The Recognitions (Harcpurt, Brace, $7.50) by William Gaddis is an immensely long first novel whose spiritual forebears are Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Gide’s The Counterfeiters. Its theme is familiar— the modern world is hell: a place where the counterfeit is preferred to the genuine and where the presiding spirits are Fakery and Delirium. Sizable sections of the novel are set in Spain, New England, and Rome, but the dominant milieu is New York’s downtown Bohemia and its prosperous uptown affiliates. Mr. Gaddis’s manner, as his publisher observes, brings to mind the phantasmagorical canvases of Hieronymus Bosch. There is a similar sense of pervasive damnation; a similar combination of surrealistically imagined monstrosities and meticulous concern with detail; a similar comic grotesquerie.
The novel’s hero, Wyatt Gwyon, is at once a representative of the counterfeit world and a pilgrim in search of salvation. Turning to painting as a boy, Wyatt displays an amazing talent for copying and a reluctance to complete an original picture; and later in life, he devotes himself entirely to restoring and imitating old masters. He becomes, in effect, a seeker after perfection in the domain of pure technique, working with an intensity which utterly drains him of human feeling and of moral sanity. Although not interested in money, he agrees to the proposal of a rapacious businessman and a satanic art critic that he supply them with forgeries of the carly Flemish masters which they will put on the market as newly discovered treasures.
The theme of fakery, delirium, and flight from the real to the counterfeit is dramatized in a multiplicity of variations by a large cast of characters. Among them are a would-be playwright, forever oafishly seeking to impersonate his idealized image of himself; an artist’s model with a face of Madonna-like purity and the mind of an imbecilic child—a child who has discovered that heroin is more comforting than thumb-sucking; a pimply poet in whom religious mania assumes the form of theatrical blasphemy; a Congregationalist minister who secretly embraces Mithraism and keeps a sacred bull in his stable. Throughout the novel, there is a passionate preoccupation with religion, and here, too, the same motifs are sounded — religion lost its true character (“devotion, adoration, celebration of deity”) when it “became confused with systems of ethics and morality,” and it has become “a sore affliction upon the very things it once exalted.”
Mr. Gaddis’s resolution of his theme of damnation is presented in the complex scene in which Wyatt makes his final appearance: he is visiting the Spanish monastery where his mother was buried and now, instead of imitating old paintings, he is obliterating them — scraping them down to the bare canvas. If I understand the author’s symbolism and his hero’s ramblings correctly, Wyatt has arrived at a doctrine somewhat akin to Gide’s — a doctrine which holds that salvation lies in scraping away the consolatory deceits and secondhand values of the counterfeit personality and in obeying the promptings of the real self, the soul, in the full awareness that man is “born into sin” and that sin must be “lived through”: all efforts to escape from the burden of imperfection are a denial of humanity and therefore lead to spiritual and emotional forgery.
The novel’s central failure is that the characters through whom the corruption of the modern world is dramatized are inadequate for the purpose. Too many of them are drawn from Bohemia, which has always been (along with better things) the refuge of fakers, self-deceivers, and hysterics. One does not convincingly demonstrate that the world is insane by describing life in an insane asylum.
A second failing is that the theme has been elaborated before the halfway mark and what follows is further illustration rather than development. As for the resolution, it is presented too thinly and too obscurely to emerge as a counterpoint to the thunderous chorus of perdition. There are other obscurities, some of them due to excessive deployment of the author’s phenomenal erudition; and generally speaking, Mr. Gaddis has been mastered by, and not achieved mastery over, the delirium he wishes to depict. In spite of these flaws, which make The Recognitions a somewhat incoherent semi-failure, the book seems to me one of the half dozen most remarkable first novels published by American writers since the end of the nineteen-thirties. A work of 956 pages in the nightmarish vein could easily sink into unbearable dreariness; but as far as this reader was concerned, The Recognitions retained a quality of excitement to the end. Mr. Gaddis has wit and passion and imagination in abundance, as well as seriousness and learning. A profound sense of irony enables him to distill savage comedy and atrocious farce out of his doomsday vision of the world. His extravagant portraiture is arresting and frequently brilliant. All this adds up to something new in contemporary American fiction — a highbrow novel of ideas which, flawed though it is, has the qualities which our intellectual novels have tended to lack: momentum, range, and imaginative vitality.
On a much less ambitious scale than The Recognitions, The Hound of Earth (Scribner, $3.50) by Vance Bourjaily is also a novel about the nightmarish aspect of contemporary life, or rather American life specifically. Mr. Bourjaily’s first novel was considered by some critics to be one of the most promising that emerged from the Second World War. But its successor — though it tells a queer, very readable story, set for the most part in a San Francisco department store during the Christmas season — seems to me unimpressive in its handling of the theme that the times are out of joint.
Mr. Bourjaily’s book is in the immature tradition of disillusioned idealism and romantic revolt, which represents the price so many American novelists have paid for inheriting a generous national credo which actuality often fails to live up to. Bourjaily’s hero, Allerd Pennington - a scientist who, as an Army lieutenant, participated in making the atom bomb — belongs in the long procession of fictional heroes who have reacted to the discovery that America is not, in many respects, “the land of the free and the home of the brave” by bitterly concluding that it is “the land of the fee and the home of the rave.”
When the bomb explodes on Hiroshima, Pennington is traumatically shocked at the ends to which his country has applied his loyalty to scientific research; and he behaves in somewhat the same way as the heroes of our World War I novels who, when they found they were not really making the world safe for democracy, decided to make “a separate peace.” Pennington deserts from the Army; notifies his wife that she should consider him dead; and proceeds to live on the run, earning his keep by menial jobs. There are two departures from the preceding generation’s pattern of revolt. Pennington has a deep sense of responsibility, and seeks to atone for his guilt by condemning himself to a life of “utter pointlessness.” And now it is not “the system but “the hound of earth,” the hero’s own humanity, which eventually catches up with him and shows him that no “separate peace” is possible.
At the novel’s opening, the F.B.I. has arrested Pennington after a seven-year chase; and the story, told in flashbacks, focuses mainly on his last weeks of liberty, during which he is working in the department store. There, his kindness and consideration for others finally force him out of his isolation. He becomes deeply involved in the lives of the people around him and is drawn into a situation in which his decency compels him to await arrest.
It is clear that Mr. Bourjaily’s intention is to dramatize the plight of the decent man in a sorely distempered society, but I’m afraid that Pennington’s fate dramatizes something very different — namely, one man’s essentially hysterical reaction to a universal moral problem which the explosion at Hiroshima brought home to scientists with agonizing force. This problem is that the exercise of power is incompatible with innocence. Since we cannot know for certain the consequences of our actions, we cannot act, even out of the purest motives, without exposing ourselves to the possibility of doing evil. To be shocked by unwitting guilt, as Pennington is, into the choice of a “living suicide” smacks more of moral panic than of moral courage.
The French touch
The French writer is usually less prone to indignation than the American when he engages in national selfcriticism, largely because his expectations are less rosy. France’s official mythology, though not bashful about her glories, has not advertised virtue as a spécialité de la maison; and the French writer’s cultural tradition has bequeathed to him an estimate of human nature in which there is not much sweetness and a good deal of harsh light. All this helps him to maintain his poise when anatomizing the failings of his countrymen, and the resulting criticism is apt to be all the deadlier. How deadly it can be is illustrated in two fine novels from France: The Best Butter (Simon and Schuster, $3.50) by Jean Dutourd, who was introduced to American readers with a pungent fantasy, A Dog’s Head; and The Postman (Viking, $3.00) by Roger Martin du Gard, winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize.
M. Dutourd has written an extravagant comic novel which narrates how Charles-Hubert and Julie Poissonard, owners of a small Parisian dairy, make a huge fortune by black-marketeering during the war years and their aftermath, and emerge with a reputation for neighborly consideration and enlightened patriotism. Light-footed, good-humoredly matter-of-fact, and delightfully entertaining, The Best Butter projects a savage picture of the greed, the opportunism, the hypocrisy, and the slow-witted craftiness of the petit bourgeois bien peasant — France’s “right-thinking” common man. One could draw from the book a stinging epilogue to the catalogue of bourgeois cant and catch phrases which Flaubert assembled in his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas.
Returning to Paris after the 1940 Armistice and finding their shop undamaged, the Poissonards begin to think that a few years of German occupation may be just what France needed. The Germans, one must hand it to them, are “disciplined” and “correct”; and certainly it was high time that someone stopped the Jews and the anarchists from ruining the country. Meanwhile, “one must look facts in the face”; and the fact which impresses itself most on the Poissonards is that a trader who takes the trouble to secure ample supplies will soon be able to sell them at fantastic prices. Before long, the Poissonards are triumphantly fleecing their hungry customers (“No one can say we don’t try to help our friends”) while discreetly currying favor with theGerman soldiery. When the tide of war turns, they cautiously start making “crypto-Gaullist” speeches, and during the Liberation a benevolent and trusting German deserter gives Poissonard the chance to establish himself as a “hero of the Resistance.”
The success-story of the Poissonards is cleverly counterpointed by the grotesque misadventures of a French lieutenant who, in his bumbling way, chooses the course of the courageous patriot and is miserably requited for his pains. Without even a side step into sermonizing, M. Dutourd neatly drives home the point that it is the Poissonards and their code which dominate France. The Best Butter is a stinging entertainment in the tradition of Candide: a model of clarity and control in its language, in its thought, and in the realism behind its atmosphere of farce.
The Postman is a still more concentrated example of the French critical spirit at its best — a flawless miniature. It follows a postman on his daily rounds through a small French country town and pieces together, with total detachment, a devastating picture of the inhabitants. Though it was written in the early thirties, this short novel of Roger Martin du Gard exposes a moral condition essentially identical with that which M. Dutourd describes twenly years later. Joigneau, the postman, is the provincial blood brother of Poissonard, a bit more primitive and therefore a bit more ruthless; and the town of Maupeyrou is rotted by moneygrubbing, malicious scheming, and hypocrisy. Through sheer perfection of artistry, du Gard has made Maupeyrou fascinating to read about.
One of the most charming novels that have come to us from France in a long time is Bonjour Tristesse (Dutton, ,$2.50), the work of an eighteenyear-old girl, which won the Prix des Critiques and sold more than two hundred thousand copies. The author, who uses the pen name Françoise Sagan, is unmistakably a natural-born writer. Simple, crystalline, and concise, her prose flows along swiftly, creating scene and character with striking immediacy and assurance. What is most remarkable about the book is that it is at once so vivid in its rendering ot the experience of youth — the heroine is the same age as the author — and so sophisticated in tone, so mature in its perceptions: a combination which gives Bonjour Tristesse a captivating freshness.
The heroine, Cécile, is the only daughter of a successful publicist ot forty — a pleasure-loving, attractive Don Juan who has long been a widower. Since her graduation from convent school, Cécile and her father have been the best of companions: he has taken her to parties and night clubs; has encouraged her to develop luxurious tastes; and has not concealed from her his numerous affairs. She recognizes him to be a superficial immoralist and rather approves of him for it.
The story which Cérile unfolds ahout a recent summer holiday on the Riviera. Her father, though he has his current mistress with him, invites his dead wife’s best friend, Anne Larsen, to stay with them — beautiful and serious-minded career woman. Presently, to Cécile’s astonishment, her father joyously announces that Anne has consented to marry him and that he intends to settle down to a refined and civilized life. In Cécile’s eyes, Anne represents an ideal of distinction which makes her despise herself for her frivolity; and she develops a growing hostility to Anne for being the cause of her self-hatred. When Anne puts a stop to a romance of Cécile’s which is ceasing to be comme it faut and presses her to catch up on her studies, the girl instinctively hits upon a plan designed to save her father and herself from Anne and to restore their former life of pleasure.
The novel has about it such a solid air of reality that I originally suspected a sizable clement might be autobiographical. However, according to a reliable source, the author’s family background is everything that is respectable and her upbringing, contrary to her heroine’s, has been decidedly conventional. The novel, in fact, is a genuine work of the imagination, which makes it all the more impressive.
Darkness at noon
Joseph Wechsberg, who is well known to Atlantic readers as a maestro in the field of travel and gastronomy, has written a novel in which Jacques Willert, clearly Wechsberg’s alter ego, tells the story of a classmate of his, Bruno Stern, who becomes the most dreaded Communist leader in their native country (obviously Czechoslovakia), and who is suddenly liquidated after the customary confession. Beginning in 1919, when Willert is twelve, the first half of The Self-Betrayed (Knopf, $3.95) draws a portrait of Stern as a fanatical schoolboy already dedicated to the Marxist revolution; and it evokes the world of the narrator’s boyhood which was nostalgically colored by his parents’ recollections of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is the sort of thing which Wechsberg does superbly well, counterpointing sentiment and irony, and coming np with bittor-sweethumorous effects which are moving and delightful.
The narrator skims over the thirties and the war years (in 1939 he emigrates to America). Then he describes a return visit to his native country as an American journalist - his nightmarish experiences as he looks up his old friends and tries to find Stern’s sister, whom he was in love with; and his meeting with “hangman” Stern, which practically costs him his life. This part contains a good deal of chilling stuff, brilliantly observed, but it suffers somewhat from the fact that Mr. Weehsberg has not turned up anything particularly new and that his gifts, though they include a trenchant mind, don’t belong in the domain of soul-shaking revelations. If Weehsberg were granted an interview with the Devil, he would prefer, I suspect, to return with a delectable recipe for Sinners Flambés à la Méphisto rather than with the materials for a monograph on the psychopathology of Lucifer. For this, all things considered, there is reason to be thankful.
John Sloan by Van Wyck Brooks (Dutton, $5.00) is a distinguished and warmly human biography of a man who is interesting both tor the rote he played in the development of American painting and for his colorful personality. Sloan said of himself that he had a “tabasco tongue, and he once declined to make an impromptu speech because ”I feel too friendly to be at my best.” But while he had a combative and often perverse disposition which made him “some pretty good enemies,” he also had attractive qualities — courage, truthfulness, and complete artistic integrity. His story begins in Philadelphia in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, where he worked as an illustrator on newspapers. It moves into high gear in 1908 with the exhibition of “The Eight” or “Ashcan School” which launched the realist revolt in American art, seeking to get away from “the social veneer side of life” and preferring to paint “ brooms” rather than “powder puffs.” One of the high points in Mr. Brooks’s biography is the chapter on Petitpa’s boardinghouse, where Sloan’s friend, the old Irish painter John Butler Yeats, father of the poet, presided over a circle of talented spirits.