by Edward Weeks
A novelist born in Ireland who transplanted himself to the United States after a pause in Canada, Brian Moore attracted his first readers with The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, that poignant short novel about a spinster in Belfast which one critic praised for its “hypnotic plausibility.” It took Mr. Moore about ten years to acquire sophistication in the new world; how well he has done so will be seen in his best book to date, I Am Alary Dunne, the July selection of the Literary Guild.
Mary Dunne, a feast for the eye at thirty-two, tells her story in the first person and on a day when she is in trouble. In her premenstrual period — she is starkly explicit about all her sex doings — Mary is neurotic and vulnerable; her mind is filled with self-doubt. In such a mood, what she calls her Mad Twin frequently gets the upper hand, trapping her in actions and confessions which leave her trembling and wretched. The most trivial irritant — a stranger accosting her as she leaves the beauty parlor on Madison Avenue, or the tainted gossip of an old friend at lunch — sends her off into a fit of reminiscence in which the novelist discloses the woman bare, guilty about her past, uncertain of her future, yet appealing because of her irrepressible spirit.
From the day when she ran away from Butchersville in Nova Scotia with her classmate Jimmy Phelan, Mary has been on the make. She was not in love with Jimmy, she thought he represented a meal ticket in Toronto, where she could be coached as an actress (Mary had won first prize in the Dominion Drama Festival in Halifax); but when they fetched up living on her salary in a sleazy furnished room, that gamble was lost. Jimmy, inept even at lovemaking, was left by the wayside when she Caught the eye of “Hat” Bell, the Canadian war correspondent.
Hatfield Bell is the most likable man in the book, blond, competent, and distinguished in a careless way. He was a good deal older than Mary when she came into his life and more hard-used than she suspected. They were to have five years together; after the divorces she moved with Hat to New York for his big job at Life, and when Life fired him because of his drinking, she was as loyal to him as a dissatisfied woman could be, helping with his cure until Terence La very, the charming English playwright, a year younger than herself, started her looking the other way. For all his good looks Hat was impotent, and Mary, puzzled, blamed this on herself until in her infatuation with Terence she found that she could return love.
The bright and the soiled strands of Mary’s life have been skillfully shuttled: one sympathizes with her eagerness to get away from drabness, her impatience with the small gossipy clique in Toronto; and one shares her feeling of inferiority, which she and her Canadian friends carry with them across the border: this comes out ironically in her luncheon with Janice and intolerably in the scene of abasement at the close. Mary will never forgive herself for not being more loyal to Hat, nor as an older woman will she ever be quite sure of her hold on Terence. In her struggle for self-possession she has qualms about her sanity, and so occasionally does the reader, not knowing what her inner resources may be. The trouble is the author has told us more about the early frigidity and later warmth of her love life than about how her mind works when she is otherwise occupied.
At the war’s end Barbara Ward was the second in command of the most knowledgeable magazine then published in English, The Economist, and the feelings of hope and exhilaration which she experienced as she saw the new world restore the old with the Marshall Plan and the “Point Four” programs of 1949 have lived with her ever since as the most humane, intelligent way of reconciling the vast discrepancies on our planet, where 20 percent of the world’s population controls 80 percent of the world’s wealth. I think Miss Ward assimilates the living conditions, the needs of a new developing nation faster than anyone else I know. Her long residence in and her close study of the poorer countries in Asia and Africa qualify her to speak as an authority, and the appeal which she makes in her new short book, The Lopsided World, is addressed to the pocket nerve quite as much as to the heart.
Miss Ward realizes that most of us do not think about our planet as a community and that we Americans at the moment are in no mood to draw a comparison between the poor at home, about whom we are greatly exercised, and the poor abroad, whom we have grown tired of aiding. How can we find the means for both? we ask, and Miss Ward thinks that a bad defense. If the Pentagon, she reminds us, asks for 50 billion for a new antimissile system, we will buy it no matter how soon it may be obsolete — but the amount required to help the developing nations reach a peacekeeping stability comes a lot cheaper than that! She knows how long it takes to produce the “breakthrough” to modernization — with the richest continent in the world in our hands, it took us Americans eighty years — but she has seen the healthy beginnings, and they must go on. “Land settlement,” she writes, “has turned the dark lands of the Mau Mau into a lively, growing Kikuyu farming area. Rural works and cooperatives have brought some stability to some of the world’s most overcrowded farm lands in East Pakistan. Earlier land reforms seem to lessen the appeal of guerrillas to the Bolivian peasant just as, first in the 1870s and then again under General MacArthur, they have stabilized and enriched the Japanese countryside.”
Miss Ward is aware of what happened in 1929 and 1930, when two thirds of the world’s population suddenly found themselves earning less and buying less, and when, in nine months, world trade fell by two thirds. And so she would recall us to a vision which we once had, to a commitment which we cannot afford to lose. Her closing words are graphic: In a “world society which the astronaut strides round in 90 minutes — and science can blow up in 90 seconds ... it is better to build and support the worldwide institutions— of peacekeeping, of development, of welfare — which in any society maintain the peace and in a nuclear society can prevent annihilation.”
I Am Mary Dunne
by Brian Moore
The Lopsided World
by Barbara Ward
The Surv ival of the Fittest
by Pamela Hansford Johnson
The Right People
by Stephen Birmingham
(Little, Brown, $10.00)
In The Survival of the Fittest Pamela Hansford Johnson sets out to tell the adventures and development of a small literary circle in London, beginning in their “wild life" in the 1930s and carrying them through the London blitz and the war and on into the atomic age, when with reputations and paunches expanded, they are ripe for a cultural visit to the Soviet Union. It is a leisurely, parochial novel, encumbered with too many minor characters, and it raises a very large doubt: are these people, these novelists and critics, with their petty feuds, really believable? Plausible novels about artists come readily to mind, The Moon and Sixpence and The Horse’s Mouth being two of them; but I cannot recall a single novel about a poet or a fiction writer which left me believing in the hero’s work.
I miss in The Survival of the Fittest the wit and the mischief which have brightened up so much of Miss Johnson’s other work. The panorama of the story cannot help giving one the feeling of déjà vu. The rallies for Spain and the dejection when the Republic was defeated; the lethargy which preceded Chamberlain’s and Runciman’s appeasement of Hitler; the training of the fire wardens; the endurance of the blitz; the long separation from those captured by the Japanese — these are experiences which in the multiple retelling have lost immediacy and much of their emotion.
What keeps the story moving and our attention alert are the three central figures. Jo Upjohn, a Laborite who dabbles in short stories; his closest friend, Kit Mailings, the novelist-to-be; and Alison Petrie, who has scored an early success with her books and with whom they are both in love. Jo is the kingpin and by far the most interesting: his pride and humility, the cross he bears in his invalid mother, and his unswerving devotion to Alison are the facets of a rare man. I think of Alison, perhaps erroneously, as the alter ego of Miss Johnson; and Kit, with his American triumph and his compulsive drinking, is clearly based on Dylan Thomas. Of the other literary prototypes in the book, Belphoebe is admittedly a character sketch of Dame Edith Sitwell and Mamonov of Mikhail Sholokhov. Indeed there arc times when I wonder if the use of models may not have cramped the vivacity of this too long, too literal book.
When an author competes with himself, one of his books is bound to suffer. The Right People by Stephen Birmingham appears when “Our Crowd” is still being relished, and it does so at a disadvantage. Part of the fun of “Our Crowd” is that the hierarchy of the great Jewish families arrived at about the same time in the nineteenth century, most of them penniless; that they climbed the American ladder with incredible industry and speed; and having arrived at Fifth Avenue, that they segregated themselves into a tightly closed circle in which they lived with pomp, decorum, some of them with very good taste, and almost all of them with happiness. The bolder among them broke through the barricades erected by J. P. Morgan, and to a generation reared on Horatio Alger, this was good clean fun and a credit to the Statue of Liberty.
But when Mr. Birmingham comes acourting The Right People, by which he means those gentiles whose ancestry, money, and distinction have put them in the top drawer, he has a much harder assignment. His families have no common takeoff as they did in ”Our Crowd”; some of them date back before the Revolution; others, not necessarily the wealthiest, maintain their sovereignty with such discretion that they are not easy to write about. It was Mr. Birmingham’s intent to describe the leaders in American society and the institutions they patronize in their home cities and country resorts. He knew there was snobbery involved, and he draws this distinction: “Older families are better people. Better people are nicer people. Newer people may be richer people than older people. That doesn’t matter. Ordinary Society people may get to be Real Society people one day only if they work at it.”
His book came into being as a scries of magazine articles written over a decade, f should say that Mr. Birmingham is least at ease in the older cities like Boston and Philadelphia (there are several inaccuracies about Boston which should have been caught: the Sedgwicks are not Old Boston, and the incomparable Abigail Homans is not in her seventies); his better pieces are concerned with the less rigid milieus like Washington, San Francisco, Palm Beach, and Palm Springs, where a parvenu with style and hospitality has a good chance of breaking in. He has more fun with matriarchs like Mrs. Spreckels of San Francisco or an entrepreneur like Mrs. Cafritz of Washington than he does with a witty trueblood like Alice Longworth. He ignores the pedigrees of the Old South but does produce, tongue in cheek, the laborious genealogy of the Auchinclosses (who but Uncle Charles would ever want to know that much about albatrosses?). His mockery is more telling when he writes about the Knickerbocker Greys than when he tries to lump together the “St. Grottlesex Schools.” The illustrations, many of them of lovely ladies, catch the eye without much affinity with the text.