Breakdowns

A Family Romance

by Richard Wollheim
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 255 pp., $5.95

Camden’s Eyes

by Austin Wright
Doubleday (A Paris Review Editions Novel), 336 pp., $5.95

Sick Friends

by Ivan Gold
E.P. Dutton, 372 pp., $6.95

T Zero

by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver
Harcourt, Brace & World, 152 pp., $4.95

We are at a lavish, dizzy party, a kaleidoscope. It is taking place in a penthouse like a prairie, where one beautiful, enormous room opens into another, where the terraces open onto a landscape of jeweled, smoky city, where the Renoirs on the wall compete with Rouaults, where unobtrusive, omnipresent servants glide like serpents across ankle-deep carpets, summoning silver trays like settling doves out of the atmosphere. Someone who looks like (but it can’t be!) Blink, the star of stage, screen, and box, is talking about shooting water-buffalo last week in the Outer Catamarans, and a knot over there is discussing (while sampling) the mysteries of Caspian caviar. Buzz, tinkle, clatter. The drinks are—was that the host saying, “Of course, we have our own distillery”? A clink of ice, a rustle of taffeta, a burst of laughter, a voice out of nowhere saying, “And that’s why he never….” A laughing witch in a red dress is caught, as in a spotlight, over by the piano. Murmur, rattle, splash, mmmmmm, ha, I’d love to, didn’t we once, but what a wonderful idea, thanks I’d better not, did that really happen, and did you ever see eyelashes like that?

Suddenly out of this happy, shapeless confusion, there emerges a brooding, memory-tormented fellow, a confessional novelist, who attaches himself to our left ear and declares that, “for our entertainment,” he is going to tell us his story. This isn’t necessarily his personal story, we’re not that unsophisticated, but the story of an “I” whose problem can be looked at from either end: Given what he’s suffered and done, who is he? Or, given who he is, what did he do or suffer to make him that way? Exercising our insight on these problems is the entertainment offered us by the confessional novelist. But there are inevitable undercurrents of intention. A novelist writes to win fame and fortune; he writes to expose; he writes to bear witness; he writes to explain; he writes for revenge.

The fellow at our ear may have any or all of these jokers up his sleeve, but as there’s no real way to clear himself of suspicion in advance, he launches boldly into his story: “I was born many years ago, of poor but honest parents, in a little village in Siberia”—once he’s taken that first step, everything else follows. As he moves down the majestic corridor of years, it appears more and more clearly that the narrator has been ill-treated by somebody, a girl, who—did she run off with the other fellow just because she was dumb, promiscuous, mean, or all three together? or was it, in some measure, the story-teller’s own fault? He’s remorselessly honest, he doesn’t want to take advantage, he wants you to have all the facts before you make up your mind, he assures you it’s an interesting problem—and the hours stretch out before you. He …

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