By FORREST REID
WHY does nobody write a novel about a book collector ?
Here is an unhackneyed theme presenting considerable dramatic possibilities. Think of the tense excitement of the great sales, the suspense, the despairs, the triumphs ; the wolf-like prowling among second-hand stalls and shops (old furniture shops should not be neglected), the stealthy smuggling home of treasures so that domestic criticism—always adverse— may not be aroused. Recklessness, envy, duplicity, pertinacity, the true collector knows them all—to say nothing of tempta- tions to downright dishonesty. Every passion may be his except the one that novelists eternally harp upon. That, if it be present, must be kept subsidiary. I do not want a book like Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard, in which a bibliophile is the hero and there the matter ends ; I want the real thing, presenting not only the hunter but the chase, its zest and eagerness and adventure, with, of course, a description of the actual quarry. I shall not get what I want ; nor anything nearer to it, I suspect, than such a tale as The Spoils of Poynton. It is clear that the author would have to be not only a novelist but himself a collector, and among contemporaries I can think only of Mr. Michael Sadleir as qualified for the task.
These reflections are not so random as may appear : they were suggested by Mr. McGraw's Fine Romance, which, though undoubtedly an able novel of its kind, is neither fine nor romantic. Nor is the kind one I care for. I do not think the sole interest in life is sex, and I dare say Mr. McGraw does not think so either, though his book is devoid of any other content. Denis, the young hero of the story, is enslaved by the beauty of a typist. He has a mind that tells him she is worthless, a will which now and then puts up a feeble struggle against her, but only to collapse the more abjectly at the first overtures she makes. As for Sylvia, the typist in question, " what can the reader do but pardon all her faults ? For she is Aphrodite come to the suburbs." So runs the " blurb," but one reader at any rate found no resemblance to Aphrodite in this cheap common little amateur whore, compact of greed, treachery, and spite. Mr. McGraw seems to know the type almost as well as Alfred de Vigny- Car la femme est un etre impur de corps et d'dme—though it does not move him, as it did the poet, to a proud and stoical
pessimism. On the contrary, he gives Sylvia exactly what she desires, and since this is all that matters to her, one supposes she is happy. She is at the same time odious, and so trans-
parently so that I could feel no sympathy with her lover. He is not deceived, he is not a fool, but he is too weak really to be anything but worthless himself.
It is a relief to turn from this chronicle of " love " and cupidity to Miss Young's Celia. Here we are in an English cotrury town, among pleasant and intelligent people, capable of affection, capable of unselfishness, capable, too, in their attitude towards one another, of an irony which does not in the least impair their mutual friendliness and consideration.
They are not aristocrats, but in comparison with Sylvia and Denis they have an air of good breeding, a natural graciousness, which is partly the gift of the author's manner ; and though May is stupid, Julia a humbug, and old Mrs. Marston rather awful, even they are too amusing to be disagreeable. The novel is simply the history of three families—Celia's, May's, and their brother John's. The elder generation is middle-aged, the children are either growing up or just grown up, while Mrs. Marston represents a generation older still. It is all very quiet, nothing unusual happens, the story is little more than a record of the relations between these brothers, sisters, cousins, fathers and mothers. Yet it holds our interest, it very definitely has charm. Perhaps it is from Celia that the charm chiefly emanates. Lazy, sleepy, absent-minded, beloved and admired by all the younger members of the families, Celia nevertheless remains an enigma to her contem- poraries. Her placidity, her quaintness, her gently ironical humour, do not make her husband happy. She is evasive, detached, kind, but he would like it better perhaps if she made an occasional scene. That at least would show that she was not indifferent, not living in a dream from which he feels himself to be permanently excluded. And he • is not mistaken ; he plays a very minor part in Celia's emotional life. On the other hand, her relations with her son and daughter are entirely satisfactory. They are not curious about her secret dreams. She is understanding, she is unexacting, they can talk to her as they would to someone of their own age, and with much more certainty of sympathy.
Even her absent-mindedness, her habit of producing aloud the result of some lengthy private train of thought, amuses them. They are proud of her ; she is unexpected, and at the same time wonderfully pleasant to live with. But that is not the verdict of Julia or May or John or Mrs. Marston, with all of whom a very little of the unexpected goes a long way.
I think Miss Young's novel will give pleasure to a great many readers, and the delicacy of her method seems to me in no way to detract from its truth to reality. Mr. Strauss is
realistic in a different fashion, but then there is not much room for delicacy in a tale like Black Caesar, where all the
characters—members of a road construction gang that includes both Blacks and Whites—are the toughest of the tough, and the central incident is the claim of a white girl to have been attacked and raped by a negro. Mr. Strauss is direct and straightforward, reporting faithfully the obscene talk, the brutality and violence. Where questious of taste arise his touch is not sc sure. It is odd, but the only passage in his book which struck me as offensive is one conceived in an idyllic mood, depicting a domestic scene, the playful tenderness of husband and wife. But the terror of the doomed negro, the attempt of the rough gang to save him, the fight against the townsmen—these are described powerfully and dramatically. And the toughs after all behave well, risking their lives to defend the innocent Caesar : we suddenly like them ; they are infinitely preferable to Denis and Sylvia.
A Tale from Bali is a pictorial novel. Its aim is to evoke the life and surroundings of the island natives rather than to tell a story, though there is a story there, turning on the plunder of a wrecked Chinese ship, a demand for compensation, its refusal, and the intervention of the Dutch. This last is the big scene and the climax. Rather than submit to their con- querors, the natives, dressed for death, allow themselves to be mown down by machine-guns. They are a singular people, combining gentleness and childishness with barbarity and cruelty. One does not get quite the same impression of them from Vicki Baum's picture as one does from Conrad. There is no burning of wives in Conrad, and though Alit the lord might have figured in a Conrad novel, the portrait would have been more subjective—the thoughtfulness would have been there, the sense of honour, the faithfulness in friendship, but not the cruelty that cuts off hands and plunges a knife into eyes.
Thy Rod and Thy Staff is a Swedish novel—a chronicle of the Borck family, into which the peasant girl Agnes marries, and eventually, by sheer force of character, becomes its head. As Granny Borck she remembers, and talks with God, who sits familiarly on the side of her bed, and through these memories the novel takes shape. Granny is an extraordinary person, wicked, she sometimes thinks, and certainly as arbitrary as God himself. Spiritually the family revolts against her, blaming her for the misfortunes that overtake certain members of it ; yet they submit. Granny is rich, Granny has established the Borck fortunes. But Granny fell in love with boys ; she once, to everybody's embarrassment, fell in love with her own son. Moreover it was her fault that that son had a bastard, and it was certainly due to her that the bastard was brought into the house and treated as a respectable member of the family. The old woman goes over it all without excuses or repinings, and God listens.
Mr. Wells's The Camford Visitation hardly comes into the category of fiction. There is fiction in it, even a touch of the old magic that created The Invisible Man and The Time Machine, but it is essentially a " word in season." We are heading for disaster, and the mysterious voice that questions, and in questioning counsels, is the voice of Mr. Wells. The warning is justified, is apt, is wise.