The Peripatetic Reviewer

by Edward Weeks
HERSELF, an autobiography
by Hortense Calisher
Arbor House, $10.00; $5.95
There is an air of candor and aspiration in Herself which attracts me from the first. Miss Calisher, whose short stories in the New Yorker established her before she went on to her novels, has braided together her public and her private life with an honesty which makes me appreciate the difficulties, real or imaginary, which confront a woman writer.
Born and bred in New York City, she grew up in the Depression, which she calls “the era of the Big Apple,” and although her middle-class Jewish family moved from ten rooms to four with Ma doing the housework and the family business bankrupt, Hortense scrabbled her way through Barnard, earning what she could in a restaurant or as a sales girl. After graduation she was taken on at twenty-five dollars a week in the Department of Public Welfare, where she visited 175 families a month, “all of them, it seemed, on the top fifth floor,” and where she discovered the slum fear of city hospitals.
Tall, dark, and sexy, she was married early to an engineer and packed and unpacked for him in the industrial cities to which he was assigned. She had always intended to write, but in this “house-and-child life” she had time only for poems, tossed off “in trances of regret for the intellectual life she thought she had lost.” But she had not lost it, and in time began to dramatize in short stories the familiar situations back in New York. Her first published short story she wrote in her mind as she walked to and from the nursery school with her son
Peter. By her late thirties, she had outgrown the autobiographical story and was ready to take on the world.
Few readers have ever had put to them so succinctly the difficulties which Miss Calisher confronted. She was determined not to be classified as “a woman writer,” and equally determined to write with detachment (and in her novels with pride) about her Jewish antecedents. In 1950 the New Yorker accepted a story of hers called “Old Stock,” about a young girl whose first encounter with anti-Semitism “outside” occurs at a Jewish summer resort in the Catskills. The editor warned her that she and the magazine would get a lot of protest mail “from Anti-Semitic Jews who don’t know they are.” He was right but it did not deter her. “I have dared to imply that Jews are not impeccable,” and she continued to do so in a story entitled, “Hun’ Forty-Fifth They Gotta Get Out,” a period piece about how some Jews felt about the Blacks in New York City. This story the New Yorker would not print, and when she submitted it to a Jewish periodical, the answer came back that the subject was not within their scope.
Miss Calisher is imaginative in showing how her fiction has its seeds in her private life and how it grows and fructifies in her daily living, which is not sheltered. When her premonition tells her that her early marriage will not sustain her, she faces the bleak struggle for divorce unaware, of course, of the lasting wound it will inflict upon her daughter, but knowing that she cannot do otherwise. She finds relief in her year in England made possible by a Guggenheim Fellowship. On her own and with the children to care for, she wonders about the “lovehunt” which her
being craves. Fortunately for her, it is a short one, for at the University of Iowa she meets and falls in love with Curt, a writer and teacher, with whom she is intellectually and physically happy. “Serenity,” she writes, “is good for the work you already have in mind, or for summoning it,” and since her new marriage so far have come four novels, two novellas, prose, and poetry.
Not every reader will wish to delve so intensely in her self-analysis, but for the nonwriter there are delightful interludes in London, in Washington, and in her long flight through the Far East, where she is alternately teaching and being entertained, and at the end of which she hopes will be her marriage to Curt in Iran. I find myself skipping through her travel journal— for once started Miss Calisher seldom uses her brakes—but there are bright spots in it: her meeting with Ambassador Bohlen in the Philippines, her frankness in answering questions in the Jesuit school, her silk and tinsel days in Thailand where she saw much of Jim Thompson and altogether too much of Curt’s first wife. “A memoir,” writes Miss Calisher, “is your own trembling review of what you did and do—what you can bear to say of it.” I say she has spoken with courage and with that tincture of humor which eliminates self-pity.
Pity is the prevailing theme of her new novel, Standard Dreaming, which reaches out for sympathy, far beyond the capacity of so short a book. It is the story of middle-aged parents in New York, each of whom has been rejected by a favorite child. The Society of the Child Dr. Niels Berners calls them, and it is he who brings them together to talk and touch; he is their wailing wall and in his comforting presence one never blames the child. Niels is himself being punished by his only son, Raoul, who after a promising start at Harvard turns into a holier-than-thou prig. The children, mostly offstage, are eccentric misfits and we are left to imagine the cause of their hatred. The flaw of the book lies in the parents, for with the exception of the doctor they are all onenote characters who elliptically or in outbursts repeat their distress until their pathos becomes tedious. Dr. Berners in his Swiss boyhood had rebelled against his mother and the Church and there is the vague inference that Christianity is to blame. But what he is trying to say in his murky, dosing soliloquy I do not understand. I wish Miss Calisher had given us a better Q.E.D.
by J. M. Stagg
Norton, $5.95
In October of 1943, early in the preparation of the assault on Europe, and before the appointment of General Eisenhower to the Supreme Command. J. M. Stagg, a meteorologist who in civilian capacity had been directing the weather service for the British Army, was informed that an independent forecaster was wanted “to advise the Allied Commander at the time of the invasion,” and that he was it. Stagg, “a dour but canny Scot,” as Ike came to describe him, was a diffident scientist, long familiar with the unpredictable nature of the British Isles and the Channel, and he accepted with misgivings. They were increased by the changes in the plan for Overlord which Eisenhower asked for shortly after his arrival from North Africa: to extend the beachhead, both eastward and westward, and increase the first waves from three to five army divisions, a change which automatically postponed the invasion from May to June. As for the weather, if God was good, what Ike wanted was a full moon and cloudless sky for the bombing, with a low tide at 5 A.M. so that two landings could be made on the beachhead on the same day. To ensure success he hoped that his weatherman could provide a favorable forecast on D-Day minus 4 with a reasonable prediction of what to expect for the rest of that week. When Mr. Stagg fully realized the implications of this wish, he contained his pessimism and decided to do his best.
There were other complications. As a civilian, he had to be appropriately commissioned if he was to gain the confidence of American colonels; secondly, and more sensitive, he had to unify as closely as possible the weather reports coming in from the various sources: the Admiralty, the Royal Air Force, the United States Army Air Force, and the Meteorological Office which made its own independent findings in Dunstable. The Americans had compiled records of the British and French coasts going
back for half a century, but the men who interpreted them had had no experience with how swiftly conditions may change. Not the least of his troubles was to avoid the inevitable rivalry and to keep tempers cool.
It was known that the tidal conditions would be about right on June 5 and 6, and on May 17 General Eisenhower set the launching of his armada for June 5. As the fine days of May go by, one feels again the tension mount. It is a matter of history that if the Allied landings had been made at any time in May, they would have encountered far stiffer resistance, for the German weathermen had also done their homework and by their reckoning the blow must come in May. But as D-Day approached, Stagg and his team had warnings of trouble. The weather charts for June
3 were anything but reassuring— Force 5 winds to be expected on June
4 and 5 along the Channel coast with cloud covering most of the sky down to one thousand feet at times. The excerpts from Stagg’s diary show how very human was the reaction in SHAEF as Admiral Creasy remarked, “There goes six foot two of Stagg and six feet one of gloom.” When Stagg made his final negative forecast, General Eisenhower sat motionless, then put the final question. “Last night you left us, or at least you left me, with a gleam of hope. Isn’t there just a chance that you might be a bit more optimistic again tomorrow?” “No, sir.”
It should be left to the author to describe how the operation was suspended and of the momentous change discerned in the weather pattern in the mid-Atlantic, a change the Germans did not detect (Rommel driving home from Paris to Germany, the weather being so foul), a change which permitted Overlord to resume on that clear, fateful Tuesday.
by Janet Flanner
Viking. $8.50
In September. 1925, Janet Flanner, under the signature of “Genêt,” began her biweekly “Letter from Paris” in the New Yorker, guided by her editor’s statement that “he wanted to know what the French thought was going on in France, not what I thought was going on.” She had earlier settled in one of the small hotels on the Paris Left Bank within reach of a large corner café called Les Deux Magots and was already at ease with other American expatriates: Djuna Barnes; Ernest Hemingway, who took to her because his father like hers had committed suicide; Sylvia Beach, founder of that extraordinary bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, and the publisher of James Joyce; and Scott Fitzgerald. But her Letter was to be about the French, and she wished it to be “precisely accurate, highly personal, colorful, and ocularly descriptive . . . with a critical edge, indeed a double edge, if possible.” How she spun her web so as to hear, see, and sense what was going on in Paris and in the provinces is her secret; what is certain is that what started out as journalism has turned into history with a spice and a style that delight the mind.
In Paris Was Yesterday, Genêt gives us the dazzle of the 1920s when Josephine Baker in La Revue Nègre made her entry entirely nude except for a pink flamingo feather, “being carried upside down and doing the split on the shoulder of a black giant.” She identifies the four leading characters of The Sun Also Rises, depicts Sylvia Beach’s selfless service to Joyce, which he rewarded by not one sou when Random House paid him a $40,000 advance, and she portrays Isadora Duncan with all the extravagance and pathos of that independent spirit. The French make a fetish of funerals, and Genêt depicts them, from that of Claude Monet, who was pushed to his grave on a handcart, followed by two peasants and Clemenceau on foot, to that of Marshal Foch, whose procession was witnessed by three million people. I snort at her ridicule of the Paris critics, their absurdities about Hamlet, their raves about Mae West’s (nonexistent) literary performance, their exaggerated praise of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Irving Drutman, the editor of this volume, has chosen well.
The 1930s opened with an epidemic of fantastic fancy-dress balls, as if the very rich did not care how they wasted their wealth; and as the Third Republic entered that final period of musical chairs when the government fell because of the Stavisky scandal, when to pacify the public Daladier “dismissed the Prefect of Police just at a moment when the city
most needed a prefect,” and when the trail of corruption led up so high that no paper dared trace it, Genêt’s edge becomes sardonic indeed. After “Bloody Tuesday,” after the swindles perpetrated by Mme. Marthe Hanau, one realizes that order and common sense had been flung to the wind by the French establishment long before Hitler made such a mockery of the Maginot Line.
by Alan Sillitoe
Scribner’s, $6.95
In the vein of Erewhon, Mr. Sillitoe has written a novel in the form of a guidebook to that forbidding little country of Nihilon, where ever since the revolution led by President Nil the Nihilists have lived with a rudeness and disrespect for order which more docile people might envy.
Five correspondents—four men and one comely young woman—were sent in to gather this information and it is their adventure which composes the narrative. Each is subjected to rough handling by the border guards, and each has to adjust to this regimented chaos where passports are forged and stolen, where cheating is normal, and where currency is changed, and always upward, at the whim of the officials. Everyone drinks Nihilitz, especially before driving, for if the police stop you on the road and see that you haven’t been drinking, you are likely to get ten years in prison. A marriage license is granted for only seven years and then comes up for renewal like a TV license, and the state-owned network is known as the Lies. On the road to Fludd, a huge sign in crimson letters says: DRINK NIHILITZ! KEEP DEATH ON THE ROAD! IT’S FUN! And in Fludd itself the people live on the verge of excitement and everything is dirt cheap because the huge dam which overtops the town has large cracks and is likely to go any day. Nihilon carries on a running war with its neighbor, mild and orderly Cronacia, which is stirred to extraordinary violence by Adam, the first of the correspondents to cross the border.
In his amusing, satirical way, Mr. Sillitoe leads his innocents on ever deeper in this land where people live as we think we don’t, and the combustion they contrive before their departure is as funny as it is surprising.