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Books: Landscape with Figures

3 minute read

THE PAINTER AND THE LADY— William Blake—Simon & Schusfer ($2.50)

Unlike his fantasy-ridden English namesake, this pseudonymous William Blake is (besides being a lot of other things) an impressionist who covers huge canvases with a sprawling, vigorous brush. His first novel, The World Is Mine, was a full-blooded story of international high finance spiced with intrigue, war and revolution. Last week he followed it up by The Painter and The Lady, an equally full-blooded story of modern France which begins in a café, ends at the guillotine.

Stéphane and Onésime Sabatier, a pair of broad-boned, high-cheeked young Huguenots, wanted respectively to be prosperous merchant and artist. Both started well, as Onésime eloped with his rich cousin, Cécile Renouvier, and Stéphane got Cécile’s paunchy, grandiose father to back a Marseille importing firm for him. The brothers’ ambitions were reversed when his wife’s money gradually converted Onésime into a comfortable bourgeois and Stéphane, after being ruined in business by bulbous-eyed Solomon Lévy-Ruhlmann, turned to painting.

Novelist Blake likes stormy scenes. Cimactic chorus at a family fight: “One mezzo, one dramatic soprano, one lyric soprano, one croak (stork), one croak (raven), one tenor, one baritone, two basses, one refrain—money.” Even the paintings in an art gallery quarrel. But the storm clouds lift often enough to reveal a memorable series of landscapes—Langue-doc’s fertile vineyards, the endless suburbs of Paris, Arles in its lingering Roman splendor.

As The Painter and The Lady develops, Author Blake (who dedicates it to Ralph Fox, killed fighting for Republican Spain) submerges his characters in the rising tide of the Front Populaire. Stéphane returns to Marseille as an active Communist, and after Lévy-Ruhlmann’s murder, is wrongly accused of the crime and convicted. Novel’s end comes in June 1936, the month the Front Populaire took office, with Stéphane’s execution a dark symbol foreshadowing the political schisms that are to follow.

The Author. William Blake is a small, garrulous man of 45, who was brought up in St. Louis, Chicago and Manhattan, the son of an army surgeon and descendant of a long line of atheists. A boy prodigy in mathematics and history, he quit school at 15 to become secretary to a retired millionaire who fancied radicals. An anarchist sympathizer, at 18 he made campaign speeches for Woodrow Wilson. He made and lost a War fortune in commodities purchased on borrowed money, turned conscientious objector when the U. S. entered the War. Since 1919 he has worked in Wall Street, managed private banks in London and Paris, been in the grain trade in Antwerp, written for financial magazines, ghost-written two books on economics. In all, he has made and lost three fortunes. His last flyer was olive groves in Spain in 1936.

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