The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm (1975)

The astonishing world-wide expansion of capitalism in the third quarter of the [nineteenth] century…
(The Age of Capital, page 147)

Eric Hobsbawn (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading historians. A lifelong Marxist, his most famous books are the trilogy covering what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

To which he later appended his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 to 1991 (1994).

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 does what it says on the tin and provides a dazzlingly panoramic overview of the full economic, political and social events right across Europe and indeed around the world, from the famous year of revolutions (1848) through to his cutoff point 27 years later.

In his preface Hobsbawm says that the end of the era can be taken as 1873, which marked the start of what contemporaries came to call the Great Depression, a decades-long slump in trade and industry which is usually taken to have lasted from 1873 to 1896. Maybe he and the publishers chose the slightly later date of 1875 so as to end it precisely 100 years before the book’s publication date. Certainly nothing specifically important happened in 1875, it’s just a convenient marker.

General response

When I was a student in the 1980s I much preferred Hobsbawm’s rip-roaring and colourful trilogy to his dry economic volume, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day (1968). Now the situation is reversed. I like the earlier book because it is more factual, which makes the central proposition of its first part – that the vital spur to the industrial revolution was Britain’s position at the centre of a complex global network of colonies which allowed it to import raw materials from some and export finished products to others at great profit – all the more powerful and persuasive.

By contrast, The Age of Capital is much more overtly a) Marxist and b) rhetorical and, after a while, both these aspects began to seriously detract from my enjoyment.

1. Very dated Marxism

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to bang on about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are both foreign words, French and German, respectively, and, for me, they began to really stick out from the text. I began to circle them in pencil, along with his other buzzwords, ‘capitalism’ and ‘revolution’, and this helped to visually confirm my sense that some passages of the book are entirely constructed from this dusty Marxist rhetoric. ‘The demands of the bourgeoisie…’, ‘The bourgeois market…’, ‘The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie…’, literally hundreds of times.

Back in the 1980s it didn’t stick out so much because a) as a humanities student I moved in an atmosphere permanently coloured with excitable student rhetoric about ‘the revolution’ and the overthrow of ‘capitalism’ and so on, and b) this reflected the rhetoric’s widespread use in the public domain, where you heard a lot more of this sort of terminology coming out of the 1980s Labour Party in the era of the Miners Strike and the Militant Tendency and so on.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the steam went out of international socialism. Up till then the rhetoric of revolution had a genuine sense of threat or menace – not that there was necessarily going to be a revolution tomorrow, but there had been, and there could be again, and so it felt like some kind of communist revolution was, at the very least, a real, conceptual possibility. And this sense of possibility and threat was reinforced by the number of genuinely communist governments around the world, all 15 Soviet states, all of China, half of Europe, much of south-east Asia, as well as the various Marxist guerrilla groups across Africa and Latin America. It was a rhetoric, a set of ideas and a mindset you couldn’t help engaging with every day if you watched the news or read newspapers.

File:Communist countries 1979-1983.png

Communist countries 1979 to 1983. Source: Wikipedia

These terms had real-world presence and possibilities because they were the official rhetoric of half the governments of the world. The Soviet Union, Chinese or Cuban governments routinely made pronouncements condemning the ‘capitalist countries’, attacking ‘bourgeois liberalism’, criticising ‘western imperialists’ and so on.

Now, decades later, all this has disappeared. Gross injustice there still is, and sporadic outbreaks of left-wing-sounding movements for fairness. But they lack the intellectual cohesion and above all the sense of confidence (and funding) and threat which ‘revolutionary’ movements were given in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by the vast presence and threat of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. John Le Carré’s thrillers had such an impact because behind the small number of spies battling it out there was the real sense that a war might break out, that espionage might play a role in the actual undermining of the West.

What I’m driving at is that Hobsbawm’s relentless focus on the political movements of the workers of his era, of the proletariat and radicals and socialists and so on of the 1860s and 1870s, now looks quaint and dated. Of course 1848 to 1875 was the era of the triumph of capitalism and the response of workers and workers parties and liberals and intellectuals all across Europe was often couched in terms of socialism and even communism, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were alive and organising and writing, yes, of course.

But this book’s relentless focus on the plight of ‘the workers’ and the formation of ‘the proletariat’ is not only obviously biased and parti pris but now, in our post-communist era, comes over as dated and contrived. He was writing in the mid-1970s to a widespread acceptance of very left-wing politics which was common not only among academics but in trade unions and major political parties all across Europe and which has now… vanished.

And comes over as boring. I got bored of the way Hobsbawm casually labels the working classes or the populations of non-western countries as ‘victims’, as if absolutely everyone in 1860s China or Persia or Egypt or Africa were helpless children.

I’m just reading a passage where he lambasts the Victorian bourgeoisie for its ‘prejudices’ but his own worldview is just as riddled with prejudice, clichés and stereotypes – the ‘bourgeoisie’ is always 100% powerful exploiters; everyone else is always 100% helpless ‘victims’; only Karl Marx understood what was going on; the holy quest for ‘revolution’ went into abeyance during these years but was to revive and flourish in the 1880s, hurrah!

He repeats certain phrases, such as ‘bourgeois liberalism’, so many times that they eventually become empty of meaning, little more than slogans and boo words.

‘Here is the hypocrite bourgeois in the bosom of his smug family while the workers slave away in his factory’, BOO!

‘Here are the socialist intellectuals and more educated workers seeking to organise labour and planning for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society and the seizure of the means of production by the workers’, HOORAY!

‘Here are the Great Thinkers of the period, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, whose writings supported raw capitalism, racism and eugenics’, BOO!

‘Here are Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels, noble humanitarians who were the only ones to grasp the scale of the socio-economic changes the industrialised world was undergoing’, HOORAY!

2. Hobsbawm’s superficial treatment prevents understanding

This brings me to the other major flaw in the book which is that it reads to me, now, as so superficial on almost all the specific events it covers, as to be actively misleading.

As a starry-eyed and fairly uneducated student it came as a dazzling revelation to learn just how many huge and momentous events took place during this packed 25-year period. It was my first introduction to the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, to the Taiping Rebellion and the American Civil War and so on, all of which stretched my historical understanding and broadened my perspectives on world history.

However, rereading it now, 30 years later, I think Hobsbawm’s presentation of many of these subjects is so brief and is so skewed by the way he forces everything into his Marxist worldview – everything is shoehorned into the same framework of capitalism and proletariat and bourgeoisie – as to be actively misleading.

Because every event he covers is described in terms of the triumph of the liberal-capitalist bourgeoisie over either their own proletariat or entire foreign nations (for example, China or India) everything ends up sounding very samey. He doesn’t distinguish between the enormous cultural, economic, legal and historical differences between nations – between, for example the ‘bourgeoisie’ of America, Britain and Germany, all very different things – he doesn’t pay attention to the complexities and unexpected turns and ironies which defy Marxism’s neat patterns and limited repertoire of concepts.

This generalising tendency makes a lot of the events of the era sound the same and this actively prevents a proper understanding of history’s complexities and strangeness. It was only when I read specific books on some of the events he describes that I came to really understand the complexity and specificity of events which Hobsbawm, for all his verve and rhetoric, often leaves badly unexplained.

For example, I’ve just read Hobsbawm’s description of the Paris Commune (pages 200 to 202) and am profoundly unimpressed. He skimps on the historical detail or the actual events of the Commune, preferring to give a shallow, teenage account of how much it scared the European bourgeoisie and how they took fright at the sight of workers running their own government etc.

Its [the Commune’s] actual history is overlaid by the enormously powerful myth it generated, both in France itself and (through Karl Marx) in the international socialist movement; a myth which reverberates to this day, notably in the Chinese People’s Republic… If it did not threaten the bourgeois order seriously, it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence. Its life and death were surrounded by panic and hysteria, especially in the international press, which accused it of instituting communism, expropriating the rich and sharing their wives, terror, wholesale massacre, chaos, anarchy and whatever else haunted the nightmares of the respectable classes – all, needless to say, deliberately plotted by the International. (p.201)

See what I mean by rhetoric? Heavy on rhetoric and references to Marx, the International, communist China, revolution, bourgeois order and so on. But where are the facts in that passage? There aren’t any.

Hobsbawm fails to explain the context of the Franco-Prussian War or the complex sequence of events which led to the declaration of the Commune. He glosses over the way the workers’ government came into being, the disagreements among various factions, the executions of hostages which introduced a note of terror and violence into the situation, which was then amply repaid by the French government forces when they retook Paris arrondissement by arrondissement and the mass executions of communards which followed. I only came to properly appreciate the Commune’s grim complexity when, many decades later, I read The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

Same with the Crimean War, which Hobsbawm dismisses as a notorious fiasco and more or less leaves at that (p.96). It wasn’t until I read The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010) a few years ago that I for the first time understood the long-term geopolitical forces at work (namely the Ottoman Empire’s decay and the fierce ambition of Russia to seize the Straits and extend their territory all the way to Constantinople), the complicated sequence of events which led up to the outbreak of war, and the multiple ways in which it was, indeed, a mismanaged disaster.

Same with the American Civil War (pages 170 to 173). Hobsbawn gives a breath-takingly superficial sketch (‘For four years the civil war raged’) and, surprisingly for such a left-wing writer, doesn’t really give slavery its due weight. He is more interested in the way victory for the North was victory for American capitalism, which was the view of Marx himself.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I read James McPherson’s epic history of the American Civil War, decades later, that I really understood the long-term causes of the war, the huge conceptual frameworks within which it took place (I’m still awed at the ambition of some of the southern slavers to create a new and completely separate nation which would include all the Caribbean and most of Central America), the terrible, appalling, mind-searing horrors of slavery, the strong case made by the southern states for secession, and the technological reasons (development of better guns) why it went on so long and caused such immense casualties (620,000 dead).

Here are books on specific events or figures from the period, which I would strongly in preference to Hobsbawm if you really want to fully understand key events from the period:

Same on the domestic front. By limiting his description of British society to concepts of capital, capitalists, bourgeoisie and proletariat, Hobsbawm, in his concern with identifying the structural and economic parallels between all the capitalist nations of the West, loses most of the details which make history, and life, interesting.

I came to this book immediately after reading Richard Shannon’s book, The Crisis of Imperialism, 1865 to 1915 which is a long, sometimes rather turgid, but nonetheless fascinating and detailed analysis of the high politics of Britain during the period, which views them almost entirely in terms of the complicated challenges faced by successive British leaders in trying to keep the various factions in their parties onside while they negotiated the minefields of domestic and international politics. Among other things, Shannon’s book brilliantly conveys the matrix of intellectual and political traditions which politicians like Gladstone and Disraeli sought to harness, and how they both were trying to preserve visions of a past equilibrium or social balance which probably never existed, while the world hurried them relentlessly onwards.

By contrast, Hobsbawm’s account gives you no idea at all of the characters and worldviews of the leading politicians of the day; they are all just representatives of the ‘bourgeoisie’, taken as, for all intents and purposes, identical, whether in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and so on. (The one possible exception is Bismarck, who emerges with a very clear political agenda, all of which he achieved, and so impresses Hobsbawm.)

The book’s strengths

Where the book does score, what made its reputation when it was published and has maintained it ever since, is the bravura confidence with which Hobsbawm leaps from one continent to another, mimicking in the structure of his text the phenomenal spread of the industrial revolution and the new capitalist ways of managing production, new social relations, a new economy, and new trading relations, new and unprecedented ways of doing things which spread like wildfire around the world. The first half of the book is crammed with raw facts and statistics about the West’s astonishing feats of industrialisation and engineering. Here are some highlights:

1848, the ‘springtime of peoples’

1848 saw political revolution across Europe. I have summarised these in a review of 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008). The revolutions of 1848 generated a huge amount of rhetoric, primarily by middle class nationalists and liberals, but also from ideologists for the new ideas of socialism and communism.

But the key thing about the 1848 revolutions and the so-called ‘springtime of peoples’ is that they failed. Within a year, year and a half at most, they had all been crushed. Some political gains were made, serfdom was abolished in Hungary, but broadly speaking, within two years the kings and emperors were back in control.

All except in the most politically unstable country of Europe, France, which overthrew its king, endured three years of unstable democracy and then elected a buffoon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to become their emperor, Napoleon III (Napoleon counted his father as Napoleon II, hence the way he named himself the third Napoleon). The French replaced an inept king with a populist buffoon. The left was decisively crushed for nearly 40 years, only reviving in the harsher environment of the 1880s.

The labour movement [across Europe] had not so much been destroyed as decapitated by the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the subsequent decades of economic expansion. (p.133)

Boom years of the 1850s

The 1848 revolutions were bitterly fought, there was a lot of bloodshed which amounted to civil war in some parts of Europe, but apart from the fact that they all failed in their aims of establishing liberal republics, the other key thing about them that Hobsbawm brings out is they were the end of a process, not the beginning.

The 1840s are often referred to as the Hungry Forties because of the malign impact of industrialisation on many populations, combined with a run of bad harvests. BUT 1850 saw all this change, with a sudden industrial boom which lasted most of the rest of the 1850s and a run of good harvests.

With the result that the ‘working class militancy’ so beloved of a Marxist like Hobsbawm fizzled out. Chartism, which had at one point threatened the state in Britain, disappeared and the same with the other movements across Europe. All except for the nationalist movements in Germany and Italy, which were by no means socialist or for the workers. The unification of Germany was brought about by Bismarck, the opposite of a socialist.

1848 gold rush

Much more important for the global economy was the discovery, in the same year, 1848, of gold in California. This is the kind of thing Hobsbawm is good at, because he has the figures at his fingertips to show how dramatically the gold rush drew the Pacific world closer together. An unprecedented number of Chinese crossed the sea to find their fortunes in California, part of the huge influx of migrants who boosted San Francisco’s population from 812 in 1848 to 35,000 just 4 years later (p.79).

Crews of ships docking in San Francisco regularly absconded in their entirety, leaving the wooden ships to rot, many of them eventually being torn up and used as building materials. Such was the pull of gold and the mushroom wealth it created, that fleets and food were attracted up the coast from faraway Chile.

The gold rush also acted as a financial incentive for the completion of the transcontinental railways being built at the time (the line right across America was completed in 1869). Previously California had been cut off by the huge Rocky mountains. Now there was the incentive of gold to complete a transport link to it, allowing the traffic of food from the mid-West.

Globalisation

The gold rush in California (shortly followed by one in Australia) is a good example of one of the overall themes of the book, which is that this era saw the advent of Globalisation.

The interdependence of the world economy could hardly be better demonstrated. (p.79)

Due to the railway, the steamer and the telegraph…the geographical size of the capitalist economy could suddenly multiply as the intensity of its business transactions increased. The entire globe became part of this economy. This creation of a single expanded world is probably the most significant development of our period…for practical purposes an entirely new economic world was added to the old and integrated into it. (p.48)

In this industrial capitalism became a genuine world economy and the globe was therefore transformed from a geographical expression into a constant operational reality. History from now on became world history. (p.63)

No wonder that observers saw the economic world not merely as a single interlocking complex, but as one where each part was sensitive to what happened elsewhere, and through which money, goods and men moved smoothly and with increasing rapidity, according to the irresistible stimuli of supply and demand, gain and loss and with the help of modern technology. (p.82)

…the ever-tightening network of global communications, whose most tangible result was a vast increase in the flow of international exchanges of goods and men… (p.85)

For the historian the great boom of the 1850s marks the foundation of a global industrial economy and a single world history. (p.88)

… the extraordinary widening and deepening  of the world economy which forms the basic theme of world history at this period. (p.207)

Second industrial revolution

There are varying opinions about how many industrial revolutions there were. From Hobsbawm’s accounts here and in Industry and Empire it seems clear the first industrial revolution centred on cotton production, took place in Lancashire, and relied on British dominance of international trade, since 100% of the raw material was imported (from the American South) and a huge percentage was then exported (to Africa and India).

There was a slump in the textile economy in the 1830s and Hobsbawm briefly entertains the counter-factual possibility that the process of industrialisation, which had, after all, only touched a relatively tiny part of the world’s surface, might have sputtered out and died altogether.

But it was saved by a second wave of renewed industrial activity leading to phenomenal growth in production of coal and iron, with accompanying technical innovations, which were catalysed by the new technology connected with the railway (which Hobsbawm tells us Karl Marx thought of as capitalism’s ‘crowning achievement’, p.48).

Railway mania

Hobsbawm explains how the railway mania, at first in Britain, then in other industrialising nations, was driven by financial factors, namely the need for capitalists who had acquired large amounts of capital for something to invest in.

Hobsbawm has some lyrical passages, the kind of thing most readers of this book long remember, describing the astonishing feats of finance and engineering and labour which flung huge lengths of iron railroad across the continents of the world between the 1840s and the 1870s, connecting coasts with hinterlands, linking the world together as never before. Many readers remember Hobsbawm’s awed descriptions of the astonishing achievements of individual railway entrepreneurs such as Thomas Brassey, who at one point was employing 80,000 men on five continents (pages 70 to 73).

Such men thought in continents and oceans. For them the world was a single unit, bound together with rails of iron and steam engines, because the horizons of business were like their dreams, world-wide. (p.74)

He points out that Jules Verne’s famous novel of 1873, Around the World in Eighty Days, was fantastically topical to its time. In effect its protagonist, Phileas Fogg, was testing and showcasing the spread of the new railway technology which had girdled the earth (p.69).

Map of the trip

Map of Philea Fogg’s route in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (Map created by Roke. Source: Wikipedia)

The electric telegraph

Even more dramatic than railways was the development of the electric telegraph which Hobsbawm describes in detail on pages 75 to 78. It was the telegraph which created the first and definitive communications revolution. In 1848 you had to wait months for letters to arrive from another continent. By 1875 news could be telegraphed from England to America in minutes. It was a transformation in human relations, perception and psychology.

Hobsbawm goes on to make the interesting point that this globalisation was still very limited and focused on high profit areas and routes. Only a hundred miles from the railway and telegraph, billions of people still lived with more or less feudal technology, the fastest vehicle being the ox-cart.

Right from the beginning the process of globalisation created an even bigger zone of unglobalisation, what is now often called the ‘left behind’. So Phileas Fogg’s famous journey has this additional interpretation, that it was a journey along the frontier between the newly globalised and the still untouched. In the novel Phileas travels a kind of borderline between the deep past and the ever-accelerating future.

Production figures

Britain produced 2.5 million tons of iron in 1850, in 1870 6 million tons, or about half the world’s total. Over the same period world production of coal increased by two and a half times, world output of iron four times. Global steam power increased from an estimated 4 million horsepower in 1850 to 18.5 million HP by 1870. In 1859 2,000 million barrels of oil were produced in the USA, in 1874, 11 million barrels. The book ends with a dozen pages of tables conveying these and many other examples of the explosion in productivity and output, and maps showing the spread of trade routes and emigration movements around the world.

The industrialisation of the German Federation between 1850 and 1870 had major geopolitical implications, creating the industrial might which helped Bismarck win three wars in succession and create a united Germany, which has been a decisive force in Europe ever since (p.56).

World fairs

As their economic system, businesses and military might spread around the world, what Hobsbawm calls the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ celebrated in a series of world’s fairs, starting with the famous Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London at which no fewer than 14,000 firms exhibited (1851), followed by Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1875 (p.47).

Mass migration

The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw the largest migrations in human history to that point. Between 1846 and 1875 more than 9 million people left Europe, mostly for America (p.228). Between 1851 and 1880 about 5.3 million people left the British Isles (3.5 million to the USA, 1 million to Australia, half a million to Canada).

More subtly, maybe, there was large scale inner migration from the countryside to the new mushroom towns and cities of the industrial revolution, creating vast acreages of appallingly squalid, over-crowded slums without any sanitation, water etc. These were to be the settings for the poverty literature and government reports of the 1880s and 1890s which brought about sweeping changes in town planning at the end of the century and into the 1900s.

The challenge to the developing world

The corollary of the notion that industrial ‘liberal capitalism’ spread its tentacles right around the world during this period, drawing all nations and peoples and places into its ravenous quest for profit, was the challenge this represented to all the non-Western nations and other cultures. Hobsbawn has sections describing the responses of the Ottoman Empire, the world of Islam, the Chinese Empire, the Persian Empire and the Japanese to the growing challenge from what he glibly calls ‘the West’.

His passages on these nations suffer from the same shortcomings I’ve listed above, namely that they are brief and superficial. To really understand what happened in China during this period, I would recommend The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2013). For an overview of why the non-Western empires and cultures proved incapable of matching the West’s dynamism, I recommend the outstanding After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 to 2000 by John Darwin. For descriptions of the internal crises the transformation sparked, generally leading to the overthrow of the old regimes, in the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan in a controlled way, I would recommend you to find books specifically about those countries.

Wars

It was an era of wars. Which era hasn’t been?

  • The Second Carlist War (1846 to 1849) was a minor Catalan uprising
  • The Taiping Rebellion aka the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, 1850 to 1864
  • The Crimean War, October 1853 to February 1856
  • American Civil War, 12 April 1861 to 9 April 1865
  • The Unification of Germany involved:
    • The Second Schleswig War aka Prusso-Danish War Feb to October 1864
    • The Austro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks’ War, June to July 1866
    • The Franco-Prussian War War, 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871
  • The Unification of Italy involved:
    • The Second Italian War of Independence aka the Austro-Sardinian War, April to 12 July 1859
      (2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
    • The Third Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire, June and August 1866
  • The Paraguayan War aka the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864 to 1870
  • The Third Carlist War, in Spain, 1872 to 1876

Famines

Less newsworthy than wars, less painted, less celebrated, producing fewer statues and medals, but many times more people died in famines than conflicts. As Hobsbawm points out, one of the fundamental differences between the ‘civilised world’ and the rest is that the industrial world can (by and large) feed its populations, whereas the undeveloped world is susceptible to failures of harvest and distribution.

  • 1848: Java ravaged by famine
  • 1849: maybe 14 million died in the Chinese famine
  • 1854 to 1864 as many as 20 million died in prolonged famine in China
  • 1856: one in ten of the population of Orissa died in the famine
  • 1861 to 1872: a fifth the population of Algeria died of starvation
  • 1868 to 1870: up to a third the population of Rajputana
  • 3 and a half million perished in Madras
  • 1871 to 1873: up to 2 million, a third the population of Persia, died of starvation
  • 1876 to 1878: 1 million in Mysore

Hobsbawm tries to reclaim human dignity i.e. give these catastrophes some semblance of meaning, by blaming some of this on the colonial powers (especially the British in India; as a British Marxist he is duty bound to reserve most of his scorn and contempt for the British authorities). But the effect of this list is not to make me ‘blame’ anyone, it just overwhelms me with the misery and suffering most of humanity have experienced throughout most of human history.

American states

In the post-civil war era, America continued to grow, adding states to its roster, having now settled the central issue of the war, which was whether they would be slave states of free states. The North’s victory in 1865 meant they would all be ‘free’ states.

  • Wisconsin became a state in 1848
  • California 1850
  • Minnesota 1858
  • Oregon 1859
  • Kansas 1861
  • West Virginia 1863
  • Nevada 1864
  • Nebraska 1867
  • Russia sold America Alaska 1867
  • Colorado 1876

Colonies

The original European colonial powers were Portugal and Spain. Spain lost control of its colonies in Central and South America in the early 1800s. Portugal hung on longer to a handful of territories in Latin America, a few coastal strips in Africa and Goa in India (p.145). The Dutch created a sizeable foreign empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French had ambitions to control North America and India but lost out during the 18th century to the British. So that the nineteenth century belonged to Britain, which ruled the world’s oceans and developed an unprecedented web of international, ocean-carried trade and this, Hobsbawm argues, was the bedrock reason for Britain pioneering the industrial revolution.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a fully developed capitalist system must be continually looking for new markets in order to maintain its growth. Where markets don’t exist in its native country, the system creates needs and markets through advertising. Or it conquers new parts of the world and new populations which it can drag into its mesh of trade and sales, extracting its raw materials at the cheapest cost, and turning them into manufactured items which it sells back to colonial peoples at the maximum profit.

Although there continued to be expeditions and territorial claims during this period, it was really a prelude to the frenzy of imperial conquest which characterised the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and which is the subject of the third book in the trilogy, the sequel to this one, Age of Empire.

In a word

Hobsbawm’s book impressed when it was published, and still does now, with its sheer range and scope, with its blizzard of facts and data, with its rhetorical conjuring of a world for the first time embraced and joined together by new technologies (railway, steamship, telegraph).

But its strength is its weakness, for its breadth means it sacrifices subtlety and insight for dogma, and becomes increasingly bogged down in sweeping generalisations about the wicked bourgeoisie and hypocritical capitalists (‘In general capitalists of the first generation were philistines…’, p.334).

By the end of the book I was sick to death of the sight of the word ‘bourgeois’. Hobsbawm sounds like a fairground toy: put a penny in the slot and watch it jerk to life and start spouting endless slogans about the vicious, hypocritical, exploitative ‘bourgeoisie’, especially in the long and profoundly dim final  sections of the book in which, God forgive us, an ageing Marxist historian shares with us his banal and  predictable views about the intellectual and artistic achievements of the period. For example:

  • The novel can be considered the one genre which found it possible to adapt itself to that bourgeois society….p.326
  • When one considers the orgy of building into which a prosperous bourgeois society threw itself…326
  • Few societies have cherished the works of creative genius… more than that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. p.327
  • The demands of the bourgeoisie were individually more modest, collectively far greater. (p.330)
  • The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie made the fortunes of plenty of architects… (p.330)
  • The bourgeois market was new only insofar as it was now unusually large and increasingly prosperous. (p.330)
  • We can certainly discover those who, for various reasons, resisted or tried to shock a bourgeois public… (p.332)
  • For bourgeois society [the artist] represented ‘genius’…
  • Bourgeois tourists could now hardly avoid that endless and footsore pilgrimage to the shrines of the arts which is still in progress along the hard floors of the Louvre, Uffizi and San Marco. (p.335)
  • [Artists] did not have to conform to the mores of the normal bourgeois… (p.335)
  • Here again Richard Wagner showed a faultless appreciation of the bourgeois artist. (p.335)
  • Did the bourgeois actually enjoy the arts? (p.335)
  • Aestheticism did not become a bourgeois fashion until the late 1870s and 1880s. (p.336)
  • The bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century was torn by a dilemma which its triumph made even more acute. (p.340)
  • At best the bourgeois version of ‘realism’ was a socially suitable selection… (p.340)
  • [Naturalism] normally implied a conscious political critique of bourgeois society… (p.340)
  • The insatiable demands of the bourgeoisie, and especially the petty-bourgeoisie, for cheap portraits provided the basis of [photography]’s success. (p.341)
  • Torn between the idealism and the realism of the bourgeois world, the realists also rejected photography… (p.342)
  • The Impressionists are important not for their popular subject matter – Sunday outings, popular dances, the townscapes and city scenes of cities, the theatres, race-courses and brothels of the bourgeois society’s half world – but for their innovation of method. (p.344)
  • If science was one basic value of bourgeois society, individualism and competition were others. (p.345)
  • [The birth of the avant-garde] represents the collapse of the attempt to produce an art intellectually consistent with (though often critical of) bourgeois society… (p.346)
  • This breakdown affected the marginal strata of the bourgeois world more than its central core: students and young intellectuals, aspiring writers and artists, the general boheme of those who refused to accept (however temporarily) to adopt the ways of bourgeois respectability… (p.347)
  • [French artists] were united, like the Romantics before 1848, only by a common dislike of the bourgeoisie… (p.348)
  • Until 1848 these spiritual Latin Quarters of bourgeois society had hope of a republic and social revolution…. (p.348)
  • Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is that story of the hope in the hearts of the world-storming young men of the 1840s and its double disappointment, by the 1848 revolution itself and by the subsequent era in which the bourgeoisie triumphed… (p.348)
  • With the collapse of the dream of 1848 and the victory of the reality of Second Empire France, Bismarckian Germany, Palmerstonian and Gladstonian Britain and the Italy of Victor Emmanuel, the western bourgeois arts starting with painting and poetry therefore bifurcated into those appealing to the mass public and those appealing to a self-defined minority. They were not quite as outlawed by bourgeois society as the mythological history of the avant-garde arts has it… (p.349)
  • [Music] could oppose the bourgeois world only from within, an easy task, since the bourgeois himself was unlikely to recognise when he was being criticised. (p.350)
  • Richard Wagner succeeded…in convincing the most financially solvent cultural authorities and members of the bourgeois public that they themselves belonged to the spiritual elite… (p.350)
  • Prose literature, and especially that characteristic art form of the bourgeois era, the novel, flourished for exactly the opposite reason. (p.350)
  • It would be unfair to confine the discussion of the arts in the age of bourgeois triumph to masters and masterpieces… (p.351)

Eventually, by dint of endless relentless repetition, the word ‘bourgeois’ becomes almost entirely emptied of meaning, and the endless conflating of everything bad, vicious, exploitative, hypocritical and philistine under this one mindless label eventually obliterates all Hobsbawm’s attempts to analyse and shed light. It does the opposite.

He nowhere makes clear that, since it is a French word implies, this venomous hatred of the ‘bourgeoisie’ had special French origins and significances in a politically unstable country which had a revolution more or less every generation throughout the century, which just weren’t the same and couldn’t be applied in the same way in Germany, Britain let alone America. Tennyson didn’t hate the English ‘bourgeoisie’, Dickens didn’t despise the English ‘bourgeoisie’, as much as their French counterparts, Baudelaire and Flaubert hated the French ‘bourgeoisie’. The hatred, the concept and the cultural context are all French and have never made nearly as much sense in Britain, let alone in America, as Marx learned to his bitter disappointment.

The passages describing the astonishing achievements of entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers and industrial innovators during this period remain thrilling and eye-opening, but they make up a minority of the text. Struggling through the long, doctrinaire Marxist and tediously banal second half is like being trapped in a corner of a party by a slobbering bore who asks you to hang on while he just tells you 20 more reasons why the Victorian bourgeoisie were so despicable. ‘Yes, grandad. I get it.’

The Age of Capital is arguably, in its overall tendency and rigidly doctrinaire interpretations, more a relic of its own time, the right-on, Marxisant 1970s, than a reliable guide to the era it claims to describe.

Ad hominem

On one occasion only have I been in a traditional London gentleman’s club, when a TV producer invited me to lunch at his club, the Garrick. He pointed out a few famous members in the packed dining room, including the distinctive features of the agèd and lanky Hobsbawm over at one of the tables.

It struck me how very English it was that this fire-breathing, ‘radical’, ‘Marxist’ historian enjoyed all the benefits of the English Establishment, membership of top clubs, numerous honours (Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the British Academy and so on), enjoying a tasty lunch at the Garrick before strolling back to the library to pen another excoriating attack on the hypocrisy, philistinism, greed, ruthlessness and cruelty of the ancestors of the jolly chaps he’d just been sitting among, confident that his ‘bourgeois’ publishers would do a good job producing and promoting his next book, that the ‘bourgeois’ bookshops would display and sell it, that the ‘bourgeois’ press would give it glowing reviews, and he would be awarded another chestful of honours by a grateful monarch.

It’s not really even hypocrisy, it’s something odder: that academic communities across the Western world happily employed, paid and promoted humanities academics and writers who systematically castigated their employers, their nations and their histories, and cheerfully proclaimed their allegiance to foreign powers (the USSR, China) who made no secret of their intention to overthrow the West in violent revolution.

Well, history has had its revenge on the Marxist historians. As I slotted Age of Capital back onto my shelf I thought I heard the sound of distant laughter.


Credit

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

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Reginald by Saki (1904)

Hector

Hector Hugh Munro was born in 1870 in Burma, then still part of the British Empire. He was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and Mary Frances Mercer, daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer. Her nephew, Cecil William Mercer, later became a famous novelist under the pen-name ‘Dornford Yates’. So a posh and bookish family.

His mother died when Hector was just two and he, along with his siblings, was sent to Devon to be raised by their grandmother and aunts in a strict and puritanical household. As a result, eccentric or mean aunts loom large in Saki’s fiction and often come to a sticky end.

Susan Mebberley was a charming woman, but she was also an aunt. (The Chronicles of Clovis)

Hector was tutored by governesses until sent to boarding school in Bedford. When his father retired from Burma, he returned to England and took Hector and his sister on tours of fashionable European spas and resorts, which also crop up in Saki’s stories.

In 1893 Hector followed his father into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma. Two years later, having contracted malaria, he resigned and returned to England.

Back in England Hector developed a new career as a journalist and began writing for newspapers like the Westminster Gazette, the Daily Express, the Morning Post, and magazines such as the Bystander and Outlook.

In 1900 he published a serious historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire. From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday on 22 January 1905) and Paris. He then gave up foreign reporting and settled in London.

Saki

In 1904 Hector published a slender volume of stories and sketches under the pen name ‘Saki’. Nobody is certain where this comes from: it could be a reference to the cup-bearer in the popular Victorian poem, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. Or it might be a reference to the South American monkey of the same name. Or it might be that his stories are laced with dry sarcasm. Or maybe he just liked the sound of the word.

Reginald

Saki’s first volume, Reginald, is extremely short, comprising twenty short texts of barely two pages each, which had all been first published as snippets in the Westminster Gazette. They are not really stories: each one is more like a topic on which we hear the divine fop, dandy and man-about-town, Reginald, giving his langorous, witty opinions, sometimes to the unnamed narrator, sometimes in dialogue with ‘the Duchess’ or just ‘the Other’, sometimes in plain declamatory prose.

The only thing Reginald cares about is his appearance. He fusses about ties and buttonholes. Even the thought of holding extended conversations exhausts the poor dear. He delights in scandalising aunts and a recurrent character, The Duchess, with deliberately paradoxical and unconventional opinions.

After a few hours in the company of the camp and calculating frivolousness of young Reginald, it comes as no surprise to learn that Saki was gay. Reginald’s character, style and flow of witty epigrams is saturated in the persona and style of Oscar Wilde.

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

By far the best, the funniest, and the most complete sketch is The Woman Who Told The Truth which contains probably his most quoted line: ‘The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.’

The brief pieces are titled:

1. Reginald

The unnamed narrator takes Reginald to an upper-class garden party where he scandalises everyone he comes in contact with, teaching the children how to make cocktails, mocking the Colonel’s story of how he introduced golf to India, discussing a scandalous French novel with the Archdeacon’s wife. By the time the narrator catches up with him:

I found everyone talking nervously and feverishly of the weather and the war in South Africa, except Reginald, who was reclining in a comfortable chair with the dreamy, far-away look that a volcano might wear just after it had desolated entire villages.

The narrator plays his trump card by telling Reginald a sea-mist is coming in. Reginald sits bolt upright and agrees to beat a hasty retreat to their carriage, for fear that the mist might undo the elaborate curl of hair over his right eyebrow.

2. Reginald on Christmas Presents

Why people are so lamentably bad at giving presents. Really, there ought to be special training in the art of gift-giving:

Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.

3. Reginald on the Academy

Meaning the Royal Academy of Art, for which Reginald affects a fashionable disdain, its sole purpose being to have something to talk about to the tedious country cousins when they come up to Town. As to the actual pictures:

‘The pictures are all right, in their way; after all, one can always look at them if one is bored with one’s surroundings, or wants to avoid an imminent acquaintance.’

In his continual effort to scandalise with unexpected paradox, Reginald reminds the reader of a slightly cut-price Oscar Wilde:

‘What were you talking about? Oh, pictures. Personally, I rather like them; they are so refreshingly real and probable, they take one away from the unrealities of life.’

4. Reginald at the Theatre

A dialogue between Reginald and the Duchess, in which she asks the questions and he supplies the punchlines:

‘Of course you are quite irreligious?’
‘Oh, by no means. The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the mediæval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other.’

Which leads into the Duchess’s earnest defence of the British Empire and Reginald’s debonaire mockery of it.

5. Reginald’s Peace Poem

A mockery of poetry as Reginald explains how he’s setting about writing a poem for peace.

‘You must have angels in a Peace poem and I know dreadfully little about their habits.’

6. Reginald’s Choir Treat

The vicar’s grown-up daughter in the village where Reginald’s unworldly family still live, is encouraged to undertake his moral reformation. Obviously she fails when it comes to verbal exchanges and so shifts tack and asks him to help with the village children’s choir. Unfortunately, she then takes to her bed with a cold. With a glint in his eye, Reginald leads the children to a stream, gets them to strip off and bathe, then decorate each other with flowers, and process mostly naked through the village leading a goat, in a delightful homage to the pagan world. Nude Greek paganism.

7. Reginald on Worries

To my mind, education is an absurdly over-rated affair. At least, one never took it very seriously at school, where everything was done to bring it prominently under one’s notice. Anything that is worth knowing one practically teaches oneself, and the rest obtrudes itself sooner or later.

8. Reginald on House-Parties

One never gets to know one’s hosts and one’s hosts never get to know you and if they do then quite often, as in the unfortunate affair of the peacock, they take a decided turn against you.

So I got up the next morning at early dawn—I know it was dawn, because there were lark-noises in the sky, and the grass looked as if it had been left out all night…

9. Reginald at the Carlton

Discussing travel with the Duchess:

‘And, after all, they charge so much for excess luggage on some of those foreign lines that it’s really an economy to leave one’s reputation behind one occasionally.’

As usual, even in comedy, these old stories reveal that some social issues are with us forever.

‘And the youngest daughter, who was intended for the American marriage market, has developed political tendencies, and writes pamphlets about the housing of the poor. Of course it’s a most important question, and I devote a good deal of time to it myself in the mornings.’

10. Reginald on Besetting Sins (The Woman Who Told The Truth)

There was once (said Reginald) a woman who told the truth. Not all at once, of course, but the habit grew upon her gradually, like lichen on an apparently healthy tree. She had no children—otherwise it might have been different. It began with little things, for no particular reason except that her life was a rather empty one, and it is so easy to slip into the habit of telling the truth in little matters…

This ironical inversion of the usual values is conceived and delivered with style and aplomb. And talking of how some things never change, Southern trains were, apparently, as proverbial for their lateness in 1900 as they are in 2020.

The revenge of an elder sister may be long in coming, but, like a South-Eastern express, it arrives in its own good time.

11. Reginald’s Drama

Reginald plans a play which would open with the sound and scent of wolves wafted across the footlight such as to make nervous Lady Whortleberry scream, It would then become a tragedy such as that of the mismatched Mudge-Jervises, where he was always absent at sports and she was always absent doing Good Works for the Poor, and when they did finally meet up after 18 months of marriage, they discovered they had nothing in common. If and when the characters could think of nothing brilliant to say about marriage or the War Office, they could open a window and listen to the howling of the wolves. ‘But that would be very seldom.’

This harping on about wolves is one of the first appearances of the large wild animals which would become the signature note of his most effective stories.

12. Reginald on Tariffs

Talking about tariffs, the lift-boy, who reads extensively between the landings, says it won’t do to tax raw commodities. What, exactly, is a raw commodity? Mrs. Van Challaby says men are raw commodities till you marry them.

13. Reginald’s Christmas Revel

Reginald describes a perfectly beastly Christmas he spent as a house guest at the Babswolds’ once, where he took his revenge by playing a particularly corking practical joke.

I don’t like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air-filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady’s door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been an historic battlefield.

14. Reginald’s Rubaiyat

Reginald outrages the Duchess with steadily more outlandish versions of verses he composes for her album.

15. The Innocence of Reginald

Reginald announces he is going to write ‘a book of personal reminiscences’ and leave nothing out, which prompts an absolute panic among his acquaintance. It prompts a prolonged argument with Miriam Klopstock all the way through a play at His Majesty’s Theatre.

She leaned back and snorted, ‘You’re not the boy I took you for,’ as though she were an eagle arriving at Olympus with the wrong Ganymede.

Bons mots

Reginald in his wildest lapses into veracity never admits to being more than twenty-two.

‘People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.’

‘To have reached thirty,’ said Reginald, ‘is to have failed in life.’

‘I agree with you.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve a sweet temper, but I can’t stand being agreed with.’

No really provident woman lunches regularly with her husband if she wishes to burst upon him as a revelation at dinner. He must have time to forget; an afternoon is not enough.

‘Lift-boys always have agèd mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.’

‘There are certain fixed rules that one observes for one’s own comfort. For instance, never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.’

‘I always say beauty is only sin deep.’

‘You promised you would never mention it; don’t you ever keep a promise?’ When people had stopped glaring in our direction, I replied that I’d as soon think of keeping white mice.

‘Her frocks are built in Paris, but she wears them with a strong English accent. So public-spirited of
her. I think she must have been very strictly brought up, she’s so desperately anxious to do the wrong thing correctly.’

‘A woman who leaves her cook never wholly recovers her position in Society.’

‘I hate posterity — it’s so fond of having the last word.’

Saki and Kipling

A few years ago I read most of Kipling’s works and was interested to see him referenced a couple of times in these brief skits. As the son of an Imperial official, born in India and sent to prep school in Devon and forced to stay with uncongenial ‘carers’, Hector’s early life was eerily similar to Kipling’s and they were only five years apart in age (Kipling born 1865, Saki 1870).

And yet Saki was of a completely different temperament and instead of respecting the older writer, he enjoys satirising him and his earnest embodiment of Imperial values.

Kipling or someone has described somewhere the look a foundered camel gives when the caravan moves on and leaves it to its fate. The peptonised reproach in the good lady’s eyes brought the passage vividly to my mind.

In Reginald at the theatre the Duchess tries to provoke the sceptical Reginald into admitting that, despite his pose of elaborate cynicism, he at least believes in patriotism. What’s interesting is the way she expresses herself in Kiplingesque clichés and quotes.

‘But there are other things,’ she continued, ‘which I suppose are to a certain extent sacred even to you. Patriotism, for instance, and Empire, and Imperial responsibility, and blood-is-thicker-than-water, and all that sort of thing… Oh, well, “dominion over palm and pine,” you know,’ quoted
the Duchess hopefully; ‘of course we mustn’t forget that we’re all part of the great Anglo-Saxon Empire.’

In among her jumble of platitudes she is quoting Kipling’s most eminent poem, Recessional

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

It’s interesting evidence of the way Kipling’s phrases had penetrated the culture; the way in which a sub-Kipling Imperial worldview was just part of the respectable mindset of the day.

Elsewhere, Reginald jokes about a couple who lived very happily apart, him serving overseas, until they accidentally met one day and discovered they profoundly disagreed on ‘the Fiscal Question’ (a reference, I think, to Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign for tariff reform designed to bind the British Empire together into one trading bloc) and so are divorcing and trying to agree custody of the Persian cats. Reginald is considering turning the story into a drama mockingly titled ‘The Price They Paid For Empire’. In other words, part of the comedy derives from deliberately ridiculing and belittling everything Kipling held dear.

Elsewhere Saki elaborately guys Kipling’s genuinely creepy horror story, At The End of The Passage, when Reginald sneaks off from an after-dinner party game of charades to go and gamble with the servants, later giving his excuse that he was at the end of the passage. ‘I never did like Kipling,’ comments his hostess, Mrs Babwold, so it is assumed that not only the characters but the reader will recognise that phrase, the end of the passage, as the title of a Kipling story.

There are quite a few references to ‘the war’ – for example, the peace poem Reginald is composing relates to the ongoing conflict, and elsewhere he jokes:

‘And nowadays there are always the Johannesbourgeois, who bring a Cape-to-Cairo atmosphere with them — what may be called the Rand Manner, I suppose.’

In a play on ‘the Grand manner’. These are all references to the Boer War (1899 to 1902) and show that Saki’s stories are very aware of their times, are more full of topical and contemporary references than people think.

‘There’s lots more about the blessings of Peace, shall I go on reading it?’
‘If I must make a choice, I think I would rather they went on with the war.’

In its studied frivolity and its awareness of contemporary British politics and international affairs, Saki’s stories are a kind of antidote to everything earnest and manly about Kipling and his circle of Imperial visionaries.

Saki and Oscar Wilde

It’s easy to accuse Saki of being a poor man’s Oscar Wilde and it feels like Reginald owes more or less everything to the dandies of Wilde’s plays and Dorian Grey, except that most of his bon mots are not quite as polished and silvery as Wilde’s. Wilde is an incomparable prose stylist, Saki a lot less so.

Also Saki, despite appearance to the contrary, is firmly embedded in his times, as the references to the Boer War or Tariff Reform suggest, a topicality which becomes dominant in his invasion novel, When William Came. Completely different from Wilde who set his stories in an upper class fairyland. Saki’s stories always have this element of topicality about them.

But this was just the very start of his career. Soon it was to become clear that Saki’s real métier wasn’t wit alone, but the macabre and gruesome dressed as comedy. The Reginald strain remains, and some later stories still consist entirely of dandyish wit, but the best ones are known for the bizarre inclusion of wild animals and the black comedy of bullying aunts coming to grisly ends.


Related links

Saki’s works

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen (2016)

‘This is Florida, the land of batshit, trigger-happy motherfuckers.’ (p.82)

Andrew Yancy

The most notable thing about Hiaasen’s 14th novel is that it is a direct sequel to his 13th, featuring the same protagonist (former Monroe County detective Andrew Yancy), the same girlfriend he ended that novel with (Dr Rosa Campesino), and the same running feud with the owners of the vacant lot next to his, on the island of Big Pine Key, who are threatening to build a mansion which will block out Yancy’s restful view of the sunset.

At the start of book 13 Yancy was kicked off the small Monroe County police force for assaulting the husband of his then-mistress. Bonnie Witt. The easy-going head of the Monroe police, Sonny Summers, had to drop Yancy after the press furore about the assault, but got him a job he cordially hates, as a health and safety or ‘roach’ inspector of local restaurants.

Yancy is ‘a tall, lean man with a baked-in Florida tan’ (p.134) in his early 40s. He is a regular smoker of dope, who sometimes does his job or gets involved in the novel’s various criminal escapades, half-stoned. Like other Hiaasen heroes he is too honest and blunt for his own good, ‘prone to an acid bluntness that produced poor results careerwise…’ (p.55)

As usual with Hiaasen, Yancy was soon joined by a blizzard of other characters, all of whom are given complicated backstories and then placed in ever-complexifying situations and interlinking storylines.

Buck Nance

The central thread which just about keeps all the complex storylines of this novel together concerns a popular reality TV show titled Bayou Brethren, about a family of rednecks who live and bicker on a chicken farm in the Florida panhandle.

The star of the show is one Buck Nance, a middle-aged redneck with a long salt-and-pepper beard, who runs the chicken farm and so has acquired the ironic nickname Captain Cock (p.58). He lords it over his brothers, has a tough bitching wife, Krystal, but is also screwing a ‘sex-crazed’ mistress with the porny name of Miracle, on the side. (It is a given in all Hiaasen novels, that American marriage entails infidelity.)

In reality, like everything in Hiaasen, the entire show is a meretricious fake and a scam. Buck’s real name is Matthew Romberg and he and his three brothers ( Bradley (TV name: Junior), Henry (TV name: Buddy) and Todd (TV name: Clee Roy, p.68) are actually from rural Wisconsin.

They were in an unsuccessful band named Grand Funk Romberg (a jokey riff on the actual American hard rock group, Grand Funk Railroad) when they were talent-spotted on account of their hick appearance and cast as the central characters in the new show (p.71). The brothers have had to be extensively coached in every aspect of the Florida redneck life which their adoring fans consider them to epitomise: the Cajun accent, the chewing tobacco, the down-home oaths and jokes, it’s all fake.

Lane is kidnapped

The novel opens with Buck’s agent, Lane Coolman, a no-nonsense, cynical New York talent agent working for Platinum Artists Management who owes his career and wages and expense account lifestyle to Buck’s success, arriving in Miami to supervise some ‘gigs’ Buck is scheduled to give. These ‘gigs’ consist of Buck sitting up on stage telling good ole boy stories and jokes while a guitarist noodles folk melodies behind him and Lane supports and whispers prompts from the wings.

Instead, as he drives from the airport to his hotel, Lane is kidnapped by the criminal Zeto (full name Juan Zeto-Fernandez) and his sexy, unhinged sidekick, Merry Mansfield. They use a technique known as ‘bump and grab’ whereby Merry bumps her (stolen) car into the rear of Lane’s hire car. When he pulls over and gets out to remonstrate, he notices her jeans are down to her knees and her knickers pulled down and she is shaving her pubic hair while she is driving. Merry is the Razor Girl of the book’s title.

Lane is speechless with astonishment and anger, as he watches Merry apologetically pull up her panties, then quickly becomes addled with lust. Thus, when Merry declares her car a write-off and asks if he can give her a lift to the nearest service station, Lane readily agrees. But when they get there, Zeto is waiting with a gun, climbs into the passenger seat and orders him to drive. He’s done gone and been kidnapped, the sucker.

Martin Trebeaux and beach renourishment

In fact, typically for Hiaasen’s comedies of accidents and misadventures, it turns out Zeto and Merry have grabbed the wrong guy. Zeto had been hired by a New York mobster, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola, from the Calzone crime family (p.139) to kidnap a crooked businessman named Martin Trebeaux, who was scheduled to drive a similar colour car along the same highway at the same time and looks similar to Lane. Oops.

Why was Trebeaux the intended target of a grab? This requires a bit of explanation. Trebeaux runs a big company resanding Florida beaches in a process known as ‘beach renourishment’. This is because global warming and rising sea levels are washing away lots of Florida’s luxury sandy beaches. Trebeaux’s company, Sedimental Journeys, rakes up tonnes of sand from just offshore and replenishes vanishing beaches.

So far, so reasonable. But Trebeaux is a crook. His company has been dogged by scandal. Firstly, the resanding process tends to muddy up the water and produce thousands of dead fish which wash up ashore, putting off the very tourists it’s meant to attract. Discovering this early on, Trebeaux moved his  sand dredging operation to the Bahamas, shipping the sand back to Miami. But it had the same environment-destroying impact in the island and when this was reported on the news and even prompted a BBC investigation, he was forced to shut it down, too (p.32).

Then Trebeaux took some bad advice from a contact who told him he could use sand from a ‘burrow pit’ (something I think we would call a gravel pit) on the edge of the Everglades. This Trebeaux proceeds to excavate and ship to the beach behind the Royal Pyrenees hotel. But the sand from this source turns out to be not only hard and sharp but to contain recycled asphalt and even broken glass! Soon after it is laid, tourists start cutting themselves to shreds and trade to the hotel plummets.

And this is where the mob comes in because the Royal Pyrenees hotel is owned by them and managed by their man, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola. This is why Big Noogie had hired Zeto to kidnap Trebeaux. But Zeto screws up and kidnaps Lane, who quickly makes it clear he’s the wrong guy. Nonetheless, Zeto and Merry tie and gag Lane while they ponder what to do with him, Zeto casually weighing the pros and cons of killing him.

Long story short, after failing to bump Len off on a boat, Zeto reluctantly agrees to take him along with them when they have another go at bumping and grabbing the actual Martin Trebeaux the next day and, during the confusion, Lane manages to wriggle out the window of the car he’s being held in and run off, eventually finding a payphone and calling his boss in LA.

Buck’s disastrous gig

Now the important thing about Coolman being mistakenly kidnapped is that he provides a vital psychological support to his TV star Buck Nance when the latter does his ‘gigs’. Buck has a guitarist strumming along in the background but it is Lane’s reassuring presence just offstage that gets him through the gigs, giving him confidence beforehand and prompting him if he dries, as he tells good ole boy stories and jokes to his redneck audience.

So Buck turns up for his ‘gig’ at a bar called the Parched Pirate on Duvall Street in Key West and, without either the guitar player (whose absence is unexplained) or Lane (who we have seen being kidnapped en route to the gig) Buck’s set goes disastrously awry. Instead of the usual stories he panics, forgets his script and ad libs some off colour jokes from Wisconsin about blacks and then about gays. This turns out to be a terrible idea because the Parched Pirate is actually a gay hangout.

The upshot is there’s a riot, Buck is grabbed, beaten up, has his shirt ripped off and his long grey beard forcibly chopped off with scissors before he can flee for his life, ducking through a maze of back alleys and eventually hiding out in the tangled branches of a huge banyan tree where he stays, thoroughly razzled, for the entire night.

During the ruckus he has lost his wallet and his mobile phone and he looks like crap. He has been reduced to bum status.

Enter Yancy

Believe it or not, this is where Yancy comes in, because next day he’s called to a restaurant run by Irv Clipowski (‘a long-distance runner with a goatee which he dyed goosewhite’), which generally has good hygiene standards, but where they’ve found hanks of grey hair in the quinoa vat. The hair has apparently been chucked there overnight and the reader quickly realises it’s the remnants of Buck Nance’s beard, forcibly cut off him by an enraged crowd and chucked through an open window.

Yancy clears up the sample of rogue hair cuttings and orders the restaurant owners to do a thorough deep clean of their kitchen.

As it happens, later that day, Rogelio Burton, a friend of Yancy’s who’s still a detective on the Monroe police force, mentions that a big fuss has kicked off about this TV star, Buck Nance, who’s gone missing and when, that evening, Yancey watches a few old episodes of Bayou Brethren out of boredom, he suddenly realises the grey hair in the quinoa looks identical with Buck Nance’s grey beard in the TV show. Huh. A clue!

Now, Yancy is bored with his job and pissed off because his long-term girlfriend, smart Dr Rosa Campesino, formerly of the Miami morgue (her job when he met her), now working in a hospital emergency room, has abruptly announced that she’s going to Europe, to Norway, without him. It feels like a snub and they part at the airport on bad terms. At a loose end, on impulse, Yancy decides, what the hell, he’ll have a go at tracking down this missing TV star.

Fallout from Buck’s bad gig

Meanwhile, the president of Platinum Artists Management, John David Ampergrodt, known as Amp, is going nuts because Nance’s homophobic, racist jokes were recorded by some of his audience and immediately posted on YouTube. Not only that, but Buck’s unhinged girlfriend, Miracle, becomes convinced that the missing Buck has run off with some other woman and so hacks into the Bayou Brethren‘s Facebook page, adding a photo of Osama bin Laden and making it look like Buck is jokily comparing his own beard with the famous terrorist’s.

So Amp finds himself in the midst of a major PR disaster, when Zeto lets Lane rings up desperately begging for a ransom to be paid so that mad Zeto doesn’t waste him (while Zeto and Merry are still holding him). You can see why Amp doesn’t immediately believe Lane or grasp the seriousness of the situation. 12 hours later Lane rings from a roadside phone box to say he’s managed, as we’ve seen, to free himself from his kidnappers but, again, Amp is too distracted by the crisis in hand to take him seriously.

(There’s a running thread that Lane has a wife, Rachel, who is planning to divorce him and is currently ‘revenge fucking’ her way through all the men in Los Angeles, notably Lane’s boss John David Ampergrodt, who routinely meets her at the Wilshire Hotel for quick cunnilingus and boning sessions [p.144]. We are given graphic descriptions of comic moments when Amp has his head rammed firmly between Rachel’s parted thighs and is slurping away when his phone goes off with an important business call. The hard life of a Hollywood agent, eh. Lane has a divorce lawyer working for him and trying to discredit Rachel. The lawyer’s name is Smegg [p.278].)

Pause for breath

So: what’s going to happen to Martin Trebeaux, who by now Zeto and Merry have successfully kidnapped? Where’s Buck Nance hiding out and what’s going to happen to him, now beaten up, penniless and beardless? Will Yancy manage to find Buck or will he get dragged into the whole Zeto-Merry-Trebeaux storyline? Will there be a happy resolution to Yancy and Rosa Campesino’s relationship, which seems to have fallen on hard times? Stay tuned, folks.

Main plot developments

There are so many complicated plot ramifications and complexifications it’s hard to keep track. Here are the highlights:

Zeto electrocutes himself trying to adjust the plug on the cable to an electric car he’s stolen, so he’s out of the story quite early on.

Trebeaux is handed over to Big Noogie who, with a hardass assistant (‘the man with the ivory toothpick’), attaches surgical clamps to Trebeaux’s ‘nutsack’ (scrotum) and then dangles him from a local railway bridge until Trebeaux admits the sand he rebeached the Grand Pyrenees with was sub-standard and promises to do everything in his power to fix it.

Merry astonishes Lane by bumping into Lane a few days after he escaped from her and Zeto and calmly asking if she can move into his motel room with him. Merry is a splendid fictional creation, a constant fount of unexpected and unpredictable behaviour. She refuses to conform to any conventions, kidnapping someone one minute then wanting to be their friend. She concocts extravagant and hilarious lies at the drop of a hat. After a brief period with Lane she then arrives on Yancy’s doorstep (see below). There’s a funny piece of dialogue where she explains to Yancy that she doesn’t regard herself as a criminal at all, but more of a performance artist (p.93).

Brock and Deb I need to mention Yancy’s neighbours. After he drove away the property developer who was trying to build on the lot adjacent to his house in the previous novel, the lot has now been purchased by a shyster lawyer, Brock Richardson, and his good-looking spoiled fiancée, Debbie. As with the previous owner, Yancy embarks on a campaign to drive them away, which includes drunkenly firing his rifle at beer bottles he lobs into the air close to the border fence when Brock and Deb are around. In a later gag he gets a buddy of his that he plays poker with to pretend to be a state archaeologist and ‘discover’ ancient teeth on the site, which he claims must have belonged to the Calusa native Americans who occupied this land thousands of years ago. The fake archaeologist immediately declares that all building works will have to be suspended while the site is fully excavated, much to Brock’s fury (p.177).

Pitrolux Worth mentioning that one of the book’s dozen or so storylines focuses on Brock’s role as the lawyer for a series of class actions he’s managing against a new wonder-product named ‘Pitrolux’. This is a combination underarm deoderant which also cures erectile dysfunction i.e. gives men boners which last for hours. Despite what he knows about its ill effects, Brock himself starts taking Pitrolux and his rock-hard, everlasting erections rekindle his love life with Debs, until he starts to suffer from the same side effects as all his clients, namely a) the erections won’t go away, last for hours and become really painful, and b) the growth of unsightly skin tags or polyps in the shape of tiny penises in his armpit, which Debs discovers and freak her out.

The diamond ring A simple incident occurs early on which turns out to become central to the plot. Yancy spies Deb poking around in the as-yet-unbuilt-on plot. He jumps over the fence and aggressively questions her. Turns out she has lost the massive engagement ring Brock gave her which cost him $200,000. She’s pissed off because it was slightly too big for her finger, Brock having originally bought it for an earlier, tubbier fiancée. Yancy pretends to help until Debs gets fed up and leaves, at which point Yancy picks it up from where it was lying concealed in long grass.

Yancy stores the monster ring in a tub of hummus in his fridge and what happens is, through various coincidences, a series of bad guys hear about the missing ring and come to pay Yancy visits. Thus, at one point Trebeaux and Richardson meet by complete accident in a bar and both mouth off about their woes. But when Richardson mentions the missing $200,000 ring, and that he thinks Yancy has stolen it, Trebeaux passes the news along to Big Noogie in a bid to impress his new mafioso boss.

Big Noogie immediately decides the ring will be just perfect for his son to give to his fiancée, and sends a couple of hard men round to Yancy’s to intimidate or, if necessary, torture its whereabouts out of him. They only have to start slashing up Yancy’s sofa before Yancy gives in and hands it over.

Merry moves in By this point half a dozen other things have happened. For a start, when Lane moves out of his motel into a smarter hotel, Merry has nowhere to stay and so turns up on Yancy’s doortstep. To his own surprise he takes a keen liking to her, for her independent, free-spirited sassiness. She’s great fun, an outrageous liar and flirt and fantasist. Some of her extended riffs are very funny and help to make this, at least in the first half, arguably Hiaasen’s funniest novel (for example, page 166).

‘You don’t know what to do with me, do you? I love that!’ (p.257)

There’s also broad comedy when Yancy’s estranged girlfriend, Dr Campesino, phones from Oslo and every time it seems, by bad luck, to be Merry who answers the phone. One time by bursting into the bathroom where Yancy is having a shower so that she answers the call from Rosa but then hands it over to an obviously naked Yancy (p.148). Yancy finds this (understandably) difficult to explain and Rosa for her part announces that she wants to stay in Norway.

Comedic though the shape of this storyline is, it contains a very serious social point. Rosa has worked all her life in either the Miami morgue or Miami emergency ward and she’s had enough. She’s snapped. She’s had a sort of breakdown. She just can’t face the sound of endless police sirens from morning to night, and she can’t face any more the task of patching up children – children – with extensive gunshot wounds. On one of their long, difficult calls Rosa tells Yancy how many murders there have been in Oslo that year. The answer: one. Two farmers got into a drunken fight and one hit the other with a shovel a bit harder than he meant to. Guns are illegal in Norway, so there is no gun crime, compared to:

a place as ethnically diverse and gun crazy as Florida. (p.298)

It’s a serious point about the stupidity of America’s gun laws and its out-of-control epidemic of violence and I read it on the same day there was a mass shooting in the very same Miami Rosa is talking about, Hiaasen’s Miami.

‘These people [the Norwegians] have evolved in a positive direction,’ Rosa said. ‘Americans are heading the other direction.’ (p.377)

Anyway, the fact that Merry seems to have moved in with him explains why she is present when Big Noogie’s goons arrive and why she helps to persuade Yancy to give in and hand over the diamond. Mind you, Yancy is easily persuaded because he is, at the time, lying on his sofa recovering from a bad knife wound to the gut. Knife wound?

Yes, because there is an entirely separate plotline which only really gets going in the middle of the book but then comes to dominate it. This rotates around a redneck cretin named Benjamin ‘Blister’ Krill who is a fanatical fan of the Bayou Brethren, so fanatical that he has a massive tattoo inked across his shoulders reading HAIL CAPTAIN COCK.

When Buck climbs down from the banyan tree the morning after the riot in the bar he sets about shoplifting a new shirt and hat and shades etc. But Blister Krill recognises his hero and tries to engage him in conversation. When Buck repeatedly rebuffs him (p.200), idiot Blister gets furious, whips out his knife and frogmarches Buck through the tourist crowds in Key West, out to the dock and onto a little put-put boat which he drives out to a knackered old boat he owns, a cabin cruiser named Wet Nurse. Here he handcuffs Buck to a bunk in the cabin until he learns some manners.

From this point onwards Blister becomes a sort of daemon ex machina, the wild card driving the plot. Things escalate when Blister, inspired by the kind of racist language Buck used at his ill-fated gig and which has triggered an outpouring of redneck bigotry across the internet, spots a foreign-looking guy on the tacky touristy Conch Train which weaves through Old Key West, goes up to him and starts yelling Islamophobic abuse.

This poor man, Abdul-Halim Shamoon, is from New York where he has a family and children and runs a harmless electronics retail shop (p.126). He’s loaded up on tacky souvenirs which he’s planning to take home for the kids when a rough redneck confronts him and starts spitting insults in his face. So Shamoon tries to get off the train while it’s still moving but falls awkwardly onto a tacky porcelain gewgaw he’s bought which pierces his sternum and punctures his aorta. There and then he bleeds to death all over his tropical tourist shirt and souvenir knick-knacks. Blister runs off into the crowd.

Hiaasen’s early novels feature some outrageously grotesquely violent incidents, such as the hitman who gets a dead pitbull attached to his arm in Double Whammy and the angry New Yorker who crucifies a crooked property developer to a satellite dish in Stormy Weather. Later novels try but, I think, generally fail to match the first fine careless insanity of these early incidents. Having Shamoon fall on some tourist gewgaws and bleed to death isn’t outrageous enough to be blackly funny. Instead it feels genuinely tragic and sad.

Anyway, Blister runs off, but some bystanders provide identification of sorts and the ‘murder’ of Shamoom gets mixed up with the ongoing disappearance of TV star Buck Nance in a whole load of complicated and twisted ways.

Yancy, bored and hoping to impress his ex-boss by solving the crime, picks up various clues which lead him to Blister in his crappy apartment, where he’s barely begun questioning him (with absolutely no authority; he is no longer a detective and the head of Monroe’s Police force has emphatically told him to stop interfering) when Blister takes a ‘spazzy’ swipe at him with a knife, not stabbing him but raking a cut across his stomach.

Luckily enough Yancy was accompanied by Merry, who manhandled him out the apartment, into their car and ran all the red lights to get home to a hospital ER in 6 minutes.

Being the tough guy hero of a thriller / obstinate failed cop and stoner (take your pick) Yancy refuses to stay in hospital overnight after he’s been stitched up, and insists on going home where he can lie on his own sofa and get pleasantly stoned while Merry tends to him. Which is precisely the moment Big Noogie’s hoods choose to arrive and threaten to turn over his house till they find the $200,000 engagement ring.

Complicated, isn’t it? There’s a lot more. Blister then kidnaps Lane Coolman as well as Buck and ends up with both of them handcuffed to bunks in the cabin of his rancid old motor yacht. The only way the two men can persuade Blister to let them go is with a plan which goes beyond any bounds of sanity or probability: the three concoct the idea that Blister will join the cast of Bayou Brethren as Buck’s long lost brother. It’s Blister’s idea, and he comes up with a long and extravagant backstory to justify his sudden appearance in the show. Lane is one tough, cynical agent and, despite having been kidnapped and handcuffed to a bunk in a rancid old boat, he can actually see Blister’s plot twist working.

The result is that Blister releases them from their handcuffs, takes them back to the mainland, Lane calls Amp at the agency’s office in Los Angeles, pitches the story and, to the reader’s increasing disbelief, Amp flies out to meet the (by now genuinely psychopathic and dangerous) Blister in person.

This storyline now spins way out of control leading to a scene where Blister is taken for a spin in Amp’s private jet along with his common law wife, Mona, and Lane and Buck as they drink champagne and discuss the finer points of the contract he’s going to be signed to. All is going well until Amp’s big black bodyguard, Prawney, makes a grab for Blister’s Glock semi-automatic which he’s been carrying round for the past hundred pages. The gun goes off, shooting Prawney through the cheeks and in the chest. Amp orders the pilot to turn the plane round and land back in Key West. Well, as business meetings go, that wasn’t a great success.

Trebeaux and Juvenile

Now he’s come all this way south to sort out the sand situation, Big Noogie likes it in Key West. After Trebeaux had been hung off the bridge and made the wise decision to co-operate fully with the mob, he’d been flown to New York to meet the heads of the Calzone family who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse i.e. took over his company wholesale (p.139). On the way Trebeaux had introduced Noogie to a scam he’d never heard of before, which was to get hold of a dog and dress it in a hazard jacket and pretend to be disabled so as to blag a better seat on the plane. Americans appear to call this a ‘service dog’ (p.410). When they fly back to Key West together, Trebeaux wants nothing more to do with the dog and the Noogie finds himself looking after it and slowly getting to like going for regular walks through the tourist crowds of Old Key West and along the beach. Yes, life here is nice and relaxing.

Anyway, Trebeaux is still orientating himself in his dangerous new situation vis-a-vis the mafia, and is unpacking in his hotel room when there’s a knock on the door and Big Noogie’s mistress, a big florid flake nicknamed Juveline (a name she acquired when a New York cop couldn’t spell ‘juvenile’ on her arrest sheet) walks into his room and asks whether he fancies a mind-blowing fuck. Trebeaux says yes and they go for it. Soon she has become his mistress, two-timing the Big Noogie.

Trebeaux knows this is a very bad idea but is turned on by the sheer outrageousness of the situation and they keep having regular sex, Juveline explaining that Big Noogie is such a big, fat, middle-aged guy that he isn’t that interested in it. Also, Noogie doesn’t get jealous if she disappears for days on end to her relatives’ houses or shopping and such, which gives her plenty of opportunity to be unfaithful.

This plotline reaches a peak when Trebeaux tries to pull a scam on the Big Noogie, bullshitting that he has heavyweight connections in Havana Cuba who will do a deal to supply world-class pink sand from Cuban beaches to make the Royal Pyrenees beach the envy of Florida. Unwisely, Trebeaux lets Juveline talk him into taking her on the 2-day jaunt to Havana.

Only trouble is that Juveline talks in her sleep and one night cries out ‘Harder, Marty, harder’, much to the surprise of Big Noogie lying next to her, who instantly realises what’s going on (p.389). Thus, when Trebeaux has landed and made himself at home in Havana, and goes to meet Juveline off a later flight, it is not Juveline he sees walking through passport control but the same hardman who applied the surgical clamps to his nutsack and helped dangle him off the bridge. Ah. Oh. Bad. In fact Trebeaux’s body is discovered a few days later, buried on a beach. So, that’s the end of him, then.

Funny

Razor Girls may well be Hiaasen’s funniest novel, meaning the one which made me laugh out loud the most. For two reasons: Yancy develops a really buddy-buddy routine with fellow detective Rogelio, which leads to lots of snappy repartee:

YANCY: ‘The human bloodhound is what they call me.’
ROGERIO: ‘A pain in the sphincter is what they call you.’ (p.87)

OK, so it’s not Oscar Wilde, but in the context of a fast-moving, American crime comedy caper, and in the context of the sustained backchat between the pair, it’s good, it works.

But the main reason is for the indefatigably unpredictable behaviour of fantasist and survivor Merry Mansfield. Almost everything she says and does is wonderfully confident, bluff and canny. Unquenchably amoral. At several points Yancy realises it would be wise to tell her to move out and make a break with her, but she’s just so much fun to have around.

It was hard to picture an even-keeled relationship with a person who took her last name from a  dead movie star and and crashed automobiles half-naked for a living. (p.284)

Men

Once again, as in many previous Hiaasen novels, the entire male sex comes in for sustained criticism, yet again, for their pitiful addiction to sex. Flash most men some boob or a whiff of your panties and they turn into drooling slaves. Most of this comes from the mouth if Merry, inventor of the shaving pubes scam, who has the lowest possible opinion of pathetic men.

  • Merry said, ‘Men. I swear.’ (p.44)
  • ‘Men are so pitiful.’ (p.93)
  • ‘his poor little pecker…’ (p.119)
  • ‘You men.’ (p.134)
  • He said, ‘Yeah, I know. Us men, we’re pitiful.’ ‘Totally, Andrew.’ (p.190)
  • ‘Men, I swear.’ (p.285)
  • She had had ‘a lifetime of being disappointed by men.’ (p.360)
  • ‘Men are the worst.’ (p.364)
  • ‘Men are so freakin’ predictable.’ (p.415)

One touch on the pecker and men become ‘immune to rational thought’ (p.388). I wonder if Hiaasen made the same kind of sustained criticism of women or Jews or blacks or Muslims, whether his liberal readers would take it all in good spirit and laughingly accept the sustained barrage of negative stereotypes.

American slang

Hiaasen’s novels are notable not only for their very dense plots, overflowing with colourful characters and garish incidents, but for the aggressive ‘attitude’ of the narrator himself, who freely uses street slang and swearwords to describe his characters and their doings, and liberally sprinkles the text with those handy terms for things and actions which Americans just seem to have and we Brits don’t. I found this novel particularly rich in new terminology, in fact I became addicted to collecting them.

  • app = short for appetiser. ‘His calamari app.’
  • baggie = a brand of plastic bag, Yancy uses them for stashing mank he finds on his restaurant inspections, such as rodent ‘scat’
  • baked = stoned
  • to ball = to fuck cf. to bone. ‘Is she still balling that dickface Drucker?’ (p.370)
  • to bang = to fuck, cf, to ball, to bone. ‘Don’t bang a stranger.’ (p.404)
  • bank = big money. ‘You saved the agency some serious bank.’ (p.63)
  • a beat-down = a severe beating. ‘So I can cancel your beat-down?’ (p.414)
  • berserk-o = adjective meaning wild, crazy. ‘The beserk-o side of the place [Miami] was basically all you saw, if you were a cop or a coroner.’ (p.190)
  • to bitch someone out = nag someone, generally a woman bitching out a man (p.252)
  • blow smoke = to bullshit, make something up. ‘… that didn’t mean Trebeaux wasn’t blowing smoke.’ (p.182)
  • to bone = to fuck
  • bonehead = ‘A stubborn, thickheaded and determined person that doesn’t think things through before acting upon them’
  • boner = erection (p.374)
  • to brace = to meet, to confront (p.393)
  • a bumblefuck = insult
  • Bumfuck = generic term for inconsequential settlement in the middle of nowhere, as in Bumfuck Wisconsin or any of the other anonymous mid-Western states.
  • a bump and grab = a type of criminal scam: one crim bumps their car into the back of the victims car; when the victim stops, they’re hijacked / kidnapped
  • to bus tables = to be a waiter
  • buy the farm = to die. ‘… a biker who’d bought the farm at Mile Marker 19.’ (p.304)
  • buzzed = adjective meaning ‘stoned’
  • to can = to fire. ‘No wonder the sheriff canned your ass.’ (p.188)
  • chunk-muffin  = fat person (p.36)
  • cockhead = variation on dickhead, an idiot, an annoying or vexatious person (p.367)
  • cold one = a beer (p.306)
  • cooch = pussy, fanny, vulva. ‘…shaving cream all over her cooch…’ (p.260)
  • to crack the blinds = of closed blinds, to prise them apart to spy through them (p.327)
  • courtesy fuck = a guy buys a woman dinner, chocolates etc, she owes him a courtesy fuck
  • cracker = term of contempt for poor whites, particularly of Georgia and Florida, dating back to the American Revolution, and derives from the cracked corn which was their staple diet
  • to dick around = to waste time (p.309)
  • dickface = loser, idiot (p.370)
  • dickweed = an asshole or idiot so pernicious they are like a weed (p.384)
  • dirtbag = person who is committed to an alternative lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other social norms i.e. washing
  • to do = have sex with. ‘I’d do her.’
  • Dogpatch = name of a fictional poor rural community in the U.S., especially in the South, whose inhabitants are unsophisticated and have little education. Hence its use as an adjective: ‘A Dogpatch moniker like Clee Roy should have stuck in his head.’ (p.188)
  • a doobie or doob = a joint, cannabis cigarette (p.328)
  • dopp kit = small bag made for transporting toiletries in a convenient and portable manner
  • douche, short for douche bag = ‘a dick, an asshole, a jerk, whose crass behaviour has led them to be compared to a cleansing product for vaginas.’
  • a dust bunny = ball of dust and fluff (p.326)
  • dweeb = abbreviation of ‘dick with eyebrows’, implying the person is a walking penis
  • flake = an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through (p.311)
  • four-top = table for four in a diner
  • to frog = to punch someone in the upper arm or chest with the middle knuckle partially extended to inflict a sharp concentrated blow
  • fry cartons = generic name for the kind of flimsy, grease-stained cardboard cartons you get takeaway fast food in
  • fuckwhistle = idiot, moron, one who lacks the most basic common sense to make correct decisions
  • fuckweasel = person who behaves in a sneaky manner to create favourable circumstances for themselves at the expense of others
  • gank = to steal. ‘I think the asshole who lives next door might’ve ganked it.’ (p.181)
  • gas up = fill a car with petrol (p.346)
  • goatfuck = a monumental screwup. (p.410)
  • goober = term of affection for a lovable, silly, lighthearted person: ‘…a crew from ET [was] interviewing some sunburned goober’ (p.97)
  • googan = a person wearing trendy sports clothing that is completely clueless in the ways of fishing
  • goomah = a mafioso’s mistress
  • grab-ass = the act of wrestling or chasing another person with the intention to touch or squeeze that person’s butt
  • a grow house = a room or rooms or larger space where marijuana plants are grown (p.245)
  • a hardass = someone who takes no shit off anyone, someone who expects to get their own way and won’t take no for an answer; dominating (p.364)
  • hard chargers = party animals. ‘Rogelio didn’t screw around on his wife, never stayed out late with the hard chargers.’ (p.82)
  • hardcore = adjective meaning serious, intense, relentless. ‘This judge is hardcore.’ (p.370)
  • honcho = a person in charge of some group or function. ‘The network honchos…’ (p.247)
  • horn, on the = on the phone
  • horndog = a guy or girl that is always horny. ‘He couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was a hopelessly shallow horndog.’ (p.284)
  • iced = adjective meaning killed or completed, depending on context. ‘I’ll have [the contract] iced by the next time we walk.’ (p.238)
  • an innie = belly buttons come in two shapes, innies and outies
  • to jack = ​jack something or somebody (for something) to steal something from somebody, especially something small or of low value (p.322)
  • jackoff = a stupid, irritating, or contemptible person
  • jag = ‘To “be on a jag” or “go on a jag” means to be completely unrestrained, whether you’re on a drinking jag or a crying jag.’
  • jazzed = expression of extreme happiness. ‘I am totally jazzed to hear your voice.’ (p.238)
  • jewels = penis and testicles. ‘I mean she’ll kill me, cut off my fuckin’ jewels and kill me all over again.’ (p.90)
  • jizz = semen (p.268)
  • Johnson = penis (p.374)
  • junk = cock and balls. ‘Next she made him dunk his junk in a bucket of ice cubes…’ (p.287)
  • landing zone = woman’s genitals (p.331)
  • look fly = look smart, well presented (p.359)
  • mash = press hard. ‘He mashed the Lobby button half a dozen times…’ (p.309)
  • meathead = overmuscular man, too much time at the gym, can’t string a sentence together (p.292)
  • meat hog = muscle i.e. goons i.e. hired enforcers (p.322)
  • mick = Irish (noun or adjective) (p.373)
  • mo-fo = adjective, short for ‘motherfucking’, suggesting ‘big’ (p.180)
  • a mope = a person of any race or culture who presents themselves as uneducated and possibly criminal either by behaviour or clothes
  • a mouthbreather = a retard: someone so stupid they never learned to breathe through their nose
  • nooner = a sex session during a lunch break or around noon; made famous by Al Bundy of ‘Married with Children’. ‘She promised him that she was done with payback nooners at the Wlshire.’ (p.409)
  • nosebleed heels = heels so high your head is in the upper atmosphere, hence the nosebleed
  • a numbnut = someone who is a constant source of trouble, an individual who screws up, or constant makes mistakes
  • nut sack = scrotum; male characters in Hiaasen novels are always getting something bad happen to their nut sacks, in this novel Trebeaux has some surgical clamps (hemostats) attached to his balls
  • nuts = testicles
  • on the lam = on the run, very old slang
  • a peckerwood = used by Afro-Americans to describe a rural white southerner, usually poor, undereducated or otherwise ignorant and bigoted (p.381)
  • to peel out = to drive or go away. ‘Yancy grinned at the sight of the Taurus peeling out.’ (p.190)
  • to peel rubber = to accelerate an automobile very rapidly (p.364)
  • piece = gun (p.370)
  • poon = woman’s genitals. Short for ‘poontang‘, ditto (p.308)
  • a pop tab = the flip top on drink cans
  • to pop a tent = to have an erection that shows through your trousers, or erects a bedsheet
  • pussy hound = ‘a dude who’s main goal in life is balling ladies.’
  • rearview, to put someone in your rearview = get over someone, move on (p.302)
  • rebar = reinforcing steel used as rods in concrete.
  • revenge fuck = joins mercy fuck, courtesy fuck and sportfucking as categories of fuck. ‘Rachel was the undoubted queen of the revenge fuck in a town with many contenders for the title.’ (p.42)
  • the root prong = of a tooth (p.178)
  • salvor = ‘a person engaged in salvage of a ship or items lost at sea’
  • sawbuck = $10
  • scat = poo; ‘rodent scat’ (p.84)
  • schlep = noun: a long and tiresome journey; verb: to make a long and tiresome journey. Yiddish (p.373)
  • to screak = to make a harsh shrill noise : screech
  • shit-bird = a completely useless individual who is unaware of their own complete uselessness
  • shit-heel = adjective. ‘…his shit-heel brothers…’ (p.221)
  • shitkicker = insult
  • shitstick = insult
  • shitsucker = insult
  • shitweasel = person who is sly, sneaky, and opportunistic; someone who is looking to slip their way into a shitty situation and make it even shittier
  • a shucker = someone who shucks oysters, clams, corn, walnuts etc out of their shells
  • sick = adjective meaning really good, cool or very impressive
  • a slim jim = a tool used to open doors on cars, by ‘pulling up’ the lock within the door, hence the verb, to slim jim a car. ‘… content in mid-life to be slim-jimming cars…’ (p.275)
  • slut puppy = person who uses their adorable looks to attract a partner or partners for a casual sexual encounter
  • to snitch out = to betray. ‘A million bucks says you wouldn’t never snitch out your wife.’ (p.358)
  • to spazz out = sudden, fast movement(s); to go mental (p.373)
  • spazzy = adjective meaning clumsy or inept, with an overtone of demented or mad. ‘Benny Krill had made one spazzy swing with the blade…’ (p.192)
  • to stare down = verb: to look fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away
  • a stare-down = noun: the act of looking fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away (p.386)
  • stoner = someone who regularly smokes marijuana: there are many different types of stoner
  • swag = merchandise. ‘He promised to donate a truckload of Brethren swag to an auction benefiting the local kids’ baseball league…’ (p.248).
  • tanked = stoned
  • tank suit = a woman’s one-piece swimsuit with high-cut legs. Merry wears one (p.300)
  • a thundercunt = that much more cunty than an ordinary cunt. ‘She’s a major thundercunt.’ (p.62)
  • toot = to snort, generally cocaine (p.329)
  • to tune up = to give someone an attitude adjustment by beating their ass. ‘… the man who’d just tuned up Rick and Rod…’ (p.275)
  • a tweaker = a methamphetamine addict; derives from ‘tweak’ which is a slang name for methamphetamine’. ‘Mr Nance isn’t just some homeless tweaker.’ (p.47)
  • unspooled = adjective meaning unhinged, bonkers
  • weed = marijuana aka grass
  • a whack job = a nutcase, a lunatic
  • to whale at something = to hit something forcefully and repeatedly
  • to whorehop = to go from one (loose) woman to another, regardless of consequences (p.61)
  • to wig out = ‘to suddenly become unnecessarily worried, anxious, upset, or paranoid most often while under the influence of an intoxicating substance, especially marijuana’
  • wild-ass = adjective meaning crazy. ‘The van driver figured out they were being tailed, and made a wild-ass turn off Flagler Avenue.’ (p.362)
  • wood = an erect penis; thus ‘to get wood’, ‘to have wood’. Brock Richardson: ‘Never waste good wood.’ (p.288)

Englishisms

In among the blizzard of Americanisms I was struck by a handful of times Hiaasen uses what I think of as very English terms, such as nitwit (p.361) and thick (p.215). I wonder whether he was deliberately trying to include as much novel slang as possible in this book i.e. it has a conscious philological interest over and above the storyline.

Once again I note that the woman riding cowboy style is Hiaasen’s (fictional) sexual position of choice, Merry riding Yancy (p.254) just as Dr Rosa Campasino rode him on the morgue dissection table and, later, in his bath. Appropriate for the general ‘girls on top, men are pitiful’ theme of so many of his novels.

Handy phrases

  • Sonny Summers wasn’t the sharpest tack on the corkboard. (p.47)
  • ‘Not my circus, not my monkey.’ (p.185)

Credit

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2016. All references are to the 2019 Vintage Crime paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen (2013)

Sonny Summers looked up, blinking like a toad in a puddle of piss.
(Bad Monkey, page 186)

Hiaasen’s thirteenth novel opens with the usual daunting barrage of information about a challengingly large number of characters and their often complex and detailed backstories, all quickly introduced in the first 40 or 50 pages, before the usual, ever-escalating sequence of farcical, satirical and often very violent complications kicks in.

The setup

Andrew Yancy (backstory p.33) is a 6-foot-two, middle-aged cop, working for small time Monroe County which, when you look it up, is a small jurisdiction far out at the westernmost point of the Florida Keys and whose county seat is Key West.

Yancy used to work up in glamorous Miami but was forced to take retirement after he drunkenly exposed the crooked machinations of a corrupt fellow cop, Sergeant Johnny Mendez, who was running a scam whereby he backdated arrests for crimes for which rewards had been posted, in order to crookedly claim the rewards. Partly because of the way Yancy denounced him (in a drunk phone call from a bar), partly because of cop solidarity, Mendez was exonerated and it was Yancy who was forced to resign (p.16). So although he’s a cop, he’s also the victim of a miscarriage of justice, sort of.

Yancy is not a clean-cut hero, he is a dope-smoking hard case. His current girlfriend is Bonnie Witt, who’s still married to her husband of 14 years, Dr Clifford Witt. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Yancy has recently seriously assaulted Clifford. Yancy was cleaning his car with one of those hand-held mini-hoovers, on a public street, when Clifford and Bonnie happened to walk by and Yancy clearly heard Clifford insulting and cussing Bonnie. Being a headstrong, impulsive guy, Yancy leapt out of his car and chased a screaming Clifford down the street, till he tackled him to the ground, tore down his trousers, and shoved the hoover attachment up his ass. Yes. It’s played for laughs, but quite violent laughs.

Clifford was Yancy’s dermatologist, that’s how he got to meet and seduce Bonnie. Now Clifford is threatening to take Yancy to court and Bonnie wants Yancy to cut one of those plea bargain deals which you always get in American cop TV shows and movies. The local state attorney is Billy Dickinson who wants to avoid a scandal. Yancy’s attorney at the public defender’s office is called Montenegro.

When a severed arm is hauled out the sea off Key West by two honeymooners from Wisconsin, James and Louisa Mayberry, who are on Captain Keith Fitzpatrick‘s hireboat, the arm is handed over to the local police force which is run by the sheriff of Monroe County, a none-too-bright good old boy named Sonny Summers.

Summers is in thrall to the Florida Keys tourist industry and the last thing he wants is publicity about severed arms, so Summers tells one of his detectives, Rogelio Burton, to ring up his old pal, Yancy, and instruct him to take the arm (in an icebox) up to Miami and use his old contacts to persuade the authorities there that the murder happened off their beaches and so falls within their jurisdiction. The Monroe County forensic examiner, Dr Lee Rawlings has done an initial post mortem, but the boys up in Miami will do a better one.

So, with the hope it will get him back in Monroe’s good books, Yancy reluctantly drives the 90 minutes up Interstate One to Miami where he gets an assistant medical examiner, Dr Rosa Campesino, to examine the arm. She finds a small shark tooth in it but resolutely refuses to accept responsibility or notify the Miami police. Yancy is stuck with the arm and will have to take it back to Monroe County.

Taking advantage of being back on his old home turf, Yancy parks his car outside Johnny Mendez’s home for a bit, toying with hanging the severed arm from the rear view mirror of the creep who got him fired, but then thinks better of it, reluctantly turns and motors back to the Keys.

Here he keeps the arm on ice while he has Bonnie over, cooks for her and goes to bed where she gives more details about the plea bargain she wants to arrange for his assault case. They have sex. Afterwards she springs the surprise that she, Bonnie, is herself a fugitive from justice, her real name is Plover Chase, she was a schoolteacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she was accused of extorting sex from a 15-year-old (boy) pupil, Cody, in exchange for giving him A grades. She fled to Florida before her trial,  saw that Clifford’s medical practice was advertising for a secretary, she got the job and seduced him into marriage. Huh. Yancy had no idea.

Yancy’s lawyer tells him that his boss, the prosecutor and the sheriff have arranged a deal so Yancy goes to see his boss, Sonny, to find out what it is. Sonny tells him Dr Witt has agreed to drop all charges  so long as Yancy quits the police force – but it’s OK, because he, Sonny, has found Yancy a new job as… a restaurant inspector! To replace the previous county food inspector, Randolph Nilsson, who died of… food poisoning!! He is given a food inspector instructor, Tommy Lombardo (p.75). Yancy is not happy at all.

It will become a running joke that the most unhygienic restaurant Yancy has to inspect in his new job is called Stoney’s Crab Palace and run by a shifty, apologetic man named Brennan. There are recurrent scenes where Yancy visits and keeps on finding cockroaches in the kitchen and a rat in the freezer. When anyone exasperates him, Yancy always tells them to go eat at Stoney’s Crab Palace, and a bit later we hear, regular as clockwork, that they’re in hospital with food poisoning, ha ha.

It’s also humorous that doing the food inspection job quickly gives Yancy a phobia about eating out, or eating anything prepared by others, and it is a running gag that he loses weight throughout the book as a result.

Pause for thought

All that information – the names and interlocking relationships of 16 or 17 characters, plus snippets of plot and event – is conveyed in just the first 33 densely-packed pages (though I’ve added a few snippets we pick up later on).

  1. It’s a lot to process, and the rest of the narrative continues at the same level of fact packedness.
  2. Reflecting on this made me realise that maybe facts are what Hiaasen has instead of psychology. Hiaasen’s characters are sketched out with quick decisive strokes, but they have no depth. We learn a lot of facts about them but the more we learn, the more the details of their backstories read like corporate dossiers or police files. For example, we keep on learning more and more about Bonnie but she never really gels, as a character.

More people, more events, more information

The severed arm turns out to belong to one Nick Stripling, in his 40s, who had a criminal record for car crash insurance fraud. When, after a week or so, his wife turns up making enquiries, claiming she’s been away in Paris, the DNA from the arm matches the missing man’s DNA, so it’s a positive ID.

Yancy’s boss sends this widow, Eve Stripling, out to Yancy’s house to collect her husband’s severed arm (which Yancy has been keeping in a deep freeze). He hands it over, reasonably professional and polite etc, but as he investigates further, Yancy learns this dead guy, Nick Stripling, had most recently been making money in a Medicare scooter scam, crookedly getting hold of old and vulnerable people’s Medicare accounts, then making fake claims on them, and extracting money from Medicare for the alleged purchase of all kinds of medication and equipment, without the actual patients ever knowing anything about it. Later we discover he’s made over $11 million through this scam.

(Hiaasen has form with disability scams. Compare Stripling’s with the scams run by Mick Stranahan’s creep brother-in-law, Kipper Garth, who was injured in a Skin Tight but not as much as he pretends, and now makes a living sitting in a wheelchair doing TV ads wheedling money out of people disabled in crashes and accidents. Soon as the cameras are off, he stands up and walks round right as rain.)

Yancy attends Nick’s funeral and meets his estranged, sweary daughter Caitlin Cox (and husband Simon, ramrod straight ex-military). Caitlins doesn’t mince her words, furiously claiming her mother is a ‘cunt’ and killed her father. Well, that opens a whole new perspective on the case.

Neville, the Dragon Queen and Andros island

In a separate storyline, we meet Neville Stafford who is a poor old black dude, aged 64 (p.214) who lives on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. Neville has lived all his life in the family home on the beach, Green Beach, but now his estranged half-sister, who lives in faraway Canada, is selling it to some white guy named simply Christopher, who plans to build the usual complex of condominiums and leisure facilities, which he is going to name ‘The Curly Tail Lane Resort’.

Neville goes to visit the Dragon Queen, an impressively scrawny, dirty, smelly, scary drunk woman, to ask her to put a voodoo spell on this ‘Christopher’.

Neville has a pet capuchin monkey which he won at a dominoes game from a man who claims he appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Neville has renamed the monkey Driggs and has overfed him on fried food, a bad diet for any animal, making the monkey sick so all its hair has fallen out. It chatters and bites and poops freely. It is the bad monkey of the title. Later on, in a comic touch, it is given a full backstory, as full as any of the human characters gets, with a jokily thorough account of his showbiz forebears, his own biography and character (chapter 23).

Yancy starts an affair with Rosa

Back with Yancy and the main storyline, Bonnie announces that she is moving away because hubby Clifford wants to move north (he still has no idea his wife is having an affair with Yancy). She says goodbye to Yancy and disappears from his life. Weeks go by and Yancy misses her. He phones her a couple of times, and on one phone call she explains that her husband, Dr Cliff, has taken to masturbating while part hanging himself by his belt or with a plastic bag over his head, the latest sex fashion for autoerotic asphyxiation (p.170). Cliff doesn’t invite her to take part, so she’s feeling horny and unsatisfied. But she is hundreds of miles away.

Yancy rings up the dishy Miami pathologist, Dr Rosa Campasino, they meet for lunch and start an affair. On the second or third date they swap details of their ex-spouses, as much-divorced Americans do. Yancy was married to Celia who, after three years or so of marriage, wanted to move north but he didn’t want to leave Florida where he was born and raised, so that was the end of that. Dr Rosa was married to a guy called Daniel till she bought him surfing lessons which led to him having an illicit affair with a lissom 29-year-old paddleboard instructor and, she then discovers, several other women, too (p.130). American Marriage, an institution respected around the world.

The first mate is hit

One evening Yancy meets at a bar with Captain Fitzpatrick, the hireboat captain, to ask him questions about the fishing trip when the arm was hooked. In the same bar is a young drunk dude shouting and bragging with a bottle blonde on his arm. The captain tells Yancy it’s Charlie Phinney, until recently his first mate who, after the arm trip, abruptly quit his job, having come into some money. Suspicious.

No sooner have Charlie and his babe left the bar than shots ring out. Yancy runs outside to discover Charlie shot dead on the pavement, his blonde girlfriend in hysterics, and a scooter zooming off down the road. Upon questioning the girlfriend reveals she is called Madeline and works in a shop that sells very rude t-shirts, owned, she claims, by the Russian mafia, managed by a shifty dud named Prestov.

Over the next hundred pages Yancy becomes convinced that Eve Stripling is having an affair with another man, with the very same ‘Christopher’ who is building the new development on the beach on Andros, that she and her lover killed her husband, hacked off his arm, then paid Charlie to hook it to the fishing line of the honeymoon couple from the north. The whole thing was a scam to make the authorities think Nick died in a boat accident and was eaten up by sharks, so they’ll sign off on his death, forget about it, and his widow can cash her dead husband’s $2 million life insurance.

Long-running feud with a property developer

There’s another running gag, that a short irritable guy from New York, Evan Shook, has invested heavily in buying the plot of land next to Yancy’s house (in the little settlement of Big Pine) and is building a monster mansion there with a view to selling it to out-of-towners. The new mansion is way too large for the area (Shook has clearly bribed the authorities), blocks Yancy’s view of the sunset, and has obliterated stands of trees where sometimes, in the fresh dawn, Yancy used to see the distinctive Keys deer come shyly, nibbling trees or grass. Now the area has been de-natured, levelled and is a building site. Yancy loathes and hates the development and Shook.

It becomes a running gag that each time Shook arranges for a prospective buyer to come and look over the half-built property, Yancy arranges something gruesome to meet them.

  • First it’s the body of a big, fat, dead raccoon which he found dead on the highway and carefully places in the half-built living room. Yuk.
  • Then he pays the local pest guy, Miguel, to install a huge bee hive in one of the bedrooms, which the hapless developer upsets with the result that a cloud of furious bees chase him and the prospective buyers off the property.
  • Then it’s Yancy himself who holes up in one of the empty closets after being attacked, beaten and thrown into the nearby canal by a mystery attacker, an assault from which he only barely escapes with his life. When Shook and the latest potential buyers find him, dripping wet and half naked hiding in one of the closets the next morning, Yancy explains his sorry appearance by claiming to have been attacked by one of the packs of savage feral dogs which prowl the neighbourhood which, understandably, puts the buyers off.
  • A few days later and fully recovered, Yancy late one night rigs up a voodoo / Santería shrine in the half-built house, complete with bones and feathers and blood daubings (p.172). This successfully prevents most of the labourers, who are illegal migrants from the Caribbean, from entering the site the next morning.
  • Next Yancy tells Bonnie and her tubby lover Cody (when they turn up half way through the story) that they can camp out in the half-built house, to Shook’s predictable outrage when he discovers them squatting in his property (p.205). It becomes a very funny running feud and Shook’s ever-increasing outrage, anger and frustration with Yancy is very amusing.

By halfway through the book it’s pretty obvious that Eve Stripling did indeed conspire with the little-seen man named Christopher Grunion (we discover his full name on page 166) to murder her husband, and chop off the body to try and prove it was a sailing accident, and then paid hapless young Christopher to hook up the severed arm.

Dr O’Peele is whacked

‘They’ also bump off the drunkard doctor, Dr Gomez O’Peele, who had been connected with Stripling. O’Peele is found dead with a single bullet to the head with the gun in his hand and the cops categorise the latter as suicide, but Yancy had interviewed him just the day before and forced O’Peele to admit that he knew about Stripling’s Medicare fraud. At this point, Yancy thinks Christopher Grunion and Eve Stripling must have learned that Yancy had interviewed O’Peele and suspected that he’d given too much away, maybe even the fact that they’d had Stripling murdered: and that’s why he was bumped off, so he couldn’t be arrested, questioned by the police and so on. Yancy feels partly responsible.

Yancy is attacked

He’s got this far in his investigation, in between his day job of inspecting restaurants, and in between sexy encounters with new lover Dr Campasino, when someone attacks Yancy as he is innocently putting his bin out: whacks him with something heavy upside his head, drags him unconscious to the nearby canal and chucks him in. The cold water wakes Yancy who is savvy enough to pretend to sink to the bottom and then to swim, his lungs bursting, across to the mangroves on the other side of the canal and very carefully surface and not move. The killer surveys the dark water for a while, goes to search Yancy’s house, then departs. It’s after this incident that Yancy decides not to return to his house that night in case the attacker returns and instead holes up in Shook’s half-built mansion next door… where he is found next morning by Shook and his latest set of prospective buyers.

Bonnie returns, with boy friend

Yancy tries to persuade sheriff Summers to let him rejoin the police department as a detective and follow up the case. Summers refuses. Out of the blue Bonnie reappears. Bored of her autoasphyxiating husband she set out on a mission to find the teenage boy who she seduced at school, found him and even though he has matured from a handsome 15 year-old to a balding, stupid fatso, she hooks up with him and the pair have driven down to the Keys and expect Yancy to put them up! As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate already!

The Oklahoma detective

In fact Bonnie comes trailing trouble because a detective from the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation turns up, one John Wesley Weiderman, a comically strict, literal, unimaginative and dutiful copper, who is on the trail of the errant Plover Chase aka Bonnie due to her jumping bail all those years ago. Much fun is had with him, starting with Yancy jokingly recommending he have dinner at Stoney’s Crab Palace after which, predictably, he comes down with bad food poisoning, and for the rest of the novel he turns up like a bad penny, at inopportune moments.

Claspers and Egg

Back in the Bahamas we meet a new character, K.J. Claspers (p.202). He used to fly planes smuggling cocaine in from South America. Nowadays, he’s middle aged and flies charter planes around Florida and the Bahamas. At the moment he’s on a retainer from this Christopher Grunion and Eve Stripling, and their goon, the big black hired muscle christened Carter Ecclestone (p.320) but universally referred to as Egg (p.203). When, late one night, Neville climbs over the chain link fence protecting the building site where his family home used to be, Egg appears out of nowhere and badly beats him up.

In fact, to his amazement, Neville discovers that this big chunky bouncer is now shagging the scrawny scarey Dragon Queen. She has a mysterious ability to seduce men, even Egg doesn’t know why he’s with her, specially when she takes to riding around in an electric wheelchair, followed by a small cohort of moaning, swaying devotees. And then she successfully takes Neville’s monkey, the bad monkey of the title, away from him.

Pause for thought 2

This summary has only taken us up to about half way through the plot. In other words, about the same amount of event and character occurs in the second half as I’ve summarised so far, including the one Big Revelation which is central to the plot.

It’s far too much for me to attempt to summarise, but the comic strands – increasing mayhem caused by the increasingly unhinged Bonnie, the comic thread of poor Evan Shook’s half-built house being subjected to endless humiliations by Yancy, Neville’s terror at the Dragon Queen’s increasingly outlandish antics – are brilliantly juxtaposed with the Yancy’s serious investigation into Stripling’s murder, and the other murders which seem to have followed from it. Dr Campasino becomes an increasingly willing assistant and the novel climaxes when they both take a few days off work and fly to Andros to track down for themselves the mysterious ‘Christopher’ figure who seems to be at the centre of all the different plot strands.

It is then that the novel turns quite a lot darker, with the kind of savage and macabre violence which is Hiaasen’s trademark. In a nutshell, the bad guys kidnap Rosa who is being threatened with rape just before the good guys manage to track her down and rescue her. Meanwhile Yancy finds himself staring down the barrel of a sawn-off shotgun and being told he knows far too much to be allowed to live.

And the book reaches its climax just as a tropical hurricane hits the island where all the characters have assembled (although it must be said, the storm is a bit of a disappointment, it blows a few roofs off, knocks over electricity poles and scatters debris round the streets, but isn’t the devastating apocalypse which the reader was secretly hoping for).

For once I won’t summarise the sequence of events leading up to the Big Revelation, nor what the revelation reveals. I’ve given you enough information to guess, or you could read it for yourself.

Are these books thrillers?

Somewhere I’ve read that Hiaasen’s novels are categorised as thrillers, albeit comedy thrillers. I suppose that’s the least bad categorisation, but I think the reader rarely feels much sense of suspense or danger. There’s certainly little or no suspense concerning ‘whodunnit’. Both the ‘good’ guy and the ‘bad’ guys are identified very early on and we can be 100% sure that the good guy will survive and triumph (albeit after navigating some perils and getting beaten up or even shot) and that the bad guys will come to a gruesome and grotesque end.

I suppose Hiaasen’s novels have thriller elements (a crime and a detective and a few violent murders) but these seem secondary compared to the comic incidents, farcically complicated plots and continual stream of ironic reversals, pratfalls, twists and turns and misadventures. The reader reads on not so much to find out the nature of the crime – more often than not we watch the crimes taking place in real time and know exactly who did them – we read on to discover what wickedly grotesque turn of events Hiaasen can dish up next.

Explicit sex

I suppose the sex been there from the start of his career, but in the novels from the Noughties, it feels like the sex in Hiaasen books has become more prominent and more crudely explicit. In Star Island out-of-control pop star Cherry Bunterman sits on Abbott’s thigh and presses her hot pudenda down against him so that he feels her hot ‘wedge’ pushing against his leg. That struck me as unusually explicit and porny.

On page 27 of this book, Yancy is described with his head between Bonnie’s legs, but it isn’t left at that. Bonnie has recently shaved her pubes and so Yancy finds himself rubbing ‘his chin back and forth across her pale stubble’ (p.27).

Later, Yancy and Dr Rosa have sex in the morgue where she works, on one of the stainless steel dissection tables. As so often in Hiaasen, the woman takes the dominant position, hitching up her coat (she’s wearing nothing underneath) straddling and riding him (p.164). Later on, Neville will eavesdrop on the thug Egg being straddled and ridden by the bony drunken voodoo queen (p.236). Near the end of the book Dr Rosa and Yancy have a bath and, again, she straddles and rides him (p.387). The woman riding cowgirl position is definitely Hiaasen’s sexual position of choice (in his fictions). Later, after they’ve flown to Andros, in the hotel, Yancy goes down on Dr Rosa (p.238) while humming Yellow Submarine. I’m sure there is more sex and more explicitly described, than in the first novels from the 1980s. When it’s between characters we are meant to be rooting for (Yancy and Dr Rosa) it is described in reasonably sensitive and sort of loving terms. But elsewhere, sex is portrayed (as I commented in my last review) as having become equivalent to a commercial transaction.

It so happened that one of the most feared divorce lawyers in the tri-state region would be attending that night’s fund-raiser, and Evan Shook’s wife said she planned to fuck him and then hire him. (p.346)

Just hiring him wouldn’t be enough. I understand that Hiaasen’s novels are documentaries or sociological surveys, they are savage farces in which everything is meant to be cranked up and exaggerated. I also understand that sex has always played a central role in the genre of farce because sex is humanity’s weakest point, the fact that human beings have sex lives completely undermines all attempts to portray ourselves as sensible, mature and rational beings.

But all that understood, there is still something particularly rotten and corrupt about the way so many secondary characters in Hiaasen use sex purely as a transaction, our of boredom, to get their way, and have stripped it of any psychological significance whatever.

The American opioid epidemic

Once upon a time, back in the golden 1960s, there was a brief moment when ‘drugs’ were portrayed as an escape from humdrum, boring, bourgeois lifestyles. But 50 years later, they are universally available, widely taken, and the new wave of highly addictive painkillers has made junkies of large numbers of otherwise traditional and respectable people in the Great American Opioid Epidemic.

Hiaasen knows all about this and makes Bonnie’s offensively self-righteous husband an immoral quack who is adding his halfpennyworth to the misery of millions.

Dr Clifford Witt had recently retired from the practice of medicine, having invested in a chain of lucrative storefront pain clinics that dispensed Percocets and Vicodins by the bucket to a new wave of American redneck junkies. (p.20)

Americanisms

In another review I’ve pointed out how, across the 35 years of Hiaasen’s publishing career, you can watch the American language mutate and evolve. One aspect of this is the words which have been shortened, like carry bag where we’d say carri-er bag, swim trunks where we’d say swim-ming trunks, high strung where we’d say high-ly strung. Maybe making words shorter is the lexical equivalent of fast food.

In other places, I enjoyed collecting instances of new words or new uses for existing words:

  • a bounce house = bouncey castle
  • a bumblefuck = idiot
  • frosted = to be angry
  • a fuckstick = idiot
  • a goober = a peanut, a fool (p.221)
  • jazzed = pleased (p.400)
  • a mook = a stupid or incompetent person
  • a mope = noun meaning ‘A person of lower socio-economic status that leeches off the greater good of society, is lazy and is normally involved in some sort of criminal activity’.
  • to be stoked = interested (p.333)
  • ‘The sheriff’s wigging’ = very concerned, going spare (p.190)
  • ‘Sheriff Summers was a chronic stickler and worrywart’

Which,

Talking of Hiaasen’s use of English, this book contains a grammatical form I’ve never seen before, the novel use of ‘which’. ‘Which’ can be used several ways (as an interrogative starting a question) but the relevant usage here is when it is used to introduce a relative clause, as in, ‘The dog which bit me’, where which obviously refers back to the noun ‘dog’ in order to enable the description of what it did.

This use of ‘which’ takes its traditional function and then kind of supercharges and elides it. It’s associated with the Christopher Grunion character who uses it as a speedy shorthand to just pick up conversations. I assume it’s a verbal tic Hiaasen has noticed and transcribed, it’s an odd but powerful usage.

There followed an animated discussion that ricocheted between the subjects of urgent medical care and Eve’s gross culpability for Stripling being ambushed. Which, the guy who attacked him? Nick had no goddam idea who it was. (p.319)

Where ‘which’ means something like ‘Who was he, was the guy who attacked him?’ but is quicker.

He couldn’t stop railing about what had happened. Which, what are the odds of getting randomly stabbed in your own back yard during a hurricane? (p.320)

Where ‘which’ isn’t really needed at all, it’s a verbal tic.

Or he could pack up and run. Purchase a new identity, find another place to hide and start over as an international fugitive. Which, talk about exhausting. (p.322)

See what I mean? It’s difficult to concoct a direct translation into standard English, but you can see what he’s doing – using ‘which’ as an all-purpose way of connecting one thought to another,

But all he could talk about was hunting down Yancy before he could escape. Which, no way was that shithead going to sneak out of Andros today. (p.324)

Say the world ‘outlaw’ and everyone thinks bank robber, but did Dillinger cut off a limb to trick the FBI into thinking he was dead? No, sir, he went to the movies and got shot full of lead. Which, these days any fuckwit with a ballpoint pen and a Halloween mask could rob a bank.

I suppose the standard usage would be to replace ‘which’ in this example with ‘whereas’, but Grunion is clearly not a chap who fusses about his parts of speech. He uses ‘which’ indiscriminately to yank together bits of thought process.

Stripling wondered aloud if the stealth urinator was the same man he’d caught snooping outside the house, the old black guy he’d run off with the shotgun. Which, who’d be crazy enough to come back after somebody fired a twelve-gauge over their head? (p.352)

‘Quit being an asshole, Nicky. You weren’t in the medical care business, you were in the stealing business.’ Which, he would have run over her ungrateful ass with the Rollie except the motor didn’t work because Egg had removed the battery to lighten the vehicle for pushing. (p.354)

Yes, in these last two examples the use of ‘which’ is not grammatically necessary, and when it’s used it’s generally incorrectly, in the wrong grammatical way – but it does have the effect of picking up the thought and jumping to the next one, regardless. In many ways I enjoyed this unusual but effective usage more than a lot of the plot.


Credit

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2013. All references are to the 2014 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Zero History by William Gibson (2010)

Zero History is a 400-page novel about has-been rock stars and pretentious advertising executives in search of a reclusive designer of ‘really cool’ jeans and jackets. It is mind-bogglingly shallow, pretentious and boring.

Zero History is the third novel in William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant trilogy’, itself the third of Gibson’s three trilogies of novels. It’s even more disappointing than Spook Country and rotates round the same kind of lame ideas: the central figure is ex-rock singer Hollis Henry who’s continually interacting with her super ‘cool’ former bandmates. She gets paired up with Milgrim, the reformed drug addict who we met in the previous novel, both being sent on a wild goose chase to track down the creator of the mysterious ‘Gabriel Hounds’ brand of jeans by the ‘genius’ advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

We know Bigend is a genius because all the characters tell us so.

  • ‘His grasp of contradiction is brilliantly subversive.’ (p.269)
  • ‘He has a kind of dire gravity. You need to get further away.’ (p.337)
  • ‘He’s like some peculiar force of nature. Not a safe one to be around.’ (p.346)

Thus the text, despite its often zingy and effective prose style in details, overall consists of lots of lame references to the ‘cool’ rock world and the ‘cool’ world of fashion and stale clichés about advertising, all struggling to support a plot which goes beyond the disappointing denouements of the previous two novels into new realms of the genuinely asinine.

Half way through, Zero History gets bored of its own fatuous storyline and switches from being a ‘quest’ for the jeans designer to a hostage thriller. By the time the legendary jeans designer is, in fact, tracked down, in the final passages of the book, nobody cares because the novel has unexpectedly morphed into a Die Hard movie.

Advertising

The owner of the Blue Ant advertising agency, the preposterously named Hubertus Bigend, is treated as some kind of advertising / communications / sociology guru, despite the fact that, whenever we actually get to hear any of the Great Man’s thoughts, they amount to recycling tiresome ad-man bullshit. As he explains to ex-rock singer Hollis Henry, who he is giving another ‘mission’:

We aren’t just an advertising agency. I’m sure you know that. We do brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.’ (p.21)

Hmm. Just like every other modern advertising agency, then. He goes on to tell Hollis that he is always looking for the next big thing, that he is in quest of ‘the edge’, always trying to catch the next big wave (p.24). Well, no shit Sherlock; what corporation, bank, company, fashion house, publishing company, art gallery or music label in our rabidly consumerist society isn’t trying to do exactly the same thing? That’s not a bold vision, it’s the default setting of the entire world we live in.

This is all dressed up on page 177 as Bigend’s quest for the mysterious ‘order flow’, the flow of all the world’s information about everything, something which Bigend (megalomaniacally) wants to possess. In the end he’s just a reincarnation of Dr No or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, only not actually evil, barely even amoral. A neutered baddie. A tamed megalomaniac.

Rock band chic

As to rock band chic, it plays a central role in this novel, not because anyone makes any actual music, but because Gibson thinks it’s ‘cool’ to write about people who were in rock bands. He seems to be aiming the book at the kind of middle-aged dads who read Rolling Stone magazine or watch BBC4 documentaries about Classic Rock Albums. Ageing, would-be hipsters who still wear jeans and black leather jackets as they approach pension age. In their heads they’re still their speed-snorting, dope-smoking crazy selves from the 1970s and 80s but to everyone else they’re Derek the head of IT who really shouldn’t be wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt at his age. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

Thus the lead character is a young woman (as in so many of Gibson’s novels), Hollis Henry, who was lead singer in the now defunct rock band The Curfew. She’s turning 30 (i.e. half Gibson’s age when this book was published) and is now trying to make her way as a freelance journalist.

In the previous novel, Spook Country, Hollis was commissioned to write a piece about ‘locative art’ (3D holograms of dead rock stars which are located at strategic places around Los Angeles and can only be seen if you use a set of video headgear) for a magazine which turned out to be a front for Hubertus Bigend’s endless curiosity, a way for him to employ pretty young women to investigate subjects which take his fancy (bit creepy, eh?).

‘I’m a curious person,’ said Bigend, ‘and can afford to satisfy my curiosity.’ (p.67)

(Bigend’s super-PA and fixer is Pamela Mainwaring who is, according to the narrator, ‘a very tasteful pornographer’s idea of “mature”‘, p.40. That’s a bit creepy. And see the throwaway reveal at the very end of the story, below.)

The novel opens with Hollis staying in a fabulously retro hotel in London, but the point of the ‘rock’ connection is that almost immediately she is interacting with her old bandmates, short balding English guitarist Reg Inchmale, who is in Soho producing a new album by another fictional band, The Bollards, and the Curfew’s feisty, not to say pain-in-the-ass, former drummer, Heidi Hyde, ‘her hair dyed goth black’ (p.49), who swears all the time (‘You said he was bugfuck,’ p.136).

Not only this but Hollis hooks up with members of other rock bands she knew when she was part of the rock scene and they have conversations about being in a rock band and the rigours of touring, staying in a new hotel every night, the drugs, the band tensions, oh man, it’s so tough being a rock star. We hear about an Icelandic duo Eydis and Frederika Brandsdottir who make up the band The Dottirs. About another band named The Stokers (p.156).

The rock world ambience is enhanced by a steady drip of casual references which seem to go out of their way to refer to really ancient rock acts and the long-ago world of the late 1960s or 70s. Thus Heidi Hyde describes the wallpaper at her fancy London boutique hotel as like a pair of ‘Hendrix’s pants’. Later Fiona the motorbike courier defines a piece of music by explaining that its maker listened to Jimi as a boy (pages 305, 349). Now Jimi Hendrix, flourished 1967 to 1970. This book was published in 2010, 40 years later. Then we have the fact that one of the first pieces of ‘locative art’ was a 3D hologram of Jim Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, died in 1971. 50 years ago. Phil Spector is referred to (p.307), career peak 1960s and early 70s. On page 321 Voytek quotes Bob Dylan, but not 1990s Bob Dylan, instead the 1967  song ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’.

It’s this kind of thing which makes me think Gibson is aiming his novels at what you might call the American mainstream rock tradition, at ageing ‘hipsters’ who carry on writing and reading magazines like Rolling Stone, and who think writing or reading articles about Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and the Who is still ‘cool’.

What I don’t understand is that critics queue up on the covers of this book to describe Gibson as the master novelist we need now, describing him as a ‘prophet’, as capturing ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ (Cory Doctorow), as an ‘astounding architect of cool’ (The Spectator) and yet it is a plain fact that Gibson spends less time thinking about 9/11, Iraq or the Financial Crash, or anticipating the seismic changes which will be brought about by social media, than he does retailing crappy, second-hand ideas about advertising and making tiresome references to long-dead 1960s rock gods.

The Spectator thinks Gibson is the  ‘astounding architect of cool’. Think about that. The Spectator, the solidly right-wing mouthpiece of the Brexit-leading Conservative Party. The Spectator, whose editor was Boris Johnson from 1999 to 2005. Boris Johnson. Maybe the fact that Gibson is so gushingly praised by The Spectator crystallises all my misgivings about him and his later novels: William Gibson is Boris Johnson’s idea of ‘cool’, a 60-something white man in a black leather jacket making references to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Fashion

The fatuousness of Gibson’s attempts to make Hubertus Bigend some kind of communications guru, and the lameness of his dad rock references (Heidi Hyde wears an old Ramones t-shirt, p.59 – how cool!) are exacerbated by Gibson’s ongoing obsession with namechecking the brand names and designers of every conceivable product the characters come into contact with.

Thus we are told the precise brand of their cars and handbags and clothes, and my God, of their clothes, yes their clothes, every item of clothing that they wear, or look at, or think about.

We get itemised lists of their shoes and socks and jeans and shirts and t-shirts and jackets and shades. Roberto Cavalli, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, Jun Marukawa, Hackett – for all I care this might be a list of the administrative regions of Kazakhstan, but I appreciate that for tens of millions of people being able to distinguish Lauren from Lacoste is a matter of life or death, and these seem to be the people Gibson is catering to in this novel. Or satirising. Or both.

In the earlier novels this was merely an irritating symptom of the triumph of style over substance, but in Zero History the plot itself dives head-first into the empty-headed stupidity of the fashion world, as parodied in the movie Zoolander among many others. Once you enter this world of style and fashion, you check in your brain and never see it again.

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The plot

Hollis Henry

We first met Zero History‘s lead character, Hollis Henry, in the previous novel in the trilogy, Spook Country. She’s the former singer with rock band The Curfew who’s forging a new career as a journalist and writer. Her intellectual level can be measured by the fact that:

Hollis was a firm believer in the therapeutic power of the right haircut. (p.69)

In Spook Country Hollis had been researching ‘locative art’ for a magazine which turned out to be a thinly disguised front for advertising guru Hubertus Bigend. Well, she’s done a lot more work on ‘locative art’ since and has now turned it into a big coffee-table book, complete with images of what the art looks like. The book is titled Presences: Locative Art in America (p.97). The main example the book uses to explain locative art is a 3D hologram of soft porn female nudes done by Helmut Newton (1920 to 2004) which are now visible to anyone who can afford the headset required to see this ‘art’ at some French chateau.

Is this capturing ‘the futurist nature of the present day’? No, it isn’t. Referencing the soft porn, pervey nudes of a dead German photographer whose heyday was the 1980s does not feel like anybody’s future.

Hollis’s coffee table book is just being published when she is summoned to London to meet her sugar-daddy, er, I mean ‘Machiavellian advertising guru’ Hubertus Bigend, who has a new assignment for her.

The novel opens with Hollis having just flown in from New York and staying in a quaint London boutique hotel (‘Cabinet’) stuffed with dinky period pieces, not least a stuffed ferret and the steampunk elevator. She meets, has coffee and chats with Reg Inchmale, former guitarist with The Curfew who’s now producing another band, The Bollards, in a studio in Soho. Also putting in an appearance is Heidi Hyde, the tough, foul-mouthed drummer with The Curfew, who refers to her former boyfriend, at length and repeatedly, as ‘fuckstick’. So the band’s all here, trailing dated 1980s drug slang and rock clichés.

Milgrim

Bigend introduces Hollis to Milgrim, who’s just flown in from his clinic in Basel. Clinic? Yes. Like Hollis, Milgrim also first appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Spook Country. He is an educated young man with a college degree in Russian and was working as a translator when he slowly got hooked on prescription tranquilisers, eventually ending up an almost gibbering wreck, which is how he was found in the street by a shady, renegade intelligence operative named Brown, who ‘sort of’ abducted him, probably saving his life but keeping him under lock and key and feeding him pills in order to use Milgrim’s top translating skills in monitoring a family of what Brown takes to be Russian-backed spies. This is a key storyline in Spook Country.

Brown turned out to be completely wrong and Milgrim managed, at the end of Spook Country, to escape from his clutches. In the final pages he stumbles across Hollis’s handbag which she accidentally left in a deserted loft space and this, though the reader doesn’t know it at the time, is a crucial link, because it allows none other than Hubertus Bigend to phone Milgrim, using the phone he’d given Hollis and which was in her lost handbag. Being Bigend, he doesn’t get cross that someone’s stolen Hollis’s handbag and phone, but is intrigued by the sound of Milgrim, quizzes him, finds out about his background and…

Pays for him to be sent to a world-class detox clinic in Basel, Switzerland for eight months (chapter 4). There, Milgrim tells us, he had his entire body’s blood replaced with clean blood and underwent an extensive course of cognitive therapy. This complex background means that throughout this book Milgrim can conjure up either drug-addled streams of consciousness, odd and unexpected insights,  or sober advice his therapist gave him to manage unexpected situations. He is the peg for the kind of sentences Gibson excels at, which gesture to something just beyond perception, or slightly wrong, out of kilter and unnerving:

  • He struck her as being unused to inhabiting his own face, somehow. (p.44)
  • He felt as though something new and entirely too large was trying to fit within him. (p.92)
  • He seemed peeled, somehow, transparent, strangely free of underlying motive. (p.180)
  • Milgrim was having one of those experiences of feeling, as he’d explained to his therapist, that he was emulating a kind of social being that he fundamentally wasn’t. (p.174)

All these qualities make Milgrim the most interesting character in the book and, maybe, just about enough reason to read it. Not to buy it, though.

However, Milgrim isn’t totally free. His stay at the rehab clinic was managed by Oliver Sleight, on the face of it an employee of Bigend’s (p.85), but Sleight wants to keep tabs on Milgrim in a way which goes beyond Bigend’s needs. Sleight has given Milgrim a phone, a ‘Neo’, which only takes calls from him and which has GPS tracking so he can follow Milgrim’s movements at all times (p.124).

Why? ‘Fuck if I know’ as Heidi puts it in her charming way (p.202). As with most content in Gibson novels, this kind of thing is thrown in early on and then referred to at regular intervals almost entirely to keep you guessing.

Early on an apparently trivial incident occurs, which will become central to the plot. At one point Milgrim gets fed up of being trailed by Sleight all the time and gets into an elevator in a department store and, purely because the other people in it are speaking in Russian (which always wakens memories of his pre-drug existence), on an impulse Milgrim slips the Neo into the pram of one of the Russian women then watches the lift stop at the next floor, the doors open and the woman and pram exit and wander off who knows where. She seemed to have a couple of tough-looking minders in tow. Maybe she’s the wife or daughter of an oligarch, who cares. But it will turn out to matter, later.

Gabriel Hounds

So what’s Zero History actually about? Bigend has come across a brand of jacket and jeans named Gabriel Hounds (‘It’s a secretive jeans line’, p.72). They’re made by a secretive designer. Bigend wants to find out who. As Hollis explains:

‘Bigend’s hired me to look into Gabriel Hounds. He wants to know who designs it, how their antimarketing scheme works.’ (p163)

That, as far as I can tell, is it, at least to begin with. So Bigend introduces Hollis and Milgrim, tells them he wants to track down the designer of Gabriel Hounds jeans and jackets and pays for them to take the Eurostar to Paris, stay in a swanky hotel and visit a Vintage Clothes Fair (the Salon du Vintage) where, inevitably, they meet lots of other designers and models plus some of Hollis’s friends or contacts from the rock world. The level of humour is indicated by the character with the oh-so-funny name of Olduvai George, the ‘brilliant’ keyboardist with the Bollards. He is named Olduvai George because there’s a place  in Africa called Olduvai Gorge and Gorge sounds like George! Hence Olduvai George. Geddit!? They also meet ‘Clammy’ who dresses all in black, because dressing all in black is ‘cool’ (p.33 ).

In other words, the novel is marinaded in references to the international rock-fashion world. If you think that world is ‘cool’, you’ll love it; if, like me, you think it is all weirdly lame and dated, you won’t. Everyone wears black. Everyone is thin. Everyone is a design genius. Everyone has an ‘uncanny sense’ for the next best thing, everyone has a special feel for the Zeitgeist bah blah blah yaddah yaddah yaddah.

Anyway, Hollis talks to Clammy who knows Olduvai George who knows some clothes designer named Meredith Overton aka ‘Mere’ (p.115). (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and indicate just how much you grasp ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’.)

They all go out for a simply wonderful dinner at a restaurant where they bump into Bram, reluctant singer with the Stokers (geddit!?) who is having a meal the other side of the restaurant with one of the Icelandic pop duo, the Dottirs. Half way through the meal they have a big row and Bram storms out, only to be trapped by the legions of paparazzi waiting outside. It is so tiresome being a rock star, darling.

Anyway, that’s by way of being a distraction. The real outcome of the dinner is that Mere thinks she knew someone in fashion school who knew someone else in Chicago, who might be the designer of the Gabriel Hounds!!

Foley

Milgrim spots they’re being followed. To be precise, he had noticed a guy popping up several times in South Carolina where he had been hanging out after leaving the Basel clinic. Then Milgrim thinks he sees the same guy a few times in London. Now he’s certain he’s seen the same guy following him at the vintage clothes fair in Paris. He’s wearing foliage-green ‘pants’ so Milgrim quickly nicknames him ‘Foliage’ and then ‘Foley’. (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and also indicate just how much you grasp the blah blah.)

Milgrim is approached out of the blue in a cafe in London by a woman who flashes a badge and identifies herself as Winnie Tung Whitaker, Special Agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (p.108). I suppose we’re meant to take this seriously but it all reminded me a bit of Secret Squirrel.

(Actually, to my delight and coincidence, Secret Squirrel is actually namechecked later on in the text, page 309. Gibson feeling the anxiety of influence from the classics of the thriller genre, there.)

So Hollis is introduced to Mere at the vintage clothes fair in Paris who spouts a lot of garbage about the secretive designers of Gabriel Hound jeans. This personage is revered because he or she shuns the usual industry calendar of releasing new lines with each new ‘season’. This is because:

‘It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It’s about deeper code.’ (p.116)

If you think this twaddle is profound, this is the book for you.

Mere was a model before she became a designer, which allows her to reel off a description of the boring existence of a poverty-stricken model, rather as Hollis being an ex-rock singer allows Gibson to refer throughout to the sleazy-glamorous life of rock and roll stars. Mere escaped modelling to set up a business designing a new style of shoes, trying to sidestep fashion (there are some pages about the design and fabric of her shoes and she explains how so few people really got what she was trying to do with them (p.228); as if shoes are very puzzling and complex intellectual constructs). But Mere’s business flopped. Now all the stock is locked up in some warehouse in Tacoma, Seattle (p.164) and she’s back working in fashion retail.

Lots more labels

There are a lot more sentences in this 400-page novel but for quite a long time not a lot happens. The characters travel from London to Paris and back again, there are hyper-detailed descriptions of hotel foyers and receptionists and lifts and corridors and rooms and showers and beds, lots and lots of phone calls on nifty cell phones, a lot of messing about with AirMacs and passwords and dongles, a great deal of meetings in restaurants and cafes with a minute itemisation of what everybody ate (Milgrim has a salmon starter followed by pork tenderloin, chapter 32; the salmon is everso good. Bigend, counter-intuitively, or maybe inevitably, likes crude full English breakfasts, namely two fried eggs, black pudding, two slices of bacon, two slices of bread and a mug of tea. Of his favourite café he opines: ‘They get the black pudding right here.’ p.196.)

Maybe this is what the Spectator means by ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ – advertising execs, writers and rock musicians jet-setting between fashionable capitals, staying in swank hotels and eating out on bottomless expense accounts. Or maybe they’re referring to the future for the cosmopolitan urban elite like themselves, anyway.

I read this and think – this self-congratulatory cosmopolitan elite, sooo concerned with acquiring just the right patina on their jackets, desperately seeking the mysterious jeans designer – this entitled elite deserved their comeuppance in the form of moron Trump and dumb-bell Brexit. In their ways, both those votes were crude gestures of protest against the arrogance of the international art and fashion and media and style elite with its ill-concealed contempt for the chavs and proles who populate the countries they flit between, and who they sell their shitty films and TV and clothes and art to and patronise and lecture and exploit.

It’s about gear queer

What else happens? Well, Bigend explains they’re seeking the Gabriel Hounds designer because the latest thing is Gear Queer. According to Bigend, army veterans returning from Iraq have sparked a fashion among young men for an army surplus look (explained in chapter 41).

This just seemed patronising rubbish to me. If there’s been any fashion of the past few years it’s been the rise of the hipster – metrosexual, casual styling associated with full but coiffured beards. According to Wikipedia:

The term ‘hipster’ in its present usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the late 2000s and early 2010s

I.e. just as this book was being published.

It’s another indication of the way that, in fashion, in music, in sociology and in politics, Gibson strikes me as being plain wrong. Even in his specialist subject area of digital tech he completely failed to anticipate the revolutionary impact of smart phones and social media which began to take off just after this novel was published. And his books are utterly bereft of any real thinking about the important events of the day: 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism, or the impact of the great financial crash of 2008. Rather than being some kind of ‘prophet’ Gibson is in every way a highly misleading guide to his times.

OIiver Sleight defects to the enemy

Anyway, back to Bigend’s stupid name and ridiculous quest for ‘Gabriel Hounds’. Oliver Sleight was supervising Milgrim in South Carolina because that’s where a lot of the supply to the US military comes from and that’s where they found the pair of rogue Gabriel Hound jeans which confirmed ‘the Hound look’ as being possibly the next big thing which Bigend can a) sell to the military b) promote to young men round the world concerned with replicating the look and ‘semiotics’ of elite military forces. (At least in this utterly rubbish plot.)

As the story progresses Winnie Tung Whitaker meets Milgrim a couple of times (they’ve been staying in touch via a Twitter account she showed him how to set up). At their final meeting in a restaurant she explains who she’s after. It is one Michael Preston Gracie, 45 with a long career in the US military but then stepped sideways into private security work, and then military contracting, and then something to do with supplying uniforms to East Asian countries. Why is Winnie Ting Whitaker after this man? Because (exactly like ‘the old guy’ in Spook Country) it’s a gesture, nothing serious or significant is at stake: it’s just ‘a gesture in the face of the shitbird universe’ (p.225).

To be honest, everything this fiction Michael Gracie is doing sounds perfectly legal and enterprising. As this plot about a renegade military supplier emerged to become the focus of the novel, at every sentence I thought Gibson was utterly missing the real story here, which was the huge expansion in private contractors supplying military and security services in Afghanistan and Iraq – Blackwater, Dyncorp and so on – about the huge amounts of money which went from the American taxpayer straight into these organisations which, more often than not, had top US politicians on their payroll.

(Actually, the really big story which emerged from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was how astonishingly shit America turned out to be at understanding or managing the countries they’d conquered. How many American historians, commentators and novelists have I read casually castigating the mismanagement of the British Empire? So how did you do in Iraq, boys? Or Afghanistan? Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Ritual humiliation of prisoners. Over $6.4 trillion spent on the ‘War on Terror’. It’s a proud record.)

To recap:

‘Gracie’s an arms dealer. Bigend was spying on some business of his, in South Carolina.’ (p.295)

Remember Oliver Sleight who had been minding Milgrim? In the middle of the book, Bigend reveals that Sleight – who was in fact Bigend’s IT chief – has gone rogue, has been recruited by ‘the other side’, meaning the people round Gracie.

Why? If you think about it rationally, it’s not at all clear why Gracie and the tail who Milgrim calls Foley would give a stuff about Bigend poking about in the same market. It’s a very big market, and Gracie has a huge head-start, being ex-US Army with all kinds of contacts. Why should they care?

The enemy attack

Still, this idea of people within Blue Ant itself going over to ‘the enemy’ is whipped up into the pretext for a kind of gang war which breaks out.

Milgrim, Hollis and Heidi are being driven back to their hotel after meeting Bigend (a meeting at which he shows them his latest toy, the next generation of drones, which can be controlled from your phone which were, I guess, a whole new idea in 2010) when the vehicle they’re in is nearly rammed and forced into an alleyway somewhere in the City.

Once rammed into this alley, another car comes hurtling towards it to ram it, and Milgrim sees Foley in the front seat gesticulating at him. But the point is that the vehicle they’re in is a ‘cartel-grade’ Jankel-armoured, four-doored, short-bedded Toyota Hilux truck (p.36), driven by a no-nonsense Jamaican security guy named Aldous, and he himself rams the oncoming car and pushes it backwards all the way to the end of the alley, before reversing a bit and then further ramming into its bonnet, crushing the engine.

Aldous Calls up Fiona, the helmeted biker babe we’ve met a couple of times throughout the story, who turns up pronto, grabs Hollis onto her pillion and roars off, while Heidi drags meek Milgrim on foot along to the nearest Tube (Bank) and so back West towards their hotel, while Aldous waits in the Jankel for the cops to arrive and give his side of the story.

Now, as the second of the cars had hurtled towards them down the alleyway, Milgrim had seen Foley bright and clear, and seen that he had a bandage over his face and that he was brandishing the phone, the Neo which Sleight had given him. This a) confirms that Foley, Milgrim’s ‘tail, was indeed working with Sleight, and b) implies that Foley went to track down the phone and had an unfortunate encounter with some Russian mafia bodyguards.

In other words the entire incident of the car ram seems to stem from Milgrim’s momentary act of rebellion against being tracked in the department store, when he slipped the Neo into the pram of some random strangers. Seems that Foley was despatched to track down the phone and encountered the Russian oligarch’s security people who beat him up.

After the ramming, Bigend convenes yet another meeting with Hollis and Milgrim and explains the current situation. Sleight, his lead IT guy, has ‘gone over’ to ‘the enemy’ (remember, this is all about contracts for military uniforms). Sleight was monitoring Milgrim so closely because he was relaying Milgrim and Hollis’s discoveries back to his new boss, the renegade military contractor, Michael Gracie. Now Bigend tells them that other senior personnel within Blue Ant are also defecting. To some extent Bigend always expected this: he employs people on the ‘edge’, renegades and free thinkers, and always enjoys watching them mature and rebel – but this time there’s a bit more of a rebellion going on than he’s used to.

Thus Bigend has been forced to retreat from his London headquarters (probably bugged by Sleight) to the back room of a Japanese tailor down the road. This explains why a number of these meetings involve passing through the shop front of ‘Tanky and Tojo’, the name of the Japanese tailor, into the surprisingly spacious back room.

(I wonder about Gibson and his fetish for Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese imagery, style, design and steel-and-glass cityscapes seemed to be the future. But my understanding is that around 2000 Japan entered into a prolonged period of stagflation and in any case was being overtaken by China as the new military and cultural power in the East, a rise which continues to this day. Yet Gibson seems to be sticking with his dated Japan obsession. True, some Chinese crop up in his novels, but not as many as Japanese. Two of the three novels in the Bridge trilogy take place almost entirely in Japan, in Tokyo. It seems to me another token, along with the dated rock music and the lack of grasp of key geopolitical events of the early 2000s, of the way Gibson’s worldview seems dusty and dated.)

Voytek and Chombo

Remember Voytek? He’s the Polish immigrant who keeps a computer repair store in Camden, north London, and pops up throughout Pattern Recognition, the first novel in the trilogy. And remember Bobby Chombo, the tech genius who actually makes locative artists’ projects for 3D holographic art become a reality in Spook Country. Well, now we learn that Bigend had brought a reluctant and paranoid Chombo back from Vancouver (setting of the previous novel) and parked him with a reluctant Voytek to look after, who resentfully pronounces his name ‘Shombo’.

But we’ve barely learned all this (Milgrim sees Chombo in the backroom when he visits Voytek’s computer repair shop to get Hollis’s AirMac checked out for bugs) before Bigend tells the team that The Enemy have forced their way into Voytek’s place and kidnapped Chombo. Bigend has received a simple ultimatum: The Enemy want to make ‘a prisoner exchange’, return Chombo in exchange for Milgrim, with the implication that they will do very bad things to Milgrim for his various ‘betrayals’.

None of this is really intrinsic to the idea of a commercial rivalry between Gracie and Bigend, which itself isn’t really implicit in the situation. Why shouldn’t two (or three or four) companies operate in the market selling clothes to the US military? Likewise, the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Milgrim isn’t intrinsic to the situation, it just seems to derive from Milgrim’s arbitrary decision to drop his phone in a stranger’s pram. That one moment is the basis for the entire second half of the plot, and it is a slender and silly basis.

The return of Garreth

Now you need to know about an added complication. The first two-thirds of the narrative have been peppered with Hollis’s memories of her affair with Garreth. Garreth was the supremely competent handyman and security operative key to the plot of the previous novel, Spook Country. He was the right-hand man of ‘the old man’ who was running the scam at the centre of that story. Garreth is handy with guns and weapons and cars and planes. He is your basic, omni-competent thriller hero, good-looking and chivalrous into the bargain.

Doing very dangerous things was his avocation. (p.153)

(It’s interesting to consider how, despite Gibson’s best woke efforts to centre his narratives around female protagonists, the fact that he is writing thrillers means that a tough, strong, competent handsome man keeps ending up taking centre stage in the stories. Tough-but-sensitive security guard Berry Rydell in the Bridge trilogy, and tough-but-sensitive secret operative Garreth in this trilogy. The scenery may be modern but the fundamental mindset is deeply traditional. This helps to explain Gibson’s nervously jokey references to James Bond in both this and the previous novel. Gibson’s acolytes proclaim him the prophet of the future but he is, in essence, simply writing flashy gadget thrillers and he is uneasily aware that this entire genre can’t escape the shadow of 007, simply because Ian Fleming brought the formula to such a peak of perfection. In fact the comical similarity to Bond is explicitly acknowledged right at the end of the novel: ‘Fiona said that Bigend, with the Hermès ekranoplan, had gone totally Bond villain’, p.399)

Anyway, in this novel we learn that after she met him towards the end of the previous novel, Hollis is so dazzlingly original and independent that she fell in love with the tall, dark, handsome, supremely confident, tough but sensitive security dude, Garreth. (So much for futurity; feels very 1960s to me.) But that their affair only flourished because it fell in a lull between Garreth’s missions, and that when he was assigned a new one by the mysterious old man, Garreth melted out of her life and that they then definitely split up.

Until… Hollis is delivered the shock news that Garreth has been involved in an accident!! Among his many other heroic action-man attributes was that Garreth was a free jumper, one of the group of people who illegally scale enormous buildings and jump off them wearing mini-parachutes. Well, Garreth illegally made it to the top of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, jumped off, but his chute got snagged in unexpected construction cranes and/or he landed on what should have been a deserted freeways but was instead run over by a super-rich Arab in a sports car.

Hollis is distraught, realises that she loved him after all (how very Mills & Boon), phones him, gets no reply, is given emotional support by her band-mate Heidi etc, all this going on while the situation with Milgrim and Gracie and the Opposition is getting more and more intense.

And then, the evening after the traumatic car attack on our heroes in the City, there’s a knock on Hollis’s hotel room door and it is none other than Garreth! Admittedly, he’s been badly knocked about and is in a wheelchair. The doctors had to reconstruct his hip and most of his right leg. He can just about limp using a walking stick but the wheelchair is easier. Cue a tearful reunion, ‘I never stopped loving you,’ ‘Oh why did you do it?’ ‘Is it serious?’ etc etc. They embrace, they kiss, he spends the night on her bed. They nickname his partly reconstructed right leg Frank.

However, characteristically for Gibson, there is no hint of any sexual activity whatsoever. His characters are strictly neuter, with no sexual attributes or thoughts.

(Same happens in chapter 60 when foxy Fiona, a strong, independent motorbike courier, is stuck in the lockup with Milgrim, completes the assembly of a bit of kit, strips off her overclothes and gets into the one sleeping bag, then invites Milgrim to join her. He takes his trousers and socks off. This will be a first, the reader thinks. But Milgrim slips into the sleeping bag beside her, lies perfectly straight and still and… soon hears her snoring, p.299.)

The puzzling absence of sex as an activity or a motive or even a footnote to the relationships is one of the big limitations of Gibson’s novels and something which prevents them being any kind of serious investigation of human nature. Instead they feel more like the adventures of chrome-plated, cartoon cutouts.

Garreth’s plan

Anyway, Garreth’s appearance is very convenient for the plot for, the next morning, when Bigend invites himself to breakfast with Hollis at her boutique hotel, and is explaining that he’s made the decision to hand Milgrim over to the bad guys, Garreth, who was hiding behind a screen and overheard everything (like a character in an Elizabethan play) steps (well trundles in his wheelchair) forward and backs Hollis up in saying this unacceptable. They cannot possibly consider handing over poor Milgrim to the bad guys. No, instead he, Garreth, will use his super secret agent powers to devise a cunning plan.

And so it is that in the final quarter of the novel Garreth calls in lots of favours, assembles kit from all over, and puts together his plan, while the extended team of Good Guys assemble, as in every heist movie ever made. The good guys are: Hollis and crippled scam supremo Garreth, timid Milgrim and the biker babe Fiona, Benny the bike mechanic who makes important adjustments to Fiona’s bike and keeps the lockup mentioned above, and tough Polish immigrant and computer repairman, Voytek.

I forgot to mention that Heidi, a tall no-nonsense woman, had joined a gym in Hackney, where she’d discovered a cohort of blokes who like boxing, including an Asian guy named Ajay, who she brings back to Hollis’s hotel, and who is thrilled to meet the legendary singer of The Curfew. Well, Garreth ropes this Ajay into his quickly whipped-up scam, and he comes accompanied by his cousin, Asian beauty Chandra.

It’s a kind of multi-ethnic Ocean’s Eleven, or like the elaborate set-up scenes in The Italian Job (1969).

The mystery designer is Cayce Pollard

Remember how the whole narrative got rolling with Bigend apparently interested in finding the designer of a particularly funky pair of jeans and denim jacket. Well, Mere reappears at this juncture (from a narrative structure point of view, to take pressure off the buildup to Garreth’s Masterplan) and reveals to Hollis that the mystery designer is in London, and takes Hollis to see her. In a secret denim shop in Soho.

And, with a terrible sense that Gibson’s world is contracting and contracting until it’s the size of a microchip, the mystery designer who we all spent the first half of the novel obsessing about, turns out to be… none other than Cayce Pollard, the magically gifted ‘coolhunter’ who is the lead protagonist of Pattern Recognition!

Cayce explains that a) she became a designer because old clothes she bought in vintage fairs were just so much better made than even designer modern clothes, and b) that she shunned all logos because, as we know from Pattern Recognition, although it was her job to search out new patterns in the flow of design and clothing, actual logos gave her panic attacks. So, no logos. (Writing that reminds me of Naomi Klein’s 1999 book No Logos with its wholesale attack on the insanity of the fashion and branding industry, and makes me think, once again a) how very much behind the curve Gibson is and b) how shallow and superficial his ‘satire’ is next to a solid polemical book like Klein’s.)

So Cayce the designer insisted on no logos, absolutely no logos right up to the moment when her husband suggested they use a logo and… she agreed. There. That’s how brainless this book and its characters are. Cayce tells Hollis that she occasionally doodled dogs with human heads while designing and her husband spotted these and told her about the ‘legend’ of Gabriel Hounds. And thus this mysterious anti-brand was born. A logo which isn’t a logo. A brand which isn’t a brand.

The two women proceed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about Bigend. Yes, why are their lives both dominated by a big overbearing corporate capitalist, the reader asks himself? Sisters are doing it for themselves, or not, as the case may be. Cayce explains to Hollis that she doesn’t have fashion launches, doesn’t conform to usual fashion rhythms. She has special ‘drops’. So successful is her anti-fashion stance that Hollis sees the editor of French Vogue entering Cayce’s building as she leaves. She is so hot this season!!

I was left speechless by the illogical, inconsistent shallowness of this storyline.

Meanwhile, the Chinese agent Winnie Tung Whitaker contacts Milgrim again. He goes see her at Smithfield. She’s still after Gracie. Hollis wonders out loud to Garreth whether Bigend has for the first time lost it. Inchmale tells her that his wife (very well connected in the world of London PR and comms, darling) says the buzz is that something big is on.

You know the book is reaching its climax because everyone starts talking in italics because there is going to be some serious shit going down! Don’t let him fuck with you! I did not come to this country for motherfucker! How scary is that? Shit just got weirdLateral fucking move! Totally fucking next level! —

As if Americans can’t talk in a calm tone of voice. Or that the text itself is aware that the story is rather boring, doesn’t really make much sense, and so tries to get the characters to jazz it up by inserting lots of swearwords and random emphases.

Bigend had earlier on shown Hollis and and Heidi Milgrim some prototype drones you can operate from your iPhone. These become part of Garreth’s Cunning Plan to manage the prisoner exchange.

The prisoner exchange

Then it’s zero hour. Garreth texts everyone on the team that it’s time to rumble. Pack what you can carry, he tells Hollis, there may be running, we may not be able to come back to the hotel. It’s like a Bourne movie but without any of the actual tension or logic.

The exchange has been arranged for waste land near Wormwood Scrubs. It is, basically, a prisoner exchange as out of thousands of Cold War novels and movies, except with drones. The plan is pretty simple. Garreth has gotten the Asian martial arts guy, Ajay, to use makeup to look like Milgrim, and arranged for him to be accompanied to the drop place by an ex-Gurkha (it’s handy to know this kind of people if you’re in special ops).

The two Bad Guys approach with Chombo. When they’re close enough, Ajay simply leaps forward and decks Foley, grabs Chombo and runs off, while Charlie the Gurkha drops the other bad guy.

Over on the edge of things of the meeting ground both Fiona and Milgrim have been operating drones with cameras attached which Garreth can see from the control van packed with TV screens and phones, parked half a mile away. Also in the van are Hollis and Heidi who, we now learn, has bad claustrophobia.

From one of these drone cameras they spot Michael Gracie over to one side of the exchange zone, unpacking a Kalshnikov rifle with night sights. Uh-oh. Without prompting, Milgrim fires the taser on his drone which hits Gracie, who lies convulsed on the floor. Taser? Yes, it turns out Heidi packed a taser into her luggage when she drunkenly packed to come to Britain from the States weeks ago. Handy, eh. Gibson is just adding bits of plot to try and jazz up this rather lame prisoner exchange plot device.

So while Ajay and the Gurkha run away safely, the two bad guys – Foley and some guy with a mullet haircut – are slow to get off the floor, while Gracie has been badly shocked and staggers to his feet and away without the Kalashnikov.

Chombo tries to get away from Ajay but, as luck would have it, Heidi had exited the van a few minutes earlier due to her claustrophobia, saw him running off and, being the tall Amazonian type, had rugby tackled him and brought him back to Garreth’s van. Our boys pack up and drive away, mission accomplished.

Epilogue

Cut to some weeks later. Heidi and Ajay are touring Cornwall. They seem to be an item. Hollis is in a Paris hotel bedroom with Garreth, fixing up his leg. We learn that an obscure character named Pep, the Catalan car thief (p.306), the world’s best at getting into and out of locked cars (in thrillers everyone is ‘the world’s best’) had, while the baddies were walking Chombo towards the handover zone, broken into Gracie’s car and left some semtex and photos of mosques around the UK in it. Before the mission began, Garreth had called in some heavy-duty UK anti-terrorist police on a number given him by Winnie Tung Whitaker. These police found the bomb making equipment and Gracie is now in a world of trouble. (To be honest, I never really understood what he was doing which was so wrong. Selling uniforms to the US Army, does it deserve the treatment he got?)

Hollis tells Garreth that Bigend has paid her a lot of money. No surprise, says Garreth. It was Hollis who introduced Garreth to Bigend and Garreth made all Bigend’s problems go away. At which point… Garreth proposes marriage to Hollis!

And what of Bigend, conspicuous by his absence from the hostage exchange? We catch up with him on a flight to Iceland with the Dottir twins and on no ordinary plane but a sort of zeppelin balloon, or plane with little or no wing, designed by the Russians. Milgrim is aboard it with Fiona, the biker babe. There’s a cocktail party (the plane is that big) where Milgrim is informed that:

  • Blue Ant is over: anyone who was anyone in it is on the plane and they’re all relocating to Iceland
  • Bigend helped the Dottirs’ father in shady internet deals which have ended up with the pair, between them, owning most of Iceland (the vast effort everyone put into understanding the US military’s uniform contracts has completely vanished, like the MacGuffin it always was)
  • and, in nearly the final joke, we learn that winsome Fiona with whom Milgrim is now definitely an item, is none other than Bigend’s daughter by his uber-secretary, Pamela Mainwaring

This is one massive thing in Gibson’s favour, I think, that his novels include almost no violence. This is supposedly a thriller but nobody actually gets killed – unlike the scads of traditional American thrillers in which so many people get horribly butchered. Instead this novel ends with three couples happily paired off and a nice romantic wedding on the cards.

I found Zero History a long, hard, gruelling, pretentious and irritating slog, but ended it with a smile on my face. The best bit is the ending.

Zero history

To summarise, Zero History consists of 400 pages describing rock musicians, magazine journalists and fashion aristocracy jetting from New York to London to Paris, staying in fancy hotels, taking cabs to fancy restaurants, wittering on some stupid quest to track down the designer of some slightly quirky jeans, all paid for by an absurdly rich sugar-daddy, until right at the day it turns into a briefly gripping hommage to Cold War-era hostage exchange narratives, before ending with three happy relationships and a marriage, rather like a Shakespeare comedy.

The title is explained, sort of, on page 84. All it indicates is that Milgrim was such a social dropout during his addiction phase, during his ‘decade-long low-grade brown-out’, p.141, that he never had a regular job, paid taxes, social security etc, didn’t even have a credit card. And therefore, as far as ‘the grid’ is concerned, had ‘zero history’. So no deep meaning at all.

Despite being an astonishing architect of cool, Gibson’s favourite word (apart from black, and apart from his occasional deployment of media studies buzzwords like ‘semiotics’, pp.213, and ‘liminal’, pp.4, 94, 369) Gibson’s favourite word appears to be ‘peculiar’, which cropped up frequently enough for me to  count its appearances on pages 4, 6, 8, 111, 113, 135, 180, 268, 279, 318, 326, 335 and 346.

It’s an oddly cosy and very English word for such a self-conscious American hipster.


Credit

Zero History by William Gibson was published in the UK by Viking in 2010. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon which was a bad mistake because, as with the previous 10 Amazon purchases, it arrived creased, scuffed, bent and smeared.

Other William Gibson reviews

Watt by Samuel Beckett (1953)

‘If I tell you all this in such detail, the reason is, believe me, that I cannot, much as I should like, and for reasons that I shall not go into, for they are unknown to me, do otherwise.’
(Arthur, in part three of Watt)

It’s a challenge, but I came to really enjoy this book.

Watt was Samuel Beckett’s second published novel in English (the first being Murphy, published 1938). It was begun in 1941 but largely written while Beckett was hiding from the Nazis in a small French town in the Vaucluse in south-east France, and completed in December 1944. He revised and rewrote it as he went, experimenting not only with plot and style, but with structure and tone and, indeed, the entire conception of what a fiction is and can be.

It wasn’t published until a long time later, in 1953, and then only by the Olympia Press in Paris, a disresreputable publisher of pornography whose owner prided himself on publishing unpublishable literary masterpieces (he also published novels by Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Miller). (Publishing with Olympia established Beckett’s copyright and helped him to negotiate with English and American publishers).

Fragments

In later life Beckett dismissed the book as ‘a game, a means of keeping sane’, as ‘an exercise’ to stave off the long evenings hidden away in a French farmhouse. Its long and claustrophobic gestation possibly accounts for the complex mess of the manuscript which contains all sorts of loose leaves, doodles, fragments of plot. It was, Beckett told George Reavey in 1947, ‘an unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs’. After the war Beckett carried this ever-evolving mess with him, to Paris and then back to Dublin, working over and through to a final version of the book. Four excerpts were published in literary magazines between 1950 and 1953.

The patchwork assembly of the text is recognised in the series of ‘addenda’, 37 fragments which he added at the end of the main text, concepts, sentences, scenes and phrase apparently intended for the novel but not used. Or used to form intriguing and suggestive ‘addenda’.

The general approach

Watt is another of Beckett’s tramps-cum-simpletons-cum alzheimer victims. Some kind of autistic, he struggles to fathom the most basic human interactions.

Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done. And it was true that Watt’s smile, when he smiled, resembled more a smile than a sneer, for example, or a yawn. But there was something wanting to Watt’s smile, some little thing was lacking, and people who saw it for the first time, and most people who saw it saw it for the first time, were sometimes in doubt as to what expression exactly was intended. To many it seemed a simple sucking of the teeth.
Watt used this smile sparingly.

Mind you, neither can the narrator or Beckett. All Beckett’s fictions come from a very similar place and depict people who can barely speak or communicate, who don’t understand basic human interactions, who are at the threshold of ordinary human behaviour, who can barely walk let alone speak, who fall, crawl, pull themselves forward by clutching tufts of grass through the mud of this world, obsessively repeating endless repeated phrases of endless repetition.

That, at least, is the enormously powerful impression you get from The Beckett Trilogy. The text of Watt, however, had not yet gone as far in that direction, although it has gone a long way in a very weird direction.

Paragraphs For a start the text is cast in paragraphs, lots of paragraphs, often fairly short. This may sound a trivial thing but Molloy starts with 80 pages of uninterrupted unrelieved prose, a Berlin Wall of prose, with no paragraphs or breaks of any kind, which turns out to be a real struggle to read.

Having your text chopped up into the conventional format of paragraphs which indicate when a new character speaks, or when a new action or topic starts and ends, is a vastly useful visual convention of typography – you only realise just how powerful and useful it is when it is completely absent in a work like Molloy. So Watt may use disorientating techniques but it feels much easier to read than the Trilogy.

To give an example, the conversation between Mr Hackett the hunchback, Mr Nixon and his wife Tetty, may well have surreal aspects – such as Tetty’s anecdote about giving birth by herself in the middle of a dinner party – but it is told in the format of paragraphs clearly indicating who is speaking when, and noting when characters change position or pause a bit – and so the texture of the reading experience is overwhelmingly traditional.

No speech marks Right at the start of his career, back in 1904 or so, Beckett’s mentor James Joyce had decided never to use speech marks or inverted apostrophes in his fiction and Beckett follows him in this mannerism. But it is a fairly easy-to-assimilate convention and you quickly get used to spotting what is dialogue and what is descriptive prose.

Conventional vocabulary Since we’ve mentioned Joyce, another thing worth pointing out is the utter conventionality of Beckett’s lexicon. He uses traditional words in a generally traditional way, nowhere is there a trace of the wild experiments with the English language which Joyce took to giddy heights in Ulysses and then burst all bounds in Finnegans Wake.

It also marks a distinct shift from the lexicon of More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938) which both indulged in the extreme complexification of the prose via orotund and arcane argots and terminologies. Here he is describing a character called ‘the Frica’ in the Dream:

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…

Beckett’s prose in Watt has undergone a thorough detoxification. Trace of the spastic pedantry of the previous texts still survives, but with nothing like the same intensity:

He had seen all from his warm nest of books and periodicals. But now that the best was past he came out on the platform, with the intention of closing his stall, for the night. He therefore lowered and locked the corrugated apron. He seemed a man of more than usual acerbity, and to suffer from unremitting mental, moral and perhaps even physical pain. One noticed his cap, perhaps because of the snowwhite forehead and damp black curly hair on which it sat. The eye came always in the end to the scowling mouth and from there on up to the rest. His moustache, handsome in itself, was for obscure reasons unimportant. But one thought of him as the man who, among other things, never left off his cap, a plain blue cloth cap, with a peak and knob. For he never left off his bicycle-clips either. These were of a kind that caused his trouser-ends to stick out wide, on either side. He was short and limped dreadfully. When he got started he moved rapidly, in a series of aborted genuflexions.

There isn’t the same fol-de-rol of recherche terminology. But there is still the fundamental attitude, the satirical deployment of an over-learnèd diction to a banal subject – ‘a series of aborted genuflexions’.

Beckett’s pedantic stage directions It is drily comic. It is droll, maybe, like clever undergraduates using over-elaborate language to impress each other with the absurdity of their erudition. This taste for the sly humour of extreme pedantry remained one of Beckett’s core qualities. An often overlooked aspect of his plays is the way the stage directions became things of extreme precision, which are both deadly serious and comic at the same time, like the precise nature of the bowler hats worn in Waiting For Godot. Indeed, some of the plays are entirely wordless, consisting solely of directions for actions the actors must perform and so are closer to mime or choreography. Any reader of the later plays gets used to the way the stage directions are often longer, more detailed and hyper-precise than the language involved in a production (if any).

So your response to Watt will depend on whether you enjoy, whether you find humour in the application of finicky, over-philosophical, over-learnèd and extended meditations on trivial everyday events.

In the opening scene Mr Hackett the hunchback and Mrs and Mrs Nixon spend four pages speculating why Watt got off the tram at the stop just opposite the bench where they are sitting. They work through all the potential reasons for his alighting just there with the scrupulous thoroughness of the medieval scholastic philosophers to whom Beckett owes a large debt.

Watt gets into a compartment of a train. He thinks it is empty but then realises a man is sitting in it (in a classic example Beckett-the-narrator playing with the conventions of what is, and what is not, implied by sentences in fiction. You write one thing, the reader understands the situation to be just so. You write another thing which flatly contradicts the first thing, and the reader realises just how slippery and imprecise language is, or how slippery the narrator is, or the text. Or perception. Or consciousness itself).

My name is Spiro, said the gentleman.
Here then was a sensible man at last. He began with the essential and then, working on, would deal with the less important matters, one after the other, in an orderly way.

The scholastic method of generating content Watt’s asperger’s syndrome-like obsessiveness is central to Becket’s method, and echoes or consciously revives, the medieval scholastic obsession with categorising all possible eventualities of an occurrence, or working systematically through every possible attribute of an entity. It is absolutely no surprise at all that the man in the train compartment, Spiro, turns out to be the editor of a Catholic journal (named Crux) which delights in setting elaborate brainteasers based on obscure areas of Christian theology, one of which he proceeds to share with Watt:

A rat, or other small animal, eats of a consecrated wafer.
1) Does he ingest the Real Body, or does he not?
2) If he does not, what has become of it?
3) If he does, what is to be done with him?

The thing about this kind of scholastic, super-categorising, hair-splittingly logical approach to trivialities is that it can generate endless text out of next to nothing. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin was a question that could trigger medieval schoolmen to hours of learned debate, bringing in huge amounts of learning about angels, their bodies corporeal or non-corporeal, their abilities to change shape and size, and so on. Questions like this were set in medieval university exams not because anyone wanted to know the answer, but so the candidates could display their command of the gigantic schemas of categories and entities and types.

This is one way of looking at Beckett – as a kind of machine who generated huge amounts of prose (in his novels) by deploying mechanistic and scholastic methodologies to absolute trivia. In More Pricks Than Kicks Beckett devotes a page to the complex methodology Belacqua Shuah employs to make two pieces of toast. In Molloy he spends an entire page enumerating the method Molloy develops for sucking 16 pebbles he has collected from the seashore and stores in his four pockets, so that he sucks them each in turn, while transferring them between pockets in a fair and just way.

Given this technique for generating prose, there doesn’t need to be any plot at all, no storyline in the traditional sense, and little sense or purpose to the narrative, for the text nonetheless to ramify out in all directions till it fills 200 pages of paragraph-less prose, and reading it makes you feel like you’re having a nervous breakdown.

Watt heard nothing of this, because of other voices, singing, crying, stating, murmuring, things unintelligible, in his ear. With these, if he was not familiar, he was not unfamiliar either. So he was not alarmed, unduly. Now these voices, sometimes they sang only, and sometimes they cried only, and sometimes they stated only, and sometimes they murmured only, and sometimes they sang and cried, and sometimes they sang and stated, and sometimes they sang and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated, and sometimes they cried and murmured, and sometimes they stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated, and sometimes they sang and cried and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated and murmured, all together, at the same time, as now, to mention only these four kinds of voices, for there were others.

See? Once you establish this method, you can apply it to anything, in fact the more trivial and silly the better, since it brings out the absurdity of the procedure and, by extension, the absurdity of trying to describe anything at all, the absurdity of writing fiction, the absurdity of being human.

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. So, standing first on one leg, and then on the other, he moved forward, a headlong tardigrade, in a straight line. The knees, on these occasions, did not bend. They could have, but they did not. No knees could better bend than Watt’s, when they chose, there was nothing the matter with Watt’s knees, as may appear. But when out walking they did not bend, for some obscure reason. Notwithstanding this, the feet fell, heel and sole together, flat upon the ground, and left it, for the air’s uncharted ways, with manifest repugnancy. The arms were content to dangle, in perfect equipendency.

Forever and ever this kind of thing can be spooled out like a spider spins webs all its life long.

Use an Irish accent If you read it in a traditional English voice, like mine, it can get quite tiresome. Which is why you should have a go at reading it aloud with a slight Irish accent. If you do this, or hear it with your mind’s ear read in an Irish accent, you can catch the sly humour behind the entire thing and make out the very dry twinkle in old Sam Beckett’s beady eyes.

And you can see why, after exhausting the possibilities of prose in the enormous trilogy, he discovered the far more potent effect of doing this kind of thing onstage, of having actors read his prose out loud. Not only read out his mechanical variations on trivial actions, but actually have them act them out. Thus he gets the puppet characters of Godot or Happy Days or Endgame to go through obsessive physical and verbal repetitions which reduce the idea of human agency to an absolute null. And yet… with a shrewd, beady, half-smile hovering around his dry lips…

(This playful disinterest in plot, and greater interest in the games implicit in language, the silliness of set phrases and so on, is a quality shared with another bleak joker, Kurt Vonnegut. When Beckett describes Watt’s walk as ‘a funambulistic stagger’ the phrase reminded me of the made-up ‘chrono-synclastic infundibula’ which plays a central role in Vonnegut’s first novel The Sirens of Titan.)

The plot

Watt has four parts.

Part one

‘Hunchy’ Hackett sits on what he considers ‘his’ bench. He is joined by Mr and Mrs Nixon who, among other things, tell the story of how she gave birth in the middle of a posh dinner party (she went upstairs and delivered the baby herself before coming back down, leading the child by the hand). Night is falling. They observe someone alight from a stopping tram and identify him as Watt. There is a typically scholastic debate about why he chose this particular tram stop.

Cut to Watt hurrying to the train station and colliding with a man pushing a big milk churn. He picks it up along with Watt’s hat, the whole incident observed by the elderly keeper of the newsagent’s booth, who now closes it up. Watt enters the train in what he thinks is an empty compartment but then realises it has an occupant, who introduces himself as Spiro, editor of a Catholic popular magazine, Crux.

Watt alights (apparently) and walks along a road. His method of walking is described with characteristic obsessive pedantry. It once impressed a Lady McCann who observed his odd method of ambulation. He is tired. He lies down in a ditch (an image of utter dejection which was to be obsessively repeated in the falling, crawling, creeping protagonists of the Trilogy).

He hears a choir singing a song and, in that 1930s avant-garde way, the text includes a two-page transcription of it. Watt bestirs himself, picks up his bags and continues to the house of a Mr Knott, where we have a typical piece of obsessively repetitive Beckettiana:

The house was in darkness.
Finding the front door locked, Watt went to the back door. He could not very well ring, or knock, for the house was in darkness.
Finding the back door locked also, Watt returned to the front door.
Finding the front door locked still, Watt returned to the back door.
Finding the back door now open, oh not open wide, but on the latch, as the saying is, Watt was able to enter the house.
Watt was surprised to find the back door, so lately locked, now open. Two explanations of this occurred to him. The first was this, that his science of the locked door, so seldom at fault, had been so on this occasion, and that the back door, when he had found it locked, had not been locked, but open. And the second was this, that the back door, when he had found it locked, had in effect been locked, but had subsequently been opened, from within, or without, by some person, while he Watt had been employed in going, to and fro, from the back door to the front door, and from the front door to the back door.

See what I mean by the technique which can spool an infinite amount of prose, of ratiocination, out of almost nothing. Every human action can be subjected to a) this degree of mindless mechanical repetition and b) unnecessarily thorough pedantic over-analysis. Either you find it irksome or, you adjust your mood to suit Beckett’s approach and find it dryly humorous, absurd, absurdist.

Watt enters the apparently empty house and sits in the kitchen by the ‘range’, taking off his hat, revealing his grey-red hair. A man enters and delivers a breathless, surreal and absurdist monologue of the kind which will dominate the Trilogy. It is really a very long monologue, 25 pages of the kind of solid block prose we will see in the Trilogy and the demented, repetitive, obscure, mad obsessive dwelling on trivial or inconsequential subject matter which characterises all Beckett’s prose.

In terms of ‘facts’, what emerges is the speaker is Arsene, the owner of the house’s former manservant, along with one Erskine and two serving girls, Ann and Mary.

Part two

The narrating voice settles into a series of philosophical meditations on the nature of reality, of our experience of the outer and inner worlds and the difference between them, the nature of time and of mind.

For Watt now found himself in the midst of things which, if they consented to be named, did so as it were with reluctance.

These lengthy and repetitive lucubrations centre on a number of characteristically minor or trivial events, such as the visit to the house of the Galls, a father and son pair of piano tuners. Then there is the case of the pot, which gives rise to a long excursus on the nature of pot-ness.

Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr Knott’s pots, of one of Mr Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptionable adequacy, all the purposes, and performed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot. And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt. For if the approximation had been less close, then Watt would have been less anguished.

It’s passages like this – and this is only a small excerpt from the long passage about the pot – that bespeak a kind of mental illness, that lead me to make the comparisons with an autistic or asperger-like inability to relate to the world, to be thrown into anxiety, into panic, by nothing, by looking at a pot.

There is a master of the house, one Mr Knott, whose names seems as much of a joke as Watt’s. Watt is Knott. Watt is not Knott. Knott is not Watt. We could go on all day, and Beckett does. The obsessive manner of Watt knocking on the front door when he first arrives, then going round to knock on the back door, then returning to the front to knock on the front door again, then returning to the back to knock on the back door again, are a fleabite compared to some of the monstrosities of obsessive repetition, or repetitions with variations, the text contains.

Watt prepares Mr Knott’s meals by mixing up a precise list of ingredients and medicines into a sort of gruel which must be served punctually at 12 noon and 7pm. Sometimes Mr Knott leaves the bowl empty, at other times leaves varying percentages of the gruel in it.

Twelve possibilities occurred to Watt, in this connection:

  1. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  2. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  3. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  4. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  5. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, nor that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  6. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, nor knew who was responsible for the arrangement, nor that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  7. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  8. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, nor knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  9. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  10. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  11. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  12. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.

All these passages say something about the madness of thinking, the madness of writing, and the madness of language. The anxiety about Knott’s dinner develops seamlessly into an even more elaborated worry about the dog Watt is ordered to give any leftovers of Mr Knott’s dinner to, worries whether such a dog might or might not exist, and then a detailed consideration of four possible permutations by which such a dog might be prevailed upon to eat the leftovers. Which leads into a consideration of the family which is required to manage the complex system of dogs which have been conjured up to eat Mr Knott’s leftovers, and who are named the Lynch family and who Beckett proceeds to list and describe at exorbitant length, 28 of them in total. When Liz, the wife of Sam, dies shortly after giving birth to her twentieth baby:

This loss was a great loss to the family Lynch, this loss of a woman of forty goodlooking years.
For not only was a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, an aunt, a sister, a sister-in-law, a cousin, a niece-in-law, a niece, a niece-in-law, a daughter-in-law, a granddaughter-in-law and of course a grandmother, snatched from her grandfather-in-law, her father-in-law, her uncles-in-law, her aunt, her aunts-in-law, her cousins, her brothers-in-law, her sisters, her niece, her nephew, her sons-in-law, her daughters, her sons, her husband and of course her four little grandchildren (who however exhibited no sign of emotion other than that of curiosity, being too young no doubt to realise the dreadful thing that had happened, for their total age amounted to no more than sixteen years), never to return, but the Lynch millennium was retarded by almost one year and a half, assuming that during that time all were spared, and so could not be expected before roughly two years from the date of Liz’s departure, instead of in a mere five months time, as would have been the case if Liz together with the rest of the family had been spared, and even five or six days sooner if the infant had been spared also, as he was to be sure, but at his mother’s expense, with the result that the goal towards which the whole family was striving receded to the tune of a good nineteen months, if not more, assuming all the others to be spared, in the meantime.

As you read this sort of thing, it’s hard not to think of Beckett’s own description that he wrote the book as an exercise, as experiments in dribs and drabs, on the long long nights hidden away in a house in the Vaucluse, with a pen, some notebooks and far too much time on his hands.

We are now in the clutches of the Lynch family and their absurd wish that the total of their combined ages reaches a thousand, something which keeps being prevented when one or other of them dies unexpectedly. Meanwhile one of the uglier cousins has twins. Which leads into an extended consideration of who impregnated her which requires a long, detailed description of the fornicatory habits of all the male members of family (cousin Sam in his wheelchair, cousin Tom with his manic depression, Uncle Jack…?)

After pages about the Lynch family, we revert to Watt, during his era of service on the ground floor, and a further disquisition about the name and nature of the dog the two members of the Lynch family, the dwarves Art and Con (remember the hunchback Mr Hackett at the start of the ‘story’), are tasked with bringing to the door of Mr Knott’s house every evening at 9pm to receive whatever leftover there may be. Or not. The dog is called Kate and we have it fully explained which Lynch family member she is named after. Kate dies and is replaced by another dog named Cis.

Eventually the book gets beyond the complex issue of the dig which eats Mr Knott’s leftovers and settles on the even more vexed matter of why the other servant in the house, Erskine, seems to spend so much of his time running up and down stairs from the ground floor to the first floor to the second floor and back down again, presumably at Mr Knott’s command, whereas Watt, at least in the first phase of his employment, remains on the ground floor throughout his working day. The possible reasons why are given the Beckett treatment i.e. a thorough working through of every conceivable reason.

Then there is the bell which goes off anytime day or night to summon Erskine to Mr Knott’s room. Same kind of treatment i.e. a thorough working through of every conceivable reason, including a list of every possible part of the human anatomy which could be used to press a bell. Watt decides he needs to discover the layout of Erskine’s room and in particular the location of the bell. But:

Erskine’s room was always locked, and the key in Erskine’s pocket. Or rather, Erskine’s room was never unlocked, nor the key out of Erskine’s pocket, longer than two or three seconds at a stretch, which was the time that Erskine took to take the key from his pocket, unlock his door on the outside, glide into his room, lock his door again on the inside and slip the key back into his pocket, or take the key from his pocket, unlock his door on the inside, glide out of his room, lock the door again on the outside and slip the key back into his pocket. For if Erskine’s room had been always locked, and the key always in Erskine’s pocket, then Erskine himself, for all his agility, would have been hard set to glide in and out of his room, in the way he did, unless he had glided in and out by the window, or the chimney. But in and out by the window he could not have glided, without breaking his neck, nor in and out by the chimney, without being crushed to death. And this was true also of Watt.

Abruptly a first-person narrator enters the text who informs us that everything written so far was told him by Watt many years later and over the course of many years, and that he took it all down in his notebook. Which gives rise to extensive, repetitive and thorough reflections on epistemology and the limits of knowledge, specially when it comes to narratives.

And so always, when the impossibility of my knowing, of Watt’s having known, what I know, what Watt knew, seems absolute, and insurmountable, and undeniable, and uncoercible, it could be shown that I know, because Watt told me, and that Watt knew, because someone told him, or because he found out for himself. For I know nothing, in this connexion, but what Watt told me.

We don’t know his name and the text moves back to the issue of Watt breaking into Erskine’s bedroom where he discovers a mysterious geometric painting hanging on the wall which gives rise to a very deep meditation on the nature of perspective and space and time and experience within it.

Time passes and Watt wonders how long he will be serving on the ground floor, how long his predecessors did, was it service of fixed duration, or did it vary from servant to servant?

For the service to be considered was not the service of one servant, but of two servants, and even of three servants, and even of an infinity of servants, of whom the first could not out till the second up, nor the second up till the third in, nor the third in till the first out, nor the first out till the third in, nor the third in till the second up, nor the second up till the first out, every going, every being, every coming consisting with a being and a coming, a coming and a going, a going and a being, nay with all the beings and all the comings, with all the comings and all the goings, with all the goings and all the beings, of all the servants that had ever served Mr Knott, of all the servants that ever would serve Mr Knott.

Repetition with variations. Obsessive repetition of the variations of a small number of variables, like the stones Molloy sucks or the toast that Belacqua Shuah methodically burns. The passage about the possible permutations of the servants goes on for four densely-written pages. Then he remembers lying on a beach at night and hearing three frogs who croak, respectively, Krak!, Krek! and Krik! at precise numerical intervals, such that the next two pages contain a table enumerating the froggy croaks.

Which leads into a memory of Watt’s sort-of affair with Mrs Gorman the fishwoman who came round to his house every Thursday evening. Sometimes she sat on his lap, sometimes he sat on hers, which immediately sparks two pages describing all the possible permutations of lap-sitting, along with a calculation of how long it took to change position, with the additional complexity of the time required to kiss or simply clasp each other, leading into ever-more complex calculations and permutations.

Mr Graves the old gardener comes regularly to the back door. Watt brings him a cup of tea in the morning or a bottle of stout in the evening.

Watt literally bumps into Mr Knott once when the owner is staring at a daisy and a worm at his feet. They do not speak. At numerous other times he glimpses the mysterious owner through windows, which often distort his appearance so he appears sometimes tall, sometimes short, sometimes stout, sometimes thin.

Watt realises he is tired and bored, service on the ground floor has tired him out. Then one fine winter morning he comes downstairs to find a new man in the kitchen, named Arthur. And on that word part two terminates.

Part three

Is narrated by a person called Sam but his narrative voice is identical to all that came before:

Watt seldom left his mansion and I seldom left mine. And when the kind of weather we liked did induce us to leave our mansions, and go out into the garden, it did not always do so at the same time. For the kind of weather that I liked, while resembling the kind of weather that Watt liked, had certain properties that the kind of weather that Watt liked had not, and lacked certain properties that the kind of weather that Watt liked had.

It appears they are both in an institution whose halls are crowded with what the narrator calls ‘scum’, playing ball all the time. The reference to mansions appears to be ironic. Watt appears to have ended up in a lunatic asylum, as does Murphy in his book. It is the logical place for all Beckett protagonists to end up since they are clearly suffering from advanced mental illness and inability to cope with everyday experience or any human interaction.

Watt and the protagonist are in some kind of institution, they can wander freely in separate gardens, divided by barbed wire fences. This is the most genuinely surreal. The narrator discovers a hole in his fence which parallels a hole in Watt’s fence and crawls through to him, watches him advance backwards towards him, wearing his clothes back to front, and when Watt speaks, his words are back to front.

The narrator says he has a little notebook, so maybe he is the same narrator with a little notebook who popped up in part two, saying he kept extensive notes of Watt’s stories. They often walk together in their favourite weather, sunny windy days. Then Watt’s defect deepens and he starts talking by reversing the spelling of words. In fact the narrator documents a further sequence of linguistic oddities, all laid out with the usual obsession for precise variation.

Then he took it into his head to invert, no longer the order of the words in the sentence, nor that of the letters in the word, nor that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, ho no, but, in the brief course of the same period, now that of the words in the sentence, now that of the letters in the word, now that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, now simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, and now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period.

Watt describes an afternoon when he, Mr Knott, Mr Graves and Arthur are all in the garden together. Arthur makes his recommendation of Bando to Mr Graves and then proceeds to give a long, rambling, surreal or absurdist account of an academic expedition into darkest Ireland carried out by one Ernest Louit as recounted to the committee of crusty old academics who commissioned him. All this is set in Beckett’s old university, Trinity College, Dublin.

There are five crusty old dons on the committee and there is a spectacularly Beckettian, obsessive-compulsive 3-page description of precisely who was looking at who and where they were sitting and what they saw. But this is as nothing compared to the subsequent scene in which Louit brings along and presents to the committee the ageing peasant Mr Nackybal who turns out to have the uncanny ability to rattle off the square root or the cube root of very large figures. Beckett’s obsessive compulsive, obsessively repetitive mannerisms go into overdrive.

After about 25 pages of the story of Mr Nackybal Arthur abruptly tires, breaks off and goes into Mr Knott’s house. Watt is relieved, it was a very draining story. The story having desisted we move onto a few aspects of Mr Knott, and a fantastically obsessive iteration of all the possible combinations of footwear he could wear. This is surpassed by this description of Mr Knott’s activities in his room:

Here he stood. Here he sat. Here he knelt. Here he lay. Here he moved, to and fro, from the door to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the fire to the door, from the door to the fire; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the bed to the window, from the window to the bed; from the fire to the window, from the window to the fire; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the bed to the door, from the door to the bed; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the window, from the window to the fire; from the fire to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the bed; from the bed to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the fire; from the fire to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the fire to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to the window, from the window to the fire; from the bed to the door, from the door to the fire; from the fire to the door, from the door to the bed.

This scales new heights of mad compulsive repetition with a large number of small variations, even for Beckett.

It’s hard not to feel, as these mad repetition scenes mount up, that this kind of mathematical iteration is what replaces, in Beckett, a sensual feel for language. He subjects language to endless algorithmic combinations, but very rarely do you read a sentence which is vivid and breath-taking. Often it is like reading a computer program. Quite regularly there are softer sentences which appear to be recalling a kind of Tennysonian, ‘poetic’, susurration.

At ten the steps came, clearer, clearer, fainter, fainter, on the stairs, on the landing, on the stairs again, and through the open door the light, from darkness slowly brightening, to darkness slowly darkening, the steps of Arthur, the light of poor Arthur, little by little mounting to his rest, at his habitual hour.

But these are never quite convincing or consistent. Beckett is much more at home in the mechanical, in algorithmic repetitions, in perfunctory combinations, creating a new kind of 20th century ‘poetry’, based on objective descriptions, computer manuals, algorithmic permutations or – as here – a parody of bureaucratic forms:

I come from —, said Mr Micks, and he described the place whence he came. I was born at —, he said, and the site and circumstances of his ejection were unfolded. My dear parents, he said, and Mr and Mrs Micks, heroic figures, unique in the annals of cloistered fornication, filled the kitchen. He said further, At the age of fifteen, My beloved wife, My beloved dog, Till at last. Happily Mr Micks was childless.

The last few pages of part three describe Watt’s encounters with Mr Knott, or their joint presence in rooms, but they never communicate, Watt discovers or understands as little about him as when he started in his employ. On the penultimate page there is one of Beckett’s algorithmic fantasias listing all possible permutations of the elements of Mr Knott’s physical appearance, which is even longer than the one above describing the moving furniture in his bedroom.

Eventually we come to the end. Watt gives a final description of the characteristically obsessive patterns or permutations which Mr Knott applied to putting on his slippers, or shoes, or overshoes, or boots, or one slipper and one shoe, or one boot and one slipper etc etc.

And then, quite abruptly, it appears that Watt has told the narrator everything he can, or everything the narrator was able to make out from Watt’s umpteen peculiar ways of speaking, as enumerated earlier. And so Watt returns, moving backwards, through the holes in the fences between their respective gardens, and then walks backwards across his park, continually stumbling over roots and into brambles, back towards his ‘pavilion’.

Which is all very weird and disturbing. This walking backwards across dreamily huge parks, and then talking backwards, is part nonsense in the manner of Lear or Carrol, maybe, but feels more like a disturbing 20th century sci-fi dystopia or bad dream. I found it emotionally upsetting.

Part four

The shortest of the four sections. One night a stranger is sitting in the kitchen when Watt comes down for his night-time drink of milk and to smoke the remains of his cheap cigar. It is Micks, a man who has arrived, like he did all those years ago, out of nowhere. Watt realises it is time to leave Mr Knott’s house, goes upstairs, packs his two little bags, gives Micks a talk much as Arsene gave him (only infinitely shorter) and leaves the house forever. In fact he finds himself out the house, walking down the avenue and then along the road from the house, before he’s really aware of it, and regrets not having said a formal goodbye to Micks.

It’s the early hours so the station is closed. He climbs over the wicket gate, looks up at the night sky, looks back along the highway and sees a peculiar figure shuffling towards the station. It gets larger and larger and then gets smaller and smaller. So it goes.

The station master, Mr Case, is awake and reading a book by Irish writer, poet, critic etc George Russell. Watt asks if he can wait in the waiting room but as this requires entry through the ticket office, which is locked up, this triggers two pages of complex calculations about keys and locks and the correct sequence of opening, closing and relocking doors which eventually results in the answer Yes. Watt says that on reflection he would rather stay outside on the platform walking up and down.

Which makes it odd that we then find him in the waiting room lying down, possibly having a hallucination or memory of an old lady talking. There’s another unusually mysterious and ‘sensitive’ moments, which intersperse the mad combinatory passages:

He lay on the seat, without thought or sensation, except for a slight feeling of chill in one foot. In his skull the voices whispering their canon were like a patter of mice, a flurry of little grey paws in the dust.

It gets slowly very dark. And the slowly the light of dawn appears and Watt can make out shapes in the waiting room, first a chair, then a fireplace, then a picture of a horse in a field. At that point the morning staff of the station arrive, notably Mr Nixon, a loud whistling sort of gentleman who kicks the waiting room door open with great vigour. What he didn’t know was that Watt was directly in its path.

The text now becomes deliberately tricksy, a ‘hiatus’ is indicated in the manuscript, as if it were a venerable relic, and then the message that ‘MS is illegible’. Watt sees the ceiling of the room with preternatural clarity, but from the behaviour of Mr Nixon, Mr Gorman his superior and Mr Case, it seems that Watt is now lying on the floor, badly concussed and bleeding a little from the mouth or nose. (Mr Gorman? Is the husband of the Mrs Gorman the fishwoman who Watt was described as having an affair with earlier in the book?).

The traditional morning commuters turn up including Lady McCann, and Arsy Cox and Herring-gut Waller and Cack-faced Miller and Mrs Penny-a-hoist Pim.

(This all reminds me of the radio play Beckett wrote for the BBC ten years later, All That Fall, which involves a gabby old Irish lady cadging a lift to a railway station. It has the same claustrophobic smallness.)

They all decide something must be done but don’t know what. They don’t know Watt. Nixon and Gorman appear to manhandle the firebucket over to Watt’s prone form and try to tip the water over him, though from the generally lamenting tone, it seems (it’s all described with deliberate obscurity) as if they drop the bucket itself onto Watt.

Then to their surprise, Watt stands up, takes up his bags, walks through to the ticket office and asks to buy a ticket. He doesn’t know where he wants to go. When quizzed, he replies ‘to the end of the line’. ‘Which end?’ Mr Nolan asks, ‘the round end of the square end?’ The nearer end, Watt decides.

So I think what has happened is Watt has been seriously concussed, possibly suffered brain damage and this is the precursor to him going, or being taken, to the institution we found him in, in the disturbing part three.

The last page leaves Watt altogether and gives us a last little flare-up of Beckettian combinatorial obsessiveness.

Mr Nolan looked at Mr Case, Mr Case at Mr Nolan, Mr Gorman at Mr Case, Mr Gorman at Mr Nolan, Mr Nolan at Mr Gorman, Mr Case at Mr Gorman, Mr Gorman again at Mr Case, again at Mr Nolan, and then straight before him, at nothing in particular. And so they stayed a little while, Mr Case and Mr Nolan looking at Mr Gorman, and Mr Gorman looking straight before him, at nothing in particular, though the sky falling to the hills, and the hills falling to the plain, made as pretty a picture, in the early morning light, as a man could hope to meet with, in a day’s march.

This is the final paragraph. In it you can see the obsessive variation trope, but note also the way it ends with a thumping cliché. It is an ending of sorts but an ending which takes the mickey out of endings. But it doesn’t quite avoid the feeling that this is partly because Beckett is not necessarily any good at endings. This is partly because, philosophically, he appears to regard all things as taking part in an endless flux in all directions, through all directions and through time. But a few works after Watt he was to stumble across a form of words which captures this, the sense of endlessness, and one which captures both his bleak nihilism and his determination:

‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on…’

No wonder this formula is then repeated with variations (arguably Beckett’s basic imaginative trope, as Watt abundantly demonstrates) in his subsequent fictions, most famously at the end of Waiting For Godot:

Well, shall we go.
Yes, let’s go.
(They do not move)

Repeated until, like much else in Beckett, it itself becomes a formula and a new cliché, as predictably bleak as a Mills and Boon happy ever after is predictably sentimental.

The addenda

At the end of the book are 30 or so fragments which Beckett couldn’t find place for in the text, but which he attached nonetheless. They include fragments of sentences, songs, definitions, one-line summaries of events, learned references phrases in foreign languages, sheet music, a summary of the second picture to be seen in Erskine’s room and so on.

None of them contain any great revelations, mainly it’s just more of the same banal and trivial events. Nonetheless, puzzling over their implications or how they might have been included or altered the text, has kept scholars happily absorbed ever since. They are humorously introduced with the author’s note:

The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.

Looking at the Amazon reviews of the book, ‘fatigue and disgust’ are what some readers of the book have experienced, who haven’t been able to approach it, who haven’t learned to approach it with the correct tangential, amused attitude, completely liberated from the desire expectation to have character or plot or dialogue that makes sense in a supposed ‘novel’.

And who haven’t been able to see, beneath or behind the obsessive repetition and deliberate anti-plot and anti-character, the sly smile of the Dante-loving cricketer from Dublin.

Thoughts

Experiments

The Wikipedia article humorously quotes S. E. Gontarski’s description of Watt as ‘the white whale of Beckett studies, a mass of documentation that defies attempts to make sense of it.’ But it makes total sense if you see it as a congeries of fragmentary exercises stitched together and this is how Beckett himself consistently referred to it.

Much later Beckett said that Watt was written in Roussillon as ‘just an exercise’ while he was waiting for the war to end and it certainly reads like a series of exercises or experiments in the obsessive-autistic manner I’ve described. The use of repetition has you initially grasping to keep the meanings in mind but after a while you submit to it like trance music and go into a kind of Beckett zone where you know none of it means anything but are lulled by the insistent repetitions with variations.

Banned

Like UlyssesWatt was immediately banned in Ireland. It’s not for the explicit sex, as there is none. The episode of the Lynch family more than hints at incest. There’s a description of cousin Ann’s ‘splendid bosom, white and fat and elastic’ and of Sam managing to have sex with countless local ladies despite being confined to a wheelchair. In part three the character Arthur refers to a product named Bando which appears to help with erectile disfunction, and openly criticises the Irish Free State for banning it.

Just as offensive might have been the blunt descriptions of bodily functions i.e. pooing and peeing, number ones and number twos, the description of 64-year-old Mr Nackybal scratching ‘a diffuse ano-scrotal prurit’.

And there is a steady stream of mocking references to God and his son, not blasphemous in the French manner, just casually disrespectful. And a few swearwords, arse and bugger, balls, the word ‘erection’ is mentioned once! Maybe, taken together, that sufficed to trigger the censor’s stamp.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Ovid’s Amores translated by Christopher Marlowe

The bed is for lascivious toyings meet (3.13)

Introduction to Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, generally known as Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) was a well-known Latin poet who lived at the time of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), and a younger contemporary of arguably the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Virgil (70 BC – 19 AD).

After years of success and public honours, at the height of his fame, in 8 AD the emperor ordered Ovid to be summarily exiled to the remote backwater of the Black Sea. Possibly some of his verse had offended, either because of their satire or their erotic content. Possibly he had a relationship with the emperor’s daughter Julia. To this day, scholars aren’t completely sure. Augustus ordered Ovid’s works removed from libraries and destroyed, but that seems to have had little effect on his popularity. He was always among the most widely read and imitated of Latin poets and more copies of his works survive than of any other Latin poet.

Amores is Latin for ‘loves’ and the work consists of 48 poems, all in the first person, which describe the poet’s love affair with a rich and unhappily married woman, named Corinna. The series doesn’t tell a well-defined narrative with beginning, middle and end. Some poems seem to refer to specific events, but more often they address topics arising from the general idea of being in love. Some seem aimed at a generic female figure, others wander off the central topic altogether to make general points about Poetry, or the poet’s Muse. One is an elegy to fellow poet Tibullus, who had done much to establish the genre of the erotic elegy.

The word ‘elegy’ has come to mean a lament for someone who’s died, but in Ovid’s day it had the broader meaning of a poem written to or about a specific person – in this case Corinna, although many of the poems are actually written to figures surrounding her, such as her eunuch.

Scholars credit Ovid with taking aspects of the love elegy and developing them further, in particular a subversive irony and humour, ironising his own role as lover, the beloved’s character and, indeed, the whole palaver of being in love, wooing and all the rest of it.

Summary of the Amores

Book 1 contains 15 poems. The first tells of Ovid’s intention to write epic poetry, which is thwarted when Cupid steals a metrical foot from him, changing his work into love elegy. Poem 4 is didactic and describes principles that Ovid would develop in the Ars Amatoria. The fifth poem, describing sex in the afternoon, first introduces Corinna by name. Poems 8 and 9 deal with Corinna selling her love for gifts, while 11 and 12 describe the poet’s failed attempt to arrange a meeting. Poem 14 discusses Corinna’s disastrous experiment in dyeing her hair and 15 stresses the immortality of Ovid and love poets.

The second book contains 19 poems. The opening poem tells of Ovid’s abandonment of a Gigantomachy in favour of elegy. Poems 2 and 3 are entreaties to a guardian to let the poet see Corinna, poem 6 is a lament for Corinna’s dead parrot; poems 7 and 8 deal with Ovid’s affair with Corinna’s servant and her discovery of it, and 11 and 12 try to prevent Corinna from going on vacation. Poem 13 is a prayer to Isis for Corinna’s illness, 14 a poem against abortion, and 19 a warning to unwary husbands.

Book 3 contains 15 poems. The opening piece depicts personified Tragedy and Elegy fighting over Ovid. Poem 2 describes a visit to the races, 3 and 8 focus on Corinna’s interest in other men, 10 is a complaint to Ceres because of her festival that requires abstinence, 13 is a poem on a festival of Juno, and 9 a lament for Tibullus. In poem 11 Ovid decides not to love Corinna any longer and regrets the poems he has written about her. The final poem is Ovid’s farewell to the erotic muse.

The most accessible poems

I have boldened the poems I found easiest to understand and so most enjoyable, being 1.5, 2.4, 2.10, 2.13 and 2.14 about abortion, 3.6 about impotence, 3.8 the elegy to Tibullus, 3.13 telling his mistress to be discreet.

The summaries in italics are in the Penguin edition and appear to be the summaries given in the original Elizabethan edition.

Book 1

1.1 How he was forced by Cupid to write of love instead of war – At the time epic poetry was written in hexameters which have six ‘feet’ or units per line, whereas love poems were written in pentameters with five ‘feet’. The poet humorously complains that he set out to write bold, manly war poetry but that Cupid stole one of the ‘feet’ of his verse, and so now he is condemned to write love poems. He complains this is topsy turvey, Cupid should not have the power to intervene in poetry, but Cupid replied by shooting him with one of his arrows.

Thus I complaind, but Love unlockt his quiver,
Tooke out the shaft, ordaind my hart to shiver:
And bent his sinewy bow upon his knee,
Saying, Poet heers a worke beseeming thee.
Oh woe is me, he never shootes but hits,
I burne, love in my idle bosome sits.

1.2 First captured by love, he endures being led in triumph by Cupid – What is keeping him awake at night? It is love. He gives examples of types of animals which know that fighting against man’s shackles and bridles only makes it worse. Similarly, he has the wisdom to submit.

Yielding or striving do we give him might,
Let’s yield, a burden easily borne is light.

1.3 To his mistress – He describes his devotion and his good qualities as a lover:

Be thou the happy subject of my books
That I may write things worthy thy fair looks.

1.4 He advises his love what devices and signals they ought to employ when they were at dinner with her husband present – The poet goes to a dinner party along with his lover and her husband and gives a long list of instructions to her not to dally too much or too openly with him, not to hang about his neck, fondle his chin, entwine her legs with his and the secret signs they will use to convey their passion to each other.

View me, my becks, and speaking countenance;
Take, and return each secret amorous glance.
Words without voice shall on my eyebrows sit,
Lines thou shalt read in wine by my hand writ.

1.5 Sex with Corinna – He describes an afternoon when Corinna comes to his rooms and they make love (quoted in full below).

1.6 To her porter, to open the door for him – He begs Corinna’s doorkeeper to let him into the house to see his love. This is an example, believe it or not, of a recognised genre, the paraclausithyron, the ‘door poem’ or ‘lament beside the door’, in which the exclusus amator (‘shut-out lover’) addresses the door or doorkeeper keeping him from his mistress. Horace wrote a poem threatening the door, Tibullus appealed to the door, Propertius wrote a poem in which the door is the speaker. The trope was revived by some of the troubadors, recurs in Victorian poetry, and lives on into our day, witness the 1971 song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? by the Rolling Stones:

Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your door

1.7 That his mistress, who he has beaten, should make peace with him – In a blind rage he hits his lover, then sees her tears and throws himself at her feet in regret.

1.8 He reviles the bawd who has been introducing his mistress to the courtesan’s art – The longest poem in book 1, the poet describes the ancient bawd and procuress Dipsas as a witch and then overhears, from a hiding place, the old crone giving his mistress lessons on how to keep a lover on tenterhooks. At the end of her lecture the poet heartily curses her.

1.9 To Atticus: that a lover may not be lazy, any more than a soldier – The poet compares lovers with soldiers, including the greats of the tale of Troy, and says he is like a soldier, at his mistress’ beck and call as a soldier is of his captain’s.

1.10 To his girl, that she should not demand money for her love – He complains that alone among species, female humans refrain from sex until given gifts, until bought like whores.

The mare asks not the horse, the cow the bull,
Nor the mild ewe gifts from the ram doth pull.
Only a woman gets spoils from a man,
Farms out herself on nights for what she can;
And lets [prevents] what both delight, what both desire,
Making her joy according to her hire.

He swears that the gift he gives his mistress – his – will last long after the gold and jewels that common mistresses demand.

1.11 He pleads with Nape to carry a letter to Corinna – He asks Corinna’s maid to take a message to her and await her reply.

1.12 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – He seems to be attacking a book or books or manuscript, maybe it’s a letter announcing his mistress cannot visit.

1.13 To Dawn, not to hurry – He criticises the dawn for waking humanity from its rest and forcing all kinds of people, trades and animals to their daily work.

Poor travellers though tired, rise at thy sight,
And soldiers make them ready to the fight.
The painful hind by thee to field is sent;
Slow oxen early in the yoke are pent.
Thou coz’nest boys of sleep, and dost betray them
To pedants that with cruel lashes pay them.

But, worst of all, parting him from his mistress.

1.14 He consoles his girl, whose hair has fallen out from excessive hair-washing  – He mocks Corinna for cutting off her hair and dyeing the rest and then complaining about the result.

She holds, and views her old locks in her lap;
Ay me! rare gifts unworthy such a hap!

1.15 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – The book ends with Ovid describing the immortal fame achieved by the great poets of the past and the subjects they wrote about (Troy, Aeneas, the golden fleece) and that he will be among them (as he, indeed, is).

Therefore when flint and iron wear away,
Verse is immortal and shall ne’er decay.
To[ verse let kings give place and kingly shows,
And banks o’er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.
Let base-conceited wits admire vild things;
Fair Phœbus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

Book 2

2.1 Why he is impelled to write of love, rather than of titanic struggles – The poet describes the sort of audience that he desires, hot maids looking for a husband and boys hurt, like him, by Cupid’s arrows. He jokingly says what good will it do him to write about Achilles or Odysseus, they’re long dead? But if he writes a poem to a pretty woman, he might get a snog out of it!

2.2 To Bagous, to keep a more lax watch over his mistress, who has been entrusted to him – The poet asks Bagous, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress in a poem I found largely incomprehensible.

2.3 To the eunuch serving his mistress – The poet addresses a eunuch, arguing he should let him see his mistress.

2.4 That he loves women of all sorts – An unusually comprehensible poem in which the poet explains that he loves every woman he sees, tall or short, dark or fair, coy or brazen, singing or silent, dancing or plodding:

I cannot rule myself but where Love please;
Am driven like a ship upon rough seas.
No one face likes me best, all faces move,
A hundred reasons make me ever love.

2.5 To his faithless mistress – How lucky is a lover who intercepts letters or hears gossip that his lover is unfaithful: because she can deny it and he can believe her. But the poet saw with his own eyes how, when a dinner party had ended, she kissed at length, with tongues, ‘another’ (presumably her husband).

2.6 On the death of his parrot – A pet parrot has died and he expends numerous classical analogies in mourning it. Despite reading the poem several times I can’t work out whether the parrot belonged to Corinna, or the poet, or whether Corinna is meant to be speaking (‘The parrot, from East India to me sent/Is dead…’)

2.7 He swears to his mistress that he has not made love to her maid – The poet complains that she’s always accusing him of something, in this case of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis. The poet denies it based on class loyalty, he would never demean himself to have sex with a slave. He throws in an unnerving detail – that her back is ‘rough with stripes’. From being whipped!?

With Venus’ game who will a servant grace?
Or any back, made rough with stripes, embrace?

2.8 To Cypassis, Corinna’s maid – In humorous contrast to the preceding poem, the poet now addresses Cypassis freely admitting that they’ve been having sex, and using classical precedents (Achilles and Agamemnon both had affairs with servants) as freely to justify the affair to Cypassis as he had used others to deny it to Corinna.

The poem appears to take place in real time, i.e. is his part of a dialogue, because after he’s taken the credit for speaking up in her defence when Corinna accused her, he promptly asks her to lie with him as a reward and, when she refuses, gets cross and threatens to reveal the truth to her mistress (which would, presumably, lead to another whipping).

2.9 To Cupid – The poet reproaches Cupid for causing him so much pain in love, for driving him like a headstrong horse or a storm at sea, when he (the poet) is a fellow soldier, a colleague, in love’s wars.

2.10 To Graecinus, that he can love two at once – His friend Graecinus told him it was impossible to be in love with two women at the same time, but he is (‘Which is the loveliest, it is hard to say’)! He describes the joy of two lovers at length and humorously gloats over his enemies who lie alone at night in their big empty beds.

2.11 To his mistress sailing – He is very anxious indeed about a planned sea voyage Corinna is going to make, curses the pioneers of sea adventures, and then invokes a ton of gods to look after her, before anticipating the joy of their reunion when she returns.

2.12 He rejoices that he has conquered his mistress – A humorous poem in which he compares himself to a mighty warrior and says he deserves to be crowned with bay leaves like the traditional victor of a campaign because he has won Corinna who is even at this moment lying on his breast, a victory greater than the defeat of Troy.

2.13 To Isis, to aid Corinna in Labour– He prays to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to Lucina goddess of childbirth, to protect and save Corinna who is having an abortion he is sure is from him, save Corinna and, in doing so, also save the anxious poet.

My wench, Lucina, I entreat thee favour;
Worthy she is, thou should’st in mercy save her.

2.14 To his mistress, who has attempted an abortion – The poet laments that, although women are not involved in war, they have come up with ways to harm themselves, namely having abortions which, apparently, involves ‘hid irons’ and ‘dire poison’. If all women had practiced abortion, the world would be empty, there would have been no Priam or Achilles (as usual his mind goes straight to the Trojan Wars), no Romulus and Rome, in fact no Ovid and Corinna.

2.15 To a ring which he has given his mistress – He wishes he were his mistress ring so he could familiarly touch her lap and pap.

2.16 To his mistress, to come to his country estate – He wishes his mistress would come to his country estate in Sulmo (in the Abruzzi, a region of east-central Italy). He gives an extensive description of the region’s natural beauties but says that, without her, it means nothing.

2.17 That he will serve only Corinna – He laments that his mistress is well aware how beautiful she is and this makes her haughty and disdainful. He recalls how many women from classical myth accepted a more junior lover e.g. Venus with club-footed Vulcan.

And thou, my light, accept me howsoever;
Lay in the mid bed, there be my lawgiver.

2.18 To Macer, writing of his love poems – Another poem pointing out that he would like to write of war and high tragedy but his mistress is wriggling on his lap, refuses to go when he orders her, and so his poems end up being about love and his love emotions.

I yield, and back my wit from battles bring,
Domestic acts, and mine own wars to sing.

2.19 – To his rival, her husband, who does not guard his wife – He is irritated with the husband for making Corinna so available. Forbidden love is sweeter, and he rattles off a list of women from myth and legend who were difficult to attain and so fired up their lovers more (Danae kept in a high tower, Io guarded by Juno)

What flies I follow, what follows me I shun.

In fact, he warns the husband, unless he starts protecting her more seriously, Ovid is going to give up being her lover, it’s too easy, it’s boring.

Now I forewarn, unless to keep her stronger
Thou dost begin, she shall be mine no longer.

Book 3

3.1 The poet’s deliberation whether to continue writing elegies or to turn to tragedy – Walking in a wood he is confronted by personifications of Elegy and Tragedy. Tragedy says he has become a laughing stock, writing about his lewd love affairs. Time to fulfil his talents and write Great Things. Elegy replies that she is light and trivial and yet suited for some subjects. She dresses out Venus and Corinna. The poet says he will turn to Grand Things in time and Tragedy appears to grant him a period to continue dawdling with trivial love, before turning to Higher Things. A worry which is still nagging him in 3.10:

When Thebes, when Troy, when Cæsar should be writ,
Alone Corinna moves my wanton wit.

3.2 To his mistress watching the races – He has come to the races, not to look at the horse, but his mistress. As avidly as she feeds on the arduous horse, he feeds on sight of her. There is an extended description of every element of a Roman horse-race and how they can be metaphorically applied to his feverish wooing.

3.3 On his mistress, who has lied to him – He is appalled that his mistress has lied to him and yet looks just as beautiful and desirable as before. Are there no gods, is there no justice? Characteristically, he launches into a long list of legendary figures and asks why the gods bothered punishing them so excessively if they are going to let his mistress off scot-free?

3.4 To a man who guards his wife – He warns a man who is trying to guard his lover from adultery that it will have the opposite effect: forbidden fruit tastes sweeter; it is nature to hanker for what is banned.

3.5 To a torrent, while he is on his way to his mistress – He has travelled day and night to reach his lover and now is prevented by a river in flood as the mountain snows thaw. Characteristically, he then compares the flooded river to numerous other rivers in Graeco-Roman mythology, an extended litany which helps to make this the longest poem in the book.

3.6 He bewails the fact that, in bed with his mistress, he was unable to perform – 

Though both of us performed our true intent,
Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

Interestingly, he points out that whatever caused the first failure, it was compounded by shame i.e. embarrassment. Interesting because that is, indeed, how erectile disfunction works, the more aware you become, the worse it gets, and the more humiliated you feel. At several points he directly describes the failing member:

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,
It mockèd me, hung down the head and sunk…

Yet notwithstanding, like one dead it lay,
Drooping more than a rose pulled yesterday…

3.7 He mourns that his mistress will not receive him – He is consumed with anger and jealousy that his mistress has rejected him, ‘the pure priest of Phoebus and the Muses’, for a battle-scarred hunk whose hands are bloody from the men he’s killed. Alas, poetry and the arts are now worth less than gold – Barbarism!

3.8 He mourns the death of Tibullus – Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BC – 19 BC) was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. In Ovid’s poem Cupid has broken his bow and mourns. He compares Tibullus’ death to those of legendary heroes and says death makes him doubt the existence of the gods.

Outrageous death profanes all holy things,
And on all creatures obscure darkness brings.

It is a sweet and moving elegy, in the modern sense of the word.

3.9 To Ceres, complaining that because of her ceremonies he is not allowed to sleep with his mistress – The Festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from meeting his mistress who lies alone in an empty bed. There is an extended description of Ceres’ history and attributes, before he concludes that he’d rather be celebrating a festival to Venus!

3.10 To his mistress, from whose love he cannot free himself – So many times he has been turned away from her door and slept on the floor. ‘Long have I borne much, mad thy faults me make.’ He has impersonated one of her servants and seen many a sated lover leaving her bedroom, observed her tricks and signs to lovers at dinner parties, put up with her lies and deceptions. But now he has made some kind of break:

Now have I freed myself, and fled the chain,
And what I have borne, shame to bear again.

Now hate and love fight in his breast.

Now love and hate my light breast each way move,
But victory, I think, will hap to love.
I’ll hate, if I can; if not, love ‘gainst my will,

Torn: ‘Nor with thee, nor without thee can I live.’

3.11 He complains that his lover is so well known through his poems that she is available to many rival lovers – Actually, when you stop and reflect on the previous 40 or so poems, you realise that he has not in fact painted a particularly vivid picture of his lover. Horse-racing, his native countryside, the maid he had a fling with, the doorkeeper, her husband, even the details of horse-racing – and lots and lots of references to classical myths, yes, certainly. But in a curious way, the mistress – if her name is Corinna – is strangely absent from many of the poems, and even when she’s explicitly named, a strangely fugitive presence.

Which makes you realise how conventional this poem lamenting that fact that he’s made her famous, actually is.

Characteristically, he turns to classical mythology to give examples of how vivid and blazing and enduring the poet’s myths and fables have been.

3.12 On the feast of Juno – A straightfoward description of the Festival of Juno, which takes place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins. He ends the poem by piously hoping that Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

3.13 – To his mistress; if she will be licentious, let her do it discreetly – He tells her not to boast about her night’s adventures, if she is going to stray, at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Be as wanton as she likes in bed, but, risen and dressed and in company, be sage and graceful and proper. That will make it easier for him to overlook her infidelities.

3.14 To Venus, putting an end to his elegies – In a relatively short, poignant poem, he bids farewell to ‘tender Love’s mother’ i.e. Venus, to ‘weak elegies’ and his ‘delightful muse’. What gives it a particular feel is that it is almost devoid of the extensive lists of gods and heroes which pad out most of the poems. Instead he speaks fondly of his home among the Paeligni tribe of the Abruzzi. Whereas visitors might think it fitting that Mantua sired the great poet Vergil and Verona was home to Catullus, they might be surprised that the little town of Sulmo was his birthplace. But he loves it and will praise it. And now it is time to move on, to tackle a greater ground with a greater horse. To move onto the more Serious kind of poetry which has periodically nagged him throughout the series.

Marlowe’s translation

Marlowe’s Ovid is the earliest, the least studied of his works and the most dismissed. One reason is the technical inaccuracies, errors and mistranslations which, apparently, crop up in every line, partly Marlowe’s errors, partly because the printed texts he was working from were themselves inaccurate.

This, understandably, irks Latin scholars and has resulted in 400 years of negative reviews. We, however, need not be very troubled by these pedantic concerns about literal accuracy. A hundred years ago Ezra Pound showed that translations can be full of howlers but still be very beautiful (Cathay). The thing deserves to be judged on its own terms.

That said, these poems are often boring and quite hard to follow. Why? Having just read Hero and Leander and the first couple of plays, I think it’s for several inter-connected reasons:

The couplet form

Ovid’s original was written in couplets, that’s to say paired lines, sentences divided into two lines which end with a full stop. The impact of reading a series of self-contained rhymed couplets quickly becomes monotonous. It feels mechanical.

Aye me an Eunuch keepes my mistrisse chaste,
That cannot Venus mutuall pleasure taste.
Who first depriv’d yong boyes of their best part,
With selfe same woundes he gave, he ought to smart.
To kinde requests thou wouldst more gentle prove,
If ever wench had made luke-warme thy love.

It feels like Marlowe is cabined and confined by this format. He is clearly constrained to convey Ovid’s original meaning and struggles to do so within the narrow bounds of the couplet. It routinely feels like he is contorting normal English phrasing or rhythm, so much so that I found it very difficult to understand what entire poems were actually about. 1.2 mentions a husband and husbands generally, but I struggled to understand even one line.

I sawe ones legges with fetters blacke and blewe,
By whom the husband his wives incest knewe.
More he deserv’d, to both great harme he fram’d,
The man did grieve, the woman was defam’d.
Trust me all husbands for such faults are sad
Nor make they any man that heare them glad.
If he loves not, deafe eares thou doest importune,
Or if he loves, thy tale breedes his misfortune.

The pronouns, and the apparent subject, of the poem keep changing so that I’m not sure who’s being talked about. I’ve no idea why incest has cropped up, I’ve no idea who the man is, or the woman is in the first four lines. I don’t understand what faults are being referred to, and I nearly understand the last couplet but don’t really know who the ‘thou’ referred to is. Is it the poet’s lover Corinna? But if so, why does her tale breed ‘his misfortune’?

Latin

Latin is a more compact language than English. Its declensions and conjugations, the way it changes the ends of the words to convey changes in case for nouns, and tense and person for verbs, mean that one Latin word can convey what can easily take two, three or four English words to express.

Latin can elegantly fit into two lines ideas and meanings which English can only fit into the tight straitjacket by mangling word order and meaning. To give one repeated example of this at work, many of the poems start with a ringing couplet whose first line sounds fine because he has written it out at full length, so to speak – but whose second line is incomprehensible, as Marlowe tries to fit into the second line a meaning which really requires one and a half or two. Quite often the second lines are incomprehensible.

I ask but right, let her that caught me late,
Either love, or cause that I may never hate… (?)

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains,
While rage is absent, take some friend the pains…(?)

I, Ovid, poet, of my wantonness,
Born at Peligny, to write more address. (?)

It explains why Marlowe continually distorts normal word order and sense. In the poem about the doorkeeper, he writes:

Little I ask, a little entrance make,
The gate half-ope my bent side in will take.
Long love my body to such use makes slender,
And to get out doth like apt members render.

So, the first line is fairly smooth and understandable, the second is peculiarly phrased (‘bent side’?). The third line is understandable if you make the effort to read it carefully, and the fourth line is gibberish. He’s mangling the English because he’s trying to shoehorn a Latin meaning which simply contains more than an English couplet can handle.

The net effect is that it’s possible to read line after line, poem after poem, without really understanding what they’re about. Easy to begin skipping verse which is so hard to get a grasp of, or reading through entire passages without properly understanding them. Takes this couplet from 1.3:

I love but one, and her I love change never,
If men have faith, I’ll live with thee for ever.

The first line is so compacted you have to read it several times to parse the meaning – the second half of the second line is clear enough, but I don’t quite get why he’ll live with his love forever ‘if men have faith’. What have other men got to do with it? Maybe it means something like, ‘as long as men are faithful, I’ll live with thee forever’, but the little shoebox of the heroic couplet forces him to abbreviate English words so much as to teeter on the incomprehensible.

Contrast with Marlowe the playwright

Taken together what the set highlights, by being such a sharp contrast to it, is Marlowe’s natural gift for a completely different type of verse when he is writing at will and with freedom – for verse which flows freely for entire paragraphs – his gift for rolling lines which convey a luxurious flow of meaning over 5, 6, 7 or more lines, the kind of wonderfully fluent passages you find again and again in the plays. Here is Jupiter flirting with Ganymede at the start of his earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of Time;
Why, are not all the gods at thy command,
And Heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine daughters sing when thou art sad;
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face:
And Venus’ swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed:

What makes this both enjoyable and understandable is they way the same basic thought (‘I’ll give you anything you want, sweet Ganymede’) expands out over ten lines. All the examples repeat the same basic idea – that all the gods will dance at Ganymede’s command – and the reader, having once grasped the basic idea, is freed up to enjoy the poet’s embellishments and elaborations. We readers revel in Marlowe’s inventiveness and fluency and therein lies the mental pleasure, the sense of luxury which derives from the effortlessness with which Marlowe spins out elegantly phrased elaborations of the theme. It’s like a luxury hotel, every room is smoothly and tastefully furnished.

Seeing Marlowe pace up and down the cage of these rhyming couplets, makes you appreciate it even more when you see him released to go bounding joyfully across the open sunny savannah of the blank verse of his plays.

The dead parrot

Whereas in the Ovid translations, the reader continually feels, along with the poet, that his natural grandiloquent discursiveness has been chopped up and cramped into bite-sized couplets. The poem about the death of Corinna’s parrot ought to be funny, the subject is potentially humorous, but the performance feels stuttery and confined.

Elisium hath a wood of holme trees black,
Whose earth doth not perpetuall greene-grasse lacke,
There good birds rest (if we beleeve things hidden)
Whence uncleane fowles are said to be forbidden.
There harrnelesse Swans feed all abroad the river,
There lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever.
There Junoes bird displayes his gorgious feather,
And loving Doves kisse eagerly together.
The Parrat into wood receiv’d with these,
Turnes all the goodly birdes to what she please.

What does ‘if we believe things hidden’ really mean? That belief in the afterlife is some esoteric knowledge? – but it wasn’t. As in hundreds of other lines, the meaning is puzzlingly meaningless or unclear. The line about harmless swans on the river is easy enough to understand but, although you can see the idea lurking behind ‘there lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever’, the actual phrasing feels clumsy and contorted, and poetry is about the actual phrasing.

Juno’s bird (the peacock) displaying her gorgeous feather I understand alright, and the loving turtle doves are a stock cliché – but the final couplet is horrible: ‘The parrot into wood received with these’ is just horrible phrasing, and what does the final line actually mean? Is it something to do with the parrot’s ability to mimic the other birds? I’ve no idea.

Love in the afternoon

Of the 45 poems only one manages to be both completely understandable and to show the extended fluency on a simple idea which distinguishes the more relaxed and fluent verse of his plays – which explains why it’s the one that is always included in anthologies.

Book 1 Elegy 5

In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,
To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay;
One window shut, the other open stood,
Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,
Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,
Or night being past, and yet not day begun.
Such light to shamefaced maidens must be shown,
Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.
Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,
Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,
Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed
Or Lais of a thousand wooers sped.
I snatched her gown: being thin, the harm was small,
Yet strived she to be covered there withal.
And striving thus, as one that would be cast,
Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.
Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,
Not one wen in her body could I spy.
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see!
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!
How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh!
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,
I clinged her naked body, down she fell:
Judge you the rest; being tired she bade me kiss;
Jove send me more such afternoons as this!

And then, it’s about a naked woman and sex, which always helps.

Legacy

There are several points to make.

1. Marlowe’s sonnet sequence

Although they are obviously not sonnets, and he didn’t write them from scratch, nonetheless the Amores can be thought of as ‘Marlowe’s sonnet sequence’. Most other leading poets of the day wrote an extended series of sonnets, all addressed to the same remote and aloof mistress, which they used to explore different moods and subjects, some tragic, some humorous. Examples include Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser’s sequence Amoretti, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the set which is sometimes seen as ending the fashion, Michael Drayton’s Idea sequence.

The point is, the Amores played something of the same role for Marlowe, allowing him to experiment with how to phrase in English a wide variety of moods, emotions and tones of voice. Each of the poems tends to make a case i.e. is not a flow of emotion, but a string of rhetorical arguments around a particular love-related issue (jealousy, passion, anger, regret). So you could argue that the Amores was practice, warming up and rehearsal for deploying variations on all these emotions in the mouths of the characters in his plays, for example the variety of arguments deployed by Aeneas and Dido as they fall in and out of love.

2. Grabby openings

One of the often-noted features of both Shakespeare’s sonnets and John Donne’s lyrics, is their colloquial, dramatic, buttonholing opening lines – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ or ‘I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved…’ being examples of Shakespeare and Donne, respectively.

The point is you can make the case that Marlowe helped establish this tone – that instead of the long and formal exordium of earlier Renaissance poetry,  Marlowe’s translations leap straight in with colloquial, chatty or arresting openings:

What makes my bed seem hard seeing it is soft?

Thy husband to a banquet goes with me…

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains…

Leave colouring thy tresses, I did cry…

Ay me, an eunuch keeps my mistress chaste… (2.3)

Well, maybe. Maybe some of them. But just as many start with crabbed or obscure lines, simple situational setups, or promising phrases which are then bent and broken:

An old wood stands, uncut of long years’ space,
‘Tis credible some godhead haunts the place…

I sit not here the noble horse to see;
Yet whom thou favour’st, pray may conqueror be.

What, are there gods? herself she hath forswore,
And yet remains the face she had before.

Rude man, ’tis vain thy damsel to commend
To keeper’s trust: their wits should them defend.

Flood with reed-grown slime banks, till I be past
Thy waters stay: I to my mistress haste.

3. The ubiquity of classical mythology

So obvious it’s easy to overlook, but the Amores are stuffed with references to the gods and legends of the ancient world. Probably Marlowe read Horace and Virgil, too, and many other Latin authors, but the way the characters of the gods and the stories of their adventures continually pop into the poet’s mind to illustrate almost every point he’s making, will also characterise the plays – certainly Dido and Tamburlaine – where all the characters invoke the Roman gods, the characters from the tale of Troy, plus stock stories from ancient myth.

4. Classical padding

About half way through I began to notice a pattern to many of the poems: Ovid states the situation and describes it in fairly realistic terms. And then, around line 10, he will suddenly switch to invoking classical precedents. One minute he’s addressing his mistress, doorkeeper, friend etc. Then there is almost always a swerve, a change of tone, and he suddenly begins a (usually very extended) list of comparisons with figures from myth and legend. This suggests two thoughts:

  • It is padding. He can pad out any thought, emotion or moment by invoking a classical precedent and then describing it at length, or alternatively piling up a list of quickfire precedents. Either way, most of the poems are twice as long as the ostensible subject justifies, because they have these long passages invoking Venus and Vulcan and Jove and Achilles and so on.
  • I wonder to what extent people living in those times really did structure, categorise and make sense of their human experience through the filter of classical myth and legend. We nowadays – I think – invoke a range of discourses, popular sayings about mental health, maybe, or gender stereotyping or other cliches, maybe about northerners and southerners, or class-based tropes. I’m not in a position to make a full list and I dare say it varies from person to person. But whereas we might think ‘I’m depressed, I’m stressed, it’s sexism, the management don’t know what they’re doing’ – those kinds of categories – I wonder if denizens of the ancient world actually thought, ‘Well beautiful Venus had an affair with ugly Vulcan, this is like jealous Juno taking her revenge on Hercules, he’s sulking like Achilles’ and so on. Or was it only in the poems? Is it an entirely literary artifact?

5. Poetry lasts forever

People still talk about Troy, the Trojan War, Helen of Troy, getting on for 3,000 years after the stories were first told. Ovid is still mentioned, discussed and quoted long after most of the generals and all the politicians of his day are forgotten. Poetry really does outlast not only men’s lives, but entire civilisations. It’s an ancient trope because it’s true. In this couplet, I like the way he places poetry alongside ‘history’s pretence’.

Poets’ large power is boundless and immense,
Nor have their words true history’s pretence.

That’s a complicated word, ‘pretence’, because it involves effort and aspiration (pretensions), but also acting and dissembling. History is the attempt to make sense of what has happened but, as I’ve made clear in my 350 history reviews, it is always a story, or an attempt to frame a meaningful narrative. And the sense of what history is, what it is for, as well as the actual ‘histories’ of every period, change and mutate over time. But not Ovid’s words, or Marlowe’s. When Marlowe wrote ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships’ he made something which will last as long as the English language.

It’s a trope, it’s a cliché which recurs as on of the threads running through the Amores. But it’s true.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

The Aerodrome by Rex Warner (1941)

What a record of confusion, deception, rankling hatred, low aims, indecision!
(The Air Vice-Marshall nicely summing up this absurd novel, page 200)

There’s a genre of books about English village life, set in the 1920s and 30s, which are so normal, so provincial, so banal, and yet so utterly removed from the world we live in now, 80 years later, that an air of surrealism hovers over them, a gentle sense of unreality.

American tourists fresh from the excitement of Pamplona, the glory that was Greece or the grandeur that was Rome etc, were often nonplussed to arrive in 1930s England and find themselves invited to village fetes and vicarage tea parties, all emotions so repressed, everything so hemmed in by good taste, the scones and cream arranged just so, that foreign visitors felt something weird and lurid must be hidden just below the surface.

This feeling, that everyone’s frightfully good manners are too good to be true, is one appeal of the very English detective novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, where the primmest of country house parties all turn out to conceal vipers’ nests of infidelity and jealousy.

Rex Warner’s third novel, The Aerodrome, takes this kind of vicarage tea party mode, a fussy English concern for napkins and cucumber sandwiches (the central figure is in fact a village Rector’s son) and then transmutes it into an increasingly weird and clunky allegory.

Rex Warner

Warner was a typical product of the Auden generation. Born in 1905 to a clergyman father, he went to a jolly good boarding school where he was jolly good at games, and then onto Oxford, where he associated with W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender, and published in the chummy university magazine, Oxford Poetry.

He was also typical of that generation in that:

  1. he picked up at post-war Oxford a radical attachment to revolutionary communism (this was the generation of the Cambridge spies e.g. Anthony Blunt, expensively educated at Marlborough, Cambridge then became a spy for Stalin)
  2. he went on to become a teacher and writer

The Aerodrome was Warner’s third novel. The first, The Wild Goose Chase (1937) is a fantasy in which three brothers, representing different personality types, are on holiday when they come across a wild goose and chase it into a fantasy land ruled by a right-wing dictator. The second, The Professor (1938), is the story of a liberal academic whose struggles against a repressive government eventually lead to his arrest, imprisonment and murder.

The Aerodrome continues this combination of fantasy and strong political message. It’s the story of a fairly innocent and naive young man, Roy, brought up in a village vicarage by the dear old Rector and his lovely wife, all of them friendly with the kindly old Squire and his lovely sister.

Roy is partial to a few beers and games of darts with the lads at the village pub, and is having a heady first-love affair with the publican’s willing daughter, Bess. But he also finds himself drawn to the slick, drawling, manly air force officers from the nearby Aerodrome.

For just outside the village, with its sweet old Manor house and characterful old pub and dawdling river, is a big new Aerodrome, staffed by brisk, efficient, no-nonsense men of action, the dynamic hi-tech forces of the 20th century looming over the almost feudal life of ye olde village.

Should Roy choose the earthy life of the village i.e. getting drunk with Mac and Fred, and (literally) rolling in the hay with bosomy Bess? Or acquiesce in the growing power of the Aerodrome and its brisk no-nonsense leader, the Air Vice-Marshal, and a love affair with the highly-sexed wife of one of its top officials?

However, what this quick summary fails to capture is the weirdness of the actual plot and the difficulty of penetrating Warner’s clunky, thunking prose style.

It’s not exactly rubbish, but I can see why The Aerodrome is long forgotten (it has no Wikipedia page, you can’t find the text anywhere online). And difficult to understand how the noted short story writer V. S. Pritchett called Warner ‘the only outstanding novelist of ideas whom the decade of ideas produced’, let alone why Anthony Burgess considered it as much of a modern classic as Nineteen Eighty-Four!

The plot

1. The Dinner Party

The story opens in media res with our hero drunk lying face down in a wet mire in Gurney’s Field, enjoying the sensation of the watery black mud seeping in at the collar and between the buttons of his formal dinner shirt. We learn his name is Roy. He is the son of the village Rector. It is his twenty-first birthday.

2. The Confession

Earlier that evening Roy’s parents had held a little birthday dinner party for him, the guests consisting of the Rector and his kindly wife, the elderly Squire and his lovely sister, and a Flight-Lieutenant from the nearby Aerodrome.

To Roy’s horror his ‘father’, the Rector, makes a speech in which he reveals that he and his wife are not Roy’s parents, but that baby Roy was brought to them by someone from the local village and they arranged to take him as their own. Now they’re revealing the truth. In front of a table of strangers.

Disgusted, the Flight-Lieutenant gets up and leaves, Roy follows him, and ends up going to local village pub where he proceeds to get hog-whimpering drunk, staggers out the pub and across country with two drinking buddies – which is when he trips over a wire fence and finds himself face down in the mud – which is where the book opened.

On reflection I can see how this episode is meant to convey, as literally as can be, the earthiness of village life, its drunken peasant quality.

Anyway, Roy sobers up a bit and staggers back to the vicarage. He slips through the only unlocked window into the house, and finds himself in the study and is still in the curtained window alcove when he realises the Rector is kneeling in prayer and (like Hamlet’s father) confessing his sins. Astonishingly, he reveals that his wife was once in love with his best friend, Antony – he caught them in embraces a couple of times – and so the vicar-father conceived a wicked plan to go mountain climbing with Antony, to get to a particularly tricky cliff and there to yank Antony off the ledge and, as he dangled helplessly from the safety rope, to slowly cut through the rope so that Antony plunged to his death.

This whole scene would be pretty unrealistic in itself, but as Roy peeps through the curtains drawn across ‘his’ window he sees the Rector’s wife peeping from the curtains of the neighbouring window alcove. She spots him and winks. On her usually placid face is a shocking expression of malice and contempt.

As the Rector-father concludes his long piece of exposition, she slips over to the door and makes a fuss of opening it as if coming into the room, the Rector snaps out of his prayerful trance and welcomes her presence, she puts on a simpering vicar’s wife expression and Roy, watching all this from the crack in the curtains, is left absolutely flummoxed.

Within the space of one short evening he has discovered that his ‘parents’ are not his parents, that his supposedly saintly ‘father’ is in fact a cold-hearted murderer and his lovely ‘mother’ had a passionate affair!

But not half so flummoxed as the reader. Is this clever allegory, deliberately absurd Joe Orton-style satire, or tripe?

3. The Agricultural Show

Events follow each other in quick succession, with a sense of mounting hysteria, or plain weirdness. Roy, his ‘parents’ and the Squire’s sister meet up next morning to motor out to the annual Agricultural Show. So far, so Archers. They bump into the Flight-Lieutenant who is breezily apologetic for leaving the little birthday party the night before, then, on a whim, jumps onto the back of the show’s prize bull (Slazenger), cutting through the nearby fabric of the marquee tent they’re in, and riding the mooing protesting massive bull through the gap in the tent and out into the astonished and screaming crowds. What?

4. The Accident

They come to the Beer Tent where Roy discovers his drinking buddies from the night before, Mac and Fred. Strange scenes: a retired grocer with a red face and white hair staggers to his feet and makes a long speech to his dead mother to forgive him his wicked life. In another corner is a rat-catcher who, for a pint, takes live rats out of his teeming pockets and bites their heads off. A quarrel turns into a fight and the village bell-ringer, George Birkett, is smashed in the face with a broken beer glass by a short man who then darts out the tent, allegedly some member of staff from the Aerodrome (p.44).

This isn’t a normal Agricultural Show. It is more like something out of Breughel, or maybe Hieronymus Bosch.

It’s time for Roy’s date with Bess, they agreed to meet at noon, he finds her, they swagger arm in arm through the show, to her adulation he has a go at the coconut shy and being a big touch chap knocks all the coconuts off their shies.

They come across the Flight-Lieutenant now ensconced in a display area of his own, demonstrating the working of various machine guns to entranced little boys, and onlookers. He sees them and shouts over that the bull was recaptured and is perfectly fine, then gets on with his demonstration.

Roy and Bess wander beyond the bounds of the show itself across farmland to a remote barn and here have what was presumably as much sex as the censors of a 1940s novel would allow i.e. it’s written obscurely and elliptically, but clothes are unbuttoned and some kind of sexual experience is had (though nothing is ‘satisfactorily achieved’) which leaves Roy dazed (p.47).

They are just adjusting their clothes when the Flight-Lieutenant comes running over the field towards them and announces in his foppish, bantering style, that there’s been an accident. ‘I’m afraid I’ve potted your old man’. The F-L thought he’d loaded one of his machine guns with blanks, but they were real bullets, the Rector was among the crowd, and when he fired, the gun fired a ream of real bullets into the Rector who fell over like a nine-pin. It is specifically pointed out that the bullets didn’t just hit him, they ripped off his face. The corpse is unidentifiable. The Flight-Lieutenant is absurdly formal about his apologies. Frightfully sorry, old boy. ‘It was a really bad show.’ (p.48).

5. The Squire

Everyone takes this tragedy in their stride. The narrator isn’t that upset. The body lies in a coffin at the Rectory for a few days. Roy goes to the Manor to visit the Squire. He finds the old man at the end of a visit from an airman from the Aerodrome. The smartly dressed man salutes and leaves. The old Squire tells Roy the devastating news that the Aerodrome is going to take over the village, all its land, lock stock and barrel, converting the pub, all the houses, even the church, to air force purposes (p.55).

This prompts him to a soliloquy in which he reflects that his whole life has been for nothing, all the little kindnesses, running the boys club, helping expectant mothers, it’s all come to this. To be kicked out of his own home in his 70s. And his sister, Florence, has devoted her life to him, but he knows she’s never been happy. At least not except for one short period and he, the Squire, did what he could to crush even that (p.56). Roy listens politely and embarrassed.

6. The Funeral

The Rector’s funeral is held at the local church. First the Air Vice-Marshall appears at the Rectory. He is immensely blunt and to the point, polite as a robot, unbending. Roy can feel himself attracted to the man’s steely efficiency (the ‘power and confidence of the man’, p.62) and we get the impression both the womenfolk – the Rector’s wife and the Squire’s sister, Florence – moisten at the lips.

To people’s surprise, the ceremony is led by the Air Vice-Marshall. The address he gives is blunt to the point of rudeness. In fact he hardly lauds the dead man, instead using the opportunity to announce to the startled villagers that the entire village is going to be taken over by the Air Force, who will instal a new padre, take over as employees of all the adults, maintaining their pay, as long as the work is done conscientiously. An old boy rises to his feet to protest but the Air Vice-Marshall asks for him to be removed and two smartly-dressed airmen are immediately at the man’s sides, taking his arms and hustling him out of the church (p.67). After this stunning announcement the Air Vice-Marshall steps down from the pulpit and the rest of the service follows in the traditional style.

7. New Plans

Afterwards in the pub, what I suppose Warner intends us to think of as the common people, the chavs, the villagers, swig their ale and complain about the news: ‘The old Rector was a good man, he wouldn’t have allowed no takeover of the village’ etc.

When the pub closes, Roy has another date with Bess, she comes out the pub to join him, link arms and go for a country walk. She, like the Rector’s wife and the Squire’s sister, is impressed by the Air Vice-Marshall (just twenty years later Sylvia Plath would write: ‘Every woman adores a fascist.’). Bess begs and insists that Roy join the air force, and they get married and he will be an airman and she will be an airmans wife, oh won’t it be marvellous.

As so often happens, the Flight-Lieutenant strolls along at just that moment, the opportune moment, like an angel or allegorical figure, like Hermes or Puck.

He sits down by them in the shade of a hedgerow and Bess enthusiastically tells him that Roy is going to join the air force and they’re going to be married. At which the Flight-Lieutenant rather surreally explains that, when the air force take over the village, he is going to be made padre and so he sort of has the legal right to marry them right now if they want. ‘Tomorrow’, says the excited Bess. And Roy walks her back to the pub and hands her over to her publican father, both of them dizzied by the prospect of getting married.

8. The Impulse

En route back to the Rectory, Roy bumps into the Squire’s butler, flustered and without his customary bowler hat, who tells him the Squire has taken to bed and is very sick. Returning to the Rectory, Roy finds the Air Vice-Marshall has arranged to stay overnight and overhears a conversation in which he tells the Rector’s wife:

‘I was merely observing that those who have been my enemies tend to die out, usually as a result of their own weakness or incompetence, while I survive them.’ (page 81)

Roy formally enters, the adults suspend their conversation, the Rector’s wife also tells him about the Squire who’s been calling for Roy. Cut to a few hours later and Roy is in the Squire’s bedroom, curtains drawn, night-time, fire burning, the old man is in bed, unconscious, barely breathing. Suddenly he stirs and utters the words: ‘Your father’ before relapsing exhausted. A few moments later, with great effort, he says: ‘Florence’.

Now, having been alerted to the unlikely sexual shenanigans concerning the Rector and his wife right at the start of the novel, I immediately began to suspect there was more to Roy’s parentage than meets the eye. The precise story, as told by the Rector at the opening birthday party, was that the baby was found in a basket by the road at the top of the village, and the wife of the village publican brought the babe in a basket to the Rector who adopted it (p.19).

Well, the abandoned baby with a fateful parentage is as old as writing, appearing in Jewish (Moses) and Greek (Oedipus) mythology, and hundreds of novels as a cheap plot (Tom Jones, Oliver Twist). What if Roy is the Squire’s sister’s son? What if she had an affair with the wicked Rector? Alternatively, who was it ‘discovered’ and brought the babe in a basket to the Rector’s? The landlord’s wife. What if Roy is her child? In which case his affair with Betty would be incest.

Anyway, Roy has taken the old man’s hand as he tries to say something dreadfully important, but at that moment the Squire’s sister, Florence comes in and starts to gently stroke the old man’s face when, to everyone’s astonishment, the old man’s legs shoot out, his grip tightens on Roy’s hand, and he bites deep into his sister’s hand!. She shrieks and the old man only bites harder at which the sister’s face completely transforms and she starts beating him round the face, smack smack smack. Too astonished to move, Roy watches the old man’s jaws slacken, the sister whip away her bleeding hand, and they both hear his death rattle. The old Squire is dead (p.85).

Roy sees it is his duty to comfort the Squire’s sister, although at the same time repelled by her actions. Then out into the hall where the Squire’s servants are all gathered, muttering about the news, and so home to the Rectory where he finds the Air Vice-Marshall, brisk and businesslike, fastening his gloves before getting into his chauffeur-driven car and motoring away.

9. The Honeymoon

Cut to a few weeks later. The Flight-Lieutenant, true to his word, has ‘married’ Roy and Bess. Not only that but he and a couple of air force buddies have fitted them up a sort of quarters in a corrugated iron shed at the bottom of airfield property. Over the days they and the happy couple bring pillows and fabric and turn it into a cosy love nest. Neither of their families know they’re married. They meet at the edge of the village and spend afternoons and evenings there together. They finally have proper sex, and Roy is astonished by the world of splendour which opens up for him.

On the day of the Squire’s funeral, the air force begins its formal takeover of the village. The village divides into two parties, the older inhabitants who’ve been used to traditions and dislike the new regime, and the younger men who admire the airmen and their machines and, now that agricultural work has come to an end, hope to get jobs as labourers or technicians up at the aerodrome – with the landlord acting as a sort of referee between them.

The Squire’s sister becomes openly contemptuous of the airmen, spitting on the ground after the Flight-Lieutenant’s walked by. He now takes Sunday service in the church but doesn’t bother changing out of his airforce uniform and reads dully and uninspiredly. The Rector’s asks Roy if he might consider working for the air force. She doesn’t know that, at the same time as he got married to Bessy, Roy signed up to join the air force.

10. A Disclosure

Roy is bowled over by the intimacy and power of sexual love, and a bit irked that Bessy is far more excited by the prospect of him joining the air force, learning to fly, them getting married quarters and a little car, of travelling abroad! The weeks go by. One day she is a bit distant. She explains that her mother is always trying to put her off him. Roy vows to go and see her, walks down the sloping field, stops at the bottom and waves. He feels a tremendous closeness and intimacy with her, as with no-one else.

He walks to the pub and presents himself to the landlord’s wife in the garden, among the lupins, delphiniums and buzzing bees. After preliminary chat she takes him up to her bedroom (her husband, the landlord, being fast asleep in the bar) and tells him blank: Bess is his sister. The Rector had an affair with her, the landlady. She got pregnant, Bess is the result. At first Roy denies it, explaining that the Rector explained at his birthday that he was not Roy’s biological father. Oh but he was, the landlady explains. Just that he got the Rector’s wife pregnant quite a bit before they were married. They married in a hurry, then the Rector’s wife was packed off abroad with her, the landlady, Eve, to accompany her. The Rector’s wife returned, the story of the finding of the baby in a basket was cooked up and arranged between all three of them. And during this period the Rector had started an affair with the landlady, getting her pregnant too. ‘Oh he was a fine man.’

So the beautiful young woman Roy is having an affair with, who he has married and who has opened up for him the world of sexual delight… is his half-sister!

Chapter 11 Change of Plan

Roy walks back through the village, across the fields and up towards the tin shed in the field, when he hears voices. Laughter. He jerks open the door of the shed to reveal Bess on the bed naked and the Flight-Lieutenant naked above her. As she scoops bedclothes up around her nekkid body, the Flight-Lieutenant is up and getting swiftly dressed, so swiftly that within moments he is moving towards Roy holding his call-up papers for the air force. As Roy looks down, the Flight-Lieutenant, obviously quite scared, skips past him, into the open and is off with a typically unfeeling quip: ‘Sorry about this, but all’s fair, you know’ (p.112).

It’s the old story: the more totally in love you are, the deeper the knife twists in your guts. Roy reels. Bess’s uneducated simplicity comes out. She thought she was being ‘nice’ to both of them. She tells him she started her ‘affair’ with the Flight-Lieutenant the day before she and Roy were married. And she goes on to tell him, as if it will help, that the Flight-Lieutenant is much better, physically, than him: much more confident, much more exciting, makes her feel much more at ease. Thanks, Bess.

This chapter well conveys the flood of contradictory feelings you experience in such a situation, including the impression that it’s all a bad dream and all you have to do is reach out your hand to restore the wonderful, paradisal intimacy you once shared with another human being. But the more they talk the worse it gets, and then Roy decides to prick her smug self-satisfaction and tells her they are brother and sister.

This prompts a moment of horror, Bess struggles to process this momentous new fact, but then she manages to smile and say, ‘Well at least that makes it easier.’ She reaches out her hand and smiles at him, ‘What shall we do now, Roy?’ but he too has processed the situation to a conclusion and says, ‘Do what you want’, turns on his heel, walks down the field then breaks into a run over fields and fences, till he gets to the river, strips off and dives into its refreshing cleansing cold waters.

12. The Air Vice-Marshall

Cut to a few weeks later. Roy has been inducted into the air force along with fifty or so other recruits. Life isn’t as cushy as he’d anticipated, the accommodation is basic, the food is poor, up early, to bed late, lots of exercise and none of them have been anywhere near a plane.

The Air Vice-Marshall assembles them in an underground lecture theatre (a lot of the Aerodrome’s facilities, it turns out, are underground, linked by an underground railway – maybe on the model of the French Army’s Maginot Line defences.)

The Air Vice-Marshall delivers an extended lecture about what is expected of the new recruits (pp.121-128). They are seeking not only to protect but to transform society. He anatomises the feudal rules of the village, labouring under a worn-out religion nobody believes any more, losing themselves in drunkenness and humiliating ‘love affairs’.

The airmen must rise above all that. First be rejecting their parents and all aspects of their former lives. Then the Air Vice-Marshall embarks on a lengthy description of how, although love and sex are inevitable for any young man, they must not let themselves be trapped by women, time-bound creatures made by biology to be bound to the past (parents) and future (children) more than men. All love affairs end in tears. A true airman makes sure the tears are not his. All love affairs are between unequals. The airman must make sure he is not the giver who ends up feeling exploited. He must always be the exploiter, the taker.

This way the airman can fulfil his destiny which is to escape the constraints of time and achieve the complete self-mastery, which is Freedom.

I can imagine many a feminists head exploding in outrage as she reads this extended and forensic explanation of how to exploit women and their supposedly ‘better’ nature. For me, though, the disappointment is in Warner’s fictional character’s target. We know from the book about European fascism which I’ve just finished reading (To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw) that, in the ideology of true Fascism, a key tenets alongside transforming the state and devoting yourself to The Leader, is fighting communism. Communism was the great bogeyman which helped unify all kinds of forces on the right of politics and helped them bury their differences to create authoritarian dictatorships across Europe.

You can see why mentioning specific political movements or parties is too specific or narrow for the kind of broad allegory Warner i writing. But it seemed to me that he was playing to the gallery instead of addressing the issue. What I mean is: these passages address an issue dear to the hearts of humanist and liberal readers of literature (love and relationships and feelings and emotions etc) and completely irrelevant to the actual historical circumstances of Fascism, which has its origins in the collapse of parliamentary democracy and the spread of street violence which only The Strong Man says he can quell.

13. Alterations

They watch a synchronised flying display. The man behind the radio-controlled co-ordination of the planes is an elderly mathematical genius. The Air Vice-Marshall congratulates him. The implication is that someday soon actual pilots will be redundant.

Roy is now a talented pilot. He’s surprised to discover he is already regarded as more promising that the Flight-Lieutenant who he used to so admire. When he goes down into the village he finds it transformed. The sleepy high street is full of air force vehicles or squads of cadets marching up and down. The Manor has been gutted and turned into an officers club with a new rooftop restaurant, the elaborate garden torn up to make way for a swimming club and tennis courts. When he drops into the pub, Roy’s old mates avoid him. He’s one of them now.

The airmen hear that the Flight-Lieutenant is going native. It’s as he and Roy have switched identities. Roy finds the villagers harder and harder to take, beginning to think these simple muddy souls are fit only for hard labour, while the Flight-Lieutenant is reported to be taking his duties as padre more and more seriously, delivering extended sermons, asking for Aerodrome funds to help repair the church tower. He has long ago lost interest in Bess. On his rare visits to the pub Bess tries to be friendly with Roy, but he’s having none of it.

In a striking scene Roy makes a rare visit to the Rectory only to discover the Flight-Lieutenant leaning against an armchair, having his hair idly stroked by the Squire’s sister. He has become their darling – whereas Roy has become an airman – coldly he asks for his clothes, shakes hands and departs. He has become the brisk, rude personality he admired at the start of the book.

14. Eustasia

Their positions become even more reversed when we learn that the Flight-Lieutenant is in love with a lady on the airbase called Eustasia, but that she upsets him by often asking after Roy — rather as Bes, although ‘married’ Roy, secretly lusted after the Flight-Lieutenant.

Now, just to spite the Flight-Lieutenant, Roy determines to have an affair with her. (Eustasia is, by the way, the wife of the genius mathematician-engineer who’s designing the radio-controlled airplanes. She’s bored. She has lots of affairs with the fit young pilots.)

The Flight-Lieutenant takes Roy to her rooms, introduces them. She has just got out of the shower and is wearing a dressing gown. Clearly this is her seduction outfit. She tells the Flight-Lieutenant to run along and buy some cigarettes and, once he’s gone, there is a moment of stasis super-charged with meaning and lust. Then she puts her hand on Roy’s knee, he grasps her thigh, she pout towards him and they are kissing lustfully.

In the midst of their grappling they realise the Flight-Lieutenant has reappeared in the room, sinks to the floor beside the sofa, puts his head against it and start crying. Roy looks down at him with contempt. The Flight-Lieutenant lets rip with a lot of stuff about how she’s the only woman who understands him, he feels so out of place at the aerodrome, and other emotional claptrap. With a jolt Roy realises this is how he must have appeared when he made his declarations of undying love to Bess. Eustasia treats him like a puppy. Everything he says, his entire outpouring of heartfelt emotion, means nothing to her.

Now this, this thread of meditations about love, which run from Roy’s puppy love for Bess, through devastation at her betrayal, to his newfound cynical confidence with a worldly woman like Eustasia, and their cynical almost sadistic treatment of the Flight-Lieutenant, this strikes me as having an imaginative force and experience unlike anything else in the book. The intense focus on analysing the relations between men and women reminds me a little of Kingsley Amis.

They become lovers. They meet and have sex every day in her stylishly decorated apartment. Roy is a confident man of the world and takes her to the officers club and to balls. He thinks back with a shudder to the time he wasted in the shabby tin hut on the edge of a field with the landlord’s stupid daughter in her home-made dresses. God, how far he has come!

15. Discipline

To his surprise Roy is appointed personal assistant to the Air Vice-Marshall. Slowly he discovers the scope of the Aerodrome, not just to defend the country but to transform it. Thus it has departments devoted to banking, agriculture, fisheries and so on.

From this point on (page 149), rather suddenly, Roy – and therefore the entire text – is transported to high up in the secret paramilitary organisation which actually runs the Aerodrome, and we now hear all about it from two sources: 1. verbatim speeches which the Air Vice-Marshall gives explaining the movement’s philosophy and 2. Roy’s description of his own discoveries about the movement’s aims (to take over and transform society).

Alongside his discoveries, Roy hears of incidents of insubordination in the village, leading up to the murder of an Air Force officer. In vague militaristic terms we learn that an example is made, anyone caught criticising the Air Force is dealt with severely.

Then we learn that the Flight-Lieutenant has been taking his job as padre too seriously and making anti-Air Force comments. The Air Vice-Marshall takes Roy along with him to the next Sunday service at the village church and they are both surprised to see the Flight-Lieutenant appear in full vicar outfit, to which he has no right, ascend to the pulpit and start talking about the good old days before the Air Force took over.

At which point the Air Vice-Marshall steps into the aisle and orders the Flight-Lieutenant to come down. As he hesitates some parishioners start muttering and there are shouts of ‘throw him out’ at which the Vice-Marshall draws his revolver and points it at the Flight-Lieutenant.

While he hesitates the Squire’s sister rises and starts shouting at the Vice-Marshall, pushing her way past sitting parishioners into the aisle, points at the Vice-Marshall and other airmen, starts saying, ‘Listen, listen all of you,’ and the Vice-Marshall shoots her point blank.

The Squire’s sister falls to the floor dead. The parishioners cower, the women start weeping, the Flight-Lieutenant comes down along the aisle and kneels beside the bleeding body, the Vice-Marshall orders his men to arrest him (p.159). The Vice-Marshall and Roy leave the church together, Roy is astonished at how little he feels for the murdered woman.

16. The secret

Roy goes to the club. Fellow officers are laughing and joking about the shooting. Roy reveals an extremely strange attitude to the killing of one of his oldest friends, which is that he finds it unaccountable that he seems to be somewhat moved. This is not an ordinary novel, in which we might expect the protagonist to be badly shaken up. He realises it is nearly his birthday, nearly a year since the events which kicked off the narrative. He realises he isn’t interested in the date or the occasion. He has now been lifted onto the Air Force’s level of abstract living, detached from human values.

He walks past the pub and toys with going in but the locals, the ones he used to be mates with, give him dirty looks. But the landlady comes out, takes him aside, and tells him how miserable Bess is, in fact she’s so broken-hearted she’s ill. This gets through Roy’s zombie-carapace a little and he promises to get Dr Faulkner the chief medical officer at the Aerodrome to visit her.

As he walks into the Aerodrome grounds he sees Eustasia outside her apartment building. She waves him over and insists on taking her upstairs to his flat. There she announces that she’s pregnant, staring at the floor. Roy is horrified – airmen are forbidden from having children, it ties them down – but pretends to be pleased.

But when Eustasia starts telling him how excited she’ll be to leave the Aerodrome and go live in another part of the country, Roy can’t hide the dismay at the ruin of all his plans and ambitions, and suddenly Eustasia gets really angry, ‘You never loved me’ etc. And then Roy feels sees in her the recriminations he brought against Bess and feels sorry for her. And they have sensitive tearful sex, both of them knowing their happy-go-lucky fun days are over.

17. Bess

Roy accompanies Dr Faulkner, the Aerodome chief medical officer, to see Bess. She is in her bedroom, hunched up in the windowseat, staring into space, catatonic, the lap of her homespun dress full of primroses she’s picked. Immediately we think of Ophelia, who went mad and picked flowers.

In a surprising development Roy gets down on his knees and puts his head in her lap. She strokes it absent-mindedly like Ophelia and Hamlet. He realises that Eustasia and the entire Aerodrome and its plan to take over and transform the nation mean nothing to him next to Bess’s love.

I remembered suddenly and vividly the moment in the past when we had been together in the field listening to the larks singing, the time when I had decided easily and gladly to abandon myself to her love. The promises and ambitions of that time may have been stupid and ill-considered. I had believed them to have become null and void; but I saw now that the feeling that had prompted them could never be recalled. It was not that I had any more a desire to possess her. Such an idea would in any case have been absurd; but I knew in a moment and with certainty that compared with her health and happiness the aerodrome and all that it contained meant nothing to me at all… (p.175)

I was astonished at how soppy this was, and how quick and complete the change in Roy’s attitude. He has little or no plausibility as a character, as a depiction of a real human being. He is more a robot witness of the ‘allegorical’ and often bizarre events Warner puts him through.

18. New friends

Roy bumps into the Rector’s wife waiting outside the Aerodrome. It is eerie how neither of them seem particularly upset by the events they’ve witnessed – the Rector and the Squire’s wife being shot dead.

She amazes the reader by explaining that the Flight-Lieutenant is the dead Squire’s sister’s son. The Squire had refused to have the boy in the house, had insisted on him being sent away, nobody knew about it, and nobody realised it was the Flight-Lieutenant until a chance remark of his confirmed it. (But this is the man who shot dead the Rector, her husband – how can anyone… oh, whatever).

Roy accompanies Dr Faulkner to see Bess and then walk back to the Aerodrome on numerous occasions. She had been in a deep depression, incapable of speaking. Slowly she is coming out of it and the doctor assures Roy her recovery will be complete, but he’s not telling something, Roy catches him and the Rector’s wife conferring, there’s some secret.

Somehow Roy manages to reconcile his realisation that he loves Bess, that he sympathises with the villagers and realises the values of the Aerodrome are worthless with… working closely with the Air Vice-Marshall on the plan to take over the country. You can see how he’s not really a person, but more a puppet in a pantomime.

And it tells you everything about Warner’s priorities that he devotes just one paragraph to this subject – the plan to take over the entire country: whereas he has given us pages and pages about a) Bess & her health b) about the Flight-Lieutenant being the Squire’s sister’s son and now c) goes into an extended analysis of the new flavour of his love affair with Eustasia i.e. they stop having sex but enter a deeper kind of relationship. All his about love and relationships, but barely a paragraph about the plans to take over the country. Those are his priorities.

Now you might remember that the Flight-Lieutenant had been imprisoned at the Air Vice-Marshall’s order after the scene at the village church. Now he’s released, has been reduced to the ranks and is working as ground staff. Roy meets him again at Eustasia’s apartment and they discover they’re back to being friends again. Roy tells him how disillusioned he is with the Air Force, the Flight-Lieutenant urges caution.

But at their next meeting Roy tells the Air Vice-Marshall that he has got Eustasia pregnant.

  1. The Air Vice-Marshall reveals that he, too, once had a liaison with her (confirming the sense that more or less all the men on the Aerodrome have slept with Eustasia)
  2. The Air Vice-Marshall angrily reminds Roy that a key tenet of the Air Force is it is absolutely forbidden to have children. Children are a tie to the future and an airman must have no past or future, he must elude time in order to become a New Man.

The Air Vice-Marshall gives Roy three days to sort it out i.e. to force Eustasia to have an abortion. (This is a pretty obvious symbol of the Air Force’s literal denial of life in all its messy glory, and crystallises Roy’s sense that:

the code under which I had been living for the past year was, in spite of its symmetry and its perfection, a denial of life, its difficulty, its perplexity and its suffering, rather than an affirmation of its nobility and its grandeur. (p.193)

19. The Decision

One day Roy is out at the Aerodrome watching the Flight-Lieutenant and other mechanics making last-minute adjustments to the twenty-seater plane which is to fly the Air Vice-Marshall to some important meeting. The Flight-Lieutenant steps briskly away, in the direction of Eustasia’s block of flats and Roy goes to follow him, but is intercepted and delayed by a chat with Dr Faulkner.

Walking on to Eustasia’s flat he is almost knocked over by a squad of six motorcyclists heading out of the base at top speed. Arriving at Eustasia’s flat Roy finds all the doors open and a message. She and the Flight-Lieutenant have done a bunk, running away together. He realises the motor bikes were sent out to catch them. Stepping out into the Aerodrome road, Roy sees one of the bikers returning. He salutes and the biker tells them they caught up with the escapees at a narrow stone bridge. The cars crashed, both the people inside were crushed, killed.

He is describing it to the doctor, stunned, when an orderly tells him the Air Vice-Marshall wants to see him. Roy reports. The Air Vice-Marshall is in an excellent mood. He jovially tells Roy how this means he is off the hook – no more pregnant Eustasia, no more difficult decision for Roy. He can refocus on his work.

Roy tells him he can stuff his work. He is disgusted and repelled by the organisation, The Air Vice-Marshall controls his fury and tells Roy he has no option but to have him killed. (All this passes as in a dream. I had no sense of threat, and couldn’t care less about Roy, unlike, for example the real terror you feel on Winston Smith’s behalf.)

The Air Vice-Marshall is just offering Roy a last opportunity to change his mind and save his life when there is a swift knock at the door and the doctor and the Rector’s wife walk in. This is more like a Whitehall farce than a dystopia. The doctor apologises and call the Air Vice-Marshall Antony.

Antony!? The name of the man the Rector confessed to sending plummeting to his doom up some mountain, the supposed lover of  his wife, the Rector’s wife before they got married!?

Yes: now it all comes tumbling out, as on the last page of a whodunnit or the last few minutes of a bedroom farce. Yes: as a young man the Air Vice-Marshall (Antony) had been in love with the Rector’s wife (we never get to learn her name), and had had a fling with her while the Rector was pursuing a more formal wooing. Spotting them, the Rector had suggested their trip to the mountains where he cut Antony’s rope sending him plunging down the mountainside. But he had survived and returned (somehow the Rector never noticed this), returned to discover that his lover, pregnant with his son, had now married the Rector (thinking Antony dead) and born the child who is… none other than Roy!

So…. so when the landlady told Roy she was his mother, after the Rector had an affair with her…. that was a lie? So Roy is not a blood relative of Bess? So their ‘marriage’ was not incest?

But not only this – the Rector’s wife now tells us and the audience that Antony not only returned from the dead and berated her for marrying his would-be murderer and making him his son’s father… Antony then went and had an affair with her best friend, the Squire’s sister, got her pregnant, and spirited away the baby, a boy, a son, who was to return years later as…. the Flight-Lieutenant!!!

So…. the Air Vice-Marshall… let me get this straight… when the Air Vice-Marshall shot dead the Squire’s sister in the church he was killing the woman he had an affair with and the mother of his son, the Flight-Lieutenant, who he then had thrown into prison and… and has just now despatched a squad of motorcycle riders to have killed.

Yes, because the Rector’s wife now accuses Tthe Air Vice-Marshall of having had one of his sons murdered, and being on the verge of murdering the other, too (Roy).

(So the Flight-Lieutenant and Roy were brothers… which explains why he was invited to Roy’s 21st birthday party right at the start… doesn’t it?)

After the Rector’s wife makes her big speech explaining all this, the Air Vice-Marshall turns to Roy and says I told you so. What an absurd, messy, sordid business life is. Come with me, cast off the shackles of the past and be free.

Can you not see, and I am asking you for the last time, to escape from time and its bondage, to construct around you something that is guided by your own will, not forced upon you by past accident, something of clarity, independence and beauty? (p.200)

The doctor now reveals that it was he who saved Antony/the Air Vice-Marshall’s life after his fall and nursed him back to life. He pleads for Roy’s life. Furious, the Air Vice-Marshall says he’ll be lucky to survive for his treason.

He asks Roy if he’s coming with him to the climactic meeting of the organisation, to finalise plans for the coup. Roy says No. The Air Vice-Marshall tells him he’s going to lock the doors, if anyone tries to escape he’s giving orders for them to be shot down, He goes out and they hear the lock turn.

Through the window of the office where he’s locked up, Roy idly watches him walk across the runway, meet up with the Chief Mathematician and all the other important men from the organisation. They get in the plane. The Air Vice-Marshall himself is flying it. It taxis down the runway, turns and takes off. But it doesn’t climb as it should. Then climbs too steeply. Then the wing Roy had seen the Flight-Lieutenant fiddling with falls off! The plane plummets back to earth, smashing and exploding on impact, killing everyone inside it.

20. Conclusion

Three last pages tie up loose ends. The doctor tells Roy how he was friends with both the Rector and Antony and a) nursed the latter back to health b) decided with him to keep his survival a secret and stage a fake funeral c) never told the Rector the truth (thus letting him live a life plagued by guilt).

And watched the recovered Antony vow never to let himself be influenced by women or love or the past, but to remake and remodel himself. Out of this burning ambition grew the ambition to remodel the entire country and human nature. So: that’s the origin of the Air Vice-Marshall’s steely determination and ‘fascist’ beliefs.

But now that he’s dead, the organisation he had built up over years collapses. The threat of a coup evaporates.

Bess is now healed. Reconciled with her, Roy now marries her in a formal ceremony. They sit in the fields by the ancient elms. He is at one not only with her, and with Nature but with… past time, the way the messiness of time, our pasts and everyone else’s pasts prevents anything human from being pure, or being made new. The author’s final message is:

It was not for me, I knew now, to attempt either to reshape or to avoid what was too vast even to be imagined as enfolding me, nor could I reject as negligible the least event in the whole current of past time. (p.205)


Cast

  • Roy – the 21-year-old first person narrator
  • The Rector – his supposed father, murdered his friend Antony, shot dead by the Flight-Lieutenant at the Agricultural Show
  • The Rector’s wife – Roy’s supposed mother
  • Antony – the Rector’s friend and his wife’s lover, who the Rector confesses to murdering in chapter two
  • the Squire – a 70-year-old, white haired old worthy, lives in the Manor, dies after the Aerodrome requisition the entire village and specifically after his siter has beaten him round the face
  • the Squire’s sister – Florence, who has devoted her life to her brother, but falls into a huge rage at his death-bed and then is shot dead by the Air Vice-Marshall of the church
  • Mac – one of Roy’s drinking buddies from the (unnamed) pub in the (unnamed) village
  • Fred – another of Roy’s drinking buddies
  • the landlord – of the unnamed pub
  • the landlady – of the unnamed pub, who claims to be Roy’s mother, by the Rector
  • Bess – the landlord’s sexy but simple daughter who Roy has a passionate affair with, and even gets unofficially ‘married’ to, until the landlady tells Roy she is actually the illegitimate daughter of the Rector and so Roy’s step-sister
  • the Flight-Lieutenant – a drawling, lackadaisical smart young representative of the Aerodrome and its complete lack of conventional manners or pieties, who accidentally shoots the Rector dead, has a fling with Bess behind Roy’s back, is tasked with being the village padre after the Aerodrome takes it over, but slowly adopts village values, takes his duties seriously, begins speaking out against the Air Force
  • the Air Vice-Marshall – ‘a slight tense figure’ (p.158) the logical, no-nonsense head of the Air Force and indeed of the wider ‘movement’ which is planning to take over the country and transform it
  • the mathematician – a tall, elderly man with a small straggling beard (p.131) mastermind of a new technology of remote controlled airplanes; married to the pneumatic Eustasia
  • Eustasia – sexy wife of the mathematician who has had affairs with a string of airmen and now takes up with Roy
  • Dr Faulkner – medical co-ordinater at the Aerodrome, tends to Bess during her melancholia

Time

Several times the Air Vice-Marshall goes well beyond a conventional view of fascism as the takeover of the state and the expulsion of all the time-servers and money-lenders and parasites who infest it, far beyond that, to expound a vision of a new type of Man who will have a new type of relationship with Time! (p.128)

He explains that the airman must reject his parents, siblings, family and background i.e. all the ties of the past – and cease to worry about his own life, how it will turn out etc, in other words, cease to fear about the future. In other words, the New Men, by abandoning the ties of past and future, by entire devotion to the mission of the Air Force, can escape Time itself:

‘What is the whole purpose of our life… To be freed from time, Roy. From the past and from the future.’ (p.150)

Only then will we become ‘a new and more adequate race of men’ (p.128).

But in the last few chapters, as Roy passes the apogee of his attachment to the Aerodrome ideals, he comes to see that men are stuck in time for better or for worse, and that it is this embedded-in-time-ness which creates the potential, the adventure and excitement which are quintessentially human, as against the rigid, utterly predictable logic of the Air Force. ‘We in the Air Force had escaped but not solved the mystery’ (p.177).

It is only human to make mistakes, and get caught up in the confusing messiness of life, whereas it is an error:

to deny wholly the relevance of the world of time and feeling where such mistakes were only too easy to make, and to erect in contrast with it our own barren edifice of perfection, our efficient and mystical mastery over time. (p.181)

This interest in Time is an unusual and thought-provoking spin on the central polarity the novel describes. It reminds me of the contemporaneous obsession with time in T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton (1936).

Style

My plot summary gives you the events but doesn’t give any sense of how hard The Aerodrome is to actually read, chiefly because of its clotted, clunky style.

Warner writes in long sentences, often with three or four subordinate clauses, with non-standard word order, and using idioms or phrases which have long ago been dropped from ordinary English. Take the opening of chapter five:

In our house, as I should say in many others, death had not been in the past a frequent topic of conversation; but now, with a dead body in an upper room lying beneath a sheet, both the presence and the certainty of death were never, during the days that preceded the funeral, far from our minds. (page 50)

The prose is sufficiently different in layout and phrasing from modern English that, at moments, it prompts your mind (expecting clarity and logic) to set off in the wrong direction and you have to call it back in order to reread what the text actually says. Take this passage describing the layout of the Aerodrome, much of which is built beneath ground so that staff move around it using an underground railway.

By this railway we had come immediately after breakfast, accompanied by the three or four officers who were responsible for our training, and since the early days after we had been called up had been rigorous enough, we had been surprised to find this place so luxuriously furnished and so unlike the severity of the quarters in which we had so far lived. (p.119)

A modern writer would perhaps say the training had been ‘very rigorous’ – saying rigorous ‘enough’ sets a modern reader up to expect that it was vigorous enough for something to follow logically. Similarly, when I read the first ‘so’ I expected the sentence to continue ‘so luxuriously furnished that…‘ – I mean that the ‘so’ would lead into a conclusion rather than remain an adverb.

Maybe it’s just me, but I found Warner’s prose as stiff and restraining as Roy’s dinner party white shirt. Towards the end of the book the landlord’s wife approaches Roy:

She appeared to me at once as both older and less self-possessed than she had been at our last interview, and though for some weeks after that time I had avoided conversation with her, now I was by no means displeased to see that she evidently wished to talk to me; for I still retained for her the affection of my childhood, and did not fancy that she could reveal anything else to me that could disturb the serenity in which I lived. (page 163)

Warner’s clunky, peculiar prose style has at least two consequences:

1. You as the reader have to work quite hard to penetrate the prose and make out what’s happening, or to rethink the crabbed sentences into more flowing English so you can grasp their meaning. Quite often I felt Warner was struggling, didn’t have the basic expressive skill, to describe his own story.

I saw that Eustasia was watching me closely. Her large eyes were fixed on my face and there was an expression of eagerness in them, as though she were attempting to drag to her my thoughts from behind my forehead. (p.169)

2. The style is so peculiar and stilted that it keeps you on the outside of the narrative.

Apparently Warner intended his book to be an ‘allegory’ and it’s just as well because it doesn’t work as a psychological novel i.e. a novel where we’re meant to care in the slightest about the characters.

Roy barely reacts to the bizarre and shocking things he sees – his father’s confession, the Squire’s sister slapping the Squire to death, the Vice-Marshall shooting her dead – Roy moves through the story like a zombie.

The only places his account comes to life are in the scattered descriptions of being really head-over-heels in love with Bess, the persuasive account of his distress when he discovers her with another man, and then the new set of emotions he discovers during his affair with the worldly-wise Eustasia.

But almost all the other passages – about the Rector, his wife, the Squire, his sister and much of the description of the Aerodrome – are processed logically, in his stiff, starchy sometimes clumsy prose, and leave the reader utterly outside the experience. I kind of read at The Aerodrome but never felt I got inside it. Certainly none of its characters or events made much impression on me. For Anthony Burgess to compare it with Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the most effectively nightmareish novels ever written, is grotesque.

Critique

By the end of the book, it has become, almost in spite of itself and its odd prose style, an impressive text. I’ve given a detailed summary so you can judge for yourself what you think of the story as a story; I’ll mention a few other aspects.

Many critics claim Warner is a kind of English Kafka. This is maybe true in two respects:

  1. the overall allegorical feel of the story in which incidents and details are crafted to fit into the totality of the allegory, as they are in The Trial and The Castle
  2. the bizarre and inexplicable elements – having recently reread all of Kafka I was reminded how plain weird many of the episodes in Kafka’s novels are, and also that he left the novels in fragments precisely because he was good at weird and intense scenes but less good at figuring out how to stitch them together

Kafka and Warner are even similar in their attitude to sex, in the sense that Kafka’s two main protagonists, Joseph K and K, seem to be very attractive to women but end up having sudden sex in incongruous places with little or no courting or foreplay – a little like Roy finds himself fornicating in a hay barn or a rickety tin shed with Bess.

For me, though, the central criticism of the Aerodrome is in its vision of a totalitarian movement. It’s too simple and too clean. Having just read Ian Kershaw’s exhaustive survey of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, a key element in the rise of right-wing dictatorships was the violence – the violence of thugs on the street, the violence of left and right wing paramilitaries, and then the violence of seizing and holding power. Enemies were rounded up, gaoled and murdered.

The Aerodrome contains some thrilling speeches by the Air Vice-Marshall about how the movement is not going to take over the country, it is going to transform it, how the old world of muddle and confusion will be swept away, how a new breed of men who have rejected the past and have no fear of the future – who have, in other words, escaped the bonds of Time – will for the first time live properly human lives.

But, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it is a very shiny, technology-driven vision. Clean, antiseptic. It doesn’t take into account the actual conditions which gave rise to right-wing government across Europe which were, above all, poverty, unemployment, complete loss of faith in elected governments, and real fear of a communist revolution. These were the elements which so destabilised European nations that right-wing, often military figures could step in and promise to restore order, give people jobs, and prevent the advent of the communism which huge portions of the population were so terrified of.

None of this is in The Aerodrome. None of the political complexity, the collapse of government, and the street violence. It is a strangely antiseptic and theoretical vision of what a fascist regime would look like. And this theoretical or ‘allegorical’ treatment extends to the way the opposite of the fascist movement is not a communist or social democrat regime, it is rural tradition. But this wasn’t the alternative most people in urban industrialised Europe faced, let alone in Britain, the most urbanised country in the world.

Instead the central antithesis in the book between hi-tech airmen and drunks from the pub feels like a warmed-up version of the age-old dichotomy between city and countryside which stretches back through all civilisations, to the ancient Roman and Greeks and probably beyond, in which the businesslike city-dweller is glamorous but somehow shallow, while the country-dweller is humble and thick but somehow more authentic.

And in the simplicity of its age-old dichotomy The Aerodrome also fails to investigate the much more tangled imagery of contemporary Fascism which somehow managed to combine both elements, so that the Nazis managed to create posters and propaganda films which showed blonde Hitler youths both helping with the harvest, exercising in the country and flying brand new Messerschmitt fighter planes.

German Fascism, like Italian and Spanish cousins, combined veneration of Blood and Soil with veneration of shiny new technologies, to present the propaganda image of the totality of a nation united in one purpose.

By adopting his gleaming airmen versus doddery old village types, Warner misses all the complexities and contradictions of actual Fascist regimes, and instead paints a kind of children’s cartoon version of it.

The Aerodrome is, at the end of the day, despite its terrible prose and lack of any attempt to create credible characters, an interesting and occasionally enjoyable book. But as any kind of guide or insight into the actual fascist mind it strikes me as useless.

Also it tells you bugger-all about the air force, any air force, or what it was like to fly a plane in the late 1930s. For a book which describes the joy of flying, try Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936).

Credit

The Aerodrome by Rex Warner was published in 1941. All references are to the 1968 Sphere Books paperback edition (cover price 7/6).


Related links

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, Part One (1930)

We are in the hands of the thing. We travel in it day and night, and do everything else in it too: shaving, eating, making love, reading books, carrying out our professional duties, as though the four walls were standing still; and the uncanny thing about it is merely that the walls are travelling without our noticing it, throwing their rails out ahead like long, gropingly curving antennae, without our knowing where it is all going…
(The Man Without Qualities, Volume One, chapter 8)

Four problems

Musil’s masterpiece ought to be a difficult read for at least four reasons:

1. It is translated from 1930s German – a) all translation are imperfect and fail to capture the nuances (and pleasures) of the original (as every translator of Kafka unfailingly points out, much to the English reader’s frustration), and b) it must be in a style and phraseology which is nearly 100 years old.

2. It is unfinished – Musil died in 1942 and, to quote Wikipedia:

In 1930 and 1933, Musil published his masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), in two volumes consisting of three parts, running to 1,074 pages. Volume 1 (Part I: A Sort of Introduction and Part II: The Like of It Now Happens) and the 605-page-long and unfinished Volume 2 (Part III: Into the Millennium (The Criminals)). Part III did not include 20 chapters withdrawn from Volume 2 of 1933 in printer’s galley proofs.

So the work as a whole is both unfinished, and the structure of what exists is a little difficult to grasp (volume one contains two parts, volume two contains part three) and there exist some 20 additional chapters in various stages of completion, which may or may not be included in the printed editions you come across.

3. The Man Without Qualities is long, very long – well over 1,000 pages in the Picador paperback edition.

4. And not only notoriously long, but also notoriously meandering, with little or no plot.

Tone of voice

All of which explains why it came as a very pleasant surprise to find that, when I actually got hold of a copy and started reading it with some trepidation, The Man Without Qualities turns out to be an extremely pleasurable read.

This is because of the tone of voice and authorial attitude.

The Man Without Qualities is told in the third person and the narrating voice is extremely warm and humorous. The author is wryly amused by the whole world, including his characters.

When a man has set his house in order, he should also take to himself a wife. Ulrich’s mistress in those days was called Leontine and was a singer in a small cabaret. She was a tall, plump girl, provocatively lifeless, and he called her Leona.

‘Provocatively lifeless’, that made me smile, and the narrative is full of perky, unexpectedly humorous, wry and ironic touches like that, throughout.

You quickly realise that it doesn’t matter that the book has little or no plot because it is so enjoyable listening to the narrator’s intelligent, urbane, meandering musings on existence and modern life.

These meanderings aren’t particularly revolutionary – there are rarely any of the flashy ‘modernist’ techniques I’ve recently come across in Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers or in Alfred Döblin’s much more overtly tricksy Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Instead there is a warm and gentle tone of mockery and amusement, about everything – modern life, modern love, cities, economies, work, cultural values, history, human nature. You name it, Musil has something wry and amusing to say about it.

Sometimes the ‘ideas’ or insights are worth mulling over, but you get the sense the author doesn’t even care whether you find them original or amusing. He is sublimely indifferent to his characters, his opinions and our opinions of his opinions – and it is this quality of elegantly amused detachment which makes the book so moreish, so quaffable. There aren’t many laughs, but I found myself almost continuously smiling.

There are of course in all ages all kinds of countenance; but there is also one that is exalted by the taste of the time and acknowledged to be the image of happiness and beauty, while all other faces try to approximate to it, even ugly ones succeeding more or less by the aid of hairdressing and fashion; and the only ones that never succeed are those faces born to strange triumphs, those in which the regal and exiled ideal beauty of an earlier age is expressed without compromise. Such faces drift like corpses of earlier desires in the great insubstantiality of love’s whirlwind…

You are in the company of an immensely intelligent, observant and ironical man, a man who has stopped worrying about life or achievement, a man who has realised his own existence is just one more leaf floating in the breeze or in the turbid airs of the huge modern city, and is elegantly amused by the entire charade, up to and including the charade of writing the book itself.

It is characteristic that part one of this epic text is given the very off-hand title, ‘A Sort of Introduction’, and many of the chapter titles are equally languid and ironic. I particularly liked the chapter heading ‘Even a man without qualities has a father with qualities’.

Even when the protagonist is quite badly beaten up, after being mugged, in chapter seven, this only serves as a prompt for yet more urbane reflections about the paradoxes and ironies of human civilisation.

Mankind produces Bibles and guns, tuberculosis and tuberculin. It is democratic but has kings and nobility; it builds churches but universities which educate against the churches; it turns monasteries into barracks, but allots chaplains to the barracks. It provides hooligans with rubber tubing filled with lead to beat a fellow human being’s body black-and blue, but afterwards it has feather beds waiting to receive the solitary, man-handled body, beds such as that enveloping Ulrich at this moment as though it were filled with sheerest respect and consideration. This is the well-known matter of the contradictions, the inconsistency and imperfection of life. One smiles or sighs over it.

‘One smiles or sighs over it.’ Quite so. And the incident is only relevant in the overall narrative because Ulrich staggers to his feet, out into the road and cadges a lift home from a smart lady in a horse-drawn cab who is so impressed by the combination of Ulrich’s beaten-up state and his heady eloquence that she promptly becomes his mistress!

The man without qualities

The protagonist, Ulrich, a thirty-year-old bachelor, has abandoned all thoughts of being a success or making his mark in the ranks of his great nation. Instead, he has decided to take a year’s holiday from the world and from himself – to become an observer of the quirks of modern urban life, and of his own life, which he views with amused detachment.

We are introduced to him in chapter two:

The street in which this minor accident had occurred was one of those long winding rivers of traffic that radiate from their source in the centre of the city and flow through the surrounding districts out into the suburbs. Had the elegant couple followed its course for a while longer they would have seen something that would certainly have appealed to them. It was an eighteenth or even perhaps seventeenth-century garden, still in parts unspoilt; and passing along its wrought-iron railings one caught a glimpse through the trees of a well-kept lawn and beyond it, something like a miniature chateau, hunting-lodge, or pavilion d’amour from times past and gone. More precisely, its original structure was seventeenth-century, the garden and the upper storey had an eighteen-century look, and the facade had been restored and somewhat spoilt in the nineteenth century, so that the whole thing had a faintly bizarre character, like that of a super imposed photograph.

But the general effect was such that people invariably stopped and said: ‘Oh, look!’ And when this pretty little white building had its windows open, one could see into the gentlemanly calm of a scholar’s house where the walls were lined with books.

This house belonged to the Man Without Qualities. He was standing at one of the windows, looking through the delicate filter of the garden’s green air into the brownish street, and for the last ten minutes, watch in hand, he had been counting the cars, carriages, and trams, and the pedestrians’ faces, blurred by distance, all of which filled the network of his gaze with a whirl of hurrying forms. He was estimating the speed, the angle, the dynamic force of masses being propelled past, which drew the eye after them swift as lightning, holding it, letting it go, forcing the attention – for an infinitesimal instant of time – to resist them, to snap off, and then to jump to the next and rush after that.

Smooth and eloquent, isn’t it? Much more enjoyable than Hermann Broch’s tone of strained hysteria, or the thought processes of Alfred Döblin’s brutal, grunting pimps and thieves.

We learn that Ulrich set off in life to be a cavalry officer but, the very first time he was reprimanded (for chatting up the wife of a state official at a ball), he resigned in a huff.

He then trained for a while as an engineer but gave that up and migrated to an interest in pure mathematics. These are given as the reasons why Ulrich likes stopwatches and slide rules and thinks of the city as a set of intersecting vectors and sees everything through a scientific prism.

In other words, the text does feature some passages which give the impression of a ‘modernist’ interest in inserting maths and measurement and a pseudo-scientific view of the world – but not many. Such a relaxed and easy-going text barely needs its own pretexts and explanations. They’re sweet pretexts, but not very compelling

Kakania

The novel is set in 1913, in Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I like the way Ulrich has a nickname for his homeland, Kakania.  Even to its inhabitants the Austro-Hungarian Empire felt like a peculiar and ramshackle institution.

The nickname isn’t as random (or as potty-mouthed) as it seems. Because of the uneasy alliance between Austria and Hungary which formed the basis of the ‘Empire’, its ruler, Franz Joseph, was the Emperor of the Austrians but the King of the Hungarians, the two words in German being kaiser and könig, respectively. This led to the anomaly that many official bodies and servants had to be both imperial and royal, at the same time, or in the appropriate situation.

All in all, how many remarkable things might be said about that vanished Kakania! For instance, it was kaiserlich-königlich (Imperial-Royal) and it was kaiserlich und königlich (Imperial and Royal); one of the two abbreviations, k.k. or k. k., applied to every thing and person, but esoteric lore was nevertheless required in order to be sure of distinguishing which institutions and persons were to be referred to as k.k. and which as k. k.

So the nickname Kakania arises naturally from saying these two ks.

It is just one example of the narrator’s finely honed sense of the absurdity of everything. If the state you live in, the capital city, the language and all its institutions are a little laughable, then surely life is laughable, too.

There, in Kakania, that misunderstood State that has since vanished, which was in so many things a model, though all unacknowledged, there was speed too, of course; but not too much speed. Whenever one thought of that country from some place abroad, the memory that hovered before the eyes was of wide, white, prosperous roads dating from the age of foot travellers and mail-coaches, roads leading in all directions like rivers of established order, streaking the countryside like ribbons of bright military twill, the paper-white arm of government holding the provinces in firm embrace.

And what provinces! There were glaciers and the sea, the Carso and the cornfields of Bohemia, nights by the Adriatic restless with the chirping of cicadas, and Slovakian villages where the smoke rose from the chimneys as from upturned nostrils, the village curled up between two little hills as though the earth had parted its lips to warm its child between them.

Of course cars also drove along those roads – but not too many cars! The conquest of the air had begun here too; but not too intensively. Now and then a ship was sent off to South America or the Far East; but not too often. There was no ambition to have world markets and world power. Here one was in the centre of Europe, at the focal point of the world’s old axes; the words ‘colony’ and ‘overseas’ had the ring of something as yet utterly untried and remote. There was some display of luxury; but it was not, of course, as oversophisticated as that of the French. One went in for sport; but not in madly Anglo-Saxon fashion. One spent tremendous sums on the army; but only just enough to assure one of remaining the second weakest among the great powers.

The problem for me wasn’t that the book is long (very long), it’s that I kept finding myself rereading these long lazy paragraphs for the pure pleasure of the rolling rhythm of the language and the diverting ideas.

Es ist passiert, ‘it just sort of happened’, people said there [in Kakania] when other people in other places thought heaven knows what had occurred. It was a peculiar phrase, not known in this sense to the Germans and with no equivalent in other languages, the very breath of it transforming facts and the bludgeonings of fate into something light as eiderdown, as thought itself.

‘Light as eiderdown, light as thought itself’ – yes, that seems to be the blowing-on-the-wind quality Musil is aiming for.

It all came as a welcome relief from the super-earnestness of Hermann Broch, whose gloomy trilogy, The Sleepwalkers, is designed to pummel into the reader how everything is going to the dogs. On the contrary, Musil’s character humorously concludes that the very notion of ‘everything going to the dogs’ is a trite and easy escape for simpletons who can’t cope with the complexity of the modern world.

In this case, he’s referring to his friend Walter, who everyone expected such high things of, but who is slowly turning into a failure, and was looking for someone or something to blame when he had a brainwave. Of course! Blame the spirit of the times!

But the tangle of clever, stupid, vulgar, and beautiful is precisely in such times so dense and involved that to many people it evidently seems easier to believe in a mystery, for which reason they proclaim the irresistible decline of something or other that defies exact definition and is of a solemn haziness.

It is fundamentally all the same whether this is thought of as the race, or vegetarianism, or the soul, for all that matters, as in the case of every healthy pessimism, is that one should have something inevitable to hold on to… Had it up to then been he who was unfit for work and felt out of sorts? Now it was the time that was out of sorts, and he the healthy one! His life, which had come to nothing, was all at once given a tremendous explanation, a justification, in terms of centuries, that was worthy of him.

Precisely. The decline and fall motif flatters the self-importance of those who expound it. it is not I who have failed – it is these lamentable times. What can a man do?

It’s no coincidence that it’s frustrated Walter who bursts out in the criticism of his old friend Ulrich, which sheds light on the title.

Walter was frustrated. He searched, he wavered. Suddenly he burst out: ‘He is a man without qualities!’
‘What’s that?’ Clarisse asked, with a little laugh.
‘Nothing. That’s just the point – it’s nothing!’
But the expression had aroused Clarisse’s curiosity.
‘There are millions of them nowadays,’ Walter declared. ‘It’s the human type that our time has produced.’ He was pleased with the expression that had so unexpectedly come to him. As though he were beginning a poem, the words drove him forward before he had got the meaning…

Who is Clarisse? Walter’s wife. She married him because everyone said he was a genius and she had a fierce ambition to marry a genius. Now that Walter is turning out not to be a genius, Clarisse is undergoing a crisis, one which the couple’s friend Ulrich is amused to observe, on his occasional visits to their house and on his leisurely strolls with her.

None of this is very earth-shattering, but the characters’ thoughts and feelings and perceptions and opinions of each other are conveyed – in my opinion – with a much lighter and, therefore, much more persuasive touch that Hermann Broch’s attempts to do a similar sort of thing.

Moosbrugger

Alas and alack, however, Musil is a Germanic writer and so he has to include a psychopath in his novel.

I was deeply disappointed when, after a 100 pages of amused insights into ‘modern’ life amid a handful of well-heeled and sophisticated characters, alas and alack, Musil introduces a woman-murderer, the monstrous psychopath Moosbrugger.

The connection is that Ulrich attends the trial of the monster, whose crime (hacking a small, vulnerable prostitute almost to pieces) is sensationally reported in all the newspapers.

Ulrich finds Moosbrugger a fascinating study. And indeed Musil does a very good job of getting inside the mind of a thuggish, uneducated brute, a semi-animal at the mercy of inarticulate desires, not so much for sex, but motivated by an inchoate hatred of the pretty women who always seem to be walking past him in the street, tittering at him behind their hands, mocking him, threatening his sense of stability and self-possession.

And so, we learn that this brute periodically Moosbrugger lashes out (he has, we learn, killed before) not even consciously murdering women, but just trying to get rid of that sense of being followed, mocked and haunted, trying to get rid of the other self which dogs his mind.

Yes, it’s an impressive description of the inside of a low, brutish psychopath but, God, I was disappointed to be turfed back into the same psychological slum described by Hermann Broch in the character of his murderer and rapist Huguenau, or the brutal would-be rapist and murderer Reinhold in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. How these Krauts love their rapists and murderers. Mack the Knife.

The ‘Parallel Campaign’

In the last chapter of this first introductory part, Ulrich receives a letter from his long-suffering father asking him when he is going to pull himself together and get a job.

His father tells him about a plan which has been hatched by senior members of the administration to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the accession of the Emperor Franz Joseph (who became Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, King of Croatia, King of Bohemia, and monarch of many other states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1848 – thus 1818 will mark the 70th year of his reign).

It is nicknamed the Parallel Campaign, because it is in fact copying a German idea (how inevitable, Ulrich ironically reflects) which is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918 (the Kaiser ascended the German throne in 1888).

Ulrich’s father has secured him an interview with the state official planning this celebration and also an introduction to the wife of an influential courtier, who is to play a leading role in organising the social aspects of the celebration.

So the first hundred or so pages of part one turn out to have introduced us to: the central protagonist, Ulrich; some of his small circle of friends, Walter and Clarisse; the ominous figure of Moosbrugger who already, we can guess, acts as a kind of symbol of the dark underbelly of the Empire; to this idea of the Parallel Campaign, which will turn into the central narrative thread of the main central part of the novel – and to the long, leisurely, languid and deeply enjoyable style in which the whole thing is going to be told.

And with Ulrich’s father’s injunction ringing in his ears, part one ends.

Part 1 A sort of introduction, chapter listing

1. Which, remarkably enough, does not get any one anywhere.
2. House and home of the Man Without Qualities
3. Even a man without qualities has a father with qualities
4. If there is such a thing as a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility.
5. Ulrich
6. Leona, or a change of viewpoint
7. In a weak moment Ulrich acquires a new mistress
8. Kakania
9. First of three attempts to become a man of importance
10. The second attempt
11. The most important attempt of all
12. The lady whose love Ulrich won after some talk about sport and mysticism
13. A race-horse of genius contributes to the awareness of being a Man Without Qualities
14. Friends of his youth
15. Intellectual revolution
16. A mysterious disease of the times
17. The effect of a Man Without Qualities on a man with qualities
18. Moosbrugger
19. An admonitory letter and an opportunity to acquire qualities


Related links

Austro-Hungarian literature and history

History

The Good Soldier Švejk

Franz Kafka

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