IN 1954, Graham Greene was a correspondent in Indo-China, and out of this experience has come a novel distinctly different in character from its two predecessors, in which Roman Catholic doctrine was the heart of the matter. Religion has no central part in The Quiet American (Viking, $3.50), a tale of war, love, and political intrigue in and around contemporary Saigon. The novel’s theme is one which has been primarily associated with American literature — the theme of American “innocence” versus European “experience.”
Greene’s narrator, Thomas Fowler, is a middle-aged British correspondent. As a husband and as a lover he has deeply hurt the two women he loved; and now, disillusioned with the human condition in general, he has made it his credo to remain “not involved.” A pretty, undemanding Annamite mistress protects him from loneliness, and a few nightly pipefuls of opium take the edge off his unhappiness.
The “quiet American,” Alden Pyle — a warmly outgoing and earnest idealist — is officially attached to the Economic Aid Mission, but actually is engaged in undercover work. Fowler is exasperated by his innocence but cannot help being touched by him: Pyle is so obviously “a good man.” Even when he falls in love with Fowler’s mistress and wishes to marry her, his conduct throughout could not be more high-minded.
Pyle has swallowed as gospel the works of a globe-trotting American newspaper pundit, whose formula for the salvation of Asia from Communism is for his country to set its face against “colonialism” and throw its weight behind a Third Force — leaders who represent “national democracy.” Fowler keeps warning Pyle of the danger of trying to apply this tidy thesis to the tortuous realities of Indo-China — “I wish sometimes,'' he says, “that you had a few bad motives; you might understand a little more about human beings.” But Pyle is convinced that he has found his Third Force leader in the person of General Thé, who is fighting both the French and the Communists, and who in fact is no more than a shoddy bandit. And Pyle continues to supply the General with American explosives even after The has embarked on a course of senseless terrorism, whose only result is the killing and maiming of Saigon civilians.
All of this is narrated by Fowler in flashbacks. At the novel’s opening, Fowler is informed by the police that Pyle has been found murdered; and the story that follows is charged with the mystery and suspense of a whodunit. Greene has achieved this by not playing quite fair with the reader: one finally discovers that the narrator knew the answers all along. But the deception, it seems to me, is justified by the results: The Quiet American is a continuously intriguing piece of storytelling.
If Pyle, as many Americans will feel, is a caricature of American “innocence,” Fowler is also an uninspiring symbol of European “experience” -Greene cannot be accused of playing favorites. In Fowler s unsparing image of himself and in his somewhat ambivalent feelings about Pyle, Greene has mordantly dramatized a European attitude which we know to be widely representative. He has also brought into vivid relief a universal human problem — the fearful price of innocence — and has shown that behind innocence there lurk unconscious arrogance and a self-righteous streak of moral blindness.
The good soldier Asch
The Revolt of Gunner Asch (Little, Brown, $3.95) by Hans Hellmut Kirst is a German first novel which has already made publishing history. Translated into more than half-a-dozen languages, it has been warmly received by reviewers all over Western Europe, and its sales to date exceed 1,200,000 copies.
Ex-soldier Kirst’s novel is an account of barracks life in the Wehrmacht shortly before the Second World War. The astonishing thing about it is that, while it achieves a devastating indictment of the German military system, it is pre-eminently a humorous book. Consistently amusing and often hilariously funny, it might loosely be described as a first cousin to No Time for Sergeants. It belongs in the tradition of Jaroslav Hasek’s memorable comic novel, The Good Soldier Schweik.
Gunner First Class Herbert Asch is a thoroughly decent, firm-grained young man, disgusted by the senseless tyranny of Prussian-Nazi discipline and determined to hold his own against it. To all appearances an impeccable soldier, he is a wizard at getting the better of noneoms and keeping out of trouble. But his best friend, Gunner Vierbein, is a lamentable Sad Sack; and when the ferocious Troop Sergeant Major orders his bully hoys to give Vierbein “the treatment,” Vierbein is driven to attempt suicide. At this point Asch, convinced that only drastic action can save his friend from being punished to death, decides to stage a public one-man revolt against the military machine. How he carries out this desperate enterprise makes a tale in which elements of drama and suspense arc skillfully fused with high comedy — a tale which the author brings to a startling and altogether delightful conclusion.
The tender love affair between Asch and his sweetheart; the details of garrison life in a provincial town; the sharply individualized characterizations of officers and enlisted menall this is handled with a deft and convincing touch. Kirst has succeeded in distilling robust fun out of brutal realities without ever suggesting that the realities were other than brutal.
The trouble of one house
When Eugene O’Neill died in 1953, he left among his papers several dramas which have never been produced. One of them —an autobiographical play completed in 1941 and entitled Long Day’s Journey into Night (Yale University Press, $3.75) has now been published in book form. In a note dedicating the script to Ins third wife, O’Neill describes it as “this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.”
The setting is the living room of the Tyrones’ summer home; and the action takes place on a single day in the year 1912. James Tyrone has been a successful actor for more than forty years and is now a wealthy man; but the appalling poverty of his childhood has bequeathed to him phobias which make him pathologically stingy. His wife, Mary, has just returned from a sanatorium, where she has taken a cure for dope-addiction. The eldest son is a hard-drinking ne’er-do-well, with a bitter hostility toward his father. The younger son, who has grown up hero-worshiping his brother, has ruined his health bumming around the world; and now he learns he has contracted tuberculosis.
This, roughly, is the situation set forth in the first two acts. The last two carry us deeper and deeper into the lives of the Tyrones, laying bare the crucial happenings that have shaped them, the hurts they have inflicted on each other, the resentments and ambitions they have concealed, and the self-deceptions they have cherished. When the final curtain falls on a scene of utter desolation, O’Neill’s unsparing exposure of his characters has brought with it understanding and pity.
The emotional phrasing of the drama — with its abrupt, surely handled switches from bitterness to affection; from strained amiability to impatience, jeering sarcasm, and remorse; from drunken garrulousness to searing confession — is continuously varied in tone and generally convincing. The play’s major weakness is one which has often bedeviled wouldbe tragedy in modern dress. The protagonists— being not only devoid of heroic attributes but even lacking in ordinary dignity and strength — fail to arouse, as tragedy should, admiration and terror: all one can feel for them is pity. Long Day’s Journey into Night has the power of a somber and dramatically unfolded case history. It lacks what O’Neill referred to as “the transfiguring nobility of tragedy.”
The breakdown of an American family is also the theme of a long, highly charged first novel by N. Martin Kramer:The Hearth and the Strangeness (Macmillan, $4.50). The story opens in the year 1908 with the marriage of Sumner Grange, a brilliant, erratic inventor — “a man uneasy on the earth" - to Lisette Rhone, a young woman imbued with the severe Puritanism of her Huguenot ancestors. Both partners have concealed from each other the fact that there exists a taint of insanity in their families; and the story, which shuttles back and forth in time from the early 1900s to the 1950s, unfolds the consequences of this deception.
Mr. Kramer, who has an impressive gift for characterization, has created five life-sized protagonists — Sumner and Liset to Grange; their son, Gareth, who changes from a gentle, pious young boy into a bitter veteran of two wars, a man plagued by gusts of murderous rage and by fears of dissolution; and their two daughters, whose lives take a dramatically different turn. But like the O’Neill play, The Hearth and the Strangeness fails to achieve the key of genuine tragedy; and for all its narrative power, the point it registers is a purely clinical point about the treacherous course of hereditary insanity.
Saints and sinners
A new novel by another winner of the Nobel Prize (it was awarded to O’Neill in 1936) has recently been published: François Mauriac’sThe Lamb (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $3.00). Reintroducing the de Mirbel family, which appeared in Woman of the Pharisees, France’s leading Catholic novelist has written a taut religious drama of a young man’s self-sacrifice and an older man’s redemption by it.
Xavier Dartigelongue is traveling to Paris to enter a seminary when an encounter in the railway carriage with Jean de Mirbel precipitates a crisis in his life. Xavier has been profoundly moved by the look of suffering on the face of de Mirbel’s wife as she said good-by to her husband at the station; and presently he learns that Jean is leaving her for good. As they talk, Jean — a hard, bitter man with a jeering contempt for religion -changes his tack to moral blackmail: he will return to his wife if Xavier will come along with him and try his hand at “saving” them. Xavier feels compelled to go, and at the de Mirbel household he gets caught up in a further conflict. Hitherto dedicated to the idea of celibacy, he falls in love with the de Mirbels’ governess and she with him. Whether Xavier’s eventual fate, and the part Jean plays in it, make plausible Jean’s spiritual regeneration is a point which every reader will have to decide for himself.
To experience to the full the impact of Mauriac’s work it is necessary to share to some degree his austere vision of life: his passionate consciousness of Sin and his equally intense preoccupation with Salvation. But whatever one’s theology or lack of it, the finely disciplined artistry with which The Lamb is written makes it a tale of considerable power. It has the classic virtues of economy, concentration, and mounting dramatic tension.
The Dreyfus Case (Reynal, $5.00) by Guy Chapman, a British historian — the second book on that cause célèbre to appear within six months—is unusual in that it challenges the alleged Dreyfusard “legend" which “has passed into history.” That Dreyfus was of course innocent and that he was the victim of cruel injustice — this much Mr. Chapman fully recognizes. But regarding other aspects of the case, he arrives at the following verdicts: There is more to be said for the War Office than has generally been admitted. There are really no villains and no heroes in the drama. Anti-Semitism played little or no part in Dreyfus’s arrest and conviction, and later was “no more than accessory" in the affair. There was no “plot" on the part of the high military authorities to prevent Dreyfus’s innocence from being established.
Now, all of these contentions are shown to be resoundingly false — and by Mr. Chapman’s own richly detailed exposition of the record. His documentation — as distinct from his interpretations — substantially corroborates the generally accepted views about the case and, if anything, heightens one’s sense of the infamy of the fanatical anti-Dreyfusards.
On one crucial issue, however, even the factual presentation is seriously at fault. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Dreyfus case was that it provided a rallying ground for the various reactionary elements that were not reconciled to the republican form of government; and it led to a frenzied intensification of their maneuvers to undermine the republican regime. The point is beyond controversy, since the extreme rightists were only too eager to broadcast their objectives. But Chapman chooses to deny that there was any serious movement to bring about a coup d’état, and he omits much of the evidence which conflicts with this thesis.
The crux of the matter is that Chapman, though no extremist, is authoritarian in sentiment. The political consequences of the Dreyfusard victory—the separation of Church and State and the democratic reforms applied to the Army, which represented a long overdue implementation of republican principles—are regarded by Chapman as calamitous. (Hero too, however, he partially refutes himself by noting that the Church, after being freed from the State, revivified itself and grew stronger.) It is apparent that Chapman is in sympathy with those antiDreyfusards who, while acknowledging Dreyfus’s innocence, saw the issue at stake as an agonizing conflict between justice to the individual and a “higher" principle, the principle of order — that mystical abstraction which is always being invoked by the authoritarian mind. The real issue was a conflict bed ween justice to the individual and what one body of opinion alleged to be the interests of national security — an issue that is very much alive again today.
It would be difficult to write a dull book about the Dreyfus case, and this Mr. Chapman has not clone; but he has written a curiously perverse one. He consistently denigrates the men who fought to establish the truth, and he proffers excuses for those who resorted to any and every means to establish and perpetuate a lie. His apologia for the latter is that they were merely men of “narrow loyalties“ seeking to serve what they believed to be the best interests of the Army and the country, it is an argument which — as the post-war protestations of crime-laden Nazis have so vividly illustrated—can be employed to excuse any son of villainy.
Cretans and Turks
In his new novel, Nikos Kazantzakis—author of Zorba the Greek and The Greek Passion, and reportedly a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize for the past three years — commemorates the pride, sufferings, and heroism of his Cretan forebears in their struggle for liberation from Turkish rule. Freedom or Death (Simon & Schuster, $4.50) tells the story of the bloody events which were climaxed by the doomed revolt of 1889. At the center of the novel towers the Homeric figure of Captain Michales, a smoldering giant of a man possessed by a volcanic patriotism. In the Turkish camp there is also a figure of heroic stature, the great-hearted Nuri Bey, whose luscious Circassian wife plays a disruptive role in the story.
In Kazantzakis’s fiction, everything is larger than life-size. Pride is white-hot and rage a tornado; distress sends a strong man roaming the streets groaning aloud “like a sick buffalo”; a glimpse of a pretty face makes men buckle at the knees with lust and gasp for breath. Colors, smells, the whole physical texture of the Cretan scene, are rendered with an overwhelming intensity.
To this particular render, Kazantzakis’s work frequently seems inflated and unreal. For better or for worse, the world he creates is a quasimythological world; and he occupies a niche of his own in contemporary fiction. Few authors alive today can equal the tremendous vividness and the surging vitality of his novels.
The “money world”
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Harcourl, Brace, $3.75) is an early (1936) novel by the late George Orwell, which is now being published in this country for the first time. Its hero, Gordon Comstock, is a young poet who has grown up in shabbygenteel poverty; and as a product of the middle class, he has found his lack of money a source of endless humiliation. Convinced that the “money world” and its code are a disgusting swindle, Gordon has resigned from his job in an advertising agency and has sought to descend into the world the down-and-outs, where keeping up appearances no longer matters. But two years in the lower depths, and crisis with his sweetheart, make him realize that he has been a self-righteous prig, and that his revolt against money has been a revolt against life itself. And the story comes to a happy ending as Gordon begins to recognize, with a certain tenderness, the stubborn virtues of his class, whose symbol of respectability is the humble aspidistra on the window sill.
The novel is rather static for the first hundred pages and is marred by the hero’s cloying self-pity. Its interest lies partly in the fact that much of Comstock’s story is Orwell’s autobiography. It is notable, too, for Orwell’s savage satire of the “money world,” and for the force and precision with which he describes the whole dingy expanse of British lower-middle class life in the 1930s. As in everything Orwell wrote, there is a burning integrity which gives the novel, despite the drabness of its material, considerable poignancy. Admirers of Orwell’s work should find the book well worth their attention.