Skip to main content

Life, Literature, and Books

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

Joseph and His Brothers. By Thomas Mann. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. The Oppermanns. By Lion Feuchtwangcr. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50. The Well of Days. By Ivan Bunin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. Passion’s Pilgrims. By Jules Romains. New York: Alfred A. Kn.opf. $2.50.

In this day and age and season of the year, when there is ever more light upon the human cuticle, one of its most useful functions may be declared afresh: it separates life neatly into two great parts, that which goes on inside your skin and that which does not. If this seem a somewhat naive and egotistic view, all life may be divided into three parts, a narrow Darien of a Now washed on either hand by an illimitable ocean of a Then. In fact, an adroit combining of these two analyses of life would suffice for all ordinary purposes if literature did not have to be reckoned with—literature, among whose more striking effects are its way of letting in upon you the extracutaneous world and its way of flooding your Present with waves from the Past. The latter effect is intensified by the persistence with which literature takes the form of the Book, a distinctly finite thing, usually with a beginning, a middle, and an end, saying implicitly that the vasty deeps we see from our Darien are planes which simply cannot, on the other side of things, flow together.

Some such general concept doubtless prolongs the restive-ness of certain novelists, both American and European, over the necessity of producing literature and the ineradicability of narrative. At any rate, with the venturing of no unwarranted conclusions, something in this connection may be said upon a chance grouping of recent European novels in English translation.

Thomas Mann, after some hesitation in the form of discontinuous retrospection by major characters and moving discourse upon mythology by the author, gives “Joseph and His Brothers” to the full current of closely sequential narrative. He will not thrust too hastily upon our Present a Past standing on the very confines of pre-history. He has, however, not been at all hesitant, if the translator can be trusted, about adopting a “literary” style echoing the Old Testament. This, fortunately, is highly appropriate for the characterization of Jacob (Joseph being of less moment and his brothers being merely accounted for); and it lends a cryptic, oracular air to even the more exact comments on myth and theology. Much of the book seems apocryphal, in the better sense of the word, sharing somewhat the potency of the canon itself, which no amount of enlightened scepticism has ever destroyed for a reader of orthodox religious ancestry.

Yet the book is a novel; and its Jacob is a man as well as a myth, a person as well as a personage. His humiliations, glories, and griefs go into us. Even as a patriarch upon whom God has laid a hand, he is also a somewhat worried old man lame in one hip. It is as a sign and a token, however, that he is most effective. To know him here is to comprehend why myth and hero-legend are often so illogical and self-contradictory. Jacob’s blend of high courage, groveling timidity, petty guile, and grandeur makes him a racial epitome, almost a microcosm of human nature’s muddled multiplicity. Add to this his still half-pagan sense of a universal god-essence nearer than hands and feet, and he has a significance tinged with the concept of timelessness.

Indeed, this concept is insistent from the very beginning of “Joseph and His Brothers.” Repetitions are of the essence of life. Trace myth back through endless reappearances and you come to Truth; and truth is “presentness.” To the story-teller, dealer with the past, Herr Mann says, “Thou conjurest up timelessness . . . and invokest the myth that it may be believed in the actual present.” When we look rightly at human primitivity, its actual remnants surviving in our own day, when we hear the ceremonial drums and see the tranced, circling faces, the vibrations that go through us are deep indeed. Their like come also from “Joseph and His Brothers.”

In sharp contrast is Lion Feuchtwanger’s “The Opper-manns,” which is not the past rendered for its significance but the present rendered for the sake of a purpose.

“The Oppermanns” indicates strikingly what a skilled novelist can do when he turns his talents to the service of a cause. He can offer a case-book of power. Herr Feucht-wanger has listed what appear to be all the major varieties of tyranny practiced by the Nazi upon the German Jews; he has also given us the major psychological and social types of victims as they occur in one representative family and its connections. All that the persecution has done to them, what death of the body and mind, what destruction of honor and morale, is clearly set forth.

Considering the closeness of events to their transcription, the impediments to a free study of them, and the author’s own part in what he relates, one finds the book remarkable for its moderation and good judgment. Horrors do not seem multiplied; proper space is given to milder, even humorous, instances. The author knows not merely that good fiction can never be made out of lies, but that possibly the whole of a truth may be much more incredible than part of it.

Truly, this work is a novel as well as a case-book. Not one of the most incidental characters is merely a name; personality is often created in a phrase; it is carried in upon you. This power, again, is well controlled. There is no aftermath of repulsion; the reader has shared not so much the physical agonies as the choices between ideals and expediency. Perhaps he has, through the character of Gustav Oppermann, man of letters and sybarite, shared somewhat the author’s own problem as artist and sufferer from Judenhetze. “Was it not his duty to hand over to others the burning indignation that he felt?” And it is done, abundantly. Critics, hands off.

“The Oppermanns” shows no concern about the obligations of extended prose narrative. This is true likewise of Ivan Bunin’s “The Well of Days,” though here there is a minimizing of narration and no clear structural finality. The book is a very personal and very racial record, and its drawer from the well of memory is portrayed only to an early manhood in pre-revolutionary Russia. It is frankly retrospective, and wisely so; it has to do with a past best carried into the present by individual recollection.

This autobiographic self-expression possibly accounts for my odd feeling that “The Well of Days,” good as it is, should be better. I miss something in it; I seem to be looking at a countenance veiled and dimmed. In short, I should like to have a Russian tell me that this book is incapable of a translation reproducing not merely its cadence and its turn of phrase but also its mastery of the implications which a language can have only when it is written and read as a natal tongue. “The sparse azure stars twinkled.” Just what, not literally but implicitly, was that in Bunin’s Russian; what was the word “azure,” for example? “To the right over the garden, a full moon shone in a clear and vacant sky with the hardly darkened reliefs of its deadly pale face filled from within with bright luminous whiteness.” Did Bunin give that an intensity of lunar beauty which it lacks in English?

I think I shall always care for this book—and find it a reproach. I should be content that it can, for example, give me back the very feel of the low-hilled plains I knew in childhood and the tingle and radiance of their winters. Nor do I fail to acknowledge this and much more. I am grateful that without sentimentality there is depicted that land of prince and mujik which is rapidly assuming the romantic glamour of our own antebellum South. It was truly not altogether a lovely life, but one much loved and now vanished forever.

In “The Well of Days” qualities which Russian fiction has long since established as Slavic are both named and exhibited in action. Here are the “everlasting lightheadedness” and its antithesis, a sort of perverse intellectual futility becoming at times “a veritable passion for self destruction.” There is the responsiveness to sensory things, intense and all-sufficient or changing to a quest for profound, clairvoyant satisfactions, the search for which, in “The Well of Days,” turns certain passages of beautiful description into tormenting queries: “What is it, after all, and what must one do with it?”

But it is not safe to insist that a Russian writer give forth only Russian substance; it is safer to ask that a poet’s autobiography give us the artist. In “The Well of Days” you have him, from childhood, with his besetting urge to expression, his intuitive understanding of matters beyond his years, beyond the years of any ordinary mortal, with his sense of sadness in all things, especially those that are most dear and most beautiful, with his exultation in mere living and his consciousness that by putting life into words he can master it. From such as he come literature and the books that are not too bookish, of which “The Well of Days” is one.

No protest there against the cribbing and cabining of the Book; but you do find that protest definitely in Jules Ro-mains’ “Passion’s Pilgrims,” the second volume of his “Men of Good Will.” To repeat what was announced in the preface to Volume I, M. Romains is writing a single novel in many volumes. The whole will have unity dependent themat-ically only on the purpose of presenting twentieth-century life as a reality. This large unity “he congratulates himself” will not be too quickly evident. In this book, as in life, there are to be some false leads; certain characters may be dropped, for the author feels no compulsion to end his game “with the same pack of cards” that he used at the start.

To the end of Volume II the method is impressive chiefly in its discontinuity. There are some ten distinct stories going forward, as the military would say, by rushes. No one of them, save that of Quinette the murderer, has made decisive headway; though there is a tendency now toward fusion, the narratives are connected by little more than the fact that they all deal with Paris in the autumn of 1908. In subsequent volumes M. Romains promises that we shall “attach ourselves more closely to certain series of events.”

In all, here is an experiment the intention of which rouses admiration, for it is neither frantic nor timid. “My whole design,” M. Romains declares, “from the very start has been to draft a design as little deforming as possible in its relation to reality, and as little obvious as possible in its relation to the working of the mind.” This novel, then, is being written in the light of what novelists have learned through the generations from the practice of narrative, namely, that in fiction actuality can be attained best by imitating its intricate totality in life. “Men of Good Will” as a whole is to give “a complex comprehensive view of things . . . the sense of their organic multiplicity, their ceaseless linking and interdependence.”

Certainly there is merit in this purpose, but so far M. Romains has done very little for “interdependence.” He has merely asked us to read five or six novels simultaneously. Surely there was a way out of this difficulty without loss of multiplicity. M. Romains refers to a symphonic effect in his work. That manifestly should be the nature of its unity if a master narrative is not to be employed; and that symphonic harmony, for me, it lacks in these earlier volumes. It proceeds as if it had the unity of those arts in which the whole design is at once clear. Indeed, these volumes would be more effective if narrative-deprecating Difficultists in fiction had established the custom of beginning their novels with a resume or argument. Refusing that, the Discontinuous School should work from such obvious effects as those of contrast and resemblance on toward the possibilities of harmonic transfusions and interactions, should study sequence and collocations as closely as they have studied shredding and snipping.

All this, of course, is little more than a query upon “Men of Good Will” as a novel of art, and upon only one segment of it. As a chronicle of its time and reproduction of its locale, the work certainly merits the high praise many have given it. Moreover, segment by segment, strand by strand, it is truly artful realism. And in what abundance! In “Passion’s Pilgrims” you have youth, its lusts and Napoleonic dreams; you have the delicately outlined and softly toned sketching of moods too numerous for naming; you have the grotesque barrenness of amour and the mild joy and sadness of what passes commonly for ideal love; you have the obsession of the perfect crime; you have the clicking super-efficiency that makes small business great, and you have the super-craft of business already big and beginning to say, “I am the state”; you have the furtive and somewhat futile gathering of mass resistance; you have the tornadic muttering heralding the Storm—you have even a dog who himself has his day and whimsically sympathetic chapter.

With all this before you, too much worry about the higher unity of “Men of Good Will” would be ungracious. And— the thing is not finished yet. It may be in the end one of the nearest approaches man has ever made to the fusion of contemporary record and the novel of art, Literature and the Book truly reconciled with Life.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading