IN Islam Inflamed (Pantheon, $.5.00), James Morris undertakes to describe conditions in the Middle East as they were last November, precisely at the moment of the abortive Anglo-French-Israeli coup in Sinai. Mr. Morris, formerly correspondent for the London Times and now working for the Manchester Guardian, is an experienced observer of Middle Eastern affairs. His insistence on confining his report to such a limited date evidently springs from the belief that almost all conditions in the area are temporary and may have vanished like snow upon the desert’s dusty face before publication day.
Beginning in Egypt, Mr. Morris works around the eastern Mediterranean and down the Arabian peninsula, summarizing the history of each country or protectorate, describing the people, and discussing the immediate economic position and political alignment. This sounds like solid and stolid fare, but as readers of Mr. Morris’s earlier book, The Sultan in Oman, are already aware, he writes with such verve that he can make even statistics about oil barrels entertaining.
Mr. Morris has the qualities of a good travel writer, an eye for landscape and an irrepressible curiosity about people. His descriptions of cities and countrysides are equally vivid, and he conveys the emotional tone of a place as sharply as its shape and color. He can pin down the telling anecdote that perfectly illustrates the difference between old Alexandria and new Cairo, or the detail that epitomizes, hilariously, the confusion of Iranian legislation; it happens to be the fact that the profits of the opium monopoly are invested in The Department for the Prevention of Cultivation and Consumption of Opium.
As an Englishman, Mr. Morris naturally regrets the waning of British power in the Middle East and deplores the wavering United States diplomacy which has partially replaced it. He does not belabor the point, however, being well aware that the production of oil was always a matter of money rather than ethics, and remaining too intent upon describing the Middle East as it stands to indulge in argument about the responsibility for the problem. The book is subtitled “A Middle East Picture,” and a picture is exactly what it provides, clearly focused, reasonably objective, and extremely useful for anyone hoping to understand the whole range of ambitions, enmities, and alliances animating this tindery region.
The noble nomads
The Last Migration (Dutton, $4.50), Vincent Cronin’s story of the troubles of a tribe of nomad shepherds in Persia, is unfortunately neither objective nor clearly focused. Mr. Cronin himself doesn’t know whether to call it fact or fiction and suggests that he has actually written in the manner of a Persian literary form lying somewhere between the two, “the form in which imagination casts near-factual history — almost myth, but without the English word’s implication of falsity.”
Since no such form officially exists in English, the reader must start with no established standards by which to judge the book and regulate his reaction to it, not in itself a bad thing. The difficulty is that as Mr. Cronin proceeds with his tale of the noble, honest, innocent, patriotic chief of the happy, healthy nomads and his struggle to prevent the crooked politicians in the capital from exiling him and settling his people to pine away as villagers, this supposedly exotic book edges of its own accord into a literary form already well established in English. It begins to look the spit and image of a propaganda novel with a strong romantic bias.
As a propaganda novel, then, how persuasive is The Last Migration? Mr. Cronin’s own sympathy is firmly with the tribes on their traditional wandering from plain to mountain in search of grass for their flocks, and he is undoubtedly right in believing that confining such people to villages will kill them off as reservation life killed off the American Indian. His error is that he has laid their virtues on too thick. His hero’s strength is as the strength of thirty thousand rifles, mostly smuggled, but in other respects the fellow is alarmingly like Galahad. The government flunkies, complaining of the impossibility of assessing tribal taxes and the improbability of collecting them, are dismissed as lying villains, although common sense whispers that there may be germs of truth in their claims. A team of investigators, presumably from the UN, visits the camp and is distressed by the absence of any doctor— very gauche of them in Mr. Cronin’s opinion — and indeed he gets one of the book’s few really funny scenes out of this affair. Now the tribal chief owns a large town house and a car and vast estates; it would seem that he might have invested in a doctor. The epidemic which eventually decimates the sheep suggests that a veterinary, at least, would not have come amiss.
What with these worrisome inconsistencies in Mr. Cronin’s account of his noble nomads, a tendency to woodenness on the part of his characters, a random attempt to make a poignant love affair out of a marriage of state between strangers, and a failure to achieve the epic scope which both the migration and the final battle deserve, the book can hardly be counted a success.
Poetry, an unrewarded art
The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams (McDowell, Obolensky, $5.00), edited and modestly introduced by John C. Thirlwall, cover the poet’s development from his university days to 1956. On the whole, their tone is serious, even ponderous, with little relief through wit or gaiety for its own sake. It is possible that this effect of sobriety is due in part to the editor, who confesses to deleting out of deference to the postal authorities and also to removing “inconsequential material, like a paragraph on custody of a cat in the middle of a serious discussion of tragedy in the modern world.” Perhaps nothing of moment has been lost, but if all the paragraphs on custody of cats were to be removed from everyone’s correspondence, most of the great letter writers, from Madame de Sévigné to Byron, would cease to exist.
Granted that Dr. Williams’ letters have little of the intimate and unexpected quality which is one of the traditional charms of the genre, they remain extremely interesting on their own terms. The very early letters are almost parodies of what a proper, well-bred youth might have been expected to write to his family at the turn of the century. He assures his mother of his good behavior and the impeccable propriety of his new acquaintances, including “a fine fellow” with “a cast-iron faith that is something to admire,”named Ezra Pound. It is worth noting that the further analysis of Pound in the same letter is shrewd enough to stand to this day.
Once Dr. Williams has begun to establish himself as a poet, the letters acquire a forceful, simple style and show a continual flow of ideas. The author’s theories on the subject matter, purpose, and technique of poetry appear quickly; they are elaborated and refined over the years, but there is little basic change. In 1913, he is remonstrating with Harriet Monroe of Poetry for trying to order his feet, and protesting, “As to the metre . . . if you wish to judge it as a fixed iambic measure you are dogmatically right as to the disturbing fourth and sixth lines; but why not call it some other kind of a measure?” In 1954 he is explaining to Richard Eberhnrt exactly how he counts the meter in a particular piece of verse, and if he has not yet found a name for the measure, he unquestionably knows what he’s doing with it and why.
Preoccupation with the elements of poetry pervades and distinguishes Dr. Williams’ letters. They have little to say about his medical practice or indeed about anything unconnected with the arts. When he does comment on unaesthetic subjects, and his later letters to Ezra Pound inevitably touch on polities at times, he reveals a clear, practical view of things and a nice ability to combine idealism with a firm grasp of expediency. But it is as the record of a working poet that these letters are valuable, representing more than fifty years of enthusiastic, conscientious labor at a difficult, lonely, unrewarded art.
Love, love, love
Summer fiction is rather expected to run to love, and this month there are three books which run to little else.
Wright Morris, who won the National Book Award for the most, distinguished American novel of 1956, is relaxing among his laurels with an item called Love Among the (Cannibals (Harcourt, Brace, $3.50). It’s about a middle-aged Hollywood composer and his equally middle-aged librettist, who pick up a nice girl and a naughty girl on the California beaches and toot off with them to Mexico. Once over the border, the damsels swallow these two simple men of the world in two neat little gulps. (Cannibals — canny belles. Get it?)
Parts of the book are very funny. Mr. Morris has a great time with the composer, who cannot talk without a piano in his hand, with the mechanics of building up a new singer, and with the utter helplessness of his boulevardiers in the hands of the Mexicans. But the story keeps wavering between satirical absurdities and a melancholy study of the librettist’s passion for his statuesque juvenile delinquent. There are also a great many of the man’s song lyrics lying about the pages, some of them allegedly extempore. These verses are unquestionably true to life and just as dreadful as the words of popular songs usually turn out to be in print, but is this degree of realism necessary in a light novel? How far must reader participation go before a laugh is raised? Is the day coming when audiences will be required to don bustles and shin up the balcony posts in order to enjoy Charley’s Aunt? There is an element of impracticality in Mr. Morris’s approach to this question, and if he starts gathering a following, the future will be pretty bleak for all of us.
A minor figure in Lawrence Durrell’s novel Justine (Dutton, $3.50), a writer, describes the construction of one of his more intricate works. In effect, that mythical book represents what would be seen by a man revolving in the center of a circular stage on which all the action of the story is taking place simultaneously. It is kind of Mr. Durrell to introduce this fellow, because the extraordinary construction which he describes is precisely what Mr. Durrell has attempted in his own book. It is not an easy pattern to follow, particularly when it covers a series of love affairs occupying some ten years and nearly a dozen people. There are times when the problem of who is in bed with whom and when becomes all but insoluble.
The confusion is undoubtedly deliberate. The story takes place in the last days of Farouk’s rule in Egypt, and Mr. Durrell uses the interlocking loves of his four principal characters to illustrate the lushness, the decadence, the intellectual excitement, the misery, and the confusion of races in the city of Alexandria. At the same time, he is using the city of Alexandria to illustrate some of the more subtle oddities of love.
Mr. Durrell, a poet as well as a novelist, writes a rich and varied prose. At times maddeningly oblique, he can be briskly direct in dealing with a duck hunt. Many of his descriptions of Alexandria are misty and impressionistic, like the waterfront where characters are forever meeting in wind or rain or both, until it seems that this spot must be immune to the local weather; but he can create a moonlit street instantly and exactly with the one phrase, “deckle-edged with shadow.”
The setting of the novel is fiercely real, the intellectual anguish of the characters is real, but the characters themselves are never quite flesh and blood. They remain emanations of the city, symbols of sensuality and jealousy, their embraces worked out with the cool click of algebraic formulas. This defect — if it is a defect rather than a deliberate device — permits Mr. Durrell to be remarkably outspoken without becoming offensive. After all, there can be nothing scandalous in x + y.
Phyllis Bentley’s collection of short stories, Love and Money (Macmillan, $3.00), is as striking for the simplicity of its technique as Justine is for its intricacy. Miss Bentley writes as though Henry James and Sigmund Freud had never lived. Her stories are all about Yorkshire people, ranging in period from the fourteenth century to the twentieth, and they all deal with perfectly plain, recognizable enterprises like making money, getting married, and doing down one’s enemies.
The long story of a quarrel over dogma in a Victorian congregation, in which conviction and good intentions ravel away into squabbles over inheritances and social precedence, is done so quietly, with such delicate touches of wit, that it is only at the end that the horror of the affair strikes like a cold wind. Two of the other stories center on men whose only distinction is their true goodness of heart, and Miss Bentley brings off the difficult feat of making these nearsaints interesting without even rolling up her sleeves. As for plot, she usually tosses in enough for a novel and manages to keep it all under control. There is still much to be said for the old system of presenting characters in action and confining explanation to the reasons to which the characters themselves attribute their conduct.
A gallery of cuckoos
Irving Wallace has followed up The Fabulous Originals with The Square Pegs (Knopf, $5.00), an amusing study of various American eccentrics. He has picked up a good definition of the type from Henry Morton Robinson. “They point out . . . the delightfully erratic possibilities of human life. They get far away from the good, the true, and the beautiful, substituting for this dour trinity . . . the rare, the cuckoo, and the courageous.“
Mr. Wallace has assembled a fine gallery of cuckoos. There is the gentleman who set about, in all seriousness, to make himself king of an uninhabited and ownerless island off Brazil, dismaying three governments almost as much as if somebody had landed a battalion on the place. There is Delia Bacon, the lady who hung about England for years proving that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays, but who somehow never got around to examining any of the relevant documents of the period. Victoria Woodhull, who preached free love and ran for president against Ulysses S. Grant, is perhaps less a true eccentric than a woman born before her time, but she is well worth consideration.
There are many more of these people, given to a wild variety of notions and projects. As Mr. Wallace discusses them, however, a rough sort of similarity is detectable in their careers. All of them possessed part of the equipment of genius — unusual imagination and energy — without the specific talent which would have directed their gifts into a particular field. They are people with plenty of ammunition and no target.
Perhaps Mr. Wallace is a little careless in his claim that eccentrics should be cherished because they have been responsible for all the progress of the world. They should be cherished, true enough, as a defense against dullness and timidity, but the progress of the world is more likely the work of geniuses. Many geniuses have been eccentric. but few eccentrics have had genius.
It is a pity that Mr. Wallace, otherwise a lively and pleasant writer, has permitted himself on page 12 to use flaunt when he obviously meant flout.
The spying Huguenot
The Witches (Random House, $3.95), by Jay Williams, is a gaudy historical uproar about a fugitive Huguenot fencing master and a gaggle of Scottish witches. The swordsman, busily spying for Queen Bess at the court of James VI, is hired by the Scottish council of state to look into some suspicious huggermugger down the coast. The Scots lords know exactly what their man’s loyalty to England is worth, and pay him accordingly, and the spy takes the whole thing as a handy bit of overtime.
The excitement begins at once and keeps up a steady gallop of street brawls, assassinations, night rides, eerie ceremonies, disguises, seductions, and astonishing revolutions. There is a dreadful, drunken, slapstick funeral, and a couple of fine comic turns as the Frenchman, posing as the agent of an English cannon maker, tries to sell nonexistent guns to a suspicious Caledonian town council. The minor characters are crisp and convincing, while the writing conjures up the effect of sixteenth-century prose without any scholarly clutter.
The story is told by the spy himself. This narrator would be the better for some small human defect (his weakness for wenches, given the time and the place, will not serve), but the faint shadow of Superman is a very minor failing in a book which is, in the main, the best thing of its kind to turn up in several years.