BIRDS OF THE NORTHERN FOREST
(Houghton Mifflin, $20.00) is the bird book for people who detect a whiff of necrophilic melodrama in Audubon. The fifty-six paintings by the Canadian watercolorist J. F. LANSDOWNE record not only color but structure, volume, texture, characteristic motion, and, particularly in the case of the utterly enchanting owls, degree of fluff. In addition to the colorplates, each bird is represented by a page of black and white sketches which prove that Mr. Lansdowne has spent a great deal of time watching his subjects fly, perch, hop, scratch, and study inquisitive artists. The text by the naturalist John A. Livingston is informative and often amusing.
Ignoring the experimental, the symbolic, the Freudian, the non, and all other fashionable inventions in the construction of novels, FRANçOISE SAGAN continues to write with eighteenth-century directness about the foolish way people act, usually because they are, or think they are, in love. There is something heroically unpretentious about Miss Sagan’s methods. She depends upon a few characters, a few brilliantly evocative details, and a flatly unemotional tone to create a world and arouse the reader’s interest in it. In LA CHAMADE (Dutton, S3.95) she succeeds even better than normally in making a small object cast a long shadow. Her heroine is an amiable, pliable, totally selfish grown-up child whose attempt to behave as the world tells her a young woman naturally ought to behave comes, predictably, to nothing. The end of the story is inevitable from the beginning, but as long as Lucile struggles with the shackles imposed by her own nature, one reads with fascination. What is more, although Miss Sagan is never to be caught openly encouraging anything so dreary, one thinks — mainly about what one has previously failed to observe of the incorrigible, selffrustrating, infinitely ingenious cantankerousness of humanity.
JEAN RENOIR’S THE NOTEBOOKS OF CAPTAIN GEORGES (Little, Brown, S5.95) is another novel about a love affair, also translated from French. The author’s elegant memoir of his father, Auguste Renoir, has little relation to this fiction. The novel is certainly not parody, or even pastiche, yet the story of love between a young aristocrat and an angelic prostitute back in 1914 hardly seems an independent work. It occurs to me that it is a Colette novel written from the masculine point of view, which permits the introduction of amusing and scruffy descriptions of life in a smart cavalry regiment. This side of the tale turns out to be pure P. C. Wren. In short, it is not possible to take The Notebooks of Captain Georges quite seriously, but it is easily possible to enjoy it.
J. I. M, STEWART, a professor in the English literature department at Oxford, and as Michael Innes, an author of mystery stories, has presumably been hampered in writing RUDYARD KIPLING (Dodd, Mead, $5.00) by the fact that surviving members of Kipling’s family still control certain information. Not that the book, a study of Kipling’s life and writing, is unsuccessful. It is very thorough indeed in relating the subject matter of Kipling’s early, most popular work to his actual experiences. It is less thorough in dealing with the later stories, many of them preoccupied with supernatural themes and abnormal states of mind. Mr. Stewart mentions the fact that Kipling’s sister became a medium and a practitioner of automatic writing, and was eventually the victim of some sort of mental illness. There seems to be a connection between these points and Kipling’s late fiction, but Mr. Stewart waltzes around the question as lightly as Mrs. Hauksbee at a Simla ball.
THE CITY AND THE ISLAND (Atheneum, $4.50 and $1.95) is the second book of poems by PETER DAVISON, whose first was The Breaking of the Day. Expertly made, varied in technique, superficially concerned with topics ranging from an eclipse of the sun to misfiled papers, the poems are in fact all part of an examination of the differences between the public world and the private one. The island is a protean territory, shifting from individual imagination to the practice of art to the general graveyard of history; it is always lonely and sometimes terrifying. The city is no less alarming but not so chameleon in habit. Between the two, “the sea never stops/Gulping and nibbling.” Both city and island are full of unexpected images and meanings that turn into other meanings, unforeseeable until Mr. Davison casually lifts a rug or a rock. When the two worlds meet, in “Lunch at the Coq D’or,” there is a sputter of ironic comedy:
Another round for us. It’s good to work
With such a man. “Purdy,” I hear mvself,
“It s good to work with you.” I raise
My arm. feathery in the dim light, and extend
Until the end of it brushes his padded shoulder.
“Purdy, how are you? How you doodle do?”
THE BOOK OF SNOBS (Coward-McCann, $4.00), written by the Duke of Bedford in collaboration with George Mikes, turns out to be a spoof of traditional social nonsense, and some of it is very funny. Its defect is the presence of too much padding between the impertinences.
ON THE GREEK STYLE (AtlanticLittle, Brown, S5.95) is a selection from the essays of the Nobel Prize winner GEORGE SEFERIS, translated by Rex Warner and Th. D. Frangopoulos. The pieces are described as “in poetry and Hellenism,” but the subjects are more diverse than this phrase implies. Mr. Seferis is a poet who writes evasively of his own work, but penetratingly of the poet’s craft and purpose when he examines the use of history by T. S. Eliot and Cavafy. He discusses Hellenism in terms of individuals, men like the painter Theophilos, a primitive eccentric with a powerful vision, and Makryannis, hero of the war of independence and later leader of demands for constitutional reform. Makryannis was an illiterate who learned to write in order to record the truth of his wars and to explain “that this country of ours belongs to all of us, learned and ignorant, rich and poor, politicians and soldiers, even the least of the people.” Mr. Seferis: admires the old hero profoundly. and when he writes of Hellenism, has in mind a body of ideas with the flexibility and accessibility implied in Makryannis’ concept of Greece. “But what most of our critics do,” Mr. Seferis complains, “is simply to create a state of personal litigation between the public and the work of art. . .”It is not intellect that Mr. Seferis distrusts, but intellectual snobbery.