Two by Two
by David Garnett
Atheneum, 144 pp., $3.50
by Keith Waterhouse
Putnam, 246 pp., $3.95
In the third volume of his memoirs, David Garnett recalled the great days and “grand parties” of Bloomsbury: “At one such party, given I think by Clive and Vanessa, I remember seeing Picasso talking to Douglas Fairbanks senior.” Conrad, James, Ford, Wells, Belloc, Shaw, both Lawrences; Rupert, Lytton. Virginia, Clive, Vanessa, Duncan. Maynard—last names and first, this ingratiating son of distinguished literary parents was friend to most and knew them all, and in his recollections contrived to make them all seem as dated and inconsequential as the encounter here recorded. They, or some of them, or at any rate the first names, thought, or said they thought, that “Bunny” Garnett was a genius too (but D.H. Lawrence, taking a cold look, dismissed Lady Into Fox as “pretty piffle—just playboy stuff”). On the only electric page of his memoirs, Garnett printed a Bloomsbury necrology of suicides and other premature disasters. Now, at seventy-two the survivor of that charming bookish clique of pet and Christian names, he has produced his latest clever novel.
Two by Two is a fable of survival. The event is the Flood; the characters are Noah and his family and the animals, plus a pair of twin girls “who were nobody’s business” though we are told that “their mother had been a girl friend of Methuselah’s before her marriage.” Nothing solemn, then, to begin with: the age of faith is dead, this is after all not Paradise Lost (about which a puzzled college student recently asked, “Where did Milton find the story?”), Noah is supposed to have been the first alcoholic, the note of irreverent levity will remind somebody of Voltaire or Lytton Strachey. Not solemn, then, but essentially serious; because in the age of the atom we face the possibility of another large impartial extermination, against which the example of the Flood had better make us sit up and take notice.
Expanding, with whatever aim, mythical narrative into fiction is of course a problem of inventiveness; but it is more specially a problem of tone, consistency and conviction of tone, whether for Milton or C.B. de Mille. The fiction must respond to some vibration of the myth (else why bother?) a pulse out of which flow incidents both supererogatory and deferential to the star-like density of the myth. Garnett’s intention is to respond to the personal and ordinary accent of the Noah-myth, for instance the hint of family vendettas in the strange final episode, in which Ham brings down upon his progeny an everlasting curse because he has seen his father unclothed and overcome with drink. What sort of people, one may ask, were Noah and his family, how did they behave toward one another, suppose there had been stowaways in the Ark, suppose indeed that there was no divine command but only magic and obsession? The tone Garnett wishes to sustain and certify is tartly domestic, a tone that will acknowledge the myth while reducing it to quotidian dimensions …