Reader's Choice

BY CHARLES ROLO
THE STORY OF A NOVEL (Knopf, $4.00) by THOMAS MANN started out to be an account of the genesis of Doctor Faustus, the magnum opus of Mann’s last years, but it took shape as something broader: a fragment of autobiography. While a familiarity with Doctor Faustus adds a special fascination to this memoir, it stands up well simply as the intimate journal of a great man of letters during a period (November, 1942, to May, 1947) of extraordinary tensions.
The book brings us a rounded picture of Mann’s life. It describes his immersion in a creative struggle, at once tormenting and exhilarating; his reading, the music he listened to, his meetings with a circle of distinguished friends (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, the Werfels, the Bruno Walters, the Chaplins); his activities as a lecturer and wartime broadcaster to Germany; his reactions to the war news; reunions and partings with his children.
The very day Mann finished clearing away the research materials he had accumulated during the writing of the mighty Joseph tetralogy, he jotted in his notebook: “Dr. Faust.” Next morning, looking through old papers, he found an outline for a Faust story made forty-two years earlier. A longing seized him “to try something else first,” for in his life plan he had always regarded treatment of the Faust theme as his final undertaking; he felt, too, that there was something strangely forbidding about the subject. Nevertheless, on May 23, 1943, he started writing Doctor Faustus, the life story of a German composer who, fearing sterility, makes a pact with the devil in order to achieve a great creative break-through.
The Story of a Novel confirms what certain critics stressed when Doctor Faustus appeared: that this infinitely complex and disturbing novel, an allegory of recent German history and a statement of the problem of modern art — indeed, of contemporary civilization — was the most autobiographical, the most painfully personal of Mann’s works. Mann refers to it as “confession . . . through and through”; and he exclaims, “How much Faustus contains of the atmosphere of my life! . . . That has been the shattering thing about the book.”
When he was two thirds of the way through it, he had to undergo a grave lung operation. “The terrible novel,” he observes, “was certainly responsible for this illness.” What is certain is that the creation of Doctor Faustus, like the creation of Joyce’s Ulysses, is a stirring example of the heroism of the great artist resolved to “go to the limits.” The reading Mann did for his “devil’s book" is daunting to contemplate. Still more awesome are the studies he made in order to master the stupendous problem of creating in words every significant detail of his hero’s musical lifework, a task he accomplished so brilliantly (with the assistance of a certain Dr. Adorno) that some musicians have asked what prevented Mann from actually composing the music himself.
Readers who expect of Mann a certain ponderousness should be pleasantly surprised by this memoir. It is briskly paced, direct, and thoroughly human —a continuously interesting and absorbing book. The translators, Richard and Clara Winston, have done an admirable job; I cannot recall another work of Mann’s which sounded so natural in English.

GUNTHER AND LIPPMANN

INSIDE EUROPE TODAY (Harper, $4.95), which is appearing a quarter of a century after Inside Europe, is not a revision of that book but a totally new work. JOHN GUNTHER spent twelve years in Europe as a correspondent early in his career, and he is clearly more at home writing about it than about Africa, Asia, or Latin America.
There has been a good deal of scoffing at Gunther’s “Inside” books, at the absurdity of writing up continents on the run, so to speak. But I submit that, in this age of narrow specialization and of group journalism, there is something admirable about Gunther’s willingness to make the whole world his beat and to do all his own legwork; he has never had an editorial helper or researcher on his payroll. Inevitably, his coverage has been extremely hurried, and this has entailed inaccuracies, superficiality, and occasionally major errors of judgment. But when I think of the spotty record of many specialized political reporters and the horrid failings of group journalism, my respect mounts for Gunther’s reportage, for the high level of competence with which he has carried out mammoth assignments. His quota of errors is almost certainly no higher than that of the smug news magazines with regiments of researchers. He discusses men and issues without the parochial obsessions and the pretentious tone of authority which the “expert" on a given area is apt to display. His copy has personality, a warm and generous one; and it is unfailingly infused with the tremendous zest he brings to his job.
The highlights of Inside Europe Today are the profiles of Adenauer, De Gaulle, Macmillan, and Khrushchev. A number of intricate subjects are handled compactly, interestingly, and informatively without more than the inescapable amount of oversimplification: the Algerian conflict, the Common Market, the unilateral disarmament movement in England, the situation of NATO, Italian party politics. The chapter on Franco’s government, “the shoddiest of dictatorships,” is a welcome contrast to the disgusting apologias for Franco to which we have been treated.
Some of the criticisms registered in my notes are that the treatment of the Scandinavian countries and the Soviet satellites is skimpy; that Gunther’s definition of that elusive English entity, the Establishment, seems to me peppered with mistakes; and that there are a few careless lapses into apparent self-contradiction. The operative point, though, is that Gunther has not grown stale. He still succeeds in producing a concentrate of information which is irresistibly readable.
Mr. Khrushchev seems to have found in WALTER LIPPMANN an American political commentator to whom he is willing to speak freely, and with genuine seriousness. Last April, Mr. Lippmann had his second long interview with Khrushchev at Mr. K’s country place (equipped with a gadgety swimming pool) on the Black Sea. Lippmann’s account of their discussion, first printed in the New York Herald Tribune, is nowavailable in book form under the title THE COMING TESTS WITH RUSSIA (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $2.50).
Four major points emerge. First, Khrushchev considers it nothing less than self-evident that the Kennedy Administration is being run by sinister forces which he sums up in the words “Rockefeller” and “Du Pont.” Second, he has arrived at the new dogma that there are no neutral men. This means he will never again accept any form of international cooperation unless, in administration as well as policy making, the Soviet Union has a veto. Third, the key issue in his mind is the future of Germany. Lippmann’s impression was that “he was firmly resolved, perhaps irretrievably committed, to a showdown on the German question.” Fourth, Lippmann believes there is no bluff in Khrushchev’s relentless determination to bring about the “predestined” acceptance of Communism by the underdeveloped countries. In a brief postscript, Lippmann draws the implications for American policy of Khrushchev’s conviction and conduct of the Cold War.
The Coming Tests with Russia is a minute book, only thirty-seven pages long. But it makes an important statement, and a grimly sobering one.

CHANGE AND CONTINUITY

THE BRITISH IMAGINATION (Atheneum, $4.50), a collection of thirty anonymous essays first published as a special number of the London Times Literary Supplement, is a comprehensive survey of the British cultural scene (literature, the arts, popular entertainment, religion, the universities, advertising, and so on). The Times Literary Supplement is extravagantly admired by American intellectuals, but the present survey supports my belief that there are certain respects in which British journalism of the higher order is inferior to its American counterpart. Several of the pieces deal largely in maundering generalities; two or three sound as though they were written for a quaintly old-fashioned encyclopedia; and the editor has chopped up the space at his disposal into far too many small units. However, nearly half of the contents range from good to excellent, and the volume as a whole has considerable interest.
In the overall picture that emerges, there is a curious combination of change — sometimes subtle, sometimes drastic — in certain areas, and absence of change in others. London is acquiring, increasingly, a cosmopolitan and exotic atmosphere; indeed, one contributor says, rather fancifully, that it now suggests Alexandria. The success in the West End of the Angry playwrights and of working-class drama represents a revolution in English middle-class taste, hitherto tenaciously addicted to the frivolous or the genteel. Modern artists have shifted their allegiance from Paris to New York. And the serious cult of jazz has reached remarkable proportions. On the other hand, several authors emphasize the stubborn persistence of traditional attitudes and concerns. The essay on the novel, for instance, argues that few English writers set out to present a realistic picture of the world we are living in: “Social distinctions, childhood, fantasy: these are the things that make most of our novelists put pen to paper.”
What is possibly the most penetrating item — the fresh and witty study of British snobbery — points out that there is no change on the fundamental level: “England is still an aristocracy — not just a place where breeding counts, but a society still run by a series of consciously formed élites”; and that there is conspicuous change on the level of the newly prosperous bourgeoisie, which is conforming to the American, status-seeking pattern. A remark made about the British universities might stand as the final summing up: “The particular genius of the English ... is the preservation of the past in compromise with the present, so that the first country to be industrialized retains more of the pre-industrial world than most others.”

LA DOLCE VITA

MARTHA GELLHORN’S new novel, HIS OWN MAN (Simon and Schuster, $3.75), an elegant entertainment which is also a morality tale, is felicitously conceived and executed with wit, gaiety, toughness of mind, and perfect control. The story is a topical variation on the theme of the American abroad. Its hero — or, rather, antihero — belongs to a new class which is the contemporary counterpart of the intellectuals of an earlier era who lived abroad on small private incomes. Ben Eckhardt, a 34-year-old expatriate from Milwaukee, has been supported for years in Paris by ever-renewed grants for the study of Chinese civilization bestowed by a not too exacting foundation.
Ben is inexorably opposed to any form of commitment — a career, marriage, even a steady job. He sees himself as a man who has “chosen freedom” and is convinced that, as the perpetual student, he has found an unbeatable formula for la dolce vita. His classes in Sinology, which he finds absorbing, leave him ample leisure; and he asks for nothing better than to loaf around Paris as a fascinated observer and occasionally make love to the unwashed girls of the Café Flore, who make no demands on him.
Two rich women disrupt this complacent existence. First Ben is drawn into an affair with a lovely, neurotically diffident French virgin of good family. Then he is taken up by a crazy, amorous, hard-drinking Englishwoman who travels with the international set. Determined to remain “his own man,” he decides that two mistresses are safer (and, incidentally, more enjoyable) than one. So, perfidiously, he keeps the gentle Jessica in the background while living it up with Liz, who succeeds in giving him a taste for all the things he cannot have except by becoming a kept husband. The retribution that overtakes him brings the novel to a mordant conclusion.
Ben is a thoroughly convincing, if unusual, amalgam of pride, irresponsibility, and the Puritan conscience, and Miss Gellhorn shows with finesse and humor how such a man gradually, reluctantly makes compromises with his precious principles and drifts into corruption. The other characters are impeccably drawn, and there is a rich fund of high comedy. The book is a delight.

ADVENTURE

MASTER OF THIS VESSEL (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $4.95), a novel by a young British writer, GWYN GRIFFIN, is a work with intimations of Conrad. Mr. Griffin, a powerful storyteller, describes the voyage of a cut-rate Italian liner from Naples to Australia; the arrogance and brutality of the British emigrants toward the “lesser breeds” on board, and the other rivalries and animosities among the passengers and crew; the ship’s shattering encounter with a tropical cyclone; and the ordeal of the young chief officer suddenly placed in command by the captain’s death and faced, when the cyclone strikes, with mutiny.
Mr. Griffin’s approach to the novel is conventional, one might say oldfashioned, but he is unquestionably an extremely able writer. His unsparing portrayal of the ugly side of the British working class, a subject seldom treated with force in contemporary British fiction, is a masterly job. Each person in the large and varied cast of characters is sharply individualized, psychologically persuasive, and endowed with solid reality. And the story has mounting tension and drama, and an effective climax.
When the work of a writer of thrillers is reprinted in an omnibus volume, it is surely a sign that, for better or for worse, he has become a contemporary classic in his field. IAN FLEMING, whose first book appeared in 1953, has now achieved this status with the publication of GILT-EDGED BONDS (Macmillan, $4.95), which contains three of his ten novels about the exploits of James Bond, Agent 007 of the British Secret Service, “authorized to kill.”The novels in question are Casino Royale, From Russia With Love, and Doctor No.
My colleague Charles W. Morton, a connoisseur of the thriller, maintains that Fleming is essentially a British Mickey Spillane. To my mind, Fleming’s fictional world, granted that it has a high charge of eroticism and sadism, is distinctly different from and more interesting than that of Spillane. Fleming (an Etonian, former foreign correspondent, and wartime assistant to the director of British Naval Intelligence) is at least literate; and Bond, who is highly sophisticated, is poles apart from Hammer. He drives a Bentley, is a perfectionist in matters of food and drink, plays scratch golf, is a pro at the card table, could write a guidebook for the exacting traveler, and handles women in a manner that makes Mike Hammer look like a gorilla. More importantly, Fleming’s books are the first thrillers with plots as startling as the destructive possibilities of the atomic age; plots that are powerfully imagined, stunningly bizarre, and supercharged with action. His backgrounds are expertly drawn. And Bond is an attractive hero. In the subliterary world of the thriller, Fleming, though he is usually horrifying and sometimes revolting, seems to me an inventive and compelling figure.