Reader's Choice

A treatise with imposing credentials, THE NATION’S SAFETY AND ARMS CONTROL (Viking, $3.00), by ARTHUR T. HADLEY, informs us that nuclear warfare could be touched off by a squirrel and that last spring a catastrophe was averted thanks to the view through a picture window. The window enabled U.S. Air Force officers sitting down to dinner to see that a Bomarc missile had accidentally set itself for firing, and they rushed out just in time to stop it from taking off for a predetermined target; a squirrel or other small rodent, by chewing through the cable connecting the missile to its firing center, could conceivably cause the future Minuteman to blast off. The growing hazards of the nuclear age prompted leading scientists at M.I.T. to assemble, last summer, a group of experts to explore the problems of arms control. One outcome of this conference is Arthur Hadley’s book, which reaches us with endorsements from General James Gavin, Dean Acheson, and Robert Oppenheimer. I can only add that, from a layman’s standpoint, Mr. Hadley presents the latest unclassified information, the issues, and the technical problems with remarkable clarity and force.
Crucial to Hadley’s discussion is the distinction he draws between first-strike and second-strike force. Weapons (such as bombers) which are extremely vulnerable to surprise attack constitute first-strike force; they are effective only if used to attack first, and are therefore not a secure deterrent. Second-strike, or retaliatory, force depends upon weapons that can be effectively hidden, protected, and defended by other weapons. Now, the policy of “more bang for a buck” has led the United States to concentrate on weapons which, as a result of the advances in Soviet missiles, are today in the first-strike, or “soft,” category. Our resulting insecurity has forced the Strategic Air Command to maintain a superready posture, which looks hostile to the Russians and heightens the risk of accident; missiles and airborne bombers are all set around the clock to strike on receipt of a signal. The Russians, for their part, depend to a considerable degree on weapons which would become “soft" if their location ceased to be secret, and they regard inspection systems as a device with which to penetrate Russian defenses.
These considerations lead Hadley to the persuasive paradox that two kinds of military build-up are actually necessary to lessen tension and open the way to arms control. The United States, together with its allies, must have conventional forces strong enough to deter or arrest conventional aggressions; this would end the fearful gamble of relying on the nuclear threat. More important, both the fears of and the temptation to launch a surprise nuclear attack would be greatly diminished if both the United States and Russia had a second-strike force which they considered a secure deterrent.
Such developments are in the cards. But what then? Hadley argues that the most promising approach to arms control is to aim at a “stable deterrence system,”a system which would make the winning of a war impossible and create a controlled stalemate. This would be achieved by limiting the rival power blocs to a fixed number of secondstrike missiles, liquidating all other nuclear weapons, prohibiting the production of nuclear explosives, and establishing a rigorous international inspection. The number of missiles would have to be large enough to prevent the balance of power from being upset by any cheating that went undetected. The impossibility of completely preventing cheating is one of the decisive arguments against the proponents of total or radical disarmament: a disarmed world would be at the mercy of any power which had managed to stash away even a few thermonuclear weapons.
Hadley leaves the reader fully briefed about the enormous difficulties that surround every aspect of arms control; and he shows that various utopian and high-minded schemes currently in circulation in the West might well, if carried out, invite this country’s destruction. His book is a cogent, searching, extremely enlightening analysis of a top-priority subject, and it is argued by a man steadfastly concerned with the art of the possible.

COMMON SENSE AT WORK

THE MAN WHO FEELS LEFT BEHIND (Morrow, S4.00) by GERALD W. JOHNSON concerns itself with another problem created by the dizzying advances of science: the feeling of the man of average intelligence that modern knowledge has whirled beyond his reach; that in the battle of ideas, he is like a soldier who has lost contact with his headquarters and is wandering, unequipped, in no man’s land. Such, at least, is the overall theme which gives Mr. Johnson’s freewheeling essays their direction. His message to “the man who feels left behind” is that he does have resources which he has never properly exploited, those of common sense. And Johnson proceeds, with wit, bite, and brio, to show what common sense can do when it is put to work as interpreter and critic of various aspects of the American scene.
Among other things, Johnson discusses the hysteria of the McCarthy era and the lessons to be learned from it; the explosive growth of our cities, which is fracturing the city dweller’s identity and his geographic loyalties; the ways in which status seeking has put blinkers on the pursuit of happiness; the “cultural lag” of his native land, the South. One of the recurring themes is that Americans, infatuated with the concept of “leadership,” are failing to grasp the simple truth that many of their political ills are in fact due to bad “followership.” We dodge responsibility by taking it as axiomatic that politicians are, irremediably, a scurvy breed, and we conceal from ourselves the unpalatable fact that many a politician acts as he does simply because his constituents demand that he play the giddy goat.
Johnson’s posture is not that of a dealer in original ideas or complex profundities. He speaks as a modest moraliste who is carrying on, in a topical context, an enterprise which for centuries has engaged the attention of men of reason and good will: the uphill task of puncturing human folly and trying to knock a bit more sense into the human animal.

LIAISONS DANGEREUSES

IRIS MURDOCH, an Oxford don who writes thoroughly undonnish novels, has just brought out her fifth book, A SEVERED HEAD (Viking, $4.50), and it reinforces my belief that she is one of the most talented and excitingly original of the younger English writers. She combines firstrate intelligence and imaginative daring with a fine sense of the comic and a brilliant command of language. Behind their glittering comic surfaces, her novels deal with the disorientation of modern life and its loss of meaning. She has seen that realism and analysis are inadequate tools for the artist who wishes to convey the “crazy” quality of contemporary experience. She is not really concerned with plausibility — and this may disconcert her readers — but rather with achieving through fantasy and symbol the kind of truth we sense in a particularly lifelike dream.
The narrative which Miss Murdoch unfolds describes the pursuit of love in an overcerebral climate. It puts her characters — the narrator, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, a rich Londoner of forty-one in the wine business; his wife, Antonia, an aging beauty who has been a perfect mother figure for him; his youthful mistress; his brother; a Svengaliesque psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson; and Palmer’s half sister, Honor, an anthropologist — through an almost complete cycle of amorous involvements with each other. Except for Honor, they are all, in varying degree, people alienated from spontaneous passion and the promptings of instinct. They take their relationships with great seriousness and make much ado about not hurting others, but as the betrayals and revelations of past betrayals pile up, we perceive that they have no well-rooted standards and behave with stunning irresponsibility. Their mental life is rather like the Lynch-Gibbon household, whose elegant furnishings are shuttled to and fro as Martin and Antonia separate, reunite, and separate again. And their moral and spiritual condition is symbolized by the thick London fog, which is a recurring and insistent presence in the novel.
The counterpoint to these characters is Honor Klein, a figure in whom there is much of the primitive, alive to the primal urges. She savages Martin about his “civilized” relations with Palmer, who has taken his wife from him, and forces him to see that it would be better for all concerned if he were to let some of his natural violence have its way. Martin suddenly discovers that he is in love with this unpretty, elemental woman. And in the climax he chooses the dangerous course that will lead him away from his overcivilized self.
The meaning of Miss Murdoch’s books is usually somewhat elusive, and occasionally baffling. Here, I take it, she is saying that modern psychology (represented by Palmer) has disoriented man by making him overcerebral, an incorrigible rationalizer, out of touch with the truth of his natural desires and impulses. But the final point which the novel registers is, in effect, what Freud himself affirmed. Where the passions are concerned, Honor says to Martin, “you cannot have both truth and what you call civilization. . . . You cannot cheat thedark Gods.” In any event, A Severed Head, with its high comedy, its pervasive irony, its glow of the fantastic, is a rich and entertaining work. Miss Murdoch is an authentic enchanter.

THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE

ROMAIN GARY’S new novel, THE TALENT SCOUT (Harper, $3.75), carries us further into the domain of fantasy. The book is a piquant reworking of the Faust theme in contemporary dress. Its setting is a mythical Latin American state, mired in primitivism and depravity, and its Faustian hero is José Almayo, an Indian of the lowliest origin who has risen to be the country’s dictator.
As a boy, José noted that the things he longed for — power, great wealth, and unlimited sexual pleasure — were said by the priests to be bad. By simple logic, he concluded that the talent which brings men these rewards must be vested in the devil, and he devoted himself to evil-doing in the hope of showing “El Señor” he was one of his disciples. But though he has reached his worldly goals, José is obsessed with the sense that the crucial achievement has eluded him. He wants to meet the devil, make a compact with him, and enjoy the certainty that his destiny is in the hands of the supreme talent giver. And so he keeps a night club, for which the world’s most phenomenal performers are recruited, in the hope of encountering an artist of superhuman talent who will bring him into contact with the devil.
At the story’s opening, a bizarre company of guests, summoned by José, is motoring to his capital. Among them are a famous American evangelist; a virtuoso who plays Bach on a miniature fiddle, standing on his head; a Cuban youth with preternatural sexual capacities; and a patriotic Frenchman who aspires to do what no juggler has done before — juggle with thirteen balls. Traveling with them is the dictator’s mistress, an Iowa girl dedicated to cultural uplift and democratic reform .
The wheels of Gary’s plot are kept turning by a rebellion, which projects all his protagonists into fantastic adventures. In the final pages, the point of the fable is made explicit. Man’s age-old belief in the power of evil is an absurdity. The world is without mystery, and there are no magical ways of transcending the human condition. The truth is that “men [are] alone and masters of their fate.”And the true magic is man’s wasted talent for becoming “the creator of himself and his own dignity.”
I was left with the impression that this theme or moral had not been effectively dramatized in the fantasy which Gary has invented, but simply tacked on to explain the novel. In other words, his plot does little to give resonance and allusiveness to his ideas. Thus, whereas Miss Murdoch’s psychoanalyst becomes a symbolic figure, Gary’s devil worshiper tends to remain a brilliantly imagined freak. Nonetheless, Gary is a marvelously accomplished writer, and he has fashioned a singular and fascinating tale, peopled with an arresting cast of characters.

A WOMAN ALONE

THE OTHER WOMAN I AM (David McKay, $3.75), a novel which has made a considerable splash in France, left me with the feeling that the author, GENEVIÈVE GENNARI, has wrested a minor triumph out of a subject which is full of pitfalls. Her story, narrated in the first person by Sylvestre Fontaine, is pinpointed on the efforts of a middleaged, middle-class woman with a grown-up son to remake her life after the sudden death of her husband, a successful engineer, who, however, has left her very little money.

As a young girl, a student of political science, Sylvestre had planned to go into politics and campaign for the woman’s vote. Instead she fell in love with and married a man poles apart from her ideologically, an antifeminist reactionary of the fascist stripe. She remained a dutiful wife to him, but the love went out of her marriage after a few years, and she suffered, in silence, from having suppressed what she considered best in herself. And yet her first reaction to her husband’s death is an awareness of the great power of feeling that bound her to him, and a sense that her life as a woman has come to an end.
Sylvestre’s story describes her harrowing efforts to find a job; her reunion with her romantic cousin, her first love, which arouses for a brief moment the hope that it is not too late for her to find all she had dreamed of; her courtship by a rich, undemanding admirer, marriage to whom would mean security but a return to the reactionary world of her husband; and her final commitment to a job that represents the lonely course of freedom. As a study of the feminine sensibility, the book seems to me far superior to anything in the highly touted work of Simone de Beauvoir. Mlle. Gennari has given us a completely convincing and moving picture of the heart and mind of a mature, intelligent, disciplined Frenchwoman, who belongs “to a declining generation, to a condemned class, to a threatened country,” but who nevertheless retains the courage to work out her own destiny.

THE CREATIVE CRITIC

Nowadays, books of serious literary criticism, with rare exceptions, are essentially exercises in expertise designed to impress or confute other experts, REFLECTIONS OF A JACOBITE (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00) by the novelist LOUIS AUCHINCLOSS is one of the exceptions: it offers pleasure and profit to any cultivated reader, amateur as well as professional.
Mr. Auchincloss explains that he has called himself a “Jacobite” because the writings of Henry James have been the guide to much of his lifetime’s reading. Auchincloss’ criticism has some of the same attractions as that of Virginia Woolf. He prefers the concrete to the abstract, brings vividly to life a given writer’s fictional world, and discusses the characters in it as though they were real people who, so to speak, have just left the room. His pieces have the informal flavor of a lively causerie, and yet they come as close as the essay can to achieving the form of a story.
“Edith Wharton and Her Two New Yorks" charts the achievement and decline of a novelist who, after a decade away from her country, committed herself to a war on its vulgarities which ended by vulgarizing her own work. The piece on Thackeray traces in his life and work a struggle similar to “the hopeless struggle of Victorian porcelain to evoke the charm and grace of the eighteenth century.”Auchincloss’ study ol “Proust’s Picture of Society” is surely one of the most perceptive contributions to the vast literature on this subject. And memoirs are the basis of two brilliant pieces: one on Saint-Simon’s contest with Louis XIV over the great contemporary issue of precedence: the other, a dramatic and comic account of a marital and social crisis in the Newport of 1857 drawn from an unpublished extract from the diary of George Templeton Strong.
Turning to the present, Auchincloss develops what seems to me the irrefutable thesis that, since class distinctions are the very lifeblood of the novel of manners, it cannot flourish in our society. The later work of Marquand and all that of O’Hara invite us to believe that the main protagonists are inescapably influenced by their social background. But Auchincloss makes the penetrating point that what they are really influenced by is illusions about their background. In both these cases, the novel of manners has degenerated into the psychological novel without a psychology.
Auchincloss’ fiction has always been well written, but the prose in these essays is more spirited and richer in felicities. George Eliot and her husband are “the mournful priestess and her twittering majordomo.”O’Hara’s Gibbsville is described with murderous justice as “that lumberyard of chips on the shoulder.”And the behavior of O’Hara’s men and women is suggestively summed up in the image: “[They] dance around the Victorian traditions of class distinction and sexual restraint like savages around a cross left by murdered missionaries and now adorned with shrunken heads.”All in all, Reflections of a Jacobite is the most attractive and discerning collection of literary essays that has come my way in quite some time.