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THERE may be a divinity which shapes our ends, but it is the intelligence which relies as little as possible on such outside aid which is responsible for the writings of Edith Wharton. In her recent book of critical essays. "The Writing of Fiction," in describing the work of William James, Mrs. Wharton calls him "almost the only novelist who has formulated his ideas about his art." The book itself is a successful attempt to place herself in the illustrious company of James. She has shown that the effects which she has hitherto produced in such a work as "Ethan Frome" were no result of chance. Genius was undeniably operative there, but it was a literary genius which reached its fulfillment on the wings of a lower order of genius, perhaps, that capacity for taking infinite pains.
It is rarely the good fortune of a reviewer to be able to refer to the artistic standards of an author, and to hold up beside this foot rule the artist's most recent work, in this case a book of short stories, "Here and Beyond." There are five chapter headings in "The Writing of Fiction," and judgment of Mrs. Wharton's short stories may validly proceed on at least two counts of the five, if not more. She treats fiction writing in general, the telling of a short story, the work of constructing a novel, and the character situation in a novel. Her final chapter discusses Marcel Proust, and his place in the traditional and evolutionary development of fiction.
There are, according to Mrs. Wharton's definition, three dimensions to the great Russian short stories, those which comprise the French sense of form, length and breadth, and that more puissant Russian one, depth, and its accompaniment of tears. The result is "great closeness of texture with profundity of form." As a sub-variant of the short story subject in general, the critic points out the supernatural in particular as a growth indigenous to the Germanic and English soils. It is interesting to discover that in the present book there is at least one story avowedly of this class, really two, but one escapes exact definition. The story of the supernatural, "Miss Mary Pask," gives only such character drawing as will enhance the tale, and does not concentrate its strokes on the actors in the drama. The completely supernatural story is the tale of a woman dead, declared dead by her sister, whose house, in the wildest part of the coast of Brittany, the author visited long after dark one gale-infested night. The other story, "Bewitcher," harks back to "Ethan Frome," and the stark New England of six foot snows and ice-crusted consciences. In the first of these she seems the author playing with her medium. In the second there is a breath of that frosty air which made "Ethan Frome" so welcome to habitues of Mrs. Whartons usual conservatory atmosphere.
In a few paragraphs Mrs. Wharton enunciates the fundamental differences between the novel and the short story, for "situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel." And it depends, she continues in her discussion of the short story, "almost entirely on its form or presentation." The short-story writer must not only know from what angle to present his anecdote if it is to give out all its fires, but must understand just why that particular angle and no other is the right one. This feeling of the mastery of the author is almost an invariable delight to the reader of one of Mrs. Wharton's books or short stories. The present volume is in the main no exception, but there is in the present volume an exception. "The Seed of the Faith," story of two missionaries in Africa, lacks that feeling of completeness, of an author writing from inside out, from the depths of the living which he has done inside the mind of the character. In one of the other stories the cold leaves us shivering, but here there is no equal heat to leave us sweltering. The master's brush has slipped, but only so that it reveals the perfection of her tones in the rest of the canvas.
The two unities which she lays down as principles for the short story writer she obeys almost throughout. The unities are those of time and vision, and they secure the effect of compactness and of instantaneity. "The Young Gentlemen," done in her most sure footed manner, shows Mrs. Wharton at her aggravating best, when she has a social situation well in hand, and a surprise lurking around the corner. But she does not satisfy here as in another story of the same lot, "The Temperate Zone," which represents her discernment of character displayed before a polite background, all very smooth and able, obeying all the ordinances which she had laid down. It is only when she writes travesties upon a style and a subject not hers, as in the mock Saturday Evening Post story of the professor and the mannequin, that her facility shows its skeleton. And a very good skeleton it is too.
But there is some divine fire lacking, and the divinity which shapes the work of genius scarcely reveals the workings of its hand in these pages, so that the woman who is mistress of the secrets of the great, as she so ably reveals in her analysis of fiction writing lacks, here at least, the wings to fly to heights whose breadth of vision she already possesses.
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