by Phoebe Adams
Giving away the plot of a novel is a disservice to the author and to potential readers, and I try to avoid it. Unfortunately, it is impossible to discuss SUSAN SONTAG’S DEATH KIT (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $5.75) without revealing that the entire action is a dream occurring in the mind of the hero between the time he swallows a clutch of pills and his death in the hospital. This type of construction, which provides the author with an infallible excuse for any eccentricity, always has a tinge of the easy out about it, and while Miss Sontag has played fair with the device, offering the sufficiently suspicious reader a suitable number of clues to the situation in the early pages, she never demonstrates that the device was necessary. To be candid, she never persuades me that this novel was necessary. It is essentially an attempt to dramatize formal psychological theory — the conflict between life force and death wish — and to do it without adding complications of individual character, realistic social consequences, or even reflections and opinions of the author. The proposition, in short, is to remain on the level of a general principle, a decision which reduces the author’s area of invention to surface ornament and symbol juggling. Miss Sontag is clever at both, and devotees of literature as jigsaw puzzle will find much to reward them scattered through the pages of Death Kit. Taken as a whole, the novel is an immensely elaborate repetition of a psychological concept which was stated clearly and simply several generations back and widely accepted before Miss Sontag was born.
THE EXPLOITS OF THE INCOMPARABLE MULLA NASRUDIN (Simon and Schuster, $4.95) turns out to be a jokebook, a collection of satirical absurdities that have, according to the compiler, Idries Shah, been drifting around the Middle East for centuries. The century part is undoubtedly true; the book contains one mother-in-law joke that dates from the early Paleolithic. But most of these tales have more in common with Aesop and the wilder outposts of Zen than with Joe Miller. They defy man’s fate, and even man’s nature, and they are gloriously and irreverently funny.
AUBREY BEARDSLEY’S unfinished pornographic work UNDER THE HILL (Grove, $3.95) has been provided with a conclusion by the Canadian poet John Glassco. The enterprise is interesting but hardly successful. The format is too small to do justice to Beardsley’s illustrations, and while Mr. Glassco’s extension of the story is ingenious, his style never quite rings true. Beardsley amused himself by applying to his more scandalous inventions such adjectives as sweet, dear, pretty, delicious, and adorable, and by interspersing among these girlish twitterings an occasional phrase of flat-footed, literal bluntness. He was also capable of finishing off a feverish description of an epicene actor by referring to the fellow as “the thing.” It is this undercutting of his apparent intention that gives Beardsley’s work its interest and makes Under the Hill a trifle different from the common run of such stuff. Mr. Glassco has not been able to imitate the effect, probably because there is no clue in Beardsley’s surviving text as to what he had in mind to accomplish with the trick.
LADISLAV MŇAČKO’S THE TASTE OFPOWER (Praeger, $5.95) is a political novel out of Czechoslovakia, where only parts of it have as yet been printed — evidently, therefore, considered dangerously critical on its home ground, but like so many of these daring works smuggled out of Communist countries, positively mild by degenerate Western standards. It offers the thesis that power corrupts, and it takes a real wrench of the imagination to understand how this chestnut could worry anybody. Since the novel is composed out of a scrambling together of disconnected episodes, it seems probable that concern arises not from the thesis, but from the illustrative events. They look like rearrangements of things that actually happened, improprieties widely known in Czechoslovakia but officially filed under the rug. The author has now dragged them out and employed them to describe the career of a Communist partisan leader of the Second World War, turned administrator, turned, eventually, head of the state — a process that changes him from an honest if ruffianly idealist to a cruel, wily, irresponsible, miserably frightened old man. All this transformation is seen from the outside, reported by an old friend, a system adopted not because the author is afraid to penetrate the mind of his subject (the gallery of subsidiary characters proves that he is willing to tackle anything), but because the man is being displayed as a creation of the Stalin era rather than as an individual. The book is not a complaint against Communism, but a repudiation of Stalinism, which the author views as a regrettable deviation from the proper course of Party history.

In ROCK ART OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN (Crowell, $12.95), CAMPBELL GRANT has assembled, in tightly condensed form, a great deal of information about aboriginal carvings and paintings: how they were done, where they are located, the different styles involved, the dispersion of certain widely used motifs, how these works can best be preserved or reproduced, who made them, when, and why. The last three points are frequently unknown and unknowable, as Mr. Grant ruefully admits, but he has worked hard on the others. The book is well illustrated with designs that range from mere baffling squiggles to compositions of wit and charm.