10 DECEMBER 1948, Page 18


Heart or Soul ?

From the Heart of Europe. By F. 0. Matthiessen. (Oxford University Press, New York. I 6s.) PROFESSOR MATTHIESSEN, of Harvard,--- was in Central Europe from July to the end of December, 1947. During the first two months he lectured on American literature to European students of sixteen nations at Schloss Leopoldskron, seat of the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies, initiated and administered by Harvard students. He then, in the autumn, went to Prague, to Charles .University ; where, as visiting lecturer for a term, he was the first American to become a regular member of the faculty. The bid for Professor Matthiessen, on the part of Charles University, showed genius - there was thereby secured the author of American Renaissance, of Henry lames: The Major Phase (also, co-editor of the Henry James Notebooks) and of The Achievement of T. S. Eliot, an essay on the nature of poetry. That the gain was reciprocal need not be said : the distinguished American found himself in the heart of one of the most famous universities of Europe. To be, as was the reviewer, in Czechoslovakia in 1948, was to feel the profound impression left by Professor Matthiessen, and to salute his visit's outstanding suc-

cess. As for his impressions, they are to hand, set down. •

From the Heart of Europe was written during the months abroad, and gives accounts of journeys taken, from Prague, to Brno, Bratis- lava and Budapest. A brief final section notes the return to America. The book is reflective in manner, in journal form ; it was concluded on New Year's Day, 1948, just less than two months before the Communist coup in Prague. The author has, honourably, left per- sonal views and predictions which time has falsified to stand ; he adds a few footnotes dated March, 1948. From the Heart of Europe makes, he says in the preface, " no pretence of giving a full report on any of the countries I visited. I am not a trained journalist, and I went to Europe primarily because I had been invited to lecture ... This is less a travel book than a journal of opinions, a record of what I thought about during half a year abroad." On the following page the book opens : " I want to write about some of the things it means to be an American today. That is the chief thing I came to Europe to think about."

Here indeed was a subject ripe for reflection. Professor Matthiessen's position in Central Europe was, however, at once com- plicated and simplified by a further fact: he is not only an American but an American socialist. (It is he who, throughout, abjures the capital letter.) In his official role of cultural representative of his country, he was to find it required some discretion to deliver his own progressive views without reflecting, unpatriotically, upon majority backwardness at home. As against that, he was, from the moment of landing at Prague airport, both personally and ideologic- ally in Paradise. This was (apart from a fortnight's visit to an improved England) the first Socialist country he had been in. He is to be felt to draw, throughout the Czechoslovak portion, a series of deep, reassured and wholly satisfied breaths. His love for the Czechs—which is not to be wondered at: not to respond to the Czech warmth, decency, uprightness, intelligence and dignity would be a sign of having a soul so dead—is reinforced by thorough moral approval. Czechoslovakia might, indeed, have been found to be the:ideal Socialist State—in the sense that the regime made for the full• expansion of the most characteristic of the national virtues, and that the disappearance of certain graces was regretted, apparently, by:-the outsider only. On the subject of the sturdy, clear-cut Moravians, and of Brno, our author has less to say ; his visit was, it is true, brief. In the maul Brno would not appear to have left on him—to the extent, at leak, that it left on another traveller—any very unique impression visual or moral. And the long-legged, dilatory Slovaks and generally Riuitanian atmosphere of Bratislava would seem to have combined to -disconcert him. " It took some time," he remarks, " to find out exactly what the majority party stood for." One likes to know where one is. Yet, across the Hungarian border, the already declared political situation filled Professor Matthiessen with a profound mis- trust ; he was prone, throughout his visit to Budapest, to a sense of disorientation and nervousness—which the city's surviving graces, the brilliant disabused talk, the good things and good looks, only drove in deeper. It is not easy to understand what Professor Matthiessen means when he says he found Prague like Paris ; to any other eye Budapest would, surely, appear more so. The author did not, as may be inferred, bring to Central Europe that particular susceptibility to sensations, that interest in the con- tradictory for its own sake, which mark the traveller. He did bring the noblest of open simpaihies—if, because of his zeal, his bias, his predisposition to see in a certain way, the sympathies circumscribed themselves, he was not aware of it. He truly believed himself eager to meet all sorts. He is a Christian ; he is a Socialist for that reason, the most honourable—" to love thy neighbour as thyself seems to me an imperative to social action." He is not a Communist for the same reason—" I find Any materialism inadequate." Why, since he is a Christian, does he seem to have remained so curiously out of contact with Czechoslovakia's spiritual life ? It was impossible, on at any hour entering any of the churches, to ignore, below the baroque altars, those many figures twisted in an extremity of prayer. True, he met the soul—which is, I believe, the dominating element in Central Europe, so much so that even politics seem to be only one more of its manifestations—in the intense and prodigious response to art. One -could have wished, too, that, given his eminence in his own subject, he could have made some effort to account for the fact that Shakespeare is at present sweeping Central Europe : our poet moves forward steadily with the Communist front. On the other hand, the discussion of the questions brought up by the suppression of Anna Akhmatova's poetry in the U.S.S.R. is honest, admirable. Occasionally, one has the feeling that Professor Matthiessen overshot the mark—as when, asked by a Communist Prague student for names of American texts that should be translated into Czech, " I told him that . . . In Dubious Battle was in many ways Steinbeck's best book, and that it gave a picture of labour's struggles in the depression. He wrote it down, but added that the books didn't have to be about social problems, that he wanted most to know about some of our good works of art." Elsewhere one is surprised by the occasions of Professor Matthiessen's surprise—he was disappointed that the students at the Salzburg Seminar, almost all from still or lately occupied countries, were slow in opening up into free political discussion ; and there was the incident of the carpenter and the hand-towel. One has still, surely, to meet a subservient carpenter ; and in this case the carpenter was the pro- fessor's host . . . . From the Heart of Europe is a book of the first interest, to be saluted for its own soundness of heart. It may rouse, here and there, impatience, but of the respectful kind.