BY PHOEBE ADAMS
There have been so many novels written about World War II that it hardly seems possible for another to be anything but redundant, and yet in THE THIN RED LINE (Scribner’s, $5.95) JAMES JONES has accomplished the near miracle of making the Pacific campaign seem like new material. The misadventures of Company C for Charlie, slamming around Guadalcanal, remain constantly interesting and surprising through five hundred pages.
Mr. Jones has brought off his tricky project the hard way, too. He offers no portentous theme; the thread that holds the book together is simply company morale — how it develops, how it works, and how, ultimately, it dissolves. He describes no exotically eccentric or even notably attractive characters. He provides no romance, no exceptional maneuvers, no “hair-breadth ‘scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,”and no fashionable excursions into symbolism and psychosis.
Having deliberately thrown out all these useful literary props, Mr. Jones is left with the unadorned actions of a group of quite ordinary men whose business it is to kill Japs without, if possible, getting killed themselves. The danger of such material, which has overtaken lesser men, is that it easily degenerates into something like Homer’s battle-piece backgrounds, those formal space fillers in which perfect strangers, minor characters the reader never heard of before, kill each other by half a dozen bloody but invariable methods. This pitfall Mr. Jones has deftly and completely avoided.
His method of maintaining the reader’s interest and of inducing a slow but irrevocable commitment to the affairs of C for Charlie is that of gradual revelation. The men first appear, hot, crowded, nervous, and uncomfortable, on a transport. They are regulars, well trained and experienced in the ways of the peacetime army. They have never been shot at. They seem a rather dull lot, given to witless humor and meaningless obscenities. There is an overly paternal captain, a suspiciously successful gambler, a bad-tempered sergeant generally regarded as mad, but unfortunately not to a committable degree. There is young Doll, childishly bent on stealing a pistol.
Doll is a clear throwback to Mr. Jones’s novelette, The Pistol, and his project looks like a bad omen. It is not. As Doll, a mildly unpleasant youth, prowls thievishly about the ship, Mr. Jones unobtrusively converts him into a real and even distinctive person, by reporting what Doll does and also what Doll finds out about himself while doing it. Both Doll and the reader are somewhat surprised, while Mr. Jones courteously pretends to be so.
It is this onion-peeling trick that keeps the book moving. Each step of the military action that ensues once the company gets ashore is slightly different from anything that has preceeded it (Mr. Jones has constructed an imaginary campaign on nonexistent topography for precisely this purpose), and each man responds differently to the different degrees of pressure exerted on him. Each reaction is unexpected and yet, when it appears, perfectly plausible. Each is interesting because the reader is continually forced to revise his opinions. At the book’s end, the men of C for Charlie are old acquaintances, known well, but not completely, any more than flesh-and-blood friends can be known completely. They are no longer what they were at the start of the book, nor what the reader took them to be, and there is no doubt that if Mr. Jones chose to follow them further, they would soon develop into something else.
It has been said that one test of a good novel is the conviction that the characters have a life beyond the end of the book. In this respect, The Thin Red Line is a very good novel indeed. Mr. Jones, confining himself to the materials of the standard blood-and-thunder war story, has written a book well above standard.
NICCOLO TUCCI’S BEFORE MY TIME (Simon and Schuster, $7.50) represents almost the exact opposite of Mr. Jones’s method of construction. All is revealed at the start, and the author depends for the rest of the book on reiteration.
The novel is admittedly based on the history of Mr. Tucci’s own family. It explores the effect, on the character of her daughter, of the behavior of Mr. Tucci’s Russian grandmother, an extremely rich and wildly improvident dowager who fluttered about Europe at the turn of the century. It is not often that one finds an author belaboring, at great length, a relative who died before his own memory began, but it is perfectly true that the old lady deserved a good grudge.
She was a real terror, the epitome of momism long before Philip Wylie was born. Possessive, deceitful, whining, bullying, irresponsible, and implacably selfish, she turned the most trivial episodes into melodramas of martyrdom, accusation, tears, hysterics. forgiveness, and reconciliation. These vaudeville turns were designed to keep her daughter Mary completely under her thumb and to absorb all the girl’s affection and attention. The decent Neapolitan doctor who married Mary was quite unable to stop the process, for the young woman seems to have been not very bright.
This situation is described by Mr. Tucci. with great vividness, at the start of Before My Time. and by page 50 the reader can see what the outcome of it will be. No other outcome is possible. There is, therefore, nothing more for the author to reveal. He can only put his characters through the same minuet, to different tunes, until the old fiddler dies.
For the progression and development which the novel lacks, Mr. Tucci substitutes witty writing, some very fine descriptions of snowstorms, and an ingenious profusion of subplots and minor characters. He arranges a couple of splendid set pieces with the conversation of down-atthe-heel nobility. But no matter how many odd episodes and lunatic acquaintances he introduces, the established pattern of mother, daughter, and meaningless emotional squabbles remains monotonously in place, like a piece of ugly furniture too heavy to move and too useful to throw out.
By the time the old lady dies, the reader is too weary of this monstrosity, and too relieved by its removal, to worry much about the damage that has been done. It is, after all, no more than what he expected all along.
DESMOND MORRIS, Curator of Mammals at the London Zoological Society, has undertaken in THE BIOLOGY OF ART (Knopf, $6.50) to cope with the problem of chimpanzee painters. The things Mr. Morris observed, or discovered, during his dealings with a particularly enterprising ape by the name of Congo prove to be quite astonishing and not nearly as footling as the cynical may expect.
To begin with, not all apes can be persuaded to interest themselves in drawing. Congo took to it with enthusiasm, as did several other chimpanzees and one lady gorilla, but a number of their fellow students were bored silly with pencils and paper. Indeed, the artistic apes were not always inspired. The lady gorilla had an inconvenient habit of eating her materials and once had to be carted off to the veterinarian for the removal of a swallowed pencil.
Once Mr. Morris had assembled Congo and several other chimpanzees who liked to make marks on paper, he was able to study what kinds of marks they made and where they placed them in relation to the size and condition of the surface available. The animals were given papers of different sizes, some of which already carried simple squares and circles variously placed. Their reactions to blank paper were quite unlike their reactions to marked paper, and consistent enough so that Mr. Morris can argue convincingly for a notion of pattern and balance among his artists.
It would hardly be fair to quote Mr. Morris’ conclusions in detail, for without the evidence he piles up to support them, reference to the “compositional control" practiced by chimpanzees is bound to sound a trifle flamboyant. Let it suffice that his theories have considerable impact and extend into unexpected areas like “Self-rewarding Activation,” which simply means that artists ought to work for nothing:
“. . . a chimpanzee was once subjected to bribery with a food reward to encourage it to draw more intensely. . . . The ape quickly learnt to associate drawing with getting the reward but as soon as this condition had been established the animal took less and less interest in the lines it was drawing. Any old scribble would do and then it would immediately hold out its hand for the reward. The careful attention the animal had paid previously to design, rhythm, balance and composition was gone and the worst kind of commercial art was born!”
SOMEWHAT GOTHIC TALES
It is curious that while writers rarely paint with any distinction, painters frequently write rather well. The strange, satirical, somewhat Gothic tales in A SEA RINGED WITH VISIONS (Horizon, $5.00) would be interesting even if the author were not OSKAR KOKOSCHKA.
The stories divide into two types. Some, like “Ann Eliza Reed,” are wildly and morbidly improbable, and presumably hark back to German works of the early nineteenth century, although the American reader will clearly hear Poe in that clanking coffin lid. The rest, while containing extravagant elements, are based on Kokoschka’s experiences in World War I and his contempt for the muddled international politics that followed it.
Some of these political satires, like the tale of the Three Kings, bungling idealists from Asia and Africa who wander around Stockholm in search of a mythical peace conference, are funny in a sour way. Most of the war material is coldly horrifying, as is the preoccupation, which turns up in any type of story, with a mistress who is a doll, a child, or a corpse.
As a whole, the stories give the impression that their author could not get on with men or women or events, that all his contacts with the world were unpleasant, and that his imagination transformed these experiences into symbolic fantasies, finding such things more controllable and less distressing than are factual memories.
Yet Kokoschka was not incapable of sympathy. The absurd and comic “Story of Our Daughter Virginia” carries an undercurrent of tenderness toward the two lonely men who get caught up in an unsuitable game of make-believe.
DIVERS FOR ABALONE
In THE ISLAND OF THE FISHERWOMEN (Harcourt, Brace & World, $6.75) FOSCO MARAINI describes a remote island off the northerly coast of Japan, a semi-inhabited spot where members of the Ama tribe spend the summer fishing. The men go out after fish with nets and motorboats, but the women stay closer to shore and dive for abalone. It was these mermaids that Mr. Maraini went to study and photograph.
He had trouble in doing it, for the Ama are an exclusive lot and do not mix much with other Japanese, even less with Westerners. They were polite to Mr. Maraini and his party, but somehow it was never possible to get information or pictures. Then they discovered the outlander’s harpoon gun, and all reserve collapsed, although the wily old head of the village made difficulties, principally financial, to the end.
The result of Mr. Maraini’s persistence and harpoon gun is a pretty book, full of pictures of charming sea nymphs, their doll-like children, and their rather dour menfolk. The author learned a good deal about diving for abalone, which the women do almost naked, with no equipment but goggles, a weighted belt, a rope, and an iron bar for loosening the shells. They can go as deep as sixty feet and stay a couple of minutes. They are hauled up on the rope by the boy in charge of the boat.
When Mr. Maraini asked one of the elders of Hekura why men never dive, he was told, “Because women are much tougher, of course. If we men stay in the water for two hours, we’re half dead of cold, but women are not, they are covered with fat, like seals.” Like seals, the women continue diving all day long and, as a result of their toughness, have rather more authority than most Japanese women.
The Island of the Fisherwomen is pleasantly written and sprinkled with bits of general information about Japan, where Mr. Maraini has lived for years; but there are a number of questions about the Ama which he never answers at all. Probably he got as many facts as the Ama were willing to give, but these enigmatic, half-aquatic people are as mysterious at the end of the book as they were at the beginning. One does, however, know what they look like.
THE TERROR OF DARKNESS
CREATURES OF DARKNESS (AtlanticLittle Brown, S4.75) is an eerie freak of a book, nocturnal natural history written by an author who has probably never been out of the house after sundown. ESTHER BASKIN has collected her facts about owls, rats, wolves, badgers, and such from mythology, poetry, folklore and pre-Darwinian moralistic observers. Most of them are not facts at all, and her selection and presentation of this peculiar material are entirely subjective.
Mrs. Baskin does not like creatures that poke around after dark. She sees no good in them at all, repeats every known libel against them, and where she cannot accuse them of any crime, manages to dismiss them as half-witted. She describes the luna moth as clumsy and looking like a rag of cloth, and she has discovered that the firefly is “no innocent, for it feeds upon the harmless forest snail.” The reader may believe, at this point, that he can foresee what Mrs. Baskin will say of the owl and the bat, but I will wager he has underestimated.
Once it is accepted, however, that this book has nothing at all to do with living creatures but is really a description of the terror of darkness, the thing acquires an odd, nightmarish interest. Every detail has been cannily selected to arouse vague discomfort, while the style balances artfully between the pedantic and the oracular, making the best of both these improbably combined worlds. The black-and-white illustrations by Leonard Baskin, the author’s husband, are beautiful.
The novels of WRIGHT MORRIS frequently promise more than they perform, and WHAT A WAY TO GO (Atheneum, $5.00) is not unusual in this respect. With a great deal of fanfare, some of it very amusing and some of it heavily pretentious, Mr. Morris tells the story of a fortyish professor, who is a widower, and his entrapment by a girl of seventeen.
The girl is actually part of a triad, the other two members being her stout, drunken, pseudomotherly aunt and the aunt’s companion, who is always knitting. They travel with a cat, too, and anybody who wants to call them the Norns or the White Goddess or the Weird Sisters is not going to get any argument from me.
The three ladies, their reluctantly attendant professor, and the wrong cat that they picked up in Venice take ship for Greece, and all hell breaks loose. The girl’s Italian admirer sulks, the boat rocks, the plumbing clogs, the German passengers get amorously out of hand, the weather is as vile as the food and the tempers. On Corfu (or is it somewhere else?) there is an attempt to photograph Miss Cynthia as Nausicaa, but the German Odysseus overplays his part and she loses the braces off her teeth. Swallowed, it would seem, although whether by Nausicaa, Odysseus, or the Mediterranean is never revealed. Ultimately the professor gets the situation straightened out in the only possible way.
If Mr. Morris had been content to write about a middle-aged man chivied by wily women into doing what he hankers to do anyway, he would have had a neat little comedy. The material is all there if the reader can manage to peer around Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, and plowthrough a lot of chatter about Death in Venice, author unnamed. Mr. Morris writes for a real in-group.
ACCENT ON MIDDLE AGE
H. F. ELLIS, observing a gap in medical thinking, has filled it with MEDIATRICS (Morrow, $2.95), a dissertation on “the characteristics, importance and proper care of the middle-aged.” The pieces originally appeared in Punch, but Mr. Ellis, a kindly fellow as well as a funny one, has taken thought for American readers:
“It would have been easy, for the purposes of this U.S. edition, to remove one or two casual references to cricket and other un-American activities. But one of the first lessons of a wisely conducted Middle Life is never to take the easy course when the alternative of doing nothing at all presents itself. I have accordingly, with the exception of a few helpful footnotes and the substitution here and there of dollars for pounds, done just that.”
The footnotes in question, equating “get knighthoods” with “become congressmen,” put the final hilarious frosting on a cake that is already richly and outrageously funny.
Mr. Ellis’ target is larger than it sounds. He not only has fun with the middle-aged; he carves up unmercifully all authors of health and happiness advice. The writer of Mediatrics is clearly not Mr. Ellis in his normal character, but a separate person, a medical man of overwhelming and misplaced self-confidence, passionately and humorlessly devoted to his slightly quackish specialty. This solemn coot is as amusing as his clients, and the whole affair is as neat a piece of deadpan comedy as ever reduced a reader to howls of mirth.