UPTON SINCLAIR’S novels are not read as they once were, and his social ideas seem quaintly utopian and out of date, yet the man himself remains a precious symbol of some fine old-fashioned American virtues — idealism, practical optimism, a tireless energy in serving humanity himself rather than letting George do it. His AUTOBIOGRAPHY (Harcourt, Brace & World, $6.95), written in his eighty-second year, is the fruit of a sunny and amiable old age, with a kind word for nearly all the people he knew or fought with. To produce a personal summing-up free from rancor and meanness would be a remarkable human accomplishment in any case, but it is all the more remarkable when so much of that life has been spent in controversy and muckraking.
Mr. Sinclair was born of impoverished Baltimore gentry, and his early life shuttled between the extremes of hardship at home and opulence amid the rich relatives who from time to time bailed out the Sinclairs when things got too desperate. Seeing at first hand this harsh contrast of social classes, he very early decided against the rich and concluded that money (which for him meant capitalism) was the root of all evil. From the purity of this socialist conviction he has never departed. Even the rise of Communism, which he opposed and opposes, has not troubled him with any doubts about the compromises socialism must make when it comes to power. Mr. Sinclair is the kind of idealist who would never have to worry about coming to power himself. He can even smile now over his embattled but foredoomed campaign to win the California governorship in 1934.
Once, though, he did put his socialist ideas into practice, and the result was disaster. A utopian colony founded by him in 1906 in Englewood, New Jersey, went up in flames six months later. Mr. Sinclair was lucky to escape with his shirt, and with half his hair burned away.
At only one moment in this autobiography does his faith in his own ideas seem even slightly shaken. At the age of thirty-two he fell so violently in love that the experience was like a spasm of physical pain. The love was not requited; and, musing on this small tragedy, Mr. Sinclair lets the words escape that this is an old old story “for which neither socialists nor suffragists have any remedy.” But the moment passed and left no mark upon his thinking. As a novelist he had no hankering for that part of life which neither socialism nor suffragism can cure.
Perhaps he was a little too prim in his idealism to venture into those troubled depths. A food faddist and convinced teetotaler who has never touched a drop of alcohol in his life, he recites several times in this book a list of writers whose lives were marred by heavy drinking — Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner. These were unhappy cases, no doubt; but, weighing this imposing list against Mr. Sinclair’s own name, one is tempted to recall Lincoln’s reply to a complaint against Grant’s drinking: “What brand does he use? I’d like to send some to my other generals.”
It is enough for Upton Sinclair that his writings have served some social purpose. With becoming modesty, he closes this story of his life by asking what he has accomplished in his many years, and answers that if he had not written The Jungle in 1906, the meat that now comes to our tables would probably not be as clean as it is. Could Shakespeare boast that much?
Ever since Stalin’s death in 1953 our political experts have had to sift conflicting evidence about the thaw in Soviet society. The apparent liberalizing of Soviet letters has seemed just as confusing, the winds blowing now hot and now cold and sometimes hot and cold together. Amid all this uncertainty, at least one result is certain — that we are now getting more Russian writers in English translation, though I am not sure, from a strictly literary point of view, that this is always an unmixed blessing.
DISSONANT VOICES IN SOVIET LITERATURE (Pantheon, S5.95), edited by PATRICIA BLAKE and MAX HAYWARD, is a very interesting and valuable sampling of Russian writings from 1918 to the present, though its title is bound to lead to false expectations. One editor. Mr. Hayward, promptly warns us against hoping for anything like political dissent from these authors. Soviet writers, despite the thaw, are not at liberty to denounce their own government; and from the pieces in this book, I would guess that most of these writers would not use that liberty even if they had it. Their voices are dissonant only in their struggle to produce a live literature against the dead weight of official literary policy. Any real work of art dealing with the individual complexities of life is bound to seem anarchic in a society ruled by a single rigid philosophy. Plato knew this very well when he expelled the poets from his utopia.
Some of the selections in this book seem to have no bearing upon our questions about the present thaw. A fine narrative sketch, “Without Love,” by Pasternak dates from 1918, and a poem by Esenin (for a while the husband of Isadora Duncan) from 1924, well before the glacier of the Stalin period set in. But both works arc rightly included, since they serve to place die present situation of the Soviet writer in its proper context, which since 1918 has been a continuous involvement with the fate and meaning of the Revolution itself. To try to measure Soviet writers by the Party edict of this or that year is senseless.
The most encouraging sign of a thaw, to my mind, is the rediscovery of Isaak Babel, one of the finest short-story writers of this century and one of the most tragic victims of the Stalin regime. Denied publication in 1937, Babel perished ten years later in a concentration camp. In his “Reminiscences of Babel,” Konstantin Paustovsky is shown as still having to battle for this illstarred author as late as 1960. His memoir is unusually sophisticated and sensitive on the matters of Babel’s style and craft — preoccupations that were once denounced as decadent and formalistic.
In a bulky war novel, THE LIVING AND THE DEAD (Doubleday, $5.95), KONSTANTIN SIMONOV deals with the large movements of men and armies on the vast Russian front in July, 1941, when the Red Army, reeling from defeat after defeat, was in a state of virtual collapse. The story centers upon one man caught in this rout, Vanya Sintsov, a young political commissar who is cut off behind the German lines and has to fight his way through to rejoin the Red Army in Moscow. At the end, no longer a political journalist, he is fighting with the army as it pushes its way back into the territory lost to the Germans. The war is just beginning for him now, but he can look forward to it without dismay; both he and the Reel Army have survived their baptism of fire.
Despite all the fireworks and shooting, this novel is so deficient in characterization that it drops with the hollow sound of a dud. A few villains appear, and they are as instantly recognizable as the bad guys in a grade C movie; the hero and his wife are unfailingly heroic, and they never for a moment live as individuals. “In wartime,” one character remarks, “there is no room for personal feelings.” Mr. Simonov has followed this advice to the letter, and instead of a novel about real human beings, he has produced an immense recruitment poster for the Red Army.
YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO has received so much publicity in this country as the idol of the Russian beatniks that many people have expected his dissent to resemble that of our own blue-jeaned and bearded younger poets. True, he has inveighed against Stalinists, but that would seem to be pretty safe policy under Khrushchev; and he has denounced anti-Semitism, which is probably a more dangerous line for poets in Russia than it is here; yet he is always careful to hedge his dissent with a clear declaration of his own loyalty as a Communist. One poem ends with his clutching the Party card to his breast like a sacred relic.
Political considerations aside, how good a poet is Yevtushenko? It is difficult to judge a poet in translation, but in SELECTED POEMS (Dutton, $3.00), the translators, Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi, S.J., have given an English version that leaves little doubt about the genuine poetry of the original. This young poet has strength and vigor, and a particularly fresh and vivid touch when dealing with simple everyday life — growing up in a small town, dances at weddings, an old village schoolmaster walking in the snow. So far, his seems to be the most vibrant and promising voice among the younger generation of Soviet writers.
Most of the stories of IVO ANDRIć, the Yugoslav novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, take place within the Turkish Empire from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. It is easy to understand why this vanished civilization, so refined in its pleasures and so intricate in its corruption, should capture any novelist’s imagination. Yet Mr. Andrić has other game in view. The Turks, who were among the most efficient builders of empire in history, often used methods so extreme and nightmarish in their cruelty that they do not reappear until modern totalitarianism. Mr. Andrić’s material has thus both the fascination of the exotic and the menacing immediacy of the present.
Two new books — THE VIZIER’S ELEPHANT (Harcourt, Brace & World, $4.75), a collection of three novellas, and a single longer story, THE DEVIL’S YARD (Grove, $3.95)— should enhance the growing reputation of this impressive writer. The novella form is particularly suited to his talents. Mr. Andrić likes to spin his yarns in the leisurely and devious pattern of the folk narrator. His stories are usually gathered from the deep places of popular memory; and he himself compares them to the Bosnian trout, an elusive fish that only rarely rises to the surface. Like a good angler. Mr. Andrić knows how to wait and let the fish come to him. The result is that he appears not so much to be telling the story himself as letting the voice of folklore speak through him.
In “The Vizier’s Elephant" a cruel Turkish governor brings a small elephant as a pet into a Bosnian town, and the townspeople conspire frantically and absurdly to poison the beast. The elephant becomes weirdly funny as it takes on a kind of human and malign individuality. “Anika’s Times,” about a peasant woman whose beauty provokes both passion and crime, calls to mind the raw power of similar tales by the great Sicilian writer Verga. Coming closer to the present, “Zeko" tells the story of a little man who escapes his wife’s domination and rises to heroism during the German attack upon Belgrade in 1940. Mr. Andrić’s hand loses none of its skill in dealing with strictly contemporary material.
Good as these three tales are, TheDevil’s Yard excels them in psychological depth and complexity. The scene is a large and noisome prison near Istanbul in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, presided over by a strange warden. Karadjos, who can justify the existence of this place only if he can prove that each prisoner is really guilty. To extract confessions he mingles with inmates, learns their weaknesses, teases and bullies them. In the end victim and executioner are united in a secret complicity.
To heighten the brutal impact of his story. Mr. Andrić counterposes to Karadjos, the man of power, the figure of Djamil, a young and ineffectual dreamer who has been arrested because he read too many books. Obsessed with the past, Djamil has come to identify himself with a figure out of history, the younger brother of a sultan centuries ago who led an abortive revolt against the throne. But this obsession makes him guilty, and in the end he is executed for crimes that took place only in his own mind. Mr. Andrić draws no moral, but the parallel with modern totalitarianism hardly seems forced.
The nuclear powers, we are told, have now assembled enough explosives to kill every man, woman, and child in the world, not once but many times over. So long as this situation persists, we are all condemned, as responsible citizens, to go on reading and pondering books about the balance of terror lest we be accused of hiding our heads in the sand. MAX LERNER’S THE AGE OF OVERKILL (Simon and Schuster, $5.95) is refreshingly different from the usual book about the bomb because it is concerned with the broader historical perspectives in which the present nuclear impasse has to be set.
Mr, Lerner’s subtitle is A Preface to World Politics; he believes that our world today is in a prefatory stage to a new kind of politics — or else is doomed. The dominant image for political thinking, which has been with us since Machiavelli, is that of sovereign nation-states contending with each other for power by means of guile or force. Marxism introduced another scheme of political thought that sought to subordinate this jockeying for political power to more basic economic factors, and ultimately to the historical destiny of the working class. In fact, however, where Communism has come to rule, it has fallen back upon Machiavellian calculations. But neither Machiavelli nor Marx, in Mr. Lerner’s view, represents a satisfactory solution for the challenges of politics now. The nations must learn to think beyond the power principle altogether, relinquishing their sovereignty to a world body. This, as he sees it, is the supreme challenge of the atomic age.
Mr. Lerner, an erudite professor and skillful journalist, blends both talents in this book. His range is wide; he seems to have read all the books; and what he gives us is a very readable and intelligent survey course in contemporary politics. Mr. Lerner’s brilliance, to my mind, has often been marred by an undue facility and a tendency to gloss over difficulties. His present tone, however, though hopeful, is more sober and chastened. His last chapter, invoking Freud and Jung, poses the ultimate question in terms of human psychology. The renunciation of power will require a change not only in politicians but in all mankind. The root of politics, at last, is man himself.
TWO FOR THE FILMS
Pity the poor Irish author writing in a backward country where no large film industry could tempt him into doing those large glossy historical novels that have been such a common commodity with us for years. Well, all that may be changed now: for the American invasion of Irish literature seems to have taken place in WALTER MACKEN’S THE SILENT PEOPLE (Macmillan, $5.95), a melodrama about nineteenth-century Ireland that from its very first scene, when the handsome young hero spills the squire from his horse, sets our mind’s eye galloping across that big panoramic screen. The story proceeds to follow point bypoint our own Western epics. The war between homesteaders and cattlemen has become the battle of Irish tenants against English landlords; there are the night riders forced to take justice into their own hands to protect the tenants; the voice of reason and moderation (usually the territory judge in our Westerns) is now Daniel O’Connell, M.P.; and finally, the action moves inexorably to the grand climactic scene, the frightful potato famine of 1848. For director you would have to name John Ford, but every reader can have the pleasure of doing some private casting of his own.
Yet, though the pattern is fixed, there is a welcome change in costume, landscape, and dialect. Mr. Macken, who has written at least one good play and some unusually haunting short stories, is too good a writer, however fixed upon Hollywood his mind may now be, to lose touch altogether with the raciness of Irish speech. And this lush dreamlike landscape you won’t find on the range in New Mexico or Oklahoma.
Since the novel, as the most flexible of literary forms, has been at times nearly all things to all men, I suppose there is no point in insisting that AMERICA AMERICA by ELIA KAZAN (Stein and Day. $4.95) is really just a script for a movie. (The author himself has announced he will direct it.) If one forgets such niceties of classification and relinquishes one’s usual novelistic requirements, the book does indeed come very much to life, and even Mr. Kazan’s literary clumsiness carries a sweaty and grunting power.
The story revolves about that old consuming dream of the immigrant to get to America. Stavros, a Greek boy living in Anatolia under the Turkish dictatorship, finally reaches New York after incredible hardship, many adventures, and at the end, some dirty scheming on his own part. In the course of his odyssey, some of the bloom of his idealism has rubbed off. The American dream, Mr. Kazan seems to be suggesting, has had to be pursued at the price of many seamy and brutal things that we might like to forget.
With brutal and seamy realities, Mr. Kazan has a practiced and a skillful hand. All the Turks here are vividly cruel, and most of the Greeks as wily and devious as Odysseus. Mr. Kazan has a good ear for sharp staccato dialogue. But his chief talent, really that of a director, is his ability to set scene after scene before us in sharp visual focus. Those cinema addicts who might have feared that this book portended a change in professions on Mr. Kazan’s part need have no fear; in taking his pen in hand he has never really once laid down his camera.