The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, MARCH 22, 1936
Sophistication Marks Novel About A Genius
Best Since "South
Wind," Cash Says In Review
Of Book About Big Man And Little Enemies.
By Keith Winter. 203 pp. Doubleday Doran.
Garden City. $2.50
W. J. CASH
Site ed. note: Ironically, appearing beside this review was the following unascribed piece, presumably from the Associated Press, of which the News was a member:
Nuts For Editors, Says Mencken
"After five years a magazine editor should be sent to Mexico, and after ten, to a madhouse," H.L. Mencken told Whit Burnett and Martha Foley over steins of beer at the Algonquin when they first brought their magazine Story to America...
Cash had been writing for the News regularly for just over five years when he departed for Mexico in May, 1941; he had been an editor for nearly four of those years.
I don't like to review books like Mr. Winter's. I despise blurbs. I like to prove my critical competence by celebrating the merits, if any of a book, oh, yes, but also by discovering and recording the faults that by ordinary even the best books have. But if there's any fault here, I'm unable to find it, after long and passionate search. And so there seems no help for it; lamentable though it may be. I shall simply have to pull out all the stops, and tell you in the best manner of the advertising department that it would be quite impossible to overpraise this enormously brilliant performance--that Mr. Winter, who is an Englishman still under 30, actually has written the best sophisticated novel about sophisticated people since "South Wind"--and that with it he has fully arrived at the stature promised for him by enthusiastic admirers of "Other Man's Saucer" and "The Rats of Norway" and will hereafter certainly count as one of the most important of the young men now writing English.
The Impassioned Fist
Mr. Winter takes his title from the verse of Siegfried Sassoon:
And then once more the impassioned pygmy fist
Clenched cloudward and defiant;
The pride that would prevail, the doomed protagonist,
Grappling the ghostly giant.
His publishers seem not to have noticed it. For they tell us that the story is one "of great men and the impassioned pygmies who feed on their greatness." But, in reality, it is only incidentally that.
There are great men or near-great men here, surely--Marius, the genius of his age, the great writer; his son, Saul; and Andrew Jordan, the vastly successful charlatan of the drama. And there are people who are properly called pygmies in the most obvious and human sense of the word--Hilda and Robert, Johnny Roberts, Mark, and the insufferable Lewis.
And the story is in part the story of how these pygmies--who have fixed themselves on Marius and his wide wanderings about the earth, and who live with him now in the Villa Flore on the island of Miramar in the Mediterranean, which he may not leave on pain of dying in the sea passage, in order, as they say, that he may not be lonely--feed upon him; how their meanness and their selfishness (all of them are busily gathering materials for the five wholly different accounts of his life and character they will publish after his death, and only Mark, the he-man vulgarian, actually cares for him), masquerading as self-sacrifice and love, and their flattery of the bitterness engendered in him by imprisonment in England for having denounced the war in 1914; how all this has betrayed him to the arrogant weakness of his own genius.
What Happened to Saul
But there's much more to it than that. It is also the story of what happened to Saul when he comes back from Heidelerg and Berlin and Paris and Marseilles--from the boulevards of Europe--whither he had.fled three years before after quarrel with his father: of what happened to Saul when he came back to attempt to make glad the heart in an old man sure to die soon. It is the story of what happened to Andrew Jordan from contact with the greater nature of Saul: of how the old secret hunger in his heart to be loved awoke, and with it a scorn for all the clever and tawdry works of his lifetime: of how he came in the end to suicide. And it is the story of what happened to Lilly, the quiet American woman married to the clean young Englishman, Simon--of the things that awoke in her nature on contact with Saul, to leave her own life in ruins and to transform her husband from a nice young man out of Sussex into a haggard-eyed neurotic who might never find peace.
Ultimately in short, it is a story of destiny--of that "ghostly giant" before whom all men, be they Marius, Saul, pour bewildered Simon, or Johnny Roberts, the Welsh gardener whom Marius would make into a great poet but whom himself yearned only to be made into a gentleman--before whom all men whatever are rightly named pygmies. A magnificent rendition of the sardonic and pitiful fashion in which our feet are tripped by the web of circumstances and of the old, implacable forces within our own hearts--of the fact that we are defeated because we are cowardly and because we are brave, because we are weak and because we are strong, because we are "bad" and because we are "good" and very often for no discernible reason at all.
I have mentioned "South Wind." And the comparison is a just one in many respects, and not only for the obvious reasons that both tales are laid on Mediterranean paradises and deal with sophisticated people, not only because Lewis and the Little Hill to which he retired to open up his soul and perform other somewhat less ethereal functions, somehow irresistibly brings to mind the celebrated Miss Wilberforce. It is just, too, because of [the] power of Mr. Winter to etch his characters in acid. And because the writing of the book with which [we] deal is every whit as good as that of the Douglas classic.
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