Two New Novelists
IT is one of the pleasures of reviewing, which experience in no way diminishes, to come upon a first novel of real quality. There are two on the list to-day, the work of Mr. Malcolm Muggeridge and Mr. Leonid Bely. Each has its faults—Mr. Bely's has a whole " hatful" ; but each shows a definite per- sonality and a sense of beauty, plus an intelligent interest in life and the ability to talk about it.
Mr. Muggeridge's novel is by far the better of the two. Autumnal Face is the face of a woman whose husband is a clerk, and who lives the restricted life of lower middle class respectability ; restricted, because it has to keep up certain appearances without the necessary means. Mrs. Pill, known throughout as Mum, is the tragic heroine of Mr. Muggeridge's story. She and Dad have a daughter, Minnie, who is rather tepidly admired by Fred. Minnie, however, was not made for life and love ; she contracted pneumonia after an evening out with Fred, and her death is the first of a series which with monotonous regularity take off the majority of Mr. Muggeridge's characters. Death obviously has a great signific- ance in this author's mind, and he calls it down in ignominious guise—as, for instance, upon the luckless Mr. Taylor : but he has not succeeded in explaining to at least one sympathetic reader the precise bearing of these deaths upon the inner philosophy of his story. The story has a philosophy. The strange character George, Mum's brother-its-law, the only person whom she really loves, is evidence enough on this point. He is a cripple who gets all his pleasure and experience from watching the life of a drunken and amorous tailor named Deprhnoz from the window opposite ; and the intervention of Mum, which results in the tailor's wife drawing down the blind for ever, has obviously a symbolic significance. The conversations between Mum and George have a curious quality which is out of keeping with the realism of the book as a whole, and the fact that we feel them to be out of keeping is the measure of Mr. Muggeridge's inexperience. Inexperience is the worst fault that can be charged against him. He has written a thoughtful and interested book, related to both
the material and the spiritual facts of life ; and he provokes thought and interest in his readers.
Destination is the story of Richard Thompson's experiences at a public school. There is no attempt to disguise the real identity of " Lowton "—indeed, Mr. Bely goes out of his way to make the identification irresistible. If I say that this is an excellent public school novel, it must not be sup- posed that I am unconscious of its many, improbabilities
and of the fact that it can hardly be called a novel at all. It has no structure. It begins by following the career of
Richard Thompson, branches off to consider other boys in chapters that have no relation to him, and finally makes a series of inconclusive small excursions into the lives of masters and parents. Its end is cinema melodrama, with organ, bells, and full orchestra. Coining to matters of detail. I find it hard to believe that Richard could have passed through his preparatory school without discovering certain facts about the genus boy. I do not believe in the drunken Mr. Shams, who could not have held his post for two days in the wildly improbable event of his having secured it. Headmasters do not appoint their housemasters haphazard from outside. It is unlikely that even the unattractive and priggish Richard should have been so badly treated on his first evening. Moreover, in the accustomed manner, Mr. Bely has piled on the horrors. The brute Rockingham (in whom, unfortunately, I am compelled to believe) is not part of the system ; he is just a nasty accident. But one might fill a .whole column with the faults of Mr. Bely's story, and yet do nothing to discount its virtues. The boys arc real. Here both observation and reporting are of the highest class. Mr. Bely has a remarkable gift for describing and suggesting physical beauty. The inhabitants of Ponder- field's will strike dismay and wrath into many -a stout British
heart, but all of them, down to the beautiful Peter, who remarked, to an older boy who was giving him good advice, "Darling you'd make me a heavenly father," are individual and convincing.
It does not seem very long since Mr. Arnold Lunn set the public school roost a-cackle. Family Name will not stir from it so much as one meditative cluck. It is a kind of defence-by-debate of all that in middle-aged bosoms, the public school is held to typify. Eton v. Harrow at Lord's, the ethics of ski-ing and rock-climbing, committee meetings of exclusive clubs, simple faith and Norman blood, the moral significance of being born a Viscount ; these and similar
weighty matters are set forth at leisure in its pages. " Set forth " is the only way to describe it. Mr. Lunn's Manner reminds one of a certain type of advertisement. " Darling, how lovely you look to-night, so much nicer than all the other girls in the room. How do you manage it?" " Well, dear, I will tell you, it is all this new Poudre Sottise. It is the latest scientific discovery, you take a dry flannel," &c., &c., &c. I do not, of course, mean that Mr. Lunn takes these liberties with punctuation, but he contrives somehow to pro- duce a like ingenuous effect :
" How gloriously Joan is ski-ing,' murmured Barney. . .
' It's all rot her saying that she can't ski on soft snow : those long, sweeping telemarks of hers are fine.' "
We learn quite a lot in this way : " I like this spot,' murmured Claude. Catullus had excellent taste.'
Who was Cetullus 1-' asked' Pamela.
A Roman poet . . . I read him . . . for Honour Mods., and I can actually quote a few lines of him . . . Vivamus, mea Lesbia . . . ' (for seven lines). ' What does that mean ' asked Pamela. 'I don't know any Lat in.'
' This is roughly the sense of it . . . ' " A hand at bridge is likewise analysed for our benefit—and so on and so forth. The plot ? Once there was a beautiful lady of high degree who married—would you believe it ?- a Jew Naturally the affair went wrong, and on the last
page one of the characters dictates a necessary alteration in Who's Who. Family Name has all the charm and remote- ness of a 'Valentine.
The mind of M. Jacques Deval has more in common with that of Mr. Bely than that of Mr. Lunn. Wooden Swords shows that one may be derisive without any lack of deep feeling. The prosaic history of its hero, whose bad eyesight made his part in the War useful rather than glorious, opens with a most moving passage, in which the cortege of Jaures
passes through the astonished streets of Paris. It continues as farce, but the note thus struck was not accidental, and its echoes give a strange significance and pungency to the whole book. M. Deval is to be congratulated upon a humour that survives the Channel crossing. L. A. G. STRONG.