"The Mask", a book of remarkable quality by a new writer-Frank Swinnerton in "September" pictures the impulse to snatch in some desperate fashion at the hurrying skirts of beautiful youth before it passes from us forever-three sea tales.
WHOEVER John Cournos may be, he has written a book of remarkable quality. "The Mask" is confessedly less a story than the portrait of a man. But it is the portrait of a man in his natural setting, a man of our time, product and interpreter of a vastly larger human world than respectable fiction dreamed of dealing with, a few years ago. Respectable is a word of ghastly omen in these days: let me hasten to protest that I mean nothing by it but the kind of fiction that deserves respect as a product of the literary art. It wasn't only Victorianism in the now established sense of prudery and hypocrisy and general all-round squeamishness in the face of God and man that made such a novel as this inconceivable a generation ago.
It was not so much the narrowness of our hearts as the narrowness of our vision. We could not see beyond our group, or clan, or class, or race. Our imagination dwelt within a fenced range. It is pleasant still to find ourselves now and then back in that safe place with the Mrs. Humphry Wards or the Archibald Marshalls or our own mild proponents of the average American citizen at work and play. But we can't stay in it. There is a bigger world outside, and it calls us with a hundred voices. The author names his prefatory chapter: "Overture: A Promise and a Warning." It is a warning that we are not to have a conventional novel or even, strictly speaking, a novel at all; but rather a series of pictures in which one John Gombarov is "more or less the central figure".
And in this series of pictures of life looked back upon, Gombarov saw each picture complete in itself, yet al l of them together formed the parts of a larger and grander composition, which gave rise to a mood akin to the one in which he had many a time stood before a wall decoration by Veronese or Titian, as, eyeing a small detail of the panel, he had said to himself: "Here is a piece of colour so beautiful that I should be happy in possessing but a few square inches of it, framed, and hung on my wall." In such a mood he liked to think of a man's life not as a play or novel but as a collection of short stories conceived by a single mind and dominated by a single personality, which in some latent unobvious way is the sole hero of them all.
Here, then, is John Gombarov's world, with John Gombarov in the middle of it, busily engaged, as each of us is engaged, in being himself. The extraordinary thing is that this world of his, the narrow world of a young Slav immigrant in America, is so patently part of our own world-or rather, like our own world, a fragment of some greater human cosmos which as yet we in our provincialism but vaguely apprehend. The book may, among other things, be good medicine for that complacency which ascribes unlimited capacity and power to the American melting-pot. One or two of our story-tellers have recently ventured to show that we now and then actually gain something from the presence of the newcomer from Europe, with his thrift and his ambition-as a spur to our own sluggishness if nothing else.