BY PHOEBE ADAMS
That preoccupation with the nature and function of religious feeling which appears in all the works of NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS SO far translated into English, either peripherally, as in Zorba the Greek, or centrally, as in The Greek Passion, reaches a culmination of intensity in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (Simon and Schuster, $6.00). This novel is a retelling of the life story of Jesus of Nazareth as Kazantzakis imagined it might actually have happened, the human events from which the worshipful Gospel account was derived and their meaning to the people who experienced them.
His unorthodox views on the relation of God to man got Kazantzakis into trouble with the authorities of the Greek Orthodox Church on more than one occasion. There were protests and complaints, and once a serious attempt to try him for atheism, but Kazantzakis survived and persisted in His independent, possibly heretical opinions. These opinions, which he explained in The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises (Simon and Schuster, $4.50), are worth going into, because they underlie the concept of Jesus revealed in The Last Temptation of Christ and dictate the construction of the whole book.
Kazantzakis did not think of the universe as a finished product or of God as a fully developed, static being. His God was indestructible but not omnipotent, a force existing in the entire material creation and engaged in a perpetual struggle to raise that creation to a point of spiritual perfection. “My God is not Almighty. He struggles, for he is in peril every moment; he trembles and stumbles in every living thing and he cries out. He is defeated incessantly, but rises again, full of blood and earth, to throw himself into battle once more.” Man’s duty, and his only hope of immortality and salvation, is to help God in what Kazantzakis frankly regards as a desperately hazardous campaign. The Saviors of God rings with drums, trumpets, and arms; “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is mild as milk beside it.
When he published his final revision of The Saviors of God, Kazantzakis concluded his exposition of the partnership of God and man with what amounted to a denial that God exists at all except as an emanation of the human spirit. This idea was probably what inflamed the church to legal action, and although Kazantzakis eventually admitted doubts about it himself and it does not appear in The Last Temptation of Christ, the novel was denounced by Orthodox clergy and placed on the Index. It is also rather likely that his inquisitive comings and goings in Russia, combined with his outspoken sympathy for poverty and suffering, had caused Kazantzakis to be suspected of insinuating proGommunist propaganda into what was ostensibly a life of Christ.
Believing as he did that the highest achievement possible to a man is to serve the advancing spirit of God, Kazantzakis represents Jesus as a man of such achievement, responsive to God’s will, understanding its general purpose, and dedicated to carrying it out at any cost. Jesus does not begin with this intention, however. He foresees that tiie divine will is about to hand him an intolerably difficult assignment, and he balks, sulks, and tries to evade the task by behaving in ways quite unsuited to a potential Messiah. When the scheme doesn’t work, he takes up preaching, not at all certain that his tenets of love and peace are any better than those of his pseudo disciple Judas, a redheaded malcontent who continually agitates for a military rising against Rome.
If Judas represents worldly power, Jesus’ ill-behaved cousin Mary Magdalene represents worldly pleasure. Initially bewildered and uncertain of his course, Jesus gradually comes to resist them both, gets the better of them, and finally makes use of them for his own unworldly purposes.
Although Kazantzakis’ version of the life of Jesus is obviously not like the one you will read in the Bible, it is, granted the author’s premise, both moving and respectful. This Jesus is not the assured son of God following a preaccepted path but a man who, in God s service, connives with Judas to arrange his own execution and in doing so assumes something of the character of those epic heroes who choose their deaths
— Achilles sailing for Troy under the shadow of the prophecy, or Guchulainn riding on to battle when he knows his magical luck has left him.
In representing Jesus as a man, Kazantzakis has not reduced lus Story to Hat realism. His own style, flamboyant and exuberantly inventive. has never made any concessions to humdrum plausibility, and while some of the miracles are ignored or moved off stage, the raising of Lazarus remains marvelous, inexplicable — and, incidentally, as gruesome as anything in Poe.
The translator of The Last Temptation oj Christ. P. A. Bien, has appended to the book a discussion of Kazantzakis’ use of demotic Greek, a matter previously described by Kimon Friar, translator of The Saviors of God and of Kazantzakis’ Odyssey. A wistful and harried note in Mr. Bien’s essay implies that it is not an accident that Kazantzakis work has required almost its many translators as there are books. Demotic Greek, according to Mr. Bien, is far madder than English.
As so often happens in discussions of language, the explanation leaves the reader with a whole set of questions that would never have arisen if no explanation had been offered. It seems that, in demotic Greek, a camel doesn’t get up. it “demolishes its foundations.”Phis sort of thing is certainly enough to jar any translator, but it remains, as information, an exasperating dead end. Do all animals demolish their foundations? Does the speaker of demotic Greek, when he uses the word, think of demolished foundations or merely of a rising camel? I here is a difference. If Henry James wrote that a camel up-anchored (inconceivable possibility), it would be comic affectation; if Captain Joshua Slocum wrote it. it might well be, in his own mind, ordinary practical usage with no overtones of any sort. To translate either of these hypothetical cases into some other language would probably require more than a literal understanding of the words.
Mr. Bien never goes beyond the literal level in his complaints about demotic Greek.
The difficulty of putting this language into English becomes important in the case of The Last Temptation of Christ because Mr. Bicn’s translation, when compared with the work of other translators of Kazantzakis, is rather stiff and reads, too often, like obvious translation. It contains a few outright misuses of English words. It suggests, very strongly, that Mr. Bien’s grasp of colloquial English goes no further than writing it’s for it is, no matter how firm his clutch may be on Greek, and this suspicion in turn causes one to wonder whether demotic Greek is really much further from academic Greek than Mark Twain is from Washington Irving.
THE MECHANICS OF MURDER
SIR SYDNEY SMITH, for many years professor of forensic medicine at Edinburgh University and widely known as a medical detective, has written a book called MOSTLY MURDER (McKay, $4.95). The book is something of an autobiography, but contains relatively little about Sir Sydney’s personal affairs, since, as he explains in a pleasantly diffident foreword, his only excuse for “adding another to the mass of new books” is that it amused him to recall some of his more interesting cases.
The book starts off with a bang in Egypt, where Sir Sydney was a medico-legal expert attached to the Ministry of Justice. He was presented with three little bones found in a disused well. The police wondered vaguely whether these remains had belonged to a dog, a donkey, or a human being, and if the last, whether anything should be done about it. Sir Sydney’s report ought to take the gumption out of anybody contemplating murder in a hopeful mood. “ They are the bones of a young woman,” he announced. “She was short and slim. Aged between twenty-three and twenty-five when she died, which was at least three months ago. Site had probably had at least one pregnancy, perhaps more. Her left leg was shorter than her right, and she walked with a pronounced limp.
“She was killed by a shot gun loaded with home-made slugs, fired in an upward direction from a range of about three yards. The killer was standing, or sitting, in front of her, and slightly to her left. She was not killed outright, but died about seven to ten days later, probably from septic peritonitis due to the shooting.”
Every word of this description proved correct, and the police quickly scooped up the killer. As everyone knows by now, there is no black magic in this sort of thing, merely knowledge, precision, work, and a bit of good luck. No two cases are ever the same, however, and to anyone with a taste for macabre puzzles, the explanations of how a skilled medical detective arrives at his conclusions are endlessly fascinating.
NOVELS OF LOVE
A BALLAD OF LOVE (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $3.95), the latest novel of FREDERIC PROKOSCII, is a melancholy and ambiguous story told, as is usual with this author, against a variety of exotic and beautifully described settings. Mr. Prokosch’s style is elegant, and he is adept at evoking delicate hints of terror from romantic landscapes and throwing a veil of glamour over tawdry ones. In this case, he turns a seedy small town in Texas into an outpost of fairyland, while his maneuvers with Paris and the Tirol are like a fireworks display. He is also ingenious in the invention of odd characters. The young Austrian nobleman who dresses for dinner in petticoats and feather boas ought to be disgusting but is, in fact, a very likable fellow whose taste in clothes, though unfortunate, is easily forgivable. It is probably unjust to complain that all Mr. Prokosch’s glittering merits never fuse into any particular meaning.
The story runs from 1914, when Mr. Prokosch’s hero was born on the same day that an assassination occurred at Sarajevo, to the start of World War II. Henry’s picturesque childhood in Carinthia is followed by much shifting about among relatives in the United States — the madly musical in Texas, the madly austere in Michigan, the discreetly perverse in Philadelphia. Henry doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, and neither does his cousin Stella, who can claim a dash of Indian blood and really ought to be at home in North America. The two eventually drift back to Europe, where Henry amounts to nothing much and Stella, despite his persistent but ineffectual devotion, manages a complete catastrophe.
The novel never quite takes hold of the emotions as a lament for lost love, because Henry’s love is too languid to warrant much concern. Possibly Mr. Prokosch had in mind a comment on the relations of Europe and the United States between the wars, or simply on the emotional and intellectual quality of the period, but if so, his intention is never clear. A Ballad of Love appears to be continually on the verge of some portentous revelation, and that is exactly where it remains.
TOM KAYE’S short novel, IT HAD BEEN A MILD, DELICATE MGHT (Abelard-Schuman, $2.95), is also about love. I sometimes suspect that there is a secret law among publishers that all novels about love are to be published in summer, or, more likely, that all novels published in summer are to be about love.
Mr. Kaye is English, and his book has an odd history. It was accepted by an English publisher and actually in type when it was canceled as too experimental, a very curious charge, since Mr. Kaye’s so-called experiments are all at least as old as James Joyce and one or two look as though they might be derived from Ovid. The book was then translated and published in Sweden, where it provoked a storm of applause as a profound comment on the coldness and timidity of modern society.
After all the uproar, It Had Been a Mild, Delicate Night proves to be a deliberately uncomplicated tale of a scruffy but indomitable bum, an intellectual beauty, and her toorespectful admirer, and it illustrates the demonic power of Eros over the most unlikely victims. Mr. Kaye’s game in this sophisticated myth is to make each move in what is really a sordid little incident into a baroque explosion of fanciful simile, ironic parody, or surprise, and he succeeds very well. It will be interesting to see what he tries next (this book took eight years to write) and whether his method can be adapted to a more complicated theme.
NOW AND AT THE HOUR (Coward-McCann, $3.00) is a first novel by a New England newspaperman, ROBERT CORMIER. It has the ring of personal experience, which the setting, a New England factory town, and the social level, that of skilled labor just below the promotable-tomanagement level, unobtrusively reinforce. It is not likely that a writer who did not know this particular kind of world at first hand could present it so casually or with such conviction. Mr. Cormier does not
give much attention to his background, for his interest runs in another direction, but every detail that he provides is right.
The book is devoted to the thoughts of a man dying of cancer and compelled by the tactless kindness of his wife and children to pretend that he doesn’t know it. Alph LeBlanc has been, in a gentle way and without ever suspecting it. a good man. He has spent his life doing the best he could for his family and concealing his own fears and disappointments in order to save them from worry. The pattern holds on his deathbed. Since he is not supposed to be dying, he cannot very well talk over with his children his regret that he could not do more for them while he lived. He thinks about it instead, and his thoughts, a little foggy with pain and drugs, gradually reveal his whole generous, uncomplaining life.
It is quite a task to make an interesting hero of a man who has done no great deeds, committed no crimes, suffered no psychological upheavals, never been painfully poor or even mildly rich, and who has in the course of the book nothing to do but think, an activity which he carries on at a quite uncomplicated level and without a trace of imagination. Mr. Cormier not only succeeds in making Alph interesting, he creates considerable suspense with the question of how long the man can keep up his pretense of ignorance. There are moments when Alph seems in danger of becoming too good to be true, but the author always manages to avoid the saccharine and the sentimental, and ends by creating a touching picture of a man who is not nearly as ordinary as he himself thinks.
DIONYSUS AND ALL THAT
THE NEUTRAL SPIRIT (Little-Brown, $3.50) is the latest work of BERTON ROUECHÉ, the author of Eleven Blue Men and various other books on scientific and medical oddities. This time, Mr. Roueché investigates alcohol, and, as usual, he makes a brisk, amusing, neatly organized story of what he finds.
Beginning with the invention, or accidental discovery, of the stuff by our remotest ancestors, Mr. Roueche works through mead, ale, wine, and beer to the great moment when the method of distilling pure alcohol was revealed. He has unearthed some wonderfully funny quotations from the Arabian alchemist who is believed to have invented the process, and even better ones from the various Europeans who followed in his wake. These fellows were adither with optimism on behalf of the new liquor, and their claims for it were untrammeled by practical experiment. In fact, they would have caused a nineteenth-century snakeoil peddler to raise his eyebrows partly, at least, in economic disapprobation. A few drops a day was the dose prescribed, and it was guaranteed to cure anything but death.
Mr. Roueché’s study of alcohol in modern times is necessarily somewhat less eloquent, the language of the alchemists having passed to the manufacturers of perfumes and lipsticks, but he has found and quoted some agreeably testy squabbles among the authorities investigating the causes of alcoholism. These have not been settled as yet. despite the efforts of large numbers of sober scientists and tipsy rats, but a surprising number of other points have been cleared up. For one thing, alcohol does absolutely nothing for snakebite.
it is possible, I suppose, that a reader with a serious desire to know nothing whatever about alcohol would be bored by The Neutral Spirit, but it is highly doubtful that anyone else will be. The manufacture of gin; the distinction between Scotch, bourbon, and rye whiskies; the fashion for vodka — Mr. Roueche covers them all. The only thing he has omitted is a diagram of a working still, and perhaps this is just as well, for despite the attention paid to the unpleasanter effects of alcohol, The Neutral Spirit cannot be described as a temperance tract. Like most good biographers, Mr, Roueche thinks well of his subject and feels that any disaster involving it is the other fellow’s fault.