Reader's Choice

An English poet once summed up his reading taste in this endearingly succinct jingle: “I love biography,/ I hate geography./ Geography is about maps,/ Biography is about chaps.” The past few weeks have produced an unusually varied and inviting assortment of books “about chaps,” and several promising items are in the offing.


Since 1950 ANDRÉ MAUROIS, who is now seventythree, has been giving us biographies of far larger stature than the romanticized Lives which originally made him famous. THE TITANS (Harper, $5.95), a three-generation study of the Dumas family, is a work as solid and distinguished as its predecessors, Lélia and Olympio, and enthrallingly readable. To those who especially relish the flamboyant, it should prove the most attractive of M. Maurois’s books, for flamboyant is certainly the operative word for the saga of the Dumas.
The first was the illegitimate son of the Marquis de la Pailleterie and a black slave girl of San Domingo. He joined the army shortly before the French Revolution, and advanced from private to general by reason of legendary exploits, which caused Napoleon to dub him “the Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol.” He fell out of favor, however, for suggesting that Bonaparte put ambition before patriotism, and died in disgrace. A giant of phenomenal strength, he bequeathed to his son an elemental energy, courage — and a dangerous failing: the longing to astonish.
The second of the Alexandres, Dumas père, has been (as Maurois puts it) “the darling of biographers.” Everything about him is on the supercolossal scale and steeped in theatricalism. He wrote (with the help of collaborators) some 600 volumes. His mistresses were legion, and old age apparently did not abate his rambunctious virility. He made a fortune ten times, and was ruined eleven. He ordered the architect who was designing his Château de Monte Cristo to incorporate all the styles he admired — Gothic, Renaissance, Moorish, Scandinavian. When the government asked him to publicize Algeria, he insisted on being sent there — in a battleship. He contributed a schooner and money to Garibaldi’s cause, joined in the march on Naples, and entered the city triumphantly sporting a red shirt. And always — amid the turmoil of travel, festivity and love-making, litigation and scandals; hounded by creditors and jealous mistresses; reveling in fame and childishly pursuing further honors — he wrote incessantly, working longer hours than the most industrious of authors. Maurois calls him “the greatest story-teller of all time and of all lands,” and the claim is readily defensible. Turn to the first page of his best novels, and you are instantly under the spell which keeps a reader asking: “And then? What happened then?”
Much less has been known about Dumas fils than about his father, and it is here that Maurois’s biography, which has drawn on much unpublished material, makes its freshest contribution. Though in many respects he was clearly his father’s son, the third Alexandre reacted against his father’s extravagance and license. He managed with caution the fortune which his plays brought him, and expressed in his theater a stern moralism which he was not always able to live up to. Maurois appears to share Hugo’s verdict on the two Dumas as writers: “It was the father who was the genius. Indeed he had more genius than talent. Dumas fils is the embodiment of talent . . . but it is nothing more than talent.”


NANCY MITFORD’S VOLTAIRE IN LOVE (Harper, $5.00) is hinged on Voltaire’s relationship with the Marquise du Châtelet, which began in 1733 — he was thirty-nine, she twenty-seven — and lasted until her death sixteen years later.
When Voltaire first met Emilie du Chatelet, she had been married eight years and was the mother of three children. Attractive but not beautiful, she belonged to a singular type of womanhood that flowered in the eighteenth century — the worldly and amorous savante. A connoisseur of the classics, a gifted mathematician and studious scientist-philosopher, she devoted years to translating and interpreting Newton to the French, who were still under the dominance of Descartes. Though “one of the most learned women ever produced by our civilization,” she also loved life at court, was an inveterate gambler, and had about her “something of the whore.”
Voltaire, shortly after Emilie became his mistress, moved into her husband’s ancestral home in a remote part of Champagne, had it redecorated, and made it his headquarters. The Marquis — an officer often conveniently absent — was nothing if not complaisant: there is a story that once he caught Voltaire with another woman and reproached him for being “unfaithful to us.” Unfaithful Voltaire certainly was (at fifty he embarked on a secret and passionate liaison with his niece); and so too, only much more frequently, was his “Venus Newton.” But there can be no doubt about the sincerity and depth of their relationship. Voltaire later opened his Mémoires with the statement that their meeting was the turning point in his life.
Miss Mitford’s book has many strands — Voltaire’s conflicts with the censorship, which landed him in the Bastille and often forced him to lie low in semi-official exile from Paris; the reception of his plays and other writings of the period; his ceaseless literary vendettas; the business dealings which made him rich; his courtship by Frederick the Great, who was determined to wrest from Emilie possession of the most illustrious entertainer of the age. This gossipy chronicle abounds in situations which, from the standpoint of today, are rich in oddity, paradox, and comedy; and it provides ideal terrain for the exercise of the Mitford wit. It is a polished and entertaining piece of work; fascinating for, among other things, its telling and intimate picture of how life was lived by the eighteenth-century elite.


Like Dumas père, the Victorian novelist Ouida — the subject of MONICA STIRLING’S biography, THE FINE AND THE WICKED (Coward-McCann, $4.00) —had an instinct for storytelling. “Though it is impossible not to smile at Ouida,” G. K. Chesterton said, “it is impossible not to read her.” She still has aficionados who, while smiling at her grandiloquence and other excesses, believe she had a touch of genius. But whether or not she is worth reading today, she is certainly worth reading about. A great eccentric, she reflects in her life and work the splendors and absurdities of the romantic temper in the Victorian age.
Her real name was Maria Louise Ramé, and she was born in Suffolk in 1839, the daughter of an improvident Frenchman, usually absent abroad and probably an agent for Louis Napoleon. At seventeen she decided to make her own way in the world, and her writings soon brought her success of the Bonjour Tristesse kind, which launched her on a course of extravagance as reckless in its way as Mile. Sagan’s. At thirty-two she settled in Florence, and there began her curious ten-year-long romance with the Marchese Stufa, who had a mistress he could not bring himself to break with and who finally broke Ouida’s heart. She scandalized Florentine society by putting this private drama into a novel, and added to her notoriety by her brave championship of liberal causes. Eventually, her books lost their public and she ended her life destitute — a lonely, tragic figure who shuttled from place to place to keep her beloved dogs out of range of the muzzling edicts.
Miss Stirling has unearthed unpublished details about Ouida’s attachment to the Marchese Stufa. She has also brought into relief, by direct quotation, the prophetic insight to be found in the utterances of some of Ouida’s high-falutin’ characters: Ouida’s statements about the outcome of social trends starting in her day, and about the future of Russia and Germany, proclaim her a keeneyed Cassandra. Less successful are Miss Stirling’s strained efforts to show that Ouida’s characters and situations are not really as preposterous as they appear to the contemporary reader; and she has a penchant for interjecting comments which smack somewhat of padding. These are relatively minor blemishes in what is an attractively written and intelligent biography of a fascinating woman: a “unique, flamboyant lady,” to quote Max Beerbohm, “who cared for the romance and beauty and terror of life, not for its delicate shades and inner secrets.”


MY BROTHER’S KEEPER (Viking, $5.00) is the completed part of a biography of James Joyce which STANISLAUS JOYCE was working on when he died in Trieste in 1955. It carries James through his twenty-second year. Ably edited by Richard Ellmann and prefaced by a salute from T. S. Eliot, this study of Joyce’s formative years by his own brother is a unique document in the literature about great writers.
Three years younger than the brilliant James, Stanislaus grew up as his disciple (he kept a diary in which he studied his brother sedulously, admiringly, and jealously), as his “whetstone” (according to Ulysses), and often as his guardian, for Stanislaus was the more disciplined and practical of the two. And sporadically he strained and struggled to assert his own independence. Thus Stanislaus has set himself the thorny task of defending and celebrating the person he most envied and was made to suffer by. Out of this ambivalent situation has emerged a remarkable book — wry, contentious, bitter, moving, and packed with a fierce sort of humor.
It is, of course, a treasure trove of information about a writer whose life has an especially large bearing on his work. The family background is vividly sketched, and there is a painful close-up of Joyce Senior, a man of “absolutely unreliable temper” who indulged in “nightly half-drunken rantings” and eventually declined into “the class of the deserving poor, that is to say . . . the class of people who richly deserve to be poor.” We learn the origin of phrases, puns, ideas, incidents that appear in James’s work (Stanislaus stresses, persuasively, his brother’s unacknowledged indebtedness to him); actual happenings are compared to the fictional accounts of them; minor characters in Dubliners are identified; many lively conversations are recorded.
Stanislaus affirms that A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man “is not autobiography, it is an artistic creation” — James was far from being the “weak, shrinking infant who figures in [it].” Nor was he temperamentally like the mournful Dedalus of Ulysses; he had a certain taste for gaiety and “a real talent for clowning.” But even in his lighter moments, we see him through Stanislaus’s eyes as armored in “a cold, lucid indifference.” Distant, contemptuous, ruthlessly purposeful, he is pictured as a man “who never cared a rap what people thought, said, or wrote about him”; who was certain that “he belonged to the elect company of those who mould the conscience of their race.”
My Brother’s Keeper is not just a contribution to Joycean scholarship but a fascinating account of a gnawing relationship between two brothers, of whom the unknown one turns out to be an interesting figure in his own right. As stern a judge as T. S. Eliot finds Stanislaus’s book worthy of a place beside the books of James.


Let trumpets blow in honor of MYRA BUTTLE, the pseudonymous author of THE SVEENIAD (Sagamore Press, $2.00), who has rescued parody from the doldrums. Myra Buttle (an anagram for “my rebuttal”) is Victor Purcell, professor of Far Eastern history at Cambridge University. The Sweeniad’s target is T. S. Eliot and the whole school of poetry of which he is the prophet — “the so-called ‘Main Stream,’ whose course was diverted in 1922 to join the Styx.” Myra says in her preface: “The underlying message of the ‘Main Stream’ poets seems to be that life is a sorry business anyhow, but that it might be just worth losing if, as an interim measure, we could undo the Renaissance and restore the Middle Ages, thereby making everybody as miserable as ourselves.”
The Sweeniad might be described as a “play for voices” written partly in prose, partly in the rhythms of The Waste Land, The Hollow Men, and Eliot’s plays. Eliot’s position is stated, parodied, attacked, defended, and rousingly demolished — on a level far above the griping of the Philistines. The indictment is, of course, familiar: he is joyless, bigoted, and monstrously reactionary; he would like to impose on every branch of life a medieval dictatorship of the Church; he has arrogantly banished melody from poetry and has dogmatically belittled Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Shelley, and Keats; he conceals his meaning or lack of it by cluttering his works with esoteric erudition; and so on. Both defense and attack are conducted with an inspired combination of satiric mimicry, learning, wit, irreverence, clowning, and seriousness. The whole performance is a dazzling tour de force — enormous fun.
Here is one example of what Myra does with the meter and content of The Waste Land: “Cloax is the vilest drink, gouging/ Pockets out of your giblets, mixing/ Frenzy and remorse, blending/ Rot-gut and white ants.” Here is a Voice aping Sweeney in his more esoteric vein: “Orisons of the orgiastic Ebionite,/ Chuffed by the solid oxen of the Ghost,./ Mormed by the arthropods of malachite,/ And uffed by the Effluence of the Uttermost./ Insufferably sprog — ...” And here is the coup de grêce: “This is the way that Sweeney ends/This is the way that Sweeney ends/ This is the way that Sweeney ends/ Not with a flight but a flutter/ Not with a song but a stutter.”


DEAN ACHESON’S POWER AND DIPLOMACY (Harvard University Press, $3.00), which is based on lectures delivered at Tufts University, might be summed up as Mr. Acheson’s agonized appraisal of U.S. foreign policy under J ohn Foster Dulles. The analysis is rooted in a rejection of the moralistic or preacher-schoolmaster approach to diplomacy, which by its very nature alienates allies and neutrals and is apt to lose sight of vital interests. “On one thing only,” Mr. Acheson writes, “I feel a measure of assurance — on the rightness of contempt for sanctimonious selfrighteousness which, joined with a sly worldliness, beclouds the dangers and opportunities of our time with an unctuous film.”
Much of the book is devoted to that highly topical issue, the military requirements of the free world. Acheson argues that the doctrine of massive retaliation is a complete failure. It is not a deterrent because it is not credible; and it is not credible because it is grotesquely unrealistic: no American government would conceivably start a world-destroying nuclear war in response to an attack on Quemoy or a Communist coup in Syria. Nuclear weapons have made the concept of victory in all-out warfare utterly meaningless. Diplomacy must therefore concern itself, Acheson reasons, with limited objectives, and our strategists must be prepared to cope speedily and effectively with limited conflicts. This means that the United States must accept the burden of maintaining two kinds of military establishment: a nuclear striking force sufficiently formidable to deter a major attack, and “other and different forces, which we do not have, to respond to lesser forcible challenges to our interests . . . and to make possible and credible our determination, with others, to provide security for a workable noncommunist world system other than by blowing it to pieces.” As for formalized disarmament agreements with the Russians, Acheson holds that they could only prove a fraud and a delusion.
The essence of leadership, says Acheson, “is the successful attainment of objectives which impress themselves as being important to those whom one is called upon to lead.” (My italics.) But the United States, in recent years, has seemed to those who looked to it for leadership “to consider its own interests and objectives to the exclusion of theirs.” U.S. handling of the Suez crisis, in Acheson’s view, impressed upon our allies “not only that we would make no sacrifice to help them in a matter of vital interest . . . but that we would join the opposition to them.”
Mr. Acheson’s short book manages to cover a surprising lot of ground. The presentation is exemplary — lucid, temperate, and gracefully written. However controversial some of the specific arguments may be, the searching quality of the thought places the whole enterprise far above partisan politics.


By the time this column appears in print, the new play by JOHN OSBORNE will have opened in New York with Sir Laurence Olivier, for whom it was written, in the role of Archie Rice, a lecherous, bawdy song-anddance man of fifty, chronically broke and cheerfully irresponsible. From a reader’s standpoint, THE ENTERTAINER (Criterion, $2.75) has somewhat less impact than Look Back in Anger, probably because it depends much more on stage effects. As in its predecessor, the action consists largely in people standing around being beastly to one another, and the chief merit is a fierce, nagging eloquence.
In a snarling essay (published in a symposium called Declaration), Mr. Osborne has said that his purpose is “to make people feel.” He certainly succeeds, though in my case the feeling is often irritation. The Osborne gospel sweepingly proclaims the middle and upper classes to be rotted, as though by some loathsome disease. But if, as he asserts, the only genuine people in England are of workingclass orison, then genuineness — as pictured in his own plays — consists in being self-pitying, inconsiderate, feckless, and generally bloody-minded: in cultivating not one’s garden but the rankest weeds in it. Osborne’s verbal brio and sense of theater unquestionably add up to exciting talent. But the Declaration essay strengthens my impression that what he has been declaring to date is the size of the chip on his shoulder.


FREDERICK BUECHNER’S THE RETURN OF ANSEL GIBBS (Knopf, $3.75) is quite a departure from his two previous novels, which were open to the charge of preciosity. Now the style is less ornate, the plot straightforward. But while the ways and means arc more conventional, the question which Buechner dramatizes is an unconventional theme for the serious novel. It is this: Is there validity in the charge of a primitive demagogue that a man of whom it could be said, “He is civilization,” a man with a long and distinguished record of public service, is unfit for Cabinet office because he is too far removed from the feelings and desires of ordinary men? The crux of the story is that a chain of dramatic circumstances causes Ansel Gibbs himself to doubt his humanity; and the climax hinges on whether or not he will reverse his acceptance of the President’s offer. Mr. Buechner has written sympathetically and perceptively about the emotional blind spots of the highly civilized egghead, and about the dilemmas that face the critical and self-critical mind, constantly in modulation, when it is challenged by demagoguery.
THE CAT WITH TWO FACES (CowardMcCann, $3.50) by GORDON YOUNG is a British journalist’s factual reconstruction of a World War II spy story every bit as extraordinary as Operation Cicero. “The Cat” is a Frenchwoman made of Mata Hari stuff, whose death sentence was eventually commuted and who is now alive and free. After the defeat of France, she became the key figure in a major underground network that established radio contact with London and did heroic work for the Allied cause. When the Germans arrested her, she immediately betrayed her associates, callously and systematically; became the mistress of a member of the Abwehr; and served the enemy with a zeal over and above the call of treachery, posing all the while as a member of the Resistance. In due course, a French agent uncovered her game; and at this point she convinced the Germans that she could pull off an invaluable coup if she and this underground leader were helped to get to England — which they were. In London, she switched sides again, but the British, as soon as she told them all she knew, wisely put her in jail. This fantastic story is solidly documented throughout, and I found it absolutely riveting.
For the past three years, GEORGES AND ROSAMOND BERNIER have compiled an annual anthology of the contents of L’Oeil, the fine art review which they edit in Paris, ASPECTS OF MODERN ART (Reynal, $9.75) seems to me the most interesting, and the most visually exciting, volume published to date in this series. It includes reminiscences of Lautrec, Cézanne, Monet, and Bonnard; essays on Rouault, Brancusi, Kokoschka, Braque, Picasso, and Arp; articles about three revolutionary movements in modern art — the Dutch de Stijl, the German Bauhaus, and Dada — and about the new School of Paris. There are nearly 200 illustrations in black and white, and 40 plates in color of superlative quality; and among the works shown are many which have never been reproduced before. All in all, I found this an exceptionally attractive volume.
So, too, is the latest addition to the Abrams Art Books: GAUGUIN ($15.00). There are 63 first-rate reproductions in color, including several exquisite examples of Gauguin’s water colors, which arc much less familiar to us than his oils. The text by ROBERT GOLDWATER is scholarly, intelligent, and readable.