Clashes—Mental and Physical
The Knife. By reader O'Donnell. (Cape. 7a. 8d.)
THE ways of literary influence are mysterious and surprising. One is taken aback, for instance, by M. Bloch's confession that it was Mr. " Jungle Book " which first drew his imagination to Asia, " the continent of passion," and was thus indirectly responsible for this new novel. No doubt the event is reasonable enough, and evidently we greatly underestimate Mr. Kipling's influence on the continent. His French admirers do not see the Anglo-Indian, divided in soul and saving himself from spiritual annihilation at the hands of the East by waving the Flag in its face. They see the exotic Kipling and fancy that he has abandoned himself to the East as their Loti's have done, with all his mind and body. The gesture of abandon alone is enough for them and, fired by it, they produce a book like A Night in Kurdistan. It is a virile story and suffers remarkably little from that yearning sentimentality which makes syrup of the French mind when it catches sight of a King in Babylon casting eyes upon his Christian slave. How much of M. Bloch's story is " very French French bean," and how much the stuff that nights in Kurdistan are made on, is hard to say. Perhaps it does not matter. The main episode, in which a young tribesman is sent into a Nestorian_town as a spy and in one night falls in love with the daughter of a Christian merchant, is seduced by he beautiful mother, whom he murders together with her husband, and proceeds then to kill the sentinels at the town gates and let in his brother tribesmen to sack and destroy the place— this main drama is splendidly managed. M. Bloch's prose
rising from clean narrative into the laden voluptuousness of poetic metaphor illumines every- interstice of the drams, from the initial intrigue, the reckless, almost inspired humour which possesses the young man after he has tasted blood, to the naïve mysticism of his remorse. The young mans
final mystical quest for the daughter who has escaped hint ends in violent tragedy. This part of the book, in svhielt an old story-teller introduces an obviously " Jungle Book " fable, is far less satisfactory. It convinces up to a point, yet one has an uncomfortable feeling that there is a touch of the yearning, ecstatic East which Paris expects. The writing has that exotic, inflated, physical vividness which characterized the writer's previous novel . . . and CO., and again he comes perilously near to the obscurity of over- writing. His personages are at times in danger of being like so many attitudinizing adjectives bristling in the text. Also the use of the historic present in the translation rather unduly strains the tone for English ears.
I do not know who Mr. O'Donnell's literary forefathers are, but Mr. Kipling's Irish soldiers with their horribly mangled brogue are happily not among them. " The Knife " and his fellow-Republicans on the run' in Donegal are not " stage Irishmen." They are at the other extreme : humour. less idealists who might be the descendants of the high- minded, irritable and parochial Irish gods and fighting men who baffled the ingenuous Thompson when he found himself by mistake in Tir n'a Nog. Mr. O'Donnell's story is con- cerned with the confusions and clashes of local political interests on the Donegal border, and has the usual ambushes, assassinations and rescues. It is all very difficult to follow. The root of the difficulty lies in the fact that there is no development of character and little of situation ; his subject is static, his characters are merely names. There is no feeling beyond political feeling, and Mr. O'Donnell is essentially parochial, lacking the greatness of imagination or sympathy to make organic these guerilla anomalies of the Donegal border and to raise them, beyond statement, to the power of tragedy or comedy. It is a pity, because he writes with a fine lucidity, dignity and restraint, and any episode isolated from the text will be seen to have extraordinary vividness.
It is a big leap from the simple violence of the Donegal peasant to the labyrinthine mental conflicts which weary to death the over-civilized. Mr. Charles' book does not aim at superficial vividness, but it absorbs the interest in a real if sterile problem of our time. Is there any possibility of happiness in the union of a woman who is a natural pagan sceptic with a man who " believes in things " ? Bill is orthodox, with the selfishness (and unselfishness) of the possessive ; Pauline is evasive, unbelieving, ever allured by possession and fleeing from it. She thinks too much. It is a subject for the satirist, but Mr. Charles writes with gravity and faithfully records the messages of the strained nerve wires, until a violent accident destroys the problem if it does not solve it. Pauline goes mad—but would the gods have found her heroic enough to destroy ? It is to Mr. Charles' credit that by the suave persuasion of his serious prose he almost convinces one that they would.
To Kipling again in Miss Edith Wharton's Certain People. It is full of entertaining ideas. The first story, describing how a distraught married woman hurries to see her lover who is seriously ill, and is prevented from seeing him by a sister who puts her off with cruel trivialities, has Mr. Kipling's sardonic realism. The murder of an English recluse in the Egyptian desert by his Cockney servant, who has been maddened by loneliness, is another theme of the same order. One cannot press the comparison : Miss Wharton is not summary, and her caustic satire is written from some rock of belief and not from the tragic spleen of a divided soul. The short story, indeed, seems too mechanical, too reticent for her talent, and one is left over and over again with the sensation that, though expert in inventing ingenious situations, she has brought them off with ingenuity and not with art. She has a satirical study cf the grotesque old age of two " diners out " which one would have liked to see in the accomplished hands of Mr. Osbert Sitwell.
Old age is the subject of nearly all the stories in Signor Svevo's book, written from the point of view of the old. Thus a rich old man's amorous adventures with a young girl who drives a train—again a subject for the satirist, for mockery, and one to leave a nasty taste in the mouth—becomes for Svevo a study of the utmost gravity and gentleness. The whole story is perfect in its power of conviction, is at once ironic and profoundly moving, and has no trace of senti- mentality. There 'are three other such studies in the book, all with this fine objectivity, detachment, exactitude and sympathy. One feels one's experience has been enlarged.
V. S. Parrcuerr