17 MARCH 1961, Page 27

So Wild

Laughter in the Dark. By Vladimir Nabokov. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, I5s.) The Coral Barrier. By Pierre Gascar. Translated by Merloyd Lawrence. (Deutsch, 10s. 6d.) The Journey Homeward. By Gerald Hanley.

(Collins. 18s.)

I SUPPOSE we've some excuses for not noticing Saul Bellow's first novel when it originally appeared here fifteen years ago. We were bent over our own post-war seedlings; there was none of the fanfare in American quarterlies which alerted us to Angie March: and in 1946, you may remember, eyes on both sides of the Atlantic were busily skinned for the big, Tolstoian war-novel, all steel, bombs and apocalypse. Dangling Man , !vas a slender, ironic meditation on the eve, set In America's equivalent of the phoney war : that Winter of '42-43 when, behind holding opera- tions in North Africa and the Pacific, the bulk of American manpower chafed half-in, half-out of uniform while the great invasions were built. It takes a few years' distance to put battles in

Perspective as events meaningless in themselves, significant only as turning-points; and it is easier to feel the true weight of Bellow's novel in this belated new edition. It seems now to define the turning marked by the war a good deal more sharply than many South Sea battle-epics or Young lion-hunts.

Joseph has been drafted, but his call-up has been deferred. The travel agency has filled his job, there is no point starting another. He siouches in the noisy little Chicago rooming- house, cleaning up while bis wife Iva works down-town; smoking too much, eating between meals, leafing through the papers and picking quarrels with friends, relations, Tva herself., As one friend finally complains, 'You've got so Wild!' He has dropped out of society into a wilderness of inaction, where the scaffolding of assumptions which shore up life collapses. Like another._ philosopher in a small, over-heated room, he begins to doubt the very grounds of reason, civilisation, his own identity. He has been a Thirties radical: what has he improved? He has been a Western intellectual:, what does he really know? He has been a twentieth-century humanist: can he really feel involvement in the catastrophe of his century? Like Camus in the wilderness of occupied France, he finds himself doubting all values but survival, the thread of life by which he dangles on war's brink.

Yet the novel is a comedy, and the joke is that every detail of Joseph's withdrawal from his world becomes a stroke of loving definition.

His disputes with himself are argued striding along Chicago's windy, luminous inland shore. under the fantastic iron sculpture of its El. His fights with neighbours and landlord become cele- brations of its teeming, rowdy tenement life:

each quarrel witb his friends—Morris Abt, Myron Adler, Minna Servatius-- turns into a won-

derful, tortuous Jewish exercise in critical affec-

tion. Falling out of his society teaches him his dependence. The years since Mr. Bellow wrote

Dangling Man have given it a historical point be may not have intended. Even as the old liberal, argumentative, bourgeois Jewish brilliance of central Europe bled to death on Nazi barbed wire. Vienna's heritage was rising again, with all its elaborate irony, unsparing earnestness and

mocking despair, in new soil across the Atlantic. In Dangling Man, Saul Bellow gave self-recogni- tion as a society to the new Jewish-American in- telligentsia. and established himself as a major poet of its flowering.

There has been much talk of Vladimir Nabokov's refugee sensibility, and perhaps too little discussion of him as an original. We are only beginning to accept the art which introduces new objects into nature—Henry Moore's human rocks. Jackson Pollock's mineral-moss carpets.

Perhaps Nabokov should be treated as a similar inventor: the impresario of unheard-of events, told in exotic language. Laughter in the Dark, which he wrote in 1938, -is comparatively conventional linguistically (he translated it from

Russian). but its main point Seems to be the achievement of a situation which no author could have staged before.

Albinus. a Berlin art critic, wrecks his mar- riage for a tawdry Blue Angelette ushering at the local flea-pit. But Margot's tiny mind is obsessed by the feral picture-forger, Axel Rex, who gains access to their love-nest by feigning perversity. Albinus is blinded in an accident, and

Axel silently moves in to stay: who else' could have thought of that? The only possible echoes

are of later Nabokov—Albinus, romping on the beach, is taken for Margot's father. Faced with his rage for uniqueness in such stark immaturity, you begin to see how impossible it is to dis- entangle the inventive brilliance of his later work's sick riches from the underlying mon- strosity. He must make monsters: what else is new thing in nature?

Art from monstrosity? Pierre Gasdar's The Coral Barrier is a short, light tragedy whose final effect is pure grace: yet its hinge, certainly

new to fiction, is the custom of female circumci- sion, and attendant surgery, practised in the Horn of Africa. 'Their women are sewn up,' bursts out the young Italian, Luigi; and the other colonial banclors, dallying out the last months before Somali independence on the café-ver- andah over Mogadiscio's blazing lagoon, smile furtively, knowing he means the gazelle-flanked waiting-girl, Jilal. The ingenious economy with which M. Gascar turns their endeavour to con- summate their love into agonising political scan- dal could easily fall into mere plotting for Maupassant's sake. But without a waste word, he raises his anecdote to a matter of whether Europe can love this bone of a land, whose classic forms reduce, like its pottery, to elements of blood, dust and dung.

A similar background glow of feeling for India saves Gerald Hanley's The Journey Homeward from mere, oddly messy story-telling. It's busy with picturesque, intelligent things, but you can't tell from page to page how you're to take it. Just a Louis Bromfield saga of Anglicised angst in the princely States during partition? Or is there wry Ustinov allegory in the picture of Jashimpur, whose people have been enslaved so often their servility is a joke to themselves? Or is all this light relief to the Graham Greene struggle by Miss Bullen, the elderly missionary, to guide the young maharani from whisky to God? An earthquake sweeps them away before you can decide--perhaps to save Mr. Hanley some decisions himself. It's untidy but interesting --like Jashimpur. ,