BY PHOEBE ADAMS
In TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (Random House, $4.95) IRWIN SHAW has written what may be called, meaning no insult, an old-fashioned novel. It has a plot, action, a reasonable degree of suspense, and a set of characters whose proceedings, while not exactly ordinary, remain within shouting distance of possibility. It reminds me, in fact, of the novels of Wilkie Collins, in that it is an expert professional production, readable and engaging, which, if it doesn’t stretch the reader’s imagination, never insults his intelligence either.
The story covers the two disorderly weeks spent in Rome by a conscientious NATO official named Jack Andrus. He has taken time off from his job in Paris to help out an old friend and colleague, Delaney, who is a movie director. Andrus, before the war rearranged his face, was a Hollywood star of considerable brilliance. He goes to Rome because Delaney, long on the skids, has been reduced to working there for a flyby-night Italian producer and with an actor who is “six fathoms deep in Scotch.” “He looks all right,” Delaney explains sourly, “but you can’t understand a word he says.” The idea is that Jack will dub the dialogue of this souse.
It sounds like a simple project, but the uproar that ensues verges on riot. The same sense of responsibility that led jack into NATO and brings him to the rescue of Delaney lures him into one of the most remarkable commitments in recent literature. He acquires a mistress, an enigmatic Italian girl who turns out to have a resident lover already. The lover is a noisy, neurotic, exasperating youth, one of those Americans who comb the beaches of the arts in Europe, insulting their betters and living on allowances smuggled to them by indulgent mamas. Once acquainted with him, Andrus discovers, to his disgust, that the little horror wants to write and direct movies. Worse, the script the boy has concocted is a splendid piece of work. It is Jack‘s duty to get him started in Delaney‘s company.
The situation has possibilities, to put it conservatively, and Mr. Shaw investigates them energetically. He does a fine job on the juvenile genius, contriving to persuade one of the young man’s ability in the midst of his most idiotic misbehavior. Delaney, the worn-out director still swaggering on memories of his dead talent, is almost as good. Minor characters are sketched in with acid efficiency — Delaney‘s terrible wife, the drunken actor, a string of hangers-on and free-loaders, an Italian bodyguard whose conversation is a catalogue of immoralities and who is absent on the only occasion when his services are required.
As a treatise on the limits of personal responsibility, Mr. Shaw’s book is not as impressive as he seems to have intended, judging by certain conversations about life and death and war and peace. As a wellconstructed, artfully told story, it is first class.
THE WAY AND THE FLESH
There are many Roman Catholics who write, but the specifically Roman Catholic writer remains, outside theological circles, rather rare. FRANCOIS MAURIAC, novelist, playwright, essayist, and Nobel Prize winner, is a notable example of this select group, THE SON OF MAN (World, $3.00) is his latest book, and while it is most obviously related to the life of Jesus which Mr. Mauriac wrote some years ago, it also throws light on the whole body of his work.
The book is a condensed, highly subjective exposition of Mr. Mauriac’s attitude toward Christ as both a human person and a divine power. It is written in prose, but the intensity of the author’s emotion and the dense eloquence of his style ultimately produce an effect close to that of poetry.
Following the events of Christ’s life on earth, His death and resurrection, Mr. Mauriac meditates on their significance to the devout Christian. The qualities he perceives in Christ are love, patience, intimacy and, somewhat surprisingly to the Protestant eye, an inexplicable charm that may very nearly be called glamour. What distresses him is the terrible difficulty experienced by even the most devout Christians in adequately maintaining their individual part in relationship with their God.
This is, of course, the old problem of the struggle between willing spirit and recalcitrant flesh, but Mr. Mauriac restates it in movingly personal terms. The Son of Man shimmers with persistent optimism, the conviction that the spirit of Christ may eventually prevail among His followers. The book also goes far to explain the notorious gloom of Mr. Mauriac’s novels, which, if consumed in injudicious quantities, are enough to drive a sensitive reader to suicide. His fiction is the dark shadow of his faith, expressing his obsession with the question of why Christian people who should know better persist in acting as badly as they do.
THE OTHER ALEXANDER (Noonday Press, $1.25), by the Greek novelist MARGARITA LIBERAKI, was written before 1953 and ostensibly concerns the Greek civil war of the time. It may also be taken as an exploration of the interplay between the conscious intellect and the depths of unconscious impulse, or simply as an allegory of the good and bad at war in human nature.
Miss Liberaki puts her theme, or themes, into terms of situation and character with an unusual mixture of fantasy and literal-mindedness. Her principal characters are the children of a man who owns a mine in the neighborhood of Athens. This old boy, a mixture of patriarch, robber baron, and benevolent despot, maintains two domestic establishments, only one of which, naturally, is legal. His illegitimate children exactly duplicate, in number and sex, the legitimate ones, and he has whimsically given them duplicate names and employs them more or less indiscriminately in his business. As a result, the children are all somewhat befogged about their identities, but not to the point of indifference concerning their own activities or those of their doubles. The tribe is full of suppressed political and personal schisms, most of which burst into the open in the course of one stormy winter night, spreading tragedy and settling nothing.
Starting with a basic situation that is almost ludicrously improbable, Miss Liberaki creates a curious, very effective blend of commonplace certainty and nightmarish confusion. The actual events of the story are plain enough: abortive revolts against the father by his sons and by the workers against the mine owner, a seduction, an incestuous love affair, a labor union dance, and a piece of political arson that backfires disastrously. These episodes are clearly defined, yet seen through a veil of ambiguity. Everyone has a double. Alliances shift back and forth between members of the legitimate and illegitimate families. Good and bad, friend and enemy continually fade, blur, change their shapes, all as slippery as Proteus. As a dramatization of the uncertainties beneath the surface of contemporary society, The Other Alexander is extraordinarily successful. One does not need to be a Greek partisan to shiver over it.
THE NIXON RECORD
WILLIM COSTELLO, an experienced Washington reporter, is the author of THE FACTS ABOUT NixoN (Viking, S3.95). Subtitled An Unauthorized Biography, the book seems likely to spread alarm and despondency equally between Mr. Nixon’s friends and his enemies.
The author apologizes, quite rightly, for ”calling his work, for want of a more satisfactory term, a biography.” He did not have access to any of Mr. Nixon’s private papers, nor did he ever succeed in arranging an interview with his subject. He has had to depend entirely on the public political record, and, as he shrewdly points out, “politics makes for posturing, for playacting, for the studied gesture, the calculated word, all of which are part of the record but not necessarily the essential part of the man.”
The figure gradually built up by Mr. Costello’s dogged assemblage of facts remains cold, remote, and undefined in a curious way. Mr. Nixon looks anchored to nothing. He entered politics in California because a committee of citizens asked him to do so; they were so strapped for a candidate that they had actually advertised in the newspapers for a young man willing to run for public office. Mr, Nixon’s wily ferocity as a campaigner quickly won him the sobriquet of “Tricky Dick,” but he has never been detected in any actual illegality. A man of exceptional intelligence and determination, he seems never to have originated or consistently applied himself to any cause but the advancement of the Republican Party, which, incidentally, has resulted in the very rapid advancement of his own fortunes.
The nature of a man’s basic loyalties and the risks be will run for them arc among the more reliable means of judging his fitness for public office. Nothing in Mr. Nixon’s record, as assembled by his biographer, provides the material for such a judgment, and whether this lack is the result of circumstance or canniness on Mr. Nixon’s part remains a question. It is certainly remarkable that after more than a dozen years in the limelight of politics, Mr. Nixon cannot be surely charged with commitment to anything but victory in the next election.
THE WORKINGS OF THE LAW
DIARY OF A D.A. (Holt, $3.95) is yet another book about the inner workings of the law, in this case by MARTIN M. FRANK, now an associate justice of the appellate division of the New York state supreme court. Before acquiring his present title, Judge Frank served as assistant district attorney in the Bronx, and it is his experiences in this office that make up the material of his book.
Authentic stories of crime detection and legal maneuver seldom fail to be interesting. When they are anymore than momentarily good stories, it is because of the author’s style or point of view. Judge Frank‘s style is clear, simple, and undistinguished. The attitude of mind revealed in his narrative is reassuringly civilized. Early in the book, discussing the duties of a prosecuting attorney, Judge Frank holds up as a shining example of professional perfection the Connecticut county prosecutor who, in the face of general public certainty of the man’s guilt and the accused’s own confession of the crime, refused to prosecute a suspected murderer because his own exhaustive investigation of the evidence indicated that the fellow simply could not have clone the killing in question. One of the few boasts in a generally modest book is Judge Frank’s final statement that, during his years as prosecutor in the Bronx, no guilty verdict was ever set aside because an innocent man had been convicted.
Although he served justice first and hunted convictions as an afterthought, Judge Frank worked on some lively cases. He describes what might easily have been a perfectly undetected murder by arson and a long, agonizing man hunt which is almost a classic of stubborn policework. Then there was the usual run of crimes of passion, money, and stupidity, sorted out by the police and solved by persistence or cleverness or blind luck.
The stories are good reading. Judge Frank’s discussions of the duties and standards of law officers are even better, because this is material less familar to the lay reader than bashings and fingerprinting. He goes into such matters as cooperation between police and prosecutor, the annoyance caused by dishonest lawyers, the cultivation and use of stool pigeons, and the ethics of trading a reduced sentence for information. In his last chapter, he apologizes for not attacking the antiquated jungle of criminal law in general. If he should be moved to try this in another book, it ought to be worth reading.
JAPANESE AND AMERICAN SYMBOLS
Several years ago, Fosco MARAINI published a Fine description of his travels in Tibet. His new book, MEETING WITH JAPAN (Viking. $8.50), is inevitably less impressive, because Japan is rapidly becoming familiar ground in print. It is, however, a comprehensive account, with a few statistics and many handsome photographs, by a man who knows the country well, having taught Italian in a Japanese university for some years, and who, in the tag end of World War II, suffered imprisonment as a suspected spy along with his wife and children.
Despite this experience, Mr. Maraini retains his affection for Japan; but it is a practical, old-shoe affair compared with his exuberant enthusiasm for Tibet. Meeting With Japan contains the usual descriptions of geisha, flower arranging, tea ceremonies, and the Japanese attitude toward the Emperor and all lesser authorities. The unusual material centers on rural customs and superstitions, immediate economic and political problems, and the recurrent social difficulties of Westerners who try to join in normal Japanese life, a delicately balanced affair which is prone to fall topsy-turvy at the first push of a European hand. Mr. Maraini is at his best in describing Japanese landscape and country life and sketching Japanese and Europeans in baffled, and sometimes catastrophic, collision.
For the reader who has never got around to Japan, there can hardly be a better introduction than Mr. Maraini‘s For those already addicted to the subject, much of this pleasantly written book is bound to be redundant.
Why MAX LERNER, professor of economics and government and the author of such works as The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes and America as a Civilization, should have indulged the impulse to publish a collection of the columns he writes for the New York Post only the gods of scholarship can say. He has done so, however, and here it is, THE UNFINISHED COUNTRY (Simon and Schuster, $7.50), running to more than 700 pages.
Read singly day by day and hurriedly, Mr. Lerner’s columns tend to produce an impression of intelligent liberalism, amiable good sense, and a sharp view of the world. Read en bloc, they reveal heavily coy humor, repetitious hammering at single ideas (lack of a feeling of identity may cause juvenile crime, for example, but where does that get us?), and a sentimental faith in light and learning that verges on the chuckleheaded. The best example of Mr. Lerncr‘s gift for this type of misplaced regard occurs in his quiz show column of August 31, 1958. “It is futile to tell people that someone like Charles Van Doren is incapable of dishonesty,” announced the columnist, deftly combining intellectual snobbery, gross overoptimism, and plain error in less than twenty words.
At a third its present length, and minus the pretentious subtitle (A Book of American Symbols), The Unfinished Country would have been a better book, for Mr. Lerner is good when fuming over civic corruption or interviewing evasive politicians, two things that raise his blood pressure above temporizing heat. There are not enough of them in this volume to support the author’s reputation as a daring commentator.
THE LONGEST DAY (Simon and Schuster, $4.95), CORNELIUS RYAN’S account of the first day of the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, is incomparably the best of the war histories that have tried to combine official records and the complete military operation with the experiences of individual fighting men. Mr. Ryan worked from the military records of both sides, plus the recollections of hundreds of German and Allied soldiers. The two aspects of his story are dovetailed so skillfully that the book reads as smooth as satin. It is only in retrospect that one realizes the fantastic cleverness of organization required to accomplish such an effect.
Mr. Ryan’s picture of the invasion in general reveals a wild muddle of careful planning, bad luck, good luck, unforeseen complications, and desperate improvisation. On the German side, the enemy had done everything to oblige the invaders that could reasonably be expected. Rommel was at home celebrating his wife’s birthday, projected war games occupied a number of other senior officers, and all but two of the available fighter planes had been hustled away from the coast to avoid possible air raids on their field. Even so, the success of the landings seems almost miraculous.
Mr. Ryan describes the whole complicated affair brilliantly, but the great distinction of his book is its incorporation of individual soldiers and their experiences. The author has got hold of everything from bloody horrors to lunatic absurdities, and the conversation that went with them. The episodes range from the veteran Irish soldier, in prebattle excitement, proposing a toast to De Valera for “keeping us out of the war” to the malignant chance that dropped American paratroopers into a town where everyone, including the Germans, was out trying to extinguish a burning house. A novelist who invented half these stories, much less the run of wisecracks, erratic comments, and unexpectedly subtle reactions that are reported, would be accused of excessive ingenuity. Mr. Ryan can only be complimented for giving magnificent material the treatment it deserves.