The Peripatetic Reviewer

BALDUR’S GATE
by Eleanor Clark
Pantheon, $7.95
We have all seen them, set discreetly back from the village green or on a knoll commanding the Connecticut or some upland stream, those white, spacious, neoclassic survivors of an earlier age, and as we drive by we think to ourselves that the Judge must have lived there with a daughter or two to keep him company and the grandchildren coming back at Christmas, and what a serene, fastidious life they must have enjoyed in contrast to the anger and anxiety of today. This is what Eleanor Clark is writing about in her discursive, contemporary novel Baldur’s Gate, for to her these gracious mansions were too often whited sepulchers in which moral debasement had set in long before the developer, with his ranch-house tenements, began to debase the neighborhood. Miss Clark received the National Book Award for The Oysters of Locmariaquer, and her new novel is the July selection of the Book-of-theMonth Club.
In the small Connecticut village of Jordan, so the story goes, there were two historical houses which, with the beauty of the Green and the wellpoised Episcopal church, gave the town only a little less renown than Litchfield. The better of the two was the Buckinghams’, with its four great elms planted over a century ago, the wysteria vine which Grandmother Buckingham, along with her money, had brought as a cutting from California, and the grandis fir which shaded the living room and which was standing when George Washington, on the march, might have entered the dwelling. The secondbest, smaller, not so well designed in mantel and doorway, was the Prydens’, and it was Miss Pryden—Addie to those who knew her well—who maintained its distinction. Even in her middle years she was a dazzler. What with her Ph.D. in Latin, her essays on French literature and local history, her acumen in politics, and her magnetism, she had made her home a stopover for distinguished visitors.
Early in the century there had been intimacy and equality between the two families, but by 1952 when the novel opens, the Buckinghams have lost their money and their character; Eva Buckingham, the last of the grandchildren and the heroine of the book, has watched her mother’s futile efforts to keep the big house afloat, first as a boarding school and then, when that failed, as a rented teahouse; now a dilapidated shell, it is Eva’s to care for. Through the years of defeat Miss Pryden, in her clever, saturnine way, had not offered much help to her prettier, younger neighbor, and the feuding between the two, the mixture of admiration and resentment which Eva feels, sets the story in motion.
In the balmy days before her parents had gone to pot Eva had been briefly, unofficially engaged to Jack Pryden, her boyhood companion and Miss Addie’s nephew. When he ditched her for a Long Island socialite, Eva’s bitterness was more than she could stand, and she found consolation wherever it was offered. She has been seven years married to Lucas, the blond, handsome, slightly tetched handyman, before the tide of fortune begins to reverse itself; and the man most responsible for the reversal is a stranger, a millionaire contractor named Jarvis who has covered acres of Long Island with his spawning of cheap houses and presently has hope of foisting a similar development on Jordan. To give style to the enterprise he has employed the native sculptor Baldur Blake, a former admirer of Miss Pryden, who in a twinkling turns away from alcoholism and turns on his imagination. Baldur has had a soft spot for Eva ever since she used to pose for him as a nymph, and when he moves in with Lucas and herself, the three are drawn into the web of the odious Mr. Jarvis.
Baldur’s Gate is propped on a series of suppositions, some of which, like the sculptor’s instant abstinence, make me doubtful. The scandal of Addie Pryden, which the gossips feast on after her death, the pact between herself and the sculptor, and Baldur’s attitude toward Jack— all have a Peyton Place implausibility. The mystery of Lucas’ background and the piling of coincidence upon coincidence as the deal with Jarvis becomes more ominous seem to me unnaturally shaky props. What redeems the narrative is Miss Clark’s feeling for the New England seasons and her characterization of Eva, the honesty of Eva’s admissions, her confusion between her sex with Jack and love for Lucas, and her capacity to fight back when desperate.
On her way to becoming a better novelist Miss Clark will learn to economize her introspective passages, which in this story are too often a weariness to the flesh.
THE LIFE OF EZRA POUND
by Noel Stock
Pantheon, $10.00
The evolution of Ezra Pound from his boyhood in Hailey, Idaho, to a position of power in London and Rapallo as the catalyst for poetry in our time, and thence to the naïve and treasonable broadcasts which cost him years of incarceration, is certainly a remarkable story and one which Noel Stock has told as fairly as a partisan can.
Pound was bright and studious, and when at fifteen he elected to be a poet, he had already assimilated the work of James Whitcomb Riley and Rudyard Kipling, from whom he derived his lifelong fondness for dialect, and had read enough of Bliss Carman, Ernest Dowson, Fiona McLeod, and Browning to know that he wanted something different. His father, who backed him as far as a modest budget would allow, sent him to the University of Pennsylvania, where Ezra did well in the classics and where he had the good fortune to make friends with a freshman in the Department of Dentistry, William Carlos Williams, a fellow poet who was to remain his closest American confidant. Williams drew this sketch of Pound in 1904:
He is really a brilliant talker and thinker but delights in making himself just exactly what he is not: a laughing boor. His friends must be all patience in order to find him out and even then you must not let him know it, for he will immediately put on some artificial mood and be really unbearable. It is too bad, for he loves to be liked, but there is some quality in him which makes him too proud to try to please people.
Perhaps because he preferred the intimacy of a small college, Ezra transferred to Hamilton. He was good at languages, and the work in French, Italian, and Spanish which he did under Professor William Pierce Shepard led to private tutoring in Provencal and the beginning of his infatuation with the Troubadours. Poetry was always his obsession, and in “How I Began,” written when he was twenty-seven, he looked back at his younger self:
He resolved that at thirty he would know more about poetry than any man living: would know the “dynamic content” from the “shell,” what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of it was indestructible and could not be lost in translation, and what effects were obtainable in one language only and were incapable of being translated at all. “In this search I learned more or less of nine foreign languages, I read Oriental stuff in translations, I fought every university regulation and every professor who tried to make me learn anything except this, or who bothered me with ‘requirements for degrees.’ ”
As Mr. Stock says, this is a clearer, harder conceit than the boy felt, as an undergraduate, but it is certainly indicative.
Money was a problem; he could live on less of it abroad, and the chapters describing how he scrounged his way from Crawfordville, Indiana, where he had been teaching, to Venice, where he paid to have one hundred copies of his first small book of poems, A Lume Spento, published by Antonini, is a chronicle of frugality. He arrived in London with §15 in his pocket, a few copies of his book, and the desire to lecture about the Troubadours; he was bumptious and self-seeking, but he had his scholarship, he had his dedication, and in his verses he was beginning to show, as the biographer puts it, “a rare feeling for the grain of the language.”
How well Pound anticipated the future will be seen in these words he wrote for Harold Munro:
[As to] the poetry I expect to see written during the next decade or so, it will, I think, move against poppycock, it will be harder and saner, it will be what Mr. Hewlett calls “nearer the bone.” It will be as much like granite as it can be, its force will lie in its truth. . . . We will have fewer painted adjectives impeding the shock and stroke of it. At least for myself. I want it so, austere, direct, free from emotional slither.
It is in his friendships, those he sampled and lost and those he held dear, that we see Pound’s influence most forcibly at work. He captivated his first English publisher, Elkin Mathews: to the editors A. R. Orage and Ford Madox Hueffer he brought his hybridizing enthusiasm, although he could never get on Henry Mencken’s wavelength; he revered Henry James and Laurence Binyon, though there was no intimacy with either; he championed the early work of Robert Frost (“We quarrelled within six weeks,” wrote Frost later), as he did that of D. H. Lawrence, whose friendship lasted longer. He scouted for Harriet Munroe, the editor of Poetry, and cheered on the lesser lights who never made it. The creative stimulus which he gave to that great trio, Yeats, Eliot, and Joyce, was a gift for which each was grateful.
The eccentricity which began to develop after he settled in Italy in 1923 makes it necessary to distinguish between Pound the poet and Pound the man. The fractiousness which was a part of his nature became sharper. After his acceptance of Major Douglas’ theory of Social Credit, Pound renounced England, which he said was going to the dogs. As a political thinker he was a child: his admiration for Fascism, his ideas on race, his anti-Semitism (“Roosevelt is more in the hands of the Jew than Wilson was in 1919”) grew more strident as the Depression deepened his misgivings about this country.
He did not set foot in America until 1939, and after an absence of twenty-eight years, he was out of touch and uninformed: the abuse which he turned loose in the broadcasts from Italy when we were at war and for which he was paid $17 a performance was the ranting of an unbalanced egoist and led to his confinement at war’s end in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital after it was rightly determined that he should not stand trial. The poets remained loyal to him, particularly E. E, Cummings and T. S. Eliot, but it was primarily the persistence of Archibald MacLeish that procured Pound’s release after eleven years. It was a tawdry ending for a dedicated man who will be remembered not so much for what he wrote as for what he gave to other poets.
HAPPINESS
by Mary Lavin
Houghton Mifflin, $4.95
Mary Lavin is Irish in thought and feeling, and the short story is her most natural form of expression. “It is in the short story,” she once wrote, “that a writer distills the essence of his thought. I believe this because the short story, shape as well as matter, is determined by the writer’s own character. Both are one. Short-story writing—for me—is only looking closer than normal into the human heart.” Stories do not pour out of her as they did out of John O’Hara, because in her life on Abbey Farm on the bank of the River Boyne her writing is done in snatches of time filched from other duties; but those which do emerge have an intake of life, the fret and thrust of the human spirit, and a marvelous sense of compression so that we have, in the space of twenty pages or less, the essential character and the emotional development of her leading figure. Her early stories, Tales From Bective Bridge, many of which appeared in the Atlantic, were either lyrical—I think of the Irish fiddler in “At Sallygap”—or they celebrated the rebellion and escape from the cage of convention. Then with the loss of the two men she loved best, her father and her young husband, William Walsh, death for a time weighed the balance.
In her new collection, Happiness and Other Stories, she is at her mature best: in the title story, where a young widow defies the restraint of her children and of Father Hugh, the priest she loves, in her determined search for Happiness, she achieves better than ever the miracle of compressing so much of life in so little space. In the longest story, “A Pure Accident,” she treats the Church as she treats her people, with irony, the flick of humor, and with a sudden disclosure of the spirit of distress which brings tears to the eyes.