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Notes on Current Books, Autumn 1980

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980

On the one hand, in this book Robert Coles is analyzing closely the scenes and characters of Flannery O’Connor’s stories and novels; on the other, he is juxtaposing accounts of real people he has encountered in the South who match those in O’Connor’s fiction. The connecting link is a black woman, a nurse’s aide in an Atlanta hospital, who introduced Coles and his wife to O’Connor, a patient there at that time. Coles’three chapters cover “The Social Scene,” the religious background (“Hard, Hard Religion”), and “A Southern Intellectual,” a label he pins firmly on O’Connor in spite of the numerous disclaimers to be found in her letters. Coles” concluding statement includes but does not overemphasize the intellectual: “She sat there in Baldwin County, Georgia, dying, burning with life, praying, reading, pouring out her soul’s worries, reservations, deepest yearnings. She wrote for herself, for those she knew and loved, for any of us who cares to stop and look and listen. . . . She was herself a southern intellectual, a writer with few peers in the recent American past, and a writer, also, of enormous promise, taken from us far too soon. But finally, one believes, she was a soul blinded by faith; hence with an uncanny endowment of sight. She had a large smile. She had the generosity of one who wanted company along a tough but extremely important journey; and she was willing to work hard as a writer to earn the attentive regard of that company.”

Modern Drama and German Classicism, by Benjamin Bennett. Cornell $17.50

Ranging over a wide number of examples of German drama from Lessing to Brecht, Bennett follows a number of themes. Among these are such ideas as the intellectual component in the relation between stage and spectator, the notion of attempting, by drama, to exercise a vitalizing or reforming influence on society, the use of irony in modern drama, and the technique of playing on the spectator’s self-consciousness. He discusses the problem of the heroic character in a self-conscious age in several different plays. In all these and others, he tries to relate modern German drama to German drama of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Bennett has provided analyses of several dramas in considerable detail including Kleist’s Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Lessing’s Nathan der Weise, Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris and Egmont, and Schiller’s Maria Stuart. He concludes with a discussion of Brecht, whom he classes as a “Classic Modern,” and his drama Der kaukasische Kreidekreis. In a brief review, it is impossible to consider all the many facets of Professor Bennett’s book. Suffice it to say, it should be read carefully by every student of German drama and will be helpful to anyone interested in drama in general.

The Chances of Rhyme: Device Band Modernity, by Donald Wesling. California $12.95

This well-informed, well-argued, intelligent, and nimble essay offers an interpretation of the formal, historical, and social influence of rhyme on poetry. Wesling himself is peddling something called “structural historicism” which demonstrates his intimacy with Russian futurist and formalist poetics, Derrida’s accent vs. articulation orientation (though Wesling wisely ducks this one), and Barthes” fashionable semiology. Wesling will want to revise his “Conclusion” when he reads Julia Kristeva’s Desire in Language.

Part of Nature, Part of Us, by Helen Vendler. Harvard $15

This collection—mostly of reviews from The New York Times Book Review—is, in the main, a survey of American poetry during the past decade. Still, it is Stevens whom Vendler treats at greatest length. The publication of his juvenilia several years ago occasioned a review, and together with it are three essays, including an interesting one on the relationship of Stevens to Keats. Vendler is “happiest” writing about Stevens and Lowell, and between them they share over a quarter of this large book. Vendler’s several pieces on Lowell’s last poems are especially provocative, since her generous appreciation of them contrasts with their reception by most readers. Diving into the Wreck, by Lowell’s student Adrienne Rich, elicits the longest single review, probably the most thoughtful commentary on this poet, whom anthologists are beginning to promote in a major way. Vendler is also acute with still younger poets. She seems to be writing less about Dave Smith than for him; her reading of Louise Glück is unusually sensitive, almost empathetic. Though some of the other reviews are very slight, this collection is intelligent, even useful.

The Allegorical Epic, by Michael Murrin. Chicago $23

Intended as both a sequel and a correction to The Veil of Allegory, The Allegorical Epic is an examination from an historicist perspective, focusing primarily upon secular allegory. Allegory, as a medium of truth, Murrin argues, ceased to be viable with the rise of historicism and neoclassicism. The book is both lucid and erudite. It should be of value to anyone seriously interested in the study of epic.

Modern Latin American Narratives: The Dreams of Reason, by Alfred J. MacAdam. Chicago $3.95 paper

Among the books issued to celebrate and cerebrate the so-called “boom” in South American fiction, MacAdam’s Modern Latin American Narratives stands not only as an example of the most incisive prose available but, what is more rare, it also serves as a model of rigorous theoretical interpretation. If scholarly commentary in general were as gifted as this, a critical Renaissance would indeed be dawning. As it is, this book is the best of the “boom.”

HISTORYRetreat from Reconstruction: A Political History, 1869—1879, by William Gillette. Louisiana $27.50

Most studies of Reconstruction have focused on national policy formation in the late 1860’s or the course of events in individual Southern states. Hence this superb book breaks new ground by analyzing the flawed implementation of those federal policies and the eventual abandonment of the Reconstruction experiment by the Grant administration in the 1870’s. Northern disillusionment, inadequate funding, poor appointments, ineffective federal enforcement of black voting rights, and erratic presidential intervention, all contributed to the collapse of Republican regimes in the South. But perhaps the most important influence on national policy toward the South was the fact that Northern Republicans always gave top priority to the needs of the Northern rather than the Southern wing of their party. In this connection, Gillette vigorously argues that the race and Reconstruction issues remained more central to Republican electoral fortunes in the 1870’s than other recent historians admit. Because it tells a little-known story, advances a host of stimulating hypotheses, and is graced by lucid and forceful prose, this important book should become a basic source on post-Civil War history.

The German Influence in France after 1870, by Allan Mitchell. North Carolina $17.50

Allan Mitchell has given us that rare commodity, a genuinely new approach to the early history of the Third Republic. Leaving aside the well documented history of German intellectual influence, Mitchell argues that the political and economic evolution of the early Republic cannot be understood outside the context of German influence. It is fascinating to see French developments with German eyes and to follow Bismarck’s attempts to control French politics. This demonstration is most absorbing when Mitchell shows the Chancellor seeking to favor the Republicans over the Catholic Monarchists whom he, and the Gambettist Republicans, characterized as a war party. Mitchell’s thesis thus tends to support the old right-wing charge that the Republic was the creation of Germany, deliberately foisted on France to weaken her army and diplomacy. At the same time, Mitchell’s discussion shows the limits of this view, since nowhere is it demonstrated that events in France would have turned out differently without German intervention. Nevertheless, The German Influence reminds us of the limitations of looking at one country’s politics, even internal politics, in isolation.

The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines, by Perry Miller. Massachusetts $14.50

The profound contributions to American intellectual history made by Perry Miller require no reintroduction, for they are still working parts of the everyday apparatus of current historical analysis. If he selected the New England mind as his focus, his subject entailed an almost metaphysical understanding of the whole process of the development of a native American intellect. The fine selection of essays included in this volume emphasizes one of the most significant themes in Miller’s elaboration of American intellectual growth: the nourishment of individual freedom and social responsibility in an environment increasingly dominated by machinery, manufacturies, and corporate aspirations. These essays have the brash, combative, sometimes hyperbolic, and al. bl ways nonconformist qualities that so characterized Miller’s work, as well as the probing beyond the frontier of established historical truth that rendered him often inconclusive and always significant.

The Battle for the West: Thermopylae, by Ernie Bradford. McGraw-Hill $12.95

This is a very reliable popular account of that most compelling of all lost campaigns, Xerxes” invasion of Greece. It includes the entirety of the campaign, from the building of the great wooden bridge in the Hellespont to the aftermath of the defeat of the Persian rear guard at Plataea. However, the centerpieces are the twin stands, first of the Spartans at Thermopylae, then of the Athenians at Salamis. There is nothing new in this account, but the whole is suffused with common sense and is indebted to the practical military experience of the author, who seems to evaluate strategic considerations with confidence. None of the myriad of old questions about the campaign is answered in new and clever ways, but all that is known finds its way in good order into this readable and trustworthy account.

The Battle for Gaul, by Julius Caesar. A new translation by Anne and Peter Wiseman. Godine $15.95

Until early in this century, schoolchildren in Europe and America had to read Caesar’s Commentaries in Latin. The dullards and the shiftless learned to hate the great captain’s very name, and after World War I Latin was rapidly phased out of the curricula. This may ultimately prove to have been a disaster of the first magnitude, akin to the recent denigration of Shakespeare in American schools. It is conceivable that this fine new translation by the Wisemans, accompanied by good illustrations and a helpful glossary and index, could help revivify interest in Caesar, and if that proves to be the case, we shall all be the richer. This publishing venture deserves the warmest applause.

Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain, by Carolyn P. Boyd. Princeton $24

Kings and priests have passed regularly through Iberian history leaving a rich lode that historians have not failed to mine, but what of the generals who were their allies and coplunderers? It is astonishing that so little attention has been paid the military. Carolyn Boyd has produced one of the first major studies of the third pillar of the Spanish establishment. Her book deals with the breakdown of parliamentary government between 1917 and 1923. In the latter year, General Primo de Rivera helped overthrow civilian rule and soon established a personal dictatorship. His rise to power is documented in this excellent study.

IWO, by Richard Wheeler. Lippincott & Crowell $12.95

So heavy were American casualties on Iwo Jima (FDR rejected a plan to gas the island instead of mounting a conventional invasion of it), so nightmarish the struggle to take its black sand and caves, that one wonders whether art—literary or monumental—will ever capture its epic ugliness. In this book, Wheeler, who was there, comes as close as a military historian can. With plentiful photographs and maps, he skillfully tells how the Marines won the bloodiest battle in their history and made it possible for a B-29, the “Enola Gay,” to change warfare forever.

Antislavery Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Abolitionists, edited by Lewis Perry and Michael Fellman. Louisiana $20

Every generation must write its own view of the past, but antislavery usually demands the most searching reappraisals. Interpreting abolitionism, say Perry and Fellman, “inevitably raises questions that go to the heart of what we value in American society and takes us into areas where the beliefs of scholars and general public cannot be held in separation” (vii). This excellent anthology replaces Martin Duberman’s similar volume for the sixties (The Antislavery Vanguard, Princeton, 1965) and points out that historians now see abolitionists more than ever before as in and of their time. Their careers and concerns crossed with changes that led from 18th-century provincialism to the competition and social tensions of modern life.

The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and its Transformation, 1000—1135, by William E. Kapelle. North Carolina $19

Kapelle does violence to the traditional view of pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon unity in England as the key to Northumbrian resistance to the Normans. Northumbria did not resist the Conqueror as an AngloSaxon holdout but rather because it already had a tradition of separateness and resistance to centralization under its earls. To support this contention, and to take issue with the views of Northumbrian uniqueness, Kapelle draws on all available sources and secondary material, discussing individual theories at length. However, his book is much more than a historiographical study: it also considers Northumbrian history in its entirety from 1000 until its pacification by the Norman kings c. 1135, the year of Henry I’s death. Whether one agrees with all of Kapelle’s points or not, this is an important, scholarly, well-written work.

LIVES & LETTERSWhitney Father, Whitney Heiress, by W. A. Swanberg. Scribner’s $17.50

The combined biographies of William Collins Whitney and his daughter Dorothy cover many facets of their lives. Whitney’s marriage to Flora Payne and family life are presented against the background of his business enterprises, political associations, and high society affairs. In this environment Dorothy is born and raised. At 17 she becomes an orphan. With her values still undefined, she searches, traveling and socializing. Dorothy’s life goals are realized in a successful romantic marriage relationship with Willard Straight. These goals are portrayed artistically by W. A. Swanberg. It is extremely difficult to blend both philosophy and factual material in the same work; yet the author has done it smoothly.

Havelock Ellis: A Biography, by Phyllis Grosskurth. Knopf $16.95

In the first four or five decades of this century, preachers and assorted moralists invoked the name of Havelock Ellis as the symbol of sexual license and decadence. Ellis wrote on what he called the “psychology” of sex, and in the course of his work he challenged the Victorian obscurantism that had ruled so long in intimate relations between people. He himself was a strange bird: incapable (or so it seems) of normal relations with women, he thrived on urolagnia, and he married a lesbian. A friend of Margaret Sanger, he became far better known in the United States than in his native Britain. He never met his great contemporary, Sigmund Freud, but the two men exchanged a couple of letters and photographs, and each recognized the other’s contributions to breaking the shackles of the 19th century. All this would make a great story, of course, but Ms. Grosskurth botches it miserably. She teaches English at the University of Toronto and no doubt teaches it very well, but she had not a shred of talent as an historian. The rich material of Havelock Ellis” life is here dispersed and scattered in a miasma of disconnected trivia, unsound judgments, and blatant ignorance in the field of psychology. Ellis deserved better.

A Timeless Affair: The Life of Anita McCormick Blaine, by Gilbert A. Harri Chicago $15

Very much a family monument, but very much a worthy family monument, this life of Anita McCormick Blaine has two fascinations. The first is the lively recreation of a life of a very rich woman (eight indoor servants, etc. ) in a past which is lost to us all. The other is the zest for causes which she deemed worthy of humanity that animated this child of fortune. Happily, she was in a position to indulge both sides of her personality, which was without both envy and selfishness.

The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Vol. I: “A Part of the Elect,” edited by Betty T. Bennett. Johns Hopkins $30

This first of three volumes of Mary Shelley’s letters covers the years from October 1814, shortly after the Shelley elopement, to August 1827, five years after Shelley’s death. The letters reflect the change from the young girl of 17, who would sign herself Pecksie and Runaway Dormouse, to the young widow of 30, living in London and longing for Italy. Only a few months after Shelley’s death, Mary wrote to Jane Williams: “I was never the Eve of any Paradise, but a human creature blessed by an elemental spirit’s company and love—an angel who imprisoned in flesh could not adapt himself to his clay shrine & so has flown & left it.” In a later letter to John Howard Payne, who fell in love with her but after rejection remained her “friend in a corner,” Mary declared: “I think the best part of a letter often consists of what one says—after one has nothing more to say—when excuses—replications & intelligence is exhausted & you fairly chat as you would over the fireside.” Many of her letters are those extended fireside chats.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography, by Arlin Turner. Oxford $20

There have been numerous biographies of Hawthorne, of course, and one wonders why a new one appears. Two reasons come to mind. First, many, if not most, of the earlier ones are out of print, although available in a good library. Second, there is still a trickle, at least, of new material coming to light about the author. Turner has published earlier a work on Hawthorne, shorter than the present work and more devoted to a literary criticism of his writing. In the present volume, he has written strictly a biography. Hawthorne’s life and activities are chronicled, his relationships with many people, his political positions in Salem, Boston, and Liverpool, and only peripherally how his experiences found their way into his writings. The student looking for an analysis of Hawthorne’s works will be largely disappointed. However, as a biography, this book is well written, well researched and documented, and gives a very satisfactory insight into the life of the author.

Affectionate Cousins: T. Sturge Moore and Marie Appia, by Sylvia Legge. Oxford $24.50

As a child, Sylvia Legge knew the Sturge Moores well: Marie tried to teach her to knit and at the age of 12 she took part in Tom’s verse-drama Medea. As a result, the Sturge Moore children asked her to examine the family papers, all 72 boxes of them, and from that reading grew this family story of the involved relationship among the Quaker Sturges, the Vaudois Appias, and the Baptist Moores that culminated in the complicated courtship and eventual marriage of two cousins, the poet, wood engraver, and critic, Thomas Sturge Moore, and Marie, devout daughter of the French Reformed Protestant Appias. As a story, this book is detailed and of considerable interest, although one must admit at times rather drab and dull. Miss Legge says that “knowing that an appraisal of TSM’s artistic and literary achievement is matter for a better qualified hand, I have refrained from personal comment on the work that appears in the course of the narrative.” Perhaps that is just as well, for the letters and poems quoted extensively and the selections from the poems that Yeats included in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse bear witness to Sturge Moore’s position in literature as, now, passé and, always, second rate.

Maugham: A Biography, by Ted Morgan. Simon & Schuster $17.95

W. Somerset Maugham was a complicated man. It was to our advantage that he was, for his character often led directly to his books (a point which is made over and over again by Morgan), which have given so much pleasure to so many. He had a sad childhood, though never a penniless one since he had his own income of £150 a year, not much but enough for a person to live on in those days. He developed a stammer, he was trained as a doctor, but he knew all the time he meant to be a writer. At this art he gained financial success and a certain amount of critical acclaim, though he himself ranked himself as the leader of the second-rate writers. Although it is nowhere pointed out in this long biography, his real tragedy was that he lived too long, descending into the cantankerousness of senility, while maintaining the elegant life of his villa on the Riviera. This, of course, led to many quarrels and denunciations and was a sad finish to a brilliant career. Morgan gives us every detail until we are surfeited. A blue pencil in the hand of a good copy editor could have helped both Maugham and Morgan immensely.

The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol 32: 1915, edited by Arthur S. Link. Princeton $30

The first four months of 1915 marked the crucial acceleration of international developments that would ultimately involve the entire energies of Wilson. The documents contained in this volume bear on his response to the first German submarine campaign, the Allied declaration on total blockade of the Central Powers, and the continuing crisis in Mexico, as well as his opinions concerning Japan’s “Twenty-One Demands” upon China. This is the first collection of all the significant presidential documents relating to these crises and the first available publication of many individual documents. The high standard of editorial practice by this veteran staff continues unabated.

Among Friends: Personal Letters of Dean Acheson, edited by David S. McLellan and David C. Acheson. Dodd, Mead $17.95

Dean Acheson stands out among postwar American secretaries of state for the force of his personality, brilliant insights, and determined pursuit of landmark foreign policies. His Letters serve to increase his stature and demonstrate both his abiding loyalty to the Boss, Harry S. Truman, and his freedom to speak his mind. Acheson’s “Friends” are conspicuously drawn from Yale and the Establishment, and he had little time for social critics like Walter Lippmann or Reinhold Niebuhr or George F. Kennan. The admiring reviewer is constrained to ask whether his political philosophy might have been enriched and his views on the role of diplomacy deepened if his circle had been broader than the Yale Corporation and the Bilderberg Conference. Would it also have taught him humility, a quality not conspicuous in the Letters? That question posed, a fair assessment of Acheson requires the highest tribute to the toughness of his mind, commitment to the Republic and trusted friends, and resolution in adversity.

FICTIONFalling in Place, by Ann Beattie. Random House $10.95

A hot summer of deception and self-deception generates for the characters of Falling in Place a momentum of desperation with their own tawdry efforts to understand where they are going and what binds them together, whether love, inertia, or simply stale cowardice. Ms. Beattie’s gift is not lyrical; rather, she achieves a quiet grace of language, simple and unadorned. The range of tone and character is extraordinarily rich, without ever a sense of strain. From John, the 40-year-old Madison Avenue ad man who has moved in with his mother during the week rather than fully accept his position of being married to the wrong woman and having the wrong children, to Cynthia, a Yale graduate student teaching summer school to well-to-do kids who read only the first chapters of novels, to Parker, a 12-year-old with the sordid and funny malice of a Jason Compson, Ms. Beattie’s characters ring true and fragile and pained. This novel is not simply its author’s best but one of the finest of recent years.

The Weather in Africa, by Martha Cellhorn Dodd, Mead $7.95

The Weather in Africa reminds us that few things in life can be more fun than good reading. These three long stories, linked by place and theme, move with a crisp energy that is both old-fashioned and refreshing; there isn’t a tedious moment. Gellhorn knows Africa and the most minor of her characters inside out. She takes her reader, almost physically, into the gorgeous and serene African environment and into the lives of her people. A master of unself-conscious omniscience, she is confident and deft at slipping from one mind to another, frequently distinguishing the different consciences by only a change of voice. This is no simple maneuver within the space of a story; yet Gellhorn does not falter. Everything she does works.

Morgan’s Passing, by Anne Tyler. Knopf $9.95

From the beginning of this novel—when the mysterious Morgan delivers a puppeteer’s baby after her Cinderella puppet collapses in mid-performance—the reader of Anne Tyler’s new book is charmed and beguiled by Gower Morgan. Morgan creates havoc and excitement wherever he goes; yet the reader, like the other characters, never meets the real Morgan. Indeed, Tyler weaves such an enchanting spell that one wonders if there is a real Morgan. No matter, this is a real book, another magical work from a truly fascinating and fine writer.

Innocent Blood, by P. D. James. Scribner’s $10.95

The British mystery writer P. D. James has been acclaimed as the successor to Agatha Christie. In her newest work, she departs from the detective genre to write of Philippa Palfrey’s search for her identity. Adopted as a child, Philippa takes advantage of a new law and obtains her original birth certificate when she turns eighteen. Learning that she is the daughter of a father who raped a young girl, and of a mother who then killed the husband’s victim, Philippa seeks out her natural mother upon the woman’s release from prison (the father died earlier in prison). Meanwhile, there are the adoptive parents . . . and the father of the raped and murdered girl. It is, in other words, a mystery tale of sorts in its own right, but one far deeper in character and plot development than Mrs. James’s previous excellent works. This, perhaps, explains the curiously unsatisfactory ending; but nevertheless this remains one of the best novels out of Britain in recent years.

The Bleeding Heart, by Marilyn French. Summit Books $12.95

It seems almost unfair to compare French’s second novel with her first, The Women’s Room, since its skill and impact could hardly be matched. This book is a kind of sequel in which a woman whose past is similar to that of her first central character becomes infatuated with a man whose values run almost totally counter to her feminist views. The resulting dialogue is one long unresolved argument. The narrator’s voice this time is often a bit too shrill, as if the tight control from the first novel had been unleashed and the anger given full vent in this story. However, the conflicts within and between the characters, and the gradual unfolding of their pasts are enough to keep the reader’s interest to the end.

High Crimes and Misdemeanors, by Joanne Greenberg. Holt, Rinehart & Winston $9.95

This collection of short stories is vividly discriptive and fancifully creative. Their lightness and distortion of reality make interesting reading. Ms. Greenberg’s characters steal time, defy the laws of physics, and possess superhuman powers. In this book, some stories are exceptional; superficiality gives way to almost metaphysical perception. But as a collection of short stories, one feels it is more a collection of half-finished ideas.

The Dragon’s Village, by Yuan-Tsung Chen. Pantheon $10

Dr. Zhivago it is not. Ditto Gone with the Wind and, for that matter, The Good Earth. Praised by John Service and Harrison Salisbury as the first great novel of the Chinese Communist takeover in 1949, The Dragon’s Village is instead a well-meant but rather turgid account of a young woman’s frightening experiences in a time of great upheaval. She understands nothing of what is happening: the commissars and landlords are all simple stereotypes. We must wait a while to hear the authentic voice of China.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Louisiana $12.95

This novel records the adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a Falstaffian slob who is also one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. Ignatius wallows through New Orleans reminiscing about Abelard, Boethius, and Batman, while railing against Freud, academics, and Greyhound buses. Like his creator, who committed suicide in 1969, Ignatius never finds his place in the modern world. This comic novel, on the other hand, should have no trouble finding a niche in the literary world; it is a superb mock-heroic tale that is full of the exuberance—and the profound solitude—of life.

A Gentle Occupation, by Dirk Bogarde. Knopf $10.95

After a distinguished, or at least a very competent, career as an actor in the British cinema, Dirk Bogarde retired around the age of 50 to the south of France and began to write. This, his first novel, is not nearly so well crafted as his two autobiographical volumes, but it is certainly a very good start in the genre. The action unfolds in the Dutch East Indies after World War II. Into this miserable backwater comes a young British officer, who finds himself in the midst of a nationalist guerrilla war on the one hand and a nest of colonialist vipers on the other. It is potentially a good yarn, and Bogarde writes awfully clever dialogue; but in the end the story falls of its own weight. It is simply too ponderous, the characters too wooden to hold our attention.

Duncton Wood, by William Horwood. McGraw-Hill $12.95

Watership Down fans will not be daunted by the length (582 pages) of this well-written allegorical tale about moles. The moles of Duncton Wood were living in difficult times, when violence was increasing, and their religion banned by their leader, the ruthless Mandrake. The heroine is Mandrake’s daughter, Rebecca, who becomes a healer. The hero’s name is Bracken. He’s an explorer and questioner. One may have trouble initially in taking moles seriously, but the tightly woven story will soon catch and hold one’s interest. The religious theme is gradually and skillfully developed.

Myself as Witness, by James Goldman. Random House $12.95

James Goldman, author of The Lion in Winter, again turns to the period of the late 12th and 13th centuries. This time, he has written a novel. Myself as Witness shows an unconventionally good side to John, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Fans of Robin Hood will be surprised. Told as a diary of a cleric, Giraldus, the story is engrossing and readable. Highly recommended.

Plains Song, by Wright Morris. Harper & Row $9.95

Wright Morris has written some good novels set in such diverse places as Paris, Austria, California, and even the Philadelphia Main Line. But he is doubtless at his best on the Midwestern plains, the land that nurtured him during his childhood in Central City, Nebraska. In Plains Song, Morris” 20th novel, he returns again to his Nebraskan farmland, and the result is his best work since The Field of Vision (1956) and Ceremony at Lone Tree (1960). Like the latter book, Plains Song examines several generations of a single family, but emphasis here is given to the women of the Atkins clan. At the novel’s center is Cora, the long-suffering matriarch, who is Morris” most compelling character since Gordon Boyd. The author’s pristine craftsmanship evokes skillfully both the women and their land, and his preoccupation with the pursuit of the American Dream and the burden of the past resonates beautifully throughout the book. But Morris” work will no doubt remain untaught and unfashionable, though Plains Song adds measurably to his personal achievement.

POETRYFolly River, by Wendy Salinger. Dutton $7.95

This collection is the work of a gifted poet who makes landscape speak with great precision and is equally skilled in lyrics, portraits, and narratives. Salinger brings a wide yet delicate perception to each composition, an awareness of significant details that surround the subject, imparting a compassionate perspective to all her reflections. The imagery is intricate and compressed enough to require several readings. A few dramatic pieces suffer slightly from obscurity, but overall this book demonstrates poetry as it should be—emotion in relation to the discovery of a larger order.

Collected Poems, 1944—1979, by Kingsley Amis. Viking $10

Amis” collection blends a wide variety of tones and forms. Writing of love he can be flippant and ironic or tender and melancholy; war provokes outrage, and women elicit his wit and wonder. He is equally facile with the witty couplet and the philosophical observation. Thus he describes “When Party-Member Lech lifts up his knout” and can also observe that “By yielding mastery the will is freed, /For it is by surrender that we live.” He is firmly anchored in the English poetic tradition, with especial affinities for the Romantics. His gift for the wry, terse statement of satire strikes a note like Yeats or Auden. Yet Amis offers a special brand of witty, aphoristic poetry. It is graceful and complex without being obscure: “Nothing so sure and economical.”

Searching the Drowned Man, by Sydney Lea. Illinois $10 cloth, $3.95 paper

The language of these poems speaks of outdoor pursuits, especially hunting. Able to confront the worst side of things and still maintain a sanguine vision, this poet relies on close observation of nature for signs of lost people, a kind of redeemed nostalgia. Almost every poem is dedicated to someone; many are elegies. Lea’s poems show an understanding and insight which extend to many lives lived close to the ground, to those who cannot articulate their own pain.

The Hard Essential Landscape, by Van K. Brock. Florida $6.95

Toughness and elegance are the distinctive traits of this collection—the poet’s third. Confronting intimate, vivid pain, his speakers arrive at paradoxical self-knowledge that legitimizes and orders their intense emotions. In nature lyrics, Brock’s personae fuse this knowledge with wonder at the inseparable harmony and danger of landscape and its ruthlessly competing occupants. Throughout, the poet’s language and technique are a fit vehicle, incarnating simulacra of action and displaying it to best effect, never drawing attention to itself for its own sake. Independent of school and coterie, Brock is becoming known much too slowly—but thanks to The New Yorker and Southern Review, he has begun to reach the wide, literate audience his work deserves.

The Need to Hold Still, by Lisel Mueller. Louisiana $9.95 cloth, $4.95 paper

Lisel Mueller’s poems are marked by clarity and simplicity and reflect a strong feeling for narrative. This collection contains long pieces on Mary Shelley and Helen Keller as well as poems on paintings, fairy tales, and games. Her graceful economy of line is especially effective in capturing the distance between generations and the vision of childhood.

Movable Islands, by Debora Greger. Princeton $8.50 cloth, $3.95 paper

The dramatic monologues are the strongest poems in this collection; several are wonderfully exotic and memorable. Greger writes with a sure sense of power to evoke the evanescent, to suggest the missing piece in each landscape of the heart. While these poems succeed at framing questions, interior absences, movements toward definitions, one could wish for sharper focus and more resolution, for the poet’s talent in every other respect is evident.

Immigrants in Our Own Land, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Louisiana $9.95 cloth, $3.95 paper

A poet like Jimmy Santiago Baca needs not to rely on the poetic paraphernalia to be successful. He has life to draw his technique from. His poems do not have that pared-down-language quality, but are wordy in the best way because they are more than language; they speak the poet’s truth, and the truth of his people. More than anything, this book—and it is a book of poems rather than a collection of poems—is moving. One wonders how did the poet find patience to endure writing these poems, which are about much that is painful.

The Star-Apple Kingdom, by Derek Walcott. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $6.95

The Star-Apple Kingdom contains ten poems. They are all good, but “The Schooner Flight,” “The Saddhu of Couva,” “Forest of Europe” (which is dedicated to Joseph Brodsky), and the title poem, “The Star-Apple Kingdom” are the best. There is a sense of a dedication and a celebration throughout the book. The poet says: “I am satisfied/if my hand gave voice to one people’s grief.” He has achieved this. Walcott’s use of the simile gives a star-apple sparkle to his poetry. His similes are fascinating, and they startle: “She was as beautiful as a stone in the sunrise, /her voice had the gutturals of machine guns.” One aspect of this work is that the poet is consciously aware that he is writing poetry. While he handles it well, it leaves the reader unsure of his purpose.

The Movie at the End of the World, by Thomas McGrath. Swallow $5.95

These are McGrath’s collected poems. They qualify him as one of the serious, noncloistered monks of American poetry. His social conscience remains as vivid as the red flag he waved in his younger work. As though bellowing to us from the northern plains, great early poems like “A Long Way Outside Yellowstone” still echo in the new sonority of much recent work. First of all a strident witness, he has become the lyric protector of his own value system. In “The Deaths of the Poets” (1972) the last line is, “They parachute forever toward fields as white and blank as a page.” He is parachuting with the most unbending and best.

Scripts for the Pageant, by James Merrill. Atheneum $12.95

The career of James Merrill is now in full efflorescence. The man is in real danger of becoming a suburban Milton. Indeed this last volume of Merrill’s trilogy, preceded by “Book of Ephraim” in Divine Comedies and Mirabell, rather archly rings of angelic Miltonic strains. The angels, among them Akhnaton, Nefertiti, Auden, Yeats, Stevens, Lowell, Gertrude Stein, Maria Callas, and Pythagoras, sing heavenly Proustian arias enhanced by a quasiscientific coloratura effect. The book is a kind of high-brow academic, thickly bankrolled Waste Land turned Star Wars. O tempora, O poeta.

Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, by Jorie Graham. Princeton $8.75 cloth, $3.95 paper

For the reader who follows the many twists and turns of thought in these poems, the reward is a collection which offers a great deal to ponder and a vision rich in variety and complexity. Graham compresses much meaning into terse phrases as she threads perceptions together in amazing combinations. Some poems focus on minute observations, analyzing and expanding each facet; others meditate on subjects inspired by artists or philosophers, spinning off in many directions. Beneath a calm, contemplative surface, Graham uses language in a uniquely challenging way, often abstract and elusive. Each poem is an elegantly intellectual conjunction of image, idea, and emotion, skillfully interwoven.

Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, by Galway Kinnell. Houghton Mifflin $8.95 cloth, $4.95 paper

Nearly a decade has passed since Galway Kinnell’s last book of new poems, and the nightmare vision that gave his early work its hauntingly defiant vigor, here gives way to a settled sense of the joy of reawakening. Freshly affirming the beauty of the here and now, Kinnell does not relinquish his terror of the inevitable barrenness and loneliness, but now finds solace, “saying there is time, still time,/ for those who can groan/ to sing,/ for those who can sing to heal themselves.” This poet’s groans are songs of triumph over the fears of death and loss, and he bravely meets these fears as they every day show themselves: on a fishing trip with his son, at his dying mother’s bedside, on a plane flying home, and most importantly in the memory of the “music of looms weaving all our loves again.” His search for a world of perpetual renewal now and then falters; but, at his best, Kinnell reminds us of the pleasure and danger of being merely mortal.

Heat Death, by Stephen Dobyns. Atheneum $10.00 cloth, $5.95 paper

Dobyns” third collection continues to combine moods of stark desolation offset by a crisply controlled voice. The subjects are dreams, loss, cruelty, death—”the deserted beaches of the heart.” With simple, sharp strokes and a flow of grotesque images, Dobyns shapes definitive moments or states of mind into parables that seem already familiar. All but a few of these poems are forceful, dramatic, and convincing.

String, by Dennis Schmitz. Ecco $9

Schmitz is the kind of poet whose work is unknown to the general public but eagerly read by other writers in top literary magazines like Field or Antaeus. In this volume, he continues the exciting work he has already done with dramatic monologues and religious meditations set on California farms or in the construction sites, flophouses, and movie palaces of Chicago. Once again he shows us an unerring command of metaphor: “the eye, even when released/ into sleep, is just a fish the steady/ river forms.” A book that gives a pride to publishing.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSInside the Soviet Empire: The Myth and the Reality, by Nora Beloff. Times Books $9.95

This splendid little memoir of an automobile journey through the Ukraine and Transcaucasia tells as much about the real condition of the Soviet Union as any number of learned tomes from the Kremlinologists. Nora Beloff and her companion, a young Polish-British woman with a command of Russian, traveled from Chop to Kiev to Tbilisi and back, and everywhere they went the Committee of State Security (KGB) was sure to go. The difference was, the two women got there first, and they saw life as it is. Far from the beaten path of tourism, Miss Beloff and her companion saw and experienced life in Russia in the raw, and we can be grateful for this account.

Annals of an Abiding Liberal, by John Kenneth Galbraith. Houghton Mifflin $12.95

Galbraith challenges America’s complacency from the left as Buckley and Will attack liberalism’s failings from the right. Those who value freedom must be grateful that both viewpoints continue to be heard. Annals collects some of Galbraith’s most pointed essays from the 1970’s: his Presidential address to the American Economic Association (“the most damaging feature of neo-classical and neo-Keynesian economics [is that] power—the ability of persons or institutions to bend others to their purposes—is removed from the subject”), his FBI file, “Who was Thorstein Veblen?” and some engaging travel essays. On President Nixon’s downfall, Galbraith argues Nixon believed “that if he could persuade himself that something was virtuous or legitimate, he could persuade almost everybody else.” He jousts with powerful corporations and bankers, ridicules William Simon and “Defenders of the Faith,” and polemicizes against the “Global Strategic Mind.” All pervasive is his deep concern for the poor and the less privileged and a safer world order. His essay on “Writing and Typing” offers playful good counsel to aspiring writers. His authority, brevity, and wit commend him even to his foes.

The Role of Medicine: Dream, Mirage or Nemesis? by Thomas McKeown. Princeton $16

It is hardly news that the role of medicine is to heal the sick. But who shall define “heal” and “sick”? Professor McKeown, who taught Social Medicine at the University of Birmingham (England) until his recent retirement, suggests that societies spend far too much time and effort on internal intervention, too little on basic research. This is not a new argument, but it is an increasingly persuasive one, and McKeown makes some telling points. He also argues for better care for those beyond the reach of conventional medicine (the physically-well aged, the mentally ill), and he urges a redefinition of the role of the physician.

Germany and the United States: “A Special Relationship?” by Hans W. Gatzke. Harvard $17.50

The puzzle that is Germany is sometimes summed up in the image of the SS executioner listening to Beethoven: in Germany the poles sometimes meet. Professor Gatzke eschews simplistic formulae along these lines in this stimulating discussion of America’s changing • relationships with the country that has been, since Bismarck, the key to the Continent. One low point was reached in 1918 and another in 1941—45. Since the last war, the German image in Washington has been overwhelmingly favorable; after all, Germany stands as a bulwark against Russia, and German capitalism has been an enormous success.

How to Win Votes: The Politics of 1980, by Edward N. Costikyan. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $12.95

In Behind Closed Doors, published in 1966, Edward Costikyan proved that he knew a great deal about big city party politics and especially about how New York’s Democratic organization handled nominations and elections. Now Costikyan proves that he also understands the “new politics” replacing the local political party. This new politics involves media campaigns, polling, primaries, and personal rather than party organizations. It also involves, and this is crucial to Costikyan’s analysis, large numbers of citizens who do not regularly vote. Costikyan explains the volatility of recent elections—the McCarthy primary triumphs, the large Wallace votes, and the success of unknown candidates like Jimmy Carter—as a function of the ability of certain issues and personalities to attract significant numbers of nonvoters and thereby upset the remnants of the traditional parties. He urges candidates in 1980 to follow this trend by finding and cultivating the frustrated nonvoter. Costikyan has written what may well turn out to be an election manual for John Anderson.

The Master Thinkers: The Manifesto of the “New Philosophy” from France, by André Glucksmann. Translated by Brian Pearce. Harper & Row $16.95

This is a shocking book, enunciated in almost barbarous tones, like Jean Genêt and Jacques Chirac in chorus. But the political insights which sustain the so-called Manifesto are surprisingly shrewd and very bothersome indeed to a foreign policy in the West that equivocates about the moral rot of Communism, But Alexander Solzhenitsyn taught the pugnacious Glucksmann everything he knows. Very French, but not so “new.”

The Search for Solutions, by Horace Freeland Judson. Holt, Rinehart & Winston $16.95

On a recent trip to France, Pope John Paul II challenged the world’s scientists to accept the awesome moral responsibility that is theirs for the work they do. Mr. Judson wrote his book before that visit, but in a way he issued the same kind of challenge in the very act of exalting science. Mr. Judson shows us how science happens and who the people are who make it happen. Some of his juxtapositions are a bit stretched and not everyone will accept his conclusions, but this book remains a model of the criticism of modern science.

The Mortal Danger: How Misconceptions About Russia Imperil America, by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. Harper & Row $8.95

Had almost anyone else written this book, the editors who received the manuscript would have dismissed it as the work of a crackpot. It is impossible, however, to ignore the work of a man who has created, in his massive work on the Gulag, a monument that will surely outlast the pyramids, and moreover a monument not to kings but to millions of innocent victims of communism. Solzhenitsyn rightly demands that we speak of the Soviet Union and not Russia; in no sense are “the Russians” or “Russia” responsible for communism. He attacks American scholarship on Russia, subjecting eminent professors to criticism they will find difficult to refute. He nails some of our politicians to the wall for their stupidity in believing that Communist governments are just like any others and merely speak with a different jargon. But Solzhenitsyn denies that he favors censorship, then says “someone” ought to prohibit “gossip, vain talk,” and so forth. He denies that he favors a theocratic form of government for Russia, but he makes it clear that without a major role for the Orthodox Church, Russia has—in his view—a very bleak future. All this is vexing, but it cannot be ignored.

Unsettling Europe, by Jane Kramer. Random House $9.95

Readers of The New Yorker will have encountered these stories before, but they make even better reading the second time around. Jane Kramer looks at four prototypes of the outcast in Europe: some Italian Communists; a Yugoslav family which works in Sweden; the Uganda Asians who came to Britian after Idi Amin kicked them out; and the Pieds Noirs, the French settlers forced to leave Algeria in the early 1960’s. With her usual incredible ear for the good story, her unerring seizing of just the right imagery, Jane Kramer brings these people into our living rooms. This book is as exciting as any novel of the past couple of years.

Without Fear or Favor: An Uncompromising Look at The New York Times, by Harrison E. Salisbury. Times Books $17.50

This hefty volume by a veteran New York Times correspondent traces in episodic fashion the evolution of America’s most influential newspaper from its days as the “good, gray Times” to its present position as, the author argues, a virtual fourth branch of government. The principal example of this transformation, the backdrop for the display of Salisbury’s thesis, is the Pentagon Papers case. Salisbury’s detailed treatment of the Times” agonizing decision to publish the “Vietnam Archive,” and of the Nixon administration’s clumsy efforts to prevent publication, would have made a marvelous book by itself. Although there is much else of interest in Without Fear or Favor, particularly on the relationship between the Times and the government in foreign intelligence activities, Salisbury fails to weave the disparate threads of his story into a cohesive narrative. Taken separately, his various episodes are informative, revealing, and entertaining, but lumped together they form a book far inferior to the sum of its parts.

GENERALMoving Up In Style, by Steven W. Naifeh and Gregory W. Smith. St. Martin’s $10.95

How is a young man to get ahead today? This book on manners, mores, and style seems to indicate that it may no longer be possible to ignore the old external observances: it counsels reasonable clothes and hair, good manners, and more than lip service to courtesy. It is, in other words, a 50’s handbook, and that much-maligned Eisenhower decade seems to be coming back into fashion with a vengeance. The recommended cars, stereo equipment, and threads are all updated, of course; but this is all in a clear restatement of Mr. Speaker Rayburn’s advice: to get along, go along.

Hollywood: The Pioneers, by Kevin Brownlow. Knopf $20

The era of the silent film saw many of the most significant achievements in the history of the medium. Directors, cameramen, and actors worked for an economy of gesture and for a visual richness of texture, which was getting better every year right up to the end (1927) and, some would argue, has never been surpassed or equaled since. The silent era is Brownlow’s obsession, and he writes about it with a passion and enthusiasm (and with a fine scholarship) that are unmatched, Combining a profusion of remarkable illustrations (selected by John Kobal) with a comprehensive, readable, and informative text puts this latest work in the same class as his two earlier books and makes it the finest introduction to and history of what he would call the Golden Age of the cinema.

Wealth Addition, by Philip Slater. Du


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