Reader's Choice

When Sam Johnson made his dictionary, lexicography was young and gay, and he dared to enliven his work with violent editorial opinions and wisecracks about the Scots. But the untrammeled doctor was succeeded by scholars with small humor and less nerve, who made solemn anonymity the rule of the profession. It’s a pleasure to find BERGEN EVANS, the versatile English professor and television performer of Northwestern University, collaborating with his sister, CORNELIA EVANS, on A DICTIONARY OF CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN USAGE (Random House, $5.95), which is as personal as a hangnail but much more useful.
Since this is a dictionary of usage, no attempt is made to give pronunciations or to include every word in the language. The authors concentrate on trouble spots; their purpose is to define tricky words, give examples of unpredictable construction, and lay down a simple, practical system of grammar which explains English as it really is and not as a language that would be like Latin if only it were kept in better order.
The explanations of usage are clear and bolstered with ingenious examples. At their best, these include the word in question plus any other words which might be confused with it. A Pickett’s charge on bring and take winds up, “Take that box and bring it with you, or if it’s too heavy for you I’ll send Joe to fetch it,” which covers everything except the identity of Joe, who may or may not be a dog. The authors have great fun over the dangers of mixing satisfy with convince ("Despite the doubts of the police, his family was satisfied that he had been murdered.”) but seem to have missed another nuisance, the interchanging of convince and persuade.
While omitting a great many meek, well-behaved words which have never bothered anyone, the authors include several equally harmless items for no reason but the joy of discussing them. Gamesmanship and its derivatives fill up a giddy column. Incubus and succubus are defined in detail, even to the charms employed to suppress them, the authors then confessing, rather guiltily, that “These distinctions no longer hold in standard, common usage, but the learned preserve them and delight in them.”
There seem to be three principles underlying this work, two plainly stated and one tacit. The first — that language changes constantly and contemporary usage is precisely that — is sound and the basis of the whole book. The second, that all clichés are necessarily villainous, has led the authors to include a rag, tag, and bobtail (one cliché they missed) of slang terms, standard phrases, proverbs, and quotations which rain down like cats and dogs (cliché) upon the hapless student. In principle they are right, but in practice a lot of people would, if deprived of clichés, be unable to utter anything but the plainest of flat statements.
The third principle, which although never stated is implied in both the text and introduction of the Evans dictionary, is that anyone can write and speak well with a little application. This is something that all teachers of English, at any academic level, seem to believe and presumably will go on believing until someone contrives to demonstrate that the ability to control language is as much a gift as a talent for mathematics or drawing is, although mercifully rather more widespread. Congenital language-maulers will not be cured by the Evans dictionary, but persons in doubt about specific points will find the book very helpful, and no one with an interest in the whimseys of our native tongue can hope to resist it.

LADDER TO NIRVANA

JACK KEROUAC’S second novel, ON THE ROAD (Viking, $3.95), concerns the adventures of the narrator, Sal Paradise, a war veteran who is studying on the G.I. bill and writing a book between drinks, and his younger friend, Dean Moriarty, late of reform school. Neither of these boys can sit still. They race back and forth from New York to San Francisco, they charge from one party to another, they tour jazz joints, and Dean complicates the pattern by continually getting married. At odd moments they devote a little thought to finding Dean’s father, a confirmed drunk who is presumably bumming around somewhere west of the Mississippi.
Dean is the more important character. Mr. Kerouac makes considerable play with his disorderly childhood, his hitch in the reform school, and his rootlessness, but his activities seem less a search for stability than a determined pursuit of euphoria. Dope, liquor, girls, jazz, and fast cars, in that order, are Dean’s ladder to nirvana, and so much time is spent on them that it is hard to keep track of any larger pattern behind all the scuttling about.
The trouble is a matter of repetition. Everything Mr. Kerouac has to tell about Dean has been told in the first third of the book, and what comes later is a series of variations on the same theme. It’s a good theme — the inability of a young man of enormous energy, considerable intelligence, and a kind of muddled talent for absorbing experience to find any congenial place for himself in organized society — but the variations are all so much alike that they begin to cancel each other out.
However, the novel contains a great deal of excellent writing. Mr. Kerouac has a distinctive style, part severe simplicity, part hep-cat jargon, part baroque fireworks. He uses each of these elements with a sure touch, works innumerable combinations and contrasts with them, and never slackens the speed of his narrative, which proceeds, like Dean at the wheel, at a steady hundred and ten miles an hour.
The book is most readable. It disappoints because it constantly promises a revelation or a conclusion of real importance and general applicability, and cannot deliver any such conclusion because Dean is more convincing as an eccentric than as a representative of any segment of humanity.

THE LORD HIGH EXECUTIONER

BRENDAN BEHAN’S play. THE QUARE FELLOW (Grove, $1.25 and $2.75), has already stirred up considerable excitement in London, partly because of its obvious relationship to the campaign against capital punishment which has raged for some time in England. Regardless of this connection. The Quare Fellow is clearly a wonderful play, of the sort that arouses in the reader an urgent hankering to see it on the stage.
The action takes place in an Irish prison where a man is about to be hanged, and involves nothing but the usual shenanigans of the prisoners and their sporadic and on the whole casual references to the impending execution. Warden Regan and the hangman are almost alone in taking the affair to heart, yet the presence of the condemned man and the horror of his death pervade the play and grip the reader like an obsession.
Mr. Behan has a gift for dialogue which is remarkable even by Irish standards. His characters talk magnificently, and most of them have distinct personal styles. The one poor Englishman in the place, jugged on a smuggling charge, is utterly outdone, but even he has his own voice. Neighbor and Dunlavin, two old rascals devoted to horseplay and pilfering liquor, are a continual delight. Regan, on the whole a serious fellow, is capable of going off like a rocket when a prisoner offends him by appearing to prefer English jails. “There’s the national inferiority complex for you,” says Regan. “Our own Irish cat-o’-nine-tails and the batons of the wardens loaded with lead from Carrick mines aren’t good enough for him. He has to go Dartmooring and Parkhursting it.”
Under the flashing talk and the roughhouse comedy, The Quare Fellow makes a powerful case for human dignity and a fiercely effective attack on the brutality and stupidity of the prison system. It’s a matter on which Mr. Behan is entitled to speak with authority, having served eight years in British jails for his exertions on behalf of the IRA.

CASSINO, A DEFENDERS’ PARADISE

“A battle is exceedingly complicated,” FRED MAJDALANY writes in chapter two of THE BATTLE OF CASSINO (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00) and then sets out to demonstrate that this is a monumental understatement. A sore point at the time, the long and costly operations at Cassino still raise the hackles of both observers and participants, and have provoked a good deal of snarling and clawing among military authors bent on justifying their own connection with this episode of the Italian campaign. Mr. Majdalany, who served at Cassino as an infantry officer, ostensibly has no official or personal ax to grind and is interested merely in making clear how the battle was fought and why it became necessary to fight it in that particular way.
Clarity about Cassino is no easy goal. Even on a map the terrain is discouraging, and following the routes by which various Allied units scrambled over the mountainsides requires close attention from the reader. Mr. Majdalany has done his best with maps and careful writing to make the series of actions comprising the battle comprehensible to a civilian audience, and considering the difficulties involved, he has done well. Only a large contour map with armies of pins moving about on it could really cope with the geographical complications of Cassino.
Mr. Majdalany attributes the initial weakness of the whole Italian project to the reluctance of the U.S. high command, which wanted no part of Mr. Churchill’s Mediterranean experiments. The author is an Englishman and inclined to side with Mr. Churchill, but lie does not let national loyalty blind him to the fact that the prime minister’s “soft underbelly” estimate of Italy, however accurate politically, was nonsense from a military point of view. The place is a defenders’ paradise, and the Germans, fighting a canny, methodical rear-guard action to the south, had plenty of time to dig themselves in like badgers at the natural fortress of Cassino. Coming up after a bungled landing and much hard lighting, the Allies arrived with insufficient troops and inadequate supplies and promptly got into trouble.
Mr. Majdalany has been very thorough in describing what happened to the troops on the spot, and why. It’s an agonizing muddle of official disagreements, mistimed support (the Italian weather was partly responsible for this aspect of the Allied troubles), and inadequate preparation, for all of which the men at Cassino died. It is noticeable that the book contains very few specific episodes, almost none of those odd personal anecdotes that usually turn up in military histories. Halfway through his story, Mr. Majdalany apologizes for this deficiency, explaining that the lack of individual reminiscence is caused by the paucity of survivors.
The nature of the various troops that fought at Cassino — Americans, English, Sikhs, Gurkhas, New Zealanders — is described at some length, along with the characters of their commanders. Aside from a determined aversion to Mark Clark’s more theatrical gestures, Mr. Majdalany views these officers with sympathy. They did not plan the campaign, and their complaints and protests were ignored by their superiors. The responsibility for Cassino, Mr. Majdalany concludes, rests with Mr. Churchill, who underestimated the difficulty of invading Italy and overestimated its value as a diversion, and with the United States officials who lacked the determination either to decline a venture of which they disapproved or to undertake it properly once they had agreed to it. One of the most distressing aspects of this distressing episode is the inconclusiveness of the whole business. One would like to believe that Cassino was worth it, but all Mr. Majdalany’s evidence suggests that the German force theoretically diverted there wasn’t going anywhere else anyway. To sum up the battle as “little more than a victory of the human spirit” is the ultimate depth of chagrin.

FICTION

The title of JULIAN GREEN’S latest novel, THE TRANSGRESSOR (Pantheon, $3.50), ostensibly refers to the predicament of a homosexual trying to follow his own bent without involving the respectable, normal relatives whose house he shares. As the story unrolls, however, the title becomes ambiguous, for the central character proves to be the youngcousin, Hedwige, and all the action develops from her ignorant infatuation with one of Jean’s perverse friends. One is left wondering who is really the transgressor in Mr. Green’s eyes.
Mr. Green has a peculiar capacity to conjure up an atmosphere of hazy danger, full of sibylline hints and portentous shadows. He also has a slight predeliction for innocent young girls crushed by the established corruption of the world. Both tendencies are given full play in The Transgressor, and while the events of the novel will not bear the most careless scrutiny of common sense, it is successful on its own strange level. The story that Mr. Green tells can hardly have been intended to represent external events in a stuffy French provincial town. It is rather a translation into blunt external events of psychological patterns which ordinarily would come into the open only in disguised or distorted form.
The technique comes close to being a reversal of what is usually considered the myth-making process, and with it Mr. Green illogically achieves something of the haunting overtones of myth. Within his closed world, his characters ring true and act consistently, and every detail is deftly selected to support them and hold the reader immersed in a universe of stylized evil.
LALAGE PULVERTAFT’S THE THING DESIRED (Viking, S3.50) is a much more orthodox novel, centered on the interlocking relationships of a group of people who are just far enough out of the ordinary to be interesting. Miss Pulvertaft provides a proper heroine, a redheaded, ginger-tempered beauty; a Byronic hero, suitably modified for this psychiatric age; and above all, a villain. He is not, of course, a conscious villain; that would be too much to expect. But as self-righteous, sweetly bullying villains go, Adam is highly satisfactory.
The subsidiary characters have considerable vitality, though no particular depth, and keep things rolling along briskly with a variety of unconscious absurdities. Miss Pulvertaft evidently subscribes to the old belief that dialogue should be amusing even in a story of fairly serious intent, and she refuses to indulge her people in drearily realistic conversation. Even the soulful metaphysics of Adam and the redhead contain sparks of ironic humor, although they themselves don’t know it. All the proceedings at the inferior school where Caroline is a desultory teacher are sharply funny. The damp-eared intellectual climber who introduces her to Adam (the fellow is a critic of vast reputation and no performance worth mentioning) is a fine, wicked sketch.
The Thing Desired is Miss Pulvertaft’s second novel, more ambitious than her first and neatly carried off. The plot, the havoc which a destructive temperament can cause among unsuspecting lovers, is nothing new in itself, but the author handles it with skill and works up plenty of tension.
Voss (Viking, $5.00) is by PATRICK WHITE, who wrote The Tree of Man. It is a large, slow novel set in nineteenth-century Australia and concerned with a German fanatically bent on exploring the back country. A great deal of attention is paid to social activities in Sydney, where Voss must beguile rich merchants into backing his scheme, and to the mixed crew of scientists and amateurs who ultimately make up the party. There is a remotely intellectual, or perhaps spiritual, romance with Miss Laura Trevelyan, a girl who certainly goes at everything by the briary path. When the exploration finally gets under way in the outback, there’s a certain amount of to-do and local color, ending in the apotheosis of Voss and the dedication of Miss Trevelyan to education and culture.
Anyone who assumes from this summary that I do not care for Mr. White’s book is quite correct. It is a jumble of social comedy, inflated romance, and frontier adventure, and in covering all these forms the author has suffered the traditional fate of the Jack-of-all-trades.
The prose is thick with pointless oddities of a vaguely archaic turn, did but’s and arbitrarily placed which’s. Characters frequently sense things that might better be guessed, suspected, or even smelled. Mr. White has a maddening habit of beginning a sentence with all the symptoms of one about to confide something subtle, or important, or both, and ending it with a revelation as obvious as a black eye. “If the more sensitive among those she served or addressed, failed to look at Rose, it was because her manner seemed to accuse the conscience, or it could have been, more simply, that they were embarrassed by her harelip.” It certainly could.
If this novel is anything more than a literary all-day sucker, the fact has been completely obscured by pretentious stylistic wrappings.

GOVERNMENTAL RED TAPE

PARKINSON’S LAW (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00) is a small, hypocritically demure-looking book in which PROFESSOR C. NORTHCOTE PARKINSON, “dismayed to realize what other people suppose to be the truth about civil servants or building plans,” undertakes to enlighten “the reader of discrimination” with the results of years of scientific investigation “not merely of an admittedly gifted individual but of a vast and costly research establishment.” Essentially a modest man, Professor Parkinson does not claim to have dealt with all aspects of administration. “The recent discovery in a certain field of warfare that the number of the enemy killed varies inversely with the number of generals on one’s own side has opened a whole new field of research.”
Like most deliberately funny books, Parkinson’s Law is better read in snatches, a chapter here and there; besides, anyone who truly appreciates Parkinson is sure to have the book reft from, him by housemates.
Governmental committees are the first topic. In a small committee, each member may be expected to be an expert in, respectively, “finance, foreign policy, defense, and law. The fifth, who has failed to master any of these subjects, usually becomes the chairman or prime minister.”
The workings of a committee become slower as the membership grows larger. This is a well-known fact, but only Professor Parkinson has troubled to work out the explanation for it, presenting a bristling algebraic formula involving the length of the table and the percentage of committee members who happen to be deaf, dotty, or eloquent.
Why is it that increasing the staff of a government department doesn’t result in less work for individual staff members? The professor knows, and reduces the matter to two “almost axiomatic statements, thus: (1) ‘An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals’ and (2) ‘Officials make work for each other.’ ” He then describes the department of A, who has contrived to scrounge together assistants C, D, E, F, G, and H, and ends by redoing the work of all of them.
Nor is the professor confined to the habits of the civil service. As historian, he demonstrates that elaborate offices are maintained only by businesses on the verge of bankruptcy, while the monarch who erects a large and elegant palace is all but guaranteeing that the populace will mount the revolutionary barricades. As an anthropologist, he assists with the Meddleton-Snooperage report on Chinese coolie-millionaires, which has interesting connections with discoveries on the Upper Teedyas River, Darndreeryland.
Professor Parkinson really is a scholar and the survivor of certain collisions with the British government, and his mastery of pseudoacademic and quasi-official prose is complete. This style, with its effect of communicating matters of the first importance, puts the final polish on the satirical irreverence of Parkinson’s Law.

A PLEA FOR THE STATUS QUO

Alarmed by what they believe to be the inevitable Europeanization of Africa, PAUL BOWLES and PETER W. HAEBKRLIN have put together a book called YALLAH (McDowell, Obolensky, $10.00). Mr. Bowles has written the short but impassioned text in praise of traditional ways and primitive simplicity, while Mr. Haeberlin’s splendid photographs are calculated to make anyone pack up and head for the Hoggar.
The territory covered runs roughly from interior Algeria south and east to Lake Chad, and it includes a great variety of landscape and people. Mr. Haeberlin is a superb photographer, equally adept with great desert vistas and close-up portraits, and every picture in the book is fine.
Mr. Bowles compresses a great deal of information into his introductory text, but his fear that European influence will destroy all that is worth while in African life without supplying anything of value in its place leads him to omit much that I one would like to know about the present in favor of romantic memories. He pines for the days when In Salah was a trading center for “ivory, ostrich plumes, panther and lion skins, rhinoceros horns, golddust, incense, and slaves” to such an extent that he forgets to explain the rather surprising presence there, today, of a municipal swimming pool.
No one can quarrel with Mr. Bowles’s intentions, though, for he wants only the best for a country that he dearly loves. It is to be hoped that this enchanting book does not counteract the purpose of its makers by enticing an influx of tourists to demoralize the place.