Reader's Choice

Few if any of the novelists who have made their reputations in the nineteen fifties have aroused such transports among their admirers as has LAWRENCE DURRELL: I have heard Durrell fans celebrating the enchantments of Justine and Balthazar with the fervor one encounters among pious Proustians. Now Mr. Durrell’s work is destined to reach a larger public, since MOUNTOLIVE (Dutton, $3.95), the third volume of a tetralogy set in pre-war Egypt, is the April selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Mr. Durrell’s four-decker novel is avowedly a literary application of the theory of relativity. The characters and major events remain the same, but in each volume a fresh perspective corrects and amplifies the picture previously unfolded; each volume, in effect, represents a step forward in a search for truth. Thus the reader unfamiliar with Justine and Balthazar may at times feel like an outsider at a gathering where revelations are being made about people he has never heard of: Mountolive badly needs an introduction which would help to orient the uninitiated.
The two earlier books — narrated by the Irish schoolmaster, Darley — centered on Darley’s love affair with Justine and his discovery from Balthazar that she had merely used him to deflect her husband’s jealousy from the man she really loved, the English novelist-diplomat Pursewarden. Now the narrative shifts into the third person; the perspective becomes that of David Mountolive, the British ambassador; and what appeared to be “the intrigues of desire" are shown to be intrigues motivated by politics. We learn that the beautiful Jewess, Justine, and her Coptic (Christian) husband, Nessim, are passionately united by a common cause: he believes that the formation of a Jewish state will save other minorities in the Arab world from Muslim domination and he is the leader of a group which is smuggling arms to the Jews of Palestine. The discovery of this conspiracy by Nessim’s loyal English friends, Pursewarden and the ambassador, and their reactions to it form the plot line of Mountolive.
With its more objective approach, its switch from fantasies to facts, Mountolive seems to me vastly more convincing and more gripping than its two predecessors, which I, as a former Alexandrian, found steeped in phony romanticism and unreality. It now seems possible that Durrell created this artificial atmosphere deliberately, for in Mountolive there occurs the following passage: “For her [a minor character] Alexandria is as brilliantly colored as a fairy story. It will be some time before she sees it as it really is — with its harsh, circumscribed contours and its wicked, pleasure-loving and unromantic inhabitants.” It may be that the theme of the series will turn out to be the fatal tendency of the English in the Middle East to be blinded by romanticism.
Meanwhile, I continue to find Durrell’s Egyptian characters tiresomely unreal, whereas his English protagonists are handled with a magisterial touch. There arc many passages in Mountolive — the sketch of the military ape, Brigadier Maskeclyne; the letters of Pursewarden; various episodes in the ambassador’s career — which are as brilliant as any in the contemporary novel. But when Durrell is dealing with Nessim, Justine, and the other major Egyptian characters, his marvelous wit and precision vanish and the writing becomes lush, fuzzy, pretentiously “arty.” All in all, however, Mountolive is a fascinating novel. It has left me eager to know whether the concluding volume will clear up the annoying confusions and tantalizing mysteries that still exist and whether it will succeed in bringing the entire* drama into convincing focus.

“OVERTAKE, COMPETE!”

FRTEN DLY ENEMIES (Harper. $2.95), a book larger in interest than in size, is ADLAI E. STEVENSON’S account of the seven-thousand-mile trip he made last year through the Soviet Union (which he had visited in 1926). As might be expected, it is sane, intelligent, and crisply readable. It brings us the findings of an observer who was not only given the V.I.P. treatment but was also accorded a perhaps unprecedented freedom of action. Mr. Stevenson, I might add, has not used the book to lambaste U.S. policies, nor does he offer a cut-and-dried program for dealing with the Russians.
“MEN WORKING,” Stevenson begins, “is the symbol of Russia today.” The dominant image he brought back was of a country whose whole gigantic power apparatus — education, science, industry, agriculture, the administration — is harnessed with single-minded purpose to challenging America’s world leadership. “Overtake, catch up, compete— beat the U.S.! This is the constant refrain.” Khrushchev himself is convinced that the Soviet economy will soon outstrip ours and that Communism will inexorably expand by peaceful means. Stevenson’s interview with him corroborates the discouraging analysis of his outlook recently advanced by Walter Lippmann. When Khrushchev speaks of “no interference in the internal affairs of other countries” — his formula for ending the cold war — he means 1) that what happens within the Communist orbit (for example, the Hungarian revolt) is no concern of ours, and 2) that we must not try to prevent a revolutionary group anywhere from imposing on its country “the new system of society.”
What Stevenson found most heartening was the tremendous warmth and hospitality with which he was received by ordinary Russians wherever he went, and this at a time (U.S. Marines had just landed in Lebanon) when the official “Hate America” campaign had reached new heights of virulence. He was also encouraged by the fact that Khrushchev’s measures of decentralization have greatly increased the importance of the highly paid managerial class, whose members have little interest in ideology. “I think they will be easier to deal with,” says Stevenson, “as they replace the older generation of combat Communists.”
Mr. Stevenson discusses, among other things, the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet education; the great anxiety about future relations with an industrialized China (China, says Stevenson, is Russia’s number one problem — and ours); and the magnitude of Soviet aid to undeveloped countries, which has become a far greater danger than most Americans realize. !;I came away from the Soviet Union,” writes Stevenson in his summing up, “more convinced than ever that the battle of the future is economic and political, and the major battleground is in Asia and Africa.”

AWARD WINNER

BERNARD MALAMUD, whose collection of short stories, THE MAGIC BARREL (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $3.75), won the National Book Award for fiction published in 1958, is one of the most individual writers on the American scene. There is, as Herbert Gold has said, a hint of Dostoevsky in Malamud’s compassionate portrayal of straining souls; the vein of nostalgic lyricism and of fantasy that runs through his work brings to mind the paintings of Chagall; and his humor has been compared to Shalom Aleichem’s. But for all that, Malamud (the author of two fine novels, The Natural and The Assistant) is an authentic original. At its best his work is wonderfully funny, sad, bizarre magical yet rooted in commonplace reality, He has, moreover, something which relatively few of the younger American novelists possess or even care about: a style that gives delight. His writing is defl and economical, his sense of timing superb; and he is in full command of the idiom in which he works.
There are thirteen stories in The Magic Barrel, and only three or four are shaky. A recurring theme is that the Jew cannot escape the burden of being his brother’s keeper: a tough landlord tries to evict a crazy old tenant and finally surrenders in an agony of remorse; an American student in Italy is tormented by a cadging Jewish refugee (from Israel!) and ends up by giving him his only change of suit. The latter story, “The Last Mohican,” is a masterpiece; so, too, is “The Magic Barrel,” an account of the antic dealings between a rabbinical student and a wily, threadbare marriage broker. Malamud has created a world whose people have sorrow glued to their skin. Suffering weighs them down and hems them in, but it seems to nourish the life force.

PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN

The most dazzling of ANGUS WILSON’S gills — his murderous wit, his accuracy as a social observer, his flair for comically imaginative portraiture— have been most effectively deployed in his short stories. Within the longer compass of the novel, his comic invention has sometimes degenerated into grolesquerie and his malicious cleverness has, in the final count, left a suggestion of sterility. Now, Wilson seems to have decided that his particular strengths have become a handicap to his development as a serious novelist, and he has taken the drastic step of suppressing, for the most part, the qualities on which his reputation is founded, THE MIDDLE AGE OF MRS, ELIOT (Viking, $4.95) is in a vein closer to Virginia Woolf’s than to the coldly brilliant destructiveness of Such Darling Dodos. A new Wilson has emerged: a sympathetic, leisurely explorer of the heart and mind, an indefatigable auscultator of human sensibilities.
When we first meet her, Meg Eliot is a rich woman of forty-three married to a successful London lawyer with whom she is in love; she collects china, bosses a committee for “Aid to the Elderly,”and shines as a hostess. Suddenly, on a trip to the Far East, her husband is killed in a political incident, and it turns out that his passion for gambling has left Mrs. Eliot almost penniless. Up to this point, the story is firm and full of promise; but the remaining two thirds — which centers on the heroine’s efforts to readjust herself to life — is slow, overelaborated, and inconclusive.
There are fine portraits and incidents in the book, for Wilson’s literary resources are large, and now and then he takes the brake off his talents as a comic artist. The individual parts of the novel, in fact, are superior to the whole, which suffers from a fatal weakness: the characterization of Meg Eliot grows steadily more blurred and less interesting, and the ending leaves one with the feeling of having made a long journey which has wound up nowhere. Nevertheless, I will hazard the prediction that Wilson’s switch from satire to something approaching solemnity, though disappointing to his admirers, will substantially enlarge his audience in this country. Literary sales figures furnish proof of the importance of being earnest.

CRIME AND COMEDY

FRIEDRICH DUERKENMATT, the Swiss playwright who became internationally known through The Visit (which the Lunts brought to Broadway), has written an unusual and arresting novel of crime and detection. THE PLEDGE (Knopf, $3.00). Mr. Duerrenmatt is an accomplished and dramatic storyteller, and he has tucked into his short narrative some tantalizing moral questions.
The Pledge is the story of how an obsessive search for truth and justice, prompted by a hypothesis eventually proved correct, leads to the disintegration of a brilliant police inspector. A little girl is murdered, and Inspector Malthäi, dissatisfied for good reasons with the official solution, resigns from his post vowing he will find the real killer. Presently his former chief. Herr M., is astonished to learn that Matthäi has bought a gas station, is living there with a prostitute whose child he has adopted, and has taken to drink. But Herr M. is still more astonished when he discovers how sound and how morally offensive is the stratagem which Matthäi has devised to trap the maniacal murderer. I had better say no more, except that Duerrenmatt has up his sleeve an appallingly sardonic climax. The Pledge is a moving and absorbing drama.
MAKING PROGRESS (Dial, $3.50) by ANTHONY BAILEY, a young Englishman transplanted to New York, is a first novel in the tradition of the early burlesques of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. The hero, Slater, a young Englishman employed by a New York firm that sells attaché Cases, Has won $25,000 in the Irish Sweepstake and is treating himself to a holiday in Switzerland. Here he meets Morkaba, a glossy, sinister Egyptian, who is an agent of a Mid-Eastern revolutionary movement. Morkaba, mistaking Slater for the undercover man of the U.S. “oil interests,” forces upon him a large sum to carry out a mission for “The Movement”; a British Intelligence man steps in with a counteroffer; and with both of them on his trail, Slater, to whom Morkaba’s blonde mistress has annexed herself, tries to make a getaway.
In the course of his story, Mr. Bailey pokes fun at Swiss hotelkeepers, England’s Angry Young Men, American coeds abroad, reactionary veterans’ associations, revivalist sects, and the cloak-and-dagger business. His book is gay, giddy, and consistently amusing.

OUT OF AFRICA

By way of postscript to this African issue of the Atlantic, I should like to tip my hat to three superlative books about Africa. The first is a classic: LSAK DINKSEN’S OUT OF AFRICA (Modern Library, $1.25), which I now find still more beautiful and more stirring than when I first read it in 1938. This shiningly written memoir spans the seventeen years which the author spent managing a coffee farm in the highlands near Nairobi, and it is a book of manifold enchantments. It recreates the African landscape with a vividness unsurpassed even by Laurens Van Der Post. It portrays primitive Africans with a clear-eyed, virile tenderness, which makes real to us people whose reality is infinitely remote from ours. And it unfolds all sorts of tales made magical by the art of a born storyteller.
When Isak Dinesen was forced to sell her farm in 1931, her gentle Kikuyu squatters were ordered by the government to leave the land they considered theirs and to resettle themselves in the Kikuyu Reserve. This policy was later to become one of the sources of the Mau Mau eruption, and Isak Dinesen perceived how profound a violation it would inflict on the Kikuyus: “It is more than their land that you take away from people, whose Native land you take. It is their past as well, their roots, and their identity. If you take away the things that they have been used to see, and will be expecting to see, you may, in a way, as well take their eyes.” Isak Dinesen sensed long ago what is now tragically apparent: that civilization has brought to the primitive African little which he values and has deprived him of much.
Like Out of Africa,THE LITTLE KAROO (Vanguard, $3.50) by PAULINE SMITH has a history. It was published in England a quarter of a century ago with an admiring introduction by Arnold Bennett and was republished in 1949. Now it is making its first appearance in the United States, accompanied by a resounding tribute from twenty-five of South Africa’s leading writers. The author is an Englishwoman who grew up in a hamlet on the Little Karoo, a vast plain in what was then Cape Colony. Her stories are about the Boers (or Afrikaners), and they take place in the early part of the century when life on the veld was lonely, narrow, austere, and governed by rigid standards. Pauline Smith’s characters feel, in the phrase of a South African poet, that “Man is distant, but God is near”; and appropriately enough, the form in which their stories are cast has a Biblical simplicity.
The ten tales in The Little Karoo center on the intense emotions of people for whom there are few choices, no distractions, no escapes. Several are memorable (“The Pain,” “The Pastor’s Daughter,” “Desolation”). All are beautifully wrought, strong, and moving. They bear the highly original stamp of what Arnold Bennett aptly described as a “strange, tender, and ruthless talent.”
THE SCULPTURE OF AFRICA (Praeger, $15.00) is a magnificently produced volume with photographs by ELIOT ELLSOFON, a prefatory essay on “primitive art” by the late anthropologist, Ralph Linton, and a scholarly text by William Fagg of the British Museum. The layout is the work of Bernard Quint, associate art director of Life.
The sculpture-producing area of Negro Africa, Mr. Fagg points out, lies between the Niger and Congo River systems; that is, in the West and Center. The African sculptor has been less concerned with representing people and objects than concepts about them, concepts which he could not put into words; in short, the language of African art is sculptural in the fullest sense. This art, the major part of which consists of carvings in wood, was probably animated by dynamism — the doctrine that the goal of life is to increase force or energy and to guard against loss of it. Dynamism expresses itself in African sculpture in three main forms: the worship of gods and spirits, the cult of ancestors, and the direct harnessing of energy through charms and fetishes. Mr. Elisofon’s dramatic, flawlessly lit pictures show us, in stunning variety, dance headdresses, dance masks and dance helmets, dolls and water spirit masks, huntsman figures, leopard figures, ancestor figures, cult and ritual figures, and memorial heads.