AFTERNOON OF AN AUTHOR (Scribner’s, $4.50) is a collection from the work of F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, stories and essays which appeared in magazines but have never been included in a book. The material has been selected and annotated by ARTHUR MIZENER, author of The Far Side of Paradise, the Fitzgerald biography of several years ago.
Mr. Mizener has arranged the selections with great care “to illustrate both the persistence of Fitzgerald’s fundamental sense of experience and the way his uses of it varied as he matured in feeling and as his circumstances changed in time.”This is a pretty solemn enterprise for a little book containing less than an author’s best work, and one can hardly help speculating on what Fitzgerald would have made of Mr. Mizener’s soberly joyful revelation that “A Night at the Fair,” published in 1928, is connected somehow with a note in Fitzgerald ‘s diary back in 1911: “Attended State fair and took chicken on rollercoaster.”
Readers not enthralled by the minutiae of literary scholarship can enjoy a great deal of pleasure, however, by reading Fitzgerald’s share of Afternoon of an Author, for if these pieces are not the best Fitzgerald, they are still better than about 90 per cent of what is being published at any given moment. Fitzgerald had a craftsman’s pride which compelled him to present the most trifling subject with style. His prose, that casual, conversational miracle which proves, on examination, to be beyond analysis or parody, is never less than a delight.
The essays, aside from an admirable review of an early Hemingway book, are frankly, even ostentatiously, autobiographical. Fitzgerald potboiled his defeat by finance and produced one piece that is very nearly a model of the lefs-all-laughat-my-troubles type of writing. A later essay, “Author’s House,” gives in an oblique way a surprising amount of information on how Fitzgerald thought his creative faculty functioned.
The stories are almost entirely writing done for what is usually called the slick market, which in the twenties demanded speed, charm, a plot that began, developed, and ended, and not one word calculated to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty. What Fitzgerald could manage within these limitalions is a caution. The stories may be confined in some respects, but they are so expertly constructed that the fact of confinement is never apparent; there seems to be all the room in the world for maneuver. The crumbling people in “One Trip Abroad,” which foreshadows Tender Is the Night, would be no more pitiful and frightening for any amount of untrammeled detail.
THE CONTEMPORARY NOVEL
The amount of untrammeled detail in contemporary novels has aroused the critic EDMUND FULLER to a protest called MAN IN MODERN FICTION (Random House, $3.50). Not that Mr. Fuller explains his book on these grounds. His official complaint is that a number of writers today see man “as collective, irresponsible, morally neuter, and beyond help.”in contrast to the image of man “found in the Judeo-Christian tradition” where “man is seen as, or tacitly understood to be, a created being, with an actual or potential relationship to his Creator. . . . Man is seen as inherently imperfect, but with immense possibilities for redemption and reconciliation with his Creator.”
Now if this view of the situation is correct, and it well may be, the interesting question is why certain of our younger writers have abandoned the Judeo-Christian view of man, and why large numbers of readers find their work satisfactory.
This is a matter Mr. Fuller does not bother to pursue. Having entrenched himself firmly in what he calls the “Western historical-literary tradition,” he assumes that every literary manifestation which displeases him is located outside that tradition and he shells it with indiscriminate energy.
Some of his targets are hardly worth the ammunition; some of them, notably James Jones and Jack Kerouac, are flattened so amusingly that one is obliged to forgive Mr. Fuller his failure to perceive that these authors are as far from each other as they are from himself. The excesses of gutter language and pornographic description which Mr. Fuller attacks are so common today, and so tiresome, that it would be a satisfaction to see him make an effective case against them. He has not done so because, although he begins by diagnosing the disease, he spends all his subsequent effort on denouncing the symptoms.
OUR UNWANTED BLESSINGS
In THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00), JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH, professor of economics at Harvard, makes a formidable attack on all current economic thinking. Quite apart from the impossibility of doing justice to its intricate argument in a short summary, the book is difficult to review because until the final chapter, Professor Galbraith conceals his goal from the reader with all the ingenuity of a mystery writer bent on distracting attention from the butler. It seems churlish, in these circumstances, to betray his destination, and readers curious about the ultimate purpose of The Affluent Society had best read the book. It is well worth the effort.
Professor Galbraith’s first contention is that standard economic theory, which he calls “the conventional wisdom,” was formulated in a world where “poverty had always been man’s normal lot.” There simply were not enough goods and services to go around, and the possibility of a society able to produce far more flour, washing machines, lipsticks, and certified public accountants than it actually needs to function efficiently never occurred to the early economic theorists. We now live in such a society; nevertheless, modifications of the beliefs of Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo remain at the core of economic thinking to this day. The assumption of unlimited want justifies a policy of continually increased production; production increased beyond the level of reasonable need requires the creation of artificial markets and leads finally to the absurdity of people being urged to buy things they don’t want in order that their fellow citizens may continue to be paid for making these unwanted and unneeded goods.
Since it is unthinkable, according to the conventional wisdom, to restrain production, superfluous goods continue to increase, while the quality of public services steadily declines. Public services have never been thought of as production. “The scientist or engineer or advertising man who devotes himself to developing a new carburetor, cleanser, or depilatory for which the public recognizes no need and will feel none until an advertising campaign arouses it is one of the valued members of our society. A politician or a public servant who dreams up a new public service is a wastrel. Few public offenses are more reprehensible.” As a result of this attitude, “The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered, and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground. They pass on into a countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial art. . . . They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings.”
If the problem were merely one of uneven blessings, Professor Galbraith might be dismissed as a disgruntled perfectionist, but he demonstrates with great clarity and persuasiveness that unless the money and energy now devoted to the private production of unnecessary goods can be diverted to the increase and improvement of public services, we may in due course expect our economy to choke on a surfeit of nylon seat covers and plastic doorknobs.
Professor Galbraith’s suggestions for preventing such a humiliating catastrophe are specific. They will, he gleefully predicts, irritate almost everybody. But they cannot safely be ignored while the panacea for economic ills put foward by the conventional wisdom remains “You auto buy now.”
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
THE CHAINS OF FEAR (Regnery, $4.75), a novel about life in Russia, could be pigeonholed as another work in imitation of Kafka if N. NAROKOV, the author, were not a refugee from the Soviet Union. It seems more likely that life in Russia imitates Kafka than that Mr. Narokov has done so.
A high official of the secret police is assigned to clear up corruption in a Russian city. Nobody there was aware of corruption until he arrived, and Lyubkin himself has no idea precisely what he is to look for, much less why. He merely sets the machinery in motion, and it grinds out a stream of denunciations, arrests, confessions, and executions. The confessions usually describe imaginary crimes, but the executions are real. Partly through the influence of a young woman and partly because the campaign he is directing is even more meaningless than the general run of such witch hunts, Lyubkin begins to think about his position. It is very nearly fatal.
The Communist police atmosphere of suspicion and fear and the dishonesty and brutality it produces have been described before, and it cannot be claimed that Mr. Narokov has made any spectacular additions to the genre, although he writes well and maintains a high degree of suspense. What is rather unexpected about The Chains of Fear is the implication, in Lyubkin’s bumbling friendship with the utterly non-Communist Evlalia, that embers of civilized feeling smolder even in the bosom of a secret policeman, and that the fellow may dream ineffectually of a better life.
CONRAD’S WORK AND LIFE
Two books about Joseph Conrad have just appeared, rather far in the wake of his centennial. RICHARD CURLE’S JOSEPH CONRAD AND HIS CHARACTERS (Essential Books, $6.00) is subtitled “a study of six novels,” all of which constitutes about as thorough a misrepresentation as a single book jacket can carry. Although he was a friend of Conrad’s, Mr. Curie has almost nothing to say about him; neither does he “study” the novels, if study is taken to mean a thorough examination of their structure and purpose.
What Mr. Curle does is describe, in a pleasant, informal way, the major characters involved in six Conrad novels, gossiping along about their actions and motives as though they were interesting, if sometimes alarming, residents of the next block. He occasionally elaborates on things at which Conrad merely hinted, but in the main he sticks very close to the original text; Mr. Curie is not the man to ask, “How many children had Lady Macbeth?”
THE THUNDER AND THE SUNSHINE (Putnam, $4.50) by JERRY ALLEN is a biography of Conrad, concentrating on his youthful adventures in Marseilles. It is highly romantic in tone, but it is not what is usually called a romantic biography, meaning one in which the biographer invents dialogue and action which the records fail to supply. Miss Allen clearly knows her subject, she supports every contention with copious quotation, and when she seems to be leaping to a wild conclusion she usually proves to have at least a moderate probability on her side.
Miss Allen has succeeded in identifying the original of Rita in The Arrow of Gold, the mysterious beauty with whom Conrad became entangled in Marseilles. It was for this girl’s beaux yeux, far more than for any interest in Spanish politics, that he became a Carlist gunrunner, and for her honor that he eventually got himself shot in a duel, to the woebegone exasperation of his Uncle Thaddeus. It is a pity that Conrad never put Uncle Thaddeus Bobrowski into a novel, for this long-suffering Polish gentleman, forever remonstrating with his spendthrift ward but forever bailing him out of his difficulties, is most appealing.
By unearthing both the actual identity of Rita and her subsequent history, and establishing them with as much certainty as can reasonably be expected concerning an old and carefully buried scandal, Miss Allen has made a real contribution to the literature about Conrad. The sentimental tone of her writing and her sugar-coated stage setting cannot obscure the merit of her research.
THE MORTALITY OF BEAUTY
THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS (Simon and Schuster, $3.75), a first novel by MAMA DERMOÛT, a Dutch lady who took up writing in her sixties, is th kind of book that drives a reviewer to a spate of adjectives. Set in a spice garden in the Moluccas, it tells the story of the last of a Dutch colonia family, and meanwhile conjures up the shape, the sound, the smell and color of an exotic world with a pre cision that is truly magical. Every scene is both beautiful and eerie.
For all its surface charm, the book is at bottom a tough-minded pagan statement. It is a great paean of admiration for the beauty of the world and a lament that all this life and beauty must end in death, which is seen as complete and final. Mrs. Dermoût will have no truck with heaven, hell, or reincarnation. She does not contemplate even Homer’s misty island of the dead, but she would agree absolutely with Achilles:
I rather wish to live in earth a Swaine
Or serve a Swaine for hire, that scarce can gaine
Bread to sustaine him, than (that life once gone)
Of all the dead sway the Imperiall throne.
Or serve a Swaine for hire, that scarce can gaine
Bread to sustaine him, than (that life once gone)
Of all the dead sway the Imperiall throne.
The book’s title is derived from a native song of the islands, “the old heathen lament (careful, don’t let the schoolteacher hear it) for one who has just died. ‘The hundred things’ was the name of the lament — the hundred things of which the dead one is reminded, which are asked him, told him.
“Not only the people in his life: this girl, this woman and that one, that child, your father, your mother, a brother or sister, the grandparents, a grandchild, a friend, a comrade-inarms; or his possessions: your beautiful house, your china dishes hidden in the attic, the swift proa, your sharp knife, the little inlaid shield from long ago ... but also: hear, how the wind blows! — how whitecrested the waves come running from the high sea ! — the fishes jump out of the water and play with each other — look how the shells gleam on the beach — remember the coral gardens under water, and how they are colored — and the bay! — the bay! —please never forget the bay! And then they said: oh soul of soand-so, and ended with a long-held melancholy ee-ee-ee? ee-ee-ee? over the water,”Mrs. Dermoût reverses the meaning of this ceremony; it is not the dead who must remember, but the living, for the dead have no existence except as memories.