20 AUGUST 1948, Page 26


Mn. ALEX COMFORT, in his profoundly interesting book on the modern novel, poses a test question: "Is this writer capable of recognising a human being?" And, lest there be a doubt as to the degree of recognition, he adds, "The responsible writer sees everyone naked, and is naked himself." Judged by this test, M. Bernanos is a responsible writer. He recognises, he understands, he reveals. I think that in one respect he goes beyond Mr. Comfort's requirements, in that what he reveals is open to more than one interpretation. There is a great difference between this divine ambiguity (if I may be allowed so to call it) and the ambiguity that comes from imperfect vision or from clumsy handling. Revealing all that can be humanly seen, M. Bernanos reminds us, subtly but unmistakably, that we do not see everything.

Joy is a study of a saint. A girl, Chantal, the centre of a small and decayed community, awaits with awe and impatience the crisis for which, from its first page, the book prepares us. She has no fear, for she can only "fall into God," but she suffers from suspense and from the misunderstandings and the spite of those around her. "When, one day, you think yourself lost," her father confessor had said, "it will be because your little task is almost done." Chantal feels lost ; she is looking for the end. Suddenly, terribly, it comes. The naked realisation of it is too much for the Abbe Cenabre, who "only thought of being his own deliverer, of freeing himself by his own efforts."

In this novel—the title is not ironic—M. Bernanos faces some of the deepest problems of experience. Saintliness brings out the worst in people, as well as the best. Chantal is as bad for some of those about her as they are for her. Cunningly they express their resent- ment, suggesting to her that the quality which so discomforts them may be madness inherited from a grandmother and a mother who killed herself. The mad are maladjusted to a three-dimensional reality. So is the saint. M. Bernanos believes there is a difference, and his book attests it. Joy has the best qualities of French writing, lucidity, exactness, vision, and a discipline which keeps it always within the limits of what can be said. To spiritual certainty and human objectivity has been added an all but perfect craftsmanship Mr. Maugham is concerned, not with saintliness' but with miracles. Catalina, beautiful but crippled, has a vision of the Madonna who tells her that she will be healed by "the: son of Juan Suarez De Valero, who has best served God." The eldest son, Bishop Blasco, is persuaded to attempt the miracle by Dona Beatriz, a proud and snobbish lady prioress, who originally entered the order because of her hopeless love for him. He fails. The setond son, Don Manuel, a dissolute soldier, does no better. Catalina's uncle, an unfrocked priest with a heart of gold, whom readers of Mr. Maugham may feel they have met before, suggests to Blasco that the third son, Martin, a baker, is the man to work the miracle. The miracle takes place, and wins back for the former cripple her lover, the handsome Diego, "a creature of licentious passion." To Diego's annoyance, he is obstructed by a miracle every time he seeks to give his passion its head. Catalina assures him that these manifestations

are due only to her virginity. Marriage is essential. A few hours later the lovers comment on this.

"It was just as well to make assurance doubly sure," he said. "Trebly," she murmured, not without a certain smug self- satisfaction.

"That is nothing, child," he returned with a very pardonable complacency. "You do not know yet of what I am capable."

At this point Don Quixote and Sancho Panza appear and lead the pair to an inn. A troupe of strolling players have lost their leading lady. Catalina takes her place, and presently becomes the greatest actress of the age. Years later her performance as Mary Magdalen restores the faith of Bishop Blasco who muses on the inscrutability of God's ways. "Through her He wounded me and through her He healed me." This will, I hope, be a sufficient account of "this strange, almost incredible but edifying narrative "—the author's own description—to enable readers to decide whether they are likely to enjoy Catalina. Questions of taste apart, how does it fare by Mr. Comfort's standards?

The author of Ashenden and First Person Singular has always, very properly, portrayed character by showing us what people do and say. This method is wholly successful where the objects of a writer's interest match his talent and the cast of his mind. It has a further 'advantage in that one can accurately report conduct without under- standing its motives. In later years Mr. Maugham has become interested in other aspects of character and experience, the mystic, the visionary, the poetic, where something more than accurate observation is required. In Catalina he has followed all his inclina- tions, some happily, some less than happily. Don Quixote, always a powerful symbol in his mind, emphasises that this is a fairy-tale ; but some of its values appear uneasy. To vulgarise Mr. Comfort's phrase, Mr. Maugham sees Blasco naked, but some of the other 'characters in pants and brassiere. At the risk of seeming to lack humour, I shall forget Catalina, and continue to admire and respect the author of Ashenden and The Casuarina Tree.

I Miss Cannan dislikes her characters, but without passion. Only when she reaches the avoidable death of a child from peritonitis does her spleen rise to .real anger. Then she writes memorably. The trouble with this very intelligent and readable novel of Oxford life is that the characters are abstractions, targets for dislike, rather than living and breathing men and women. Instead of being naked, they wear costumes designed by Miss Cannan. If this is a harsh 'judgement on a book by a writer who has often given me great pleasure, I beg forgiveness ; but Mr. Comfort—and M. Bernanos- will not let me say less.

Elephant Walk, well named, moves with solid tread to a romantic conclusion. When a bull elephant charged the teak bungalow which George built for Ruth, George shot it ; but its baby escaped. Ruth is not happy in the bungalow. George's friends are adolescents who play polo on bicycles, and she turns to Geoff. But Geoff wants

native girl too. Finally the baby elephant, now a full-grown bull, charges the bungalow, knocking over the lamps and setting it on fire.

"My God," said George . . . "that's the end."

"No, darling," said Ruth softly. "It's the beginning."

Honest if weighty going. Mr. Standish at least can recognise