BY PHOEBE ADAMS
PÄR LAGERKVIST’S PILGKIM AT SEA (Random House. $3.95) continues the adventures of Tobias, who was left at the end of The Death of Ahasuerus taking ship for the Holy Land with what appeared to be a crew of ruffians. They prove to be plain pirates, which introduces into Pilgrim at Sea a certain amount of bloody and even melodramatic action. The center of the novel is the pirate Giovanni, of whom one of the freebooters savs, “He’s a terrible sinner . . . but a good man.” Giovanni is surprised to find a fellow like Tobias on pilgrimage “like a true Christian. Though you don’t look like one: you look like an honest man.”This is a point to interest Giovanni, who is a quondam priest, unfrocked for a love affair with a lady who attracted him through the grille of the confessional.
This love affair and Giovanni’s account of it are. like everything else in the novel, superbly unrealistic. Mr. Lagerkvist has no more interest in petty plausibility than Kazantzakis did. Pilgrim at Sea takes place in a limbo where every aspect of plot and character has been formalized and converted into steel framework for a tight, hard, clear-cut intellectual structure. T he novel can easily be taken as a repudiation of Christianity, which sets men impossible standards and offers them mythical rewards. But since Tobias and his colleagues, stripped down to the bald essentials oi character, are Everyman, is Christianity to be taken any more specifically? It seems more reasonable to assume that Pilgrim at Sea repudiates all sale certainties and ready-made answers, all human attempts to compress the monstrous wonders of life into neat string-tied packages.
THE LITTLE GIRLS (Knopf, S4.95), ELIZABETH BOWEN’S latest novel, tells, an oblique story in highly individualistic language, a prose in which every paragraph carries a delicate snap of wit. The story itself concerns a handsome, sixtyish Englishwoman who is suddenly moved to hunt up two childhood friends whom she hasn’t seen or heard of since the Archduke was shot at Sarajevo. This is not a random reference; the upheaval of 1914. swept two of the girls away front the town and school where they had met and ended the acquaintance. Fifty years later, Diana is whimsically set on finding her old friends and finishing off a romantic semiprank that they had undertaken just before they parted. The old friends are suspicious, alarmed, and finally as thoroughly engaged in the nonsense as Diana herself, and the result of it all is highly disconcerting. The friendship of the children, full of jealousy, bickering, bullying, and dire but fleeting conspiracies, is most convincing, and the unpredictable echoes of it in the association of the grown women are funny and sad at the same time. As a warning against nostalgia and the idealization of childhood, the novel is sufficiently amusing and successful for any book. It is probably an impertinence to grab at 1914 as a clue to some more complicated comment on British society, since, practically speaking, Mrs. Bowen had to get her little girls out of that channel town somehow. And yet the date nags. Mrs. Bowen’s girls present a small but effective cross section of upper-middle-class England (Army, money, arts, and even the church, although the bishop is securely offstage), and emotional archaeology reveals that they all, in effect, stopped dead in 1914.
THE ELOQUENT LIOHT (Sierra Club, SI5.00) is a biography of the w ilderness photographer Ansel Adams by NANCY NEWHALL, wife of Beaumont Newhall, who established the photographic department at the Museum of Modern Art. As an old friend, Mrs. Newhall knows her subject and has had access to letters, family papers, and unpublished jottings by Adams. She also shares his interest in photography, conservation, music, and good loud public rows about the place and purpose of the camera. These qualities make for a cheerfully biased portrait; in his biographer’s eyes, Adams neither could nor can, nor ever will, do wrong. The book is pleasant reading, with flashes of smoke and fire when photographic controversy arises and a great deal of quotation from Adams, who has a gingery, irreverent wit and is, with all respect to Mrs. Newhall, a better writer than his biographer. There are a great many Adams photographs as illustration, large and splendid.
ANDREAS FEIMNGER, whose photographs have frequently dazzled the observer in the pages of Life, has written THE WORLD THROUGH MY EYES (Crown, $12.50), illustrating it: with what he considers his best pictures out of twenty-five years of photography. They range from close-ups of minute insects to panoramic views of New York City, and include, by the way, studies of machinery in motion and examples of various methods of refinement by which photographs can be printed to look like something else entirely. Not that Mr. Feimnger tinkers with patching and retouching; he is a stickler for legitimate methods. He is also an inventor of new techniques, a builder of equipment when necessary, an experimenter with the whole photographic process. His comments on the folly of imitation, on personal style, and on the basic nonrealism of photography are interesting, and the whole book is full of odd and stimulating information.
COOPER’S CREEK (Harper & Row, $5.95) is another of ALAN MOOREIIKVD’S fine histories of exploration, this time the story of the first expedition to cross the desert of east central Australia. Assembled in some haste and led by Robert Burke, whose main claim to the post seems to have been that he was a good police ollicer and generally liked, the party left Melbourne in 1860, enormously expensive and heavily provisioned, and marched north to total disaster. Without actually putting the opinion into words, Mr. Moprehead makes it plain that the Burke expedition is an almost perfect example of how not to do it. Even so, there is a theatrical quality to the affair—vital meetings missed by a few hours, rescue abandoned because nobody thought to mark a tree — that makes the catastrophe seem a matter of fate. Despite his mistakes, Burke did get through to the north coast and very nearly made it back. His near-miss, based on pure bad luck, gives the story a shimmer of glamour that neater explorations often lack. As to the telling. Mr. Moorehead is cm expert at this sort of thing, conjuring up time, style, landscape, and people like a wizard.
In LILLI VN WHITE DEER (Norton, $4.50) CARL JONAS has written a savage denunciation of modern American society in the form of a well-plotted ruckus about love and money in a rich Middle Western family. Mr. Jonas secs this country as a conglomeration of splinter groups, each bent on its private advantage without regard to any general good, although brief, uncomfortable alliances arc sometimes contrived between the artist and the intellectual, the intellectual and the socialite, the socialite and the financier. The practical detail with which Mr. Jonas adorns his tale is quite wonderful, making the imaginary Gateway City both a general image of American society and a specific town. Unfortunately, Mr. Jonas’ hero (or, at least, narrator) is writing a scholarly book, which is quoted at length and to no advantage.
FOUR DAYS (United Press International and American Heritage — Simon &;S: Schuster. $2.00 and $2.95) is a restrained, well-designed, very moving record of the death of President Kennedy and the events, tragic, formal, and bizarre, that followed it. The book has an introduction by Bruce Catton, a large number of pictures (some in color), and the texts of news stories as they came out of Dallas on the wire, cleared of all other traffic by furious orders from UPI headquarters. What the book lacks is any intimation of the wit and charm of Kennedy in life, but presumably such a portrait was no part of the compilers’ intentions.
THIS ART OF EGYPT (Crown, $6.95) by IMGARD; WOLDERING is another sound, thorough, well-illustrated volume in the Art of the World series. It not only covers Egyptian sculpture, architecture, and painting from Neolithic times to the establishment of Roman rule but also undertakes to relate the Egyptian aesthetic to the geography, history, and religion of the country. All one could ask beyond the text is that the author give more specilic sources for some of the spiritual and philosophical concepts attributed to people who lived four thousand years ago, particularly since the few translations quoted have real poetic power.
HAROLD BOND’S RETURN TO CASSINO (Doubleday, $3.95) is an unusual war memoir, unpretentious and unheroic. Mr. Bond was a recent civilian and the most junior of officers when he was hustled up to Gassino. He nurtured a brief dream, not concerning himself but the Army as a whole, of the noble, honorable, selfless military professional — the last flicker, I suppose, of the old ehivalric halo that probably never was real. Then Mr. Bond, more knowledgeable and with a veteran’s view of things, woke up and perceived that oflicers fight for their own advancement as well as against the enemy, and that the dash into Rome, which made such spectacular headlines in the papers at home, incidentally permitted the escape of a large number of Germans who turned up, rearmed and still feisty, north of Rome, where they had to be beaten all over again. On the chance that I am not the world’s only admirer of bobcats, and because these animals are hard to find on the loose and tend to be sulkily somnolent in zoos, I mention THE WORD OF THE BOBCAT (Lippill-
cott, $4.95) by JOE VAN WOBMER. Mr. Van Wormer is an enthusiastic photographer of wild animals, and while his text is a flat assemblage of facts, his pictures are first-class and cover all aspects of bobcats — stalking, playing, swimming, lurking, fighting dogs, and even stoically domesticated on a sofa. They do not, Mr. Van Wormer warns, make affectionate pets; anybody who wants an animal to cuddle had better stick to house cats.
THE LOST SHORE (Pantheon, $4.95), which won the Prix Goncourt in 1962, is the second novel by ANNA LANGFUS. author of The Whole Land Brimstone. Like the previous book. The Lost Shore has some autobiographical basis in that the heroine is Polish, lives in Paris, and lost her husband and parents when the Nazis invaded her country. But Miss Langfus has turned her tragedy into art while her fictional counterpart remains so paralyzed, mentally and emotionally, by grief that one cannot imagine she will ever recover even an approximation of normality. L his
vague, indifferent, half-starved, rather dirty oddity, who cares for nothinghut memories of her dead family (they actually appear to her as halI lucinations), nevertheless becomes,
I as she tells her own story of an excursion with an elderly but amorous mathematician, a most likable girl. She is not totally incompetent. She is even aware, dimly and intermittently, that her creaky gallant is trying to cure her with doses of sunlight and good food. The poor man isn’t equal to the job he has taken on. but he tries valiantly. Miss Langfus’ skill in revealing bis actual character without openly violating her narrator’s limited point of view is only one of the merits ot this painful, brilliant study of grief.