THE RAFT OF THE MEDUSA by Vercors. Translated by Audrey Foote. 185 pages. McCall's. $6.50.
Rebellion springs from a psychological source as much as from a political stance. Yet an age that has generated millions of rebels has failed to produce anything like adequate discussion of their emotional motives. Now a shrewd novel by a member of the Old Left offers some home thoughts to the vociferous children of the New.
Jean Brüller is a French writer who, under the pseudonym of Vercors, founded Editions de Minuit, a French underground press, during World War II and briefly followed the French Communist Party line. On the whole, Vercors seems to distrust the rebellious spirits he has knownespecially those whose revolt was mainly verbal. The hero of his sixth novel is a meticulous and withering portrait of what he takes to be the type.
The Raft of the Medusa* is set up as a consulting-room thriller and develops the solution to a psychiatric puzzle: Why does a young Frenchwoman who says she is happily married keep flirting with an O.D. of Veronal? Her analyst suspects she has borrowed trouble from her husband, a French poet-novelist whose stock in trade is glamorous rebellion. Called in for consultation, the husband really wants to level, but beneath the lacquer of glory he can perceive only one small flaw in himself: "Despite the success of my books, I have no confidence." Through that tiny portal of awareness the analyst enters a hidden emotional hell.
Fury at human imperfection is the first symptom of the hero's malady. As a teen-age poet, having made the banal discovery that his parents are far from perfect and that the whole world is wicked, he spews out a book of vitriolic verses advertising his family as an archetypal clan of upper-middle-class monsters. By besmirching their reputation he established his own. But his success becomes his fate. In literature he is merely a marked-down Rimbaud who curses a corrupt society as a way of joining it; in private life he is a frightened, self-seeking, self-deceiving fumbler. The book's most moving passages are those in which Vercors shows how his hero's fear of love makes him lose the girl he should have married, how his habit of self-ignorance allows him to repress his grief, how his hypocrisy and weakness eventually poison his marriage and destroy his closest friendship.
The book takes detours of recollection through World War II and the moral agonies of the French Resistance. In fact, Vercors touches on enough material for a 600-page chronicle. Yet he has chosen to tell his story with unleavened haste in a brisk series of interviews between patient and analyst. In art as in life, the device frequently proves a chore.
But the reader is kept on a taut leash of suspense, and the hero finally becomes a breathing instance of a truth that the radical left tends to overlook. However politically useful they may be, gadflies are born, not made.
-The title is taken from a Gericault painting that depicts with romantic overkill the pain and bestiality of a raftful of men and women who, in 1816, survived the wreck of the French ship Medusa off Africa, floating for 16 days without rescue. Their actions came to symbolize the voracious selfishness of 19th century bourgeois society.