The Peripatetic Reviewer

THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN by E. B. WhiteHarper & Row, $4.50
Among the extracurricular jobs I had as an undergraduate was that of being a companion-tutor to a boisterous nine-year-old. Through no planning of mine, our reading that summer was devoted to a single book: we began The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle in mid-June, and we reread it four times, with a single intermission in which I tried to divert attention to Treasure Island without success. Such is the grip of a story whose situations are so preposterous yet so plausible that the imagination is not content with the first impression; it must go back to relive and cherish the details.
It demands a special kind of genius to create the perfect blend of fantasy and belief, and this E. B. White has. His first success, Stuart Little, told the story of an adventurous Manhattan mouse who when he became an adopted member of the Little family enormously enhanced their pleasure, and who when he drove out of the story in his tiny toy automobile left a void that was felt by old and young.
Stuart Little was a city story of such adventures as could be had aboard the model sailboats in Central Park. Mr. White’s new book, The Trumpet of the Swan, is a story of the wilderness and of the settlements which come within the range of Louis, a Trumpeter Swan who is born without a voice. Louis’ infirmity was first noticed by Sam Beaver, who, with his father, had been camping in Western Canada, and who chanced upon the nest of trumpeters in a marsh. Sam’s spying was tolerated by the cob and the mother swan when he drove a fox away from the nest; and when the five cygnets, brownish-gray with yellow legs, were born, he was permitted to come close enough to watch them swim and hear them beep—four of them, that is—the fifth, Louis, who was mute, proclaimed himself by untying Sam’s shoelace.
Sam kept a diary and made this entry the evening the swans departed: “I heard the swans tonight. They are headed south. It must be wonderful to fly at night. I wonder whether I’ll ever see one of them again. How does a bird know how to get from where he is to where he wants to be?” The great birds, Sam’s father explained, were on their way to the Red Rock Lakes in Montana, where the warm springs gave them protection for the winter.
Next day the boy and his father were flown back to their home in the Sweet Grass country by the bush pilot, and there the story might have ended. But in the Red Rock Lakes Louis look his isolation to heart. “If I’m defective in one respect,” he said to himself, ”I should try and develop myself along other lines. I will learn to read and write. Then I will hang a small slate around my I neck and carry a chalk pencil. In that way I will be able to communicate with anybody who can read.” There was only one boy in the world who could help him get to school, and without a word to his parents, he set out in search of Sam. Louis is a Trumpeter destined for splendid accomplishments, and they should be told as Mr. White perceived them, not anticipated and simplified by a reviewer.
The heroine of this delightful book is Serena, a swan of Louis’ age, who is put off by his silence. But for me the real heroine of the book is Louis’ mother, with her tart tongue. Louis’ father loves to wrap up the simplest of things in rhetoric, and the swan cuts through this nonsense just the way any sensible woman would do.
After Louis’ disappearance, his father proclaims he will lead a search party of one. The mother is realistic: “If you were to start out looking for him, which way would you fly?” “Well,” replied the cob, “in the last analysis, I believe I would go south.” “What do you mean, ‘in the last analysis’?” said she impatiently. “You haven’t analyzed anything. Why do you say ‘in the last analysis’? And why do you pick south as the way to go looking for Louis? There are other directions . . .” Again and again she punctures the old boy’s sententiousness, and her sense of reality makes me laugh.
When Louis returns from his schooling with his slate and his ability to write, he is turned down for the second time by Serena. His father, wishing to console him, asks where he is: “He’s over there sitting on a muskrat house dreaming about that empty-headed young female he’s so crazy about,” says the mother.
The communication between the great white birds, the way in which Sam and Louis understand each other, are, in Mr. White’s prose, acts so natural and responsive that one reads on with ever increasing conviction and delight.
SECOND CHANCE by Louis Auchincloss Houghton Mifflin, $5.95
The twelve short stories in Louis Auchincloss’ collection Second Chance are bound together by unity of time, place, and age; they are concerned with people of middle or later life, well-to-do residents of Park Avenue and Long Island, who have outgrown their early aspirations and, in some cases, their first marriage, and, whether widowed or divorced, have been indulging themselves in easy money, alcohol, or hypocrisy until suddenly the mousetrap clicks and they struggle to get out. The father confessor who appears and reappears in these stories is a lawyer deft in the adjustment of the tax structure, diplomatic in his handling of spoiled women, shrewd in his assessment of the New York publishing scene, the divorce business, and the museum world.
Mr. Auchincloss’ characters are in the main well born and vivacious, undistinguished and, once the reader gets beneath the surface, inhibited. The dilemmas in which they find themselves are familiar in affluent society anywhere, and I particularly admire the swiftness with which the author projects the reader into an arresting situation, with the people already at odds with themselves and the outcome so teasingly in doubt. Thus in “The Waiver,” which is one of my favorites, wealthy Julie Leinsdorf, four times married, is thinking of giving up the privacy of her delicious apartment for a fifth try with Bertie Cram, for which she is ridiculed by her repulsive daughter and cheered on by her granddaughter Sally, who is, incidentally, the only attractive member of the younger generation in the book. I enjoyed “Second Chance,” which, as the title suggests, tells of the adventurous revival of the once handsome redheaded Gilbert Van Ness when he severs connections with his overwhelming wife, Rebecca, and launches forth on his second career. And every publisher will grin at the shrewdness with which Mr. Auchincloss caricatures the foibles of book publishing in “Red Light,” a story told by a secretary no longer in love with her boss. One may not like Mr. Auchincloss’ collection of selfish people, but one must admire the skill with which he characterizes them in the messes they create.
MEMOIRS by André Maurois Harper & Row, $10.00
These Memoirs were begun while Maurois, in his fifty-seventh year, was teaching at Mills College, California. In the sunshine of the Pacific, writing longhand as was his habit, he recaptured his youth. He was the least intimidated of a family of Alsatian Jews—his father was born Ernest Herzog—who moved their mill to Normandy in 1871, and he early rebelled against the tyranny of his conservative uncles who ran the plant. At the Rouen Lycée he came under the influence of a magnetic philosopher, Emile Chartier, an ardent admirer of Balzac and Stendhal, and under his stimulus young Herzog was awarded first prize in the Concours Général, in which all of the colleges in France competed. Back at the mill his success was swift, for he alone had the courage to modernize, but in a secret cupboard in his office he hid some novels by Balzac, Tacitus, and a notebook with outlines for books he felt he would never be free to write. In Paris he fell head-over-heels for a Russian refugee, Janine: age seventeen, father dead, mother in debt, no dowry. Shrewdly realizing that his family would never accept her, at least until she was older, he sent her at his own expense to Oxford to mature under the watchful eye of his friend, a French professor.
It was this kind of enterprise, plus his intuitive understanding of the British character, that made him an indispensable liaison officer in 1914. When he sought permission to publish his first novel, Les Silences du Colonel Bramble, about the Scottish and English officers with whom he had served, he was permitted to do so under a nom de plume, “André Maurois.”
Janine’s health had suffered during the war and she was not confident of André’s future as a writer. He had been reading deeply about Shelley in the intervals between his duty and found himself sympathizing with Shelley’s mistakes, especially his relationship with his child wife, Harriet. In the biography of Shelley, which became an international success under the title of Ariel, Maurois hoped “at once to expose him, to condemn him and to explain him.” He also hoped to regain Janine’s belief in himself.
Maurois’ novels were more widely read in Europe than his biographies of English origin, and on the strength of them he was invited to a conference at the Abbey of Pontigny, where as a student of Balzac he appealed to Gide, and as one who knew Tolstoy by heart he appealed to Martin du Gard. His sojourn at Pontigny was repeated each year, and the friendships he made there were formative. After Ariel came the biography of Disraeli, and at this point his enemies at the Mercure de France turned on him with venom. Maurois’ defense was the publication of his novel Climats, which of all his books has had the greatest number of readers. This was followed by three years of research preceding his Byron, which Desmond MacCarthy called “the most serious and most complete work we have on Byron.”
I dwell on the literary half of these Memoirs because to me the picture of the old France, the elegance of the writing, and the honesty of the self-evaluation are so rewarding. Later, as Hitler drove the wedge between the Allies, it was inevitable that Maurois should be called on as a conciliator. He moved in high circles, spoke with eloquence, rejoiced in the strength and friendships he found in America. But the creative years were over; the closing pages have in them the hurry, frustration, and dismay of a man driven from his natural element.
THE GREEN MAN byKingsley AmisHarcourt Brace Jovanovich, $5.95
Ghost stories are always a problem for me; like a patient defiant of psychoanalysis I resist them until the conviction—or illusion—has diminished to the vanishing point. So it is not for the ghostliness that I enjoyed Kingsley Amis’ novel The Green Man. The pleasure I found was the characterization of Maurice Allington, a burly, cultivated hotelier, owner of a coaching inn forty miles from London, with a history reaching back two centuries and the legend of not one but two ghosts who occasionally inhabit the premises.
Allington is a man of taste, fastidious about the food he serves and his wine list, and distinctly fleshy in his appetites. He has been tucking away a quart of scotch a day for twenty years and has been warned by his doctor to slow down. Hypochondria and hallucinations are part of the price he pays for his alcohol, and since the best ghosts exist only in the head of the observer (cf. “The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions), one can expect that Maurice will know more about the ghosts at The Green Man than any of his guests.
Allington is blessed with a hearty, sardonic temperament, and he needs his liquor to keep his temper in control as he confronts the daily crises of innkeeping, the stubbornness of his adolescent daughter, an addict of TV, the surprising death of his father, who dies in a fit of terror, and the annoying sexual mannerisms of his mistress. It is his cynical, shrewd liveliness that keeps this story so close to the verge of the possible.