No BOOK by a new writer published since the war has caused such excitement in literary London as The Outsider (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00) by Colin Wilson, who has just turned twenty-five. Such Brahmins as Cyril Connolly and Dame Edith Sitwell led the chorus of acclaim; and the book rapidly went through seven printings — an astounding performance for a highly cerebral work which is a blend of philosophic inquiry and literary criticism. No less astounding is the fact that the enormously erudite young author is largely self-educated. The son of a factory worker, Wilson quit high school at sixteen and earned his living at a variety of jobs: laundryman, waiter, mortuary attendant, tax collector. His “university" was the reading rooms of the British Museum; his lodging, during a year of intensive study, was a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath.
Stylistically, The Outsider is graceless and occasionally pontifical; but the book crackles with intelligence and provocative perceptions. Wilson’s Outsider is the man who “sees too deep and too much, and what he sees is essentially chaos” — inescapable Evil, futility, and the certainty of death. To him, the complacent way in which most men live is a living death—a pointless drifting through a fog of self-deception and unreality. The Outsider is hounded by the appetite for “a high quality of life ‘ — for purpose, absolute freedom, an apprehension of ultimate truth. Wilson insists that the Outsider’s problems are real problems and not neurotic delusions. The Outsider, he says, is essentially a religious man unable to accept the answers of orthodox religion — a saint-in-embryo, “a prophet in disguise.”
Wilson’s exploration of the Outsider’s predicament is conducted within the framework of a tour through the lives and works of a curiously diversified collection of figures, grouped according to the course taken by their struggle to find “a way of salvation.”Among them are Sartre, Camus, Hemingway, Hermann Hesse, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Van Gogh, Nijinsky, T. E. Lawrence, George Fox, Blake, Shaw, Gurdjieff, and Sri Ramakrishna. Wilson concludes that only religion offers an answer to the Outsider’s problems; and he suggests that Shaw’s doctrine of the Life Force and Gurdjieff’s “vitalism" point the way toward the “new religion” which, Wilson believes, is the most pressing need of modern man.
While Wilson recognizes that the Outsider has existed at all times, the thesis of his book — subtitled “An inquiry into the nature of the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth century” — is that the Outsider is a type peculiarly representative of our time. Unfortunately, this thesis — certainly an arresting and possibly a valid one — is presented for the most part indirectly and, in the final analysis, too skimpily. Another omission, damaging to a book concerned with man “in extreme states,”is the absence of Freudian awareness. Wilson’s perfectly defensible assertion that the Outsider’s problems are not per se neurotic is weakened by his failure to discriminate between heaven-bent Outsideritis and glaring neurosis or even psychosis.
Whatever its flaws, The Outsider is an impressive and fascinating book, which leaves the reader with a heightened insight into a crucial drama of the human spirit. It has the compelling quality of a thriller in which one accompanies a bizarre succession of Outsider-heroes as t hey grapple with the most, portentous of all mysteries: t he condition of man.
The anonymous Outsider
After finishing The Outsider, I turned, for a change of pace, to Five A.M. (Simon & Schuster, $3.00) by Jean Dutourd, author of those crisply entertaining satires, A Dog’s Head and The Best Butter. By some odd coincidence, Five A.M. proved to be an epitome of the Outsider novel, the most faithful reflection of Mr. Wilson’s themes which has appeared since Sartre’s Nausea and The Stranger by Camus.
Dutourd’s narrator is a Parisian bank clerk named Doucin — thirty years of age, unmarried, and unenterprising. Three years earlier, Doucin has experienced the classic initiationcrisis of the Outsider: awakening at 5 A.M., he suddenly found that “my life, formerly so charming, stank like putrid flesh.” Thereafter he has led a dual existence. By day, he is the average petit bourgeois, quite satisfied that his “acre of soul” should be “a mere suburban garden.” But in the pre-dawn hour of insomnia, which afflicts him daily, he is the Outsider hounded by “a metaphysical conscience.” Alone with the truth that he is “a handful of dust,” and filled with horror at the certainty of death, he despises all those “who do not share with me this violent anguish of being a man.”
With the vague hope of exorcising the early morning demons of consciousness, Doucin sets out to record his every thought and sensation in the course of one of the hours of insomnia. This record is M. Dutourd’s novel; and two factors mitigate its dreariness. The first is that Dutourd is a light-fingered writer with an ingenious turn of mind and an incisive sense of comedy. The second is that — in contrast to Sartre’s Roquentin and Camus’s Meursault — at least Dutourd’s hero rapidly achieves one positive insight: that his anguish is “like a descent into Hell made in order to search for my soul.”
A great Outsider
My skepticism in regard to Colin Wilson’s estimate of Shaw as a great and wrongfully neglected religious thinker has been fortified by a reimmersion in Shavian doctrine. If some sort of Supermanship is what we need, then Nietzsche is a better bracer taken on-the-rocks than mixed with Shavian root beer. Fortunately, I need not pursue the question of Shaw as precursor of a new religion, since it is not a major theme in the latest biography of that unique Outsiderwithout-tears: Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work and Friends (Morrow, $7.50), by St. John Ervine, a fellow Ulsterman and dramatist who knew Shaw intimately for forty years.
Mr. Ervine’s is a book with a markedly dual personality. Its appraisal of Shaw’s plays and thought is more conscientious than inspired. Mr. Ervine has the tiresome habit of turning criticism into long-winded and flat-footed debate, especially when confronted with Shaw’s Socialist theories, which he feels called on to refute with dreary thoroughness. In fact, Mr. Ervine is garrulous in all spheres. When, for instance, Shaw is quoted as saying he would sooner be shot than have sexual intercourse in public, Ervine finds it necessary to “interrupt” with a paragraph explaining that most men feel likewise.
As against all this, the biographical part of the book, which is perhaps two thirds of it, is solid, spirited, and laced with an astringent wit. It is a wicked thing to say, but to get the best out of Ervine’s book — and the best is tremendously engrossing — a spot of judicious skipping is required.
There was a good deal of truth in Shaw’s glib boast, that G.B.S. was “the most, successful of my fictions.” Though he wrote no formal autobiography, he wrote and talked about himself so copiously and so artfully that he created a public persona from whom it is next to impossible to disentangle the real man. It is here that Mr. Ervine makes a valuable contribution. His immensely detailed presentation of the record — a sizable part of which he knew at first hand or was close to —focuses a strong, clear light on almost every aspect of Shaw’s life. And while Ervine gives free play to his prejudices when dealing with Shaw’s friends, his perspective, where Shaw is concerned, is balanced and enlightening — sympathetic but not idolatrous.
Among other things, Mr. Ervine has given us the most candid and precise account so far assembled in one book of Shaw’s much-debated love life. Without any lapses into vulgarity, Ervine chronicles the numerous love affairs — a few consummated, the majority not — which Shaw plunged into between the age of twenty-nine (the date of his sexual initiation) and his marriage to Charlotte, who insisted that their relationship remain sexless. Ervine confirms the impression that Shaw had in him a streak of perverse Don Juanism: he encouraged women to fall in love with him and took a priggish pleasure in then refusing himself.
“The supreme fact about [Shaw],” writes Ervine, “was that he never became intimate enough with anybody to understand him or her as thoroughly as a human being can be understood.” His shocking errors — notably his adulation of the dictators and their methods — sprang from the arrogance of the pure intellectual whose infatuation with ideas blinds him to their human implications. There is an abundance of testimony that Shaw was in the main an exceptionally kindly man. Ervine, and he is certainly not the fulsome type, says: “Of all the men I have known, 1 here was none so full of grace of mind and spirit as G.B.S.” Ironically, Shaw’s errors contain a teaching perhaps more valuable than any of his preachments: namely that intellect divorced from human awareness can lead a decent man to glorify the vilest indecencies.
The perennial philosophy
Another writer who would, I am certain, cheerfully call himself an Outsider — Aldous Huxley — is currently represented by a book of essays: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Harper, $4.00). The subjects are extremely varied — education, a Utopia that failed, ToulouseLautrec, Renaissance music, the earth’s dwindling resources and the future of mankind, the merits of the do-it-yourself revival as occupational therapy. But a subject, to Huxley, is no more than a springboard. The novelist-hero of Point Counterpoint has perfectly described what happens in the Huxleyan essay: “One sentence, and I’m already involved in history, art, and all the sciences. The whole story of the universe is implicit in any part of it. Make the smell of roast duck in an old kitchen diaphanous and you will have a glimpse of everything, from the spiral nebulae to Mozart’s music and the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi.” Huxley says in effect to his reader what William James used to say to his dinner guests: “ Come — let us gossip about the universe.”
There is no blinking the fact that, since Huxley’s conversion to mystical religion, there has been a gradual decline of wit and brilliance in his “gossip about the universe.” The gaiety with which he used to savage human folly has been dampened by earnestness; and his susceptibility to crankishness and faddism, his tiresome horror of the human body (that ' bag of muck”), have become increasingly obtrusive. Then, too, there is an inescapable incongruity in Huxley’s abrupt take-offs into the vocabulary of Oriental mysticism. But for all that, Huxley, as always, has something important to say. One need not be a mystic to see the light that shines in the timeless insights of what Huxley has called “the perennial philosophy”; and these insights are tellingly at work in many of the pages of Huxley’s book. His essays may be less exhilarating than they used to be, but they still have few competitors in the realm of “gossip about the universe.”
Professor Arnold Toynbee’s new book, An Historian’s Approach toReligion (Oxford University Press, $5.00), draws together in condensed form the passages dealing with religion in A Study of History; it is, in effect, a summarized version of Toynbee’s survey of man’s religious beliefs throughout the ages. It is also, I might add, distinctly more strenuous reading than the well-known onevolume condensation of the first half of Toynbee’s magnum opus.
Toynbee has been justly accused by several historians of an inconsistency in his religious attitude. He has harped eloquently on the parochialism and the hubris of believing, “My faith is the only true faith,” and yet he has made statements which give the impression that only a revival of his faith, Christianity, can save the civilized world from ruin. That inconsistency, it is interesting to note, does not appear in the present volume. In the final part, while Toynbee does not actually speak of the need for a “new” religion, he writes: “We must realize that we cannot return . . . to the traditional Christian vision of the spiritual universe”; and he attempts to disengage “the essence from the non-essentials in mankind’s religious heritage” — in other words, to single out the insights common to all the higher religions, the insights which might form the core of a universal faith that may someday find its prophet.
How to un-adjust
Along with the Outsider, another hero-figure has made his entry onto the cultural stage — the “Unadjusted Man,” brain-child of the American poet and historian, Peter Viereck. In a series of short chapters which might be likened to commando raids, Mr. Viereck’s new book, The Unadjusted Man (Beacon Press, $5.00), crisscrosses a vast battleground of ideas, spraying the reader with a machine-gun fire of arguments — political, historical, sociological, literary, and philosophic.
Basically, the book is an attempt to make a broad and unconventional revaluation of the conservative and liberal traditions, and to distill therefrom a political and moral credo for our time. The course followed by this endeavor is unpredictable to say the least: we find the author tipping his hat to the “Mad Squires” of medieval England; expounding the proposition that all true conservatives should rally behind Adlai Stevenson; or penning a dissertation on the virtues of lyricism and the vices of the New Criticism. Stylistically, Mr. Viereck sometimes pays horrid penalties for straining after cleverness, but he succeeds at least in achieving a spirited effect. What emerges is a scrappy, decidedly breathless, but stimulating book, in which there is a good deal of acute political analysis and a variety of challenging ideas.
At the outset, Viereck notes that the cult of adjustment has produced a new American idol, the Overadjusted Man — the public relations personality who has surrendered to “a thought control more insidious than the coercive political kind.” Our potential liberator from this monster is the “Unadjusted Man.” He is a man whose values are not determined by “a democratic plebiscite”; they are his own. They are values which the tradition that reveres the individual soul has shown to be lastingly good; and they transcend conformity and nonconformity alike. It is, one may assume, this Unadjusted Man who is addressing us throughout the rest of Viereck’s book.
What comes closest to being a central theme is Viereck’s championship of “indirect.” democracy, which stands for the supremacy of parliamentary institutions and the rule of law, and which derives from Burke, John Adams, Madison, the Federalist papers; and his critique of “direct” democracy — government by unfiltered mass pressure, by public opinion poll — which derives from Rousseau, Paine, and Jackson. To Yiereck, “direct” democracy — with its doctrine of the supremacy of the mass, its threat to the liberties of unpopular minorities, and its belligerent egalitarianism represents the radical opposition to the liberal-conservative synthesis which is the essence of the American tradition. This radicalism of the old Populist and Progressive parties is currently represented (with changes of lingo) by the new Nationalist Right, until recently spearheaded by Senator McCarthy. The Nationalist Right, says Viereck, “is the most, anti-conservative uprising in native Americana since the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.” His substantiation of this thesis, and his detailed diagnosis of the complexes of the Nationalist Right, are to my mind cogent and fascinating stuff.
“Mine is a simple story,” says The Duchess of Windsor in the opening sentence of her personal history, which is, self-evidently, anything but simple. The Heart Has Its Reasons (David McKay, $5.00) might be described as an “authorized” autobiography: its subject never appears without her make-up on. A couple of anecdotes have, however, slipped in which show that the Duchess’s demure self-portrait does not do justice to traits which have decisively shaped her destiny. As a child, while preparing for her very first party, she threw a foot-stamping scene in order to get her blue sash changed to a red one. “You told your mother,” her aunt recalls, “you wanted a red sash so that the boys would notice you.” Some twenty years later, while living in China, Wallis insisted on making a trip which the American Consul warned her was extremely dangerous. The sailor who was assigned to see her safely into the train remarked as they parted: “If [you] run into trouble, I fancy the bandits will be the ones to regret it.”
There are other clues to the inner woman, but all in all, the Duchess has managed to confine self-revelation to what she would like her public to believe. She has, of course, an irresistible story to tell; and even on the shallow plane on which she tells it, it remains immensely readable and highly dramatic.
Too much is not enough
Irresistible is also the operative word for the life of Alexandre Dumas, but Guy Endore has succeeded, through excess of zeal, in making a botch of it. His King of Paris (Simon & Schuster, $4.00) — a Book-ofthe-Month Club choice — is a horrendous example of the excesses of the biographical novel written (as the publishers put it) “in the high romantic style.” Dumas’s life was a flamboyant case of truth being sometimes stranger than fiction, and it happens to have been a life that is richly documented; but Mr. Endore, who has done script-writing in Hollywood, is clearly of the persuasion that too much is not enough. In an appendix which explains his modus operandi, he reasons as follows: So many delightful stories are known about Dumas that it’s safe to assume other and better ones have been lost. Why not dream them up? Sometimes Dumas, in his own anecdotes, omitted an “obvious” curtain line. Why not supply it? Shakespeare retouched his raw material, why not Endore? The only way of doing justice to Dumas, Endore claims, is to invent. “Lies?” he asks. “Well yes.”. And he goes on to quote the saying, “ Se non è vero, è ben trovato—if it isn’t true, at least, it’s a brilliant invention.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Endore’s extravagant untruths are emphatically not ben trovato; and the reams of imaginary dialogue in his novel are flatulent rubbish. Alexandre Dumas was a man who spectacularly overplayed himself. To overplay him further, as Endore has done, is literary lunacy.
Nun or nurse?
The Nun’s Slory (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $4.00) by Kathryn Hulme, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, is a true narrative of the dedicated life, written with luminous insight and at the same time with the tautness and the drive of a tale of physical adventure.
Miss JI dime’s affecting heroine is a young Belgian girl, a doctor’s daughter, who in the mid-nineteentwenties turned aside from marriage to enter a nursing order. The book follows her through the trials of her novitiate and of her medical studies; through her experiences as a nurse in the Congo and later in an asylum for the insane in Belgium; and finally through her involvement with the Nazis and the Dutch underground in the year 1940. Aside from the heroine, Sister Luke, three briefly sketched figures imprint themselves vividly on the reader’s mind — the Superior General; Mother Mathilde; and the brilliant Italian surgeon, Dr. Fortunati, an incorrigible infidel who is doing the work of a saint.
Throughout Miss Hulme’s story there flows a rising current of tension, generated by the fact that unquestioning submission to the Holy Rule, total consecration to God, calls for a discipline which sometimes conflicts with dedication to the service of human suffering. Sister Luke comes to perceive with painful insistence that, she is more nurse than nun; and when her all-too-human hatred for the Nazis cannot be subdued, she is confronted with the bitter recognition that to remain in the order would be hypocrisy — that her service to God must be out in the world.
Miss Hulme does not touch on the motives that impelled her heroine to become a nun, nor does she give any hint of what has happened to her in her new life. One’s sharp disappointment over these omissions is a measure of the author’s success in involving her readers in Sister Luke’s destiny.
Scandal in a coffin
That wonderfully clever satirist, Angus Wilson(The Wrong Set, Such Darling Dodos, Hemlock and After), has turned out his most ambitious novel to date: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (Viking, $4.50). The main protagonist, Gerald Middleton, is a distinguished medievalist in his early sixties; and the novel’s theme is his growing awareness that his life has been founded on a succession of subtly destructive moral failures — cowardly compromises and evasions, and muffled self-deceptions.
The events which bring about Middleton’s decisive shock of recognition have their roots in the startling discovery, made forty years earlier, of a pagan fertility figure in the coffin of a seventh-century Christian missionary, the Anglo-Saxon Bishop Eorpwald. As a young man, Middleton was given reason to suspect that the pagan figure had been “planted” during the excavations as a malicious hoax. But with a characteristic mixture of irresolution and bad conscience, he has failed in his duty as a scholar and has kept his suspicions to himself.
The continuing reverberations of the Eorpwald “mystery” in the scholarly world are made to serve as Wilson’s plot line; and it is too narrow a track on which to keep a novel containing forty-five characters, half a dozen major private dramas, and a far-ranging scrutiny of the English social scene. Mr. Wilson has managed, with enormous ingenuity, to cross-relate all of his characters and thereby to relate them, howsoever remotely, to the Eorpwald affair. But he has done so at the cost of more than a hint of contrivance.
Fortunately, in Wilson’s case, plotting is a decidedly secondary concern. It is the satiric portraiture and the brilliant rendering of social milieux which are the heart of the matter. Wilson’s characters are taken from a wide variety of social strata, and as many as a dozen of them, perhaps, are notable creations, drawn with a mixture of fiendish realism and inspired touches of fantasy. I especially remember Mrs. Salad, Middleton’s retired charwoman, an entrancingly comic old ruin who lets no one forget that in her youth she met the best class of people as Cloakroom Attendant at His Majesty’s Theater; Middleton’s Scandinavian wife, Ingeborg, a terrifyingly warmhearted creature with elephantiasis of the maternal instinct and a dropsical sentimentality; and the three flashy young delinquents, whose repulsive ways and tot al lack of shame have their hilarious aspects.
For all its corrosive edge, the novel is tinged with a compassion which is not noticeable in Wilson’s previous work; and the conclusion suggests a certain mellowing of his outlook. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, in sum, represents a distinct advance in the career of a writer with unusual resources of wit and intelligence — a writer, moreover, who is virtually incapable of producing a dull page.
The combination of scholarship and vivid readability that made Maria Bellonci’sLucrezia Borgia such an attractive biography is equally in evidence in A Prince of Mantua (Harcourt, Brace, $5.00), in which she chronicles the flamboyant life and times of Vincenzo Gonzaga, the rakish Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto.
The Sacrifice (Viking, $3.95) by Adele Wiseman — a first novel which unfolds the family saga of poor Jewish immigrants in a provincial town in Canada — comes to us bearing high-powered tributes from Saul Bellow and other writers. Perhaps the fact that, as the publishers justly claim, “it is a work without a grain of cynicism” is what prevented me from sharing fully the enthusiasm of Mr. Bellow and his confreres. But Miss Wiseman is clearly a new writer with, a substantial talent and a warmly human touch.
In Search of Adam (Houghton Mifflin, $6.50) by Herbert Wendt is a popularized account of the discoveries about the origins of mankind. The author surveys not only the whole development of the prehistoric and natural sciences but also the scientists involved, the climate of their times, and the furious scholarly rows in which most of them engaged. A large and lively affair.
Finally, to those who share my delight in parodies and burlesques, I strongly commend The Antic Muse (Grove, $1.25) edited by Robert P. Falk, who has assembled a collection of memorable take-offs on American writers past and present.