Experiments in Folly

The Secret Swinger

by Alan Harrington
Knopf, 235 pp., $4.95

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel

by Marie-Claire Blais, translated by Derek Coltman, Introduction by Edmund Wilson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 145 pp., $4.50

In the Preface to The Princess Casamassima Henry James speaks up for a commanding intelligence at the center of a novel. “I confess I never see the leading interest of any human hazard,” he says, “but in a consciousness (on the part of the moved and moving creature) subject to fine intensification and wide enlargement.” If we grant him this concession, he is prepared to admit in his novel as many fools as we want. “The gross fools, the headlong fools, the fatal fools” will play their parts, provided they are “mirrored in that consciousness.” It is a genial arrangement. James will object only if we propose to put a fool in the central position, grossly commanding the novel with his folly. In art, as in life, fools are probably an unavoidable necessity: in both genres a certain amount of muddle is a constant force. But the fact is that fools do not command our interest. “We care,” James says, “our curiosity and our sympathy care, comparatively little for what happens to the stupid, the coarse, and the blind; care for it, and for the effects of it, at the most as helping to precipitate what happens to the more deeply wondering, to the really sentient.” We may think of this as a chilling sentence, and in life we may try to extend our charity a little further, saying Thou to every fool we meet. But in the novel James is right: Nothing loses our interest so quickly as a fool in the center of things.

The novels under present review try to circumvent this law, and it is perhaps strange that the attempt should be made. If there is something worth seeing, it is curious that the novelist avoids putting there someone capable of seeing it. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake says, and a wise man’s tree seems a more fitting object of concern. True, Blake goes on to say that “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” and we know what Blake means. But this is a prophetic folly, not the common kind. Meanwhile, it seems, we do not trust the commanding intelligence. Or perhaps we think its report lacking in humanity. So we invent a hero like Dr. Edwin Spindrift in The Doctor Is Sick.

A MINOR LECTURER in linguistics, Dr. Spindrift is in a hospital suffering from a brain tumor and a general failure of will and nerve. He smells cloves as if they were peppermint, and thinks the difference between “gay” and “melancholy” is that one is monosyllabic, the other tetrasyllabic. His wife Sheila is faithful in her fashion, meaning that she is constantly promiscuous. Escaping from the hospital, Spindrift rushes about London looking for the wretched girl and encountering, as inadequate substitutes, a collection of subterranean misfits. The theme which holds these adventures together is the ambiguity of life and words. Spindrift is the name of a detergent, it is…

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