by Edward Weeks
CARRYING THE FIRE
by Michael Collins
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $10.00
They were an elite group of thirty members: the seven astronauts selected for Mercury, the nine for Gemini, and the fourteen, sometimes erroneously called the Apollo astronauts. The ablest of them would test the approaches to and make the final assault on the moon, in response to President Kennedy’s special message to Congress of May 25, 1961: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Most of these men were graduates of our service academies; many were test pilots who loved to fly, though they were not so keen “to be locked up in a can and shot around the world.” But when in February of 1962 John Glenn circled the globe three times in Friendship 7, once each ninety minutes, and came down to tell us about it in his graphic, candid words, it brought Kennedy’s moon closer.
The original seven had completed the Mercury flights and the second group of astronauts were at work on Gemini, the linking of two spaceships, before Mike Collins, a certified test pilot determined to be one of the lunar landers, was finallysummoned to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. His account of the five years that went into the testing of the men for Apollo, the designing of the spaceship and equipment, the apprehension of what might go wrong is a magnificent piece of exposition alive with humor, candid in its anxiety, very sensitive in its appreciation of the men involved. During the long preparation, four astronauts were to lose their lives in flying; three were killed in the most serious failure, the launching-pad fire, and one in a highway accident.
At the outset of the program the one thought was how to put a live man on the moon, and in the early stages had anyone suggested that astronauts on the moon’s surface would leave the lunar module unattended, climb into a jeep, and drive off for a couple of miles, he would have been considered, as the author says, “a weirdo.” Twenty-three astronauts were involved in the final phase, and Collins gives a frank man-to-man estimate of each. He is equally frank about the medics, whose worries he did not accept: “The truth of the matter,” he writes, “is that the space program would be precisely where it is today had medical participation in it been zero.” Part of the success of both Gemini and Apollo he attributes to the fact that in the formative stages, there were changes in design based on what the potential crew members had to say. Thus each of the fourteen Apollo astronauts was polled as to what specific responsibilities he thought he was best qualified to study. Buzz Aldrin, for example, had specialized in mission planning, Walt Cunningham in electrical and sequential nonflight experiments, and Collins himself in the design and safety of the pressure suits.
What is remarkable, when one considers the immensity of the program, is the accuracy of the engineering and the calm composure with which the men did their jobs. On their return from the moon, Collins says that the “allowable limits were spectacularly small, the atmospheric ‘re-entry corridor,’or zone of survivability, was only sixty miles thick, and hitting a sixty-mile target from 230,000 miles is like trying to split a human hair with a razor blade thrown from a distance of forty feet.” What Collins clarifies so well are the alternatives and what the astronauts called “work arounds,” when a stubborn problem must be bypassed. When, with the help of powerful tracking radars coupled to gigantic computers, the danger was past, Collins helped himself to some spoonfuls of chicken soup, unfolding a tube through which he worked up the ambrosia. “My compliments to the chef,” he said to the Houston center. “The food is outstanding.” Before the Apollo flights, each man was asked to name the two others he would most like to have with him. Small wonder that Mike was chosen.
This is a splendid and affirmative book which tells the nation of the amazingly precise training these men went through and of what they endured. In his foreword Colonel Lindbergh calls it a “superhuman accomplishment,”says he himself felt a superhuman being in those chapters when he accompanied Collins, Armstrong, and Aldrin on their moon flight. Still, I cannot help wondering what one twentieth of this skill and dedication might have done for our railroads down here on earth.
by Charlotte Y. Salisbury
Most of the impressions of the Soviet Union have been written bymen. The special virtue of Mrs. Salisbury’s diary is that we see the Russian people and the system which governs them through the eyes of an honest, civilized American woman. True she had a latchkey: for four and a half years her husband, Harrison Salisbury, had represented the New York Times in Moscow, and his friends among the Russian intelligentsia helped in the preparation of his classic, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. But Charlotte Salisbury’s yardstick is her own, and with it she measures woman’s place in Russia, and the freedom, or lack of it, she encountered on repeated visits. Like her husband, she had her intimate friends whose confidence she does not betray, and like most of us who have spent time in the Russian cities and countryside, her remembrance is a mixture of affection, anger, and mystification.
At the time of her first visit to Moscow, Svetlana Allilueva had just defected. As the author puts it, “she merely packed a small bag, called a taxi, drove to the American embassy [in New Delhi], and walked up those wide impressive steps into freedom.” The Salisburys’ Russian friends could not understand it: some thought Svetlana had been bribed by the CIA; all called it a tragedy. This leads the diarist to discuss others who had defied the system: the popular dancer who had been jailed for eight years, the brilliant biologist Zhores Medveydev, whose dissent landed him in a mental hospital from which, through the intervention of other scientists, he was released and exiled to London. Her interest in the dissenters was matched by the Russians’ interest in American assassinations. The Russians are convinced that JFK’s assassination and the shooting of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King was a plot, a belief which the Salisburys encountered in Asia, too, and one which they could not alter. “I don’t believe” she writes, “that there has ever been an American family that appealed so to foreigners as the Kennedys.”
Mrs. Salisbury, the mother of four and grandmother of five, compares her daily life and housework in Manhattan with that of her Russian contemporaries. The more successful have moved from cramped quarters into small cooperative apartments which they own, but she observes how long and tediously they have to queue up for food and clothing; “most Russian women in the city” she writes, “have jobs outside the home,” and if they are married, are dependent on the nurseries for the care of their young. For most the goal is a husband, and the government pays a bonus for up to nine children. She notes that women excel in medicine and law but have only a small part in the Party structure.
The Salisburys have learned by experience to be patient travelers in the authoritarian state. Charlotte admires the shrines such as the great monastery at Zagorsk, which has been fastidiously restored and now houses a wonderful collection of folk art—and the filthiest public toilet in the USSR. She is captivated by the Bolshoi and the Russian circus, indisputably the best in the world; she tells of their clandestine picnics when the police were forever ordering them away from what they had thought were picnic grounds. She describes “the contagion of bureaucratic power”; the small indignities imposed on citizen and tourist alike; how repression has hardened since the days of Khrushchev, and yet how among the Russian people there is still gladness at the sight of a visiting American couple. As they were leaving a lovely old brick church, where they had paused before the icons and relics, the caretaker said quietly, “Please tell the people in America that we don’t want to have war”; and in the same spirit one of Mrs. Salisbury’s friends urged, “Please go back and write about our life the way it is so people will know how bad it is for us.” So she has.
by Evan S. Connell, Jr.
The Connoisseur did not intend to be one. Mr. Muhlbach, a fastidious widower, with two children and a fussy housekeeper, has arrived at midlife with a Manhattan veneer protecting his private commitments. He is rather bored with the insurance business, at which he has prospered, and while on a trip looking into a possible merger in the Southwest, his fancy is attracted by a small terra-cotta figure, said to be of Mayan origin, in a curiosity shop. He knows nothing of pre-Columbian culture, but the atmosphere of Taos, where he has paused between flights, and the intriguing hints of Mrs. Soquel, the shopkeeper, make him susceptible and he buys the diminutive personage for $30. Is it a fake or authentic? Carrying his trophy—Mrs. Soquel has called it “a Jaina”—in a cigar box, Mr. Muhlbach decides to stop at the University of Albuquerque and try to have it checked. So begins his impulsive excursion into the mystery of Mayan antiquities.
His infatuation with his figurinenobleman, magistrate, or priest?—his feeling of triumph on learning that he has captured not a copy but an original, are exciting: “I’ve learned just enough to be irritated by my ignorance,” he thinks to himself as he enters the maze. He begins to read the famous archaeologists; is edged along by fellow collectors; tries to interest his children in his new realm, totally without success; and in defiance of his habitual caution, decides to attend the next big auction in New York. It is a bizarre affair, beautifully described: in his preliminary scouting Mr. Muhlbach has determined to bid on an Olmec mask, which he is convinced is a masterpiece. The auctioneer starts by asking $1000, and when eventually Muhlbach’s offer of $92.50 is accepted, people turn around to stare at him. And again his quest for identification, now tested by the skepticism of the dealers, leads him still deeper into the insatiable lust of the collector.
This is a deft, sophisticated, and pleasurable story, dominated by an engaging man, and of fascination to those who enjoy the half-solved mysteries of our earliest American culture.
RETREAT FROM LOVE: A NOVEL
THE EVENING STAR: RECOLLECTIONS
Both books, which have been translated for the first time into English, remind us of what a charmer Colette was. The novel, published in France in 1907, is youthful, episodic, hinting at more than she has the power to deliver; it was written after she had separated from her first husband, “Willy,”her rather dominating collaborator in all her early books. She could break with him but not with the characters that they had established in the Claudine stories, and here they are again with such emphasis as Colette gives them on her own: Claudine, zestful, inquisitive, amorous, feigning passion for her absent invalid husband (whom the reader never believes in), sending money to their no-good homosexual son, and pumping her adventurous, submissive friend Annie for the juicier confidences of Annie’s love life. The atmosphere is provincial, the style and the perfect word still to come.
The Evening Star, published in 1946, is Colette’s wise and rich rumination, a little gem of a memoir, the style honed by anger and suffering. During the 1500 days of the German Occupation, Colette was housebound in the red room—red wallpaper, the double doors covered with red satin, red covers for armchair and bed—of her apartment in the Palais-Royale. A hip injury leading to arthritis held her body captive, but her mind was clear, contemplative, and defiant. Here she was tended by her third husband until he was deported to the wretched internment camp at Compiègne; here she was visited by German intruders, black marketeers, members of the Resistance, and friends of the Academie Goncourt. “As age advances,” she writes, “it’s not a bad idea to grant insomnia its rights,” and on the bed table which straddled her couch, to combat the nightmare of her husband’s absence, she composed these reflections of her past and present. Her sentences sparkle as she recalls September in Brittany with Germaine Beaumont, or the delicious couscous the Armenians prepared for her in Tunis; there is laughter in her depiction of the eccentricities of French writers, and triumph as she remembers how she forced her way into the malicious masculine Paris journalism of 1912. She was a fighter, and she smiles as she recalls Gordon Bennett’s witticism, “The best way to triumph over one’s adversary is to survive him.”