“All the volcanoes put together are less flamboyant than she.” The extraordinary woman who inspired this remark, Germaine de Staël (1766-1817), is the subject of a splendid biography by J. CHRISTOPHER HEROED: MISTRESS TO AN AGE (BobbsMerrill, $5.95), a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Byron said of her, “She thinks like a man, but alas! she feels like a woman,” and Talleyrand, whom she briefly seduced, remarked that in her latest novel, “Madame de Staël has disguised both herself and me as women.” Her life was lived at the very center of the European stage, at the summit of the elite of power and intellect. When the empire of her archenemy, Napoleon, was crumbling, a witticism was current that now there were three powers in Europe — England, Russia, and Madame de Staël.
Some historical figures are representative because they epitomize what we take to be the dominant character of an age; others, because they seem to sum up the conflictingaspects of their period. Madame de Staël is one of the latter. The critic Gustave Lanson has described her as “the eighteenth century come to life, the whole eighteenth century.” The most contradictory currents met in her without losing any of their force. In her unwavering faith in reason and her extreme worldliness, she was the daughter of Voltaire. Emotionally she was a romantic, a disciple of Rousseau and the cult of sensibility. Exaltation to her was always pure, derision corrupt; and she claimed the right to seek happiness without regard for public opinion. The combination of these strains had freakish consequences in her pursuit of politics: she championed a credo of moderation (a conservative sort of liberalism) with nothing short of delirium.
The daughter of a Swiss banker who became Louis XVI’s director general of finance, Germaine de Staël literally grew up in her mother’s salon, and at twelve she was on familiar terms with Gibbon, Buffon, Diderot, and other philosophes. Three strands were intertwined in her life: the pursuit of love, of politics, and of literature. Having failed to find her ideal of love in marriage (to the Swedish ambassador to France), she sought it relentlessly but vainly in liaisons so ostentatious that they scandalized a morally disheveled era. Though her looks were uninviting, her brilliance of mind and incandescent vitality won her a large and impressive array of lovers — among them Talleyrand; the dashing Vicomte de Narbonne, whom she managed to make minister of war; Benjamin Constant, who distilled from his years of bondage a novel that became a classic, Adolphe; A. W. Schlegel, the eminent German man of letters; and finally a pretty young cavalry officer whom she secretly married shortly before her death.
Madame de Staël’s more durable relationships with friends and lovers irresistibly evoke the image of a torture chamber in which the grand inquisitor talks so well that the victims cannot bring themselves to escape from the excruciating agonies of the rack. Her political maneuvers displeased the ancien régime, were suspect to the Jacobins, and infuriated Napoleon. Her novels are no longer read, but her letters and her book on German culture, De L’Allemagne, have earned her a niche in the French Pantheon. It might be said that there was genius in her conversation, talent in her writing, rationality in her political philosophy, and a couchful of neuroses in her design for living and loving.
Mr. Herold’s full-bodied biography (which draws on one hundred and fifty unpublished latters) is cleareyed, intelligent, and written with abundant wit and zest. It is a triumphant treatment of a life so rich — and so richly documented — that scores of monographs have been devoted to its various phases and facets. Of the points one might take issue with, the most vulnerable is the suggestion that there is a political lesson for our time in the fervor which Madame de Staël brought to the defense of moderation. We know by now how intimately and inescapably means determine ends; and it there is anything to be learned from Germaine de Staël’s involvement in politics, it is that the immoderate crusader for moderation fails to inspire confidence even among the moderates.
“THE LITTLE HUNTERS”
In The Dark Eye in Africa,LAURENS VAN DER POST suggested that Western man has been psychically crippled by a shallow rationalism, which causes him to overvalue the conscious, civilized self and to repress, at the cost of submerged civil war, the so-called “dark,” instinctual part of his being. It is Van der Post’s conviction that primitive Africa offers us an opportunity to recognize the worth of this rejected, natural self. And a year ago, he organized an expedition to find and study the earliest surviving inhabitants of Africa, the almost vanished Bushmen. THE LOST WORLD OF THE KALAHARI (Morrow, $4.00) is his account of that adventurous safari.
The Bushmen captured Van der Post’s imagination when he was a small boy in South Africa. By that time the last pure Bushmen — their race had been warred on for centuries by the African tribes and later massacred by the European settlers — had withdrawn into the inner recesses of the Kalahari desert. But old people still remembered them. Though never more than five feet tall, they were well proportioned and sturdy, and their prowess as hunters was legendary. They built no durable homes, did not keep cattle, nor did they cultivate the land. But they loved music and dancing and were enthusiastic painters; their rock paintings survive all over Africa. Probably because of their defeats at the hands of larger men, they had a complex about their smallness. They depicted themselves as giants; and those who came upon them in the veld found it wise to use their own form of greeting, which magnified their stature: “Good day. I saw you looming up afar.”
The second part of Van der Post’s story is a chronicle of his trek, with two old friends and a cameraman, into the great wasteland — a trek fraught with frustrations, dangers, and strange proofs of the prophetic powers of an old African seer who guided the party. The last two chapters tell how the expedition finally discovered a small community of Bushmen, made friends with them, and shared their life for a time (long enough to make a film of it). The subject of Mr. Morris’ inquiry is “the tendency, long prevailing [among American writers] to start well and then peter out.” His thesis about this blight — which he develops in original reappraisals of nine major writers, stretching from Thoreau and Twain to Hemingway and Faulkner — is that it stems from “the raw material myth,” the belief that the writer must get his hands on life in the raw, that what makes fiction “real” is experience rather than imagination. For the past hundred years, Morris argues, the immediate present has not seemed to offer raw material that is really raw. So, “in the nineteenth century the writer took to the woods or to the high seas, literally as well as figuratively. In the present century, the same flight is achieved through nostalgia, rage, or some such ruling passion from which the idea of the present . . . has been excluded.” The territory of the writer “has been a world that lies somewhere behind us, a world that has become ... a nostalgic myth.”
Africa’s European settlers, perhaps to rationalize their extermination of the Bushman, have portrayed him in their histories as no better than a wild animal. While Van der Post had instinctively rejected this image, he was astonished to find the Bushman’s Stone Age way of life “so comely, dignified, and orderly.”His description of this way of life is unfortunately not quite full enough to satisfy the reader’s curiosity (apparently Van der Post intends to devote a subsequent volume to the mores and mythology of the Bushmen). Still more disappointing, and inexplicable, is the lack of any photographs. For the rest, The Lost World of the Kalahari has in full measure that exciting combination of qualities which Van der Post has brought to the literature of adventure: a beautiful command of language, an extraordinary psychological awareness, and a spellbinding ability to evoke the sights and sounds and moods of the African interior.
THE MYTHIC PAST
The novelist WRIGHT MORRIS, winner of a National Book Award, has turned out an exceptionally interesting work of literary criticism: THE TERRITORY AHEAD (Harcourt, Brace, $4.50). Not the least of its merits is that Mr. Morris has what many of our most serious critics lack — a style that is a pleasure to read. His writing is lucid, often brilliantly phrased, and vitalized by a controlled passion.
Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman set a pattern of belief in the gathering of data, and their successors failed to realize that their most memorable work was not memorable because of what they found but because of what they conjured up with the creative imagination. Mr. Morris is saying, in effect, that the blight which has afflicted so many American writers — inability to develop, to mature, to realize fully their potentialities — is basically the result of a failure to understand properly the nature of literary creation. To Morris, Thomas Wolfe is the most glaring example of this failure: “Slabs of raw life were reduced to crates of raw manuscript”; and the shining exception to it is Henry James, whose life and work Morris discusses in an arresting even though almost idolatrous chapter.
I am afraid these cursory notes have drastically emasculated Morris’ thesis, and I cannot begin to discuss the insights which grow out of it — about Hemingway’s style, the theme of “loss” in American writing, the crack-up of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the popularity of Norman Rockwell. The Territory Ahead is a book packed tight with suggestive ideas about American letters and American life.
APPEARANCE AND REALITY
MARY MCMINNIES, whose second novel, THE VISITORS (Harcourt, Brace, $4.95), is a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, is a coolly intelligent, sharp-eyed writer with a sophisticated sense of comedy and a sparkling command of the technique of fiction. The setting of her story is an ancient university town in a Communist country (it is unmistakably Krakow in Poland), and the action centers on the pretty young wife of a British diplomat, Milly Purdue, who lets a scheming maid steer her into black market transactions and simultaneously takes a stab at playing Madame Bovary. Within this framework, Miss McMinnies treats a classic theme of the novel, the difference between appearance and reality, on two planes: the character of Milly and life in a Communist state.
The contemporary novelists who have set out to show that their protagonist is not what he appears to be have often taken the facile course of portraying him as a monster. But Miss McMinnies — while she exposes Milly’s flaws with unsparing, indeed devastating insight — presents her with an astonished affection which recognizes that, however inexcusable her conduct, she is altogether human. The secondary characters, a varied lot, are masterfully drawn (with the exception of an American journalist who is not quite credible and whose speech is not quite American), and they are often deliciously amusing. The whole performance is fresh, mordant, and executed with exhilarating zest — an entertainment of a high order.
The author’s lack of affection for his characters (with one exception) gives a harsh flavor to LOUIS AUCHINCLOSS’ new novel, VENUS IN SPARTA (Houghton Mifflin, $3.50); but it is the strongest, and I think the most interesting, book he has written to date. The central figure, Michael Farish, is an upper-class American of forty-five who, though outwardly a success, has a deep sense of inadequacy. The story backtracks to his days at a Spartan New England prep school, his shy courtship of his wife, his wartime service in the Navy, and an overseas love affair; and it shows that he has gone through life straining to measure up to rigid standards of conduct and with a guilty feeling that he is not as masterful and masculine as he should be. The discovery of his wife’s infidelity, coupled with a menacing development in his situation as trust officer of a Manhattan bank, goads him into breaking with the pattern of the past. But through an ironic combination of circumstances, his revolt and remarriage in due course return him, with enhanced prestige, to the world from which he tried to escape. He begins to disintegrate. And when he is suddenly overtaken by the kind of frenzied sexual craving he has always felt he should experience, he lets it lead him to destruction.
The jacket copy describes Venus in Sparta as “a remorseless examination of modern American man’s compulsion to prove himself a male.” But it seems to me that Farish’s concern about his masculinity is only one aspect of a larger problem, and it is the least convincingly developed part of the story. Farish’s dilemma is that he has forced himself to conform to a whole set of standards for which his nature is not suited, and he has not developed resources that would enable him to live differently. Moreover, the portraiture of the other characters is so uniformly damaging that the novel — though this may not have been Auchincloss’ intention
— implicitly becomes an indictment of the whole world to which Farish belongs. At any rate, Venus in Sparta shows an advance in vigor and intensity in the work of a novelist who has always been and remains fastidious, perceptive, and intelligent.
HEADS, FIGURES AND IDEAS (New York Graphic Society, $30.00) by HENRY MOORE is an unusual art book in that it shows us not finished work but the creative process. Its sixty-four large pages, some of them in color, reproduce (by photo-offset lithography of the highest quality) actual pages of Moore’s sketchbooks — the drawings he eventually transformed into sculpture and the notes he wrote beside them. There is also one fine four-color lithograph specially done by Moore for this volume. The book has been produced with an unstinting perfectionism, and even at thirty dollars, admirers of Henry Moore should find it something of a bargain.
Moore’s groups of drawings of a single subject show us, with a rare directness, a great sculptor exploring (in the words of Geoffrey Grigson’s overture) “the laws and antics of the solid, of the hollow; but also again the straits, bays, deeps of purest space.” We see Moore wrestling with the big reclining figure he executed for the UNESCO building in Paris; or seeking — in six studies labeled “women from pots” — to incorporate the grace of classic forms (Etruscan vases) into his own plastic idiom, which he has told us aims at “vitality” and not ideal beauty. “The great (the continual, everlasting) problem (for me),” Moore notes in one place, “is to combine sculptural form (POWER) with human sensitivity & meaning, i.e. to keep primitive power with humanist content.” Under a photograph of an ancient Egyptian stone head of a woman, he sums up his strivings: “I would give everything, if I could get into my sculpture the same amount of humanity & seriousness; nobility & experience; acceptance of life, distinction, & aristocracy. With Absolutely no tricks, no affectation, no self-consciousness . . . looking straight ahead, no movement, but more alive than a real person.”
The New York Graphic Society’s DALI ($I5.00), also a lavishly produced volume, is to the best of my knowledge the most comprehensive conspectus of Dali’s career published to date. The French critic Michel Tapie opens the book with an idolatrous appreciation, which would seem to be a literary application of Dali’s self-styled “paranoiac-critical method.” The substantial biographical essay by A. Reynolds Morse is more sober and more enlightening. Dali collaborated with Mr. Morse in selecting the works illustrated — seventeen in color and ninety-six in black and white — and he wrote the captions himself. Needless to say, they are awesomely immodest but more arresting, and more amusing, than such notations usually are. It is a distinct asset to have the magician describing his own magic.
THE THRONES OF EARTH AND HEAVEN (Abrams, $17.50) by ROEOFF BENY — photographs of “great treasures of the cultures surrounding the Mediterranean” — is a volume whose supplementary credentials suggest that Mr. Beny has a highbrow version of the Mike Todd touch. He has fortified his pictures with a foreword by Herbert Read; a letter about Egypt, in French, from Cocteau; contributions about the Mediterranean lands by Freya Stark, Bernard Berenson, and Rose Macaulay; a poem on photography (“the art of instantaneous flashlit tragedy”) by Stephen Spender; and thirteen lines from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Fortunately Mr. Beny’s photographs, superbly printed and of ample dimensions, are no discredit to the supporting chorus he has mustered. At times he strains for drama and his taste falters, but he has imagination, an eye for the poetic image, and great technical skill. As Malraux has said, photography has admitted to us a “museum without walls,” and Mr. Beny has contributed to it some splendid evocations of the Mediterranean’s heritage in stone — domes, pyramids, and pillars, churches and fortresses, gods, goddesses, and monsters.