I have included links where I thought they would be helpful; obviously a magazine from 1965 did not contain hyperlinks. —Josh
With the Christmas season and Christmas giving in mind, the Editors asked some of America’s distinguished authors and critics to contribute to an unusual list of books—books that are excellent but for some reason failed to attract wide attention. Here are the responses, each a rich tribute to a favorite neglected piece of good reading.
Heinrich Boll has impressed me more deeply than any other recent novelist, and his Billiards at Half-Past Nine (McGraw-Hill) is the best work of fiction I know about Germany under the Nazis. Boll combines a mammoth intelligence with the perception, sensitivity and originality of the true literary artist. There is another quality to his talent I envy bitterly: the confidence and control that let him touch a matter lightly and know he has left a strong, indelible mark. Billiards at Half-Past Nine begins almost as a mystery. Who is this rigid, unfeeling architect in postwar Germany who never creates buildings of his own, but limits his work to evaluating the plans of others, who is cold and harsh to his meek secretary in the opening pages, and who goes punctually every morning to the hotel nearby to play billiards by himself, in the company of the same young bellboy? In the course of answering this question, the sour essence of a half century of German militarism is presented in the story of a single family and the tragedies and sorrows of its three survivors. And what a marvelous, plucky group the survivors are—this silent, aloof man in his middle years and his old father and mother—three adults who scarcely communicate with each other and who are brought together at the end in a strange moment of triumph and elation, their reserve broken finally. Most extraordinary of Boll’s characters, to my mind, is the indomitable mother, who as a young bride spoke insultingly of the Kaiser at a military ball during World War I; who with two sons in the German army during World War II kept trying to climb aboard the railroad cars carrying Jews away to their deaths in extermination camps; and who now, as an old woman in a mental institution (where she remains by her own choice), begs each visitor for a gun with which to kill two of the guilty ones who have gone unpunished. Boll’s viewpoint—and it is a grim one—is that Germany under the Nazis was not unlike Germany under the Kaiser, and that the Germany of today is not much different from either. And so, when the old woman finally does get her hands on a gun, she turns it upon the demagogue she feels might lead her grandchildren to their deaths in the next war—and the nearest politician will do! In Billiards at Half-Past Nine Boll writes of the most enormous atrocities with the subtle, gentle genius James Joyce exercised in Dubliners, and the temptation is strong to call this work, too, a masterpiece.
Except from a few critics and poets who are aware of Edmund Wilson’s untamable individuality, his Patriotic Gore (Oxford U.P.) did not get the appreciation it deserves when it came out in 1962. Wilson’s reputation as a critic is so great that no single new book by him could have been recognized as exceptional; Patriotic Gore, subtitled Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, looked too serious for readers resting their minds on Bruce Catton. And to make his book even more unassimilable, Wilson added an astonishing, truculent introduction attacking the whole power drive of the United States since the Civil War; he particularly attacked the many foreign wars our nation has fought since 1865 and scorned its always “moral” reasons for fighting them.
In a time when the Civil War has been sentimentalized in hundreds of glibly unthinking “histories” and ”novels,” Wilson’s attack on the United States as a greedy power monster, driven to make war as certain animals are driven to eat each other, was not calculated to win popularity. But Patriotic Gore is a remarkable book, because it shows a distinguished American conscience in debate with itself. Wilson fears and deplores the technology, big business, big money, that came in with the North’s victory; he is passionately devoted to the “classical republic” that died North and South; to the humanism of Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many a Southerner. That is Why Patriotic Gore, which so dramatically puts into confrontation the great Northern and Southern spokesmen, writers, generals, has been called our American Plutarch.” The book shows that history, our continuing history, can be written with intellectual passion and concern for the moral risks implicit in our being the greatest power on earth.
The nature—if not the number—of Proust readers today is…well, Proustian.
If we take the condition in an ascending order of accomplishment—and yes, I think, well-being too—we will have lowest, but not truly low, the readers who have not yet begun but know they must or should, or will. Above this majority are those who have “begun”—read once or, even more exhilarating, are reading for the first time.
Rising, etherward, we find the happy few (sadly) who are rereading or have reread (for Remembrance of Things Past, as even the knowledgeable nonreader has learned, is not a book—is, rather an environment, a world, a lifetime exploration). And, topping (and I sometimes think of Proust’s translator, C.K. Scott-Moncrieff, when we are here—what it must have been like), we come on those who have written well, themselves, of their climb. Unhappily, the majority of books on Proust’s work are not good: they are less sharing than comment. Happily, Howard Moss, the poet, has written a good book. It is a lovely book, and it is called The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust (Macmillan). It is a good book because it is not pedantic, is more than well written and is, at the same time, right. It is a lovely book because one can say “Yes!” and “Oh, yes, yes!” to it. Reading Mr. Moss’s book is the next best thing to sitting comfortably contentedly, before a fire after a good dinner in the company of a gifted and voluble friend and discussing, sharing, one of one’s favorite subjects—experiences. No, it is not the next best thing to that, at all. It is precisely that.
Tombstone, Arizona, during the 1880’s is, in ways, our national Camelot; a never-never land where American virtues are embodied in the Earps, and the opposite evils in the Clanton gang; where the confrontation at the OK Corral takes on some of the dry purity of the Arthurian joust. Oakley Hall, in his very fine novel Warlock (Viking) has restored to the myth of Tombstone its full, mortal, blooded humanity. Earp is transmogrified into a gunfighter named Blaisdell who, partly because of his blown-up image in the Wild West magazines of the day, believes he is a hero. He is summoned to the embattled town of Warlock by a committee of nervous citizens expressly to be a hero, but finds that he cannot, at last, live up to his image; that there is a flaw not only in him but also, we feel, in the entire set of assumptions that have allowed the image to exist. It is Blaisdell’s private abyss, and not too different from the town’s public one. Before the agonized epic of Warlock is over with—the rebellion of the proto-Wobblies working in the mines, the struggling for political control of the area, the gunfighting, mob violence, the personal crises of those in power—the collective awareness that is Warlock must face its own inescapable Horror: that what is called society, with its law and order, is as frail, as precarious, as flesh and can be snuffed out and assimilated back into the desert a easily as a corpse can. It is the deep sensitivity to abysses that makes Warlock, I think, one of our best American novels. For we are a nation that can, many of us, toss with all aplomb our candy wrapper into the Grand Canyon itself, snap a color shot and drive away; and we need voices like Oakley Hall’s to remind us how far that piece of paper, still fluttering brightly behind us, has to fall.
Herbert Read has written the finest and perhaps the only pastoral English prose in our century. His autobiography, The Contrary Experience (Horizon Press), a vernal memorial of his boyhood near the Yorkshire heaths, can be understood and enjoyed by any imaginative child. According to Read it is the boy who has pure, arcadian experiences; as we age, our first, Edenic pulses are no more than mildewed ghosts. Read says, “. . . we only hear a tone once, only see a colour once, see, hear, touch, taste and smell everything but once, the first time.” These bucolic annals smack of the wold, beck, gorse and moor. Read lived on the farm with his father, mother, brothers and sister until his tenth year. He knew and smelled the saddle room, the shed for the dog cart and buggy, the blacksmith’s shop, the flitches of bacon and “plum-dusky hams” that hung “from the beams of the wooden ceiling.” No less bucolic was the ivy-clad privy with two seats where the children could sit side by side and dung like jackdaws, without shame. There were the middens and the piggeries, a “steaming morass of urine-sodden straw” and the pasture “pock-marked with erupted rabbit warrens … and dark fairy-rings in the grass.” Before the boy is ten years old, his father dies, and his utopian senses are urned in a wintry, dulled heart. Herbert Read writes, “…memory is a flower which only opens fully in the Kingdom of Heaven, where the eye is eternally innocent.”
These reminiscences are a canticle of green, virgin sensations, which we burn, like storax, praying that some remembrance of its childhood fragrance will permeate the sere, disappointed man.
Blind now, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges has said of his affliction: “Once the outside world interfered too much. Now the world is all inside me. And I see better, for I can see all the things I dream.” He might have been describing his own arcane, autistic work, which is best represented in English translation by two volumes, Ficciones (Grove Press) and Labyrinths (New Directions). The titles suggest his elusive, defiant quality: the Ficciones are highly stylized, ornately mannerist composites of short story, ratiocinative tale, fictionalized essay, metaphysical pensées and baroque poetry; the Labyrinths state in a word, an image, the nature of his created world. In nearly all of the brief works that make up these collections, Borges sustains a flat, detached, cool, mock-scholarly tone in the face of the most outrageous fantasy. He is a pedant of hallucination, a technologist of contemporary nightmare who inventories his delusional world with meticulous detail. It is an eerie, moonlit landscape, and the “things” he dreams are unprecedented objects of some ruined, outlandish civilization that uncannily echoes our own. We cannot quite identify the objects or the landscape, though they haunt us as if we had once known them. Taunting our consciousness, they exist just beyond the edge of memory. Some of the objects, humanoid, remind us terrifyingly of ourselves; their obscure rituals suggest enigmatic acts we dimly remember, though we cannot name them. Dread and anxiety surround the motiveless acts; it is as if failure to find the pattern in the labyrinth would exact of those faceless creatures some unspeakable penalty. At this harrowing point, just when his cerebral puzzles (“games,” Borges calls them, which the mind, impelled by a “rage for symmetries,” plays “with time and eternity”) seem most remote from our own anguish, Borges icily makes the fatal connection.
A work neglected in our time, and which in my opinion deserves our renewed interest, is Pan, a short novel the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. It is more than seventy years since this book made its appearance; in recent years it has been retranslated into English by James W. McFarlane (Noonday Press).
The story it tells is as gripping as ever, and its descriptions of nature remain original. The work contains a harmony found only in the highest types of poetry; it is actually poetry set in prose, and boasts the best traits of each. Its protagonist is a Lieutenant Glahn who spends a solitary summer near a small town in northern Norway. Glahn is a nature lover and lives almost entirely on the food he obtains by hunting; he spends most of his time either alone or with his dog, Aesop. The novel describes his love for a young girl, Edvarda, a daughter of a prosperous merchant. Glahn and Edvarda are both possessed of a pride that forbids expression of their great love. The pride of these two young people is ever stronger than their passion. They yearnto be good to each other, but always act spitefully. They long to be close, but avoid each other. Their love turns to into enmity. When Glahn leaves, he promises to give Edvarda his beloved dog, but he shoots it instead and sends her its carcass. The epilogue describes Glahn’s death in India. In Europe Pan was for many years a greatly treasured work, a particular favorite of young people. In a sense it is a symbolic novel: the conflict between Glahn and Edvarda is the conflict between the sexes. Their pride is the human pride that aspires to happiness and flees from it.
—Isaac Bashevis Singer
In the brilliant constellation of revolutionary novelists of the 1930’s—Dos Passos, Malraux, Silone—only Ralph Bates is today scarcely remembered. This is unjust. Bates, an English resident of Spain for many years, has been an American even longer. Perhaps because he now writes principally about music, the new generation of readers does not seem to know The Olive Field, (E. P. Dutton), his most ambitious and most powerful novel. It is now out of print, but persevering book hunters may be able to find it in secondhand-book shops. This truly extraordinary evocation of Spain by one who came to it as a foreign radical must inevitably recall to us the intensity with which Malraux attempted to assimilate his experience of the Orient to his concept of the communist as literary hero.
Panoramic though it is, The Olive Field deals primarily with the friendship of two anarchist peasants, Joaquin Caro and Diego Mudarra (the latter a musician as well), and of their rivalry for Lucia, sister of Justo Robledo, wretched drunkard but impassioned communist. Crop failure, anarchist violence and pitiless political repression drive them to Oviedo, where they assume leading roles in the Asturian miners’ revolt, horribly crushed in the summer of 1934. It is not its questionable politics, though, that have kept this jagged, jerky, abrupt but nonetheless beautiful novel alive in the three decades since its original publication. It is rather in its nuances of character and passion, its profound understanding of the peasant’s pride in his work, and its lovely lyric passages on flamenco—doubly thrilling for anyone who has ever had the good fortune to hear a Spanish guitar being struck at twilight from behind a closed casement window—that the enduring qualities of The Olive Field are to be found.