The Peripatetic Reviewer
THE MARQUIS DE CUSTINE AND HIS RUSSIA IN 1839 by Princeton University Press, $6.00
In his knowledge of the Russian people and his interpretation of Soviet policy, former Ambassador George F. Kennan has few peers. This brief, illuminating book joins his own perception to that of an astute Frenchman, the Marquis de Custine, who in 1839 spent a summer in the Russia of Nicholas I, with prophetic consequence. Custine and Tocqueville were aristocrats of the same vintage, and each had suffered from the French Revolution, Custine’s father and grandfather both having been guillotined. When their fortunes were restored. Tocqueville in his thirties and Custine in his late forties made intellectual explorations, the former evaluating the most promising democracy in the new world, and the latter the most absolute of all monarchies. Mr. Kennan’s book is accordingly a character study, a fascinating travelogue, and a profound comparison of the Russia which Custine experienced with the Soviet Union of today.
The Marquis de Custine was a cultivated Parisian, a handsome romantic, supersensitive because of the scandal of homosexuality which had soiled him as a young man. His mother was a beauty, Chateaubriand’s mistress, who is remembered as Delphine in Madame de Staël’s novel. When her son was cold-shouldered by society, he sought to redeem himself in literature; he traveled well—he “read” countries, he claimed, as other people read books; his book on Spain proved more successful than his novels. At Balzac’s urging, he aimed for Russia, and Turgenev, the older cousin of the great Russian novelist, equipped him with letters of introduction to the intellectuals in St. Petersburg. Ostensibly Custine’s motive was to substantiate his faith in government by aristocracy, but as Mr. Kennan skillfully discloses, the Marquis was already suspicious of the Czar’s tyranny, made so by his sympathy for Polish refugees who had fled from the Uprising of 18301831, and his friendships with the Russians who had been exiled to France after the Decembrist riots. He went looking for imperfections, and after his reception at Court and three summer months spent in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and the country, traveling seventy-five miles a day by coach with the best of horses on the worst of roads, he recrossed the border at Tilsit on his way home: “A bird escaped from the cage could not, he said, have been happier.”
Back in Paris he ordered his thoughts, and then in 1842, spurred by Tocqueville’s example, he published a work of eighteen hundred pages which, despite a hostile press, went through seven editions in a short time and was widely translated and pirated. Europeans criticized it for the gossip and inconsistencies; Russians, the Emperor included, despised it for its unflattering picture of Russian society. Travelers of that day, Mr. Kennan points out, were supposed to provide only facts and descriptions; Custine’s “philosophic and political insights . . . fell utterly without resonance on Victorian susceptibilities ... he detected, in the glimpse he had of Russia in the summer of 1839, traits in the mentality of Russian government and society, some active, some latent, the recognition and correction of which would be vital to the future success and security of Russian society.”
Hard truths are usually repugnant, and in the final chapter, “Custine in Retrospect,” it is clear that Kennan himself will receive some of the abuse which was once showered on the Marquis, evidence that the Frenchman’s judgment was more than a little prophetic.
PRIVATE WORLDS by Sarah Gainham Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $6.95
There is always a risk in planning a sequence of novels about a single person or a family such as the Forsytes of London or the Whiteoaks of Ontario. The advantage is that the leading characters take root in the mind, and as they grow their behavior under stress becomes a matter of anxiety or gratification, almost as if they were our kin. The disadvantage is that with each entry into a new sequel the reader must catch up the threads of what has gone before, and unless the novelist is adroit, the references to the past, especially the crises, demand inordinate space and lessen our interest in the present.
In the first two novels of her Julia Homburg trilogy. Night Falls on the City, and A Place in the Country, Sarah Gainham very surely aroused our sympathy for her heroine, a leading actress in Vienna who came under suspicion and then persecution as her conquered country passed from the bullying of the Nazis to the rough usage of the Russians. For seven years Julia had gambled her life to protect her Jewish husband, hidden away in a secret room in her apartment. She divorced him as a pretext, but after his tragic death she sought refuge in her battered country house, and there her recuperation and her reunion with an old admirer, Georgy Kerenyi, the Hungarian editor, gaunt from his Russian imprisonment and limping from his wounds, formed the substance of Miss Gainham’s second novel.
Miss Gainham’s problem in her new book. Private Worlds, is to show us how Julia and Kerenyi, now married and refreshed in spirit by their honeymoon in Greece, are able to reconcile and adjust to each other in the redecorated apartment in Vienna, so full of ghosts. In this I feel that the novelist succeeds: Julia’s dreamy endeavor to absorb the leading role in the revival of Antony and Cleopatra and Georgy’s penetrating ironic hunger to possess her, here and now, are well contrasted. But the novelist’s overriding responsibility is to keep the story moving briskly in the present, and that is where I think Miss Gainham has failed. By her skillful threading of the past and the present she has managed to affiliate us with these cultivated Viennese as they struggle to regain their balance in life, but the narrative moves too slowly, with long stretches of dialogue which stress nuance rather than vitality; and their suffering in the past, of which they are all reminded by the reappearance of a detestable SS General, too often muffles the action in the foreground.
MERCURY by Katherine and Peter Montague A Sierra Club Battlebook, $2.25
Environmental pollution is frustrating because it appears from unexpected sources with so little warning. We had just begun to fence in the danger of pesticides, or so we believed, when the danger of mercury appeared in salt water and fresh; the swordfish was banished; and the TVA lakes, once thought to be a recreation area, were closed to fishermen and hunters. How did the swordfish acquire that mercury content? How long have they had it? How accurately can we determine what is presently a dangerous level of mercury in the absence of any past study of “normal levels” in foodstuffs? These are some of the questions Katherine and Peter Montague of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque answer in their lucid and accusing Battlebook.
The Montagues begin by describing mercury and its peculiar characteristics, and then go into a brisk history of the recognition of the mercury poisoning as a result of eating contaminated fish, a recognition made in Japan in the early 1950s followed by studies in Sweden which led to the prohibition of mercury-based insecticides in that country. The Swedes publicized their findings and so alerted world health authorities. Our Embassy in Stockholm peppered Washington with reports, but not until the late 1960s, when the indubitable and increasing mercury content in our fish could not be denied, did the federal authorities act. And according to the Montagues, our testing techniques were hastily improvised and inferior to what had been developed in Sweden and Canada. Not only are we late, say the Montagues, but we are hesitant; a company manufacturing a pesticide thought to be dangerous has simply defied the order to remove the stuff from the market and has settled down to a long court battle. Two conclusions emerge from this book: that the effects of mercury poisoning are frightening and that the vigilance of the Food and Drug Administration leaves much to be desired.
MYSELF AMONG OTHERS by Ruth Gordon Atheneum, $10.00
Ruth Gordon is the best actress that Boston, or to be exact, Wollaston, Massachusetts, has produced in sixty years, and when she headed for Broadway her father, home from the sea, gave her his spyglass which he said she could hock for $100. Otherwise she had no more back of her than did Jack Donahue or Fred Allen. On the evening of December 31, 1915, Alex Woollcott, the young drama critic of the New York Times spotted her playing a bit part in Maude Adams’ revival of Peter Pan, and his comment, “Ruth Gordon was ever so gay as Nibs,” which appeared in an otherwise unenthusiastic review was the beginning of a love that never ceased until his death. Alex was the greatest ballyhooer America has known, and the reproduction of his radio scripts at the beginning of Myself Among Others serves two purposes: it gives the unacquainted a panorama of those glorious parts Miss Gordon made her own, and it reminds us of that rococo, creampuff prose that would have been interminable in any other voice but Alex’s. Then Ruth takes us to Woollcott’s deathbed and recalls what she said at the memorial service with an honesty of feeling that clutches at the heart.
Myself Among Others is a jackdaw’s nest, full of every kind of memory of the theater, the bright and the small, the gay and the glib, the ostentatious and the Yankee sharp that this talented bird has been collecting on her timeless wings. She lets people depict themselves by what they say or do; she is not given to adjectives and there is none of the rehearsal sweat and anguish which wracks a performer like Agnes de Mille. Ruth keeps to the surface but she has her favorites, and when they appear, that inimitable Wollaston drawl with which she tells her stories is charged with warmth: they are, in addition to Alex, Ethel Barrymore, Thornton Wilder, Somerset Maugham, Charles Laughton, and, without any forcing, that considerate, enhancing husband she found in Garson Kanin.