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No Man’s Land

The Revolutionary

by Hans Koningsberger
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 212 pp., $4.95

The Worldwide Machine

by Paolo Volponi, translated by Belén Severeid
Grossman, 213 pp., $6.00

No Man’s Time

by V.S. Yanovsky, translated by Isabella Levitin, translated by Roger Nyle Parris, with a Foreword by W.H. Auden
Dutton, 224 pp., $5.00

An anonymous man, an alienated outsider smugly aware of his difference from others, walks his lonely way through an imaginary or allegorical nation-state, discussing abstract ideas according to the metaphysical philosophy studied in the universities of the European continent. A first glance at these three novels suggests, wrongly, that all will be equally depressing. The reader may be reminded of the English play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, wondering irritably whether he is meant to work out the meaning of this metaphysical badinage or whether it is intended to be without significance, in order to illustrate the author’s conception of the meaninglessness of human life. Here is the man called A., the principal character in The Revolutionary, by the Dutchman, Hans Koningsberger:

If that weren’t so, if the body dream were not just created within itself, death would be a calamity. In his conscience world, death was no such thing…. If living were to matter, the world had to be re-created.

A. is a student. Anteo in Paolo Volponi’s Italian novel, is an autodidact. He writes:

The moment of becoming, congenital with the universal, can be thought of as the constant attribute in all the beginnings of creation. There-after, the system of gears unfolds itself, revealing the parts contributed at the creative moment as a sign of the mechanics that are synonymous with God, even if it is only a sign of an attempt that has been made, just as free will is such an attempt.

In No Man’s Time, by the Russian émigré, V. S. Yanovsky, Cornelius Yamb (otherwise known as Conrad Jamb) is talking with Bruno (otherwise known as “We”):

You claim that the personality is We, that the I is not the personality. But is not the personal opposite to the general?”

Personality is continuous motion, is the way, is the tendency. Only motion is real in the world, motion under a specific angle.”

But the first of these quotations is unjust to The Revolutionary. A. does not spend much of his time musing. When he does, he is certainly trying to communicate meaningfully, not merely to confuse the reader or involve him in esoteric gibberish. That division between “a body world and a conscience world” is A.’s own formulation, designed for the practical purpose of explaining his own willingness, as a revolutionary, to risk death for a cause. It is none too clear, however. The body world contains “the actuality of yourself as sharp and pleasurable”; but this important matter is quickly abandoned for a discussion of certain other sensations which A. calls “romanticness” (which might be called, by others, the “spiritual” or perhaps the “aesthetic”). Feelings of romantic love, yearning, and poetical ecstasy, these are “little luxuries of the body, as the narcissisms of philosophers in petty German towns were luxuries of the mind.” He is sketching tentatively what he means by the “body dream”:

Not the animal side in man… It was man’s earthly, trivial side. Not sin, simply trivial. Chemical dreams fostered by fluids or electric currents within oneself.

If the “body world” concept raises problems, the “conscience world” is comparatively clear. It represents “the panorama of violence”:

Separated from each other by the unbridgeable gap of I-am-I, one man would use the awareness of his own body to create the maximum of pain in another body…. He played on an instrument he did not understand but only knew the reactions of.

A. feels that this separation between one man and another could make sense only “if it did not matter.” That is why he wants to change the world: to make things matter.

In spite of his anonymity, A. is far the most human and comprehensible character in these three novels. The Revolutionary has the additional advantage of not being translated. The other two read smoothly; but the authors are all trying to define original perceptions sensed or fancied by their characters, and such work must be dependent on the author’s handling of his native or chosen language. A translator can hardly be expected to find the exact equivalent for something quite new. Hans Koningsberger, a Dutchman who served in the British Army, writes in English and has the precise awkwardness of a native, knowing when to bend the rules, when to make a word suggest something new, not in the dictionary. A.’s girl has “a noble face, but perhaps only the pale nothingness nobility of light things?, like the silver hair of an old crook senator, the white marble of our banks and palaces.”

The setting could be anywhere in Europe or Latin America at some time in this century. For a naturalistic film of the book, contemporary Portugal might be the most appropriate background; but any Western country would benefit from such a production (if the controllers of cinema and television would permit it), since it expresses so vividly the surprising attitude of Socialists toward the normalities of life which most citizens take for granted. A. is a student, living in a class separated from the majority, permitted to evade military service. Resenting his separation, his lack of personal identity, he joins “the Radicals,” the most respectable of the political groups opposed to the regime, the property-owners, and their subservient press. Policemen break up a Radical meeting and break A.’s leg; but he is happy in that his comrades are looking after him not because of class or money—“for no real reason except that he was he.” It takes some time for him to realize that the authorities do not take the Radicals seriously, and to go on to something more effective.

He is aware of the class pressures upon him, his naturally acquired dislike of the poor and ignorant: “His Socialism had the impatience or unfriendliness of a fashionable doctor forced to attend a tramp run over in the street.” He thinks Karl Marx grim and schoolmasterly; he would prefer “a well-dressed revolutionist with a sense of humor.” A. needs to be more modest and more practical before he can earn that dour epitaph from Brecht, quoted on the book’s title page:

All roads led to a morass, in my days…
There was little I could do. Yet our rulers
Would have been happier without me, I hoped….

Small things help A. to develop. Leaning over a canal bridge, dismal and tramp-like in the rain, he meets a shrug and half-smile from a canal boatman which implies: “I’m working so hard because I’m an idiot too. We’re all messing along the best we can.” This is the kind of response which A. meets—knowing, relaxed, hard to arouse—when he leaves the Radicals and enters the world of real politics, among the only people who count if a genuine revolution is honestly wanted. He works now with working-class people who are (unlike students) conscious of the fact that they are at the mercy of employers, landlords, and moneylenders, with people who only rebel when in earnest, getting no joy from student posturing. A. has “gone illegal,” he has joined “the others”—Communists, evidently, though he later strays to the Anarchists.

Working-class people are not especially pleasant to him: food is not readily shared with this bourgeois; some notice his hands and see he’s no laborer; urchin children cry: “What’s the matter, sir? Didn’t your carriage wait for you?” He thinks: “Why should they be nice to me?… There are so many armies in this great, invisible war—it’s up to me, to anybody, to find out where you belong. If you want to. And then join it. Try and join it.” Strikes, illegal demonstrations, and frontier-crossings, desertion from the army—the story deals with those aspects of human life which appear in the press only as wild and eccentric trouble-making, suitable for mass condemnation.

Canvassing in mean streets for support for a general strike, A. is asked by a working woman: “What will we live on? Is it all right to join?” He replies with the basic and unsophisticated principles: “You mean, is it legal? Is it legal to starve? Is it legal for them to live off the work of others? To send us to war for them, against men like ourselves? We must fight for our rights, nobody will give them to us for free.” At the book’s end we leave A. desperately hoping that his comrades, charged with striking, will be acquitted by the military court, so that he will not need to throw his bomb at the judges. His story has international application, and is, as well, convincing fiction. Moreover, it will convey to the uninitiated reader the bitter, exhilarating taste of Socialism. Mrs. Browning wrote:

A curse from the depths of womanhood
Is very salt and bitter and good.

The same applies to brotherhood. One of the Socialist workers in this novel stresses the word as “Brother Hood”—as though this quality were a living person.

The Worldwide Machine is sadly individualistic, to the point of solipsism, a kind of diary of a madman. Anteo is a self-educated peasant farmer at odds with all around him, convinced that he lives “on a strip of earth where men have never formed great civilisations or made great efforts.” He sees connections between the life of man and the natural order; and he wants to reorganize the world. He is trying to write a treatise in which (like Marx) he may formulate his insights in a scientific pattern. Perhaps the author’s intention is to parody the lives of men like Marx, by emphasizing the contrast between Anteo’s grand ambition and his miserable existence. But the passages quoted from his treatise indicate that Anteo is ill-equipped for his task. Like H. G. Wells, he gets his first book-learning from the library in a lady’s country house; his muddled reading leads him to a bizarre conception of humanity as machines governed by mystical automata. He believes that his thesis puts him among the prophets and creative geniuses of the great world, separate from his locality. He goes to the capital and proffers his message to university scholars; policemen laugh at his pretensions and, when he makes trouble, serve him with an expulsion order.

THERE IS a sufficient resemblance to the recent surrealist novel Cosmos, by Witold Gombrowicz: a man obsessed by the orderliness of the universe (while he himself prefers chaos) tells his life-story with fatuous concern for detail, seeing connections where no one else would. But Cosmos is funny, whereas The Worldwide Machine is merely solemn. Anteo is a “rebel” against “society,” but not in an interesting way, since he is convincing and comprehensible only when he is wholly negative. Asked to vote for the Christian Democrats, on the ground that “the family and work and religion have always been the most precious foundations of life,” he bashes inarticulately at the concepts—and then batters his fellow-workers who suppose that they believe in such conventions. He poses as a man of superior insight, without providing the evidence. He is presented as a man with his own vision of the world; we are not convinced that he has one, in any meaningful way. Perhaps the author intended us to find Anteo tedious; perhaps not. His wife leaves him, his rustic neighbors persecute him and take him to court. Finally he kills himself. The best one could say for him, in real life, would be: “Leave him alone. He can’t help it.” In the story, there is a gentle priest who be-friends him, listens and tries to make sense. Many readers will be less tolerant.

V. S. Yanovsky’s whimsical novel is prefaced by an enthusiastic eulogy from W.H. Auden, who claims that “there are scenes in No Man’s Time which I shall remember as long as I live.” This is extraordinary. But then, as Auden remarks, the novel belongs in the fairy-tale environment of Professor Tolkien and his much-loved Hobbits: those who are charmed by such fancies will doubtless feel at home here in this no-man’s-land. “We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

There is a man called Yamb or Jamb who comes to an isolated village in America where the inhabitants lead a life dominated by shared religious beliefs expressed in long, learned sermons about self-abnegation and harmonious community spirit:

The unconscious has no beginning and no end, it existed already, in darkness, nothingness and vacuum…” The obese patriarch strode back and forth with feeling. “Amen,” the surly parishioners took advantage of the pause to bellow.

Among the villagers are the deacon, the blacksmith, the apothecary, stablemen, lace-makers, and waterwheel operatives; all are dressed in picturesque operatic costumes. Yamb has driven from Chicago to find lost Bruno, heir to a great fortune in the outside world, who is a prophet and philosopher to the village. Other men come from the city to help Yamb in his quest. Auden has written elsewhere about his idea of Eden—its landscape, fashions, religious and political institutions—and it has something in common with Yanovsky’s village. Auden takes delight in pointing out resemblances to the legend of the Golden Fleece, and in remarking on the contrast between this peaceful village and the mad world of the city. We recall an early poem:

To settle in this village of the heart,
My darling, can you bear it?…
The identical and townee smartness
Will you really see as home?…

It is easy to see why Auden should like the idea of this novel, but difficult to share his admiration of the achievement. The city is not interesting; the Argonauts lack personality. The parallels with the Golden Fleece story are insistent but without significance. Yamb finds a Medea, who throws her young brother into the sea to halt pursuers; he takes another bride when he returns to urban life; his children (by the Medea) get killed. Yanovsky adds nothing of much interest to this powerful anecdote, which so many have handled before him. There is another legend (not much used in serious fiction) according to which the guilty and criminal Medea returned to her homeland, was reconciled with her family and later joined by an older, forgiving Jason. I was disappointed that this ending was not added to No Man’s Time, since it might have given more point to this rather ill-constructed fantasy.

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