The Peripatetic Reviewer
by Edward Weeks
by V. S. Pritchett
Random House, $6.95
by V. S. Pritchett
Random House, $6.95
This is the second section of an autobiography, which was begun in A Cab at the Door, a mirthful account of his boyhood, and which now proceeds with wry honesty to tell of Pritchett’s determination to become a writer. He was the eldest of a large brood, whose father, a Christian Scientist, trusted in “the Divine Mind” and had a genius for failure. The family crises were frequent while the head of the household was dodging one set of creditors and looking for a new job in London, and the effect of the violent quarrels on the son “was to close my heart for a long time.” They also drove him at the age of twenty-one to Paris, where with £20 in his pocket he stayed out of reach of his father. It was in keeping with his reticence that he never met any of the other expatriates—Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Joyce.
Pritchett, in his garret life and often famished, concentrated on disciplining himself: through his work as a photographer’s assistant or as a salesman for glue and ostrich feathers, he learned to speak French and he purchased the time to read the French novelists and to write his own brief descriptive pieces, which he submitted to the London reviews and to the Christian Science Monitor. It was the Monitor which began to pay him regularly, and soon sent him as its correspondent to Ireland.
His two years in Paris gave him the confidence to stand alone, and his life in Ireland, then emerging from the Troubles, unlocked his imagination. “The Irish,” he writes, “live for the story. They woke something in me”— “they” meaning Synge, Yeats, AE, Sean O’Casey, James Stephens, and Lady Gregory. The Abbey Theatre meant more to him than the fighting. He responded to the beauty of the country, and in his encounters he began to see the possibility of short stories. He had never gone to college, but “Literature,” he felt, “was not something to be studied or something to be caught up with, but to be practiced and at once.”
Spain, his next assignment, was a tougher task. The country at first repelled him; the Spanish churches seemed “like warehouses of melancholy and death.” In Spain, still worried by the lack of money and suffering long separations from his actresswife, he worked hard, harder than he had ever done before; and it was his book Marching Spain, in which he walked from one end of the country to the other, that at last made a dent on the perceptive English public. The English writers, when Pritchett came home, treated him with a sociable ironic discouragement, one critic going so far as to call him “a genius with a brain packed in ice.” He had now found his place and a new wife and was happy. A lean and illuminating book in which one feels the adversities and sees the experiences that formed this sharp-edged critic and storyteller.
No NAME IN THE STREET
by James Baldwin
by James Baldwin
More eloquent than W. E. B. Du Bois, more penetrating than Richard Wright, and more involved than either, James Baldwin in this new statement stands as the arch-accuser of white civilization and of the United States in particular. From being a street boy in Harlem, he has risen to international fame, and in his autobiographical essay we see the conflict “between my life as a writer and my life as—not spokesman exactly, but as public witness to the situation of black people.” He writes as an outraged and frightened man, the fear deepening in him as the leaders to whom he was devoted. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, were wiped out by hatred and as his hope for justice was poisoned by the shady imprisonment of his former chauffeur and bodyguard, Tony Maynard. His life abroad, where he fled after King’s death, has given him little solace—momentary relief with the Algerians but no help in reading Camus—and the deterioration he observed on each return home, whether in New York, Hollywood, or Washington, prompts him to write that “as social and moral and political and sexual entities, white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today.”
One must brace oneself emotionally to read such an indictment, but one should, for with all its intemperance and lack of common pity, it contains truths not to be denied. As he shuttles back and forth in time and place, Baldwin flings out angry judgments which tempt the reader to answer back: “the crucifixion of Alger Hiss” (oh, come on!); his contempt for American liberals during the McCarthy era (with no mention of Ed Murrow. Elmer Davis, Learned Hand, and Joseph Welch); his unwillingness to place the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the same wave of violence which destroyed President and Robert Kennedy (these are acts which have wounded us all).
Baldwin is right in saying that the black and white confrontation is “crucial, containing the shape of the American future and the only potential of a truly valid American identity”; right in his feeling of outrage; right in saying. “I’m black and I’m proud”; but wrong in not perceiving that there are millions of thoughtful white Americans intent that reconciliation shall work.
by C. P. Snow
by C. P. Snow
C. P. Snow has given himself the most difficult pitch a senior novelist could imagine in writing this new narrative about a group of student radicals. There were seven of them who formed “the core,” Stephen and Mark, the more idealistic, from Cambridge, the other five from St. Hugh’s, the local university in a small cathedral town. Their cause, as with many of their American contemporaries, is racism. In their exploration of the local slums they bring to light a landlord who has been rack-renting some West Indians without mercy, and probing further, find that the property is owned by a prominent Tory M.P., a minister in the shadow cabinet. After many months of scheming, in which they link up with other activists, and just before they launch their denunciation, Stephen, the leader, learns that they have been betrayed and that the Establishment is moving to squelch their plans.
The novel begins with the news of the betrayal: the landlord’s agent, whom they had bribed, had leaked, but what was worse—since the authorities had such exact knowledge of their design—there must be an informer in their midst. In anger and confusion the core gather for meeting after meeting trying to finger the informer. In the intensity of their suspicion and speculation, character and motives are revealed and their unity begins to crack, but this humorless talk without action goes on for 119 pages, which, as Lord Snow should know, is too long a porch for a novel as short as his.
At a final meeting, when drugs are used as an aid. perhaps to spring the culprit, the quiet little Bernie walks out of the window to his death, and from that point on the story is in high gear, with the light playing remorselessly on Lance, the dispenser of the drugs, Neil, the passionate Trotskyite, Mark, the rich young independent—is it he who doped Bernie’s drink?—and conspicuously, Stephen, the most subtly developed character of them all, with his skepticism, his arrogance, and his self-distrust. In so short a compass, there is not time to explore the various origins of these rebels, but Lord Snow is expert in the scenes which tell us why Stephen has turned against his parents and through them against society, and how in all likelihood he will be reconciled by his love for his camp follower, Tess. Readers who persevere through the arid beginning will be rewarded.
THE OPTIMISTS DAUGHTER
by Eudora Welty
Random House, $5.95
In a novel of contrasts, Miss Welty, who is so at home in Mississippi, has dramatized the struggle between two women, of sharply different breeds of Southern culture, as they fight to preserve the life of the man they love. Judge McKelva, the leading citizen of Mount Salus, Mississippi, was seventy-one when he noticed that his eyesight was fading. He had been warned that a cataract was forming in his left eye, and now that the specialist in New Orleans, an old friend, has diagnosed a slipped retina in the right eye, an operation is imminent. Becky, the judge’s first wife, had lost her mind and drifted into death after a series of operations on her eyes, and Dr. Courtland is taking no chances this time.
At the bedside are Laurel, the only daughter, herself a war widow, who has flown down from Chicago where she is a designer, and Fay, the judge’s second wife, who is younger than Laurel and has been married to the judge for a year and a half. There is hostility between them, for each in her way is possessive of the immobile patient whose head must not be moved, and during their separate watches in the hospital their reactions reveal their differences. Laurel reading her father to sleep, and striving to hold him with her memories of her mother, and Fay, aggressive, crude, impatient with the hospital, determined to call the judge back to his infatuation. But the big man, so optimistic at the outset, lies in silence, unresponsive to either, and after three weeks Fay recklessly takes things into her own hands.
The best scenes in the book occur in the McKelva house before and after the funeral. The house has been cleaned, the flowers and the whiskey provided by Laurel’s bridesmaids and the judge’s cronies, and here in the presence of the open coffin. Fay, joined by an overwhelming contingent of her family from Texas, makes her crass, dramatic appeal for sympathy. The contrast between the effusive sentiment of the old neighbors and the insensitive curiosity of the strangers is shocking comedy, amusing to the ear, infuriating to Laurel, and the most skillful piece of writing. When the Texans leave, and Fay with them, Laurel has three days in which to trim her mother’s garden and sort through her father’s desk before Fay takes possession, and in this pensive hiatus she retraces the strangely tormented career of Becky, her mother. I feel that in their final confrontation. Fay’s jealousy becomes unbelievably clairvoyant. “I don’t know what you’re making such a big fuss over. What do you see in that thing?” she asks. “The past isn’t a thing to me. I belong to the future, didn’t you know that?” and with that taunt Laurel is routed.