No doubt the double epoch of the twenty odd years between the two world wars will, in due course, produce its masterpieces of fiction. The mere fact of having lived through the tragic 'twenties and the tedious 'thirties gives one the feeling of historic background, with all its clutter of agitation, crisis, cliniax and anti-climax. Where, then- is the novelist to begin? It might be wiser to ask when shall he begin ; if one did not know that novels already printed are busy with its multiple problems. Here are three novels, then, sharing the raw and common material of pre-war unrest. M. Jean Malaquais, we are told, won the Prix Renaudot for his novel, which is translated with a vivid and racy colloquialism by John Marks. Mr. Frederic Prokosch has now four novels to his credit, as well as three books of verse. But of Mr. Oliver Rooke? His publishers tell us nothing, so perhaps we may be forgiven for presuming The Sthord Falls a first novel. Both he and M. Malaquais deliberately restrict their scenes ; preferring the simplicity of a microcosmic presentation of their material ; while Mr. Prokosch, well known for his globe-trotting
predilections, journeys backwards - and forwards from Paris to various points of Europe in ninety short chapters of exploration.
How superb are the travellers in French novels! Think of them, for instance, in the works of Flaubert, Proust, Gide and Celine! Vitality is the reason why the simple, youthful traveller (who opens The Men From Java, in a prologue done with wit, irony and tenderness) touches us more deeply and surely, though we do not share his journey, than all the ghostly pilgrimages of Philip, the American journalist narrator of The Skies of Europe.
The great theme of the novel is individual life in society. It was Proust who wrote : "Man is the creature that cannot come forth out of himself, who knows others only in himself, and who, if he asserts the contrary, lies." These words, hard but just, express both the limitation and strength of individual expression M. Malaquais, who is more than a realist, does not exceed his
His iis characters, in spite of the sordid conditions under which they live, whatever their nationality in his polyglot collection, are human beings first and foremost. They are un- certain, unequal, but seldom unconvincing, however oddly thee may behave. We accept them in their coarseness, their anxiety, their commonness, as individuals, subject to the same ailments and troubles as ourselves. Java is a small mining camp in the South of France. The mine is managed by an Englishman, a one- armed, one-eyed ex-Bengal Lancer who drinks. There is an estaminet kept by Mme. Michel where the miners gather. In the neighbouring town there is a brothel and a corrupt policeman. The miners are mostly refugees from this country or that ; some have wives and children, others live in bachelor communities, but almost all of them are stateless, outcast from the lands of their birth. Quite casually and carelessly a stone is thrown into the control of the mine, so that it has to be abandoned ; the workers are sent hurriedly away. So the youthful traveller arrives to find Java deserted, except for a dying Russian woman and an Italian man, with wandering wits, who speaks a different language M. Malaquais has written a bitter but touching fable, enlivened
by the quality of his perceptions. •
With Mr. Prokosch there is 0.0 much diffuseness, so much up in the air and so little on the ground. His characters remind one of toy balloons, poke them 'and they bounce airily away ; one feels that a pin-prick would let out air rather than blood. Saskia, the lush heroine, is a beautiful nit-wit. Men have bled, murdered, lobbed and hung for creatures of less worth no doubt ; but we are not convinced by -the lady herself. She is too like the furnish- ings of the room which is her careless background: " The walls were painted white, the furnishings were ultra-modern ; they had, in fact, already begun to date a bit." For her. we are asked to believe that one man destroys another ; that Philip could eventually and utterly abandon himself : " Nothing could ever take her away again. Through fire and snow I'd follow her, through sickness, through city after city." Mr. Prokosch attempts so much, but always the power of history exerts its muddled theme of grandeur to confuse him ; Philip's reactions on seeing Hitler, in a teashop, serve as an illustration of this defect: " Suddenly I understood ; mirrors were hanging from the wall here and there. He was, as Dietrich had been doing, silently watching his own reflection in the mirror. He was at that very moment occupied in putting a few final. touches to a consummate work of art Consummate nonsense on the part of Mr. Prokosch who should ponder the dictum of Proust, which impinges acidly on the legend of the great ;- study L'Education Sentimentale to gain a proper historical approach.
With less pretentiousness,'Mr. Rooke is also overwhelmed by the monstrous onrush of history, so that. events take precedence over individuals. His principal characters, a pleasant Jewish family, living in the ancient town of Odenstadt, arc so much the pre-ordained victims of the dangerous gospel of race-hatred that they become symbols of persecution instead of individual beings. Their power to move us is in their plight ; it should be in their humanity. But in spite of its defects, this novel has
certain solid virtues and deserves to be read. The author obviously knew Germany before and after the Nazi rush to power, which gives the book its authentic quality. He sees the Germans, not as a nation of monsters to be destroyed, but as 1 ruthless race of sentimentalists. He explains in terms which the average reader can comprehend the state, so fatal for Germani and the world, which existed when Hitler snatched control. For this, too, he deserves our attention. Jolter HAMMON.