6 JANUARY 1923, Page 32


A REALISTIC NOVEL.* THE importance, from the point of view of criticism, of the influence of one writer on another is very much over-estimated nowadays. In the old days not only was this taken as a matter of course, but writers such as Shakespeare and Milton unhesitatingly took over ideas and phrases from others when they suited their requirements. Nowadays the critic who secs obvious resemblances to Henry James or Hardy or Conrad in the work of contemporaries is apt to assume that such work is mere pastiche, or at least that it is the worse for those resemblances. He forgets two things—that the work of every writer is the synthesis of countless influences, and that influ- ence is something very different from imitation. Imitation alone never yet produced a work of art. Mrs. Wharton is obviously and profoundly influenced by James and equally obviously and profoundly Mr. McFee is influenced by Mr. Conrad ; but that is no reason why their books should not be read and judged as independent works of art, the less so that both in the case of Mrs. Wharton and of Mr. McFee the influence has been almost wholly for the good.

Mr. McFee, as those who know his work are aware, knows how to write and how to construct living characters. Mr. Spokesly, in the present book, is completely real : whatever our feelings towards him and our interest in his fortunes may be, his objective reality is unquestionable ; so, too, is that of the other characters. Mr. Dainopoulos (half repulsive, half likeable), Evanthia and the scenes in which the story unfolds, remain hard and bright in the memory like a seaside resort in dazzling sunshine. This quality, in fact, of hardness and brightness is both Mr. McFee's strength and his weakness, for it connotes not only precision and vigour and what is often a very telling irony, but also a lack of tenderness and a too obvious, too mechanical efficiency in description which sometimes tires. He is intensely interested in realism and he has the skill with which to achieve it, but when that skill deserts him for a moment he plunges into an excess which is as far from true realism as the wildest romanticism.

The story concerns the development of Mr. Spokesly, Second Officer in the Merchant Marine, during the War. Dangers and catastrophes in the Mediterranean and a love affair at Salonika and Smyrna with a fierce and romantic young lady called Evanthia Solaris, have the effect of trans- forming him from an easy-going, self-satisfied and rather inefficient person into a vigorous, masterful man, matured by experience and suffering. The psychological development is well worked out, and if it does not always hold our interest, this is due to the fact that the level of the analysis is too exclusively realistic, that it seldom sinks to the point at which the depths of human passion and unreason begin to emerge. But, let us add, Mr. McFee is a writer whose work shows considerable achievement and still more promise : it is work of a high standard.