Reader's Choice

A Family Party (Random House, $1.95) would be plain schmaltz if it had been written by anyone but John O’Hara. It’s that old standard tribute to the small-town doctor who works like a dog for the good of the community and after forty years of selfless service is rewarded by general acclaim and not a dry eye in the house. In summary it sounds terrible. In fact it is a witty, shrewd, thoroughly engaging piece of writing.
It’s the form that saves A Family Party from banality. Mr. O’Hara, always a master hand with conversation, has told his story in the form of a monologue. The doctor’s old friend, Albert W. Shoemaker, is making the principal speech at a community dinner in the doctor’s honor. Mr. Shoemaker, “president of the Shoemaker Printing Company and former editor and publisher of the Lyons Republican,” would not call himself an orator, but he knows how to handle the sponsors of this dinner, who are the “Lyons Rotary Club, Kiwanis, Lions, Junior Chamber of Commerce, Patriotic Order Sons of America, Knights of Columbus, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Ancient Order of Hibernians, Knights of Pythias, Ministerial Association, Holy Name Society, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Lyons Gun Club, Merchants Association, Boy Scouts of America, Order of the Eastern Star, American Red Cross, Daughters of Isabella, Delphian Society, United Mine Workers of America, and the Nesquehela County Medical Society.”
Having greeted all these distinguished people, Mr. Shoemaker sets the scene. “This town of ours used to be an important railroad center, before they put in the buses and before the business of mining coal was all shot to — well, a certain place that I understand they have all the coal they need, if the reverend clergy will pardon me.” With this orthodox little joke, Mr. Shoemaker is off and away. His speech loops and wanders, he backtracks, he gossips, he gets lost in his own sentences, he snarls with civic pride at neighboring towns of less distinction than Lyons, he shifts from slang to formal (and borrowed) rhetoric in the same sentence or even the same phrase, he tosses asides at the audience and discourses on bearhunting. Finally, he describes a t rain wreck with unexpected power, and having sidled up to the delicate question of the doctor’s wife, handles it. with the tenderest tact.
Surely no extempore speech was ever quite like Mr. Shoemaker’s, but the illusion of the speaking voice is maintained all the way with such skill that one forgets everything else. Mr. Shoemaker is absolutely real and therefore his town, the mines, the hospital, the thundering herd of sponsors, are all real too, and above all, his dear old friend Samuel G. Merritt, M.D. It is a remarkable instance of creation by reflection, with most of the sentimentality inherent in the theme lost somewhere between the image and the mirror.

Fiction, Paris fashion

If, as her publishers claim, the question in every reader’s mind has been, Can Françoise Sagan do it again? the public can now relax. With A Certain Smile (Dutton, $2.95) Miss Sagan has done it again, so neatly and so precisely that the next question for public and publishers to mull over becomes, Can Françoise Sagan do anything else?
The heroine-narrator of A Certain Smile is, as in Bonjour Trintesse, a young girl, and t he story she tells has to do with her relations with older people and her discovery that getting her own way is not necessarily entirely satisfactory. If there is any difference in merit between the two books, it lies in the plots. The action in A Certain Smile is more ordinary; there is less suspense, and the heroine drifts with the tide instead of manipulating events like a juvenile Iago. A Certain Smile is truer to life on the level of general probability. On the level of imaginative excitement and surprise, it is not quite the equal of its brilliant predecessor.
Miss Sagan is a born storyteller, however, and even with a rather commonplace plot on her hands she can compel interest to the end. Her heroine is giddily charming, a quality which doesn’t appear at all in the straight narrative but is conveyed with great skill through dialogue alone. She is indolent, inquisitive, and quite without scruples. Her friends accuse her of being an Existentialist, but this seems to be merely fashionable chatter, for Dominique’s nearest approach to philosophy is a languid adherence to the tradition of the stiff upper lip. This unremarkable girl remains interesting because, for all her candid description of her actions and feelings, she never really explains herself. This is reasonable. Dominique is as puzzled by Dominique as anybody. The quest ion that keeps the simple plot rolling is whether Dominique’s agreement to conduct a brief love affair, with no affection on either side, will hold, and the author juggles it until the final curtain with great deftness.
Miss Sagan is a technician of a high order, working with exceptional economy and elegance in the tradition of Colette and Benjamin Constant. If there is any cause for concern in A Certain Smile, it is the lack of a sign that the author has tried to expand her view, vary her methods, or explore more deeply in the minds of her characters. A Certain Smile is a buff’seye, true enough, but on the same range and the same target.
By contrast with the snow-crystal perfection of Miss Sagan’s work, Henri Troyat’s new novel, Amelie in Love (Simon & Schuster, $4.50), is the beginning of a large, disorderly family chronicle in which everyone, at least in this first volume, behaves with the utmost virtue and propriety. Amelie is the daughter of a smalltown blacksmith and dry-goods merchant, a prim, conscientious girl who wears her hair in a braid and exchanges literary letters with a bosom friend in Limoges. These letters, with their ornate style and solemnly idiotic sentiments, are nice sly comedy. They are not typical of the book as a whole.

The story clatters along at a fast trot, including everything suitable to this type of novel — local color, family quarrels, deaths and funerals, engagement, wedding, and life in Paris, where Amelie squabbles with her adored husband as enl husiastically as her mother had done with the blacksmith. Lite heroine’s development from a timid, icy little girl to a passionate, self-assured woman is well managed, but this sort of thing has been done before and it isn’t quite enough to lift Amelie in Love above the general level of family chronicles.

There is a curious lack of backbone to the book as it stands, although it is only fair to admit that the complete trilogy may produce an effect quite different from this isolated volume.
Things happen continually, but always in an easy, familiar way that seems designed to pass the reader’s time pleasantly rather than to convey any part icular idea. Well-written popular fiction is nothing to complain of, certainly, but there are occasional bits in Amelie in Love, notably the recurring mention of tho Roman ruins at the edge of town, that suggest Mr. Troyat has something more in mind than merely amusing his readers. What precisely it is does not appear. The frosting has swamped the cake.

Southern opinion on segregation

Robert Penn Warren, a distinguished author, a Southerner, and a desegregationist, has made a survey of Southern opinion, both white and Negro, on the furiously argued question of racial segregation, publishing his findings as Segregation (Random House, $1.95). Since Mr. Warren is reporting what he found rather than trying to confirm a theory, the book is necessarily inconclusive, but that is no deterrent to its interest.
Mr. Warren found every possible shade of opinion among the white Southerners he questioned, from ardent support of desegregation to hysterical, terrified hostility at the mere suggestion of such a thing. The most interesting comments came, not surprisingly, from the middle of the spectrum — that is, from those who i agree in principle that segregation is wrong but can see the immediate, practical difficulties of desegregation only too clearly, or from those who insist that segregation is necessary but have given serious thought to ways of ameliorating conditions without abandoning the formal line of demarcation. The variety of theories and attitudes discovered by Mr. Warren is quite astonishing, as is the relative absence of militant bitterness among all but the fiery-cross minority, who are, he believes, held in general dtsesteem, although probably not to the extent of calling the law if such a group should get out of hand.
Mr. Warren found less variation of opinion among Negroes. He seems to have interviewed fewer of them, the interviews tended to be more formal, and a genuinely pro-segregation Negro is pretty unlikely by the mere nature of things. Mr. Warren describes a wryly funny scene in which an attempt to record an interview with just such a man backfired. Too late, the Northern journalists handling the affair discovered that this particular Negro preacher was no Uncle Tom, after all. He was merely so polite and philosophical in his opposition to segregation that they hadn’t grasped his real position.
Although the author draws no conclusions from his material, he has some penetrating things to say about the reasons, both conscious and unconscious, for the Southern stand on segregation, and he is far from unsympathetic to all the men and women who disagree with his own view. Perhaps his chief accomplishment is to give the non-Southern reader some conception of the enormous complication of the situation that actually exists in the South, which, badgered by demands for action and confused by the presence of many splinter groups, cannot yet raise an acting majority under any banner.
To the tune of the sagas
In The Ultimate Viking (Harcourt, Brace, $5.75), Eric Linklater, who has written successful novels, biography, history, poetry, and a few other things as well, has a go at the early history of Iceland and Orkney. The book is not formal history, for Mr. Linklater claims to be an amateur. As he explains, “The scholar must be cautious in all he says, for his reputation is at stake and his claim to scholarship may founder on a false assumpt ion. But the amateur has nothing to lose save his freedom, and in his freedom he may hit upon the truth.”
Having cannily established himself on this ground, the author speculates about the characters of various Viking heroes and suggests unexpected meanings behind the adventures so bluntly recorded in the sagas. He maintains, for example, that the importance given to the battle of Clontarf in both Gaelic and Viking history is out of all proportion to its actual significance, unless it was in fact part of an international campaign which the Norsemen planned but never brought off. He makes out a good case for this view, and a better one for his quarrel with an inconvenient date in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
As for his main thesis, that the pagan Vikings judged conduct on an aesthetic rather than a moral basis, and that many of their doings were dictated by the desire to become the subject of a memorable saga, he defends it admirably. His chief exhibit for the defense is the ultimate Viking of the title, one Sweyn Asliefsson of Orkney, who combined whimsical warfare with highly practical piracy, and stuck to the trade long after his countrymen had taken to building cathedrals and settling disputes over a quiet keg of ale.
Now it must be admitted that this lively, witty book is a somewhat specialized item. Readers who have no taste for uproars and battles long ago, who disapprove of pyromania and are not enchanted by the mere mention of a sword-happy poet by the name of Egil Skallagrimsson, had better think twice before signing on for the cruise. The book is packed with strange footnotes to history, exquisite descriptions of northern landscape, spine-tingling translation from the sagas, savage comedy, and the fierce poetry of gales and battles, but it will not provide any useful cocktail party chitchat, while as a guide to political action it is worse than useless. Only romantics need apply themselves.
The campaign of 1928
A Catholic Runs for President
(Ronald, $3.50) is a rather desperate attempt to analyze the campaign of 1928, in which Al Smith was defeated by a combination of antiCatholic prejudice, prohibitionist fervor, Southern suspicion of Tammany, social snobbery, and simple faith in the incumbent Republican Party, which was running Mr. Hoover and a business boom. The author, Edmund A. Moore, is chairman of the Department of History at the university of Connecticut. He has obviously worked hard to sort out the elements of this peculiar campaign and determine exactly what defeated Smith. It is a hopeless task, in the long run, for it is quite possible that no Democratic candidate could have won that particular elect ion.
Although Mr. Moore is unable to find a final answer to his problem, he turns up some worthwhile data in his delvings. The libelous material that went through the mails unquestioned would raise an uproar today. The strength of the prohibitionist group, and the evangelical assurance with which they stated their cause, are awesome. A great number of Protestant ministers (although certainly not all of them) dove into the fray and exhorted their congregations to vote against Smith because he, as a Catholic, was assumed to be automatically oversusceptible to clerical influence— an unedifying spectacle from any point of view, and logically indefensible from their own. Much of the potential excitement of the affair is thrown away by Mr. Moore, who writes with excessive sobriety even for a scholar and refuses, out of a kindly desire not to reopen old wounds, to quote the more scurrilous undercover attacks on Smith. Being told that “this writer" has seen certain letters and pamphlets of outrageous import is not at all the same thing as reading a direct quotation, even when the quotation is bowdlerized.
A1 Smith was an exceptional man, and his campaign for the Presidency was unique in our history. The subject is worth a bit of daring and enthusiasm. Mr. Moore doesn’t provide either.
The irony of love
Bitter Honeymoon (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $3,50) is a collection of short stories by Alberto Moravia, who probably couldn’t write anything undistinguished if he tried. Even when he condescends, as he does in “The Fall,” to a standard horror story about a cat, the work takes on dimensions normally unknown to this type of chiller.
The other stories, written at intervals over a considerable period, are about love, or rather about situations between men and women which require some pretense of or attempt at love. A dour irony underlies all of them. Nothing is quite what Moravia s bemused heroes suppose it to be; or if they see a situation clearly, their vision comes after the opportunity to profit by it has passed. Love is represented as a melancholy joke on humanity, offering the irresistible bait of companionship which turns out, when it is swallowed, to be merely another form of isolation. For all the wealth of solid setting and intimate action in these stories, the protagonists are enclosed in little worlds of their own, like ice cubes, and Mr. Moravia uses them to illustrate various aspects of the modern preoccupation with the remoteness of individual being.

Lost paradise

Beyond the Aegean (Vanguard, $3.50), by the Greek author Ilias Venezis, is as far from the general run of contemporary fiction as the very different work of Nikos Kazantzakis, with whom he evidently shares a sweeping distaste for the restrictions imposed by physical or psychological naturalism. The book, ostensibly a reminiscence of the author’s childhood, actually concerns a lost paradise.
The narrator describes his boyhood visits to his grandfather’s farm, a holding hacked out of the Anatolian hills and just barely in sight of the sea, which is the boy’s first love. The house is an enormous, semi-fortified establishment, crammed with peasant helpers, relatives, quests, random travelers, the boy’s sisters, and the grandparents, who are the kindly god and goddess of this little world. Everything is seen through a golden mist, larger, more beautiful, more exciting than reality could ever be. Time stands still. The children are now six and now eleven, but their ideas and conduct are the same at both ages. The boy describes events of fifty years past as if he were present at them. A maniac in search of his little white-headed camel, a character straight out of legend, moves on the same level as the boy and his sister Artemis going about their games. Bandits and smugglers act out episodes that have the ring of antique folk tales while the children look on, and a young neighbor’s English bride turns into a fairy princess and bewitches half the countryside. There is cruelty and violence in the story, but no meanness, and within the family there is complete love and underst anding.
This magic world ends when somebody, for unimaginable reasons, shoots a mysterious creature called an archduke at a place named Sarajevo. First the grownups whisper about war, a word connected in the children’s minds only with the annual campaign to keep jackals out of the crops, and then everything collapses in a swirl of murder, terror, and flight through the darkness down to the sea. All that is left of the farm on the mountain is a handkerchief full of dirt that grandfather stowed in his pocket on the run. “Our dreams and memories of the past rocked on the waves of the Aegean . . . Oh, land of my birth, Aeolia, my native land . . .”
Beyond the Aegean is not to be approached like normal prose. It is essentially poetic, and it employs the tactics of poetry — arbitrary emphasis, exaggeration, ellipsis — to compose a paean and a memorial to the lost Greek settlements of Anatolia. It is a lament for a golden age, and on its own lyrical level a beautiful t hing.
Arsenic and lemon-colored gloves

Charles Norman’sThe (tented Murderer (Macmillan, is an

unpretentious study of an early Victorian murder case, written with a light touch and a nice appreciation of the odder aspects of the affair. Thomas Griffiths Waincwrighl came of a successful publishing dynasty and, after a short experiment with the army, settled down in London as a sort of literary buck. He was a friend of Lamb, and his lemon-colored gloves were remarked by Byron. He wrote hideously whimsical pseudo-criticism of painting under the name of Janus Weathercock. He had expensive tastes, but his inheritance was merely income from securities in the hands of the Bank of England.
One thing led to another—forgery, to be exact — and the bank was parted from the securities. Wainewright was by now in possession of the family mansion, since the uncle who owned the place had died with convenient suddenness soon after his nephew moved in with him. He had also acquired a wife who brought him a mother and two sisters but no money at all. The securities couldn’t last this expensive ménage very long.
It was a dreadful run of had luck. In addition to his debts, poor Wainew right suffered the sudden death of his mot lier-in-law, and around Christmas time one of his wife’s sisters was carried off, poor girl, by a strange illness caused, according to the doe tor who attended her, by coming home from the theater with wet feet and eating oysters for supper. Nobody would have doubted this extraordinary diagnosis if the girl hadn’t taken out a vast quantity of short-term life insurance hardly three months earlier. The insurance companies balked. Wainewright sued them. He also removed, hotfoot, to the Continent.
At this point, everything seems set for an orthodox account of English justice inevitably bringing the poisoner to book. Nothing of the sort happens, however, because it seems English just ice was far from inevitable in those more casual days. What happened in the matter of Wainewright and the insurance companies is almost beyond belief, a gloriously absurd entanglement demonstrating that three murders are a bagatelle compared with the ultimate horror of swindling the Bank of England.