Reader's Choice

WHEN Bertrand Russell published a book of short stories a year or so ago, it seemed a trifle odd that this distinguished philosopher and social critic should have turned, at his age, to writing mildly amusing fiction. It now appears that in Satan in the Suburbs Lord Russell was merely getting the range. With his latest book, Nightmares of Eminent Persons (Simon & Schuster, $3.50), he lays down the real barrage and sweeps the enemy right off the field.
Everything Lord Russell learned about storytelling in his earlier experiment is now used to build up and enliven a group of satirical fables which demolish, and in some cases positively atomize, a number of the author’s betes noires. Semantics, the prudish censorship that assumes knowledge must be sinful, the dismal resignation that psychiatry calls adjustment, existentialism, modern power politics, and finally the whole mechanical world of the future collapse into rubble under his fire.
Although the pieces are witty, unpredictable, and wildly fantastic, they are written in a formal, even severe prose which achieves a note of timeless authority. This style is beautifully calculated to give plausibility to the most extravagant inventions, and at the same time to make hilarious contrast with the absurdities it describes. These range from the domestic troubles of that infamous censor, Mr. Bowdler (whose wife wishes to know the meaning of a word), to the terrible sufferings of the late Joseph Stalin at the hands of a bevy of Quakers (they tell him force is no argument).
The last section of the book is a long story, decidedly Swiftian in tone, about a future civilization which has a chance to escape from the evils of superstition and ritual. It is much less precise than the nightmare pieces, but highly readable and ornamented with a mass of morbidly brilliant detail. Lord Russell has constructed his world to come out of all the worst habits of the world that has been, and the result is pretty staggering.
Every reader will have his favorite nightmare. My own loyalty is divided. The dream of Dr. Bombasticus, who psychoanalyzed a number of Shakespeare’s heroes, explaining to Macbeth that “he saw Duncan as a father-figure, and Lady Macbeth as a mother-ditto” is a marvelously funny affair as well as a shrewd attack on one of psychiatry’s undefended frontiers. But then there’s the nightmare of the aspiring existentialist poet, Porphyre Eglantine, which includes one of Porphyre’s poems, a roaring parody full of windy wastes and sad expanses which are even sillier in French than in English. And of course the metaphysical nightmare of Andrei Bumblowski, “formerly Professor of Philosophy in a now extinct university of Central Europe,” is not to be despised.
I suspect that Lord Russell, for all his cynicism and despite his habit of smashing idols, is a romantic at heart. History and observation tell him that the folly, vanity, cowardice, and cruelty of the human race are all but unlimited. He will not, however, resign himself to this fact, and clings stubbornly to the dream of a world ruled by kindness, intelligence, and dignity. As Dr. Bombastic us would say, he refuses to adjust. His refusal may be somewhat uncomfortable for Lord Russell, but when he puts it into comic terms, it is sheer joy for his readers.

The lady or the tiger?

Since it is not the age of a plot that matters, but the use to which the plot is put, it is no disparagement of Aldous Huxley to reveal that in The Genius and the Goddess (Harper, $£.75) he is working with a plot of venerable antiquity. The ingredients are an elderly great man, his wife, and the young man who is, depending on which version of the tale is taken as standard, kinsman, assistant, or trusted retainer. In Mr. Huxley’s version, he is John Rivers, assistant to a brilliant physicist named Maartens who is probably the most plausible as well as the most infuriating absent-minded professor ever created in print.
Rivers himself, an old man now, tells the story of what happened to him when he escaped from his mother’s apron strings at the age of twentyeight and went to live and work with Maartens. The Maartens family was a revelation to the prissy, astoundingly naïve mama’s boy. The Nobel , Prize winner proved to be, in everything but his field, a spoiled, unreliable, enthusiastic, mercurial brat, as dependent on his wife as a fish is on water. Mrs. Maartens, much younger than her husband, took the situation with great calm and thoroughly enjoyed his antics. Their adolescent daughter wrote poetry in the manner of Poe and scared herself — and incidentally Rivers — quite blue with supernatural fancies. The sober and solid small son considered his relatives harmless lunatics. Rivers doted on all of them. His doting led to disaster.
Now although the main course of this tale is foreseeable from the start, the specific incidents and the narrator’s retrospective comments are not, and it is these elements which carry the book. Each episode comes as a surprise, while old John Rivers’s wry reflections on the behavior of young John Rivers are a pocket-size philosophical system, ultimately inconclusive but continuously fascinating.
Because the characters can so easily be turned into symbols — Mrs. Mnartens, elemental, uncorrupted humanity; Maartens, science; the daughter, art; Rivers himself, ethics — there’s a strong temptation to read large meanings into this short novel. It can be done, all right, and only too easily. Taken as symbols, the characters display an airy willingness to fall in with various points of view. One may believe that behind this expert, ironic story lurks Mr. Huxley’s disapproval of the effect on simple humanity of a mechanical, scientific civilization, but a reader who dislikes this position can make out quite a good case for several other interpretations. Precisely because the book never settles on an unequivocal conclusion, it continues to tease the imagination, which is left worrying away at the question of just what Mr. Huxley has got here, the lady or the tiger.

Ten years after

Hiroshima Diary (University of North Carolina Press, $3.50) is the work of Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, director of the Hiroshima Communications Hospital, who kept notes on events in his hospital and the city at large from the bombing on August 6, 1945, to the end of September. The book as published is not a diary in any spontaneous Pepysian sense. As his own admission and the introduction of the translator, Dr. Warner Wells, make clear, Dr. Hachiya takes writing very seriously, and the manuscript he eventually released for publication was edited and organized from his hurried on-the-spot notes and written with all the literary skill at his command, which is plainly a great deal.
It seems probable that if Dr. Hachiya had not been injured when the bomb fell (his colleagues expected him to die from loss of blood), this remarkable account would never have been written. He was back on his feet in a week but in no condition to do much work, and therefore he had time to notice what went on, to talk to patients and visitors, collect their stories, and record those that seemed particularly interesting or significant. Dr. Hachiya reports what he saw or was told with very little Comment and lets the terrible facts speak for themselves.
On the medical side, the diary is carefully chronological. Nobody, of course, had any idea at first what had hit Hiroshima. The hospital staff set to work as best it could, with numerous members out of action and supplies sadly limited, to treat burns, cuts, and broken bones. Almost at once symptoms began to appear which had nothing to do with such injuries. They were interpreted as epidemic dysentery, which Dr. Wells points out was a perfectly reasonable assumption. Then came symptoms which couldn’t be identified as dysentery or anything else known to medicine. There were rumors of poison gas, which Dr. Hachiya, none too confidently, dismissed. Overworked and underequipped, the staff still found time to make a few experiments. The slow accumulation of evidence, the theories, the wrong guesses, the great discovery of change in the blood count, are as absorbing as a detective story.
Dr. Hachiya is an appealingly human historian, in addition to his other merits. He has an eye for the revealing detail and the irrelevant but beguiling confession. A little sheepishly, he admits to deep regret for some peaches lost in his bombed house. He records with wondering interest that when the explosion landed him in the street, bloody and stark naked, he was not disturbed by his nakedness but was vastly upset to find the modesty knocked right out of him. And his interview with the first American to visit the hospital is a delicate little comedy with an artfully delayed punch line.
Although Hiroshima Diary necessarily is full of horrors, it is not a depressing book. Frightening, certainly; but the courage, patience, unselfishness, and resourcefulness it records would make the grimmest misanthrope proud of the human race.

Slavery’s schizophrenics

Hand of Angels (Random House, $3.95), Robert Penn Warren’s new novel, starts out like an old-fashioned, three-decker melodramatic romance. The young daughter of a Kentucky gentleman, home from school in Oberlin to attend her father’s funeral, is scooped up by the law as technically a slave and sold down the river to pay her father’s debts.
This looks like the beginning of a ring-tailed roarer of a yarn, but Mr. Warren has refused to indulge in anything so obvious. Manty, a gentle little lady and naturally unstrung by her position and by the discovery that she is neither white nor legitimate, is no girl for gaudy heroics. All sorts of things happen to and around her, including the whole Civil War, but nothing quite penetrates the wall of melancholy and vague guilt which hems her in. Never treated as an ordinary slave, she is soon formally manumitted, but freedom doesn’t seem genuine. Her subsequent life, in spite of brief spasms of happiness, is an edgy, suspicious search for something that will make her feel free.
There is a curious pattern in Mnnty’s adventures. Without malice or conscious maneuvering, she has a disastrous effect on every man who crosses her path. For her own part, although she can defend herself against simple evil, she is continuously being made miserable by what ordinarily passes for virtue. She is subjected, in turn, to religious fervor, lavish material kindness, and political idealism, with deplorable results. Her consciousness of her Negro blood drives her to repudiate the white men who try to help her, but when she tries to join with Negroes, consciousness of her white blood deters her. The event that finally releases Manty from her neurotic misery is unexpected, absurd, and combines the efforts of whites and Negroes directed, as it happens, to quite different ends. Manty, who fell into Limbo by accident, is pulled out the same way.
The book carries numerous overtones on race relations and the history of Negro progress in the United States, but they are not permitted to slow up the fast and interesting story.
Band of Angels is full of plot twists, broils, and battles. The fall of New Orleans is done in splendid style, and ihe reminiscences of the ex-blackbirder are a positive tour de force. If Mr. Warren does not turn up anything startling about that schizophrenia of conscience created in this country by slavery, he has at least made a courageous try at doing so.

Legislative confusion

A minor civil war in the state of Massachusetts and the troubles of the Voice of America would seem to have nothing in common. A book has turned up on each of these subjects, however, and taken together they emphasize a recurrent hazard of democratic government: the difficulty of getting legislators to consider the problem rather than the party, and the equal difficulty of making ordinary citizens understand how government really works.

A Little Rebellionby Marion L. Starkey (Knopf, $4.00) describes the confused and nearly bloodless rising known as Shays’ Rebellion, which threw Massachusetts into turmoil in 1786. The Private Diary of a Public Servant (Macmillan, $3.00) is Martin Merson’s account of his five months as assistant to Robert L. Johnson, then head of the International Information Administration.
Mr. Merson’s story is personal and immediate, a skirmish in a war that still goes on. Dr. Johnson, with Mr. Merson at his elbow, took over the IIA in the midst of Senator McCarthy’s campaign to take over the State Department, and hard on the heels of the famous book-burning order to the libraries abroad. The two political innocents got the works — assurance of presidential support that never materialized, private legislative deals, evasions, discreet threats, broken promises, conflicting authorities, outright lies — the whole Washington arsenal. It was some time before they realized that nobody would lift a finger for them on principle, particularly if it meant annoying McCarthy.
And yet, in the end, they did accomplish something, and a few fingers were lifted. The IIA was cut loose from the State Department (which Senator McCarthy did not takeover), and the foreign libraries were permitted to go back to selecting books on content rather than on what somebody thought somebody had said about the author’s indiscreet political activities.
Mr. Merson tells his highly complicated story very fast, with controlled rage but not without hope. A degree of common sense finally prevailed in what looked like utter chaos. The question which still troubles Mr. Merson, and is likely to trouble many readers, is why chaos should be necessary in the first place.
Mr. Merson writes of a feud within the administration. Miss Starkey describes a war between administration and constituents. The constitution of Massachusetts had been adopted with the freakish provision that it was not to be altered for fifteen years. It was an extremely conservative document, designed to keep power primarily in the hands of wealthy men. As times got harder and taxes rose higher, it seemed to the small farmers of western Massachusetts that they were being bled white and then sold up for debt in order to keep a bunch of Boston politicians in unseemly luxury. The politicians couldn’t decide what to do; they were too busy worrying about their own dignity and the letter of the law to observe that there was a real economic crisis in the western counties.
The farmers got up meetings and petitions. The legislature took a superior, keep-your-place attitude. Nobody on either side wanted to fight, but the legislature feared for its honor and cried “Treason!" and the farmers feared for their necks and fetched their Revolutionary muskets. And Daniel Shays, who insisted that he was only trying to head off a riot, found himself leading a revolt.
There was a lot of chasing about through the snow, much negotiation, near panic in Boston, a bad winter all around. There were a few hotheads on both sides and a great many men who just wanted a civil peace. The sensible majority prevailed. A new legislature looked into the farmers’ grievances and attempted to remedy them. Pardons fell left and right. Ultimately two men were hanged for misdemeanors other than simple rebellion, and Thomas Jefferson observed that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing for a republic.
Miss Starkey, whose last book was a fine study of the Salem witch trials, has done a thorough, expert piece of work, reconstructing the war and the characters of the men who led it, elucidating the zany skitterings of the legislature, and making a clear, readable story of this almost forgotten scuffle in which official obtuseness and unofficial rambunctiousness did much less damage than might reasonably have been expected.

L’Affaire Dreyfus

The Dreyfus affair is hardly in ihc same category with these two examples of legislative confusion in the United States. It lasted longer, was far more complicated, and achieved a dramatic structure and focus unknown to governmental rows in this country. Because it falls so neatly into right and wrong; because it has a beginning, middle, and end which can be definitely identified; because it involved, on both sides, the most distinguished Frenchmen of the time; and because it is the first thoroughly documented example of national hysteria, it remains perennially fascinating. In Captain Dreyfus (Simon & Schuster, $3.50), Nicholas Halasz makes a study of the case which is formidably detailed and suggests, without belaboring, some interesting parallels between the French state of mind in the nineties and the German state of mind in the thirties. Mr.

Halasz’s book has a wealth of historical background, is remarkably lucid considering the labyrinth of odd characters, perverse motives, forgeries, and idiocies involved, and is written with vividness and spirit.

Egyptian art and culture

The Glory of Egypt (Vanguard, $10.00) is a rather unusual art book. The photographs, by Michel Audrain, are fine things — lovely pictures of ancient painting, sculpture, and architecture interspersed with equally handsome shots of modern Egyptians and their country. The text is by a Frenchman who chooses to conceal his identity under the pseudonym of Samivel. This is rather a pity. One would like to know Samivel, for he is a most engaging fellow, writing in the old tradition of the cultivated amateur. At a time when the text of art books too often veers from dusty statistics on one side to professional gobbledygook on the other, it is a relief to find one that combines major facts, lively speculation, wit, and a candid love of the subject.

Besides the commentary of Samivel, the book contains a number of I translations of Egyptian literature. How accurate they are, only an Egyptologist can judge. They are certainly interesting, and some of the love songs and the legend of the isle of serpents have exceptional charm.