The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre @ Great Missenden

The museum

The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre is a museum in the village of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, the South of England. Children’s novelist and adult short story writer Roald Dahl lived in the village for 36 years until his death in 1990. During that time he became famous around the world, mostly for his best-selling children’s books although he did write quite a few short stories for adults on very adult themes (witness the two hefty Penguin paperback volumes of the Complete Short Stories).

But it was for children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, Matilda, Danny the Champion of the World and that he became famous. At the peak of his success the local post office delivered 4,000 letters a week from young fans around the world.

After his death, his widow, his wider family, his publishers and better-off fans all agreed it would be good to create some kind of memorial to the great man. However, the house he actually lived in and the garden where he built the famous writing shed which he worked in every day, passed into private hands.

Then in the 2000s a derelict coaching inn and stable complex in Great Missenden High Street came on the market. The Roadl Dahl trustees had the very imaginative idea of buying it and converting it into a child-focused museum, gallery, cafe and interactive space to celebrate Dahl’s life and work and to inspire new generations of storytellers.

The comprehensively refurbished space opened as the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in 2005.

Front of the Roald Dahl Museum (Photo courtesy The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre)

Front of the Roald Dahl Museum (Photo courtesy The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre)

The Museum is aimed at 6 to 12 year-olds and their families. It has three galleries along the side of the attractive cobbled yard, as well as a café and a lunch room for school trips.

Children getting creative in the Roald Dahl museum

Children getting creative in the Roald Dahl Museum

Of the three galleries, ‘Boy’ focuses on the book of the same name which describes Dahl’s boyhood adventures and experiences. ‘Solo’ features his RAF flying days and moves onto his life in Great Missenden, including an evocative recreation of the writing hut Dahl built in the garden of his house, stuffed with the cosy bric-a-brac which made him feel at home.

Inside Roald Dahl's original Writing Hut

Inside Roald Dahl’s original Writing Hut (Photo courtesy The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre)

And there’s a story centre room with crayons and paper etc where children are encouraged to create their own stories, or can gather round on the floor to discuss and share ideas.

From the museum’s bright and colourful displays I learned that:

  • Roald is pronounced Rooo-arl.
  • He was Norwegian, at least his parents were. Roald was born in Wales, in Llandaff outside Cardiff, and sent to a prep school across the Bristol Channel in England, before going on to Repton, a public school in the Midlands.
  • He was unusually tall at 6 foot six. He joined the RAF at the outbreak of the war and his fighter plane cockpit had to be adjusted for him.
The RAF section of the museum

The RAF section of the museum with a model of the kind of fighter plane he flew

He crash landed his plane in the Libyan desert and was lucky to survive. His back gave him trouble for the rest of his life. He continued as an air ace, shooting down enemy planes until invalided out of the RAF in 1941, at which point he was sent to the USA to promote the war effort and persuade America to join. There’s a striking photo of tall handsome uniformed Roald striding next to an overweight, jowly grey-haired Ernest Hemingway.

It was a chance meeting with the adventure novelist C. S. Forester, who suggested Dahl write about his wartime experiences. The result was his first story, retelling the story of his desert crash and introducing the idea that he was shot down, which was published in the Saturday Evening Post.

The rest is the usual story of a writer’s long warfare with publishers and critics, magazines and journals, until he had established himself as a writer of cruel and sardonic short stories.

Very roughly speaking Dahl wrote short stories for adults for 15 years after the war, brought together in collections like Kiss Kiss and Switch Bitch. It was only in 1961 that Dahl published his first ‘novel’ for children, and what a succession of brilliant children’s fictions then poured from his pen!

  • James and the Giant Peach 1961
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 1964
  • Fantastic Mr Fox 1970
  • Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator 1972
  • Danny, the Champion of the World 1975
  • The Enormous Crocodile 1978
  • My Uncle Oswald 1979
  • The Twits 1980
  • George’s Marvellous Medicine 1981
  • The BFG 1982
  • The Witches 1983

I really liked the presentation of all this in the museum. There are blown-up photos, a timeline, models, books and illustrations and notes, it’s all big and bright and attractive and interesting, and all the time there is the voice of Dahl himself reading extracts from relevant books. Thus the first room, Boy, features Dahl reading out descriptions of key incidents and adventures from the book of the same name describing his childhood.

Billy and the Minpins

There’s a small space devoted to changing exhibitions. Currently they’re displaying 14 illustrations by Quentin Blake for Dahl’s last children’s book, Billy and the Minpins. These are, as all of Blake’s illustrations, magical, and beneath each one is displayed the relevant snippet of the original hand-written manuscript of the story in Dahl’s spidery handwriting.

Cover of Billy and the Minpins by Quentin Blake

Cover of Billy and the Minpins by Quentin Blake

The shop

There’s a massive shop, featuring a wide range of merchandise as well as dvds of all the movies made from his books, a wall of wonderful prints of some Quentin Blake illustrations and, for me, most impressive of all, a wall of his books, not only the children’s books but a range of short story collections, including the famous Tales of the Unexpected, televised in the 1980s, as well as the surprising amount of non-fiction which he wrote.

Walks

The shop is a mine of information and the staff are very knowledgeable and happy to answer questions. They also give out free leaflets describing two walks you can do: one is a tour of the village of Great Missenden, taking in places and buildings which feature in the stories; the other is a longer walk across the railway line and up to the nearby woods where Dahl took his own children to play and ramble when they were small.

I went on both walks and describe them in my walking blog. The most striking feature of Great Missenden High Street is probably the beautifully preserved vintage petrol pumps which feature in Danny The Champion of the World.

The petrol pumps in Great Missenden High Street

The petrol pumps in Great Missenden High Street

Set half a mile away from the village, on the side of a hill overlooking the valley of the little River Misbourne is the church of St Peter & St Paul, where Dahl is buried.

Church of St Peter & St Paul, Great Missenden

Church of St Peter & St Paul, Great Missenden

It’s worth mentioning that there’s currently a Chilterns Walking Festival which runs till 1 October, with lots of group walks and other activities taking place all across the region.

Great Missenden is only a 45-minute train journey from Marylebone station and the museum is a simple five-minute walk down the old High Street. What with the village walk and the opportunity for a picnic up in the woods, this makes a wonderful day out for families with small children who love any of Dahl’s books.


Related links

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (p.63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence) which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims, and comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city. The plague just gets worse and worse with Rieux reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary ideas derived from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these come into contact with Dr Rieux, acquaintances who he treats or friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon, Jacques. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t let off till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, but Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this very believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself the Narrator, who explains how he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age, it is he who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s flail or scourge swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. He offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There follow inevitable are dialogues between Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in conversation with Rieux and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. it is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which the narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of tertiary characters like Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates through existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned harpy of Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the injustice of bourgeois society, which stood up for the workers and the humiliated everywhere. But he found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders claimed were necessary to overthrow the regime which carried out executions. Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying all chime perfectly. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois legal world of his father, he has equally walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register of this text – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. A saint without God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He is a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague strikes. When the city is closed he finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers. This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another and primed to be smuggled out of a gate by ‘friendly’ guards only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches. It is the presumably deliberate opposite of Hollywood exciting. Somewhere the narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion is contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-struck Oran, he’s realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the issues of Camus’s time, or of larger issues of justice and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic version of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, he uses his skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by the narrator as precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which the narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them when Grand calls Rieux to tell him he’s found Cottard just as he was hanging himself. They save and restore him. From that point on Cottard is shifty and evades police and the authorities since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in he becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises it is bubonic plague quicker than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally introduced, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague which ultimately declines because it has just worn itself out.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children round town. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a victim he is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising them like this makes it clearer than when actually reading it, how schematic the characters are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity. Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types.

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, is set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist.

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever, pain, the last-minute falling off of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto.

Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus is not a philosopher – although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to the same level as Sartre who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s tribe – and Camus himself is ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus is a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe. ‘Exile’ is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging. He uses the word ‘hope’ to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his other ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’. The medical aspect is medieval. We read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter at around 100 pages each. The Plague is the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The revelation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is arguably more important that the ideas around the Absurd
  3. The horrible long-winded style which makes stretches of it almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post).

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18 year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England where the Church of England is run by nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics. The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God. Politically, the Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free to make your own set of values and decisions derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

A lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something – and now it is lost. In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or exiled by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse. Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals without bursting into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of facts about the world we live, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

All this is prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly existential or atheist worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology. This plucky godlessness only really has meaning be reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. They can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of throats, some foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc — it’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before they can get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity or what have you.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace, before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus. The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his own life and actions – but where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text infested with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are some passages about the Absurd but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. Notions of the law are inextricable interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice. And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and now have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wondered why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and be a member of the Resistance. That would be of huge historic importance and also directly tie his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful. Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels mention the war, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all, with their predominating idea of the injustice of the world.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything, a transparent reference to The Trial.)

Statistical evidence

Because the entire translated text is available online, you can do a word search, with the following results which tend to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

So there is surprisingly little direct reference to the main concepts which made him famous. Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more expressed and discussed.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’. This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from belief systems which give our lives purpose. But it is typical of Camus that it isn’t a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition, which cost 35p.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Camus’s style in The Plague

I don’t understand why critics refer to the lucidity and clarity of Camus’s style; I find it quite the opposite. I think three elements contribute to his turgid and often impenetrable prose.

  1. Lack of interest in telling a conventional story with its use of suspense, character development, detailed descriptions and therefore a style which simply presents action and narrative incident.
  2. This is because Camus is consciously writing ‘philosophical’ fiction, designed to convey ideas and feelings about those ideas, rather than to provide narrative thrills, so that the narrative frequently stops while we listen to the narrator’s long-winded opinions and reflections on the plague.
  3. The translation doesn’t help. On every page there are turns of phrase which an English speaker or writer would never use. (‘A minute or so later Rambert and Rieux were sitting at the back of the doctor’s car.’ (p.168) ‘At’ the back?) On the plus side this helps keep the text feeling a little alien and estranged. On the downside, it often makes passages seem heavy-handed and obtuse.

Long winded 

Here is the narrator reflecting on what would be needed to deal with the plague.

But these extravagant forebodings dwindled in the light of reason. True, the word ‘plague’ had been uttered; true, at this very moment one or two victims were being seized and laid low by the disease. Still, that could stop, or be stopped. It was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized; of dispelling extraneous shadows and doing what needed to be done. Then the plague would come to an end, because it was unthinkable, or, rather, because one thought of it on misleading lines. If, as was most likely, it died out, all would be well. If not, one would know it anyhow for what it was and what steps should be taken for coping with and finally overcoming it. (p.37)

See how long-winded that is. And see how he uses the word ‘lucid’ as if this thinking actually was lucid when in fact it is the opposite – it is woolly, vague and needlessly melodramatic – ‘forebodings’, ‘seized’, ‘shadows’, ‘unthinkable’. Same goes for the frequent use of the word ‘precisely’ which almost always appears in a passage of tortuous obscurity – as if saying something is precise and lucid will make it precise and lucid.

Obtuse

Here is a typical reflection by the narrator:

And, as it so happens, what has yet to be recorded before coming to the culmination, during the period when the plague was gathering all its forces to fling them at the town and lay it waste, is the long, heartrendingly monotonous struggle put up by some obstinate people like Rambert to recover their lost happiness and to balk the plague of that part of themselves which they were ready to defend in the last ditch. This was their way of resisting the bondage closing in upon them, and while their resistance lacked the active virtues of the other, it had (to the narrator’s thinking) its point, and moreover it bore witness, even lit its futility and incoherences, to a salutary pride.

This is almost meaningless. At its core it is saying that Rambert’s determination to escape from the closed city reflects a healthy pride. Takes a long time to do it.

Poetic

Over and again the text creates reflections about the condition of plaguefulness which dwell on the sense of exile, isolation, and then apathy which overcomes the population, reflections which combine poetic phrasing with the never-ceasing search for fossicking distinctions. Possibly this is a characteristic of French fiction which is less evident in English fiction, or of the French essay-writing tradition, this continual definition, redefinition and counter-definition of words.

Now, at least, the position was clear; this calamity was everybody’s business. What with the gunshots echoing at the gates, the punctual thuds of rubber stamps marking the rhythm of lives and deaths, the files and fires, the panics and formalities, all alike were pledged to an ugly but recorded death, and, amidst noxious fumes and the muted clang of ambulances, all of us ate the same sour bread of exile, unconsciously waiting for the same reunion, the same miracle of peace regained. No doubt our love persisted, but in practice it served nothing; it was an inert mass within us, sterile as crime or a life sentence. It had declined on a patience that led nowhere, a dogged expectation. Viewed from this angle, the attitude of some of our fellow citizens resembled that of the long queues one saw outside the food-shops. There was the same resignation, the same long-sufferance, inexhaustible and without illusions. The only difference was that the mental state of the food-seekers would need to be raised to a vastly higher power to make it comparable with the gnawing pain of separation, since this latter came from a hunger fierce to the point of insatiability. In any case, if the reader would have a correct idea of the mood of these exiles, we must conjure up once more those dreary evenings sifting down through a haze of dust and golden light upon the treeless streets filled with teeming crowds of men and women. For, characteristically, the sound that rose toward the terraces still bathed in the last glow of daylight, now that the noises of vehicles and motors, the sole voice of cities in ordinary times, had ceased, was but one vast rumor of low voices and incessant footfalls, the drumming of innumerable soles timed to the eerie whistling of the plague in the sultry air above, the sound of a huge concourse of people marking time, a never ending, stifling drone that, gradually swelling, filled the town from end to end, and evening after evening gave its truest, mournfulest expression to the blind endurance that had ousted love from all our hearts. (p.152)

Impressive, eh? The obvious poetic descriptions are accompanied by a kind of poetic philosophising, a poetry of ideas. Some of the similes are comparisons with natural phenomena but loads of them reach for abstract entities (‘sterile as crime or a life sentence’) which sound incredibly weighty but don’t really bear close examination — or just reach for extreme and hyperbolic expressions – why, for example, are people waiting in a queue ‘without illusions’? Why the introduction of this tremendously heavy-weight philosophical idea?

Because everybody in the text is recast in the light of this pseudo-philosophical discourse. Everyone is acting under the arc lights of Camus’s Absurdist worldview which gives everything a garish, long-shadowed melodramatic feel.

Dramatic dialogue

Sometimes Camus dramatises the characters’ differing views of their plight with the punch and counter-punch you would expect of a playwright, reminding you that he was ‘a man of the theatre’, writing five original plays, adapting five novels for the stage, and himself starring in a number of productions.

Suddenly he realized that Rambert was returning his gaze.
‘You know, doctor, I’ve given a lot of thought to your campaign. And if I’m not with you, I have my reasons. No, I don’t think it’s that I’m afraid to risk my skin again. I took part in the Spanish Civil War.’
‘On which side?’ Tarrou asked.
‘The losing side. But since then I’ve done a bit of thinking.’
‘About what?’
‘Courage. I know now that man is capable of great deeds. But if he isn’t capable of a great emotion, well, he leaves me cold.’
‘One has the idea that he is capable of everything,’ Tarrou remarked.
‘I can’t agree; he’s incapable of suffering for a long time, or being happy for a long time. Which means that he’s incapable of anything really worth while.’ He looked at the two men in turn, then asked: ‘Tell me, Tarrou, are you capable of dying for love?’
‘I couldn’t say, but I hardly think so, as I am now.’
‘You see. But you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.’
Rieux had been watching the journalist attentively. With his eyes still on him he said quietly:
‘Man isn’t an idea, Rambert.’
Rambert sprang off the bed, his face ablaze with passion.
‘Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. And that’s my point; we, mankind, have lost the capacity for love. We must face that fact, doctor. Let’s wait to acquire that capacity or, if really it’s beyond us, wait for the deliverance that will come to each of us anyway, without his playing the hero. Personally, I look no farther.’ (p.136)

You see how this could immediately be staged, in fact change the names and it could fit into his play about ardent revolutionaries, The Just. 

It’s melodramatic, intense and yet, once you stop to think about it… ‘Mankind has lost its capacity to love.’ Hmmm: I don’t think we have, actually.

In sequences like this I can follow the fictional interplay between the characters but it is difficult to get worked up about their actual points of view. They seem factitious, meaning ‘artificially created’, ‘worked up’, ‘contrived’ in order to create drama and conflict where there isn’t really any.

Translatability

A good deal of Camus’s prose consists of pedantically nitpicking between different definitions, in search of rather elusive distinctions. You can’t help wondering how this fine tuning of the definitions of words and ideas can possibly be translated into English, with its completely different sets of connotations.

‘It’s high time it stopped,’ people would say, because in time of calamity the obvious thing is to desire its end, and in fact they wanted it to end. But when making such remarks, we felt none of the passionate yearning or fierce resentment of the early phase; we merely voiced one of the few clear ideas that lingered in the twilight of our minds. The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place
to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was none the less a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence. (p.149)

‘Despondency not to be mistaken for resignation which is nonetheless a particular kind of acquiescence.’

He’s performing a kind of conjuring trick with words and you can’t help wondering how accurately this has been – or could be – translated into a different language.

Commonplace

When it is stripped of the convoluted terminology, Camus’s thought is often quite trite.

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness. (p.110)

You can see why the much cleverer Sartre and de Beauvoir used to read Camus and snigger.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition, which cost 35p.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Fall by Albert Camus (1956)

The plot

A Parisian is on a visit to Amsterdam. One evening he is approached by a stranger in a bar, a fellow Parisian who lives in the Dutch capital. This stranger is a regular in the bar, knows the landlord (who he refers to as ‘the ape’ or ‘the gorilla’) and all the other clientele who, he says, are petty criminals, pimps and thieves. He shares a gin with the visitor and his chat about the locals slowly turns into a bit of background about himself. He used to be a successful lawyer in Paris, quite well known in his field and… Time to go? OK, well, I’ll see you here tomorrow night, maybe…

And so begin a sequence of six (unnumbered) chapters in which the one-time successful Paris lawyer Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells, in unbroken monologue, his story to the unnamed, unspeaking auditor. It is an extremely effective technique. The reader is buttonholed right from the start and slowly, mesmerically, drawn into the lawyer’s story.

Physically strong, tall, handsome, charming, Jean-Baptiste went out of his way to open doors for ladies and help the elderly across the road. He did pro bono work for the poor. He discoursed eloquently at dinner parties and attended plays and the opera. He had a string of mistresses, relishing the challenge of seduction then swiftly forgetting them.

But slowly, as the monologue continues, the initial impression we have of his moral perfection and flawless charm is undermined as we come to realise he was really a monster of egotism. By the middle chapter, where he describes his love affairs, he goes so far as to admit that he wanted all his lovers, but ultimately everyone, to dangle on a string, to be dependent on him, to jump when he requires.

I could live happily only on condition that all the individuals on earth, or the greatest possible number, were turned toward me, eternally in suspense, devoid of independent life and ready to answer my call at any moment, doomed in short to sterility until the day I should deign to favor them. (p.51)

And yet… at the height of his fame, his success and his preening self-congratulations… events happened which began to undermine his confidence. One day he is caught at a red light behind a motor cyclist whose bike stalls as the lights go green. He gets out to remonstrate but is unexpectedly thumped by a passer-by who tells him to stop picking on the poor biker. Dazed, Jean-Baptiste stumbles back into his car and drives off but his amour propre is dented.

On another occasion, one night crossing a bridge in Paris, he hears laughter. Healthy, non-sinister laughter, coming from somewhere, a boat passing, he can’t figure out where but… it unnerves him. Years earlier he had passed, on another Paris bridge, a slender female shape in the lowering rain, had reached the end of the bridge and turned onto the quay when he heard a loud splash and then muffled cries and then… silence.

Eventually (although there is no definite moment; I reread the passage several times and can’t identify any actual incident which causes it) eventually, Jean-Baptiste realises that he has many enemies, many people resent his success; many women hate him, many men are jealous, and they are all sitting on judgement on him.

With typical French hysteria, he thinks ‘the whole universe then began to laugh at me.’ (p.60). And he begins to feel for the first time that he is living a double life, playing a game which he just doesn’t care about any more. He is undermined. He begins to hate his appearance of saintly benevolence. He longs to smack children, let down wheelchairs of the disabled. He shouts abuse at beggars and (this is a comic touch) contemplates writing an Ode to the Police and another in praise of the guillotine. He starts calling on ‘the Lord’ in the court room and insulting people at dinner parties.

In other words, he starts guying the bien-pensant liberals he had previously dazzled with his humanity. He can’t bear their adulation of him. He starts to feel impossibly hypocritical, being a lawyer prosecuting people for crimes much more minor than the ones he knows he wants to commit. He wants to be punished.

Jean-Baptiste decides to abandon the world of men and… throws himself into an orgy of sensualism among women, waking between two prostitutes, having an affair with a singer in a bar, drinking himself senseless on unmade beds in brothels etc.

Despairing of love and of chastity, I at last bethought myself of debauchery, a substitute for love, which quiets the laughter, restores silence, and above all, confers immortality. At a certain degree of lucid intoxication, lying late at night between two prostitutes and drained of all desire, hope ceases to be a torture, you see; the mind dominates the whole past, and the pain of living is over forever. (p.76)

After numerous adventures of the flesh, Jean-Baptiste is on a cruise with his latest mistress when he sees a dark shape on the horizon and turns in fear, his heart palpitating. He thought it was the drowned woman, the suicide, come back to haunt him. (This makes it sound more rational, more comprehensible, than the scene actually is. Truth to tell I couldn’t work out amid the verbiage of aphorisms, what actually happened at any point of this narrative. Something made him realise the falseness of his position in society. And then this further epiphany made him understand he couldn’t run (away from what, isn’t comprehensibly explained).)

The penultimate section transitions rather suddenly to six pages meditating on the purpose of God and the real meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion. I understand this is literature not theology or philosophy and I understand it is a fictional character speaking, so he is entitled to ramble on about whatever he wants to, but at around this point I began to run out of patience. It’s a short enough book, at 108 pages in the Penguin paperback, but even so, by this stage it began to feel padded out with an over-familiar type of pseudo-Christian fustian.

This Christian imagery continues into the sixth and final section where Jean-Baptiste confides in the listener his adventures during the German invasion of France. Since this took place in 1940 we suddenly realise that all the preceding narrative, Jean-Baptiste’s successful career and then flight into debauchery, all this is set in the 1930s. Even though this book wasn’t published till 1956. Wow.

He took part in the retreat from the advancing German army, fled to the southern sector of France and toyed with joining the Resistance but thought it would be pointless. Crossed the sea to Tunisia where he found a job for a while before he and his boss were arrested and he was sent to a prison camp. Here, as a joke, he was elected ‘Pope’ among his little group of prisoners. (There is such a fatal inevitability about these French writers’ addiction to Catholic teaching, ideology, metaphor and culture; they just can’t break free.)

This final section takes place in Jean-Baptiste’s spartan flat in Amsterdam where he’s invited his listener. He isn’t feeling well. He’s stopped reading. In a revelation he opens a cupboard and shows the listener the lost panel of the Van Eyck altarpiece The Adoration of the Lamb. One of the customers at the bar where we first encountered him, had stolen it and given it to the landlord (the ‘gorilla’) in lieu of payment. When Jean-Baptiste saw it he told the landlord just how valuable it was and persuaded him to hand it over for safe-keeping. And so here it is.

The Just Judges by van Eyck (1432)

The Just Judges by van Eyck (1432)

Jean-Baptiste explains the bitter irony. Tourists who go to the cathedral to see the Van Eyck altarpiece file past a copy of this panel. In other words, he knows they are worshiping false judges and that tickles him, being a lawyer with an obsession with judgement, guilt, penitence and all the rest of the Christian fol-de-rol.

In the last ten pages, weak and feverish, from his sick bed, Jean-Baptiste explains to the listener what it means to be a ‘judge-penitent’, the odd title he’s used to refer to himself throughout.

I found it hard to follow this final section. He seems to say we all need God or a master of some kind, and since God has gone out of fashion, it will have to a cruel master. Thus he is in favour of slavery for everyone, as the only form of democracy and the only way we will all get our just deserts.

On the bridges of Paris I, too, learned that I was afraid of freedom. So hurray for the master, whoever he may be, to take the place of heaven’s law. ‘Our Father who art provisionally here … Our guides, our delightfully severe masters, O cruel and beloved leaders …’ In short, you see, the essential is to cease being free and to obey, in repentance, a greater rogue than oneself. When we are all guilty, that will be democracy… Death is solitary, whereas slavery is collective. The others get theirs, too, and at the same time as we – that’s what counts. All together at last, but on our knees and heads bowed. (p.100)

This seems a bit demented to me. Is this meant to be an exploration of the mentality of a fascist? Or of a decrepit old debaucher? Jean-Baptiste goes on to explain that this is why he now spends his time in a low dive in the Amsterdam docks, preaching his beliefs to anyone who will listen and excoriating his life and loves just as he has been to us.

And, he explains, as he describes his own ‘fall’, slowly, during this explanation, the ‘I’ passes to ‘we’, gradually implicating the listener in his crimes, gradually making the auditor realise that he, too, is a hypocrite…

Jean-Baptiste has not, in fact, repented at all. He continues his wicked ways, serving himself and loving others – only now with a lightened heart, lightened by his confession and lightened by implicating, by dragging down, by sitting in judgment on his hearers.

Whenever one of them cracks, after a lot of gin and berating bursts into tears and beats his breast – then Jean-Baptiste feels again that sublime sensation of being above them, on the mountain, breathing freely. Revels in his superiority.

It is night. It is starting to snow over Amsterdam. Jean-Baptiste works himself up into quite a state, raving about being taken up into heaven in a flaming chariot. He is a neglected prophet, he is Elijah in the desert. Then, a little more rationally, he hopes his listener is a policeman who will arrest him for hiding the stolen Van Eyck painting so that he will be prosecuted, sent to prison, maybe executed, his blood sodden head held up in front of the crowd!

I would be decapitated, for instance, and I’d have no more fear of death; I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd, you would hold up my still warm head, so that they could recognize themselves in it and I could again dominate – an exemplar. All would be consummated; I should have brought to a close, unseen and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness and refusing to
come forth. (p.107)

And only now, here on the last page, does his listener reveal that he too is a Paris lawyer. Aha, says Jean-Baptiste, that explains their secret sympathy. Did some woman once throw herself off a bridge as he passed by, did he hear her, did he do nothing and has he been haunted ever since?

And so – is this what the book has been about? Does it all boil down to Jean-Baptiste’s bad conscience about passing that woman who drowned herself? Was his entire psychological collapse, his inability to do his job any more, his sense of being judged by everyone, his flight into debauchery, then to the south, then to Tunisia and then to foggy Amsterdam and into this rather demented persona, into this role of the cackling judge-penitent, and even his mad death wish to be decapitated – is it all caused by his failure to act, to save the young woman? Is all this talk about God and repentance and salvation and Jesus and the rest of it all due to his unbearable guilt for that one failure of nerve?

Maybe to its original readers this came off as a bold and dramatic coup de théâtre, but I felt distinctly underwhelmed.


Commentary

Catholicism and Communism

Camus grew up in a French society where education, culture and society were dominated by the logical precision of Roman Catholicism. During the 1930s there was the steady rise of the French Commuinist Party espousing the supposedly ‘scientific laws’ of Marxist communism. And in the territory between camped out the fashionable existentialist philosophers, led by young Jean-Paul Sartre, the whizz-kid novelist, playwright and critic.

This dichotomy between Catholicism and Communism, both abundant in sweeping generalisations, mythic stories and zany paradoxes (as the works of Graham Greene amply demonstrate) – God, hell, heaven, the revolution, the working class, and so on – provided French writers of his time with a limitless supply of material with which to produce dazzling paradoxes and metaphorical pirouettes.

Whereas in our time, in England, neither the Catholic church nor communism are living presences. Communism has evaporated and there are more practicing Muslims in England than Roman Catholics. We live in different times. And this deadly duo were certainly never as important in English culture as on the Continent.

Thus to read Camus or Sartre is to witness, from the outside, an artist from an essentially alien culture performing tricks with material we don’t really understand or care about. When Jean-Baptiste Clamence makes yet another reference to hell or heaven or God or being damned, I feel as if someone has put great weights on my feet. I find it harder and harder to read on amid these dazzling conjuring tricks played with dead tokens form a defunct religion.

On pages 82 to 87 Jean-Baptiste confides in us what the real purpose of God is and why Jesus really died – hushed confidences breathed by nutcases all over Europe, and the material for hundreds of 20th century authors to concoct text out of.

But you can only write witty and subversive and ‘shocking’ interpretations of God or Jesus if anyone cares about God or Jesus. If no one these days cares about God or Jesus enough to be ‘shocked’ by your subversive interpretations, it is like dead air.

Do you know why he was crucified – the one you are perhaps thinking of at this moment?…  The real reason is that he knew he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of, he had committed others – even though he didn’t know which ones. Did he really not know them? He was at the source, after all; he must have heard of a certain Slaughter of the Innocents. The children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place – why did they die if not because of him? Those blood-spattered soldiers, those infants cut in two filled him with horror… Knowing what he knew, familiar with everything about man – ah, who would have believed that crime consists less in making others die than in not dying oneself! – brought face to face day and night with his innocent crime, he found it too hard for him to hold on and continue. It was better to have done with it, not to defend himself, to die, in order not to be the only one to live… (p.83)

It positively irritates me that both Camus and Sartre are avowed, loud atheists and yet both continue to invoke, at length, the metaphors and language of something they claim doesn’t exist. Their works are full of calls for men to be more consistent and logical but they themselves are howlingly inconsistent with regard to the Christian religion. If there is no God, heaven or hell then stop calling places heaven or hell or referring to God or writing scores of pages about sin and damnation and judgement and redemption and Jesus!

Just listing some of the references to hell in The Fall indicates how central religious metaphors are to this atheist author:

  • Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams.
  • If everyone told all, displayed his true profession and identity, we shouldn’t know which way to turn! Imagine the visiting cards: Dupont, jittery philosopher, or Christian landowner, or adulterous humanist – indeed, there’s a wide choice. But it would be hell! Yes, hell must be like that: streets filled with shop signs and no way of explaining oneself.
  • Do you know Dante? Really? The devil you say! Then you know that Dante accepts the idea of neutral angels in the quarrel between God and Satan. And he puts them in Limbo, a sort of vestibule of his Hell. We are in the vestibule, cher ami.

It’s a kind of cheating. It’s having your cake and eating it. It’s denouncing an entire value system and then using it lock stock and two smoking barrels as key elements of your own value system. But if there is no God, hell, heaven, sin, angels and all the rest of it – then by incorporating these dusty tokens so deeply into his own discourse, Camus condemns his own thought to irrelevance.

How intoxicating to feel like God the Father and to hand out definitive testimonials of bad character and habits. I sit enthroned among my bad angels at the summit of the Dutch heaven and I watch ascending toward me, as they issue from the fogs and the water, the multitude of the Last Judgment.

None of this exists. It is poetic fantasy.

Dubious aphorisms

Jean-Baptiste Clamence has kept the pompous self-importance which characterised his Parisian success, only now he is self-importantly ‘damned’ rather than one of the self-confessed élite. Either way, he is a handy mouthpiece for Camus’s enduring technique of building up his texts out of tiresome and often dubious aphorisms. Camus and his characters just love telling us pithy truths.

  • Each of us tries to show up to advantage, even in solitude.
  • The act of love is a confession. Selfishness screams aloud, vanity shows off, or else true generosity reveals itself.
  • Every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone. (p.42)
  • Martyrs, cher ami, must choose between being forgotten, mocked, or made use of. As for being understood – never! (p.56)
  • People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves. (p.60)
  • We rarely confide in those who are better than ourselves. (p.61)
  • We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good. (p.62)
  • What we call basic truths are simply the ones we discover after all the others. (p.62)

The aphorisms are like attractive flowers which grow out of some pretty murky roots. A lot of the text is persiflage which often don’t really make sense. The best roses grow out of ripe manure. In some places the text consists of a battery of dubious generalisations, one after the other.

But the question is not to remain logical. The question is to slip through and, above all – yes, above all, the question is to elude judgment. I’m not saying to avoid punishment, for punishment without judgment is bearable. It has a name, besides, that guarantees our innocence: it is called misfortune. No, on the contrary, it’s a matter of dodging judgment, of avoiding being forever judged without ever having a sentence pronounced. (p.57)

Like many passages in Camus, I read this and don’t understand it.

Punishment without judgement is bearable.

Really? Is it? Being beaten to death for no reason is bearable? But by ‘punishment without judgement’ he appears to mean ‘misfortune’, bad luck. Is that a workable definition of misfortune – ‘punishment without judgement’? I reread this passage carefully and suspect I am beginning to understand it, but it has been a lot of effort to decode something which seems, well, plain wrong. Is any of what he’s saying in the slightest bit applicable to my life, or even very illuminating?

Entire paragraphs are built up like this from shaky generalisations towards even shakier conclusions. Great swathes of text have the appearance and the sound of fine, rigorous logic – but crumple to dust when you pay real attention or think them through.

Is there any way out? Your successes and happiness are forgiven you only if you generously consent to share them. But to be happy it is essential not to be too concerned with others. Consequently, there is no escape. Happy and judged, or absolved and wretched. (p.59)

I know plenty of people, from mums to social workers to carers to nurses, who are awe-inspiringly ‘concerned with others’ – and this brings them immense happiness. A moment’s reflection shows this generalisation, like so many of Camus’s stylish abstractions, to be false.

Women

So after a process of feeling more and more judged and got-at in the society he formerly dominated, Jean-Baptiste decides to run away. To a desert island? No, there are no more desert islands.

I simply took refuge among women. As you know, they don’t really condemn any weakness; they would be more inclined to try to humiliate or disarm our strength. This is why woman is the reward, not of the warrior, but of the criminal. She is his harbor, his haven; it is in a woman’s bed that he is generally arrested. Is she not all that remains to us of earthly paradise? (p.73)

I imagine feminists would not be too thrilled by this sort of generalisation. But I, a non-feminist, am also offended or just unimpressed.

I suppose it’s worth remembering that Jean-Baptiste is a fictional character and that his thoughts and generalisations are not Camus’s. And that if these aphorisms and apothegms are dubious, that is more a reflection on Jean-Baptiste’s preening character than Camus’s.

Except that Camus’s other books are, just like this one, made out of tessalations of pithy aphorisms. And that many of the quotes you come across from Camus are precisely this kind of wild generalisation, albeit taken out of all character and raised to the level of a general truth.

So much Camus sounds like wisdom, but a strangely redundant, irrelevant and often tiresome wisdom.


Credit

The Fall by Albert Camus was published in France in 1956. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1957, and as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Camus’ books

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime and found among his papers, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49). I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

I’ve decided to discuss the numerous points made in the introductory material and essays in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1). In this blog post I am commenting on the two major fragments of fictional text itself, which are titled A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.


1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

In Iron In the Soul we followed the activities of Mathieu, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, both retreating in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ending up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself volunteering to quit his pack of demoralised men and throw in his lot with a lieutenant and his platoon who arrive in the village having carried out a fighting retreat. Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied them to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. They begin shooting at the Germans, which leads into a fierce firefight, which is ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu was killed.

Not so Brunet. Without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, tough Communist Brunet has also ended up in the same village, where he makes the strategic decision to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising the French prisoners of war into a communist cell. The final part of Iron in the Soul follows Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others; before feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and prisonhood.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet finds himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background – and at key moments points out flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident the descriptions of the camp and the conditions are accurate.

What happens in A Strange Friendship is there is a bunch of new arrivals at the camp and one of them is Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by revealing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was expelled from the Party
b) Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, organising to undermine the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a mouthpiece for the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy). He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over, the USSR will crush Germany, the workers should reject the armistice, the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, the prisoners should consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, the Vichy government is illegitimate, the armistice was treason. (He is, of course, dead wrong – all these things came to pass and be accepted as orthodoxy.) With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a streetwalker for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his ‘guys’ must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the ‘Krauts’, the party should cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and get a foot into the National Assembly again. To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle who is a mouthpiece for British imperialism, and direct the workers towards pacifism (p.63).

Brunet listens, obeys, tries to quell his misgivings, makes himself a servant of the Party. Maybe this is Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the ‘guys’ he has deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with the fact that the ‘guys’ don’t trust him and the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as explored in Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unquavering faith is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to free thought i.e. ruthlessly repress it.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(Worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture after the war.)

And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider. Brunet comes to the latter’s rescue, but the ‘guys’ he interrupts hitting Schneider don’t get it: Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too? In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the guys in the face and the pair slope off, at which point Brunet realises he has burned all his bridges. Now the ‘guys’ belong to Chalais, everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. The Party has decreed he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape and in the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans. As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death. Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.

Commentary

1. I can see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes point out, the official Party line was itself changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, so much had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse. Why write about the arcane disputes ot his increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? And so Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, they all seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all obsessively blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the Communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain. And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koeslter’s fictional recreation of the interrogation of an old Bolshevik in readiness for his show trial, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls dogs. (It is important to remember that the PCF called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.) He prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. Wow.

And this exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’. Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on Brunet who wants to be a loyal Party servant but is aware of the cost to himself and his ‘guys’. I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom etc – as Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic — but refuses, in the end, to give up – insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, once the scaffold was in place.

This text consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose use to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to. Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose. I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section enacts and embodies the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals. Whereas the moments of high delirium Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but there’s

a) no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see is extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape, they are just disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically – after all, the Germans don’t need to do anything: they know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics – the French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted: I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting. Vive la France! Vive la Revolution!


2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

We all thought Mathieu Delarue, the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher, had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul -but no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The segment just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s transferred out into the wider camp. The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed.

As usual, two things happen immediately: Mathieu is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on. And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and was also a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to even perceive themselves as human, become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on. I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things. Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insets, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground og crabs and lobsters. he was fascinated by these prehistorica crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He wasmost certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes Vasey explains that the structure of the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running  his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the guys gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations. The
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagining killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of  his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, he returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. Then gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • It is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is boredom and mild dislike. climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should triumphantly complete the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him. Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu not only ‘became free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked. But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And there this long, fragmented section ends.


American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia. This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie. Worst of all the men or blokes become ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial translation choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the whole reading experience and its continual repetition has the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’
French prisoners of war in 1940

French prisoners of war in 1940


Credit

This edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of related books

Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre (1949)

He felt himself filled with a sense of vast and pointless freedom. (p.92)

349 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition, Iron in The Soul repeats the format of the previous two novels in The Roads To Freedom trilogy by following a set of French characters over a very specific, and short, timeframe connected with the Second World War, in this case right at the end of the Battle of France.

Part one

Part one is 200 pages long, its first chapter has the dateline ‘New York: Saturday 15 June 1940 9am’ and the final chapter is dated ‘Tuesday 18 June 5.45am’. So it covers four days towards the end of the Battle of France.

In part one there is not much of the ‘experimental’ technique Sartre used to such effect in The Reprieve. In that novel I counted some 130 named characters, and the text made a point of cross-cutting unpredictably from one character’s actions and thoughts to another’s, from one scene to another, continually introducing new characters, sometimes just for brief cameos. This made it quite a challenging read but the reward was in the quite wonderful, almost musical, sense of rhythm in the interleaving of episodes, people and their deepest thoughts.

Part one of Iron in the Soul is more traditional, establishing fixed and static scenes and then following characters within them for substantial lengths of text, before starting new chapters or chapter sections to reflect new scenes and characters. Much more clear and comprehensible.

Timeline

Maybe a recap of the historical background would be useful. In spring 1940:

May 10 Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
May 11 British and French forces begin a long line of strategic defenses to defend Belgium
May 12 German General Guderian with his three divisions reaches the Meuse River
May 13 the first German forces emerge from Ardennes onto the Meuse
May 14 German Panzer Corps fifteen and nineteen break through Allied defenses at Sedan allowing German forces to bypass the Maginot line
May 15 German forces push on toward Paris and the English Channel
May 20 General Weygand replaces General Gamelin as Allied commander
May 17-18 Antwerp and Brussels fall to Germany
May 21 Allied forces try to counter attack German forces but are repulsed
May 24 The Luftwaffe bombs Allied defensive positions around Dunkirk
May 25 German forces take Boulogne as more retreating Allied forces reach Dunkirk
May 26 850 British civilian ships and vessels help Allied forces evacuate Dunkirk in the largest military evacuation in history
May 28 King Leopold of Belgium orders his army to surrender to German forces
May 29 around 47,000 British forces are evacuated from Dunkirk
May 30 around 120,000 Allied forces evacuated from Dunkirk
May 31 around 150,000 Allied soldiers arrive in Britain

June 3 The German Luftwaffe bombs Paris
June 4 Allied forces continue evacuation of the coast. In all some 338,326 British and 113,000 French forces are evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain
June 5th Second part of the Battle of France begins with the German striking south from the River Somme
June 9 German forces launch an offensive on Paris
June 10 Norway surrenders to Germany and Italy joins the war by declaring war on France and Great Britain
June 13 Paris is declared an open city by the French government which flees to Bordeaux
June 14 German troops enter Paris
June 16 Marshal Petain becomes Prime Minister of France
June 17 French government asks Germany for armistice terms. Germans cross the river Loire in the west and reach the Swiss frontier in the south-east
June 18 General de Gaulle broadcasts on the BBC telling the people of France to resist
June 22 France signs an armistice with Germany
June 23 Adolf Hitler begins a tour of the captured city of Paris
June 24 The French officially surrender at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918
25 June All hostilities cease. France has fallen

Part one of Iron In the Soul tracks its characters over the four days during which Parisians flee their city before it is taken by the Germans and when retreating Second Tier armed forces are abandoned by their officers and find themselves at a loss what to do. the key characters from the first novel recur:

  • Gomez is in New York scrabbling for a job in the art world.
  • His wife, Sarah, and son Pablo are caught in the huge stream of refugees fleeing Paris.
  • Daniel, the gay banker who married Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, has packed her off and roams the streets of an empty Paris like the last man in the world – until he encounters Philippe, the spoilt youth we met in The Reprieve, and sets about seducing him.
  • Boris Serguine, who we saw join the Army in The Reprieve, was wounded in the fighting but is well enough to go to the apartment of his mistress, the nightclub singer Lola Montero who, however, has been diagnosed with a stomach tumour but can’t bring herself to tell him.
  • We saw Boris’s sister, the prickly Ivich, give herself to a unnamed man in The Reprieve partly as rebellion against her bourgeois parents, partly because she thought war was about to break out and the world end. Nearly two years later, we discover she got pregnant, the man married her, she had a miscarriage, he’s off at the front fighting where, characteristically, she hopes he gets killed.
  • Mathieu’s intolerably pompous self-serving brother, Jacques, a lawyer, forces his wife to pack in a hurry and flee from Paris only to get half way across France and realise he wants to go back, and blames the whole thing on her. She is livid. She goes to sleep in the car dreaming of Mathieu.
  • And the ‘hero’ of the first book – over-sensitive, over-thinking, angst-ridden but ineffectual philosophy tutor Mathieu Delarue?We find him with a platoon of Second string infantry who never saw any fighting. For 200 pages they laze around wondering what to do after their officers have treacherously abandoned them, smoking and getting drunk – until a platoon of Chasseurs arrive who are battle-hardened and disciplined. On a whim – or more accurately, as a result of the incredibly complicated and tortuous meditations about the nature of ‘freedom’ which have filled the previous 800 pages, Mathieu decides to join them, is given a rifle, sent with a squad to be sharp-shooters up a church belfry and when the Germans finally arrive, is involved in a fierce firefight which ends with the belfry being blown up by artillery and Mathieu blazing away till the last minute like a Hollywood hero.

Part two

is significantly different. It took me a few pages to realise that the entire part – all 120 pages – consists of just three paragraphs. With the exception of just two small breaks, these 120 pages make up a solid block of print, with no incidental breaks or indentations. Possibly this is to reflect the subject matter. (Craig Vasey’s introduction to The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV tells me that in the original French there weren’t even the two small breaks: the entire 120 pages consisted of one paragraph; and that all the verbs were in the present tense, something the English translation here rejects.)

The ‘plot’ picks up (with savage irony / comedy  / bleak farce) at exactly the point where Mathieu is killed – for taking refuge in a cellar of a house off the square is his friend and contemporary, the strong, manly Communist Brunet. In The Age of Reason, there’s a passage where Brunet tries to persuade Mathieu to become a communist, but the timid philosopher, as with everything else in his life, hesitates and puts the decision off.

Anyway, Brunet has no idea Mathieu is up in the church tower about to be blown to smithereens. He has his own concerns. he fought bravely, most of his platoon were killed. Now he surrenders to the Germans as they finally take the village. He falls in with a trail of French POWs which grows and grows till it is maybe 10,000 strong, a vast concourse of knackered, defeated, demoralised men stumbling along dusty roads in blinding heat. Finally, they arrive at a disused barracks which has become converted into a POW camp.

Here the French are easily shepherded inside and locked up. The next hundred pages give in great detail the dialogue between a cast of about a dozen peasant and proletarian infantrymen, while Brunet makes his plans to create a Communist cell among them. While they fuss about food and the weather and gossip, Brunet is planning for the future.

In this he is sort of helped by Schneider, a tough, surly man who is not exactly a Communist, but agrees to help him. The spine of the section is the wary dialogue between these two men, with Schneider proving himself both more of a man of the people, and smarter than Brunet in various situations. It is difficult to know what this section is ‘about’. Possibly it is a prolonged examination of the nature of a ‘Communist Activist’, with Brunet given Schneider as a foil to dramatise different approaches to handling men, creating a cell, combating cynicism and fatigue, and so on.

Whatever the precise intention, the overt or political purpose of the section now feels completely redundant, part of a long-lost history. It doesn’t even – as with so much Sartre – lead to any real action, for next to nothing happens to this vast concourse of freed men. After five or six days without food, trucks eventually arrive with soup and bread. One madmen runs amok screaming and the Germans shoot him. For the rest the defeated Frenchmen adopt a holiday mood, sunbathing, playing cards, establishing billets in every available building, nicking stuff, squabbling. Both Brunet and Schneider find it almost impossible to motivate anyone. No Germans of any authority appear. They don’t confront the camp commandant or organise a strike or anything really decisive or dramatic. Instead Brunet and Schneider squabble with each other, and with the dozen or so named characters around them.

In the last of the three sections, the setting jumps a bit to aboard the massive train of cattle trucks in which thousands of POWs have been packed as it rattles north through France. A teeny tiny bit of suspense is given to this passage because the more intelligent among them (i.e. Brunet, Schneider, a few others) are pretty sure they’re being taken to Germany to become slave labour. The section shows the various forms of denial, fear, and panic among the POWs as they wonder which way the train will turn at the fatal set of points which will steer them either further north into France or East across the border. One character, a young printer who Brunet had recruited for his Communist cell, panics, jumps from the train when it slows at a cutting, runs away a little, then panics more and tries to return and catch up – only to be picked off by the German guards and fall dead beside the rails. That’s as dramatic as it gets.

When the train reaches the points they are set East, confirming Brunet and Schneider’s gloomy assumptions. They are heading East to a dark future. The final words are:

Above the dead body, above the inert freight-van, the darkness wheeled. It alone was living. Tomorrow’s dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. Tomorrow the black birds would come. (p.349)


Themes

The futility of life

As to the mood and feel of the text, we are back in bleak Sartre-land where the sunshine is futile, life is pointless, breathing is an effort, and the hyper-sensitive characters are oppressed by life, by other people, by other people looking at them, dammit – and everyone agonises about their ‘freedom’, panting after this mystical chimera without ever quite grasping what this much-abused term actually means.

Gomez, the artist has escaped to New York, where he walks around hating the heat, the sunshine, the big buildings, the streamlined cars, the adverts, the magazines and, everywhere, pictures of happy smiling people – Not to grin is a sin, he thinks bitterly – while ‘over there’ i.e. back in Europe, people are suffering, suffering I tell you! This is intercut with the plight of his wife, Sarah, a Jewess, and small son Pablo, who are caught in a vast traffic jam of refugees fleeing Paris. These are Gomez’s thoughts:

He looked at the street, at the meaningless sun, at the whole meaningless day. There would be nothing now, any more, but meaningless days. (p.9)

These are Sarah’s thoughts:

We are no more than the feet of an interminable insect. Why walk when hope is dead? Why live? (p.25)

Sartre’s novels could almost be designed to validate teenage depressives’ most suicidal thoughts and, above all, to make the depressive feel special, superior to what Gomez calls the ‘human tide’ of people in New York with their ‘bright dead eyes’, and Sarah’s description of the refugees as ‘insects’ (a favourite insult term of Sartre’s; he memorably describes Hitler as having an insect face; Mathieu looks down from the church tower on the villagers like ‘frightened ants’; Lola feels that Boris while screwing her is like an insect, when the Germans arrive in the village Mathieu feels they have ‘the eyes of supermen and insects’, p.212).

Everyone else is an insect, or an inane grinning American with dead eyes, part of the machine, part of the bourgeoisie – I, I alone, suffer – look how I suffer – look how special I am!

Suicide

Both The Age of Reason and The Reprieve contain extended sequences describing the thoughts and sensations, the hyper self-awareness, of two men on the brink of committing suicide – Daniel with a razor and Mathieu jumping into the Seine, respectively. Having tried to kill myself, I can vouch for the exquisite sense of self-pity you feel at such a moment, looking at your doomed hands, your tragic face in the mirror, afflicted by sentimental thoughts that this is the last time you’ll look at your face, the last time you’ll turn out the bedroom light (or whatever), after you slash your wrists, take an overdose etc.

So, Ivich invites her brother, Boris, to join her in a suicide pact (p.72) though she isn’t really a serious character, just a spoilt wilful girl. Daniel comes across Philippe, the spoilt son of bourgeois parents, hesitating on the brink of the Seine, trying to nerve himself to throw himself in. Various other characters – for example Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, who is secretly in love with him – think they can’t go on, life is so damn pointless. What’s the point?

In Sartre’s novels, death, and suicide, are all around us. Describing the plot to my son he said, ‘sounds like teenage angst on steroids’.

Rootless, directionless, abandoned

What these people need is a sound spanking (as Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, memorably puts it). Or maybe just the support of a loving family, a job, some stability, something to focus their energy on. But their characters are all carefully chosen to be bohemian types, drifters, people without settled jobs or any real family commitments. Sartre selects a group of people with very few responsibilities and who we never see doing a single day’s work in their lives – thus allowing them all to give vent to maximum feelings of alienation and anomie, thus permitting them all to have lengthy and repetitive soliloquies about the pointlessness of life, about their feelings of abandonment.

As a married father of two, I see both marriage and especially fatherhood, as extremely demanding, responsible roles. Significantly, none of Sartre’s characters are married or have children in the traditional manner –

  • Gomez is married but has dumped Sarah and his son to run away and fight in Spain, then flee to America.
  • Daniel only married Marcelle as an existential dare, in reality he hates her and can’t wait to get away from her.
  • Boris is going out with Lola the singer, but routinely hates her, and in fact dumps her for the army.
  • Ivich got married to Georges after he got her pregnant but, inevitably, hates him, and hopes he’s killed in the fighting (p.66). Ivich loathes her in-laws, and she ‘detests’ the French (p.68), but then she hates more or less everyone.
  • Sarah looks at her crying son and realises she hates him (p.25).
  • The villagers hate the French soldiers who’ve been billeted on them (p.97).
  • Mathieu realises he hates his drunken comrades (p.132).
  • Philippe tells Daniel that he hates his step-father, the general (p.149).
  • Pinette’s girlfriend hates Mathieu (p.157)

In fact, most of the characters hate most of the other characters most of the time. Do all French people hate all other French people? Would explain their surliness.

So if you’re a drifter without a proper job, without any family ties or support, who hates everyone and despises bourgeois society, this is how you will end up feeling: full of despair and anomie. It’s hardly rocket science.

Alone

It is a key axiom of existentialism that every individual is alone, completely alone, and condemned to complete freedom. We are not hemmed in or supported by social structures or traditions or morality, for we choose whether or not to accept those: to blame society or others in any way for any of our acts is bad faith, is a denial of our utter freedom.

But Sartre’s philosophy of life – or his melodramatic poetry about the horror of existence – all begins in this primal, fundamental sense of your complete solitude, the basic feeling of alienation from others, from your fellow soldiers, or your family, from everyone else in the bar or cafe or nightclub, some sudden feeling of your complete aloneness in the face of an utterly indifferent universe.

This is the moment in the characters’ lives which the text keeps returning to like a moth to a flame.

  • He shivered. He felt suddenly naked and alone, a man, I. (p.102)
  • No one needs me. he sat down on the edge of the road because there was nowhere for him to go. Night entered into him through mouth and eyes, through nose and ears. He was no one now; he was nothing – nothing any longer but misery and darkness. (p.162)
  • Mathieu saw the smile and felt utterly alone. (p178)
  • She felt lost in a world of which she could make no use. (p.191) [Odette]
  • She thought: ‘I am alone.’.. He speaks to me and kisses me, but when I come to die I shall be alone… (pp.205-6) [Lola]
  • Where are the Comrades? Brunet felt lonely. Never, in all the past ten years, had he felt so utterly alone. (p.239)
  • [When the French prisoners of war arrive in a huge fences barracks] They were going to bury their filthy old war among these high buildings, were going to stew in their own juice, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone. (p.241)

Even sex doesn’t unify people, it merely emphasises their inescapable isolation. There are two memorable acts of sex in the book and both of them emphasise the essential loneliness of the male protagonist: first the peasant Pinette screwing the post office girl he’s picked up in a field outside the village where Mathieu and the other soldiers are mooching about; then handsome young Boris making love to Lola the ageing singer. Lola has discovered she has a tumour of the belly and/or the menopause, both of which conspire to make sex very painful, but not as painful as the self-image she has, loathing her dry husk of a body and thinking of Boris as a repellent insect squirting her with sticky fluid. Lots of disgusting, viscous fluids in Sartre.

It is through a wound that you will enter me. When he used to touch me in the old days, I became like velvet: now, my body is like dried earth: I crack and crumble under his fingers… He rent her to the roots of her belly, he was moving in her belly like a knife. On his face was a look of loneliness, of morbid concentration. She saw him as an insect, as a fly climbing up a window-pane climbing, falling, climbing again. She was conscious only of the pain he was causing her… (p.204)

No, not even sex is an escape from the ubiquitous sense of aloneness, of abandonment, which Sartre sees as the permanent basis of the human condition.

In the climaxes of the two parts, the male protagonist is invincibly alone. Mathieu, wounded, and the only survivor of an artillery shell which has brought the roof of the church tower down on all his comrades, struggles to continue shooting for just a few seconds more before being obliterated. In those moments:

He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free. (p.225)

On the last page of part two, after the little printer has been shot dead and the train moves mechanically onwards.

Brunet was alone, rigid and uncomfortable. (p.349)

It is an oddity than a man so obsessed with the fundamental and irreducible aloneness of each human being became a Marxist, devoted to the idea of international solidarity. And that a man so obsessed with man’s terrifyingly absolute freedom, adopted the Marxist worldview which is characterised by the inevitability of History, that Marx had uncovered scientific laws of History which dictated that a Communist revolution was inevitable i.e that at some deep level human beings are not free. I leave this to the scholars to disentangle: it would certainly be good to reach a better understanding.

Science fiction states of mind

Not much happens in a Sartre novel. Page after page is filled either with lengthy dialogue between its ineffectual characters, or with even lengthier descriptions of their feelings of abandonment and futility. The firefight at the climax of part one, and the death of the printer at the climax of part two, are very much the exceptions which prove the rule. They are more or less the only bits of ‘action’ in the entire trilogy.

Every page features descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, lengthy internal monologues but these are not as they would be in a comparable English novel. The distinctive and unnerving feature of them is the extent to which they develop into often almost delirious hallucinations of the world around them, with objects coming alive, with great abstract ideas entering the sky or room or drowning them, with parts of their bodies becoming external objects (arms and particularly hands often seem to their owners to have become alien objects). Here is Mathieu in the bell tower of the village church.

Under their feet was the fragrance of spices and incense, coolness, and the stained-glass windows feebly shining in the shadows of the Faith. Under their feet was confidence and hope. He felt cold. He looked at the sky, breathed the sky, thought with the sky. He was naked on a glacier at a great height. Far below him lay his childhood. (p.200)

In a proliferating multitude of ways, the world around Sartre’s characters, including their own bodies, including their own ideas and sensations, come alive, infuse their thoughts, colour the sky, invade the world.

The effect is often bizarre, surreal or even druggy. ‘He thought with the sky.’

And very often these hallucinations go one step further by infusing these trippy states of consciousness with poetic renderings of grand abstract concepts like Death or Defeat or Despair. Characters frequently become dead men, anticipating their death (by suicide or in battle), realise that they are a dead man walking or thinking. Or death invades whole scenes, the huge vista of prisoners of war becomes a sea of the dead (to Brunet’s eye) or Paris becomes a vast tomb (in Daniel’s imagination), and so on.

Thus Daniel wandering the empty streets of Paris experiences what amount to such intense imaginative transports that they are effectively hallucinations. n a memorable simile the Boulevard St Michel becomes a vast beached whale. In fact, it was while reading the Daniel-wanders-round-empty-Paris section that it suddenly struck me that a lot of Sartre’s scenes have the feel of science fiction.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, was silence and emptiness, an abyss stretching horizontally away from him… The streets led nowhere. Without human life, they all looked alike. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, but yesterday a long southward spread of gold, seemed now like a stranded whale, belly upwards. He made his feet ring out upon the great, sodden, hollow carcass. (p.93)

This scene suddenly reminded me of all those science fiction novels in which a man finds himself more or less the only survivor of a disaster, a great plague or nuclear apocalypse.

Anyway, the passage quoted above could be categorised as a Level One hallucination, one which is still a metaphor of a recognisable state. But (as noted above) routinely Sartre’s characters progress to Level Two hallucinations in which the ‘reality’ around them becomes infused with great Abstract Concepts.

He looked at the empty bridge, at the padlocked bookboxes on the quay, at the clock-face that had no hands… A shadow slipped past the Prefecture of Police…Paris was not, strictly speaking, empty. It was peopled by little broken scraps of time that sprang here and there to life, to be almost immediately reabsorbed again into this radiance of eternity. (p.91)

‘Scraps of time reabsorbed into this radiance of eternity.’ This is a kind of philosophical prose poetry, in that it invokes ‘deep’ ideas, but without any systematic application, merely for effect. It is a kind of pseudo-philosophical lyricism for its own sake.

I am here. Time, with its great fanning future, collapsed. All that was left was a tiny flickering patch of local moments. (p.108)

Suddenly this visionary quality reminded me of the prose of the great psychological sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard. In the 1960s Ballard famously rejected ‘space opera’, the whole sci-fi tradition of rockets going to outer space, aliens and death rays – in order to concentrate on weird mental states achieved here on decaying planet earth. His characters wander landscapes of entropy and decay littered with empty swimming pools, abandoned motels, are attracted to car crashes or go schizo in high-rise buildings. They explore the altered states of inner space. Like Sartre’s.

All about him was once more swallowed in a planetary silence. He must walk, walk unceasingly, over the surface of a cooling planet. (p.134)

Reading Daniel’s visions of abandoned Paris I suddenly saw the surprising similarity between Ballard’s psychological explorations and the many many passages in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels which obsessively depict mental states of hallucinatory intensity – not for any philosophic or propagandistic purpose, well, OK, partly to promote the feel of his existentialist world-view — but much more for their weirdness, to bring out the strangeness of what it’s like to be the animal who thinks, the animal with self-consciousness, the animal lost in the fever of its own compulsive hallucinations. Here’s Mathieu among his soldiers hanging round the village waiting for something to happen.

We are a vermin’s dream: our thoughts are becoming muddied, are becoming less and less human: thoughts, hairy and clawed, were scurrying around, jumping from head to head; the vermin was on the point of waking up. (p.102)

At which point it dawned on me that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom, the so-called existentialist philosophy, is maybe a rationalisation, an attempt to give a structure and a meaning to what in fact, in the fiction, on the page, comes over as an unstoppable torrent of weird hallucinations.

His mind felt completely empty. He was dead: the afternoon was bleached and dead. It was a tomb. (p.76)

Mathieu is not at all dead as he thinks this, just like none of the other characters who let thoughts of death and the dead ceaselessly invade their thoughts are actually dead. But then maybe ‘think’ is the wrong word. Maybe it would be better to say that this is a poetic description of an intense feeling which is passing through Mathieu’ consciousness. Mathieu is merely the vessel for these delirious psychological states.

All Sartre’s characters are. They are channels for Sartre’s uncontrollable gush of weird mental states. One of the soldiers hanging round with Mathieu begins to tell the others the armistice with Germany has been signed, but hesitates… and suddenly they all grasp the dreadful truth without having to be told.

A dazzle off steel, then silence. The blue, flabby flesh of the afternoon had taken eternity like the sweep of a scythe. Not a sound, not a breath of air. Time had become frozen; the war had withdrawn… (p76)

Is hallucination the right word for this kind of writing? Sometimes. Other times it’s just a peculiar, a very distinctive, way of conceiving human beings and human consciousness, in which ‘thought’ is perceived as an almost organic process and – this being Sartre – generally a revoltingly nauseating one involving slime.

At one moment he was just an emptiness filled with vague forebodings, at another, he became just like everyone else. His forebodings faded; the general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth… (p.97)

The vermin eyes had ostracised him, were looking up at him with an air of astonished solemnity, as though they were seeing him for the first time, as though they were looking up at him through layers of slime. (p.102)

The fact that the French prisoners of war are made to trudge through the heat for hours before reaching the camp, and then aren’t fed for five days gives Sartre the opportunity to let rip with the altered states caused by starvation and dehydration. For an extended sequence Brunet passes into a delirium somewhere between dreams and hallucinations. For example, he imagines all the soldiers are chimpanzees.

There were chimpanzees in the next cage, pressing inquisitive faces to the bars. They had sad and wrinkled eyes. Monkeys have sadder eyes than any animals except man. Something had happened, he wondered what. A catastrophe. What catastrophe? Perhaps the sun had gone cold? (p.274)

Note, again, the tinge of apocalyptic science fiction.

In fact this long second part is a strange mixture of very realistic slangy chat between rough Frenchmen, arguing, crying, going mad, blaming their officers, squabbling, cadging fags etc – and passages of quite stunning prose poetry. Sartre’s philosophy I leave to the experts on Husserl and Heidegger to nail down; it belongs to the European tradition which is difficult for us Anglo-Saxons to really understand.

But for me the revelation of these books is the surprising amount of purple prose and lyricism they contain, the extent to which they are truly writerly. As a last example, imagine a huge prisoner of war camp with thousands of dusty, downcast men lying, squatting, standing, leaning about everywhere, as far as the eye can see. And then:

The airplane passed overhead with a shattering din. The crowded faces lowered, then upturned, passed from black to white, like a field suddenly bursting into flower: in place of hard, black heads, thousands of camelias broke into blossom. Spectacles glittered like scraps of glass in a garden bed. (p.243)

There are lots of passages like this. Whereas his analyses of the political situation have passed into dusty history and his existentialist philosophy may or may not still have adherents – the vibrancy, the unexpected imaginativeness and continual weirdness of Sartre’s continues to haunts with its strange power.


Credit

La mort dans l’âme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1949. This translation is not by the translator of the first two in the trilogy, Eric Sutton, but by Gerard Hopkins. It was published as Iron In The Soul by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Iron In The Soul was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All references are to the 1967 Penguin paperback reprint, which cost the princely sum of five shillings (25p).

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

The room was filled with stale heat which had spent its force outside, and left its radiance in the folds of the curtain, and was stagnating there, inert and ominous like a human destiny. (p.66)

Sartre was one of great cultural icons of the mid-twentieth century, the popular face of French existentialist philosophy which he wrote about in countless essays, articles, books and plays, and summarised in his epic and impenetrable treatise, Being and Nothingness.

Most people prefer to sip their Sartre-lite via his half dozen plays (including Huis Close with its famous line ‘Hell is other people’), his début novel Nausea, or the Roads To Freedom trilogy, three novels about France just before World War Two – The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Iron In The Soul.

The Age of Reason

The Age of Reason is the first of the trilogy, a third-person narrative set in Paris in 1938 which focuses on two days in the life of Mathieu Delarue (French for ‘of the street’). Mathieu is a 34-year-old, tall, gangly philosophy teacher who spends a lot of time mooching round the streets of Paris feeling sorry for himself. He has a sickly lover, Marcelle, who has just announced she’s pregnant and so Mathieu immediately decides she must have an abortion. He visits his fat placid friend Sarah to ask her help, watched by the aloof Brunet, a committed communist and old friend. Slowly Mathieu realises the cheap abortionists he had been considering (400 Francs) risk seriously injuring Marcelle; Sarah knows a high class abortionist, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, but he charges 4,000 Frances – where on earth can Mathieu get that kind of money?

Mathieu asks his sleek gay friend Daniel for the money. Daniel has it but maliciously refuses. He visits his older brother, Jacques, a successful lawyer, who reads him a lecture about his bohemian lifestyle and says he’ll give him 10,000 Francs if he’ll marry Marcelle. Mathieu refuses. He wants to stay free. He is obsessed with his freedom to do and be. Jacque says he is being childish, he is refusing to grow up – he has now reached the age of reason and he must choose to be an adult, to settle down, to marry, to accept that he has a nice government job (as a tenured professor at the Lycée Buffon) a nice government pension and a nice obliging mistress: in what way is he any kind of rebel or non-conformist?

While he ponders these ‘moral’ quandaries Mathieu hangs out with Ivich, kid sister of Boris Serguine, one of his pupils. Ivich is plain and prickly but Mathieu finds himself making a pass at her in a taxi on the way to an art exhibition. Bad mistake. She is prickly and resentful for the rest of the book.

Boris, meanwhile, is having an affair with Lola Montero, the ageing (well, 40 makes her ageing in this book) nightclub singer. He likes the way her face and body are wrinkled, he likes her ‘experience’, whereas she rather more straightforwardly likes having a young lover – it makes her feel young; she tells Mathieu that Boris is her ‘last chance’. If Boris left she would throw herself in the river (p.37). All the characters are like that – hysterical.

Boris like all the other characters doesn’t appear to have a job and is oppressed by his own ‘freedom’ – which some among us might relabel his lack of a job, a career or any responsibilities. So he’s invented a pastime of shoplifting, to give himself a heady sense of ‘being in the moment’.

Meanwhile, we have several long sections devoted to the sleek, plausible homosexual Daniel Sereno. First of all he elaborately packs up his three cats into a basket, takes a succession of trams across town to the Seine and gets as far as tying a paving stone to a string and to the basket, preparing to drown them – for no particular reason, out of motiveless malice – when he realises he can’t go through with it, cuts the string and retraces his step to his apartment.

Later there’s a description of Daniel going to a covered amusement arcade to watch young toughs hanging around waiting to be picked up by gay cruisers. He is filled with contempt and longing for both types. He eyes a sleek 50-year-old man picking up one of the toughs and is boiling over with hatred and self-loathing, when he is himself unexpectedly accosted by a young catamite he got a job at a chemist’s shop. The lad has lost the job and now wants some money. The 50-year-old observes all this and gives Daniel a wink of complicity as he walks by. Daniel is revolted with himself, with the world.

The most frequent word in the text (apart from ‘the’ and ‘and’) is ‘disgust’. All the characters are disgusted with their lovers, with sex, with Paris, with life, but most of all with themselves. The whole novel is an orgy of self-conscious self-loathing.

Mathieu handed her [Lola] the bag: she took a powder-box out of it, and eyed her face with disgust. (p.210)

In a long sequence towards the end of the book Mathieu drops in on a nightclub to meet Boris and Ivich and watch Lola sing. All four characters go through flashes of loathing and hating each other, but also need each other. Boris tries to touch Lola for the money he knows Mathieu needs but makes up a clumsy cover story and causes a big argument with the singer. He loathes her. She hates him. Etc.

Meanwhile, left at the table together, Ivich and Mathieu spend some time loathing each other – why on earth did he kiss such a plain pasty prickly young woman, thinks Mathieu. Ivich is on edge because she’s certain she’ll fail her exams and be forced to return to her parents’ smotheringly bourgeois home in provincial Laon. Boris had bought a large clasp knife and on a whim Ivich uses it to cut a deep slash right across her palm. Not to be outdone Mathieu lets the knife drop point-downwards into his own palm. It pins his hand to the table beneath. When Lola and Borins come back from their argumentative dance it is to find Ivich and Mathieu bleeding badly and linked by a new complicity. The waiter takes them to the cloakroom attendant who patches them up.

Next morning Mathieu meets Ivich at the Dome cafe and they start drinking to get rid of their hangovers, when Boris appears completely dazed. Lola is dead. They went back to her apartment, she took some more drugs (she snorts heroin) and in the morning was cold, still, with her eyes open. Boris begs Mathieu to go to Lola’s apartment and retrieve his bundle of love letters from her suitcase. Mathieu does so partly to impress Ivich and when he is there, in the darkness of the death room, comes across the bundles of thousands of Francs which Lola has been saving for years. All he need do is take 4,000 and he will have the fee for the high class abortion and ensure Marcelle’s well-being. But stupid scruples prevent him – he drops the notes back in the case and is half way across the room when Lola calls out.

She is not dead at all! This was a genuinely dramatic moment, a Grand Guignol moment, and I was as surprised as Mathieu. Turns out Lola was in a drug-induced fugue and now she slowly stirs and recovers.  Recovering from his surprise, Mathieu makes sure she is alright and returns to Boris and Ivich at the café. Here, Boris refuses to believe that Lola is still alive; and, when Mathieu finally persuades him, Boris refuses to accept it. To him Lola is dead; he has got used to it, he had moved on. He doesn’t want to go back to her, to the woman he thought was a corpse.

Meanwhile, in another strand of the plot, it turns out that the sleek homosexual Daniel has been visiting Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, for some time, unbeknown to Mathieu. Daniel is revolted by her (‘He despised Marcelle profoundly’, p.89) but also fascinated by her as a specimen. When Mathieu comes to him to ask for a loan of 4,000 Francs, Daniel wickedly conceives a plan to persuade Marcelle to admit to herself that she wants to keep the baby – and to make her say this to Mathieu – and thus to force Mathieu into having to marry her. The thought of manipulating his ‘friend’ amuses the cynical Daniel (‘When Mathieu adopted a Quakerish attitude, Daniel hated him’, p.94).

Towards the end of the story, Mathieu sneaks back into Lola’s apartment with the key Boris gave him and this time does steal 4,000 of her Francs. He goes to Marcelle’s flat and now finds her strangely attractive and solicitous. (What he doesn’t realise is that Marcelle has been led on by Daniel to believe that Mathieu would propose to her.) When he does nothing of the sort but instead proudly brandishes the money for the abortion, Marcelle’s face falls, she is ashen, she says, ‘So that’s what you think of me’. Mathieu tries to make the situation better, but then, finally, admits – he doesn’t love her any more.

They part. Mathieu goes back to his apartment, where in fact he’d left Ivich sobering up after getting paralytic at lunch time after she’d learned she’d failed her exams and would be sent back to her wretched bourgeois home in the country. The two of them are struggling with whether they love or hate each other, when Lola storms in clutching a bag which probably contains a gun.

On the verge of hysterics, Lola accuses Boris of stealing the 4,000 Francs from her. Mathieu persuades Lola to let the terrified Ivich depart and then confesses that he, Mathieu, stole the money. Around about here it struck me that all these characters are French; maybe that’s why they all hysterically over-react to everything.

He felt ridiculous and detestable… He felt absolutely alone… He felt as though he were plunged in a sinister and preposterous nightmare… Her eyes were glittering with impotent hatred… He saw the back of that tall black figure moving with the blind momentum of catastrophe… ‘I’m even more disgusted with myself…’ Daniel filled him with horror… He was alone… ‘You hate me’ …

Lola is still shrieking her accusations when Daniel dramatically enters stage right, and proffers her an envelope containing the very same amount of bank notes she’s shrieking that Mathieu stole from her. It seems that he visited Marcelle soon after Mathieu left, she gave them the money to give back to Mathieu, and he has stumbled upon this ridiculous scene. Daniel hands the money to Lola. Voilà!

(Some of the writing feels like it’s from a pulp novel. The hysterical over-reacting to everything feels like an Edgar Allen Poe short story. Stripped of the relentless nihilism, it is, in fact, a bedroom farce. Mathieu should be played by Brian Rix.)

Lola is eventually pacified and stumbles off wailingly asking why Boris won’t come back to her.

Once alone with Mathieu, Daniel announces with a flourish that he is going to marry Marcelle. They are going to keep the baby. Mathieu feels like fainting. Daniel goes one step further and reveals to Mathieu that he is gay. What? They both need a drink and broach Mathieu’s bottle of rum. Gay? And going to marry Marcelle? Eh bien – Mathieu, the author and the reader all give a deep Gallic shrug – pourquois pas?


Disgust and loathing

As you can see there’s a fair bit of toing and froing among this cast of deadbeats and losers, but the ‘plot’ is mostly beside the point. The purpose of the novel is to show the Sartrean worldview through six or seven glutinously imagined characters – and that worldview is one of gloomy despair, morbid fear of getting old, of disgust at other people’s decaying, wrinkled, smelly bodies, revulsion at your own physical existence, and a pervasive, sickly hyper-sensitive self-awareness.

The characters ‘suddenly feeling old’, like they do in so many middle-class novels, is trite enough:

  • Good Lord she’s getting old (p.14)
  • ‘I’m getting old. Here I am, lounging in a chair and believing in nothing…’ (p.48)
  • She had suddenly aged. (p.275)

And white bourgeois fictional characters feeling ashamed of their bodies is fairly commonplace. Mathieu is continually oppressed by his sense of his own body, ugly and lank:

  • … a tall and naked figure, moulded out of dough (p.43).
  • Mathieu felt uneasily obtrusive: a heap of refuse against a wall. (p.72)
  • Mathieu made a gesture of disgust. (p.100)

It’s a little unusual that all the characters are consumed with disgust.

  • She disliked her body. (p.68)
  • Daniel envisaged himself with disgust. (p.85)
  • Daniel eyed him with disgust. (p.132)
  • ‘She revolts me.’ (Boris on Lola, p.213)

But the universal revulsion at the physical, at being human, is an incessant chorus of dismay and revulsion which envelops the whole book, gushing forth on every single one of the 300 pages. One strand is Mathieu’s dislike (and fear) of children:

  • Mathieu felt uneasy, without quite knowing why. He had the sense of being engulfed by the child’s eyes. ‘Children are greedy little devils,’ he thought, ‘all their senses are mouths.’ (p.43)
  • He looked at the child and he looked at the fly. A child. A bit of thinking flesh that screams and bleeds when it is killed. (p.44)
  • A child: another consciousness, a little centre-point of light that would flutter round and round, dashing against the walls, and never be able to escape. (p.46)

But this fear of the physical reaches orgasms of revulsion in Mathieu’s revolting imagining of a) sex b) of the little blister of flesh, the foetus growing inside his mistress’s heavy, smelly pink body, and c) how it will be pricked, slashed and sucked out in the abortion.

  • And what about the others? Those who have solemnly decided to become fathers, and feel progenitively inclined when they look at their wives’ bodies – do they understand any more than I do? They go blindly on – three flicks of a duck’s tail. What follows is a gelatinous job done in a dark room, like photography. (p.21)
  • In a pink room within a female body, there was a blister, growing larger… There was no time to lose, for the blister was expanding at that very moment: it was making obscure efforts to emerge, to extricate itself from the darkness, and growing into something like that, a little pallid, flabby object that clung to the world and sucked its sap. (p.44)
  • And she thought: ‘It’s there’. In that belly a little strawberry of blood was making haste to live, with a sort of guileless urgency, a besotted little strawberry, not even yet an animal, soon to be scarped out of existence by a knife. (p.69)

Unpleasant enough, but the text goes way beyond a universal physical revulsion into metaphysical disgust. Consciousness itself is seen as an impossible heavy, wearing, and disgusting phenomenon. It starts with his dislike of children, progresses through his disgust at the growing foetus, and spreads like a stain into a helpless horror at the sheer disgustingness of being alive, at being conscious, at having:

An absurd, superfluous life… (p.70)

Walking down the street is a trial for several of the characters: the heat, the sunlight, the other people, the noise threatens to overwhelm and drown them, to flood and erase their sense of self.

His solitude was so complete, beneath a lovely sky as mellow and serene as a good conscience, amid that busy throng, that he was amazed at his own existence: he must be somebody else’s nightmare, and whoever it was would certainly awaken soon. (p.150)

And this morbid self-consciousness reaches new heights in a disgust at being seen. It is bad enough to be a consciousness trapped inside a revolting body: but in some sense other people trap you in their gaze. You become an object for others, with no escape from their controlling gaze. Thus, when Mathieu leaves the pink prison of Marcelle’s bedroom he is so oppressed by the sense that she is still imagining him, that he feels he is still there – he has to go out of his way into a bar and chat to the staff and customers solely in order to exist for someone else.

He felt the need of being seen. Just of being seen. (p.19)

Boris is similarly self-conscious. In the nightclub he feels Lola’s scrutiny as a physical sensation.

He had a pain in his right side as a consequence of being looked at. (p.24)

This is one aspect of Sartre’s existential philosophy: the aspect he called being-for-others, the external objective side of ourselves which is permanently on display, unfree, trapped. On the other hand it can sometimes restore us to a sense of ourselves when we are lost. Daniel, after having sex with a rent boy, is so disgusted he contemplates suicide and, holding the razor in his hand, becomes almost completely empty of thought and feeling, just a pinprick of consciousness, an arm, a slice of sharpened metal. Eventually, he tears himself free and runs hysterically down into the street.

He must run, he must get away as far as possible, immerse himself in noise and light, in a throng of people, he must become a man among his fellows, and feel the eyes of other men upon him. (p.268)

Freedom

This brings us to the issue of ‘freedom’. Critics I’ve read say the novel is a meditation on freedom, in particular Sartre’s convoluted idea of freedom which is not a positive, but a kind of terrifying nothingness into which we’re hurled and from which we have to create our own lives from scratch, with no help or guidance from outworn creeds or dead religions. And hence the over-arching title of the series, Roads To Freedom as it indeed dramatises different characters’ journeys towards different definitions of freedom.

But this gives an inaccurately optimistic sense of the novel; in reality it is Mathieu’s gloomy meditations on his directionless life which have the most power. The bus he’s riding in brakes suddenly and Mathieu suddenly realises:

‘No, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.’ Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation: he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate: to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight around with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.’ (p.243)

Maybe. Maybe that is the ‘human condition’ but why give it such a negative spin? Why ‘condemned’, why not ‘liberated in the sunshine’ to walk and run and skateboard and surf and buy a Harley Davidson and travel the world? The freedom part may be right (I disagree) but the immensely negative emotional interpretation Sartre gives it is entirely his own (and his own problem).

Anyway, I am with Mathieu’s brother, Jacques, when he says that Mathieu is a self-centred good-for-nothing who has no direction or purpose, who’s kept his mistress dangling for seven long years, and makes a fetish of his own inability to make decisions.

The most schematic part of the book is the character of Brunet, who is an almost comical stereotype of the Strong, Conscientious Communist. He invites Mathieu to join the Party. He explains that being a member has given him a sense of purpose and brotherhood with other members all round the world.

‘You are the son of a bourgeois, you couldn’t come to us straightaway, you had to free yourself first. And now it’s done, you are free. But what’s the use of that same freedom, if not to join us…You live in a void, you have cut your bourgeois connections, you have no tie with the proletariat, you’re adrift, you’re an abstraction, a man who is not there… You renounced everything in order to be free… Take one step further, renounce your freedom: and everything shall be rendered unto you.’ (p.118)

By sinking his individuality into a strong disciplined political movement he has gained his individuality. Mathieu listens sympathetically – Brunet is an old friend, and also an imposing presence, tall, physically superb, muscular hands, a man of the people – but as with his mistress or his friends or his job, Mathieu can’t quite bring himself to make a decision. One day he will, he tells Brunet, he tells himself, one day he will make the Great Decision which demonstrates his freedom… just not yet, not yet…

Reading the Brunet sections makes you wonder whether the aim of the book is Communist propaganda (after the war, when this book was being written, Sartre came out as a self-proclaimed Marxist). Maybe the entire novel is designed to show up the pettiness and negativity of the petit bourgeoisie, to show the pointless, aimless lives of modern people who have not accepted The Cause, who have not given their lives a Purpose by committing to the Communist Party. Maybe.

Alternatively, the young student Bruno – who hates being described as Mathieu’s ‘disciple’ – has his own, rather immature definition of freedom.

The individual’s duty is to do what he wants to do, to think whatever he likes, to be accountable to no one but himself, to challenge every idea and every person. (p.138)

Put like that, maybe Sartre and his philosophy have disappeared because they have been so thoroughly subsumed into our modern attitude. Boris’s credo pretty much sums up the attitude of my daughter, aged 16. Maybe these ‘freedom’ sections which caused so much debate in 1945, now seem thin and lifeless because we all think like that, talk like that, and have the t-shirt. Maybe.

Either way, the dozen or so ‘freedom’ sections feel like plasters strapped onto the groaning seething mass of disgust, appalled descriptions of physical functions and an apparently never-ending series of ways for the characters to feel disgusted and revolted by each other. The pregnant Marcelle has morning sickness:

A long filament hung from her lips, she had to cough it away… She watched the dabs of mucus sliding slowly towards the drainpipe leaving glossy, viscous tracks behind them, like snails. (p.68)

This is just one of hundreds and hundreds of vividly described moments of revulsion, nausea, disgust and loathing which saturate the text.

Back in the day, educated people agonised about how to find meaning in a world stripped bare of religion and the old certainties, and threatened by Nazism and totalitarianism. Sartre’s novels and plays, on one level, set out to dramatise that predicament and are of fascinating historical interest. But that predicament, that sense of a personal crisis inextricably linked to the crisis of an entire continent (at a central moment Mathieu buys a newspaper and reads about the latest nationalist atrocity in the Spanish Civil War and is possessed by nausea and fear), and the burning necessity to Make a Choice, to throw in your lot with one political party or the other… all that is long gone.

What has really endured of this book is the relentlessness of everyone’s misery and of their super disgust at being human, at having bodies, at ageing, at living.

  • am my own taste, I exist. That’s what existence means: draining one’s own self dry without the sense of thirst. Thirty-five years. For thirty-five years I’ve been sipping at myself and I’m getting old.’ (p.48)
  • ‘I am utterly immured in my own self.’ (p.186)
  • He spoke with disgust and in short spasms. ‘I’ll try to change,’ he said. ‘I’m contemptible,’ he thought… They walked in silence, side by side, immersed in sunlight, and in mutual detestation. But, at the same time, Mathieu saw himself with Ivich’s eyes, and was filled with self-contempt. (p.80)
  • That ghastly self-contempt, that utterly weak, futile, weak, moribund self-contempt, which seemed at every moment on the point of self-annihilation, but always survived. (p.270)

Fat unhappy Marcelle – trapped by illness in her pink bedroom, stifled by the mother she shares her apartment with – is the central symbol of the squalid reality of the physical body, of nausea at its revolting fecundity, a claustrophobic image of unhappiness.

She sometimes had the feeling that her life had come to a stop one day at noon, and she herself was an embodied, eternal noontide brooding upon her little world, a dank and rainy world, without hope or purpose…. She felt sick…then a sense of uttermost disgust gathered upon her tongue… She disliked her body… the sight of women suckling their babies in the Luxemberg: a feeling beyond fear and disgust…she dreaded having to despise him… (p.67)

But she is only the most extreme example of the quality all the characters share, Sartre’s own disgust and revulsion at life, of being alive, of being human.

In a few days she would be nothing but a lump of misery… A slime of pity had engulfed him. He had no sympathy for Marcelle, and he felt profoundly disgusted… (p.160)

‘The slime of pity’ – Sartre likes slime, viscous trails, vomit, mucus, semen, blood.

I read this book on a lovely sunny day and couldn’t help thinking that all the characters in it needed to get out more, to get a hobby, get some exercise, and generally get a life. None of them have jobs (Mathieu has stopped work for the vacation) or children – they are completely free of timetables and responsibilities, utterly free to be as unhappy and negative as they please.

‘Oh,’ Ivich said vehemently, ‘how I hate the summer.’ (p.73)

The absolute determination of all the characters to be as miserable as possible eventually becomes quite funny. Sometimes it felt like ‘Monty Python and the French Philosopher’, with John Cleese saying in a heavy French accent, ‘Oh no, I feeel ze anguish of freedom oppressing my consciousness and feeelling me with despair at ze ‘uman condeetion’. Some bits made me laugh out loud, they were so over the top.

Love was not something to be felt, not a particular emotion, nor yet a particular shade of feeling, it was much more like a lowering curse on the horizon, a precursor of disaster.’ (p. 250)

Yes, Jean-Paul – love is a curse and a disaster.

If you hate summer, loathe being touched, are so morbidly self-conscious that other people looking at you hurts you, if you are revolted by your bodily functions and oppressed by a feeling of futility and pointlessness, ‘burdened by events to come’ and prey to ‘an intolerable anguish’ (p.83) – then this is the book for you!

Scandal

A footnote in The Last Chance explains that the right-wing Vichy regime which ran unoccupied France till 1944, executed a woman for providing an abortion. The subject of abortion appeared squalid to me, in 1977, but we all miss a lot if we don’t realise that the subject matter was so scandalous that Sartre couldn’t think of publishing the novel till after the Liberation, and even then it called down on his head a ton of criticism from all the respectable, right-thinking critics of his day.

Translation

L’Age de Raison was translated into English by Eric Sutton in 1947. Or at least into a form of English.

‘Glad I am to see you, Ivich.’
‘Good morning,’ said she. (p.52)

As with Darkness at Noon, which I’ve just read, the text’s source in another language is obvious on every page in an English which often clings to French word order and phraseology. The continual alien cadence of the sentences helps to ease the entrance, facilitates acceptance, of what is at the end of the day, a very very alien worldview.


Credit

L’Age de Raison by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1945. The translation by Eric Sutton was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1947. This was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback reprint which I bought 40 years ago for 75p.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)

Koestler biography

Born in Hungary in 1905, of Jewish parents, Arthur Koestler joined the German Communist party in 1931 and worked as a freelance journalist across Europe in the 1930s. Like many Communist Party members, Koestler was shocked and disillusioned by Stalin’s show trials, held in Moscow from 1936 to 1938. He knew personally some of the senior Bolshevik figures who were made to confess a litany of improbable crimes and humiliate themselves at their public trials, before being carted off to be executed. Very obviously Stalin was getting rid of the ‘old guard’ of the Party, eliminating rivals and consolidating his grip on power.

As a result Koestler quit the Communist Party in 1938 and began writing Darkness at Noon. The novel is an imagining of the interrogation of a fictional figure, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the Bolshevik government that he had helped to create.

Translated from German

Koestler wrote the novel in German and it was translated into English by his lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. The phrasing frequently betrays its German origin. For example, when the two men from the Commissariat of the Interior arrive to arrest Rubashov and bang on the door of his apartment in the middle of the night, a woman downstairs yells at them to shut up, at which Vasily, the building’s porter, shouts back:

‘Be quiet,’ shouted Vasily. ‘Here is authority.’ (p.13)

No English person ever used that wording.

  • He sniffed and noticed that for some time already he had the scent of Arlova in his nostrils.
  • For a whole while No. 402 did not answer.

Maybe it is deliberately cast in unEnglish English in order to emphasise the unEnglish setting and the unEnglish mind-set of the story.

The fear

Darkness at Noon terrified me when I read it as a teenager in the 1970s, when the Soviet dictatorship still dominated Eastern Europe, routinely arresting and imprisoning its dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. The scenes it described still seemed possible and had a horrifying compulsion about them, like the terrifying scenes depicted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels a generation later. (Somehow the atmosphere changed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and very visibly got bogged down in an unwinnable war. Their mystique of omnipotence was punctured.)

Darkness at Noon

Rereading Darkness at Noon now, it seems almost gentle next to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Rubashov is depicted as calmly accepting his fate – he has been in many prisons before, he knows the ropes, how to preserve food, how to contact the prisoner in the neighbouring cell by tapping messages out on the pipes and so on. And he is interrogated first by a former friend and colleague, Ivanov, who is unwisely considerate to his prisoner until he himself is arrested and hauled off to be shot. Ivanov is replaced by his more ruthless and hard-headed subordinate, Gletkin, his head shaved to reveal a harsh scar, always impeccably dressed and rigid in his interrogator’s chair – Rubashov calls him a Neanderthal to his face. He is the stony-hearted generation the Revolution has produced.

And yet neither interrogator lays a finger on him. They keep him readily supplied with cigarettes. Gletkin’s interrogation ‘technique’ amounts to carrying out long sessions before a blindingly bright desk-top light and only allowing Rubashov two hours sleep before waking him and bringing him back for more questioning.

Rather than physical violence or even threat, Rubashov is broken down cleverly by the interrogator pointing out a series of encounters and conversations Rubashov had with various figures in the past – during the time he was posted abroad as a trade delegate, or in other episodes, earlier in his career, when he worked undercover in Germany. Also by the treacherous affair he had with his bovine secretary, Arlova.

Under questioning Rubashov admits that he is cynical about ‘the leader’ of the Revolution (universally referred to in the book, not as Stalin, but as ‘Number 1’). As a result he is forced to confess that when, a few years earlier, he had returned from imprisonment in Germany and staunchly declared his support for Number 1, he must have been lying. When he allowed Arlova to be arrested, denounced and executed a year or so later, the interrogator points out that Rubashov could – if he had wanted to – have stood up in her defence. He didn’t. Now though – as Gletka points out in his unrelenting, logical way – Rubashov admits he knew she was innocent of all charges. In other words, he sacrificed his lover to save his own skin. Is he really such a noble hero of conscience? Is he not in reality a weak old man who is putting personal pride above the future of his Nation?

Thus the ‘interrogation’ is entirely psychological, wearing down Rubashov’s sense of himself as someone special, making him feel guilty, making him realise he is a selfish liar, and so on. This is drastically different from the harrowing interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eight-Four, where Winston Smith is injected with drugs and repeatedly electrocuted, causing his body to arch and spasm in unbearable pain.

Slowly a web is spun round Rubashov from casual conversations, comments and actions raked up from throughout his career, which are twisted in such a way as to fully justify the accusation that he is guilty of cynicism and mockery towards Number 1 and the Party, guilty of counter-revolutionary thoughts.

And slowly Rubashov himself comes to realise that he really is guilty, that he really has drifted away from the Party, that he really would join any available opposition and would, if the opportunity presented itself, help to assassinate Number 1. It doesn’t really matter that there is no organised opposition; it doesn’t really matter that there was never a plot to poison Number 1. He would have done all those things. He is guilty as charged.

To give an example: in one scene Rubashov is confronted with the son of a former friend who he met when he was posted abroad, and is reminded of a long-forgotten conversation between all three of them about what they would do if they had the (purely theoretical) opportunity to change the direction of the Revolution, to bring it back in a more humane direction.

Rubashov has frequently seen this young man in the bleak exercise yard where he and other prisoners are taken and had nicknamed ‘Harelip’ from his appearance. Now, confronted with him in the interrogation room, Rubashov realises that Harelip has himself been beaten, starved and demoralised into numbly declaring to his face that Rubashov commissioned him to poison Number 1.

Rubashov knows the accusation that there was ever a concrete assassination plan is nonsense – but he did have dissident conversations with the boy and his father, they did discuss whether the Revolution might be made to take a different turn, they did speculate what would happen if Number 1 could be got rid of. Slowly, through incidents like this, the interrogator brings Rubashov to see that, even if he didn’t plan any of the ridiculous charges pressed against him – he might haveHe could have. Objectively, from the Party’s point of view, he is guilty as charged.

Moreover, Rubashov himself in his revolutionary prime, earlier in the 1930s, had been just as cruel and unflinching as Gletkin. He himself had sacrificed members of a Communist cell in Germany because, after the Nazis came to power and arrested many of them, the survivors said they needed to adopt new tactics. Rubashov, as representative of the Comintern, disagreed, disciplined them, and ultimately denounced them to the Nazi authorities. On another occasion he got to know Little Loewy, a cripple working for the Party in a North European port who had organised fervent Communist Party activism across the docks – and had had to explain to him and his colleagues – who had been carrying out a strict and honourable boycott of foreign goods arriving at the port – that the Soviet Union had now completely changed its approach, and wanted to sell vital raw materials to the Nazi regime. If they didn’t someone else would, and the Nation desperately needs the cash to carry out its own industrialisation, to make itself strong enough to resist attack. Some of the dockers Rubashov explains this to leave the room in disgust. Little Loewy agrees without hesitation, but later hangs himself.

Koestler shows us Rubashov haunted by memories like this, some in dreams, some in daylight remembrance, being forced to review his hard-hearted career, analysing his behaviour, and slowly acknowledging that Ivanov, and then Gletkin, are only being as thorough and logical and dispassionate as he was in his prime. The Revolution cannot afford bourgeois sentimentality. He is brought to see that, yes, his own self-sacrifice is the logical step. He must submit.

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes the events of a few days in Winston Smith’s life. By contrast Darkness at Noon uses Rubashov’s memories and musings, as he lies on his prison bunk, to range far and wide over Communist Party activities and Soviet policy throughout the 1930s, as epitomised by Rubashov’s career.

Darkness at Noon feels on the one hand wider and richer than Orwell’s novel, because it covers a longer period and with more complex relationships with a bigger cast of characters – but at the same time is significantly less intense, because Rubashov meets and interacts with a large number of people out there in the real world, with all its colour and smells and sights and distractions – whereas Winston Smith cannot escape anywhere from the nightmarish gaze of the telescreen, Big Brother and his own terrified claustrophobic thoughts.

Dreams and issues

Darkness at Noon also feels softer in the sense that many of Rubashov’s memories are mixed up with dreams: he relives the same events over and over – his meeting with nervous Peter the German cell-leader, his friendship and then betrayal of Little Loewy, his nights in bed with his supine mistress, Arlova – all these are recalled in great physical and sensual detail, and recur again and again as in a dream. Sometimes Rubashov has trouble knowing whether he’s sleeping or waking.

Similarly, many of the exchanges between Rubashov and his two interrogators are rather poetic and philosophical, in a dreamy European kind of way. Where Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien discuss the nature of power in a ruthless, logical way, O’Brien’s relentless logic of power bearing down on Smith like a nightmare which the reader shares, by contrast Ivanov is given to poetic flights of fancy.

For example, at one stage Ivanov launches out on a long disquisition about God and Satan, bringing these Christian characters up to date to apply to the present European situation. Ivanov says all this while pouring himself and Rubashov glasses of brandy. It could almost come from a bourgeois 19th century ‘novel of ideas’, the characters sitting in front of a roaring fire in the drawing room of a grand house, swirling brandy round their glasses, puffing on cigars.

‘I would like to write a Passion play in which God and the Devil dispute for the soul of Saint Rubashov. After a life of sin, he has turned to God – to a God with the double chin of industrial liberalism and the charity of the Salvation Army soups. Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it – an abstract and geometric love. Apage Satanas! Comrade Rubashov prefers to become a martyr. The columnists of the liberal Press, who hated him during his lifetime, will sanctify him after his death. He has discovered a conscience, and a conscience renders one as unfit for the revolution as a double chin. Conscience eats through the brain like a cancer, until the whole of the grey matter is devoured. Satan is beaten and withdraws – but don’t imagine that he grinds his teeth and spits fire in his fury. He shrugs his shoulders; he is thin and ascetic; he has seen many weaken and creep out of his ranks with
pompous pretexts…’
Ivanov paused and poured himself another glass of brandy. Rubashov walked up and down in front of the window.

This is typical of the frequent long, rather wordy and metaphorical debates the characters have. It could come from a George Bernard Shaw play, or maybe a Chekhov story. And it’s what I mean by ‘softer’ or ‘more relaxing’ than the Orwell: many passages feature long-winded chatty discussions which rather inevitably refer to the ‘great’ European classics like Dostoyevsky or Don Quixote.

On the other hand, these passages often snap back out of their amiable doze into the harsh light of the present and snap the reader back to the 1930s, to the era of totalitarianism, to the prison cell and the interrogation room.

In another long passage Ivanov gives the rationale for all the brutality of the Soviet regime during the 1930s. Koestler makes it a handy summary of the Soviet Union’s crimes and this long passage must have scandalised loyal Communist Party members and fellow-travellers in the West.

Ivanov explains that the Party has had only decades, only a few years, to try and catch up with the advances the capitalist West has had 150 years to make – no wonder they have to be ruthless: ‘it is to ensure the Revolution survives; it is to ensure the peace and happiness of a future generation, that we must be brutal, now.’ At which Rubashov finally lets rip a long stream of the crimes of the Soviet regime.

Rubashov rubbed his pince-nez on his sleeve, and looked at him short-sightedly. ‘What a mess,’ he said, ‘what a mess we have made of our golden age.’

Ivanov smiled. ‘Maybe,’ he said happily. ‘Look at the Gracchi and Saint Just and the Commune of Paris. Up to now, all revolutions have been made by moralizing dilettantes. They were always in good faith and perished because of their dilettantism. We for the first time are consequent…’

‘Yes,’ said Rubashov. ‘So consequent; that in the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down
to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national Institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see. For the energies of this generation are exhausted; they were spent in the Revolution; for this generation is bled white and there is nothing left of it but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh. … Those are the consequences of our consequentialness. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles and nerves. …’

‘Well, and what of it?’ said Ivanov happily. ‘Don’t you find it wonderful? Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. That is not an occupation for people with weak nerves; but there was once a time when it filled you with enthusiasm. What has so changed you that you are now as pernickety as an old maid?’

This long passage gives a good feel of the book, the way it boils down, ultimately, to a dialogue between two interpretations of Communist history – both coming from within the Party, both using the terminology and worldview of the Party – but fundamentally opposed about the tactics and consequences of 20 years of Bolshevik rule.

Climax

Eventually, Rubashov is worn down by sleeplessness and the relentlessness of the interrogation, to not only confess, but to agree to take part in a show trial at which he will abase himself, grovel and admit to all kinds of crimes. Gletkin has convinced him that the Party needs unity, it needs a strong leader, it needs to nip all opposition in the bud, and it needs to demonstrate the futility of the slightest hint of opposition.

And that all these things must be made screamingly obvious to the most illiterate and stupid peasant. The show trials aren’t for the intelligentsia (though they scare the daylights out of them), they are for the vast majority of Russian’s poorly educated, mostly illiterate, peasant population. That is why they are shows. That is why they have as much in common with traditional village puppet entertainments as with Western notions of ‘justice’. Their message must resonate to, must be heard about and discussed and convey the right message to, the remotest poverty-stricken villages in Siberia or in Central Asia.

Gletkin successfully persuades Rubashov that his last great service to the party he has served all his life will be to repress his egotism, to suppress his own bourgeois sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, to sacrifice himself for the good of the Party and for the future of his country.

And so, in the short final chapter of the book, we read excerpts from Rubashov’s show trial where he does just that, admits to all the charges, humiliates himself, praises the Great Leader to the skies – all in the name of the Perfect Future which the Party will deliver.

The perfect future

By the 1970s the Soviet economy was visibly failing, only surviving through the complex network of unofficial deals between managers of the epically mismanaged state industries. The decade-long war in Afghanistan (1979-89) widely discredited the regime in the eyes of the population. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he unleashed forces of dissatisfaction he could not control.

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and the entire 70 year-long Communist experiment was revealed for not only the prolonged crime against humanity which it was, but also to have been completely futile. Did 70 years of communism build a better life for Russians? No. They led to Putin and his new Russian nationalism, the obscene wealth of the oligarchs contrasted with the poor quality of life of the majority, a Russia characterised by state control of the media, the assassination of troublesome journalists, a terrifying mafia, epic alcoholism and the lowest life expectancy in the industrialised world (65 years for men).

For some time now the problems Russia faces internally, and the military threat it presents to Europe, have far outweighed this old stuff about the darkest days of its communist regime. Darkness at Noon is a densely imagined, psychologically rich and well-argued portrait of a long-vanished era, an age which is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’

I read this when I was 16 in 1977. The Soviet Union still existed, Eastern Europe was ruled by communist dictatorships and England was visibly falling to pieces. The external situation was bad enough but being a teenager and new to this kind of adult literature, it scared the bejesus out of me, in fact it helped introduce me to what books could really do, their power to change your entire view of life.

Quite clearly Nineteen Eighty-Four is the summary towards which all of Orwell’s writings were heading. It brings together numerous themes, ideas and obsessions which thread through all his previous work:

  • The theme of political lying, of the power of political propaganda if applied with ruthless consistency to utterly distort ‘the truth’ – something which Orwell had seen at first hand during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
  • I have pointed out in other reviews how the theme of privacy and the dislike of being spied on appears in his earlier novels (creepy landladies or venomous headmistresses spy on the protagonists of A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying). A concern for privacy is one of the key characteristics Orwell lists in his delineation of the English character in The Lion and The Unicorn.
  • A post-war world of where the population lives in permanent poverty ruled over by loudspeakers telling everyone what to think is a recurring nightmare of the narrator of his 1939 novel, Coming Up For Air.
  • The image of posters everywhere blaring their relentless messages is anticipated by the bitter hatred of adverts and posters of earlier Orwell protagonists, notably Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
  • And the idea of finding escape from the relentless shabbiness of life in a rural idyll is a) as old as the industrial revolution b) the central theme of Coming Up For Air.

But these themes become turbo-charged in this final book, brought together with an extraordinary imaginative power to produce one of the most famous books in the world, the one which made his pen-name, Orwell, into an adjective, Orwellian, which denotes a nightmare world in which every aspect of our lives, along with all our conversation and even our thoughts, are surveilled and controlled, and the slightest deviation from the official party line is punished by torture, ritual confession and then ‘vaporisation’.

The plot

As presumably everybody knows, the plot concerns Winston Smith, a citizen of Airstrip One (formerly known as Britain) a province of the world superstate, Oceania. Winston works at the huge pyramidal Ministry of Truth, which dominates the ruined skyline of London. As the book opens Winston, a scrawny sickly 39 year-old, has woken up to his unhappiness in the down-trodden, impoverished society set in the year of the title (35 years in the future when the book was published). Airstrip One is ruled by the Party under the control of Big Brother who is ‘watching you’ not only from hoardings and newspapers, but from telescreens installed in every living space, which blare out martial music and endless lists of triumphant industrial achievements, but also watch and monitor every movement, every word of the citizens.

The world consists of three super-states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Oceania is at any one time allied with one of the others against the third, thus producing a state of continual warfare which justifies the poverty and misery of daily life. But Oceania switches ally and enemy almost at random and each switch requires all records of the previous alliance to be expunged from all records and even from the memories of its citizens.

Language is being reduced to Newspeak, a drastically simplified form of English in which it will soon be literally impossible to entertain a thought contrary to the Party line. Any such deviant thought is labelled a ‘thought crime’, for which you are arrested by the terrifying Thought Police.

Winston begins to rebel in a small way when he discovers a tiny alcove in his apartment which the all-watching telescreen camera can’t reach. In this little corner he begins to keep a diary in a beautiful old notebook which he picked up at an antiques shop on one of  his many prowls round downtrodden London in the zone inhabited by the proles, chavs who are outside the Party system, who fritter their lives away in pubs and gambling.

Winston meets a fellow dissident, Julia. They make a visit to the countryside where they briefly enjoy a sense of freedom and life (and sex). But on returning to Winston’s flat they are both arrested for thoughtcrime.

In the final section, Winston is interrogated at length by a Party interrogator, O’Brien. O’Brien says he doesn’t want to kill Winston. He wants to break his spirit so completely that Winston will end up genuinely loving Big Brother, genuinely loving the force which has ruined his life and destroyed his love. In the long philosophical conversations which O’Brien and Winston have, O’Brien explains the basic principles of life in 1984. Imagine a boot pressing down on a human face, forever. That is the future of the human race.

The book is divided into three parts.

Part one

The novel is immediately reminiscent of Orwell’s previous novel, Coming Up For Air, in that the entire 80-page section takes place on one day.

Winston arrives home at his scuzzy apartment block, Victory Mansions, just as the clocks are striking 13 (because Airstrip One runs on a 24-hour clock system). He’s barely got into his pokey flat before there’s a knock at the door and he has to go and help his neighbour Mrs Parsons with her blocked sink – which gives him an opportunity to see her hateful children, who are dutiful members of the youth Spies movement and already spying on all adults.

Winston returns to the secret alcove in his apartment to begin his diary and suddenly finds himself pouring out a torrent of memories and thoughts. This was his lunch break so he hurries back to work in time for the Two Minutes Hate, in which the girl with dark hair and O’Brien sit close by. In the Two Minute Hate everyone must yell at the features of Emmanuel Goldstein, the great traitor, the man blamed for everything which goes wrong in Oceania (obviously based on the cult of hatred for his opponent Leon Trotsky which Stalin cultivated in Soviet Russia.)

Winston does his afternoon work of rewriting history, then meets up in the works canteen with Symes, the expert on Newspeak and the chubby idiotic Parson. After work it is a fine day so he sets off for a walk, roaming east then north and ending up somewhere near St Pancras, where he follows an old man into a noisy pub and tries to get him to remember the past, but fails. These scenes show how utterly hopeless the proles are; no good or change will come from them.

Wandering further Winston ends up at the pawn shop where he bought the diary he’s now writing in and is shown round by the old owner. On exiting, Winston is horrified to almost bump into the black-haired girl from the Ministry who he’s sure must be spying on him. He makes several detours to throw off any tail, returns to his apartment by 23:30, writes a few last thoughts in the diary and falls asleep.

It is worth emphasising that all these restrictions, this life of complete surveillance and subjugation, applies only to Party members. They do not apply to the 85% of the population who are universally referred to as ‘the proles’. The proles are considered stupid sheep, uneducated chavs who are only interested in boozing, wenching and gambling. (This is pretty much how Orwell described the English working classes in his great essay, The Lion and the Unicorn.) Theoretically, there are laws and a police force to govern them, but mostly the proles get on with their petty lives, boozing and worrying about football results and the (completely fixed) lottery. They are subdued and poverty-stricken but they aren’t subject to the extreme surveillance and minute-by-minute terror of members of the Party, like Winston.

Part two

A few days later, walking down a corridor in the ministry, Winston sees the same dark-haired girl walking towards him. She trips and falls on what is apparently an injured arm and cries out. Winston chivalrously helps her up and is startled when she slips into his hand a small object. His heart thumping, Winston is sure she must be denouncing him in some obscure way. Back at his desk he takes his time then unfolds the paper among the other work-related sheets on his desk and is startled to read ‘I LOVE YOU’. What? Is it a trap? Orwell describes the way Winston has to repress every trace of anxiety on his face and continue with his work, despite his thumping heart. Even a flicker in his eyes might give him away to the telescreen facing him and betray his treason to the Though Police.

They manage to meet in Trafalgar Square (now renamed Victory Square) and, among a mob baying at trucks full of Eurasian prisoners, briefly exchange details of a rendezvous.

A few days of stress later, Winston follows Julia’s instructions, takes a train from Paddington to the country. It is the second of May, bluebell season. Spring. New life. He walks down a road, along tracks, across a field and is stooping to pick flowers when – she meets him. She takes him to a secluded dell from which Winston is amazed to realise the landscape perfectly matches that of a recurrent dream he has, and which he has labelled ‘the Golden Country’. Just as in his dream, Julia strips off, with one gesture throwing off all the restrictions of Big Brother, Ingsoc, Newspeak, all the tyrannical repressions of his life.

They make love and, unlike Winston’s long departed wife, Katharine, Julia actually seems to enjoy it. Winston feels incredibly liberated. Julia freely confesses that she’s had a dozen lovers and loves sex. She says more people are rebels against Big Brother than you’d think, but she has – alas – never heard of ‘the Brotherhood’, the legendary underground organisation which Winston pins his hopes on. In fact, she is not a very intellectual girl, she is more a free spirit, beautiful young animal etc. (She is, in her way, as much a symbol of sexual and animal freedom compared to the crushed middle-aged impotence of Party life, as the country is a symbol of ever-renewing beauty set against the dirty, crippled landscape of London.)

Back at work they have to pretend to ignore each other, but manage to exchange words in the crowded prole parts of town and arrange one more opportunity to make love, in the ruined tower of an abandoned church ‘in an almost-deserted stretch of country where an atomic bomb had fallen thirty years earlier.’

Once in a prole part of town they are both knocked to the ground when a flying bomb (about 20 a month fall on London) detonates nearby.

But they stumble on a way of going beyond these snatched moments when it occurs to Winston to rent the bedroom over the pawn shop where he first bought the diary and where he returned and was shown round. The owner, Mr Cheeseman, gladly accepts a few dollars per visit. It becomes their regular love nest.

Even more momentously, Julia and Winston decide to go and visit O’Brien. This is because O’Brien himself one day approached Winston in a corridor in the Ministry of Truth. He suggested Winston come round to visit him and wrote out his address in full view of a telescreen. Winston, influenced by the strong feeling of understanding he has for O’Brien, agrees. A few days later he and Julia arrive at O’Brien’s flat which, as he is a member of the Inner Party, is notably luxurious, with a servant, carpet and even – something Winston has read about but never seen – wine!

Here Winston and Julia immediately, almost as if in a fairy story, make a clean breast of it, admitting that they are rebels against the Party, have committed thoughtcrimes and sexcrimes, support Emmanuel Goldstein and would like to join the Brotherhood. O’Brien astonishes our heroes by turning off a telescreen, something they didn’t think possible. He responds positively that he is a member of the Brotherhood, explains its cell-like structure and secretive aims, and says someone will be in touch to give Winston a copy of the book, the definitive text by Goldstein himself. Then he bids Julia and Winston depart by different routes, five minutes apart. Good God! Is Winston now in touch with the Underground? Is there hope for revolution and change?

The next week is taken up by frantic work, 15-hour days, grabbed meals, because the whole of the Party cranks itself up for the annual festival of Hate Week, a grotesquely extended version of the Two Minute Hate.

At its climax, Winston is at a mass rally, flanked by thousands of children in their Spies uniforms, and a Goebbels-like man is raising the crowd to hysterias of hate against Eurasia, Goldstein and all the other enemies when – right in the middle of the speech – it somehow becomes known that Oceania has stopped being allies with Eastasia and at war with Eurasia, and is now allied with Eurasia and at war with Eastasia! At a stroke all the flags and posters which have been lovingly created hating Eurasia have been rendered out of date. The crowd hysterically tears them down. Most eerily, as in a dream, the vituperative speaker doesn’t even stop talking but changes the subject of his bitter hatred and venom in mid-sentence.

Winston is awed by this spectacular example of doublethink, the technique whereby citizens of Airstrip One are raised from birth to know something is wrong or inaccurate but to do it anyway with complete sincerity. Within minutes the entire crowd is chanting its hatred for Eastasia – which had been its ally only minutes before.

With one mind and without any orders being issued, Winston and his colleagues know they have to go straight to the Ministry of Truth to undertake a wholesale rewriting of the past in order to swap the words Eurasia and Eastasia, in order to make the past conform with the new present. Not a trace must be left of the previous arrangement: the new arrangement must always have been true. For a week Winston and everyone at the Ministry work like dogs. Only on the sixth day do the requests for rewrites dry up and he staggers home, almost passes out in his shallow tepid bath, and then sleeps for 12 hours.

When he wakes Winston makes his way to Mr Cheeseman’s proley pawn shop. He has his own key and lets himself into the bedroom. Here, at last, he opens the case which was slipped to him in the crowd during the Hate Rally, and begins reading The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein.

The text of this fictional book is itself embedded in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It purports to be a detailed explanation by the chief hate figure of Ingsoc’s society, of the history leading up to the current state of society. It explains that there was a nuclear war in the 1950s and from the ruins arose the three main totalitarian states around the world – Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia.

But the book also gives a densely-argued explanation of why society is as it is: all human history has been the succession of various ruling classes which held power until they went soft or got out of kilter with new technological developments. Ingsoc has learned from this history and established a permanent oligarchy based on eternal warfare. The new technology which developed at the start of the 20th century would have supplied more and more consumer goods, giving people time to educate themselves, thus creating democracy and preventing centralised power. This is the reason for the permanent war of 1984 – it is a permanent excuse for the shortages of everything, including food, which keep the entire population in a permanent state of servitude. Permanent war justifies the rule of a strong centralised government. And permanent war allows a frustrated populus to vent their frustration and hatred on external targets.

The book is obviously a fictional tactic which allows Orwell to embed into the narrative an enormous amount of the thinking he’d been doing over the previous decade about exactly how the totalitarian world of his nightmares would come about in a purely factual way. It is a riveting alternative history, and a fascinating insight into all kinds of fears and intellectual currents of its time.

And this is just the chapter on why there is permanent war from Goldstein’s ‘book’. There is an equally lengthy explanation of the theory behind doublethink and other aspects of Ingsoc ideology which Winston is going on to when Julia arrives. They make love, and then Winston continues reading the book out loud to her.

He is enjoying, for the first time in his life, the sensual feel of being in a safe secure place, reading a book beside a warm beloved partner. He stops reading and listens to the fat prole woman in the yard below singing the latest pop song concocted by an entertainment machine in the Ministry of Truth. He and Julia know their days are numbered but he lives in hope – surely some day everything that Goldstein has written, the ‘truth’ about Ingsoc, surely this must one day be revealed to everyone and their repressive society be overthrown.

Meanwhile, he repeats the phrase he and Julia have often used, jokingly, ironically, fatalistically many times. ‘We are the dead’. She also repeats it sleepily and then – to their absolute horror – another voice repeats it. ‘You are the dead.’ They jump out of their skins with terror.

It is the voice of the telescreen which was hidden behind an old print on the wall all along. This has never been a safe space. They have always been under surveillance. There is no escape.

Within seconds the room is flooded by brutal-looking Thought Police who make Winston and Julia stand naked. One punches Julia in the gut and picks up her doubled-over body, carrying it off. That’s the last Winston will see of her.

Old Cheeseman the pawnbroker enters the room, but without his usual stoop, grey hair and hook nose. He has thrown off his disguise. Cheeseman is in fact a member of the Thought Police and they have been well and truly caught.

Part three

The novel has been saturated with Winston’s, and then Julia’s, powerful sense of doom. They know their ‘rebellion’ can change nothing; they know they will be caught, tortured and shot. They even speculate about how they will fare under torture and promise each other that, in their secret souls, they will never stop loving each other. Now it is all coming true.

Part three is a gruelling description of Winston’s incarceration. It starts in a common police cell surrounded by prole criminals and he is surprised to meet a number of his acquaintances from outside – the snivelling poet Ampleforth, and then his cheery, harmless neighbour, Parsons, him of the blocked drain. In a satirical note Parsons says he was turned in by his own seven-year-old daughter, a fully trained-up young Spy, who overheard him muttering sedition in his sleep, and so ran to immediately tell the authorities. He’s pathetically proud of her.

But soon Winston is taken from the common gaol to a solitary cell and here there begin days, weeks, maybe months, of breaking him, first through common beating and then by torture using electrical shocks and drugs.

And his torturer is the man he trusted most – O’Brien. The two features of the process are that it is an immensely intellectual process: O’Brien isn’t interested in extracting confessions about conspiracies or collaborators: he is solely concerned with completely breaking down Winston’s personality and remaking it, remodelling it so that he doesn’t just intellectually accept the Party line, so that he lives and believes it, genuinely.

The second feature is that despite the agonising torture – specifically the long session of electric shocks O’Brien administers – Winston continues to admire and respect O’Brien. For the torture is not only designed to break him it is meant to educate him in the new reality. Thus O’Brien delivers an extended lecture on the true nature of the Party, on its worship of power, on the way it will expunge every other feeling from the entire human race except hate, carefully cultivated through the Two Minute Hates and Hate Week. For the rest, humanity will be reduced to utter subservience.

All previous dictatorships claimed to want power for a purpose, to eventually reach some utopia of peace and equality. The Party is the ultimate evolution of all such revolutionary movements: it wants power for its own sake.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’

This is the tone of the final part. All Winston’s fears are confirmed, and worse. This isn’t a temporary phase. The Party is devoted to the possession of unlimited Power, forever. O’Brien confirms how every aspect of Oceania society – Hate Week, Newspeak, anti-sex, telescreens – is devoted to that one end and that alone.

And all through the agony, as his back arches in animal pain under the electrical torture, Winston is aware of the unbeatable superiority of O’Brien’s intellect and grasp. O’Brien knows what Winston is thinking at every stage of his demolition, he anticipates his every thought and question. He has seen it all before.

He knows to the word what Winston is thinking. Winston lies back on the torture bed, gasping and sweating when the current is temporarily turned off, thoughts racing through his mind, and O’Brien speaks – putting into words exactly what Winston was thinking. The effect is more than uncanny, it is like a dream in which everything has been foretold and is now enacted with nightmare inevitability.

The actual plot is simple – the torture sessions almost completely break down Winston’s intellect – eventually we see him genuinely accepting that two plus two makes three or four or five or whatever the Party decrees.

But still inside him a little bit of soul holds out, a tiny fragment of emotional resistance. O’Brien knows this as he knows everything and when the time is right – takes Winston to the dreaded room 101. This is the place of your worst fears, different for everyone, but always their most intense phobia.

It is here that the torturers get out the cage of rats which they intend to tie to Winston’s face. The starving rats will gnaw through his face and eyes in seconds. As they bring it closer, Winston goes into agonies of terror, knowing he needs to put something, someone, anything between himself and this terror. And suddenly he screams out, ‘Do it to Julia, not to me, do it to Julia.’

He has betrayed the last secret innermost part of himself. He has betrayed his pledge to Julia. He is a completely broken man. That is the point of room 101.

In the final few pages Winston has been released back into society but as a shambling wreck. He spends his days at the Chestnut Tree café, drinking Victory gin and working on chess problems from The Times. The text goes inside his thoughts to describe how they have been completely aligned with Party thought, how he steers himself away from any doubts or dissident thoughts by using the mental technique of crimestop. When the telescreen announces a terrific victory for Oceania in Africa, Winston cries tears of joy and relief. He looks up at the massive poster of Big Brother looking over the cafe with tears in his eyes.

He loves Big Brother.


Elements of the uncanny

Orwell despised cranks, health food nuts, vegetarians, sandal-wearers, naturists, feminists, he lumped them all together. Spiritualists and clairvoyants also came in for knocking whenever he was making digs at contemporary fads. He prided himself on his straightforward, manly, no-nonsense mentality. Thus in The Lion and the Unicorn he doesn’t pussyfoot around the issue of fighting: we must fight Hitler or Hitler will conquer us, simples. Their limp pacifism accounts for his dislike of sniggeringly superior Bloomsbury types.

Having now read hundreds of pages of this blunt speaking, it came as all the more surprising to realise that this, his last and greatest book, contains not only the extremely well-known ideas Newspeak and thoughtcrime and Ingsoc and Big Brother i.e. not only the well-known analytical and political elements — it also contains a strongly irrational, spooky and voodoo element.

The Golden Country

It is full of strange dreams and ghostly anticipations. Take the Golden Country. In chapter three Winston has what he says is a recurring dream of an idyllic rural landscape, has it so frequently that he’s taken to calling it the Golden Country.

Suddenly he was standing on short springy turf, on a summer evening when the slanting rays of the sun gilded the ground. The landscape that he was looking at recurred so often in his dreams that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world. In his waking thoughts he called it the Golden Country. It was an old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a foot-track wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the field the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair. Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.

The girl with dark hair was coming towards them across the field. With what seemed a single movement she tore off her clothes and flung them disdainfully aside. Her body was white and smooth, but it aroused no desire in him, indeed he barely looked at it. What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm. That too was a gesture belonging to the ancient time. Winston woke up with the word ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips. (p.28)

This is itself a powerful description of a dream vision, but what lifts it into the eerie is that later, when Julia takes him to the countryside to make love to him, it is in the exact same place he has dreamed about all these years – even down to the pool by the trees full of dace.

They were standing in the shade of hazel bushes. The sunlight, filtering through innumerable leaves, was still hot on their faces. Winston looked out into the field beyond, and underwent a curious, slow shock of recognition. He knew it by sight. An old, close-bitten pasture, with a footpath wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side the boughs of the elm trees swayed just perceptibly in the breeze, and their leaves stirred faintly in dense masses like women’s hair. Surely somewhere nearby, but out of sight, there must be a stream with green pools where dace were swimming?
‘Isn’t there a stream somewhere near here?’ he whispered.
‘That’s right, there is a stream. It’s at the edge of the next field, actually. There are fish in it, great big ones. You can watch them lying in the pools under the willow trees, waving their tails.’
‘It’s the Golden Country – almost,’ he murmured.
‘The Golden Country?’
‘It’s nothing, really. A landscape I’ve seen sometimes in a dream.’ (p.101)

How do you explain that? There is no rational explanation. It is almost as if the super-rational, totally controlled world of the novel requires not only the escape to the (rather traditional) rural idyll – but at some level also requires the presence of the irrational. Nineteen Eight-Four is a profoundly phantasmagoric narrative in which dreams literally come true.

O’Brien and destiny

Take another irrational element, which doesn’t make sense but is terrifyingly compelling. Right from the start Winston is aware of the identity of the senior party official man O’Brien, a man of commanding presence and visible intelligence. What is eerie is the way Winston is drawn towards him in some subtle, almost homoerotic way, and especially haunting-odd-notable way that O’Brien seems drawn to him as well.

Or is he imagining it? Is Winston’s desperate need to talk about his ideas and feelings so overflowing that he is seeing conspiracy and rebellion where there is none? Whatever the cause, Winston is certain that during that morning’s Two Minutes Hate some kind of spark leapt between them.

Of course he chanted with the rest: it was impossible to do otherwise. To dissemble your feelings, to control your face, to do what everyone else was doing, was an instinctive reaction. But there was a space of a couple of seconds during which the expression of his eyes might conceivably have betrayed him. And it was exactly at this moment that the significant thing happened – if, indeed, it did happen.

Momentarily he caught O’Brien’s eye. O’Brien had stood up. He had taken off his spectacles and was in the act of resettling them on his nose with his characteristic gesture. But there was a fraction of a second when their eyes met, and for as long as it took to happen Winston knew — yes, he KNEW! — that O’Brien was thinking the same thing as himself. An unmistakable message had passed. It was as though their two minds had opened and the thoughts were flowing from one into the other through their eyes. ‘I am with you,’ O’Brien seemed to be saying to him. ‘I know precisely what you are feeling. I know all about your contempt, your hatred, your disgust. But don’t worry, I am on your side!’ And then the flash of intelligence was gone, and O’Brien’s face was as inscrutable as everybody else’s. (p.17)

Partly he is drawn towards O’Brien because years previously, he had had a powerful dream about him.

Years ago – how long was it? Seven years it must be – he had dreamed that he was walking through a pitch-dark room. And someone sitting to one side of him had said as he passed: ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.’ It was said very quietly, almost casually – a statement, not a command. He had walked on without pausing. What was curious was that at the time, in the dream, the words had not made much impression on him. It was only later and by degrees that they had seemed to take on significance. He could not now remember whether it was before or after having the dream that he had seen O’Brien for the first time, nor could he remember when he had first identified the voice as O’Brien’s. But at any rate the identification existed. It was O’Brien who had spoken to him out of the dark. Winston had never been able to feel sure – even after this morning’s flash of the eyes it was still impossible to be sure whether O’Brien was a friend or an enemy. Nor did it even seem to matter greatly. There was a link of understanding between them, more important than affection or partisanship. ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ he had said. Winston did not know what it meant, only that in some way or another it would come true. (p.

‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ becomes a repeated phrase, a kind of talisman, a mantra for Winston. It becomes one of his images of hope, hope for some kind of change or escape.

‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ O’Brien had said to him. He knew what it meant, or thought he knew. The place where there is no darkness was the imagined future, which one would never see, but which, by foreknowledge, one could mystically share in. (p.86)

Thus throughout the first parts of the book, O’Brien comes to figure in Winston’s mind as the person he is writing his diary to, the person he is recording his innermost feelings of rebellion for.

The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable what then?
But no! His courage seemed suddenly to stiffen of its own accord. The face of O’Brien, not called up by any obvious association, had floated into his mind. He knew, with more certainty than before, that O’Brien was on his side. He was writing the diary for O’Brien – to O’Brien: it was like an interminable letter which no one would ever read, but which was addressed to a particular person and took its colour from that fact. (p.68)

What is so voodoo about this is that part three of the book reveals that O’Brien does know and understand all about Winston, but he is far from being a friend: he will be his interrogator. And they do meet in a place with no darkness, but it is not a place of freedom: it is the torture room of unimaginable pain and complete mental abasement.

Right from the start of the novel Winston is convinced there is something special between him and O’Brien but it is a shock to the reader and to Winston that the relationship will turn out to be the weirdly intense twisted one of torturer and tortured.

And not just any torturer, not just a sadist administering punishment in a blunt way to gain spurious confessions. In a weird uncanny way O’Brien can see right into Winston’s soul. He anticipates all of Winston’s thoughts, every question and doubt, even down to using the exact phrases in Winston’s mind. He has a supernatural power. He is a supernatural figure.

Dreams of his mother

And then there are other dreams, pure and simple. Winston is aware all the time of a sense of loss, a sense that this isn’t how life shouldn’t be, that he can’t quite express. The feeling is reinforced by the strange dreams he has of his mother, who ‘disappeared’ when he was a boy. Chapter three opens in the midst of a dream, which like so many dreams is full of obscure, powerful meaning and leaves a strong aftertaste.

At this moment his mother was sitting in some place deep down beneath him, with his young sister in her arms. He did not remember his sister at all, except as a tiny, feeble baby, always silent, with large, watchful eyes. Both of them were looking up at him. They were down in some subterranean place — the bottom of a well, for instance, or a very deep grave — but it was a place which, already far below him, was itself moving downwards. They were in the saloon of a sinking ship, looking up at him through the darkening water. There was still air in the saloon, they could still see him and he them, but all the while they were sinking down, down into the green waters which in another moment must hide them from sight for ever. He was out in the light and air while they were being sucked down to death, and they were down there because he was up here. He knew it and they knew it, and he could see the knowledge in their faces. There was no reproach either in their faces or in their hearts, only the knowledge that they must die in order that he might remain alive, and that this was part of the unavoidable order of things.

He could not remember what had happened, but he knew in his dream that in some way the lives of his mother and his sister had been sacrificed to his own. It was one of those dreams which, while retaining the characteristic dream scenery, are a continuation of one’s intellectual life, and in which one becomes aware of facts and ideas which still seem new and valuable after one is awake. The thing that now suddenly struck Winston was that his mother’s death, nearly thirty years ago, had been tragic and sorrowful in a way that was no longer possible. Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason. His mother’s memory tore at his heart because she had died loving him, when he was too young and selfish to love her in return, and because somehow, he did not remember how, she had sacrificed herself to a conception of loyalty that was private and unalterable. Such things, he saw, could not happen today. Today there were fear, hatred, and pain, but no dignity of emotion, no deep or complex sorrows. All this he seemed to see in the large eyes of his mother and his sister, looking up at him through the green water, hundreds of fathoms down and still sinking. (pp.27-28)

‘Looking up at him through the green water, hundreds of fathoms down and still sinking…’ A haunting, terrifying, upsetting image. Later, in the torture room, he remembers this and other dreams, and the dreams and the unbearable world of pain become increasingly mixed up.

Precisely because he lives in such a regimented, rational world, his dreams seem all the more portentous, haunting and obscurely revealing.

The importance of dreams

Nineteen Eighty-Four is designed as a political fable and has over the past 70 years prompted vast discussion of its many rational, analytical qualities – the nature of totalitarianism, the likelihood of a surveillance state, the use of political propaganda etc etc, lengthy debates about its relevance to contemporary socialism or totalitarian states, or discussion of Orwell’s brilliant invention of a whole language of repression, Newspeak.

Less attention is given to the strange dream-like quality of the narrative. Nineteen Eighty-Four is saturated with both literal dreams and of dream-like coincidences, premonitions, of uncanny coincidences, of people feeling drawn towards their destinies which are then eerily fulfilled.

Winston moves in an atmosphere of terror, sure, but he also moves among phantoms, in a world of forebodings and omens, himself feeling drawn inexorably towards…. towards some obscure but powerful revelation. (It is a small but significant indication of the role of the irrational in the novel that Orwell describes the bond between O’Brien and Winston as mystical.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is often described in a loose way as a ‘nightmare’ vision of the future. I’m highlighting that it does quite literally contain nightmarish elements – it is not only full of dreams full of dreamlike qualities – eerie repetitions and anticipations and above all the whole narrative feels driven along, compelled by the kind of supernatural, unstoppable, hellish compulsion of a real nightmare. And the figure of O’Brien, is a figure from a nightmare – the man you think can see right into your soul and is your saviour, redeemer, father confessor, and mentor — turns out to be your arch torturer, punisher, abaser and instructor in an unstoppably satanic vision of the end of humanity.

Half way through Winston has another of his vivid, powerfully meaningful yet obscure dreams.

[Julia] pressed herself against him and wound her limbs round him, as though to reassure him with the warmth of her body. He did not reopen his eyes immediately. For several moments he had had the feeling of being back in a nightmare which had recurred from time to time throughout his life. It was always very much the same. He was standing in front of a wall of darkness, and on the other side of it there was something unendurable, something too dreadful to be faced. In the dream his deepest feeling was always one of self-deception, because he did in fact know what was behind the wall of darkness. With a deadly effort, like wrenching a piece out of his own brain, he could even have dragged the thing into the open. He always woke up without discovering what it was: but somehow it was connected with what Julia had been saying when he cut her short.

This nightmare, also, will come true. It is his premonition of Room 101.

In summary, although the rational ‘issues’ are the ones which get enumerated and discussed, it is in fact to the book’s astonishingly powerful dream-like quality, to the nightmarish inevitability of the plot, and to the hallucinatory omnipotence of the diabolical O’Brien, that the novel owes its tremendous imaginative power.

The movie

Three film adaptations have been made. This is the first, a live BBC adaptation starring Peter Cushing.


Credit

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell was published by Secker and Warburg in 1949. All references are to the 1975 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell (1939)

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea-turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield!

This is a surprisingly nostalgic and moving book. It is the only one of Orwell’s novels told in the first person, and it soon becomes clear why. Most of the first half consists of his protagonist’s long and evocative memory of England before the Great War, a loving memory of an England of calm, order and confidence.

The plot

Part one

The narrator is George Bowling. He lives in an anonymous semi in an anonymous street, one of those streets which ‘fester all over the inner-outer suburbs’, in an anonymous London suburb. He is middle-aged and fat (he mentions that he is fat a lot, there are page-long meditations on the condition of fatness).

I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped.

George is a 45 year-old insurance salesman who makes a respectable seven of so pounds a week, so he is significantly better off – and more comfortable, more at ease with life – than the protagonists of Orwell’s previous novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. He is married to a scrawny nagging wife, Hilda, and has two whiny kids – Billy (7) and Lorna (11) – that he refers to as the bastards.

On the day of the novel George has no work to do and so takes his time washing, shaving, having breakfast, taking the train into London, stopping into pubs for a quick one, and strolling the streets. It is, in fact, the day he is going to his dentist to take possession of his new set of false teeth. So a few things happen but there isn’t that much interaction with other people. For the most part we are inside George’s head listening to him muse about a) the wretched lives of London’s middle-class men, trapped by wage slavery and nagging wives –

Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. (p.14)

b) the condition of being fat, how it crept up on him but how he still eyes up women in the street c) the awful shallowness and vulgarity of modern life – all those ads for shiny consumer goods; milk bars; radio – yuk d) overshadowing all his thoughts is his obsession with the shadow of war: bomber planes fly overhead at several points, and his imagination is saturated with the reality of modern war, whole cities bombed flat, refugees in the street, machine guns firing from broken windows. Hitler and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.

I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.
But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year? (p.24)

War is coming soon, he reflects with a kind of grim satisfaction as he looks out the train window at the endless suburban gardens, as he sips his pint as he walks along the Strand.

As I read I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous modernist masterpiece describing a day in the life of an average man wandering round a big city, thinking, musing, pondering. But there is none of Joyce’s experimentalism here. The opposite, there is a good deal of repetition. The paragraphs about being fat, becoming fat, how a fat man feels, how a fat man looks and so on, are a bit repetitive, and so are the meditations about the trashiness of modern life (key hate word is ‘streamlined’ – everything ‘streamlined’ is by definition bad) and the visions of war come back every few pages like acid reflux and repeat entire phrases again and again (I got a little bored of envisioning the machine guns ‘squirting’ from the windows.)

Part two

But everything changes as the book enters part two. Triggered by a news story in today’s paper, George’s mind is taken back to the church services of his boyhood in the little village of Lower Binfield. This (fictional) village of around 2,000 inhabitants somewhere in south Oxfordshire, a few miles from the Thames, is where George’s idyllic childhood took place.

It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. (p.58)

His father was a seed merchant who kept a shop off the High Street. George’s older brother, Joe, is a tough, part of a gang which eventually grudgingly lets little Georgie join in (the other members being Sid Lovegrove and Harry Burnes, the errand boy). He remembers that long distant era as a land of perpetual sunshine, endless wheat fields and cool tree-lined pools for fishing in. (Orwell deliberately makes his protagonist older than him: Bowling was born about 1893 – he’s just old enough to remember the Boer War and the argument about it between his father and Uncle Ezekiel, as well as the mad jubilation surrounding the relief of Mafeking.)

This is a long sequence with many passages of great descriptive beauty. It is an unembarrassed wallow in nostalgia for the sweet decency of rural south England (Orwell knows all too well about life in England’s cities and life in the North of England). It is a powerful vision of idealised south of England village life, the same kind of feeling which permeates John Betjeman and goes on into Philip Larkin in the 1950s…

I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. (p.34)

There are wonderful long descriptions of the wild flowers and weeds which, because of his father’s trade in seeds, he knew were alright to eat. And central to the section, and to the novel, is the long passage about his boyhood obsession with fishing, which involves pages of detailed description of how to make a fishing rod, how to make the flies and the float and the hook from basic household items – and when he’s got a little more experience, a detailed list of the different types of bait you need to catch all the traditional English fish.

Grasshoppers are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on the surface – ‘dapping’, they call it. But you can never get more than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace, especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive, so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it’s a ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

It is an astonishingly sensuous, free and delightful memory of boyhood, immensely readable like almost all of Orwell, but unexpectedly happy and carefree.

The still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the kind of passion with which you’d watch the black backs of the fish swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got too dark. And then it was always ‘Let’s have five minutes more’, and then ‘Just five minutes more’, until in the end you had to walk your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling round and you could be ‘had up’ for riding without a light. And the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade, and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally catch something. At night you’d come home with filthy hands so hungry that you’d eaten what was left of your bread paste, with three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief.

There is much, much more capturing the quality of boyhood when there is no future and the sunny present stretches on forever. The local girl who looked after him and his brother when they were young. The taste and feel of long-forgotten sweets, bought by the penny. The sights and sounds of market day. His mother and father sitting either side of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, falling asleep over their respective newspapers.

It is not an utterly rose-tinted view. At school he and the rest tease the mentally sub-normal boy. Along with his brother’s gang, George pulls birds’ nests out of trees and stamps on the chicks. As he explains, violence and killing, tormenting and bullying, are part of the sense of power, of immortality which author and character both seem to see as an important part of boyhood.

The section continues past this boyhood into the arrival of puberty and girls, and then on to his first real experience of reading, of entering amazing imaginative worlds from the heat of India to the jungles of the Amazon. His older brother, Joe, always a handful, is co-opted by his dad into helping with the seed shop but is impatient, loafing at the front door, ogling girls, catcalling. One day he disappears from the house, having stolen everything in the till, and is never seen again.

There is a fascinating description of his experiences during the Great War. After being wounded just enough to be sent home from the trenches, Bowling finds himself, through a series of bureaucratic errors, charged with looking after a defunct rations dump in remotest Cornwall. Here he sits out the war in peace and comfort, along with another ne-er-do-well soldier, Private Lidgebird, ‘a surly devil’. Part of the enjoyment of this long memoir is not only Orwell’s prose but the vividness with which he describes the many odd characters his protagonist encounters.

  • Old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker to the abandoned grand house on the hill. ‘He had a face like something carved out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and very long.’ (p.75)
  • Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster of the grammar school, a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with canes in it, which he’d sometimes take out and swish through the air in a terrifying manner.
  • Gravitt, the butcher… was a big, rough-faced old devil with a voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would give a jingle.

Finally, we get to George’s early manhood. After the war he is pushed into a job with the local grocer, before wangling a job as a travelling salesman. Through an extraordinary coincidence he bumps into the senior officer who had allotted him the job at the rations dump, now the head of a modern conglomerate business, and through him is given a much better job in the insurance company.

At around the same time he first meets Hilda. They completely misunderstand each other because, as Orwell elaborately explains, they are from completely different classes. Hilda’s people are ex-army, ex-India but come down in the world, living in a small house stuffed with memorabilia of the Raj. George thinks they are class. Hilda’s people think George is man on the move, going up in the world, and thus push Hilda towards marrying him.

They get married and quite quickly George realises he hates her. As soon as they’re wed she drops every effort to look nice or be comforting. She becomes sharp and shrewish and reveals that she is obsessed with money, penny-pinching at every turn. George is lumbered with her and fathers two brats by her but spends his life scheming how to get away which, fortunately, his life as a travelling insurance salesman makes relatively easy.

Part three

The short part three brings us back to the present. It is the evening of the same day. George allows himself to be persuaded by Hilda to go along to a lecture at the church hall, which turns out to be given by a fierce anti-fascist. George is appalled by the venom and violence in the man’s attitude. Afterwards he joins in good humouredly with a squabble about how to fight fascism with a little group of Labour supporters. The evening ends with George dropping in on a local friend, a public school teacher, Porteous, who is a satirical caricature of the Oxbridge ivory tower intellectual.

But beneath these surface vents, George has been coming to a decision. He will wangle a week’s leave from his firm, tell Hilda he’s got business for a week in Birmingham, and… he will go back to Lower Binfield. He will revisit the scene of his childhood and all its intense happiness, before the war starts, before the war obliterates everything, he will recapture that first fine careless rapture. He will ‘come up for air’.

Part four

Of course it’s all gone. As his car breasts the hill and he looks down into the village of 2,000 he remembers so well, George discovers… it has mutated into a town of maybe 25,000 people. Houses, houses everywhere. In the distance some glass and chrome factories – that explains the population boom. He gets lost trying to find the centre but eventually reaches it, parks up in the old village inn and takes a room for a week.

At which point Orwell sets about destroying every single one of Bowling’s happy memories by showing the present-day reality of all that fond nostalgia. The family home and shop which he remembered with such vivid intensity is now a tacky tea-rooms. He goes down to the Thames, with a newly-purchased fishing rod, determined to recreate those balmy summer days in the green light below the weir – but the towpath is absolutely packed out with screaming kids, ice cream stalls, hundreds of other fishers while the water is stirred up by non-stop pleasure cruisers and the water is filthy with diesel oil and paper cups. The big old house on the hill in whose ground he and the gang used to fish has been turned into a mental home. And the secluded pond, full of legendarily huge fish, has been drained and become a rubbish dump on the edge of a vast new estate.

They’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like – call it silly, childish, anything – but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird- baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be? (p.215)

You can’t go back. George finds himself getting drunk and wittering on to the barmaid, then trying to chat up a single woman who turns out to be posh and dismisses him with a withering glance. One further humiliation is when he bumps into his first real girlfriend, the girl (it is implied) to whom he lost his virginity, sweet honey-haired Elsie. Well, now she’s a shapeless grey-haired frump, and he follows her through the street where he first saw her, back to the frowsy little tobacconists shop she now lives in. Neither her nor husband recognise him. The past is dead.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. (p.216)

There is an odd scene almost at the end. On his last, disappointed morning, he’s strolling across the market square when there is an almighty explosion. Recognising a barrage when he hears one George drops to the ground, but there is no repeat. Earlier we had learned that there is a new bomber airfield somewhere near the town, and locals had told George that the newish stocking factory had recently been converted to manufacture bombs for the planes. It seems one of the pilots on a test run pushed the wrong lever and dropped a bomb on Lower Binfield! A grocer’s shop was flattened and the three inhabitants killed. See, George thinks, it’s coming, it’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

In the final scene he motors home to find that Hilda, the suspicious little shrew, had figured out he was never in Birmingham by the simple expedient of writing to the hotel George claimed to be staying at and getting a reply saying the hotel closed two years previously. She knows George has been with another woman and starts to give him a piece of his mind George, faced with the daunting challenge of trying to explain the impulse to rediscover his childhood happiness which took him on a wild goose chase to his boyhood haunts, well, George realises it’ll be easier to admit he spent the week with another woman.


Visions of war

Barely a page goes by without George imagining the bombing or fighting in the street to come, or reflects on the streamlined, Americanised trashiness of modern life. The difference between George’s visions and those of Gordon, in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, is that George keeps these thoughts under control; he is not infuriated or exasperated by them. He sees the world about him, thinks about wars and modern life, and then has another pint which fills him with a glow of well-being. He thinks grim but he actually feels warm and rosy.

I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners… I see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. (p.29)

Next moment he’s an affable cheeky chappie, the type you’d meet in the saloon bar of a decent local pub, buying drinks for all and sundry and telling humorous stories. This alternation between Vaughan Williams pastoralism and the violence of the Gestapo, rubber coshes and machine guns is like the good cop/bad cop act. Just as you’re softening up to another vision of lying under a weeping willow beside the Thames’s purling water, a bomber flies overhead and George is off again about Stalin and Hitler.

The book is a work in its own right, and the pastoral passages are beautifully worth reading for their mental and sensual pleasure. But read in the context of Orwell’s political writings about the necessity and the inevitability of Socialism in England, I think there is a clear message. England’s dreamy past is over. We face an entirely unprecedented new threat in the form of totalitarianism. We must wake up and face the reality around us.

George has a particular variation on the widespread war fear of the time – he is more worried about what will come after the war – will it be the triumph of totalitarianism in England, with a secret police, torture chambers and loudspeakers blaring from every corner telling people what to think? Ten years later these fears would be worked up into the monstrous vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The modern world

Both Georges hate it. Streamlined, slick, Americanised, tasteless food, chromium bars, clever trite ads, George hates it all. He stops into a ‘milk bar’, epitome of everything flashy, American and revolting.

There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. (p.25)

George makes the bad mistake of buying a hot dog. One bite and he feels like retching.

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. (p.27)

This modern trashiness provides an obvious contrast with the solid food and hearty beer of his childhood. But – the message of the book goes – this is the world today and we must face it.

On being a boy

I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it – but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line – it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.

Having been a boy myself, raised in a little village in Berkshire, left to roam through woods and become part of a gang of other 8, 9, 10 year-olds, fishing in Englemere Lake and breaking into the old gravel pit to build dams out of sand, I very heartily respond to these visions of a south-of-England boyhood.


The importance of types and stereotypes in Orwell’s fiction and political writing

One of those…

In reviews of his previous novels I’ve highlighted Orwell’s continual appeal to our supposed common knowledge of various types or stereotypes of English life. He continues this trait in this novel, in fact it sits much better with Bowling’s cheeky-chappy, button-holing personality than it did with the third-person narrator of the earlier novels. But it’s the same habit of mind.

  • Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. (p.8)
  • She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. (p.11)
  • He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly. (p.17)
  • He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. (p.22)
  • Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. (p.25)

Again and again George shows off his ability to place and situate people he sees as characteristic types.

The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway… He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails – the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough… Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me…

What I’m suggesting is that part of what Orwell’s fans and devotees describe as his honesty and his penetrating insight is actually created by this rhetorical habit of seeing the whole world in terms of recognisable and knowable types. This technique makes the world seem rational and susceptible to understanding, as organised, arranged and presented by an author who is a supreme knower of human types and behaviour. You bow before his wisdom.

  • I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally…
  • She was one of those people who never say much, but remain on the edge of any conversation that’s going on, and give the impression that they’re listening…
  • They had a little dark house in one of those buried back-streets that exist in Ealing.
  • Then they nearly joined one of those women’s clubs which go for conducted tours round factories
  • I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day.

He is a man of the world, he knows all theses types, you know the sort, and he flatters the reader by expecting you to be, too.

Types and sterotypes

  • He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type…
  • I’m the type that can sell things on commission…
  • I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level.
  • He was the usual type, completely bald, almost invisible behind his moustache, and full of stories about cobras and cummerbunds and what the district collector said in ‘93.
  • I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.

Yes, I know the type.

Stereotypes and Socialism

Having paid all this attention to Orwell’s use of types, half way through the book I had an epiphany.

In many ways political beliefs are built on ‘types’ of people, types we represent and speak for, types we oppose, who are our enemies. This was certainly true of the rather simple-minded (to our eye) political beliefs of the 1930s. To the Socialists their enemies are upper-class toffs, bankers, the bourgeoisie, the rentier class. To the Tory the enemy is the Bolshevik, the anarchist, the trade unionist, the stroppy worker. To the feminists of the day (who Orwell routinely lampoons: see the pert librarian who disapproves of Gordon Comstock asking for a book on midwifery, convinced he only wants to look at ‘dirty’ pictures) all men are horrible perverts only interested in one thing.

My questions are:

  1. To what extent is stereotyping your enemy vital to political discourse, in general?
  2. And what part do these types and stereotypes play in the formulation and expression of Orwell’s political beliefs?

Although his work is riddled with defences of ‘democratic socialism’, as even his own publisher, Victor Gollancz, explained in the apologetic preface he inserted before the second part of The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell nowhere actually defines what Socialism is – except for a few trite phrases about justice and decency. Instead, the second part of Wigan Pier -which was intended as a 100-page long account of his intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism – mostly consists of Orwell setting up a whole series of straw men through the use of types and stereotypes – and then all-too-easily demolishing them. As a political manifesto, it is an embarrassing, almost incoherent failure.

Instead of proposing detailed plans to, say, nationalise key industries, to re-organise the economy, to create a nationalised health and education service – Orwell wastes these hundred pages addressing so-called objections the man-in-the-street might have to Socialism, via stereotypical caricatures of the views of its opponents. Thus he says the average person might be put off socialism because of the association that’s grown up with it and the kind of shiny technological future depicted in so many of H.G. Wells’s novels and tracts and magazine articles. The man-in-the-street doesn’t fancy that kind of technological future and so he (mistakenly) rejects socialism.

My point is that this farrago relies on a) trusting Orwell to know that this is in fact a major objection of the man-in-the-street to socialism b) accepting his much reduced and caricatured summary of Wells’s position and then c) accepting Orwell’s argument that a socialist future need not be a repellent one of glass and chrome.

This entire argument is so eccentric, so beside the point, that there’s something comic about it, and there is always something a little comic about Orwell’s use of human types, whether in his fiction or political essays. Something a little too pat, a little cartoonish. ‘It’s always that way with X.’ ‘They’re the type who Y.’ ‘He’s one of those Z.’ ‘Of course, the real bourgeoisie does A…  the true socialist says Y… the fascist type yells C…’

Look here, he always seems to be saying, I’m a man of the world and these people always say, do, promise, lie or behave in the following ways. It’s one thing when you’re listening to a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman in the pub; quite another when you’re deciding the future of the country.

To some extent, George Bowling is of course a parody of George Orwell’s own instincts, feelings and beliefs. Just as he cranked up his hatred of the modern world and conflicted self-loathing to create the wretched protagonist of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, so in Coming Up For Air he exaggerates both his sentimental nostalgia for a perfect England and his fear for the future.

You know

Backing away from the political implications, there’s no doubt that this button-holing and shoulder-nudging you towards acquiescence in the narrator’s thoughts and experiences is a major part of the rhetorical strategy of Orwell’s fiction.

George is propping up the bar and while the barmaid fetches another round of drinks, launches off on another story about one of those… you know the type… the kind of chap who…

  • You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses…
  • You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell…
  • You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days…
  • You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything…
  • You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton…
  • You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro…
  • You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk…
  • You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away…
  • You know those tennis clubs in the genteel suburbs — little wooden pavilions and high wire- netting enclosures where young chaps in rather badly cut white flannels prance up and down, shouting ‘Fifteen forty!’ and ‘Vantage all!’ in voices which are a tolerable imitation of the Upper Crust…
  • Do you know these Anglo-Indian families? It’s almost impossible, when you get inside these people’s houses, to remember that out in the street it’s England and the twentieth century. As soon as you set foot inside the front door you’re in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes about tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ‘87…
  • It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on…
  • You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy…
  • Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type…
  • You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day..
  • You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into…
  • You know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you…
  • You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them…
  • You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same…
  • I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea – China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in…
  • As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling…
  • Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath…
  • Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something?
  • You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers – utter lack of interest…
  • Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’?
  • You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type

Orwell, and his narrators, always know her type. They know all types. They are experts in all types of human and on the entire human condition. It is upon this claim to universal knowledge of human nature, upon this barrage of ‘types’ and ‘you knows’ that we are meant to place our trust in them.

Comments

Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air as soon as he’d finished Homage to Catalonia, the terrifying account of his time in Spain during the early stage of the Spanish civil war. He wrote Coming Up during a six-month stay in North Africa, from September 1938 to March 1939, which was recommended by his doctors on account of his poor health.

What a period to be outside of England and outside of Europe, looking in, looking back. From the Munich Crisis (September 1938) via Kristallnacht (November 1938) to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia  in March 1939.

Pretty obviously these were the twin sources of the powerful nostalgia which is Coming Up For Air‘s ultimate mood:

  • He had seen Soviet-style political terror in Barcelona and it made him re-evaluate the enduring value of the docile freedoms of England.
  • And then he was out of England for six long months, writing a book in which a middle-aged man reminisces about his boyhood in rural England, surely given piquancy at every turn from the fact that it was written under such very alien skies.

Ultimately Coming Up For Air is a dubious achievement as a novel – with little plot, almost no interaction among the characters and too much of a feeling that it is preaching at you – you could say that it dramatises a predicament more than a believable personality. But Orwell’s writing is marvellous throughout: you can open it at any page and immediately be drawn in by the vividness of the imagined details and the clarity of his wonderfully forthright, lucid prose.


Credit

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell was published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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