Green Dolphin Street. By Elizabeth Goudge. Coward-McCann. $3.00. Forever Amber. By Kathleen Winsor. The Macmillan Company. $3.00. The Golden Rooms. By Vardis Fisher. Vanguard Press. $2.50. Tragic Ground. By Erskine Caldwell. Duell, Sloan and Pearcc. $2.50. Par Love Alone. By Christina Stead. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. Time Must Have a Stop. By Aldous Huxley. Harper and Brothers. $2.75. Boston Adventure. By Jean Stafford. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.75.
Current fiction seems to lend itself to a classification more anthropological than literary. In the seven novels selected for this review, man is exhibited in four different ages from the paleolithic to the present. Yet the proper division is not according to time but according to intrinsic quality; the seven novels present three kinds of man, arranged here in the order of their complexity: Hollywood man, Cro-Magnon man, and modern man.
No one will be surprised to learn that in both portrayals of Hollywood man the characters appear in costume. Costume serves two purposes in Hollywood: it clothes the characters’ bodies with that modesty bordering on the lascivious which is the special contribution of the Hays office to art, and it diverts attention from the characters’ essential nakedness of ideas, attitudes, and emotions. “Green Dolphin Street” by Elizabeth Goudge, a costume piece of the nineteenth century, has won the highest Hollywood accolade— a prize of $125,000. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has honored Miss Goudge for her creation in the medium of prose of the Hollywood world-view, subdivision of lofty sentiment.
The preposterous plot depends on a man’s absent-mindedness, but there is nothing absent-minded about Miss Goudge’s handling of her material. The quaint, remarkable, and homely incidents involve two women who love the same man. These characters flatter the reader because of his instant and continuous understanding of them. Whenever they seem to develop, they are only fulfilling their formulas. The story is filled with intuitive human wisdom, carefully explained, and the prose is the poetic kind that the camera can reproduce by blurring its focus. “Green Dolphin Street” is therefore first in the hearts of the cameramen and second on the best-seller list.
First on the best-seller list is Kathleen Winsor’s “Forever Amber.” The title is an exaggeration—972 pages are not forever—but the book is a lusty exponent of the Hollywood world-view, subdivision of ribald romance. The Hays office, however, is clucking nervously because Amber, illegitimate herself, contributes generously to illegitimacy in Restoration England. This female rake works her way up from a cottage in Essex to an apartment in Whitehall, becoming, after a long apprenticeship, the mistress of Charles II.
Miss Winsor has read widely but not well, and her sources tell a much better story than she does. This fact is of small importance because those who will read “Forever Amber” would not read her sources. Their chief interest will be in Amber’s own version of the favorite phrase of Samuel Pepys: “And so to bed.” Amber is a one-dimensional Becky Sharp, not even an adequate successor to Scarlett O’Hara; and the superficial realism of her story is no better in its way than the false profundity of “Green Dolphin Street.” But it is more fun.
Although the man of the stone age was as simple as Hollywood man is simplified, he had the great advantage of living—an advantage which Vardis Fisher seems unable to exploit in “The Golden Rooms.” This Cro-Magnon chronicle, the second in a series about our remotest ancestors, probably establishes Mr. Fisher as the father of the prehis-torical novel. Harg, the leader of an ape-like people backward even for their own time, learns how to make and use fire. This cultural advantage is only briefly useful, however, because some Cro-Magnon men, led by Gode, discover Harg and his people and murder them. After the slaughter the terrified Gode recognizes the presence of ghosts. ’ Since we accept the scientific account of our origin and wish to understand ourselves as animals, “The Golden Rooms” might be of absorbing interest to us. It is not, because Mr. Fisher fails in his first obligation as a storyteller: he does not make us believe in Harg and Gode or in the triumph and terror of their discoveries. He illustrates some objective facts and logical inferences about Cro-Magnon man, but he is not sufficiently interested in the inscrutable fact of life—the only thing that makes the Cro-Magnon bones important to us.
Spence Douthit, a poor-white Southerner of the present day and the leading character in Erskine Caldwell’s “Tragic Ground,” differs from Harg in mentality, physique, and milieu, but agrees with him in his complete innocence of the contemplative and moral nature that complicates and gives point to man’s existence. Spence came from the hills to work in the city’s powder plant, but he hasn’t done much of anything since the plant closed down. His elder daughter, Libby, has a job and is able to give a few dollars a week to Spence and his ailing wife, who never gets out of bed except to eat and to stagger about a bit when she is drunk on Dr. Munday’s tonic. Their younger daughter, Mavis, is thirteen years old; she has run away from home to enter a bawdy house.
In some of his other stories Mr. Caldwell creates a feeling of truth by his careful reporting of physical sensation and external fact. This sense of actuality establishes a connection between his subhuman characters and humanity, and allows him to present ironic effects of pathos and humor.
But “Tragic Ground” is not tragic or humorous or pathetic. It is a grey kind of farce. The writing is flaccid, and Mr. Caldwell’s attempts to prove that his slapstick comedy has social significance will merely embarrass the reader.
Miss Goudge and Miss Winsor are engaged in reducing man to the formulas acceptable to the movies and popular fiction. Man as an animal is the theme of Mr. Fisher and Mr. Caldwell. Christina Stead, Aldous Huxley, and Jean Stafford are the only real novelists in the group: They attempt to represent the complete man, the body informed by spirit. And they try to find in the flux of experience the pattern of man’s action; they do not impose a ready-made pattern upon the flux.
I have never read a poor book by Christina Stead nor a thoroughly satisfactory one. “For Love Alone” is profuse and wasteful of character and situation. A long brilliant chapter introduces Aunt Bea and then she disappears; it takes the reader some time to realize that she is not one of the actors in the story but has merely sat for her portrait. The futile love of the heroine Teresa for Jonathan Crow— the most annoying object of a young girl’s affections since Angel Clare—is developed at tiresome length in repetitive scenes. Yet the book has a confused eloquence, an intensity that is moving even when one is not sure of its cause.
The main fault of “For Love Alone” is, I think, that its stated theme is not its real theme. The thesis which apparently is intended to give form to the story is the evil of the social system which allows man to fulfill himself in various ways but woman in one way only: through marriage. The adequate development of this notion requires a typical girl for a heroine, and Teresa is not typical—she is closer to eccentric. Yet the core of the book is not this outmoded theme but Teresa herself. Her problem is an individual one: she must attain a physical love as passionate and complete as her mystic ideal of it. The life of the book is her ecstatic visions which, like the mystic perceptions of St.
Teresa, are sometimes piercingly brilliant and sometimes unrealized. The comparison is juster than might at first appear: Teresa’s religion is sensual love, and she searches for the ideal with the asceticism and single-mindedness of the religious.
In “Time Must Have a Stop” Aldous Huxley’s hero also moves, by the same means of ascetic concentration, toward a religion; but it would be hard to imagine religions that differed more widely.than Sebastian Barnack’s and Teresa’s. Seven-eighths of “Time Must Have a Stop” develops a moral choice for Sebastian and throws the bright distorting light of Huxley’s satire on some carefully selected specimens of the English middle class in the London and Florence of 1929. These people are all monsters—humors, the Elizabethans would call them—but the exaggeration is so deft, the wit so pleasantly acid, that one could not hope to find monsters more entertaining. Counseled on the one hand by the remembered phrases of his Uncle Eustace, a limerick-loving hedonist, and on the other by Bruno Rontini, a practicing saint, the young Sebastian involves himself in a lie which he lacks the moral courage to confess. He succeeds in wriggling out of the consequences of his falsehood, but he brings trouble to others and particularly to Bruno Rontini.
So far an excellent beginning. But the story has no middle and only an apology for an end. The climactic action is simply omitted. The last thirty-five pages are an epilogue in which, interspersed with the regenerate Sebastian’s reflections on ultimate truth, are various allusions to the meat of the story: to the causes of Sebastian’s regeneration. The annoyance of the reader at this shabby trick is not apt to be mollified by the informal essays of Sebastian, interesting as many of them are. One cause of the reader’s dissatisfaction is the negative quality of Bruno’s rule: “Find out how to become your inner not-self in God”; the positive force of this notion in terms of will is not made clear. A more pressing cause is that Sebastian has never experienced a part of the world that he has renounced. Physical desire—which, in union with spirit, brings fulfilment to Miss Stead’s Teresa and to many other human beings—apparently strikes Sebastian as ridiculous and somewhat horrible. Mrs. Thwale, who seduces him, is an icy lust, a destroyer. Sebastian describes them together as “twin cannibals in bedlam.” Why search for not-self (the reader may ask) before realizing self completely?
“Boston Adventure,” a first novel by Jean Stafford, combines in certain measure the best effects of “For Love Alone” and “Time Must Have a Stop.” Its satire, directed at Boston society, is not so keen as Huxley’s but more full-bodied. Miss Stafford’s satiric characters are also types, but she has the skill and patience to endow them with voice, gesture, costume, and background, to create by external means a sense of their presence which Huxley sometimes fails to create for his characters.
Miss Stead’s evocation of the inner life of Teresa—”large draughts of intellectual day” succeeded by periods of drought—is more brilliant but less workmanlike than Miss Stafford’s portrayal of the constantly absorbing and evaluating consciousness of Sonie Marburg. Other reviewers have remarked on Miss Stafford’s debt to Proust. Like him, she is able to suspend a moment of experience and examine each of its impressions separately while holding all of them in solution. But although she has learned a good deal from Proust, the effects that she achieves are definitely her own.
It should be observed that these effects are not always admirable. Since Sonie Marburg tells the story of “Boston Adventure,” its balance depends on her ability to fit objective and subjective truth together without blurring the edges of either. Sometimes she fails. Sometimes the Boston that she sees loses the edge of irony that the author intends, and sometimes the other principal characters slip out of the focus of meaning. This happens particularly to Philip McAllister, whom Sonie loves (the men in the book are all rather meager); but it also happens toward the end to Hopestill Mather, who marries Philip. In the last part of the book Sonie seems to elbow out the other characters in her preoccupation with herself. But in spite of these things, Miss Stafford’s first novel is the best novel in this group, as much an achievement as it is an adventure.