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Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams

The Normandy Diary of Marie-Louise Osmont

translated by George L. Newman, with an introduction by John Keegan.

Random House/The Discovery Channel Press, 134 pages, $17.00.

From 1940 to 1944 Marie-Louise Osmont, the widow of a doctor and proprietor of a prosperous farming estate, kept a diary. The early entries are brief, practical, and so widely spaced in time that one is entitled to assume that cuts have been made. German soldiers appear, polite, well-disciplined, and infuriating, move in, create a mess, and move on, to be followed by others who repeat the process. By early 1943 Madame Osmont mentioned that she was hungry. By February of 1944 the presence of Germans has become an infestation. Many of them look sad, but they are more active than ever. Old friends are evicted from their chateau and ordered to take three generations' worth of possessions with them. The Osmont property is battered by vehicles, its gardens destroyed, walls dismantled, trees cut down. On June 4 Madame recorded, "Quiet, warm day; night, by contrast, filled with the noise of six drunks staggering and bawling. . . . They click heels nevertheless." It was to be the last quiet for a long time, for Periers, the diarist's village, lies three miles inland from Sword Beach, right in the path of the British advance. From June 7 Madame recorded nearby firing, ack-ack, the peculiar sound as missiles from the distant naval guns passed over, the tinkle of broken window glass, and the crunching away of outbuildings. There was no need to go hungry--more farm animals were killed than could be eaten--but sleep was close to impossible in the niche under the staircase, which was too small for two or three people plus the occasional terrified dog. Besides, the floor was hard, and the British, arriving in due course, were persistent mattress thieves. Madame Osmont actually devoted relatively little space to her discomforts. She was more concerned with the safety of friends in Caen, with the destruction of the countryside that she loved, and with pity for the troops "vibrant with that terrible excitement of combat" and on their way to be killed. She had been a nurse and ambulance driver in the First World War. She knew what she was seeing and described it with sympathy, clarity, and a stiff-lipped rejection of hysteria. One would like to know what happened to her, and to the Chateau Periers, after the war, but Mr. Keegan's appreciative introduction does not provide that information or explain why this remarkable diary has been neglected for half a century.

"Werewolves and Swan-maidens" (August 1871)
The medižval belief in werewolves is especially adapted to illustrate the complicated manner in which divers mythical conceptions and misunderstood natural occurrences will combine to generate a long-enduring superstition. By John Fiske
Love & Sleep

by John Crowley.

Bantam, 502 pages, $22.95.

Mr. Crowley's novel begins with the proposition that "once, the world was not as it has since become." Let the reader be warned by this banality. The tale wanders plotlessly from the approximate present to Elizabethan England, encumbered by metaphysical and religious baggage, arcane references, and the philosophers' stone. There are ghosts, visions, and werewolves, but not even werewolves can locate any blood in the characters.

My Son on the Galley

by Jacob Wallenberg, translated by Peter Graves.

Norvik Press/Dufour Editions, 192 pages, $24.00.

Wallenberg (1746-1778), the son of a minor and none too affluent Swedish official, had by the age of twenty-three contrived to become ordained as a clergyman and to acquire the post of ship's chaplain on the Swedish East India Company's Finland, bound for Canton. Wallenberg's account of the voyage is a Swedish classic, which is one reason for translating it, but there is a better reason. Despite some gentle homilies and verses that have, one trusts, suffered in translation, the text is plain old-fashioned funny. The author was an unbridled chauvinist. No people were as good as Swedes, no country as fine as Sweden, no church equal to the Lutheran, and young Wallenberg made merry mock of everyone from homely girls in Norway to stuffy and inarticulate Dutchmen in South Africa. He did not neglect drinking parties aboard ship, or his own lack of success as a naturalist and horseman, or his unrewarded interest in women. (His remarks on women would get him lynched by modern feminists.) There is a certain guilty pleasure in chuckling over an author who never heard of political correctness.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf

by Thomas J. Cutler.

HarperCollins, 343 pages, $25.00.

The author is a retired naval officer who believes that the Battle of Leyte Gulf deserves remembrance as the greatest naval action in history, "the last significant sortie of the Imperial Japanese Navy," and a pivotal point, because although by October of 1944 the eventual defeat of Japan was widely seen as inevitable, "an American defeat would have been a disaster of great magnitude." His text supports that estimate. His presentation makes the maneuvers of that enormously complicated and wide-ranging battle comprehensible. He covers the capabilities of the various ships involved, both their weaknesses and their sometimes astounding ability to survive heavy damage. He describes the heroism of individual sailors and pilots, American and Japanese, and does not ignore such mistakes and miscalculations as those that destroyed the timing of the Japanese attack or sent the Americans into a duel of ship against ship with ammunition designed for battle between ship and shore. His material is exciting and his analysis of it is thoughtful and generous, because, as a veteran of Vietnam, he can state, "I sincerely believe that only those who have never been shot at would disparage the actions of men under fire." This is admirable history, but perhaps not for readers squeamish about horrible wounds bluntly described.

A Throw of the Dice

by Gordon Millan.

Farrar Straus Giroux, 389 pages, $30.00.

Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898) achieved great respect and exercised wide influence among the avant-garde writers of his time without ever producing the great work that he regularly promised. How and why he inadvertently managed this somewhat ironic feat is well and plausibly explained by Mr. Millan, whose biography portrays a poet and critic of exceptional intelligence, receptivity, and charm.

Frank W. Benson: American Impressionist

by Faith Andrews Bedford.

Rizzoli, 240 pages, $50.00.

In advising his daughter Eleanor about her work, the by then highly successful painter Benson (1862-1951) said, "Don't paint anything but the effect of light. Don't paint things." Benson did not consider himself an Impressionist, but he did paint light--light on beaches, on waves, through woods, through mists, over snow. The inhabitants of his light-drenched milieus are pretty children, beautiful young women, sportsmen, guides, birds, and fish--all healthy, well dressed, and, with the exception of shot birds and speared fish, happy. Admirers of the later Ashcan School might accuse Benson of sentimental idealization, but they would be wrong. The paintings are not sentimental (those young ladies have a coiled-spring vitality, and the sportsmen work hard) and are only mildly idealized. Benson painted the best of the kind of life his well-heeled patrons proposed to lead. Ms. Bedford, the artist's great-granddaughter, writes well of his work as teacher, painter, etcher, and watercolorist, and sums up his career neatly. "Each time he moved in a new direction with his art, success followed him, creating a demand for his work" which "continued until the day he died and beyond." The book's numerous illustrations are likely to extend that demand--probably with no hope, for nobody who has a Benson is likely to part with it.

The Flanders Panel

by Arturo Perez-Reverte, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Harcourt Brace, 304 pages, $21.95.

A murder mystery worked out in terms of the chess game depicted in an antique painting is an intriguing conception, but its implementation proves to be somewhat verbose in style and its solution is prematurely predictable to any devotee of the genre. Probably Mr. Perez-Reverte's ideal reader is a chess player with little previous experience of murder mysteries.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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