The (Diblos) Notebook
by James Merrill
Atheneum, 147 pp., $4.50
by Philip Toynbee
Harper & Row, 159 pp., $6.00
The (Diblos) Notebook is the second novel of James Merrill, who has published also three books of poems and two plays. The “Diblos” of the title is a small Greek island. The parentheses mean that the narrator, a young American visiting Diblos, plans to think of another name for the place when he publishes the novel for which he is making notes, but he doesn’t; he doesn’t finish the novel, and instead of it, we are given the notebooks just as they are, with their parentheses, crossed-out words, false starts, and so on. The chief male character of the novel, the narrator’s half-brother, is called Orson, Orestes, or O. The chief female character is a Greek lady named (Dora). Their story is told to us on two levels: first as the narrator records his meditations on the “real” events and characters, and second as he develops this material for his novel. One section of some thirty pages is a “fair copy” of a fully developed piece of narrative.
The originality of Merrill’s novel-about-a-novel is that unlike the novelist’s notebooks put into novels by Gide, Huxley, Durrell, or other users of the device, his notebook presents something like a facsimile in typography of actual working pages. The prose is scrappy, disorganized, and full of these parentheses and cancellations. This may be only a trick, but it is a good one, because the trick works. The two different versions of the story, occurring as they do in nearly simultaneous fragments, may provoke little more than the usual reflections on the real and the unreal and the imagination. But the small puzzlements of the words themselves, the cancelled or broken phrases, the second choices—these are interesting. Merrill is a good poet, he has the skills of our period, particularly the Marianne Moore skill of the micro-scopically exact description, so accurate that it seems a bit odd. He knows how one line of dialogue can create a person’s presence, if it is the one right line. His trick allows him to be laconic, to skip transitions and exposition, to drag in as many allusions and reflections as he pleases. Many pages of the book are very attractive in this way, almost like poems. It is pleasant to imagine this intelligent young American sitting in the café of the little Greek port, scribbling away at his descriptions of the island and its folk, and worrying out his attempts to understand and give life to the people who dominate his imagination. These fragments of information and speculation arouse curiosity about these people and about his story.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the people are not very interesting after all. Orestes-Orson seems at first something like a re-born Periclean, come to the New World back to his true home, or perhaps, with all the allusions to Greek mythology and drama, and the narrator’s choral warnings, no seems a re-born tragic hero. And Dora, in the suggestions and brief scenes …