Reader's Choice

Among the best minds and most sensitive spirits of our time, there is prevalent a syndrone which might be labeled, Hatred of the Age. This revulsion against a technological civilization dedicated to material achievement has been dramatized in an original and stirring way in the new novel by ROMAIN GARY, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN (Simon and Schuster, $4.50). M. Gary belongs to that singular species — the artistthinker-man of action — which includes Lawrence of Arabia, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Laurens Van der Post. A much-decorated flier in World War II and a career diplomat, Gary is the author of five novels, the first and the most recent of which have won important literary prizes in France. In The Roots of Heaven, he has poured the novel of ideas into the mold of the dramatic adventure story and has further vitalized it with an arresting cast of characters.
The setting is French Equatorial Africa, and the story recounts the strange campaign of an idealist named Morel to save the elephants from being hunted to extinction. Morel has spent the war years in a forced-labor camp in Germany, and during his ordeal his mind fastened upon the elephant as the greatest living image of freedom. He has come to believe that a world which eliminates elephants as an archaic luxury, an interference with roads and telegraph poles, will eventually find human rights an archaic interference with total efficiency, and will move toward complete dehumanization and slavery. After failing, at Fort Lamy, to obtain signatures for his petition to the government to ban elephant hunting, Morel takes to the bush to dramatize his cause by punishing hunters and ivory traders; and presently his crusade is front-page news throughout the world’s press.
People see in the affair mostly what is in their own hearts and minds. To the colonial Governor and others like him, Morel’s concern for elephants is a blind — he is merely a misanthrope crazily expressing his contempt for humanity; to a Dutch zoologist who has spent his life in the jungle, Morel is simply a man who loves elephants; to a retired English colonel, Morel is defending a characteristically English idea of decency — he is “an Englishman without knowing it.” The newspapers, reflecting human fears of annihilation in the atomic age, make a hero of the would-be savior of elephants. Minna, the cashier-hostess at the Hotel du Tchadien, a pathetic German tart who has experienced every outrage, is drawn to Morel as an embodiment of the belief that there can be some beauty in life. Together with a former American officer, Minna finds her way to Morel in the jungle, where a strange company has gathered around him. It includes a Lebanese arms smuggler; a famous American photographer who has come in search of a scoop; and an ambitious African politician, Pariseducated and Moscow-oriented, who with the help of the anti-Western press is exploiting Morel’s crusade as a demonstration against colonialism.
The adventures of this band dramatize the perennial problem of the idealist: that a noble cause has to be fought in the company of self-seeking and unscrupulous scoundrels. The novel throughout is as densely packed with ideas as with action. It is a rich and exciting work, compellingly readable.

THIS AMERICA

In the foreword to his massive (1036 pages) AMERICA AS A CIVILIZATION (Simon and Schuster, $10.00), MAX LERNER makes a remark which helps me to isolate his contribution to a subject about which there exists a library full of volumes. Speaking of his past efforts to write about the American experience, he observes: “Whenever I tried to chip off a fragment — on American government, on liberalism, on foreign policy, on morals — I found that it lost some of its meaning. ... In 1945 I finally overrode my hesitation and started the book on its present scale.” This awareness that parts must be intimately related to one another and to the whole is the principle which informs Mr. Lerner’s study and which is the source of its special achievement.
Merely to catalogue the areas discussed by Lerner would literally take pages. Inevitably this inclusiveness involves the inclusion of much that is familiar, but it has enabled Lerner to bring into relief the connections between the different aspects of American life and thought. Thus the workings and consequences of the business ethos are treated in a score of different contexts — politics, the rearing of children, crime, popular culture, and so on. The psychic problems of Americans are examined, as the book progresses, from a multiplicity of perspectives and are closely linked to the total social picture. This approach, with its emphasis on interrelatedness, involves a certain amount of repetition, but it pays large dividends in understanding.
Lerner explains that his purpose is neither to celebrate nor to indict the American way of life but to try to grasp “its pattern and inner meaning”; and he has stuck to his intentions. Whether he is examining big business or civil liberties, suburbia or the press, religion or courtship and love, his assessment is tolerant, judicious, eminently balanced—and well stocked with suggestive ideas.
Tolerance and balance, however, have their liabilities. Lerner is apt to confine himself tamely to split verdicts such as “If the career of the artist [in America] has its dangers, it also has its strengths,” or else he winds up a critical passage on a note of optimism which the preceding analysis has not warranted. The discrepancy between analysis and conclusion is striking in a particularly significant area. Lerner finds American civilization a huge success, which from the standpoint of material achievement is incontestable. But the picture he draws of the personal lives of Americans heavily accents disappointment, neurotic tension, insecurity, and loneliness — in a word, unhappiness. He speaks of “the desensitizing and depersonalizing” of life in America by the “creeping imperialism of business”; of how the pursuit of status makes life “a joyless and derivative affair, laden with endless anxieties”; of the individual’s widespread loss of a sense of identity as a result of the insidious pressures of conformism; of the boredom, the emptiness, which cause Americans to feel they are “starving psychically amid psychic plenty.” Lerner rightly emphasizes that many of these ills are bound up with the very dynamism of American life which, with its “oceanic sense of possibility,” encourages exaggerated hopes and causes the individual to make excessive demands on himself. But to say this is merely to state the issue: Is our society as a whole paying, in human terms, a stultifying price for material success?
It would be misleading not to end these notes with a salute. Lerner’s firm grasp of the many facets of so vast a subject as American civilization; the lucidity with which he has presented an encyclopedic range of information; the level of insight and of readability he sustains — all these add up to an achievement of remarkable dimensions.

A YOUNG GTRL’S DIARY

Reminiscences of youth are currently apt to fall within one of two schools, which might be labeled, respectively, “Look Back in Anger” and “Look Back in Langor.” The former churns with self-pity. In the latter, the author’s original experiences are soaked in the warm bath Of an adult’s sense of loss and emerge as misty images of themselves; youth, seen through a filter of arty sentimentality, becomes a state of chronic oversensitivity and delicate sadness. But THE DIARY OF “HELENA MORLEY” (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $4.75) brings us the refreshing experience of encountering the laughter and tears of childhood in their original state. HELENA MORLEY is the pen name of a girl of English descent who lived in the remote Brazilian mining town of Diamantina sixty years ago. Her diary — kept when she was twelve to fifteen years old — was first published in Brazil in 1942, rapidly won literary recognition, and now has been admirably translated into English by Elizabeth Bishop. It reminds us that being young is a wonderful thing, that awareness is not inconsistent with high spirits, and that the gifted child is not necessarily the tortured one. Half a dozen such books would make it possible to speak of a renaissance of the unneurotic child.
Helena Morley is an extrovert — outspoken, good-natured, and gay; a bit of a show-off; always hungry (and often tempted to steal fruit); a natural storyteller. Although young writers are supposed to be poets, her talents are in the domain of gossip. She has a curiosity which enables her to say: “Every day we discover something new.” Her diary is a lively collection of short short stories — about tensions and love among the numerous aunts and uncles; about birthday parties for cousins and wedding parties for slaves (at one there is even a melodramatic poisoning); about the grandfather who married off his daughters in pairs, and the ghostly thief who, rumor says, can turn himself into anything and especially likes to take the form of an ant heap.
We not only enjoy but we trust her perceptions. She can say of the father she clearly adores: “Papa lives in hope of finding diamondbearing gravel, but it’s hope, hope, hope, all his life long.” She is skeptical of her mother’s piety but is superstitious in a self-protective way: “I only like to pray when I’m sad or when there’s a thunderstorm.” At once innocent and shrewd, she says in her matter-of-fact way: “I’m not going to be so foolish as to make such a wonderful life into a life of suffering.” And she leaves us assured that she will not.

FICTION CHRONICLE

FIRST LOVE AND OTHER SORROWS (Dial, $3.50) by HAROLD BRODKEY comes to us backed by tributes from Frank O’Connor, Mark Schorer, and John Cheever. That Mr. Brodkey is an unusually gifted new writer, with an attractive freshness of perception, a fine command of language, and an individual vein of humor — all this seems unmistakable. My reservation about his talent has to do with its scope: he appears to be the kind of artist committed to working in the minor key which the New Yorker has made fashionable. With him, it is principally the nuances of sensibility or the moment supercharged with feeling which counts.
The collection has a chronological sequence: it progresses from early adolescence in St. Louis to experiences at Harvard, then focuses on a young married couple living in the suburbs of New York. The stronger stories are by and large the longer ones (the first four), in which the author’s narrative gifts come into play. “Sentimental Education” — an account of a love affair between two young people at college taking their first dip into sensual waters — is surely the finest story on this theme that has appeared in many a year. “The Quarrel” traces a friendship between two very different undergraduates (“moulding each other, protecting each other from being ordinary”) and its passage through heartbreaking hostility. “Laurie Dressing” (an item unrelated to the others) is a comic delight: it centers on a girl preparing for a date with a prospective fiancé and debating what personality to put on—she settles for “sullen juvenilia.” As Mark Schorer so aptly puts it, Brodkey’s writing has the stamp of the educated heart.
CORRUPTION (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $4.00) by NICHOLAS MOSLEY is a first novel from England in which a curious mélange of strains has produced a distinctly individual work: flawed, but splashed with brilliance. The first part traces, with Jamesian curvatures, the flowering of a Michael Arlenish heroine, Kate Lambourne, a wellborn and soon notorious beauty who appears to be mad and bad — “her specialty was scandal.” She is the cousin of the narrator, who is desperately in love with her; and once in his adolescence, once some years later, she gives herself to him only to abandon him inexplicably.
In Part Two, the prose shifts into a rhythm which is startlingly Faulknerian (without Faulkner’s obscurities), and the author suddenly displays a rich sense of comedy and a ferocious wit. He moves around London Bohemia, bringing into the story a wonderful character called Suzy: a doll at once infinitely demure and disreputable, who, each time she changes lover, is accompanied by a van loaded with her own enormous bed. This whole section is a tour de force — very funny, but serious and subtle in its perceptions.
Part Three carries the narrator to Venice with Suzy; and their involvement with Kate and her sinister Italian lover leads up to a dramatic denouement. Whatever the shifts of tone and style, the novel sustains a strong current of intensity. All in all, it is an attractive and out-ofthe-ordinary book.
THE SIBYL (Random House, $3.00) by PÄR LAGERKVIST, Swedish winner of the Nobel Prize in 1951, is, like his previous works, a complex parable clothed in a simple narrative and in language of crystalline clarity. A wanderer doomed to live forever in torment by an ancient curse he once forbade a man bearing a cross on his way to the gallows to rest against his house — has come to Delphi to learn his destiny, and has been directed to an old priestess of the oracle, a once mighty sibyl who has sinned against her god. The priestess in turn tells him the story of her downfall — of how she, the immaculate bride of the deity, surrendered her virginity to a mortal man. And together the wanderer and the rejected sibyl meditate on the “riddle” of God, who appears to them “incomprehensible, inscrutable . . . both evil and good, both light and darkness.” This in effect is Lagerkvist’s portentous theme, and out of it he has fashioned a haunting work of art, as direct and uncomplicated on the surface as a fable for the young.
THE LIVING NOVEL (Macmillan, $4.50), a symposium edited by GRANVILLE HICKS, contests the belief which one hears voiced from time to time that the novel is dying. This belief can mean one of two things: 1) that the novel no longer deserves the attention of serious readers; 2) that there are no longer enough readers willing to give the serious novel the attention it deserves. The contributors to Mr. Hicks’s symposium — among them are Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Wright Morris, and Jessamyn West — reject the first proposition but complain about the second, which leaves it open to question whether the novel is still living in the style to which it has been accustomed. What the symposium does prove is that, however inhospitable the cultural climate may be, serious writers remain as passionately dedicated as ever to the art and craft of the novel. The essays which Mr. Hicks has assembled make remarkably spirited reading. They are personal enough to be strong in human interest, and together they add up to an eloquent statement of the enrichment that the novel brings to life.