JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH has never lost much sleep over tradition. At Harvard his appointment was opposed on the ground that he had departed from what was known in the Yard as “Taussig Economics,” as indeed he had when, with young economists here and in England, he saw the light generated by John Maynard Keynes. In Europe at the war’s end he made himself quite unpopular with other members of the commission to assess the bomb damage by repeatedly questioning the claims of our precision bombers. Now in his short novel THE TRIUMPH (Houghton Mifflin, $4.95) it is quickly apparent that he has less than reverence for the men and methods wherewith the State Department pursues its devious policy of foreign aid. That policy, so bounteously endorsed by John Foster Dulles in his day, proffers hardware and cash to any government pledged to be on our side and against Communism. Embarrassment arises when a Latin-American dictator who has used our gifts to feather his own nest is about to be dethroned by a Yale-educated liberal promising democratic reforms but bringing with him, in addition to the support of the military junta, some associates who may or may not have leanings toward Communism. This is the situation with which Galbraith opens The Triumph, and let me say at once that the novel is more authoritative and vastly more entertaining than Henry Adams’ Democracy.
The country under review is the Central American republic of Puerto Santos, long ruled by the dictator Luis Martínez, who is as unscrupulous as they come. In his prime he was a woman-eater, preferably having a different one every afternoon; he was also profuse in adopting the suggestions that came down from the Good Neighbor: an experimental farm, new housing for the peons (begun but never finished), new boulevards (ditto), a dreadful nonfunctioning hotel for tourists. He even sent his son and heir to study at Ann Arbor. Such new business as ventured into Puerto Santos — cigarettes, Coca-Cola, the LathiAmerican edition of Time — he shared in. Now grown old and weary, Luis Martinez has been reduced to one mistress, but he is still demanding — “every time Pethwick has seen Martinez in the past two years it has cost us another $5 million,” one official remarks, and this is the way the State Department, as represented by G. Worth Campbell, the Assistant Secretary for InterAmerican Affairs, would prefer to have it rather than risk an overthrow. It comes as no great surprise to Luis when his generals case him out and on his way to Lisbon, but it is a disagreeable shock to Pethwick, the American ambassador who has mollified his superiors in Washington with reassurance that Martinez would ride out the storm.
The improvisations of the new ruler, Miró (who must improvise since Martínez has cleaned out the treasury), the “watchful waiting” in Washington, the statecraft of the imperturbable Worth Campbell, the vague testimony before Congress, and the anything but vague tactics of young Martinez when he makes his move from the University of Michigan Galbraith relates with an ironic relish which makes me laugh. The full-dress review in Worth Campbell’s office is enlivened by such thinking as this from the representative of the Joint Staff that the “bombing was now designed not to keep the Communists out of the capital city but to keep them in. It would need to be combined, they recognized, with maximum emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of the people.” Sure, these people, many of them, are types and predictable, but what sets this novel apart from the fat cats we have had about our national Capital is Galbraith’s irreverence, his cool wit, and his perception of policy-making which only an insider could gibe at so effectually.
The scarlet cloak
It used to be said that no book about Napoleon or Abraham Lincoln, even a mediocre one, could fail to find an audience. If Julius Caesar has a lower rating in hero worship, it is because we know less about him and he is too distant for us to feel his warmth. The blanks in his career as much as the written record have given poetic license to Shakespeare, Shaw, and Wilder to dramatize the Caesar of their imagining; the protagonist in THEODORE H. WHITE’S essay-melodrama CAESAR AT THE RUBICON (Atheneum, $5.00) is more merciful than any other I have seen, though no less ambitious.
This is the story of the political man who dwelt within the conqueror and who might ultimately have subdued the soldier had Rome given him the chance. In a lucid, knowledgeable prologue, Mr. White sets the stage: at the age of fifty-two and at the head of the most powerful army in the world, Caesar has paused at Ravenna, on the bank of the Rubicon, on his way home after nine years of fighting. His bloody triumphs in Gaul, against the Germanic tribes, and in Britain have leaned him; he no longer craves women; the tenderness in him shows in acts of unorthodox mercy toward his captives. For his veterans he wants land and the right to vote in the Assembly; for himself and his chief of staff, Titus Labienus, the chance to stand for the consulships when his command expires March 1. He has only one legion with him — the 13th — but a system of beacons he learned from the Gauls can alert or recall the army in a few days. So the three-act play begins.
But Rome, grown rich and corrupt with his spoils, is no longer for his bidding, and his Intelligence knows it: Antony and Balbus have come to tell Caesar that if he puts off his scarlet cloak and comes to Rome as a citizen, as the law decrees he must, the Senate will try him and pick him clean. When Caesar’s appeals to Cato and Pompey are rejected, he is faced with the final choice of civil disobedience, and the risk of pitting legion against legion in civil war, or of surrendering himself to the mercy of his enemies. If he defies the Law, what will become of the Republic, and of the reforms which he had hoped to enforce? In his uncertainty he awaits a sign from the gods or a compromise from the Senate.
What we are asked to judge then is a play and the historical essay which precedes and completes it. I know from experience how compulsive a great actor can make a script, and I can imagine that if Paul Scofield were to play the part of Mr. White’s Caesar, we would soon be under his spell. The action takes place in Caesar’s headquarters with the trophies of his conquest on the walls; and with scenery by Oliver Smith and skillful lighting — lighting which will eventually reflect the beacons that call to arms — this would be a memorable forum for men in rage.
Were I a director the scene which would trouble me most is the opening of Act Two when Caesar, thinking to placate the gods, impulsively decides to wash the feet of Vercingetorix, his prize captive. The huge blond prisoner is hobbled, with hands locked in a wooden bar, but not enough to prevent a tussle in which Caesar loses his robe and might have lost his life. This would be hard to play. The big scene is the explosion when Labienus realizes that Caesar has gone behind his back to alert the march on Rome. “I am not a fool behind whose back a little boy is sent to mobilize my legions on the Rhone,” he thunders, and Caesar interrupts: “Not your legions, Labienus — Caesar’s legions !”
The prose finds me where the play does not, and what Mr. White relates in the afterword, more poignant than anything in the play, is Caesar’s isolation as he destroys his enemies and with them the Republic. Caesar may not have wished to be a god, as the author suggests, and when he donned the purple his decrees did gain him immortality but at the cost of liberty. This book, the May selection of the Literary Guild, springs from the political authority and the anxiety of the author at a time when the growth of executive power in our republic has been of increasing concern to us all.
Durrell’s black humor
Seven years have elapsed since LAWRENCE DURRELL’S last novel, and I had happily forgotten how hard he makes the reader work. He throws at your head characters with cockeyed names and little or no identification; words like “pogon,” “konx,” “parahelion,” some of his own invention, some that can’t be run down in Webster’s; puns (“for better or for hearse,” “Is there a life beyond the gravy?”); perversities; doggerel; dead bodies unaccounted for; and an assortment of compliant women each stranger than the last. In this maze the reader is expected to find his own way; some do and some give up. I made four different attempts to orient myself in TUNC (Dutton, $6.95), and each time gave up in the neighborhood of page 80, in the midst of a long lecture, spoken at the Parthenon to some sophisticated Athenians by an architect named Caradoc. His remarks were probably intended as a parody but, heaven knows, they are dull enough in themselves.
But on the fifth try I made it. I escaped from the Athenians, and in the more savory murk of Istanbul I at last began to fit the pieces together. The hero is a gifted, impecunious inventor, Felix Charlock. He has artificial diamonds and other salable projects in the back of his mind, but at the moment he is carrying about the equipment for a giant memory bank, a computer he calls Abel (for some time I thought Abel was a slave), an invention which has been spied on and greatly desired by Merlin, Ltd., an international holding company which for no good reason has a large office in Turkey. Felix has an undeniable way with him, and Merlin’s wants him in the firm; when he hesitates over signing the papers, the beautiful Benedicta, Merlin’s daughter, is sent to complete the transaction.
Benedicta is alluring and so eccentric that she has to go to Switzerland for prolonged treatments. She has scads of money, which she spends in an imperious way that adds to Felix’s infatuation. Despite his protests, she wills him half her fortune as part of the marriage contract; she is in short the bitch goddess, success. This is the story of the corruption of a pure scientist for commercial purposes, but the novelist warns us that Benedicta is an unwilling party to the plot. (“I only really loved you when I thought you were determined to be free from the firm.” . . . “But,” Felix retorts, “you made me sign on, Benedicta. It was you who insisted, remember?”)
This Englishman can write like the best of them when he tries. His description of the Bosporus at sunset is brilliant. His characterization of Shadbolt, one of the five solicitors of the firm, as he prepares the marriage contract, is a little gem: “A heavy-breathing slothful little man with plum-colored countenance, whose spectacles were attached to his lapel by a heavy black ribbon. When he put them on he did so reverently, as if he were in mourning, Voice of an old bugle full of spit.” But he loves to show off, and since readers have encouraged him to do so for this long, why should he do otherwise? This novel from its leering title to the close is too often the work of a lazy satyr.