IF a story-line plus character-L in-action are your criteria for a good novel, then Olivia Manning's Friends and Heroes (Heinemann, 30s.) will be your pick of November's fiction.
The last volume in the author's Balkan trilogy discovers the two characters Harriet and Guy Pringle, seeking a precarious foothold in Athens at the time of Mussolini's unheroic invasion. While Guy tries to get his foot in the door with a teaching appointment at the British School, his wife frets at his ineffectual efforts—and flirts with a young British officer.
Miss Man ning unfolds her storyl, calmly, playing out the drama of this couple as the gap between Mss Manning them widens, and then begins to close as they draw together and discover a new depth in their relationship.
A hint dropped in an earlier volume of the trilogy is here worked out: "Guy flung out his charm, like radium dissipating its own brilliance . . . Now she saw his vitality functioning to some purpose. Only someone capable of giving much could demand and receive so much. She felt proud of him."
After the Attic simplicity of Miss Manning's prose, there comes the torrential pile-up of diction, the monumental bonfire of language, in Gunter Grass's massive Dog Years (Seeker & Warburg, 42s.). This 570-page novel, by a postwar avant-garde poet and sculptor, is like nothing else in the world of letters.
Call Herr Grass an expressionist German James Joyce— and one is still very far off the mark. Joyce in Ulysses gave us Dublin in just 24 hours round the clock.
Herr Grass, on the other hand, tells the whole story of a modern nation : Nazi Germany rising to power, victorious, defeated. and occupied. He is a humourist and ironist of gargantuan proportions.
He remarks how the idea came to him of writing a novel about Hitler's dog and this is, in fact, what he has done in this oblique, rumbustious, jostling puppet-drama.
From a Guy Fawkes blaze to candled chandeliers. Elizabeth Jane Howard's After Julius (Cape, 25s.) is full of small mementos of faded gracious living. Take the fictional ingredients deemed meet for a woman's magazine, give it a sophisticated orientation, insert a few Lady Chatterley touches, and add a touch of Virginia Woolf. The whole comes out as a glamorous rechauffe of sensibility, sexiness and wit.
If you like this sort of meritricious dish, then here is just the book.
Less likely to win the Roehampton Stakes is James Baldwin's collection of short stories Going to Meet the Man (Michael Joseph, 25s.). Mr. Baldwin, fiction's leading counsel for the defence of "the negro cause" in the United States, is celebrated for his trenchant plots and highpitched tone. The tales in this volume abate not one jot the author's cry of condemnation —though his passionate polemic has a way of becoming monotonous.
To stand an old lie on its head is not to create truth out of falsehood; and this is frequently his approach. Inverting the out-dated notion of the white man's hegomany, he now proclaims all black men superior to the whites.
Even so, read not as gospel but drama, Mr. Baldwin is a dynamic writer; and this first collection of eight stories demonstrates the Niagara of his imagination.
Mr. Baldwin's touch of nature is not of the kind which
makes the whole world king. Indeed, he seems bent upon that sense of segregation which consoles the pride of the persecuted. Not so, David Lodge whose humorous novel about birth control, The British Museum is falling Down (MacGibbon & Kee, 21s.), will probably find many sympathetic readers.
Here is a Catholic author tackling with rueful Rabelaisian glee the fatal issue of Pregnant or Not Pregnant. What do you do, and how do you feel, when you're R.C., married, father of two, and working for a doctorate on an overdraft? This is the problem which Mr. Lodge explores with some of Evelyn Waugh's early wit and a good deal more than Waugh's fellow-feeling.