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The International Novel: 1944

ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

Lieutenant Bertram, By Bcxlo Uhsc. (Translated from the German by Catherine Mutter.) Simon and Schuster. $2.50. A Walk in the Sun. By Harry Brown. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. Valley of the Sky. By Hobert Douglas Skid-more. Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.00. Hast by Southwest. By Christopher La Farge. Coward-McCann. $2.50. War Tide. By Lin Taiyi. The John Day Company. $2.50. Pathfinders. By Cecil Lewis. William Morrow and Company. $2.50. Hair Stood the Wind for Prance. By H. K. Bates. Little, Brown and Company: an Atlantic Monthly Press Book. $2.50. Army of Shadows. By Joseph Kessel. (Translated from the French by Haakon Chevalier.) Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00.

Well, the Golden Bowl has shattered, and Henry James woidd find that the international novel has taken an odd turn in 1944. Here is the quarter’s catch of novels dealing with World War II, and herein the blunt and yet not altogether guileless Americans are storming their Italian castles—and establishing beachheads in the South Seas. James’s innocent young girl is in this case a Chinese maiden of seventeen who writes of atrocities and mass migrations. The cultivated Englishman is in the skies over Hamburg, Cologne, Diissel-dorf; the French aristocrat has gone underground. And a German—in a twist that might have pleased James’s cosmic heart—a battle-scarred, introspective and anti-Nazi German, now living in Mexico, is perhaps the real hero of the group.

The exile’s name—which sounds appropriately exotic-is Bodo Uhse; his novel deals with the Luftwaffe during the years of its infancy and of its baptism in Spain. Among these eight chronicles of war, Uhse’s “Lieutenant Bertram” is perhaps the only one that can be called a full-scale novel-complete, so to speak, with its own artistic strategy and striking power—and we may judge the other novels of the group partly in the light of its virtues. First of all, Mr. Uhse began working on his story in France in 1933 (shortly after the Nazis had issued his death warrant). He has had ten years to assimilate the moral background of the war, and to embody his reflections in his central characters-Major Jost, the conservative militarist; Harteneck, the Nazi fanatic; Hein, the underground radical; and Lieutenant Bertram himself, who, like the typical apprentice in Arnold Zweig’s earlier studies of the German Army, is caught between these opposing forces.

To such characters the war is not a metaphysical chat, on the one hand, and, on the other, a series of blindly destructive events. Democracy or Communism or Fascism are not miraculous discoveries to them—or misty voids; nationalism is not their single motivating force. Uhse’s anti-Fascist Germans, indeed, are filled with loathing and shame for their fatherland; they have long ago lost their home, and even a sense of home. And finally, while most of the recent war novels, dealing with almost unimaginable physical horrors, have curiously little sense of spiritual horror—and their heroes, like John Hersey’s Major Joppolo, have rather the air of doves amidst the buzzards—Mr. Uhse is aware of the ambiguous depths of the human temperament in times of stress. The battles in his novel are sometimes a pale reflection of the yearnings in his people. But I have been using “Lieutenant Bertram” as an abstract standard; in its own terms it is a concrete and complex novel—though not as readable perhaps as “A Walk in the Sun.” Harry Brown’s story deals with an American platoon on an Italian beachhead: their objective is a farmhouse six miles inland; they must take it within a few hours, and they do. The book attempts to cover no more than this action and the immediate responses of the infantry soldiers who take part in it—within this compass, “A Walk in the Sun” is an intense and accomplished novelette. But Mr. Brown’s Sergeant Tyne is by no means fighting the same war as Mr. Uhse’s Lieutenant Bertram. I’m not sure either that the rather stylized flatness of the Yankee (their names are Friedman, Rivera, Archimbeau) doughboys is completely accurate. Though their military existence may be no more enlightened, their private lives must have a little more originality than Mr. Brown suggests. Hobert Skid-more’s “Valley of the Sky”—dealing with the Yank fliers in the Pacific—is more overtly sentimental than “A Walk in the Sun”—by contrast, indeed, it is positively starry-eyed. Mr. Skidmore’s pilots and navigators and gunners do, however, have a sense of their own land, of their people, and of their own personalities—a sense of the past, that is, even while the Liberator engines eat up their future. “Valley of the Sky” records, too, and sometimes very touchingly, the youthful quality of these aviators; if they sound at moments incredibly juvenile, it is probably because, after all, they are. With the last of the American chroniclers, Christopher La Farge, we move into the Southwest Pacific. Dealing with Vichy politicians, homesick Seabees, Bach-loving PT skippers, and Thurber-loving transport pilots (who are living in the exploits of “Walter Mitty”), “East by Southwest” is less ambitious than the previous books and quite entertaining. Mr. La Farge’s tales, to be sure, are presented rather pretentiously; it is one of the incidental casualties of the war that writers of light fiction somehow feel they must take on a solemn and rather sacrificial manner. When he is not expecting n salute, however, Mr. La Farge is still a diverting story-teller.

Pushing out now still further east, where the twain have met and are conducting joint operations, we come upon Lin Taiyi, the maiden of seventeen who has felt enough human sacrifice not to wish to add to it. “War Tide,” a first novel about the migration of the Chinese before the bombs of the Jap invaders—and more than bombs—, is an intelligent and informative, though not a particularly notable work. What is remarkable, however, is the equanimity of this Chinese infant in the face of facts that would have staggered Henry James’s—or even Scott Fitzgerald’s later and not so innocent—American girls. Rut in “War Tide,” more directly than in the previous novels, the young are presiding over a world where an adult has the odds against him.

And even the English, on their foggy isle, feel the shadow of coming events. In “Pathfinders,” Cecil Lewis has an ingenious penultimate chapter wherein all history, with all its woes, seems to unfold like a bombing run before the eyes of an RAF pilot. Mr. Lewis doesn’t quite settle the problems he sets forth; all the same, he gives us an interesting novel, marked by an insider’s technical knowledge of aerial operations. He is at present a Squadron Leader in Sicily; he has been a flier in the First World War, a Flying Instructor to the Chinese Government, a founder of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and a novelist besides. II. E. Bates, whose “Fair Stood the Wind for France” deals with the crew of a Wellington bomber that has crashed in occupied territory, is an almost equally prodigious Anglo-Saxon. Mr. Bates’s earlier short stories established his reputation; along with professional reviewing and writing, farming, and, again, service with the RAF, he has, man and boy, turned out some fifteen books in about as many years. This is perhaps a little too professional. Still, the English popular novelists from Maugham and Priestley to Mr. Rates himself, are a cut above our own Louis Bromfields in their work—and, I’m afraid, so far above in their general social outlook as to be out of sight. “Fair Stood the Wind for France” has two plain assets. It centers around an old-fashioned but quite attractive love affair between Mr. Bates’s wounded pilot and the French peasant girl who rescues him. Amidst the innumerable and apparently highly mechanized Wacs and Waves who whizz through these other novels, this is something quite new. And through the love affair, Mr. Rates handles, though with a vestigial insularity, the very delicate issue of Anglo-French human relationships: these two nations, so integrally joined in the war, and yet separated by the caesura between the triumphant and the defeated.

It would be pleasant, here, to join the representative of the French underground in fiction with these English fliers and with Mr. Uhse’s anti-fascist Germans. Joseph Kessel’s “Army of Shadows” deals, moreover, with events that are dramatic and heroic in themselves. I cannot understand why the book is so poor: so melodramatic that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would find himself at a loss to deal with Mr. Kessel’s figures. One cannot think of “Army of Shadows” along with, say, Arthur Koestler’s “Scum of the Earth,” which does for the fall of France what Mr. Kes-sel attempts to do for the rise of France. Rut this is perhaps the whole point—and “Army of Shadows” illuminates these other war novels through its limitations as much as “Lieutenant Bertram” does through its merit.

For no sooner does France fall than it rises; hardly has Germany conquered the world before the world, it seems, is conquering Germany; empires dissolve in moments; international coalitions take shape within the hour; and the “backward” areas of history have suddenly become the vantage points of the future. The incredible pressure of contemporary events is operating on all our writers, often forcing them into quite unnatural or completely conventional literary modes. Just as the best novel of the American depression—I am speaking of Ira Wolfert’s “Tucker’s People”—has only recently appeared, it will very likely take another decade to get the novels of this war. That is, if his-tory will take a breather, and if the international novel has not become, by then, the global novel.


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