In the new installment of his mammoth novel, A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME: SECOND MOVEMENT (Little, Brown, $5.95), ANTHONY POWELL is as brilliantly funny as ever; but as his large historical panorama unfolds, his comedy becomes increasingly sad and somber. Perhaps this is as it must be when a novelist confronts the sheer passage of time. Mr. Powell has chosen to model himself on Proust and write a novel, or series of interlocking novels, in which the real protagonist is time itself. But time itself is not a funny subject, since it consumes us along with the follies that make us laughable. Mr. Powell’s wit is, as always, light, dry, precise; but his comedy, like Proust’s, is now the comedy of Heartbreak House.
Moreover, the period in which his novel so far is mainly centered, the 1930s, was hardly a pleasant and engaging decade. In England the tone was principally one of political and moral drift. It was a time when an English king abdicated, as it acquiescing in the disappearance of royal virtues. Café society had taken over the aristocracy and even royalty itself. The circles of sleazy aristocrats that Mr. Powell brings before us render perfectly the flaccid atmosphere surrounding the abdication. As the story moves on there are echoes of the Spanish Civil War and the Munich Crisis in the background; and, finally, at the close of the present installment the Second World War has broken out, though its shadow really impended over the whole decade.
Mr. Powell moves his narrative freely forward and backward in time. As events sweep Nick Jenkins, the narrator-hero, along toward the war, we are returned to a scene from Nick’s boyhood. The Jenkins family are having dinner at their country place when a maid comes in with news about “that Bosnian business.” It is the beginning of the First World War. That scene, Nick reflects now, was the end of boyhood, just as the outbreak of the second war marks the finish of another stage in his life. His growth into manhood has been framed between the two events.
We meet many new characters in the present book, but to our delight the old ones keep turning up in the most unexpected places to establish the pattern of Nick’s life. The egregious Widmerpool, one of Mr. Powell’s most obnoxious but fascinating creations, is still much in evidence. He and the eccentric industrialist Sir Magnus Donners typify the crass commercialism that has shouldered aside the older virtues Nick knew as a boy. Symbolically enough, when the news of the war arrives, Sir Magnus is entertaining at his country castle and photographing his guests in the attitudes of the seven deadly sins.
Mr. Powell has announced twelve novels in this series, of which we now have six. His story thus stands exactly at the halfway mark, and the pattern that emerges so far is one of breakdown and transition. Will the years of the war bring regeneration? It is hard to foresee what the future design of this novel will be. Yet with only half of it now completed, there can be no doubt of the magnificence of Mr. Powell’s achievement; for its elegance of style, its combined humor and depth, A Dance to the Music of Time places its author among the very best British novelists now writing.
NEW ENGLAND GOTHIC
In THE WAPSHOT SCANDAL (Harper & Row, $4.95), as in his earlier novel about the Wapshot clan, JOHN CHEEVER is dealing with a theme almost pre-empted by the late J. P. Marquand: the submergence of an older and calmer New England under the troubled waves of modernity. The treatment of this subject, however, is totally dissimilar in the two writers. Whereas Marquand remained the social novelist, factual and observant, never deserting the strict forms of realistic fiction. Mr. Cheever is a visionary whose imagination is continually pushed beyond realism into the fantastic and grotesque. The decline of an old New England family becomes for him a manifestation of some secret and universal evil that haunts human life.
The Wapshots had settled in the little village of St. Botolphs in the seventeenth century. Two hundred years later they are still local gentry, but their lives are in disarray. The story opens on a snowy Christmas Eve, with a sweeping view of the town, its people, and their troubles — a panorama of tawdry evils at which Mr. Cheever excels. Dr. Applegate, the local minister, has lost his faith and become a drunkard; but in the process he has acquired a strange sixth sense regarding the secret lives of his parishioners. Now, as he administers the sacrament the hidden faults and sins of his communicants pass before his mind’s eye. It is a kind of orchestral prelude to what is to follow.
When the story closes on another Christmas Eve, all the Wapshots have had their painful or tragic misadventures. Coverley, who works on an atomic project, cannot communicate with his petulant and silly wife, Betsey. Melissa has fled to Europe, a middle-aged woman giving herself to gigolos. Cousin Honora has fallen afoul of the Internal Revenue Service. The carols of Christmas Eve ring out upon Moses Wapshot, drunk in the local hotel, as he romances the town widow. And Mr. Cheever, like wandering Ishmael, delivers himself of a furious epilogue to dismiss forever all these ghosts as he prepares to sail for the sunnier climate of Naples.
Though he is a wonderfully gifted writer, Mr. Cheever’s vision of evil is too immense to find its adequate embodiment in the Wapshots. Only Melissa, torn between compassion and the need for love, driven by guilt to commit the sins that make her even more guilty, is a suitably tragic figure; the other Wapshots seem merely odd. Uneven as it is, however, this is an extraordinary and powerful book; and as a novelist of the tormented New England conscience, Mr. Cheever is the nearest thing we have to a latter-day Nathaniel Hawthorne.
SEARCH FOR SHAKESPEARE
“Others abide our question. Thou art free,” Matthew Arnold said of Shakespeare. He was wrong, of course; no other poet in history has been left less free from questioning by hairsplitting critics and wildeyed theorists. On the eve of the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth it is good to have two books — A. L. ROWSE’S WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (Harper & Row, $7.95) and PETER QUENNELL’S SHAKESPEARE (World, $6.95) — that bring sense and sobriety to the questions of Shakespeare’s life that in the past have been kicked around so freely by crotchety theorists. Though very different in tone, both books are lively and vivid reading and leave no doubt at all of the existence of a historical Shakespeare.
Mr. Rowse, an Oxford historian, makes the more ambitious claim to original scholarship. If we apply correct historical methods, he tells us over and over again, the mysteries supposed to surround Shakespeare and his life disappear. Mr. Rowse also insists that he is offering us — and for the first time among all interpreters — the complete solution to the so-called mystery of the sonnets. The young man to whom they were addressed was indeed the Earl of Southampton, the poet’s patron; we now know everything we need to know about these poems except the name of Shakespeare’s mistress, the “dark lady of the Sonnets.” What is most valuable in this book is the detail and concreteness with which Shakespeare’s career is set against the background of Elizabethan England. William Shakespeare emerges not as a mysterious ghost but as the solid citizen of Stratford and London, very much immersed in the affairs of his time.
Mr. Rowse’s style, vigorous and blunt, is calculated to sweep all doubt before it. Certainly, those older fantasies that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Bacon or Marlowe or the Earl of Southampton himself are exploded once and for all. Yet one wonders whether Mr. Rowse may be a little too optimistic in thinking that all the Shakespearean mystery has been dissipated. At times he seems to assume too readily that passages in the plays must correspond directly with incidents in the dramatist’s life. “Shakespeare,” he remarks, “could not write a play without some revealing, and endearing, glimpses of himself.” Perhaps; but is such an assumption perfectly in line with Mr. Rowse’s insistence on “sound historical method”? And when we try to reconstruct Shakespeare from his plays, do we not find his personality too amorphous and protean to be clearly grasped?
In Mr. Quennell’s suave and polished biography these questions come more strikingly to the fore. In attempting to present a finished biographical portrait, as he has done with later figures like Byron and Ruskin, Mr. Quennell only makes it very clear that compared to the nineteenth century the Elizabethan is a far less documented age. True, we have considerable documentation of Shakespeare’s career; more of his early life, in fact, than we have of Ben Jonson’s. Nevertheless, poets like Jonson and Marlowe emerge from their writings with a much more definite “personality.” The mystery of Shakespeare would seem to lie in the very quality of his genius, which was so wide and various that we cannot reconstruct the man from his writings. Certainly, an intimate biography, a psychological portrait in depth in the modern sense, cannot now, and probably never will, be written of him.
ARTIST AT LIFT.
The late Bernard Bcrenson was a legendary figure, not merely for his fabulous worldly success—first, as leading art critic of his time; second, as an expert who amassed a fortune by authenticating pictures — but also for that uncanny blending of fortune and art that the ancient Greeks found indispensable to the good life. His achievements as an art critic were due solely to his own talents; it was good luck, however, that he should have made the acquaintance of Mrs. Jack Gardner of Boston, and that by putting his knowledge at her service in building a collection he was able to become financially independent. Even more fortunate, economically, was his later association with the flamboyant dealer Joseph Duveen, which made Berenson rich enough to form his own collection and to purchase and adorn one of the most beautiful villas in Italy. And behind the strokes of luck and talent, the man himself always sat securely in control of his own life, shaping it from within and without like a polished work of art.
SUNSET AND TWILIGHT: FROM THE DIARIES OF 1947-1958 (Harcourt, Brace & World, $8.75) and THE SELECTED LETTERS OF BERNARD BERENSON, edited by Arthur K. McComb (Houghton Mifflin, $5.00), provide a close and inspiring view of this amazing man. Mr. McComb is undoubtedly right when he says that the letters are not interesting “as literature.” Berenson did not write them for that purpose. Their interest — and even more so, that of the diaries — is as a memorial to a man who went on carefully tending the exquisite garden of his life to the very end. Though his physical energy declined with old age, his intellectual curiosity, sheer gusto for life, and his passionate love of beauty remained undimmed. The stream of visitors, from all nations and walks of life, to his villa, I Tatti, went on unceasingly, and Berenson, even past his ninetieth year, never ceased to enjoy it.
His wit remained sharp but not malicious, and his view of mankind candid but not cynical. He acknowledged his own selfishness, but found this to be characteristic of people generally. Without illusions, he had a sense of his own rank that was neither inflated nor overmodest. Though he felt physical discomfort, the world was still entrancing and wonderful to him, and he would go on from birthday to birthday if he could. “I wanted to become and be a work of art myself,” he remarked, and had he accomplished nothing else, an old age so rich and calm would be accounted human artistry enough.
Toward the end, this exiled aesthete felt the tug of two different homelands. The first was the homeless homeland of his Jewish ancestors; their long life in the ghetto that, he came more and more to believe, had left indelible marks on his own spirit. He began to feel a greater sense of kinship with Jewish visitors, as if he were at last returned among his own. The other homeland was the United States, which he had left in 1882, and for whose rush and bustle he repeatedly professed disdain. Whatever his strictures against this country, however, he had also insisted that two of the most profound influences on his life were Harvard and William James. To repay this debt he wrote to Harvard indicating his wish to bequeath I Tatti and its collection as a place of study after his death. As the days went by and no answer to his offer was received, he became almost unbearably anxious. At last, a telegram of acceptance from the trustees arrived, and Berenson, in relief, declared that if it had been a refusal, “my bowels would have burst, my chest been unable to breathe, my face flushed, my head too heavy not to droop on my shoulders.” So convulsively passionate an attachment to his old college is surprising in so cool an aesthete. It seems even more of a surprise that Harvard should have hesitated even for a minute before so incomparable a gift.
ASIA IN TURMOIL
In our recurrent nightmares we tend always to see the war of the future as that ultimate affair of rockets and big bombs. The balance of terror, however, may postpone the nuclear holocaust indefinitely, meanwhile leaving us not real peace but the long and abrasive struggle of local wars dragging on year in and year out until some final and stable order descends upon the world. What is now going on in Vietnam may thus turn out to be the model of the war of the future. VIETNAM DIARY by RICHARD TREGASKIS (Holt, $5.95) gives us our best firsthand account of this new kind of warfare into which Americans have been dragged by their position in world affairs.
Mr. Tregaskis is a war reporter who does not play it safe. His first book, Guadalcanal Diary, was a terrifying account of the hand-to-hand fighting of the Marines with whom he went into action during the Second World War. The present book is hardly so exciting, though he has followed the same pattern of exposing life and limb by accompanying our forces into missions where soldiers have actually been killed. A galling and inconclusive war does not provide many occasions for dashing and spectacular narrative. Mr. Tregaskis does not cut or edit, and much of this diary is tedious, just as the touch-and-go skirmishes of the war itself are indecisive and fluctuating. A war of attrition is not settled by any gallant charge of the six hundred. But the value of this book is that it does convey a sense of the grim and dedicated devotion of the American soldiers, who feel that what they are doing is worthwhile, however remote this struggle may seem to the folks back home.
Mr. Tregaskis left Vietnam before the successful coup against the Diem government. Though he had plenty of reservations about the Diems, he felt that their regime, with all its faults, was worth defending against the Communists. It is not a thrilling or exalted role to have to support the lesser evil: yet in this period of protracted brush-fire wars we may continually be called upon to prop up governments that are not altogether, or even very much, to our liking.
Much livelier and funnier reportage from Southeast Asia, though its final message is equally somber, is WILLIAM STEVENSON’S BIRDS’ NESTS IN THEIR BEARDS (Houghton Mifflin, $4.50). A Canadian correspondent in the Orient, Mr. Stevenson stumbled into the melee of Indonesian politics and rebellion in the most unlikely way. He happened to read in a Hong Kong newspaper an advertisement of birds’ nests for sale in Borneo. (The Chinese Communist government has cut off the sale of birds’ nests from the continent, so that fanciers of this delicacy in the East have to go elsewhere to satisfy their appetite.) Mr. Stevenson thought the expedition for birds’ nests might make an amusing humaninterest story, and he promptly hopped a plane for Borneo. He found the birds’ nests (they are taken from immense caves, and some of them sell at five hundred dollars apiece) and a good deal more; before his junket was over he had met a number of colorful and amazing Asians and he himself had become involved with the rebellion against Sukarno.
The degree of Communist penetration of Southeast Asia is a frightening thing to read about. Indonesia now has the largest Communist Party in the world outside of Russia and China. President Sukarno, as Mr. Stevenson depicts him, is a brilliant but unscrupulous demagogue and no real friend of the West. The Indonesians, who have suffered under colonial rule for centuries, tend to equate the West with colonialism, though this does not seem to deter them from wanting to engage in new imperialistic adventures of their own in relation to Borneo and Malaysia. Mr. Stevenson thinks it was a mistake on the part of Britain and the United States not to have given greater support to the rebellion against Sukarno, which with a little outside aid might have been successful.
WARMTH AT THE PUB
In this winter overcast by a President’s death we are grateful for any notes of cheer we can come by, and perhaps it is appropriate, under the circumstances, that some should come from the Irish themselves. BRENDAN BEHAN’S HOLD YOUR HOURAND HAVE ANOTHER (Little, Brown, $4.75), with pleasant drawings by his wife, Beatrice, is a modest and unassuming book, but the man is such a natural writer, and the words roll so easily from his tongue, that even when he talks about trivia he is captivating.
These sketches, written for the Irish Press, resemble some items in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town" if the locale is switched from Third Avenue to a Dublin pub, where the talk is much more fanciful. One customer is described as having “‘a face like a plateful of mortal sins.” The regulars include Crippen, a bookmaker’s runner and former aspirant to the literary life, who recites one of his poems with the deathless line, “There is a madness in my madness" — as indeed there is. Mrs. Brennan, who murders the Queen’s English, is the appreciative listener, finding “cheenis” (genius) in almost everyone. An even older character, Maria Concepta, with a face wrinkled enough to hold a bucket of rain, though it is usually stained with snuff, still fancies herself a singer. Her voice sounds like a cinder under a gate, but she can never forget that she was once the leading soprano in a brass foundry. The author listens avidly and occasionally throws in a word of his own to keep the pot boiling.
Mr. Behan may be a patriot, but he knows how to kid his countrymen. One sketch. “Here’s How History is Written,” pokes fun at the wild Irish imagination. Some doggerel is recited in the pub: “Is that by Yeets?” the barkeep asks. “No,” Mr. Behan snaps, out of the side of his mouth, “it’s by Evelyn Waugh.” The name of the British novelist is heard as “Eveleen Warr.” obviously a woman, and in no time at all a legend for the lady has been created. She was a member of the Belcuddy Battalion during the Irish rebellion, a poetess of her country’s struggles. Not only that, every man jack at the bar can now swear that he knew her and has stories to prove it.
From his snug corner, looking out at the inclement weather. Mr. Behan is thankful for his blessings. He has kept the harsher realities out of this book; the only hardship he does mention is the occasional snow or sleet that made it tough going to get from his home to the pub. It is good to come in out of this hard and bitter winter to sit with him.