The Peripatetic Reviewer
YOUR first impression as you pass through the turnstiles at Brussels is one of gaiety. Flags and color everywhere; the music in the air; the bucket seats which give the panoramic view of the Fair, passing like a giant ski tow overhead; the gorgeous flower terraces leading up to the director’s headquarters to the left; and to the right, the twisting, leaping fountains before the American pavilion — all of this is instantly inviting. The setting is a part of the royal park, and you notice how decoratively the old trees have been preserved; the King of Belgium asked that they be spared, and the more imaginative of the exhibitors have used them in their planning. The flowers — the regiments of tulips, the carpet of blue pansies — had just had their morning sprinkle when I arrived, and each blossom was gleaming in the sunlight; I paused to sniff, and then my eye was caught by the leaning willow and the still pool beside which the Japanese have planted their tiny outdoor restaurant. One of the little waitresses in her kimono was posing for photographs.
The current swept me along toward our fountains, keeping to the windward of the spray. The American pavilion rises lightly from the ground like a vast gold and white bubble, and the handsome flags of the forty-eight states which are spaced under the roof give the glass walls color and movement. Being circular, the building is spacious and airy within: you notice the animation of the spectators, you notice the center pool and also that whole trees have been enclosed to add their green beauty to the interior. Our pavilion is dedicated not to a revelation of American might and machines (of which Europe has had just about enough) but to a projection of the spirit and diversity of our people, and if you accept that proposition it is hard to see how it could have been done more imaginatively. You must measure the impact as much by what it does to the foreigners as by what it does to yourself, and I suspect that such sour notes as emanated from some of the American correspondents were written in advance, before the crowds responded.
How should we suggest American living? President Eisenhower asked that a mechanical votingbooth with curtains, crank, and ballot be displayed. Well, actually there are six of them in operation, and no skeptic could ever have believed that such an eager queue would line up to use them. People vote on the outstanding émigré in the United States (Einstein is leading), their favorite American actress, the American college they would like to send their son to, their favorite car, their favorite American author; and their faces as they emerge and check their ballots are something to see.
Our size and complexity are indicated on the ground floor by objects such as the cross section of a giant redwood, the montage of one single Sunday copy of the New York Times, an Idaho potato, an Amish hat, and a football uniform laid out like a Crusader’s armor. Curiosity focuses on these and a hundred other items familiar to us, strange to the world, and then as you climb upstairs you begin to see how the pattern fits together. Here are the rooms and the models of how we live, and for the breath of reality, here in the shadowed recesses are a dozen projection hoods, each with its colored movies showing the harvest in Kansas, a roundup in Texas, Jones Beach in July, and California playing Stanford. We really are masters of the pictorial. Our wizard is Walt Disney, and the “Circarama" which he built for Brussels is our most stirring single exhibit.
With some two hundred others, you enter a small circular replica of the main building, where for nineteen minutes you are jet-propelled in one breathless sweep across our continent. Eleven cameras are focused on the screen, which completely encircles the auditorium, and once the darkness falls, you are the spear point of Disney’s arrow. The journey begins in the blue dawn, with you on the prow of a ferryboat coming up New York Harbor, past the Statue, past Governor’s Island, up to the towers which the sun is just fingering. Always you are in motion, on a bus winding through a Vermont village, in a car speeding out to River Rouge, on a cable car slithering down the steeps of San Francisco, on a helicopter flying up the Grand Canyon.
You brace yourself against the speed and cry out when a car with squealing brakes almost smashes into you in Chinatown. You are winding your way up to the peaks of the Rockies at the close, and when the choir breaks into America the Beautiful, you are caught in a rush of feeling shared by foreigners and natives alike. People bring their lunch to the picnic tables at the entrance to the building so they can be ready when their turn comes. Many go twice.
The allotting of space has been skillfully handled by the Belgians, and there are two big pavilions juxtaposed to ours which challenge comparison: the French for the sheer audacity of its architecture and for the mechanical ingenuity amassed within, and, most competitive of all, the Russian building for its huge and massive power.
We entered the Russian pavilion on a flight of stairs which reminded me of Grand Central. The great hall rises clear to the dome, and over all broods the colossal statue of Lenin. The slogans from Lenin on the wall, the overpowering hammer and sickle have a silencing effect on the spectator. I had with me one of our American guides, an attractive Negro, Sue McClain, President of Student Council at Sarah Lawrence. She had felt the hostility, she told me, on her only other visit there before; now in her gray jacket and pleated skirt, with the official arm patch and her gold beret, she was watched with more friendly attention.
The main floor was given up to machines, massive exhibits of automation working silently, and in the very center a big suspended Sputnik with beneath it a table of Sputnik trophies. We wanted something more personal, and we found it by climbing the stairs to the mezzanine. Here were the Russian arts, the paintings and sculpture, literal, as patriotic as the Franco-Prussian battle scenes, and except for those which captured the strong northern light, mediocre. It was our discussion of the pictures which attracted an Englishspeaking Russian curator, and behind him a silent but not unfriendly gathering. He began to explain the photographs of the Tchaikovsky Festival and then the visit of the Boston Symphony. This led him to display some ancient Russian musical instruments; there were recordings of each, and he played the ones I asked for, the primitive lute from the Uzbek and the balalaika. By now there must have been three dozen of us listening. When I said ballet, he led us to a small movie box with a screen of television proportions which he turned on to show us the four most touching ballets of Galina Ulanova. I couldn’t help wondering why the enchanting film hadn’t been magnified.
The curator had called over a young Russian librarian who was eager to show us their translations of our popular American authors, Poe and Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Fenimore Cooper, Dos Passos, Caldwell, and Hemingway. “How much do you charge for that copy of The Old Man and the Sea?” I asked. The book was lifted out of the glass case, the price found to be three rubles, and the volume was thereupon inscribed and presented to me. Everyone shook hands.
While all this was going on, my guide was engaged in earnest conversation with a Pole, a naturalized American, who now walked off with us as we made our departure. “Well,”he said, “you have seen them both, our building and theirs. What do you think? Why don’t we show more of our big things, as they do, more of our machines, more of our medicine, more of our inventions?” “I know,” I said, “but we are trying to show something different. What Americans are really like. It’s more subtle, but it’s worth doing.”
READING IN ENGLAND
An editor in London must devote most of his eyesight to manuscripts, but there were times on the long weekends when I could take a busman s holiday and peruse some of the new English books. THE CONTENDERS by JOHN WAIN (St. Martin’s Press, $3.95) introduced me to a young novelist now living in Yorkshire, who will I think be read with increasing pleasure on our side. For this novel he received the Somerset Maugham Award for 1958. The Contenders is the story of three men who were born and schooled together in a city in the Midlands which could be Manchester. Their rivalry breaks out at an early age, and the clash of temperaments between Robert Lamb, the artist, and Ned Roper, who makes his fortune in Blue Seal pottery after the war, is first slow-burning and then explosive. Both men are egotists, both are drivers; Robert the more adventurous, Ned the more calculating. Both of them outgrow the provincial town, but in an angry, spurning way they are necessary to each other. The buffer between them is their fat good-natured confidant, Joe Shaw, so tolerant under their abuse, so understanding of their aspirations and envy. It is Joe who tells us the story in the ironic unpretentious accents of a small-town newspaperman, and of the three it is Joe who holds the reader’s sympathy.
The book has the limitations of a tour de force: Joe’s absorption in the antagonism and his repeated efforts to keep his two friends apart and out of trouble grow just a shade monotonous; we need the pleasantry and relief of participating in his own affairs, and this we do only by inference. The rivalry over Myra, the dumb but beautiful model, is carried past the point of credulity; and the ending is theatrical. But what gives the book its salt and sanity is Joe’s comments on life, his alcoholic account of Robert on the town, his detestation of celebrity parties, his withering encounters with Stocker, the tomcat. John Wain knows how to handle anger, and his irony has a sharp and cutting edge.
One of our Atlantic novelists who gave me pleasure was H. E. BATES. In THE DARLING BUDS OF MAY (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $3.75), he has turned out a raffish farce, as laughable a picnic as I have been invited to in a long while. Pop and Ma Larkin and their happy-go-lucky brood are, when necessity urges, fruit pickers and junk dealers. Their farm is a hodgepodge of geese, scrap iron, and pigs. They pay no taxes, work only occasionally; they live to eat, and the meals are engrossing.
The story begins with the attempt of young Mr. Charlton to get Pop into the books of the Bureau of Inland Revenue and to withstand the charms of Mariette, their seductive older daughter; a dried-up young tax collector, he instinctively resists the blandishments of the family, but in the end he is overwhelmed and spellbound. Watching the Larkin family at play, one is tempted to believe that being underprivileged in present-day England is an enviable way of life.
For his seventieth birthday, SIR HAROLD NICOLSON was staked to a two months’ cruise from London to Java by his friends. He and his wife, V. Sackville-West, settled into comfortable quarters on a pleasant Dutch ship, and here between glimpses of the foreign ports they continued their literary preoccupations, “V” working upon her biography of La Grande Mademoiselle while Sir Harold made a study of melancholia beginning with Galen and ending with Kafka. His travel notes, JOURNEY TO JAVA (Doubleday, $5.00), are thus an urbane mixture of reverie and encounter. He shows annoyance with an English major for tossing his young son into the pool and regret that there are not tastier puddings on the menu; his eye for landscape is that of an inveterate townsman; his stay in each place is short and flavored by European residents who share his taste for ancient temples and a good lunch; he was “careful not to mention apartheid in Cape Town or to discuss minority rights in Colombo and Singapore.” Tranquil reading for a summer day.