Editor's choice

The New Guide to Modern World Literature, by Martin Seymour-Smith. New York: Peter Bedrick Books (distributed by Harper & Row). 1,396 pp. $60 after Dec. 31; until then, special offer, $39.95. Commenting on Anthony Powell, who is the author of the monumental novel ``A Dance to the Music of Time'' and a writer some feel is one of the finest English novelists ever, London Financial Times fiction reviewer Martin Seymour-Smith explains that Powell's modernism serves ``an essentially conservative (with a small c) morality: a morality based not on puritanism but on freedom and on the exceedingly complex notion of, to put it crudely, decency.''

Seymour-Smith's new edition of his guide is similarly motivated. It guides the general reader through the labyrinth of modern national languages and literature. Seymour-Smith, a poet, critic, and scholar who enjoys the reading knowledge of some 20 languages, celebrates the free imagination wherever he finds it -- memorably, for example, in Solzhenitsyn, whom he nevertheless finds inferior in this respect to his contemporary, Soloukhin, because the latter has not become embroiled in international polemic.

Like Powell, Seymour-Smith writes out of regard for ``an exceedingly complex notion of . . . decency.'' It's not a matter of taste, or ``good taste,'' but of appropriateness, the durable complex of values that constitute the humanitas of our literary life. For example, the `Guide'' discriminates between the virtues of Ring Lardner and those more specialized ones of Ernest Hemingway. In Lardner, the toughness is unassumed, and the ``sense of the decent'' secure because Lardner understands ``awfulness,'' ``vulgarity, lovelessness, the sort of bad taste that really is bad (not innocent or ignorant), ruthlessness.''

Seymour-Smith offers his sharp observations in the spirit of ``candid sharing.'' That candor keeps him from platitude, an almost overwhelming temptation in works of this scope. As a guide, he is constantly helpful, but not in a proctorish way. Like the French novelist and dramatist Henry de Montherlant, ``he has spoken uncomfortable truths at tactless times,'' perhaps; his readers may not wish to have Evelyn Waugh in a nutshell: ``A gifted writer -- but either neutral or nasty in just the places where niceness counts.''

Niceness counts, especially at a time when the middlebrow appeal of the occult, the weird, the ponderously difficult goes unopposed. Seymour-Smith explains that middlebrow literature ``consists of material manipulated to satisfy the conscious desires of a pseudo-cultured audience. . . .'' Book reviewers have been known to address these desires, to pander to them. Oh indeed.

Seymour-Smith's ``Guide'' puts a vast number of texts in context, both cultural and literary; yet for all its size, the effect of the book is intimate. Addressed ``to the creative and responsible reader, to whom one may confess one's preferences, but for whom it is sinful to prescribe,'' the ``Guide'' makes a perfect friend for a whole summer -- indeed, a whole lifetime -- of independent reading.

It invites criticism. Undoubtedly, it will be attacked, from the right and from the left, for Seymour-Smith's conservatism is truly liberal. Showing us that ``the imagination is autonomous,'' it finds literary freedom not only in ``free countries'' but wherever the mysteries of the free imagination can be exercised.

The free imagination can find a home in, say, George Ivanov (1894-1958), a Russian who, after announcing the death of Russia, went on to write small, darkly witty poems. Thanks to Seymour-Smith, Ivanov won't be forgotten.

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