Reader's Choice

MY LIFE (Orion, $6.00), the autobiography that MARC CHAGALL wrote before leaving Russia in 1922, has at last been handsomely published in this country, complete with the illustrations designed for it by the author. A painter who can also write is not exactly unusual. Michelangelo would be remembered as a respectable poet if he were not unforgettable on other counts, and Ben Shahn writes about art with a grace and depth that put most professional aestheticians to shame.
It is unusual, however, for a painter to display in writing what arc recognizably the same characteristics that appear in his pictures, and this is what Chagall succeeds, most delightfully, in doing. He writes with the same pseudochildish directness and the same mixture of literal-mindedness with unorthodox fancy that distinguish his painting. Describing a Day of Atonement service in his boyhood, he tells how “Hundreds of candles glow, like flaming hyacinths, in boxes filled with earth,” and goes on to say that before they went to the synagogue his father provided his mother with a cued book of prayers. “In one corner he writes: ‘Begin here.’ Near a touching passage he notes: ‘Weep.’ ”
It is clear that his childhood in an obscure Russian Jewish town provided Chagall with subject matter for a lifetime of painting. The wonder is that he got a chance to use it. Painters, except of signs, were unheard of, and the boy’s mania for drawing aroused no more sympathy among his relatives than a taste for kite flying would have done. The opposition that might have sprung up in a more sophisticated family was equally lacking. The Chagalls had no fear of Bohemian garrets for
their son because they didn’t really know such things existed. Besides, the boy’s activities must have kept them in doubt about his intentions for years. He had a go at singing under the tutelage of the cantor and dreamed of the conservatory; he fiddled with the foot-tapping local violinist and dreamed of the conservatory; he danced with his sister for the amusement of neighbors and relatives — same dream. He wrote verses. “People spoke well of them. I thought: I’ll be a poet, I’ll go to ... I no longer knew where to let myself go.”
By his own account, Chagall was a handsome, timid boy with a bad stutter, but in the cause of painting he became a seething dragon. He beat his way from a local art school to Saint Petersburg, although Imperial Russia did not permit Jews in Saint Petersburg except under special dispensation, and the study of painting was not considered a suitable reason for granting one. Chagall survived regardless of official interference, found patrons, and went to Paris.
By 1914 fie was exhibiting, selling pictures, and making quite a name for himself. He celebrated by going home to Russia and marrying his boyhood sweetheart over the bewildered laments of her family, a clan of prosperous, conservative jewelers. The war kept Chagall and his bride penned in Russia, where he was drafted into the army and learned, to his own surprise, to make out reports without visibly demoralizing the service. Then the Revolution swept away the jewelry business and landed Chagall at the helm of an art school which proposed to glorify the new Communist world. Living conditions were appalling, and Chagall, harassed by intrigues among his assistants and interrupted by nineteen-year-old commissars asking, “Why is the cow green?” lost patience. He took his wife and small daughter to Paris and stayed there.
My Life, written at the time when he had decided to leave for France, is Chagall’s farewell to Russia. The country had treated him no better than countries generally treat highly original artists, but he loved it for his parents’ sake, for the half-dozen people who had helped him, and for his own childhood. The book fairly vibrates with nostalgia and with an affection that converts the author’s most unpleasant experiences into something bearable and even amusing. A man with any talent for selfpity could make five acts of melodramatic martyrdom out of the story; Chagall rarely goes beyond the sadness of all human life, which he combats indomitably with green cows and angelic visions.


Nostalgia is an unexpected ingredient of REFLECTIONS OF AN ANGRY MIDDLE-AGED EDITOR (Random House, $3.95) by JAMES A. WECHSLER, editor of the New York Post, a stubborn liberal and one of the few men who had the courage to snarl openly at the late Senator McCarthy in the sunlit noon of his power. In addition to his other activities, Mr. Wechsler is a ready participant in public debates. This book is the outgrowth of one such debate with Jack Kerouac, selfelected spokesman of that group of conscientious nonconformists called “the beat.”
Mr. Wechsler found that he could not define any common ground on which he could debate with Mr. Kerouac, who seemed to him to be speaking strange tongues and referring to some other world. Inability to communicate meaning is a condition guaranteed to disturb an editor, for it strikes at the very root of his function. Mr. Wechsler began to worry about the beat. He himself has spent twenty-five years working for what he described, on that occasion, as “a world in which there is love, compassion, justice and freedom.”
The discovery that a number of young people, and some not so young, consider words like “justice” and “freedom” meaningless hypocrisy and prefer to sit under a tree and polish their souls shook up Mr. Wechsler quite thoroughly. He asked himself how it happens that in a generally improved society — like anyone who saw the Depression of the thirties from the bottom up, Mr. Wechsler has no doubt that our society has, in many respects, improved — a group of bright people should choose nonparticipation rather than make any attempt to commit themselves to the working of that society, much less to its further improvement.
The beat, Mr. Wechsler decides, represent the extreme form of an indolence that has spread through the whole American community, replacing the reforming zeal of thirty years ago. Nobody cares any more, growls Mr. Wechsler, surveying thirty years of liberal effort with an increasingly gloomy eye. In fact, he finds much to deplore. He duly notes the gains, but he chronicles compromise, failure of nerve, good causes forgotten, and cures that have proved almost as troublesome as the original diseases. He lists sins of omission, ranging from the lack of public debate about the continuance of universal military training to the lack of any plan for coping with large-scale unemployment if it should occur. He observes that election campaigns are fought not on great issues, but in a determined attempt to keep those issues from the attention of the voters.
Given the curious state of apathy and evasiveness which Mr. Wechsler finds characteristic of our times, he cannot seriously reproach those citizens who turn up the hi-fi set and drown out the whole dreary business. Instead, he reproaches his own contemporaries and liberals in general, asking how all those dreams of justice and freedom turned into petitions for lower taxes and better suburban garbage collection.
The last question never is answered. Mr. Wechsler is neither a sociologist, a social psychologist, nor a philosopher. He does not probe into dark corners, and the materials of his book are the observations of a practical journalist with a passionate interest in politics and a conviction that, although utopia is unreachable, betterment is always obtainable. What irks him about our society is the tendency to let well enough alone, although he concedes that things are a bit more complicated than they were in his youth. Refusing to accept complication as an excuse for inaction, Mr. Wechsler concludes that the question is “whether the confusions and disappointments of the last two decades have destroyed our will and desire to do anything, and whether we have communicated — however indistinctly and falteringly — to those younger than ourselves the sense that our failure justifies their apathy.”


CLAUDE MAURIAC’S THE DINNER PARTY (Braziller, $4.00), translated by Merloyd Lawrence, is a aFrench novel in which all the characters are over twenty and no one is seduced in the course of the action.

The book is entirely concerned with the dinner party of the title, and its interest depends upon the contrast between what is said by the eight people around the table and what they are thinking. They are not an excessively congenial group.
The host is a successful journalist with one frightfully distinguished novel to his credit. On his left sits the handsome, bird-witted wife of an American film producer who crumped out on the party at the last moment. Beyond her sits a famous French script writer who hankers to be a novelist. The hostess is a nice young woman, chiefly, and boringly, interested in her children. On her left is a melancholy businessman, then a French-Canadian model in search of a movie part, then a sulky young man dragged in as substitute for the missing American, and finally, next to the host again, Eugenie, an ancient belle whose fashionably giddy past hasn’t deterred her from swathing herself in frumpish shawls and sweaters.
The table is round and the conversation is general but unrewarding. The host, an incorrigible philanderer, is interested chiefly in seeing that none of the ladies present says anything indiscreet. The model is annoyed because, in the absence of the film producer, she cannot decide which of the other men to attack. The young man is nervous about his manners and eager to impress his elders, whom he heartily despises. The film producer’s wife is in her normal state — that is to say, semicomatose and dreaming indiscriminately of her lover, her dachshund, and her horoscope. This leaves the field largely to old Eugenic and the businessman, who play interminably that French form of gamesmanship which consists of attempting to dredge up historical or literary references which the opponent cannot identify.
While Eugenie and Roland cavort among the lesser Hapsburgs, the rest of the company prattles vaguely and thinks, or schemes, or flirts, or reminisces in private. By the end of the book, the reader knows what these people are like, what they have done, and what they are probably going to do. Nothing profound has been revealed, but the rather tricky task that the author has undertaken has been deftly and interestingly accomplished.
NATHALIE SARRAUTE’S THE PLANETARIUM (Braziller, $4.00), translated by Maria Jolas, resembles The Dinner Party in basing its effects on the contrast between surface action and subterranean feeling, but it is a far more subtle, intricate book. Miss Sarraute undertakes to reveal the almost unconscious reactions of her characters to a series of quite ordinary events, in this case a small family row over a pair of leather armchairs and the possession of Auntie’s spacious apartment.
Now, if such a story is to generate any great excitement, it must be assumed, as Miss Sarraute does assume, that every character’s unconscious reacts violently to the slightest stimulus. She also assumes that the unconscious views every stimulus as a threat. (“Unconscious” is not the right word here, but I know of no term that defines the exact area which this author explores. She deals with emotions and ideas, usually misconceptions, which the conscious mind never formulates, being trained to sort out and discard these things before they reach coherent shape. Miss Sarraute nevertheless expresses them with perfect coherence.) The result of Miss Sarraute’s highly individual method is a book that is sometimes acute and always intelligent but which reminds me of those cartoons in which sad little people made of half-cooked spaghetti are always trying to climb down from bottomless peaks or meeting nose-to-nose in one-way mole runs. It may be true that things are tough all over, but the theme requires a little variation if it is not to make them tougher.
A novel in which all the characters are touchy, cowardly, selfish, and whining runs the risk of monotony. The fact that these characters behave with outward decency doesn’t outweigh the sameness of their inward minds, for Miss Sarraute is not interested in exterior actions and gives them only enough attention to account for their repercussions at the unconscious level. Technically the book is a remarkable feat, but if Miss Sarraute’s method is carried much further, we will be getting novels in which the anguish of ordering toast and coffee is described through the unconscious of the hero’s deceased great-grandmother. When that day comes, I think I’ll just go to a good movie.


FALLOUT (Basic Books, $5.50) is subtitled A Study of Superbombs, Strontium 90 and Survival and consists of a series of pieces by experts in various aspects of the subject, connected by the summaries and explanations of the editor, JOHN M. FOWLER. Information about the effects of atomic bombs, exploded either experimentally or as weapons, has reached the public in such a disjointed way and has been accompanied by so much hysteria and official disagreement that it is a relief to come upon a book which attempts to cover all the aspects of thermonuclear weapons simply, factually, and calmly. If readers of Fallout panic, it is no fault of the authors.
Although the book concludes, inevitably, that atomic weapons are too dangerous to use and that their mere existence makes any war impossibly foolhardy, it arrives at this point by way of much interesting, and some unexpected, information. W. O. Caster, discussing the incorporation of fallout strontium into the human skeleton, explains how it happens that various authorities have differed so widely in their estimates of what constitutes a dangerous amount of this material. One school, working by averages and assuming arbitrarily that the strontium will be evenly distributed, gets a much higher safe dose than the other, which takes note of the fact that strontium does not distribute itself evenly but tends to settle in pockets. There is also a good deal of description of how estimates of damages are reached at all, making clear that much uncertainty is involved and explaining why perfectly honest scientists disagree furiously on how fallout will affect the population in general. The rumor that we are all going to die of leukemia from the bombs already exploded is flatly dismissed as rubbish; the authors are positive, however, that some people who would not have had the disease will develop it under the influence of radioactive fallout. Their number is statistically very small, but any number becomes outrageous when one thinks what would happen to a general who tested a new machine gun by firing it at the first civilian who wandered within range.
As long as the book considers the effect of atomic debris already in the atmosphere, it is quite encouraging. The stuff will cause trouble for years to come, but the authors see no prospect of a major plague. Once it proceeds to actual war, the book becomes very grim reading indeed. Even assuming the existence of a country-wide shelter system, the lack of which is energetically deplored by Representative Chet Holifield, the authors see no hope at all for the survival of anything worth mentioning on either side in a full-scale atomic war. They offer no advice beyond, “We must find an alternative to war rather than try to make it possible again.”
Fallout is written with extreme consideration for the limitations of the reader who is neither a physicist nor a geneticist, but even so, the chapters vary in comprehensibility. The method of creating atomic explosions and the workings of the proposed system for detecting illegal ones in the event of an international agreement to give up thermonuclear tests are made remarkably clear; the discussion of the genetic effects of radiation becomes foggier as it proceeds, possibly because precise data are simply not yet available in any quantity.


BORN FREE (Pantheon, $4.95) is a pet story on a grand scale. The author, JOY ADAMSON, is the wife of a game warden in Kenya. When her husband brought home three very small lion cubs, explaining with distress that he had been obliged to shoot their mother in self-defense, Mrs. Adamson adopted the orphans. The cubs were still blind when the Adamsons acquired them, and consequently accepted their human parents without demur as soon as they could see them.
Animal lovers of the most abandoned variety, the Adamsons devoted themselves to raising their cubs, assisted by an African youth and Pati, a pet rock hyrax who appointed herself nanny to the little lions. The two larger cubs were presently sent off to a zoo, but Elsa, the smallest, remained a member of the family until she was fully grown. She had an angelic disposition, a humorous taste for teasing elephants, and an inclination to sit on anybody she liked. At three hundred pounds, her affections were overwhelming; the Adamson’s guests needed strong nerves.
The thought of putting Elsa in a zoo was more than the Adamsons could bear, but turning her loose was a problem, for she was not selfsupporting. They decided to do their duty as lion parents and teach her to hunt. Much of the book describes their efforts to teach their peaceable domesticated lion how to kill game. It was a great day when Elsa knocked off an ancient but enormous water buffalo. In addition to hunting lessons, the Adamsons tried to find Elsa a husband, but they were not successful as matchmakers. It seems that a leonine debutante party involves more etiquette than meets the casual human eye.
Mrs. Adamson describes Elsa and her adventures very simply and unpretentiously, with no attempt to invent pathos or exaggerate comedy. The book is thick with charming pictures and is certain to enchant anyone who admires cats. It will also curdle their blood with envy.


The glorious days of the “bespoke trades” are celebrated by THOMAS
(McDowell, Obolensky, $3.95). Despite the inroads of mass production, most of the elegant custom crafts devoted to outfitting the perfect gentleman still survive in England, where Mr. Girtin has surveyed their methods, personnel, and chances of survival.
Beginning with tailors, he works through shirtmakers, bootmakers, hatters, glovers, saddlers, and the manufacturers of unique guns, fishing rods, waterproofs, walking sticks, and automobiles. He even covers a chocolate shop, although here he is stretching his own definition of custom crafts to the ultimate bounds of meaning. Most of the crafts prove, as one would expect, to be largely in the hands of old reliables and very short of new blood, but a few of them retain green shoots. All are great sources of odd anecdote. The eccentric nobleman of Edwardian days has been succeeded by the eccentric with new money, and the one is as unpredictable as the other. An umbrella maker treasures the memory of the customer who demanded nine ribs instead of the normal eight. A bootmaker still marvels at the thigh boots studded with brilliants that he once shipped off to New Orleans, charitably assuming a Mardi gras ball.
Along with odd bits of information on the methods and history of each craft, Mr. Girtin provides amusing portraits of the craftsmen themselves. He found tailors and hatters particularly talkative, prone to reminiscence about drunken journeymen and prankish apprentices, and to complaints that young men aren’t willing to work any more. In some trades, the necessary tools are no longer made anywhere, and men cling fiercely to knives and gouges handed down from their Regency forebears. In the gun and fishing-rod crafts, methods, wages, and working conditions are kept rigidly up to date, and it is notable that these trades have no trouble in attracting and keeping new workers.
The world that Mr. Girtin reveals may be a minor facet of history, but it is odd, cranky, and pleasant.


WILLIAM WATSON’S SCULPTURE OF JAPAN (Viking, $15.00) describes Japanese sculpture from the fifth to the fifteenth century. It is a large book, permitting the excellent photographs to be reproduced on a scale that shows details of carving and surface texture, a point too often neglected in books on sculpture.
Mr. Watson’s text is devoted principally to explaining the methods used in creating the statues and to pointing out the slight variations in style occurring in different periods.
There is little need for the author to delve into influences from abroad.
They are few and instantly obvious: Chinese, Korean, and Indian. The Japanese, with their usual ingenuity, converted almost everything to their own style and uses, but on the evidence of the photographs, multiple arms defeated them.
Japanese sculpture is almost entirely religious, and a little more information on the significance of the iconography involved would have done no harm. The glossary in the back of the book is like a dictionary, full of disconnected facts. Presumably Mr. Watson intended to offer the Western reader a view of Japanese sculpture. On the basis of such an intention, he has done very well.