by Phoebe Adams
THE CELLULOID SACRIFICE (Hawthorn, $5.95) is part history and part discussion of “aspects of sex in the movies,” written by the British journalist and film reviewer ALEXANDER WALKER. The aspects Mr. Walker has in mind turn out to be predominantly female stars of the first glamour, twinkling in Hollywood. He begins with Theda Bara (there is a reproduction of the BurneJones painting which, along with Kipling’s poem, popularized the whole vamp kick — although vampires had been common props in spook literature for fifty years) and ends with Elizabeth Taylor. There is an interesting comparison of British and American methods in film censorship, revealing that while ours are generally thick-witted, the British can, on occasion, produce hilariously perverse improvements on ordinary improprieties. The book’s final section has to do with the male role in sex comedies. It is curious that Mr. Walker, who has previously pretty well avoided the pitfall of confusing the player with the part, loses his balance in dealing with Mastroianni, and constantly mixes up the man, the actor, playing style, type of role, and audience response. This collapse does not invalidate a number of useful and amusing observations, and it underlines the difficulty of writing serious film criticism. In a field where, as various memoirs reveal, the immediate practitioners are often uncertain who is truly responsible for a particular bit of magic, how is a nonparticipant to distinguish between the work of the director, the player, or, as in the case of Mary Bickford and the magic lens, the machinery? It is this nebulosity about the true origin of film effects that thwarts Mr. Walker; he cannot, in the end, pin down the thesis he is chasing.
The late FRANK O’CONNOR’S A SHORT HISTORY OF IRISH LITERATURE (Putnam, $5.95) is a beguilingly opinionated work. Nothing with short in its title can hope to clear up the tangle of Dark Ages Gaelic composition, but O’Connor made a gallant fight of it, sputtering testily of headhunters and referring to a nameless medieval conglomerator of old texts as “The First Murderer.” The final chapters, on Yeats and Joyce, are peculiarly interesting because O’Connor knew both men and saw them as men and fellow writers without permitting that view to diminish his admiration.
Nelson buffs — and other readers, for that matter — will enjoy TRAFALGAR (John Day, $3.95), a small book composed of eyewitness accounts of the great battle by all sorts of participants on both sides. The material has been compiled and edited by STUART LEGG, and while some items are inevitably familiar, much of this fascinating book will be new to all but the most wideranging and industrious scholars.
PORNOGRAFIA (Grove, $5.00) by the exiled Polish author WITOLD GOMBROWICZ is a bloodily macabre comedy of youth and age, set in Poland during the Second World War. Two intellectuals, dry old bachelors addicted to devious, Henry Jamesian dialogue, pussyfoot into the country to visit a fat landowner. This squire has a wispy wife (“Being essentially a mother she could no longer accomplish anything”), an adolescent daughter, and a young hanger-on with a dubious record of service with the Underground. Henia (the girl) and Karol (the boy) are the same age and have known each other all their lives. The two old coots from Warsaw, bored with age and correct behavior and miscellaneously attracted to the young, yearn to watch a juvenile sexual idyll. But Henia gets engaged to a neighbor, a decent enough fellow going soft at the edges and bald on the top, and Karol seems to care not a whistle. Frederick and Witold (the author gives the first-person narrator his own name) move to correct this unsuitable situation. What ensues is a curious exchange of identities — the young people acquiescing in Uncle Pandarian stage management because they want to be accepted as adults, while Frederick and Witold assume the moral irresponsibility of children because they want to become young. The erotic element in the story — which proves, after a slow start, to be exciting simply as a tale of suspense — suggests that the author is representing common enough states of mind in terms of extreme, melodramatic action, but the status of the people who are finally murdered (church, law, army, peasantry) implies another meaning, that of the traditional framework of society destroyed by a combination of physical immaturity and egotistical intellect.
In OFF THE BEATEN TRACK IN BAJA (Morrow, $8.95), ERLE STANLEY GARDNER describes the tough, surprising, somehow amiable wilderness of Baja California. Equally curious about old roads, Indian rock paintings, drowsy villages, and unexplored canyons, Mr. Gardner got about the place with a varied and amusing collection of friends, aides, and locals, not to mention vehicles with names like Pak-Jak and Butterfly. His account of his adventures is unpretentiously informative and altogether attractive.