A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking (1988)

The whole history of science has been the gradual realisation that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order. (p.122)

This book was a publishing phenomenon when it was published in 1988. Nobody thought a book of abstruse musings about obscure theories of cosmology would sell, but it became a worldwide bestseller, selling more than 10 million copies in 20 years. It was on the London Sunday Times bestseller list for more than five years and was translated into 35 languages by 2001. So successful that Hawking went on to write seven more science books on his own, and co-author a further five.

Accessible As soon as you start reading you realise why. From the start is it written in a clear accessible way and you are soon won over to the frank, sensible, engaging tone of the author. He tells us he is going to explain things in the simplest way possible, with an absolute minimum of maths or equations (in fact, the book famously includes only one equation E = mc²).

Candour He repeatedly tells us that he’s going to explain things in the simplest possible way, and the atmosphere is lightened when Hawking – by common consent one of the great brains of our time – confesses that he has difficulty with this or that aspect of his chosen subject. (‘It is impossible to imagine a four-dimensional space. I personally find it hard enough to visualise three-dimensional space!’) We are not alone in finding it difficult!

Historical easing Also, like most of the cosmology books I’ve read, it takes a deeply historical view of the subject. He doesn’t drop you into the present state of knowledge with its many accompanying debates i.e. at the deep end. Instead he takes you back to the Greeks and slowly, slowly introduces us to their early ideas, showing why they thought what they thought, and how the ideas were slowly disproved or superseded.

A feel for scientific change So, without the reader being consciously aware of the fact, Hawking accustoms us to the basis of scientific enquiry, the fundamental idea that knowledge changes, and from two causes: from new objective observations, often the result of new technologies (like the invention of the telescope which enabled Galileo to make his observations) but more often from new ideas and theories being worked out, published and debated.

Hawking’s own contributions There’s also the non-trivial fact that, from the mid-1960s onwards, Hawking himself has made a steadily growing contribution to some of the fields he’s describing. At these points in the story, it ceases to be an objective history and turns into a first-person account of the problems as he saw them, and how he overcame them to develop new theories. It is quite exciting to look over his shoulder as he explains how and why he came up with the new ideas that made him famous. There are also hints that he might have trodden on a few people’s toes in the process, for those who like their science gossipy.

Thus it is that Hawking starts nice and slow with the ancient Greeks, with Aristotle and Ptolemy and diagrams showing the sun and other planets orbiting round the earth. Then we are introduced to Copernicus, who first suggested the planets orbit round the sun, and so on. With baby steps he takes you through the 19th century idea of the heat death of the universe, on to the discovery of the structure of the atom at the turn of the century, and then gently introduces you to Einstein’s special theory of relativity of 1905. (The special theory of relativity doesn’t take account of gravity, the general theory of relativity of 1915, does, take account of gravity).

Chapter 1 Our Picture of the Universe (pp.1-13)

Aristotle thinks earth is stationary. Calculates size of the earth. Ptolemy. Copernicus. In 1609 Galileo starts observing Jupiter using the recently invented telescope. Kepler suggests the planets move in ellipses not perfect circles. 1687 Isaac newton publishes Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) ‘probably the most important single work ever published in the physical sciences’, among many other things postulating a law of universal gravity. One implication of Newton’s theory is that the universe is vastly bigger than previously conceived.

In 1823 Heinrich Olbers posited his paradox which is, if the universe is infinite, the night sky out to be as bright as daylight because the light from infinite suns would reach us. Either it is not infinite or it has some kind of limit, possibly in time i.e. a beginning. The possible beginning or end of the universe were discussed by Immanuel Kant in his obscure work A Critique of Pure Reason  (1781). Various other figures debated variations on this theme until in 1929 Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that, wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving away from us i.e. the universe is expanding. Working backwards from this observation led physicists to speculate that the universe was once infinitely small and infinitely dense, in a state known as a singularity, which must have exploded in an event known as the big bang.

He explains what a scientific theory is:

A theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make… A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: it must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

A theory is always provisional. The more evidence proving it, the stronger it gets. But it only takes one good negative observation to disprove a theory.

Today scientists describe the universe in terms of two basic partial theories – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. They are the great intellectual achievements of the first half of this century.

But they are inconsistent with each other. One of the major endeavours of modern physics is to try and unite them in a quantum theory of gravity.

Chapter 2 Space and Time (pp.15-34)

Aristotle thought everything in the universe was naturally at rest. Newton disproved this with his first law – whenever a body is not acted on by any force it will keep on moving in a straight line at the same speed. Newton’s second law stats that, When a body is acted on by a force it will accelerate or change its speed at a rate that is proportional to the force. Newton’s law of gravity states that every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres. But like Aristotle, Newton believed all the events he described took place in a kind of big static arena named absolute space, and that time was an absolute constant. The speed of light was also realised to be a constant. In 1676 Danish astronomer Ole Christensen estimated the speed of light to be 140,000 miles per second. We now know it is 186,000 miles per second. In the 1860s James Clerk Maxwell unified the disparate theories which had been applied to magnetism and electricity.

In 1905 Einstein published his theory of relativity. It is derived not from observation but from Einstein working through in his head the consequences and shortcomings of the existing theories. Newton had posited a privileged observer, someone outside the universe who was watching it as if a play on a stage. From this privileged position a number of elements appeared constant, such as time.

Einstein imagines a universe in which there is no privileged outside point of view. We are all inside the universe and all moving. The theory threw up a number of consequences. One is that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, or E = mc². Another is that nothing may travel faster than the speed of light. Another is that, as an object approaches the speed of light its mass increases. One of its most disruptive ideas is that time is relative. Different observes, travelling at different speeds, will see a beam of light travel take different times to travel a fixed distance. Since Einstein has made it axiomatic that the speed of light is fixed, and we know the distance travelled by the light is fixed, then time itself must appear different to different observers. Time is something that can change, like the other three dimensions. Thus time can be added to the existing three dimensions to create space-time.

The special theory of relativity was successful in explaining how the speed of light appears the same to all observers, and describing what happens to things when they move close to the speed of light. But it was inconsistent with Newton’s theory of gravity which says objects attract each other with a force related to the distance between them. If you move on of the objects the force exerted on the other object changes immediately. This cannot be if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, as the special theory of relativity postulates. Einstein spent the ten or so years from 1905 onwards attempting to solve this difficulty. Finally, in 1915, he published the general theory of relativity.

The revolutionary basis of this theory is that space is not flat, a consistent  continuum or Newtonian stage within which events happen and forces interact in a sensible way. Space-time is curved or warped by the distribution of mass or energy within it, and gravity is a function of this curvature. Thus the earth is not orbiting around the sun in a circle, it is following a straight line in warped space.

The mass of the sun curves space-time in such a way that although the earth follows a straight line in four-dimensional pace-time, it appears to us to move along a circular orbit in three-dimensional space. (p.30)

In fact, at a planetary level Einstein’s maths is only slightly different from Newton’s but it predicts a slight difference in the orbit of Mercury which observations have gone on to prove. Also, the general theory predicts that light will bend, following a straight line but through space that is warped or curved by gravity. Thus the light from a distant star on the far side of the sun will bend as it passes close to the sun due to the curvature in space-time caused by the sun’s mass. And it was an expedition to West Africa in 1919 to observe an eclipse, which showed that light from distant stars did in fact bend slightly as it passed the sun, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory.

Newton’s laws of motion put an end to the idea of absolute position in space. The theory of relativity gets rid of absolute time.

Hence the thought experiment popularised by a thousand science fiction books that astronauts who set off in a space ship which gets anywhere near the speed of light will experience a time which is slower than the people they leave behind on earth.

In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving. (p.33)

Obviously, since most of us are on planet earth, moving at more or less the same speed, everyone’s personal ‘times’ coincide. Anyway, the key central implication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is this:

Before 1915, space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place, but which was not affected by what happened in it. This was true even of the special theory of relativity. Bodies moved, forces attracted and repelled, but time and space simply continued, unaffected. It was natural to think that space and time went on forever.

the situation, however, is quite different in the general theory of relativity. Space and time are now dynamic quantities. : when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time – and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe. (p.33)

This view of the universe as dynamic and interacting, by demolishing the old eternal static view, opened the door to a host of new ways of conceiving how the universe might have begun and might end.

Chapter 3 The Expanding Universe (pp.35-51)

Our modern picture of the universe dates to 1924 when American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that ours is not the only galaxy. We now know the universe is home to some hundred million galaxies, each containing some hundred thousand million stars. We live in a galaxy that is about one hundred thousand light-years across and is slowly rotating. Hubble set about cataloguing the movement of other galaxies and in 1929 published his results which showed that they are all moving away from us, and that, the further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving.

The discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. (p.39)

From Newton onwards there was a universal assumption that the universe was infinite and static. Even Einstein invented a force he called ‘the cosmological constant’ in order to counter the attractive power of gravity and preserve the model of a static universe. It was left to Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann to seriously calculate what the universe would look like if it was expanding.

In 1965 two technicians, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at Bell Telephone Laboratories discovered a continuous hum of background radiation coming from all parts of the sky. This echoed the theoretical work being done by two physicists, Bob Dicke and Jim Peebles, who were working on a suggestion made by George Gamow that the early universe would have been hot and dense. They posited that we should still be able to see the light from this earliest phase but that it would, because the redshifting, appear as radiation. Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987.

How can the universe be expanding? Imagine blowing up a balloon with dots (or little galaxies) drawn on it: they all move apart from each other and the further apart they are, the larger the distance becomes; but there is no centre to the balloon. Similarly the universe is expanding but not into anything. There is no outside. If you set out to travel to the edge you would find no edge but instead find yourself flying round the periphery and end up back where you began.

There are three possible states of a dynamic universe. Either 1. it will expand against the contracting force of gravity until the initial outward propulsive force is exhausted and gravity begins to win; it will stop expanding, and start to contract. Or 2. it is expanding so fast that the attractive, contracting force of gravity never wins, so the universe expands forever and matter never has time to clump together into stars and planets. Or 3. it is expanding at just the right speed to escape collapsing back in on itself, but but so fast as to make the creation of matter impossible. This is called the critical divide. Physicists now believe the universe is expanding at just around the value of the critical divide, though whether it is just under or just above (i.e. the universe will eventually cease expanding, or not) is not known.

Dark matter We can calculate the mass of all the stars and galaxies in the universe and it is a mystery that our total is only about a hundredth of the mass that must exist to explain the gravitational behaviour of stars and galaxies. In other words, there must a lot of ‘dark matter’ which we cannot currently detect in order for the universe to be shaped the way it is.

So we don’t know what the likely future of the universe is (endless expansion or eventual contraction) but all the Friedmann models do predict that the universe began in an infinitely dense, infinitely compact, infinitely hot state – the singularity.

Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, this means that the general theory of relativity… predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down… In fact, all our theories of science are formulated on the assumption that space-time is smooth and nearly flat, so they break down at the big bang singularity, where the curvature of space-time is infinite. (p.46)

Opposition to the theory came from Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle who formulated the steady state theory of the universe i.e. it has always been and always will be. All that is needed to explain the slow expansion is the appearance of new particles to keep it filled up, but the rate is very low (about one new particle per cubic kilometre per year). They published it in 1948 and worked through all its implications for the next few decades, but it was killed off as a theory by the 1965 observations of the cosmic background radiation.

He then explains the process whereby he elected to do a PhD expanding Roger Penrose’s work on how a dying star would collapse under its own weight to a very small size. The collaboration resulted in a joint 1970 paper which proved that there must have been a big bang, provided only that the theory of general relativity is correct, and the universe contains as much matter as we observe.

If the universe really did start out as something unimaginably small then, from the 1970s onwards, physicists turned their investigations to what happens to matter at microscopic levels.

Chapter 4 The Uncertainty Principle (pp.53-61)

1900 German scientist Max Planck suggests that light, x-rays and other waves can only be emitted at an arbitrary wave, in packets he called quanta. He theorised that the higher the frequency of the wave, the more energy would be required. This would tend to restrict the emission of high frequency waves. In 1926 Werner Heisenberg expanded on these insights to produce his Uncertainty Principle. In order to locate a particle in order to measure its position and velocity you need to shine a light on it. One has to use at least one quantum of energy. However, exposing the particle to this quantum will disturb the velocity of the particle.

In other words, the more accurately you try to measure the position of the particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa. (p.55)

Heisenberg showed that the uncertainty in the position of the particle times the uncertainty in its velocity times the mass of the particle can never be smaller than a certain quantity, which is known as Planck’s constant. For the rest of the 1920s Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac reformulated mechanics into a new theory titled quantum mechanics. In this theory particles no longer have separate well-defined positions and velocities, instead they have a general quantum state which is a combination of position and velocity.

Quantum mechanics introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. (p.56)

Also, particles can no longer be relied on to be particles. As a result of Planck and Heisenberg’s insights, particles have to be thought of as sometimes behaving like waves, sometimes like particles. In 1913 Niels Bohr had suggested that electrons circle round a nucleus at certain fixed points, and that it takes energy to dislodge them from these optimum orbits. Quantum theory helped explain Bohr’s theory by conceptualising the circling electrons not as particles but as waves. If electrons are waves, as they circle the nucleus, their wave lengths would cancel each other out unless they are perfect numbers. The frequency of the waves have to be able to circle the nucleus in perfect integers. This defines the height of the orbits electrons can take.

Chapter 5 Elementary Particles and Forces of Nature (pp.63-79)

A chapter devoted to the story of how we’ve come to understand the world of sub-atomic particles. Starting (as usual) with Aristotle and then fast-forwarding through Galton, Einstein’s paper on Brownian motion, J.J. Thomson’s discovery of electrons, and, in 1911, Ernest Rutherford’s demonstration that atoms are made up of tiny positively charged nucleus around which a number of tiny positively charged particles, electrons, orbit. Rutherford thought the nuclei contained ‘protons’, which have a positive charge and balance out the negative charge of the electrons. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered the nucleus contains neutrons, same mass as the proton but no charge.

In 1965 quarks were discovered by Murray Gell-Mann. In fact scientists went on to discover six types, up, down, strange, charmed, bottom and top quarks. A proton or neutron is made up of three quarks.

He explains the quality of spin. Some particles have to be spin twice to return to their original appearance. They have spin 1/2. All the matter we can see in the universe has the spin 1/2. Particles of spin 0, 1, and 2 give rise to the forces between the particles.

Pauli’s exclusionary principle: two similar particles cannot exist in the same state, they cannot have the same position and the same velocity. The exclusionary principle is vital since it explains why the universe isn’t a big soup of primeval particles. The particles must be distinct and separate.

In 1928 Paul Dirac explained why the electron must rotate twice to return to its original position. He also predicted the existence of the positron to balance the electron. In 1932 the positron was discovered and Dirac was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Force carrying particles can be divided into four categories according to the strength of the force they carry and the particles with which they interact.

  1. Gravitational force, the weakest of the four forces by a long way.
  2. The electromagnetic force interacts with electrically charged particles like electrons and quarks.
  3. The weak nuclear force, responsible for radioactivity. In findings published in 1967 Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg suggested that in addition to the photon there are three other spin-1 particles known collectively as massive vector bosons. Initially disbelieved, experiments proved them right and they collected the Nobel Prize in 1979. In 1983 the team at CERN proved the existence of the three particles, and the leaders of this team also won the Nobel Prize.
  4. The strong nuclear force holds quarks together in the proton and neutron, and holds the protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. This force is believed to be carried by another spin-1 particle, the gluon. They have a property named ‘confinement’ which is that you can’t have a quark of a single colour, the number of quarks bound together must cancel each other out.

The idea behind the search for a Grand Unified Theory is that, at high enough temperature, all the particles would behave in the same way, i.e. the laws governing the four forces would merge into one law.

Most of the matter on earth is made up of protons and neutrons, which are in turn made of quarks. Why is there this preponderance of quarks and not an equal number of anti-quarks?

Hawking introduces us to the notion that all the laws of physics obey three separate symmetries known as C, P and T. In 1956 two American physicists suggested that the weak force does not obey symmetry C. Hawking then goes on to explain more about the obedience or lack of obedience to the rules of symmetry of particles at very high temperatures, to explain why quarks and matter would outbalance anti-quarks and anti-matter at the big bang in a way which, frankly, I didn’t understand.

Chapter 6 Black Holes (pp.81-97)

In a sense, all the preceding has been just preparation, just a primer to help us understand the topic which Hawking spent the 1970s studying and which made his name – black holes.

The term black hole was coined by John Wheeler in 1969. Hawking explains the development of ideas about what happens when a star dies. When a star is burning, the radiation of energy in the forms of heat and light counteracts the gravity of its mass. When it runs out of fuel, gravity takes over and the star collapses in on itself. The young Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated that a cold star with a mass of more than one and a half times the mass of our sin would not be able to support itself against its own gravity and contract to become a ‘white dwarf’ with a radius of a few thousand miles and a density of hundreds of tones per square inch.

The Russian Lev Davidovich Landau speculated that the same sized star might end up in a different state. Chandrasekhar had used Pauli’s exclusionary principle as applied to electrons i.e. calculated the smallest densest state the mass could reach assuming no electron can be in the place of any other electron. Landau calculated on the basis of the exclusionary principle repulsion operative between neutrons and protons. Hence his model is known as the ‘neutron star’, which would have a radius of only ten miles or so and a density of hundreds of millions of tonnes per cubic inch.

(In an interesting aside Hawking tells us that physics was railroaded by the vast Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and then to build a hydrogen bomb, throughout the 1940s and 50s. This tended to sideline large-scale physics about the universe. It was only the development of a) modern telescopes and b) computer power, that revived interest in astronomy.)

A black hole is what you get when the gravity of a collapsing star becomes so high that it prevents light from escaping its gravitational field. Hawking and Penrose showed that at the centre of a black hole must be a singularity of infinite density and space-time curvature.

In 1967 the study of black holes was revolutionised by Werner Israel. He showed that, according to general relativity, all non-rotating black holes must be very simple and perfectly symmetrical.

Hawking then explains several variations on this theory put forward by Roger Penrose, Roy Kerr, Brandon Carter who proved that a hole would have an axis of symmetry. Hawking himself confirmed this idea. In 1973 David Robinson proved that a black hole had to have ‘a Kerr solution’. In other words, no matter how they start out, all black holes end up looking the same, a belief summed up in the pithy phrase, ‘A black hole has no hair’.

What is striking about all this is that it was pure speculation, derived entirely from mathematical models without a shred of evidence from astronomy.

Black holes are one of only a fairly small number of cases in the history of science in which a theory was developed in great detail as a mathematical model before there was any evidence from observations that it was correct. (p.92)

Hawking then goes on to list the best evidence we have for black holes, which is surprisingly thin. Since they are by nature invisible black holes can only be deduced by their supposed affect on nearby stars or systems. Given that black holes were at the centre of Hawking’s career, and are the focus of these two chapters, it is striking that there is, even now, very little direct empirical evidence for their existence.

(Eerily, as I finished reading A Brief History of Time, the announcement was made on 10 April 2019 that the first ever image has been generated of a black hole –

Theory predicts that other stars which stray close to a black hole would have clouds of gas attracted towards it. As this matter falls into the black hole it will a) be stripped down to basic sub-atomic particles b) make the hole spin. Spinning would make the hole acquire a magnetic field. The magnetic field would shoot jets of particles out into space along the axis of rotation of the hole. These jets should be visible to our telescopes.

First ever image of a black hole, captured the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The hole is 40 billion km across, and 500 million trillion km away

Chapter 7 Black Holes Ain’t So Black (pp.99-113)

Black holes are not really black after all. They glow like a hot body, and the smaller they are, the hotter they glow. Again, Hawking shares with us the evolution of his thinking on this subject, for example how he was motivated in writing a 1971 paper about black holes and entropy at least partly in irritation against another researcher who he felt had misinterpreted his earlier results.

Anyway, it all resulted in his 1973 paper which showed that a black hole ought to emit particles and radiation as if it were a hot body with a temperature that depends only on the black hole’s mass.

The reasoning goes thus: quantum mechanics tells us that all of space is fizzing with particles and anti-particles popping into existence, cancelling each other out, and disappearing. At the border of the event horizon, particles and anti-particles will be popping into existence as everywhere else. But a proportion of the anti-particles in each pair will be sucked inside the event horizon, so that they cannot annihilate their partners, leaving the positive particles to ping off into space. Thus, black holes should emit a steady stream of radiation!

If black holes really are absorbing negative particles as described above, then their negative energy will result in negative mass, as per Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc² which shows that the lower the energy, the lower the mass. In other words, if Hawking is correct about black holes emitting radiation, then black holes must be shrinking.

Gamma ray evidence suggests that there might be 300 black holes in every cubic light year of the universe. Hawking then goes on to estimate the odds of detecting a black hole a) in steady existence b) reaching its final state and blowing up. Alternatively we could look for flashes of light across the sky, since on entering the earth’s atmosphere gamma rays break up into pairs of electrons and positrons. No clear sightings have been made so far.

(Threaded throughout the chapter has been the notion that black holes might come in two types: one which resulted from the collapse of stars, as described above. And others which have been around since the start of the universe as a function of the irregularities of the big bang.)

Summary: Hawking ends this chapter by claiming that his ‘discovery’ that radiation can be emitted from black holes was ‘the first example of a prediction that depended in an essential way on both the great theories of this century, general relativity and quantum mechanics’. I.e. it is not only an interesting ‘discovery’ in its own right, but a pioneering example of synthesising the two theories.

Chapter 8 The Origin and Fate of the Universe (pp.115-141)

This is the longest chapter in the book and I found it the hardest to follow. I think this is because it is where he makes the big pitch for His Theory, for what’s come to be known as the Hartle-Hawking state. Let Wikipedia explain:

Hartle and Hawking suggest that if we could travel backwards in time towards the beginning of the Universe, we would note that quite near what might otherwise have been the beginning, time gives way to space such that at first there is only space and no time. Beginnings are entities that have to do with time; because time did not exist before the Big Bang, the concept of a beginning of the Universe is meaningless. According to the Hartle-Hawking proposal, the Universe has no origin as we would understand it: the Universe was a singularity in both space and time, pre-Big Bang. Thus, the Hartle–Hawking state Universe has no beginning, but it is not the steady state Universe of Hoyle; it simply has no initial boundaries in time or space. (Hartle-Hawking state Wikipedia article)

To get to this point Hawking begins by recapping the traditional view of the ‘hot big bang’, i.e. the almost instantaneous emergence of matter from a state of infinite mass, energy and density and temperature.

This is the view first put forward by Gamow and Alpher in 1948, which predicted there would still be very low-level background radiation left over from the bang – which was then proved with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965.

Hawking gives a picture of the complete cycle of the creation of the universe through the first generation of stars which go supernova blowing out into space the heavier particles which then go into second generation stars or clouds of gas and solidify into things like planet earth.

In a casual aside, he gives his version of the origin of life on earth:

The earth was initially very hot and without an atmosphere. In the course of time it cooled and acquired an atmosphere from the emission of gases from the rocks. This early atmosphere was not one in which we could have survived. It contained no oxygen, but a lot of other gases that are poisonous to us, such as hydrogen sulfide. There are, however, other primitive forms of life that can flourish under such conditions. It is thought that they developed in the oceans, possibly as a result of chance combinations of atoms into large structures, called macromolecules, which were capable of assembling other atoms in the ocean into similar structures. They would thus have reproduced themselves and multiplied. In some cases there would have been errors in the reproduction. Mostly these errors would have been such that the new macromolecule could not reproduce itself and eventually would have been destroyed. However, a few of the errors would have produced new macromolecules that were even better at reproducing themselves. They would have therefore had an advantage and would have tended to replace the original macromolecules. In this way a process of evolution was started that led to the development of more and more complicated, self-reproducing organisms. The first primitive forms of life consumed various materials, including hydrogen sulfide, and released oxygen. This gradually changed the atmosphere to the composition that it has today and allowed the development of higher forms of life such as fish, reptiles, mammals, and ultimately the human race. (p.121)

(It’s ironic that he discusses the issue so matter-of-factly, demonstrating that, for him at least, the matter is fairly cut and dried and not worth lingering over. Because, of course, for scientists who’ve devoted their lives to the origins-of-life question it is far from over. It’s a good example of the way that every specialist thinks that their specialism is the most important subject in the world, the subject that will finally answer the Great Questions of Life whereas a) most people have never heard about the issues b) wouldn’t understand them and c) don’t care.)

Hawking goes on to describe chaotic boundary conditions and describe the strong and the weak anthropic principles. He then explains the theory proposed by Alan Guth of inflation i.e. the universe, in the first milliseconds after the big bang, underwent a process of enormous hyper-growth, before calming down again to normal exponential expansion. Hawking describes it rather differently from Barrow and Davies. He emphasises that, to start with, in a state of hypertemperature and immense density, the four forces we know about and the spacetime dimensions were all fused into one. They would be in ‘symmetry’. Only as the early universe cooled would it have undergone a ‘phase transition’ and the symmetry between forces been broken.

If the temperature fell below the phase transition temperature without symmetry being broken then the universe would have a surplus of energy and it is this which would have cause the super-propulsion of the inflationary stage. The inflation theory:

  • would allow for light to pass from one end of the (tiny) universe to the other and explains why all regions of the universe appear to have the same properties
  • explain why the rate of expansion of the universe is close to the critical rate required to make it expand for billions of years (and us to evolve)
  • would explain why there is so much matter in the universe

Hawking then gets involved in the narrative explaining how he and others pointed out flaws in Guth’s inflationary model, namely that the phase transition at the end of the inflation ended in ‘bubble’s which expanded to join up. But Hawking and others pointed out that the bubbles were expanding so fat they could never join up. In 1981 the Russian Andre Linde proposed that the bubble problem would be solved if  a) the symmetry broke slowly and b) the bubbles were so big that our region of the universe is all contained within a single bubble. Hawking disagreed, saying Linde’s bubbles would each have to be bigger than the universe for the maths to work out, and counter-proposing that the symmetry broke everywhere at the same time, resulting in the uniform universe we see today. Nonetheless Linde’s model became known as the ‘new inflationary model’, although Hawking considers it invalid.

[In these pages we get a strong whiff of cordite. Hawking is describing controversies and debates he has been closely involved in and therefore takes a strongly partisan view, bending over backwards to be fair to colleagues, but nonetheless sticking to his guns. In this chapter you get a strong feeling for what controversy and debate within this community must feel like.)

Hawking prefers the ‘chaotic inflationary model’ put forward by Linde in 1983, in which there is no phase transition or supercooling, but which relies on quantum fluctuations.

At this point he introduces four ideas which are each challenging and which, taken together, mark the most difficult and confusing part of the book.

First he says that, since Einstein’s laws of relativity break down at the moment of the singularity, we can only hope to understand the earliest moments of the universe in terms of quantum mechanics.

Second, he says he’s going to use a particular formulation of quantum mechanics, namely Richard Feynman’s idea of ‘a sum over histories’. I think this means that Feynman said that in quantum mechanics we can never know precisely which route a particle takes, the best we can do is work out all the possible routes and assign them probabilities, which can then be handled mathematically.

Third, he immediately points out that working with Feynman’s sum over histories approach requires the use of ‘imaginary’ time, which he then goes on to explain.

To avoid the technical difficulties with Feynman’s sum over histories, one must use imaginary time. (p.134)

And then he points out that, in order to use imaginary time, we must use Euclidean space-time instead of ‘real’ space-time.

All this happens on page 134 and was too much for me to understand. On page 135 he then adds in Einstein’s idea that the gravitational field us represented by curved space-time.

It is now that he pulls all these ideas together to assert that, whereas in the classical theory of gravity, which is based on real space-time there are only two ways the universe can behave – either it has existed infinitely or it had a beginning in a singularity at a finite point in time; in the quantum theory of gravity, which uses Euclidean space-time, in which the time direction is on the same footing as directions in space it is possible:

for space-time to be finite in extent and yet to have no singularities that formed a boundary or edge.

In Hawking’s theory the universe would be finite in duration but not have a boundary in time because time would merge with the other three dimensions, all of which cease to exist during and just after a singularity. Working backwards in time, the universe shrinks but it doesn’t shrink, as a cone does, to a single distinct point – instead it has a smooth round bottom with no distinct beginning.

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

Finally Hawking points out that this model of a no-boundary universe derived from a Feynman interpretation of quantum gravity does not give rise to all possible universes, but only to a specific family of universes.

One aspect of these histories of the universe in imaginary time is that none of them include singularities – which would seem to render redundant all the work Hawking had done on black holes in ‘real time’. He gets round this by saying that both models can be valid, but in order to demonstrate different things.

It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description. (p.139)

He winds up the discussion by stating that further calculations based on this model explain the two or three key facts about the universe which all theories must explain i.e. the fact that it is clumped into lumps of matter and not an even soup, the fact that it is expanding, and the fact that the background radiation is minutely uneven in some places suggesting very early irregularities. Tick, tick, tick – the no-boundary proposal is congruent with all of them.

It is a little mind-boggling, as you reach the end of this long and difficult chapter, to reflect that absolutely all of it is pure speculation without a shred of evidence to support it. It is just another elegant way of dealing with the problems thrown up by existing observations and by trying to integrate quantum mechanics with Einsteinian relativity. But whether it is ‘true’ or not, not only is unproveable but also is not really the point.

Chapter 9 The Arrow of Time (pp.143-153)

If Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct and light always appears to have the same velocity to all observers, no matter what position they’re in or how fast they’re moving, THEN TIME MUST BE FLEXIBLE. Time is not a fixed constant. Every observer carries their own time with them.

Hawking points out that there are three arrows of time:

  • the thermodynamic arrow of time which obeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics namely that entropy, or disorder, increases – there are always many more disordered states than ordered ones
  • the psychological arrow of time which we all perceive
  • the cosmological arrow of time, namely the universe is expanding and not contracting

Briskly, he tells us that the psychological arrow of time is based on the thermodynamic one: entropy increases and our lives experience that and our minds record it. For example, human beings consume food – which is a highly ordered form of energy – and convert it into heat – which is a highly disordered form.

Hawking tells us that he originally thought that, if the universe reach a furthest extent and started to contract, disorder (entropy) would decrease, and everything in the universe would happen backwards. Until Don Page and Raymond Laflamme, in their different ways, proved otherwise.

Now he believes that the contraction would not occur until the universe had been almost completely thinned out and all the stars had died i.e. the universe had become an even soup of basic particles. THEN it would start to contract. And so his current thinking is that there would be little or no thermodynamic arrow of time (all thermodynamic processes having come to an end) and all of this would be happening in a universe in which human beings could not exist. We will never live to see the contraction phase of the universe. If there is a contraction phase.

Chapter 10: The Unification of Physics (pp.155-169)

The general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics both work well for their respective scales (stars and galaxies, sub-atomic particles) but cannot be made to mesh, despite fifty of more years of valiant attempts. Many of the attempts produce infinity in their results, so many infinities that a strategy has been developed called ‘renormalisation’ which gets rid of the infinities, although Hawking conceded is ‘rather dubious mathematically’.

Grand Unified Theories is the term applied to attempts to devise a theory (i.e. a set of mathematical formulae) which will take account of the four big forces we know about: electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.

In the mid-1970s some scientists came up with the idea of ‘supergravity’ which postulated a ‘superparticle’, and the other sub-atomic particles variations on the super-particle but with different spins. According to Hawking the calculations necessary to assess this theory would take so long nobody has ever done it.

So he moves onto string theory i.e. the universe isn’t made up of particles but of open or closed ‘strings’, which can join together in different ways to form different particles. However, the problem with string theory is that, because of the mathematical way they are expressed, they require more than four dimensions. A lot more. Hawking mentions anywhere from ten up to 26 dimensions. Where are all these dimensions? Well, strong theory advocates say they exist but are very very small, effectively wrapped up into sub-atomic balls, so that you or I never notice them.

Rather simplistically, Hawking lists the possibilities about a complete unified theory. Either:

  1. there really is a grand unified theory which we will someday discover
  2. there is no ultimate theory but only an infinite sequence of possibilities which will describe the universe with greater and greater, but finite accuracy
  3. there is no theory of the universe at all, and events will always seems to us to occur in a random way

This leads him to repeat the highfalutin’ rhetoric which all physicists drop into at these moments, about the destiny of mankind etc. Discovery of One Grand Unified Theory:

would bring to an end a long and glorious chapter in the history of humanity’s intellectual struggle to understand the universe. But it would also revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe. (p.167)

I profoundly disagree with this view. I think it is boilerplate, which is a phrase defined as ‘used in the media to refer to hackneyed or unoriginal writing’.

Because this is not just the kind of phrasing physicists use when referring to the search for GUTs, it’s the same language biologists use when referring to the quest to understand how life derived from inorganic chemicals, it’s the same language the defenders of the large Hadron Collider use to justify spending billions of euros on the search for ever-smaller particles, it’s the language used by the guys who want funding for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), it’s the kind of language used by the scientists bidding for funding for the Human Genome Project.

Each of these, their defenders claim, is the ultimate most important science project, quest and odyssey ever,  and when they find the solution it will for once and all answer the Great Questions which have been tormenting mankind for millennia. Etc. Which is very like all the world’s religions claiming that their God is the only God. So a) there is a pretty obvious clash between all these scientific specialities which each claim to be on the brink of revealing the Great Secret.

But b) what reading this book and John Barrow’s Book of Universes convinces me is that i) we are very far indeed from coming even close to a unified theory of the universe and more importantly ii) if one is ever discovered, it won’t matter.

Imagine for a moment that a new iteration of string theory does manage to harmonise the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics. How many people in the world are really going to be able to understand that? How many people now, currently, have a really complete grasp of Einsteinian relativity and Heisenbergian quantum uncertainty in their strictest, most mathematical forms? 10,000? 1000,000 earthlings?

If and when the final announcement is made who would notice, who would care, and why would they care? If the final conjunction is made by adapting string theory to 24 dimensions and renormalising all the infinities in order to achieve a multi-dimensional vision of space-time which incorporates both the curvature of gravity and the unpredictable behaviour of sub-atomic particles – would this really

revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe?

Chapter 11 Conclusion (pp.171-175)

Recaps the book and asserts that his and James Hartle’s no-boundary model for the origin of the universe is the first to combine classic relativity with Heisenberg uncertainty. Ends with another rhetorical flourish of trumpets which I profoundly disagree with for the reasons given above.

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. (p.175)

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this is a hopelessly naive view of human nature and culture. Einstein’s general theory has been around for 104 years, quantum mechanics for 90 years. Even highly educated people understand neither of them, and what Hawking calls ‘just ordinary people’ certainly don’t – and it doesn’t matter. 

Thoughts

Of course the subject matter is difficult to understand, but Hawking makes a very good fist of putting all the ideas into simple words and phrases, avoiding all formulae and equations, and the diagrams help a lot.

My understanding is that A Brief History of Time was the first popular science to put all these ideas before the public in a reasonably accessible way, and so opened the floodgates for countless other science writers, although hardly any of the ideas in it felt new to me since I happen to have just reread the physics books by Barrow and Davies which cover much the same ground and are more up to date.

But my biggest overall impression is how provisional so much of it seems. You struggle through the two challenging chapters about black holes – Hawking’s speciality – and then are casually told that all this debating and arguing over different theories and model-making had gone on before any black holes were ever observed by astronomers. In fact, even when Hawking died, in 2018, no black holes had been conclusively identified. It’s a big shame he didn’t live to see this famous photograph being published and confirmation of at least the existence of the entity he devoted so much time to theorising about.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

The Sacred Flame by Somerset Maugham (1928)

You’re everything in the world to me, Stella. People have been most awfully kind to me, and it’s not till you’re crocked up as I am that you find out how kind people are. They’ve been simply topping. (Maurice in The Sacred Flame)

Act One

This is the first Maugham play I’ve read which isn’t a comedy. It’s set in the same spiffing topping simply ripping upper-middle class milieu as the others but has a serious theme. The central male figure, Maurice Tabret, was badly injured in a plane crash six years ago. He has been bed-ridden ever since and will never walk again. He is looked after by a live-in nurse and his mother, kind Mrs Tabret, also lives with him. Dr Harvester has dropped by to check up that Maurice is alright and Maurice – from his bed – is enjoying thrashing the doctor at chess. All of them are waiting up for Maurice’s brother, Colin, to return from the opera with Maurice’s wife, Stella.

When they arrive there’s much faffing about with taking Maurice out of the room to be changed into his pyjamas: the nurse goes off to make bacon sandwiches, Colin goes down into the cellar to find champagne and ice and Mrs Tabret takes the doctor for a stroll round the garden (it is a fine evening in June), leaving Maurice and Stella together.

Their dialogue is bright and jaunty in Maugham’s stiff-upper-lip way, with Maurice telling Stella she’s been simply spiffing to stand by him since the accident and Stella all tearful for her dear, kind husband. But then the dialogue pierces this bright smiling surface and Maurice admits he knows he will never be better, never be able to walk, will never be a proper husband to her, never (it is hinted) have sex with her again – and he bursts into tears. Stella cradles his head and herself weeps tears of love and devotion and says she isn’t worthy of his love etc.

The other characters return to the stage, the nurse with the sandwiches, Colin with the champagne, Mrs Tabret and the doctor from the garden. Maurice has wiped his eyes and tells everyone he is feeling very tired. The nurse wheels the bed (all this time Maurice has been is lying in a bed with castor wheels on the legs) into the other room, the doctor takes his leave and Mrs Tabret retires to bed, leaving the stage to Colin (Maurice’s brother) and Stella (Maurice’s wife).

Once they are completely alone she bursts into tears and cries ‘What have we done? What have we done?’ It becomes clear to the audience that they are having an adulterous affair and Stella feels wretched at betraying her poor husband.

Act Two

Same setting i.e. the living room, on the next morning. A family friend, Major Liconda, has dropped by to see Colin, and we learn the Maurice died in the night! What! That’s quite a bombshell.

Doctor Harvester arrives, then other family members enter. Dr Harvester is bluffly assuring everyone that Maurice must have died of heart failure when the nurse, unexpectedly, intervenes.

The entire act is dominated by the nurse’s personality and by her stubborn insistence that the death was not an accident. Suddenly we are in an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Major Liconda and Dr Harvester are both sceptical and become angry with the nurse’s insistence that there should be a proper post mortem on Maurice’s body, and that she will speak to the coroner if Dr Harvester refuses to go himself.

At first they all think she is talking balderdash, but slowly she wins them over with her case: Maurice was being prescribed chloral, a new painkiller. There were five powerful pills in his tablet bottle last night. This morning they were all gone. Whodunnit?

Major Liconda now assumes a weightier role. He was in the colonial police force out in India. He reluctantly agrees with the nurse that there is evidence of something amiss, and that the authorities must be informed. The characters then discuss (with varying expressions of disbelief) the possibility that a) someone murdered Maurice or b) that Maurice committed suicide. As in an Agatha Christie, the author gives each of the characters a possible motive:

  • Doctor Harvester knew the pain Maurice was in and maybe wanted to ease his passing
  • Stella held him during his agonised outburst so feels pity for his suffering – but, on a more cynical reading, might have wanted Maurice out of the way so she could marry Colin
  • Colin wanted him out of the way so he could marry Stella
  • Just possibly his sweet old mother also wanted to put him out of his misery

Working all this through takes up most of Act Two. But right at the end comes another bombshell. The nurse had become progressively more unpleasant to Stella, bitterly pointing out how unaware she was of Maurice’s true suffering; how all Maurice’s medicines had to be cleared away whenever she came by so as to avoid upsetting her; how Maurice always put on a brave face for Stella – while only she, the nurse, saw the real Maurice, his despair, his black moods, his constant pain, his agonies.

During her monologue Stella realises that the nurse was secretly in love with Maurice.

But this isn’t the bombshell: the bombshell is that the nurse tells the assembled cast that Stella is pregnant. Stella had fainted briefly in the first act: only the nurse drew the correct conclusion.

Since Maurice was crippled and impotent, this can only mean she has been unfaithful to her ‘much-loved’ husband. The entire cast stand frozen in horror at this revelation. And it is just at this point that the housemaid comes in, announcing that lunch is served, bursting the tension, and allowing the audience to go off to the theatre bar buzzing with speculation about what will happen next!

Act Three

Half an hour later, after a very strained luncheon, the same cast assembles in the drawing room and resumes battle. Colin quickly steps forward and admits he is the father of Stella’s baby. To everyone’s surprise, Mrs Tabret says she’s known about it all along.

Even more surprisingly, she gives a long speech about how she approved of Stella taking Colin, her other son, as a lover: she approved it on the grounds of sexual health. Stella was a healthy sexual young woman and Mrs Tabret could see her pining for lack of physical intimacy. She worried that in time it would make her hate Maurice. Therefore her motherly love for Maurice made her wish Stella to take a lover so that she would remain loving and kind to Maurice.

But it’s also an opportunity for the Author to insert the Message which comes over so strongly in most of Maugham’s stories and all of his novels – a plea for tolerance and understanding. People, and life, are more morally complex than we give them credit for. We should help, support and love each other, not rush to narrow, moralising judgement.

Alas, that is precisely the attitude the nurse takes. She is stung into paroxysms of disgust by Mrs Tabret’s attitude and then turns her scorn on Stella, who she calls a fake wife and a deceiver, contrasting her life of pampered ease with the hard work the nurse has always had to carry out. This rises to a kind of hymn of love, where the nurse describes how much she loved and reverenced Maurice, washing his wasted limbs, caring for his toilet needs, putting up with his despairing moods. The nurse despises Stella. The two women, from different classes, with different life experiences, square off over their different forms of ‘love’ for the dead man.

After this emotional climax, the nurse goes to pack her bags and is replaced centre stage by Major Liconda. He now adopts the Inspector Poirot role, questioning Stella and bringing home to her how bad her position will appear in court: pregnant by an adulterous lover, had some kind of upsetting argument with husband last thing at night, was the last person to see him etc.

Things are looking ominous when Mrs Tabret sagely and gently steps forward. She did it. She killed her son.

Maurice often couldn’t sleep and she would tiptoe down to chat to him, with the lights off, long after both Stella and the nurse had gone to sleep. They talked about his childhood in India. Soon after his accident Maurice made Mrs Talbert promise she would help him if the pain ever became too much to bear.

Mrs Talbert makes the simple point that we are not mono-people – we are all made up of multiple facets and aspects, and have complex relationships with the numerous people in those around us. She saw a Maurice no-one else did. And when she saw how much he was suffering, and when she realised that Stella was pregnant with Colin’s child and would sooner rather than later begin to betray Maurice emotionally, eventually revealing that she loved him no longer – well, as a mother, Mrs Tabret couldn’t bear the thought of the pain this would cause her son.

Maurice couldn’t sleep and so it was Mrs Talbert who got the extra pills of Chloral, dissolved them in his water, watched him drink the whole thing at a gulp, and held his hand as he fell into his last sleep.

The cast are shocked into silence, as I imagine the audience would be. Even the nurse. The nurse is all dressed and packed and on the verge of leaving, but now – she relents. She abandons her shrill demand for an inquest. She tells the doctor to go ahead and sign the death certificate saying that Maurice died peacefully in his sleep. She will swear in court that the pills were by Maurice’s bedside i.e. no-one else was involved in his death. She has learned her lesson.

The doctor and Major Liconda are emotional at the nurse’s change of heart and mercy to the old lady. She embraces Mrs Tabret. They are reconciled. They must both learn to live without the man they loved but, as Mrs Tabret points out – so long as they continue to love him, he will live on in their hearts.

Conclusion

All the characters talk in the dated manner of a vanished class. All the characters are at pains to keep up appearances and maintain a stiff upper lip. At its worst the play descends (or rises) to heights of melodramatic bombast – the shrill competition between Stella and the nurse about who loved Maurice most feels melodramatic and there are quite a few other passages of over-ripe emoting (‘No, I loved him best’).

And at all the moments when the question of law, murder, the evidence and so on become dominant, it feels like we have dropped into a hammy episode of ITV’s Poirot. I doubt this play could ever be reasonably revived on a modern stage.

And yet, despite all these drawbacks, the overall effect is intense and harrowing. As in so many of Maugham’s short stories, the flimsy, 1920s, upper-class scenario in which the scene is initially set, fades into the background as the psychological intensity of the situation takes grip of the reader’s imagination.

If analysed rationally, all of the characters and the whole set-up seem hopelessly artificial – and yet, by the end of the play, you feel you have been on an exhaustive tour of all the human emotions and responses aroused by the plight of a bed-ridden paraplegic in those closest to him.

Despite everyone talking like characters out of Jeeves and Wooster, when I put the play down I was shaking.

Adaptation

In fact the play was revived in 2012. The Guardian reviewed it:

I am struck by Michael Billington’s last line: ‘Whatever Maugham’s flaws, he certainly knew how to write for women.’ All four of the Maugham plays I’ve read give the strongest parts to women.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Nadja by André Breton (1928)

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

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

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

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

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

Part one

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

Who am I?

The answer relies on a French proverb which is not quoted in full or explained in a note, so we never learn what it is exactly, but which apparently involves the word ‘haunt’.

This linguistic accident gives rise to a long disquisition on how the ghost of dead selves ‘haunt’ the current self, about how the ‘self’ can’t be defined by existing social or psychological categories and so on. Breton here rewords ideas about identity that had been discussed by the poet Arthur Rimbaud 60 years earlier (‘je est un autre’, as Rimbaud famously wrote) and far more systematically by Sigmund Freud a generation earlier – in fact much better, by lots of other writers.

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

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

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

Part one moves on to a list of works which have moved Breton, with a predictable jog-trot through the accepted canon of proto-Surrealist writers – Arthur Rimbaud, the Marquis de Sade, Lautreamont.

It seamlessly moves on to discussing places in Paris, particular streets or statues or shop signs, which have strangely moved the author, along with (to him) odd coincidences, like being able to predict where shops with particular names will be along a street, or bumping into someone at a theatre and later receiving a letter from them without realising it was the same person (Paul Eluard). The banality is stupefying.

Only very slowly does it become clear that this section is meant to be about what Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’. Apparently (and it’s only by reading the introduction to the book and the Wikipedia article about it that you can really understand this) the notion of ‘significant coincidences’ was a key element in early Surrealism (along with ‘automatic writing’ and the importance of dreams).

For the Surrealists they were all strategies or techniques for evading the mind’s rational ‘bourgeois’ constraints and tapping directly into our unconscious, into the true and deepest sources of human creativity.

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

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

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has a really bad stutter? Quite quickly you find yourself willing them to just spit it out; you can see what they’re driving at and you just want to help them get over their crippling debility, which is obviously causing them agonies of frustration.

Reading Breton is like that. He has got something to say but he seems cripplingly unable to express it. And instead of the fluency he so sorely lacks, his prose displays a kind of roughshod, domineering quality, a determination to make himself heard, no matter how incoherent what he’s saying actually is.

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

What?

The pope of Surrealism

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

This self-centred self-importance is on ample display in this book in the casual self-importance:

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

Paradoxically, the technique of recording every dream, every strange coincidence, every funny feeling you have about a statue or a narrow alley somewhere in Paris, it all runs the risk of seeming very inconsequential.

For example, Breton informs us that his favourite film is called The Grip of the Octopus, giving us several scenes from it which haunt his imagination. Then by far the longest section of Part One (six pages) is devoted to retelling the entire plot of a play he once saw, a thriller which leads up to the discovery of a child’s corpse in a cupboard, which was accompanied by a piercing scream which riveted him to his seat.

It is unbelievably self-absorbed, trivial and boring.

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

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

I imagine he intended all these trivial anecdotes to form a dazzling insight into his and the Surreal worldview. But instead they seem thumpingly banal and ineffectual. If this is it, if this is the basis of the entire Surrealist movement in art and literature – some places give you a spooky feeling, some coincidences are a bit eerie – then you can see why so very little of Surrealist literature has survived or been translated into English.

It seems crushingly boring.

Part two – Nadja

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

If Part One has done anything it has shown how Breton melodramatises quite humdrum events and feelings into Great Insights Into the Unconscious.

So it’s prepared us for the fact that Breton now reacts to every tremble and hesitation from this strange young woman as if it physically touches his oh-so-precious sensibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve recently read descriptions of the Futurist Marinetti in 1912 yelling through a megaphone at tourists in Venice to burn the gondolas – that was funny and original.

I’ve been reading about the madcap provocations of Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists in Zurich, dressing up in cardboard costumes and reciting poetry to the beat of a bass drum.

I keep reading about Marcel Duchamp exhibiting his famous urinal in 1917. All these are still startling, new and entertaining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might have thought this would elicit some kind of concern about her, maybe a visit to the sanatorium, letters to get her released and so on.

But no, instead this news prompts a lengthy diatribe against psychiatry, Breton ranting against the power doctors have to deprive people of their freedom, in which he loses sight of Nadja altogether and instead imagines the fight that he, the Surrealist poet André Breton, would put up in an insane asylum, taking the first opportunity to murder a doctor and being locked up in solitary as a result.

Typically self-absorbed. And typical macho bullshit from bully boy Breton.

Part three

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

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

So it’s a passage at the end of a book about how difficult he finds it to imagine someone who can end a book.

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

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

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

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

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

This incoherent finale to the book only made any kind of sense when I turned to read the Introduction to this Penguin translation.

The introduction

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

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

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

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

One day Léona was found raving and hallucinating in the hallway of her cheap hotel, and was reported to the police who called the medics who took her off to an asylum. According to Polizzotti, some of the Surrealists she’d been introduced to visited her there, but Breton didn’t.

Léona was transferred on to another hospital in 1928 (just about the time Nadja was published), where she remained incarcerated until her death from cancer in 1941.

Breton using Léona

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

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

Suzanne

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

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

But when Suzanne insisted that Breton leave Simone and marry her, Breton didn’t know what to do. Disappointed by his reaction, Suzanne insisted that they return to Paris. Her former lover Berl got back in touch and offered her a secure home and money. What’s a girl to do? She rejoined him and they set off abroad together.

Breton got wind that they were departing from the Gare de Lyon and rushed there to confront her as she left, but she chose money and comfort over passion and love (wise woman).

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

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

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

Pathetic.

Failure to communicate

According to Polizzotti, Breton had intended to close Nadja with a final section which would be ‘a long meditation on beauty, a kind of beauty consisting of “jolts and shocks” as represented by Nadja and her unsettling presence’.

You can see how this might have worked – how the uncanny moments and strange insights of Nadja could be associated with the opening section about coincidences and spooky locations, and all drawn together to put forward a sustained case for a new aesthetic, an aesthetic of the irrational, the accidental, the uncanny and the inexplicable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why is he talking about ‘beauty’, like some 18th century connoisseur or some 1880s dandy? In the age of Duchamp’s anti-art, Tsara and Arp and Ball’s Dada, Grosz’s searing satirical paintings, Heartfield’s photomontages or Man Ray’s solarised photographs, it seems almost unbelievably retrograde, reactionary and obtuse to be crapping on about ‘beauty’. Beauty? What has beauty got to do with anything?

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


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Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham (1928)

You must be able to look at yourself from the outside and be at the same time spectator and actor in the pleasant comedy of life. (p.172)

Quite a shock to go from reading the street-level immediacy of Dashiell Hammet and James M. Cain to sauntering through the wordy aloofness of William Somerset Maugham. Slowly, I came to really like this book.

Maugham

Born in 1874 in the British Embassy in Paris where his father worked and where he lived for the first ten years of his life, Maugham was 54 when this book came out. Both his parents died when he was young and he was raised by an aloof and cruel uncle (a vicar). After public school in Canterbury, with its usual training in snobbery and homosexuality, Maugham went to university in Germany before settling to study medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital. He had, in other words, an unusually cosmopolitan upbringing and outlook for an Englishman of his time.

But he always wanted to write, wrote compulsorily in the evenings after study and, soon after qualifying as a doctor, published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, in 1897 – a proletarian love story, part of the 1890s’ fashion for studies of London lowlife cf the novels of George Gissing. Liza sold out and confirmed him in his vocation.

Maugham’s subsequent few novels weren’t as successful but his plays were. The first was performed in 1906 and in 1907 he had four plays on in the West End simultaneously. By the outbreak of the Great War Maugham had written 10 novels and ten plays and was a well-established Edwardian man of letters. He enlisted in the ambulance service. In 1915 his long novel about one man’s romantic obsession, Of Human Bondage, was published, maybe his most enduring work. He returned to London to promote it then looked around for some way to support the war effort. His wife introduced him to officials high up in Britain’s Secret Service and he was enlisted.

During the Great War Maugham had two spells with the intelligence services:

1. In September 1915 Maugham went to Switzerland, using his cover as an author abroad, to work as one of the network of British agents trying to counter the ‘Berlin Committee’ which included Virendranath Chattopadhyay, an Indian revolutionary trying to use the war to create violence against the British in his country.

(There was a hiatus while Maugham went travelling in the Pacific to research his novel The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin – the first of many journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s which were to become associated with Maugham and which provided a template for Graham Greene a generation later.)

2. In June 1917 Maugham was asked by the British Secret Intelligence Service (later MI6) to undertake a mission to Russia to counter German pacifist propaganda in a bid to keep the Provisional Government in power and Russia in the war. Two and a half months later, the Bolsheviks took control. Maugham subsequently said that if he had been able to get there six months earlier, he might have succeeded. Quiet and observant, Maugham had a good temperament for intelligence work; he believed he had inherited from his lawyer father a gift for cool judgement and the ability to be undeceived by facile appearances.

After the war Maugham’s novels and plays continued to be successful and in 1926 he bought Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera where a) he hosted one of the great literary and social salons of the 1920s and 30s b) he continued to be highly productive, writing plays, short stories, novels, essays and travel books. He is credited with being the most financially successful British writer of the 1930s.

Ashenden

Ashenden, or The British Agent is not a novel: it consists of 16 short chapters which are sometimes linked, sometimes completely separate. Some offer just fragments or insights, others a continuous story in 2 or 3 parts.

It’s interesting that, like so many others, it took him a decade or so to process the war experience and turn it into fiction, thus taking part in the so-called ‘war book boom’ (cf Understones of War, 1928, Goodbye To All That, 1929, All Quiet On The Western Front, 1929, A Farewell To Arms, 1929, Death of A Hero, 1929).

The stories follow very closely his actual experiences. The fictional Ashenden is a British writer who is sent to live in Switzerland, who receives weekly orders by cloak and dagger channels, and who keeps an eye especially on Indian political activists.

  1. R. (4 pages) R is the name used by the head of the Intelligence Department. (Fleming didn’t copy this in creating M, as the head of MI6 in his day was known as C.) Ashenden meets someone at a party who asks if he’d like some work. He is given an address in a run-down part of London where he is shown into a disused house and meets R. with his hard blue cruel eyes. He is despatched to Switzerland.
  2. A Domiciliary Visit (19 pages) Ashenden, now in Switzerland, hears the Germans are going to burgle the left luggage room at Zurich station to seize the trunk of an Indian diplomat. Ashenden takes the train for Geneva to Berne to tell the diploatic offier there who decides to inform the Swiss authorities. Ashenden returns by boat across the lake giving scope for nature description and his mild anxiety at being collared by Swiss police. Back at his hotel he is visited by two Swiss policeman, whom he humorously nicknames Fasolt and Fafner after the giants in Das Rheingold. They have nothing to go on and leave. Ashenden remembers an encounter with a waiter working for him in Germany who revolted, wanting more money. Ashenden had refused and threatened to have him blacklisted after the War and the waiter/agent surlily acquiesced.
  3. Miss King (27 pages) The same evening Ashenden dines with the other guests, a motley crew of upper class diplomats, princes etc. Ashenden suspects all of them of being spies. He is surprised to be invited to a game of bridge in the rooms of Baroness Higgins with Prince Ali of Egypt and his secretary and wonders if one or all of them are working for their countries, and how much they know about him. Later the same night he is called out of bed by the dying wish of the ancient governess of the Egyptian princes, Miss King. She has had a stroke and dies in his arms. Ashenden speculates about what she has seen, what she knows, and whether she was trying to tell him something.
  4. The Hairless Mexican (24 pages) Called to Lyon, Ashenden is introduced to a hairless Mexican ‘general’, a stereotype of Latino braggadocio, their mission to intercept a Greek who has been despatched with papers and a verbal commission from Enver Pasha to the German embassy in Rome. Ashenden’s clinical observation of the ‘general’, the exact opposite of an English gentleman in every respect, reminds me of Graham Greene’s travel book The Lawless Roads and novel The Power and The Glory which both bespeak his dislike and eventual hatred of Mexicans for their casual violence.
  5. The Dark Woman (13 pages) On their night-time train journey the Mexican ‘general’ tells Ashenden about love, glory, reading your destiny in the cards, and about his Grand Passion for the Dark Woman who he eventually murdered in her sleep.
  6. The Greek (19 pages) Genuinely tense chapter describing Ashenden’s frame of mind as he is surprised when the Mexican arrives unannounced at his hotel in Naples (he should be nabbing the Greek and his papers in Brindisi), then spends the day wandering streets, trying to read, going to cinema and bars etc, worrying what the Mexican is doing about the Greek. That night the Mexican inveigles him into breaking into the Greek’s room and rifling his luggage. No papers. They decide to go their separate ways, the Mexican to Barcelona, Ashenden back to Rome. They wait in a low dive where the Mexican is happily picking up women when Ashenden notices blood on his sleeve. Then Ashenden receives and decodes an urgent telegram from base: the Greek never left Piraeus! The Mexican has befriended, tailed and murdered a completely innocent man! Cock-up, not conspiracy.
  7. A Trip to Paris (24 pages) Ashenden receives a coded message telling him to go meet R. in Paris. Once again he is struck by R.’s combination of social gaucheness with extreme acuteness and precision. The Department has discovered that a tacky Spanish dancer-cum-prostitute, Giulia Lazzari, has been receiving passionate love letters from a fanatical Indian nationalist, Chandra Lal, responsible for various bombing outrages and devoted to kicking the British out of India. Guilia has been arrested and forced to agree to lure Chandra to Thonon on Switzerland, then cross into France where he can be arrested and shot. Ashenden is to accompany her to Switzerland and make sure she plays here part.
  8. Giulia Lazzari (30 pages) How Ashenden effectively but with a bad conscience blackmails Giulia with the threat of prison, unless she persuades Chandra to cross the border into France. After several rebuffs, and mounting hysterics from Giulia, he does, is immediately seized, commits suicide by taking poison. Ashenden has to tell Giulia her lover is dead. Bitter.
  9. Gustav (9 pages) A model spy in Germany who writes coded reports to his wife at Basel who sends them on to Ashenden. Ashenden goes to visit his wife, is surprised to find Gustav there when he has only just received a letter supposedly from Germany from him; and deduces that in fact the much-praised Gustav has been lying to British Intelligence for a year, and has never set foot in Germany that whole time. He admits it. Characteristically, Ashenden is a) not angry b) tries to establish whether Gustav has also been working for the Germans c) wonders if he can be fed false info to pass back to the Hun. Specifically, he asks Gustav for information about the English spy, Grantley Caypor, and Gustav supplies it, sealing Caypor’s death sentence.
  10.  The Traitor (44 pages) Ashenden is sent to Lucerne to meet the English spy and traitor, Grantley Caypor. He gets to know him and his gruff German wife very well and Maugham very convincingly portrays them as complex human beings with real loves and affections. It is all the grimmer, then, that Ashenden persuades him to cross the border into France where he is immediately arrested and, if R. is true to his word, executed for his treachery, leaving his devoted wife in paroxysms of grief in front of Ashenden.
  11. Behind the scenes (9 pages) Ashenden in Russia. Characteristically, this brief anecdote is more about the characters of the American and, especially, the fantastically well-bred British amabassador, than anything at all about the host country. Ashenden gets a spy into the household of the countess with whom the American ambassador is intimate who discovers that the American resents the British ambassador’s grand manner; Ashenden tells the British ambassador who seems almost grateful. High society comedy.
  12. His Excellency (39 pages) Reluctantly Ashenden accepts a dinner invite from the impeccable British ambassador, Sir Herbert Witherspoon. This mutates subtly from chit-chat into the ambassador opening his heart and telling – in the third person – his love affair with an ugly trashy vulgar courtesan of a circus performer who, despite all sense, he just can’t shake and how, although he married wisely and has had a stellar career, he in fact hates  his wife, his marriage and his position. It becomes very powerful and moving.
  13. The Flip of a Coin (7 pages) The Polish agent Herbartus has arranged for a German munitions factory to be blown up. It will, however, kill many of his fellow Polish workers. Ashenden and he debate the morality of this to a standstill and then Ashenden proposes they toss for it. The result is not revealed. A bitter reflection on the complete arbitrariness of life.
  14. A Chance Acquaintance (19 pages) Ashenden has to travel across the Atlantic, across America, then across the Pacific to Vladivostok, then across Russia by train to arrive at Petrograd on a high profile mission to prevent the Revolution. This story is all about the companion fate throws him in with on the train journey, an insufferable American named Harrington.
  15. Love and Russian Literature (16 pages) A comic account of his pre-War infatuation with Russian intellectual and revolutionary Anastasia Alexandrovna Leonidov, who suggests they find out whether they really are a match by spending a week in Paris together before running off and abandoning her husband. The week in Paris is a disaster mainly because of her addiction to scrambled eggs for breakfast (!) Now, years later, he looks Anastasia up again. She may be useful…
  16. Mr Harrington’s Washing The October revolution takes place, Ashenden has failed, he immediately makes plans to leave but is caught up in the naive Harrington’s insistence that he gets the washing back which he’d given the hotel to do for him. Harrington and Anastasia find it in the bowels of the hotel but are stupidly attracted out into the street by a crowd listening to a harangue when troops drive by firing randomly. Anastasia flees to Ashenden’s room but when they both return to the scene they find Harrington dead, still clutching his washing.

The final image which seems to epitomise the worldview of the book is about the ludicrousness of life, its fickleness, its absurdity. But whereas life’s futility leaves Graham Greene in a permanent deep disgusted depression, life’s ridiculousness leaves Maugham with a sardonic smile on his face. It seems much the more mature and admirable attitude.

Ashenden emerges as a man perfectly capable of carrying out his tasks, adequate to the demands made on him but who, over and above this, is an astute observer of people, an ‘amateur of the baroque in human nature.’ (p.63)

Style

Snobbery Coming back to read English fiction after a prolonged dose of American, the most striking thing is the drawling confidence and smug superiority of the narrator. Ashenden has the calm confident aloofness of the English gentleman who has had it drummed into him at public school, Oxbridge and then in the professions, that an English gentleman is the most superior being in the world. In almost every sentence this sense of superiority oozes. Just like Bond, he is a connoisseur of the high life, living in a de luxe hotel whose other guests are top diplomats, princes in exile etc, probably all spies. When he meets his boss, R., he winces when R. holds a bottle of wine incorrectly and notes that R. doesn’t have the savoir faire to tip a waiter correctly. Ashenden, of course, is effortlessly at ease.

It amused Ashenden to see R., so sharp, so sure of himself and alert in his office, seized as he walked into the restaurant with shyness. He talked a little too loud in order to show that he was at his ease and made himself somewhat unnecessarily at home. You saw in his manner the shabby and commonplace life he had led till the hazards of war raised him to a position of consequence. He was glad to be in that fashionable restaurant cheek by jowl with persons who bore great or distinguished names , but he felt like a schoolboy in his first top-hat, and he quailed before the steely eye of the maître d’hôtel. (p.128)

In the phenomenal scenes with the British ambassador to Russia he easily holds his own with one of the most superior persons on the planet.

Humour As is the way with his class, this aloofness is combined with imperturbable good humour. The world apparently consists of all sorts of funny foreigners and rather ghastly poor people none of whom, alas, had the benefits of one’s upbringing. One can only marvel at their absurdity and at the absurdity of one’s own position, thrown in among this ridiculous crew. This attitude is encapsulated in his fascinated but patronising attitude to the Mexican ‘general’.

‘I gather by what you have not said that he’s an unmitigated scoundrel.’
R. smiled with his pale blue eyes.
‘I don’t know that I’d go quite so far as that. He hasn’t had the advantages of a public-school education. His ideas of playing the game are not quite the same as yours or mine.’ (Vintage 1991 paperback edition, p.56)

Padding The next most striking element is how extremely wordy it is, how long it takes Maugham to say anything, so cluttered is each sentence and paragraph by all the markers of an English prose designed to show one’s superiority, one’s civilisation, one’s leisurely at-homeness in the world. And his prose tends to be rather flat and uncolourful. It doesn’t have much verbal energy or colour or metaphor. When it does make use of simile or metaphor they are generally of the most crushing obviousness. Maugham’s prose comes by the yard.

It might be, he mused, as he rode along the lake on a dappled horse with a great rump and a short neck, like one of those prancing steeds that one sees in the old pictures, but this horse never pranced and he needed a firm jab with the spur to break even into a small trot; it might be, he mused, that the great chiefs of the secret service in their London offices, their hands on the throttle of this great machine, led a life of full excitement; they moved their pieces here and there, they saw the pattern woven by the multitudinous threads (Ashenden was lavish with his metaphors), they made a picture out of the various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle; but it must be confessed that for the small fry like himself to be a member of the secret service was not as adventurous an affair as the public thought. (p.109)

That’s one sentence! Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Burnett,  Hemingway, Fitzgerald, it is not. He is twenty years older than them, went to English public schools and was raised in a vanishing world of top hats and gracious living and every paragraph reminds you of the fact, in their unspooling, repetitive, easily distracted way.

However, as with other writers, among all the other things his texts do, Maugham’s teach us how to read him, how to read his kind of English prose: and the only way to do that is to slow right down to his civilised, easy-going pace, and learn to enjoy his amiable observations and rather trifling anecdotes.

Ashenden reflected that this was the mistake the amateur humourist, as opposed to the professional, so often made; when he made a joke he harped on it. The relations of the joker to his joke should be as quick and desultory as those of a bee to its flower. He should make his joke and pass on. There is of course no harm if, like the bee approaching the flower, he buzzes a little; for it is just as well to announce to a thick-headed world that a joke is intended. But Ashenden, unlike most professionla humourists, had a kindly tolerance for other people’s humour and now he answered R. on his own lines. (p.113)

Long-winded, isn’t it? Not necessarily wrong, just takes quite a long time to say something which is unexceptional, not particularly interesting. If you accept that you’re not going to learn much but are going to be gently rocked by these long easy-going paragraphs, it becomes quite a pleasure to read.

The subordinate clause

One specific tic is his habit of inserting a subordinate clause in the middle of a sentence (highlighted in italics in the examples given above and below). This, at a basic level, makes many of his sentences longer, pads the text. It also makes them feel more digressive and chatty. Helps to creates the affable persona. Somehow it sounds like Colonel Blimp speaking, interrupting himself to take a puff of his cigar and let you into another piece of bland worldly wisdom.

She was not the type he would have expected to adopt that career, for she seemed to have no advantages that could help her, and he asked himself whether she came from a family of entertainers (there are all over the world families in which for generations the members have become dancers or acrobats or comic singers) or whether she had fallen into the life accidentally through some lover in the business who had for a time made her his partner. (p.148)

Even when he’s recounting basic factual events, he has this tendency to interrupt himself with a subordinate clause. In 20th century prose, especially the kind of fast-moving thrillers I’ve been reading, the tendency is to allot each action its own sentence and keep subordinate clauses to a minimum. Makes them more immediate, more impactful, easier to read. Maugham’s penchant for inserting subordinate clauses right bang in the middle of the sentence forces you to slow down and to process two or more things per sentence. Slower and more reflective.

As though for protection (very much to his surprise) she flung her arms round Ashenden. (p.151)

If Chandra came and showed his passport, and it was very likely that he was travelling with a false one, issued probably by a neutral nation, he was to be asked to wait and Ashenden was to identify him. (p.154)

He had not been to Lucerne since he was a boy and but vaguely remembered a covered bridge, a great stone lion and a church in which he had sat, bored yet impressed, while they played an organ; and now wandering along a shady quay (and the lake looked just as tawdry and unreal as it looked on the picture-postcards) he tried not so much to find his way about a half-forgotten scene as to reform in his mind some recollection of the shy and eager lad, so impatient for life (which he saw not in the present of his adolescence but only in the future of his manhood) who so long ago had wandered there. (p.170)

People

What you get in exchange for slowing down, for making a conscious decision to forget the snappy jazziness of more modern prose, is a series of stories which, at their best, take you deep into a human personality. The stories are secondary: the real interest is in the people who Maugham observes and describes not pithily but very thoroughly. No one sentence stands out but, slowly, in his long-winded way, you find yourself processing the accumulating detail which is what character in a text is made of. The ‘stories’ really amount to in-depth portraits of a number of fascinating personalities: the Mexican general, Anastasia the Russian intellectual, Mr Harrington the naive American, the stricken ambassador Sir Herbert Witherspoon, Gustav the liar and the tragic Grantley Caypor and wife.

Shilling shocker

Every spy or adventure or crime story I’ve read contains an obligatory reference to the characters reading too many spy or adventure or crime stories. This self-consciousness seems to be an iron rule of the genre. Maybe every author in it has been aware since the start that you have to put your characters into melodramatic situations sooner or later to justify being in the genre; sooner or later something melodramatic has to happen, but it’s somehow OK, less cheesy, more plausible, if you first of all emphasise that of course you the narrator are aware of other spy, adventure and crime writer’s cheesy clichés, but in this case – it actually happened!

It had always seemed to Ashenden that R. had spent much of his spare time in reading detective fiction and especially when he was in a good humour it meant he found a fantastic pleasure in aping the style of the shilling shocker. (p.112)

Having twice carefully read the letter, he held the paper up to the light to see the watermark (he had no reason for doing this except that the sleuths of detective novels always did it), then struck a match and watched it burn.

Gomez, the young Spaniard whom Grantley had betrayed… was a high-spirited youth, with a love of adventure, and he had undertaken his mission not for the money he earned by it, but for a passion for romance. It amused him to outwit the clumsy German and it appealed to his sense of the absurd to play a part in a shilling shocker. (p.185)

Eric Ambler

Maugham’s name crops up several times in the autobiography of thriller writer, Eric Ambler. The two meet when Ambler stays near Maugham’s house on the Riviera in the 1950s, and socialise back in London. The most interesting reference, though, comes much earlier, when an author friend (Eileen Bigland) tells Ambler, as he is setting out to become a writer, to learn from Maugham. From which of his novels, Cakes and Ale? Of Human Bondage?

‘I was thinking of Ashenden,’ she said; ‘and the other long short stories. He’s not a great novelist, but he’s a fine storyteller. And he never mucks about with the story he’s telling.’ (Here Lies, p.123)


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Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (1928)

Edmund Blunden was 17 when the Great War broke out and 18 when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment. He survived for 2 years at the Front, commanding a company through the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, before going on to a distinguished post-war career as a man of letters at universities here and in the Far East.

Blunden’s 1928 memoir, Undertones of War, is short, 188 pages in this Penguin edition. What makes it beguiling is his odd style:

Each circumstance of the British experience that is still with me has ceased for me to be big or little, and now appeals to me more even than the highest exaltation of pain or scene in the Dynasts, and thank the heaven of adoration incarnadined with Desdemona’s handkerchief.

Odd words and phraseology, quotes from obscure poets, no use of ‘the’ where you’d expect it, understatement so complete you have to reread passages 3 or 4 times to understand what he’s getting at. Yet it’s not arty or pretentious. You feel it’s a highly personal style, built on 19th century poetic diction, which wanted to write about shire horses and primroses but was shattered into splinters, obscurities and indirections by the truly horrifying scenes he witnessed.

I think a number of Georgian writers were experimenting with ways of being ‘modern’, of keeping the best of the English rural tradition while trying to kick free of Victorian phraseology. I think almost all of them now seem quaint because the international – mostly American – Modernist movement (Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Stein, Hemingway, cummings) – came and swept everything away, embracing the new steel and chrome Art Deco world so that all the Georgians became back numbers overnight.

So to read this book is not only to enter Blunden’s peculiarly phrased world, but also to glimpse a possible future for the English language that never happened.

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