Intimations of Eve. By Vardis Fisher. (Methuen. 9s. 6d.)
THAT the infusion of significance into his story depends directly upon the weight which the novelist imparts to his characters (this in turn being related to the intensity of his personal response to existence) is one of the lessons which may be drawn from The Hills Remain. Mr. Powell's characters fail to impress themselves emphatically upon one because their creator's mind evidently lacks depth and intensity. Their actions are unashamedly haphazard and meaningless. Marco Fontana runs away from the mountain commune of Colle San Giovanni and his amorous entanglement with the perfidious Camilla to enlist in the Italian Navy • after an affaire with a girl called Rosalia, and an engagement with the enemy, he returns with the war's ebb to marry a vicissitudinous Camilla and to take up life where he had dropped it.
The three sections, The Mountain Fastness, Descent to the Plain and After the Bombardment, are self-explanatory : after the upheaval of war the old pattern of life is resumed, the immemorial Hills Remain, and Marco, questioning his experience, reflects that-
" His every hope had been on the plain, he had descended and returned. He had met his crisis. There had been no change. He had neither progressed nor run down hill. It was all as before. His experience was absorbed in his illusions."
Experience, then, is meaningless. Stay in the mountains or descend to the plain, it is all one. Mr. Powell certainly does not write badly ; indeed, there are clear signs of promise in this first novel ; but his lack of intense concern for what he is writing about, besides resulting in this inert acceptance of futility, leads him stylistically to the dull method of reporting on his characters from a distance instead of making us share their experiences from within—a technical crudity which, however, is appropriate to the basic emotional flatness.
The Chasm raises the same questions in a different way. It is an example of the conventional novel at its best, a really well-executed piece of story-telling which stops short of artistic significance owing to the author's failure to follow his characters beyond the surface. If you can imagine For Whom the Bell Tolls as it might be written by Charles Morgan, you will have a good notion of what The Chasm is like. Its situation is almost identical with that of the Hemingway novel ; here, however, it is a war-worn English architect (Edward Burgess), instead of an American professor, who is isolated in an Italian mountain village instead of a Spanish mountain cave, with a group of peasants. H:, too, like the Hemingway hero, falls deeply in love with the girl of the place (Gemma), makes an enemy of his primitive rival in manhood (Bista) and, likewise in a tight corner, meets death in circumstanc.s strikingly similar to Robert Jordan's ; for here, too, it is the breaking of a bridge across a chasm which precipitates the whole situation and leads to the meeting with the dual realities of love and deatn. Yet where Hemingway, the better artist, brings his preoccupation with sexuality and death to the fore, subduing his plot to his theme, here it is the plot which is allowed to overrun the book, the theme remaining, in fact, shadowy and subconscious. (Where Hemingway's bridge is deliberately blown up, Mr. Canning's crashes by accident ; where Robert Jordan goes to claim his death, Burgess is killed in an effort to escape back across the chasm.) I shall never cease to be astonished at the apparent obliviousness of so many novelists to the unconscious patterns which underly the conscious surface of their work. Here is yet another novel, naturalistic in conception and technique, which is bungled by being badly fitted to the symbolism of its real unconscious content. The Saint and the Hunchback begins with a pleasant fantastic touch when the Monk Odo throws his stone coffin into the sea and, when it miraculously floats, drifts off with his companion, Aelfric, on a holy voyage. However, it soon transpires that this is to be neither allegory, fantasy nor good plain history, but a muddle-headed mischmasch in which the questions raised by Christianity can be debated in an atmosphere of unreality fitting to the half-hearted way in which they are approached. Commonplace and disappointing. Intimations of Eve is a novel of primitive man. It is hardly an imaginative work ; Mr. Fisher proceeds entirely by external obser- vation, as it were, and as if he were fictionalising The Outline of History with the intention of confounding and enlightening the fundamentalists of Oregon and Utah. It is well done, but, one would have thought, hardly worth doing, since the question of human values can hardly be raised in the context, unless Mr. Fisher is raising it by inference, by rubbing our human pretensions in the mud of our supposed origins: and was the dawn of history really