(October 1966, Volume III, Number 2)
***BOOK REVIEWS: MORPHY AND MARS***
By MARTIN MORRISON, Oakland
En Passant Editor
The Chess Players, FRANCES PARKINSON KEYES. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1960. 533 Pages, $4.95 (hardbound), Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications (Crest). 608 pages, $.95 (paperbound).
Not since Paul Charles Morphy's death in 1884 has any writer attempted a full-sized biography of him. That this great chess player, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, should fail of having a biographer probably results from a lack of information concerning the latter part of his life. Mrs. Keyes has therefore decided to enhance Morphy's fame (as the "Author's Note" states) "through a thoughtful and comprehensive novel, the work of a writer who will make use of all known facts about the protagonist, and who, when straying into the field of fiction will try to correlate the real with the imaginary in such a way that the connection between the two will seem not only possible but plausible."
This goal Mrs. Keyes comes very close to attaining. The novelist's thorough research into the first twenty or so years of Morphy's life (during which he achieved his greatest chess victories, including those over Adolf Anderrson for the world's championship) coupled with her skill as a descriptive writer, artfully produce the plausible fiction for which she strove. In writing on Morphy's succeeding years, however, for which biographical material is scarce, Mrs. Keyes tries to compensate for this lack by suppositious extending a childhood infatuation of Morphy's for a certain Charmian Sheppard into this later period and by amplifying it to a point far beyond what is possible, not to say plausible, on the basis of a few facts available.
With the exception in the latter part of the book, Mrs. Keyes manages to keep her romantic leanings to a minimum. Her descriptions of setting are skillfully done, beginning with Morphy's early life in New Orleans, through his later years in Paris while working for the Confederacy (another supposition by the novelist, which is, however, much more plausible). Morphy's life is comprehensively covered, and the writer displays a deep understanding of the man who accomplished much as a classical scholar and chess player early in his life, but later fails in his undertakings and suffers a mental breakdown, from which he never completely recovers. All in all, the book is one which every chess player should be encouraged to read for a basic appreciation of America's only world's chess champion.
The Chessman of Mars. EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS. New York: Ballantine Books, 1963. 220 pages. $.50 (paperbound).
This reviewer must admit that he did not expect much when he began to read this fifth book of the Martian series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who is undoubtedly more well known as the author of the Tarzan series. He expected a mediocre adventure story which may or may not have lived up to the flyleaf's prophesy of "startlingly graphic prose, vivid, which color and excitement, seething with actionů"
To be sure, the plot was adventurous. Princess Tara of Barsoom, while in her exotic aircraft, is swept by a violent storm to a distant area of Mars. In her quest to reach home she falls in first with the Bantoomians, who are of two kinds: headless rykors and bodyless kaldanes. After a narrow escape from these, she is captured by more humanoid Martians, the Manatorians, and is set up as the prize in an exciting game of Martian chess, jetan, which the Manatorians play to the death with living men as pieces.
This reviewer was pleasantly surprised to note, however, that the author seems to introduce two higher levels, a psychological and a philosophical, a circumstance thereby paralleling one of the great books of comtemporary English literature, William Golding's Lord of the Flies. On the psychological level, Gaham, a Martian warrior, is first rejected as a suitor by the princess before the storm, but later turns up to be her preserver throughout their adventures, though she does not recognize him. By means of this "Ovidian metamorphosis" he is able gradually to win her over and to turn her selfishness to love. On the philosophical level, many themes are presented. For example, the kaldanes in Bantoom believe that the mind should be logical and free of emotions. One theme is the gradual realization by one of the kaldanes that this theory is false. Another theme is the resolution of conflict to peace and the antithesis between the goal of peace and the constant strife. However, pleasant as it is to see deeper themes at work, their presentation lacks artfulness, and their development is crude. Truly Burroughs is not a Golding.
In fact, the novel is imaginative and worthwhile reading for its many minor subtleties. It is only too bad that Mr. Burroughs writing presents such major imperfections. The novelist, by the way, has appended the complete rules of Martian chess "for those who care of such things."