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Mixed Company

Mountain of Winter

by Shirley Schoonover
Coward-McCann, 256 pp., $4.95

Knights and Dragons

by Elizabeth Spencer
McGraw-Hill, 169 pp., $3.95

August is a Wicked Month

by Edna O’Brien
Simon & Schuster, 220 pp., $3.95

Castle Keep

by William Eastlake
Simon & Schuster, 382 pp., $5.95

A Pile of Stones

by Hugh Nissenson
Scribners, 173 pp., $3.95

Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow. Apart from one or two Amazonian talents they can, and mostly do, leave to their male colleagues the task of assembling those big, bold, empty structures that aim to tell the whole truth about Congress or Madison Avenue. The female observer is happy with fewer properties: between one and four persons, with bruised lives and fine understandings, can be interestingly arranged in and around a Manhattan apartment or Kensington bed-sitter, and provided with a variety of brashly or discreetly erotic motivations. The result will be insubstantial though usually unpretentious; and sometimes it will be actively elegant. But whatever success the author has in manipulating her handful of characters will probably involve stressing their apartness, their seeming abstraction from the world of larger human concerns. That this was not always so the names of George Eliot or Jane Austen may suggest: even when they were most taken up with seemingly feminine preoccupations they were still implicitly enacting the no-man-is-an-island tag so beloved of modern politicians on solemn occasions. They had, in short, a feeling for the community as well as the individual. It would be unfair to claim the women novelists are alone in lacking this feeling, though its lack is often most manifest in them. I have an idea that female writers, in a fervor of emancipated zeal, have accepted too eagerly one of the major premises of modern, or at least, post-Freudian, fiction, namely, that sex is more important than money. This probably goes against the unstated daily experience of a great many ordinary people, as well as against the implicit principles of the major novelists of the last century, who found unending fascination in the cash nexus. In fictional practice, sex is personal and isolating, whereas money is public and unifying.

Of the three women novelists under review, two fall into a fairly conventional pattern. Miss Spencer advances under the drooping banner of Sensibility, portraying a beautiful and cultivated American divorcee, working in Italy and vainly trying to forget her ex-husband, then starting a certain decorous something with a young and energetic visiting American economist. Miss O’Brien boldly waves the opposed though complementary emblem of Frankness: she shows us a young Irishwoman living in London, having given up Catholicism and left her husband, who takes off on her own to find sexual fulfilment on a vacation in the south of France.

Miss Schoonover’s Mountain of Winter, a first novel, is however, a far more impressive and original piece of work. She, too, is concerned principally with a single female consciousness—in this case, that of Ava Knuutinen, a young girl growing up in a remote Finnish mountain community in an unnamed western state—but we see Ava, not as an isolated fragment of humanity, but as a person nurtured in a community at the same time as she is often, and necessarily, at odds with it. The story is dominated by the mountain, Old Big, on the lower slopes of which stands Ava’s parents’ farm: she tries to climb it as a child and gets lost, and at the end of the story a destructive forest fire sweeps down from it. Ava is orphaned when she is in her teens, and with her grandmother to keep house she takes over the farm herself, a tough and demanding task for so young a girl. She succeeds, though at the cost of somewhat subduing her femininity. She is sexually aroused by a leather-jacketed young forester called Mel—a stranger in the district, constructing fire-breaks for the state—who turns out to be a sadist, in a literal and horrifying way. It takes a long time for Ava to get over the shock of her experience with Mel, though there is some hope, at the end of the novel, that she has found a better man.

Miss Schoonover avoids concentrating too narrowly on Ava’s personal tragedy by continually setting her in the larger context of the Finnish community. They are stubborn, sometimes brutal people, the men given to drinking and fighting and the savage hazing of strangers, the women possessing a gritty peasant wisdom, the lives of all of them subject to the vicissitudes of nature. But there is also humor, as in the account of the remarriage, in middle age, of Ava’s Aunt Anni, who cheerfully undergoes the noisy and elaborate wedding customs of a rural order in which a marriage is as much a social as a personal event. I was at times reminded of Hardy, though Miss Schoonover’s mountain society is far wilder than Wessex; there is the same sense of an unchanging limited order, rooted in nature, forming a constant background to the hopes or tragedies of the individual characters; indeed, the author symbolizes it in Old Big. Such communities are rapidly ceasing to exist all over the Western world, and despite occasional references to things like color TV, there might already be an old-fashioned quality about Miss Schoonover’s novel. However that may be, its humanity, its breadth of feeling, and range and exactness of observation of men and nature, place it well above the ordinary run of first novels (or second or third novels, come to that).

To turn to Miss Spencer’s cultivated but somewhat listless Americans going through their eminently civilized motions in Venice and Rome is to find oneself in a smaller and far more familiar world. The sightseeing reader, on the lookout for memories of Henry James will not be disappointed, though Miss Spencer strikes a more modern note in the course of her slow, sensitive, moody, and not infrequently boring narrative by seeming to recall the cinema of Antonioni:

The room where they stood for a time, clinging together a step from the closed door, was unlighted, dark, though on this troubled coast it seemed a darkness prepared and waiting with something like self-knowledge, to be discovered, mapped, explored, claimed, possessed, and changed for good, no inch of it left innocent of them, nothing she had ever felt to be alive not met and dealt with.

Miss O’Brien’s novel is brisker, and a good deal less serenely assured; it can be characterized as an exposition of female randiness from within, a subject still, I suppose, with a certain faint novelty value in would-be serious fiction, though it is a traditional standby of professional pornographers. Miss O’Brien’s Ellen is determined to enjoy herself after a year of celibate separation from her husband (a vague unfortunate nonentity, who is treated with a really shocking loathing by the author; some wholly private spring of sexual hatred and resentment seems to have seeped into the novel here): she resolves on freedom and proceeds, with ex-convent-schoolgirl defiance, to lay it on the line when she likes with whom she likes. Miss O’Brien spares us no mushy detail of her progress, as with this piece of osculatory wrestling:

Their tongues wound round and round in a perfect, dizzying rhythm, and he told her to open her mouth wide and wider. She received him right back the length of her mouth to her taste buds, and although she feared choking she also thought she was sampling some beautiful fruit she had never eaten before.

And so on to the serious business (“she felt him harden and lengthen inside her like a stalk”). Ellen has fun for a time with a rather inferior-sounding American jet-set on the Riviera, then her troubles start. She hears that her only child, on holiday with his father, has been killed by a car. This harrowing detail left me annoyed but dryeyed: the death of children has, at least since Dickens, been a standby for the novelist who feels the need to give a sharp emotional boost to a failing narrative. Spared nothing, Ellen then finds she has a dose—nasty but not too serious—of the pox. We leave her on the last page, still resilient, worrying that the violet lotion she has to apply will stain her pants. This sad, silly, unpleasant story had better be reserved for connoisseurs of the shaming.

William Eastlake’s Castle Keep, which is about war, takes us into more manly territory. The time is late 1944 and the place is a tenth-century castle in the Ardennes, occupied by a small detachment of American soldiers; nothing very significant happens, until they are finally submerged by the German offensive that led to the Battle of the Bulge. Mr. Eastlake has devised a nice collection of opposing types: Major Falconer, the commander, whose main concern, apart from fighting, is going to bed with the Comtesse de Maldorais (with the full support and knowledge of the Count, who owns the castle, since he is impotent and wants an heir); Captain Beckman, an art historian in peacetime, who wishes more than anything to save the castle from destruction; the Indian, Private Henry Three Ears of an Elk; the young Negro intellectual, pfc. Alistair P. Benjamin, whose favorite adjective is “simplistic”; and various other specimens of a bored but verbally other inventive soldiery. Each of them retails a portion of the narrative, but Mr. Eastlake only uses this as a device for varying the point of view; the author’s tone of voice remains the same in each chapter. He is a cool, very clever writer, who can handle language brilliantly when he wants to, as in the battle-scenes at the end of the book. But most of the time he prefers a deliberately banal narrative style, relying heavily on dialogue. In some ways, he is the novelistic equivalent of a pop artist: the book’s episodic structure seems to owe something to comic-strip technique, with a succession of sharp local climaxes presented in strong, simple outlines. To this extent, it rather reminded me of William Peter Blatty’s John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, though the novel it most resembles is Catch-22; it has quite a lot of that book’s zany humor even if it lacks the underlying hysteria. I enjoyed Castle Keep, at least in small doses, but I found it too long.

A Pile of Stones is a rather slender collection of short stories which examines, from a number of angles, the characteristic Jewish experience of the twentieth century: moving from Poland in the early 1900s to present-day Israel and America, with their burden of memories of the Nazi years. Mr. Nissenson is a brooding, precise, careful writer whose stories would be hard to fault technically, though I found them a little chilly; there is a feeling of life being meticulously described rather than actively rendered. But the descriptions are unquestionably excellent: in a story like. “The Well,” for instance, Mr. Nissenson pins down in a single incident the whole tragedy of present-day Arab-Israeli relations.

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