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The Mirroring Stream of Fiction

ISSUE:  Autumn 1940

Cecile Pasquier. By Georges Duhamel. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $275. Joy of Man’s Desiring. By Jean Giono. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50. The Defenders. By Franz Hoellering. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $2.75. Madame Dorthea. By Sigrid Undset. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. By Carson Meddlers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50. The Underground Stream. By Albert Maltz. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $2.50. Anya. By Joy Davidman. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. Ask Me Tomorrow. By James Gould Cozzens. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.

Of the books here under review four are by well known or famous authors; four are by writers who are now making their first serious bids for the attention of American readers. Because of the diversity of the novels only a few generalizations concerning them are admissible. All are accomplished performances, and in some instances this is more notable in the work of the young than in that of the old. All tell stories: strong and well sustained stories. Hence it may be said that not one of the novelists has neglected the first obligation of his craft. This is a happy and remarkable circumstance. “Ask Me Tomorrow” aside, the prevailing tone of the books is one of high seriousness, seldom enough relieved by humor. At least four of them are novels of purpose—philosophical, political, economic, and so on. Here and elsewhere life is reported to be something between a messy business and a solemn, saddening experience. In this judgment even so serene a person as Sigrid Undset seems to concur. From it only James Gould Cozzens dissents, and in a diverting bit of social comedy this shameless fellow shapes his minority opinion. But to the books severally.

Georges Duhamel’s “Cecile Pasquier,” though entirely self-contained, is a continuation of the “Pasquier Chronicles,” covering the years 1908-1914. In large part it is a French “Arrowsmith.” With ever increasing emphasis M.

Duhamel reveals the conditions under which a zealous and selfless scientist like Laurent Pasquier is forced to work. Torn between conflicting loyalties, surrounded by petty bickerings and jealousies, Laurent is dismayed to find that even the very gods of science he worships are incapable of detachment and intellectual honesty in issues which involve their personal interests. Less blatantly than politicians, but just as surely, the scientists struggle for preferment. Guilty at most of a minor professional indiscretion, Laurent finds a bureaucratic clique and a venal press snarling at his heels. In the end, bewildered and disillusioned, he concludes that he has fought not against any individual or group, but against “the cowardice and the stupidity of mankind, against vast shadows which elude the grasp.” In any case he has fought. In comparison, Cecile’s unhappy marriage, her return to religion, the death of her child, and even her musical gifts seem somehow unimportant. And how unspeakably mean becomes Joseph’s preoccupation with money!

All in all, “Cecile Pasquier” is a powerful commentary on life. Entirely worthy of its predecessor, it is a very readable and richly human book, the implications of which should have meaning for organized society everywhere.

The scene of Jean Giono’s “Joy of Man’s Desiring” is the Gremone Plateau, which lies beyond the valley of the Ouveze River. Here, joylessly, live and labor Jourdan, Marthe, his wife, and some twenty other farmer folk. A spiritual leprosy—belief in money, private property, and severe practicality—has fallen upon them. To the Plateau comes Bobi, ostensibly a sometime acrobat, more probably a personification of the peasants’ natural desire for relief from their infection. Bobi fills their skies with birds, their fields with flowers, their timber lands with deer. For them he names the stars, teaching them the while the secret of communal living and the ill-favored nature of money and mere possessions. To the Plateau, as a result, comes an instinctive awakening. Life takes on a new meaning, natural happenings a fresh significance.

Precisely how this miracle is wrought and with what eventual results the reader of this beautiful book must discover for himself. This will be no easy task, for M. Giono is at once a mystic and a poet. His solutions are instinctive and intuitive rather than rational. One sees in the author of “Joy of Man’s Desiring” some kinship with D. H. Lawrence, also perhaps with Henry Williamson and Mary Webb. Ultimately Giono belongs with all those voices which in any time have sung the beauty of the earth and the simple things upon it. Here in all probability is a book for the few rather than the many, unless perchance it reaches the latter through the cinema.

Franz Hoellering is an Austrian editor and critic. Since he is no longer in Austria he must have been very good in both those callings. For the last six years he has lived in the United States. During most of this time, according to his publishers, Mr. Hoellering has been engaged in writing “The Defenders,” which now introduces him to the larger reading public of this country. Edmund Wilson compares “The Defenders” to the fiction of Dos Passos and Malraux. The comparison is a sound one. Mr. Hoellering has written the tragedy of modern Austria largely in terms of dialogue and action. While he cannot wholly conceal where his sympathies lie, he traces with remarkable objectivity the events which led to the degradation and rape of his country. He never generalizes and he rarely judges. Incidental comment, so common in the traditional novel, is almost wholly absent from “The Defenders.” Passion is here played down, muted; violence and brutality are presented with restraint.

The central core of Mr. Hoellering’s novel is a love story. Its heroine is Maria Steiger, daughter of a distinguished professor. Around Maria’s betrothal to Baron Wiesner, her breach of this engagement, and her tragic love for Karl Merk, a young engineer, revolves the complicated structure of this novel, through which move scores of individual characters from every section of Viennese societv. And to these must be added the Defense Corps, the Heimwehr, and furtive Nazis. The story deals directly with events in Vienna between December 1933 and February 1934. But in Mr. Hoellering’s account of these fateful weeks will be found in essence the post-World War history of Austria and the eventual doom of the Republic. “The Defenders” is unreservedly recommended to all readers, but in particular to those who want to know what life was like in one small postwar European state—and now is probably like in many another such state.

It is with especial pleasure that one reports just now on a new book by the distinguished Norwegian novelist, Sigrid Undset. It is heartening to know that her voice will be stilled neither by personal sorrow nor by the unhappy fate of her country. “Madame Dorthea” is a period novel. It recreates in limited scope but in vivid coloration a section of life in eighteenth century Norway; it is a picture of manners and morals. Here are plain virtues: gentleness, courage, loyalty; here too are elemental and sinister passions, which apparently then ran strong and deep. Lawlessness and moral looseness were not unknown in the Norway which Sigrid Undset now presents. Raw edges of life appear, but seen through the personality of Dorthea, the worst of the rawness is, as it were, screened out. Madame Dorthea herself is the eternal wife and mother, tolerant and understanding. Her two oldest boys, who count most in the story, are tenderly drawn. The reader is permitted to see Dorthea’s family momentarily before the father’s disappearance in a storm; he then sees them during a few months of readjustment. That is all; he is not to know their eventual fortunes. “Madame Dorthea” belongs to Sigrid Undset’s minor canon, but the novel is nevertheless an authentic example of her art.

No adequate appraisal of Carson McCullers’s “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” can here be undertaken. For such an appraisal one would need room, lots of it. This reviewer can only report that he read this amazing book from first to last page with ever increasing admiration and excitement. Sentimentally inclined, this reviewer has a special affection for first novels. He always expects a miracle. This time he got it. “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” is veritably a miracle, a miracle of compassion and pity and irony. Something has been made of Miss McCullers’s age: she is only twenty-two. To what end? Genius is ageless—and here one faces nothing less. What Miss McCullers may or may not do in the future is beside the point. Take the telling of the story. How flat and unprofitable this tale of lonely lives in a town in the middle deep South might have been! Except for one thing— sheer virtuosity, to borrow a word from an art which Miss McCullers evidently loves. To be brief, in “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” form and matter meet and blend, and shape a well-nigh perfect whole.

By this time, doubtless, the author of “The Underground Stream” has been placed, willy nilly, in a pigeonhole labeled “Proletarian Novelists.” Albert Maltz does not have to remain in any such restricted space, unless, of course, he chooses to do so. Clearly he is a narrator and creator on more levels than one. His first novel shows this. True, “The Underground Stream” is a labor novel. Swiftly and deftly it presents certain phases of the struggle to organize the automotive industry in Detroit in 1936. The book evinces a deep sympathy for the workers and a fierce impatience with the methods of management. If one may judge by “The Underground Stream” Mr. Maltz’s sympathies are a surer guide for him than his impatience. With his workers Mr. Maltz does beautifully; with his personnel manager, Jeffry Grebb, and the plug-uglies who surround him, he is much less successful. As for the canaille of the Black Legion, they are monstrous beyond belief. They were so in life, but they ought not to be so in as good a book as “The Underground Stream” is. No; what makes one sure of Mr. Maltz for the future are his workers, more especially Princey and Betsy. The story of this husband and wife is told with tender and terrible power.

The theme of Joy Davidman’s ’ Anya” is an old one—it is also a good one: the struggle, sometimes rational and sometimes irrational, of an individual for self-realization. The setting of this interesting novel is the Russian Ukraine some two generations ago. Anya is a Jewess who is not a Jewess. In any event she will be bound by none of the customs, practices, or tabus of her people. She will be true to nothing except the law of her own sensuous being. A faithless wife, an unnatural mother, she outrages the old and fascinates the young. On her final return to her husband she carries another man’s child in her womb. But once again he receives her. And later, as they looked back upon their life they found it good; “for they remembered not a month with the colonel, a year with the grain merchant, and a few months with the beloved Shimka, but seven years, four years, and again seven years that Cookeh and his wife had lived together.”

As has already been said, James Gould Cozzens’s “Ask Me Tomorrow” is very different from the novels discussed above. It is also unlike the books for which Mr. Cozzens himself is best known. Some readers will resent this. Why? Heaven only knows. “Ask Me Tomorrow” is social satire, deft, amusing, and of a kind all too infrequently met in American fiction. Naturally Mr. Cozzens’s hero is this time no Dr. Bull, but an emotionally shapeless young man, one Francis Ellery. Francis is an ass, but on the whole a very amiable one. Actually he is tutor to a twelve year old boy. In this role he is seen from time to time in all the swanky places in Italy, Switzerland, and France. Imaginatively Francis is many other things: writer, lover, roue, and man of means. In creating him Mr. Cozzens has added some gaiety to life. For this, under present circumstances, who will be so boorish as to withhold his thanks?


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