by Oscar Handlin
We have become so hardened to the subordination of man to the state that incidents of oppression no longer arouse our indignation. After the Nazi and Communist concentration camps, after the restoration of slavery under various guises in many parts of the world, a single incident of injustice is hardly capable of arousing our indignation. It is hard now to recall the moral environment in which the fate of one French Army officer or of two Italian anarchists seemed vital to men of goodwill everywhere. Perhaps because protest is no longer effective, because totalitarian governments are not responsive to world opinion, the call to conscience seems futile.
ALBIE SACHS’S THE JAIL DIARY OF ALBIE SACHS (McGraw-Hill, $4.95) reminds us of the issues involved. In October, 1963, Sachs, a young South African lawyer, was imprisoned under the Ninety Day Law, which permitted the detention, at the will of the police, of any person suspected of an offense against the state. Sachs had been the attorney in several cases involving apartheid, and the purpose of his arrest was to secure information about the movement against the racial laws. No charges were necessary. He was questioned from time to time but remained in solitary confinement for the full period. When he was freed on the ninetieth day, he was immediately rearrested and held for another 78 days. In the end he was released, never having been accused of any crime, but having served 168 days.
This book is not, properly speaking, a diary. During most of his incarceration Sachs lacked writing materials as well as books. He wrote this account after his release, and it is, therefore, more organized than a day-by-day record would have been.
It is nevertheless a moving account. In the beginning, Sachs determined to withhold all information by refusing to respond to any inquiries no matter how trivial. By holding inflexibly to that resolution he was able to maintain his silence, so that in the end his captors got nothing from him. Any opening in the nature of a dialogue would have made restraint more difficult.
Sachs was, however, in a relatively fortunate position. He was white and well connected, so that there were limits beyond which his interrogators did not go. He suffered no physical abuse, and the conditions of his incarceration, while uncomfortable, were not indecent. Other cases, to which a concluding chapter refers, showed that even the most determined men gave way when there were no limits to the power applied to them.
The most striking observations of the book deal with the effects of prolonged isolation on man’s personality. Absolutely cut off from the outer world, deprived of the possibility of communicating with anyone but the jailer, totally alone, Sachs had to struggle to remain a human being. His initial response was to develop and maintain a daily routine which occupied the passing hours in a rational and coherent way. It took ingenuity to do so in the total vacuum of the cell. Yet the longing for contact persisted and found expression in a strange friendship with an unknown prisoner who whistled together with Sachs at recognized hours. There are interesting descriptions of the efforts to establish some kind of human relationship with the jailers and of the problem of retaining sanity through the long empty days and nights. As time passed, Sachs sank into deep depressions and occasionally took refuge in illusion. He endured almost a half year of confinement under these terms. There are indications that he could not have lasted much longer.
JEAN GENÊT’S MIRACLE OF THE ROSE (Grove Press, $7.50) is a jail journal of another kind. Genet was a hardened criminal serving a life sentence when he began to write this book. His career in crime had begun at the age of ten and led him from the reformatory to prison. Here he describes life in Fontevrault in all its grim complexity and richness, utterly dissimilar to the stark isolation of Sachs’s cell. The difference arose from the fact that the underworld inmates of Fontevrault expected and were prepared for their imprisonment. The barred universe they inhabited was home. Everything outside it was an irrelevance. The problems of consciousness which bothered Sachs did not impinge at all upon Genet, who was able to accept the terms of incarceration and to live and love within them.
The novel — part fiction, part autobiography — has a complex structure. It unfolds along a dual story line. In the present it deals with Harcamone, who awaits execution in the solitude of the death cell. Harcamone, who had brutally killed Fontevrault’s one kind guard, is the hero of convict society, which awaits the miraculous apotheosis of the guillotine, in which all will fulfill themselves. Woven into this account is the remembrance of life years earlier at the nearby reformatory at Mettray, where many of the inmates had spent their boyhood together. The juxtaposition exposes the perversion of impulses that turned the youngsters of the past into the homosexual crashers and chickens of the present. This continuity of experience makes the prison an integral world rather than the hiatus in existence it is for Sachs.
Life behind bars is a grossly exaggerated extreme of the case of the modern man who loses contact, and for any one of a number of reasons, finds himself in isolation. The search for a meaningful routine and the escape into illusion are common outside as well as within the jail.
Loneliness was the theme of almost everything Italo Svevo wrote. It took more than thirty years for the emergence of a true estimate of the stature of this clerk in a Trieste bank. Svevo never achieved recognition during his lifetime. Only Joyce, of his contemporaries, recognized his ability. Yet his novels were impressive achievements in form and in substance.
P. N. FURBANK’S ITALO SVEVO (University of California Press, $6.00) is an admirable introduction to the man and the writer. The biographical section is excellent, drawing together illuminating material on Svevo’s family background, on his intellectual heritage, and on the city of Trieste. The lucid and perceptive critical discussion analyzes the problems which Svevo faced as a writer, focusing properly on the novels.
His short stories, now appearing in English translation in SHORT SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY (University of California Press, $6.00), have an interest of their own. The eight stories, written between 1910 and 1928, vary in length and in subject matter. Only three are fully polished with the craftsmanship Svevo devoted to the work he published in his lifetime. Yet these tales not only make fascinating reading but also state the themes that engaged Svevo as a thinker.
The central concern is consciousness, what men know of each other and of the world around them. The earliest of the stories attempt ingeniously to perceive the world through the eyes of animals, and the same device crops up incidentally in later stories, as in “The Hoax,” where little fables about sparrows illuminate the problems of the humans. But the chicken and the dog that are the protagonists of “Argho” and “The Mother” are more than Aesopian instruments for commenting on man’s foibles. Svevo is interested in what smell actually feels like to the dog as a sentient being. That concern leads him to the larger problems of how any person knows about or communicates with any other. Writing in the years of the birth of psychoanalysis, Svevo was early aware of the Freudian findings. But his artistry and his humor took him beyond the formulas to authentic perceptions of man’s situation.
Most of the stories deal with old age. The elderly men in their sixties confront what remains of life with pathetic small ambitions, for a good night’s sleep or a business loan. They know from experience the slight likelihood of success. They clutch illusion tenderly, for illness and death are always close, and there is little to protect them from utter loneliness. A brother, a spouse, or a girl becomes precious insofar as each postpones the ultimate solitude. Love in this perspective is a means of catching hold for a brief moment of a connection with the outer world.
The setting of Svcvo’s work as of his life was a provincial town which provided a circumscribed ambit within which to encompass man’s outer environment. Svevo makes no effort to describe the town as a physical place, although there are fleeting allusions to its river and its tram lines. It is rather the social and cultural context from which age and experience detach the individual. The distance from it, which is the measure of man’s loneliness, is at the same time the sign of his developing consciousness.
Love and death are also the themes of JAN WOLKERS’ A ROSE OF FLESH (Braziller, $5.00). This novel by a young Dutch writer deals with a day in the life of an invalid. Daniel lives alone. On this day, he encounters his son, talks with his parents, and thinks about the wife from whom he is separated. He is about to go to the theater (the play is Moliere’s Imaginary Invalid) when an attack of asthma forces him to stay at home, where he spends the night in conversation with the woman who was to have accompanied him. In the exchange of talk, they uncover the sources of their disorders, in each case the meaningless loss of a child. But there is no warmth between them, and the morning separates them as casually as the evening had brought them together.
Flashes of tenderness relieve the unalloyed pessimism of the story, as when Daniel chats with his son or when the visit of the aging parents summons up recollections of childhood. But the compassion for people and things that infuses Svevo’s writing is absent from the novel of the younger man. Here, too, illness and death are the badges of man’s loneliness in a world which is all mist. Man can scream out or pray, but no sound will travel in the mist and no one will hear. The very effort to reach out is therefore banal.
The intellectual context of the novel literature of isolation includes a change in the image of man in the past half century. In TO DENY OUR NOTHINGNESS (Dclacorte, $7.50), MAURICE FRIEDMAN surveys some of the writers who have contributed to the transformation. He reaches back to Freud and Bergson and comes down to Camus and Beckett, touching upon philosophy and psychology as well as fiction. The analysis proceeds mainly by juxtaposing several writers, although the logic of the selections and omissions is not always clear. Professor Friedman closes with a plea for moral philosophy which asks each man to seek a meaningful personal direction, an “ought” to apply to each situation. While most of the writers he treats would agree to the validity of the quest, many would not share his confidence in a successful outcome.
The problems of empire
ROME ON THE EUPHRATES by FREYA STARK (Harcourt, Brace & World, $9.75) is an illuminating history of the Roman frontier in Asia Minor and the Middle East. The story sprawls across the events of eight centuries from the Battle of Magnesia in 189 B.C. to the death of Justinian in 565 A.D. The author is not a professional historian, but she has worked through the basic sources with care, and she knows how to tell an interesting story.
The book celebrates a trade route, along which for millennia the Bactrian camels brought the wares of China to the West. In Mesopotamia — the bridge of Asia — goods from India swelled the flow on the way to Europe. Here was born Alexander’s dream, nurtured by the Hellenistic society that followed him, of a united world, the common possession of all civilized men.
The rising empire of the West destroyed that vision. Repeatedly the Romans attempted to build a frontier across these paths because they felt secure only behind the sea or with an unarmed nation on their border. The effort, which always failed, damaged the region and also exhausted the metropolis. Rome was alternately debauched by the wealth stolen from the East and drained by the effort to maintain control.
The grand theme is interesting although not particularly convincing, and in any case has little relevance to the merits of the book, which arise out of the excellence of the parts rather than out of the argument of the whole. Freya Stark writes well, at times passionately. Her moving descriptions of men, events, and landscapes bring remote people and places alive, and she is admirably sensitive to the apt quotation from the great literature of the eras she treats. She is partisan and favors the underdogs. The Seleucids and Parthians, Antioch us, Mithridates, and even Crassus, who have usually been harshly dealt with by their enemies, attract her indulgent sympathy, and her defense enlivens the story. Furthermore, she is not averse to digressions, which enable her to tuck into her narrative a charming account of Pliny or an amusing aside on the animal stories of the Greek Fathers.
Above all, she knows the country, having traveled through it. The ancient cities which are now Turkish villages, the shifting rivers, and the changeless people cease to be dead names in a book as her perceptive vision connects past and present. Having looked through the slit in the mountains where an American dam holds the Dizful River, which feeds the emptiness that Trajan peopled with his dreams, she understands the Roman prisoners who wore their hearts out while they practiced as captives their engineering skill. She knows too the feeling of an ancient society where men long since felt that all was lost, all destroyed, and what might befall tomorrow, God alone knew.
Making the bomb
The bomb that fell on Hiroshima surprised and shocked the world, not only by its power but also by the suddenness of its appearance. The three-year effort that had developed and built the weapon had been so secret that the word of its use was totally unexpected. In the decades since then a good deal has been written by the scientists about the discoveries in nuclear physics that put the atom bomb within reach and about the effects of its explosion. But the story of its manufacture remained unknown.
STEPHANE GROUEFF’S MANHATTAN PROJECT (Little, Brown, $6.95) tells that story in detail for the first time. The author, born in Bulgaria, educated in Switzerland, and New York correspondent for a French weekly, has skillfully assembled the complicated facts, mastered the technical issues, and written a lucid narrative. He has a sense of the complexity of the task and of the vigorous personalities involved in it, and manages to communicate both.
The story begins with the warning from Einstein of the danger that the Germans might exploit for military use their success in splitting the uranium atom in 1938. It concludes when the Enola Gay dropped its cargo over Japan on August 6, 1945. Between those events lay an enormous engineering feat, completed at high speed and immense cost while the nation was engaged in a bitter war in Europe and in Asia.
The scientific committee that was responsible for the decision to proceed to manufacture the bomb in May, 1942, had to choose among live possible production methods. The techniques of none were yet defined with any precision, and the wrong choice could be disastrous because the Nazis already had a three-year lead. The bold recommendation was to try all five methods at the same time. The program entailed therefore the construction of several tremendous plants equipped with machines that had not yet been invented for processes that had not yet been developed — and speed was of the utmost urgency.
The success of the project called for the building of whole new cities at Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the enlistment of an army of scientists and technologists, for the maintenance of laboratories at Berkeley, Eos Alamos, Chicago, and New York, and for the production of supplies by a dozen cooperating corporations. Planning, the solution of scores of technical problems, design, and fabrication went on almost simultaneously. The limitless resources of a country determined to get the job done made the tremendous effort possible. But fully as important were the willingness of the scientists to apply their intelligence to the task and the confidence of the government in backing them.
The objective of this awesome mobilization of brains and power was a weapon of unparalleled destructiveness. The reader of this book will not refrain from wondering what results might follow from a similar dedication of intelligence and energy to the constructive solution of some of the nation’s social problems.