HISTORY PRESENT Aegean Memories. By Compton Mackenzie. (Chatto and Windus, 12s. 6d.).
Confessions oi an Individualist. ay W. H. Chamberlin. (Duckworth, 15s.).
Annals of Innocence and Experience. By Herbert Read. (Faber and Faber, 10s. 6d.).
September, 19'39. By Dominik Wegierski. (Minerva, 7s. 6d.).
itevinned by WILFRID HOOKE LEY mR. COMPTON MACKENZIE'S memoirs of his service in the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty during the last war will be of permanent value to the historian. The latest and last is Aegean Memories, and if it is only luck that it should appear just when the Aegean Sea is so much in our thoughts he wen deserves it. The book had to be written: though no one will pretend that the intrigues of twenty-three years ago furnish one of the more important chapters of history.
It opens in the island of Syra, where Mr. Mackenzie established his headquarters in January, 1917, after quitting Athens, and closes in November of the same year when he was called home. The raw material of the book are inter-Allied intrigues, interdepartmental squabbles, inter-official jealousies, and enough strange adventures to pack a novelist's notebook. Surely a scheme, discussed in all seriousness, to buy up a Turkish Pasha and his army for a million pounds is a short-story in itself; and this is only one of many odd experiences.
But where Mr. 'Mackenzie excels is in making people live; and however remote the story may seem to-day (though its timely publication has made it almost topical), and however unimportant or forgotten the men who played their brief part in it, the reader's interest never flags, so intrigued he is by everyone the author introduces him to.
Who could fail to be interested in Professor J. L. Myrcs (a lieutenant-commander at the moment) who "in appearance resembled some Assyrian king with more than a suggestion of the pirate Teach, and to such outward form were added the passionate ubiquity of the Flying Dutchman, and the fierce concentration of Captain Ahab?"
And how unforgeueble is his portrait of Lisa, to whose faithful service he owed so much all the time he was in Greece:—" I have called Lisa an old lady, and inasmuch as she had almost white hair and was over sixty, I suppose she was an old lady. Yet she had grown old' so exqtdsitely that she reminded me of the fairy godmother who assumes the appearance of age, but whose eternal fairy youth, one feels, mast have been perceptible to those she favoured with her patronage. Liszt's cheeks had the delicate bloom of an autumnal rose and her face was suslf as demurely pretty as a china shepherdess, with a delicately moulded profile and clear blue eyes. Her figure was as trim as a gies, and she had the most beautiful little feet, of which more than anything the she was really vain, always buying for herself the neatest shoes and the best black silk stockings. About the house she used So wear black dresses with frilly aprons in the evenings like the French Maid of bygone farces; but she dressed herself gaily when she went nut, and the first time I met her coming home from market on a sparkhag winter's day and saw her blushing beneath a flowery hat she might have been a Grenze. She may sound as I have described her like an old woman coquetting in rather an unseemly way with her former self. This was not so. She talked of herself gs an old woman, and used the privilege of her age to speak her mind or tell a worldly tale not fit for the lips of a maid." I doubt if even Mr. Mackenzie has written a lovelier passage than this, and if I were editing an anthology of English prose it would have to go in.
MR. W. H. Chamberlin's Confessions of an Individmilist is a book of exceptional interest, for it is the story of a cornierSion. He is a well-known American journalist, who for many years was foreign correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor. He was brought up in a Quaker school, was a pacifist during the last war, and when he took to journalism as a young man his political sympathies were strongly proBolshevik. He says his abate of mind then could be pretty accurately described by an effusion of ark American " proletarian pret Pm always thinking of Russia, I can't get her out of my head': I don't give a deem for Uncle Sam, Tee a left-wing radical Red.
His state of mind to-day can be described by the sentence in which he furiously trounces " the obsession familiar in leftwing intellectual circles of violent antiFascism combined with pro-Communism," and by his vigorous exposure alike of the brutality and of the hopeless inefficiency of Soviet dictatorship. The reason for this ea/re-Mee is not far to seek. He saw Russia at first hand. lie went there as fore cign correspondent of his paper in 1922, and had this pull over his fellow-journalists that his wife, who is of Russian extraction, spoke Russian perfectly. He witnessed the gradual change-over from comparative toleraisce to stark tyranny: he was there for the persecutions ; he became disillusioned. He is now, he says, " an individualist profoundly orn of sympathy with many of the predominant trends of the collectivist age."
If his outlook is perhaps a little dismal, excusesdespairing for even, . the Trehiasdeers wbeillIngfinliciThinteant7 he says, " after Sava and I arrived in New York as typical war refugees, with just the little hand baggage that we were able to take away when we shared a friend's overloaded car and left Paris two days before the Germans entered.A man who sits down to write a hook with the earthquake of Europe still ringing in his ears is not likely to view the future very cheerfully.
His credo—individualism — is neither the most important nor the most interesting part of the book ; nor will his isolationism, which may well have been modified since he wrote, offend his English readers; and when he says " I hope England will win, even more fervently, although at times it seems a very forlorn hope. I hope that there will be something worth winning when the last bomb has fallen and the last ship has been torpedoed," most of us will echo his prayer without thinking ourselves pessimists. I must stress how very readable this book is and how strictly Mr. Chamberlin confines himself to what he has seen with his own eyes and what he really knows about. A man of such calibre who has Spent over ten years in Soviet Russia, four years in Tokyo, ending up with that last terrible year in Paris is bound to have something to say that is worth while.
MR. Herbert Read's appeal is to a per1'1 plexed generation, and his latest book. Annals of Innocence and Experience will „interest chiefly those who cannot yet accept a moral order guaranteed by supernatural sanction. He is an aesthetic in search of a religion, or as he would pensibiy prefer to say, a philosophy ot Fife. The word aesthetic has been so pawed over in recent years that one hesitates to use it, but Mr. Read may be assured it is not intended to mean a dinctante. He is a man of insatiable intellectual curiosity; his mind is confessedly agnostic; his profoundest experiences, he tells us, have been not religious, nor moral. but aesthetic; and he is passionately striving for a syntheais in which a true aesthetic and a true morality shall issue in a practical code of conduct for nations and individuals.
This book covers the last twenty years of a toilsome road, and leaves its author, as he cheerfully admits, no nearer his final destination. "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive," no doubt (in the Stevensonian tag); but the operative word is hopefully. Mr. Read is too enamoured of the search to be other than hopeful. The visions of innocence may be over and experience may have brought disillusionment, but so far not despair, for against despair he has found a weapon, '' adamantine and invincible, like the sickle which at the beginning of legendary time Earth gave to Crania. .. such a weapon is reason. which alone can stay despair and cut the fetters of doubt and superstition which bind us to an Ethiopian rock."
I have said enough, I think, to tea the reader what this book is about, so that he may know whether it is likely to interest him: but I cannot end without a tribute to the charm of the first sixty pages, the account of the author's childhood in Yorkshire, which have appeared before and are now deservedly reprinted in this volume, to a passage on Ruskin which is a profound assessment of that great writer's place in aesthetic criticism, and to the writing of the book which once more marks Mr. Reed as a master of prose. As to its main purport— the guest for a philosophy of life—the Catholic reviewer, grateful for embattled freedom of the Creed, can only read the book with sympathy and lay it down with a recognition of its author's stern integrity of purpose.
MR. Dorninik Wegierski's September 1.-1 /939, is a terrible book. Yes—I mean that : it is a book that makes the blood run cold. It is the story of one month of a man's life, that man a Pole, and that month the month of September 1939 in the city of Cracow, when Poland was beaten but still fighting on. The truth is that the Polish horror is beyond human imagination, and yet we must go on trying to imagine it, if that be the only way many of us can keep Poland eternally before our eyes,
Mr. Wegierski was Professor of History at the University of Cracow, where his family for three generations had been professors. He writes with great control, which makes an unimpassioned narrative the more valuable. He has, too, a certain prejudice against Jews, which makes his tribute to the acts of bravery be saw among them the more impressive. The unpreparedness of the Polish army, the confusion and indeed chaos everywhere as soon as the enemy had crossed the frontier, the magnificent services of the Catholic clergy — these are convincingly described.
But it is the impact of Nazi invasion on the ordinary civilian—on you or on me, as it might be—that the book so poignantly brings home, and neither you nor 1 will have the faintest difficulty in foreseeing our fates should we ever have to stand in Mr. Wegierski's shoes over here. It is precisely this focussing the camera upon a minute portion of the screen that gives the hook its horror on the one hand and its usefulness on the other. It is dedicated " to the memory of my parents." Mr. Wegieraki's father died in a concentration camp, and his mother, heartbroken, did not tong survive him. Bear that in mind when you read this sober, objective, unembittereet record of events.