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European Testament

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

Joseph in Egypt. By Thomas Mann. Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Alfred a. Knopf. Two volumes. $5.00. Hearken unto the Voice. By Franz Werfcl. Translated by Moray Firth. New York: The Viking Press. $3.00. The Pasquier Chronicles. By Georges Duhamel. Translated by Beatrice de Holtoir. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.50. The Specter. By Maxim Gorky. Translated by Alexander Bakshy, New York: D. Appleton-Century Company. $3.50.

The editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, in assigning to me four recent European novels for review, had neither consideration nor pity for me. They total nearly three thousand pages, and I am still reeling under the avalanche of a million and more words. The first fact to emerge as I try to gather my wits about me is that two of the novels—Franz Werfel’s “Hearken unto the Voice” and Thomas Mann’s “Joseph in Egypt”—are wholly about Jews, and that the other two—Georges Duhamel’s “The Pasquier Chronicles” and Maxim Gorky’s “The Specter”—have Jews in them. It is true that the first two deal with Jews aforetime, Biblical Jews. Yet the fact remains, here is a people that refuses to be ignored. As only one of the four very important writers is a Jew—and their works represent three different languages—the fact assumes some importance, perhaps the shape of a vast enigma; but I am no solver of enigmas. Attribute to the fact what significance you will.

In “Joseph in Egypt” Thomas Mann adds another episode —in two volumes! — to his chronicle of Joseph and his brothers, a chronicle by no means concluded. It is far better, far more intense as drama, than the first two volumes. It has also perhaps more meaning for our own time, chiefly owing to the Freudian interpretations with which the author has invested the actions, dreams, and words of the characters, interpretations having a relation to the great vexing problem of the Jew among the nations today and to the European problem itself. And because of this Freudian element you can read into it, according to the measure of your own fancy, all sorts of meanings—meanings that are here and meanings that are not. Obviously, Thomas Mann has to explain how it came to pass that an untutored youth of a primitive tribe came to arouse the infatuation (Mann would call it love) of a subtle, sophisticated, almost—in this case—Hedda Gabler type of woman. And so a few verses in the Bible are expanded into two volumes, rich with Egyptian background and Egyptian lore; and against the elaborately wrought pattern of an ancient civilization, there moves, like a thread out of place, the figure of young Joseph, with the simple grace of one who has God in his heart and who is as yet not aware of his strength. But Potiphar’s wife, at first superior to the slave, eventually begins to suspect the presence of rare merit, of which, as time goes on, she has increasing proof. Being a grand lady, she has to do the wooing, and the more she is denied the greater grows her love-longing, the greater the frustration that can have no other than the predestined end.

The author’s purpose is accomplished: he proves that the final act of Potiphar’s wife was no sudden whim but the culmination of a long festering passion. Yet at what a cost I For under this prolonged strain Joseph at moments appears super-honorable, if you like, yet a little less than human. In other words, the diffusion of the theme through so many pages robs it—so it seems to me—of something of the simple dignity and touching quality with which the briefer Biblical narrative is invested, that dignity and quality that caused Tolstoy to pronounce it one of the great novels of the world.

Thomas Mann, indeed, has done to the Joseph episode precisely what Tolstoy said a modern novelist might be tempted to do: by elaborating it with infinite detail he has hindered the transmission of feelings, or rather he has endowed it with feelings somewhat different from those conveyed by the original story. He has transferred the interest to the detailed episodes, which make the chain of his story. These episodes find expression in a continuous series of thought sequences told in an even, rhythmic prose—a prose that acts hypnotically and charms the reader once he has plunged into the narrative and overcome the first buffeting of rather ponderous word waves. At no time does the book make easy reading; and at the risk of being accused of sacrilege by those admirers of Mann who have declared it to be the supreme creative work of our time, I must confess that the gossip of Potiphar’s parents tried my patience even as it must have tried the unlucky Joseph’s, who had no option but to overhear. And impressive as the whole structure is, towering as it does like a veritable pyramid, reading the book leaves me wondering how much of the Egyptian and how much of the Jewish spirit is really here, and whether it is not actually a vast contemporary European allegory; for Thomas Mann is nothing if not a good European. Specialists will have to decide this question. As for myself, I must own to a loyal allegiance to Mann’s earlier works: “The Magic Mountain,” “Buddenbrooks,” and “Stories of Three Decades,” authentic expressions of the contemporary spirit, lucid and unequivocal.

H. G. Wells, who has lately written a book decrying, among other things, the “indiscriminate enthusiasm” that has been wasted on the Bible, must feel extremely annoyed that writers like Thomas Mann and Franz Werfel lavish their great creative gifts on such old-fashioned legendary trifles as the Joseph and Jeremiah yarns. And indeed the question arises: Is the Bible now to serve modern writers as a source-book for their creativeness, as Homer once served the great Greek writers of the fifth century B. C? And if this is so, the question provokes another: Is this fact to be interpreted as indicating an analogy between the spiritual conflicts of that period and the present? This may well be so. In any event, we have here a demonstrable indication of the continued vigor of the Bible as a book of living spirit, quickening the creativeness of major writers of today who are opposing the manifestly destructive and sterile doctrines of the Fascists and Communists.

Of Franz Werfel’s chronicle of the life of Jeremiah, “Hearken unto the Voice,” it may be said that it seems to be far more faithful to the spirit of the Bible than Mann’s story of Joseph. This may be partly explained by the fact that not only is the Jeremiah episode less remote chronologically but also that the available records of his acts and words are incomparably richer. In the Book of Jeremiah and Lamentations there is a wealth of material singularly in harmony I with the peculiar gifts of Werfel, who is superb as an imaginative recorder who fills in all the infinite detail lacking, from the novelist’s point of view, in the skeleton of the original structure. With the shrewd skill of one confident of his own design, he enlarges upon the Biblical narrative without violating its essential spirit. The tragic story of a man who reluctantly accepts the mantle of a prophet of evil has an authentic ring throughout. Jeremiah accepts the ungrateful job only because the chosen have no alternative, even as he seems to hint that Israel too has been chosen for an onerous if holy task it may not refuse. When Israel hedges or balks at the mandates of the Lord it must bear its punishment, and the demands of the Lord are always difficult. Constant defeat and constant renewal are Israel’s portion. This idea is expressed through the mouth of Clayton Reeves, a character who appears only in the prologue and epilogue of the story. Reeves is a Jew who, cloaking his identity, visits the site of the original Temple, and while there undergoes an epileptic trance in which he re-lives his life as Jeremiah the prophet.

On coming out of his trance he says to his companion: “Jeremiah was a sensitive man, who was implacably opposed to his world and his age. Though he was timid, even the evident and potent iniquities of this earth could not vanquish him. For he obeyed none other than the voice of God, which spoke to him and within him. . . .” But his unspoken reflection goes further. It affirms “that greatness is consistent only with running counter to the world and never with acceptance of it; that the eternally defeated are the eternally victorious; and that the Voice is more real than the clamour that seeks to drown it.” And he, Clayton Reeves, a writer who thought he had come to an end of his creative powers, suddenly “was filled with a joy of the spirit,” and became aware that precisely because he had just emerged from a devastating experience he was on the eve of creative renewal. Thus the symbol of the tale, so far as it concerns our own time and the place of the Jew in it, is made clear. The story is written with a prophetic fervor, quite apparently with heart as well as with mind; and the reading of it is a spiritual experience unusual in the case of a work that by the literary custom of the age is classified under the generic name of fiction.

Yet the reader who prefers the traditional kind of novel will turn with relief to Georges Duhamel’s “The Pasquier Chronicles,” a work dedicated to a progressive portrayal of the French bourgeoisie during the past two generations. There is a cornucopian opulence in the outpouring of details concerning the lives of the Pasquier family, a typically French, clannish, anarchical little tribe, its various members representing in their persons the arts and the sciences, not forgetting the business of money-grubbing. They are all superbly individualist, rebellious even while children, fighting among themselves, for themselves—and each of them in his own way is nevertheless supremely logical. The father Pasquier is easy-going, insouciant, with dreams of pure knowledge; and at the same time he is eager to venture into any get-rich-quick scheme, half practical, half wayward, gullible to the point of absurdity; above all, he is unable to look upon an attractive young woman without lust. The mother Pasquier is a miracle of peace, of patience, of love, all alone holding her quarrelsome brood together by a strength traditionally maternal. For background you have the world upon which the together-clinging Pasquiers are islanded, and its events come like lashing storms and tides to ravage the proud Pasquier hearts. The Pasquiers do not see eye to eye in the Dreyfus affair; indeed, they agree upon scarcely anything. Little wonder that Laurent Pasquier, who in the first person records the family history, is very much concerned with saving his soul: “So that’s what family life means?—lies and betrayals, quarrels and bullying, blackmail and falsehood.” And reflecting on his mother’s superhuman effort to save the family, he asks: “Is it really worth the effort of so much love, so much trouble, so much work, so much anguish? . . . The family is just a huge monster, invented so as to gobble up all the surplus love of the world.” There are love affairs too—with as much hate as love in them. And into this Pasquier world comes, among others, a poet and a Jew, Justin, in love with Laurent’s sister, Cecile. In the welter of humanity here Justin is perhaps the only selfless soul. He dominates the last two books of the five in the immense tome. It is he who in the already hectic pre-war atmosphere gives expression to his social consciousness by founding a Utopian colony, with Laurent as one of its members; and the final chapters show how the ship of good intentions must inevitably founder upon the rock of human nature.

This brief synopsis does ill justice to a vast edifice, behind whose facade there lives, breathes, struggles, wrangles, dreams, and suffers, the world created by the bourgeoisie. If any book may be called the epic of the class hated by Marx and Lenin, it is Georges Duhamel’s. The picture is not complete; more volumes are promised. And this brings me to Maxim Gorky’s “The Specter,” the fourth and final volume of the Russian’s fictional history of the same class. The comparison is all to Duhamel’s advantage. In the opinion of Soviet critics, Gorky, deified by them, has brought the work of Balzac and Flaubert, bourgeois historians both, to a fitting conclusion, more particularly because he has added “revolutionary significance” to his picture of the Russian intelligentsia. This is a doctrinal error. Social criticism defeats its own ends by assertion; Balzac and Flaubert—and Duhamel’s name may be added to these—have been wiser in allowing the pictures they have drawn to speak by implication. Even so, as Edmund Wilson recently pointed out in a penetrating essay on Flaubert, in “The Triple Thinkers,” the author of “Madame Bovary” in the end shifted his complaint “to the incompetence of humanity, for he is unable to believe in, or even conceive, any non-bourgeois way out.”


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