1 SEPTEMBER 1939, Page 28


By KATE O'BRIEN Hudson Rejoins the Herd. By Claude Houghton. (Collins. 7s. 6d.) The Elephant Is White. By Caryl Braluns and S. J. Simon. (Michael Joseph. 7s. 6d.) IF, by the time this article appears in print, we are still in the happy state of wondering what new novel to choose to help us through the blessed uneventfulness of a week-end at home, or by the sea—a condition at this moment uncertain enough to seem very sweet—I commend Rogue Male as likely to win a particular sympathy just now, and because it will keep our wits nimbly engaged. Perhaps it may also merci- fully distract a few of us from being too unmitigatedly the Foreign Secretary On the Hearth.

It is a deft, neat book, written with unusual distinction. Such chinks as do appear in this distinction are, therefore, because of their infrequency, disproportionately disappointing, because they betray a spiritual confusion unlooked for in an otherwise almost impeccable narrative of action. " I was conditioned to endure without making an ass of myself." " He is a ridiculous outlet for a lot of sentimentality." (This refers to a cat the narrator has befriended.) " He must know the difference between a duke and a stock-pusher, though they speak with the same accent, and the latter be much better dressed than the former." I have italicised some words in these quotations, so as to stress what I mean about chinks in distinction. We know, if we have read other pages of the book, that in these sentences Mr. Household has meant to say something considerably more precise than he has said. The deprecatory note struck by the italicised words in the first two examples quoted, and the out-of-the-pigeonhole method chosen in the last to indicate the differences between men, hint at a magazine-story weakness not elsewhere betrayed by this careful writer.

And I have made all this fuss because on the whole the book is so exceptionally agreeable of style. It is a first person singular narration of a perilous and lonely adventure. A wealthy and aristocratic English sportsman set out, under cover of a shooting expedition in Poland, to assassinate a Europein dictator. (I said a moment ago that the theme was likely to win a particular sympathy from us just now!) But he was caught, just as he " got the three pointers of the sight steady on the V of his waistcoat." He was tortured, and, finally, done away with in the woods in such a way as to make it seen that his death was a sportsman's accident. Thereafter the tale is of his flight, across tile dictator's country, over the sea, through England, and into North Africa, from those who discovered that their " accident " had not come off.

The circumstantial developments of the chase are made very exciting. The combined imaginativeness and common sense of the pursued man are satisfying, and give pressure and even at moments a kind of anguish to our concern for him. Also as we travel with him we are permitted by this author to per- ceive the psychological changes induced by such particular and exacting conditions of living. Having run to difficult and perilous cover in Dorset, the hero has to undergo a period of suspense and reflection under extraordinary conditions which I may not reveal, but which are very efficiently and vividly reproduced, and during this period of alert inaction, he arrives, by means of recollection of a tragically ended love, at understanding his own veiled purpose of assassination. Every reader will not be convinced here. That is, we do indeed believe that he had necessarily appointed himself the slayer of the man whose ideology slew the creature he had found most lovable and beautiful on earth ; but, the elaborate un- veiling, the almost coyness of approach to this simple explanation of a climax of hunter-passion, seemed to me a little too cheaply fantastic, and to introduce egotism in a form which somewhat tarnishes an otherwise beautifully indicated love. However, such auibbling means chiefly that I was un- usually interested in a most sensitive, efficient and exciting narrative, and certainly Mr. Household's graceful, clean prose is something for which to give thanks.

In Hudson Rejoins the Held we again have a hero confiding

in us in the first person singular. Stephen Hudson, lying in bed in a nursing-home and recovering, to his own and every- body's surprise, from wounds received in a shooting affray in an actress's flat in Chelsea, takes the opportunity to tell us all that he can remember or piece together of his own and the actress's lives, from their first meeting in childhood in the country up to the moment of the shooting. It is a good enough device, and it serves here as framework for a con- ventional story of temperament, love and all the rest. And Mr. Houghton is, as everybody knows, an accomplished and successful novelist whose work always has beginning, middle and end. But somehow this performance—of tolerant, reflec- tive, rolling-stone hero, wild, bad, darling heroine, and sinister American financier, holder of the automatic which wounded Hudson and afterwards killed himself—somehow this box of puppets, completed by quaint, old wiseacre doctor from the East End, seemed to me this time more boring than even they need be. In any case, when an author has decided upon the first person singular method of narration, he must be very, very careful not to get too fond of his chosen " I "; above all, he must peep as little as possible, I think, round "I's" nursery screen, and forbear, if he can, from bending above the little far-away cot—for such indulgence, pretty enough perhaps in itself, tends to over-manure a natural tenderness, so that the grown-up " I " has to be perhaps a shade too deprecatory about his own lovableness. However, here certainly is a story which many will find easy to read ; and it has the merit of producing a good surprise on the last page.

Portrait of a Patriot is a novel which I started in good hope —because, for one thing, it broke new ground, and ground that seemed to me to be promising. It is a historical novel, and its hero is Juan Manuel de Rosas, of whom I had never heard, but who was born in Buenos Aires in 1793, was a wealthy cattle-rancher and grain-farmer, took part in Argentine politics during the struggle for independence, and was, in fact, as the blurb says, " supreme dictator of Buenos Aires from 1835 to 1852."

It ought to be possible to write a very vivid and soundly informative novel about the nineteenth-century struggles of any of the South American Republics—and I have no reason at all to question the historical information which Mr. Thomp- son does quite liberally impart. He knows and loves South America, and the useful footnotes which accompany this book prove that he has studied its history at good sources. But his chief purpose in this book is to justify before the world a political character whom, apparently, tradition generally and Cunningham Graham in particular have condemned with violence as " a horror of a man." On the face of his story as presented to my blank ignorance by Mr. Thompson, this ver- dict seems uncalled-for, to put it mildly. The Don Manuel de Rosas of this novel is a conventional, humourless and senti- mental figure, whose intentions, and actions, towards his fellow- men are, if dull, most respectable so far as they go. But whereas, I presume, Mr. Thompson meant to re-crate Juan Manuel in terms of romantic idealism, all he has in fact done is to give us a paralysing bore of a man—which is one way of overthrowing a wicked myth, since nobody so trite as this person could ever have been a bloody dictator.

Miss Streatfeild has tackled a very difficult theme in her new novel, Luke, and I do not think that she has given herself room in which to handle it. She has either used too many characters or two few pages—but the former mistake is the more likely, I think. A man dies very suddenly in the prime of life. He is married to a foolish, amorous woman who is in some kind of Anglo-Catholic muddle about whether she ought to sleep with him while her former husband still lives. (This former husband is a famous orchestral conductor, and the son of the marriage is a fourteen-year-old boy, Luke, a promising musician.) It is a problem novel. Why and how did the second husband die? Was it suicide? Was it murder, and by whom?

The Elephant Is White is a white elephant. It is a funny book, devised as an absolute scream. But the curious thing is that every now and then it does suddenly extract a short, surprised laugh. It is about a club of White Russians in Par:s whose agreeable rule of life it is to be idle and useless. They are uncharacteristically thorough in sticking to their regulati:n —nevertheless on the whole they are boring.