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Nine Novels: Public and Private War

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

Paces in a Dusty Picture. By Gerald Kersh. Whittlesey House. $2.00. Interim. By R. C. Hutchinson. Farrar and Rinehart. $2.00. Age of Thunder. By Frederic Prokosch. Harper. $2.50. The Power House. By Alex Comfort. Viking. $3.00. The Ballad and the Source. By Rosamond Lehmann. Reynal and Hitchcock. $2.75. The City of Trembling Leaves. By Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Random House. $3.00. The House in Cleive Street. By Mary Lavin, Little, Brown and Company. $3.00. The Ghostly Lover. By Elizabeth. Hardwick, Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. The Cradle Will Fall. By Stephen Seley. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

Four of these new novels involve, tangentially or directly, the phenomenon of war; the other five are studies in family life, where a kind of undeclared war, harrowing though bloodless, is carried on; where souls develop their own armor against the arrows of fortune and hurl their own projectiles into the unmapped territory of the enemy. The pick of this present lot, for various reasons, are the novels of Miss Lehmann and Messrs. Clark and Kersh, in that order. If the others fail, it is only relatively, either through inexperience (as with Hardwick, Lavin, and Seley), or through inability (as with Prokosch, Comfort, and Hutchinson) to match a brilliance of parts with the whole large shine of master-managing.

In the domain of public war, Gerald Kersh in “Faces in a Dusty Picture” beats his confreres all hollow precisely because, unlike them, he is not trying to do four or five other things at the same time. His title is as precise as his book: the before-during-and-after picture of a British army unit in desert combat against Italians and Germans. With the skill necessary to his form, the compact novelette, Kersh comprehends one major incident with humorous but inexorable purposefillness, like a cool operator searchlighting a bomber which proceeds without interruption to its chosen target. The genre forbids full-bodied characterization. The persons succeed both in evading and suggesting the typical: harried General Eagles, loved by his men but not by his wife; a recent, wealthy, democratic young baronet; a coward whose large batch of prisoners fools nobody but himself; two sergeants whose split over a woman is rendered final by a machine-gun slug. Many die, many are wounded, some survive. What they share, besides membership in the unit and a fear of trying to seem heroic, is an unlimited capacity for astonishment over their deaths, wounds, or survivals. Kersh’s prose, like Stephen Crane’s, is distinguished by its immediacy and masculinity, its light-skipping irony, its slashing skill with epithet. But Kersh is never content, as Crane sometimes was, not to be in motion.

The chief trouble with R. C. Hutchinson’s “Interim” is its lack of motion, a fault possibly induced by the choice of a Jamesian narrative plan which Hutchinson cannot keep from lying static because he has not learned James’s trick of kinetic inwardness. The war is incidental to a plot in which a nosy British sergeant on maneuvers in the Lake District stumbles upon an eccentric family of four, and slowly discovers, during a series of brief furloughs, that they are all pretty frustrated. The doctor has so great a desire to return to his life-work in China that he dies of it; his wife so detests her former colonial exile that she dies of hating it; their son hates heroism of his father’s sort so much that he dies a hero; their daughter devotes herself to the care of a war-crippled husband she never loved. One gathers from these deaths and dedications that a semi-religious affirmation, an ideal of self-sacrifice, is somehow intended. The book ends half-bitterly. But Hutchinson too seldom comes clean, either in his revelations or in frequent descriptions like this: “Except for one plume of frondose cloud, the sky was stripped, the edge of the night’s chill already blunt, the light which played on the arpeggio of greens was a distillation of silver.”

Occupied France is the locale of Alex Comfort’s “The Power House” and Frederic Prokosch’s “Age of Thunder.” Prokosch parachutes his secret agent into the Haute-Savoie and hurries him, with ever-changing companions, through a Never-never land to the Swiss border. The rich textural quality of the book is achieved through a combination of microscopic, birddog naturalism, full of sharp smells and resonant tiny sounds, and a larger descriptive power which is sometimes as detached and pared down as Hemingway’s. But the people, except for the gypsy family, are capricious oddlings in a Kafka-like dream-world. Prokosch’s invention never equals his observation; he senses the mystery of personality without being able to plumb its depths; his intellect is everywhere subdued to feeling. So the book seems thought with the blood, and its conclusion is the blood’s conclusion: the need of love in an age of thunder. This may explain why the climax is an almost adventitious amatory episode, and why one’s search for meaning becomes a sleeveless errand. Comfort’s picture of France seems far closer to the realities of occupation than Prokosch’s. He admirably suggests the pitiable chaos of the nation during and after its fall, and the book is full of those small vignettes which appear only when a writer is in love With his work. But in his presentation of a people reduced to aimless atoms who bump one another without rule or purpose, he has written an atomistic book without any rule or purpose except the depiction of a mess which the protagonists are too stupid or frightened to clean lip. He seems to counsel the values of individualism; yet the height of individualistic enterprise in the sabotage-scene in the power house is the man who laboriously hammers the name plate off a machine. Philosophically a hopeless book, “The Power House” packs enough force to make Comfort’s future hopeful. But readers may well feel that France has already given the lie to this novel’s implied conclusions.

The novels of Rosamond Lehmann and Walter Van Tilburg Clark are distinguished, though contrasting, studies in the painstaking, full-bodied revelation of inward character. Both have what the other seven of these current novels lack —the quality of depth. “The Ballad and the Source” is an extraordinarily (perhaps unduly) involuted examination into the past life of Sybil Jardine, a kind of British basilisk in blue chiffon, a dignified grandmother who cloaks with her sickroom gentility the fierce concentrated powers of a vindictive mesmerist. In a succession of scenes which the reader is left to assemble like the partly finished fragments of an acre-large picture-puzzle, Miss Lehmann lays the matter almost bare, working through the teen-age narrator, Rebecca, whose tireless passion to understand the secret, to see Mrs. Jardine whole, gives the book its deliberate forward drive. But she contrives simultaneously to characterize Rebecca’s half-dozen informants, the strongest of whom is Maisie, the dauntless homely grand-daughter who serves as the touchstone. Of Maisie, Rebecca says, “It was she whose steadfast passion and disillusionment . . . first planted deep within the feathery shifting webs and folds of my consciousness that seed which grows a shape too huge, too complex ever to see in outline, clear and whole: the monster, human experience.” Beside Miss Lehmann’s hushed and private war, Clark’s account of the youth-to-marriage struggle of Timothy Hazard to integrate himself and lay old ghosts seems, as it is, breezy, lusty, healthy, and jocose. In this presentation human experience is enthralling but never monstrous. The scene is Reno, Nevada, and the sound of the aspens sweeps through the narrative like an undersong until Tim has attained enough stature as a musician, and settled his life sufficiently, to epitomize his sense of Nevada in a symphony. But “The City of Trembling Leaves” is much more than a study in the evolution of a musician. Tim’s family and friends, his love affairs, his shames, and his quiet victories are everywhere memorably projected. The writing about sports, mountain-climbing, and the making and playing of music is closer to topnotch than any the reader will have met in recent fiction. Indeed, the book is as vitally American as Miss Lehmann’s is reservedly British, The three remaining novelists study varying aspects of the same problem: The individual’s search for the meaning of his own and other lives. The books center respectively in an Irish village, a Southern small town, and a New Jersey suburb. While Mary Lavin’s “The House in Clewe Street” stays put, as it does in the first two sections, at the dignified old-fashioned house in Clewe Street, it is a pleasant study of an embittered spinster’s dominance over her two lesser sisters and her nephew, very much in the manner of Bennett’s “Old Wives’ Tale.” But when Gabriel, the nephew, escapes to Dublin’s Bohemia with the servant girl Onny, the book falls quickly apart, and descends to a badly mishandled conclusion. As a stylist, Elizabeth Hardwick easily surpasses Lavin and Seley. “The Ghostly Lover,” her study of a Southern girl’s unrewarded search for a substitute for her family in the South and in New York, is full of poetic perception and several memorable etchings of minor characters. But she takes refuge too often in the peculiarities of personality; she does not fix with exactitude a sense of place; and at last she leaves her protagonist alone in a populous vacuum outside the gates of an impossible Eden. Stephen Seley’s first book, “The Cradle Will Fall” would have made a good long short-story of the home life of a Jewish lawyer’s family in New Jersey. The ten-year-old boy’s point of view is quickly established and perseveringly held to. the basis of the book being the touching story of his reaction to his young mother’s death. But in order to expand his short story to book length, Seley has resorted to padding through repetitious and aimless stream-of-consciousness reflection, which continually and disappointingly obtrudes upon the force of his central incident. None of these promising young writers has learned quite enough about the conducting or the concluding of the private wars they are involved with. “The monster, human experience,” is a formidable opponent.


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