Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (New Directions, $6.50) is a title that promises the forced marriage of irrelevant subjects, a feat by no means beyond the powers of Henry Miller, whose mind has always had something of the capacity of an electroplating vat. Anything that goes into it comes out with a good heavy coat of Miller, first quality, high polish, and lifetime guarantee, and in that respect becomes related to everything else that has gone into it, no matter how dissimilar the objects were to begin with.
The Millerplate process is neither violent nor obvious, however, in his new book. Bosch’s oranges are used primarily as a metaphor. The literal subject is simply Big Sur, where the author has been living since 1944. This beautiful, wild, empty country, uncluttered by the more useless refinements of civilization and populated by self-reliant individualists (necessarily— nobody else could survive), delighted Mr. Miller from the first. The selling and the people both conform remarkably well to his pantheistic view of the world as a system “of indestructible order, beauty, harmony, which it is our privilege to accept as a paradise or convert into a purgatory.”
Once he has explained Bosch’s oranges as the symbol of the ideal world, and established Big Sur as its nearest earthly counterpart, Mr. Miller proceeds with sketches of his neighbors and descriptions of his own misadventures. As a man sorely tried by circumstance, he fancies himself in a martyr’s crown; as an irrepressible humorist and critic, he cannot resist pointing out that it’s a poor fit and unsuited to the backdrop. The double view, with its sudden shifts from genuine pain to bizarre comedy, does not apply to the other residents of the district. Mr. Miller is pleased by anyone with the courage to be himself. He may detest the result, but the act itself commands his interest and respect. Since there are no stinkers regularly domiciled at Big Sur, his accounts of his fellow citizens are affectionate, enthusiastic, bubbling with perceptive appreciation of each person’s peculiar gifts.
The one real horror in the book is Mr. Miller’s own responsibility. Learning that an old, not particularly intimate acquaintance was virtually starving in Europe, he exerted himself to raise some money and import this broken-down astrologer to California, with the idea of maintaining him, modestly but adequately, at Big Sur. Once rooted in Miller’s house, the man proved to be a touchy, ailing neurotic, for whom no kindness was ever enough, no attention sufficient, no cure effective. The affair became a confused disaster, through which Mr. Miller picks his way with ironic brilliance, revealing his own bafflement and the character of his albatross with terrible precision.
A good part of the book seems to have been tossed together, the author, in an unusually mellow mood, simply following his nose around Big Sur, but the section on his troublesome guest is a small masterpiece. It is appallingly alive, tightly organized, penetrating, and it never wavers from that colloquial, conversational prose that is one of Mr. Miller’s finest achievements. It looks so casual, and il can accomplish, as it does here, such subtleties of both meaning and emotion.
The bloody-minded tyrant
In Tiberius, the Resentful Caesar (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, $3.75), Gregorio Marañón undertakes to reveal the character of this efficient but unattractive emperor and to explain how it developed. Dr. Marañón is a psychiatrist, a classical scholar, and a medical man. He brings his experience in all three fields to bear on his subject and, assuming that the translation of Warren Bradley Wells follows the original Spanish precisely, not a word of professional dialect is taken from any of them.
Dr. Marañón begins with a description of the resentful man as a type, in terms drawn largely from ethical and religious doctrine, and then discusses the respects in which Tiberius fits the pattern. To do so requires a fairly detailed exposition of the affairs of the imperial house, which make the most enterprising revelations of Confidential sound like a Sundayschool picnic. Even so, Dr. Marañón takes a conservative view on poisoning, insisting that most of the sudden deaths among those who outranked Tiberius in the succession were natural, caused by disease, debauchery, and the unquestionable physical degeneracy of both the Julian and the Claudian families.
The basic deficiency of the resentful man, according to Dr. Marañón, is an incapacity for affection, generosity, and forgiveness, usually combined with lack of imagination or inventiveness and frequently with sexual timidity. If life treats such a type well, he may be an inoffensive and even technically a good man. If it treats him badly, his anger piles up unrelieved by any outward expression and undiminished by time, for he has the memory of an elephant. If he finally attains a position of uncontested authority (the only position in which he has the courage to act), all hell may be expected to break loose. The author makes a persuasive case for accepting Tiberius as such a man.
Like most biographers with a thesis, Dr. Marañón has been obliged to pick and choose among his sources. Along with the traditional phials of poison he has jettisoned the stories of Tiberius’s exotically lecherous old ago in Capri and a few other defamatory items, arguing that they represent not fact, but feeling — the hatred of the Romans for their emperor. Where other historians have drawn inconvenient, conclusions from Homan portrait heads, Dr. Marañó dismisses sculpture as unreliable evidence. He cheerfully uses sculptural evidence himself when it supports his own case. Throughout, he accepts responsibility for his conclusions with refreshing boldness. The elaborate entrenchments of quotation from other scholars, the breastworks of Freudian reference, the artillery of footnotes are not for Dr. Marañón. He sallies out, alone and unsupported, to make his case on Latin records and his own observations. Agree with him or not, it’s a real satisfaction to come upon a biographer who assumes that his readers are more interested in his ideas than in the number of books he has read.
Revolutions in tropical climates
P. H. Newby, who usually writes satirical novels about the inability of well-intentioned people to comprehend each other’s merits, has complicated his formula by introducing into Revolution and Roues (Knopf, $3.50) a love atfair that, in the hands of a less clever author, would raise horrid memories of The Sheik. It’s a risk, and he just barely gets away with it.
The story is set in Alexandria, during the few days between the outbreak of revolution and King Farouk’s departure from Egypt. A resident Englishman smuggles into the country an English lady journalist who has no entry permit but, finding herself on vacation in the neighborhood of a revolution, determines to cover it. Her idea is to be promoted from the woman’s page. His idea is to be helpful. His Greek wife is charmed by any break in her domestic routine. Her parents are appalled but too sunk in their private obsessions to take action. The Egyptian officer who should be arresting the lady falls madly in love with her on sight.
What with the Egyptian’s clumsy attempts at English courtship and the lady’s clumsier attempts to play foreign correspondent, chaos comes to a boil in no time. Mr. Newby shifts rapidly from high comedy to burlesque to melodramatic suspense, always preserving a pseudo-pedantic precision of style which holds his disparate episodes together and somehow, heaven knows why, makes them believable.
Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World (Knopf, $3.00), translated by Harriet de Onís, is a short novel, ostensibly about revolution, and it is as different from Newby’s story as south from north, and very nearly as poetry from prose. Mr. Carpentier’s handling of his materials is, in fact, basically poetic. His emphasis is arbitrary. He condenses, compresses, crams into a sentence what a naturalistic novelist would blow up into half a book, omits acres of description but evokes a whole countryside from one leaf, and piles up trivialities which assume unexpected and powerful meanings. He creates a brilliant, improbable world which has the stylized reality of the great myths.
Specifically, the book is about Haiti from the French colonial period through the fantastic rule of Henri Christophe and on to something foreshadowing the present day. Ti Noël, who begins as a slave and ends as a vagabond, is the figure holding the story together. Ignorant, shrewd, dream-haunted, and practical, he observes the world. What he sees is a series of extraordinary enterprises that end in failure. The greedy violence of the French colonists, summed up in a wonderful comparison between wax models displaying wigs at the barber’s and the waxy pigs’ heads in the butcher’s window next door, fails. The African magic of the first revolt, calling up old gods and the ghosts of kings “whose horses went adorned with silver coins and embroidered housings . . . bearing the thunder on two drumheads that hung from their necks,” fails. The glittering Pauline Bonaparte tries to adapt magic to her European purposes, with no success. Henri Christophe’s imported European logic and luxury vanish in the smoke of his burning palace. Even anarchic individualism fails, for Ti Noël, in his old age, makes a serious try at joining a flock of geese, who haughtily refuse to admit him.
In a moment of revelation, Ti Noël perceives that failure is unimportant : “man’s greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is. . . . In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no grandeur to be won, inasmuch as there all is an established hierarchy, the unknown is revealed, existence is infinite, there is no possibility of sacrifice, all is rest and joy. For this reason, bowed down by suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of his misery, capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, man finds his greatness, his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of this World.”
Wigged fossils of justice
Although it was written as part of the current campaign against capital punishment in England, Arthur koestler’s Reflections on Hanging (Macmillan, $4.50) is pertinent here, for the United States and France are the only Western nations besides Great Britain that still hold by the public executioner. Mr. Koestler once spent three months in a Spanish jail under sentence of death as a spy. It left him with “a vested interest in capital punishment.”
The arguments against hanging put forward by Mr. Koestler are not new : that it is barbarous, that it is unchristian, that if the murderer is a criminal the state that legally murders him is equally so, that it cannot discourage the crime because almost all murders are done out of insanity, imbecility, uncontrollable rage, or sheer accident, and finally that any miscarriage of justice is irretrievable. These points have been made before, but can seldom have been advanced with more conviction or a heavier supply of confirming evidence. The author’s barely restrained fury does not preclude flashes of macabre humor. The arguments of English judges in defense of hanging, exactly the same in 1956 as in good King George’s glorious days and unsupported by events in countries which have abolished the death penalty, rouse him to gleeful invective against “this chain of Abominable Snowmen . . . a conspiracy of wigged fossils.
Mr. Koestler is sometimes highhanded with figures. What boots it that in the year X, England hanged twenty men while Denmark hanged two, unless one also knows the total population of each country at the time? When it comes to matters of principle, however, Mr. Koestler is lucid and scrupulous, and it is the ethical and philosophical side, of the question which is truly important. The discussion of criminal responsibility turns into a debate on free will and predestination, and ends In proving capital punishment unjustified from either point of view. Even a hangman could hardly fail to admire this impassioned ingenuity.
Outwitting the brainwashers
In 1950 Robert Ford, an English radioman, was working for the Tibetan government, operating one of the country’s two radio stations and training some young men from India who would eventually take over radio in Tibet, for the Tibetans did not intend to become slaves to their two European technicians. Wind Between the Worlds (McKay, $4.50) is Mr. Ford’s story of what happened when the Chinese Communists marched in to “liberate Tibet from American and British imperialism.”
Half the book is devoted to this pitiful little war. Mr. Ford, who liked the Tibetans, watched with dismay while his friends put up larger prayer wheels and burned more incense, apparently giving no thought to weapons or transport. There were some men of a more practical turn of mind, and a couple of commanders who fought cannily and well, but on the whole the result was just what might have been expected. During the rout.
the Chinese scooped up Mr. Ford and carted him off to prison, where they charged him with espionage, murder, and ot her degenerate capitalist habits.
Mr. Ford describes his five years in various Chinese jails with a curious lack of emphasis. It is possibly quite unintentional, but he gives the impression of feeling a contempt so profound that it has produced a sort of paralysis of other emotions. He was, of course, horribly frightened, for the charge of espionage, though unfounded, was obviously reasonable from the Chinese point of view. He was ill, humiliated, tormented by solemnly idiotic instructions in proper Communist thinking, threatened and locked up in conditions that would have depressed a half-witted dog. He was never physically abused, however, and some of his captors seem to have been inspired by sincere missionary zeal. Taking advantage of their soulsaving ambitions and a fortunate loosening of international tension, Mr. Ford lied his way out.
It would be exaggerating to call Wind Between the Worlds a high point among the many accounts of Communist captivity, but it adds its unpretentious testimony to the indictment. It also demonstrates, reassuringly, that a clever and stubborn man can coöperate with the brainwashers and outwit them.
The ten stories in Irwin Shaw’s latest collection, Tip on a Dead Jockey (Random House, $3.95), are united by a neat, reserved style which, if it takes no risks, certainly makes no errors, and by unusually amusing dialogue. The author balances between conversation that is possible and therefore hideously dull and conversation that is wildly witty and therefore improbable. He manages to combine the best of both types every time.
Although the stories as a group do not reveal any single overwhelming preoccupation on the writer’s part, it is noticeable that Mr. Shaw leans toward stories about opportunities missed through too much caution, and stories about jealous women, He is not above a story or two about adolescents Facing Adult Reality, a theme which deserves a rest. He branches out into a comically sympathetic study of romantic delusion, a burlesque protest against the overorganized modern world, and a bit of supernatural suspense. The supernatural — or, at least, supernormal — story is the only one that misses fire; not even Mr. Shaw can revive this bloodless corpse, which was worn out years ago. Altogether, Tip on a Dead Jockey is a well-balanced collection, positively not one of those books in which the author unloads ten versions of the same story.