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ISSUE:  Winter 1930

The Sound and the Fury. By William Faulkner. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $2.50. Harriet Hume. By Rebecca West. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. The Way of Bcben. By James Branch Cabell. New York: Robert H. McBride and Company. $2.50. Up at the Villa. By Marie Cher. New York: D. Appleton and Company. $2.00. fugitive’s Return. By Susan Glaspell. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. $2.50. Black Roses, By Francis Brett Young. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50. Sketch of a Sinner. By Frank Swinnerton. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. The Hawbucks. By John Masefield. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. Ultima Thule. By Henry Handel Richardson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. $2.50.

In the days when Santa Claus began to give anxiety because he was rapidly ceasing to be a very actual old gentleman of the rather more than ordinarily jolly and provident grandfather type with rather more than the normal adult facility, in such matters as reindeer treks and chimney glissades, in short, about the time when he was rapidly becoming of a piece with Jack the Giant Killer and Puss in Boots, one small listener insisted upon a critical preface to each and every tale offered: “Is this going to be a really truly story or a make-believe one?”

In the days when that same listener has become all but incapable of his earlier breath-stopped, edge-of-the-chair reception of narrative, he is still applying to fiction criteria which are essentially those of his childhood query—as, for that matter, is any critic whatsoever if he will but grant me a fairly liberal adult translation of my infantile terms, especially the third of them.

At any rate, so equipped in theoretic, I fall to work upon my netful of nine goodly, fictions taken at a single cast yet evidently not all spawned of one school or even of one species. Once, the classification of such a catch would have been much easier and the task of the critic simpler throughout. Then there was some exactness in the definition of the novel as a story in prose that fills a book. Then the critic of fiction had to reckon chiefly with an abundant and detailed realism and unabashed telling of large truths. Now, with the decrease in size and the attendant concentration and dependence upon inference and overtone and subtle unity of effect, the critic must have deep concern for what I wish to imply in my term make-believe, perhaps more concern than for actualism and patent meaningfulness. There is, however, still use for the whole of my prefatory question and for a repetition of it after the reading of many a book. Sundry novels nowadays are obviously intended to be incomprehensible at first perusal—unless it be by aid of what the dust jacket offers.

Even with this aid, no man can feel in the deep heart of him that he fully understands what he has been told in the first chapter of “The Sound and the Fury,” by William Faulkner. He will do well if he gets a clear mastery of identities and relationships short of the final third of the book.

I find no fault with this condition; I wish only that the first chapter had been more incomprehensible than it is. Here is essayed the setting forth, in full circumstances, of the stream of a congenital idiot’s consciousness. The method is admirably suited to the portrayal of imbeciles, but Mr. Faulkner has been a bit timorous in its use. He has cast Benjy’s thinking in the past tense, has made of it recollection, or at any rate has given that effect to it. Thus the reader knows that his idiot has been edited; yet the editing produces bewilderment and does not deepen the mood required. Mr. Faulkner missed an opportunity to write more idiotically than ever man has writ and not a critic able to say him nay.

The expressionistic method is applied more satisfactorily in the second chapter. This deals with a brother of Benjy and with a brain containing some hard spots: its possessor goes to Harvard and plans rather intelligent suicide. He can well distinguish Now from Then, and through him we learn much—for example, that he is not, as the idiot and his editor had led us half-heartedly to believe, a female. Above all we sense an incestuous degeneracy that will hold some readers who would otherwise give up; at any moment one’s worst suspicions may be confirmed. There are, too, moments in this section that recall Dostoievski with their trancelike actuality and their clairvoyant naiveté. The best of the book is here.

Subsequent chapters bring us step by step to a thinning of the dreadful wood and finally to the clear air of conventional narration. And so the tale is told and so we have had glimpse of things sickening and pitiable. I shall long remember certain features of “The Sound and the Fury.” The book is impressive; nor does it, as the title modestly implies, signify nothing. It indicates that artists may yet subdue expressionism and make it contribute less to obfuscation than to suggestivity, learn to make it aid in transmuting depression, head-achey shame, the sense of stagnant un-cleanness, the odor of dry rot, into wonder and awe and high despair.

Of Rebecca West’s “Harriet Hume,” one need not ask that much. Its tone is somewhat that of an eighteenth century, conte; it is a blend of fantasy, actuality, satire, and there are touches of archaism in the dialogue. Somewhere at the back of it all is the story of an able bounder who betrayed love in the struggle to get on. At crucial moments of his career the woman returns to him, and these moments are the book. The rest is uncertain. Perhaps he committed suicide; perhaps she did. Perhaps he really married her and we are being given the quality but not the circumstance of his regard for her. The dust jacket, in truth, says something about the subconscious, but I fear that this dust jacket is a frail reed. More confidently do I lean upon the subtitle, “A London Fantasy.”

The book seems written in the spirit governing many of our modem fantasiers, who are trying to avoid the obviousness of “Rasselas” or “Candide” and the timorousness of “The Marble Faun” and the inconsequence of “Tristram Shandy,” yet retain the sounder virtues of them all. The best mood in which to attempt such composition is doubtless a certain mental laxness and fancy-freedom, and over all the hope that something daemonic may now and then lay hold of the pen. It happens, but there is often trouble where the controls shift.

Be that as it may, there are substantialities enough in this book. There is well compressed characterization and penetrative comment upon maleness and femaleness, their mutual dependences and antipathies. In “Harriet Hume” a realistic novel was pared to the bone and then built out again with strange materials to the amplitude of a prose narrative that fills an engaging book.

Mr. Cabell’s “The Way of Ecben,” needless to say, holds nothing like contemporary actualities and the coarser in-triguements of narrative. Mr. Cabell is the creator of an antiquity, the maker of a mythology, a communer with gods, a sojourner in Hades, and an impish satirist. Mr. Cabell by his own count is fifty years of age. He is mistaken. He has aged centuries in the last fifteen years or so. His “system” is becoming even more auric than he himself made it and is taking on the potencies of manifold constructive interpretation by devotees who are themselves artists. He bids fair to walk asphodel meadows with Blake and Spenser.

Mr. Cabell may even, within the generation, be edited by doctors of philosophy. The Dom Manuel cycle is something that, for the truth there is in it, cannot be read without a gloss by the margent, Spenser one may, read happily without much awareness of his concentric allegories; but almost any half dozen pages of “The Way of Ecben,” let us say, will not satisfy so easily. There will be an insistence upon meanings so tantalizingly complicated, not to say contradictory, as to interfere with full enjoyment of the imaginative virtuosity, the mythopoesis, the necromantic power in linked sweetnesses.

“The Way of Ecben,” I make bold to confess, seems to me not a finished thing. It gives me the feeling that I have had a look at something like poetic gestation, and that there was at the moment of my glimpse some uncertainty whether the issue would display the recessive or the dominant traits of its progenitors. I will confess further that the finale of the book, “The Colophon Called ‘Hail and Farewell, Et-tare!’” is rather more moving than the account of the wanderings of the king of Ecben. Here Mr. Cabell discourses of his own literary, generation and of himself come to fifty years. Here he tells us that the horn is dry, that he has written “the last of the many stories about the many inheritors of Dom Manuel’s life.” It is taking. It makes to believe. How it will be treasured if it is literally the last of Mr. Cabell’s published writings! One has a sense of having looked upon words that can become historic.

A novel that will indubitably give any discerning reader a feeling that he has viewed it a-making is “Up at the Villa,” by Marie Cher. It is done in the James tradition of indirect narrative by a rather neutral observer; but much more frankly than James is ever willing to imply of his observers’ products. “Up at the Villa” is the creation of a distinct fictional entity who is not content to chronicle exactly and interpret subtly, but who adds her own imaginings where they are needed to make the action better. Otherwise the story would seem too real and raw and inconclusive and not inseparably associated with its locale.

The final charm of “Up at the Villa” is the gusto with which the narrator enjoys her delicate mastery of materials and the manner in which she makes her artistry contribute to her own ego-consciousness. “To draw any real pleasure from this Villa, from the beauty of this dreaming land, from friendship, from love, they must be put, one and all, in their proper perspective, held subject to something within the mind—leave it nameless—that alone keeps its quivering equilibrium, exquisitely balanced to a hair, in the midst of fleeting shadow pictures. . . .” When this has been done at sufficient length the book ends satisfactorily with certain narrative threads dangling.

I would not imply that the novel is all self-communing. Rome is set before us, Christian and pagan, with “perfume of the mingled past” and the “incomparable patina of age.” There is also “the subtle bubble and stir of that mysterious substance which personalities throw off when their depths are moved.” And there is a style which will quicken any responsive intellect.

“Fugitive’s Return” by Susan Glaspell is redolent of an even older antiquity, ancient Greece as it survives today at Delphi. This novel is as earnest and as carefully, perhaps prayerfully wrought as anything you will find in much reading. It teaches that there are some set apart to tragedy, who may learn to look upon their own lives “gravely enduring as the spectator is willing to endure if life is forming so truly that in the end must come meaning, the ordeal of witnessing creating an energy that may be transported into beauty.” Likewise it teaches that “life is made for meeting and living and not for detachment and dreams. . . .” Thus it can be lived fully only in a place where one quite literally belongs. Hence the fugitive abandons her refuge from intolerable sorrow, leaves Delphi and a fire-new lover, assumes a burden of self-sacrifice, and goes back to reside in Iowa where she was born.

It is, I admit contritely, scarcely decent to parade fictional themes thus nakedly. “Fugitive’s Return” is not persistently oracular. It strikes off a mid-Western locale to the very life. It gives a voice again to old Delphi and at the same time deals sympathetically and humorously with its modern peasant life. And in the very heart of the novel, retrospectively subdued and properly so, is the moving story of the fugitive’s girlhood and brief married life. I wish that there were more simple rightness of style about “Fugitive’s Return,” but I do accord it respect; it is so patently written in the knowledge that the gods approve the depth and not the tumult of the soul.

The whole of Francis Brett Young’s “Black Roses” is avowedly retrospective, but I am unable to discern much gained by the method save that the finale, the coming back from young Paul Ritchie the remembered, to old Paul the rememberer, permits easily a grateful quietude.

This story, in truth, is allowed to stand more nearly on its own merits than any other I have mentioned. And Mr. Young does have an arresting tale in this account of a sensitive English-Italian lad with an innate creative force no village barbarities could destroy and with capacity for a passion that could disregard vileness and death. It is a story that should hold even the critically aged from their chimney corners.

There is that in this book which is romance apogean— the flowering of the black-petaled rose of Paul’s love for Cristina out of squalor and degradation, with the Minotaurlike trampling of the woman’s acknowledged possessor echoing in apprehensive ears and the pestilence festering up from dreadful Neopolitan cellars and the lurid glow of Vesuvius lighting the sky of breathless nights, and through and above all the serene shining of Cristina’s more than earthly purity.

It is a noble and heart-searching concept, but the truth is that it should have been wrought into a poem instead of a novel: it demands the grace and compression of verse. Hence “Black Roses,” for all its implicit power, reads like a translation of something that in the original was masterful, the glow a bit dulled, the vibration a bit deadened. After all, this story is, in a sense, too good to stand alone.

This is not true of Mr. Swinnerton’s “Sketch of a Sinner.” He did not need the tongue of angels. He had merely to make us acquainted with his Lydia, the forgivable sinner, tall, pale, candid, refreshingly interested in self but not egoistic, yearningly sympathetic but not self-immolating.

This is enough to attempt, in all conscience; so Mr. Swin-nerton sets himself no narrative handicaps. He lets us think Lydia’s thoughts, but he produces no eye-walling close-ups of expressionism. He edges sharply the relief of her normality against a background of eccentrics (not to mention the superman Gerald) and an utterly uncongenial locale. Thus he demonstrates that Lydia could be in love with two men, amusedly, pityingly, maternally, and at the same moment could be developing passion for a third. Thus he launches her most believably upon the full tide of romantic abandon—albeit she embarks with the superman, a personage so mysterious, so opportunely ubiquitous that I thought for a time he was being offered as a subconscious wish symbol.

But this is not that sort of story. Gerald is real and so too is Lydia’s grief at his death and her agony over her wronged husband Sebastian, and real too the appalling future she must somehow survive—too real. I cannot forgive Mr. Swinnerton this brutality. The end of the book is sheer misery and not tragedy. When I reread “Sketch of a Sinner”—and that I will—I am going to stop short of the final chapter, satisfied by a fuller acquaintance with Lydia and with her amusing., pathetic, delightfully Swinnertonian parents and with the subtly devised Sebastian.

Equally straightforward is Mr. Masefield’s “The Hawbucks”; as intent on its course and disregardful of obstacles as the very fox hunters in honor of whom as types of Merry England the novel seems written. Very, English is “The Hawbucks.” I feel myself most regretfully an outsider as I read it, save that, like all Americans, I cannot be entirely ill at ease with a book that savors of Fielding and Hardy and a right royal interest in good horseflesh. I do wish, however, that I could feel more deeply in on such obvious authenticities as “The Manor House smelt of pot-pourri, furniture polish, pomander, dry-rot, mice, dog and tobacco-smoke,” I wish I could know at a glance what are “poach-ings near the pond.” I should like to know whether I am getting all there is to be had out of names such as “Thomas Clench, the Bince, Corselaydeed.” A country-bred Englishman above forty is the man best fitted to have delight in this novel. He will not be worried, I take it, by a sort of hearty perfunctoriness in Mr. Mase-field’s narrative; he will not bother too much as to what the lovely Carrie really thought of her choice in husbands; he will not find Vaughn rather irritatingly amusing; he will be far too busy accepting the God’s plenty of Mr. Masefield’s Englishness.

And so to Henry Handel Richardson’s “Ultima Thule,” the last and most potent book on my list. It is a novel that must be discussed in the most catholic of critical terms —and yet its central character is abnormally an exception to the generality of us, and its locale is Australia, the continent that, to most of mankind, seems least a part of this goodly frame on which we tread and have our being. That “Ultima Thule” should transcend its limitations and take, the more one reflects upon it, a guise epical and highly tragic, is the surest indication of its worth.

In this record of Richard Mahony’s degradation, insanity, and death, and of his enduring wife’s prolonged torment, is triumphant indication of what can be done by the story in prose that fills a book. It can specify the facts of existence more exactly, more abundantly than any other narrative form, and simultaneously, it can accomplish for its reader even the aloofness of high tragedy. It can, while appearing to be intent only upon an overwhelming actuality, be emphatic in truthfulness, and consummate in its power of make-believe.

About “Ultima Thule” there is no hint of experimentation or any suggestion that the author is determined to be emancipated or is working hard at local color. There is no labor to expound significances. Yet there takes shape gradually the concept native to great tragedy, the perception that what must be will be and not the divinities themselves can avert it, much less man; and simultaneously, the awareness that man, thwarted, humbled, helpless, is after all acknowledged of the gods as triumphantly worthy the consideration of whatsoever in the universe possesses mind.

More than this, there comes out of “Ultima Thule” something of the supreme calm that can be reached only through the turmoils and poignancies of intense emotion, the calm that alone justifies agony in narrative. In the deeper meaning of my phrase, “Ultima Thule” offers me the full experience of being made to believe.


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