Reader's Choice

Homer’s Bronze Age heroes, living by the sword and deliberately choosing a suitable death in battle, have not fared too well in modern times. Achilles has become a tendon, and Hector a pup. Only Odysseus, who never chose death on any terms, has endured and still goes voyaging, wily and indomitable, across perilous seas.
In THE ODYSSEY: A MODERN SEQUEL (Simon and Schuster, SI0,00) the late poet and novelist NIKOS KAZANTZVKIS made Odysseus the symbol of mankind’s struggle to understand life and come to terms with death. This struggle is a large subject anyway, and since it is explored on half a dozen levels with all Kazantzakis’ extraordinary resources of knowledge and invention, the poem expands into more than seven hundred pages of adventure, surprise, debate, reflection, dream, miracle, folk tale, ritual, and philosophy. It is not, and plainly was never intended to be, classical in tone.
The poem picks up Odysseus after the killing of Penelope’s suitors. He is not comfortable in Ithaca, nor welcome, and very soon startles his subjects — who expect him to pour the traditional libation — with, “I drink not to the gods but to man’s dauntless mind.” Man’s dauntless mind is the moving force of the whole poem, and Odysseus is its chameleon representative. His three fates are unsatisfied Tantalus, Prometheus the innovator, and Heracles oi the unfinished labors. Ithaca is too small for such a destiny.
The hero therefore builds a ship and puts out to sea with a crew consisting of a cheerful old pirate named Captain Clam, a dour bronzesmith, a musician described as “the fool’s cap of God with dirty tassel,” a fat, kindly drunk and glutton called Kentaur, and a mountaineer who has killed his own brother in a duel over a girl. The expedition pauses at Sparta to recruit the boy Rocky and kidnap Helen once again, descends on Crete and demolishes the place, and goes on to Egypt, where Odysseus eventually establishes an ideal city somewhere, it seems, south of the Sudan. While this goes on, the original members of the party have been dropping away. When the ideal city is destroyed by a volcano, only Rocky and Kentaur are left to die in the ruins. Odysseus, of course, survives.
Up to this point in the poem, Odysseus has been a man of action whose exasperated desire to improve the world causes uproar and the tall of empires wherever he goes. He has also had dealings with a series of gods, all of whom turn out to be aspects of himself and therefore unreliable in a crisis. Alone again after the destruction of his city, Odysseus turns to asceticism and contemplation. He wanders south across Africa and, by refusing to concern himself any longer with the actions of men or the nature of gods, achieves at last clear vision and acceptance of the world with all its conflicts and contradictions.
Then flesh dissolved, glances congealed, the heart’s pulse stopped,
and the great mind leapt to the peak of its holy freedom,
fluttered with empty wings, then upright through the air
soared high and freed itself from its last cage, its freedom.
All things like frail mist scattered till but one brave cry
for a brief moment hung in the clear benighted waters:
“Forward, my lads, sail on, for Death’s breeze blows in a fair wind!”
While summary may indicate the general outlines of Kazantzakis’ Odyssey, nothing but an actual reading can give any idea of the complexity of meaning and the richness of episode packed into this enormous poem. Everything, from political argument to the design on Helen’s robe, carries two or three meanings.
Kazantzakis was too good a novelist to let symbolism and allegory suck the life out of his characters. They may be demigods engaged in flat impossibilities, but they remain interesting, recognizable people. Even when he has become a saint, Odysseus shows traces of the arrogant pirate who sailed for Troy. Menelaus, grown rich and soft, is delighted to see Odysseus but presently complains that he had hoped to overhaul old adventures in fireside comfort with a friend as old as he; it is embarrassing to have the king of Ithaca still slamming around after scuffles and excitement.
Kimon Friar’s translation of the poem, much of it done with the advice and supervision of the author, is a most impressive piece of work. He has had the usual problems with meter and solved them very well. At first glance the style seems a trifle flat, the meter all but imaginary, the manner close to academic discretion, but as the poem rolls along, these supposed deficiencies disappear. The restrained manner leaves Mr. Friar plenty of room for maneuver when the occasion calls for it, while the unemphatic. meter proves capable of a great deal of subtle variation, making a fine vehicle for such a long journey.

HOUSE UNBEAUTIFUL

Through twenty years and a couple of thin volumes, OSBERT LANCASTER, author, stage designer, and cartoonist, has been hacking his way through the jungle of British domestic architecture. All his efforts in this line, lately amplified by an excursion to the Linked States, are now available in a small, venomous, hilarious book called HERE, OF ALL PLACES! (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00).
Proceeding by word and picture from the Piet in his brush heap to the commuter in his split level, Mr. Lancaster rocks architectural styles like an earthquake. He is not, however, entirely unsympathetic to the art of building, conceding that by the end of the Middle Ages “the houses of the rich compared very favorably with, say, the average first-class waiting room in a modern provincial railway station.”
The author also has a sharp eye for the practical motive behind decorative exuberance, pointing out that the Victorian passion for bric-a-brac, souvenirs, photographs, and trinkets from Indian bazaars so overcrowded any normal mantelpiece that the overmantel had to be developed “to cope with what were rapidly becoming slum conditions.”
The figures who inhabit Mr. Tancaster’s drawings are as instructive as their houses. The goiterous damozel chatting with Mr. Oscar Wilde holds a Japanese fan, although every effort has clearly been made to exclude air from her greenery-yallery drawing room. On the lawn of a masterpiece in Carpenters’ Gothic, an American style justly described by Mr. Lancaster as “ridiculous but never without charm,” Artemis in a beribboned hat and a hoop skirt has just put an arrow into the waistcoat of a bearded Actaeon, who lies supine at some distance from his stovepipe hat.
Whether or not Mr. Lancaster succeeds in getting us all more elegantly housed (internal evidence suggests that he would toss everyone into Georgian, Greek Revival, or Early Colonial and let it go at that), Here, of All Places! will provide a laugh and warning to anyone not altogether committed to the idea that a house should be une machine à habiter.

THE POOR AND UNSELFISH

THE POORHOUSE FAIR (Knopf, $3.50) is JOHN UPDIKE’S first novel, a well-controlled, neatly constructed study of the survival of spiritual vitality in a most unlikely setting, among the elderly inmates of a New Jersey county farm. While nothing much happens, the continual unfolding of ideas and enterprise among the old people produces a very lively story. For one thing, their physical condition gives any action a quality of suspense. When Mr. Lucas sets out to recapture his wife’s escaped parakeet, he has to contend with stairs, short wind, unreliable balance, and an uncertain sense of direction, in addition to the vagaries of the bird.
The farm is directed by a professional social worker, Connor. He truly wants to make his charges happy, but as a group, while they insist on being happy, if at all, as individuals. Connor is baffled by them. The contrast between Connor’s impersonal good will and the anarchic but effective kindness of the old people is the ironic point of the book.
Mr. Updike writes extremely well, with great clarity and a precision of language that seems effortless and is probably far from it. As a tribute to the lasting value of independence and individuality, The Poorhouse Fair is more effective than many larger and soberer books about the dangers of Utopia.

THE ONSLAUGHT OF CIVILIZATION

The breakup of African tribal society is the subject of CHINUA ACHEBE’S novel, THINGS FALL APART (McDowell, Obolensky, S3.75). This theme has been discussed before with the same melancholy conclusions, but Mr. Achebe’s book is distinctive in that most of it concerns African life before any European interference occurs.
Mr. Achebe’s hero and his environment are described with care, and no attempt is made to disguise their unlovable aspects. Even by the standards of his own people, Okonkwo is not a particularly attractive man: hard working and a good provider, but overambitious, short tempered, heavy handed, humorless, and self-important. He has never recovered from the chagrin of being a poor man’s son, for his father was a musician with no talent for farming and no taste for work of any sort. This feckless charmer, appearing briefly at the start of the story, is a delightful character, lull of courtly conversation and remarkably gifted in borrowing more money from friends who drop by to collect their old loans.
To Okonkwo’s credit, he is honest, conscientious in his civic duties (he has risen to the honorable office of representing one of the ancestral spirits during their masked appearances in public), fond of his wives and children despite his bullying manner, and devoted to his gods. He also has physical courage, although he is short of nerve on moral questions and always takes the easy, conventional way out.
This is the portrait of any ordinary, proper, businesslike citizen, and Mr. Achebe has been very clever in building it up in terms of mud-walled compounds, yams, and human sacrifice. Okonkwo’s life is not without problems. His favorite daughter is a fragile child, probably possessed by an evil spirit. An accidental shooting causes him to be banished from the tribe for some years, to his great distress and expense, These affairs permit Mr. Achebe to record the habits, jokes, stories, work, and festivities of the tribesmen in detail, until the structure of their society rises as clearly as his hero’s character.
Okonkwo’s world is brutal in some respects, very gentle in others, highly organized but quite incapable of contending with jails and policemen. These arrive hard on the heels of the first missionary, and everything is thrown topsy-turvy. Okonkwo, a born conservative, fights for the old gods and is beaten at once. He becomes a paragraph in a projected book on The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, to be written by a man who does not understand any more about the society he is busily destroying than Okonkwo does about bookkeeping.

FAITH AND THE MAN

JOYCE CARY’S last novel, THE CAPTIVE AND THE FREE (Harper, $5.00), was written against time and left unfinished at his death. His material has been fitted together and published in what his literary executors hope is approximately the form Cary had in mind, and there can be no doubt that Mrs. Winfred Davin has worked hard and well at this task. There are a few rough spots in the narrative, but no really bothersome gaps.
Unhappily, the best of editors cannot, at least not with a clear conscience, provide what the author never got around to writing. The Captive and the Free noticeably Jacks the quickly drawn but solid backgrounds, the sharp flashes of observation. and the crackling humorous phrases that run through Cary’s other books. Evidently these things were part of the final polishing, which he did not live to do. Stylistically, this cannot be quite the book the author intended to write.
The novel is a study of the necessity of religious faith, its practice in opposing forms, and the effect these things have on a huge, heterogeneous cast of characters. The battle begins between a reasonably liberal Anglican curate named Syson and Preedy, a faith healer whose dismal history includes the seduction of a fourteenyear-old girl. Preedy claims this affair brought him to God.
Viewing Preedy as a fraud, Syson advises his parishioners to avoid the crook. Preedy, who is a remarkable compound of foggy enthusiasm, gutter shrewdness, and genuine religious fervor, sues for slander. The case attracts, and soon involves, the editors and officials of a newspaper empire where a war of succession is quietly in progress, the followers of both clerics, and a horde of hysterical or amused bystanders. This conglomeration of people enables Cary to investigate the financial side of both churches and to take a few well-aimed swipes at the excesses of journalism.
Preedy wins his case. Syson, recognizing the religious sincerity of the obnoxious little man, begins to question his own orthodox position and ends by withdrawing from the church to look for a personal faith. Alice, Preedy’s juvenile mistress, is now an elderly woman of nineteen and, having blown hot and cold throughout the trial, finally rejoins him. These three have all elected to look for salvation in their own way. free of conventional rules and regardless of the opinion of the neighbors. Around them, the mob of subsidiary characters entangle themselves in finance, politics, and plain foolishness, unable to recognize and follow their desire for religious truth. Religious truth, incidentally, Cary never undertakes to define.