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Wizardry and Dadaism

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

Oliver Wiswell. By Kenneth Roberts. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $3.00. The Voyage, By Charles Morgan. New York: The Mac-millan Company. $2.50. Owen Glendower. By John Cowper Powys. Two volumes. New York: Simon and Schuster. $5.00. Sapphira and the Slave Girl, By Willa Cather. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. In the Money. By William Carlos Williams. Norfolk: New Directions. $2.50. Aftermath. By Jules Romains. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.75.

Now that literary interest in social injustice has begun to slacken, several other topics which lend themselves to fiction have appeared. Unfortunately,most of them take us away from the contemporary scene, at a time when the contemporary scene is of the most absorbing interest. The dreams and preferences of authors have inspired a man-sized story of the American Revolution from the Tory point of view; a novel of France after the Second Empire; a two-volume tale that brings mediaeval Wales to life; an interlude in nineteenth century Virginia; and an acid etching of an American family in the days of Theodore Roosevelt. However, by far the livest of this lot (though not the liveliest) is Jules Romains’s exploration of the moral morass that was France after 1918. At least his is the work of a man trying to solve the sorrowful mysteries of his own time. “Aftermath,” the ninth volume in his “Men of Good Will” series, contains two books: “Vorge Against Quinette” and “The Sweets of Life.” In the first, Romains brings back his old master murderer, Quinette. Quinette is a crazed and vicious criminal, but beside him the Dadaist poet Vorge is singularly revolting. Vorge is a new character, the peculiar genius of the early ‘twenties. Vorge discovers Quinette in police reports to which he has access through a friend. By a perverted insight he perceives what his saner friend does not, that Quinette is guilty in the disappearance of a certain woman. He goes to Quinette’s bookshop, fawns on him, and begs him to reveal to an admirer the details of his crime. But Quinette is frightened and admits nothing. In Vorge’s subsequent belief that in Quinette he had found his “master,” and in his mysterious references to this when talking of a world that is to be bathed in blood, there is the germ of explanation for the senseless brutality which has swept parts of the world. But Vorge’s posing ends in the nauseating comedy of his attempt to strangle a woman so that he may violate her dead body, and his story is mercifully closed except for an accidental reference made in the second book by the journalist Jallez—who remarks that if Vorge were plunged in acid and scrubbed clean there is no guarantee that underneath one would find anything but a spoiled “mother’s darling.” Even if this is not intended as a critique of the ‘twenties, that is what it succeeds in being.

The second book of “Aftermath” concerns itself with the doubts of Jerphanion and Jallez, their misgivings about the new peace, their hopes for their individual lives. Jallez’s interlude with the little unspoiled “daughter of the people” in Nice seems only a pathetic grasping at normality, and in the very title, “The Sweets of Life,” there is an implication of the shortness of the time. M. Romains is catching up with history, and his next volume, if it is written with the urgency of the sad dissolution it will have to relate, may be his best.

Another new novel has a certain applicability to our times, In writing “Oliver Wiswell,” Kenneth Roberts undoubtedly kept his eye on the parallels. The similarity of mobs is intrinsic, and in the mobs who burned and tarred and feathered north of Boston in the name of American independence there is a horrible reminder that the mob spirit is abroad today, One does not have to regret our freedom to share Oliver’s shock at the discovery that the movement he observed academically at New Haven has gained the motion of a vortex into which his boyhood friends are drawn. To Oliver and his father, who were Americans first but believed in settling differences peaceably with England, the accusation that “you are either with us or against us” must have been just as maddening as it was to those Americans who were being told in Washington a couple of years ago that one must be either a Communist or a Fascist. The one blessing of these strenuous times is that our intellects have been saved at least temporarily from the mischief-makers.

It is a strange phenomenon, the public acceptance of Mr. Roberts’s novel without indignation. It is unthinkable that there should be any objection, but why is that so? Even though it is the work of one of us, this unfavorable picture of the American Revolution logically should irritate us. Is it that America itself, in its maturity, has become the conservative sort of society which the Wiswells represented? Undoubtedly there was more thick-headedness on the side of the loyalists and more nobility on the side of the Revolution than Oliver saw, but since we accept him for what he is we easily forgive him this. And there is something very apt about the way the book disposes of the aristocratic insurgents of the South, through the words of Tom Buell the printer: “Seems as if those Southerners don’t have the same ideas about liberty and all men being equal that Sam Adams does. It’s more a figure of speech in the South . . . it’s freedom for just a picked circle that’s going to take the liberty of shooting anybody that argues different.”

But “Oliver Wiswell” is not so much a book of arguments as of actions, of battles and spying and diplomatic missions. It is a big, meaty book and thoroughly American in its unorthodox way.

Charles Morgan has immersed himself in the past of another nation. It would be hardly right or reasonable to ask that he recall himself from his reverie. “The Voyage” is a mature work of great fascination, and if it has somewhat less urgency than “The Fountain” it has more charm. Barbet, whose natural understanding of the vines enables him to keep his family wine plantation from the general ruin, is a character for the ages. Barbet was so good, in the pure philosophical sense of the word, that the priest, knowing him for a heretic and a probable victim of the sins of the flesh, yet came to him for comfort and advice. The love story of Barbet and Therese Despreux, as active a sinner as the world is blessed with knowing in many a year, is an unusual and moving one. The triumph of the human spirit, Mr. Morgan’s favorite theme, is the final crescendo. But into it is woven the victory of Barbet, whose simplicity we are asked to believe may be wiser than all our cleverness. It is the sort of simplicity which made Barbet turn the prisoners out of his jail so that he, the jailer, might be free. This too, this preoccupation with captivity and freedom, is one of Mr. Morgan’s themes. But if closely examined, the two themes are seen to be one.

Still further buried in the past is John Cowper Powys. So deep and mysterious are the earth-mounds from which he draws the stuff of “Owen Glendower” that he seems to utter incantations in calling up the old chieftain from his dark Wales. The archaic flavor is wonderfully real in a book which is full of blood and lust and dirt and ritual, of the remnants of half-forgotten wizardry and of the tortured ideals of a people emerging from the dark ages. It is impossible to say how much of the savor is true to those fifteenth century times, and how much true to the antiquarians who wrote of those times—how much we recognize as humanly valid, and how much stirs untraceable memories because of our vague familiarities with old writings. Much of the atmosphere in the earlier part of the book, before Owen Glendower raises the dragon banner to fight Henry of England, seems to show the hand of old scribes with quill pens and an elaborate imagination for argument and ceremony. It is in that part of the story that someone seems always to be getting on or off a horse or pausing with spear aimed at an unfortunate enemy’s neck to enter into a long theological discussion. But “Owen Glendower” gathers more and more speed as it moves along, and at the finale the reader experiences the excitement of participating in a magnificent achievement.

A far cry from these monumental works is William Carlos Williams’s “In the Money.” Stripped of philosophical trappings, this is a story in the modern manner of a family’s growth. Hardly as pretentious as the writing of Messrs. Morgan, Romains, and Roberts, that of Dr. Williams is infinitely more skillful in the same way an electric slicer is more skillful than a cleaver. It is a purely objective style, with every described action weighed for its impression on the reader, so that the illusion of active reality never slackens. “In the Money” is the story of honest, German Joe Stecher’s fight to keep a government printing contract he has won from his former boss. The clash of his character with that of Gurlie, his wife, is never referred to except in action, and she is never made to betray herself blatantly; yet at the end her personality is all too clear. Dr. Williams’s children move with startling similarity to the ones we see every day. His is a book which probably may get less attention than it deserves, merely because of its simplicity.

A simple story which will not be overlooked is Willa Cather’s “Sapphira and the Slave Girl.” Miss Cather’s name will carry the book, but it is good in its own right. There is a tendency to draw some conclusions from the fact that the scene is the country of the author’s childhood, but that may be only accidental. The secluded nature of the land west of the Virginia mountains before the Civil War makes it a typical Cather setting. The theme is a mistress’s subtle persecution of a pretty slave, until the girl is rescued by aid in escape to the North. The story is told with undiminished skill and in the expected quiet, unobtrusive manner. It is true Cather. And now, may we clear the way for the story of our times?


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