The Peripatetic Reviewer

A PLACE IN THE COUNTRY
by Sarah Gainham
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $6.95
Sarah Gainham is an English novelist with an extensive and sympathetic knowledge of Austria. Her best-known book, Night Falls on the City, is the story of the deterioration of the once elegant, artistic capital, Vienna, beginning with the German Occupation of 1937 and reaching the fearful degradation when the city fell to the tender mercies of the Russians in 1945. The novel dramatized what capitulation meant to three intelligent people: Julia Homburg, the leading lady of the state theater, who contrived to keep her Jewish husband hidden in her apartment for seven years; her lovely young ward, Lali von Kasda, whose home was taken over by the Russian high command; and Georg Kerenyi, the brave, cantankerous journalist from Hungary who was involved in the plot to kill Hitler.
In the sequel, her new book, A Place in the Country, Miss Gainham tells of the rescue of these three from their destitution and captivity, and, incidentally, of the restoration of Vienna itself, thanks to the ameliorating pressure of the Allies. The agent who was personally responsible is a twenty-two-year-old English officer, Captain Robert Inglis, the most gifted linguist in a British interrogation unit—the “pen,” as the military call it. Inglis, whose mother was Russian, has more than a speaking acquaintance with the Soviet mentality, and the defectors and agents who have passed through his hands have made him wary: it was he who discovered Kerenyi in a ghastly half-frozen van load shunted into Austria from a Russian prison camp; it was he whose intervention and surreptitious gifts, the result of the black market, helped Julia Homburg rehabilitate her plundered country house; and it was he who got a job in the British zone for the exhausted young widow Lali, thus extricating her, though not her mother, from the attention of the Russian officers. Robert Inglis is a quite fascinating character with an intuitive understanding of foreign temperaments, a likable modesty, and a courage in counterespionage quite the equal of that required in combat.
The action is set in two pools of light: the pen, with its strict barbed-wire security within which the warmed, well-fed British officers work, and bicker; and the other, the country house, slowly regaining its character as Julia and Lali regain their strength and to which comes Captain Inglis, as protector, bearer of food, and in his shy way, lover of Lali. The personal relations are handled with a sure touch, and the tension in the story arises from the fact that in 1946 the Americans possessed the knowledge and weaponry the Russians were avid to secure, and that it was the Soviets’ search for secrets and defectors which invested Europe with the pervasive atmosphere of suspicion and conspiracy. I think Miss Gainham makes too much of the English defector in the pen, but with this single reservation, I find this a cultivated, vivid, and remarkably cosmopolitan story.
FUN WHILE IT LASTED
by Barnaby Conrad
Random House, $6.95
By his own admission Barnaby Conrad should have been a spoiled brat. There was money back of him, and during his boyhood in Burlingame, California, he learned to do too many things too easily: he was at home in the saddle, could play the piano or guitar acceptably for a nightclub, and at sixteen had painted the murals for the Tahitian Hut in San Francisco. Girls found him irresistible and came when he whistled. It was while taking summer courses at the University of Mexico in preparation for Yale that he caught the contagion of Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. AT a second-rate fight, on a dare from his roommate, he dropped into the ring and proceeded with his Brooks Brothers raincoat to make a series of passes at the surprised bull. The crowd was amused, and when the bull had hooked the coat over his eyes and Conrad had found safety behind the barricade, there was a roar of applause. At nineteen this first taste of the bullring was the turning point in his young life, as he explains in his naïve and volatile autobiography, Fun While It Lasted.
Bullfighting, like writing, is a profession in which amateurs do not thrive, as Barnaby was to learn in the course of the next decade. In Mexico he found a young matador, Felix Guzman, who was willing to be his tutor, and he learned fast: his veronicas were good and his courage grew cooler when he used the muleta, but his experience was still superficial, and when he turned his back on an erratic heifer and carelessly twitched his cape, he received the first of several gorings, this one doing sufficient damage to his right leg to unfit him for service in the Second World War.
When the State Department found a job for him in Spain as one of our vice-consuls, Conrad had time to heal his gimpy leg and to pursue his flirtation with the bulls, in which he went considerably further than Hemingway. He was befriended by Sydney Franklin, Belmonte, and Manolete, and under their patronage, he practiced at the great ranches, took part in an occasional festival, and with the title of “The Kid from California,” acquired the status of a semipro. Manolete, that ugly little nonesuch, was his special admiration; he watched him in the defiant competition with younger matadors and wondered, as all Spain did, how much longer death would spare the great one.
After two years of dangerous, delightful living and another tossing, which left him limp, Conrad resigned from the Foreign Service and took a freighter to join his brother in Peru. Here he tried his hand at writing, played the piano in a night spot, and when an old flame joined him and he needed more cash, began to paint portraits, more than twenty of them, for what sounds like good money—all this being a prelude to the literary adventure that awaited him back home.
It is not Barnaby Conrad’s versatility I question but rather his ability to make it sound believable. His love affairs are quick-changing. He was twice married to and twice separated from his first wife, and his old flame Betty Layne, who eagerly flies to him when other possibilities are exhausted, is repeatedly abandoned. It is beyond his power to describe a desirable woman or to make the reader believe that he could pleasure her. The vital parts of Fun While It Lasted are the hard truths of instruction which Barnaby received in bullfighting from Franklin, Belmonte, and Manolete, and in writing, from Sinclair Lewis, whom he served as companionsecretary for almost a year. Lewis made him conscious of how clichéridden his stories were, and by scorn and example, he set up a discipline which was to guide the younger man in the writing of his best book, Matador, inspired by Manolete’s tragic death. Compared with the instruction he had from his betters Conrad’s playboy escapades sound shallow and but half-told.
BETWEEN THE BULLET AND THE LIE by Cecil Eby
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $6.95
Americans caught in the cross fire of Spain’s Civil War is the theme of Cecil Eby’s well-documented volume Between the Bullet and the Lie. From Christmas Eve, 1936, when the first detachment arrived, until the spring of 1938, when the last survivors were evacuated, 3000 Americans volunteered for the Lincoln Battalion, and more than half gave their lives to the losing cause. Longshoremen, Communists, Ivy Leaguers, dropouts from the Depression, they arrived in the surplus khaki of World War I and with a smattering of close-order drill. They were equipped with French tin hats, with Remingtons, sold to Russia in 1914, stamped with spread eagles, resold to Mexico, and ultimately donated to the Republic, and with worthless Maxims that “fired one shot and jammed.” Their company commanders were of their own choosing, but their division was in the hands of General “Gal,” who had fought in the Austro-Hungarian Army, was captured and trained by the Russians, and was easily the most incompetent of the international general officers in Spain. Hemingway said “he should have been shot.”
“The Lincolns,” some just three days off the boat, received their baptism on the Jarama Front, and it was a nightmare: two truckloads took the wrong road, drove into the enemy lines, and were never heard from again; the balance were butchered in an unsupported charge against the well-armed, well-positioned Moors; and the resentment of those who survived was such that they would have been court-martialed had it not been for the intervention of the Soviet tank commander. The Lincolns suffered from poor equipment, they were irritated by commissars—Commissar Stember, Mr. Eby writes, “had become a symbol of all the disasters that had overtaken the battalion”—and they were abused by the high command, with its incredibly confused staff work. But from that exposure those who lived and those who returned from slight wounds hardened into a tough unit, which under the command of men like Captain Hourihan and Major Merriman became a legend, for its courage, its sour, irrepressible humor, and its ability to improvise.
The narrative and the case histories so carefully pieced together make this of special interest to those who may be curious about the bitter realities in Spain.