BY CHARLES ROLO
The new novel by JOHN O’HARA, FROM THE TERRACE (Random House, $6.95), is the ninehundred-page life story of one Alfred Eaton, the second son of Samuel Eaton, owner of an iron and steel company in a small town in Pennsylvania. It describes Alfred’s years at prep school and at Princeton; the romantic loves of his youth and his sowing of wild oats; his rise, after World War I, as a partner in a private bank, to eminence in the New York financial world; the emptiness of his marriage to an unfeeling beauty with a keen taste for promiscuity, and the fulfillment he finds in a long affair with a girl who finally becomes his second wife; his service in World War II as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, in which position his high-principled patriotism earns him the hostility of powerful businessmen; and his post-war decline into the role of rich clubman with time on his hands and not a thing to do.
In an overture to the story, O’Hara cryptically announces that his purpose is more ambitious than to characterize Eaton and the people (there are more than a hundred characters) whose lives touched his. Presumably this purpose is to achieve a picture of upper-class America in the first half of the twentieth century and to show why in this society a man like Alfred Eaton — simple, attractive, with a high standard of integrity and great competence in business - fails to consolidate his early success and finds himself on the shelf before he is fifty. Unfortunately, the picture which O’Hara offers us is formless, pretentious, and embarrassingly simple-minded. And the climactic insight, the moment of truth, is the banal pronouncement that in the great world of business, background, brains, and luck are not enough: you need to make “friendly connection[s]” — and “Alfred didn’t.”
The recent jumbo novels of O’Hara are a dismal example of what happens to a writer when his ambition becomes much greater than his resources of intellect and talent. From the Terrace strikes me as the work of a once brilliant minor writer who has fattened himself up into a major anti-artist. The artist seeks to impose order on the chaos of life by selectivity and symbolism, by an act of the creative imagination. O’Hara, in contrast, devotes prodigious energy and considerable technical skill to reproducing raw experience in all its pointlessness. His credo is essentially that of the reporter: to get all of the facts, set all of them down, and let them speak for themselves. He is fanatically faithful to the most tiresome of all literary fallacies - that it is data which make fiction real; and he goes to grotesque lengths in the inclusion of irrelevant detail and the quotation of page upon page of inconsequential dialogue.
In this relentless accumulation of fact and speech, there is a rapt display of knowingness about the great world, and a naïve bedazzlement by it, which one cannot help associating with the snobbery of the parvenu. To cite just a couple of examples. O’Hara catalogues in full the food and wines served at a dinner in a banker’s house, though they are not in the least surprising or significant, and he treats the reader to a recurrent seminar on the benefits of belonging to the right clubs on the Eastern seaboard.
No less embarrassing is the treatment of love and sex. A solemn to-do is made about the difference between them, but this difference remains hard to detect in the behavior of the characters. Mr. O’Hara’s handling of love at literally first sight is altogether unconvincing, and the reams of sex palaver, most of it sophomoric, are of a vulgarity which one doubts his well-bred characters would descend to even under the influence of Eros. (Eaton’s idea of playful bedroom humor is to address his slim, exquisite inamorata as “Fatso.”)
But the operative point about O’Hara’s novel is simply that it is strangely uninteresting. You cannot create a living world by cataloguing its contents.
THE NINETEEN FIFTIES
In MORE IN ANGER (Lippincott, $3.50), a collection of essays about the contemporary American scene, MARYA MANNES makes forays over a broad front: manners and mores, politics, the arts. Her theme is stated at the outset: “We have been suffering for some time from a sort of spiritual leukemia: an invasion by the white cells of complacency and accommodation. . . . We are beginning to look like our pictures [in the mass media]: dull, amiable, with an appetite for things and none for ideas, a people overnourished physically and undernourished in mind and spirit.”
Some of the particulars in Miss Mannes’ indictment are as follows: A spurious and flattening concept of equality has destroyed our manners, our sense of deference, our respect for authority - everyone’s as good as the next man, and anything goes. Suspicious of privacy, which seems undemocratic, we glorify exposure from the hearth (Togetherness) to the gutter (How Blind Was My Alley). Overanxious to be liked, we smile too much and walk too little. Men are obsessed with money, women with weight; the gents talk boringly of gain, the ladies of loss. Our life has become so soft, passive, and bland that the aggressive instinct has no healthy outlets - hence the cult of violence in our entertainment, the brutality of high school kids, the hysteria of our witch hunts. Our politics are debilitated by the virus of cagey noncommitment. In sum, “An American who can make money, invoke God, and be no better than his neighbor, has nothing to fear but truth itself.”
These strictures are hardly original, but Miss Mannes has expressed them with considerable cogency, wit, and imaginative brio. To those who share her outlook she offers the delight of hearing one’s opinions voiced with an exhilarating felicity of phrase and form - in imaginary portraits and interviews, letters, playlets, and brilliant parodies. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed her performance, but I am forced to add that her kind of social criticism impresses me as somewhat self-indulgent. She has simply voiced the familiar complaints of the civilized mind about the shiny barbarism of the age and has neglected the more taxing job of delving into the why and wherefore of what irks her. As a stanch liberal Miss Mannes must be in favor of technological advance and economic democracy. And a more searching analysis would have shown her that most of the things she deplores are intimately bound up with the goal of a technologically advanced democracy, which is to get the maximum quantity of goods into the hands of the maximum quantity of people. In other words, her thinking stops at the point at which the crucial challenge to the liberal mind begins.
A spirited commentary on the cultural climate of the nineteen fifties in England has also just been published, THE ANGRY DECADE (British Book Centre, $3.95) by KENNETH ALLSOP. Focusing on the writers who have been loosely grouped under the label Angry Young Men, Mr. Allsop has turned out an effective combination of literary criticism, capsule biography, and topical social history. His book is intelligent, well written, and briskly readable.
Mr. Allsop finds it more accurate to call these writers, who have widely disparate outlooks, “the dissentients,” for the quality they share is disagreement with majority sentiments and opinions. He divides them into three groups: the derisive neutralists (Amis, Wain, Hinde, Braine, and others); the emotionalists, whose chief thunderer is John Osborne: and the spiritual bomb throwers (Colin Wilson, Stuart Holroyd). The most significant thing about the dissentients, who by and large are products of the welfare state, is that in striking contrast to the spokesmen of previous literary generations in England they have a militantly antiupper-class (in the cultural sense) perspective. They are anti-good-taste, anti-highbrow, anticosmopolitan, scornful of all forms of refinement. Although they represent a new class which is clearly on its way up, they believe that the social revolution has been something of a bust. As they see it, the old snobberies still flourish, and the establishment or power elite is still permeated by upper-class loyalties and conventions. This disillusionment has made them contemptuous of ideals and political programs, emotionally selfcentered. They agree with Osborne’s Jimmy Porter that “There aren’t any good, brave causes left. ... If the big bang does come . . . it’ll just be for the Brave New-nothing-very-much thank you.” What stirs them is that on all sides they see flaccidity, half-living, and pretentious humbug, a meretricious and decaying society. As a group, their literary gifts are impressive, but they appear to have no positive ideas. (One cannot take seriously Colin Wilson’s recipe for a spiritual revolution led by mystico-Nietzschean Outsiders.)
Mr. Allsop sums up the position of the dissentients as “a state of talent largely surrounded by indecision.” Their heroes, state-educated above their origins and raspingly class-conscious, are the directionless rebel, bristling with rage, self-pity, and shaky defiance; the cheerful scoffer who plays it safe, goes in for toadying and fakery to keep his job, and wages a concealed, farcical sort of guerrilla warfare against the upper classes; and the go-getter, who loathes the rich and their graces but wants his share of the big money. “They are scum,” Somerset Maugham has said of them. But their creators have unquestionably brought to English letters a fresh accent and the harsh, invigorating vitality of the upstart.
This fresh accent and this vitality are evident in EPITAPH FOR GEORGE DILLON (Criterion, $2.75), a play recently produced on Broadway which JOHN OSBORNE wrote in collaboration with ANTHONY CREIGHTON five years ago. It does not pack the electrifying punch of Look Back in Anger, but I found it more satisfying than the later works which have made Osborne famous. Epitaph for George Dillon is more human, more coherent, more sympathetic; its characterizations are more varied and in sharper focus.
In contrast to Jimmy Porter, a blob of indignation that only the English social revolution could have formed, George Dillon, jobless actor and unproduced playwright, is a universal type: the man dedicated to being an artist but with no proof of his talent. “Eternal bloody failure“ has brought out the worst in him, and at thirty-four he is a chronic sponger and jeerer. incapable of gratitude. He plays up to Mrs. Elliot, a sentimental woman of the lower-middle class who has given him a room in her household, but he is snide to Mr. Elliot, patronizes their daughters, and seduces the pretty one with the “jazz trousers.” “They not only act and talk like caricatures. They are caricatures,” he says to Mrs. Elliot’s sister, whom he mistakenly takes to be a kindred spirit because she is an intellectual like himself. In the taut, brilliantly modulated scenes between them, Dillon reveals himself fully in flashing outbursts of sincerity, wit, and bravura followed by weary admissions of his fears and self-contempt.
But Epitaph for George Dillon is more than a portrait of the cad-hero as an artist. A major theme (class loyalties are a secondary one) is the importance of feeling. Feeling is, to paraphrase a line in the play, “the harshest detergent”; it cleanses, but it hurts. And by hurting it keeps people genuinely alive, saves them from the painless, grubby half-living which Osborne so passionately detests. George Dillon retains a measure of our sympathy because his sensitivity exacts of him the full price for his failings. As he says, he has “a mind and feelings that are all fingertips.” When he surrenders to a shaming travesty of success, he is unsparingly honest with himself. He knows that George Dillon the artist has died a ludicrous death, and he proceeds to bury him with a damning epitaph.
After his disastrous attempt in Some Came Running to cope in a big way with ideas in the novel, JAMES JONES has written a novelette, THE PISTOL (Scribner’s, $3.00), which confirms that he is most at home in the sphere of primitive emotions. The setting is Hawaii, where, in the chaos following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Pfc. Richard Mast finds himself the possessor of a pistol (assigned to him for guard duty) which normally he would have been required to return. The pistol makes him feel “a real soldier,” and soon it becomes a symbol of salvation; he has a recurrent waking nightmare in which he is wounded and without the pistol, and a Japanese major cleaves him in two with his sword.
The story is pinpointed on Mast’s frantic struggle to hang on to the pistol, which his companions try to take away from him with offers of money or by theft, violence, the authority of superior rank. Even the compression required by the novelette does not eliminate redundancies from Jones’s writing, and he sometimes misuses words in a gauchely pretentious way. All the same his story is forcefully told and its feeling rings true; it dramatizes with extreme simplicity the desperation with which men at war latch on to a token of survival.
Admirers of Doctor Zhivago who wish to read more of BORIS PASTERNAK’S work now have two additional items to turn to. One is SAFE CONDUCT, AN AUTOBIOGRAY, AND OTHER WRITINGS (New Directions, paperback, $1.35), a reissue of a volume which appeared in a small edition in 1949. The other is a short novel never before published in English, THE LAST SUMMER, which is included in Nonnday I (Noonday, paperback, $1.25), a new literary magazine in book form edited by Cecil Hemley.
Pasternak has composed his brief autobiography as a poet rather than as a chronicler of personal history. He seeks to recapture the emotional essences of his experience and makes no attempt at giving us a conventional life story. His unfamiliar technique and the fact that his poetic prose clearly presents formidable problems to the translator together pose something of a challenge to the reader. The return that Pasternak offers is a rare combination of qualities: simplicity of heart, subtlety of mind and intensity of feeling; the radiance of an artist of large integrity. The opening themes are his early love for music and his idolization of his family’s friend, Scriabin, his study of philosophy in Germany, and the Sturm und Drang of youthful love. In the latter part of the book, the dominant presence is his beloved friend, the poet Mayakovsky, whose “strangeness was the strangeness of our times,” and whose suicide in 1930 brings Pasternak’s memoir to a close.
In The Last Summer, which is largely autobiographical, the central character relives in a dream the recent but already remote past, “that last summer [of 1914] when life still appeared to pay no heed to individuals and when it was more natural to love than to hate.”
The journal which PAUL GAUGUIN kept for two months not long before his death in Tahiti has recently been reissued in an edition containing fifty-two illustrations, twenty-eight of them from the original manuscript. The title is PAUL GAUGUIN’S INTIMATE JOURNALS (Indiana University Press, $3.95; paperback, $1.95), the translation by Van Wyck Brooks. “I should like to write,” says Gauguin, “as I paint my pictures . . . following my fancy, following the moon”; and this in effect is what he does. Continually diverse and diverting, the journals jump from talk of his contemporaries (“A devil of a painter, this Cézanne! [His] blues are white and the whites are blue”) to a reflection on his childhood in Lima, from comments on his relationship with Van Gogh to swaggering jibes by Gauguin “the savage” at the restrictions of a “whimpering civilization.” The book is slight, a footnote to a personality, but fascinating because the person is Gauguin.
ERICH HELLER’S THE IRONIC GERMAN (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $6.00) is probably the best study of Thomas Mann published in English to date. The singularity of Mann, Heller argues, is that in contrast to Proust and Joyce, who sought new forms in which to express change and dissolution, Mann’s experiment was to present the dissolution of established patterns of living within the traditional form of the novel: he “set out to build a traditionally solid house on a metaphysically condemned site.” This is an ironic enterprise, and it is Heller’s thesis that a pervasive irony is the energizing force of Mann’s work. It expresses itself most powerfully in Mann’s vision of knowledge as the enemy of life, the fatal tempter - a theme which recurs more than any other throughout his writings. Mr. Heller is a critic whose close study of the text does not degenerate into pedantry and who manages to be both sympathetic and searching.