2 JUNE 1961, Page 27

Man Burrowing

Lanterns and Lances. By James Thurber. (Hamish Hamilton, 18s.) Lanterns and Lances. By James Thurber. (Hamish Hamilton, 18s.) EVERY culture has a characteristic social discip- line which mystifies and may revolt the foreign observer. The American discipline is the joke in extremis. Americans use desperate laughter to curb their native tendency towards self-righteous- ness and rhetoric; also, to retain sanity on a continent which has abounded in extreme situa- tions ever since the sea-weary Pilgrim Fathers first set foot on the vacant sand mountains of Provincetown and cried for water.

Thurber is such a gentle, sophisticated, chaste, and disciplined writer that Canadian readers, whose idea of England is always seventy-five years out of date, might almost mistake -him for British. But he is very American. His best writings and drawings have been an exploration of the humour implicit in Thoreau's frightful remark about most men living lives of quiet desperation. The present collection of occasional pieces, written for the New Yorker and some monthly magazines over the last eight years or so, strikes home immediately with an essay called 'How to Get Through the nay.' It reports in a tone of desperate quiet that the only way to get through is to burrow underneath like a mole. The confessional drunk Thurber encoun- ters at `Midnight.at Tim's Place' had gone to his old professor of philosophy to ask him why life, after all, was not a fountain. But the philosopher was wearing two hats, one above the other, and his homely philosophy had lost its marbles if not its ring. Thurber has a sudden vision of walk- ing the city in a few years wearing only one shoe. He retreats from the drunk into the dark streets, where his wife reminds him sharply that now he is wearing two hats.

The Thurber man becomes a virtuoso at private word games in order to survive bouts of chronic insomnia. He is a fanatic of pure English but is out-talked at parties by large, confident women who say things like, 'They decided to leave it where sleeping dogs lie,' and 'Don't hide your head in the sand like a kangaroo.' He engages in a flyting match with a little girl named Mandy, only to be bested at his favourite tactic of playing off the literal meanings of words against their current usage. His holiday in southern France a quarter-century ago was darkened by the system- atic misbehaviour of two Senegalese lovebirds, casually acquired; and he is haunted by memories of his wife's Siamese cats which had tried to kill him by leaving vases on stairways for him to trip over.

As a humorist Thurber is contemporary and timeless. Unfortunately, there arc half a dozen think pieces included which reveal that he can be as conventional, defensive, and timid as the most desperate men Thoreau had in mind. 'The Duchess and the Bugs,' a faded memento of the McCarthy period, says that humour can be a shield instead of a weapon and that dangerous men are nourished by attack. McCarthy's weapons were the flame-thrower and the slop- bucket. Against these an unarmed man with a shield cuts a figure too poor for even a sick joke.

It would be ungracious to end on so lugubrious a note. In fact, two-thirds of the collection is worth reading and re-reading, and there are a couple of dozen of Thurber's strictly inimitable drawings of men, women, children and dogs to look at. My favourite is the one of five women and four men moving around a maypole, the women leaping and ecstatic, the Men stepping slowly and with bowed heads.