Number Six on the bestseller list, The Camerons, by Robert Crichton, is a mystifying work. One understands the sincerity of Herman Wouk, Number Seven, as he tries to impose his stern morality on an alien culture, or even that of the dread Marjorie Holmes, Number Ten, exploiting Bible belt religiosity with what I trust is some degree of seriousness (all those chats with God must have made her a fan). But Mr. Crichton has elected to address himself to characters that seem to be infinitely remote from him not to mention his readers. A UK mining town in what I take to be the 1870s (there is a reference to Keir Hardie, the trade unionist). With considerable fluency Mr. Crichton tells the story of a miner’s sixteen-year-old daughter who goes to the Highlands to find herself a golden youth to give her children. She captures a Highland fisherman, locks him up in the mines for twenty years, and has a number of children by him who more or less fulfill her “genealogical” (as Trevanian would say) dream.
Of all these books this one is closest to the movies. The characters all speak with the singing cadences of Culver City’s How Green Was My Valley. Another inspiration is None but the Lonely Heart, in which Ethel Barrymore said to Cary Grant, “Love’s not for the poor, son.” Mr. Cameron plays a number of variations on that theme, among them “Love, in everyday life, is a luxury.”
One reads page after page, recalling movies. As always, the Mirror Scene. The Food Scene (a good recipe for finnan haddie). There is the Fever Breaks Scene (during this episode I knew that there would have to be a tracheotomy and sure enough the doctor said that it was sometimes necessary but that in this case…). The Confrontation between Mr. Big and the Hero. Cameron has been injured while at work; the mine owner will give him no compensation. Cameron sues; the miners strike. He wins but not before the Confrontation with the Mob Scene when the miners turn on him for being the cause of their hunger. There is even the Illiterate Learning about Literature Scene, inspired by The Corn Is Green in which Bette Davis taught the young Welsh miner John Dall to read Quality Lit so that he could grow up to be Emlyn Williams. Well, Cameron goes to the library and asks for Macbeth and reads it to the amazement of the bitter drunken librarian (Thomas Mitchell).
There is the Nubile Scene (“For a small girl she had large breasts and the shirt was tight and made her breasts stand out, and she kept the jacket near at hand because she didn’t want to embarrass her father if he came into the room. She had only recently become that way and both she and her father weren’t quite sure how to act about it”). Young Love Scene (the son’s girl friend is named Allison from Peyton Place). At the end, the Camerons sail for the new world. The first night out Cameron “wouldn’t go down to her then and so he stayed at the rail and watched the phosphorescent waves wash up against the sides of the ship and explode in stars.”
There is something drastically wrong with this smoothly executed novel and I cannot figure out what it is other than to suspect that the author lacks the integrity the Wise Hack insists upon. Mr. Crichton has decided to tell a story that does not seem to interest him very much. At those moments when the book almost comes alive (the conflict between labor and management), the author backs away from his true subject because socialism cannot be mentioned in bestseller land except as something innately wicked. Yet technically Mr. Crichton is a good writer and he ought to do a lot better than this since plainly he lacks the “integrity” to do worse.
Can your average beautiful teen-age Persian eunuch find happiness with your average Greek world conqueror who is also a dish and aged only twenty-six? The answer Mary Renault triumphantly gives us in The Persian Boy is ne! Twenty-five years ago The City and the Pillar was considered shocking because it showed what two nubile boys did together on a hot summer afternoon in McLean, Virginia. Worse, one of them went right on doing that sort of thing for the rest of his life. The scandal! The shame! In 1973 the only true love story on the bestseller list is about two homosexuals, and their monstrous aberration (so upsetting to moralists like Mr. Wouk) is apparently taken for granted by those ladies who buy hardcover novels.
At this point I find myself wishing that one had some way of knowing just who buys and who reads what sort of books. I am particularly puzzled (and pleased) by the success of Mary Renault. Americans have always disliked history (of some fifty subjects offered in high school the students recently listed history fiftieth and least popular) and know nothing at all of the classical world. Yet in a dozen popular books Mary Renault has made the classical era alive, forcing even the dullest of bookchat writers to recognize that bisexuality was once our culture’s norm and that Christianity’s perversion of this human fact is the aberration and not the other way around. I cannot think how Miss Renault has managed to do what she has done, but the culture is the better for her work.
I am predisposed to like the novel dealing with history and find it hard to understand why this valuable genre should be so much disdained. After all, every realistic novel is historical. But somehow describing what happened last summer at Rutgers is for our solemn writers a serious subject while to re-create Alexander the Great is simply frivolous. Incidentally, I am here concerned only with the traditional novel as practiced by Updike, Roth, Styron, Malamud, Taylor and Erskine Caldwell as well as by the ten writers under review. I leave for another and graver occasion the matter of high literature and its signs.
In The Persian Boy Miss Renault presents us with Alexander at the height of his glory as seen through the eyes of the young eunuch Bagoas. Miss Renault is good at projecting herself and us into strange cultures. With ease she becomes her narrator Bagoas; the book is told in the first person (a device not invented by Robert Graves as innocent commentators like to tell us but a classroom exercise going back more than two millennia: write as if you were Alexander the Great addressing your troops before Tyre). Bagoas’s father is murdered by political enemies; the boy is enslaved; castrated; rented out as a whore by his first master. Because of his beauty he ends up in the bed of the Great King of Persia Darius. Alexander conquers Persia; sets fire to Persepolis. The Great King is killed by his own people and Bagoas is presented by one of the murderers to Alexander who, according to historical account, never took advantage sexually of those he captured. Bagoas falls in love with the conqueror and, finally, seduces him. The love affair continues happily to the end although there is constant jealousy on Bagoas’s side because of Alexander’s permanent attachment to his boyhood friend Hephaestion, not to mention the wives he picks up en route.
The effect of the book is phantasmagoric. Marvelous cities, strange landscapes, colliding cultures, and at the center the golden conqueror of the earth as he drives on and on past the endurance of his men, past his own strength. Today when a revulsion against war is normal, the usual commercialite would be inclined to depict Alexander as a Fag Villain Killer, but in a note Miss Renault makes the point: “It needs to be borne in mind today that not till more than a century later did a handful of philosophers even start to question the morality of war.” Alexander was doing what he thought a man in his place ought to do. The world was there to be conquered.
The device of observing the conquerer entirely through the eyes of an Oriental is excellent and rather novel. We are able to see the Macedonian troops as they appeared to the Persians: crude gangsters smashing to bits an old and subtle culture they cannot understand, rather like Americans in Asia. But, finally, hubris is the theme; and the fire returns to heaven. I am not at all certain that what we have here is the “right” Alexander but right or not, Miss Renault has drawn the portrait of someone who seems real yet unlike anyone else, and that divinity the commercialites are forever trying for in their leaden works really does gleam from time to time in the pages of this nice invention.
August 1914 has already been dealt with at sympathetic but cautious length in these pages, and I shall touch on it only as it relates to other bestsellers. As a fiction the novel is not as well managed as Mr. Wouk’s Winds of War. I daresay as an expression of one man’s indomitable spirit in a tyrannous society we must honor the author Fortunately the Nobel Prize is designed for just such a purpose. Certainly it is seldom bestowed for literary merit, if it were, Nabokov and not the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn would have received it the year the Swedes were in a Scythian mood.
Solzhenitsyn is rooted most ambitiously in literature as well as in films. Tolstoy appears on page three and Tolstoy hangs over the work like a mushroom cloud. In a sense the novel is to be taken as a dialogue between the creator of War and Peace and Solzhenitsyn; with the engineer opposing Tolstoy’s view of history as a series of great tides in which the actions of individuals matter not at all. I’m on Solzhenitsyn’s side in this debate but cannot get much worked up over his long and wearisome account of Russian military bungling at the beginning of the First World War. The characters are impossible to keep straight, though perhaps future volumes will clarify things. Like Winds of War, this is the first of a series.
The book begins with dawn on the Caucasus, towering “so vast above petty human creation, so elemental….” The word “vast” is repeated in the next paragraph to get us in the mood for a superspectacle. Then we learn that one of the characters has actually met Tolstoy, and their meeting is recalled on page seventeen. ” ‘What is the aim of man’s life on earth?’ ” asks the young man. Tolstoy’s reply is prompt: ” ‘To serve good and thereby to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.’ ” How? ” ‘Only through love! Nothing else. No one will discover anything better.’ ” This is bestseller writing with a vengeance.