BY WILLIAM BARRETT
Ever since Flaubert declared “Madame Bovary is myself,” we have come to accept the fact that the novelist’s deepest material often comes out of involvement with his own experience. The selfabsorption in SAUL BELLOW’S HERZOG (Viking, $5.75) will appear excessive to some readers; indeed, at times the author, out of rage and pain, seems to chafe against the restrictions of the novel form altogether. But Mr. Bellow is so magnificently gifted a writer that he successfully brings off the very difficult feat of turning a single character —his hero-inside out in public. The result is a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man, mocking and ironic at times but mostly painful and scorching as a live coal.
Moses Herzog, who has just seen his second marriage break up in divorce, begins to fear for his own sanity; and as a form of defense, to let off the intolerable pressure, he has taken to writing letters —first to his friends, then to famous personalities in the news, and finally to the great and illustrious dead. From this explosive and inchoate beginning, the story takes form backward. We are led through the unfortunate second marriage with Madeleine, an unbearably theatrical and high-strung woman, who turns her already cuckolded husband out of the house. There are flashes of Herzog’s childhood in a Montreal slum: intimate glimpses of Jewish family life at which Mr. Bellow has always excelled but which, to my mind, he has done better now than ever before. At the end there is no rest for the weary hero, as he is about to be taken over by another woman, Ramona, who seems in her own way as balefully masterful as Madeleine. Poor Herzog, it seems, is destined to be a perpetual victim of women.
Mr. Bellow has trained heavy guns on Madeleine. Yet any man who has met the type —and she does exist — will enjoy every drop of acid with which she is drawn. But it is the hero himself who overshadows all the other characters and even his own story. Self-absorbed and selfmocking, Herzog is a web of ambiguities. Though he has played the Don Juan, he is as timidly sensual as Leopold Bloom; he thinks incessantly, but one side of his mind is always jeering at the ideas thrown up by the other; and though thoroughly selfish, he is always offering himself as a victim to help others.
What is most disquieting (and intentionally so) is that the story has no real resolution. The letters which Herzog cannot help writing, whether on paper or in his head, are an excellent device for rendering a mind on the verge of going out of control; but as they go on. they become more lengthy and pedantic, as if Mr. Bellow felt he had to construct some system of ideas to lead him out of the morass. The tags of Marxism from his youth are unsatisfactory, and he scoffs at the currently fashionable slogans of existentialists about suffering and death. Yet this unresolved groping gives the book even more truth as a chronicle of our time, which provides no stable set of values for intellectuals like Herzog. Twenty years ago Mr. Bellow made a splash with his first novel, Dangling Man, a memorable portrait of a young man suspended between the two worlds of war and peace. He has returned now, with immensely more verve and power, to the same semi-autobiographical form and even to a similar theme; but this time his hero dangles at the crossroads between vanished youth and advancing age, and in the torment of Herzog’s memories, a mind as ruthlessly honest as Mr. Bellow’s finds that all the catchphrases of the day are no help, no help at all.
SHAKESPEARE IN MODERN DRESS
It may be some sign of the universality of Shakespeare’s genius that among all the things written on him in the quadricentennial year of his birth the most stimulating and creative interpretation has been done not by an English or American critic but by a Pole, JAN KOTT, in SHAKESPEARE OUR CONTEMPORARY (Doubleday, $4.50).
Of course, every age has seen Shakespeare according to its own lights. David Garrick played him in eighteenth-century costumes; for the Romantics in the nineteenth century he became a spokesman for Romanticism. However, Mr. Kott argues, the historical facts of Shakespeare’s period bring him closer to us than to the more settled world of the previous century. With its wars and civil wars, judicial murders, conspiracies and treacheries, Shakespeare’s time was one of violence and upheaval, like our own; and his plays seen against that background take on a strikingly contemporary quality.
Thus Mr. Kott recommends that the proper understanding of Shakespeare has to begin with the Histories. Too often these plays have been taken as costumed operas, processions of pomp and circumstance having to do with a feudal world very remote from our present. It has been customary, for example, to portray Richard II as a hissing and altogether incredible villain out of old-fashioned melodrama. But for us, who have seen all the murderous excesses of power in Stalin and Hitler, Richard should be quite a believable character, as he was for the Elizabethans.
The most celebrated of the interpretations here is to be found in the chapter “King Lear or Endgame,” which was the basis for the stirring and controversial production by the Royal Shakespeare Company this past season, with Paul Scofield in the title role. Lear has always been the hot potato of the Shakespearean tragedies, and both actors and critics have feared to touch it. Certainly, it violates the norms of usual tragedy, and by all the conventions of realistic theater it hardly makes sense. Mr. Kott draws a parallel with the grotesque play Endgame, by Samuel Beckett, and sees Lear as a portrait of the human condition, as a game of chess which man is condemned to play out against a gigantic computer (fate or an alien universe) that will always defeat him, but which he has to continue to the bitter end.
Shakespeare has always survived his interpreters, and he will surely rise again in another garb for another age. But whether or not we accept all of Mr. Kott’s theories — and they are not all equal in cogency or depth — there can be little doubt that he has written the most provocative and original piece of Shakespearean criticism in decades.
“Of all my Russian books,” VLADIMIR iS NABOKOV remarks in a foreword, “ The Defense [Putnam, $3.00] contains and diffuses the greatest ‘warmth’ ” —a statement so perfectly to the point that one wonders why he should have needed to put the last word in ironic quotation marks. A few years after this novel appeared, Mr. Nabokov began to write in English, and subsequently became an extraordinary master of this alien tongue. But many of his English books, though the work of an impeccable virtuoso, have the cold brilliance of a diamond. By contrast, the Russian books radiate a lyricism and feeling that suggest the warmer glow of a ruby.
The warmth in this novel is all the more remarkable in that the story deals with the game of chess. But a chess game, as Mr. Nabokov describes it, ripples with all the ecstatic melodies of music or rings with the bristling clash of men at arms. Luzhin, the hero, is shaggy and childlike, uncouth but likable, and his is the universal tale of any genius defeated at the hands of life. There is a pathetic, awkward, but tender romance with a young girl who picks him up, mothers and marries him, though his doomed life eventually slips through even her possessive female fingers.
What is most remarkable is the way in which Mr. Nabokov can put himself inside his hero and present the world in the odd shapes it takes before Luzhin’s feverish mind.
The figures on a chessboard become threatening presences. Luzhin tries to escape from them, and he suffers a breakdown. During his recovery he gives up chess altogether. But fate, which seems to have destined his genius in that direction, transposes the moves now to the board of life. People and things around him suddenly loom as attacking forces, against whom Luzhin must rig up a defense. And his last move in the game of self-defense is to hurl himself from a window in suicide.
The history of this book itself is almost enough to have provoked all of the author’s subsequent irony. When it first appeared in 1930, it should have been sufficient to establish Mr. Nabokov immediately as a figure in world letters. Instead, it remained in a small Russian edition, known only to émigré circles. The translation now, by Michael Scammel in collaboration with the author, is as flawless and smooth as if originally created in English. We hope that the collaboration will continue until all of these early works of Mr. Nabokov’s are made available to an English-reading public.
BUSINESS AND BUDGETS
An informed electorate, Thomas Jefferson said, is the only safeguard of democracy; yet probably no other enlightened nation is as much given to myths and slogans on matters of economics as we are. In THE FREE ENTERPRISERS: KENNEDY, JOHNSON
AND THE BUSINESS ESTABLISHMENT (Putnam, $5.95), HOBART ROWEN not only makes a significant contribution toward educating the public in the complexities of modern economics but also provides a very readable, often dramatic, chronicle of the late President’s adventures with the business community.
Despite the label of “anti-business,” President Kennedy, as Mr. Rowen shows, was really by temperament a fiscal conservative and went out of his way to court business. The clash with Big Steel—which is here given the fullest and bestbalanced account that I have yet seen-was not of the President’s own making. After he had exerted considerable pressure on the unions to accept a new contract, Roger Plough of U.S. Steel immediately, announced a jump in prices. Mr. Blough’s later statement that he never gave a formal promise that he would not raise prices seems almost too callow to take seriously. Promise or not, his action amounted to a double cross that would have made the unions panic and imperiled the whole line against inflation. The President was acting in the interests of the economy, while Big Steel, whose motives were really political, was seeking to put the new President to a test.
Mr. Rowen is frequently critical of Kennedy for moving too slowly in his economic program and clinging too tightly to the conventional wisdom of the balanced budget. But here he seems too little aware of the complex political realities faced by the President. Had Kennedy presented himself as a flaming liberal, he would very likely have had less action from Congress than he did. His famous speech at Yale on economic myths — probably the most intelligent address on this subject by any politician in recent years —is still over the heads of most congressmen. Despite all its reservations, the verdict on Kennedy that emerges from Mr. Rowen’s account is that expressed in the words of Budget Director Kermit Gordon: “the best economist who’s ever been president.”
ANTHONY POWELL’S magnificent chronicle of English life between the two wars, A Dance to the Music of Time, now moves smoothly into its second lap. THE VALLEY OF BONES (Little, Brown, $4.50) is the seventh in the projected series of twelve novels, and it carries its narratorhero Nick Jenkins up to the time of Dunkirk and the fall of France in 1940. As befits its middle place in the whole saga, the present volume seems like an interlude and a preparation for what is to come. The dying life of the 1930s is still very much in the atmosphere, and the heroism of the Battle of Britain has not yet begun.
For Nick, at any rate, the war so far is an interlude, and a dull one at that. Too old for active soldiering, he has been sent off to an inglorious regiment quartered first in Wales and then in Northern Ireland. The military life, he discovers, is mainly boredom, and a good soldier is one who can wait in patience. Nick passes the time mostly by keeping a sharp eye on his fellow military, and he discovers in the tiny world of his regiment the same jockeyings for position that he had met in the larger circles of Mayfair and London’s literary bohemia. Whatever its external circumstances, Mr. Powell seems to be saying, human nature goes on with business as usual.
Regimental life, with its constrictions, can also show up the human character in a rather glaring light. Mr. Powell has been justly celebrated as a master of comic understatement, and this quality is elegantly present in The Valley of Bones. But his comedy has also become more broad and grotesque than heretofore, since army life makes men more ridiculous than they usually are. As the novels move on, Mr. Powell looms less as a funnyman and more as a writer of poignant tragicomedy.
Since Nick meets new faces in the army, we are introduced to a whole gallery of fresh characters. The oddest of these odd soldiers is none other than the regimental captain himself, Gwatkin, a fussy and overzealous martinet, who fidgets so about insignificant details that he neglects to pass on the code word of a major operation. Deprived of his command, Gwatkin meets another absurd disaster by falling in love with a barmaid. Hopelessly romantic, he approaches her as delicately as if she were a princess, only to stumble on her one night under a hedge with a common soldier. Gwatkin is too funny for tears, but so grotesque that he is almost painful.
At the end, Nick too has been transferred from the regiment, and he finds himself now at headquarters closer to tfie center of things, under the command of the unspeakable Widmerpool, who always turns up like a bad penny. Here Mr. Powell proceeds to gather the older strands of his story-alliances and misalliances, marriages, divorces, and even children-to bring Nick abreast of a changed world; and so this vast narrative continues to move forward with unbroken monten tum.
Why do IRIS MURDOCH’S novels, good as they are, leave one with an acute feeling of disappointment? THE ITALIAN GIRL (Viking, $4.50) is a good sample of her virtues and failings. Well plotted and well told, the novel in its suspense would do credit to a Hitchcock movie, but in its characterization it fails to be convincing.
Once again Miss Murdoch is working the vein of the old-fashioned Gothic novel, whose setting is a country house full of horrors and mysteries. Edmund Narraway, the hero and narrator, is an artist who has dedicated himself so completely to the craft of engraving that he has severed himself from the world and the flesh, so that he fancies himself almost a saint. But when he visits the family home in the north to attend his mother’s funeral, he is plunged into a whirlpool of untidy passions that he never even dared imagine. His brother Otto, a sculptor, has become a drunkard and is debauching himself with a young lady of the household, Elsa Levkin. Meanwhile, Elsa’s brother David is carrying on with both Otto’s wife and daughter. Poor Edmund has stumbled on a witches’ sabbath.
Amid all this emotional melee, the Italian servant girl, Maria, calmly sits and observes, ready to take Edmund to herself and teach him at last to love. Together, at the end, they are preparing to journey to Italy, where presumably in the land of the sun they will be able to purge themselves of northern mists and Gothic horrors.
Miss Murdoch’s trouble is that she has not made up her mind about either her hero or his story. Edmund Narraway is priggish and self-centered, a ridiculous figure; but we are also supposed to take him and his spiritual adventures seriously. Once before, in A Severed Head, Miss Murdoch attacked the theme of the intellectual cut off from life, but her tone then was a decisive sarcasm. Now her comedy has become so ambiguous that it has practically evaporated. At times she seems to be writing a mocking deadpan parody of the Gothic tale, but mostly she appears grimly serious in offering this tale as a probing psychological study of a character in whom, to tell the truth, there seems little depth to probe.
MAN OF SPIRIT
In his public life the late DAG HAMMARSKJöLD, Secretary-General of the United Nations, was a busy man of affairs. Privately, however, he was a contemplative mystic, a deeply religious man, though belonging to no church, who looked on his own life of public service as an imitation of the cross. MARKINGS (Knopf, $4.95) is the remarkable record left us by this very remarkable man — an intimate journal of reflections, aphorisms, and prayers, in prose and verse, that he jotted down at various moments from 1925 until his death in 1961. Hammarskjöld was also a connoisseur who was at home in the poetry of many tongues, and he himself had an unusual gift for expression. This expressiveness is not lost in the very painstaking and sensitive translation by LEIF SJöBERG and W. H. AUDEN.
Despite his worldly success, Hammarskjöld never succeeded in being a happy man. The marks of a melancholy temperament are plentiful throughout these pages; but because he was sustained by a strong faith, he never succumbed to despair, and his tone is always courageous and heartening. The religious can read this as a devotional book; humanists will appreciate the wisdom and depth of its observations on life. But its appeal to all readers, whatever their persuasion, is best expressed by Mr. Auden in a very fine foreword: the feeling that on finishing this book, “one has had the privilege of being in contact with a great, good, and lovable man.”
MAN OF PARTS
Inside every writer, SEAN Q’FAOLAIN concludes in his delightful autobiography VIVE MOI! (AtlanticLittle, Brown, $6.75), there must remain the young boy who dreamed, questioned, and wondered. Mr. O’Faolain’s performance matches his words, for this story of his life is distinguished not only for its felicitous writing but for the gusto and relish for life that its author and subject, now in his sixth decade, has never ceased to enjoy. His many admirers will find here one more proof of what they have already known: that he is one of the most accomplished all-around men of letters.
Mr. O’Faolain was born and grew up in Cork, Ireland, the third son of a constable. His background might thus be described as shabby genteel, but he was by nature too adventurous and aristocratic a spirit to be confined within such cramping limits. To eke out their modest income, his mother took in theatrical roomers; and as a result, young Sean at an early age became enchanted with the world of the imagination. He was destined then to become a writer, even though it took him many years to embrace his vocation.
For a while he was active as a revolutionary in the Irish war for independence. But like many another Irishman at the time, he felt disappointment at the political conditions that followed independence and vowed to quit his native land. By an amusing quirk of fate, this former foe of England received a British Commonwealth fellowship that enabled him to attend Harvard as a graduate student in literature. Thus a scholarly career seemed to stretch before him, but he had too lively a mind to submit to the drudgery of scholarship. After two years of friendly jousting with Harvard and philology he decided: (a) to become a writer, (b) to marry the girl he loved, (c) to return to his native Ireland. And it would seem that he made the right choice in all three matters.
Beyond its great charm as autobiography, this book is a moving statement of Mr. O’Faolain’s credo as a writer; and I know no recent work that could be more helpful to the aspiring author as a guide through the toil and trouble of the literary life.
UNDERSTANDING THE ITALIANS
Visitors to Italy, enchanted with its atmosphere, think of Italians as masters of the art of life, as in one sense they surely are. Yet underneath this glittering surface, according to LUIGI BARZINI in THE ITALIANS (Atheneum, $6.95), Italian life is marked by a sadness and bitterness beyond that of most other European peoples.
Mr. Barzini is a prominent journalist who has spent many years abroad and who, because of his liberal politics, suffered at the bands of the fascists. He writes now in sorrow and anger, and his unsparing candor may be a shock to many of his fellow countrymen as well as a chastening illumination to some of our more superficial Italophiles. the Italians, who have given to the world so many individual geniuses in all fields and have persistently charmed foreigners by their style and vivacity, have shown themselves singularly inept at mastering their own political destinies. Complaints against the disunity and impotence of Italy go back as far as Dante and Machiavelli. The causes assigned were the rivalries of petty despots and the papal power, which did not wish to face a united secular regime and so played off faction against faction. These excuses, says Mr. Barzini, will no longer do. The cause lies deeper, in the character of the people themselves, who have shown great adaptability in putting up with suffering but little practical skill or will to change the conditions which bring about that suffering.
Mr. Barzini ranges over Italian history from Cola di Rienzi to Mussolini, producing vivid and telling comment all along the way. That a book so ruthlessly self-searching and honest could be written by an Italian now living in his own country may be a sign that the Italians have ali ready taken a step beyond those ancient habits of charming self-complacency that Mr. Barzini deplores.