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Ten Modern Novels

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

The Road of the Gods. By Isabel Paterson. New York: Horace Livcright. $2.50. The Woman of Andros. By Thornton Wilder. New York: A. and C. Boni. $2.50. The Great Meadmv. By Elizabeth Madox Roberts. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50. Long Hunt. By James Boyd. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50, Hudson River Bracketed. By Edith Wharton. New York: D. Appleton and Company. $2.50. All Our Yesterdays. By H. M. Toinlinson. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50. Doxvn in the Valley. By H. W. Freeman. New York: Henry Holt and Company, $2.50. Severn Woods. By Edith Rickert. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. Huntsman in the Sky. By Granville Toogood. New York: Brewer and Warren, $2.50. Vile Bodies. By Evelyn Waugh. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $2.50.

Anyone who doubts a “romantic revival” in the modern novel can do no better than to read a chance dozen new books. They will show him a variety of material, a feeling about for new topics and ideas, a change of style and treatment of old themes that are heartening. “New” topics are nothing to grow enthusiastic about if they are regarded as “timely” . . . the old themes of fiction will do very well. But if, by “new,” one means a steady freeing of the novel from the limitations of the arid realistic tradition, with its barren plotting, its monotonous characterization of frustrated lives, and its emphasis upon sordid and physically nauseating catalogued details, then this new freedom has its heartening aspects.

One road of liberation lies, as always, in the historical romance, which is the easiest and, at the same time, the most colorful escape from contemporary life. Whether one documents the past (as Naomi Mitchison and Gertrude Ather-ton and Llergesheimer do, at times), or whether one manufactures his own history (as Cabell does in the Dom Manuel tales), does not affect the potency of the escape. Isabel Paterson, in “The Road of the Gods,” escapes the drabness of 1930 by a return to Germania of the years just before the birth of Christ, when the conflict between advancing Rome and pagan Germanic tribes (in this case, it would seem Druidic) made life exciting in those primitive childhood days of Europe. This story of the priest and his wife and son, and of the scarlet woman he takes as his mistress to the doom of his whole people, and of the granddaughter of the mysterious siren, and of her love affair with the priest’s son, depends for its effect upon its stirring action and its Gothic mood of shadowy forests and brutal, gloomy fighting. The characters, particularly those of the extravagantly splendid young lovers, have no great vitality, nor do I guess that the author intended her book to interest a reader by its depth of characterization. It is, at any rate, hard to believe in the reality of the individual men and women, to get emotionally stirred over the problem of Greda’s affairs of the heart. (One knows always that, following its romantic pattern, the book will end with a gratifying escape of the young lovers.) And, reflecting on the priest’s fatal infatuation, one is stirred to no sober unhappiness over the mischances of passion in the depths of Thuringian woods. There are moments of descriptive power and of ominous savagery that stir the mind to a quickened image of what a bloody romance tribal warfare of the past must have been, but there is not much depth of feeling, no substantial setting of the story within the bounds of historical daylight, and no new realization of the enduring problems of man’s life as it is always lived. “The Road of the Gods” is a vivid adventure story with an historical setting. It shows a fine ability to advance an adventure plot, and it catches, in good English prose, the Gothic romance of its material, so that the reader believes in the action of the story while it skillfully unfolds.

“The Woman of Andros” is another variation of the historical novel, this time a story designed to interest the reader by its pseudo-classical calm and its philosophical reflectiveness rather than by its stirring plot. This story of a hetaira, and of the tragic schooling of a young Greek sophisticate in the sorrows of a beloved woman’s death, offers no exciting plot action and depends for its effect upon its poetic, essaylike observations upon the conduct of one’s life. It offers a tolerant epigrammatic wisdom, elegantly encased in chiselled phrases uttered by the beautiful woman of Andros and by the typically sage Greek fathers who watch their children grow in understanding.

No one can deny the poetry of Wilder’s style, his vivid scenes, the almost perfect communication of sense images: the purple-blue of sky and water, the smell of flowers, the color of a woman’s skin, the wave of a man’s hair . . . such things are swiftly and beautifully done. And the novel has form—each new scene has its place, its carefully shaped beginning, middle, and end; each remark is fitted swiftly into the texture of the narrative, and the compactness of the whole results in a story that conveys the impression of classic simplicity, of technical finish, of adequate handling.

My dislike of such a method is perhaps instinctive. I feel that Mr. Wilder knows more about phrases than he does about life; that he has more facility, than experience; and that he can talk about life’s tragedy more easily than he can convince us that he has felt it deeply. His philosophical reflection has won him an audience which has looked in vain for such comment in the dry-as-dust realists, and he has deserved his applause. But his danger is preciosity, that blight which reduces vividness to prettiness and decoration. We can ask for a wiser Thornton Wilder, one who bathes less in the reflected lucidity of Greece and who adds to himself the courage to interpret life with more directness if even with more confusion.

In this way, “The Great Meadow,” Elizabeth Roberts’ new stoiy of the settling of Kentucky, deserves more credit, not only for what was attempted but also for what has been accomplished. The adventure story in “The Great Meadow” is not thrilling and is certainly not the center of the author’s or of the reader’s interest. (The Indian fighting and the conquest are important only as they affect the lives of the substantial characters whom the reader follows.) But all these characters, even the faintly shadowed ones like the heroic mother-in-law who dies in the cabin, have an every day, complexity that compels belief in them as real people, whereas the Greeks in “The Woman of Andros” are all simplified to a trait of two or to a single emotion. “The Great Meadow” is that richer variety of historical fiction (like Naomi Mitchison’s “Cloud Cuckoo Land”) which connotes a background and a philosophy by a few well used details, but then goes on to that more important function of a novel, the communication of the emotion of character, character at any time, at any age, not dependent for its conviction upon a set arrangement of historical details. So I feel about Diony, that she is a woman who can be understood as a woman and as a complex creature, regardless of her time. Understanding that, my sympathy gets to work and makes Diony and her father and her husband take on a life that is vital and quick with the same impulses of life today. That being done, “The Great Meadow” becomes a true historical romance and a novel at the same time, for the period comes to life after the people do, and the romance of Kentucky pioneer days pervades the book.

“Long Hunt” moves more swiftly than “The Great Meadow.” It has, too, more concentrated study of character upon one man who is a special and rare type. Diony, exists more commonly than does the rebellious hunter and Tennessee guide, Murfree. Murfree is perhaps typical of the roving, town-hating adventurer of his time, and, perhaps, of the domestic rebel of our own, who sacrifices faithful love because it binds him and costs too much. But Diony is more like the domestic man or woman of any age, who exists, in any age, in greater numbers than do the Don Juan or Shelley rebels. Consequently, her story makes pioneer life seem more of a reality because she explains life, at any time, more easily to most of us. But “Long Hunt,” because of this arrogant hero and because of its swiftly moving tale of the stir of conquest, is a more interesting story; it seems less impeded by words (because there is more action per word) and it drives home swiftly, the realization of the heroics of frontier life. There is a fine directness about the novel that is the result of an able author. Mr. Boyd’s method, despite the publisher’s remarks, is not new, but it is effective, to convey the thinking of the character in the words of the time. Boyd as a fiction historian drops out of the reader’s sight—as he ought—while, sometimes, in “The Great Meadow” the author hangs too lovingly over her Diony, explaining, analyzing, sympathizing. But one will go far to find two books so fresh and stirring.

To move from America of the past to America of the present day New York sophisticates is to feel one’s self degenerating, if he identifies himself, as an American, with the changing fortunes of the land. “Hudson River Bracketed” carries on Mrs. Wharton’s satiric exposition of the life of the (to her) important New York world of high society. It is surprising to find in this novel less of that excessive burlesque of which “The Children” and “Twilight Sleep” were full. Vance, the romantic genius, caught up by rich dabblers in literature into a snarl of assorted difficulties, seems to have caught Mrs. Wharton’s fancy, which is steadily growing more sentimental as she herself grows more critical of modern life. Certainly, Mrs. Wharton pities her hero more than the reader does, although one never loses sympathy with him, even in those stupid moments when his spiritual agonies seem based on nothing more serious than a Wharton-like admiration of the wonders of grace and beauty which a rich young girl can fall heir to because of cash alone. Laura Lou is a pathetic if not magnetic beauty; throughout the book she is the Griselda-like wife, at the expense of much suffering to herself and to her poet husband who can do little to help her but to suffer with her spiritually, and leave her alone while he calls on his more artistic and sensitive friends. We are asked to pity Vance more often than he deserves, and this is an artistic defect, for it shows how specious the main tragedy of the book becomes if we do not pity—as the author does—Halo (what a name for a heroine!), who suffers because she chose to marry money, and Vance, who chose to marry beauty without brains. Everyone in the story lacks intelligence, and much of the sentimental teariness is produced by this emotionality which the author seems to enjoy. (How far she has departed from the austerity of “Ethan Frome”!) Most amusing of all the characters in the book are the so-called literary, people who edited the spindly review of arts and letters, and Mrs. Wharton’s ability at satire is not wasted on these dabblers and poseurs. The opening satire on the growth of middle western real estate paradises is one of the sparkling sections of the novel, and the most moving part is the end where Laura Lou’s husband and cheated lover are seen in helpless grief trying to reconcile themselves to the fact that she is dead.

I am not the least enthusiastic of Tomlinson’s many admirers. His fine narrative power of “Tide Marks” and of “The Sea and the Jungle” and his smooth essay-like reflectiveness in “London River” cannot be equalled, to my mind, in modern English writing. He is one of our great writers of the sea, and his mind is broad and kindly, his feelings deep and sure, his ideas just, humane, and civilized. When he talks of war, he knows whereof he speaks, and he speaks with a spiritual exaltation born of seeing how nobly man bears the patriotic curse of war. (Tomlinson does not forget, ever, the stupidity in man which makes him keep on sheepishly bearing the useless burden.)

But when Tomlinson writes what he calls a novel, it is time to admire his narrative skill, and his philosophy of war, and his humanity, and urge him to go back to the writing of narrative essays like “The Sea and the Jungle.” For he is not a novelist; he has none of the instincts of the born novelist, and he clutters up what ought to be the communication of the experience of men and women by the communication of his own valuable, but nevertheless discursive, opinions as an essayist. “All Our Yesterdays” is not a novel—it lacks plot, rounded character conception, unity, of effect, motivation of characters with feelings and interests of their own. Tomlinson’s occasional glimpses of soldiers are excellent; so, too, are his chance pictures of ordinary mothers and fathers and sisters who bear war dumbly, but they are always forgotten in the novelist’s—or essayist’s—’interest in his own arguments about war, arguments involuted and convoluted, that weigh down the story elements, and draw the reader’s mind from the characters to the intruding author. “Gal-lions Reach” started out well enough—better than this new book—but it, too, went to pieces on the shoals of Tomlinson’s prolix and sometimes obscure sentences. “All Our Yesterdays” is not a novel; it belongs to that great literature designed to fight war. It is argument, debate, polemic, but it is not fiction. Among books that are propaganda against war, Tomlinson’s “All Our Yesterdays” will, no doubt, occupy a high place for a long time to come, but as fiction it is inevitably doomed to be forgotten. “Gallions Reach” is already a “last year’s novel,” and it is not to be expected that interest in it will persist as interest in Conrad’s books endures, or even in Francis Brett Young’s. “All Our Yesterdays” deserves fame for its ideals and its humane hatred of warfare, and its style as prose argument is surely effective. It is unfortunate that ill-advised superlatives must take the edge off the excellence of Tomlinson’s earlier and more effective prose.

“Down in the Valley” belongs in the class of stories of English farm life to which “Joanna Godden” and “The Windlestraw” belong. The tradition is plainly Hardy’s, and the production has somehow been excellent. The English novelist feels peculiarly at home with his stories of people digging in English fields and tending English cattle, and it is to be regretted that so much effort is wasted upon recording English fashions in manners when the results in the peasant tradition are so gratifying. “Down in the Valley” tells a simple story of the satisfaction of a tired young business man in escaping business cares, engaging in village and farm life, and marrying a beauty of the country-side. The story takes breadth from the incidental pictures of villagers and village inns and gardens. H. W. Freeman is one of the few men who can take peasant humor and use it for a humorous purpose in a story. Usually, such village comedy is tame reading; Freeman keeps its true fun.

I found in “Down in the Valley” a surprising freshness and effortless narrative of simple life in scenes that made me “live with” the young man and his village friends, so that I forgot my own identity, as a critical reader and enjoyed the experience as something I could myself live through, scene by scene and year by year. That reality has been lately a rare experience as one has read the ordinary stock tales that have all been built to the Bennett formula. Bennett gives this conviction, but his followers seldom succeed.

Edith Rickert’s “Severn Woods,” the story of the emancipation of a timid young English girl from the weak comforts of her father’s protecting garden, is the second of these books of English life to catch the romance of ordinary experience as well as its realistic cruelty and meanness. “Down in the Valley” supports its details by an idealistic attitude plainly the author’s. “Severn Woods” has the same idealism. The range of “Severn Woods” is narrow; the plot centers upon one passionate love affair between the girl and the rebellious and moody hero, who marries her in desperation (because he feels her helplessness and uneasiness) and who, after marriage, forces her to build up a protecting philosophy (“growing . . . growing”) against his temperamental neglect. The scenes of the book are lovely in their descriptive detail; some of the minor characters have a fine individuality (the doctor and the cheerful young mother so full of shrewd advice); and there is about the whole book a fine flavour of small town affairs and gossip.

“Huntsman in the Sky” traces the not-too-convincing progress of a musician who returns home to Philadelphia in order to find inspiration he could not get abroad. This is local color fiction, with great slabs of suburban description building up moody pictures of Philadelphian high society. There is the traditional girl of his class who loves the genius but in vain, the traditional old aristocrat who loves his house and his home and endures sorrow like a gentleman, and there is a slight excursion, without much point, into Philadelphian slums; and a new rich siren almost catches the hero’s passion, if not his heart. Some of the characterization is good, despite its typicality—the old aristocrat lives a life of some reality as one reads, and the emotion of home coming with which the book opens is very fine. The ideals of the story are notable, too, for they, show a love of beauty, a desire to handle deep emotions and valuable ones—like the emotions stirred by one’s love of family and home and by one’s love of doing something artistically beautiful. There is about the romantically unhappy ending the tone of a youthful “renunciation” which the reader regrets, not because of the unhappy conclusion but because of the author’s sentimental enjoyment of it. Many, many less pages would have made of this substantial novel a vivid, effective characterization.

“Vile Bodies,” the most recent addition to the Huxley school of cynical burlesques, is not the least important of this list. It is great fun, even though it never goes so deep, intellectually, as “Those Barren Leaves.” Yet it is never merely senseless in its burlesque infidelities and never dully obscene. The hilarious antics of Mrs. Ape, the revivalist; the filming of the motion picture; the monologue of the ex-king, who laments his many bombings; and the crazy motor race at the end are bitter as well as funny, although their relationship to each other as parts of one novel is very thin, and sometimes the sport is school yard wit. But “Vile Bodies” is useful, and often powerful, social propaganda.


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