radiance.”
Laurens van der Post — whose Venture to the Interior was one of the most memorable non-fiction works of 1951 — is an adventurous man of action; a masterly prose writer with extraordinarily fine powers of description; and a sensitive explorer of the inner meanings of experience. While this rare combination of qualities shows up in his new book, a novel, it is not the major work of fiction which I had hoped for from an aut hor so singularly endowed. Flamingo Feather (Morrow, $3.95) is a thriller about. Communist conspiracy in the African back-of-beyond. As such it certainly deserves a cordon bleu rating.
The plot centers on a Russian attempt to organize and launch a revolution in the hinterland of southeast Africa by exploiting the legendary promise of a dead king that some day a great dream will be delivered to his people — a dream which will bring together all the scattered races who were once Amangtakwena. Try to imagine a fusion of John Buchan’s Prettier John and E. Phillips Oppcnheim’s The Great Impersonation; add some special background effects by Rider Haggard (“The Dead Land,” “The Great Forest of Duk-AdukDuk,” “The Mountains of the Night”); add, too, an unobtrusive touch of Freudian psychology—and you will get some idea of what to expect in this farfetched but spellbinding story. Within the cinematic plot, there is a core of intense seriousness— a stirring sensitivity to the heart and mind of primitive Africa; a sad awareness of the while man’s burden of guilt; and a deep concern over the future of the African world which the author knows and loves so well and brings so vividly to life.
Geoffrey Household gives the contemporary spy fever an amiable ribbing in an ingenious, urbanely written novel of escape: Fellow Passenger (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $3.50). The narrator, Claudio Howard-Wolferstan, is by birth and upbringing half English and half Ecuadorian. His father, before dying, advises him to return to England to recover certain undefined assets hidden away in an attic of the former family mansion. The mansion, Claudio discovers, hits become a hostel for atomic scientists; itnd since there is no evidence that it ever belonged to the IIoward-ANolferslans, Claudio has to effect his exploration illegally. His plans miscarry; he is arrested; and his escapade develops into a sensational spy ease. For in his Oxford days Claudio prankishly joined the Communist Party and forgot to resign. Worse still, the man who was his wartime boss in British Intelligence later did a disappearing act and reappeared behind the Iron Curtain.
Faced with charges of high treason, the narrator decides he had better escape from prison — and does. Claudio is a beguiling example of the resourceful, seductive adventurer, and his efforts to elude eapttiro — by posing as a vagabond art ist; as a valuable agent of the MVD whom the British comrades must save from the capitalist vultures; as a chimney sweep, a Punjabi elephant handler, and a Filipino guitarist — form a fast-moving story which winds up with a succession of surprising and delightful twists.
All Men ire Mortal (World, $5.00) by Simone de Beauvoir is something of a curiosity: an existentialist historical novel; that is to say, a novel which uses history to demonstrate points of existentialist doctrine. What emerges is not in the least austere, but to my mind slightly preposterous. Mademoiselle dc Beauvoir’s dissertation is packaged in a 120,000-word historical extravaganza with an immortal hero and with ream upon ream of violence, horrors, and amore foredoomed to dolore.
The story begins and ends in the present. Regina, a French actress, becomes intrigued with an enigmatic stranger living in the same hotel, and she discovers him to be one Raymond Fosca, born in the year 1217. Hoping to find through Fosca an escape from her obsessive frustrations as a mortal woman, Regina, without much difficulty, makes him her lover and induces him to tell her the story of his life. The weird chronicle he unfolds is an existentialist parable which proves that, while the fact of his mortality fills man with nausea and anguish, mortality is the ground in which all human values have their roots. Fosca has discovered that eternal life is a kind of living death. He has learned, too, that men don’t want Utopia thrust upon them. What matters to them is what they achieve of their own free will.
What Simone de Beauvoir has to say about man and mortality is sometimes quite provocative, but I can t help feeling that there must be more satisfactory ways of dramatizing her ideas than to take a thirteenth-century Italian, to feed him the only bottle of Bartolomeo’s “Elixir of Immortality,” and then to weave around him an immense tapestry of the crimes and misfortunes of seven centuries of Western history. The author is unquestionably a writer endowed with an abundance of verve. But equally unquestionably she is afflicted with an unbridled passion for redundancy.
Homecoming byJiro Osaragi (Knopf, $3.75), the first Japanese novel to be published in the United States in many years, is an extremely readable story which has as its theme the sharp contrast between pre-war and post-war Japan. The hero, Kyogo Moriya, was dismissed from the navy as a young man because of a gambling scandal, and exiled himself to Europe. At the war’s end, he returns to his homeland and is deeply disillusioned by what he sees. What was good in Japanese tradition has been swept away along with what was bad. The young are superficially imitating foreign manners and mores. The old militarists, who brought disaster to their country, remain resolved to go on living in a world apart, sullenly cherishing their ancient pride. In the general breakdown of standards, it is the unscrupulous opportunists who flourish.
All this is depicted in a somewhat uneven plot, in which there are admirable scenes and also touches of trashincss; and in characterizations which though slight are for the most pari striking. Insofar as technique is concerned, the differences from the Western novel are interesting but not obtrusive. As Harold Strauss points out in his illuminating Introduction, the Japanese imagination is more sensory than ours, and its tendency in dealing with the subjective is not to verbalize but to paint — to evoke mood through concrete images. All in all, Homecoming has a freshness of content and style which this reader found highly attractive.
The Vagabond (Farrar, Straus & Young, $3.00), a short autobiographical novel which Colette published in 1910, was recently picked by a jury of French writers as one of the twelve best French novels produced since 1900. The heroine, after much unhappiness, has lately divorced the successful Parisian painterwith whom she fell in love as a naive young provincial, and whose cruelty destroyed her love for him. Now thirty-three, Renee Nere is leading a meager and solitary existence, which centers on her new career as a music-hall artiste. A rich young man-about-town starts pursuing her with great ardor, and presently she finds herself violently attracted to him. The drama that ensues is handled in Colette’s inimitably matter-of-fact manner, which achieves effects that are at once poignant and edged with a wry sense of fun.
Filled with sharply drawn vignettes of French music-hall life, The Vagabond is a charming and subtle study of a firm-grained mind in conflict with a yielding heart.