BY PHOEBE ADAMS
JULIAN GREEN’S DIARY 1928-1957 (Harcourt, Brace & World, $6.50) probably deserves a more sympathetic reviewer. A considerable and important portion of the book is essentially the lament of a would-be religious mystic. Since the little I have read by and about mystics has left me with the impression that their experiences involve the camouflage of erotic impulses through unacknowledged self-hypnotism, I am incapable of taking Mr. Green’s alternating delights and despairs with proper concern.
Mr. Green’s longing for absorption into a divine unconsciousness is, however, a perfectly logical element in the character revealed by these extracts from his diaries. (That word “extracts” is bothersome, too; one wonders whether KURT WOLFF, editing the project, has omitted whole aspects and subplots, or merely avoided repetition.) Mr. Green was born in Paris to a family of expatriate Virginians, who guarded him so successfully from knowledge of the vile world that he was nearly twenty when he became aware that human beings do not, as he had previously supposed, couple merely once a year like cattle. The education that produced this remarkable ignorance must have omitted a great many other simple truths as well, all of which presumably caught up with Mr. Green at once, when he was shipped back to the United States to go to college. It was undoubtedly a painful and disconcerting experience, particularly for a young man inclined to equate ignorance with innocence.
The diary, begun in the author’s late twenties, when he was back in Paris as a friend of Andre Gide and an established figure in the French literary world, harps continually on the joys of his childhood, which are recalled to him by sounds, smells, the angle of a sunbeam, even the quality of a breeze. They are always solitary joys, involving no action, no other people, no thought — in short, those moments of brainless delight which are known, I believe, to most children. Mr. Green seems never to have realized that his boyhood pleasures were not a unique glimpse of Nirvana. He spent much thought throughout his life on religious, ethical, and philosophical schemes to retrieve, at least briefly, that lost juvenile paradise. His efforts were handicapped by sexual inclinations which one must assume were unorthodox, since he never admits the possibility of satisfying them inside religious or secular law. In short, Mr. Green had a number of good reasons for disliking the world and seeking to avoid it, and religion was one of his many lines of defense, not against reality, but against taking any action about reality.
Aside from the nostalgic passages in which Mr. Green yearns for his childhood, the eighteenth century, or the medieval grace of iron clothing (that is not fair; the swish of medieval monks’ habits is what he really misses), the diary covers numerous meetings with Andre Gide and conversations that usually turn out to be about Mr. Green’s novels or his spiritual progress. There is a brief sketch of Gertrude Stein, exceptionally vivid because she did not talk about Mr. Green’s affairs. There are meetings with Louis Jouvet about a play, and attendance at a couple of public speeches by Camus.
There is also a certain amount of literary comment, of interest chiefly because it illustrates the extreme subjectivity of Mr. Green’s opinions. For all his romantic love of the past, it never occurred to him to consider a piece of writing in the context of the author’s own period and experiences. He is shocked when Hawthorne, whose novels he admires, turns prissy provincial in an Italian museum, and he attributes Dotheboys Hall to “Dickens5 taste for cruelty.” Constantly complaining of his own inability to tell the whole truth about his life in public, he attributes cowardly suppression of fact to almost every novelist he encounters. Conrad, for example, should have announced flatly that Almayer wanted to sleep with his daughter—a maneuver which in fact would require a different Almayer, a different Conrad, and a different book. Incidentally, the only woman Mr. Green ever mentions with affection (Gertrude Stein, a public monument, excepted) or describes in any way is his own mother.
The amazing thing about this diary is that its timid, guilt-ridden, foggy-visioned, sentimental author also wrote a number of eerily distinguished novels. How on earth did this poor fidgety misfit translate his various bogeys into works of art? The diary provides no bridge. The only clue is the diary’s revelation that he took his writing with great seriousness. But then, he took everything with great seriousness.
THE MYSTERY OF WILL
LESLIE HOTSON, whose scholarly career began with the discovery of the truth about Christopher Marlowe’s death, has been working for some years on Shakespeare’s sonnets. In MR. W. H. (Knopf, $6.95) he offers his findings, supported hyoid documents, cryptography, historical probability, and the ghost of Sherlock Holmes.
Since the lost identity of the friend and the mistress of whom Shakespeare wrote has aggravated scholars for centuries, it is to be hoped that Dr. Hotson’s solution of the problem will be accepted. Given the suspicious nature of scholars, however, not to mention the chronic need of thesis subjects, this is extremely unlikely. Dr. Hotson has amassed a great deal of circumstantial evidence, a very good argument for the possibility he puts forward. He hasn’t found a thing that is the equivalent of a reliable eyewitness to the crime.
As far as the quality of the poetry is concerned, it doesn’t matter a farthing whether Mr. W. H. was Will Hawk or Will Handsaw, and never has. The date at which the sonnets were composed does matter, though, because of the probability that certain ambiguous or even meaningless phrases are topical references which were perfectly clear to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Dr. Hotson begins with the date, which he sets at 1588-1589. His reasons, boiled down, are marvelously simple and, to me, absolutely convincing.
Elizabethan sonneteers were all young men - under thirty, and for the most part, under twenty-five; there was a considerable outbreak of sonnet-writing in the eighties; in 1588 Shakespeare was twenty-five and should have been writing sonnets if he was ever going to. To assume that he did it later is to assume a bad case of cultural and fashionable lag. Dr. Hotson refuses to consider such a possibility on the basis of Shakespeare’s whole career, which is that of an exceptionally bright, quick-witted, resourceful fellow with an acute understanding of public taste. As to all those gray hairs and “bare ruin’d choirs,” Dr. Hotson proves by quotation that a pretense of old age was part of the Elizabethan sonneteer’s uniform. The younger the poet, the more advanced and piteous the state of his professed decrepitude.
Starting, then, with the year 1588, Dr. Hotson briskly locates his man —young Will Hatcliffe of Lincolnshire, who would have been much in the public eye as Christinas Lord of Misrule at one of the Inns of Court. The reconstruction of the pageantry and festivity staged in these places is fascinating and worth the while of anyone with a taste for picturesque minor history. All the crossword-puzzle work with the name Hatcliffe (and Morgan, for the disreputable Luce) is stuff for impassioned specialists. On the other hand, Dr. Hotson’s dissection of a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard is a dazzling lesson in what can be read into visual symbols and probably was by an Elizabethan aesthete.
MATRON AT WORK
A MOTHER’S KISSELS (Simon and Schuster, $4.95) is the second novel by BRUCE JAY FRIEDMAN, author of Stern. Second novels are traditionally a letdown; this one is.
It starts out with the inchoate discomforts of Joseph, a youth of seventeen with an inept hankering for girls and no college lined up for the fall. Then, presumably because Joseph isn’t very interesting, it shifts over to his mother, Meg. This woman is a caricature that makes Dickens’ wildest inventions look delicate; blabbermouthed, overconfident, puppyish, bullying, she shoves her long-since-exhausted son into one disaster after another, culminating in entrance to Kansas Land Grant Agricultural, where her attempts to get Joseph socially established finally bring on rebellion.
All of this is intended, I gather, as an extreme and comic portrayal of a matron whose possessive instincts verge on active incest. A funny horror story. But Meg is too wildly exaggerated in too many different directions. She keeps canceling herself out and becomes, eventually, merely tiresome.
Some of the minor figures, particularly the parade of absurd youths at a summer camp and at the college, are really funny, and the style has throughout a nervous, cracklingvitality which creates an illusion of action even when nothing much is going on.
THE MAKING OF A MUSKETEER
D’ARTAGNAN (Houghton Mifflin, $3.95), by GEOFFRY HALE and JOAN SANDERS, is a biography of a man who deserves the attention only because Alexandre Dumas used his name in a novel. Only it wasn’t properly his name. The family started as de Batz, and after several generations of canny marriages, achieved de Batz-Castelmore, which entitled one Bertrand to the hand of a lady of the far more illustrious house of de Montesquiou-d’Artagnan. Their sons, off to make careers in Paris, incontinently dropped the paternal name and called themselves d’Artagnan.
Not enough has survived about Charles d’Artagnan to permit Mr. Hall and Miss Sanders to write a really interesting biography. What they have written, with considerable charm, is a series of sketches of politics and war in seventeenth-century France. One learns quite a lot about the history and duties of the Musketeers, a bit about the Fronde uprising, rather too much about the Sun King’s methods of handling political prisoners, and finishes with part of a campaign in the Low Countries.
As dutiful soldier, sporadic spy, confidential courier, and tactful jailer of distinguished persons, d’Artagnan the Real had a recorded part in all these affairs. Recorded, but not definite. The authors have found nothing in the archives that hints at a distinct personality, and their occasional interpolations of fragments from the adventures of d’Artagnan the False are the liveliest things in the book. In his own field, Alexandre Dumas is still unbeatable.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
DIE NOW, PAY LATER (Harber Card Co., $1.00) is a savage little paperback, full of macabre cartoons by JACK DAVIS, the whole affair compiled by HAROLD MEYERS. It is subtitled “You Don’t Have To Take All That Crepe From The Undertakers” and includes, among other protective devices, thirteen elegant ways to commit suicide. Mr. Davis has a great gift for the ludicrous portrayal of misplaced self-satisfaction and manages to get in digs at various worthy side issues like horror movies and youths with guitars.
O STRANGE NEW WORLD (Viking, $8.50) is the first of two volumes in which HOWARD MUMFOHD JONES proposes to trace the development of culture in the United States. What interests Professor Jones is not the inevitable transplanting of European cultures, but the changes that took place in what was transplanted. He is attempting to discover a pattern of change, the shift in method and point of view that makes our society American rather than colonial European, and the reasons for this change.
This is a large project, and how Professor Jones will finally develop it is his secret. The present book, subtitled “The Formative Years,” stops at some undetermined point between Jackson’s Administration and the Civil War. It begins with Atlantis, however.
Professor [ones has collected preColumbian European ideas about land to the West, and finds there were a great many of them, almost all tinged with the notion of a magical wealth and perfection. He observes that, given the period at which America was discovered, exploration of the new territory fell inevitably to men who had either studied or unconsciously absorbed the Machiavellian principles of expediency, independence, and ruthlessness. He traces these two principles — the dream of something better and the practice of personal power - through the whole colonial development of the country, connecting people as superficially unrelated as Henry Morgan and Sam Adams.
We have never been a law-abiding nation; reading Professor Jones’s carefully documented record of highminded anarchy and philosophical piracy, one can only marvel that we are no worse.
THE EARTHQUAKE PATH
WHEN THE EARTH TREMBLES (Harcourt. Brace & World, $4.95) is a most useful and informative book about earthquakes. HAROUN TAZIEFF, the author, is a geologist specializing in volcanoes, and therefore, since the two often flourish in conjunction. earthquakes.
Having announced firmly that no scientist can as yet be positive about the cause of earthquakes, Mr. Tazieff goes on to explain all that is known about them. He makes his necessarily technical information comprehensible to the nongeologist, illustrates it with maps and charts which show the great networks of earthquake routes that swoop around the globe, and enlivens his text with unscientific humors and furies. He is particularly enraged by people who build flimsy towns on top of fault lines, a thing that has happened surprisingly often.
Along with much other quotation from earthquake survivors, the book includes a reminiscence by Lieutenant L. C. Billings of the U. S. Navy’s Wateree, the only ship to survive the earthquake and tidal wave that destroyed the Peruvian (now Chilean) port of Arica in 1868. Billings was a credit to his service; he watched the whole mad rise and fall and rise of the water, the smashing of ships, the engulfing of the town, and seems never to have missed a detail. Then he wrote an account of it that is precise, lucid, unemotional, and terrifying.
A NEW O. HENRY
THE BLESSINGTON METHOD (Random House, $3.95) is a collection of short stories by STANLEY ELLIN. They are rightly called “strange tales,” for all of them are about bizarre, illegal, and sometimes violent affairs far outside the bounds of ordinary experience. Not that Mr. Ellin writes of ghosts and devils; his ghosts are merely arrangements of circumstance, and Beelzebub is a little man in a frayed business suit, carrying a briefcase.
The hair-raising story with a trick ending was very popular sixty years ago. It was developed and practiced with such ingenuity that there has been nothing new to do with it since, and anybody with a good memory and a wide reading in the genre can pretty certainly foretell how any new example is going to turn out. I mean it as sincere praise, offered with respect, when I report that three of Mr. Ellin’s stories surprised me quite thoroughly.