Playthings of Time. By Arnold Zweig. Translated from the German by Emma D. Ashton. 250 pp. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50.
Germany’s emigrÃ© writers, great as well as small, are confronted with the problem, which becomes more ominous with the lapse of each month and year, of maintaining their spiritual lives on alien soil. No matter how congenial the Riviera may seem to cosmopolitan Thomas Mann or Switzerland to the quiet-loving Zweigs, they will become but dying trees propped upright in strange earth if their roots to not survive the transplanting and bring new sap to the creative process.
Thomas Mann, after attempting to stand four-square upon the crossways of liberalism in “The Magic Mountain,” has, no doubt under duress of circumstance, retreated to safe and obscure researches into the epistemology of the Bible. His brother, Hein-rich, chooses rather to write of Henry of Navarre than of Hitler. Stefan Zweig has never concerned himself with any but the most immaterial and delicate manifestations of the human spirit, so perhaps he may be excused for his current preoccupation with personages long dead.
But in Arnold Zweig we have a writer who showed at least twice, in “The Case of Sergeant Grischa” and again in “De Vriendt Goes Home,” that he could cast an impassioned attack upon barbarousness and inquity in the mould of great realistic art. And yet he too, by the slight evidence of the recently written stories in this volume, has resorted to the beguiling compensations of the fairy tale. It is he, of all living writers, whose art could render the greatest service to the Jews of Germany. And yet he permits his contemporary political interests to be represented in this volume by a charming but feeble story, “A Silesian Tale,” which pictures such hidden poverty in the Hitler regime that an eight-year-old boy, Karl Findel, sets out to petition the gnome, Ruebezahl, for relief for his desperate mother and himself; and by a warm but socially insignificant story about an old Jew, once rich, but now ruined by the inflation, who finds that his only mail, the only sign that any one in the outside world remembers him, is the circulars he still receives from his old synagogue, petitioning him to subscribe to the aid of his impoverished brethren.
In the first story Karl Findel fortunately finds his Ruebezahl in the person of a rich and benevolent Jewish merchant week-ending with a woman who selects Karl as her mascot; in the second story the old Jew finally masters his pride and appeals to the congregation to transfer his name from the roster of potential donors to the lengthening list of petitioners. Both these stories are rich in pathos and commission. But neither the predica-##nts they describe nor the solutions they proffer are very eloquent comment on the plight of masses of humanity.
Far Be It for me to suggest that Arnold Zweig should attempt a mass-action novel. No, I am decrying the lack of something quite different, something that was intensely present in “Grischa” and that, above all else, made it a great book. I mean Zweig’s ability to make of Grischa a symbol for all humanity.
When Grischa marched before the firing squad, all the good and ###umble and simple people of the ###niverse marched with him. But when Karl Findel finds his good ###airy or old Siegfried Kraeutel #wallows his pride, well, we have ###ned nothing but a gentle, wistful account of an incident of the day. For that matter, the three or four older stories which deal with the war are pretty much repetitions of the theme of Grischa; and because they are mere particularizations of an impassioned argument the strength of which was its generalization, its inclusiveness and massiveness, they must be stigmatized as not merely insignificant, but positively bad.
Far Better are those happy stories which steer away from the reefs of social problems. Arnold Zweig is a great lover of dogs, and “Kong at the Seashore” is a little masterpiece in the way of a dog story. A young boy is offered a fantastic price for his faithful dog, so that a willful young lady can shoot it. The sum mentioned would have meant a college education for the boy, but he comes through the ordeal bautifully, and not without a witty sally at the young lady’s expense. Two stories, “The Apparition,” and “A Spot on the Eyeball,” are quaintly humorous. The latter traces the effect of a spot of color which clouds the retina of a man’s eye upon his fundamental outlook upon life with startling conclusions. “Apes” is a curious little piece about a bookseller who suddenly learns that subway guards and ticket-takers are not the robots he has assumed them to be. And finally there is that macabre story, “The Snake,” which Zweig could only have written with his tongue in his cheek.
I understand that a new novel by Arnold Zweig will soon be forthcoming. That should be better news than anything I can report about “Playthings of Time.”