The Human Comedy. By William Saroyan. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.75. The Conspirators. By Frederic Prokosch. Harper and Brothers. $2.50. Happy Land. By MacKinlay Kantor. Coward-McCann. $1.25. Wide Is the Gate. By Upton Sinclair. The Viking Press. $3.00. Mr. Tibbs Passes Through. By Robert Neumann. E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50. The High Courts of Heaven. By J. V. Hewes. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.00.
In the legend, as you may remember, Psyche, enamoured of an invisible Eros, finally sees his face by stealth, at night, to her own future discomfort. It was a good fable, but our modern version is slightly different. The new fiction describes the psyche which has seen the face of Mars. Here is an interesting cross-section of contemporary writers —an Armenian son of California, a Wisconsinite who roams in Asia, an Iowan descendant of “sixteen generations of Kantors,” a Baltimore socialist who frequents the Riviera, an Austrian turned English, and an Englishman turned aviator—who examine the human temperament under stress of revolution and war.
Perhaps we should take them in this order. “The Human Comedy” is William Saroyan’s first novel, and for this reason among others deserves attention. The other reasons are fairly well known. Mr. Saroyan occupies rather a special place in our letters. Close to the emigrant traditions, and justly proud of them, and keeping fresh for us the immigrant’s dream of what America should be, while many of our writers have refused to consider even what America was, Saroyan has represented just that affirmation in experience which has been missing from so much of our major literature over the last decades. Saroyan, moreover, has presented his central thesis with lightness, imagination, and wit; with a fine sense of both personal and artistic showmanship, as in his recent plays which so dazzled our dramatic critics, unaccustomed as they were to Saroyan speaking. “The Human Comedy” is another example of these merits. Saroyan’s youthful hero, Homer Macauley, says Yes to all things, and the novel itself is a study through Homer’s eyes of a warm and friendly and hopeful emigrant family amidst the California scene they have adopted. But there is very little action in “The Human Comedy”—action, that is, in the genuine sense of human change, or in the sense of revelation we have at the close of the book about the characters whom we meet at the outset. “The Human Comedy” is really a series of scenes—Ulysses Macauley waving at a train, Homer working in a telegraph office, Mrs. Macauley with her children at home, Homer’s despair when his brother Marcus is killed in battle—of surfaces, often very attractively presented, but which indicate clearly what one may have felt already about Saroyan’s progress. I mean Mr. Saroyan’s lack of progress, the lack of artistic discipline in his work, of the effort and concentrated labor and pains which are necessary to bring a genuine talent to its maturity. In “The Human Comedy” also, as in Saroyan’s more recent writing, he sometimes yields up his quite rare sense of human affection to a more conventionalized and perhaps theatrical pattern. The writer or dramatist or producer who sets out to be fashionable in a world of stage-miracles may end by becoming as opaque as an interior in a film by Mr. Orson Welles. What Mr. Saroyan’s work can genuinely bring us is too valuable to be dissipated.
Mr. Prokosch is rather the other way around. A native of Wisconsin, an eminent graduate of Yale, he has directed his energies apparently towards getting as far away as possible from the patterns of American life which Saroyan has embraced. While Saroyan writes by mood, instinct, or just to pass a moment, Prokosch is a highly meticulous, often a brilliant craftsman, as “The Conspirators” shows. And as Saroyan gave us the engaging surfaces of experience, Prokosch presents, in his novel of revolutionaries and refugees in present-day Lisbon, the hidden, uneasy, and distorted recesses of personality. Here are the ravages worked on the more innocent victims of the Nazi terror—though in “The Conspirators” they are not always the most attractive victims, and there is some doubt if any of us can be called innocent in an age of collective guilt. And here are the distracted participants in this drama of the condemned—Pro-kosch’s hero, Vincent, who sets out to destroy an unknown informer; Quintanilla, the disintegrating Spanish radical, whose mind is now “littered with ruins”; Irina, who has loved Vincent and many others, but has never been in love; Von Mohr, the Nazi informer, who has “been dead a long time” before Vincent murders him. In the tradition of Mai-raux or Silone or Arthur Koestler, Prokosch is most at ease in the guise of revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, but, seeing all this so clearly, he, unlike the Europeans, seems to belong to none of it. Prokosch describes very acutely what his people think and do. What they feel, or Mr. Prokosch feels, or what you are likely to feel is another matter. What does come out of “The Conspirators” is Lisbon itself—this famous historical set, so entrancing and antique, on which these new international protagonists dally and connive, are jailed and escape, seduce each other without passion and sometimes without interest, murder and are murdered in the intricate patterns of an apparently meaningless design. “The Conspirators” is almost clinical as “The Human Comedy” is a little too hygienic.
It is not easy to compare the remaining two Americans, though Mr. MacKinlay Kantor, the Iowan heir of another learned emigrant tradition who has devoted his work to the various phases of American life, particularly the Civil War, can be placed roughly in the same general framework as Saroyan. In “Happy Land” Mr. Kantor tells a story of an average country-town druggist whose son has just been killed in the war, and who in grief and bitterness attempts to discover just what his son has had out of American life that is worth dying for. For its recreation of ordinary mid-western existences, of these people, as Sherwood Anderson said, “of no importance,” “Happy Land” has had a good deal of praise and seems on the way to becoming another modern fable. But compared to the best work of Anderson, for example, who devoted his own life to this particular area and people, the quality of Mr. Kantor’s Main Street seems thin and fairly conventional, though parts of “Happy Land” are effective as a portrait of average Americans shaping up to their destiny. And Upton Sinclair, of course, cannot be paired off with anybody or anything. In the long array of his varied exploits, from “The Jungle” to his socialist colony, Helicon Home, in New Jersey in 1906, to California’s E.P.I.C. in 1934, Mr. Sinclair has been an original and powerful American figure to whom all admiration is due. The recent but already gigantic series on “Lanny Budd’s modern pilgrimage” is simply the latest, and in some respects the most extraordinary, but certainly not the last of all Sinclair’s extraordinary feats. How can you really describe “Wide is the Gate”? If you take all the historical events that actually happened in Europe between the Nazi Blood Purge and the Spanish Civil War, and add to these all the scenes which Sinclair is able to imagine, you may come close to it. Here Lanny visits Zaharoff, jokes with “Hermann” (Wilhelm Goering), travels to the Fuhrer again via Todt’s Obersalz-berg, listens to General Franco proclaim himself the defender of Spanish liberties—but if I went on, it would sound improbable, and it probably is. Like any skillful writer, Sinclair makes you accept his world in full or not at all, and the curious thing is that after one or two Lanny Budd novels as preliminary training, you can accept it, and enjoy it.
In a quieter way, Robert Neumann has also accomplished a remarkable feat. A Viennese author whose work was well established in Germany and a dozen other European countries before Hitler, Mr. Neumann has now, in his forties, dropped his German tongue and written his first novel in English, as, he says, “a matter of dignity,” as a tribute to his newly adopted country, and to “escape the curse of otherness.” “Mr. Tibbs Passes Through” fails as a novel chiefly because Neumann seems to want to take over a sort of English humor as well as vocabulary. He can’t deal so well with whimsical Anglo-Saxon eccentrics (others can; too many of them). Mr. Neumann’s gifts lie in other directions, as the best passages—poetic, half mystic, peculiarly evocative—of “Mr. Tibbs” indicate. Mr. Hewes, the last of our writers, is not remarkable in any sense at all. He is just a calm, rather prosaic Englishman who reports in “The High Courts of Heaven” on the incredible human ingenuity, devotion, imagination that allowed a greatly outnumbered R.A.F. to turn back the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain—a miracle that was accomplished seemingly by just such other calm and rather prosaic Englishmen as Mr. Hewes. As an apparently authentic account, though cast in a rather poorly fictionalized form, of this encounter quite literally in the lap of the gods, “The High Courts of Heaven” was, to me, an absorbing document.