The Military Philosophers
Pictures of Fidelman
With The Military Philosophers Anthony Powell reaches forward into the mid-Forties and completes the third, penultimate movement of “The Music of Time.” The concluding installment of his wartime trilogy, it is also to my mind the most successful—partly, I think, because in spite of the title it is the one least saturated in military mystique. Unless one happens to share the author’s predilection for regimental lore and red tabs and the nine-and-thirty ways of pulling rank, there are times when the atmosphere of the two preceding volumes, The Valley of Bones and The Soldier’s Art, turns undeniably oppressive. The new book, by contrast, is more spacious. We have left behind, not the army itself, at any rate the parade ground and the officers’ mess: the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, now has a desk job in Whitehall, acting as a liaison officer first with the Poles and later with the Belgians and Czechs. Displaced cavalry commanders and military attachés waltz around like characters in an operette; haut fonctionnaires intrigue; local bureaucrats abstruct. And a strong sub-plot is provided by the sexual depredations of Pamela Flitton, last glimpsed half a dozen volumes back as a five-year-old bridesmaid being sick in the font, now a full-grown and formidable vixen.
Whatever one puts it down to—the metropolitan setting, the cosmopolitan milieu—The Military Philosophers represents a return to Powell’s most accomplished comic vein. It is also, on occasion, unexpectedly moving—unexpectedly, because both Powell’s principal literary modes depend to a large degree for their success on a positive withholding of sympathy. His comedy is brisk, hard-headed, masculine, traditional and toryish in its outlook; at the same time his preoccupation with patterns, with the picturesque groupings and regroupings of experience, suggests the detachment of the aesthete who values life primarily for the striking compositions that it yields. But while he is certainly a writer who keeps his distance, the presence in his work of a “straight” sympathetic narrator, however self-effacing, is enough in itself to ensure that he goes beyond unalloyed burlesque or pure heartless aestheticism. Feeling keeps breaking through, not always obliquely either.
There is one particularly fine instance in the present novel. Jenkins is accompanying a delegation through Normandy shortly after the Liberation, traveling through “a Corot landscape of tall poplars and water meadows executed in light greys, greens and blues.” As so often, his experience is fixed and framed like a work of art. Then an old man waves at the passing convoy; suddenly it is all “too much,” and he breaks into tears. Admittedly an incident like this is exceptional in its directness. More typically the anguish of war is only hinted at or implied, as in the episode where Jenkins and his colleagues have to handle some of the diplomatic complications of the Katyn massacre, and habitual understatement turns grim rather than comic.
Among the incidental pleasures of the novel, two passages stand out: a mordant character sketch of a famous British Field-Marshal (unnamed, but easily identifiable), and a scene where Jenkins belatedly realizes, with suitable Proustian nostalgia and regret, that the seaside resort where he had been quartered overnight was Cabourg, Proust’s Balbec. There are also some entertaining new minor characters who deserve to be kept alive, such as Blackhead, the ultimate bureaucrat, clearly a leftover from the Circumlocution Office. And the book closes with the announcement of an amazing marriage, between Pamela Flitton and Widmerpool. Irresistible force weds immovable object: it promises well for the postwar era.
Evan Connell’s latest book is a companion-piece to his first novel, Mrs. Bridge, which originally appeared ten years ago. Like Mrs. Bridge, it consists of a series of snapshots, or, rather, home movies: a hundred and more brief episodes dramatizing the life of a prosperous lawyer’s household in Kansas City during the 1930s. In clumsier hands the technique might result in bittiness; but Mr. Connell knows his material thoroughly, and skillfully builds up a wholly credible composite portrait of his middle-class Middle West family, with its rituals, intimacies, adolescent storms, neighborhood alliances, its shifting emotional cross-currents and fixed opinions.
If Mr. Bridge is a less engaging work than its predecessor, it is chiefly because Walter Bridge himself has little of his wife’s pathos. Where she was vulnerable in her innocence, funny and touching in her hapless cultural aspirations, he is rigid, efficient, proud of knowing his own mind. Not an especially likable man; but then Mr. Connell’s purpose in writing about him is not to draw up a brief for the defense, but simply to restore a cliché-figure to humanity. Mr. Bridge has racial prejudices, but since he would be ashamed to think of himself as a racist he finds them uncomfortable to live with. Mr. Bridge is a philistine, but in some ways he is more intelligent and better informed than the handful of intellectuals who cross his path. Mr. Bridge gets a comfortable warm feeling from going into the vaults of the bank to count his securities, but it is a feeling inextricably bound up with his family affections. Mr. Bridges subscribes to a narrow moral code, but within its limits he has a delicate and scrupulous sense of honor.
In a word, Mr. Bridge is flesh and blood, a not-altogether-predictable individual rather than a social critic’s stereotype or the representative of a mythical booboisie. And to grasp his full reality is to be made more acutely aware than one could through outright satire of how meager his inner resources are, how constricted his emotions. He himself senses as much. As he grows older (and his development is subtly handled) he increasingly comes to feel that life has cheated him, and at the very end of the book his mood is rather like that of the man in the Yeats poem who on his seventieth birthday suddenly realizes that he has never once danced for joy. We are spared his actual death: for that one has to go back to Mrs. Bridge, where he collapses one afternoon while he is alone in his office talking to his dictaphone.
Few readers of Bernard Malamud’s earlier stories are likely to have much difficulty recalling Arthur Fidelman, the self-confessed failure of a painter (b. circa 1920 in the Bronx) who goes to Italy and comes to grief—repeatedly, under progressively more humiliating circumstances each time. Mr. Malamud has now taken the three original Fidelman stories, reworked them, and added three new ones to complete the account of his hero’s Italienische Reise. As Fidelman wanders from Rome to Milan, from Florence to Venice, the list of his humiliations steadily lengthens: among other things he is robbed, ridiculed, chained up by gangsters, reduced to pimping, forced to work as a menial in a brothel, and finally buggered by his mistress’s husband. At almost every turn, too, he is confronted with fresh evidence of his bungling and insufficiency, especially as an artist, until in the end he settles for the life of an unpretentious craftsman and returns to America, where we are simply told that he works in glass and—a somewhat ambiguous statement, in view of the concluding Italian episode—that he “loves men and women.”
Fidelman’s adventures can be read as parables of the artistic life, or of the inartisticness of life, and Fidelman himself combines the attributes of several familiar archetypal figures: the universal misfit, the American in Europe, the Jew in a predominantly Christian culture. The stories are crowded, too, with metaphors and symbols which invite the kind of exegesis which they will no doubt shortly be receiving in graduate seminars. It will be a pity, though, if too determined a search for Malamud’s “meaning” is allowed to obscure the surface qualities of his writing. The charm of the Fidelman saga lies primarily in its free-wheeling fantasy, its inventiveness, its flights of mimicry and slapstick. In the earlier stories, admittedly, the humor is rather wan, and the masochism too remorseless; I am inclined to agree with F. W. Dupee’s judgment that “something about them suggests the rigors of a punitive expedition on the part of the author, possibly at his own expense.” But to make up for this the later stories are distinguished by an unusual access of high spirits. One of them in particular, “Pictures of the Artist,” is as exuberant as anything Malamud has written since The Natural: an extravaganza blending dream fugue, Biblical parody, and surrealist wit. And the final Venetian adventure, buggery and all, is a sparkling piece of work.
Menachem-Mendl is probably Sholom Aleichem’s most famous character (or was, before the lamentable Broadway travesty of Tevya), and it is odd that his adventures haven’t appeared in English before now. Originally serialized in the Yiddish press over a period of nearly twenty years, they consist of an exchange of letters between the hero and his much-enduring but far from uncomplaining wife Sheineh-Sheindl, whom he has left behind looking after the children in their little native town of Kasrilevka while he tries to make his fortune in the big city—first Odessa, then Kiev. Menahem-Mendl is the quintessential Luftmensch, the eternally over-optimistic schemer who somehow contrives to make a living out of thin air; at one moment he is a currency speculator, trying to keep pace with the “hausses” and “baisses” of gold and sterling, at the next a dabbler in commodities, after that a would-be broker, a journalist, a matchmaker, an insurance agent.
His letters give an incomparable picture of the Jewish cafés and sidewalk exchanges, with their jokes and chaffering and rumors of the great world. (He sends home a wonderfully garbled account of the Dreyfus Affair; on the other hand he only gets teased for his pains when he tries to start up a conversation with his companions about Zionism—“Zionism? Dr. Herzl? Is that a deal too?”) And meanwhile in reply Sheineh-Sheindl keeps him in touch with village gossip and the woes of the family—when she isn’t busy drawing on her splendid repertoire of curses, that is, or on her mother’s even more extensive repertoire of scathing proverbs.
Sholom Aleichem’s characters are as deeply embedded in their society as Chaucer’s, and their language is densely idiomatic. No doubt a good deal gets lost in translation: some of Sheineh-Sheindl’s malapropisms, for instance, sound impossibly far-fetched in English. But enough survives in Mrs. Kahana’s version to make this a delightful book, full of easy natural humor, and quite free from any taint of folksiness or sentimentality.