27 AUGUST 1948, Page 26


THERE is a widely held belief that summer is the publishers' silly season, but three of the four books reviewed this week are worthy of a more serious time of year. Mr. Teilhet's new novel Something Wonderful to Happen, ostensibly a comedy, is a grim comment on American life today. It is the story of fear. The hero, Barney Higgs, owner of the Vine Hill Times, defines his fear early on: " Who's going to take care of you in five or ten or fifteen years if you don't start making money now, while you've still time. . . . In the world we've got today you can't waste time worrying about other people. All a man can do is try to build a raft to float himself and his family " ; and Barney, to get the hundred and fifty thousand dollars necessary to buy the Fremont City Sun—the paper that will be a raft for himself and family when (dare one say the word?) the dreaded slump arrives—is willing to hand himself over body and soul to nefarious big business in the shape of Mr. Slinker. During the period of this panic which possesses Barney his wife remains sane, and she it is who saves him in the end. Sally Higgs represents those straightforward, generous Americanmen and women who, in spite of all the contrary evidence exported by Hollywood, still, we believe, outnumber the American Slinkers.

The adventures of the Higgs family are amusing—the drunken 'scene is particularly well done—and told with wit if with rather more sentiment than is fashionable over here, yet the book has a sobering effect. One suspects that Mr. Teilhet is using his entertainer's gifts to make palatable the horrid trut,h that a man gains nothing, least of all security, by selling his soul. The English reader, with his cour- ageous poverty, will feel little or no sympathy for this panic which he is not tempted to share. With almost nothing to give thanks with or for, and with his past seven austerity Christmas dinners in mind, he may, whets he reads Mr. Teilhet's description of an American middle-class Thanksgiving meal, wonder what any reasonable Ameri- can can have to panic about : " The table was loaded. It groaned with the weight of so much food. Altogether, on the table and in the kitchen, in addition to the turkey (weight: 20 lb.; stuffed with oysters), was Al's daughter's famous black-bean soup, two kinds of potatoes, green peas, Viennese pudding, asparagus in Dutch sauce, a big salad, mince pie, pumpkin pie, fruits, candies, two bottles of Nick Musso's best wine, gallons of mulled cider, and, waiting in the pantry on Sally's special silver alcohol burner, all the ingredients for her coffee a la diable, New Orleans style." Mr. Teilhet's book may make the English reader feel rather superior, but I doubt if he'll find it any the less readable for that. Mr. Derelict is a novel also unlikely 'to injure English self-esteem, for the China it portrays—the China of forty years ago—is a land of ignorance, oppression, poverty and cruelty. The author, Mr. Liu Ngo, symbolises his country as a ship without a compass, still de- pending, despite the clouded sky, upon the old guidance of the stars ; her navigators corrupt and her passengers stupefied by fear. The book is constructed as a sort of pilgrimage, but it produces no sense of progress. Mr. Derelict, a travelling physician, hears on his jour- neyings of the wonders and miseries of his land. He can diagnose its disease ; the cure is easier to prescribe than to apply. The book is largely autobiographical. Liu Ngo, who was in advance of most of his contemporaries, grew up in a westernised family, and became, among other things, scholar, physician and river engineer. He was, one suspects, something of a dilettante. The dilettante always writes a novel at some time or other, and this is very much the sort of novel he writes—brilliant in parts, but lacking the architecture and force that results from prolonged creative effort.

It is somewhat, confusing, the result possibly of drastic cutting by the translators and the fact that it was never completed. Symbolical scenes are mixed with incidents from real life, and the characters, the majority of which are supposed to be drawn from personages of the period, are types and mouthpieces rather than individuals. The vicious magistrate Yu Hsien is said to have been suggested by the leader of the Boxer Rising, who was appointed without qualifications to an official position in Shantung • in these pages his deeds are outrageous, but we are given no insight into the man who performs them. Liu Ngo's descriptions of nature are, however, far superior to those of other Oriental writers, and some passages of the book, such as his description of the two sister siovrs, are as memorable as any in western literature:

"Little Jade then parted her lips and sang a few lines: the sound was low but Indescribably sweet. All the organs of the body seemed smoothed as if by an iron, each into its proper place, while the whole body felt as if after drinking nectar, and there was not a pore that was not relaxed. After she had sung a few dozen lines she gradually sang higher and higher, until suddenly she soared to a very high pitch as if a steel rope had been flung into the sky, and Mr. Derelict was secretly amazed. But even at that high pitch her voice could still circle and revolve, and after several trills it rose to an even higher note and ascended the scale for three of four notes more. It was like climbing the T'ai Mountain from the Ngo Lai cliff on the west side ; first you see the precipice reaching up to 'heaven, but when you attain the summit you realise that another peak is still ahead, and when you reach this you realise that there is yet another peak above. Thus with every turn the sense of insecurity increases', and as the sense of insecurity increases so also does one's amazement.

Such writing makes it clear that had Liu Ngo chosen to concen- trate his gifts upon it he would have made some great contribution to the literature of the world ; 'as it is, he remains in the mind 'as a remarkable man rather than a remarkable writer.

Mr. Bryan MacMahon is the latest story-teller to come out of Ireland, and he brings with him the traditional Irish gift of the poetic phrase. On- almost every page one is struck by the vivid exactness of some such sentence as : " A German shepherd dog lying inside the door raised his jet head from the cream 'whorls of his chest and tilted his eyes to an angle of intelligence" ; or" It (the heat) had the" force of a large animal's breath " ; or " Sensing this the horse raised his head and rang his great cluster of bells," but it is only occasionally that one comes upon a story the whole of which is worthy of these parts. In The Good Dead in the Green Hills, Gentlemen, This Is Armageddon, Sing, Milo, Sing and The Ring, Mr. MacMahon can touch us poignantly. Many of the rest of the

stories are no more than bright anecdotes, and in some of them Mr.

MacMahon strains his descriptive powers in an effort towards originality. In the best of the lighter tales, Ballintierna in the Morning, in which two workmen bring a hare in from the bogs and

loose it among the Dublin crowds, the description of Dublin worries one by an almost painful cleverness. It would be unfair to set beside

it a page from Dubliners—it is always unfair to compare some young contemporary writer with an established genius—but Mr. MacMahon might himself make the comparison without loss. His talent is con- siderable, and if he does not ill-treat it, he may one day give us a new vision of that darling city.

A last word for the perfect deck-chair-on-the-beach book—Miss Margery Sharp's The Foolish Gentlewoman. It is all about a charm-

ing old lady who decides to give up her fortune because she once

prevented her cousin from receiving an offer of marriage. It is a pleasant story, well constructed, with quietly convincing characters

and a mild humour. The reader can pick it up and put it down without pain, and should the glitter of sun on sea or a sandy tennis- ball come between him and the page, he will not miss anything of