Out of the Fashion
The Proverb, and Other Stories. By Marcel Ayme. Translated by Norman Denny. (Bodley Head, 16s.) In a Summer Season. By Elizabeth Taylor. (Peter Davies, 16s.)
The Proverb is much to be recommended. As 1 read these stories 1 had a feeling which used to come with another volume of stories by Maupassant or Turgenev or Leskov, of delighted surpriseāthis isn't in any other way, a critical comparisonāevoked by their variation, their acceptability and easy effectiveness. Approaching sixty, Marcel Aymd is an incisive inventor with- out ambiguities, clear in aim, exact in perform- ance, who hasn't attracted a more or less avant- garde criticism excited only by 'significance,' and who at the same time has been far too intelligent, uncondescending, penetrating and witty to be made much of by the middle appraiser. Yet at least nine of his novels have been translated.
The stories in The Proverb include fables, written with the fabulist's necessary realism; for instance, 'The Life-Ration,' in which the useless (authors included) are rationed in wartime to so many days' living a month, or 'Backwards,' 'n which billionaires are horrified when their in- experienced sons finance a review overlooking that we are all Socialists now and proclaiming the rich man's true opinion of the masses. Other stories cut into behaviourāof schoolmasters (M. Ayme has never recovered from schoolmasters), school children, toadies, average and correct persons, old maid, old bachelor. As the tailor remarks in one story, a duke 'doesn't have his navel between his shoulder-blades,' and most of us 'fumble our way through life on our hands and knees, sniffing the ground.' M. Ayme doesn't bind: he is cheerful, he knows, he states, ex- cluding neither tenderness nor ruthlessness, reporting the bawdy as well as the delicate.
If an author has wit, invention, appetite and a shaping sense, he doesn't have to be tricky (with language, for example), which is one lesson from this unfashionable author. He doesn't have to pinnacle himself and proclaim, 'I belong to Now, damn your eyes,' a proceeding which often tips him hurriedly, and deservedly, on the dump of the old tins.
A dislikeable (and discreditable) habit is de- ducing from novels the present status of Truth, etcetera, in the novelist's country, particularly if it is. Russia. No doubt a Sunday paper analyst can deduce something or other about the Rus- sians under Mr. K after Mr. S from this new novel, The Spring, by Ilya Ehrenburgāabout as exactly and usefully as a Russian analyst could deduce the English situation by analysing Sir Arthur Bryant's recent book about the dog in his life. Sir Arthur Bryant's book wasāwell, what it was doesn't matter, and Mr. Ehrenburg's novel isāalso nothing that matters. Names enter. Names speakāabout art, hope, the factory, the new society, love, reprimands. Spring occurs. Sonya (engineer) loves Savchenko (engineer), after all, This novelette is about as exhilarating as a dead dandelion, as active, though not as sharp, as a tin-tack; for which I blame the author, and neither Mr. K nor the late Mr. S.
In a Summer Season and The Song of the Red Ruby are knitting (female) and unrolling (male). Mrs. Taylor's novels are commended, and I cannot see why. She knits (in this one) a moneyed milieu on the Chiltern fringe between country and Sloane Square : middle-ageing rich wife, previous children, younger second husband, goodish cooking, discreet nakedness, worldly- wise commonplaces of our psychological era (e.g., about the adolescent growing-away of children), references to Blake, War and Peace, and The Spoils of Poynton (Ilya Ehrenburg shares this comfying of his readers with cultural references āto Stendhal, Chekhov, Van Eyck)āall knitted into a sugar-salt novel of a provinciality as ab- solute as Ehrenburg's. 'Lady,' one would say, 'if you will summarise a character as "a Harrods woman," provincial you are, and will remain.' Or one could discourse on the differences im- plicit in Jane Austen's remark, that she fancied she had 'an eye'ānot for a public, butā'for an adultery.' Either way would be to make too much of purling.
Agnar Mykle's novel, tumescent, verbose, Norwegian, 335 pages, unrolls a single man, a handsome poor young man whose habit is to sleepāone might have guessed this after a while āwith his hand around his member. He looks for the Ruby which is life's finest treasure, and which he doesn't find in the rather remarkable copulative' (and contraceptive) scenes which re- peat themselves like great red roses on the un- rolling. The inbetweens of this blown-rose garden of girls can hardly help being a little dull. They are also a little cosmic, though they in- clude an engaging contact with a Moral Rearmer who almost at once, in 'a low calm voice,' asks the so frequently ithyphallic hero, 'Do you masturbate?'āand then gives him cod for lunch. The young man does find his Ruby, and has to conclude that love is loneliness. But it is in the rosy episodes, not the conclusion, that this deter- mined novel is all, shall I say, aglow.