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Stories of Storm and Stress

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

Storm. By George R. Stewart. Random House. $2.50. Windswept. By Mary Ellen Chase. The Macmillan Company. $2.75. A Leaf in the Storm. By lin Yutang. The John Day Company. $3.00. Dragon’s Teeth. By Upton Sinclair. The Viking Press. $3.00. Frenchman’s Creek. By Daphne du Maurier. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. Saratoga Trunk. By Edna Ferber. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.

A meteorological disturbance started off the

coast of Asia, moved westward, and in its twelve-

day course brought relief, discomfort, and destruction to various parts of the United States. That, in a sentence, is the theme of George Stewart’s “Storm,” in which man and his works become the playthings of a force, at once beneficent and maleficent, which is the hero of this unusual story. The rise, progress, and subsidence of a planetary tempest recorded by the weather bureau may not be uncommon, but a succession of elemental adventures chronicled by the novelist in collaboration with the scientist is certainly so. Based on painstaking scientific investigation, Mr. Stewart’s narrative is notable for originality of conception and vividness of execution. Judged by traditional standards, it might well be doubted whether a series of meteorological episodes, loosely unified by reports to the San Francisco weather station, should be called a novel. But modern freedom of technique in that old literary type outmodes conventional definitions.

On one of the storm-lashed headlands of the Maine coast stood Windswept, home of the Marston family, former New Yorkers who fled from urban tumult to this remote and romantic spot with its vast stretches of land and sea. Here lived, loved, and suffered a generation or so of Marstons and their two faithful Bohemian immigrants, breaking the monotony of their isolated life by winter visits to cities and an occasional excursion to Europe. Touched by tragedy in the first World War, the surviving Marstons, as the story ends, face the imminent storm of a second war. This latest novel by Miss Chase is written with the same precision and beauty of speech that mark her previous books. Her love for her native state of Maine and her intimate familiarity with great literature are constantly reflected in the pages of “Windswept,” where meditation and memory lend an indefinable charm to her interpretation of nature and human life. The one unforgettable thing, indeed, about this and her other stories is the mellow enchantment of her prose. This is literature touched with the Wordsworthian quality of emotion recollected in tranquillity. When it comes to plot, however, Miss Chase is not so happy. In the second half of “Windswept” there is a waning of power, a weakening of grasp, caused, one feels, by the introduction of new characters who do not naturally fuse with the main group. Moreover, untimely births and deaths give the narrative a melodramatic coloring at variance with the simple, almost idyllic, tone of the earlier part, in which character, landscape, and seascape harmoniously blend.

A Chinese dancing girl is the central figure in Lin Yu-tang’s “A Leaf in the Storm.” She is the leaf, this fascinating young woman in the storm of war, who despite her occasional indiscretions is somehow good. And she, with her young, handsome, and wealthy admirer Poya and his middle-aged, saintly friend Peng, the Buddhist ascetic, form the romantic triangle. Between this incarnation of profane love and this embodiment of a more spiritual affection the beautiful Malin (later, Tanni), is tossed about in the tempests that have long unsettled her traditionally peace-loving people. That she yields to the first love only to outgrow it for the second is an evidence of her development through human service and suffering. And besides, “war does strange things to people,” as the novelist several times remarks. War often turns the eyes inward and the changes it brings are in the heart. So it was with the once gay Malin. But Lin Yu-tang’s novel is far more than a love story; it is, above all, the vital, throbbing experience of an ancient people tragically torn by barbaric invasion. The book is in a sense a pageantry of Lin Yutang’s war-devastated land wrought into an impressive tapestry. Through it he has woven a shining thread of sentiment which, by its beauty and pathos, signalizes those human values that the horrors of war are apt to make us forget. The sickening atrocities of the Japanese army in China—the rape of women, the killing of babies for sport, the shooting of prisoners in target practice—he does not dwell on, but the mere mention of the worst of them makes more striking by contrast the large and generous humanity of Peng and Tanni, who seek to save life not to destroy it. Always in the background of this great picture of love and sacrifice, of confusion and inner serenity, lurk the grim shadows of those four deadly horsemen who, for more than a quadrennium, have trampled in the dust the decencies and wrecked the amenities of Chinese living. “Every leaf in the storm,” says the author, “is an individual with a heart and feelings and aspirations and longings, and each is as important as the others. Our task here is to trace what the war did to one woman, one leaf among the millions.” This task Dr. Lin has accomplished with wisdom and distinction.

A rich and restless American family, their kin and friends, including several Jewish in-laws, flit about in France and Germany, seeking diversion in music, art, and high society. Led by a dilettante pink socialist, Lanny Budd, and his socially ambitious wife, they meet all the celebrities. In spite of a faint shadow of foreboding, all goes well for a time: then Goering, whom Lanny had sought to appease, suddenly arrested two Jewish members of the group. How Lanny himself was later imprisoned in his effort to free his Jewish brother-in-law, and how both were finally released, are told in Upton Sinclair’s “Dragon’s Teeth” with dramatic vividness. The scenes in which the Nazi leaders appear are particularly effective. During an earlier interview with Goering in an effort to save an old Jewish friend, Lanny glanced from time to time at the great man’s pet animal stretched on the floor, a sight not without symbolic significance to the reader: “On the rug in front of his chair lay a half-grown lion-cub, which yawned and then licked his chops as he watched his master preparing for a kill. Lanny thought: ‘I am back among the Assyrians.’ ” The meeting with Hitler, beginning quietly enough with a talk on art between an ex-painter and a young virtuoso, ended in a violent tirade of half an hour on “Jewish swine.” “His sentences stumbled over one another; he forgot to finish them, he forgot his grammar, he forgot common decency and used the words of the gutters of Vienna, where he had picked up his ideas.” These varied experiences with the political elite of Nazidom transformed this scion of American industry from a light-hearted playboy, on aesthetic pleasure bent, to a very serious young man, touched to tears at the coming catastrophe of Europe. “He had traveled here and there over its surface, and everywhere he had seen men diligently plowing the soil and sowing dragon’s teeth—from which, as in the old legend, armed men would some day spring.” “Dragon’s Teeth”, the third volume in the author’s prose epic on recent world history, covers the years from the great depression of 1929 to Hitler’s Blood Purge of 1934. “Indignation makes my verses,” said Juvenal in his caustic satire on Roman life of his time, and one feels in reading this epic novel that indignation at totalitarian viciousness went deeply into the making of it. Mr. Sinclair, veteran of many books and many campaigns, is still going strong, and there are intimations of more stories. His ambition, he tells us in a recent article, is for big game. He hopes to outlive Hitler and Mussolini and celebrate their demise: “These two foxes are my quarry, and I hope to hang their brushes over my mantel.” This projected literary post-mortem will doubtless be a colorful malediction.

Daphne du Maurier’s story, “Frenchman’s Creek,” is the tale of a London lady who fled from the boredom of an inane society and a dull husband to her manor on the wild Cornish coast. Soon rumors of dreadful marauders excited her interest. Vaguely anticipating adventure, Lady Dona one day strolled to a near-by inlet, came face to face with a notorious French pirate, was taken aboard his ship, registered, and released. He was a perfect gentleman. Invited to have late supper with her that evening, the handsome sea-devil accepted. While returning his visit shortly thereafter, the highborn lady dressed as a cabin-boy, went raiding with the pirates one stormy night, and by her daring won her laurels and a lover. Meanwhile, in faraway London, the noble baronet, informed of the freebooter’s depredations near his Cornish estate, decided to visit his lady. But the book itself must be read for the outcome. All this, be it remembered, was in the far-off days of Charles the Merry Monarch, who would hardly have frowned on such irregular afaires du coeur. Pure romance of the good old heart-stirring kind is this story of a wife who ran away with a pirate; rather fantastic, to be sure, in these days of stark realism, but so deftly done that the highly improbable becomes plausible and very readable.

Being a playwright as well as a novelist, Edna Ferber naturally writes dramatic stories. One may suppose that she thinks of her novel characters as participants in a social comedy thrown into narrative form. At least that is the impression one gets in reading “Saratoga Trunk,” her latest novel. Here surely is abundant material for drama: the daughter of a New Orleans aristocrat and his French mistress, who grew up in Paris, returns to her native American city, meets a picturesque Texas gambler there, and passes on with him to Saratoga, where their romance flowers. She would revenge herself on her mother’s detractors, he on the rich railroad-builders who destroyed his father. The part of the story which takes place in the old Southern city of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties has atmospheric charm and variety. Miss Ferber knows well the lure of the Vieux Carre, the French market, the old cathedral, and the rest. The Creole-American talk and movement—Clio and her two imported minions, Kaka and Cupide, the tall Texan and his vernacular—all this, is good dramatic stuff, the unstrained quality of la comedie humaine. But the tone inevitably changes for the worse, artistically speaking, when the New Orleans adventurers are transferred to Saratoga, that salubrious rendezvous of gossipy matrons, flashy sports, and valetudinarian elders. Here the Southern visitors seem like mock-epic figures in the great serio-comic game of high society and big business. In the fierce and prolonged scramble for wealth and power begun there, the Creole beauty and her breezy Texan finally triumph, as all such clever American gamesters should. But that is really the epilogue to the play, for the drama itself ended when the Texan, who knew he was “going to be hog rich,” won by an exciting railroad race the little Saratoga trunk-line.


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