More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett (1934)

‘You and your sad and serious,’ she said. ‘Will you never come off it?’ (p.24)

Beckett biography

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906 into a middle-class Anglican family (they had a tennis court in the garden). He went to private school, where he excelled at cricket, and people who like arty anecdotes will tell you he is the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who is also mentioned in Wisden, ‘the Bible of cricket’, for his several appearances in county-level cricket teams.

From 1923 to 1927 Beckett studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin, which goes a long way to explaining the polyglot nature of his texts. In 1929, while living in Paris, the young Anglo-Irishman was introduced to the great Modernist writer, James Joyce, famous for his vast rewriting of the English language in the experimental novel, Ulysses, and became his secretary for a while.

In 1931 Beckett returned to Dublin to take up an appointment as a lecturer, but in 1931 resigned, packing in academic life to travel on the Continent. He published a study of Proust, miscellaneous poems and tried to find a publisher for his first novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the title being a ponderously jocose reference to Tennyson’s poem, A Dream of Fair Women.

All the publishers rejected it, but Beckett reworked passages of it into this collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks. In fact, the failed novel is referred to by title as the long-pondered work of a character in the seventh story, What a Misfortune, the would-be poet and cuckold of Mr Otto Olaf bboggs, Walter Draffin.

The tilted kepi of the attendant, its green band and gilt harp, and the clang beneath in black and white of his riotous hair and brow, so ravished Walter that he merely had to close his eyes to be back in Pisa. The powers of evocation of this Italianate Irishman were simply immense, and if his Dream of Fair to Middling Women, held up in the limae labor stage for the past ten or fifteen years, ever reaches the public, and Walter says it is bound to, we ought all be sure to get it and have a look at it anyway. (p.128)

More pricks than kicks

So this collection is Beckett’s first published work of fiction. It’s a sequence of ten interlocking stories (with a few author’s footnotes explaining the linkages, where necessary), set in Dublin and describing the super-bookish, über-erudite but shiftless anti-hero, Belacqua Shuah – ‘a dirty lowdown Low Church Protestant high-brow’ (p.156) – who has a series of mostly pretty mundane encounters and adventures around Dublin and in the neighbouring countryside.

(Nowhere in the text does it explain that the name Belacqua Shuah comes from a figure in Dante’s Purgatorio, a Florentine lute-maker famed for his laziness, who has given up on ever reaching heaven. ‘Samuel Beckett, whose favorite reading was Dante, closely identified with Belacqua and his indolence.’ I mean Beckett mentions Dante, the medieval Italian poet’s name is in the title of the first story, but it’s left to the enterprising reader either to look up the connection or, one assumes, to erudite enough to spot it straightaway. – We have Wikipedia to thank for this information.)

Like most Modernist texts More Pricks than Kicks assumes you have a good working knowledge of European literary classics and are fluent in at least the key modern languages (not only the French and Italian which Beckett himself studied, but German also) as the text is sprinkled with quotes like the following, with no translation:

Meine Ruh ist hin mein Herz ist schwer
Ich finde Sie nimmer und nimmer mehr.

You only have to read a few sentences to realise that Beckett has a very tangential relationship to the English language. His prose wilfully combines:

  • Irish idioms and phrases (‘It would take off the rough wet’)
  • Latin tags and phrases (obiter, pro tem, tempus edax)
  • worn-out English proverbs and clichés:
    • better late than never
    • the things people come out with sometimes!
  • pompous Biblical phraseology:
    • ‘Who shall silence them, at last?’
  • and clichés from popular fiction treated with elaborate academic condescension:
    • The effect of this was to send what is called a glow of warmth what is called coursing through his veins
    •  … and no mistake!
    • well, to make a long story short
    • Hairy was as snug as a bug in a rug
  • archly direct address to the reader:
    • ‘Reader, a rosiner is a drop of the hard…’
    • ‘Reader, a gloria is coffee laced with brandy.’

along with:

  • a liberal sprinkling of the three main European languages
  • sly quotes from literary classics
  • rebarbatively arcane words
  • an elaborately Euphuistic register
  • deliberately obscure phrasing and sentence structure

The book has a strong sense of humour but of a very distinct and idiosyncratic kind. Three pages are devoted to describing Belacqua’s extremely pedantic way of toasting bread for lunch which – it appears – involves burning each of the two slices of bread to a smouldering crisp.

When the first candidate was done, which was only when it was black through and through, it changed places with its comrade, so that now it in its turn lay on top, done to a dead end, black and smoking, waiting till as much could be said of the other… Belacqua on his knees before the flame, poring over the grill, controlled every phase of the broiling. It took time, but if a thing was worth doing at all it was worth doing well, that was a true saying. Long before the end the room was full of smoke and the reek of burning. (p.11)


This meal that he was at such pains to make ready, he would devour it with a sense of rapture and victory, it would be like smiting the sledded Polacks on the ice. He would snap at it with closed eyes, he would gnash it into a pulp, he would vanquish it utterly with his fangs. Then the anguish of pungency, the pang of the spices, as each mouthful died, scorching his palate, bringing tears.

This is certainly pretentious (the sledded Polacks are from Hamlet), but is it funny? Or just student-type self-indulgence? The show-off antics of a top-of-the-class ephebe?

These questions hover over the entire book, which treads all kinds of knife-edges. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Some of it is, frankly, incomprehensible. Most of it is painfully arch and contrived. You get the sense that a lot of it – whether the use of Irish idioms or obvious proverbs, the learned disquisitions about Italian poets or the sentences which feel like they’re walking on stilts – they all seem to be mocking their respective registers, styles and conventions.

Take this portrait of a lady, ‘the Frica’, which, beneath the glossolalia, seems to be comparing her, caustically, to a horse:

Behold the Frica, she visits talent in the Service Flats. In she lands, singing Havelock Ellis in a deep voice, frankly itching to work that which is not seemly. Open upon her concave breast as on a lectern lies Portigliotti’s Penombre Claustrali, bound in tawed caul. In her talons earnestly she grasps Sade’s 120 Days and the Anterotica of Aliosha G. Brignole-Sale, unopened, bound in shagreened caul. A septic pudding hoodwinks her, a stodgy turban of pain it laps her horse face. The eyehole is clogged with the bulbus, the round pale globe goggles exposed. Solitary meditation has furnished her with nostrils of generous bore. The mouth champs an invisible bit, foam gathers at the bitter commissures. The crateriform brisket, lipped with sills of paunch, cowers ironically behind a maternity tunic. Keyholes have wrung the unfriendly withers, the osseous rump screams behind the hobble-skirt. Wastes of woad worsted advertise the pasterns. Aïe! (p.46)

It comes from the longest ‘story’, A Wet Night which seems to be about a soirée for poets and literary layabouts held by this same Frica.

It’s as if the entire text is held at an angle from normal human perception, and bears only a passing resemblance to traditional narrative conventions. Maybe it’s intended to have the same deliberately angular feel as Wyndham Lewis’s consciously Modernist prose. Maybe its sentences are intended to contain lots of jagged edges, like a Vorticist painting.

Portrait of Kate Lechmere by Wyndham Lewis

Portrait of Kate Lechmere by Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis’s prose was generally satirical in intention. This book feels like it is not only satirising the ‘grotesque’ and apparently ageing anti-hero, his solemn monologues and pettifogging concerns, and also many of the traditions of conventional narrative – plot, dialogue, description – but is also satirising the reader for wanting to read it and the author for ever writing it. The whole enterprise is a right boggins.

Some occasional phrases appear legible and funny, and ring with a Joycean poetry:

  • ‘Oh Winnie’ he made a vague clutch at her sincerities, for she was all anyway on the grass. (p.25)
  • Chastening the cat with little skelps she took herself off. The grey hairs of her maidenhead
    screamed at Belacqua. A devout, virginal blue-stocking, honing after a penny’s worth of scandal. (p.17)
  • Though he might be only able to afford a safety-bicycle he was nevertheless a man of few words.
  • Capper Quin arrived on tiptire, in a car of his very own. (p.164)

But many, many, many other passages are purposely obtuse and circumlocutory, wilfully repelling and discomforting comprehension.

At this all-important juncture of his delirium Belacqua found himself blinking his eyes rapidly, a regular nictation, so that little flaws of dawn gushed into his mind. This had not been done with intent, but when he found that it seemed to be benefiting him in some curious way he kept it up, until gradually the inside of his skull began to feel sore. Then he desisted and went back to the dilemma. Here, as indeed at every crux of the enterprise, he sacrificed sense of what was personal and proper to himself to the desirability of making a certain impression on other people, an impression almost of gallantry. He must efface himself altogether and do the little soldier. It was this paramount consideration that made him decide in favour of Bim and Bom, Grock, Democritus, whatever you are pleased to call it, and postpone its dark converse to a less public occasion. This was an abnegation if you like, for Belacqua could not resist a lachrymose philosopher and still less when, as was the case with Heraclitus, he was obscure at the same time. He was in his element in dingy tears and luxuriously so when these were furnished by a pre-Socratic man of acknowledged distinction. How often had he not exclaimed, skies being grey: “Another minute of this and I consecrate the remnant of my life to Heraclitus of Ephesus, I shall be that Delian diver who, after the third or fourth submersion, returns no more to the surface!” (p.149)

For long stretches the text is an omnium-gatherum of obfuscation. But despite its post-graduate knick-knackery – I liked it. I read many passages twice, getting to know them better. The Lobster, Lethe, Walking out and Yellow repay rereading.

The stories

Dante and the Lobster (11 pages)

Introducing Belacqua, who makes burned toast for lunch, stops in a pub till chucking out time (2.30), picks up the lobster his aunt ordered from a fishmonger, goes to his Italian lesson, where the lobster is attacked by the French tutor’s cat, and arrives with the lobster at his aunt’s, who boils it alive.

Fingal (10 pages)

Belacqua takes his lady love to Fingal, a viewing point outside Dublin, where they colloquise almost incomprehensibly before walking over to enjoy the view of the lunatic asylum, where Belacqua is replaced in the lady’s affections by Dr Sholto, sidles off, then nicks a labourer’s bicycle and scarpers back to Dublin where the story ends with him happily ensconced in a warm snug downing a pint of porter.

Ding-Dong (9 pages)

Restlessly moving from pub to pub, Belacqua witnesses a child being run over by a cart, though that’s not the point, the point seems to be a woman approaching him to sell theatre tickets in yet another pub.

A Wet Night (30 pages)

Belacqua is dragged along to a party hosted by ‘the Finca’, and attended by the ‘homespun Poet’, ‘the Alba’, the Polar Bear (P.B.), a Jesuit (S.J.), Chas and his girl (‘a Shetland Shawny’), the ‘arty Countess of Parambini’, the Student, the Caleken, a Galway Gael, the Man of Law escorting three tarts, two banned novelists, a bibliomaniac and his mistress, a paleographer, a violist d’amore with his instrument in a bag, a popular parodist with his sister and six daughters, a still more popular Professor of Bullscrit and Comparative Ovoidology, the saprophile the better for drink, a communist painter and decorator fresh back from the Moscow reserves, a merchant prince, two grave Jews, a rising strumpet, three more poets with Lauras to match, a disaffected cicisbeo, a chorus of playwrights, the inevitable envoy of the Fourth Estate, a phalanx of Grafton Street Stürmers and Jemmy Higgins. I dare say these are all hilarious portraits of characters from 1920s literary Dublin.

Love and Lethe (12 pages)

A slightly more comprehensible ‘story’, complete with satirical asides to the reader, in which Belacqua has persuaded the fading 33-year-old Ruby to accompany him in a suicide attempt. They drive out to a hill, climb it, sit to admire the view, drink a whole bottle of spirits, the gun goes off by accident harming neither – at which they fall to urgent rumpy-pumpy in the ling.

Walking Out (10 pages)

‘Walking out’ is the phrase used to describe courting couples back in D.H. Lawrence days (the 1910s and 20s) This is a brutal subversion of the convention. Belacqua is walking in fields when he is caught up by his lady love and fiancée, Lucy, on horseback. An obscure Latin phrase in their conversation somehow conveys to Lucy what we then find out, which is that Belacqua has come this way to spy on a ‘courting couple’ who, apparently, have sex in the nearby woods. She rides off in a huff, and is trotting blind with anger along a narrow country lane when a car driven by a drunken lord hurtles round the corner, kills her horse outright and cripples her for life. Oblivious of all this Belacqua has continued on his way to the gloomy woods where he sneaks about till he finds his (German) couple in flagrente delicto, but steps on a dry branch and the enraged Tanzherr chases him, catches him, and administers a good flogging. Belacqua crawls home. In a cruel postscript we learn that he and the crippled Lucy are now married and regularly play records on the phonogram :).

What a Misfortune (30 pages)

Lucy conveniently dies, two years after her accident, and Belacqua is free to become engaged to Thelma bboggs, younger daughter of Mr and Mrs Otto Olaf bboggs, who has made his pile from toiletries. Beckett’s humour is not… subtle. This is an extended Beckettian satire on all the embarrassments and confusions of a bourgeois marriage, complete with unwilling bride’s father, his wife’s lover, the hairy best man, a crippled nymphomaniac and a drooling cretin. But this makes it sound too comprehensible. It is the usual onomasticon of oneiromancies:

The hyperaesthesia of Hairy was so great that the mere fact of standing on licensed ground, without the least reference to its liberties, was of force sufficient to exhilarate him. Now therefore, under the influence of his situation, he dilated with splendid incoherence on the contradiction involved in the idea of a happy Belacqua and on the impertinence of desiring that he should derogate into such an anomaly. (p.118)

The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux (5 pages)

The shortest section, this is told entirely in the first person, as a letter written by an illiterate German girl who appears to be madly in love with Belacqua, who she refers to as Bel. Presumably, he’s had some kind of affair with her.

[The central importance of women, or a Woman – Only at this point in my reading did I finally realise that every one of these stories revolves around Belacqua’s encounter with a specific woman – Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi in Dante and the Lobster, Winnie in Fingal, the unnamed woman who sells him theatre tickets in Ding-Dong, ‘the’ Alba in Wet Night, Ruby in Love and Lethe, Lucy in Walking Out, Thelma in What a Misfortune and ‘the’ Smeraldina in this story. And that these are presumably the fair to middling women of his unpublished novel, reworked into freestanding stories. It’s hard to see what purpose or meaning to give to their central role except as a plot device, the device being that each of them represents the opposite pole to Belacqua’s well-developed solipsism and self-absorption, each of them yanks our hero out of his seamless subjectivity. And each one of them is then the butt of humour, satire and scorn.]

Yellow (13 pages)

Belacqua is in hospital awaiting an operation on a tumour the size of a brick growing out of his neck. Now that I’ve identified the woman-theme in the previous stories, this one confirmed what I see as the fundamental dynamic of the stories, which is the way Belacqua’s leaden solipsism is punctured and alleviated, lightened, amused or irritated, by the intrusion of women – one per story, generally, but in this one it is a small regiment of nurses, fussing and trimming him. They are quite personable. Some bits – like the nurse bursting out laughing at the ugliness of his toes – are quite funny. In the last few sentences, it appears that Belacqua dies on the operating table.

Draff (13 pages)

This final story reviews, or at least namechecks, all the fair to middling women who featured in its predecessors, before pointing out that Belacqua’s widow was his final amour, no other than ‘the Smerladina’ whose letter we read a few sections earlier. Now she attends to Belacqua’s corpse, laid out in the parlour, and deals with sundry visitors (Nick Malacoda the undertaker, the Church of Ireland padre, friend Capper). She and Hairy dress the burial plot with moss then go through the interment, next day. On the way back Hairy argues with the padre and dumps him in the middle of nowhere. Arriving home, they find Smeraldina and Belacqua’s house in flames. Apparently the gardener ran amok, raped the serving girl and torched it. A policeman points out he is now under arrest. Hairy takes the Smeraldina driving up into the mountains where – I think – they have sex which – I think – she seems to like rather rough. The groundsman back at the cemetery finishes his bottle of stout.

So it goes in the world. (p.173)

So it goes, eh? That immediately makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut, who has the same mocking attitude to human existence, and actually uses the catchphrase ‘so it goes’ throughout his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.


So what do we take from all this? That Beckett:

  1. has swallowed not only an English dictionary of rare and obscure words, but an Italian and French and German dictionary as well
  2. has little new or interesting to say but says it with supernumerary logorrhoea, or with the smart, ironic use of worn-out clichés
    • (‘what a splendid thing it is when all is said and done to be young and vigorous’)
  3. occasionally takes recourse to Catholic theology, but with no feel at all for the numinous
    • (‘He did not know the French for lobster. Fish would do very well. Fish had been good enough for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. It was good enough for Mlle Glain.’)
  4. is not much interested in plot or story
  5. and finds all humans risible, but has a particular itch against old crones – like ‘his lousy old bitch of an aunt’

But most of all, that Beckett’s prose – stitched together from a diverse range of sources and languages – is not sensual. It is certainly variegated – a rackety gallimaufrey of idiolects, langues and locutions – but it is always rather grey.

Belacqua, paying pious suit to the hem of [Ruby’s] garment and gutting his raptures with great complacency at a safe remove, represented precisely the ineffable long-distance paramour to whom as a homesick meteorite abounding in IT she had sacrificed her innumerable gallants. And now, the metal of stars smothered in earth, the IT run dry and the gallants departed, he appeared, like the agent of an ironical Fortune, to put her in mind of what she had missed and rowel her sorrow for what she was missing. Yet she tolerated him in the hope that sooner or later, in a fit of ebriety or of common or garden incontinence, he would so far forget himself as to take her in his arms.

The ghost of Joyce hangs heavily over Beckett. Joyce, a genuine world class genius, wrote sensitively and sensuously with a God-given inhabitation of language. Beckett is trying something similar – deploying an obfuscation of orotundity – but it doesn’t roll or rise. He has all the fandango and fol-de-rol, but no feel.

Clever, but dead. Beckett’s prose is assembled with tweezers. It is like a chemistry set, constructed with a chemist’s detachment. You can see why, later in the 1930s, he began to write in French. The over-clotted English style displayed here was a dead end, as was the entire approach of clotting and cluttering, additioning and complexifying. He had to completely purge his approach and his langue, in order to find his metier as the prophet of paucity.

Stray thoughts

The stories were written between 1931 and 1934, at the same time that Christopher Isherwood (b.1904 and therefore two years older than Beckett, b,1906) was working as an English teacher in Berlin, keeping his diary and working up the stories which were to appear in Mr Norris Changes Trains. There are suggestive points of comparison:

  • Isherwood’s prose is self-consciously crisp and clear and modern, like modernist architecture, completely unlike Beckett’s mongrel, multilingual, playing-with-registers gallimaufrey
  • similarly, Isherwood’s stories are stories in the utterly traditional sense, with characters and plots, although the ‘plots’ are often thin, the obvious working-up of everyday incidents – whereas Beckett has no plots, but instead sequences of trivial incidents on which he can hang his philosophical and linguistic games
  • although many details in both are harsh, they are both, arguably, comic writers
  • and if you consider how totally Isherwood commits himself to describing the foreign city where he was living, and its troubled politics i.e. the rise of Hitler, it makes you realise how, by contrast, Beckett never writes about Paris or the France he lived in, about the rise of fascism or the entire Second World War. Instead his imagination, in all his works, remains utterly rooted in the Dublin streets and pubs and characters and slang and songs of his boyhood. Although he was later hailed as a member of the international post-war avant-garde, a really close reading of Beckett (and hearing, of the radio plays, and watching, of the made-for-TV plays) brings out Beckett’s essential parochialness.


More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett was published in 1934 by Chatto and Windus, London. All page references are to the 1974 Picador paperback edition.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Burmese Days by George Orwell (1934)

By the roadside, just before you got to the jail, the fragments of a stone pagoda were littered, cracked and overthrown by the strong roots of a peepul tree. The angry carved faces of demons looked up from the grass where they had fallen. (Chapter 11)

Orwell served in the British Imperial Police Force in Burma from 1922 to 1927. He was efficient enough, won praise, but was considered an outsider by his colleagues. For example, he was one of the few officers to actually learn Burmese, becoming fluent, something they all considered odd.

In this, Orwell’s first novel, his deep familiarity with Burmese climate, flora & fauna, language and customs, is wonderfully evident throughout.

He acclimatized himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year from February to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy-fields were wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yaru d-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy-fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hop-scotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them – honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of pear-drops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmans went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and pinched with the cold. In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wilderness, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun. At night, coming back to camp through the cold lanes, one met herds of buffaloes which the boys were driving home, with their huge horns looming through the mist like crescents. One had three blankets on one’s bed, and game pies instead of the eternal chicken. After
dinner one sat on a log by the vast camp-fire, drinking beer and talking about shooting. The flames danced like red holly, casting a circle of light at the edge of which servants and coolies squatted, too shy to intrude on the white men and yet edging up to the fire like dogs. As one lay in bed one could hear the dew dripping from the trees like large but gentle rain. It was a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past. (Chapter 5)

Vivid, eh?


The novel is set in the small town of Kyauktada.

Kyauktada was a fairly typical Upper Burma town, that had not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910, and might have slept in the Middle Ages for a century more if it had not proved a convenient spot for a railway terminus. In 1910 the Government made it the headquarters of a district and a seat of Progress – interpretable as a block of law courts, with their army of fat but ravenous pleaders, a hospital, a school and one of those huge, durable jails which the English have built everywhere between Gibraltar and Hong Kong. The population was about four thousand,
including a couple of hundred Indians, a few score Chinese and seven Europeans. There were also two Eurasians named Mr Francis and Mr Samuel, the sons of an American Baptist missionary and a Roman Catholic missionary respectively. (Chapter 2)

The novel opens, shrewdly, with a chapter describing a typical morning of the wily U Po Kyin, the grossly fat sub-divisional magistrate of Kyauktada, introducing us to his loyal servant, the pock-marked thief Ba Taik, and his thin, long-suffering wife, Ma Kin. I say shrewdly because this opening chapter gives an immediate flavour of the heat, the climate, the native food (which U Po Kyin greedily stuffs himself with), and the cunning mind-set of a successful Burman. A potted biography of U Po Kyin gives a handy snapshot of how Burma had evolved under British rule since the war of 1885.

Having established the foreignness of the setting, the novel’s remaining 24 chapters almost all focus on the small European population of the town. Chapter two sets the tone by describing the town’s sad little European ‘Club’, where a group of very bored, hungover white men consort and bicker. Very quickly Orwell captures the hatefulness, boredom and spite of English colonials. Later on we are told that there are precisely eight white people in the whole town – collectively referred to as the sahiblog. They include:

Macgregor, worthy middle-aged chap, Deputy Commissioner and secretary of the Club. Always trying to see the best of things, tactfully avoiding arguments, a teller of long boring anecdotes. Macgregor has been instructed by his superiors to suggest that a ‘native’ join the Club, it’s the way things are going, most other clubs have one or two natives etc. This mild suggestion causes a storm of protest from the other whites.

Ellis, local manager of a timber company, is a spiteful racist cockney with a real deep loathing and hatred of the locals who he freely calls ‘niggers’, to the other white men’s discomfort. In every situation Ellis is guaranteed to pull all conversations down to the lowest common denominator and use every possible excuse to vent his hatred, not only of Burmans, but of women (‘There was nothing that gave him quite so keen a pleasure as dragging a woman’s name through mud.’ Chapter 7). In a historically interesting passage Ellis not only takes the mickey out of Flory’s blooming love for Elizabeth, but also gives a cynical opinion of the British Empire as a last-chance marriage bureau for women who have failed to find a husband back home – which is in fact an accurate description of Elizabeth’s plight.

Mr Lackersteen, the big, coarse-faced manager of a timber firm. He likes getting drunk and ‘having a good time’, which means touching up the local women, which is why his wife, Mrs Lackersteen, almost never lets him out of her sight. Later, he tries it on with his own niece, spurring her desperation to find a husband and move out of his house.

Westfield, the District Superintendent of Police, a man of clipped speech and melancholy voice, always making sad jokes. ‘A fresh-coloured blond youth of not more than twenty-five or six – very young for the post he held. With his heavy limbs and thick white eyelashes he reminded one of a cart-horse colt.’ (Chapter 2) Has a habit of predictably saying ‘Lead on, Macduff’ when anyone enters a room or commences some activity.

Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer. He ‘was lying in one of the long chairs reading the Field, and invisible except for two large-boned legs and thick downy forearms.’ (Chapter 2)

Dr Veraswami, an Indian and the only doctor in the town.

But the main character turns out to be Flory,

a man of about thirty-five, of middle height, not ill made. He had very black, stiff hair growing low on his head, and a cropped black moustache, and his skin, naturally sallow, was discoloured by the sun. Not having grown fat or bald he did not look older than his age, but his face was very haggard in spite of the sunburn, with lank cheeks and a sunken, withered look around the eyes… The first thing that one noticed in Flory was a hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Seen from the left side his face had a battered, woebegone look, as though the birthmark had been a bruise – for it was a dark blue in colour. He was quite aware of its hideousness. And at all times, when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he manoeuvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight. (Chapter 2)

We learn that Flory was bullied at school, keeps a black cocker spaniel named Flo, has a devoted servant – Ko S’la – who he grew up with, and keeps a beautiful mistress, the slender possessive Ma Hla May, who lets him have sex with her, passionlessly and dutifully, because she revels in the prestige and power of being the woman of a white man, especially the ability to boss about Flory’s long-suffering servants.

Flory has different opinions from the rest of the Europeans: he is supremely cynical about the worth of the empire, but more than that, he genuinely likes the native Burmans and is attracted to their culture and traditions. He has even learned their language when most Europeans barely bother to learn more than three words and get by on kicking servants. In this respect, he is quite obviously Orwell’s representative in the novel – up to a point.

Flory is good friends with Dr Veraswami – who the venomous Ellis nicknames ‘Very-Slimey’ – and on a number of occasions drops by his house for a chat in which the unctuous and anxious doctor always tries to please his troubled white friend. During one of these chats, Flory reluctantly promises to put his friend’s name forward for membership of the club reluctantly because he knows the arguments it will embroil him in.

For Flory’s problems is that he has to keep his perceptions of the beauty of the local scenery, the brightly-coloured birds and his love of the locals tightly buttoned up and kept rigorously secret, because it is so very contrary to the boorish, philistine codes of the pukka sahib. Flory is literally bursting with frustration to share his perceptions and experiences and the beauty he sees all around him with someone who will listen.

Then Mr and Mrs Lackersteen’s pretty young niece, 20-year-old Elizabeth, arrives in Kyauktada, and the story begins…

The plot

The plot has two strands:

1. The fat conspirator extraordinaire, taker of bribes and boundlessly ambitious U Po Kyin plots to discredit Dr Veraswami a) by writing anonymous letters to all the Europeans accusing him of innumerable scandals, and b) by fomenting a small rebellion in a distant village which he – U Po Kyin – will alert the authorities to and (arrange to) quell. In their gratitude the white men will invite him to join the Club, rather than the discredited doctor. As he explains to his slight, long-suffering wife, it will be the pinnacle of his career.

2. The hopeless love affair between shy, frustrated Flory and Elizabeth, young and freshly arrived from England. A chapter gives us her back story, namely that her father made a fortune during the Great War and so could afford to send her to a premium private school for young gels, where she acquired a taste for luxury and high living – but only for a brief year before Papa lost his fortune and she was sent to a succession of ever-dingier schools.

When poor Papa died, Mama was left with a pittance which she decided would go further if she moved to Paris where, after much self-indulgent dallying, she decides she will become an artist – in reality sinking into greater poverty surrounded by hangers-on spouting poetry and art and suchlike.

Shallow Elizabeth dreams only of being restored to her life among the rich and lovely and grows to loathe ‘highbrows’, their poverty and above all their futile pretensions. Elizabeth wants to marry a strong, noble, sunburned colonial god. When her Mama passes away, she receives a letter from her aunt in Burma and takes up the invitation to go and stay.

She arrives, is introduced to the bores and bigots and the Club. On virtually her first day she is menaced by a water buffalo, screams in terror, and Flory who happens to be passing comes to her rescue (knowing water buffalo are harmless). On the back of this he takes the role of showing her round, thinking he will interest her in local people and their culture.

But Elizabeth instinctively loathes the Burmans with their filth and revolting habits, and is unnerved to hear Flory spouting all the highbrow pretentious twaddle about ‘poetry’ and ‘beauty’ she associates with Parisian pretentiousness.

Flory, on the contrary, detests the traditional bric-a-brac of colonial life, the endless tedious conversations about tennis or dogs or guns or hunting. It is the colour and strange customs and ancient culture of Burma which attract him – and which Elizabeth loathes as ‘beastly’ and ‘high-brow’. It is a relationship based on mutual desperation and the central part of the book details with horrible stickiness their inevitable descent into an unhappy trap.

Flory and Elizabeth’s doomed romance

The middle half of the novel follows Flory’s feeble, dog-like attempts to show Elizabeth the local culture – taking her to a traditional pwe dance which she finds revolting, and into the home of a local notable, Li Yeik, which she finds filthy and where they serve revolting food and drink which makes her retch. (The description of their visit to the village festival and the performance of a pwe dancer are fascinating.) Orwell makes it perfectly, comically, tragically, clear they are at complete cross-purposes.

Then Flory has the idea of taking Elizabeth hunting, and this is the kind of thing Elizabeth expected: guns and beaters and manly men shooting things. Again, this is a riveting chapter full of brilliant descriptions of local birds and wildlife and climaxing in the gripping, cruel shooting of a leopard. (Hunting was much written about at this period: think of Hemingway’s classic account of a month on safari, The Green Hills of Africa, 1935). This is precisely the kind of thing the shallow brainless Elizabeth imagined when she thought of ‘India’ and its glamour. Over the body of the dead leopard she and Flory find they are holding hands; it is only a matter of time till he proposes to her.

That night at the Club Flory takes Elizabeth onto the veranda and is on the verge of proposing when her aunt interrupts by shouting from indoors. In fact, in a memorable development, before her aunt can appear on the veranda there is a minor earthquake which throws everyone off their feet, making all the women, native and European, scream. No-one is actually hurt but everyone assembles back inside the Club for a night of strong drink and yarning. The proposal moment is lost…

The arrival of Verrall

And lost forever because the next day a new arrival appears, the incredibly haughty, superior, supercilious Lieutenant the Honourable Verrall, son of a Lord, who has spent his career in India perfecting his polo playing. Verrall is a really superb creation, as effortlessly rude to the other Europeans as he is to the natives. He makes his mark immediately at the Club by giving the native butler a sound kicking and then refusing to apologise or even acknowledge the other members when they remonstrate with him.

Predictably, Elizabeth falls for this stiff, handsome, uncaring philistine – I pictured him as Edward Fox in Day of the Jackal – and drops Flory like a brick. It doesn’t help that her aunt helpfully lets slip the night after the successful hunt, that Flory keeps a native mistress. (In fact we know that Flory has painfully dumped Ma Hla May a week or so earlier. She made a big scene and returns to blackmail money out of him; in his eyes this makes someone telling Elizabeth about Ma Hla horribly unfair, though we readers may think the general point remains true – he is the kind of man who took a native mistress.)

Elizabeth cuts Flory dead and the devastated lonely man returns to his timber plantation up country where he throws himself into his work (the description of which is itself interesting). In fact, after barely two weeks he is so obsessed with her that he goes back down to Kyauktada, and has the bright idea of getting the leopard skin stylishly cured and giving it to her.

Predictably, this all goes wrong. The native charged with curing the leopard skin makes a dreadful hash of it, producing a scorched stinking skin which Flory foolishly persists on giving to Elizabeth – who naturally recoils. Their meeting, at Mrs Lackersteen’s house, is memorably embarrassing and Flory finds himself limited to the shallowest polite conversation before being more or less turfed out. Mrs Lackersteen orders the servants to burn the stinky leopard skin.

But meanwhile Elizabeth’s cause with Verrall is not prospering. We know this because the author has told us that Verrall has a record of dallying with attractive young gels and then dropping them. Hence they go riding together and – it is strongly hinted – might be doing the deed of darkness deep in the jungle. But, in his clipped, overbred way, Verrall drops never a hint of matrimony. Though he’s a cad and a bounder etc (it is emphasised that he leaves not only a string of broken hearts but also massive debts to all the local traders wherever he sojourns), in some ways Verall is the most attractive character in the book: he gets his way without whining or complaining.

The pretend rebellion

U Po Kyin’s toy rebellion goes ahead in some remote village; it turns out to involve just eight villagers. Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer, is involved in ‘suppressing’ it and, when one of the ‘rebels’ runs away, unwisely shoots, hitting him in the stomach and killing him. Nonetheless, U Po Kyin rather ludicrously claims the benefit and prestige of having tipped off the authorities.

Flory returns from his station to the Club for the vote at start of June about whether to admit a native. Ellis is ranting against ‘niggers’. Flory steels himself to keep his promise to his friend Veraswami and nominates him as a member. The others all start attacking him, Ellis with virulent racist hatred, when they are interrupted by natives mooring a boat by the river bank (the Club is right by the wide River Irrawaddy) and bringing up a body wrapped in local cloth. It is Maxwell. He has been hacked to pieces by the brothers of the native he shot dead a week earlier. For the first time an air of real tragedy descends on what till now had been at times a fairly brittle social satire.

Next day Ellis is walking from his bungalow to the club and Orwell gives us a running stream of his thoughts which are phenomenally angry and racist. God he wishes there’d be some trouble, a real riot, because then they could call the Military Police out and massacre the brutes; kill scores, hundreds of ’em. That would teach ’em a lesson – and so on. (As a matter of historical curiosity, in an earlier conversation at the Club, Ellis is seen defending Colonel Dyer who, notoriously, ordered the killing of some 400 protesters in the Amritsar massacre of 13 April 1919. It is not so much the reference as the context Orwell puts around it which, fascinatingly, helps you see that there would have been many Brits who whole-heartedly supported Dyer.)

An inoffensive Burman carrying bags passes him, prompting a psychopathic wish to attack and hurt him. Next he sees five schoolboys coming towards him, smiling and when they reply in broken English to his salvo of abuse, Ellis snaps and hits one of them in the face with his stick. That one goes down and the other four attack Ellis but he is surprisingly strong, fights them off and makes it to the club veranda. (In a a brief exasperated sentence Orwell adds that, later on, a local doctor administers some foul concoction to the boy’s eyes, thus successfully him.)

The real riot

That night a huge crowd of Burmans, several thousand strong, surrounds the Club calling for Ellis to be sent out. Macgregor staunchly goes out to try and restore calm but is subject to a bombardment of stones and the crowd turn really ugly. The whites (and their terrified servants) barricade the Club, locking all windows and doors, and there’s the real possibility the mob will storm the building and it would only take blood to be drawn on either side to spark a massacre. All the whites panic, Ellis abusing everyone in sight, Mr Lackersteen drinking himself unconscious, the memsahibs wailing – all want to know where the damn military police are.

For Verrall had arrived with a detachment of a hundred and fifty military police – but he and Westfield have been gone several days on a mission to track down Maxwell’s killers. Flory has bright idea of creeping out the back of the Club and swimming down the river to alert the police. He does so, easily evading the handful of Burmans in the back garden, and within minutes is emerging a few hundred yards downstream to realise the police haven’t come to help because they themselves are engulfed in the mob, having waded into them with only sticks.

Flory manages to struggle through to the (Indian) NCO of the police and instructs him to a) struggle free of the mob b) rally his men c) issue firearms d) fire over the heads of the crowd. As soon as they let fly the first volley, the entire crowd falls to the ground. Another and they are up and running away.

I found this scene extremely convincing, and a reminder that Orwell himself personally was in charge of this kind of force and had had to handle tricky situations. Quick assessment, quick decision, quick action save the day. The police advance on the Club whence the last few Burmans are fleeing and liberate the whites. Flory is very much the hero of the hour – though there is an element of comedy in that out of nowhere U Po Kyin has attached himself to the police and is trying to claim half the credit for quelling the riot.

Flory enjoys being hero for an hour. Next day finds he is respected by everyone, Elizabeth is looking at him with new respect, Ellis has his come-uppance as during the siege he swore and insulted all the other whites, specially the unforgiving Mrs Lackersteen.

In a simple but poetic (symbolic) touch, as the last of the rioters had dispersed the previous night, the long-awaited monsoon had broken and it began to rain tumultuously. That evening Flory and Elizabeth meet at the Club and, amid the din of the rain, she seems favourable to him again, but breaks away to go inside. Flory had arranged to return to his lumber camp and sets off.

Verrall decamps

Elizabeth had been hesitant because she is genuinely torn between dashing Verrall and now-heroic Flory. Trouble is Verrall hasn’t been seen at the club for several days and, typically, hasn’t contacted her. The days pass as Mrs Lackersteen and Elizabeth wait timidly at the Club for the reappearance of Verrall. Imagine their horror when, on the third morning, out of the torrential rain appears a bumptious youth in uniform who announces that he is the new head of the military police. ‘Yes, that other chappy, Verall, he’s just leaving by train now.’ The women run out into a rickshaw and get it driven through the pelting rain to the station – only to watch the train puffing out of sight. Such a cad is young Verall that he not only packed and left, loading up his horses and saddles, in secret, but actually ordered the stationmaster to send the train off ten minutes earlier, the better to avoid a sticky scene.

The women digest this blow to their ambitions (the whole plot thread of Mrs Lackersteen encouraging her niece to clamp on to the nearest available man has a very calculating, feminine Jane Austen feel to it). It is Saturday. That evening the chaplain arrives for his six-weekly visit. Next morning the entire white community will (reluctantly) go to church, and Flory will come back into town for the event. Both the women have, without saying anything explicit, completely reversed their view about him, now that Flory has reverted to being the only eligible bachelor in town. The lovely Mr Flory!

Tragic denouement

Next morning the whites assemble for the six-weekly visit of the chaplain and Sunday prayers. Elizabeth looks radiant and when Flory asks whether Verrall has left, she confirms it, and looks doe-ishly into his eyes. It is now a sure thing that they will get married. Flory’s mind drifts off during the service into fantasies of living in a beautiful bungalow, decorated by Elizabeth’s fair hand, with flowers everywhere and a piano – a piano! – when… he is awoken by a rumpus at the door.

It is Ma Hla May, his ex-mistress, looking more raddled and ragged than ever, screeching at the top of her voice, accusing Flory of having used her and kicked her out, demanding he pay her the money he (foolishly) promised her and then – horror of horrors – she begins to tear at her clothes with a view to stripping naked, the ultimate in self-abasement and shaming behaviour.

Since she’s yelling in Burmese none of the whites understand a word but they definitely get the gist. Flory turns white then a cringing yellow. Elizabeth looks at him and for the first time sees how old and raddled and worn and pathetic he is – and for the first time really sees how ugly his birthmark makes him. And Flory sees all this pass through her eyes. Ma Hla May is man-handled out the church by two Eurasians, but the damage is done.

The service staggers to a conclusion and Flory leaves immediately, his ears burning, his mind reeling. Looking back he sees all the others making for the Club, leaving Elizabeth slightly apart. He quickly runs over to her and begs forgiveness, begs her pardon, asks if she will consider him again, in a year, in five years, in ten years. He has previously pleaded with her (on the night he gave her the wretched botched leopard skin) but now he reaches new depths of humiliating abasement. But Elizabeth coldly insists there was never any understanding between them, says he revolts her, and hurries off.

Flory staggers to his bungalow in a daze, rejects the breakfast laid on by his faithful servant, drags his dog Flo into his bedroom, locks the door, then shoots first the dog, then himself through the heart. The servants panic at the shots and call Dr Veraswami, who confirms that his best friend is dead. He writes a death certificate saying it must have been ‘accidental death’, cleaning his revolver etc, a last service to his friend.

So that is that. Throughout its course I wasn’t sure how it would end, but it turns out to be quite a dark tragedy – rather against the grain of some of the social satire and the lush descriptions.

Tying up loose ends

The short last chapter makes a comprehensive round up of all the remaining characters, tying up all the loose ends. (In this respect – a sad final chapter after the agonised main character has melodramatically committed suicide in a sweaty colonial setting – reminds me very much of Graham Greene’s The Heart of The Matter where we are witness through two hundred long pages to Scobie’s agonised pangs of conscience leading up to his suicide – and then in the sad postscript discover that everyone knew about his silly infidelity anyway, and didn’t much care.)

Same here. Despite Dr Veraswami’s efforts to cover up his friend’s suicide, Flory quickly just becomes another story of the sad so-and-so who killed himself because of girl trouble. The good doctor sinks very low now in social esteem, his one solid white friend being dead and U Po Kyin’s continued campaign of anonymous letters attacking him take their effect. Orwell details the precise extent of his degradation as he is demoted and switched to a stinking third-rate hospital in sweltering Rangoon.

U Po Kyin’s plans succeed. He is indeed elected a member of the Club where he turns out to be agreeable company, having the tact to only rarely attend and when he does, turns out to be an excellent bridge player. Orwell pushes the satirical point home by having U Po Kyin promoted by the authorities for his role in repressing the ‘rebellion’ and the riot, and then invited to a durbar, where the Great British Empire in all its pomp includes him in a list of loyal servants given royal awards. However, he dies of a stroke a few days later, leaving his poor widow agonising about his probable tribulations in the Burmese afterlife.

And Elizabeth is at her wit’s end – Verrall abandoned her, Flory turned out to be a hopeless beast before squalidly killing himself – and all the time the wretched Mr Lackersteen continues his campaign of pinching, fondling and trying to kiss her whenever Mrs Lackersteen’s back is turned. If she returns to England she will be penniless, oh what to do? At which point kindly Mr Macgregor proposes to her and is accepted. After marriage, he becomes even more human and contented, while she ascends to her rightful position, a fiery preserver of white privilege, a despiser of native culture, keeping a beady eye on the Civil Service List to see who is up and who is down, and a terror to her servants.

Thus the British Empire in all its glory.


Is the book by any chance anti-imperial? Just a bit.

He had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code. In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you
sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you, Pink’un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they ARE
greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. (Chapter 5)

But it’s not just where the subject is overtly discussed – which is only in half a dozen or so places – quite obviously the entire book, insofar as it a downbeat description of colonial life in a small station in British India, is implicitly critical.

We can assume a lot of the characterisation and the psychology is fairly accurate, in fact Orwell was so worried about the risk of libel – having based the town and some of the characters on a real place and real people – that he had it published in America first to test out the waters, and it was initially turned down by his British publisher. In the event, people who’d known him in Burma felt he’d let the side down but nothing worse happened.

The book critiques the Empire in at least three ways:

  1. overt analysis/criticism as quoted above, where Flory, for example, explicitly states the Empire is nothing but institutionalised robbery
  2. by portraying through the opinions and actions of the white characters a variety of types or shades of racist thought and action
  3. but above all, structurally – by which I mean that the entire book shows how absolutely everyone in it, all the whites and all the natives, are caught in the imperial power structure, are defined as either rulers or ruled, and how this determines almost every aspect of their lives, from the grandest schemes to the tiniest details of contempt and humiliation

The arguments for and against Britain’s presence in India are presented in a set-piece debate between the cynic Flory and the devoted loyalist Dr Veraswami in chapter 3.

‘Seditious?’ Flory said. ‘I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.’
‘But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?’
‘Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.’

The novel as a whole is a powerful indictment not because of the explicitly anti-imperial reflections of poor unhappy Flory, but because of the penetrating details of imperial life which it depicts, often as asides.

For example, it is in the briefest of references that we learn that the eight or so villagers U Po Kyin paid to stage a fake ‘rebellion’ in fact end up brutally sentenced, to fifteen years in prison, floggings and so on. With a handful of exceptions – servants and mistresses – the Burmese are just a background throng against which the adventures of ‘real’ i.e. white people take place. The blinding of the Burmese boy, the ruination of Ma Hla May, the sentences meted out to the ‘rebels’ – all are mentioned but deliberately briefly to implicate the readers themselves in the imperialist ideology of only taking white people seriously.

We, in our times, are so continually exposed to unanswerable post-colonial propaganda about how awful and racist the British Empire was, that it is a relief – and much more powerful – to see it described in detail by someone who was there, and so to realise that it was made out of people like you and me. Some are bastards. Some are decent. Some try to improve things. Some ruthlessly exploit their superior position.

All are caught in the ideology and social structure of their time which requires them to go along with the more or less overt exploitation and humiliation of the native peoples they ‘rule’, all living with a greater or lesser degree of bad conscience, all internalising it into guilt feelings like Flory (and as Orwell himself did, as he confesses in The Road To Wigan Pier), or externalising it into vicious bigotry and thoughtless violence, like Ellis and Verrall.

This fictional depiction of empire makes a much more compelling anti-imperial case than many of the anti-imperial histories I’ve read recently, because it is subtler, and shows how the insidious consequences of imperial rule poisoned all social relations, and the characters of all those involved.

Tourist info

Orwell’s local knowledge treads a fine line between being genuine insider tips and occasionally becoming a bit too explanatory – the tone sometimes reminds you of the ‘old India hand’, keen to explain this that or the other about colonial life to the new boy.

  • Every European in India is ex officio, or rather ex colore, a good fellow, until he has done something quite outrageous. It is an honorary rank. (Chapter 2)
  • It is a disagreeable thing when one’s close friend is not one’s social equal; but it is a thing native to the very air of India. (Chapter 3)

This keenness to explain extends to numerous details of Burma life:

  •  All European food in Burma is more or less disgusting – the bread is spongy stuff leavened with palm-toddy and tasting like a penny bun gone wrong, the butter comes out of a tin, and so does the milk, unless it is the grey watery catlap of the dudh-wallah. (Chapter 4)
  • There is no Burmese word for to kiss. (Chapter 4)
  • In India it is in some way evil to spend a day without being once in a muck-sweat. It gives one a deeper sense of sin than a thousand lecheries. In the dark evening, after a quite idle day, one’s ennui reaches a pitch that is frantic, suicidal. Work, prayer, books, drinking, talking – they are all powerless against it; it can only be sweated out through the pores of the skin. (Chapter 4)
  • The meal was pretentious and filthy. The clever ‘Mug’ cooks, descendants of servants trained
    by Frenchmen in India centuries ago, can do anything with food except make it eatable. (Chapter 4)


As you can see, Orwell likes generalisations. It’s a common habit of his factual prose as well, the paragraph which leads towards a sententious moral. Once I’d noticed this sententiousness it put me in mind of his contemporary, Graham Greene (born in 1904 to Orwell’s 1903). Orwell is not as completely addicted to spouting quotable mottos as Greene, but it reminds you that they both come from the same public school, administrative class, which was taught above all other things, to sound authoritative.

In fact I think their sententiousness is part of the appeal of both writers, though admittedly to rather different audiences: they both sound so wise and experienced, ultimately because they are capable of generating such authoritative sounding generalisations.

But as with Greene, not all of these, on a moment’s reflection, are totally persuasive.

  • No Englishman ever feels himself in real danger from an Oriental. (Chapter 6)
  • When one does get any credit in this life, it is usually for something that one has not done. (Chapter 6)
  • Meanwhile, Flory’s proposal went no further. One cannot propose marriage immediately after an earthquake. (Chapter 15)
  • As it was, everyone except the two women detested him [the Honourable Verrall]  from the start. It is always so with titled people, they are either adored or hated. If they accept one it is charming simplicity, if they ignore one it is loathsome snobbishness; there are no half-measures. (Chapter 18)
  • Like all sons of rich families, he [Verrall] thought poverty disgusting and that poor people are poor because they prefer disgusting habits. (Chapter 18)
  • She was italicizing every other word, with that deadly, glittering brightness that a woman puts on when she is dodging a moral obligation. (Chapter 19)

Similarly, Orwell assumes the reader is familiar with experiences, feelings and sensations which, in fact, we often aren’t.

  • He had called out eagerly, appealingly, as one does when one is conscious of looking a fool. (Chapter 16)
  • Mrs Lackersteen left him standing up in the drawing-room, feeling lumpish and abnormally large as one does at such times. (Chapter 19)
  • Ko S’la had the art, so necessary in a bachelor’s servant, of undressing his master without waking him. (Chapter 19)
  • Envy is a horrible thing. It is unlike all other kinds of suffering in that there is no disguising it, no elevating it into tragedy. It is more than merely painful, it is disgusting. (Chapter 20)
  • There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways. (Chapter 23)

These kinds of generalisations are coercive: they push you into accepting the values of the fiction, and they have a secondary role in nudging you to accept the higher wisdom of the author. Whatever their merit as statements about human nature, their immediate function is to suck you into the fiction and bolster the author’s authority. Thus, to some extent, all those fans of either Greene or Orwell who worship them as ‘great writers’, have to some extent been suckered by their rhetorical devices.

Etc etc

Orwell has an odd tic, which is his use of ‘etc etc’ when impatiently summarising a point of view he thinks is tiresomely obvious.

In his journalism he often caricatures opposing points of view by quoting a stream of their most obvious arguments before, rather insultingly tailing off with ‘etc etc’, as if everyone knows and is bored of them. A kind of ‘argument from boredom’.

But it is unusual to find a novelist doing this with his characters in a fiction. Thus:

  • Ellis the bigot: ”My God, I should have thought in a case like this, when it’s a question of keeping those black, stinking swine out of the only place where we can enjoy ourselves, you’d have the decency to back me up. Even if that pot-bellied greasy little sod of a nigger doctor IS your best pal. I don’t care if you choose to pal up with the scum of the bazaar. If it pleases you to go to
    Veraswami’s house and drink whisky with all his nigger pals, that’s your look-out. Do what you like outside the Club. But, by God, it’s a different matter when you talk of bringing niggers in here. I suppose you’d like little Veraswami for a Club member, eh? Chipping into our conversation and pawing everyone with his sweaty hands and breathing his filthy garlic breath in our faces. By god, he’d go out with my boot behind him if ever I saw his black snout inside that door. Greasy, pot-bellied little –!’ etc.
  • Of the note Ellis the bigot composes: ”In view of the cowardly insult recently offered to our Deputy
    commissioner, we the undersigned wish to give it as our opinion that this is the worst possible moment to consider the election of niggers to this Club,’ etc, etc.
  • Describing Elizabeth’s mother’s prattle in Paris: ‘How wonderful you are, dear. So practical! I can’t think whom you inherit it from. Now with me, Art is simply EVERYTHING. I seem to feel it like a great sea surging up inside me. It swamps everything mean and petty out of existence. Yesterday I ate my lunch off Nash’s Magazine to save wasting time washing plates. Such a good idea! When you want a clean plate you just tear off a sheet,’ etc., etc., etc.
  • The letter Mrs Lackersteen writes to Elizabeth from Burma: ‘Of course, this is a very small station and we are in the jungle a great deal of the time. I’m afraid you will find it dreadfully dull after the DELIGHTS of Paris. But really in some ways these small stations have their advantages for a young girl. She finds herself quite a QUEEN in the local society. The unmarried men are so lonely that they appreciate a girl’s society in a quite wonderful way, etc., etc.’
  • Francis the Eurasian’s interminable recounting of his life story: ”Of my father, sir, I remember little, but he was very choleric man and many whackings with big bamboo stick all knobs on both for self, little half-brother and two mothers. Also how on occasion of bishop’s visit little half-brother and I dress in longyis and sent among the Burmese children to preserve incognito. My father never rose to be bishop, sir. Four converts only in twenty-eight years, and also too great fondness for Chinese rice-spirit very fiery noised abroad and spoil sales of my father’s booklet entitled The Scourge of Alcohol, published with the Rangoon Baptist Press, one rupee eight annas. My little half-brother die one hot weather, always coughing, coughing,’ etc., etc.
  • The native butler at the Club excitably recounting earthquake stories: ”Oh, sir, but 1906 was bigger! Very bad shock, sir! And big heathen idol in the temple fall down on top of the thathanabaing, that is Buddhist bishop, madam, which the Burmese say mean bad omen for failure of paddy crop and foot-and-mouth disease. Also in 1887 my first earthquake I remember, when I was a little chokra, and Major Maclagan sahib was lying under the table and promising he sign the teetotal pledge tomorrow morning. He not know it was an earthquake. Also two cows was killed by falling roofs,’ etc, etc.
  • Elizabeth avoiding saying anything meaningful to Flory: She helped him to pick up the table, chattering all the while as gaily and easily as though nothing had happened: ‘You have been away a long time, Mr Flory! You’re quite a stranger! We’ve so missed you at the Club!’ etc., etc.
  • A sample gravestone from the white cemetery: ‘Sacred to the memory of John Henry Spagnall, late of the Indian Imperial Police, who was cut down by cholera while in the unremitting exercise of’ etc., etc., etc.
  • The official and completely untrue account of an affray Ellis is in:  ‘The boys had attacked Mr Ellis without any provocation whatever, he had defended himself,’ etc., etc. (Chapter 22)

It is a kind of journalistic short hand, which is unusual in a novel. It also, perhaps, has a slightly coercive effect, as in ‘You know all this stuff already, why do I need to blether on?’

Joy of descriptions

I was taught at school and university to consider novels as tracts of moral philosophy, to assess the rightness or wrongness of characters’ actions, thoughts etc, and to work up long analyses of the various moral ‘issues’ raised. We were also taught to hunt for the symbolism to be found in many novels, the use of imagery to reinforce ideas or themes. Later I was attracted by ideas around structuralism and narratology, analysing texts out into their component parts, like taking a machine to pieces to see how it works.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve taken more to the purely sensual qualities of books: drawn to the combination of intelligent insight and style (which you get in good history books), or to the sheer pleasure and sensuality of the descriptions, to be found in fiction. To my great surprise this book, by the generally puritanical Orwell, turns out to be awash with sumptuous descriptions. It is a surprisingly sensuous and physical read.

The morning sunlight slanted up the maidan and struck, yellow as goldleaf, against the white face of the bungalow. Four black-purple crows swooped down and perched on the veranda rail, waiting
their chance to dart in and steal the bread and butter that Ko S’la had set down beside Flory’s bed.

They walked on and came to the jail, a vast square block, two hundred yards each way, with shiny concrete walls twenty feet high. A peacock, pet of the jail, was mincing pigeon-toed along the parapet. Six convicts came by, head down, dragging two heavy handcarts piled with earth, under the guard of Indian warders. They were long-sentence men, with heavy limbs, dressed in uniforms of coarse white cloth with small dunces’ caps perched on their shaven crowns. Their faces were greyish, cowed and curiously flattened. Their leg-irons jingled with a clear ring. A woman came past carrying a basket of fish on her head. Two crows were circling round it and making darts at it, and the woman was flapping one hand negligently to keep them away…

The bazaar was an enclosure like a very large cattle pen, with low stalls, mostly palm-thatched, round its edge. In the enclosure, a mob of people seethed, shouting and jostling; the confusion of their multi-coloured clothes was like a cascade of hundreds-and-thousands poured out of a jar. Beyond the bazaar one could see the huge, miry river. Tree branches and long streaks of scum raced down it at seven miles an hour. By the bank a fleet of sampans, with sharp beak-like bows on which eyes were painted, rocked at their mooring-poles…

‘Look!’ Flory was pointing with his stick to a stall, and saying something, but it was drowned by the yells of two women who were shaking their fists at each other over a basket of pineapples. Elizabeth had recoiled from the stench and din, but he did not notice it, and led her deeper into the crowd, pointing to this stall and that. The merchandise was foreign-looking, queer and poor. There were vast pomelos hanging on strings like green moons, red bananas, baskets of heliotrope-coloured prawns the size of lobsters, brittle dried fish tied in bundles, crimson chilis, ducks split open and cured like hams, green coconuts, the larvae of the rhinoceros beetle, sections of sugar-cane, dahs, lacquered sandals, check silk longyis, aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills, glazed earthenware jars four feet high, Chinese sweetmeats made of garlic and sugar, green and white cigars, purple prinjals, persimmon-seed necklaces, chickens cheeping in wicker cages, brass
Buddhas, heart-shaped betel leaves, bottles of Kruschen salts, switches of false hair, red clay cooking-pots, steel shoes for bullocks, papier-mache marionettes, strips of alligator hide with
magical properties. Elizabeth’s head was beginning to swim. At the other end of the bazaar the sun gleamed through a priest’s umbrella, blood-red, as though through the ear of a giant. In front of a stall four Dravidian women were pounding turmeric with heavy stakes in a large wooden mortar. The hot-scented yellow powder flew up and tickled Elizabeth’s nostrils, making her sneeze.

There are lots of passages like this, making the book a surprisingly voluptuous description of the ‘mysterious East’.


In particular, I was struck by how beautiful Orwell finds things, particularly the flora and fauna. Again and again he describes birds and flowers with an accuracy and delight which is infectious. He repeatedly uses the word ‘beautiful’.

There was a stirring high up in the peepul tree, and a bubbling noise like pots boiling. A flock of green pigeons were up there, eating the berries. Flory gazed up into the great green dome of the tree, trying to distinguish the birds; they were invisible, they matched the leaves so perfectly, and yet the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it. Flo rested herself against the roots and growled up at the invisible creatures. Then a single green pigeon fluttered down and perched on a lower branch. It did not know that it was being watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of iridescent colours.

The canoes, each hollowed out of a single tree-trunk, glided swiftly, hardly rippling the dark brown water. Water hyacinth with profuse spongy foliage and blue flowers had choked the stream so that the channel was only a winding ribbon four feet wide. The light filtered, greenish, through interlacing boughs. Sometimes one could hear parrots scream overhead, but no wild creatures showed themselves, except once a snake that swam hurriedly away and disappeared among the water hyacinth.

The pigeon rocked itself backwards and forwards on the bough, swelling out its breast feathers and laying its coralline beak upon them. A pang went through Flory. Alone, alone, the bitterness of being alone! So often like this, in lonely places in the forest, he would come upon something – bird, flower, tree – beautiful beyond all words, if there had been a soul with whom to share it. (Chapter 4)

Flory went outside and loitered down the compound, poking weeds into the ground with his stick. At that hour there were beautiful faint colours in everything – tender green of leaves, pinkish brown
of earth and tree-trunks–like aquarelle washes that would vanish in the later glare. Down on the maidan flights of small, low-flying brown doves chased one another to and fro, and bee-eaters, emerald-green, curvetted like slow swallows. (Chapter 6)

Ten yards away a little cock the size of a bantam, was pecking vigorously at the ground. He was beautiful, with his long silky neck-feathers, bunched comb and arching, laurel-green tail. There
were six hens with him, smaller brown birds, with diamond-shaped feathers like snake-scales on their backs.

Everyone squatted down round the leopard and gazed at him. They stroked his beautiful white belly, soft as a hare’s, and squeezed his broad pugs to bring out the claws, and pulled back his black lips to examine the fangs.

It was the night of the full moon. Flaring like a white-hot coin, so brilliant that it hurt one’s eyes, the moon swam rapidly upwards in a sky of smoky blue, across which drifted a few wisps of yellowish cloud. The stars were all invisible. The croton bushes, by day hideous things like jaundiced laurels, were changed by the moon into jagged black and white designs like fantastic wood-cuts. By the compound fence two Dravidian coolies were walking down the road, transfigured, their white rags gleaming. (Chapter 15)

He noticed that Verrall’s pony was a beautiful Arab, a mare, with proud neck and arching, plume-like tail; a lovely milk-white thing, worth several thousands of rupees. (Chapter 16)

Even people can be beautiful.

Unblinking, rather like a great porcelain idol, U Po Kyin gazed out into the fierce sunlight. He was a man of fifty, so fat that for years he had not risen from his chair without help, and yet shapely and even beautiful in his grossness; for the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling. (Chapter 1)

Ma Hla May was a woman of twenty-two or -three, and perhaps five feet tall. She was dressed in a longyi of pale blue embroidered Chinese satin, and a starched white muslin ingyi on which several
gold lockets hung. Her hair was coiled in a tight black cylinder like ebony, and decorated with jasmine flowers. Her tiny, straight, slender body was a contourless as a bas-relief carved upon a tree. She was like a doll, with her oval, still face the colour of new copper, and her narrow eyes; an outlandish doll and yet a grotesquely beautiful one. A scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil came into the room with her. (Chapter 4)

There is also a kind of beauty in the precision and careful vocabulary with which Orwell describes ugliness – poverty, slums, gravediggers and so on – I could give many examples – but they tend to be outweighed by the lush. It is these richly exotic and full and positive descriptions which I’ll remember.

Related links

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

George Orwell’s books

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

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)

Very short, only 116 pages in this modern Orion edition. A first person narrative, told by 24 year-old drifter Frank Chambers, this is a dazzling, blistering, feverishly compelling novella, that rare thing, a book which I literally couldn’t put down but read from end to end in an intense two-hour sitting.

Now this feels like hard-boiled writing. Chandler is a dandy, with his romantic lead, Marlowe, and his wonderfully inventive style. Hammett’s milieu includes surprisingly educated, middle class people – the rich sect followers in Dain, all the cast of Falcon are educated types and his writing is often surprisingly mannered.

Postman is hard-core lowlife, written from the point of view of a hustler, a drifter, a small-time crook with a long record of stealing and violence. We are thrust immediately into his limited worldview where he is always looking for the next con and we never escape this airless, hopelessly constricted world. By contrast Hammett or Chandler’s protagonists fly like eagles in a world of order, rationality and bourgeois manners. Ned Beaumont is continually making small bows or being kind to old Mrs Madvig. No-one is kind in Postman. It is a hustler’s-eye view of the world.

I caught a ride to San Bernadino. It’s a railroad town, and I was going to hop a freight east. But I didn’t do it. I ran into a guy in a poolroom, and began playing him one ball in the side. He was the greatest job in the way of a sucker that God ever turned out, because he had a friend that could really play. The only trouble with him was, he couldn’t play good enough. I hung around with the pair of them a couple of weeks, and took $250 off them, all they had, and then I had to beat it out of town quick. (Chapter 6)


Chambers hitches down the road to a diner-cum-garage and immediately starts conning the owner, Nick Papadakis. Papadakis offers him the job of mechanic and the second he sees Nick’s wife, Cora, he is hit by lust. Not love. Hard, physical lust, so hard it makes him throw up his dinner. By quick stages he seduces Cora who is sick of her husband. She won a beauty pageant in Iowa and came out to California to make her rep, but like so many others failed in movies and quickly ended up working in a hash bar, and when the Greek proposed to her, was grateful to escape.

Two small town losers with pitifully tragic yearnings to escape their cages. They have sex in his bedroom, in the car on the way back from shopping trips, hard physical sex. No wonder the book ran into trouble with the censors and was banned in some states. From their wish to be together quickly evolves the idea of killing the Greek.

They try it one night by her sapping him in the bath, then pushing him under to make him drown, while Frank stands guard outside the closed diner. It is a nailbitingly tense scene and at exactly the wrong moment a motorbike cop comes along and pulls in. They do the coshing but then chicken out of the drowning, make it look like an accident. While Nick is in hospital they have sex every night in the big marriage bed. Then the Greek comes home and Cora is overcome with disgust and Frank abruptly leaves, hitching down the line, pulling cons in towns, hustling punters at pool.

But Fate, a Greek tragic Destiny, intervenes to make Nick spot Frank in the street and beg him to come back, insisting – unwittingly – on his own death, for now Frank and Cora, reunited, their lust rekindled, make a more elaborate plan to kill Nick, and go through with it, with a whole string of unforeseen consequences…

The Law

While keeping Chambers’ low-life perspective, a big chunk of the second half of the book consists of the court case against the couple. Anyone with any childish view that the Law is about finding Justice would be quickly disabused: here the Law is a playground for two sharp lawyers to exploit the full complexities of the case simply to win. To emphasise the game element, Cain has the guilty couple’s lawyers making a $100 bet with the prosecution attorney, a bet he triumphantly wins and which means more to him than his fee.

The case against revolves around the revelation that Nick had taken out $10,000 life insurance just days before his murder. For the prosecution this looks childishly simple; buy life insurance for husband; kill him; claim life insurance. Frank is thunderstruck, he knew nothing about it; he and Cora are in a cleft stick because they can’t say, We knew nothing about the insurance when we murdered him. But their lawyer, Katz, pulls a rabbit out the hat by showing that the life insurance was simply an extension of an existing policy which a fast-talking salesman persuaded Nick to take out without his wife’s knowledge; and then, more complicatedly, discovering that Nick had policies on the property and business with numerous insurance companies, manages to persuade them that it will be cheaper to settle their payouts among themselves and drop the law suit. At which Cora and Frank walk free, a striking example of the way the impenetrable machinations of white-collar people casually control the destinies of powerless blue-collar people.

Can you hear me knocking?

Aparently there’s debate about what the title actually means since there is no postman anywhere in the book. In an interview Cain said the postman knocks once for a letter, which requires no reply, but twice for a telegram, which requires and signature and generally brings bad news. Alternatively, it could simply be that Death, or Fate or Destiny, comes calling twice.

Frank manages to escape justice in the court case and there is a honeymoon period where he and Cora adapt to life after Nick’s murder. This is not without its own tribulations as a) when she goes to see her ailing mother, Frank immediately lights out for a week down south and has a wild affair with a woman who invites him to go away altogether, hunting big game cats in South America (!) b) the dick Katz employed to take a statement from Cora that, yes, they had planned Nick’s murder, which was then suppressed as part of Katz’s complicated legal scheme to save them – this dick pops up with the transcript and tries to blackmail them.

But despite this danger from without, and a hard series of scenes after Cora finds out Frank has been unfaithful to her, despite these setbacks, they both feel some Fate or Destiny has bound them together and, after Cora tells Frank she is pregnant with his child, the novel almost concludes with a joyous carefree scene of them taking a day at the ocean, bathing in the warm water under a clear sky, carefree and happy.

Until the postman rings for the second time.

Hot writing

Puts Hammett and Chandler in the shade. Chandler is a dandy. Hammett’s style, as I’ve pointed out in another post, is completely external and turns his characters into robots. This fierce, fast first-person narrative throws us straight into the mind of this small-time crim and rivets us there, in his quick exploitative worldview, in his animal sexuality.

‘Cora. You can call me that if you want to.’…
‘Cora. Sure. And how about calling me Frank?’
She came over and began helping me with the wind wing. She was so close I could smell her. I shot it right close to her ear, almost in a whisper. ‘How come you married this Greek, anyway?’
She jumped like I had cut her with a whip. ‘Is that any of your business?’
‘Yeah. Plenty.’
‘Here’s your wind wing.’
I went out. I had what I wanted. I had socked one in under her guard, and socked it in deep, so it hurt. From now on, it would be business between her and me. She might not say yes, but she wouldn’t stall me. She knew what I meant, and she knew I had her number. (Chapter 2)

No fancy underworld slang, no thieves’ patois, no horseplay with guns, no shootouts. This novel makes all of Hammett and Chandler look stagey and contrived. In his famous essay on Murder Chandler says Hammett returned murder to the people who actually comitted it, a comment I found hard to understand when I read Hammett’s books; something like The Dain Curse reads like an extremely contrived TV miniseries, with its elaborate backstory about the man who took the rap for a murder he didn’t commit, escapes from Devil’s Island, gets involved in a weird religious sect in San Francisco, with everyone pretending to be someone else and contriving elaborate plans for murder, staged suicides, blackmail, faking robberies and so on and so on.

Here, a cunning lowlife falls for a hot babe and they murder her husband to get him out of the way but are caught out by the Law. The return of Fate at the end adds a spookily convincing Greek tragic air to the whole thing, but this – not Hammett or Chandler – feels like it’s staring American Crime in the face in all its simplicity and stupidity.

Movie versions

So intense and powerful is the narrative line it has been adapted seven times for the movies, two plays and an opera. The 1981 movie with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange had an electric affect on my generation, but buffs reckon the 1946 version starring Lana Turner and John Garfield is the best.

Related links

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (1934)

‘I don’t believe it,’ she said. ‘You made it up. There aren’t any people like that. What’s the matter with them? Are they the first of a new race of monsters?’
‘I just tell you what happens; I don’t explain it.’ (p.100)

After four novels of hard-faced, no-nonsense brutality and cunning (as well as the fifty or so short stories he wrote from 1922 to 34 or so) who’d have that expected Hammett’s fifth (and final) novel would be a comedy, and a genuinely funny one at that.

It’s a return to the first-person narrator (as in Red Harvest and The Dain Curse) but instead of hard-bitten cops, this one belongs to Nick Charles who is an affable forty-one year-old ex-detective who lazes round in top hotels on the money of his charming and loaded wife, Nora, going to parties and drinking almost continually.

He is reluctantly dragged back into the detective business when the daughter of a former client turns up (Dorothy Wynant), helplessly drunk, her mother (Mimi) is revealed as a violent hysteric, her stepfather (Jorgensen) tries to hit on her and the aforementioned client (eccentric inventor Howard Wynant) is implicated in shooting his secretary (Julia Wolf) to death and, to cap it all, a hoodlum sent by a former client, bursts in to their luxury hotel room and tries to shoot him. It’s the she secretary shooting that becomes the core of a standard murder mystery.

Whodunnit? Nick has to find out and the text consists of decreasing amount of action and increasing amounts of theory-spinning as all the characters behave suspiciously while weaving complicated theories implicating each other. The plot itself is relatively simple but the theory spinning eventually becomes rather tiresome. But it’s not the plot, it’s the nonchalant savoir faire and humorous banter, particularly between Nick and Nora, which make this a genuinely amusing read.

Nora screwed up her dark eyes at me and asked slowly: ‘What are you holding out on me?’
‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell you. Dorothy is really my daughter. I didn’t know what I was doing, Nora. It was spring in Venice and I was so young and there was a moon over the – ‘
‘Be funny. Don’t you want something to eat?’ (Penguin 1961 paperback edition, p.18)

Hammett uses the same approach as the previous novels ie little or no direct access to the characters’ thoughts instead deploying predominantly dialogue or the description of externals – rooms, clothes, appearances, facial expressions. But whereas in the predecessors the dialogue was hard-edged and designed to show the characters’ alienation from each other, indifference to each other, here the tone – even if venturing for spells into tough guy stuff with cops or crims – always returns to the comfy banter between the married couple at the heart of it, or to Nick’s deadpan jokiness.

So far I had known just where I stood on the Wolf-Wynant-Jorgensen troubles and what I was doing – the answers were, respectively, nowhere and nothing. (p.28)

The confidante

It is just so damned handy to have a partner or confidente, someone the protagonist-hero-detective can share his thinking with, who can pick him up and dust him down and encourage and support. A sidekick, someone to spar with. Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, Holmes has Watson; pairing wise guy Nick who knows his way round the underworld with smart socialite Nora, for whom the dark underbelly is a revelation, is a clever manouevre. Violence or plot twists which just seems random and therefore alienating in Falcon and Key, can here be situated and contextualised by being explained to Nora. Even if there isn’t an exact explanation – at least we know there isn’t an exact explanation, instead of being puzzled by random and often brutal violence as we often were in the previous novels.

Nora was wide-eyed and amazed. ‘It’s a madhouse,’ she said. ‘What’d they do that for?’
‘You know as much about it as I do,’ I told her…
‘Listen, you’ve got to tell me what happened – everything. Not now, tomorrow. I don’t understand a thing that was said or a thing that was done.’ (pp.118-119)

Movie versions

When it’s not disappearing into more and more complicated theory-spinning, The Thin Man has the feel of the wisecracking movies of the period, all fix-me-another-drink-dahling. It comes as no surprise to discover it was not only made into a movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy (1934) but that the movie was so popular it spawned no fewer than five sequels, which were being release well into the 1940s.

American boozing

Part of the humour – or the humorous backdrop to the comedy – is the couple’s continuous and compulsive drinking, partying and eating out. Reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

‘My nice policeman wants to see you,’ she said. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Terrible. I must have gone to bed sober.’ (p.47)

‘Where’d you get the skinful?’
‘It’s Alice. She’s been sulking for a week. If I didn’t drink I’d go crazy.’
‘What’s she sulking about?’
‘About my drinking.’ (p.104)

‘How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?’
‘Why don’t you stay sober today?’
‘We didn’t come to New York to stay sober.’ (p.143)

It seems like such an incongruous vibe during the depths of the Depression to be putting out fictions about humongously rich people leading boozy lifestyles, parties, opening nights, jazz… Then again, taken as a consumer product, this novel is more like the fantasies of Hollywood which were at their most silken and sparkly when the Depression was at its bleakest. Entertainment. Distraction. Fantasy.

She laughed… ‘Still want to leave for San Francisco tomorrow?’
‘Not unless you’re in a hurry. Let’s stick around for a while. This excitement has put us behind in our drink.’ (p.189)

The Thin Man

Turns out the missing scientist they’re all looking for, who remains elusive despite his phone calls, letters and fleeting visits: he was always very tall and thin but Nick is the first to realise he’s dead.

‘What was that joke about a guy being so thin he had to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow?’
I laughed – not at the joke – and said: ‘Wynant’s not that thin, but he’s thin enough, say as thin as the paper in that cheque and in these letters people have been getting.’
‘What’s that?’ Guild demanded, his face reddening, his eyes angry and suspicious.
‘He’s dead. He’s been dead a long time except on paper.’ (p.179)

Songs mentioned in the text

“Though her life was merry (though her life was merry)
She had savoir-ferry (lots of savoir-ferry)”

Related link

It’s A Battlefield by Graham Greene (1934)

‘It’s the flattest joke,’ Milly said, ‘that I’ve ever heard.’ (p124)

Greene’s fifth published novel but, as he repudiated numbers two and three, his third ‘official’ one, written at a time of great financial stress: he’d left his safe job on the Times, none of his other books had made any money, and the publishers renewed his contract reluctantly and only to pay him once the losses from the previous books had been paid off. With a wife and a child on the way he was looking at limitless debts. In this tense personal situation he decided to complete a novel whose theme is the depressing, trite and unpopular notion that man’s justice is no justice. It failed to sell and is the least-read of his novels.


  • the Assistant Commissioner (presumably of the Metropolitan Police), a hesitant man, permanently reminiscing about his time in the police force in some tropical British colony
  • Jim Drover, a slow-witted bus driver and communist party member, condemned to death for murdering a policeman
  • Conrad Drover, Jim’s brother, trying to raise a petition for his life, with his ‘thin melancholy irritable face’, unhappy as a chief clerk, obsessed with everyone ridiculing him, he buys a gun
  • Conder, a middle-aged journalist who pretends to a wife and six children but in fact lives in a bed-sit in Soho, collects foreign coins and attends communist meetings, ‘short, shabby, with a bald head and ink-stained fingers, and nails blunt from a typewriter’
  • Bennett, his rival in the CP, who spies on him and frightens him
  • Milly Rimmer, Jim Drover’s pathetic wife, always convinced their happiness was doomed
  • Kay Rimmer, gay young sister of Drover’s wife, Milly, works in Battersea match factory, sleeps with Mr Surrogate one night, then Jules Briton the next
  • Mrs Coney, wife of the murdered policeman, a ‘small grey woman’ with a stuffed bear in her hallway
  • Mr Surrogate, ludicrously-named plump pompous communist party leader, fond of the old Fabian days when it was easy to chat up idealistic young women, beds Kay Rimmer, feels guilty re. his deceased painter wife who he couldn’t satisfy sexually
  • Davis, Mr Surrogate’s man; thinks him a ‘dirty old bastard’
  • Jules Briton, son of a deceased English mother and an absent French father; dejectedly works in a café till news of his father’s death and a legacy makes him go on a wild spree, buying a car, driving Kay out to Berkhampstead planning to propose but, once he’s unsatisfyingly bedded her, recants and says nothing


If there is a plot it rotates around all the characters’ relationship to the man on death row, examining in minute detail their damp dreary thoughts and sad encounters. There’s a feeble communist party meeting. Resentment and rivalry in various offices. Dull conversations in rented rooms. Briton’s car trip to the Chilterns ending in failure and deceit etc.


The world-shattering revelation that human justice is flawed. Who knew? To be charitable you might argue that this trite truism is just a convenient peg on which to hang an exploration of a varied cast of characters. Nonetheless, it is trite and it is rammed home with great unsubtlety throughout the text.

A journalist was supposed to understand the working of the world, but Conder had spent his life learning the incomprehensibility of those who judged and pardoned, rewarded and punished. The world he thought, as they walked between the coffee-stalls, past the lit restaurants, the foreign newspaper shops, and the open doorways, was run by the whims of a few men, the whims of a politician, a journalist, a bishop and a policeman. They hanged this man and pardoned that; one embezzler was in prison, but other men of the same kind were sent to Parliament. (p.36)

Fancy that.

Greene’s worldview

Is cold. Men are unfeeling, isolated monads, incapable of warmth or sympathy. They observe each other coldly, puzzled by each others’ impenetrable motives and actions, puzzled, confused and stifled by their lives.

‘I don’t understand,’ the Assistant Commissioner began. It was one of his favourite expressions; extraordinary the number of occasions on which he could apply it… (p.8, GG Collected Edition)

Conrad was taken by surprise. All his life he had been taken by surprise. People had promoted him when he expected dismissal; they had praised him when he expected blame. (p.113)

His nerves were in a shocking condition. Ever since he had rapped the skull of the wooden bear in Mrs Coney’s passage he had lost control of the present and of the past… All the familiar world was being snatched from himand sent tumbling over the Schaffhausen falls… What he remembers only too distinctly were despair, shame, tears. (p.145)

People are described from the outside, like robots. Observed like animals. Maybe this was new and with-it in the 1930s but it has a terribly dispiriting affect.

Jules Briton dried his hands on the towel which hung behind the counter and warmed them close to the great copper urn. A French prostitute leant on the counter and talked to him; she had left her beat in Lisle Street to swallow some coffee. (p.33)

‘Swallow’. Not drink, and there is no further reference to her. If she had been drinking it, her hands cupped round it for warmth, the steam rising into her face, anything! would have humanised her and the scene. Instead of which Greene goes out of his way to be detached and clinical.


Sentences jump from one cold perception to another (with admittedly clever similes and metaphots dropped in) but often making it difficult to figure out quite what’s happening. For example, in the opening pages the AC meets the Permanent Secretary (presumably to the Home Office?) at a restaurant, then they proceed to Wandsworth prison, the AC having suggested they go by bus, the Secretary saying, I have a car outside. But there is no mention of getting into the car and no mention of the driver, the noise, the ambience of a car journey, just a succession of smart observations of London scenes along the route. It wouldn’t have taken much to say, We got into the car, He opened the door to the car, The noise of the engine increased, or anything which indicated their location, which fully set the scene, but Greene doesn’t. He takes the same frustratingly under-explained approach to every scene. The effect isn’t artistic, it’s just puzzling and frustrating. No amount of smart similes or crisp descriptions can recompense this basic reluctance to explain what’s happening.

Then the bell stopped and the light went out, and after its brilliance the lamps at every corner, the lamps over every doorway lost for a moment their harshness. Shadows fell like earth from a tilted spade. (p.14)


Because we are in the mind of a policemen, visiting prisons, we are also reminded not only of Drover’s murder but of the case the AC is working on, namely a rape and murder on Streatham Common. Jules and Mr Surrogate live in Soho where, unsurprisingly, all their comings and goings are past prostitutes loitering in doorways. In the heat and noise of the match factory Kay signs to her neightbour:

‘Hunting tonight?’
‘No, the curse.’ (p.23)

All sex is sad and sordid. All men are running to fat, bald, disappointed. All characters are  confused. London is grey, misty, rainy. Tawdry exploitative newspaper headlines distract the great unwashed from their tawdry exploited lives. Kay Rimmer, the tarty younger sister, tells Milly about being picked up and taken home by Mr Surrogate.

‘Darling, such a bed. But it took ages to bring him to the point.’ (p.130)

By contrast, when Conrad gives in to pity, and goes to bed with his condemned brother’s skinny pitiful wife, the act brings both of them nothing but sadness and shame.

When he felt her shudder, he had a dull sense of an irrevocable injury which one of them had done to the other. (p.133)

He wakes in the night to hear her crying, inconsolably. In fact, as the novel progresses it leaves behind the nominal subject of the condemned man and repeats again and again the pitifulness of sex, its fumblings and failure.

‘Jules, Jules, can’t you wait?’ but she had no wish to wait, she welcomed him: she only regretted the promptitude of the embrace when it was so quickly finished that it might have been no more than the gesture he had made her in the park, a salutation across the street. He was with her, he was in her, he was away from her, brushing his hair before the glass, whistling a tune. (p.162)

After sleeping with his condemned brother’s wife, Conrad wakes later that night to hear her weeping. He is alone. She is alone. They both feel dreadful. On a (very tired and clichéd impulse) Conrad uses his position to get hold of a revolver, feeling it will make man of him, that’s show those clerks in the office, his boss, the judge who condemned his brother etc.

[The pawnbroker’s] large soft trustless eyes swept Conrad like a couple of arc lamps, picking out his misery and loneliness. (p.168)

But, after trailing the Assistant Commissioner across London for 40 pages of tediously despairing inner monologue, when the chance comes and he steps forward to pull the trigger, nothing happens. the pawnbroker sold him blanks and in that moment a car knocks him down. that night he dies from his injuries in hospital, leaving Milly abandoned.

Humourless & depressed

There is nowhere in this novel (or the previous one) the slightest flicker of humour or comedy. There are sustained bursts of bitter irony. But no warmth or humanity or love or compassion.

He watched with pain and tenderness her white hopeless face, her shoulders a little bent with the weight of five happy years. He became aware with sudden clarity how injustice did not belong to an old tired judge… it was as much a part of the body as age and inevitable disease. There was no such thing as justice in the air we breathed… Death could not hurt them, it could only hurt those who were happy. Intolerable the weight of those happy years… of the shared bed and the shared meal and the shared misery. (p.62)

The Morrissey of novelists.

Related links

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of It's A Battlefield

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of It’s A Battlefield

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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