Commentary Magazine


Make Me an Offer, by Wolf Mankowitz

The Art of Business
Make Me An Offer.
by Wolf Mankowitz.
Dutton. 94 pp. $2.00.

 

Essentially Wolf Mankowitz’s quaint little book is a tough-guy detective story chase. It’s been dressed up with a late Victorian pink and black jacket and finely detailed line drawings, but the language and movement are out of early Hammett. There is the characteristic brooding passage of self-examination by the hero which ends with a “to hell with it,” and the typically understated description of a female: “She was wearing jodhpurs and a yellow sweater, and her figure didn’t suffer by it.”

What made Hammett’s revelations of a private detective’s adventures so compelling was their authenticity; Hammett has been a private detective. Mr. Mankowitz, identified by the publisher as “a famed London dealer in Wedgewood china,” writes knowingly and unsentimentally about a Jewish antique dealer’s involvement in an auction and about his search for a rare, beautiful Portland vase. The documentary approach and the Hemingway-like pretension to not being a literary man give him a legitimate chance to linger lovingly over the rich jargon and insane complexities of a trade A fine no-nonsense efficiency makes his brief character sketches tartly alive. After all, a shrewd businessman, like a shrewd detective, must have a capacity to judge human beings at least as developed as that of a writer.

The businessman as artist is rare. When he does take up art, like Wallace Stevens or Henry Green, he does so as a hobby, detaching his writing from his business. Dealer-novelist Mankowitz, however, uses the incongruity of business and writing as a basic joke, deriving much of his piquant effect from it. The farcical machinations preceding the auction scene, in which the hero juggles an astonishing combination of different private arrangements with other potential bidders, could not strike Mankowitz as antique dealer funny, or as something from which to separate himself. As writer, however, he stands off and describes the piling on of double-crosses with the hilarity of extravagant exaggeration.

Jobbing art treasures, on the face of it, is a wild enterprise, and all sorts of monstrous jokes are possible, as appeared from S. N. Behrman’s recent account of the fabulous Jewish art middleman, Joseph Duveen, who helped billionaires spend their gains. According to Behrman (the fact that he is crassly wrong about his hero—whose love for his merchandise was an essential ingredient of his success in selling it—is beside the point here), Duveen’s genius, among other places, lay in his remaining uncorrupted by the beauty of his goods. Mr. Mankowitz’s hero, however, presumably like the author himself, lacks the great businessman’s purity of indifference toward his product and becomes dangerously enamored of the magnificent Wedgwood vase, the only one of its kind, which is completely useless for profit since it has been stolen and can only be enjoyed in secret. The vase may be taken to represent the siren call of art for art’s sake; the pleasure in it, the self-indulgent luxury of writing a novel instead of tending to business.

This ancient conflict between the eternal but often profitless values of art or scholarship or theology and the immense but transitory gratifications that come from sheer money in the pocket is set forth baldly and without careful control. A long justification of the dealer’s business is filled with an excess of guilty bravado; and some of the crudeness is pretentious. Also, like doctors and circus people, the narrator tries to make his work seem a calling. These undertones of self-depreciation and uncertainty soften the hard professionalism, a principal virtue of trade confessions in the form of fiction.

Mr. Mankowitz has nothing to be defensive about. Novelists, in the tradition of James, have too long kept their work clean of contact with the world of carpentry, plumbing, buying and selling—the practical craftsmanship of rooted daily living. Ideally, Mankowitz should have used his experience as a dealer in the same way Conrad used his as a sailor, as the difficult and respectable stuff from which to shape art—with no apologies. But as a curiously Jewish book, Make Me An Offer suggests in its imperfection, in its tensions, the uncomfortable straining of the Jewish artist envious or contemptuous of business; of the Jewish businessman lavishly and compulsively supporting the rabbinate or a university; of the intellectual itching to work with his hands.

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