BY WILLIAM BARRETT
In FLOOD (Random House, $5.95), ROBERT PENN WARREN explores the changing patterns of the old and new South in the light of one man’s painful effort to recapture his past. Here indeed are some very large themes, and Mr. Warren, who also tacks on to them an extremely convoluted, melodramatic plot, has to strain a great deal to do them justice.
Brad Tolliver, a very successful screenwriter, has come back to visit his native town — Fiddlersburg, Tennessee - from which he has been absent for many years. He is accompanied by the well-known director Yasha Jones, who is intended as the deepest and wisest character in the novel but who is never more believable than the unlikely name with which Mr. Warren has saddled him. Both men are there to do a picture on the last days of Fiddlersburg, which will soon vanish under an artificial lake.
Brad’s adventure is to encounter and come to terms with his past; Jones’s is to escape from his icy detachment and discover love. The details of the story, however, are far too complex for retelling. As always, Mr. Warren is extremely skillful at making all the cogs and parts of his story run together as he moves continuously and deftly, though sometimes fatiguingly, between the present and the past. There are tedious moments, but on the whole the melodramatic excitement is well sustained.
Yet in this very intricacy of its construction, Mr. Warren’s story seems more like a clever piece of engineering than a spontaneous work of the imagination. The style is too often overly insistent and forced, as if the author himself were striving hard to believe in his own creation. For a writer of Mr. Warren’s attainments — who has given so much to American letters as novelist, poet, critic, and editor - this is indeed an indifferent performance.
STROKE OF TRUTH
GEORGES SIMENON has been known to millions of readers as the author of detective stories featuring the astute, pipe-smoking inspector Maigret. That he is a serious novelist, not merely a concocter of detective fiction, has long been recognized by his fellow countrymen and is slowly dawning upon us in this country. THE BELLS OF BICÉTRE (Harcourt, Brace & World, $4.95) is one of his more serious efforts, a psychological novel of considerable depth and power.
In their rush to recast Simenon from a pulp writer into a major novelist, the critics have in some cases gone overboard. He is a good writer indeed, but not a great literary artist. His style is effective but clumsy; he gets his story across like a boxer flailing away at an opponent. His real strength lies in his uncompromising and candid grasp of life. His insight may be narrow, but it is also profound, and we never feel that he is faking.
All of the external action here takes place in a hospital, where the hero, René Maugras, an affluent and hard-driving Parisian publisher, has been confined by a stroke. A strong man, he now lies in bed paralyzed and unable to talk. His past comes back to him, image by image, beginning with his povertystricken early life in a provincial village. Maugras is a self-made man, accustomed to having others bend to his imperious will. Now he is at the mercy of others and must submit to their ministrations. Under this brutal reversal of fortunes he has for the first time to take stock of himself and his life.
With Maugras out of action, Simenon seizes the opportunity to lay bare his hero’s heart and mind bit by bit. In a few days Maugras regains his speech; then he gains sufficient control of his limbs to be able to write, and he begins to keep a diary in which he makes brief entries to record the birth of a new perspective on things. Most important of all, he begins to feel compassion for his poor wife, whom his strength of will had driven into alcoholism; and it seems as though the two may find a new happiness together.
But Simenon is too good a psychologist to believe that the human soul can be completely transformed and the past shucked off altogether. At the end Maugras is ready to leave the hospital; he is still an invalid, but it is indicated that his recovery will be fairly complete. But with that recovery there also looms the prospect of his reassuming his old life and his former domineering character. We are left with the teasing question of whether a truth revealed to the invalid will be lost on the man of action.
FROM ROBIN HOOD TO HOOD
Only a short while back the district attorney of New York, when questioned by a reporter, denied the existence of the Mafia. The society had so clothed itself in secrecy that even the authorities felt there was no real proof that it was anything more than a legend. It took the sensational testimony of one of its members, only a year ago, before a congressional committee to banish doubt on the subject once and for all. What is more remarkable still, as NORMAN LEWIS shows in THE HONORED SOCIETY (Putnam, $5.00) - a hair-raising documentation of the history and deeds of the Mafia - is that the existence of the parent organization in Sicily was not definitely proved until 1962.
The reasons for this secrecy are not difficult to find. The Sicilian peasantry, which lived in fear of the so-called “men of respect,” preferred to turn its back on what was going on and never dared appear as witnesses. Even though a break in the silence appeared in the form of a full confession by one of the Mafiosi in 1938, the report was placed in the wrong police file and was not dug out until 1962. Mr. Lewis, an officer in the British Army in Sicily during the war, had access to all documents on the Mafia, and he has continued an exhaustive investigation ever since. His book is thorough, detailed, well written and dramatic, and it will be fascinating to all readers who have a curiosity about crime or found themselves enthralled by Lampedusa’s The Leopard.
The Mafia’s history can be traced back to hoary antiquity. Sicily was invaded so often and by so many foreign conquerors that the poor had to develop an organization in which they could find some justice against their baronial masters. But in the course of time the Mafia changed its nature and became an equally oppressive burden on the backs of the poor. One of the most shocking revelations of Mr. Lewis’ report is the way in which the Mafia has heaped an even heavier load of poverty on the peasants by preventing the building of reservoirs in order to continue to collect a fee for water from its own wells. The result is that much of western Sicily, which could be a beautiful and blooming garden, has become waste desert.
The society, however, may have killed its golden goose. Whole towns in Sicily have been virtually depopulated of their young able-bodied males, who have gone elsewhere in Italy to find work — and usually turn Communist. Moreover, the Italian government, now that it has incontrovertible evidence of the society’s existence, has begun to take steps against the Mafia and improve the lot of the Sicilian peasants. The reform, however, if it comes at all, will be slow, for these people have a long history in secrecy, and they have accepted for centuries the burden of feudal oppression.
TALENT IN SEARCH OF A SUBJECT
At the moment we are blessed (sometimes bewildered) by an unusual abundance of talented younger novelists who have got over the hurdle of the first, second, and even third novel but have not yet found grand or significant enough themes to carry the greater public with them. In general, they write with an expertness and skill, and they have a kind of technical sophistication quite beyond the younger novelists of twenty or thirty years ago. But though technically adroit, they seem somewhat without substance. Could it be that our immediate period, which stresses know-how and competence, has not yet found its own deeper and more moving themes?
In GET HOME FREE (Dutton, $4.50), JOHN CLELLON HOLMES returns to the bohemian subject matter that he handled so well in his first novel, Go, more than ten years ago. That earlier work caught the mood of its period very well, and was a better and more mature presentation of the beat generation than the highly touted novels of Jack Kerouac. The hero and heroine of the present novel — Dan Verger and May Delano — belong to that same generation, and though they arc still “beat,” they have also become older, sadder, wiser, and a little more human.
Dan and May, who live in Greenwich Village, are having an affair. The relationship is sick and hysterical, and they break it off and return for visits to their separate homes, Dan to rural Connecticut and May to Louisiana. Most of the book, and by far the better part, is concerned with their adventures back home and the discoveries they make about themselves and their pasts when they return to their roots. When they meet again in New York, it looks as if they might take up where they left off, though this time the relationship will be very different, for they have both learned from their experiences to have a little compassion for each other.
Mr. Holmes is an honest and searching writer, who tries to look very closely at his material; his fault is that he does not distinguish well enough between where this material is significant and where it is not. Though he has matured, he still takes bohemian life and its sexual preoccupations a little too seriously. The trouble with the Sexual Revolution, as it has been called by V. S. Pritchett, is that it threatens to become a bore. Mr. Holmes is far more interesting when he is dealing with the town drunk, Old Man Molineaux, whom Dan encounters back home in his Connecticut village, and who overshadows all the other characters in the book. Dan and May are real in their own way, and if you have ever lived in New York, you have surely met them; but in comparison with the old reprobate Molineaux they are merely shriveled and neurotic children.
Readers of THOMAS BAIRD’SThe Old Masters will be glad that he is back in business with the same style of polished and sophisticated farce in SHEBA’S LANDING (Harcourt, Brace & World, $4.95). Instead of the intricate politics of the world of art, Mr. Baird here gives a glimpse of a strange and exotic milieu in and around Washington whose exuberant high jinks would almost pass credulity if it were not for some of the more lurid hints from the Bobby Baker case.
Paul Dimmington, a well-bred and genteel young man, gets a job in the nation’s capital as editor of the newsletter of the National Association of Bathroom Fixtures Manufacturers. (Mr. Baird gets more than the usual comic mileage from all possible jokes about plumbing and sanitation.) Paul is thrust into the strange semi-underworld of promoters and people-on-the-make who haunt Washington. On the other hand, he discovers his father’s family, the Dimmingtons, who live on their ancestral estate, Sheba’s Landing, in nearby Maryland. The Dimmingtons are gentry but turn out to be every bit as zany as the vulgar hustlers whom Paul encounters in his business life. Between these two poles of absurdity — the commercial world and the declining aristocracy — Paul is led on a mad chase until he falls in love and decides on a settled and conventional life with the girl of his choice.
Unfortunately, though, this life of conformity the wife, the country house, and the four children - turns to dust and ashes; and Paul, in rebellion, departs. At the end he is telling his story from a secret hiding place, ready to begin any new round of adventures that life holds open for him. Most readers will find this ending too abrupt, as it Mr. Baird were in a hurry to ring down the curtain on the mad capers released by his lively imagination. Yet it is a device that permits him to establish a final note of detachment and irony toward his fictional creatures.
This tone of detachment, which runs throughout, has the effect of debating the reality of the characters. While most young writers tend to be too earnest and ambitious in biting off more than they can chew, Mr. Baird tends to take his own extraordinary talents of imagination and insight a little too lightly. His comedy, if he took it more seriously, could have much more bite.
The froth is so sedulously whipped up in OLD ACQUAINTANCE by DAVID STACTON (Putnam, $3.95) that the whole novel resembles a piece of pink cotton candy that is empty air when you bite into it.
Mr. Stacton is a polished and accomplished stylist, a deft hand at the witty epigram. Hitherto he has employed this style mostly in the field of the historical novel, ranging from medieval Japan to the eighteenth century of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton. Here he is dealing with a contemporary setting — a film festival at Mondorf-les-Bains, somewhere on the Franco-German border - and with contemporary people (if they are really people at all) — internationally famous stars and hangers-on of the jet set. Mr. Stacton did better with the historical novel, since the facts of history supplied him with characters who had a flesh-and-blood biographical reality; the characters he creates out of contemporary life are such thistledown that they seem ready to float away at a breath.
Charlie, an aging author who once wrote an almost really good book in his youth, and Lotte, a celebrated German actress and chanteuse fresh from Hollywood, meet at the festival and renew their friendship. Charlie had had a number of wives and many kept young men. His current favorite is Paul, a golf pro whom he has picked up and whom he is toting with him through Europe. Lotte is traveling with a young girl, Unne, who has a rather indifferent relationship with her. While the elderly pair talk and reminisce, the two young people become enamored, and at the end elope, leaving their benefactors writhing in an anger that will sputter out all too quickly.
Much of the novel is concerned with bringing us glimpses into Charlie’s mind, which would have the Olympian detachment of Goethe if the sage of Weimar had spent all his life blowing soap bubbles. Mr. Stacton struggles too hard to be jaded about his characters, but he is perfectly on target in commenting on the fatuousness of film festivals. If you have never been to such a festival, you need never go, after his program notes: “There is the magnificent Czech film which probably is magnificent, if you could just see it, for all the red filter photography. It will get the prize, unless the Polish film wins instead. The Polish film is exactly the same, except that it takes place in a sewer. At the end of the Polish film the hero emerges from the sewer, takes a look around, and then goes back down again. This represents life . . . The U.S.S.R. has sent along a film completely free of propaganda, but you won’t see it, because at the last moment it was withdrawn because it was completely free of propaganda.”
This is writing of a superior wit and talent, but whether Mr. Stacton will ever be able to make a satisfactory novel out of these qualities remains to be seen.
HISTORICAL TURNING POINT
Recently there has been a flood of books about the First World War. In part, this outburst of scholarship has been due to the fact that we are just beginning to get far enough away from that holocaust to obtain the necessary historical perspective for understanding it; in part, it is due to our new realization that the war itself was a point of no return, after which European civilization and that of the rest of the world could never be quite the same. ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR by A. J. P. TAYLOR (Putnam, $6.95) is one of the most useful and stimulating outlines of what happened during the war as well as a suggestive guide to what it really meant for history.
Mr. Taylor, a British historian eminent both as scholar and popularizer, provides a very copious text to match the numerous photographs. Of forthright and independent mind, he writes crisply and pungently. Some time ago, in dealing with the origins of the Second World War, he created public controversy by seeming to suggest that Hitler was not the only party responsible for that disaster. However questionable his judgment there, Mr. Taylor is surely right in showing that the blame for the First World War can, in all historical objectivity, no longer be laid at the door of Germany alone. The image of the rampaging Hun, which inflamed the propagandist imagination at the time, has receded with the smoke of battle. The fault lay with all the chancellors of Europe who, too inept to be the masters of their own destiny, let themselves be submerged by the catastrophe.
Admirable as Mr. Taylor’s text is, the photographs really carry the day. Photography, as a record of battle, was really born in the Crimean and Civil Wars. But wonderful as Brady’s photographs were, they capture only a small part of the War Between the States. It was in the First World War that photography (mostly the still camera) came into its own as a recording instrument of history. For every photograph printed, Mr. Taylor tells us, he rejected ten. The collection that he has assembled here is a vivid reminder of the shadows that, even for those of us who were only to come to know them later in books, hung over the whole of our childhood and youth.
POET AS DIPLOMAT
In the late summer of 1962, Robert Frost went to Russia as a cultural emissary at the suggestion of President Kennedy. Frost was then eighty-eight, but his granitelike constitution was equal to putting up with the ordeal of public appearances, readings, and dinners. He went, moreover, with enthusiasm, fired by the idea of meeting with Khrushchev and getting through a message on a level a little more essential and personal than that of routine diplomacy. Some commentators at the time felt that Frost was being politically naïve and blinded somewhat by his own egotism. Yet the fact is that Khrushchev thought it important enough to make time for a visit and a frank conversation with Frost; and this talk between the poet and politician is the high point of F. D. REEVE’S excellent account of the journey in ROBERT FROSTIN RUSSIA (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $3.95).
Mr. Reeve went along as interpreter; and though he obviously had a boundless devotion to Frost, he does not sentimentalize either the man or the occasion. There were many moments of frustration on the trip, moments when Frost felt the procedures and red tape were foolish. But on the whole he did get through to the Russian people magnificentry. He was a little unsure of how he felt about the young poet Yevtushenko, so voluble and political, but he did feel at home with Russia’s elderly and great poetess Anna Akhmatova. One thing this little book makes abundantly clear is that the Russians take poets very seriously.
In his conversation with Khrushchev, Frost pleaded for a deeper understanding between the two countries. They were necessarily rivals, he said, but their rivalry should be conducted on a level consonant with their own dignity as great powers instead of by constant harassment on minor matters. Later, Khrushchev remarked admiringly of Frost, “He has the soul of a poet.” Some cynics have felt that this is the hardheaded politician dismissing Frost’s words as pure poetical fantasy. But it is unlikely that Frost, as one earthy man to another, did not strike some spark of recognition in this confrontation.