By WILLIAM PLOMER
Land of Promise. Dv Leo Lania. Translated by R. Henry. (Lovat Dickson. 8s. fid.) The Master of Hestviken. By Sigrid Undset. Translated by Arthur G. Chater. (Cassell. 8s.. 6d.) Castaway. By J. G. Cozzens. (Longmans. Cs.) IX the course of-a thoughtful article lathe October National Review on the functions of the -.novel, Mr. Bonamy Dobree remarks that the responsibility of the novelist is enormous,
for he is to reveal to society what it is doing, why it is doing it, and, perhaps;indicate the path along which it might advan- tageously go." He also says that ." at least ninety-five in a hundred of the novels we read, good reputable novels, written
often by men or women of great ability -and distinction, are
perfectly futile," for the writers "seem' impervious to con- temporary consciousness." This is unfortunately true, and whatever conditions may have influenced the writing of novels in the past, whatever chance there may be today of producing in fiction a "pure" work of art, it becomes more and more clear that the only novels written nowadays that seem to have any life in them are the ones whose authors have, besides some command of their art, a sense of responsibility to society and who are not impervious to contemporary consciousness." This does not mean that the novel is to be exclusively con- cerned with polities, economies and sociology, but that personal relationships and individual problems can only be understood and explained in relation to those matters. When Mr. Dobree reminds us that there are hundreds of novels every year about perfectly futile people worried about their -own silly emotions, usually living in luxurious conditions, and whose last anxiety is food, while all the time civilization is on the edge of the precipice, millions are on the verge of destitution," he is reminding us of the narrowness and complacency of certain sections of society which are reflected in those novels.
To read Land of Promise or Shot Whilst Escaping, both the work of expatriate Germans, is to be brought in touch with
people who have been otged to face, and are still facing, the complex and to a great extent harsh realities of contemporary
existence. To read The Master of Hestvik,en and Castaway is to try and be beguiled on the one hand by an imaginary description of the lives of mediaeval Scandinavians, and on the other by an artificial and somewhat pointless fantasy. No good purpose would be served by trying to belittle The Master of Hestviken. To compose a tale of thirteenth-century Norway which occupies nearly a thousand closely printed pages must in itself be a vast labour, and when this great exercise in the romantic-heroic is done by an author of established reputation,
it must be given its due. It would no doubt have pleased Sir Walter Scott, and it will no doubt be enjoyed by those who enjoy Scott's novels. According to his appetite for historical fiction, the reader is likely to find it no harder or no easier to
read than Ivanhoe. It does not extend, as Scott did, the scope of literature as an art ; it throws no new light on human nature ; it is simply a monumental example of its kind, the
twentieth-century historical saga in prose.
Castaway is a trifle by comparison. The sole survivor of a
catastrophe that has destroyed New York, a Mr. Lecky finds himself alone in a great department store. No hint is given as to the nature of the catastrophe or the circumstances of this individual's escape, and beyond exhibiting stupidity and fear and a vague licentiousness he has no existence as a character. I take the book to be a fable, with the moral that modern man is made up of stupidity and fear and vague licentiousness and will get what he deserves, but as I believe him to possess other qualities as well, a past, and possibly a future too, my attention was not closely held.
The two German books not only hold the attention, but call for a response in the heart and the head. The theme of Land of Promise would be worthy of treatment on a Tolstoyan
scale, for it is little less than the effect of the condition of Germany, during a whole momentous decade, upon' the lives of certain families and individuals. The story opens in 1916, when General Ludendorff addressed a proclamation "to my dear Jews in Poland," promising all sorts of rights and liberties.
To the Jews, and to the Mendel family in particular, this seemed to bring "both promise and fulfilment. Ludendorff, that meant Germany. And this Germany spoke through the mouth of its most famous and most powerful man." But at the beginning of 1919 a Cossack hetman instigated a pogrom, and the Mendel family,...remembering-- Ludendorff, fled to Berlin to begin life again. Moses had patience, and his daughter Esther ability, but life was not much easier for them than for ex-Lieutenant Rosenberg, who
"belonged to a generation of young people who wore entirely thrown upon themselves and yet utterly enslaved since they remained tied down to conventions and subjected to rules in whien
their parents themselves no longer believed victims of a bankrupt world which refused to admit its own collapse at any price, not even at the price of the destruction of its own sons."
Nevertheless, post-War life in Berlin did not seem to be without promise. It was certainly active, "nowhere in the , world was if possible to find a bourgeoisie mentally so well equipped," and iii all walks of life there ,ivere many people anxious to do their best. But how they talked, and how divided they were ! They talked' and._ argued as much as Russians, until the infinite shades Of opinion that so often , presage revolution tended to become ludicrous: "'I've always been as advanced as you!' Stern shouted across to Schmidt. ,I have proved that I am more- extreme than anyone ! ' yelled Lohmann. Nobody's more 'advanced than I '—the -Social Democrat could not make herself heard."
Meanwhile, we follow the fortunes of the Mendels and Rosen- bergs and others through the Inflation period and the subse- quent gaieties Until 1925, when Ludendorff broke his promises and announced that "Pan-Jewry is the enemy."
All the time the lives of the people are seen in relation to the huge economic and political forces that were at work. And so to the rise of Hitlerism. "The young people of today," raid Frau Rosenberg, "are so sure of themselves that they are taken in by the shallowest hocus-pocus of the most blatant mountebanks. And bee iuse life has no secrets and no mystery left for them, they run to the first charlatan and faith-healer they come across."
And the author himself explains hew
"Eight words took the place of Kant and Goethe, of knowledge and reason, of anxiety and doubt. The words were : Heil Hitler ! Germany awake : Death to the Jews. They learned their eight words, they shouted them as loud as they could, and they marched. The process was known as : 'The Awakening of the German Nation.' "
A note on the dust cover rightly stresses the sociolcgiml value of the book. An exceptionally good novel, it deals with events that have recently happened, and poses one of the main questions mankind today must answer :
"The bigotry of the Middle Ages takes the field with all the lethal weapons of modern science and all we have to oppose it are logic, reason. . . . What use are they against hand grenades and revolvers ? "
Shot Whilst Escaping takes up the story where Land of Promise leaves it off—with the burning of the Reichstag in February, 1933. Herr Schonstedt, who is only twenty-four, gives a first-hand account of the recent activities of certain members of the Germanic tribes against their own countrymen. Faces are beaten with dog-whips and bashed with beer- glasses, husbands are torn from their wives, the poor and the innocent are persecuted, the screams of the tortured are heard in adjoining rooms, sick men are jabbed in the back with rifle-butts, a body is found in a canal, sewn up in a sack, with the face trampled in and a clean shot in the back. But the book is not simply a work of propaganda. There are carefully described characters and memorable scenes : especially moving is one dealing with the searching of" Frida's Repose," a hut on an allotment, and a love scene between two absurd prigs—" One never hears a nice word from you, you always come out with theories." Herr Schonstedt's honesty and idealism do him credit, and the action of the storm- trooper Albert Schafer, who helps a prisoner to escape from a concentration camp, is a proof, if any be needed, that humanity
is stronger than Hitleriam. . .