BY PHOEBE ADAMS
JOHN HERSEY’S book THE CHILD BUYER (Knopf, $4.00) carries a garrulous old-fashioned title page in fancy type, describing it as “A Novel in the Form of Hearings before the Standing Committee on Education, Welfare & Public Morality of a certain State Senate, Investigating the conspiracy of Mr. Wissey Jones, with others, to Purchase a Male Child.” The certain state in question is Connecticut, and the place hasn’t been subjected to anything like this since that debate with crowbars on the premises of the Colt Patent Firearms Company.
The conception underlying The Child Buyer is in fact decidedly Mark Twainish. Mr. Hersey is making a bitter criticism of education, patriotism, and human nature in the guise of a comic fantasy. That he doesn’t do it as well as Twain is forgivable. Nobody ever has.
The hearing form is a problem to begin with. Everything must be expressed by dialogue alone, leaving Mr. Hersey without even the cramped leeway of stage directions to convey the thoughts and feelings of his characters. Only uncontrollable blabbermouths are of any real use to an author in such circumstances, and the novel is inevitably thick with them. Practically everyone bursts into long, improbable reminiscences; obvious fools give shrewd descriptions of what they have seen; a twelve-year-old boy describes an autumn landscape through three pages of lyrical eloquence. The system strains the reader’s credulity, and by the end of the book, the witless Senator Voyolko, whose vocabulary hardly extends beyond “Huh?”, has become a positively lovable fellow — an effect which Mr. Hersey may not have intended.
Out of all the chatter comes the story. Wissey Jones has trundled into the town of Pequot on an exotic motor bike and begun negotiations to purchase a fat little genius named Barry Rudd for “educational and patriotic purposes.” The immediate result is riot and uproar, which fetches in the committee, worried about slavery, interference with the school system, and, in the case of Senator Skypack, sexual perversion. Senator Skypack’s mind is as limited, in its own way, as that of Senator Voyolko, and more depressing. He is a constant hunter of obscenities and, like all such people, he can find them anywhere. The committee counsel is a Mr. Broadbent, a young lawyer who fancies himself a second Joseph McCarthy, although he lacks the true McCarthy authority. One testy old Yankee witness warns him that he’ll get his whipper broken off from his snapper. Senator Mansfield, presiding over this lunatic circus, is no more than an ordinarily reasonable man, but by contrast with His charges seems a monument of good sense.
The row in Pequot boils tip because Mr. Jones has the hard luck to run into the clever old battle-ax who is principal of Barney Rudd’s school and because the boy himself has doubts about becoming a thinking vegetable. As the testimony rambles on before the committee, it proves that an abnormally bright child can expect no real help or understanding from the public school system, that most of the people who direct the system have no idea what they are doing or why, and that the senate committee is staffed by boobies willing to believe that any scheme involving a great deal of money must necessarily benefit the country in the long run.
Mr. Hersey’s main idea, that intelligence is valuable in itself, that it cannot be mass produced by government money or counted upon to work in ways immediately convenient to the authorities, is perfectly sound. He ignores the possibility that government money, suitably laid out, might give opportunity to superior intelligence that would otherwise end up connecting nuts and bolts on an assembly line.
Only the greatest satire is constructive as well as critical, and Mr. Hersey is not a great satirist. His highest level is about equal to Bernard Shaw’s lowest, all questions and no answers. After pointing out the Ieaks in the roof, the dry rot in the rafters, the termites in the walls, and the wet rot in the floor joists, he cries, “A plague on all your houses; I am not a carpenter,” and simply goes away.
LAWRENCE DURRELL IN 1936
THE BLACK BOOK (DuttOn, $4.95), LAWRENCE DURRELL’S first novel, has finally become available in this country on the strength of the interest aroused by his four Alexandrian novels. It was written in 1936 and is obviously the work of a brilliant young man with a poet’s love of picturesque language and an idealist’s outrage at discovering that the world is in many respects a dreary place, not arranged for his convenience.
When it was written, The Black Book was an extraordinarily promising and interesting first novel. Arriving more than twenty years late, it is bound to be read chiefly as a portent of Mr. Durrell’s mature work, which is rather unfair. Instead of enjoying the author’s exuberant explosions of rhetoric for their own ingenuity and spirit, the reader cannily observes that Mr. Durrell has since learned to translate his ideas into plot structure instead of tossing them into the story like parsley on a fish platter. The amusing old fruitcake, Tarquin, is overshadowed by that vastly more complicated and entertaining scalawag, Scobie. The extreme fogginess of the female characters can be taken as Durrell’s first device for conveying the impermanence of love. Since the effect may just possibly have been caused by the fact that at twenty-four all women looked alike to him, the retrospective view is not entirely detrimental to the author.
The book combines a paean to sexual pleasure, in which Lucifer’s lady remains nameless, speechless, and characterless, with an account of the absurd erotic misfortunes that befall a crew of misfits living in a decrepit hotel. The two halves of the book crisscross and conflict in an alarming way but never arrive at either peaceful balance or open war. Mr. Durrell did not succeed, in The Black Book, in reconciling the traditional value set upon love, a word in which the reader is free to include whatever concepts suit his fancy, with the atrocious indignities love inflicts. He has done better since, by affirming the instantaneous subjective value of any experience and denying the permanent objective reality of all experiences.
A HAPPY DABBLER
In TO PAINT IS TO LOVE AGAIN (Horizon, $4.00 and $2.50), HENRY MILLER describes his career as a mostly amateur water colorist. Mr. Miller was thrown out of a school art class in his youth as hopelessly inept, a circumstance to which he attributes his lifelong satisfaction in painting. Everything he does strikes him with joyous astonishment, as a miracle performed against nature.
The reproductions included in the book reveal that Mr. Miller, as a painter, has great charm and gaiety, a delightful sense of color, and little of the originality he displays as a writer. He paints off-beat Rouaults, or Matisses, or Marins, or Chagalls, but the on-beat Miller is not identifiable. Despite this omission, and since after all Mr. Miller is not claiming to be anything but a happy dabbler, much of what he has to say about painting is interesting. For one thing, he has known a good many painters, listened to them, and discovered that some of his own maneuvers are not unlike those of greater men. His own greedy eye for objects is fairly typical of the breed, and he is not the first painter to attempt a horse and achieve a seascape.
Mr. Miller skips casually from the problem of forcing surface reality into a shape that will express the painter’s idea to the idiot pleasure of seeing one’s work matted and framed, and from the game of playing with colors as pure colors to the difficulty of getting a little money out of the people who carry away pictures. Then, of course, there’s the question of what to do with the pictures that nobody wants, which have a way of rising like the equinoctial tides. Mr. Miller hasn’t solved this one. As a loving optimist about art, he isn’t really worried by his failure.
NEW BLOOD IN OLD VEINS
MARTIN GREEN’S A MIRROR FOR ANGLO-SAXONS (Harper, $3.50) presents the latest variation of that dissident English attitude which has produced the group of writers labeled Angry Young Men. Mr. Green complains more in sorrow than in anger, possibly because he has left England and entrenched himself at Ann Arbor.
Mr. Green’s viewpoint, less emotional than that of his contemporaries who have stayed at home, and covering a wider geographical area, goes far toward revealing why so many bright lads, educated, and in consequence socially advanced by government scholarships, remain dissatisfied. The process of scholarship education, as Mr. Green, who went through the mill himself, describes it, involves a real surrender of individuality and repudiation of backI ground on the part of anyone with a working-class origin. The announced object of the British educational system is to recruit intellectual new blood, but its effect, in Mr. Green’s experience, is to pump the new blood into old veins. The pressure may be gentle, but it is steady and directed toward turning the sons of ditchdiggers into facsimiles of Sir Anthony Eden or Lord Peter Wimsey, and very good facsimiles at that. It is not enough to train the minds of bright ditchdiggers; those minds are to be transformed into another kind of mind altogether, one that has no experience at all of shovels. That a certain amount of resentment should result from making normally British youths into officially “British” (the quotes are Mr. Green’s) gentlemen is understandable, particularly since the official “British” role, as defined by the author, is a tiresomely limited part to play.
A Mirror for Anglo-Saxons wanders in a rather disorderly way through national stereotypes and ideal images scooped indiscriminately from literature, politics, films, and the sidewalk. Much of what Mr. Green has to say about the nature of ideals and the direction of youthful ambition is very shrewd, and his method of miscellaneous documentation is a good one for this nebulous subject. He wastes time, however, when he falls to comparing England with the United States. His opinions of this country are highly gratifying, but essentially the comparisons he makes are irrelevant. Mr. Green has made the standard British error of supposing that an inherited common tongue guarantees some similarity of blood, temperament, and even economic structure, and that what is done here could be tried in England, or vice versa. This notion of Mr. Green’s results in some questionably useful material but docs not weaken the real worth of his book, which offers a clear and convincing explanation of the exasperation nagging at a generation of Englishmen who, in the language of the alien, never had it so good.
FICTION HERE AND ABROAD
DAILY BREAD (Houghton Mifflin, $3.50) is a novel about a public relations man by RALPH MALONEY, who is himself probably the youngest retired public relations man in history. Mr. Maloney retired, in fact, to become an author, and on the evidence of his first novel, this was a good move.
The hero and narrator of the book is a partner in a New York public relations (the phrase looks sillier every time) firm, middle-aged, successful, burdened with a crooked colleague, and bored with everything. The whole business has suddenly struck him as unspeakably silly and a waste of his valuable, and only, life, a state of mind that usually leads to a grand drunk. Since Riley is a steady drinker anyway, he cannot relieve his feeling adequately by going on a toot. He does the next best thing: stirs up a couple of love affairs, leaves his wife, and pounces on his partner’s latest indiscretion as an excuse for civil war.
Mr. Maloney makes a good story of the fracas. There are lapses into sentimentality where the bell-voiced widow is concerned and one or two reprehensible resorts to coincidence, but on the whole the book is well constructed and wittily written. Mr. Maloney does nicely with the crosscurrents of loyalty and cupidity among Riley’s staff. He has also invented two thoroughly amusing characters — the bird-witted millionaire with the camera and the wily old hypocrite whose bread factories Riley must defend against the just accusation that they arc a public nuisance.
The book’s conclusion, that a good workman is entitled to pride of craft even when that craft is ephemeral, is rather more sensible than the highflown philosophies that infest most business novels.
THE TRIAL BEGINS (Pantheon, $2.95), by an author calling himself ABRAM TERTZ, is reputed to have been smuggled out of Russia in manuscript. Certainly it could not have been published in the Soviet Union, for it is a satirical poke at the authorities that would hardly please a far more lenient regime.
Set in the time of the mare’s-nest Doctors’ Plot, it concerns a police official who takes his own advancement much to heart, his vain, chilly wife, her would-be lover, and the policeman’s son by a previous marriage. This boy, an idealist of the most irritating type, hatches out a society for the restoration of pure Communist methods and naturally lands in jail, where his father prudently leaves him. The entire affair is presented with a curious mixture of precise detail and dreamlike absurdity, all the characters, with the exception of the boy, alternately pretending that they are proper Soviet citizens and concocting schemes to dodge their responsibilities as such.
It would be a mistake, I think, to take this acidly funny and demurely unpleasant little book as evidence of Communist disaffection in Russia. The author is not attacking Communism in the classic sense, but merely the hysterical excesses of the last days of Stalin’s regime. Some of his targets — frivolity and personal ambition at the expense of duty — are surely permissible by the standards of socialist realism. To present them without their contrasting virtues and with the implication that all government officials are afflicted by them, however, would be a tactless move in Russia, and the author was no doubt well advised to send his work abroad. But the book is no vote of confidence in the West.
PETER PERRY (Orion, $3.50) is really a stage and whisky buff’s tour of Dublin, although the author, MICHAEL CAMPBELL, pretends it is a novel about an eccentric old lady. He has even provided a bit of plot to support this claim, some cheerful nonsense about Mrs. Perry’s longdeparted husband coming home to blackmail her, but for most of the book, the blackmailer is too busy pub crawling to attend to his villainy.
Dublin characters are Mr. Campbell’s real subject. He offers quite a collection of them. Peter Perry, whose real name is Patricia, once had a go at the stage and still clings to the edges of the theatrical world. Her parties, observed by a wide-eyed visiting nephew, are Bohemian Donnybrooks, with liquor on credit and a guest list ranging from dogs, who were invited, to policemen, who were not.
Aside from the mad chatter and unpredictable diversions of Peter’s friends, very little happens in the book. This is no serious deficiency. Mr. Campbell is deliberately blowing a series of soap bubbles, and as fast as one glittering folly explodes, he puffs out another.
ALBERT VAN NOSTRAND, associate professor of literature at Brown University, has written a book about how trade publishers, pocketbook publishers, and movie makers have ruined the novel. It is called THE DENATURED NOVEL (Bobbs-Merrill, $3.50), it is billed as an “exposé,” and it demonstrates a commendable yearning on the part of the author to see more masterpieces in print.
Nobody is likely to object to the idea of more masterpieces. I agree with Mr. Van Nostrand that it would be a fine thing. I part company with him on his assumption that there is an active conspiracy among publishers to prevent the appearance of such novels, when all the great novels ever written wouldn’t keep a good-sized publishing house busy for five seasons. (The house could then live forever on its backlog, but that isn’t publishing.) I cannot share his belief that the adjectives on the jacket compromise the quality of the book inside. Lord Jim remains itself regardless of any blurb about passion in the tropics; Mr. Van Nostrand’s own book is described on the jacket as pungent and witty but remains stolidly otherwise. As to the movies, the author clearly knows no more about them than I do, and that aspect of the argument may as well be dropped.
Mr. Van Nostrand had a Guggenheim grant to assist him in his project, which on internal evidence involved reading all the back issues of Publishers’ Weekly, all available best seller lists, the public pronouncements of such publishers as have been rash enough to make any, and a couple of standard reports on sales figures in the pocketbook field. Dreary and time-consuming work, but surely it didn’t take three years. How did Mr. Van Nostrand spend all that time? He certainly didn’t spend it on traveling about to interview authors or agents, or on maneuvering his way onto movie sets, or , on working for a pittance in false whiskers amid the lower echelons of some unwary publishing house. If he had, he wouldn’t Hatter publishers by assuming that the poor creatures have any real control over what authors write.
All the publisher controls is what he elects to publish, and if he wants to remain a publisher, which many of them inexplicably do, what he publishes must make money. The house that puts out only literary gems which nobody wants to buy will go down gloriously, colors nailed to the mast and batteries firing, but it will sink without a trace. The house, a cowardly, immoral outfit according to Mr. Van Nostrand, that backs the literary gems with blood-and-thunder Westerns, or home bunion remedies, will survive to publish more literary gems.
Mr. Van Nostrand has dug up a lot of information about how books are marketed, and disapproves of the system, as does practically everybody connected with it. He has no ideas for improving it. He understands the economic position of publishers — the necessity of paying off artistic losses from the profits of popular successes — perfectly well, and my quarrel with his book is that he blames the system exclusively on publishers. The public, the poor innocent public, bears no responsibility at all; readers have no natural taste for trash. Wicked publishers and wily advertising men and the writers of paperback blurbs have somehow hypnotized thousands of people into preferring Mickey Spillane to Faulkner, as they formerly bewitched readers into buying Conan Doyle rather than Conrad, «Rider Haggard rather than Meredith, and Monk Lewis rather than Austen. Aphra Behn, I believe, had no respectable competition. There may even be a historical case for the seniority of trash.
If Mr. Van Nostrand really knows how the trick is done, he is wasting his time writing morally reproving books. Every publisher in the business would pay him a fat, lifelong pension lor the secret of how to make the public buy a book it doesn’t want to read. And at least half of these publishers would employ the device to sell the work of some literary genius on whom the house bad previously lost its shirt, pants, coat, and umbrella.