By KATE O'BRIEN
" I'm all for freedom and scope, and let the bystanders stand back and make no remarks." So am I, in a way—though I think the first part of the quoted sentence nullifies the second, for if you may do as you like, I surely may say what I think. But I put The Charmed Life at the top of the class this week because, although it is often turgid, sometimes maddening, and occasionally just plumb silly, it is nevertheless a work of imagination, airy, non-pedestrian, and taking its full share
of " freedom and scope." It is by no means everyone's book ; above all it is not to be commended to those who desire a plain narrative. It is a picaresque rumination tossed about between Mr. Nomatter, otherwise Hector or Alexander, and his " worn old friend, Bowsie." It is a casual rambling of body and mind roundabout the west coast of Ireland, in the region of Galway and a holiday hotel called " The Pride " ; it is a bright unfolding of memories, jokes and philosophic intimations with a lovely, clear scene shuttling changefully behind them, and with curious episodes floating through without ever being allowed to take full episodic shape. It is a painter's book ; its assemblages of figures, objects and light are like notes for compositions. And who but a painter would have written the incident of the old gold miners and the oysters exactly as it is written here ? It is a book which, for all its overhanging menace of whimsicality, and in spite of some laboriousness in the long conversation of the seven men which all but concludes it, still possesses simul- taneously a lyric quality and a detachment of vision which combine to give an unusual penetration to some of its casual shafts, and to leave with readers a sense of salty space and of non-vulgarity.
The Mother, here translated into English by Elsa Krauch, is written by Sholem Asch, author of The Three Cities and other works, and described by his publishers as " probably the greatest Jewish author writing today." The work now under review was my own first encounter with its famous author, and I approached it with some eagerness. But having read it I can only confess myself disappointed, not to say bored. The theme is good. It deals with the domestic and
economic adventures, in the early days of this century, of a very poor family of Polish Jews, first in their native village and afterwards as immigrants in New York. Sarah Rifke has seven children and a feckless, imaginative, self-deluding, good-natured husband called Ansel, whose only ability and source of income is as a Scripture Reader in the synagogue. Her eldest son, a go-getter apprenticed to the shoe trade, manages to reach New York and to send back enough money for the rest of the family to join him there. The novel is concerned throughout with the material struggle for existence and with the clash, felt most by the idle, sarcastic and humorous Ansel, between Jewish traditions and the American spirit. The sons get on ; the elder daughter has a love affair with a Jewish sculptor who becomes famous and grows tired of her ; Ansel, the Scripture Reader, learns to sew shirts in a factory ; Sarah Rifke dies. In the course of these events we learn much that is interesting of traditional Jewish life, its domestic and pious customs ; we find ourselves sym- pathetic to Sarah Rifke, who is the classic mother of all large, hungry, quarrelling families ; we become more personally and directly attached to the proud, shiftless, mocking Ansel and we are mildly interested in the course of Deborah's love. But technically the book is awkward—chippy and lacking in precision. And spiritually it is disappointingly shallow and commonplace and leaves us with a rather dull composite portrait of the Jewish character.
Those who are really interested in India and its problems and who like a good slab of well-constructed informative fiction, with plenty of emotional interest to leaven the lump of
instruction, will be wise to get hold of The Rains Came. As a novel, although it contains some finely managed situations and one or two passages of truly perceptive writing, it is not of any particular importance. For one thing, its design— of the hackneyed cross-section type—is against it ; for another, nearly all its major characters are straight out of stock and are boldly written in in the old clichés of their origin. But as a means of getting the man in the street in the west to read about his Indian brother something which rings as persuasively true as it is generous-spirited and sympathetic, the book is justified. It described the State and City of Ran- chipur sweltering in summer heat, and, picking out a score or more of its inhabitants and visitors, shows us their psychological states and inter-relations, and the reactions of certain of these on Ranchipur's native life and hopes, at the moment when the monsoon is to break. It breaks—in tragedy. It bursts the great dam beyond the city. Thousands are drowned; thousands die of the epidemics of typhoid, malaria and plague which sweep on the stricken and isolated town ; and our score or so of leading characters play out their personal dramas according to their natures against the screen of the vast disaster. There are deaths among them, and many heroisms and one or two quite incredible changes of heart. But then, Edwina Heston, the cold and lovely society slut with a heart of gold, is incredible, and boring, from beginning to end of the book. Not so some of the neurotic or shrewd or merely dotty elderly women whom Mr. Bromfield always does so well, and of whom this book contains three or four authentic examples. To aim so often and variously at the tortuous or tortured emotionalism of spinsterhood is brave marksmanship, but for Mr. Bromfield nearly always a bull's-eye, and to my mind those passages which present the desolate, severe Miss Dirks, and after her death the dotty contentment of Miss Hodge, clinging to Edwina's good-natured hand, are the most admirable writing in the book. I did not believe in the supposed-to-be amazing Maharani, and found it hard to accept the novelettish perfections of the young Brahmin doctor—but the latter may be taken, perhaps, less as a character in fiction than as a symbol of Mr. Bromfield's great hopes for the India of the future. A faraway, dream India, the faithful and unflinching recording of this book suggests—but at its end its author still believes in the long struggle against climate, racial difficulties and western misunderstanding, and his ruined Ranchipur is already rising again in his last pages, because of the survival-courage of a few to whom India has always been, or in a week of drama has become, a major passion.
William's Wife, by G. E. Trevelyan, is the story of a little mouse-character called Jane Atkins, a housemaid who, at the age of twenty-eight, marries an elderly widower called William Chirp, a grocer, and settles down with him in his musty house, The Elms, on the edge of a small town called Jewsbury. She is quite eager to be happy, in her way. " Happy and timid, almost afraid of being happy like that ; secure, yet with a kind of timid daring. ' Cosy, just us two.' " But William is a miser, and gradually she says good-bye to her various small dreams of material comfort or adornment, while growing meantime, under submission, very wily to defeat him in his close supervision of threepences. Marriage becomes an awful, miserable drama of small coins and small lies, but when at last the monster husband dies it is too late for Jane to recapture her old timid dreams of pleasure. She has been twisted by him into the shape he would have liked. She is a miser, and carefully, slowly her author takes us along the terrible narrow path of the poor old thing's insane depravity. The book, such as it is, could hardly have been better done—nevertheless, even its high standard of art does not justify it. The more true such a story is, the more monotonous it must become. Compressed to ten thousand words it could have been superb ; spun out as it is here so carefully, it falls short of such an adjective.
The Strikers, by Goetze Jeter, deals with a strike in a shoe factory in a small American town ; tells of its effect on all sorts and conditions of people, of the struggle between the shoe company and the union leader to settle it, of the uncompromising attitude of the latter and of his final lynching by his own followers, and their somewhat depressed and anxious return to work. None of the characters is particularly interesting, nor is the reader ever gripped by what might have been an engrossing situation.