On the Shelf
The Advocate starts out the year with an interesting assortment of pieces, some written with facility, none brilliant, but none without a certain basic competence. The fiction this issue has the advantage of attracting immediate interest, of relating a coherent story, unlike so many other previous pieces which may represent experiments in style, but which are virtually impossible to get through.
The finest story in the issue is by Kurt Blankmeyer, a piece called Saturday Burial, which describes the narrator's childhood experiences with a mad widow, and her dog Siegfried. The widow is a powerful Teuton transparently called Edda Norse, and the story has a conscious Germanic flavor and a fine not to say exciting Wagnerian ending. Saturday Burial is written in the same half-understanding, wide-eyed manner as Blankmeyer's Victory Over Japan, but less skillfully. The development is somewhat mechanical, and the events which should happen spontaneously seem to be plotted by an all-too-visible hand. Yet the story has its fascinating aspects and is well above standard Cambridge fare.
The second story of any length is a piece by Elizabeth Sussman, a sophomore at Vassar, who took a writing course in Cambridge this summer. The Flavour of Mortality is concerned with two children adopted by a couple which lives from April to April in futile hope of the husband's promotion. The characters of the children are drawn with some subtlety; the boy's awkwardness and introspection are developed effectively, as are the main problems of the story--the uselessness of the parents' lives, and the quietly savage intensity of the boy's attempt to escape the "mortality" of his parents' existence. The main difficulty with The Flavour of Mortality is a jerkiness of structure, a certain abruptness in exposition, which is occasionally annoying, but which does not obscure the formidable talent beneath.
In addition to these longer stories the Advocate contains a short sketch by William Kelly about life in a tenement and a demonic child. Unfortunately, the characters have hardly any chance to develop and remain somewhat awkward attitude-figures, not really belonging in this piece which, if it were to be acted, would be Method stuff.
The one essay in this issue is a two-page item called Sex: the Literary Breakthrough at Harvard Square, which takes notice of the various Harvard love stories published recently by such writers as Harold Brodkey and Jonathan Kozol, and the similar but less facile pieces which, says the Advocate, comprise roughly one-third of all Harvard undergraduate writing. The informative section of this article is really quite interesting: one can hardly have missed making the connection between Brodkey's Sentimental Education, Kozol's novel and other similar work, but it is pleasant to see it done in print with some competent remarks about the correlation.
The essayist proceeds however to draw some intriguing but quite probably specious conclusions about the mental state of today's American youth, its confusion over a double moral standard: the hedonistic view of the individual versus the Victorian ethos of the community. The essayist exhorts all future writers of Harvard Square sex-fiction to probe more deeply into the unhappiness which is the apparent outcome in most of the stories under discussion, and come up with a moral framework which is bigger, better and all in all more valid than that which exists or is in the process of ceasing to exist.
This impassioned and vague plea has its interesting aspects, but seems fatuous. It implies, or rather assumes, the existence of a determined and self-conscious attitude among the writers of post-adolescent love fiction. These tales are obviously intensely personal things and their authors doubtless believe that they are probing the situation to the very limit, which they very well might be doing. It seems a bit ludicrous to hope that a new moral framework (if indeed the whole idea has any meaning), will come from the pens of a group of writers whose entire effect comes from the charm of their introspection and the attractiveness of their subjectivity.