In 1958 Janice Warnke published a novel called The Narrow Lyre. The title was taken from a line in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and it was her first. It is a work of rare quality, impassioned, haunting, rising to moments of great power, entirely lucid. It might have been highly praised. With a bit of luck it would have been. As it happened the book came out during a newspaper strike, the reviews—the serious reviews that one assumes must have been written—could not appear; when the strike was over the book-production belt had not stood still, attention was turned on to the next batch in the fiction line: The Narrow Lyre had passed almost without notice. Today, needless to say, it is out of print. If we do not count the cost to individuals, what about the cost to ourselves? The question is can we afford to be so wasteful of our artists?
The Narrow Lyre had—has—the firmness and unity of line that marks the great short novels, Adolphe, Death in Venice. It is told in the first person by the protagonist, a man, an American lawyer in early middle age, and the tale he unfalteringly sets forth is one of loss, moral choice, and love between a man and a woman who are both maimed by tragedy, shackled by forces outside their control; he by a drowning at sea; she, a European, a German, a singer, by the war and the guilt—guilt by unawareness—that is destroying her husband, a German musician. The atmosphere of the book is its own, one of contained emotion, a formal and melodious sadness related to music as well as words, to the Orpheus, also of Glück and Monteverdi; and there are passages such as the five lines on the last night in Rome, and the death scene, the storm on a summer morning in New England, that ascend and assault the reader like the waves themselves and remain indelible in the mind. Indeed, there is sustained throughout this narrative a timelessness, a breadth of grandeur, an elevation unfashionable at present in contemporary literature, but here convincing, effective, right.
A Pursuit of Furies again shows unmistakeable quality. The theme is that of the place of private relationships and the individual, particularly the exceptional and the responsible individual, in our world, the world of the affluent and the displaced, and the cold war. The book in many ways is a different one from the first, although the two are also very much by the same hand, the same mind one might say: Mrs. Warnke, like Mary McCarthy, does not hide her considerable intelligence under a bushel. In the first novel intelligence had become an ingredient in the fabric; in the second it is conscious, vocal, practically an issue. Certain concerns reoccur in both novels—the aftermath of Nazi Germany; American attitudes to Europe, Americans in Europe; involvement with music and musicians. In both books we are struck by the author’s ability to get inside characters beyond the range, or ambition, of most writers of her age (which from the publisher’s note would appear to be just over thirty). Yet whereas the first book was economical, aloof, austere—two lives converging, three main characters, some shadows from the past, an episodic intrusion; the second is prodigal, discursive. There is a large cast, a shifting focus, plot and subplot, much stranded action.
THE LYRE engaged the emotions; Furies is addressed to the mind, it is an intellectual’s novel, a novel of talk, situation, action, and analysis of action; and its framework is Peacockian: the country house, the drawn-out house party, the eccentric host, the conversations, and other exchanges, between the motley of guests who so nearly fit the labels of the Crotchet Castle crowd itself, the “perfectionists, deteriorationists, status-quo-ites…political economists, theorists in all sciences, projectors in all arts, morbid visionaries, romantic enthusiasts, lovers of music, lovers of the picturesque and lovers of good dinners.” It is the form that Aldous Huxley took over with so much grace and fun in some of the earlier novels, but where he, like Peacock, mainly used the form as a vehicle for ideas and situations, comic or dramatic, Janice Warnke uses it as an anchorage—and conversational clearing house—for action. In A Pursuit of Furies the characters do not merely talk about the state of the world, they live and do, and some of them die, in the world.
The country house is a villa in Switzerland, neutral Switzerland; the time is the late summer and autumn of 1956, and the story reaches its culminating points during the days of the Hungarian rising. The host is Mrs. Dartley, an American woman on the verge of old age who once had the ear of British cabinet ministers, French bankers, and a President of the United States, who has loved three husbands and buried four, a reformer, a humanist, a relic, and a power, disillusioned, hopeful, meddling and withdrawn in turn, domineering, open-handed.
…[It was] sad really, her life; beneath the glittering and in many ways enviable surface lay but a series of elegies, for men, for women, for the century itself, and yet it was not for the intoning of elegies that her voice had been fashioned, but for rebellious hope.
And her friends, the guests beneath her roof, are not so much the members of a house party as stranded people, technical or spiritual refugees. There are the homeless ones, the fixtures, the very young American boy and girl in first revolt, Hrubick, the Czech pianist, and the old Hungarian lady, Lily Halász who had heard deRezske sing when she was a girl and seen Nijinsky when he first danced in Budapest and known him later, “mute, fat and mad, in Romola’s overweening charge”; Mrs. Halász, “tottering along the paths on her high heels and infirm legs…belonged to the world that had ended at some point in time between the Battle of the Somme and Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg.”
…. Though she had chosen to ignore the “great issues” of her time, those social and political forces which were to end so much that was good and bad and begin so much that was good and bad, she (having decided that there was nothing she could do either to help or hinder such changes) had nevertheless cut through all that was shoddy, tasteless, and overly affluent in the privileged caste to which she belonged and had concentrated with unmitigated ardor, among the bankers and the landlords and the potted plants, on song, on poetry, on things to which no money value could ever be given.
Others, of another age, come and go, roar off after midnight in their cars, arrive at airports. A Swiss clerk, an American actress, one Benjamin Knox, a television interviewer (he is trying to get up a program on Mrs. Dartley for a US national network), a bzash, bright, ignorant little careerist, devoid even of good will though anxious to be liked, who despises but is made uneasy by “all those phoneys” and their talk about Guernica and Wagner and secular Christianity,
he simply didn’t know what they were all so excited about, and worse than that he did not know why it should bother him that he didn’t.
Knox comes off as a frightening figure. Mrs. Halász asks of him,
“What is this new visitor like?”
“He’s, well, he’s like a great many other men in his generation.”
MRS. DARTLEY shelters them, feeds them (very well), gives them privacy, intermittent advice. Under her alternate goading and protection, the main action of the book is spun between three of her most remarkable guests, three Americans. St. George, a brilliant, enigmatic, restless man, splendidly endowed in looks and mind but isolated by the contempt he bears his fellow beings and bound to a secret discipline, committed to violence in a final degree. His factual name is George Bingham and he combines being an international executive, an amateur musician—on business trips he insists on having a piano in his suite—and a servant of the US Government. There is Ernest Campion, another man of not inconsiderable attainments, a nuclear physicist in recoil—he actually assisted at the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo in 1945—and who, like the man and woman in The Narrow Lyre, is wasting under the double burden of an early family disaster and his own load of guilt. He has turned to Mrs. Dartley, who herself emerges as enmeshed in Campion’s history, for help to overcome the past. And there is a young woman, Sylvia, serious, self-tormenting, difficult, a writer of large visions who has fled to the Villa Kilchberg after making a shattering, though impersonal, discovery about St. George, who is her lover. In the scene leading to that discovery, in the very echoes of the unlocking words, “königsberg’s a lovely city. Especially in the winter, in the snow,” the author shows herself once more as a master of the ice-cold shock, the sudden confrontation with tragedy.
A Pursuit of Furies is an ambitious book, it is also a rich one; immensely stimulating, very dark at times, though not quite despairing—there is generosity between men and women, between men and men, there is friendship, Mozart, wine. It abounds in flashes of insight and dramatic moments (the Swedish beachcomber’s story, the death in East Berlin) and it is capable of exquisite tenderness (the burial of the fish). It is not flawless. Sylvia, who is often the recorder—there is a diary—strikes one as being at times portrayed over-harshly and at others over-fondly; we are told very much about her thoughts and feeling, and we are told very little else; compared to other characters, she is not handled with detachment. Her first appearance—solo at her desk with the minutiae of a spell of rage—seems to me an almost fatal mistake for the readers’ first, and thus subsequent, reactions. Also, the book is long. Not that the quality flags; it is only with a view of maintaining the impact that it might with advantage have been rationed. Yet it does all hang together, the novel never loses its inner cohesion. It is durchkomponiert, as some of the characters might express it, composed in depth.
September 8, 1966