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The Very Thing

Command, and I Will Obey You

by Alberto Moravia, translated by Angus Davidson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 190 pp., $5.50

Bad Debts

by Geoffrey Wolff
Simon & Schuster, 224 pp., $5.95

Lunar Landscapes

by John Hawkes
New Directions, 288 pp., $5.95

The Cost of Living Like This

by James Kennaway
Atheneum, 208 pp., $5.95

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

by Jorge Amado, translated by Harriet de Onis
Knopf, 576 pp., $6.95

There are times when one is as weary of the clutter of fiction as of the clutter of life: all that coming and going, those conversations and journeys and meals, all the concrete manifestations of our intent which fulfill it and at the same time spill over its edges. At such times we desert fiction and turn, according to our taste, to poetry or to philosophy, to whatever has form without too much overlay of detail. In response to such a mood as this, Wallace Stevens wrote in “Credences of Summer”:

Postpone the anatomy of summer, as
The physical pine, the metaphys- ical pine.
Let’s see the very thing and noth- ing else.
Let’s see it with the hottest fire of sight.
Burn everything not part of it to ash.

Trace the gold sun about the whitened sky
Without evasion by a single meta- phor.
Look at it in its essential barren- ness
And say this, this is the centre that I seek.

But certain fiction can accompany us even into this territory. If it is sufficiently pared down, if it moves swiftly to its moment of perception and never repeats itself, fiction can rise clear of the interestingly gravid condition that is its normal state. But only, I think, in the short story. The novel, by definition, must be opulent. Even a terse novel is encrusted with detail by comparison with a lyric poem. A short story need not be. It is like a drawing, as distinct from a painting.

So much by way of introduction to a masterpiece. For Alberto Moravia’s collection Command, and I Will Obey You seems to me simply that. Read consecutively, the stories add up to a single work: an exploration of consciousness—but that is a clumsy phrase. Try again: a series of epiphanies, a row of submarine portholes through which we look into the unexplored ocean of our inner experience…. It won’t do; I have been trying for days to think of a single descriptive phrase for this book, and at the end all I can say is that in each story the central character experiences a moment of intense perception in which the real nature of his life, or of some essential part of his life, becomes clear to him. That, as it stands, would do as a description of any good short story; but these of Moravia’s carry that tendency to its furthest limits. The stories are not realistic, or not consistently so. In some of them, the action is not in line with our ordinary notions of credibility; they are like very clear, meaningful dreams.

Sometimes the moment of perception consists of the identification of some persistent quality in the narrator’s experience. (All the stories are written in the first person.) A man recalls an ecstatic moment of his childhood, when he contemplated, with the intensity of uncorrupted vision, a bird on a bough. It seemed to him an embodiment of wildness, and in that moment he saw wildness as a precious quality, rendered even more precious by the fact that the bird was unaware of being appreciated. An instant later, his father shot the bird, smashing its head, so that the beatific vision of wildness ended in tragedy. Half a lifetime later, this experience is repeated. The man’s wife, who had attracted him by a beautiful wildness, an unpredictability and elusiveness, gradually sheds these qualities and becomes less a wild bird than a domestic hen. One day, watching her as she walks under the window, he sees to his joy that the old wild-bird quality has reappeared in her bearing; he follows her and finds that she is going to meet a lover. As the two kiss, he is about to assault the man when he realizes that to do so would be to repeat his father’s murder of the wild bird: the only possible result would be that much less wildness in the world. He walks away and leaves them to their happiness.

Moravia here is using the narrator’s perception of the quality of wildness itself to comprehend his experience: what he finds meaningful in life, why he was happy with his wife, why and with what intensity he will suffer from now on. This is the method of each of the stories. The center of consciousness is opened up, the entire structure of a life laid bare. In one story, the central character is a madman who has just committed a murder; in another, an entirely average man discovering his averageness; in another, a young student who dreams that he is old, and turns out to be an old man dreaming that he is young; in another, a derelict who has lost his memory and is forced to scrutinize his experience freshly at every moment, in the hope that it will yield some meaning. In the last story of all, we pass without effort into the consciousness of a dog. The jump from human to non-human is not far, because Moravia uses the same method of paring the animal’s perceptions down to essentials. The story begins:

The world, it is certain, is made up of bones and smells. It is made up of bones when, for some mysterious reason that I cannot explain, I am stronger than the world; it is made up of smells when, for other and no less mysterious reasons, the world is stronger than me. In the first case, a drastic reduction takes place: the world becomes nothing but a bone; in the second, a stupefying explosion: the world is a million, a million million smells. The reduction of the world to a bone is accompanied by somewhat disagreeable feelings and manifestations: my coat bristles, I grind my teeth, I bark, I foam at the mouth, I fall upon it, I bite; the explosion of smells is also accompanied by special behavior: nose to the ground, I pursue, one after the other, the infinite number of smells that go to compose reality; or else, sitting on my hind legs, head raised and nostrils opened wide, I interpret with voluptuous pleasure the innumerable olfactory messages that reach me from every direction.

That quotation may not convey the extraordinary quality of this book. It is not a book that can be pulled apart easily into quotable fragments, but makes a single, intense impression. Moravia has written books that are formally more imposing, but no other that gets down as this does to the quick of experience, that “burns everything not part of it to ash.”

Bad Debts is a skillful and amusing book with an aftertaste of reflective sadness; a farce, if you like, containing a message about integrity. Its hero, Benjamin Freeman, is a free man in the sense that he skates perilously on the surface of the glossy, heartless consumer society. The characters who surround him—his estranged wife, his son, an empty-hearted careerist, his cousin, a faceless lawyer—act as effective foils to his large, purposeless vitality. Freeman is a liar and cheat who yet seems more honest than they do: the extravagant stories he makes up about his exploits, the wiles he employs to obtain on credit goods that he cannot afford, are an instinctive protest against the empty, senseless life that goes on around him. As the son, Caxton, reflects:

His father was not stupid, not by any means. Nor was he cowardly. It took intelligence and audacity of kinds that Caxton respected despite himself to manage the frauds his father had managed. When Freeman fancied something he saw in a shop window he would dart in without hesitation and grab it. He had never unwillingly left a store empty-handed, so far as Caxton knew. He would spin some intricate web of duplicity around the clerk, who would then give him what he wanted, usually on account (but in difficult cases, for a check), together with whatever else Freeman thought might come in handy. And the clerk always seemed pleased, as though he had put one over on Freeman. That must be his father’s secret, Caxton thought. He could always make himself seem disarmed by objects. And something else: if Freeman liked a clerk or a store owner, he would show his friendliness. But if he didn’t like the man with the goods, he wouldn’t hide his disdain. In his relation with merchants Freeman seemed perfectly straight. And he would never accept goods just to have anything. He demanded the best, Caxton had to admit that much. Never mind the price, of course, but if the workmanship were shoddy or the model out of date, Freeman wouldn’t buy…. Caxton wondered whether he would pick things up the way his father did if he had the balls and talent for such enterprise. He guessed he wouldn’t, but he didn’t really know.

Bad Debts is technically very accomplished; not original, it follows well-marked-out paths of narrative method, and perhaps owes something in tone and pace to the Saul Bellow of Seize the Day. But it is the work of a writer who has an excellent ear for the way people talk, an understanding eye for the way comedy intertwines with pathos, and a penetrating curiosity about human beings.

The work of John Hawkes, by contrast, for which some people have claimed such large virtues, is both difficult to read and at the same time unmemorable. Mr. Hawkes’s new collection, Lunar Landscapes, assembles his shorter fiction from 1950 to 1963, and one of the depressing things about it is its lack of development. The later pieces are just as over-written as the earlier ones, and just as determinedly planted in a no-man’s-land between the observed and the imagined that misses the cogency of either. Not that all writing has to be either totally realistic or totally fantastic; Moravia’s stories, for instance, travel very successfully between the two poles; but Mr. Hawkes seems to me to take altogether too much trouble to avoid concreteness of any kind. If he sets a story in a certain locale, it is not long before he pulls us away by throwing in a detail that jars with the rest of the picture (as in one story which appears to take us into the Middle Ages and then suddenly mentions kerosene) or by determinedly avoiding the bruising touch of the specific (as in the lingo spoken by his lower-class characters, who seem neither American, English, Scottish, nor Irish). To stir up such a continual whirlpool of words and to sustain it over so many pages certainly takes dedication, but it seems to me totally misplaced. I am mystified that a gifted writer should go to such lengths to make his work virtually unreadable. Can it be that Mr. Hawkes in his youth fell into the hands of a charlatan who, under the guise of teaching literature to students, spread the poisonous doctrine that the harder the reader has to work, the more highly he will value what he manages to get through? I feel sad about writing in this way; and I hope that my assessment of Hawkes’s work is wrong.

James Kennaway was a very accomplished English novelist who attracted much attention with his excellent first novel, Tunes of Glory (1956). Before the appearance of his last book, The Cost of Living Like This, he joined Matyas Seiber, Roy Campbell, Albert Camus, etc., in the long list of artists who have died in car crashes. This is a taut, economical story of suffering, told with restrained power that conveys the reality of pain better than pages of anguished howling. On the other hand, it is not quite the success it might have been. It is a good, if grim, narrative of a man who contracts cancer and dies because the problems of his life are insoluble.

By the end of the book, we have grasped that the hero’s wife, who is satisfying to him as a woman, is wrong for him because she forces him into a style of life that chokes him. His youthful mistress, a Cockney girl who goes in for swimming championships, is given a speech toward the end in which she explains, in interior soliloquy: “I am his scene. I am. He’s a good man, Julian, I know he is. He really loves not only me but people like me. I swear he does. And he really loves Christabel, I see that. But he hates her bloody scene. I promise he does. He’s said as much when he’s been drunk or drugged or whatever it is.” This is for the slower-witted reader who has not yet got the point.

A story like this depends on very exact characterization, and Kennaway did not, I think, quite capture the crucial character of the Cockney girl. Her language is slightly wrong. She is supposed to chatter like any Southeast London adolescent, but sometimes she comes out with a sentence in straight co-ed American (“Maybe he majored in E.S.P., who cares”) and sometimes with a phrase in Kennaway’s own cultivated, literary English, as when she is made to say that somebody-or-other’s Scotch jokes are “pauky.” Girls like her just don’t know words like “pauky.” This slight unsteadiness blurs the character: she remains intangible, an approximation, a construct of the author’s thesis.

Finally, Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. Amado is a very difficult writer for a Northwest European to assess. Those, like myself, who have never been to Latin America have to accept the Brazil that Amado shows us, and still more his beloved province of Bahia, simply as places of the mind. This involves taking at face value a good many things that the author probably intends as ironies, or at the very least as fanciful melismata; Amado is a high-spirited writer with a taste for extravagance and burlesque, and this comes out not only in his much-praised comic sense but also in those slightly Grand Guignol poetic passages where he invokes the mysteries of the candomblé. To the outsider, equipped only with the knowledge that there has been an interesting survival of African religious cults in Brazil, but innocent of any of the nuances of adaptation by which these cults have made themselves at home alongside Catholic Christianity, these evocations of the Egun serve mainly as a picturesque backdrop to Amado’s swarming, picturesque stories of modern Bahian city life.

There again, I write “modern,” but occasionally one comes across details that give the impression that the fifty-eight-year-old Amado is reminiscing, weaving his stories about the more leisured and graceful world of his young days; for instance, the characters pay their debts or (more frequently) collect their winnings at the gaming-table in mil-reis, a form of currency that went out in 1942. In a word, a serious assessment of Jorge Amado can be undertaken only by someone familiar with the whole hinterland of attitudes and beliefs, and able to construe the lifting of an eyebrow and the discreet frown. In this respect I am a non-starter, but since Amado’s books have been translated into some thirty languages (including Icelandic—goodness knows what that looks like), many of his readers must be in the same position, so a few remarks may be in order.

Amado’s books contain a good deal of froth; at least, I understand that his early novels of social consciousness are deadly serious, but since the international success of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon in 1962 he has, justifiably, given his extravagant comic sense full play, and this alone would put out of court the claim made for him as the “Brazilian Balzac.” He gives us a Balzacian torrent of detail and a colossal dramatis personae (the sheer number of people mentioned by name in an Amado novel does indeed take one back to the nineteenth century), but the structure itself is constantly enveloped in a spume of fanciful and slightly sentimental humor, so that one cannot take it as a serious Balzacian analysis of a society. Amado’s view of the demi-monde, for instance, is consistently flavored with saccharine; or, at least, if Bahia really is a paradise where all the whorehouses and gambling dives are owned and operated by such wise, tolerant, and harmless people, and frequented by loveable and amusing scamps with hearts of gold, then I am ready for a one-way ticket there.

On the other hand, underneath all the fol-de-rols, Amado has a consistent view of life and makes it credible, which is perhaps the most we have a right to ask of any writer, anything else he gives us being lagniappe. He is well inside the Latin tradition of taking pleasure, and particularly sensual pleasure, with intense seriousness and building the rest of life around it; he loves rogues for the usual reason that rogues are loved, i.e., that they are honest and frank about their pleasures, and, having cast off hypocrisy, are likely to be more honest in their relationships than people who keep up appearances. The unashamed lyricism of Amado’s descriptions of physical pleasure reflects his engaging inverse Puritanism, his sense that hedonism is what makes life worth living, so that it is important enough to be preached about.

Certainly Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is a powerful frontal attack on the theme of human completeness. Dona Flor, a pretty young teacher of cookery from the respectable middle class, is swept into marriage by a loveable picaro of the type Amado so much admires, who causes her great suffering but also great joy (in bed); he then dies, and after an uncomfortable period of widowhood she marries a steady, reliable man who brings all the joys of regularity and security, while being if anything a little too regular (in bed). Dona Flor does not exactly solve her problem, but she manages, like most human beings, to find a way of soldiering on, and, as she sensibly observes in a note to the author which he uses as a preface, “that which is crooked cannot be made straight.” Amado is a good-natured writer, and, the way things are going, that is a lot to be grateful for.

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