Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (1930)

I invite you to travel in imagination through the aeons that lie between your age and mine. I ask you to watch such a history of change, grief, hope, and unforeseen catastrophe, as has nowhere else occurred, within the girdle of the Milky Way.

Last and First Men is a towering science fiction classic, a masterwork which influenced generations of later sci-fi writers.

No book before or since has ever had such an impact on my imagination. – Arthur C. Clarke

Stapledon’s literary imagination was almost boundless. – Jorge Luis Borges

There has been no writer remotely like Stapledon and there is no one like him now. – Doris Lessing

Stapledon was the future maker. – Stephen Baxter

The idea is that the current author (Stapledon)’s mind has been taken over by an inhabitant of the far, far, far distant future, who proceeds to tell us the epic ‘history’ of humanity from the present day to his present – two billion years hence!

The impact of the book doesn’t come from the psychological realism, from plot or character, because there is no plot as such, there are few if any named individuals, and these only make fleeting appearances.

No, the impact derives from the absolute vastness of the scale. The story doesn’t just move forward to one moment in the future and set a story in that time – as done by Wells or Zamyatin or Huxley or Orwell.

Instead it presents a continuous and comprehensive survey of all future history stretching from the present until 2 billion years in the future, tracking not only the rise and fall of different civilisations, but the rise and fall of different species of man himself, with all our evolutions and mutations so that, by the end of the book, humanity has evolved through eighteen species or iterations.

We’re not just talking about thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years – but aeons which cover millions of year.

During the first tenth of the first million years after the fall of the World State, during a hundred thousand years, man remained in complete eclipse…

In its final agony the planet was so seriously damaged that mind lay henceforth in deep slumber for ten more millions of years…

For millions of years the planet would be uninhabitable save for a fringe of Siberian coast. The human race was doomed for ages to a very restricted and uncongenial environment…

Not till after millions of years did the bulk of the planet become once more a possible home for life…

The human beings in Asia remained a mere handful throughout the ten million years of the Second Dark Age…

It was some ten million years after the Patagonian disaster that the first elements of a few human species appeared, in an epidemic of biological variations…

And so on, and so on. It’s as if you and I, used to running a household budget and fretting about £5 here and £2.50 there, were suddenly introduced into a circle of millionaires who casually talk about throwing a few hundred grand on a new car, buying a Mayfair apartment for two mill, maybe investing a couple of mill in a start-up company. The effect is dizzying, mind-blowing.

The creation of a World State, largely under American domination, in the first thirty pages or so of the story – the kind of thing which H.G. Wells devoted entire books to – is just a warming-up exercise, which covers a mere four thousand years. Pah! Chicken feed!

The end of the First Men

After four thousand happy years the civilisation of the First Men comes to an end when the coal which fuels it runs out. As shortages and power cuts come in, the culture is kept going by rumours of an alternative power source, but when these are finally revealed as fake, civilisation collapses.

Dismay and rage spread over the planet. Everywhere the people rose against the scientists, amid against the governing authority which they controlled. Massacres and measures of retaliation soon developed into civil wars. China and India declared themselves free national states, but could not achieve internal unity. In America, ever a stronghold of science and religion, the Government maintained its authority for a while; but as its seat became less secure, its methods became more ruthless. Finally it made the mistake of using not merely poison gas, but microbes; and such was the decayed state of medical science that no one could invent a means of restraining their ravages. The whole American continent succumbed to a plague of pulmonary and nervous diseases. The ancient ‘American Madness’, which long ago had been used against China, now devastated America. The great stations of waterpower and windpower were wrecked by lunatic mobs who sought vengeance upon anything associated with authority. Whole populations vanished in an orgy of cannibalism.

This is a good example of the incredibly sweeping, broad brush, generalised way in which this whole future history is told. The narrative features few if any individuals. Instead, Stapledon is concerned only with the highest-level account of the rise and fall of races and societies and cultures. Whole nations are crushed, entire continents sink under the seas, whole species are exterminated.

All this age-long sequence of private living, which is the actual tissue of humanity’s flesh, I cannot describe. I can only trace, as it were, the disembodied form of its growth.

The Dark Age

After America, China, Africa are laid waste, humans descend into a new dark age which lasts for thousands of years. As post-apocalyptic savages always do in this kind of story, the survivors live in superstitious fear of the relics of the Old Ones – in this instance, amid the wrecks of their huge three-mile high skyscrapers – and make up feverish myths and legends about their superhuman powers.

The rise of Patagonia Slowly an organised civilisation arises in Patagonia, partly because of land mass changes which link it to Antarctica. But it is deprived of coal or oil or any of the easily smeltable metals like iron or copper, which the World State had used up.

Stapledon is always more interested in ‘religion’ of these future cultures than in their economics or technology, so he gives Patagonia a religion of ‘the Divine Boy’ who never grows up, an exception to the rule that the new Patagonians age quickly, are middle-aged by 20. Stapleton even gives us a couple of scenes from the life of the actual Divine Boy, who desecrates the temple of their existing god, makes a grand speech, then is led away by the howling mob and executed.

Apocalypse Over hundreds of years Patagonians build themselves up to a renaissance-level of technology and science. But then they discover lost writings in a Chinese tomb which make it clear that all this and much more had been achieved by the World State civilisation long ago. Patagonian society splits in two, some not believing the revelations, some crushed and depressed by them.

The Patagonians achieve industrialisation. A proletariat is created. A hereditary managerial class arises. After four hundred years of this, atomic energy is discovered. But instead of using it to help the poor, it is used to drill deeper into the earth’s core to find the rare metals. This results in increased work and suffering for the proles who, as a result, rise up in protest. Some get hold of one of the new power machines, tamper with it, and it explodes.

It sets off a chain reaction which flashes along veins of the (unnamed) metallic element which is the basis of the technology, and so a vast chain of explosions travels up the Andes, up the Rockies, across the Bering Strait, down to the Himalayas, through the Caucasus to the Alps, turning entire continents into seas of volcanic magma, turning the sky thick with steam and ash, so that:

Of the two hundred million members of the human race, all were burnt or roasted or suffocated within three months – all but thirty-five, who happened to be in the neighbourhood of the North Pole.

Twenty-eight men and seven women – of whom six men and two women are lost when they sail south to discover Britain blasted and France an inferno of volcanoes spewing out molten lava. The entire planet has become uninhabitable. Almost all existing flora and fauna have been exterminated. All subsequent human species are descendants of this minuscule band of survivors.

The new Dark Age

lasts ten million years, during which the continents change and re-arrange – Europe sinks under the Atlantic, Africa is joined to South America, Australia and SE Asia become one – new plants and trees, new mammals and insects emerge. Early in the existence of the first colony it had divided, half remaining on the north coast of Siberia, hemmed in by volcanoes, but developing a strong, healthy culture. The other half set off to see if they could find human survivors elsewhere, never did, and were washed ashore in sultry Labrador, where they degenerated into a more beast-like species.

The Second Men

But all this is just the adventure of the First Men – there are to be seventeen further iterations of the human race – the Second Man who are giants who live to be 300, who develop genetic engineering and are about to begin perfecting the species when…. The Martians invade, the Martians turning out to be fogs of bacteria which can coalesce into ‘clouds’ which have intelligence and purpose.

For fifty thousand years (the time periods keep escalating, producing an increasingly dizzying, vertiginous sense in the reader) the Martians return to earth again and again, causing mayhem and each time are defeated by the Third Men who use electric weapons which create a kind of lightning bolt to disintegrate the Martian clouds. But the Martians’ dying bodies leave behind alien contaminants which spread fatal pulmonary diseases, decimating the Second Men.

It is very typical of Stapledon that he not only goes to great lengths to explain the Martians’s physical being – individual cells which can congregate into unified beings with a kind of group consciousness – but to be very interested in their religion. The Martians, being soft and small and amorphous themselves, have developed a cult or religion of hardness. Having identified diamonds as one of the hardest objects in the universe, on their rampages across earth, the Martians seek out and rescue diamonds wherever they find them, in order to place them in high places where they can be worshipped. And where the Second Men discover them, finally realising that the Martians are ‘intelligent’ life forms, not just purposeless clouds of germs.

Finally, the Martians settle and colonise Antarctica (much warmer than in our day and directly linked to South Africa) and the two species live uneasily side by side on the same planet. Until a Second Man discovers a virus so virulent that it will wipe the Martians out, but probably most humans too. The Second Men are so demoralised by failure to defeat the Martians, as well as by strange viruses which have infected them, that they accept the risk, unleash the virus, wipe out the Martians but also almost entirely exterminate humanity.

The Third Men

Once again there is a vast long dark age. Slowly arise a new species, the Third Men, short, brown-skinned with golden eyes and a cat-like presence, with six fingers. They are interested in music, create a musical religion, consider the universe a great dance to music and, once they have reached a level of technical civilisation, become interested in redesigning living organisms.

The Fourth Men

Hence the Fourth Men. After thousands of years of experimentation, the Third Men create giant brains, which occupy multiple rooms and floors. More and more of them till there are thousands, some deep in the oceans, some in the stratosphere, some at the poles, investigating the secrets of the universe. But the Fourth Men’s intellectual pursuits are stymied when they eventually realise (after the usual millions of years) that there is a limit to purely rational enquiry and that the mysteries of life also owe something to having a physical body, being able to move, having emotions and so on.

The Fifth Men

So now the big brains of the Fourth Men experiment on the humble Third Men – who had been reduced virtually to slaves – in order to create a new breed which will combine the big brains with perfected human attributes. They breed the Fifth Men, twice as tall as us, with additional fingers and thumbs. As you might expect this new super-fit,. super-clever race eventually (after millions of years) comes into conflict with their makers, a war erupts, and the Fifth Men overthrow the big brains.

They rise and thrive and then discover to their horror that the moon’s orbit is decaying. At some point the moon will fall into the earth and destroy it. There are all kinds of reactions, scientific and psychological, to this knowledge, but the wise among them begin making plans to move planet. To Venus.

Voyage to Venus

Venus is second closest to sun, stiflingly hot, torn between a stiflingly hot day and freezing night and, when probes first arrive they discover it is almost all covered in liquid. The Fifth Men devote all their ingenuity to ‘terraforming’ it, removing as much hydrogen as possible from the atmosphere, breeding plants which will survive these conditions and produce oxygen to try and produce a sort of earth-like existence.

But there’s another problem. There turns out to be intelligent life on Venus, dolphin-like creatures which swim in the depths of the endless oceans and don’t like their planet being remade. They retaliate by sending bombs up through the oceans to blow up terran ships, probes, colonies. After all attempts to communicate fail, the Fifth Men have no alternative but to embark on a war of extermination against the Venusians, which succeeds but, as so often in the story, leaves the ‘victorious’ humans with an abiding sense of guilt.

The Sixth Men

Eventually the entire population of Fifth Men, and all the plants and animals worth saving, are transferred from earth to Venus. But the newcomers do not thrive. The conditions are too harsh. Over millions of years a new race emerges, the Sixth Men, stunted dwellers on isolated islands, grubbing for roots among the jungles of flora which have managed to grow on Venus. An entire variation takes to the huge oceans and, over time, develops into a seal-like creature, with mermaid tails. But they eat flesh. And eventually the two species become enemies, both seeking to catch and eat samples of the other, whenever possible.

The Seventh Men

Millions of years pass. Land masses arise on Venus. Populations spread, breed, branch out. Eventually there emerges a new dominant species, the Seventh Men, who can fly. Soaring aloft they create myths and legends of their own, in which flight is the meaning of life, and alighting on land is sadness and woe.

However, over the years they lose touch with the old science, and are also faced with a blight caused by some chemical content of Venusian water.

Now, a certain percentage of their race had always been born without the ability to fly. Previously the Seventh Men had kindly killed these mutants. Now the Seventh Men take the (disastrous) decision to deliberately foster the cleverest of these ‘mutants’, these land dwellers, in order to create a cohort of scientists intelligent enough to combat the water blight. Except that… The mutants – the Eighth Men – do become cleverer than the flyers and grow to resent them.

The mutants breed and slowly take control of the less clever flyers, who they clip and pen up and limit their flying time such that the avian species slowly loses their will to live. Eventually the entire flying population, of its own volition, flies west and immolates itself in a live volcano.

The Ninth Men and beyond…

And we’re not even half way through the eighteen avatars yet! I haven’t got to the part where the threat of a destructive cloud forces the Eighth Men to move planet once more, by ‘ether-vessel’, this time to Neptune, where conditions are so utterly unlike Venus – mainly the crushing gravity – that the Eighth Men have to design and engineer an entirely new type of creature – the Ninth Men, who will make the migration. And then the hundreds of millions of years of man’s  further evolution on Neptune.

Or, as Stapledon puts it, with his typical sober, serious, mind-boggling manner:

We have watched the fortunes of eight successive human species for a thousand million years, the first half of that flicker which is the duration of man. Ten more species now succeed one another, or are contemporary, on the plains of Neptune. We, the Last Men, are the Eighteenth Men. Of the eight pre-Neptunian species, some, as we have seen, remained always primitive; many achieved at least a confused and fleeting civilization, and one, the brilliant Fifth, was already wakening into true humanity when misfortune crushed it. The ten Neptunian species show an even greater diversity. They range from the instinctive animal to modes of consciousness never before attained. The definitely sub-human degenerate types are confined mostly to the first six hundred million years of man’s sojourn on Neptune. During the earlier half of this long phase of preparation, man, at first almost crushed out of existence by a hostile environment, gradually peopled the huge north; but with beasts, not men. For man, as man, no longer existed. During the latter half of the preparatory six hundred million years, the human spirit gradually awoke again, to undergo the fluctuating advance and decline characteristic of the pre-Neptunian ages. But subsequently, in the last four hundred million years of his career on Neptune, man has made an almost steady progress toward full spiritual maturity.

Multiple scenarios

It is not only the almost inconceivable scale of the narrative. It is also that the scale allows Stapledon to explore or experiment or play with whole civilisation-level storylines. Flying humans, aquatic humans, nuclear apocalypse, alien invasion, terraforming other plants, the moon falling into the earth, a flying gas cloud which destroys planets, the creation of artificially massive brains, telepathy, transporting minds back into the deep past – the book is a compendium, a treasure trove of plots and ideas which other writers could mine and explore.

Teleology

Underpinning the huge story is a scientific or biological flaw. Stapledon believes that, time after time, human nature will out. No matter how massacred, no matter how degraded or polluted or redesigned or mutated or evolved, Stapledon believes there is a fundamental unchangeable ‘human spirit’ and that this will always resurface, no matter what.

He criticises the Eighth Men for not having had faith enough in this unstoppable reappearance of ‘human nature’ to have designed the Ninth Men to be primitive, dwarvish thugs – as the conditions on Neptune required – and having the confidence that “man” would sooner or later rise again.

They should have trusted that if once this crude seed could take root, natural forces themselves would in time conjure from it something more human.

‘Natural forces’? Beneath the entire vast narrative is the assumption that there is a fundamental human nature, a triumph of the mind and of the human spirit, which always results in the same kind of civilisation, of self-awareness, technology, reason, the spirit of scientific enquiry. Thus humans may evolve into mermen or flying wombats or rabbit-shaped beings (on Neptune) but underpinning the whole vast fireworks display is the assumption that, given enough millions of years, all these shapes will revert to a roughly human shape (two arms, two legs), walking upright, and with a human type brain which always, in the end, comes round to creating a similar-sounding civilisation, with peaceful communities, great architecture, poetry and philosophy and so on.

This is to suppose that the whole universe is somehow geared to producing ‘mind’, mentation, intellect, soul, spirit and all the rest of it.

Why? There’s no evidence it is. All the evidence is stacked against it. The universe is overwhelmingly full of non-mind, in fact packed out with non-life. There is no God. There is no plan. Nothing is fore-ordained. If humanity is wiped out then billions of other species will truck along quite happily without us, as will planet earth, all the other planets and the rest of the universe.

The book is underpinned by this tremendously optimistic belief in the triumph of human nature, against all odds, perils and mutation, which is very much of its times. The structure of DNA was only discovered 23 years later, in 1953, and the full implications of the evolutionary genetics are, in a sense, still percolating through our culture.

In Stapledon’s time, of course evolution was known about and central to any intelligent person’s thinking; but because the precise mechanism of mutation and variation wasn’t understood it was still possible to think in vague terms of some spirit or mind or some other numinous driving force which shaped and directed evolution. That it had a goal or purpose or aim.

80 years later we are much more realistic and disillusioned. We know that random mutations occur all the time in everyone’s DNA, most are harmless, a lot can be corrected by the body’s defence mechanisms, some persist and result in the numerous cancers we are prone to. The existing genepool is shuffled when sperm meets egg. Every new individual is a genetic experiment.

The advent of ‘mind’, or at least the kind of mind Stapledon is thinking of, has occurred only on one remote twig of the vast bush of life forms and not at all, or not in any form we can recognise, in any of the trillions of other life forms which have or currently do exist.

Which is why Last and First Men is not only a science fiction classic in its own terms, but also a testament to an era of cultural optimism, a period of confidence and anticipation. Lost forever after the Nazis, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and the countless other blows which humans have administered to our amour-propre.

Last and First Men – structure

Chapter 1 Balkan Europe
1 The European war and after
2 The Anglo-French war
3 Europe after the Anglo-French war
4 the Russo-German war

Chapter 2 Europe’s downfall
1 Europe and America
2 The origins of a mystery
3 Europe murdered

Chapter 3 America and China
1 The rivals
2 The conflict
3 On an island in the Pacific

Chapter 4 An Americanised planet
1 The foundation of the first World State
2 The dominance of science
3 Material achievement
4 The culture of the first World State
5 Downfall

Chapter 5 The fall of the First Men
1 The first Dark Age
2 The rise of Patagonia
3 The cult of youth
4 The catastrophe

Chapter 6 Transition
1 the First Men at bay
2 The second Dark Age

Chapter 7 The rise of the Second Men
1 The appearance of a new species
2 The intercourse of three species
3 The zenith of the Second Man

Chapter 8 The Martians
1 The first Martian invasion
2 Life on Mars
3 The Martian mind
4 Delusions of the Martians

Chapter 9 Earth and Mars
1 The Second Men at bay
2 The ruin of two worlds

Chapter 10 The Third Men in the wilderness
1 The Third human species
2 Digressions of the Third Men
3 The vital art
4 Conflicting policies

Chapter 11 Man remakes himself
1 The first of the great brains
2 The tragedy of the Fourth Men
3 The Fifth Men
4 The culture of the Fifth Men

Chapter 12 The last terrestrials
1 The cult of evanescence
2 Exploration of time
3 Voyaging in space
4 Preparing a new world

Chapter 13 Humanity on Venus
1 Taking root again
2 The flying men
3 A minor astronomical event

Chapter 14 Neptune
1 Bird’s-eye view
2 Da capo
3 Slow conquest

Chapter 15 The Last Men
1 Introduction to the last human species
2 Childhood and maturity
3 A racial awakening
4 Cosmology

Chapter 16 The last of man
1 Sentence of death
2 Behaviour of the condemned
3 Epilogue


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham (1930)

The sky was unclouded and the air hot and bright, but the North Sea gave it a pleasant tang so that it was a delight just to live and breathe. (Chapter 3)

I’ve been accumulating a pile of second-hand Somerset Maugham paperbacks over the past few years, waiting till I felt the impulse to start reading them. I can’t believe how easy to read and enjoyable they are. Even when the short stories (in particular) have unpleasant moments (the missionary’s suicide in Rain, the revelation of incest in The Book-Bag) they don’t really undermine the general tone of leisured ease and peaceful contemplation which his books exude, the warm-bath feel of the narrator’s well-educated, well-off, comfortable observation of life’s foibles and follies. Even when tragic events happen, somehow all Maugham’s stories have a fundamentally comic air.

Cakes and Ale

This is particularly true of Maugham’s satire on the English literary scene, Cakes and Ale which is a charming story of youth and illusions. It’s easy to see why Maugham himself always said it was his favourite book.

The narrator is William ‘Willie’ Ashenden, who we have met in the book-length set of stories about a spy during the Great War which featured the same character, and was published only two years earlier (1928).

The events

The sequence of events is fairly straightforward: young Willie Ashenden grows up in the (fictional) town of Blackstable (transparently based on the actual town of Whitstable) on the Kent coast, in the care of his conventional uncle who is the town vicar.

Willie is brought up as an impeccable Victorian snob with a strong sense of the town’s social hierarchy including who to talk to and who not to talk to. His uncle and aunt particularly disapprove of a local celebrity, Edward Driffield, a middle-aged man who’s risen from very ‘common’ origins to make a living ‘writing books’ and who has married a local barmaid, Rosie Gann, a woman who, in the great phrase of the day, is no better than she ought to be.

But as it happens, young Willie quite literally bumps into the pair as they’re all out experimenting with the newfangled invention, the bicycle on one fine Kentish summer day. They get talking and he becomes friendly with them, often meeting with them. Around these encounters is woven a portrait of Blackstaple society with its snooty middle class, its publicans, sailors and farm workers, and the local roaring boy, ‘Lord’ George Kemp.

One day Willie is flabbergasted to learn that Edward and Rosie have flown the coop, jumped the moon, done a bunk, disappeared, leaving behind a trail of debts and angry shopkeepers.

Five years later Willie is a 21-year-old medical student working at (the fictional) St Luke’s hospital when he bumps into Rosie in the street. She takes him to her and Edward’s modest house in Pimlico and Willie becomes a regular attendant at Edward’s ‘at homes’. Here he meets writers and artists and playwrights and is encouraged to continue the writing which he himself is pursuing in secret.

He notices that Rosie enjoys the company of a number of other young men including a painter, an actor and a writer, and finds himself becoming jealous. He gets a few opportunities to squire her around town himself, and after one of these nights out she kisses him. He invites her to his rented rooms. She slips out of her complicated Victorian dress. Naked, she is as pneumatic and life-affirming as she is in social life.

In a little while she got out of bed. I lit the candle. She turned to the glass and tied up her hair and then she looked for a moment at her naked body. Her waist was naturally small; though so well developed she was very slender; her breasts were straight and firm and they stood out from the chest as though carved in marble. It was a body made for the act of love. In the light of the candle, struggling now with the increasing day, it was all silvery gold; and the only colour was the rosy pink of the hard nipples.

Rosie stays the night. They have become lovers. Inevitably, after the initial shock and amazement at spending time with such a wonderfully sensuous naked young woman, Willie becomes more suspicious of her other ‘young men’. The ups and downs of their relationship over the next few months are described in detail.

And then the situation again undergoes a violent wrench when Rosie abruptly abandons Edward, and runs off – we later discover, to America with ‘Lord’ George the only man she ever loved.

Thirty years later the narrator, now a successful author, visits New York on a lecture tour and out of the blue gets a note from Rosie, now living in Yonkers, who’s read about his visit in the papers. He goes out there to visit her, now a snowy-haired 70 year old, but still with the same sparkling eyes and vivacity. She explains her real feelings for Driffield, for the narrator, for Lord George. Her philosophy is simple: love is good, why not share it?

The plot

So much for the events in the past; this isn’t how they are presented in the novel. Instead the novel concerns The Present in which Edward Driffield has been dead for many years and has gone from being a minor mostly ignored writer of late Victorian working class life to becoming ‘a classic of English letters’. The mature Ashenden is approached by a literary gadfly and careerist, Alroy Kear.

Kear has been approached by Driffield’s second wife, to write the official biography of her dear departed husband. This request creates a tangled web of narrative which overlays the actual events of the past. For after Rosie fled, Driffield was taken up by an ambitious literary lady and patron of the arts, Mrs Barton Trafford (a type which throngs Maugham’s stories about late Victorian London).

Mrs Barton Trafford determines to ‘make’ Driffield’s reputation and it is fascinating to read the sections which describe the way she set about currying favour with newspaper reviewers, magazine critics and proprietors, persuading the great and good of the day to write serious articles about his novels, and then organised lecture tours up and down the country, fed items to gossip columnists, had his photo taken in dignified poses and widely distributed. All the time the real Ted Driffield preferred nipping down to the pub and spending the evening jawing and yarning with local workers and common folk, but all this was smoothed over by Mrs Barton Trafford’s unstoppable campaign.

It was entirely due to her single-handed efforts over 10 years that Driffield eventually found himself widely lauded as a Grand Old Man of English Literature. Which made it all the more galling (and comic) when he falls ill, she packs him off to Cornwall to recuperate, and he promptly marries the nurse he was sent with, Amy. This second Mrs Driffield promptly steps into the role of Guardian and Protector of the now elderly writer, sidelines Mrs Barton Trafford and it is she who, now, decades later, has commissioned the fiercely careerist Kear to write her late husband’s official biography.

And where does Ashenden come into all of this? Kear, in his feline insinuating way, invites him to dinner at his club and down to Blackstable to meet the second Mrs Driffield, because he – Kear – knows that Ashenden grew up in the same town and had contact as a boy and then as a young man with the Driffield household. Nobody else still living has that knowledge. Ashenden is the best and only source for those years of Driffield’s life. Hence Kear’s comically silky manner and obsequiousness to our amused and playful narrator.

Two track narrative

So the novel runs on two time frames: in the present Kear makes his first approach, takes Ashenden to dinner, has follow-up meetings, then invites him down to Blackstaple to meet the widow. And each of these encounters is a trigger for the narrator to reminisce about the key episodes in his acquaintance with Ashenden. Think of the corny technique in old movies where a character reminisces and the screen goes all wavy and shimmery to convey the sense of travelling back decades to a character’s youth. The episodes are quite substantial:

  1. a year or so in Blackstaple when Willie was 16
  2. a good spell in Pimlico, when Willie escorts Rosie around London, then becomes her lover (for over a year), gets jealous of her continuing affairs with other young men, then she absconds
  3. the final meeting in New York 30 years later

The first two episodes are extended exercises in nostalgia and social comedy. In both of them the mature narrator looks back to his earlier self with fondness and indulgence. And it’s not just about him and Mr and Mrs Driffield, arguably the real strength of the book is the complete social context Maugham creates. In Blackstaple we get thorough portraits of his stern uncle and straitlaced aunt, of the verger who helps out in the church, of laughing ‘Lord’ George, and of his uncle’s simple, vivacious housemaid Mary-Anne, who went to school with Rosie, initially disapproves of her until she comes to visit at which point she, like everyone else, is won over by Rosie’s simple happiness.

In fact it’s an oddity, presumably deliberate, that Driffield himself, the central figure around who the entire story and all the other characters rotate, is left peculiarly blank. We hear very little about his works or literary opinions. There is far more, for example, and far more vivid characterisation of Willie’s uncle’s maid Mary-Anne.

Similarly, during the second flashback, in Pimlico, the most vivid character is Willie’s cockney landlady, Mrs Hudson, who is given pages of comic dialogue and no-nonsense common sense.

I wish to goodness I had had the sense (like Amy Driffield with her celebrated husband) to take notes of her conversation, for Mrs. Hudson was a mistress of Cockney humour. She had a gift of repartee that never failed her, she had a racy style and an apt and varied vocabulary, she was never at a loss for the comic metaphor or the vivid phrase. She was a pattern of propriety and she would never have women in her house, you never knew what they were up to (‘It’s men, men, men all the time with them, and afternoon tea and thin bread and butter, and openin’ the door and ringin’ for ’ot water and I don’t know what all’); but in conversation she did not hesitate to use what was called in those days the blue bag. One could have said of her what she said of Marie Lloyd: ‘What I like about ’er is that she gives you a good laugh. She goes pretty near the knuckle sometimes, but she never jumps over the fence.’ Mrs. Hudson enjoyed her own humour and I think she talked more willingly to her lodgers because her husband was a serious man (‘It’s as it should be,’ she said, ‘ ’im bein’ a verger and attendin’ weddings and funerals and what all’) and wasn’t much of a one for a joke. ‘Wot I says to ’Udson is, laugh while you’ve got the chance, you won’t laugh much when you’re dead and buried.’

Mrs. Hudson’s humour was cumulative and the story of her feud with Miss Butcher who let lodgings at number fourteen was a great comic saga that went on year in and year out. ‘She’s a disagreeable old cat, but I give you my word I’d miss ’er if the Lord took ’er one fine day. Though what ’e’d do with ’er when ’e got ’er I can’t think. Many’s the good laugh she’s give me in ’er time.’

A lot of the novel is like this, a loving recreation of the working class diction and humour of the 1890s and 1900s, of a world of slaveys and hansom cabs and music halls and elaborate Victorian dresses which were all long, long gone when Maugham published the book in 1930.

On another level, there is sustained satire of the London literary scene and the machinations required to ‘get ahead’ in it. Mrs Barton Trafford stands out as a magnificent portrait of a social schemer. But all the scenes with Alroy Kear in them are priceless, for Kear isn’t stupid – he is very very clever and his super-polite approaches to Ashenden and Ashenden’s amused prevarications and toying with him, are described in exquisite detail.

Love

But the heart of the novel isn’t the satire of the literary world, still less the career of the fairly innocent old man who is amused to find himself elevated to the pantheon of English Literature. It is Love. The character of Rosie the barmaid-turned-wife of the middle-aged writer is the real star of the book. She is what we still, despite all the efforts to liberalise our attitude to sex, call ‘promiscuous’. While married to Driffield she is also sleeping with the painter, Lionel Hillier, the actor Harry Retford and Ashenden and, as he later finds out, ‘Lord’ George as well.

We watch the narrator’s point of view mature from regarding her with awe when he is a snobbish 16 year old – to experiencing his first storm of sexual bliss with her and then on to his feelings of sexual jealousy with her, when he is in his early 20s – and then, finally, as a much older man, he listens with accepting wisdom to her account of why she abandoned Driffield to run off with ‘Lord’ George.

All the way through she simply believes that Love is a good thing, Love ought to be shared, Love ought to be encouraged, ‘Lord’ George asked her to go with him and she thought, well, why not?

This trajectory in which the narrator becomes more and more open-minded, forgiving and tolerant reaches its apogee when Willie is having tea with Kear and the second Mrs Driffield, who both openly insult Rosie for being a wanton hussy and nymphomaniac. For once the narrator loses his urbane self-possession and becomes quite heated in her defence.

‘She was virginal like the dawn. She was like Hebe. She was like a white rose.’
Mrs. Driffield smiled and exchanged a meaning glance with Roy.
‘Mrs. Barton Trafford told me a great deal about her. I don’t wish to seem spiteful, but I’m afraid I don’t think that she can have been a very nice woman.’
‘That’s where you make a mistake,’ I replied. ‘She was a very nice woman. I never saw her in a bad temper. You only had to say you wanted something for her to give it to you. I never heard her say a disagreeable thing about anyone. She had a heart of gold.’
‘She was a terrible slattern. Her house was always in a mess; you didn’t like to sit down in a chair because it was so dusty and you dared not look in the corners. And it was the same with her person. She could never put a skirt on straight and you’d see about two inches of petticoat hanging down on one side.’
‘She didn’t bother about things like that. They didn’t make her any the less beautiful. And she was as good as she was beautiful.’
Roy burst out laughing and Mrs. Driffield put her hand up to her mouth to hide her smile.
‘Oh, come, Mr. Ashenden, that’s really going too far. After all, let’s face it, she was a nymphomaniac.’
‘I think that’s a very silly word,’ I said.
‘Well, then, let me say that she can hardly have been a very good woman to treat poor Edward as she did. Of course it was a blessing in disguise. If she hadn’t run away from him he might have had to bear that burden for the rest of his life, and with such a handicap he could never have reached the position he did. But the fact remains that she was notoriously unfaithful to him. From what I hear she was absolutely promiscuous.’
‘You don’t understand,’ I said. ‘She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love.’
‘Do you call that love?’
‘Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn’t lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless.’
Mrs. Driffield looked as though she had taken a dose of castor oil and had just been trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth by sucking a lemon.

She loved love. And what is wrong with that? But lots of people from that day to this think that love should only exist in pre-set, socially acceptable formulations, should be rationed to ‘loving’, ‘committed’ relationships. Why?

In 1978 I joined the Campaign for Homosexual Equality although I am not myself gay. It seemed to me outrageous that gays and lesbians should be subject to different laws than straight people. Why shouldn’t people be free to do whatever they want with their bodies and their private parts, so long as they don’t actively harm others?

Maugham was himself bisexual, with a prevalence for homosexuality. He certainly chose to live the last forty years of his life with a male partner. Who cares? As he himself put it:

My own belief is that there is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror.

Exactly. So, mixed in with all Cakes and Ale’s social comedy and satire on London literary world, is a fairly straightforward plea for sexual tolerance and compassion, all conveyed through the wonderful character of Rosie the barmaid. As one critic writes it is ‘Her character, charm, beauty and humour draw everyone around her like moths to a flame.’

Happy

It’s a wonderfully life-affirming book. Maugham wrote it in the Villa Mauresque on the Riviera, which he had recently bought (in 1927) and where made his home along with his partner Gerald Haxton for the rest of their lives. Just turning 50, Maugham was a success, both in terms of having made a name for himself in the literary world, but also in simple cash terms, having made pots of money from his plays, short stories and from the movie adaptations which were beginning to be made of them.

He lived in a big house in the sunshine by the sea with his lover and wrote this book.

Which helps explain why Cakes and Ale radiates happiness. The wonderfully life-affirming characterisation of Rosie is embedded in a beautifully evocative portrait of rural Kentish life, and studded with wickedly satirical portraits of London bookland.

And it is cunningly and artfully constructed, with the flashbacks from the various situations in the present giving a pleasing complexity to its structure and to the canny, well-paced unfolding of the narrative.

On all levels it is a book to treasure and reread.


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 very brief 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

The Gentleman in the Parlour by W. Somerset Maugham (1930)

Laughter is the only reality. (Chapter 9)

Maugham is very candid in his preface about his motives in writing this book. It was 1922 and he was an established and very successful author, of novels and also a series of smash-hit West End plays. He fancied a break from writing novels, had written one travel book (On a Chinese Screen) more or less by accident, worked up from notes on a journey and now, having seen how it was done, he fancied undertaking another journey but this time with the conscious aim of writing a carefully composed and crafted travel book.

The preface explains that, whereas the novel is necessarily a mongrel form, since dialogue, descriptions of scenery, moments of comedy or moments of tragedy, require the novelist to vary his style to be appropriate for each of these different moments, by contrast the travel book need contain no such varieties of tone.

Here prose may be cultivated for its own sake. You can manipulate your material so that the harmony you seek is plausible. Your style can flow like a broad, placid river and the reader is borne along on its bosom with security; he need fear no shoals, no adverse currents, rapids, or rock-strewn gorges.

The travel book can be an essay in style.

The journey

In Ceylon Maugham met a British government official who recommended he visit Keng Tung, in the remote Shan States in the north of Burma. So Maugham sailed to Rangoon, travelled on to Mandalay, where he set off by mule for the remote Keng Tung. After 26 days he arrived and recorded his impressions before carrying on to the Thai border, whence he travelled by car to Bangkok. Then by boat to Cambodia, a trek to the famous temple complex at Angkor Wat, another river trip to Saigon and then a coastal journey via Hue to Hanoi.

At this point the narrative ends, though Maugham went on to Hong Kong, crossed the Pacific, the United States, and the Atlantic, returning to London to resume his career as author and socialite.

Pause for reflection

The main thing about this book is that he waited until seven years after the trip to write it i.e. it wasn’t knocked out in the heat of the moment for money. Maugham gave himself seven years in which to shape and craft the narrative. Hence the way the preface emphasises style over impact and hence the book’s very leisurely, patrician prose. And also the fact, brought out in biographies and in Paul Theroux’s fascinating introduction, that the content of the book is highly manipulated. Not to put too fine a point on it, Maugham made stuff (particularly people) up, and by the same token, omitted a lot of important facts.

Most obviously, Maugham travelled with his long term partner, Frederick Haxton, and it was Haxton who made all the necessary arrangements, organised all travel and accommodation details, as well as approaching and befriending people of all classes throughout the journey, something Maugham was very bad at because of his stammer and his shyness. But in the book Haxton never appears, Maugham appears to have no white companion at all. On the contrary, the strong impression is given is that Maugham was an intrepid and solo traveller.

Meeting people

Throughout the book (and indeed throughout his short stories) the narrator describes the way he has a special skill at extracting confidences and anecdotes from the people he meets. Indeed there is a quotable paragraph which I’ve read quoted in other introductions and articles about Maugham, where he analyses the special skill he has in gaining people’s confidence and hearing their stories.

Often in some lonely post in the jungle or in a stiff, grand house, solitary in the midst of a teeming Chinese city, a man has told me stories about himself that I am sure he had never told to a living soul. I was a stray acquaintance whom he had never seen before and would never see again, a wanderer for a moment through this monotonous life, and some starved impulse led him to lay bare his soul. I have in this way learned more about men in a night (sitting over a siphon or two and a bottle of whiskey, the hostile, inexplicable world outside the radius of an acetylene lamp) than I could if I had known them for ten years. If you are interested in human nature it is one of the great pleasures of travel. (p.32)

Thus the narrative includes a number of stories confided in him by the people who he meets:

  • The story of Masterson, the decent white man who takes a native wife and has three pretty children but, when she asks him to formally marry her, can’t bring himself to; he wants to eventually retire in dignity to Cheltenham. And so she leaves him as Maugham finds him a few months later, desolate and abandoned.
  • The haunting episode with the Italian priest living in a hand-built mission in the remotest part of the Burmese jungle.
  • The Frenchman in the teak forest who bursts into tears over a couplet of Verlaine.
  • The florid cast of characters aboard the ship from Bangkok to Saigon, including a soulful Italian tenor, an ugly little French governor and his statuesque wife, and the Wilkins, the cheerful American owners of a travelling circus.
  • The lengthy encounter with a man named Grosely who approaches him at his hotel in Haiphong claiming to have known him at medical school in London back in the early 90s. Now he is raddled and gone to seed. He invites Maugham to his squalid rooms in the roughest part of the native quarter where he lives with a retired prostitute he’s married, and offers him a pipe of opium (which Maugham refuses) before telling him the strange and sad story of his life: to wit, he made a fortune working as a tide waiter in China, taking bribes from opium smugglers, all the time fantasising about returning to London. When, after 20 years, he finally returned to London with a fortune, he found it bigger, noisier, unfriendlier than he remembered, the women stand-offish, the men snobby. Eventually, he realised he preferred the East and headed back towards China but was overcome by fear that, now, his memories of China would prove equally as false. So he stopped off at Haiphong on a temporary basis, and said he’d complete the trip any day now. He’d been saying that for five years. Another of Maugham’s subtle grotesques.

It is a bit of a shock to learn that some of these stories appeared elsewhere, in magazines, as fictions. I also noticed several passages of ruminant meditation which appear in some of the short stories. For Maugham the borderline between fiction and fact was obviously pretty porous, as were the borders of his texts: if a passage worked, why not use it elsewhere? appears to have been his practice.

Also, once I had really soaked up his leisurely bookish approach to travelling, it began to dawn on me that Maugham is a collector of people. He relishes their peculiarities and absurdities, their sad love stories, their ridiculous passions.

Reading this book doesn’t shed much light on the factual background of the British Empire in the East (none, really); but it makes you realise that a lot of his short stories are like those glass display cases in which Victorian collectors kept stuffed specimens, of exotic birds and rare butterflies pinned to boards. Only Maugham’s stuffed exhibits are people.

Maugham himself describes how he has to sit through countless boring dinners and endless chat over whiskey and soda at the club, before the magic moment arrives and a person discloses themself, reveals the nugget, their essence, the one great story they have about their lost love or their great triumph or a ghoulish murder, which excites his imagination, which fuels him, which he can work up into one of his wonderful short stories.

Descriptions

I expected there to be lots of anecdotes about people but was surprised that there is quite so much description of landscape, not necessarily Maugham’s strongest point. Particularly on the first part of the trip, the 26 day mule trek through jungle, up into mountain, and across wide sluggish Burmese rivers, there are many passages of description worth stopping and savouring.

Then, the muleteers’ duties accomplished and the servants having unpacked my things, peace descended upon the scene, and the river, empty as though man had never adventured up its winding defiles, regained its dim remoteness. There was not a sound. The day waned and the peace of the water, the peace of the tree-clad hills, and the peace of the evening were three exquisite things. There is a moment just before sundown when the trees seem to detach themselves from the dark mass of the jungle and become individuals. Then you cannot see the wood for the trees. In the magic of the hour they seem to acquire a life of a new kind so that it is not hard to imagine that spirits inhabit them and with dusk they will have the power to change their places. You feel that at some uncertain moment some strange thing will happen to them and they will be wondrously transfigured. You hold your breath waiting for a marvel the thought of which stirs your heart with a kind of terrified eagerness. but the night falls; the moment has passed and once more the jungle takes them back. It takes them back as the world takes young people who, feeling in themselves the genius which is youth, hesitate for an instant on the brink of a great adventure of the spirit, and then engulfed by their surroundings sink back into the vast anonymity of mankind. The trees again become part of the wood; they are still and, if not lifeless, alive only with the sullen and stubborn life of the jungle. (Chapter 14)

Maughamese

Having pointed this out in reviews of his short stories I had vowed not to mention it in this review, but Maugham really does have a cranky way with the English language.

  • I took to the road once more. One day followed another with a monotony in which was nothing tedious. (Chapter 15)
  • I had with me a number of books that would have improved my mind and others, masterpieces of style, by the study of which I might have made progress in the learning of this difficult language in which we write. (Ch 15)
  • I had wandered so long through country almost uninhabited that I was dazzled by the variety and colour of the crowd. (Chapter 18) This is French word order, placing the adjective after the noun
  • There are perhaps a dozen monasteries in Keng Tung and their high roofs stand out when you look at the town from the little hill on which is the circuit-house. (Chapter 21) ‘on which is’ sounds like a German expression to me; it’s not natural English.

What’s so odd is that Maugham makes several explicit references to his struggle to write elegantly and yet so continually fails to do so. He was born and bred in France till the age of ten. French was his first language, and it was obviously a lifelong battle to shake off the influence of French word order, a battle he never won.

In fact the struggle to write clearly is so obviously a theme of the book and his seven-years’ labour on it that he devotes a paragraph to a typically candid and self-deprecatory account of his own style.

When I was young I took much trouble to acquire a style; I used to go to the British Museum and note down the names of rare jewels so that I might give my prose magnificence, and I used to go to the Zoo and observe the way an eagle looks or linger on a cab-rank to see how a horse champed so that I might on occasion use a nice metaphor; I made lists of unusual adjectives so that I might put them in unexpected places. But it was not a bit of good. I found I had no bent for anything of the kind; we do not write as we want but as we can, and though I have the greatest respect for those authors who are blessed with a happy gift of phrase I have long resigned myself to writing as plainly as I can. I have a very small vocabulary and I manage to make do with it, I am afraid, only because I see things with no great subtlety. I think perhaps I see them with a certain passion and it interests me to translate into words not the look of them, but the emotion they have given me. But I am content if I can put this down as briefly and baldly as if I were writing a telegram. (Chapter 37)

This is both true and not true. Maugham is obviously posing (to himself as well as to his readers) as a man of simple tastes and plain prose. And it is an accurate description of some of his prose. But not all of it. Throughout his texts the prose is continually troubled by efforts at fine writing, description and philosophical lucubrations. He may have believed this account when he wrote it – or he may be cannily offering it to the reader as an apology and a claim to our sympathy – but it is far from being the whole story of this man’s odd and lifelong struggle with the English language.

The most important thing about this paragraph is its positioning, in the middle of what turns out to be the longest descriptive passage in the book, a love letter to the wondrousness of the temple complex at Angkor Wat, which continues on to a lyrical paean to the sculpture and art of the ancient Khmers. Maugham’s claims to prosey simplicity are themselves just an element in his tricksiness. It’s part of his appeal.

A life of ease

The struggle Maugham so visibly has to write basic, clear English prose sheds ironic light on the claim in the preface that the book will be an ‘exercise in style’.

So much so that I think we do best to stop applying it to his style of language and apply it more accurately to his style of living. More than descriptions of jungle or temples, more than anecdotes about white men in remote imperial outposts, what the book radiates is Maugham’s love of ease and leisure. Travelling by river is calm and monotonous. Day follows day on the mule trek across the mountains, all merging into one. Arriving at the little government bungalows along the way, he immediately makes himself at home. Two pages are devoted to describing his cook (unsatisfactory, eventually fired). Every morning his loyal Gurkha servant brings freshly ground coffee. When he finally arrives at a town with modern facilities he is in clover.

It was pleasant to have nothing much to do. It was pleasant to get up when one felt inclined and to breakfast in pyjamas. It was pleasant to lounge through the morning with a book.

He makes a great point of not knowing anything. He doesn’t read any guidebooks or mug up on local history. He satirises that approach in the (fictional?) character of a Czech who, he claims, is up early and out to take notes on all the different Buddhist temples in pagan, and has made a life’s study of acquiring general knowledge. He is, by his own admission, ‘a mine of information’. Maugham mocks him. He prefers to skim across the surface of things, letting his imagination project stories, snatches of dialogue, really glorified whims and fancies, onto the surface of people, scenery, places and landscapes.

I travelled leisurely down Siam. (Chapter 26)

The key words are: leisurely, nonchalant, ease, peace, laze, loll, lie, lounge, bath, verandah, smoke. Wherever he finds himself, Maugham regularly takes out his pipe and has a calming, relaxing smoke. In the depths of the jungle after 26 days’ journey by mule, he fantasises of a hotel where he can toast his toes by a fireside and lounge in an easy chair with a comfortable book. Above all, Maugham conveys a sense of quite wonderful, bookish, rather frivolous ease and leisure.

To ride in a teak forest, so light, so graceful and airy, is to feel yourself a cavalier in an old romance. (Chapter 26)

I think it is this, this ability to be at home, relaxed, to find the lazy, lyrical sometimes whimsical aspect of any situation, which makes all of Maugham’s books such a pleasure to read. They are extremely relaxing.

Books and art

An indication of the extent to which the book is more an exercise in a certain nonchalant, unflappable style of travelling and a deliberate avoidance of facts and analyses in favour of charming impressions is the steady flow of references to Western art and books: Rembrandt, Titian, Michelangelo, El Greco and Velasquez, Monet and Manet, Veronese and Cimabue are just some of the painters knowledgeably referenced: and Wordsworth, Lamb and Hazlitt (the title of this book is a quote from Hazlitt’s essay about ‘going a journey’), Proust, Bradley the philosopher, Verlaine and La Fontaine, George Meredith, Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Euphues and Sir Thomas Browne are just some of the writers invoked and even quoted.

Thus he is able to write the splendidly contrived and humorous sentence:

The uneventful days followed one another like the rhymed couplet of a didactic poem. (Chapter 24)

A bit later, he writes:

The village street was bordered by tamarinds and they were like the sentences of Sir Thomas Browne, opulent, stately, and self-possessed. (Chapter 26)

Both of which expect of the reader a familiarity with a certain type of rather dusty old literature. This assumption of knowledge is part of the strategy of the prose: you could react badly to it, and dismiss Maugham as a pompous old bore; but I happen to have read my share of didactic rhyming poems and Sir Thomas Browne, so I not only smile in recognition of the reference, but also smile at the preposterousness of the way Maugham’s first thought, lazily sailing down a river in Burma or entering a dusty oriental town, is of very English literary references.

It is this – to us nowadays, maybe forced and pretentious – approach, which is part of what he means when he talks about ‘an exercise in style’.

The British Empire

Modern politically correct, post-colonial critics find tearing into Maugham’s dilettante attitude easy meat. Above all it’s easy to criticise him for not showing a flicker of interest in the government, economy, political situation or native peoples of the countries he passes through. Hopefully my review has made clear by now that that kind of thing is exactly what he was deliberately avoiding, not least because he knows he’s not very good at it. In his own day there was no shortage of left-wing critics (and an entire political party, the Labour Party) writing books and articles attacking the exploitative nature of the British Empire. Maugham knows he is not in the same business, he is in the entertainment business.

That said, right at the start of the book there is a very interesting page where he tackles the issue head-on. He imagines a future historian of the Decline and Fall of the British Empire reading his book and being appalled at the lack of interest it shows in the subject. But what’s interesting is what Maugham has this historian say about the British Empire between the wars, what – presumably – Maugham himself thought about the Empire — and this is that he found it to be ruled weakly and ineffectually.

It is the great paradox of the British Empire that it achieved its largest size between the wars and yet at the same moment was struck by paralysing doubt. Thus Maugham has his future historian lament that the British held their empire with ‘a nerveless hand’, that they held their office only through the force of guns yet tried to persuade the natives they were there on their own sufferance, they offered efficiency and benefits to people who didn’t want them; British power was tottering because the masters were ‘afraid to rule’, lacked confidence in themselves and so commanded no respect from the natives, the British tried to rule by persuasion rather than power, who were troubled by the feeling that they were ‘unfit to rule’.

Though only a page long, it is a fascinating and powerful indictment and goes a long way to explaining the sudden collapse of the Empire after the Second World War.

Soulful moments

In among the lazy descriptions of jungle and temple, tiffin and evening pipes, are some genuinely thoughtful moments. Not too thoughtful, mind – Maugham goes out of his way to explain that he is not a philosopher (although he likes reading a bit of philosophy every morning before breakfast is served). Nonetheless, a consistent attitude emerges, which is his admiration for simplicity and lack of pomposity.

He admires Buddhism. He admires its simplicity and takes some time to reimagine the circumstances of Prince Gautama’s life and decision to abandon everything. He comes across a tiny village in the remote Burman jungle and ponders that their way of life, handed down from generation to generation, is admirable, honest and pure. He greatly admires the Italian priest labouring in the jungle. He likes the good and the simple.

This rather basic philosophy is reinforced by lyrical descriptions of the peace and mystery of the jungle, and the equally beguiling atmosphere of some of the Buddhist temples. He encounters many of these and so there are many descriptions of the eerie, absorbent quality of the gold-leafed statues of Buddha, especially when the light of the setting sun sets them aglow. Here he is on a houseboat in Ayudha.

When I awoke in the night I felt a faint motion as the houseboat rocked a little and heard a little gurgle of water, like the ghost of an Eastern music travelling not through space but through time. It was worth while for that sensation of exquisite peace, for the richness of that stillness, to have endured all that sight-seeing.

The Gentleman in the Parlour illustration in Radio Times by C.W. Bacon (1950s)

The Gentleman in the Parlour illustration in the Radio Times by C.W. Bacon (1950s)


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

Bauhaus by Frank Whitford (1984)

It is perhaps details of the more trivial aspects of life which help us more clearly to imagine the atmosphere of the Bauhaus. (p.162)

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read plenty of accounts of the Bauhaus which emphasise its seismic importance to later design and architecture, but this is the only one which really brings it alive and makes it human. It is almost as gripping, and certainly filled with as many vivid characters and funny anecdotes, as a good novel.

Whitford’s book really emphasises that the Bauhaus was not some mythical source of everything wonderful in 20th century design, but a college of art and design, in essence like many others of the day, staffed by a pretty eccentric bunch of teachers and the usual scruffy, lazy and sometimes brilliant students. During its very chequered fifteen year history it faced all the usual, mundane problems of funding, staffing, organisation and morale with often chaotic and sometimes comic results.

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Two things really stand out from this account:

One is Whitford’s attitude, which is refreshingly honest and accessible. He tells jokes. Usually the names of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky (who both taught the college’s innovative Introductory course) are mentioned with reverend awe. It is extremely refreshing, then, to read accounts left by students who didn’t understand their teachings at all, and even more so for Whitford himself to admit that, even to their most devoted fans, the writings of both Klee and Kandinsky are often incomprehensible.

The practical problems of resources and staffing loom large in Whitford’s down-to-earth account. While Klee and Kandinsky were trying to teach their esoteric theories of line and picture construction to uncomprehending neophytes, the director Walter Gropius was doing deals with local grocers and merchants to get enough food for the students to eat, and wangling supplies of coal to keep the draughty old buildings heated.

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

The second key element is that the book is very rich in quotes, memories, diaries, letters, memoirs, later accounts from the successive directors, the teaching staff and – crucially – from the students. Kandinsky is an enormous Legend in art history: it makes him come alive to learn that although he dressed impeccably, in a sober suit with a wing collar and bow tie, he also loved cycling round the campus on a racing bike.

Whitford quotes a student, Lothar Schreyer, who decided to take the mickey out of the Great Man. Believing that abstract painting was nonsense he solemnly presented Kandinsky with a canvas painted white. Kandinsky went along with the plan by taking it intensely seriously and discussing his motivation, his choice of white, the symbolism of white and so on. But then he went on to say that God himself created the universe out of nothing, so ‘let us create a little world ourselves’, and he proceeded to carefully paint in a red, a yellow and a blue spot, with a shadow of green down the side. To the surprise of Schreyer and the students watching, the result was astonishingly powerful and ‘right’, in the way of the best abstract art. He was converted on the spot.

God, to have such teachers today!

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

The power of Whitford’s account is that he doesn’t stop at generalisations about teaching methods or philosophies; he gives vivid examples. Here’s an actual homework Kandinsky set:

For next Friday please do the following: take a piece of black paper and place squares of different colours on it. Then place these squares of the same colours on a white sheet of paper. Then take the coloured squares and place on them in turn a white and then a black square. This is your task for next class. (quoted page 100)

The aim wasn’t to produce works of art or learn to paint. It was to conduct really thorough systematic experiments with the impacts of countless combinations of colours and shapes. After a year of doing this (plus other things) in the introductory course, students would then move on in the second year to specialise in metalwork, ceramics, glasswork, industrial design, household products and so on – but with a year’s worth of experimenting with lines and shapes and colour combinations behind them.

The equally legendary Hungarian polymath László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, taking over from the eccentric spiritualist Johannes Itten as teacher of the Bauhaus preliminary course, also replacing Itten as Head of the Metal Workshop.

Moholy-Nagy wore worker’s overalls to emphasise his communist Constructivist views, sweeping away the soft arts and crafts approach which had dominated the school for its first four years and implementing an entirely new approach, focused on designing and producing goods which could be mass produced for the working classes.

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

So far, so legendary. But it’s typical of Whitford’s account that he tells us that about the only thing Moholy-Nagy didn’t do well was speak German, with the result that the students took the mickey out of his appalling accent and nicknamed him ‘Holy Mahogany’. Now that sounds like a proper art school.

Even details like exactly how many people were on the teaching staff (12) and how many students there were (initially about 100, rising to 150) gives you a sense of the scale of the operation. Tiny, by modern standards.

I laughed out loud when Whitford tells us that Gropius very optimistically held an exhibition of students work in 1919 that was so disastrous – the exhibits were so poor and the reaction of the press was so scathing – that he swore never to hold another one (p.136).

For it was a college like any other and had to justify its costs to the local authorities. The government of Weimar (one of Germany’s many Länder, or mini-states) funded it for six years before withdrawing their funding. The director, Walter Gropius, had to advertise to the other states in Germany, asking if any others would be willing to fund the school. From the first it aimed to become self-supporting by selling its products (ceramics, rugs, fixtures and fittings, metal work, the occasional full-scale architectural commission) but it never did.

Herbert Bayer's cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

Herbert Bayer’s cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

So the school’s reliance on state funding put it at the mercy of the extremely volatile politics and even more unstable economics of Germany during the 20s. László Moholy-Nagy didn’t just join the Bauhaus, he joined a school of art and design which was struggling to survive, whose teaching staff were in disarray, which had failed to deliver on many of its initial aims and promises, and at the time of Germany’s ridiculous hyper-inflation which looked as if it might see the overthrow not only of the government but of the entire economic system.

Thus the sweeping changes to the syllabus he and his colleague Albers introduced weren’t just a personal whim, they were absolutely vital of the school was to stand a hope of breaking even and surviving. For the first four years Johannes Itten had included meditation, breathing exercises and the cultivation of the inner spirit in the Induction Course. Moholy-Nagy scrapped all of it.

Typically, Whitford finds a humorous way of conveying this through the words of a student eye witness. According to this student, they had previously been encouraged to make ‘spiritual samovars and intellectual doorknobs’; Moholy-Nagy instructed them to start experimenting with a wide range of modern materials in order to design practical household objects, tea sets, light fittings. Using glass and metal, they made what are probably the first globe lamps made anywhere.

It’s Whitford’s ability to combine a full understanding of the historical background, with the local government politics of Weimar or Dessau, with the fluctuating morale at the school and the characters of individual teachers, and his eye for the telling anecdote, which contribute to a deeply satisfying narrative.

Even if you’re not remotely interested in art, it would still be an interesting book to read purely as social history. Again Whitford made me laugh out loud when he pointed out that, although Germany’s hyperinflation of 1923 was catastrophic for most people, it was, of course, boom times for the printers of bank notes! Verily, every cloud has a silver lining.

Bauhaus student Herbert Bayer was commissioned to design 1 million, two million and one billion Mark banknotes. They were issued on 1 September 1923, by which time much higher denominations were needed.

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Against his better judgement Gropius was persuaded to hold another exhibition, in 1923. This one, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, was a commercial and critical success. It ran from 15 August to 30 September. When it opened one dollar was worth two million Marks; by the time it ended a dollar bought 160 million Marks (p.147). What a catastrophe.

Brief timeline

The Bauhaus school of art, architecture and design lived precisely as long as the Weimar Republic. It was founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, who was invited by the government of Weimar to take over a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Gropius wanted to integrate art and design with traditions of craft and hand manufacture, following the beliefs of the English critic John Ruskin and artist-entrepreneur and activist William Morris and the atmosphere of the early school was intensely spiritual and arty. The teachers were divided into ‘Masters of Form’ – responsible for theory of design – and ‘Workshop Masters’ – experts at rug-making, ceramics, metalwork and so on. The idea was that the two would work in tandem though in practice the relationship was often problematic.

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

As mentioned above, the hyper-inflation and the political crisis of 1923 helped to change the culture. Gropius managed to sack the spiritual Ittens and bring in the no-nonsense Moholy-Nagy and Albers. This inaugurated the Second Phase, from 1923 to 1925, when Romantic ideas of self-expression were replaced by rational, quasi-scientific ideas. Whitford points out that this shift was part of a wider cultural shift across Germany. The tradition of Expressionism which lingered on from before the Great War was decisively dropped in a whole range of arts to be replaced by a harder, more practical approach which soon came to be called the New Objectivity.

In 1925 a nationalist government took power in Weimar and withdrew funding from the school, which they portrayed (not inaccurately) as a hotbed of communists and subversives. The Bauhaus quit Weimar and moved to purpose-built buildings in Dessau. 1925-28 are probably its glory years, the new building inspiring a wave of innovations as well as – as Whitford emphasises – the themed parties which soon became legendary.

A new younger cohort of teachers, the so-called Young Masters, most of whom had actually been students at the school, were now given teaching places and generated a wave of innovations. Herbert Bayer pioneered the use of simple elegant typefaces without serif or even capital letters. Marcel Breuer designed the first ever chair made from tubular steel with leather pads stretched across it, a design which was still going strong when I started work in media land in the late 1980s, 60 years later. Breuer named it the Wassily chair in honour of his older colleague.

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

In 1928 Gropius quit and handed over the directorship to Hannes Meyer, an avowed Marxist who saw art and architecture solely in terms of social benefit. The merit of Whitford’s account is that for 150 pages or so, he has made us share Gropius’s triumphs and disasters, made us feel for him as he fought the local governments for funding, tried to stage exhibitions to raise the school’s profile and to sell things, battled against critics and enemies of both the right and the left.

Whitford quotes from the letters which Gropius sent out to his colleagues in which he explained that, after ten years of fighting, he is exhausted. More than that, Gropius realised that it was make or break time for him as a professional architect: either he was going to spend the rest of his life as a higher education administrator or get back to the profession he loved.

Similarly, Whitford deals sympathetically with the directorship of Meyer, which lasted for two short years from 1928 to 1930. Usually this seen as a period of retrenchment when the last dregs of the school’s utopianism were squeezed out of it. But Whitford is sympathetic to Meyer’s efforts to keep it afloat in darkening times. Students complained that all the other specialities were now subjugated to Meyer’s focus on architecture, for example explorations of how to use prefabricated components to quickly build well-designed but cheap housing for the masses.

But it was during Meyer’s time that the school had its biggest-ever commercial success. Whitford tells the story of how the school received a commission to design wallpaper, a challenge which was handed over to the mural-painting department. Staff and students developed a range of ‘textured and quietly patterned’ designs which were unlike anything else then on the market. To everyone’s surprise they turned out to be wildly popular and became the most profitable items the school ever produced. In fact they are still available today from the firm which commissioned them, Emil Rasche of Bramsche.

Meyer really was a devoted communist. He instituted classes in political theory and helped set up a Communist Party cell among the students. Opposition from powerful factions in the government of Thuringia (of which the city of Dessau was capital) lobbied continuously for Meyer to be replaced or the entire school closed down. The older generation of teachers were just as disgruntled as the last dregs of Expressionist feeling were squashed beneath revolutionary rhetoric.

The mayor of Dessau fired Meyer on 1 August 1930. Meyer promptly went to Russia to work for the Soviet government, taking several Bauhaus students with him.

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Meyer was replaced by the internationally renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, who Gropius had sounded out about replacing him back in 1928.

Mies was more open to ideas of beauty and design than the functionalist Meyer, but he was forced by the Thuringian authorities (who, after all, owned and funded the school) to cut down severely on political activity at the college. This backfired as the politicised students demanded to know by what right Mies was implementing his policies and organised meetings, several of which descended into near riots.

The police were called and the school was closed. Not for the last time, ‘radical’ students were playing into the hands of their political enemies. Mies re-opened the school and insisted on a one-to-one interview with all the returning students, each of which had to make a personal promise, and sign a contract, to avoid political activity and trouble-making.

Of all the teachers who’d been at the college when it opened, only Kandinsky and Klee remained and Klee resigned soon after Mies’s arrival.

Of course, looming behind all this was the Great Depression, which had begun with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. America had been the main backer of the German economy via the Dawes Plan of 1924 (which is what had brought the hyper-inflation under control). Now American banks, under extreme pressure, demanded all their loans back, and there was no-one to replace them.

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Companies throughout Germany went bankrupt and millions of workers were laid off. In September 1928 Germany had 650,000 unemployed, By September 1931 there were 4,350,000 unemployed (and the number continued to rise, reaching a staggering 6,100,000 unemployed by January 1933, the year Hitler came to power promising jobs and work for all Germans.)

In 1931 the growing Nazi Party achieved control of the Dessau city council. After a campaign of criticism of its foreign-influenced and un-German designs, the school was closed on 30 September 1932. Nazi officials moved in, smashing windows and throwing paperwork and equipment out into the street.

It stuttered on. Heroically, Mies rented space in a disused telephone factory in Berlin and turned the school into a private institution, requiring private fees. They set about constructing workshops and teaching areas. Amazingly, Kandinsky was still on the faculty, though whether he was still cycling round on his racing bike isn’t recorded. Even this private incarnation was targeted by the Nazis and Whitford quotes a student’s vivid eye-witness account of truckloads of Nazi police rolling up outside the building on 11 April 1933.

Whitford reports the fascinating coda when, for a few months, letters were exchanged and discussion had with the new authorities about whether a school of modern design could find a place in the new Reich – after all the Nazi leadership had a keen sense of the arts and had utopian plans of their own to rebuild Berlin as the capital of Europe. But the discussions petered out and on 10 August 1933 Mies sent a leaflet to the remaining students telling them the school had been wound up.

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923 (the shape of the pieces indicates the moves they can take)

Impact

After being closed down by the Nazis many of the teaching staff went abroad to found similar schools, colleges and institutes in other countries. In particular Germany’s loss was America’s gain. Moholy-Nagy founded the ‘New Bauhaus’ in Chicago in 1937. Gropius taught at Harvard. Albers taught at the hugely influential Black Mountain College. After the war a Hochschule für Gestaltung was set up in Ulm, which continued the school’s investigations into industrial design.

As to the Bauhaus’s general influence, Whitford opened the book with a summary. The Bauhaus influenced the practice and curriculums of post-war art schools around the world:

  • Every student who does a ‘foundation course’ at art school has the Bauhaus to thank for this idea.
  • Every art school which offers studies of materials, colour theory and three dimensional design is indebted to the experiments Bauhaus carried out.
  • Everyone sitting in a chair made with a tubular steel frame, or using an adjustable reading lamp, or is in a building made from pre-fabricated elements is benefiting from Bauhaus inventions.

I was particularly struck by the section about the model house, the Haus am Horn designed by Georg Muche, which Bauhaus architects and designers built as a showcase for the 1923 exhibition. It was the first building constructed based on Bauhaus designs, and its simplicity and pure lines were to prove very influential in international modern architecture.

Whitford, as ever, goes into fascinating detail, quoting a student who remarked of the interior designs by Marcel Breuer (then still himself a student) that it included: the first kitchen in Germany with separated lower cupboards, suspended upper cupboards attached to the walls, a continuous work surface running round the wall, and a main workspace in front of the kitchen window. (p.144)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

Whitworth also points out that the Bauhaus legacy isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed. From the mid-20s journalists began to associate the name with everything modern and streamlined in contemporary design, everything functional and in modern materials. But this was misleading; it certainly hadn’t been Gropius’s intention. He never wanted there to be a ‘Bauhaus style’; the whole idea was to encourage new thinking, questioning and variety.

The Bauhaus style which sneaked its way into the design of women’s underwear, the Bauhaus style as ‘modern decor’, as rejection of yesterday’s styles, as determination to be ‘up-to-the-minute’ at all costs – this style can be found everywhere but at the Bauhaus. (Oskar Schlemmer, quoted page 198)

Summary

By treating each period of the school’s evolution so thoroughly, beginning with a fascinating account of the pre-war sources of much of its thinking in the arts and crafts of Morris or the Expressionism of Kandinsky and Marc, Whitworth restores to the story its complexity, its twists and turns, showing that at different moments, and to different teachers and students, Bauhaus meant completely different things. The full fifteen year story has to be taken and understood as a whole to give a proper sense of the exciting experimentalism, diversity, challenges and achievements of this extraordinary institution.

This is a really good book, authoritative, sensible, funny – deeply enjoyable on multiple levels.


Related links

Related reviews

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

‘You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like, “Be generous, Mr Spade.”‘ (p.404)

He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged her without pretence that they were not studying, weighing, judging her. (p.421)

Like its two predecessors, Hammett’s third novel The Maltese Falcon was originally serialised in the pulp magazine Black Mask (between September 1929 and January 1930) before being published as a one-volume novel later the same year. Unlike its two predecessors it doesn’t feature the unnamed Continental Operative as detective-hero, instead introducing Sam Spade.

Third person

The Continental Op stories are told in the first person. We overhear the Op thinking through his cases or explaining that he’s putting on this or that facial expression for his interlocutors, we watch him figuring out, guessing, taking a punt, speculating.

In contrast, the Falcon is told in the third person and this makes a real difference. We are on the outside and Hammett doesn’t give us any of the characters’ thoughts. Instead we get much more detailed descriptions of their faces and expressions and eyes than in the earlier books. Lots more. And we have to figure things out for ourselves.

For example, in the second part of the second chapter, ‘Death in the fog’, the police lieutenant, Dundy, and the detective, Tom, make an unwanted call on Spade’s apartment at 4 in the morning to push him about his partner’s murder. If it had been the first-person Continental Op we’d have been overhearing all his thoughts and calculations. But it’s in the third person so all we get is dialogue, the disposition of bodies and detailed descriptions of faces, as the two men try to outplay each other.

This approach allows much more scope for our interpretation of what’s going on, more scope for ambiguity and uncertainty, making it a much more complex and stimulating read. I’ve read comments praising Hammett’s dialogue but it’s more than a question of dialogue alone, it’s the sentences which describe the facial expressions around the dialogue which give it its power. It’s like a rally in tennis or a ballet. Thus:

The Lieutenant looked at his glass for a dozen seconds, took a very small sip of its contents, and put the glass on the table at his elbow. He examined the room with hard deliberate eyes, and then looked at Tom… Tom moved uncomfortably on the sofa and, not looking up, asked… The Lieutenant put his hands on his knees and leant forward. His greenish eyes were fixed on Spade in a peculiarly rigid stare, as if their focus were a matter of mechanics, to be changed only by pulling a lever or pressing a button… Spade smiled and waved his empty glass a little… ‘What do you want, Dundy?’ he asked in a voice hard and cold as his eyes. Lieutenant Dundy’s eyes had moved to maintain their focus on Spade’s. Only his eyes had moved… Spade made a depreciative mouth, raising his eyebrows… He stopped smiling. His upper lip, on the left side, twitched over his eyetooth. His eyes became narrow and sultry… Placidity came back to Spade’s face and voice… Lieutenant Dundy sat down and put his hands on his knees again. His eyes were warm green discs… He smiled with grim content… The wariness went out of Spade’s eyes. He made his eyes dull with boredom. He turned his face round to Tom and asked with great carelessness… Spade nodded. His face was stupid in its calmness… ‘I know where I stand now,’ he said, looking with friendly eyes from one of the police detectives to the other… Spade looked at him and smiled, holding the finished cigarette in one hand… Dundy looked with hard green eyes at Spade and did not answer him… Spade looked at the Lieutenant with yellow-grey eyes that held an almost exaggerated amount of candour… ‘We’ve asked what we came to ask,’ Dundy said, frowning over eyes hard as green pebbles… (Picador Four Great Novels edition pp.388-393)

Having a third person narrator, being on the outside of the characters and limiting himself to only reporting, in detail, the changes in their faces, expressions and eyes, paradoxically makes Falcon a much more psychological novel. Whereas the Op told us what he was thinking and when he was lying, here we have to piece it together from the outside, only from what Hammett shows us, which gives the whole text a much greater sense of psychological depth.

The merits of the respective plots play a part (Falcon is just a much better story), but I think it’s also the new-found depth derived from this approach which make the Falcon so much more appealing, more read, better known and more frequently filmed (three times) than the first two novels.

More literary?

In Harvest and Dain a lot of the reader’s effort went into, was designed to go into, trying to figure out the complexities of the plot and the characters’ motivations, before – that is – they were laid bare by the narrator in the concluding, Wind-Up chapter (in the classic detective novel style). This put them towards the pulp, genre end of the spectrum, with its focus on outlandishly complex plot machinations.

Here there is still a lot of plot, but the interest has shifted to trying to suss out the characters moment by moment in scenes which are written with much more interest in the detail of moment by moment flickers of emotion, feeling, intelligence over faces described only from the outside. Sure there’s an overarching crime plot – but there’s a lot more going on in each individual scene, a lot more portrayal of mood and personality and psychology. And this puts Falcon towards the literature end of the spectrum.

The eyes have it

I wrote a long post about the importance of eye imagery in Raymond Chandler’s novels. The same conclusions are true of this novel. Deprived of information from a first person narrator or the knowledge that comes from free indirect speech (where the text depicts the character’s thoughts as if reported by a narrator; Greene uses it all the time) we are put in the same position as the characters, having to suss out the other’s motivation from their facial expressions alone, of which the most acute and revealing facet is the expression around the eyes – smiling, hard, crying, cruel, cold etc.

So, chapter four describes Spade’s visit to Mrs Wonderley aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy who slowly reveals a bit more of the secret, and their sparring is depicted in the dialogue, of course, but also in their facial expressions and particularly in the state of their eyes.

His smile brought a fainter smile to her face… Her eyes, of blue that walmost violet, did not lose their troubled look… Spade smiled a polite smile which she did not lift her eyes to see… she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes… Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes… Her eyes suddenly lighted up… Her face had become haggard around desperate eyes… She squirmed on her end of the settee and her eyes wavered between heavy lashes, as if trying and failing to free their gaze from his… (pp.401-403)

The same happens at every dialogue, that is throughout the book, on almost every page: the play of facial expressions and especially the state of the eyes reveals/conceals just as much as the spoken words. There was less in the first two books because there was so much action, shooting and blasting.

  • Sam Spade: yellow-grey eyes (p.408) ‘His eyes were shiny in a wooden satan’s face.’ (p.423)
  • Effie Perine: brown eyes (p.396)
  • Brigid O’Shaughnessy: cobalt-blue eyes (p.375) ‘Her eyes were cobalt-blue prayers.’ (p.423)
  • Lieutenant Dundy: hard green eyes (p.392)
  • Casper Gutman: dark and sleek (p.466) ‘The fat man’s eyes were dark gleams in ambush behind pink puffs of flesh.’ (p.469)
  • Joel Cairo: black eyes (p.538)
  • Wilmer Cook: small hazel eyes (p.456) ‘The boy’s eyes were cold hazel gleams under his lashes.’ (p.534)
  • Luke the hotel detective: crafty brown eyes (p.457)

Spade is sexy

The Continental Op emphasised to twenty-year-old Gabrielle Leggett that he was old, middle-aged, forty, and past making a pass at her. He is very close to Dinah Bird in Harvest but never makes a move on her or even contemplates it for a second.

By contrast Sam Spade is sexy, looking ‘rather pleasantly like a blond satan’. He is the regulation six foot tall and

  • he has a comfortably flirtatious relationship with his secretary
  • he has been having an affair with his partner’s wife
  • he handles Miss O’Shaughnessy’s passes at him with savoir faire until he decides to go ahead and sleep with her
  • he pats the secretary at the hotel’s shoulder in a calm confident way

He is portrayed as knowing his way around women, how to manage and handle women, in a way the Op couldn’t. He has a free, easy and confident way with women as with men, as with life. However, he himself says there is a problem with his attitude which is that he only really knows how to flirt with women, implying he doesn’t know how to treat them as just people; whether his Miss Moneypenny-ish relationship with his secretary Effie proves or disproves this is open to debate.

If you were to indict him, central would be the way he betrays Brigid after sleeping with her (and making her strip naked in his apartment to search her) – though he has by that time established that she shot his partner dead in cold blood. And then there’s his shabby treatment of his partner’s widow, Iva – though that seems realistically messy. Nobody’s claiming he’s a saint.

From the outside

Over the course of the novel it becomes very striking how deliberately Hammett describes all the humans in it from the outside as if they’re robots. He describes their movements as if observing animals, pedantically noting every move and flicker. This has a very unsettling effect. Take this, Spade furtively unlocking his office door in case there are intruders inside:

He put his hand to the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no further; the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in. (p.490)

Maybe it’s meant to be building up tension, but the basic idea – he unlocked the door carefully – needn’t have been described this meticulously nor stretched out to this length. Why do it? For the immediacy? To make the reader feel like they’re watching every minute movement? And the same technique is applied to scenes with no tension, when he’s kissing Brigid or rolling a cigarette or sitting on a chair. All described in pedantic and very externalised detail.

If the above is a description of a purely physical act, the following is a small example of what happens in almost every dialogue ie Hammett not only records the words spoken, but describes in minute detail the physical behaviour of each of the participants.

 Spade said, ‘Yes,’ very lazily. His face was sombre. He touched his lower lip with a finger, looked at the finger, and then scratched the back of his neck with it. Little irritable lines had appeared in his forehead. He blew his breath out heavily through his nose and his voice was an ill-humoured growl. ‘You wouldn’t want the kind of information I could give you, Bryan.’ (p.506)

Vocabulary

There’s two or three slang terms in the novel (‘fog’ = kill p.537) but the switch to the third person has allowed Hammett to drop a lot of the patois which the Continental Op used in his racy narration. The slang now only occurs in the dialogue of the characters. Something that stands out on a handful of occasions is Hammett’s use of unusually formal, technical and Latinate vocabulary. It’s as if he wanted to distance himself from his pulp milieu, or was experimenting with a more detached vocabulary, complimenting the more detached, external, objective style of description mentioed above.

  • an ellipsoid p.513
  • incoordinate steps p.518
  • in her mien was pride p.551

Related links

Edition of Black Mask magazine containing the first instalment of The Maltese Falcon

Cover of the September 1929 edition of Black Mask magazine containing the first instalment of The Maltese Falcon

Hammett’s five novels

  • Red Harvest (February 1, 1929) The unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency uncovers a web of corruption in Personville. There’s a lot of violence, shoot-outs on almost every page, plus the individual murders.
  • The Dain Curse (July 19, 1929) The Continental Op is dragged into three episodes involving members of the Dain family: first the French ex-con posing as Dr Leggett is murdered and his wife shot; then the daughter Gabrielle involved in murders at a weird cult; then the husband who has loved her all along is killed and, while the Op is detoxing the morphine addict, the truth of the long sorry saga is revealed.
  • The Maltese Falcon (February 14, 1930) Drastically different in feel from the previous two murder-fests and told in the third person: detective Sam Spade solves the mystery of three murders surrounding a mysterious jewel-encrusted medieval statuette, and deals with the colourful trio of crooks who are prepared to kill for it: Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman.
  • The Glass Key (April 24, 1931)
  • The Thin Man (January 8, 1934)
%d bloggers like this: