The Hour Before Dawn. By W. Somerset Maugham. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. You Can’t Be Too Careful By H. G. Wells. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.50. The Drums of Morning, By Philip Van Doren Stern. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $3.00. The Gates of Aulis. By Gladys Schmitt. The Dial Press. $2.75.
These novels are in earnest about the dilemmas that confront modern man. Wells assumes a pose of amused detachment, but he is really no more light-hearted than the Swift of “Gulliver’s Travels.” Maugham is casual about the major issues of the war, but is troubled none the less. Mr. Stern implies that his Abolitionist crusader is the ancestor of contemporary American youth fighting for the “Four Freedoms.” The war has not yet reached the neurotics of “The Gates of Aulis.” Consciously, however, they woo personal and international destruction. The Munich Pact convinces them that “their class” must await the signal for world revolution. Mr. Stern’s bibliography is ambitious enough for a dissertation. Judged at that level, “The Drums of Morning” could be challenged. Fortunately, Mr. Stern decided to use his historical researches for a story. His book is well written and offers more entertainment than the other three.
Jonathan Bradford’s travels through the South to study the effects of slavery bring him exciting adventures. He falls in love with a charming but corrupt girl in Mobile. The affair ends in a duel that nearly costs him his life, destroys his usefulness as an Abolitionist, and gives him a minor role in the Civil War. In fact, Jonathan is disappointed, and hostile to Lincoln when he sees that union and not slavery has become the big issue. His imprisonment in civil and military jails, and his repeated escapes from plague and execution, his friendships, loves, and enmities with people, North and South, are woven out of the author’s researches, This book is further evidence that American history is romantic.
Unlike “The Drums of Morning,” which is so overcrowded with characters that a glossary is needed, “The Hour Refore Dawn” has few characters but too many themes, Maugham hides himself behind a couplet from Pope:
In every work regard the writer’s end,
Since none can compass more than they intend.
What he does intend is not clear. Is this the story of two admirably mated but unhappy English aristocrats? The theme of May Henderson’s dissatisfaction and Roger’s attempt to understand his wife’s request for a divorce is introduced at the beginning and resolved at the end when Dick Murray, Roger’s best friend, is invalided home to England, blind, and May joins Dick. The misfortunes which the war brings to the other Hendersons fill a good part of the book. Jim refuses to fight. He insists that he took the “Oxford Oath,” from profound conviction. Ironically, Jim’s decision is the cause of his own death and that of his youngest brother, thirteen-year-old Tim. His secret marriage to Dora, an “Austrian” refugee, enables her to keep out of a concentration camp and guide the Luftwaffe to the airfield near the Henderson estate. Tim is killed during the bombing. When Jim discovers that Dora has set the fire which indicated the airfield, he strangles her, and commits suicide.
Maugham has too many themes, and only in the story of Roger’s escape does he seem sure of his purpose. This sounds more sincere than the others. A melodrama, frankly cinematographic, would have been adequate. Melodrama and sociology are incompatible. His gestures to the ruling classes are too coy. Despite the note of optimism and patriotism, surprising for Maugham, his war is a well made play. The curtain comes down on it, with Roger’s graceful act of noblesse oblige in surrendering May to Dick. But we are left wondering: what next?
II. G. Wells labors under no such handicap. He lets us know that he considers war, the English, and mankind subhuman. This is not news to those who know his work. Like Bernard Shaw, Wells believes in hammering away until he has convinced us; or beaten us to a pulp.
Ever since Wells began to write, he has been preaching his particular kind of Nineteenth Century creative evolution. In “You Can’t Be Too Careful” he is determined to write like Voltaire in manner, and Swift in matter. He will be amused at the grotesque antics of the Cockney Edward Albert Tewler, whose unexpected inheritance enables him to spend the rest of his life imitating the political and emotional crudities of a vicious and dying aristocracy. Wells has even less pity for Tewler than for the gentry. Reared by a domineering mother on the leavings of lower class Protestantism, E. A. could not be lover, husband, or animal —much less Aristotle’s “political animal.”
Tewler does not know what England is fighting for. In endorsing the sentimentalities and discredited economics and politics of his “betters,” he is like “Tewler teutonicus, Americans, Japonicus.” Through mistake and fright, he blunders into glory—and the George Cross—when he overwhelms a group of German paratroopers near his home. The honor makes him more servile than ever to his rulers.
All this might have been said in an essay. But who would have read it? We read it less for its satire than its sly humor, which reminds us not only of Voltaire, but of Fielding and Sterne. Wells has no more affection for all us Tewlers than he might have for a pet monkey. Although we laugh at E. A. Tewler, the book leaves a bitter taste in the mouth; and what is more we are as unconvinced as ever that Wells is the Law and the Prophets.
Miss Gladys Schmitt is certain of her intention: she wished to imitate the manner of Marcel Proust. The “Gates of Aulis” is a masterpiece of imitation. On the jacket, an admirer calls her “the American Proust.” This is questionable; and if true, we still might ask why a writer should strive to be an American Proust. With the Greek “Know yourself” there should be carved over every artist’s room the American: “Be yourself.” Thomas Wolfe used the tricks of Proust and Joyce when he had need to describe the dream world and state of multiple consciousness, without being somebody else. He is indubitably Tom Wolfe.
Miss Schmitt has gifts. She writes good description, her satire bites, and some of her tropes are worth remembering. But she is so slavish in following Proust that her characters are somnambulists without a country. The book is pretentious and precious.
Psychologically, Carl and Ellie Hasselman are European neurotics. We are told that they live in Pennsylvania, but endless explanations of time-space and emotional relations obscure Pennsylvania. It might just as well be Buda Pesth or Tokyo. Brother and sister suffer from economic worries and masochism. Ellie expresses her Iphigenia complex through what may be surrealist painting and offering her body to other bruised souls. Carl hopes to immolate himself through revolution. Through far too many pages, Ellie and Carl, their family, and lesser university frustrates hurt one another.
Shock therapy is self administered in the attempted suicide of Ellie and the near drowning of Carl, who rescues her from cold lake water. Henceforth she will be a member of her class and have her love affairs in the shelter of home. To be a better revolutionist, Carl conquers sex nausea and has his first affair.
D. H. Lawrence offered much the same prescription with more art and less posturing; and even he is often tedious.