Nadja by André Breton (1928)

What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes? What was it they reflected – some obscure distress and at the same time some luminous pride? (p.65)

Reading Ruth Brandon’s group biography of the Surrealists, Surrealist Lives, prompted me to track down this, the most famous work by the group’s domineering leader, the writer, poet, critic André Breton. It is, according to the blurb, ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’.

It is also a huge disappointment. After only a few pages I wanted it to hurry up and finish and was relieved to realise there are quite a few illustrations (44 in fact) which mercifully reduce the length of this tedious book, only 150 or so pages in the Penguin paperback edition, to under 110 pages of text.

It is not shocking or revolutionary or subversive. Nadja is characterised by:

  • a contorted prose style which makes it hard to understand
  • an inability to gather its thoughts into a coherent order
  • triviality and irrelevance of its examples
  • a dismaying heartlessness towards the young woman at its centre
  • Breton’s astonishingly humourless self-absorption

Part one

Nadja is in three parts. Part one jumps straight in with the most important subject in the world – Breton himself – in its opening sentence:

Who am I?

The answer relies on a French proverb which is not quoted in full or explained in a note, so we never learn what it is exactly, but which apparently involves the word ‘haunt’. This linguistic accident gives rise to a long disquisition on how the ghost of dead selves ‘haunt’ the current self, about how the ‘self’ can’t be defined in existing categories and so on – Breton rewording ideas about identity that had been discussed by Arthur Rimbaud 60 years earlier (‘je est un autre’, as Rimbaud famously wrote) and far more systematically by Sigmund Freud a generation earlier, in fact by lots of other writers.

Breton’s style is dry and airless, without any colour or (as mentioned) humour, convoluted and contorted, evincing a kind of academic self-importance. To say that Breton is a man who gives himself airs is an understatement.

Such reflections lead me to the conclusion that criticism, abjuring, it is true, its dearest prerogatives but aiming, on the whole, at a goal less futile than the automatic adjustment of ideas, should confine itself to scholarly incursions upon the very realm supposedly barred to it, and which, separate from the work, is a realm where the author’s personality, victimised by the petty events of daily life, expresses itself quite freely and often in so distinctive a manner. (p.13)

It’s all like that. It’s like reading concrete. It’s like drowning in a giant vat of glue. He means the artist’s personality is more important than the work – pretty much the opposite to the current point of view.

Part one moves on to a list of works which have moved Breton, with a predictable jog-trot through the accepted canon of proto-Surrealist writers – Rimbaud, de Sade, Lautreamont. It seamlessly moves on to discussing places in Paris, particular streets or statues or shop signs, which have strangely indefinably moved him, along with (to him) odd coincidences, like being able to predict where shops with particular names will be along a street, or bumping into someone at a theatre and later receiving a letter from them without realising it was the same person (Paul Eluard).

Only very slowly does it become clear that this section is ‘about’ what Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’. Apparently (and it’s only by reading the introduction to the book and the Wikipedia article about it that you can really understand this) the notion of significant coincidences was a key element in early Surrealism, along with ‘automatic writing’ and the importance of dreams. For the Surrealists they were all strategies or techniques for evading the mind’s rational ‘bourgeois’ constraints and tapping directly into our unconscious, into the true and deepest sources of human creativity.

Here’s an example of such a ‘petrifying coincidence’: On one of his dates with Nadja, she and Breton walk from the Place Dauphine to a bar called ‘the Dauphine’ and Breton points out that, when he and friends play the game of comparing each other to animals, more often than not he is compared to a dolphin (‘dauphin’ in French)! Not, maybe, that utterly earth-shattering.

It would be easier to understand what Breton was on about if he explained it lucidly – if there were some sentences early in part one describing what he’s trying to do (list spooky places and strange coincidences designed to help you appreciate the non-rational Surrealist worldview) – or if he could write simple clear declarative sentences. But he can’t.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has a really bad stutter – quite quickly you find yourself willing them to just spit it out; you can see what they’re driving at and you just want to help them get over their crippling debility, which is obviously causing them agonies of frustration. Reading Breton is like that. He has got something to say but he seems cripplingly unable to express it.

And instead of the fluency he so sorely lacks, his prose displays a kind of roughshod, domineering quality, a determination to make himself heard, no matter how incoherent what he’s saying.

I must insist, lastly, that such accidents of thought not be reduced to their unjust proportions as faits-divers, random episodes, so that when I say, for instance, that the statue of Etienne Dolet on its plinth in the Place Maubert in Paris has always fascinated me and induced unbearable discomfort, it will not immediately be supposed that I am merely ready for psychoanalysis, a method I respect and whose present aims I consider nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself, and of which I expect other exploits than those of a bouncer. (p.24)

What?

The pope of Surrealism

Breton became known as the ‘pope’ of Surrealism for the iron control he exercised over the movement. He regularly staged trials and inquisitions into members who had in any way strayed from what he defined as the True Faith, which in practice meant dropping writers, poets or artists, if they disagreed with him (which almost all the other Surrealists did at one stage or another). This self-centred self-importance is on ample display in this book:

  • I must insist…
  • Which leads me to my own experience…
  • Nantes: perhaps, with Paris, the only city in France where I feel that something worth while can happen to me…
  • I have always, beyond belief, hoped to meet, at night and in a woods, a beautiful naked woman or rather, since such a wish once expressed means nothing, I regret, beyond belief, not having met her…
  • Meanwhile, you can be sure of meeting me in Paris, of not spending more than three days without seeing me pass, toward the end of the afternoon, along the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle between the Matin printing office and the Boulevard Strasbourg. I don’t know why it should be precisely here that my feet take me…

Paradoxically, the technique of recording every dream, every strange coincidence, every funny feeling you have about a statue or a narrow alley somewhere in Paris, it all runs the risk of seeming very inconsequential. For example, Breton goes on to inform us that his favourite film is called The Grip of the Octopus, giving us several scenes from it which haunt his imagination – and then, unbelievably, by far the longest section of part one (six pages) is devoted to retelling the entire plot of a play he once saw, a thriller which leads up to the discovery of a child’s corpse in a cupboard, which was accompanied by a piercing scream which riveted him to his seat.

Similarly, we learn that reading Rimbaud in 1915 gave him an ‘extremely deep and vivid emotion’. That one day, years later, he was walking in the countryside in the rain when a strange woman fell into step beside him and asked if she could recite a Rimbaud poem to him. And then again, just recently, that he was at the Saint-Ouen flea market when he came across a copy of Rimbaud’s poems amidst the bric-a-brac, which had some hand-written poems among the pages. The book, and the poems, turn out to belong to the stall-keeper, a pretty young woman, who he namechecks. That’s it. It takes half a page to describe.

It’s only towards the end of this first part that Breton explains (in his convoluted way) that he has been trying to give us examples of what the Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’ and explains a little about the non-rational world he thinks they open up for us.

I imagine he intended this to be a dazzling insight into his and the Surreal worldview. But instead it seems thumpingly banal and ineffectual. If this is it, if this is the basis of the entire Surrealist movement in art and literature – some places give you a spooky feeling, some coincidences feel eerie – then you can see why so very little of Surrealist literature has survived or been translated into English. It seems crushingly boring.

Part two – Nadja

This ham-fisted and disappointing insight into the worldview of Surrealism out of the way, part two is finally about the woman of the title. On page 63 Breton finally meets ‘Nadja’, bumping into her in the street. She’s an attractive young woman, who immediately engages him in intense conversation – about her work (about work in general, and ‘Freedom’), about her lover who jilted her, about her family. He is entranced by her candour.

If part one has done anything it has shown how Breton in effect melodramatises quite humdrum events and feelings into Great Insights Into the Unconscious. So it’s prepared us for the fact that Breton reacts to every tremble and hesitation from this strange young woman as if it physically touches his oh-so-precious sensibility.

She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. (p.64)

I met lots of young women like this at parties in my 20s and 30s, fey, sensitive and spiritual souls, bruised by the hard world, treated badly by beastly men, cramped by horrible jobs – women who are too good for this world, women quick to tell you how spiritual they are, how much they care about the environment, how they only live for their cats.

She is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvellously, for life! (p.90)

Breton presents his idealised portrait of a hauntingly sensitive young woman as being somehow new, when it struck me as being incredibly old, really really ancient, a timeworn Romantic cliché. 115 years earlier Lord Byron had written:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

and this story of a sensitive poet falling under the spell of a delicate young woman struck me as the opposite of innovative, new and interesting.

I’ve recently read descriptions of the Futurist Marinetti in 1912 yelling through a megaphone at tourists in Venice to burn the gondolas – that was funny and original. I’ve been reading about the madcap provocations of Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists in Zurich, dressing up in cardboard costumes and reciting poetry to the beat of a bass drum. I keep reading about Marcel Duchamp exhibiting his famous urinal in 1917. All these are still startling, new and entertaining.

André Breton sitting in a café in Paris listening to a slightly unhinged young lady telling him about her boyfriend problems…. well… it just seemed incredibly dull and ordinary. And sentimental, Christ! he sounds like a puppyish teenager scribbling in his diary.

She told me her name, the one she had chosen for herself: ‘Nadja, because in Russian it’s the beginning of the world hope, and because it’s only the beginning.’ (p.66)

As you might well imagine it turns out that Nadja’s health is delicate, exactly like any number of beautiful poor young women in 19th century novels or Romantic operas. Nadja loves her mother (‘I love mother. I wouldn’t hurt her for anything in the world’). And – surprise – she’s no good with money.

In other words, Nadja comes across as more stupefyingly dull than words can convey. And yet the stolid humourless Breton seems to be endlessly moved by her tedious vapourings.

  • More moved than I care to show…
  • I am deeply moved…
  • This is one of the compliments that has moved me most in my life…

I couldn’t really believe the tone of fatuous self-importance which dominates the text and, for me, was epitomised when, towards the end of their first chat, strolling through the streets:

About to leave her, I want to ask one question which sums up all the rest, a question which only I could ever ask, probably, but which has at least once found a reply worthy of it: ‘Who are you?’ (p.71)

I have read and reread this, but Breton really seems to think that asking a stranger who he’s just met who she is, is a mark of genius, is ‘a question which only I could ever ask’.

Of course, he means it in a more poetic sense than you or I could ever mean it, because he is a POET. He is driving at a deeper enquiry into her soul and identity than just her name (which she’s already given us) and I suppose is referencing the ‘discussion’, if you can call it that, of identity with which he opened the book.

And she answers as only the sensitive young woman in a POET’s life could ever answer:

I am the soul in limbo. (p.71)

This is sentimental horseshit, and I am staggered at its sub-Romantic, pimply, teenage clichédness. Who would ever have predicted that ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’ would be so tiresomely ‘sensitive’ and boring.

The novels of Jean-Paul Sartre are infinitely more weird and disorienting than this. Nadja feels like the work of an immensely boring, utterly normal person trying to force himself into being interesting and sensitive and spooky – and the best he can come up with is ‘odd coincidences’ and an encounter with a slightly bonkers young woman. Really?

The encounters start as a diary of a sequence of days in October, going into detail about their meetings, conversations, wanderings round Paris over the course of a week or two.

Without any explanation the narrative then breaks into scattered memories of Nadja’s increasingly disconnected sayings, random phrases, fears of underground passages and of people watching her. It includes a series of pictures she scribbled on the back of postcards and scraps of paper which Breton takes as signs of uncanny genius, but which look like exactly the kind of pictures you or I might scribble on the back of postcards.

And then, suddenly, the narration pulls right back from Nadja. With sudden detachment Breton reports that he was told, ‘several months ago’, that Nadja was found raving in the hallway of her hotel and sent to a sanatorium.

You might have thought this would elicit quite a lot of concern about her, maybe a visit to the sanatorium, letters to get her released and so o. But no, instead it prompts a lengthy diatribe against psychiatry, Breton ranting against the power doctors have to deprive people of their freedom, in which he loses sight of Nadja altogether and instead imagines the fight that he, the Surrealist poet André Breton, would put up in an insane asylum, taking the first opportunity to murder a doctor and being locked up in solitary.

Brave words from bully boy Breton.

Part three

Part three is short, at just ten pages or so with a few photographs. It starts with characteristic self-absorption and bewildering lack of clarity, making it quite difficult to figure out what it’s about.

I envy (in a manner of speaking) any man who has the time to prepare something like a book and who, having reached the end, finds the means to be interested in its fate or in the fate which, after all, it creates for him. (p.147)

So it’s a passage at the end of a book about how difficult he finds it to imagine someone who can end a book. After struggling to express himself on the subject of how difficult he finds it to express himself, there are a few last scattered memories of Nadja – one particularly hair-raising one where they are driving along and she puts her foot over onto the accelerator pedal, making the car suddenly jerk forward, till he manages to get her to take it off again.

But then, in the last four pages, the entire narrative completely changes tone altogether. Out of the blue it suddenly addresses someone referred to only as ‘You’, a ‘you’ who, apparently, is a bringer of huge emotional turmoil to our confused author, addressed in Breton’s usual rambling manner.

That is the story that I too yielded to the desire to tell you, when I scarcely knew you – you who can no longer remember but who, as if by chance, knowing of the beginning of this book, have intervened so opportunely, so violently, and so effectively, doubtless to remind me that I wanted it to be ‘ajar, like a door’ and that through this door I should probably never see anyone come in but you – come in and go out but you. (p.157)

Confusingly, the entire story of Nadja suddenly seems a thing of the distant past, completely eclipsed by this sudden inexplicable obsession with this mysterious ‘you’.

Since you exist, as you alone know how to exist, it was perhaps not so necessary that this book should exist. I have decided to write it nevertheless, in memory of the conclusion I wanted to give it before knowing you and which your explosion into my life has not rendered vain. (p.158)

This incoherent finale to the book only made any kind of sense when I read then turned to read the introduction.

The introduction

The introduction to this Penguin edition of Nadja is by Mark Polizzotti who is a biographer of Breton.

To my surprise he quotes some of the tritest, most sentimental passages about Nadja with apparent approval, which at first dismayed me. But then he goes on to give a fascinating account of what actually happened – what Nadja is actually about – which is far more interesting than Breton’s bombastic bragging.

Polizzotti explains that ‘Nadja’ was actually Léona-Camile-Ghislaine D., last name unknown to this day, born in 1902, who Breton met in the street in October 1926, and then met again and again obsessively over the period of a month or so. Breton introduced her to his Surrealist colleagues (impressed by her intensity) and his long-suffering wife Simone Kahn (intellectual collaborator, sounding board but not, apparently, sexual partner).

Breton the big-talking poet entranced Léona just as much as she beguiled him – it was a short sharp affair which climaxed in a train ride out of town to a rural hotel where they had sex. This physical act Breton, apparently, found unsatisfying, and soon after he began withdrawing himself from her. She continued to try to meet him, bombarding him with letters and drawings – and it’s these increasingly desperate messages which account for the way the middle part of the book changes from distinct diary entries to a haphazard set of fragmented memories, notes, sayings, and photos of the drawings she sent Breton.

One day Léona was found raving and hallucinating in the hallway of her cheap hotel, reported to the police who called the medics who took her off to an asylum. According to Polizzotti, some of the Surrealists she’d been introduced to visited her there, but Breton didn’t. Léona was transferred on to another hospital in 1928 (just about the time Nadja was published), where she remained incarcerated until her death from cancer in 1941.

Breton using Léona

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Breton, desperate to write something, anything, in the mid-1920s to assert his control and leadership of the Surrealist movement – desperate to compete with the outrageous pronouncements of the Dada provocateur Tristan Tzara or the fluent lyricism of his friend, Louis Aragon – used his chance encounter with Léona, her intensity, insights and ultimate madness, to create a text notable for its self-aggrandisement and self-promotion.

You don’t have to be a feminist to find this rather despicable, as despicable as the fact that he had his sexual way with her, then dumped her to return to his wife, letting her go mad and be locked up without once visiting her.

Suzanne

And according to Polizzotti, this was at least in part because Breton had by now fallen madly in love with the statuesque mistress of a fellow writer (Emmanuel Berl), one Suzanne Muzard.

Having met her only a few times Breton persuaded Suzanne to run off to the South of France with him (from where Breton wrote long letters describing every development in his infatuation to his long-suffering wife, Simone).

But when Suzanne insisted that Breton leave Simone and marry her, Breton didn’t know what to do; Suzanne insisted they return to Paris; her former lover Berl got back in touch offering her a secure home and money, so she rejoined him and they set off abroad. Breton got wind they were departing from the Gare de Lyon and rushed there to confront her as she left, but she chose money and comfort over passion, love (wise woman).

So it takes quite a lot of explaining to get to the point of realising that it is Suzanne who is addressed as ‘you’ in the final pages of Nadja.

Without the long and thorough factual explanation given in Polizzotti’s introduction the reader would have no way of making sense of the way this ‘you’ supersedes Nadja in a firework display of schoolboy gush.

All I know is that this substitution of persons stops with you, because nothing can be substituted for you, and because for me it was for all eternity that this succession of terrible or charming enigmas was to come to an end at your feet. (p.158)

Pathetic.

Failure to communicate

According to Polizzotti, Breton had intended to close Nadja with a final section which would be ‘a long meditation on beauty, a kind of beauty consisting of “jolts and shocks” as represented by Nadja and her unsettling presence’. You can see how this might have worked – how the uncanny moments and strange insights of Nadja could be associated with the opening section about coincidences and spooky locations, all drawn together to put forward a case for a new aesthetic, an aesthetic of the irrational, the accidental, the uncanny, the inexplicable.

Unfortunately, Breton found himself simply unable to do it. All he managed was a few last pages about Nadja, into which suddenly erupt a handful of pages of fifth-form gush about Suzanne, and then, abruptly, one page (one page!) which in a half-baked way leads up to the most famous thing in the book, its last sentence:

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will be nothing at all. (p.160)

What a shame, what a real shame that he didn’t have the wit or intelligence to go back over his own text and summarise the findings of a) his general thoughts about coincidence b) the specific case study of Nadja, and produce a systematic and blistering defence of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Instead, the preceding 160 pages amount to a badly organised ragbag of subjective impressions, silly premonitions, pretentious conversations with a fragile young woman, crappy hand-drawn sketches, boring photographs of Paris streets, gestures towards an aesthetic which in no way really build a case.

You could be smart and argue that the text’s very failure to make much sense or mount a coherent argument enacts the Surrealist aesthetic of fragments and the anti-rational, but that’s not very persuasive. There’s a difference between the artful placing of fragments – as done by countless modern artists, collagists and photomontagists, done with wit and style – and this spavined text, which so overtly struggles with Breton’s own lack of style and inability to write clearly or coherently.

Breton comes across from this book as a humourless, pompous and self-important prig, and this is exactly the impression you get reading Ruth Brandon’s 450-page long account of the Surrealists. One of the colleagues he expels from the group describes him as a schoolboy bully. Exactly.

And why is he talking about ‘beauty’, like some 18th century connoisseur or some 188os dandy? In the age of Duchamp’s anti-art, Tsara and Arp and Ball’s Dada, Grosz’s searing satirical paintings, Heartfield’s photomontages or Man Ray’s solarised photographs, it seems almost unbelievably retrograde, reactionary and obtuse to be crapping on about ‘beauty’. Beauty? What has beauty got to do with anything?

In every way Nadja seems to me an extravagantly feeble, badly written, pompous, sentimental, self-centred failure of a piece of steaming, putrid donkey dung.


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The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (1982)

People sensed that Katri Kling did not trust or care about anyone except herself and the brother she had raised and protected since he was six years old. (p.26)

Generations of English-speaking children were brought up on Jansson’s illustrated Moomin books which are immensely charming to look at and, in their narratives, full of consolations and comforts (generally tea and sandwiches provided by the ever-reliable Moominmamma).

Only in the noughties did Jannson’s ten books for adults start to be published into English and to reveal a completely different aspect of Jansson’s character, an unnerving, adult quality.

Some of Jansson’s short stories were still about children’s lives seen from a child’s perspective (The Summer BookThe Sculptor’s Daughter) but even these combine sweet childish perceptions with other, more disturbing, adult themes, with a dis-enchanted view of the difficulty of human relations, even between people who ‘love’ one another. The characters are quite harsh with each other and on themselves.

The True Deceiver

The True Deceiver is her second real novel (The Summer Book really being a collection of themed stories).

We are in the Finnish fishing port of Västerby. It is the coldest winter anyone can remember, with an immense snowfall blanketing everything in white. Katri Kling is 25. She is the unpopular older sister of Mats, 15, who she has looked after since he was a child. Their father left. Then their mother died. She is Mats’s sole carer. She had a job in the village store until she quit abruptly a few months earlier. It is strongly hinted that the shop keeper tried it on with her and she ridiculed him. He was livid. Life became unbearable. She quit. Since Mats and Katri live in the one-room apartment above this same shop, it is a ticklish situation.

Katri walks their dog, which they have given no name, through the village, and the adults mutter about her and the children shout abuse. She needs to do something for her and Mats’s future.

Up on the hill, in the grand house, lives old Anna Aemelin. Long ago her parents died and left her the big house with the thick pine woods behind it, which – with its two chimneys for ears, two bow windows for eyes, and vertical frames of the central doorway – locals have nicknamed the ‘rabbit house’.

A name which is also relevant because of Anna Aemelin’s profession – she draws cartoon rabbits. Miss Anna is a very successful and world-famous cartoonist and book illustrator (as, of course, was Jansson, and several other characters in her short stories). Miss Anna has the success of monomania, she is extraordinarily brilliant at depicting the traditional Finnish forest floor in immense and scintillating detail, at conveying its ‘deep-forest mystique’ (p.33).

But from an artistic point of view she spoils the effect by then drawing on top a family of bunny rabbits which – for some reason – have flowers growing out of their fur. Every year a new bunny rabbit story comes out (her publishers supply the actual text, Anna does the illustrations) and sells around the world to excited small children, who then write her countless letters wanting to come and visit, to meet the flowery rabbits, to live with her etc.

The novel describes how the extremely blunt and practical Katri inveigles her way into the household of Miss Aemelin. It’s actually pretty simple, this isn’t a hi-tech espionage thriller. Katri offers to deliver groceries up to the old house. Then the post. Then begins to sort out her fridge, throws away the food she doesn’t like, order food which Miss Anna actually likes… and so on.

Slowly she makes herself invaluable. But again, it isn’t a psycho chiller where the protagonist has wicked plans. She just wants a safe place to live and a future for her and her simple-minded brother. The central ‘event’ which tends to get picked up in the blurb and in reviews is that the villagers hear of a burglary in the next village and Katri has the idea to ‘stage’ a burglary at the rabbit house. This consists of her going up one night in a snowstorm, opening the kitchen door (which isn’t locked; none of the doors are locked), walking around in her snowy shoes on the rug, emptying the silver tea service into a sack and walking out again. Out in the woods she throws the sack away, then goes home. The snow covers her tracks.

Next morning Katri arrives to find a dozy policeman at the house and Miss Anna’s friends gossip that she shouldn’t be alone up in the big house etc. With hardly any nudging she wonders whether Katri and her brother would like to move in. And so they do.

The real heart of the story is the emotional or psychological impact the three characters have on each other once they start living together. Katri, in her harsh, tactless, unrestrained way, had almost immediately started telling Miss Anna that the local shopkeepers were swindling her, just a little, but slowly and routinely. Miss Anna is shocked. Once she’s moved in, Katri takes over all aspects of Miss Anna’s household, tidying from top to bottom. She discovers a vast trove of correspondence with publishers, merchandisers and hundreds of children, which Miss Anna has been too timid or too intimidated to answer.

Katri, in her brisk no-nonsense way, goes through these with a fine tooth comb and discovers that Miss Anna has been ripped off by her publishers and anyone else she’s done business with for decades. Katri forces Miss Anna to face facts and make much tougher deals with all her business partners, which leads to a noticeable chilling of tone in the new letters from them. Without any prompting from Katri, Miss Anna decides that Katri ought to share some of the new, improved profits from her writings. Katri very coldly calculates how much she will acquire and how soon. At night she dreams of money.

By the same token she tells Miss Anna she has to be more blunt and honest with the children some of whom, it turns out, she’s been making all sorts of reckless promises, for example that they can come and live in bunny rabbit country with her. No they can’t. Katri suggests sending them all the identical photostated letter, the only unique bit being Miss Anna’s signature. They bicker about this. Miss Anna slowly comes to distrust absolutely everyone, all the tradesmen in the village, everyone who writes her letters.

Meanwhile there is an important relationship between Miss Anna and Mats. Mats is simple. He is allowed to help out at the boat-builders yard belonging to the four Liljeberg brothers. (God, it is all so Scandinavian – everything feels so folkish and elemental and pure.) In fact, Mats is obsessed with boats, and has been making beautiful sketches of the boats the brothers build, in his own time.

When she sees how much money she is going to make from Miss Anna’s new deals, Katri conceives a grand plan: she will commission a boat for Mats, the boat he’s been dreaming of. It will be the focus of all her effort, it will justify a lot of what she is perfectly well aware could be seen as inveigling her way into an old lady’s confidences and money: the purity of her motives will be seen by everyone once it is known that she did it all for her brother.

Meanwhile, Mats forms a typically Janssonesque relationship with Miss Anna. She is (in case it hasn’t come over already) quite a simple soul, brought up in a protected and sheltered environment by well-off parents, and she transmits a lot of that innocence in her wonderful children’s illustrations. So early on we discover that she loves reading children’s adventure stories and – do does Mats! Thus Katri will be slaving away in the kitchen or come back from a snowy shopping trip and find Miss Anna and Mats sitting in complete silence in the drawing room, both utterly absorbed by some teen adventure book. Miss Anna shows Mats round her vast library of children’s books and then she starts ordering new ones, and every time the same pattern: Mats reads them, Miss Anna reads them, they intently discuss the plots and characters. Otherwise they hardly talk at all.

They rarely talked to each other. They owned a silence together that was peaceful and straightforward. (p.45)

Very Janssonesque.

Oh and there’s the dog, the nameless dog. And the dog becomes a symbol of what goes wrong in all these relationships. Because things don’t turn out as any of them intend.

Miss Anna can’t deny that Katri has been scrupulously honest and has gotten her vastly improved deals with publishers and merchandisers and organised things so that she is replying to children’s letters on time and appropriately. But she is also getting harder, more suspicious. Living in close proximity to Katri’s unsentimental harshness brutalises her.

After one particularly bitter row she takes it out on the dumb dog (a German shepherd). She pushes it out of the house into the snow and chucks a stick, shouting at it to fetch. The dog’s never done this before and it takes quite a few sticks, on that occasion and on others, to make it fetch and carry. Slowly, it becomes more like a traditional dog. The eerie complicity that all the villagers noted between tall gaunt Katri and her nameless dog, begins to disintegrate. The dog leaves the house and roams the woods. They – and the villagers – hear it howling at night. It captures rabbits from the postman’s chicken run. It goes wild. In a strange moment it reappears one day, trailing Katri as she walks out to the (locked) lighthouse on the point and, suddenly, savagely, attacks her, before running off.

It is a symbol of how Katri has upset old relationships. For now, as the spring arrives, Miss Anna discovers a disaster – to her horror, when she goes out to look for the first signs of forest floor appearing through the melting winter snow – she no longer feels any magic; the thrill in her soul and the special spectral way she saw all the luminous details of the pine and moss woodland floor has… gone. She is neutered. Katri has made her practical and hard-headed and… it has destroyed her one great talent.

Something a bit more convoluted happens with Mats. Katri has sworn the boat-builders to secrecy about the new boat they’re making being for Mats, although he obviously notices, in fact watches intently, as it takes shape at the boatyard. But Miss Anna, overhearing the builders talking about it, announces to Mats that she has commissioned it as a present for him. He is confused, but Katri is distraught. The one thing justifying all her behaviour was the thought that she would spring this great surprise on him. Later on she does tell Mats the boat is from him, and Miss Anna realises her mistake and backs down. But poor old Mats (and the reader) are left pretty confused.

At a ceremony at the boat-builders all three are present when the brothers reveal the final finished boat and Mats, called on to name it, christens it Katri. It’s certainly the right decision but it’s been a tortuous route getting here. Katri tries to apologise to Miss Anna, telling her it was all lies, everything she said about the shopkeepers diddling her and the publishers giving her bad deals and so on. Miss Anna listens patiently but knows that, now, Katri is lying to try and fix everything. Mats gives Katri an exquisite model of the boat of his dreams which he has been working on all of this time. Miss Anna takes a newly dominant, commanding tone, and tells Katri to be quiet and go and lie down for a rest.

And then, on the final page, Miss Anna goes out to the forest, now clear of snow, elaborately sets up her drawing equipment, and begins one of her inspired and luminous portrayals of the forest undergrowth.

Anna sat and waited for the morning mist to draw off through the woods. The silence she needed was complete. And when every bothersome element had departed, the forest floor emerged, moist and dark and ready to burst with all the things waiting to grow. Cluttering the ground with flowery rabbits would have been unthinkable. (p.201)

So I think what happens, is that Miss Anna has been through a kind of growing experience. At first she was shocked by Katri’s revelation of the brutality and two-facedness of the world around her – the cheating shop-keepers, the gossiping the villagers, the upsetting burglary – into artistic impotence. She had become hard like Katri, too hard to still be open and receptive to the childish vision which allowed her to paint.

But now, here at the very end of the story, after watching Katri abase herself in apology, after watching Mats get his dream boat come true, now… now her gift has returned – but in adult form. I think it means she can draw the forest floor as before, but this time untainted by silly commercial cartoons.

So I think this part, at least, of the novel has turned out to be about artistic growth and rebirth. It’s a happy ending. Sort of…

Simplicity

Paragraph after paragraph opens with clear, simple declarative sentences, building up a sense of tremendous clarity and simplicity.

  • It had been snowing along the coast for a month.
  • The boat builders in Västerby were proud men.
  • Mats came home from the boatyard as dusk came on.
  • A white wrought-ironflower table ran beneath the window in Anna’s bedroom.
  • Katri walked out towards the point.
  • Anna always thought of herself as a painter of the ground.
  • They had come home.

Credit is due to the translator Thomas Teal, since it is his words that we are actually reading. It would be fascinating to get his opinion: did he find Jansson easy or hard to translate. I bet he’d say her vocabulary in the original Swedish is simple, but full of nuances and delicacy which is hard to translate – but that’s a guess.

Jansson’s Nordic appeal

1. Foreign books escape the clutches of the British, or specifically, English class system. English books sooner or later have to categorise, slot, define and contain their characters by their class and location – Northerners are rough, southerners are public school toffs, yummy mummies, London chavs and so, tediously, on.

Foreign books know nothing of all this and so often appear more primal and basic, treating people as people. It has to be pointed out to us that someone is a peasant or poor; the characters come without the infestation of social signifiers we are used to in our own language.

2. Also, Jansson’s books deliberately ignore the modern world. There are hardly any machines, no planes or cars, coaches, buses, noise, air or light pollution in them. The village postman skis into the nearby town to collect the mail and groceries. Instead, her characters live on remote islands close to nature. It’s a shock when they even use the telephone.

3. These qualities of being outside the English class system and the complete absence of 20th century technology, combine with Jansson’s carefully simple style to give her stories the tremendous force of folk or fairy tales. On page two Katri’s father goes off north to buy a load of timber and never comes back. That doesn’t happen in English fiction. That happens in Viking sagas or fantasy fiction.

4. And there’s the snow, the white primal backdrop to all the events in this novel, snow in depth and abundance and permanence unknown to an English audience.

Thus all the characters and situations have this simple, white, primary quality. In the Moomin books she draws cute forest animals onto this backdrop. In the stories about children (The Summer Book) the children’s nightmares, obsessions, fears and safe spaces are all the more vivid for standing out against the (deceptively simple) natural backdrops.

In this book for the first time we encounter a number of adults, each with that terrible adult habit of having their own lives, characters, motivations and feelings. And the primitiveness of their motivations and responses are as starkly drawn as in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman film.

Instability of narrator and time

Several of the short stories in Art in Nature switched narrator in mid-story, or cut between a third-person narrator and the first-person point of view of the main character (The LocomotiveA Sense of Time).

The same happens here (though more in the first half, when we are watching Katri hatch her plan to be taken into Miss Anna’s household). The conventional third person narration will suddenly jump, in the next paragraph, to Katri sharing her thoughts and plans with us. The tense changes too, the third person being in the past tense, the first person in the fraught present tense.

It’s enjoyable. It makes the text modern and dynamic. But it’s also natural. It doesn’t feel forced or show-offy. One moment we’re watching the villagers or Miss Anna from outside, next we’re in Katri’s head, reading her thoughts. Fair enough.

But at my back I always here…

Since noticing it in the final Moomin book, Moominvalley in November, I now see everywhere in Jansson’s fiction the same cluster or ideas and words, namely tiredness and the wish for rest & sleep. The characters are always tired:

  • Somehow the sister was always around, and her brother was behind her. It was unendurable, and it made Edvard Liljeberg very tired. (p.54)
  • ‘You look tired, Lijeberg said, ‘You shouldn’t take life so seriously,’ (p.176)

They long for somewhere calm and peaceful, away from people, away from bother and vexation, somewhere ordered and tranquil: both Miss Anna’s often empty house and the boatyard after work are examples of this divine tranquility.

The wind was making a racket against the metal roof but, but the vast [boatshed] seemed hugely calm and peaceful. The hull of a boat under construction was visible in the half-light, its giant ribcage in silhouette against the far wall of the windows. Broad boards that would soon be planking hung in bundles from the ceiling, and there was a smell of shavings and tar and turpentine. Katri understood why her brother always wanted to come back here to this protected world where everything was correct and clean. (p.145)

The best rest, though, the most perfect peace, is found in sleep, to which the characters resort with great frequency. They are always sleeping or waking. After this or that excitement, the natural reaction is to take a nap, go to bed, curl up in a snug bed and drift off.

Down on the road, Katri tossed the potato sack into a snowdrift and went home. For the first time in ages, she slept in a cradle of gentle dreams free of desolation and anxiety. (p.81)

When Anna lived alone, she had not noticed how often she let the daylight hours vanish in sleep. Letting sleep come closer, soft as mist, as snow; reading the same sentence again and again until it disappeared in the mist and no longer had any meaning… (p.99)

This cluster of ideas – ‘tiredness-sleep’ – is at one end of the spectrum, so to speak, the polar opposite of the other main cluster of ideas circling round states of psychological unease, disquiet and anxiety. Katri is anxious about money and Mats and the future and the narrative can be read as recording the way she infects Miss Anna with her anxieties. But many of the minor characters – the shopkeeper, the postman, the boatbuilder – at various points are described as anxious.

So, stepping back, it’s possible to see that although the individual narratives and the numerous characters in Tove Jansson’s adult stories may come and go – this polarity between anxiety and rest underlies nearly all the texts.

Of course, most readers and critics react to the characters, the plot and the settings, which are varied, clever and acutely described.

But I think the enduring sense readers of Tove Jansson have of her books’ calm beauty is due to the way, at a subconscious level, each text repeats this transition, moving the reader from scenes of anxiety to repeated and wonderfully evocative scenes of complete rest, calm and comfort. And it is these wonderfully reassuring spaces which are the abiding emotional memory left by her stories.

I wish the whole village could be covered and erased and finally clean… Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where the dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases into twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual. (p.28)

They went into the parlour. The same soft lighting, the same sense of emptiness and changelessness and dreamlike, compulsory slow motion. (p.58)

Jansson’s recurrent images of a wonderfully safe space have a kind of cleansing effect on the imagination. I’m tempted to say that they have a similarly cleansing, purifying effect as a Finnish sauna.


Credit

Den ärliga bedragaren by Tove Jansson was published in 1982. It was translated as The True Deceiver by Thomas Teal and first published by Sort of Books in 2009.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972)

When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind. Papa worked at his desk. The nets were set out and taken in. They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace. (p.41)

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is famous for writing the Moomin comic strips, picture books and stories which are still phenomenally popular 70 years after the first book was published (1945), and have been turned into cartoons, animations, TV series, movies, plays and even an opera, as well as a world of merchandise.

The last Moomin book is the sad and melancholy Moominvalley in November, published in 1970. It’s around this time that she made the transition to writing fiction for adults. The semi-autobiographical Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir came out in 1968 (her father and mother were both artists). But her big breakthrough came with The Summer Book, published in 1972, which has come to be regarded as a classic across Scandinavia.

The Summer Book

It’s short, at just 150 pages of text. It’s divided into 22 ‘chapters’ or sections i.e. the average length is just under seven pages.

The shortest is Moonlight at just two pages. Little Sophia wakes in the middle of the night to see the fire in the stove reflected several times in the windows. She tugs her Grandmother’s plait and Grandmother wakes up and reassures her that all is well. Slowly little Sophia drifts off to sleep again. Her father gets up and puts more wood in the stove.

As this chapter/story/anecdote suggests, the tales are all set on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland (very like the ones Jansson spent her childhood on and, specifically, like the one where she built a cabin and lived with her partner for most of adult life).

They focus on the relationship between an unnamed Grandmother and little Sophia. Grandmother is 85 (p.108). Her husband is long dead and referred to only once. The only other member of the household is Sophia’s father – Papa – who occasionally appears but never speaks. He is in his room writing, tending the house, fixing things around the island or – in the one story he dominates, The Enormous Plastic Sausage – buying loads of bulbs and saplings to plant across the island.

We learn that Sophia’s mother is dead (p.25), not least in the story where they make a little model ‘Venice’ out of stones and twigs on a mossy bog near the house and Sophia imagines her mother living inside a splendid palace on the Grand Canal.

The family has lived on the island for 47 years (p.101). They know every inch, they know the impact of the seasons, they know the feel of all the winds and every type of sunrise or storm.

It’s not really a novel. Certainly the same characters recur in every ‘chapter’ but there is no continuous narrative and no attempt to explore the ‘development’ of character, two attributes of your traditional novel.

It’s more like a collection of epiphanies or insights, what reading the American Beat writers taught me to think of as moments of satori, a Buddhist term for enlightenment.

The cat

Their point is their apparent inconsequentiality, an elliptical quality which is, nonetheless, charged with meaning. In The Cat Sophia is given a fisherman’s kitten which quickly grows out of being fluffy and cuddly and turns into a lean killer. Sophia grows to hate the way it brings bird corpses into the house. She shouts at it but the indifferent cat stalks out to do more hunting. Neighbours arrive by boat with a fluffy cat which they thought would catch mice but doesn’t, so they agree to swap fluffy for Sophia’s killer. Sure enough fluffy is lovely and cuddly and docile to stroke, and snuggles on Sophia’s pillow at night. After a few days she wants her killer cat back.

What you make of that, what conclusions you draw about human nature, about love, about the relationship between humans and animals or their pets – well, it’s all entirely up to you.

Unsentimental

So the anecdotes are not sentimental, they are not ‘nice’. The blurb around the book suggests it’s about one summer when a grandmother and her grand-daughter grow close but that’s very misleading. Grandmother is not a nice old lady. She smokes (though she’s struggling to cut down), fumbles with her false teeth, feels dizzy, and needs regular rests – an accurate depiction of old age.

The old woman stood up too quickly. Her walking stick rolled down into the pool, and the whole rock became an uncertain, hostile surface, arching and twisting in front of her. (p.64)

And, strikingly, she’s not even that fond of the child.

‘Bloody nitwit,’ Grandmother muttered to herself. (p.63)

Quite regularly she just wants to get away from the needy, whining, little girl to have a nap or be by herself. She gets angry. She has another crafty fag. She swears.

‘The fishing’s bloody awful,’ Grandmother said. (p.62)

She creeps off into the little pine forest by herself or lies on the moss watching the leaves or looks down at the tadpoles in a pool. She is very ungrandmotherly. She is, in other words, entirely human and wonderful.

Sophia is persistent but capricious. She’s probably what middle-class English mums I know would call rude. Certainly blunt.

‘When are you going to die?’ the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, ‘Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.’
‘Why?’ her grandchild asked.
She didn’t answer. She walked out on the rock and on towards the ravine. (p.22)

Their lack of English good manners and hesitancy are a big part of the appeal. Quite routinely, they get pettish, fretsome and plain angry – very angry – with each other.

Both of them tend to obsess about little things and then forget them and walk away. Jannson magically conveys the strange, intense but shallow passions of childhood. ‘Oh well, it’s broken, let’s play a different game now.’

Many of these involve making and creating. Grandmother is always carving shapes out of driftwood or building a little Venetian palace out of balsa wood and she inspires her grand-daughter to follow suit.

Satori is a term from Zen Buddhism and the stories’ elliptical quality keeps prompting comparison with haikus or Chinese painting, with traditions of art which are a) set in an unspoilt natural world b) spare and minimal in style, with the minimum amount of brushstrokes or description c) hint and suggest some deeper meaning or purpose but are never vulgar enough to spell it out.

Nature notes

Sophia and Grandmother’s little adventures play out against the massive unchanging landscape of this isolated Nordic island and, like a painting, between the moving human figures, you see all kinds of glimpses of the natural world – the trees, the rocks, the moss, the lichens, the seaweed and driftwood, sometimes described plainly and factually, sometimes charged with Jansson’s special tone, a kind of matter-of-fact marvelling, or a matter-of-fact prose style in which the marvelling is implicit, immanent.

It’s a funny thing about bogs. You can fill them with rocks and sand and old logs and make a little fenced-in yard on top with a woodpile and a chopping block – but bogs go right on behaving like bogs. Early in the spring they breathe ice and make their own mist, in remembrance of the time when they had black water and their own sedge blossoming untouched. (p.32)

The poetry is in the simple knowledgeability which, because it is conveyed in such spare prose, reads like wisdom.

Moss is terribly frail. Step on it once and it rises the next time it rains. The second time, it doesn’t rise back up. And the third time you step on it, it dies. Eider ducks are the same – the third time you frighten them up from their nests, they never come back. (p.29)

Since most of us live in towns and cities and spend all our work time and most of our leisure staring at screens (as you are right now), anyone with real in-depth knowledge of the natural world now appears to us like a shaman from a distant tribe, bearing wisdom most of us have long lost. So there’s a basic nature nostalgia running through the book. This was, after all, 1972, 45 years ago. We’ve destroyed a lot of the natural world since then. Anyone who comes with reports of the world beyond our air-conditioned offices is treated like a messenger from exotic worlds.

She heard the cry of the long-tailed ducks. They are called scolders, because their cry is a steady, chiding chatter, farther and farther away, farther and farther out. People rarely see them. They are as secretive as corncrakes. But a corncrake hides in a meadow all alone, while the long-tails are out beyond the farthest islands in enormous wedding flocks, singing all through the spring night. (p. 33)

Some of the decorating and arts and crafts playing with bits and bobs from the natural world morph seamlessly from childreny crafts into the beginnings of pagan ritual.

Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk, and listen to the movements of the birds in the thicket. (p.31)

And some of the stories reference Nordic traditions which are novel to us Anglo-Saxons, like the big celebrations on Midsummer’s Eve which, however, are treated to Jansson’s anti-romantic, dis-illusioned approach. The Midsummer Eve described in Midsummer is a total washout, with torrential rain preventing almost any fires being lit, and all but one of the fireworks bought for the occasion being too wet to light.

Setting the tone

All these elements are very well announced in the opening paragraphs of the first story, which set the natural scene, the irritating inquisitiveness of the little girl and the short-tempered character of Grandmother.

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Sophia.
‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’ (p.21)

Anthony Burgess suggested that all novels should be read twice, once to find out what happens, and once to see how it was done. But this is a book to read multiple times, in order to savour the sharp tang of the dry, astringent prose, and to let the brisk unsentimental depiction of people and the natural world sink really deep into your soul.


Credit

Sommarboken by Tove Jansson was published in Finland in 1972. This translation by Thomas Teal was published by Random House in 1974. Page references are to the Sort of Books paperback edition published in 2003.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson (1965)

Moominpappa went and sat on the lighthouse-keeper’s little ledge and thought: ‘I must do something different, something new. Something tremendous.’ But he didn’t know what it was he wanted to do. He was quite bewitched and confused. (p.114)

This is a sad and troubling book. Moominpappa mopes about the house because everything in Moomin Valley is fixed and everything is taken care of.  Little My says he needs to get angry and let off steam, and indeed he bickers with Moominmamma in a way unimaginable in the earlier, innocent books. A little fire starts in the wood and he is irritated because his family puts it out before he even gets there. The Groke slides up to the house and Moominpappa likes to think of himself as the manly protector of his family, even though he joins the others in locking and bolting the door and hiding under the table.

He needs to ‘get away’, and decides to take his family to a remote island to start again. There’s a tiny dot on the map in the middle of sea. An island, reputedly with a lighthouse. Yes, they’ll go there.

A reduced Moomin family

Apart from the prevalent sad, middle-aged storyline, another way in which this book is very different from the earlier ones is that the family is massively reduced. The only people who sail with him to the new island are Moominmamma, Moomintroll and Little My. My has to be in the book to provide her own brand of malicious mischief, otherwise it really would just be the story of a man having a sad, mid-life crisis. Luckily she’s there to burst everyone’s balloon with the most cynical, quick, heartless attitude imaginable. Always bracing, sometimes really funny.

Little My was sitting on the steps, singing one of her monotonous wet-weather songs.
‘Hallo,’ said Moominpappa. ‘I’m angry.’
‘Good!’ said little My with approval. ‘You look as though you’d made a proper enemy of someone. It always helps.’ (p.102)

But whatever happened to Sniff, Moomintroll’s babysh companion? Or Snufkin? Or the Muskrat or the Mymble, the Whomper, Gaffsie, Too-ticky and all the other friends they’ve acquired in the previous books? They have all disappeared, are not mentioned – everything is subsumed to Moominpappa’s unhappiness.

The Groke

I was particularly struck by the way that the Groke – the big sad lonely figure which radiates deathly cold wherever she goes – previously a strange and ominous and fleeting figure – is handled in this book. Previously she appeared and disappeared for no reason, adding to the eerily wonderful sense of magic about Moomin Valley. But now Jansson dwells on her character and her immense loneliness at some length. She is attracted to the lamp back in Moomin Valley and when she sees the family sailing away with the lamp tied to the mast she determines to follow it and she does, by placing one foot in front of another on the restless sea, making it freeze solid at her touch. Thus she creates an ice bridge all the way to the island, following the little Moomin family like some kind of avenging angel or bad conscience.

The laughing children of the earlier books have all been swept away. Sad middle-aged characters are centre stage.

Compare and contrast the small, human-scale, comedy Moominhouse which Moominpappa builds back in The Exploits of Moominpappa.

with the way the tiny Moomin figures are intimidated and overwhelmed by the enormous, bare, bleak lighthouse they find when they arrive at the barren island in this book –

And what was often left powerfully unstated in the previous books is now made brutally explicit. Previously we were told that grass or flowers where the Groke passed were instantly frozen, in a rather wonderful fairy-tale way. Now Jannson makes it brutally clear that wherever the Groke sits for any length of time is killed stone dead and nothing will ever grow there again. This is a small but significant example of the way the tone has shifted from things withheld and, so, magical – and things stated explicitly and so become much more human and upsetting.

Moominpappa’s desperate enthusiasms

Again and again Moominpappa finds a project – lighting the lighthouse lamp, setting nets at sea, fishing in the black pool, building a breakwater out of big rocks – which fire and invigorate him but which, somehow, in the event, fizzle out in failure and disappointment.

Again and again he tries to assert his authority over his tiny family, declaring there is a fixed order to unpack the boat, to decorate the lighthouse, that only he knows about the sea or fishing or nets, or anything. And the others listen politely, then go about their business regardless, and on more than one occasion a frustrated Moominpappa is driven to declaring that he hates family life.

One such failure is the great effort to take out the old lighthouse-keeper’s nets and set them in just the right place off the coast. A huge storm blows up. Next day Moomintroll rows Moominpappa out and they both feel how heavy the nets are – boy, they’re going to be full of fish!

But as they struggle to drag the nets aboard their little dinghy it becomes clear the nets are full of nothing but seaweed; there isn’t a single fish. Fail.

Moominpappa felt quite deflated. This seaweed had come right after that wretched business of the lamp, it wasn’t fair. One toiled and toiled and nothing worked. Things just seemed to slip through one’s fingers. (p.91)

Moominmamma is endlessly supportive with her ‘Yes dear’, with her stoic agreement to leave her whole household and life behind her and settle in the unfriendly, damp surroundings of the half-ruined lighthouse, and Moomintroll is puzzled and confused. Neither of them can help the unhappy middle-aged man at the centre of the story.

Keeping bad thoughts at bay

What comes over from the text is the sense of someone deeply troubled by life and constantly looking to find a safe haven, a home, a secure place where the ‘black thoughts’ won’t start up and take over.

They come across a deep black pool among the rocks, which Moominpappa ends up being attracted to and fishing in for hours at a time, in quiet desperation.

Moominpappa was convinced with a kind of desperate certainty that at the bottom of [the pool] secrets were waiting for him. And there might be just anything down there. He thought that if he could only get everything up he would understand the sea, everything would fall into place. He felt he would fit in, too. (p.122)

This desperate search to ‘fit in’.

When Moominmamma decides to collect all the driftwood and timber she can find on the island and uses it to build a snug in the lee of the lighthouse and then starts sawing it all to the same length – this activity sort of has the reassuring feel of her quiet domestic tasks back in Moomin Valley – but it also feels slightly mad, a kind of obsessive compulsive behaviour designed to keep things at bay, the ‘things’ being doubts and worries about the future. She does it to fill the long empty days. She does it to avoid feeling ‘so much alone.’ (p.118)

They are both stricken.

Island mysticism

With most of the childish comedy stripped away, and putting on one side the middle-aged depression, the other strain which emerges most strongly is the strange and eerie, the almost mystical strain, in Jansson’s writing. The island they sail to is said to be ‘watching’ the little boat. The abandoned lighthouse is looking at them.

Moomintroll wanders off and discovered a secret dell amid the stunted little trees of the island. He also discovers a silver horseshoe on the beach and waits and waits until one magical evening he sees the sea horses dancing on the sand, kicking up rainbows from their hooves.

But more than these rather obviously magic moments, there are lots of quiet paragraphs where one or other character really communes with the strange, alien, intractable but deeply magnetic island.

Now that he was alone Moomintroll could begin to look at the island and smell it in the right way. He could feel it with his paws, prick up his ears and listen to it. Away from the roar of the sea the island was quieter than the valley at home, completely silent and terribly, terribly old. (p38)

It isn’t a pleasant place. It isn’t a friendly environment. It isn’t a sunny Greek island. It’s a hard, barren, stony, inhospitable place with a few patches of stunted wind-battered trees, with hardly any soil to grow anything in, and a derelict lighthouse with mud floors and dripping ceilings and a lamp which won’t light.

But this makes the moments when the rain stops and the sun comes out, or the sudden quiet when the wind drops, all the more impermanent, fragile and important.

The lighthouse-keeper

… isn’t there. That’s the point. No one knows who he was or where he went or why. His absence drips from the rainy eaves of the abandoned lighthouse. Moominpappa discovers poems the lighthouse-keeper had scribbled in charcoal on the walls of the lamp room. Still others he’d written and then feverishly scribbled over. Why? What drove this lonely man in his high house overlooking the never-still grey sea? Moominpappa discovers the lighthouse-keeper’s old notebook and skips though it looking for clues, but it only has records of wind speeds and directions. Moominpappa starts keeping his own diary.

Moominmamma starts painting on the lighthouse wall all the flowers and shrubs she left at home in Moomin Valley. In one hallucinatory moment, as the others are coming into the room, she steps smartly into her painting, hiding behind a painted tree and watching her family from inside the wall. In fact, she curls up and goes to sleep inside her mural and the others get so concerned they set off on a search party for her round the island.

By the time they get back Moominmamma has stepped out of the mural and is calmly making a towel. From then on she starts painting copies of herself into the mural of an increasingly large and brightly coloured garden.

‘Well, that really is the last word in madness,’ says Little My, and it’s hard not to agree that madness, a really genuine insane paranoia, fear and anxiety – stalk all through these pages.

The old fisherman

There is one inhabitant of the island, though – an old fisherman who lives in a concrete hut right out on a point at the extreme other end of the island. His boat goes past while Moominpappa is fishing and he tries to engage him in conversation but the old boy just mutters and won’t reply. Towards the end of the novel, a really massive storm blows up and the sea sweeps away the old man’s hut leaving him quivering under his upturned boat. Moomintroll and Moominpappa rope themselves together and one swims out to the point, once he’s safe the other swims out too. It gives both the Moomins a reassuring sense that they have somehow overcome the sea, which Moominpappa generally finds so troubling and incomprehensible.

They fetch the old man to safety, give him a tot of whiskey and some hot coffee but he refuses to stay in the lighthouse. Then they find out his birthday is coming up and Moominmama sets about making a cake and presents.

In the end

I haven’t yet mentioned a slightly nightmareish element of the story which is that Moomintroll wakes one night in his secret glade to find that it is moving. The entire glade, the woods, the trees, have pulled up their roots and are slowly moving up away from the sea. In a freakish moment Moomintroll thinks he sees the very sand of the beach moving upwards. They are all scared of the Groke. Every living thing is moving up closer to the lighthouse, for safety. The others notice it, too.

A juniper was moving slowly through the heather like an undulating green carpet. Moominpappa scrambled out of its way, and stood stock-still, frozen to the spot. He could see the island moving, a living thing crouching on the bottom of the sea, helpless with fear. ‘Fear is a terrible thing, Moominpappa thought. ‘It can come suddenly and take hold of everything…’ (p.192)

When Moominpappa puts his ear to the ground, he believes he can hear the beating heart of the island palpitating with fear.

Fear.

In the last ten pages several things happen. Moominpappa goes to the steepest cliff and tells the sea off for terrifying the poor little island. Doesn’t it give the sea pleasure to break and crash over its rocks? Well, stop being such a bully! Almost as if in apology, out of the chastened sea come some rather lovely planks, good for making shelves out of. He and the family quickly rescue them from the waves.

Moomintroll has been going down to the beach to confront the motionless, unspeaking Groke, not in aggression but in eerie silence, taking with him the lit lamp which she so worships. Now the family have run out of paraffin to light it. One nightfall Moomintroll goes down to the beach anyway and an odd thing happens: the Groke dances with delight. It wasn’t the lamp, she is just happy that someone wants to see her. After she has drifted away in the usual spooky manner, Moomintroll goes stands where she was and discovers the sand isn’t frozen as it usually is. Has she… has the Groke… stopped killing things with her coldness? Was all that was needed a little love?

Lastly, they find the old fisherman hiding and – much against his will – persuade him to come up to the lighthouse for a party. He has to close his eyes and take Moominmamma’s hand to enter the lighthouse, which he clearly has a great aversion to. He doesn’t want to go up the stairs to the main room.

But once there, he begins to thaw. He sips and then drinks a whole cup of coffee. He accepts the presents they’ve wrapped for him. He notices the bird’s nest they’ve taken out of the chimney. He spots the jigsaw puzzle they’ve been struggling with for months on a table, goes over and completes it in a few swift moves. He asks for the lighthouse-keeper’s hat – which Moominpappa has been wearing – back. In fact in the last few pages we watch him metamorphose back into the lighthouse-keeper because… that is who he is!

Somehow things have clicked back into place. The sea, if not tamed, has been understood. The lighthouse-keeper has, somehow, been cured and restored. The Groke, of all creatures, somehow seems happy. Moominpappa walks down to the sea feeling wonderfully alive. And as he stares at the ever-restless sea, communing with it, the lighthouse lamp suddenly comes on.

Thoughts

This is very clearly intended as a Happy Ending and maybe it ties up enough loose ends to please children readers. But I think it is forced.

Towards the end of his life my father developed dementia. You and I may be puzzled and unhappy and blocked and frustrated by something, but we have the mental wherewithal to think it through, discuss it with others, and find solutions or just move on. What I saw in my father – and in some other people I’ve known who’ve developed mental illness – is they lose that ability to work things through. They become stuck or trapped by even simple things, and then terrified because they think they’ll never get out.

In my experience, even seriously depressed people can be shown a way out by modern medication and once they’re out you can develop techniques to make that roadway out of unhappiness as wide and easy as possible. Just knowing there is a way out immediately reduces the level of stress they experience when they next go into a black depression.

But the really ill, or demented, can’t find a way out and are caught in a bewildering and terrifying series of traps with no hope of escape. Hence the wailing, the panic attacks, the desperate need to share their burden, even though they can’t put it into words any more.

Maybe I’m overdoing it, but on every other page of this 200-page book there are words like fear, terror, anxiety, small, worry, helpless, and prolonged descriptions of the characters – especially Moominpappa – trying to grasp the situation, trying to act the hero or strong family man or expert on the sea, in order to properly, fully become himself – and failing, failing, failing. And the more Moominmamma and Moomintroll indulge him and say ‘Yes, dear’ the worse it gets. Nobody understands!

Taken along with the disturbing story in the previous book, The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters, this novel goes a long way to eclipse the happy, carefree impression given by the earlier, genuinely happy Moomin stories.

Illustrations

None of the illustrations are as clean and crisp as those in the earlier books; but then they aren’t as sketchy and half-finished as those in Tales of Moominvalley. Somewhere in-between. And some – if you identify with the rather tortured, anxious mood of much of the writing, as I certainly did – have an unprecedented intensity.


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson (1948)

This is the third of the Moomintroll books, published in 1948 and translated into English by Elizabeth Portch in 1950. All the Moomin books bring back lovely memories, the feelings of wonder, adventure and safety I had when I read them as a boy.

The plot

Winter comes and the Moomins eat a last meal before hibernating.

In the spring Moomintroll wakes up to find Snufkin has woken before him and is sitting on the bridge over the little river. They wake little Sniff and decide to go for an adventure, to climb to the top of the nearest mountain and make a cairn of stones there. Instead, when they get to the top they find a big black top hat, which they don’t realise is the Hobgoblin’s magic hat.

(In fact this, the centrepiece of the plot, gives its title to the original Swedish-language version of the book, Trollkarlens hatt, ‘The Magician’s Hat’. [Jansson was Finnish but spoke and wrote in Swedish.])

The first hint of the hat’s magic is when Moomintroll absent-mindedly throws the shell of his hard-boiled egg into it. A while later five fluffy clouds emerge from it and hover in the garden. They are soft as cotton wool so, one by one, Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin, the Snork and the Snork maiden climb up on them and discover you can make them move by moving your feet and leaning to either side. Soon they are playing bumper cars on the magic clouds!

They comfort the Hemulen who is crying because he has completed his life’s work of collecting every stamp in the world. After some thought they suggest he starts a new collection (Hemulens need a project to keep them going) of botany. Every plant in the world! Aha! He suddenly beams with happiness and goes off to collect samples.

The Hobgoblin’s Hat shows a darker side when Moomintroll goes to sleep under it and emerges in a completely different shape, as a skinny elf. The others are afraid and then disgusted when he keeps pretending to be their friend Moomintroll. In tears he begs Moominmamma to accept that it is he, Moomintroll. She looks long into the tearful eyes of the stranger and then decides, yes, it is him. Typical of her role as the accepting, comforting, all-wise Mother.

They decide to play a trick on the ant lion who lives on the beach. They capture him and throw him into the hat, which they cover with a Dictionary of Outlandish Words. After a while the hat starts flowing with water (which is what the sand has changed into) and a profusion of peculiar little creatures (which is what the Outlandish Words have changed into) and then a small, bedraggled hedgehog emerges (which is what the ant lion has changed into).

Moominmamma and Moominpappa decide the hat is too dangerous to keep and throw it into the river. Late that night Snufkin wakes up Moomintroll and they go and find the hat has run aground on a little sand bank. Moomintroll wades out to rescue it and discovers that the river water flowing into it is coming out as raspberry juice, and that fish entering it fly out as canaries!

They decide to hide the hat in the cave by the sea which Sniff found in Comet in Moominland. Next morning the Muskrat is peacefully reading his big book, On The Uselessness of Everything when his hammock string breaks and he lands with a bump on the ground. He indignantly tells Moominpappa he can’t put up with the children’s pranks any more and announces he is going off to live in the cave. We follow him as he marches off to the cave, makes himself comfortable, and then settles down for a snooze, first putting his false teeth into the top hat for safekeeping.

Moominpappa only tells the rest of the family about all this at lunchtime, at which Moomintroll and Snufkin let out a squawk and go running towards the beach. On the way they hear a series of screams and pass the Muskrat running the other way. The cave is empty, though the sand is mightily disturbed. The Muskrat never tells anyone what had frightened him so much. We will have to use our imaginations!

Now everyone is down by the sea, they find a washed-up boat in fairly good condition. After some squabbling they name it The Adventure, pack lots of goodies and set sail. The first island they come to is the Lonely Island surrounded by reefs and combers. None of them know that this is the island where the legendary Hattifatteners congregate once a year before setting off on their mysterious odyssey no one knows where (or why).

They split up to go exploring. The Hemulen takes his magnifying glass botanising but stumbles across the clearing where the Hattifatteners hold their gatherings. Suddenly they are closing in on him and he retreats to the pole in the centre of the clearing, then scampers up it to find a barometer at the top.

His screams bring the others who suggest he rocks backwards and forwards to scare the Hattifatteners off. That does the trick but the Hemulen insists on bringing the barometer as a souvenir back to the tents which Moominmamma and Moominpappa have erected on the beach.

A massive and dramatic storm batters the island. Moominmamma tucks everyone up in the safe and cosy tents she has prepared. In the middle of the night Moomintroll is woken up by strange spectral figures moving about in the tent. It is the Hattifatteners, who have been electrically charged by the storm and so are glowing slightly, looking for their barometer. They find it in the Hemulen’s corner, seize it but wake him up and there is much screaming and pandemonium before the Hattifatteners made off.

The Snork maiden discovers to her woe that the electric buzz of the Hattifatteners has singed off her little fringe which she was so proud of. Moomintroll tries to tell her he never liked it really, but she is inconsolable.

Next morning they recover from all this excitement with breakfast and then split up to go swimming or sunbathing. The Snork finds a reef of gold inland, but the others find lots of wreck washed up by the sea – a life belt, a snow globe but most impressive of all is the big ship’s figurehead which the Snork maiden finds.

All the animals share their finds and the Snork maiden very graciously gives the big painted figurehead to Moomintroll. They pack all the discoveries onto a raft tied to the back of The Adventure and sail back towards the mainland. Moomintroll is in the middle of describing how beautiful the painted figurehead is when he becomes aware that the Snork maiden has gone quiet with unhappiness. Very sensitively, he then tells the maiden she is much more beautiful than any figurehead. He likes her much more. The Snork maiden blushes with pleasure.

A few weeks later it is boiling hot August. Moominmamma agrees to let the children go and set up a base in the seaside cave. They make themselves comfortable and Snufkin tells him stories he’s heard (from the Magpie) about the Hobgoblin, who collects rubies and rides about on a magic black panther.

But above all the Hobgoblin is consumed by a quest for the biggest ruby of all, the King of Rubies. He has travelled around the solar system looking for it on each of the planets. Currently he is searching the moon, and it is from there that his hat fell to earth and landed on the big mountain where Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin found it. All the creatures feel a thrill of fear and excitement go through them.

They wake next morning to find it is raining strong steady rain. Counter-intuitively they decide to go fishing. Meanwhile Moominmamma decides to tidy up Moominhouse. Among all the bric-a-brac she rolls up some of the Hemulen’s old botanical specimens and, without thinking, throws them into the hat in the corner – uh-oh – then goes for a well-earned nap.

The children have a fabulous adventure in the boat, and catch an enormous Mameluke fish which drags the small boat around like a whale until it eventually gives up the ghost. They sail it back to shore and then struggle to carry its huge carcass back to Moomin valley.

Where they discover that the whole house has become completely overgrown with vines and creepers and fruit trees which have all erupted from those botanical specimens which we saw Moominmamma throw into the hat. They have to hack their way into the cellar to gain entrance, while Moominpappa is breaking Moominmamma free from the bedroom where she’s been blocked in by thick vines and creepers.

Once this is all sorted out, the children have a wild afternoon playing Tarzan and Jane, swinging from the creepers hanging from the drawing room ceiling.

Outside the Hemulen gets bored of guarding the fish in the rain. When it eases off a bit he gets some matches and starts a fire, initially to keep warm but then decides to roast the fish. So the family ends all its jungle adventures just in time to come outside for an open air, fresh fish barbecue!

Next morning Thigumy and Bob arrive, two little creatures who speak their own language and have brought a heavy suitcase. They are taken in by Moominmamma, like all other creatures, fed milk and soon find a corner of the Moominhouse to live in. They tell the Moomins the suitcase really belongs to the Groke and she’ll probably come looking for it. Sure enough that night the air goes chill and the big sad Groke appears on their doorstep. After staring morosely, she slips away without saying a word. (When I was a boy it gave me some kind of frisson that so many of the key characters are female; I can’t define it exactly, but it added to the books’ exoticism, compared to lots of English children’s stories which were more often than not about boys.)

The Snork is very pompous and bureaucratic. He tries to organise a court to prosecute Thingummy and Bob for stealing the Groke’s suitcase. Thingumy and Bob blow cherry stones at him through their peashooters. All the characters are allotted roles like prosecuting lawyer and jury. It is all great fun.

Suddenly there is a chill over the forest, the sun goes behind a cloud, all the colour leeches out of things. The Groke has returned. But it’s not the suitcase she wants back, it’s the contents. Thingumy and Bob refuse. Moominmamma has a brainwave and goes and gets the Hobgoblin’s Hat: will the Groke accept the hat instead of the contents of the suitcase? To prove its magic they put a couple of cherries into the hat and – luckily for everyone – these turns into rubies. The Groke is impressed, takes the hat, disappears and is never heard from again.

In the final chapter it is the end of August ‘when owls hoot at night and flurries of bats swoop noiselessly over the garden’. Moomintroll is woken by Snufkin and they go down to the bridge they sat on at the start of the book. Snufkin announces the time has come to be on his way. He is a restless soul. And he sets off that very moment, walking into the distance playing his mouth organ.

Moomintroll wanders sadly back to the house where Thingumy and Bob try to cheer him up by taking him to the secret dell they’ve made in the bushes and revealing the contents of their suitcase. It is an enormous magical ruby which changes colour. Stunned, Moomintroll realises this must be the King of Rubies the Hobgoblin is seeking.

Back at the house disaster has struck – Moominmamma has lost her handbag. A Wanted advert is placed in the paper offering a reward for the finder – a Huge Party will be held in their honour. Word spreads. Soon every creature in Moomin Valley is searching for Moominmamma’s handbag. But it turns out that Thingumy and Bob had stolen it, because its pockets were just the right size for sleeping in. Since everyone has been so kind to them they reluctantly decide to go and fetch it from its hiding place and present it to a delighted Moominmamma.

The scene is set for a vast August Party, with loads of food and drink to which all the creatures of the valley are invited.

At the height of the party an excited Thingumy and Bob present a big surprise, by opening their suitcase and revealing the King’s Ruby which lights up the entire valley with its wonderful red glow. It is even visible from the mountains of the moon where the Hobgoblin is still searching. Quick as anything he leaps onto his magic panther and flies back to earth, arriving in the heart of the party.

There is a stand-off in which the Hobgoblin asks for the ruby but Thingumy and Bob steadfastly refuse. Oh well, the Hobgoblin is consoled with a delicious plum jam pancake and then declares that, since it’s a party, he will grant everyone’s wish. One by one the characters ask for wishes which the big sad Hobgoblin grants – for example Moomintroll wishes for the feast table they’re sat at to be sent to his distant friend Snufkin and immediately it levitates and flies off. Moominmamma, with a mother’s wisdom, wishes that Moomintroll should cease pining for his friend, and immediately his heart is freed from sorrow.

The Hobgoblin can make everyone happy except himself. Thingumy and Bob ponder this, go into a corner to confer and then – say that their wish is for the Hobgoblin to have a ruby as big and dazzling as the King’s Ruby – and lo and behold, the valley is filled with twice as much red light, as a ruby of equal splendour – the Queen’s Ruby – appears!

And so the Hobgoblin spends the rest of the night making everyone’s wishes come true and, as dawn rises over the happy valley, everyone goes home to bed.

The illustrations

At least half the pleasure of reading the Moomin books is the sheer visual pleasure of the illustrations. There’s a major one on almost every page.

The appeal stems from:

  • the essentially humorous, baby-like conception of the characters themselves
  • the clarity of line, the precision and deftness of the drawings
  • in the more complex ones, the wonderfully evocative effect of the cross-hatching and shading
  • the Heath Robinsonian intricacy of the more detailed illustrations (like Sniff at the telescope in Comet)
  • or the childlike simplicity of some of the smaller, incidental illustrations

The illustrations are themselves just part of the whole visual apparatus which surrounds the text. This includes a map of Moomin Valley as well as an introductory letter to young readers from Moominmamma and the numerous incidental small illustrations.

In addition there are chapter headings which give detailed summaries of each chapter’s events – and, at the top of every page, a few words summarising the events on that page (as a boy I used to love checking these summaries to see how closely they matched up with what actually happened on each page, and spotting mistakes).

Thus the books are packed with incidental information and decoration so that every aspect of the book’s production helps create an all-enveloping, fascinating and transporting environment.

Moomin facts

In this book we learn that:

  • Pine needles are the best thing to eat last thing before hibernating for the winter.
  • Snufkin’s best tune on the mouth organ is ‘All small beasts should have bows in their tails’.
  • Moomins can’t sing but they are excellent at whistling.
  • Hemulens all wear dresses (even the male ones). So when they’re being polite, male Hemulens curtsey.
  • All the bedrooms in Moomin house have rope ladders on the windows – quicker than using the stairs.
  • If the first butterfly of the year you see is yellow, it will be a lovely summer.
  • The Hattifatteners congregate every June on the Lonely Island before setting off on their endless quest for nobody knows what. Hattifatteners can’t speak or hear.

Nature

Moominhouse is the only house in the valley. These are extremely rural stories, as close to nature as can be: no other houses or people at all, let alone cars or trains or any element of the modern world. Instead, the Moomins live right by nature, immersed in its rhythms (hibernating and waking with the seasons). Many of the chapters start by indicating the month and then describing the kind of weather to be expected, the heat or coolness, the state of leaves in the trees, the noisiness or subduedness of the forest creatures.

And a really strong feature is the way the Moomin world is teeming with life. When they go for walks in the woods the trees are rustling with little forest creatures, the seaside is bristling with crabs and shellfish – nature is alive with voices and creatures and sprites and spooks and tree spirits combing their long black hair.

And all these weird and wonderful creatures talk and wish you the time of day as you stroll past, or join in silly games, or reveal wonderful mysteries. Everything is not exactly enchanted but open and free and calm and happy. Nature is open and available.

Moomintroll kept close behind Snufkin as they went through the wood. There were rustlings and patterings on both sided of the path and it was almost a bit frightening. Sometimes small, glittering eyes stared at them from behind the trees, and now and then something called to them from the ground or from the branches. (p.48)

Having recently visited the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery about Tove Jansson I know that the lakes and seashore of Finland were extremely important to her, scene of many happy holidays with her family. The sea, in particular, is a recurrent subject, described very brilliantly in all its uncanny beauty. Here is the storm beginning to brew up on Lonely Island.

The sea had changed. It was dark green now with white-horses, and the rocks shone yellow with phosphorus. Rumbling solemnly the thunder-storm came up from the south. It spread its black sail over the sea; it spread over half the sky and the lightning flashed with an ominous gleam. (p.69)

And the characters’ response is the response of any adventurous 8- or 9-year-old.

‘It’s coming right over the island,’ thought Snufkin with a thrill of joy and excitement.

How wonderfully she captures the excitements and thrills of childhood.

Moominmamma

As usual Moominmamma is the unheralded heroine of the books, the calm accepting practical centre around which the world revolves, anchoring the tremendously safe, secure, happy and loving Moomin household, ‘a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow’ (p.16).

Strange new guests and even stranger events are all calmly welcomed, room made for them at the big table, while the steady routines of domestic life continue with Moominmamma calmly and sensibly making jam and pancakes.

Good things

This is linked to the way that everything that happens is exactly the kind of things which a child would want to happen. Climbing a mountain, finding treasure, owning a Magic Hat, sailing to an unknown island, weathering a Big Storm, finding washed up booty, night-long parties with dancing and fireworks – it is all the ingredients of a kind of perfect summer adventure holiday, of ideal childhood fantasies, all brought to life in vivid prose which has a strange dreamlike inconsequentiality.

And food, the yummy scrummy children’s food which Moominmamma is always preparing and serving. For example, the provisions they take to the cave, much of which is exotically non-English – betraying their Scandinavian origins – but recognisably yummy-sounding: raisin-pudding, pumpkin jam, bananas, marzipan pigs, sweet maize and pancakes. Always pancakes. Lots of pancakes.

Same with the amazing-sounding punch Moominpappa makes for the Big Party, out of almonds and raisins, lotus juice, ginger, sugar and nutmeg flowers, one or two lemons and a couple of pints of strawberry liqueur (p.140). Wow. Make mine a double.

Good prose

And the prose style is so wonderfully straightforward, good humoured, taking the most amazing events and ideas completely in its stride, plain and simple but capable of awesomely pregnant meanings and significances.

Outside the snow fell, thick and soft. It already covered the steps and hung heavily from the roofs and eaves. Soon Moominhouse would be nothing but a big, round snowball. The clocks stopped ticking one by one. Winter had come. (p.13)

Isn’t the rhythm marvellous, the diminuendo towards the last three-word sentence. And the subtle use of alliteration (hung heavily) and assonance (roofs and eaves). The simple use of baby language (‘big, round’). The brevity heavy with symbolism and meaning – ‘The clocks stopped ticking one by one.’

You know you are in safe hands.


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End.


The style – baroque, elaborate and contrived

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is it funny?

Humourless humour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie Fiedler

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

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

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

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

Astride the grave

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

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

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

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

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

Irish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Contraptions and contrivances

1. Astrology

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

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

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

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

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

2. Timeframe

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

Sex

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

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

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

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

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

The Beckett vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poetry of paucity, the prosody of impoverishment.


Credit

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

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

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

Waiting For Godot (1953)

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

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

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

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 Dahl’s 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, had 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 Roald 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; as a result, his back gave him trouble for the rest of his life. But he continued as an air ace, shooting down enemy planes for another year until finally being invalided out of the RAF in 1941. After more medical check-ups, he was sent to the USA to promote the war effort and persuade America to join the Allies.

There’s a striking photo here 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, editors of 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

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 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

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

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

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