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Honesty and a Book Review

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928
Black Sparta. By Naomi Mitchison. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. $2.50. Blight. By Ann Rice. New York: Payson and Clarke. $2.50. That Bright Heat. By George O’Neil. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.50. Farcivcll to Youth. By Storm Jameson. New York: Knopf. $2.50. The Friend of Antaeus. By Gerald Hopkins. New York: Dutton. $2.50. The R iver Between. By Louis Forgionc. New York: Dutton. $2.50.

tions into an actual going concern. These and innumerable other points, ranging from issues genuinely believed in to the more casuistic sort of hair-splitting, have been the cause of endless argument and adjustment at Geneva and must continue to be until nations are a good deal more willing than they generally are now to settle their differences peaceably. It is the course of such argument and adjustment, viewed as a clash of principles, which Dr. Williams traces in his book.

Special pleading, either for or against the League, naturally has no place in such a work, which is essentially that of the scholar and retrospective analyst, but among the imponderables which the casual reader might add to the sum of pluses and minuses which instinctively he keeps making, is the growth at Geneva of what might be called a League “psychology”—the tendency, there to be tolerant and open-minded, however red-faced and intolerant the press and what passes for public opinion may be at home. As time goes on, it would seem likely that this tendency will more and more work out in action, just as in the case of the individual, an attitude or manner of behaving, if persisted in long enough, begins to modify character itself.

There have been complaints, these days, that books are being advertised with the exuberance of publicity for popular-priced cigarettes. Such disturbances make trouble for the reviewer, who—although honest, despite the gift of advanced copies—hesitates to praise with the literary Babbitts or to damn with the schmutzige Menckens. He is caught between conven- j tional conventions and conventional reactions. In either case, he can hardly call his soul his own. It is easier to be honest with your money than with your doubtfully gained I opinions.

The difficulty of too much or too little enthusiasm can be partly, solved by finding exactly—or by trying to find, at least—how much a book reviewer has a right to expect of a novel before he reads. How high should his standards i be, and how personal? Obviously, if every new novel is to be a new “Vanity Fair” or a new Jane Austen, this world will be full of unhappy and vengeful authors. Obviously, too, if nothing from a split infinitive to incest can trouble the aesthetics or the ethics of a reviewer, many an author yet unborn will live and die a grateful man.

If your standards are high, if you hope, honestly, to see “the great American novel” every time you read a new book, and if you hope each new novel is by a young Meredith or Hardy or Conrad, you are liable to become a blight upon hopeful publishers. Your .review copies—unless your growling is as good advertising as that of the bilious “American Mercury”—will dwindle, from the exasperation of publicity agents. You will prove yourself “out of touch” with the modern spirit.

On the other hand, if your standards are frankly low— if you do not look for perfection—you can induce yourself to believe that a tepid book is a fine brew. You can train yourself to look only at the good spots and to convince yourself that the bad parts do not exist. You can »ay, then, with the publishers that “Here is a young American whose exquisite gifts of story telling in X-promise a new genius in our literature” and that “Nothing like this in finish and in artistry has happened since ‘David Copperfield.’ ” And as you get to know a few young novelists personally, through literary teas and garden parties, you can convince yourself that George is a good fellow and his book ought to get a lot of clapping. And so you become either a literary “Yes” man or an academic howler.

If i were writing a handbook on reviewing there are two rules I would include. First, never believe, because it is new, that a modern book is better than the old. Second, do not look for perfection on this side of the grave. And, as a corollary to both, give an author a chance to do what he wants to do, provided he does it well. Honesty in book reviewing is like honesty in life: a man will do well to make friends wherever he finds there are good men; but he will never forget his own honor and embrace every beggar ruffian who wanders up the street.

To say that, of the books gathered for review, all of them, in one way or another, deal with what used to be known in the good old days as the “seamy side” of life, is to make no new remark about modern fiction. Its mulish insistence upon sex is so well known that the contemporary novel has become a parody of itself. One of the modern conventions is that a heroine must be betrayed long before marriage and as near childhood as possible, and—in all seriousness—this unhappy fact endears her to her doting biographer. In the days of Stephen Crane and Frank Norris, the bright young men wrote about women of the streets as a protest against Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” They argued that such women were in the world and a part of life and no one ought to shut his eyes to reality. Reality is no longer the defense of such episodes of sexual distress, for no one has dared object these many years as one heroine, wild eyed and passionate, followed the next. To present a good woman in a novel needs, just now, the real justification. You need to explain carefully, as you write, that there are people like that in the world.

In “Blight” and in “That Bright Heat” and in “The Friend of Antaeus” examples of needless seductions appear, and even in Storm Jameson’s fine book, “Farewell to j Youth,” Nat suffers an ignominy at the hands of Denny which is pure sensationalism. A problem for development by some candidate for a graduate degree could be found in “The Relation of Reality to the Modern Novel” or in “The Modern Woman as Revealed by Modern Fiction.” The average heroine is no nearer reality than a motion picture villain resembles a bad man.


In the face of my, own remarks on the general critical dilemma, I ought not, perhaps, to fly. And yet, there is about “Black Sparta” the feeling that here is the exception among new books—the one out of twenty or thirty of the average list that rises far above them by its skill. Naomi Mitchison is one of the few true novelists among modern writers. No allowances need to be made for her because she is a woman or because she writes historical fiction. She has no sociological axe to grind, no sex problems to expound or prove, no doctrines of ethics or politics to preach. She uses the novel as an artistic means of expression, as > an instrument for conveying the reality of people in Greece. That the Spartans are of a past time is merely an incident of history for Naomi Mitchison; she does no archaeological reconstructions by means of her fiction. She is interested in her people as real men and women—contemporaries for the duration of the story—and that is the feeling the reader gets about them. Charilas and Thorax, Pindar and Arne, Myrto and Tragon are people, not figures in historical story telling. This creation of character comes from Naomi Mitchison’s instinctive poetry and intuitive grasp of the emotional center of a situation. She understands character; she does not dissect it. She has deep feeling as a novelist, a high emotional level sustained and colored by her poetic gifts of style. (Be it remembered, by the way, that her “Laburnum Branch” is in the first rank of contemporary verse, and her “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is the best modern English historical novel.)

Two things distinguish Naomi Mitchison’s material and style. First is the sadist tinge which sends her mind towards cruelty and the horrible. She catches the full color of sordidness as well as the fresh beauty of girl priestesses. There is a frankness about her stories which would be brutality if it were not so sharply pointed and a pessimism which would be depressing if it were not so swift. Sparta is “black” in these concise pictures, not a place of heroic idealists but a place of practical politicians for whom statecraft is existence. That Naomi Mitchison writes of infidelity and prostitution is not wholly because Sparta had such things in its make-up; scenes like “The Lamb Misused” come from the mind of a writer for whom the spectacle of life inspires despite its cruelty, which she sees.

Second, Naomi Mitchison’s style is poetically exact. She writes with the concrete detail reduced to a single sharp impression in her phrases, so that her prose has the conciseness of poetry, and is never burdened by catalogued reality. She connotes a whole period by her specific instances and she connotes her instances by her keenly, used detail. She has the mental economy of a Katherine Mansfield and gives somewhat the same exhilarating effect by her poetic realism.

I have been startled to find how many people who dislike modern realism for its “seamy” themes which I wrote about, praise “Black Sparta,” which is full of “seams.” One explanation is that “sordidness” is less terrifying when it is historical. Another is that poetry changes brass to gold.

“The Friend of Antaeus” has a fine idea back of it, the aloof idler getting caught by reality despite his determination never to take human relationships seriously. Superficially, the book has the tone of the Viola Meynell, Aldous Huxley, Michael Arlen Mayfair sophistication (although I realize that to couple Arlen and Huxley in one list is a | rank crime). The smart patter of “The Friend of Antaeus” does not, to me, quite come off. It is flat and dull and often obvious, a little as though the author felt how bright shone his style. Many of Passingham’s flip mentionings—references to Morris-like artists and musicians and even to painters like Cezanne—make the suave hero something held over from the eighteen nineties.

There is good characterization despite the surface glitter. Ian Wace has a life of his own in the book, as does the unhappy creature so wildly called Evadne. And much of the philosophical asides in the book, casual remarks by Passingham to himself or by Hopkins about Passingham, have the smoothness of neat epigrams. There is no style more dangerous than the sophisticated; it is so ready for treachery and so willing to bite the author’s hand.

“Blight” is a firm, energetic story, with more to it than its beginning promises. The degeneration of New England families has been so often bewept and bewailed that another view more or less will draw few cheers. “Blight’s” originality lies in its story of Jane, the rebel, who fights with her father against the family gentility and becomes a pert little actress on the road. The tale of the theatrical tours and the failing Broadway shows is fresh and honest, depending for its effect upon its knowledge of the ups and downs of the theater, not upon luxurious pictures of Broadway nights and exotic parties. Jane and Joe are actors as most actors grow, and the pictures of booking agents and rehearsals catch the excitement of the stage without false glitter, surprising a reader even in such chance details as mention of the twenty dollars a week which is all some girls are paid. Aim Rice’s skill at sketching-in the pity of Jane, the fifteen year old adventuress, under the flighty dialog and brazen humor is worth many a thin novel of more words and infinite pretence. It deserves more notice than it has so far got, and many readers, for there are few people who would not want to read “Blight” if they were told about it.

“The River Between” is a wildly romantic tale of Italian laborers on the other side of the Hudson from New York. The scenes in the tenement, of the Italian families fighting and working after the day’s hauling brings the men home, are believable realism with a romance in the way the Italians look at New York and at their giant boss, the mysterious Demetrio. But as the story of Oreste and Rose develops, as the ill-starred love affair sloughs off into melodrama of the “Broadway Rose” sort, a mawkish emotionalism increases up to the inevitable end where a bleary Rose, at last a street walker, meets Demetrio, an aged tramp, and determines upon a motion picture conversion to right by a devotion of her miserable days to the wants of her half mad father-in-law. Then, in a crazy fight, later, after Demetrio goes home, the book ends with a burning building and with a picture of Rose, again alone, headed for suicide. The book has an able fluency and a deep feeling for place and for the excited Italians whom the author knows, and its serious energy makes it readable and often full of deep emotion, of a moody sadness which is the true counterpart of Italian gaiety.

“Farewell to Youth” adds to Storm Jameson’s already high reputation. She has that fluency and ease which are always, to me, typical of an English modern novel, not forgetting, either, that deep sense of an inherited background which we sometimes think of as Galsworthian. The people in the book, Emily and Sir James, Nat and Denny, Ann and Fanny, have vitality; they do not seem manufactured to typify a tendency, as Galsworthy’s people often do, and the book has a blessed freedom from political jargon, sometimes common in the Forsyte Saga. The story has a sharply defined unity—it is a love story of Nat, who grows up in the process of marriage. The circumscription to such limits means a narrowness about “Farewell to Youth” which is a quality, often felt about books written by women and something which John Galsworthy never has. His scope and his sincerity excuse, for him, his occasional prosiness, his lapses into mere talk.

“Farewell to Youth” is high pressure writing; the emotions are heightened; the people are extremely sensitive, high strung, and, like Nat, given to smiling through their lashes and saying “Darling, . . . oh, my dear!” In intensity, the book is as unstable as “Dusty Answer” and has about it something of Miss Lehman’s youthful unhap-piness, the mood of the growing pains of the adolescent, the ecstasy of the young Oxford poets.

“Farewell to Youth” has a spirit about it of fine people and a gentle England, despite the intrusion of the war. Indeed, it is in her lyric passages of Nat’s affection for the old house, Saints Rew, for the meadows and hills, for the streets of London, that Storm Jameson is at her best. The opening chapters could serve as a model beginning for future novels of its kind and its material. The style of “Farewell to Youth” could, at almost any point in the book, serve as an example of good narrative ease.

“That Bright Heat” tells much the same story as “Farewell to Youth,” translating London into St. Louis and Nat into Clarion Lawless, an American “moon calf” of the time of the late 1860’s or ‘80’s. It is a surprisingly good story, surprising because the reader expects merely another middle west welt-schmerz in terms of a dreaming small town boy, and he little expects St. Louis to become the moody, beautiful city which it is to Clarion Lawless. The story is the life history of two aristocratic children who fall in love but never in the right way or at the right time. The social scandal which makes a background for Clarion and Clover in their youth adds a futile and sardonic note to the ill-starred affair. The book is tragic where “Farewell to Youth” is fashioned—deliberately—to end well. But Clover dies in child-birth, bearing a son to Clarion (although married to another man), and Clarion kills himself after her death, and after his miserable discovery that he has nearly loved a negress. High romance has here a dizzy fall!

The book leaves the impression of needless intrusion of nasty episodes and an exceptional catastrophe to two lives which—despite the destructive force of “that bright heat” of passion in Clarion—had inherent the capacities for living governed by a decent idealism. But, off-setting this drop into the melodramatic and the scandalous, the dreams of the young Clarion over his books and his school-day love, Clover, and the concrete pictures of life in old St. Louis create an atmosphere not easily over-praised. “That Bright Heat” is a substantial book, full of wisdom, and destined probably for the comfortable ranks of idealistic biography if subversive forces in modern literature had not made emphatic a most unnatural naturalism.


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