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The Business of the Novelist

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

Clara Barron. By Harvey O’Higgins. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.00.

Cloud Cuckoo Land. By Naomi Mitchison. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.

The Farthing Spinster. By Catherine Dodd. New York: George H. Doran Company. $2.50.

If Today Have No Tomorrow. By Olive Gilbreath. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.00.

The Private Life of Helen of Troy. By John Erskine. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company. $2.00.

Rough Justice. By C. E. Montague. New York: Doubleday, Page and Company. $2.50.

The Smoking Leg. By John Metcalfe. New York: Doubleday, Page and Company. $2.00.

Spanish Bayonet. By Stephen Vincent Benet. New York: George H. Doran Company. $2.00.

The Surry Family. By Helen R. Hull. New York: Macmillan Company. $2.00.

Unchanging Quest. By Philip Gibbs. New York: George H. Doran Company. $2.00.

The Village in the Jungle. By Leonard Woolf. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.

Winners and Losers. By Alice Hegan Rice, and Cale Young Rice. New York: The Century Company. $2.00.

In this list of ten or twelve novels that have gathered for review, some reach distinction. Good novels are getting rarer, for they are being put to unfair use: they are being made the repository of weird ideas of social reform, of antiquarian details of a past age, of philosophical dreams of the future, of social studies of the way life functions in America, of anything, in fact, except what they should contain, a good story with more or less genuine human beings. Life in the abstract and philosophical disquisitions are now no more the business of the story teller than they ever were; whatever philosophical truth arises from a good story—as it may well arise—ought to come as a by-product of telling a story that will capture the readers’ hearts. The business of the novelist is still to make people feel, and after that to make them think, but the thinking must come only as a result of feeling. If the novelist is concerned too much with a thesis, he ruins his story and kills his people. He may say profound things, using his characters as puppets to move around against a background of philosophy, but he is then not a novelist, and his novel becomes a tract or a history or a note book.

“Rough Justice,” judged against this standard for a good novel, is a distinguished performance. The book has a fine thickness of the old Victorian tradition, and that is no bad comment, despite the misuse of the word, Victorian, in matters that pertain to books. Our novelists to-day still lack the elan and robustness as story tellers that Dickens had, and Meredith, and Thackeray. The golden age of the novel is past, and to say a book is like a Victorian novel is high praise, a little like saying a play is Shakespearian or a poem Miltonic. Mr. Montague’s book is full of people you get deeply interested in: he has the faculty of making you believe a man or woman lived, and he does it in a few lines, before you are aware he has told you anything. The opening chapters are nearly pure silver—if not gold—the story of Winifred and Thomas and baby Molly and the old house by the curve in the Thames is as lovely a bit of writing, and as touching, as our newer English novel affords. There is no attempt at profundity, no heavy handed symbolism; the book has no burden but a story about people Mr. Montague knew. The theme, in so far as you can abstract a theme from a long biographical novel where a thousand themes interlock as they do in real life, is the rough justice the great War dealt out to some young English men and women. But there is no preaching a thesis by means of the characters. They live, and you are amused or you are hurt or you are made thoughtful. Auberon, from babyhood to the last chapter where Molly and he at last get to know each other, is like a neighbor you understand, except that Auberon is more worth knowing. I do not want to overstress reality of people in a book, and yet I doubt whether it can be overstressed. The only reason we read stories is to widen our knowledge of people, to have things happen to us—in those people—that could not happen to us in our own persons. If we want philosophy, there are books of it, and telling it in a story sugar-coating is the worst of ways. “Rough Justice” impresses me as a book written by a man who has seen enough of life to understand it, love it, and judge it fairly. He has the added power of writing about it with genuine beauty. The book is a good one, and this is to understate the criticism.

“Clara Barron” is another book that deserves high praise. Harvey O’Higgins has written a short biographical novel. It is a remarkable feat of compression to start out with baby Mary Ferrenden and take her through to her death in Europe as a middle-aged woman in a little more than two hundred pages. But Mr. O’Higgins does it, and we do not get the feeling of sketchy progress, either; the story progresses as swiftly and as surely as life itself when you look back on your own past—nothing left out that really matters but some things forgotten that do not break the straight line of growth. Mr. O’Higgins is an accomplished feminist; there are few women of fiction so much personalities in themselves and so free from the seeming touch of a literary hand as is Clara Barron, and there are few women in books who are more plausible in what they do, in what happens to them, and in how their life turns out. Mr.

0’Higgins might have written a grotesque study in the feminine psychology of repression if he had lowered himself to the task; instead he wrote a novel that is of more value in helping us know Clara and her kind than volumes of psychology would ever be. Watching a person grow and watching her take shape as a result of living next to certain other people, like Mary’s cheaply aristocratic father and her weak mother, are exhilarating, and such excitement lies in “Clara Barron.” The book is as natural as breathing, and that is true art, for back of this effortless prose lies an artistic genius at story telling. The episode of the overturned cance is inexpressibly depressing, and from then on to the disruption of every hope Clara holds out to herself for human companionship, the aloof, unshaken courage of Clara Barron lights what in other hands could have been a sordid tale of frustration and in others again a sentimentalized fiction of virtue. To keep a middle course in the midst of such treacherous material requires the skill at composition that is the author’s of “Julie Crane” and “Clara Barron.”

Two books of ancient Greece appear in this group of novels: “Cloud Cuckoo Land” and “The Private Life of Helen of Troy.” “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is an historical romance that might furnish any number of writers with a model. Miss Mitchison gives almost none of the facts of history; yet, she gets us to know them without the telling. She knows how to set the stage for historic events, and on that she writes—not a novelized history of Athens—but a good novel of her own, placed in Greece for the background and color but independently good as a story. Her introduction is a delightful informal essay; she must have had a deal of pleasure reading and writing, as she says. She is a poet turned to prose; her whole tale catches the essence of Greek life by one sensuous picture after another, just as her interpolated songs catch up the whole feeling of the scene and intensify it. Her marriage song and her song of the boy, Leon, are exquisite; they reveal the secret of her prose—the instincts of a poet for beauty. Her skill lies in transplanting these instincts so that they operate on what we usually call the dead past. She makes the past live, and unlike a weakly poetic woman, she does not present a glowing Greece of consummate philosophers and eloquent beauties. She catches the ugly phases of the Greek mind: its cruelty, its treachery, its cheap submission to demagoguery, its bloodlessness that goes hand in hand with its passion. This view of her novel lies almost within the scholar’s field, but I am told even he has approved its Tightness. But Alxenor and Moiro and Chromon are good as moderns, forgetting the age in which they are placed, for they are believable Greeks. Alxenor, with his inability to take sides and his war-crossed love affair with stupid little Moiro is very modern; Miss Mitchison brings Athens near without satire or burlesque. Alxenor is one of those rare creatures in historical novels, an understandable Greek.

“The Private Life of Helen of Troy” takes a different road to success. Mr. Erskine modernizes the ancient legends to the point of satire; he never drops into a parody on Greek life or our own, it is true, but his mind works that way, and the result is a piquant mixture of sophisticated burlesque and modernized history. Helen in her private life is the essence of irritating femininity; she refuses to accept masculine standards of conduct in what she recognizes is a masculine world. She is a law to herself, with the first principle of that law, love, the quest for abiding happiness in love after the first passion is over. Menelaus failed her; so did Paris, and all the other men she knew. She never found a man equal to her great stature emotionally, and she is clear-eyed enough to see the comedy of the failure and the disappointment she is to her husband. Menelaus, I cannot help thinking, almost lives up to her as the chief figure in the book. He is a charming cynic, with a disarming, self-conscious stupidity. Helen is clear-eyed enough, too, to become shrewish in her love for the truth as she sees it; she is a genius at setting the world right, and, as it happens when Hermione finally meets Pyrrhus, she is sometimes wrong. The book is entirely a battle of dialogue, and most of the dialogue is between Helen and her family of two. Nobody in the story talks like anyone but Mr. Erskine; the talk, as real talk, is doubtful, because it is academic, full of subtle paradoxes, all in one idiom. And yet the effect is anything but academic. The people are separate despite the unvarying diction, and you never miss the description of the setting. Yet, I am sorry, after reading the beginning prose about the beauty of Helen after the Trojan War, that Mr. Erskine did not give us more of himself in the book, by way of his own comment, for it is even more fun than what he makes his people say. At any rate, he writes admirable comedy.

“The Farthing Spinster” is better as an historic note book on successive periods in English social history than as a novel. It is a book weighed down with detail, and as a story it is dull. The novel never gets away from the impression is gives you on the first few pages—that of literary manufacturing. The idea of a curse of spinsterhood upon successive generations of Farthing women is a little hard to swallow; it seems like something somebody thought up as a hook on which to hang some English genealogy. After all, curses don’t cause many spinsters—except the curse of unloveliness—and to believe that the name Jellis could be baneful for generations is a bit thick. Similarly, it is hard to believe that good news and bad should come hand in hand pat on a prophecy, and to have more than one Jellis lose her lover at the last minute in much the same way sounds a little like the fairy stories we have long stopped believing. The book is weak on characterization as well; the women talk like books and not like human beings, and I am not convinced that people in Charles IPs time were more stick-like merely because they used a different idiom than our own. As far as that goes, the modern flappers at the end of the book have the same air of stage unreality as the early ancestors; they sway but they do not flap, and they are absurd the more you think of them as modern girls. The best of the book is a rather painstaking accumulation of historical setting for each period. It is amusing to read, particularly the list of Victorian properties. But this does not help the novel to come alive or its people to sound as though blood might one day have coursed through their veins.

The Philip Gibbs “Unchanging Quest” starts as most Gibbs books do, backwards. Mr. Gibbs is concerned more with abstract possibilities of the future of the world and the result of the War than he is with the characters he superimposes upon his social and philosophical tracts. He prefers abstractions of human conduct to novel writing, or rather, to story telling, for he conceives of the story as the means to an end that is not fair—preaching by your narratives. He gives the flavor of didactic moralizing to everything he writes; he cannot let a man or woman make a remark without getting in a comment about its significance. I realize this is a mathematical overstatement, but it is true of Mr. Gibbs’ general method. He underestimates our ability at understanding what is going on in his books, and that is not very difficult. As a story teller, he is weak; he sentimentalizes and underscores his emotions; he gives a teary German feeling to all his moods, and he is self-consciously mellow and retrospective. His Russians are types; his lovers obviously breaking their hearts, and his general theme of renunciation and longing cloys. He has ideas, but he cannot tell a story. He ought to stay with books like “Now It Can Be Told” where his moral qualities and his knowledge of the European world are in place and his abstractions pertinent. He is a worthy person in his own field of passionate exposition, but he does not understand the instincts of a novelist.

In opposition to “Unchanging Quest,” “If Today Have No Tomorrow” is a success. It is high pitched—that ought to be said first—but on its own plane of rarefied living and extraordinarily splendid people, it is consistent and well done. It is not a great novel, but it is a good one, and it approaches the same problem of the Russian struggle and the European mess as “Unchanging Quest” does. But Olive Gilbreath first of all has a narrative skill, and she likes unusual people. She approaches the background of the Russian revolt as a powerful setting on which to make her splendid Michael show himself. The revolt is the occasion for her men’s and women’s doing something and being hurt, whereas Mr. Gibbs approaches his people as a means of presenting ideas for the future of the world. The opening chapters of “If Today Have No Tomorrow” form an idyllic picture of Russian life in themselves. They have much the quality of Tolstoy’s “Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth,” and the sudden cloud that sweeps across Michael’s life when the Revolution breaks is beautifully effective as a catastrophic ending to the picture of a happy Russian spring. The interpolated chapters of Michael’s past, which he thinks over on the train to the city, are confusing; it always takes some agile thinking when a novelist goes in for a life’s history in retrospect. But the book catches the feeling of the place and the time; to read it is like living over again the days when the start of the War threw all American plans into confusion, as in Olive Gilbreath’s Russia, it destroyed Michael’s.

“The Surry Family” is another of the many books that diagram life in a small town. It is carefully written, faithful to the facts, and tries to be fair to the people. It is not satire, nor is it bitter, like “Main Street.” It seems to have no idea beyond getting the Surry family on paper and showing how these people lived. It gets the pathos of cramped living and nasty living. Its people—stupid Paul, shrewish Wilma, weak Franklin—stand out one from the other with true signs of life, and the courage of Marjy in her search for finer living achieves a simple beauty in the telling. But the book is undistinguished. It is adequate; it does what it sets out to do, and does not falter seriously. But there is nothing it does do supremely well; there is no great rise of power, no special beauty in what it has to tell or in how it tells it. Neither in style nor content does it give much to feel glad about once it is read. Perhaps this is its peculiar merit; it tells about undistinguished people with a style that is undistinguished, not too highly colored for its material. There is much to be said for it in these terms. But the materials of American life ought to be possible of illumination, no matter where we find it, and “The Surry Family” does little but convince us that the American middle class in Michigan is a pathetically middle class.

“Spanish Bayonet” is a relief from the seriousness that infests the novel. It is an historical novel, heavily loaded with background and the local color of Florida in the days of the colonies, but its plot is thriller enough to run away with the heavy load. It is an adventure story written by a man who can write. Mr. Benet is poetically sensitive to color and lights and shadow. He builds in the story of the wicked overseer and the evil Dr. Gentian and his vile daughter so that he gives us more than a movie sequence of excitement. He reaches much the same verve and reality in his unreal story of the revolt in the colony that John Mase-field touches in the first and better part of “Sard Harker.” “Spanish Bayonet” belongs in the same school of well written romance as “Balisand” and “Sea Horses.” Mr. Benet is wise enough to realize what novels ought to be; he races along with the adventurous passion of “Treasure Island” books, gladly throwing psychology, philosophy, and morals to the winds in order to lend his tale speed. And good plotting, with action, is no thing to despise in a day when the psychiatrist has taken the novel captive and bound its feet with cogitating chains.

Two volumes of short stories, “The Smoking Leg,” by John Metcalfe, and “Winners and Losers,” by the Rices, stand opposite each other. Mr. Metcalfe writes the most advanced mood sketches of horrors of the brain, a little like Poe, sometimes, and again like Katherine Mansfield and again like Henry James in “The Turn of the Screw.” “Winners and Losers” is a collection of stories done on the conventional, neatly plotted plan of Mary Wilkins Freeman.

“The Village in the Jungle” is an American edition of a book about the jungle that Mr. Woolf had published in England some twelve years ago, after government service in Ceylon. Mr. Woolf can write good prose; he has a style that catches the essence of jungle fear and transmits it to a reader who has never known the tropics. He has much the quality, when he is at his best, of H. M. Tomlinson, who writes of the same sort of place, and who writes long narrative essays instead of novels. Indeed, it seems to me that Mr. Woolf himself has not so much written a great novel as he has caught, in his prose narrative, the tempo of jungle life and has brought in, to do that, a native family against a primitive background. It is true that there is a plot and a conflict of men in the book and a solution to the struggle, although the solution is the obliteration of the whole village in the face of the spreading jungle. But I am not sure that the story—as a story—is the best part of the book. What seems best is being given a picture of jungle life by Mr. Woolf, who has lived there. His story of how the villages are built, how the water is stored in the village tank, how the chenas are cleared, how the village is governed, and how men and women are given in marriage, taken captive by fear, and driven to murder, opens up races, customs, and lands that are new to me. The novelty of his picture and the good prose in which it is written are virtues enough in “The Village in the Jungle.” If I am not greatly moved by the sufferings of his savages and if I do not think his actual story so potent as his pictures of a civilization, I do not rank him the less; it is probably a blind spot in my appreciation for a novel of savages.


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