The Peripatetic Reviewer
BY TOWARD WEEKS
TELL me a good book to read this summer,” says a friend. “What do you feel like?” I reply, stalling for time, as I try to match what I know of her taste with my own.
“Oh, something fresh and unexpected. I just can’t seem to find what I want in that fist in the Sunday Times.” The escalator of best sellers carried by the Times and Herald Tribune is a device peculiar to Americans; the British won’t have one, nor is there any such competitive rating in France, Germany, or the Soviet Union. People are supposed to follow their own inclination, not read to keep up with the Joneses.
For me, part of the fun of summer reading is to pick old books I want to go back to and new ones with a tempting diversity. For instance, Whispering Land by Gerald Durrell is the most delightful book about animals which I have had in my hands since Ring of Bright Water. In Travels with Charley John Steinbeck draws a picture of the United States as fresh as green paint. Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons is surely the most unusual cookbook of the season. And for a first novel try Fly in the Pigment by Sidney Peterson.
The pressure of American advertising, like the pressure of our best-seller lists, is for the few at the expense of the many. The wages we pay our young authors are a disgrace to a nation which prides itself on being literate and wealthy. Suppose we take the case of a writer who has just published his first novel. His book has been long in mind, and the actual writing of it occupied the greater part of a year; he and the editor have been over every paragraph, tightening, polishing, and eliminating the purple passages and the unessentials. This story of some ninety thousand words — the length of the average novel — makes its appearance to the applause of the author’s hometown; there are an autographing party, two brief interviews on television, some fairly encouraging reviews, and as much advertising as $1000 will pay for. The author cherishes but keeps to himself the hope that the success of this novel will establish him securely as a free lance. The publisher who has printed 4000 copies of it in the first edition knows that he will not even reach the break-even point until all the 4000 are sold. His profit will come in the later editions — if any.
But the hard truth is that most first novels do not sell as many as 4000 copies in the United States. Of the four first novels which appeared under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint in 1961, one — the success — had a sale of 8542, with a total royalty of $4175.56. A second sold just over 5000 copies and earned $2083; and the remaining two, as the unsold copies were returned by the booksellers, showed a sale of less than 3000 copies each. These two deserved a better fate. They were not crude or clumsily written, and they did hold the vivacity one ought to look for in young books. I blame their failure partly on the high price of all American books in cloth, partly on the difficulty of promoting an unknown author with an advertising appropriation of about $1000, but chiefly I blame it on the fact that American readers are so unadventurous, A man will not hesitate to spend $14 for a pair of seats to a new show, but offer him a $4.50 novel by a writer he never heard of and he will shy away from it as if he thought you were crazy.
The first novelists I spoke of above are all in their early or mid thirties, and three of the four are men. The inexorable arithmetic of the royalty statements he receives six months after his book appears leaves a writer who is married and the father of young children no choice but to continue to support himself by his teaching or journalism or whatever, and to do his writing on the side.
What seems hard usage for a beginning novelist is even harder for a young poet. The sale of a new book of verse in the United States falls between 600 and 1000 copies, with earning power for the author of some S300 to $500. In the past decade the American poets who have been able to support themselves solely by writing poetry can be counted on the fingers of two hands. I deplore the public’s apathy toward poetry, just as I deplore their infatuation with the current list of best sellers. But I am old enough to realize that these conditions are not likely to change overnight. The beginning author must accept them as part of the odds against him, just as he must accept the fact that the lazy man’s vaudeville which is television has appropriated the reading time of many middle-agers, and that the long-playing records compete with books on a fairly even basis for the dollar of the undergraduate.
CLOVE AND CINNAMON
From my friend Alfred Knopf I have received an advance copy of an enchanting and romantic novel, GABRIELA, which he says he has enjoyed “more than any novel I have read during the past several years.” The book comes to us from Brazil, where it was written by JORGE AMADO and where it has sold a quarter of a million copies. It has been admirably translated from the Portuguese by James L. Taylor and William L. Grossman and will shortly be translated into thirteen other foreign languages. Mr. Knopl adds that there has never come out of South America, “as far as I know, a great best-selling novel, but I expect ‘Gabriela’ to break this sound barrier.” Gabriela (Knopf, $5.95) is a charmer, and I hope I may be forgiven for writing about it a little ahead of its publication date, which is September 12.
The success of this romance depends on the slow and leisurely manner in which the story casts its spell. With the soft indolence which one believes must be characteristic of the Brazilian coast, the author projects us into the provincial, passionate life of Ilhéus a small river port where the word “progress” is on everyone’s lips and where prosperity depends upon the cacao crop, which in turn depends upon the rain. The days of bloodshed and brigandage when the empire builders were carving out their domains are past, and now the plantation owners, colonels all, maintain houses in town, and often mulatto mistresses, while they prepare to send their sons to the boarding schools in Bahia or Rio and on Sundays accompany their wives to the tea dances at the Progress Club. Beneath this veneer of civilization are the fights in the alleys; the known assassins who push people around in the cheap bars; the unwritten law which is upheld when Colonel Jesuíno kills his wife and her lover; land deals that would make you dizzy; and among the colonels, a rivalry for the latest of the courtesans as intense as that for political favor.
Into this bizarre milieu come two strangers, Mundinho Falcão, a bright, attractive promoter from Rio who means to make the town his own, and Gabriela. a young migrant trudging in from the backcountry, who, when we first see her with her dirty face, unkempt hair, bruised feet, and ragged clothing, gives little evidence of the magnetism or power which she is to exert.
Gabriela begins her ascent when she is hired to cook for Nacib, the Arab who owns the most popular bar and cabaret; whereas Mundinho challenges the political power and popularity of Colonel Ramiro Bastos. It is Mundinho who loans Jacob the Russian the money with which to operate the first bus line; Mundinho who finances the first newspaper, The Ilhéus Daily; Mundinho who persuades the authorities in Rio to dredge a channel through the sandbar which is closing in the harbor. Clearly he is a man of vision, and when he challenges the old political boss, the whole community is in uproar.
The charm of this story is its pace and its verisimilitude. The year is 1925, and in this remote, self-centered little town, Jorge Amado quietly but surely absorbs you in the current of unpremeditated but very human affairs; the scandals, the rivalry, the pride and vanity of the old world as they are stirred up by Mundinho provide us with a comedy vivid, believable, and entertaining.
One of the most knowledgeable American journalists on Soviet affairs, nHARRISON E. SALISBURY of the New York Times flew back to Moscow in the autumn of 1961 for his sixth visit in eighteen years. He had been a resident correspondent in the Union for as long as five years at a time; now he was returning to make an assessment of the changes which have occurred within Russia since that summer of euphoria, 1959, when the American Exhibition was in flower and when it was known that Khrushchev would come to Washington. He reports his findings in a personal narrative, A NEW RUSSIA? (Harper & Row, $3.50), a short book of large concern, particularly to those who have lived within the Soviet Union.
I am fascinated by Mr. Salisbury’s account of the struggle for power between the left and the right, between the more liberal forces, led by Khrushchev, and the neo-Stalinists, who would take a harder, more repressive line. The very fact that this struggle is in the open, and that a toughminded editor like Tvardovsky dares defend the new latitude in the columns of his magazine, Novy Mir, is evidence of the evolution that has taken place since Pasternak’s death. The writers known as “The Men of the Sixties” show how deeply the more audacious of the intelligentsia are committed to the broad stream of Russian liberalism. But, as Mr. Salisbury reveals, both forces are positively in contention, and the struggle produces those contradictions so baffling to the Western mind: the gains of the church, the membership of which has been restored to 50 million, or one quarter of the population, are offset by the new rise in anti-Semitism; the subtle but undisguised desire of the younger generation for a closer affiliation with the West is combated in print and through violence by the Komsomol bullyboys. Mr. Salisbury is swift to detect the youth’s resistance to Soviet stultification (the blue denims known as “Texas trousers” have become a status symbol in Moscow); his characterization of the younger deputies in the Kremlin is penetrating; and his final chapter, “Whither Russia?”, is most illuminating. A concise and valuable book.
WHAT EVERY BUSINESSMAN KNOWS
It was while he was teaching naval history at the University of Malaya that C. NORTHCOTE PARKINSON was seized by the first of those alarming truths with which he has been taunting the business world ever since. In an age of supermanagement and efficiency experts, this innocent-looking Englishman propounded what has since come to be known as Parkinson’s Law: to wit, that work increases in proportion to the number of people there are to perform it. This proposition was received first with levity and then with dawning recognition in some of the most solemn board rooms here and in the United Kingdom. Emboldened by his success, Mr. Parkinson pronounced his second law: growth is complexity, complexity is decay. Again he pointed up his case with such ludicrous common sense that people began quoting him.
His new book, IN-LAWS AND OUTLAWS (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00), is a how-to-succeed book aimed at the boy who can bluff. All that a reviewer should do is to hint at the range and diversity of Parkinson’s attack. The book opens with the Law of Levity, by which the young man at his first desk gradually induces the conviction that as an Ivy League man he is going places. Next, Parkinson permits his climber to consider the most practical means of marrying an heiress. Thereafter comes a chapter on Punctuosity, in which the author maps out the conquest of time, and the best in the book is the Parkinsey Report, in which Parkinson, remarking that “we can no longer disguise the fact that the Corporation has Sex,” goes into detailed analysis of the Merger and premergital relationships. Plenty of wit here, as light, scattered, and stinging as bird shot.