Reader's Choice


MORTE D’URBAN (Doubleday, $4.50) by J. F. POWERS is a novel about a priest, a sad novel with a wittily amusing manner. Mr. Powers has never overlooked the comic aspects of clerical life, and in this instance he has invented an order that gives him almost unlimited scope for absurd detail.
The Clementines arc a ramshackle preaching and teaching group operating in the Middle West. The Provincial is a feckless do-nothing, the treasury is chronically empty, and the fathers are a conglomeration of oddities found unacceptable by more selective organizations. Father Urban is the one efficient man in this assemblage of gentle dolts. He is the order’s star performer, a brilliant conductor of missions, a deft money raiser, a resourceful hunter of friends and beneficiaries for the cause. He is well aware of his value on the road, and is thunderstruck when he is assigned to a white-elephant country estate unloaded on the Clementines by a dotty old woman. He is not even in charge of the place; that honor has gone to Father Wilfrid, a man who regards turning up the furnace as little short of mortal sin.
Father Urban scrapes paint at St. Clement’s Hill, fills in at a neighboring parish where things have been allowed to slide, makes tactful speeches to the chamber of commerce bigwigs alienated by Father Wilfrid’s “Christ in Christmas” campaign, and deals cannily with a horrible, but profitable, elderly brat named Billy. Most of these episodes are funny in the telling. The war with Father Wilfrid over heat produces blown fuses and an overshoe in the furnace pipes, and getting the slack parish into action involves an intricate exercise in delicate blackmail.
But from Father Urban’s point of view, none of his enterprises turns out well. Each small success leads to another unpleasant, irrelevant task, and the culmination is disaster and collapse.
The novel is continuous fun to read, for Mr. Powers conveys much of the action through dialogue, and he has a remarkable ability to catch subtle shades of exasperation, deviousness, and stupidity in the spoken word. It is never necessary, for example, that Mr. Powers or anyone else should state flatly that Father Wilfrid is a borderline nut. Every word the man utters wavers enchantingly between sense and madness.
But although Morte D’Urban is brilliantly written, its meaning is not at all clear to me. There is an obvious pattern to the story, of course: Mr. Powers is too good a writer merely to ramble on. Father Urban’s abilities are worldly: he enjoys using them and is proud of them, which presumably he should not be. The world presents him with various temptations — Billy and his extravagant presents, a handsome young woman with amorous intentions, the exercise of unaccustomed power. These Father Urban resists, but only after he has been conked on the head in one of literature’s more arbitrary accidents. Is the reader to take a flying golf ball as the light on the road to Damascus and assume that Father Urban has abandoned mundane distractions for the proper practice of religion? Or does Mr. Powers mean to indicate, by Father Urban’s lapse into indolence when high office is finally awarded him, that years of diplomacy and playacting and drinking with hypocritical laymen have destroyed his capacity to act as a priest when given the opportunity? Or does the book perhaps mean something else entirely? The title suggests that Father Jack’s attempt to make an edifying juvenile tract out of Malory may have more than comic importance, yet as Sir Lancelot, Urban is hopelessly miscast.


In MAN AND THE SUN (Random House, S5.00) JACQUETTA HAWKES undertakes to survey the history of mankind’s relationship to the sun. Since this is potentially a ten-volume job, Miss Hawkes has sensibly settled for the more typical high points.
She begins with the accepted version of the origin of our solar system and describes the birth of sun and planets with great ingenuity. It is a difficult thing to write of immense and infinitely prolonged events in terms that enable a reader to visualize them. Miss Hawkes is extraordinarily successful in doing this.
Once man enters the scene, the book becomes a brief history of various religions. Miss Hawkes devotes a great deal of effort, quotation, and interesting detail to the Egyptians. She remarks of the heretic pharaoh Ikhnaton, “We turn toward him and project our prejudices and our desires,” and proves it by revealing an inordinate and uncritical admiration for every aspect of his religious experiment. She discusses the Aztecs at almost equal length and with no admiration at all, pointing out that they were the only sun worshipers ever known to convert the source of life and light into an excuse for mass human sacrifice. The Aztecs were a bloody lot, but it is difficult to follow Miss Hawkes when she equates them with Hitler’s bullyboys.
Stonehenge, Parsis, sun symbols in Christianity, and the practices of Pueblo Indians arc all considered by Miss Hawkes. The book is an interesting mixture of anthropology and comparative religion, sprinkled with peppery feminist complaints and unexpected political or social parallels. It is not until the end that the purpose of this unusual mixture is revealed. Man and the Sun is a devious warning against materialism and the atom bomb. “The present peril and despair of humanity show that we cannot live without religious meaning although we may well do without religious institutions. . . . If we cannot find God in the world, we lose Him in ourselves and become contemptible in our own eyes. We become mere statistics. For this is the greatest evil coming from the unbalanced Apollonian mind. Science has won power over the universe of matter by breaking down and down, by numbering and measuring. So at last everything that cannot be broken down, numbered and measured must be deemed not to exist. Science is uniting man with the sun in a totality of energy and matter. That is communion at the lowest level of being. But we have always been right to seek it also at the highest.”


MOTHER AND SON (Houghton Mifflin, $3.75) is being offered as a rare and moving example of an almost perfect family relationship. The authors are ISOKO and ICHIRO HATANO, and their published correspondence has a very odd background. The mother, Isoko, set her small son to writing letters because she was frequently too occupied with her own scholarly enterprises to talk to the boy at the exact moment when he had something to say. When she had time, she wrote replies which he could read at his convenience. This method of literary conversation became an entrenched habit and continued even while the family were all camped out in the hills as wartime refugees, the boy Ichiro being by this time about sixteen years old. It is the wartime letters that are included in this book. They reveal, among other things, that the mother permitted Ichiro to go on believing, for months, that his father was merely lazy and selfish, when in fact Hatano, a political liberal of sorts, was lying low with an eye on the police; and that when she sold her good coat to buy the boy skates, she artfully permitted him to discover the fact, which must have made skating almost as pleasant for him as reflecting on his clever interpretation of Father’s character. The introduction praises Mrs. Hatano as a noble, selfsacrificing woman and does not mention that the letters add up to a handbook on how to raise a mama’s boy.


PETER MATTHIESSEN’S UNDER THE MOUNTAIN WALL (Viking, $7.50) describes life among the Kurelu, a group of Stone Age savages living in the interior of New Guinea. Mr. Matthiessen was a member of the Harvard-Peabody Expedition which spent six months among these people in 1961. The Kurelu had seen their first white man in 1954.
The book Mr. Matthiessen has written about the Kurelu is a very strange one, describing their affairs as though neither he, nor the other members of the expedition, nor any Dutch official had ever set foot in the neighborhood. He attempts by this approach to record a doomed Stone Age society as it truly exists and functions, without the intrusion of an alien sensibility. For this purpose, Mr. Matthiessen has had to pretend to be the eye of a disinterested god seeing everything but commenting on nothing.
The attempt is courageous and inevitably unsuccessful, for Mr. Matthiessen is of necessity an alien sensibility. When he describes the brutal methods of killing a pig, he cannot avoid noticing that they are brutal, and therefore, despite his pretense of neutrality, emphasizing the details that reveal this. A god, no matter how disinterested, would know what the Kurelu think and feel at any given moment, and what they believe about the workings of their world. Mr. Matthiessen can make a shrewd guess as to which warriors in a battle are cowards because he (or somebody) saw who ran away, but he cannot be sure whether the man performing a ghost-placating ritual really believes in what he is doing. Finally, by removing himself completely from the narrative, Mr. Matthiessen leaves the reader without a clue as to what he saw himself, what he was told that others had seen, what he deduced from watching the Kurelu, and what the expedition interpreter explained to him. One is never sure how many observers are involved in any episode or what their points of view may be. There is something spurious about all this careful, calculated objectivity, and I myself should prefer to have Mr. Matthiessen admit his own existence and risk a little honest bias.
These reservations aside, the book presents a series of bizarre actions, well described, illustrating the monotonous savagery of Kurelu life, which is continually endangered by a blood feud with a neighboring tribe and sporadically enlivened by dances celebrating the death of one of these enemies. It offers no support at all to the old “noble savage” legend, but it does suggest that civilization may have dawned with hairdressing rather than toolmaking. Mr. Matthiessen’s preface indicates that he found the Kurelu an appealing group; he does not succeed in conveying their charm to me.


In LIVES OF THE WITS (Harper, $5.95) HESKETH PEARSON lumps together short biographies of fourteen I Englishmen who are, in his opinion, worthy of the title. They range from giants like Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson to relative pygmies like Henry Labouchere and Beerbohm Tree.
The pygmies are the better part of the book, because Mr. Pearson takes them less seriously. He has evidently worked hard over Dean Swift, but the man is too complicated for a short biography and, I suspect, not as congenial a subject as Mr. Pearson imagined before beginning serious study of him. As a brisk summary of the established facts and major theories about Swift, the chapter is perfectly adequate. There is no real life in it, however, a thing that cannot be said of Mr. Pearson’s treatment of Max Beerbohm, Gilbert, Shaw, or Wilde.
The theater men, in fact, come out best in Mr. Pearson’s hands. With some acting experience of his own, and a youthful acquaintance with Tree and Shaw, he can bring to bear on their careers practical knowledge and professional gossip that are outside the realm of the ordinary scholarly biographer. He has also written full-length books on most of these people and has a sure grasp of what is important and what is not. Consequently, his pieces on the turn-ofthe-century theatrical crowd are all excellent.
The other notably good piece is on Sheridan, who is, like Swift, new territory for Mr. Pearson, but also a playwright. Sheridan’s financial maneuvers baffle his biographer as hopelessly as they baffled Sheridan | himself, but the rest of the portrait is done with humorous sympathy and understanding. Sheridan was a delightful, infuriating, wildly improbable man, and Mr. Pearson ought to do a full-scale book on him.


There is no limit, it seems, to the influence of Salinger, which has now extended to Norway, causing AXEL JENSEN to write A GIRL I KNEW (Knopf, $2.95), described by the author as “a study of the mechanisms of the Oedipus trauma, and how it affects a person who has no parents on whom to project the conflict. It was also meant as a statement of the betrayed youth on the Scandinavian scene.”
Mr. Jensen not only cut and revised his book for publication in English; he rewrote-translated it into pure Salingerese. This is such a fantastically clever achievement that it hardly seems decent to find any fault with it at all, but there is something a little peculiar, nonetheless, about the gilded youth of Oslo prattling New York Jewish intellectual slang.
Mr. Jensen’s study of a bumblewitted, hot-tempered young man who doesn’t know what he wants to do, and is determined to make everybody thoroughly uncomfortable until he finds out, has far more to do with “betrayed youth” than with Oedipus. Joseph and his acquaintances (he has no friends) are all afflicted with good educations, prosperous hardworking families, and a complete absence of incentive. Their boredom and discontent, which they combat with frivolous love affairs, alcohol, and imitation American parties out of Hollywood, are well conveyed and generate considerable interest, for each episode is full of disorderly activity and argument. But in the long run of this short book, Joseph and company become very tedious. They are against everything but for nothing, and a set of characters eternally manning the barricades against nobody are ultimately almost as boring to the reader as they are to themselves. I do not doubt that Mr. Jensen is describing a situation and people that really exist. The disappointment in this intelligent and promising novel lies in the author’s decision to stop with description, for the mere existence of wellheeled beatniks is no longer news.


BLACK BOOMERANG (Viking, $5.95) is yet another reminiscence of World War II, this time in a relatively unworked field. SEFTOX DELMER the author, is a British journalist, brought up in Germany and working in Berlin at the start of the war. He had had a close view of the whole rise of the Nazi Party and considerable acquaintance with its members.
Once back in England, and obviously too fat to fight, he was put in charge of the British “black radio,”the propaganda station which was designed to spread alarm and confusion among the enemy. The station always pretended to be German, generally an army station run by honest old Junkers with a profound contempt for the incompetence and crookedness of the Nazis. Under the guise of news bulletins, it passed along disconcerting footnotes to official German announcements, discreditable gossip, and camouflaged advice on how to give the civil authorities a hard time. The object was not to fool the German military, but to bewilder German civilians.
The tricks thought up by Mr. Delmer and his German staff were positively terrifying for malicious ingenuity. He recalls them with a kind of cold adolescent glee, rather like the practical jokes in Stalkey and Company. which is pretty grisly until one reflects that a man engaged in this kind of business, even against a set of villains like the Nazis, can hardly afford to think of his victims as human beings if he wants to stay sane.
Mr. Delmer’s excuse for revealing his wartime career is, officially, his belief that his black station actually contributed to the current legend that the German Army was full of anti-Nazis — really very decent chaps at heart. The truth, in Mr. Dclmer’s opinion, is that the German Army was nothing of the sort and that a posthumous halo for it will do nobody any good. He has also, quite naturally, been itching to tell his fantastic story for years, and it is perhaps best read on this less com-
plicated level. For one thing, Mr. Delmer refused the chance, at the end of the war, to make a survey in Germany of the effect of his broadcasts, and so neither he nor anyone else can now be certain what, if anything, they actually accomplished.


BRIAN MOORE’S AN WSWEK FROM LIMBO (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $5.00) is a quiet, fierce novel on the writer and humanity. It is most definitely not another exploration of the overworked artist-versus-society theme, for in Mr. Moore’s scheme, society is merely the innocent bystander shot down during the bank robbery.
The story of the price Brendan Tierney pays for becoming a writer is told partly by Brendan himself and partly through straight narrative by hiscreator. Brendan’s account, though complicated by various self-justifications and laments over his habit of becoming quarrelsomely drunk at parties, is essentially simple. In order to be able to quit his job and finish his great novel, he imports his devoutly Catholic mother to New York, where she is to take care of his children and apartment while Jane, his pretty young wife, gets a job and supports the ménage. Since Brendan and Jane are belligerent freethinkers, the children have never been baptized, and friction immediately develops with old Mrs. Tierney on this point. Brendan, much put upon by enraged women, does his best to keep the peace and fails. Jane wants to quit her job, the old lady insists on moving out, the publisher wants revisions. In a furious spasm of work, Brendan gets the book finished and discovers that in sacrificing his wife, his children, his mother, and his friends for his work, he has resigned from the human race. He is no longer a sentient individual, but an automaton that can put words on paper.
Alongside Brendan’s melancholy confession runs Mr. Moore’s account of what is happening beyond his obtuse hero’s view, and it is, ironically, worse than Brendan realizes. He believes he has inadvertently quit humamty, when, as a matter of fact, humanity has fired him some weeks | previously.
Mr. Moore’s earlier novels have concentrated on one introverted character; An Answer From Limbo presents a whole gallery of types, from old Mrs. Tierney to the freakish hangers-on of second-class literary cocktail parties, and they are all correctly drawn in themselves and effective elements in the progress of the story. They are also all unpleasant. Mr. Moore is merciless in his revelation of the petty jealousy and selfimportance underlying actions which the perpetrators try to pass off as generosity, or duty, or some other high-sounding virtue.


THE REALM OF THE GREEN BUDDHA (Viking, $5.95) is a fairly orthodox book about catching wild beasts by LUDWIG KOCH-ISENBERG, a German botanist and bird enthusiast who dabbles on the side with black panthers and king cobras. The book differs from the average of its kind because Mr. Koch-Isenberg is interested in people and scenery as well as in wild animals, collects hair-raising tales like that of the orangutan at large in an airplane, curses the German customs authorities root and branch, and appears to have made a serious study of Buddhism, which he greatly respects.
IVAN T. SANDERSON’S THE DYNASTY OF ABU (Knopf, $5.95) is quite a different sort of book about animals. The Abu are the elephants and all their kin, past and present, which leads Mr. Sanderson from advice on how to televise an elephant act all the way back to a discussion of frozen mammoths in Siberia. The frozenmammoth situation is a real lady-ortiger question and brings on amazing and maddening complications, one of them being vampire bats. Part of the charm of Mr. Sanderson’s animal books is the complete unpredictability of their contents.