THE HOLY LAND (Random House, $3.95) is the latest and presumably the last of the series of novels in which PÄR LAGERKVIST represents human life as a mysteriously inspired pilgrimage to an incomprehensible destination. That the destination should finally be revealed as meaningless is no surprise; this conclusion has been implicit from the start in Mr. Lagerkvist’s cold, simplified, crystalline symbolism. His style, stripped of all inessentials, matches the frosty elegance of his thought. One may object, on realistic grounds, that humor and even pleasure are not unknown to mankind, but Mr. Lagerkvist is not a realist. He is part poet and part Euclid, and there is no denying the logic of his vision or the power with which he presents it.
ANN BIRSTEIN’S novel THE SWEET BIRDS OF GORHAM (McKay, $3.95) is a demurely malicious account of the collision between an authoress mad about men and the college of Gorham, mad on all counts. Miss Birstein writes wittily, revealing a large acquaintance with bizarre academic fauna and a nice willingness to share her information.
DAN WAKEFIELD is an unusually perceptive reporter, and his book BETWEEN THE LINES (New American Library, $5.95) contains material he left out of various news stories, along with his doubts about the whole official system of news coverage. Practical, original, amusing in its suggestions, the book includes one satirical paragraph on the actual fact underlying a generalized omniscient news report which is as true and as devastating a criticism of the press as I have ever read.
A VERY EASY DEATH (Putnam, $3.95) is SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR’S account of the death of her mother. It is interminably detailed — the reader gets a full account of every one of the poor lady’s distressing symptoms — and it raises the question of the desirability of treatment to prolong life when recovery is impossible. Since Miss De Beauvoir does not know exactly when recovery was discovered to be impossible, she cannot answer her own question and does not seriously try to do so. Which raises the question of why the book was written at all, except as a substitute for filial grief, an emotion that the author professes but never makes believable.
When William of Normandy won the crown of England at the battle of Hastings, he settled a family squabble over the property that had gone on for generations. The ninehundredth anniversary of this affair has aroused a certain amount of attention and, so far, three books: THE MAKING OF THE KING: 1066 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $6.00) by ALAN LLOYD; 1066: THE STORY OF A YEAR (Putnam, $5.95) by DENIS BUTLER; and THE CONQUEST OF ENGLAND (Doubleday, $5.95) by ERIC LINKLATER. They differ little about plain fact but considerably in manner and emphasis. Mr. Lloyd assumes that King Harold Godwinson of England was seriously alarmed at breaking his oath to support William’s claim to the succession. Mr. Linklater believes that since the oath was taken under duress, Harold’s concern would have been minimal. Mr. Butler declines to speculate, on the grounds that the truth of Harold’s attitude is now unknowable. Of the three, Mr. Lloyd’s book is the quickest reading, being in fact close to journalese in its resolute simplification of the past. Mr. Butler fills in much picturesque background concerning the habits of the time, examines neglected figures like the wily churchman Stigand and the troublesome Tostig Godwinson, and includes helpful genealogical charts. Mr. Linklater considers Hastings as the culmination of a Scandinavian assault on England that began as early as the eighth century, took formal shape in Ragnar Lodbrok’s time, failed briefly with the early death of King Knut, and finally succeeded under the half-Scandinavian William. William had the advantage of attacking on the heels of his distant kinsman Harald Hardrada of Norway, who had just as good a claim to the English crown but at Stamford Bridge failed bloodily to make it good. The Conquest of England is the most comprehensive, informative, and interesting of these three histories by nonprofessional historians, but it is not the easiest reading precisely because Mr. Linklater’s explorations range far beyond England and the year 1066.