Pollsters and sociologists continue to run us through their computers like so much limp laundry through a washing machine. The spots may not wash off, but we don’t seem to mind the going over, for we keep on lavishing money and encouragement upon our behavioral scientists, THE MCLANDRESS DIMENSION by MARK EPERNAY (Houghton Mifflin, $3.75) is not only an engaging spoof on this national addiction for reducing personality to an IBM card, but a satire of some prominent people and institutions that, because it names names, may draw a few drops of blood in high places.
Dr. Herschel McLandress is a fictitious professor at the Harvard Medical School whose chief claim to fame is the invention of “the McLandress Coefficient" (abbreviated McL-C and pronounced mack-el-see), which measures the average time an individual can keep his thoughts on any object other than himself. The measurement thus provides an index of the individual’s absorption in his own personality. The various McLandress ratings of current celebrities are going to raise eyebrows and questions. Forty-five seconds for Governor Rockefeller, even his political foes might admit, would seem to be unnecessarily harsh, especially in comparison with the three minutes allotted Elizabeth Taylor, which would seem to be overgenerous in any case. Of course, the ratings sometimes have to be weighted by non-numerical factors. General de Gaulle, for example, when first tested achieved a mighty span of seven and a half hours; however, when it was pointed out that every time he spoke of France he was really thinking of Charles de Gaulle, this rating dropped to only a minute and a half.
Perhaps Dr. McLandress’ greatest triumph was that bold stroke of common sense by which he produced the fully automated State Department. Foreign policy is devised by coordinating different points of view, and special officials have to be assigned the job of coordination; but then the coordinators themselves have to be coordinated, so that the bureaucratic pileup mounts and mounts. Dr. McLandress cut the Gordian knot by simply feeding all the points of view to a computer, which turned out a foreign policy just as good — that is, just as balanced, self-canceling, and vacuously moderate — as it was under the old system, but at a tremendous saving in personnel.
Mark Epernay is a pseudonym, and rumor has it that the real author is John Kenneth Galbraith. But the McLandress ratings do not follow a pattern strictly consistent with Mr. Galbraith’s own tastes in politics or public personalities. Indeed, Dr. McLandress slates Mr. Galbraith with a rating of one minute, fifteen seconds — far short of Elizabeth Taylor’s three minutes, and abysmally below the impressive three hours and twenty-five minutes of Senator Everett Dirksen (who has not been exactly an idol of New Frontier politicians). Or are these few wanton ratings merely camouflage to throw the reader off the scent of the real author?
As the great splash made by Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum begins to subside we catch a glimpse of other writers who have participated with him in the current resurgence of German letters. HEINRICH BÖLL’S
BILLIARDS AT HALF-PAST NINE was published here in 1962 and got good critical notices, but it never reached the wider public it deserved. A reissue (McGraw-Hill, $2.65) of this suspenseful and powerful remembrance of life under the Nazis provides an opportunity for those of us who missed it to make the acquaintance of a truly impressive talent.
Unlike Grass, who experienced Nazism only as a child and boy, Böll was old enough to serve in World War II, in which he was captured and wounded. His comprehension of the Hitler years, less fantastically imaginative than Grass’s, is more profound and adult. Much of his own personal experience seems to have gone into his enigmatic and tormented hero, Robert Faehmel, who, though a resolute antiNazi, could not escape being drafted into the Army during the war and being assigned as captain of a demolition squad.
An architect trained to build, Faehmel was taught by the war to destroy. This destruction acquired a baleful and nihilistic fascination for him, for, at least, it provided a violent outlet for all the frustration and despair he felt under Hitler. Following the scorched-earth policy of the German retreat, Robert blew up an abbey, the architectural masterpiece built years before by his father. Destruction of the abbey served no military purpose, and even now Robert cannot tell why he did it, except perhaps as a violent gesture of farewell to all the past, both good and bad. Into the new life he seeks to create for himself he tries to bring order by means of a rigorous schedule that includes a game of billiards every day at half past nine.
But the past returns in the person of an old schoolmaster and former Nazi. Bit by bit the curtain is rolled back on the sufferings of the Faehmel family: Robert’s brother, Otto, had become a Nazi and virtually held his own kin in captivity; the mother had been driven into a sanatorium; the father turned into a garrulous old man rambling on about the good old times before the Nazis came. Böll tells his story both forward and backward, disclosing just enough at each step to maintain a heavy and oppressive suspense. With Otto killed on the Russian front, the shattered remnants of the Faehmel family draw together hopefully at the end toward some redemption of the tragic past. And this novel itself, both for its literary power and the depth of its humanity, is one of the most hopeful things that has come out of Germany since the war.
The family dissension in CAREFUL, HE MIGHT HEAR YOU by SUMNER LOCKE ELLIOTT (Harper & Row, $4.95) is no more than a squabble of aunts over the guardianship of an orphaned nephew, yet it too provides a deep and touching picture of the intricate hostilities of those who ought to be, but are not, nearest and dearest. For a first novel (Mr. Elliott has previously written plays) the grasp of the fictional medium is astonishing. The style is graceful and supple; Mr. Elliott’s ear for dialogue is impeccable, and he skillfully shifts perspectives from character to character without the least hitch or strain to the smooth pace of his narrative.
The orphan has been nicknamed “P.S.” because he seems a postscript to the brief marriage of his carefree and bohemian mother, who died shortly after his birth. He is happy in the custody of kindly and provincial Aunt Lila in Australia. But suddenly Aunt Vanessa, svelte and beautiful but also calculating and imperious, arrives from England with her “Pommy" (British) accent and schemes to get possession of the boy. After some lengthy and dramatic legal maneuvers she triumphs; but it is P.S., who wants to stay with dowdy old Aunt Lila, who finally defeats her. Remaining politely distant and elusive, imperceptively taunting, he wears down even her ironclad willfulness, and in the end she lets him go.
Hie characterization throughout is rich and sure, as the story moves back and forth from the devious imagination of the child to the troubled or self-deceived minds of the adults. Some of the aunts, like Vere and Agnes, are charming grotesques, but all are thoroughly human. Mr. Elliott writes with compassion for all of them, even the cold Vanessa, so that once we are sure she is not going to have the boy, we find her more to be pitied than hated.
The Land family in HARVEY SWADOS’ THE WILL (World, $4.95) is a bleak bit of American Gothic, eccentric before the world and seething with violence beneath the surface. The style of the novel, vigorous and stark, is a match for its subject, and Mr. Swados is unrelenting as he flails away at his story like a boxer crowding an opponent. The suspense is tight and well managed, dissolved at last only by a surprising ending, which is not at all a trick — the characters all happened to be looking the other way and never imagined the obvious possibility that would dash all their hopes.
When father Land dies, the youngest of his sons, Ray, has already become an odd recluse who never leaves the old house. The oldest son, Mel, has disappeared into parts unknown, having served time in many jails. The second son, Ralph, the supposedly normal one living an ordinary life in the world, flies home from New York to take charge of affairs. But if Ralph is normal, at least as the world views normality, his nature is sullen, cold, and ambitious, and in some respects he is more evil than his brothers. The inheritance the three are struggling over is a fortune in slum real estate. It is dirty money and brings out all the dirt in the brothers’ characters. Even Ray, the would-be saint, who has retired from the world in order to purify himself of its evils and who at first renounces his inheritance, turns out to have motives that are most suspect. The jailbird brother is, in fact, the most honest of the three in frankly avowing his motives of revenge.
With its tangle of motives and countermotives the story has enough impetus of its own without the overrhetorical bits of sex and violence with which Mr. Swados whips it on. In straining after intensity he often substitutes melodrama for insight, and his characters, though complex, become rather inhuman puppets of passion.
MASTER OF THE AIR
Good animal stories which can delight both old and young readers are rarely come by. It is difficult for an author to describe how the world looks to a nonhuman eye; too often the animal hero becomes subtly humanized, and is made, like a toy bear, cute and sentimentalized. ROBERT MURPHY’S THE PEREGRINE FALCON (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00) happily escapes such pitfalls. This story of the first year in the life of a golden hawk is told with such simple and austere fidelity to nature that it manages to be poetical without being gushing and carries the reader irresistibly along with the beautiful wild creature it celebrates.
The adventures of Varda the hawk might not seem to be much by human standards of plot. She learns to leave the nest, to fly, to hunt, and she threads her long and arduous passage from the Barren Fields of Canada through the Adirondacks to Maryland, and finally on to an island off the Florida Keys. There is only one dramatic encounter with man, when she is caught and tamed by a falconer. Though the methods of falconry are fascinating, Mr. Murphy deliberately subordinates them to the hawk’s destiny as a free creature, lord of the air. Presently Varda escapes, and we see her at last ready to resume her flight north as spring returns, once more enclosed in the cycle of natural life to which she belongs.
As an experienced falconer, Mr. Murphy seems to be of two minds about his ancient and beloved sport. Perhaps he can reconcile them because, as he says, the falcon is never really tamed, and the deepest thrill of falconry is the companionship of a truly wild thing. Still, if he had to choose, he seems to prefer the state of nature to domestication, for he leaves us greatly relieved that Varda has escaped the ways of man. We are sorry to see her go, but glad she has got back home.
PASSION TO POSSESS
A painting in a private apartment, surrounded by harmonious and beautiful furnishings, has a charm and intimacy that are lacking in the gaunt corridors of a museum. For this charm, GREAT PRIVATE COLLECTIONS, edited by Douglas Cooper and with an introduction by Sir Kenneth Clark (Macmillan, $25.00), stands out from all the other art books that adorned the bookstore shelves at Christmas. Beautifully printed and engraved, it not only provides a feast for the eyes but it also gratifies our lurking social snobbery by giving us the run of the salons and sitting rooms of the rich and wellborn. Museums we can visit whenever we choose; but to be invited, even vicariously, to Baron Rothschild’s home in Paris to see his Gainsborough hung above a Louis XIV cabinet at the foot of which stretches a Savonnerie rug is a treat that we are not likely to come by every day.
The great collectors are a curious breed of mortal, and their motives for collecting have been many and varied. Sometimes the relationship between the collector and his objets has had almost the passion of sexual intimacy. Old Gulbenkian, the Armenian connoisseur, when asked to show his collection used to reply, “Would I admit a stranger to my harem?” A few collectors have expressed the wish that, as in the case of Sardanapalus and his wives, their collections be burned at their deaths. Often collectors have been animated by a genuine sporting instinct — the desire to outwit their competitors and beat them to the spot where some precious object has been hidden for centuries.
Whatever the motives that led to them, the great collections take on a personal coloration from the collector; and one of the delights of this book is that the reader can play social spy and make comparisons. Why has Governor Rockefeller, for example, collected primitive and twentieth-century art, two fields that would seem to be worlds apart? Well, the primitive art includes many pre-Columbian objects, which reflect the interest in Latin America that launched him on a political career; and the moderns include American abstract expressionists, a fitting interest for a liberal politician who would keep abreast of the latest currents in his own country.
In Baron Rothschild’s collection it seems natural that so many of his objets d’art should come from royal houses since his own family had long and intimate dealings with the European monarchs. However, when the collection of California billionaire J. Paul Getty shows a similar provenance, it merely looks like ostentatious wealth doing a bit of social climbing. And Mr. Getty himself seems suspiciously sensitive on the issue, protesting that in all instances he wanted the objects first, and only afterward did he find out that they had once been the possession of some royal house.
Though collectors may seem selfish in jealously guarding their masterpieces to themselves, the public stands in their debt for setting standards of taste and refinement that keep the art dealers and museum directors on their toes. Moreover, most collections eventually find their way into museums. The art of the whole world is now everywhere accessible to scholars; there are no hidden masterpieces in any private collection that would reverse our estimate of an old master or alter our understanding of any period in the history of art. As sumptuously varied and surprising as many of the objects here represented are, they only reinforce the enthusiasms and tastes we already bring with us from the museums.