Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936)

I’ve just read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, a classic account of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War One, which is based on the detailed diaries Jünger kept from 1915 to 1918, featuring, among numerous other fights, his part in the Battle of the Somme.

Notoriously, Jünger’s account is so close to the events it describes that it is often difficult to understand quite what’s going on – as it often was for the troops on the ground. Storm of Steel became so well-known precisely because it is an intensely immediate and visceral account, a moment-by-moment description of comrades being shot, blown up, shredded, sniped, burnt by flares or eviscerated by shellfire as they advance, fighting and shooting, chucking grenades and grappling in hand-to-hand combat with the foe. Jünger himself was repeatedly wounded, picking up some 20 wounds in all. The descriptions of fighting are so intense and immediate that the only lyricism which emerges is a kind of visionary hymn to war itself, to the supposedly purifying and transforming experience of danger, injury and pain.

Sagittarius Rising, Cecil Lewis’s account of the three years he spent flying airplanes over the Western Front – exactly contemporary to Jünger, and also taking part in the Battle of the Somme – couldn’t be more different.

The benefit of hindsight

The key difference is that Lewis didn’t come to write his account until nearly 20 after the events he describes, in 1935, the finished book being published in 1936. This has a number of consequences. It means everything he writes is coloured by his knowledge of not only who won the war, but of what the long-term consequences of Allied victory would turn out to be i.e. chaos across Europe and then the rise of Hitler.

But it also means he can’t remember a lot of what happened. Although he kept a flight log as part of his job, and he has it open on his table as he writes, the entries are so clipped and official that he himself admits that he often has no memory of the events they describe. In a couple of places he quotes them verbatim and then laments that he now has no memory at all of so many of the events he recorded.

I am like a man on a rise, looking back over a plain where white ground mists lie, seeing isolated trees and roofs, upthrust haphazard, floating on the sea, without apparent connection with the lanes and fields beneath. I remember only incidents, and lose the vivid landscape of time. (p.80)

Instead of the searing relentlessness of the Jünger, then, what we get is something far more fragmented, and infinitely more mellow and reflective.

The 266-page text is divided into nine chapters (in fact the last three of these describe Lewis’s career after the war ended). But these ‘chapters’ are really just buckets into which he has gathered together impressions, vignettes, memories and reflections from particular periods and postings. The actual text is made up of hundreds of short passages, none of them more than three pages long, many of them less than a page long.

World government

And knowing what he does, how the war ended, who lived and who died, how ‘victory’ was frittered away by the post-war politicians – and writing as he does, in 1935, with Hitler in full flood and the dark clouds of another war looming close – the book is drenched with hindsight about fallen colleagues, poignant laments for his own naivety, and dark forebodings of what is to come.

In fact there’s a surprising number of passages where Lewis completely switches from memoir mode into discussion of contemporary politics, and warnings about the contemporary situation in Europe 1935, passages where he passionately argues that what the world needs to avoid another war is some kind of World Government which will rise above the petty rivalries of nation states driven by fear. In these passages he is clearly echoing thinkers like H.G. Wells, who was one of the leading proponents of a World Government.

The influence of modernism

And there is another, stylistic, difference from Jünger’s book, another indication of the way the book was written twenty years after the fact. This is that Lewis has absorbed the lessons of the Modernist writers who became widely known after the war, suggestions about how to play with form and experiment with voice and style. This impact is visible in at least two ways:

One is the way the text is highly fragmented: not in order to be deliberately disorientating, just that it’s made up of lots and lots of short scenes and vignettes, which create a scrapbook, mosaic effect.

Second is that he’s relaxed about writing the vignettes in different styles. The opening couple of pages describing him and a friend as keen young public schoolboys wanting to join the Royal Flying Corps have the jolly chaps tone of late Victorian boys adventure stories. In sharp contrast, he has several passages describing what he imagines his mother must have felt about him running off to war and these are written in a sensitive style which bends the rules of narrative and goes right inside her head to give us her thoughts and anxieties directly described in a mild stream-of-consciousness style that reminds me of Virginia Woolf.

Other passages describing the terror he felt on his first few flights, and the first few times the planes had problems and he experienced real panic, are done in a full-on stream-of-consciousness way but more disrupted and anxious in feel.

By contrast, in the many sections about the specifications and performance of the planes themselves, Lewis’s prose is as factual and clear as an engineering manual.

In one passage, describing three airmen out on the town in a French village behind the lines, where one of them pairs off with (sleeps with) a pretty 18 year old girl – the whole thing is told in the third person, like a short story plonked down in the middle of an otherwise first-person memoir, although we gather he’s describing something he himself experienced.

To any modern reader none of this presents a challenge. But it’s interesting to observe how fully techniques and approaches which were new and daring in the hands of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce had obviously become accepted and absorbed into mainstream writing by 1935.

Themes and variations

1. His mother

It’s only around page 100 that we meet his father, who appears to have gone off to live by himself in Devon and devote himself to ruminating on philosophy and the meaning of life, happy to sound off about Marx and Socialism on the rare occasions when Lewis goes to visit him (pp. 112-115). The first hundred pages are much more dominated by his mother who – presumably – brought him up alone. There are many deeply evocative descriptions of the landscape of the Surrey Hills where he grew up.

His mother appears in a series of short scenes, dominated by his guilt. As an impetuous, ungrateful 17-year-old all Lewis wanted to do was run off to join the air force. Only now, as he writes in middle age, does he realise how callow and unfeeling he was, and how his mother must have suffered agonies of anxiety. For example, he meets hismother in the Piccadilly Grill after his first training flight.

‘Well, dear, how did you get on?’
‘Pretty well.’
‘Did you go up?’
‘Yes!’
‘Oh!’ there was a faint tremor in her voice. (Not already! This only son, in the air, and a moment ago he played at her feet. Not already! Not to be snatched away already…) (p.20)

See how he almost immediately takes us into her mind and worries.

It is a sign of Lewis’s maturity and character that he includes these scenes, and that he obviously took as much care crafting them as the other, more obvious ones, about flying and the war. They’re touching in themselves and an indication of the benefits of waiting twenty years and really mulling over the whole situation, as it affected those around him. (pp. 34, pp. 72-74)

2. Women

It was the 1930s and so authors could write more openly about sex than in the 1910s. And because the narrative is by way of being a sort of coming-of-age story (as Lewis says, instead of university, he had the Western Front) a silver thread runs through the book recounting his experiences with girls.

Remember he was only seventeen when the story begins, and we find him walking a pretty girl home along quiet Surrey lanes on his last evening before going to training camp (pp. 26-27). He is in agonies of embarrassment and shyness before it is she who invites him to give her one, quick, chaste kiss.

Next, more confidently, he takes ‘Eleanor’ out for a champagne meal and a box at the theatre, but, when she invites him into her place, they simply sit in front of the fire until she lets him kiss her once, and then, yawning, dismisses him. He was bursting with ardour and impatience, but didn’t know how to proceed, what to do or say. Looking back as a middle-aged man he can’t help wondering what might have been. (pp. 34-36).

A year or so later, having got his flying licence and experienced life among men, we see him getting drunk with two comrades in an estaminet behind the lines, where the two filles de joie accompanying his pals find him a girl, the pale, slender mistress of a French officer who, in her master’s absence, grants Cecil her favours (pp. 66-69). It is revealing that this story has to be told in the third person, as if it is a fictional short story.

Later still, our hero comes back to the French cottage he’s billeted on, roaring drunk from an officers’ piss-up, and yells through to the coarse peasant woman he’s been billeted on, and she sleepily shouts ‘oui’ from her bedroom, so that – we understand – he can go in and shag her.

Thus the book charts his progress from timidly innocent virgin to drunken debauchee in less than two years.

In another bravura passage he describes a secret location in Kensington where off-duty officers could go to party, to dance to the music of a jazz band and to pick up girls. He takes a willing slender young thing up to the balcony to stare at the stars, to be intensely in the moment. Having dispensed with Victorian hypocrisy, he has reached the stage of being an utterly unillisioned healthy young animal after animal fun (pp. 157-160).

3. The planes

Lewis loves the planes. He includes as much technical information and descriptions of the designs, layouts, flyability, shortcomings and advantages of all the models he gets to fly as he can, and, he assures us that in his three years of service he flew every plane available on the Western Front. Thus he gives us detailed accounts of the:

  • Maurice Farman Longhorn (p.22)
  • Maurice Farman Shorthorn
  • BE 2B (p.30)
  • BE 2C (pp.42, 116)
  • Avro
  • Morane biplane
  • Sopwith Triplane (p.133) his favourite
  • SE5 (p.136)
  • Higher-powered SE5 (p.150)
  • Spad (p.161)
  • Sopwith Camel (p.165)
  • Handley Page (p.198)
  • DH4 (p.198)

So when Lewis is eventually posted back to Britain, to a squadron tasked with trying out new designs of plane, he is in ‘paradise’ (p.132).

Throughout the book are sprinkled wonderful passages describing the freedom of the skies and the joy of flying, combined with the constant awareness of death looming at any moment in the form of enemy planes, and the awareness of the limitations and foibles of the plane he’s flying.

He really makes you feel the exhilarating freedom of flying those rattly old death-traps high up above the clouds into the clean clear blue of the empyrean.

4. The joy of flying

The upper rim of the circle of fire dipped finally behind the clouds, and a bunch of rays, held as it were in some invisible quiver, shot a beam high into the arc of heaven, where it turned a wraith of cirrus cloud to marvellous gold. The lofty shade had covered the visible earth, and beauty lingered only in the sky. It turned colder… I remembered suddenly the warmth of the mess fire and the faces of friends. It would be good to be down again. I turned towards home and throttled down. The engine roar died. The wind sang gently in the wires. A long steady glide carried me inland. Now that the engine was off and the warm air did not blow through the cockpit, I grew chilly and beat my hands on my thighs. It was cold at ten thousand in March. I opened up the engine again to feel its warmth. Slowly the aerodrome rose up through the gauzy swathes of mist spun by the invisible hands of twilight. Above, the cirrus turned copper, faded to pink and mauve, and at last drifted grey and shroud like in the vast arena of the darkening heaven. I must hurry, It would  be night before I was down. Over the sheds at four thousand I went into a vertical bank and rushed earthwards in a tight spiral. At a thousand I pulled out, feeling a bit sick, burst my engine to make sure of the plugs, and then cautiously felt my way in over the hangars and touched with that gentle easy rumble which means a perfect landing, turned, and taxied in. (p.55)

Aged just 18. What an experience!

5. Landscapes

The book is littered with wonderful descriptions of landscape, beginning with the misty mornings in the Surrey Hills where he grew up, and including a phenomenal description of flying from Kent back to France and being able, mid-Channel, to look down and see the landmarks in both countries, and the little ships like toys sailing across the foam-tipped water.

I was particularly taken by this lyrical description of the country surrounding the River Somme.

Beyond the village, towards the lines, where the poplars started again to flank the dusty road, was the aerodrome. A row of Bessoneau hangars (canvas-covered, wooden-framed sheds holding four machines each) backed onto a small orchard where the squadron officers stood. The sheds faced the lines, fifteen miles away; but they were hidden from our direct view by the rolling undulations of the ground. It was that wide featureless landscape typical of northern France, miles and miles of cultivated fields, some brown from the plough, others green with the springing crops, receding to the horizon in immense vistas of peaceful fertility – the sort of country that makes you understand why the French love their earth. A mile or two south of the road, and running more or less parallel to it, lay the shallow valley of the Somme. the lovely river wandered, doubling heedlessly upon itself, through copses of polar and willow, split into diverse channels where water-weeds streamed in long swathes, lazily curling and uncurling along the placid surface, and flooded out over marshes where sedge and bulrushes hid the nests of the wild-duck, the coot, and the heron. It was always there on our right hand as we left the aerodrome for the lines, an infinitely peaceful companion, basking under a haze at midday, cool and mysterious when mists stole out of the dusk. A sort of contrapuntal theme, it played against our short staccato madness an immortal bass, whose notes, serene and timeless, would ring on when this war was a story of no more moment to the world than Alexander’s, dead in the dust of Babylon. (p.73)

6. Detachment and futility

From up in the sky he can see the beautiful countryside stretching for 20, 30, 40 miles either side of the Front. And then he can look down on the tiny ant-creatures murdering each other and turning the countryside into a hellscape.

His own psychological predisposition to the lyrical and beautiful and the distance which comes from twenty years of hindsight reinforce the simple detachment which must have been been created by flying so high above the scene. They combine to produce a series of passages of heartfelt anger, rage and contempt at the folly of war and the pitifulness of humanity, at ‘human fury and stupidity’ (p.97). There’s no shortage of long passages, or short references, where Lewis lets us know his full opinion of the futility of war.

The war below us was a spectacle. We aided and abetted it, admiring the tenacity of men who fought in verminous filth to take the next trench thirty yards away. But such objectives could not thrill us, who, when we raised our eyes, could see objective after objective receding, fifty, sixty, seventy miles beyond. Indeed, the fearful thing about the war became its horrible futility, the mountainous waste of life and wealth to stake a mile or two of earth. There was so much beyond. Viewed with detachment, it had all the elements of grotesque comedy – a prodigious and complex effort, cunningly contrived, and carried out with deadly seriousness, in order to achieve just nothing at all. It was Heath Robinson raised to the nth power – a fantastic caricature of common sense. But the humour was grim, fit only for the gods to laugh at, since to the participants it was a sickening death-struggle, in which both sides would evidently be exhausted, both defeated, and both eager, when they had licked their wounds, to fly at each other’s throats again. (p.82)

And what did it look like, the war – from up there?

Just above us the heavy cloud-banks looked like the bellies of a school of whales huddled together in the dusk. Beyond, a faintly luminous strip of yellow marked the sunset. Below, the gloomy earth glittered under the continual scintillation of gunfire. Right round the salient down to the Somme, where the mists backed up the ghostly effect, was this sequined veil of greenish flashes, quivering. Thousands of guns were spitting high explosive, and the invisible projectiles were screaming past us on every side. (p.85)

His job

So what did Lewis actually do? For most of his time on the Western Front Lewis was in observation and reconnaissance. In the build-up to the Battle of the Somme he was ordered to fly along the line of trenches taking photographs – an incredibly perilous activity, given the primitiveness of the planes and the even more startling primitiveness of the cameras.

Once the battle started he was charged with flying over the battlefield to observe the advance, or not, of our troops, and activity on the Hun side (in ‘Hunland’, as he puts it), reporting this back to communication trenches behind our lines, who relayed the information back to the artillery barrages, who aimed accordingly. For his work during this period he was awarded the Military Cross.

In between doing his daily tasks he seems to have been fairly free just to go for ‘joy rides’ to spy out the lie of the land, during which he and his spotter sometimes encountered Hun planes and had primitive dogfights. At other times he seems to have been free just to fly for the pure joy of it, watching a cumulus cloud appear out of nothing high in the sky, and then noticing the way the shadow of his plane against the pure white backdrop was ringed by a perfect rainbow (p.126).

His entire chapter two – nearly 100 pages long – describes this work, the tension in the last few days before the Somme offensive began on July 1, and then gives a day by day account of his work in the first few weeks of the battle, conveying his slowly growing sense of disillusion as it became clear that this enormous concentration of men and resources was going to fail, both to meet its immediate objectives, and to do anything like end the war. He describes the mood of disillusionment which sets in among his comrades, and on our side. ‘A complete washout’, ‘bitter disappointment’ (p.90).

Coming back from a week’s leave (where he has, as ever, tried to calm his mother’s terrible anxiety about him) Lewis discovers that a whole bunch of his mates, the liveliest, funniest characters from the Mess – Pip, Rudd, Kidd – have all been killed (p.122).

And towards the end of 1916 he notices that the Brits no longer enjoy quite the air supremacy they had previously had. German anti-aircraft fire (nicknamed Archie) is getting more precise. German fighter planes are better built and engineered and their pilots are becoming more aggressive.

The Hun was everywhere consolidating his positions, and paying much more attention to us than hitherto. (p.118)

Several times he is forced to make emergency landings, described with hair-raising immediacy, although he always manages to walk away (pp. 95-97). And how different things look on the pock-marked, devastated stinking ground from up there in the clean blue air!

The trees by the roadside were riven and splintered, their branches blown hither and thither, and the cracked stumps stuck up uselessly into the air, flanking the road, forlorn, like a byway to hell. The farms were a mass of debris, the garden walls heaps of rubble, the cemeteries had their crosses and their wire wreaths blown horribly askew. Every five yards held a crater. The earth had no longer its smooth familiar face. It was diseases, pocked, rancid, stinking of death in the morning sun. (p.97)

One evening he is flying over the lines and sees ‘a long creeping wraith of yellow mist’ over the trenches north of Thiepval.

Men were dying there, under me, from a whiff of it: not dying quickly, nor even maimed and shattered, but dying whole, retching and vomiting blood and guts; and those who lived would be wrecks with seared, poisoned lungs, rotten for life. (p.103)

This yellow drift of death gas was, for him, ‘the most pregnant memory of the war’, a symbol of the entire twentieth century, a symbol of the way man, in his stupidity, greed and lust for power, perverts whatever science discovers into disgusting methods of slaughter.

In a vision that shows the influence of H.G. Wells and directly echoes the war-visions which haunt George Orwell’s pre-war novels, Lewis foresees the next war in which pilots like himself will drop gas bombs on densely populated cities and poison into reservoirs, slaughtering hecatombs of woman and children. He can see only one solution to the mad rivalry between nations led by demagogues, a power which rises above all of them:

World state, world currency, world language. (p.105)

In 1922 Wells had written that ‘Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe.’ Lewis echoes this sentiment (which I take to be a truism or cliché of the inter-war years):

It is a fight between intellect and appetite, between the international idea and armaments. (p.105)

We now know this is naive and simplistic. Education, science and technology have made improvements Lewis can never have dreamed of. And yet fighting never ends. It is about resources, the means for populations to live,and deeply embedded ethnic hatreds. And fighting over those will never end.

Posted home

Lewis developed conjunctivitis. All that staring from heights at troop movements on the ground, plus the effects of oil and smoke flying into his face from the plane engine. It kept recurring which impeded his battle fitness, so at the end of 1916 he was posted back to Britain.

As he remarks several times, the average life expectancy of a flier on the Western Front was three weeks. He survived eight months. But, obliquely, he records how such prolonged nervous strain takes its toll.

Nobody could stand the strain indefinitely, ultimately it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility. For you always had to fight it down, you had to go out and do the job, you could never admit it… Cowardice, because, I suppose, it is the most common human emotion, is the most despised. And you did gain victories over yourself. You won and won and won again, and always there was another to be won on the morrow. They sent you home to rest, and you put it in the background of your mind; but it was not like a bodily fatigue from which you could completely recover, it was a sort of damage to the essential tissue of your being. (p.61)

He is posted to a testing squadron and has great fun flying all sorts of new planes for several months, before being recalled for active duty, and leading a squadron back to France in April 1917.

Dogfighting in France

Whereas previously he had been flying reconnaissance missions, now he and his men are fully engaged in fighting enemy planes. There follow some amazing descriptions of dogfights in the sky, the meeting of massed ranks of planes from both sides, and an explanation of what a dogfight actually involved, and how to survive it.

Protecting London

Then some German planes bomb London, the populace and politicians panic, and he and his crack squadron are flown hurriedly back to London to protect the metropolis. Lewis, by now cynical beyond measure, contemplates the stupidity of the authorities for not protecting London before, and the hysteria of the Londoners, with contempt.

No further German bombers appear, but Lewis describes the hard partying he and his squadron pursue. Drunk at dawn with comrades. Dancing with strange girls at riotous parties. The 1920s started here with the complete abandonment of the stupid old morality, the starchy Victorian etiquette and fake politeness which concealed the raw facts of human lust and reproduction.

As crude as the Death which stalks them, is the young pilots’ quest for pleasure in the here and now.

Fighting gets more intense – injury

No German bombers reappearing, Lewis is posted back to France. The descriptions of the dogfights become more intense. More friends and colleagues are killed. Eventually Lewis is caught out. Flying separately from his squadron while he tries to fix his jammed gun, is attacked and it’s only because he was in an unusual posture fiddling with the gun that the bullet which streaked down his back didn’t enter it and penetrate his heart (p.163). Bleeding and in pain he makes it back to the aerodrome and is posted home to recuperate.

Defending and partying in London

Having recovered he is posted to a Home defence squadron in Essex. Lewis describes the air defence system created to protect the south of England from bombers, and his part in it, though he is sceptical. The sky is so big, planes are so small – the bombers will always get through. Then to everyone’s shock the Germans come on a bombing raid at night. He is at a dance at the Savoy Hotel when the music is brought to a screeching halt by the sound of bombs dropping nearby. He gives an almost science fiction description of the impact on the jazz dancing crowds as they panic and flee towards all the exits.

Now his squadron have to learn to fly at night and he gives a brilliant description of his first night flight, afraid it will be like flying into pitch blackness, and then enchanted to discover that there is much more light than he’d expected, and that the countryside beneath – villages, fields, roads, are all picked out in the eerie glow of moonlight (pp.168-170).

Night raids on London

He gets drunk. They party hard in London. There are hi-jinks in the Mess. A new raid alert system is put into place and he describes being scrambled and flying towards London, watching the searchlights and the ack-ack guns but being completely unable to find the enemy bombers.

His experience of trying to halt the German bombing raids leads him to one big conclusion which he is at pains to emphasise: You cannot stop the bombers – they will always get through – which leads him to another of  his urgent contemporary pleas for action.

Today the voice of no one man, or no one country, can save Europe (and after the whole civilised world) from imminent destruction. If we cannot collectively rise above our narrow nationalism, the vast credits of wealth, wisdom and art produced by Western civilisation will be wiped out. (p.154)

Flying, drinking, dying

The final pages feel bitty. The promotions come faster. He is moved from one squadron to another. He retells experiences of landing in fog, of his plane catching fire in mid-air. There’s an extended anecdote about the time he landed in a field to ask someone where the devil he was (that happened a lot), and went back to the plane and turned on the motor, but the plane began to move before he could climb into the cockpit. It then proceeded to run in a small circle just a bit too fast for him – wearing heavy flying gear and boots – to manage to run into the circle while avoiding the propeller. In the end he gave up and watched it move in circles and slowly across a field until it fell into a ditch.

And the last pages are darkened by friends dying. Armstrong was the best pilot he knew but he mistimed a landing, crashed and was killed outright. His friend Bill was killed stupidly – crashing into a small ditch at the airfield, getting out to inspect the damage when his engineer triggered one of the guns by mistake which shot him through the heart – that Lewis balls his fists and rages against the senselessness of the world.

He is proud to be chosen to lead three squadrons across to France to combat the final German offensive in the spring of 1918, one of the few massed flights that made the commute without at least one accident. As the tide turns against the Germans the squadron is posted forward into an aerodrome near Ypres and he can’t believe the utter desolation of the countryside which is revealed to them. What a hell men have made of the earth.

It’s all over

Then it is all over. The Armistice is signed. They celebrate as best they can and all feel let down and deflated. The new young squadron he’s commanding has only just arrived. Trained to fight they never seen any action. And Lewis himself feels bereft. For the four most formative years of his life he has been living under the shadow of war, in the presence of Death, stretching his nerves to breaking point. Now it is all over. He is demobilised.

He was twenty years old. What a beautiful, thoughtful, considerate, sometimes savagely bitter, often rapturously lyrical, intelligent and mature memoir this is.


1964 interview with Cecil Lewis


Credit

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis was published by Peter Davies Ltd in 1936. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936)

The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak — Strube’s ‘little man’— the little docile cit who slips home by the six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears, half an hour’s listening-in to the B. B. C. Symphony Concert, and then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife ‘feels in the mood’! What a fate! No, it isn’t like that that one was meant to live. One’s got to get right out of it, out of the money-stink. (p.51)

In Orwell’s previous novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, the seducing cad, Warburton, cynically suggests to the naive young Dorothy that money makes the world go round; in fact, he suggests that the famous chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians should be brought up to date with the word ‘money’ replacing ‘charity’. One year later this novel was published and its epigraph satirically does exactly what Warburton had suggested.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things…  And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.

This weak, unsubtle gag accurately summarises Keep The Aspidistra Flying which is the unremittingly dingy, depressed and ultimately monotonous story of short, miserable, failed poet Gordon Comstock who is obsessed with money and his lack of it.

Gordon Comstock

Gordon is 28 and works in a grimy second-hand bookshop in a seedy part of north-west London. He seethes with resentment against his miserable fate, resentment he takes out in the form of withering satire on his customers, the wretched adverts on hoardings opposite the shop, the weather, London, the depressing spirit of the times, everything. Everything – his clothes, the shop, the boos, the street, the customers, the boarding house, the landlady, the other lodgers – everything, seen through his eyes, is seedy, run-down, grimy, filthy, mangy, mildewed and manky.

Orwell pays minute attention to every humiliating aspect of Gordon’s shabby, poverty-stricken little existence. He takes two pages to describe the lengths Gordon has to go to in order to make a cup of tea in his own room (a practice banned by the landlady) which includes sneaking downstairs to the privy to flush away yesterday’s tea leaves, and heating the water on his room’s wretchedly underpowered gas ring.

Orwell takes a sadistic glee in rubbing the reader’s face in Gordon’s all-conquering sense of failure and the sordid practicalities of his existence. The squalor, the shame and the thousand petty humiliations of a) living on the edge of poverty b) being a wretched failed poet, are drilled home on page after page.

Of the half dozen I’ve read, this is Orwell’s least interesting book: the subject of being a failed writer in London is extremely clichéd, and Gordon’s diatribes, either in his own head or to anyone who will listen, are above all very repetitive; by page 100 they’re just boring.

So this is not such a good book to read as the splendidly descriptive Burmese Days or the experimental and reportage-filled Clergyman’s Daughter.

The plot

Second hand books We’re introduced to Gordon, rotting and miserable in the dingy second-hand bookshop. He takes the mickey out of the customers. He goes home to his dingy miserable boarding house and makes a secret cup of tea. He reminisces about his large and hopeless middle-class family of losers, the wretched Comstocks. He traipses north to a literary party which turns out to have been cancelled to his vast chagrin, so he ends up walking all over London, looking wistfully into pubs and lustfully at passing girls and feeling immensely sorry for himself.

Back story He reminisces about his miserable time at private school where he was mocked for his genteel poverty. Then his time at an advertising agency where he turned out to be good at copywriting but despised himself for being in on the ‘great money-scam’, ‘worshiping the money god’ etc. This is all below Gordon who considers making money sordid and disreputable. So, to the despair of his hard-up family, he quits this excellent job to work in the bookshop out of some misguided wish for moral purity. What an arse.

Ravelston Gordon goes for a few beers in a squalid pub with his rich friend, the magazine editor and champagne socialist, Philip Ravelston. Gordon spends the entire time moaning about how miserable life is on a measly two quid a week, never having enough money to eat properly, to go out, to make friends and contacts, never having the peace of mind to write blah blah blah. The trouble is – we know the problem is entirely of his own making. The kindly owner of the advertising agency made it clear that Gordon can go back any time he wants to. It is obstinate to the point of imbecility to make himself and everyone around him so miserable.

Rosemary He has a girlfriend, the diminutive but tough Rosemary Waterlow. They meet for a walk (Gordon’s landlady won’t allow young women to even enter the hallway). This descends into another long bitter rant against his poverty by Gordon, combined with the bitter accusation that, after two years of going out, she still hasn’t let him sleep with her. The third-person narrator attributes this refusal to her upbringing in a big happy rambunctious family. Rosemary wants to preserve her happy sexless girlhood for as long as possible. She is ‘fond’ of Gordon and wants to mother him etc but can’t bring herself to say yes. He, for his part, is tormented by frustrated lust: it is all he can think of half the time, and all twisted up by the thought that it is essentially his poverty which prevents them either getting married or even being able to afford a hotel to have sex in.

No sex please, we’re British Gordon and Rosemary go on a set-piece outing to Burnham Beeches, catching the train from Paddington station to Slough. The winter sun warms and animates them but they can find nowhere to eat except an over-priced hotel by the Thames and here Gordon is, characteristically, overawed and bullied by the pretentious waiter, finding himself forced to use up all his money on a rotten meal of cold beef and muddy wine.

Eventually, miserable and humiliated, the couple walk on into woodland where they find a warm nook, Rosemary strips off her clothes and prepares to ‘sacrifice’ herself to him. She will ‘give’ herself, although she doesn’t really want to, solely in order to make Gordon happy. This is disheartening enough, but at the vital moment Rosemary realises Gordon isn’t wearing a condom and panics. He is rebuffed. They argue. Standing looking down at her naked body, he is disgusted with himself and with her. The sun goes in and the whole thing suddenly appears unbearably sordid and mean.

Rosemary bursts into tears and gets dressed. They walk for miles in silence, but Gordon is no longer brooding on the failed sex, he has moved on to his more familiar routine of being more worried about not having enough money to pay the fare back to London, after spending more than he meant to at the posh riverside hotel.. Eventually, after prolonged sulking, he reluctantly admits this to Rosemary who promptly points out what an idiot he is: she has more than enough and is happy to pay. But with his ludicrously antiquated sense of ‘honour’ he simply can’t let her and prefers to stew in a juice of humiliation and endlessly pontificate about the ruinous effect of poverty. By this stage we know that what is ruining his life is his ruinous imbecility.

A drunken binge In chapter eight there is an astonishing turn of events as Gordon receives a cheque from an American magazine which has inexplicably decided to publish one of his poems. £10! He insists on taking Ravelston and Rosemary out for a slap-up dinner. The more they urge caution, the more insistent he becomes to go to the finest restaurant, order champagne and generally drink himself stupid. Reeling through the West End he hustles Rosemary into a back alley and tries to have sex with her but she fights free, slaps him and disappears. Completely plastered Gordon finds himself being taken over by two whores and Ravelston mournfully decides he ought to go along to protect his pathetic protege. In the event Gordon is far too drunk to get it up and passes out on the floor. This compares with the Saturday night party scene in Down and Out in Paris and London as a very convincing portrait of the progressive stages of drunkenness, from light exuberance, through gorging on booze, to staggering incoherence. It’s the best passage in the book.

Arrested Gordon wakes up with an incredible hangover in a police cell. After being booted out by the prostitute he wandered Piccadilly swigging from a wine bottle in the street (illegal) and when stopped by the police punched the sergeant. Orwell gives a reliably factual account of a police cell, being taken in a Black Maria to the holding cells at the court, being sentenced to £5 fine or a month in gaol. In fact his fine has already been paid by his sheepish champagne socialist patron, Ravelston, who takes Gordon back to his luxury pad in St John’s Wood. Gordon sleeps in silk pyjamas in a downy bed beneath an electric light – unimaginable luxury.

And this is the central imaginative flaw of the novel – all Gordon has to do is say Yes, Yes to help from his rich friend, Yes to getting his advertising job back, and he would have money and Rosemary’s attitude would soften and he would have her, too. It is the opposite of some searing portrait of Depression-era Britain – it is the portrait of a mean-minded, resentful, selfish little idiot who ruins ‘his own and everyone else’s life for the sake of his ‘meaningless scruples’.

Staying at Ravelston’s After the drunken night and arrest something snaps in Gordon: he accepts Ravelston’s offer of a comfortable place to stay for a while but his bitter resentment at Ravelston’s charity ends their friendship. Ravelston eventually finds him a job with a Dickensian grotesque, a misshapen dwarf who runs a seedy bookshop renting out the cheapest kind of thrillers and romances. Gordon moves into a substantially worse flop house, reeking of haddock and ringing to the arguments of the proley inhabitants. He ignores Ravelston on his one visit to him. He spurns the appeals of Rosemary and his sister, Julia.

Down, down The final chapters become dominated by his death wish, by his wish to sink down, down, down below the realm of decency or class, to submerge into what he calls the ghost-kingdom below class and society. He finds he likes the job, the grinding boredom, the idiotic clientele who borrow the sad cheap two-penny novelettes. He sits and reads cheap magazines all day (Tit BitsThe GemThe Girl’s Own Paper) and lies on his bed smoking looking at the ceiling all night.

Sex at last One evening Rosemary knocks on the door (in this low lodging house women are allowed, unlike the grimly correct rooms of his previous landlady, Mrs Wisbeach). She thinks maybe finally losing her virginity to him will somehow galvanise him and persuade him to take the mythical job back at the advertising agency. (It turns out she has gone in person to see his old boss at the agency to beg, and the boss willingly agreed to have Gordon back.) But Gordon is too far gone. They reluctantly do the deed then lie with their backs to each other. She dresses and leaves without a word.

The baby A few weeks Rosemary turns up in the bookshop. She’s pregnant. She won’t force her to marry him but she wants to keep it. There is the usual squalid discussion about a back-street abortion (such as features in the Michael Caine movie, Alfie, Kingsley Amis’s novel, You Can’t Have It All, and in the Jean-Paul Sartre novel, The Age of Reason) which you are meant to be repelled by. Gordon goes to a public library where the disapproving lady librarian lets him look at medical textbooks in which he leafs through illustrations of foetuses making himself, and the reader, feel sick.

He turned back a page or two and found a print of a six weeks’ foetus. A really dreadful thing this time – a thing he could hardly even bear to look at. Strange that our beginnings and endings are so ugly – the unborn as ugly as the dead. This thing looked as if it were dead already. Its huge head, as though too heavy to hold upright, was bent over at right angles at the place where its neck ought to have been. There was nothing you could call a face, only a wrinkle representing the eye – or was it the mouth? It had no human resemblance this time; it was more like a dead puppy-dog. (p.261)

Gordon gives in But he capitulates. He agrees to marry Rosemary and take the job at the advertising agency, though advertising represents the acme of everything he finds meretricious and trashy in contemporary culture. To his surprise he is immensely relieved. He realises it was his destiny all along. He feels as if he has finally grown up.

Gordon takes the job. He has a gift for copywriting and is soon working on a campaign for a soap client to persuade the British population they have smelly feet and need as much soap as they can buy. Rosemary and Gordon get married at a registry office. Ravelston is the only guest. He gives them a crockery set. They move into a top floor apartment off the Edgware Road. They have barely moved in before they have their first argument. He insists on buying an aspidistra to furnish the room. At first Rosemary thinks he’s joking, but he means it. In Gordon’s mind everything he rejected – including the aspidistra plant which had been, for him, a symbol of craven respectability – it has all won. Genuinely won. With no irony or sarcasm he insists they buy one and display it in the front room for everyone to see. He has joined the grown-up world. Like everyone else he will keep the aspidistra flying.


Comments

Pathetic

Gordon isn’t principled, he’s pathetic. He’s as wretchedly timid and scared as Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter but without her dignity or integrity. He daren’t go into the pub to see his friend because he’s embarrassed about only having a three-penny bit to his name. He’s afraid of going up to the flat of his rich patron, Ravelston, because he’s intimidated by its moneyed comfort. He’s scared of offending his landlady and so hides his illicit tea-making. He is, in short, frightened of life. He is a mouse not a man. Chapter 9, where he lets himself be taken in, is a catalogue of Gordon’s moral cowardice.

  • He wanted to refuse, and yet he had not quite the courage…
  • Yet for the time being he stayed, simply because he lacked the courage to do otherwise…
  • But he hadn’t the guts to face the streets as yet…
  • From time to time Gordon made feeble efforts to escape, which always ended in the same way…

and spending three hundred pages in his company – despite the appeal of Orwell’s ever-lucid prose – is depressing.

  • He lay awake, aware of his own futility, of his thirty years, of the blind alley into which he had led his life. (p.38)
  • He took a sort of inventory of himself and his possessions. Gordon Comstock, last of the Comstocks, thirty years old, with twenty-six teeth left; with no money and no job; in borrowed pyjamas in a borrowed bed; with nothing before him except cadging and destitution, and nothing behind him except squalid fooleries. His total wealth a puny body and two cardboard suitcases full of worn-out clothes. (p.209)
  • He didn’t want to be cried over; he only wanted to be left alone — alone to sulk and despair. (p.216)
  • He looked back over his life. No use deceiving himself. It had been a dreadful life — lonely, squalid, futile. He had lived thirty years and achieved nothing except misery. But that was what he had chosen. It was what he wanted, even now. He wanted to sink down, down into the muck where money does not rule. (p.

He takes every opportunity to offend anyone close to him, starting with his family and continuing with the patron Ravelston, he’s beastly to his girlfriend, bullying and arguing with her. I particularly disliked his snobbish superiority to all popular culture – he despises the cinema, hates the products he used to write advertising copy for – especially the new American trend for ‘breakfast cereals’ – despises the ‘villa culture’ of the suburbs. The pathetic ineffectual intellectual snob.

They began to pass through straggling villages on whose outskirts pseudo-Tudor villas stood sniffishly apart, amid their garages, their laurel shrubberies and their raw-looking lawns. And Gordon had some fun railing against the villas and the godless civilization of which they were part — a civilization of stockbrokers and their lip-sticked wives, of golf, whisky, ouija-boards, and Aberdeen terriers called Jock. (p.143)

And pretty much all the vast verbiage about ‘poverty’ is nothing more than bitterness and resent against the better off. The whole book is a vast crate of sour grapes.

A stream of cars hummed easily up the hill. Gordon eyed them without envy. Who wants a car, anyway? The pink doll-faces of upper-class women gazed at him through the car window. Bloody nit-witted lapdogs. Pampered bitches dozing on their chains. Better the lone wolf than the cringing dogs. He thought of the Tube stations at early morning. The black hordes of clerks scurrying underground like ants into a hole; swarms of little ant-like men, each with dispatch-case in right hand, newspaper in left hand, and the fear of the sack like a maggot in his heart. How it eats at them, that secret fear! Especially on winter days, when they hear the menace of the wind. Winter, the sack, the workhouse, the Embankment benches! (Chapter 4)

The money-stink and war

In all Orwell’s previous books he had interesting things to observe or to explain about imperialism, poverty, coal-mining, sleeping rough, hop-picking and so on. This is the first book where almost everything the protagonist thinks and does is worthless.

Gordon’s attitude to ‘capitalism’ and ‘money worship’ is so naive and childish as to be barely worth discussing. Orwell satirises Gordon’s contempt for money-making, for seeking a good career, a good place, he especially hates go-getting American types and he loathes advertising agencies etc. Every page is packed with new formulations of Gordon’s simplistic hatred of the money god, the money-stink, capitalism etc.

What he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success. Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good. The decalogue has been reduced to two commandments. One for the employers – the elect, the money-priesthood as it were – ‘Thou shalt make money’; the other for the employed – the slaves and underlings – ‘Thou shalt not lose thy job.’

It sounds good – like so much of Orwell’s it has a strong rhythm and great clarity of phrasing which drives the words home – but it is undermined by our clear knowledge that Gordon has an easy way out of the trap any time he wants to. Just ring up his old boss at the advertising agency. But no, he prefers to suffer and complain.

In a feeble sort of philosophical conversation with his wealthy patron, Ravelstone, the latter tries to argue Gordon into believing in Socialism – despite showing little or no understanding of what that would actually mean. Ravelston’s reading of Marx seems to amount to the notion that a) present capitalist society is on its last legs b) a communist revolution is inevitable and will sweep away all injustices and usher in the Golden Age. Like some of the book, this has a certain value as social history, as a presumably reasonably accurate of what educated Englishmen of the time thought.

But in any case Gordon dismisses Socialism as bunk; he is too consumed by sheer hatred and resentment of anyone better off than him. With obsessive violence he fantasises about planes flying over London, over the dingy boarding houses and squalid flats and windswept streets and lonely people and bombing it all flat, consuming London in a great conflagration. He wants a massive war to come and Ravelston sadly points out he’s not the only one.

‘Do you know that the other day I was actually wishing war would break out? I was longing for it — praying for it, almost.’
‘Of course, the trouble is, you see, that about half the young men in Europe are wishing the same thing.’
‘Let’s hope they are. Then perhaps it’ll happen.’

Maybe this is the best way to read this book – because it is not much value as a ‘novel’ – maybe it’s best to think of it as a kind of portrait of typical angry man who encapsulates the unhappiness and humiliation of the borderline poor, of the frustrated lower middle-classes, a representative of the clever but frustrated intellectuals of an entire generation. In the hands of a continental writer Gordon could, conceivably have turned into the portrait of a fascist, an angry young man who dreams of violence cleansing the world of parasites and decadence. Encourage his anti-Semitism and throw in a shiny uniform and you have a Nazi.

All over London and all over every town in England that poster was plastered, rotting the minds of men. He looked up and down the graceless street. Yes, war is coming soon. You can’t doubt it when you see the Bovex ads. The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of the machine-guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom – bang! A few tons of T.N.T. to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs.

This fetid War Wish of Gordon’s suggests just how little people learn – or intellectuals, anyway. There was a similar mood among the volunteers for the Great War, that it would cleanse and sweep away a corrupt and sick society (see Rupert Brooke). And here, 20 years later, we have the same kind of minor intelligentsia having the same kind of thoughts all over again.

Down, down – Orwell’s psychopathology

In the end Gordon is an embarrassingly revealing description of Orwell’s own self-loathing, embarrassment, shame and cowardice. A pauper at Eton, an odd-ball in the Burmese Police, an outsider to the Bloomsbury Set and the smart London literati, resenting the doting care and concern of his parents and relations – he had a hopeless psychological urge to escape, to plunge down into the filthiest depths of degradation and, in the end, Keep The Aspidistra Flying all-too-clearly conveys Orwell’s own strange nostalgie de la boue. It gives the game away, revealing the deeply personal motivations behind his supposedly fearless social reporting.

The final chapters are dominated by Gordon’s monomania for sinking below the realm of class and decency, of escaping all those who care for him, especially the womenfolk, Rosemary and his sister, Julia; of sinking down, down, down.

  • He must get out of this place, and quickly! Tomorrow morning he would clear out. No more sponging on Ravelston! No more blackmail to the gods of decency! Down, down, into the mud — down to the streets, the workhouse, and the jail. It was only there that he could be at peace. (p.219)
  • He didn’t want ever to work again; all he wanted was to sink, sink, effortless, down into the mud… (p.222)
  • Under ground, under ground! Down in the safe soft womb of earth, where there is no getting of jobs or losing of jobs, no relatives or friends to plague you, no hope, fear, ambition, honour, duty – no duns of any kind. That was where he wished to be. He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself – to sink, as Rosemary had said. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being underground. He liked to think about the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. It is a good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and spikes. He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition.  (p.227)
  • Life had beaten him; but you can still beat life by turning your face away. Better to sink than rise. Down, down into the ghost-kingdom, the shadowy world where shame, effort, decency do not exist! (p.233)
  • He had finished for ever with that futile dream of being a ‘writer’. After all, was not that too a species of ambition? He wanted to get away from all that, below all that. Down, down! Into the ghost-kingdom, out of the reach of hope, out of the reach of fear! Under ground, under ground! That was where he wished to be. (p.244)
  • He would not be free, free to sink down into the ultimate mud, till he had cut his links with all of them, even with Rosemary. (p.

On reflection, it is immensely apposite that the first word of the title of Orwell’s first published book was down.

Conclusion

If we take a romantic view of writing i.e the author is trying to ‘express’ something, then the author has to find a genre, a format, a style that provides the suitable framework. When it comes to the novel, an author needs to find characters and a plot to provide a structure for the other elements – dialogue, description, reflections and ideas.

Burmese Days is a success as a novel because the wide range of characters and incidents allow Orwell to show and dramatise his experience of British imperialism, with remarkably little explicit editorialising about it. The story and the characters are the message.

A Clergyman’s Daughter is a fascinating failure. He wanted to shock his readers by taking a highly respectable Anglican spinster and submit her to the humiliations of begging, sleeping rough, hop-picking, staying in London’s roughest flop houses and so on. But a) he is trying to hit too many targets; the same woman who is supposed to experience the bitterness of sleeping rough is also meant to experience the genteel humiliations of working in a fourth-rate private school. He tries to cram too much of his own experience into one container. And b) the precise mechanism by which she is pitched out of her comfortable middle class existence onto the streets is never satisfactorily explained. Nonetheless, I think it is well worth reading because, if you forget about these problems of the book’s ‘integrity’, then the individual sections – sleeping rough in London, hop picking in Kent, being a shabby teacher – are vividly written; they have the power and insight of his best reportage.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying is the second example of Orwell trying to find an outlet, a form or structure for what are obviously his own experiences and feelings. (Orwell himself worked in a bookshop in Highgate while he struggled to write; many of Gordon’s thoughts about the pointlessness of even trying to be a writer must come straight from the heart.) But there isn’t enough variety of scene or subject matter to justify a 300-page book. Realising this, Orwell has taken the conscious decision to exaggerate Gordon’s anger and contempt, to turn up his bilious rants and let his acid resentment go on for page after page. My guess is he thought that by exaggerating every aspect of his own sense of poverty, immiseration, humiliation and resentment, he would produce a Great Satirical Portrait; that Gordon would become a Representative Figure of our Age

But it doesn’t come off. Gordon just comes over as an ineffectual wanker, a stew of petty frustrations. It’s no surprise that Orwell forbade the reprinting of this book in his lifetime. The first and only print run sold just over 2,000 copies.


Aspects of style

Orwell’s use of stereotypes

I noticed in A Clergyman’s Daughter how Orwell’s texts are built of ‘types’ which we are expected to recognise, this recognition drawing us unconsciously into the point of view of the narrator, into the book’s world-view. And recognition of ‘types’ is compounded by worldly-wise sweeping generalisations. Both are exemplified in this passage:

  • Gordon wriggled free of Flaxman’ s arm. Like all small frail people, he hated being touched. Flaxman merely grinned, with the typical fat man’s good humour. He was really horribly fat. He filled his trousers as though he had been melted and then poured into them. But of course, like other fat people, he never admitted to being fat. No fat person ever uses the word ‘fat’ if there is any way of avoiding it. ‘Stout’ is the word they use — or, better still, ‘robust’. A fat man is never so happy as when he is describing himself as ‘robust’.

There’s plenty more where this came from. It would be possible to take Orwell’s narratives to pieces in terms of blocks or chunks built around these types or stereotypes.

  • It was one of those ‘twopenny no-deposit’ libraries beloved of book-pinchers.
  • She was one of those malignant respectable women who keep lodging-houses. Age about forty-five, stout but active, with a pink, fine-featured, horribly observant face, beautifully grey hair, and a permanent grievance. (p.24)
  • It had the sort of furniture you expect in a top floor back [room]. (p.28)
  • Lorenheim was one of those people who have not a single friend in the world and who are devoured by a lust for company. (p.28)
  • It was one of those houses where you cannot even go to the W.C. in peace because of the feeling that somebody is listening to you. (p.31)
  • The Primrose Quarterly was one of those poisonous literary papers in which the fashionable Nancy Boy and the professional Roman Catholic walk bras dessus, bras dessous. (p.35)
  • The Comstocks belonged to the most dismal of all classes, the middle-middle class, the landless gentry. In their miserable poverty they had not even the snobbish consolation of regarding themselves as an ‘old’ family fallen on evil days, for they were not an ‘old’ family at all, merely one of those families which rose on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than the wave itself… Gran’pa Comstock was one of those people who even from the grave exert a powerful influence. (p.39)
  • They were one of those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle classes, in which nothing ever happens.
  • They were the kind of people who in every conceivable activity, even if it is only getting on to a bus, are automatically elbowed away from the heart of things… (p.41)
  • Some of the women did make rather undesirable middle-aged marriages after their father was dead, but the men, because of their incapacity to earn a proper living, were the kind who ‘can’t afford’ to marry. None of them, except Gordon’s Aunt Angela, ever had so much as a home to call their own; they were the kind of people who live in godless ‘rooms’ and tomb-like boarding-houses. (p.42)
  • His father, especially, was the kind of father you couldn’t help being ashamed of; a cadaverous, despondent man, with a bad stoop, his clothes dismally shabby and hopelessly out of date. (p.44)

And so on and so on throughout the text. These continual expectations that the reader is familiar with this, that or the other aspect of modern life, with this or that ‘type’ of person or place or situation, stand as continual nudges into the fiction. They both flatter the reader’s intelligence and bolster the author’s aura of worldly wisdom. ‘You and I both know about this stuff, don’t we, old chap,’ and you find yourself reluctantly coerced to go along, even if you have no idea what he’s talking about.

  • He was the kind of man who never hears of anything until everybody else has stopped talking about it. (p.56)
  • The New Albion was one of those publicity firms which have sprung up everywhere since the War – the fungi, as you might say, that sprout from a decaying capitalism. (p.54)
  • It was one of those coats which have been made by a good tailor and grow more aristocratic as they grow older… (p.88)
  • He had one of those movements of contempt and even horror which every artist has at times when he thinks of his own work. (p.92)
  • It was one of those small, peaky faces, full of character, which one sees in sixteenth-century portraits.
  • She was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. (p.123)
  • This was one of those cheap arid evil little libraries (‘mushroom libraries’, they are called) which are springing up all over London and are deliberately aimed at the uneducated. (p.225)
  • Gordon knew her type at a glance. (p.259)

Orwell knows all these types at a glance. He is an expert on humanity. And he expects you to be, too.

Orwell’s humour

All this said, Orwell is always capable of moments of pawky humour:

Ravelston lived on the first floor, and the editorial offices of Antichrist were downstairs. Antichrist was a middle – to high-brow monthly, Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way. In general, it gave the impression of being edited by an ardent Nonconformist who had transferred his allegiance from God to Marx, and in doing so had got mixed up with a gang of vers libre poets.

Though it is often a rather grim, unsmiling humour.

Orwell’s use of the macabre

The ghost of Dickens is always hovering over Orwell’s writing, in the combination of urban poverty with sometimes warm broad humour and other times the weird and macabre.

Mr Cheeseman was a rather sinister little man, almost small enough to be called a dwarf, with very black hair, and slightly deformed. As a rule a dwarf, when malformed, has a full-sized torso and practically no legs. With Mr Cheeseman it was the other way about. His legs were normal length, but the top half of his body was so short that his buttocks seemed to sprout almost immediately below his shoulder blades. This gave him, in walking, a resemblance to a pair of scissors… It was apparent that Mr Cheeseman clipped his words from a notion that words cost money and ought not to be wasted… He took Gordon into his confidence, talked of conditions in the trade, and boasted with much chuckling of his own astuteness. He had a peculiar chuckle, his mouth curving upwards at the corners and his large nose seeming about to disappear into it… (p.223)

More than a touch reminiscent of Dickens’s malignant dwarf, Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop. But the advent of Mr Cheeseman, the miserly bookseller, in the final chapters of the book, is also maybe an indication that the whole thing is intended as a grotesque exaggeration, a satire, a hyperbolic fantasy.

Big Sister is watching you

Early on in the book the landlady of Gordon’s wretched lodgings is described as sneaking around and spying on her lodgers.

It was queer how furtively you had to live in Mrs Wisbeach’s house. You had the feeling that she was always watching you. (p.31)

Ring any bells? When I noticed this I realised the same thing happens in A Clergyman’s Daughter where miserly Mrs Creevy is constantly spying on Dorothy’s school lessons, and creeping about listening at the door of her bedroom.

The unpleasantness of being continually spied on was obviously an theme of Orwell’s fifteen years before Nineteen Eight-Four was published.

Contemporary relevance

Throughout the novel, among the kaleidoscope of his other thoughts Gordon feels guilty for not worrying more about the Depression and the unemployed and the suffering millions. The Depression and its severe impact on the north of England is exemplified in the repeated notion of Middlesborough as a particularly blighted town.

  • Most of the time, when he wasn’t thinking of coal-miners, Chinese junk-coolies, and the unemployed in Middlesbrough, he felt that life was pretty good fun…
  • But what of the real poor? What of the unemployed in Middlesbrough, seven in a room on twenty-five bob a week? When there are people living like that, how dare one walk the world with pound notes and cheque-books in one’s pocket?
  • He thought of the unemployed in Middlesbrough. Sexual starvation is awful among the unemployed.
  • In Middlesbrough the unemployed huddle in frowzy beds, bread and marg and milkless tea in their bellies. He settled down to his steak with all the shameful joy of a dog with a stolen leg of mutton.

As it happens today, Wednesday 9 August 2017, I just listened to a report on Radio 4’s World At One programme about the long-term impact of the financial crash of 2008, and they chose to send a reporter to Middlesborough as exemplifying the enduring negative consequences of the crash. We heard local people saying nothing is done for the town, it’s ignored by southern politicians, there’s no prospects for young people leaving town, not much hope of getting a job and no hope of buying a house. Unemployment is 1 in 6, double the national average and, as a consequence, Middlesborough had the highest Brexit vote of anywhere in the UK.

Obviously lots of things have changed since Orwell’s time, thousands of things, people’s lives have been transformed in countless ways. But some other things, deep structural things, haven’t changed at all.


Related links

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 Dark Frontier by Eric Ambler (1936)

This is the first novel by Eric Ambler, who quickly established himself in the late 1930s as the author of thrilling spy stories. As with a number of other first novels, it is in fact a parody of currently fashionable taste, in this case for the kind of gung-ho cheap spy novel which was popular at the time. (Other first novel parodies include Henry Fielding’s Shamela, a shameless parody of Richardson’s Pamela, and Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring, a parody of Sherwood Anderson.)

The style is laden with irony and parody and the central element of the plot is bizarre, but in many places it rises above its parodic intention to become a genuinely quick, exciting read.

Quick plot synopsis

English physicist Henry Barstow gets caught up in the politics of East European nation Ixania, where a foreign scientist, Kassen, has developed the first atom bomb and where the Aristocratic Party, led by the cunning, cruel and beautiful Madame Schverzinski, plan to sell it to the highest bidder among European nations.

Barstow allies himself with American journalist Casey with a view to seizing and destroying the formulae for the bomb, but both get caught up with the Peasants’ Party which happens to be planning a revolution against the ruling clique. Moreover, the representative of a British arms firm has also travelled to Ixania and has his own plans and his own set of armed goons who aim to get the formulae for the bomb.

Having all these different groups in conflict leads to a stream of fights, confrontations, shoot-outs, hiding in dark alleys, eavesdropping, chases on trains and through city streets, interrogations, torture, romance and chilling sadism: a boiling pot of exciting scenes!

Dual identity

But the novel risks being overshadowed by its very odd premise, which is that the protagonist has a dual identity: well-known physicist Henry Barstow is driving down to Cornwall for a much-needed break when he stops for a meal at an inn in Launceston. Here he is buttonholed by white-haired Simon Groom, executive with Cator & Bliss, the arms company, who tells him the fantastical news that the leading physicist in the field, Kassen, has succeeded in creating an atom bomb for the small European nation state of Ixania. Groom invites Barstow to accompany him to Ixania to discover the secret of the new bomb. Hesitantly, Barstow refuses but then – and this is the odd bit – when Groom has left, he picks up a pulp thriller someone has left on the pub sofa and starts reading about the omni-competent hero Conway Carruthers, a sort of Bond figure with his gadgets, girls and contacts across Europe.

Barstow reads and becomes totally absorbed until the owner of the book pops up to reclaim it. Barstow gets back into his car and resumes his drive west with the story of the bomb and the heroic lines from the thriller going round and round in his head when, whoops, from sleepiness he crashes his car. Upon regaining consciousness he thinks he is Conway Carruthers! He thinks he is a special agent who can co-operate with Groom, who can steal the secret of the atom bomb, who can preserve the peace of Europe. And for the rest of the book he operates under that assumption.

Parody

This peculiar set-up allows Ambler to parody spy fiction clichés, even as he deploys them. After his encounter with Madame Schverzinski, the real power behind the throne in Ixania, Carruthers, man of steel, berates himself.

Conway Carruthers, the man of steel, seemed to be losing his grip. He had made the mistake of underrating an opponent. More, he had failed even to perceive an opponent. Could it be because she was beautiful and a woman? Impossible! Had he not resisted the wiles, the womanly guile of countless beautiful spies? Had they not possessed tawny hair and sinuous bodies? Had they not reclined provocatively on gilt divans? Had not their green eyes held promise of untold delights in return for the secrets he alone could reveal?And had he not gone his way smiling with grim amusement at their baffled fury, their childish simplicity? … Perhaps… he was mooning… like one of those love-sick young Englishmen who always ruined his plans in chapter twelve by dashing frantically but indiscreetly to the rescue of their terrified fiancées. No more of it! From now on, he, Carruthers, would be the master mind. (Chapter 5)

This light and knowing tone, at the same time mysterious and thrilling and humorously self-deprecating, makes for a read which is both packed with tense situations but also light and tongue-in-cheek.

Add to this the way that, like all thrillers, it refers disparagingly to other thrillers – something I noticed in Chandler and MacLean and Bagley: it’s a very self-conscious genre. Is it saying, those cheap movies and pulp novels don’t know what they’re talking about; this is the real Mccoy; or is it saying, we all know this is twaddle but, hey, nevertheless…?

‘Only a flesh wound’, the novelists say. Let them try it for themselves! (Ch 10)

Carruthers had a way of making you behave and think like a dime novel. (Ch 11)

‘I don’t know who the hell you are, lady,’ I said in the lingua franca of film gangsters… (Ch 12)

If the man hadn’t been sitting beside me I would have sworn that I was listening to the ham lead of a third-rate stock company playing the Englishman in a bum crook melodrama. (Ch 13)

Plot highlights

After Barstow’s magical change of personality, he leaves the car and staggers on to a hotel in Plymouth and when he signs in does so as Conway Carruthers. For the next four weeks which the plot covers, Barstow is the pulp hero CC, who travels to Paris where Groom told him he’d be, who tries to contact Carruthers’ (fictional) friend in the Sûreté, who buys himself a gun, and who thinks he has adopted the cover of Professor Barstow which his passport calls him and everyone refers to him as a cover. But inside – he is an omni-competent hero. There follows:

  • Carruthers signing up to help Groom and joining him on the romantic eastbound train to Romania and the fictional country of Ixania
  • chatting to the lady on the train who turns out to be the power behind the throne, Madame Schverzinski
  • Carruthers trailing Groom to a warehouse where he is secretly meeting with an Ixanian operative
  • this same operative is assassinated on the train by two members of Ixania’s aristocractic secret society, the Red Gauntlet
  • once in Zovgorod, capital of Ixania, Groom and Carruthers go to the opera where a) they see Madame S, her sinister brother, the president etc and b) there is a mysterious power cut
  • this suggests to Carruthers the electricity is being used for atomic experiments; he follows the power lines out of the capital up a valley towards the eletro plant at a dam, and finds the secret laboratory and happens to be there at exactly the moment Madame S arrives for a secret meeting with Kassen, so Carruthers overhears everything
  • on the way back he is tailed by an American journalist Casey, who he punches at first imagining him to be a foe, but once they establish they’re on the same side they join forces and work together cf Bond and Felix Leiter
  • later that morning Casey’s contact, Andressin, a leader of the Peasant Party who are opposed to the aristocratic government, is murdered
  • Casey and Carruthers eavesdrop Groom hiring a gang of Greeks to break into Madame S’s villa and steal the plans; C&C themselves break in to observe the action, and are involved in fights and shooting but get away
  • Madame S has them gassed unconscious in a closed taxi and brought to her room where she warns them at gunpoint to leave Ixania
  • they return to Carruthers’ hotel room to find it a shambles after being searched by someone and are standing there when Groom enters with one of the Greek thugs and a gun

And so on. In other words, although the set-up and recurring references to to Barstow/Carruther’s split personality are odd, the plot itself is byzantine and atmospheric with a steady stream of twists, confrontations and revelations, so much so that it’s almost an encyclopedia of thriller topoi.

Style

Apparently Ambler pioneered in English the use of modern thriller prose: short declarative sentences, no unnecessary description, sequences which get to the point and stick to the point and are designed to generate the maximum tension and excitement.

I let the rope down again and was just buttoning up my coat for the descent when I heard a faint ‘click’ from the door. I flung my leg over the sill. I got no further. The door flew open and a stab of light from the corridor illuminated the room.
‘If you move an inch you’ll be shot,’ said a familiar voice.
I remained motionless. I was still half-blinded by the unexpected light and all I could see was two figures silhouetted in the doorway. Then the door shut and the room lights were switched on. It was Groom and Nikolai and in the right hand of the latter was a heavy automatic fitted with a Maxim Silencer. (Ch 13)

It’s extremely practical, no nonsense prose. The nonsense might be in some of the Prisoner of Zenda-type details, but not in the short, brisk sentences describing them.

The door opened behind me. I turned round. A man stood in the doorway. He was tall and thin. His small eyes were pale blue and dull like pebbles; not even the heavy moustache he wore could conceal the thin cruelty of his mouth. Above his right eye were two deep duelling scars. ‘This gentleman,’ said the Countess, ‘is Colonel Marassin – my aide-de-camp.’ (Ch 12)

Competence

In a post about Raymond Chandler I pointed out that what Philip Marlowe has is superhuman competence, typified by his ability to grasp the space and detail of every room he walks into, to size up a situation and be master of it immediately – and that one of the pleasures of this kind of adventure novel is vicariously partaking of the hero’s breath-taking omni-competence. As it happens, early on in this novel Ambler has a useful paragraph about just this characteristic.

Your true adventure and mystery story lover demands but one thing from heroes – competence. Be he detective or be he master criminal he must be a paragon. If he is at a loss it must be only momentarily; his vast armoury of experience must be ready at a moment’s notice to supply a weapon equal to any desperate occasion or a train of thought leading ultimately, if circuitously, to the correct goal. (Ch 2)

Related links

Paperback edition of Hodder & Stoughton 1959 edition of The Dark Frontier, illustration by Oliver Brabbins

1959 paperback edition of The Dark Frontier, illustration by Oliver Brabbins

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (1936)

Cain wasn’t pleased at being lumped in with other ‘hard-boiled’ writers of the 20s and 30s.

I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort. (Preface to Double Indemnity)

And that he certainly does. Double Indemnity was his second book after the blisteringly intense The Postman Always Rings Twice, appearing as a magazine serialisation in 1936, then in a collection of novellas, only published as a stand-alone book in 1943.

As in Postman you are immediately gripped by the urgency and immediacy of the first-person voice, here of a fast-talking insurance salesman called Huff. On the first page he calls on a prospective client whose servant asks the nature of the call.

‘And what’s the business?’
‘Personal.’
Getting in is the tough part of my job, and you don’t tip what you came for till you get where it counts… It was one of those spots you get in. If I said some more about ‘personal’ I would be making a mystery of it and that’s bad. If I said what I really wanted, I would be laying myself open to what every insurance agent dreads, that she would come back and say, ‘Not in’. If I said I’d wait, I would be making myself look small, and that never helped a sale yet. To move this stuff, you’ve got to get in. Once you’re in, they’ve got to listen to you, and you can pretty near rate an agent by how quick he gets to the family sofa, with his hat on one side of him and his dope sheets on the other. (Chapter 1)

No slang, no shooting. The ‘hard-boiledness’ stems from the psychology of the character: his unrelenting calculatingness, scanning all the angles, perceiving and using others as tools to his end, assuming everyone else is doing the same. It is the war of all against all, as Marx described capitalism. No sentiment, just a predator scheming his next move. Later there’s a femme fatale and a murder then a load of complications. But the tone of heartlessness, amorality, anything for a buck, is there from the first lines. Strip away Mom and Apple Pie and this is, and was sidely seen at the time as being, the American Way. That unbridled capitalism turns people back into savages.

Femme fatale

Both the women in these books feature in the Wikipedia article defining a femme fatale as an attractive woman who seduces a man into committing a crime/murder. This is truer of Phyllis Nirdlinger in Indemnity, who persuades insurance salesman Walter Huff to put a life policy on her husband then murder him. Sure, she’s got a babelicious body etc which she uses to sway him, but it’s more that she presents an opening, a willing partner, to something he’s been incubating after 15 long years in the insurance business ie the perfect insurance scam.

Is she a femme fatale? She’s certainly given a rather melodramatic speech.

‘There’s something in me, I don’t know what. Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness…’ (Ch 2)

(These books are odd. At one moment they’re heartless, cruel indictments of man’s inhumanity masquerading in an everyman tone, and the next they’re grand operas. Phyllis’s speech is like a tragic aria.)

Feminist criticism would suggest that Cora and Phyllis represent one of the crudest stereotypes of the female, an age-old cliché of the woman who represents the desired and the taboo, that once you give into her sexual wiles you are lured all unwary over the boundary of morality into a World of Crime. A honey trap. The desired deceiver.

It’s true in both novels the first-person narrator is the man, and the woman is seen as a siren, powerful through her sex appeal, who is the proximate cause of a murder. Both only exist through the male text. Neither have defining agency. But neither Cora nor Phyllis is a siren luring the unwitting. Both Chambers and Huff are hardly innocent, are already criminals or have been planning crime for a long time.

In fact, from one angle, the woman in these novels is surprisingly equal with the men, in the sense that they are equally amoral and greedy and murderous. They conspire on about the same level and they are both as physically involved in the murder, Cora getting badly battered in the fake car crash, Phyllis lumbering along with her husband’s corpse on her back as in a nightmare. The only real difference is that, being written from the man’s point of view, the novels convey a very powerful (in Postman overwhelmingly powerful) sense of the man’s sexual attraction to his partner. But there is no doubting the intensity of Cora’s sexual attraction to Frank, or of Phyllis’s cunning deployment of her sexuality to co-opt Huff into her schemes. The novels could theoretically be rewritten from the woman’s point of view giving her at least parity.

The unsung hero

The sex-driven duo may fuel the first part of these novels, but the second half strongly involves the Antagonist, the figure who threatens all their plans, who threatens, quite simply, to expose them as murderers. In Postman it’s Stickett the District Prosecutor (though his role is counterbalanced by the smart defence lawyer Katz); in Indemnity it’s Huff’s boss at the insurance company, Keyes, who makes Huff’s (and the reader’s) blood run cold by slowly piecing together what really happened while all the time Huff has to pretend to be helping to uncover his own crime.

This is where both novels make their impact – the blood-chilling descriptions of the murder itself are bad enough, but both novels then score with the tremendous tension of watching the Antagonist know the Protagonist is guilty, telling him he knows he’s guilty, and then trying to prove it. Their pursuit, their detective work, their thoroughness makes the Protagonist’s heart miss a beat, and the immediate visceral first-person narrative means ours do, too.

The lights began to look funny in front of my eyes… He was all wrong on how it was done, but he was so near right it made my lips turn numb just to listen to him… My legs felt funny and my ears rang, but my eyes kept staring at the dark, and my mind kept pounding on it, what I was going to do. I didn’t know. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t even get drunk. (Ch 8)

Morality

Cain’s books really are directly and immediately about sex and murder in a way surprisingly few of, say, Dashiell Hammett’s are; Hammett’s are about fiendishly cunning investigations of often convoluted events or, as in The Glass Key, generate scores of pages of continually shifting theorising around a death which remains a mystery, at the core of the text.

In Cain there is no mystery and no pages of theorising. It is an adrenaline-fuelled, straightahead, no-nonsense narrative of a murder inspired by the illicit sexual attraction between the murderers and the dreadful consequences, the fear, the guilt and the reprisals. It is hard-boiled. It is noir.

It is, in fact, not really so immoral as contemporaries worried. In both the bad guy loses and is punished. The murderer Frank Chambers loses the sexpot who inspired him, Cora, in a car crash and then is convicted and hanged for murder. Huff discovers Phyllis had killed before and was simply using him to bump off her  husband, he is nearly shot dead by her, confesses to Keyes, is packed off for everyone’s convenience on a foreign cruise under a different name, where he meets her again like the avenging angel, they make a bizarre suicide pact and leap from the ship to their deaths.

Ie Justice is done, if not by man’s feeble justice system, then by the gods.

Movie versions

Made into a famois film noir,  directed by Billy Wilder with a screenplay part-written by Raymond Chandler, and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. The rather florid ending is notably rewritten to become a simpler, more tense encounter in her house where the lovers-turned-haters pull guns on each other and both shoot.

Related links

A Gun For Sale by Graham Greene (1936)

One of the more populist of his books, from the group which Greene in mid-life dismissively referred to as ‘entertainments’, I found A Gun For Sale the first genuinely gripping and plausible Greene novel I’ve read. For once there is something like a plot, a sequence of linked events concerning the same characters in which much is at stake and the reader is genuinely concerned at the outcome, which rattles along at speed and isn’t slowed to a standstill by the long soliloquies about despair and futility which mar the other early novels (although the long passage about the medical students seems inserted to pad it out).

Plot

Raven is a hitman. Abroad, he murders an old socialist Minister in some government, sparking an international crisis as nations blame each other. Raven doesn’t care. Back in England he is paid off by the guy who contracted him, fat Cholmondeley. But when Raven satirically and cruelly buys a dress for the crippled girl in his seedy boarding house, he discovers he’s been had – paid in forged fivers. The police have the serial numbers of the notes, have distributed the list to every shop in London, and the dress shop tips them off. Determined on revenge, Raven finds and follows Cholmondeley onto a train heading north to Nottwich (presumably Nottingham).

In a parallel thread, young Anne Crowder is in love with clear-thinking logical detective Jimmy Mather. Mather just happens to be the detective assigned to the Raven case. Anne just happens to be on the same train heading for Nottwich as Raven, as she’s a dancer joining a troupe there. Penniless and ticketless, Raven gets talking to her, then uses her as a human shield to escape through Nottwich station and then marches her to the outskirts to a deserted estate of new houses where he fully intends to shoot her, but the accidental arrival of an estate agent allows her to escape.

Anne makes her way back to her boarding house and next day is rehearsing with her dance troupe when Cholmondeley turns up, under the name of Davis, as the backer of the show. Anne realises this is the fat middle-man Raven is looking for; also that if they can prove Cholmondeley did it, the international incident which is moving towards war will be cancelled. She allows Cholmondeley to wine and dine and very nearly seduce her – but then accidentally lets slip her acquaintance with Raven, and a terrified Cholmondeley smothers her with a pillow. We think she’s been murdered.

Ticket inspectors etc have identified Raven, tip off the police and so Mather and some London cops arrive in Nottwich, and promptly bump into Raven at a church jumble sale (!) Here Raven sees a woman with Anne’s bag, hassles and follows her home where, after beating up the deranged Acker, he finds Anne tied up and stuffed into a fireplace (!) but otherwise unharmed. But Raven didn’t know Mather had been at the same jumble sale, has followed him to the house, and is now trailing him as he carries the unconscious Anne to a hideout in a shack amid the railway sidings.

Meanwhile, wicked old Sir Marcus, one of the richest men in Europe and CEO of Midland Steel goes to see a local bigwig Major Calkin and – after a satirical dinner party scene – tries to strong arm him to use his influence to ensure Raven is shot dead on sight – because it turns out wicked old Sir Marcus was the sponsor of the original assassination. He is fomenting war because his metal works stand to make a fortune from the outbreak of hostilities, when he will be able to export to all the warring nations.

There is always an element of the ludicrous or absurd in a Greene novel, but the slight absurdities of the jumble sale and Anne being stuffed up a chimney are dwarfed by the news that the entire town is to have a gas alert practice! Sirens will go off and everyone has to wear a mask at a specified time. Greene goes into very great detail about how a gang of medical students takes advantage of this gas attack practice to go about their annual rags and japes – except one is unfortunate to bump into Raven, who strips him at gunpoint, stealing his medic costume and – crucially – gas-mask.

Raven bumps into Cholmondeley/Davis and forces him at gunpoint to take him into the heart of Midland Steel (they’re let through the tight security because everyone thinks it’s a medical student jape). Here there is a showdown with wicked Sir Marcus more or less confessing everything. The tension ratchets up when Sir M presses the emergency alarm and cops come banging at the door. Raven shoots Marcus dead, then also whining, crying Cholmondeley/Davis, and is turning to shoot Anne’s boyfriend, Inspector Mathis, who is outside the window on the window-cleaning gantry, when another policeman Saunders forces the lock, bursts into the room and shoots Raven, who dies sobbing in agony.

Epilogue

In a deliberately anti-romantic gesture, we are shown the after-effects of the tragedy ie it has next to no impact on the lives of a range of secondary characters:

  • Ruby the tarty chorus girl who was due to lunch with Davis at 1 o’clock, instead persuades the hotel commissionaire to buy her sausages and coffee.
  • Saunders, the copper who shot Raven dead, passes a hall holding a lecture from a man who claims to be able to cure stammers, so he goes in.
  • Major Calkin the profiteer who Sir Marcus had asked to get the police to shoot Raven on sight discusses the tragedy with the police inspector then, in the street, dives into a shop to avoid Mrs Piker and her wretched dog.
  • The old lady and mad Acky who host the boarding house where Davis took showgirls to sleep with them, and who attacked Raven as he rescued Anne, delight in another fictional letter of protest he has written to his bishop (the assumption being that he is a seedy, defrocked priest).

Even though Anne is finally vindicated that her efforts have stopped a European war, her puzzled boyfriend the copper Mathis proposes to her and, as their train pulls into London, they both forget about this strange adventure.

It’s almost as if life just goes on after people die, or that the tragedies which loom so large for their protagonists, are only monetary blips in the lives of the rest of us – this also being the message of the final scenes in The Heart of The Matter and The Power and The Glory.

Movies

For a change this Greene novel opens with something decisive and dramatic – the grisly assassination of the Minister along with his elderly maid – and then maintains the edgy pace and tension. There are a few rather absurd longeurs – the jumble sale, the Chief Constable’s dinner party, the medical students’ pranks – but it’s easy to park them to one side, concentrating on the core of a really compelling narrative. And that’s what explains that this is the most filmed of Greene’s novels, having been adapted no fewer than five times for the screen, starting with the classic 1942 noir version, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

A rogues gallery

There is not so much prolonged characterisation in this Greene novel ie not so much of the repetition of a few key memories amid reams of descriptions of their thoughts, feelings and vague puzzled motivations, which make the Farrant siblings in England or D. in The Confidential Agent so wearing.

It’s here, but kept to a brisk minimum: Raven has a hare-lip which makes him memorable and recognisable, so that’s why he always bumps off witnesses. The hare-lip means he’s never had a girl, making him ‘a sour bitter screwed-up figure’. His father was hanged and his mother cut her own throat in the kitchen leaving her body to be found by the young boy, who was then abused in various care homes. So Raven is a barrel of laughs. And he’s not the only one with a blighted past. The brother of the policeman, Mather, drowned himself, a bitter memory which keeps coming back to him.

But most of the other characters are given quick, vivid pen portraits, a handful of brisk (and generally seedy) details enough to sketch in a whole a life, the kind of thing Greene is so brilliant at.

The minister came out from the bedroom. He had tried to tidy himself, but he had forgotten the cigarette ash on his trousers, and his fingers were ink-stained. (p.6)

Mr Cholmondeley picked his way between the tables. He was fat and wore an emerald ring. His wide square face fell in folds over his collar. He looked like a real-estate man, or perhaps a man more than usually successful in selling women’s belts. (p.12)

[Alice] came out of the next room, a slattern, one shoulder too high, with wisps of fair bleached hair over her face… He hit her on the side of the head… ‘Get on,’ he said, ‘you humpbacked bitch.’ (p.15)

A woman in a nurse’s uniform opened the door, a woman with a mean lined face and untidy grey hair. Her uniform needed washing; it was spotted with grease-marks and what might have been blood or iodine. (p.26)

[Dr Yogel‘s] hair was jet black; it looked as if it had been dyed, and there was not much of it; it was plastered in thin strands across the scalp. When he turned he showed a plump hard bonhomous face, a thick sensual mouth. (p.27)

[The girl minding the porn mag shop] had a square face that could never have looked young, a squint that her heavy steel spectacles did nothing to disguise. She might have been any age from twenty to forty, a parody of a woman, dirty and depraved, crouched under the most lovely figures, the most beautiful vacant faces the smut photographers could hire. (p.31)

[Charlie who keeps a gambling club with prostitutes] was as fat as an eastern eunuch and swayed his great hips coyly when he walked like a street woman. (p.35)

[Mr Graves, a potential housebuyer was] a young-old man in a black suit who carried about with him in his pale face and irascible air the idea of babies in small sour rooms, of insufficient sleep…. Mr Graves said, ‘Good morning,’ carried his pitiful narrow-chested pride downstairs. (p.51)

Miss Maydew sat sideways in the front row with her feet up on the next stall. She was in tweeds and had a golf-and-grouse-moor air. Her real name was Binns, and her father was Lord Fordhaven. (p.52)

[Mr Collier the director] was rather under-sized with a fierce eye and straw-coloured hair and a receding chin. He was continually glancing over his shoulder in fear that somebody was getting at him from behind. (p.53)

The Chief Constable [of Nottwich] was fat and excited. He had made a lot of money as a tradesman and during the war had been given a commission and the job of presiding over the local military tribunal. He prided himself on having been a terror to pacifists. It atoned a little for his own home life and a wife who despised him. (p.68)

The curate entered. He wore suede shoes, he had a shiny face and plastered hair and he carried an umbrella under his arm like a cricket bat; he might have been returning to the pavilion after scoring a duck in a friendly, taking his failure noisily as a good sportsman should. (p.84)

[Acky] had come through to her side from the back of the house on rubber-soled shoes, making no sound. Tall and bald with a shifty, pious look… he belonged to a different class altogether: a good school and a theological college had formed his accent; something else had broken his nose. (p.93)

Sir Marcus [one of the richest men in Europe] entered on the tip of his toes. He was a very old, sick man with a little wisp of white beard on his chin resembling chicken fluff. He gave the effect of having withered inside his clothes like a kernel in a nut. He spoke with the faintest foreign accent and it was difficult to determine whether he was Jewish or of an ancient English family. He gave the impression that very many cities had rubbed him smooth. If there was a touch of Jerusalem, there was also a touch of St James’s, if of some Central European capital, there were also marks of the most exclusive clubs in Cannes… It was difficult to hear what he said; he spoke in a whisper. His old scaley eyes took them all in. (p.107)

Style

According to Wikipedia, his contemporary Evelyn Waugh described Greene’s style as ‘not a specifically literary style at all. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry, and of independent life’. This is spot on. Raymond Chandler makes you gasp on every page at the brilliancy with which he handles the language, at the vivid poetry of his style. Greene never does that. There is rarely if ever a single sentence you would quote for its linguistic dexterity or imaginative use of words alone.

Instead, Greene’s ‘style’ consists more of a technique or strategy of deployment, the deployment of telling detail: it’s the skilful way generally anonymous sentences are placed to cumulatively create an impression: of people, of places, and of people’s thoughts. In the snapshots of characters listed above, none of the individual sentences are verbally surprising or impressive, the prose is generally brisk and factual. It’s the selection of detail and its crisp juxtaposition, which create the affect, especially when it’s the juxtaposition of internal thoughts with external details which counterpoint them. And since the thoughts are generally gloomy and the external details are generally seedy they complement each other perfectly, and it is this combination which, I think, is what creates the Greene style.

She stared out at the dingy Midland station with dismay. It seemed to her that everything which made her life worth the effort of living was lost; she hadn’t even got a job, and she watched, past an advertisement of Horlick’s for night starvation and a bright blue-and-yellow picture of the Yorkshire coast, the weary pilgrimage which lay before her from agent to agent. The train began to move by the waiting-rooms, the lavatories, the sloping concrete into a waste of rails. (p.181)

P.S.

In a strange twist Raven reveals to Anne, during their night hiding out in the railway sidings, that he started his criminal career by murdering Kite, leader of a gang in Brighton. Now this is the same Kite whose murder starts the plot of Brighton Rock and whose gang Pinkie takes over. Rock wasn’t published for another two years: was Greene intending to link up all these novels into one super-plot? (Would be a fun party game trying to make plot conections between all his novels…) Or was the Kite business so handy he re-used it for Rock – surely not. Or was he so short of filler for this already short novel that he stuck in something which was already part of another draft novel, then found he couldn’t remove it from either?

The movie

The novel was bought up by Hollywood and made into the fabulous movie, This Gun For Hire, introducing the gorgeous young Alan Ladd and the stunningly beautiful Veronica Lake.

Credit

A Gun For Sale by Graham Greene, first published by Heinemann in 1936. All quotes and references are from the 1986 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

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.

The Island of Sheep by John Buchan (1936)

The fifth and final of the series of Richard Hannay ‘spy’ novels by John Buchan.  As usual, more interesting for its social history and the light it sheds on the mentality of the right-wing squirearchy than for the – in fact quite thrilling – boys’ adventure plot.

Plot in three parts

1. In the glory days of Empire before the Great War Hannay had an adventure which led up to him, Peter Pienaar and another young Imperialist called Lombard helping save the life of a burly Norwegian named Haraldsen, looks like a Viking and fond of quoting the old sagas. Before the final attack Haraldsen makes them swear a blood vow to defend him or his son if attacked. Thirty years later, Hannay stumbles across Lombard by accident, then across Haraldsen’s son who, we discover, is being pursued by a gang of international criminals for he not only inherited millions from his successful gold magnate father, but his father seems to have discovered a kind of Eldorado of gold right at the end of his life, a find recorded in a mysterious chunk of green jade.  Our heroes revive the pact they made with Haraldsen père and spirit Haraldsen fils to safety at Fosse, Hannay’s country pile in Gloucestershire.

2. But the vultures close in, so Hannay’s whole family with servants and Haraldsen decamp to Sandy Arbuthnot’s castle in Scotland, where they figure to be safe, and Lombard pulls off a ripping stunt in spiriting Haraldsen’s daughter away from her private school under the noses of the baddies who were about to kidnap her. After quite a lot of local colour in Scotland, with much hunting and fishing and a traditional Scots wedding, Haraldsen has one of his Norse moments and insists he returns to his Norwegian home island – the Island of Sheep – to confront his pursuers in a Last Battle, and Sandy – who has just returned from meeting and sizing up the enemy – agrees.

3. They all decamp to the Isle of Sheep, a fictional member of the fictional Norland Islands off the coast of Norway. Here the focus switches to the two teenagers, Hannay’s son and Haraldsen’s daughter, who kayak over to what they think is a government ship only to discover it is the bad guys who have cut the telephone cable from the island to the mainland. After a spell locked up, they are mysteriously released by one of the baddies and make a desperate escape in the fog back to the island only to discover the goody house is surrounded, only to go down to an inlet where – unexpectedly but rather conveniently – a hundred locals have arrived to hunt a pod of whales and who are easily stirred up at the news that outsiders are attacking one of them. Peter John, Anna and their pet peregrine falcon, Morag, save the day, hooray!

Here, at its climax, the children come into their own and the book mutates into a Famous Five adventure avant la lettre (the first FF adventure was published in 1942); also I can’t get images from Tintin and the Black Island (1937) out of my mind, and wonder what if any connection there was between Buchan and Hergé.

Lost dreams of Empire

The opening chapter is both an intriguing start to a ripping yarn and historically interesting: on the train back from London Hannay remembers the glory days of Empire before the Great War, when he mingled in Africa with white men with grand dreams of what the British Empire could be and do.

My mind went back to Lombard. I remembered how we had sat on a rock one evening looking over the trough of Equatoria, and, as the sun crimsoned the distant olive-green forests, he had told me his ambitions. In those days the after-glow of Cecil Rhodes’s spell still lay on Africa, and men could dream dreams. Lombard’s were majestic… He had had his ‘call’ and was hastening to answer it. Henceforth his life was to be dedicated to one end, the building up of a British Equatoria, with the highlands of the East and South as the white man’s base. It was to be both white man’s and black man’s country, a new kingdom of Prester John. It was to link up South Africa with Egypt and the Sudan, and thereby complete Rhodes’s plan. It was to be a magnet to attract our youth and a settlement ground for our surplus population. It was to carry with it a spiritual renaissance for England. ‘When I think,’ he cried, ‘of the stuffy life at home! We must bring air into it, and instead of a blind alley give ’em open country. . . .’ (Chapter 1)

In terms of the plot and drama, it is a crude coincidence that the fat stockbroker sitting opposite him on the train prattling about golf to his colleagues then turns out to be the very same Lombard, 25 years older, fatter and unromantic. But as social history it is a fascinating insight into how romantic and idealistic the dream of Empire was, how it captured the imagination of so many capable men – and how infinitely sad was its slow collapse and the attrition of those ideas in the difficult years between the Wars, before the final capitulation and death of that dream in the independence of India and the other colonies.

The power of that dream, and the shadow its slow decline cast over the entire ruling class of Britain, are vital parts of the social, political and cultural history of Britain in the twentieth century, and Buchan’s novels, in their shilling shocker way, give powerful insights into it, from the mind of a man who was at the heart of Imperial administration from his time with Milner in South Africa at the turn of the century to his role as Governor-General of Canada 40 years later.

Decadent Britain

There’s a section which made me laugh out loud in its right-wing triteness. One of the baddies fancies himself a great intellectual and enjoys going to parties of left wing artists and so on. Buchan gives a suitably dismissive description:

‘I got a young friend to take me to a party – golly, such a party! I was a French artist in a black sweater, and I hadn’t washed for a day or two. A surréaliste, who had little English but all the latest Paris studio argot. I sat in a corner and worshipped, while Barralty held the floor. It was the usual round-up of rootless intellectuals, and the talk was the kind of thing you expect–terribly knowing and disillusioned and conscientiously indecent. I remember my grandfather had a phrase for the smattering of cocksure knowledge which was common in his day – the “culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I don’t know what the modern equivalent would be – perhaps the “culture of the B.B.C.” Our popular sciolism is different–it is a smattering not so much of facts as of points of view. But the youths and maidens at this party hadn’t even that degree of certainty. They took nothing for granted except their own surpassing intelligence, and their minds were simply nebulae of atoms. Well, Barralty was a king among those callow anarchists. You could see that he was of a different breed from them, for he had a mind, however much he debased it. You could see too that he despised the whole racket.’ (Ch 7)

Fancy trying to teach mechanics anything. Ha ha ha ha. Their job is to fix my charabanc and know their place. And fancy the modish new BBC trying to ‘educate and inform’ the ghastly inhabitants of our dreary cities, ha ha ha. Anyone knows that only chaps who have titles, country houses and went to pukka schools are allowed to be educated.

Boys will be boys

Something about a private education seems, or seemed, to leave these men permanently immature and harking back to the halcyon days of their boarding schools. Again and again the finest moments in the chase or fight or whatever peril our heroes are in, is said to bring out a boyish brightness in their eyes, or they look like fine boys again – or they feel like boys summoned to the headmaster’s study or….  boys boys boys.

I certainly remembered one instance when Haraldsen had talked to me about a house he was building in a little island somewhere in the north, and had rhapsodized over it like a boy.

I recognized in him the boy I had known in Equatoria, and I felt as if I had suddenly recovered an old friend.

His lean, dark head and smooth, boyish face were just as I remembered them twenty years ago.

His face was so lit up and eager that I thought it was simply another ebullition of the boy in him that could not die…

When I called to him he was laughing like a care-free boy at the figure Peter John cut in Sandy’s short waders.

In the end they caught Haraldsen’s eyes, and some compelling force in them made him pull up a chair and sit down stiffly, like a schoolboy in the headmaster’s room.

Part of his cheerfulness was due to the admiration he had acquired for Sandy, which made him follow as docilely as a small boy in the wake of a big brother.

They were like schoolboys playing at pirates who had suddenly found themselves enrolled under the authentic Blackbeard.

Trouble with women

This arrested development or emotional immaturity is very apparent in their dealings with women – for Hannay/Buchan these come in three flavours, either sweet old ladies in Highland villages, adorable wives, or over-made-up slatterns. That’s it. The homosexuality which notoriously flourished in English public schools – partly due to the complete absence of women – and led to what the French called ‘the English vice’ ie spanking and bondage – made it notoriously difficult for these men to have thoughtful adult relationships with women. True, in this novel, both Hannay and Sandy are now married with young children, but women play no real role in the book.

In fact, going back a book, Mr Standfast came in for much criticism at its publication and ever since because Buchan repeatedly describes his wife-to-be as a boy, consciously or not suppressing her feminine characteristics and (comically) emphasising that she is nearly as good as a boy!

She seemed little more than a child, and before the war would probably have still ranked as a flapper. She wore the neat blue dress and apron of a V.A.D. and her white cap was set on hair like spun gold. She smiled demurely as she arranged the tea-things, and I thought I had never seen eyes at once so merry and so grave. I stared after her as she walked across the lawn, and I remember noticing that she moved with the free grace of an athletic boy. (MS Ch 1)

I puzzled over this till I realized that in all my Cotswold pictures a figure kept going and coming – a young girl with a cloud of gold hair and the strong, slim grace of a boy, who had sung ‘Cherry Ripe’ in a moonlit garden. Up on that hillside I understood very clearly that I, who had been as careless of women as any monk, had fallen wildly in love with a child of half my age. (MS Ch 5)

With a child – not a woman. The grace of a boy – not a woman. Although Buchan goes out of his way to prove his wife every bit as capable (or more) than Hannay, the impression remains nonetheless that she is a cracking chap and would have been a godsend to the First Eleven – er, with a few extra bits thrown in which we needn’t dwell on.

Play the game

It is a cliche that public schoolboys were encouraged to play games at the expense of intellectual pursuits, and that the spirit of team sports, abiding by rules, playing for the team etc, were directly related to the mentality they were expected to bring to running the greatest empire the world had ever seen. the famous quote, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game’, is the famous line from Sir Henry Newbolt’s 1892 poem Vitaï Lampada.

Huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ It is fascinating to see how this mentality works out in practice, for almost every aspect of Hannay’s life really is referred to as a game. His ordinary, non-perilous-adventure activities are all based around ‘games’ with rules: lots of hunting, whether it be stalking deer, fishing for trout or shooting ducks in Norfolk – and of course all the animals you’re hunting are themselves game – there are precise rules on how to do it, and not only that but the rules extend to the relationships you have with the servants who help you, ghillies and groundsmen and fly fishing suppliers and the owners of inns near good hunting, shooting and fishing territory.

Etiquette There are also, obviously enough, precise rules around etiquette, about how one dresses for dinner, or informally, or for sports activities, and how one comports oneself in public and at dinner, where strict rules surround what is eaten with what, and what is drunk with what, and when at which course, and then what subjects are permissible and which taboo, for a room full of like-minded men smoking their pipes after dinner.

Life as games All this means that when adventure comes along, it too is turned into a game, or rather into a series of mini-games, each of which can be controlled and conceived of as games. Thus when Hannay pretends to allow himself to be hypnotised by the baddie in The Three Hostages, it is part of the game. Whenever he and allies realise they’re in peril they’ll say ‘the chase is on’, the game has started’. Notoriously, our chaps described the rivalry between Russia and Great Britain at the borders of India and in Afghanistan as the Great Game. And in the two Great War-related novels, Greenmantle and Standfast, the War itself is conceived as a gigantic game, made up of myriads of smaller games,  offensives and ‘shows’, all of which must be played by rules which are comprehensible and definable, at least to the officer class who all went to the same schools – if not quite so obvious to the ‘lions’ who were led to slaughter in their millions.

War, business, adventure, Empire, crime, love, sport – almost all human activities can be turned by these huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ elite into a game.

‘He wasted a lot of time in that barren game, and more than once nearly had his throat cut, and then he was lucky enough to turn up on the Rand when that show was beginning.

Albinus looked a workmanlike fellow who had been at the game before, and even Troth made a presentable figure for the wilds.

He didn’t get much beyond a few klipspringer and bushbuck, but it was a good game area, and he lived in hopes of a kudu.

‘They visited the Island of Sheep – this was the name of Valdemar’s place – and, when they found it empty, pretty well ransacked the house, just like so many pirates from the sea. But they did no mischief, for they were playing a bigger game.’

‘He doesn’t appear to care for money so much as for the game.’

‘I felt somehow that we had the game in our hands, and had got over the worst snags.’

His opponents’ game was the old one of the pack, learned when their ancestors hunted on the plains of Asia.

‘Oh, nonsense!’ I said. ‘We’re not here cadging hospitality. We’re all in the same game, and this is part of it.’

‘I see what your game is, and I don’t like it either.’

‘The Skipper knows that game too well. If we try to double-cross him he’ll shoot.’

Another way of thinking about Hannay’s racism, his racist contempt for the excluded and the outsiders which I considered in my previous post, is they are outsiders because they don’t play the game (whatever the particular game happens to be). They are either completely outside the gaming culture – like Africans, Indians and natives everywhere – or they are white but perversely refuse to play the game like, in Hannay’s opinion, socialists, Germans or – worst of all – Jews.

And this refusal to join in the White Man’s game mentality, with its elaborate rules and etiquette, can only mean one thing – it can’t be that they think the game silly or are playing their own game – it must be that the refusers are wicked degenerates, or helpless half-wits who are the pawns of wicked degenerates. And that precisely describes the gang in The Three Hostages who are more or less stooges of the wicked mastermind Medina – or the gang in Island of Sheep, who are more or less weak-minded pawns of the real wicked baddie, Jacques D’Ingraville (‘Foreign blighter is he, Sandy? Yeees, doesn’t surprise me.’).

Master and servant

Chapter 4, which explains how Hannay and Pienaar and Lombard came to be blood brothers with Haraldsen, is set in pre-War Africa.  All the blacks ie the  native inhabitants of Africa, are referred to as ‘boys’, if they are working for our heroes, or ‘Kaffirs’ if they’re the 99.9% of the population who aren’t. Both these terms would develop nastier and nastier overtones of domination and racism as the century progressed and white men’s hold upon Africa came to seem more and more perilous.

Similarly, Hannay in England or Scotland knows where he is in his relations with other white men – either they’re of his own class, or they are servants of some kind, butler, gardener, groundsman, ghillie, driver, beater, help on a shoot or fish.

The same thing applies as with the concept of ‘the game’ which is that, there is a set of clearly defined relationships which a posh man can have with other Brits, almost all those of master and servant, all of which carry an etiquette and rules for both parties. It is when Hannay steps outside the easy master-servant relationship he is used to that he is nervous and becomes generally critical if not nasty. For example, the population of most of the UK is a mystery to him; all city-dwellers belong to the ghastly middle classes or, worse, the violent working classes unless that is, they are redeemed by being in the Army – in which case the rules and regulations surrounding Army life immediately kick in – thus Hannay is at sea when caught in a fight with a drunk Scots Fusilier in Mr Standfast – but when he meets the same man and is wearing his general’s uniform he is immediately able to patronise and control him and, indeed, persuade him to become his manservant which – in these wish-fulfilment fantasies of the upper-classes – the working class man (Geordie Hamilton) is immediately happy to do.

But introduce him to the mixed lower-middle-class society of pacifists and artists in Biggleswick, or to the would-be artists described in the BBC quote above,  or to the nightclub clientele in The Three Hostages, then Hannay is all at sea, then his limited world-view struggles to cope with the chaotic realities of an unpredictable population of 50 million fellow human beings most of whom along with the nature of their lives and struggles for money and food and shelter and love – due to the blinkers wrapped round him from birth –  are a complete mystery to him, then he reduces them to crude ciphers, dismisses them as half-baked or naive, and his anxiety about not being able to define his relationship to them, not being able to incorporate them into one of his games, comes out in abuse and insults, often crudely racist – in references to a nigger band, a dirty Jewess, greasy Dagos, the hoydenish Irish and so on.

Playing the game is fine if you’re inside the game, involved in the game. But eventually the 99% of the Empire’s population who were excluded from the game decided the situation was no longer tenable. Thus these books, the confident, well-written and frequently thrilling expressions of an ideology its author thought would never die, are now not only quaint ripping yarns but museum pieces pored over by scholars exploring the psychopathology of a vanished culture.

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Jacket cover of The Island of Sheep

Jacket cover of The Island of Sheep

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics by JRR Tolkien (1936)

Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1925 to 1945. In 1936 he delivered this lecture about Beowulf to the British Academy. It is often cited as a turning point in studies of the poem because it completely changed the focus of study from seeing Beowulf as a primarily historical document which frustratingly fails to explain the many legends it refers to and wastes all its energy on childish monsters – to viewing it as a sophisticated work of art which uses its fairy-tale monsters to convey a surprisingly modern and relevant worldview about the ubiquity of Evil and the need to confront it, no matter what the cost.

Beowulf misused as history Tolkien claims that up to his time Beowulf has been recognised as important by critics and historians but consistently misinterpreted. By historians, philologists, archaeologists etc it has been mined for information about Germanic customs and religion and clothes and warfare. But Beowulf is not a historical document: it is a poem, a work of art. Its very success as a poem has created the sense that it is historical when, in fact, the most recent research tends to highlight (as with Shakespeare’s treatment of history) only its inconsistencies and cavalier approach.

So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.

Critics despise the monsters And literary critics have consistently been embarrassed by the centrality to the plot of the monsters which Beowulf has to kill – Grendel, his mother and the dragon. Literary critics up to Tolkien’s day preferred the many Germanic tales which are alluded to throughout the poem, stories which dealt with purely mortal men and sounded a lot like the classical tragedies they all did in Classics at school. For these critics, the Beowulf poet was guilty of crass bad taste in banishing these moving adult tragedies to the periphery and placing at the centre of the poem a series of childish folk tales, dealing with creatures out of fairy story or nursery rhyme. Tolkien quotes the great critic WP Ker, who in 1905 wrote:

The great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.

Tolkien’s counter arguments It is this damning perception which Tolkien sets out to overturn: he succeeded so well that his lecture is cited by every study since as marking a sea change in attitudes. For Tolkien asserted that, far from being the rag-tag miscellany of an immature and juvenile culture, of a poet overwhelmed by silly folk stories and stitching them together willy-nilly – the Beowulf poet was a latecomer, arriving at the end of a mature and full civilisation, after it had been converted to Christianity, well aware of all the old legends and stories, who made a conscious choice to place the monsters at the centre of the poem because they are in fact the quintessence of the old pagan worldview: they encapsulate on a mythical level the evil, unreason and unavoidable death which all men face.

Tolkien marshals a range of arguments:

  • Other long Old English poems – eg Andreas, Guthlac – which contain just as dignified and high a style, somehow fail to have anything like the impact of Beowulf – could it be the much-condemned mythical subject matter which gives Beowulf depth and not its peers?
  • Criticism of the triviality and folk-taleness of the plot stem from reducing it to a synopsis, telling the story in outline – a fine methodology for comparative folk tale analysis but disastrous for poetry, which is made out of the texture of the words.
  • A deep prejudice of taste makes the critics of his time rate purely human tragedies as the highest genre – “Doom is held less literary than άµαρτία”. This represents a lack of feeling for “the mythological mode of imagination”

The significance of a myth is not easily pinned down on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.

  • The very process of analysing the poem, for purely historical or archaeological or narratological purposes, destroys its greatest effect, its power in every part.

Far from putting the essential legends of Germanic heroes at the periphery and filling the foreground with triteness, the Beowulf-poet has summarised the essence of  the Northern worldview, of a doomed hero with his back against the wall – the exaltation of undefeated will. This is the Northern spirit which receives such stirring expression in the words of Byrhtwold at the battle of Maldon.

It is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to this theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time… The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre…

When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat….

Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy…

It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone:

lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.

So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast, and they say He gibbers: He has no sense of proportion. I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.

By putting the monsters at the centre of his poem, the poet transcends the details of time and place to confront the timeless Problem of Evil

Tolkien goes on to address various other criticisms which have been made, such as that the poet’s combination of Old Testament with Germanic legends shows confusion and primitiveness. Tolkien argues at length that it shows just the opposite – a profound mind meditating on and assimilating the implications of the new Christian worldview:

In the poem I think we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf – whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise…

Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’or ‘civilization’) ends in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated—it does not arise out of the material.

We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse.

Tolkien contrasts Beowulf with the southern, Mediterranean world of the Classics, which so many of his contemporaries were brought up on and against which they are judging Beowulf and finding it lacking:

It is the strength of the Northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

Unlike, say, the Odyssey with its strange, hanging happy ending or the Iliad which ends in media res with the funeral of Patroclus but the war still unconcluded, Beowulf ends with the funeral and burial of the hero and the threatened end of his people, the Geats. Although it manages to have Christian sentiment throughout, the final feeling is of a very modern existentialist view of the world, as cold, heartless, shelterless, where most of us are abandoned to figure out our lives by whatever code or guidelines we can muster. For Tolkien, writing in the 1930s, in the shadow of the Nazis, the heartless Northern view of life must have seemed much more pressing and contemporary than the sweet perfections of the Classic tradition.

Hygelac's watchman greets Beowulf's boat

Hygelac’s watchman greets Beowulf’s boat

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics online

Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon (1936)

Only sheer bloody-mindedness made me finish Siegfried Sassoon’s 650-page ‘Complete Memoirs of George Sherston’, being the omnibus edition of his three fictionalised memoirs – ‘Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man’, ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’, and ‘Sherston’s Progress’.

A monument to nincompoopish solipsism. A prime product of the public schools of his time, never having done a day’s work in his life, philistine and unintellectual, addicted to field sports, volunteering as the Great War begins and expecting it to be a jolly wheeze, Sassoon is bally confused when it turns out not to be a pleasant canter through the Kent countryside.

There follow 400 pages of self-centred and fruitless bewilderment which feature all the events of his actual life, but annoyingly portrayed as the experiences of the fictional ‘Sherston’, stripping the text of immediacy and swamping it in querulous obtuseness. He leaves out arguably the most interesting element which is his own literary growth and development. His war poems are important if not first rate, because of the example they set. In all 650 pages there isn’t a mention of them, because Sassoon has taken the decision to eliminate that part of his personality and life from the fictional upper-class twit he has created.

There was some consolation for persisting, though, because the last 40 pages quote directly from his diary about his final military tour of duty in Palestine and then back to France, and this is full of beautifully observed and immediate detail. If you’re finding the rest heavy going, you should make sure you read these last pages.

It’s a staggering indictment of the English literary scene of the 1920s and ’30s that these prolix vapourings became ‘instant classics’.

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