The second and third volumes of LEON EDEL’S biography of HENRY JAMES have appeared simultaneously, covering The Conquest of London: 1870-1881 and The Middle Years: 1882-1895 (Lippincott, $8.50 each). This work is clearly intended to be not only definitive but monumental, and Mr. Edel’s enthusiasm shows no sign of weakening. He has condensed the elephantine mass of letters and journals that James left behind him, unearthed pertinent but obscure facts, and created what are in effect several good miniature biographies of James’s more important associates. He presents this vast jumble of material with admirable lucidity and control. He also necessarily presents it at great length, for it is Mr. Edel’s habit to demonstrate the effect of James’s experiences on his writing by attaching to each episode in his subject’s life summaries of the relevant works. The value of these summaries seems to me debatable. They are often longer than the establishment of a parallel between fact and fiction requires, yet they are never long enough to permit penetrating criticism or interpretation. But when Mr. Edel sticks to what James said and did, he could hardly be improved.
AUBREY MENEN’S SHELA (Random House, $3.95) is a satirical novel that begins impertinently with the Buddha, the Archangel Michael, and the Devil and proceeds mischievously through American politics, African aspirations, Russian-Chinese differences, and the adventures of a female Dalai Lama. On the way, Mr. Menen smashes a number of current idols. The book is very funny indeed and thoroughly satisfying if one does not demand that the author suggest a cure for the international idiocies he describes. After all, why should he, when sober statesmen, after years of study, make small progress with the problems?
Besides the long and perhaps too specifically directed title piece, SIR HERBERT READ’S A LETTER TO A YOUNG PAINTER (Horizon, $5.75) contains brief descriptions of the work of some twenty modern artists and several essays on the nature of art in general. Two of these, on “The Ambiguity of Modern Sculpture” and “The Social Significance of Abstract Art,” are extraordinarily brilliant analyses of the purpose of a work of art, the qualities that make a successful one, and how these things both combine and diverge in the practice of contemporary artists.
In GIBEON (Princeton University Press, $5.75), JAMES B. PRITCHARD, Professor of Religious Thought at the University of Pennsylvania and curator of the Palestinian section of the University Museum, describes the recent excavation of Gibeon. The finds at this biblical city were not romantic — no impressive works of art or bedizened royal tombs— but Air. Pritchard and his staff did turn up the equipment of the oldest large-scale wine industry yet discovered. The book is particularly notable for its detailed, comprehensible description of the field methods of modern archaeology.
ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S NIGHT (Pantheon, $5.00) is more than an account of the massacre of Protestants that took place in Paris in 1572. PHILIPPE ERLANGER, a member of the French Foreign Office as well as a historian, begins his study with the accession of Francis I and carefully explains the complications of French domestic and foreign politics during the intervening fifty years. He attributes the massacre more to the pressures of European politics than to plain religious fanaticism and produces a persuasive mass of argument to support his view.
DON BERRY’S MOONTRAP (Viking, $4.95) is the sad tale of the last of the mountain fur trappers. These poor fellows became entangled in, and were destroyed by, the advance of intolerant, teetotaling, mean-spirited Sunday-go-to-meeting settlers in the Oregon Territory. Anybody who writes a novel about the mountain men faces an entrenched obstacle in the form of A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, and in my opinion, Mr. Berry is stopped dead by it. His plot is too black-and-white, his principles are a little too prominently displayed, his dialogue sometimes sounds more cute than authentic. But the book is very readable, the tragedy is padded with zany horseplay, and the halfmad old Webb and the half-tame Marshal Meek are characters who command continual interest.