Calder Willingham has always been a spellbinder, and in his sixth novel, Eternal Fire, he is absolutely shameless about it. He has always been a knowing sort of fellow, too. He knows how thing work, how people talk, he knows the insides and outsides and the undersides. You won’t catch him up anywhere.
But, if there is one thing he knows best of all, it is his reader. Oh, the shameless tricks he plays on that reader’s nerves! Such cliffs, believe me, have not for years been hung from. All the way between the first page and, literally, the last page of this long novel the story races on cheerfully, dreadfully, from foreboding to disaster to foreboding. And because of this knowing way about things that Calder Willingham has, the reader does not have to forgive, as we usually have to for the sake of excitement and surprise, quantities of false morality and real ignorance. The novel is melodrama, but we are not required to transform ourselves either into schoolgirls or sadists to enjoy it. The novel is something of a fairy tale, too, but once we have accepted that premise, we find, I believe, that to our most instructed consciousness the surprises are truly surprising, the depravities of the villain truly outrageous, the hearts of the innocent as we feel their beats here are as the hearts of little birds caught in rough hands.
In addition to being a fairy tale, Eternal Fire is all the Southern novels there are, done up in one master recipe—Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Light in August, and yes, even a little lick of that lollipop, To Kill a Mockingbird. The setting is that familiar Southern small town, the time, the nostalgic days of the thirties,. The heroine is the town Cinderella, Laurie Mae Lytle: young, poor, beautiful, sweet. The Prince is Randolph Sudderland Shepherdson III, young, rich, handsome, sweet. these two are about to marry, imagining that their only problems are a little opposition from the Prince’s guardian, and the stirrings of passion that trouble their old-fashioned innocence. But the wicked Judge is bringing into action against them all the forces of evil, in the person of Harry Diadem. This sublimely wicked young man, who was brought up in that mean Tennessee orphanage with Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, has the body of a Greek statue, the eyebrows of Mephistopeles, and the abilities as a seducer that would have made Don Juan, had he heard of them, ashamed to send off a valentine after that. To defend Cinderella and the Prince there are only their own two hearts and Cinderella’s pet dwarf, feeble-minded but in a pinch as strong as King Kong. Theft, blackmail, incest, suicide, and murder ensue, complete with a classic double-double-crossing trial scene.
It is all very grand, struggle upon struggle; good and evil become powerfully entangled with one another. Shameless as Calder Willingham may be, though, I do not like to think that he has not somewhere drawn the line. I believe he calls it quits just on the safe side of allegory. He seems much too good-humored and sensible to go over that edge. Furthermore, although the plot turns on questions of color, and there are Negroes and racists here embroiled, the theme of black man and white man is not of much real moment in Eternal Fire. One could make a moral from it if he wished, a version of the current much-moralized involvement of the black man, sex, and the white man’s failed instinct. But, again, basically Calder Willingham is too good-humored to do more than let this be there in the book as one more of the things he knows so well and brings so gleefully to life in his story.
The black man in the white man’s society is of very much moment in Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving. This, her sixth book of fiction, takes place like most of her work in her country of South Africa. The story concerns two couples of the Johannesburg intellectual class and a black South African artist. Jessie and Tom Stilwell supplement his university pay by boarding in their big old house the young newly-married Boaz Davis and his Ann. Boaz has lost interest in composing and is trying to collect the ancient tribal music of Africa before it disappears. Ann is an adventurous young lady who has to try everything once. After the fashion of their kind in Johannesburg, these four are much in the company of Africans.
The African in the story is Gideon Shibalo. He has been awarded a fellowship to study painting in Rome, his government has denied him a passport, he is in a slump over it. Ann tries a love affair with him. They all accept this, even the husband, on high sexual and racial principles. The affair gets serious and the lovers plan to run off together. That is the story.
In the telling, the story is all quiet intelligence and art. It is seen chiefly through the eyes of Jessie Stilwell, a good-willed, middle-class intelligent woman. She lives the familiar life of the more-or-less successful and more-or-less worthily occupied middle class, the life which seems somehow to have gone hollow the world over today. Jessie’s life is hollow until she gets some curious fulfillment from her relation to the love of Ann and Gideon.
The story itself moves rather dully until the black man appears, although everything is well told and beautifully understood. Author and narrator are absolutely full of observations and reflective generalizations, good ones, too. (Some little thing one day reassures Jessie when she has been upset: “It had the same effect on her as the sight of one’s feet in familiar shoes may have when one sits down rather drunk, among the press at a party.”) Nadine Gordimer is very intelligent. These wise statements connect her characters—and they aren’t really very vivid, these people—with humanity. But they also convey a certain weariness as of foregone actions and feelings.
Without the drama of Johannesburg white-and-black behind it, this could be only another chronicle of the suburbs. As the story itself needs Gideon, the people in the story need him. The Stilwells and Davises, emancipated and intelligent, are dead on their feet. Family love is not enough. Jessie Stilwell, who knows too much about sexual love to believe in it very much—as do all the people in this story—yet gets caught up in it. And for its sake the whole show must go on, applecart and all. The whole show doesn’t go, of course, and the system destroys the love of Ann and Gideon.
Is this the final worst thing about it, worse than the black children starving so the white masters may dine well? Yet did not the system create this occasion for loving, did it not, this system, at the same time make Mrs. Stilwell’s heart empty? We know that for the most intense kinds of love, the occasion must be something like that which Johannesburg affords. Where love is most utterly forbidden it is most, at every moment, a possibility. In its quiet and thoughtful way, Occasion for Loving moves among the troubling depths of these questions. If it has a conclusion, it is the author’s own statement that one day her heroine will be out blowing up power stations. No more questions, then, when the blood bath comes.
John A. William’s Sissie is a good novel about an American Negro family. This is a tendentious statement in several ways. First, I think one of the reasons the novel is good is that it is about Negroes: in novels, subject matter counts. We read novels partly to confirm or to extend our own experience. And all of us need desperately to extend our knowledge of the life of American Negroes. Naturally, I do not exclude Negroes when I say “us.”
Second, I assume that this knowledge can be extended by a novel like Sissie. There are those who would contend that competent documents in the conventional forms of modern fiction cannot serve to discover or to convey this experience. They say this experience is unique and demands unique forms, developed like jazz, from Negro culture itself. Perhaps these forms may indeed be developed. But I would hope that the experience, though extreme, is human and can be made available to other human beings in the form that has, for modern Western society, worked best.
The experience recorded in Sissie is archetypal, that of the Negro family in the North cruelly hurt by American society. This society condemns most Negroes to the worst consequences of its reckless refusal to share among its members the fantastic riches they produce. For many of them this means, simply, death. Children die of this deprivation. The survivors are scarred, by the brutal struggle to live, by the guilt of survival, by the lunatic sadism of the American racial system. Sissie shows this directly and clearly. It is not sentimental and it is not apocalyptic. It records the facts with honesty, modesty, and craft. This novel will remain as one of the permanent records of the deadly shame of the America we live in. No solution. The power stations here, as in the Union of South Africa, remain intact.
February 1, 1963