Time: The Present. By Tess Slesinger. 376 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $2.50
Tess Slesinger is much more at home writing short stories than novels. “The Unpossessed,” the novel she published last year, impressed me as a desperate attempt to string out a series ### vivid and striking impressions in the form of a novelâ€”an attempt inevitably doomed to failure.
I think the reasons for Miss Slesinger’s disability in the longer form are precisely the origins of her brilliance in the short story. She was born in 1905 of a family of middle class New York Jews. It is a fair assumption to judge the nature of her family life from such stories as “The Friedman’s Annie,” in which clear lines of conflict are set up between the principles and aspirations of the daughter of the house, and the solid, conventional life of the household. This conflict is compensated by a destructive, intellectual cynicism, for only thus can the rift between personality and environment be bridged, or at least minimized. This psychological situation is astonishingly common among young American Jews, and it accounts in part for the dearth of Jewish novelists, despite the great interest of the jews in literature. For it is an old axiomâ€”now honored in the breachâ€”that an author’s attitude toward the theme of his novel must be constructive and that he must have faith in his characters. Without this faith, the lift and surge required to carry through an organic novel cannot be attained.
I Make no claim that a long, satiric, bitingly destructive story cannot be composed. But such a story will only cohere as a novel if the author is able to set up a counterfoil to the poor puppets he undertakes to destroy. The opposite is true in the short story. The finer the satire, the more swiftly it destroys its objects. Brevity is at a premium. This is revealed perfectly in the keen-edged stories in “Time: The Present.”
Miss Slesinger never whips herself into a fury over the objects of her contempt, and that is one of the sources of her power. She is always the cold, calm recording angel. She sees and she writes. She lets facts and actions speak for themselves. And the record of facts and actions is sufficient to annihilate Mrs. Colborne, the divorcee in “After the Party” who is troubled with a type of neurasthenia which only wealthy women can afford and for whom her doctor prescribes the diversion of celebrity-hunting: it is sufficient to extinguish the hopes of the white-haired boy. Joey Andrews, who thinks that he has permanently escaped the bread line because he has gotten a job during the Christmas rush in a department store and outstripped some of the regulars in sales totals; and it virtually obliterates Miss Betty Carlisle, the pretty secretary-receptionist of Bender, Inc., Advertisements, who prefers to practise the time-honored device for self-advancement, romancing with her employer, while the rest of the office force organizes and goes out on a pathetically futile strike.
Of the earlier stories the only one worth noting is “White on Black,” which recounts how a certain liberal private school included in its enrollment each year a certain small number of Negro childrenâ€”oh, well washed, carefully referenced, and all thatâ€”to teach the highly respectable white children democracy. The Negro children, having been so carefully selected, were apt to be the leaders of the class in the junior grades; but as athletics diminished and social functions such as dances increased in importance, they gradually played more inferior roles. Miss Slesinger describes with fine shadings the gradual change of sentiment which culminates in the graduation dance. Paul Wilson, three years ago the hero of the class, has not even attended. But he has been outside the building….
“He was as beautiful as he had been three years before, but his face was different, hardened perhaps, so that the dapper tan clothes he wore made him cheap and flashy. He still wore pointed shoes with cloth tops.
“‘Why, Paul!’” I said.
“He looked up, caught my eye, and shifted his away as though he had failed to recognize me. He looked down at the floor and spoke in a low voice. ‘Miss, would you mind finding my sister Elizabeth Wilson inside and say her brother is waiting for her?’
“I. . . I left him standing there against the wall, his hat over his eyes, snubbing his former classmates, while they passed their former god and leader, some of them too happy to distinguish his features under that hat, others no doubt turning from him to prevent his embarrassment, and even, on that happy night, to spare themselves.”
This story, loaded though it is with overtones and implications, is surpassed in richness by the last and longest story in the volume, “The Answer on the Magnolia Tree.” It would take a more delicate pen than mine to suggest here the content and manner of this bitter-sweet sketch of life in a girl’s collegeâ€”a theme much used, but never more pungently than here.
You will find no inspiration, no suggestion of a better way of life, in Miss Slesinger’s stories. But you should read them because they illuminate with a clear, white glare the institutions and people around you whom you have previously seen through the shimmer of sentiment and prejudice.