Blood Money. By Edward Hyams. (The Bodley Head. 8s. 6d.)
THE human icebergs move haphazardly and noisily across the waters. Occasionally there is a crash—a ship, another iceberg ; shapes change or slip for ever into oblivicfn. And always, below the surface, sinister, unpredictable and fascinating, is the all-important six-sevenths that.is never seen. For the novelist the central problem is how to deal with this invisible six-sevenths. He can ignore it, of course, and pretend that human beings are so many flat-bottomed celluloid ducks floating about on the bath-water. His book will be of interest to flat-bottomed celluloid ducks. He.can put on his big diving suit and concentrate on the six-sevenths entirely, which is in its way just as unsatisfactory a method as the first because it too gives a false picture of the iceberg. He can bob up and down taking occasional looks at what is above and below the surface in turns. (This is M. Vailland's technique in Playing With Fire.) Or he can try to convey the sight of the one simultaneously with the feel of the other, as Miss Boyle does in 1939. (The most difficult method, it is probably the most satisfactory if it comes off.) Finally he can invent a face-saving formula indicating that he knows perfectly well what goes on beneath the surface but at the same time letting himself out from having to tell you what it is. And this is the technique of Mr. Nigel Balchin.
It might be said of Mr. Balchin that he positively revels in his own limitations. And the reader—once he has accepted the fact that he will meet the face-saving formula whenever the going is tricky—can hardly help but revel in them too. ; FOr Mr. Balchin is clever and very readable. In The Borgia Testament, by turning Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli's hero, into hero of his own he has ' enabled himself to write a very efficient and readable historical novel in the modern idiom. Speaking in the first person with the familiar Balchin tight lip, Cesare tells the story of the growth, development and collapse of his personal and political power in Italy at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the course of this there are many exciting incidents and one excellent character study, that of Cesare's father, Pope Alexander VI. But Mr. Balchin pays the price for choosing a medium so suitable to his own limited talents— or rather talented limits. In the first place Cesare reveals as much as he is ever going to reveal about himself very early on, and before the end one has moments of exasperation with the slick compressed creature. For heaven's-sake let up on it all for a moment, one wants to shout at him. Secondly,,because the development of the story itself is conditioned by history, which is not concerned with what will or will not make a readable book, there is not quite that smoothness of development which makes the most exciting sort of reading. So that on the whole, though parts of The Borgia Testament are as efficient as anything that Mr. Balchin has yet done, it does not quite make good its publishers' claim to be as readable as Mine Own Executioner or The Small Back Room.
For those who like their books to be set in the past and yet are appalled by the idea of a sixteenth-century Pope saying, " I mead the girl likes him and thinks him good in bed," there is something more conventional in Attic and Area by Francesca Marton. This is the story of a country girl's first year as a maid-servant in the London of 1840. Miss Marton has obviously put a great deal of hard work into her study of the period, and the book contains a suitable sprInkling of colourful period references (New Police, Chartism, contemporary songs, &c.). But though a great number of characters are wheeled in and out with no less industry, the total effect is a little dull, like a novel of Dickens without any of Dickens' genius, anger or humour. And even if one can't have that one longs for something like the cloMrness of Mr. Balchin.
For M. Vailland and Miss Boyle, whose techniques have been described above, cleverness is quite rightly not enough. They are more interested in depth. Playing With Fire by M. Vailland is a vivid unsentimental story of the resistance movement in Paris during the German occupation, and as such it is extremely exciting. It is refreshing to meet heroes of the resistance as ordinary men and women for a change—tough, cynical, selfish even, but un- mistakably flesh and blood. (And, incidentally, none the less heroes for being like- that.) It is on some of his trips below the surface to look at the submerged six-sevenths that one has difficulty in accompanving M. Vailland. The " stream of consciousness "
technique can be wearying at any time but especially when there is an exciting story going on above at the same time. And this is also true of long analytical conversations about Marxism and politics. The six-sevenths, though essential, should not be allowed to become a bore.
1939 is a sensitive love story which we learn only in retrospect after the two participants—a Frenchwoman and an Austrian ski- instructor living together in the Savoy Alps—have been separated by the outbreak of war. At first they have imagined that he is being mobilised into the French Army, but after the separation each in turn is made to realise that the Austrian's destination is a French concentration camp. All this, together with the almost technical details of the Austrian's nationality, provides the less interesting part of the book, which is written in two halves—the separation seen from the woman's and the man's point of view. What is good is the intensity of the woman's feelings on finding herself alone, and the parochial atmosphere of the Savoy village. Unfortunately the same intensity is applied equally to less deserving material, and the effect is sometimes a little monotonous. Paradoxically both Playing With Fire and 1939 suffer in readability from their admirable determination to get well below the surface of human behaviour. Which does not mean that such attempts are necessarily doomed to failure, but merely that they are extremely difficult to bring off successfully. One thing is certain ; no great novel can be written unless the attempt—in whatsoever form—is made.
A good many second-rate light books get away with it about this time of year as "holiday reading." Even so it is a near thing for There's a Horse in My Tree, a shoddy book which is like a tired old Bright Young Thing. Edward Hyams' satirical farce of the European and American social and political scenes, Blood Money, will ensure a more stimulating afternoon in a deck-chair, although there is a mirthlessness about much of it that comes strangely from a