The Peripatetic Reviewer

RULE BRITANNIA
by Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, $6.95
The coast of Cornwall is where Dame Daphne du Maurier has her home, that special part of England which is the setting for her best novels. Her stories cast a spell and in her new book she has written a satire that looks to the future, to that moment in history when Britain’s last chance, economically and strategically, seems to be a union with the United States. Britain’s participation in the Common Market has failed and when prices rise 50 percent and a general election shows the country hopelessly divided, the coalition government, pressured by American financiers, prepares to accept the idea of USUK as a saving solution. But with the landing of the U.S. Marines, the setting up of roadblocks, the issuance of ration cards, an American warship offshore and helicopters overhead, this has all the appearance, not of a collaboration, but of a take-over. The oily assurance on radio and television cannot disguise the fact that Her Majesty the Queen is on her way to stay at the White House as “co-President of USUK.” The Cornishmen don’t like it, they don’t like the talk of a new dollar currency, nor American officers prying into their activities; they mistrust the ballyhoo and will not swallow Madison Avenue’s notion that Britain is to become “the playground of the Americas,” historically and in costume, as at Williamsburg.
The leader of the resistance is a once celebrated, high-spirited actress, a character in the little fishing village of Poldrea where she lives in retirement, who is known affectionately as Madam, or to hergranddaughter as “Mad.” And mad she can be when challenged, for all of her seventy-nine years. Surrounding her in her country place and soon to be her troops are Emma, her pretty granddaughter of twentyone, Dottie, who was her dresser for forty years, and six boys ranging from nineteen to three whom she has adopted at various stages of their misfortune. “Mad” is an admirable character, her courage and resourcefulness equal to any provocation, who dresses in a costume, part Robin Hood, part Mao Tse-tung. She is the spirit of Britannia and when a marine fires the first shot (which kills a sheepdog) her opposition is implacable. She will accept none of the guff, not that put out by Martha Hubbard, the earnest Cultural Agent sent over from Boston, not the California wine “so much sweeter on the palate than the French stuff,” and not the financial reassurance which her son who is in the government keeps telephoning to her from London. “Mad” is on the warpath and when, with the aid of Jack Trembath, her nearest neighbor, she organizes a sit-down movement, it begins to spread from Cornwall throughout the United Kingdom. The fact is she has to fight back to cover up for one of her older orphans, who has killed a marine with his high-velocity bow and arrow.
Imaginatively, plausibly, with delightful wit, Dame Daphne portrays the household that defends her heroine, and in Madam she has one of her finest characters. In effect, of course, this is the American Revolution in reverse, but now we are the invaders, and the British, with native ingenuity, backed by courage, are trying to throw us out. If anything goes wrong, the marines are to blame. It does not take long to get the impression that Dame Daphne has not much use for our financiers, our advertisers, or our military as they are today.
BEN SHAHN
by Bernarda Bryson Shahn
Abrams, $50.00
Ben Shahn was in a class by himself. An independent, a member of no school, he was enormously versatile in murals, stained glass windows, mosaics, stage décor, posters, graphics, paintings in tempera, watercolors, and gouache. A man of great heart with a hilarious sense of humor, productive for forty-eight years to his death in 1969, his drawings and paintings are statements of an attitude toward the world. He was a painter who looked out before he looked in; one felt his responsiveness upon first meeting and one was grateful for all that followed.
This large and beautiful book, with its many reproductions in color, is the treasury of his best work and the record of his development, so well told by his wife, Bernarda Bryson Shahn. Ben learned from everyone and never stopped, and it is this which makes his work and his education so exciting. He inherited a commitment toward socialism from his parents— it was the reason why they fled the Soviet Union—and it explains his open-mindedness, his dislike of aesthetics, his sympathy for those in distress. For him compassion outweighed doctrine. His paintings inspired by the Sacco-Vanzetti case, when exhibited in Greenwich Village, were as bitterly attacked by the Communist press as they were by the conservatives, but what pleased the artist was that people who ordinarily did not visit art galleries came to see them.
Shahn had never wanted to be “an art-world painter.” During the Depression he tried his hand at everything, moving from city to city on his photographic hunts, working with Diego Rivera in 1933 on his enormous fresco mural for Rockefeller Center, and when it was canceled in mid-execution, moving on to do fresco panels at Rivera’s expense for the New Workers School.
When Shahn was invited in 1955 to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, he was pleased with the honor but not sure he would be able to paint while there. Actually, he produced such a diverse body of work that one has not space to list it and in addition he was getting off his chest “everything I have to say about art” in statements that vibrate.
Of my favorite paintings I must cite Huey Long with the subscription (Boring in Life, Boring in Death); Liberation, one of the most famous he painted in Italy; Handball, so beautifully clear and active; the series growing out of the mine disaster; When the Saints . . . with its harlequin underpainting; Desolation, which speaks for every battlefield; Pretty Girl Milking a Cow for its laughter; and Portrait of Myself When Young. He was one of the greatest in an age that needed art.
EARS OF THE JUNGLE
by Pierre Boulle
Vanguard, $6.95
Pierre Boulle, the author of The Bridge Over the River Kwai and other novels, has twice made his home in Southeast Asia as a rubber planter. At the beginning of World War II he served in the French forces in Indochina, joined the Free French in Singapore after his native country had collapsed, was taken prisoner in 1943, and eventually escaped. His knowledge of the Southeast Asians is firsthand and they have his sympathy. This new book is a novel of protest against the saturation bombing in Vietnam, which has horrified many Americans.
The mountains and jungles of North Vietnam, where the narrative begins, were once the homeland of the Jarai tribesmen, but with the building of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, calling down the “stones” that were dropped from the American planes, the tribes have moved their villages to safer hiding in the mountain gorge. They have learned, however, that the “stones” often slaughtered meat which will fill their pots, and it is on one such expedition that their chief hunter Dju is intercepted and questioned by Madame Ngha, the head of the North Vietnam General Intelligence Service. Dju has detected a curious growth which has been camouflaged to look like the jungle but which on careful examination proves to be a sensing device. These “sensors,” Madame Ngha and her Chinese adviser determine, relay to American headquarters the jungle sounds and more particularly the sound of approaching trucks carrying arms and ammunition. In this deduction Madame has the assistance of a comely spy who has been planted in the American headquarters.
The discovery explains to Madame Ngha the reason for the recent heavy losses, and with quick foresight she has the tribesmen gather up the hundreds of sensors and transplant them in regions far from the trail where the rain of “stones” will supply the meat the tribes need without damaging the convoys. When the ruse succeeds, Madame Ngha with the same cleverness diverts the napalm bombs which demolish all growth to that area where in time to come a great highway is to be built.
The few Americans, including General Bishop, the commander of the electronic campaign, are bloodless boobs, whereas Madame Ngha and her Chinese adviser are always wise. A footnote tells us that the use of the sensor was described in detail in the Armed Forces Journal of February 15, 1971. But I question if this gruesome device can serve as the mainspring of a novel. This ironic tale is all black on one side, all white on the other, and what is worse, it is predictable. It is a remonstrance against our behavior in Vietnam by one who feels we should have gotten out long, long ago. But in effect it is a silly book.
GOD WAS HERE BUT HE
LEFT EARLY
by Irwin Shaw
Arbor House, $7.95
Irwin Shaw is the author of seven novels, of which The Young Lions is one of the better war books, and he has written almost as many collections of shorter fiction, short stories and those of considerable length, which have the instant virtue of snaring the reader into what is going on. He has an ear for lively dialogue and the conversations which open so many of his pieces are beguiling in the swiftness with which they identify the main character and his or her problem. This is true of the title story in this new collection, in which an American divorcée attempts to persuade a doctor in Switzerland that he should help her secure an abortion; and equally true of the funniest, “Small Saturday,” in which Christopher Bagshot, a very small man and a book clerk, feels that for his amour propre he has to make love to a girl not less than five feet eight.
Like George Plimpton. Mr. Shaw can assimilate a raffish profession as if he were a veteran of the game. “Whispers in Bedlam,” for my taste the most fantastic and best rounded narrative in the book, concerns “a typical 235-pound married American boy, rosy-cheeked, brokennosed, with an excellent five-tooth bridge across the front of his mouth and a sixty-three-stitch scar on his right knee, where the doctors had done some remarkable things with floating cartilage.” Hugo Pleiss played middle linebacker on defense and in the wear and tear had reached the verge of being cut. The hearing in his left ear had been put out of commission on a cold Sunday afternoon in Green Bay, and unless the linebacker on his good side could read the plays for him, he was through. But instead of dropping out and selling life insurance, as his father-in-law desired, he goes in for an operation, and thanks to the miracle performed by the doctor, Hugo can now hear what the offense is saying in their huddle. He is amazed to find that he has acquired an extra sense not only in football but in all the avenues that are open to a star, and the reader rejoices as much as Hugo in all these surprising goodies.
Some of these stories run on too long, as if the author did not know when he was ahead, but this cannot be said of the shortest narrative, “Where All Things Wise and Fair Descend,” a moodish piece about two college students, the one an envied boy on campus, the other a cat that walks by himself. The shyness with which they are brought together and the sympathy which is developed in the facing of violent death are clearly and sensitively portrayed. This wry piece is one that will stick in the mind.