If I put The Orgy at the head of the list it is less from a conviction of its overriding merit than from a simple desire to get it out of the way quickly; it is a book whose ambiguous status makes me very uncertain about how to handle it. The reason why is to be found at the very beginning, in the discreet little note that reads: “The goat is real; Puck Fair is real; the orgy is real. All the characters and the acts of this book, however, are—of course—a free fantasy on the event.” In other words, it should not be regarded as an autobiography, since a good deal of it is “free fantasy,” and it isn’t a novel, since most of what Miss Rukeyser writes about is “real.” This, assuredly, is playing both ends against the middle in fine style. In fact, the “real” parts are the best, and the reader would be well advised to start with the notes at the back, in which Miss Rukeyser thoughtfully provides quotations from Margaret Murray and J. M. Synge, describing the Puck Fair which is the central topic of The Orgy. This is an annual event at Killorglin in West Kerry, in which a goat, called the Puck, is ritually adorned and crowned and then presides over three days of festivities before being released: Margaret Murray saw it as a modern survival of the cult of the Horned God. Such a curiosity seems, on the face of it, worth a book, whether a fairly superficial travelogue or a more serious anthropological account. Miss Rukeyser, however, is more concerned with the subjective reverberations of the event in her narrator—who is presumably a “free fantasy” on Miss Rukeyser herself—and a handful of other characters. In effect, this merely clouds the narrative and makes it hard to understand what is going at the Fair itself. There are, admittedly, passages of good atmospheric writing; not for nothing is Miss Rukeyser a distinguished poet. Even so, I found some of her more ambitious stylistic flights too much for me:
The whole scene becoming a world entire, a romantic who considers annihilation, some dreaming Alexander who must conquer himself or go mad—not “conquer” the world or himself, that is the madness, but move as a man approaches dread Everest, makes peace with the dread white forces, prays, climbs, swears and goes, breathless, unable to think of words, dragging this foot, that foot, and bleeding, his head a world and populated by visions, his heavy feet two worlds, into the winds and freezing plumes of crystals: his hands are planets, and he goes, Climb and be with the forces.
Rather less “free fantasy” and rather more humility before the concrete event would have made The Orgy a better book.
Not, of course, that one wants to banish fantasy or imaginative exuberance: there is quite a lot of it in On the Darkening Green, a sprawling but lively first-person narrative by a twenty-seven-year-old author of very evident promise. Still, the sprawl is excessive, and it can be directly attributed to his use of what James castigated as “that damned autobiographic form,” which encourages looseness and facility. Mr. Charyn’s narrator grew up in the Bronx as Nick Lapucci, then takes a job as teacher and counselor at a camp in the Catskills called the Blattenburg Home for Wayward Jewish Boys, for which he changes his name to Lipshitz. It is wartime, and the boys live in barracks and are subject to military discipline; the camp is directed by Uncle Nate, who combines a certain ferocity with genuine concern for the boys and deep Jewish piety: Mr. Charyn clearly wants us to see him as one of the “unforgettable character” class, but I think he is overdrawn. Nevertheless, Mr. Charyn displays a Dickensian vigor and inventiveness in presenting the boys, a grotesque gallery of delinquents, and he is sufficiently in control to avoid the extremes of whlmsy and pathos; he has an alert feeling for the comic. As the story develops the elements of a schema begin to close around the reader; this, one realizes, isn’t just about a group of tough Jewish delinquents, but about modern society; Uncle Nate’s establishment is heavily symbolic, and we ought to be thinking about, say, Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism as well as watching the antics of Bullets Bucharevsky, Benny, Matches, and the unfrocked rabbi, Rosencrantz. This is unnecessary; Mr. Charyn doesn’t need that kind of portentousness. His other failing is, in a sense, the fruit of one of his virtues. He seems to exemplify something as yet unclassified by compilers of dictionaries of critical terms; namely that self-indulgent state of mind in which an author becomes intoxicated with his own imaginative exuberance and duly communicates that excitement to the reader. In Mr. Charyn’s case it is directly connected to the sprawl of his narrative. But, it must be admitted, he is in good company with this failing; Sterne and Dickens had it, and it is much to be preferred to the aridities of an insufficient creative impulse.
I haven’t read any of R. V. Cassill’s novels, but as a story-writer he seems to me to hit it pretty consistently. He writes very tightly, without any of the vague free-wheeling prose that one finds in Miss Rukeyser or Mr. Charyn, and with a high specificity of accurate placing detail. It’s a pleasure to see language used with such precision, even though the stories carry with them a certain air of the creative-writing class; even if they weren’t produced in one, I can readily imagine these well-made pieces being put on the seminar table and opened up for examination. In fact, the two-line biography of the author on the jacket points both to Mr. Cassill’s principal source of material and the limitations within which he seems quite happy to work: “born in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and now teaches at the University of Iowa.” The genesis of most of his stories lies either in the memories of a middle-western childhood, or in the daily, or at least possible, experiences of a teacher or writer-on-campus. In the latter vein, one of Mr. Cassill’s most impressive achievements is “And in My Heart,” which describes the relationship between a middle-aged poet and professor, whose creative reputation is well in the past, and a “difficult” interesting student, who has a sizeable element of the charlatan about him. To say that it reminds me at times of Lionel Trilling’s “Of this Time, of that Place” isn’t to undermine the excellence of Mr. Cassill’s work, merely to indicate its genre. Beneath the urbane, rather sad surface of his writing there is a good deal of controlled pain, which occasionally manifests itself in shocking forms. This is particularly true in the brilliant and terrible title-story, “The Father,” which is about a worthy but stupid farmer whose small son is involved in an accident with a piece of farm-machinery; the man saves the boy’s life by cutting off his hand, but thereafter is consumed with an intense and wholly irrational sense of guilt which finally destroys his reason, with a ghastly result. Such a summary will probably give a false idea of the reality of the story, which presents its horrors only by indirection, and touches the fringes of genuine tragedy without exhibiting the sensationalism which, these days, is such a temptation to a writer who ventures into extreme areas of experience.
Only once in this collection does Mr. Cassill come conspicuously to grief, and that is when he leaves his proper ground, in a story entitled “Love? Squalor?,” about a well-intentioned trollop from the English upper-class. The trouble here is that Mr. Cassill has no ear for the nuances of British speech and gets them all wrong, and is equally at sea with the social mores that they reflect. I have no problem with the idea of a nymphomaniac deb—doubtless, they abound—but I didn’t, for one moment, believe in Mr. Cassill’s Mesmé. (Like many Americans, he also seems to be under the impression that the English, even from the lower orders, frequently end their sentences with the pleonastic interrogative “what?” or even “wot?” In fact, this survival of Edwardian upper-class usage exists only as a conscious archaism or affectation.)
Certain American notions about contemporary—i.e., post-Profumo—England will find nourishment in The Rich Pay Late, by the rising young British novelist Simon Raven. He takes the lid off a cauldron marked “Modern London” and shows us a seething crew of young men ferociously on the make, mostly ex-Oxford, struggling to the top in their chosen fields, business, politics, journalism, advertising, and not minding how they get there; they are accompanied by their uniformly bitchy girls, who tend to switch owners rather frequently in the scramble. Mr. Raven is often funny in a dry mirthless way, though he couldn’t have got many of his effects if Evelyn Waugh hadn’t been there before him; his world, however, is a lot nastier than Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. The novel is strongly plotted and the writing is brisk and economical enough to carry one easily along. But after a while credibility flags: the difficulty with having everybody so unpleasant is that there is no norm against which evil can be seen as such. Admittedly there are passages in which Mr. Raven’s characters’ cynicism and energetic double-dealing recalls the desperate Machiavels of Jacobean drama, but more often the effect is unreal, as of a black fairy tale for adults, or even of one of the comic strips in the British satirical magazine, Private Eye. Mr. Raven has complicated his task by setting the action not in present-day London but in 1955-56, during the ‘months before Suez, the advent of which forms an element in the plot. There is something that doesn’t quite ring true here; London wasn’t a bed of roses even then, but there is an element peculiarly of the early Sixties in the pace and brutality of The Rich Pay Late (this note was nicely caught, with greater style, in the film, Nothing But the Best). And there are some verbal anachronisms: surely no one used an expression like “my man in Washington” before Graham Greene published Our Man in Havana, c. 1958.
I would probably have thought more of The Day the Call Came if I hadn’t already known and admired Thomas Hinde’s earlier novel Mr. Nicholas, a richly sinister work about the advent of mania, set in a plush part of the stock-broker-belt around London. Here there is a similar exurban setting, a little community of tennis-and-golf-clubs and small dinner-parties of professional families dutifully entertaining each other. In these sedate surroundings the narrator reveals, little by little, that there is something very strange about his life. He appears to everyone, including his wife and children, to be a respectable if not very prosperous fruit-farmer. But, in fact, he is a spy and he is being ordered by his superiors to carry out some pre-arranged though undescribed enormity. Or is he? At the same time as he lets us in on the narrator’s secret Mr. Hinde sows doubts in our minds about the genuineness of the account. Could he, in reality, be suffering from delusions? We do not know for sure until the end of the book. Mr. Hinde is a skilful enough writer to maintain the suspense splendidly, and considered simply as a thriller The Day the Call Came certainly belongs in the “unputdownable” class. All the same, there is more contrivance than conviction about it, and the book covers ground that Mr. Hinde has already explored. I recommend it, but I hope it will lead readers on, or back, to Mr. Nicholas.
April 22, 1965