IVY COMPTON-BURNETT’S formula for the novel has been so highly personal and effective that she has been able to go on turning out book after book, each cut to the same pattern but never exactly duplicating one another, to the surprise and delight of her readers. In A GOD AND HIS GIFTS (Simon &. Schuster. $4.50) she is not at the top of her form: the wit is less sparkling, the invention more mechanical, than in her previous works. Yet, though not up to her best level, any novel by this indomitable lady is bound to be quite a notch beyond most fiction now being written.
As visual, this book is nearly all dialogue, and a kind of dialogue that is her own patent. Her characters speak a formal and precise English, but they talk about themselves and others with the most outrageous candor. Always composed and well-bred, they are nevertheless in their own way as wildlv outspoken as the characters in Dostoevski, with whom in other respects they would seem the last people on earth to be compared.
Miss Compton-Burnett’s plots are frequently as preposterous, and as universal, as Greek tragedy. Her present hero, a novelist named Hereward Eclgerton, takes us back to the Greek myths, being cast after the model of Zeus. Like the god, Hereward gives life but also exacts some gifts in return. He has an immense appetite for life. which he cannot restrain himself from indulging. He needs his wife, children, parents, and sister, his land, and his work; but he cannot stop there, and proceeds to beget children by his son’s fiancee and his wife’s sister. How the identity of the two children is discovered provides some scenes of exquisite melodrama. In the end, though, Hereward is forgiven, for he cannot be bound by the codes of ordinary men.
The setting, as always, is a late Victorian country house, where the most awful cataclysms are met without disturbing the ritual of tea. Perhaps it is just this unconquerable composure of her characters in the lace of all the bizarre twists and turns of life that makes Miss Compton-Burnett’s novels so exhilarating an experience.
COMEDY, SWEET AND SOUR
PETEK DE VRIES began as a New Yorker writer, a superior gagman whose comedy had an ambling and self-deprecating resemblance to the novel. His development has been steady and continuous; and in KEUBEN. KEUBEN (Little, Brown. $5.95) he is not only a very funny writer, but a serious novelist with very troubling themes behind all the laughter.
Mr. De Vries’s special terrain is the Connecticut country around Woodsmoke (Westport?), of which he has made himself as much the literary proprietor as Faulkner was of Yoknapatawpha County. Ihe exurbanite locale provides a good view of some bewildering predicaments of modern life. We see it first through the eyes of a native, an old Yankee chicken farmer named Spofford, who observes the sophisticated commuters with a hard and curious irony. These are the people, he remarks, who will not buy a house unless it has a Revolutionary bullet hole in the doorway, yet who are so very modern dial it is rumored the local church may make divorce one of the sacraments.
What chiefly plagues this exurbia is the relationship between men and women. Mr. De Vries’s title is taken from the old ballad in which Reuben and Rachel consider the prospect of transporting men and women as far from each other as they can get. Though sex is rampant all over the local landscape, men and women are unable to come to terms with each other. One character, Gowan McGland, a Scottish poet who chases anything in skirts, sums up matters sardonically: Why should Americans expect that if one person alone is unhappy, two of them put together will be happy?
After many adventures with women, McGland comes upon a most unhappy death. His trail is resumed by a young Englishman, Mopworth, a television actor turned author, who is writing a memoir on McGland’s life in America. The line of mistresses leads him eventually to McGland’s last flame, Geneva, with whom Mopworth, too, falls in love. They marry, and Mopworth seems comfortably settled down, his philandering career far behind him. But here Mr. De Vries’s comedy, though as effervescent as ever, becomes deadly serious. The marriage breaks up through the small blundering inanities of man and woman as they go about the business of systematically misunderstanding each other.
Mr. De Vries may have created a new genre of fiction, which could be labeled tragifarce. While he amuses us with his clowning, throwing away gags that a lesser writer would have to hoard, he is a disturbing moralist with a sharp and uncomfortable perception of things as they are.
What happens on those lovely island resorts off the New England coast after the summer visitors depart and the long gray winter settles in? Life does not exactly come to a halt, as we learn from NATHANIEL BENCH LEY in A WINTER’S TALE (McGraw-Hill, $4.50), a brisk and witty novel about the shenanigans of an amateur theatrical group on one such, unidentified island.
Dennis Pastor, a young director between jobs, accepts an invitation from a rather formidable Miss Warren to come to the island to put on some plays, with the islanders themselves as actors and audience. The island has summer stock, but the natives are then too busy making money to get to the theater. Now in the long-winter doldrums they have time on their hands, and what better way to get a little exposure to culture than to put on some plays?
But the enthusiasm which the project arouses is not undiluted. In this tight little community a pin cannot drop without being heard from one end ol the island to the other. Dennis, as a newcomer innocent of all the tangled relationships around him, stirs up a hornet’s nest of troubles. In the end, through muddling faith and incredible good luck, he actually puls on the play with his strangely assorted cast, and it is a great success. Mr. Benchley knows his theater and his islanders, but though he sees the foibles of the latter clearly, he also nurses a soft spot in his heart for them. By the time this engaging tale has run its course, the island does not look like such a bad place to spend a winter.
A very zany and ebullient comedy, ELLIOTT BAKER’S A FINE MADNESS (Putnam, $4.95) is so well done that it is hard to believe it is the author’s first novel. Air. Raker, winner of a $10,000 Putnam award, is a genuine and original talent, whose advent is a cause for rejoicing.
Samson Shillitoe is a rebellious poet whose life is a continual comedy of errors. His literary talent may be in question, but he has a positive genius for turning any situation into a shambles. Working as a rug cleaner, he lets the lather machine go untended while he courts a receptionist, and the office becomes so flooded with frothy suds that junior executives and secretaries fall all over each other like kids on an ice pond. He also runs afoul of the law in a highly original way. A former girl friend is in love with a married man; Samson decides to help her by photographing the errant husband in a compromising pose and forwarding the picture to the wife to use in securing a divorce. Unfortunately he does not arrange things beforehand with the girl, and the fellow on the bed whom he photographs in flagrante delicto is not only the wrong man, but a policeman to boot. There follows a wild chase through the Holland Tunnel, the like of which has not been seen since the Keystone Kops.
With all these goings-on, Shil1itoe’s poetry is not getting written, and his wife, who is scarcely literate but infatuated with her husband’s way with words, is worried. By devious means she gets him to see a psychiatrist, and Shillitoe has his most dangerous encounter with reality. It is no lark for the psychiatrist either.
Samson manages to get out of all these scrapes alive, or just about. Last seen, he is heading back to his native Indiana, part of a manuscript under his arm, apparently ready to dig in and finish that long poem. It looks like smoother sailing now, but don’t bet on it; wherever Shillitoe goes there are bound to be rough waves and choppy water, and he, like a crazy cork, will be bobbing along at the top.
DAUGHTER OF HAGAR
Many years ago, EDWARD DAHLBEIU; appeared as a definitely talented novelist with the promise of even greater gifts. As time went on, however, the books came at rarer intervals, and then a curtain of silence descended. In old age he has broken this silence with an autobiography, BECAUSE I WAS FLESH (New Directions, $5.00), a deeply moving remembrance of things past.
In fact, the book is less an autobiography than a memoir to the author’s mother, truly an unforgettable character. Mr. Dahlberg’s tone is biblical and Jewish, and his portrait of his mother is reminiscent of one of Jacob Epstein’s sculptures, with rough, furrowed face and body suggesting the poignant, earthbound life of the flesh.
Hagar, in the Bible, was cast out into the wilderness, fated to breed descendants who would be outcasts like herself. Surely, Lizzie Dahlberg was a true child of Hagar. She grew up in the New York ghetto, and was already married and the mother of several children when site met flashy Saul the Barber. She abandoned her family, and came to Boston alone to have her illegitimate child (the author). Later she and Saul were reunited, but he was too restless to stay with her long. Lizzie had to shift for herself, and she went to work as a lady barber in Kansas City, which in the early 1900s was still a raw frontier town.
Mr. Dahlberg captures much of the raucous vigor of that period. In time, Lizzie owned her own shop, staffed with lady barbers, whom she had to protect against the wiles of cattlemen and drummers, her clients. In private life, however, she was forever succumbing to the deceits of men. And she had to have a man, competent businesswoman though she was. Even near the end of her career, she sought a mate through the matrimonial correspondence columns. The eventual meeting of these two aged suitors is one of the funny episodes in the book, but it, too, is tinged with sadness.
The style throughout is remarkably simple, passionate, poetical — like a voice speaking directly to the reader. If Mr. Dahlberg occasionally embarrasses us by not holding back anything about his mother, the affection in his remembrance of her is so clear that he makes us, too, forgive Lizzie Dahlberg every one of her lapses.
NONHEROES OF THE SOVIET
Among the new Soviet writers, YURI KAZAKOV seems to occupy the place in prose that Yevtushenko does in poetry. Both are young, both wish to express the truth as they see it, and both have been in trouble with the authorities, GOING TO TOWN (Houghton Mifflin, $4.95) is a collection of very solid stories which tells more about the humdrum realities of life in the Soviet Union than any recent Russian work that I have seen in English.
Kazakov’s people, unlike those “positive” characters of official Soviet literature who are always overfulfilling their quotas, arc hardly heroes at all. Mostly they arc drunkards, bums, outcasts, the lovelorn and the lonely, who would probably be that way in any society. The stories are in the realistic vein of Chekhov but also strike a lyrical and evocative note that invites comparison with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
Kazakov shuttles between satire and compassion for his unlikely protagonists. perhaps to protect himself from the censors. In the title story, a man and his wife on a collective farm want, like Chekhov’s three sisters, to get to Moscow but are perpetually frustrated by the farm’s chairman. Evidently, all is not paradise on the collective farms in Russia. If questioned by the authorities, however, the author could maintain that the man and wife are a wretched pair, and that his purpose was to satirize them, not the system of collective farming. “Adam and Eve,” which deals with a dissident painter, Ageev, comes closer to Kazakov’s own plight. Ageev rails against the Philistines, seeks to paint the truth as he sees it, and has been accused, like Kazakov, of “biologism.” Yet he is presented as a whining, self-pitying, and unattractive personality. Is Kazakov protecting himself, or is he merely a writer recording the truth that a heroically dissident artist might otherwise be a fairly contemptible human being? Perhaps both.
And perhaps, too, we would do better not to read these younger writers from a purely political angle. They need to be judged by literary standards that they themselves arc seeking to restore to Soviet letters.
By such standards, Kazakov is clearly a gifted writer. How far his talent reaches, however, is hard to say. since stories like these, in the style of flat realism, depend a great deal on revealing turns of phrase and rhythms of speech that arc frequently lost in translation.
LATIN - AMERICAN TURMOIL
DR. JUAN JOSI": AREVALO, former president of Guatemala, stirred up a great storm of controversy two years ago with The Shark and the Sardines, an attack upon the exploitation ol Latin America by the United States. ATI-KOMMUMSM IN LATIN AMERICA (Lyle Stuart, $4.95) extends this arraignment to other “reactionary forces” like the police officials and the Catholic Church in the Latin countries. Dr. Arevalo contends that these forces have banded together to resist social reform by the pretension of fighting a bogus thing called “Kommunism” — which he deliberately spells with a “K” to indicate that it is not to be confused with the Communism of the Soviet or Cuban variety.
The tone of his indictment is passionate and angry. Possibly some of his language is intemperate, and his impressions of life in the United States at times show him the victim of Communist cliches. But factual inaccuracies should not make us forget the one overriding fact behind his protest: the continued experience of poverty and dictatorship that has been the Latin American’s lot.
United States companies in Latin America did not create that poverty, but neither have they been too concerned about removing it. When Dr. Arevalo became president of Guatemala in 1945, the mozos (“farmhands”) earned about four cents a day. He claims that the United Fruit Company resisted all his efforts to improve the lot of these workers.
This blistering attack was written in 1957, a year before Castro came to power in Cuba and three years before a new Administration in Washington sought to improve our relations with the countries to our south. What this book reveals is that we have a very long way to go to wipe out the past.
How fearful the experience of dictatorship lias been for Latin Americans is portrayed with overwhelming force in a remarkable novel, EL SENOH PRESIDENTE (Atheneum, $4.50), by MIGUEL ANGEL ASTURIAS, which, although written in Paris during the years 1925 to 1932, has only now come into English. in an excellent translation by Frances Partridge.
Sr. Asturias of Guatemala, now living in Argentina, has been called the Latin-American Faulkner, and he does write with a Faulknerian violence and power, though the unity of his story gets dissipated into a kaleidoscopic nightmare. When one of his generals is killed, the dictator, identified only as El Presidente, seizes upon the slaying as an occasion for unleashing a brutal wave of police reprisal that reaches into all strata of the population: beggars, clerks, and petty officials. Though the scenes of terror are strung together like so many beads on a wire, the novel nevertheless lives through the merciless vividness of each one of its hallucinatory episodes.
If the book seems overdone, it is because life in Latin America, below the superficially charming surface we know, has a nightmarish quality unimaginable to us Northerners.
DOUBLE DOUBLE CROSS
No less a person than Graham Greene, who should certainly be the person to know, has called THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD by
JOHN LE CARRÉ (Coward-McCann, $4.50) “the best spy story I have ever read.” T his absolute superlative may not hold for every reader, but there should be little doubt that this extraordinary book will have to be rated close to the top in its field. Not only is it spellbinding as a thriller; it also has the power and depth of a serious novel because it explores the conflict of individual motives and organizational habits among the men who are doing the dirtiest and riskiest jobs of the cold war. John le Carre is a pseudonym for David Cornwell, a British novelist now in the Foreign Service. In his book, he reveals espionage as a grim business which strains a man’s moral fiber to its uttermost.
The hero, Alec Leamas, a tough and competent spy who is pushing fifty, is beginning to be worn down a little too fine by his trade. In the lingo of espionage, “to come in from the cold” means to retire to a desk from dangerous missions in the field. Leamas is just about ready for this retirement, but he has one last job in the field: to destroy the intelligence chief in the East zone of Berlin. Pretending to be a defector, he is smuggled beyond the Berlin Wall by enemy agents. Here, however, his carefully plotted double cross gets trumped by a hidden card played by his own British chiefs and the German head of intelligence. Leamas himself turns out to be a pawn in a much bigger game than he had imagined. The mechanisms of this complicated plot are geared so smoothly that we never lose track of what is happening as each link in the chain snaps briskly into place.
The Peripatetic Reviewer, who is on holiday, will resume his column in the April ATLANTIC.