By WILLIAM PLOMER
Men in Arms. By George Slocombe. (Heinemann. 7s. Oda Choose a Bright Morning. By Hillel Bernstein. (Gollancz. 6s.) Think of the Earth. By Bertram Brooker. (Cape. 7s. 6d.) Villon : a Romance. By Charles Kunstler. Translated by Alex
Glendinning. (Constable. 7s. 6d.)
THE first two of these books have a quasi-political interest, the third escapes from horrid actualities by going back thirty years and concentrating on the spiritual turmoil inside an individual, and the fourth is more or less historical. The author of Men in Arms is a journalist, and evidently one of those journalists who get about, meet people, and see things. Such men have to go where things are happening while they are happening,
and it is their business to find out what is going on behind the scenes. They. are used to conversations lubricated by the juices and aromas of good food, drink, and tobacco ; they move
rapidly in expresses and air liners, and feel at ease in hotel bedrooms, smart cabarets, obscure restaurants ; they realise that countries are joined on to one another or only separated by a few minutes or a few hours of travel, and they are used to putting their information quickly in order on paper. Seeing mankind up to some of its crudest tricks might easily drive them to despair, but the need to be quick and vivid acts as a kind of antidote, and whatever their subject they must paint it in bold if not glowing colours. Thin they are apt to combine disillusionment and cynicism with a curious romanticism : then, being able to see themselves and others as part of a vast and complex drama, and being at the same time obliged to obtain an immediate effect, they tend to be theatrical in the way they express themselves. Men in Arms, essentially a journalist's novel, may be said to have a topical interest, since it deals with the revolt of a dissatisfied minority in a Baltic seaport. The town of Marmo was in Lithilania but this did not please the Latvians, and a number of outsiders took a hand in promoting their discontent. Mr. Slocombe carefully marshals his characters—men without a country, adventurers and adventuresses, armament czars, beautiful spies, deluded peasants, Cockney clerks, &c.—but they are mainly quite conventional, the most notable being one Samtiel Bowyer, an American, given to " ventures in which the risks were great and the profits doubtful " : - - -
" He has no principles. He has no emotions . . . He has no patriotism, no doctrine, and even his religion is mere childish sentiment, a tradition, a memory of inherited conventions. He is incredibly frivolous when business is not afoot . . . If wo fail him, he will find other dupes, men like us with ambition, without great love of life, men greedy for power, or notoriety . . . or sick of tho strange disease which is called patriotism."
Most of the characters tend to talk alike, and they talk in rather a high-faluting strain about topics of national or inter- national interest, sometimes with an unreal eloquence. There is a certain simplicity about an author who can write " Many men and women of striking appearance sat in the restaurant, framed in the sophisticated modern setting of glittering napery, gilt and porcelain and crystal." Napery does not usually glitter, even in high life, but we are not surprised to come across immaculate linen, bronzed arms, and pearly hazes or to find sudden determinations reached, prominent parts played, and hackneyed epithets chosen with clockwork regularity.
Mr. Slocombe may be a born novelist, but he is not a made one, and it is information and ideas that distinguish his book, incidental remarks about Trotsky or Caillaux, Hitler or Geneva, or suggestions of this kind :
" Under private capitalism the machinery of the state is corn. pletely subservient to the lords of steel and oil and banking—and they are, when you begin to look into it, the same individuals. They control the state. If you established the fiction of state control over armaments, they would be merely controlling themselves."
Mr. Hillel Bernstein's book, which is short, is chiefly a satire on Hitler and Hitlerism. The dust-cover carries a number of enthusiastic recOminefidations by early readers. Low the cartoonist laughed so much at it that he couldn't sleep. Mr. John Collier says that not to like it is to be either a rogue or a fool. Mr. Soandso says it is a " big little book ", and Mr. Suehandsuch began it at breakfast and finished it in his bath. With due respect to these gentlemen, and at the risk of being thought a rogue and a fool with no sense of humour, I must say that I thought it on the whole rather heavy going in pursuit of common knowledge. Certainly there
are a few touches of grim humour. In a concentration camp : " When they wearied of me as a Communist, they whipped me in rapid succession as a bourgeois, a landlord, a Catholic, a pacifist, a believer in Christianity, a foreigner, and a War veteran." Again : " Supper was succeeded by a light
'flogging." The power of propaganda : " I want one hundred thousand heroes on the parade ground tomorrow afternoon.
I want every one of them to be thinking of pork chops.. . I proceed up and down the ranks on my inspection with the Minister of War, and for his benefit I ask questions. What is your name ? Pork chops. How old are you ? Pork chops.
Where were you born ? Pork chops. How long have you been a hero ? Pork chops. What do you regard as your duty ? Pork chops. It made my colleague very angry, for he could never influence his army as thoroughly as that." Again, a little boy is addressed :
" ' What do you want, my young hero ? '
I want coal, iron, oil, copper, cotton, nickel, tungsten, rubber, potash, nitrates. I want raw materials.'
How will you get them, my junior hero ? '
. We will fight.' Does your mother approve of this ?'" My mother is a woman. She belongs in the kitchen.'
Does your father approve of this ? ' My fathor is a traitor. I reported him to the secret police.'
' Any brothers or sisters ? '
I have a sister who is fifteen years old. It's about time she became a mother. We need soldiers.' "
The book as a whole is scarcely up to this level.
Turning from the world without to the world within, Mr. Bertram Brooker seems to have bitten off quite as much as Dostoievsky could chew. Think of the Earth, a Contribution to the " thoughtful " fiction which seems, perhaps owing to the influence of Dr. Buchman, to be coming into some favour, is about a religious maniac in a small Canadian town in 1907. This individual, Tavistock by name, is not of the kind that attracts followers but is much absorbed in regarding himself as a dedicated soul, tying himself up in metaphysical knots, and wandering down byways which a theological map would probably mark as closed to the public. " A regular toff," he could, we learn, have been a matinee idol :
" A gentleman—he is—if ever there was one. A prince, sir. But, maybe a little—you know—kind of queer."
High and mighty in his manner, " but I'll be damned if there ain't something gosh-awful human--somehow—underneath."
His eyes, which had a far-away look, were shot with green ; there was an Irish-Spanish strain in his family, and he wanted to know the nature of evil and the meaning of death. Further- more, like Miss Garbo, he wanted to be alone," but a love- interest popped up in the shape of one Laura, the local reverend's gal." Laura, who had not been able to keep up her music, had coiled hair, eager eyes, and a blunt nose. Also her upper lip arched abruptly, while 'the lower curved in a full round above the cleft of her chin, which Was deep, like her father's." Cleft chins run deep, and " as he looked at her the transparent, murmurous space in his mind collapsed suddenly, as though crushed like an egg-shell." In other words, she prevented him from making a fool and indeed a criminal of himself by an acte gratuit with a supposedly heavenly meaning : just in time she made him " think of the earth." A portent- ously serious novel by an author with no sense of the ridiculous. M. Charles Kunstler's romance about Villon should please a good many people. Whether it is possible to give anything like a true picture of the life of Villon's time may be ques- tioned, but a fictional one is an obvious temptation for the historical novelist. Like Burns, like Verlaine and Rimbaud, Villon was a vagabond with a soul, one who yielded heartily to the temptations of wine, women and song, and yet managed a leave a permanent memorial of his activities. M. Kunstler makes the most of the poet's aspirations and improvidence, his fascinating waywardness, the jolly junketings and rat- haunted prisons, the licentious prients and abandoned women, the true affections and the immortal verse :
"How novel, how beguiling, how moving and human this poetry is ! Oh yes, Master Francois, it is suffering that has ripened you, made you such a great poet ! "
TRAVEL WITH BAEDEKER