By KATE O'BRIEN Serenade. By James M. Cain. (Cape. 7s. 6d.) Courthouse Square. By Hamilton Basso. (Methuen. 8s. 6d.)
Miss Bendix is a small, slight book, oddly and • agreeably priced at four-and-sixpence, but still more oddly agreeable in that it rises imperturbably over the hurtling mass of bulkier publications, and takes its place, out of their way, as a piece, of literature. Miss. Royde Smith is a yvriter of power and prestige who no doubt has all the acquiintance she wants with the bubble reputation, but it is nevertheless arguable, I think, that in this day of crowding talents, as we acclaim this and that experiment, we tend somewhat perilously to take for granted, and even to underrate that sheer literary power which is so particulariy hers. The combination of technique, passion, versatility and control whiCh always marks her work, and which is so perfectly balanced a combination that, as 1 say, we incline to take its high results for granted, is in fact far to seek in the work of many of this author's talented contemporaries.- Miss Royde Smith has a ranging imagination and an eye for strangeness ; but she has also a precision, a . wit and a reverence for form which, relating her more to French writers than to her own countrymen, also make it possible for her to examine any experience by simple English daylight,
and to relate oddity to common experience and to domestic truth. By which I mean that whereas her subject-matter may not be always, on the face of it, attractive to you or me, she is so thoroughly good a writer that again and again she persuades us.
And here too, with Miss Bendix, than which I believe 'she has written nothing better. It is a story which, of its nature,
had to be short, and yet must have, swelling its pathos, an air of eloquence and impalpable, supernatural brilliance—for the presentation in just proportion of a sad, drab, patient life and its great,' unpremeditated escape into illumination. An accomplishment to call up every vestige of a writer's power— and readers must iudge for themselves how the task has been done. For my part—save in the over-intellectualisation of the crowning experience, which somewhat drags its closing passion, I can find no error or false note in this story of a lonely, patient spinster in the West Country who from Christian devoutness is switched on a brilliant day of Holy Week into worship of the sun, and ecstatic conscious participation in earth's obedient movement round her new god. Nothing is lacking—no salient fact of Miss Bendix' dreary life and unexcep- tional parentage ; wit dovetails beautifully with tenderness in the swift establishment of character and background; eloquence,
beautifully economical, calls up the approaching mystery and makes us ready for it ; and if, after culmination, the conception seems unnecessarily overdriven, that criticism is tentative and perhaps unfair. In any case, Miss Bendix is a beautiful piece of writing and an excellent example of Miss Royde Smith's high literary power.
One never opens a book by Mr. Gerhardi without sensations of hope and gratitude. Gratitude for the enchanting books he used to take the trouble to write, and hope that once again he may have decided to enchant us. Hope anyhow, usually fulfilled, that we are about. to be more amused than by most writers. And My Wife's the Least of It is certainly amusing. Too long, too repetitive and at times too schoolboyish and idiotic in farcicality. But funny and cruel all right, and constantly knocking out Aunt Sally. Charles Baldridge is an elderly and hard-up author who once, before the War, had a great success with a novel called Dixie, which now— some time early in 1936, I think—he is persuaded to turn into a scenario, and sell to a film company. He never sells it, but the long, optimistic, unflagging struggle brings him into amazing situations. He becomes most desperately, poor while perpetually in expectation of a telephone call to fortunes, and while hobnobbing freely with the immensely rich. The book is packed with riotous caricatures, and Mr. Baldridge himself, very ftinny and real, is no great hero. He escapes from his troubles and ambitions into marriage with an insane spinster millionairess, and he becomes a cautious, purse- Proud upholder of the Charity racket, which the book also manages to flay while flaying the films. One of the funniest episodes is Mr. Baldridge's adventures amid luxury on Coronation Day, and his host of that day, Job Devonshire, is one of the funniest of a crowd of grotesque characters. But Marigold, the maidservant at the boarding-house, is the flower of the book—its perpetual irrelevant decoration. She is a piece of touching and comic inconsequence, quite fresh and unhackneyed but perfectly human, and walking free of the slings of contempt- which the author rains so heavily on everyone else in the book. She is a piece of real creation, on the side—a reminder to the always grateful of the partic- ularly fluent, generous, mobile work that Mr. Gerhardi used to do, and obviously still can do. Her irrelevance is, of course, a part of her quality and signific n .e in this rather too crowded and rowdy galere, but for one reader she stole the book, and was the chief compensation for its inordinate length.
Not having read The Postman Always Rings Twice, I took up Serenade with particular curiosity, and with all the more pleasure on discovering that the story opened in Mexico, City. Mexico City is one of the places where I like to have a ;tory open. And Serenade turns out to' be quite a good- story, as these sentimental, knockabout stories go. But it is not at all what I expected—since I expected, Heaven knows why, to be moved, to find tragedy in violence, and -a heroic- simplicity. I had got it into my head that such things were the stuff of Mr. Cain's first famous book. They are not in Serenade, which is just a lively and meretricious piece of entertainment which you will read quickly—and forget quickly. It is about an American operatic baritone who has lost his voice and is down and out. He has a row with a torero about an Indian girl, who falls for him and carries him off with her in a car she has won in the loteria, to start a high-class brothel some- where else in Mexico. They do not start the brothel ; they get into trouble with her patron, a politico, and they escape, aided by a sentimental Irish sea-captain, to Los Angeles. The baritone makes good in movies—his voice had come back to him when he made love to the Indian girl. Eventually the two get to New York, where he is very successful, but where an evil genius from his past turns-up—a wealthy pansy whose influence on him had formerly destroyed his singing voice. The pansy and the Indian girl measure their strength, and at one of those terrific wicked parties she islayi torero, profiles and kills her bull, the pansy. Thereaftei flight for the two, -and disguise and uneasiness, and the obligatory suppression of his famous voice which would give_ thein away. Misunderstanding, separation, and dramatic meeting againin a café in Mexico City. . And her deith,- shot by the vengeful politico. A fine, florid story, noisy, effective and -oh, so naturalistic. Written in the first person by the baritone, and with all the shapeless' wordiness "of the pseudo-inarticulate. And with a funny affectation 9f ernsui. " A brothel, I guess, is the same all over the world.7 I should not have thought so—any more than a grocer's shop ii. However, this book is of a genre that people are liking nowadays and of its kind is up io standard. But I was disapPointe-d. For some reason I did not expect to have read it'so often' - Courthouse Square, because 'it is entirely traditional and written grammatically, is the sort Of which also can be described as having often been read before: But in this case I for one do not complain, because formality and soberness of thought and preoccupation with The general- soirows of !ten make • a much more effective and contribotOry - problem in repetition than do the meretricious sensations and- tinisings of one rather theatrically-Minded " I." I take thiS-iigieeable and unpretentious novel to be a first effort, and it seems vet% promising. Indeed it is itself a good performance. It con- forms to an ordinary pattern. A successful American novel], in his late thirties whose thitherto 'happy marriage. has broken up in sudden misunderstanding returns after ten year absent:,- to his home town in the old -South; ,Where his father, still aln e, and his. grandfather have suffered for their liberal. opinions and their sympathy with the cause of the negroes. He in his turn becomes mixed up in the cruelties and-stupidities of prejudi..: and small town mentality, and_ he takes his part in defend of a persecuted coloured man. Meantime, through I' thoughts, and sometimes through awkward passages of sew:- mentality in recollection, we get his own story—and I's, solution. On the whole this is a dignified and well-written bOok, thoughtfid, unaffected and attractive..