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Foibles and Fiction

ISSUE:  Autumn 1925

By George MacDonald. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $2.50.

Life Begins Tomorrow. By Guido da Verona. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $2.00.

The Polyglots. By William Gerhardi. New York: Duffield & Co. $2.50.

Serena Blandish, or The Difficulty of Getting Married. By a Lady of Quality. New York: George H. Doran & Co. $2.50.

The Painted Veil. By W. Somerset Maugham. New York: George H. Doran & Co. $2.00.

The Rector of Maliseet. By Leslie Reid. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $2.00.

Princess Amelia. By Carola Oman. New York: Duffield and Co. $2.00.

The recent heated discussions over matters religious and scientific have been reflected in fiction by the prompt publication of three philosophical novels, an English, an Italian and an Russian.

“Lilith” by George MacDonald (first printed in 1895) is one of the most gorgeous and imaginative allegories ever written. It is so delightful as a pure fairy tale, glowing with fantastic imagery, racing on and on through grotesque and exquisite adventure, that one is tempted to believe it might endure permanently through its sheer and inexhaustible originality. However, it is as a romance of the dimensions, as a mystic’s supreme spiritual interpretation of life and death, that “Lilith” has been considered worthy of reprint ­ing. The allegory is so closely worked out that to many the book will seem obscure. But to those who are sympa ­thetic with this medium the art of George MacDonald, like that of William Blake, proves that poetic utterance is often less complex and limited than realism. To quote Greville MacDonald in the introduction: , ” ‘Lilith,’ making no pre ­tense to be scientific, appeals to the imaginative understand ­ing alone, and finds in our ancient spiritual instincts which a realistic analyst cannot understand, infinite hope for the washing away of our submerged original sin.” The reprint is from the second edition of 1896 and is accompanied by an introduction by the author’s son, an introductory key, a paraphrase of an earlier manuscript version, and an ex ­planation of notes.

“Life Begins Tomorrow” by Guido da Verona deals also with the eternal mystery of life and death, but in truly scien ­tific Italian style the author has deliberately resolved his question into a concrete ethical problem. When, if ever, is a physician justified in taking life? If a suffering man is doomed to inevitable death, if he longs for it, begging the physician for relief, if his death means life for his young and highly vitalized wife and her unborn child—is the physician, who is also his closest friend, justified in mercifully hasten ­ing the end? But suppose the physician is the wife’s lover? Against a rich and perfumed atmosphere of voluptuousness this stark situation is delineated with that odd mingling of emotional horror, passionate beauty, and intellectual detach ­ment which is characteristic of the best Latin tradition.

While Gerhardi in “Polyglots” also concerns himself with the philosophy of life and death and good and evil, his ap ­proach is neither through allegory nor through concrete ex ­ample. The author of “Futility” uses the Russian method of frankly inserting among the narrative sentences, para ­graphs, and even pages of the hero’s subjective musings on the stupidity of mankind, the senselessness of human en ­deavor, the inevitableness of death. Mr. Gerhardi is an Englishman, even an Oxonian, but he was born in Russia and “Polyglots” is thoroughly Russian in feeling, tempo, manner, and form,—or deliberate lack of it. Although there is the thread of a love story, the purpose of the book is to re-create the chaos effected by a group of expatriated Bel ­gians, Russianized English, Anglocized Russians, Ameri ­cans, Canadians, and Orientals of all ages and both sexes, living in the upheaval following the great war in Japan, Manchuria and China and finally returning by way of Sing ­apore, Ceylon and Egypt to Europe. The situations, pre ­sented in a style that suggests a translation from the Rus ­sian made by a German, punctuated by bits of patois and broken English, are sometimes amusing, sometimes tedi ­ous, and occasionally thought-provoking. The author has achieved his purpose of depicting confusion—mental, moral and racial. Whether one chooses to regard the book as sa ­tirical or serious, there is no question but that the confusion is complete.

When we come to “Serena Blandish” we know precisely where we stand. This is a sophisticated and highly amusing trifle, a chic and fragile foible. It belongs in the category of literary hors d’oeuvres like “Jennifer Lorn” and “Pranc ­ing Nigger,” although it has not the exquisite quality of the “sedate extravaganza” nor the perversity of Firbanks’ tour de force.

“The Painted Veil” is also readily classified. Somerset Maugham writes well, and this smart and dashing novel bears the authoritative touch of sure workmanship. It catches the interest at once and holds it. Like the “Great Gatsby” it deals with second rate people in a first rate way, counterbalancing the depressing commonplaceness of the characters by unusual Oriental settings and by an admira ­bly terse economy of style.

There is a conscientious effort to produce an effect of Brontesque eeriness or Blackwood supernaturalism in “The Rector of Maliseet,” but the suspense is too long drawn out and the climax too tame to achieve the success of either mas ­ter. While Leslie Reid has much delicacy of sentiment and a certain power of sylvan description, it is doubtful if a large number of modern readers will take the trouble to read this volume and to weigh its merits which are many. As a first novel by a new author it shows promise rather than ful ­fillment.

Miss Carola Oman in “Princess Amelia” has written an unpretentious and faithful study of the life and environment of the youngest child of George the Third and Queen Char ­lotte (they had fifteen), which deserves to become a juvenile classic. But not in the least is it implied that its appeal will be limited to young readers. Miss Oman has recreated the formality, the ennui of a bygone atmosphere and the pathos of a long forgotten romance. She has worked with much the same fidelity as Charlotte Yonge or Mrs. Oliphant, and with an agreeable simplicity that augurs well for future work.

Of the seven novels discussed, only “Lilith” has any great significance. But even the most hopeful of fiction readers cannot expect the blithe entertainment of “The Constant Nymph” or the fateful tragic sweep and power of “God’s Stepchildren” to be duplicated within a twelve-month.


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