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Europe in Its Fiction

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

Utile Man, What Now? By Hans Fallada. New York: Simon and Schuster. $2.50, Men of Good Will. By Jules Romains. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. The Pascarclla Family. By Franz Werfcl. New York: Simon and Schuster. $2.50.

Gradually it is percolating the consciousness of America that it is, for better or for worse, a part of European civilization; that its peculiar cultural differences are minor compared with the major similarities that still irrevocably stamp it as an offshoot of the European tree. It is quite arguable that in literary circles, at least for some time past, undue emphasis has been laid upon our differential characteristics, most of which appear upon careful analysis to be astonishing and picturesque rather than fundamental and important; certainly much less significant than those who like most to dwell upon them are apt to be prepared to admit. Perhaps, it is somewhat a sign of the swing of the pendulum away from our strenuously touted “autoch-thonies” and much lauded provincial bumpkinisms that I have been asked by the editor of this magazine to review for its pages three translations of outstanding European novels just brought out by certain eminent American publishers. I should hasten to add that I have not had time carefully to compare these versions with their originals. I am therefore not prepared to pontificate learnedly upon the accuracies and failures of the text. One thing is abundantly apparent, however: the translators have in each case succeeded in capturing a highly readable, direct English idiom that is consistently maintained throughout. The translator of “The Pascarella Family” perhaps bears away the palm for attaining a genuine charm of diction.

As a group these three novels cover a considerable section of European life in both geography and period. “Men of Good Will” purports to be a panorama of Paris (France) —lest Kentucky readers should be confused—on the sixth of October, 1908. “Little Man, What Now?” is a story of post-war Germany, laid largely in Berlin. “The Pascarella Family” takes us to modern Naples. I shall discuss them here in what I consider to be the order of their timeliness, asking the reader not to infer anything more from this otherwise arbitrary arrangement.

Hans Fallada’s “Little Man, What Now?” is by far the most timely. Its plot is biographical, the hopeless but moving and pitiably courageous tale of one Johannes Pinneberg, Bunny, his wife, and their baby. Amid many other characters Pinneberg’s mother is notably humorous and memorably evoked. The Pinnebergs are not morons; they merely belong to that vast number of people whose very simple human virtues, petty failings, and pathetic struggles are doomed to result in a “washout,” no matter what they do. Modern civilization is too complex for them, too huge, too relentless in its processes. They go down crying out—and they drown.

Space forbids even a brief resume of the story. The reader who will not be moved by it and its implications must be either quite stupid or lamentably hard-boiled. The simplicity of its style is its subtlety. It bears all the earmarks of having been written by a man who is imaginatively reporting the sufferings of post-war Germany, which he has himself been through. Indeed, the publisher assures us that the author “worked at a series of petty city jobs during which, it is probable, he gathered many of the impressions.” This is his second novel. Implicit in it is the indictment of a civilization that has become an agony of futility to those who are called upon to support it. Life is shown to be impossible, only a dole for existence is the reward. The American reader will probably be impressed by the bitter hostility between classes and factions in modern Germany which is here depicted. In the final analysis all the hopes of the decent and simple hearted Pinneberg, the bright courage of his little wife, and the future of their baby—and these three may be taken as symbols for millions of others—are sacrificed to a materialistic society whose emphasis on property makes human values futile. It is the police, the minions of the state, who at the last outrage the innate self respect of poor little Pinneberg. What is the next move after that has gone? Perhaps the brute rage of the “Man with the Hoe” foretold by Edwin Markham. “Little Man, What Now?” poses explicitly possibly the greatest question of our time.

Of quite different kind, although purporting to be more consciously a social document, “Men of Good Will,” by Jules Romains, “a truly great French novelist,” is the first of a series of several novels eventually to comprise one vast work that has for its objective the delineation of LIFE in the Paris of our time. But let us put the author himself on the stand, speaking from his excellent critical preface.

What I see before my eyes is life in the twentieth century, our own life as modern men. I face the fact that this life of ours is very difficult to group around any central character; that, indeed, it obstinately refuses to be so grouped; and that it refuses to be so much more than used to be the case. A century ago it may not have been absurd to moke the whole life of a city like Paris gravitate around a single individual, and associate everything with the experiences of one man, To-day, in my belief, it would be rather ridiculous.

In conformity with this plan, then, we are introduced to Paris on an October morning in 1908 and asked to follow the various rounds of sundry people during the process of which we become, of course, intimate with them, privy to the kind of a world in which they move, and their reactions to it. Always, even in the first volume, a tremendous vista is opened to view. We see Paris, its bourse, Montmartre; we attend the races at Enghien. A young man named Wazcm-mes loses his virginity. But the book is by no means sexy in the usual “French” sense. All kinds of characters swarm: capitalists, students, politicians, whores and highbrows, gentlewomen and larrikins. One of the notable achievements of the novelist is to give his readers what is a very rare thing in any literature, a rather profound glimpse into the “average” French male mind. The too usual exclusive obsession of French novelists with women is transcended. Here we have both men and women in a remarkably well rounded interplay.

This book is well worth reading. It will often be found absorbing, and sometimes profound. At its best there are great passages; at the worst some long and dull ones. I am sorry to say that, if there is any humor, even of an astronomical kind, I could not detect a trace of lightest Stardust dancing in the “illimitable inane.” Life is indeed very often, too often I am afraid, very, very literary to M, Jules Itomains, which hints at once at both the merits and demerits of his style and point of view.

It is too soon yet, it would be superfluous and arrogant, to pass any opinion as to whether the author is going to be successful in the great task he has set out to perform. Whether Jules Romains will be able to impart a general spiritual unity to the many volumes which are to constitute his transcription and cross-section of twentieth-century life, yet remains to be seen. This book, “Men of Good Will,” constitutes only a facade. But taking it as a book, a novel, it is not impertinent, it is only truthful, to say that it is a novel only by force of the covers which bind together its enormously disconnected incidents as all happening in the same place on the same day. There is a deal of mechanical unity if nothing else. The book is avowedly and deliberately modern and has been hailed as such. And it seems to me that it fails just where so much other modern art fails. It requires the reader to provide the framework for a lot of things that just happen to happen and also to invent, if he can, some human centre of interest about which to group them. All one can say now is that M. Jules Romains’ hero, whether “he” is to be “Paris,” or the “Life of the Twentieth Century,” or the “Time Spirit,” or what not, is so far so enormously spiritual that “he” has failed to materialize and the reader is left to wander aimlessly in what sure enough is a fine picture of Paris on the sixth of October, 1908. On the whole, a keen literary glimpse. I am not convinced that it is a great one. One senses the note book rather than the memory of life alive—a little. However, if you wish to feel yourself more than usually civilized, here is the chance to indulge that laudable foible. Certainly no one will ever accuse M. Romains of participating too naively in the engaging simplicities of his characters, as Herr Fallada often does in “Little Man, What Now?”

“The Pascarella Family” is by Franz Werfel, a German novelist whose sensitive understanding of the human heart, beautiful and quiet style, and cameo-like portraits have something which might be termed classical, if the coldness could be left out of the epithet. There is nothing cold about him. Indeed, he possesses what the other two authors reviewed here lack; the gift of saturating his writing with the spirit of poetry, of endowing his characters with poignant feelings of their own, and of painting his backgrounds with the lovely hues of life in nature.

The story takes place in modern Naples. The very feel of the old city with the smoke plume of Vesuvius beyond it and the atmosphere of the immemorial past of the ancient life about the Bay of Naples slowly being impinged upon by a new order of things, haunts every page. But Herr Werfel does not undertake to reproduce the whole city and countryside as does M. Romains. He does it, as it were, without meaning to do so by concentrating upon the family Pascarella, upon the father Domenico, who, after the old Roman and Aryan fashion, is the paternal autocrat of his six children, three boys and three girls. The mother has died years before, but her presence still haunts her room. And there is also the old servant, and spy upon the children, whose presence is always felt even when not seen.

Let me assure you, dear reader, that you will not regret making the pages of this book a part of your experience. It is a little more than splendid reading. To enter upon it is to find yourself enthralled by that dreamful quality of reality that only emanates from the page when a seer and a poet has taken the pen. I shall refrain from recounting the incidents of the plot that in a mere recapitulation here would be hopelessly inadequate to convey the power of the story. It is a gripping one. And the book ends with one of the best climactic and symbolic scenes that I know of anywhere, a fine synthesis of poetry and drama.

In literature, as in life, one of the best ways to get to know people is by meeting them in family life. The author has here used a device that has oft been used before. But he has used it with such genius and to such effect that he makes his reader a member of the family he depicts. And the experience is so moving, such a fine and worthwhile one, that I for one should like to see the circle of the Pascarella Family go on increasing and widening through the years. It deserves that. Incidentally, the book has been given an especially attractive and well-conceived format.


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