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The Ashes of Hollywood I: The Bottom 4 of the Top 10

Mr. Trevanian has a nice gift for bizarre characters. The chief of Search and Sanction is an albino who lives in darkness; he must also undergo periodic changes of blood because he is “one of nature’s rarest genealogical phenomena,” presumably related to a cadet branch of the Plantagenet family. It seems only yesterday that Sidney Greenstreet was growing orchids in a most sinister greenhouse and chuckling mirthlessly. Actually, that was thirty years ago and writers are now having a difficult time thinking up unlikely traits…not to mention names. Unhappily the mind that created Pussy Galore cloned before it went to ashes, and Mr. Trevanian brightly offers us Felicity Arce, Jean-Paul Bidet, Randie Nickers, and a host of other cute names.

But he is also capable of writing most engagingly. “His line of thought was severed by the paternal and the plebeian voice of the pilot assuring him that he knew where they were going.” Or, “he intended to give [the book] a handsome review in obedience to his theory that the surest way to maintain position at the top of the field was to advance and support men of clearly inferior capacities.” More of this and Mr. Trevanian will write himself out of the genre and into Quality Lit, Satire Division. But he must refrain from writing beautifully. However, I suspect he is young and will outgrow “mountain stars still crisp and cold despite the threat of dawn to mute their brilliance” not to mention “organic viscosity of the dark around him”: an inapplicable description of a night in the high alps worthy of Nathalie Sarraute, as is “Time had been viscous for Ben, too.”

It is sad to report that Mr. Trevanian cannot resist presenting in thin disguise Mr. and Mrs. Burton and Mr. and Mrs. Onassis. There is nothing wrong with this if you have a point to make about them. But he has nothing to say; he simply mentions them in order to express disdain. No doubt they deserve his Olympian disgust, but he should leave to Suzy the record of their doings and to the really bad writers the exploitation of their famous legends. It is interesting, incidentally, to observe the curiously incestuous feedback of the media. About a dozen people are known to nearly everyone capable of reading a simply written book. Therefore the golden dozen keep cropping up in popular books with the same insistence that their doings dominate the media, and the most successful exploiters of these legends are the very primitive writers like Harold Robbins who not only do not know the golden dozen at first or even second hand but, inexcusably, lack the imagination to think up anything exciting to add to what the reader has already learned from gossip columns and magazine interviews. At times while reading these bestsellers I had the odd sensation that I was actually reading Leonard Lyons or a copy of Photoplay or anything except a book. But then it is a characteristic of today’s writers (serious as well as commercial) to want their books to resemble “facts” rather than fiction. The Odessa File, August 1914, The Eiger Sanction are non-fiction titles.

Mr. Trevanian has recourse to that staple of recent fiction the Fag Villain. Since kikes and niggers can no longer be shown as bad people, only commies (pre-Nixon) and fags are certain to arouse the loathing of all decent fiction addicts. I will say for Mr. Trevanian that his Fag Villain is pretty funny—an exquisite killer named Miles Mellough with a poodle named Faggot. In fact, Mr. Trevanian in his comic mood is almost always beguiling, and this bright scenario ought to put new life into the Bond product. I think even the Wise Hack would have applauded the screenplay I automatically started preparing in my head. LONG SHOT the Eiger mountain. DAY. As titles begin, CUT TO….

On the Night of the Seventh Moon belongs to a genre I know very little about: the Gothic novel for ladies. But I do recall the films made from the novels of Daphne du Maurier, the queen of this sort of writing. In fact, I once wrote the screenplay for one of her most powerful works, The Scapegoat, in which the dogged (and in this case hounded) Alec Guinness played two people. Although Miss du Maurier had written an up-to-date variation on The Prisoner of Zenda, she had somehow got the notion that she had written the passion of St. Theresa. She used to send me helpful memos; and though she could not spell the simplest words or adhere to any agreed upon grammar, her prose surged with vulgar invention and powerful feeling of the sort that cannot be faked.

I suspect Victoria Holt is also serious about her work. The publishers tell us she is very popular; certainly she has written many books with magical titles. This one starts rather like Rebecca: “Now that I have reached the mature age of twenty-seven I look back on the fantastic adventure of my youth and can almost convince myself that it did not happen…” A sense of warm security begins to engulf the reader at this point. Even the heroine’s name inspires confidence: Helena Trant…so reminiscent of Helen Trent, whose vicissitudes on radio kept my generation enthralled, not to mention the ever so slight similarity to the name Trapp and all that that truly box-office name suggests; we are almost in the same neck of the woods, too, the Black Forest, 1860. And here is Helen, I mean Helena, asking herself a series of fascinating questions. “Did I suffer some mental aberration? Was it really true—as they tried to convince me—that I, a romantic and rather feckless girl, had been betrayed as so many had before?…”

Helena’s mother was German (noble); her father English (donnish). Mother dies; girl goes to school in Germany. On a misty day she gets lost in the Black Forest. She is nubile, as Marjorie Holmes would say. Suddenly, riding toward her, “like a hero of the forest on his big white horse,” was a godlike young man. He was “tall, broad, and immediately I was aware of what I could only describe then as authority.” (How right she was! Though Maximilian is incognito he is really the heir to the local Grand Duchy and—but we are ahead of our story.)

He offers to take her to his hunting lodge. She sits in front of him on his horse (“He held me tightly against him which aroused in me a strange emotion which I had never felt before and which should, of course, have been a warning”). A nice old woman retainer gets her into dry things (“my hair fell about my shoulders; it was thick, dark and straight”). She wants to go back to school but “the mist is too thick.” Supper. ” ‘Allow me to serve you some of this meat,’ ” says the randy prince. “He did so and I took a piece of rye bread which was hot and crusty and delicious. There was a mixture of spicy pickle and a kind of sauerkraut such as I had never tasted before.” Miss Holt knows her readers like a good din from time to time along with romance, and terror. As it turns out, Max doesn’t lay Helena despite the demon-god in his loins. A virgin, Helena departs not knowing whom it was she met.

Back to England. Father dead, she lives with two aunts. A couple arrive from Germany; they say that they are cousins of her late mother. She goes back to Germany with them. Festival in a small town: THE NIGHT OF THE SEVENTH MOON. He appears; takes her away with him into the forest. He sends for the couple who witness his marriage to Helena. She is in a state of ecstasy. For one thing, she is well-groomed. “My best dress; it was of a green silky material with a monk’s collar of velvet of a slightly darker shade of green.” Remember Joan Fontaine at Manderley? The new clothes? And, ah, the mystery? But Helena has done better than Joan’s Max de Winter. She is now Countess Lokenburg. She gloats: “I wondered what the aunts would say when they heard that I had become the wife of a count.”

But almost as good as social climbing, there is lust. Max’s kiss “made me feel exalted and expectant all at once. It was cruel and yet tender; it was passionate and caressing.” Can such happiness last? Certainly not. A mysterious illness; she is out of her head. Comes to herself and is told that on the night of the seventh moon she was taken into the forest and…”there criminally assaulted.” Those blissful days with Max were all a dream, brought on by a doctor’s drug. Meanwhile, she is knocked up. She has the baby; goes back to England. A clergyman falls in love with her and wants to marry her but Helena feels that her past will ruin his career. He is noble: ” ‘I’d rather have a wife than a bishopric.’ ”

The plot becomes very complex. Hired to be governess to children of what turns out to be a princely cousin of Max who is married to Wilhelmina because he thinks Helena dead because Wilhelmina’s colleagues the supposed cousins of Helena were in a plot to…. Enough! All turns out well though it is touch-and-go for a while when her child, the heir to the principality, is kidnapped by the wicked cousin (Raymond Massey in The Prisoner of Zenda) who then attacks her. ” ‘You are mad,’ I said.” He cackles: ” ‘You will not live to see me rule Rochenstein, but before you die I am going to show you what kind of lover you turned your back on.’ ” (American Dream?) Helena takes her place at Maximilian’s side as consort. Annually, they celebrate the night of the seventh moon, and in the year Cousin Victoria Regina dies, “What a beautiful night! With the full moon high in the sky paling the stars to insignificance….” Those stars keep cropping up in these books, but then as Bette Davis said to Paul Henreid in the last but one frame of Now Voyager, “Don’t ask for the moon when we have” (a beat) “the stars!” FADE OUT on night sky filled with stars.

I have never before read a book by Herman Wouk on the sensible ground that I could imagine what it must be like: solid, uninspired, and filled with rabbinical lore. After all, one knows of his deep and abiding religious sense, his hatred of sex outside marriage, his love for the American ruling class. I did see the film of The Caine Mutiny (from Queequeg to Queeg, or the decline of American narrative); and I found the morality disturbing. Mr. Wouk has an embarrassing passion for the American goyim, particularly the West Point-Annapolis crowd who stand, he believes, between him and the Cossacks. In his lowbrow way he reflects what one has come to think of as the Commentary syndrome or: all’s right with America if you’re not in a gas chamber, and making money.

I did see the film Youngblood Hawke four times, finding something new to delight in at each visit. When James Franciscus, playing a raw provincial genius like Thomas Wolfe, meets Suzanne Pleshette in a publisher’s office, he is told, “She will be your editor and stylist.” Well, she pushes these heavy glasses up on her forehead and, my God, she’s pretty as well as brilliant and witty, which she proves by saying, “Shall I call you Youngy or Bloody?” The Wise Hack at the Writers’ Table always maintained that when boy meets girl they’ve got to meet cute.

The Winds of War: 885 pages of small type in which Herman Wouk describes the family of a naval captain just before America enters the Second World War (there is to be a sequel). As I picked up the heavy book, I knew terror, for I am that rarest of reviewers who actually reads every word, and rather slowly. What I saw on the first page was disquieting. The protagonist’s name Victor Henry put me off. It sounded as if he had changed it from something longer, more exotic, more, shall we say, Eastern. But then Henry was the family name of the hero of A Farewell to Arms so perhaps Mr. Wouk is just having a little fun with us. Mrs. Henry is called Rhoda; the sort of name someone in New York would think one of them would be called out there west of the Hudson. “At forty-five, Rhoda Henry remained a singularly attractive woman, but she was rather a crab.” This means that she is destined for extramarital high jinks. “In casual talk [Rhoda] used the swooping high notes of smart Washington women.” I grew up in Washington at exactly the same period Mr. Wouk is writing about and I must demur: smart Washington ladies sounded no different from smart New York ladies (no swooping in either city).

Captain Henry is stationed at the War Department. He is “a squat Navy fullback from California, of no means or family.” Mr. Wouk quotes from the letter he wrote his congressman asking for an appointment to the Naval Academy. “My life aim is to serve as an officer in the US Navy.” We are told he speaks Russian learned from “Czarist settlers in Fort Ross, California.” Anyway he got appointed; has risen; is gung ho and wants to command a battleship. The marriage? “Rhoda returned an arch glance redolent of married sex.” We learn that the Nazis are on the march.

There are three children. Son Warren was involved in “an escapade involving an older woman and a midnight car crash. The parents had never raised the topic of women, partly from bashfulness—they were both prudish churchgoers, ill at ease with such a topic….” Son Byron is in Siena carrying on with one Nathalie, niece of a famed American Jewish writer, author of A Jew’s Jesus. Byron has recently turned against his Renaissance studies because “I don’t believe David looked like Apollo, or Moses like Jupiter.” Further, “The poor idealistic Jewish preacher from the back hills. That’s the Lord I grew up with. My father’s a religious man; we had to read a chapter of the Bible every morning at home.”

At this point my worst fears about Mr. Wouk seemed justified. The Russian-speaking Victor Henry who reads a chapter of the Bible every morning to his family and is prudish about sexual matters is, Mr. Wouk wants us to believe, a typical gallant pre-war goyisher American naval officer. If I may speak from some small knowledge (I was born at West Point, son of an instructor and graduate), I find Mr. Wouk’s naval officer incredible—or “incredulous” as they say in bestseller land. There may have been a few religious nuts here and there in the fleet but certainly a naval officer who is about to be posted as an attaché to the American Embassy in Berlin would not be one of them. In those days Annapolis was notoriously snobbish and no matter how simple and fundamentalist the background of its graduates, they tended toward worldliness; a surprising number married rich women. West Pointers were more square but also rowdier. Mr. Wouk’s failure to come to terms with the American gentile is not unusual. Few American Jewish writers in our time have been able to put themselves into gentile skins (much less foreskins: son Byron who marries a Jewish girl, Mr. Wouk tells us with ecumenical relish, is circumcised).

With an obviously bogus protagonist, Mr. Wouk must now depend upon the cunning of his narrative gift to propel these characters through great events: Berlin under Hitler, Poland during the Nazi invasion, London in the Blitz, Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; and not only must he describe the sweep of military and political action but also give us close-ups of Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini. It is Upton Sinclair all over again and, to my astonishment, it is splendid stuff. The detail is painstaking and generally authentic. The naïve portraits of the great men convince rather more than subtler work might have done.

Henry’s reports from Berlin attract Roosevelt’s attention. Mr. Wouk’s portrait of FDR is by no means as sycophantish as one might expect. No doubt the recent revelations of the late President’s sexual irregularities have forced the puritan Mr. Wouk to revise his estimate of a man I am sure he regarded at the time as a god, not to mention shield against the Cossacks. With hindsight he now writes, “Behind the jolly aristocratic surface, there loomed a grim ill-defined personality of distant visions and hard purpose, a tough son of a bitch to whom nobody meant very much, except perhaps his family; and maybe not they either.” This is not at all bad, except as prose. Unfortunately Mr. Wouk has no ear for “jolly aristocratic” speech patterns. I doubt if FDR would have called Pug “old top” (“though when my father was in the administration the President used to address him, for some obscure reason, as “brother Vidal”).

Also, Mr. Wouk makes strange assumptions. For instance, FDR “wore pince-nez glasses in imitation of his great relative, President Teddy Roosevelt, and he also imitated his booming manly manner; but a prissy Harvard accent made this heartiness somewhat ridiculous.” The pince-nez was worn by a good many people in those days, but if FDR was consciously imitating anyone it would have been his mentor the pince-nezed Woodrow Wilson. T. Roosevelt’s voice was not booming but thin and shrill. FDR’s accent was neither prissy nor Harvard but Dutchess County and can still be heard among the American nobles now, thank God, out of higher politics.

With extraordinary ease, Mr. Wouk moves from husband to wife to sons to daughter, and the narrative never falters. His reconstruction of history is painless and I should think most useful to readers curious about the Second War. There is a good deal of pop-writing silliness. We get the Mirror Scene (used by all pop-writers to tell us what the characters look like): “the mirror told her a different story, but even it seemed friendly to her that night: it showed….” We get the Fag Villain. In this case an American consul at Florence who will not give the good Jew Jastrow a passport because “people don’t see departmental circulars about consuls who’ve been recalled and whose careers have gone poof!” Sumner Welles is briefly glimpsed as a villain (and those who recall the gossip of the period will know why).

Then, of course, there is the problem of Mr. Wouk and sex. Daughter Madeline rooms with two girls and “both were having affairs—one with a joke writer, the other with an actor working as a bellhop. Madeline had found herself being asked to skulk around, stay out late, or remain in her room while one or another pair copulated…. She was disgusted. Both girls had good jobs, both dressed with taste, both were college graduates. Yet they behaved like sluts….” But then to Madeline, “sex was a delightful matter of playing with fire, but enjoying the blaze from a safe distance, until she could leap into the hallowed white conflagration of a bridal night. She was a middle class good girl, and not in the least ashamed of it.”

Incidentally, Mr. Wouk perpetuates the myth that the SS were all fags. This is now an article of faith with many uneducated Americans on the ground that to be a fag is the worst thing that could befall anyone next to falling into the hands of a fag sadist, particularly the SS guards who were as “alike as chorus boys…with blond waved hair, white teeth, bronzed skin, and blue eyes.” Actually the SS guards in 1939 were not particularly pretty; they were also not fags. Hitler had eliminated that element.

Mr. Wouk’s prose is generally correct if uninspired. The use of the ugly verb “shrill” crops up in at least half the bestsellers under review and is plainly here to stay. Also, I suppose we must stop making any distinction between “nauseous” and “nauseated.” The book ends with Pearl Harbor in flames and…yes, you’ve guessed it. The stars! “Overhead a clear starry black sky arched” (at least the sky was overhead and not underfoot), “with Orion setting in the west, and Venus sparkling in the east…. The familiar religious awe came over him, the sense of a Presence above this pitiful little earth. He could almost picture God the Father looking down with sad wonder at this mischief.”

The films Since You Went Away and The Best Years of Our Life come to mind; not to mention all those March of Times in the Translux theaters of the old republic as it girded itself for war. But for all Mr. Wouk’s idiocies and idiosyncrasies, his competence is most impressive and his professionalism awe-inspiring in a world of lazy writers and TV-stunned readers. I did not in the least regret reading every word of his book, though I suspect he is a writer best read swiftly by the page in order to get the sweep of his narrative while overlooking the infelicities of style and the shallowness of mind. I realize my sort of slow reading does a disservice to this kind of a book. But then I hope the author will be pleased to know that at least one person has actually read his very long bestseller. Few people will. There is evidence that a recent bestseller by a well-known writer was never read by its publisher or by the book club that took it or by the film company that optioned it. Certainly writers of book chat for newspapers never read long books and seldom do more than glance at short ones.

(Part two, on the top six of the top ten, will appear in the next issue.)

Letters

The Fever Breaks September 20, 1973

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