Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia (2) by Dominic Lieven (2015)

Lieven concludes his rather exhausting history of the diplomatic build-up to the First World War as seen from Russia, with some Big Ideas.

Big ideas

– The First and Second World Wars were essentially wars fought between Russia and Germany for control of Europe. The first war ended in stalemate; Russia won the second one.

– This explains why both the world wars started in eastern Europe, in the badlands between the two empires – with the Austrian attack on Serbia in 1914, and the Nazi attack on Poland in 1939.

– The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 led to a vacuum. It led to the creation of a host of smaller nations (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, alongside the existing weak powers of Bulgaria and Romania), none of which was strong enough by itself to stand up to either Germany or Russia, making the second war, if not quite inevitable, then a lot more likely.

– In both these wars France was the only liberal democracy on the continent of Europe, and both times was too weak by itself to decide the outcome.

– Britain was in some ways an onlooker to both wars: her armies fought and suffered, horribly in the first war, but in neither was she defending her own territory – in both she was fighting in line with her centuries-old policy of preventing any one of the ‘powers’ from establishing dominance of Europe; to make sure her ‘back’ was protected while she concentrated her efforts on building and maintaining her overseas empire. In the eighteenth century this threat had come from France – in the early twentieth century it came from a unified Germany.

– In both 1914 and 1939 the German leadership gambled that Britain would not get involved in a European war, and, indeed, both times there were influential British voices raised against involvement. But both times we surprised and dismayed the Germans by plunging in, thus preventing her from getting the quick wins she’d gambled on.

– America was even more of a spectator than Britain, and reluctant to get involved in either war, until forced to in 1917 and 1941, respectively – i.e. three years and two years after they’d both started.

– In Lieven’s eyes the Treaty of Versailles which ended the Great War had two great weaknesses:

  1. The two powers at the centre of the conflict, the two powers likely to tear Europe apart, were both excluded from the peace treaty. Soviet Russia wasn’t interested and was too busy fighting her own civil wars (1917 to 1920) or trying to invade Poland (in 1920) to take part in Versailles. Germany was deliberately excluded by the triumphant Allies, and had the treaty imposed on it — thus allowing German politicians and especially the Nazis, to claim they had never agreed to it, had had it imposed on them, it was victors’ justice, profoundly unfair, and to justify her attempts to unravel the treaty agreements during the 1930s.
  2. The Versailles treaty was largely the creation of the United States and its idealistic President Wilson. When the United States Congress refused to either ratify the treaty or join the League of Nations which was set up to safeguard it, they effectively removed the treaty’s most powerful support. Given that Great Britain was busy during the 1920s pursuing its imperial aims in the Middle East, India and Far East, the onus of defending the terms of the treaty ended up being left to France which – once again – was simply too weak to resist a resurgent Germany.

The situation today?

The European Union is a massive geopolitical experiment designed to address the same ongoing problems.

  • It was born from the attempt to bind Germany and France together with such intricate economic ties that they can never again fight a war.
  • For the first forty years of its existence, the EU was an attempt to create an economic and political bloc which could stand up to the Soviet Union and its communist satellite nations in eastern Europe, an economic counterpart of the NATO military alliance.
  • Nowadays it is an attempt to create a sort of European ’empire’, i.e. a geopolitical power bloc which can compete with the global superpowers of America and China. Huge argument goes on within the EU about its ability to convert this economic power into political power.

To return to the idea of 20th century history consisting of a war between Russia and Germany for control of Europe, for 44 years after the end of the Second European War, the Russians had, in effect, won.

They had achieved everything the most ambitious Russian generals and politicians of 1914 could have imagined. They had extended the reach of Russian control through the Balkans almost as far as Constantinople, they had swallowed the Baltic nations and Poland, they had extended their grip across Europe as far as Berlin.

With the collapse of Soviet power in 1990, the pendulum swung the other way, with Germany rapidly reuniting into one super-nation, and the other, newly liberated East European states all joining NATO, whose membership now extends right up to the traditional borders of Great Russia.

It was this rapid extension of the NATO alliance right up to Russia’s borders – with the threat that even Georgia on her southern border in the Caucasus might join, and the threat that Ukraine, pointed like a dagger into the heart of Russian territory, and which many Russians regard as part of their spiritual homeland, was about to join forces with the West – which prompted Russian intervention in both Georgia and eastern Ukraine, and the present atmosphere of Russian anxiety, paranoia and bravado.

Maps of NATO in 1990 and 2015 showing how NATO has extended its reach right to the borders of Russia

Maps of NATO in 1990 and 2015 showing how NATO has extended its reach right to the borders of Russia © Stratfor http://www.stratfor.com

In other words the issue which plagued the Edwardian era, the struggle which defined European and to some extent world history for most of the 20th century, is continuing in our time – a Germanised Europe faces an anxious, unpredictable, and increasingly nationalistic Russia.

What will happen next? Who knows? But Lieven’s book, in supplying such a detailed account of Russian diplomatic and strategic thinking in the build-up to the first war, forms a kind of training manual of all the possible permutations which the problem, and its solutions, can take.

It certainly made me want to understand Russo-Turkish history better, particularly at a moment when the nationalist leaders of both countries are causing liberal Europe such concern.

Towards The Flame prompts all kinds of thoughts and ideas about how we got where we are today, and gives its readers the long historical perspective as they watch current Russian foreign policy play out.


Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham (1939)

It was all very strange and complicated. It looked as though nothing were quite so simple as it seemed; it looked as though the people we thought we knew best carried secrets that they didn’t even know themselves. Charley had a sudden inkling that human beings were infinitely mysterious. The fact was that you knew nothing about anybody. (p.213)

At 250 pages in the Pan paperback edition – notably longer than either Cakes and Ale or The Moon & Sixpence – this is a leisurely, rather rambling story of a young man’s trip to 1930s Paris in search of romance and adventure, and the more sordid realities of what he actually finds there.

Charley Mason

Charley Mason is 23 and just down from Cambridge. The opening fifteen or so pages give a light satirical portrait of his family, notably his bien-pensant, middle-class parents (Leslie and Venetia) who pride themselves of being abreast of all the latest developments in the arts from Virginia Woolf to Stravinsky.

Their comfortable lifestyle and complacent opinions are in fact based on the commercial reality that grandfather Mason was a canny market gardener who bought up patches of what was then countryside just north of London, which he and his heirs developed into a sizeable property empire, the rents of which fund the Mason’s high mindedness.

Charley’s dad wants him to inherit the steady, comfortably-paid job of managing these estates, but Charley wants to be an artist. Or maybe a musician. His parents persuade him to go to Cambridge while he thinks it over. Emerging with a good degree, Charley decides to look up his friend from prep school, Rugby public school and Cambridge, Simon Fenimore. Simon had been a fire-breathing communist at Cambridge and had left after just two years. He used his posh connections to get himself a job as foreign correspondent to a good newspaper, currently based in Paris.

Thus it is that Charley has arranged to look up his old friend on a visit to Paris for the Christmas holiday. So far this has been told in brisk flashback.

From now on the narrative becomes more dense and slow-moving. Firstly, Simon isn’t there to meet Charley when the latter arrives at the Gare du Nord. And then Simon has arranged his accommodation in a more upmarket hotel than Charley wished. Charley wants to experience romantic, Bohemian Paris, he wants to starve in a garret and write sonnets to his mistress. So is he is miffed to find himself staying in relative comfort at a cheap, but comfortable hotel.

Simon Fenimore

When Simon does finally call by and take Charley out for dinner it is to reveal himself to be – via an extensive monologue – a fanatic, a man who thinks ‘the people’ are sheep, that they need a strong leader, that the revolution is coming, and that he must achieve total mastery over himself, through mortification and self-discipline, in order to make himself ready for the great day.

Thus Simon had really wanted to rush to the Gare du Nord to meet his good friend off the train – but had forced himself not to, in order to conquer his wishes, in order to mortify himself, to perfect his will-power. As he explains:

‘These are my Wanderjahre. I’m going to spend them in acquiring the education I never got at the stupid school we both went to or in that suburban cemetery they call the University of Cambridge. But it’s not only knowledge of men and books that I want to acquire; that’s only an instrument; I want to acquire something much harder to come by and more important: an unconquerable will. I want to mould myself as the Jesuit novice is moulded by the iron discipline of the Order. I think I’ve always known myself; there’s nothing that teaches you what you are, like being alone in the world, a stranger everywhere, and living all your life with people to whom you mean nothing. But my knowledge was instinctive. In these two years I’ve been abroad I’ve learnt to know myself as I know the fifth proposition of Euclid. I know my strength and my weakness and I’m ready to spend the next five or six years cultivating my strength and ridding myself of my weakness. I’m going to take myself as a trainer takes an athlete to make a champion of him. I’ve got a good brain. There’s no one in the world who can see to the end of his nose with such perspicacity as I can, and, believe me, in the world we live in that’s a great force. I can talk. You have to persuade men to action not by reasoning, but by rhetoric. The general idiocy of mankind is such that they can be swayed by words and, however mortifying, for the present you have to accept the fact as you accept it in the cinema that a film to be a success must have a happy ending. Already I can do pretty well all I like with words; before I’m through I shall be able to do anything.’

Like the young socialist, Ernest, in Maugham’s last play, Sheppey, Simon is portrayed as deeply confused and troubled, his ideas veering wildly from Leninist communism to a Nietzschean view of the Strong Man rising through strength of will above the common mob.

Is he a communist or a Fascist? Like so many other young men between the wars, he could be either, in the sense that his core characteristics are burning anger and a sneering contempt for contemporary social values and for the sheep who passively accept it.

To prove how superior he is to conventional morality, Simon tells Charley some rather shocking stories about how brutally he treats his women.

I thought the novel would expand on Simon’s entertainingly unpleasant character and that, maybe, it would lead towards a big political rally or terrorist outrage, and that Charley would turn out to be a pawn in his friend’s fiendish conspiracy.

Maybe I’ve been watching too many superhero movies with their bubblegum plots. Maugham’s plot is – as so often – much more mundane and domestic in scale.

Simon takes Charley to a Parisian brothel, but a brothel with a twist. It’s called the Sérail and the women wear Turkish and Levantine outfits, sitting around bored until some man or other picks them to dance with to the small live band. Simon chooses a couple of women for them, pairing off Charley with a slight girl who turns out to be Russian, and here the narrative takes a massive unexpected turn.

Lydia

Before Simon disappeared off to have sex with his hooker, he had given Charley tickets to the Midnight Mass at St. Eustache, which he knew Charley wanted to see. On a whim Charley asks the prostitute Simon selected for him – introduced as ‘the Princess Olga’ because she is Russian – to accompany him to the church.

On the way she tells him that her name is really Lydia and she isn’t a princess. The church service is OK, Charley isn’t that impressed, but the biggest impression is made by Lydia who burst into tears and then collapses on the floor in a crumpled heap, crying her eyes out. Turns out she is fainting with hunger.

Embarrassed, Charley picks Lydia up and takes her for a meal at a very late-opening cafe, and it’s here that she tells him her story in a long monologue: briefly, she married a dashing French man, Robert Berger, who turned out to be an inveterate gambler and thief. Berger’s mother encouraged the match in the hope it would calm her son down, but it didn’t, and one day he stabbed a bookie to death. A few days later the police came, searched the little house they all lived in (Lydia, husband, mother-in-law), found and took Berger away. Berger was charged, tried, found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years’ penal servitude at St. Laurent in French Guiana. Lydia still loves him, but was forced to move in with some Russian friends of her mother’s, Alexey and Evgenia, the man a drunk, the woman unsympathetic.

By now feeling very sorry for her, Charley invites Lydia back to his clean but tatty hotel room: being a jolly nice chap he doesn’t make a move on her and they sleep in separate beds. Next day – Christmas Day – they stay in the room all day long, in front of a little fire, sending down to the concierge for food, while Lydia continues telling her story in great and entrancing detail, describing every single step in their relationship, wooing, falling in love, meeting the mother-in-law, marriage, domestic happiness, and then the slowly dawning realisation that all is not right.

I like the comment made by Eric Ambler, that Maugham isn’t a great novelist, but he is a great storyteller. For the purpose of the novel, the long excursion into Lydia’s story is a) not really necessary b) is artistically flawed in the most basic sense that she recounts a host of conversations and incidents which took place years before, with word perfect recall of all the details and every word of the conversations, something the reader can’t help noticing would be palpably impossible.

But who cares? As always with Maugham, something about the psychological penetration with which he describes her character and (after all, not that exceptional) story, is hypnotic, overcoming all logical drawbacks and really drawing you into her story.

So why, Charley asks, is she now working at the Sérail? Not for the money, she replies, she could earn more elsewhere. It is to mortify and punish herself. Why? Because she believes that through her suffering she can, maybe, atone for the guilt and suffering of her beloved husband.

‘There’s no logic in it. There’s no sense. And yet, deep down in my heart, no, much more than that, in every fibre of my body, I know that I must atone for Robert’s sin. I know that that is the only way he can gain release from the evil that racks him. I don’t ask you to think I’m reasonable. I only ask you to understand that I can’t help myself. I believe that somehow – how I don’t know – my humiliation, my degradation, my bitter, ceaseless pain, will wash his soul clean, and even if we never see one another again he will be restored to me.’ (p.131)

So within just 24 hours of his arrival in Paris (and by page 140 of this 250 page book), Charley has a) realised that his best friend has become a semi-Fascist fanatic and b) spent Christmas Day with a depressed Russian émigrée married to a convicted murderer.

What does the remainder of Charley’s Christmas holiday have in store, the reader wonders?

Simon’s account of the trial of Robert Berger

What it turns out to have in store is a lot more of the same. Charley suggests to Lydia that she stay with him in the hotel for the rest of his stay: no sex, just friendship. She is hugely relieved to get out of the household of Alexey and Evgenia. They are typical emigré Russians; he had once been a lawyer in Petersburg, now he is reduced to playing the violin in an orchestra at a Russian restaurant, and Evgenia runs the ladies’ cloak-room. Lydia goes to fetch her things, and Charlie goes to see Simon at his newspaper office.

Here Simon explains that he set Charley up with Lydia partly as a typically callous joke: he knew that Charley bears a resemblance to Lydia’s husband, Robert Berger, and was interested to see what would develop.

There then follows a deeply implausible 20 or so pages where Simon describes in mind-boggling detail the police investigation which led up to the conviction of Robert Berger. He gives a fly-on-the-wall account of Berger’s interrogation, and he is magically privy to the thought processes of the chief investigator who carried it out. The whole text turns for a while into an Agatha Christie novel in which we eavesdrop on Poirot’s thoughts.

The explanation given for Simon’s in-depth knowledge of every aspect of the case is that Simon, as journalist, had covered the investigation and trial in minute detail. Thus his narrative goes on to give us a court-room drama-style account of Berger’s trial, down to the appearance and behaviour of all the witnesses, the speeches of the lawyers for the prosecution and defence, of the judges and so on.

Over and above reporting the trial, Simon then went on to write a series of articles about Berger, taking him as a type of ‘the murderer’. He gives Charley a copy to read. It had become clear during the trial that Berger committed crimes for the fun and the excitement. He liked to wait outside department stores for posh people to drive up in their cars, park them outside and go in. That’s when Berger strolled out of the hotel, stepped into the car and drove it off (in the long-distant days before cars had car locks etc).

Berger would then drive round at night seeking likely-looking women waiting at bus stops and offering them a lift home. He was handsome and smooth-talking; many said yes. A little into the drive he would fake the car breaking down, ask them to poke around under the bonnet for him while he went through the charade of pressing the pedals etc, and at the first opportunity drove off with their handbags and purses. He stole the money and jewellery and threw the bags away.

Simon’s article had speculated that all these petty crimes led Berger on towards the ultimate crime. Simon speculated on how Berger had spent some time thinking about the perfect victim, eventually settling on the small, homosexual bookie, Teddie Jordan, who he routinely met at Jojo’s bar and other low-life haunts. Berger led Jordan on to think that he himself was gay, made an appointment with him and, as the little man was changing a record on the gramophone, stabbed him from behind, then stole all his cash.

Charley is horrified by Simon’s cynical depiction of Crime as Sport, and repelled by the cold calculating criminal mind of Berger.

Charley finished the essay. He shuddered. He did not know whether it was Robert Berger’s brutal treachery and callousness that more horrified him or the cool relish with which Simon described the workings of the murderer’s depraved and tortuous mind.

Charley is also dismayed by the fact that lovely Lydia was attracted to such a hound. They finish their drinks, separate and Charley walks back to the hotel, considerably disillusioned.

Back at the hotel, Lydia returns with her stuff from the flat where she’d been staying She expands on her Russian background. Her father was a socialist who accepted the revolution but nonetheless was expelled from his job at the university and, when he heard the police were coming for him, fled with his wife and baby Lydia to England.

Here they lived for 12 years but Lydia’s father missed Mother Russia and, when he contacted the Bolshevik Embassy in London, and they assured him they’d find him a good post back in Moscow, he went back. Instead, immediately on his arrival, he was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and then thrown out a fourth floor window. Ah Russian soul. Russian culture.

Lydia explains to Charley that Simon is obsessed with the figure of Felix Dzerzhinsky. This was the cold, unfeeling head of the Cheka or Bolshevik Secret Police, responsible for the arrest, torture, imprisonment and execution of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, and the terrorisation of the entire nation. Lydia explains that Simon asked her again and again about Dzerzhinsky’s life and career, and wanted to meet Alexey, because Alexey had once defended Dzerzhinsky in a Tsarist-era trial.

Why? Because deep down Simon sees himself as the English Dzerzhinsky.

Nonsense, says Charley. The English will never have a revolution and no such figure would be tolerated in England. Besides, the lives of the working classes were being improved all the time, with guaranteed working hours, social security, pensions, paid holidays, and slums being cleared to provide better housing.

Lydia replies – in terms which echo George Orwell’s opinions of this period – that a war is coming and regardless of the outcome, it will trigger sweeping social and political change in Britain. She ends with a personal warning:

‘You’re deceived in Simon. You think he has your own good nature and unselfish consideration. I tell you, he’s dangerous. Dzerzhinsky was the narrow idealist who for the sake of his ideal could bring destruction upon his country without a qualm. Simon isn’t even that. He has no heart, no conscience, no scruple, and if the occasion arises he will sacrifice you who are his dearest friend without hesitation and without remorse. (p.183)

The Louvre and the piano – Russia versus England

The following day they get up and Charley takes Lydia to the Louvre; after all, as well as ‘adventure’, he had come to see the paintings.

Scattered throughout the novel so far, at moments of reflection, Charley had tended to compare the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day he is having with a Russian prostitute with the traditional family Christmas his jolly English parents would be enjoying back in Blighty with their cousins.

While he is sat in a shabby Paris hotel room with an ugly, crying Russian prostitute, they were exchanging presents, pulling crackers, wearing silly hats and tucking into roast turkey and all the trimmings.

In other words, the complacently comfortable middle-class existence of Charley’s parents is used to set off the fanatic Simon and, even more, the rough life of Lydia the Russian exile, murderer’s wife and prostitute.

The next thirty or so pages intensify this theme. In it Charley takes Lydia to the Louvre and Maugham contrasts the worthy platitudes with which his mother and father (Leslie and Venetia) had shown him and his sister round, carefully allotting a fixed time to each masterpiece and lecturing them on each painter’s respective merits – with the simple, uneducated passion of Lydia.

Unlike his parents’ pedagogic perambulations, Lydia leads Simon hurriedly through the rooms of the Louvre and past countless ‘masterpieces’ in order to show him a small still life by Chardin. She she then proceeds to interpret this as an emblem of the Passion of Christ and epitome of how art can transform suffering.

‘It’s so humble, so natural, so friendly; it’s the bread and wine of the poor who ask no more than that they should be left in peace, allowed to work and eat their simple food in freedom. It’s the cry of the despised and rejected. It tells you that whatever their sins men at heart are good. That loaf of bread and that flagon of wine are symbols of the joys and sorrows of the meek and lowly. They ask for your mercy and your affection; they tell you that they’re of the same flesh and blood as you. They tell you that life is short and hard and the grave is cold and lonely. It’s not only a loaf of bread and a flagon of wine; it’s the mystery of man’s lot on earth, his craving for a little friendship and a little love, the humility of his resignation when he sees that even they must be denied him.’

It is, in other words, an artistic emblem of the self-sacrifice she is carrying out on behalf of her transgressing husband.

They eat in the Latin Quarter, then go back to the hotel room where Lydia reveals that she has brought some piano music from the apartment she shares with Alexey and Evgenia.

Now it just so happens that Charley is an expert pianist, a natural at school who continued his training at Cambridge. As Lydia places Scriabin or Schumann in front of him, he is immediately able to play them note perfect. Lydia has a go, plays terribly, but with an inspiring Russian passion.

Leaving aside the implausibility of all this, Maugham’s aim is, very obviously, to contrast Charley’s bright cheerful perfectionism, reflecting the happy sunlit life he has led in carefree England, with Lydia’s uninformed, uneducated, but infinitely more passionate and heart-felt emotionality.

Russia versus England – in which Russia beats England dead for passion and vibrancy. The only slight catch with all this being that Russian passion and spirituality seems to have led to… Stalin and Dzerzhinsky – to a world of terror, labour camps and death. Whoops. So England beats Russia for providing peace, stability and comfortable living for the majority of its population.

I found it difficult to understand what Maugham was getting at in these pages. Is he just presenting these two points of view with no intention to judge, leaving it to us to draw conclusions? Or is he hinting at what we could call ‘the Orwell Vision’ i.e. that peaceful complacent England is doomed.

The life Simon described lacked neither grace nor dignity; it was healthy and normal, and through its intellectual interests not entirely material; the persons who led it were simple and honest, neither ambitious nor envious, prepared to do their duty by the state and by their neighbours according to their lights; and there was in them neither harm nor malice. If Lydia saw how much of their good-nature, their kindliness, their not unpleasing self-complacency depended on the long-established and well-ordered prosperity of the country that had given them birth; if she had an inkling that, like children building castles on the sea sand, they might at any moment be swept away by a tidal wave, she allowed no sign of it to appear on her face.

Last day

They wake up on Charley’s last day in Paris. During the night he had seen Lydia crying in her sleep (a haunting image which recurs in several Maugham stories) but she remembers nothing on waking.

1. They go to a café to meet two men recently returned from the colonial penitentiary where Berger is being held. They describe conditions there. (Maugham had actually visited this far-away French prison on an island off South America and set two short stories there which give a lot of information about the lives and conditions of prisoners, A Man With A Conscience and An Official Position). The two men describe meeting Berger and reassure Lydia that, as a confident, quick-witted, intelligent crook, he’s doing just fine. They explain how Lydia can get money to him through back channels.

2. Charley goes off separately for a last meeting with Simon. (pp.224-234) Simon reveals himself to be even more fiercely contemptuous of his fellow man than we first thought, having become convinced that most men are cattle ruled by boundless egotism and only kept in check by brute force.

‘Democracy is moonshine… The rise of the proletariat has made it comparatively simple to make a revolution, but the proletariat must be fed. Organisation is needed to see that means of transport are adequate and food supplies abundant. That, incidentally, is why power, which the proletariat thought to seize by making the revolution, must always elude their grasp and fall into the hands of a small body of intelligent leaders. The people are incapable of governing themselves. The proletariat are slaves and slaves need masters.’

Simon systematically trashes the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy. For Simon the Bolshevik revolution, and the Italian and German fascist movements which followed, all tell the same message: ‘the people’ are idiots, most of them born to be slaves. All that matters is power, having the charisma and force of personality to become a dictator. And now he brings up the name of Dzerzhinsky, representing him as the man who brought the implements of terror and repression to scientific perfection.

By now we realise that Simon Fenimore is a portrait of an English Fascist dictator-in-waiting.

This is all highly schematic – sort of interesting as social history, but questionable as fiction, or only as the kind of fiction of ideas found in Brave New World (1932) or in George Orwell’s pre-war novels with their obsession with impending social collapse.

Charley goes home

Then Charley goes home. He tries to kiss Lydia at the station but she turns away and walks away without looking back.

Charley has lunch on the train with ‘half a bottle of indifferent Chablis’, opens a fresh copy of The Times with its reassuringly thick paper, and a few hours later soon steps out onto the soil of England. Phew! What a relief.

At Victoria station he’s met by his mother, crying with relief, then taken home to the bosom of the family and, after a hearty dinner, is soon caught up in a game of family bridge, being told all the gossip about the in-laws at Christmas, especially the fact that cousin Wilfred has been offered a peerage. How simply ripping!

But as he sits there half-heartedly playing the game and listening to his parents prattle on, Charley finds his mind drifting back to Simon with his tortured, dark eyes fantasising about a Fascist dictatorship, to the vision of Lydia once more heavily made-up and plying her trade at the Sérail, to the big Russian singer they heard at one of the émigré nightclubs, pouring out her heart in songs of barbaric passion, to the two returnees from the French convict island, shifty, paranoid and damaged, and to the figure of shaven-headed Robert Berger wearing his prison pyjamas 5,000 miles away, off the coast of South America – and Charley realises he is greatly changed.

His sister had asked him if he had had adventures in Paris and he had truthfully answered no. It was a fact that he had done nothing; his father thought he had had a devil of a time and was afraid he had contracted venereal disease, and he hadn’t even had a woman; only one thing had happened to him – it was rather curious when you came to think of it, and he didn’t just then quite know what to do about it: the bottom had fallen out of his world. (p.252)

Inelegant prose

I’ve pointed out in other posts the surprising trouble Maugham had writing plain, clear English and my theory that it stems from the fact that for the first six or so years of his life he spoke only French (having been born and brought up in the British Embassy in Paris).

I don’t know whether it’s a sign of his disengagement from the subject of this novel, or of his age (he was 65 when the book was published), or the fact that writing a long work of prose always brought out the oddity in his writing – but the problem recurs in this book in sentences which often make you stumble as you read, and sometimes force you to reread the whole thing to understand it properly.

The situation was odd, and though it was not to find himself in such a one that he had come to Paris, it could not be denied that the experience was interesting. (p.79)

He talked quite naturally, but she had no notion what were his powers of dissimulation, and she could not help asking herself whether he proposed the drive in order to break unhappy news to her. (p.99)

She felt on a sudden warm with love for that woman who but just knew her, and yet, contrary to all expectation, because her son loved her, because with her sharp eyes she had seen that she deeply loved her son, had consented, even gladly, to their marriage. (p.102)

He decided to settle the matter there and then, but being shy of making her right out the offer he had in mind, he approached it in a round-about way. (p.237)

Maybe he’s trying to copy Henry James’s lengthy, ornate and carefully balanced periods, in which case – quite simply – he can’t manage it, not without coming over as clumsy and obscure.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

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

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

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell (1939)

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea-turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield!

This is a surprisingly nostalgic and moving book. It is the only one of Orwell’s novels told in the first person, and it soon becomes clear why. Most of the first half consists of his protagonist’s long and evocative memory of England before the Great War, a loving memory of an England of calm, order and confidence.

The plot

Part one

The narrator is George Bowling. He lives in an anonymous semi in an anonymous street, one of those streets which ‘fester all over the inner-outer suburbs’, in an anonymous London suburb. He is middle-aged and fat (he mentions that he is fat a lot, there are page-long meditations on the condition of fatness).

I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped.

George is a 45 year-old insurance salesman who makes a respectable seven of so pounds a week, so he is significantly better off – and more comfortable, more at ease with life – than the protagonists of Orwell’s previous novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. He is married to a scrawny nagging wife, Hilda, and has two whiny kids – Billy (7) and Lorna (11) – that he refers to as the bastards.

On the day of the novel George has no work to do and so takes his time washing, shaving, having breakfast, taking the train into London, stopping into pubs for a quick one, and strolling the streets. It is, in fact, the day he is going to his dentist to take possession of his new set of false teeth. So a few things happen but there isn’t that much interaction with other people. For the most part we are inside George’s head listening to him muse about a) the wretched lives of London’s middle-class men, trapped by wage slavery and nagging wives –

Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. (p.14)

b) the condition of being fat, how it crept up on him but how he still eyes up women in the street c) the awful shallowness and vulgarity of modern life – all those ads for shiny consumer goods; milk bars; radio – yuk d) overshadowing all his thoughts is his obsession with the shadow of war: bomber planes fly overhead at several points, and his imagination is saturated with the reality of modern war, whole cities bombed flat, refugees in the street, machine guns firing from broken windows. Hitler and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.

I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.
But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year? (p.24)

War is coming soon, he reflects with a kind of grim satisfaction as he looks out the train window at the endless suburban gardens, as he sips his pint as he walks along the Strand.

As I read I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous modernist masterpiece describing a day in the life of an average man wandering round a big city, thinking, musing, pondering. But there is none of Joyce’s experimentalism here. The opposite, there is a good deal of repetition. The paragraphs about being fat, becoming fat, how a fat man feels, how a fat man looks and so on, are a bit repetitive, and so are the meditations about the trashiness of modern life (key hate word is ‘streamlined’ – everything ‘streamlined’ is by definition bad) and the visions of war come back every few pages like acid reflux and repeat entire phrases again and again (I got a little bored of envisioning the machine guns ‘squirting’ from the windows.)

Part two

But everything changes as the book enters part two. Triggered by a news story in today’s paper, George’s mind is taken back to the church services of his boyhood in the little village of Lower Binfield. This (fictional) village of around 2,000 inhabitants somewhere in south Oxfordshire, a few miles from the Thames, is where George’s idyllic childhood took place.

It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. (p.58)

His father was a seed merchant who kept a shop off the High Street. George’s older brother, Joe, is a tough, part of a gang which eventually grudgingly lets little Georgie join in (the other members being Sid Lovegrove and Harry Burnes, the errand boy). He remembers that long distant era as a land of perpetual sunshine, endless wheat fields and cool tree-lined pools for fishing in. (Orwell deliberately makes his protagonist older than him: Bowling was born about 1893 – he’s just old enough to remember the Boer War and the argument about it between his father and Uncle Ezekiel, as well as the mad jubilation surrounding the relief of Mafeking.)

This is a long sequence with many passages of great descriptive beauty. It is an unembarrassed wallow in nostalgia for the sweet decency of rural south England (Orwell knows all too well about life in England’s cities and life in the North of England). It is a powerful vision of idealised south of England village life, the same kind of feeling which permeates John Betjeman and goes on into Philip Larkin in the 1950s…

I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. (p.34)

There are wonderful long descriptions of the wild flowers and weeds which, because of his father’s trade in seeds, he knew were alright to eat. And central to the section, and to the novel, is the long passage about his boyhood obsession with fishing, which involves pages of detailed description of how to make a fishing rod, how to make the flies and the float and the hook from basic household items – and when he’s got a little more experience, a detailed list of the different types of bait you need to catch all the traditional English fish.

Grasshoppers are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on the surface – ‘dapping’, they call it. But you can never get more than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace, especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive, so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it’s a ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

It is an astonishingly sensuous, free and delightful memory of boyhood, immensely readable like almost all of Orwell, but unexpectedly happy and carefree.

The still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the kind of passion with which you’d watch the black backs of the fish swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got too dark. And then it was always ‘Let’s have five minutes more’, and then ‘Just five minutes more’, until in the end you had to walk your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling round and you could be ‘had up’ for riding without a light. And the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade, and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally catch something. At night you’d come home with filthy hands so hungry that you’d eaten what was left of your bread paste, with three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief.

There is much, much more capturing the quality of boyhood when there is no future and the sunny present stretches on forever. The local girl who looked after him and his brother when they were young. The taste and feel of long-forgotten sweets, bought by the penny. The sights and sounds of market day. His mother and father sitting either side of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, falling asleep over their respective newspapers.

It is not an utterly rose-tinted view. At school he and the rest tease the mentally sub-normal boy. Along with his brother’s gang, George pulls birds’ nests out of trees and stamps on the chicks. As he explains, violence and killing, tormenting and bullying, are part of the sense of power, of immortality which author and character both seem to see as an important part of boyhood.

The section continues past this boyhood into the arrival of puberty and girls, and then on to his first real experience of reading, of entering amazing imaginative worlds from the heat of India to the jungles of the Amazon. His older brother, Joe, always a handful, is co-opted by his dad into helping with the seed shop but is impatient, loafing at the front door, ogling girls, catcalling. One day he disappears from the house, having stolen everything in the till, and is never seen again.

There is a fascinating description of his experiences during the Great War. After being wounded just enough to be sent home from the trenches, Bowling finds himself, through a series of bureaucratic errors, charged with looking after a defunct rations dump in remotest Cornwall. Here he sits out the war in peace and comfort, along with another ne-er-do-well soldier, Private Lidgebird, ‘a surly devil’. Part of the enjoyment of this long memoir is not only Orwell’s prose but the vividness with which he describes the many odd characters his protagonist encounters.

  • Old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker to the abandoned grand house on the hill. ‘He had a face like something carved out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and very long.’ (p.75)
  • Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster of the grammar school, a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with canes in it, which he’d sometimes take out and swish through the air in a terrifying manner.
  • Gravitt, the butcher… was a big, rough-faced old devil with a voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would give a jingle.

Finally, we get to George’s early manhood. After the war he is pushed into a job with the local grocer, before wangling a job as a travelling salesman. Through an extraordinary coincidence he bumps into the senior officer who had allotted him the job at the rations dump, now the head of a modern conglomerate business, and through him is given a much better job in the insurance company.

At around the same time he first meets Hilda. They completely misunderstand each other because, as Orwell elaborately explains, they are from completely different classes. Hilda’s people are ex-army, ex-India but come down in the world, living in a small house stuffed with memorabilia of the Raj. George thinks they are class. Hilda’s people think George is man on the move, going up in the world, and thus push Hilda towards marrying him.

They get married and quite quickly George realises he hates her. As soon as they’re wed she drops every effort to look nice or be comforting. She becomes sharp and shrewish and reveals that she is obsessed with money, penny-pinching at every turn. George is lumbered with her and fathers two brats by her but spends his life scheming how to get away which, fortunately, his life as a travelling insurance salesman makes relatively easy.

Part three

The short part three brings us back to the present. It is the evening of the same day. George allows himself to be persuaded by Hilda to go along to a lecture at the church hall, which turns out to be given by a fierce anti-fascist. George is appalled by the venom and violence in the man’s attitude. Afterwards he joins in good humouredly with a squabble about how to fight fascism with a little group of Labour supporters. The evening ends with George dropping in on a local friend, a public school teacher, Porteous, who is a satirical caricature of the Oxbridge ivory tower intellectual.

But beneath these surface vents, George has been coming to a decision. He will wangle a week’s leave from his firm, tell Hilda he’s got business for a week in Birmingham, and… he will go back to Lower Binfield. He will revisit the scene of his childhood and all its intense happiness, before the war starts, before the war obliterates everything, he will recapture that first fine careless rapture. He will ‘come up for air’.

Part four

Of course it’s all gone. As his car breasts the hill and he looks down into the village of 2,000 he remembers so well, George discovers… it has mutated into a town of maybe 25,000 people. Houses, houses everywhere. In the distance some glass and chrome factories – that explains the population boom. He gets lost trying to find the centre but eventually reaches it, parks up in the old village inn and takes a room for a week.

At which point Orwell sets about destroying every single one of Bowling’s happy memories by showing the present-day reality of all that fond nostalgia. The family home and shop which he remembered with such vivid intensity is now a tacky tea-rooms. He goes down to the Thames, with a newly-purchased fishing rod, determined to recreate those balmy summer days in the green light below the weir – but the towpath is absolutely packed out with screaming kids, ice cream stalls, hundreds of other fishers while the water is stirred up by non-stop pleasure cruisers and the water is filthy with diesel oil and paper cups. The big old house on the hill in whose ground he and the gang used to fish has been turned into a mental home. And the secluded pond, full of legendarily huge fish, has been drained and become a rubbish dump on the edge of a vast new estate.

They’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like – call it silly, childish, anything – but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird- baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be? (p.215)

You can’t go back. George finds himself getting drunk and wittering on to the barmaid, then trying to chat up a single woman who turns out to be posh and dismisses him with a withering glance. One further humiliation is when he bumps into his first real girlfriend, the girl (it is implied) to whom he lost his virginity, sweet honey-haired Elsie. Well, now she’s a shapeless grey-haired frump, and he follows her through the street where he first saw her, back to the frowsy little tobacconists shop she now lives in. Neither her nor husband recognise him. The past is dead.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. (p.216)

There is an odd scene almost at the end. On his last, disappointed morning, he’s strolling across the market square when there is an almighty explosion. Recognising a barrage when he hears one George drops to the ground, but there is no repeat. Earlier we had learned that there is a new bomber airfield somewhere near the town, and locals had told George that the newish stocking factory had recently been converted to manufacture bombs for the planes. It seems one of the pilots on a test run pushed the wrong lever and dropped a bomb on Lower Binfield! A grocer’s shop was flattened and the three inhabitants killed. See, George thinks, it’s coming, it’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

In the final scene he motors home to find that Hilda, the suspicious little shrew, had figured out he was never in Birmingham by the simple expedient of writing to the hotel George claimed to be staying at and getting a reply saying the hotel closed two years previously. She knows George has been with another woman and starts to give him a piece of his mind George, faced with the daunting challenge of trying to explain the impulse to rediscover his childhood happiness which took him on a wild goose chase to his boyhood haunts, well, George realises it’ll be easier to admit he spent the week with another woman.


Visions of war

Barely a page goes by without George imagining the bombing or fighting in the street to come, or reflects on the streamlined, Americanised trashiness of modern life. The difference between George’s visions and those of Gordon, in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, is that George keeps these thoughts under control; he is not infuriated or exasperated by them. He sees the world about him, thinks about wars and modern life, and then has another pint which fills him with a glow of well-being. He thinks grim but he actually feels warm and rosy.

I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners… I see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. (p.29)

Next moment he’s an affable cheeky chappie, the type you’d meet in the saloon bar of a decent local pub, buying drinks for all and sundry and telling humorous stories. This alternation between Vaughan Williams pastoralism and the violence of the Gestapo, rubber coshes and machine guns is like the good cop/bad cop act. Just as you’re softening up to another vision of lying under a weeping willow beside the Thames’s purling water, a bomber flies overhead and George is off again about Stalin and Hitler.

The book is a work in its own right, and the pastoral passages are beautifully worth reading for their mental and sensual pleasure. But read in the context of Orwell’s political writings about the necessity and the inevitability of Socialism in England, I think there is a clear message. England’s dreamy past is over. We face an entirely unprecedented new threat in the form of totalitarianism. We must wake up and face the reality around us.

George has a particular variation on the widespread war fear of the time – he is more worried about what will come after the war – will it be the triumph of totalitarianism in England, with a secret police, torture chambers and loudspeakers blaring from every corner telling people what to think? Ten years later these fears would be worked up into the monstrous vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The modern world

Both Georges hate it. Streamlined, slick, Americanised, tasteless food, chromium bars, clever trite ads, George hates it all. He stops into a ‘milk bar’, epitome of everything flashy, American and revolting.

There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. (p.25)

George makes the bad mistake of buying a hot dog. One bite and he feels like retching.

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. (p.27)

This modern trashiness provides an obvious contrast with the solid food and hearty beer of his childhood. But – the message of the book goes – this is the world today and we must face it.

On being a boy

I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it – but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line – it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.

Having been a boy myself, raised in a little village in Berkshire, left to roam through woods and become part of a gang of other 8, 9, 10 year-olds, fishing in Englemere Lake and breaking into the old gravel pit to build dams out of sand, I very heartily respond to these visions of a south-of-England boyhood.


The importance of types and stereotypes in Orwell’s fiction and political writing

One of those…

In reviews of his previous novels I’ve highlighted Orwell’s continual appeal to our supposed common knowledge of various types or stereotypes of English life. He continues this trait in this novel, in fact it sits much better with Bowling’s cheeky-chappy, button-holing personality than it did with the third-person narrator of the earlier novels. But it’s the same habit of mind.

  • Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. (p.8)
  • She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. (p.11)
  • He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly. (p.17)
  • He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. (p.22)
  • Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. (p.25)

Again and again George shows off his ability to place and situate people he sees as characteristic types.

The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway… He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails – the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough… Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me…

What I’m suggesting is that part of what Orwell’s fans and devotees describe as his honesty and his penetrating insight is actually created by this rhetorical habit of seeing the whole world in terms of recognisable and knowable types. This technique makes the world seem rational and susceptible to understanding, as organised, arranged and presented by an author who is a supreme knower of human types and behaviour. You bow before his wisdom.

  • I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally…
  • She was one of those people who never say much, but remain on the edge of any conversation that’s going on, and give the impression that they’re listening…
  • They had a little dark house in one of those buried back-streets that exist in Ealing.
  • Then they nearly joined one of those women’s clubs which go for conducted tours round factories
  • I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day.

He is a man of the world, he knows all theses types, you know the sort, and he flatters the reader by expecting you to be, too.

Types and sterotypes

  • He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type…
  • I’m the type that can sell things on commission…
  • I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level.
  • He was the usual type, completely bald, almost invisible behind his moustache, and full of stories about cobras and cummerbunds and what the district collector said in ‘93.
  • I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.

Yes, I know the type.

Stereotypes and Socialism

Having paid all this attention to Orwell’s use of types, half way through the book I had an epiphany.

In many ways political beliefs are built on ‘types’ of people, types we represent and speak for, types we oppose, who are our enemies. This was certainly true of the rather simple-minded (to our eye) political beliefs of the 1930s. To the Socialists their enemies are upper-class toffs, bankers, the bourgeoisie, the rentier class. To the Tory the enemy is the Bolshevik, the anarchist, the trade unionist, the stroppy worker. To the feminists of the day (who Orwell routinely lampoons: see the pert librarian who disapproves of Gordon Comstock asking for a book on midwifery, convinced he only wants to look at ‘dirty’ pictures) all men are horrible perverts only interested in one thing.

My questions are:

  1. To what extent is stereotyping your enemy vital to political discourse, in general?
  2. And what part do these types and stereotypes play in the formulation and expression of Orwell’s political beliefs?

Although his work is riddled with defences of ‘democratic socialism’, as even his own publisher, Victor Gollancz, explained in the apologetic preface he inserted before the second part of The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell nowhere actually defines what Socialism is – except for a few trite phrases about justice and decency. Instead, the second part of Wigan Pier -which was intended as a 100-page long account of his intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism – mostly consists of Orwell setting up a whole series of straw men through the use of types and stereotypes – and then all-too-easily demolishing them. As a political manifesto, it is an embarrassing, almost incoherent failure.

Instead of proposing detailed plans to, say, nationalise key industries, to re-organise the economy, to create a nationalised health and education service – Orwell wastes these hundred pages addressing so-called objections the man-in-the-street might have to Socialism, via stereotypical caricatures of the views of its opponents. Thus he says the average person might be put off socialism because of the association that’s grown up with it and the kind of shiny technological future depicted in so many of H.G. Wells’s novels and tracts and magazine articles. The man-in-the-street doesn’t fancy that kind of technological future and so he (mistakenly) rejects socialism.

My point is that this farrago relies on a) trusting Orwell to know that this is in fact a major objection of the man-in-the-street to socialism b) accepting his much reduced and caricatured summary of Wells’s position and then c) accepting Orwell’s argument that a socialist future need not be a repellent one of glass and chrome.

This entire argument is so eccentric, so beside the point, that there’s something comic about it, and there is always something a little comic about Orwell’s use of human types, whether in his fiction or political essays. Something a little too pat, a little cartoonish. ‘It’s always that way with X.’ ‘They’re the type who Y.’ ‘He’s one of those Z.’ ‘Of course, the real bourgeoisie does A…  the true socialist says Y… the fascist type yells C…’

Look here, he always seems to be saying, I’m a man of the world and these people always say, do, promise, lie or behave in the following ways. It’s one thing when you’re listening to a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman in the pub; quite another when you’re deciding the future of the country.

To some extent, George Bowling is of course a parody of George Orwell’s own instincts, feelings and beliefs. Just as he cranked up his hatred of the modern world and conflicted self-loathing to create the wretched protagonist of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, so in Coming Up For Air he exaggerates both his sentimental nostalgia for a perfect England and his fear for the future.

You know

Backing away from the political implications, there’s no doubt that this button-holing and shoulder-nudging you towards acquiescence in the narrator’s thoughts and experiences is a major part of the rhetorical strategy of Orwell’s fiction.

George is propping up the bar and while the barmaid fetches another round of drinks, launches off on another story about one of those… you know the type… the kind of chap who…

  • You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses…
  • You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell…
  • You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days…
  • You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything…
  • You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton…
  • You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro…
  • You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk…
  • You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away…
  • You know those tennis clubs in the genteel suburbs — little wooden pavilions and high wire- netting enclosures where young chaps in rather badly cut white flannels prance up and down, shouting ‘Fifteen forty!’ and ‘Vantage all!’ in voices which are a tolerable imitation of the Upper Crust…
  • Do you know these Anglo-Indian families? It’s almost impossible, when you get inside these people’s houses, to remember that out in the street it’s England and the twentieth century. As soon as you set foot inside the front door you’re in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes about tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ‘87…
  • It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on…
  • You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy…
  • Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type…
  • You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day..
  • You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into…
  • You know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you…
  • You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them…
  • You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same…
  • I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea – China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in…
  • As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling…
  • Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath…
  • Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something?
  • You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers – utter lack of interest…
  • Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’?
  • You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type

Orwell, and his narrators, always know her type. They know all types. They are experts in all types of human and on the entire human condition. It is upon this claim to universal knowledge of human nature, upon this barrage of ‘types’ and ‘you knows’ that we are meant to place our trust in them.

Comments

Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air as soon as he’d finished Homage to Catalonia, the terrifying account of his time in Spain during the early stage of the Spanish civil war. He wrote Coming Up during a six-month stay in North Africa, from September 1938 to March 1939, which was recommended by his doctors on account of his poor health.

What a period to be outside of England and outside of Europe, looking in, looking back. From the Munich Crisis (September 1938) via Kristallnacht (November 1938) to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia  in March 1939.

Pretty obviously these were the twin sources of the powerful nostalgia which is Coming Up For Air‘s ultimate mood:

  • He had seen Soviet-style political terror in Barcelona and it made him re-evaluate the enduring value of the docile freedoms of England.
  • And then he was out of England for six long months, writing a book in which a middle-aged man reminisces about his boyhood in rural England, surely given piquancy at every turn from the fact that it was written under such very alien skies.

Ultimately Coming Up For Air is a dubious achievement as a novel – with little plot, almost no interaction among the characters and too much of a feeling that it is preaching at you – you could say that it dramatises a predicament more than a believable personality. But Orwell’s writing is marvellous throughout: you can open it at any page and immediately be drawn in by the vividness of the imagined details and the clarity of his wonderfully forthright, lucid prose.


Credit

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell was published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

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

George Orwell’s books

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

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1939)

They were beginning to understand that a bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game might well find a perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth. (p.7)

This novel is much stranger than its blurb and reputation suggest. It is marketed as a thrilling ‘manhunt’ and while this is not untrue, it doesn’t capture the real essence of the book which is something weirder and more pagan.

The set-up

Rogue Male is narrated in the first person by an unnamed upper-class Englishman who has an odd way of telling a story. It starts rather confusingly in media res, at the moment just after he has been caught trespassing by the security people guarding the country house of the leader of a foreign country, beaten up, then thrown over a cliff and left for dead. For the narrator was – in his airily lackadaisical, Jeeves-and-Wooster kind of way – stalking the Great Leader of this country, at his rural estate. Why? Bored. For fun. Because – he claims – he had stalked most other game available and fancied it as a challenge, ‘for the fun of the stalk’. Characteristically, he defines this Quixotic quest with reference to the quintessential English upper-class sport:

… as I found myself getting a little nearer to the House with each night’s lodging I became obsessed by this idea of a sporting stalk. I have asked myself once or twice since why I didn’t leave the rifle behind. I think the answer is that it wouldn’t have been cricket. (Penguin paperback edition, p.15)

(The assumption is that the unnamed country is Germany – the narrator leaves his bags in Poland to cross the border and Hitler is pictured as seen through a telescopic sight on the book cover – but he isn’t actually mentioned anywhere in the text. )

You won’t of course mention my name, nor the name of the country to which I went from Poland and to which I am about to return. Let the public take its choice! (p.191)

After he has been caught five hundred yards from the Leader’s house, with the great leader actually in his gunsights, he is interrogated and horribly tortured by the Gestapo and then disposed of by being thrown over a nearby cliff. He bounces gruesomely on the way down but, as luck has it, lands in a deep soft marsh and so survives, reduced to a welter of agonised nerves, a bloody pulp.

It is at this moment that the author chooses to open the narrative and, after a brief recap of how he got there, the first third or so of the novel goes on to describe his slow, painful recovery in the (German?) woods, before he manages to steal some clothes, beg food and finally buy a small sailing boat which he lets drift downriver to a major seaport (Hamburg?) where he persuades an officer on an English ship to take him aboard and conceal him for the journey back to London.

Posh

Household went to Clifton public school (£32,000 per annum fees 2014/15) and Magdelen College, Oxford, before becoming a banker. This Rogue Male is the kind of plummy, all-competent and terribly posh hero Eric Ambler was reacting against with his rather left-wing engineers and journalist protagonists, much more everyman figures.

It is typical of Rogue Male (RM) that he is not only on first name terms with the (presumably German) ambassador to London, but rather inevitably has his own Jeeves-and-Wooster nickname for him – dear old ‘Holy George’. This breezy superiority extends to having influential friends in the Foreign Office and, when the police arrive in Dorset on his trail, he is, of course, on first name terms with the boss.

Half an hour later a police car came bumping over the turf and decanted an old friend of mine into the cottages. I had quite forgotten that he was now Chief Constable of Dorset. (p.101)

As soon as he talks to an Englishman (on page 40, when he has arrived at a port and spotted some English ships) he becomes conscious of his class, and there is a three-page-long and rather confusing disquisition about class in England. When he thinks of Devon his first thought, as a pukka gentleman, is of course of the county fox hunt: ‘I had never hunted with the Cattistock.’ (p.68)

When he goes to the cinema, a novel experience for such a posh outdoors man, he is typically stand-offish and disdainful of what was, obviously, a run-of-the-mill experience for most Brits then as now:

When the main feature, as I believe they call it, was at its most dramatic quarter of an hour… (p.65)

The narrator at one point says his home has been continually lived in for fifteen generations. We can assume this refers to a significant country house and an eminent family. Beyond posh.

Bruised and battered

If it is a familiar thriller trope that the hero experiences not only life-threatening situations, but also gets badly beaten (sadistic beatings in Bond, superhuman batterings in Alistair MacLean). If so, Rogue Male is a kind of high water mark or extremity: thorough torture by the Gestapo, thrown off a cliff, reduced to a bloody pulp, blind in one eye with no fingernails, the protagonist starts the novel very badly beaten up indeed.

Although he recovers physically, it is open to debate whether he really recovers mentally. The first-person narration gives us a window into a very peculiar mind. After a spell in London our hero realises foreign agents are on his tail and so – after very Woosterishly ordering a complete set of camping equipment from his man at Harrods, which is delivered to him on the platform of Wimbledon station – he heads down to Dorset where he finds an isolated bit of country, between two thick hedges and laboriously creates a modern version of Robinson Crusoe’s stockade, complete with entrances, chimney, camouflaged door and so on, and he lives on tinned food, slopping out his waste and never washing or changing.

And it is here that the enemy agents track him to his lair, where they simply place barricades over the main door and the chimney to trap him. The final third or so of the text is the account of RM going more or less mad, trapped inside his badger sett for over a week while his antagonist, an enemy agent masquerading as a plummy huntin’ and shootin’ military man, Major Quive-Smith, tries to persuade him to sign a confession saying he was put up to his assassination attempt by the British government. Which he refuses to do. Impasse.

Something has to give and the dénouement sees our man cunningly getting the better of the enemy, killing the main agent and forcing his underling to get a car and clothes etc and help him escape by ship to North Africa. From here, with a new look and identity, RM sends his account (the text of this novel) along with a covering letter to his friend and lawyer to publish if he choses, saying he is setting back out to the enemy country, this time to do the job properly!

Tarka

This summary makes Rogue Male appear a much more rational reading experience than it actually is. In fact, so totally does RM immerse himself in his natural environments – in escaping through Germany (?), but especially living wild in Devon – that it is like being inside the mind of an animal. Rather than an Ambler or Deighton thriller, it reminds me of Henry Williamson’s classic Tarka the Otter (1927) or the poems of Ted Hughes, which really take you inside the mind of a wild animal in all the crude single-minded functionality of animal life.

In one section the police come searching for him with bloodhounds so he mashes up some tin sardines with fertiliser, attaches them to a string and sets off to create a completely false trail leading miles in the wrong direction. This passage is a typical combination of low animal cunning and physical endurance, observed and written up with a lofty patrician ironic detachment, with the narrator’s characteristic ‘healthy insolence’.

The dry bottom began to look like a meet of the Cattistock. The couple of bloodhounds that I had expected turned up, towing a bloodthirsty maiden lady in their wake. She was encouraging them with yawps and had feet so massive that I could see them clearly at two hundred yards – great brogued boats navigating a green sea. She was followed by half the village of Sydling and a sprinkling of local gentry. Two fellows had turned out on horseback. I felt they should have paid me the compliment of wearing pink coats.

Away went the bloodhounds on the trail of the fertilised sardines, and away I went too; I had a good half hour’s law while they followed my bag through the hazels and heather. I crossed the main road – a hasty dash from ditch to ditch while the constable on watch was occupied with the distant beauty of the sea – and slid along the hedges into a great headland of gorse above Cattistock. There I wove so complicated a pattern that boat-footed artemis must have thought her long-eared darlings were on the line of a hare. I skirted Cattistock and heard their lovely carillon most appropriately chime ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ at my passage, followed by ‘Lead, Kindly Light’. It was half-past five and dusk was falling. I waded into the Frome, passed under the Great Western Railway, and paddled upstream for a mile or so, taking cover in the rushes whenever there was anyone to see me. Then I buried the sardines in the gravel at the bottom of the river, and proceeded under my own scent. (p.102)

Madness

At several moments, trapped in his underground lair, the narrator himself wonders whether he’s gone mad, and the narrative, supposedly written into an old notebook he’s taken with him, at moments questions why he’s doing what he’s doing, what his real motivation is, and whether he might not in fact be going mad. Writing the text is therapeutic.

I must try to make my behaviour intelligible. This confession – shall I call it? – is written to keep myself from brooding, to get down what happened in the order in which it happened. I am not content with myself. With this pencil and exercise-book I hope to find some clarity. I create a second man, a man of the past by whom the man of the present may be measured. Lest what I write should ever, by accident or intention, become public property, I will not mention who I am. My name is widely known. I have been frequently and unavoidably dishonoured by the banners and praises of the penny press. (Penguin paperback edition, p.14)

He isn’t a hero. Clear-headed and practical and loftily ironic in some respects, he is almost out of his mind, profoundly adrift, turning into a wild animal, in others.

Style

The alienness of the mindset which emerges from the book is partly created by the narrator’s odd way with the English language, a style askew, aslant from normal linear grammar.

Disgraced. A nasty word, that. I am not disgraced, and I will not feel it. (p.54)

I told him that if he ever got one postcard, he’d probably get a lot more; it was ever living to write the first that was doubtful. (p.55)

By God in all this immobility and carrion thought it does me good to think of the man I was! (p.94)

I will not kill; to hide I am ashamed. So I endure without object. (p.129)

The continual peculiarity of this idiosyncratic style might explain why Household, despite being a prolific and successful writer in his day, is now so little known today and the rest of his books sunk into obscurity. When you consider that Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, was published this same year of 1939, it is like comparing the Future – a type and style of plot which will go on to become wildly successful in books and TV and movies – with a strange, preserved-in-amber oddity, a memento of a vanished class and a forgotten country. Which makes Rogue Male all the more worth reading for its unwitting opposition, on numerous levels, to our present-day all-enveloping consumerist culture.

Related links

The movie

Given the rate at which Hollywood gobbled up novels by Hammett and Chandler and Greene and Ambler, it’s no surprise to learn that Rogue Male was converted into the movie Man Hunt, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Walter Pidgeon, in 1941, just two years after the book’s publication. It was redone in a TV movie for the BBC in 1976, starring Peter O’Toole who helped get it commissioned, apparently as a present to his wife, Sian.

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)

It is a poor story, isn’t it? There is no hero, no heroine; there are only knaves and fools.
Or do I mean only fools? (p.236)

Eric Ambler’s fifth spy thriller is told in the third person. The lead figure is Charles Latimer, a lecturer in political economy who takes to writing detective stories which are so successful that he is able to resign and go live in Athens as a professional writer. For the winter he moves on to Istanbul with letters of introduction which lead him to a high-class party where one of the most dashing guests is a Colonel Haki of the secret police who invites him to his office, ostensibly for an anodyne discussion about a roman policier which he, Haki, has been working on.

The conversation moves on to the difference between the neat crimes of fiction and the messy records of real crime and, in order to demonstrate the latter, Haki reads out the dossier of one Dimitrios Makropoulos, a notorious criminal whose stabbed body has just been fished out of the sea.

Bitten by curiosity, Latimer decides on a whim to see if he can fill in the gaps in the dossier, whether he can, in effect, research and write the adult biography of this international criminal. He copies down the details of Dimitrios’s career of crime and sets off to visit Smyrna, Athens, Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva and Paris in pursuit of this will o’ the wisp.

It would be an experiment in detection… (1978 Hodder & Stoughton Large Print Edition, page 36)

The novel will turn out to be a series of interviews with people connected with Dimitrios’s criminal career, each of whom has memories which they retell in flashback.

According to his autobiography, The Mask of Dimitrios had the distinction of being the Daily Mail book-of-the-month in the same week Britain and France went to war with Germany, September 1939. (p) Throughout the writing Ambler’s working title was A Coffin For Dimitrios, but the publisher and then Hollywood studio preferred the word ‘mask’. (p.149)

Flight or pursuit

In two of Ambler’s previous novels, Uncommon Danger and Cause For Alarm, the protagonist is framed for a murder he didn’t commit and forced to go on the run, a price on his head as he scrambles across inhospitable terrain. They are examples of one of the basic thriller typologies, the flight of the wanted man, as exemplified by Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886) or Buchan’s 39 Steps (1915) or Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

Mask is the opposite: the pursuit of an elusive mystery figure, whose life and existence have to be pieced together via scattered evidence and testimony. The Third Man (1949) springs to mind and the protagonist of that movie and novella, too, is a writer in search of a missing person. The plot of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) revolves at great length around a missing person everyone is seeking.

Dark Europe

Ambler’s novels are distinctive for all being set abroad in the troubled Europe of the late 1930s, mostly the dark and turbulent east of Europe. The quest for Dimitrios takes us east to what is new territory for him – Istanbul, Athens, Sofia – but is also new in the way it incorporates real historical events into the story.

This character Dimitrios is involved in some of the nastiest episodes of post-Great War history: the Turkish army’s sacking of the city of Smyrna and the flight of over 800,000 Greek refugees across the sea to mainland Greece. Later Latimer discovers his connection with the assassination of the Romanian Prime Minister in 1923. Then, in Paris, Dimitrios’s involvement with the rise of the white slave trade and the explosion of illegal drug trafficking.

In fact, Dimitrios becomes a gauge for political turmoil and social chaos in the post-war period, allowing Ambler to show just how chaotic and bloodthirsty, how corrupt and vicious, 20th century European history has been.

But it was useless to try to explain [Dimetrios] in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. (p.337)

Characters

It is noticeable that Ambler’s way of describing a character has changed since his first novels: it is now much shorter, more focused, zeroing in on the salient or distinguishing features. It reminds me of the ability to focus on one or two tell-tale aspects of a character which Graham Greene had from the start.

The Greek was a dark, lean man of middle age with intelligent, rather bulbous eyes and a way of bringing his lips together at the end of a sentence as though amazed at his own lack of discretion. He greeted Latimer with the watchful courtesy of a negotiator in an armed truce. He spoke in French. (p.91)

Ambler’s style has become tauter and crisper in the course of writing these novels. Now it really is lean and to the point, clear like water, with almost no dated locutions or verbal oddities to remind you that it is 75 years old.

Strewn about the floor in utter confusion were the content of his suitcases. Draped carelessly over a chair were the bedclothes. On the mattress, stripped of their bindings, were the few English books he had brought with him from Athens. The room looked as if a cageful of chimpanzees had been turned loose in it. (p.150)

The Absurd

But if Ambler has one message it is that the world is always more complex than we think; or, we fool ourselves if we think we understand what is going on. The disjunction between our own (simple, optimistic) interpretation of the world around us, and the actual (random, often nasty ) reality of that world, produces Absurdity. Is the Absurd.

Ambler’s notion of the Absurd is not developed with anything like the thoroughness of the French writers who were thinking along the same lines, at exactly the same time (Camus: Betwixt and Between (1937), Nuptials (1938), The Stranger (1942); Sartre: Nausea (1938)). He is a novelist not a philosopher, and so the opening pages of the book which dwell a little on simple ideas about chance, coincidence and absurdity are merely a rhetorical prologue to the drama, a form of throat-clearing.

Still. The mood of his novels and their message that the political structures of the Western world between the wars have failed, that the system is collapsing, that humanity seems hell-bent on its own destruction, that nothing makes sense, these are part of the same Zeitgeist and have much in common with the continental writers.

I wanted to explain Dimitrios, to account for him, to understand his mind. Merely to label him with disapproval was not enough. I saw him not as a corpse in a mortuary but as a man, not as an isolate, a phenomenon, but as a unit in a disintegrating social system. (p.103)

The Absurd in practice

Like all Ambler’s other protagonists, Latimer soon realises that he is caught up in something much deeper than he originally thought, for in the lens of his investigations Dimitrios grows steadily into a kind of legendary figure of the underworld, involved in a cruel cross-section of post-War criminality.

Fine. But the book itself is not thrilling. The Dark Frontier, Uncommon Danger, Cause For Alarm, they all plunge the hero into serious peril and include chases, shoot-outs, kidnappings, imprisonments and daring escapes. Unlike them, Dimitrios is an essentially calm, civilised travelogue, as Latimer criss-crosses Europe meeting people who help fill in the details of Dimitrios’s career. Thus:

  • the Polish spy Grodek tells – at length – the story of the job he carried out to blackmail a petty official in the Italian Marine Ministry into handing over charts of the deployment of mines in the Adriatic, and Dimitrios’s key role – and betrayal of – the scam
  • the affable drug gangster Mr Peters (aka Pedersen) describes at length his career in Paris, firstly running a night club, then accepting white slave women from Dimitrios, then moving into wholesale drug trafficking – heroine and cocaine – for Dimitrios
  • in part two of his long account Peters goes into detail about how one member of the drugs gang Dimitrios betrayed – a violent man named Visser – emerges for prison determined to track Dimitrios down and take his revenge, a quest which brings us right up to the present moment!

It’s a collection of fairly interesting stories and full of social history interest – but thrilling, it ain’t! And it’s not a spy story. Some of the people Latimer meets have been spies, but it is essentially a piece of detective work about a criminal who happens to have done some occasional espionage work on the side.

The protagonist’s slow and methodical approach makes for a slow and steady read, right up to the last twenty or so pages when the book does – finally – arrive at a tense but rather predictable climax, a standoff between the bitterly vengeful Petersen and the sleekly terrifying man himself.

Two lives hung by the thin, steel threads of self-preservation and greed. (Penguin 2009 paperback edn, p.206)

Anti-capitalist

The book contains Ambler’s by-now-familiar rhodomontades against Big Business and the jackals it hires to do its dirty work (cf the mercenary Colonel Robinson in Uncommon Danger). In two of the other books these ‘analyses’ of the sins of Western society come from the mouth of Zaleshoff the KGB agent; here they’re expressed by the cynical Greek (presumably communist) journalist Marukakis. For him, the Big Business man keeps his hands clean; he believes in Law and Order; he is very respectable; he knows the best people and has a beautiful wife; he attends the opera and gives to charities; and when someone or some group are an inconvenience to his business, then word is passed from the Board Room down through layers of underlings until it reaches the criminal underworld, the social scum, ‘that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of an old society’. Men like Dimitrios.

He himself has no political convictions. For him there is no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest. He believes in the survival of the fittest and the gospel of tooth and claw because he makes money by seeing that the weak die before they can become strong and that the law of the jungle remains the governing force in the affairs of the world. And he is all about us. Every city in the world knows him. He exists because big business, his master, needs him. International big business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood!’ (p.118)

Finally, in a satirical stroke it turns out that Dimitrios had become so successful as a criminal that he had achieved the acme of respectability: he had got himself appointed to the Board of the Eurasian Credit Bank which the hero knows was earlier involved in commissioning the assassination of the Bulgarian Prime Minister. It is a Brechtian fable. The criminal so successful that he is allowed to join the ranks of the real criminals – the international bankers.

Conclusion

The Mask of Dimitrios fails to live up to its promise. Ambler tells us this man is a symptom of the times; the variety of his crimes, across so much of Europe, are presumably intended to make him appear a kind of Everycriminal figure; at some moments of the pursuit, when Latimer is talking to various interlocutors, this legendary almost-mythical figure acquires real imaginative power.

But the pace of the novel never really picks up and the climax of the book – a shootout in a squalid attic – is anti-climactic, an unimaginative conclusion to a spirited pursuit which really demanded something much bigger and more emblematic to match the scale of the story’s mythical ambition.

Related links

Movie

The novel was turned into a classic Hollywood noir movie in 1944, starring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, familiar from The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). It’s not a classic like them, but still well worth a watch.

Latimer is played by the diminutive Lorre and so is renamed Leyden and made Dutch to explain the foreign accent. Fat Sidney Greenstreet plays Peters, the avenging member of Dimitrios’s gang in Paris. Dimitrios is played by the gorgeous, moustachioed Zachary Scott.

The noir style of director Jean Negulesco is all shadows and menacing foreign actors. The movie is very faithful to the book, which means it is relatively static, a series of half a dozen sets in which Leyden interviews people and they tell him their relationship to the Master Criminal. It has that odd noir thing where half the time characters are pointing guns at each other and half the time wisecracking friends. It’s impossible to watch Greenstreet and Lorre without warm memories of their performances in their two more famous films.

There are two significant changes: the book has a long chapter about the activities of the Paris gang Dimitrios leads, namely their forays into trafficking women for prostitution and their drug smuggling. This is cut. And at the end of the book Peters and Dimitrios both die in the shootout. In the movie Peters (Greenstreet) survives and, as he is hussled off by the police, remains remarkably cheery, giving the movie an ironically uplifting moral when he says, ‘You see, there’s not enough kindness in the world.’

Ambler tended not to like the movie adaptations of his novels. In his autobiography he says watching this movie gave him severe stomach cramps (Here Lies, p.225).

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.

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene (1939)

In the introduction to the Collected Works edition of this, his seventh novel, Greene explains that he was still desperately hard up in 1938 and so, while he ground on with writing The Power and The Glory in the afternoons, he rented an apartment in Mecklenburgh Square and knocked out The Confidential Agent in a benzedrine-fuelled six weeks. Every evening he returned to his wife burnt-out and bad tempered and even when he’d finished writing he had to slowly lower the dose over the following weeks to shake the addiction he’d developed. He candidly says the whole experience probably helped the break-up of his marriage. Is the Confidential Agent worth it?

Plot

Part One – The Hunted
D. is from a European country undergoing a civil war. He has come to London to secure coal supplies from an English coal merchant. He arrives on a ferry from France, is delayed at Customs and so misses the London train, falls in with a young woman who’s also late and just happens to be the daughter of the coal magnate he’s come all this way to see, Rose Cullen (!). They hire a car which breaks down on the way to London so they stop in at an inn where D. sees the agent from the opposing side in the civil war, L., is nearly attacked by L.s chauffeur, steals the car and drives off but is overtkane by L. and chauffeur who this time badly beats him up before driving off. He hitches to London where he checks into a seedy hotel and finds himself hero-worshipped by a 14 year-old girl, wise beyond her years in the ways of prostitutes and their clients, before he keeps an appointment at an office teaching a new international language, Entrenationo, where he meets up with a fellow agent of his Side. Walking in London he is accosted by a beggar who lures him into a side street where he is shot at, then meets the young lady and they go to the cinema (cue cynical dismissal of the cheap emotions of the ‘flickers’). Back in the boarding house the man from the Entrenationo office reveals that the manageress is a fellow agent and their govt doesn’t trust him any more and they want him to give her the papers but he doesn’t trust them and so doesn’t hand the papers over. Next morning he arises in a mild hysteria of paranoia, imagining everyone is out to get him including the inconsequential lady on the tube, and in the thick fog bumps into Colonel Currie from the Dover road inn who tries to get him to shake hands with the chauffeur but he wriggles free and makes it to his appointment with Lord Benditch only to discover someone has pickpocketed his credentials from him without which the deal can’t go through! One of the associates, Forbes, has a soft spot for Rose and suggests they go to the — embassy to get D.’s credentials but this rebounds as the First Secretary there is on the Other Side and not only tries to show D. doesn’t exist but calls the cops. D. punches him, seizes the gun he had been holding and forces his way out of the embassy. In the extreme London fog he gets away from the police and breaks into a nearby basement flat.

Part Two – The Hunter
D. has failed. His rival L. has sealed the deal to import coal to the civil war-torn European country. And in the embassy the police accused him of murdering the little girl at the boarding house who had been so devoted. Now the worm turns. Disgusted with his failure and being pushed around, he goes to the boarding house, sees the Mr K. and – in a bizarre scene – takes him to a party at the Entrenationo office in Oxford Street. Then takes him back to the basement flat and nerves himself to murder him, fires the gun but misses and at that moment Rose Cullen knocks at the door. They debate what to do and realise Mr K. has died anyway of a heart attack. She realises she loves him. They stumble on the notion of going to the mining district and somehow appealing to the mineworkers direct not to dig coal for the fascist regime.

Part Three – The Last Shot
Opens in a Midlands railway station where D. is waiting for a train to the Benditch coal fields. Long inconsequential conversation with the station-master as dawn comes and then some vivid description of the desolate mining district before D. arrives at the toen hall just as Benditch’s agent is announcing to hastily assembled miners that the pit will re-open and they will have work, to general rejoicing. L. is there smirking. D. has comprehensively lost. His enemies call the police and he goes running out of the hall and – in a risible sequence – is rescued by a gang of boys. they extract his gun from him on a promise they’ll blow up the mine. All day he hides in the shed at the bottom of mrs Bennett’s garden coveting a piece of dried coconut put out for the birds. At ightfall he makes his way to the chapel where the Gang tell him he’ll be collected and helped to escape but a) the cops are waiting and arrest him b) the Gang’s attempt to blow up the mine is a pitiful failure.

Part Four – The End
D. is taken back to London by the police, interviewed, put in a line-up etc. Finally goes on trial and an expensive QC paid for by Forbes gets him off on bail. Forbes drives him to Devon explaining he’s helping him to flee the country. He drops him at a kind of Butlins, a new-style holiday camp, all chrome and floodlighting. Almost immediately D. bumps into Captain Currie from the Dover inn who makes a citizens’ arrest and holds him until the police arrive and take him away. Only they aren’t the police, they are Forbes’s agents, and he is taken by motorboat out to the steamer which will take him back to his country. And waiting for him is Rose who loves him.

Thus it opens with D. on a boat arriving in England and ends with D. on a boat departing England. Neat.

How to create a character on the cheap

Give him or her two or three memories or turns of thought which you can then milk to death. D. is made an academic who discovered a variant manuscript of Le Chanson de Roland, the medieval poem about loyalty, bravery etc, which allows Greene to spin pages of prose about loyalty, bravery etc in the context of a modern war. He also has memories of: his wife being shot by the opposition (by mistake); his house being bombed and lying for 56 hours in the wreckage before being rescued; and he is obsessed with the melodramatic and self-pitying idea that he is infected with violence he takes violence everywhere with him.

She’s given me the sack, [Else said]. He thought: the infection’s still on me after all. I come into this place, breaking up God knows what lives. (p.49)

The nightmare was back. He was an infected man. Violence went with him everywhere. Like a typhoid-carrier he was responsible for the deaths of strangers. (p.116)

D. felt as a typhoid-carrier must feel when he finds himself among the safe and inoculated: these he couldn’t infect. They were secured from the violence and horror he carried with him. (p.190)

Far out at sea a light burned. Perhaps that was the ship in which he was supposed to leave – leave this country free from his infection and his friends free from embarrassment. (p.203)

Plausibility

Zero. As usual with Greene the bulk of the novel is taken up with the lengthy thoughts and meditations of the lead character which all boil down to generalisations: war is horrid, these people in England don’t know how lucky they are, I suppose everyone will betray their side for a price, I carry violence everywhere, and other truisms. I found it impossible to believe this is how the agent of a foreign power would think or behave.

Also the conspiracy against him has no reality. If they wanted him dead they could have killed him easily on the ferry. Or by the foggy road. Or in his boarding house. Instead the Enemy don’t act decisively but loom just enough to create a spurious sense of tension and insecurity – pretty much the same atmosphere created in Stamboul Train and It’s A Battlefield and Brighton Rock – the same kind of schoolboy frisson of spies on every corner which you find in Auden’s 1930s poems.

D.s lucubrations about civil war tend to circulate around the fictional memories and feelings Greene has given him – bombed house, shot wife, burned manuscript – memories which are entirely personal and bourgeois. He feels sorry for himself because he takes war around wherever he goes, the poor dear. He is drowning in self-pity.

It had not been an unexpected day: this was the atmosphere in which he had lived for two years. If he had found himself on a desert island, he would have expected to infect even the loneliness somehow with violence. You couldn’t escape a war by changing your country; you only changed the technique – fists instead of bombs, the sneak thief instead of the artillery bombardment. Only in sleep did he evade violence… (p.37)

The sense of civil war never gets beyond the level of newspaper photos. The book completely fails to convey any understanding of the cause or reality of this conflict. Considering how political the 1930s were there is not an interesting political thought in this book. No-one in their right minds would read it to find out what a civil war feels like – read Homage to Catalonia.

Greeneland

Instead, it is to be read as a variation on a theme, a reshuffling of the well-loved features of Greeneland, human squalor and futility.

Dr Bellows stood in the little tiny room, all leather and walnut stain and smell of dry ink, and held out both hands. He had smooth white hair and a look of timid hope. (p.45)

[Mr K.] a little shabby an ink-stained, he was any under-paid language master in a commercial school. He wore steel spectacles and economised on razor blades. (p.44)

He looked curiously round at the den – that was the best word for it. It wasn’t a woman’s room at all… Even the pictures were of a masculine kind. Cheap colour pictures of women, all silk stockings and lingerie. It seemed to him the room of an inhibited bachelor. It was dimly horrifying, like timid secret desires for unattainable intimacies. (p.70)

[The long and ludicrous scene in the Entrenationo offices]

[The pitiful poverty of the coal-mining district, its men, women and children]

Catholic melodrama

Catholicism is the cloak under which Greene smuggles in great purple swathes of melodrama. His characters overreact to everything (not in actions, nothing much happens in a Greene novel; in their extreme and hyperactive thoughts.) The 14 year-old girl tells him she’s been offered a place as maid to a prostitute, just opening the door and tidying up etc.

He exclaimed ‘No. No.’ It was as if he had been given a glimpse of the guilt which clings to all of us without our knowing it. None of us knows how much innocence we have betrayed. (p.49)

He discovers someone’s been through the stuff in his room while he was out, maybe the girl, maybe the manageress of the boarding house. A calm man would decide to move boarding house. A hysterical man thinks:

His room had been booked; everything had been arranged for him, so that they could never lose contact. But that, of course, might all have been arranged by whoever it was gave information to L. – if anybody had. There was no end to the circles in hell. (p.50)

All his thoughts are like that mounting in intensity and hysteria. These are the standard Greene thoughts. The Greene challenge is to think up situations which justify the Greene style. This isn’t a spy book written by Graham Green, it is Graham Greene prose and worldview which are using spy clichés to find new ways to deploy themselves.

A few street cries  came up through the cold air… Those cries were an agony. He buried his head in the pillow as a young man might have done. they brought back the years before his marriage with intensity. They had listened to them together. He felt like a young man who had given all his trust and found himself mocked, cuckolded, betrayed. Or who has himself in a minute of lust spoilt a whole life together. To live was like perjury. How often had they declared that they would die within a week of each other, but he hadn’t died: he had survived prison, the shattered house. the bomb which had wrecked four floors and killed a cat had left him alive… Was this what London – a foreign peaceful city – had in store for him, the return of feeling, despair? (p.56)

No, not London. This is what being trapped in a Graham Greene novel holds in store for him: countless long self-pitying monologues mixing spurious memories about his dead wife, about being bombed or about the Song of Roland, with truisms about being caught in a civil war, plus some Catholic ruminations about sin, damnation, betrayal and the circles of hell. When the young woman tells him his father is trying to marry her off to a businessman who she knows already keeps a mistress, D., a man supposedly hardened by loss and war, reels melodramatically at this revelation of the world’s beastly nastiness.

He gave it up; this wasn’t peace. When he landed in England… he had imagined that the suspicion which was the atmosphere of his own life was due to civil war, but he began to believe that it existed everywhere: it was part of human life. People were united only by their vices; there was honour among adulterers and thieves… It was as if the whole world lay in the shadow of abandonment. Perhaps it was still propped up by ten just men – that was a pity. Better scrap it and start again with newts. (p.64)

See how the commentary, the thought process, escalates in hysteria and wild sweeping generalisation. See how utterly unjustified it is by the revelation the girl’s father is trying to get her to marry a man with a mistress. See how it escalates out of control into a sweeping adolescent condemnation of all human nature. See how this has got absolutely nothing to do with the politics of a European civil war, how completely it is a personal vision of humanity’s fallen, futile nature: how bourgeois; how completely it is another slice of Greeneland.

‘This is crazy. You are D. I know you are D. If you aren’t honest then the whole putrid world…’ (p.99)

D. sat with his hands hanging down and his eyes on the secretary’s face. Treachery darkened the whole world. He thought, this is the end. (p.104)

If you believed in God, you could also believe that it had been saved from much misery and had a finer future. You could leave punishments, then, to God… But he hadn’t that particular faith. Unless people received their deserts, the world to him was chaos, he was faced with despair. (p.117)

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 Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

Haven’t read Chandler since school. I’d forgotten how very literary he is, how artful and contrived the prose is – from the era between the wars which, after all, saw an explosion of Modernist experimentation with prose.

And that these books are essentially comedies. The way the plot serves up contrived scenes made of confrontations between extravagant characters who exchange clipped, artful dialogue remind me of no-one so much as Oscar Wilde – when I came across a character actually named Wilde in chapter 18 (Taggart Wilde, the District Attorney) I burst out laughing. Is it a deliberate reference or homage? After all, Chandler references Marcel Proust early in the book (Chapter 11). In their way, the characters and plots are as stylised, as exaggerated and mannered as anything from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Male knowingness

The text radiates post-Hemingway savoir vivre: the essence of this kind of writing is a very male attitude of total knowledge, complete knowledgeability about women, guns, booze, crime, all the tricks and cons of detectives and crooks – the way of the world – or of a certain kind of world. A world of sex, money, violence, drugs which we – as impeccably law-abiding citizens – are thrilled and entertained to enter, and with such a rock-safe chaperone as the artful first-person narrator.

Take women:

It might have annoyed Eddie but business is business, and you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes. (Ch 21)

Sure. So many stray blondes, what is a man to do. Or booze:

I unlocked my deep drawer and got out my office bottle and two pony glasses. I filled them and we drank. (Ch 11)

Obviously he has an ‘office bottle’ of booze. It isn’t even specified what type, it’s just general purpose drink whose purpose is to emphasise his manliness. Of course he has an office bottle. Of course he drinks spirits during the day. But what are pony glasses? The narrator knows. He assumes we know. His routine use of this stylised diction flatters us, assumes we know all about hooch and shamuses and gats. That we’re men of the world, too. Sure. No problem.

Or money:

First off Regan carried fifteen grand, packed it in his clothes all the time. Real money, they tell me. Not just a top card and a bunch of hay. (Ch 20)

Everyone says ‘grand’ now, so reading this doesn’t convey the thrill of the thieves’ argot it originally would have. But ‘a top card and a bunch of hay’, it takes you a moment to realise, must be entertaining jargon for a real dollar note at the top of a wad of fakes.

Since none of us are policeman, or Los Angeles policemen from 1939, none of us can know for sure how much of this was actually the way people dressed and acted and spoke back then – and how much is baroque invention.

‘Hard-boiled’ prose style

You read on the blurb and have the general impression that Chandler invented or is famous for the tough-guy hard-boiled style. And it’s true many of the sentences are ostentatiously clipped, short and understated. Especially around the sensational subjects which are the staples of ‘pulp’ writing (and, let’s face it, of most entertainment), sex and death.

She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn’t wearing anything else.

Death, of course, comes in many forms, all of them a combination of the grotesque and the sordid. All of them, of course, observed with the laconic, world-weary eye of the jaded detective.

Geiger was wearing Chinese slippers with thick felt soles, and his legs were in black satin pyjamas and the upper part of him wore a Chinese embroidered coat, the front of which was mostly blood. His glass eye shone brightly up at me and was by far the most lifelike thing about him. At a glance none of the three shots I heard had missed. He was very dead. (Ch 7)

But almost immediately you realise the clipped sentences are outnumbered by the more artful and colourful sentences. In particular the wealth of deliberately outlandish and vivid similes.

Smart-ass similes

It was raining again the next morning, a slanting grey rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads. I got up feeling sluggish and tired, and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets. (Chapter 25)

A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock. (Ch1)

I lit a cigarette and blew a lungful at him and he sniffed at it like a terrier at a rat-hole. (Ch 1)

This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall, and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead. (ch 2)

Her whole body shivered and her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust. She put it together again slowly, as if lifting a great weight, by sheer will power. (Ch 10)

His cigarette was jiggling like a doll on a coiled spring. (Ch 16)

Then her breathing began to make a rasping sound, like a small file on soft wood. (Ch 23)

The purring voice was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed. (Ch 26)

Blood began to move around in me, like a prospective tenant looking over a house. (Ch 28)

The pug sidled over flatfooted and felt my pockets with care. I turned around for him like a bored beauty modelling an evening gown. (Ch 13)

‘Pug’ refers to the baddy’s henchman and, as with the ‘bored beauty’, conveys ironic superiority, knowing confidence. It denotes the superiority of Marlowe over the situation, and of us, the privileged readers, also – so superior we can observe it with witty detachment. The delicious similes both heighten the comic/grotesque element of situations – and tickle the palate of the jaded reader.

But look again at that sentence and note that ‘with care’. That phrase denotes something extra, something I’ll call the ‘literary surplus’. It isn’t required by either the mechanics of the plot or the pulp injunction to amuse us with tricksy analogies. It is a real precision of imagining, conveyed with a real precision of language. It is this extra ability, which Chandler can turn on at will, which makes his work real art, real literature.

The literary surplus

I braked the car against the kerb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel.

‘and… and… and…’ a sequence of simple physical (male) acts described in chronological order with no colour whatsoever and linked only by ‘and’ was invented by Hemingway to give modern tough-guy prose a kind of Biblical simplicity and force. There is plenty of Hemingway in Chandler and he knows it. But then…

Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness. (Ch 23)

The poetic, the lyrical side of Chandler’s sensibility is mostly reined in, constrained into stylised similes and tough-guy patois. But here we see it exposed and, therefore, more vulnerable.

Dark silent mystified eyes stared at me solemnly, the doubt growing larger in them, creeping into them noiselessly, like a cat in long grass stalking a blackbird. (Ch 24)

This is repetition, but not and… and.. and repetition. This is repetition with variation of phrasing (‘…growing larger in them, creeping into them…’) which is shading a thought or perception, which takes the reader into the process of thought, her dawning thought and the narrator’s growing perception. It is very far from the definitive thing, the finished smart-arse remark, the Wildean apothegm, served up on a plate for which Chandler is famous:

His mouth drooped open and his cigarette hung to a corner of it by some magic, as if it had grown there. (Ch 25)

As the book progresses these more vulnerable poetic moments occur more often.

The windshield wiper could hardly keep the glass clear enough to see through. But not even the drenched darkness could hide the flawless lines of the orange trees wheeling away like endless spokes into the night. (Ch 27)

Wow. Marlowe comes round after being poleaxed and tied up by Canino, to find himself tended by Agnes Lozelle:

‘What time is it?’ I asked
She looked sideways at her wrist, beyond the spiral of smoke, at the edge of the grave lustre of the lamplight.

‘Grave lustre’. Or the moment when Marlowe enters the silent office to discover Harry Jones’s corpse:

A tramcar bell clanged at an almost infinite distance and the sound came buffeted by innumerable walls.

Something very 20th century, very Kafka, very urban alienation, is created with a handful of words. And yet how rich and poetic each phrase is: clanged… almost infinite distance. The microsecond lingering which reading ‘innumerable’ requires reminded me of the lushest of lush poets, Tennyson:

Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro’ the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Can it be that there is poetry in this prose?

An old man dozed in the elevator, on a ramshackle stool, with a burst-out cushion under him. His mouth was open, his veined temples glistened in the weak light. He wore a blue uniform coat that fitted him the way a stall fits a horse. Under the grey trousers with frayed cuffs, white cotton socks and black kid shoes, one of which was slit across a bunion. On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer. (Ch 26)

Burst-out is the kind of liberty-taking with the language which the Americans have been doing for a century or more with their much bigger population and diversity of dictions. Weak light is functional but poetic also. A stall fits a horse is a wise-guy, pulp simile. By the time I got to slit across a bunion I am pausing because there is real compassion here. Isn’t Marlowe a super-tough guy, inured to sex and death and old losers. But here an old guy on his uppers is evoking compassion. And then:

On the stool he slept miserably, waiting for a customer.

This is far from the Hemingway heritage. This reminds me of Joyce, the Joyce of Dubliners where every sentence is weighed and balanced, and the moving of one adverb creates a slightly alien, alerted meaning. ‘On the stool’ should come after the verb phrase, not before (though even in the right place it would read oddly). Placing it before makes ‘miserably’ conspicuous, foregrounds the sentiment, instead of burying it as hard-boiled is meant to, brings out the feeling, the real literary and humane feeling, which underlies everything in the book.

What an artist!

Pulp book cover of The Big Sleep

Pulp book cover of The Big Sleep

Related links

%d bloggers like this: