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Books: High–Spicy

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HENRY, KING OF FRANCE—Heinrich Mann—Knopf ($3).

One day in May 1937, dignified Thomas Mann shinnied self-consciously down the Ivory Tower and announced that a writer’s business is to be political as well as literary. Elder Brother Heinrich Mann might have snickered in his lush Van Dyke beard, for Brother Thomas was only preaching what Brother Heinrich has spent a lifetime practising. For some 40 of his 68 years he has been writing a series of historical novels which constitutes a political and sociological record of the German people from Kaiserdom to “folkdom.” If there is no Magic Mountain among his collected works, Brother Heinrich might well claim that they form a whole mountain chain with respectable, and occasionally imposing, literary heights.

To those heights Author Mann last week added a peak in the shape of massive, craggy, 786-page Henry, King of France, crammed with up-to-the-minute politics in 16th-Century dress, royal venery, papist deviltry and a necessary quota of ruffs and ruffians.

Europe’s crisis in the 16th Century looked much like Europe’s crisis in the 20th. The line-up then was the Habsburgs’ medieval world reich and the Catholic Church v. the collective-security front of Protestant England, Holland and France. Protestantism and Catholicism were in the balance. The curious instrument that tipped this balance for Protestantism was shifty, sentimental, sensual Henry IV of Navarre. He did it by turning Catholic but ruling in the interests of Protestantism. Jesuits finally succeeded in murdering him as he was planning a Protestant crusade against the Habsburgs which had all the earmarks of a Stop Hitler Drive.

Far too sound a craftsman and too good a storyteller to point up obvious present-day implications, Author Mann lets his political chips fall where they may, lets his readers pick up whatever chips they prefer. Some readers will find that Henry’s intriguing enemies, disgruntled Protestants, priests, Jesuits, Spaniards, resemble Nazis; others will be reminded of Communists. Fussed historians will throw up their hands at the free-&-easy handling of history. But few will deny that thoroughgoing German Heinrich Mann, in seasoning this lump of historical data into a right royal and highly spiced narrative, has produced, if not a first-rate novel, a monster tour de force.

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