The Satyricon by Petronius Arbiter

‘Here you are, gifted with talents enough to make your fortunes and you still lead a life of misery, and every day you bring new torments upon yourselves, as the fruits of your own acts!’
(Eumolpus castigating Encolpius and Giton in the Satyricon, Fragment 98)

I admit I have done many wrong things. After all, I am a man…
(Encolpius in a letter to Circe, Fragment 130)

A text has come down to us in many manuscript copies, titled the Satyricon. It consists of over 100 fragments, some as short as a single sentence, most a paragraph or so long, and a handful of longer, more complete, episodes. What we have, collected together, makes about 150 pages of paperback text. Scholars think the original text had upwards of 80 chapters and would have been as long as a huge eighteenth century novel like Tom Jones, five or six hundred pages long.

Menippean satire

The work was a satirical medley, meaning it was a deliberate hodge-podge or prose and poetry, a loose narrative giving room for digressions about contemporary art and literature, interpolated folk tales (such as the ones about a werewolf and witches told during Trimalchio’s feast), traditional stories (the woman from Ephesus, Fragment 111), lots of poetic interludes of varying lengths in varying styles, and so on. The combination of humorous prose and mock poetry was known as Menippean satire.

This form was developed in ancient Greece and named after its chief practitioner, Menippus. Menippus of Gadara (3rd century BC) was a Cynic satirist. All of his works are lost but later authors described him as both an important purveyor of Cynic philosophy and a major comic influence.

According to later summarisers, Menippus discussed serious subjects in a spirit of ridicule; he particularly mocked the two main philosophical schools of Epicureans and Stoics. The translator of the Penguin edition of the Satyricon says it was the distinctive characteristic of Menippean satire that it mixed humour with philosophy (or whatever aesthetic principles the author might substitute) (Introduction, page 18).

Thus the Satyricon‘s author uses characters to criticise contemporary art, literature, rhetoric, education, poetry and – in the long chapter on Trimalchio’s feast – the behaviour, manners, vulgarity and crude display of the Roman nouveaux riches.

What makes the Satyricon distinctive is that this Menippean approach (humour mixed with occasional serious subjects) was combined with a completely different genre, the idealising and sentimental Greek romance.

This is present in the Satyricon at least two ways: one is the long-running relationship between the loved-up narrator, Encolpius, and his handsome 16-year-old boy lover or ex-slave or rent boy, Giton. They’re constantly bursting into tears and forgiving each other for their lovers’ tiffs and jealousies: ‘Come to my arms, dear Giton.’ More narrowly, it colours the sentimental romance between Encolpius and Chrysis in the final passages of the text.

The translator of the Penguin edition, J.F. Sullivan, characterises these two elements vying in the text, as the satirist and the novelist, because Petronius selects subjects common in satire – low city life, sexual decadence, vulgarity of the nouveaux riches – but he doesn’t judge them with the same moral fury that satirists from Juvenal to Swift use. He is more detached than that, interested and amused by the behaviour of his characters in themselves rather than as epitomes of the usual moral rules.

It is this combination of the satirical tone and frequent reversion to poetry (of Menippean satire) with a consistent (if episodic) narrative, and an overall lack of moral judging, which was, apparently, something quite new in Roman literature.

The adventures of Encolpius

For at its core, long and rambling with many digressions though it appears to have been intended, the Satyricon nonetheless has a simple premise: it is a first-person account of the peripatetic adventures of Encolpius, and his companion, slave and boyfriend, Giton.

The deep driver of the plot is the wrath of the god Priapus (god of procreation; guardian of gardens and vineyards; personification of the phallus) against the hero. At some point, before the narrative we have opens, Encolpius had offended Priapus (maybe by looting a temple of his?), and now the offended god dogs and frustrates his every move. This is intended as a mockingly knowing reference to the way the offended Poseidon blocks Odysseus’s return to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey and the offended Juno blocks Aeneas’s journey to Italy in the Aeneid.

(To be candid, although all the introductions make much of this alleged persecution of the hero by Priapus, when you come to read the actual text it only really crops up in the Quartilla passage at the start, and then re. his problem with impotence and encounter with the priestess of Priapus, Oenothea, towards the very end.)

The surviving sections of the novel begin with Encolpius traveling with a companion and former lover named Ascyltos, who has joined Encolpius on his adventures. They appear to be in the port town of Puteoli (not explicitly named, so scholars debate this). Meanwhile, Encolpius’s boyfriend, Giton, is back at the lodging house they’ve rented. As the text we have progresses we learn that Encolpius and Ascyltos have made some kind of pact, to undertake illegal activities together, and also to share Giton’s affections. Encolpius at one point says of himself: ‘I escaped the law, cheated the arena, killed a host.’ (Fragment 81). They also appear to have stolen gold from someone they murdered (?) and hidden it in a tunic, which Encolpius then managed to lose.

But the overall point is that the narrative takes us through a series of adventures among the middling and common people of Rome i.e. the mass of the population who we never hear about in the predominantly aristocratic literature which has come down to us.

Obscure descriptions of sex

In particular, the work describes Encolpius’s involvement in orgies: in the wider sense of riotous dinner parties (Trimalchio’s banquet), and in the narrower sense of scenes of eroticism and sexual decadence.

For a long time, throughout early modern history and into the Victorian era, this meant the book was often published in limited editions, with scandalously explicit illustrations. However, reading it nowadays, the most noticeable thing is that: a) there aren’t as many explicitly sexual scenes as you might expect, and b) they aren’t very explicitly described, in fact they are so obscurely or elliptically described that I barely noticed some of them or, when I did, was frequently puzzled by what was going on.

For example, here’s a fragment (Fragment 21) from the scene where Quartilla, her maid Psyche, and their little girl, are joined by a male prostitute in invading the lodgings of Encolpius, Ascyltus and Giton.

Finally, up came a pansy dressed in myrtle-green shaggy felt, which was tucked up under his belt. He pulled the cheeks of our bottoms apart, then he slobbered vile, greasy kisses on us, until Quartilla, carrying a whale-bone rod, with her skirts up round her, put an end to our sufferings. (p.40)

Now, I can see that this is certainly intimate what with their buttocks being pulled apart, presumably to expose their anuses. But in a standard porn narrative you’d expect the next step for them to be buggered. I don’t follow the logic of pulling someone’s buttocks apart and then…kissing them? Kissing their faces or mouths presumably involves turning them round to face you? Or are they turning their heads sideways and backwards to be kissed while the pansy buggers them? Or is the pansy meant to be kissing their anuses? I suppose it’s possible, but it’s not, I’d have thought, the obvious thing to do.

And I don’t understand at all why Quartilla is then introduced into the scene nor why she is holding a whale-bone rod? Is it to bugger them with?? Are the male prostitute’s slobbery kisses by way of lubricating their anuses in preparation for Quartilla using the rod to sodomise them? But if so, how could this be described as putting an ‘end’ to their sufferings, when it sounds very much to me as if that would be the start of their sufferings?

A lot of the sex scenes in the Satyricon are like this: something very rude and intimate is definitely going on, but the descriptions are bewilderingly at odds with any description of sexual acts I’m used to, for example in the surprisingly explicit novels of David Lodge, let alone ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’-style modern erotica.

In summary, I didn’t find any of the sex scenes in the Satyricon at all erotic; I generally found them as puzzling as a Wordle problem or a jigsaw.

Outline synopsis

There’s a fairly detailed synopsis of the work in the Wikipedia article. This is a list of key incidents:

In Puteoli

  • Argument with Agamemnon The text starts in mid-sentence with Encolpius arguing with Agamemnon the sophist against the florid Asiatic style and false taste in literature
  • Wrong directions Lost in this strange town, Encolpius asks the way of an old lady and is led to a brothel.
  • Reunion Encolpius finds his way back to the boarding house to be reunited with Ascyltos and Giton.
  • Lovers’ quarrel Later, Encolpius tries to have sex with Giton but is interrupted by Ascyltos, who assaults him after catching the two in bed. They all make up.
  • At the market The trio go to the market where they appear to discover the tunic filled with gold but there is an argument with the stallholder which threatens to escalate so they escape back to the boarding house.
  • Quartilla and the great debauch Here they are confronted by Quartilla, a priestess of the god Priapus, who condemns their eavesdropping on the cult’s secret rites (something which obviously took place before our text begins). Our three companions are overpowered by Quartilla, her maid Psyche and a gay prostitute. This leads to an orgy which is described in scattered and puzzling fragments. In the final part, Psyche suggests to Quartilla that they get the little 7-year-old girl they’ve brought with them, Pannychis, ‘married’, so they hold a little ceremony wedding her to young Giton then bundle them both into a side room to , while Quartilla spies on them through a crack in the door, dragging Encolpius down to share the view and kiss him in her excitement.

Trimalchio’s dinner

  • Trimalchio’s dinner Next day, recovering from their ‘ordeal’, Encolpius and companions are invited by one of Agamemnon’s slaves to a feast at the estate of Trimalchio, a freedman or liberti of enormous wealth. After a preliminary meeting at the town baths, the guests proceed to Trimalchio’s huge mansion where they are entertained with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance.

In this excellent blog post, author Suzette Field gives a forensic summary of all aspects of the banquet given by vulgar, bragging parvenu Trimalchio and his fat, ex-chorus girl wife, Fortunata, listing the guests, detailing the astonishing dishes, the music and entertainments (including a mock hunt), the rambling variety of conversational topics, including guests describing encounters with a werewolf (p.73) and witches (p.74).

  • The escape Sickened by the food and the vulgarity, Encolpius and his companions make their escape but only with some difficulty and after falling into a big fishpond, and after the party has made such a racket the local fire brigade are called to break it up.
  • The argument Back at the inn, next morning the trio fall out after Encolpius discovers Ascyltos in bed with Giton. He forces the boy to choose between the two men and is shocked when Giton chooses to leave with Ascyltos.
  • The soldier After two or three days sulking Encolpius sets out sword in hand to find and take revenge on Ascyltos but is disarmed by a soldier he encounters in the street.

Eumolpus the poet

  • The art gallery Wandering into a nearby art gallery Encolpius meets an old poet, Eumolpus. a) Eumolpus describes an affair with a youth in Pergamon while employed as his tutor but who wore him out with his sexual demands b) the pair discuss the inferiority of modern painters and writers to the good old days: ‘but we, besotted with drink and whoring, don’t study any arts with a tradition.’
  • Eumolpus stoned Eumolpus had ended their discussion with a long poem on the subject of the Trojan war and, comically, this prompted all the passersby to pelt him with stones. Feeling sorry for him, Encolpius invites Eumolpus to dinner (90).
  • Reunited with Giton Back at his lodgings Encolpius encounters Giton who begs him to take him back as his lover. They are reconciled. ‘I hugged him to my heart.’ Eumolpus arrives from the baths and reveals that a man there (evidently Ascyltos) was looking for someone called Giton.
  • Comedy suicides Encolpius and Eumolpus fight over Giton. Eumolpus grabs Giton, runs out the door and locks it from the outside. Encolpius is so distraught he decides to hang himself and is dangling from a belt when the pair return and hurriedly take him down. Giton in turn is distraught and grabs a razor from Eumolpus’s servant and slashes his own throat, falling to the floor. Encolpius snatches up the razor and cuts his throat only to realise it is a ‘practice’ razor for apprentice barbers to use. Farce.
  • The fight At this moment, the landlord of these seedy lodgings, Marcus Manicius, arrives and accuses our boys of being runaways slaves or preparing to abscond without paying. Eumolpius slaps him in the face, the landlord throws a pot which hits him on the head, and the two stumble out into the landing where the landlord’s slaves get involved, plus an old hag bringing up a guard dog, and the whole thing degenerates into a big fight. Encolpius enjoys watching it through a spyhole in their bedroom door. When soft-hearted Giton suggests intervening he boxes the boy on the head, so he retired crying to the bed.
  • Bargates The ‘agent for the building’ Bargates intervenes to break up the fight. He recognised Eumolpus and asks him to write a lampoon against his mistress.
  • Reward At this point a ‘cryer’ accompanied by Ascyltos and a crowd arrives announcing a reward of 1,000 sesterces for information on the whereabouts of a curly-haired boy named Giton. Encolpius tells the boy to hide under the bed. When the search party arrives at their room, Encolpius has bolted the door so the searchers have to pry it off its hinges with axes. Then Encolpius throws himself at Ascyltos’s feet and offers his neck to the axe to be killed. Ascyltos assures him he means no harm, he just wants the boy back.
  • The sneezes They don’t find Giton hiding under the bed, so leave. At this moment Eumolpus re-enters the bedroom. Encolpius lies, assuring Eumolpus that Giton has disappeared off into the streets and weepingly begging him to help find him. He’s nearly persuaded him, when Giton lets out three loud sneezes, thus revealing his position under the bed to Eumolpus. (All this is literally a bedroom farce.) Eumolpus is upset at the deception but Giton, with characteristic gentleness, treats Eumolpus’s head wound then gives the old poet his own cloak, thus winning him round. Giton laments that he should be the cause of endless fights between his two lovers (Encolpius and Ascyltos). Eumolpus castigates the threesome for failing to use their talents and instead contriving to lead a never-ending life of misery.

Ship and shipwreck

  • Boarding ship Eumolpus suggests they escape all their troubles by taking ship, so they do, along with Eumolpus’s hired servant, later named as Corax.
  • Lichas and Tryphaena Suddenly they hear two voices which strike terror into them. Eumolpus explains the ship belongs to, and is captained by, an old enemy of theirs, Lichas of Tarentum. Scholars calculate, from scattered hints, that Encolpius had a) stolen something from Lichas b) seduced his wife c) somehow publicly humiliated him in the portico of a temple to Hercules – all this must have taken place in lost passages earlier in the text. It certainly explains their horror at now finding themselves in Lichas’ power. The other voice belongs to Tryphaena, who appears to have taken a fancy to Giton, also in an earlier, lost, section.
  • Disguise They discuss plans to escape the moving ship but settle on a scheme to pretend to be Eumolpus’s slaves, shaving their hair off and having their faces printed with the formula for renegade slaves (usually this is tattooed into the skin; our heroes have it done in ink). To no avail, and Lichas and Tryphaena recognise them.
  • Fight onboard Eumolpus mounts a mock defence of the pair, which doesn’t work. Encolpius threatens Tryphaena if she tries to take possession of Giton and this escalates into a fight, with Lichas’ men taking one side, our heroes, Emolpus and his servant the other. Giton tries to stop the fighting by threatening to cut off his cock and balls (‘the cause of all our misery’) as a threat to Tryphaena, who clearly wants him for sexual purposes. In the end the navigator parlays a truce, and both parties sign a mock peace treaty (p.118).
  • Wigs Since so much appears to derive from Tryphaena’s unfulfilled love/lust for Giton, her maids take the boy belowdecks, give him a wig and paint back on his eyebrows, so he emerges looking prettier than ever (110).
  • The widow of Ephesus At first she planned to starve herself to death in her husband’s tomb, but she was seduced by a soldier guarding crucified corpses, and when one of these was stolen she offered the corpse of her husband as a replacement.
  • The storm A big storm blows up and the ship is wrecked (114). Giton ties himself to Encolpius with a belt so they’ll survive or drown together. Tryphaena is bundled into a lifeboat by her maids. Encolpius, Giton Eumolpus and the latter’s servant all get to shore safely. Here Encolpius observes Lichas’ corpse being washed ashore, triggering stock reflections about fate, Fortune, the fickleness of man’s estate etc. The build a pyre for him and Eumolpas writes an epigram.

On the road to Croton

Croton was a former Greek colony on the toe of Italy. Sullivan in his notes points out that the narrative in this section is more fantastical and less realistic than the section in Puteoli because a) Petronius was a lot less familiar with Croton, and b) the subject – the iniquity of legacy hunters – was a familiar, stock literary topic, therefore the section is more invented, literary and bookish. In fact, it has the fantastical feel of medieval allegory or Gulliver’s Travels.

  • The farmer A farmer explains that the inhabitants are notorious legacy-hunters, that anyone who has and raises children is despised, whereas childless parasites are held in the highest opinion.
  • The scam They cook up a scam that Eumolpus will pose as a man of enormous wealth who has recently lost his son, and just been shipwrecked, but owns vast estates with countless slaves in North Africa. Encolpius and Giton will pose as his slaves, alongside his servant Corax.
  • Parody of Lucan As they walk towards Croton Eumolpus delivers a serious lecture on the shortcomings of contemporary poetry, which he claims has abandoned depth of meaning, the apparatus of divine involvement in human affairs, and smooth flow in favour of shiny epigrams. He then proceeds to regale his companions (and readers) with an extended rendition (nearly 300 lines) of his own poem on the subject of the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey. This has universally been taken of criticism of, and a parody of, the Pharsalia of Petronius’s contemporary, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, known simply as Lucan. (It is notable that Sullivan deliberately echoes the Cantos of Ezra Pound in the style of his translation of this passage [see p.132] as he warned us he would in his introduction, an interesting indication of how widespread Pound’s influence still was in 1964; Pound only died in 1972. Unfortunately, Sullivan’s idiosyncratic version makes it impossible to compare with the relatively sensible translation of the Pharsalia by Anthony Kline which I’ve just finished reading.)
  • Arriving in Croton They find the legacy-hunters very willing to believe Eumolpus is an heirless millionaire, so he receives invites to multiples homes and they all compete to put their finances at his disposal (in the hope that they’ll be named heirs in his will). In other words, their scam is working.

In Croton

There is then a Big Gap in the text. When it resumes, the companions have apparently been in Crotona for some time.

  • Chrysis Encolpius, as part of his pose of being Eumolpus’s slave, has adopted the name Polyaenus. Chrysis is a maid of the beautiful Circe. The fragment opens with them talking together in some kind of public park. Chrysis describes her mistress as the type of woman who likes a bit of rough i.e. gladiators slaves. The type of woman who is aroused by kissing the whipmarks on slaves’ bodies (p.143). Whereas Chrysis explains that she aspires to more upmarket lovers. In other words, each woman is aroused by the opposite class to themselves.
  • Circe Chrysis now swiftly introduces Circe, who is breath-takingly beautiful and wants to become Encolpius’s lover. She knows about his love for Giton, and says she is willing to be Encolpius’s girlfriend alongside his boyfriend, an interesting comment on Roman tolerance in relationships and complete acceptance of bisexuality. They lie down on the grass and start snogging.
  • Encolpius’s impotence In the next fragment Circe is upset because Encolpius can’t get an erection. She asks Chryses if she smells or something about her is ugly, then runs off to a temple of Venus leaving Encolpius feeling mortified.
  • Letters Circe sends a letter hoping Encolpius will recover his ‘strength’. Encolpius sends a reply, confessing he is a terrible man, he has ‘killed a man and robbed a temple’, but he will be restored to virility if she will punish and redeem him.
  • Proselenus Next morning Chrysis brings round the wizened old crone, Proselenus, who uses crude magic (spit, dust, hot pebbles) and gives Encolpius a magnificent erection.
  • Failure and flogging However, when Encolpius goes to Circe’s house and she invites him onto her couch and after much kissing prepares to be embraced…he can’t get an erection, again. Infuriated, Circe has him whipped, assembles the entire household to spit at him, has Chrysis flogged and Proselenus thrown out. Oh well.
  • Punishing Percy Encolpius is tempted to cut off his penis but makes do with giving it a stern telling off.
  • Prayer to Priapus Encolpius goes to the temple of Priapus and delivers a long prayer from which we deduce that, earlier in the narrative, he stole something from another temple of Priapus. Now he begs forgiveness and promises lavish offerings, when he has the money…
  • Thrashing Old Proselenus appears, berates Encolpius for his failure to get an erection, leads him into a side room of the temple and delivers a sound thrashing. What I don’t understand is a) Encolpius makes no resistance even through the thrashing cuts him and b) it cuts him in the groin so she appears to be whipping his front.
  • Oenothea priestess of the temple arrives. Proselenus explains Encolpius’s impotent and Oenothea, who is also a sorceress, says she can cure him.
  • Cooking In a sentence-long fragment Oenothea lays on a bed and kisses Encolpius. But we don’t get any sex because the fragment immediately following describes her starting to cook a knackered old piece of ham and ordering him to shell some beans i.e. there’s a sizeable gap.
  • The geese Suddenly it is the old woman who is cooking, and a stool she’s standing on breaks and she knocks over the pan into the fire and gets her face covered in soot. While she goes off to clean up, Encolpius is suddenly attacked by the temple’s sacred geese. He beats one to death with a leg from the rickety stool.
  • Oenothea’s horror Encolpius hides the goose, bathes his wound in vinegar and is just about to leave the cottage when Oenothea returns. When she asks where the beans are he was meant to be shelling, he explains that a bunch of geese invaded the house and ate them but he managed to kill one and shows her. Oenothea is horrified, claiming these are holy geese sacred to Priapus. He could be crucified for this crime and she could be expelled as priestess. Encolpius desperately offers to replace the dead goose with an ostrich.
  • Cash Proselenus returns to the cottage and is equally horrified. Encolpius offers them two gold pieces as compensation.

In its last pages the text disintegrates into a series of very short, often one-sentence fragments, which give snapshots of successive scenes:

  • Oenothea opens the dead goose and uses its liver to foretell Encolpius’s future.
  • Then she cuts it up and cooks it and they all enjoy a very good meal.
  • Oenothea brings out a leather dildo, rubs it with oil, ground pepper and crushed nettle seed, and inserts it into Encolpius’s anus.
  • She mixes the juice of cress with some southern-wood, soaks his cock and balls in it, then starts whipping them with a fresh stinging nettle stalk.
  • Cut to Encolpius, presumably having fled this treatment, being pursued through the street by the two old women.
  • In one sentence, Chrysis declares her undying love for Encolpius.
  • A paragraph of Encolpius begging to be taken back into Circe’s house so he can prove himself.
  • Suddenly he is back at base with Giton, who tells him a very elegant lady came asking about him the day before.
  • Chrysis clasps him to her bosom and tells him she will love him forever.
  • One of Eumolpus’s new servants tells Encolpius that his master is furious at him for being absent for two days (presumably he was kidnapped by Proselenus and Oenothea?).

In the last substantial piece of text (one page long) we are told about an aging legacy-huntress named Philomela. Now too old to seduce rich men, she prostitutes out her son and daughter and is now proceeding to ‘place’ them with Eumolpus, ostensibly for their education.

A comic sex scene which, for once, I did understand: Eumolpus has told everyone he is a martyr to gout and other ailments in order to secure loans and favours from all the legacy hunters. Therefore he cannot have sex with the daughter in the usual athletic way. Therefore he lies on a bed, gets the girl to straddle him, and gets his servant, Corax, to lie directly underneath him, under the bed, and move his thighs and hips up and down, so that Eumolpus’s penis enters and exits the daughter’s vagina, without Eumolpus actually moving. Presumably this had Nero’s courtiers in fits of laughter when read out to them.

Encolpius finds the brother watching this performance through a spy hole.

(This is a recurrent theme of the narrative. Early on in the text, Encolpius watches Giton and the 7-year-old having some kind of sex through a crack in the door; then watches Eumolpus being beaten up through a spy hole. In his notes, Sullivan refers to this recurring theme as scopophilia which means, literally, ‘love of looking’.)

Anyway, in this fragment, despite the boy being willing, Encolpius yet again can’t get an erection, attributing it to the recurring theme of ‘divine hostility’ i.e Priapus’s enmity.

However, abruptly, in the next fragment, he can! attributing his blessed cure to Mercury. He lifts up his tunic to show Eumolpus his erection and the old poet, just to be sure, ‘held in both hands the gift of the gods.’

In the last few one-line fragments, someone is warning Eumolpus that the ships of wealth he had told everyone would soon arrive from Africa have not showed and therefore the many legacy-hunters they’ve been bilking are starting to get impatient and suspicious.

A sentence, apparently from Eumolpus’s will, promising that all his creditors will be paid but only on condition that they cut up his corpse and eat it in front of the people.

Then the implication that one, at least, of the creditors, blinded by greed, was ready to do this.

The final paragraph lists reasons for agreeing to cannibalism – pretend you’re eating something else; an hour of disgust will buy a lifetime of wealth; all meats are disgusting, that’s why we season them – and some historical examples of cannibalism in cities under siege.

And with this gruesome little fragment, the text of the Satyricon ENDS.

Petronius Arbiter

All scholars and introductions devote some time to the problem of identifying the author of the work. The manuscripts of the Satyricon ascribe the work to a ‘Petronius Arbiter’. Most scholars identify this with the young author and dandy named Petronius who flourished at the time of the emperors Claudius (41 to 54) and Nero (54 to 68). Tacitus mentions him in his Annals, telling us that Petronius had been at one time governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. On his return to Rome the young man-about-town was brought into Nero’s inner circle as its arbiter elegantiae or arbiter of taste, elegance and wit.

According to Tacitus, Petronius fell victim to ‘the jealousy of [Nero’s secretary] Tigellinus against an apparent rival, more expert in the science of pleasure than himself’, Tigellinus turned Nero against him and, as with Seneca, as with Lucan, Nero compelled him to commit suicide.

The Satyricon is one of the very few light-hearted/humorous prose works from the Roman period and helped to found the picaresque tradition. This is the tradition of prose narratives describing a young hero (or picaro, in Spanish) having a series of rambling comic adventures, generally with a sidekick and comic companion, which was, from the early modern period (1550) to become such a major thread in European literature, enduring, in some comic writers, up to the present day.

Two translations

I read two translations in tandem, the Penguin Classics version by J.P. Sullivan, first published in 1965, and the online Project Gutenberg version, which reproduces the 1922 translation by W. C. Firebaugh (with wonderfully solid illustrations by Norman Lindsay).

The style of the 1922 is cumbersomely Victorian BUT it includes passages of text which scholars now think are later forgeries by otherwise unknown authors named Nodot and Marchena, plus the readings introduced into the text by a scholar named De Salas. The point is that these much later interpolations were made to smooth out the narrative and they do, making the Victorian version a much more enjoyable and continuous read.

By contrast the translator the Penguin edition, J.P. Sullivan, takes the intellectually reputable line of sticking solely to what scholars think Petronius actually wrote – with the result that his text is much more fragmented and puzzling. The Gutenberg edition may be old fashioned, and include blatant forgeries, but it is the better read.

There’s also a 2018 translation by A.S. Kline. This is a little more lucid than the Sullivan version but, like him, excludes all the forgeries and interpolations, and so shares the same fragmentary feel.


Related links

Roman reviews

The Life of Tiberius by Suetonius

‘Poor Rome, doomed to be masticated by those slow-moving jaws.’
(Augustus’s dying comment on his adoptive son and successor, Tiberius, quoted in Suetonius’s Life of Tiberius, section 21)

Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus was the second Roman emperor. He succeeded his stepfather and adopted father, the first Roman emperor, Augustus, in 14 AD. Born in 42 BC, Tiberius reigned from 14 (i.e. aged 56) until 37 AD, 23 years in total, dying at the age of 78.

Roman texts were divided into short sections, sometimes called ‘chapters’ though most are less than a page long. Suetonius’s biography of the emperor Tiberius is 76 chapters long. Like all the emperors, you can divide his biography into two parts, before he was emperor, and his reign as emperor.

The central fact about Tiberius is that he was a grumpy, unsociable and reluctant emperor who began his reign with exaggerated respect for the institutions of Rome but slowly declined until he was overseeing a reign of terror, especially as a result of encouraging unaccountable spies and informers to bring charges against eminent men.

Already, in 6 BC, while he was being groomed as first among equals in Augustus’s extended family to succeed the great man and had established himself as an effective general after leading the army in Germany, he abruptly quit public life and retired to Rhodes, where he remained for seven years.

The historian Tacitus thinks the biggest reason among many possible ones for Tiberius’s retirement was that Augustus had forced him to divorce his wife, Vipsania, who he really loved, and marry Augustus’s own daughter, Julia who a) despised Tiberius’s relatively lowly origins and b) was extremely promiscuous, taking numerous lovers and publicly humiliating Tiberius.

Suetonius covers the important political and military events of Tiberius’s life, but really comes into his own when discussing the personal quirks and gossip surrounding the second emperor. Key learnings of the opening chapters are:

The Claudian clan, which Tiberius descended from, was famous for its arrogance.

Nero became a common surname in the Claudian clan, from the Sabine tongue meaning ‘strong and valiant’.

His father was the politician Tiberius Claudius Nero and his mother was Livia Drusilla. This Nero opposed the party of Octavian and so as a boy Tiberius was always on the move as his parents moved from place to place dictated by the tribulations of the civil wars.

But once the assassins of Julius Caesar had been defeated, Nero (Tiberius’s father) returned to Rome and was reconciled with Octavian. At which point Octavian, triumphant after winning the civil wars and establishing the Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus, forced Livia to divorce Nero and marry him, even though she was heavily pregnant by Nero at the time. This was in 38 BC. So Augustus married Livia knowing she was pregnant with another man’s child (unless, of course, it was he who had gotten her pregnant, not the husband).

The life of Tiberius: before he was emperor

Tiberius had a younger brother, Drusus Nero.

At the age of nine Tiberius delivered a eulogy of his dead father from the rostra. Just as he was reaching puberty, he accompanied the chariot of Augustus in his triumph after Actium (31 BC),​ riding the left trace-horse, while Marcellus, son of Octavia, rode the one on the right.

Tiberius presided, too, at the city festival, and took part in the game of Troy during the performances in the circus, leading the band of older boys.

Chapter 7. Between attaining manhood and ascending the throne:

  • Tiberius gave a gladiatorial show in memory of his father, and a second in honour of his grandfather Drusus, the former in the Forum and the latter in the amphitheatre
  • he also gave stage-plays, but without being present in person

Around 19 BC Tiberius married Vipsania Agrippina, daughter of Marcus Agrippa, and granddaughter of Caecilius Atticus, the Roman knight to whom Cicero’s letters are addressed.

But after she had given Tiberius a son, Drusus, Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce Vipsania and marry his (Augustus’s) daughter, Julia, in 11 BC. This greatly upset Tiberius who continued to be in love with Vipsania. His new wife, Julia, bore him a child but it died in infancy, at which point it is thought the couple ceased to have relations.

Tiberius’s brother, Drusus, died in Germany and he conveyed his body to Rome, walking before the coffin the entire way.

Chapter 8. Tiberius began his civil career by defending client kings and states. He prosecuted a noble who had conspired against Augustus.

He undertook two public commissions: to improve the grain supply to Rome and to investigate the slave-prisons​ throughout Italy, the owners of which had gained a bad reputation for kidnapping and enslaving travellers, and as havens for men seeking to evade military service.

9. Tiberius’s first military service was as tribune of the soldiers in the campaign against the Cantabrians. Then he led an army to the Orient and restored the throne of Armenia to Tigranes. For about a year he was governor of Gallia Comata which was in a state of unrest through the inroads of the barbarians and the dissensions of its chiefs. Then he conducted war with the Raeti and Vindelici, then in Pannonia, and finally in Germany. He brought 40,000 prisoners of war over into Gaul and assigned them homes near the bank of the Rhine.

For these achievements he was given an ovation in Rome, riding in a chariot and having been honoured with the triumphal regalia, a new kind of distinction never before conferred on anyone.

Tiberius proceeded quickly through the offices of quaestor, praetor, and consul, five years before the usual age limit (he was consul in 13 BC). He was made consul again in 7 BC and the following year received the tribunicial power for five years.

10. In 6 BC, while on the verge of accepting command in the East and becoming the second-most powerful man in Rome, Tiberius announced his withdrawal from politics and retired to the island of Rhodes.

Some say it was due to disgust with his wife, her mockery of him and her indiscriminate promiscuousness, which he daren’t confront, seeing as she was Augustus’s daughter. Others think that, since the children of Augustus were now of age, Tiberius voluntarily gave up the position of number two in the empire, in order to clear the way for them. At the time he simply gave the reason that he was exhausted after years of campaigning in Germany and holding public office and needed a rest.

Augustus was furious and openly criticised him in the Senate. When Augustus and Livia tried to stop him leaving Tiberius went on hunger strike for four days (!). When he was permitted to leave, he did so hugger-mugger, hardly saying goodbye to anyone. He was an odd, secretive, unhappy man.

Tiberius chose Rhodes because he’d liked it when he stopped off there on the way back from campaigning in Armenia. Once there, he settled into a modest house and adopted an unassuming manner of life, at times walking in the gymnasium without a lictor or a messenger, exchanging courtesies with the common people.

He was a constant attendant at the schools and lecture-rooms of the professors of philosophy.

In 2 BC Tiberius’s wife, Julia, was disgraced and sent into exile by Augustus. Despite disliking her, Tiberius performed the husbandly duty of sending letters to intercede with Augustus.

Then, when his tribunician period of office came to an end, and now that Augustus’s grandsons Gaius and Lucius had come of age and were clearly nominated for the succession, Tiberius wrote asking to be allowed to visit his relatives, whom he sorely missed. But Augustus rejected his appeal and told him to forget about ever seeing his family again, who he had so eagerly abandoned.

12. So Tiberius remained in Rhodes against his will. Through his mother he secured the title of envoy of Augustus, so as to conceal his disgrace. He wasn’t left in peace because every Roman official who sailed past the island felt duty bound to stop off and pay their respects

In his absence from Rome negative rumours accumulated around him. When he crossed to Samos to visit his stepson Gaius, who had been made governor of the Orient, he found him alienated due to slanders spread by Gaius’s staff. It was also claimed that Tiberius had sent messages to some centurions which possibly hinted at overthrowing Augustus. Tiberius swore it wasn’t so and asked Augustus for the appointment of someone, of any rank whatsoever, to keep watch over his actions and words to prove it.

13. Tiberius gave up his usual exercises with horses and arms and dropped the traditional costume of his people i.e. the toga, taking to the cloak and slippers of Greece – prompting criticism. There’s a story that, when his name came up at a dinner party hosted by Gaius, a man got up and assured Gaius that if he would say the word, he would at once take ship for Rhodes and bring back the head of “the exile,” as he was commonly called.

At this point Tiberius realised his life was actually at risk, so he renewed his pleas to his mother, and, as it happens, Augustus’s eldest son was at odds with Marcus Lollius, Gaius’s adviser, and so ready to oppose him on this issue (of recalling Tiberius). So, as a result of palace intrigue, Tiberius was grudgingly allowed to return to Rome, but on condition that he took no part or active interest in public affairs. So in the eighth year of his retirement Tiberius returned to Rome.

14. Since his early days Tiberius’s life had been marked by omens and predictions:

  • when Livia was pregnant with him, and was trying to divine by various omens whether she would bring forth a male, she took an egg from under a setting-hen, and when she had warmed it in her own hand and those of her attendants in turn, a cock with a fine crest was hatched
  • in his infancy the astrologer Scribonius promised him an illustrious career and even that he would one day be king, but without the crown of royalty
  • on his first campaign, when he was leading an army through Macedonia into Syria, it chanced that at Philippi the altars consecrated in bygone days by the victorious legions gleamed of their own accord with sudden fires
  • on his way to Illyricum he visited the oracle of Geryon near Patavium and drew a lot which advised him to seek an answer to his inquiries by throwing golden dice into the fount of Aponus – and then the dice which he threw showed the highest possible number (and those dice may be seen to this day, under the water)
  • a few days before his recall an eagle, a bird never before seen in Rhodes, perched on the roof of his house
  • the day before he was notified that he might return, his tunic seemed to blaze as he was changing his clothes

On the day the ship bearing Augustus’s permission came into sight, Tiberius was walking along the cliffs with his astrologer Thrasyllus, who saw it and declared that it brought good news. This was lucky for him because Tiberius had made up his mind to push the man off the cliff, believing him a false prophet because things up to that moment had all turned out contrary to his predictions. [How could anyone know the truth of this story? Only if Tiberius himself told someone, who told someone else etc.]

15. Tiberius returned to Rome in 2 AD. Here he introduced his son, Drusus Julius Caesar (born in 14 BC and so aged 16) to public life. Forbidden to take part in public life, Tiberius moved to the gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline Hill, where he led a very retired life, merely attending to his personal affairs and exercising no public functions.

The situation was transformed when the two young heirs to the throne died in quick succession, Lucius in 2 AD, Gaius in 4. This prompted Augustus to rearrange the pieces on the chess board: he now formally adopted Tiberius as his own son and heir, compelling him, in turn, to adopt his nephew Germanicus.

From this time onwards (4 AD) nothing was left undone which could add to his prestige, especially after the disowning and banishment of Agrippa made it clear that the hope of the succession lay in him alone.

16. Augustus gave Tiberius the tribunician power for a second term of three years. He was assigned responsibility for subjugating Germany. But then a revolt broke out in the province of Illyricum, in the western Balkans, and Tiberius was transferred to take charge of quelling it.

This war lasted four years, from 6 to 9 AD. It came to be called the Bellum Batonianum and Suetonius describes it as the most serious of all foreign wars since those with Carthage (the three Punic Wars between 264 and 146 BC). Tiberius commanded fifteen legions and a corresponding force of auxiliaries, surmounting difficulties of terrain, the scattered nature of the tribal enemy and scarcity of supplies. His perseverance paid off and Tiberius completely subdued and reduced to submission the whole of Illyricum, which became a Roman province.

17. Tiberius’s exploits in Illyricum won him all the more glory because it was during this period, in 9 AD, that Quintilius Varus lost his three legions in an ambush in Germany, and no one doubted that the victorious Germans would have united with the Pannonians to foment rebellion on two fronts, had not Illyricum been subdued first.

Consequently a triumph was voted to Tiberius and many high honours. Some recommended that he be given the surname of Pannonicus, others of Invictus, others of Pius. Characteristically, Augustus vetoed these suggestions. Tiberius himself put off the triumph, because the country was in mourning for the disaster to Varus.

18. The next year Tiberius returned to Germany and, realising that the disaster to Varus was due to that general’s rashness and lack of care, he took no step without the approval of a council, having previously been a man of independent judgment and self-reliance. He ordered baggage to be kept to a minimum. Once across the Rhine he took his meals sitting on the bare turf, often passed the night without a tent, and gave all his orders for the following day in writing, for the avoidance of doubt or ambiguity. He ordered that if any officers were in doubt, they were to consult him personally, at any hour whatsoever, even in the night.

19. In Germany Tiberius insisted on the strictest discipline, reviving bygone methods of punishment. For example, he demoted the commander of a legion for sending a few soldiers across the river to accompany one of his freedmen on a hunting expedition.

Despite all these rational procedures, he remained deeply superstitious, embarking on battle with greater confidence when, the night before, his lamp suddenly and without human agency died down and went out, claiming this had always been a good omen, for himself and his ancestors.

One assassination attempt was made, by a member of the Bructeri tribe who got access to Tiberius among his attendants, but was detected through his nervousness and was then tortured till he confessed.

20. After two years Tiberius returned to Rome from Germany and celebrated the triumph which he had postponed, accompanied by his generals, for whom he had obtained the triumphal regalia. Before turning to enter the Capitol, he dismounted from his chariot and fell at the knees of Augustus, who was presiding over the ceremonies.​

Tiberius sent Bato, the leader of the Pannonians, to Ravenna,​ after presenting him with rich gifts, thus showing his gratitude to him for allowing him to escape when he was trapped with his army in a dangerous place. Then he gave a banquet to the common people at a thousand tables, and distributed a largess of 300 hundred sesterces to every man. With the proceeds of his spoils from the war Tiberius restored and dedicated the temple of Concord, as well as that of Pollux and Castor, in his own name and that of his brother.

21. Tiberius was scheduled to return to Illyricum to govern it, but he was at once recalled for Augustus was entering his last illness. Tiberius spent an entire day with him in private. it is said that when Tiberius left the room after this confidential talk, Augustus was overheard by his chamberlains to say: ‘Alas for the Roman people, to be ground by jaws that crunch so slowly!’

It is said that Augustus so disapproved of Tiberius’s austere manners that he sometimes broke off his lighter conversation when Tiberius entered the room. Here comes Old Gloomy Guts.

But Augustus gave in to Livia’s pleading for her son to be made heir. It may also be that Augustus concluded that, with such a successor he himself would come to be all the more venerated and respected – although Suetonius himself can’t believe such a responsible ruler as Augustus would behave so irresponsibly.

Suetonius thinks Augustus had to make a difficult decision – all the heirs he had lined up had died and Tiberius, despite his dour manner and the black mark of his retirement to Rhodes, had proved himself an assiduous and victorious general in Illyricum, so…on balance…his merits outweighed his faults.

[Such is the weakness of an imperial or royal system of government, that it can only choose successors from a very limited pool of candidates and so, by the law of averages, is as likely to produce bad or terrible rulers as good or excellent ones, more likely in fact, since the demands of ruling an empire require more than normal abilities.]

Suetonius’s interpretation is backed up by the record, for he cites the fact that Augustus took an oath before the people that he was adopting Tiberius for the good of the country, and alludes to him in several letters as a most able general and the sole defence of the Roman people. Suetonius goes on to quote from Augustus’s correspondence where, among other epithets, Augustus calls Tiberius ‘most charming of men’ and ‘most charming and valiant of men and most conscientious of generals’.

The life of Tiberius: his rule as emperor

22. Tiberius didn’t make the death of Augustus public until the young Agrippa had been disposed of. The latter was slain by a tribune of the soldiers appointed to guard him, who received a letter with the order. It is not known whether Augustus left this letter when he died, to remove a future source of discord, or whether Livia wrote it herself in the name of her husband, or whether it was with or without the connivance of Tiberius.

Anyway, when the tribune reported that he had done his bidding, Tiberius replied that he had given no such order, and that the man must render an account to the senate, apparently trying to avoid odium at the time, for later his silence consigned the matter to oblivion.

23. When Tiberius first addressed the senate after Augustus’s death he broke off his speech with a groan, saying he was overcome with grief, wished he also was dead, handed the speech to his son Drusus to finish.

Then he had Augustus’s will read out. It began: ‘Since a cruel fate has bereft me of my sons Gaius and Lucius, be Tiberius Caesar heir to two-thirds of my estate’ – hardly a ringing endorsement, and confirming the suspicion that Augustus had named Tiberius his successor from necessity rather than from choice.

24. Though Tiberius did not hesitate at once to assume and to exercise the imperial authority, surrounding himself with a guard of soldiers, with the actual power and the outward sign of sovereignty, nonetheless he refused the title for a long time. When his friends urged him to adopt it, he upbraided them for not realising what a monster the empire was.

At last, reluctantly and complaining that a wretched and burdensome slavery was being forced upon him, Tiberius accepted the empire, but in such a way as to suggest the hope that he would one day lay it down. His own words were: ‘Until I come to the time when it may seem right to you to grant an old man some repose’ [anticipating his later retirement to Capri].

25. Tiberius described being emperor as like ‘holding a wolf by the ears’. There were plots against his life:

  • a slave of Agrippa, Clemens, had collected a band to avenge his master
  • Lucius Scribonius Libo, one of the nobles, was secretly plotting a revolution
  • a mutiny of the soldiers broke out in two places, Illyricum and Germany

Both armies demanded numerous special privileges – above all, that they should receive the same pay as the praetorians. The army in Germany was reluctant to accept an emperor who was not its own choice and vociferously preferred their general, the nephew whom Augustus had forced Tiberius to adopt, Germanicus – although the latter, with characteristic grace and propriety, refused.

Tiberius asked the Senate to appoint colleagues to share the burden of rule. He also feigned ill-health, to induce Germanicus to wait with more patience for a speedy succession, or at least for a share in the sovereignty. The mutinies were put down, and he also got Clemens into his power, outwitting him by stratagem.

Not until his second year did he finally arraign Libo in the senate, fearing to take any severe measures before his power was secure, and satisfied in the meantime merely to be on his guard. In the meantime Tiberius took precautions: thus when Libo was offering sacrifice with him among the pontiffs, he had a leaden knife substituted for the usual one; when Libo asked for a private interview, Tiberius would not grant it except with his son Drusus present, and as long as the conference lasted he held fast to Libo’s right arm, under pretence of leaning on it as they walked together [in order to stop him grabbing a knife or other weapon].

26. Tiberius at first played an unassuming​ part, almost humbler than that of a private citizen. Of many high honours he accepted only a few of the more modest. He barely consented to allow his birthday to be recognized by the addition of a single two-horse chariot to the scheduled games. He forbade the voting of temples, flamens, and priests in his honour, and even the setting up of statues and busts without his permission.

He refused to allow an oath to be taken ratifying his acts,​ nor the name Tiberius to be given to the month of September, or that of Livia to October.

He declined the forename Imperator,​ the surname of ‘Father of his Country’ and the placing of the civic crown​ at his door (as Augustus had had done). He did not even use the title of ‘Augustus’ in any letters except those to kings and potentates, although it was his by inheritance.

Tiberius held only three consul­ships after becoming emperor – one for a few days, a second for three months, and a third, during his absence from the city, until the Ides of May.

27. Tiberius so loathed flattery that he would not allow any senator to approach his litter, either to pay his respects or on business, and when an ex-consul in apologizing to him attempted to embrace his knees, he drew back in such haste that he fell over backward.

If anyone in conversation or in a set speech spoke of him in too flattering terms, Tiberius interrupted him and corrected his language on the spot. Being once called ‘Lord’, he warned the speaker not to address him again in an insulting fashion.

28. Tiberius rose above abuse, slander and lampoons of himself and his family. He said that in a free country there should be free speech and free thought.

29. Tiberius treated the Senate with exaggerated respect, openly stating that a princeps ought to be the servant of the senate, of the citizenry as a whole, and sometimes even of individuals.

30. There was no matter of public or private business so small or so great that he did not lay it before the senators, consulting them about revenues, restoring public buildings, levying and disbanding soldiers, the disposal of the legionaries and auxiliaries, about the extension of military commands and appointments to the conduct of wars, his replies to the letters of kings.

31. Tiberius was content for the Senate to vote against his expressed wishes and on one famous occasion opposed a motion so popular that he was the only man to go into the minority lobby, and not a single colleague followed him.

Tiberius revived the importance of the consuls. He had foreign delegations address themselves to the consuls, rose when they entered a room, and made way for them on the street.

32. Tiberius rebuked some ex-consuls in command of armies for addressing their reports to him and not to the Senate. To the governors who recommended burdensome taxes for his provinces, he wrote in answer that it was the part of a good shepherd to shear his flock, not skin it.

33. Tiberius intervened to prevent abuses. Sometimes he offered the magistrates his services as adviser, taking his place beside them at the tribunal. If word got around the bribery was being deployed in a court case, he would appear remind the jurors of the laws and of their oath to uphold justice.

34. Tiberius reduced the cost of the games and shows by cutting down the pay of the actors and limiting the pairs of gladiators to a fixed number. He recommended that prices in the market should be regulated each year at the discretion of the senate.

He was personally frugal. As part of his campaign against waste, he often served at formal dinners half-eaten dishes from the night before – on one occasion serving the remaining half of a boar eaten the night before, declaring that it contained all that the other half did.

He issued an edict forbidding general kissing as well as the exchange of New Year’s gifts​ after the Kalends of January.

35. Tiberius revived the custom whereby married women guilty of improprieties could be punished by a family council. Married women of good family had begun to practice as prostitutes and to escape punishment for adultery by renouncing the privileges of their class. Profligate young men voluntarily incurred degradation from their rank so as to appear on the stage and in the arena without incurring punishment. Tiberius punished all such men and women with exile.

36. Tiberius abolished foreign cults, especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites. He compelled adherents to these religions to burn their religious vestments and all their paraphernalia. He assigned Jews of military age to provinces with unhealthy climates, ostensibly to serve in the army. Jews over the age of military service he banished from the city on pain of slavery for life.

He banished the astrologers from Rome, unless they promised to abandon their practices.

37. Tiberius safeguarded the country against banditry and lawlessness. He stationed garrisons of soldiers nearer together than before throughout Italy, while in Rome he established a camp for the barracks of the praetorian cohorts, which before that time had been quartered in isolated groups in divers lodging houses.

He took great pains to prevent city riots. When a quarrel in the theatre ended in bloodshed, he banished the leaders of the factions as well as the actors who were the cause of the dissension.

He abolished the traditional right of sanctuary throughout the empire.

After his accession to the throne, Tiberius undertook no further military campaigns. If regional kings were disaffected, he used threats and cajolery rather than military campaigns. Or he lured them to Rome with flattering promises and then kept them there.

38. For two whole years after becoming emperor he did not set foot outside the gates. After that he made promises to tour the provinces and even hired transports and food, but never managed to actually leave, leading to many jokes.

39. Both Tiberius’s sons died before him: his nephew and heir, Germanicus, who he adopted in 4 AD, died in 19, aged 33. His natural son, Drusus the younger (named after Tiberius’s brother), Tiberius’s son by his first wife, Vipsania, died in 23, aged 26.

After their deaths, Tiberius retired to Campania and it became widely believed that he would die there. In fact he nearly died in a freak accident when he was attending a luxury dinner in a grotto and some of the ceiling gave way, killing guests near him.

40. The official reason for the journey through Campania was to dedicate a temple to Capitoline Jupiter at Capua and a temple to Augustus at Nola, but when he’d done this he didn’t return to Rome but crossed to the island of Capri. Shortly afterwards he was recalled to the mainland after a disaster at an amphitheatre which had given way during a gladiatorial show, killing thousands. So he crossed to the mainland and made himself accessible to all, for a spell.

41. But then he returned to Capri and from this point onwards began to neglect all his responsibilities, for example not filling the vacancies in the decuries​ of the knights, nor changing the tribunes of the soldiers and prefects or the governors of any of his provinces. He left Spain and Syria without consular governors for several years, allowed Armenia to be overrun by the Parthians, Moesia to be laid waste by the Dacians and Sarmatians, and the Gallic provinces by the Germans, to the great dishonour and danger of the empire.

Tiberius retreated to Capri in 26 AD and never afterwards visited Rome. From this point onwards Suetonius’s account turns into a lurid account of Tiberius’s decline into moral degeneracy.

42. Tiberius had from the start of his military career been known as a heavy drinker. He had acquired the nickname of ‘Biberius Caldus Mero’, meaning ‘Drinker of hot wine with no water added’. He spent two days and a night feasting and drinking with Pomponius Flaccus and Lucius Piso, immediately afterwards making the one governor of the province of Syria and the other prefect of Rome.

Tiberius attended had a dinner given him by Cestius Gallus, a lustful and prodigal old man, who had once been degraded by Augustus, but ensured he kept his usual custom of having the serving girls naked.

43. On Capri Tiberius indulged his sexual fantasies. He built a sexual sporting house as the setting for orgies. He selected men and women from across the empire to engage in acts of deviant sex for his stimulation. The bedrooms were decorated with erotic paintings and sculptures. He had an erotic library, in case a performer needed an illustration of what was required. In Capri’s woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks where boys and girls, dressed as Pans and nymphs, prostituted themselves outside bowers and grottoes.

44. Suetonius goes on to list grosser allegations made against him, for example:

  • that he trained little boys, who he called his ‘minnows’, that when he went swimming they swam between his thighs to lick and nibble his genitals
  • that he put unweaned babies to his penis for them to suckle
  • that he owned a painting by Parrhasius depicting Atalanta fellating Meleager

45. Tiberius terrorised women of high birth. When a certain Mallonia refused to submit to his lust he had her informed on and taken to trial, with the result that she went home, delivered a tirade against ‘that filthy-mouthed, hairy, stinky old man’ and stabbed herself to death.

46. He was tight-fisted to the extent of miserliness.

47. In striking contrast to Augustus, Tiberius constructed no magnificent public works. He undertook only two, the temple of Augustus and the restoration of Pompey’s theatre, but both were left unfinished at the end of his reign. He gave no public shows at all and very seldom attended those given by others.

48. Tiberius showed generosity to the public only twice: once when he offered to lend a hundred million sesterces without interest for a period of three years in response to a widespread financial crisis; and then when he made good the losses of some owners of blocks of houses on the Caelian mount, which had burned down.

He acted generously to the army once, doubling the legacies provided for in the will of Augustus, but thereafter never gave gifts to the soldiers, with the exception of a thousand denarii to each of the praetorians for not taking sides with Sejanus during the latter’s attempted coup.

He did not relieve the provinces by any act of liberality, except Asia, when some cities were destroyed by an earthquake.

49. As the years went by Tiberius’s stinginess turned to rapacity. He drove Gnaeus Lentulus Augur to make Tiberius his heir, then kill himself. He confiscated the property of leading men of the Spanish and Gallic provinces, as well as of Syria and Greece. He deprived many states and individuals of immunities of long standing meaning that he collected their revenues.

Tiberius persuaded Vonones, king of the Parthians, after he’d been dethroned by his subjects and taken refuge at Antioch with a vast treasure, to put himself under the protection of the Roman people, then had him treacherously put to death.

50. One by one Tiberius turned against his own family. When his brother Drusus wrote a letter suggesting they band together to force Augustus to restore the Republic, Tiberius snitched on his brother to Augustus in order to blacken his name.

Tiberius so hated his banished second wife, Julia, that, when he came to power he intensified her exile not just to one town, but to one house, and deprived her of her allowance​.

Tiberius was very touchy about accusations that his mother Livia influenced him or shared his rule. He refused to let her be awarded the title ‘Parent of her Country’ or any other public honour.

[Livia died in 29, aged 87 i.e. Tiberius had to put up with her overbearing presence for the first 15 years of his rule.]

51. During an argument Livia is said to have produced letters from Augustus complaining about Tiberius’s sour character. This suggested such a deep and long-held enmity towards him that some say this was the reason for his retreat to Capri.

In the last three years of Livia’s life, Tiberius is said to have visited her only once, for a few hours, and didn’t visit her at all when she was ill.

After Livia’s death, Tiberius forbade her deification. He ignored the provisions of her will, and within a short time caused the downfall of all her friends and intimates, even those she had commended to his care. He had one of them, a man of equestrian rank, condemned to the treadmill.

52. Tiberius had a father’s affection neither for his own son Drusus (d. 19 AD) nor his adopted son Germanicus (d. 23 AD). After Drusus died he barely waited for the traditional period of mourning to end before resuming his usual routine.

Germanicus was handsome, successful, charming (remember how Ovid placed all his hopes for clemency in him, in his Black Sea Letters). According to Tacitus, many Romans considered Germanicus to be their equivalent to Alexander the Great, and believed that he would have easily surpassed the achievements of Alexander had he become emperor. But Tiberius mocked his achievements and openly complained to the Senate about him.

It was widely believed that Tiberius arranged to have Germanicus poisoned while on active service in Syria at the hands of Gnaeus Piso, governor of Syria. When Piso was tried on that charge, it was rumoured that he was about to produce Tiberius’s written instructions to him, so Tiberius had him quickly poisoned. As a result the slogan ‘Give us back Germanicus,’ was posted around Rome.

Tiberius then confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions by cruelly abusing Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina, and their children.

53. Tiberius embarked on a campaign to blacken the name of Germanicus’s wife, Agrippina. He stage-managed a dinner where he offered her an apple which she refused to take, assuming it was poisoned. He accused her of not trusting him. He falsely accused her of trying to flee, seeking sanctuary with the statue of Augustus or fleeing to the army. So he exiled her to Pandataria and, when she complained, had her beaten by a centurion until one of her eyes was destroyed.

Agrippina decided to starve herself to death in which, although he had her mouth forced open and food crammed into it, she succeeded. After Agrippina’s death Tiberius slandered her, persuading the senate to add her birthday to the days of ill omen and claiming credit for not having her publicly executed and thrown onto the Stairs of Mourning.

54. By Germanicus Tiberius had three grandsons, Nero, Drusus and Gaius (the future emperor Caligula), and by Drusus one, called Tiberius. Tiberius recommended Nero and Drusus to the senate and celebrated the day when each of them came to his majority. But almost immediately he began criticising and undermining them. When they complained about him he had witnesses stationed nearby and accumulated enough instances to have them pronounced public enemies and starved to death, Nero on the island of Pontia and Drusus in a lower room of the Imperial Palace. Drusus was said to be so tortured by hunger that he tried to eat the stuffing of his mattress.

55. Tiberius asked the Senate to select 20 leading men to form a council of state. Only 2 or 3 of them died natural deaths. He promoted Aelius Sejanus in order to use his cunning and services to destroy the children of Germanicus and secure the succession for his own grandson, the child of his son Drusus.

56. Tiberius was cruel to his Greek companions, banishing one, forcing another to commit suicide.

57. Even at the start of his reign, when he was still courting popularity by a show of moderation, Tiberius occasionally burst out with vengeful acts, executing people who offended him or questioned him.

58. Tiberius began to enforce laws for lèse-majesty regarding Augustus, which slowly escalated in triviality and severity. Eventually people could be tried beating a slave near a statue of Augustus carrying a ring or coin stamped with Augustus’s image into a privy or a brothel. Finally, a man was put to death merely for allowing an honour to be voted him in his native town on the same day that honours had previously been voted to Augustus.

59. Slowly, more and more cruel and savage deeds were carried out under the guise of the improvement of the public morals but in reality to gratify Tiberius’s pleasure in seeing suffering.

60. Cruelty: A few days after he reached Capri a fisherman appeared unexpectedly and offered him a huge mullet. Tiberius was so freaked out by the man’s appearance out of nowhere that he had his face rubbed raw with the fish’s scales.

When the litter he was being carried in was blocked by brambles, he had the centurion responsible for scouting the path stretched out on the ground and flogged half to death.

61. The 20s AD saw the creation of an atmosphere of fear in Roman noble and administrative circles with the expansion of treason trials and the widespread use of delatores or informers. Informers were always believed and could betray people for a few mildly critical words. All sentences became death sentences. Not a day passed without an execution.

Eventually, this degenerated into carnage. On some days 20 people were killed. Entire families, women and children too. Since it was illegal to execute virgins, the public executioners raped them first, then executed them. Corpses were dragged to the Tiber with hooks.

Many thought that Sejanus, as his henchman, egged him on, but after Sejanus’s fall the cruelty only got more ferocious.

62. Upon discovering that his own son, Drusus, had not died from his dissipated lifestyle but been poisoned by his wife Livilla and Sejanus, Tiberius went mad and spared none from torment and death, devoting all his time to unmasking what he saw as endless conspiracy, submitting random strangers to torture and execution.

On Capri people still point out the cliff Tiberius had his victims thrown off into the sea. If the tide was out a crew of marines waited below and broke their bones with boathooks and oars.

He devised a form of torture whereby he tricked men into drinking copious draughts of wine, and then had their genitals tightly bound so they couldn’t pee.

The soothsayer Thrasyllus is said to have saved many lives by telling Tiberius he would live a long life and so had plenty of time to torture and execute as many as he wanted. Tiberius even hated his own grandsons, Gaius and Tiberius the Younger.

63. He prevented ex-consuls taking up governorships in their provinces, because he didn’t trust them.

64. After the exile of his daughter-in‑law and grandchildren, Tiberius never moved them anywhere except in fetters and in a tightly closed litter, while a guard of soldiers kept any who met them on the road from looking at them or even from stopping as they went by.

65. Tiberius realised that his henchman Sejanus was plotting revolution, that he was being celebrated back in Rome and statues erected to him, so he embarked on a complicated strategy to discredit and overthrow him. This began by having Sejanus appointed consul with Tiberius, in 31 AD.

66. Public disgust at Tiberius broke out in a hundred ways, in lampoons and graffiti and slogans and jokes about his grotesque cruelty. Artabanus, king of the Parthians, sent a long letter detailing his crimes against the state and his own family, and telling him to commit suicide.

67. Suetonius makes the interesting point that Tiberius appears to have anticipated that his own wretched character would come to the fore. Soon after his accession the Senate had grovellingly offered him the title of ‘Father of his Country’ and an even more sycophantic gesture that anything he had said or done or would say or do would be honoured. Suetonius quotes Tiberius’s letters of reply to these offers in which he turns them down on the basis that, despite themselves, men change their character – almost as if he knew that, once granted supreme power, his worst nature would come to the fore.

68. Tiberius’s physique. He was above average height and strong (unlike short, weedy Augustus). He could crack someone’s skull with a single punch. He had blonde hair which he wore long at the back, concealing his neck. He was handsome but liable to pimples. He had large eyes. He enjoyed excellent health till the end of his life.

69. He didn’t venerate the gods as Augustus had done, but he was addicted to astrology. He was immoderately afraid of thunder. Whenever the sky darkened he wore a laurel wreath because it was said that that kind of leaf was not blasted by lightning.

70. Tiberius was greatly devoted to Greek and Roman literature. He wrote poetry in Greek. His specialist interest was Greek mythology and he cultivated the company of historians and grammarians who he asked teasingly obscure questions (Who was Hecuba’s mother? What was the name of Achilles when he hid among the girls of King Lycomedes’ court?)

71. Tiberius spoke Greek fluently yet he insisted on Latin being used on formal, political and legal occasions.

72. After his retirement to Capri, Tiberius made two attempts to return to Rome, once up the river Tiber, once by road, but both times turned back, afraid, it is said, of the mob. It was on the second attempt that he fell ill and, on the journey back to Capri, tried to conceal it by staying up late feasting at all the waystations, thus exacerbating the condition.

73. Reading that people named by informers were now being released without trial, Tiberius exclaimed this was treason and vowed to return to his safe place, Capri. But he became increasingly unwell and died in the villa of Lucullus, aged 78, in the 23rd year of his reign.

Some believe he was poisoned by Gaius (Caligula). Others that during convalescence from a fever, food was refused him when he asked for it. Some say that a pillow was put over his face to smother him. Seneca writes that, conscious of his approaching end, Tiberius took off his signet ring as if to give it to someone but couldn’t bring himself to part with it and, eventually, slipped it back on his finger. Having been unconscious with illness, he woke, called for attendants and, when no-one came, got up but his strength failed him and he fell dead near his couch.

74. The Romans really loved stories about omens. No biography is complete without them. Thus:

  • on his last birthday he dreamt that the huge statue of Apollo he had brought to adorn the library of the Temple of Augustus, came to him and announced he would not be dedicated by Tiberius
  • a few days before his death the lighthouse at Capri was wrecked by an earthquake

75. Tiberius’s death prompted celebrations around Rome. He was survived by one last atrocity. Hearing he was ill, the Senate declared all executions should be delayed by 10 days. Tiberius died on that tenth day but, since there was no-one in authority to extend the period or sign remittances, the executioners went ahead and strangled all the condemned, so that it was said his cruelty lived on after his death. Thus many called for there to be no funeral or his body to be only half cremated as an insult.

In the end his body was taken to Rome by the soldiers and cremated in the approved way.

76. Tiberius’s will named his grandsons, Gaius, son of Germanicus, and Gemellus, son of Drusus, heirs to equal shares of his estate. He gave legacies to several to the Vestal Virgins, with a bounty for every serving soldier and every member of the commons of Rome.

[Tiberius was succeeded by Gaius, more generally known as Caligula, son of Germanicus, and Tiberius’s great-nephew. Caligula was the only one of Germanicus’s children to survive Tiberius’s persecution. He adopted Caligula and took him to live with him in his debauched retirement on Capri. In Suetonius’s Life of Caligula, Tiberius is quoted as saying that he was ‘nursing a viper in Rome’s bosom.’ It was widely believed that Gaius had his very old great-uncle murdered, possibly himself smothering him with a pillow. After a promising beginning, Caligula’s reign swiftly descended into four years of chaotic misrule.]

Thoughts

Tiberius’s life divides very much into two halves, the dutiful imperial servant and the disgraceful debauchee. Tiberius’s military service in Germany and particularly Illyricum inspire respect. Compared to the military ‘service’ of his successors (Caligula, Claudius, Nero), he is a truly impressive figure.

But once he had settled into power, and begun to indulge his personal tastes for torture and debauchery, what a sickening contrast to his adoptive father, Augustus, who worked tirelessly for the improvement of Rome and the fair administration of justice right to the end of his long life.

Suetonius reports that some people wondered if Augustus chose Tiberius as his heir because he knew what a monster he’d turn out to be and that Tiberius’s rule would probably make his (Augustus’s) reputation all the more glorious.

Tiberius’s life shows what absolute power does to dissolute or depraved characters.

During the republican era Roman propagandists prided themselves that the rule of law and their complex constitutional procedures set them apart from the oriental despotisms of the East. By the turn of the first century BC Rome had imported a number of Eastern religions and rites, notably the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis. You could say that the reign of Tiberius marked the full arrival in Rome of the political traditions of oriental despotism – namely, palace intrigue and public terror.


Credit

Robert Graves’s translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was published by Penguin in 1957. A revised translation by Classicist Michael Grant, more faithful to the Latin original, was published in 1979. A further revised edition was published in 1989 with an updated bibliography. I read the Penguin version in parallel with the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation which is available online.

Related links

Roman reviews

Amores by Ovid

The Peter Green edition

I read Ovid’s Amores in the 1982 Penguin edition, which also includes Ovid’s later works, The Art of Love and the Cures for Love, all translated and introduced by Peter Green. This edition contains an awesome amount of editorial paraphernalia. The introduction is 81 pages long and there are 167 pages of notes at the end, so that’s 248 pages of scholarly apparatus (not counting the index). The text of the three Ovid works only take up 180 pages. So in the Penguin/Peter Green edition there’s a hell of a lot of information to process. And in doing so, it’s possible to get caught up in the matrix of interconnections (this passage from an Amor resembling that passage from the Art of Love and so on) and the web of mythological references and end up quite losing yourself in what is quite a deceptively huge book.

Ovid’s Amores

Ovid’s Amores (Latin for ‘loves’) is a set of 50 short love poems written in the elegiac metre – pairs of lines or couplets in which the first line is a hexameter, the second line a pentameter – a format which had become traditional in late-Republican Rome for this kind of subject matter. Poets such as Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius and several others whose works are now lost (notably Gallus), had used the elegiac metre for this kind of personal love poem, generally addressing poems to a beautiful but inaccessible and capricious lady. Catullus (born 84 BC) addressed poems to Lesbia, Tibullus (b.55 BC) to Delia, Propertius (b.55 BC) to Cynthia and Ovid (b.43 BC) to Corrina.

A.M. Juster in his introduction to the love poems of Tibullus suggests that Ovid took the form to such a peak of clever irony, witty pastiche and knowing self-mockery that he hollowed out the form and ended the tradition; nobody after him attempted such a long sequence of love poems in this format and metre.

A little epigram at the start of the work tells us that Ovid’s Amores were initially published in five volumes in about 16 BC. The Penguin translator, Peter Green, devotes some of his huge introduction to speculating that these were very much a young man’s poems and that some time in middle life, Ovid went back, deleted some, rewrote others, and republished them in the three-volume edition we have today.

The Amores’ contents are very straightforward. The poet writes in the first person of his love affair with an unattainable higher-class woman, Corinna. Each poem picks a different incident or mood in this love affair then explores or develops it with rhetorical, logical and poetical skill. The sequence builds into a showcase for the poet’s skills at handling different subjects and feelings.

In line with the idea that Ovid was the most sophisticated and knowing poet in this tradition, many scholars doubt whether the ‘Corrina’ addressed throughout the poems ever actually existed, but was merely a literary pretext for the poet’s powers.

Ovid’s sequence feels more unified and planned as a narrative than those of Tibullus or Propertius; both those poets include in their works lots of poems on unrelated subjects. On closer examination, so does Ovid, addressing a number of husbands, lady’s maids, and women he’s pursuing who are evidently not Corrina. Nonetheless, the sequence somehow feels more smooth and structured than those of his predecessors.

Of course, if the other poets were describing actual events, the order of their poems is likely to be as scrappy and haphazard as real life generally is; whereas, if Ovid was making the whole thing up, he could afford to be more carefully structured and calculating.

Carefree Ovid

Unlike all the previous Roman authors I’ve reviewed, the key thing about Ovid is that he grew up in times of peace. Born in 43 BC, Publius Ovidius Naso was just a toddler during the civil wars which followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, and just 12 when Octavius won his decisive battle against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC, which brought 60 years of civil wars to an end.

This may explain the tone of frivolous irresponsibility which marks most of Ovid’s poetic career. Green makes the point that from about 25 BC (when he’s thought to have started the Amores) through to 1 AD (when he published the Cure For Love) Ovid devoted the best years of his maturity to writing about sex.

OK, he also wrote the 21 love letters of the Heroides (themselves on the subject of love) and a play on the subject of Medea (now, tragically, lost) but what survived, and survived because it was so popular, were his witty, clever poems depicting the author as a stylish man-about-town and sexual athlete. He may describe himself as a ‘slave to love’ (a trope so common it had its own name, the servitium amoris), stricken by Cupid’s arrows and plunged into despair – but it’s impossible to ever take Ovid seriously. Irony, parody and irreverent laughter are his thing, what Green describes as ‘his wit, his irony, his bubbling sense of fun’ (p.80). As Green puts it, ‘Ovid is Homo ludens in person’.

The translation

On page 79 of his long introduction Green explains that he is going to translate the strict elegiac metre (a hexameter followed by a pentameter) very freely, using ‘a variable short-stopped line with anything from five to two stresses’. This approach hints at the metrical regularity of the original, yet gives scope for changes of pace and emphasis, ‘often through a casual enjambment that works more easily in English than it might in Latin.’ None of this prepares you for the tone and style of Green’s translations, which is wild, flippant and jazzy.

Arms, warfare, violence – I was winding up to produce a
Regular epic, with verse form to match –
Hexameters, naturally. But Cupid (they say) with a snicker
Lopped off one foot from each alternate line.
‘Nasty young brat,’ I told him, ‘Who made you Inspector of Metres?
We poets comes under the Muses, we’re not in your mob.’

Right from the start Green announces the flippancy and slanginess of this translation. The result is that the number of beats in each line is difficult to ascertain and, as Green indicated, not at all regular. Instead we are carried away by the energy of the diction, although this, also, is a little difficult to nail down. That ‘Hexameters, naturally’ sounds like a confident posh boy, but ‘snicker’ is an American word, whereas ‘mob’, I suppose, is an America word associated with the 1930s but makes me think of the Lavender Hill Mob. So I found his tone wildly all over the place.

‘Look boy, you’ve got your own empire and a sight too much influence…’

‘Boy’ is either the demeaning word used by southern Americans to blacks (unlikely) or the tone of a posh, public school banker to a waiter at his club (maybe); ‘a sight too much’ strikes me as a very English locution, again of a posh variety, something I don’t think anybody says any more. I give plenty of quotes below, and you can see for yourself how Green uses a variety of locutions to create a witty, slangy, vibrant register.

The Amores

Book 1

1.1 The poet announces that love will be his theme.

In a trope familiar from all the elegists, the poet declares he wanted to write a grand epic as society (and Augustus) require, but was foiled by Cupid. When he wails that he hasn’t got a subject to write about Cupid promptly shoots him with his arrows, making him fall furiously in love.

‘Hey, poet!’ he called, ‘you want a theme? Take that!’
His shafts – worse luck for me – never miss their target:
I’m on fire now, Love owns the freehold of my heart.

So that’s going to be the subject, love, and Ovid himself, right here in the first poem, describes the process of abandoning ambitious plans to write a highfalutin’ epic poem in regular hexameters and settling for the alternating metre of elegiacs:

So let my verse rise with six stresses, drop to five on the downbeat –
Goodbye to martial epic and epic metre too!

1.2 He admits defeat to Cupid

He tosses and turns at night and then pleads with Cupid that he’ll come quietly. The ox that resists the yoke suffers most or, as Green puts it in his deliberately uncouth, slangy style:

It’s the same with Love. Play stubborn, you get a far more thorough
Going-over than those who admit they’re hooked.
So I’m coming clean, Cupid: here I am, your latest victim.

Sounds like a character from ‘The Sweeney’ – I’m surprised he doesn’t address Cupid as ‘guv’nor’. Anyway, the poet says he’ll submit to Love’s demands, he’ll be a captive in Love’s great triumphal procession, and then gives a mock description of a Roman triumph as burlesqued by Love and Love’s army:

And what an escort – the Blandishment Corps, the Illusion
And Passion Brigade, your regular bodyguard:
These are the troops you employ to conquer men and immortals…

1.3 He addresses his lover for the first time and lists her good qualities

Green’s Cockney register continues in this poem, where the poet addresses Venus and vows to be true to her if she can make his mistress love him.

Fair’s fair now, Venus. This girl’s got me hooked. All I’m asking for
Is love – or at least some future hope for my own
Eternal devotion. No, even that’s too much – hell, just let me love her!
(Listen, Venus: I’ve asked you so often now.)
Say yes, pet. I’d be your slave for years, for a lifetime.

‘Pet’? Very casual locution, originally from the North East of England. Anyway, Ovid goes on to say that he doesn’t come from some posh, blue-blood family with ‘top-drawer connections’.

What have I got on my side, then? Poetic genius, sweetheart.

‘Sweetheart’? This is fun.

1.4 He attends a dinner part where his beloved and her husband are also present

The poet is driven so mad with jealousy that his beloved is going to be embraced and kissed and pawed by her husband, in full view of himself and everyone else at this dinner party, that he gives her a list of secret signs to reassure him that she secretly loves him.

As with everything else in the Amores, you strongly feel these are stock clichés of the form, but jived up by Ovid’s breezy attitude. So: when she’s thinking about the last time they made love, she should touch her cheek with her thumb; if she’s cross with him but can’t say so, pinch her earlobe; if he says or does something which pleases her, she should turn the ring on her finger.

If her husband kisses her, he swears he’ll leap up, declare his love, and claim all her kisses as his own! He’ll follow them home and, though he’ll be locked outside at her door, he begs her to be frigid with her husband, ‘make sex a dead loss’.

1.5 Corinna visits him for afternoon sex

This is the poem brilliantly translated by Christopher Marlowe one and a half thousand years after it was written. It’s the first time in the sequence that Corrina is called by her name.

1.6 He begs Corrina’s doorkeeper to let him into her house to see his love

This is an example of the paraclausithyron or ‘poem at the beloved’s door’ and Ovid adopts the traditional figure of the exclusus amator (the ‘shut-out lover’). Similar poems were written by Horace (Odes 3.10), Tibullus (Elegies 1.2) and Propertius (Elegies 1.16). Propertius’s variation on this familiar theme is notable, for he gets the door itself to give its opinion about all these weeping lovers hanging round outside it.

In Ovid’s version, the poet tracks through a range of topoi associated with this genre – how the poet’s tears water the doorpost, how the porter need only open the door a fraction because the poor poet has lost so much weight pining away that he’ll be able to slip through a mere crack, etc.

What struck me was the opening line where he describes how the door slave is chained to the doorpost. At line 20 he reminds the door slave of the time he was stripped ready for a whipping but he, the poet, talked Corrina out of punishing him. This is all meant to be part of the playful banter, but…chains and whips. Slavery.

1.7 He hits his lover and is remorseful

Obviously he’s consumed with regret, says he was momentarily out of his mind with rage – but the alleged hitting is really only a pretext to invoke a whole host of precedents from myth and legend of psychotically angry heroes like Ajax and Orestes. And after all (he whines), all he did was mess up her hair a little, which made her look even more beautiful, like Atalanta or Ariadne or Cassandra about to be raped at the fall of Troy (!).

To be precise, he grabbed her hair and scratched her face (line 50) – an oddly girlish form of assault. He asks himself why he didn’t do something more manly, such as ripping her dress from neck to waistline (an interesting notion). What’s most effective in the poem is his description of how Corrina didn’t say anything but stood shivering and crying mute tears. That sounds horribly believable.

As a side point, he remarks that, instead of tears, the proper marks of love should be bruised lips and bites around the neck and shoulders. Now, love bites are mentioned in Propertius and in Plutarch’s life of Pompey: it was obviously an accepted part of love play in ancient Rome.

1.8 Dipsas’s monologue

Dipsas is a bawd or procuress. The poet violently describes her as a cursed witch. This is because, one day, he claims to have overheard her giving cynical advice to Corrina on how to bewitch young men and wangle rich gifts out of them, gifts she can then share with her mentor, Dipsas.

He particularly hears Dipsas disrespecting Ovid because he’s poor, telling Corrina to angle for richer lovers, and not even to be fussy about freed slaves, so long as they’re rich. Dipsas tells Corrina to play hard to get, to agree to sex now and then but often say she’s got a headache or abstain because of Isis (attendants at ceremonies for Isis had to be celibate 10 days beforehand). He overhears Dipsas telling Corrina to stage strategic arguments to drive him away, though not permanently. She should learn how to cry at will. She should get a houseboy and a maid, who can both extract even more presents from her desperate lover.

Like the beating poem or the door poem, above, this feels like Ovid adopting a standard topic (the wicked old adviser) and determined to write the best, most comprehensive poem on the theme.

As a footnote to Roman love, Dipsas tells Corrina to cultivate a few bruises on her neck i.e. indicating that she’s having sex with someone else to make her lover jealous. Love bites and bruises.

1.9 The poet compares lovers with soldiers

Both belong to the same age group, lusty young men.

A soldier lays siege to cities, a lover to girls’ houses,
The one assaults city gates, the other front doors.

Obviously this is mocking the martial traditions of Rome, in a style previously done by Propertius, but somehow in Ovid’s hands it feels that much more mocking and derisive. And the poem ends with the mocking thought that he was a lazy good-for-nothing scribbling poems until – he fell in love! Now look at him – ‘fighting fit, dead keen on night exercises’!

1.10 He complains that his mistress is demanding material gifts instead of the gift of poetry

So he mounts a list of arguments why this is corrupt, why love should be naked, why sex should be equal, only prostitutes ask for money or gifts etc. All gifts are trash and will rot, but his poetry, if he gives it to her, will last forever and make her immortal. Another very familiar trope.

1.11 Praise of Corinna’s maid

Let me tell you about Napë. Though she’s expert at setting
Unruly hair, she’s no common lady’s maid.

The poem is set in the present as the poet calls Napë over and instructs her to take this note to his beloved, right now, and wait while she reads it, and mark her expression, and insist on a reply, and not just a brief note but ‘a full tablet’: get her (Corrina) to squeeze up the lines and scribble in the margins.

1.12 The poet curses his tablet

Corrina says NO to a visit and so the poet vents his fury on the wood and wax tablet which failed in its duty, cursing the tree which made the wood, the beeswax etc. It turns into a full blown execration of the wretched tablet, which is inventive and funny.

1.13 He addresses the dawn and asks it to wait, so he can stay longer with his mistress

The poet addresses Aurora asking her to rise slowly, to wait, so he can extend his time with his beloved. He invokes the mythology surrounding Aurora, cruelly claiming she’s only in such a rush each morning to get away from her ancient withered lover, Tithonus.

1.14 He mocks Corinna for ruining her hair by dyeing it

A very uxorious, familiar poem in which the poet scolds his beloved for ignoring his advice to lay off hair dyes and rinses; she used them and now her hair’s all falling out. It used to be so long, could be arranged in a hundred different styles, was so fine, like spider’s web, a ‘brindled auburn’ colour. It was also damaged by her insistence on applying heated tongs to corkscrew it.

Oh well, he says, look on the bright side – after ‘our’ recent German conquests she can get a wig made from some captive German woman’s hair.

1.15 The book ends with Ovid writing of the famous poets of the past, and claiming his name will be among them

He gets the allegorical figure of Envy to articulate all the criticisms which could be made of his position: drone, parasite, layabout who should be using his youth as a soldier or his intellect as a lawyer – then refutes these accusations. He wants to be numbered among the immortal poets:

What I seek is perennial fame,
Undying world-wide remembrance.

Though Time, in time, can consume the enduring ploughshare,
Though flint itself will perish, poetry lives –
Deathless, unfading, triumphant over kings and their triumphs,
Richer than Spanish river-gold.

And here I am, 2,000 years later, reading his poetry, proving him correct.

Preliminary thoughts

1. In his mockery of a soldier’s life, his description of a mock triumph, his jokey comparison of a soldier and a lover (1. 9) Ovid mocks Rome’s military tradition (‘the dusty rewards of a soldier’s career’, 1.15). And in his whole approach promotes the lifestyle of an upper-class layabout lover with no sense of public duty, frittering his life away on girlish emotions. This, as his later career was to make clear, was a risky strategy. As with Oscar Wilde, traditional society eventually took its revenge on a taunting provocateur.

2. In his introduction, Peter Green spends a lot of effort suggesting that ‘Corrina’ is based on a real figure and that it was Ovid’s first wife, who he married when he was just 18. Although the convention for these poems was that the beloved was the wife of another man, high-born and unattainable, or a moody and capricious courtesan – and this certainly fits some of the poems, such as the door poem and the pair about sending a note to his mistress – on the other hand the ‘Corrina was Ovid’s wife’ theory is a better fit for the poems about sex on a summer’s afternoon (1.5), the poem to the dawn and especially the one about her hair (1.14). These have none of the stress of stolen visits while husband is away, but have the relaxed candour of married love.

3. Above all else, the poems feel very programmatic, systematic, as if he’s listed all the topics which poems in this genre ought to address, and then set out to write the best possible example of each type.

4. Ovid’s persona is of supreme self-confidence, a very attractive, brash, bullet-proof, man-about-town cockiness. Even when he pretends to be downhearted we know he’s only playing

5. Lastly, re. Green’s style of verse, I like the way his lines are of unpredictably varying length, they rock along in perfect match with his laddish, demotic diction. BUT. One small point of criticism – I don’t like the way he starts each line with a capital letter. It has the effect of cluttering lines which are already cluttered with italics, brackets, exclamation marks and so on. I wish that, like most modern poets, he’d started new lines with small letters, unless it is actually starting a new sentence.

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
than ignored.

is better than:

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
Than ignored.

Clearer, easier to read and parse (understand the grammar of), and looks more modern, has more swing.

Book 2

2.1 The poet describes the sort of audience he wants (girls)

A formal opening to the second book by ‘that naughty provincial poet’, ‘the chronicler of his own wanton frivolities’. Ovid describes how he was actually writing a worthy epic about war in heaven when his mistress locked her door against him and straightaway he forgot his epic and fell back on soft love poems, for

Soft words
Remove harsh door-chains. There’s magic in poetry, its power
Can pull down the bloody moon,
Turn back the sun, make serpents burst asunder
Or rivers flow upstream.

Yes, ‘epics’s a dead loss for me’:

I’ll get nowhere with swift-footed
Achilles, or either of Atreus’s sons.
Old what’s-his-name wasting twenty years on war and travel,
Poor Hector dragged in the dust –
No good. But lavish fine words on some young girl’s profile
And sooner or later she’ll tender herself as the fee.
An ample reward for your labours. So farewell, heroic
Figures of legend – the quid
Pro quo
you offer won’t tempt me. A bevy of beauties
All swooning over my love songs – that’s what I want.

2.2 The poet asks Bagoas, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress

The poet addresses Bagoas, a beautiful woman’s maid or servant and delivers a long list of reasons why she should engage in all kinds of subterfuges to help her mistress’s lover gain his ends, the main motive being she’ll be paid and can save up enough to buy her freedom (line 40).

What struck me is the poem opens with him describing taking a walk in some cloisters and spying this young woman and being struck by her beauty i.e. it doesn’t seem particularly about Corrina.

2.3: The poet addresses a eunuch (probably Bagoas from 2.2) who is preventing him from seeing a woman

A short poem in which the poet laments the condition of men who’ve been castrated and says they (the poet and his mistress) could have got round the neuter minder anyway, but it seemed more polite to make a direct approach and offer him cash for access.

2.4 The poet describes his love for women of all sorts

Other people are going to criticise his character so why doesn’t he go ahead and do it himself. He despises who he is, his weakness for every pretty face he sees, his lack of self discipline. Thick, clever, shy, forward, sophisticated, naive, fans of his, critics of his, dancers, musicians, tall, short, fashionable, dowdy, fair, dark or brunettes – he’s ‘omnisusceptible’, he wants to shag them all.

Young girls have the looks – but when it comes to technique
Give me an older woman. In short, there’s a vast cross-section
Of desirable beauties in Rome – and I want them all!

2.5 The poet addresses his lover, whom he has seen being unfaithful at a dinner party

Describes the rage of jealousy he’s thrown into when he sees her fondling and snogging another man at a dinner party. When he confronts her, later, about it, she denies it means anything and, like a fool, he believes her. Still. Her kisses show a new style, technique and passion. She’s been learning from a master!

2.6 The poet mourns the death of Corinna’s parrot

A comic exequy for Corrina’s parrot, a gift from the East, who was so sociable and clever and ate so little and now is dead. He gives an extended comparison with all other types of birds ending with a vision of pretty Polly in paradise.

2.7 The poet defends himself to his mistress, who is accusing him of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis (28 lines)

Short one in which he accuses his mistress of being too touchy and jealous. Of course he isn’t having an affair with her maid! God, the thought! Why would he bother with ‘a lower-class drudge’? More to the point:

What gentleman would fancy making love to a servant,
Embracing that lash-scarred back?

‘Lash-scarred back.’ I know I’m developing an obsession with this subject, but the ubiquity in Roman social life of slaves, performing every possible function, present at almost all events, present throughout everybody’s house, who can be chained to the doorpost, who can be shackled and manacled and who can be stripped and whipped at a moment’s notice, seriously impairs my enjoyment of these ‘light-hearted’ poems.

2.8 The poet addresses Cypassis, asking her to keep their affair a secret from her mistress

The joke is that, having just denied it in 2.7, he now lets us in on the secret that he is shagging his mistress’s slave. The poem bespeaks the furtiveness of a secret affair. Did they get away with it when Corrina accused him point blank? When Cypassis blushed, did the poet’s fierce oath that it wasn’t true convince her? Now – he wants sex.

I did you a good turn. Now it’s time for repayment.
Dusky Cypassis, I want to sleep with you. Today.

‘Dusky’? Is she black?

2.9a The poet rebukes Cupid (24 lines)

He blames Cupid for trapping him in this life of love for good. The old soldier can retire, an old racehorse is put out to grass, warships are dry docked, an old gladiator can hang up his sword. Why won’t Cupid let him go?

2.9b The poet professes his addiction to love (30 lines)

He admits to sometimes feeling sick of the whole business of love but some kink in his nature addicts him to it. He just can’t kick the habit of loving and shagging. He’s Cupid’s best customer, his arrows know the way to his heart without needing to be fire. They’re more at home in his heart than Cupid’s quiver. He sounds quite a bit more tired and cynical than previously:

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
Than ignored.

2.10 The poet bemoans being in love with two girls at once

The poet addresses a man, Graecinus, and makes you realise it’s the first time he’s done so on 25 poems. A lot of Tibullus and Propertius’s poems are addressed to other blokes; surprisingly, this is rare in Ovid. Maybe showing how much of a lady’s man he is.

Anyway, this Graecinus told him no man could possibly fall in love with two women and yet – here he is, in love with two women! It seems like an unnecessary surfeit but he’d rather have two than none at all. And he proceeds to show off a bit:

I can stand the strain. My limbs may be thin, but they’re wiry;
Though I’m a lightweight, I’m hard –
And virility feeds on sex, is boosted by practice;
No girl’s ever complained about my technique.
Often enough I’ve spent the whole night in pleasure, yet still been
Fit as a fighting cock next day.

He wants to die in mid-act, ‘on the job’.

2.11 Corinna’s voyage (56 lines)

He deploys the full range of arguments against taking a sea voyage (the danger, the monsters, the boredom) but Corrina is determined to go, so he switches to wishing her good luck.

2.12 His triumph (28 lines)

Meaning Roman triumph because the poet has, finally, despite all obstacles, won his Corrina. Again he compares himself to a soldier, conscripted and fighting in great battles , except:

The credit is mine alone, I’m a one-man band,
Commander, cavalry, infantry, standard-bearer, announcing
With one voice: Objective achieved!

What’s odd is we saw him having lazy summer afternoon sex with Corrina back in 1.5, so why is ‘winning’ her, here, depicted as such a huge triumph? Is it a reminder that we should never take these poems as telling any kind of coherent narrative, but more a selection, arranged in a vague but not narrative-based order?

2.13 The poet prays to the gods about Corinna’s abortion (28 lines)

Corrina has carried out an abortion on herself and now lies badly ill. The poet addresses the goddesses Isis and Ilythia, saying he’ll do anything for them offer them anything, if only his beloved recovers. If we’re talking about possible narratives and orders, it is odd to have a poem this serious immediately after the one in which he claims to only just have ‘triumphed’ and won her (2.12).

2.14 The poet condemns abortion (44 lines)

A fairly playful development of the anti-abortion position, to wit: if every woman acted like Corrina the human race would die out. This is followed by a list of amusing counterfactuals: what if Thetis had carried out an abortion? No Achilles, no defeat of Troy. Or what if the priestess of Mars had done the same? No Romulus and Remus, no Rome. What if Corrina’s mum had done the same? No Corrina! Or Ovid’s mum, if he’d been ‘mother-scuppered before birth’? No Amores!

From a social history point of view the poem makes clear that self-attempted abortion was quite a common occurrence in ancient Rome and equally common girls dying from it (line 40).

2.15 The ring (28 lines)

He sends her a ring and then, in flights of fantasy, imagines being the ring, fitting snugly on her finger, accompanying the finger when it strokes her skin, her cleavage or…elsewhere.

2.16 At Sulmona, a town in his native region (52 lines)

His home town, Sulmona, is lovely and fertile and all…but his girl isn’t with him so it feels barren and strange. Suddenly, urgently, he wills her to call out her cart, harness the quick-stepping ponies and make haste to be with him.

2.17 His devotion to Corrina (34 lines)

Corrina’s loveliness makes her treat him like dirt. He describes beautiful legendary women who paired with less attractive men e.g. Venus and Vulcan, and then compares them to the way the hexameter and pentameter are combined in the elegiac couplet.

Well, look at the metre I’m using – that limps. But together
Long and short lines combine
In a heroic couplet.

Apparently some other woman is going round claiming to be the ‘Corrina’ of his poems, but gently and sweetly he assures her she is his only beloved.

…none but you shall be sung
In my verses, you and you only shall give my creative
Impulse its shape and theme.

2.18 The death of tragedy (40 lines)

He writes to his friend Macer, a poet who appears to have been writing a epic poem describing the events leading up to the Iliad describing having another go at writing a tragedy but how not only his Muse mocked him but then Corrina came and sat on his lap and covered him and kisses and asked why he wasn’t writing about her. Oh, what the hell, he might as well stick to what he’s good at, ‘verse lectures on seduction’ or ‘love-lorn heroines’ letters’ (referring to the Heroides).

Interestingly, he appears to imply that another friend of his, Sabinus, also a poet, had written letters in which the absent menfolk reply to the letters listed in the Heroides. If he did, they’re now lost.

2.19 To a husband to be more protective of his wife (60 lines)

Ironic satirical poem written to the husband of another woman who he’s seeking to woo (not Corrina) telling him (the husband) to take more care of her because at the moment, seducing her is just too easy! He prefers a battle, a struggle, the thrill of the chase.

Then the addressee seems to change to the woman in question, ‘my latest eye-ravisher’. He tells her to copy Corrina who was a master of teasing him, throwing temper tantrums, then relenting, leading him on, rebuffing him, exciting his ardour.

That’s the way I like it, that feeds the flame.

Then back to the husband and a very funny sequence of mounting frustration at his relaxed complaisance. Be more jealous, put your foot down, be a man for God’s sake. There’s no fun in an easy conquest.

Book 3

3.1 Elegy and Tragedy

Walking in a wood, the poet encounters the allegorical figure of Tragedy who tells him it’s time to grow up, drop ballads for schoolgirls and produce a really serious work. But then appears Elegy (with one foot shorter than the other, harping on that at fact of the elegiac metre, hexameter followed by pentameter) who tells Tragedy not to be so condescending, and then tells both of them what she’s been through, pinned to closed doors, torn up and flushed down the loo. If Tragedy’s interested in Ovid, it’s because of what Elegy’s done for him.

The poet asks the two ladies to stop quarrelling and admits that he chooses Elegy (again) and Tragedy will just have to be patient. (It is a big irony of history that Ovid did apparently write a tragedy, on the subject of Medea, and it was praised by Tacitus and Quintilian, but, very unhappily, it has been lost. Or ironically, in the context of this poem.)

3.2 At the races (84 lines)

A vivid description of our man chatting up a girl in the audience of the chariot races. In Green’s translation it’s a stream-of-consciousness account as the poet compares himself to a chariot racer, asks other members of the audience to stop poking and cramping them, begs Venus to give him luck with his new amour.

He describes a fixed feature of the races, which was the entrance of a procession (pompa) of ivory statues of the gods, borne on wagons or floats, which made its way through the Forum and into the Circus and proceeded the entire length of the racetrack to the cheers of the vast audience. The poet gives a running commentary on the images of the gods and how they’re useful to him, and then commentates on an actual race, yelling for the chariot his amour has bet on to win.

3.3 The lie (84 lines)

Ovid laments that his lover has not been punished for lying. He blames the gods for letting beautiful women get away with murder but coming down like a ton of bricks on men.

3.4 Give her freedom (48 lines)

Ovid warns a man about overprotectively trying to guard his wife from adultery. Do the opposite, give her complete freedom and watch her lose interest. We only chafe for what we can’t get. If it’s suddenly all available, we lose interest. ‘Illicit passion is sweeter.’ Doesn’t seem to be about Corrina.

3.5 The dream (46 lines)

The poet describes having a dream about a white heifer who is joined in a field by a black bull, but a black crow comes and starts pecking at the heifer’s breast till she stands up and waddles off to another herd of cows in the distance.

The poet asks the dream interpreter (an oneirocrit) who’s listened to his recounting, what it means, and the interpreter says that he, Ovid, is the black bull, the white heifer is his beloved, and the crow is a bawd who comes and pesters her to leave him (the poet) and go off to seek riches elsewhere.

At these words the blood ran freezing
From my face and the world went black before my eyes.

This, for me, is one of the most effective poems in the set, maybe because it’s so unusual, so unlike the familiar tropes of the genre.

3.6 The flooded river (106 lines)

The poet had got up early to make a journey to see his lover and finds his way blocked by a swollen stream. First he complains to the river about being so damn inconvenient. Then he claims the river ought to be helping him not hindering and rattles off a page-long list of rivers and how they helped lovers, or were themselves lovers, back in mythological times – although, knowing as ever, he emphasises that these old stories are:

All lies, old poetic nonsense
That never really happened – and never will.

Despite this brash dismissal, the poem is unusually long precisely because it contains a dramatised version of one these old ‘lies’, the legend of Ilia the Vestal Virgin ravished by the river Anio.

And the poem ends with an amusing execration of the river that’s blocking his path, barely a proper river at all, a desert of stones and dust in the summer, then an unpredictable torrent in winter, not marked on any maps, just a ‘no-name dribble’!

3.7 Erectile dysfunction (84 lines)

Also unusually long. The poem is about a time he lay in his beloved’s arms and she tried every trick in the book (French kisses, dirty words, called him ‘Master’) to no avail:

My member hung slack as though frozen by hemlock,
A dead loss for the sort of game I’d planned.
There I lay, a sham, a deadweight, a trunk of inert matter…

I wonder if Ovid is really as much of a Jack the Lad in the original Latin as Green’s zingy English makes him sound:

It’s not all that long since I made it
Twice with that smart Greek blonde, three times
With a couple of other beauties – and as for Corrina,
In one short night, I remember, she made me perform
Nine times, no less!

The poem is interesting because it puts his ‘love’ for Corrina in the context of sleeping with umpteen other girls as well i.e. it is nowhere near as devoted and obsessive as Propertius’s love for Cynthia, let alone the high devotion of Courtly Love which was to invoke his memory over a thousand years later.

He wonders whether some jealous rival has commissioned a magician to put a hex on him, laments that she was such a beautiful girl and yet no dice; compared to the moment when he’s actually writing, when his member is standing stiff and proud to attention, ‘you bastard’ (line 69). After trying everything, eventually his girl got cross, accused him of recently sleeping with someone else, flounced out of bed and – to fool her maids that something had happened – splashed around with some water for a bit.

Is this the reason why his beloved appears to have abandoned him in 3.5 and appears to be going out with a soldier, described in the next poem as having more money than Ovid, but maybe just being able to…get it up.

3.8 The cure of money (66 lines)

He can’t believe his beloved is now dating a soldier, just because he has money from his campaigns. This develops into a traditional curse on gold and greed, and a lament on the decline since the idyllic days of Saturn (the so-called Saturnia regna) the lost Golden Age when gold and precious metals lay in the ground. Instead gold rules Rome now and leaves a poor lover like him unable to compete with a rich soldier, flashing his rings and stolen treasure (boo hoo).

In his notes Green adds resonance by pointing out that Ovid was not well off but prided himself from coming from an old established family and not being a parvenu like so many of the nouveaux riches who had made a fortune and acquired status through the disruptions of the civil wars. Soldiers who’d done well in the wars or merchants who’d bought up proscribed land, speculators and bankers. Ovid, like hard-up poets throughout history, despised them all.

Me, genius, out in the cold,
Traipsing round like a fool, replaced by some new-rich soldier,
A bloody oaf who slashed his way to the cash
And a knighthood!

An interesting footnote points out that that the beloved who’s been taken by another man is married i.e. has swapped adultery with Ovid for adultery with the soldier. No mention of Corrina’s name.

3.9 An elegy for Tibullus (68 lines)

He says Cupid has doused his torch and broken his bow in sorrow at the death of Tibullus, the great elegiac poet (thought by scholars to have died in autumn 19 BC). There can be no gods if such good men are allowed to die. While his body is rendered down to an urnful of ashes, only the poet’s work, his songs, survive, and for all time.

Green, in his notes, points out the structural similarity with the epicedion or funeral lament for Corrina’s parrot (2.6) and that both follow the same five-part structure:

  1. introductory address to the mourners
  2. the laudatio including the ‘what avails it…’ theme, and a ritual outburst (schetliasmós) against unjust fate
  3. the deathbed scene
  4. consolatio
  5. the burial itself followed by a prayer for the repose of the dead

Interestingly, Ovid confirms the names of the two beloved women mentioned in Tibullus’s elegies, claiming that at his pyre Delia and Nemesis squabbled over who loved him most. Then says his soul will be greeted in Elysium by Catullus (84 to 54 BC) and Gaius Cornelius Gallus (69 to 26 BC), his predecessors in elegiac poetry.

3.10 The Festival of Ceres (48 lines)

The annual festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from making love to his mistress, which leads into an extended description of the rise of Ceres and her own godly love affairs.

3.11a Enough (32 lines)

He’s finally had enough of his lover, enough of being shown the door, grovelling in the street, while she was shagging someone else inside, then watch his rival, exhausted by sex, stumble out into the street. He is ashamed of watching her send secret signals at dinner parties to other men; of her broken promises. Enough! ‘I’m not the fool I was.’

3.11b Conflicted (20 lines)

He is conflicted. He loves and hates:

Your morals turn me off, your beauty on
So I can live neither with you or without you.

He loves and lusts after his lover but describes her infidelity and betrayals. He wishes she were less attractive so he can more easily escape her grasp.

3.12 (44 lines)

Ovid laments that his poetry has attracted others to his lover, led them to her front door.

What good have my poems done me? They’ve brought me nothing but trouble.

So he’s sick not just of Corrina but of poetry, or these kinds of poems – fat lot of good they’ve done him. He claims that poets’ statements shouldn’t be taken for fact, they’re much more suited to making up wild fantasies – and then goes off on a page-long digression listing some of the most florid Greek myths.

Oh, creative poetic licence
Is boundless, and unconstrained
By historical fact

A thought worth keeping in mind when we come to the Metamorphoses.

3.13 The Festival of Juno (36 lines)

A relatively chaste poem in which he describes the festival of Juno (‘sacrifice of a heifer; crowded games’) taking place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins, describing at some length, the shrine, the procession of youths and shy maidens and so on. He ends by hoping Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

Green makes the point that the poem breaks the cardinal rule of love elegies by mentioning his wife! At a stroke this dose of spousal affection and family piety undermines the elaborate poses of the entire series. Unless, like Green, you take the rather mind-boggling view that Corrina may be based on Ovid’s wife. Personally, my experience of reading the other elegists (Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius) suggests to me that these sequences are more random, and contain more random elements, than modern tidy-minded critics would like. To us a poem about his wife breaks the fourth wall, undermines the illusion of the hard-shagging, lover-about-town image promulgated in the other poems.

3.14 Keep it to yourself (50 lines)

Ovid sounds tired, resigned. He doesn’t mind if his beloved has other affairs, but can she just keep it to herself. He describes the passion of the bedroom (stripping off, twining thigh over thigh, French kissing, ecstatic moans, the bed rattling like mad) but when you reappear in public, affect respectability and virtue. Instead of which his beloved enjoys feeding tittle-tattle about her sex life to gossips. Must she flaunt her dishevelled hair, the unmade bed, those live bites? So disappointing, so vulgar. Every time she confesses another liaison it kills him by inches. Can’t she please just deny her countless other trysts and so let him live in ignorant bliss.

3.15 Farewell to love elegy (20 lines)

Mother of tender loves, you must find another poet;
My elegies are homing on their final lap.

This final very short poem gives a brief potted biography of him, not from a rich family, but an ancient and distinguished one; from the little town of Sulmona in the region of Paelignia, which fought so bravely against Rome in the Social Wars. Farewell to elegiac verse;

Horned Bacchus is goading me on to weightier efforts, bigger
Horses, a really ambitious trip.

What’s he referring to? The Metamorphoses?

Brief summary

Reviewing the Amores I can well see how Ovid took the stock subjects or topics of the genre, one by one, and took them to the limit, developing each premise to sometimes absurd extents, stuffing each poem with the maximum number of relevant mythological references, including all possible relevant emotions – but at the same time he quite visibly did it as a joke, as a game, playfully, ironically, knowingly. Homo ludens. Thus I can see the force of A.M. Juster’s point that Ovid both a) exhausted the possibilities of the content of the genre but, more profoundly b) undermined all future attempts to take it seriously. He killed it.

Latin terminology

  • consolatio – type of ceremonial oratory, typically used rhetorically to comfort mourners at funeral
  • epicedion – funeral lament
  • exclusus amator – the shut-out lover
  • Homo ludens – playful man, game-playing man
  • laudatio – epitaph in praise of someone who’s died, often a loved one
  • paraclausithyron – poem at the beloved’s door
  • rusticitas – rusticity, the quality of country life and people, by extension, lack of education, idiocy
  • schetliasmós – ritual outburst against unjust fate
  • servitium amoris – servant of love
  • urbanitas – city fashions or manners; refinement, politeness, courtesy, urbanity, sophistication; of speech – delicacy, elegance or refinement of speech; wit, humor

Credit

The Erotic Poems of Ovid, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Books in 1982. All references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds to become a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo, in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

Those are the background, historical facts, but front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because the narrator is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

This all feels extremely tired and old, a worn-out, stereotyped concept of the writer as ah-so-alienated martyr to his superior sensitivity.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, this prose strategy comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously artistic to be enjoyable. His prose so obviously wants to be adored. It is so needy.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships. They are, in other words, a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes – literally – and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if Bennett had a more natural ability to express himself within the usual meanings of words and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

The whole thing is so nakedly designed to appeal to a certain kind of self-consciously poetic and alienated and oh-so-sensitive reader that I found it hard not to despise.

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive. Sunday supplement fiction.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness for fully understanding her specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this – turns to mush – every time the narrator thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La Bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. The realistic, rationalist man seeing the real picture while trying to protect the passionate but fragile sensitive little woman. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo. A notable exception is Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel, A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett’s novel to Greene’s. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love-making tinged with sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955). It’s the mood le Carré borrows for all his stories of doomed love between old, rational men and younger, sexy, idealistic but vulnerable women.

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole novel just feels so programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the CIA man, Alden Pyle, is in Greene’s Quiet American. Having Stipe work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation (or at least as the Americans see it). Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room with him for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our GCSE hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And he echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin, self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Narziss and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse (1930)

He drew himself, as a wanderer, a lover, a fugitive, with reaping death hard at his heels…
(Narziss and Goldmund, page 228)

‘Narziss’ is a direct transliteration of the name in original German title, Narziß und Goldmund, but the word also translates as Narcissus, which is why some modern editions are titled Narcissus and Goldmund. Goldmund translates literally as ‘gold mouth’, though you can see why this wouldn’t work so well as a title. Narcissus and Gold Mouth might begin to sound too much like a fairy tale.

Narziss and Goldmund is longer than its predecessor novel, Steppenwolf (300 pages in the Penguin edition compared to Steppenwolf’s 250 pages). And it’s far more integrated and coherent than Steppenwolf, which is built up from a number of different texts, echoing the fragmented nature of the protagonist’s divided mind. By contrast, Narziss and Goldmund maintains a calm, lyrical and mellifluous sonority throughout, leading some critics to call it Hesse’s ‘most lyrical’ novel.

Narziss and Goldmund is set in the Middle Ages and both narrative and dialogue are couched in an unobtrusive but persistent cod-medieval style which might irritate some modern readers.

‘Mistress Lisbeth,’ he said, in a friendly voice. ‘I am not come to ask you for work. I wanted to give you greeting – you, and the Master. It irks me sore to have to hear you. I can see you have had much sorrow. If your father’s thankful apprentice can do you a service – name it – it would be my recompense.’ (p.224)

But, as mentioned, it is this low-key but persistent ‘medieval’ style which gives the book its distinctive flavour and tone.

Two opposites

The two central figures are ‘types’ – of the dry intellectual, the analyser and categoriser (Narziss) and the passionate lover of life, wine and women (Goldmund).

The first fifty or so pages describe in some detail how the pair first meet, as young novitiates at the ancient monastery of Mariabronn somewhere in North Germany. Narziss is himself a junior monk but already skilled and educated enough to be put in charge of the monastery school. One day young Goldmund is dropped off by  his father, a knight, who asks the monks to educate him. He never sees his father again. It slowly emerges that he’s never known his mother who, his father told him, was a wanton hussy who ran off when Goldmund was a baby.

This will turn out to be centrally important because there is a sense, in everything that follows, right up until his death, that this missing mother, the search for the Absent Mother, is central to his psyche.

Goldmund goes a wandering

Initially Goldmund is a good scholar. He is ragged by the other boys in fights and taunts which are presumably meant to reflect the bullying of schoolboys everywhere, in all times, but he fights back and establishes a place for himself in the hierarchy. There’s a naughty excursion from the monastery when a bunch of older boys sneak out of the premises to a nearby village, where they drink wine and chat up a peasant’s pretty daughter. She takes a shine to Goldmund, who is fiercely attracted to her and fiercely tries to repress the impulse.

Narziss and Goldmund forge a special bond based on Narziss’s uncanny insight into other people. They have many intense conversations. In one of them Narziss dwells on Goldmund’s absent mother and it comes as a revelation to Goldmund that there is this great hole in the centre of his life, and he breaks down in tears. It is that kind of very intense psychological bonding between the pair which gives the book its title.

But fate is fate, or biology is biology, and Goldmund goes out walking, picking flowers and marvelling at the beauty of the world. He falls asleep and is woken in a half-dream, by a beautiful gypsy girl, Lisa, waking in her lap, as she leans down to kiss him and, to cut a long story short, she takes his virginity, which is described in flowery euphemisms appropriate for 1930.

It is a revelation. Goldmund realises he is never going to be a monk, he’s not even that good a scholar. Goldmund returns to the cloister to tell Narziss he’s leaving, there and then. He packs his bags and leaves. He finds Lisa again the next day, but this time she is scared and runs back to the husband who beats her.

Now commences the long central section of the book where Goldmund goes on the tramp, vagabonding across northern Germany, and – this may be the slightly hard bit for a modern reader to swallow – everywhere he goes he is ‘desired and appeased by women’ (p.98). With his blonde hair, good looks and slim figure, Goldmund is a ladykiller, a babe magnet.

He quickly, comprehensively and intuitively becomes an expert at sex, a connoisseur, ready and able to give every woman what she wants, whether hard and fast, or slow and sensual, responding to all moods and needs. If you’d expected a spiritual classic, it certainly has a lot of deep psychology about life and destiny, but you’ll be surprised by the amount highly sensual, soft porn writing.

Drawn and clasped to one another, they lost themselves within the scented night, saw the white, shimmering secrets of its flowers, plucking its fruits, for which they thirsted, with gentle, ever-grateful, hands. Never before had spielmann struck such a lute, or lute known fingers so strong and cunning. (p.234)

The knight and his daughters

Pages 100 to 122 describe his adventures at a castle. He is taken in by an ageing knight who, when he discovers Goldmund is a scholar, hires him to write the life’s long adventurous life story in Latin. But the knight has two daughters, Lydia and Julia, and they are soon competing for his favours. It takes a bit longer than usual but Goldmund persuades Lydia into his bed where, however, she strips and kisses a little but, irritatingly, refuses to give him what so many other gypsy girls and peasant girls and farmers’ wives have already given him.

Worse, they’re lying there one night when the door opens and in comes the jealous younger sister Julia. Lydia is panicking when Goldmund overrides her and invites Julia to join them in bed. There follows a passage where Goldmund is kissing older, stiff Lydia on one side while with his hand he strokes and then begins to masturbate young Julia on his other side, who begins to make moans of pleasure.

See what I mean about a certain soft-porn 1970s feel? That’s one way of looking at it. The other is to see all these sexy passages as extraordinarily open, candid, honest descriptions of sex for their time (1930), and to place them in the wider context of the books and their serious concerns with human psychology and spirituality. In other words to see that Hesse’s books address the entirety of the human condition, sex and death and bereavement and loss and abandonment and friendship and love and art, and that the lyrically porny sequences are just an unashamed, honest inclusion of the role sex does play in many people’s lives.

This soft porn sequence is, alas, interrupted when the older sister leaps out of bed and threatens to tell their father. Both girls go. But Lydia goes to the knight and tells him everything. Goldmund is rudely awakened the next morning by the knight who is too angry to speak, who grabs his stuff in a bundle and marches him half a mile to the bounds of his land and then tells him never to return on pain of death. It is snowing. Goldmund sets off into the freezing cold.

An hour later, Hans a servant rides after him and delivers gifts from Julia – one golden ducat, an undershirt she has woven, and a side of bacon. Well, it’s something.

Goldmund comes to a village where he begs food and then is conscripted to assist as a villager gives birth, quite a traumatic experience for a young, sensitive mind. Typically what strikes Goldmund is the way the sounds of pain are so close to the sounds of a woman’s ecstasy, which triggers characteristic philosophical meditations. He dallies in the village a while i.e. has a brief ‘affair’ with a brawny village wife, Christine.

Murders Victor the vagabond

In this village he meets another vagabond, Victor. Victor is a seasoned, wily survivor, full of impressive stories of life on the road and Goldmund is taken under his spell. They travel on together for a few days but late one night in the forest, Goldmund wakes up to find Victor stealthily rifling through his clothes looking for the precious gold ducat Goldmund had told him about. When he resists, Victor starts to strangle him, in earnest, so Goldmund finds himself with his last breaths fumbling for the small knife he keeps mainly to cut up bread and cheese, and in a final paroxysm, stabbing Victor again and again and again until the grip round his neck loosens, and the man falls away from him, bleeding profusely from multiple wounds and there and then, in the dark early hours, in a forest in winter, Victor breathes his last, leaving Goldmund staggered and appalled. (p.127)

(And this reader thinking, yet again, that these German novels have a special affinity for knife murder.)

Master Nicholas and the nature of art

Goldmund comes to a nearby city, referred to as the Bishop’s City. On the outskirts he had come across an isolated chapel and been entranced by a sculpture inside it of the Mother of God.

In the city he makes enquiries as to who carved it and discovers it is a certain Master Nicholas the sculptor. To cut a long story short, Goldmund asks to be his apprentice. Nicholas tells him to draw something, anything, on a piece of paper he gives him and the result impresses him enough to take him on.

There follow extended passages meditating on the nature of art, on the meaning of reproducing the world and God’s creatures.

Goldmund realises he has within him the faces and personalities of all the women he’s encountered and realises he must make a particular carving, bringing the essence of all these women together to create a Mother of God.

Goldmund stays with Master Nicholas for two years while he works on this figure. During that period he has many many women – the tradesman’s wives and daughters – including the serving wench in a butcher’s house, Katherine, who he calls his ‘pork and sausage maid’ (p.179).

All through this period he is tormented by the contradictions in art between the soul and the physical, despising little people who are happy with decorations, driven by a striving for the unseeable essence of the subject.

Many lengthy discussions of the nature of true art. Goldmund ponders why Master Nicholas is a master sculptor, all right, but also a journeyman craftsman and that ability, facility, doesn’t interest Goldmund. Goldmund sits by the river and realises it is those endless flashes, light off the ripples, sudden glimpses of pebbles on the riverbed, the light through a butterfly’s wings – all the art in the world can’t compete with the beauty of the actual world.

Meanwhile, Master Nicholas has been thinking and offers to make Goldmund his heir, bring him into his workshop and to marry him to his daughter, Lisbeth. Unfortunately he makes Goldmund this offer at just about the moment Goldmund has realised he doesn’t want to be a journeyman like Nicholas. Nicholas goes white with anger when Goldmund embarrassedly turns down his offer, and makes it plain he must leave immediately.

Rather as he was ordered by the angry knight to leave the castle.

So Goldmund sets off on his rambles again, despite there being so many women in the city of whom he might have taken his leave (p.184). Last, and barely noticed, is the 15-year-old lame daughter of the burghers he’s been rooming with him. As he leaves the city, she offers him a drink of fresh milk and a crust of bread and, out of politeness, he leans down and kisses her. She closes her eyes in bliss. She has had a teenage crush on him all this time but, as in an American magazine romance, Goldmund doesn’t know or care. Then he is back on the road.

The plague

Goldmund hooks up with timid young Robert, a younger tramp. We learn it is ten years since Goldmund left the monastery (p.204). He now has a blonde beard (p.209).

The pair come to a plague village, whose villagers aggressively warn them away. But Goldmund goes in and finds a family dead in their beds, prompting characteristic Hesse reflections about Death. And the artist in Goldmund is attracted by their postures and positions…

As they walk on they discover that the whole countryside is ravaged, abandoned. Coming to an empty town, Goldmund notices a beautiful young woman (of course) leaning out a window and, as usual, picks her up. Her name is Lene (p.198) and she succumbs to Goldmund’s invitation to come with them, packs a small bag and off they go. She is ‘a sweet mistress… shy and young and full of love’ (p.201)

After much wandering they come across abandoned farm buildings, decide to settle there, fix them up and make a life, rounding up stray abandoned animals.

One day Lene and Goldmund go hunting, get separated, he hears her screaming, runs and finds her being raped, grab the scrawny rapist, strangles him and dashes his head to a pulp against rocks.

Goldmund carries Lene home, washes her breast where it has been scratched and bitten so hard it is bleeding. But, somewhat inevitably, Lene gets the plague and dies in a matter of days. Robert refuses to come near the hut she’s in, then runs off never to return.

Goldmund tends Lene till she dies and then, characteristically, studies the face of death. Then he sets fire to the hut, as a funeral pyre and to cleanse it, and hits the road again, wandering through a landscape of horror where the deserted villages and towns are surrounded by plague pits, passing processions of flagellants, watching the lynching of people scapegoated for the disaster, not least the burning alive of Jews in their houses in one town. Horror. The Kingdom of Bones (p.212)

But he watches it all with fascination, soaking up the suffering and despair, never tiring of watching the Grim Reaper at work.

Goldmund stumbles across a beautiful young Jewess (isn’t he lucky to come across so many beautiful young women) weeping beside a big burnt-out fire and discovers this is where 15 Jews from the nearby town were murdered and burned to death, including her father.

Goldmund is touched and offers to take her with him and protect her but can’t stop himself also trying to seduce her with honeyed worlds. Well, for once it doesn’t work. Unsurprisingly, she is disgusted, says all Christians are alike, murderers and hypocrites (and she might well have thrown in the accusation that all men are alike) and runs off.

Goldmund’s head is full of all the images he has seen, a medieval panorama. With increasing urgency he wants to return to ‘the Bishop’s city’ where he lived and worked for Master Nicholas. When he finally arrives back there he is overwhelmed by happy nostalgia of re-seeing all the familiar sights, the old churches, the market square, the clear purling river.

But, inevitably, Master Nicholas is dead of the plague… and his beautiful, haughty daughter, Lisbeth? She is now yellow-faced, gaunt and shrivelled. He offers help but Lisbeth (and the raddled old servant Margret) scorn him.

Wandering the town’s streets Goldmund bumps into lame Marie, who had a teenage crush on him, and she invites him modestly back to her parents’ house. They are honestly glad to see him. Inspired, Goldmund starts drawing hundreds of pictures of everything he’s seen in the Landscape of Death.

Lady Agnes

One day Goldmund is struck by the sight of a haughty beautiful rich woman riding by on a horse. He must have her. It is a challenge. He places himself at the town gates every morning as she goes a-riding. He appears under the trees near where she stops the horse for her daily rest.

After a few days she deigns to talk to him. She gives him a token, a gold necklace, which gives him admittance to the castle. He goes there that evening, claiming to have found the lady’s necklace and wanting to return it. He is allowed into the busy castle courtyard, full of horses and bustle.

The lady’s maid takes him up to her ladyship’s luxury rooms and there, amid the fur and incense, on a rich white bed, he strips and makes love to her, as – inevitably – ‘she has never been loved before’!

If you let yourself go along with this mood, it is a scene of exquisite sensitivity; if you are a little more jaded, it is like an extended Flake advert.

But the next very evening, when he returns for some more soft-focus erotic goings-on, he is trapped and caught by the jealous husband, Count Heinrich.

As the big angry knight opens the bedchamber door, Lady Agnes pushes Goldmund into her closet. Here the knight discovers him but Goldmund is quick witted enough to pretend he is a thief who has broken in to steal the precious dresses and furs.

The count believes him and says he will be hanged in the morning. Goldmund’s wrists are tied and he is led down to a pitch-black dungeon and thrown in. As the churls are unlocking the door to the dungeon, two priests visiting the castle pass by, and one stops to ask if the prisoner is to be confessed and shriven, then tells the guards he will come at dawn to perform this service.

Goldmund spends the night trying to reconcile his soul to death, to never more see the sun or feel the wind or hear the birds. He also spends the whole night freeing his wrists from their tight cords, cutting himself badly in the process. When dawn comes, the door opens and a cowled monk descends the stairs into his cell.

Goldmund is fully prepared to whip up hi stool, dash the monk’s brains out, steal his habit and make a getaway. Imagine his amazement when the monk pushes back his cope and reveals the face of… his old, old, deepest friend, Narziss, now thin and gaunt with asceticism and the responsibilities of command. For Narziss has now become the abbot at Mariabronn.

Narziss raises Goldmund to his feet and says he spent a lot of effort the night before pleading with the angry knight for his life. Result: Goldmund will not hang. Instead the other monks dress his wounds, pack their bags, mount their horses, and ride out of the castle courtyard. Even at this late stage, and despite having learned his lesson, Goldmund still looks up at the windows overlooking the courtyard, hoping the beautiful Lady Agnes will be looking out of one at him. But no.

Goldmund rejoices as his horse carries him through the scenery of all his adventures, he reviews them, the many women, murdering Victor, the cold nights lying in the forest and so on.

Then they reach the old monastery and Goldmund is overcome with memories of his youth. Here he is kindly invited to stay as a guest, with no demands on him to become a lay brother let alone a monk, by his wise old friend.

After a spell of feeling a bit lost and bewildered, Goldmund decides on a plan, which is to work as a carver again, and create a wooden relief spiralling up the steps to a lectern where monks read texts to each other in the refectory.

This penultimate section of the book allows for:

  1. an emotional reunion of Narziss and Goldmund and a series of conversations during which they revive their friendship and remember the old times, the old abbot et al
  2. a series of debates between them about the nature of the scholarly intellectual mind and the artistic creative mind. Goldmund comes to realise he has led a chaotic and disorderly life, but when he tells Narziss how much he admires the other’s purity and devotion, Narziss says that’s only because he knows nothing of his (Narziss’s) intellectual doubts and uncertainties. Both envy the other his clarity and conviction, while both reveal they are, in fact, riven by doubts and uncertainties.

Womanising

Almost all of the long middle section of the book describing Goldmund’s wandering is, in my opinion, a little undermined by his endless womanising.

I take the point that it’s designed to show Goldmund’s immersion in ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ and so point up the basic dichotomy between the Worldly Personality and the Scholarly, Secluded Personality. My criticism is that these worldly scenes describe the same schoolboy fascination with seducing and stripping nubile young women without any attempt to explore the deeper levels a heterosexual relationship can go to, let alone the complicated problems relationships often develop.

Instead it’s just one woman after another, just as in a porn film.

Anyway, this passage at the end of the book discards all the womanising and sensual rhetoric, and returns to much more abstract discussions between the two friends about art and religion.

There’s a lovely passage where, after a good long time of working on it (with a young boy assistant he’s been given, Erich) Goldmund shows his carving to Narziss, and it prompts the older man to a wonderfully insightful speculation about the intellectual and the artistic routes to God.

He mulls over how the intellectual personality strains to clear away all the clutter of the world in order to strive for the simplest, purest, most fundamental truths – while the artist throws him or herself into the things of the world, precisely into all the clutter, and, by dint of his or her passion, reveals beneath it the pattern underlying the world’s profusion.

‘I see you by the opposite way, the way which leads through the sense, reach as deep a knowledge as any that most thinkers achieve, of the essence and secret of our being, and a far more living mode of setting it forth.’ (Narziss addressing Goldmund, p.280)

This passage is worth rereading and savouring, as many passages of the book are, for example the couple of pages where Goldmund sits by the river, watching its ever-changing surface and pondering the nature of manmade beauty contrasted with the ever-fleeting beauty of the natural world.

Briefer but just as full of juice and wisdom is the passage where Narziss instructs Goldmund how to pray.

But, says the younger man, my mind is overwhelmed with doubts, about whether my prayers can ever be heard by a God who probably doesn’t exist and, even if he does, probably doesn’t hear them.

To which Narziss replies, imagine you’re singing a song. You don’t let yourself get swamped with doubts about whether you’re doing a good rendition or whether the composer would be upset by your voice or whether anyone’s listening properly and so on. You abandon yourself to the song. You give it your best shot. Singing is its own justification. Same with prayer.

I can see why Hesse inspires such loyalty among his devotees. He discusses serious problems with seriousness, he isn’t patronising or ironic, and his characters discuss ideas which occur to any educated person clearly and simply, and sometimes, with a depth of feeling or insight which clearly derive from the author’s lifelong engagement with these ideas.

And the depth and seriousness leave their mark on the reader. Some of these passages are really stirring.

Goldmund hits the road again

But all good things come to an end. It takes Goldmund two years to carve the wooden relief and when it is finally done, and installed on the steps and pulpit, he returns to his workshop and feels empty and spent.

He begins another work, a statue of the Mother of God, but goes absent for long walks in the country, feeling increasingly restless. He encounters a young peasant woman, Francisca, but is struck that, although he uses all his old tricks and tells her romantic tales of life on the road etc, she listens politely as to an old man, as to her father. Ah. He is old.

Back in the monastery, Goldmund realises he has grey in his hair and wrinkles round his eyes but more than that, he feels old.

So he leaves the monastery. With Narziss’s blessing he departs, leaving the narrative to describe Narziss’s sudden sense of emptiness. Narziss admires the way Goldmund’s wastrel, vagabond life has made him capable of creating such exquisite carvings which will bespeak the glory of God and his creation long after Narziss and his dry, scholarly theology is forgotten.

Goldmund returns, a broken man

Inevitably, Goldmund returns, in the autumn of the same year, but much changed, transfigured. Now he is an ill old man and Erich his assistant is appalled to see him, help him back into the workshop and put him to bed. After some days, Narziss comes to see him and is also appalled. Now Goldmund is grey-haired and sick, he has broken ribs and internal injuries.

As his health fails, Goldmund tells Narziss what happened. Turns out his real motivation to leave was not a general romantic urge to hit the road, but that he’d heard that Lady Agnes was in the area with Count Heinrich. Improbably, Goldmund had managed to secure an audience with her, but the Lady told him to his face that he is no longer the golden youth, the blonde sex god, that he was – and she turns away, uninterested.

Heartbroken, Goldmund rides off and doesn’t mind when his horse stumbles and throws him down into a gulley. He lands hard in a stream, breaks some ribs and lies all night in the freezing mountain water. Next day he staggers up and on and eventually is found and placed in a hospice, where he stays for months, sells the horse, uses up the money Narziss gave him and eventually realises he had to stagger back to Mariabronn.

Here Goldmund dies. On his deathbed, he says he is not afraid of death. In what we now realise was the great defining conversation of their youths, when Narziss had identified the central pillar of his personality as being the absence of his mother. Goldmund says that Narziss had given back his mother, restored the image of his mother to the central place in his life.

Now the pains in his chest feel not like the broken ribs and infections, but as if his mother, his beloved mother, the earth mother Eve, is putting her fingers between his ribs and pulling out his heart, taking it to her. For only with a mother can you die. ‘How can anyone love without a mother, and how can we die without a mother?’

And on these last words and their rather shocking image, Goldmund dies, leaving Narziss distraught.


I’m caught between two views, as I am with all the Hesse I’ve read.

Against

With my hard hat on, I know it is romantic twaddle. By that I mean that every scene is lit with a sentimental romantic light, and profoundly unrealistic.

1. Painless vagabonding Take the way he survives as a vagabond, with no food or money, and travelling across north Europe in the winter, for not weeks, or months, but years on end. I know people did do this, but a lot of them died of starvation and exposure. After a week sleeping rough in a forest, with no food and no blankets or bedding you would be in very poor shape, more a J.G. Ballard character at the end of their tether than a handsome swain.

2. Women everywhere Whereas Goldmund is always in such tip-top condition that, wherever he goes, every woman that he meets – virgin or housewife – throws themselves at him, and he ploughs his way through hundreds and hundreds of women.

3. The dialogue And then there’s the diction, the sub-Tennysonian melliflous fake medievalism, all palfreys and pilgrims, varlets and churls, like scenes from a thousand pre-Raphaelite paintings. As a tiny instance take the moment when Goldmund speaks to the haughty, high-born lady by the ivy-covered town wall, and offers his devotion:

‘Oh’, he replied, ‘I would as lief make you a gift as take one. It is myself I would offer you fair woman, and then you shall do as you will with me.’ (p.231)

It is all written in this style.

4. Lucky And the way he keeps landing on his feet – in the castle of the knight who needs a Latin scholar, in the household of the Master artist Nicholas – is more like a fable or fairy tale than an adult narrative.

5. Sex And the way there always just happens to be a nubile and beautiful young woman in the offing for him to seduce, fondle, strip and make love to… is more like a 1970s soft porn movie than reality.

Gently he unclasped the white fur at her neck and unsheathed her body. (p.234)

Indeed, the entirety of Goldmund’s adventures could be devastatingly critiqued as a sustained example of male wish-fulfilment, as the most basic sexist fantasy that more or less every women you meet is ready and willing to have sex with you, at no more than a smile and a wink.

None of the women appear to have periods or any other medical problems or difficulties. And nobody in this dreamworld appears to have a sexually transmitted disease.

6. Death as romantic And take the fundamentally romantic notion that Death is somehow romantic, seductive and sensual, a warm loving mother luring you into her bosomy embrace – an image which emerges in the plague scenes and recurs at the end.

‘I’m curious to die because it’s still my belief, or my dream, that I’m on my way back to my mother; because I hope my death will be a great happiness – as great as I had of my first woman. I can never rid myself of the thought that, instead of death with his sickle, it will be my mother who takes me into herself again, and leads me back into nothingness and innocence.’ (Goldmund, p.297)

Twaddle. Having seen death up close, I found absolutely nothing redeeming or good about it at all. It is the grief-stricken cessation of life. The sensual penumbra Hesse casts over it is late-romantic, 1890s sentimentality.

For

On the other hand… although the plots which deliver them up may be questionable, the intensity with which Hesse describes the emotional and sexual entanglements, especially the menage a trois at the knight’s castle, are conceived and described with an intense sensuality which really goes home to your imagination, reminding you of the best and most sensual experiences in your own life.

Similarly, the vagabonding is to be taken with a pinch of salt: it’s a narrative framework, a scaffolding, an age-old narrative trope designed to deliver a steady stream of situations which allow Goldmund/Hesse to meditate on the meaning of life, and death, of art and suffering, as he encounters and observes them.

And although he may not have anything blindingly original to say about these subjects, nonetheless reading a Hesse book means that you engage with these questions in a sustained and serious way for several days, through the medium of his lyrical and measured prose. And this can turn out to be a very moving and thought-provoking experience.

And because the characters in the books cover quite a range of topics, chances are that some, at least, of the subjects will touch a chord. For me it was the entire sequence with the Master carver and in particular the scene where Goldmund sits by the river and mulls over why some art may be technically finished and immaculate but doesn’t move you, whereas other, less finished works, for some reason touch your soul.

Conclusion

The hokiness of the plot, and the often sentimental romanticism of the worldview, and the questionable womanising, are all forgiveable because the book delivers a steady stream of deeply pondered thinking on a range of perennial topics.

Credit

Narziß und Goldmund by Hermann Hesse was published in 1930. It was translated into English by Geoffrey Dunlop in an edition which appeared in 1932, titled Death and the Lover. Penguin Modern Classics republished this translation in 1971, with the different title of Narziss and Goldmund. All references are to this 1971 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

The Anarchist by Hermann Broch (1931)

Introduction to Hermann Broch

Here’s a brief biographical sketch from a New York Times review of the paperback reprint of The Sleepwalkers

Born in 1886, Broch was a product of that fin-de-siecle Vienna that he analysed devastatingly in his brilliant study Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time‘ (recently available in English). The dutiful son of a Jewish textile manufacturer, he attended the local technical institute, took his engineering degree at a textile school in Alsace-Lorraine, traveled to the United States to observe milling procedures and in 1907 patented a cotton-milling device. When his father retired in 1915, Broch took over the business and in the next 10 years became what he cynically termed a captain of industry.

At the same time, he nurtured ambitions for an intellectual career. For years he sporadically attended courses in mathematics and philosophy at the University of Vienna and wrote essays and reviews for various liberal journals. In 1927 he dismayed his family by selling the plant and declaring his intention to pursue a doctorate. But within a year, disenchanted by the disdain for ethical questions displayed by the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, he gave up his academic plans and turned to fiction. As he wrote in a ‘Methodological prospectus‘ for his publisher, he had become convinced that those realms of experience rejected by contemporary philosophy can best be dealt with in literature.

The Sleepwalkers (1931 to 1932) is a thesis novel with a vengeance. According to Broch, sleepwalkers are people living between vanishing and emerging ethical systems, just as the somnambulist exists in a state between sleeping and walking. The trilogy portrays three representative cases of ‘the loneliness of the I’ stemming from the collapse of any sustaining system of values. (In Search of the Absolute Novel by Theodore Ziolkowski)

The Anarchist is the second in the trilogy of novels which Broch published simultaneously under the umbrella title The Sleepwalkers in 1931. An English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir was published in 1932 which, as far as I can tell, remains the only English version. Some English editions have an introduction; mine doesn’t. What the book is really crying out for is notes of some kind but I suspect that sales of it are so minuscule that any annotation project would never be viable.

The Anarchist

It is March 1903 and Broch throws us straight into the fray. 30-year-old clerk August Esch (‘lean and robust’, p.208, ‘a strong fellow and not in the least afflicted by nerves’, p.219; with ‘short stiff hair, dark head and tanned ruddy skin’, p.231) lives in Cologne.

He has just been fired from his job as a clerk at Stemberg and Company, wholesale wine merchants, due, he believes, to the machinations of the hypocritical head clerk (p.201) Nentwig, who he will spend the rest of the book doggedly hating. Esch was caught out in some minor error of the accounts while he believes Nentwig to be guilty of much larger scale frauds, though he can’t prove it. This grudge will fester through the entire novel and form the core of Esch’s slowly mounting sense of global injustice…

Esch walks along the canal to the low-rent bar-cum-restaurant run by Mother Hentjen, a fat 36-year-old woman once married to Herr Hentjen whose portrait hangs on the wall. Sometimes the rowdy boozy male customers take the serving girls Hede or Thusnelda home and sleep with them, it’s that kind of place.

Angry Esch shares a beer and a bratwurst with Martin Geyring, the cheerful crippled socialist agitator and member of the Social Democratic Party, who walks with crutches. Geyring tips him off about a vacancy for a clerk in the Central Rhine Shipping Company in Mannheim. Esch goes back to Stemberg and blackmails a good reference out of the vile Nentwig. He applies for the Mannheim job and gets it and a few day later sets off by train.

He arrives at the premises down on the docks and is shown to his unglamorous offices, a glass-partitioned box at the end of a long row of sheds (p.173). He is informed that the proprietor, a Mr Bertrand, a ‘renegade officer’, is a decent sort (p.187). Now, anyone who’s read the first book in the trilogy knows this must refer to Eduard von Bertrand, who was a major character in it, and a successful businessman back when that book was set, in 1888.

Anyway, August finds accommodation with a brother and sister who rent rooms, a customs inspector from the docks named Balthasar Korn and his ‘elderly virgin’ sister, Erna (in fact she’s not a virgin, p.210, but is much later described as ‘that skinny sallow little thing’, p.329). Erna is looking for a husband so she loses no opportunity to flirt with Esch, to hint at her fine collection of lingerie, to press her thigh against him when the trio go to bars or restaurants.

One day, down at the docks, Esch comes across a gentleman complaining that the stevedores are unloading his luggage in a clumsy way which might damage it. Esch steps in to reprimand them and the gentleman introduces himself as Herr Gernerth, new lessee of the Thalia Variety Theatre (p.177).

Gernerth gives Esch free tickets and Esch takes along Korn and Erna. Among the other acts is a gripping performance by a knife thrower and his beautiful assistant who adopts a crucifixion pose against a back backcloth while he sends razor sharp daggers whistling past her body.

Entranced and haunted by the deep feelings this sight awakens, Esch returns repeatedly and eventually is introduced to the couple, Herr Teltscher, whose stage name is Teltini, and Ilona, both of them Hungarian by birth (p.184). He is also, apparently, Jewish (p.206), Jewishness and anti-Semitism forming a small but persistent hum in the background.

They all go for a meal together. It becomes clear Korn is hitting on Ilona big time, putting his arm round her shoulder, while Esch is irritated by the old ‘virgin’ Erna continuing to press up against him.

A new character is introduced – Fritz Lohberg, a prim and innocent young tobacconist who Esch buys his cigarettes from. Lohberg’s shop is light and pleasant and the smell of tobacco gives it a lovely manly feeling of good fellowship. That said, Lohberg is a bit of a milksop: he is a member of the Salvation Army and keeps pamphlets on his counter promoting vegetarianism and against alcohol.

Korn follows Esch and also becomes a fellow of Lohberg’s shop, though Esch resents his big bearish vulgarity and Lohberg is terrified of him.

Korn finds out that Lohberg is going to an evening rally of the Salvation Army and insists they go along. To his surprise, Esch finds the Army’s singing and the religious sincerity very moving and comes within an ace of singing along himself. He realises how lonely he is. He has darker, brooding thoughts, about life and death and our essential loneliness, which remind the reader of some of the darker thoughts of the protagonist of the previous novel, The Romantic.

Esch has presentiments and feelings which he can’t bring into focus or define but which are mixed up with smells of the city at dusk, of fresh air out under the trees, or the dense cigar smoke of beer-cellars.

That night, driven by something like spiritual yearning, he finds himself loitering outside Fräulein Korn’s bedroom, making a bit of a noise, and hearing responding noises inside, until he is emboldened to go in. She is not naked but not wearing much and happy to flirt and encourage him. However, as things become serious, she suddenly calls a halt and utters those philistine, bourgeois, narrow, provincial words: ‘When we’re man and wife’ – and Esch recoils, not only as an homme moyen sensual who has been balked of the physical pleasure he was psyched up to enjoy, but also because he was in the midst of a kind of spiritual transport, and hardly anything in the world could have disgusted him more than the bathetic and banal linkage of coitus with the legal forms demanding by petty-minded and the conventional.

From that moment he hates Erna with a passion, and Erna returns the scorn with knobs on. She takes great delight in confirming Esch’s growing suspicions that someone else is padding around the house late at night, and that it is none other than Ilona, who has started to sleep with her crude, bearish brother.

Martin the trade union activist had popped in to see Esch every time his work took him through Mannheim, and now tells him he’ll be addressing a political meeting and invites him. Esch goes along to the meeting in the public room of a small tavern, although he recognises one of the policemen on the door who warns him to keep away.

In the event there is a lot of barracking from the floor when Martin utters unpatriotic sentiments, at which point a load of police enter the premises, go onstage to announce that it is shut down and they must all disperse, and arrest Martin for sedition (p.204). In sympathy with the arrest of their trade union representative the transport and dockers union goes on strike, meaning loading and unloading on the docks where Esch works comes to a standstill and he is increasingly at a loose end.

One night Esch is sitting in Gernerth’s seedy office at the theatre when Teltscher enters, sweating and beaming after his act. But when he demands payment, Generth goes into a familiar obstructive routine about overheads, rent, expenses and so on, and the pair of them wish that if only they could come up with an act which had next to no overheads but would really pack the punters in.

Out of the blue Generth suggests women wrestlers!

Korn makes his entrance into the office to meet Ilona, who is by now hopelessly infatuated with him, then they go off for the night. Gernerth, Teltscher and Esch discuss the women wrestler idea some more and Esch volunteers to pay a call on the theatrical agent, Oppenheimer, on the scheduled trip back home to Cologne he was due to make in a few days (p.206).

It’s a deal. If Esch can drum up some women wrestlers and, even better, some financing, then he can buy into the business and take a share of the profits. Suits Esch. Since the dockers strike started, there’s been nothing to do except hang round the docks, bored.

There’s a comedy of manners scene where Esch invites the weedy religious Lohberg to tea with Erna, the man-eater, who decides that, to spite Esch, she will match Lohberg’s investment in the women wrestling scheme i.e. invest 1,000 Marks. During the rather stiff and formal tea, Erna wonders if Lohberg is a virgin. She wonders if he cries during sex. Esch watches her and is disgusted.

Driven by his obscure yearning for purity or atonement, aroused by attending the Salvation Army meeting, Esch makes the irrational decision that he will serve the new women wrestling scheme. He has no money to invest, but he will devote time to making it happen, in fact he decides to quit his job at the wine importers. In some obscure way, he feels that serving like this will pay his debt. It’s something to do with being a book-keeper and wanting to keep tidy accounts where debts match credits, something to do with Martin being in prison while he is still a free man…

So returning from Mannheim back to Cologne, Esch visits Mother Hentjen, bringing her a nice present of a model of the Schiller Memorial outside that Mannheim theatre, but she inadvertently lets slip some remarks about her mysterious past, and disappears in a huff.

Esch goes to the office of the legendary theatrical agent, Oppenheimer, only to discover it is a messy shambles and that Herr O keeps irregular hours, according to the scornful neighbours.

(America In case I haven’t mentioned it before, Esch is obsessed with the idea of emigrating to America, something he discusses with both Lohberg and Korn. It reminds me that Kafka’s first attempt at a novel, begun in 1912, describes a young man emigrating to America in search of a better life. It reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s obsession with America, its gangsters and its place names, none of which he had visited in the 1930s. It reminds me of the descriptions in George Grosz’s autobiography of his boyhood obsession with America. Was it a widespread movement at the turn of the century, this German romantic ideal of emigrating to the New World?)

The women wrestler idea progresses: Oppenheimer rustles up a variety of women from the music halls of Cologne and gives them exotic performers names. Esch attends an ‘audition’ where they try to persuade them to put on tights and wrestle, although some of the women flatly refuse and walk out.

Meanwhile, in a different part of his mind, Esch grows steadily more obsessed with the injustice of his friend Martin Geyring the trade union activist being locked up in prison. He discovers that Martin was locked up as a result of a deal done between Bertrand, owner of the major import-export firm in the area, and the police. Hmmm, so not such a decent guy after all.

After some thought, Esch writes an article or letter decrying the injustice of Martin being in gaol and delivers it in person to the Social Democrat paper, The People’s Guardian. Here he is humiliated by the editor’s blasé and patronising attitude, politely pointing out that they wrote all the articles about Martin that they needed to at the time he was arrested, not weeks later (p.228 ff).

The editor lets slip that Bertrand is a sodomite, although only ‘down in Italy’ (p.230). To the reader of the previous novel, The Romantic, this is a dynamite revelation because it sheds a new light not only on Bertrand’s dandyish personality, wit and irony, but on the odd, teasing relationship he had with The Romantic‘s lead female character, Elisabeth.

Anyway, in this novel Bertrand slowly comes to symbolise to Esch all the wickedness and corruption in the world, which he feels oppressed by but is too thick and uneducated to analyse coherently.

Thus, by half way through the novel, Esch is describing Bertrand as ‘the Antichrist’ (p.237). This seemed such an excessive thought that I wondered whether the novel might be leading up to Esch assassinating Bertrand. This is typical of hundreds of sentences describing Esch’s thoughts:

It was a matter of striking a blow at the whole thing, or at least at the head of the offence. (p.243)

In fact a constellation of feelings begins to coalesce in his mind: Esch felt a powerful sense of yearning for something higher when he attended the Salvation Army meeting; he is disgusted by Korn and Ilona’s affair; he sublimates or vents this in mounting antagonism to the fact that Teltscher and Oppenheimer are Jewish. When he sees Teltscher and Oppenheimer walking towards him chatting about the wrestling project, Esch bursts out in anti-Jewish insults and Oppenheimer is prompted to say ‘he’s an anti-Semite’ (p.238), although, a little puzzlingly, they continue on pretty good terms.

All this combines with the powerful but incoherent sense Esch has that things are in chaos, that the whole world is ruled by the corrupt (the sodomite Bertrand), that there is injustice everywhere (his friend Martin in gaol). In particular this offends his book-keeper’s ‘upright soul’ and sense that there must be order – every debit must be balanced by a credit. (p.242)

So by this stage, half way through the novel, I wondered whether the novel is meant to be the portrait of a nascent fascist, a proto Nazi…

More plot

Since many summaries of the novel I’ve read describe it as a rollicking account of Esch and his troupe of women wrestlers, I was struck by how little description of them the book contains. There’s a page or so on the process of hiring the women wrestlers, training them and organising them. There’s a bit about sending out posters and publicity, a paragraph describing Teltscher supervising the unloading of the state sets at the Cologne docks, but then – in a glaring omission – no description of the Grand Opening Night. And only the briefest paragraph cursorily describing one fight. You might have expected at least a page about the actual art of wrestling, the different holds and manoeuvres, the rules maybe, explaining how they were staged and arranged, who the best ones were, and so on.

None of that is here. Instead Broch takes it as read that they become a regular nightly attraction at the Alhambra theatre, and gives us one description of Esch proudly walking among the packed tables at the cabaret theatre, and beginning to enjoy the profits he is sharing.

In other words, Broch is more interested in the ongoing evolution of Esch’s character than in external events, per se, and certainly than the women’s wrestling which is all but ignored. Shame. Could have been interesting, in its way, and possibly very funny. But Broch isn’t that kind of writer.

Esch is at Mother Hentjen’s looking at the wine list when it dawns on him that he should use his expertise to improve it or to get her better deals. Looking through a newspaper he reads about wine auctions held at a place called Saint-Gaor up the Rhine.

So he persuades a reluctant Frau Hentjen to accompany him, and Broch describes at length a day trip down the Rhine wherein the interest is, as usual, in the changing moods of the two characters, closely connected with the time of day and the setting (on the ferry up the Rhine), walking through the shadowy streets, climbing the dusty path up the Lorelei. By the end of the trek, Mother Hentjen is so exhausted that, plumped back in her seat on the train home she makes no complaint when Esch brushes her cheek then kisses her – because she is too exhausted to notice.

Back at her restaurant in Cologne she livens up a bit, but bids him her usual brisk goodnight, treating him the same as all the other punters, but Esch loiters, then goes up to her room, inflamed with conviction that the kiss was a promise and also overcome with the same kind of overblown semi-religious, world-saving fervour we’ve seen mounting in his character throughout the story.

Thus he overcomes Mother Hentjen and rapes her, not in her bedroom but in an out-of-the-way alcove which contains two spare beds, although she keeps on shaking her head, No, till the end.

Esch settles in to be Mother Hentjen’s lover but in a very peculiar way, and Broch devotes a couple of pages of characteristically long, impressionistic sentences describing the strange trance Hentjen goes into whenever Esch approaches. He comes to her in her afternoon siesta or at night after closing time and how she submits to his embrace from a great distance, from a place where she doesn’t even acknowledge herself any more, so that the more furiously Esch labours in vain to prompt an animal grunt of lust from her, the more determined she becomes to stay silent.

Nonetheless, Mother Hentjen accepts his animal lusts on her body, and they become an item – for this reader, at any rate, an odd and disturbing item.

Esch continues his obsession with emigrating to America. He goes into a bookshop (something he has rarely done in his life – an indication of his low level of education and intelligence) and buys a book about America, poring over the sepia photos and memorising facts and figures about this marvellous country. In his simplicity he imagines it as a place of justice and honour where innocent trade union organisers aren’t locked up (like Martin) at the behest of perverted company owners (like Bertrand).

Gernerth comes up with the idea of hiring a negro woman wrestler. Already the wrestling women have been given (entirely fake) names and are claimed to be from different countries. In each bout care is taken that the German girl ends up triumphant.

Esch repeats his suggestions of emigrating to America. Teltscher says he’ll stand no chance in America where they already have women’s wrestling, but in Mexico or South America there’s a shortage of women, so if the wrestling doesn’t turn a profit, the women can always go back on the game. But blondes, they must be blondes. Latinos like blondes.

So Esch, naively in this as in all his other endeavours, returns to scouring the bars and brothels of Cologne, this time looking for blondes. In an obscure wish to avoid Mother Hentjen’s reproaches, and to show that he isn’t using the services of prostitutes on his investigations, Esch goes out of his way to also visit the homosexual brothels.

This is a rather cack-handed plot device which allows Broch to take us into gay brothels circa 1903. Here Esch quickly discovers that Bertrand is a legendary sodomite, possessed of vast riches, a luxurious house and a steam yacht crewed by handsome young men, and that he enjoys picking up rent boys, for a while.

Esch discovers one such boy, Harry Köhler who, he discovers, had a brief relationship with Bertrand. Over drinks in a bar Esch hears Harry repeat Bertrand’s notions about love being based on detachment, which the reader of the first novel remembers Bertrand elaborately explaining to the sceptical Elisabeth 15 years earlier. Clearly it is his established spiel.

Anyway, it is Mother Hentjen’s birthday and we are surprised to be reminded, from the way she is described as fat and old and dried-up, that she is just 37.

She has gotten used to Esch turning up towards closing time, and taking her to the alcove (not her private bedroom) where on the spare bed he spears her stiff, unyielding and silent body. On the night of her birthday she is, for once, slightly responsive, but Esch realises she is consumed with jealousy over his involvement with the women wrestlers, and suspects he has a woman in every town he travels to. With indeterminate seriousness, she threatens to ‘do him in’ if she finds him being unfaithful to her. By this stage I was finding the petty-minded, stupid behaviour of a lot of these characters rather tiresome.

Esch, driven by increasingly obscure but powerful urges to ‘do the right thing’, whatever that is, decides it is time to extract from the wrestling business the initial investment and profits due to Fräulein Erna and Lohberg back in Cologne. He goes to see Gernerth who protests like fury, not least because the women wrestling attraction is losing popularity and struggling to make a profit. He gives Esch half what’s owed to his friends.

Esch take the train back to Mannheim and looks up Fräulein Erna, has tea with her and the milksop Lohberg. When Esch reports that he’s only brought only half the money owed to her, Erna flies into a fury. Despite this, a little later Esch is standing over her as she writes a receipt and finds himself stroking her cheek and then they kiss and then they go up to her bedroom and make love.

Immersed in the flow of the text, I accepted this development as many others, which I didn’t really understand or believe, but which flowed with the same lack of logic as him raping Mother Hentjen. I’d have preferred Erna to have remained an entertainingly vicious enemy and felt simply disappointed that they ended up sleeping together. Aren’t people boring, at least in novels. In novels, in fiction, in literature, it is so often about love love love or sex sex sex.

Anyway, Erna consents to have sex with Esch every night of his stay in Mannheim, despite the fact that they both know she is engaged to the weedy tobacconist, Lohberg. Which is so wildly beyond the psychology of any woman I’ve ever met or heard about that, by this stage, I seemed to be reading a novel from a parallel dimension. Or a different time. Or a different culture.

Esch dutifully visits Martin in prison and is infuriated that he seems to be taking his incarceration so calmly. Martin was, in fact, only sentenced to three months, for sedition, but Esch has worked himself up into a vast confused state of anger at the entire order of things, based on confused grievances at: poor Ilona having to stand by the board and have daggers thrown at her, at Martin being arrested simply for calling for the brotherhood of man, and at the corruption of Bertrand the unnatural sodomite who seems to be able to get away with it all.

This is all muddled in with his Salvation Army experience of yearning for a better world and, on the other hand, his narrow-minded, book-keeper’s obsession with balancing accounts, making everything just so and imposing order, an order which, in his feverish hallucinations, seems to include sacrifice, his own acts of sacrifice plus some obscure sense that someone must die or be murdered.

For some reason, murder and death and sacrifice have, by this stage, become the keywords of the text.

This delirious brew detaches itself from reality in an extended sequence where Esch takes the train from Mannheim to Badenweiler on the edge of the Black Forest. For it is here – according to one of the rent boy, Harry Köhler’s, friends in the gay bar, a fat musician named Alfons (his wobbling folds of fat are repeatedly described) – that Bertrand has his big estate.

As in a dream, Esch walks through town to the gates of the estate, walks unopposed through the gates, enters the house, mounts the stairs and finds himself meeting Bertrand, shaking his hand, welcomed into his study and talking to him. There follow pages of heady, pseudo-philosophical conversation which sound fine but didn’t mean anything to me. Here’s Bertrand:

‘No one can see another in the darkness, Esch, and that cloudless clarity of yours is only a dream. You know that I cannot keep you beside me, much as you fear your loneliness. We are a lost generation. I too can only go about my business.’
It was only natural that Esch should feel deeply stricken, and he said:
‘Nailed to the cross.’

This means nothing to me and apart from the fact that a dream sequence appears to have strayed into an otherwise fairly realistic novel, I just couldn’t process or compute this sequence.

According to the Wikipedia summary of the novel, Esch had visited with the intention of murdering Bertrand. But I found Esch’s consciousness so confused that I found the Bertrand visit a series of inconsequential and dreamlike sentences which conveyed no hard facts or events. It didn’t help that the visit is immediately preceded by a long digression describing a kind of dream voyage by ship to America. Taken together the entire thing seemed like a strange, dreamlike fantasy.

Certainly at no point did I feel it was ever Esch’s intention to hurt Bertrand and the scene contains no sense of threat or danger, and no dramatic reversal as of Bertrand talking him out if it, at all.

Esch goes to see Martin a second time in prison and slips him a packet of cigarettes while the easy-going warden turns a blind eye. Martin casually suggests Esch will never see him alive again, which just exacerbates Esch’s confused sense that some kind of sacrifice is required for him to be free of the past.

Esch returns to Cologne after his six-day excursion and returns to Mother Hentjen’s restaurant. His thought processes are really confused by now. He gets angry that MJ is once again cool to him in front of all her customers and storms out. But then he returns after the restaurant has closed, insists on being taken up to her bed, and assaults her almost at once.

Afterwards she is quiet as he goes off into one of his complex, contradictory long fantastical thought processes which winds him up into such a fury that he slaps her round the face and immediately proposes that they get married, to which she meekly replies yes. The reader is by this stage in the twilight zone of a completely alien psychology.

Next morning, the sight of the portrait of the original Herr Hentjen hanging on the wall of the restaurant drives Esch to (yet another) paroxysm of fury. He calls for paper and pen, and there and then writes a letter to the Chief of Police denouncing Bertrand as a homosexual and a pervert, folds it in his pocket.

He posts it next day on  hi way to see Gernerth who, he discovers, is away from his office. Then Teltscher the knife thrower arrives and tells him just how weak the women wrestling business has become (there were only fifty customers in the audience the night before), and they discuss how they can recoup their investment from the mysteriously absent Gernerth.

Esch is still nudging Teltscher to come to America with him where Esch – like an idiot – thinks they’ll all be able to live in castles and Ilona will live in a deer park like a princess.

Later, Esch swings by the gay bar again and is surprised when Alfons the fat musician comes in looking dishevelled and distraught and tells him that Harry is dead, killed himself with an overdose. Why? asks Esch, and Alfons points to the newspapers.

They are edged with black and the entire city is mourning the abrupt death of the eminent businessman Eduard von Bertrand. Reading the small print, Esch sees that Bertrand shot himself. Because he is by now quite deranged with narcissistic self-absorption, Esch doesn’t in the slightest blame himself for giving the letter to the police which must have prompted an initial visit to Bertrand who must have realised he would be outed and imprisoned etc, and so decided to kill himself. None of this terrible agony is described or even hinted at. Instead we simply see it from Esch’s blunt, stupid point of view and his only reaction is to think – utterly irrationally – that this means Martin the cripple will no longer follow and menace him with his crutches (?).

Esch pushes off, leaving Alfons to have an extended reflection on his own life and how, as a fat gay musician, he is in touch with sensations and feelings which straight men with their incessant tragic pursuit of women, will never know. Men chase women because they think the intensity of their possession will protect them from their fear of death. Then when it doesn’t protect them, they rage against the women for failing them, and beat them. Alfons feels well out of the whole farce.

Cut to Ilona getting out of the bed she shares with Korn who is fast asleep and snoring. She also reflects on her life, on the man who committed suicide for her sake and the other man who she was unfaithful to and who nearly killed her, and to the venereal disease she was given as a girl which made her infertile. Then she sneaks down the hall and slips into bed beside skinny Fräulein Erna.

Back with Esch in Cologne, Oppenheimer and Teltscher are both keen to track down Gernerth who has disappeared on family business to Munich, apparently. The theatre’s rent and wages for the staff and performers all fall due at the end of the month, in a few days’ time. But Gernerth doesn’t appear and when they call in the police, the latter ascertain that Gernerth had withdrawn his entire company’s funds from his bank and done a bunk.

He’s disappeared with all their money, leaving them liable for all the company’s debts.

To my surprise this isn’t as ruinous for Esch as I’d expected. Oppenheim and Teltcher concoct a new plan to use the theatre properties which the Hungarian appears to own, and to rent out a new theatre and put on the knife throwing act among others. They persuade Esch to take out a mortgage on Mother Hentjen’s restaurant in order to finance the new business, Oppenheimer pocketing a 1% fee.

I wasn’t clear just how much Esch was being fleeced by this, but just like Joachim von Paselow in The Romantic it is clear that he is unworldly and impractical and easily duped. Not least because his head is continually occupied with obsessions about making ‘sacrifices’ in order to ‘redeem Time’ and bring about ‘a new world’, and so on.

While Esch’s head is full of this nonsense, Mother Hentjen gets on with repainting her restaurant and the others set up their theatre company and Esch has the claustrophobic feeling that all his best efforts to escape – to make some kind of grand sacrifice, to restore order to the world or, most ambitiously, to take everyone off to America where they would be reborn and live like kings – have failed, and that the banal world of the everyday is everywhere rising up to stifle him.

It was a vicious circle from which there was no escape. (p.336)

And so Esch slowly resigns himself to his place in the actual world, sometimes taking out his frustration at not being able, by some dramatic sacrifice to rise to a higher sphere of perfection, by beating the crap out of Mother Hentjen, and in due course they are married.

In a super-brief, one-paragraph coda right at the end of the text, the narrator tells us that when the theatre Teltscher and Ilona had set up in Duisburg goes bankrupt, Esch and Hentjen invest in their next venture, which also fails, and so lose all their money.

But then Esch unexpectedly gets a job as head book-keeper in a large industrial concern and so they live relatively well, Mother Hentjen grows to genuinely admire him, and he hardly ever beats her any more.

And that is that.


Social history

I’m not sure these are novels anyone would read for pleasure, exactly. The ‘drawing’ of the characters is detailed but feels alien, in fact doubly alien, because

  1. The language the novels are translated into is not idiomatic English, it’s like an English no-one ever spoke or wrote, strongly betraying its Germanic roots.
  2. The behaviour and attitudes of the characters is so alien to English traditions, in all kinds of ways.

Sex

In English literature until some time in the 1970s sex was avoided or buried in euphemisms. The German attitude is strikingly more blunt and crude.

  • Esch is experienced in ‘drinking dens, brothels and girls’ (p.226)
  • When Esch is half way through seducing Erna and she rebuffs him, he just goes off and spends the night with a more accommodating woman. Simple as that.
  • Esch is upset that Ilona is spending the night with Korn, not because of any outraged morality, but simply because he thinks Korn is a crude bear who doesn’t deserve her.
  • When Erna first meets Lohberg the naive tobacconist, she frankly wonders whether he’s ever had a woman and whether, during the heat of sex, he would be moved to tears (p.211). That’s not the kind of speculation you get in Virginia Woolf or Aldous Huxley, is it?
  • We are told that Esch fairly regularly ends the evenings at Mother Hentjen’s by taking Hede home and sleeping with her. Hede is never introduced as a character, we never hear her speak or feature in anyone’s consideration.
  • In a passage which is striking because the author and character take it for granted, Esch – at a loose end because of the strike – conceives a way to pass the time which is to make a list of all the women he’s ever had, and send them postcards. There’s no subtlety and no qualms or hesitation or periphrasis about the idea – he’s shagged a certain number of women and now he gets a pen and paper and racks his brains to make a list, after a while adding in the dates and locations so far as he can remember.

Compare and contrast with the Anglo-Saxon tradition, where sex is hedged around with the barbed wire of Puritanism and prudishness. To understand English literature you have to understand that the English have been terrified of open, honest descriptions of sex and sexual attraction until relatively recently.

I suppose a possible upside of the Anglo approach is that you could argue that sexual euphemism has taken its place alongside other English euphemisms and circumlocutions – for example around class, one’s place in society, and socially appropriate behaviour – to create what amounts, in England, to an entire culture or irony and misdirection.

As far as I can tell, throughout the 19th century the Continentals (especially the French) thought the English were disgusting hypocrites about sex, preserving a Victorian chasteness in our literature and public discourse (politics, religion), while the streets of London were heaving with prostitutes who accosted almost everyone every evening in the most brazen way; that we went to great lengths to preserve our self-image of gentlemanliness and stiff upper lip and imperial attitudes etc, while casually nipping over to Paris for scenes of gross debauchery. Whereas the French prided themselves on integrating sex and sexuality more honestly into their culture and literature.

So I suppose that the hypocrisy – of double standards – which the French so despised in the English might be related to all the other types of our multiple levels of irony, double entendre, misdirection and circumlocution about sex. In other words, that the English sense of humour which the Continentals remarked on, was closely connected to the English inability to discuss or describe sex honestly, which they also remarked on.

Anyway, the point of this excursion is simply to point out that this vast apparatus of irony, euphemism, and long-winded circumlocution about sex which characterises so much English literature is simply absent from this book. It doesn’t exist and nobody seems to miss it. They think about sex a lot, they have sex, sometimes they feel a bit jealous – that’s about it.

Therefore, although they contain a) extended nature descriptions, of parks and gardens and twilit skies and b) go into extended detail about the mental states of their central protagonists and the difficulty they have pinning down evanescent thoughts and ideas – these novels nonetheless completely lack the subtlety or understatement about social relationships and sex which a reader of English novels is used to.

There’s a strange kind of haunting absence about them.

Class

English literature, like English society, is absolutely drenched in class distinctions, the most fundamental of which is the gap between those who went to posh private schools – and dress and talk and exude confidence accordingly – and the rest of us, who didn’t.

Obviously, other 19th century European nations also had class hierarchies, sometimes more rigid than ours when it came to the top layers of aristocracy, court formalities etc.

But below that level, it’s harder to make out class distinctions in foreign literature. Thus in The Anarchist Esch is educated enough to be a clerk but doesn’t know what the ‘premiere’ of a play means (p.221), and I think Mother Hentjen’s is meant to be a pretty rough establishment, full of pipe-smoking working class types, who routinely take one or other of the ‘waitresses’ home to sleep with them, but there are none of the class markers I’d be used to in an English novel.

For example, none of them seem to have an accent. No distinction is made about the way they talk. They all appear to talk the same dialect, language and register. The interplay of accents and class distinction through vocabulary or turn of phrase which make up a huge amount of the dialogue in English novels (whether characters say ‘Hello, old boy’ or ‘Alright, mate’) is utterly absent from these books.

When rough Esch meets urbane Bertrand they speak the same language, use the same phrases, there is no way of distinguishing between the crude wife-beater and the suave gay company chairman by anything they say.

The only bit of linguistic distinction, the only place where Broch indicates that different people have different registers, idiolects and so on, relates to Ilona who is Hungarian and so doesn’t speak German very well. That’s it. All the other Germans appear to speak pure German without inflection or distinction.

Could it be that there is a lot of variation and distinctiveness in the characters’ speech in the original German and that all this has been lost in translation?

What is entirely missing from the novel is any sense of the self-consciousness and social awareness of class which so dominates English literature, snobbery in other words.

Snobbery plays a huge role in the English novel, from Jane Austen through Dickens and Thackeray and on to the incredibly upper-class characters in late George Eliot or Henry James, characters who skilfully navigate the complex social etiquette surrounding class (and region and education) in England.

All that social subtlety, all those velleities, all those implications through the careful selection of the mot juste in description or dialogue, are completely absent from these works.

Esch thinks the company chairman, Bertrand, must be a pretty decent sort. He thinks Martin the trade union activist is an honest bloke. He dislikes Korn because he’s so bearishly unthinking. That’s it. There is none of the social subtlety of the English tradition.

Comedy

A German joke is no laughing matter. (Mark Twain)

As a result of its blunt straightforwardness regarding a) sex and b) society and class, there is little or no comedy in the novel. Maybe I’m being obtuse, but you’ve read my summary of the plot and there aren’t many comic scenes, are there?

The only scene with a tincture of comedy is the tea party held by Fräulein Erna for Esch and Lohberg, where we see the three of them jostling and competing. Or Erna and Esch competing over the weedy tobacconist. But the humour mostly comes from Lohberg’s incomprehension of why the other two are bickering i.e. their thwarted lust for each other. And that is, at bottom, a fairly crude situation.

As I read about Martin the cripple or Bertrand the dandy company owner, and crop-haired Esch stumping around the cobbled streets of Cologne on his way to the dockers’ dive run by Mother Hentjen, I kept thinking of the stark German Expressionism of the 1900s, and then of the deliberate cripples and grotesques of Weimar art.

Stark and ugly is the German style. For example, nothing that Oppenheimer says is remotely funny or even interesting, but the way he is a tubby, little man with a disorderly office paints a picture which is sort of humorous in the Germanic way, in the way of laughing at crude stereotypes.

Philosophy

So what does the book have to offer if it lacks these mainstays of the English tradition? The answer is what I called in my review of The Anarchist, Broch’s phenomenology – his interest in the feeling of thought, his fascination with the way his central characters struggle to formulate and fully experience their own feelings and intuitions and ideas.

Yet there was an obscure miscalculation somewhere that he couldn’t quite put his finger on… (p.215)

This, it seems to me, is the strong point and main feature of the novels – the way Broch captures the fleeting quality of thought itself. Up to a point.

The big downside to the novels, in my opinion, is that these thoughts all too often turn out to be those of psychotics and religious hysterics.

Thus Joachim von Paselow, from the first novel, becomes steadily more deranged with paranoia, his thoughts eventually swamping the text in a goo of half-baked religio-philosophical ramblings.

In just the same way, the book-keeper August Esch, who starts the novel as a reasonably sensible character, by the end is consumed with absurdly over-the-top, overblown hyper-emotions.

Here’s a small example. The crude, blunt character Balthasar Korn arrives home to find a little drinks party going on in his front room, and rudely shoos the milksop tobacconist Lohberg off his sofa in order to plonk himself down on it. A pretty trivial moment. Here it is described from Esch’s point of view:

The noise which the man Korn raised while doing this was extraordinary, his body and voice filled the room more and more, filled it from wall to wall; all that was earthly and fleshly in Korn’s ravenously hungry being swelled beyond the confines of the room, threatening mightily to fill the whole world, and with it the unalterable past swelled up, crushing everything else out and stifling all hope; the uplifted and luminous stage darkened, and perhaps indeed it no longer existed. ‘Well, Lohberg, where’s your kingdom of redemption now?’ shouted Esch, as though he were seeking to deafen his own terrors, shouted it in fury, because neither Lohberg nor anybody else was capable of giving an answer to the question: why must Ilona descend into contact with the earthly and the dead?

Much of the later parts of the novel are like this, with way over-the-top hysteria prompted by apparently trivial, everyday occurrences.

By the end of the novel I had come to feel all the passages like this – and some go on for pages and pages – amounted to pretentious, adolescent bombast.

How I longed for one witty turn of phrase which would defuse this universal Weltschmerz, for the acid wit of an Evelyn Waugh, the levity of a P.G. Wodehouse, God for just a little English irony and self-deprecation.

But right to the end Broch appears to take everything as tragically as his pathetic, lowlife characters.

Credit

The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir of The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch was first published in 1932. All references are to the Vintage International paperback edition of all three novels in one portmanteau volume which was first published in 1996.


20th century German literature

The Weimar Republic

Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Aubrey Beardsley must be the most distinctive British artist. If you see any of his mature works, they are immediately recognisable and almost always deeply satisfying, their elegance of line and composition emphasised by the stylish use of huge areas of unmediated black or white, and the sophistication of his sensually charged portrayal of the human figure.

The Black Cape, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) Photo © Tate

This exhibition is a feast of Beardsleiana, bringing together 200 spectacular works to make the largest display of his original drawings in over 50 years and the first exhibition of his work at Tate since 1923.

The wall labels to the fifteen or so sections the exhibition is divided into are available online:

And it contains a detailed timeline of his career. Rather than repeat all that, I’ll just single out what were, for me, the key learnings or best bits.

Key learnings

As he turned 18 and needed a job, Beardsley got a job working in an insurance office which, as you might imagine, he hated. What other early modern ‘great’ worked in an insurance office, created a distinctive body of work, and died of tuberculosis? Franz Kafka

Arts & Crafts It is interesting to see Beardsley’s tremendous indebtedness to Arts & Crafts ideas of total design, and the importance of intertwining flower and stem motifs. And considering he was only 19!

Withered Spring by Aubrey Beardsley (1891)

Beardsley began his career just as William Morris was producing his luxury designed books from the Kelmscott Press. The curators usefully summarise the elements of a Kelmscott production as:

  • elaborate decorated borders
  • decorated initial letters
  • full page illustration

The hair-line style The exhibition shows how Beardsley quickly moved from this relatively ‘heavy’ line to move to the extreme opposite, to complex compositions which are covered in a crazy network of super-fine lines. The curators call this his ‘hair line’ style.

How Arthur saw the Questing Beast by Aubrey Beardsley (1893) Victoria and Albert Museum

It is also an early example of Beardsley slipping surreptitious rudeness or irrelevancies into his pictures. At the bottom left of the ‘river bank’, right up against the frame, is the silhouette of an erect penis and scrotum. Towards the top right is a concealed treble clef.

Morte d’Arthur The picture above is one of the Morte d’Arthur series which made Beardsley’s reputation. He was commissioned to make a hefty 353 illustrations for a new edition of the Morte by publisher J.M. Dent, including full and double-page illustrations, elaborate border designs and numerous small-scale ornamental chapter headings.

However, Beardsley quickly became bored and irked by the subject limitations and began introducing extraneous elements and flights of fancy. Thus the picture above is supposed to be of a medieval knight and a dragon though you wouldn’t really think so. Most disruptive of all is the presence of a pan or satyr from Greek mythology, absolutely nothing to do with medieval legend.

Japanese influence The exhibition includes one print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a lovely coloured woodblock which exemplifies the kind of Japanese influence which impacted European art from the 1870s onwards, and influenced everyone with their:

  • abstract depiction of pictorial space
  • linear intricacy
  • emphasis on flat pattern

Kakemonokakemono is a Japanese hanging scroll used to display and exhibit paintings and calligraphy inscriptions and designs mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage. It is a distinctly different shape from traditional Western portrait shape, and Beardsley was to incorporate it into many later works.

Mantegna Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was a key influence for Beardsley. The Italian was famous for his frescos and murals showing parades and processions and groups of people, and Beardsley used ideas and figures and compositions from Mantegna throughout his career. Even in his last accommodation, a hotel room in the south of France, he had a set of photos of works by Mantegna pinned to his wall. Indeed Beardsley produced several Mantegna-style processions, notably The Procession of Joan of Arc which was included as a foldout supplement to the second edition of The Studio magazine in 1892.

Wagnerite Beardsley was a keen fan of Wagner, attending productions of his operas and illustrating scenes from them. He had ambitions as a writer as well as illustrator and in his last few years worked at a text which was a comic version of the legend of Tannhäuser which Wagner had made into an opera. Given the working title of the Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, excerpts were eventually published in The Savoy magazine under the title Under The Hill, an oddly Hobbit-like title for such a grand Wagnerian subject.

Photo Lineblock Just as important for the quick evolution of Beardsley’s style was the introduction in the 1890s of the new technology of photo lineblock printing, a photomechanical process. Beardsley was disappointed at the poor reproduction of his washes and shading using this new method, but quickly adapted and made a virtue of leaving large areas of a page completely untouched, others pure black, and ensuring the lines and patterns were crisp and clear. The result is startling.

How la Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram by Aubrey Beardsley (c.1893) Alessandra and Simon Wilson

In fact this picture is singled out by the curators as exemplifying another of Beardsley’s traits which was his extraordinary ability to assimilate influences and make them his own. Thus the curators point out in this image:

  • Isoud resembles Jane Morris, with the classic pre-Raphaelite jutting chin and mountain of frizzy hair
  • the Germanic form of the desk is borrowed from Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St Jerome in his Study
  • the flattened use of space recalls the influence of Japanese prints
  • whereas the elaborate border of intertwining flower motifs recalls Arts & Crafts designs

Salomé In 1892 Beardsley made a drawing in response to Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s play, originally written in French and based on the biblical story. Wilde admired the drawing and he and his publisher, John Lane, chose Beardsley to illustrate the English translation of the play. Beardsley produced eighteen designs in total, of which only ten appeared in the first printing of the play. Publisher John Lane suppressed or censored three of Beardsley’s illustrations for their overt sexual references, in particular when female characters’ hands are wandering towards their privates, as if about to masturbate, or unnecessary depictions of the male characters’ phalluses.

The Climax – illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) by Aubrey Beardsley. Photo © Tate

The Yellow Book The exhibition clarified the timeline around the Yellow Book, and has an entire room devoted to it. Beardsley was made its art editor at its inception in 1894 and contributed the front and back covers for the first five editions. But Beardsley was closely associated with Oscar Wilde (having contributed a suite of illustrations for Wilde’s ‘immoral’ play about Salome), and so soon after Wilde’s arrest in May 1895, Beardsley was fired from the Yellow Book.

On one of the days of his trial, Wilde was seen going into court holding a copy of the Yellow Book and that clinched it for the angry mobs and journalists outside. The offices of the Yellow Book’s publishers, Bodley Head, were attacked by a mob who smashed its windows. In order tonsure the survival of the firm, and its staff, and the continuity of publication of the magazine and all his other titles, publisher John Lane had little choice but to distance himself from Beardsley. The sixth volume, of July 1895, still had the cover and several illustrations by Beardsley but he no longer worked for it. (Later it transpired that Wilde hadn’t been holding a copy of the Yellow Book at all, but a French novel, which tended to be published with yellow covers.)

The Yellow Book Volume I (1894) bound volume. Photo © Tate

It looks as if you can examine every volume of the Yellow Book, all its literary and art contents, online

The room has an example of all five volumes of the Yellow Book that Beardsley was involved with. I’ve read about it ever since I was a teenager at school forty years ago, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a copy before and certainly not six. I’d always envisioned it as magazine-size, but it does indeed look like a hardback book, in size and shape and leather binding.

Beardsley’s work desk The exhibition includes the very table or desk which Beardsley used during his glory years. Standing a few feet from it, it is hard to imagine that the man produced all these pitch-perfect works without the aid of architects’ tools or computers – just him, a ruler and a pen.

Beardsley’s address With the money he made from the Salome illustrations and a small legacy Beardsley bought a house at 111 Cambridge Street, Pimlico with his mother and sister, Mabel, to both of whom he remained very close throughout his short life. Only a few hundred yards from Tate Britain where this exhibition is being held…

Oscar Wilde Wilde was an established writer when he saw the first of Beardsley’s drawings and immediately liked them. He approved the suggestion that Beardsley illustrate the original French version of Salomé and they socialised. So far, so well known. I hadn’t realised that Beardsley satirised Wilde quite so much. There are straightforward lampoons of the increasingly fat and pompous aesthete, but he also slyly slips Wilde’s epicene features into numerous other illustrations, in one giving the moon the eyes and nose of Wilde.

The Woman in the Moon by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

The Rape of The Lock is the title of Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic 18th century satire. I suppose it’s worth clarifying that ‘rape’ in the title doesn’t mean rape in our modern sense, but the older sense of ‘theft’ or stealing away. Thus Pope conceived an extended poem which uses all the devices and machinery of the classical epic to describe how one jaded aristocrat cuts a lock of hair from the head of another jaded aristocrat, and this leads to a feud between their families. Believe it or not this elaborate literary joke extends to five cantos with many extended scenes. Beardsley created nine photo-engravings for an 1896 republication of the poem, five of which are on display here for the first time.

Beardsley had been a fan of 18th century rococo prints, maybe because they – like him – are sophisticated, worldly, stylish and much more open about sexuality than the Victorians. The exhibition shows us some of the original 18th century prints which Beardsley bought at auction in Paris, and then goes on to show all the Pope pictures.

The Dream by Aubrey Beardsley (1896) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

What’s immediately obvious is the that the stark clarity of the Salome illustrations has been abandoned for a much more elaborate style, characterised above all by the stippling that creates a sort of lace doily effect on almost all the fabrics. And look at the patterning of the carpet. A long way from the stark black and white of the Salome illustrations. Many critics thought these his best works as an illustrator.

Posters the 1890s were the glory decade for poster design in Paris, led by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret. I didn’t realise Beardsley produced a number of posters which modified his own style to take on board the need for a) size b) colour.

There’s a room devoted to half a dozen of his posters, none of which match the quality of Lautre or Chéret, and most of which are advertiser’s promotions of new ranges of childrens books or books by women, alongside promotional posters for The Yellow Book and several plays and operas. The section contains the telling quote:

I have no great care for colour, but [in posters] colour is essential.

‘I have no great care for colour’. Worth pondering. And relevant to the one and only oil painting Beardsley is known to have made.

Oil painting There’s a rare outing for Beardsley’s only oil painting and you can see why – it’s rubbish. His entire style was built around absences, around huge areas of untouched whiteness. Trying to translate that into oil, which specialises in depth and shadow, was a hopeless task.

Porn After Beardsley was sacked from The Yellow Book, almost the only publisher who would use his drawings was Leonard Smithers. Smithers operated on the fringes of the rare book trade, issuing small, clandestine editions of risqué books with the boast: ‘I will publish the things the others are afraid to touch’. Smithers encouraged Beardsley’s already growing interest in risqué French, Latin and Greek texts and commissioned drawings to illustrate the Satires of the late Roman poet Juvenal and, most famously, Aristophanes’s bawdy satirical play Lysistrata.

In Lysistrata the women of Athens go on a sex strike, refusing to have sex with their menfolk until they stop the ridiculous war against Sparta. Beardsley made eight outrageously sexual illustrations for Smithers’ edition. Among other subjects, this is the set which includes start, beautifully made black and white line drawings of ancient Greeks with humongous erect penises. Maybe if you’re very young or innocent these are ‘shocking’ images, but to the modern viewer they are vaguely reassuring, certainly humorous. The two figures on the right are mildly realistic but it’s the guy on the left who gets the attention, not because of  his phallus as such but because the entire character is obviously created for grotesque comedy.

Illustration for Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley (1896)

The grotesque He knew he was attracted to ‘the grotesque’ and there is a wall label which usefully explains the origins of the grotesque in art. Grotesque originally referred to the decoration of grottos, and came to denote the depiction of deliberately hybrid and monstrous forms, which often combined body parts from different animals, like a centaur or mermaid. As the man himself said:

I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as I draw them. .. They all seem weird and strange to me. Things have always impressed me in this way.

Foetuses Nobody knows to this day why he drew so many foetuses, either as insets in frames or as characters in the more grotesque illustrations. Maybe it was simply because they are a kind of quintessence of the grotesque.

My favourite Venus framed by two statues of male gods in the form of herms (a sculpture with a head and perhaps a torso above a plain, usually squared lower section’). I like it because of its formal precision, its symmetry which is, however, broken by the asymmetric sway of Venus’s long dress. I like it because there is no indecency, boobs or penises in sight. Instead there is a sense of genuine menace from the devil eyes of the two herms. And I like it because it is a kind of reversion or revisiting of the Arts & Crafts theme of incredibly ornately interwoven bushes, stems and flowers of (I think) roses. But mostly because it is a pleasingly complete, formal, complex and rather threatening image.

Venus between Terminal Gods (1895) Drawing with india ink by Aubrey Beardsley. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford

Walter Sickert Almost the best thing in the exhibition is the full-length portrait painting of Beardsley made by the English painter Walter Sickert, after they’d both attended a commemoration ceremony for John Keats. Its sketchy unfinished quality makes it a haunting gesture to the memory of the dandy and artist who died aged just 25.

Aubrey Beardsley by Walter Sickert (1894)

Crucifix The exhibition includes the last photo of Beardsley, taken in the hotel room in the Hotel Cosmopolitain in Menton where he had gone in search of a warmer dryer climate which would be more favourable to his tuberculosis. The photo shows Beardsley looking tremendously smart in a suit and well-polished shoes opposite a wall on which are pinned reproductions of his beloved Mantegna, and a mantelpiece on which sits a crucifix.

Because although I’ve probably read it numerous times, I’d forgotten that in his last months Beardsley converted to Catholicism. He died holding a crucifix. Just a few days before he died he wrote a letter to Leonard Smithers asking him to destroy all of Beardsley’s risqué images, the Lysistrata illustrations etc. Smithers refused and so they were saved for generations of schoolboys to giggle over.

Who does a deathbed request to destroy his works which its address completely ignored remind you of? Franz Kafka.

Film There is a room with benches so you can watch Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent movie version of Salomé immediately following the room of Beardsley’s illustrations. For some reason the gallery lights had been left on full power in this room which made it harder to see the image on the screen.

Legacy The exhibition closes with a sketchy overview of Beardsley’s legacy from his influence on the long sinuous lines of Art Nouveau via a string of now mostly forgotten book illustrators who copied his style (Harry Clarke, Hans Henning Voigt) through the revival of Beardley’s reputation and style which was sparked by a major retrospective of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1966 which led to the incorporation of Beardsleyesque black and white swirling lines into lots of psychedelic posters and, most famously of all, into the portrait of the four Beatles in the cover art for their LP Revolver.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley 1893 by Frederick Evans. Photo-etching and platinum print on paper. Wilson Centre for Photography

This is a long, very thorough, exhaustive and informative exhibition about a truly world class and utterly distinctive English artist.

Curators

  • Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Curator of British Art 1850 – 1915
  • Stephen Calloway
  • with Alice Insley, Assistant Curator of Historic British Art

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard (2008)

Finally, right at the end of his life (he died the year after it was published), Ballard wrote a genuine autobiography which actually sets the record straight.

Two of his previous books, Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991), had been marketed as autobiographies but, as time went by, it became clearer and clearer (not least from interviews with Ballard himself) that they contained large slices of invention, fictional characters and imaginary events, as well as playing fast and loose with the few actual events of his life which they retold.

(For example, in Kindness his wife is described as dying after slipping and cracking her head against stone steps at a holiday villa in Spain; in fact she died of pneumonia, so the moving description of her slipping, the crack as her head hit the stone, Ballard rushing over and cradling her, seeing the growing bruise behind her ear, her loss of feeling down one side as the ambulance rushed her to hospital – all of that is entirely fictional.)

In interviews Ballard emphasised that both books were novels presented in autobiographical form and this is what a careful reading confirms.

Still, Miracles of Life is an odd book because although it adds new detail about, for example, his parents and their family origins in the West Midlands, or his decision to become a science fiction writer in the mid 1950s, or the passages describing the art and literary world of the 50s and 60s – it doesn’t really alter the essential shape of his biography, and anyone who has read The Kindness of Women will experience a strong sense of déjà vu.

Some incidents, like his description of the famous exhibition of crashed cars he organised in 1970 and how the visitors’ bad behaviour inspired him to write the novel Crash – or the passages about his visit to the set of the Spielberg filming of Empire of the Sun, right down to the words 12-year-old Christian Bale used to introduce himself (‘Hello, I’m you’) feel like they’ve been copied almost word for word from Kindness.

But then when he came to write Miracles, Ballard knew he was dying. Maybe he ran out of time to revise and expand the familiar stories as he would have done had he lived a bit longer…

J.G. Ballard outline biography

  • born in 1930 and raised in the International Settlement in Shanghai
  • plays as a carefree boy among the privileged ex-pats, goes on cycle rides across the vast teeming fantasy land of Shanghai
  • 1941 Pacific War breaks out: interned along with his parents in Lunghua civilian internment centre 1943-45
  • 1945 the end of the war and strange months of disorientation back in the International Settlement
  • 1946 travels back to England with his mother and younger sister
  • 1946-49 public school in Cambridge
  • 1949 undergraduate at Cambridge studying medicine
  • 1954 packs it in to go and train to be an RAF pilot in Canada
  • 1955 returns to England and takes a string of unsatisfactory jobs, as an advertising copywriter, a porter in a London market, door-to-door encyclopedia salesman; marries Mary Matthews
  • sells first short story in 1956, commencing a prolific burst of story writing – over the next ten years he writes some 70 stories
  • This Is Tomorrow art exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery kick-starts Pop Art in the UK and confirms his sense that he should be writing about the psychological impact of the new world of consumer capitalism, advertising, TV and so on
  • 1957 daughter Fay born
  • 1959 daughter Beatrice born
  • knocks out first pulp novel The Wind From Nowhere on a fortnight’s holiday in 1961
  • second, more serious novel, The Drowned World  published in 1963
  • summer 1963 his wife Mary dies of pneumonia on holiday in Spain, leaving him a widower to bring up three small children; he never remarries
  • after wife’s death his subject matter becomes darker (according to critics), more radical and penetrating (in his own opinion)
  • 1966 starts writing the short pieces which go to make The Atrocity Exhibition
  • 1970 supervises an exhibition of (three) crashed cars at the Arts Lab
  • 1973 Crash
  • 1974 Concrete Island
  • 1975 High Rise
  • 1984 Empire of the Sun, the novel
  • 1988 Empire of The Sun, the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg

So the basic outline is not that different from what we’d read in The Kindness of Women, and had been sketched out in the biographical blurb at the front of all his books since the 1960s.

Also, it’s no great revelation, but it’s worth noting how much the book is weighted towards those 15 formative years in China – it’s only on page 121 of the 278 pages of my paperback edition that Jim finally arrives back in Blighty i.e. nearly half the text covers about a fifth of his life (he died, aged 79, in 2009).

New learnings

Fantasyland

Shanghai was a surreal phantasmagoria, from its exotic street life, to its markets, aromatic food, crooks and gangsters and whores, to the dead bodies which lined the streets and the public stranglings which he attended, and streets full of food vendors and shiny American cars cruising past people in rags literally starving to death, and first nights of new glamorous Hollywood movies. His childhood in Shanghai marked him for life, even before the Japs turned on the Europeans and interned them all. As he eloquently puts it:

Anything was possible, and everything could be bought and sold. In many ways, it seems like a stage set, but at the time it was real, and I think a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.

‘A large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.’ That’s quite a thought-provoking comment. If you add together the descriptions of Shanghai in Kindness and here, it does add up to an extraordinary phantasmagoria of possibilities, and the often comic-book exaggeration of many of his scenarios and characters may well derive from a child’s cartoon version of an already garish reality.

Cynical

By the age of 14 he had become quite as blasé and cynical about life as the long-suffering Chinese around him. His boyhood was full of dead bodies – the peasants who died every night in Shanghai, poor beggars who died in doorways, the river full of corpses floating gently to the sea because their families couldn’t afford decent burials. And over and above this, the daily public stranglings as a form of justice. And then when the Japanese took over in 1937, the routine public beheadings.

A vast cruelty lay over the world, and was all we knew.

Chilly sex

This primal, founding view of the world – as packed with brutal cruelty – helps to explain Ballard’s clinical description of bodies and the thousand and one horrific mutilations they are vulnerable to. And it underpins his view of sex, which – as his readers know – he depicts with a compellingly clinical detachment.

America

From an early age he devoured American comics (Buck Rogers, Superman) and worshipped the big American cars he saw cruising the streets of Shanghai, the American suits worn by Chinese gangsters.

In the confusion of traffic on the Bund he pointed out ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen, the then famous bodyguard of Chinese warlords, and I gazed with all a small boy’s awe at a large American car with armed men standing on the running-boards, Chicago-style

He read comic books by the score and, a little later, Time and Newsweek, and soaked American can-do optimism into every pore of his body. It is interesting to learn that his father was also a can-do optimist, a fan of H.G. Wells and ‘an enthusiast for all things American’.

This worship of Americana underpins the first 25 years of his fiction, with its obsessions with the American space programme and the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam and Hollywood movie stars, and its many stories set in America – for example, the entire Vermilion Sands series about a desert resort much like Palm Springs – and finds an unsatisfactory climax in the strangely disappointing novel Hello America.

Reading this book you get a really deep sense of the vast cultural and economic difference between America and Britain after the war and can totally understand why America represented to most young Brits, money and gadgets and big shiny cars and exciting music and The Future, a feeling which lasted through the 1960s and then went astray during the 1970s, maybe as a result of Watergate and the oil crisis…

Ballard’s last clutch of novels, from Running Wild to Kingdom Come may be problematic in various ways, but at least they have escaped from the America-worship which dominates the earlier ones.

Lunghua

There are two massive revelations about Ballard’s time in Lunghua internment camp:

1. He was there with his parents Both Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women depict young Jim as being entirely on his own, abandoned and thrown back on his own resources. In both books it is said that his parents were taken by the Japanese to a different internment camp. But they weren’t. They were with him throughout.

This is a staggering deception and/or aesthetic choice, because Jim’s isolation  in both those books quite clearly makes the prison accounts massively more intense. Whereas his real life wasn’t at all – it was far more mediated by the fact that, at the end of every day’s adventures, he returned to the ‘Ballard family room’ in the block of the abandoned teacher training college which was used as the main accommodation of the camp.

Something confirmed by the astonishing fact that Ballard says in many ways his years in the Lunghua internment camp were the happiest years of his life! Well, this is a stunning surprise.

All in all, this was a relaxed and easy-going world that I had never known, except during our holidays in Tsingtao, and this favourable first impression stayed with me to the end, when conditions in the camp took a marked turn for the worse. I enjoyed my years in Lunghua, made a huge number of friends of all ages (far more than I did in adult life) and on the whole felt buoyant and optimistic.

Lunghua Camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom… Despite the food shortages in the last year, the bitterly cold winters (we lived in unheated concrete buildings) and the uncertainties of the future, I was happier in the camp than I was until my marriage and children.

This is a staggering sentiment to set beside the searingly intense text of Empire of the Sun.

Empire’s End

Maybe it’s a truism, but I was fascinated to read here, as we did in The Kindness of Women, how decisive the sinking of British ships and the surrender at Singapore (February 1942) were in ending all respect for the British across the Far East.

The fall of Singapore, and the sinking of the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, devastated us all. British prestige plummeted from that moment. The surrender of Singapore, the capture of the Philippines and the threat to India and Australia sounded the death knell of Western power in the Far East and the end of a way of life. It would take the British years to recover from Dunkirk, and the German armies were already deep inside Russia. Despite my admiration for the Japanese soldiers and pilots, I was intensely patriotic, but I could see that the British Empire had failed.

Again, it’s one thing to read about this sort of thing in history books, but much more impactful to read about its affect on someone who was there.

Pro the atom bomb

Here, as in Kindness, it is mildly surprising, given the baleful shadow they cast over his early fiction, to learn that Ballard was whole-heartedly in favour of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Fortunately the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs brought the war to an abrupt end. Like my parents, and everyone else who lived through Lunghua, I have long supported the American dropping of the bombs. Prompted by Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast, the still-intact Japanese war machine ground to a complete halt within days, so saving millions of Chinese lives, as well as our own. For a hint of what might otherwise have happened, we can look at the vicious battle for Manila, the only large city in the Pacific War fought for by the Americans, where some 100,000 Philippine civilians died.

Part of the psychosis of the post-war years was that the bombs quite clearly saved many (especially American) lives, and so can be justified by this argument; but also incinerated nearly 100,000 mostly innocent civilians, men, women and children and so, on another level, are utterly indefensible. The psychosis derives from the way both these opposite views are ‘true’.

The railway station

The startling image which is described in chapter three of The Kindness of Women and which dominates the rest of that book – the experience of coming across four Japanese soldiers at a small train station in the midst of the abandoned rice paddies between Lunghua and Shanghai, and being forced to watch as one of them garrots a young Chinese peasant to death with telegraph wire – in Kindness the scene had a gruesome perfection, and is then made to haunt adult Jim for the rest of his life – in a way I thought was too good (or too bad) to be true. Yet it is described here as being true. Or at least it is repeated here (which may not be the same thing).

Back to Blighty

Ballard only first visited England when he was 16. This explains why he felt and writes about it as a bizarre foreign country. His father’s memories of the Lancashire he had lived in during the Great Depression had already primed the pump.

Most of his memories of Lancashire before and after the First World War seemed fairly bleak, and he would shake his head as he described the dreadful poverty. Eating an apple as he left school, he was often followed by working-class boys badgering him for the core.

Now, arriving at Southampton, he immediately saw how small and shabby and badly designed and impoverished everything was. It was immediately clear to him that Britain had, in effect, lost the war, and this impression of post-war shabbiness, rationing and austerity never left him, compared and contrasted with the amazing consumer boom the American economy underwent during those years.

Looking at the English people around me, it was impossible to believe that they had won the war. They behaved like a defeated population. I wrote in The Kindness of Women that the English talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it. They were clearly exhausted by the war, and expected little of the future. Everything was rationed – food, clothing, petrol – or simply unobtainable. People moved in a herd-like way, queueing for everything. Ration books and clothing coupons were all-important, endlessly counted and fussed over, even though there was almost nothing in the shops to buy. Tracking down a few light bulbs could take all day. Everything was poorly designed – my grandparents’ three-storey house was heated by one or two single-bar electric fires and an open coal fire. Most of the house was icy, and we slept under huge eiderdowns like marooned Arctic travellers in their survival gear, a frozen air numbing our faces, the plumes of our breath visible in the darkness. More importantly, hope itself was rationed, and people’s spirits were bent low.

His mother dumped 16-year-old Jim with her parents in the West Midlands when she returned to Shanghai, and had a very bad time. ‘Narrow-minded’ doesn’t begin to convey the sense of his grand-parents’ claustrophobic provincialism.

I met him at the worst time, when England was exhausted by the war. There had been heavy bombing in the Birmingham area, and I suspect that they felt my mother’s years in Lunghua were a holiday by comparison. The war had made them mean, as it made a lot of the English mean…

His grandfather loathed the Labour government, which he thought was a form of fascism.

Yet all around him was the desperate poverty of the Black Country, with some of the most ill-housed and poorly educated people in western Europe, still giving their lives after the war to maintain an empire that had never been of the least benefit to them. My grandfather’s attitude was common, and based less on feelings of social class than on a visceral resistance to change. Change was the enemy of everything he believed in.

Later, when he got a job as a door to door encyclopedia salesman in the West Midlands, he for the first time really got to meet the working class and appreciate what poverty means.

For the first time, I was meeting large numbers of working-class people, with a range of regional accents that took a trained ear to decode. Travelling around the Birmingham area, I was amazed at how bleakly they lived, how poorly paid they were, poorly educated, housed and fed. To me they were a vast exploited workforce, not much better off than the industrial workers in Shanghai. I think it was clear to me from the start that the English class system, which I was meeting for the first time, was an instrument of political control, and not a picturesque social relic. Middle-class people in the late 1940s and 1950s saw the working class as almost another species, and fenced themselves off behind a complex system of social codes.

When he phrases it like that you can see why teenage Jim developed a sense that change was vital, that only radical change could revive this dead country; and how the obvious source of hope for change was from rich, powerful and glamorous America.

Contempt for Cambridge

In Kindness Jim is amusingly contemptuous of almost everything about Cambridge University, and its fake medievalism. Its only justification, for Jim, was as an economic tourist trap. In this book we get a bit more detail: Ballard respected the science done at Cambridge, the Rutherfords et al, the work being done in physics and medicine. But he has nothing but contempt for all its traditions of scholars gowns and High Table and madrigals in the college chapel.

There’s a one-line reminiscence of him attending an English lecture by F.R. Leavis who was a kind of god among contemporary literary critics, with his insistence that readers feel the life evinced in Jane Austen and Henry James and D.H. Lawrence – and being appalled at the man’s narrowness of understanding; and telling a fellow undergraduate that ‘It’s more important to go to T-Men (a classic noir film) than to Leavis’s lectures’. Ballard loathed it all. As in Kindness, his main interest was in investigating the US air force bases dotted all across the Fens.

No one seemed aware that the nostalgic pageant called ‘Cambridge’ was made possible by the fleets of American bombers waiting in the quiet fields around the city.

Francis Bacon

He thinks the art of Francis Bacon is central to the post-war era, although there is a chastening reminiscence of actually meeting the great man and being dismayed at how little he talked about the inspiration for his work, preferring to erect a buffer, a barrier, and talk about perspective and paint and its formal qualities. Nonetheless, Bacon is right up Ballard’s alley:

Bacon’s paintings were screams from the abattoir, cries from the execution pits of World War II. His deranged executives and his princes of death in their pontiffs’ robes lacked all pity and remorse. His popes screamed because they knew there was no God. Bacon went even further than the surrealists, assuming our complicity in the mid-century’s horrors. It was we who sat in those claustrophobic rooms, like TV hospitality suites in need of a coat of paint, under a naked light bulb that might signal the arrival of the dead, the only witnesses at our last interview.

Yet Bacon kept hope alive at a dark time, and looking at his paintings gave me a surge of confidence. I knew there was a link of some kind with the surrealists, with the dead doctors lying in their wooden chests in the dissecting room, with film noir and with the peacock and the loaf of bread in Crivelli’s Annunciation. There were links to Hemingway and Camus and Nathanael West. A jigsaw inside my head was trying to assemble itself, but the picture when it finally emerged would appear in an unexpected place.

This passage conveys the sense which dominates the middle part of the book, that Ballard was driven into paroxysms of frustration by everything he saw wrong about stuffy and impoverished and class-ridden and nostalgic post-war England, and which he was determined to undermine and change.

Friends

  • Kingsley Amis from 1962 to 1964 – Amis was a keen science fiction buff and wrote a glowing review of Ballard’s first novel, and then was personally helpful and supportive after Ballard’s wife died. Ballard goes out of his way to  emphasise all Amis’s good qualities before he became disillusioned with England, and then life, and turned into a professional curmudgeon.
  • Michael Moorcock became editor of Britain’s leading sci fi magazine New Worlds in 1964 and worked with Ballard to shake up the staid world of SF.
  • Eduardo Paolozzo the sculptor and artist who remained a close friend for 30 years.

About writing

There’s more here about his writing and his career as a writer than in The Kindness of Women, which isn’t difficult because there was next to nothing about it in that book. In several places he gives overarching speculations about the nature or motivation of his entire career. Was it all an attempt to recapture the strangeness of his boyhood in Shanghai? Was it all an attempt to stitch together the psychotic impressions of his boyhood, along with the senseless death of his wife?

My direction as a writer changed after Mary’s death, and many readers thought that I became far darker. But I like to think I was much more radical, in a desperate attempt to prove that black was white, that two and two made five in the moral arithmetic of the 1960s. I was trying to construct an imaginative logic that made sense of Mary’s death and would prove that the assassination of President Kennedy and the countless deaths of the Second World War had been worthwhile or even meaningful in some as yet undiscovered way. Then, perhaps, the ghosts inside my head, the old beggar under his quilt of snow, the strangled Chinese at the railway station, Kennedy and my young wife, could be laid to rest.

This really helps to explain the content and approach of The Atrocity Exhibition.

Later on he gives us another wording of what is basically the same idea:

My years in the [Cambridge Medical School] dissection room were important because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution. In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology that I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world, from the threat of nuclear war to the assassination of President Kennedy, from the death of my wife to the violence that underpinned the entertainment culture of the last decades of the century.

Either of these notions provide plenty to chew over, but one aspect of them stands out to me. His beloved wife Mary died of pneumonia on a holiday in Spain in August 1963. Three months later Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The closeness of the dates suggests how Ballard must have still been in deep grief over his wife when the Kennedy assassination traumatised a generation, and this helps to explain why his writings evince just such a deeply traumatised reaction, and why the Kennedy assassination just keeps recurring, obsessively, throughout his mid-period books – because it is super-charged with his own personal tragedy.

Science fiction

It is fascinating to read his opinions about the science fiction of the day and why he gravitated towards it. Basically, the ‘serious’ literature of the 1950s simply seemed, to Ballard, ludicrously remote from the realities of everyday life. Even the Angry Young Men were still stuck in a world of public schools and tweed jackets, which – coming from Americanised Shanghai – he simply found ridiculous.

And, if that wasn’t enough, Ballard was reaching for some way to investigate what he saw as the psychopathologies underlying that everyday life – the new forces of consumerism and advertising and television which he watched slowly wash over wrecked, grey England in the 1950s. Nobody was capturing the new psychological and social forces which were being unleashed.

The combination of the two motives explains why he a) wanted to write science fiction – because it seemed untrammelled, liberated, free to explore the fast-changing world in a way the novels of old buffers like CP Snow or Anthony Powell never could b) but at the same time he wanted to drastically change what science fiction was about, from soap operas about hunky heroes in space suits brandishing ray guns on distant planets, to an exploration of the weird implications of life in the here and now. It was a two-fold rebellion.

Above all, the s-f genre had a huge vitality. Without thinking up a plan of action, I decided that this was a field I should enter. I could see that here was a literary form that placed a premium on originality, and gave a great deal of latitude to its writers, many of whom had their own trademark styles and approaches. I felt too that for all its vitality, magazine science fiction was limited by its ‘what if?’ approach, and that the genre was ripe for change, if not outright takeover. I was more interested in a ‘what now?’ approach. After weekend trips across the border [this is from the period when he was in Canada briefly training to become an RAF pilot] I could see that both Canada and the USA were changing rapidly, and that change would in time reach even Britain. I would interiorise science fiction, looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race, a vast untouched continent of fictional possibility.

As he famously declared, he wanted to explore not outer, but inner space, and he gives a couple of handy clarifications of what this meant for him:

[E.J. Carnell, editor of New Worlds magazine] urged me not to imitate the American writers, and to concentrate on what I termed ‘inner space’, psychological tales close in spirit to the surrealists.

And:

My first decade as a writer coincided with a period of sustained change in England, as well as in the USA and Europe. The mood of post-war depression had begun to lift, and the death of Stalin eased international tensions, despite the Soviet development of the H-bomb. Cheap jet travel arrived with the Boeing 707, and the consumer society, already well established in America, began to appear in Britain. Change was in the air, affecting the nation’s psychology for good or bad. Change was what I wrote about, especially the hidden agendas for change that people were already exposing. Invisible persuaders were manipulating politics and the consumer market, affecting habits and assumptions in ways that few people fully realised. It seemed to me that psychological space, what I termed ‘inner space’, was where science fiction should be heading.

And:

In 1964 Michael Moorcock took over the editorship of the leading British science fiction magazine, New Worlds, determined to change it in every way he could. For years we had carried on noisy but friendly arguments about the right direction for science fiction to take. American and Russian astronauts were carrying out regular orbital flights in their spacecraft, and everyone assumed that NASA would land an American on the moon in 1969 and fulfil President Kennedy’s vow on coming to office. Communications satellites had transformed the media landscape of the planet, bringing the Vietnam War live into every living room. Surprisingly, though, science fiction had failed to prosper. Most of the American magazines had closed, and the sales of New Worlds were a fraction of what they had been in the 1950s. I believed that science fiction had run its course, and would soon either die or mutate into outright fantasy. I flew the flag for what I termed ‘inner space’, in effect the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs and research institutes where [his friend, psychologist] Chris Evans had thrived, and which formed the setting for part of The Atrocity Exhibition.

And this is what he did. After his dystopia trilogy of the early 1960s, almost all the rest of Ballard’s novels are set in the present day, and deal with psychosis and mental collapse or obsession i.e. with:

the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs

Which is linked to the fact, or helps explain why, so many of his characters are doctors or psychiatrists, from Dr Kerans in his first novel The Drowned World through to the wicked psychiatrist Dr Wilder Penrose in Cocaine Nights. (Although it should be noted that many of Ballard’s short stories, including some of the best of them, continued to be set in the future or in outer space).

Swimming pools

Anybody familiar with the first half of Ballard’s career knows that one of his recurring images is the drained swimming pool, which recurs with obsessive regularity, charged with ominous meaning.

In Miracles of Life Ballard finally gives his own interpretation of what all those drained swimming pools meant, going back (as so many things in his fiction do) to his boyhood experiences in Shanghai:

In the coming years I would see a great many drained and half-drained pools, as British residents left Shanghai for Australia and Canada, or the assumed ‘safety’ of Hong Kong and Singapore, and they all seemed as mysterious as that first pool in the French Concession. I was unaware of the obvious symbolism that British power was ebbing away, because no one thought so at the time, and faith in the British Empire was at its jingoistic height. Right up to, and beyond, Pearl Harbour it was taken for granted that the dispatch of a few Royal Navy warships would send the Japanese scuttling back to Tokyo Bay. I think now that the drained pool represented the unknown, a concept that had played no part in my life. Shanghai in the 1930s was full of extravagant fantasies, but these spectacles were designed to promote a new hotel or airport, a new department store, nightclub or dog-racing track. Nothing was unknown.

As it happens, I disagree. The symbolism of the drained swimming pool and their function seem simpler to me: swimming pools are a luxury and so drained swimming pools are symbols of a society which, at one point, had it all and has now lost it all.

So, in my view, the drained pools (and their cousins, the drained fountains) are powerful symbols of the collapse of the kind of moneyed and advanced civilisation which is necessary to maintain them. And, indeed, later in the book Ballard acknowledges this – I think – more obvious interpretation.

Other, more sympathetic readers of my earlier novels and short stories were quick to spot echoes of Empire of the Sun. The trademark images that I had set out over the previous thirty years – the drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels and nightclubs, deserted runways and flooded rivers – could all be traced back to wartime Shanghai. For a long time I resisted this, but I accept now that it is almost certainly true. The memories of Shanghai that I had tried to repress had been knocking at the floorboards under my feet, and had slipped quietly into my fiction.

Quietly? Shouting and screaming more like.

Taste for the abandoned

Because the drained swimming pools are merely a sub-set of Ballard’s absolute obsession with abandoned buildings, with the trappings of cities and advanced civilisations which have gone into terminal decline and been left abandoned and derelict by their creators.

His short stories are absolutely rammed with abandoned hotels, drained swimming pools and dead or dying airplanes – think of all those stories set amid the rusting gantries of the abandoned space centre at Cape Canavarel, the abandoned resort in Low Flying Aircraft or the entire abandoned city in The Ultimate City or the vision of New York a hundred years after it has been abandoned and filled with sand dunes in Hello America.

Anyway, in this book there’s a memory of exploring a casino in Shanghai which had been abandoned after the Japanese invasion of the city in 1937, and which expands to explain the importance of ‘the abandoned building’ for him. His father had told him not to go inside, but:

After a few minutes I could no longer restrain myself, and walked on tiptoe through the silent gaming rooms where roulette tables lay on their sides and the floor was covered with broken glasses and betting chips. Gilded statues propped up the canopy of the bars that ran the length of the casino, and on the floor ornate chandeliers cut down from the ceiling tilted among the debris of bottles and old newspapers. Everywhere gold glimmered in the half-light, transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Nights tales.

But it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past. I also felt that the ruined casino, like the city and the world beyond it, was more real and more meaningful than it had been when it was thronged with gamblers and dancers. Abandoned houses and office buildings held a special magic and on my way home from school I often paused outside an empty apartment block. Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in a haphazard way gave me my first taste of the surrealism of everyday life, though Shanghai was already surrealist enough.

It’s that feel for the strange magic of abandoned buildings, eerily empty cities and drained swimming pools which absolutely drenches Ballard’s best and most distinctive short stories.

Miracles of Life

Lastly, what makes the book truly wonderful is the quality of love which permeates it. He has nothing but kind words for his wife who died so tragically, so long ago, and then for the strong, intelligent and funny woman, Claire Walsh, who became his lifelong partner in the mid-1960s (the one who appears in two of Ballard’s subversive advertisements, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere).

But it’s the passages about his children which overflow with love and pride and set the tone of this touching and tender book. From his descriptions of helping at the actual births, through bringing them up by himself and spending all his time with them, through to the pride he felt when they married, and in his grandchildren.

Despite the atrocities described in the war years, and the terrible poverty he saw in post-war England, and then his determination to subvert and change the hidebound worlds of literature and science fiction, as he himself points out, all this was froth compared to the deep, rich core of his family life. His easy-going expressions of love for his children are enough to move any parent to tears.

Conclusions

Miracles of Life is a wonderfully clear, intelligent and warm book. Its leading feature for me is the intelligence of the content. What I mean is that every paragraph says something interesting. It isn’t a meandering ramble. Every paragraph makes a point, paints a scene, depicts a character, and contains thoughtful and thought-provoking insights.

As with all Ballard there’s a chilly, if not clinical feel to some of it. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time, its very honesty and candour, first about his parents, and then overwhelmingly about his children, creates a powerful sense of warmth and affection. It isn’t sentimental, he regards the whole of life and the world with a detached and lucid eye: but that makes the love which suffuses the book all the more valuable and moving.

We spent hours with little fish nets, hunting for shrimps, which were always taken home in jam jars and watched as they refused to cooperate and gave up the ghost. Fay and Bea were fascinated by the daisies that seemed to grow underwater when the stream rose to flood the meadow. Shepperton Studios were easy to enter in those wonderful summers nearly fifty years ago, and I would take the children past the sound stages to the field where unwanted props were left to the elements: figureheads of sailing ships, giant chess-pieces, half an American car, stairways that led up to the sky and amazed my three infants. And their father: days of wonder that I wish had lasted for ever. I thought of my children then, and still think of them, as miracles of life, and I dedicate this autobiography to them.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard (1991)

The Kindness of Women was marketed as the ‘sequel’ to Ballard’s bestselling autobiographical memoir, Empire of the Sun, his long and gruelling account of the harrowing years he spent in a Japanese internment camp, having been captured and separated from his parents in war-torn Shanghai, but a careful reading suggests it is anything but an ‘autobiography’ and in fact much more like an extremely carefully composed novel which simply incorporates some themes from his life.

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun had a tremendous unity of subject, time and location – starting in Shanghai just at the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, devoting most of its text to the harrowing experiences and degradations of the prison camp, and ending with a section about the strangeness of the war’s abrupt end – after the two atom bombs were dropped on Japan – and the dreamlike unreality of returning to his pukka, middle-class home at their comfortable home in Shanghai’s International Settlement.

It ends with Jim and his mother leaving Shanghai on a boat with other British mothers and children, bound for an England he had never seen, and so covers his life from just the ages of 11 to 15.

One of the many striking things about Empire of the Sun for seasoned Ballard fans was that… it wasn’t science fiction. It felt like a complete break with the past, with his previous dozen or so novels and scores of short stories, in being based on actual, sensible, real world events.

And yet, in another way, it was of a piece with his previous work in that it gave away or revealed the sources of, his entire worldview.

In the first part of the book the narrator, young Jim, describes the exotic phantasmagoria which was 1940s Shanghai, with its foreign people, food, smells, behaviour and casual brutality (public stranglings) in which he is a permanent outsider, where he is the spectator at wonderful and strange scenes – just as the protagonists of so many of his stories are.

And then, of course, the main part of the text, the description of life in the internment camp, is a prolonged portrait of nominally polite well-educated chaps and chapesses going to pieces, reverting to utter torpor or feral behaviour, while young Jim is permanently starved, covered in sores, feverish and over-excited

That more or less describes the behaviour of the protagonists of the key, hard-core Ballard stories and novels, from The Drowned World to High Rise, especially in the novels which almost all describe the same narrative trajectory – the decline and fall of an individual, or a small group of people, into malnutrition and madness.

In its final scenes Empire of the Sun reaches a hallucinatory intensity as Jim accompanies the other dying internees on a long death march across the Chinese countryside towards another internment camp up country, in which scores of exhausted, ill and dying Brits fall away at each rest stop.

Eventually they arrive at the bizarre setting of an abandoned Olympic sports stadium which has been packed with loot from Shanghai by the conquering Japanese and it is here, more dead than alive, that Jim sees a strange light cover the sky which, he later learns, was the atom bomb exploding over Nagasaki which brought the war in the Pacific to an end, and saved the lives of the remaining internees.

So then, it is a very focused narrative, written with delirious intensity.

The Kindness of Women

The Kindness of Women has many of the same qualities of its predecessor, but is much more diffuse. Basically it’s much broader and wider, covering the whole of the rest of Jim’s life, starting a little before the events described in Empire of the Sun (in starts in 1937, the year the Japanese first attacked China, as opposed to Empire which starts in 1941) and then proceeds up until more or less the time of its writing, in the late 1980s.

No autobiographer can simply describe everything they’ve said and seen and done. Instead you have to choose what to describe, and The Kindness of Women takes this very much to heart. It is very episodic. Each of the seventeen chapters zeroes in on a particular period or moment, on key incidents in Ballard’s life, and gives us a good 15- or 20-page tour of it, before moving briskly on to the next key moment or period.

Thus it has far less unity of time and place, and is therefore less focused and intense than Empire of the Sun. That book was seen entirely from young Jim’s point of view, and he was weak and malnourished even before he entered the camp thanks to spending several months on the run – so it is characterised by a) being seen just from Jim’s point of view and b) Jim being almost continuously feverish and hallucinatory.

By contrast, in most of The Kindness of Women a) the narrator is not just about to faint from exhaustion and malnutrition, and b) it features other people, normal people, people who weren’t locked up during the war, who aren’t suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and so who ground the story, contextualise and normalise it, as we follow Jim becoming a medical student, learning to fly in Canada, getting married, having children, going on holidays to Spain, and so on.

That said, the trauma of those years, and how the narrator copes with it, remains a central theme, in fact, as the narrative unfolds, you it is increasingly drummed home that the narrator has never really been able to get away from his early trauma. In this respect, as several others, it’s a less melodramatic but more moving narrative than Empire.

It is also episodic in the sense that the chapters really feel like episodes. Each one has the depth and artistic arrangement of short story. Each chapter or section features a central theme, with several sub-themes arranged around it to counterpoint each other, like a piece of classical music.

The same goes for the recurring characters. When we first meet his boyhood friend in Shanghai, David Hunter or the teenage girl, Peggy, who looks after him in the internment camp – or a little later, at Cambridge, Dr Sutherland and his sixth form assistant Miriam – little do we suspect that these characters will recur throughout the rest of the book, popping up at key moments and coming to assume larger-than-life roles, becoming almost allegorical figures which represent certain types of human experience and behaviour.

The more you read on, the more carefully and artfully contrived you realise the book is, a selection of representative scenes, each composed and arranged very carefully, featuring representative types, so that it becomes not just the retelling of a life, but something much more elaborately wrought: something like the explanation or rationalisation or justification of Ballard’s complex and bizarre worldview.

Not only do key events explain his attitudes and beliefs, but they also justify his aesthetic strategies towards them. I realised this in the chapter about car crashes which is centred on the exhibition of crashed cars Ballard put on in 1969, when I noticed that the vocabulary and phrasing of the chapter was suddenly echoing the phrases he used with such intensity in the novel Crash.

So you not only pass through episodes in his life which are relevant to the fiction, it’s as if elements of his prose style change and alter to incorporate the phraseology of the stories and especially novels which he wrote during that period. If the Crash chapters reads like an excerpt from Crash, with all its references to raked dashboards and jutting binnacles, so the chapter in which he takes LSD reads like the novel The Unlimited Dream Company in its images of light, super-colour, and so on.

I’m suggesting that the book not only takes you through the episodes which inspired many of his stories, it also (subtly, not blatantly) takes you through the many styles he has used.

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is that it contains next to nothing about how he wrote his books, where the ideas came from, about his struggles as an unpublished author, the first short stories, the commission for the first novel, pride at being published, the critics, his involvement in what was quickly called the New Science Fiction, his manifesto about exploring Inner Space and so on.

There is nothing about any of that, or the craft of writing, or how many hours a day he puts in, or meetings with other writers, or writer or artist friends, his ideas about what science fiction is, or fiction in general, or art – nothing.

Writing that, I suddenly realise how narrow the book is, narrow and very focused. It only really features a handful of other characters – the ones mentioned above – and insofar as they keep bumping into each other at various stages of their lives, I realise that are, in a sense, walking embodiments of how to cope with trauma and troubled childhoods.

It’s as if Ballard is arranging and positioning the same characters into different painterly compositions, or posing the same half dozen people for the same sort of group photo which they take every couple of years over a forty year period.

By the end I wondered whether anything in this book actually happened, and whether any of these handily emblematic ‘characters’ ever existed.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that The Kindness of Women is much, much more like a novel in conception and execution, than any kind of autobiography. And it is a novel about the lifelong impact of childhood trauma.


Part I – A Season For Assassins

Chapter 1. Bloody Sunday

The narrator is seven years old. He describes a 7-year-old’s eye view of Shanghai, a great deranged city of the future. His nanny is 17-year-old White Russian refugee Olga. His best friend is David Hunter. They both like making model airplanes and along with other boys engage in epic games of hide and seek across the vast metropolis. Jim loves seeing the Hell-Drivers, American dare-devils who crash their Fords and Chevrolets through flaming wooden barricades. Every morning municipal trucks collect the bodies of the hundreds of Chinese who have died during the night.

The Japanese invade China and Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek makes Shanghai – or the country just around it – one of his battlefields. Chinese planes fly overhead bombing the Japanese military barracks and the Japanese ships in the harbour.

One of them panics and drops a bomb just by the Great World Amusement Park, which kills just over a thousand civilians, mostly Chinese refugees. Shanghai natives are proud of the fact that this is the biggest death toll from one bomb in the history of human warfare.

Jim is caught in the bomb raid, he hears someone shouting his name, it is the Australian nanny of his rich friend David, calling from their chauffeur-driven car. More bombs fall, he is pulled to safety in a doorway by a British soldier. When he re-emerges and goes over to the car he sees the nanny slumped forward in the front seat of the car, young David in the background staring traumatised into space.

Violent death in cars, trauma, staring blankly, psychotic states of mental withdrawal from traumatic events – it all starts here.

Later the Europeans organise an outing to one of the battlefields outside the city, once the fighting has moved far away. Ladies with parasols walk among the wrecked trenches, among the equipment and ammunition and corpses littered everywhere. Jim hears David tittering to himself, a peculiarly disturbed sound, and sees his ‘jarred eyes’ beneath his fringe.

Chapter 2. Escape Attempts

Jump forward to Jim’s experiences in the Lunghua internment camp described so extensively in Empire of the Sun. It would be tempting to think Ballard is rehashing old ground but having finished the whole book, I realise now that these scenes are vital to his artistic purpose – which is to show the unerasable impact of early-life trauma.

We are introduced to other internees, especially 14-year-old Peggy Gardner, taller than Jim, thin, sensible, who tries to calm Jim’s permanent state of over-excitedness. He often slips into ‘hunger reveries’. He is often feverishly over-excited. Pretty much the whole of his subsequent writing career will be devoted to obsessively repeating and re-examining these extreme mental states.

His relations with Japanese soldiers Private Kimura and Sergeant Nagata.

His obsession with planes and flying, expanding on the model airplanes he and David built, his admiration of the American Flying Tigers who fought for Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, but his equal admiration for the Japanese pilots he sees taking off through the camp fence from nearby Lunghua airport.

The reversal of values by which young Jim admires the Japanese soldiers for their discipline and efficiency and also, somehow, for their unpredictable violence. He admires the American prisoners in the camp for their laid-back, can-do spirit, their glossy American magazines, their confidence that America will win the war and they’ll soon be released.

Jim reserves his contempt for the British, mostly sunk in torpor and indifference, slow to make anything happen, but quick to scold and nag. The narrator repeats the insight from Empire of the Sun that the authority of the British Empire was irreparably damaged when the British forces at Singapore surrendered. Every colonised people in Asia immediately realised the British Empire’s days were numbered.

One night Jim is breaking into the brick-built food store, slowly scratching away at the mortar and removing one brick at a time, when the Jap guards send up a flare and reveal half a dozen Brits amid the camp wire trying to escape. Jim gets caught up in the roundup of the escapees. One of them is his boyhood friend David Hunter.  They are taken to the Jap barracks to be interrogated by camp commander Mr Hyashi, a former diplomat. Jim watches brutal Sergeant Nagata slapping and punching the escapees, sees the blood on David’s blonde hair and the bruises forming on his face.

Jim escapes severe punishment because he knows how to immediately kowtow to the Japs and say the right thing, namely that he likes it in Lunghua camp and wouldn’t dream of escaping, which is in fact true.

Chapter 3. The Japanese Soldiers

The war ends. Rumours sweep the camp of an American superbomb. The Japanese guards disappear. Jim walks out the open doors of the prison camp and describes the flat, waste lands around it, rice paddies and canals stretching for miles.

15-year-old Jim plans to walk back to Shanghai and the home of his parents. The eeriness of the empty landscape, apart from a few dead bodies, is brilliantly captured. Over it all hangs a strange uncanny light, which Jim associates with the light from the bomb. Ballard’s obsession with nuclear weapons starts here. Later he was to learn that the Japs had planned to march them inland to a death camp where they would have been liquidated. This didn’t happen because the Americans dropped the bomb.

In other words, J.G. Ballard owed his life to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so when anxiety about the atom bomb and then the hydrogen bomb steadily grew through the 1950s and 60s he was utterly conflicted: on the one hand sharing the acute anxiety of everyone else that the world might be ended by a nuclear holocaust; at the same time owing his actual existence to the very technology which might at any second wipe out mankind.

You can see why the protagonists of so many of his stories are obsessed with the bomb and with the nuclear test sites at places like Enewatak atoll, epitomised by the extremely disturbing story The Terminal Beach. It’s because they all seek to resolve the contradiction of Ballard’s experience, but never can.

Jim stumbles up to an isolated rural station on the railway line and before he can stop realises it is occupied by four Japanese soldiers. Jim knows about Japanese soldiers. Show respect. Never run. Never show fear. Never argue or disagree.

While three of them potter about or lie with their backs against the wooden station building, one of the Japanese soldiers is slowly tying a Chinese peasant to one of the pillars holding up the roof. Slowly coiling him in telegraph wire they’ve cut down from nearby posts. Jim is forced to watch as the Chinese man is slowly bound and garrotted to death, and every second of his agony, and his imploring eyes, and his gargled noises are imprinted on Jim’s mind, in the hot noonday sun, and the complete silence of this abandoned station.

Time has stopped. This action means nothing. The Japanese know that they are dead and so nothing they do matters.

This scene, this moment and this event, the meaningless death of an unknown citizen which he is forced to watch in silence and stillness for over an hour, under a strange white sky, in an alien landscape – the memory of this scene recurs again and again later in the novel as a symbol for the nexus of inarticulable traumas Jim, and the other camp inhabitants and, by extension, millions of victims of the war, suffered.

For no particular reason, the Jap soldiers let him go and Jim stumbles along the railway lines finally reaching Shanghai and stumbling towards his boyhood home where he is reunited with his parents, who have survived the war at a different camp.

Things are restored to ‘normality’. Jim goes cruising the city with David Hunter who, he discovers, has developed a precocious taste for picking up Eurasian prostitutes and somehow making them so furious that they attack him in a mad frenzy. That’s the bit he wants. Replaying endlessly the beating he got in the camp from Sergeant Nagata.

Then Jim and his mother sail back to England. Even at the last moment, on the last page of the China section, Jim witnesses atrocity. The steamer they’re on passes an American landing craft and the homebound passengers see it is full of Japanese soldiers on their knees, wrists tied behind them, and they are being chivvied onto the beach by armed American soldiers towards a line of Chinese soldiers who have bayonets attached to their rifles and are waiting to bayonet the Japanese to death.

Part II – The Craze Years

I was marooned in a small, grey country where the sun rarely rose above the rooftops, a labyrinth of class and caste forever enlarging itself from within. The English talked as if they had won the war, but behaved as if they had lost it.

Chapter 4. The Queen of the Night

Ballard is a medical student at Cambridge and his work there is epitomised by the Dissection Room. Groups of students are allotted a cadaver and Ballard’s group is the only one to get a woman. Everything else that happens in this chapter is counterpointed by Ballard’s poetic descriptions of how this woman’s body is slowly flayed, the layers peeled back to reveal fat, muscle, tendons and then the vital organs, and he nicknames her the Queen of the Night, and is aware of a sort of psychological hold she has over him.

Ballard doesn’t like Cambridge, he certainly despises everything about his college (King’s College, the oldest and grandest college in Cambridge), disliking the daily madrigal singing in the chapel, seeing the whole place as a kind of flea-ridden tourist attraction.

‘It’s a glorified academic gift shop for American universities, where they can buy some quaint little professor for a few dollars. You need to be a tourist or an au pair girl top get the best out of it.’ (p.104)

That was in the early 1950s. Later, in 1978, he thinks:

Cambridge had expanded into a complex of industrial and science parks, ringed by monotonous housing estates and shopping precincts. At its centre, like the casbah in Tangier, was the antique heart of the university, a stopover for well-disciplined parties of Japanese tourists stepping from their TV-equipped German buses. As an undergraduate I had prayed for a new Thomas Cromwell who would launch the dissolution of the universities, but mass tourism had accomplished this, overwhelming the older European universities as it would soon destroy Rome, Florence, and Venice.

The narrator is desperate to escape the confines of college and get out to see the American bombers at the vast new airfields built across East Anglia for the fleets of bombers carrying nuclear weapons, and is hypnotised by the sight of rich American USAAF officers driving round in their huge shiny American cars, Chryslers and Oldsmobiles.

Again, this theme is reprised towards the end of the book in a way which sheds light on his lifelong obsession:

I parked in a narrow lane and stared through the perimeter fence at the worn concrete beside the nuclear weapons silos. The unsung and unremembered cement was more venerable than all the primped and polished stone of the university. The runways were aisles that led to a more meaningful world, gateways of memory and promise.

Jim sees Peggy, the scrawny teenage girl who helped him so much in the camp, came home on the same ship, and blossomed at her girls boarding school in Sussex. She pops up to Cambridge where the carries on being an older sister, chiding him about his scruffiness, his anti-Cambridge attitude, his obsession with Americans and the bomb. They discuss all this in terms of their experiences at Lunghua camp.

He meets an academic, a psychology professor Dr Richard Sutherland, who studied in America, has an American car, he has a pilot’s license and at weekends flies a gypsy moth, it’s even rumoured he’s been on television! He is ‘fast’, meaning trendy, before the word or concept had been invented.

One of his assistants is a girl still in the 6th form of her school, but knowing and sexy, Miriam who wears stylish American underwear and, he thinks, is probably sleeping with the Prof.

Nonetheless, Miriam seduces young student Jim into an affair and we have one of the first of what will be many, many coolly clinical anatomically precise descriptions of sex which includes what you might call unusual features, him placing his penis against her breast, kissing her armpit, her steering his fingers towards her anus.

Something about their combination of extreme sexuality and extreme clarity and calculation makes them very erotic, but the way that he describes with every one of the women in the book in the same clinical and geometric style made me wonder whether the sex scenes, like possibly everything else in the book, is stylised and contrived and completely untrue.

They make an odd trio: the trendy psychology professor, the haunted student and the sexy schoolgirl, driving out to the American air force bases to watch the nuclear bombers taking off and landing. Characters from an archetypal Ballard story, while the English around them seem remote and alien, p.94.

Chapter 5. The Nato Boys

Jump forward a few years and we learn that Jim has quit medical school and enrolled in the RAF. Still, as we readers know, Ballard will remain obsessed with the role and character and social position of The Doctor throughout his fiction, which is packed with doctor protagonists.

Jim enrolled because he wants to fly the big bombers which will start World War Three. But instead of learning to fly in tense divided Germany, Jim and his other volunteers are packed off to the frozen tundra of Canada, to Sakatchewan, to be precise. The whole chapter is underpinned by the sense that, in the overlit fields around the Lunghua camp, in the inexplicable silence and eeriness of the landscape, Jim realised that World War 2 had ended but World War 3 had begun, except that nobody else had noticed it. (p.106)

This perceptive but deranged conviction also underpins much of his later fiction – the name-changing central figure in The Atrocity Exhibition is trying to start World War 3, except not as we know it. As a kind of display of psychological extremes.

Also I hadn’t really understood the significance for his fiction of the fact that Ballard actually trained as a pilot. Manned flight is one of the central obsessions which recurs again and again throughout his works.

Jim describes the camaraderie in the mess, the national characteristics of the different Nato pilots training there. The Turks find it hardest because of the heavy North American food (waffles, turkey and milk).

Oh and David has accompanied him, the same David Hunter we met in Shanghai, he is going to haunt the novel like Jim’s alter ego. There is a prolonged section where David Hunter takes Jim to a brothel, they get completely hammered, so drunk we find Jim reeling on a bed before throwing up into his trousers which are lying on the floor, while two prostitutes take it in turns to suck David’s penis. David always insists on watching and being watched. Later he takes one of the whores into the bathroom and somehow makes her so angry that she attacks David, really beating and slapping him around the face. Jim simply points out it’s the nearest he can come to the times Sergeant Nagata slapped him round the face. Jim meanwhile tries to tenderly stroke and caress ‘his’ whore who, he realises, is pregnant.

One of the Turks, Captain Artvin, goes missing on a training flight in the Harvard planes they use. A few days later Jim, ignoring regulations and flying freely across the frozen tundra, see what he thinks might be the cabin of a drowned plane in a lake.

Jim tells David. He goes out on a second trip, taking so long to relocate the lake that, on the way back, he runs out of fuel and crash lands his plane on a road half buried under blizzard snow. There’s a funny moment when a mink farmer drives by, eyes the half crashed plane with Jim sitting stunned in the cockpit, then drives on.

The mink farmers hate the pilots who deliberately dive and scare their animals. No love lost on the bleak Canadian tundra. Jim is disciplined at an enquiry, and realises the air force is not for him. Miriam had written him a letter saying she’d got a job on a Fleet Street paper. He wants to return to England and explore her amazing American underwear.

Chapter 6. Magic World

Jump forward and Jim has married Miriam and they have two small children. He is now living in a modest suburban house in Shepperton. He explains some of the mystique of Shepperton, surrounded by water, the River Thames and the gravel quarries.

He takes his small children to a piece of rough ground behind Shepperton Studios where there are disused props to play with and which they call Magic World.

This chapter contains very beautiful descriptions of domestic intimacy, of them making love, but it is mixed up with her first pregnancy and giving birth in the hospital which Miriam found so alienating she insisted the second one was delivered at home, a process Ballard describes with a wonderful evocation of intimacy.

They watch Prof Richard Sutherland from Cambridge, who is now a TV academic and pundit, reporting from Cape Canavarel, one of the new generation of media academics whose role, Ballard perceptively suggests, is to teach ‘the world to feel more at ease with itself’ (p.127).

David Hunter pops by. He carried on the Canadian training, served in Kenya, then flew nuclear-armed Vulcans, drifted along the fringes of private aviation, then bought an aerial photography company (p.128). He has the air of a man scared the past is going to creep up and tap him on the shoulder. Long-term post-traumatic stress. They sit up late over whiskey. David reminds Jim of his experience at the railway station. He’s going back to Shanghai, does Jim want to come with?

Jim says ‘No’. Later in bed with Miriam they discuss it. They touch and fondle and caress and discuss. It is a beautiful evocation of married life. Then her third labour begins and there is a vivid, intimate description of labour, complete with farts and piles, and then the arrival of their third child who Ballard describes with eerie precision, like a visitor from an era millions of years old.

Chapter 7. The Island

Miriam and Jim and their three small children are on holiday in Spain, a place called Ampiabravura. Jim foolishly tries to swim round the headland but is nearly run over by a ferry and ends up clambering ashore on a long isolated sandbank.

Miriam motorboats out with the kids and they discover a remote half-abandoned building, which seems to be occupied by a group of half naked hippies.

Miriam explains he’s been back in England for eighteen years and it’s become clear he’ll never feel at home here. (So if he returned in 1945 this must be 1963. He says they’ve been married for 8 years i.e. married in 1955 when Ballard – born 1930 – was 25)

There’s an extended passage describing the new sun-worshipping beach culture which was being established along the 3,000 mile littoral of the Mediterranean (a feature, a mindset of many of his story, not least The Largest Theme Park in the World from 1989). He and Miriam have very clinical sex in hotel bedrooms and bathrooms, her adopting gymnastic poses against mirrors, watching his reflection. Maybe this happened but it feels very… male.

When they return to the secret house on the sandbank, other people are there, a tall blonde man with long hair, women swimming naked. Early hippies. The man is Peter Lykiard, teaches at Regent Street Poly, there’s another couple, and a young American student, Sally Mumford. They smoke joints, they have copies of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. Groovy.

Jim and Miriam’s little kids love them. Sally is very good with the kids, calls them pixies. Her father is a millionaire, owner of a Boston department store. Miriam feels like a square.

They are all now a big gang and drive to a nearby town to watch a bullfight. Predictably this triggers primeval urges of blood and violence but it triggers Sally to an outburst of insane violence, she goes into the ring at the climax of the fight, tries to ride the bull, gets lots in a melee, they later find her in the compound for bullfighters and their followers being pushed around, her clothes torn, in a daze.

Next day, back at their special beach, the kids are playing supervised by Miriam, Lykiard and the other couple are in the house, Sally comes and lies by Jim, hands him a joint and makes it clear that she is sexually available, resting her breast against his arm. When he doesn’t respond or rise to the bait she simply stands up, not insulted or aggrieved and strolls off.

On page 157 Miriam us skipping down the steps of the villa, when she stumbles and hits her head on the stone edge. The crack is so loud everyone turns. Jim runs over to her as she looks up dazed. They help her into the inflatable dinghy they use to get to and from the sandbank, she struggles to get out at the main beach, they help her to the hotel where Jim calls a doctor. A practicante arrives and at first says they’ll keep her under observation, but only minutes later calls for an ambulance, as Miriam drifts in and out of consciousness, increasingly confused. Jim accompanies her, massaging her legs as she struggles to breathe with an oxygen mask. By the time they reach the hospital she is dead, p.160.

Chapter 8. The Kindness of Women

Miriam is buried in the Protestant cemetery at Fuigueras. All his friends find it hard to look at him. He has the feeling all the women in the world are withdrawing. He packs up their stuff and drives all the way back across Spain and France with a bottle of whiskey between his thighs.

All the past he had tried to reject – all the dead of China and the war, and especially the young Chinese he saw being strangled to death – race up to stare him in the face.

Miriam’s sister, Dorothy and her husband, are waiting to greet them at the Shepperton home. He clears out Miriam’s drawer, underwear and contraceptives. Slowly he reorientates his perspectives to ready himself for a life raising three small children by himself.

In a scene of intense eroticism a hug with Miriam’s sister Dorothy turns into sex as she makes a conscious decision to console him, and partakes of very Ballardian geometric sex in which people position themselves at angles, move penises around, dangle breasts, rearrange thighs and generally come across as pornographic meccano.

Everything I’ve ever experienced of mature English women tells me a) she’d never have done it b) she’d certainly never have had the rather theoretical architectural sex Ballard describes. Can’t help thinking this is utter fantasy.

Ballard describes the everyday misandry of pretty much everyone they know, plus the school and the authorities, all of whom think a father is not capable of bringing up small children. As a househusband who brought up my small children, I encountered exactly the same prejudices in the 2000s.

‘For God’s sake, men are capable of loving their children.’ (p.171)

Peggy drops by for another one of the conversations in which she reviews his life which are a feature of the book. She is now a very self-possessed pediatrician at Guy’s Hospital. They embrace and Jim feels a stirring but Peggy pulls away. She is the sensible older sister in their relationship.

Friends and colleagues are polite, supportive, David Hunter invites him to parties and navigates him towards eligible women, but at the same time there is a conspiracy of silence: none of his friends can bring themselves to mention his dead wife.

The narrator says he almost envies JFK’s widow, at least nobody can try and sweep her grief under the carpet and, in a flash, I realise the vast psychological importance the JFK assassination must have had for Ballard. It happened in the same year his lost his wife – it was a vast public, global outpouring of grief inextricably linked to Ballard’s own domestic private grief.

An English publisher based in New York takes Ballard out to strip clubs in Soho. This gives Ballard an opportunity to mock the explicit but utterly bored, passionless routines of the porno dancers, as formalised as the routines of air hostesses running you through the emergency drill before take-off.

A friend of Miriam’s pops round while the kids are at school and in a mature, open, unembarrassed way persuades Jim to have sex with her while she’s perched on the edge of the spindryer, the vibrations, you see.

Chapter 9. Craze People

It is now the mid-60s and these are represented for Ballard by Prof Lykiard, pipe smoking, running an arts laboratory, exhibitions of Vietnam atrocities, theatre of Cruelty, Burroughs and so on. Invites Ballard to write notes for an exhibition of images based round the JFK assassination. And Sally, who drops by to play with the pixies and is at the epicentre of the 60s maelstrom, high on amphetamines, editing documentaries about warzones, attending spiritualist events, rock concerts.

Ballard is invited to read some of his works at a massive music festival in Sussex. They take the kids, Sally looks after them but she is disconcerted to discover Lykiard having it off with one of the performance artists backstage. Ballard finds her later, beyond the festival boundaries, playing with some horses in a field. Later she insists they drive to the Sussex coast and, while the children watch, she wades out dangerously far into the water, is knocked off her feet and gets into danger of drowning, until Ballard wades out and rescues her. Blankets and the sense that she is a casualty, infinitely vulnerable, psychic damage.

Later that evening, back in Shepperton, the put the pixies to bed, she is bathed and changed and their sitting on the sofa, she snuggles up to him and makes it clear she is available for sex but when it comes to it, asking to be sodomised, turning her buttocks to him, forcing her face into the pillows, offering her hands behind her back so he can grab her wrists and push them upwards, pinning her, hurting her, as she calls out: ‘Bugger me, Daddy! Beat me! Pixie wants to be buggered!’

I found this whole sequence of events intensely erotic, and at the same time you are obviously intended to realise the depth of her psychological damage, her unloving possibly abusive father, her drug addiction, her manic throwing herself into all the hectic art events of the swinging 60s.

And you also wonder, here as in so many other places, whether any of this happened, or it is entirely fictional.

Sally becomes his guide to the heady swirl of the 1960s, and to sexual liberation. He introduces her to Dick Sutherland, the TV scientist, and this allows Ballard to describe his version of the 60s, not a time of utopian hope, but an era when endless images of violence and atrocity blared from TV screens and sex was so blasted in everyone’s faces that emotion and feeling were exterminated.

This, we realise, is the milieu which produced the intense and weird texts which go to make up what I consider to be Ballard’s masterpiece, The Atrocity Exhibition for example he describes Dick Sutherland carrying out trendy psychology experiments such as submitting subjects to intense footage of war atrocities (Vietnam, Congo) and asking questionnaires about its impact on their sex lives.

Well that is exactly the subject of one of the last chapters in The Atrocity Exhibition.

Then one night she is hosting a party at her ramshackle Bayswater digs, packed with performance artists and film-makers, Dick Sutherland and Lykiard are there. But none of them can prevent Ballard stumbling into a spare bedroom where he finds Sally on her back on the quilted top of the laundry basket, her legs hoiked up round the shoulders of a young Spanish photographer whose trousers are round his hips as he steadily, strongly fucks her. Sally stares past the Spaniard at Jim, smiling happily.

That, also, is a lesson about a decade which Ballard sees entirely in terms of its psychic damage and louring threat, atrocity, nuclear war, Vietnam, theatre of cruelty, drugs and betrayal.

Chapter 10. Kingdom of Light

17 June 1967. Under the supervision of long-time friend, TV pundit and psychologist Richard Sutherland, Ballard has an acid trip, described in terms almost identical to the prolonged fantasia which is his novel, The Unlimited Dream Company. He realises that

Shepperton was a solar garden, a sleeping paradise waiting to be woken from every stone and leaf. (p.206)

which is very much the subject of The Unlimited Dream Company.

The kids are taken out by Cleo Churchill, a childrens book editor Jim’s met at one of Sutherland’s many swinging parties who turns out to live locally and be happy to babysit sometimes, and takes them to Shepperton Park by the river. In fact, later on and well into the acid trip, Sutherland takes a phone call in Ballard’s study, taking his eye off his ward, who gets up and sleepwalks, staggers through prisms of light, as far as Shepperton Park where he sees his children, but especially Chloe Churchill, transformed into a Gustave Moreau archangel, sheathed in multi-coloured lights.

By now I doubt whether anything like this happened, but it is convenient because it means whenever Chloe pops up in the rest of the book, Ballard can have acid flashbacks of her as a rainbow angel of glory.

Sutherland had pitched filming Ballard taking the acid as a programme proposal to the head of documentaries at the BBC. This brings out Sutherland’s popularity but he’s not actually a part of the machine. And the text repeats his justification of acid, namely that the world most of us perceive, made up of discrete objects, with their correct places, governed by laws of gravity and geometry and, above all, by a sense of consecutive Time, are entirely artefacts of the central nervous system and brain which we have evolved to help us cope and manage the objects, other people and other animals around us. But they aren’t the truth. Taking acid isn’t like getting drunk or stoned. It goes far deeper than that, it reveals the world the human nervous system spends most of its time hiding us from.

Having taken acid a dozen or so times I couldn’t agree more. One trip is enough to show you the absolute wonder and amazement of what the human senses are actually perceiving every second of every day – but which are repressed, turned off, ignored so we can get on with being the instrumental, purposive, time-focused animals we are.

Delete all those repressive mechanisms and you experience the central nervous system without its locks and gates, you experience ‘reality’ unleashed. More accurately, you experience the overwhelming flood of sensations which are bodies are receiving all the time, but which the evolved CNS suppresses.

From a literary point of view it’s interesting to see that Ballard uses a lot of the phraseology and imagery which made such an impact in The Crystal World i.e. everyday objects are invested with multiple-angled shards of light, as if embedded in jewels.

My arms and legs were dressed in light, sheathes of mother-of-pearl that formed a coronation armour. (p.203)

In the aftermath, everything seems grey and drab. Shepperton has exhausted itself. A few days later Peggy Gardner drops by. She is more than ever the prim, respectable, professional spinster. Predictably she disapproves of the acid trip and especially the way Sutherland uses Jim in his psychological-TV-media experiments.

But Ballard links it back to Shanghai, Lunghua and the primal scene in chapter three, the four Japanese soldiers torturing a Chinese to death while Jim looks on in terror in an alien landscape. Now, when Ballard repeats his characteristically Ballard ideas, we have a much deeper sense of where they come from.

When he speculates that war is how nations escape from time it sort of makes sense. Certainly if you’ve read British war memoirs, it’s striking how many men were drifting or unhappy, and the call-up in August 1914 liberated many of them from the sense of inevitability and duty and failure implicit in the idea of having to get a career, get on in the world etc. For the duration of the war all those worriers were suspended.

But Ballard means something deeper and expresses it with a surreal logic which is distinctively his, the notion that the Japanese soldiers wanted were waiting for the next war, and that their torture of the Chinese was an attempt to provoke the next war into starting, so they could be free again. It’s only as irrational as thousands of other religious rites and rituals and invocations and calls on the gods or the world to do what we want.

If you fully enter Ballard’s imaginative world, if you buy into his premises, if you experience his experiences – then this kind of claim makes complete sense. Otherwise, you remain on the outside.

All that said, a few weeks later Sutherland is due to pop round with another dose of acid. Jim is at the door seeing off Cleo who has, again, obligingly agreed to take the kids to Magic World, she calmly disapproves, the kids run up to Jim shouting, ‘Come on Daddy, come with us’ and… He does. Once was enough. He turns his back on Dick Sutherland’s dubious psych experiments. As they say in Trainspotting – Choose life.

Chapter 11. The Exhibition

Sally Mumford is back. She’s progressed from speed to heroin and her arms are covered in needle marks and sores, but she still lovers the kids. For Ballard she represents all the toxic hysteria of the 1960s (or Ballard has invented her as a symbol of the same):

Like so many others at the end of the 60s, that ten-year pharmaceutical trial, she thought of the media landscape as a life-support system, force feeding a diet of violence and sensation into her numbed brain. (p.215)

In fact reading that quote at the start of this chapter makes me realise that Ballard is artfully introducing his key theme. As I’ve explained in my reviews of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, those books contain fairly straightforward explanations of his obsession with extreme pornography and car crashes, which is that a diet of super-violent war images and atrocities (epitomised by the endless replaying of the JFK assassination) has numbed and desensitised people, so only extremes of sex and sensation can reconnect them.

Reinforcing the mood of hysteria, we are reintroduced to David Hunter who is becoming more deranged. As the years pass he seems to blame Ballard more and more for Miriam’s death. He’s never read any of Ballard’s books, pointing out that he knows the key, the master plot, already. David gives him a lift back from London and goes and parks his car outside a posh Belgravia house out of which emerges a smart little man who David then menaces with his car. It is the Japanese ambassador. And so on.

By this stage I had realised that The Kindness of Women is a kind of handbook, or set of case studies, in post-traumatic stress survivors.

David now flies vintage cars in displays. He invites Ballard and Sally and the kids to one. Although his real passion is saloon car racing at Brands Hatch. He has twice been cautioned for dangerous driving. The reader who knows their Ballard knows where this is all heading.

David is driving Sally back from the air display when they crash, near the approach to Chertsey Road. Ballard follows on later and so is slowed down by the police who are managing the traffic flow past the wrecked cars. David and Sally are both fine, unscathed, but Ballard gets a look of them posed in driving seat and back seat, both frozen in time, staring into space, covered in broken windscreen glass, described in exactly the same phrases which fill Crash.

I was struck by their self-conscious pose, like dancers arrested in an audience-catching flourish at the end of their performance…the postures they assumed within the cabin of the Jaguar, as if they were memorising for future use the exact geometry of Sally’s exposed thighs and the ribbed leather of the upholstery, the precise angle between David’s crutch and the jut and rake of the steering wheel. (p.219)

Did this ever happen? Or is it an entirely fictional recreation of the scenes and phraseology of Crash? Ballard notices the number of people who’ve stopped to gawp at the crashed cars, some of them have got cine cameras out to film the scene. It is, he realises, a new type of street theatre, hypnotic attraction to a pile-up of technology which is somehow linked to the television and its relentless diet of violence and atrocity.

Subsequently David and Sally make complete recoveries, the latter driving Jim back up to London in her dangerous MG while explaining that the thrill of driving dangerously with the ever-present risk of a crash is identical to the motivation of the bullfight (remember the bullfighting scene back in chapter 7, aha, that’s why that was there: to prepare us for this speech), updated to the late 20th century.

Sally is lost in the maze of streets in Marylebone when a sports car surges out of a side street, nearly crashes into them, and hurtles off. Ballard had just had time to grab the wheel and steer the MG out of its path, while Sally did an emergency brake.

It was David. Sally explains that he follows her around, then she follows him. They pretend to crash into each other. This is the plot of Crash. Really rammed home when Sally takes Jim’s hand, puts is between her legs so he can feel how wet she is, and they proceed to have typically clinical Ballard sex amid the clutter of steering wheels and handbrakes, while both of them are aware of David Hunter (aha! his name! was his bland name chosen to lead up to this scene all along) roams the streets of London in his fast car, hunting for prey.

Hunter is, in fact, recreating the endless games of hide and seek which Ballard described them both playing through the vast metropolis of Shanghai, back in their innocent boyhoods. Or is he? Are both fictional inventions?

Cut to the exhibition of crashed cars which Ballard staged at Dick Sutherland’s experimental Arts Theatre Laboratory for four weeks in 1969. Ballard quotes the program notes which claim the car crash is a vector focusing all the violence and anxieties of the age (not least of thermonuclear war) into an event which happens daily, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands each year, and yet which is celebrated on TV and in movies, is presented as a form of entertainment (p.226).

At the opening night the guests behave appallingly, getting drunk, throwing up on the cars, urinating on and in them, fights break out and Sally is nearly raped in the back seat of the smashed-up Lincoln, until rescued by Ballard and Chloe Churchill, who has come along to be a voice of reason amid the madness, although Ballard, typically listens to her sensible comments but sees her reincarnated as the angle of light he saw during his acid trip.

Driving back from that party, Ballard is following Sally in her MG when he becomes entranced in their game and, accidentally-on-purpose, clips the rear fender of her car. This sends her into a zig zag but Ballard loses control of his own car which, as he brakes, veers into the fast lane, one of its tyres explodes, it crashes against the central reservation, turned onto its side and then upside down, skids at speed on its roof, Ballard hanging upside down from his safety belt, into the oncoming traffic.

The emergency services soon arrive, drag him out onto the grass verge, a figure pushes through the quickly assembling crowd and flicks a cigarette lighter lowering it to his face. It is Sally, forensically fascinated to examine his expression, as clinical as Ballard had been when he flayed and unpeeled the dead carcass back at medical school.

There’s a coda: in the last days of the 1960s Ballard attends a demolition derby held at a disused football ground in the East End, as the drivers crash into each other, one of whom is David Hunter who, after he’s crashed out of the competition lies back in his shattered cabin while Sally Mumford in white jeans and crimson jacket yells at him.

Did any of this happen? It feels very very pat, just so, and when Ballard references the Hell Drivers of Shanghai which he had described in chapter one, the reader wonders whether anyone’s actual life could be so wonderfully choreographed and thematically linked.

Chapter 12. In The Camera Lens

Jim is at a film festival in Brazil with Dick Sutherland, who he first met at Cambridge in the early 1950s and have watched morph into an early example of that new social type, the media don, the science presenter. Dick and Jim are attending a film festival in Copacabana.

This chapter neatly captures the way a lot of the behaviours which (apparently) seemed so liberating in the 1960s when they broke through the grey carapace of austerity Britain, somehow came to seem corrupt and tacky and embarrassing in the 1970s e.g. casual sex, drugs (specifically cocaine), flares, long hair, experimental films, TV and foreign jollies

The festival mainly consists of ogling the stunningly sexy Brazilian women taking part in various parades, and attending endless parties. In two brief surreal scenes he finds himself being introduced to the cast of Star Trek, already grey-haired and uncomfortably acting the roles they’ll be famous for till they die, who look like ‘venerable morticians’ (p.238) and to the legendary film director Fritz Lang.

Both encounters add to Ballard’s sense that we all live in a sort of heightened reality TV show. The centrepiece of the festival is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which, in fact, a glance at Wikipedia tells me was released in May 1968. (Elsewhere in this blog I’ve reviewed the Arthur C. Clarke novel and sequels)

Characteristically, Sutherland is said to be running an alternative festival of science documentaries, and some of these are right up Ballard’s alley. They include a film documenting the treatment of extreme sex offenders, which included varieties of aversion therapy i.e. showing them images of children or vulnerable women and then giving them electric shocks or emetics. Ballard didn’t watch the film, he stood and watched the audience, mainly made up of documentary filmmakers and psychologists who sit entranced, occasionally oohing with appreciation as the patients are given electric shocks or vomit, exactly – says Ballard waspishly – as the devotees in a Soho sex theatre sit entranced, occasionally murmuring their approval at a particularly graphic sex scene.

This leads up to the kind of gnomic remark you suspect Ballard is proud of: ‘In the future everyone will need to be a film critic to make sense of anything’ (p.241). I can see this emblazoned in huge letters over the entrance to the hundreds of Media Studies courses now taught all across the UK and beyond. It sounds good, but it’s not really true. It’s a very dated idea. Nowadays being a data analyst would be more help. As far as I can tell, media studies like gender studies and queer studies and all the rest are stuck in a time warp, still reading Marxist, psycho-analytical, structuralist, post-structuralist and feminist theory, while the world we inhabit has moved on.

A leading film critic on a Rio newspaper introduces our two middle-aged Englishmen to two Rio hookers, Carmen and Fortunata. This is the beginning of Dick and Jim’s ‘odyssey’ which the reader immediately spots is a kind of satirical counterpoint to what Ballard thought was Kubrick and Clarke’s overblown space fantasy.

The Rio hookers take our heroes back to their knocking shop which is two rooms adjacent to a sweatshop in which lots of other poor women manufacture mementos of the film festival, stapling together posters of Robert Redford or Jane Fonda, amid the din of the printworks. The scene also counterpoints the scene in chapter five where David and Jim spent the night with two Canadian whores in a double bedroom.

The general idea is to show the ubiquity of prostitution, and the surprising light it sheds on modern sexuality. There’s a striking moment when Jim’s hooker, Carmen, asks if he wants to film them having sex – a camera and tripod are set up in the corner, obviously it’ll cost extra. That’s not the jolt. The jolt comes when she says, maybe he’d like film of it so he can show his girlfriend. Or his wife. The fact that the equipment is set up and she knows about it, demonstrates that this is common enough to be a commercial venture i.e. it sheds light on modern marriage. Well, some modern marriages.

Dick had (wisely) refused to even enter the ‘bedroom’ of his hooker, Fortunata, it was so filthy, dishevelled, the sheets stained with mucus and lubricant and spermicidal jelly like the car bay at a garage. Instead, when Jim finally finishes fucking Carmen, and she professionally scoops his leaking semen into a succession of tissues, Jim slowly dresses and opens the door back into the workshop to find Richard and Fortunata running round it throwing tatty tourist mementos at each other. A sort of comic counterpoint to the end of the Canada prostitute story in which David provoked his hooker into smacking his face, in memory of Sergeant Nagata.

In a kind of coda, or punchline scene, the Rio film critic hosts a massive party at his mansion, where Jim, sauntering around, comes across a room which has been sealed off, which turns out to be full of lights and technicians and cameramen etc where Carmen is on hands and knees, doggy fashion, and a vexed dog handler is fondling the genitals of a German shepherd. They are trying to get the dog to get an erection and to penetrate Carmen from behind, while she flicks back her hair and looks behind her in boredom, and the host ans various other guests stand around holding their wine glasses and chatting.

Ballard describes all this as if this level of intense pornography is the future, tied to the rise and rise of desensitising TV. But I disagree. I think that vision of a world totally corrupted by TV and pornography is itself very dated, very 70s, dragging on into the 80s, and ended up being a misleading guide to what actually happened.

And now, in 2020, we live in a world where unlimited hard-core pornography is available to anyone at the click of a mouse and yet, the interesting thing about the vast parallel universe of porn on the internet is not that it exists – it’s that so many people choose not to watch it most of the time.

Chapter 13. The Casualty Station

David Hunter has been sent to a mental institute, Summerfield Hospital in south London. Here Ballard visits him, reflecting on the sequence of events that brought them there, and noting the behaviour of the other insane patients. David is pretty compos mentis as mental cases go. Ballard takes a chessboard, they play chess, and David always palms a piece before the end of the game so Ballard will have to come back.

They chat about old times. We are informed that Sally has decamped to Scotland, staying with a friend of her rich father’s trying out the then-new methadone treatment for heroin addiction. This follows her turning up at Shepperton a few months earlier, utterly string out on heroin, refusing to talk or be touched, striding up and down the kids empty bedrooms, ransacking the cupboards for their old toys. Jim takes her to his GP who recommends a specialist who recommends a nursing home on the Thames, and then onto Scotland.

David went back to Shanghai, something Jim says he can’t do, David hunted for the isolated railway station which is the recurrent image of the novel, but couldn’t find it. (The reader suspects this is because it never existed, but was a fictional symbol invented by Ballard.) David points out the car crash exhibition was simply Ballard’s way of re-enacting the atrocity he witness. ‘At a few removes’.

It was car crashing that brought him to the asylum. He and Sally developed a cult of driving up one-way streets the wrong way and one night in London had a head-on collision with a woman cellist who was killed instantly. It was only his demented gibbering at the scene and his RAF record in Kenya which saved him from a manslaughter charge. Instead he was sent to Repton mental home and now here.

In Ballard’s view, David had tried to recreate the cruelty he experienced in China, not realising that the psychopathic, TV-addicted, atrocity newsreel footage-driven 60s was egging him on. He’s just one among tens of thousands of casualties of the 1960s.

The third of Ballard’s representative trio is the TV don, Dick Sutherland and he emerged from the 60s with flying colours, making a series of pop science documentaries, notably one which used the latest fibre-optic technology to film inside the body especially, of course inside the uterus during sex etc, as well as setting up an Institute for Sexual Research, funded by a New York publisher.

It’s a funny thing, but the more Ballard talks about sex and the sex studies and practices of his characters, the more dated the book feels, reminding you that these events happened almost 50 years ago, in a very different time and place, where simply filming sex acts between humans to appear in ‘scientific’ documentaries appeared revolutionary.

When Professor Sutherland sounds off, in one of their stage-managed conversations, telling Jim that there’s going to be more and more sex in the future, so much so that it is going to create ‘new forms of social structure’ – it sounds as dated and, in its way, as childish as Space 1999 or UFO or Joe 90 or all those other TV series for kids which predicted colonies on the moon and everyone wearing zip-up plastic suits by 1999.

Didn’t turn out like that, did it.

We learn that Sally let herself be persuaded to take part in some of Dick’s experiments, let fibre-optic cables be inserted in her vagina while she had sex with a laboratory volunteer, as well as close-ups of every erogenous zone of her body. Slowly she came to think of herself as a set of dismembered parts, eventually expecting to see huge blow-ups of her nipples or clitoris on roadside billboards or upholstering the banquettes of trendy 70s nightclubs. Thus she went to pieces, almost literally.

Peggy Gardner is the last of the set of recurring characters (what David sardonically refers to as ‘the old Shanghai firm’, p.274) which, the reader realises, structure the narrative and allow Ballard to meditate on the fate of his contemporaries.

She turns up for drinks in Shepperton, and they have a couple of pages chatting about how things have turned out. Into her mouth Ballard puts quite severe criticisms of his (Ballard’s) attitude, how he manipulated everyone around him (Dick, Sally, David) to act out his nightmares, how the exhibitions, the drugs, the weird sex and the intense stories are all part of the same indictment. He patronises her a bit, telling her how she’s always looked after her so well and she slaps him in the face, drawing blood.

Rather disappointingly, this leads to sex, described with the same clinical detachment as all the other acts of coitus, and the strange angles of thighs and vulvas and penises as all the other descriptions.

Now this chapter returns to its opening scene, with Jim sitting at a table in Summerfield Hospital playing chess with David. The entire text has been very carefully crafted and arranged as a description of both what happened at the end of the 1960s and how the Shanghai firm had managed.

One of the other patients, a deranged old lady who had been taking daffodils from all the vases in the communal area and laying them carefully in a line at the entrance to a window alcove, has a fit and turns her brimming cup of tea. This is, in a way, a key scene. Jim had observed the woman unable to reconcile the light shining off the brimming meniscus of tea in her cup with the polished glare of the hard floor. Eventually she thinks her way through the problem to the solution and upends her cup, sending tea splashing all over the table and the skirt of the woman handing it out. Who promptly gets furious, grabs the feeble old woman’s wrist and gives her such a push, she sends her collapsing onto the floor.

Ballard is up out of her seat, and goes to her protection, taking her in his arms and then lifting her off the floor, she is so thing and wasted, and taking her down the corridor to the safety of her room. As he carries her, she repeats pitifully, ‘Jesus told me to.’ The point is, if you’ve read enough Ballard, you understand her. You feel, as she did, the mental pain of these conflicting geometries (shimmering liquid v. hard tabletop) and you grasp the Einsteinian brilliance of her solution. To marry hard and soft by spilling the tea, by trying to integrate these conflicting realities.

Jim says goodbye to David, promising to be back in a fortnight and making a mental note to bring daffodils for the mad old lady, and… we understand why.

Part III – After The War

Chapter 14. Into The Daylight

As the 1970s progressed, Sally had disappeared back to America to address her drug habit and other addictions. One day, to his surprise, four years after she left (eight years after the decade’s end so, presumably, 1978), Ballard gets a call and it’s Sally, not only back in the UK, but married! with a child! and living in rural contentment in Norfolk!

Ballard drives out to see Sally, stopping off at Cambridge en route to discover it is now a land of business parks and Japanese tourists. Chez Sally he discovers her little girl, Jackie, is mentally disabled, but is touched by the way Sally is madly in love with her and, when her husband returns from work, with him too.

[Jackie] stared at her father with her trusting, fixed smile, as if she were crossing the world at a slight angle to the rest of us.

The chapter has a second theme, like a piece of classical music, which is that Sally’s husband, Edward, is an amateur archaeologist and along with friends has undertaken a programme of excavating old World War Two airplanes from the mud of Norfolk estuaries where they’ve crashed.

David turns up. He’s been released from the mental home. He’s married an Asian woman and is running an airfreight company in Brussels. The presence of these two leads to nostalgic conversations, with an autumnal feeling.

Then there is the gruesome event at the heart of the chapter. Edward and his hearty beer-drinking team of enthusiasts have hired a hoist which they use to lift their latest find clear of the river mud. It is a spitfire. But as it rises the narrator realises its cockpit glass is unshattered and unopened. The pilot is still inside. Or what’s left of him. Jim and Sally are suddenly stiff with concern as David makes his way over to it and insists on helping to open the cockpit and inspect the insides, which, as they spray cleaning water into it, reveals a rotted uniform, straps and, slowly emerging, a skull and bones.

A week or so later there is an official burial service. Jim attends along with David and is impressed that his old buddy wears his official RAF uniform and stands to attention. In a weird touch, he brings along a Korean he only half knows. Jim realises the Korean is the closest he could find to a Japanese. He needed an Asiatic to bear witness ‘to the interment of all his resentments of the past forty years.’ I found this intensely moving.

Chapter 15. The Final Programme

After a career pursuing TV fame, Dick Sutherland has been diagnosed with cancer and is dying. This gives Ballard the opportunity to put into his mouth a series of witty paradoxes and insights about modern medicine, and the treatment of cancer in particular.

But, trooper to the last, Sutherland has persuaded a TV company to make a documentary filming his last months and persuaded them to take Jim, by now a famous novelist and old pal, to be his interviewer. The idea is that Jim will go to his home, or hospital bed, and interview Dick as he declines.

As you might expect it’s a bumpy ride, with Dick and Jim initially chewing over their glory days in the 1960s, the space programme, adventures in science, but with each successive interview these reassuring totems of the past disappear and the final interview is cancelled. Jim arrives but after a brief conversation Dick dismisses him, the film crew and the outside world and shuts his bedroom door. Two weeks later Jim turns up just in time to see him being wheeled on a gurney into an ambulance, his face sucked into the oxygen mask, his body coiled with plastic tubes like the young Chinese man the boy Jim watched being garrotted to death.

Chapter 16. The Impossible Palace

Paradoxically, Dick’s death exhilarates Jim. He feels liberated, released, energised to pursue his work, It as if the whole of the past has been burned along with Dick’s body at the crematorium. In a sentence which is important for critics or fans of his work, he writes:

 By demystifying his own death he had freed me from any fears of my own. For the first time since the birth of my children I felt that I was wholly done with the past and free to construct a new world from the materials of the present and future.

So was it writing Empire of the Sun which liberated Ballard from the past and left him much more interested in writing stories about the present day? Or was it the death of this old friend which liberated him from his obsessions, set him free to write about the strangeness of the present day? Or are both blinds to something else which happened?

Anyway, in this chapter Ballard walks down to the fair on Shepperton Green. The chapter is written in the style of The Unlimited Dream Company, full of images of light, and beauty, and time suspended. Cleo Churchill, the friend of his wife’s who was such a good friend to Jim and babysat his kids on countless occasions, is with him as he goes through mementos of Dick Sutherland’s life, sent him by Dick’s sister.

This mood of sensitive elegy moves seamlessly into their holding each other, then embracing, then going up to the bedroom and slowly undressing. Ballard has, by now, perfected a peculiarly detached and clinical way of describing sex, which, nonetheless, manages to be touching and affectionate. Maybe because of the complete honesty and openness it implies between the lovers.

I held Cleo’s breasts in my hands, touching the blue veins that ran past her broad nipples, and caressed away the pink grooves left by the wiring of her brassiere. I kissed a small scar in her armpit, relic of a childhood I had never known, and ran my lips through the shoal of silver stretch marks, like seeds of time spilled across her abdomen by Ceres herself as she sowed her fields. She held my penis in her hands, rolling it gently between her palms, her fingers drawing on my scrotum. Phallic corridors receded from us, an erotic labyrinth in an impossible palace. When I kissed Cleo’s nipples a battalion of lovers bent their heads. I sat on the bed as she knelt on the carpet between my knees, her forearms resting on my thighs. She took the head of my penis in her mouth, touching the tip of my urethra with her tongue, then sank deeper to hold the shaft between her teeth, biting lightly on the swollen muscle.

They become lovers or partners or whatever the correct terminology is. Thus on the day that the documentary about Dick’s death is broadcast they decide to go outside and celebrate life by hiring a boat and cruising down the Thames to Runnymede. (Many of the chapters have this structure, of two major themes or events juxtaposed.)

They cruise as far as the Kennedy Memorial (which I have visited and photographed) and which, inevitably gives rise to reflections from Ballard, absolutely obsessed with the Kennedy assassination as his fiction is.

I thought of the role that Kennedy and his assassination had played in my own life, and how his televised images had shaped the imagination of the 1960s. Stills from the Zapruder film had seemed more poignant than a Grünewald crucifixion.

Now they are accidental bystanders of a death and a resurrection. It’s a sunny day beside the Thames and a wife is reversing their car to push the trailer for a speed boat across a narrow beach into the river so that the husband can man-handle the boat, in the water, onto the just-submerged trailer. There is a little girl in the back seat and as the wife loses control of the trailer it drags the car into the river where the tide takes it. The girl is screaming and beating on the closed windows as the car sinks under the water level. Ballard bounds forward and tries to open the back door but the car skews away from him, as the husband leaves go of the boat which drifts across the river, hitting another cruiser, while two or three men steady the car and push it back up onto the shallow beach, no sign of the girl.

When they open the back door the river water rushes out and they find the girl’s body curled up on the floor, lifeless and limp. Cleo is clutching Ballard’s shirt and crying her eyes out, when a bare-kneed, red-eyed, bearded hiker approaches along the Thames-side path (one I’ve walked many times) suddenly grasps the meaning of the scene in front of him, pushes through the crowd, takes the girl, snicks an obstruction out of her throat and pulls forward her tongue, and on one movement, slicks down his beard, covers her nose and mouth in his mouth and breathes out, takes his mouth away, and pushes her diaphragm. She chokes up the water in her lungs, coughs and splutters and her hysterical mothers clutches her, as the hiker clambers to his feet, reclaims his backpack from a nearby couple and walks on along the path while people are still coping with the sudden turnaround in events.

Who was he?

Chapter 17. Dream’s Ransom

The narrator takes part in the filming of a scene from Empire of the Sun on location in a mansion in Sunningdale, fifteen minutes drive from his long-time home in Shepperton. Many of his friends and neighbours in Shepperton have always worked as extras in the films made at the massive studios there, and now, surreally, he finds many of them playing bit parts in a scene from his own boyhood. Is this why he and Miriam chose to live there all those years ago? Did he have a premonition of how are and life would link up? He even meets a bright-eyed twelve-year-old wearing his old school uniform who steps up and brightly says: ‘Hello, I’m you’. It must be the boy Christian Bale who plays him in the Steven Spielberg film version of Empire.

Then (so many of these chapters come in two parts or themes) he and Cleo (who is obviously now his partner) fly to Hollywood to attend the premiere of the film about his boyhood. He has all kinds of mixed feelings.

‘I think the actors felt that I was the odd man out, the only one who wasn’t real. Most of them had been back to Shanghai.’
‘You could have gone with them.’
‘I know, but I hadn’t the nerve. I wasn’t ready to face everything again—I’ve spent my whole life trying to sort it out. This is the right way to go back to Shanghai, inside a film…’

They check into a hotel and drive around Hollywood which, of course, confirms all his fantasies of Americana which he has been besotted by since he was a boy. He is dazzled and bewildered by the forty-foot-high billboards advertising the film version of his own boyhood back at him.

One afternoon Cleo is out shopping when there’s a ring at the room doorbell and a sophisticated lady waltzes in. It is Olga, who was his superior and impoverished nanny all those years ago, back in Shanghai. Now she is married to a rich American ear and nose surgeon (Mr Edward R. Weinstock). She is brisk and businesslike as they review her struggle to survive in wartorn China, he takes her to lunch, back at their apartment she briskly strips him and they make love.

As at other moments in the book, and quite often at moments when he has sex with the various women, you can’t help feeling contrived, just so and pat the patterns he’s making are. It is an artful ending to the book, rounding things out, finally living out the sexual fantasies about his 17-year-old nanny when he had been a pubertal 12-year-old. And he describes it with a bit of gee-whizz Ballard style:

The film of our life rushed backwards through the projector, devouring itself as it hunted for some discarded moment that held the key to our earliest selves.

In the very last scene, a week after the premiere of Empire, Jim and Cleo make their way down to the Pacific at Venice Beach. And as they watch bronzed Californians launch a replica of Thor Heyerdahl’s papyrus ship, Ra, looking at happy people enjoying the free ocean, Jim realises he is healed.

The time of desperate stratagems was over, the car crashes and hallucinogens, the deviant sex ransacked like a library of extreme metaphors. Miriam and all the murdered dead of a world war had made their peace. The happiness I had found had been waiting for me within the modest reach of my own arms, in my children and the women I had loved, and in the friends who had made their own way through the craze years.

It is an immensely satisfying, carefully arranged and moving conclusion to what is probably his best, most wide-ranging, honest and humane book.

CONCLUSION

By the end I suspected that none of these people ever existed (except for his wife and three children, that much is documentary fact) and quite possibly none of these events ever happened (except the car crash exhibition, that much is on the public record.) Apart from those handful of facts, everything else seems just too pat and contrived and perfectly poised to have anything to do with the chaotic sequence of events known as ‘life’.

Anyway, much bigger than the artfulness of its construction, what makes it a really beautiful book, in my opinion, is the breadth of its COMPASSION.

I was in the operating theatre when my wife had our second child and Ballard’s description of assisting at the birth of his daughter is one of the most moving things I’ve read, because of the way it captures complete intimacy between husband and wife.

The portrait of the excitable young woman, Sally, and the sequence of discovering her boyfriend with someone else, then trying to drown herself off the Sussex coast, and then of Ballard rescuing her, bringing her home, bathing and dressing her and then, slowly, making love to her in the stylised way she needs, is full of complexities of compassion and feeling you don’t often read in novels. It is a kind of compromised compassion, a compassion which knows there is something self-serving in its motives but cares and loves nonetheless.

And the on-again, off-again relationship with his best friend and rival and damaged alter ego, David Hunter, this rises to several moments of deep compassion and love.

And it’s worth rereading the passages where Ballard has sex with two prostitutes, one in Canada, one in Brazil, to really process the tenderness which informs his approach. He ends up stroking the small of the back of the hooker in Canada because he discovers she is pregnant and, after their weird Ballardian clinical sex is over, he carries on being interested in her and her life and soothes and strokes her in a companionate, non-sexual way.

And when he goes to the rescue of the stricken old mad lady, Doreen, in David’s asylum, that is a kind of quintessence of compassion, helping the helpless elderly.

In other words, this book contains scenes of horror and atrocity – notably the central event of the young Chinese being garrotted – and it deliberately contains scenes of lucid and detached sexuality which some might find fetishly exciting and some might find cold and repellent…

But, for me, the enduring legacy of the book is an overwhelming feeling of love and compassion, all the more amazing for way these rare plants managed to survive and flourish in a world containing so much violence and atrocity and numbing stimulations and cheap (or expensive) thrills.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard (1982)

‘There is a way out, doctor, a way out of time.’
(Slade to Franklin in News From The Sun)

Ten short stories from Ballard’s middle period, a mixture of contemporary satire, some macabre horror stories and a preview of what would turn out to be Ballard’s breakthrough novel, Empire of the Sun. But at its heart are a couple of Core Ballard tales which perfectly capture his distinctive dystopian landscape of rusting rocket gantries, tropical forests full of jewelled creatures, abandoned motels and drained swimming pools.

1. Myths of the Near Future (1982)

If you’d never read any Ballard before, this 35-page-long story would blow your mind. If, on the other hand, you were familiar with Ballard’s earlier writing, the most striking thing is the repetition and recapitulation of some very familiar images and themes. It’s like a medley of greatest hits.

It’s set in the near future. Some kind of space sickness is afflicting mankind. More and more people experience the same symptoms, avoiding exposure to the sunlight and falling prey to obsessive behaviour. In their final days they become convinced that they were astronauts.

Sheppard was a successful architect. His wife, Elaine, comes down with the illness and is bed-bound in hospital under the supervision of a short, intense physician, Philip Martinsen.

Next thing he knows, Martinsen has absconded to Florida with his wife, who wants to be near the rusting gantries of the old space centre at Cape Kennedy. She writes him letters describing visions of the wonderful jewelled tropical forest which has reclaimed the abandoned towns surrounding the derelict space centre, the empty motels and drained swimming pools.

Sheppard, who had been showing less and less interest in his architecture practice, abruptly closes it, fires everyone, packs a psychic ‘survival kit’ and travels from Toronto down to Miami to try and find Elaine. Here he goes mad. He finds a room in an abandoned motel with – of course – an empty swimming pool littered with broken sunglasses.

But Sheppard is not alone. He is approached by a government psychiatrist, one of a team who’ve been sent by the government to cope with the increasing numbers of deluded folk who think they’re astronauts and who are flocking to the area, Anne Godwin.

She becomes increasingly drawn into his intense and damaged psychic world, eventually posing naked for his pornographic movies, which are more interested in discovering the weird geometries underlying the female body than sex, as such. At night they watch these avant-garde porno movies projected on the bedroom wall.

He explains to Anne that the suitcase of bric-a-brac he’s brought with him is a machine, a time machine, and how it runs on power from the drained swimming pool out front of the motel room. As he climbs down into it, Sheppard explains that the drained pool has a door which opens into another dimension of time, if only he can find it.

At the climax of their relationship he appears to strangle her. All he wants is to set her body free from its constraints of space and time. We are told she fights him off, kicking and biting, and runs off to fetch the police. Later, we are not so sure.

By day Sheppard rents a Cessna light aircraft and skims low over the abandoned territory surrounding the Cape Kennedy space centre which has been completely repopulated by tropical forest. Finally he discovers a strange modernistic nightclub in a clearing and is about to investigate when a man-made glider rears up in front of him, putting him off his flying so he nearly crashes into a tree and only just makes it back to a nearby beach.

This is where the story begins, with Sheppard sitting in a trance state in the cockpit of the wrecked plane and the incoming tide slowly laps at its wheels and then starts rising. He is only saved by Anne Godwin who followed out to the beach in a government Land Rover.

Next day Sheppard sets off by car along the remains of roads through the forest, until he’s forced to abandon the car and continue on foot, in search of the nightclub he saw from the air where he’s convinced that Martensen is keeping Elaine. Here he discovers a submarine world where each twig and branch hangs weightlessly, where light flashes from every leaf in some kind of process of ‘time-fusion’.

The luminosity of everything – the trees, the animals, the plants – seems to derive from the simultaneous existences of multiple moments of time. Everything has become a vision of itself at all moments of its existence.

He could feel the time-winds playing on his skin, annealing his other selves on to his arms and shoulders…

He discovers the forest is covered with man-sized traps Martensen has made. He trips one and Martensen comes running out of the jungle wearing a bird suit, complete with feathered head-dress and wide feathered wings attached to his arms.

Sheppard finally reaches the nightclub and in a dingy room out the back discovers his wife lying in a cage made of polished brass rods. She is extremely malnourished, wasted away, virtually a skeleton. Sheppard knows she is dead, yet she opens her eyes and her skeleton-hand reaches out to seize his arm.

As he unlocks the cage and touches her time floods back into her withered body and she becomes young and beautiful again.

Already her arms and shoulders were sheathed in light, that electric plumage which he now wore himself, winged lover of this winged woman.

Next thing, young Elaine is running along the surface of the river which has frozen solid because of the accumulation of all its moments in time into one concentrated moment, the time-fusion. She is learning to fly. She beckons him.

Sheppard walks towards her through the forest, stopping to pluck birds frozen in time out of the air. One by one he sets them free, then embraces Martensen and sets him free. By this stage the reader strongly suspects that ‘setting free’ means strangling to death. In this life. In this realm. In Sheppard’s realm, he is liberating these time-bound creatures so they can fly free into the multi-dimensional realm of fused space and time which is created by the abandoned space gantries.

Thoughts

These 35 pages feel like a medley of greatest hits: the bejewelled forest come straight from The Crystal World, the intensity of light-filled hallucinations is the central theme of The Unlimited Dream Company, man-sized gliders appear in The Ultimate City and Hello America, the abandoned gantries of Cape Kennedy appear in numerous stories such as The Dead Astronaut, drained swimming pools appear in countless stories, and the psychic survival kit – a list of five disparate items which includes on Surrealist picture – is a direct repeat of the collection of ‘terminal documents’ which appear in The Voices of Time (1967) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-69).

The interesting question is: What purpose does this repetition serve? Does it matter that Ballard was repeating himself, writing the same obsessive sort of story, using the same peculiar imagery, over and over again? Or is it in some ways a plus, an interesting artistic strategy to repeat himself so narrowly and so exactly? Does it give the reader the eerie impression of becoming caught up in a demented world which bleeds outwards from Ballard’s texts into the real world?

2. Having a Wonderful Time (1977)

An effective little chiller which combines satire with something more creepy, this story consists of postcards home from Diana who’s gone on holiday to Spain with her husband, Richard, middle manager in a supplier to a Leyland car manufacturer. The beach resort is packed with activities and she has a great time. When the two weeks is up the coach to the airport fails to arrive. As it does the next day, and the day after that. She and the other holidaymakers pass through irritation to anger but then to a kind of acceptance. The days go by, then the weeks. The weather is excellent, there’s lots to do, Diana joins an amateur dramatic society and she gets swept up in the succession of productions they put on.

Meanwhile Richard gets nervy, then causes a big scene with the hotel management, demanding answers, is hustled away and disappears. Weeks later Diana meets him again, innocently sunbathing on a lounger by the beach. He explains to her that the entire Canary Islands have been converted into a dumping ground for the unemployables of Western Europe, not only the huge numbers of working class but the unneeded middle managers as well. The plan is for them never to go home. Richard calmly announces he’s going to recruit a resistance movement and fight their way through to the airport and hijack a fight home.

In her postcards (presumably to a woman friend of the same mentality) Diana dismisses all this as preposterous poppycock. In the next postcard she sadly announces that she’s just attended Richard’s funeral. He had been living in half-built hotels trying to recruit his resistance movement, then had stolen an old motorboat and tried to steer it to Africa, but his body was washed ashore.

Anyway, she’s over her grief and is excited about her next role, playing Clytemnestra in her am-dram society’s next production, Electra (Clytemnestra, be it remembered, murdered her errant husband).

Thoughts

In another short story, Ballard speculates what would happen if the entire middle class of Europe went on package holidays to the beaches of the Mediterranean and refused to come back. Beaches and hotels hold a real obsession for him, as zones of transit, as completely artificial environments, as the location of fake lives and fake dreams and fake existences produced on a kind of industrial scale.

Possibly I’m not the ideal audience for short stories. I couldn’t work out whether this was a clever little time-filler such as you might find in an upmarket fiction magazine, or a ludicrous piece of heavy-handed satire.

3. A Host of Furious Fancies (1979)

Ballard applies his very literal-minded approach to Freud to the Cinderella fairy story.

The narrator starts by telling his presumed companion in a French café not to look at the young women and shuffling old man who have just walked in. He knows the story behind them, which he will proceed to tell:

It’s set in France. The narrator is a dermatologist (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who specialises in eating disorders, working in the American clinic in Nice. He is intrigued by the client of a colleague of his, a teenage girl, Christina Brossard, who has been referred by a hospice run by nuns. The girl’s father, a successful building contractor and friend of the French President’s, had committed suicide a few years earlier, and the girl had been admitted under the influence of various compulsions, and suffering from skin diseases. Hence the referral to the narrator’s clinic.

He drives up to see first the Mother Superior of the hospice and then the girl. She is on her hands and knees obsessively scrubbing the floor. Later he discovers she’s been obsessively burning all the books in her family mansion and putting them in refuse bags and scrubbing out the fireplaces. The nuns had let her be treated by a trendy psychotherapist who had experimentally used the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin on her. Then the narrator gets a call from the distraught Mother Superior telling him that the therapist and Christina have run off, the girl returning to her ancestral mansion.

To cut a short story shorter, the narrator brings all these elements together to conclude that the girl is suffering from a Cinderella complex: the nuns are the ugly sisters, the hallucinogen turned the pumpkin into a coach and white mice into horses. After the phone call from the Mother Superior he drives out to the girl’s mansion, in the hallway he discovers the huge ornamental clock has been defaced as its hands reached midnight.

This is because a Freudian interpretation of the fairy tale is that, at midnight, the girl’s young and innocent fancy of balls and gowns etc had to give way to the hard reality of sexual intercourse. She had defaced the clock in a confused attempt to stop that moment arriving.

The narrator now believes that the teenage Christina lured her father into an act of incest, making him play out the role of Prince Charming, after which the old man felt so guilty he committed suicide. At which point the girl herself fell prey to immense feelings of guilt and remorse, hence the obsessive cleaning and the skin condition for which the nuns first called him in for his advice.

Now he enters the bedchamber of the rich father to find it covered with pornographic images of centaurs frolicking with naked women. Christina is there, still wearing her hospice tunic, high on the latest dose of psilocybin, scrubbing the fireplace.

The narrator reminds us of the Freudian interpretation of the imagery of the old fairy tale. What is the glass slipper but a transparent and therefore fleshless, guilt-free image of the vagina? And the foot which slips into it? What else but the erect male member? And how else to cure the ill young woman except by… re-enacting, fulfilling and thus purging the fairy-tale narrative?

The narrator crosses the floor of the bedroom, lifts Christina to her feet, and leads her by the hand over to the bed, whispering ‘Cinderella.’

So far, so contrived. Now the story reverts to the present and in an abrupt switch of perspective, we realise that the decrepit old man we’d had pointed out to us, and the confident young woman who is guiding his steps… are Christina and the narrator. Instead of being in control of the situation, somehow, in some spooky, undescribed femme-fatale kind of way, she has sucked him dry and reduced him to a husk, a shadow of his former self: she is the one who became strong and commanding, he is the one who has been reduced to a shambling wreck, forever telling his pitiful tale to whoever will listen.

4. Zodiac 2000 (1978)

This is interesting: a brief introduction explains that it’s intended to be a supposed update of the signs of the Zodiac to be more contemporary i.e. Ballard replaces the conventional Zodiac signs with symbols of contemporary life. But it’s more than that: it’s a reprise of the Atrocity Exhibition technique of making short sections intensely charged with narratives which have been cut back to the bone to make them intriguing and puzzling. Thus each sign doesn’t give a passive definition of the computer or polaroid camera or whatever as it is found in contemporary society. Instead each section tells part of what appears to be an ongoing narrative, featuring the same characters, but in events which are deliberately jumbled up and confused. As in The Atrocity Exhibition I found this a powerful and persuasive technique.

  • The Sign of the Polaroid
  • The Sign of the Computer
  • The Sign of the Clones
  • The Sign of the IUD
  • The Sign of the Radar Bowl
  • The Sign of the Stripper
  • The Sign of the Psychiatrist
  • The Sign of the Psychopath
  • The Sign of the Hypodermic
  • The Sign of the Vibrator
  • The Sign of the Cruise Missile
  • The Sign of the Astronaut

Not only is the structure a rehash of the Atrocity technique but so is the prose style. In these texts we meet old friends like the overuse of the word ‘geometry’ to describe faces and, especially, women’s naked bodies; everyone’s movements are heavily ‘stylised’; and at several points people are caught listening to ‘the time-music of the quasars’.

Again, if you hadn’t read The Atrocity Exhibition I think you’d find this story astoundingly experimental; if you had, then you’d find it an almost nostalgic reprise of those 1960s motifs.

5. News from the Sun (1981)

The longest story in the collection at 41 pages, and another reprise of well-established Ballard motifs.

It’s set twenty or so years in the future when the world is coming down with some kind of sleeping sickness. Everyone is slipping into ‘fugue’ states, at first for only a few moments, building up to hours at a time, then leaving only minutes of consciousness left and then – boom! – you are in a trance forever.

The fugues came so swiftly, time poured in a torrent from the cracked glass of their lives.

Those who enter this final phase are, inevitably, referred to as ‘terminal patients’.

Former NASA psychiatrist Dr Robert Franklin (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) works at a clinic for victims and was one of the first to identify the new ‘time-sickness’. He takes a special interest in Trippett, who happens to be the last astronaut to have walked on the moon. He is visited by his daughter, Ursula, a dumpy member of a nearby hippy commune which has taken over the abandoned site of a solar-based nearby town, Soleri II (‘the concrete towers and domes of the solar city’) named after their architect, Paolo Soleri.

It’s an orgy of Ballard motifs: a doctor running a clinic for people who are conscious less and less of the time is the central narrative of his classic short story The Voices of Time. Franklin drives Trippett out into the desert, as the doctor protagonist of The Voices of Time does. And what do they find? Ballardland:

He had taken a touching pleasure in the derelict landscape, in the abandoned motels and weed-choked swimming pools of the small town near the air base, in the silent runways with their dusty jets sitting on their flattened tyres, in the over-bright hills waiting with the infinite guile of the geological kingdom for the organic world to end and a more vivid mineral realm to begin.

And the Antagonist, there’s always an Antagonist, since at least The Illuminated Man of 1963, there’s always an irrational Opponent. In Myths of the Near Future it’s Dr Martensen, here it’s Slade, former air-force pilot and would-be astronaut, who dive bombs Franklin, Ursula and Trippett as they wander among the fields of derelict solar panels. And this antagonist, like all the others, is trying to seduce and/or kidnap the protagonist’s wife, in this case Marion.

Slade is, of course, flying a microlight, the man-sized flying machine which is the obsessive central image of The Ultimate City and Myths of the Near Future and Hello America. Endless dreams of flying. All the microlight pilots in these stories wear old-fashioned aviator goggles.

Slade had arrived at the clinic seven months earlier and charmed the director, Dr Rachel Vaisey (a feminist thought: it is noticeable that many of the characters in these stories of the 1970s are professional women: the psychiatrist Anne Godwin, the therapist in the Cinderella story is a woman named Dr Valentina Gabor, and now the clinic is headed up by a woman). He starts creating ‘shrines’ to the future from bric-a-brac, the final one being a characteristic assemblage of random elements, exactly the same ‘terminal documents’ which appear in The Voices of Time (1967) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-69) and Myths of the Near Future. It consists of:

  • a labelled fragment of lunar rock stolen from the NASA museum
  • a photograph taken with a zoom lens of Marion in a hotel bedroom
  • a reproduction of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory
  • a set of leucotomes whose points were masked by metal peas
  • an organ donor card giving permission for his brain to be transplanted

Vaisey slipped into an affair with Slade which she quickly realised was a mistake and tried to extricate herself. At their last meeting, in her office, Franklin was present and watched while Slade took his penis out, masturbated, then insisted on examining his semen under a microscope.

Franklin feels guilty over his complicity in the space programme which seems to have triggered the epidemic.

As a member of the medical support team, he had helped to put the last astronauts into space, made possible the year-long flights that had set off the whole time-plague, cracked the cosmic hour-glass…

One by one every astronaut involved in the space programme had slipped off into a private reverie, many of them weeping in their sleep, as if the space programme had committed some cosmic crime. And all humanity has been damaged by it:

The brute force ejection of themselves from their planet had been an act of evolutionary piracy, for which they were now being expelled from the world of time.

As regular Ballard readers know, his imagination was liberated by discovering the Surrealist painters as a young man and he often makes reference to them, as Dali above. In this story he twice references the nude women paintings of Paul Delvaux.

Not far away a strong-hipped young woman stood among the dusty pool-furniture, her statuesque figure transformed by the fugue into that of a Delvaux muse.

The Great Sirens by Paul Delvaux (1947)

On the car journey back from the desert, Trippett momentarily comes out of his fugue and speaks for 30 seconds before reverting into trance. This gives Franklin hope. Back at the office he is reprimanded by his boss, Dr Vaisey. He drives back to the abandoned motel with a drained swimming pool which he’s made his base. His wife, Marion, has left cigarette burns and used dresses all over the floor. Franklin drives off and finds her being persuaded by Slade to get into his parked microlight. Franklin’s arrival frightens Slade off, and Marion goes running among the abandoned cars.

At the story’s climax Franklin manages to make it, through the ever-increasing blizzard of blackouts and after crashing his car in a fugue, out to the futuristic solar city. Here he discovers Ursula looking after her father, Trippett and the last four or so pages describe in more detail than any previous Ballard story has, what he’s on about, what the fugues mean – that primeval man lived in a continuous present – that the invention of time was the meaning of The Biblical Fall, a fall into time consciousness which parcels everything out into arid, waste moments – but all the characters’ efforts, no matter how crackpot they may seem, are towards reintegrating all of time past and time future into one multi-faceted permanent moment of transcendental perception.

As the fugues increase in duration, as Franklin and Ursula are reduced to only moments of consciousness per day, they learn to navigate the fugue time, permanent time, with its incandescent light. In other words, in many of the other time-stories you are left with the sense that the characters are mad; but this one gives the most persuasive case yet that they are not, that there really is something to their hallucinations and delusions, and that there really is a way out of time, out of the time psychosis most of us are trapped in and regard as ‘normal’.

Thoughts

Well, it’s a reprise and a rehash of extremely familiar motifs from Ballard’s stories of the 1960s, but as I’ve just said, it takes these ideas and makes a substantial progression on them, shedding new and interesting light onto Ballard’s eerie otherworld.

It adds an extra layer of eeriness to the text that it is made up of so many fragments from previous stories, like a collage, like one of the experimental collage texts Ballard made back in the late 1950s.

So you can either see stories like this as Ballard rehashing old material, or as him using each story to approach the same central insight or tackle the same neurotic symptoms, from different angles, using the same methods and materials, but each time rearranged in a new pattern; rather as the first ten chapters of The Atrocity Exhibition approach the same outline of events, using different characters and incidents, but with the continual sense that you are approaching some huge and overwhelming secret.

This is Core Ballard and even rehashed Core Ballard is a better, more absorbing and more uncanny read than his more straightforward Hammer Horror stories like A Host of Furious Fancies or Having a Wonderful Time. It tends to show the latter up for the effective but slightly cheesy magazine-fillers that they are.

6. Theatre of War (1977)

A variation on 1967’s The Killing Ground. That story raised the possibility of a worldwide rebellion against the hegemony of the USA, and that American troops were sent in to quell an anti-American government in Britain, and described a small battle which takes place behind desperate English rebel fighters against a bigger, better-armed force of Yanks all taking place, incongruously enough, at Runnymede island by the River Thames.

Ten years later Ballard returns to the same idea, with the notion that the extreme polarisation of British society which took place in the 1970s has led to the outbreak of civil war and that American forces have been sent in to support the unpopular right-wing government (as it had been in Vietnam).

The 22-page-long story is laid out in the format of a shooting script for a World In Action documentary, with sections describing clips of footage, intercut with interviews with GIs or citizens, politicians and insurgent left-wing fighters etc. At first I thought this format seemed dated and contrived, but as I read on it turned out to have a real pull and depth.

The reason why is revealed on the final page in a brief acknowledgements section. All the quotes from the various figures, including the American and British leaders of a government ‘pacification’ expedition to a rural village are actual quotes from Vietnam, pulled from news and magazine reports of the time.

7. The Dead Time (1976)

Unlike anything else Ballard had published up to this point, this is a twenty-page description set in a civilian internment camp run by the Japanese just outside Shanghai, China, at the very end of the Second World War.

In fact, the story begins with the end of the internment period, with the usual Japanese guards who man the gates into the barbed-wire compound mysteriously vanishing, and the unnamed first-person narrator emerging to explore the wartorn landscape around the camp and into the ruined Chinese city.

Quite obviously this was an early try-out of some of the material which was subsequently included in Ballard’s full-length, prize-winning account of his experiences as a boy in a Japanese internment camp from 1943 to 45, Empire of the Sun which was published eight years later.

8. The Smile (1976)

One of Ballard’s horror squibs, about a middle-aged narrator who buys a shopwindow mannequin, albeit an arty one found in a junk shop in the King’s Road and named Serena Cockayne, a snip at £250.

He falls in love with it, making the macabre discovery that in fact it is less a mannequin than a stuffed human skin, complete with various imperfections including a mole on her breast.

The story takes a gruesome twist when the narrator calls a young and, he thinks, gay beautician in to freshen up the mannequin, only to come across the said man, a few days later, kneeling at her feet and making some kind of improper suggestion. The narrator throws the man out and slaps Serena in the face, but from then on her swollen lip and distorted nose reproaches him, the years pass, she decays and he feels an increasingly impossible guilt.

At just about this time (1978) Ian McEwan published a short story, Dead As They Come, about a wealthy businessman’s bizarre obsession with a fashion mannequin, which he buys and takes home with him. There was obviously something in the Zeitgeist, some twisted combination of perverse sexuality and anti-consumerism.

9. Motel Architecture (1978)

It’s a little way into the future. Most people live in ‘solariums’, self-contained circular units with a main viewing room containing a battery of TV screens, with a small kitchen and bathroom off to one side. This is where Pangbourne has lived for over twelve years, slowly losing touch with anyone outside, slowly ceasing to take the prescribed physical or psychological exercises.

He is supposedly a TV critic which, as Ballard satirically puts it, is one of only two jobs remaining, the other one being TV repair man. Pangbourne long ago lost interest in sex – despite the collection of sex toys in his bathroom – or in his body as a whole. He is happy to sit in his automated wheelchair for the entire day, reviewing classic movies which appear on the large screen in front of him, with multiple copies in the smaller screens constellated around it. In particular he is obsessed with playing the famous shower scene from Psycho over and over again, leaving it freeze-framed at differing moments of the frenzied murder.

His sealed-off little world is disrupted when a new cleaner arrives. The TV screens need periodic cleaning and retuning and this is mostly done by faceless women who’ve never disturbed the even keel of his self-absorption. Until Vera Tilley arrives, over-made-up and loud and brash.

Her arrival coincides with his conviction that there is someone else in the solarium. He can hear breathing, heavy breathing, can almost smell the sweat of some hot intruder. He sets all the CCTV camera on and records flashes of a shoulder, the reflection off a bald head disappearing through a door. There is someone else in the solarium with him.

Long story short: the intruder is himself; he has become schizophrenic (like the murderer in Psycho); thus he finds the body of the young cleaner, Vera, hacked to death in the shower and at first blames him, the intruder. Only on the last page does he realise that it was him all along, that he has become so alienated that his senses detect his body as another person.

Only one way to put an end to this endless intrusion into his peace of mind. And so he raises his knife to stab himself through the heart.

So this story comes under the heading of shilling shockers. I haven’t read many of Roald Dahl’s adult stories but I imagine this is what his Tales of the Totally Expected are like – contrived, atmospheric, at moments genuinely spine-chilling but, in the end, somehow, shallow and silly.

10. The Intensive Care Unit (1977)

The story opens with the narrator warning of ‘a second attack’, looking around at his family strewn around the blood-stained living room, and wondering if they can survive. What is going on? What has happened and is about to happen?

The narrative goes back to establish that it is set in a techno-dystopian future where people live their entire lives via TV screens. The narrator is a doctor (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who has never had contact with other people. All his clinics are held via TV screens. When he ‘meets’ his wife-to-be it is via a TV diagnosis of her possible breast cancer. Their relationship progresses to them going on dates (i.e. watching the same operas or theatre via TV) going to restaurants (i.e. having the same restaurant-prepared food sent to their sealed apartments). They get married via a multi-screen ceremony with their friends and family all watching from their homes. When they have sex it is screen sex with climaxes tactfully conveyed via cartoons (they never even actually strip off). She is impregnated via artificial insemination and has two children who are both taken away and raised in creches. And so they live their happy screen-based lives for years, each wearing generous amounts of make-up to preserve appearances, as their children grow. The general aim is to create a perfectly affectless society, in which people have no emotional reactions.

But, fatefully, the narrator decides to try an experiment – to meet in the flesh. He has never met anyone in real life before, neither has his wife. On the first attempt, she stops dead in the entrance hall to his apartment block. She turns out to be much smaller, stoop-shouldered and thin-thighed than she appears on TV. Panicking, she flees before they can exchange a word. But the narrator presses on and arranges a second meeting, this time with their children present, 7-year-old David and younger sister Karen.

If the main part of the story is a reasonably traditional dystopia, depicting a future of drones each stuck in their own sealed apartments watching TV screens all day long, the second theme is very different. For the ‘attack’ the narrator mentioned now turns out to be the fact that the four members of this ‘family’, once they met in the flesh, turn out to have murderous intent to each other, and instantly attack each other. The living room is sprayed with the blood they have spilled from each other, attacking each other with knives and scissors. The story had opened in the calm after the initial outburst of ferocious violence and now the narrator is lying seriously injured, wondering when his stabbed son will manage to crawl across the room and make a second assault on him.

The idea implicit in this is that (as per Freud) humans are violent animals and require a lot of socialising via the family unit, a great deal of effort needs to go in to repressing our matricidal, patricidal, and prolicidal urges. Having never met any other humans face to face, this ‘family’ has never had any training in managing these urges and so, the first time they meet triggers an explosion of psychopathic violence.

Commentary

Now, if you are predisposed towards Ballard and his worldview, then you could make the case that he predicted and foresaw a world in which people increasingly live via their screens. If he didn’t, at this stage (1977) have an inkling about the internet, nonetheless his description of the ease and convenience of relationships carried out via screens, in which people do everything up to and including having sex via screens without ever meeting, is eerily prophetic of the way that some, at least, of us live today, 40 years later.

However, like the story which precedes it, Solarium, it fails when set against the real world. For although people in 2020 may to a large extent live via their screens and mobile phones, they still, as far as I can see, go out of the house, go to work, go to the shops, go to pubs and clubs and bars, and actually meet people and interact.

Ballard carries his stories of this type to extremes in order to make his futuristic, satirical point as strongly as possible; but it is this very quality of exaggeration which renders them, after a moment’s reflection, silly and inapplicable. The very purity of the idea renders them irrelevant as useful diagnostics.

I’m writing this in the lunchbreak at my workplace, which about 100 people have commuted to this morning and, although the sales staff are all sitting in front of computers, they’re also continually on the phone to clients or asking each other questions, or walking through to the warehouse to give instructions to the loading crews who themselves spend their entire day discussing the day’s work, allotting roles, co-ordinating with other departments, discussing problems with the pickers and then giving instructions to the drivers: there’s a lot of people running round talking to colleagues and fixing things.

In other words, when reading stories like this, at home, by a computer, in your bedroom, it’s possible to delude yourself that the kind of atomised, alienated, screen-based world Ballard is predicting has somehow come about.

But as soon as you talk to your partner or children, open the door to the Ocado or Amazon delivery guy, speak to neighbours, talk to someone at the supermarket or library or gym, go to school or college or, in particular, get to work and start interacting with hosts of other people, you realise that these alarmist predictions of a totally self-contained, antiseptic, hermetically-sealed TV world – although they contain a kind of fable or fairy-tale type of imaginative force – are simply not true of the world we live in or are ever likely to live in.

The world Ballard lived in then, and that we live in now, is much more subtle, nuanced and complicated than these short, sharp, shocking and rather silly stories allow.

Conclusion

I may have quibbles with each individual story, but there’s no denying that, taken as a collection, these stories have extraordinary range and diversity, from Second World War China to the overgrown gantries at Cape Kennedy, from the streets of London to the deserts of Nevada, from a future where mankind is afflicted by space disease, to an alternative present where the sleepy Buckinghamshire village of Cookham is caught up in a Vietnam-style war. If you like these kind of extreme visions, this is a very effective collection.

Coronavirus coda

A year I wrote my original review, in January 2021, in the middle of the second UK lockdown, I still don’t think Ballard is as directly relevant to our current situation nor as ‘prophetic’ as some superficial commentators do.

The crux of both the ‘living through screens’ stories, Motel Architecture and The Intensive Care Unit, is that being stuck at home, never going out, and having all your human interaction reduced to screens turns the human protagonists into psychotic murderers.

That’s the bit I disagree with. Sure, it’s 2021 and everyone is stuck at home and living via screens more than ever before in human history but… there hasn’t been an explosion of mass murder! Far from it, there are countless examples of kindness and community, of the able-bodied volunteering to help old and isolated people. And at Christmas when the restrictions were relaxed to allow people to meet up with loved ones, there wasn’t a great outbreak of psychotic violence.

If anything, the pandemic and lockdown have proved what sociable animals we are and how the vast majority of the population longs for not only face-to-face human interaction but physical contact, especially hugs with family members and loved ones.

In other words, Ballard’s jaded view of human nature is superficially plausible and very entertaining in a Silence of the Lambs, sci fi horror movie kind of way but is, ultimately, I think, not only wrong but powerfully misleading as ‘evidence’ for any kind of thinking about human nature and society.

It is literature, not sociology.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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
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

1900s

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 the resulting 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 what is in effect a peaceful transition to a communitarian socialist society, 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

1910s

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 events
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

1920s

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 and they rebel against the system
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, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold
(1973) The Best of John Wyndham 1932-1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – having survived his journey to Mars, Ransom is now sent to Perelandra (aka Venus) to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s innocent young inhabitants to a new Fall
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern 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 by Big Brother

1950s

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 vanished 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
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – one night the sky is full of green flashing lights as the earth passes through the fragments of a comet and the next day the entire population awakes to find itself blinded, all except for a tiny handful of survivors who have to preserve human society while fighting off the growing numbers of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
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  Foundation Trilogy, which describes 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 terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships, attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
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 who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, the tale of a psychiatrist who projects the same romantic fantasy into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a dry run for The Chrysalids set in a post-disaster future
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by lingering radiation; but as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, and soon he and his mind-melding friends are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
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
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – the Chung-Li virus kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) leading to a global famine, so civil engineer John Custance has to lead his wife, two children and a small grop of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism towards the farm owned by his brother David in a remote valley in Westmoreland, where they can grow root crops and defend themselves
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – ten stories of travel in time and space in which, despite the 1950s phrasing, women tend again and again to be presented as the stronger, more resourceful sex
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with eerily platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which almost immediately begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
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
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, millions of years ago, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary
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 space-travelling New York
1962 The World in Winter by John Christopher – the amount of radiation/heat emitted by the sun declines, not totally but enough to plunge the temperate zones, specifically northern Europe, into a new ice age, and so all Europeans who are able to, flee to Africa, where the novel acquires black characters, who accompany the main protagonist on a colonising expedition back to frozen England – all intertwined with the tangled love affairs of two middle-class couples
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
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1965 A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher – more than a mere earthquake, a cataclysmic upheaval of the earth’s surface raises the English Channel so that it drains of water, destroys all human edifices, killing most people in their homes as they sleep, leaving a handful of survivors including Matthew Cotter, a Guernsey horticulturalist, who sets off on a long and gruelling quest across the ruined land- and seascape to find his daughter who had been at university in Sussex, accompanied by young Billy Tullis, as they encounter other survivors, decent, mad and psychotic
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quiet suburb.
1967 The White Mountains by John Christopher – It is a hundred years or more in the future and the tripods have conquered the earth, implanting humans with ‘caps’ at age 14, which render them docile and obedient; society has reverted to a medieval level of agriculture with lords of the manor, knights and jousting tournaments; 13-year-old Will Parker is looking forward to his own ‘capping’ ceremony till his eyes are opened by a wandering evangelist who persuades him to run away from home and undertake a gruelling journey south, to the White Mountains, where free men are planning resistance to their tripod overlords
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
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 a 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’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew, the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple, starts talking to a voice he hears in his head, who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is a real entity, a psychic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes, in the style of a scientific report or official inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe, and only just narrowly prevented from infecting humanity
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 they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces Vonnegut’s laconic catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough background radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe, in one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together the author’s key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1970 The Guardians by John Christopher – a young adult novel: it is 2052 and England is divided into two societies, the modern, overpopulated ‘Conurbs’ and the aristocratic and sparsely populated ‘County’, separated by the ‘Barrier’: 13-year-old Rob Randall lives in a block of flats in the Conurbs but, when his father dies, he is sent to a state boarding school where he is bullied, so makes the momentous decision to escape to the County; here he is taken up by a landed family and begins to settle into a new life until he stumbles across a conspiracy to overthrow the existing order
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the pornographic possibilities of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
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 in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
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?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
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, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of an abandoned Cape Kennedy
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 monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former planet Jupiter, in a cheesy ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time ‘Count Zero’ from the previous book in the trilogy; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a leading character from the first in the series, Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments, like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second of the Bridge Trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo to meet her pop hearth throb and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes some startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), makes some insightful comments about science fiction, but the books is suffused by his really moving expressions of love for his three children

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