James Joyce spoke of history as a nightmare from which he was trying to awaken. In PEOPLE OF THE BOOK (Putnam, $5.95) DAVID STACTON attempts to prod the nightmare that was the Thirty Years’ War into violent life; and if your stomach is strong enough for murder, pillage, rape, and witchcraft, you will find this novel an altogether engrossing panorama of a strange time and a cruel war.
From 1618 to 1648 Germany was a bleak landscape devastated by contending armies: Swedes, Spaniards, the imperial forces of the Holy Roman Empire, and bands of German princelings. Hordes of people, driven from their homes, swarmed on the roads and hid in the forests. Never again were there to be so many refugees adrift until the wars of this century. What had begun as a religious war turned into a sadistic outburst of carnage for the sake of carnage.
Mr. Stacton lets us see this bloody pageant through the eyes of two children, Lars Larsen and his younger sister, Hannale, who have lost their mother and taken to the roads. As figures of innocence cast adrift in a world of evil, they are doomed to be corrupted and destroyed. Lars becomes a brigand and soldier of fortune, able to kill efficiently and without remorse. In the end, Hannale is raped and killed by soldiers, and Lars impaled upon their pikes.
Mr. Stacton is erudite and scholarly, and he strews his pages with intimate portraits of the historic great: Richelieu, Gustavus Adolphus, Wallenstein, and Hugo Grotius. The “people of the book” referred to in the title are the kings and ministers who constantly cite Grotius’ famous legal treatise, On the Rights of War and Peace, although in reality they follow their own cruel whims, and questions of right or wrong do not govern the actions of their armies. Grotius himself is presented as a thin-blooded rationalist and timeserver. Punctuating scenes of violence with quotations from “the book,” Mr. Stacton weaves a counterpoint around his chief theme: the contrast between the unreal rationalism of the legal mind and the real irrational cruelty of human nature.
The trouble with a nightmare, however, is that it can lose contact with solid reality, and Mr. Stacton’s story tends at times to evaporate into murky fantasy. In a previous novel, Sir William, he had in Nelson, Hamilton, and Emma Hamilton mature and complex, fully documented characters, and he was able to present them as convincingly individual. But here, Lars and Hannale are merely universal boy and girl. And his individual portraits of the great, though done with aphoristic brilliance, are like static pictures from a historical gallery rather than living characters in a novel. When he further stretches nightmarish imagination by introducing a Dr. Faustuslike magician and an eternal-feminine sorceress, he becomes tedious.
Yet despite these faults, this is a novel of unusual and haunting power, evoking a world of the past with all its terrors and complexities. It is not a pretty picture of the human animal that Mr. Stacton presents; but neither was the Thirty Years’ War any cause for cheerfulness about the propensities of human nature.
FREDERICK BUECHNER’S first novel, A Long Day’s Dying, though a remarkable work by a very young writer, was flawed by aestheticism that rang too many precious echoes of Henry James. Now, fourteen years and three novels later, the author’s mood has changed, and the tone of THE FINAL BEAST (Atheneum, $4.50) is religious and moral throughout — so much so at times that he seems almost to be moralizing. Yet it is a fine and moving novel, deeply and quietly felt, even though Mr. Buechner has unnecessarily complicated an essentially simple story.
A young pastor, Theodore Nicolet, has left his small-town flock to bring back a parishioner’s runaway wife. In his absence the gossips have it that he has run away with the woman; and the chief promoter of the gossip is the local newspaper editor, who, patly enough, was himself once involved with the runaway. When the wife returns, followed a few days later by the pastor, order, it would seem, should be restored. But at this point Mr. Buechner proceeds to tie a few more melodramatic knots in his web. Nicolet’s housekeeper, Irma, an old refugee German woman, appears in church in order to confess publicly (and falsely) that she caused the scandalous rumors by feeding them to the press. A young boy, fanatically devoted to the pastor, believes her confession and vows vengeance. During a Fourth of July celebration he sets fire to the house where Irma is hiding, and she perishes.
The ironic moralities here are patent: the gossips of a New Fngland town have been more destructive than the German concentration camps that the old woman had been able to survive; and the destroying instrument is a child who thought he was befriending the man of God.
Mr. Buechner‘s characterization is good enough to make most of his story credible. While most religious characters in fiction are either mawkish or sanctimonious, Nicolet earns our sympathy as a genuine seeker after God. But is it likely that tough old Irma, who had not broken under the Nazis, would succumb to a hysterical and unrealistic neurosis of conscience when it was definitely not needed?
OLD SWEET SONG
If you were at a tender enough age when you first heard HOAGY CARMICHEL‘S “Stardust,” you probably still feel that there has not been a tune like it since. And, just as probably, you will find that his autobiography, SOMETIMES I WONDER (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $5.50), written in collaboration with Stephen Longstreet, evokes the same charm of nostalgia.
Hoagy, who was born and grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, has remained all his life a small-town boy at heart, even though his career as a jazz musician took him through all the big cities. He reminds us that the world into which he was born had no radio, television, or air conditioning; very little indoor plumbing; no airplanes, service stations, frozen food, or atom bombs. Jazz was just coming in, and most white youths learned about it, as Hoagy did, from the stray bands that came to play at fraternity dances. It was then a natural and spontaneous product, always close to song and quite different from the muscle-bound and pompous forms it has sometimes assumed of late. Hoagy kept this oldfashioned quality in his own music.
This old-fashioned streak in his character also protected him against the self-destructive life led by some jazz musicians. The most revealing pages here have to do with Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary hero of early jazz, who died prematurely and tragically because he was unable to match his musical gifts with any ability for self-protection. Much has been written about Bix. and he was the subject of a serious novel, Young Man With a Horn, some years ago; but I doubt that there has been a shrewder and more understanding portrait of the man than the one Hoagy gives us here in his rambling and indirect fashion.
Hoagy Carmichael may not be among the greatest names in the history of jazz, but there was always a wonderfully natural and unforced quality about him both as performer and composer, and he has exactly the same winning quality in telling the story of his life.
ATOMS AND DIPLOMACY
One consequence of the atomic bomb, and perhaps its only favorable one, is that questions of military strategy, which were once hidden in the files of general staffs, have now passed into the public domain and are discussed by civilians. THE GREAT DEBATE (Doubleday, $4.95) is, more than a discussion of nuclear strategies, an illuminating exploration of the changed structure of international relations that atomic weapons have brought with them. RAYMOND ARON is one of the most subtle and astute of political scientists, but he has in addition the intellectual finesse of a true diplomat in being able to see both sides of a question and at the same time maintain them in adroit balance. And since he writes with crisp Gallic clarity, there is a purely aesthetic delight, quite apart from the gravity of the issues themselves, in watching his mind at work.
Americans currently think General de Gaulle is the fly in the ointment of the Western alliance and that his insistence upon an independent nuclear force is preposterous. While vigorously critical of De Gaulle, M. Aron expounds the germs of rationality in the French attitude. As mediator between Europeans and Americans, trying to explain each to the other, his is one of the most valuable voices now in the service of preserving the Atlantic community.
American strategy in relation to Europe is still cast too much in the mold of the years immediately after World War II, when the Western European nations, economically in chaos, were virtually protectorates of the United States. These nations have since grown prosperous and sound, and it is only natural that their feeling of independence should assert itself. But if Americans are thinking of a situation fifteen years ago, French nationalists, M. Aron contends, are not thinking of the situation that may hold fifteen years from now, when China, and perhaps other nations, will have a powerful atomic armament. Possession by the French of an independent national deterrent under such future circumstances would hardly make up for the absence of broader international arrangements and agreements.
M. Aron’s tone is absolutely cool and straightforward, but occasionally he permits himself a touch of very dry humor that is rather devastating. as when he speaks of American and Russian strategists stealing each other’s national games. Chess is the Russian national game, while poker is ours. Yet the American strategy of graduated response and calculated moves is closer to chess, while the Soviet strategy of brandishing the apocalyptic threat and preparing to back down if the bluff is met is more typical of poker. Funny? Yes, if you don’t stop to think that in either of these games the stakes are the lives of us all.
BACK FROM THE DEAD
FATHER WALTER CISZEK, an American priest who has spent twenty-three years in Soviet prisons, including five years at the dread Lubianka prison in Moscow, tells the amazing story of survival in WITH GOD IN RUSSIA (McGraw-Hill, $5.95). Father Ciszek, who truly remarks of himself that he is not much for storytelling, has elected instead to set down the facts in the most simple and straightforward way he can. And baldly factual and unadorned as the telling may be, this is both a human and historical document of compelling interest.
Father Ciszek enlisted for missionary work in Russia after entering the Jesuit order in the 1930s. Assigned to a mission in Poland just before the war, he was captured by the Russians when they overran eastern Poland in 1939 and was shipped eastward as a suspected spy. During the last three of the five years he was held for questioning at Lubianka, the United States and Russia had become allies at war, but this fact seems to have made no difference to his Soviet jailers.
After Lubianka came Siberia and the backbreaking toil in the labor camps under the freezing cold of the Arctic Circle. Here Father Ciszek’s story reads like Solzhenitsyn’s recent novel about the camps, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, except that it was not one day, but day after day for eighteen years. After Stalin‘s death in 1953, conditions in the camps became a little better, but it was not until 1963 that Father Ciszek was returned to this country in exchange for two Russian spies.
During all the time of his imprisonment he never despaired, never wavered in his faith, and, most amazing of all, he does not remember ever having been sick. Father Ciszek may not be much of a storyteller, but his experience itself is powerful enough to stand on its own, and the example of his faith is inspiring enough without literary airs and graces.
ART, SOCIETY, AND MONEY
HAROLD ROSENBERG is among the most brilliant and stimulating of contemporary critics of art, and in THE ANXIOUS OBJECT: ART TODAY AND ITS AUDIENCE (Horizon, $7.00) we have a sample of this vigorous mind at its best, searching for all the meanings, open or hidden, in the thickets of modern art, from abstract expressionism to pop art.
Mr. Rosenberg knows the artists personally, and he is aware of their most secret malaise as well as their deepest ambitions. He has, on the other hand, a mind fertile for generalization, always quick to see the long trend and the remote connection. In his earlier writings he sometimes tended to use intellectual pyrotechnics for their own sake, but his eye is much steadier on the object now and his analyses less flamboyant. These two qualities — closeness to his material and facility with ideas — are, I think, what make his interpretations so rewarding.
Though these essays are varied in scope and subject, there is a singular unity throughout the whole. When Mr. Rosenberg first knew avant-garde artists several decades ago, they were poor, unknown, and without an audience; at present their paintings sell for fabulous prices, they are photographed in the news magazines, and they have an eager, steady, and knowledgeable audience. Yet the anxiety of the artist has only become more subtle and pervasive, Mr. Rosenberg holds, since his struggle with his environment must now be conducted from the inside of society rather than from the catacombs of Bohemia.
Money talks, and perhaps nowhere does it say more about people and their tastes than in the prices they are willing to pay for works of art. In THE ECONOMICS OF TASTE (Holt, $8.50) GERALD REITLINGER has charted, with wry and elegant irony, the rise and fall of the picture market from 1760 to 1960, and some of the fluctuations in taste that he records are almost a subject for high comedy.
At the end of the eighteenth century most of the great fortunes were still based mainly upon land, and it was hard for the rich to raise liquid capital. A price of £5000 for a painting thus represented a far higher sum than even the comparative rates of exchange would suggest. The rise of the business class in the nineteenth century set loose on the market a greater number of potential buyers with ready liquid assets. When, toward the end of the century, the Americans — as yet unhampered by the burdens of the income tax — entered the market, prices soared anew. Since the end of World War II we have been in a period of general inflation, and the art market has been no exception. Mr. Reitlinger, a classicist to the core, turns away with dismay from a situation where thousands of dollars are paid for a painting by an artist who isn’t even “established.”
But the real interest of Mr. Reitlinger’s study lies in the spicy plums of fact he inserts into this larger historical framework. When Claude Lorrain fell on the French market because an impure palette had reduced his paintings to a dingy condition, his prices still held high on the English market where the climate and coal fires had a leveling effect on all canvases. In 1813 a supposed Raphael, really completed by Giulio Romano and much painted over since, fetched a high price because the ornate overpainting fitted in with the tastes of the time.
Yet with all these vagaries and upheavals in the market, there seems at least from the careful charts Mr. Reitlinger appends to his texts some correspondence, over the long haul, between the aesthetic value of a painting and the price it fetched. Is it possible that the virtue of a painter finally triumphs, even in the money market?
SPIES AND SPY CATCHERS
Spy stories have become such a staple of our literary diet that we forget how recent in origin the genre is. Detective stories did not arise, ERIC AMBLER points out in a foreword to a highly diverting collection. TO CATCH A SPY (Atheneum, $4,50), until there were detectives — that is, in the nineteenth century; but spies have been around since the beginning of history. The explanation of the later arrival of the spy story, says Mr. Ambler, is that the spy was held in dishonor until very recent times and thought unfit to be a literary hero. The man who risked life and limb to gather intelligence was associated, by an archaic code of chivalry, with the sneak and the coward. Even today, spies do not get public monuments, though the modern writer has given them an honorable place in fiction.
Mr. Ambler has included fine stories by John Buchan, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Compton MacKenzie, and Somerset Maugham. All hold up well in rereading, and the Maugham story most remarkably. In the Ashenden stories Maugham was drawing upon his own experiences as an intelligence officer in Switzerland during World War I, and in that special role he had a wonderful opportunity for observing some unusual and highly individual human beings.