The Fountain Overflows (Viking, $5.00), Rebecca West’s first novel since 1936 and a Literary Guild selection, is a leisurely domestic chronicle narrated by an Englishwoman looking back on her childhood “more than fifty years ago.”Miss West tells us that the novel, which runs to 435 pages, was first conceived as “a very short story “ and just kept growing. “If I started to write a limerick,”she has remarked, “it would end up by being as long as Paradise Lost.” One rather wishes that her recognition of “my weakness" had prompted some remedial action. In The Fountain Overflows, though it has substantial qualities, one often feels that the author’s fountain is overflow ing.
The novel focuses on the life of the Aubrey family, which is rich in musical talent and embarrassingly short of money. Mr. Aubrey is a kind of genius manqué. Brilliant but erratic, he has been “ unfortunate “ in a number of positions and now, the editor of a small newspaper in a London suburb, he continues to lose his earnings in speculation and to win a national reputation as a polemical writer. To his wife and children, he is both a wonderful, romantic being and a harrowing problem.
Mrs. Aubrey, a gifted musician whose ambitions were long ago frustrated, has made music the most important element in her children’s lives. Mary and Rose, the narrator, are willing and promising victims of their mother’s relentless determination to make them great pianists. Even Richard Quinn, when hardly more than a baby, starts piping studiously on the flageolet. The household tragedy is that the eldest daughter, Cordelia, a ravishing girl with red-gold curls who plays the violin, cannot be made to see she has no real feeling for music. To the others, her playing is a “ blot on the family name"; to her, the family seems joined in a cruel conspiracy to discourage her from a career which represents the only possible escape from the bitter humiliations of genteel noverty.
Apart from the Aubreys’ indirect involvement in a notorious murder case, the novel’s texture is made up of the small happenings of everyday life. “The main theme,”Miss West explains, “might be said to be the way that human beings look at each other inquisitively, trying to make out what is inside the opaque human frame. Piers and Clare Aubrey loved each other but neither really knew how the other one thought and felt; Mary and Rose were divided from Cordelia. . . . They were all looking for clues to understanding.”
The novel struck me as one in which a writer of large talent held my attention by virtue of being possessed by her protagonists, but did not, in the final analysis, register any particular point. The book’s strengths, which are considerable, are the sensitive characterizations; the group portraiture of a vital and vivid family in the age of gaslight, feather boas, and William Morris wallpapers; and the felicity of the writing. However much Miss West overextends her material, her turn of phrase is a delight.
Americans at war
The Last Parallel(Rinehart,$3.95) by Martin Russ, a Book-of-theMonth Club selection, is in some respects unique among American war books. For one thing, as a record of combat experience, this journal of an American Marine in Korea has an unparalleled immediacy. It was kept up every few days and was submitted to the publisher in its original form written in pencil in GI notebooks.
But what is most unusual about it, for better or for worse, is that it does not register any particular protest. By and large, our picture of Americans at war has come to us from men who, though they may have been brave soldiers, were to some extent misfits or “soreheads": and who. understandably enough, wrote to communicate their horror of war and/or their indignation at the stupidities and injustices of the military system. Corporal (later Sergeant) Russ is a decidedly different type, He accepts, though conscious of its failings, the system which governs the Marine Corps: and he himself set out to be, and clearly became, a top-notch soldier. At one point he writes, “I’d rather be right here than anywhere else in the world. Whether I’m ready for the loony bin or not is beside the point .”
The book opens at a West Coast embarkation camp in August, 1952 — the author was then twenty-one. When it closes in September, 1953, he is boarding ship to return home for his discharge. With some interludes — leave in Seoul, a course in NCO school, a rest period in Kyoto — and some flashbacks, Russ’s journal is a record of service in the front line. It describes, often with diagrams made on the spot, night watches in forward bunkers 200 yards from the Chinese; patrols in no man s land ; the planning and execution of ambushes; sudden enemy attacks; “Diesels” (raids on enemy positions) and snatch-parties” (sorties to recover the bodies of dead Marines). So factual and sustained an account of small-scale action could easily become monotonous, but I seldom found it so. This is reportage of a caliber which makes you a participant: you are so completely there that when a patrol ends without incident you are sharply conscious of relief.
The Last Parallel is far from being predominantly grim. Many passages — about military life, encounters with girls, the author’s fantasiesare extremely funny. And the writing in which crisp, straightforward American is oddly peppered with jive idiom, bits of homemade pig Latin, and ordinary slang — has a lively and individual vein of humor.
The author gives us only scraps about his background, and his revelations of inner feeling do not go far. He often notes that he is “terrified,”and on two or three occasions, when a man is killed, he records in passing that he wept uncontrollably. But one finds him automatically volunteering for the most dangerous missions, and he is finally made leader of a unit known as the Captain’s “suicide I squad.” The most explicit clue to his make-up is a passage which goes: “When I [joined] the Marines this was a time when I was something of an idler, dissatisfied with the way things were — Mother remarked : ‘Oh? Flirting with death?' She is one of the few people who know that my life is one big acting problem, a Stanislavski improvisation.’ It would seem that as a Marine he found himself cast for the first time in a role worthy of all he could give to it. And he certainly played it with singular dedication and incredible courage.
Capote in Russia
Life often imitates art, but it is rare indeed for life to imitate a particular artist and invite him to report the proceedings. This is pretty much what happened when Truman Capote visited Russia along with the touring production of Porgy and Bess and its wondrously assorted entourage, which included Leonard Lyons, Mrs. Ira Gershwin (dripping mink, diamonds, and “darlings”), a New York financier, a stunning blonde ol eminently U-extraction, and an unhousebroken boxer puppy.
The things Capote saw, listened in on, and recorded in The Muses Are Heard (Random House, $3.00) are tinged with the surrealistic quality, with that hint of the zany and the fantastic, which one finds in Capote’s own fictional world — the bewildered reactions of the Negro “eats to the Russian “squares" (and vice versa); the comments on Marxland in jive talk; the wife of “Le Bing Crosby de Russie” who whispers to Capote on the dance floor, “ Room 520. Tell your friends to bring me shoes, stockings, things for close to the skin. I will buy anything“; the shopping expedition to Leningrad’s supposedly most “elegant” antique shop whose treasures turned out to be antique iceboxes and electric fans: the Radio Moscow man whose accent has Leonard Lyons dumfounded “ I keep wondering what he’s doing so far away from Lindy’s”; and Lyons urging the company’s Sportin’ Life to ask Bulganin or Khrushchev to be best man at his projected Moscow wedding, for which he has had made brown tails with champagne satin lapels and “shoes to match, natch.”
The Muses Are Heard—which opens with the “briefing” given to the party in Fast Berlin and closes after the Leningrad premiere ten days later—has more to it than entrancing fun. While Capote’s eye and earhave a radarlike sensitivity to the incongruous and the hilarious, they also dig the significant. What is dingy and nasty in Soviet life is revealed subtly and shrewdly, with a telling selectivity. Many an elaborately documented, long, and earnest volume on Russia has achieved a less telling image of the realities than Truman Capote’s slim and witty chronicle.
The human condition
Seize the Day (Viking, $3.00) by Saul Bellow, winner of the National Book Award with The Adventures of Augie March, contains a novella, three short stories, and a one-act play. Though dillerent in subject and tone, they all have, to some degree, a common denominator. Their world is one in which man is usually aware of his existence as dire pressure, frustration, entrapment - in one story, a welfare worker wanders desperately around a Chicago slum trying to deliver a relief check to a crippled Negro whom nobody admits to knowing; in another, a young chemist with money worries and a dangerously extravagant fiancée is suddenly overwhelmed by the sense that his personal aims count for nothing, that his destiny is merely to produce a dull son, a replica of his fiancée’s hateful father. But Bellow’s pieces also suggest —elliptically, to be sure, and rather obscurely - that the sense of subjection to an oppressive reality can be transcended; that truth of feeling, awareness, refusal to accept defeat can make man free.
By far the most interesting item in the volume is the novella, “Seize the Day” — a study of human weakness, striking in its fusion of terrible precision, wryly imaginative humor, and compassion. It describes a day of climactic desperation in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, forty-two but emotionally a child, a salesman who has lost his job, has alienated his wife, and has degenerated self-pityingly into “a slob.” Harried for money, and refused both sympathy and help by his successful father, he has entrusted the last of his cash to a glib charlatan, Dr. Tumkin, who has guaranteed him a killing on the commodity market. After all has been lost, Tommy drifts into an experience which jolts him into truly feeling his own suffering for the first time. The climax, which is apparently meant to show that Tommy has finally begun to find himself, is unconvincing to say the least. Otherwise, the novella is sharp and moving; and the raffish Dr. Tamkin, with his phony scientific patter and startling powers of invention, is an inspired Creation.
Japanese fiction, a newcomer to the American publishing scene, has made quite a showing this season. Two Japanese novels were discussed here in November, and now two more, plus an anthology, have put in an appearance. The Heiké Story (Knopf, $4.95) by Eiji Yoshikawa, a modern version of a medieval classic, is an immense novel of twelfth-century Japan. The opening of this century was a time of disorder in the capital, Kyoto, and of decadence at the Imperial Court. The great Fujiwara clan, which for three centuries had dominated Japan, installing and removing Emperors, was losing its authority; and the Buddhist Church had grown rich, corrupt, and aggressive. The Emperor now called on the two provincial warrior clans, the Genji and the Heiké, to restore order, which they did, only to go to war against each other in a long-drawnout struggle for power. Yoshikawa’s novel narrates the spectacular rise of Kiyomori of the Heiké (1118-1186), a great warrior who became the Emperor’s Chief Counsellor. It is a highly colored and tumultuous saga, densely packed with fighting, court intrigues and scandals, love affairs, and family feuds. I found it stirring Stuff for about 300 pages, but the next hundred struck me as pretty much the mixture as before, and at this point I had for the time being had enough. Those who don’t have to consume the novel in two or three sittings may well find that their appetite holds up keenly to the end.
Snow Country (Knopf: paperback, $1.25) by Yasunari Kawabata, which comes to us in a beautiful translation by Edward G. Seidensticker, is one of the finest short novels I have read since the war. It describes the three visits of Shimamura, a rich Tokyo dilettante, to a hot-spring in the west of Japan, the snowiest region in the world. Here a young geisha, Komako, becomes his mistress and falls in love with him. But Shimamura is a man who cannot give himself to realities; he has made the western dance his specialty precisely because he cannot see it. Komako’s sparkling freshness stirs him, and he is touched by the “irresistible sadness” she makes him feel, a sense of beauty going to waste and of imminent decay. But he cannot return her love; and their strange relationship, to which she gives so much, is doomed from the start. The natural setting — a felt presence hauntingly evoked — is made to play a dual role: it suggests the coldness and lonely grayness of life without love, and, in flashing images of beauty, it joins with Komako in setting up a counterpoint. The writing throughout is subtle, delicately moving, and full of striking imagery.
Those who, like myself, have been impressed with the qualities of Japanese writing and wish to explore it further can now cover a broad front in the anthology compiled and edited by Donald Keene: Modern Japa- nese Literature (Grove, $4.75). Mr. Keene, who is probably the outstanding American authority on Japanese letters, has included in his collection poetry and excerpts from novels and plays as well as short stories. Among the items of more immediate interest are further important samples of the work of two leading writers, Tanizaki and Dazai, already introduced to us with arresting novels; and two stories by the author whose Rashomon was made into such a memorable film, one of them being a version of the ancient tale brought to us in another great movie, Gate of Hell.
Of the latest first novels, I was most taken with The Mermaids (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $3.50) by Eva Boros, a Hungarian émigrée who writes in English and does so most seductively. A tragic, softly spellbinding tale of sickness and frustrated love, it has an aura of the romantic coupled with a queer and touching gaiety. At a café in pre-war Budapest, Aladar Brankovich, a “rejected husband” and melancholy businessman, meets a pretty peroxide blonde, a young Italian named Lalla, who turns out to be a t.b. patient in a sanatorium. She welcomes his visits and he falls in love with her; makes ardent plans to marry her and restore her to the world of health. But their strange idyl — lived amid the friendships, the tragedies, the pathetic festivities of the hospital world — is eventually punctured by the girl. And to Aladar there comes the shock of recognition not only that he has clothed her in illusions but that he has also unconsciously deceived both Lalla and himself.
Antonello da Messina (New York Graphic Society, $18.00) inaugurates a new series: “The Great Masters of the Past.” It carries a short, somewhat inadequate text by Stefano Bottari and 51 reproductions of very fine quality, 39 in color. A Sicilian by birth, Antonello (14301479) mastered the Flemish technique of painting in oil pigments and introduced it to Venice in 1475. He also introduced the portrait with the face in three-quarter v iew in place of the traditional Italian profile, a change which enlarged considerably the possibilities of psychological characterization. His most famous portrait, “Il Condottiere,” hangs in the Louvre, but magnificent examples of his work can be seen in museums in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.