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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 1

Half-Way House — "The Middle of the Journey," Lionel Trilling

Half-Way House
"The Middle of the Journey," Lionel Trilling.

Lionel Trilling has gone half-way towards writing a novel. His route is not made any the easier to follow by the absurd proclamations on the dust cover. "They are un-helpful; they are nonsensical; they are blathers," steamed Alan Dent, at something quite different, but the words might have been mine. With this preliminary eruption over, it is time to get down to the serious business of reviewing, and I must ask you to draw up your chair, lay down your pipe, and switch off the radio, for here is a strange, earnest book, which, if you decide not to read, is certainly worth reading about. It invites comparison with another learned, slightly chilling and in parts impenetrable book, Bradley's volume of Philosophy, "Appearance and Reality," and the resemblance is not as superficial as it might seem, for "The Middle of the Journey" is largely concerned with the difference between appearance and reality. Lionel Trilling is an American Professor and he has intriguing ideas on the role of the novel in this post-war world. "At this point we are in the full tide of those desperate perceptions of our life which are current nowadays among thinking and talking people, which, even when we are not thinking and talking, haunt and control our minds with visions of losses worse than that of existence losses of culture, personality, humanness. They sink our spirits not merely because they are terrible and possible but because they have become so obvious and cliche as to close for us the possibility of thought and imagination ... Surely the great work of our time is the restoration and re-constitution of the will." And in this re-constitution of the will how is the novel going to help? For it must be remembered that Trilling considers the novel at its greatest is the record of the will acting under the direction of an idea, often of an idea of will itself. Firstly, then, the novel has now a great opportunity to deal with ideas, treating them directly, and secondly, instead of basing the novel on classes, it can deal instead with complex ideological situations. In "The Middle of the Journey" he has done both things. He deals with ideas as they come, and he bases the book on the complex ideological situation which existed in America in the middle thirties before the Second World War. That the result is so unsatisfactory is partly explained by his attitude to form. He has eschewed what he calls the "sonata form," the return on the circle with apropriate repetitions of theme, a form which suggests completeness with all its ends tucked in, but has become, I'm afraid, more like the savage, whose short rhythms and unsystematic order prevent him from developing a theme or thinking consecutively. The sonata form may not adequately serve modern experience, but this form, in its present stage of development, is an equally unhappy one.

But now for the book itself and the particular search for reality with which it is concerned. Here it is carried out by a sincere liberal, John Laskell, a writer and teacher on architecture. It is no mere treasure hunt, no Cook's tour of political theories. It is terribly in earnest. He is a man who has had a reasonable amount of success, who in youth gave up thoughts of a literary career, and now, knowing that he will never be great, is reconciled to being useful. When the book opens he is recovering from a severe illness, which, besides bringing him very near death, brought him precariously back to life a very different man. His illness meant "peace, strength, and integrity," and he became used to the inaction of the sick bed, to its simplicity and security, all of which he likens to a state of "not-being." That his illness has been more than physical is shown by his discovery that "all knowledge of him-self has been evacuated," and he is deeply disturbed by events which he would once have disregarded. He has a heightened distrust of things intellectual. He resists his nurse's attempts to shorten his convalescence and leaves the sick-room with uncertainty and regret. The regret is lessened only by the knowledge that he will be with the Crooms, a young married couple, who have been faith-fully in the background during his illness—arranging nurses, blankets, and fruit. They are really the only people for whom he now has real affection and love. They, too, are page 35 liberals, but Nancy is almost a Communist. To John Laskell, the Crooms are a justification in themselves of human existence. "Life could not reach further." To Laskell they represent a certain reality, and a holiday in their company should bring reassurance to him both as an individual and as a liberal. In time his illness, his doubts, and depressions would appear artificial and unreal, the product of a weak body. But nothing at all like this happens. Ever before he leaves the city comes a challenge. Maxim, a Communist friend, bursts in. He has left the party and now fears for his life. Having, while in the party, given up his existence as an individual to perform secret work, he now forces Laskell to help him to an editorial position on a Liberal paper. He must acquire existence by becoming a public fact. With a frightening animal-like insistence he says: "I have to exist." That night he sleeps on the roof. The next day, by accompanying Laskell and guiding him to the last seat on the last coach of the train he convinces him of the depth of his fear and the extent of his degradation. This is only the beginning. From now on, undreamt-of abysses open between him and his friends—including, of all people, the Crooms. It soon becomes clear that his mind and soul are at stake. Every one of Laskell's beliefs is challenged and in the moral conflict there can be no quarter, not even to friends. He suspects that Nancy Croom lives in an aura of self-deception. He discovers that weak-nesses in her thought are protected by a strong will.

Nancy is careful to shield herself from all notice and talk of death, and skilfully avoids its mention in conversation. Laskell's near death is part of a forgotten past as is the death of Elizabeth, a woman, whom he once loved. She has a false attitude to Duck, the handyman about her house. His amorality, his indifference to other people and his rough appearance she sees as symbols of a reality she will never understand, but likes to feel is familiar. Duck is nothing of the sort. He is mainly brutish. Laskell's anoyance pushes aside all the rules of friendship and he makes her suffer.

The climax of the book is as fantastic as the final scene in "Alice in Wonderland," where Alice is attacked by the playing cards. And the only difference in this grim scene where he defends himself against the Crooms and a fanatically religious Maxim, is that it is not so easy to escape by calling them a mere pack of cards, and although he can in the end escape them, he must carry with him the distressing knowledge of their true natures.

Now, of course, this outline is much simplified, and there are other less gaunt activities. There is Susan, Emily's daughter, who brings life and light on each appearance and is by far the best creation in the book. The lyrical way in which Trilling writes of her, proves there is hope for him as a novelist.

But basically this is the structure of the plot, and it is, to return to the beginning, a sorrowful comment that like Bradley, Lionel Trilling has carried with him a remoteness and a chill, which in the end oppress. This book is only half a novel. It is a working out of ideas through human mouthpieces, it is a combination of fine prose with long dialogues so artificial that you would think they had been assembled by a blind-folded logician. In short, the book is of the mind and not of the heart and there's an end to it.

But "there is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars," and even if there is no real development of character, if the dialogue turns back and explains away what you should yourself perceive, and if the characters are swamped by ideas which fall fast and thick as autumn leaves, and even if you are sometimes almost crushed by pomposity, Lionel Trilling is above all an innovator, and has tried a new technique to vindicate the humanistic point of view, to champion the flexible mind against the inflexibility of both religion and Communism, and to show "the anger of the masked will at the appearance of an idea in modulation."

Maxim is the more ruthless and inhuman. He has exchanged Communism for religion, without himself changing an iota. With him both these ideologies became not attitudes, but conditions, examples of the masked will. Laskell has opposed the Crooms and Maxim, and is accused of fence-sitting. "The day for being human in the way you feel now is over. The Renaissance is dead." But Laskell survives the ordeal and wearily prepares page 37 to return to the city. He has stood for "the human being in maturity, at once responsible and conditioned." He has pleaded for a new sort of individualism.

The book is an interesting half-way house, and although you may read it or not as you wish, it is impossible to escape the feeling that here is a fine mind, not content to acquiesce in the darkness which a lot of modern writing is making more real and vivid to us, but with difficulty, working out new ideas through an old art form.