Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl (1974)

I am not a voyeur. I hate that sort of thing. But in this case, I stood there absolutely transfixed. (p.130)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. Over the years these were collected together in ten or so collections, and further rounded up into six ‘collected’ or ‘best of’ selections. More recently, Penguin have published ‘Complete Short Stories’ volumes one and two.

Switch Bitch (1974) contains four 30- or forty-page stories, making up a slender paperback of 130 or so pages. Basically, they are stories for teenagers, or middle-brow readers on holiday. Undemanding, obsessed with sex, sometimes very funny, sometimes gruesome.

The Visitor (first published in Playboy May 1965)

The nameless narrator claims to be a nephew of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, a rich bachelor and connoisseur, collector of spiders and scorpions, expert on Chinese pottery, and unstoppable philanderer. Upon Cornelius’s death the narrator receives a big crate containing all thirty-six volumes of the old man’s scandalous memoirs, detailing his outrageous sexual escapades, mainly during the 1940s. Almost all of them involve people (generally women) who are still alive and are therefore unpublishable without running the risk of prosecution. Except for the story he tells here.

Whereupon the text cuts directly to Cornelius’s own diary account of the incident, which commences on 24 August 1946. (Note: the Second World War had ended just nine days earlier, on Thursday 15 August, an incident Uncle Cornelius is too narcissistic to mention.)

Having set the tone by making love to a lady at the top of the great pyramid at Giza, Cornelius drops her off (he tells us he can never stand a woman’s company for more than 12 hours, ideally only eight) and motors across north Egypt towards the Suez Canal, planning to carry on up to Jerusalem.

He is driving his Lagonda sports car and singing opera – entire operas – at the top of his voice, as is his wont.

Unfortunately, pulling over at a very remote gas station in the desert, the mechanic informs him that his fan belt is just about to break. The garagiste makes a phone call and returns to tell a hot and bothered Cornelius that he’s ordered a new one from the nearest town but it won’t be delivered till the morning.

As luck would have it a Rolls Royce, no less, comes driving the long straight desert road and Cornelius flags it down. The sleek, well-dressed Syrian owner, Abdul Aziz, speaks perfect English and has immaculate manners. ‘Oh my dear chap, how ghastly for you, well, you can’t stay here, you simply must come and stay at my place,’ and so Cornelius gets into the Rolls with his overnight bag, telling the garagiste he’ll be back in the morning.

Throughout the preceding narrative Cornelius has revealed in various asides how very fastidious he is about personal hygiene, continually washing his hands and, when the filthy garagiste breathes over him, immediately taking a snifter of scotch to cleanse his mouth and nasal passages.

So he is delighted to discover that Mr Aziz’s house is a marvel of modernity and cleanliness. It is entirely alone out here in the middle of the desert, but with all mod cons. He is introduced to Mr Aziz’s dark-haired wife and daughter and they all persuade him to go for a swim in the pool. They lend him trunks and soon all four are splashing in the pool. Then it is time to retire to their rooms to wash and change for dinner, for which black tie is required (Uncle Cornelius, of course, is never without full dinner suit).

Over dinner Uncle Cornelius shares with us his extremely frank assessment of which of the two women, mother or daughter, it would be best to take to bed. The mother is a little fuller figured but would have experience. The daughter, leaner, would have more energy. Throughout the entire meal he is entirely focused on fantasising about which one to sleep with and is convinced that both of them appear to be making eyes at him. Why does their father/husband, Mr Aziz, sitting right there at table with them, not mind?

Considerably aroused, Cornelius is disappointed when both ladies simply shake his hand at the meal’s end, withdraw, and he is left to walk upstairs to his bedroom, a bit disconsolately. He tries to read to take his mind of sex. But in the small hours he hears the tell-tale sound of the bedroom door squeaking open and tiptoes across to his bed. He moves to turn on the light and speak but dainty woman’s hands stop him.

Instead he is treated to a night of passion unlike he’s ever experienced. Upside, downside, right side, wrong side, every which way he can imagine this woman’s fertile imagination treats him to. Hours later and utterly exhausted, she finally leaves him, picking up her clothes and tiptoeing out the room.

But not before he had given her a tasty little love bite on the neck. Next morning he dresses for breakfast on tenterhooks to discover which of the two ladies it was. When the wife comes in she is wearing a light scarf around her neck and Cornelius thinks oho, and yet she is strangely reluctant to make eye contact. And then he is thrown when the daughter appears, also wearing a scarf hiding the teeth marks. Hmmm.

And before he knows it it is time to leave and he bids a polite and formal goodbye to the two ladies, still mystified about which one gave him such a sexual marathon the night before. On the drive back to the garage Mr Aziz is also a little quiet. Cornelius asks, Isn’t it boring for you with only your wife and daughter for company? Oh, Azis replies, he has another daughter too. We didn’t see her, says Cornelius, is she living away? No, she lives with us but doesn’t socialise very much. You see she has leprosy! The worst, the most incurable kind.

‘But you needn’t worry my dear fellow. There is no way to contract the disease unless you have the most intimate contact with the sufferer.’

When they reach the garage and Uncle Cornelius steps out, he is shaking so badly he drops his pack of cigarettes. A classic case of the biter bit, the colonialist tricked, the white man duped, the philanderer punished. It is so neat it could be a folk story, or one of the traditional tales told in the Canterbury Tales.

The Great Switcheroo (Playboy, April 1974)

Much more straightforward in structure. The first person narrator is Vic, husband of Mary, father of Victor (9) and Wally (7). He’s at a party given by his neighbours, Jerry and the slinky Samantha. Vic has a theory that a woman’s lower lip tells you how sensual she is. He reckons Samantha is a scorcher. And all of a sudden he conceives a plan.

He goes and sits with half-drunk Jerry and tells him a story, a story about a bloke he knows who has come up with a plan for wife-swapping. This ‘friend’ came to an agreement with a mate of his, they agreed to swap, they got to know the layout of each other’s houses, and at 1am on a Saturday night, walked across the road, passing each other on the way, crept upstairs into the other man’s bedroom, gradually awoke and aroused the other man’s wife, and then made love to them, in the dark, without putting on a light or uttering a sound. Then waited for the wife to go back to sleep. Then snuck downstairs and crossed the road, saluting each other as they passed, on the way back to their own bedrooms.

All this time Jerry is watching Vic’s wife chatting to one of the party guests, himself with mounting fervour in his eye. He’s taken the bait! He suggests trying it. Vic acts surprised, but tentatively agrees.

And what follows is a peculiar combination of lechery with boys’ own enthusiasm. They decide to call the evening when they’ll do the deed D-Day. They come up with a sequence of preparations numbered one to eleven. The more Vic describes it, the more juvenile and ridiculously boyish it sounds. Both men will pretend to nip their fingers earlier that day while chopping vegetables and make a point of showing their wife a finger with a plaster on it. In the weeks leading up to it, when the wives are out, they go round each other’s houses and put a blindfold on, and practice moving from back door, down the hall, up the stairs, and into the bedroom in pitch darkness. For hours. Three hours in Vic’s case.

They discuss physical differences but agree that since Jerry is six foot tall and Vic five eleven, there’ll be little difference there. Vic stops smoking cigarettes and takes up a pipe so he’ll smell the same, and they make sure to both use the same hair lotion and after shave.

To cut a long story short, it works. They take their wives out for a double date dinner at a steak house, come home, clean teeth, go to bed, wait till wives are fast asleep. At 1am on the dot meet at the gap in the hedge between their front gardens, sneak upstairs as practiced so many times, slip into bed, begin to caress and arouse the other man’s wife, then make love to them, and so on.

In Vic’s case he touches up the beautiful Samantha for a few minutes in silence and then suddenly she jumps on him and ravishes him. And here’s the funny thing. All the excitement and interest has gone into the planning of this juvenile feat and yet, when it comes to it, a) Vic is completely unprepared, and b) Dahl is oddly reticent about the act itself.

It was only 1974 and this is, essentially, a story for teenage boys. Sex with a woman is just ‘the goal’ of this game, the actual deed itself almost comes as an afterthought, certainly he is astonished at how Samantha makes love to him, and yet it is described in the silliest boyish way.

I never dreamed a woman could do the things Samantha did to me the. She was a whirlwind, a dazzling frenzied whirlwind that tore me up by the roots and spun me around and carried me high into the heavens, to places I did not know existed. (p.75)

This sounds like the description of someone who doesn’t actually know very much about sex, just that it is this great big fireworks display.

In his tenth novel, Girl, 20 Kingsley Amis has two lecherous middle-aged men discussing the sexual practices of their much younger girlfriends and one is simply dazzled by the fact that this young woman is prepared to put his penis in her mouth. In a flash you realise the kind of absolutely straight-down-the-line, missionary position-in-the-dark kind of sex these kinds of characters had been having in the previous decades, the 1950s and 60s. It reminds you that The Joy of Sex was regarded as a breakthrough book when it was published in 1972.

From Vic’s description it sounds as if he fingers his wife until she’s aroused, then clambers on top of her and fucks her till he comes, then rolls off. That is the content or end point of all his leching, the driven wish to do the same to more or less every woman he sees. This explains why when it finally gets to the point of actually having sex the narrator here, and in the previous story, slips into a riot of metaphors about tigers and passion and whirlwinds which, you suspect, conceals something much more mundane.

Anyway, the boom-boom punchline of the story is that the next morning, Mary, his wife, is oddly distant and asks their sons to leave the kitchen and close the door as she has something to tell their father. Vic’s guts tie themselves in a knot and his heart is pounding fast as he is sure she realised he played a ‘trick’ on her.

But it is worse than that. She confesses to him that she has never once enjoyed sex with him (and, from my analysis above, we can see why), but that last night, for the first time ever, she understood the point of the whole thing, and finally enjoyed it. Oh thank you thank you thank you, she says covering him in kisses while, of course, his self-image as a great stud and pleaser of women and sexual adventurer turns to ashes in his mouth.

The Last Act (Playboy, January 1966)

This story has genuine grip. It is the least juvenile and at moments rises to what you might tentatively call a real investigation of human nature. It’s set in New York state. Anne Cooper is making dinner for her three twenty-something kids and expecting and expecting husband Edward home at any moment, when there’s a knock on the door and two state troopers are there to tell her Ed’s been killed in an auto accident. (The joy of driving, eh.)

She becomes hysterical, needs sedating and spends months in an institution, never getting used to the idea that the one great love of her life is dead. And, later, when she’s allowed home, she finds her two daughters marry in quick succession and then become increasingly distant, committed to their new husbands. And her son goes away to university, leaving her in the big empty house alone. In her darkest moments she thinks about taking an overdose of pills. Or using a razor to slash her wrists. Tricky, though, it’s easy to cut the veins, but you need to sever the artery to really bleed out and that is buried deep deep down.

Then she is rescued by a good friend who runs an agency in New York, and one day has almost the entire staff off with flu, and just won’t take no for an answer but comes and collects Anna and takes her to the busy downtown office where she is rushed off her feet, and discovers, at the end of a really gruelling day, that she feels shattered but emotionally great!

From that point onwards she throws herself heart and soul into her friend’s business, an adoption agency. Some months later she has to fly to Dallas, Texas, for a tricky case involving a mother who adopted a child but, when her husband died, changed her mind and wants to give it back. She has a terrible day and returns to the hotel where she’s staying drained and demoralised. Once again, the pills beckon… but then she suddenly remembers that an old flame of hers form high school moved down here. He always wanted to be a doctor. She looks him up in the yellow pages. Dr Conrad Kreuger. She leaves a message with his receptionist. He phones back and says, Anna! How wonderful! What brings you here! We must meet for a drink!

And so commences the heart of the story which is that 1. Kreuger is still as phenomenally handsome as ever. 2. He is rich and successful. 3. After Anna dumped him at High School for Perfect Ed, she remembered that Kreuger not only started going out with a bosomy girl in the class but the next year married her. However 4. Conrad now tells her that they had one child, a son, but divorced after two years and 5. that he never recovered from her dumping him. She has carried a torch for her ever since. Now, now is a chance for them to be together in the way he’s always dreamed.

As if this wasn’t enough information, two other things have been going on in tandem. They have met in the quiet, dark hotel bar and Anna has been drinking quite heavily. By the third martini she is positively floating. But she and we have also noticed Kreuger’s tendency to lecture her, to adopt the pose of doctor and warn her about the health risks of her behaviour. He tells her smoking mentholated cigarettes is bad for her. A little later, in the middle of discussing emotions and suchlike, he interrupts to tell her that drinking gin is also bad. Juniper extract is bad for the uterus. Turns out he is a gynacologist.

By now Anna has made herself drunk enough to be ready to be splayed and fucked like a chicken. She lets herself be paid for, guided to the lift, floated up to her floor, through the door of her apartment and into the darkened room. Here Conrad suddenly kisses her, covering her mouth and cheeks in kisses which she observes as if from a great distance. But eventually he hits the jackpot when he kisses her in the ear and her whole body lights up with lust.

She strips and unbuttons his shirt but two things happen. 1. Conrad behaves coldly and clinically. He sits fully clothed on the bed and undoes all Anna’s buttons and straps and bra and stockings and panties and pulls them off carefully and precisely. Then he himself stands and takes off all his clothes, folding them carefully and placing them over the back of the bedroom chair. At one point, looking own on her head, he notices that she is showing signs of incipient alopecia. She tells him to shut up and kiss her.

Only then does he grab her wrist and fling her onto the bed where she floats and the room spins in a great swirl of sensations as, we gather, he fingers her vulva, working her up into a state of screaming arousal, and then swings his body over hers and starts making love to her. The reader is reminded, again, that this story is from over fifty years ago. There is something very stiff and constrained and embarrassed about it all. I can see why Anna had to get drunk to nerve herself for the ordeal.

But right in the middle of sex Conrad asks if she is wearing a cap or diaphragm. Obviously the head of his penis is bumping against something. She indignantly says no, but she insists that she must be and… suddenly she is sober-remorseful, suddenly she sees the whole situation with blinding clarity, suddenly his face over hers looks like a dentist peering into her face and about to use a drill.

She starts screaming at him to get off, he argues that she can’t just change her mind like that, in mid-stream, but she carries on, pushes him off at which he, ungallantly, pushes her right off the bed. She gets up, weeping, and flees into the bathroom locking the door behind her, and Conrad hears her rooting about in the bathroom cabinet, by implication – after the running thread of suicidal thoughts – looking for an overdose of pills to take.

Quietly, Conrad dresses, wipes the lipstick off his face, combs his fine black hair, takes a last check in the mirror, and walks out.

The men aren’t coming off very well in these stories, are they? Obsessed with sex but, when it comes down to it, narrow and unimaginative, but also getting pretty rude come-uppances.

Bitch (Playboy July 1974)

Uncle Cornelius is a great creation, a fabulously shameless posh boy aesthete and philanderer. He collects women, or more accurately one-off sexual experiences with women, the same way he collects Persian carpets and Chinese porcelain. Here’s an example of his thinking:

He was a totally amoral man, that much was clear, but then so was I. He was also a wicked man and although I cannot in all honesty claim wickedness as one of my virtues, I find it irresistible in others. (p.121)

In this, the second ‘excerpt’ from his outrageous memoirs, he describes his encounter with a French scientist, Henri Biotte. This man is an expert on smells and scents and perfumes. He devised the two of the most famous perfumes in the world for a Parisian perfumier. Now Biotte persuades sceptical Uncle Cornelius to fund his attempt to carry out a revolution in smell.

To be precise, Biotte claims that dogs and other mammals are susceptible to the powerful pheromones emitted by the female of the species when they’re on heat. Biotte tells Cornelius the ability to emit or smell this scent was evolved out of humans over 100,000 years ago. Now he proposes to recreate the scent and the chemical catalyst which will activate it, spray it on a woman, and see what happens.

‘You are a dirty old man,’ I said.
‘I am an olfactory chemist,’ he said, primly. (p.125)

Cornelius forgets about the project till he gets a phone call. Biotte has isolated the chemical. He invites Cornelius to witness an experiment. Biotta has booked a short wiry boxer named Pierre Lacaille. They place his assistant, Simone, on a chair and stationthe boxer six metres away.

Biotte makes the usually fastidious Cornelius place two nose plugs in his nostrils to prevent being affected by the wonder-scent, then he sprays a little on Simone’s throat. then they instruct Lacaille to move towards her a step at a time. Nothing happens and he is puzzled and Simone bored until… suddenly the scent hits him, he whinnies like a stallion, tears all his clothes off and ravishes Simone. It is an instructive display. Biotte goes up to the copulating couple and threatens Lacaille with a revolver, he ignores him. Biotte fires the revolver right over Lacaille’s head, he ignores him.

Wow. The scent really takes complete animal possession of a man. They wonder what to call it. Cornelius suggests Bitch.

So far Biotte has only manufactured 10cc of the stuff. Cornelius insists on being given 1cc for purposes of his own. He takes the carefully sealed phial to a gadget-maker he knows in Paris and asks him to make a tiny container, no bigger than an inch which will contain the scent but also have a tiny timing mechanism and hammer, so that the phial can be set to be punctured and leak its life-changing content. This the gadget-maker does.

But when Cornelius returns to the lab the next morning he discovers that the vixenish assistant Simone had used up the entire supply of scent on herself and sent Biotte into such a frenzy that he had a heart attack and died. And he hadn’t written down the chemical formula or the process for extracting the perfume. Damn!

(All these coincidences and extremities make you realise this story is really a cartoon.)

The special plan Cornelius has is to use the spray on the American president! The current president is (according to him) a particularly loathsome, lying reptile. He plans to get close enough to spray bitch on the nearest woman (while wearing nose plugs) and watch the president turn into a horny animal.

So he flies into New York, checks into a hotel and reads in his paper that the president is due to give a speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution that same evening. Cornelius discovers the head of the Daughters is one Mrs Elvira Ponsonby. He discovers which hotel she is staying in and goes round with a spray of lovely orchids and gets past reception by claiming they’re a gift from the president himself. Concealed among them is the phial of scent and the tiny little timer.

His plan is to pin the flowers onto Mrs Ponsonby’s enormous bosom, then watch as she goes off to sit next to the president, guest of honour at tat evenings dinner. And at 9pm precisely the little clockwork hammer will penetrate the little phial, bitch will spread across Mrs P’s bosom, the president will be transformed into a raging satyr, and ravish her right there and then on the table in front of all the other guests, and a television auience of 20 million. Cornelius cackles with anticipation. He will be ruined. he will be impeached. He will be thrown out in shame and dishonour.

Mrs Ponsonby answers the door to her room and, after some initial doubt, is persuaded that Cornelius is a courier bringing flowers from the president himself. Unfortunately, she is not only a very large lady, but very clumsy, and as she tries to force a pin through the stems of the flowers to attach them to her dress, the penetrates the phial, the precious drops of bitch leak out and… Dahl gives us an extraordinary description of how Cornelius feels, it is as if his entire body shrinks as his penis becomes bigger and more erect until he is nothing but penis with which he transfixes Mrs Ponsonby and they fly up into the sky, through exploding stars etc, in a sort of X-rate Disney animation.

What seems like hours later, he comes back to himself, finding himself stark naked in a hotel room which looks like it has been trampled by elephants, and, as he sheepishly finds his clothes and gets dressed, he hears a woman’s voice emanating from behind an upturned table in the corner of the room, ‘I don’t know who you are, young man, but you’ve certainly done me a power of good!’

Thoughts

The stories certainly reveal in graphic detail the thoughts of the kind of Playboy-reading male chauvinist pig which feminists have spent fifty years hunting to extinction. Nobody nowadays could write such frank assessments of women solely in terms of their fuckability as the narrators of three of these stories do.

But then, the obvious feature of the first two and fourth stories is that the male chauvinist pig gets his comeuppance: in the final one Biotte dies and Cornelius’s plans collapse into fat-bottomed farce.

The exception is The Last Act which swings in and out of sexist territory, skirts along the borderline. But I found his portrayal of a woman destroyed by grief, redeemed by finding a tough demanding job to do, and then undone on a disastrous date with a high school boyfriend, contained surprising depths and acuities.

Uncle Cornelius is a monstrous cartoon caricature and I want to read much more about his outrageous escapades and absurd pratfalls (apparently, there is a short novel about him). But it is the messy, modern story of the widow Anna Cooper which sticks in my memory.


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Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions is longer than the average Vonnegut novel at 270 pages in an old Panther paperback edition I have.

It’s experimental in several ways. Each paragraph is introduced with an arrow → making them seem more like disconnected apothegms than part of a consecutive prose text, and sometimes the paragraphs reduce to totally disconnected sentences. More like reading Nietzsche than a novel.

Then there’s the author’s amateurish but quite appealing drawings, at least one every two pages, sometimes two on a page, squeezing the prose out, like in a children’s book. I counted 119 of them. Here’s an example.

Page from Breakfast of Champions

And another one.

Goodbye Blue Monday by Kurt Vonnegut

It took Vonnegut a long four years to grind out Breakfast of Champions and several times he abandoned it. It had poor reviews and in later life he gave it a low rating among his works. But I like it. I think it demonstrates two of his leading characteristics.

1. It is chatty. It is like listening to an interesting guy who’s knocked about the world a bit, telling you funny anecdotes, about pornography, explaining how we’re all actually machines, leaning forward to impress on you that war is wrong, and so on.

2. And it is roomy. Having established this chatty, informal persona, Vonnegut can casually rope just about any subjects he wants into the so-called ‘story’.

For example, out of nowhere in particular comes this paragraph:

The Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, shook Trout’s hand in a Cohoes grocery story one time. Trout had no idea who he was. As a science-fiction writer, he should have been flabbergasted to come so close to such a man. Rockefeller wasn’t merely Governor. Because of the peculiar laws in that part of the planet, Rockefeller was allowed to own vast areas of Earth’s surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well. He owned or controlled more of the planet than many nations. This had been his destiny since infancy. He had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.
‘How’s it going, fella?’ Governor Rockefeller asked him.
‘About the same,’ said Kilgore Trout.

That is the complete ‘section’, that’s all we hear about Governor Rockefeller. On the face of it this is some kind of satire against obscene wealth – the kind of stoned oppositionism which made Vonnegut such a hero of the counterculture and 1970s students. What I like about it though is its irrelevance. Its irreverent irrelevance. Its insouciance. He tells a story. Nothing much happened. It was a thing. OK. So long.

As to ‘plot’, well, the story follows events in the lives of two American men, Kilgore Trout, the failed author of hundreds of science fiction novels who we met a few years back in Slaughterhouse-Five and who appears in about five other Vonnegut novels; and Dwayne Hoover,  a Pontiac car dealer in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio, who is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The plot comes to a climax with them both meeting, by accident in a bar, and Trout’s presence being the thing which topples Hoover into his psychotic episode (beating up a bunch of people in the bar, his mistress and a couple of cops before being overpowered and taken to gaol).

Both characters contain elements of self-portraiture: Trout since Vonnegut himself struggled a) in his early, poor days against indifference and bad reviews, then b) when he was famous, against writer’s block; and Hoover since Vonnegut (apparently) suffered lifelong from depression, was on anti-depression medication and tried to commit suicide at least once. It is relevant that Vonnegut’s own mother committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills when he was 21 – not least because he tells us as much in chapter 17.

‘This is a very bad book you’re writing,’ I said to myself behind my leaks.
‘I know,’ I said.
‘You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,’ I said.
‘I know,’ I said.

And he makes Dwayne’s wife, Celia, kill herself by drinking Drāno.

a mixture of sodium hydroxide and aluminum flakes, which was meant to clear drains. Celia became a small volcano, since she was composed of the same sorts of substances which commonly clogged drains.

For the richest and most powerful country in the world, America sure was, and apparently still is, full of very unhappy people.

The narrative arc is that Trout – based in New York – is invited to an arts festival taking place in (the fictional) Midland City, and has a string of adventures getting there, while Hoover is going mad in Midland City, disconcerting his various staff and employees at the Pontiac salesroom he owns.

But the real point of the novel is, I think, the way Vonnegut just adds all sorts of anecdotes, stories, jokes, pictures and reflections into it.

For example, the notion that Trout is almost supernaturally prolific allows Vonnegut to add in one-page synopses of Trout’s far-out science fiction novels. They come across as too simple to even be worked up into short stories, but they make excellent one-page diversions. There are at least ten of them, which add an extra layer of wackiness to the mix.

The fake naive style

What most distinguishes Breakfast of Champions from Vonnegut’s other books, and from any other book I’ve ever read, is the author’s deployment of a strategy of describing everything, even the most minute and obvious elements of life and society – as if to an alien who has never heard of them before.

Everything he mentions, almost anything, he stops the narrative to explain it as if to someone who has never heard of it before, often adding one of his drawings.

For example, right in the opening pages he sets out to piss off any conservative readers, and whip up his student fanbase, by treating America and its iconography as if it is inexplicably weird.

Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously… (Vonnegut quotes the entire lyric of the American national anthem)

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

And:

If they studied their paper money for clues as to what their country was all about, they found, among a lot of other baroque trash, a picture of a truncated pyramid with a radiant eye on top of it, like this: (a hand-drawn illustration of the logo on an American dollar) Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength’.

A lot of the nonsense was the innocent result of playfulness on the part of the founding fathers of the nation of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of the study of hocus-pocus from ancient times.

As to American foreign policy:

When Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout met each other, their country was by far the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had most of the food and minerals and machinery, and it disciplined other countries by threatening to shoot big rockets at them or to drop things on them from airplanes.

All this was written as the Vietnam War reached its bloody climax:

Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

If American authors want to say their country is rubbish, that’s fine by me – although I’d love to read about the backlash there must have been against Vonnegut by any kind of conservative writers, publications or institutions.

What interests me more is the wide-eyed innocence of this narratorial approach – as if he were not only explaining America to aliens, but to alien children.

Thus later on the narrator explains what a beaver is (with a drawing), what a clocktower is (with a drawing) what a gun is (a device for making holes in other people, along with a drawing), what an apple is (with a drawing), what a lamb is:

A lamb was a young animal which was legendary for sleeping well on the planet Earth. It looked like this:

To a large extent whether you like the book or not will be based on whether you can read hundreds of pages written in this faux innocent style, whether you find it liberating, or at least interesting, to see all human activity through these alien child’s point of view. Or whether you find it tiresome and almost demented.

Machines and chemicals

Closely related to the style is the delusion the author attributes to Dwayne Hoover of seeing all other human beings as machines. This is one of the ‘hallucinations’ which tips Hoover over into full-blown madness but we know, from the preface and from comments liberally sprinkled throughout the text, that Vonnegut often feels the same.

As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. Sometimes I wrote well about collisions, which meant I was a writing machine in good repair. Sometimes I wrote badly, which meant I was a writing machine in bad repair. I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe.

This conceit is used more for humour than bleakness. In fact the idea is most fully expressed in a book by Kilgore Trout which Dwayne reads in the cocktail bar at the climax of the novel and which brings on his fit. In the book, Trout writes:

‘Your parents were fighting machines and self-pitying machines,’ said the book. ‘Your mother was programmed to bawl out your father for being a defective moneymaking machine, and your father was programmed to bawl her out for being a defective housekeeping machine. They were programmed to bawl each other out for being defective loving machines.

‘Then your father was programmed to stomp out of the house and slam the door. This automatically turned your mother into a weeping machine. And your father would go down to a tavern where he would get drunk with some other drinking machines. Then all the drinking machines would go to a whorehouse and rent fucking machines. And then your father would drag himself home to become an apologizing machine. And your mother would become a very slow forgiving machine.’

If read in the right mood, this is pretty funny.

And Vonnegut sees human beings not only as machines, but as bags of chemicals:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside.

This comes over in the thread running throughout the text whereby the author refers to all kinds of aspects of the characters’ behaviours as being determined, not by free will, but by ‘the chemicals in their brains’.

A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads.

Vonnegut tells us in the preface that:

My own mother wrecked her brains with chemicals, which were supposed to make her sleep. When I get depressed, I take a little pill, and I cheer up again.

I know from personal experience what a huge difference medication for mental illness can make to a person. Chemical imbalances in the brain can certainly be life defining, character defining. Vonnegut lays this fact out with the same wide-eyed fake naivety as everything else from the American flag to apples.

Taken together the ideas that people are a) machines b) whose behaviour is largely determined by chemicals in their brains, dominate the book’s worldview.

Race

There’s a lot about race in the book. Of course the 1960s in America saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of its leaders, and the growth of Black Power. How exactly the historical background seeps into the book, I couldn’t say except that it is very aware of ‘the black problem’ and, as you would expect, Vonnegut is 110% on the liberal side, depicting southern slavery, southern bigotry, black crime rates and black incarceration rates as all aspects of white oppression.

Francine mused about the prison, where the guards were all white and most of the prisoners were black.

Then again, he crosses all kinds of lines we, in 2019, have been taught to avoid. He uses the N word more than any modern writer would dare, mostly setting it down in his standard fake naive way, a way that conveys the outrage and injustice embodied in the word all the more powerfully for being used flat and blank.

Harry knew Dwayne better than did any other man. He had been with Dwayne for twenty years. He came to work for him when the agency was right on the edge of the Nigger part of town. A Nigger was a human being who was black.

There’s a lot more in the same ilk, some of it pretty disturbing. Here is Harry LeSabre, sales manager at Dwayne Hoover’s Pontiac dealership, talking with his wife, Grace.

‘Can the reindeer hear you?’ said Harry. ‘Fuck the reindeer,’ said Grace. Then she added, ‘No, the reindeer cannot hear.’ Reindeer was their code word for the black maid, who was far away in the kitchen at the time. It was their code word for black people in general. It allowed them to speak of the black problem in the city, which was a big one, without giving offense to any black person who might overhear. ‘The reindeer’s asleep – or reading the Black Panther Digest,’ she said.

The reindeer problem was essentially this: Nobody white had much use for black people anymore – except for the gangsters who sold the black people used cars and dope and furniture. Still, the reindeer went on reproducing. There were these useless, big black animals everywhere, and a lot of them had very bad dispositions. They were given small amounts of money every month, so they wouldn’t have to steal. There was talk of giving them very cheap dope, too – to keep them listless and cheerful, and uninterested in reproduction.

The Midland City Police Department, and the Midland County Sheriffs Department, were composed mainly of white men. They had racks and racks of submachine guns and twelve-gauge automatic shotguns for an open season on reindeer, which was bound to come.

This is bleak whichever way you view it. Is Vonnegut agreeing that there is a big race problem in America? The idea that blacks are given a small dole to stop them stealing is bleak satire. Should Harry and Grace’s attitude be taken as the average white middle class view of the day? And then the mass arming of the police against the coming of a race war even bleaker.

Sometimes Vonnegut combines his fake-naive approach to race with the conceit that humans are machines, to produce really biting dark satire. Thus, emerging from a porn cinema in Times Square, Kilgore Trout is propositioned by two hookers.

These were country girls. They had grown up in the rural south of the nation, where their ancestors had been used as agricultural machinery. The white farmers down there weren’t using machines made out of meat anymore, though, because machines made out of metal were cheaper and more reliable, and required simpler homes.

All America’s social problems are treated in the same way, with huge detachment as if we are all machines in a grotesquely malfunctioning factory.

Sex

Slaughterhouse-Five offended many Americans because of its dwelling on pornography. Not the writing of pornography, just Vonnegut dwelling on it as a symptom of human beings’ madness. Well, men’s. There’s a lot more of it in Breakfast of Champions.

Sex shops It turns out that Kilgore Trout’s numerous science fiction novels are generally bought up by pornographers purely to pad out their wank mags. This means that, before he sets off to the arts festival in Midland City, Trout spends some time cruising the sex shops around Times Square in New York.

Beaver shots Vonnegut goes to town on this, describing how hard core sex magazines advertise that they contain ‘wide open beaver’ shots i.e. photos of women with their legs and labia apart, for men to masturbate to. It’s a classic opportunity to use the false-naive approach to highlight the absurdity of men, women, sex, humanity.

At the time he met Dwayne Hoover, Trout’s most widely-distributed book was Plague on Wheels. The publisher didn’t change the title, but he obliterated most of it and all of Trout’s name with a lurid banner which made this promise:

WIDE-OPEN BEAVERS INSIDE!!!!!

A wide-open beaver was a photograph of a woman not wearing underpants, and with her legs far apart, so that the mouth of her vagina could be seen. The expression was first used by news photographers, who often got to see up women’s skirts at accidents and sporting events and from underneath fire escapes and so on. They needed a code word to yell to other newsmen and friendly policemen and firemen and so on, to let them know what could be seen, in case they wanted to see it. The word was this: “Beaver!”

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

When Dwayne was a boy, when Kilgore Trout was a boy, when I was a boy, and even when we became middle-aged men and older, it was the duty of the police and the courts to keep representations of such ordinary apertures from being examined and discussed by persons not engaged in the practice of medicine. It was somehow decided that wide-open beavers, which were ten thousand times as common as real beavers, should be the most massively defended secret under law.

There you have Vonnegut’s satirical view of the absurdity of sex, pornography and society.

The clitoris Trout has written an entire book about the clitoris (p.144) and how a man should pleasure a woman.

Penis size There is also a longish passage half way through the book, where Vonnegut tells us the precise penis lengths of all the make characters in the book. This feels like Tristram Shandy, the most famous example of learnèd wit, i.e. taking the mickey out of absurd scholarship and learning, updated to the era of the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour. In case you’re wondering:

Dwayne Hoover, incidentally, had an unusually large penis, and didn’t even know it

while:

Kilgore Trout had a penis seven inches long, but only one and one-quarter inches in diameter

at which point, in his fake-naive style, Vonnegut includes a drawing of an inch so that we know what we’re talking about.

Orgasms And this segues into a discussion of how many orgasms the main characters have per month.

Dwayne’s monthly orgasm rate on the average over the past ten years, which included the last years of his marriage, was two and one quarter. [Grace]’s monthly average over the same period was eighty-seven. Her husband [an assistant in Dwayne’s car dealership]’s average was thirty-six.

Cross dressing I was struck that Harry LeSabre is a transvestite. At weekends he likes to dress up in women’s clothes. His wife, Grace, is fine with this, but Harry is petrified lest it get out among his work colleagues.

Homosexuality And Dwayne is bothered because his son, George, has come out as gay, after having a terrible time at the military academy Dwayne sent him to when he was only a boy –

George Hoover went to Prairie Military Academy for eight years of uninterrupted sports, buggery and Fascism. Buggery consisted of sticking one’s penis in somebody else’s asshole or mouth, or having it done to one by somebody else.

with the result that he now insists on being called Bunny and plays piano in the cocktail lounge of the town’s Holiday Inn.

Role playing Earlier Dwayne took his secretary and lover, Francine Pefko, to the Holiday Inn where they made love but then Dwayne a) got really angry with her, shouting accusations, after which b) he collapsed into self pity and wanted her to be his Mommy.

He begged her to just hold him for a while, which she did.
‘I’m so confused,’ he said.
‘We all are,’ she said.
She cradled his head against her breasts.
‘I’ve got to talk to somebody,’ said Dwayne.
‘You can talk to Mommy, if you want,’ said Francine. She meant that she was Mommy.
‘Tell me what life is all about,’ Dwayne begged her fragrant bosom.

Prison sex A minor character, a black man just out of prison named Wayne Hoobler who’s been hanging round Dwayne’s Pontiac salesroom, reminisces about sex in prison.

He missed the clash of steel doors. He missed the bread and the stew and the pitchers of milk and coffee. He missed fucking other men in the mouth and the asshole, and being fucked in the mouth and the asshole, and jerking off – and fucking cows in the prison dairy, all events in a normal sex life on the planet, as far as he knew.

My point being that if a contemporary novel tackled these ‘issues’ it would be praised for being up to date and contemporary. But here’s Vonnegut writing about them 45 years ago. Nothing changes. Sex deranges everything.

The environment

But amid the satire about humans being machines driven by malfunctioning brain chemistry, about the madness of patriotism and wars, about the crazy attitudes to sex and the brutal racism of American society, there’s another strong theme which is environmentalism.

Right at the start of the novel Vonnegut describes Earth as a damaged planet, a dying planet, a wrecked planet, before we learn Trout’s theory that the atmosphere will soon become unbreathable and goes on:

He told Bill that humanity deserved to die horribly, since it had behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet.

The theme is picked up by the truck driver who Trout hitches a lift east out of New York with. As they drive through the wastelands of New Jersey, the driver laments how dirty and polluted the whole state has become.

‘And when you think of the shit that most of these factories make – wash day products, catfood, pop…’ He had a point. The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.

He said he knew that his truck was turning the atmosphere into poison gas, and that the planet was being turned into pavement so his truck could go anywhere.

And the theme is repeated big time when they drive through West Virginia and see how the landscape has been devastated by coal mining and Vonnegut, using the fake-naive approach, laments how crazy it is that people, because they own the minerals and oil and coal deep within the Earth, are allowed by our laws to devastate and pollute the surface of the Earth which we all inhabit.

The truck carrying Kilgore Trout was in West Virginia now. The surface of the State had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

Summary

The experience of reading Breakfast of Champions is funny if disconcerting. The fake naive style, the casual way all kinds of topics are – race, sex, politics, war, environment – are treated with a deadpan straight face and reduced to absurdity by being illustrated with the author’s drawings, all this is often quite amusing.

But as soon as you stop and tabulate the themes, as I’ve done, you can see that just beneath the surface – and quite often on the surface – is world class depression, pessimism and nihilism.

In the last third of the novel Vonnegut himself appears as the author of the book and begins to play a role in it. We learn how he bought a pair of dark glasses on his way to Midland City where he walks into the same cocktail bar where Kilgore Trout is sitting and then watches the entrance of his character, Dwayne Hoover. He then shares with us the process of making up various secondary characters, giving them names and attributes and generally orchestrating the events which follow.

Not only does he tell us how he’s making the story up – in standard post-modern style – but he shares with us his worries about his mental illness (‘leaks’ in this extract is the term Vonnegut has developed to describe glasses and sunglasses).

There in the cocktail lounge, peering out through my leaks at a world of my own invention, I mouthed this word: schizophrenia. The sound and appearance of the word had fascinated me for many years. It sounded and looked to me like a human being sneezing in a blizzard of soapflakes. I did not and do not know for certain that I have that disease. This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbours believed.

I am better now.
Word of honour: I am better now

Much of these personal anxieties are present in Slaughterhouse-Five but there they are contained and channelled into the vivid description of, and emotional reaction to, Billy Pilgrim’s terrible war experiences. They are justified by the genuine nihilism of war. That’s what makes Slaughterhouse-Five a classic. The subject justifies the deranged treatment. The reader thinks: well, having been through what Vonnegut went through, I’ll give him any amount of leeway in how he presents it.

But Vonnegut is all too aware that this novel completely lacks the historical authenticity and punch of its predecessor. It lacks the excuse of being about a Big Subject.

For sure, he excoriates every aspect of American society and human nature which he can get his hands on, but as a result the book not only lacks focus but lacks a justification. Instead, you keep circling back to find Vonnegut’s face, staring out at the reader in mute despair.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Surrealism by Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy (2004)

SURREALISM. Noun: Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, or otherwise, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral considerations.
(First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924)

One of German publisher Taschen’s ‘Basic Art’ movement series, this 95-page-long, mid-size art book consists of a series of key Surrealist art works, prefaced by a handy ten-page introduction, complete with funky timeline of historical events (e.g. 1913 – world’s first domestic refrigerator sold in Chicago!).

The main body of the text consists of 34 double-page spreads, each one displaying a major Surrealist painting on the right, and a page of commentary about the artist – with their biography, photo and interpretation of the work – on the left-hand page.

The artists are presented alphabetically, not chronologically, so the commentary on them and their pictures jumps about a bit in time and space, in a pleasantly random, surreal kind of way. They are:

  • Hans Arp (1 painting)
  • Hans Bellmer (1)
  • Brassaï (1 photo)
  • Giorgio de Chirico (2)
  • Salvador Dalí (5)
  • Paul Delvaux (1)
  • Max Ernst (4)
  • Alberto Giacometti (1)
  • Paul Klee (1)
  • Wifredo Lam (1)
  • René Magritte (4)
  • André Masson (1)
  • Matta (1)
  • Joan Miró (3)
  • Meret Oppenheim (1)
  • Pablo Picasso (4)
  • Man Ray (1 photograph)
  • Yves Tanguy (2 paintings)

As this list shows, Salvador Dalí emerges as the single biggest contributor to the Surrealist ‘look’.

Like other books on the subject, the excellent introduction has problems defining precisely what Surrealism was, because its definitions, ideas and embodiments changed and evolved over the key years between the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and the outbreak of war in 1939.

From this account I took that Surrealism is ‘a philosophical and artistic approach which vehemently rejects the notion of the Rational Mind and all its works’. For Surrealists, the True Mind, true human nature – ‘the true function of thought’ – is profoundly irrational.

The Surrealists thought the Rational Mind formed the basis of ‘bourgeois’ society, with its moral and sexual repressiveness, its worship of work and money, its fetishisation of capitalist greed which had led both to the stifling conformity of Western society and to a series of petty wars over colonies which had themselves led up to the unprecedented calamity of the First World War.

In the Surrealists’ opinion, this entire mindset had proved to be a ghastly mistake. The Surrealists thought that we had to reject it lock stock and barrel by returning to the pure roots of human nature in the fundamentally irrational nature of the human mind, liberating thought from all censorship and superficial, petty morality, seeking to capture ‘the true function of thought’ and creativity through the exploration of the fortuitous and the uncontrolled, the random and the unexpected, through dreams and coincidences.

The first Surrealist magazine was titled La Révolution surréaliste (1924 to 1929) not because it espoused a communist political line, but because it thought that Surrealist writing and art would, by its very nature, reveal to readers and viewers the true nature of unbounded thought and lead to a great social transformation.

Strategies of Surrealist writers

The writers who initiated the movement (André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos) tried to get at and reveal ‘the true function of thought’ using a number of strategies.

Free association In 1919 Breton and Soupault spent days taking it in turns to free associate words and sentences, while the other scribbled down the results – producing monologues ‘without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties, a monologue unencumbered by the slightest inhibition’. The results were published in 1920 in a work of ‘fiction’, The Magnetic Fields, the first Surrealist text.

Automatic writing Later, in the mid-1920s, they experimented with the ability to go into a sort of trance or half-asleep state and then write the mind’s thoughts, similarly ‘unencumbered by inhibition’. The poet Robert Desnos turned out to be the best at this – he could put himself into a trance-like, sleep-like state but nonetheless write reams of text – to everyone’s amazement. There are photos of him doing it.

Transcribing the mad Breton was a trainee doctor and towards the end of the war worked with shell-shocked soldiers, some of whom had gone completely mad. With this experience and training, it’s odd that he didn’t pursue the ravings of the mad in greater detail during the 1920s. Even Freud was forced to amend his theories in light of the universal incidence of shell shock, post traumatic stress disorder and so on among Great War soldiers. So it’s genuinely surprising that there isn’t more about war and madness in Surrealism (not in any of the books I’ve read, anyway).

Compare and contrast with the traumatic war art of the Surrealists’ German contemporaries, Otto Dix or George Grosz.

Paranoiac-critical method It was left to Salvador Dalí, who only joined the movement in the late 1920s, to undertake a (sort of) exploration of madness. Dalí exploited his own florid psychological issues – hysteria, panic attacks, delusions – into a system he grandly titled the ‘Paranoiac-critical method’.

It was never exactly clear what he meant by this, but one definition he gave defined it as a ‘spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.’

In practice this meant cultivating a state of mind in which he was open to the multiple meanings of objects, receptive to visual puns, where one object turns into another object which turns into another object, presenting a kind of vertigo of endless transmutations.

Maybe the most famous example is the image of melting clocks. This came to him at the end of a dinner as he sat watching the cheese board and some super-ripe camembert cheeses drooping and oozing over the edge of the plate. In a flash he saw clock faces, melting clock faces, in the round cheeses, and rushed home to paint them. (At least, that’s the story he tells in his often unreliable memoirs.)

(I hadn’t realised till I read this book that the slug-like thing on the floor of this famous painting is a self-portrait. If you rotate the image through 45 degrees you can see Dalí’s big nose pointing to the left and that the fringe of hairs are the eyelashes of his closed eye. This ‘self-portrait as a slug’ appears in a number of early paintings – look out for the eyelashes.)

Strategies of Surrealist painters

We know that the artists who joined the group at first struggled to compete with the ‘pure’ automatism of  their writer colleagues. After all the ability to free associate words and text is a pretty cheap and easy technique, difficult to replicate with oil paints and brushes.

Automatic drawing Early member André Masson simply free-associated his drawings, letting his pen wander over the surface of paper or canvas, drawing inconsequential lines, dots and squiggles. Many of these were saved and recorded but it’s difficult to get too excited by them.

Interesting up to a point, but you can see how after a certain number of these you might get bored. Is this all the Unconscious had to say?

Collage Max Ernst was a member of the Cologne Dada group when he discovered the hallucinatory power of cutting up graphic elements from newspapers, magazines, adverts and so on and sticking them together in strange combinations.

A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

Illustration from A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

More than letting the pen or brush wander at random, it is this idea of the bizarre yoking-together of elements from different spheres, realms or discourses, the notion of strange and unexpected combinations, which lies at the heart of Surrealist art.

(The art of jarring juxtapositions is a technique Dalí would bring to a kind of cartoon, fluent perfection in Surrealist objects like the famous lobster telephone of 1936.)

Max Ernst emerges as the most prolific innovator among Surrealist artists: he went on to develop a number of other techniques designed either to remove the artist from the process of creation, or to fully incorporate elements of chance and randomness – both with the aim of getting at ‘the true function of thought’:

  • frottage – The technique of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis of a work of art. In frottage, the artist takes a pastel or pencil or other drawing tool and makes a rubbing over an uneven surface. The drawing can be left as it is or used as the basis for further refinement.
  • grattage – Laying a canvas prepared with a layer of oil paint over a textured object and then scraping the paint off to create an interesting and unexpected surface.
  • decalcomania – Applying paint to paper then folding it, applying pressure, and unfolding the paper to reveal a mirror pattern, then turning the resulting patterns into landscapes and mythical creatures. A kind of Rorshach diagram, with elaborations.

Biomorphic shapes Much Surrealist art uses existing objects and motifs from the real world, albeit placed in unexpected combinations, but there also developed a whole sub-set of Surrealist art which explored shapes and patterns for their own sake, creating a whole new visual vocabulary of the strange and uncanny. Klingsöhr-Leroy says this type of exploration distinguishes the first wave of Surrealist painters – Masson, Miró, Arp and Tanguy.

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Dreamlike serenity Although the writers often invoked ‘revolution’, ‘overthrow’ and ‘violence’, there is a whole strand of Surrealist art which is the exact opposite, creating a dreamlike sense of stasis. Think of the mysterious empty cityscapes of de Chirico, the somnambulistic people in Paul Delvaux or the apparently relaxed way the figures in Magritte paintings blankly accept the oddest apparitions.

Klingsöhr-Leroy Cathrin says dream paintings are more characteristic of the painters who joined the movement later on, like Magritte and Dalí. And contrary to all Surrealism’s revolutionary rhetoric, many of these works were, by the time I was growing up in the 1970s if not before, best-selling posters, calm and bright and pretty on the walls of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto’ of 1929 was a lot fiercer in tone. I’ve read various reasons for this, including Breton’s growing involvement with Communism or his own personal life being in disarray. The Second Manifesto notoriously accompanied the expulsion of a number of writers from the movement, angrily denouncing them for abandoning the cause.

But, on the positive side, it also expanded the movement’s terms of reference by namechecking medieval alchemists, drawing a parallel between their arcane quests for knowledge and the Surrealist investigations. And it introduced a distinct new idea, that of exploring ‘the Surreal object’ – using art or writing to reveal ‘the remarkable symbolic life of quite ordinary, mundane objects’.

To no artist is this more applicable than Magritte. What could be more normal than his apples and clouds? Or, in the way he deploys them, more disturbing?

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

Naked women Coming from the generation born around 1900, all these men had been brought up in a traditional Roman Catholic society which was staggeringly repressive about sex.

When they looked for the aspect of ‘bourgeois’ society which would be easiest to provoke, or when they delved into themselves to try and identify their deepest unconscious urges, or when they read any of Freud’s numerous writings about the Unconscious – everywhere they looked, the Surrealists tended to find sex sex sex.

Hence, the most tiresome element of Surrealism, which is the endless images of naked women. I expected sex-mad Dalí would be the most guilty party, but they were all at it – bosoms and fannies as images of ‘liberation’.

For all of them the female body, depicted realistically, or chopped up, or morphing into abstract shapes, was a constant source of inspiration.

Should it be? If feminists had their way, would male artists be allowed to charge the female body with all kinds of ‘profound’ meanings, as the repository of ‘fertility’, ‘sensuality’, ‘sexuality’, ‘mystery’, ‘consolation’, ‘depravity’ – all the hackneyed attributes of the famous madonna-whore complex, plus many more?

It’s partly the tedium of looking at yet another pair of bare boobs which draws me to more abstract artists like Paul Klee. He had a vast amount of beautiful, strange ideas to express, and not a bosom in sight.

Primitivism In a way it’s surprising that there isn’t more evidence of ‘primitivism’ in Surrealist art i.e. the use of images and motifs from the supposedly more ‘primitive’ cultures of Africa or Oceania. According to Sue Roe’s book In Montmartre, there’s some debate about who introduced the taste for African and Oceanic fetishes and statues into avant-garde circles, but it was certainly present by around 1905.

So by 1925 it was a very well-established taste, with most artists having ‘primitive’ masks scattered about among the other bric-a-brac in their studios. But looking at some of the images in this book the main conclusion is that the cult of weird faces and masks had become so diverse that, by the 1930s and 40s, it is difficult to tell where ‘primitivism’ ended and a kind of science fiction weirdness began (the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was published in 1926).

The Surrealist Revolution?

How tiresome modern artists and modern art experts are with their persistence in thinking that modern art ‘undermines’ or ‘subverts’ ‘bourgeois’ values.

It’s hard for us, nowadays, to recreate just what the ‘bourgeoisie’ ever meant. The word derives from mid-19th century France. Are we to think of the narrow-minded townsfolk in novels by Flaubert or Zola? Men who shave, dress ‘correctly’, have sensible jobs as doctors and lawyers and bankers?

Looking at all the photos of Surrealist artists in this book, one of the main visual impressions is how very smart and shaved and formal they themselves look, often in a nice suit, with white shirt and dark tie.

Living in 2018 London packed with stubbly dudes with nose piercings carrying huge backpacks, it’s difficult to imagine these ancient, respectable-looking men ever subverting anything.

It’s very hard to recapture ‘the shock of the new’ so long afterwards. The 1930s when Surrealist artworks began to be widely exhibited, were 20 years after Cubism had ‘shocked the world’, getting on for 30 years since the Fauves scandalised Paris, 40 years since Symbolist and decadent art upset newspaper columnists and 70 years after Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe ‘scandalised’ Paris.

You have to wonder who these people are, who keep on being scandalised by modern art. Hadn’t they read about the previous scandal? And the one before that? And the one before that?

Klingsöhr-Leroy tells an anecdote about when the Surrealist gang broke up a literary banquet being held in honour of the rather conventional poet Saint-Pol-Roux at the Closerie des Lilas bar on 2 July 1925. Tables were overturned, crockery broken, the gang chanted ‘anti-bourgeois’ slogans, blows were exchanged. She goes on to comment:

The incident is characteristic of the Surrealists’ anarchic and anti-bourgeois attitudes. Their actions were an attack on the established bourgeois order, designed to undermine all that was generally accepted and revered by respectable society. (p.17)

Really? A punch-up in a café? Undermining the whole of bourgeois society? I don’t think so, and the fact that, 80 years later, Klingsöhr-Leroy thinks this, undermines your confidence in her sense of history or perspective. Choosing a punch-up in a bar as an outstanding example of their ‘anarchic and anti-bourgeois’ values somehow reduces the whole movement to a set of schoolboy pranks.

In fact the the Surrealists’ ‘anarchic’ and ‘anti-bourgeois’ behaviour and attitude sound like standard undergraduate high jinks to me, precisely the kind of ‘wild’ behaviour that is expected of upper or upper-middle-class ‘rebels’ and bohemians, wild and crazee artists (all men, of course) who, in the final analysis, depend on money and connections (or in the Surrealists’ case) on rich patrons and rich buyers, to bail them out.

1. The connection between money and art was one of the messages of Sue Roe’s gossipy book about Picasso and Matisse, In Monmartre, set in the 1900s and explaining how the competition between the two Great Men of Modern Art was not only to find new artistic avenues of expression but, just as importantly, to curry favour with rich collectors and influential dealers. By 1910 both Picasso and Matisse had good working relationships with both and began to flourish.

2. In her book, Surreal Lives, Ruth Brandon writes a simple and devastating sentence which ought to be inscribed at the entrance to every modern art gallery in the world and tattooed on the forehead of every modern art scholar and curator.

Art is a luxury product, and artists rely for their living on rich patrons. (p.326)

3. I’ve known about Luis Buñuel’s ‘subversive’ early films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or for forty years or more, but it was only when I read Brandon’s book that I learned about the key role played in funding them by the wealthy French aristocrat Arthur Anne Marie Charles, Vicomte de Noailles. According to Wikipedia:

Charles financed Man Ray’s film Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929), which centers around Villa Noailles in Hyères. He also financed Jean Cocteau’s film Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s L’Âge d’Or (1930). In 1930 Charles made possible the career of Dalí by purchasing in advance a large work for 29,000 francs, thus enabling Dalí and Gala to return from Paris to Port Lligat and devote themselves to his art.

The take-home message from all these books is that art – no matter how ostensibly ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ – depends on rich patrons to make it possible. Radical art may upset conservative newspapers and, through them, the great philistine middle classes. But it doesn’t ‘subvert society’; the opposite: it is the plaything of the rich.

There is more ‘radical’ art about than ever before in the history of the world, and yet finance capitalism has never been more entrenched and powerful.

Because their art revelled in images of sex and death, because they behaved like spoilt schoolboys, because they were sponsored by aristocrats, and because they had absolutely no understanding of the fatal consequences of revolutionary politics, it is difficult to disagree with the Soviet Commissar who pointed out that Surrealism itself represented ‘the ultimate degeneration of the French bourgeoisie’ i.e. the complete opposite of the values Breton claimed for it.

In any case, the Surrealists soon recognised the essentially luxury nature of their output. Just six years later, in 1933, the group launched a new, glossy Surrealist magazine, Minotaur. It was limited to 3,000 copies, intended for connoisseurs and collectors only and, as the Hungarian photographer Brassaï put it, was priced far

beyond the reach of proletarian purses and could only serve a milieu of rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works. (quoted page 23)

‘Rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works.’ Precisely.

Dalí grasped this from the start and went to America to become rich – which is why the others came to loathe him. Like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst in later generations, he realised that the best art is business. In fact art is a form of business, it’s just another specialist provider of luxury objects to the rich.

The artistic legacy

Surrealist art didn’t overthrow anything, but its explorations and experiments opened the way for an entirely new visual language to be created, for loads of individual masterpieces, styles and looks to be developed, which filtered through into all aspects of design, fashion, advertising, film and TV.

It became an imaginative climate where we still, to a large extent, live, strangely appropriate for the disjointed and technology-driven lives of the 20th century Western world.

And, having read so much about the earnestness and seriousness with which Breton set up his Institute of Surrealist Research, with which he and colleagues carried out their automatic writing and painting and so on – I wonder if the movement made any lasting scientific discoveries. Are psychologists, linguists or experts in perception and cognition aware of any lasting scientific facts which came out of this explosion of ideas and researches into the unconscious workings of the mind, about language and images and the unconscious?

Or was it all an enormous, delightful, argumentative and hugely influential but, in scientific terms, inconsequential game?


Related links

Related art reviews

Related book reviews

Women artists in the 20th and 21st century ed. Uta Grosenick (2003)

Taschen is an art book publisher founded in 1980 by Benedikt Taschen in Cologne, Germany. They specialise in publishing art books about less well-covered topics including queer, fetish and erotic art. This relatively small-format (15.3 x 20 cm), high-gloss art book does what it says on the tin and features four-page spreads on 46 women artists of the 20th and 21st centuries – each gets two pages of text about them facing two pages of representative images, whether paintings, sculptures, photos of installations or performances etc.

German

The text is sourced from a range of experts on the various artists, but they and the introduction by Ute Grosenick, are all translated from the German. The resulting prose often feels heavy, in fact is sometimes incomprehensible – and is not helped by the liberal use of the kind of artbollocks which is required to explain and make sense of most of the artists from the 1960s onwards.

Wordy yet uninformative

Here’s the opening of the article about Andrea Zittel.

An inundation of stimuli and pressure to consume are two of the operative terms continually used with regard to the influence of mass culture on the individual. The former supposedly leads to distraction and nervous overloading, the latter to an awakening of futile needs, prestige thinking, and meaningless superficiality. Andreas Zittel’s blithe ‘applied art’, at first glance ascetic but in fact quite sensuous, can be interpreted against the background of this discussion. She stands, as it were, on the other shore and her mundane ‘art world’ lacks every form of moralising attack, overhasty critique, or complaining cultural pessimism. Rather, the lifestyle she offers is rife with both pragmatic and utopian aspects, and upholds the dignity of the individual within mass culture without losing sight of the factor of desire. (p.186)

On the basis of this passage what do you think Zittel’s art consists of or looks like? Would you expect to see paintings, installations, sculptures, film or video?

For me the key word in this verbose, pseudo-intellectual but strangely prim (‘with regard to’) and ultimately uninformative style is ‘supposedly’. The use of this word in the second sentence undermines the whole of the remainder of the paragraph. It indicates that the writer (Raimar Stange) is hedging their bets. Mass culture and consumer culture ‘supposedly’ lead to nervous overload and superficiality.

Stange invokes these concepts (which are key to understanding Zittel’s resistance to them) but is anxious to emphasise that she is not so naive as to actually ‘believe’ in them. No, the use of ‘supposedly’ indicates that she is dealing with ideas which may satisfy the mainstream media and uneducated plebs, but that you and I – who have read our Foucault and Lacan and Barthes and Derrida and Deleuze (heavily referenced in her text) always use with forceps (even if we are forced by the demands of publishing and writing for morons) to base our entire analysis of a living artist on them.

She wants to use pretty straightforward banal truisms of our time to explain Zittel’s work – but she is painfully aware that the ideas she’s invoking are, well, pretty commonplace, and so writes supposedly just to let us know that she’s cleverer than that. She’s having her cake and eating it.

(If you want to understand what Zittel’s very distinctive ‘art’ is like and how it ‘lacks every form of moralising attack, overhasty critique, or complaining cultural pessimism [but ] rather …. offers a lifestyle rife with both pragmatic and utopian aspects, and upholds the dignity of the individual within mass culture without losing sight of the factor of desire’ check out her Wikipedia page, where you will discover that some of those descriptions are actually very accurate – once her project has actually been explained a bit.)

Clichés

Alternatively, the writers resort to clichés and truisms. Admittedly, writing about art is difficult. Having read all the introductions and all the wall labels for over 100 exhibitions over the past five years I am all-too-aware of how you have to say something, and so there is a terrible temptation to just fill up the space with plausible-sounding padding. Still, there’s no excuse for just writing empty clichés.

Which artist would you say this is describing?

This is an art on a continual search for the meaning and possibility of personal identity, which both emotionally appeals to and intellectually challenges the viewer. (p.44)

It could be quite literally about any artist, ever.

Alphabetic order

The artists are arranged in alphabetical order, which is one way to do it. But an unintended consequence is that the first 40 or 50 pages are of modern artists, whose work, dating from the 1960s and afterwards, tends to be highly experimental, with lots of installations, photos of performances, film and video and so on.

Women’s bodies / sex

Also women artists from this era often depicted the naked female body in ways designed to subvert the way it’s depicted in ‘traditional’ male art, undermine ‘the male gaze’ and so on. But the unintended cumulative effect is of lots of chaotic scenes and naked women. The Vanessa Beecroft entry features 16 colour photographs of extremely attractive naked or scantily clad woman. We’re still on B and this tends to set the tone for the way we read – and see the images of women in – the rest of the book.

Take, for example, the work of Viennese artist Elke Krystufek (b.1970). Her entry begins by describing  how, at a 1994 group exhibition JETZTZEIT, she bared her breasts and masturbated in a mock-up of a comfortable bathroom in front of gallery guests, starting with her hand and progressing to using a dildo and vibrator. After she climaxed in front of everyone, she got into the bathwater and relaxed.

As in many of Krystufek’s works, the performance addressed the interrelationship between (male) gaze and (auto)erotic pleasure, as well as the interplay between artistically staged identity, feminist emancipation, and the female body. What at first sight may seem like a crude and narcissistic provocation, brusquely ignoring the distinction between the public and private spheres, turns out in the end to be a deliberate game in which social orders and their unconscious normative ascription – intent on authoritatively determining all expressions of sexuality – are consciously subverted. (p.116)

I know plenty of men who’d love to have watched their ‘unconscious normative ascriptions’ being subverted in this way. I wonder if she videoed it? Can’t find it on YouTube, but there is this work, which, I think you’ll agree, pretty much annihilates the Male Gaze.

Here’s another ‘subversive’ work by Marlene Dumas.

‘Because the images are culled from porn magazines, sex in Dumas’ paintings is stripped of its erotic charge’. Got that? These images have no erotic content whatsoever.

Phallocentrism and the castrated woman

In  a 1973 essay titled ‘Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, the film director, scholar and feminist Laura Mulvey examined the relationship between the patriarchal unconscious, the pleasure derived from looking , and the conventional image of woman in cinema and society. Male phallocentrism, Mulvey observed, has defined woman’s role in society as ‘an image of the castrated woman.’ In order to ‘arrive at a new language of desire’, this definition must first be analysed, after which the (visual) pleasure derived from perceiving these images should be destroyed. (p.116)

44 years later I wonder how the project to destroy the visual pleasure to be derived from viewing ‘the conventional image of woman in cinema and society’ is getting on. Maybe it will take a few years more. Or decades. Or centuries.

Traditional art

Away from hard core sexual imagery, ‘traditional’ art – in the form of oil painting – is relatively rare in this book. The names which stand out are Sonia Delaunay, Natalia Goncharova, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, Tamara de Lempicka, Georgia O’Keeffe and Bridget Riley, with Barbara Hepworth as a ‘traditional’ Modernist sculptor. Reading their entries is a relief because there is a lot less about masturbation, sex, vaginas, gender and identity.

Also their work, being so traditionally restricted to painting and sculpture, has been thoroughly assimilated and so is easy and so is a ‘pleasure’ to read.

Middle way

But there is another group, a sort of middle way of plenty of women artists who don’t feel the need to masturbate in public, paint themselves or other women naked or generally harp on about female sexuality. There are plenty of strange and interesting women artists.

Hanne Darboven’s obsession with numbers which seems to have led to walls covered with sheets of papers with various mathematical formulae or combinations of numbers all over them – Wunschkonzert (1984)

Isa Genzken’s abstract sculptures – Guardini (1987)

Mona Hatoum’s cool detached sculptural objects – Kapan (2012). She is now widely acknowledged as one of the leading living artists in the world.

Eva Hesse’s minimalist sculptures – Right After (1969)

Rebecca Horn – admittedly more naked women, but in a genuinely beautiful, aesthetic way – Unicorn (1969), and the later work seems entirely abstract – High Noon (1991)

Kiki Smith – disturbing installations featuring animals and birds – Jersey Crows (1995)

The list of artists

I’ve read criticism saying there’s a bias in the artists selected towards German and European artists, though the bias I noticed was towards American artists. A third of them are or were based in New York, testimony to the centrality of that city – centre of global capitalism, awash with bankers’ money – to the post-war art world.

Here’s the full list. I indicate country of origin and country where they ended up working, link off to some works, and link their names to reviews of exhibitions about or featuring them:

  1. Marina Abramovic – b. 1946 birthplace Yugoslavia, Workplace Amsterdam – Performances
  2. Eija-Liisa Ahtila – b.1959 Finland, Finland – The House (2002) 14 min DVD
  3. Laurie Anderson – b.1947 Chicago, New YorkHome of the brave
  4. Vanessa Beecroft – b.1969 Italy, New York – VB45 (2001)
  5. Louise Bourgeois – b.1911 Paris, New YorkCell
  6. Lygia Clark – b.1920 Brazil, Brazil – A Morte do Plano (1960)
  7. Hanne Darboven – b.1941 Germany, New York
  8. Sonia Delaunay – b.1885 Ukraine, Paris
  9. Rineke Dijkstra – b.1959 Netherlands, Netherlands
  10. Marlene Dumas – b.1953 South Africa, Amsterdam
  11. Tracey Emin – b.1963 England, London
  12. VALIE EXPORT – b.1940 Austria, Cologne – Action Pants, Genital Panic (1969)
  13. Sylvie Fleury – b. 1961 Geneva, Geneva
  14. Isa Genzken – b.1948 Germany, Germany
  15. Nan Goldin – b.1953 Washington, New York
  16. Natalia Goncharova – b.1881 Russia, Paris
  17. Guerilla Girls –
  18. Mona Hatoum – b.1952 Beirut, London
  19. Barbara Hepworth – b.1903 Yorkshire, St Ives
  20. Eva Hesse – b.1936 Hamburg, New York
  21. Hannah Höch – b.1889 Germany, Berlin
  22. Candida Höfer – b.1944 Germany, Germany
  23. Jenny Holzer – b.1950 Ohio, New York
  24. Rebecca Horn – b.1944 Germany, Germany
  25. Frida Kahlo – b.1907 Mexico, Mexico
  26. Lee Krasner – b. 1908 New York, New York
  27. Barbara Kruger – b.1945 New Jersey, New York
  28. Elke Krystufek – b.1970 Vienna, Vienna
  29. Tamara de Lempicka – b.1898 Warsaw, Mexico
  30. Sarah Lucas – b.1962 London, London
  31. Annette Messager – b.1943 France, Paris
  32. Mariko Mori – b.1967 Tokyo, New York
  33. Shirin Neshat – b.1957 Iran, New York
  34. Louise Nevelson – b.1899 Kiev, New York
  35. Georgia O’Keeffe – b.1887 Wisconsin, Santa Fe
  36. Meret Oppenheim – b.1913 Berlin, Basle
  37. Elizabeth Peyton – b.1965 Connecticut, New York
  38. Adrian Piper – b.1948 New York, Cape Cod
  39. Bridget Riley – b.1931 London, London
  40. Pipilotti Rist – b.1962 Switzerland, Switzerland
  41. Niki de Saint Phalle – b.1930 France, California
  42. Cindy Sherman – b.1954 New Jersey, New York
  43. Kiki Smith – b.1954 Nuremberg, New York
  44. Rosemarie Trockel – b.1952 Germany, Germany
  45. Rachel Whiteread – b.1963 London, London – House (1993)
  46. Andrea Zittel – b. 1965 California, New YorkA-Z

Insights from Ute Grosenick’s introduction

In the second paragraph of the introduction Ute Grosenick says there is a ‘gender war’ going on. Alright. It does seem likely when you read any academic work about modern art or any newspaper.

It’s interesting to learn that the first women-only exhibition was held in Amsterdam in 1884. Women-only exhibitions were held in Paris in 1908 and 1918. But there were few female art teachers, women members of national art academies, women art dealers networking among women artists, as well as bans on women attending some or all classes in most art schools.

Grosenick gives the impression that there were two great boom periods in 20th century art:

  • The decade from just before to just after the Great War saw Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Vorticism, Constructivism, Dada, Abstract Art, Neue Sachlichkeit and Surrealism.
  • The decade from the mid-60s to the mid-70s saw an explosion in the possibilities and definitions of art, exemplified by Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptual Art, Land Art, Fluxus, Arte Povera, Happenings, Performance Art, Body Art and Minimalism.

She says the 1980s were ‘a decade of disillusionment for most women artists’.

She says that the rise of gender studies in universities reflects the way ‘the critical examination of the significance of one’s own and other people’s gender… is becoming ever more central to art’. In my experience of recent exhibitions, I would say that gender and identity are becoming almost the only way in which gallerists and curators can now relate to art.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

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 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 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.

Peeping Tom by Howard Jacobson (1984)

Review one

If being in love isn’t being terrified I don’t know what is. (p.185)

Barney Fugelman, anxious, guilty, literary Jewish layabout, aged 27 in 1967, is married to heavy-breasted numerologist Sharon, who runs a bookshop specialising in spirituality (Zazie’s dans le Metro), in Finchley. When they invite hypnotist Harry Vilbert to come and do an after-hours talk and demonstration, little does Barney know that he will end up channeling to the astonished audience the spirit of the young Thomas Hardy! This is all the funnier since Barney is an anxious, urban type who loathes the countryside and all literature which fetishises it (‘I had a dislike for the English rural tradition’ p.36). Barney goes back to the hypnotist a few more times and each time it gets clearer and clearer that he really can access Hardy’s boyhood and teenage memories – they check against Hardy’s biography – so that all things Hardian become an increasing topic of his and Sharon’s conversations, until she has the brainwave of moving down the hill and opening a new bookshop devoted just to Hardy (Eustacia’s on the Heath) which turns out to be a surprising success.

If this summary gives the sense that reading the book is a straightforward linear experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Events swirl and whirl through a maelstrom of memories, recalled incidents, conversations and arguments and generalisations about Jewish life and childhood and sexuality and literature. And a lot of the best humour is often generated by these tangents and diversions, particularly by the book’s gallery of quirky minor characters.

Barney’s father

Take Barney’s father. On the handful of times Barney remembers his childhood home life he remembers how his dad had some obscure job at Somerset House in the births department and came home each day with a collection of the cruellest names parents had given their children: Greta Warmley, Eva Brick, Ava Crisp, Carrie Waters. It’s a straightforward running gag, but still pretty funny, and gets funnier each time Mr Fugelman senior hoves into view reciting more silly names.

Monty Frankel

Barney has teenage memories of Monty Frankel, a neighbour his age who enjoyed pretending to hang himself from a gibbet in the back garden, and who slipped him surreptitious pages from Nazi atrocity books, which were the only place either of them could see naked – albeit starved-to-death – women.

Maybe we’re meant to find this shocking – maybe Jacobson is trying to transgress taboos within Jewish culture and among his wider Gentile audience. But I wasn’t very scandalised in 1984 when I first read this novel, and even less so in 2016, maybe because I was once a teenage boy and so know what they’re capable of.

Also from his teenage years, Barney enjoyed peeking out the window as another neighbour, Mrs Flatman, does the gardening, watching her female body move and heft. On one never-to-be-forgotten afternoon she and another neighbour frolic in the kids’ paddling pool with no tops on. Little Barney’s ‘putz’ grows large enough to itself peek over the windowsill and get a view. The heady mix of Jewish anxiety, Jewish guilt, and adolescent sexuality is strongly reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

Eventually Barney’s dad will run off with the full-bosomed Mrs Flatman and set up house in Tooting, in – as it happens – the very building where Thomas Hardy stayed while writing a novel. Meanwhile his own mother sets up with a succession of different men, but finally settles for Mr Flatman. Through the vicissitudes of Barney’s own love life, he will at various points, come back to London to visit one or both of his erring parents, who have set him fine examples of adultery and betrayal.

Literary criticism

There is quite a lot of literary criticism lying around in the book. At times you wonder whether the author himself had written a thesis or academic paper on Hardy, and whether the novel is an inventive way of recycling large chunks of it.

The analysis is all clever, learnèd, and highly knowledgeable about Hardy but all takes rather the same psychological or psycho-analytical approach. Even in 1984, there were a number of ways to think about a text or author (historical, biographical, Marxist, rhetorical, feminist, structuralist, post-structuralist, and so on) with more being invented every term.

But for the purposes of this highly-sexed novel, the literary criticism always ends up discovering that sex lies at the bottom of just about anything which can happen in a novel, especially the novels of Thomas Hardy. It is quite a funny running gag that all the Hardy critics they meet – as well as Barney and Camilla his lover – are Hardy experts to their fingertips, but cordially dislike him. It’s less interesting that so many of their lengthy essays about him end up in the same place. Take this, a dithyramb from Camilla about Tess of the Durbevilles.

‘Have you even wondered why Hardy is so interested in Tess’s genealogy? Her aristocratic background is a metaphor, it’s wholly figurative. At the very moment that Angel forgives her and thereby makes her a spiritual virgin again, he has immediately to recall the historical interest of her family, the masterful line of the D’Urbevilles. Because without that, and without Alec’s seal upon her, what is she? Nothing. The wickedness that Hardy can’t comfortably indulge Tess in the present, he bestows upon her in the past. He ransacks her beginnings, uncovers her original sin – the thing he most wants to dwell upon – and hangs her up by it in the end. It’s a compulsive metaphor for intercourse.’ (p.291)

The many speculations about Hardy all dwell on his alleged psycho-sexual obsessions, and repeatedly make the rather boring discover that Hardy’s novels echo or anticipate Barney’s own personal obsession – the repeated plot device in Hardy’s novels of having weedy men introduce their beloved to hunky men who then ‘possess’ them as the weakling would like to, prefiguring Barney’s own feeble protration in front of strong women. Throughout the book, Hardy’s plot and biography are continually mixed up and compared with Barney’s own psycho-sexual ‘needs’.

Masochism

For the text is heavy with the narrator’s own sado-masochism. Night after night Barney begs his wife, Sharon, to take a lover so as to humiliate him – and he is continually pushing her towards the nearest available male friend or house guest. In bed at night he begs her to call out the latest man’s name, and begs her to pretend to beg him to fuck her. Oh well. Her mother warned her men were strange. So Sharon complies to make Barney happy, but with no feeling whatsoever.

Eventually, Barney contrives to make his fantasy come true and gets Sharon into bed with their ‘friend’, Rowland Fitzpiers, a beardy science fiction expert, and he watches them, savouring the moments when:

Sharon dropped to her knees and drew back Fitzpiers’s foreskin (how did she know what to do with a foreskin?) or when Fitzpiers dropped to his knees and drew back her… (p.146)

However – as you might expect from a literary novel and especially from a comic novel – the experience turns out to be a withering anti-climax, quickly becomeing disappointingly domestic. They end up in bed, all three of them, tucking into plum pudding and chocolates on Christmas morning. Which is nice, but not the giddy heights of erotic abandon which Barney had been hoping for.

Rowland Fitzpiers is quite a funny character. He’s another literary hanger-on and also-ran, who writes occasional articles for obscure magazines, and is just now going through a phase as an expert on science fiction. He has some funny riffs on how almost every famous book you can think of is in fact a precursor to – or is heavily indebted to – one science fiction classic or other.

Eventually, Sharon kicks Barney out in a very conventional scene where she announces that she’s pregnant and Barney shows less than enthusiasm. She attacks him – he runs away. Later he discovers Fitzpiers has moved in and is looking after Sharon, and eventually becomes legal father to the little girl she has – his sci-fi influence obvious in the name they give her – Asimova Wollstonecroft Ursula. Just as well she wasn’t a boy, Barney thinks, or he’d have ended up being called Arthur C Ballard Pohl – assuming they could resist the temptation of throwing Moorlock into the mix. All very witty, if you know your 1980s sci-fi authors.

After brief affairs Barney stumbles across the pamphlet giving the address in Cornwall of a Hardy expert, Camilla, he met at a party, who was particularly rude and dismissive of him. He likes that in a woman. He likes to be threatened and dominated. So he travels all the way down to Cornwall to track her down, and thus begins the second part of the novel, all set in a small Cornish fishing village and describing his Hardy-obsessed and ill-fated love affair with Camilla.

Facility with language

The text runs over with fluent articulations about literature and sex, psychology, relationships, masochism and family ties. Jacobson’s language skills are so copious they routinely overflow the bounds of decorum and often threaten to elude sense altogether, as he makes puns and verbal plays, repetitions and amplifications galore. He likes repeating ideas in three consecutive clauses:

It was difficult for me, as I have already made abundantly plain, to show much forbearance to my forebears; my instincts were all for cursing my precursors… because I had failed her when I flailed her. (pp.205-208)

As his first infatuation with his lover, Camilla, eventually dies down, their relationship becomes stale, above all she no longer terrifies and dominates him as he wants her to, needs her to, in order to become aroused; they have become:

two masochists on a mattress, each having to abjure the thrill that can only come from thrall, the incomparable rapture of rough capture, the unslakable thirst to come off worst. (p.308)

Initially Camilla had set up a system of encouragements and rewards to try and teach Barney about his adopted countryside. (Of course it is entirely focused on sex, the only subject Barney really cares about.) If he wishes for fellatio that night, he has to collect flax, fleabane and fritillary. ‘And if I fancy cunnilingus?’ he asks. He has to identify a curlew, a cuttlefish and collect armsful of columbine, cranesbill and lesser celandine. (p.249)

Page after page has effortless puns and word plays, alliteration and rhetorical flourishes. The downside of this kind of thing is there is lots of it, and not all of it is that funny. Not only is the book 350 pages long, but it is a very dense 350 pages, many of them presenting a solid block of text, with no paragraphs or breaks.

At its heaviest, this can be experienced as an unremitting wall of words. If the upside is Jacobson’s astonishing fluency and articulacy, the downside is he can run on, become prolix, become – eventually – alas – boring. You get the quite frequent impression that his phenomenal fluency is expended on the tiniest details of a relationship which you, the reader, just doesn’t care about as much as the self-obsessed narrator.

Whatever else I loved Camilla for, whatever miraculous conjunction of spirit, word, and flesh, had found its way into my soul, I loved her most intensely for her incontestable right to be loved by others – or to put that another way, for her capacity to loose the devils of rivalry against me. She didn’t even need to whisper in my ear; she had only to stretch herself out to her full length on the bed, precisely as I have just stretched her, for me to feel that adversaries past and present, ghostly and imminent, were coming at me from everywhere. I could feel them thumping up Camilla’s fourteenth-century staircase. I could see them prising out the panes form Camilla’s tiny leaded windows. It was with an exquisite sense of inadequacy that I drew my weapon afresh each time, certain of nothing but comprehensive defeat. Barney Fugelman – love’s warrior – alone and lightly armed in the continuum. (p.280)

Fluent? Very. Urbane and amused? Yes. Self-dramatising, self-obsessed and melodramatic? Yes, but that’s appropriate for a comic novel. Funny? No, not laugh out loud funny. Slight smile of amusement funny and, if repeated over 350 pages, the slight smile risks disappearing.


Review two

The book is in a short prologue and two long parts.

Prologue The prologue introduces us to anxious, urban Jew, Barney Fugelman, forlornly tramping the cliffs of a remote Cornish village – which is ironic because he hates Cornwall, he hates the countryside and, being an urban Jewish intellectual, he dislikes the whole pastoral English tradition. So how did he end up there? Well, since you ask…

Part 1 describes Barney’s childhood and young teenage years in a north London Jewish family, and then his marriage to the hairy, heavy-breasted astrology and numerology fan Sharon, during which Barney discovers that his life has eerie parallels with Thomas Hardy, of all people, famous for his Gothic novels of rural life. Sharon rejigs her spiritualist bookshop as a Thomas Hardy bookshop, which proves improbably successful, and then – rather spectacularly – Barney is put under hypnosis as a gimmicky after-hours event at the bookshop and discovers that he can actually channel the mind and memories of the young Thomas Hardy! Progressively more detailed and convoluted psycho-sexual explorations of Hardy’s life and novels become inextricably intertwined with long passages of Barney’s own autobiography, sex life and complex sexual fantasies.

These latter take the form of the convoluted wish to be humiliated and debased by seeing his wife with another man. After attempts to coerce various male friends into fulfilling this fantasy, he manages it with a beardy science fiction expert, Rowland Fitzpiers. Barney watches them at it, then joins in. However – as you might expect from a literary novel and from a comic novel at that – the experience is a deflating letdown, and quickly becomes disappointingly domestic. They end up in bed, all three of them, tucking into plum pudding and chocolates on Christmas morning. Which is nice, but not the giddy heights of erotic abandon which Barney was hoping for.

Eventually, Sharon kicks Barney out in a very conventional scene where she announces that she’s pregnant and Barney shows less than enthusiasm. She snaps and attacks him. He flees.

Part two Barney has a few brief flings, but then comes across a pamphlet by a woman Hardy expert, Camilla, who he met at a party and who was sturdily contemptuous of him. That’s the kind of thing which excites him, so Barney takes the train to Cornwall to track her down at the ‘Alternative Centre for Thomas Hardy Studies’. Barney strikes a comic figure in his city overcoat and Bally shoes waiting on the clifftop as she comes back on a trawler full of roistering fishermen and bold, Amazonish Camilla.

A bald summary doesn’t do justice to the convoluted and wordy text, nor for the way Hardy is used as a pretext and a scaffold for all kinds of comic or literary critical flights of fancy. For many of his readers Hardy is a noted describer of the English countryside, its flora and fauna, its moods and seasons. None of that appears in this book which leans heavily towards repetitive, almost obsessive investigations of sex, sexual needs, sexual fantasies, sexual drives, sexual desires and the tortured relationships they give rise to. The text is so pregnant with ideas that there are lots of ways to unpack and interpret it, but for me three things stand out:

1. Opportunity missed The notion that Barney can, under hypnosis, tap into the actual life and memories of Thomas Hardy himself, goes surprisingly under-explored. It’s only used as a backdrop to Barney’s endless worrying about his own sexual tastes and appetites and fantasies and heritage, not least his fear that he might, in some secret way, actually be related to the old brute. In a different sort of novel, there would have been massive opportunity for Barney to exploit this previously unheard-of scientific discovery, to perform publicly, make astounding revelations about Hardy’s life and character, to appear on TV, tour the States, make a fortune. None of this happens. Instead the whole Hardy theme, present on almost every page, is subordinated to the life and very suburban times of Barney Fugelman. He fantasises about another man fucking his wife. He walks out on her when she gets pregnant. He shacks up with another woman who can indulge his appetite for being humiliated. She in turn gets bored and dumps him. That’s the plot, in a nutshell, garnished with an inexhaustible supply of descriptions of women’s breasts and pudenda.

When at last I came round I saw Camilla standing over me. She was wearing a man’s shirt (whose? whose?) which didn’t entirely conceal, not from where I was lying anyway, the thick undergrowth of her sex. (p.231)

2. The 1960s On the same issue of ‘opportunities missed’, the main narrative takes place in the late 1960s, starting in 1967 when Barney is 27 and dragging on for the next 6 years or so (1973 is mentioned towards the end). What is missing is any reference to the fact that it is the 1960s, the Summer of Love, Swinging London. No mention of pop or classical music, no Beatles or Rolling Stones. Nothing about the visual arts, no happenings or exhibitions. Nothing about drugs. Nothing about the rapid social change of the era, the legalisation of abortion or homosexuality. Nothing about politics e.g. student unrest and the events of May 1968 or how that toppled over into the terrorism of the early 1970s, for example the escalation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

We hear very little, really, that happens outside Barney’s bedroom or trousers.

3. Claustrophobic These 350 densely-packed pages are incredibly narrow – sometimes very funny, but most of the time amounting to a very parochial, almost claustrophobic account of one man’s psycho-sexual – mainly sexual – obsessions and fantasies.

Camilla brought me toast to the table and subjected me to a long slow smile of recognition. The obscene tangle of her pubic hair, still visible beneath her shirt but less tightly curled than it had been when she stood over me and prodded me with her foot – a touch dewier now and more straggly – was on a level with my eyes. She stood dead still so that I could breathe in her aroma and see the fleshy swell of her… (p.234)

There are some lengthy analyses of Hardy’s novels, but always in the same psycho-sexual terms which the narrator uses to describe his own sexual obsessions. (The obsession with sex is very typical of a certain type of English literary novel – rereading David Lodge’s novels has surprised me with how obsessed with sex and erect penises they are). Maybe because so many professional novelists live their lives on university campuses, spending too much time with books they’ve read to death and come to loathe, and with impressionable young people at a very frisky stage in their lives. The temptations to booze and adultery are chronicled in all-too-many campus novels, from Kingsley Amis onwards.

4. Psycho-sexual literary criticism For the narrator novels and poems exist to express the psycho-sexual obsessions of their authors – certainly not to read for pleasure. (There’s a cautionary sequence early on where Barney recalls the pleasure he and Camilla derive from throwing the novels of current literary writers into the flames of their rural idyll. Or into the sea. Quite funny, but also revealing.)

Thus Camilla excites Barney by giving a little lecture to an adult education class about a Thomas Hardy short story – Our Exploits at West Poley – which describes two boys, one timid, one bold, venturing into a wet cave behind a stream and discovering that they can change the path of the stream to a completely different village.

Because I once actually did cause a flood by discovering how to open a sluice and empty a boating pond, along with some mates when I was 11, I was interested in the mechanics of how they did this. Jacobson, more predictably, has Camilla draw on a blackboard the entrance to the cave as described in the text in such a way that – voila! – with a flourish she stands back and her middle-aged lady audience see she has drawn the enfolded lips of a vagina! (p.242) The story turns out to be all about – sex! Just like all stories, in fact.

For Camilla, Our Exploits at West Poley is about the sexually bold male and the sexually timid male, with Hardy fantasising about being bold, but all-too-aware that he was in fact the timid one who never acts. It goes without saying what a powerful erection Camilla’s lecture gives Barney, skulking at the back of the class, while he compares her drawing of a vulva with the reality of her own ‘glistening cave’, which he had been merrily decorating with his seed only a few hours earlier.

It required all my powers of restraint not to leap from my desk and mount that blackboard. And years afterwards, stirred by some fugitive association, I would rummage between Camilla’s legs in search of the smell and the taste of schoolroom chalk. (p.242)

And so on and on, eventually at the risk of becoming rather boring.

There is very little about language, about how language works, about how a writer handles language, about what language can do, about the magic way language conveys and conspires, excites and incites etc. Very few ideas which aren’t to do with penises and vaginas. A lot of this novel is laugh-out-loud funny, but 350 pages about one man’s sexual fantasies is a lot and, at various points, it was hard to avoid feeling oppressed by the airless, sweaty self-obsession of the central figure.

I even tried to convince Camilla for a while that my penis had never truly risen except for her. ‘So how did you ever effect an entry?’ she enquired. I though about saying that I never had.’Either by bending it double and pressing with my thumbs,’ I decided to explain instead. ‘Or by using my index fingers as splints. It’s not comfortable but it’s better than nothing. There’s a lot more of that sort of thing going on than most women realise.’ ‘I see,’ she said. She didn’t believe a word I told here. (p.255)

Maybe we’re meant to despise Barney, or pity him, or feel for him, or laugh at him, or be appalled by him. But it is all about him him him. I began to pine for the wider world, for the range of characters and settings, for the open air and variety and imaginative freedom encountered in the novels I recently read by Robert Harris and Alan Furst, for a respite from sweaty breasts and glistening pubic hair.

It was a remarkable detail, never lost on me, that her breasts retained their full rotundity, didn’t in the slightest bit subside or spill, when she lay stretched out on her back, and that the springing hairs of her sex… scorned the usual triangular arrangement favoured by conventional women, climbing instead the slopes of her belly, straggling the soft downs of her thighs, like uncultivated vines… (p.279)

In the end even Camilla tires of Barney. It has been a running gag that, along with throwing books of literary authors into the cottage fire or into the sea, they also enjoy walking out on plays by leading contemporary playwrights. John Arden, Stoppard, Pinter, you name him, they’ve walked out after just ten minutes and spent the rest of the time in the bar discussing the insult to their intelligence they’ve just had to suffer. (After a while, you wonder whether these characters are intended to come over as curmudgeonly philistines?)

On a jaunt up to London to see a play directed by a friend of Camilla’s, they’re invited to the after-show party, and Barney finds Camilla being pawed by a couple of the dashing young cast (it is 1973 by now) who ask for a car ride back to the West Country. Grudgingly, jealous Barney drives them all West but they insist on stopping at Stonehenge which Barney, with typical ill grace, sees as simply a monument to Neanderthal ignorance. But it is here that, while he waits in the car, Camilla is ‘had’ every which way by the young bucks of the next generation, Barney eventually braving it to inch his way through the standing stones and finally see his lady love being taken in a very indecorous position by both men at once.

Probably this was meant to be the taboo-breaking central epiphany of the novel but, 30 years later, anyone can see stuff like this on the internet at a click of the mouse. I was also confused as to why Barney spends all his time fantasising about having his women screwed by other men, and yet is so devastated when it actually happens. I know reality is often different from fantasy, especially sexual fantasy. But it ends up confusing you about how you’re meant to feel about the narrator, who comes over as an idiot in only that way that bookish intellectuals can be.

Back at the Cornish cottage, life has lost its savour. Camilla kicks him out of the bed, so he sleeps on the sofa, and spends more time with the fishermen out in their smacks. Eventually he gets up one morning and she has gone. For a few panic-stricken hours he thinks she has swum out to a rocky stack out in the distance which she’s always had a yearning to swim to, and drowned along the way. But it turns out that was an elaborate ruse to pay him back. In fact she’s run off with the owner of the rock and candy floss shop (another one of Jacobson’s amusing minor characters, an academic expert on Robbe-Grillet and the French nouveau roman) heading to the continent and a new life.

And that’s why Barney spends his time now, soulfully kicking along the tops of the windswept Cornish cliffs, moodily gazing out to sea, cursing Thomas Hardy.

The novel comes full circle, fulfilling its promise to ‘come clean’ and tell us ‘the full story’ given in the prologue. It’s been a good-humoured, lively, mildly shocking and sometimes very funny ride. But I was relieved when the book ended.


Credit

Peeping Tom by Howard Jacobson was published in 1984 by Chatto and Windus. All quotes are from the 1986 Black Swan paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life, his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy, then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, his move to Cornwall and submissive affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she, too, dumps him.
1986 Redback –
1992 The Very Model of a Man –
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love, Cape –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J

Coming From Behind by Howard Jacobson (1982)

[Sefton] had a highly developed respect for authority and even the slightest telling off made him feel queasy. He didn’t at all like this submissive quality in himself and he tried to disguise it by barking at menials whenever he could and by bullying and frightening students, but in the still reaches of the night, when there was only him and his humiliations, he was prepared to admit that had he run into him in the street, in uniform, he would have said Sir and maybe even Heil! to Hitler. (p.126)

This is a really, really funny book. It had me weeping with laughter, laughing till my jaws hurt, at numerous places.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson (b.1942) was turning 40 as he published his first novel, Coming From Behind, in 1982. Jacobson, a Jew from Manchester, read English at Cambridge before getting a teaching post in sunny Australia, then coming back to teach at not-so-sunny Wolverhampton polytechnic. The hero of his first novel, Sefton Goldberg, is a Jew from Manchester who reads English at Cambridge, spends several happy years teaching in Australia, before making the mistake of coming back to teach in England, at the wretched, run-down, rainy ‘Wrottesley’ Polytechnic.

Jacobson arrived a little late in the genre of the ‘campus novel’ – maybe that’s one meaning of ‘coming from behind’. (Malcolm Bradbury had published what some people think of as the definitive campus novel – The History Man – in 1975, the same year as David Lodge published the hugely entertaining Changing Places; a year later Tom Sharpe published his hilarious satire, Wilt, set in a rundown polytechnic.)

Just as in all those novels, this book’s place of learning – Wrottesley Poly – is portrayed as a depressing hole, staffed by demoralised and depressed lecturers who are constantly moaning about petty-minded penny-pinching, pointless bureaucracy and the modish attempts of the authorities (the Dean or Vice Chancellor or Head) to keep up with the times (the Department of English is retitled the Department of Twentieth Century Studies, and so on), all the while holding their dim students in barely concealed contempt, and themselves in completely unconcealed contempt.

‘I know that we wouldn’t be teachers of books if we weren’t by nature sickly.’ (p.154)

The shambling anti-hero, Sefton Goldberg, hates his students so much he deliberately teaches them the wrong books, solemnly telling them that Put Yourself in His Place by Charles Reade is one of the most important novels of the 19th century, almost in the same league as Grasp Your Nettle by E. Lynn Linton (p.48).

The plot

Slowly, we are introduced to the nexus of relationships Sefton is embedded in:

  • the wife he is divorcing (never actually encountered)
  • his smarmy colleague, Peter Potter, always ready to politely rub in every detail of Sefton’s humiliations and embarrassments
  • Arthur Twinbarrow who specialises in all the twentieth century poets whose first or last names were Tom or Thomas, and who is permanently impoverished to pay his four children’s way through private school
  • the depressive head of his department, Charles Wenlock, who is about to leave his wife for an affair with a snivelling mature student
  • Dr Gerald Sidewinder, ‘bored as a snake’
  • the head of the whole soggy institution, Ray Grassby, who has more or less given up, and can only talk to his staff when facing the wall

There is also the stereotypical ‘man-eating’ woman academic – in this case the ultra-modern teacher of creative studies, Cora Peck, a scary apparition given to wearing blue cowboy boots, white jump suits covered in zips, and a black leather jacket with a large pair of lips on the back. Within days of her joining, Sefton takes her to a pub to chat her up, a foray which goes disastrously wrong as it emerges that she takes the students seriously, wants to share the joy of creativity with them, and despises Sefton’s cynicism. Oops.

The novel is set three years after that debacle and, whereas Cora has become a firm favourite with students who are invited back to her flat to discuss their poems and novels and plays, Sefton – embittered, yet to write anything worth publishing, depressed and angry – has come to hate her. Which makes it all the funnier when his gentile tormenter, Peter Potter, guilelessly asks Sefton to give her a lift to his – Potter’s – party that weekend.

There is a plot of sorts – the head of the polytechnic has made an improbable ‘twinning’ deal with the local football club – Wrottesley Rovers – under which some of the departments are going to be actually physically moved into the football stadium, thus making savings on overheads ‘and engaging with a whole new audience’.

And a sub-plot – the hated Cora has had a number of her works accepted by a publisher, driving Sefton into paroxysms of envy and despair, so that he accepts Potter’s suggestion of giving her a lift through gritted teeth.

And another sub-plot – Sefton is comically described as spending almost all his spare time filling in application forms for jobs, any job anywhere, anything, just to get him out of Wrottesley. Once established, this comic motif recurs with ever-increasing exaggeration and desperation, as the jobs become more preposterous – St Michael’s Agricultural College, Bath etc.

When, to his amazement, he gets a letter from a Cambridge college, saying they liked his application for the Disraeli scholarship, Sefton is thrown into a very funny panic when he realises he can’t remember what the Disraeli scholarship is, what he wrote on the application, what book he said he was working on, what whopping lies he told about his career and his (non-existent) publications, and so – desperately – on.

With much comic padding and folderol the novel arrives, in its final chapters, at the comic denouement of each of these strands:

  • The funniest sequence is an extended description of his visit to Cambridge, where once again he savours the feeling of complete and utter humiliation and embarrassment, at being a Jew in a high Christian institution, a grammar school boy in public school territory, a northerner in a posh southern location. His description of the hesitations, the inability of the locals to look you in the eye or even say hello, are hilarious. The visit goes from bad to worse as he discovers there are rivals to his application, and that they are former students of his. For example, the female student he was making love to in Australia when the postman knocked, one Helen Burns (see below). She’s not only employed at the college, she’s now its Director of Studies. During the High Table dinner which quickly descends into competitive bickering among the rivals, she – Helen – places her hand decisively on his thigh. And then on his stiffening member. Oh dear.
  • After this bravura scene, the party back at Wrottesley is a bit of a let-down: Sefton takes Cora and his enemy Fledwhite to Peter Potter’s bohemian bash. They get drunk and dance to the Beatles. Some faculty have brought their mistresses, some argue with their wives. In the middle it is interrupted by the arrival of sneaky Sidewinder who announces that the footballer whose book Sefton was, earlier in the novel, charged with reviewing – Kevin Dainty – has died in a freak accident. The merger with the local football team will be brought forward and sealed with a vast memorial tribute to him. And Sefton, to his horror, is charged with composing the Eulogy to the footballer in front of a crowd of his home fans.
  • The climax of the novel comes as Sefton steps up to the podium to address the crowd of booing football supporters, bored after a long-winded eulogy from the mayor and then from the owner of Wrottesley Rovers, and then a dire poem from Gerald Sidewinder. But this is the moment Sefton has been looking forward to all his life. As Jacobson has told us, in an earlier double-edged joke, Sefton ‘was as sentimental as Hitler about applause and crowds.’ (p.61) Which is why it has to be that the great moment is ruined when the disgruntled activist Fledwhite emerges from the crowd and pelts Sidewinder – whose idea it was to ‘twin’ with the football club – with eggs and tomatoes, thus causing the police to intervene. Fledwhite flees across the football pitch, eluding the cops, and completely ruining Sefton’s Great Moment.

Comedy

But the novel is less concerned with plotlines than with exploring topics or moments which provide Jacobson the opportunity to unleash his comic skills and reduce his anti-hero to a weeping wreck.

Thus the disastrous seduction of Cora is a typical scene in which two minds, two personalities, clash horribly and Sefton’s cocksure swagger is systematically deflated. In another scene he has a hilariously ineffectual confrontation with a bunch of Geography lecturers, outraged that he has parked his beaten-up old Anglia in their section of the ghastly car park behind the Poly.

The tone of the whole novel is set by the opening scene in which he recalls the moment, in sunny happy Australia, when he was making love to a female student (Helen Burns) on the floor of his office when the door – which he had forgotten to lock – swings open and there stands the university postman with a full view of Sefton in flagrente. Being Australian, the postman is only disconcerted for a moment before stepping forward and wedging Sefton’s post deftly between his clenched buttocks, before retiring and closing the door. That is our man Sefton in a snapshot: even at the height of human ecstasy, he manages to get himself elaborately and comprehensively humiliated.

The scene that made me weep with laughter is when Sefton is called in by the depressed Head of the Poly, Ray Grassley, who – in a moment of Dickensian brilliance – Jacobson describes as so manically furtive that he always looks as if he’s about to burgle his own office. Every glance, every shifty movement, seems fraught with intent to stash the sideboard under his jacket or stuff a pot plant into his pocket and tiptoe out. Which makes it quite hard to discuss anything serious with him. And makes it very difficult for Sefton to take it seriously when the Head announces that he – Sefton – is being asked, well, told, to write a glowing review of the sex’n’soccer novel by the captain of the local football team, Kevin Dainty, aptly titled Scoring.

Other sequences which don’t really have anything to do with the plot, but advance the text by deepening Sefton’s fathomless sense of failure and humiliation include: a detailed account of his lifelong rivalry with the only other Jew at his school who didn’t go on to study law or dentistry, Godfrey Jelley, who first triumphed by writing chatty accounts of his teas with the stars (Richard Burton, Morecambe and Wise, Mohammed Ali) for a posh Sunday paper – something Sefton was able to dismiss as superficial tinselry – before changing brand altogether and going with a crew of actresses and celebrities to a ‘retreat’ deep in the desert, seeking ‘the silence beyond language’ where they could find themselves – resulting in a bestselling book, radio, TV coverage etc. Sefton’s rage and jealousy go beyond ordinary bounds into new areas of emotional extremity.

It is a typical riff that even now, seven years after arriving, Sefton hasn’t unpacked many of his bags or boxes, refuses to sleep in the bed only on it and only buys small amounts of groceries – because he refuses to accept that this dismal dump is his actual residence, that he lives here, that his life measures who he is.

Almost inevitably, the dismal house where he rents a squalid flat is known as Paradise Apartments. A comic couple live downstairs: in one flat the tiny Fiona McHenry regularly plays hostess to her Chinese boyfriend, the evenings always following the same routine as, first the aroma of fried liver and onions wafts up through Sefton’s floorboards, then the sound of fabrics being disrobed and then the start of epic sex sessions, accompanied by cacophonous shrieks and screams and whimpers, astonishing that they emanate from such a tiny figure.

The racket is so loud that Fiona’s neighbour, long-term unemployed ‘artist’ Ron Penn, routinely puts on his Tom Jones LP and turns the volume up REALLY LOUD, with the result that Sefton’s bed vibrates to the din. If anyone visits him during these sessions, they have to YELL at each other to be heard over the strains of Delilah and The Green Green Grass of Home.

Being Jewish

A major element in Sefton’s character is the consciousness of being an outsider – an outsider to the English, to their love of nature, to their brutal sports and love of getting drunk – and a lot of this is attributed to his being Jewish. On one level, there is little point commenting on Sefton or Jacobson’s Jewishness, since the author is determined to pack as many observations about Jewishness into the book as possible. For example, these quotes are from just the first chapter, of about 28 pages:

… and because he was Jewish and short and knew all the answers they [the girls he taught in Australia] loved him (p.9)

Not being a poofter himself, but being Jewish, which is worse… (p.11)

Not that Norman Shorthall [husband of the woman Sefton is screwing as the novel opens] could ever have imagined, even in his blackest moments of fear and fantasy, what goatish Jew, initiate of secret rites and rituals, would at the eleventh hour do the deed of darkness with his wife. (p.11)

He had picked up from an Oxfam shop a Jewish Year Book which gave the Jewish population of every town in Britain which had a Jewish population, and by Jewish population they sometimes meant no more than seven families, and a synagogue in a tent – but Winchester did not even make the list. So it wasn’t going to be home-from-home exactly, and the residents were not likely to be hanging the Israeli flag or their daughters from their bedroom windows to welcome Sefton. But the warfare would be fairly open. (p.13)

They were the only two Jewish boys in the school who were planning to go to university to study something other than dentistry or law. (p.15)

When Sefton Goldberg took his degree there was still only one Educational Supplement and a Jewish boy from Cambridge could still count himself somebody. (p.16)

Despite taking advantage of his female students (or being taken advantage of, by them – he never really worked it out) on a scale that anyone who wasn’t Jewish or Welsh could ever possibly understand the need for… (p.16)

He was used to temptation and, being Jewish, he was used to a quick capitulation to it… (p.18)

His envy was rapacious and did not discriminate on the grounds of race, colour, creed, age or sex. It simply hurt more if the object were his age, male, and Jewish. (p.22)

Being Jewish, Sefton didn’t know much about the names or breeds or needs of fish. (p.24)

He had a gift of droll lugubriousness which he employed to damp his Jewishness so that it shouldn’t be too much of a trial for Peter Potter. He knew that he was the first Jew Peter had ever struck up a friendship with and he wanted to make the experience easy for him. (p.25)

He often struck Sefton as resembling a little English garden bird, though which garden bird Sefton Goldberg, being Jewish, couldn’t be expected to know. (p.26)

Jewish men, as a rule, weren’t hot on reverence. They went in, of course, for unashamedly public wife worship, but that was another thing entirely. Sefton Goldberg had been a Jewish husband once and although he hadn’t gone quite as far as public wife worship himself he could see how he might have. It was a necessary act of contrition and atonement. For never finally being able to renounce the world for the woman who had renounced the world for you. Being Jewish, you simply couldn’t give up your collusion with other men. (p.27)

But marriage acquainted him with unimaginable self-reproach. He accused himself even more energetically married than he had abused himself single. In the matrimonial life of the Jewish male every day is Yom Kippur. Sefton Goldberg’s super-Jewish squeamishness about intimate marriage talk…(p.28)

After a couple of mouthfuls Peter and Miranda Potter would lay down their cutlery and stare across the table as Sefton chewed and raved and sighed and allowed the juices to run down his chin onto his shirt. It was the least he could do. It was his way of saying thank you for the meal and of making his Jewishness harmless to those who had been brave enough to let it into their home. (p.30)

She [Cora Peck, teacher of creative writing] hated Peter Potter for hating her and she hated Sefton Goldberg because he goaded her, because he knew how to make her scream, because he closed his mind to innovatory structures, and because – although she did not know this was why she hated him – because he was Jewish. (p.32)

There’s a lot more where that came from, throughout the book.

1. It seems to me unlikely that all Jews know nothing about football or beer or birds or nature: much more likely that the numerous sentences which start ‘Being Jewish, Sefton…’ and then make swinging generalisations about all Jews, are a comic routine. Consider for a moment whether you’d want to apply any of the generalisations Sefton and/or Jacobson make about Jews to the actual Jews you meet in real life? No.

2. Leaving to one side whether the scores and scores of observations about Jewishness which occur on almost every page bear any relationship to Jewishness ‘in the real world’, in the novel they have multiple functions:

  • To emphasise Sefton’s outsiderness: the fact that he views the ways of ‘the gentiles’ as strange, brutal or inexplicable emphasises his comic ‘predicament’, in which he is permanently anxious that everything he says or does is somehow wrong.
  • An outsiderness which, paradoxically, sometimes bolsters the priggish sense of superiority he shows vis-a-vis his students, colleagues, bosses and other staff e.g. the argument in the car park with the geographers, who correctly identify his aloof air of superiority (though this might have more to do with the pompous way English was regarded at Cambridge in the 1960s, when F.R. Leavis was still teaching there, i.e. as the most important subject in the world).
  • But more often than not the references to Jewishness emphasise the exact opposite, Sefton’s craven abjectness e.g.:
    • The sequence describing how his Jewish parents went into a panic whenever there was a knock at the door, as if it was the Gestapo arriving for Anne Frank, and how that still explains Sefton’s bursting into a sweat of fear whenever he hears a knock at the door.
    • There is a disconcerting sequence where he emphasises that he eats like a pig in order to justify his gentile hosts’ stereotypes in order to make them feel more at home with his Jewishness. This reveals multiple layers of discomfort and cravenness beneath which lies a sort of aggression. I think the way it works is because Jacobson is always deflecting this permanent anxiety into aggressive over-compensation which is then sublimated into comic channels.
  • Quite often he uses his Jewishness as a stereotype against which to smash expectations, as a straw man to knock down with unexpected punchlines.
  • And sometimes he uses Jewishness to create exaggerated, almost grotesque jokes. Comedy which is also full of howling pain. For example:

‘It is pretty well-established now that the Gestapo was never fully operational in Manchester in the 1950s. But that did not prevent Sefton Goldberg’s early years from seeming every bit as fraught as Anne Frank’s.’ (p.160)

Words words words

The text’s hyper-consciousness of Sefton’s dizzying and self-punishing self-awareness sometimes expresses itself as detailed investigation of specific words and the ways people say them and invest them with meaning. I found these dazzling and riveting.

Deplored After the 65-year-old ineffectual department head has deplored the proposed move to the football stadium, the narrator goes on:

Deplored. It was his favourite word. It offered to do battle but it sounded instead a glorious retreat. It was one of his wailing sighs made articulate. (p.54)

Willed In the car park Sefton confronts a group of angry geographers after he inadvertently parked his car in their section! and finds his car windscreen plastered with leaflets and his tyres let down. One of the threatening geographers mocks him.

‘Now ‘oo’s done that to you, son? Oo’s let your tyres down?’
‘You might as well have. You willed it.’
‘Willed?’ Haslemere held up Sefton’s word by one corner and showed it to his colleagues. It might have been an item of fine silk underwear handed around a bar room.
‘Not a word you know?’ enquired Sefton, in the vain hope that it might be given back. (p.68)

You A few pages later the skinny, feeble looking ringleader of the gang, one Walter Sickert Fledwhite, emerges to confront Sefton wearing a donkey jacket festooned with the badges of political causes.

‘I’m not talking about your department,’ interrupted Fledwhite, advancing behind his outstretched finger as if it had a motor of its own and were dragging him after it. ‘I’m not talking about anyone else. I’m talking about you!’
Sefton had never before heard the little pronoun sound so shockingly persona. It seemed to come up from somewhere deep and most unpleasant in Fledwhite’s body. Sefton felt as if he had been spat at by a consumptive. (p.71)

Masturbation

He had long ago decided that masturbation was so irredeemably ugly a word that it should never be used; but Cora was able to reveal levels of bleakness and desolation in it which even Sefton didn’t know it possessed. On her lips it evoked all of humanity’s most damp and inglorious physical ills: it evoked rheumatism and sciatica and rickets and artificial limbs and trusses and congested passages and the thousand unwelcome juices and fluids which made men cold and wet and full of dismal needs. (pp.93-94)

There are many more comic meditations on individual words which lift and burnish them with a hilariously miserable magnificence.

Conclusion

Although the downtrodden, hen-pecked, over-educated, cynical, sexually frustrated literature lecturer is a stock stereotype of our times, in this début novel Jacobson imbues the character with a comic ferocity, with an imaginative and verbal force, which completely justify the effort. This is a bloody funny book.


Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer and frustrated lecher, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom –
1986 Redback –
1992 The Very Model of a Man –
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love, Cape –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J –

Mission to Paris by Alan Furst (2012)

When you are in Paris, you have to make love to somebody. (p.76)

This is the twelfth of Alan Furst’s historical espionage novels, all set on continental Europe in the late 1930s or early years of World War Two, in which fairly ordinary European men find themselves caught up in cloak and dagger activities, but are generally consoled by sensuous love affairs with one or more willing young ladies. The very strong love elements in Furst’s novels make them as much romantic novels as historical or spy thrillers.

This one is something of a return to the brooding intensity of his debut, Night Soldiers, with a real sense of growing menace and threat until almost the last pages. The previous two or three books in the series featured interesting hero figures – Carlo Weisz, Jean Mercier, Costa Zannis – who had sporadic undercover adventures, but then tended to return back to the safety of their hotel rooms or apartments for a good kip and some sensual sex with their lady of the moment – before setting out on another adventure, and so on. They felt episodic, only intermittently featuring violence which gave any sense of real danger.

Nazi menace

But in Mission to Paris the hero becomes enmeshed in a web of intrigue that doesn’t let up, but draws him deeper and deeper into peril – in which the Nazis who are tracking him systematically crowd into every part of his life, at first just requesting favours, then threatening vague reprisals, then physical violence and eventually he finds himself running for his life. It is this steadily mounting sense of threat and peril which is reminiscent of the powerful mood of the first books in the series.

The story is set against the looming threat of a European war. Hitler and the Nazis are screaming about the injustices being suffered by ethnic Germans in the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia and in western Poland – all, of course, preparing the way for his invasions of  those countries. Many pundits and many ordinary people are concluding that some kind of war with Germany is inevitable. Into the feverish atmosphere of war-worried Paris arrives a Hollywood movie star, Fredric Stahl (in fact born in Austria and who’s made good in the States) who has carved out a niche as an actor of sturdy, reliable male characters. He is coming over to play the lead in a Warner Brothers France production titled Après la Guerre.

As background, the novel gives examples of the incredibly widespread and well-organised propaganda efforts the Nazis are making to promote the parties of the right, to spread disinformation about Hitler’s intentions, to praise Germany, to promote the idea that it is silly to fight the Germans, there will be no war, to blame all warmongering on communists and Jews. In other words, of the Nazis’ extensive use of ‘political warfare’.

As to Stahl, the Ribbentropburo of the German Foreign Ministry knows about his stay in Paris, knows about his Austrian background, and is drawing up plans to exploit him in all sorts of ways: these include setting him up for press interviews with right-wing papers which distort his banal answers into apparent calls for peace, or a more menacing invitation to fly to the Reich to attend a film festival.

German figures from his past suddenly appear out of nowhere, journalists put words into his mouth, Paris salon hostesses introduce him to charming people who run Franco-German Friendship societies, would he like to attend a meeting, give an interview for their magazine, attend a German film festival? As the pressure grows on Stahl from multiple directions, the novel conveys a good sense of claustrophobia and mounting paranoia.

Things take a distinct turn half way through when Stahl reluctantly agrees to attend the wretched film festival in Berlin, and finds his contact at the American Embassy in Paris, J.J. Wilkinson, asking if he would mind taking a large sum of money with him and making a clandestine rendezvous with an American agent working under deep cover in Berlin. At this point Stahl crosses the line from innocent bystander to active agent, and the tension and pressure cranks up from that point onwards right to the end.

Plot summary

As usual with Furst’s novels, the text is divided into four parts or ‘acts’:

1. German money – 14 September to 30 September 1938

September 1938. We are introduced to Hollywood movie star Frederic Stahl, born Franz Stalka in Vienna 40 years previously, ran away to sea from his strict father aged 16, was on board a neutral ship when the Great War broke out. The ship was fired on by Italians and limped to Barcelona where the Austrian Legation gave him a desk job for the remainder of the war. Shipped back to Austria he tried to escape his domineering father and supine family by taking to acting. He played small parts at local theatres, then got a gig in Paris, where he was talent spotted by the Warner Brothers agent and sent to Hollywood. Here he’s created a brand as a clean-cut, reliable good guy. He’s been sent by the studio to star in a movie in Paris, Après la Guerre, alongside a French producer, director, crew etc. He’ll play the hero, leader of three soldiers who find themselves released after the 1918 Armistice and having to make their way home across a war-ravaged Europe.

The text actually opens with a scene depicting a hitman from the Nazi Ribbentropburo, named Herbert. The sinister Baroness Cornelia Maria von Reschke und Altenberg, a German aristocrat who has established one of the top salons in Paris, is a German agent, surreptitiously handing out funds and favours to French VIPs who can influence public opinion and policy in a direction favourable to Germany. As one of her many workstreams she has given a bag of money to one Prideaux, the chef de cabinet of a French senator, to pass onto his boss in return for Germany-friendly speeches. However, handling so much money went to Prideaux’s head and he has absconded to the Black Sea port of Varna, before moving on into Turkey. Unfortunately, Herbert and his henchman Lothar have tracked him down to Varna, with instructions to recover the money and terminate Prideaux. We watch Herbert and Lothar hire a local assassin to murder Prideaux. This opening scene sets the scene and mood, showing the sophistication and extent of their efforts to influence opinion in France, and the ruthlessness if someone crosses them.

The scene then shifts to Stahl on board the transatlantic liner, Ile de France, having a mild flirtation with a star-struck (and married) fan, Iris. He is met at le Havre by Zolly Louis, Warner Brothers man in Paris, and driven to the capital city in a stylish 1938 Panhard Dynamic car, where he’s been booked into a nice room at the Hotel Claridge. Stahl has barely unpacked before the hotel present him with letters and invitations, including one from the Baroness Cornelia Maria von Reschke und Altenberg. No reason not to go, so he dresses smartly and takes a cab to her luxury apartment but, as he takes her wizened claw and observes her tight face with the blue vein in her forehead and her fawning manner, he begins to feel antipathy, confirmed as he is then introduced to a succession of businessmen who gently but consistently ask him his opinion about Germany, about the situation in Europe, wouldn’t peace be better, isn’t war futile, you know it’s all these Jews who want war, they own all the armaments companies – and so on and on.

In the midst of this stifling atmosphere, Stahl is relieved to meet the stylish young Kiki de Saint-Ange, who whisks him away to a much more cool Bohemian party on the Left Bank. Being driven there in the big Panhard they come across men posting up affiches blanches to the walls, indications of the partial mobilisation the French government is beginning as war looms. Stahl’s chauffeur, Jimmy, is on the list and later Stahl learns that the director slated to direct his movie has been called up and sent to Alsace. The threat of a European war is becoming very real.

Next morning Stahl gets a cab out to the Paramount film studios in the Paris suburb of Joinville where, in Building K, he gets measured for his costumes by the costume designer, Renate Steiner, herself an émigré from Germany – her husband is a communist so they had to flee when Hitler came to power. Renate is brisk and professional and half way through her friends Inga and Klaus stop by to excitedly tell her that Daladier and Chamberlain have signed the Munich Agreement, in effect handing over the Sudeten part of north-west Czechoslovakia to Germany in exchange for Hitler’s promise of peace.

Stahl’s taxi back to the hotel gets stuck in a crowd of marchers protesting against the scandalous sellout to Hitler, and Stahl is forced to get out and walk. Suddenly, masked men attack the marchers with iron rods and Stahl finds himself coming to the defence of a woman being hit, next thing he’s struck by a bar himself, several times, falls to the ground, and is in the middle of fighting back when he is arrested and taken to a police station.

After a grim night Stahl is released by Zolly Louis, who has greased a few palms, but ‘Hollywood actor spends night in Paris gaol’ becomes one of the many threats the Germans will hold over him. Although he has a girlfriend / confidente / lover, Betsy Belle, back in Hollywood, he nonetheless accepts an invitation from Kiki to meet for a drink. He and Kiki stroll round lovers’ Paris in the evening, until they come across a nice discreet hotel and slip into it for an evening of slow, sensual sex.

This first ‘act’ ends with the three brief documentary-style examples of the way the Germans are bringing pressure to bear at every level of French society, but especially on the media and opinion formers:

  • We find Hervé Charais, news commentator for Radio Paris, relaxed in his bedroom and (naturally) admiring his half-dressed Spanish mistress (p.63) while she taunts and teases him and gently suggests that maybe his commentaries ought to put the German view a bit more, mention the hardships of the poor German minorities trapped in the Sudetenland or Poland and subject to bullying and intimidation. ‘How about it,’ she asks, as she takes his pecker in her hand…
  • The Director of the National Press Guild of Germany writes to the chief executive of the Havas Agency, the leading French wire service, confirming an all-expenses paid trip to the Reich where he will have dinner with the German Foreign Secretary, von Ribbentrop, and then a meeting with the Führer himself.
  • We hear LaMotte, wine king, in a phone conversation with the publisher of Le Temps, chatting about a weekend away together, the tennis they’ll play, and casually linking the money he’s about to spend on his next advertising campaign in the magazine, with a few comments on recent editorials about Germany: doesn’t he think the magazine is being a bit harsh? After all it was Hitler who invited Chamberlain and Daladier to Berchtesgarten, it was Hitler who defused the crisis; all the Germans want is peace. Honest.

2. Agent of Influence – 12 October to 4 November 1938

Stahl meets the cast of the movie – Pasquin the burly comedian, Brecker the blonde German, Justine Piro his female lead, Jean Avila the boy wonder director.

Mme Boulanger in the Warner Brothers office has fixed up an interview with Loubec, a journalist from Le Matin with his photographer René. Expecting to give an easygoing chat about the new movie and  his c-stars, Stahl is amazed when the interview is all about his attitude to war, to the Germans, with insinuating comments about his lack of active service during the Great War. When he sees the headline next morning – Hollywood stars speaks out for rapprochement – he realises how badly he’s been stitched up.

Stahl receives an invitation to visit the US Embassy, where he is seen by Second Secretary J.J. Wilkinson, who formally welcomes him to Paris. Wilkinson points out that he’s already been seen consorting with people known for their Nazi sympathies – the Baroness von Reschke, Philippe LaMotte – as well as managing to be locked up in prison for the night. An impressive start. Wilkinson explains to a puzzled Stahl that he is an ‘agent of influence’; a casual word from him will be widely reported and might help nudge public opinion, towards pacifism, fatalism, the wish for peace at any price: exactly what Hitler wants.

Next day  Stahl is appalled when a cast reading of the script is interrupted by Karl ‘Moppi’ Moppel’, Stahl’s boss at the Austro-Hungarian legation in Barcelona where Stahl worked during the Great War. What the hell is he doing here? How did he track him down to the studio? Moppi acts all innocent – he just wants to see his old friend, but has just enough time to make it clear that Stahl is Austrian, something the other cast members didn’t know. It’s a small nudge designed to alienate him from them and push him a little closer to the Nazi camp.

His Hollywood girlfriend Betsy Belle writes a letter dumping him, saying she’s met an older man who’ll ‘look after her’. On the rebound, Stahl phones Kiki and takes her out to a movie theatre where, to his surprise, she manoeuvres his hand between her thighs and makes him masturbate her to a brief gasping climax, all the time watching the silver screen.

Moppi continues to pester Stahl with phone calls and with invitations to lunch at the famous restaurant, Maxim’s. Eventually Stahl gives in, determined to go along and tell him to stop bloody bothering him. He finds a table full of repellent Nazis stuffing themselves with the best French food who invite him to a little film festival they’re having: all-expenses paid, luxury hotel, good food, he just has to watch half a dozen movies and select the best. Stahl stands up and delivers his speech, saying he absolutely will not go and telling them to stop pestering him. But as he walks away, he hears them laughing and drooling over the desserts as they arrive, completely unperturbed.

Next day Stahl goes back out to Building K out at Joinville for further fittings for his costume, where he finds Renate red-eyed and tearful, until he is prompted to give her a big hug. Things are bad at home; her husband is depressed at having gone from big-shot journalist in Berlin to nobody in Paris and gets so low he threatens suicide. Stahl is a friendly shoulder to cry on. ‘Gee, ma’am, wish there was more I could do to help.’

Madame Boulanger, slightly embarrassed at setting him up with the reptile Loubec, now fixes for Stahl to meet André Sokoloff, Russian émigré journalist, senior correspondent for Paris Soir, at the Brasserie Heininger. This is the ‘famous’ restaurant which, rather monotonously, features in every single Furst novel. Sokoloff appals Stahl by giving him an in-depth explanation of how ‘political warfare’ works, a nudge here, a word there, an interview, a commentary piece in a paper, and so on (pp.109-114). What appals him most is the extent of the active treachery of such large parts of French society which would rather have the country ruled by Hitler than by a Jew or a liberal.

When Stahl gets back to his hotel room it’s to find a Nazi bruiser has broken into his room and is calmly lounging on his sofa. It is Herbert who threatens him, warning him that he must come to the Reich for the film festival or he and his colleagues would be upset and you don’t want to upset us do you? You never know what might happen. Before getting up and casually sauntering out the door. It is his arrogance, his assumption that Stahl wouldn’t dare start anything, which Stahl finds so upsetting and demoralising.

Cut to the scene back at the Ribbentropburo in Berlin, where a meeting is convened to go through a long list of eminent French people who are being targeted with invitations, bribes or smears and threats, to toe the Nazi line. It includes discussion of some eye-opening examples, like the Catholic priest who preaches against Nazi ideology and who they’re working on the Vatican to get transferred to Martinique. Towards the bottom of the list is Stahl and, when he hears that the actor is refusing to play ball, the Deputy Director gets into a fury and threatens his underlings that Stahl better go to this bloody festival or else!

Stahl goes for a walk to calm down after the scary encounter with the Nazi in his room, and is sitting in a bar nursing a cognac when Kiki walks in. The conversation morphs from her cheering him up into the seductive role-playing mode of a soft porn movie, and he ends up taking her back to his luxury hotel (the Claridge) where she is soon ‘half-stripped, in high heels and lacy bra and panties’ before Stahl kneels and performs cunnilingus on her (p.125). All frightfully French and sophisticated.

Next day, back at the sound studio out at Joinville, his co-star Brecker arrives at a rehearsal at the studio with his arm in a sling. It was broken in a bar-room brawl. Can it possibly be some kind of threat from the Nazis? Stahl is now so spooked he is seeing their malign influence everywhere.

Stahl seeks another meeting with Wilkinson at the Embassy, tells him about the accumulated incidents and talks through what to do? Well, no laws have been broken – and each one of the incidents by itself is almost trivial. ‘Is he going to go to the film festival?’ Stahl is trying to decide, when Wilkinson points out that, if he does decide to go… well, there’s a little favour he could do for his government…

3. Espionage – 9 November to 10 December 1938

In act three, Stahl crosses a line by agreeing to work undercover for Wilkinson, becoming an agent, a spy. He phones the Nazis and agrees to go to their bloody festival. Has a horrible time on the plane to Berlin, along with repellent Emhof and reading Nazi propaganda rags. Taxi to the Hotel Adlon. The streets are absolutely packed with uniformed men and violence is in the air. He dresses for the evening meal, sucks up to the revolting German hosts – notably Otto Raab, the embittered mediocrity who’s found his niche in the Nazi Party as a hack turning out propaganda movies, and who is organiser of the festival.

Over the festival banquet, Stahl strikes up conversation with the athletic and attractive Russian émigré film star, Olga Orlova, who is one of Hitler’s favourite German actresses, and quite quickly she invites him to pop along to her bedroom after the banquet. Yummy. He waits a decent interval, makes his excuses to his hosts and goes up to her room. The reader expects that this is going to lead to yet another Furstian soft porn interlude. Instead, she calls for his identification, which turns out to be a Reichsmark note whose numbers she has been tipped off to check. They match; his identity is confirmed. Because it turns out, Olga is a spy, too. The mission Wilkinson gave Stahl was to smuggle in $100,000 in cash, which he hands over to Olga in return for the latest top secret documents she has secured. These he will stash in the secret compartment in his bag and take back to Wilkinson. Exchange made, Olga and Stahl agree he must stay in her room till the early hours as if they had had sex, which is their cover story for any snoopers. She goes to sleep in the bed, he on the couch.

Intermittently throughout the evening – when he stepped out for a cigarette, when he was in Olga’s bedroom – he and Olga both smelled burning. The omniscient narrator tells us this is because these events just happen to be taking place on Kristallnacht, the night of 9-10 November 1938, when, in reprisal for the assassination of a German official in the Paris embassy, the Nazi authorities encouraged the destruction of synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany and the roundup of up to 30,000 Jews to be taken off to camps. Obviously neither Olga nor Stahl understand this is what’s happening, though they realise it’s something bad.

Next day, Stahl has to watch a series of revolting Nazi films and ends up giving the top award to a propaganda farrago titled Hedwig’s Mountain, produced and directed by none other than Otto Raab, amid much backslapping and a graceful speech. Stahl plays his role to perfection without a trace of repulsion, secretly gratified that he is doing these scum some damage.

At the banquet the night before, the waiter serving him and Olga – Rudi – had been unpleasantly intrusive until Stahl bluntly told him to go away. As he’s preparing to leave the hotel, Stahl is horrified when the waiter approaches him and threatens to blackmail him and Olga. Were they really sleeping together – or doing something traitorous, conspiring against the Führer, for example? He wants $5,000 and fast! At first he thinks it’s a ridiculous joke, but then, as the waiter’s bitterness becomes more apparent, and as he thinks of all the stories he’s heard about the Gestapo, Stahl becomes genuinely frightened. He phones Olga on an emergency number, explains the situation, and in 40 minutes she appears with the required money in a bag, and they go up to Rudi’s attic room. Here she mollifies and soothes him, distracting him as she gets out the money, and then shoots him in the head with a silenced gun. She scribbles a suicide note and arranges the body to look like suicide. Stahl, stunned, watches her. Nobody mentioned murder. He’s really in it, now. Up to his neck.

Nonetheless, Stahl takes a taxi to the Berlin Tempelhof airport and flies unhindered back to Paris, job done. Next day he is relieved to see the Warner Brothers press people did a small release about how he’s doing his bit to ‘promote’ his new movie in Germany. Clever way of spinning it.

Out at the Joinville studio, the movie finally starts filming – Furst supplies interesting detail on the script, the opening scenes, technical problems overcome and so on.

In the costume room, Stahl discovers Renate in tears; she has broken up with her depressive husband – more accurately, he’s run off with a younger model. As her hands touch his body as she adjusts shirt and trousers and outfits, as she measures him and as she walks away from him with a sexy sway, Stahl realises he really fancies her or, as Furst puts it, ‘He wanted to fuck her’ (p.165). He makes subtle moves but she doesn’t respond.

Stahl is invited out to a society dinner party where he meets Wilkinson to hand over Olga’s documents. Wilkinson gives Stahl (and the reader) more insight into the complex international situation. Turns out the money he’s given him to give to Olga, is not US government money. Congress, the Senate and most of the population don’t want anything to do with Europe. But Roosevelt knows war is coming and is strongly anti-German. This money comes from private donors and friends of the president’s in order to gather information to help Roosevelt make his case Stateside, to influence important people. Stahl has got himself involved in America’s efforts at ‘political warfare’.

Finishing a day’s filming unexpectedly early, Stahl surprises Renate in her costume room wearing only stockings and suspenders, trying out a blouse. She squeals and runs for the changing room. Stahl is absolutely confirmed in his erotic obsession with her now. He fantasises about her, though she remains cool.

Stahl continues to be pestered by Moppi, this time invited to come meet the famous Wolf Lustig, the most eminent producer in Germany, at a reception being given at the Pré Catelan restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne. It is being hosted by the Roussillon wine people (who we know from early on are pro-German organisation) and the witchy Baroness is presiding – once again Stahl has to shake her claw and stare into her beady eyes – before being introduced to Lustig who he takes an instant dislike to. Lustig, confident and jokey like Emhof, like all these arrogant Krauts, offers Stahl a role in his next production. It will be set in Poland, titled Harvest of Destiny, about a good-hearted German girl who is victimised by cowardly Poles and Jews. ‘Does he want at least to come on the reconnaissance journey round Poland? All expenses paid?’ Stahl feels physically ill and can’t extract himself fast enough.

Stahl goes to meet Wilkinson again. Wilkinson by this time has become a kind of commentator on the action: when something happens to Stahl, Stahl goes to Wilkinson to have it interpreted and explained. Now Wilkinson explains that the ‘recce’ could quite possibly be a spying mission – what better cover than a film producer looking for locations, and quite justifiably taking detailed notes of railway lines, bridges, infrastructure? The more that is revealed to him, the more horrified Stahl becomes at the complexity of the web of deceit which seems to be enmeshing Europe and the lust for violence which underpins it all.

In a new narrative thread, we are introduced to two new characters, Freddi Müller, one of the Führer’s favourites up at his Berchtesgarten retreat, and his wife, Gertrude ‘Trudi’ Müller. Olga is a valued guest of the Führer’s from time to time and the narrator explains how Trudi has developed a lesbian crush on her. A crush Olga the professional spy knows she can exploit. One morning the two women gear up to go for a healthy, vigorous, Aryan walk up a nearby mountain – but snow and bad weather close in and force them back to the hotel they’re staying in. Here, Trudi has a slow luxurious soak, while Olga gets busy riffling through husband Freddi’s briefcase and using a specially adapted Leica camera to snap everything she finds in it, lots of information about Poland.

Through secret channels Olga communicates to Wilkinson that she has new information for sale, but at an even higher price than the previous product. Wilkinson is set to send another courier to Berlin to collect it, but the agent is injured in a car crash, so he’s at a loss. In conversation with Stahl, Wilkinson discovers that the movie he’s working on now moving to do its foreign location shoots – first stop will be Morocco, to a place called Erg Chebbi in the Ziz Valley on the edge of the Sahara Desert (p.192).

So Wilkinson arranges for Olga to send a courier with the photos of the documents all the way to Morocco  and gives Stahl a pack of cash to meet him and pay for it. From Stahl’s point of view, we see the flights of him and the film crew in several stops down to Morocco, a bit of atmospheric reconnoitring into the desert, and the set-up for a few days’ filming. In the middle of all this, Stahl takes a break to go to the railway station as planned, and meets almost the only European on the train, a pudgy German. They identify each other and make a discreet swap, Stahl’s money for Olga’s envelope full of photographed documents.

Mission accomplished, Stahl relaxes and invites Renate out for a drink or a meal that night after work, but she is stuck in looking after her room-mate member of the crew, who’s got food poisoning. Stahl is frustrated at his lack of progress with her. He keeps seeing her stockings, her suspenders, her smooth creamy thighs etc.

Early next morning he is woken by the movie’s director, Avila. The police have arrived. As usual nowadays, Stahl’s heart almost stops with fear that he’s somehow been exposed and will spend the next thirty years in a Moroccan gaol. But the police just want them to come to the morgue to identify a body, as almost the only other Europeans in town. It is, inevitably, the corpse of the pudgy German, who had been horribly garroted and thrown off the train. Both Avila and Stahl say they’ve never seen him before.

4. A Good Soldier – 17 December 1938 to early February 1939

The filming is completed without further incident and the crew all fly back to Paris. Stahl makes an appointment to meet Wilkinson at what has become their regular rendezvous, the American Library in Paris. Wilkinson is shocked to hear about the murder, but grateful for the Polish documents – he explains they’ll come in handy influencing senators and congressmen of Polish origin, back in the States.

Stahl chats more to Renate on the plane home, keeping up a slight but relentless pressure for a date. That night she invites him to her small Bohemian flat in rue Varlin for a home-made dinner. They’re drinking wine and relaxing in an intimate candle-lit atmosphere, when Stahl surprises her (and the reader) by asking her to strip. But – thus addressed point blank – she does: she gets up and does a slow strip-tease in front of him, finally unbuttoning his flies, extracting his manhood and kneeling to perform fellatio. Lucky old Stahl.

Meanwhile, in a completely different time zone and mood, Olga is entertaining Trudi to tea in a chintzy tearoom in Berlin. We have, by being party to her thoughts, by this time realised that she mainly works for the Soviets, but sells things onto Wilkinson or the British, if they’ll buy. She’s not fussy. Unexpectedly, there is a phone call for her. At first surprised, Olga is terrified when a voice says simply, ‘Get out now, the Gestapo are in your apartment.’

Flushed and stressed, she takes leave of Trudi who, to her surprise, insists on helping her, so she accepts a lift to the train station. But this is heaving with Gestapo so they drive around before finding a tiny hotel. They take a room then Olga sends Trudi out to buy peroxide and scissors. They cut Olga’s hair short and dye it. Next morning Trudi drives her beloved and now disguised Olga out to the Berlin suburbs, they have a tearful goodbye and then Olga catches a series of local trains to Frankfurt, where she catches a fast one to Prague.

Stahl is at Renate’s when there is a phone call, it is for him, it is long distance from Berlin, one of those arrogantly confident German voices saying they wish to know the whereabouts of a certain Olga Orlova, maybe he can help them. Furious and terrified, Stahl slams the phone down. How did they know he’d be at Renate’s? How did they get her number? It is designed to scare him, and her. As has become usual, Stahl meets Wilkinson to discuss the news and its implications, this time on one of those tourist boats that ply up and down the Seine.

Later Stahl is phoned in his hotel room by another smiling German voice, which asks him to look out the window and there, in the apartment opposite, a hand waves and he hears a voice laughing. Now he is really spooked.

Kiki phones Stahl for a meeting at a cafe in a smart part of town. Instead of her usual seductive self, she is scared. She says she has come from the Baroness and is delivering what she calls ‘a final warning’. They want to know where Olga is. They will brook no refusals.

Meanwhile, back on the film production, as it approaches the end of the year, the entire crew fly to Hungary for the final location shooting at an old Hungarian castle, a key scene in the movie. When I read that the castle belongs to none other than Count Polyani I burst out laughing. Count Janos Polanyi has appeared in numerous previous Furst novels, and is a spymaster at the Hungarian legation in Paris. At a stroke I knew the book would have a happy ending.

Furst litters this series of novels with recurring characters which is entertaining, but the drawback is that their appearance mostly militate against seriousness: they remind me of the gallery of characters you get at the beginning of Tintin books, and the childish pleasure to be had identifying them and trying to remember which one appeared in which story. Same here.

The count is, of course, a noble old host – roast venison is served along with bulls blood wine, and the filming cracks on at a good rate. Except that early on New Year’s Day 1939, the cameraman comes hurtling into the breakfast room to announce that all the cameras have been stolen. A message is left that the crew must bring a ransom to an old inn down the Danube.

The count is amused at this presumption and rustles up to aristocratic friends, Ferenc and Anton to sort out  his guests’ little problem. They load a large motorboat and steam down the Danube with Avila and Stahl in attendance but the Hungarians insist that, as their guests, they stay aboard the boat. They anchor it near the old inn and then the count and pals disappear into the woods. After some suspense, our chaps hear a sudden outburst of shooting – single shots then an automatic – and then the roar of a car engine.

The count and pals reappear: three Germans were waiting, but they caught them napping, there was a shootout in which everyone missed, and the Germans ran away. Alas the cameras were nowhere to be seen. Laughing over the incident, the count steers the boat back upstream towards the castle. He secures some more cameras from Budapest and the filming is finally finished. The crew assemble to fly out of Budapest airport, but at passport control there is a problem.

Renate has a German passport, she has never been naturalised in France and she doesn’t have the correct exit visa. The rest of the crew can leave, but she can’t. So they all board the plane out, but Stahl also refuses to go, insisting on staying with his new girlfriend, despite a strong hint from the passport official that it is his last chance.

This ought to be scary but, as with the appearance of Count Polanyi, there is a pantomime feel about the menace. Stahl is not one of the completely powerless Jews I read about in the work of Primo Levi – he is an American film star. Therefore, he is able to get a taxi to a nice hotel, from where he makes an appointment with the American consulate. Here he is shown right in and meets a nice young man named Stanton, who says he’ll be able to expedite getting Renate an American visa which will allow them both to fly right over Hitler’s Germany. Might take a week or more, though. Outside is a long line of people queueing for visas, who are not American film stars.

So they’ve secured one route to freedom, but this is trumped after Stahl makes a person to person call with his agent, Buzzy Mehlman, in California. He explains the situation and Buzzy says he’ll get on it. Result? At 11am next day Jerry Silverberg turns up, Warner Brothers’ man in Eastern Europe, who has fixed everything: train to Arad on the Romanian border; bribe Major Mihaly of the border guard to get into Romania; train to Constanta on the Black sea; steamer to Istanbul; ship to Lisbon; boat to New York; 20th century Limited transcontinental train back to Hollywood. He’s booked all the tickets, first class. Such is the power of Hollywood and American money.

Sure enough, Renate and Stahl get the rather slow train to Arad where there is a civilised exchange of money with Major Mihaly, who waves them across the border.

Stahl and Renate are in a hotel room in Constanta waiting for the ferry, when the narration tells us that… so is Herbert, the Nazi hitman we met in the opening scene of the book, and his sidekick Lothar. On January 13 Herbert packs his Luger and swaggers off to the Princess Maria hotel where Stahl and Renata are staying. He bangs on their bedroom door with increasing impatience, thinking they are unarmed, helpless prey, getting bored and frustrated and hungry for his lunch. However, Stahl still has the pistol Count Polanyi gave him back at the castle, during the trip down the river. As Herbert’s threatening becomes more impatient, angry and Germanic, something in Stahl snaps and he fires through the door. There is the sound of a body falling – then silence.

They smuggle the corpse down onto a nearby bench overlooking the sea then go on to the dock to await their ship. It is a long journey, three weeks at sea, with a few stopovers, before they reach New York. As the Statue of Liberty comes into view Renate is crying and Stahl is choked up. The nightmare is over, and they are both free.


Dramatis personae

As always it’s only when you list them, that you realise what an enormous number of characters a Furst novel contains, and how they add a great sense of depth and complexity and historical verisimilitude to the story.

The characters listed here (and the plot summary above) don’t include the plot and characters of the movie Stahl is making –  Après la Guerre – which has a cast of characters and a storyline all its own, which we get to hear quite a lot about as we watch it being rehearsed and filmed. Then there are further ‘stories’ embedded in the text, such as the plot of the film which Stahl and Kiki watch as she masturbates herself on his fingers and which Furst describes in some detail. Or the numerous background stories, such as the slightly complex chain of events which led up to the Kristallnacht and which Furst explains for us.

On multiple levels, then, and in interlocking and overlapping webs, Furst’s books are tremendously dense with story and character, which makes for a rich and rewarding reading experience, like the multiple layers of flavour in an expensive wine.

  • Louise Prideaux, chef de cabinet of a French senator, who has absconded with a sizeable bribe given him by the Countess to pass on to the senator, but instead he’s done a bunk and is holed up in a cheap hotel in the Black Sea port of Varna (p.4).
  • Herbert, Nazi thug, organises killings for the Ribbentropburo (p.7).
  • Lothar, Herbert’s sidekick, fat, fiftyish, jolly (p.8).
  • General Aleksey, the Russian émigré they’ve hired to assassinate Prideaux (p.9).
  • Deputy Director of the Ribbentropburo, based in the Reich Foreign Ministry at 3 Wilhelmstrasse, young, incisive, angry (p.13).
  • Herr Hoff, Ribbentropburo functionary in charge of the French section, so gets handed the Fredric Stahl brief (p.15).
  • Fredric Stahl, Hollywood movie star, born Franz Stalka in Vienna, he now makes $100,000 a picture and has been sent by Warner Brothers in a deal to appear in a Paramount France production (p.15).
  • Iris, the wife of a drunk mid-Western businessman who Fredric has a kiss and a cuddle with on the transatlantic liner, the Ile de France (p.16).
  • Zolly (short for Zoltan, Hungarian) Louis, Warner Brothers man in Paris (p.21).
  • Jimmy Louis, Zoltan’s nephew and chauffeur of the huge 1938 Panhard Dynamic automobile in which Fredric is driven round (p.23).
  • Jules Deschelles, producer of the movie Fredric’s to appear in, Après la Guerre (p.36).
  • Baruch ‘Buzzy’ Mehlman, Stahl’s agent at the William Morris Agency in Hollywood (p.25).
  • Walter Perry, right hand man to Jack Warner, boss of Warner Brothers (p.25).
  • Mme Boulanger, 50-ish, determined head of publicity at Warner Brothers Paris (p.27).
  • Karl ‘Moppi’ Moppel, a threatening presence from the past, Stahl’s boss at the Austro-Hungarian legation in Barcelona where Stahl worked during the Great War (p.32).
  • Frau Hilda Bruner, his friend (p.34).
  • Jean Casson, a French film producer who was the hero of two Furst novels, The World At Night and Red Gold. We don’t see him; Stahl walks past his door on the way to Deschelles’ office (p.36).
  • Baroness Cornelia Maria von Reschke und Altenberg, sinister hostess of a leading Paris salon, German and pretty obviously a German agent.
  • Betsy Belle, Stahl’s official Hollywood fiancée / lover, ie they take care to be seen out and about together and photographed by the gossip columns (p.40).
  • Philippe LaMotte, managing director of the Roussillon wine company, also director of the Comité Franco-Allemagne, a German propaganda front.
  • Kiki de Saint-Ange, stylish young Parisienne who frequents the Baroness’s salon but prefers a racier, more bohemian set on the Left Bank. Quite quickly she and Stahl become lovers and he is excited by her open-minded sexual inventiveness (p.48).
  • Renate Steiner, married German émigré costume designer for the movie, fled Germany with her husband because he is a communist (p.53).
  • Inga and Klaus, two émigré friends of Renata who cycle by to tell her the Munich Agreement has been signed (30 September 1938) (p.54).
  • Justine Piro, female lead in the movie (p.71).
  • Pasquin, burly frequently drunk French comedian, co-star in the movie (p.72).
  • Gilles Brecker, Germanic looking co-star in the movie (p.82).
  • Jean Avila, young Wunderkind director who is now slated to direct Après la Guerre (p.73).
  • J.J. Wilkinson, Ivy league Wall Street lawyer, now Second Secretary at the US Embassy in Paris and conduit for money from President Roosevelt’s anti-German friends (p.74).
  • Loubec, journalist from Le Matin with his photographer René (p.89)
  • André Sokoloff, Russian émigré journalist, now senior correspondent for Paris Soir, a friendly presence who explains in some detail how ‘political warfare’ works, the extent it has penetrated French high society, the sheer number of top French who are, in effect, traitors to their own country (p.109-114).
  • Emhof, pop-eyed Nazi in charge of the group at Maxim’s who invite Stahl to the film festival in Berlin (p.99).
  • Otto Raab, mediocre German film director who has found is niche in the Nazi party (p.145).
  • Olga Orlova, Russian émigré movie star, one of Hitler’s favourites, who turns out to be a spy for hire and who plays a key role in the final sections of the book (p.146).
  • Rudi the waiter, who tries to blackmail Stahl and Olga with fatal consequences (p.148).
  • Wolf Lustig, Germany’s most successful movie director (p.176).
  • Freddi Müller, one of the Führer’s favourites up at the Berchtesgarten.
  • Gertrude ‘Trudi’ Müller, Freddi’s wife who has developed a lesbian crush on Olga, a crush Olga ruthlessly takes advantage of (p.184).
  • Count Janos Polyani, who has featured in several of the previous novels as a spymaster based in the Hungarian legation in Paris. The film crew use his castle as the final location for the movie (p.233).
  • Jerry Silverberg, fairy godmother aka Warner Brothers man in Eastern Europe who fixes the entire escape route for Stahl and Renate out of Hungary and back to the US of A (p.249).

Credit

Mission To Paris by Alan Furst was published in 2012 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini living in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw The adventures of Jean Mercier, French military attaché in Warsaw between autumn 1937 and spring 1938, during which he has an affair with sexy young Anna Szarbek, helps two Russian defectors flee to France, is nearly murdered by German agents and, finally, though daring initiative, secures priceless documents indicating German plans to invade France through the Ardennes – which his criminally obtuse superiors in the French High Command choose to ignore!
2010 Spies of the Balkans The adventures of Costa Zannis, senior detective in the northern Greek port of Salonika, who is instrumental in setting up an escape route for Jews from Berlin through Eastern Europe down into Greece and then on into neutral Turkey. The story is set against the attempted Italian invasion of Greece (28 October 1940) through to the German invasion (23 April 1941).
2012 Mission to Paris The adventures of Hollywood movie star Frerick Stahl, who travels to Paris to make a movie and becomes embroiled in increasingly sinister Nazi attempts to bully, blackmail and intimidate him into making pro-German or at least pacifist statements, and then gets caught up in actual espionage with more and more at stake.
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

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