Wednesday, 30 May 2012

It was to be a story of treason and divided allegiances.


But those two were not the only novels I started and then gave up. There was an earlier one, much more ambitious, which no longer exists in any file or trunk, having been--as we would say now--recycled. It was to be a story of treason and divided allegiances. The setting was the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. There, on the odd- numbered side, sat a studious person surrounded by stacks of books, doing research on seemingly diverse subjects that would turn out to be the central matter of the novel itself. The time was contemporary: 1942, the middle of World War II. I myself was sitting at an old rolltop desk, painted white, in Edmund Wilson's house in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. Newly installed in the windows were blackout shades. Among the frequenters of "my" public library reading room would be a number of refugees from Hitler.

The book was to contain three separate narratives, three episodes from history, linked by a common theme. The first had to do with Dumnorix and Diviciacus, the Haeduans, a pair of ill-matched brothers who figured in Caesar's "Gallic Wars": one was loyal, and one was faithless. From Caesar's point of view, evidently. For him, as for Miss Mackay, my Latin teacher at Annie Wright Seminary in Tacoma, there could be no doubt as to which was which. Diviciacus was the good Indian, and Dumnorix the bad Indian. But there was a less Roman way of looking at it, which had become visible to me as I grew up. From a Gaulish point of view, the shifty, oathbreaking Dumnorix was a patriot and the honorable Diviciacus was a traitor, an antique Quisling or mustached puppet of Rome. Overtones of current events were meant to be heard, and yet this (as I now feel) was somewhat misleading.
Certainly the story as told by Caesar was equivocal, capable of being read in opposed senses. But could that be said, really, of Vidkus Quisling if you assigned him an imaginary brother (Gunnar) who fought and died in the Resistance? There was only one way in which I, the author, could see that pair. Here, perhaps, was the flaw in the novel that caused it eventually to buckle and fall apart: the contemporary parallels were imperfect. To side with Caesar was no hideous crime; Vercingetorix himself had been Caesar's friend until the pivotal moment came; a Romanized Arvernian, probably speaking some Latin, could well have felt somewhat torn, divided within himself.
Something of the kind proved to be the case of the two Indian sachems, sons of Massasoit-- King Philip, as he was called by the English, and his brother known as Alexander--whom I began to look into, with the idea of using them as a subplot in the Dumnorix-Diviciacus section. King Philip was a far nobler figure than the crafty Dumnorix, and the story of his rising and bloody defeat was horrible: His head, said the Britannica, "was sent to Plymouth and set on a pole in a public place, where it remained for a quarter-of-a-century; his right hand was given to his slayer, who preserved it in rum and won many pennies by exhibiting it in the New England towns." Yet there was the settlers' side to be considered, too, and the side represented by the "friendlies," who in the end very successfully betrayed him. At some point, Philip, who had earned the name of a "statesman," must have been of two minds.
In short, I was stretching a point in trying to set up a harmonic with what was then "today." True, Caesar's story of the Haeduan brothers did have the capacity of eternal recurrence, causing it to repeat itself over the ages in varying "colonial" contexts. But for a Caesar to have a "side," he must be felt to be a force of civilization, progress, order, law, bridge- building; his imperial eagles nesting in the Capitol must be seen to have sharp visions and powerful wings. None of this applied to Hitler, and the refugees who were going to be heard from time to time on the library steps favorably comparing German music, scenery, coffee houses with our native articles were not rent divided loyalties; they were merely homesick.
There were no real traitors in any of my narratives, whatever I tried to think. But at that shivery time--when a rubber boat from a Nazi submarine came ashore one night on the beach near Provincetown--the figure of the traitor or turncoat had a fascination for literary people, and I suspect I was being guided by a mode-in-the-making. At any rate, I remember having little pangs of territorial jealousy when, not too much later--why did this subject appeal specially to women?--Rebecca West's "The Meaning of Treason" and Elizabeth Bowen's "The Heat of the Day" came out while my novel lay in a drawer; after all, I had thought of it first.