The Peripatetic Reviewer
LITERARY royalties — by which I mean the earning power of contemporary writers — varying as they do from country to country, are a subject of editorial curiosity, and at my first meeting with the staff of Novy Mir, the Russian monthly which bears the nearest resemblance to the Atlantic, I was eager to learn the rates they paid their contributors. I explained that we paid by the word, a remark which, when translated, was not understood. So I demonstrated; holding up a recent issue of the Atlantic, I said that for this piece of 4500 words we paid $500, and for this, which was considerably longer, we paid double that sum. Light broke, but it was clear that they worked by a different system. “We pay by the signature,” said their editor, Tzvardolsky. “For each signature of 40,000 ems we pay our more eminent contributors 5000 rubles.” An em is, of course, the space occupied by the letter “m,” and in making their tally the Russians count not only the individual letters in each line but also the white spaces between words; at this rate, 40,000 ems will fill 22 to 24 pages, depending on the size of the type.
The Russian periodicals have more content than ours; Novy Mir runs to 360 pages, all reading matter with no advertising whatever, and thus, when they are serializing a new novel by Sholokhov or Leonov, they afford the author space for at least two signatures, or 48 pages, for which he receives 10,000 rubles, or, at the official rate of exchange, $2500.
The same rates, I was told, apply to book publication. Again taking Mikhail Sholokhov, their most respected novelist, as our example: if we assume that his new novel will run to 30 signatures — his narratives are always substantial — then his royalty on the first edition (of not less than 100,000 copies) will total 150,000 rubles. He will receive 80 per cent of this amount on the second printing, and the rate descends thereafter until, if the book sells into the millions, the royalty drops to 40 per cent of what he received on the initial printing, and there it is pegged. But when you see the astronomical figures which the popular novels or war poems rise to and when you remember that the royalties are banked and can be willed to the writer’s widow and children, it will be realized that the incentive offered to the Russian author is among the highest in the Soviet Union.
Revision, especially among the novelists and poets of reputation, takes on special significance. Suppose that a novelist now in his sixties had published in the early 1920s a story typical of the tumult and violence of those stormy days; the Communists he portrayed are of the heroic mold, are as rough as the occasion demands and not too finicky in matters of sex. Suppose that the sale was a large one but that now, after thirty-five years, it has petered out. In America the book would probably go out of print. But in Russia there is always the possibility of a revision. If the book is rewritten by more than one quarter, the author will revert to his 100 per cent royalties on the new version, and if he cleans the story up a bit in the rewriting, observing the current puritanical attitude toward sex and making his Party hero perhaps a little less violent and a little more “positive,” is this not in the national interest?
What I am saying is that Soviet writing is conceived to be a lamp, a light, a fire to keep at a steady glow the patriotism, the desire for achievement, and the sense of destiny of the great mass of readers. The purpose may at times overpower the artist; young writers of talent may and do rebel against the formula. But that there is an element of idealism as well as of practical politics in all of this, who can deny?
Thus far I have been concerned with the major writers who enjoy the big royalties and the privileges that go with prestige. But I was equally curious to learn what I could about the aid which the Soviet Union extends to the beginner. The process of selecting and of pushing forward the more promising young writers in a country as vast as Russia is complicated by the fact that some of the sixteen republics are pastoral and only newly awakening in a literary sense, while others, like Georgia or the Ukraine, are poetic and highly articulate; yet each year a selection is made and, as far as I could observe, with rather refreshing results.
In September I attended the opening session of the Gorki Institute in Moscow. The Gorki is the special college for young writers; the enrollment is restricted to two hundred; and here, on September first, an entering class of forty-five young men and women, hand-picked from the republics, present themselves. They range in age from twenty-one to thirty-three; they have been chosen — the men, that is — after they have done their army service and after they have served their apprenticeship in the mines, the factories, or the cooperative farms, or whatever special jobs attracted them. Their early writing was evidently published in a Union or a provincial paper, so they were called to the attention of the local Union of Writers, and eventually their nomination was forwarded to Moscow. They enroll in the Gorki Institute for a five-year course. In that time they will become bilingual, speaking Russian as well as their native tongue; they will be thoroughly indoctrinated; and they will be given every opportunity to express themselves as poets, playwrights, and dramatists. A few of them, I am sure, will emerge as masters of Soviet dialectics. The opening class, as I have said, is restricted to forty-five, but out in the sticks, still working at their jobs, there is a second echelon of sixty-five freshmen who will receive the same training by correspondence course. These are the alternates, and if there should be failures in the entering class, substitutions can swiftly be made.
After being welcomed by the faculty, I was invited to attend the opening class for the poets. There were eighteen of them, all young men, shy, eager, intent. Each in turn stood up, gave his name and age, told something of his parents and background and of the job he had been working at before he was recommended to ihe course, and then, at the professor’s insistence, each recited one of his own poems in his native tongue, explaining in Russian what the poem was about. The first to stand was an Estonian, then came a Georgian, then an Uzbek, then two Russians, then a poet from the Ukraine who had formerly been a pilot. So it went. Here at the Gorki they would continue to write in their native tongues, and upon their graduation they would go back to their republics to make a career as writers with the backing of the state. As I listened to their recitations, the words of which were incomprehensible to me, I fell their sense of purpose and their sincerity.
There were several poems about war, one by a dark-eyed, impassioned youngster who dreaded the thought of an atomic disaster and wrote against it with a powerful refrain. Another was by a boy from the Urals who compared the darkness in the mines to the darkness of his thoughts when he remembered his father, who had been killed in the siege of Stalingrad. A third, this by the aviator, was about the exhilaration of the high skies and the sense of purity, the almost inhuman beauty of the great clouds. I could not help being impressed by their dedication, and I said so when their professor called on me to speak. I told them of how I had studied English composition under Dean Briggs at Harvard when I was their age, and I reminded them of the old Latin phrase cacoëthes scribendi — “the itch to write.” “I can see and hear that you have it,” I said. “Never lose it!”
But I could not leave them there. I reminded them ol Thornton Wilder’s great speech at the Harvard commencement, when he was seeking to explain the insecure young graduates to their parents, who had never suffered such insecurity. I quoted what Wilder had said was a cardinal faith in this new generation, that “those things which all men hold in common are beginning to outweigh those things which separate them.” This they applauded.
ACCEPT WITH PLEASURE
In an age of dearth, it is a rare pleasure to read NADINE GORDIMER; she is one of the most gifted practitioners of the short story anywhere in English, and her new collection of twelve stories and a novella, FRIDAY’S FOOTPRINT (Viking, S3.95), holds a beauty not to be missed. It is impossible for a sensitive writer in South Africa to avoid taking sides. Miss Gordimer, who is a Johannesburger now in her mid-thirties, takes her stand with Alan Paton as a liberal opposed to apartheid and to the coarsening, tough-fibered materialism which she perceives to be the result of the Afrikaner’s racial privilege. She has a keen sense of injustice, and there are times, as in “The Last Kiss” and “Little Willie,” when her disgust betrays her and she writes too obviously against the insensibility she loathes. But at her best, as in “The Bridegroom,” she achieves the perfect balance, and then her portraiture of the young white overseer of the road gang, fourteen miles from nowhere in the Kalahari dust, as he prepares the camp for the arrival of his bride, speaks volumes for the delicate tissue of relations between white and black.
This is not a crusading book, and I am tempted to say that the finest characterizations in it are reserved for the white women — few of them beauties, all of them vigorously alive. I think particularly of huge, appealing Mrs. Cunningham in the title story; of the insatiable Sonia Smith in “Our Bovary”; the fastidious, walled-in Clara in “A Style of Her Own”; and of Freda, most beautifully realized, in “The Night the Favorite Came Home.” But no limitation should be applied to Miss Gordimer — she is too versatile for that; and in the novella, “An Image of Success,” all the women, young, yielding, or fleshy, are incidental to Charles Butters in his mid-fifties’ demoralization and to Peter Garvus, the young lawyer, in his smug and hateful snobbery.
JOHN BAKELESS, a colonel of intelligence in World War II, has made an engaging investigation of the spies and counterspies who infested both sides of the American Revolution, TURNCOATS, TRAITORS AND HEROES (Lippincott, $6.50) is a spider’s web of conspiracy, concealment, and confusion, and Mr. Bakeless is to be commended for having brought the activities of Dr. Church, the Mersereaus, Major Tallmadge, Major Clark, Sergeant Major Champe, and Lydia Darragh so adventurously into the clear. I wish the central narrative were stronger and that we were told more conclusively the results of the most elaborate raids. The author is led astray by too many clues, and his zest for the hunt occasionally results in exaggeration, as when he says that “A series of swift arrests about April 17, 1775, might have kept America in the British Empire forever.”
DIANA COOPER is one of those rare women who can write as well as they talk. Because of what she calls the “fearful bulk” of her autobiography, she elected to divide it into three parts. The feudal elegance of her girlhood at Belvoir, the audacity and homage of her debut on the eve of 1914, and her marriage to Duff Cooper at the end of the war all gave luster to her first volume, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. Now, in her new book, THE LIGHT OF COMMON DAY (Houghton Mifflin, $5.00), she recounts the anguish and gratification of her triumph in Reinhardt’s production of The Miracle; she tells of her husband’s election to Parliament and of his ascent to the Cabinet, to the War Office, and then to be First Lord of the Admiralty. She writes discreetly of the holidays with Edward VIII and Wallis and of their cruise together on the Nahlin in the Adriatic, and she draws throughout from her palette of many friendships. Conrad Russell calls her the most amiable woman he has ever known. She writes with verve and kindliness, and the letters she quotes from her husband provide a happy relief to her — at times — overintent self-absorption.