The (Diblos) Notebook is the second novel of James Merrill, who has published also three books of poems and two plays. The “Diblos” of the title is a small Greek island. The parentheses mean that the narrator, a young American visiting Diblos, plans to think of another name for the place when he publishes the novel for which he is making notes, but he doesn’t; he doesn’t finish the novel, and instead of it, we are given the notebooks just as they are, with their parentheses, crossed-out words, false starts, and so on. The chief male character of the novel, the narrator’s half-brother, is called Orson, Orestes, or O. The chief female character is a Greek lady named (Dora). Their story is told to us on two levels: first as the narrator records his meditations on the “real” events and characters, and second as he develops this material for his novel. One section of some thirty pages is a “fair copy” of a fully developed piece of narrative.
The originality of Merrill’s novel-about-a-novel is that unlike the novelist’s notebooks put into novels by Gide, Huxley, Durrell, or other users of the device, his notebook presents something like a facsimile in typography of actual working pages. The prose is scrappy, disorganized, and full of these parentheses and cancellations. This may be only a trick, but it is a good one, because the trick works. The two different versions of the story, occurring as they do in nearly simultaneous fragments, may provoke little more than the usual reflections on the real and the unreal and the imagination. But the small puzzlements of the words themselves, the cancelled or broken phrases, the second choices—these are interesting. Merrill is a good poet, he has the skills of our period, particularly the Marianne Moore skill of the micro-scopically exact description, so accurate that it seems a bit odd. He knows how one line of dialogue can create a person’s presence, if it is the one right line. His trick allows him to be laconic, to skip transitions and exposition, to drag in as many allusions and reflections as he pleases. Many pages of the book are very attractive in this way, almost like poems. It is pleasant to imagine this intelligent young American sitting in the café of the little Greek port, scribbling away at his descriptions of the island and its folk, and worrying out his attempts to understand and give life to the people who dominate his imagination. These fragments of information and speculation arouse curiosity about these people and about his story.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the people are not very interesting after all. Orestes-Orson seems at first something like a re-born Periclean, come to the New World back to his true home, or perhaps, with all the allusions to Greek mythology and drama, and the narrator’s choral warnings, no seems a re-born tragic hero. And Dora, in the suggestions and brief scenes of the first part of the novel, seems about to become a doomed heroine like Phaedra. But we learn that brother Orestes is only a foolish and unsuccessful literary careerist, and Dora is at best a nice old woman. The tragedy so much hinted at is only a running-down of energy and a failure to feel, act, or connect. The “fair copy” of actual achieved narrative, the book’s center, is flat, mundane, and shows the people as they really are, drab, weary, not very bright.
Nor is it enough to wonder what it was that misled the young narrator. For as the story develops beneath the surface of his notes, the narrator’s comments become only romantic imputations, with no basis in event or action; nor is there any way in which the young notebook-scribbler is truly implicated in what happens. He is neither changed nor revealed by any of it. The book is played out halfway through, and the fact that being played-out is its theme doesn’t make this right.
Yet a reader could do worse than to spend a few hours with this little book. The (Diblos) Notebook is a genuine and unpretentious work of art, its flowering and its limitations springing from an authentic center. Its true subject is its own manner and style, its elusive, almost furtive brilliance, so that the book really is about the poetic impression, the quick insight, the misunderstanding, the discarded sketch as opposed to the constructed and finished museum piece. “As if one could still see to write by the dead, pocked moon of Madame Bovary,” the narrator says. The technique understands itself. If it fails in the end, must promises in art always be fulfilled?
Two Brothers is the second long poem of Philip Toynbee, who has published many novels and is the London Observer’s chief book reviewer. These brothers are upper-class Englishmen, born shortly before the 1914 war. The younger, Dick, is the narrator, and he tells here of his wanderings with his brother Andrew through Europe in the 1930s. This story, like Merrill’s, is told to us on several levels, involving rapid shifts in time and in point of view. The narrator is presented as a very old man, in the year 1999, recalling his youth for the benefit of a young listener who is perhaps imaginary. In relating the incidents the old man is sometimes completely transported back into his own youth, is sometimes regarding his youth from the vantage point of age, and is sometimes speaking from an imagination beneath or beyond the temporal.
The originality of Two Brothers is not only that it is in verse, but that Toynbee has invented a verse form of his own for the book. In his earlier long poem, Pantaloon, Dick was also narrator, in the year 1999, and he told of his early childhood and experiences in boarding school. Pantaloon was written in a kind of free verse, the length of line apparently determined by the natural boundaries of clauses or phrases, or perhaps by the appearance of the lines on the page, rather than by any metrical or rhythmical system. The material was the sort generally presented in prose these days. Why, then, a “novel in verse”? The novel in prose today certainly offers limitless opportunities for stylistic and narrative innovation. But any verse, even free verse, proclaims of itself that it speaks in a special relation to all other speech: it differs from that speech as dancing differs from walking or running, even though the dancer may be, for some part of his dance, only walking. The verse of Pantaloon, then, requests for its language a special attention that prose does not seek. Unfortunately, as it seems to me, the request there was not for increased attention, but for status and indulgence. Justified in theory, perhaps, by the extreme age of the narrator, the verses of Pantaloon are often weakly ruminative and repetitive, as if the lines themselves encouraged echoes:
Your rights to play there were as good as mine, or better;
Rights of primogeniture and pre- cedence;
Rights of priority and pre-exist- ence.
Two Brothers is composed basically in a stanza of three lines. The first line is long, usually taking up about two lines of type on the page, perhaps with one or two words left over. The second and third lines are blank verse, generally end-stopped. Further prosodic and thematic complications of the form are quite fully explained in Toynbee’s own introduction. The discipline of the new stanza form seems to have had its effect locally, in some restraint on the synonymous. Perhaps the form has encouraged a further discipline too, for certainly one of the improvements of Two Brothers over its predecessor is, as V. S. Pritchett stated in his favorable notice, “It is shorter.”
Still, the question remains, what is the form asking us to accept about the language? Are the language and the experience it seeks to convey entitled to this status? Similar questions are raised by Toynbee’s introduction, by his grave declarations of intention. He says he writes “to present a mosaic of insights, a constellation of enlightening moments.” The narrator, he says, is “in the legendary condition of handing on the lesson of his life to a young man.” Does this really differ significantly from the intention of any author, and does it add to the significance to proclaim it? Here is one complete section of the poem, entitled The Dog Cemetery. It is only one very small part, not intended to have any major significance, but it seems typical of the narrator’s method of telling us about his elder brother, a figure of much importance to him.
In the dog cemetery at Lavallois, that island-garden of lady mourn- ers, we stand erect before an im- mense tomb of black marble:
“TONI. AMI FIDELE JUSQU’AUX CIEUX.”
We dab our eyes: the ladies cluck and sigh,
But then, in the swaying train above the western suburbs, he suddenly rends our little joke and prouds me with his own guilt;
“Distasteful, after all, to ridicule
“Genuine grief and honest sympa- thy.”
How he could blast me with his sudden virtues!
Does the form really add significance to this anecdote? Or does it only allow for the indulgence in explanation and the supposed intensity of “writing” in the words rends and prods and blast? Verse does not always welcome what has been exiled by prose.
Two Brothers is finally a very puzzling book. The disparity of form and content, the vast distance between the declared cosmic intentions and the rather innocuous adventures actually presented, the careful attention to the invented stanza form and the apparent carelessness of diction, all these things become separate and divergent effects, and in the end there seems to be no center to it at all.
May 6, 1965