Into The Unknown @ Barbican

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition, with a number of distinct parts located around the Barbican complex.

The main show is in The Curve, the one, continuous, curved exhibition space behind the Barbican theatre. Having worked through this you exit the other side into a foyer space where you can watch three contemporary sci-fi short films on a projection screen. Fifty yards away, opposite the main bar, is a cinema-sized projector screen showing a film by Isaac Julien, Encore II (Radioactive) from 2004. Towards the stairs is a darkened room showing an experimental film, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain by Palestinian artist, Larissa Sansour and Danish author, Søren Lind. And downstairs, in what is usually the Pit theatre, there is a funky art installation, In Light of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross.

There’s a lot to take in.

Installation view showing several of the video screens shoing clips from classic sci-fi movies

Installation view highlighting several of the video screens showing clips from classic sci-fi movies

The main exhibition is in The Curve and is divided into four or five sections each with a wall label introduction. These labels are surprisingly vague and generalised and made me reflect that there is both too much and too little to say about science fiction. Quite quickly I found myself making my own summary of themes and ideas which emerged from the varied objects on display. Sci-fi can cover:

  • On earth Lost worlds on earth, journeys to the centre of the earth, monsters on earth
  • In space Monsters from space, space travel to the moon or planets or other solar systems, space stations
  • Aliens Stand alone alien civilisations which have nothing to do with earth or humans, whose laws, histories etc we enter in their own right
  • Time travel to the past or future
  • The Future Future utopias or dystopias, with or without a nuclear apocalypses/plague etc thrown in
  • AI and robots Robots and artificial intelligence, which almost always turns out to be a bad thing, from Frankenstein’s monster onwards
  • Altered states of consciousness caused by drugs or various forms of artificial reality, probably most popularly captured in the Matrix franchise

See what I mean by ‘too much? ‘Science fiction’ in fact covers a vast range of subjects, themes and ideas – and that’s before you infringe on the neighbouring territory of ‘fantasy’.

But by ‘too little’ I mean that, in the end, a lot of sci-fi is pretty obvious. In Alien they wake up an alien which kills them all. In E.T. an alien is left behind by his ship and found by some kids. In Star Wars the rebel forces have to defeat the Empire. Not rocket science, is it? Not difficult to understand or enjoy.

In Thunderbirds Thunderbirds save the day. In Star Trek Captain Kirk saves the day. In Dr Who Dr Who saves the day. Watching clips from all these films and TV shows on the numerous projector screens scattered all through the exhibition made me realise just how many of these TV shows and movies are aimed, essentially, at children.

(Also, having watched Thunderbird Two take off on a massive screen hanging from the ceiling, I could have done with similar clips from Joe 90 or Fireball XL5 or UFO, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons or Stingray – classic TV series from the great Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson. They could do with an exhibition in their own right.)

Comics and mags

The essentially juvenile nature of sci-fi is emphasised by the pulp magazines and lurid book jackets from the 40s, 50s and 60s on display here. Amazing stories, Astounding stories, Startling stories, Space stories, Thrilling wonder stories – often with nubile young women whose clothes are falling off.

Golden Age of Sci fi comics

Comics from the Golden Age of Sci fi

Similarly the sensational pulp side of sci-fi is epitomised by a neat display case of the boxes of sci-fi Super 8 films.

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

Illustrations

Books, comics, illustrations, models, film and TV clips, costumes, props, artwork – the exhibition as a whole gives a lovely impression of being a bric-a-brac shop, almost a jumble sale, with artefacts from every period of sci-fi thrown in in glorious profusion. There’s only a very loose chronological order, but it starts with early illustrations for – and editions of – Jules Verne’s classic adventure series – voyages round the world, to the moon, to the bottom of the sea and so on – as well as models of the various contraptions which feature in Verne’s novels, the Nautilus submarine, the space ship to the moon, and so on.

Next to them is a set of paintings of ‘Dinotopia’, a fantasy world created by artist James Gurney in which humans live alongside tamed dinosaurs – beautifully painted, high quality and vivid book illustrations.

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

This tradition of sci-fi illustrations goes all the way through to modern art work for movies (Star Wars, Alien) alongside purely imaginary, maybe computer-enhanced, illustrations of future cities. On a screen late in the show is projected a series of quite stunning visions of future cities by a range of contemporary sci-fi artists.

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

You get the impression that the art of science fiction – not made to illustrate a novel, not for a comic and not design work for a movie, but for itself, for the sheer joy of depicting fantastic, imaginary scenes – is an under-explored genre. A different exhibition might have concentrated just on the art of sci-fi.

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

But the exhibition is continually pulling us back to sci-fi’s cheap, pulpy roots, with display cases of comics and books, setting literary classics alongside more pulpy works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from Verne to Cormac McCarthy via Ursula LeGuin, and many more.

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Pellucidar

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Pellucidar (1915)

Masks

Given that there are half a dozen screens dotted around showing continuous loops of sci-fi classics, (alongside some more obscure foreign, and older, movies) your first, and second, impression is that the show sees science fiction through the lens of films. After all, the more private, and demanding, experience of reading is hard to capture in an exhibition. Whereas watching a clip from Jurassic Park is about as lazy and undemanding experience as a human being can have.

Installation view of the exhibition with screens shoing classic sci-fi moviescases of classic sci-fi books, wall displays of sci fi art

Installation view of the exhibition with screens showing classic sci-fi movies, cases of classic sci-fi books and wall displays of sci fi art

The film-orientation of the show is reflected in the large number of props from movies and TV shows. Several large sections of the show feature models of masks, space ships, and space suits used in movies, including quite a few display cases housing ghoulish masks.

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Including probably the most famous sci-fi face of all time – the alien.

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

Spacesuits

On the same ooh-aaah level, the exhibition features life-size space-suits as actually worn in movies like Interstellar, Sunshine, Alien, Star Trek, Moon and so on. The space suit worn by Leonard Nimoy! Oooh! The actual suit worn by John Hurt in Alien!!

These don’t really tell you anything – reinforcing my sense that there’s less to sci-fi than meets the eye – they are just lovely objects for fans to drool over.

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

Alien, again.

Space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

The space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

There were some headphones for visitors to listen to audio clips from sci fi classics like The Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury or Stanislav Lem’s Solaris but, symptomatically, no one was using them when I passed by and I didn’t use them either. I wanted to look at beautiful things, at the models of space ships and space suits and movie props. On reflection, I am surprised there wasn’t a section on gadgets, which should have included the phaser and the tricorder and communicator from Star Trek at the very least, alongside Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver and… well, you can make your own list.

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek the Movie (1979)

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek the Movie (1979)

Oh my God they’ve got Robbie the Robot!! and the robot from the Will Smith vehicle, I, Robot.

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

Underneath Robbie was a display of teeny weeny vintage robot toys, such as you might find in any junk shop. It was hard not to feel yourself getting younger and younger as you soaked yourself in this comic, mag, fantasy, geek paradise.

I felt myself turning into one of the characters in Big Bang Theory leafing through the comics at Stu’s comic shop.

The films

If the Curve part of the show felt like a warm bath of nostalgia for sci-fi addicts, not so the films in the rest of the show, the ones you can watch after exiting the main exhibition in the Barbican foyer areas. These were contemporary, strange and disturbing.

To start with there were sections of Pierre-Jean Gilroux’s sumptuous, mesmerising and haunting films, titled Invisible Cities, parts 1 to 4.

Beautiful is, ultimately, reassuring.

By contrast, Afronaut directed by Frances Bodoma, is a kind of fantasy alternative reality in which poverty-stricken Ghanaians in what seems to be a shanty in the desert attempt to recreate the Apollo space mission. They train a hauntingly confused-looking albino black woman for space travel by rolling her down a hill inside a trash can and tossing her in a blanket, before stuffing her inside a space ship made from corrugated iron and lighting firecrackers under it.

In the weird alternative reality of the movie both she and her half dozen supporters undergo a genuinely transcendent experience, and the ship does appear to carry her to the moon.

The Blue Moon music on this clip below doesn’t do the full movie justice, makes it seem far too familiar and assimilable. In fact Afronaut‘s soundtrack is a confusing hubbub, the characters’ voices out-of-synch with their lips, or obscured by gritty dust and metal sounds, by the banging of metal, by chanting – all of which contributes to the powerful sense of entering a genuinely altered reality.

A bit more conventionally, the short film Pumzi is written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu, and tells the story of Asha, a young scientist living in an underground complex in Kenya some decades in the future after ‘the (inevitable) War’, who decides to leave her safe environment and go questing over the desolate surface of the earth looking for life.

Even if this is a rather familiar topos, it is stunningly beautifully shot. Apparently, this movie is part of a movement known as Afrofuturism which envisages a future civilisation in Africa populated by black Africans. I read in the commentary that Pumzi undermines Hollywood norms and stereotypes but, in my opinion, the idea of a hero/ine escaping from a repressive, post-apocalypse society seems as old as sci-fi and has certainly been done in countless commercial films (Zardoz, Logan’s Run). Also, the fact that the heroine is beautiful, young, slender and scantily dressed seems to me to be reinforcing pretty much the central sexist movie stereotype i.e. women in movies must be slender and nubile.

But the entirely African setting, and entirely black cast, make a welcome change from watching Tom Cruise fighting aliens.

Conclusions

I loved science fiction when I was a boy back in the 1970s when science fiction movies were as rare as hen’s teeth and discussing Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein marked you out as a member of a tiny sub-set of geeks.

Nowadays barely a week goes by without a new sci fi movie being released, hundreds have been released in the past decade. Why the change? In discussion with my son we developed the idea that science fiction allows you to have all the thrills and spills which movies were designed for – chases, fights, shoot-outs, big explosions, spectacle and so on – with none of the moral challenges inherent in many of the older movie genres.

Nobody can make Biblical epics nowadays because most people are not Christians. War epics can’t really be such death-or-glory bubblegum entertainments after Saving Private Ryan showed the full, not-at-all funny, not-at-all-entertaining gory reality of war. Spy thrillers are at a loss since the end of the Cold War (though the War on Terror happily provides the setting for a new breed of terror thrillers). And westerns, one of the staples of my youth, have simply disappeared.

What science fiction provides is the Pure Baddy, untroubled by moral issues or cultural qualms. Whether it’s the Empire and Darth Vadar or something more disturbing like the extra terrestrials in 1979’s Alien or this year’s Life, the issue of good and bad is black and white, men and women battling against The Bad Thing –  just as it was in each of the Star Trek movies or the Jurassic Park or Matrix franchises. Bad aliens trying to kill hero; hero fights back.

Just as simplistically, sci-fi movies can offer images of heroic American patriotism which other genres now struggle with – take Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013) or Matt Damon in The Martian (2015), who both triumph against the odds, shucks, folks it was nothing, while the audience cheers and the Oscar nominations roll in.

So mainstream science fiction is a way of allowing film to do what it has always done best – shock and awe, with awesome special effects, giant monsters, extreme situations and sexy young heroes/heroines.

None of this is very subversive: the exact opposite, in fact. When I watched the hero of Jurassic World (2015) strip off his shirt to reveal his astonishing physique, and the heroine, Bryce Dallas Howard, quickly lose her smart business suit and strip down to her sweat-soaked underwear, I wondered if a film could possibly be more sexist. But in mainstream sci-fi it doesn’t matter – we are all reduced to melon-heads screaming each time a velociraptor jumps out of the screen at us.

By contrast, almost the only thing in the entire show which gave me that genuine frisson of fear, that sense of the weird, inexplicable and uncanny, was the film Afronauts. I had no idea how it was going to end, I didn’t understand it a lot of the time, I felt I had entered a genuinely unpredictable and uncanny space. I’d like more of that, please.

Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book is divided into three parts.

Part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He loves Big Brother.


Elements of the uncanny

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

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

The Golden Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

O’Brien and destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreams of his mother

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The movie

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


Credit

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

Related links

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

George Orwell’s books

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

Actions and Reactions by Rudyard Kipling (1909)

By this date Kipling had been publishing short story collections for twenty years and his audience was familiar with the format: every four or five years Kipling pulled together the short stories he’d published in various magazines into a one-volume collection, giving it a pithy and evocative title, and often writing poems specially to preface or follow each story. Actions and Reactions contains nine stories:

1. An Habitation Enforced (1905) An American couple, George and Sophie Chapin, buy a house in Sussex, finding themselves slowly falling in love with it, and getting to know and respect the local gentry and peasants, discovering that the wife’s ancestors used to live right in this parish, and eventually giving birth to a son and heir in the house, in a story which idealises Kipling’s deepening feelings for England and for Sussex specifically. A little obvious though the general drift of the story is, it is the style which impresses. It is noticeably more clipped and swift than any previous story and, somehow, feels more mature.

2. Garm – a Hostage (1899) This is the sixteenth story Kipling wrote featuring one or all of the ‘three soldiers’ which featured among his earliest tales. The narrator nearly runs over Private Stanley Ortheris who is drunkenly pretending to be a highway robber, and being pursued by Military Police. The kindly narrator takes Ortheris home to sleep it off, then delivers him back to barracks next day, with a note to his superior officer explaining that Ortheris was injured, hence his overnight stay – and thus saving Ortheris from punishment.

A few days later Ortheris calls round with his amazing pet dog, a bull-terrier which can do all kinds of tricks, and gives it to the narrator, as a thank-you and as a kind of hostage for Ortheris’s ongoing good behaviour. The narrator already has a dog, Vixen, who is at first resentful until the bull-terrier rescues Vixen from a pack of local strays after which they become firm friends.

The narrator christens the dog ‘Garm’, an abbreviation of the legendary ‘Garin of the Bloody Breast’. Garm is loyal and intelligent, but the narrator soon realises that Ortheris misses him dreadfully and is in fact paying the dog secret visits at night, which is having the effect of making Garm pine during the day for his old owner. When the hot season comes Ortheris, pining away and ill, is sent by his regiment off to the hills, but the narrator follows him there and reunites man and dog.

Like a lot of the ‘three soldiers’ stories it’s not really much of a story. Kipling wrote a lot of dog stories, enough to make up several anthologies later in his career. If they’re all this boring, they’ll be no loss to avoid.

3. The Mother Hive (1908) One reason to read Kipling is to have one’s own ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ ideas challenged – although sometimes it feels like they’re just being insulted. Kipling established several ways of doing this: one was to mock the foolishness of the White Man, i.e. the weakness of his country and its Liberal rulers, through the unsparing eyes of his black subjects e.g. the Muslim author of the London letter who ridicules the weakness of London Liberals, or the Sikh narrator in A Sahibs’ War who can’t believe the British’s damn-fool, sportsmanlike conduct of the Boer War.

Another way is through animal fables. Thus all the Jungle Book stories rotate around The Law of The Jungle and embody the way Kipling believes – like many conservatives – that Freedom is only possible in a well-regulated society bound by a common Law.

One of the classic metaphors for society is the bee hive, which has been used for this purpose by authors for over 2,000 years. In Kipling’s version the well-regulated hive is invaded by the Wax Moth who represents all the progressive forces he disliked about Edwardian society – ‘progressivism, liberal individualism, pacifism, cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism, little Englandism, class division’. It couldn’t have done this unless society was decadent.

If the stock had not been old and overcrowded, the Wax-moth would never have entered; but where bees are too thick on the comb there must be sickness or parasites.

Wax-moth only succeed when weak bees let them in… All this is full of laying workers’ brood. That never happens till the stock’s weakened.

The Kipling Society notes tell me that Kipling became an enthusiastic bee-keeper at his Sussex home and the story is certainly brimming over with bee-keeping facts, as his stories about ships, cars, mills, radios and electricity brim over with boyish enthusiasm for technicalities and jargon.

The Mother Hive is a complete, rounded fable, which starts with the entrance of the one Wax Moth, satirises the deceitful way she deploys her rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ while all the while she sets about laying eggs of the parasitical caterpillars who will destroy it – the one metaphorically, the other literally, undermining and polluting the hive and its structure.

Until the giant human Bee Keeper comes, as prophesied by the Old Queen, to destroy and rebuild the hive. Right up the end the deceitful Wax Moth is telling the misfits, abortions and genetic freaks her poison has helped to spawn that this is the Dawn of a New Age. But in fact the Bee Keeper realises the entire hive is worthless and polluted and so systematically destroys it – only a few loyal bees and a new Queen survive to create a new society. Based, of course, on Law and Order and Tradition.

I note that Conan Doyle made his hero Sherlock Holmes retire to the South Downs where he became an enthusiastic bee-keeper. The most obvious thing about bees, in our time, is not whether they can be used by conservative authors to symbolise a well-regulated society – but the fact that we are wiping them out.

4. With the Night Mail (1905) Kipling was nothing if not varied and ambitious as an author. Just the first four tales in this collection consist of a down-home Sussex story, a dog story, a political fable, and now a science fiction fantasy.

It is 2000 AD and the narrator takes a trip aboard the latest GPO airship. Just ploughing through the long ,long technical descriptions of Kipling’s imagined futuristic airship brings home how excessively much his stories rely on technical detail, jargon and specialist terms (in this story, largely made-up) – and how very little on sympathetic emotion: there is almost no emotional flicker in any of his stories except Anger or Fear. For the rest, the narrator is generally an unmoved and objective reporter of conversations he hears or things he sees, as emotional as a block of wood.

So in this tale of the future, once the reporter is up in the airship which is trundling through the skies, and the captain says, ‘Would you like a look round the engine room?’ the reader’s heart sinks.

“If you want to see the coach locked you’d better go aboard. It’s due now,” says Mr. Geary. I enter through the door amidships. There is nothing here for display. The inner skin of the gas-tanks comes down to within a foot or two of my head and turns over just short of the turn of the bilges. Liners and yachts disguise their tanks with decoration, but the G.P.O. serves them raw under a lick of grey official paint. The inner skin shuts off fifty feet of the bow and as much of the stern, but the bow-bulkhead is recessed for the lift-shunting apparatus as the stern is pierced for the shaft-tunnels. The engine-room lies almost amidships. Forward of it, extending to the turn of the bow tanks, is an aperture — a bottomless hatch at present — into which our coach will be locked. One looks down over the coamings three hundred feet to the despatching-caisson whence voices boom upward. The light below is obscured to a sound of thunder, as our coach rises on its guides. It enlarges rapidly from a postage-stamp to a playing-card; to a punt and last a pontoon. The two clerks, its crew, do not even look up as it comes into place. The Quebec letters fly under their fingers and leap into the docketed racks, while both captains and Mr. Geary satisfy themselves that the coach is locked home. A clerk passes the way-bill over the hatch coaming. Captain Purnall thumb-marks and passes it to Mr. Geary. Receipt has been given and taken. “Pleasant run,” says Mr. Geary, and disappears through the door which a foot high pneumatic compressor locks after him.

This is reportage, not fiction. Kipling is always a journalist eavesdropping on other people’s lives – never imaginatively inhabiting them. And instead of conversations where characters exchange feelings or thoughts or subtle nuances, in Kipling nine times out of ten you have working men exchanging the gruff manly slang of their trades.

“Hello, Williams!” he cried. “A degree or two out o’ station, ain’t you?”
“May be,” was the answer from the Mark Boat. “I’ve had some company this evening.”
“So I noticed. Wasn’t that quite a little draught?”
“I warned you. Why didn’t you pull out north? The east-bound packets have.”
“Me? Not till I’m running a Polar consumptives’ sanatorium boat. I was squinting through a colloid before you were out of your cradle, my son.”
“I’d be the last man to deny it,” the captain of the Mark Boat replies softly. “The way you handled her just now — I’m a pretty fair judge of traffic in a volt-hurry — it was a thousand revolutions beyond anything even I’ve ever seen.”

You have to make quite an effort to buy into his detailed, highly technical descriptions. It feels like a story for engineers. For the more casual reader, the illustrations to this story are infinitely more interesting and evocative than the prose.

Illustration of With The Night Mail

Illustration of With The Night Mail

The most extraordinary thing about this bit of reportage from the future is that, after the main ‘story, a further long part of the text consists of fictional ‘excerpts’ from newspapers and magazines contemporary with the narrator’s imagined journey. Thus we get: a series of weather reports for different parts of the sky on the night the narrator took his trip; notes on the prevalence of sleet, the problem of ‘bat boat’ racing (whatever that is), an anecdote from Crete, various letters to the Editor about aerial travelling along with 14 replies from the Editor, a long review of a fictional book about a fictional pioneer of aerial travel – one Xavier Lavalle – and then mocked-up adverts selling all kinds of paraphernalia connected with flying.

This is a stunning tribute to Kipling’s readiness to prepare a full, complete and exhaustive factual apparatus for each of his ‘stories’ – to work over and over the surface of  his texts to create an astonishing intricacy of realistic detail. But the more detail you read, the more you realise there is a big hole where the ‘story’ should be, and a huge emotional and psychological hole at the centre of most of them.

And yet… Kipling’s vision clearly spoke to the men who do, who make things happen. Thus Charles Carrington’s excellent biography includes the story that when the first Atlantic flight was achieved by the British airship ‘R.34’ in 1919, the crew took with them a single book, this one, so that they could refer to this story. Then they all autographed the edition, and presented it to its author. Kipling’s audience and impact were on such a different group and class than the ‘literature’ and readership we are educated to expect.

6. A Deal in Cotton A meeting up of old pals from India, who featured in various Plain Tales From The Hills. The man nicknamed ‘the Infant’ has inherited a vast estate, whither he invites the narrator who finds an old pal, Colonel Corkran (Stalky from the Stalky stories, now grown up) and Strickland of the Punjab Police (who also featured in a number of the early India stories), now retired and bringing along his son, who has just returned from service in Africa very ill.

The son tells a long story about how he’s setting up a cotton growing concern in his District and trying to tame the local tribe of cannibals to work on it. He partly financed this by fining a slave trader he caught transporting slaves through British territory. His audience, experienced administrators to a man – Corkran, the Infant, Strickland – hear him out but, when he’s gone, ask his loyal Muslim servant, Imam Din, for his version of events.

From reading the story alone, I couldn’t make head nor tail of what went on, except the Muslim and the slave trader seem to have done some deal to do some kind of scam to help young Adam with his cotton scheme: I think they burned down the village of the cannibals and terrified them into helping Adam. I think the man who was brought before him as a slave trader was also a friend and devotee of young Adam – but I found the technique of telling two conflicting versions of the same events through the jargon, slang and argot of two completely different men – posh Sahib and deferential Mussulman – too obscure to understand.

7. The Puzzler (1909) A sort of Ealing comedy which starts with the improbably named Penfentenyou, Premier in his own Province (somewhere in the Empire) who imposes himself on the narrator on a trip to England, turning the study into a Cabinet Room, sending and receiving endless telegrams.

Penfentenyou hears that one of the British politicians he needs to speak to, Lord Lundie, lives only 40 miles away. Next day he insists on being driven there to discuss his oh-so-important business. Arriving in Lundie’s village they notice a) a removal van with several men having a beer outside the local pub b) an organ grinder and monkey.

As they walk towards the hedge of Lord Lundie’s manor house they notice a fine monkey puzzle tree dominating the lawn outside and then hear the braying of upper class voices. Creeping nearer they overhear Lundie, a famous Society painter James Loman and Sir Christopher Tomling the engineer, who are all discussing whether a monkey really can climb a monkey puzzle tree.

They remember the organ grinder in the village and one of them gets sweets and biscuits from the house to plant a trail of goodies to the top of the tree, then they approach the organ grinder with their proposition – can they borrow the monkey to see if he can climb to the top of a monkey puzzle tree?

Unfortunately, the monkey is upset by all these people crowding round it and runs for it, leaping through the open window of a nearby house. The organ grinder detaches his instrument from its trolley, straps it over its shoulder and, along with the three eminent Englishmen, runs into the (empty) house. Closely followed by the narrator and Penfentenyou.

So far so Ealing comedy as the narrator and Penfentenyou hear the posh chaps running around the upstairs of the house, crashing and banging everywhere, trying to capture the monkey. The confusion is compounded when a young married couple pull up outside the house. It is their house and they are moving out and they rouse the removal men from the pub to come and finish the job – at which point the Lord and society painter and eminent engineer and organ grinder all come face to face with an outraged bourgeois couple and their surprised workers. The woman is outraged and demands to know what is going on and the whole action pauses for a comic moment.

The Eternal Bad Boy in every man hung its head before the Eternal Mother in every woman.

But at this comically crucial moment, the noble Englishman keeps his cool and shows his class, as the painter on the spot comes up with the explanation that the monkey has just got away from the organ grinder into the house and the passing aristocrats were so worried that the wild animal might harm any children inside, that they have nobly given chase and are on the verge of capturing it.

The young couple’s mood changes from anger to relief and gratitude, they thank the posh chaps profusely, who then calmly stroll back to their big mansion, followed by the narrator and Penfentenyou, who is only now formally introduced to the man of influence. After this unconventional encounter Penfentenyou manages to get his political plan and budget approved by the much relieved Lord Lundie.

This story is genuinely funny, and it’s a relief to read a Kipling story not made incomprehensible by technical jargon, impenetrable dialect, or the complex overlapping of narrators. The narrator and Penfentenyou reappear in the later farce, The Vortex, collected in A Diversity of Creatures, which is just as funny.

Illustration of The Puzzle

8. Little Foxes: A Tale of The Gihon Hunt (1909) The Gihon is a river which rises in Ethiopia. This is a comic story about the British Governor of the region and his Inspector, who are trying to establish order after the defeat of the Mahdi in Sudan (in the 1880s). When the Governor learns that real genuine foxes – not hyenas, foxes – inhabit the area, he sends for his pack of fox hunting beagles from Ireland, they duly arrive and he teaches the locals the joys of fox hunting.

Order is shown rippling outwards from this strange importation of such a British pastime – for the Governor pays for holes where foxes are caught and fines for holes where foxes are let escape – and this inadvertently clarifies innumerable land disputes. Also villages are motivated to repair their water wheels in order to fuel their crops, because the Hunt buys the crops at a good rate to feed the horses.

A local boy, Farag, immediately falls in love with the dogs and is allowed to become their groom, allowed to dress in traditional hunting outfit, absorbing the Sahib’s virtues of discipline and loyalty, and radiating these out among his people. Great tales are told in the villages of the Hunt’s mighty achievements. As quite a few of the dogs die in service in what, after all, is an alien land with unusual hazards, the Governor dispatches the Inspector back to Britain to get more huntin’ dogs. The Inspector is passed round the ‘county’ set of fox-hunting aristocrats, until a fateful dinner at a swank country house which happens to include among the guests a spluttering Liberal politician. The Inspector is tempted into exaggerating various aspects of British rule, mentioning the administration of physical punishment to the natives, comically exaggerating it and, in a mad moment, using a very crude local Ethiopian name, little thinking his dinner joke will have any consequences.

Part two of the story tells of the visit to Ethiopia of the spluttering Liberal politician who, before he even arrives, causes a lot of concern and potential bloodshed by writing pamphlets criticising Imperial rule. When these are read by the locals they think the Government is about to overthrow all the hard-won land ownership agreements which the Governor has taken so much trouble to establish. As discontent rises, the Governor finds his work cut out dealing with the effects of the ignorant, meddling, undermining stay-at-home anti-Imperialists’ writings and threats.

When the splutterer, Mr Groombride, arrives the locals have been well briefed by Farag, the dog boy, to expect ridicule and farce. They arrange for a willing translator, Abdul, to take the mickey out of Groombride’s speeches. As he reaches the peroration of a particularly virulent anti-Imperial diatribe to Farag’s assembled village, the unfortunate Groombride uses the taboo word mentioned to him ages ago over dinner by the Inspector, and is taken aback when the whole village falls about laughing at him, pointing at him, ridiculing him. Showing the typical thin skin and anger which (Kipling implies) underlies all shallow Liberals, Groombride is so outraged at this reaction that he turns and beats his translator Abdul with an umbrella — just as the Governor and Inspector ride up to witness the ‘native-loving’ Liberal caught in the peak of hypocrisy.

Groombride abjectly pleads for them not to report the matter and to suppress the law suit for assault which Abdul threatens to bring. Thus the blustering, bullying, ignorant, meddling Liberal anti-Imperialist is brought low and transformed into a whining hypocrite. Well, this era saw much Liberal, Labour, Radical and even communist literature and propaganda, so it is only fair to savour the propaganda of the extreme opposite, the virulent die-hard rhetoric of the hard core Imperialist.

9. The House Surgeon (1909) On a steamer the narrator gets talking to L. Maxwell M’Leod who bought a big old house – Holmescroft – in the Home Counties off the three Moultrie sisters through their lawyer, Baxter. M’Leod invites the narrator for a weekend, where he is no sooner inside the building than he experiences the extraordinary sense of depression, guilt and despair it throws over everyone who inhabits it. Intrigued and disturbed, the narrator decides to investigate and goes off to visit this lawyer, Baxter, working his way into his favours by taking up golf (which he detests) under Baxter’s tutelage and eventually being invited to a health spa, along with the spinster sisters.

What emerges is that only two of three sisters survive – Miss Elizabeth and Miss Mary. The youngest, Miss Agnes, died when they owned and lived in Holmescroft – she was found on the path beneath an open first floor window, having committed suicide. And both sisters, and to some extent the lawyer, believe her ghost haunts the house and accounts for the terrible sense of oppression and gloom inside it.

Now a) the narrator himself had stayed in the very room Miss Agnes was supposed to have thrown herself from just a few weeks earlier, and he had noticed that the catch to the window was both low down towards the floor and very stiff, so that in forcing it up and open he very nearly fell out of the window.

b) At this spa there is an excited scene when Miss Mary shrieks for help and Baxter and the narrator burst into the sisters’ bedroom to find Miss Mary, her hand and throat covered with blood, wrestling with the open window while her sister grips her knees to stop her throwing herself out and repeating Miss Agnes’s suicide. Miss Elizabeth claimed her sister had slashed her throat and was trying to throw herself out of the window.

BUT after the hysterical women have been calmed down, it emerges that Miss Mary had done no such thing – she hadn’t slashed anything, but had been struggling with the stiff catchment of the window with such force that when it finally gave, her wrist went through a pane and she accidentally cut herself. Suddenly all four of them – the two sisters, the narrator and Baxter – realise that this must be what happened to their sister, Agnes, at Holmescroft. She had been struggling with the wretched window, yanked it open and fell to her death by accident. He spirit has been haunting the place and trying to explain. It is this which explains the terrible sense of foreboding, depression and above all, that something unspeakable is trying to tell you something that afflicts M’Leod’s family and afflicted the narrator, when he stayed.

The narrator phones the M’Leod family and tells them to vacate the old house while he brings the two spinster sisters over. The sisters go up to the fatal bedroom (while the narrator and Baxter wait tactfully downstairs) and have some kind of communion with the dead. When the sisters return they have, somehow, spoken to the spirit of their sister, they have accepted that her death was an accident, the terrible secret the house needed to speak has been spoken, and now, magically, Holmescroft is a happy, well-lit, beautiful house again. The M’Leod family are delighted, and romp through their beautiful and now-released home, and happy young Miss M’Leod sings an old English air.

The name of the story comes from the fact that on the night of the panic at the spa when they think Miss Elizabeth is trying to kill herself, the narrator is introduced as the hospital doctor (to spare the embarrassment of Baxter having to explain that he’s in fact more or less a stranger who he – Baxter – has been telling the family secrets to). But it also has another, ironic, meaning by the end of the story, when the narrator emerges as the hero of the hour who discovered the secret of Holmescroft’s haunting and managed to exorcise it. — Early on the narrator says he is no Sherlock Holmes and this draws our attention to the Holmes in the name of the house, Holmescroft.

Comment

These nine stories are hugely varied in setting and subject matter but the two things which come over most strongly are:

  1. Kipling’s ideology, the devotion to duty as exemplified in Imperial rule over the colonies, a duty reflected in and welcomed by the colonised themselves, like Farag the dog boy or the loyal Imam Din — and its mirror image, a fierce, unremitting contempt and hatred of Liberals and do-gooders who blunder in without understanding the land, the people or the culture and so are wrecking all the good work of the Imperial administrators (in the stories of the hive and the Ethiopian hunt)
  2. Kipling’s fantastic addiction to technical terminology, jargon and cant, whether it’s the technical terms and slang associated with fox hunting or bee keeping or motoring or even, in the Night Mail story, a huge lexicon of technical terms which he appears to have invented purely for the story.

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

A Man of Parts by David Lodge (2011)

At forty-five she [Violet Hunt] had already lost the beauty for which she had been admired in her younger years, and painted heavily to disguise a poor complexion, but her body was still slim and limber, able to adopt any attitude in bed he suggested, and to demonstrate a few that were new to him. Her years with Crawfurd had made her shamelessly versatile in the art of love, and she did not hesitate to use her mouth and tongue to arouse him for an encore when they had time to indulge in one. ‘Now I know why Henry James calls you the Great Devourer,’ he said, watching her complacently as she performed this service. (p.255)

Wells’s significance

This is a big book (559 pages), a long, thorough and absorbing historical novel about the science fiction pioneer, novelist, journalist, political thinker and social ‘prophet’, H.G. Wells. Wells’s impact on his time was huge, difficult for us now to recapture. In his 1941 essay about him, George Orwell wrote:

‘It would be no more than justice to give his name to the twenty-five years between the ‘nineties and the War. For it was he who largely wove their intellectual texture’ (quoted p.513)

The novel

It’s very similar in conception and design to Lodge’s previous historical novel which was about Henry James, Author, Author. Like that book, A Man of Parts opens with our hero at the end of his life, reviewing its events and meaning. Through the spring and summer of 1944 Wells is holed up in his house in Hanover Terrace, one of the rows of smart houses built by the architect John Nash on the edge of Regents Park in the 1820s. Refusing to be cowed by Hitler’s V1 or V2 rockets now dropping on London, Wells – or H.G. as everyone calls him – insists on sitting out the war in the capital, attended by a few servants and cooks, visited by former lovers like Rebecca West and Moura Budberg, and by his sons ‘Gip’ and Anthony.

[She] however agreed nonchalantly, stepped out of her drawers, lay down on the coat he spread on the springy bracken, and opened her knees to him. (p.219)

Visitors often find him tucked up in a bath chair mumbling to himself. Lodge deploys various narrative devices in the novel, mostly third-person narrator, but long stretches take the form of Wells interviewing himself – his young thrusting journalist persona quizzing the old, super-annuated man of letters – the youngster’s aggressive questions in bold, the old man’s often defensive answers in indented paragraphs.

She fell into them instantly, and he felt the soft, warm pressure of her breasts through his thin summer jacket as she clung to him. (p.209)

Sex

Given that Wells was a self-taught polymath with a vivid interest in the scientific and social developments which took place during his adult life – essentially the 1880s through to the Great War – it is disappointing that Lodge chooses to make the central concern of this long rumination on Wells’s life and achievements his SEX LIFE.

They embraced and lay in each other’s arms, exploring and gently stroking each other’s bodies like blind people. ‘Is that your…?’ Amber whispered. ‘That is my erect penis,’ he said, ‘a column of blood, one of the marvels of nature, a miracle of hydraulic engineering.’ ‘It’s enormous,’ she said. ‘Will it hurt me when you…?’ ‘It may hurt a little the first time,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind anyway,’ she said. ‘I want it inside me. I want you inside me.’ (p.292)

It’s true that SEX – the persistent urge to seduce as many women as possible – dominated his life, led him to have over a hundred sexual partners, to be unfaithful to all his wives and lovers, to break with his comrades in the Fabian movement, and to be publicly shamed and humiliated on more than one occasion. His last meaningful lover, Rebecca West, spoke bitterly about Wells’s ‘sex-obsession’ (p.397).

He could see she was excited by this badinage and soon they were entwined on the bed in vigorous and joyful intercourse. (p.391)

Certainly the book contains some accounts of his political interventions:

  • his difficult relationships with the stuffy old Fabian Society (which he joined in February 1903) led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw
  • his involvement writing propaganda during the Great War

and occasionally refers to the science behind some of his novels:

  • there is a particularly interesting page on his meeting with an aeronautical engineer involved in early airplane flight which inspired The War In The Air (John William Dunne, p.247)

but the overwhelming theme of the book is his relentless pursuit of female flesh and the countless sexual encounters which Lodge depicts with his characteristic, unnervingly clinical detachment.

They sat down together on the sofa and began to kiss and fondle each other, getting more and more exited. Soon he had her blouse undone and his lips on an exposed breast, while his hand was under her skirt and between her thighs. Rebecca began to moan and heave her pelvis against the pressure of his forefinger. ‘Take me, have me!’ she whimpered. (p.427)

The turbulent political climate during the Edwardian Era, the crisis over Irish Independence, the clash between House of Commons and House of Lords over the Liberal budget, the campaigns against poverty, any reference at all to the vast British Empire? Barely mentioned, if at all. Instead the central revelation of the book is that Wells had an unusually large penis, something which comes as a surprise – painful or delightful – to the numerous women he beds and bonks.

‘My, you’ve got a big one for a little chap,’ the woman said, as she lay back on the bed and spread her knees. (p.80)

Wells’s wives

Wells married his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells, in 1891 but she never showed the slightest pleasure in sex, regarding it as a male conspiracy against women. When he fell in love with one of  his students in 1894, he and Isabel agreed to separate and Wells went on to marry the student, Amy Catherine Robbins, in 1895. But then, although Amy worshipped his mind, she also turned out to be less than imaginative or enthusiastic about sex. Instead Wells developed the habit of getting sexual satisfaction wherever he could. He he is taking one of the maids.

The sight of her standing there, demurely bloused from the waist up, wantonly déshabillé below, inflamed him further and he knelt to pull down her drawers and bury his face in her belly. She laughed as he did so – laughed! Isabel never laughed when he made love to her; nor, for that matter, did she speak or move. This girl raised her hips to meet his thrusts and cried aloud, ‘Oh! Lovely lovely lovely!’ as she reached the climax of her pleasure, doubling his own. (p.84)

Wells gave Amy the nickname ‘Jane’ and Jane she remained until her death in 1927. Jane was passionately in love with the older, brilliantly clever and charismatic writer but she also, alas, wasn’t that interested in sex and so the novel chronicles the evolution of their relationship towards an ‘open marriage’ i.e. Wells agreed to tell her all about his numerous affairs and Jane agreed to accept them, maintaining hearth and home and a secure base from which the predatory author could go on the prowl.

After which there was nothing to do but take Dusa to Eccleston Square in a brougham and quell his jealousy and his doubts by possessing her with as much violent passion as she could bear. In the cab he whispered to into her ear exactly what he intended to do, and felt her trembling with a mixture of excitement and fear. She fought him with spirit, and afterwards they kissed each other’s scratches and bite marks tenderly, and cuddled like babes. She was a girl in a thousand. (p.316)

Sensible though this set-up sounds, it didn’t prevent all kinds of complications and unhappiness, especially when the 40-something and world-famous author had a succession of affairs with women young enough to be his daughter – and their parents found out. This was the case with Rosamund Bland (daughter of the children’s author E. Nesbit), with Amber Reeves, a precociously brilliant student at Cambridge, the daughter of a Fabian Society colleague, and most fierily with Rebecca West (real name Cicely Isabel Fairfield). They were all around 20 when the affairs began, meaning the book is full of descriptions of taut young naked bodies and lingers over the moments when they lose their virginities.

Amber was wonderful. In the daylight that filtered through the thin curtains her body was as delectable as it had promised to be under his blind touch in Spade House, shapely but lithe, with a delta of dense black pubic hair that set off her milk-white skin. She gave a cry that mingled pain and pleasure as he penetrated her, and when he had spent she wanted immediately to do it again. (p.292)

Scores of pages are devoted to the time and money it took to set up these lovers in country cottages and hotel rooms and loaned apartments and London flats, so they can be readily accessible to Wells’s outsize member.

They met perhaps half a dozen times in the cottage that summer, and on the last occasion she forgot to worry about whether she was doing it right and came to a genuine, uncontrollable climax, crying out in surprise and joy. (p.217)

These women’s impressive busts, their limber figures, their handling of Wells’s large member, their copulations furious, tender, loving, innocent, depraved, in cheap hotels, rented rooms or holiday cottages, provide the main current and theme of the book in a welter of orgasmic gasps and spurts, and the text pays obsessive attention to the curves and shapes of almost every female character. Take young Rosamund Bland and her bust:

Rosamund was an attractive and outgoing girl, with a well-developed figure for her age (p.158)… Rosamund, now eighteen and a striking young woman, with a pretty face and a buxom figure (p.168)… wearing a straw hat and a loose blue muslin dress with a neckline that showed her remarkable bosom to advantage… (p.177)

It’s a relief when the book tears itself away from Wells’s groin to deal with some of the other aspects of his life and other aspects there are. The book is stuffed with biographical information distilled from the many works by and about Wells which Lodge references in the five-page acknowledgement. In fact, by half way through I wished it had an Index, as in a standard biography or textbook – which the book itself resembles for long stretches – to help you refer back to the many anecdotes about George Bernard Shaw or Joseph Conrad or Henry James or E. Nesbit or any of the other notable figures who appear in the account conversing, dining, debating and, if they’re women, subject to Wells’s ever-ready urge to copulate.

They were truly two in one flesh at last, with no membrane of rubber between them. Amber gave a great shout when she climaxed, and afterwards, as she lay limply in his arms, she said: ‘I’m sure I’ve conceived.’ (p.323)

Wells’s books

One of the interview sections describes Well’s early life as the son of a hard-up couple – a gardener and domestic servant – who worked at a grand country house in Sussex, Up Park, and his early apprenticeship to a chemist in nearby Midhurst and in a draper’s shop in Southsea – experiences which shaped his sense of society’s unfairness, fuelled his political beliefs and gave his enemies countless opportunities to belittle his humble social origins.

At that moment, euphoric with the success of his speech, adrenaline still coursing through his veins, nothing would have pleased him more than to discharge his excitement in a bout of passionate copulation with Rosamund. (p.231)

Luck, innate talent and hard work won Wells a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science in South Kensington, now part of Imperial College London).

She [Countess Elizabeth von Arnim] was petite, with a neat figure that curved in and out at the right places in spite of all her childbearing… ‘Au revoir,’ she smiled, and walked away towards the turnstiles, her neat rounded rear swaying under her tailored coat. (p.385)

The meat of the third-person narrative kicks in after Wells has found fame with his early scientific romances – the clutch of works in the mid and late 1890s which virtually invented modern science fiction – The Time MachineThe War of The WorldsThe Invisible Man – and these, along with his prolific journalism, have established him as an author. It is 1902 and Wells has designed a house with all modern conveniences (insisting on a lavatory for each bedroom) – Spade House overlooking Sandgate, near Folkestone on the south coast.

‘I never felt such sensations before,’ she sighed after a gratifying orgasm. ‘And I never realised a man could go on for so long.’ (p.388)

From 1902 onwards the novel – like a critical biography – namechecks every one of Wells’s works, frequently stopping in its tracks to describe the germination and writing of each book, with a summary of the plot and, a few pages later, a page or so of the contemporary reviews.

  • The Sea Lady, 1902 (summary pp.145-148)
  • Kipps, 1905 (summary p.162)
  • A Modern Utopia, 1905 (summary pp.163-164)
  • In the Days of the Comet, 1906 (summary p.176, pp.202-204)
  • The War in the Air, 1908 (origins p.247)
  • Tono-Bungay, 1909 (summary p.246, reviews pp.317-8)
  • Ann Veronica, 1909 (summary pp.300-305, reviews p.355)
  • The History of Mr Polly, 1910 (summary p.375)
  • The New Machiavelli, 1911 (summary p.p.376-80)
  • Marriage, 1912 (summary p.387, reviews p.395, Rebecca’s review p.396)
  • The Passionate Friends, 1913 (summary p.407-8, reviews p.423)
  • The World Set Free, 1914 (summary p.408, reviews p.441)
  • Mr Britling Sees It Through, 1916 (summary p.408, reviews p.441, p.464, 472-6)
  • Boon, 1915 (summary p.472)
  • The Research Magnificent, 1915 (summary p.476)
  • The Secret Places of the Heart, 1922 (p.496)

I knew already that Wells’s novels moved sharply away from the classic sci-fi stories of his initial success at the turn of the century and that he frittered his energies away writing long novels dramatising his own life and the social issues of the day, which are a lot less remembered these days.

It was interesting to read that even Wells himself referred to some of these as ‘prig’ novels, in which the hero is taller and handsomer than their author, and possessed of various high-minded ideals which are blocked, or encouraged, by the great love of his life etc. No surprise that they’re little read today.

Free Love and feminism

What interests me in Wells’s novels is the visionary power of the sci-fi stories, the cheeky humour of the comedies, and the social criticism of Edwardian England scattered throughout.

Amber he had always thought of as an athlete of sex, a kind of Atalanta, clean-limbed, agile, pagan, whereas there was something feral about Rebecca when she was stripped and hungry for love. Her body was less classically beautiful than Amber’s, but it was sensual, with a full bust, small waist, broad hips and a generously curved bottom. She had a luxuriant bush of pubic hair. (p.428)

What interests Lodge is the theme of personal relations. In novel after novel from 1902 onwards Wells worried away at the problems of the relations between men and women, the problem which dominated his own private life. These find their focus in the new ideas of ‘Free Love’ which were (apparently) much discussed at the turn of the century. And it’s this issue of Free Love which really bedevils his life, features again and again in his novels, and dominates this book.

They spent their days hiking through the foothills and pin woods, taking a simple picnic with them in their rucksacks, and making love after their lunch on mattresses of pine needles covered with their clothes. Little E enjoyed sex in the open air as much as himself, and relished the sensation of sun and breeze on her naked skin. (p.394)

The aim of Free Love movement appears to have been to free the practice of love and sex from the imprisonment of marriage, seen as a patriarchal male institution. Some Free Lovers wanted to abolish marriage altogether, as did many feminists. Most insisted that men and women should be free to love who and where and when and how they wanted, untrammelled by the restrictions of (a patriarchal) society.

She would crouch on the bed, naked, like a panther couchant, with her head up, following him with her eyes as he, naked too, prowled round the room, emitting low-pitched growls, and then he would suddenly pounce, and locked together they would roll about on the bed, or on the floor, licking, biting and digging their claws into each other before he mated with her and they came to a noisy climax. (p.433)

In this respect one of the interesting revelations of the book is just how many of the women of the era thought of themselves as feminists, or hold feminist beliefs. It was of course the heyday of the Suffragette Movement, itself split into extreme and moderate wings. All the educated women Wells encounters have views about the Suffragettes, and about the issue of ‘the New Woman’, and Free Love, many very fierce and passionate advocates of women’s liberation and the overthrow of tyrannical patriarchy, and a surprising number of them have or will write their own novels on the subject.

Their sexual life remained as exciting as ever, and as her belly swelled it became more comfortable as well as conducive to their private fantasy to come to climax in the natural position of feline copulation, Rebecca crouched under him as he covered her from behind, with her head buried in a pillow to muffle her yowls. (p.441)

But if this issue – how to be free to love wherever you will and to have sex with whomever you want – dominates Wells’s life and writings, and conversations with umpteen intelligent women – Beatrice Webb, Edith Nesbit, Rosamund Bland, Amber Reeves, Elizabeth von Arnem, Viola Hunt, Rebecca West – what the book shows us happening in practice is that the person who is free to love is the man in the situation – Wells – and that the people who suffer again and again are his women lovers, all of whom – once the affairs are revealed:

a) suffer intense social stigma and shaming (starting most intensely in their own homes, with their furious parents)
b) get pregnant – Wells impregnated Amber Reeves, Dorothy Richards and Rebecca West
c) and so end up as second-best mistresses, shacked up in love nests with their love children, feeling increasingly lonely and isolated, while Wells continued to enjoy all the advantages of married life, socialising and entertaining, provided with clean shirts and regular meals, by the ever-uxorious Jane

No matter how hard he protests that they seduced him, took advantage of him, waylaid and wanted him, there’s no avoiding the strong feeling that Wells lived his life selfishly, taking his pleasure where he wanted, and leaving a trail of damaged lives and embittered women behind him.

Wells and James

Henry James was the subject of Lodge’s long historical novel before this one, and there is a pleasing element of overlap in the books because the two authors knew each other and were in regular correspondence right up to the end of James’s life (1916). They could not have been more different as men and as writers: Wells the unstoppable sex machine contrasted with James a lifelong celibate; and Wells with his ‘instrumental’ view that the novel should do something, promote an idea or explore an issue or share a vision of the world and its future

To me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use. (p.469)

compared to James’s well-matured view that the aim of the artist is to raise the tone of the culture through the presentation of finished works.

‘The job of the artist is to enlighten and enrich the collective consciousness by the exercise of his imagination in his chosen medium.’ (p.223)

They eventually fell out after James published a sustained attack on Well and Arnold Bennett, grouped together with John Galsworthy as the representatives of ‘The Younger Generation’ (p.442) and Wells replied by including a lengthy satire of James’s ponderous manner in his wide-ranging satire on the literary scene, Boon. The latter represented a final break in an unlikely relationship, which Wells came to regret.

Enough of men

As I write it’s not clear whether this will be Lodge’s final novel. It certainly represents a climax of many themes in his work, the two leading ones being:

  • teaching, the factual presentation of literature
  • sex, all his books are full of clinically described erections and couplings

What’s missing from it is the agonising over Roman Catholic theology which flavours most of his novels. And although I emerged from these 560 pages just about managing to like still Wells as much as I had before, the reader’s super-saturation in the Male Gaze – the controlling, shaping, sexually predatory way of eyeing up every single female as a potential sexual conquest – has made me heartily sick of male writers, male comedy writers in particular. Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, Howard Jacobson, their novels show a relentless obsession with sex and a relentlessly objectifying, exploitative and abusive view of women which has come to sicken me.

She [Moura Budberg] had the softest skin he had ever encountered. She murmured incomprehensible but exciting Russian words and phrases as she reached her climax and he released the pent seed of three weeks’ abstinence into the sheath he had prudently brought with him from England. (p.493)

When I put down the book I knew I was meant to feel moved by the picture of the old lecher hunkered down in his World War Two eyrie which Lodge leaves us with.

In fact I was much more intrigued by the women mentioned in the text: the women who experienced a dose of Free Love with Wells before going on to become authors and creators in their own right – Rebecca West, Dorothy Richardson, Violet Hunt, Amber Reeves – women who tried to crack open the masculine domination of literature (and everything else) and strove to create new ways of writing and thinking and expressing themselves, free of the tyranny of male concupiscence, the type of lecherous gaze which, alas, dominates this book.

Hedwig Verena opened the front door, dressed in a filmy tea gown and little else, and led him immediately upstairs to the bedroom. (p.503)

[Odette Keun] had a supple, slender body and she was like a monkey on heat as a lover. (p.509)

So I’m grateful to Lodge for opening such a big window on Wells and his time and also for introducing me to a number of interesting and new (to me) women writers.


Credit

A Man of Parts by David Lodge was published by Harvill Secker in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of ten young Catholic students in the 1950s, following their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, with extensive commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous, married cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger seduces bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a book which is saturated with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence – A return to the ‘contemporary’ novel, in which Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics struggling with his growing deafness and difficult family, a fractious second wife, a senile father and a dangerously predatory American PhD student, an initially humdrum tale which moves towards some surprisingly dark and harrowing scenes.
2011 – A Man of Parts – A very long novel in which science fiction pioneer, novelist, political columnist and all-purpose social ‘prophet’, H.G. Wells, looks back over his life and recounts in squelchy detail his many, many sexual conquests.

Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980)

This is another surprise from an author I’m getting used to being surprised by. Amis has the reputation of writing realistic comic novels about the contemporary world, skewering contemporary trends and types with a speciality in documenting scabrous and often misogynistic ‘problems with girls’ – but of the seven novels before this one, only two fit this description while the others are all experimental in one shade or another – ghost stories, detective stories, science fiction, alternative worlds – and this one, again, is an experimental or genre novel.

Russian Hide and Seek

The novel opens with an obviously Russian character named Alexander Petrovsky riding a horse through extensive grounds to a grand house, meeting his sister and mother, then preparing for a formal dinner, mentioning Tolstoy and Chekhov, and so I thought I was (unexpectedly) in a novel set among Russia’s bored upper classes before the Revolution.

It was disconcerting, then, when, after the formal meal Alexander, the young cavalry officer ‘hero’, goes for a stroll in the garden with Mrs Korotchenko, one of his parents’ guests, and she not only moves rapidly to kiss him, but asks him to help her take her dress off, and then invites him to make love to her on the lawn. Hmmm. Not very 1910. On page 30 there is casual mention of Northampton which is really jarring, making the reader realise this is all set in England. And then there’s an increasing flow of references revealing that we are not only in England, but some time in the 21st century, some 50 years after an event referred to as ‘the Pacification’.

1. So it slowly unfolds that the Russian aristocrats we are following are an occupying power who ignore or put up with the sullen indifference of the ‘native’ English.

2. Just as strikingly, the entire oil-based economy seems to have disappeared – has Amis accepted 1970s predictions that oil will run out? Certainly all the serf English are managing with horses and carts, Alexander uses a horse to get around, only very exceptionally is a petrol car referred to as an extreme luxury, and there’s a brief glimpse of a vast highway with other roads going under and over it, festooned with rusty old blue signs, now empty and abandoned, presumably a disused motorway.

Plot 1 – Context

The start of the plot is that a commission of the occupying forces has been set up to try and restore the English culture which was so completely obliterated at the time of ‘the Pacification’. Officially sanctioned, this leads to a set of scenes which are oddly comic-satiric-touching in tone. First we witness a concert of English music being staged (including numbers by Duke Ellington, obviously a member of the old English aristocracy). Then some ancient plays (Look Back In Anger has its audience in stitches all the way through, presumably a satirical dig at Amis’s contemporary, John Osborne). However, the next night the audience can’t make head or tail of Romeo and Juliet and get so restive that after much booing and yelling someone actually sets fire to the theatre.

Though comic in details (its mostly illiterate native audience have lost any context for such live performances, don’t know they have to keep quiet, completely misunderstand genres, plotlines and the antique language) this rather harrowing vision of a people completely disenfranchised from their own past, their own culture, is quite moving and eerie. Especially in the third of the three scenes where the Russian authorities encourage locals to renovate an old disused church and put on a ‘service’, led by a doddery old man, a ‘vicar’, who is one of the very few ‘prewars’ still alive ie English person who remembers the country before ‘the Pacification’ 50 years earlier.

We are shown the reactions of Alexander and his mistress Kitty and of Kitty’s father Dr Wright to the ‘service’ and then ‘sermon’ delivered by blind old Mr Glover. All of them are perplexed by the antique language and completely misunderstand the language of the hymns and puzzle over the relationship between the three gods referred to in this old pantheon. This amounts to a powerful and slightly haunting vision of what a genuinely post-Christian society would be like, in which Christianity has been completely forgotten and is now a puzzling oddity…

Plot 2 – the Conspiracy

From its opening pages to nearly the end, the novel – told in the third person – follows young, arrogant, unpredictable and self-absorbed cavalry ensign Alexander Petrovsky. We witness relationships among his fellow officers in the 4th Guards, quartered in a former private school in the country outside Northampton. We see him attending a number of formal dinner parties or summer garden parties at local grand mansions, his seduction by Mrs Korotchenko, mentioned above. This deepens into a sort of amusing sado-masochistic relationship in which, every time he visits her, she has thought up kinkier and kinkier scenarios – against the kitchen wall naked, tied and gagged spread-eagled in the bedroom, suspended by ropes in the barn, or joined by her equally naked and depraved 12-year-old daughter. Alexander quickly adapts to her appetites and to her regular demand that, after the actual sex, he tramples over her naked body, preferably wearing his cavalry boots.

About half way through the novel Alexander is sounded out by fellow officer, Theodore Markov, whether he wants to join ‘the Conspiracy’. Turns out there is a Resistance or Underground movement among the Russian occupiers, which plans to overthrow the existing authorities, hand England back to the English, and leave. From the start this plot development seemed unreal and implausible to me. It certainly lacks the psychological depth of something like Winston Smith slowly realising he is an opponent of Big Brother in 1984: Alexander is asked to join and says, Sure, OK. If it was intended to have the grip and excitement of a thriller, it didn’t. I wasn’t gripped, simply curious to see how Amis would play the thing out.

  • Alexander is introduced to fellow conspirators and – since Theodore is in love with his sister, Nina – this includes her and her friend Elizabeth. Everything is set for the revolution the following Sunday.
  • The conspirators become aware that the creepy Director Vanag, head of security, and his secret police may have infiltrated the Conspiracy. It is discovered that Mrs Korotchenko knows a key officer in Vanag’s office and so Alexander is tasked with persuading her to do whatever it takes to persuade the officer to hand over the Top Secret list of spies who’ve infiltrated the Conspiracy. Ie to give in to his requests for sex. This she reluctantly does, but only if Alexander is himself prepared to do what he had up till then refused to, and incorporate her daughter in their sado-masochistic sex sessions, which he shamefully agrees to, though no details are given.
  • A few days later, as soon as Mrs K hands Alexander the list he realises that some of the top leaders of the Conspiracy are in fact double agents. He also understands that his senior officer’s warnings a few days earlier about desisting from keeping dangerous company didn’t, as he thought at the time, refer to Mrs K. He realises the Conspiracy has been thoroughly infiltrated. He goes straight to Theodore and makes the impulsive decision to bring the revolution forward 72 hours. This seems futile and wildly improbable as we have heard that it is a co-ordinated strike, not only across England, but even in Moscow itself. One small cog doesn’t have the authority or contacts to alter a timetable so intricately communicated across such a far-flung network.

Nonetheless, next day Alexander orders his NCO and another soldier to accompany him to the Armoury where they bluff their way past the guard and take possession of the ‘projectile’ weapons which obliterate anything they’re fired at. (Shades of the futuristic weapon, the atom-bullet-firing rifle mentioned in The Anti-Death League). But his men jib at targeting regimental headquarters, as he intends. They point blank refuse to kill their comrades and so Alexander, in a rage which everyone who knows him is all-too-familiar with, rides off on his horse to carry out part two of his mission, followed in hot pursuit by his two mutinous soldiers until he reaches the house of his parents. He storms into the drawing room to confront his father who tells him it is pointless, the Conspiracy is completely infiltrated, every move and aspect of it has been completely anticipated and neutralised. Alexander, not a very likeable person, blusters that he doesn’t care, he doesn’t actually hope to change anything, by killing his own father he just wants to register  his anger and frustration at the way things are, to show his opposition to the smugness and complacency of the authorities.

As he raises his gun to kill his father – now on his knees begging for his life – one of the two soldiers who had followed him steps through the French windows and shoots Alexander dead. That’s it. That’s the end of the main plot and of the character we’ve been closely following for the past 220 pages. Was I meant to be caught up in the plot, gripped and thrilled and excited? Because if so, it failed. Amis throws in the fact that these final events are set on a hot humid stifling afternoon turning into night, amid an oppressively gathering thunderstorm, with flashes of lightning on the horizon, a melodramatic backdrop to Alexander’s futile actions. But to little or no impact on this reader.

Epilogue

As in his other alternative world story of a few years previously, The Alteration, there is an epilogue which gives the wider context of events and rams home the Author’s Message.

1. Director Vanag gloats to a hall-full of captured conspirators that the entire conspiracy was in fact dreamed up by Moscow purely as a way of flushing out anyone with even slight dissident tendencies. The list Alexander went to such lengths to get hold of was in fact a list of their own genuine leaders who some of the conspirators very usefully proceeded to murder. They were all puppets dancing on a string. They will all now be sent to forced labour camps. Goodbye.

2. Vanag has a one-to-one with Theodore, who had recruited Alexander into the Conspiracy and had been affectionately engaged to Alexander’s young sister, Nina. Both are now under arrest. A living death in the gulag awaits. After mockingly asking Theodore what on earth he expected to achieve, he – in passing – gives a bit more detail about the conquest of Britain, 50 years back.

‘There had been disorders here, runaway inflation, mass unemployment, strikes, strike-breaking, rioting, then much fiercer rioting when a leftist faction seized power. It was our country’s chance to take what she had always wanted most, more than Germany, far more than the Balkans, more even than America. And she took it…’ (p.241)

Author’s message

Is this the point of this odd novel? Is it a warning by an Amis who had swung through the political spectrum from sort-of leftish young man to reactionary old fogey? Is it part of the mind-set and the atmosphere of the late 1970s which thought that under a left-wing Labour party and ravaged by strikes in all sectors of society, Britain was actually collapsing into chaos and economic collapse? The atmosphere in which we know that MI5 bugged Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s office and there is evidence of the planning of a military coup to overthrow the government? Despite being set in the future, is this strange novel a kind of message from a period of really intense social unrest which most people have forgotten about?

Analysis

The list of ‘spies’ Alexander gets hold of is dated 2035 and, since it is repeatedly stated that all this is happening 50 years after ‘the Pacification’ that sets the Russian invasion of Britain in 1985 ie one year after what was, for many people, still the terrifyingly ominous date 1984, now just a literary footnote.

As in The Alternative the reader is impressed by the fullness with which Amis has imagined and populated this alternative world, fully imagined the psychologies of the occupied English and the occupying forces, imagined the rivalries and small bitternesses and resentments which grease all their exchanges. A distinguishing aspect is the drabness of this world: the Russians have brought their own Soviet shabbiness to bear: everyone’s clothes are badly made and fit badly; the flowers they take pride in are actually undercultivated weeds, the drinks are thin and tasteless, the food is poor, but nobody notices except the narrator because nobody has ever known any better.

On a larger scale the social life depicted in such convincing detail is an oddly diffracted, strangely distorted version of contemporary trends, in that the big parties in the grand houses have a strange 19th century formality, but are shabby and cheap (as mentioned above) and coarse: after a certain hour lots of the guests are fighting drunk, throwing up, crawling around, passed out, or openly fornicating among the bushes.

What makes it such a persuasive fiction is the very mundaneness of this future world with its bad clothes, drunk officers, ersatz drinks, poorly maintained gardens, roads full of potholes, nasty food for the mostly illiterate serf population, a powerful air of provincial humdrum boredom such as you do actually find in pre-Revolutionary Russian literature. Amis has successfully transplanted that world to England. It is an extraordinary and disquieting and completely unexpected feat.

However, the book’s strength is its weakness. The heaviness and dullness of the everyday establishes an ambience in which nothing happens so authentically that it is next to impossible to believe the sudden eruption of the Conspiracy. Especially when the psychological motivation of the young men involved is so shallow and casual. A very believable setting; but a disappointingly unbelievable plot.

The title explained

Russian hide and seek turns out to be a stupid game played by the bored officers in Alexander’s troop. they go out into the darkness with loaded revolvers at the end of an evening’s hard drinking, split up, find hiding places, then shout to give away their location and the others take pot shots at them. A sort of variation of Russian roulette. After one terrifying go Alexander realises he is no hero and never does it again. Towards the end of the book a session is held in which one of the officers, Leo, is badly wounded. He is brought into the barracks screaming with pain and fear where the troops’ commanding major, to my surprise, shoots him in the head like a horse. Is this some kind of satire? A comment on the heartlessness of Russians? Or just a cold sci-fi view of the future? Like a lot of things in this disconcerting novel, it is hard to tell.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Russian Hide And Seek

Penguin paperback edition of Russian Hide And Seek

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis (1966)

‘Do you believe in God?’
‘I’ll have to think about that. I’ve never been able to understand what it means, you see. It’s the most difficult idea I’ve ever heard about. And yet people seem to get results by it all the time.’
Churchill said animatedly, ‘Only people with no sense of right and wrong. No real sense of it. What would you have to be like to worship something that invented every bad thing we know or can imagine?’ He looked away. ‘Death in particular. If there were no such thing as death the whole human race could be happy.’ (p.228)

This novel is a complete departure for Amis – I kept stopping to check it really was his name on the cover. It is a lot longer than average (304 pages to One Fat Englishman‘s 170) and not funny at all for long stretches (though snips of Amis humour can’t help creeping in at odd moments). Admittedly the plot becomes a bit preposterous towards the end, but for the lion’s share of the text what is happening is compassionate, sensitive and delicate portrayals of very real people, their thoughts and feelings, captured in minute detail through interplay and dialogue.

Milieu and dramatis personae

It is set in the recent past (a scientific paper published in 1963 is referred to) in an Army camp somewhere in England set up to guard a Top Secret Weapon and prepare for a Top Secret Operation. We are introduced to a dozen or so characters, mostly of the officer class, with the occasional batman or servant or private. But for the most part it is chaps talking chaps’ talk – very different in its face value acceptance of upper-middle class values and speech from his early novels which all have a chippy, anti-posh stance. In addition there are two or three posh local women, the head of a nearby lunatic asylum and his staff.

The plot

The book opens with fine upstanding officer James Churchill, accompanied by Ayscue, the haggard padre, and an Indian officer, Mori Naidu, visiting fellow officer Max Hunter, who has been admitted to the local asylum after trying to drink himself to death. It also introduces us to the head of the asylum, Dr Best who, it is quickly conveyed, is himself of questionable judgement (ie bonkers) obsessed with his idées fixes and theories. Thus Best has diagnosed Max’s motive for drinking so recklessly as a method of avoiding confronting his repressed homosexuality. Which makes the other officers burst into laughter since Max is as openly and candidly gay as a man in his position could be in that era.

In the courtyard on the way back from visiting Max, the trio walk past a striking young woman out for a walk with a nurse: she is Catharine Casement, admitted after a nervous breakdown. (True to obsessive form Dr Best as diagnosed her breakdown as caused by her suppressed lesbianism.)

Back at the Army base we meet more characters, notably Brian Leonard, the insecure ‘intelligence officer’ who has been stationed in the unit to sniff out a suspected ‘spy’. His rather ludicrous obsession with finding reds under every bed obviously parallels the obsessive secret-motive-finding of Dr Best.

The novel unfolds slowly in a series of measured and in-depth scenes between variations on all these characters. A few scenes in we meet Lady Lucy Hazell, lady of the rather run-down local manor. She kindly and compassionately takes Catharine into her big echoing mansion, and there are tender scenes of care and compassion between them. About a third of the way in we learn from conversation between the chaps that Lady Hazell has a novel approach to love and sex: she organises evenings when three or four officers congregate in her drawing room, drinking, chatting and smoking, and then are summoned one by one upstairs to have sex with her. Churchill, the nearest thing to a hero in the book, takes us with him when he goes up and we see the thing through his eyes, see how intelligent and clear-headed Lucy is.

There is no snideness about women, none of the vulgarity or crudeness which – arguably – mars this novel’s predecessors. As Lucy explains to more than one of the officers (only officers, naturally) she has been in love before, it always ends badly; this way she gets what she wants with no emotional damage. It is what she wants to do. ‘Be sure to tell the next one to come up on your way out, there’s a dear, now.’ She is a benign and happy version of the malignant nymphomaniac figure, Mrs Gryffudd-Williams, in That Uncertain Feeling. She is treated with complete respect and dignity throughout, and all her officers worship and respect her. Can this be the same Kingsley Amis?

Jumping ahead a bit, there is a comparably respectful and humane treatment of Max’s gay love life. Early in the novel a despatch rider is run over and killed, witnessed by the trio visiting Hunter. It emerges that a common soldier, Pearce, was in love with this rider or at least very good friends. One sub-plot is that Max, restored to health after his spell in the sanatorium, makes a sophisticated play for Pearce. He wines and dines him at an expensive restaurant in the village before walking on to a flat where he claims there was a party but when they get there, oh dear, the flat is empty with a feeble note from the ‘party-giver’ saying it’s cancelled, he’s been called away, please make yourselves at home. It has all been set up by the suave and humorous Max and he begins to slowly seduce Pearce, getting as far as kissing him on the mouth when – the latter pulls away. There follows a really mature and respectful scene where young Pearce apologises and explains that he still isn’t over the death of his friend. Max responds astonishingly respectfully and walks him back to the jeep – although, life being what it is, he pops back into the restaurant under the pretext of having left his watch there, and makes a date with the rather dishy waiter who served them lunch.

James and Catharine

There are roughly two narrative arcs. In one, James Churchill and Catharine fall deeply in love. No tricks, no jokes, a really heart-felt, deeply emotional love story. Lucy gets Catharine a job at a local pub, the White Hart, where both the landlord (Eames) and the other bar staff, informed of her condition and recuperation, go out of their way to be kind and considerate of her. These scenes and characters evince a lovely feeling of warmth and sympathy, I almost wanted to cry at a few moments. Can this be the same man who wrote One Fat Englishman and The Egyptologists? Churchill and fellow officers drop into the White Hart for a drink where Catharine is working, they recognise each other from that fleeting encounter at the asylum, and it is love at second sight.

Their relationship is beautifully and sensitively described and provides a central core to the narrative. There is a frankly wonderful scene where James sits at the bar through one lunchtime while Catharine is serving, then helps wipe the tables and clear away, before they are both thanked and bid goodbye by the landlord and James takes her for a drive in an Army truck up into the countryside. They park in an isolated spot, go through a small fence and clamber down to walk beside a stream to an isolated spot where they lie on the grass and make love.

It is made all the more powerful because in the pub, after the last customer had left, Catharine revealed the secret of why she had her breakdown: it was her abusive and violent husband who, she slowly realised, could only have sex with her if she was hurt, wounded, injured and crying in pain. The gentleness with which James coaxes this out of her, the horrid plausibility of the brutishness of some men, and the support and love he gives her, are as if written by a completely different man, in a completely different tone.

Catharine came out of the pub. She looked so beautiful in her white dress and white shoes and white hair-band that Churchill had an instant of sincere puzzlement at the way the passers-by went on passing by, the farmer climbing into his estate wagon over the road failed to reverse the direction of his climb and come pounding across to cast himself at her feet, the man laying slates on the roof of the barber’s shop managed to stay aloft. Churchill put his arms around Catharine and kissed her. (p.170)

It comes, then, as a shock when James feels a lump in her breast and advises her to go to a doctor straightaway. Things move very fast and she is diagnosed with breast cancer while James is on an exercise and he is devastated. She is taken into hospital and he goes into a deep depression.

The Anti-Death League

Churchill and some of the others, especially after the accident with the despatch rider, and given that one of their number is the padre, Ayscue,  have occasional conversations about God and the meaning of it all, in which Churchill and to some extent Max are revealed as vehement atheists, despising a God who created so much suffering, though there is comedy when the more robust of them point out that they are in the Army, old chap, whose job is to dish out rather a lot of Death when called upon.

Out of nowhere there are two mysterious events: the padre had announced he was going to start up a magazine to try and keep morale up and one day someone leaves an upsetting poem on his desk, titled To A Baby Born Without Limbs which is fiercely anti-religious. Then carbons of a notice are pinned up everywhere informing everyone about the creation of the Anti-Death League, incorporating Human Beings Anonymous. It lists three appalling tragic deaths and says all you have to do to be in the Anti-Death League is be against horrible pointless deaths. There are no fees or rules but if you want to find out more, be at the Base Hall next Thursday.

The ‘meeting’ is a complete anti-climax as four or five of the officers we’ve got to know, plus the camp commander turn up expecting to see the originator of the notice, but there’s no-one there except a handful of bored squaddies who, after a grilling, are let go. It gives the novel its title but nothing else really happens about it, there are no members and no conspiracy and no big revelations. This is true of a number of Amis’s novels which promise Big Things which then peter out. I found it very hard to tell the tone in many places: not funny for long stretches, but not deadly serious, not as thrilling as a spy novel, not as imaginative as a science fiction novel, not as solely about emotions and feelings as, say, D.H. Lawrence – but with elements of all of these mixed together.

Atomic rifles

The other main strand in the novel is the slow revealing of the Big Project the Army unit has been created for and which the officers occasionally mention in hushed tones. For two thirds of the novel I was in suspense wondering if there was going to be the revelation of some Grand Science Fiction Technological Secret Weapon, that that would justify the rather rambling directionless feel to the narrative. About page 230 it is revealed that the big secret weapon stored in the ‘special building’ D4 is a new kind of rifle which fires ‘atomic bullets’. They look normal and require only lightly amended rifles. Load and fire in the normal way and whatever it hits a miniature atomic explosion vaporises. The third part of the novel features a large-scale demonstration of the rifles involving trucks of soldiers accompanying the officers to a firing range accompanied by helicopters overhead etc.

It is here that a number of themes collide, specifically the Brian Leonard spy theme and bonkers Dr Best, for Leonard has become convinced Best is the spy he’s after and that this exercise will flush out the ‘spy’. His worst fears are confirmed when Best is indeed spotted making his way to the perimeter of the exercise, whereupon Leonard feverishly brings all his forces into play, telling his men to pull back and lure Best into a trap. Unfortunately half way through Best literally disappears; and when, after the demonstration of the atomic rifle’s awesome powers, the lorries are trundling back to camp, one of them has an accident and bursts into flames, and in the ensuing confusion, one of the rifles goes missing!!!

This prompts a full-blown panic with all soldiers formed up to scour the countryside and tear the camp to pieces looking for it, and also the arrival of a Man from the Ministry, plump, scruffy, posh Jagger.. He is a little like the Fat Englishman, immediately demanding cold beer, so fat he struggles to get out of a chair and so on. But he appears to be meant to be the real thing, smart, clever decisive. Is this satire? Does this mean it’s turned into a spy novel? Or a (very low-key) science fiction novel? Or both?

Whoever stole the atomic gun terrifies everyone by letting it off later that night and blowing to smithereens a local (already ruined) priory.

Next morning Leonard is tipped off by his men that Best is back in his office at the asylum and the rifle is with him. Leonard and Max tear off there in an Army vehicle with Jagger hiding in the back seat. They gain admission to the asylum and then up to Best’s office where Leonard attempts to arrest Dr Best for espionage and breaching Official secrets etc. To which Best smirks and replies that, on the contrary, his expedition to the test site has confirmed his suspicions that Leonard is mad and he flourishes a sectioning order countersigned by the two other doctors in the room. And so there’s a stand-off as they both stand there shouting that they’re arresting the other: a satire maybe on the fatuousness of human concepts, of law, of authority, of power and legitimacy.

A stand-off solved by brute force for when one of the doctors enters with hypodermic syringes to tranquilise Leonard and Max quite a big complicated fight breaks out with bottles smashed and cupboards knocked over, until Best takes quite a heavy blow to the head. And in a not funny but genuinely weird development he freezes and starts to spout a kind of spy comic narrative: ‘They contacted Dr Best. Only you can save the world from the death rays. Best said he’d do what he could. He recruited his best agents and set off.’ He has gone into a kind of bizarre comic strip psychosis. The other doctors are astonished and sedate him. Max and Leonard return to the base.

The real spy

Leonard returns to his room to be astonished to find his valet, Deering, going through all his things, with all his Top Secret reports open on the bed. Deering attacks him in another prolonged fight which ends with Leonard unconscious amid the wreck of a mirror. When he comes to he dashes down to the officers mess, has the alarm sounded but at that moment a heavy machinegun goes off and the soldiers are rallied round the roof of D4, the Top Secret building, where Deering has coshed a guard and is letting loose. There follows some hair-raising action in which Max Hunter shows himself to be something of a hero, climbing up to the roof, having to duck the bullets, before distracting Deering long enough for him to be finished off by Jagger, not just a fat Englishman.

Operation Apollo

So Leonard had been briefed correctly, there was a spy in the base. It does, however, look very bad that it was his own batman. Jagger says they’ll go gentle on him, he’ll be quietly court-martialled and given a dishonourable discharge, but then quietly slipped some cash. He also confirms that Best was never a spy, his madness was a pure coincidence.

Leonard is then debriefed by a minor character, the stern and logical officer, Ross-Donaldson. He explains briefly that the atomic rifles are an impractical weapon and could never be used in combat. A selected cadre of officers had been told they were taking part in Operation Apollo: this would involve being sent to the Himalayas in pairs with the equipment to spread a lethal new plague among the Chinese Army which intelligence suggested was considering invading India. The teams of officers were to capture and infect Chinese troops, releasing them to go infect their comrades. It wasn’t really expected that any of the officers would return. But this plan was a bluff. HQ had hired an inexperienced and incompetent ‘intelligence officer’, told him to promote his own existence among the men, and to guard the atomic rifles, all the time counting on his incompetence to let the information about the deadly plague be stolen and reported back to China. This has now successfully taken place. The Chinese will be frightened off; the invasion of India will be called off; the Operation was never actually about the plague: it was about Leonard’s incompetence. He is a broken man.

(In an entertaining side scene, fat Jagger – he struggles to get out of chairs or off a bed – corners Hunter, the hero of the hour who took on Deering behind his heavy machine gun nest: Jagger prompts Hunter to confess all – it was he, Hunter, who wrote the poem against God, who posted the note about the Anti-Death League, and who stole the atomic rifle, with the sole intention of blowing up the Priory as a deliberate snub to God. Since he is a hero Jagger says he will forgive and forget, ‘unless you’re planning to do the same kind of thing again, old boy.’ He advises Hunter to leave the Forces and settle down with a nice someone (his homosexuality acknowledged and accepted), but Hunter surprises himself and us by saying he rather enjoyed being under fire, real combat, real bullets – he might volunteer for a genuinely dangerous tour of duty.)

Having learned all this, Leonard realises there is still some good he can do. He drives with Naidu out to Lady Hazell’s mansion to visit Churchill, by now comatose with despair about Catharine’s cancer, lying in a darkened bedroom. They both have speeches about God and life designed to knock James out of his stupor: Leonard saying Operation Apollo is off – it was never on – it was always a ruse to frighten the Chinese – anyway, there is no God to be angry with, Naidu saying he must learn to transcend his own greed and selfishness in order to come to learn to love the world as it is (p.268).

Neither works, so Leonard hacks off in his car and returns an hour later with Catharine, extracted from hospital against her doctors’ advice. She takes him in her lap and pleads with him to return to her, to be a man again, to be there for her. And like the sleeping princess, suddenly he responds, he answers her. He returns to life.

Conclusion

A puzzling blend or confusion of genres. Amis’s style remains quite detached and factual ie rarely becomes emotional and also lacks colour, lacks simile and metaphor, in this respect rather like David Lodge’s. His attitude is capable of flashes of satire and social comedy at almost any point, and all the scenes that include Jagger are more or less funny.

After a couple of abortive tries and a bit of shrieking Jagger pulled a loudly ticking watch out of his top pocket and glared at it. (p.285)

But the vast majority of the text isn’t trying to be funny and it’s quite a puzzle trying to define what it is trying to be, in the end. There’s a continuous thread of chatter about God, about life and the meaning of it all, but hugely inconsequential. Like most novelists, Amis is most profound or thought-provoking about the weirdness of existence, about the mystery and impenetrability of life, when he’s not tackling it head on but dramatising it in strange incidents or conversations or moments which reveal the disjunctions between our cosy expectations, our familiar chat and conventions, and the bizarre biological and psychological ‘reality’ which underlies it.

And this is what novels, literature, texts, do more than any other genre. They can be puzzling, unexpected, quirky and odd in the way film or TV can’t. For me the sci-fi scenes didn’t really convince and the spy plot wasn’t even persuasive as a spoof – much though spy spoofs infested the mediascape in the mid-1960s. The most vivid scenes for me were the long pub-to-streamside walk between Catharine and James, and the equally mature, responsive account of the attempted seduction of Private Spencer by Max. They’re the scenes which will stay with me, and are reminders of how powerfully Amis could write about real human beings and their feelings when he wanted to.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of The Anti-Death League, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of The Anti-Death League, illustration by Arthur Robins

Arthur Robins

I love these cartoon covers of the old Penguin paperback editions of Amis’s novels. They were done by book illustrator Arthur Robins, who is still at work illustrating mostly children’s books. Visit Arthur Robin’s website.

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

L.S. Caton

A character named L.S. Caton appears in Lucky Jim. He promises the eponymous hero that he’ll publish his academic paper in a newly-established journal. Instead, Caton flees the country and the journal collapses – a further blow to Jim’s shaky reputation – and Caton is last heard of setting off for South America.

He is then mentioned in most of the subsequent Amis novels, making him a nice running joke:

  • In Take A Girl Like You he appears in a letter offering to deliver a lecture at Patrick Standish’s school about his experiences in South America
  • On page 159 of One Fat Englishman Roger Micheldene discovers a letter asking a reviewer to consider his book about South America for publication
  • In The Egyptoloists he appears on page 43, as an agenda item for a meeting of the mysterious Egyptology Society, and then again on page 158 as that night’s guest speaker.
  • In this novel he is booked as a guest lecturer to talk about the military in South America and he actually arrives at the Base ready for his talk at just the moment the Chinese spy Deering goes on the rampage, letting loose with a heavy machine gun from the roof of the secret building. To my horror Caton, being driven through the front gates at that instant, is the only victim of Deering’s rampage, a direct hit in the face, instant death (p.279). My God. Is that really the end of this entertaining joke. Will it turn out to be a case of mistaken identity? Will he be miraculously resurrected in the next novel? Hope so.

My Enemy’s Enemy by Kingsley Amis (1962)

Meanwhile I put to myself the question whether the removal of all social workers, preferably by execution squads, wouldn’t do everyone a power of good. (Moral Fibre)

Amis wrote short stories throughout his career, often experiments for, or by-products of, the longer fictions so that the Complete Short Stories is 550 pages long. This is an early collection, published in 1962, of stories from the 1950s, the first three all based on Amis’s wartime experience in the Royal Signals Corp, several others referencing characters from the contemporaneous novels, and the final one – unexpectedly – showcasing Amis’s enduring interest in science fiction.

My Enemy’s Enemy (1955) A rather complicated story about British soldiers in a wire maintenance unit during world war II. When Oxford-educated Thurston hears that a line engineer he respects, Dalessio, is being set up by the jumped-up Adjutant to fail an inspection of his rooms by the General, Thurston knows he ought to tip him off but doesn’t. In the end, Dalessio is tipped off by another officer, his quarters are spotless, the Adjutant is furious blames Thurston, despite the latter having done nothing – and feeling bad about it.

Court of Inquiry (1956) Another Army story, with some of the same characters from the Signals unit featured above. During a move from one base to another, a soldier mislays an out-of-date power charger, and his superior takes the opportunity (unnecessarily and vindictively) to hold a court of inquiry about it. This, however, fails embarrassingly when one of the witnesses admits it was his fault, not the man being blamed.

I Spy Strangers – The third Army story set in the Signals Corp and featuring some characters from the above. Starts one week before the 1945 General Election which swept Labour to power and one of the officers has set up a dummy ‘Parliament’ in which the men take sides and debate the issues at stake in the election. The issues arising here (the men ranging from Communist to proto-Fascist) become entangled with personal conflicts and resentments between seven or eight officers which, to be honest, I didn’t really follow. The story progresses to the night of the Election when it is clear Labour has won its historic landslide and this prompts a drunken confrontation between some of the officers, one of whom is knocked off the stairs, breaking his arm.

Having just read David Lodge’s first novel, The Picturegoers, with its priggish revulsion from the contemporary world (his comments on 1950s rock’n’roll are amusingly short-sighted but especially the brutality of National Service – the latter of which goes on to be the subject of his second novel, Ginger You’re Barmy) I realise that, while the young Lodge (b.1935) prissily spurns modern life, cleaving to his high-minded Catholicism and to ‘Literature’, all evinced in an oddly formal prose style, Amis (b.1922) had the impact he did because he embraced the reality of life as it was lived in the mid-1950s, and did it in the prose style, the stroppy speaking voice, of his contemporaries.

[The unit debating club] resettled itself sulkily, feeling and muttering that it was always the bloody same: the moment you got a decent row going, some pernickety sod piped up with some moan about order. Might as well be sitting in the billet reading last week’s paper. (p.56)

Why Amis was publishing stories about the weeks before the 1945 General Election, in 1955 and 1956. Was it just a question of being famous and publishable and so clearing out his backlog? Did they actually date from the 1940s? The theme of all three is the petty bureaucracy of the Army and how the military environment gives perfect scope for people to cultivate petty rivalries, jealousies and vindictiveness.

Moral Fibre (1958) John Lewis, the protagonist of The Uncertain Feeling (published three years earlier in 1953) is living in shabby digs with his wife, Jean, in the south Wales town of Aberdarcy. A friend of hers is the self-righteous social worker, Mair, and John gets dragged in to her ‘treatment’ of a local delinquent, Betty. Betty has twin kids by one man, is shacked up with another (a Norwegian sailor) and at one point, when the sailor is away, goes out on the streets as a prostitute. –Throughout the story John is driven by the characteristic bolshie male idea that Mair the social worker and all her works are awful, but is uneasily conscious that he doesn’t have any alternative. The outrageousness of his attitude and his seething dislike of Mair made me laugh out loud.

Interesting Things (1956) A short short story about young Gloria Davies from the tax office, being asked out by old Mr Huws-Evans, twice her age, on a date at a cinema. As in David Lodge’s contemporary novel The Picturegoers (1960), the cinema is depicted as a kind of Sodom of snogging couples and people stuffing their faces noisily with peanuts and sweets. Huws-Evans bores her with speeches about tax affairs, takes her back to his house so he can have a shave (there to be met by his disapproving mother), then into a park where he makes a very clumsy move to kiss her and she realises in a flash that, for all his knowledge of personal tax allowances, he is in fact an unattractive sad old man. They continue on to the swanky party he’s been invited to where she immediately takes up with a young attractive man.

The most interesting part of the story is its references to other Amis texts: to an Italian restaurant called Dalessio’s – a Dalessio whose Dad runs a restaurant in south Wales is a key character in the first story in this collection, he is the man the Adjutant tries to get dismissed; and Huws-Evans describes the party they’re going to as featuring posh folk, including a dentist with an, er, sort of friend. This must be the dentist who keeps a mistress who hangs around with the ‘fast set’ attending the parties given by Mrs Gruffydd-Williams in That Uncertain Feeling.

Glimpses like this, of interconnections of characters across novels and stories, give a pleasing (and comforting) sense of the interconnectedness of stories and – we wish – of the world.

All The Blood Within Me (1962) A gloomy story about two men aged around 64 who catch the train to a town a bit north of London, there to attend the funeral of a woman, Betty, they were both friendly with. Slowly it emerges that the mousy, unsuccessful one of the pair, Alec Mackenzie, had – he thinks – a thirty-year-long, unexpressed but deeply felt, love for Betty. At the funeral service and at the burial, Alec is transported by fond memories of her but at the wake in a nearby pub, drunk, he foolishly has a bit of a go at the Italian man who married Betty’s daughter, Annette.

This prompts Annette to follow Alec outside when he goes for a fag, and to give him a piece of her mind. She dismays him by laying into her mother, into Betty, revealing that she was a spiteful mother to her and her brother who couldn’t wait to escape home, that she disliked the Italian husband, that she disapproved of the grand-children because on their Italian blood, and that she maliciously and cruelly dangled Alec himself on a chain, all the time laughing behind his back. His saintly image of his beloved shattered, Alec is devastated.

Maybe the moral of the story is the unknowability of ‘other people, Amis’s fundamental subject.

Something Strange (1960) Out of the blue, a science fiction story. Two couples are isolated in a metal sphere millions of miles from earth. Their monotonous routine of fixing equipment has recently been interrupted by strange happenings, sightings of objects speeding towards them, the suddenly enclosing of the sphere by an unknown substance etc. I was totally captivated and in the story when…

… they see a new ‘happening’ as if a door is opening and human shapes are approaching. Who unlock the sphere and lead them out. And reveal to the dazed and uncomprehending foursome that they have been part of a long-term psychological experiment, carried out by a fiendish regime which has now been overthrown by the chaps liberating them.

Like a lot of science fiction it is powerful and disturbing in the way it directly invokes basic fears and archetypes – yet silly and superficial at the same time, in being so easily explained and resolved…


Tricks and tics

Whatever Amis’s habit of writing ‘blah blah blah or something like it‘, ‘… or something’, ‘or whatever’. Deliberate posture of shrugging his shoulders, it’s too complicated, I’m a normal-bloke-not-a-ruddy-expert.

Ordinary speech The narrating voice has the ring of ordinary speech even when that involves clumsiness and repetition. He has the confidence to write down what people actually say: not all the time, but often enough to be striking. (Compare and contrast with David Lodge’s style which is always studied, limpid, classical and often a little dead.) It is light, flexible, funny.

The first person he saw on entering the dining-car was Bob Anthony, wearing a suit that looked like woven vegetable soup. (p.141)

Tones of voice Amis is extraordinarily sensitive to tones of voice and the countless ways there are to adjust tone and register for different situations or phrases. His lead characters, the narrator-substitutes, are phenomenally self-aware, full of words and strangled emotions but often speechless while they agonise about precisely which of the many available tones to say it in. They are also super-acute at noticing similar shifts of register in the people they’re listening to, detecting and categorising them with the precision of a collector.

The man spoke again. He was plainly drawing to a close, and now the hint of a new tone was heard, the detached disgust of a schoolmaster reading out some shameful confidential document he has snatched from the hot hand of one of their number. (p.151)

(I like ‘hot’. Adds precise detail to the thought.) But the main point is that, as Alec listens to the vicar’s long elegy for the departed Betty, he not only hears the words, he registers the changes of tone with which the vicar delivers them. Similarly, when her daughter is criticising the dead woman, Alec notices acutely how her voice changes.

At the mention of anger, anger itself returned to her voice, which had softened in the last minute or two. (p.163)

Bewilderment His heroes are bewitched, bothered and bewildered by life. There is a particular shape of Amis paragraph which describes a person or activity in acute detail only to end, ‘Why?’ Why? Why does he say that? Why do they do that? Why does he wear that? etc.

Alec found nothing to say; his attention was like a weight too heavy to move from where it had landed, on Bob’s suit. Why was he wearing it? He must have others. Where were they? (p.143)

An air of permanent amazement at other people’s sheer inexplicability – sometimes blank, serious and unnerving, but on many other occasions giving rise to a kind of hilarious exasperation, the fundamental tone and worldview of Amis’s fiction.


Related links

Penguin paperback edition of My Enemy's Enemy, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of My Enemy’s Enemy, illustration by Arthur Robins

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)

Not only Walter, she realised suddenly. They would all be out looking for her, cruising the road with flashlights, spotlights. How could they let her get away and tell? Every man was a threat, every car a danger. (p.124)

Plot

A clean-cut, white, all-American young family move out of the big bad city to the idyllic small town of Stepford. The lead character, Joanna Eberhart, is oppressed by how domestic and submissive so many of the other wives are. Her husband joins the men-only Men’s Association, vowing to change it from within. Slowly, through an accumulation of details, Joanna begins to suspect there’s something actively wrong with all the other wives.

Eventually, as her two closest friends are transformed overnight into compliant, characterless housewives, she – and the reader – realise they have all been murdered and replaced by robots, androids created by the town’s menfolk, in order to create a race of ideally servile, completely submissive, domestic servants and sex slaves.

Satire

Obviously the novel is a satire on a certain kind of male backlash against the women’s rights, women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s, combined with equally topical anxieties about androids, robots, artificial intelligence, to create a short powerful horror story-cum-parable. It had a big cultural impact on its publication in 1972 though it is a little hard, in 2015, to recapture the thrill of either strand.

It could be (and obviously was) read as being ‘about’ Women’s Liberation, as Rosemary’s Baby is ‘about’ Satanism and The Boys From Brazil is ‘about’ ex-Nazis. But all three novels are also canny commercial moves to exploit hot cultural issues of the day in order to create thrilling narratives – and make money.

Points

The main things I noticed are:

  • it’s short and quick, as the best parables often are (eg Animal Farm), a brisk two-hour read
  • it’s another novel told largely from the perspective of a young woman (cf Rosemary’s Baby)
  • it takes the classic narrative template of the narrator arriving in a new community and slowly realising it is the setting for a horrifying conspiracy (cf RB)
  • a surprising number of the secondary topics and issues which it references are still with us
  • Levin’s casual, make-it-up style is fresh and easy compared to the stodgy prose of contemporary English writers

Women’s Liberation

Apparently the term Women’s Liberation refers to the late 1960s/early 70s, early forms of the feminist movement, nowadays referred to as second wave feminism. 1970 was a pivotal year:

– A snapshot of some of the events and books published 45 years ago, as Levin was writing this novel.

According to Wikipedia, 45 years later, we are currently in third wave feminism. Compared to the post-structuralist, Derridean deconstruction of gender, race and identity stereotypes implied in TWF, the discussions of Levin’s lead character, Joanna, seem rather simplistic – her most articulated concern is simply that it’s unfair and out of date to have a men-only club. Then again, she’s not a tenured academic expert in Queer Studies, and a lot, an awful lot of thinking – academic and political – has taken place in the 43 years since the novel’s publication.

Other issues

Town versus country The Eberharts have made a decision to leave the big bad city (‘the filthy, crowded, crime-ridden, but so-alive city’ p.8) now their children are 7 or so, a debate had by almost all the parents of children of the same age who I know. The city is polluted, stressful but exciting; the country is peaceful, clean but boring.

There is a familiar Gothic strand to the story: in how many novels and movies have a young couple moved into their ideal suburban house only to find it contains dark secrets?

And in a way the sci-fi fantasy element of the story is not only about mad male scientists concocting sexist robot slaves; it is the uncanny way the stress and inhumanity of the city follow urban exiles, revealing the country to be even more artificial, constructed and manipulated than the city.

Androids Androids have appeared in a range of 20th century novels, movies and TV series with increasing frequency from the 1970s onwards – in Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Terminator franchise, to name some obvious ones. Almost always they are bad.

As to the thinking about artificial intelligence at the precise moment when Levin published this novel, it is tempting to link it with the sci-fi movie Westworld (1973) in which the androids in a futuristic kind of Disneyworld malfunction and start attacking the paying guests. Though the plot and even the plot archetype are different, novel and movie both share an anxiety about the anti-human, destructive potential of lifelike robots.

Feminism and a male backlash against feminism; the perils of artificial intelligence; the suburban Gothic horror story – The Stepford Wives can be viewed as a text where a number of contemporary anxieties or tropes meet and up the ante on each other.

(I note that female androids have been named gynoids.)

Pesticides and pollution As topical as women’s liberation – the ostensible subject of the book – was concern about pollution. The early 1970s not only saw the formation of the first women’s groups, but were also a period when the first Green parties were set up to reflect widespread concern about the destruction of the natural envinronment, and all forms of industrial pollution.

Levin is, therefore, tapping into another very newsy and hot topic when he makes Joanna’s only friend among the wives, Bobbie, as she begins to realise something is wrong, point the finger at the local drinking water supply. She suspects there is effluent from the industrial estate just outside the town which has got into the water and is causing the zombification of the women.

She’s right to be afraid of industry – for these are the computer and tech companies where the men work and have realised they have the combined skills to create lifelike androids – but just wrong about which aspect to be blaming.


Style

As usual the style, the way with words, interests me as much as the subject matter. Levin is bright and breezy, coining neologisms and phrases with Yanky confidence.

She was about a third of the way down the stairs, going by foot-feel, holding the damn laundry basket to her face because of the damn banister, when wouldn’t you know it, the double-damn phone rang.

She couldn’t put the basket down, it would fall, and there wasn’t enough room to turn around with it and go back up; so she kept going slowly down, foot-feeling and thinking Okay, okay to the phone’s answer-me-this-instant ringing. (p.19)

As with Rosemary’s Baby it’s partly the jazzy modernity of the characters’ attitudes and phraseology which makes the story all the more plausible, and the heavy leaning on the female protagonist’s point of view, as the walls close in, which make it all the more terrifying.


Conclusions

From one point of view Rosemary’s Baby and this are identical: the husband in a young married couple completely betrays his wife into a horrifying conspiracy. In Rosemary the husband betrays her to satanists in order to further his acting career; this one goes further as the husband, Walter, acquiesces in the murder of his wife.

The novels are pulp, or horror, or genre fiction because no consideration is given to the husband’s character or motivation. The plot is purely a pretext to create (again) the character of a vulnerable young(ish) woman and then terrify the daylights out of her (and the audience). It’s intelligently and precisely done, but it’s exploitative nonetheless.

References to the story (and the title, after all) generally focus on the perfect wives; but all the wives are dead. It’s actually about a town of male murderers, about a community of men who have ganged together to murder all of their wives. Imagine what JG Ballard would have made of that – I can’t believe they wouldn’t all be pretty damaged by the act, some of them would become unhinged, and therein would lie some really interesting fictive material.

But the purpose of this book is to be a quick, intense jolt of horror and so the entire psychology of the men is excluded; in the final hunting down of Joanna, who goes on the run across country in the winter snow, the men appear (very effectively) just as silhouettes holding the bright torches which surround her, simply as ‘shapes darker than the darkness’ (p.126).

They are the eternal bogeymen of our childhood nightmares.


The movie

Two movies have been made: the 1975 version directed by Bryan Forbes with a screenplay by William Goldman, starring Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman and Tina Louise; and the 2004 version, directed by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Faith Hill and Glenn Close.

Related links

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the truth.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972) Young housewife Joanna Eberhart moves with her husband and two children to the idyllic small town of Stepford where she slowly realises the men are part of a conspiracy to murder their wives and replace them with perfectly submissive androids.
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)

The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle (1927-9)

Following in the footsteps of Jules Vernes, and of his own Professor Challenger science adventure stories, in this short, late novel Conan Doyle recounts the tale of eminent marine scientist Dr Maracot, sensible leading man Cyrus Headley, and gung-ho American engineer Bill Scanlan, as they ship out for the the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean and then descend to explore it in an ingenious diving bell (see illustration below).

But, no sooner have they arrived at the very edge of the deepest sea trench in the world and seen a few weird fish, than disaster strikes in the shape of a monster lobster which crawls all over the diving box and then – quelle horreur! – snips the hawser which connects it to the expedition boat. Down and down and down they plummet, into the bottomless abyss of the deepest trench in the seas. And what do they find there?

You’ll have to read it to find out 🙂

Science

Interestingly, the bathysphere or diving bell which is at the centre of the yarn, was only just being deployed in real life. The world pioneering one was designed by American engineer Otis Barton, to be used by the naturalist William Beebe in 1928/9, and first used 1930-34 (see the Wikipedia article). So Conan Doyle was bang up to dat with contemporary technology in this field.

Lineage

The Maracot Deep was serialised in The Strand magazine from October 1927 to February 1928, then continued as The Lord of the Dark Face in April and May 1929, ie right at the end of Conan Doyle’s long adventurous life. Jules Verne with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and certainly HG Wells and maybe Edgar Rice Burroughs had done this sort of thing before.

But reading it wakes numerous echoes of later films or TV shows where voyagers fall into the hands of an alien and more scientifically advanced race, where they are initially made to feel welcome until…

In fact it does feel like a late work in that Conan Doyle doesn’t really develop either story or characters. The five brief chapters of the part one barely get us to the underwater city, a scrape with a deep sea monster and the discovery of their own ship, wrecked in a hurricane shortly after they were set adrift – and our heroes have returned to civilisation and safety.

Spiritualism

The last two chapters (of seven) were written and published a year after the main body and are clearly and clumsily bolted onto the original story. In them the narrator hilariously say, ‘I forget if I have said before that the Professor was a world-famed specialist on Comparative Religions and ancient primitive beliefs.’ This comes in handy when the three adventurers meet none other than the Devil himself! who turns out to have had a personal hand in the destruction of Atlantis (which is what they’ve discovered).

This turn of events is ludicrous but, as always, in Doyle’s sensible lucid and clearly imagined prose, it has a strange persuasiveness. It has the same plausibility as a Hollywood movie. You know it’s rubbish but, for the hour or so that you watch it, you let yourself be impressed by the special affects, the acting, the directing.

Read The Maracot Deep

Front cover of the 1927 edition of the Strand magazine, containing the first chapter of the Maracot Deep

Front cover of the 1927 edition of the Strand magazine, containing the first chapter of the Maracot Deep

Tales of Unease by Arthur Conan Doyle

Variety

Conan Doyle packed an amazing variety of activities into one life (1859-1930): doctor, author, sea voyager, played cricket for the MCC, enlisted age 40 to serve in the Boer War, public campaigner against miscarriages of justice, bombarded the Ministry of Defence with technical and strategic innovations during the Boer War and Great War, and devoted his later years and sizable fortune to promoting Spiritualism.

His writing output was similarly prodigious and varied: novels, short stories, articles, essays, reviews, poetry, plays, and in genres like history, detective, horror, melodrama, science fiction. What unites them all is the easy confidence of his style.

I prefer these stories of fantasy and the bizarre to the Holmes ones, because Conan Doyle is less trapped by the iron format of ‘puzzle  – investigation – explanation’ which constricts the detective stories. Doyle’s imagination is set free to roam widely.

The result is short tales of horror, fantasy, of the macabre, alive with vivid descriptions – melodramatic moments – nightmare scenes of the bizarre or grotesque – each one a little twilight zone.

Qualities

They move at great speed. Mises-en-scenes are quickly set up with comprehensive descriptions of places and peoples, and then plunging into the action.

They are very vivid because a) the tales themselves are melodramatic ie designed to purvey extreme moments b) Conan Doyle has a great gift for the telling image. The detail of the undergraduate’s room lined with Egyptological specimens. The colour of the setting sun on the great Northern ice packs. The flicker of the candlelight in the Roman catacomb.

They are uncanny because they begin so solidly in the dull workaday before beginning to blur the boundaries. Because the characters of predominantly stuffy, bluff Edwardian types who would never be suspected of frivolity. What is so Conan Doyle about them is the comfiness of the original settings – the educated class, public school chaps, the world of Edwardian normality, pipe and clubs. So when the impossible occurs, we have already bought into the fictional world; their very bluffness lends credibility when the situation turns bizarre and extraordinary.

For example, the outlandish story of Sosra, the Egyptian who discovered the secret of immortality, is made credible (within the fiction) by the slow, detailed build-up of the character of Vansittart Smith, the mundane but steady Egyptologist, the typically bluff Victorian chap who narrates it. Because he is so reliable and believable, we suspend disbelief for the duration of the brief, fantastical story, which so clearly isn’t.

I’ve seen John Wyndham’s science fiction novels described as ‘cosy catastrophes’. Something similar with Conan Doyle whose prose never loses the calm confidence of a sturdy Victorian gentleman. Almost every story features cigars and a bottle of fine wine in front of a roaring fire: as readers we enjoy two levels of pleasure: the thrill of the often pretty hokey plot (although some of them do rise to a level of genuine hair-raising uncanniness) and the permanent bass note of the reassuring, unimaginative, pre-twentieth century worldview.

It was ten o’clock on a bright spring night, and Abercrombie Smith lay back in his arm-chair, his feet upon the fender, and his briar-root pipe between his lips. In a similar chair, and equally at his ease, there lounged on the other side of the fireplace his old school friend Jephro Hastie. Both men were in flannels, for they had spent their evening upon the river, but apart from their dress no one could look at their hard-cut, alert faces without seeing that they were open-air men – men whose minds and tastes turned naturally to all that was manly and robust.

No matter how grim the ostensible plots, all Conan Doyle’s oeuvre is fundamentally innocent, child-like, deeply comforting and reassuring.

Papers, fragments and accounts

The earliest novels (Defore, 1720s) used the forms of diaries, journals and, of course, letters, so there is nothing new in these short stories, 150 years later, using the same strategy – the tales frequently masquerade as journals, accounts, newspaper reports and so on. But there is something specific to horror stories of this period in using the fragment. Remember that the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886 ie one year before Holmes appears) climaxes with the letter from the doomed Jeckyll.

  • ‘The following account was found among the papers of Dr James Hardcastle.’
  • ‘The Horror of the Heights which includes the manuscript known as the Joyce-Armstrong Fragment’
  • And such is the narrative of Abercrombie Smith as to the singular events which occurred in Old College, Oxford, in the spring of ’84.

A story basing itself on one of these forms has multiple purposes:

  • It adds authority and credibility; it lends the lustre of another (albeit fictional) name to validate the narrative.
  • It allows the text to be short and pithy, as diaries, journals and letters generally are, and to focus only on key moments.
  • It gets right inside the mind of the protagonist without limiting the narrative to a first person account. In other words, it allows the author to combine first person and 3rd person points of view, often itself part of the drama, often revealing the true state of affairs which lies behind all the weird occurrences (as in Jeckyll).
  • Precisely by being fragments, they can often end melodramatically, as in the last entry in Joyce-Armstrong’s until-then sober and careful account, which are words of horror scribbled in pencil and splashed with blood!

The stories

Conan Doyle wrote some 120 short stories, as well as the 56 Holmes stories, and numerous novels, plays and pamphlets. This selection of 15 tales was made by David Stuart Davies, a specialist in this genre and this period, who has compiled a number of similar selections for the bargain Wordsworth imprint.

  • The Ring of Thoth (1890) An Egyptologist in the Louvre stumbles upon a 4,000 year old Egyptian who discovered the secret of eternal life and now is going to end his life in the arms of his mummified love.
  • The Lord of Château Noir (1894) During the Franco-Prussian War a French aristocrat terrorises a Prussian officer in vengeance for his dead son.
  • The New Catacomb (1898) Two archaeologists in Rome, one of them a dashing bounder just returned from a failed elopement with an English girl. His colleague takes him at night to a new catacomb then traps him there; for he had loved the girl he had ‘ruined’.
  • The Case of Lady Sannox (1893) A dashing surgeon is having an affair with a high society lady, is called late at night to operate on the wife of a Turkish merchant; he horribly disfigures the woman, then it is revealed it is his high-born lover and the merchant her husband who has taken a horrific revenge.
  • The Brazilian Cat (1898) the protagonist visits his cousin, Everard King, at his country pile where he has housed his large collection of Brazilian flora and fauna, especially the prize exhibit, a huge black puma. Despite warnings from the collector’s wife, the protagonist allows himself to be locked in to the animal’s cage. He manages to survive and when evil Everard returns in the morning it is he and not the protagonist who is killed. And as a result, the protagonist inherits the land, house and title.
  • The Brown Hand (1899) After a successful career in India a surgeon retires to England where he is haunted by the ghost of an Indian whose hand he promised to keep safe after having to amputate it. the hand was lost in a fire. the ghostly Indian searches for it every night. The protagonist goes to a surgeon in the east End and obtains a hand recently amputated from an Indian sailor and returns with it to the country house where the ghostly Indian finds it, politely bows to the surgeon, and departs for ever. Which is why the protagonist is made the surgeon’s heir.
  • The Horror of the Heights (1913) Brilliant account of Captain Joyce-Armstrong, an airman who flies higher than any man before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters.
  • The Terror of Blue John Gap (1910) Dr John Hardcastle is on a rest cure in Derbyshire, and finds out the hard way that local lore about a monster inhabiting a deep ancient cavern is in fact true.
  • The Captain of the Polestar (1890) ‘Being an extract from the singular journal of John McAlister Ray, student of medicine’. Doctor on the Polestar which travels unwisely far into the northern, Arctic ice fields, supposedly in search of whales, but in fact driven by the haunted captain Nicholas Craigie who is pursuing the phantom of his murdered sweetheart which flees across the ice.
  • How It Happened (1913) Haunting short account of a man who is in an early car crash, recalling the lead-up to it and then, in the final sentences, realising he is dead!
  • Playing with Fire (1900) Account of a séance including an artist who had been painting a unicorn. At the height of the séance the ectoplasm forms a unicorn which goes rampaging through the house!
  • The Leather Funnel (1902) the narrator visits a friend in Paris who suggests objects which have witnessed powerful scenes affect our dreams. As an experiment the narrator sleeps with a battered leather funnel by his bed and has a nightmare of a woman being tried and then beginning a course of water torture. Screaming himself awake, his friend shows the historical documents proving he has witnessed the torture of Marquise de Brinvilliers, a real historical woman, a poisoner and murder!
  • Lot No.249 (1892) At an old Oxford college a fat evil undergraduate has been conducting experiments, bringing a 4,000 year old mummy back to life, and increasingly using it to terrorise his enemies – before a steady young sporting chap steps in and stops it.
  • The Los Amigos Fiasco (1892) A very short light-hearted comic-horror piece about a town which tries to execute a man with electricity by increasing the voltage, but only succeed in giving him superhuman life.
  • The Nightmare Room (1921) By far the most overwritten piece in which a room is all Victorian sumptuous rugs and curtains at one end, completely bare at the other, with a divan upon which  beautiful but immoral woman is lounging. In bursts her husband declaring he knows about her affair with young Douglas; she must choose one of them. In bursts Douglas and the husband produces poison: Let’s play cards for her, old man. All written in the highest pitch of melodrama with everyone gasping or turning white. In the final line the director steps forward and shouts, Cut! It was all a scene from a movie 🙂
Contemporary illustration for Lot No.249

Contemporary illustration for Lot No.249

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