Arnold Bennett on "The Bomb"
It is eight years since the appearance of "Montes the Matador," a volume which contains one of the finest short stories ever written by Saxon, Russian, or Gaul. Mr. Frank Harris has at last thought fit to publish another book. I know not what he has done with himself in the meantime, but whatever his activity has been, I resent it, as it was not literary. "The Bomb" bears all the external marks of a publication by Messrs. Methuen. The name of Mr. John Long, however, is on the title-page. One may assert with confidence that "The Bomb " is the most serious work of imagination yet issued by the publisher-in-ordinary to Mr. Nat Gould and Mr. Hubert Wales. I congratulate him. I wonder how many dilettanti of literature have preserved through eight years their enthusiasm for the author of "Montes the Matador" and "Elder Conklin." I wonder how many of them, when they saw the name of Frank Harris among "To-Day's Publications" in their newspaper, took instant and eager measures to procure his book. Not that for a moment I imagine "Montes the Matador" to have had a large sale. I am convinced that it was too true, sober, unsentimental, and distinguished to have had a large sale. But its contents were immensely and favourably talked about by people whose good opinion helps an author's works to sell among the sheep, and if "The Bomb" had appeared seven years ago it would have been sure of success. I shall watch with interest the remarks upon it of the mandarins. "A really great book," said Dr. Robertson Nicoll the other day, writing not, strange to say, of Mr. Clement Shorter's mausoleum for the Brontës, but of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's recent collection of "Strand Magazine" stories. Oh, face of Aberdeen granite! I could, if I would, predict his pronouncement upon "The Bomb."
"The Bomb" begins with these words : "My name is Rudolph Schnaubelt. I threw the bomb which killed eight policemen and wounded sixty in Chicago in 1886." The novel is the narrative of the events which culminated in the bomb, related in the first person by a Bavarian emigrant to the United States. It is also Rudolph Schnaubelt's defence of anarchy, since it contains no apology for the bomb. Everyone who is in the habit of reading fiction is familiar with the sensation which occasionally makes one say of the author one is, reading : "He must have been through that himself!"
"The Bomb" gave me this sensation at the start, and continued without intermission to give it me till the end. The illusion of reality is more than staggering; it is haunting. (I am not prepared to assert that to give the illusion of reality is the highest aim of fiction. I' am quite sure that I never thought "On the Eve" or "The Mayor of Casterbridge " to be a relation of anything that actually happened.) Impossible not to believe that Frank Harris himself is the anarchist who threw the bomb in the Haymarket, Chicago, in 1886! Impossible not to believe that the whole business, in all its details, is not literally true to fact. My own ignorance of the flight of bombs is such that I did not know a bomb had been thrown at Chicago in 1886. On consulting Haydn's "Dictionary of Dates" I found that the rough outlines of the tale do indubitably coincide with fact, bombs and Socialism having been rife in Chicago in 1886. I am now more puzzled than ever to draw a line between what is fact and what is fiction in the book. The experiences, the intimate spiritual experiences, of the bomb-thrower between the moment of throwing and his arrival in England are crushing in their convincingness. The cry is drawn sharply out of the reader: "He simply must have been through this himself!" (I remember, in reading "Montes" the gradual growth in me of a belief that Frank Harris had been a matador - and a matador in love! I am also sure, in spite of myself, that he once set fire to a dry-goods store in a western city.) Many passages are on the very highest level of realistic art. I state this as one who reckons to know, comprehensively and in detail, what realistic art is.
Mr. Harris has offered himself the luxury of grave difficulties in the accomplishment of the illusion of reality. There is, for instance, the difficulty of the language-for his narrator is a German journalist, who learnt "American " as a man. He disposes of this with adequate skill. The style is just what the style of such a man would be, save perhaps for a few phrases, such as "the blessed oblivion had knit up the ravelled sleeve of my thoughts.!" I doubt whether the German's racial fondness for Shakespeare would carry him so far in a moment of intense narrative emotion. Another and a greater difficulty is that there is a superman in the book. Now, a superman, and especially an anarchist like Louis Lingg, is like seven devils in the path of a novelist. It may be said, I think, that Mr. Harris has made Louis Lingg convincing. Some of his sayings - such as that the worst fault of American civilisation is that it is not complex enough - are extremely suggestive, and in the supreme crises he does veritably conduct himself as a superman. His suicide and death are Titanic. But the greatest difficulty of all is in the sustentation of the character of the narrator. Here the author's triumph is prodigious and dazzling-such a triumph as can-only be appreciated by those who have themselves tried to write a novel in the first person. Rudolph is German to his toes. A rather weak man, capable of immense and obstinate enthusiasms when tuned up by a stronger individuality; often sentimental; naive; merry in his relations with women (there are pages which the late Ian Maclaren would have blushed to sign); narrow in his view; violent and feeble by turns; the disciple, the honest and intelligent tool incarnate! A living man! In the closing passages the rank bitterness of his resentment against all America is wondrously done.
"The Bomb" is the work of an artist born. I feel nearly sure that the craftsmanship in it is chiefly instinctive and not acquired. Assuredly there is evidence in it that its author does not write enough, nor nearly enough. It is a book very courageous, impulsively generous, and of a shining distinction. In pure realism nothing better has been done - and I do not forget Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch"! Some literary roué of the circulating libraries is bound to open his mouth and say that I have lost my head over "The Bomb." I am not a literary roué; but I am the author of some thirty books, and therefore likely to keep my nerve when confronted by other men's novels. I have said.