The Peripatetic Reviewer
BY EDWARD WEEKS
FATHERS SO often want their sons to be the realization of what they have dreamed of for themselves, and so often the sons fail to comply. My father, in his early manhood, had been a tall string bean, given to fancy waistcoats and suits of broad stripes which caused his sisters-in-law to refer to “Eddy’s shouting clothes.” At Pingry he had played a porous second base, which was the closest he ever came to athletic distinction. He was quick-tempered, and very inept with any tool, but he was a master designer and salesman of cotton fabrics, a witty end man in the annual minstrel shows at the country club, and a charming host. For me, the eldest of his six children, he had big ideas, yet as I was the smallest boy in my class straight through school and halfway through college — when I pulled out for the war — I could never fulfill his expectations, which I am sure was a cause for regret on both sides. He kept hoping that, like a mushroom, overnight I might somehow and suddenly grow into a plunging halfback or at least a fleet quarter-miler. Indeed, my nose and ears gave promise that this might happen, for they were standard equipment for a six-footer, but the rest of me was a coxswain, and it was Dad’s bad luck that not until the summer of Verdun when I was in the French Army and far beyond his personal observation did I actually begin to sprout.
Does a boy mature faster when favored by parental approval, or when he has to bite on the granite of his father’s misgiving? Musicians and other prodigies would probably testify to the former, but I suspect it is the lot of us common folk to come slowly to self-confidence, moving obliquely and usually in despite of our father’s wishes. We know what he wants, but nature by some perversity has made it difficult or impossible for us to please him. We have to go our own way at our own pace, and in the contest between a father’s aspiration and a son’s groping lies the making of stories which only a few like Samuel Butler have unlocked.
In the recapture of boyhood which forms the substance of the opening stories in CHILDREN AND OTHERS (Harcourt, Brace & World, $5.95), JAMES GOULD COZZENS has been remarkably successful in depicting the light years which separate a boy’s world from that of the grown-ups. The stories are told from the point of view of the boy, and what makes them so fresh is Mr. Cozzens’ ability to catch the novelty of experience, the impressionable details of the summer courtship, for instance, which John, age nine, detects between Fred Savage, the middle-aged composer, and young Laura Willis, on whom John himself has a crush. John’s father is a man of stern nature, and in his company the boy is hypersensitive; when taken to see his grandfather, who has just lost his shirt in the stock market, it is the boy who perceives the sadness and futility of old age and who bursts into tears at what he cannot explain. He is horrified by the way his father drives (“he drove as badly as most people who had grown up before there were cars to drive”), and when his father reprimands him for his low marks, John’s defense is so infuriating that only Mother’s intervention prevents a thrashing. What gives these stories their insight and delight is the boy’s frank view of the adult world, and when John inadvertently becomes the listener at a private supper party which his father on the spur of the moment gives to one of his old girls, the picture of the past which John infers from their talk is as shrewd as it is funny.
Children and Others is divided into five parts, and in the second, the spotlight shifts to a school which might be Kent and to the feuds and persecutions little different from the days of Stalky and Company between a bright boy like Benson Smith — known as Smith III — and Dr. Holt the headmaster, whose unalterable pledge was that he would never expel a boy when enraged. Smith III taxes this resolve to the utmost in his offbounds attention to Mrs. Delancey, and the chastisement he receives leaves him with the quiet confidence that in the years to come he will revenge himself on Dr. Holt. Many a private in the war felt this way about his top sergeant, but when the time comes for the payoff, revenge, as we all know, is easily disarmed.
Then come two sections, War Between the States and Love and Kisses, about the seniors who are leaving to enlist in 1917; and in the last, Eyes to See, Mr. Cozzens is concerned with those who are finding themselves in early maturity. These stories were written over a period of twenty-four years, and in their sequence they deal shrewdly and sympathetically with what we think of as normal Americans. The neuroses which we associate with Salinger and Mailer do not cry aloud in these pages, although the causes for grief and the sting of defeat are here to be felt. I admire Mr. Cozzens for the power of his characterization, for the subtlety with which his sympathy lights up the ancient conflict between the old and young, and for the value which he places on integrity.
RUSSIA AND THE GRAND DESIGN
At the behest of the late Ted Patrick, the editor of Holiday, Colonel LAURENS VAN DER POST recently undertook the longest single journey throughout the Soviet Union by someone not a Communist. His qualifications for such a survey were his previous experiences as a native-born traveler throughout Africa and in Japan, his campaign and captivity in Southeast Asia, his reading and listening knowledge of Russian, his reputation for calm-minded assessment and a facility for description secured by his earlier and brilliant book Venture to the Interior. His new findings, so agreeably and penetratingly recorded in A VIEW OF ALL THE RUSSIAS (Morrow, $5.95), make this the most reasonable and comprehensive contemporary account of the Soviet Union in English.
An inquiring and sympathetic conversationalist who never hesitates to be downright, Colonel Van der Post seized upon any chance encounter — and there were many — as the possibility for a meeting of minds. On the long flight from Moscow to Alma-Ata, he ran into the implacable line of propaganda, as he so often did; but one of the three Russians confronting him was a mature scientist who knew America well, and while the others slept, he and the Colonel exchanged views about the power of people to control their rulers; about one of the Colonel’s favorite proverbs: “All men tend to become the thing they oppose” (“I believe we have just escaped that kind of tyranny in the Soviet Union,” said the Russian); and about the vastness and beauty of Russia, in words of singular candor.
In relaxed yet critical talks such as he had with the African and South American graduate students in Tashkent, he found the same reciprocity, and on numberless occasions his firmness in dealing with the “love-hate emotion” which Russians have for America resulted in telling disclosures of prejudice and curiosity. Whenever he brought up the subject of the Russian empire and the satellites, he was quick to detect the unease which followed however brief an allusion to Hungary.
His comments on the human responses to the Soviet system are full of juice. He went to see the circus in every capital he visited, and he tells of the release which it affords the Russian people in the clowning and the “togetherness” and in their universal love for animals. He is constantly depressed by the imposed, stunning uniformity of the architecture. He compares the factory conditions under which the women work at the great cotton mills of Tashkent with those which are so much more favorable in Lancashire or Osaka. He attends English classes in the boarding schools and notices the aptitude the students have for linguistics and for the sound of a foreign tongue, and when he discovers that they are reading aloud from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and from Dickens, he explains to the professor, in the presence of the class, that they would be laughed at if they spoke that way today. “Why?” asked the professor. “Because” said the Colonel, “that manner of speaking and living went out of existence more than one hundred years ago.”
Throughout the book, he is fitting together, link by link, the grand design. He notes that Tashkent is to be the control center of the empire in Russian Asia. He notes in careful detail the training of the Young Pioneers, of whom today there are more than forty million. He notes the astronomical number of boarding schools, increasing each year, which strip the child from the parents’ influence, instill an unquestioning obedience to the State, and which are Khrushchev’s way of avoiding juvenile delinquency. He notes the new world of mines and industries in the Don Basin, which make the Ruhr or the Black Country of England miniature by comparison, and which, he says, in time to come may give Russia the industrial supremacy it is seeking. He notes the almost universal assumption that Soviet values are absolute, and the pernicious anemia of art for the masses. And in the finest descriptive passage of the book, he finds himself exhausted and appalled by the power and regimentation of the May Day celebrations, in which 700,000 participated in Kharkov. This is a book to be read slowly, with fascination, and to be remembered.