23 JUNE 1961, Page 28

Out of the Labyrinth

Henry's Wife. By Ralph Ricketts. (Chapman and Hall, 15s.)

THE impressive build-up given to Andre Gorz's The Traitor is enough to intimidate any critic. Who am I to argue it out with Existentialism's pope, Jean-Paul Sartre, when in his thirty-six- page foreword to the book he claims the essen- tial originality of Gorz, and when he promises so much: 'Books are corpses, yet here is one which, scarcely in our hands, becomes a living creature'? As usual, Sartre dazzles and gyrates with intelligence, and disarms every critical frown ('do not expect the gesture which is style'); he offers excitement and revelation, a vision of freedom for the individual, the way out of the labyrinth, so that it is with intense disappoint- ment that one finds oneself struggling through the pages of The Traitor with a sense of betrayal and anti-climax. The preface, in fact, is the best part. Perhaps because the gesture which is style counts for far more than Sartre will admit; without it this is yet another case-history, saved by so-and-so's blue pills. Perhaps because it is hard to take the jargon of the existentialist programme in such unrelieved slabs.

The Traitor is not a true novel, but the con- fessions of Gorz, an Austrian whose father was a Jew, whose mother an anti-Semitic Catholic, and who grew up as a weak and neurotic child (hardly surprising with such a background) during the rise of the Nazis. He rejected his Jewishness, and as a young adolescent became a puritanical Catholic and art admirer of the Nazis, who represented the powerful and the strong, all that he was not. During the war he went to Switzerland, turning from its smugness to become a solitary intellectual with a passion for French literature and philosophy; and in 1946 Morel (none other than J.-P. S.) came to lecture there, and you can guess the rest. It is a painful story, the rejection of one discipline after another, of what he calls the physical or religious or artistic ascesis, to cover the empti- ness of his personality; and one does not grudge M. Gorz the hard-won comforts, such as they

are, of Existentialism. But to communicate his isolation and triumph over the void, something else has to be done. It is not enough for him to say that he has found his salvation in writing, unless we can follow his struggle with the ex- citement so enticingly promised by Sartre. and which is so lacking in the texture of this book.

The quest and conquest pattern of The Traitor reappears in Experience, by Albert Palle (excel-

lent translation by Roger Senhouse), but worked into a novel of real fascination. Balagneux, the narrator, an elderly journalist, and his camera- man, Bochard, set off on a wild-goose chase to write up the story of a young man called Watre- loos who has hanged himself. Or is it a snark hunt? At least, the names of nearly all the male characters begin with a B--and I suspect M.

Palle to be a high-class joker whose quest lea in circles through Boojum country. Balagne tired and half-blind, stumbles through the c fusion of false clues, unhelpful locals and 9 familiar countryside, reminded at every step his own past which he narrates with nostalg vividness. The local gossip about Watreloos s his father reminds him of his relationship WI his own father, and calls up a set of imagt suggested by the name (Watreloos, Waterl the morne plaine haunted by Napoleon and son the Due de Reichstadt, and the ghosts of ,a grenadiers), until the historic past, his person past and the confused mirage of the present!! seen as one, all part of the experience of livid Everything changes: 'people and things rail are as I have viewed them—opaque, inconsistenl ungetatable, decomposing at every moment their lives,' so all he can do is to stay put, a settle in the village where their news-story ha led them, and there, having buried the past,' the grave of young Watreloos, make somethl constructive of his last years. It is an hull and absorbing novel, slipping from the prese to the past with dream-like ease, and yet I mensely alive and vigorous at every turn. What ever he owes to other writers (the blurb right' mentions Faulkner and Celine), this is an origin and striking talent. Amongst the dead weight of American nove for review (on an average tipping the scales a one and a half pounds) is Final Innocence, Donald Honig, notable at first sight for being short and slender book about the America Civil War. As the title suggests, it takes the wel! A worn theme of Growing Up, the loss of romant, Droll illusions and adolescent values; but Mr. Hon! catei gives it an unexpected freshness by setting it I lure, a time and place when growing up involved a P 1 awareness of treachery and death, instead Inue the usual shocked observation of sometht half nasty in the woodshed. The brief adventuroastnoti ceut thro episode in the life of this sixteen-year-old her suggests the tragic impact of the Civil War . sharply as any laborious epic; the intrigues of la dashing uncle Clay, first love, the first sight °, death, the wildness of the border country, are 31 made important by an admirable economy all tuP crispness of style, and a strong dramatic percer Plac tion which discards inessentials. T Henry's Wife, by Ralph Ricketts, is a co°11r1te little piece. like the lady of the title; dedicated t' rater L. P. Hartley, it reproduces his urbane and un Uni ruffled style to describe what unsuspected }ura tumults lie beneath middle-class life in Devon shire and Venice. It makes pleasant, and stylish' reading with undertones of James, and Ott' Ricketts has clearly learnt the lesson of 114 master in his manipulation of muted ironic tone