The Peripatetic Reviewer

by Edward Weeks
THE CALL GIRLS
by Arthur Koestler
Random House, $5.95
A Swiss bus is laboring through the tunnels and up the hairpin turns on its way to the little mountain village of Schneedorf. Within is a group of international celebrities, including three Nobel laureates and others likely to be, who have been invited to a week-long symposium in which they will read their papers and discuss the subject, “Approaches to Survival.” The Kongresshaus where they will meet and sleep, cared for by an amusingly cynical staff, is the brainchild of a Swiss fortune hunter who, after his first coronary, set up the Foundation for Promoting Love among Nations, and to keep the place alive, his trustees rent the building to skiers in winter and in summer to conferences such as this. So begins this witty and provocative novel.
Mr. Koestler insists that the characters are fictitious, but it is fun to note their resemblance to certain men and women in the world of ideas. There are to be twelve papers, as well as some eighteen to twenty hours of discussion, and it is the job of Nikolai Solovief, the Harvard physicist, to center the argument and cull conclusions, while his charming wife Claire preserves the domestic amenities. Except for the young Copertinian Brother, Tony Caspari, they are all veterans of the circuit, “academic call girls,” as one of them puts it, familiar with and suspicious of each other’s writings, but it is their chairman’s hope that the mutual fear of annihilation which threatens us will this time bring them to a consensus.
Monday morning at 9 A.M. on the dot they are all seated at the long conference table. There are two absentees, the Soviet geneticist who has cabled that unexpected circumstances have prevented his coming, and Bruno Kaletski, the previous year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace and spokesman for the United Nations, who has wired that he will be late. In his concise opening Solovief summarizes the more perilous crises of the past twentyfive years. He quotes the letter which Albert Einstein wrote in August, 1939, to FDR, which he calls “the most important letter in human history.” What the Einstein letter achieved, he says, was “a miracle in black magic,” and he wonders whether “a miracle in white magic of a similar magnitude is beyond the reach of science.” When Kaletski does arrive, “speaking in my humble capacity as a social scientist,” he talks for nearly an hour and their only escape is for lunch. But he has brought with him a message from the President urging that their report be cabled to the White House; this instantly heightens the tempers and jealousies of the speakers to follow.
One wonders how many such symposia the author has sat through to have reproduced in such chilling satire the ideas which these savants propound. (In a foreword he avers that the authors, publications, and experiments quoted by them are authentic.) The ferocity of the question periods is glorious. “They looked upon themselves as a travelling team of professional wrestlers, who are familiar with one another’s antics and go through their paces, each time pretending surprise and indignation at the base tricks of their opponents.” Nikolai, the chairman, is the most patient; Sir Evelyn Blood, the corpulent English poet, the most caustic; Otto von Halder, the most given to belligerency; and Valenti, the Italian, the most concerned with experiments on the brain. When in his summing up Solovief dares to propose the drastic measures which all governments should take after the last appeal for voluntary birth control has failed— the imposing of antifertility and of aggressivity-controls—even his allies back away. It is the seriousness which underlies Koestler’s comedy and which surfaces time and again that gives this novel a cobra fascination.
THE LIFE & DEATH OF ADOLF HITLER
by Robert Payne
Praeger, $ 12.95
A Cornishman, now living in New York City, Robert Payne was completing his education at the University of Munich, reading German literature, when he was introduced to Hitler by Rudolf Hess. It was his first impression of a dictator. Among the many books which he went on to write were his major studies of power: the biographies of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Gandhi. Part of the strength of this book, which I think his best, is its revelation of how a child of the German romantic tradition, thwarted and rejected, became a tyrant. In writing it, Payne has drawn on the reminiscences of those who befriended Hitler in his youth, in the army, and in the lost years before he had gained the self-mastery to proclaim himself Germany’s messiah.
Adolf’s father was a customs official, comfortably placed, assured of a good pension in the town of Linz, a stern parent from whom the boy inherited an authoritarian temper and a sense of purpose. Until he was twenty-three, Adolf lived in a world of fantasy. His boyish imagination was excited by illustrations of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and by thrillers about our Wild West written by a German, who had never been there and whose hero, Old Shatterhand, had a lust for butchering redskins. Moody and aloof, Adolf did not do well at school and was denounced when he told his father that he wanted to drop out and become an artist.
On his father’s sudden death. Hitler, now with a small legacy, took himself to Vienna, and in his letters to his one friend, Gustl Kubizek, we see the teen-ager who idolized women, who loved the opera, particularly those by Wagner, who fancied himself an artist and went through the motions of preparing himself for the examinations at the Academy of Fine Arts. He failed the first test and his drawings were not good enough to admit him to a second. As his money ran out, his stomach empty, his hands covered with chilblains, he lost hope and finally took refuge in the Asylum for the Shelterless. During this, “the most miserable period of my life,” he was rescued by Reinhold Hanisch, who persuaded Adolf that he could make money painting postcards. For three years it was his main source of income. He visited England, where he found no job but sponged on his older brother; he learned no English—he had no gift for languages—but returned to Vienna with a lifelong respect for the English, whom he saw at the height of their Empire.
Then in 1914 his luck turned. The previous year he had moved to Munich to avoid Austrian military service, but at the outbreak of war he became caught up in the general emotion and in the prospect of Germany becoming a world power that would absorb Austria, where he had suffered so much, and he obtained permission to enlist in a Bavarian regiment. As a dispatch runner at the front, he led a charmed life; he read Schopenhauer, studied the propaganda in the leaflets the English dropped from their airplanes, and such drawings as he had time for have a jauntiness and vitality. He was wounded, twice decorated, and at the war’s end half blinded in a gas attack. After the Armistice he remained in the regimental barracks, an undercover man, spying on the Communists and their mostly Jewish leaders, who were striving to take over Bavaria, and it is at this point that his anti-Semitism and his hatred of Communism were fused.
In clear, forthright prose the biographer points up the circumstances which presented the emerging Führer with his opportunities. Sent to observe a meeting of the German Workers’ Party in a Munich beer hall, Hitler was provoked to speak out and surprised by the whiplash effect of his oratory, and when he became a card-carrying member of the organization, it was with the intention of recreating it under his leadership. His recruitment of Rudolf Hess, a former officer in his regiment, of fawning little Goebbels, so adroit in propaganda, of Göring, the flying ace who would set fire to the Reichstag, and of Ernst Röhm, the head-buster, whom he put in charge of the SA bully boys, led to the putsch of 1923, and, on its failure, to the featherbed imprisonment in the course of which, well fed and unmolested, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. The quotations from that seminal book, which other heads of state might have read to their advantage, are revelatory.
“I was obliged to lie,” wrote Hitler about his seizure of power, “and what saved us was my unshakable obstinacy and my amazing aplomb.” In depicting Hitler’s evil domination of the Third Reich, the biographer quotes Goebbels’ official account and then tells what actually happened. Hitler had many mistresses before and after Eva Braun, and his strangest affair was with his niece, the beautiful Geli Raubal. The guilt, says Payne, of having caused her suicide was never to be washed away. “Henceforth, he was free from all the conventional ties of morality and could be as hard and ruthless as he pleased.” Hitler and those who upheld him were a brutal regression to the worst of the Dark Ages. There were some Americans who thought Hitler invincible, and not a few who believed we would be safer dealing with the Nazis than with the Soviets, but from the blazing indictment in this book we can see how much more difficult our troubled world would have been had he triumphed.
PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS BE KIND
by Wilfrid Sheed
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $7.95
Wilfrid Sheed, in this strong, sensitive novel, is drawing on his own experience as he depicts the punishment of the polio victim. The story is not pain-ridden; it is too alive and witty for that. It begins with Brian Casey, a boy of sixteen, whose thin, mocking Irish face comes easily to mind. His father is a New York architect, his mother a protective and devout Catholic, and when he is impatient with them, Brian thinks of them as “bog Irish.” To his gang he is “a wise guy” with a sharp tongue, a great kidder, a hard one to stop when he has the football. This is the sympathy they try to express to his parents when it is known that Brian is delirious with polio.
Brian is determined to recover, and his jokes with the nurses and his expectation torment his parents, who know the truth and are divided as to what they should do. Kevin Casey is all for telling his son but Beatrice believes in miracles, and both of them remain evasive while Brian pins his hopes on the hearsay cures, a trip to Lourdes—his father ducks his head at the thought of the expense—well, then, the cure at Salt Rock because it is nearer. And it is there in that dreadful wheelchair world with the horny veterans that he abandons hope and takes refuge in a cynical fortitude.
As a student at Columbia, carrying on a quizzical monologue with himself, he begins to adjust: he dates and fumbles with the campus queen, torments his mother with his skepticism, dreams of making a cleanup in the stock market, thinks “it would be nice to escape the world of bodies somehow, of clumsiness and sympathy,” has a drab run-in with a prostitute, and gets himself elected president of the Turn Left Society. The bull sessions are never ending, but in his disillusion Brian is still dauntless.
In the second part of the novel Brian has surmounted his paralysis as FDR did. As the magnetic Senator Casey, he is running for the presidential nomination, and we see him appraised through the eyes of Sam Perkins, a serious young speechwriter from Harvard, admiring and baffled by turns. Sam is often at the point of quitting; after one squall he is assigned to write “the campaign biography,” and in so doing we understand what time has done to Brian and his parents. A remarkable portrait of an Irish chameleon and Mr. Sheed at his best.
TROLLEY TO THE MOON:
An Autobiography
by Eric Hodgins
Simon and Schuster, $10.00
Eric Hodgins was one of the ablest journalists I have ever known. A graduate of MIT, he had a grasp of facts, and he wrote with a wallop and irreverent humor. He started on the ground floor by editing The Technology Review, made a spirited effort to save The Youth’s Companion, sold space for McCall’s, and came into his own as Henry Luce’s top man on Fortune. It was a job he was made for and he did it supremely well, aided by Archibald MacLeish, Russell Davenport, Charles Wertenbaker, Dwight Macdonald, and James Agee. Hard-driving and hard-drinking, Eric somehow found time to write his two books about Mr. Blandings; Episode, a story about himself after he had had his stroke; and, burned out, he died before he could finish what would have been his best book, his autobiography.
Trolley to the Moon carries him only as far as the mid-thirties, far enough to hear his explosive laughter, to see and be moved by his beautiful portrait of Catherine, his first wife, who died in childbirth when he was thirty-one and from whose loss he never recovered, far enough for him to record his friendship with and admiration for Henry Luce, a portrait of that powerful, difficult man more appreciative than I have read elsewhere.