Reader's Choice

SIR THOMAS BEECHAM’S LIFE life of FREDERICK DELIUS (Knopf, $5.75) is written as though no innovations in the fashion of constructing biographies had occurred since Macaulay’s day. Nothing of this sort has been done lately, and the effect is novel and refreshing, as though Sir Thomas had invented a fine new method instead of simply reverting to the old scheme of sticking to plain facts.
The book involves no psychological speculations, no long quotations from boring letters followed by ingenious reading between the lines thereof, and no elaborately constructed backgrounds. Sir Thomas, a conductor, is primarily interested in the musical accomplishments of Delius, a composer. Delius’ father and mother, Germans settled in England to pursue the wool trade, were evidently deplorable. Sir Thomas gives them one paragraph, concluding: “when all imaginable good has been spoken on their behalf, they still remain revealed as portents, probably unique even in Victorian England, and types which it can earnestly be hoped are now extinct.” Correspondence is quoted only when it proves what Delius was doing at a given point or elucidates his relations with a specific person. When his hero hangs about Paris for several years, writing a great deal of music and thoroughly enjoying the city, Sir Thomas remarks only that he “evinced a decided preference for low life.”
Once Delius had escaped from the wool trade, which he accomplished by being persistently unreliable at it, and from an orange grove in Florida, where his baffled parent had hoped to break him gently to lucrative toil, he simply wrote music, struggled to get it performed and printed, and then struggled further to control the idiocies of his German publishers. He seems to have been a man without any picturesque eccentricities, and his life contained no spectacular adventures. He reached success slowly, enjoyed a considerable period of respect and prosperity, and died, unhappily, of a lingering and painful illness.
It is a considerable achievement on the part of Sir Thomas to have made a consistently readable book of what is actually a very quiet story. His success may be attributed to energetic, opinionated writing, a sensible refusal to linger over irrelevant detail, and the ability to describe unproduced operas with the wild fervor of a musical comedy team trying to catch an angel.


SOLDIER IN THE RAIN (Atheneum, S4.00), the latest novel by WILLIAM GOLDMAN, STARTS starts out like a standard military farce. Sergeant Eustis Clay, Mr. Goldman’s hero, is, from the Army point of view, a canny veteran who contrives to live quite happily at Camp Scott in the last days of the Korean War, conduct a giddy social life, maintain a friendship with the local intelligentsia, do very little work, retain his rank, and accomplish all this with a minimum of annoyance from the authorities. Eustis is a man of distinction among his comrades. To the suspicious civilian eye, he is as poor a bargain as the Army ever made, an ignorant, shiftless, pilfering bungler and a public nuisance of some magnitude. He believes that Jews have horns, and his notion of a happy death is to get shot at the age of one hundred and ten by a jealous husband.
The “local intelligentsia” is Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter, whose influence is his own private work of art. Forty to Clay’s twentythree, well read and worldly wise, he is, thanks to his control of a vital little bottleneck, in a position to blackmail almost anybody. He is also an admirer of Eustis Clay, whose invincible assurance and gay stupidity fill him with envy and amusement. In a remote way, this team is reminiscent of Athos and D’Artagnan, and the enterprises the two think up and carry out are sometimes not unworthy of Dumas in his less bloody moments.
Almost every episode in Soldier in the Rain is funny in itself: Eustis trespassing on the lawn of the officers’ club and grading, academic style, the girls ambling into the place; Eustis teaching this game to a chivalrous lad from Yale named Meltzer; Slaughter going on a yogurt diet; Meltzer, profiting by Eustis’ instruction and example, rising up for the honor of the Ivy League and thieving a damsel right out of his mentor’s hands; Slaughter, utterly astounded by his own success, involved in a courtly paternalplatonic love affair with a high school girl. But while the chatter is comical and the action often wildly absurd, the book as a whole is sad. Brightness falls from the air, friends get transferred or killed, the base closes, and the little town turns out the neon lights and goes back to sleep. Only the indomitable Eustis is left, and he, although he doesn’t know it, is well on the way to becoming a professional re-enlister, a refugee in uniform, a second Slaughter.
Occasionally Mr. Goldman tries straight sentiment and becomes both saccharine and implausible, but these lapses are too few to spoil the book. About 90 per cent of the time, Soldier in the Rain balances neatly on the narrow line between laughter and tears.


Two other novels have turned up which may be classified as respectable hammock reading, if anybody reads in hammocks any more. WALK EGYPT (Viking, $4.50) by VINNIE WILLIAMS is well-written soap opera, and HARPER LEE’S TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Lippincott, $3.95) is sugar-water served with humor.
Anyone who feels like having a good cry over nothing much should be satisfied by Walk Egypt. The heroine is a Georgia hill girl named Toy whose father, an improvident miller, gets himself ludicrously murdered when she is about fourteen. Her mother is a spineless and brainless woman and escapes the problems of widowed poverty by going gently off her head. As the eldest child, Toy takes over the mill and gradually, with much difficulty and soul searching, makes a passable business of it. Toy has no sense of humor, and her bad luck is chronic, and while Miss Williams presents the girl’s miseries as part of a search for God, the unsympathetic reader is likely to see them as the malicious impositions of the author.
The best things in the book are certain minor characters and their rambling, solemn, backwoods talk, a combination of provincial narrowness and natural intelligence. Miss Williams has a good ear for this sort of thing and also does well in describing the slow seepage of electricity and ideas into Toy’s territory. Her official plot, however, is one long wail of female martyrdom, much of it unsupported by reason. It is typical of her contrivances that Toy’s father, leaving a neighbor’s house in haste, decamps and is shot down in his hostess’ clothes. The skirt is understandable, but the shoes, unexplained by Miss Williams, actually deserve a novel in themselves. It is no ordinary man who, about to go out a window to escape an armed and wrathful husband, pauses to shove his feet into highheeled black pumps with buckles.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a more successful piece of work. It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. Miss Lee has, to be sure, made an attempt to confine the information in the text to what Scout would actually know, but it is no more than a casual gesture toward plausibility.
The book’s setting is a small town in Mississippi, and the action behind Scout’s tale is her father’s determination, as a lawyer, liberal, and honest man, to defend a Negro accused of raping a white girl. What happens is, naturally, never seen directly by the narrator. The surface of the story is an Alcottish filigree of games, mischief, squabbles with an older brother, troubles at school, and the like. None of it is painful, for Scout and Jem are happy children, brought up with angelic cleverness by their father and his old Negro housekeeper. Nothing fazes them much or long. Even the new first-grade teacher, a devotee of the “Dewey decimal system” who is outraged to discover that Scout can already read and write, proves endurable in the long run.
A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill a Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.


No doubt it would be possible, by the exercise of genius, to write a dull book about travel in Greece, but I have never discovered one. PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR’S MANI (Harper, $6.00) is about Greece, and while remarkable in several respects, it is completely orthodox in being devoid of dullness.
Mr. Fermor has long been familiar with Greece. He speaks the language, and during World War II served in Crete. He is also a novelist with a notably riotous imagination. All these accomplishments serve him well in describing his trip through the Mani, the rocky peninsula that juts down below Sparta.
Because of its remoteness and the extreme ferocity of its inhabitants, the Mani has never really been conquered by anyone. The Romans and the Byzantines pretended the place didn’t exist. The Turks appointed local Greek beys, hoping wistfully, and often in vain, that these fellows would keep order and collect a few taxes. Meanwhile, the Manians behaved like mountaineers the world over, devoting themselves to complicated blood feuds and land wars and to the raiding of their lowland neighbors.
The government of modern Greece has gradually and tactfully wheedled these people into accepting a moderate degree of law and order. Their reputation lingers on, however, and Mr. Fermor was warned all across Lacedaemon that he and his photographer would be robbed blind and mercilessly slaughtered if they went to the Mani.
They went anyway and had a splendid time, finding the Manians, although miserably poor and consequently somewhat melancholy, a most hospitable, friendly, intelligent, and attractive people. Mr. Fermor became interested in the history of the place, about which all the inhabitants were garrulously well informed, and reports it in lively style. His descriptions of the landscape and the people are superb, and he occasionally flies off on the wings of fancy, getting himself and the reader drunk on wild speculation or thundering eloquence. On one of these flights, he installs penguins in the Arctic, from which I deduce that a good story counts for more than a dreary fact with Mr. Fermor, and that possibly Mani should not be accepted as a final reference book. As an impression of a place and a revelation of the author’s mind, however, it is pure joy.


JEAN PORCHER, the author of MEDIEVAL FRENCH MINIATURES (Abrams, $25.00), has provided this beautiful book with a preface in which he apologizes for not covering all medieval European art in one volume, a task which would be physically impossible, since the book as it stands is so fat with fine color plates that anyone proposing to move it more than half a mile would be wise to rent a pack mule.
Mr. Porcher’s text, which occupies about a quarter of the book, covers the development of manuscript painting in France from the end of the tenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth, when the rapid spread of printed books put an end to the art. He has little to say about the techniques employed but offers a great deal of information about regional schools and their influence upon each other; the characteristics of individual artists, who were usually anonymous in the early days but whose styles are as recognizable as signatures; and the qualities of line, color, and composition that distinguish one school from another. Anecdote and peripheral information are kept to a minimum, but enough background is provided to enable the reader to place French painting in the general European context. It is interesting to discover that, while the French at the beginning of the period were humble imitators of the styles already established in England, Germany, and Italy, they had become the acknowledged leaders in the field by the fifteenth century, boasting a group of painters internationally respected for their skill and originality.
The illustrations which follow the text are not only well done, they represent material which is not available elsewhere, unless one is prepared to make a pilgrimage through a number of European museums.


JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH, economist, iconoclast, and author ofTheAffluent Society, has written a book of essays called THE LIBERAL HOUR (Houghton Mifflin, $3.50), in which he undertakes the slaughter of a number of sacred cows. The victims vary in size and importance but ultimately provide a nice little hecatomb.
Mr. Galbraith begins with an assault on the notion that if we do not fight the Russians, we must necessarily engage in peaceful economic competition with them. He finds only relative satisfaction in the prospect; bankruptcy is better than being blown up, but it cannot be considered a victory. To engage in a production race with Russia, Mr, Galbraith argues, is to fight on its ground with weapons that are all to its advantage, for Russia has much to gain, both practically and in prestige, from an expansion of its national output of food and goods, while we are already oversupplied with practically everything and should be concerned with a more equitable distribution of what is available rather than with increasing its quantity.
Mr. Galbraith next tackles the myth that man is becoming subservient to the machine and demonstrates that machines, poor things, have a tougher time of it every year and will soon be held in no more respect than so many tin cans. No one who has been bounced out of a job by the latest piece of automation is going to be entirely convinced by Mr. Galbraith’s reasoning, but as a theory it is persuasive and witty.
Working through several historical delusions, plus the reputations of public heroes, the sentimental attachment to handicrafts, and the economics of rural New England, Mr. Galbraith continues to upset tradition and undermine dogma. His method is to pounce on some widely held belief and prove — with figures, if necessary — that it is actually quite contrary to evidence and common sense. Sometimes, as when he deals with the school system or the Depression, he is intensely serious. His discourse on how to rehabilitate an abandoned Vermont farm, on the other hand, is pure frivolity, although its camouflaged premise (you can’t) is absolutely sound.
The Liberal Hour is a lively little book, full of good things and peppery ideas for all its lack of a single central theme.