The misdeeds of people in their seventies do not seem, offhand, like promising material for comedy, but in MEMENTO MORI (Lippincott, S3.95) MURIEL SPARK has written a very funny novel indeed about the ancient and enterprising. The plot of the affair, while perfectly serviceable, is nothing much, merely a series of anonymous telephone calls. These calls incite the victims to action, and action reveals their characters, which have retained a high degree of energy and originality in the midst of the owners’ physical decay.
Miss Spark’s technique is to introduce her characters as they appear in public and then to reveal what lurks behind the façade. Godfrey, eightyish and in arrogant possession of all of what he calls his “faculties,” turns on closer acquaintance into a veritable walnut tree, with a nuttiness compounded of the greed, cowardice, and lechery that have distinguished him all his life. His wife, Charmian, a once-popular novelist whose wits seem to have gone hopelessly astray, is actually only intermittently daft. When the wind is southerly, she is more than a match for all Godfrey’s faculties. Guy Leet, crippled and waspish, is at heart still the cynical gallant that he was in good king Oscar’s glorious days. Although the angry young critics who will eventually review them will probably miss the point, the inaccurate and mischievous memoirs that Guy is writing would have delighted Max Beerbohm. They have already involved Guy in a row with old Percy Mannering, the poet, who takes exception by telegraph and walking stick to the description of Ernest Dowson as a “weak-kneed wailer of Gallic weariness.” Luckily, in the matter of the walking stick, Percy’s reach exceeds his grasp.
As all these people bestir themselves about their telephone caller, their past connections come to the surface, Thirty or forty years before, this whole little literary clique had been involved in a network of love affairs, blackmail, and secret marriage. The aftereffects of the tangle are still in force, producing an outbreak of chicanery most inappropriate to years and dignity but very entertaining for the reader.
Much of the fun of Memento Mori lies in Miss Spark’s style. She is lavish with unexpected but vivid comparisons. She can pin down exactly what is wrong with Mannering’s poetry in two lines of neo-Georgian pastiche, followed by a revision which makes them worse. She preserves an air of kindly, unflustered drawing-room politeness while describing the most alarming events. Charmian’s housekeeper doing a spot of burglary and Godfrey pocketing cakes at a funeral tea are treated in precisely the same tone. A similar incongruity makes the actions of Miss Spark’s characters laughable. Most of them are, in their own view, as capable intellectually as they ever were and only mildly limited physically; the reader sees them beleaguered by arthritis, high blood pressure, outmoded tastes, and erratic judgment. The laughter in Memento Mori is frequently a delicate version of that aroused by a dignified citizen treading on a banana peel, but this is no disparagement, for the scheme is an old and honorable one and its effect is infallibly comic.
A GENIUS FOR COMPROMISE
IMAGE OF AMERICA (Viking, $4.50) is another of those books in which a European explains us to ourselves, but an unusually amiable one. RAYMOND LEOPOLD BRUCKBERGER is a French Dominican who lived for some years in the United States. His book was originally written for a French audience. The American edition, although somewhat cut and revised, is consequently a kind of double mirror reflecting what Father Bruckberger wants his countrymen to see in our country and, more dimly, some things he does not like to see in his own.
Beginning with the statement that the vital center of European culture has shifted several times in the course of history, Father Bruckberger assumes that it is now located in the United States and goes on to analyze and discuss the ways in which the American version of European civilization differs from earlier ones. He finds much to admire and tactfully concentrates on that.
His first point is that America has always refused to subordinate men to theories; his second, that we have a genius for compromise based on the awareness that “life is a continuous movement, advancing only through contradictions" and a consequent hatred of all-or-nothing solutions; his third point, a really astonishing notion for a Frenchman to harbor and a pleasant surprise to the American reader, is that our concern with individual rights and the reconciliation of conflicting interests makes us very slow to decide upon a course of action. “If Americans seem obsessed by the need lor haste, remarks Father Bruckberger acutely, “it is because they are always slow to start.”
After describing the intellectual features of the Revolution and the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, and incidentally excoriating Saint Just, Father Bruckberger settles down to consider three Americans who, in his opinion, illustrate the development and operation of our society at its most characteristic. They are Samuel Gompers, the labor leader who could never come to terms with socialism because he insisted that the trade-union movement “must function in the world as it is and that its development must be part of the evolutionary process in which many factors are involved. There is nothing to be gained in taking an immovable stand for an impossible cause”; Henry Ford, the capitalist who said, before hardening of his administrative arteries set in, “if you cut wages, you just cut the number of your own customers" and with that turned the downtrodden proletariat of the old economists into free citizens of the world of supply and demand; and a neglected economist. Henry Charles Carey, who conducted a war of attrition against Ricardo and Malthas throughout his long career, essentially because these classical economists insisted on viewing men as objects subordinate to the motions of money, a claim which, to Carey’s common-sense eye, was | not only disgraceful but flatly not 1 true.
Father Bruckberger argues that the social and economic developments typified by these men and illustrated by modern American practice have proved that Marx’s inevitable opposition of labor and capital is a phony war. A coalition between the two for the benefit of both is not only possible but is already well under way.
The intrusion of Karl Marx upon the scene reveals the basic purpose of Father Bruckberger ‘s book. He is writing extremely intelligent, unsentimental anti-Communist propaganda. He supposes that the spiritual weakness of modern Europe is caused by the seeming necessity of choosing between capitalism and socialism, which would turn out to be Russian Communism. He means to persuade waverers toward Moscow that this choice is not necessary at all, by demonstrating that the United States, although calling itself a capitalist country, has actually evolved a social system which makes both these economic extremes obsolete.
The last chapter of the book seems to have been added solely for the American audience. In it, Father Bruckberger exhorts us to take prompt action and save, first. Western civilization from tyranny and, then, all humanity from war and hunger. In view of what he has just observed about our congenital slow - ness and aversion to absolute solutions. this seems rather like asking an elephant to fly. And yet, it is flattering.
A GIFTED DEMAGOGUE
American reluctance to take steps that may set a precedent probably had something to do with the phenomenon celebrated by RICHARD H. ROVERE in SENATOR JOE MCCARTHY (Harcourt. Brace, S3.95). Among the many reasons lor the intrusion ol I his particular camel into the tenL, one was certainly reluctance to make w hat might become a binding rule for the sake’ of what might be only a temporary nuisance.
It is Mr. Roverc’s opinion that McCarthy “was in many ways the most gifted demagogue ever bred on these shores. No bolder seditionist ever moved among us — nor any politician with a surer, swifter access to the dark places of the American mind.” This is a large claim, and Mr, Roverc’s book does not seem to me entirely to support it. As the author unrolls the long record of lies, misquotations, revelations of dangerous mare’s-nests, and discoveries of defunct red herrings with which McCarthy made headlines for four years, one waits in vain for any evidence that sizable numbers of the citizenry would ever have manned the barricades in his behalf. Certainly, he had supporters. People sent him money for the cause which Mr. Rovere suspects was spent on the horses, and one of those polls that proved Dewey would beat Truman found, at one point, that hall the population approved of McCarthy. But surely the essential point about a great demagogue is that he can stir up an extralegal mob to back his demands. McCarthy never did. There is small doubt that his colleagues in the legislature believed he could, or that their belief enabled him to spread panic and confusion by wily misuse of orthodox government machinery, but at the moment of his downfall, his followers proved to be mist and moonshine. McCarthy did not call upon them, and they did not rise spontaneously. If the senator really had access to the dark places of the American mind, we can take comfort in the demonstration that these depths are not wellsprings of action.
As a chronicle of the public operations of McCarthy, Mr. Rovere’s book is excellent, for he is an expert journalist who followed much of the senator’s career at close range and writes with acid enthusiasm of the whole strange folly. The private forces that raised the poltergeist can, of course, never be identified with certainty, and perhaps Mr. Rovere is right in refusing to speculate about them. I wish he had been less cautious; this is a field where the educated guess is the only possible authority. It cannot take much of Mr. Rovcrc’s knowledge to conclude that McCarthy “showed us to be more vulnerable than many of us had guessed to a seditious demagogy — as well as less vulnerable than some of us feared.”
Any reader with a confirmed distaste for literary parody had best be wary of PETER DE VRIES’S amusing new novel, THE TENTS OF WICKEDNESS (Little, Brown, S3.75), for the book is a positive anthology of current literary fashions. The plot is another of Mr. De Vries’s explorations of the practical difficulties and nervous strain of committing adultery, but his hero, a well-read type, has the notion that while poets can only teach us how to die, novelists show us how to live. He is attempting to live in the Marquandian key suitable to a newspaperman in Decency, Connecticut, when the past recaptures him. There is a resurgence of a girl called Sweetie with whom he was childishly and obscurely involved in a coalbin, and off he goes, trailing clouds of Faulkner.
Our hero’s problem is how to shake Sweetie loose from arrested adolescence and the writing of imitative verse without shaking himself loose from his wife or his paper, for which he writes a column of advice to the bedeviled. His attempts to straighten things out in the manner of various authors lead Sweetie from late Dickinson to middle Millay to the solid prose ground of early Fitzgerald. Only an idiot like Swallow would mistake Fitzgerald for a reforming influence. He is very shortly trying to retrieve Sweetie from a Gatsbyish establishment in Rye. The next step is D. H. Lawrence and Swallow’s downfall, from which he flees via Graham Greene, Hemingway, Thurber, Kafka, and Joyce. None of these worthies is of the slightest help, and Mr. De Vries might be accused of a Platonic mistrust of literature if he had not created, in Swallow, a hero so ineffably stupid that his affairs are clearly beyond remedy by any means.
What with Sweetie skipping barefoot from coalbin to tree house, and Swallow’s brother-in-law developing a second personality, the book does not lack for action. This is just as well, for the parodies are not always successful. The final development of the Faulknerian coalbin is a clever twist, but there’s more to parodying Faulkner than merely spreading obfuscation; besides, Mr. De Vries tends to get lost in his own parentheses. Sweetie’s derivative verses, later turned into conscious parodies, are decidedly uneven. Mr. De Vries does pretty well with Dylan Thomas, but he is thrown by, of all people, Byron.
Considering the whole case, I am not certain that this parody scheme was a happy one. The author undoubtedly had fun with it, but he has so little confidence in his clients that he continually throws clues, and often flat announcements, to the reader, lest that illiterate should fail to recognize the original of the parody. Now these clues are useless, for the reader who does not recognize, of his own accord the victim of
Loveliest of pics, the cherry now
Completes a fine repast
Completes a fine repast
has never read Housman and even given his identity will have only half the joke.
OUR ACCIDENTAL SCIENCE
ARTHUR KOESTLER’S book, THE SLEEPWALKERS (Macmillan, $6.95), is a history of cosmography, designed to show that modern astronomy and physics were developed inadvertently by men who were bent upon discovering or fostering something quite different.
As a nonscientist and a firm believer in accident, I am not qualified to judge the revolutionary impact of tins thesis. It has always seemed daylight clear to me that chaos is the one permanent feature of human affairs, and therefore nothing could be more reasonable than that Copernicus, attempting to account for a few discrepancies in the Ptolemaic system, should prove the whole thing to be nonsense.
I can report, however, that Mr. Koestler writes with his usual liveliness and authority, and that his explanations of astronomical theory are so ingenious that even the most lunkheaded layman can follow him about the heavens with no more than reasonable effort. Not that the book is altogether given to orbits. It is part of Mr. Koestler’s theme that progress in any science is controlled by the intellectual shibboleths of the times as well as by the characters of the practitioners. With this in mind, he describes the lives and work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.
They do not get equal attention. Copernicus was a dull and timid cleric with an unreadable style; Mr. Koestler feels a testy contempt for the man. Newton was too reasonable to be personally intriguing. Mr. Koestler works hard on Galileo but only succeeds in portraying a jealous egomaniac who went out of his way to provoke the authorities. Kepler is another matter entirely. Armed with some previously unpublished papers and a vast delight in Kepler’s character, Mr. Koestler goes after him at great length, and Kepler is worth every word of it.
This landmark in the orderly progress of cosmography proves, under Mr. Koestler’s microscope, to be an amusing muddlehead who hit upon his great discoveries while trying to demonstrate that the universe is composed of perfect geometric figures. He wrote surrealist memoirs, married the right girl for tire wrong reasons, and suffered every anguish available to a seventeenth-century neurotic, including a mother who was tried for witchcraft. He also joined forces with Tycho de Brahe, the flamboyant Danish astronomer, playing Nym to Tycho’s Falstaff. They make an irresistible pair, and The Sleepwalkers, apart from its many other merits, is worth reading for their sake alone.
WITH LOGIG AND LAUGHTER
JAMES HOGG’S THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER (Grove, $3.50) has just been reissued with an introduction by Andre Gide. It seems probable that Gide’s introduction, rather than Hogg’s story, is the primary reason for this enterprise, but in fact the Ettrick Shepherd is still a very readable eccentric.
Gide, always fascinated by evil, saw in the Confessions an early and brilliant attempt to personify a man’s criminal impulses as an external figure, a combination of double and bad angel. He was also impressed by the logical extreme to which Hogg pushed the ferocious Calvinist doctrine of predestination. If the elect were chosen for salvation by divine whimsey, without regard to their own actions, presumably one so chosen at birth could commit any crime with impunity. If it was impossible to pray one’s way into heaven, it must be equally impossible to sin one’s way into hell. Gidc discusses both these points in relation to modern psychology.
What Gide does not mention, what in fact he seems not to have noticed (let it stand as an awful warning to all critics and reviewers) is that the Confessions, taken in its Scottish context, is a funny book. Hogg was one of those self-educated literary men of peasant origin who proliferated in Scotland in the generation after Robert Burns. He was a friend of Walter Scott; Byron recommended his work to Murray for English publication; he wrote for Blackwood’s and was caricatured around literary Edinburgh as a kindly drunk and giddy buffoon, probably with his own deliberate connivance. He wrote tinny fashionable verse in unreliable English. His poetry in Scots is better but still something that only a fellow Scot, preferably of Jacobite leanings, could truly love.
There’s news — news — gallant news
That Caril disna ken, joe;
There’s gallant news of tartan trews,
And red Clan-Ranald’s men, joe,
That Caril disna ken, joe;
There’s gallant news of tartan trews,
And red Clan-Ranald’s men, joe,
falls about halfway between his two styles and does no great injustice to either. Brazen and unrepentent, he stole subjects from Burns, who was safely dead, and Tom Moore, who was alive and furious. There arc enough echoes of “Holy Willie’s Prayer” and the “Address to the Unco’ Guid” in Hogg to indicate that he found the professionally pious as trying as Burns had done. He seems to have had few other grudges.
Hogg’s prose has worn much better than his verse. The Confessions is a short novel which owes a little to Gothic fashion and a great deal to Scottish folklore and Calvinist dogma. The justified sinner, under the influence of a mysterious and eloquent friend, indulges in outrageous crimes in the conviction that he is among the predestined elect and immune to damnation. He is a theological student, incidentally, and all the crimes are committed for the highest motives and justified by his demonic companion with pulpit argument and praises to high heaven, a very nice touch. The main thread of the story is grim and retains a macabre power despite all the more sophisticated fiends who have capered through literature since Hogg’s day. The decorations are wild spoofs of hell-fire sermons, burlesques of country ghost stories, extraneous horseplay, caricatures of pompous clergymen and vaporish ladies, and careful, malicious parodies of theological reasoning. Hogg was an erratic, undisciplined author, but he could be a craftsman when he found a suitable target. In this case, his target was the whole apparatus of the barbarous, old-fashioned Calvinist doctrine, and between logic and laughter, he creamed it.