WHEN André Gide was asked to name the greatest of all French poets, he replied, “Victor Hugo — alas!" meaning not that France lacked poets of genius but that Hugo’s genius was lacking in appeal to him, a sentiment that is widespread today. Hugo was by nature inclined to grandiloquence — he liked to portray the theatrical, the excessive, the gigantic; and the most serious Contemporary taste tends to admire subtlety, complexity, and psychological refinement. Hugo’s latest biographer, André Maurois, appears to have sensed that his subject’s art is not particularly congenial to the modern temper, and he has not cluttered his book with one of those elaborate critical briefs which seek to promote a revival of a neglected master. M. Maurois’s Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo (Harper, $5.95) contains the judicious minimum of critical evaluation — it is primarily biography. Drawing on much source material not previously available, Maurois has produced the largest, and to my mind the most enthralling, book of his career.
The only weak spots worth signalizing are that the author, perhaps carried away by the Hugo spirit, has allowed himself rather too many lapses into grandiloquence; and that Gerard Hopkins’s translation is sometimes awkward. (For example: he describes the youthful Hugo as modest and “biddable.”)
Victor Hugo’s life (1802-1885) is among the most majestic and at the same time the most humanly fascinating subjects a biographer could find. Son of a Napoleonic general, he grew up in the wake of France’s conquering armies. Before he was twenty his poetry had won him a government pension and the acclaim of the rising stars in the literary firmament. As generalissimo of the Romantic movement while still in his twenties, Hugo was, in Baudelaire’s phrase, “the man to whom everyone turned for the watchword of the day.” After Goethe’s death in 1832, he was widely regarded as the world’s greatest living writer.
While turning out a torrential flow of poetry and prose, which in due course commanded huge sums of money, Hugo played a prominent and often dramatic role in the political struggles of his time. The coup from which Napoleon III emerged as ruler of France sent Hugo into exile for twenty years, during which his thunderous denunciations of “Napoleon the Little” made him a symbol of liberty in the eyes of democrats all over Europe. In his old age, he was a species of Gallic Tolstoy, always ready to intervene with his immense prestige on behalf of some humanitarian cause.
One finds in Hugo all the contradictory frailties and virtues of ordinary men displayed with a phenomenal intensity. His sexual appetite was stupendous; and the richly documented story of his love life — with its incredible account of the almost sisterly relationship between Madame Hugo and two of her husband’s mistresses — is a saga as bizarre and as flamboyant as any in the domain of Eros. There are dramas enough in Hugo’s life to provide strong subjects for a string of books of non-fiction and no end of novels. M. Maurois has marshaled this overabundance of riches into a narrative of unflagging powder, a book worthy of a titan.
E. M. Forster’s biography of his great-aunt, Marianne Thornton (Harcourt, Brace, $5.00), represents a triumph of artistry over subject matter. The long-lived (1797-1887) spinster who is the heroine of Mr. Forster’s “domestic” chronicle was neither celebrated nor talented nor eccentric; there was no romance in her life and there were no dramas of spectacular proportions. But out of this highly unpromising material, Mr. Forster has succeeded in fashioning a graceful period piece which quietly charms the reader into sharing the author’s affectionate interest in his unexceptional protagonists.
Marianne Thornton was the eldest of the nine children of a prosperous banker and Member of Parliament who settled in a thirty-four bedroom mansion on the outskirts of London. The children grew up in a moral climate of piety, industry, and seriousness; they were taught to respect wealth, to practice good works, and to believe unquestioningly in a future life. But the atmosphere of the household — though by contemporary standards inordinately high-minded — was intelligent, affectionate, and often gay. The story of Marianne’s youth is in many respects a close-up of preVictorian family life at its best.
As an adult, Miss Thornton, despite the discomforts and hazards of travel in her age, became a regular visitor to the Continent; and the letters in which she faithfully chronicles her experiences abroad make pleasantly piquant reading. Among her close friends were William Wilberforce, the crusader against slavery, and Hannah More, the famous educator and evangelist. She was also acquainted with several eminent Victorians, among them the historian Macaulay, Florence Nightingale, and Tennyson. Her own good works were principally in the field of education. She was active in educational reform and she financed a school for “Tradesmen’s Daughters” and a school for “Raggeds.”
There is an exciting banking crisis in the Thornton saga, from which Marianne’s youthful brother, Henry, emerges a triumphant hero; and there is a marital scandal which attests to the hidden fires that burned within these oh-so-proper Victorians. In the final section of the book, the author himself appears on the scene and records his childhood impressions of the aged great-aunt whose legacy later enabled him to continue writing until his books began to sell.
Mr. Forster’s narrative is, unquestionably, a low-keyed and leisurely one, whose very substance is domestic trivia. But it brings to us an unusually intimate and representative picture of the way of life of the British upper middle class in the nineteenth century.
While Existentialism is not mentioned in The Mandarins (World, $6.00) — a 300,000-word novel by Simone de Beauvoir which won the Prix Goncourt —the book is clearly a group portrait of the Existentialist clique, its fellow travelers, and its adversaries; and a chronicle of the political role played by the leading Existentialists from the Liberation to the late nineteen-forties. As in previous encounters with Mlle. de Beauvoir’s writings, I found myself nervously stimulated, as though I had been fed a tablet of Benzedrine, but also often bored and exasperated. The problems which interest Mlle. de Beauvoir are vital ones, and she brings to them a super high-powered mind and an almost desperate emotional commitment. But, like all incorrigibly doctrinaire thinkers, she is capable of all sorts of perversity, intellectual blindness, and downright silliness.
The heart of the matter is the efforts of two influential writers — both much honored for their role in the wartime underground — to carry the idealism of the Resistance into postwar French politics and to inspire a social revolution. A reader who is not in the Communist or neutralist camp cannot help finding the novel’s political orientation as cockeyed as the logic that confronts Alice in Wonderland. To the Mandarins it is axiomatic that the Soviet Union, though it “isn’t perfect,” is the last best hope of the underprivileged; and that the United States, with its inhuman capitalism and its aggressive drive toward world domination, represents the enemy against whom all men of good will must unite. In their lexicon, to be “anti-Communist” is the cardinal sin — a betrayal of the future.
Regretfully, indeed self-reproachfully at times, the Mandarins recognize that they could not quite swallow the discipline of the Communist Party. They hope, however, that the Communists will treat their movement as an ally in “the class struggle.” This curiously naïve expectation exposes them to some bitterly disillusioning knocks, and their movement gradually disintegrates. But at the novel’s ending they remain — heroically, in the author’s eyes — committed to more or less their original political dogmas.
Politics dominates the novel; and how drearily disgusting it is to watch the Mandarins necking with Communist ideas while feverishly chattering about integrity, idealism, und so weiter. But the novel also documents — and copiously — the sex life of the Mandarin milieu; and it focuses on one big love affair which takes place in the United States, a somewhat tortured grande passion between the psychoanalyst wife of one of the Mandarins and a bohemian Chicago novelist.
In one not unimportant respect, Mlle. de Beauvoir’s novel can be described as a success. It is, unquestionably, an authentic, intimate, and telling picture of the manners and mores, the opinions and the conflicts, of a sector of the Parisian intellectual elite which, unfortunately, has been highly influential. What would have raised The Mandarins to a much more exciting level is a scathing critical perspective.
There is one aspect of the United States to which the Existentialists have been admiringly attracted — the zone of the derelicts, the delinquents, and the deviates. They have singled out for acclaim those American authors who highlight the seamy side of life and who suggest that the inhabitants of the lower depths are the most vital and interesting beings on the American landscape. The latter supposition underlies A Walk on the Wild Side (Farrar, Straus, & Cudahy, $4.50) by Nelson Algren, to whom Simone de Beauvoir’s book is dedicated. Mr. Algren’s previous novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, received the National Book Award in 1948.
A Walk on the Wild Side chronicles the picaresque adventures of Dove Linkhorn, a teen-age country boy from the valley of the Rio Grande who can neither read nor write. After bumming his way to New Orleans—the time is 1931 — he struggles “to make an honest dollar in a crooked sort of way.” He amasses quarters palming off faked certificates promising a five-dollar permanent “free”; he peddles hair straightener in the colored quarter, becomes assistant to a gamy couple who are manufacturing contraceptives, and eventually gets a well-paid job in a brothel performing duties which cannot possibly be described here.
There is originality in the novel, wry humor, and some genuine pathos; and a number of the characterizations are, in their raffish way, well realized. But this is not a book for which I can muster any enthusiasm. Algren’s conviction that the people he is writing about — bums, pimps, prostitutes, thieves and confidence men, rumpots, junkies, freaks, and sex maniacs —are apt to be “greater human beings than those who have never been lost" is a piece of nonconformist cant as false and as tiresome as the diametrically opposite pieties of the cringing conformist. Then, too, there is the matter of Mr. Algren’s language and syntax. The former puts some strain on the reader who has never set up housekeeping in the underworld; and the syntax flouts accepted usage with results which seemed to me mainly distracting.
Comfort Me with Apples (Little, Brown, $3.50) by Peter De Vries — whose last book was that entrancing comedy The Tunnel of Love — brings us to a world in which the leading protagonists are provincial would-be sophisticates frustratingly dedicated to the pursuit of suavity in the small town of Decency, Connecticut. The yeast that works in them is the romantic ideal: “the idea that life can have style.”
The narrator, Chick Swallow, finds himself prematurely sea-changed into a husband, father, and cracker-barrel philosopher who, under the by-line of The Lamplighter, dispenses homespun wisdom in the local newspaper. Instead of dazzling the beau monde with his wit, he has to rack his brains for a daily “pepigram ” — an epigram of an inspirational nature such as “To turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones — pick up your feet.” As for his pretty wife, her style runs to getting clichés just wrong. In her beguiling idiom, sauces are “rich as Croesus”; and when her husband broke his arm, she tenderly observed, “It couldn’t have happened to a better guy.”
The plot abounds in delightful complications, the most important of which are that the supposedly exemplary Lamplighter is caught (and indeed photographed) in bed with a wealthy matron named Mrs. Thicknesse; that he is then subjected to blackmail; and that his wife threatens to make him a figure of fun by suing for divorce and assessing his total value to her at sixty-five dollars.
A number of the humorous conceits which adorned The Tunnel of Love reappear, in modified form, in Comfort Me with Apples; and the comedy, being less fresh to me, did not seem quite as hilarious as that of the earlier book. Even so, De Vries’s new novel is a divertissement devoutly to be welcomed.
The new oligarchy
One of the livelier questions which preoccupy our sociologists is: Who really wields decisive power in the United States? The “sixty families” view found widespread support in the nineteen-thirties, and in the ensuing decade James Burnham caused a considerable stir with his thesis that power had passed into the hands of the managerial class. Today, according to the sociologist C. Wright Mills, the prevailing tendency is to suppose that there is no cohesive group which can properly be described as a ruling class. In The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, $6.00), Professor Mills contradicts this supposition. He develops the thesis that, since the Second World War, a combination of circumstances has led to the emergence of “a power elite" which consists of the top-ranking military leaders, those who occupy the highest echelon in national politics, the chiefs of the great corporations, and “the corporate rich" (the very rich who exercise a controlling hand in big business).
These groups, says Mills, have coalesced into a tightly knit directorate whose members share a common outlook, a common set of tastes and standards; and he argues that conformity to these standards is the yardstick that governs the process of recruitment into the ranks of the elite. In contrast to previous ruling classes, the power elite has no wish to be known as such; it is nothing if not discreet, and pitches its public relations in the soothing rhetoric of liberalism.
Mills’s book advances a number of provocative arguments about the current social structure. Congressmen, labor leaders, and other seemingly powerful groups are said to represent the “middle levels” of power, on which the decisions taken are of local or limited consequence. Contrary to the prevailing assumptions about the effects of high taxation, the rich are shown, with convincing statistics, to be conserving and transmitting their wealth more successfully than ever; today, 68 per cent of the very rich were born into that class, whereas the percentage in 1925 was 56 and in 1900 only 39. Mills’s book challenges a great many widely accepted notions, which is all to the good; and irrespective of what validity there is in its overall thesis, it registers a number of points which no open-minded reader can lightly dismiss.
Having stated that The Power Elite seems to me a provocative and important work, I must go on to say that it is an exasperating one — crammed with the horrid jargon of sociology; inexcusably repetitious: and inclined to dwell, at length and in a tone of outraged discovery, on facts as obvious as that tycoons ride in Cadillacs, send their children to expensive schools, and play golf with other tycoons. A good deal of what Mills presents to us, with the hint that something vastly sinister is afoot, boils down to the statement that people of wealth and power are apt to have a considerable sense of solidarity with other people of wealth and power.