Reader's Choice

IN THE days when my parents’ generation was still young, a scene of purple passion in a novel called Three Weeks inspired the following jingle: “Would you like to sin/ with Elinor Glyn/ on a tiger skin?/ Or would you prefer/ to err/ with her/ on some other fur? ”
Three Weeks eventually achieved a sale of five million copies. Though eminent persons, among them Mark Twain, defended it against the outcries of Mrs. Grundy’s vigilantes, its reputation for sinfulness proved so durable that, in 1932, a Mickey Mouse cartoon was banned in the state of Ohio because it showed a cow, reclining in a field, reading Three Weeks. These data come to me from a captivating biography, Elinor Glyn (Doubleday, $4.00), written by the novelist’s grandson, Anthony Glyn. The lady associated with tiger skins turns out to be a truly remarkable personality, and her life story is a fascinating human drama which reaches a flamboyant high point in the period when she discovered and publicized, with an assist from Clara Bow, that infinitely desirable je-ne-sais-quoi called “IT.”
Elinor Glyn’s adult life was lived in the great world of English country mansions and foreign courts which she depicted in her romances, but it was singularly lacking in romantic fulfillment. Her marriage to Clayton Glyn gave her a secure position in English society, and she thought she had found in him her ideal of the romantic grand seigneur, who is the perennial hero of her fictions. But Clayton’s ardor quickly cooled; and the man for whom Elinor later conceived an undying passion was the cold and ambitious Lord Curzon, who gave her no more than his discreet friendship. Her other close friendships were with men of great seriousness such as Lord Milner and the formidable metaphysician, F. H. Bradley, who helped her to read Plato in the original Greek.
In 1908, Elinor discovered that her husband was headed toward bankruptcy, and thereafter her fabulous scale of living was supported solely by her work. She was invited to the tsarist court to write a novel with a Russian background. She toured the battlefields of the First World War as a correspondent for Hearst. Summoned to Hollywood in 1920, she lived there throughout its gaudiest boom-town era, writing pictures for John Gilbert, Rudolph Valentino, and the early sirens of the silent screen. Meanwhile, millions of words flowed from her pen — romances, articles, handbooks on the philosophy of love and the avoidance of wrinkles. Her life story is a curious blend of disciplined and courageous effort, genuine glamour, tragic disappointment, and all sorts of extravagant silliness. I have only one major complaint about Anthony Glyn’s account of it: his biography suffers to some extent from filial piety, and he makes an embarrassing attempt to find traces of genius in his grandmother’s novels. But even though he neglects to exploit the absurdity of the Glyn plots and killer-diller love scenes, his resumes and quotations are a gold mine of unconscious comedy.

Forty million Frenchmen

In the post-war decade, France has been the despair of the Western world and of her own clearsighted thinkers. Why a nation so richly endowed in resources and talent should be in such a pickle is the subject of a searching inquiry entitled France Against Herself (Praeger, $6.50) by a Swiss historian and sociologist, Herbert Luethy. One is apt to associate the Swiss with solidity, not to say stolidity, rather than with sparkle, but M. Luethy’s long essay is a truly scintillating job. It is not only the best study of the French social system which this reader has encountered, but one of the most brilliant works of political and economic analysis published since the war.
In the space available here, I can‘t do much more than crudely outline M. Luethy’s general viewpoint. His overall thesis is that the absolutist state of the ancien regime has left a far-reaching imprint on French institutions and on the character of the French bourgeoisie. The members of the Third Estate who carried out the Revolution of 1789 belonged mainly to the class of lawyers, notaries, members of courts and councils of every kind: a class which had risen to prominence as a result of the cumbersome machinery and parasitic practices of the monarchy. This group retained the highly centralized administrative structure, and continued the tradition of giving official protection to every form of economic activity — a tradition which prevented the most dynamic aspects of the system of free enterprise from developing in France.
M. Leuthy shows — with some startling illustrations— that a great many features of the absolutist state have survived to this day, perpetuated by a bureaucracy which, since the Capetian kings, has in effect constituted the real government of France. “The history of France,” says Luethy, “might be written as the history of an administration”: an anonymous, self-recruiting, non-political administration, which has proved itself unimaginably tenacious. To this central fact, France owes both its strength and its weaknesses — its miraculous continuity in the face of convulsions and crises; and its stubborn resistance to necessary change.
The viewpoint just summarized establishes an approach which yields a wealth of striking insights in Luethy’s sections on French political history from 1940 to 1953; on the colonial problem; on the French economy; and on the French parliament’s antagonism to European integration. The large size of the Communist vote, for instance, is seen as stemming from the fact that the French Revolution had a far deeper impact on ideology than on the workings of the state: the spirit of Jacobin utopianism which has been its enduring legacy makes French workers prone to believe that the Revolution which was never completed in France has been completed in Soviet Russia.
M. Luethy’s explorations range from the costly absurdities of the Paris vegetable market to the political acrobatics of Jean-Paul Sartre. One might summarize his findings by saying that, in France, an incongruous amalgam of absolutist administration, pressure group politics, and a labyrinthine court system have produced a condition of meticulously organized anarchy: a stabilized anarchy which protects the individual from unwelcome social interference in his cherished way of life and condemns the body social to an increasingly calamitous stagnation.

Gentlemen at war

Officers and Gentlemen (Little, Brown, $3,75) by Evelyn Waugh is the second volume of a projected fictional trilogy about soldiering in the Second World War. Its hero, Guy Crouchback, belongs to an ancient but impoverished Catholic family. When introduced to us in Men At Arms, Crouchback was a lonely, spiritually wounded man, profoundly revolted by the modern world. The signing of the Russian-German alliance and the ensuing outbreak of war came to him as a promise of deliverance: “Now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain In view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” Men At Arms went on to describe Guy’s period of training for a commission in the Halberdiers; and to show how the regiment — with its proud traditions, its esprit de corps, its rituals, and its severe discipline — restored to him a vitalizing sense of dignity and purpose. • Officers and Gentlemen records the experiences which eventually leave him plunged in disillusionment.
Crouchback has now joined the newly formed Commandos, and the story chronicles his training on an isolated island; the shipment of his unit to Egypt and the degeneration of its morale during its long wait to be thrown into action; and finally, its last-minute participation in the Cretan debacle.
From the standpoint of literary artistry, the novel is a highly polished piece of work. Though the pace is leisurely, the narrative holds one firmly in its grip. Waugh’s sense of the grotesque in human affairs gets freer play here than in Men At Arms, and there are fine glints of comedy in the characterizations. Waugh’s observation, as always, is marvelously felicitous, whether he is writing about London clubs, barracks life, Cairo’s international set, or the chaotic Cretan evacuation.
Despite these attractive qualities, I was always painfully aware that the ideas which animate Officers and Gentlemen are the quintessence of silliness. What brings disillusionment to Crouchback (who is clearly Waugh’s spiritual alter ego) is the realization that the powers-that-be, so far from conducting the kind of war which will restore the English gentleman to his rightful pre-eminence, are pursuing the unforgivable policy of glorifying the common man. What finally crushes Crouchback — and this is presented to us in all seriousness — is the discovery that, in a desperate situation, an English officer of gentlemanly birth can prove himself a coward, whereas a plebeian corporal, a chap who hasn’t always known his place at that, can emerge from the test with first-class honors. Guy’s desolating recognition that he has been in the grip of a noble “hallucination” is ludicrous rather than dramatic, since the reader has known this from the start of Men At Arms. Only a man as crazed by snobbery and nostalgia for medievalism as Waugh is could have so willfully misread the realities of 1939 as to envisage the war as a two-cornered, unambiguous joust between a revivified St. George and an upstart dragon yclept “the Modern Age.”

Novel of the theater

Clemence Dane, who a good many years back scored a big hit with BroomeStages, has written another spacious, old-fashioned novel in the romantic key, entitled The Flower Girls (Norton, $4.95), a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Miss Dane’s hero, Jacy Florister, has been brought up in California by his possessive American mother, who has given him to believe that his father, long since dead, caused the breakup of their marriage. When his mother is killed in a motor accident just after the last war, Jacy— formerly a child moviestar and now an incipient playwright —decides to take a holiday in England to renew contact with his native land and to get to know his relatives, the famous Floristers, first family of the English theater.
The Flower Girls describes Jacy‘s delighted entry into the world of the Floristers, who for brevity’s sake might be summed up as a bunch of colorful “characters”; his reunion with his not dead and much maligned father; and his love affair with his imperious, talented, and rather mysterious cousin, Olive. The novel moves along briskly — for Miss Dane is nothing if not an expert storyteller — but it struck me as essentially a meretricious affair, which draws heavily on hackneyed and sentimental materials. Some inkling of its flavor can be gained from t he following characteristic passage, a description of Jacy’s first glimpse of Olive across a crowded room; “. . . the woman on the stairs was looking at him, and her alteration of countenance as she did so was the most moving thing that had ever happened to him. Merely to watch it was inexpressible relaxation. Her comprehension of his need was inhuman. . . . She was taking from him and receiving into herself not merely his trivial passing resentment, but his lasting, tormented longing for a hold on life and a home in some other breast.
“He could have looked at her for ever.”

A Russian master

In the minute body of first-class fiction produced under the Soviet regime, one of the high points is the work of Isaac Babel, who died around 1940 in a Soviet concentration camp. His tales have recently been made available to American readers in a single, comprehensive volume, Isaac Babel: The Collected Stories (Criterion, $5.00), which contains “Red Cavalry”— stories based on his experiences when he fought with Budenny’s Cossacks in 1920; “Odessa Tides a group of sketches of Russian ghetto life; and eighteen other stories. The collection comes to us with an Introduction by Lionel Trilling which does much to sharpen the reader‘s appreciation of this very remarkable writer.
Nothing could have been more anomalous than the presence of Babel — an intellectual and a Jew; “a man, as he put it, “with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart” — as supply officer among the Jews’ traditional enemies, the brutal Cossacks. This anomaly is a reflection of the two opposed strains which run through Babel’s work. He is fascinated by the qualities which seem to him associated with violence — courage, simplicity, directness, a kind of grace. He is also deeply sensitive to the poignancy of Poland’s downtrodden Jews, and finds a somber greatness in their capacity for suffering and their unvoiced contempi for their oppressors.
Written with a subtle ambiguity, a detachment tinged with irony, Babel’s stories achieve unusual effects of horror and pathos. A youthful Red general, until lately a herdsman, recounts with brutal jollity how he revenged himself on his former master by stamping him to death. A young woman with a baby begs a ride on a troop train; the baby turns out to be a bundle of black-market salt; the soldiers throw her out and shoot her. The narrator is billeted in the house of a poor Jewish woman and abuses her for the mess; she gives him the blanket covering the body of her father and suddenly blurts out: “The Poles cut his throat, and he begging them: ‘Kill me in the yard so that my daughter shan’t see me die. But they did as suited them.”
At their best, Babel‘s highly charged stories are miracles of compression miniatures whose distinctive quality has been admirably defined in Babetle Deutsch’s phrase: “as terse as algebra yet packed with poetry.” Beneath its surface detachment, Babel’s work is infused with a profound compassion, a tragic awareness of man’s inhumanity to man.