The Town (Random House, $3.95) by William Faulkner is the second installment of a trilogy devoted to the rise of the reptilian Snopes clan in Faulkner’s mythical Yoknapatawpha county. Its predecessor,The Hamlet, described the arrival of the Snopeses in Frenchman’s Bend, a rural settlement near Jefferson, and their demoralization of the district. At the opening of the present novel (some years before the First World War), Flem Snopes, in whom the family’s “long tradition of slow and invincible rapacity” has reached its fullest flowering, has moved in on Jefferson. The crucial elements in the Snopeses’ past are somewhat cryptically recapitulated, and those who have not read The Hamlet may sometimes find it hard to keep their bearings. Otherwise, The Town is one of Faulkner’s most accessible novels. By which I mean that its quota of characteristic obscurities is only moderately annoying and not — as in A Fable, for instance — intolerably oppressive.
Three narrators (all of whom appear in other books of Faulkner’s, as do most of the other characters) take turns at addressing the reader. One is the garrulous lawyer-philosopher, Gavin Stevens, graduate of Harvard and Heidelberg, an oldfashioned champion of decency and honor, who represents the conscience of Jefferson. A second is Stevens’ nephew, Charles Mallison, not born at the novel’s opening, who is telling what he learned of the Snopes saga in his boyhood. The third is the former sewing-machine salesman, V. K. Ratliff, a shrewd, likable commentator, whose humorous folk idiom pitches his version of the events in the comic key.
From this three-cornered perspective, the novel — episodic in structure, likeThe Hamlet— recounts the maneuvers by which Flem Snopes, in the course of two decades, crawls onward and upward to a dominant position in Jefferson. His wife’s lover, Mayor de Spain, creates for him the office of power-plant superintendent, and he puts into operation a devious scheme for stealing the brass fittings of the power plant. On this occasion his skulduggery does not pay off. But when de Spain succeeds Colonel Sartoris as president of the bank, Flem (who has tricked or forced his hostile fatherin-law into voting his stock for do Spain) is quietly slipped in as vice president. And eventually—by means of an intricate and infinitely base scheme of blackmail — Flem takes the bank presidency from de Spain, gets him forced out of town, and becomes the owner of his stately mansion.
There emerges from the novel, rather more clearly than in much of Faulkner’s work, a theme that is central to his moral vision. Flem Snopos is the symbol of what Faulkner finds most detestable in the modern world. His dehumanized rapacity is worse than plain meanness and more dangerous than the lust for money and power, for it also includes the lust for respectability. A Gavin Stevens (and what he stands for) cannot stop Flem. When Stevens catches Flem treacherously engineering the eviction from Jefferson of two of his (Snopes’s) scandalous kinsmen, he has no choice but silent complicity; for Stevens’ code demands that he save Jefferson’s good name from being soiled by the Snopeses. But Flem has his profound weakness: like that other memorable Faulknerian symbol of evil, Popeye, he is sexually impotent. And Gavin’s success in rescuing from Flem his wife’s illegitimate child, who has grown into an enchanting young girl, appears to symbolize that some part of the future can be saved from the evil that Flem represents.
An American Odyssey
One Life (Simon & Schuster, $5.00) — the life is that of Wendell Willkie — is a poet’s boldly imaginative excursion into the realm of biography. Muriel Rukevser describes her book as “a story and a song.”It combines the methods of biography and drama with numerous passages of poetry, and with documentary techniques similar to those used in the “Camera Eye” and “Newsreel” sections of Dos Passos’ U.S.A.
Miss Rukeyser sees Willkie as a representative figure, “brought up in the tradition we know—a double tradition, full of opposites.” Son of a schoolmaster turned lawyer, Willkie spent his childhood amid the excitement and fierce turmoil of a boom town. When the tin workers went on strike and the company called in strikebreakers, Willkie’s father
— called “ Hellfire” — defended the union. Chosen to deliver the class oration at his graduation from law school, Wendell created a scandal; “most radical speech I ever heard,” said one of the authorities. But presently Willkie was a young executive, relentlessly fighting the TVA, affirming that “money is power,” and becoming a hero to executives; then a corporation president, an all-out slugger for the utilities, a supersalesman of private enterprise; and suddenly a political candidate, campaigning for the highest office and becoming “unreal to himself.” And now, after defeat and recoil, he made “the imaginative leap . . . the other movement — toward the world, around the world, into the world.”What he did, after returning from his global trip, says Miss Rukeyser, “ was to give the folks back home the sensation of reality.”
Miss Rukeyser has, in effect, presented Willkie’s life as a contemporary Odyssey in which the protagonist is an American Everyman who eventually grows to heroic stature. The new biographical form she has created — its effects recall those ancient forms, the epic and the ballad — is well suited to her purpose. It eloquently dramatizes what is characteristically American in her subject’s experience and brings into poetic relief the universal values which are at stake.
But Miss Rukoyser’s approach, applied to a controversial figure such as Willkie, has serious liabilities. The emotional key in which her story-song is pitched — though it does not prevent her from showing Willkie’s shortcomings — does preclude a cool and searching analysis of them. It is disconcerting to find the trip to Russia, on which Willkie was so monumentally hoodwinked by Stalin, described in glowing accents. The presentation of Willkie’s oneworldism is consistently and exaltedly rhapsodic, though the record suggests — even to one who admired Willkie for making a timely and courageous contribution to internationalism — that in his utterances on global affairs there was not a little foolishness and irresponsibility.
In sum, Miss Rukeyser has been carried away by fuzzy thinking and idealization. Her book must betaken as a celebration of a man’s conversion to what Miss Rukeyser believes to be the Light. And as such One Life belongs, for better and for worse, in the upper echelons of inspirational literature.
Books and men
Background with Chorus (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $3.75) by Frank Swinnerton is a ramble down memory lane, the lane in question being literary England in the first seventeen years of the century. This is a scene which has been revisited in so many memoirs that it is a triumph on Mr. Swinnerton’s part to have come up with a book so well stocked and so delightful.
Swinnerton, who began his varied literary career as a publisher’s office boy in 1901, is a modest and goodtempered observer, endowed with freshness of perception, discernment, and a gift for felicitous phrasing. His book contains intimate, tangy pages or paragraphs about most of the leading writers of the period and others who made their names later. Among them are Meredith, Hardy, Chesterton, Belloc, Bennett, Wells, Shaw, Henry James (“a mystic dealing tortuously, not with the divine, but with the mundane”), Conrad ("His readiness to take offense was beyond that of even English-born authors”), Walpole, Galsworthy, Compton Mackenzie, D. H. Lawrence, and Katherine Mansfield ("She said, almost from between closed lips: ‘One doesn’t know whether to have dozens of children, or devote oneself altogether to art.’ I forget what I advised in this curious dilemma”).
Mr. Swinnerton’s fund of anecdotage is capital stuff, He draws fascinating sketches of tastemakers, forgotten now, but once prominent or notorious—adventurous editors, great publishers, flamboyant literary journalists. Above all, he projects with zest the wonderfully spirited atmosphere that permeated the English world of letters.
In his youth, Swinnerton recalls, periodicals “dealing with new books as if new books were important . . . were very nearly innumerable.” The prestige, social and otherwise, of authorship was immensely greater than it is nowadays; and critics and reviewers were then more powerful, more ferocious, decidedly less scrupulous and considerably more entertaining. The heinous practice of multiple reviewing (made possible by the anonymity of most critical columns) was far from uncommon. Andrew Lang wrote no fewer than twenty notices puffing a romance of his friend, Rider Haggard; Conan Doyle discovered that the six reviews which described his cherished comedy, A Duet, as immoral were all the product of the same hand. The literary world was, in effect, a battleground. Plots were hatched, feuds flourished, and critics were sometimes physically assaulted by authors they had flayed. But the ties of friendship, too, between writers and between bookmen were more widespread and stronger than they are today.
In some respects the literary world is a better place now, and in some respects a worse one; what is certain is that it is less lively and less passionate. A memoir like Swinnerton’s brings home to us how much of the excitement generated by books, how much of the importance attached to letters, has been drained off by the cinema, the radio, television, and social change.
Brian Moore lends support to a theory of mine — based on Oscar Wilde, G.B.S., Joyce, Scan O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, the iconoclastic Samuel Beckett, and several other Irish expatriates — that the surest way of becoming a good writer is to be born in Ireland and in due course to leave it. (Excellent writers have stayed in Ireland — Yeats, Synge, O’Faolain, for example—but they are decidedly outnumbered by the talented exiles.) Mr. Moore (currently a resident of Montreal), who wrote that remarkable first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, has now passed the hurdle of the second novel without a stumble. His title, The Feast of Lupercal (AtlanticLittle, Brown, $3.75), is taken from the ancient Roman festival in which expiatory rites were followed by the invocation of fertility; and it has ironic overtones. For it is sterility — the sterility, as Moore sees it, of life in Ireland — which is the theme of his beautifully realized story.
Diarmuid Devine, a teacher in a Catholic boys’ school in Belfast, is a shy and shabby bachelor in his late thirties, pathetically inhibited with women. He is secretly yearning to find a nice, encouraging girl when he meets Una Clarke, the pretty niece of a colleague. Her eagerness to join his theatrical group brings them together and he falls in love with her. But not believing that she can see anything in him except a helpful drama coach, he takes her warmth and spontaneity toward him as tormenting proof of the rumor that she (a Protestant) is a “fast” girl, whose parents have sent her away from Dublin because of an affair with a married man. His emotional astigmatism and the malicious gossip aroused by their meetings lead him into a series of mistakes which end in tragic frustration.
The word “compassion” — as Edmund Fuller points out m a brilliant article in the American Scholar — has of late been glibly misapplied to novels which sentimentalize and glorify incorrigibly antisocial and criminal types, while treating normal citizens with positive vindictiveness. What makes Mr. Moore’s portrayal of Diarmuid Devine moving is genuine compassion (the feeling of another’s plight and pain as if it were one’s own, the sharing of all human guilt) for a decent but inadequate man, so much a prisoner of his guiltridden fears that he cannot recognize integrity and accept the love he so desperately needs. There is just this to add: the secondary characters are admirably drawn; the handling of scene and incident is convincing throughout; and the comic elements in the novel are skillfully made to heighten its poignancy.
The Seraglio (Knopf, $3.95), a first novel by James Merrill, is also (at least in part) the story of an inadequate man, damaged by his background, who retreats from love and sex. In this instance, the background is one of supercolossal wealth and picturesque indulgence of the libido. The twenty-five-year-old narrator, Francis Tanning, is the youngest child of an aged American tycoon, supposedly an invalid but still vigorous enough to continue in his lifelong role of amorous potentate, surrounded by women — ex-wives, mistresses, nearmistresses, friends, a nurse, a visiting European sculptress. The principal setting is the old multimillionaire’s Long Island mansion, and there are scenes in New York, Rome, and Jamaica.
Mr. Merrill’s narrator is an ineffectual, aimless sort of rebel against his background, especially against his relatives’ unquestioning respect for the accumulation of more money. Francis’ attempt to come to terms with life is the central theme of the story, and the author’s handling of it seemed to me faltering and unsatisfactory. Where, however, he shows considerable talent is in his ironic, subtly nuanced, and highly individual depiction of an extravagant world seldom treated in serious American fiction.
James Merrill has shown, entertainingly and with authority, what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he said to Hemingway: “The very rich are different from you and me.”
In his third novel, The Homecoming Game (Simon & Schuster, $3.50), Howard Nomerov has dramatized with feeling, humor, and precision the dilemma of a man of principle fortuitously caught up in a shoddy conflict with sinister ramifications. Charles Osman — associate professor of history in a good, smallish, coeducational college—has given a failing grade to the star of the football team, who will thereby he prevented, by the college rules, from playing in the season’s most important game. Osman suddenly finds himself pressured to change the grade from a variety of sources, among them his respected friend, the college president, and two powerful alumni of the Neanderthal stripe. When the issue has reached grotesque proportions, the football star further complicates the moral conflict in which Osman is involved by revealing startling reasons for not wishing to appear in the game.
The Homecoming Game is ingeniously plotted, and the ideas at work are tellingly expressed through the characterizations in an ironic key. Some implausible notes are struck, but the book has wit, dash, and point.
Geoffrey Cotterell is a young novelist whom English critics have compared to Thackeray, Arnold Bennett, and Somerset Maugham. His Strait and Narrow was a Book Society choice; his Westward the Sun a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. What disappointed mo about his new novel, The Strange Enchantment (Lippincott, $4.95), is that Mr. Cotterell seems to have settled cozily into the groove of the expert craftsman, the popular novelist of high competence who works from the conventional blueprints for the “wellmade" novel. His book is certainly a skillful piece of storytelling, but I had hoped, perhaps mistakenly, for something more, for signs of the artist’s hand — some freshness of perception, some originality of vision.
The Strange Enchantment, which opens in an English seaside town in 1898, centers on the life of Isabel Rowland, who at a very early age wins local fame as a prodigy at the piano. The death of her father leaves the family with insufficient income for Isabel to complete her musical studies
— her brother has to be t rained for a profession — and her prospects of a great career are shattered. She marries a naval officer, who is killed in the First World War. Her second husband, a Gorman who takes her to live in Berlin, turns out to be an adventurer who married her for her few hundred pounds, which represented a fortune in inflation-ridden Germany. Isabel’s misfortunes mount to a tragic climax, and on the very last page an explanation is produced for the pattern of her life — we are told that she was one of those people who unconsciously court disaster and take pride in being unhappy. The trouble is that this insight has not been persuasively built into the fabric of the novel. In fact, so far from suggesting that masochism has brought upon Isabel her persistent bad luck, Mr. Cotterell at times gives the impression that it is he, the author, who is sadistically stacking the cards against his heroine.
The Black Obelisk (Harcourt, Brace, $4.50) by Erich Maria Remarque is also a novel in which competence is all. Mr. Bemarque has returned to his youthful experiences in Germany after the First World War. The setting is a provincial town, and the young hero, Ludwig Bodmer, is — as Remarque was — a former schoolteacher employed as a tombstone salesman; an amateur poet, and a part-time organist in an insane asylum.
The story, which carries him through the fantastic year of runaway inflation, 1923, is filled with bizarre happenings and robust comedy; and it is on the whole an engrossing affair. But it is unnecessarily long — repetitiousness sets in after the halfway mark — and the vision behind it is essentially sentimental and superficial. The philosophizing which Remarque puts into his characters’ dialogue is stereotyped stuff — the kind of mildly cynical knowingness which impresses sophomores as sophistieated insight.
What William Faulkner mercilessly said of an earlier novel of Remarque’s — that it was probably created “to sell among the heathen like colored glass” — has its application to The Black Obelisk. It might be defined as colored glass of the very best quality.
Poets, painters, and places
“I have endeavoured,” says Gilbert Highet in his Introduction to Poets in a Landscape (Knopf, $6.50), “to recall some of the greatest Roman poets by describing the places where they lived, re-creating their characters and evoking the essence of their work. This book is meant for those who love Italy, and for those who love poetry.” Mr. Highet, who among other things is Anthon Professor of Latin at Columbia University, has produced, to borrow a word from the hucksters, an unusual and attractive “package,” in which one finds biographical portraits of seven poets (Catullus, Vergil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal); accounts of two great love affairs (those of Catullus and Clodia, Propertius and Cynthia) which have been immortalized in verse; a travelogue through Roman Italy illustrated with forty-eight photographs taken by the author; and what amounts to an anthology of Latin poetry, translated by Highet as nearly as possible in the exact meter of the original.
Professor Highet is a scholar of vast learning in whom the gifts of a good pedagogue are reinforced by those of a professional entertainer: a born storyteller, he makes whatever he touches engrossing. The pedagogue in him has a tendency, which I find jarring, to indulge in moralizing of the order of “Ovid is wicked”; and the entertainer sometimes plays down to his audience. But the operative point is that in Poets in a Landscape he has produced a book which is both scholarly and inviting. The biographies are crisp and rich in human interest, the critical discussion is lucid and illuminating, the evocation of place sharp and suggestive.
Men and Monuments (Harper, $5.00) brings together five distinguished pieces, all of them connected with art, which Janet Flanner, the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent since 1925, wrote for that magazine. Three are profiles of the old masters of contemporary painting — Braque, Matisse, and Picasso. One is a profile of André Malraux — novelist, soldier, adventurer, politician, and philosopher of art — who has been aptly described as “a man restricted to the heights of experience,” The fifth item is a fascinating account of the looting of art by the Nazis in the occupied countries, and of the restoration of this property — “several hundred thousand items” — to its rightful owners by the twenty-five-man SHAEF group known as Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives. Miss Flanner’s book is further proof that, in the field of magazine reportage and comment on the cultural scene, she has exceedingly few peers.