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Fiction and Life

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

Success. By Lion Feuchtwanger. New York: The Viking Press. $3.00. Quiet Street. By Michael Ossorgin. New York: Lincoln MacVeagh—The Dial Press. $2.50. The Water Gypsies. By A. P. Herbert. Garden City: Double-day, Doran and Company. $2.50. The Imperial Palace. By Arnold Bennett. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company, $2.50. The Virgin and the Gypsy. By D. H. Lawrence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. The Bitter Tea of General Yen. By Grace Zaring Stone. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company. $2.00. A Short History of Julia. By Isa Glenn. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. The Deepening Stream. By Dorothy Canfield. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

In my youth Matthew Arnold was read with reverence. Then new generations forged to the front with new idols as well as new ideals, and the academic advocate of “sweetness and light” was consigned to polite oblivion. Moving with the times, I too was a little ashamed of my previous admiration. But nevertheless one dictum of his stuck in my mind ineradicably, and now it comes back to me once more as I sit looking, in a certain state of bafflement, at these eight novels piled on my desk in the expectation of a review that will bring the entire octet into some sort of collective relationship.

One of these volumes is German, one Russian, three English, and three American. One of the latter deals with China and not with the life of the country where it was produced. At first glance, no two of them appear to have anything in common whatsoever, except possibly a certain general attitude toward life, sometimes vague and sometimes sharply marked, that places on all of f** - n post-bellum stamp. It was while pondering the difficulty of finding a common denominator in the midst of such a welter of variety that the words of Matthew Arnold flashed back into my memory.

“Poetry, is criticism of life,” he said once, Within the term of poetry he undoubtedly included all creative, imaginative writing, the novel and the drama as well as the poem. I have never found it possible to get away from that definition, or to improve on it. It had already been suggested by a greater spirit through Hamlet’s words about the purpose of playing being “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.” For back of the players Shakespeare must have vis-ioned the drama into which they were called to infuse a more vivid life. If the lines given them to speak bore no relationship to life, their acting must suffer accordingly.

Criticism, of course, can never imply mere finding of fault. It results from a judicious weighing of pros and cons, of merits and demerits, and—being inevitably subjective in its last roots—of likes and dislikes. It presents a carefully balanced net sum of approval and disapproval, and it may be expressed directly or indirectly. Bearing this in mind, we cannot fail to see that all fiction in the last instance is critical, suggesting more or less forcibly, more or less palpably, that the life it portrays is, or is not, what it could or should be. It is as true of a fairy tale as of a problem novel. It is no less true of an amusing experiment like Arnold Bennett’s “The Imperial Palace” than it is of a pretentious political and social panorama like Lion Feuchtwanger’s “Success.” It applies to a psychological sketch like D. H. Lawrence’s “The Virgin and the Gypsy” no less than to full-length pictures of life like Dorothy Canfield’s “The Deepening Stream” or Michael Ossorgin’s “Quiet Street.” And through this conception my task has taken on an orderly, feasible aspect. It is not to compare these eight novels with each other, or with other novels of similar types, but with their respective relations to life as we know it or see it.

In spite of what I have just written, the fulfilment of my task will probably lead to some sort of comparison between the works involved. In fact, I know now that the comparison has already been made in my mind. They stand in a row on my desk, those eight, in a sort of challenging attitude. And as I glance at their titles once more, I feel certain that only two of them embody criticisms of the life they mirror that are acceptable to myself. Those two are Mrs. Can-field’s “The Deepening Stream”—in my opinion the biggest and finest of the lot—and Mr. Herbert’s “The Water Gypsies.” Yet reviewers and critics have screamed over all of them, screamed loudly in that ultra-modern manner which always has an eye on subsequent advertisements, and the ones over which they have screamed most exultantly are not the ones that I have picked as ranking above the rest. I cannot help it. Criticism is subjective, and will so remain no matter how hard we strive to be objective and impersonal.

The forcible impressiveness of Lion Feuchtwanger’s plan and style cannot be denied. He has created an enormous canvas, fit to be hung in some congressional hall, yet filled with details scaled to a tiny painting by Meissonier. It is not a picture of individual lives, but of a community, Munich, and only during a few years, the years of absolute reactionary, triumph that followed the post-war revolution and the brief communistic regime. Individual characters abound, and some of them stand out with startling clearness and conciseness. Yet we see them only, or almost only, as representatives of a racial type, the Bavarian, varied, to be sure, yet conforming even in rebellion. An occasional cosmopolitan Jew, like Geyer, or the Swiss Tiiverlin, are introduced as contrasts chiefly, in order to make us see the type more precisely. For the development of this type, Herr Feuchtwan-ger employs a mad swirl of events, grouping one incident after another around the symbolically conceived fate of Martin Kriiger, the art critic who is sent to prison on a drummed-up charge of perjury because he has dared to hang certain “radical” pictures in the National Gallery. But it is not the story of Kriiger, nor that of his erstwhile mistress and later wife, Johanna Krain, who is most modernly faithless to her imprisoned husband while straining every, nerve to set him free. She is more nearly the dominant figure in the novel than any other one, but the real story is that of legal injustice and political arrogance as practiced by a primitive race which feels keenly its right to run its own country regardless of any democratic notions that may prevail in Berlin or elsewhere. Into this picture the author, unfortunately, has woven certain philosophical-historical excursions relating to contemporary world events. These delay the movement and deflect the reader’s interest. Yet that interest is held to an astonishing degree, when one considers the length of the book. What troubles the reader is not the endless length of the narrative, or the confusing richness of details, some of them quite insignificant, but the question whether, after all, the general picture painted by Herr ,jj ‘itwanger is.j true to life—true even to life as lived in Munich during the years 1921-23. He has written in a spirit of almost consecrated hatred, and we must need share that hatred to a large extent, especially because, throughout, he has shown much sympathetic understanding for those against whom his hatred is directed. It would be wrong, perhaps, to say that his picture is too one-sided. What one feels rather is that it represents too much of a temporary, phase, true as far as it goes maybe, but not of sufficiently enduring truth to warrant the amount of attention demanded of American readers.

Of “Quiet Street” I hesitate to say anything at all. It is not unrelated in plan to the novel just dealt with—a keenly analytical picture of life in Moscow during the last phase of the war and the earlier phase of the Bolshevist regime. Like the curate’s egg, it is excellent in parts. One bows to the character drawing. There are dramatic incidents and situations that compel and hold. The general impression, however, is one of futility. While the Soviet government is never directly attacked, one can never escape the hatred with which it inspires the author. And though many of his implied charges against it may rest on a basis of truth, it is impossible for one who has followed Russian developments intelligently to believe that the present regime over there stands for nothing but graft and corruption. Although the novel ends on a vaguely hopeful note, there is nothing in that note to suggest the possibility that the Russian people may now be going through a well-needed period of schooling—a period which may end with the catastrophic downfall of its present rulers, but which will nevertheless set its stamp forever on the future of the country.

It’s a long hop from a Russian tragedy, to an English idyl. One takes it with pleasure, however, and lands with inexpressible content in the largely unknown world of those “water gypsies” who, generation after generation, have kept up the traffic on the canal between Brentford and Birming-Hm.1 Theirâ– > Id is strikingly new to us, and full of unexpected satisfactidn. An idyl, of course, is supposed to have no shadows. Mr. Herbert is too wise a writer, too keen a student of life, to fall into any such error. He takes in everything, the bad and the good, but he refrains from labelling anything he relates according to conventional standards. His novel might be said to be truly based in the Einsteinian theory of relativity. And so his shadows, faithfully rendered, become only means of setting off his lights the more brilliantly. From the first page to the last he gives us the sense of mirroring life as it really is, and though, as every artist must, he uses only a tiny section of universal existence for his picture, that picture becomes one of those all too rare mirrors in which we find instructive as well as amusing reflections of life as lived everywhere and at any time. He has, too, a faculty of painting vividly which time and again sweeps the reader off his critical feet. Whether it be a whippet race in mid-London, or a bowling contest in the suburban Hammersmith, one is made actually to see what Mr. Herbert relates with such apparent unconcern.

Leaving aside his plays and essays, Mr. Bennett has always followed three distinct lines in his fictional production. One of these, as represented by “The Old Wives’ Tale,” is sternly artistic and almost photographically realistic. Its extreme opposite, as found in “The Grand Babylon Hotel,” for instance, borders on hack work and is frankly written for sale only. Between these two lies a middle line which combines the author’s keen psychological insight with his capacity, for irresistible entertainment. Into this line falls “The Imperial Palace,” a study of the life lived in and for a great modern luxury hotel. As usual, Mr. Bennett has mastered his subject thoroughly, and what you do not know about such an institution when you have finished his book is hardly worth missing. Above the hotel itself, however, stands a human figure, the creator of that hotel, Evelyn Orcham, a figure pleasantly reminiscent of Denry in “The Old Adam.” It is impossible not to surrender to the charm and efficiency of this figure. It must also be admitted that Mr. Bennett tells his story with customary verve, and with an abundance of those little psychological observations and revelations which make one pause and cry, mostly with a smile: “I never thought of that before!” But there is a little too much of hero worship in the story, and there is a love episode, rather hectic, which might have been cut considerably without loss to the novel as a whole. The total impression left behind is pleasing but not enduring.

We shall probably never know whether Lawrence meant “The Virgin and the Gypsy” to stand as it does, striking us like a significant fragment of some large Greek frieze. We are told that it had not received its final polishing when its author was snatched away by death. But the question is: Had it even been completed? It is the beginning of a story, not the fulfilment of one. Even at that one cannot but wonder at the compelling force and rich coloring with which Lawrence could endow what I have dared to name a mere sketch. Here as always he is at close grips with real life, and out of his struggle with it new light emerges. Once more he is concerned with the importance and beauty of the physical side of love, and more particularly with the part it should play in woman’s life. One might call this posthumous work of his a briefer version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” couched in terms fitted for the world at large. Where he fails, now as often before, is in the portrayal of characters with whom he cannot sympathize. The rector and his mother are reduced to grotesque caricatures, repulsive, hideous, while all the time we feel that in the flesh they must have shown more than one redeeming aspect. Life has a marvellous way of mixing good and bad . . . in all of us. The triumph of an artist is to picture a type he hates so that it still remains sympathetically human. And in this one respect Lawrence has failed, here as elsewhere, though we must surely grant him the rank of a great artist.

Mrs. Stone’s “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” is a brilliant piece of analytical description, placing East and West face to face in an unusually effective manner. Her little scenes of Chinese nature are inimitable in their restrained delicacy. One reads her book with a sense of charm rarely encountered in such high degree. And then, as one completes the final chapters, one puts down the book with a no less acute sense of disappointment. The great General Yen ceases to be a fascinating Oriental riddle, becoming instead a pricked bubble, a might-have-been. Mrs. Stone may intend to tell us that this sudden descent from eminence to nonentity is typically Chinese, a racial trait which we cannot understand. Perhaps it is so. But she fails to make it clear to us, and by this failure a remarkable piece of work is sadly marred.

There are many King Streets south of Mason and Dixon’s line. Miss Glenn wisely does not tell us the exact location of the one she has chosen as the narrow geographical boundary, of a story that in time covers more than twenty years, before and after the great war. Her novel is not, at bottom, the history of an individual, but of a small and aristocratic section of a small and aristocratic Southern city. This segment of our national life she knows thoroughly, and she pictures it graphically, amusingly, pathetically. Especially she scores in her portrayal of the relationship between whites and Negroes. To northerners this relationship must seem as astonishing as it is entertaining. Julia, the central figure, is drawn with loving exactitude; but her life, as revealed to us by the novel, suggests an anticlimax which is artistically regrettable, however true it might be to life. By the final repetition of her initial disappointment in love we are robbed of a contrast which would have raised the novel to a far higher level. Another defect, in my opinion, is the steady decline of the representatives of the older generations around Julia into more and more burlesqued shadows of their real selves. In this matter Miss Glenn has failed even as did Lawrence. She is almost brutally one-sided in her exposure of the ailings and failings of old age, and we shrink back from it, knowing, t*s we do, that while she may be giving us a part of the truth, it is not the whole truth. That Miss Glenn has chosen a sharply limited phase of life for her treatment, is not a fault. But a fault it is that she has viewed this tiny phase too exclusively from a single angle. And for this reason the criticism of life involved in her story does not ring quite true.

Though Miss Canfield takes her characters over a lot of territory — Paris, southern France, midwestern college towns, and so on—the main part of her story centres in the little town of Rustdorf on the Hudson, an old settlement of Dutch-descended Quakers. Its limits are almost as closely confined as those of Miss Glenn’s King Street, but the difference is nevertheless tremendous. As few other American writers, Miss Canfield knows how to bring all of life into her tale, even when that tale is confined to a one-and-one-half-story house in a sleepy town of the Hudson valley, or to an apartment in war-time Paris. Every little detail is by her exquisite art and keen insight turned into a sort of combined telescope and microscope, enabling us at one and the same time to view the macrocosmos and the microcosmos, life in its entirety, life in its universal aspects, and life in its most minutely specialized individualizations. I have read her novel with a fervor and a glow of satisfaction that, alas, comes to my share but rarely after a long lifetime of voracious reading. Every page of hers lives with a life which I am forced to accept as authentic, and which, nevertheless, does not draw that sense of genuineness from any one-sided gloating on the darker ways of our existence. There are not many artists in this country today, or anywhere, who could make us see Matey’s parents with the ruthless exactitude shown by Miss Canfield, and who could yet make us understand and appreciate the love, the feeling of inevitable community, which lie beneath all their petty bickerings. Matey herself is a figure not easily forgotten. But beside her we find a whole gallery of men and women and children, all with their human frailties written large on them, and yet drawn in such a manner that our hearts are opened to them for keeps. In every one of them we discover a little bit of our own selves, and by viewing these fragments as presented by the tenderly impersonal art of Miss Canfield, we are able to see ourselves and our own lives in a new light. For once I, too, feel like screaming. I feel like saying that “The Deepening Stream” is one of the biggest books that have come out of America in many a year. And, to boot, it is as truly, as intensely American as anything written by Mr. Dreiser or Mr. Lewis. “The Deepening Stream” might be said to be “Main Street” seen, not from above, but from within; or King Street seen through eyes that have been gifted with divine pity.

Now for the summing up. All these novels are worth while. All contain a criticism of life that cannot be disregarded as wholly false or quite lacking in significance. The quality of “bigness” attaches to several of them. But in only, two of them—the two already named—do I find a view of life, a realization of its true spirit, that sets them apart as human documents that should, and probably will, live far beyond the period of their appearance.


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