The comic artist (by which I mean the funny serious writer, an altogether different breed from the professional funnyman) is much rarer among American than among British novelists, partly, no doubt, owing to the workings of the law of supply and demand. The British, as sales figures and the chart of literary reputations show, have a much higher regard than we do for superior comedy — and rightly so, I think. For the comic artist is engaged in the important business of puncturing human pretensions with jokes which say what in serious terms would be almost unsayable. The efficacy of the comic stance could not be better illustrated than in the work of Evelyn Waugh. His burlesques have brilliantly brought into relief some of the lunatic aspects of the modern world; his explicit critique of that world in his “straight” fiction has merely brought into relief his own prejudices and follies.
This note is prompted by the publication of comic novels by two gifted writers, one American, PETER DE VRIES; one British, KINGSLEY AMIS. Mr. De Vries has been well received by American reviewers and readers, but the highest estimate of his work has come from an English observer — Kingsley Amis. Amis has called him “the funniest serious writer to be found either side of the Atlantic,” and has argued that those who complain De Vries piles on the fun too thickly fail to appreciate “just how serious [his] stuff is.”
In Dc Vries’s current offering, THE MACKEREL PLAZA (Little, Brown, S3.75), the heart of the matter is one of those wry inversions in which his fictional world abounds: the hero is a clergyman of so modernist an outlook that he crusades against “this damned religious revival” as a backsliding into superstition. The youthful Reverend Mackerel is minister of America’s “first split-level Church,” whose amenities include a gymnasium, a ballroom, a clinic (its psychiatrist, to Mackerel’s intense disgust, is a “reactionary” Jungian), and “a small worship area” with a freeform pulpit designed by Noguchi. “Liberalized” hymns are sung to the strains of “Funiculi-funicula,” and Mackerel preaches ten-minute sermons exposing the destructive role of myth in society. (He is building them into a book which he expects to be snapped up by Knopf.)
Set in Avalon, Connecticut, “a rather special jewel on the exurbanite strand,” De Vries’s story is ingenious, intricate, and enormously funny. A prominent parishioner of Mackerel’s, burdened by the guilt of sexual sins which he is forever recalling with indecent relish, conceives it to be his pious duty to erect a memorial plaza dedicated to the late Mrs. Mackerel, drowned some time back in a boating accident. This project enthuses all of Avalon’s leading citizens with the exception of Mackerel, who has discreetly pursued and won a delicious girl, now impatient to become the second Mrs. Mackerel. Forced to keep their romance secret, the lovers take to meeting in the sleaziest quarter of a neighboring town. Nonetheless, scandal overtakes them, and a host of diverting complications ensues.
The novel’s satire is two-directional: it pokes fun at revivalism, religious cant, sentimentalization of the dead, and also at the pretensions, affectations, and dogmatism of the modernist outlook. De Vries lacks the ruthlessness and intolerance which give satire its corrosive powers; he is temperamentally too amiable to be really destructive, and moreover he scatters his shots. But he has a splendid command of the resources of comedy — his book crackles with humorous conceits, hilarious turns of phrase, and antic situations. The Mackerel Plaza seems to me his most dashing performance to date.
In contrast, Kingsley Amis’s I LIKE IT HERE (Harcourt, Brace, $3.75) — though the going is mildly amusing — is a comedown from his previous work. On the strength of Lucky Jim and That Uncertain Feeling, Amis has become firmly established in the British literary hierarchy; there have been no end of pieces about him in the serious journals, and the august Times Literary Supplement devoted a long essay to his latest book.
Some years ago, Mr, Amis won a Somerset Maugham Literary Award, which requires its recipients to travel. Amis — one of whose most violent phobias is “abroad” and all it stands for — reluctantly elected to go to Portugal, and he has made this situation the basis of his present comedy. To the theme of the insular innocent abroad (with wife and small children), Amis has coupled a variant of The Aspern Papers plot: his hero, Garnet Bowen, is charged by a publisher with finding out whether an old Englishman living in Portugal is really the great author Wulfstan Strother, not heard from for years and believed dead, or an imposter seeking to cash in on Strother’s reputation.
This mixing of motifs — of travel impressions and literary detective work — gives the novel something of a split personality. But what is most disappointing is that the satirist in Amis has lapsed into complacency and laziness, has skimped on the creative task of dramatizing his point of view. All too often Bowen is just a ventriloquist’s dummy, sounding off about Amis’s pet peeves, which include travel, all foreigners (particularly the French), the upper classes and the rich, Oxford and Cambridge, manifestations of good taste, airplanes, the great novelists, museums and art galleries— in fact, all forms of culture above the lowbrow level. These attitudes, when they are not imaginatively expressed but flatly stated, merely sound petulant and boorish. Moreover Bowen, however much he may deprecate the fact, is himself a purveyor of highbrow culture, with the result that his militant Philistinism smacks of affectation and humbug, the very failings which he and Mr. Amis find supremely detestable. There is just enough amusing writing for the novel to pass muster as lightweight entertainment. But one expects more than that from the author of Lucky Jim.
THE PAST IS PRELUDE
THE GREAT DEMOCRACIES (Dodd, Mead, $6.00) is the fourth and final volume of A History of the EnglishSpeaking Peoples by WINSTON S. CHURCHILL. Opening in 1815, it goes as far as the turn of the century and concludes with a reference to the future which assumes the “ultimate union” of the English-speaking peoples.
Sacrificing proportion to pleasure, Churchill devotes between one third and one quarter of his book to chronicling with enormous zest the American Civil War. Into the remaining space he compresses, among other things: the rich political history of nineteenth-century England and portraits of its great prime ministers; the Crimean War; the Indian Mutiny; the migrations to and development of Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand; America’s Reconstruction era and the emergence of the United States as a world power; Ireland’s mounting struggle for Home Rule; and the Boer War.
As might be expected, Churchill takes the romantic view of the American Civil War, summing it up as “the noblest and least avoidable of all of the great mass-conflicts . . . till then.” While emphasizing the fearful bloodshed and the blundering, he gives far more resonance to the elements of glory than to the misery and the waste. Robert E. Lee emerges as “one of the greatest captains known to the annals of war”; but Grant receives no curtain call. In Churchill’s account, the Confederacy is considered to have lost the war before Grant became supreme commander, in which role he is pictured as finishing off the enemy by costly “tactics of unflinching butchery.” Lincoln, of course, is one of the heroes of this volume. Ironically, he is criticized as a war leader for precisely the failings with which Churchill himself has so often been charged — overimpaticncc for victories and civilian interference with generals in the field. How well Churchill will fare with Civil War specialists I cannot judge, but from a layman’s standpoint he has acquitted himself with brio.
The other high point in this volume is the pages in which those two great Parliamentarians, so dissimilar in character — Gladstone and Disraeli — dominate the English political scene. I had expected that Disraeli, with his flamboyance, his darting imperialist vision, his vitalization of the Tory Party, would receive top honors from Churchill; but it is Gladstone, the stiff moralist who “was willing to break his party rather than deny his conscience,” whose career is described as “the most noteworthy of the century.”
The concentration on politics and war is even more complete than in the previous volumes: there are only the sketchiest references to science, religion, economics, ideology, literature, and art. This is especially distorting and disturbing in a history of the century which started a revolution in thought and scientific knowledge and gave birth to ideas which underlie the sweeping convulsions of our time.
There is a certain childishness in the way Churchill dismisses a Darwin or a Marx in a few sentences while lavishing space on battle after battle. When he thunders off on his fourth or fifth cavalry charge, one is tempted to paraphrase the epigram about the Light Brigade and say: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas l’histoire.” Actually, it is the brand of history I was taught as a schoolboy. I feel, even more strongly than when I finished the first volume of this series, that what Churchill has given us is essentially a very great schoolbook: a schoolbook dignified and enriched by immense resources of eloquence, a genius for orderly exposition, and above all an imagination which sees the past as though it were a pageant passing before the eye.
All those interested in the Middle East have long awaited the memoirs of SIR JOHN BAGOT GLUBB, better known as Glubb Pasha, the legendary English commander of the Arab Legion, who was expelled from Jordan in 1956 abruptly and without explanation after he had lived among the Arabs for more than three decades. In 1925, Glubb resigned his commission in the British Army to “devote my life to the Arabs.” And it was as a servant of what was then the small state of Trans-Jordan that he molded the Arab Legion into the best fighting force in the Arab world.
A SOLDIER WITH THE ARABS (Harper, $6.00) skips Glubb’s first nineteen years in the Middle East: it covers the period from 1939 to 1957. There is a long account of the ArabJewish drama, with detailed descriptions of the fighting and a restatement of the familiar arguments against settlement of the Jews in Palestine. In these highly partisan pages, it is the Jews only who are severely censured for aggression, atrocities, and flouting the UN. The next section is more objective, and it chronicles matters about which less is known: the tensions between the Arab states after the establishment of Israel and the political turmoil in which Jordan remained plunged after the assassination of King Abdullah. The conclusion recounts Glubb’s dismissal. His explanation of it, made with extraordinary forgivingness, is that the young King — his position gravely threatened by anti-Western extremists and Egyptian propaganda — decided that by dramatically sacking his British commander he could steal the nationalists’ thunder. Glubb’s book is amply stocked with interesting disclosures, ranging from further evidence of Ernest Bevin’s support of the Arabs to details of the extent of Nasser’s subversion and terrorism in the Arab states. Glubb says of the Americans stationed in the Middle East that, contrary to their country’s official policy, they have deliberately sought to supplant the British: “In the Arab countries, America is believed to be Britain’s worst enemy.”
Glubb freely admits that he “failed hopelessly in the task to which I had devoted . . . my life” — AngloArab cooperation. And his personal history unconsciously sheds light on a larger failure: that of British policy vis-à-vis the Arabs. The romantic “emotionalism” which led Glubb to settle among the Arabs was a large and persistent element in the outlook of Britain’s Middle East experts and proconsuls, and it blinded the most knowledgeable and astute of them to portentous realities staring them in the face. In love with feudal Arabia — its dignity, its hospitality, its austerity — they dreamed of a great Arab confederation, cleaving to tradition and loyally allied to Britain by virtue of gratitude and respect. Inevitably, Glubb and his confreres found the new breed of Arab politicians and intellectuals, with their admiration for modernity, an unsympathetic lot, and failed to grasp their growing power and hostile intransigence.
In 1953, a top authority at the British Embassy in Cairo, when I suggested that Nasser sounded like a menace, confidently assured me that his bark was worse than his bite and that he was amenable to reason. Refusing to believe that the aspirations of Arab nationalism could extend to the total elimination of British influence in the Middle East, the proconsuls chose to conclude that the “Jewish problem” alone was spoiling the beautiful friendship between Britannia and the dear, good Arabs. Glubb still believes this nonsense, even though throughout his long years of loyal service to the Arabs, there were always Arab voices blaring the charge that he was a dirty British imperialist.
In Cyprus, the Greek inhabitants’ long-standing love for the British — the durable fruit of Britain’s championship of Greek independence in the nineteenth century — has not prevented the islanders from resorting to terrorism to gain self-determination. This tragic situation is described with sensitivity and understanding in LAWRENCE DURR ELL’S beautifully written book, BITTER LEMONS (Dutton, $3.50), a record of his three years (1953-1956) on Cyprus, first as a visitor, then as a householder and teacher, and finally as the press adviser of the embattled government.
Shortly after his arrival, Durrell bought an old house in an exquisite hillside village, and the account of the machinations and bargaining that preceded its purchase is a comic delight. Here, before the troubles began, he led an idyllic existence in a sunlit world dotted with lemon groves, orange, mulberry, and pomegranate, carob and cypress. His command of Greek endeared him to the villagers, a proud, polite, intensely hospitable collection of individualists, “mad for freedom and wine.” And the girls at the high school where Durrell taught kept sending him roses, poems, and sweetmeats.
Already there were danger signals. But British officialdom, with what seems incredible complacency, chose to ignore them. And the London Government, as Durrell sees it, made the disastrous mistake of trying to stave off the minimum concessions which might have averted violence. When Durrell was leaving the island, his taxi driver made a remark which reflects the paradoxical, surrealistic quality of the Cypriot tragedy: “Even Dighenis [a leading patriot] — though he fights the British, really loves them. But he will have to go on killing them — with regret, even with affection.” Mr. Durrell, the gifted author of Justine, has written a book which marvelously projects the sights and savors of an unfamiliar island; the character of its people, their humor and their passion.
“THE RECORDING NOVEL”
THE MAN WHO BROKE THINGS (Harper, $3.95) by JOHN BROOKS and THE CONSCIENCE OF THE RICH (Scribner’s, $3.95) by C. P. SNOW are both examples of what Mr. Brooks has suggestively described as “the recording novel.” In a recently published symposium, The Living Novel, Brooks defined this kind of book as one which is primarily inspired by “a passion to record”; its aim is “that the essences of one’s time . . . should be set down, that the timeless struggles of the human heart should be seen exactly as they existed under a certain set of conditions.” Brooks cited as an enduring example of the recording novel Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Another is The Forsyte Saga, of which Mr. Snow’s new book is reminiscent.
The “certain set of conditions” in which Brooks examines the struggles of the human heart is the world of high finance in the New York of the booming nineteen fifties. More specifically, his story describes an explosive proxy fight for control of The Great Eastern Company, an episode which has many similarities to the struggle fought in 1955 for the control of Montgomery Ward. Brooks’s central figure, Hank Haislip, is a self-made buccaneering tycoon, who scorns the “keepers and preservers” and prides himself on being “a breaker and builder.” Utterly ruthless and untroubled by guilt, he is willing to sacrifice the few human relationships that are important to him in his single-minded — and, he believes, creative — drive toward the summits of power.
The novel is vigorously plotted, respectably written, absorbing — but nothing about it is quite first-rate. The motivation of the characters is at best plausible rather than convincing. The answer to the mystery of what makes Haislip tick is too contrived and too pat. In fact, the whole performance, however great the author’s striving for honesty and depth, seems a trifle on the slick side.
Sir Charles Snow is a veteran novelist greatly esteemed in England who has failed to make much of a mark in the United States. One reason for this may be that there is more solidity than eclat in his work; it may strike some as rather dry and, technically, old-fashioned. At any rate, Snow seems to me at his best a writer of stature, and he is at his best in The Conscience of the Rich, which forms part of a sequence of novels entitled Strangers and Brothers, now in its seventh volume.
Beginning in 1927 and extending over a decade, the story describes the conflicts between the older and younger generations in the era when “social consciousness” made rebels of so many sons and daughters of the rich. The family on which the story is focused, the Marches, has for two centuries been one of England’s “upper deck” Jewish families. The head of the clan, Sir Philip, has hopes of capping his career with a post in the Cabinet. His brother Leonard, whose personality dominates the book, has led the leisured life of a man of property; he is satisfied that he has done his duty by devoting himself to the welfare (as he sees it) of his children and relatives, and to upholding the prestige of the March name. He is appalled when his son Charles — driven by the need to break away from his inheritance, by the craving to become really useful— forsakes the law, in which he has made a brilliant debut, and starts to study medicine. Charles has been encouraged in this course by the beautiful, strong-willed girl he has married, Ann Simon, who also belongs to a rich Jewish family and out of the prevalent impulse of revolt has secretly joined the Communist Party. Charles in turn stands by her unswervingly when it becomes known that she is working for a Communist scandal sheet which is planning to publish an assault on Sir Philip March that could gravely tarnish his reputation.
This drama is narrated by an intimate friend of the Marches, Lewis Eliot, an analyst of human behavior through whose probings and reflections Snow illuminates the struggles of the heart and mind. Leisurely in pace, the novel is one in which milieu, characterization, and atmosphere are solidly realized. And in Leonard March, Snow has achieved a masterly portrait of a remarkable type — the great Anglo-Jewish gentleman.