24 MAY 1940, Page 22


Iron Gustay. By Hans Fallada. Translated from the German b% Philip Owens. (Putnam. 8s. 6d.)

THE simplest thing to say about any new work of fiction whirl: has made its appearance since that morning, May torn, when we woke up to the invasion of the Low Countries, is that it ha, been unlucky in its hour ; so we may as well do these four book, the perfunctory courtesy of saying it of them. No one of them

is of durable stuff, as it happens, but the first three should ordinarily count on the normal transitory season of the library

novel—and the fourth is by the quondam German best-seller who wrote Little Man, What Now? At present, however, it is difficult to imagine where the reader is who, seeking respite from the pressure and tragedy of actualities, could find even the briefest kind of release in anything listed above. Nevertheless, since pedestrianism and a steady tempo are conditions which we must seek to cultivate in the coming Months, for each other's sake, it may well be that these mildly meritorious books will serve the turn of some, if only by inducing sleep at the right time.

Fanny By Gaslight is solidly constructed and somewhat noel in setting and sentiment. Although not as nourishing as the curate's egg, it is edible, and even mildly flavoursome, in parts. By a device of construction that creaks as it moves into action• and keeps us somewhat suspicious and watchful throughout, it purports to tell, through her own mouth and that of her lover, the life-story of a girl of the London underworld of the eighteen- seventies and 'eighties. Fanny, born in 1858 in the dwelling- house above notorious licensed premises in Panton Street off the Haymarket, believes herself to be the daughter of her mother's husband, " the Duke," who runs " Hopwood's Hades," and who was once a gentleman's gentleman. But she is, I need hardly say, the child of the gentleman. When she is about fifteen a very nasty discovery is made in " the Duke's " brothel-tavern ; it ruins him, he is sent to gaol and dies there. Fanny's mother returns to the parental farm in Yorkshire, and Fanny herself, the secret of her gentle parentage having been explained to her, is placed, dubiously to put it mildly, in the servants' hall of her true father, Mr. Clive Seymore. She is so quaint as to develop a sentimental adoration of this deadly, wishy-washy parent, and the intercourse of the two during her assistant-lady's-maid period chez Seymore can be read with passing amusement by any who remember the novels of Marie Corelli or of a certain Mrs. Alexander. The period detail is good here, as indeed throughout the book, which can only have been written for the fun of manipulating it, I think. I enjoyed my vicarious experience of service arrangements in Belgravia in 1872, and one does take away the comforting impression that when, say, thirty people were hired to look after two of their fellow-creatures, they naturally managed to make light work of it. So Fanny appears to have been fairly content, running between my lady's chamber and the housekeeper's room. At the one end she put a cheerful jerk into powdering and perfuming the exhibitionist Lady Alicia ; at the other she sat in surreptitious delight at "Mr. Clive's " feet—she called him Andrew—and listened with hunger to his platitudes.

But when he went on a diplomatic mission to America, Lady Alicia betrayed him. Fanny kept finding her in bed, in attitudes too abandoned and dramatic to admit of any explanation but one. But when she found out what really went on at a famous dress- shop in Brook Street, she could bear it no longer for " Andrew," and she ran away, to the erstwhile doorkeeper of " Hopwood's Hades," who kept a pub in Islington. Thence she passed to " Florizel Thirteen," a very grand brothel in Regent's Park, where she was employed as bona fide secretary. No funny business. She met her fate there—Harry Somerford. He loved her, lived with her and made her very happy. He quarrelled with his family about her, and wanted to marry her. In 1878 she became pregnant, and thought of telling him this and yielding to his desire for marriage ; but she postponed the telling throughout an idyllic holiday in the village of Les Yvelines in Seine-et-Oise. On the way back from this holiday they encountered an ancient enemy, Lord Manderstoke, who had brought about the ruin of the Duke " and, in another connexion, had been knocked down by Harry in a public place. The old trouble breaks out and there is a duel ; Harry is wounded, and he dies. The rest of Fanny's story is silence, more or less—until she is discovered, a charming old lady, living in poverty in Les Yvelines in 1933. Her discoverer, an English publisher, extracts her story from her, pays her for it, writes it up, and when she dies erects a tombstone over her in the hotel garden at Les Yvelines, whereon he describes her as the there amie of Harry Somerford. For she had been faithful to her one love, and she was a sweet and innocuous character, whose story derives the mild degree of oddity and readableness which it possesses, not at all from human interest, for its characterisation is consistently automatic and un- surprising, but from the massing up of the period scene. Which, as I have said, gives the whole a mild flavour—but actually the helping is too large.

When I began reading Still Glides the Stream, I apprehended a certain modesty and precision in the manner of narrative—and indeed I do not think these stealthy virtues forsake the author's style throughout the book ; but her story is almost nothing and it is stretched out over a preposterously long span. It tells of a woman born in a small manor house in Wales in 1794, who dies there, a spinster and the last of her name, in 1891. The author's economy and lighthandedness make an agreeable pattern of family life in a hard-up but civilised Welsh household in the early years of the nineteenth century ; she also gives amusing enough descrip- tions of travel to Ireland and a young girl's enjoyment of the Dublin season and Castle balls in 1814 ; also as the book grows older and loses vitality, she manages to replace organic growth by suggestion of the changes in social custom and in taste, after Waterloo, when the eighteenth century at last consented to con- sider itself dead, and the thing called Victorianism began to cast its shadow before. But the sad fortunes of the Cremlyn family end a little too repetitively with the grave ; it takes the fiery Brontes to keep posterity from being resigned to such a rapid assembly of tombstones ; and nothing real ever happened to the heroine, Jane Cremlyn, who, it must be said, deserved to have things happen. She is a delicately attractive character, delicately set in a pleasant Welsh scene—but with the best will in the wo .d towards her, it was not possible to enjoy so long and placid A journey in her company.

Miss Nancy Mitford is really unlucky. A fortnight ago th might still have been heart in us to chuckle at some, at le of her impudent cracks at " the great bore war "—but that is gone. It is simply impossible now to be funny her v about the pass we are in—the immeasurably magnified Pass Thermopylae. And yet her scatterbrain Sophia is attractive n fashion that was still authentic as recently as in April ; but on, , -- night she and her comic spies and counter-spies and young r..za from No. to have become period pieces, not yet, if ever again, have a vogue. Poor, amusing, sweet Sophia! She is, alas! unimportant casualty.

I never was able to see why Hans Fallada was a best-seller, :‘ this latest work of his leaves me more than ever in the Iron Gustav tells a very hackneyed family story, about an ,,,d cab-owner-driver in Berlin, his oppressed wife and his dispirited and mostly criminal children. It takes their fortunes through the war of 1914-18, and through the German post-war chaos and beginnings of degeneration. But the picture is dulled by o‘,:i emphasis, and by repetition and imposed violence. The writer's style is dreadful, or is made to seem so by a very careless trans-