27 JANUARY 1939, Page 29


A Heart for the Gods of Mexico. By Conrad Aiken. (Secker. 6s.) TEN years ago the Great American Novel seemed really under way—Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Faulkner appeared set for a long run.: Mr. O'Brien wrote essays about the superiority of American fiction. Then something happened. We found our- selves switched into a siding where we stuck—with the gallant Sartoruses and the Deep South instead of Popeye and the corn husks, and with Grand old Momma and her hunting trophies instead of Men without Wcimen. There remained Mr. Scott-Fitzgerald and Mr. Conrad Aiken. But The Great Gatsby had no successor, and Mr. Aiken's Great Circle, surely one of the best novels of the decade, was followed shakily by King Coffin. As for his new novel it is downright bad.

Mr. Aiken's plot takes place mainly on a day-coach between Boston and Mexico City. A girl with Norse eyes called Noni

is dying of an unspecified disease of the heart, and she asks Blomberg, an awkward kindly Jew who loves her, to borrow a hundred dollars so that she may go down to Mexico with a young man called Gil who has loved her for years, get a quick cheap divorce and marry him before she dies—out of pity. She wants Blom to come too and not to tell Gil the reason for this sudden flight—I mean the sickness. Was there ever a more make-shift plot to excuse the pleasant description of a journey ? It is riddled with objections—which Blom tries to forestall the reader by raising. Is it fair that Gil should unwittingly run the risk of finding his wife dead on the wedding night ? (He's already had one curious experience of marriage, and this is likely to sour him.) And won't Gil find it odd for Noni to invite a third party on their honey- moon ? And why Mexico, where the altitude is likely to finish her off before her time ? To this last objection Blom has a little to say about dark Gods and sacrifice, though it is difficult to see what dark Gods they would find in Mexico City, that favourite resort of American rotarians out for an inexpensive good time. As for the others, we are led to under- stand that brave whimsical Noni had obscurely her reasons (" it was like being talked to by Emily Dickinson "). The travellers reach Mexico, find the divorce isn't quick after all or cheap, and Noni gets a scare and dies.

Of course that isn't the whole story. Mr. Aiken is an admirable prose writer, and nobody has caught better the modern poetry of departure : the changing trains at night in obscure towns : engine calls across a vibrating countryside : the shaving in little shaking lavatories : the beer out of the bottle, and the seasons changing as you drive south. But the human emotion—Blom's quixotry and Noni's pity (" I've often thought, you know, that she's the nakedest soul I've ever met ")—is just fake. Her sudden death comes to Blom " as a fierce renewal of his faith in the essential magnificence of man's everlasting defeat "—which seems to me to mean nothing at all, to be just a smoke-cloud of rhetoric in the Faulkner manner hiding what is wrong all the time with the Great American Novel—the inability to see life in any shape at all, whether religious or political. GRAHAM GREENE.