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Mr. Sitwell’s Novel

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

The Man Who Lost Himself. By Osbert Sitwell. New York: Coward-Mc-Cann. $2.50.

architectural aspect of sculpture, he would have less confusion to confute; if Miss Babette Deutsch would revise her title, “Potable Gold,” the reader might know the volume had to do with poetry, and so on. John Mason Brown, in “The Modern Theatre in Revolt,” is discursive, and therefore interesting. Alfred J. Swan in “Music—1900-1930,” is admittedly and defiantly prejudiced; while the most pat cliche in the series occurs in the Mary Cecil Allen volume, “Painters of the Modern Mind,” wherein Cezanne is said to tower above his contemporaries in that he used three-dimensional color as well as form.

Miss Brenner’s “Idols Behind Altars” opens the vista of a great Hispano-American school of art, if the ideals and tentative achievements of contemporary Mexico are followed to the South. The soul of Mexico is described in terms of religion, history, and art, and such familiar names as Orozco, Rivera, and Covarrubbias, are given their native setting.

Architecture is traced in its historical evolution from mediaeval times in “Modern Architecture” by Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Oud, LeCorbusier, and Gropius are hailed as the New Pioneers, perhaps of a post-modern school of design. But the reader will probably feel free to absorb the interesting discussions of the younger men and their startling work, and classify them to suit his own theories, remembering that pigeon-holes to be useful must be familiar.

THE novels of Mr. Osbert Sitwell must be received with hopeful interest by those who care anything about fiction as a form of literature. Mr. Sitwell has, it is true, disappointed us twice—first in “Before the Bombardment” and now in “The Man Who Lost Himself” —’but even our disappointment is a tribute to him: his gifts are such that we are justified in watching and waiting. The number of contemporary novelists whose work inspires either interest or hope is so tiny that Mr. Sitwell’s effort deserves full gratitude. He aims high; he exercises his gift generously ; he has a beautiful contempt for vulgar means and easy tricks. It would be so simple for this writer to “do” a clever and successful book that he cannot be too much praised for avoiding it. His dangerous cleverness is not dangerous at all, because he so apparently despises it.

An artist who aims so high must expect to be judged by his own standards. And by these, “The Man “Who Lost Himself” is not good enough. Its conception is very fine, its accomplishment of an uncertain brilliance, and its effect on the reader, too often, only weariness. The elaboration of this style becomes at times almost insufferably monotonous. It is too hard on the nerves to make one actually sleepy; but occasionally in reading it I felt that I had been suffering from insomnia for weeks. A phrase like “defied conclusively with their defiant cleanliness the whispered insinuations of Spanish dirt” shows to what lengths the rhythm of it can go.

The book appears to owe its form to a notion of time and the anticipation of events in time—which puts its inception, I should think, somewhere in the autumn of 1927. Mr. Dunn’s book, “An Experiment with Time,” was then producing among novelists a flurry which was bound to have interesting results. It may be remembered that Mr. Dunn’s theory said that future events sometimes mirror themselves, in a rather distorted and unreliable form, in present consciousness. He had a deal of experimental proof of this, and his whole concept (which might be loosely called one of the relativity of time) was of the highest interest to the novelists who view their technical problems in such terms. Mr. Sitwell, in fact, makes this concept almost the theme of his new novel, and does not disdain to say so more than once by paraphrase and discussion. He imagines a young poet, Tristram Orlander, whose birth date is the same as his own; causes the poet to see himself in old age, a successful writer; produces a changed character by this vision; and then kills off the elderly, vulgar, and successful writer, years later, by a vision of the young poet. Thus boldly recited, it sounds like a juggler’s trick; it is in fact one of the most fascinating notions in recent fiction. Of all the attempts made by novelists these days to escape from the tyranny of chronology, none has been more resourceful or more courageous.

The story is told by an imaginary character named Osbert Sitwell, aged seventy-odd years. This point in time enables the narrator to superpose, by discussion, later events upon earlier ones: to assume the reader to be at the outset in possession of the main facts of Tristram Orlander’s life, and thus still further to weave past and future time sequences into the texture of the one present which is this book. There is a great deal of intelligent debate (as by a biographer of motive) but no conversation and very little interruption of the solid stream of Mr. Sitwell’s rather thick prose. A deliberately raucous comedy is provided by two American society women, Mrs. O’Looney and Mrs. Hope-Doodle-Cope; horror takes the shape of a vagrant Frenchwoman on the hills of Granada. The American society women are bold caricatures, brilliantly funny, although Mr. Sitwell does not always get their dialect quite right. (Such women would say “magnitoode” but not “voopoint,” for instance.) In the correlation and interweaving of all of these elements, occasion is given for some sustained lyric descriptions of very great beauty — the impression of Granada which fills the whole middle of the book, in particular. Like his brother, Mr. Sitwell has a painter’s felicity with such material. But this, the most formidable of his gifts, does not seem to be supported by the necessary emotional force or creative understanding. Such work as his can give pleasure to the ear or to the eye; it can give excitement to the mind; but it cannot move us in those depths which the true novelist delights to stir. So much are we left on the plane of argument that we often forget to live the lives of these characters and, instead, take issue with their author. This happens when some characteristic Sitwell notion is fanatically insisted upon to the detriment of the composition as fiction. Example: Mr. Sitwell is sure that stupid people are consciously, deliberately malevolent towards clever people, and that the stupid (the bishops, the generals, etc.) are forever conspiring against the well-being of the artist. Those of us who are stupider than Mr. Sitwell can claim superior competence in this matter, and we—at least I—do not believe his version. It is very irritating to be told about the cruelty and malignity of the stupid on almost every page, when the obvious fact is that clever people are far crueller. Mr. Sitwell’s fictions would certainly benefit by an abandonment of these family paradoxes.

When all is said, this novel has not got us much forrader. Mr. Sitwell’s work, in spite of its fascination, is still a sort of promissory note. But in a period when most novelists give us nothing but bad cheques, a promissory note is of rare value. It does definitely put its signer into the infinitesimal group of those from whom we have something to expect.


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