The Calmative by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I’ll tell myself a story, I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself…

The via negativa

These four short pieces announce the arrival of the post-war Beckett, complete in his nihilism and his bookish but spavined style, by turns surreal, literary, pedantic, coarse, but always afflicted by anxiety, obsessions, worries, panics. Hence the title – in this piece in particular, the narrator unreels an almost stream-of-consciousness flood of half memories and blurred fantasy occurrences, anything, any narrative, to keep the panic and the nothingness at bay.

Obsession with the body, its repetitive behaviour, its decay

His own body is the most important factor in any of these narrator’s stories, its decrepitness, decay, collapse, inability, frailty and so on.

But it’s to me this evening something has to happen, to my body as in myth and metamorphosis, this old body to which nothing ever happened, or so little, which never met with anything, loved anything, wished for anything, in its tarnished universe…

Amnesia and uncertainty

Beckett heroes can never remember the past, not completely, only fragments. After all, to remember it clearly would establish a framework and meaning to their lives and that’s exactly what the texts want to deprive them of. Hence all of them sound the same in that they only recall fragments.

Yes, this evening it has to be as in the story my father used to read to me, evening after evening, when I was small, and he had all his health, to calm me, evening after evening, year after year it seems to me this evening, which I don’t remember much about, except that it was the adventures of one Joe Breem, or Breen, the son of a lighthouse-keeper, a strong muscular lad of fifteen, those were the words, who swam for miles in the night, a knife between his teeth, after a shark, I forget why, out of sheer heroism…

do you remember, I only just…

And they’re never sure of anything – or, rather, they emphasise their uncertainty, at every opportunity, for the same reason, to create a fog of uncertainty around everything:

I say cathedral, it may not have been, I don’t know…

Suddenly I was descending a wide street, vaguely familiar, but in which I could never have set foot, in my lifetime…

It might have been three or four in the morning just as it might have been ten or eleven in the evening…

He said a time, I don’t remember which, a time that explained nothing, that’s all I remember, and did not calm me…

If it’s not a rude question, he said, how old are you? I don’t know, I said.

A permanent mental, perceptual and cognitive fog.

My mind panting after this and that and always flung back to where there was nothing…

The surreal

Surrealism began in the early 1920s partly as a response to the madness of the Great War. It was a dominant visual and literary mood of the 1930s. Impossible and bizarre juxtapositions are presented deadpan, as (allegedly) happens in dreams. Beckett was of his time, combining it with his own pessimism to create a kind of surrealistic nihilism in which the impossible and absurd is quietly accepted.

I don’t know when I died. It always seemed to me I died old, about ninety years old, and what years, and that my body bore it out, from head to foot. But this evening, alone in my icy bed, I have the feeling I’ll be older than the day, the night, when the sky with all its lights fell upon me, the same I had so often gazed on since my first stumblings on the distant earth. For I’m too frightened this evening to listen to myself rot, waiting for the great red lapses of the heart, the tearings at the caecal walls, and for the slow killings to finish in my skull, the assaults on unshakable pillars, the fornications with corpses.

In which the patently ridiculous is calmly discussed. In which the absurd is carefully weighed.

Is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.

Sex

All four of these stories have suddenly graphic and crude references to sex. Sex erupts unexpectedly. Certainly not sensually. Maybe it erupts from the texts as it erupts in real life, rupturing the bourgeois tranquility with its animal crudity.

Are thighs much in your thoughts, he said, arses, cunts and environs? I didn’t follow. No more erections naturally, he said. Erections? I said. The penis, he said, you know what the penis is, there, between the legs. Ah that! I said. It thickens, lengthens, stiffens and rises, he said, does it not? I assented, though they were not the terms I would have used. That is what we call an erection, he said.

Mottoes of pessimism

All I say cancels out, I’ll have said nothing.

I couldn’t get up at the first attempt, nor let us say at the second, and once up, propped against the wall, I wondered if I could go on…

The core and kernel of Waiting For Godot and all the rest of his plays, of his entire worldview, iterated again and again, are all present.

Die without too much pain, a little, that’s worth your while.

Into what nightmare thingness am I fallen?

How tell what remains? But it’s the end.

This kind of sentiment can be repeated potentially infinitely which is what, in effect, Beckett’s oeuvre amounts to.

To think that in a moment all will be said, all to do again…


Credit

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett was written in 1946. It was published in French in Paris in 1954. It was translated into English by Beckett in 1967. It was gathered, along with The Expelled and The End into a volume titled Stories and Texts for Nothing. These three were collected with First Love into a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and Other Novellas, which is where I read them.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

The Expelled by Samuel Beckett (1946)

Beckett’s big artistic breakthrough was to start writing in French. All four short stories in this volume were originally written in French (in 1946) then translated back into English by Beckett alone or (like this one) with Richard Seaver.

I’m glad I read More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy first, because they give a sense of how Beckett’s writing in English had become an over-filled attic stuffed with arcane terminology and wilful obscurancies. He needed to break free of the tendency to clutter, to aggregate and add to his prose.

Writing in french represented the opposite direction – towards leaner and cleaner. French has a fraction of the vocabulary of the great woolly mongrel, English. Writing in it always sounds purer, clearer and more intense. And the English translation from it, though it still contains oddities and irishisms, is considerably lighter and slicker than his earlier style.

The plot

Like the narrator of First Love the first-person narrator of this short text is a man, of apparently retarded mind, obsessed with the immediate physical presence of his body, who is booted out of the family home now that his father is dead, by ‘them’, ‘they’, an unnamed host of enemies.

A policeman tells him to walk on the pavement not the road. He bumps into a fat lady. A funeral passes, everyone crossing themselves There’s a hansom cab and he climbs into its snug interior. He gets pally with the cabman who tells him about his life. He treats the cabby to lunch with money he has somehow. The cabby offers to drive him to a few apartments looking for one to rent, with no luck. They light the lamps on the cab. The cabby offers him a bed for the night in his stable, introduces him to his wife. The narrator goes down the ladder to the stable where the horse is munching hay. Unable to sleep in the straw he climbs into the snug cab, but still can’t sleep. He discovers the cab door is jammed and so has to – ridiculously- force his way out of the small cab window, his hands on the stable floor his waist lodged in the small window, while the horse looks on. Then he leaves.

Dawn was just breaking. I did not know where I was. I made towards the rising sun, towards where I thought it should rise, the quicker to come into the light. I would have liked a sea horizon, or a desert one. When I am abroad in the morning I go to meet the sun, and in the evening, when I am abroad, I follow it, till I am down among the dead. I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.


Comedy pessimism

The text is much more ‘about’ decrepitude and decay, with the result that it becomes a kind of device capable for turning out hundreds of bleak little pessimistic phrases. I imagined I heard a cash machine going ching-ching! every time a new one appeared.

Memories are killing.

No need then for caution, we may reason on to our heart’s content, the fog won’t lift.

But does one ever know oneself why one laughs?

We did our best, both of us, to understand, to explain.

No reason for this to end or go on. Then let it end.

It wasn’t easy. But what is easy?

I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another.

Reassuring words for the angst-ridden teenager in all of us. Note the way they only have full resonance when appearing in a paragraph about something else. They need to be embedded to really drive home, to be the conclusion or climax of a series of sentences.

They lived above a stable, at the back of a yard. Ideal location, I could have done with it. Having presented me to his wife, extraordinarily full-bottomed, he left us. She was manifestly ill at ease, alone with me. I could understand her, I don’t stand on ceremony on these occasions. No reason for this to end or go on. Then let it end.

They need to bubble up out of the everyday situation, suddenly emerging in their sackcloth and ashes, the wisdom of Aspergers.

Asperger’s Syndrome

“Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger’s, is a developmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. As a milder autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it differs from other ASDs by relatively normal language and intelligence. Although not required for diagnosis, physical clumsiness and unusual use of language are common.” (Wikipedia)

  • Difficulty in social interaction
  • Restricted interests
  • Repetitive patterns of behavior

This accurately describes all Beckett’s protagonists. Surely thousands of other commentators must have pointed out the similarity between Beckett’s men and the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. Surely someone must have speculated whether Beckett himself was on the spectrum.

Hyper-obsession with the simplest physical activities

There were not many steps. I had counted them a thousand times, both going up and coming down, but the figure has gone from my mind. I have never known whether you should say one with your foot on the sidewalk, two with the following foot on the first step, and so on, or whether the sidewalk shouldn’t count. At the top of the steps I fell foul of the same dilemma. In the other direction, I mean from top to bottom, it was the same, the word is not too strong. I did not know where to begin nor where to end, that’s the truth of the matter. I arrived therefore at three totally different figures, without ever knowing which of them was right. And when I say that the figure has gone from my mind, I mean that none of the three figures is with me any more, in my mind. It is true that if I were to find, in my mind, where it is certainly to be found, one of these figures, I would find it and it alone, without being able to deduce from it the other two. And even were I to recover two, I would not know the third. No, I would have to find all three, in my mind, in order to know all three.

If he thinks too much about walking, he falls over.

I set off. What a gait. Stiffness of the lower limbs, as if nature had denied me knees, extraordinary splaying of the feet to right and left of the line of march. The trunk, on the contrary, as if by the effect of a compensatory mechanism, was as flabby as an old ragbag, tossing wildly to the unpredictable jolts of the pelvis. I have often tried to correct these defects, to stiffen my bust, flex my knees and walk with my feet in front of one another, for I had at least five or six, but it always ended in the same way, I mean with a loss of equilibrium, followed by a fall. A man must walk without paying attention to what he’s doing, as he sighs, and when I walked without paying attention to what I was doing I walked in the way I have just described, and when I began to pay attention I managed a few steps of creditable execution and then fell.

His protagonists are capable only of minute attention to present physical activities or remote rarefied meditations on philosophy and life, and completely lack the vast middle ground most of us inhabit, of chores and showers and buses and jobs and shopping and cleaning. It is nearly, but not quite, obsessive compulsive disorder.

He was lighting the lamps. I love oil lamps, in spite of their having been, with candles, and if I except the stars, the first lights I ever knew. I asked him if I might light the second lamp, since he had already lit the first himself. He gave me his box of matches, I swung open on its hinges the little convex glass, lit and closed at once, so that the wick might burn steady and bright, snug in its little house, sheltered from the wind.

Relishing the crudest physical functions

If you have no mental capacity to formulate rational plans and strategies, then you live in a permanent present where the most pressing concern is the condition of your body.

I had then the deplorable habit, having pissed in my trousers, or shat there, which I did fairly regularly early in the morning, about ten or half past ten, of persisting in going on and finishing my day as if nothing had happened. The very idea of changing my trousers, or of confiding in mother, who goodness knows asked nothing better than to help me, was unbearable, I don’t know why, and till bedtime I dragged on with burning and stinking between my little thighs, or sticking to my bottom, the result of my incontinence. Whence this wary way of walking, with the legs stiff and wide apart, and this desperate rolling of the bust, no doubt intended to put people off the scent, to make them think I was full of gaiety and high spirits, without a care in the world, and to lend plausibility to my explanations concerning my nether rigidity, which I ascribed to hereditary rheumatism.

The horses were farting and shitting as if they were going to the fair.

Not long before the farting horses, the narrator had mentioned Heraclitus, making a sort of joke, implying that the Greek philosopher’s famous nostrum could be rewritten, ‘You can’t bathe in the same gutter twice’.

It is fundamental to Beckett’s technique to juxtapose the learned and the bathetic: Heraclitus and horse shit. Whether you find this entertaining, or funny, or a bleak comment on ‘the human condition’, depends on your sense of humour.

Prose poetry

But as often as there are the nihilist sententiae, there appear moments of beautiful perception.

We saw nothing, by the light of these lamps, save the vague outlines of the horse, but the others saw them from afar, two yellow glows sailing slowly through the air. When the equipage turned an eye could be seen, red or green as the case might be, a bossy rhomb as clear and keen as stained glass.

Good, isn’t it? Fragments of sweet sensual Joyce in the arid obsessiveness of Beckett’s brain-damaged vagabonds.

Their mere brevity of these pieces certainly helps, but taken as a whole, the weird combination of elements – the retarded narrator, his high-falutin style, his oddity of observation, his lack of any normal sense of his predicament, the oddity of the entire vision – makes these short monologues strangely compelling. Very rereadable.


Credit

The Expelled by Samuel Beckett was written in 1946. It was published in French in Paris in 1954. It was translated into English by Beckett and Richard Seaver in 1967. It was gathered with The Calmative and The End into a volume titled Stories and Texts for Nothing. Also collected with First Love into a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

  • First Love (1946)
  • The Expelled (1946)
  • The Calmative (1946)
  • The End (1946)
  • Molloy (1951)
  • Malone Dies (1951)
  • The Unnamable (1953)
  • Watt (1953)

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

First Love by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know.

Between the publication of Murphy in 1938 and this suite of short stories written in 1946, came the small matter of the Second World War. Beckett spent it in embattled France rather than in neutral Ireland. For some time he was involved in the French Resistance, enough to merit being awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance.

While on the run across France he worked on the manuscript of another novel, Watt, which finally saw the light of day in 1953. In 1946 he wrote the four very short novellas, more like short stories, First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End which in the 1950s were gathered into one volume.

First Love – the plot

First Love is a short narrative, told in the first person, more a dramatic monologue. The narrator is mentally challenged, talking like a simpleton about his visits to his father’s grave, his fondness for hanging around in graveyards, his liking for the smell of the dead. He has an adolescent’s fascination with the unpleasant aspects of the human body, its farts, arses and sticky foreskins. There’s a passage where he ponders the different types of constipation and fondly imagines Jesus at stool, pulling his buttocks apart.

The other members of his father’s household didn’t like him, or barely tolerated him. He reminds me a bit of the idiot in The Sound and the Fury, dimly trying to make sense of things which other people are always doing to him. He remembers his father saying, ‘Leave him alone, he’s not disturbing anyone’ as if the other people in the house, who he refers to as ‘the pack’, think he should be, what? Taken away and put in a home?

When his father died, they promptly kicked him out the house – more precisely locked his door and piled all his things up outside it. He left, wandering off into the great outside. He sleeps for successive nights on a  bench by a canal until disturbed by Lulu, a prostitute.

(The pattern of a self-obsessed man being interrupted, disturbed from his self-absorption by a woman recurs in most of the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks, and in Murphy where the solipsistic protagonist is also troubled by the attentions of a streetwalker, Celia.)

After a few meetings at night he goes off to find shelter in a barn in the country, rather absurdly reduced to tracing her name in cow pats. He comes back and allows himself to be taken to her small apartment where, with the obsessive-compulsive behaviour typical of a Beckett figure he empties the room he’s given of every scrap of furniture, piling it all in the hall outside. He hears Lulu – who he has renamed Anna – having sex with clients in the other room. I think they have sex a few times, though it’s hard to tell.

Anna gets pregnant. She strips and shows him her belly and breasts swelling. The protagonist realises he must leave. One night he hears the baby being born, the screams and cries. He gets dressed quietly, exists the house, but wherever he goes he still hears the baby crying.

Not exactly a conventional romance, is it?


The style

What the war, or something, has done to Beckett’s prose is to transform it. Most obviously, almost all the arcane and deliberately obscure words he clotted the earlier books with has vanished. Almost. There are a few regressions.

Are we to infer from this I loved her with that intellectual love which drew from me such drivel, in another place? Somehow I think not. For had my love been of this kind would I have stooped to inscribe the letters of Anna in time’s forgotten cowplats? To divellicate urtica plenis manibus?

‘Divellicate’ meaning ‘to tear apart or off’ and urtica plenis manibus meaning ‘handfuls of nettles’. Nothing profound here; the ‘joke’ is in the elaborate over-telling of a humorously mundane action.

A handful of really obscure phrases aside, the prose is by and large much less racked and clotted than in the earlier books. That said, the majority of the text is still ornate, mock academic, falsely pedantic and orotund in tone.

As to whether it was beautiful, the face, or had once been beautiful, or could con­ceivably become beautiful, I confess I could form no opinion.

‘I confess’ – the tone of the ancient clubman over whiskey and soda, or the Oxford professor over sherry. This tone of arch contrivance predominates throughout.

But in amidst it are all kinds of other registers. Most enjoyable, on its occasional appearances, is the poetic prose.

When the voice ceased at last I approached a little nearer, to make sure it had really ceased and not merely been lowered. Then in despair, saying, No knowing, no knowing, short of being beside her, bent over her, I turned on my heel and went, for good, full of doubt.

At the opposite pole is schoolboy crudity.

  • The smell of corpses, distinctly per­ceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find un­pleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how in­finitely preferable to what the living emit, their feet, teeth, armpits, arses, sticky foreskins and frustrated ovules.
  • Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.
  • I considered kicking her in the cunt.

A crudity, an aggressiveness, which may be interpreted as part of the character’s mental disturbance, his lack of socialisation.

There is the minute, the obsessive description of mundane physical activities which hamper all Beckett’s characters. Having piled all the furniture in the hall, he’s made it difficult to get in or out of his room, and so difficult to get to the toilet (which we know he needs because of his sometimes heroic constipation he mentions right at the start). They decide a chamber pot will be necessary. But Anna doies not possess a chamber pot. Oh dear. And so on in mind-numbing triviality, the triviality – and the sordid subject – being the point. Oh woe is mucky material man.

Give me a chamber-pot, I said. But she did not possess one. I have a close-stool of sorts, she said. I saw the grandmother on it, sitting up very stiff and grand, having just purchased it, pardon, picked it up, at a charity sale, or perhaps won it in a raffle, a period piece, and now trying it out, doing her best rather, almost wishing some­one could see her. That’s the idea, procrastinate. Any old recipient, I said, I don’t have the flux. She came back with a kind of saucepan, not a true saucepan for it had no handle, it was oval in shape with two lugs and a lid. My stewpan, she said. I don’t need the lid, I said. You don’t need the lid? she said. If I had said I needed the lid she would have said, You need the lid?

‘Recipient’ presumably used in the sense of ‘recipient of my poo and pee’ – any receptacle. And ‘the flux’ is an archaic term for what we nowadays call dysentery – carefully combining the turdy reality of human existence with a somewhat arcane historical terminology – the classic Beckett manoeuvre!

All this can be seen as part of Beckett’s ‘learned with’. D. W. Jefferson wrote a classic essay explaining the long literary tradition of ‘learned wit’ – the type of humour which takes the mickey out of academic knowledge by exaggerating it to grotesque proportions – which dates from the classical world and ran strong through medieval, Renaissance and 18th century literature.

Beckett is strongly in this line of smart-arse, show-off humour taking the mickey out of its own estimable knowledgeableness, most flagrantly when dressing up the crudest physical necessities in over-elaborate periphrasis. (The great example of this in Western literature is The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1530-1560) by François Rabelais, describing the gross adventures of the two giants of the title. Gulliver’s Travels, 1726, is a good British example.)

One notable element of learned wit it the making of long, pedantic lists out of all proportion to the triviality of the subject matter. Thus, for example, the narrator complains of his pains:

I’ll tell them to you some day none the less, if I think of it, if I can, my strange pains, in detail, distinguishing between the different kinds, for the sake of clarity, those of the mind, those of the heart or emotional conative, those of the soul (none prettier than these) and finally those of the frame proper, first the inner or latent, then those affecting the surface, beginning with the hair and scalp and moving method­ically down, without haste, all the way down to the feet beloved of the corn, the cramp, the kibe, the bunion, the hammer toe, the nail ingrown, the fallen arch, the common blain, the club foot, duck foot, goose foot, pigeon foot, flat foot, trench foot and other curiosities.

And this quote also demonstrates that long-windedness can be comic (in intent, anyway), although in Beckett over-long sentences oscillate between being humorous and becoming the unchecked logorrhoea of the mentally disturbed. You can never be sure.

Related to it is the way the actual tone of the piece is nothing like that of a mentally retarded person. On the contrary it is precise and finicky, a tone of academic detachment and pedantic precision. The effect is produced by this clash or dichotomy – the feelings of a retard expressed in the language of a scholar.

Yes, there are moments, particularly in the afternoon, when I go all syncretist, à la Reinhold. What equilibrium! But even them, my pains, I understand ill. That must come from my not being all pain and nothing else. There’s the rub. Then they recede, or I, till they fill me with amaze and wonder, seen from a better planet. Not often, but I ask no more. Catch-cony life! To be nothing but pain, how that would simplify matters! Omnidolent!

The thoughts of a simpleton in the terminology of an Oxford professor.

But amid all the other bumps and tones, the poetic peeks out and hints at a completely new direction out of the mire of obfuscation, the bleak way of the lost and forlorn. Right at the end the speaker is haunted by the cries of Anna’s newborn, of his own son.

As long as I kept walking I didn’t hear them, because of the footsteps. But as soon as I halted I heard them again, a little fainter each time, admittedly, but what does it matter, faint or loud, cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease.

Not ‘a cry is a cry’, but ‘cry is cry’, making it sound more elemental, profound, harrowing. This will be Beckett’s schtick.


Credit

First Love by Samuel Beckett was written in 1946. It was first published in 1976. Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

  • First Love (1946)
  • The Expelled (1946)
  • The Calmative (1946)
  • The End (1946)
  • Molloy (1951)
  • Malone Dies (1951)
  • The Unnamable (1953)
  • Watt (1953)

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

‘Unless you want me to call a policewoman,’ said Murphy, ‘cease your clumsy genustuprations.’
(Murphy p.56)

This is Beckett’s first published novel. I expected it to be an improvement on his first published book, the collection of linked short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, but the essential feel, the worldview and style are very much the same.

It’s a difficult book to read. Though only 170 pages long it took three days because I was so reluctant to pick it up and so quick to put it down to do almost anything else. The prose is mannered, stilted and extremely repetitive. Quite quickly I realised that its paragraphs rarely move the story along or analyse character: they almost exclusively consist of repetitions, iterated phrases spinning out a handful of ideas or words, sometimes driving you mad with frustration, irritation and boredom.

Take this passage where the ‘hero’, Murphy, has moved into a garret which he discovers has no form of heating. No heating!! he exclaims to the friend, August Ticklepenny, who has fixed him up with a new job and the garret. Why couldn’t someone just extend the electricity or gas up there to fuel a heater?

He went on to speak of tubes and wires. Was it not just the beauty of tubes and wires, that they could be extended? Was it not their chief characteristic, the ease with which they could be extended? What was the point of going in for tubes and wires at all, if you did not extend them without compunction whenever necessary? Did they not cry out for extension? Ticklepenny thought he would never stop, saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways. (p.103)

Things which affect the ‘hero’ are described with a pedantic thoroughness which are surely on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

  • When he stops in a tea room for a cup of tea, Murphy spends at least a page working through a series of ploys he could use to get the reluctant waitress, Vera, to top up his cup for free.
  • When Murphy takes the six biscuits he bought at the tearooms to Hyde Park, he lays them out on their paper bag on the grass, and then elaborately works through all the possible permutations of eating them in different orders, 120 ways, apparently, though it all depends whether he keeps the ginger biscuit fixed as the first choice, or mixes it in with the rest.
  • When Murphy starts work at the lunatic asylum, we are given a grindingly precise description of the layout of the building in every detail, which lacks any warmth or sympathy, is completely irrelevant to the ‘plot’, but pursues the description with obsessive pendantry.

I am probably using the term incorrectly, but it seems to me the narrative has a kind of autistic quality. It doesn’t even much to describe other people or relationships between people – the ‘dialogue’ mostly just reveals misunderstanding and the ‘characters’ inability to communicate. For page after page the text maintains its obsessive and repetitive focus on the inner workings of the over-educated, under-motivated slob of an antihero as he shuffles round London, not really trying to get a job and surviving on a pittance while he does the only thing he enjoys, which is pore and pick over his own interminable mental lucubrations at gigantic length.

He distinguished between the actual and the virtual of his mind, not as between form and the formless yearning for form, but as between that of which he had both mental and physical experience and that of which he had mental experience only. Thus the form of the kick was actual; that of caress virtual. The mind felt its actual part to be above and bright, its virtual beneath and fading into dark, without however connecting this with the ethical yoyo. The mental experience was cut off from the physical experience, its criteria were not those of the physical experience, the agreement of part of its content with physical fact did not confer worth on that part. It did not function and could not be disposed according to a principle of worth. It was made up of light fading into dark, of above and beneath, but not of good and bad. It contained forms with parallel in another mode and forms without, but not right forms and wrong forms. It felt no issue between its light and dark, no need for its light to devour its dark. The need was now to be in the light, now in the half light, now in the dark. That was all. (p.70)

1. To be fair, this is not a completely characteristic passage, it comes from the four pages of chapter 6, in which the narrative comes to a dead stop while the narrator undertakes to explain to us the nature of ‘Murphy’s mind’. But the basic ‘ideas’ expressed in it underpin the whole book, and the obsession with the inner workings of Murphy’s self-absorbed consciousness is very much the book’s real subject.

2. Spending this much time on the experience of consciousness reminds us that Murphy was published in the late 1930s, when Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was one of the dominating intellectual themes on the continent, picked up and refracted through the heavyweight existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger. The phenomenological approach of examining and describing the inner workings of the mind is important to the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, was published in this same year as Murphy, 1938, and is also about an aimlessly unhappy man (a post-graduate researcher in Sartre’s case), so obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings that the real world becomes intolerably alien and threatening to him, filling him with the nausea of the book’s title.


The plot

Murphy is a shiftless layabout, a ‘seedy solipsist’ (p.53) (just like Belacqua, the male protagonist of Beckett’s previous (and first) book, More Pricks Than Kicks).

He’s living in London. He met a streetwalker named Celia on the corner of Stadium Street and Cremorne Road in Chelsea (which nowadays looks like this). Celia is now haplessly trying to look after weird Murphy. His favourite hobby is tying himself to an armchair in dingy flats (in this he foreshadows the various trapped protagonists of Beckett’s later plays) and rocking rocking rocking, a process described several times in numbing detail.

As with Belacqua, it struck me that Murphy is a glaring epitome of the clever young would-be writer who is full of articulacy but has no real subject to write about. He wanders the streets not really looking for a job and feeling mighty superior about it.

For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one’s lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. (p.49)

(This vaunting superiority to the bourgeoisie with their regular jobs and pay packets reminds me of the intellectually superior but wretchedly poor protagonist of George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A common delusion among young layabouts of all ages, that being poor but ‘free’ is superior to having a job, money and a life.)

Celia reports all this to her paternal grandfather, Mr Willoughby Kelly, who suggests she chuck him.

Meanwhile, in faraway Dublin (288 miles as the crow flies), Professor Neary smashes his head against the statue of Cuchulain inside the General Post Office building because he is in love with Celia, how or why, I never understood. He is rescued by one of his students, Needle Wylie who promises to track her down for him, by employing a private detective, Cooper. They meet the very beautiful Miss Counihan. It emerges that Murphy was till recently a student of Prof Neary’s and made all sorts of promises of love to Miss Counihan before leaving for London, after which no-one has heard from him.

Murphy goes to a tea rooms and spends a lot of time finagling to get a free top-up of tea from the reluctant waitress Vera. This process takes a long time. I could quote the several pages it stretches on for. He is approached by an impecunious Irish poet, Austin Ticklepenny, who bewails his job at a mental home, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. ‘Mercyseat’ made me laugh, though it’s more Irish than English-sounding. Murphy escapes from Ticklepenny, having dumped him with paying for the tea and biscuits ha ha! much to the frustration of Vera the waitress, and takes a bus to Hyde Park where he is debating in what order to eat his biscuits when he is asked by a clairvoyant to mind her dachshund while she feeds the sheep (which apparently lived in Hyde Park back in those days) lettuce which she’s brought for them. The dog eats Murphy’s biscuits while he’s not looking. The sheep refuse the lettuce. Murphy falls asleep.

Murphy awakes in the park. It’s night. When he gets back to the flat he shares with Celia he discovers he spread-eagled face down on the bed. Why? Well, first we have to read chapter six describing in great detail the tripartite character of Murphy’s cerebellum and sensorium, and then the narrative moves on to more distractions so we never find out.

The old man in the room above is found having slashed his throat with a razor. Celia negotiates with the hard-bitten old landlady, the virgin Miss Carridge, for her and Murphy to move into the dead man’s smaller room and so pay less rent. With his usual punning obscurity, Murphy says to Celia:

‘A decayed valet severs the connexion and you set up a niobaloo as though he were your fourteen children.’

This is typical of the ‘dialogue’ which is not really intended to be communication between human beings in the way you and I are used to. Instead it is a laborious literary in-joke. Niobe is a figure from Greek legend whose children were slain by the gods and lay unburied while she wept for them. This figure of weeping Niobe is a commonplace classical reference in Elizabethan literature i.e. Shakespeare. Beckett has made it into a very James Joycean joke/pun by combining the words Niobe and hullabaloo into niobaloo. So this apparently gibberish sentence can be explicated as Murphy criticising Celia for weeping for some dead old servant as extravagantly as Niobe did for her children. ‘Severs the connexion’ being a fancy phrase for ‘dying’. Was it worth all that effort to decode? Yes, if you like this kind of ‘joke’ and find this kind of ‘humour’ rewarding; no, if you don’t.

Murphy goes off to see about starting the job he had discussed with Ticklepenny at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. Celia takes the Tube to Hyde Park to see if she can find her wheelchair-bound protector, Mr Kelly, flying his kite, as is his hobby. Unbeknownst to her she is followed by a man named Cooper who is acting as a private detective for Wylie so as to find Celia so as to reconcile her with his revered Professor Neary. Maybe I slept through the paragraphs where it was explained but I never did understand why Neary was so besotted with Celia. Anyway, Celia doesn’t find Kelly. Cooper doesn’t speak to Celia but follows her home to the flat she shares with Murphy in Holloway.

Meanwhile, Murphy is introduced to the head nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Mr Thomas (‘Bim’) Clinch who, it turns out, has staffed the place with his family, including his twin brother Mr Timothy (‘Bom’) Clinch and an aged uncle, ‘Bum’. ROFL. Murphy is enraptured by the place and especially the offer of a garret room on the premises, instantly moving into it and pulling up the ladder up to it in order to prevent anyone else ever entering it. Solipsist heaven. He forgets all about Celia.

Chapter 10 is long. The private eye Cooper joins Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan (who is convinced she is in love with Murphy) to discuss their plans, and then they all proceed to meet Celia in her flat. The dialogue throughout this chapter is, I think, some kind of satire on all normal dialogue ever written by novelists and playwrights. It is gobbledygook for twenty pages.

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’
But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it. (p.144)

Wylie has paid Cooper to find Celia so as to bring her together with his infatuated patron Professor Neary. But they all behave so incomprehensibly that I just read the words and sentences for their verbal quality, ignoring the dialogue and so-called ‘plot’ because I suspect both are made complex and/or impenetrable deliberately to frustrate and provoke the ‘conventional’ reader. I think they all agree to spend the night in Celia’s flat while they wait for Murphy to return there.

But Murphy doesn’t return. He does a night shift at the mental home. Some paragraphs describe his closeness to the dwarfish psychotic Mr Endon. On this night shift Mr Endon somehow gets out of his cell and releases some other inmates but any reader hoping for mayhem, some kind of romantic climax is disappointed for they’re all locked safely back up, though not without a compulsive-obsessive description of the home’s elaborate security systems and the schedule according to which warders are meant to visit each cell throughout the night.

Murphy plays a game of chess with Mr Endon. The game is laid out in standard chess notation in the text so we can follow it. In fact it includes po-faced comments on particular moves, as if it was annotating a fiendishly clever game between grand masters. But in fact, if you play it out, as I did on my own chess set, you quickly realise it’s gibberish, not played with any serious intent.

In fact there’s a useful video on YouTube which works through the entire game, After just two moves you can see it’s unorthodox and after four or five you realise it’s a nonsense game, a mockery of a game. On the YouTube video you can hear the (Russian?) guy who did it laughing at the ridiculousness of the moves.

For me this epitomises the book, as Beckett may well have intended it to. In every respect – in terms of narrative, plot, style, dialogue, character and setting it is – deliberately – a travesty of a mockery of a sham. From small puns to larger pratfalls to the inconsequence of most of the dialogue, to the silliness of the plot, the entire text is a ‘joke’, or a series of interlocking ‘jokes’, clever, witty but almost completely bereft of warmth or humour.

After the night shift ends Murphy heads back to his garret, stripping off his clothes as he walks through the dark grounds, till he’s naked. He lies in the wet grass trying to remember Celia, his mother, his father, anyone, and failing. He goes up to his garret, sits naked in his beloved rocking chair, rocking rocking rocking as usual described in autistic detail and the gas heater he’s rigged up explodes killing him. Oh.

In the next chapter Celia, Miss Conihoun, Neary, Wylie and Cooper are summoned from Celia’s flat by the head of the MMM, Dr Angus Killiecrankie to learn that Murphy is dead and are taken to see his fairly burned corpse in the refrigerator room. They confirm Murphy’s identity, Celia pointing out the birth mark on his thigh, which gives rise to the bad taste joke that, by being important to the identification, it is also a kind death mark. Birth mark, death mark, geddit?

One by one the various characters drift off, some pairing off on the way. OK.

In the short final chapter Celia takes her grandad to Hyde Park to fly his kite. She is absent for a while during which she turns a trick. She needs money, after all. Old Mr Kelly dozes off and his kite string falls out of his hand, snaps and the kite flies off into the sky, lost forever. He clambers out of his wheelchair and totters after it yelling in despair till Celia catches him up, with help from passersby restores him to the wheelchair and pushes him home.

End.


The style – baroque, elaborate and contrived

There are far fewer really arcane and obscure words in Murphy than in Pricks, which is a shame because I enjoyed looking them up.

But Murphy‘s basic approach is still one of needless pedantry and clumsy, arch contrivance for its own sake.

The blue glitter of Mr Kelly’s eyes in the uttermost depths of their orbits became fixed, then veiled by the classic pythonic glaze. He raised his left hand, where Celia’s tears had not yet dried, and seated it pronate on the crown of his skull – that was the position. In vain. He raised his right hand and laid the forefinger along his nose. He then returned both hands to their points of departure with Celia’s on the counterpane, the glitter came back into his eyes and he pronounced:
‘Chuck him.’ (p.17)

To me this passage demonstrates the way Beckett has little or nothing to say, but goes on to say it at great length, and with as much circumlocutionary periphrasis as possible. In particular, the text is worried and nagged by an obsessive attention to the characters’ precise physical positions and movements. Often it is more modern ballet than fiction. (This obsession with characters’ precise positions and movements will become central to the plays of the 1950s and 60s, where every gesture of the stricken protagonists’ becomes charged with hypertrophic punctilio.)

And intellectual tricksiness. The adjective ‘pythonic’ in the quote above refers to the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, where the supernatural pythia supposedly spoke its prophecies through the mouth of a woman put into a demonic trance. So that one phrase ‘classic pythonic’ is enough to indicate – to those in on the joke – that the text is (absurdly) comparing Grandad Kelly to an ancient Greek oracle. This fact goes some way to explaining the glitter of his eyes and his generally unnatural gestures, notably placing his left hand ‘pronate’ on his skull, pronate meaning “to turn into a prone position; to rotate (the hand or forearm) so that the surface of the palm is downward or toward the back”.

And also explains that the whole paragraph is, in its arch, contrived way, a sort of joke. The joke is in the contrast between the classical epitome and its degraded modern-day embodiment. It is in other words, the classic Modernist trope of holding up the classical world as perfect, as a model of dignity and decorum (implicitly in Eliot’s The Waste Land, more implicitly in Joyce’s Ulysses) and contrasting the sorry sordid shambles of the modern world in contrast. This is why many critical studies of Beckett describe him as the last of the Modernists, a Johnny-come-lately to the game of contrasting the marmoreal perfection of the classics with the squalid spit and sawdust de nos jours. It is intellectual snobbery, pure and simple.

The same structural disjunction underlies the boom-boom ending when, after a paragraph making this calculated intellectual parallel, which is leading the (informed) reader to expect a declaration of potency and magnificence, all Grandad Kelly comes out with is the bathetically commonplace output, the pub slang expression: ‘Chuck him’.

Did you roll on the floor laughing? Were there mega-lolz for you? I happened to ‘get’ this joke because I had the misfortune to go through a very literary education, so I spotted the python allusion and thus grasped the overall dynamic of the paragraph and the mock comic intention. But I doubt whether anyone who studied more worthwhile subjects than ancient and modern literature would get the reference or realise the humour.

So is it funny?

Humourless humour

Is a joke which isn’t really funny still a joke? Does a joke need humour to be a joke? Can you have an utterly humourless joke, which has the structure of a joke, the shape of a joke, a build-up and a pay-off – but none of the warmth and collusion required for humour?

The modern introduction by a Beckett scholar talks breezily about it being a great comic novel but doesn’t give any examples. Is there comedy in the sustained mock heroic tone, the use throughout of ridiculously highfalutin language to describe what are in fact very humdrum activities?

At this moment Murphy would willingly have waived his expectation of Antepurgatory for five minutes in his chair, renounced the lee of Belacqua’s rock and his embryonal repose, looking down at dawn across the reeds to the trembling of the austral sea and the sun obliquing to the north as it rose, immune from expiation until he should have dreamed it all through again, with the downright dreaming of an infant, from the spermarium to the crematorium. (p.51)

It’s a very distinct and striking style of writing? But is it – could it possibly be taken as – funny?

Neary arrived the following morning. Cooper threw himself on his mercy, abated not one tittle of the truth and was turned off with contumely. (p.77)

For me this is one if not the central question in reading Beckett: I can see that much of it is intended to be arch, contrived, dry, bookish, intellectual, rarefied, allusive and ultra-clever humour – but I wonder if many other people do, and I wonder whether any of us should give a damn.

This was a joke that did not amuse Celia, at the best of times and places it could not have amused her. That did not matter. So far from being adapted to her, it was not addressed to her. It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered. (p.88)

‘It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered.’ Since Murphy is transparently another avatar of frustrated impoverished unpublished would-be highbrow writer Beckett, maybe we can simply say, ‘It amused Beckett, that was all that mattered’. Beckett and his tiny number of pre-war readers. The introduction is very long on the book’s textual history, and very short on actual analysis, but it does include its sales figure.

1938 – 568 copies
1939 – 23
1940 – 20
1941 – 7

The remaining stock was destroyed in an air raid. Beckett made £20 out of it – before income tax. Not Harry Potter, is it? It was only after Waiting For Godot completely transformed his fortunes in 1953, that publishers rereleased Beckett’s early novels and they quickly found a place in a retrospectively-created canon of his works, now used as evidence to interpret the difficult post-war plays, and to argue for his mock heroic, comedic roots.

Leslie Fiedler

Leslie Fiedler (1917 – 2003) was an American literary critic whose writings about American novelists I really enjoyed as a student. About Beckett, and Murphy in particular, he wrote in the New York Times:

Too much of the merely mannered is present, too much evidence of a desire to twit the bourgeoisie, too many asides, too many heavy-handed cryptic remarks, too much clumsy surrealist horseplay.

Which I agree with. But I can also see that amidst the mechanical verbiage is the core Beckett which will emerge after the Second World War; that once he’s abandoned the attempt to have realistic characters or plots or dialogue, he will arrive at grim scenarios where human puppets, trapped in repetitive plights, repeat the same meaningless gestures over and again and speak a speech composed of the inane repetition of shreds and tatters of clichéd, stereotyped, worn-out language. As Fiedler also points out:

But the eerie deadpan humour is already at work: the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation, the savage eagerness to find in the disgusting occasions for laughs. It is as vaudevillian of the avant-garde that Beckett especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.

Astride the grave

Maybe. Typical of the stretched humour is a paragraph describing how Murphy’s problems go right back to his vagitus. I had to look up ‘vagitus’ to find out that it means ‘a new-born baby’s first cry’ – and then read on to process the extended ‘joke’ that Murphy’s vagitus was not on the international agreed standard of A (on the musical scale) but a woeful double flat of A, thus missing the correct note by two semi-tones. Hilarious, right? Never mind, writes the author – ‘His rattle will make amends’ (p.47), obviously meaning his death rattle. Birth-cry, death-cry. Everything comedic is here, a kind of structural symmetry, a neatness of vision and phrasing – except the warmth or the unexpected jolt which characterises a good joke.

Instead its flat, obvious nihilism reminds me of one of the most famous quotes from the 1953 play which made Beckett’s name, Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

This kind of self-pitying, maudlin, depressiveness strikes me as very male. Having been present at the birth of both my children I know that no-one gives birth astride the grave, they give birth in a cluttered operating theatre surrounded by surgeons and nurses, in a welter of blood and other substances. And – contrary to Beckett – it is actually quite a happy moment for all concerned.

Believing in Beckett’s words involves a kind of wilful denial of the world as we know it to be. The focus on the grim and pointless is contrived. I.e. it is not necessary. I.e. it is a choice whether to enter this artificial and gloomy worldview or not. Ditto the style.

Irish

About half way through I had a kind of breakthrough. To keep myself going I read chapter 9, the long description of Murphy’s arrival at, and work duties in, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (I grant you the name is quite funny) out loud and in an Irish accent.

Suddenly, it all made a lot more sense. Read – perceived and processed – in a received English, BBC accent, lots of it seems pretentious and flat. You can hear this in the impeccably English pronunciation of actor Ronald Pickup, reading a clip from Murphy on YouTube. The prose falls dead from his lips.

Read, however, in the accent of a Dublin chancer, with a bit of a brogue and touch of the blarney, as of two peasants discussing the finer points of your man St Augustine, I realised that quite a lot of the time the text is winking at you slyly, out of the corner of its eye.

Here is Murphy reflecting on the notion that the mental cases in the sanatorium are in fact correct to despise the worldly chaos of the scientists and psychiatrists. They are in fact happy locked up in their little worlds – as indeed Murphy would love to be completely sealed in his, but keeps falling afoul of the horrible quotidien. (It’s a separate issue that this is a dangerously childish, misinformed and romantically adolescent view of mental illness which isn’t much of a seraphic, Buddhist self-containment.) Anyway, Murphy thinks:

The melancholic’s melancholy, the manic’s fits of fury, the paranoid’s despair, were no doubt as little autonomous as the long fat face of a mute. Left in peace [by the authorities] they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark. (p.113)

‘The Messiah overstepped the mark’. Saying it out loud in a cod Irish accent suddenly recalled the tone of all those characters in James Joyce who discuss religion and politics in floods of high-flown language which are liable at any time to give way to a sly crack or gutter phrase, all the better to puncture the mood.

‘Ah, sweet Jaysus, he was a good man, I’ll grant you that, but not always strictly following the orders of Him Upstairs, if you know what I mean. Ahr, that raising of Lazarus from the dead, sure I think that was overstepping the mark a bit, what do you say, Seamus?’

Maybe as an Englishman I’m not allowed to try on this accent, but it is the tone found in Joyce’s early stories, the Joyce who gave us ‘the Ballad of Joking Jesus’.

From this point onwards it struck me that the prose ought to be declaimed in a larger-than-life Irish accent, as of a Dublin pub politician declaiming with the gift on him of a divine afflatus, giving maximum weight to every rare and toothsome topic, rolling and relishing his fine array of grandee locutions but keen to avoid the accusation of being a preening gobshite by ducking into street slang for the humour it gives the audience of his erogatory ejaculations.

It turns out that the improvident drunken Irish poet Augustus Ticklepenny had been prescribed work at the mental home in a bid by an estimable German doctor to cure him of his alcoholism. Being relieved of the stressful burden of writing poetic epics for the Ole Country turns out to work surprisingly well.

This view of the matter will not seem strange to anyone familiar with the class of pentameter that Ticklepenny felt it his duty to Erin to compose, as free as a canary in the fifth foot (a cruel sacrifice, for Ticklepenny hiccuped in end rimes) and at the caesura as hard and fast as his own divine flatus and otherwise bulging with  as many minor beauties from the gaelic prosodoturfy as could be sucked out of a mug of porter. No wonder he felt a new man washing the bottles and emptying the slops of the better-class mentally deranged. (p.57)

Only in the scenes in the mental home did the book make sense to me. Here is the appropriate subject for Murphy’s spavined consciousness and it is no coincidence that Murphy surprises Bim, Bom and Ticklepenny by turning out to have a wonderful empathy with the closed-in mental cases, shut up in their own worlds. For that is how he would devoutly love to be.

The early scenes of being pointless in London are revealed for the shabby contrivances they are (counting biscuits in Hyde Park!) and when we return to what has now become the travelling gang of Neary, Wylie, Counihan, Cooper and Celia the narrative falls apart, and the dialogue becomes dismayingly divagatory – as presumably intended. The text – like the lead ‘character’ – is only really at home amid a certain kind of utterly fictional mental illness.


Contraptions and contrivances

1. Astrology

The first half of the book is threaded with an elaborate concern for astrology, with Murphy very aware of the position of planets rising and falling in the various star signs and so on, and the narrator similarly concerned to pin down the precise dates, times, and positions of the planets when various events occur. Thus Celia meets Murphy ‘on midsummer’s night, the sun being then in the Crab’ (p.10).

In chapter three Murphy opens a long analysis of his star signs, lucky numbers, days, colours, years and so on that has been generated for him by ‘Ramaswami Krishnasawmi Narayanaswami Suk’. Is this meant to be a satire on the post-Great War fad for all things spiritual, of the kind that snared W.B. Yeats or Conan Doyle? Murphy periodically relates Suk’s predictions to all the subsequent happenings in the book. Fine. But this contrivance doesn’t give structure or even meaning to the narrative, it is simply a net laid on top of it.

For Chaucer in the 1300s, astrology is a sign of his intellectual delight in the beautiful complexity of God’s wonderful creation. It closely counterpoises lots of events in the Canterbury Tales, notably the long Knight’s Tale which is awash with astrological symbolism.

In Beckett, this transient interest in astrology feels very like a) another elaborate but somehow contentless scaffold, a machine to help generate more reams of prose b) an affectless piss-take.

It is indicative that the astrology theme disappears in the book’s second half. In my opinion this is because the reality of the mental home eclipses it.

2. Timeframe

Much is made in commentary and introduction of the elaborate timeframe of the novel, with characters and narrator carefully referring to specific days, weeks, months in which events occur, referring back to them, calculating the time past or to go before further meetings or activities. Fine. I can see this generating innumerable PhDs, but, again, it doesn’t really add to any enjoyment of the narrative.

Sex

Surprisingly for such an alienated, disconnected narrative, there are regular references to sex. I think that some, maybe all of them, are at least partly there to cause controversy and fuss. For example, it is broadly hinted that Celia, the streetwalker enjoys being tied up and ravished, what we might nowadays call BDSM.

She could not go where livings were being made without feeling that they were being made away. She could not sit for long in the chair without the impulse stirring, tremulously, as for an exquisite depravity, to be naked and bound. (p.44)

And it is strongly hinted that Ticklepenny has his job at the sanatorium – and wangles a job for Murphy – because he is the gay boyfriend of the head man there, ‘Bim’ Clinch. Earlier in the book there is a not-so-subtle reference to kissing and not of the kind which removes the clapper from the bell i.e. French kissing. In the final stages Miss Counihan emerges as a Baywatch babe:

Miss Counihan rose, gathered her things together, walked to the door and unlocked it with the key that the exiled for that purpose from her bosom. Standing in profile against the blazing corridor, with her high buttocks and her low breasts, she looked not merely queenly, but on for anything. (p.136)

Maybe this was boundary-pushing stuff in 1938. Not so much in the era of 50 Shades of Grey.

The Beckett vision

There may or may not be an absurdist, nihilist, existential, phenomenological, post-Christian or whatever philosophy behind the novel. One thing that is certain is that periodically phrases pop out which anticipate the repetitive and monocular vision of the plays.

So all things hobble together for the only possible (p.141)… So all things limp together for the only possible. (p.146)

Right here, buried amid the textual tapenade, are ripe examples of the tone, the phraseology and the crippled worldview of the plays which made Beckett famous.

Kneeling at the bedside, the hand starting in thick black ridges between his fingers, his lips, his nose and forehead almost touching Mr Endon’s, seeing himself stigmatised in those eyes that did not see him, Murphy heard words demanding so strongly to be spoken that he spoke them, right into Mr Endon’s face, Murphy who did not speak at all in an ordinary way unless spoken to, and not always even then.

‘the last at last seen of him
himself unseen by him
and of himself.’

A rest.
‘The last Mr Murphy saw of Mr Endon was Mr Murphy unseen by Mr Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy.’
A rest.
‘The relation between Mr Murphy and Mr Endon could not have been better summed up than by the former’s sorrow at seeing himself in the latter’s immunity from seeing anything but himself.’
A long rest.
‘Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen.’
That was the whole extent of the little afflatulence. (p.156)

The poetry of paucity, the prosody of impoverishment.


Credit

Murphy by Samuel Beckett was published in 1938 by G. Routledge and Company. All page references are to the 2009 Faber paperback edition.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

  • First Love (1946)
  • The Expelled (1946)
  • The Calmative (1946)
  • The End (1946)
  • Molloy (1951)
  • Malone Dies (1951)
  • The Unnamable (1953)
  • Watt (1953)

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This massive exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, and debut single, Arnold Layne, way back in 1967. It follows last year’s big exhibition about the 60s (You Say You Want A Revolution) and 2013’s David Bowie exhibition, which broke attendance records. There’s gold in them thar 60s icons. ‘Dad Rock’, my daughter calls it.

Pink Floyd: a brief introduction

You can learn everything you need to know and more from their Wikipedia article or the band’s own website. Nice boys from Cambridge who met in London art schools in the mid-60s, they formed a four-piece band based round charismatic front man, guitarist and songwriter, Syd Barrett, released a couple of singles and their debut album – dominated by their trademark composition Interstellar Overdrive – and headlined ‘scene’-defining ‘underground’ gigs in the Summer of Love.

But Syd took too much LSD, became unpredictable and unreliable, so  in 1968 the band gently dropped him and replaced him with their friend and lead guitar supremo, David Gilmour. You can hear the change in the second album – A Saucerful of Secrets. Only one of the songs is by Syd and all the others lack his rackety inspiration, the songs and guitar (generally) sounding much smoother and idyllic, and it’s notable how the lyrics fit smoothly into the songs instead of sticking out at unexpected angles, as they did in Syd’s songs. An example of this smoothness is Julia Dream (1968). Nice, if soporific.

Between 1968 and 1973 the Floyd drifted, making a series of experimental albums and soundtracks to films. The film soundtracks are More (1969), Zabriskie Point (1971) and Obscured by Clouds (1972), the last one of which they knocked off in a week.

Ummagumma (1969) was an experimental double album, with one disk carrying a live album and the other featuring four tracks, each written by one of the band, and rarely listened to now.

Atom Heart Mother (1970) was a collection of so-so tracks on one side – including Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast, in which one of their roadies is taped mooching about in his kitchen fixing a fry-up – and on the other side, a 23-minute-long piece in which the group integrate their sound into an experimental orchestral work by composer Ron Geesin. I’ve a soft spot for Summer ’68, written by the group’s keyboardist, Rick Wright.

Meddle (1971) follows the same formula with a side-long piece – Echoes – accompanied on the other side by a very uneven collection of songs.

So in the six or seven years of their existence they had morphed from being the soundtrack to 1967, all paisley shirts, purple scarves and Afghan waistcoats – to being long-haired purveyors of 25-minute-long ‘art’ pieces to the stonedocracy of the 70s.

Dark Side of the Moon and after

Then in 1973 they released Dark Side of the Moon and everything changed, big time.

As usual, at a bit of a loss for inspiration, they had the idea to write songs about the Big Issues of Life – like Death, Money, Madness – and link them using the panoply of tricks they’d picked up on their various experimental forays.

The album begins and ends with a (very slow) heart beat, on which are superimposed the sound effects of cash tills (used on the track Money) and snippets of interviews they conducted with roadies and anyone they could find around the Abbey Road studios, which leads into s suite of beautifully and imaginatively linked ultra-melodic tunes. The result is still astonishing, a smash hit ‘concept album’, combining ‘experimental’ features with Weighty Issues which make stone sixth formers feel intense, all on a bed of sumptuously slow and simple songs. It stayed in the charts for decades and still defines an epoch.

Listen to the opener, Speak to Me/Breathe. Isn’t it carefully crafted, with its multilayers beginning with the calming heartbeat (apparently, anyone with a heartbeat this slow, would be dead), then jingly jangly guitar, soporific bass and, beneath it all, the plodding drums continually on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel. Turn the lights out and pass me that joint, man.

1975’s Wish You Were Here is another combination of songs about Important Issues embedded between great swathes of multi-layered keyboards, swishing and swashing over your aural organs. They’re titled Shine on You Crazy Diamond parts one to 9 and remind me of a sand storm in the desert (probably influenced by the image on the back of the album cover of a mannequin in the desert.

Unhappy music

Something was happening to the boys, which became even clearer on 1977’s Animals – they were getting bitter and twisted. Dark Side of the Moon is full of sixth-form angst about poor people and war (unpleasant, apparently) but if you don’t listen to the words (as I’ve discovered over the years, plenty of rock and pop fans don’t) it is sweet and gorgeous to listen to.

Wish You Were Here had the ultimate symptom of rock star ennui, a song about how awful it is being a rock star – Welcome To the Machine – but still has swathes of beautiful music, not least the simple but affecting title track, Wish You Were Here (everybody at school taught themselves how to play guitar by copying this).

But by Animals three things were clear.

  1. Almost all the writing was now being done by Roger Waters.
  2. He was really pissed off. On Animals he has divided the human race into three types, dogs, sheep and pigs and written a ‘track’ about each. Pigs is a virulent attack on the Christian campaigner, Mary Whitehouse. It was Waters who had had the idea of songs about Big Issues for Dark Side and who wrote the jaded songs about the rock biz on Wish You Were Here, but both albums still contained significant contributions from the rest of the band, not least in the linking sections between the songs. Animals feels like pure Waters, in concept and execution, and it’s miserable.
  3. The paraphernalia, the concepts, the marketing and staging of each album had got more and more elaborate.

And it’s this third element which is the basis for this exhibition – the paraphernalia of performance.

Right from the start the Floyd were interested in using lightshows to amplify the trippy experience of their underground gigs. Apparently they pioneered the use of large lighting rigs and special visual effects. As early as 1969 the cover of Ummagumma featured a photo of the kit their roadies had to unload, set up and then dismantle before and after gigs.

By the mid-1970s stadium rock had become well-established, with other groups like Led Zeppelin or Wings crating round huge amounts of equipment, lights, mixing desks and special amplifiers, but the Floyd were always seen as technical pioneers, for example in the use of quadraphonic sound.

But with Dark Side, music, concept, images, design and presentation was brought together. Previous Floyd album covers (MeddleAtom Heart) had been jokily ‘conceptual’. But the art work on Dark Side, specifically the idea of the beam of white light going into a triangular prism, designed by Hipgnosis and George Hardie, formed the basis for the stage show and merchandising.

The art work for Wish You Were Here was also of a new order, something distinctive and unseen before. The original album cover was covered in black plastic which you had to tear off to reveal the image of two men shaking hands in a Hollywood studio vacant lot, one of them bursting into flames – presumably a reflection of Water’s bitter disillusion with the record business.

It was Animals which took this to a new level when the central image used for the photo shoot, a huge pink inflatable pig suspended by a cable from Battersea Power Station, broke loose and caused enough havoc among planes landing at Heathrow Airport to become an item on the news. This pig, along with sheep, dogs and other characters from the songs now made their appearance at the Floyd’s enormous sell-out stadium tours.

The Wall

Waters’ bitterness reached unparalleled heights in 1979’s The Wall, a concept double album (always a bad sign) featuring the adventures of ‘Pink’, an idealised version of Waters’ own life, a baby in the Blitz whose dad is killed in the War, growing up in austerity England, bullied at school and pushed around by an uncaring society.

Just as Genesis’s concept double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) represented the end of their most creative period, The Wall is a dire, apocalyptic vision of Waters’ unhappiness and alienation. The album spawned the wretched single Another Brick in the Wall, which, God forgive us, made it to number one in the charts. ‘We don’t need no education’, yes, easy to say when you’re a multi-millionaire from Cambridge.

In 1982 they made a full-length feature film out of the album, featuring young punk singer Bob Geldof as the wretched ‘Pink’, thus immediately and forever losing any credibility he ever had.

It was with The Wall that the band’s use of props and imagery in their live shows went off the scale. The band commissioned well-known English satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to devise illustrations for the album’s artwork, for its promotion and marketing, for short videos accompanying tracks, and illustrate the characters which infest the storyline. Hence the screaming head, the cartoon schoolteacher, and the menacing hammers which feature albums went off the scale.

The stage show featured enormous blow-up versions of these figures at the relevant parts of the narrative. Early on an inflatable fighter plane screamed along a wire from the back of the auditorium to crash on stage. At the end of the show an enormous wall is built between the audience and the band, which is eventually blown up and knocked down.

What pretentious twaddle. A friend has all the Pink Floyd albums, has been to gigs launching each of the albums, and his wife hates them. ‘They’re just so depressing,’ she moaned. It’s really that simple. If you listen to their albums in order you find yourself being sucked, step by step, into this nightmarish, paranoid, solipsistic soundworld.

Yet the irony is that as the music grew grimmer and grimmer, the scale and ambition of the artwork and the stage shows escalated to gargantuan proportions.

By this stage the band themselves were falling out, Roger Waters’ attitude (which some called megalomania) alienating the others. Symptomatically, Waters wrote all the songs, lyrics and music for the next album, 1983’s The Final Cut. Keyboardist Rick Wright had been sacked from the band. Singer and guitarist David Gilmour performed but had no songs ready. So was it a Pink Floyd album at all, or – as many have commented – essentially a Roger Waters solo album. In fact, it was solo album time for all. Gilmour made a solo album, About Face. Waters, for his part, made and toured a solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.

The band then spent 1984 and 1985 briefing lawyers and issuing writs against each other as to who owned the name ‘Pink Floyd’ and trying to untangle contractual obligations, royalty payments and so on. By 1986 Waters had legally left the band, though retaining rights to perform The Wall (which he has gone on to do extensively, around the world, in sell-out shows).

Now the band consisted of singer-guitarist Gilmour, drummer Mason and keyboardist Wright. The trio released A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987. By this stage most normal people had long ceased caring. In 1994 the trio released The Division Bell and the tour to promote it was the last Pink Floyd tour.

Since then, for the last 23 years, Gilmour and Waters – respectively the singer-guitarist, and the conceptualiser-songwriter-lyricist – have been fending off rumours of a reunion. They were offered a reputed £150 million to tour the USA, but turned it down. The general idea is that Gilmour can’t bear to be in the same room as Waters. In an interview with Mojo magazine, Mason said Waters leaving left the others feeling like members of the Soviet Politburo after Stalin died. Wow.

In 2005 the band members were persuaded to reform to play the Live 8 Charity concert, performing Speak to Me/Breathe and Money from Dark Side, Wish You Were Here from the album of the same name, and Comfortably Numb from The Wall. In 2008 the gentle, often overlooked keyboardist Rick Wright passed away. So no complete reunion is now possible.


The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains

And it is this long colourful journey, from rackety underground psychedelic pioneers, through uneven experimentalism, to producing one of the great rock albums of all time which catapulted them into a series of overblown stage sets and middle-aged rock star angst, which this huge, imposing exhibition chronicles in impressive detail.

It is mainly a collection of hundreds of artefacts, from the venue posters and newspaper photos of the early days through to rooms full of enormous props from the final albums, interspersed with TV screens showing clips of the band performing at various stages of their career, and interviews with the growing group of collaborators, producers, designers, illustrators, cartoonists and so on who worked with them – including illustrator Gerald Scarfe, architect Mark Fisher, engineer Jonathan Park, animator
Ian Emes and lighting artist Marc Brickman.

You’re given headphones at the start so you can listen to the hour-long mix of tracks and interviewees’ words. It is a little like walking through a BBC Four documentary on Rock Greats.

Installation view: left, a case about A Saucerful of Secrets; a TV monitor showing Syd Barrett; centre the clever-clever artwork for Ummagumma

Installation view: left, a case about A Saucerful of Secrets; a TV monitor showing Syd Barrett; centre the clever-clever artwork for Ummagumma

Having staggered to the end, I turned round and walked through the show backwards, following the story of a group of squabbling middle-aged men who worked with a wide range of similarly-aged male figures in art, design and illustration to produce vast, overblown slabs of narcoleptic music, but who pared away the amount of equipment, the unnecessary props and the middle of the road rock sound to produce some interesting and experimental work in their mid-period, before shedding all the unnecessary clutter to write lovely songs about lazing around in English fields, and then put all their differences aside to come to late fruition as the hyperactive, guitar-driven soundtrack of a small group of underground hipsters in swinging London.

If only.

Props and shops

It is an exhibition of things, some of staggering size. Big props include:

  • a massive representation of ‘The Wall’ stage with the giant inflatable schoolteacher looming over
  • a house-sized recreation of Battersea Power complete with towering chimneys
  • a room devoted to a pitch-black space containing a holographic image of The Dark Side Of The Moon’s famous prism
  • the inflatable TV and refrigerator used on the 1977 In The Flesh tour
  • band face masks from ‘The Wall Live’, 1979
  • the 6-metre-high metallic heads created for the cover of 1994’s The Division Bell
  • a flower petal mirrorball stage prop, 1973 – 5
  • the ‘lightbulb suit’ pictured on the sleeve of 1988’s Delicate Sound of Thunder live album
Props from The Wall

Props from The Wall

More discrete pop trivia includes:

  • The punishment book and cane from the Cambridge And County High School for Boys, original guitarist and vocalist Syd Barrett and bass guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Roger Waters were pupils in the late 1950s.
  • Waters’ and Mason’s technical drawings and sketches from the Regent Street Polytechnic where they both studied architecture.
  • Nick Mason’s annotated gig diary from the early years, playing London’s underground music club UFO and touring Britain’s circuit of Top Rank ballrooms and college halls.
  • Roger Waters’ handwritten lyrics for the songs Wish You Were Here and Have A Cigar.

Famously, the band worked with the Hipgnosis design partnership of Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and the late Storm Thorgerson. There are sketches and early drafts of what became the iconic covers of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here.

Since the band are also a little tiny bit about music, there are also some of their actual instruments, including several of David Gilmour’s guitars, including his famous Black Stratocaster, alongside Richard Wright’s early-‘70s era Mini Moog synthesiser.

Not one but two rooms are completely filled with amplifiers, speakers and shelves full of all the effects pedals and mixing desks in between. It feels like walking into the basement of a guitar shop. Oooh treasure! Visitors are encouraged to twiddle and play with in order to mix your own customised version of Money. There’s a lot here for sound technicians and hi-fi nerds. The final room is ‘the Performance Zone’, where visitors

“enter an immersive audiovisual space which includes the recreation of the last performance of all four members of the band at Live 8 with Comfortably Numb. The track was specially mixed using Sennheiser’s ground-breaking AMBEO 3D audio technology.”

Interviews with technicians who’ve worked with the Floyd over the years bring out the fact that they pioneered a lot of technology which went on to become standard – the trajectory from shaky psychedelic floorshows to flawless stadium theatre, was mirrored by pioneering of musical sounds to be extracted from synthesisers, innovations in recording techniques, new ways of designing and lighting live performances and a minute attention to the quality of the live sound.

Display case of guitars and technical equipment

Display case of guitars and technical equipment

There’s less sex and drugs in it, but there is a fascinating history of the technology of rock music to be written and the Floyd would play a central role as catalysts and visionaries.

Iconic Entertainment Studios

Interestingly, the exhibition is only part-curated by the V&A (to be precise by by Victoria Broackes, Senior Curator, whose previous exhibitions include David Bowie and You Say You Want a Revolution?). The exhibition is presented in partnership with Michael Cohl’s Iconic Entertainment Studios, led by Pink Floyd’s creative director Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell (of the design partnership Hipgnosis) and Paula Webb Stainton, who worked closely with members of Pink Floyd including Nick Mason (Consultant For
Pink Floyd). Also contributing are “designers Stufish, the leading entertainment architects and the band’s long-serving stage designers, and interpretive exhibition designers Real Studios”.

In other words, the show is a natural extension of its previous product design, marketing and display. This aspect of it, the way it can be staged without any of the musicians due to their extensive music recordings and interview material, suggests the possibility that bands from this era (and maybe later, but these 1960s bands are the classic ones) will potentially have an endless afterlife, even after all the band members are long dead which is, well… eerie. What was once so full of life and warmth and energy becomes… mummified.

Early and late

An exciting three minutes from 1967 – I love Syd’s rackety, scratchy guitar sound:

A very boring ten minutes from 1994, featuring David Gilmour’s trademark, flawlessly soaring sound, sending centrist Dads everywhere into ecstacies of air guitar.

Pink Floyd in photos

Pink Floyd 1967 – left to right keyboardist Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason, bassist Roger Waters and visionary acid casualty Syd Barrett.

Pink Floyd 1973 – l to r: Rick Wright, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters. Far out, man. This is how everyone wanted to look in 1973.

Pink Floyd 1985 – l to r: Wright, Gilmour, Mason. Snappy 80s threads.

Pink Floyd 1994 – Dad Rock epitomised by Mason, Gilmour and Wright.

Pink Floyd 2005 at Live 8 – still crazy after all these years: Gilmour, Waters, Mason, Wright.


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett (1934)

‘You and your sad and serious,’ she said. ‘Will you never come off it?’ (p.24)

Beckett biography

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906 into a middle-class Anglican family (they had a tennis court in the garden). He went to private school, where he excelled at cricket, and people who like arty anecdotes will tell you he is the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who is also mentioned in Wisden (for his several appearances in county-level cricket teams).

From 1923 to 1927 Beckett studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin, which goes a long way to explaining the polyglot nature of his texts. In 1929, while living in Paris, the young Anglo-Irishman was introduced to the great Modernist writer, James Joyce, becoming his secretary for a while. In 1931 Beckett returned to Dublin to lecture, but in 1931 resigned, packing in academic life to travel on the Continent. He published a study of Proust, miscellaneous poems and tried to find a publisher for his first novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the title being a ponderous reference to Tennyson’s poem, A Dream of Fair Women.

All the publishers rejected it, but Beckett reworked passages of it into this collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks. In fact, the failed novel is referred to by title as the long-pondered work of a character in the seventh story, What a Misfortune, the would-be poet and cuckold of Mr Otto Olaf bboggs, Walter Draffin.

The tilted kepi of the attendant, its green band and gilt harp, and the clang beneath in black and white of his riotous hair and brow, so ravished Walter that he merely had to close his eyes to be back in Pisa. The powers of evocation of this Italianate Irishman were simply immense, and if his Dream of Fair to Middling Women, held up in the limae labor stage for the past ten or fifteen years, ever reaches the public, and Walter says it is bound to, we ought all be sure to get it and have a look at it anyway. (p.128)

More pricks than kicks

So this is Beckett’s first published work of fiction. It’s a sequence of ten interlocking stories (with a few author’s footnotes explaining the linkages, where relevant), set in Dublin and describing the super-bookish, über-erudite but shiftless anti-hero, Belacqua Shuah – ‘a dirty lowdown Low Church Protestant high-brow’ (p.156) – who has a series of mostly pretty mundane encounters and adventures around Dublin and in the neighbouring countryside.

(Nowhere in the text does it explain that the name Belacqua Shuah comes from a figure in Dante’s Purgatorio, a Florentine lute-maker famed for his laziness, who has given up on ever reaching heaven. We have Wikipedia to thank for this information.)

Like most Modernist texts More Pricks than Kicks assumes you have a good working knowledge of European literary classics and are fluent in at least the key modern languages (not only the French and Italian which Beckett himself studied, but German also) as the text is sprinkled with quotes like the following, with no translation:

Meine Ruh ist hin mein Herz ist schwer
Ich finde Sie nimmer und nimmer mehr.

You only have to read a few sentences to realise that Beckett has a very tangential relationship to the English language. His prose wilfully combines:

  • Irish idioms and phrases (‘It would take off the rough wet’)
  • Latin tags and phrases (obiter, pro tem, tempus edax)
  • ordinary English proverbs and clichés
    • better late than never
    • the things people come out with sometimes!
  • pompous Biblical phraseology
    • ‘Who shall silence them, at last?’
  • and clichés from popular fiction
    • The effect of this was to send what is called a glow of warmth what is called coursing through his veins
    •  … and no mistake!
    • well, to make a long story short
    • Hairy was as snug as a bug in a rug
  • arch direct address of the reader:
    • ‘Reader, a rosiner is a drop of the hard…’
    • ‘Reader, a gloria is coffee laced with brandy.’

with:

  • a liberal sprinkling of the three main European languages
  • sly quotes from literary classics
  • rebarbatively arcane words
  • an elaborately Euphuistic register
  • deliberately obscure phrasing and sentence structure

The book has a strong sense of humour but of a very distinct and idiosyncratic flavour. Three pages are devoted to describing Belacqua’s extremely pedantic way of toasting bread for lunch which – it appears – involves burning each of the two slices of bread to a smouldering crisp.

When the first candidate was done, which was only when it was black through and through, it changed places with its comrade, so that now it in its turn lay on top, done to a dead end, black and smoking, waiting till as much could be said of the other… Belacqua on his knees before the flame, poring over the grill, controlled every phase of the broiling. It took time, but if a thing was worth doing at all it was worth doing well, that was a true saying. Long before the end the room was full of smoke and the reek of burning. (p.11)

Because:

This meal that he was at such pains to make ready, he would devour it with a sense of rapture and victory, it would be like smiting the sledded Polacks on the ice. He would snap at it with closed eyes, he would gnash it into a pulp, he would vanquish it utterly with his fangs. Then the anguish of pungency, the pang of the spices, as each mouthful died, scorching his palate, bringing tears.

This is certainly pretentious (the sledded Polacks are from Hamlet), but is it funny? Or just twenty-something self-indulgence? The show-off antics of a top-of-the-class ephebe?

These questions hover over the entire book, which treads all kinds of knife-edges. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Some of it is, frankly, incomprehensible. Most of it is painfully arch and contrived. You get the sense that a lot of it – whether the use of Irish idioms or obvious proverbs, the learned disquisitions about Italian poets or the sentences which feel like they’re walking on stilts – they all seem to be mocking their respective registers, styles and conventions.

Take this portrait of a lady, ‘the Frica’, which, beneath the glossolalia, seems to be comparing her, caustically, to a horse:

Behold the Frica, she visits talent in the Service Flats. In she lands, singing Havelock Ellis in a deep voice, frankly itching to work that which is not seemly. Open upon her concave breast as on a lectern lies Portigliotti’s Penombre Claustrali, bound in tawed caul. In her talons earnestly she grasps Sade’s 120 Days and the Anterotica of Aliosha G. Brignole-Sale, unopened, bound in shagreened caul. A septic pudding hoodwinks her, a stodgy turban of pain it laps her horse face. The eyehole is clogged with the bulbus, the round pale globe goggles exposed. Solitary meditation has furnished her with nostrils of generous bore. The mouth champs an invisible bit, foam gathers at the bitter commissures. The crateriform brisket, lipped with sills of paunch, cowers ironically behind a maternity tunic. Keyholes have wrung the unfriendly withers, the osseous rump screams behind the hobble-skirt. Wastes of woad worsted advertise the pasterns. Aïe! (p.46)

It comes from the longest ‘story’, A Wet Night which seems to be about a soirée for poets and whatnot held by this same Frica.

It’s as if the entire text is held at an angle from normal human perception, and bears only a passing resemblance to traditional narrative conventions. Maybe it’s intended to have the same deliberately angular feel of Wyndham Lewis’s consciously Modernist prose. Maybe its sentences are intended to contain lots of jagged edges, like a Vorticist painting.

Portrait of Kate Lechmere by Wyndham Lewis

Portrait of Kate Lechmere by Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis’s prose was generally satirical in intention. This book feels like it is not only satirising the ‘grotesque’ and apparently ageing anti-hero, his solemn monologues and pettifogging concerns, and also many of the traditions of conventional narrative – plot, dialogue, description – but is also satirising the reader for wanting to read it and the author for ever writing it.

Some occasional phrases appear legible and funny, and ring with a Joycean poetry:

  • ‘Oh Winnie’ he made a vague clutch at her sincerities, for she was all anyway on the grass. (p.25)
  • Chastening the cat with little skelps she took herself off. The grey hairs of her maidenhead
    screamed at Belacqua. A devout, virginal blue-stocking, honing after a penny’s worth of scandal. (p.17)
  • Though he might be only able to afford a safety-bicycle he was nevertheless a man of few words.
  • Capper Quin arrived on tiptire, in a car of his very own. (p.164)

But many, many, many other passages are purposely obtuse and circumlocutious, wilfully repelling and discomforting comprehension.

At this all-important juncture of his delirium Belacqua found himself blinking his eyes rapidly, a regular nictation, so that little flaws of dawn gushed into his mind. This had not been done with intent, but when he found that it seemed to be benefiting him in some curious way he kept it up, until gradually the inside of his skull began to feel sore. Then he desisted and went back to the dilemma. Here, as indeed at every crux of the enterprise, he sacrificed sense of what was personal and proper to himself to the desirability of making a certain impression on other people, an impression almost of gallantry. He must efface himself altogether and do the little soldier. It was this paramount consideration that made him decide in favour of Bim and Bom, Grock, Democritus, whatever you are pleased to call it, and postpone its dark converse to a less public occasion. This was an abnegation if you like, for Belacqua could not resist a lachrymose philosopher and still less when, as was the case with Heraclitus, he was obscure at the same time. He was in his element in dingy tears and luxuriously so when these were furnished by a pre-Socratic man of acknowledged distinction. How often had he not exclaimed, skies being grey: “Another minute of this and I consecrate the remnant of my life to Heraclitus of Ephesus, I shall be that Delian diver who, after the third or fourth submersion, returns no more to the surface!” (p.149)

For long stretches the text is an omnium-gatherum of obfuscation. But despite its post-graduate knick-knackery – I liked it. I read many passages twice, getting to know them better. The Lobster, Lethe, Walking out and Yellow repay rereading.


The stories

Dante and the Lobster (11 pages) Introducing Belacqua, who makes burned toast for lunch, stops in a pub till chucking out time (2.30), picks up the lobster his aunt ordered from a fishmonger, goes to his Italian lesson, where the lobster is attacked by the French tutor’s cat, and arrives with the lobster at his aunt’s, who boils it alive.

Fingal (10 pages) Belacqua takes his lady love to Fingal, a viewing point outside Dublin, where they colloquise almost incomprehensibly before walking over to enjoy the view of the lunatic asylum, where Belacqua is replaced in the lady’s affections by Dr Sholto, sidles off, then nicks a labourer’s bicycle and scarpers back to Dublin where the story ends with him happily ensconced in a warm snug downing a pint of porter.

Ding-Dong (9 pages) Restlessly moving from pub to pub, Belacqua witnesses a child being run over by a cart, though that’s not the point, the point seems to be a woman approaching him to sell theatre tickets in yet another pub.

A Wet Night (30 pages) Belacqua is dragged along to a party hosted by ‘the Finca’, and attended by the ‘homespun Poet’, ‘the Alba’, the Polar Bear (P.B.), a Jesuit (S.J.), Chas and his girl (‘a Shetland Shawny’), the ‘arty Countess of Parambini’, the Student, the Caleken, a Galway Gael, the Man of Law escorting three tarts, two banned novelists, a bibliomaniac and his mistress, a paleographer, a violist d’amore with his instrument in a bag, a popular parodist with his sister and six daughters, a still more popular Professor of Bullscrit and Comparative Ovoidology, the saprophile the better for drink, a communist painter and decorator fresh back from the Moscow reserves, a merchant prince, two grave Jews, a rising strumpet, three more poets with Lauras to match, a disaffected cicisbeo, a chorus of playwrights, the inevitable envoy of the Fourth Estate, a phalanx of Grafton Street Stürmers and Jemmy Higgins.

Love and Lethe (12 pages) A slightly more comprehensible ‘story’, complete with satirical asides to the reader, in which Belacqua has persuaded the fading 33-year-old Ruby to accompany him in a suicide attempt. They drive out to a hill, climb it, sit to admire the view, drink a whole bottle of spirits, the gun goes off by accident harming neither – at which they fall to urgent rumpy-pumpy in the ling.

Walking Out (10 pages) ‘Walking out’ is the phrase used to describe courting couples back in D.H. Lawrence days. This is a brutal subversion of the convention. Belacqua is walking in fields when he is caught up by his lady love and fiancée, Lucy, on horseback. An obscure Latin phrase in their conversation somehow conveys to Lucy what we then find out, which is that Belacqua has come this way to spy on a ‘courting couple’ who, apparently, have sex in the nearby woods. She rides off in a huff, and is trotting blind with anger along a narrow country lane when a car driven by a drunken lord hurtles round the corner, kills her horse outright and cripples her for life. Oblivious of all this Belacqua has continued on  his way to the gloomy woods where he sneaks about till he finds his (German) couple in flagrente delicto, but steps on a dry branch and the enraged Tanzherr chases him, catches him, and administers a good flogging. Belacqua crawls home. In a cruel postscript we learn that he and the crippled Lucy are now married and regularly play records on the phonogram :).

What a Misfortune (30 pages) Lucy conveniently dies, two years after her accident, and Belacqua is free to become engaged to Thelma bboggs, younger daughter of Mr and Mrs Otto Olaf bboggs, who has made his pile from toiletries. Beckett’s humour is not… subtle. This is an extended Beckettian satire on all the embarrassments and confusions of a bourgeois marriage, complete with unwilling bride’s father, his wife’s lover, the hairy best man, a crippled nymphomaniac and a drooling cretin. But this makes it sound too comprehensible. It is the usual onomasticon of oneiromancies:

The hyperaesthesia of Hairy was so great that the mere fact of standing on licensed ground, without the least reference to its liberties, was of force sufficient to exhilarate him. Now therefore, under the influence of his situation, he dilated with splendid incoherence on the contradiction involved in the idea of a happy Belacqua and on the impertinence of desiring that he should derogate into such an anomaly. (p.118)

The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux (5 pages) The shortest section, this is told entirely in the first person, as a letter written by an illiterate German girl who appears to be madly in love with Belacqua, who she refers to as Bel. Presumably, he’s had some kind of affair with her.

Only at this point, being a bit slow, did I finally realise that every one of these stories revolves around Belacqua’s encounter with a specific woman – Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi in Dante and the Lobster, Winnie in Fingal, the unnamed woman who sells him theatre tickets in Ding-Dong, ‘the’ Alba in Wet Night, Ruby in Love and Lethe, Lucy in Walking Out, Thelma in What a Misfortune and ‘the’ Smeraldina in this story. And that these are presumably the fair to middling women of his unpublished novel, reworked into freestanding stories. It’s hard to see what purpose or meaning to give to their central role except as a plot device, the device being that each of them represents the opposite pole to Belacqua’s well-developed solipsism and self-absorption, each of them yanks our hero out of his seamless subjectivity. And each one of them is the prompt or spur of humour, satire and scorn.

Yellow (13 pages) Belacqua is in hospital awaiting an operation on a tumour the size of a brick growing out of his neck. Now that I’ve identified this in the previous stories, this one confirmed what I see as the fundamental dynamic of the stories, which is the way Belacqua’s leaden solipsism is punctured and alleviated, lightened, amused or irritated, by the intrusion of women – one per story, generally, but in this one a small regiment of nurses, fussing and trimming him. They are quite personable. Some bits – like the nurse bursting out laughing at the ugliness of his toes – are quite funny. In the last few sentences, it appears that Belacqua dies on the operating table.

Draff (13 pages) This final story reviews, or at least namechecks, all the fair to middling women who featured in its predecessors, before pointing out that Belacqua’s widow was his final amour, no other than ‘the Smerladina’ whose letter we read a few sections earlier. Now she attends to Belacqua’s corpse, laid out in the parlour, and deals with sundry visitors (Nick Malacoda the undertaker, the Church of Ireland padre, friend Capper). She and Hairy dress the burial plot with moss then go through the interment, next day. On the way back Hairy argues with the padre and dumps him in the middle of nowhere. Arriving home, they find Smeraldina and Belacqua’s house in flames. Apparently the gardener ran amok, raped the serving girl and torched it. A policeman points out he is now under arrest. Hairy takes the Smeraldina driving up into the mountains where – I think – they have sex which – I think – she seems to like rather rough. The groundsman back at the cemetery finishes his bottle of stout.

So it goes in the world. (p.173)


Conclusion

So what do we take from all this? That Beckett:

  1. has swallowed not only an English dictionary of rare and obscure words, but an Italian and French and German dictionary as well
  2. has little new or interesting to say but says it with supernumerary logorrhoea
    • (‘what a splendid thing it is when all is said and done to be young and vigorous’)
  3. occasionally takes recourse to Catholic theology, but with no feel at all for the numinous
    • (‘He did not know the French for lobster. Fish would do very well. Fish had been good enough for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. It was good enough for Mlle Glain.’)
  4. is not much interested in plot or story
  5. and finds all humans risible, but has a particular itch against old crones – like ‘his lousy old bitch of an aunt’

But most of all, that Beckett’s prose – stitched together from a diverse range of sources and languages – is not sensual. It is certainly variegated – a rackety gallimaufrey of idiolects, langues and locutions – but it is always rather grey.

Belacqua, paying pious suit to the hem of [Ruby’s] garment and gutting his raptures with great complacency at a safe remove, represented precisely the ineffable long-distance paramour to whom as a homesick meteorite abounding in IT she had sacrificed her innumerable gallants. And now, the metal of stars smothered in earth, the IT run dry and the gallants departed, he appeared, like the agent of an ironical Fortune, to put her in mind of what she had missed and rowel her sorrow for what she was missing. Yet she tolerated him in the hope that sooner or later, in a fit of ebriety or of common or garden incontinence, he would so far forget himself as to take her in his arms.

The ghost of Joyce hangs heavily over Beckett. Joyce, a genuine world class genius, wrote sensitively and sensuously with a God-given inhabitation of language. Beckett is trying something similar – an obfuscation of orotundity – but it doesn’t roll or rise. He has all the fandango and fol-de-rol, but no feel.

Clever, but dead. Beckett’s prose is assembled with tweezers. It is like a chemistry set, constructed with a chemist’s detachment. You can see why, later in the 1930s, he began to write in French. The over-clotted English style displayed here was a dead end, as was the entire approach of clotting and cluttering, additioning and complexifying. He had to completely purge his approach, and his langue, in order to find his metier as the prophet of paucity made famous from Godot onwards.


Credit

More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett was published in 1934 by Chatto and Windus, London. All page references are to the 1974 Picador paperback edition.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

  • More Pricks Than Kicks (1934)
  • Murphy (1938)
  • First Love (1946)
  • The Expelled (1946)
  • The Calmative (1946)
  • The End (1946)
  • Molloy (1951)
  • Malone Dies (1951)
  • The Unnamable (1953)

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo. (p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

Related reviews

This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski (1948)

Anything can be done to a human being.
(Introduction, page 12)

Sometimes, after a transport had already been gassed, some late-arriving cars drove around filled with the sick. It was wasteful to gas them. They were undressed and Obershadrührer Moll either shot them with his rifle or pushed them live into the flaming trench. (p.96)

In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz’s 1953 book describing the experiences of his generation in Poland, there are chapter-length portraits of four fellow writers who, in their different ways, ended up acquiescing in, and collaborating with, the communist takeover of Poland. The most haunting is the profile of short story writer Tadeusz Borowski, who had a blazing reputation for a few years after the war, lapsed into writing increasingly shrill communist propaganda, and then committed suicide by gassing himself in 1951, aged 28.

This review is divided into three parts: Borowski’s biography and reviews of short stories from his first, and then second, books.

1. The short harrowing biography of Tadeusz Borowski

Just reading Borowski’s biography is harrowing enough, before you even get to his prose fiction.

Borowski was born in 1922 in modern-day Ukraine, to Polish parents. When he was 4 his father was sent to a Russian labour camp above the Arctic Circle, to work on the infamous White Sea Canal, as punishment for having been a member of a Polish military organisation during the Great War. In 1930, when he was 8, Borowski’s mother was deported to another Russian labour camp, leaving the boy to be raised by his aunt. In 1932 his father was released, and the family was repatriated to Warsaw where, in 1934, his mother, released from her camp, rejoined them.

Borowski was 16 when the Nazis and the Soviets invaded Poland in September 1939. He had been studying at a Franciscan school but had to complete his secondary schooling in secret. He then progressed to studying literature among the clandestine groups which made up the underground Warsaw University.

In 1943 his fiancée was arrested for her role in the underground and, when Borowski went looking for her at the flat of a mutual friend, he too was arrested. He was held in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison for two months. The prison was on the edge of the ghetto and from his window he could watch German soldiers throw grenades into tenement buildings before systematically burning them to the ground.

In April 1943 Borowski was sent to Auschwitz and was tattooed with the number 119 198. He was 20 years old. His fiancée arrived separately and was sent to the women’s camp. Eventually he was able to make contact with her and the ‘story’ Auschwitz, Our Home includes the letters he sent to her. Both survived because of the ‘lucky’ accident that Aryans had stopped being sent to the gas chambers just three weeks earlier; from now on only Jews would be gassed and cremated en masse.

Borowski had a range of jobs – carrying telegraph poles, night watchman, hospital orderly, before a spell working at the railway station. Supervised by brutal SS guards with machine guns and whips, he was one of the kapos or non-Jewish inmates, who met the endless freight trains of Jews sent from all over Europe, sorted the desperate, confused victims into lines of men and women, and saw them loaded into the trucks which drove them off to the crematoriums. Within the hour everyone on the train was dead, gassed, burned and contributing to the black smoke climbing from the crematorium chimneys.

In the final days of the war Borowski and the surviving other non-Jewish workers were marched from Auschwitz to Dachau concentration camp and it was here, on 1 May 1945, that he was liberated by the US Seventh Army. From the liberated American zone of Germany in 1946, Borowski published a collection of stories in collaboration with two friends. He stayed with the liberated Poles in Bavaria; had a dissolute spell in Paris; discovered his fiancée was alive and well and living, for some reason, in Sweden, but then decided to return to Poland. Here, in 1948, he published two more collections of stories, Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria), mostly about Auschwitz, and a set of short stories about the immediate post-war environment, set in displaced persons camps, Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone).

In the same year Borowski joined the Communist Party of Poland and began writing impassioned articles praising the communist future and violently critical of the decadent West. Despite encouragement from friends he wrote no more stories or poetry. In his profile, Miłosz calls Borowski ‘the disappointed lover’, and interprets his journalism as a state-endorsed vehicle where he could express his rage and despair against the world. In the introduction to this volume, Jan Kott (the noted theatre critic, who was himself an enthusiastic Stalinist until the upheavals of 1956) writes that Borowski:

could not resist that most diabolical of temptations – to participate in history, a history for which stones and people are only the material used to build the ‘brave new world’. (p.19)

His earlier stories had attracted criticism from the communist party for their bleakness and nihilism: the Party demanded prose which praised socialist heroes and proletariat solidarity, even in Auschwitz. According to Kott, the newly communist Borowski at first believed that Communism was the only political force truly capable of preventing a future Auschwitz from happening. In 1950 he received the National Literary Prize, Second Degree for this more ‘Socialist Realist’ work.

So favourable was he with the authorities that in the summer of 1949 Borowski was sent to work in the Press Section of the Polish Military Mission in Berlin. Here he may possibly have carried out some kind of intelligence work. When he returned to Warsaw he had become involved in an extramarital affair.

Soon afterwards, however, a friend of his (the same friend in whose apartment both Borowski and his fiancée had been arrested back in 1943) was imprisoned and tortured by the Communists. Borowski tried to intervene on his behalf and failed; he became completely disillusioned with the regime. Maybe the whole apparatus of arrests and transports to labour camps was starting up all over again. Maybe nothing could stop the Auschwitz world.

Thus, politically disillusioned, trapped by his affair, and perhaps unable to cope with the long-term trauma of what he’d seen, on July 1, 1951, at the age of 28, Borowski committed suicide by breathing in gas from a gas stove. His wife had given birth to their daughter three days previously.


The short stories

The Penguin paperback, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, brings together all of the Holocaust-related stories from his early collections of short stories, being:

  • This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (21 pages)
  • A Day at Harmenz (32 pages)
  • The People Who Walked On (16 pages)
  • Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter) (45 pages)
  • The Death of Schillinger (4 pages)
  • The Man with the Package (5 pages)
  • The Supper (5 pages)
  • A True Story (4 pages)
  • Silence (3 pages)
  • The January Offensive (10 pages)
  • A Visit (3 pages)
  • The World of Stone (4 pages)

It would have been extremely useful if the editors of the Penguin edition had made it clear which of these stories come from Farewell to Maria and which from A World of Stone. Since the book doesn’t say and I can’t find anything on the internet, I am guessing that the first four are from the first volume about Auschwitz, and the final eight from the world of displaced persons camps.

This guess is based on the fact that the first four are long and diffuse, often divided into sections and containing numerous stories or anecdotes, while the final eight stories are strikingly short, much more polished, generally focus on one event, and in their brevity and ellipticism, are marvellously charged with meaning.

2. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman

It’s no accident that the editors place this story first and name the entire collection after it, since it plunges us straight away into the horrors of Auschwitz, with its unflinching first sentence.

All of us walk around naked.

The inmates are naked because their only clothes, their striped pyjama uniforms have been temporarily taken away to be deloused. They are being fumigated in Zyklon B,

an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.

Note this tone and attitude which, right from the start, is laconic to the point of cruelty. Borowski’s narrator has had all his ‘outside world modesty’ burned away. Now he accepts all the facts of Auschwitz, no matter how grim and grotesque, as facts of life, and his prose, by stating these facts plainly and evenly, draws you into his world far more effectively than if he raged or wept. Borowski saw the worst things humans can do to other humans and describes it all the more upsettingly for being conveyed in such a flat factual style.

From the rear blockhouses we have a view of the F.K.L. – Frauen Konzentration Lager; there too the delousing is in full swing. Twenty‐eight thousand women have been stripped naked and driven out of the barracks. Now they swarm around the large yard between blockhouses.

Some critics, and the introduction, dwell on Borowski’s style, his use of simile and so on, or concut lengthy analyses of his moral position. But what comes over strongest to me, and what is in a sense most shocking, is the implicit attitude in the story that – it was just a job, a tough hard physical job, certainly, but a job which, like countless other labouring jobs, has its shitty bits but also its perks, moments when you can relax, share a cigarette or some food or vodka with workmates, enjoy the sunshine and feel pretty content with life.

It is the everydayness of the work which keeps drawing you in, Borowski’s persuasive descriptions of the mundaneness of it all – until you remember the purpose of all this activity – the systematic extermination of millions – millions – of human beings. Here is the ramp, where the cattle trains packed with Jews from all over Europe are unloaded, just before a new transport arrives.

Meantime, the ramp has become increasingly alive with activity, increasingly noisy. The crews are being divided into those who will open and unload the arriving cattle cars and those who will be posted by the wooden steps. They receive instructions on how to proceed most efficiently. Motor cycles drive up, delivering S.S. officers, bemedalled, glittering with brass, beefy men with highly polished boots and shiny, brutal faces. Some have brought their briefcases, others hold thin, flexible whips. This gives them an air of military readiness and agility. They walk in and out of the commissary – for the miserable little shack by the road serves as their commissary, where in the summertime they drink mineral water, Studentenquelle, and where in winter they can warm up with a glass of hot wine. They greet each other in the state‐approved way, raising an arm Roman fashion, then shake hands cordially, exchange warm smiles, discuss mail from home, their children, their families. Some stroll majestically on the ramp. The silver squares on their collars glitter, the gravel crunches under their boots, their bamboo whips snap impatiently.

Tadeusz’s job, along with his gang of kapos, is to open the doors of the trucks, pull out the bodies, some still alive, many dead, all of them stinking of faeces and urine. they have to force the living to line up to be loaded into lorries which will drive them off to the changing rooms, the gas chamber and the crematorium or throw the corpses onto other lorries which will also go to the crematoriums. On one level all very manageable, especially with SS men standing behind you with whips which they are quick to use, and behind them the guards with machine guns.

The shitty part was cleaning out the cattle trucks after they’d been emptied of the Jews locked up in them for days, if not weeks, without food or water.

We climb inside. In the corners amid human excrement and abandoned wrist‐watches lie
squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies.
We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand. (p.39)

The narrator looks around for one of the Jews awaiting loading into a lorry to take the dead babies off his hands. An SS guard makes a motion as if to start shooting the reluctant Jews and so a tall grey-haired woman steps forward and takes them. ‘My poor boy,’ she whispers to Tadeusz. If he has any moral or psychological or emotional response, it is not included. He just feels momentarily tired and leans against the side of the truck and then, when his pal Henri tugs at his shirt, confesses that he is angry at the victims. He could beat them and throw them into the ovens himself. It’s their bloody fault that he’s here doing this disgusting job. Damn them, damn them all! Henri says it’s normal: everyone hates the people weaker than themselves.

Once the lorries have all been loaded and every last Jew, alive or dead, has been packed off to be incinerated, once all the cattle trucks have been cleaned out, you can wash your hands and settle in the sun alongside your mates till the next shipment arrives.

The great perk of the job is that the kapos can keep all the food and drink they find among the suitcases and clothes the Jews are ordered to abandon on the loading ramp. Gold, jewellery and valuables were taken by the supervising Germans – and it’s true that any labourer caught stealing valuables was shot – but the food, nah, help yourselves.

With the disconcerting result that, in all these stories, food-wise, the kapos were pretty well off; especially if you include the astonishing fact that they were allowed to receive letters and food parcels from their relatives. Thus the narrator of these stories, Kapo Tadeusz, has a pretty healthy food stash including onions and tomatoes from his father’s garden, Portuguese sardines, bacon from Lublin and sweetmeats from Salonica.

This is all the harder to read if you recall Primo Levi’s descriptions of how the Jews in Auschwitz were systematically starved to death, supplied with pitifully inadequate rations which left them permanently ravenous. Tadeusz, by contrast, lives the life of Reilly. Oh, apart from his entire situation and plight. It is this constant oscillation, between moments of ‘normality’ and humdrum human foibles – and sudden moments of complete horror – which make the stories almost unbearable to read.

I shut my eyes tight, but I can still see corpses dragged from the train, trampled infants, cripples piled on top of the dead, wave after wave . . . freight cars roll in, the heaps of clothing, suitcases and bundles grow, people climb out, look at the sun, take a few breaths, beg for water, get into the trucks, drive away. And again freight cars roll in, again people.

The narrator

These longer stories are narrated in the first person by a deputy kapo, Vorarbeiter Tadeusz. the fact that he has the same name has led generations of readers to identify him directly with the author. But the introduction and various articles I’ve read contest this: apparently, other survivors testify that the actual Borowski was kind-hearted and charitable.

This kind of debate is entertaining but ultimately irrelevant to the stories: what matters is the workings of the text. In these, the narrator tries to be tough as nails but keeps failing. He knows he cannot afford to become at all connected to the people he is chivvying along to the gas chamber but, despite himself, he keeps making human connections and then feeling sick, more deeply nauseated than any of us reading this can possibly imagine.

He witnesses a mother furiously denying her small child who is running after her, calling out ‘Mummy, mummy’. The woman thinks she might survive if she has no child, so ignores and walks away from it. An enraged Russian kapo punches her in the face, tells her she is a rotten mother, and throws her onto one of the lorries and then her child after her. A watching SS man grunts his approval, ‘Gut gemacht, Gut, gut, Russki’.

More screaming wailing humanity shuffles, walks, staggers past. Then amidst the squalor, Tadeusz sees a vision, a beautiful young blonde woman, miraculously fresh and clean who asks him point blank: ‘What is happening? Where are we going?’ He can say nothing, there are literally no words to convey the situation. She nods her head and says, ‘I know’ and walks purposefully over to a lorry. That is all the author describes. We must imagine how he feels. And even getting a fraction of the way there is devastating.

To say the narrator is untouched by all this seems wildly wrong. He is stricken.

I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions. I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back… (p.45)

Later he reaches into a truck full of still-steaming corpses, goes to grab the first corpse and, as in a horror movie, the apparently dead hand closes round his.

I seize a corpse by the hand; the fingers close tightly around mine. I pull back with a shriek and stagger away. My heart pounds, jumps up to my throat. I can no longer control the nausea. Hunched under the train I begin to vomit. (p.48)

Yes, he very obviously and severely is affected by what he is doing.

Similes

Among the functional but carefully chosen prose, glisten occasional, telling similes.

  • Now [the occupants of the cattle trucks] push towards the open doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand. (p.37)
  • A huge, multicoloured wave of people loaded down with luggage pours from the train like a blind, mad river trying to find a new bed. (p.37)
  • Trucks leave and return, without interruption, as on a monstrous conveyor belt. A Red Cross van drives back and forth, back and forth, incessantly: it transports the gas that will kill these people. The enormous cross on the hood, red as blood, seems to dissolve in the sun. (p.38)
  • The morbid procession streams on and on – trucks growl like mad dogs. (p.41)
  • Again weary, pale faces at the windows, flat as though cut out of paper, with huge, feverishly burning eyes. (p.42)

Shining out like jewels in mud.


3. Silence

As mentioned above, I think the last eight of the stories here, being much shorter and generally set after the liberation, must come from his second collection, A World of Stone. Not only shorter, and describing a different period, but substantially different in style. More polished and canny.

Here is Borowski’s short story, Silence, in its entirety, as translated by Barbara Vedder.

Silence

At last they seized him inside the German barracks, just as he was about to climb over the window ledge. In absolute silence they pulled him down to the floor and panting with hate dragged him into a dark alley. Here, closely surrounded by a silent mob, they began tearing at him with greedy hands.

Suddenly from the camp gate a whispered warning was passed from one mouth to another. A company of soldiers, their bodies leaning forward, their rifles on the ready, came running down the camp’s main road, weaving between the clusters of men in stripes standing in the way. The crowd scattered and vanished inside the blocks. In the packed, noisy barracks the prisoners were cooking food pilfered during the night from neighbouring farmers. In the bunks and in the passageways between them, they were grinding grain in small flour-mills, slicing meat on heavy slabs of wood, peeling potatoes and throwing the peels on to the floor. They were playing cards for stolen cigars, stirring batter for pancakes, gulping down hot soup, and lazily killing fleas. A stifling odour of sweat hung in the air, mingled with the smell of food, with smoke and with steam that liquified along the ceiling beams and fell on the men, the bunks and the food in large, heavy drops, like autumn rain.

There was a stir at the door. A young American officer with a tin helmet on his head entered the block and looked with curiosity at the bunks and the tables. He wore a freshly pressed uniform; his revolver was hanging down, strapped in an open holster that dangled against his thigh. He was assisted by the translator who wore a yellow band reading ‘interpreter” on the sleeve of his civilian coat, and by the chairman of the Prisoners’ Committee, dressed in a white summer coat, a pair of tuxedo trousers, and tennis shoes. The men in the barracks fell silent. Leaning out of their bunks and lifting their eyes from the kettles, bowls and cups, they gazed attentively into the officer’s face.

“Gentlemen,” said the officer with a friendly smile, taking off his helmet-and the interpreter proceeded at once to translate sentence after sentence-“I know, of course, that after what you have gone through and after what you have seen, you must feel a deep hate for your tormentors. But we, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness. We must show our respect for the law. I assure you that the guilty will be punished, in this camp as well as in all the others. You have already seen, for example, that the S.S. men were made to bury the dead.”

“. . . right, we could use the lot at the back of the hospital. A few of them are still around,” whispered one of the men in a bottom bunk.

“. . . or one of the pits,” whispered another. He sat straddling the bunk, his fingers firmly clutching the blanket.

“Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?” Now listen to what the American has to say,”a third man, stretched across the foot of the same bunk, spoke in an angry whisper. The American officer was now hidden from their view behind the thick crowd gathered at the other end of the block.

“Comrades, our new Kommandant gives you his word of honour that all the criminals of the S.S. as well as among the prisoners will be punished,” said the translator. The men in the bunks broke into applause and shouts. In smiles and gestures they tried to convey their friendly approval of the young man from across the ocean.

“And so the Kommandant requests,” went on the translator, his voice turning somewhat hoarse, “that you try to be patient and do not commit lawless deeds, which may only lead to trouble, and please pass the sons of bitches over to the camp guards. How about it, men?”

The block answered with a prolonged shout. The American thanked the translator and wished the prisoners a good rest and an early reunion with their dear ones. Accompanied by a friendly hum of voices, he left the block and proceeded to the next.

Not until after he had visited all the blocks and returned with the soldiers to his headquarters did we pull our man off the bunk – where covered with blankets and half smothered with the weight of our bodies he lay gagged, his face buried in the straw mattress – and dragged him on to the cement floor under the stove, where the entire block, grunting and growling with hatred, trampled him to death.

Commentary

It is short, and it is beautifully shaped. It has the brevity of one of Hemingway’s earliest stories and like them, is heavy with meaning beyond what it says.

You can, of course, have a 6th form debate about the morality of the prisoners murdering the man (presumably a Nazi guard or camp official) –

“Are the prisoners justified or ‘right’ to take revenge? Discuss”

But as regular readers of this blog know, I’m not very interested in morality, because it is generally an excuse for long-winded tergiversation which never arrives at a useful outcome. And also because nine times out of ten morality is, as Freud said somewhere, obvious. Making a song and dance out of it is generally a way of avoiding the obviously correct decision.

Quite obviously it is wrong to kill anyone, therefore they ‘shouldn’t’ kill the Nazi. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a moral debate, it’s a work of literature. The point is the tremendous artistry of the story.

1. Dramatic contrast Note the skill with which the clash of moralities, which is the ostensible ‘subject’ of the story, is fully dramatised. It isn’t an abstract debate but beautifully embodied in the contrast between the American officer and the unnamed mob. And everything about this confrontation or polarity is brought out by wonderful details. ‘The young man from across the ocean’ is not only young, he wears a freshly-pressed uniform. A whole clause is devoted to the state of his pistol, dangling with Yankee casualness against his thigh. Confident, happy, yet somehow superficial.

His speech is calm and fair and reasonable. It praises the Enlightenment values of Reason and Justice. It sounds like Lincoln at Gettysburg or the Founding Fathers in full flood:

We, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness.

Shucks. Compare and contrast the undisciplined mob who confront him, bickering inmates who steal from the nearby farms and are preparing food in filthy, unhygienic ways, chopping meat on dirty wooden slabs, throwing potato peelings all over the floor, gambling for stolen loot (the cigars). The filth and squalor of the barrack couldn’t contrast more vividly with the freshly-pressed uniform of the clean-cut young American.

2. Tension and suspense I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed the identity of the man they kill. No, he isn’t identified anywhere. It’s not even clear that he is a Nazi. This anonymity makes his lynching all the more… uncanny and… bestial. Generalised. Unfathomable.

In a similar way, I had to read the story twice to be really clear that the ‘company of soldiers’ running down the camp’s main road are indeed Americans. You have to wait through the long description of the men in the barracks, cooking and gambling, before you get to the word ‘American’ describing the officer. Only with this one word does the situation become clear and the whole scene is flooded with new meaning. An American is addressing the barracks. Then this must be after the liberation from the Germans. So this one word explains the freedom of the inmates’ behaviour, cooking and gambling and picking their fleas. They are free. And the soldiers running down the main strip, they must be Americans, too. Surely. Although a flicker of doubt remains. Not logical doubt, aesthetic doubt.

Similarly, I didn’t understand the whispered conversation among the three inmates while the American was still speaking, or why the third whisperer was angry, until it is revealed – after the American has left – that all three were stifling under the blankets the man they intend to kill and are impatiently discussing where to dump his body. That’s why the third man says, ‘Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?’ i.e. wait a few more minutes till the American leaves. Which indicates how impatient they are to carry out their revenge; how deep it runs.

You have to read the story at least twice for it to reveal its meaning.

Borowski’s deliberate delay or suspension of understanding is tremendously effective – in such a small space – in charging the text with energy. Arguably, the strategy carries on beyond the end of the story because we never get told the identity of the murdered man. 70 years later, we’re still waiting, and will wait forever. Some things are never explained.

Human psychology It is a portrait of men as they are, not as writers or philosophers would have them be. The point, the crux, the convincing thing about it, is the way the barrack full of filthy men cheer the American to the rafters. They admire him. They are grateful to him. They agree with everything he says. They are going to completely ignore him. When he leaves he is ‘accompanied by a friendly hum of voices…’ – what a brilliantly convincing detail – the American officer departs, proud of his virtue and the fine example the New World is setting the Old. Good man.

But morality has nothing to do with it. Animal passions, lust for revenge, lynch mob mentality take over. The entire story is an ironic comment on the fatuous other-worldly innocence of the American, of anyone who hasn’t lived through the camp, who hasn’t survived in the bestial world of the Lager.

Two minds

And it is also a subtler comment on human nature – not the obvious fact that people can behave like animals, we all know that. The slightly more interesting point that the same people can, with one part of their mind, listen, understand and agree with all the finest points of moral philosophy and ethical debate – and with another part trample and tear a fellow human being to pieces. The same people.

It is this fundamental schizophrenia of the human animal which comes over from all Borowski’s stories. In the story Auschwitz, Our Home, the narrator has a relatively cushy time  since he has managed to wangle his way onto a course to train as a hospital orderly. The hospital is lovely, with fine views of tree-lined roads, plenty of food, and the lessons are interesting. Of course, he knows that some of the surgeons are carrying out experiments on live human beings with no anaesthetics, removing their organs one by one to see how long they survive, just down the hall. But the symphony orchestra the hospital staff have organised is really wonderful, and you should see the canteen!

Or take another moment, described in the story, The People Who Walked On, when the narrator’s taking part in the regular football match between hospital staff and runs to retrieve the ball from the touchline. From here he can see through the barbed wire to the train ramp where he used to work, and the road leading off to the crematorium. Along it are trudging a new trainload of Jews to the gas chambers. He throws the ball in and continues playing the game. Five minutes later the ball goes out again, and he goes to fetch it from the same spot by the fence. Now the road and ramp are empty. Between two throw-ins of a football match 3,000 people have been gassed and incinerated.

Is it a searing indictment of the human mind that it can enjoy Bach while across the hall human beings are being tortured to death? Or a tribute to the human mind that it can find order and beauty in the midst of such horror, of such degraded surroundings? Kicking a ball around while people just like us are being gassed to death?

Or, as I read Borowski’s stories, do none of these trite and easy formulae fit the bill? The world is what it is and people do what they can to survive in it. That’s all we can know.

The earlier, longer, more diffuse stories are full of scenes of horror. They are documentary records of the kinds of tasks and sights encountered in Auschwitz, written as unflinching testimony. They are crafted to give an sense of duration and intensity, of the long days full of unremitting labour, and the day after day mundaneness of horror.

But the second set of much shorter stories are, for me, on a different level altogether. Their compactness, their brilliance of detail, their psychological insight combine with their elusiveness to escape summary or interpretation. They are wonderful and mysterious, like pebbles worn by a stream.

They offer no moral consolation but they are not fashionably nihilistic, either. They offer no answers or resolution. They are what they are, no more, and it is partly this restraint which makes them such powerful works of art.


Credit

Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria) and Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone) were published in 1948. This selection of stories from them was published under the title Wybor Opowiadan in Poland in 1959. This translation of that selection, by Barbara Vedder, was published by Penguin in 1967. Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Related reviews

The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953)

In the people’s democracies, a battle is being waged for mastery over the human spirit. Man must be made to understand, for then he will accept. (p.191)

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish poet, essayist and diplomat. He worked for the state radio company before the war and went underground in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. After Poland’s ‘liberation’ by the Red Army in 1944, Miłosz was initially sympathetic to the communist regime and served as Polish cultural attaché in Paris and Washington, D.C. But in 1951 he defected and spent the rest of his life in the West, teaching in American universities and, in 1970, became a U.S. citizen.

He wrote a lot. The Penguin edition of his collected poems runs to 800 pages. And this poetic output ran alongside numerous essays of literary criticism. In 1980 Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Captive Mind

Miłosz wrote The Captive Mind in Paris after his defection, in the years 1951 and 1952. As he explains in the preface, French intellectuals of the post-war period were bitterly resentful of America for liberating them and turned to the Soviet Union as a model for post-war society. He aimed to set them straight on the reality of life under a communist regime.

The result is a long, often circuitous, but in the end comprehensive and compelling description of the mentality, the climate of thought, the experiences and mind-set of intellectuals in Poland and the surrounding countries as they emerged from the ruinous Second World War and found their nations and cultures slowly taken over by Russian communism, forcing them to decide whether to collaborate, acquiesce or – eventually – defect, as Miłosz did.

Literary comparisons

Miłosz is a poet not a political analyst, and the early chapters use some pretty roundabout methods to make their point.

For example, the first chapter takes a detour through Insatiability, an avant-garde novel by pre-war Polish writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz which describes a decadent, faithless, modern society being menaced by an approaching Asiatic army. This army is fortified by the philosophy of Murti-Bing, a Mongolian philosopher who preached acceptance of life and whose beliefs, through the wonders of modern science, can now be replicated by taking Murti-Bing pills.

As the army approaches, an advance guard of peddlers starts hawking the pills of Murti-Bing to the inhabitants of the decadent society and everyone who takes one suddenly forgets all their troubles, all the questions about life which were making them anxious, becoming calm and accepting. Outcome: the Eastern hordes conquer the country and impose Murti-Bingism on the population; everyone takes Murti-Bing pills and becomes happy but, deep down, still feel an unappeasable unease. Miłosz uses this story as an analogy for the way communism invaded and converted his people, and strings the analogy out for an entire chapter.

The third chapter focuses on ‘Ketman’, a concept Miłosz came across in a book written by the French novelist, diplomat and travel writer, Arthur Comte de Gobineau – namely his Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. According to Gobineau, Ketman is a protective attitude of silence and opaqueness adopted by men living in Muslim-dominated lands who are not themselves Muslims, a way of keeping your most personal beliefs to yourself. There are several pages of direct quotation from Gobineau and explications of Ketman, before Miłosz goes on to apply this idea to people living under Soviet rule who conform but don’t believe. Because under a communist regime, everyone is an actor. Everyone acts all the time till it becomes second nature. Everyone lies, deceives, keeps their thoughts to themselves.

As these examples suggest, The Captive Mind is a very literary book, the opposite of a history or sociology or philosophical analysis. It covers numerous issues and ideas around the fatal allure of communist belief, but by way of thoughts and feelings, personal stories, anecdotes and insights, more than structured argument.

Four portraits

The central 100 pages of the book are made up of four portraits of Polish writers who Miłosz knew when they were youths together, and who each capitulated, in different ways, to the demands of the Communist state. They are given abstract names –

  • Alpha, the Moralist
  • Beta, The Disappointed Lover
  • Gamma, the Slave of History
  • Delta, the Troubadour

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, a moment’s search reveals them to be, respectively:

  • the Catholic novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski (b.1909) who, in this telling, is argued round into submission to communism and writes a lengthy self-criticism of his previous objections to the system
  • the poet and short story writer Tadeusz Borowski (b.1922) who experiences two years in Auschwitz and emerges bitter and angry, before throwing his nihilistic flame into the service of the party
  • the poet, novelist and politician Jerzy Putrament (b.1910) of rough peasant stock, whose sojourn in Russia leads him after many tribulations to become a cultural supremo, controller of magazines and publishers, with the fate of scores of other writers in his gift
  • the absurdist poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński (b.1905), a wonderfully eccentric-sounding man whose carefree imagination was crushed by the system

I vaguely remember that, when I first read this book in the late 1980s, I was disappointed with the psychological aspect, the literariness of these portraits because I was looking for political argument and debating points. Now, rereading them, I am really impressed by the depth of insight and sympathy he shows for these talismanic members of his generation, and his feel for the terrible things they lived through and the fateful choices they made.

His portrait of Tadeusz Borowski, a scornful young poet who survived two years in Auschwitz and wrote pitilessly accurate stories about it, before deciding to return to Poland and become a journalist writing increasingly hectic and vitriolic articles against the West and its corruption, before committing suicide at the age of 28 – is particularly haunting and terrifying.

Also, because each writer’s biography passes through the same walls of fire – the Russian invasion of 1939, the German invasion of 1941, the Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising, the Red Army liberation and then the slow strangling of civil life by the New Faith – it is like seeing the same scenes through different windows, or captured by different photographers, retold from different points of view. Taken together – and because each portrait itself references the subject’s other friends and colleagues, wives, lovers or children – the four portraits build up into an insightful and terribly moving portrait of an entire generation.


The appeal of communism

So rather than follow the ‘argument’, it might be better to pick out key points which emerge from the text. Here are some of the key reasons Miłosz describes as explaining the victory of communism in Eastern Europe and its strong appeal to people of all classes.

Revulsion from fascism The pre-war period was dominated by extreme right-wing parties whose main policy was anti-Semitism. Society was visibly unjust with huge discrepancies in wealth. Land ownership, in particular, was flagrantly unfair. Therefore, like many other educated young people, Miłosz thought only leaders true to a socialist programme would be able to rebuild Poland in such a way as to abolish the obvious unfairnesses.

The destruction of liberal values The Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe devastated existing values. Westerners, particularly Americans, simply can’t conceive what it is like to have your city divided into sections, each to be inhabited by different races, one of which is randomly shot in the streets, packed in cattle cars and taken off to be incinerated, while anyone who complains or even makes the wrong facial expression, can be arrested and tortured to death. Streets full of ruined houses, the inhabitants reduced to scrambling for mouldy bread in the ruins. People taking false names, going underground, while neighbours disappear without explanation. The complete abolition of all the fixed points of civil society which those in peaceful societies, or the West, take for granted.

But the New Faith stood the test of this destruction. It encountered and prevailed against the most nihilistic ideology in history. Its true believers organised and survived even the worst atrocities. Communism seemed to be an earthy, practical politics, which taught how to organise and fight back. The Nazis created a devastated environment which went a long way to destroying bourgeois liberal ideals, and preparing the ground for the communist takeover.

Stealthy takeover But, Miłosz says it’s important to realise that, even under these circumstances, the post-war communist takeover didn’t happen all at once, but proceeded by slow steps. Initially, social democrats and peasant parties were allowed to take part in government and everyone thought there would be true democracy.

The wish to fit in Intellectuals and Western commentators underestimate the basis human wish fit in. ‘There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness’ (p.6) in most people. Once the New Faith gains ground, many people go with it in order to conform, to be happy. They’re not particularly afraid, they just don’t want to stand out.

Communism as an alternative religion For centuries, the highest and lowest in the land, intellectuals and peasants, kings and carpenters, shared the same belief system and so felt united, joined, linked, at home, shared a common faith and language of symbols, and rituals. The death of God not only plunges intellectuals into crisis but deprives an entire people of their cultural unity. Communism restores this: everyone in a communist society reads the same books, thinks the same thoughts, reveres the same symbols. Many rebelled from the start and many came to see them as a stupid sham – but many, many people were deeply nostalgic for that ideological unity and wanted to feel part of a movement whose language and beliefs could be understood by illiterate peasants and the most sophisticated intellectuals. The solidarity of belief offered a refuge from the miserable alienation of so many between-the-wars intellectuals, so many of whom fantasised about becoming one with ‘the masses’, throwing in their lot with the workers etc. But it wasn’t just them: communism offered a mental home to everyone.

(This prompts the thought, What unifies us, now, today in 2017, if we don’t have religion or communism? How come we aren’t all stricken with the alienation and angst that the writers of the 30s, 40s and 50s went on about so?  I would hazard a guess that it’s consumerism. From kings to carpenters, peasants to princes, we are all united in our worship of mobile phones, cars, TVs and trainers. Consumerism has been the religion of the West for some time, maybe since the 1950s, and, with the advent of digital devices, shows no sign of going away, in fact is invading every aspect of our lives. What else unites rich and poor, black and white, in such a shared set of values and symbols?)

The importance of writers More than giving them a new sense of meaning and purpose, communism also gave far more respect to writers, artists and composers than the pre-war regimes, which by and large ignored them. That’s because the Soviet programme of re-engineering society requires constant propaganda and it is writers, artists and composers who must perform this propaganda role. Big rewards for those who comply – prison or exile for those who don’t.

Revenge But Miłosz also points out the pleasures of revenge offered by the triumph of communism. Pre-war artists were despised by the bourgeoisie. Under the New Faith these same writers were praised while the bourgeoisie who had once looked down on them, was arrested. Ha ha ha. And of course it goes much wider than artists. All kinds of people who were despised and humiliated in bourgeois society, now triumph – workers and peasants lord it over factory owners and aristocrats. Communism catered to a very human appetite for revenge.

Socialist realism Unfortunately, it took a while for these artists to realise that the doctrine of Socialist Realism runs directly counter to the role of the artist through the ages, at least a Miłosz defines it. Miłosz thinks the role of the artist is ‘to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, and to tell the truth as he sees it’. Many sincerely thought they needed to repress this bourgeois subjectivity in order to join the March of History. The four portraits of Polish communist writers each indicate the price they had to pay for obeising themselves to the new regime’s demand for Socialist Realism.

Significance Tied to the psychological issue of conquering absurdity and finding meaning in life, is the related idea that most artists, writers etc not only want to write and publish, they wish their work to mean something: to have significance. In the communist states they could either soldier on, producing their own individualist ‘visions’ against the increasingly monolithic state culture; or they could join ‘the March of History’ and all their work would, at a stroke, become validated and meaningful.

The West Some Eastern writers and artists looked to the West for inspiration or alternative paths, but most saw – with disgust – that art and culture in the West was carrying on as if nothing had happened, no Holocaust, no extermination of peoples or destruction of cities or undermining of all bourgeois values. They carried on churning out glamorous movies and high fashion and decorative art for the rich. Disgusting! Communist ideology not only supplied objective reasons to justify the disgust of many Easterners for Western ignorance, but had the additional bonus that communism predicted the West would, in due course, also go through the fire and brimstone of revolution. In other words, communist ideology encouraged Eastern writers and artists to feel not only morally superior to their silly bourgeois counterparts in the West, but to consider themselves pioneers, way ahead of the West in experience and social development

Hence, Miłosz laments, the attitude of the Eastern intellectual to the West is that of a disappointed lover. He wishes the West were better. He wishes the West used its freedoms and technological superiority to better purpose. He wishes the West was free for something useful, noble and uplifting, instead of shiny vulgar consumerism.

Snobbery For Eastern communism also offered a simple appeal to snobbery. Eastern intellectuals were encouraged to feel superior to the shocking ‘vulgarity’ of Western culture: Hollywood movies, chewing gum, popcorn, fast cars, jeans, sneakers – what shallow, vulgar materialists! From Paris via Berlin to Moscow, adherents of communist ideology were convinced that the New Society would produce, alongside a superior economy, a superior culture, a culture proclaiming the New Socialist Man and a New Socialist Society of freedom and equality.

This was to be their weakest point. It turns out that, whatever ‘intellectuals’ might say, everyone else in the world does want to wear jeans and shades, to own cars, fridges and televisions which work (unlike the awful, malfunctioning communist products), to own the latest mobile phone.

Informers The ‘new socialist man’ is an informer. Snoops thrive, the more cunning and duplicitous the better, leading to a constant but unspoken war of all against all and ‘the survival of the craftiest’ (p.76). Everyone is watched, or suspects they are being watched. The result is that, in absolutely every social encounter, everyone must act – act a part, act a role, stop yourself saying what you think, run it past your inner censor to see if it could be interpreted as being against the Party, against Russia, against the Leader.

The state which, according to Lenin, was supposed to wither away gradually is now all-powerful. It holds a sword over the head of every citizen; it punishes him for every careless word. (p.219)

The failure of communism

The two long final chapters are devastating indictments of life under Russian communism. The first one gives a searing analysis of how the different classes in Poland have responded to the imposition of Russian-style communism. What came home to me most was the way that any kind of personal initiative whatsoever was not just banned but punished. Sell off a few eggs from your hen – you are a ‘speculator’, 5 years in a labour camp. Organise a strike – ‘bourgeois reactionary’, off to labour camp. Set up a youth group without permission – ‘subversive’, labour camp.

You can at least see the logic, according to their own lights, of punishing the bourgeois and the speculator. But the really unbearable irony of the communist system was that the whole grim repressive set-up was supposed to exist for the sake of ‘the workers’ and yet it was the workers who were most dissatisfied with it. The much-vaunted proletariat ended up having to work in the same factories, having ever-increasing demands for productivity imposed on them, with anyone speaking out of turn being arrested and sent to Siberia. And all for worse pay with which they could no longer buy half the things they needed, products which, under the inefficient communist system, were either no longer available or of shockingly bad quality.

Miłosz shows how this inefficiency was the inevitable result of having to factor into the cost of production – whether of agricultural products or factory outputs – the enormous bureaucracy which now infested every level of the communist economy: the huge number of middle managers who counted and tallied every input and output, measuring it all against the Five Year Plan. And the immense cost of the secret police, the state police and the huge army.

All of this was paid for by the sweat of the workers who found their living standard under communism actually declining. No wonder it was workers who led the spontaneous strikes and demonstrations which broke out all across East Germany in 1953.

Russia

Another reason for discontent was the unavoidable fact that the sort of communism they were being forced to submit to was unmistakably Russian in origin and technique, with all that that implied for East Europeans from Warsaw to Berlin, namely that it was backward, crude, unsophisticated, brutal and stupid. Here are some of Miłosz’s references to the wonderful Motherland.

  • It isn’t pleasant to submit to the hegemony of a nation which is still wild and primitive. (p.19)
  • …the Russian inferiority complex… (p.35)
  • Russia has always hated and despised the West, for its prosperity and decadence. (p.43)
  • Russia’s inferiority complex leads her to demand constant homage and assurances of her unquestionable superiority… (p.45)
  • One has but to read Tolstoy’s What Is Art? to get a picture of the scorn for Western sophistication that is so typical of the Russians. (p.47)
  • Russians, who do not possess the virtue of moderation… (p.51)
  • … a nation which has never known how to rule itself, and which in all its history has never known prosperity or freedom. (p.52)
  • The chief characteristic of the people who practice National Ketman is an unbounded contempt for Russia as a barbaric country. (p.61)
  • The New Faith is a Russian creation, and the Russian intelligentsia which shaped it had developed the deepest contempt for all art that does not serve social ends directly. (p.74)

Communist crimes The result of a failed system imposed by crude barbarians was:

  • Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups… (p.63)

The Terror And so, the grand result of all these factors, is that an inefficient and unpopular system can only possibly be kept in place by the rigorous suppression of all opposition, indeed of all free thought. Insofar as the slightest deviant thought or the slightest outbreak of selling things for a profit contain the germ of the resurgence of hated capitalism, everyone must be spied on and listened to, no heretical thought or word dare go unpunished. The result?

  • When one considers the matter logically, it becomes obvious that intellectual terror is a principle Leninism-Stalinism can never forsake, eve if it should achieve victory on a world scale. The enemy, in a potential form, will always be there… (p.214)

The Baltic states

The final chapter is an essay on the horrible post-war fate of the Baltic states i.e. complete absorption into communist Russia, the collectivisation of their agriculture, the lowering of living standards, the mass deportations to Siberia, the colonisation by Russian civilians, the imposition of Russian culture and language. Because Miłosz was born in Lithuania and later in life insisted on being thought of as a Lithuanian rather than a Polish writer, he is particularly heart-broken by this devastation of his homeland.

The manifold humiliations of the Balts, and the casual references he makes to living under a state of permanent terror, of the liquidation of entire classes and peoples (e.g. the Crimean Tartars), the falsification of culture, the lies about industrial production, the waves of purges and mass arrests, the way everyone is forced to play act and lie, even to themselves, due to the ubiquity of spies and informers – it all builds up to a horrific vision of life in hell and a hell which, amazingly, many leading intellectuals in the West wanted to import into their countries, too. And here he returns to his stated aim of lifting the scales from the eyes of the idiotic pro-communist sympathisers in the West.

Western communists

  • The writer, in his fury and frustration, turn his thoughts to Western communists. What fools they are. He can forgive their oratory if it is necessary as propaganda. But they believe most of what they proclaim about the sacred Centre, and that is unforgivable. Nothing can compare to the contempt he feels for these sentimental fools. (p.20)

Credit

Zniewolony umysł by Czesław Miłosz was published in Polish in Paris by the Instytut Literacki in 1953. This translation into English by Jane Zielonko was published in 1953 by Secker and Warburg. Page references are to the 1985 King Penguin paperback edition.

The translation is excellent. Having waded through the terrible Penguin translations of Albert Camus into stilted, unidiomatic English, it is a joy to read Zielonko’s graceful, clear and compelling prose.

Related links

Related reviews

Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or gulags. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


Related links

Related reviews

 

%d bloggers like this: