Psychiatry, the kind that involves the couch and the patient’s untrammeled recollections, must he a pitifully boring profession. Imagine spending hours listening to the childish terrors, old grievances, groundless remorse of an agitated stranger in the hope that something of interest may eventually turn up. What prompts this sympathetic reflection, which I have no doubt all psychiatrists will repudiate, is the reading of SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR’S MEMOIRS OF A DUTIFUL DAUGHTER (World, $5.00), a book which has been highly praised in France and arrives in this country accompanied by a fanfare that would give stiff competition to the trump of doom.
Miss de Beauvoir’s memories are perfectly orderly, to be sure. She is born on page 1 and by page 382 has nearly completed her education and has made the acquaintance of her well-known ally, Jean-Paul Sartre. If anything happened between these dates of which the reader is not made aware, it can only be through uncharacteristic oversight on the part of the author. Nobody since Boswell has had such passionate faith in the general interest of his most trifling experiences, but Boswell left his adventures in manuscript. He also thought some of his affairs were comic. Miss de Beauvoir has no such frivolous notions.
She was the daughter of a prosperous bourgeois couple, her mother a devout Catholic and her father somewhat skeptical in matters of faith but, as a mildly successful social climber, intensely devoted to the proper forms of conduct. These parents shared a sexual prudishness that would have struck Queen Victoria as excessive. When World War I swept away most of the family fortune, such grace and gaiety as existed in the household went with it, for the new poor are usually even more awkward than the new rich.
The circumstances in which Miss de Beauvoir and her sister grew up, then, were not the most pleasant in the world. Girl friends were suspect and boy friends practically out of the question. Mail was censored. Reading was supervised to such an extent that the young Simone appears to have been given a bowdlerized edition of Little Women. Although highly intelligent, the author was such a docile child that when her mother pinned together a few pages of an otherwise innocuous book, she made no attempt to remove the pin or to peer around the corners at forbidden delights. When rebellion came, it was as complete as her previous submission had been. She gave up religion, Papa’s politics, good manners, and clean fingernails, in that order, and took to reading evil authors like Gide, arguing philosophy, and drinking gin with her cousin Jacques. Her parents became monstrous oppressors, the essence of Philistinism.
Does all this begin to arouse the suspicion that we have been here before? Quite right, we have. Miss de Beauvoir has written a standard, possibly the definitive account of the rebellious young intellectual of the twenties. Other authors have done the same thing with a clearer view of their associates, a more vivid recreation of the style and chatter of the period, a better understanding of their own motives, and various degrees of wit. Miss de Beauvoir’s distinction is that she has conveyed, probably unintentionally, the agony of that rebellion when it occurred in a person who combined adult intelligence and enterprise with a child’s dependence on parental approval. It was not enough that her parents gave in, more easily than many, to each of her revolts. She is still irritated by their failure to enjoy them, which is a foolish grievance for an author of fifty-one years, but goes far toward explaining her leftwing politics and her recent heated defense of women against the abuses of the Middle Ages. The poor girl is still quarreling with Father.
LINES FOR A PORTRAIT
YES, MRS. WILLIAMS (McDowell, Obolensky, $3.50) is a memoir of a completely different cast, being WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS’ portrait of his mother. The senior Mrs. Williams, crippled by a broken hip, spent the last years of her life in her son’s house, where she lived to an astounding age. The book is based on notes taken during this period and therefore does not pretend to display the whole character of the poet’s mother or to tell anything like the full story of her life.
Mrs. Williams came from Martinique, and her ancestry was half French, half a mixture of Dutch, Basque, and heaven knows what other nationalities that went adventuring in the Caribbean. As a girl, she studied painting in Paris, but the money ran out and she was called home to marry and move to the United States, a country where she never felt quite at ease. On the pretext of getting her help, actually to keep her amused, her son set her to work on a piece of Spanish translation, and around the edges of this work, they talked. He wrote her down, the old lady protesting sharply when she caught him at it.
The little book that has been made from these notes is a curious thing. It is unmistakably the random talk of a very old lady whose mind rambles among the parties and scandals of her girlhood in another country. Nothing holds together. Like the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, odd events and inexplicable details form patterns which suddenly fall into confusion. Her parents laughed a lot; she used to dance like a hurricane; young men got into mischief and were hustled off to distant sugar plantations; parrots talked and guests recited from Corneille in the parlor. Names come and go, inexplicable as the weather.
It is Dr. Williams’ intention to show that his mother was good, not in the sugary Mother’s Day fashion, for she was high-strung, erratic, mystical, discontented — a real Tartar, is the truth of it — but good for him. The statement is believable, since affection and respect underlie all he writes about her, but the why and how of this goodness remain foggy, I suspect because Dr. Williams has chosen to write of his mother only in the period when she no longer was able to exercise influence on anybody. Whatever she did to or for her son was finished long before. There is no essential connection between William Carlos Williams, poet and physician, and this peppery old lady with an addiction to French and Spanish proverbs and mildly naughty stories about nineteenth-century sanitary facilities. She might be a patient or a talkative dining-car acquaintance. In this respect, the question of doing what the author says he meant to do, the book is not entirely successful, but it has life and cantankerous charm.
T. H. WHITE, author of Arthurian novels, books on falconry, and scholarly disquisitions on this and that, has written a book about western Ireland called THE GODSTONE AND THE BLACKYMOR (Putnam, $3.95). It is a series of sketches about his adventures and observations in a country which struck him as truly magical, among people whom he describes, with loving respect, as kindly and subtle barbarians.
Mr. White went to Ireland to fish and hunt, and a good many of his pieces pretend to be about fishing and shooting, but The Godstone and the Blackymor is nothing like the usual sporting book. For one thing, the fishing is always terrible — or else Mr. White is no fisherman — and the geese are usually on the other side of the bog. These bog expeditions always begin in the middle of a cold night and end with the author and his long-suffering setter shivering in a hole full of ice water and not a feather to show for it.
Between excursions, Mr. White discovered some wonderful things. The Blackymor of the title, an African who peddles snake oil at remote country fairs, inspired Mr. White to reflections on the courage and ingenuity of all Africans and Asiatics who undertake to hack their way through the drear jungles of European civilization. “What Livingstones and Stanleys meet in Whitechapel, I wonder.”
The Godstone is, or was, a sacred rock that did wonders on a tiny and now deserted island. There had been some hokeypokey about its disposition and character. Mr. White, goose shooting (his only lucky strike) alone on the island, worked himself into a visionary uproar about this rock. He gave up geese to prove that the Godstone was a pagan idol, phallic symbol, Norse battle ax, or anything but what he sheepishly admitted it to be after worrying the pious schoolmistress and stirring up half the ancients in the district.
It was no surprise to Mr. White to rent a house and find it exactly as the owners left it in 1890, complete with pampas grass and curling irons. He observed the courting habits of the Irish with admiring bewilderment, heard about a man who had decided to become a bird, walked on fairy fire, and discovered two modest bards. Mr. White can bring his Irish friends to life in a couple of deft sentences and loves them as he loves their wild and beautiful country, which he describes superbly. If his pose of incompetent sportsman and bumbling Briton sometimes wears a bit thin, it is still the most graceful pose under the circumstances and for the most part works very well.
ZEN: JAPANESE AND U.S. STYLE
THE TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION (Knopf, $4.00) is a novel by the fantastically energetic Japanese writer, YUKIO MISHIMA, based on an episode which actually took place in 1950. An ugly young acolyte with a stutter, attached to an old and revered Zen Buddhist temple, deliberately set fire to the structure and destroyed it, allegedly out of simple jealousy. The temple was beautiful and he was not. The court, naturally, found him insane. The novel is Mr. Mishima’s reconstruction of the character and thinking of this dismal arsonist, who tells his own story with Dostoevskian fervor.
The progress of Mizoguchi from a nervous, shy, but well-behaved youth to a psychotic bent upon destroying his position, his future, and himself is always interesting, full of subtly convincing touches. Read simply as a novel of character, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is impressive. No doubt it is intended to be, and for a Japanese audience is, much more than that. The setting, the criminal, and the victim are Buddhist properties. Many episodes involve Zen ritual and many conversations repeat Zen doctrine and tradition, sometimes in perverted forms. I doubt that any reader who comes to the book without a knowledge of Zen Buddhism can hope to understand it fully. What’s more, I doubt that anyone with a purely scholarly knowledge of Zen can respond emotionally to what he understands.
Granted that the non-Buddhist reader will, at best, have difficulties with it, the novel is worth reading for its presentation of Mizoguchi and his horrid friend Kashiwagi, for its exquisite descriptions of Japanese buildings and landscape, for the variety and unexpectedness of its action, and for that quality of life without which a novel is nothing but a pile of wasted paper.
Zen Buddhism leads nowadays to the beats, beatniks, beat generation, or whatever one chooses to call those people in California who seem to be getting more hostile attention on less publication than any previous group of originals in history. In THE HOLY BARBARIANS (Messner,
$5.00), LAWRENCE LIPTON, a fine poet and veteran of every literary uprising since 1920, undertakes to explain the beat to the squares — that is, the rest of us. Mr. Lipton has more or less joined the group, a bit on the patriarchal side perhaps, but too good a condottiere to sit out the war. The beatniks could hardly ask for a more persuasive spokesman.
A good deal of the book is straight portraiture. Mr. Lipton describes the people he knows in Venice, California, reports their conversations and activities, and gives what he has pieced together of their history. Most of Mr. Lipton’s subjects are serious writers or painters or musicians and determined to practice these arts whether or not they can make any money by them. Sporadic jobs to stave off landlords and pay for groceries are permissible among the beat; steady work that interferes with one’s art is not. They feel that the world is against them for this attitude, although in fact artists have been driven to it ever since the old system of aristocratic patronage, which had its drawbacks too, broke down. The question arises, who on earth is persecuting the beats, and the answer is, nobody would bother them at all if they just quit throwing bottles through other people’s windows. For a dedicated artist, being ignored is a dreary fate indeed, and the beat ward it off with alcohol, marijuana, and love affairs, which, even in Mr. Lipton’s sympathetic prose, sound about as intimate as a conversation between St. Simeon Stylites and a grounded disciple.
It is only fair to explain that I am putting my own interpretation on Mr. Lipton’s very entertaining report. He considers his beat friends the true successors of the experimenters of the nineteen twenties, of whom he has some raffishly amusing recollections, and thinks their way of life a sensible protest against a money-grubbing, machinery-ridden society. The least attractive thing about the beat crowd is its messianic smugness. It seems never to have struck these rebels against suburbia that there are members of the human race who lack all talent for poetry and bongo drums. What’s going to keep them off the streets if they have no lawn to mow? And I wish I could follow the delicate arguments by which the beat square their fierce dedication to hi-fi sets with their contempt for machinery.
The only book handy to illustrate the work of the beats is a recently published novel by .JACK KEROUAC, their self-elected spokesman but no longer a resident of the sacred precincts. DOCTOR sax (Grove, S3.50) is recently published only; it was written in 1952. Mr. Kerouac seems to have given up writing after the success of On the Road and contents himself with exhuming earlier works from a bottomless trunk.
The novel records, in Joycean confusion but with no trace of Joyce’s learning and wit, the fantasies of good and evil running through the head of a FrenchCanadian boy living in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the twenties. The fantasy is clobbered up out of old movies and bits of fairy tales, plus Dracula and, unless I have lost my bearings in the fog, the works of H. P. Lovecraft. I kept looking hopefully for the forbidden Nccronomieon of the Mad Arab, Abdul What’s-his-name, but never quite sighted it. There are some fine tlashes of description and a good juvenile view of a flood, but I don’t believe a word of the cosmic fantasy.
I don’t believe that the boy would have got hold of the books, or used them in such a way, and I am reasonably certain that flying saucers are a gimmick not available at the period.
If Mr. Kerouac is to be taken as typical of the beat group, their indifference to money must be classed as a curable eccentricity. Profit seems the only possible motive for releasing this piece of juvenile scrimshaw.