TliE average humorist thrives on an ability to divide humanity into types. The Man Who Always Does This or That is not only easier to pin down, but much more readily recognised as a Funny Character, than is some complex being who with his uncertainties and subterfuges may resemble painfully the reader himself. It is Mr Bemelmans's ability to draw individuals while losing nothing of wit or humour that gives his books their rare quality. In spite of the deep pathos that surrounds them, his characters stir a kindly laughter because of their great size. They arc too big to be pitiable and too individual to be like anyone but themselves. You or I may be as eccentric as anyone portrayed in Dirty Eddie, but we are not likely to be so in just the same way. Mr. Bemelmans is on safe ground. Eccentricity has always seemed comic to its audience, and in this story of the luxury life of Hollywood he presents for our delectation the antics of super-clowns. The writer never needs to stand aside from his characters to tell us how funny they are. Their behaviour tells us that.
If at first we become muddled between the antics of the three main characters—Moses Fable, magnate of Olympia studios, " last of a slowly dying race of mammoth men," on whose massive cheeks the thin veins are " like the engraving on gilt-edged securities " ; Maurice Cassard, writer of scripts, whom we see entering a room and visiting, " in a sagging fashion, with his knees falling forward," the four walls "as if they were about to fall down and he had to rush to hold them up " ; and Vanya Vashvily, film producer, sad-eyed, deaf, elderly and surrounded by the loveliest girls in the world—by the end of the book each has established himself for us as a complete and inimitable monstrosity. Added to these we have Ludlow Mumm, impoverished New York writer, summoned by Fable to the position
of " great writer " in Hollywood where, with two thousand dollars a week, luxury office, hotel suite, car and chauffeur, he drags himself from his " King of Ease " chaise-longue to do his stint in a picket line ; Belinda, beauty and film star yet genuine human being ; Hack, the bitter hack, whose scene with his parents is one of the most moving in the book ; and memorable minor characters like Ma Gundel and Lieutenant Casey McMahon. Added to all these there is Dirty Eddie, infant pig actor of genius, who, owing to the fact that Fable insists on shooting the last scenes first, grows smaller and smaller as the film is unwound. Other writers have made familiar to us the mad world of Hollywood, so it is not the back- ground or the story, but Mr. Bemelmans's remarkable gallery of portraits that is likely to stay in the memory.
The reverse is true of Mr. Payne's novel The Lord Comes. Here the characters are no more than glimpsed through the exquisitely contrived poetic atmosphere through which they move. The Himalayan frontier of Tibet is one of the few regions left to explorers, and Mr. Payne, writing of Gautama Buddha when a young Nepalese prince, uses his art to enhance rather than dispel its mystery. He knows that a reader seeking escape from our post-war desolation will not find the mere exotic background enough. Escapists who have never been further east than Lowestoft can recognise in the works of, say, Lu Hsun or Shen Tseng-Wen, the disturbing odour of reality. Through the lyric quality of his writing, Mr. Payne creates for us what pre-Freudians would have called a dream world. This was rather more effective within the confines of his short stories than it is now spread over the area of a novel. In The Lord Comes there are descriptions of violence and brutality, of suffering and passion, that might be expected to break through the pervading unreality, yet in retrospect the landscape of the book is curiously flat and its remaining flavour insipid. The mist of poetic philosophy lies too thickly over it all, so we seem at the end to have learnt little more about the life of Buddha than we knew at the beginning This is not to say that Mr. Payne has not produced a highly readable and important book. I for one read much of it with pleasure, and the writing throughout is of a high order.
Turning to first novels, we find in Mr. Fenton's The Double Darkness and Mr. Parsons's The Last Conspiracy opening sequences that are almost identical. In each a young man suffering from amnesia awakes to an unfamiliar world and sets out in it to discover his own identity. The hero of Mr. Parsons's book has to uncover an already existent personality, but that of The Double Darkness, a British private in post-war Athens, develops, as his new life gives him insight into the suffering about him, from the uncouth remnants of his former self to a thinking being. It is this process of development that gives to Mr. Fenton's book the greater force and depth. Both these young writers plead the cause of the people, but where Mr. Fenton enlists our sympathy by drawing from the inside his Greek poor and some worthless members of the monied class against which they revolt (his portrait of Carlo Pavlides is particularly true to life), Mr. Parsons uses the old Kafka method which auomatically overcomes the problems of presenting complex situations.
Mr. Parsons's book, although it has many exciting and vivid pas- sages, typifies much of the weakness of the literature of the extreme Left today. To express his ideals he uses the stilted phraseology of the pamphleteer (much of which derives from a too-literal transla- tion into English of German editions of Marx and Engels) and a tendency to present his ideas as though they must be acceptable from all points of view. His Mr. Spencer, for instance, as a symbol of the mysterious forces of the extreme Right, is to the unconverted simply an outrageous figure, but a writer with more subtle insight into his opponents could have made Spencer an unanswerable argument for the Left. Mr. Fenton, choosing the harder way of realism and broader thinking, is likely to prove the better apostle in the end.
The Causeway, also a first novel, deals not with social but with personal problems. The heroine who, in spite of her attractions, has managed to remain unmarried until the age of thirty-seven, loves a man fifteen years her junior and is loved by one seven years her junior. The age theme is important in the book, although the reader's impression is likely to be that all these characters are too young and bright to be true • the heroine, a virgin, being peculiarly undeveloped for her age. Miss Lear is more successful with her minor characters, and that of the heroine's father, a mad rector, lifts the book out of mediocrity.