by Phoebe Adams
When an author has won a Nobel Prize, it is not unsafe to assume that his work is imbued with high seriousness and earnest purpose, for the Nobel committee has never shown much affection for comedians. The Icelander HALLDOR LAXNESS comes, therefore, as a delightful lapse from tradition. His novel THE FISH CAN SING (Crowell, $5.95) simmers with an ironic, disrespectful mirth which gives unexpected dimensions to the themes of lost innocence and the nature of art. These
themes are sober enough, but as Mr. Laxncss develops them through the experiences of young Alfgrim Reykjavik at the start of the century, they lead to such memorable absurdities as the reincarnated princess and the magician whose clothes are abruptly borrowed, leaving him “in the wings wearing nothing but his underpants and holding his doves and top hat.”
Iceland was a Danish colony in those days, and Mr. Laxness has great deal of fun with provincial imitations of Copenhagen manners. Young Gudmunsen (the spelling fashionably Danicized) makes speech bedizened with random French, irrelevant German, and preposterous Latin, and is interrupted at intervals by his father, Old Gudmundsson, setting the facts straight with true Icelandic bluntness. The basis of Mr. Laxness’ style is in fact Icelandic bluntness, which is not bluntness at all but a literary technique that goes right back to the sagas. It involves an artful, calculated, and even devious arrangement of what appear to be mere surface details, which by their juxtaposition produce meanings and emotional responses that are never mentioned in the understated text. And Icelandic understatement would outdo a Vermonter. How things looked, what was done, and what was said are almost the entire substance of The Fish Can Sing. Toward the end, when discussion of the position and reward of the artist becomes too complicated for Alfgrim’s wide-eyed bumpkin pitch, Mr. Laxness emerges briefly and warily from behind the mask, but until that point, reflection, explanation, and analysis are rigorously avoided. Nor are they missed. There is no need for Alfgrim to label Thord the Baptist a nut when he can “remember walking past him down at the harbor one evening in a northerly gale of rain and fog, while he was preaching with great force and conviction at some wheelbarrows. . . .”
JULIAN HUXLEY’S FROM AN ANTIQUE LAND (Harper & Row, $8.95) records observations and opinions formed during several journeys in the Middle East, Egypt, and Crete. Early in the book, one finds a description of a promontory on the coast road from Beirut to Byblos, a turn so nasty that every army that ever negotiated it saw fit to inscribe the fact on the cliffs. The names Mr. Huxley lists from this rock pile are Rameses II, Napoleon III, Nebuchadnezzar, Allenby, Tiglath-Pileser III, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, Marcus Aurelius, Caracalla, and Selim I. The order is Mr. Huxley’s, and tells a good deal about his book. He is prepared to consider, knowledgeably, the whole long and astonishing development of the region, plus its birds, animals, geological structure, unlikely visitors, ruins, buildings, waterworks, literature, and current problems, but he will not be bound by chronology or by anyone’s formal historical theory, least of all the pessimistic views of Toynbee, which irritate him.
MRS. SATAN (Putnam, $5.95) is an amusing biography of Victoria C. Woodhull, written by JOHANNA JOHNSTON in a tone of scholarly amazement tinged with incredulity. Victoria was the woman who, in the 1870s, became a Wail Street broker, ran for President of the United States, addressed Congress on women’s rights to great applause, edited a liberal magazine with scandal sheet appurtenances, lectured all around the country, advocated free love, got herself entangled in spiritualism, and survived innumerable legal scuffles. She also exploded the Henry Ward Beecher scandal (the reverend gentleman had seduced a lady of his rich and stuffy congregation), probably because one of his sisters was rude to her. She was a beauty and a terror, and her garrulous sister Tennessee was worse. They both married eventually in England and died surprisingly recently in circumstances of the utmost respectability. Miss Johnston is plainly not certain whether her subject was a genius or a lunatic, which is hardly surprising since one of Victoria’s later lovers was never certain she could really read or write. It is unfortunate that this gentleman died before anyone thought to ask him about spectacles.
PAMELA HANSFORD JOHNSON’S ON INIQUITY (Scribner’s, $3.95) arose from her attendance at the Moors murder trial. The accused were one Brady and his mistress, who were convicted of killing a youth of seventeen and two children for no reason but sadistic amusement. They were a genuinely horrible pair, and Miss Johnson’s revulsion from the whole affair has driven her into the quagmire of censorship for moral purposes. Since Brady owned the works of de Sade and several kindred authors, Miss Johnson reasons, he must have been encouraged to murder by the preoccupation of these writers with sex as bloodletting; therefore, Brady should not have had access to these books. This conclusion is debatable, however, for evidence at the trial established that Brady was given to chopping up live cats when he was a small boy and had no access to de Sade or anything like him. Did he murder because he read de Sade, or read de Sade because he murdered? Miss Johnson has run into the usual difficulty with arguments in support of book censorship as a means of preventing crime. There’s no telling the cart from the horse in this field.