"Kindergarten," a first novel published in England last year and trailing glory now as a result of the Hawthornden prize, is a frankly literary work, borrowing with a large-handed Elizabethan boldness from books the author admires and discovering curious parallels between literature and life. Rushforth is taken with the Grimms' fairy tales and relishes hidden meaning in them as others relish it in the science fiction of H. G. Wells or Olaf Stapledon. He incorporates two versions of the Hansel and Gretel story in his novel and uses them as a clue to destruction and redemption in our time.
Corrie, Rushforth's hero, is a Jamesian reflector, an English youth living in a country town, on the periphery of dramatic events, and carrying us with him through a few days in December 1978. A 17-year-old come to mature judgment, he composes music, plays the cello, does better than keeping up with the Joneses in his appreciation of books and art, and has a patience akin to genius for circling around experiences not his own until he understands them.
His visualizing powers, inherited perhaps from his grandmother, enable Corrie to imagine in brilliant cinematic detail the Germany that had acknowledged her genius and, in a murderous turnabout, burned the books she had illustrated and sent her entire family to the gas ovens. Corrie's birthday almost coincides with Christmas, but his attitude toward both is far from anticipatory. Only months ago his mother died in Rome at the hands of terrorists. His father is in America soliciting funds for relatives of other people gunned down by the terrorists. Sharing the holidays with Corrie are two younger brothers, each gifted, each precocious, and their still more extraordinary grandmother.
Lilli Danielsohn had shelved and even closeted her Judaism when she escaped the Holocaust, came to England and married Corrie's grandfather. She had converted herself into a dutiful Christian and low-profiled hausfrau and abandoned brush and pen on the sensible grounds that her genius had abandoned her. Her daughter's death in Rome is a catalyst of unforeseeable dimensions. In a locked room, where success and failure have equal protection from critics, Lilli overcomes a seemingly interminable block and paints again.
The locked door is an old, old prop in literature and a middle-aged prop in detective fiction. Rushforth points to the use of this device in Shakespeare ("The Winter's Tale") and the Grimm brothers ("Fitcher's Bird") but ignores a very likely debt to Balzac ("The Hidden Masterpiece"). For Corrie, as for Robert Louis Stevenson, a locked door is a peril and an enticement and it's in a closed-off room at home, where he finds a collection of yellowing letters, that he comes to appreciate the horrors Lilli had fled. The majority of the letter writers were Germans who knew themselves doomed but sought asylum for their children in England. Most failed and their increasing grimness as they saw their children's destinies joined to their own hits Corrie with the force of a revelation.
Past and present are united in Corrie's perceptions. They are united in Lilli, who was able to pick up her waylaid artistic gift because she went back in spirit to her beginings and accepted the fact of her German Jewishness.
Rushforth, a Quaker schoolteacher, recognizes in today's terrorists a mindless aping of Nazism and a passion to destory for destruction's sake. Behind his screenwork of Jamesian objectivity, he offers hints of a more neighborly world in which the forces of creativity, assisted by our schools, will triumph over the forces of destruction. Rushforth is an enemy of the Gradgrind system of rote learning that survived Dickens' raillery, prospered under the Kaisers and the Weimar Republic, and taught Germans that robotlike readiness to obey on which dictators thrive. a
Corrie illustrates the power of humane learning, in literature, subliterature, and the arts, to make the young gentle and compassionate without reducing them to meekness. If his bookishness brings him to the edges of pedantry, his sense of humor keeps him from tumbling over the brink. In depicting both Corrie and his younger brothers, Rushforth shows a rare ability to make precocious children believable and likable. His portrait of Lilli is less successful. Apart from Balzac, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and possibly Romain Rolland, I can think of no novelist who has sounded the depths, and therefore written convincingly, of a genius in the arts.
Justice to Rushforth nevertheless demands a closing word of praise. He writes with a subtle sense of structure, his style has charm without being cloyingly picturesque, and he covers the stuff of news headlines with an artistic control that lifts "Kindergarten" distinctly above the typical well-crafted documentary novel.