UNTIL, a short time ago, I had never encountered a novel whose main protagonist was a club. Now two such novels, both pitched in a humorous key, have been published within a month of each other. John P. Marquand’s life at Happy Knoll (Little, Brown, $3.75) affect innately spoofs that famous American institution, the country club.The Club (Reynal, $3.50) by Andrew Graham chronicles the decline and fall of the True Blue in St. James’s Street, London.
Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary defined a club as “an assembly of good fellows meeting under certain conditions.” The conditions which characterize Happy Knoll and the True Blue are as different as is the aura of American sportswear from that of a bowler hat. But the dramas of clubland, it would seem, are universal. Most portentous are the dramas of the annual deficit and of the conflict between the traditionalists and the “younger element.” As an answer to the deficit, Bob Lawton, an advertising man w ho (as he might put it) is carrying the spear, progress wise, for Happy Knoll, suggests applying for tax-exempt status as an educational institution — a bridge course and nursery school, ho thinks, should do the trick. His British counterpart, a parvenu baronet, launches an explosive campaign for the installation of a “Cocktail Bar” done in an up-to-date style which Americans will recognize as Miami Beach Moderne. Another problem common to both clubs is the irremovability of the “faithful” old retainer, w ho is obviously a pest. Happy Knoll’s “lovable” Old Ned is probably the most incompetent bartender in the U.S.A., but his talent for eliciting confidences has given him a “half nelson" on even the most respectable members. The Steward of the True Blue, the Widow Wace, is justifiably suspected of crookery, but she holds her job by sacred right of inheritance and cannot be dismissed without a costly pension.
In both clubs, too, the administration is bedeviled by persons who make it their mission to be critics. Lydia Felton, for instance, hurls a broadside at the Board of Governors complaining, among other things, of the squalor of the ladies’ locker room and charging that “in spite of the desegregation triumphs in the South,” Happy Knoll persists in treating women as second class citizens. Colonel de la Tauderie (Retired) conducts, in scribbles on the back of the menu, incessant warfare with the True Blue’s chef: “Why feathers in the soup? Turbot tastes of mothballs. Need there be gnats in the peach flan?”
In addition to the above themes, Mr. Marquand’s novel (cast in the form of a series of letters) concerns itself with such critical issues as the increasing shortage of caddies and the increasing shortness of shorts; the riotous breakage at debutante parties; the raising of $2000 to prevent the “loyal” golf pro from deserting to a rival club. All of this is amusing stuff, but Life at Happy Knoll comes nowhere near The Late Georye Apley in finesse and penetration. It might be tidily summed up, I think, as pleasant country-club reading.
Mr. Graham has developed his subject in more telling detail and with a more pointed wit. His evocation of the True Blue — of its odor compounded of wet overcoats, kitchen smells, tobacco smoke, mice long dead in the ventilating tubes, and Attar of Old Member; its monstrosities of early Victorian taste; its cross section of late Georgian (1947) London clubmen; its special atmosphere (“The charm of this club is its Gloom”) — is authentic social satire, and there is choice entertainment here for those who relish the oddities of the British.
Forty million Frenchmen
The thesis that France’s collapse in 1940 was due to the rot ting of its moral fiber has been developed in many a book, but never with such brio and verbal brilliance as in The Taxis of the Marne (Simon & Schuster, $3.50) by Jean Dutourd, author of those stinging social comedies, A Dog’s Head and The Best Butter. “At certain unfortunate periods of history,” says Dutourd, “the Gallic temperament seems to have lost all its virtues and kept only its vices. We are living in one of those periods now.”
The author admits that when he surrendered to the Germans on June 25, 1940, he shared the ignoble sentiments prevalent among his countrymen: relief that the fighting was over and a willingness to welcome defeat as a short cut to the return of normalcy. (Later he escaped, fought with the Resistance, was recaptured and sentenced to death, and escaped again.) “The only thing our big battalions lacked,” he writes, “was courage, and courage was a word nobody ev en whispered. It might have been some shameful disease. . . . The vocation of this army was not for battle but captivity.” And of the present Dutourd says: “France now affects a detestable manner . . . the manner of the bad artist, the eternal Bohemian. . . . Everybody has become anticonformist . . . the bourgeois, the academicians, the soldiers, the nursemaids, the reactionary members of Parliament. . . . There was courage, before the war, in being anticonformist; one was attacking an established order of things. But today? What order is one attacking? For the past sixteen years, we have seen everything in the way of lunacy that disorder can bring.”
Dutourd’s analysis of the factors which allegedly caused France to cease to be a virile nation is the reverse of systematic. The ninety-two minute chapters into which his book is divided are in effect a succession of rapid salvos aimed every which way. The targets include “generals who had prospered like cockroaches between the disjoined floor boards of the Staff College”; the stupidities of politicians of every stripe; the erosion of patriotism by pacifist preachments; the perversion of the Gallic cult of intelligence into a glorification of cynical inertia; romantic distortions of history which transmogrified defeats into victories (“A complete theory about present day France could be developed under the title ‘Failure Considered as Success’”).
Dutourd savages the pre-war nationalists and conservatives as roughly as he does the sentimental humanitarians of the left; yet the militant patriotism which he speaks up for clearly has nationalistic and conservative overtones, and he is an idolatrous admirer of General de Gaulle. His argument is aimed in so many directions that inevitably it registers many telling hits, but the book remains confusing as an explanation of France’s decay. As a description and denunciation of that decay, however, it is a coruscating performance, packed with wit and splendid invective.
The Gallic virtues whose passing M. Dutourd so eloquently deplores were magnificently embodied in the late Madame Colette, currently the subject of a fine memoir by her widower, Maurice Goudeket. M. Goudeket was thirty-five and unknown, Colette over fifty and famous, when they were first drawn to each other, and their unlikely union proved a lifelong idyl. Goudeket’s book, Close to Colette (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $4.00), is remarkable both for its convincing and moving evocation of thirty years of con jugal happiness as complete as any man or woman could hope for, and for its loving but cleareyed close-up of a great writer who was also an extraordinary woman.
Colette, Goudeket writes, “was a product of the French soil at its purest, French to the finger tips, and a provincial above all. . . . With her the art of living came before the art of writing. There were so many arts which she had not lost. She knew a recipe for everything, whether it was for furniture polish, vinegar, orangewine, or quince water; for cooking truffles, or preserving linen and materials. . . . This country wisdom impregnates all her work just as her cupboards were always delicately fragrant. Looked at in one light, it would not even have displeased her if one talked of recipes for writing. . . . But just because . . . she had all the virtues of the French artisan . . . she always wrote as well as she possibly could.” The conclusion of Goudeket’s book, with its description of Colette’s last days and of her death, is a beautiful and memorable piece of writing.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Alger Hiss’s book, In the Court of Public Opinion (Knopf, $5.00), is its emotional restraint. The tone is unfailingly sober and legalist ic; the enormous drama of the affair is muffled; and virtually nothing is revealed about the private reactions of Hiss and his family to his ordeal. But despite its lack of color and of passion, it cannot but be fascinating to anyone who believes that there remain tantalizing puzzles in this cause célèbre. To the operative question: Does the book add anything new to the record as known to the general public? my answer would be, yes.
Of the main points in Hiss’s brief the most crucial are those which support his contentions that Chambers is a “pathological liar,” and that the typewritten documents, which clinched the case against him, were forged. On the first count, the record shows that Chambers’ testimony of “close association” with Hiss—initially hesitant and often incorrect — hardened into damaging detail only after he had, admittedly, been thoroughly briefed by the FBI about Hiss’s past and even shown photostats of Hiss’s bank accounts —a point to which the press failed to give due emphasis. But by far the most damning— to Chambers — of his numerous contradictions is his change, after production of the “pumpkin papers,” of the date of his break with the Party, a traumatic experience not easily forgotten by a man who has said it left him in terror of assassination. Chambers’ original testimony placed the break several months before the dates on the later documents.
Then too, in a case in which the truth, whatever it may be, is in the realm of the fantastic, one cannot but be struck by the fact that a novel translated by Chambers, Franz Werfel’s Class Reunion, described a pathological frame-up virtually identical with that of which Hiss claims to have been the victim.
The material which w ill be fresh to most readers is the evidence of alleged “forgery by typewriter” on which Hiss based his unsuccessful motion for a new trial. The core of this evidence, an extraordinary epilogue to an already incredible drama, is as follows: The Woodstock typewriter produced in court - apparently the one given away by the Hisses in the late 1930s — bears the serial number 200,099, which means that it could not have been manufactured before July, 1929; but the type face is of a style discontinued by the Woodstock company at the beginning of that year. Secondly, the Hiss machine was allegedly purchased by Mrs. Hiss’s father in 1928 and so could not be #200,099 (the FBI has taken possession of the records required to prove the date of purchase). This evidence strengthens Hiss’s claim that Chambers, working from Stolen papers typed on the Hiss machine, reproduced on Woodstock #200,099 a type face with the same characteristics - a procedure which experts have asserted is feasible. The contention, however, that #200,099 is a fake merely poses another set of baffling questions. If Chambers did not have access to the genuine Hiss machine, how could he count on its not being discovered? And if he did have access to it, why did he not use it to forge the documents — why go to the trouble of reproducing the type face on another machine?
There remain, of course, other serious weaknesses in Hiss’s defense, and there is sometimes a disconcerting evasiveness in his testimony. All that is certain is that Hiss is either one of the most accomplished liars in history or one of its most shamefully wronged martyrs. Even granted that he was guilty, there was a disgusting violation of judicial procedure and of the spirit of fair play in the conduct of the Un-American Activities Committee, the collusion of the FBI with Chambers and its hostility to the defense, the prejudgment of the case in much of the press, and the hysterical pressures brought to bear on judge and jury at the second trial. The record is not one to be proud of.
An English cause célèbre of a century ago has furnished Robert Graves with the materials of his newnovel, They Hanged My Saintly Billy (Doubleday, $4.95). Graves’s hero, Dr. William Palmer, a swindler, racehorse-doper, unscrupulous amorist, and confessed forger, was hanged for poisoning one John Parsons Cook and was suspected of having poisoned thirteen others, among them his own wife. Mr. Graves, a maverick if ever there was one — I can imagine him seeking to demonstrate, with vast and esoteric erudition, that two and two do not equal four—has tried to show, in his painstaking reconstruction of Palmer’s life, that saintly Billy “never killed nobody.” The novel, as Graves observes, “is full of sex, drink, incest, suicides, dope, horse racing, murder, scandalous legal procedures . . . and ends up with a good public hanging — attended by 30,000.” Graves has told his lively story in the form of monologues by Palmer’s contemporaries. He has made mid-nineteenth century England as vivid and immediate as the present.
Aficionados of the poison theme might also take note of another lurid tale founded on historical fact: The Devil’s Marchioness (Dial, $4.95), a first novel by William Fifield, winner of an O. Henry short-story prize. The setting is the France of Louis XIV, and the heroine the Marquise de Brin villiers, a strong-willed woman who married an ineffectual gambler. The first of her lovers was a sinister amateur alchemist, and she later drew on his resources to poison her father and to have her two brothers poisoned. She and her hireling were eventually executed after hideous tortures, which Mr. Fifield describes with clinical precision.
Zoé Oldenbourg, author of two outstanding historical novels (The Cornerstone, The World Is Not Enough), has now written her first work of fiction with a contemporary setting, and it belongs among the handful of novels of some stature published to date this year. The Awakened (Pantheon, $4.95) is a long book which remains steadily focused on a young girl’s conflict between love and loyalty to her father; the milieu is the world of émigrés and refugees in Paris in the years leading up to the Second World War. Stephanie Lindberg — seventeen-year-old daughter of a cultivated and stiffnecked Jew, a fanatical convert to Catholicism—falls in love with a young man named Ilya, the son of a White Russian officer who has sunk to working as a laborer and has left his family to live in squalor with his mistress. Stephanie’s father refuses to consent to a marriage which he considers a disgraceful misalliance, and he forbids his daughter to go on seeing Ilya. Her love for the young Russian is too intense to be resisted, but her upbringing exerts a tormenting counterpull. The denouement is at once unpredictable and stamped with inevitability: the creation of a true artist. Miss Oldenbourg is a writer of keen sensitivity and impressive honesty.
The Interplay of East and West (Norton, $3.50) by Barbara Ward consists of three lectures she delivered at McGill University. Miss Ward starts out by urging us to remember that for the past four or five hundred years it is the West, now so concerned about Communist pressure on its frontiers, which from the standpoint of the rest of the world has been the arch aggressor. She proceeds to make a lucid analysis of why the Eastern countries distrust Western free enterprise and are receptive to Soviet propaganda. And she concludes with suggestions for a more constructive approach on the part of the West to its relations with the East. There is nothing particularly arresting in what she has to say, but her discussion is consistently sane and large in spirit.