To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson (1940)

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was one of mid-twentieth century’s great literary journalists and critics. (In her biography of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings describes Wilson as being, in 1945, ‘America’s most influential critic’ p.482)

Friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and many other authors from that generation, he wrote extended essays on the French Symbolist poets, on T.S. Eliot, Proust, James Joyce and the classic Modernists, on Kipling, Charles Dickens, a study of the literature of the Civil War, memoirs of the 1920s and 30s, a book length study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and much, much more.

Edmund Wilson in 1951

Edmund Wilson in 1951

His style now seems very old-fashioned, a leisurely, bookish approach which was long ago eclipsed by the new professionalism of academia and the blizzard of literary and sociological theory which erupted in the 1960s.

Most of Wilson’s books are not currently in print, and many passages in this book demonstrate the relaxed, belle-lettreist, impressionist approach – often more in love with the sound of its own rolling prose than with conveying any clear information – which shows why.

Though Marx has always kept our nose so close to the counting-house and the spindle and the steam hammer and the scutching-mill and the clay-pit and the mine, he always carries with him through the caverns and the wastes of the modern industrial world, cold as those abysses of the sea which the mariner of his ballad scorned as godless, the commands of that ‘eternal God’ who equips him with his undeviating standard for judging earthly things. (p.289)

That said, Wilson was an extremely intelligent man, more of a literary-minded journalist than an academic, capable of synthesising vast amounts of information about historical periods, giving it a literary, bookish spin, and making it accessible and compelling.

Some themes or ideas

To The Finland Station is Wilson’s attempt to understand the Marxist tradition, and its place in the America of his day i.e. the angry left-wing American literary world produced by the Great Depression of the 1930s. He began researching and writing the book in the mid-1930s as well-meaning intellectuals all across America turned to socialism and communism to fix what seemed like a badly, and maybe permanently, broken society.

Like many guilty middle-class intellectuals who lived through the Great Depression, Wilson went through a phase of thinking that capitalism was finished, and that this was the big crisis, long-predicted by Marxists, which would finish it off.

He was simultaneously attracted and repelled by the psychological extremism and religious fervour of communism. Even after actually visiting Russia and seeing for himself the poverty, mismanagement and terror as Stalin’s grip tightened, Wilson couldn’t eradicate this feeling. He tried to analyse its roots by going back to the intellectual origins of socialism – then reading everything he could about Marx and Engels – and so on to Lenin and the Russian Revolution. This book is a kind of diary of his autodidactic project.

The myth of the Dialectic As Wilson prepared the book he realised that to understand Marx and his generation you need to understand Hegel – and he couldn’t make head or tail of Hegel, as his chapter on ‘The Myth of the Dialectic’ all too clearly reveals. He ends up comparing Hegel’s Dialectic to the Christian notion of the Trinity (Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis as a kind of modern version of Father, Son and Holy Ghost) in a way that’s superficially clever, but ultimately wrong. To understand Hegel’s importance for Marx and the German thinkers of that generation you should read:

More telling is Wilson’s point that Marx invoked his version of Hegelianism to give a mystical, quasi-religious sense of inevitability, a pseudo-scientific rationale, for what was simply, at bottom, the burning sense of moral outrage (i.e. at poverty and injustice) shared by so many of his contemporaries.

Aesthetics in Marx A later chapter dwells at length on Capital Volume One, pointing out that it is an aesthetic as much as an economic or political text, before going on to point out the ultimate inaccuracy of Marx’s Labour theory of Value.

The Labour Theory of Value Marx thought he had invented a new insight, that the value of a product is the value of ‘the labour invested in it’ – and that because the bourgeois owners of factories only paid their workers the bare minimum to allow them to live, they were thus stealing from the workers the surplus value which the workers had invested in the finished products.

This theory appeared to give concrete economic basis for the moral case made by trade unionists, socialists and their allies that capitalists are thieves. 

The only flaw is that there are quite a few alternative theories of ‘value’ – for example, as I’ve discovered whenever I’ve tried to sell anything on eBay, the ‘value’ of something is only what anyone is prepared to pay for it. In fact ‘value’ turns out to be one of the most tortuously convoluted ideas in economics, deeply imbricated in all sorts of irrational human drives (what is the ‘value’ of a gift your mother gave you, of your first pushbike, and so on?).

Wilson is onto something when he says that both the idea of the ‘Dialectic of History’ and the ‘Labour Theory of Value’ are fine-sounding myths, elaborate intellectual schemas designed to give some kind of objective underpinning to the widespread sense of socialist anger – but neither of which stand up to close scrutiny.

And although socialism or communism are meant to about the working class, Wilson’s book about Marx and Lenin, like so many others of its ilk, is a surprisingly proletarian-free zone, almost entirely concerned with bourgeois intellectuals and their highfalutin’ theories, with almost no sense of the experience of the crushing work regimes of capitalist industry, which were at the heart of the problem.

I’ve worked in a number of factories and warehouses (a Dorothy Perkins clothes warehouse, a credit card factory, the yoghurt potting section of a massive dairy) as well as serving on petrol pumps in the driving rain and working as a dustman in winter so cold the black binliners froze to my fingers. As in so many of these books about the working classes, there is little or nothing about the actual experience of work. The actual experience of actual specific jobs is nowhere described. Everything is generalisations about ‘History’ and ‘Society’ and ‘the Proletariat’ – which may partly explain why all attempts to put Socialism into action have been so ill-fated.

To The Finland Station

Wilson’s book is more like a series of interesting magazine articles about a sequence of oddball left-wing thinkers, often throwing up interesting insights into them and their times, always readable and informative, but lacking any theoretical or real political thrust. The book is divided into three parts.

Part one – The decline of the bourgeois revolutionary tradition

I was deeply surprised to discover that part one is a detailed survey, not of the pre-Marxist socialist political and economic thinkers – but of the careers of four of France’s great historians and social critics, namely:

  • Jules Michelet (1798-1874) author of a massive history of the French Revolution
  • Ernst Renan (1823-1892) expert on Semitic languages and civilizations, philosopher, historian and writer
  • Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) critic, historian and proponent of sociological positivism
  • Anatole France (1844-1924) poet, critic, novelist and the most eminent man of letters of his day i.e. the turn of the century and Edwardian period

Why? What’s this got to do with Lenin or Marx? It is only in the very last paragraph of this section that Wilson explains his intention, which has been to follow ‘the tradition of the bourgeois revolution to its disintegration in Anatole France’ (p.68).

Scanning back through the previous 68 pages I think I can see what he means. Sort of.

The idea is that Michelet came from a poor background, taught himself to read and study, and expressed in his sweeping histories a grand Victorian vision of Man engaged in a Struggle for Liberty and Dignity. He was heavily influenced by the memory of the Great Revolution, which he dedicated his life to writing about. Thus Michelet is taken as a type of the post-revolutionary intellectual who espoused a humanist commitment to ‘the people’. He provides a kind of sheet anchor or litmus test for what a humanist socialist should be.

Renan and Taine, in their different ways, moved beyond this humanist revolutionary vision, Renan to produce a debunking theory of Christianity in which Jesus is not at all the son of God but an inspired moral thinker, Taine embracing Science as the great Liberator of human society. Both were disappointed by the failure of the 1848 French Revolution and its ultimate outcome in the repressive Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.

Anatole France, 20 years younger than Renan and Taine, was a young man during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. This turned him completely off revolutionary politics and steered him towards a dandyish appreciation of art and literature. France represents, for Wilson, a disconnection from the political life around him. He continues the trajectory of French intellectuals away from Michelet’s humane engagement.

Anatole France

Anatole France A Corpse

During the 1890s the Symbolist movement in art and literature continued this trajectory, moving the artist even further from ‘the street’, from the deliberately wide-ranging social concerns of a Michelet.

The Paris Dadaists moved even further away from the Michelet ideal, choosing the day of Anatole France’s funeral in 1924 to publish A Corpse, a fierce manifesto excoriating France for representing everything conventional and bourgeois about French culture which they loathed.

And the Dadaists morphed into the Surrealists who proceeded to turn their back completely on politics and the public sphere – turning instead to ‘automatic writing’, to the personal language of dreams, to the writings of people in lunatic asylums.

So Wilson’s point is that between the 1820s and the 1920s the French intellectual bourgeoisie had gone from socialist solidarity with the poor, via sceptical Bible criticism and detached scientific positivism, to dilettantish symbolism, and – in Dada and Surrealism – finally disappeared up its own bum into art school narcissism. It amounts to a complete betrayal of the humanist, socially-conscious tradition.

Now all this may well be true, but:

  1. It would have been good manners of Wilson to have explained that describing all this was his aim at the start of part one, to prepare the reader.
  2. It is odd that, although he takes a literary-critical view of the writings of Michelet, Taine et al, he doesn’t touch on the most famous literary authors of the century – for example, the super-famous novelists Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola, to name a few.
  3. And this is all very literary – there is next to nothing about the politics or economics of the era (apart from brief mention of the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and 1870 as they affected his chosen writers). There is no historical, social, economic or political analysis. The whole argument is carried by a commentary on the literary style and worldview of the four authors he’s chosen, with no facts or figures about changing French society, industrialisation, wars, the rise and fall of different political parties, and so on.

So even when you eventually understand what Wilson was trying to do, it still seems a puzzling if not eccentric way to present an overview of bourgeois thought in the 19th century – via a small handful of historians? And why only in France? What happened to Britain or Germany (or Russia or America)?

Having made what he thinks is a useful review of the decline of bourgeois thinking of the 19th century, Wilson moves on to part two, which is a review of the rise of socialist thinking during the 19th century.

Part two – The origins of socialism through to Karl Marx

You might disagree with his strategy, but can’t deny that Wilson writes in a clear, accessible magazine style. The opening chapters of this section present entertaining thumbnail portraits of the theories and lives of some of the notable pre-Marxist radical thinkers of the early 19th century, men like Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen.

Wilson’s account of the large number of utopian communities which were set up across America in the first half of the century is particularly entertaining, especially the many ways they all collapsed and failed.

The Mormons It is striking to come across the Mormons being described as one of the early American utopian communities. They were pretty much the only idealistic community from the era to not only survive but thrive, despite fierce opposition. As Wilson reviews the fate of the various utopian communities set up during the early nineteenth century, it becomes clear that the key to survival was to have a strong second leader to succeed the founding visionary. For example, all the communities which Robert Owen founded failed when he left because they were only held together by his strong charisma (and dictatorial leadership).Hundreds of Fourieresque communities were set up, flourished for a few years, then expired. The Mormons were the exception because when their founder, Joseph Smith, died (he was actually murdered by an angry mob) he was succeeded by an even stronger, better organiser, Brigham Young, who went on to establish their enduring settlement of Utah.

Babeuf François-Noël Babeuf was a French political agitator during the French Revolution of 1789 who vehemently supported the people and the poor, founding a Society of Equals, calling for complete equality. As the bourgeois class which had done very well out of the overthrow of the king and aristocracy consolidated their gains during the period of the Directory (1795-99) Babeuf’s attacks on it for betraying the principles of the revolution became more outspoken and he was eventually arrested, tried and executed for treason. But his idea of complete equality, of everyone living in communes with little or no property, no hierarchy, everyone working, work being allotted equally, everyone eating the same, was to endure as a central thread of 19th century communism and anarchism.

Robert Owen ran a cotton factory in Scotland, and focused in his writings the paradox which plenty of contemporaries observed – that the world had experienced a wave of technological inventions which ought to have made everyone better off – and yet everyone could see the unprecedented scale of misery and poverty which they seemed to have brought about.

Young Karl Marx was just one of many thinkers determined to get to the bottom of this apparent paradox. The difference between Marx and, say, most British thinkers, is that Karl was drilled in the philosophical power of Hegel’s enormous Philosophy of World History.

Marx arrives in chapter five of part two and dominates the next eleven chapters, pages 111 to 339, the core of the book. Wilson gives us a lot of biography. Karl is the cleverest child of his Jewish-convert-to-Christianity father. He rejects advice to become a lawyer, studies Hegel, gets in trouble with the police and starts work as a newspaper editor.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels Through this newspaper Karl meets Friedrich Engels, who sends him articles to publish. Two years younger, handsome and full of life, Engels is sent by his father to supervise the family factory in Manchester, north-west England. Here Engels is appalled by the staggering immiseration of the urban proletariat, several families packed to a damp basement room in the hurriedly-built shanty towns surrounding Manchester, enslaved 12 hours a day in the noise and dirt of factories and, whenever there was a depression, immediately thrown out of work, whole families begging on the street, boys turning to theft, the girls to prostitution, in order to survive.

And yet when Engels talked to the factory owners – and he was a man of their class, an owner himself – all they saw was profit margins, capital outlay, money to be made to build big mansions in the countryside. Questioned about the lives of their workers, the owners dismissed them as lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothings. Engels was disgusted by their greed, selfishness and philistinism.

Traipsing the streets of the city, shown into the homes of hundreds of workers, awed by the scale of the misery produced by the technological marvels of the industrial revolution, Engels could see no way to reform this society. The only way to change it would be to smash it completely.

The hypocrisy of classical economists As for contemporary British political and economic writing, it was a con, a sham, a rationalisation and justification of the rapacious capital-owning class. Adam Smith, David Ricardo and the rest of the so-called ‘classical’ economists merely provided long-winded rationalisations of exploitation. Smith said that the free market worked with a kind of ‘hidden hand’, a magic force which united people all over the globe in common enterprises, like the cotton pickers in America who supplied factories in Manchester to manufacture clothes which were then sold in India. Smith predicted that this ‘hidden hand’ of capitalism would, as if by magic, mean that, although everyone in society pursued their own interests, they would ineluctably be brought together by ‘the market’ to work together, to improve the lot of all, to create a balanced and fair society.

Well, Marx, Engels and anyone else with eyes could see that the exact opposite of these predictions had come about. British society circa 1844 was full of outrageous poverty and misery.

Marx meets Engels These were the thoughts Engels brought when he met Marx in Paris in 1844. His ideas and his practical experience electrified the brilliant polymath and provided Marx with the direction and focus he needed. He set about reading all the British political economists with a view to mastering classical economics and to superseding it.

Although Wilson periodically stops to summarise the development of their thought and give a précis of key works, I was surprised by the extent to which this middle section about Marx was mostly biographical. We learn a lot about the squalid conditions of Marx’s house in Soho, about Engels’s ménage with the Irish working class woman, Mary Burns, and there are entertaining portraits of rival figures like Lassalle and Bakunin.

All this is long on anecdote and very thin on theory or ideas. Wilson tells us a lot more about Lassalle’s love life than the reason why he was an important mid-century socialist leader. I learned much more about Mikhail Bakunin’s family life in Russia than I did about his political theories.

Wilson is at pains to point out on more than one occasion that he has read the entire Marx-Engels correspondence – but makes little more of it than to point out how Engels’s natural good humour struggled to manage Marx’s bitter misanthropy and biting satire.

Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels

Swiftian insults Wilson is happier with literary than with economic or political analysis, with comparing Marx to the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, than he is trying to explain his roots in either German Hegelianism or economic theory. He repeatedly compares Marx’s misanthropy, outrage and sarcasm to Swift’s – passages which make you realise that bitterly anti-human, savage invective was core to the Marxist project right from the start, flowering in the flaying insults of Lenin and Trotsky, before assuming terrifying dimensions in the show trials and terror rhetoric of Stalinism.

Failures of theory In the last chapter of the section Marx dies, and Wilson is left to conclude that Marx and Engels’s claim to have created a scientific socialism was anything but. Dialectical Materialism only works if you accept the premises of German idealist philosophy. The Theory of Surplus Labour doesn’t stand up to investigation. Their idea that the violence and cruelty needed to bring about a proletarian revolution will differ in quality from the violence and cruelty of bourgeois repression is naive.

There is in Marx an irreducible discrepancy between the good which he proposes for humanity and the ruthlessness and hatred he inculcates as a means of arriving at it. (p.303)

The idea that, once the revolution is accomplished, the state will ‘wither away’ is pitiful. For Wilson, their thought repeatedly betrays:

the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx (p.295)

the inadequacy of the Marxist conception of human nature (p.298)

In a telling passage Wilson shows how happy Marx was when writing about the simple-minded dichotomy between the big, bad exploiting bourgeoisie versus the hard-done-by but noble proletariat in The Communist Manifesto and to some extent in Capital. But when he came to really engage with the notion of ‘class’, Marx quickly found the real world bewilderingly complicated. In the drafts of the uncompleted later volumes of Capital, only one fragment tries to address the complex issue of class and it peters out after just a page and a half.

Marx dropped the class analysis of society at the moment when he was approaching its real difficulties. (p.296)

Larding their books with quotes from British Parliamentary inquiries into the vile iniquities of industrial capitalism was one thing. Whipping up outrage at extreme poverty is one thing. But Marx and Engels’ failure to really engage with the complexity of modern industrial society reflects the shallowness and the superficiality of their view of human nature. Their political philosophy boils down to:

  • Bourgeois bad
  • Worker good
  • Both formed by capitalist society
  • Overthrow capitalist society, instal communist society, everyone will be good

Why? Because the Dialectic says so, because History says so. Because if you attribute all the vices of human nature to being caused by the ‘capitalist system’, then, by definition, once you have ‘abolished’ the ‘capitalist system’, there will be no human vices.

At which point, despite the hundreds of pages of sophisticated argufying, you have to question validity of the Marxist conception of both the ‘Dialectic’ and of ‘History’ as anything like viable explanations of what we know about human nature.

Marx’s enduring contribution to human understanding was to create a wide-ranging intellectual, economic and cultural framework for the sophisticated analysis of the development and impact of industrial capitalism which can still, in outline, be applied to many societies today.

But the prescriptive part of the theory, the bit which claimed that capitalism would, any day now, give rise inevitably and unstoppably to the overthrow of the capitalist system, well – look around you. Look at the device you’re reading this on – the latest in a long line of consumer goods which have enriched the lives of hundreds of millions of ‘ordinary’ people around the world (the telephone, cheap cars, fridges, washing machines, tumble dryers, microwaves, radios, televisions, record players, portable computers, smart phones) invented and perfected under the entirely capitalist system of America which – despite a century of hopeful prophecies by left-wingers – shows no signs of ceasing to be the richest, most advanced and most powerful nation on earth.

As so many people have pointed out, the Great Revolution did not take place in the most advanced capitalist societies – as both Marx and Engels insisted that it inevitably and unstoppably must. Instead it came as, in effect, a political coup carried out in the most backward, least industrialised, most peasant state in Europe, if indeed it is in Europe at all – Russia.

Part three – Lenin and the Bolsheviks

The final section of 123 pages goes very long on the biography and character of its two main figures, Lenin and Trotsky. (It is strange and eerie that Wilson describes Trotsky throughout in the present tense because, in fact, Trotsky was alive and well, broadcasting and writing articles when Wilson was writing his book. It was only later the same year that To The Finland Station was published – 1940 – that Trotsky was assassinated on Stalin’s orders).

Thus I remember more, from Wilson’s account, about Lenin and Trotsky’s personal lives than about their thought. Lenin’s closeness to his elder brother, Alexander, images of them playing chess in their rural house, the devotion of their mother, the family’s devastation when Alexander was arrested for conspiring with fellow students to assassinate the Tsar, Lenin’s exile in Siberia and then wanderings round Europe – all this comes over very vividly.

I was startled to learn that Lenin lived for a while in Tottenham Court Road, where there was a longstanding centre for communist revolutionaries. Wilson also quotes liberally from the memoirs of Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, about their trials and tribulations.

What comes over is that Lenin was good at lending a sympathetic hearing to working men and women, quick to make friends everywhere he went. Unlike Marx he didn’t bear rancorous grudges. Unlike Marx he didn’t have an extensive library and lard his books with literary references. Lenin was totally focused on the political situation, here and now, on analysing power structures, seizing the day, permanently focused, 24/7 on advancing the revolutionary cause.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Hence his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement addresses the practical problems of the communist movement at that specific moment.

I know a reasonable amount about the Russian Revolution itself. What fascinates me are the dog years between the death of Engels in 1895 and the Great War broke out in 1914. These were the years in which the legacy and meaning of Marxism were fought over by a floating band of revolutionaries, and in the meetings of the Second International, right across Europe, with factions splitting and dividing and reuniting, with leading communists bitterly arguing about how to proceed, about whether there would ever be a workers’ revolution and, if so, where.

Wilson brings out the constant temptation to so-called ‘bourgeois reformism’ i.e. abandoning the hope for a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society, and instead forming a democratic party, campaigning for votes and getting into the national parliament (in Britain, France, Germany, wherever).

This was the position of Edward Bernstein in Germany, who pointed out that the Social Democratic Party was having great success being elected and introducing reforms to benefit the working classes, building on the establishment of a welfare state, old age pensions and so on by Bismarck.

Reformists could also point to the way that the middle classes, far from being removed by the war between monopoly capitalists and an evermore impoverished proletariat, were in fact growing in numbers, that the working classes were better off, that all of society was becoming more ‘bourgeois’ (p.382).

This, we now know, was to be the pattern across all the industrialised countries. A large manufacturing working class, frequently embittered and given to strikes and even the occasional general strike, was to endure well into the 1970s – but the general direction of travel was for the middle classes, middle management, for ‘supervisors’ and white collar workers, to grow – something George Orwell remarks on in his novels of the 1930s.

The vision of an ever-more stark confrontation between super-rich capitalists and a vast army of angry proletariat just didn’t happen.

Lenin was having none of this bourgeois reformism. Wilson calls him the watchdog, the heresy hunter of orthodox Marxism. He turns out pamphlets attacking ‘reformism’ and ‘opportunism’. In Russia he attacks the ‘Populists’, the ‘Legal Marxists’, in books like Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908) (p.384).

His 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement attacks Bernstein and bourgeois opportunists. What is to be done is that the working classes can never get beyond trade union level of political activity by themselves – they need to be spurred on by a vanguard of committed professional revolutionaries. People like, ahem, Comrade Lenin himself.

The same thinking was behind the creation of the ‘Bolsheviks’. At the Second Congress of the Social Democrats in summer 1903 some delegates brought forward a motion that the party should let concerned and sympathetic liberals join it. Lenin vehemently opposed the idea, insisting that the party must remain a small, committed vanguard of professional revolutionaries. When it came to a vote Lenin’s view won, and his followers became known as the majority, which is all that Bolsheviki means in Russian, as opposed to the Mensheviki, or minority. But over time, the overtones of majority, the masses, the bigger, greater number, would help the Bolsheviks on a psychological and propaganda level in their forthcoming struggles.

Throughout his thought, Lenin also dwells on the special circumstances of Russia, namely that:

a) 999 in a 1,000 of the population are illiterate peasants
b) even educated intellectuals, liberals and socialists, had been demoralised by centuries of Tsarist autocracy, reinforced by the recent decades of anti-socialist repression (all the revolutionaries had been arrested, spent time in prison even – like Trotsky – long periods in solitary confinement, as well as prolonged stays in Siberia)

The vast gulf in Russian society between a handful of super-educated elite on the one hand, and the enormous number of illiterate peasants sprinkled with a smaller number of illiterate proles in the cities, meant that the only practical way (and Lenin was always practical) to run a revolution was with top-down leadership. Lenin writes quite clearly that Russians will require a dictatorship not only to effect the revolutionary transformation of society, but to educate the peasants and workers as to what that actually means for them.

While even close associates in the communist movement such as Bernstein and Kautsky criticised this approach, while many of them wrote accurate predictions that this approach would lead to dictatorship pure and simple, others, like Trotsky, were energised and excited by the psychological vision of a ruthless and cruel dictatorship. The only thing the Russian people understood was force, and so the revolutionaries must use force, relentlessly. Amid the civil war of 1920 Trotsky found time to write a pamphlet, The Defense of Terrorism, refuting Kautsky’s attacks on the Bolshevik government and defending the shooting of military and political enemies.

What this all shows is how difficult it is for liberals and people with moral scruples to stop revolutionaries who eschew and ignore moral constraints, particularly when it comes to revolutionary violence and terror. The most violent faction almost always wins out.

At the Finland Station

In his chapter on Marx’s Capital Wilson had pointed out (rather inevitably, given his belle-lettrist origins) that the book has an aesthetic, as well as political-economic-philosophic aspect – i.e. that Marx had crafted and shaped the subject matter in order to create a psychological effect (namely arousing outrage at the injustices of capitalist exploitation, then channelling this through his pages of economic analysis into the climactic revolutionary call to action).

Wilson’s book is similarly crafted. Having moved back and forth in time between the childhood of Lenin and Trotsky and their actions in the 1920s and 30s, even mentioning Trotsky’s activities in the present day (1940), Wilson goes back in time to conclude the book with a detailed account of Lenin’s train journey.

In April 1917 Lenin and 30 or so supporters were provided with a train by the German Army High Command which took them from exile in Switzerland, across Germany to the Baltic, by ferry boat across to Sweden, and then on another train through Finland, until he finally arrived in St Petersburg in April 1917, into the political turmoil caused by the overthrow of the Tsar and the creation of a very shaky provisional government.

Lenin was welcomed by pompous parliamentarians but it was to the workers and soldiers present that, with typical political insight, he devoted his speeches. He knew that it was in their name and with their help, that his small cadre of professional revolutionaries would seize power and declare the dictatorship of the proletariat. Which is what they finally did in October 1917.

‘All power to the soviets’ would be their catchphrase. Only time would reveal that this meant giving all power to the Bolshevik Party – leading to civil war and famine – and that, a mere 15 years later, it would end with giving all power to Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of all time.


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To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne (1969)

General Altmayer, who seemed tired out and thoroughly disheartened, wept silently on his bed. (p.575) [A typical example of the behaviour of senior French militaryfigures during the Battle of France.]

This is the third of Sir Alistair Horne’s trilogy about the three great wars fought between Germany and France, the others being The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-1 and The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. (I have also recently read his classic account of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962.)

To Lose A Battle is about the German invasion of France in May 1940, the most perfect example of the Wehrmacht’s new Blitzkrieg strategy that it ever carried out.

It is a long book (680 pages) because Horne starts by giving a several hundred page-long detailed account of the historical, cultural, political and military background leading up to the debacle. Once this is done, part two begins, no fewer than 400 pages devoted to an incredibly detailed account of the Battle of France itself.

(I particularly wanted to read this book for the social background chapters, to provide context for the trilogy of Jean-Paul Sartre novels which I’ve just read and which are set initially in 1938 and then during the self-same Battle of France. Indeed Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir are quoted several times as epitomising the defeatist spirit of pre-war France – which is certainly how The Roads To Freedom read to me.)

Background

French army Most European nations considered the French Army which emerged from the Great War to be the best in Europe. Horne goes to some length to describe and explain the widespread feeling of:

that ineradicable, mystical self-assurance of the invincibility, in extremis, of the French Army. (p.246)

With typical chauvinism the French preferred to downplay the role played by her allies, Britain and, latterly, America, in the Great War and to insist she was the victorious power. Psychologically, this has much truth since France lost more men dead in the war than any other nation (1,315,000, 27% of all French men aged between 18 and 27 were killed), a fact which deeply scarred its psyche, and affected its economy, for a generation.

But this pride/arrogance/over-confidence in France’s armed forces lingered on into the 1930s, well after it had been made redundant by Hitler spending a fortune creating the super-efficient new German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. (Horne describes very thoroughly the military, strategic, financial, technological and all-round ‘revolutionary dynamism of the Wehrmacht’, p.514.)

French politics and society were deeply riven by conflicts: the creation, with encouragement from Lenin’s Comintern, of the French Communist Party in 1920, crystallised the revolutionary forces of the Left. The PCF not only entered into a permanent dispute with the French Socialist party and other less revolutionary left-wing groups, splitting the left into endless squabbling – but also prompted the rise of far-right political parties such as Action Francaise and Croix-de-Feu which helped to splinter political parties of the Right. The extreme position of these parties, along with France’s persistent economic crises, bedevilled French politics for the whole inter-war period.

It was also an era which saw an astonishing turnover of governments, many lasting only a few months, some only days. Between mid-1932 and the outbreak of war in 1939 France had 19 different government with 11 different premiers. Symbolically, on the day Hitler came to power in 1933, France had no government. Seven years later, on the very day Germany invaded, the premier had just resigned and had to be persuaded to return to office to run France.

In this culture of political chaos nothing could be decided. No consistent line was taken in any area, finance, diplomacy or defence. Although the Treaty of Versailles gave France enormous power over German territory as well as a whole new empire in the Middle East, she never had the continuous administrations or strong leaders to set a consistent policy and to use her power effectively. Instead, political France became a nest of vipers, of extreme political factions who hated each other more than their external enemies. By the middle of the 1930s it had become an established saying on the Right that ‘Better Hitler than the Reds’. They really meant this and many people at the highest levels were, in effect, traitors.

The Great War In political terms, all this was obviously due to the legacy of the cataclysmic Great War: the Great War causes Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which causes the creation of violently revolutionary communist parties across Europe, which causes the creation of counter-revolutionary, proto-fascist parties across Europe – and the advent of both these extremes causes new levels of rhetorical, and real, violence against opponents. The process is described in harrowing detail in Robert Gerwarth’s recent book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (2016).

A generation exterminated But Horne makes a simpler, bleaker point which is that a lot of the educated officer classes who might have provided bourgeois, old-fashioned, consensual and parliament-based political leadership, had been wiped out  in the trenches. Polite parliamentary politics didn’t go out of style; it was killed off. The new generation of leaders were unashamedly proletarian: Mussolini’s father was a blacksmith, Hitler’s father was a customs official, Stalin’s father was a cobbler. Daladier, the French Premier who sold out the Czechs, was the son of a baker; Reynaud, the man who replaced him, was the son of farmers.

Corruption Probably unrelated was the fact that a series of scandals enveloped many senior figures in France’s political elite in the run-up to the war, each case of embezzlement, jobs for the boys, swindles and cynical abuse of power further alienating the population at large. Why fight to help a pack of crooks keep their snouts in the trough?

Losing the war

As to why France lost the war, and so quickly, there is no shortage of reasons.

  • France’s Great War experience for four long bitter years had been entirely of the static defence of trenches. The centrepiece of their war had been the defence of the fortified complex at Verdun. They had no experience of the fluid, fast-moving war which took place in the East where the Germans fought the Russians and ranged over huge areas, or in the Middle East where the British fought the Turks. Building on the idea of static defence, the French High Command became mesmerised by the idea of creating a network of Verdun-like fortifications, buried deep underground with only impervious guns set in concealed hillsides to indicate their presence. This was commissioned in 1930 by a Defence Minister named Maginot and so became known as the Maginot Line.
  • But – as every schoolboy used to know – this line stopped short at the border with Belgium for a number of reasons: no one could decide whether to build it along Belgium’s border with the beastly Hun (thus defending the Belgians) or along the French-Belgium border (thus excluding the Belgians). Ans building just the 87 miles of sophisticated subterranean defences from Switzerland to the Belgian border had cost a fortune and continued to cost a fortune to maintain. So there was incompleteness, uncertainty and delay.
  • Tanks In the Great War the French used their primitive tanks spread thinly across a wide front, where they tended to make short-lived breakthroughs but then run out of petrol and so allow the enemy to regroup before the infantry could catch up. Thus French military thinking rejected the tank in favour of static defences in depth – the Maginot Line – linked by static landlines, phone lines – themselves vulnerable to being damaged.
  • Planes While the Germans built up their Luftwaffe under the ebullient Marshall Goering and with the aid of Germany’s best designers and technicians, the French sank half their military budget into the quite literal black hole of the Maginot Line buried forts.
  • All this contrasted with the Germans who
    • remembered the experience of fast-moving attacks in the East, and learned from it
    • designed superior tanks
    • built more planes, lots more planes
    • developed a theory of air and land attacks co-ordinated by new and better radio communications i.e. not vulnerable to lines being broken.
  • Blitzkrieg Taken together these were the bases of the Blitzkrieg theory, as outlined by Panzer commander and military theorist Heinz Guderian in his revolutionary pamphlet Achtung – Panzer! This was published in 1937 but never translated into French or English and – like Hitler’s Mein Kampf – went unread by the Allies.
  • Camaraderie In a fascinating section Horne brings out another really important element which was the tremendous esprit de corps and camaraderie in the German military. He describes the upbringing of men in Nazi Germany, passing through the Hitler Youth into the army, these boys becoming men had undergone punishing physical fitness regimes followed by demanding training designed to instil obedience and confidence.
    • The result was a generation of superb physical specimens, indeed there is a slightly homoerotic tinge to some of Horne’s descriptions of young German engineers stripped to the waist building pontoon bridges across the River Meuse and on other occasions.
    • The Germans believed in their leaders, in fact they had a fanatical devotion to the Führer and the Fatherland rarely seen in history. They really wanted to fight.
    • And Horne explains how the German army cultivated closeness between officers and men. They shared the same food, sleeping quarters etc, so the men knew and liked and respected their commanders, based on their ability. This contrasted with the French army which kept in place old-fashioned class ideas, officers never socialised with the men and often had bought commissions or had them on the basis of aristocratic family tradition.

French demoralisation

Horne’s book lists a long catalogue of errors and follies on the French side which start at the very top.

Politicians held in contempt Premiers of France came and went through a fast-moving revolving door. These senior politicians jostling for power all hated each other and did whatever was best for their careers. All their civil servants and soldiers followed suit. The population despised them.

Timidity bordering on cowardice Half the French cabinet were ‘doves’, hoping against hope that no war would come, and frightened of doing anything aggressive in case they incurred Hitler’s wrath. Thus although France declared war on Germany in September 1939 ostensibly in order to help Poland which Germany had just invaded, the French army only advanced a few miles into the German Saar land and then stopped. Plenty of foreign observers came to see the French soldiers peacefully camped out on hillsides watching German soldiers bathing in the river. ‘Why don’t you shoot at them?’ asked the American or British journalists. ‘Well, then they’d shoot back,’ replied the puzzled French officers. Commentators were amazed at the lack of French spirit. Meanwhile, Poland was cut in two between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, its people subjected to six years of barbarity.

Old timid leaders The High Command was led by General Gamelin, aged 68. The new French premier, Paul Reynaud,  wanted to sack him for his lack of aggression, but Reynaud needed to keep the former premier, Daladier and his faction in the cabinet to support his new government and Daladier stood by Gamelin and so… Reynaud’s attempts to get rid of Gamelin were blocked.

In fact, on the eve of the war, Horne shows that there was a massive cabinet fight over Gamelin and, discovering that he couldn’t sack him, Reynaud instead resigned. Once again France had no government. That was on 9 May. Germany attacked in the early hours of the next day, whereupon Reynaud was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw his resignation, and reluctantly forced to work with Gamelin – who now knew that his political boss didn’t trust him. What a mess.

No wonder the country at large referred to the national Assembly as ‘the swamp’ and all its politicians as corrupt crooks.

Out of touch Gamelin was not old-fashioned in his approach but criminally out of touch with his forces. He and his staff never visited any of the troops during the long, long period of the Phoney War, between September 1939 when France declared war on Germany and May 1940 when Germany attacked. We now know that Hitler had kept very few forces on his western flank when he invaded Poland in September 1939. If France had attacked in overwhelming force in September 1939 she would have swept aside Germany’s token defences and in all probability pushed on to Berlin and ended the war before it had properly begun. But she didn’t. She didn’t want to risk it, or risk anything.

Timid Gamelin and the rest of the general staff preferred to hunker down behind their impenetrable defence of the Maginot Line and wait for the enemy to come to him. Horne’s book reveals that Hitler actually wanted to attack France as soon as Poland was pacified, in November 1939, but was put off by his generals who were convinced they didn’t have the manpower or tanks – and then by the intervention of winter weather. And then in the spring of 1940 there was the side show of Norway, which Britain tried to help and Germany decisively invaded and occupied.

That takes us through to April, then into May 1940 as the Germans prepared their plan to invade France. This was initially named the Manstein Plan, or to give it its full title – Aufmarschanweisung N°4, Fall Gelb. Horne gives a fascinating account of how the plan went through a large number of iterations as a result of discussions, and arguments among the German General Staff – moving from an initial aim to thrust through Belgium as in the First World War, then the slow growth of a different strategy – an armed thrust through the supposedly ‘impenetrable’ Forest of the Ardennes, south of the Belgian border. This turned out to be a lucky decision as the French had posted their weakest units there, sending the stronger ones north to Belgium where they thought the attack would come. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of France’s best soldiers seeing little or no action until they were cut off and surrounded.

Among all its other virtues To Lose A War is a riveting insight into how a modern army strategy is developed and managed.

No communication Meanwhile, Gamelin’s headquarters in a chateau at Vincennes had no radio communication with his troops. Every day at a set hour despatch riders rode off with the orders of the day to a nearby radio station. Obviously this proved completely useless once the battle started. Quickly the joke went around that Gamelin’s HQ was like ‘a submarine without a periscope’ (p.440).

Terrible French morale There are scores of eye-witness accounts of the surly, unco-operative, insubordinate attitude of the French troops. The widespread strikes of the 1930s, the ubiquity of bolshy socialism and the arrogant aloofness of their officers had created a terrible attitude among the bulk of the French army. Sartre’s novels are ostensibly a fictional embodiment of his existentialist philosophy, but – having just read them – what comes over most powerfully is a portrait of an entire society paralysed by indecision and futility, by lack of focus or direction, by a shabby unhappiness.

And an army reflects its society. The picture of the common soldier given by Horne – working from countless eye-witness accounts of the time – is of men who refuse to salute officers, reluctant to obey orders, keen only to take leave where they could get blind drunk (special sobering-up rooms had to be created in train stations behind the Maginot Line to cope with the epidemic of drunk soldiers returning from leave).

Within days of the German attack (on 10 May 1940), French troops began surrendering in their thousands, laying down their arms and trudging wherever they were told, policed by a only handful of German soldiers. Or gave way to blind panic, inflamed by rumours that they were surrounded – ‘The Panzers are here!’ – and the almost universal cry that they were ‘betrayed’, had been sold out by traitors, by fifth columnists, blaming everyone – except themselves. They just wanted it all to be over. They just wanted to go home.

It is these defeated sheep who are portrayed in Sartre’s novel Iron In The Soul, a novel written from experience as Sartre himself served in a second-line battalion which surrendered and was imprisoned without a fight.

Subjectively, from the inside of his characters, Sartre depicts the defeat as an inexplicable catastrophe in which each man is thrown back on his own resources and must make an existential choice about how to live, about how to act, about who he wants to become.

But from the outside, to us looking at French society and this debacle 70 years later, the novel reads like a complete collapse of national will, a lapse into comfortable nihilism, the utter failure of an entire society.

And in other ways Sartre was very representative of his generation which blamed the British for not fighting harder, blamed the Americans for not coming to their aid, blamed the Soviet Union for signing the Nazi-Soviet pact with Hitler – in fact, the French blamed everyone except themselves. Even when they had been liberated by the British and Americans four years later, they carried on hating us. They couldn’t forgive the British for liberating them. But they reserved their main hatred for the Americans, the key force in their liberation from Nazi rule.

It’s hard to come away from this book without really despising the French.

Quotes which convey the French attitude

For sheer arrogant folly, the Barthou declaration of 17 April 1934 [‘France will henceforth guarantee her security by her own means’] is hard to beat; A.J.P. Taylor remarks: ‘The French had fired the starting pistol for the arms race. Characteristically, they then failed to run it.’ Yet it has its parallel in more recent times, when in 1966 de Gaulle informed the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance that henceforth he felt strong enough to dispense with its benefits. There are moments when one feels that – like the Bourbons, only worse – France has learned nothing and forgotten everything. (p.83)

The British Air Force representatives were driven mad by the reluctance of the French Air Force to take to the air and attack the invading Germans.

By the end of the 10th [May] Air Marshall Barratt’s temper was barely under control, his view of his apparently torpid ally all but unprintable. (p.278)

Counter-attacks on 13 May were repeatedly postponed or cancelled because the Corps or Division in question said it couldn’t make the starting point in time or couldn’t be ready amid a welter of hopeless excuses.

The sluggishness and lack of punch with which these first ripostes were executed characterised almost all the French counter-attacks subsequently carried out at various levels. (p.331)

The battle at Sedan on 14 May was over so quickly there are hardly any records of it.

On the French side , there would be but little time to enter up the regimental diaries; whole pages of the story that day have disappeared forever with the participants. Others are, alas, so shaming to French amour propre that, like the details of the mutinies of 1917, they will probably lie forever hidden from sight in the archives contained in the gloomy dungeons at Vincennes. (p.345)

In attempting to isolate the reasons for the breaking of the Sedan gunners, one comes face to face again with the twenty-four corrosive years separating the poilus of Verdun from the men of Sedan; here is the terrible harvest of those years of mutual mistrust, disunity, despair at the losses of 1914-18, je-m’en-foutisme and defeatism in France. (p.361)

There’s a typical vignette about the 47mm anti-tank gun sent up to Monthermé to face the advancing Panzer tanks, and which was discovered by them, abandoned by its French crew without having fired a single shot. (p.381)

A few days later, as the Panzers break out into northern France, Karl von Stackelberg, travelling with the 6th Panzer Division, is astonished to meet French troops marching towards the Germans in perfect order, having thrown away all their weapons, and politely asking who to surrender to. Eventually this amounted to 20,000 French troops – French soldiers who just gave up without a fight and handed themselves over to the enemy.

‘It was inexplicable. How was it possible, that after this first major battle on French territory, after this victory on the Meuse, this gigantic consequence should follow? How was it possible, these French soldiers with their officers, so completely downcast, so completely demoralised, would allow themselves to go more or less voluntarily into imprisonment?’ (quoted on p.416)

And the French Air Force?

Typical of the feebleness of the French air effort on the 15th [May] was the nocturnal bombing of one Heinkel base by a solitary French aircraft, which dumped its missiles in woods more than a quarter of a mile from the barracks and then headed home. (p.432)

On 16 May Churchill flew to Paris to meet the French leaders and try to put some backbone into them. Horne’s depiction of the scene is hilarious. For all his manifold failings Churchill comes across as the only man in the room, as the various French leaders, civilian and military, flop in their chairs and burst into tears.

Turning back to Gamelin, Churchill asked point-blank: ‘When and where are you going to counter-attack the flanks of the Bulge? From the north or from the south?’ Gamelin’s reply was: “Inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method” – and then a hopeless shrug of the shoulders.’ There was no argument. Here was the admission of the bankruptcy of a whole generation of French military thought and preparations. (p.459)

Rommel’s lightning attack through North France on 16 May, continuing all through the night, took the French completely by surprise.

One of Rommel’s Panzer commanders recalled simply shouting, loudly and impudently, at the French troop columns to throw away their weapons: ‘Many willingly follow this command, others are surprised, but nowhere is there any sign of resistance.’ (p.478)

Surrendering just by being shouted at! By May 19 the Ninth Army had ceased to exist. As one of Gamelin’s liaison officers recorded;

‘Complete disintegration. Out of 70,000 men and numerous officers, no single unit is commanded, however small… at most 10 per cent of the men have kept their rifles… However… there were no wounded among the thousands of fugitives…’ [No wounded because none of them fought] (quoted on p.518)

A complete shambles. A shameful humiliation. I’ve noted the rage of Britain’s Air chief Barratt at French inability to organise air raids on the long vulnerable Panzer columns. In the final stages of the battle Horne turns his attention to the growing frustration of the British Army’s two leaders, General Edmund Ironside, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and General Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. When Ironside visits General Billotte, the commander of the French 1st Army Group, he has to literally shake him to rouse him from his defeatist stupor. Later, Ironside wrote in his diary:

‘I begin to despair of the French fighting at all. The great army defeated by a few tanks!…. God help the B.E.F… brought to this state by the French Command.’ (quoted p.573)

It was only on 19 May, as the German Panzers approached the Atlantic coast, that they first encountered British troops for the first time, and found them a different quality from the defeatist French.

At 1300 [on 20 May] they [General Reinhardt’s Panzer Corps] ran into their first British at Mondicourt, who – in the words of the 6th Panzer War Diary – ‘in contrast to the French, cause surprise by their tough way of fighting and are only overcome by a one-hour battle.’ (p.561)

After the Germans had reached the Atlantic coast, cutting off key divisions of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force into a shrinking pocket of territory along the north coast of France, the French placed their hopes on some kind of counter-attack to cut through the ‘Panzer Corridor’.

This ‘counter-attack’ was associated with the new Army Chief Weygand, who by now – in mid-battle – had replaced the discredited Gamelin – but three days were lost in indecisiveness as Weygand insisted on  flying into the ‘pocket’ to get first-hand knowledge of the situation. During these crucial few days the head of the B.E.F., Gort, received no information or instructions whatsoever from the French and, driven to ‘despair’ by French inaction, and in the absence of any other orders, finally realised that he would have to evacuate the B.E.F. (and as many Frenchmen as he could) back to Britain.

This is the background to the famous episode of Dunkirk (Horne doesn’t go into ‘the nine-day epic of Dunkirk’, as he calls it (p.631), being outside the scope of his book). As Churchill, progressively more disillusioned by French defeatism and incapacity, put it:

The whole success of the Weygand plan was dependent on the French taking the initiative, which they showed no signs of doing. (p.604)

So it didn’t happen, and we withdrew as many men and planes as we could from France, in order to defend our island.

French despair

The tendency of the entire French military leadership to shrug their shoulders, collapse onto chairs and burst into tears, their tendency to give way to fathomless despair at almost any setback, sheds really profound light on the hold the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre had over an entire generation of French intellectuals.

‘Boo hoo’ might well sum up the attitude of both French military and cultural leaders.

As the German army, having liquidated the last pockets of resistance in the north, approached Paris, on 11 June Churchill made his fourth and final trip to France, to see the French government which had now fled to the provinces. Weygand was now ‘all defeatism’, claiming he didn’t have enough troops, he didn’t have enough resources etc. He blamed the entire idea of fighting a 1940 war with 1918 forces and equipment, he blamed the Belgians for capitulating, he blamed the British for evacuating at Dunkirk. He blamed everyone else. Churchill’s emissary, General Spears recalls:

The Frenchmen [the French government and senior military] sat with white faces, their eyes on the table. They looked for all the world like prisoners hauled up from some deep dungeon to hear an inevitable verdict. (p.650)

Reading this enormous book, soaking yourself in the political chaos, military mismanagement, je-m’en-foutisme and universal defeatism of the French character, makes you wonder whether, when Sartre describes the futility of human existence, the ‘anguish’ caused by realisation of our complete freedom, the paralysing sense of ‘abandonment’ in a world without God, and the agonising need to make decisions which you find so difficult to take – he is not describing the wretched ineffectiveness of ‘the human condition’ at all. He is solely describing the wretched, spineless French character of his day.

After the meeting [with Churchill], Reynaud was violently reproached for raising the peace issue, by Mandel and the president of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, Jeanneney and Herriot; the latter was in tears. (p.657)

What a shameful disgrace. I never appreciated what a debacle it was until I read this stunning book.


P.S. Don’t believe newspapers

At the start of each of the 12 or so chapters which deal with the actual battle Horne quotes a clutch of newspaper reports from the relevant day, from papers like the New York Herald Tribune, the Sunday Chronicle, the New York Journal, The Times, Le Temps, L’Époque, Havas, the Manchester Guardian and so on.

These reports were generally based on French government accounts, a government which initially was itself hopelessly out of touch with events on the ground, and then put a deliberately optimistic gloss on the situation.

The newspaper reports are, in other words, hopelessly wrong and misleading. As such they become an increasingly ironic chorus to the main action – as the Allied papers give increasingly glowing accounts of the battle, assuring their readers that the German advance has faltered, or the French counter-attack has succeeded or that Allied air forces dominate the skies – while in fact the Germans were breaking through, breaking out and taking territory at record speeds.

As the book progresses, the newspaper reports veer more and more wildly out of kilter with the reality on the ground, and this modest narrative device reminds you for the umpteenth time that you really shouldn’t trust anything you read in the newspapers – particularly in times of crisis or conflict.


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Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre (1949)

He felt himself filled with a sense of vast and pointless freedom. (p.92)

349 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition, Iron in The Soul repeats the format of the previous two novels in The Roads To Freedom trilogy by following a set of French characters over a very specific, and short, timeframe connected with the Second World War, in this case right at the end of the Battle of France.

Part one

Part one is 200 pages long, its first chapter has the dateline ‘New York: Saturday 15 June 1940 9am’ and the final chapter is dated ‘Tuesday 18 June 5.45am’. So it covers four days towards the end of the Battle of France.

In part one there is not much of the ‘experimental’ technique Sartre used to such effect in The Reprieve. In that novel I counted some 130 named characters, and the text made a point of cross-cutting unpredictably from one character’s actions and thoughts to another’s, from one scene to another, continually introducing new characters, sometimes just for brief cameos. This made it quite a challenging read but the reward was in the quite wonderful, almost musical, sense of rhythm in the interleaving of episodes, people and their deepest thoughts.

Part one of Iron in the Soul is more traditional, establishing fixed and static scenes and then following characters within them for substantial lengths of text, before starting new chapters or chapter sections to reflect new scenes and characters. Much more clear and comprehensible.

Timeline

Maybe a recap of the historical background would be useful. In spring 1940:

May 10 Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
May 11 British and French forces begin a long line of strategic defenses to defend Belgium
May 12 German General Guderian with his three divisions reaches the Meuse River
May 13 the first German forces emerge from Ardennes onto the Meuse
May 14 German Panzer Corps fifteen and nineteen break through Allied defenses at Sedan allowing German forces to bypass the Maginot line
May 15 German forces push on toward Paris and the English Channel
May 20 General Weygand replaces General Gamelin as Allied commander
May 17-18 Antwerp and Brussels fall to Germany
May 21 Allied forces try to counter attack German forces but are repulsed
May 24 The Luftwaffe bombs Allied defensive positions around Dunkirk
May 25 German forces take Boulogne as more retreating Allied forces reach Dunkirk
May 26 850 British civilian ships and vessels help Allied forces evacuate Dunkirk in the largest military evacuation in history
May 28 King Leopold of Belgium orders his army to surrender to German forces
May 29 around 47,000 British forces are evacuated from Dunkirk
May 30 around 120,000 Allied forces evacuated from Dunkirk
May 31 around 150,000 Allied soldiers arrive in Britain

June 3 The German Luftwaffe bombs Paris
June 4 Allied forces continue evacuation of the coast. In all some 338,326 British and 113,000 French forces are evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain
June 5th Second part of the Battle of France begins with the German striking south from the River Somme
June 9 German forces launch an offensive on Paris
June 10 Norway surrenders to Germany and Italy joins the war by declaring war on France and Great Britain
June 13 Paris is declared an open city by the French government which flees to Bordeaux
June 14 German troops enter Paris
June 16 Marshal Petain becomes Prime Minister of France
June 17 French government asks Germany for armistice terms. Germans cross the river Loire in the west and reach the Swiss frontier in the south-east
June 18 General de Gaulle broadcasts on the BBC telling the people of France to resist
June 22 France signs an armistice with Germany
June 23 Adolf Hitler begins a tour of the captured city of Paris
June 24 The French officially surrender at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918
25 June All hostilities cease. France has fallen

Part one of Iron In the Soul tracks its characters over the four days during which Parisians flee their city before it is taken by the Germans and when retreating Second Tier armed forces are abandoned by their officers and find themselves at a loss what to do. the key characters from the first novel recur:

  • Gomez is in New York scrabbling for a job in the art world.
  • His wife, Sarah, and son Pablo are caught in the huge stream of refugees fleeing Paris.
  • Daniel, the gay banker who married Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, has packed her off and roams the streets of an empty Paris like the last man in the world – until he encounters Philippe, the spoilt youth we met in The Reprieve, and sets about seducing him.
  • Boris Serguine, who we saw join the Army in The Reprieve, was wounded in the fighting but is well enough to go to the apartment of his mistress, the nightclub singer Lola Montero who, however, has been diagnosed with a stomach tumour but can’t bring herself to tell him.
  • We saw Boris’s sister, the prickly Ivich, give herself to a unnamed man in The Reprieve partly as rebellion against her bourgeois parents, partly because she thought war was about to break out and the world end. Nearly two years later, we discover she got pregnant, the man married her, she had a miscarriage, he’s off at the front fighting where, characteristically, she hopes he gets killed.
  • Mathieu’s intolerably pompous self-serving brother, Jacques, a lawyer, forces his wife to pack in a hurry and flee from Paris only to get half way across France and realise he wants to go back, and blames the whole thing on her. She is livid. She goes to sleep in the car dreaming of Mathieu.
  • And the ‘hero’ of the first book – over-sensitive, over-thinking, angst-ridden but ineffectual philosophy tutor Mathieu Delarue?We find him with a platoon of Second string infantry who never saw any fighting. For 200 pages they laze around wondering what to do after their officers have treacherously abandoned them, smoking and getting drunk – until a platoon of Chasseurs arrive who are battle-hardened and disciplined. On a whim – or more accurately, as a result of the incredibly complicated and tortuous meditations about the nature of ‘freedom’ which have filled the previous 800 pages, Mathieu decides to join them, is given a rifle, sent with a squad to be sharp-shooters up a church belfry and when the Germans finally arrive, is involved in a fierce firefight which ends with the belfry being blown up by artillery and Mathieu blazing away till the last minute like a Hollywood hero.

Part two

is significantly different. It took me a few pages to realise that the entire part – all 120 pages – consists of just three paragraphs. With the exception of just two small breaks, these 120 pages make up a solid block of print, with no incidental breaks or indentations. Possibly this is to reflect the subject matter. (Craig Vasey’s introduction to The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV tells me that in the original French there weren’t even the two small breaks: the entire 120 pages consisted of one paragraph; and that all the verbs were in the present tense, something the English translation here rejects.)

The ‘plot’ picks up (with savage irony / comedy  / bleak farce) at exactly the point where Mathieu is killed – for taking refuge in a cellar of a house off the square is his friend and contemporary, the strong, manly Communist Brunet. In The Age of Reason, there’s a passage where Brunet tries to persuade Mathieu to become a communist, but the timid philosopher, as with everything else in his life, hesitates and puts the decision off.

Anyway, Brunet has no idea Mathieu is up in the church tower about to be blown to smithereens. He has his own concerns. he fought bravely, most of his platoon were killed. Now he surrenders to the Germans as they finally take the village. He falls in with a trail of French POWs which grows and grows till it is maybe 10,000 strong, a vast concourse of knackered, defeated, demoralised men stumbling along dusty roads in blinding heat. Finally, they arrive at a disused barracks which has become converted into a POW camp.

Here the French are easily shepherded inside and locked up. The next hundred pages give in great detail the dialogue between a cast of about a dozen peasant and proletarian infantrymen, while Brunet makes his plans to create a Communist cell among them. While they fuss about food and the weather and gossip, Brunet is planning for the future.

In this he is sort of helped by Schneider, a tough, surly man who is not exactly a Communist, but agrees to help him. The spine of the section is the wary dialogue between these two men, with Schneider proving himself both more of a man of the people, and smarter than Brunet in various situations. It is difficult to know what this section is ‘about’. Possibly it is a prolonged examination of the nature of a ‘Communist Activist’, with Brunet given Schneider as a foil to dramatise different approaches to handling men, creating a cell, combating cynicism and fatigue, and so on.

Whatever the precise intention, the overt or political purpose of the section now feels completely redundant, part of a long-lost history. It doesn’t even – as with so much Sartre – lead to any real action, for next to nothing happens to this vast concourse of freed men. After five or six days without food, trucks eventually arrive with soup and bread. One madmen runs amok screaming and the Germans shoot him. For the rest the defeated Frenchmen adopt a holiday mood, sunbathing, playing cards, establishing billets in every available building, nicking stuff, squabbling. Both Brunet and Schneider find it almost impossible to motivate anyone. No Germans of any authority appear. They don’t confront the camp commandant or organise a strike or anything really decisive or dramatic. Instead Brunet and Schneider squabble with each other, and with the dozen or so named characters around them.

In the last of the three sections, the setting jumps a bit to aboard the massive train of cattle trucks in which thousands of POWs have been packed as it rattles north through France. A teeny tiny bit of suspense is given to this passage because the more intelligent among them (i.e. Brunet, Schneider, a few others) are pretty sure they’re being taken to Germany to become slave labour. The section shows the various forms of denial, fear, and panic among the POWs as they wonder which way the train will turn at the fatal set of points which will steer them either further north into France or East across the border. One character, a young printer who Brunet had recruited for his Communist cell, panics, jumps from the train when it slows at a cutting, runs away a little, then panics more and tries to return and catch up – only to be picked off by the German guards and fall dead beside the rails. That’s as dramatic as it gets.

When the train reaches the points they are set East, confirming Brunet and Schneider’s gloomy assumptions. They are heading East to a dark future. The final words are:

Above the dead body, above the inert freight-van, the darkness wheeled. It alone was living. Tomorrow’s dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. Tomorrow the black birds would come. (p.349)


Themes

The futility of life

As to the mood and feel of the text, we are back in bleak Sartre-land where the sunshine is futile, life is pointless, breathing is an effort, and the hyper-sensitive characters are oppressed by life, by other people, by other people looking at them, dammit – and everyone agonises about their ‘freedom’, panting after this mystical chimera without ever quite grasping what this much-abused term actually means.

Gomez, the artist has escaped to New York, where he walks around hating the heat, the sunshine, the big buildings, the streamlined cars, the adverts, the magazines and, everywhere, pictures of happy smiling people – Not to grin is a sin, he thinks bitterly – while ‘over there’ i.e. back in Europe, people are suffering, suffering I tell you! This is intercut with the plight of his wife, Sarah, a Jewess, and small son Pablo, who are caught in a vast traffic jam of refugees fleeing Paris. These are Gomez’s thoughts:

He looked at the street, at the meaningless sun, at the whole meaningless day. There would be nothing now, any more, but meaningless days. (p.9)

These are Sarah’s thoughts:

We are no more than the feet of an interminable insect. Why walk when hope is dead? Why live? (p.25)

Sartre’s novels could almost be designed to validate teenage depressives’ most suicidal thoughts and, above all, to make the depressive feel special, superior to what Gomez calls the ‘human tide’ of people in New York with their ‘bright dead eyes’, and Sarah’s description of the refugees as ‘insects’ (a favourite insult term of Sartre’s; he memorably describes Hitler as having an insect face; Mathieu looks down from the church tower on the villagers like ‘frightened ants’; Lola feels that Boris while screwing her is like an insect, when the Germans arrive in the village Mathieu feels they have ‘the eyes of supermen and insects’, p.212).

Everyone else is an insect, or an inane grinning American with dead eyes, part of the machine, part of the bourgeoisie – I, I alone, suffer – look how I suffer – look how special I am!

Suicide

Both The Age of Reason and The Reprieve contain extended sequences describing the thoughts and sensations, the hyper self-awareness, of two men on the brink of committing suicide – Daniel with a razor and Mathieu jumping into the Seine, respectively. Having tried to kill myself, I can vouch for the exquisite sense of self-pity you feel at such a moment, looking at your doomed hands, your tragic face in the mirror, afflicted by sentimental thoughts that this is the last time you’ll look at your face, the last time you’ll turn out the bedroom light (or whatever), after you slash your wrists, take an overdose etc.

So, Ivich invites her brother, Boris, to join her in a suicide pact (p.72) though she isn’t really a serious character, just a spoilt wilful girl. Daniel comes across Philippe, the spoilt son of bourgeois parents, hesitating on the brink of the Seine, trying to nerve himself to throw himself in. Various other characters – for example Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, who is secretly in love with him – think they can’t go on, life is so damn pointless. What’s the point?

In Sartre’s novels, death, and suicide, are all around us. Describing the plot to my son he said, ‘sounds like teenage angst on steroids’.

Rootless, directionless, abandoned

What these people need is a sound spanking (as Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, memorably puts it). Or maybe just the support of a loving family, a job, some stability, something to focus their energy on. But their characters are all carefully chosen to be bohemian types, drifters, people without settled jobs or any real family commitments. Sartre selects a group of people with very few responsibilities and who we never see doing a single day’s work in their lives – thus allowing them all to give vent to maximum feelings of alienation and anomie, thus permitting them all to have lengthy and repetitive soliloquies about the pointlessness of life, about their feelings of abandonment.

As a married father of two, I see both marriage and especially fatherhood, as extremely demanding, responsible roles. Significantly, none of Sartre’s characters are married or have children in the traditional manner –

  • Gomez is married but has dumped Sarah and his son to run away and fight in Spain, then flee to America.
  • Daniel only married Marcelle as an existential dare, in reality he hates her and can’t wait to get away from her.
  • Boris is going out with Lola the singer, but routinely hates her, and in fact dumps her for the army.
  • Ivich got married to Georges after he got her pregnant but, inevitably, hates him, and hopes he’s killed in the fighting (p.66). Ivich loathes her in-laws, and she ‘detests’ the French (p.68), but then she hates more or less everyone.
  • Sarah looks at her crying son and realises she hates him (p.25).
  • The villagers hate the French soldiers who’ve been billeted on them (p.97).
  • Mathieu realises he hates his drunken comrades (p.132).
  • Philippe tells Daniel that he hates his step-father, the general (p.149).
  • Pinette’s girlfriend hates Mathieu (p.157)

In fact, most of the characters hate most of the other characters most of the time. Do all French people hate all other French people? Would explain their surliness.

So if you’re a drifter without a proper job, without any family ties or support, who hates everyone and despises bourgeois society, this is how you will end up feeling: full of despair and anomie. It’s hardly rocket science.

Alone

It is a key axiom of existentialism that every individual is alone, completely alone, and condemned to complete freedom. We are not hemmed in or supported by social structures or traditions or morality, for we choose whether or not to accept those: to blame society or others in any way for any of our acts is bad faith, is a denial of our utter freedom.

But Sartre’s philosophy of life – or his melodramatic poetry about the horror of existence – all begins in this primal, fundamental sense of your complete solitude, the basic feeling of alienation from others, from your fellow soldiers, or your family, from everyone else in the bar or cafe or nightclub, some sudden feeling of your complete aloneness in the face of an utterly indifferent universe.

This is the moment in the characters’ lives which the text keeps returning to like a moth to a flame.

  • He shivered. He felt suddenly naked and alone, a man, I. (p.102)
  • No one needs me. he sat down on the edge of the road because there was nowhere for him to go. Night entered into him through mouth and eyes, through nose and ears. He was no one now; he was nothing – nothing any longer but misery and darkness. (p.162)
  • Mathieu saw the smile and felt utterly alone. (p178)
  • She felt lost in a world of which she could make no use. (p.191) [Odette]
  • She thought: ‘I am alone.’.. He speaks to me and kisses me, but when I come to die I shall be alone… (pp.205-6) [Lola]
  • Where are the Comrades? Brunet felt lonely. Never, in all the past ten years, had he felt so utterly alone. (p.239)
  • [When the French prisoners of war arrive in a huge fences barracks] They were going to bury their filthy old war among these high buildings, were going to stew in their own juice, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone. (p.241)

Even sex doesn’t unify people, it merely emphasises their inescapable isolation. There are two memorable acts of sex in the book and both of them emphasise the essential loneliness of the male protagonist: first the peasant Pinette screwing the post office girl he’s picked up in a field outside the village where Mathieu and the other soldiers are mooching about; then handsome young Boris making love to Lola the ageing singer. Lola has discovered she has a tumour of the belly and/or the menopause, both of which conspire to make sex very painful, but not as painful as the self-image she has, loathing her dry husk of a body and thinking of Boris as a repellent insect squirting her with sticky fluid. Lots of disgusting, viscous fluids in Sartre.

It is through a wound that you will enter me. When he used to touch me in the old days, I became like velvet: now, my body is like dried earth: I crack and crumble under his fingers… He rent her to the roots of her belly, he was moving in her belly like a knife. On his face was a look of loneliness, of morbid concentration. She saw him as an insect, as a fly climbing up a window-pane climbing, falling, climbing again. She was conscious only of the pain he was causing her… (p.204)

No, not even sex is an escape from the ubiquitous sense of aloneness, of abandonment, which Sartre sees as the permanent basis of the human condition.

In the climaxes of the two parts, the male protagonist is invincibly alone. Mathieu, wounded, and the only survivor of an artillery shell which has brought the roof of the church tower down on all his comrades, struggles to continue shooting for just a few seconds more before being obliterated. In those moments:

He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free. (p.225)

On the last page of part two, after the little printer has been shot dead and the train moves mechanically onwards.

Brunet was alone, rigid and uncomfortable. (p.349)

It is an oddity than a man so obsessed with the fundamental and irreducible aloneness of each human being became a Marxist, devoted to the idea of international solidarity. And that a man so obsessed with man’s terrifyingly absolute freedom, adopted the Marxist worldview which is characterised by the inevitability of History, that Marx had uncovered scientific laws of History which dictated that a Communist revolution was inevitable i.e that at some deep level human beings are not free. I leave this to the scholars to disentangle: it would certainly be good to reach a better understanding.

Science fiction states of mind

Not much happens in a Sartre novel. Page after page is filled either with lengthy dialogue between its ineffectual characters, or with even lengthier descriptions of their feelings of abandonment and futility. The firefight at the climax of part one, and the death of the printer at the climax of part two, are very much the exceptions which prove the rule. They are more or less the only bits of ‘action’ in the entire trilogy.

Every page features descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, lengthy internal monologues but these are not as they would be in a comparable English novel. The distinctive and unnerving feature of them is the extent to which they develop into often almost delirious hallucinations of the world around them, with objects coming alive, with great abstract ideas entering the sky or room or drowning them, with parts of their bodies becoming external objects (arms and particularly hands often seem to their owners to have become alien objects). Here is Mathieu in the bell tower of the village church.

Under their feet was the fragrance of spices and incense, coolness, and the stained-glass windows feebly shining in the shadows of the Faith. Under their feet was confidence and hope. He felt cold. He looked at the sky, breathed the sky, thought with the sky. He was naked on a glacier at a great height. Far below him lay his childhood. (p.200)

In a proliferating multitude of ways, the world around Sartre’s characters, including their own bodies, including their own ideas and sensations, come alive, infuse their thoughts, colour the sky, invade the world.

The effect is often bizarre, surreal or even druggy. ‘He thought with the sky.’

And very often these hallucinations go one step further by infusing these trippy states of consciousness with poetic renderings of grand abstract concepts like Death or Defeat or Despair. Characters frequently become dead men, anticipating their death (by suicide or in battle), realise that they are a dead man walking or thinking. Or death invades whole scenes, the huge vista of prisoners of war becomes a sea of the dead (to Brunet’s eye) or Paris becomes a vast tomb (in Daniel’s imagination), and so on.

Thus Daniel wandering the empty streets of Paris experiences what amount to such intense imaginative transports that they are effectively hallucinations. n a memorable simile the Boulevard St Michel becomes a vast beached whale. In fact, it was while reading the Daniel-wanders-round-empty-Paris section that it suddenly struck me that a lot of Sartre’s scenes have the feel of science fiction.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, was silence and emptiness, an abyss stretching horizontally away from him… The streets led nowhere. Without human life, they all looked alike. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, but yesterday a long southward spread of gold, seemed now like a stranded whale, belly upwards. He made his feet ring out upon the great, sodden, hollow carcass. (p.93)

This scene suddenly reminded me of all those science fiction novels in which a man finds himself more or less the only survivor of a disaster, a great plague or nuclear apocalypse.

Anyway, the passage quoted above could be categorised as a Level One hallucination, one which is still a metaphor of a recognisable state. But (as noted above) routinely Sartre’s characters progress to Level Two hallucinations in which the ‘reality’ around them becomes infused with great Abstract Concepts.

He looked at the empty bridge, at the padlocked bookboxes on the quay, at the clock-face that had no hands… A shadow slipped past the Prefecture of Police…Paris was not, strictly speaking, empty. It was peopled by little broken scraps of time that sprang here and there to life, to be almost immediately reabsorbed again into this radiance of eternity. (p.91)

‘Scraps of time reabsorbed into this radiance of eternity.’ This is a kind of philosophical prose poetry, in that it invokes ‘deep’ ideas, but without any systematic application, merely for effect. It is a kind of pseudo-philosophical lyricism for its own sake.

I am here. Time, with its great fanning future, collapsed. All that was left was a tiny flickering patch of local moments. (p.108)

Suddenly this visionary quality reminded me of the prose of the great psychological sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard. In the 1960s Ballard famously rejected ‘space opera’, the whole sci-fi tradition of rockets going to outer space, aliens and death rays – in order to concentrate on weird mental states achieved here on decaying planet earth. His characters wander landscapes of entropy and decay littered with empty swimming pools, abandoned motels, are attracted to car crashes or go schizo in high-rise buildings. They explore the altered states of inner space. Like Sartre’s.

All about him was once more swallowed in a planetary silence. He must walk, walk unceasingly, over the surface of a cooling planet. (p.134)

Reading Daniel’s visions of abandoned Paris I suddenly saw the surprising similarity between Ballard’s psychological explorations and the many many passages in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels which obsessively depict mental states of hallucinatory intensity – not for any philosophic or propagandistic purpose, well, OK, partly to promote the feel of his existentialist world-view — but much more for their weirdness, to bring out the strangeness of what it’s like to be the animal who thinks, the animal with self-consciousness, the animal lost in the fever of its own compulsive hallucinations. Here’s Mathieu among his soldiers hanging round the village waiting for something to happen.

We are a vermin’s dream: our thoughts are becoming muddied, are becoming less and less human: thoughts, hairy and clawed, were scurrying around, jumping from head to head; the vermin was on the point of waking up. (p.102)

At which point it dawned on me that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom, the so-called existentialist philosophy, is maybe a rationalisation, an attempt to give a structure and a meaning to what in fact, in the fiction, on the page, comes over as an unstoppable torrent of weird hallucinations.

His mind felt completely empty. He was dead: the afternoon was bleached and dead. It was a tomb. (p.76)

Mathieu is not at all dead as he thinks this, just like none of the other characters who let thoughts of death and the dead ceaselessly invade their thoughts are actually dead. But then maybe ‘think’ is the wrong word. Maybe it would be better to say that this is a poetic description of an intense feeling which is passing through Mathieu’ consciousness. Mathieu is merely the vessel for these delirious psychological states.

All Sartre’s characters are. They are channels for Sartre’s uncontrollable gush of weird mental states. One of the soldiers hanging round with Mathieu begins to tell the others the armistice with Germany has been signed, but hesitates… and suddenly they all grasp the dreadful truth without having to be told.

A dazzle off steel, then silence. The blue, flabby flesh of the afternoon had taken eternity like the sweep of a scythe. Not a sound, not a breath of air. Time had become frozen; the war had withdrawn… (p76)

Is hallucination the right word for this kind of writing? Sometimes. Other times it’s just a peculiar, a very distinctive, way of conceiving human beings and human consciousness, in which ‘thought’ is perceived as an almost organic process and – this being Sartre – generally a revoltingly nauseating one involving slime.

At one moment he was just an emptiness filled with vague forebodings, at another, he became just like everyone else. His forebodings faded; the general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth… (p.97)

The vermin eyes had ostracised him, were looking up at him with an air of astonished solemnity, as though they were seeing him for the first time, as though they were looking up at him through layers of slime. (p.102)

The fact that the French prisoners of war are made to trudge through the heat for hours before reaching the camp, and then aren’t fed for five days gives Sartre the opportunity to let rip with the altered states caused by starvation and dehydration. For an extended sequence Brunet passes into a delirium somewhere between dreams and hallucinations. For example, he imagines all the soldiers are chimpanzees.

There were chimpanzees in the next cage, pressing inquisitive faces to the bars. They had sad and wrinkled eyes. Monkeys have sadder eyes than any animals except man. Something had happened, he wondered what. A catastrophe. What catastrophe? Perhaps the sun had gone cold? (p.274)

Note, again, the tinge of apocalyptic science fiction.

In fact this long second part is a strange mixture of very realistic slangy chat between rough Frenchmen, arguing, crying, going mad, blaming their officers, squabbling, cadging fags etc – and passages of quite stunning prose poetry. Sartre’s philosophy I leave to the experts on Husserl and Heidegger to nail down; it belongs to the European tradition which is difficult for us Anglo-Saxons to really understand.

But for me the revelation of these books is the surprising amount of purple prose and lyricism they contain, the extent to which they are truly writerly. As a last example, imagine a huge prisoner of war camp with thousands of dusty, downcast men lying, squatting, standing, leaning about everywhere, as far as the eye can see. And then:

The airplane passed overhead with a shattering din. The crowded faces lowered, then upturned, passed from black to white, like a field suddenly bursting into flower: in place of hard, black heads, thousands of camelias broke into blossom. Spectacles glittered like scraps of glass in a garden bed. (p.243)

There are lots of passages like this. Whereas his analyses of the political situation have passed into dusty history and his existentialist philosophy may or may not still have adherents – the vibrancy, the unexpected imaginativeness and continual weirdness of Sartre’s continues to haunts with its strange power.


Credit

La mort dans l’âme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1949. This translation is not by the translator of the first two in the trilogy, Eric Sutton, but by Gerard Hopkins. It was published as Iron In The Soul by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Iron In The Soul was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All references are to the 1967 Penguin paperback reprint, which cost the princely sum of five shillings (25p).

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)

Koestler biography

Born in Hungary in 1905, of Jewish parents, Arthur Koestler joined the German Communist party in 1931 and worked as a freelance journalist across Europe in the 1930s. Like many Communist Party members, Koestler was shocked and disillusioned by Stalin’s show trials, held in Moscow from 1936 to 1938. He knew personally some of the senior Bolshevik figures who were made to confess a litany of improbable crimes and humiliate themselves at their public trials, before being carted off to be executed. Very obviously Stalin was getting rid of the ‘old guard’ of the Party, eliminating rivals and consolidating his grip on power.

As a result Koestler quit the Communist Party in 1938 and began writing Darkness at Noon. The novel is an imagining of the interrogation of a fictional figure, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the Bolshevik government that he had helped to create.

Translated from German

Koestler wrote the novel in German and it was translated into English by his lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. The phrasing frequently betrays its German origin. For example, when the two men from the Commissariat of the Interior arrive to arrest Rubashov and bang on the door of his apartment in the middle of the night, a woman downstairs yells at them to shut up, at which Vasily, the building’s porter, shouts back:

‘Be quiet,’ shouted Vasily. ‘Here is authority.’ (p.13)

No English person ever used that wording.

  • He sniffed and noticed that for some time already he had the scent of Arlova in his nostrils.
  • For a whole while No. 402 did not answer.

Maybe it is deliberately cast in unEnglish English in order to emphasise the unEnglish setting and the unEnglish mind-set of the story.

The fear

Darkness at Noon terrified me when I read it as a teenager in the 1970s, when the Soviet dictatorship still dominated Eastern Europe, routinely arresting and imprisoning its dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. The scenes it described still seemed possible and had a horrifying compulsion about them, like the terrifying scenes depicted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels a generation later. (Somehow the atmosphere changed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and very visibly got bogged down in an unwinnable war. Their mystique of omnipotence was punctured.)

Darkness at Noon

Rereading Darkness at Noon now, it seems almost gentle next to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Rubashov is depicted as calmly accepting his fate – he has been in many prisons before, he knows the ropes, how to preserve food, how to contact the prisoner in the neighbouring cell by tapping messages out on the pipes and so on. And he is interrogated first by a former friend and colleague, Ivanov, who is unwisely considerate to his prisoner until he himself is arrested and hauled off to be shot. Ivanov is replaced by his more ruthless and hard-headed subordinate, Gletkin, his head shaved to reveal a harsh scar, always impeccably dressed and rigid in his interrogator’s chair – Rubashov calls him a Neanderthal to his face. He is the stony-hearted generation the Revolution has produced.

And yet neither interrogator lays a finger on him. They keep him readily supplied with cigarettes. Gletkin’s interrogation ‘technique’ amounts to carrying out long sessions before a blindingly bright desk-top light and only allowing Rubashov two hours sleep before waking him and bringing him back for more questioning.

Rather than physical violence or even threat, Rubashov is broken down cleverly by the interrogator pointing out a series of encounters and conversations Rubashov had with various figures in the past – during the time he was posted abroad as a trade delegate, or in other episodes, earlier in his career, when he worked undercover in Germany. Also by the treacherous affair he had with his bovine secretary, Arlova.

Under questioning Rubashov admits that he is cynical about ‘the leader’ of the Revolution (universally referred to in the book, not as Stalin, but as ‘Number 1’). As a result he is forced to confess that when, a few years earlier, he had returned from imprisonment in Germany and staunchly declared his support for Number 1, he must have been lying. When he allowed Arlova to be arrested, denounced and executed a year or so later, the interrogator points out that Rubashov could – if he had wanted to – have stood up in her defence. He didn’t. Now though – as Gletka points out in his unrelenting, logical way – Rubashov admits he knew she was innocent of all charges. In other words, he sacrificed his lover to save his own skin. Is he really such a noble hero of conscience? Is he not in reality a weak old man who is putting personal pride above the future of his Nation?

Thus the ‘interrogation’ is entirely psychological, wearing down Rubashov’s sense of himself as someone special, making him feel guilty, making him realise he is a selfish liar, and so on. This is drastically different from the harrowing interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eight-Four, where Winston Smith is injected with drugs and repeatedly electrocuted, causing his body to arch and spasm in unbearable pain.

Slowly a web is spun round Rubashov from casual conversations, comments and actions raked up from throughout his career, which are twisted in such a way as to fully justify the accusation that he is guilty of cynicism and mockery towards Number 1 and the Party, guilty of counter-revolutionary thoughts.

And slowly Rubashov himself comes to realise that he really is guilty, that he really has drifted away from the Party, that he really would join any available opposition and would, if the opportunity presented itself, help to assassinate Number 1. It doesn’t really matter that there is no organised opposition; it doesn’t really matter that there was never a plot to poison Number 1. He would have done all those things. He is guilty as charged.

To give an example: in one scene Rubashov is confronted with the son of a former friend who he met when he was posted abroad, and is reminded of a long-forgotten conversation between all three of them about what they would do if they had the (purely theoretical) opportunity to change the direction of the Revolution, to bring it back in a more humane direction.

Rubashov has frequently seen this young man in the bleak exercise yard where he and other prisoners are taken and had nicknamed ‘Harelip’ from his appearance. Now, confronted with him in the interrogation room, Rubashov realises that Harelip has himself been beaten, starved and demoralised into numbly declaring to his face that Rubashov commissioned him to poison Number 1.

Rubashov knows the accusation that there was ever a concrete assassination plan is nonsense – but he did have dissident conversations with the boy and his father, they did discuss whether the Revolution might be made to take a different turn, they did speculate what would happen if Number 1 could be got rid of. Slowly, through incidents like this, the interrogator brings Rubashov to see that, even if he didn’t plan any of the ridiculous charges pressed against him – he might haveHe could have. Objectively, from the Party’s point of view, he is guilty as charged.

Moreover, Rubashov himself in his revolutionary prime, earlier in the 1930s, had been just as cruel and unflinching as Gletkin. He himself had sacrificed members of a Communist cell in Germany because, after the Nazis came to power and arrested many of them, the survivors said they needed to adopt new tactics. Rubashov, as representative of the Comintern, disagreed, disciplined them, and ultimately denounced them to the Nazi authorities. On another occasion he got to know Little Loewy, a cripple working for the Party in a North European port who had organised fervent Communist Party activism across the docks – and had had to explain to him and his colleagues – who had been carrying out a strict and honourable boycott of foreign goods arriving at the port – that the Soviet Union had now completely changed its approach, and wanted to sell vital raw materials to the Nazi regime. If they didn’t someone else would, and the Nation desperately needs the cash to carry out its own industrialisation, to make itself strong enough to resist attack. Some of the dockers Rubashov explains this to leave the room in disgust. Little Loewy agrees without hesitation, but later hangs himself.

Koestler shows us Rubashov haunted by memories like this, some in dreams, some in daylight remembrance, being forced to review his hard-hearted career, analysing his behaviour, and slowly acknowledging that Ivanov, and then Gletkin, are only being as thorough and logical and dispassionate as he was in his prime. The Revolution cannot afford bourgeois sentimentality. He is brought to see that, yes, his own self-sacrifice is the logical step. He must submit.

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes the events of a few days in Winston Smith’s life. By contrast Darkness at Noon uses Rubashov’s memories and musings, as he lies on his prison bunk, to range far and wide over Communist Party activities and Soviet policy throughout the 1930s, as epitomised by Rubashov’s career.

Darkness at Noon feels on the one hand wider and richer than Orwell’s novel, because it covers a longer period and with more complex relationships with a bigger cast of characters – but at the same time is significantly less intense, because Rubashov meets and interacts with a large number of people out there in the real world, with all its colour and smells and sights and distractions – whereas Winston Smith cannot escape anywhere from the nightmarish gaze of the telescreen, Big Brother and his own terrified claustrophobic thoughts.

Dreams and issues

Darkness at Noon also feels softer in the sense that many of Rubashov’s memories are mixed up with dreams: he relives the same events over and over – his meeting with nervous Peter the German cell-leader, his friendship and then betrayal of Little Loewy, his nights in bed with his supine mistress, Arlova – all these are recalled in great physical and sensual detail, and recur again and again as in a dream. Sometimes Rubashov has trouble knowing whether he’s sleeping or waking.

Similarly, many of the exchanges between Rubashov and his two interrogators are rather poetic and philosophical, in a dreamy European kind of way. Where Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien discuss the nature of power in a ruthless, logical way, O’Brien’s relentless logic of power bearing down on Smith like a nightmare which the reader shares, by contrast Ivanov is given to poetic flights of fancy.

For example, at one stage Ivanov launches out on a long disquisition about God and Satan, bringing these Christian characters up to date to apply to the present European situation. Ivanov says all this while pouring himself and Rubashov glasses of brandy. It could almost come from a bourgeois 19th century ‘novel of ideas’, the characters sitting in front of a roaring fire in the drawing room of a grand house, swirling brandy round their glasses, puffing on cigars.

‘I would like to write a Passion play in which God and the Devil dispute for the soul of Saint Rubashov. After a life of sin, he has turned to God – to a God with the double chin of industrial liberalism and the charity of the Salvation Army soups. Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it – an abstract and geometric love. Apage Satanas! Comrade Rubashov prefers to become a martyr. The columnists of the liberal Press, who hated him during his lifetime, will sanctify him after his death. He has discovered a conscience, and a conscience renders one as unfit for the revolution as a double chin. Conscience eats through the brain like a cancer, until the whole of the grey matter is devoured. Satan is beaten and withdraws – but don’t imagine that he grinds his teeth and spits fire in his fury. He shrugs his shoulders; he is thin and ascetic; he has seen many weaken and creep out of his ranks with
pompous pretexts…’
Ivanov paused and poured himself another glass of brandy. Rubashov walked up and down in front of the window.

This is typical of the frequent long, rather wordy and metaphorical debates the characters have. It could come from a George Bernard Shaw play, or maybe a Chekhov story. And it’s what I mean by ‘softer’ or ‘more relaxing’ than the Orwell: many passages feature long-winded chatty discussions which rather inevitably refer to the ‘great’ European classics like Dostoyevsky or Don Quixote.

On the other hand, these passages often snap back out of their amiable doze into the harsh light of the present and snap the reader back to the 1930s, to the era of totalitarianism, to the prison cell and the interrogation room.

In another long passage Ivanov gives the rationale for all the brutality of the Soviet regime during the 1930s. Koestler makes it a handy summary of the Soviet Union’s crimes and this long passage must have scandalised loyal Communist Party members and fellow-travellers in the West.

Ivanov explains that the Party has had only decades, only a few years, to try and catch up with the advances the capitalist West has had 150 years to make – no wonder they have to be ruthless: ‘it is to ensure the Revolution survives; it is to ensure the peace and happiness of a future generation, that we must be brutal, now.’ At which Rubashov finally lets rip a long stream of the crimes of the Soviet regime.

Rubashov rubbed his pince-nez on his sleeve, and looked at him short-sightedly. ‘What a mess,’ he said, ‘what a mess we have made of our golden age.’

Ivanov smiled. ‘Maybe,’ he said happily. ‘Look at the Gracchi and Saint Just and the Commune of Paris. Up to now, all revolutions have been made by moralizing dilettantes. They were always in good faith and perished because of their dilettantism. We for the first time are consequent…’

‘Yes,’ said Rubashov. ‘So consequent; that in the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down
to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national Institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see. For the energies of this generation are exhausted; they were spent in the Revolution; for this generation is bled white and there is nothing left of it but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh. … Those are the consequences of our consequentialness. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles and nerves. …’

‘Well, and what of it?’ said Ivanov happily. ‘Don’t you find it wonderful? Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. That is not an occupation for people with weak nerves; but there was once a time when it filled you with enthusiasm. What has so changed you that you are now as pernickety as an old maid?’

This long passage gives a good feel of the book, the way it boils down, ultimately, to a dialogue between two interpretations of Communist history – both coming from within the Party, both using the terminology and worldview of the Party – but fundamentally opposed about the tactics and consequences of 20 years of Bolshevik rule.

Climax

Eventually, Rubashov is worn down by sleeplessness and the relentlessness of the interrogation, to not only confess, but to agree to take part in a show trial at which he will abase himself, grovel and admit to all kinds of crimes. Gletkin has convinced him that the Party needs unity, it needs a strong leader, it needs to nip all opposition in the bud, and it needs to demonstrate the futility of the slightest hint of opposition.

And that all these things must be made screamingly obvious to the most illiterate and stupid peasant. The show trials aren’t for the intelligentsia (though they scare the daylights out of them), they are for the vast majority of Russian’s poorly educated, mostly illiterate, peasant population. That is why they are shows. That is why they have as much in common with traditional village puppet entertainments as with Western notions of ‘justice’. Their message must resonate to, must be heard about and discussed and convey the right message to, the remotest poverty-stricken villages in Siberia or in Central Asia.

Gletkin successfully persuades Rubashov that his last great service to the party he has served all his life will be to repress his egotism, to suppress his own bourgeois sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, to sacrifice himself for the good of the Party and for the future of his country.

And so, in the short final chapter of the book, we read excerpts from Rubashov’s show trial where he does just that, admits to all the charges, humiliates himself, praises the Great Leader to the skies – all in the name of the Perfect Future which the Party will deliver.

The perfect future

By the 1970s the Soviet economy was visibly failing, only surviving through the complex network of unofficial deals between managers of the epically mismanaged state industries. The decade-long war in Afghanistan (1979-89) widely discredited the regime in the eyes of the population. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he unleashed forces of dissatisfaction he could not control.

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and the entire 70 year-long Communist experiment was revealed for not only the prolonged crime against humanity which it was, but also to have been completely futile. Did 70 years of communism build a better life for Russians? No. They led to Putin and his new Russian nationalism, the obscene wealth of the oligarchs contrasted with the poor quality of life of the majority, a Russia characterised by state control of the media, the assassination of troublesome journalists, a terrifying mafia, epic alcoholism and the lowest life expectancy in the industrialised world (65 years for men).

For some time now the problems Russia faces internally, and the military threat it presents to Europe, have far outweighed this old stuff about the darkest days of its communist regime. Darkness at Noon is a densely imagined, psychologically rich and well-argued portrait of a long-vanished era, an age which is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

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Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler (1940)

He tried to think of his wife and found that he could not. The things of which she was a part, his house, his friends, had ceased to exist. He was a man alone, transported into a strange land with death for its frontiers: alone… (p.201)

The sixth and final novel of Eric Ambler’s First Phase (1936-40), before he stopped writing to do war work and then spend the rest of the 1940s involved in film screenplays and movie production. This is possibly the best of the six.

Journey Into Fear was Evening Standard book of the month in July 1940, the month the Third Republic ceased to exist and the Battle of Britain began (Here Lies, p.158).

Set-up

Graham (his first name is not given) is an engineer (as was Ambler himself before he moved into advertising). It is 1940, World War II is under way. Graham’s engineering firm have sent him to Turkey to work on torpedo and other additions to the Turkish navy. He returns to Istanbul from a few hard weeks at provincial factories and is taken by the firm’s Stamboul minder, Kopeikin, to some bars and nightclubs, where a girl he’s dancing with points out that someone shifty is watching him. As he walks into his hotel room that night an intruder fires three shots at him, two missing, one grazing his hand. Kopeikin takes him to Colonel Haki of the Turkish secret police who tells him he will be murdered if he takes the scheduled train back to London; the assassin Banat has been hired by a German agent Moeller to kill Graham to prevent any further improvement to Turkey’s fleet. Therefore, Graham must travel to Italy secretly aboard the tramp steamer Haki has booked him on.

But – you might not be altogether amazed to learn – it turns out that danger and death have pursued our hero even onto this supposedly safe ship!

Rogues gallery

If Epitaph for a Spy echoed the format of the classic English country house murder mystery (which of the hotel guests is the spy?!), Journey echoes Agatha Christie’s translation of that format into moving but enclosed spaces eg Murder On the Orient Express (1934), Death On the Nile (1937). One of the other nine or so guests on the steamer to Italy is trying to kill Graham – but which one?

  • Josette the cabaret dancer
  • José, her angry partner and  husband
  • Mr Kuvetli, the Turkish tobacco dealer
  • Dr Fritz Haller, the old German archaeologist
  • Frau Haller, his gruff wife
  • the French business man fond of delivering communist rants, Monsieur Mathis
  • his nagging wife, madame Mathis
  • the Italian mother and son, Signor and Signora Batonelli

And then, a third of the way in, the plot takes a twist when the man Graham saw in the nightclub in Stamboul, the man Colonel Haki told him is an assassin hired to kill him, joins the ship at Athens!

From this point onwards the novel becomes thick with Graham’s fears and paranoia as Graham tries not to panic, to keep calm in his mundane encounters with the man who he must pretend not to know about, while inside his guts are churning and his mind is working overtime. The focus on the inner feelings and thoughts of the protagonist make this the most Graham Greene-ish of Ambler’s phase one novels. It is a simple situation but even the smallest development gives rise to pages of feverish anxiety and it is this – not much action, lots of realistic worry – which make it the most plausible of Ambler’s early novels.

The Tintin affect

The first Tintin cartoon strip by Hergé appeared in 1929. Through the 1930s Hergé created a series of adventures for his boy reporter (often in fictional and murky east European countries). If you’re familiar with Tintin you’ll know that not only is there a repertoire of first-rank friends who appear in most of the adventures (Captain Haddock, the Thompson twins, Professor Calculus) but a number of secondary characters who also crop up in more than one story, for example the comic figures Madame Castafiore and Jolyon Wagg, and the baddy Rastapopoulos, helping to reinforce the sense of a ‘Tintin world’.

In his first six novels Ambler does something similar.

  • Two of the novels (Danger and Alarm) feature the KGB agent Andreas Zaleshoff as a key figure.
  • This is the second consecutive novel to feature the Turkish head of secret police, Colonel Haki.
  • The fictional arms manufacturing company Cator and Bliss appears in almost all the novels: the sinister Simon Groom who tries to recruit Barstow in The Dark Frontier works for C&B; ironically, at the end of Cause For Alarm Marlow quits the dangerous Spartacus Machine Company with relief to go and work for C&B, knowing nothing about its dodgy dealings; and here, in Journey, the protagonist Graham starts the story as a senior engineer working for C&B, before events make him reflect a little on the full implications of his armaments work…

These repetitions may be intended to reinforce Ambler’s sense that the world is linked by the (generally malevolent) machinations of behind-the-scenes banks and corporations; to demonstrate that even the most honest, straightforward Englishmen, simply by working for companies involved in morally questionable activity, find themselves thrown into murky situations.

But these ‘small-world’ repetitions also foster the impression that the books are slightly cartoon-ish, dealing with, no doubt serious, social and political issues in a rather light, rather Tintinesque way.

Anti-Big Business

As usual there is a character whose job is to rant against Big Business and banks. In previous  novels the KGB agent Zaleshoff, here it is the Frenchman Mathis who is given a number of speeches on the subject, beginning with the story of being a soldier during the Great War and knowing the Allies had orders not to bomb the iron mines at Briey just behind the German lines which had been co-opted to supply the German army, because these works were owned by senior figures in the French government. Ie plant, machinery, factories are more important to the people who run governments than the lives of their own citizens.

‘And so,’ [Mathis] was saying vehemently, ‘it goes on. The big newspapers of the Right are owned by those whose interest it is to see that France spends her wealth on arms and that the ordinary people do not understand too much of what goes on behind the scenes. I am glad to be going back to France because it is my country. But do not ask me to love those who have my country in the palms of their hands. Ah, no!’ (p.168)

Or the banks.

‘Banking!’ Mathis was saying. ‘What is it but usury? Bankers are money-lenders, usurers. But because they lend other people’s money or money that does not exist, they have a pretty name. They are still usurers. Once, usury was a mortal sin and an abomination, and to be a usurer was to be a criminal for whom there was a prison cell. To-day the usurers are the gods of the earth and the only mortal sin is to be poor.’ (p.215)

‘Ha! Banking is a mystery! It is too difficult for mortal men to understand.’ He laughed derisively. ‘If you make two and two equal five you must have a lot of mystery.’ He turned aggressively to Graham. ‘The international bankers are the real war criminals. Others do the killing, but they sit, calm and collected, in their offices and make money.’ (p.216)

Thriller clichés

It feels like certain sentiments just have to appear in every thriller in order to qualify the book for inclusion in the genre:

The world is a battlefield/jungle

Once on board ship, Graham reads an antiquated lifeboat notice:

He had read the same sort of thing dozens of times before, but now he read it carefully. The paper it was printed on was yellow with age. The lifebelt on top of the washing cabinet looked as if it had not been moved for years. It was all ludicrously reassuring. ‘In case of danger…‘ In case! But you couldn’t get away from danger!It was all about you, all the time. You could live in ignorance of it for years: you might go to the end of your days believing that some things couldn’t possibly happen to you, that death could only come to you with the sweet reason of disease or an ‘act of God’: but it was there just the same, waiting to make nonsense of all your comfortable ideas about your relations with time and chance, ready to remind you – in case you had forgotten – that civilisation was a word and that you still lived in the jungle. (p.87)

A credo echoed in Greene’s novel It’s A Battlefield and throughout Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime novels.

Why, this is like something out of a Hollywood movie / dime novel / shilling shocker!

 Graham felt something tightening in  his chest. He had to force himself to smile. ‘A little melodramatic, aren’t you? We have no proof that what you say is true. And, after all, this is real life, not…’ He hesitated.
‘Not what, Mr Graham?’ the Colonel was watching him like a cat about to streak after a mouse.
‘… the cinema, I was going to say, only it sounded a little impolite.’
Colonel Haki stood up quickly. ‘Melodrama! Proof! Real life! the cinema! Impolite!’ His lip curled around the words as if they were obscene. ‘Do you think I care what you say, Mr Graham?’ (p.62)

Satisfying

This seemed to me the best of Ambler’s six pre-War novels. The protagonist’s plight is simple but gives rise to pages of detailed description of his fear and anxiety which really bring it home: this is how you would feel. There is also a parallel thread in the book which is Graham’s flirtation with the showgirl, Josette. She is portrayed as a very attractive, knowing, hard, cynical but warm presence, and again we see close-up how Graham’s feelings for her develop under the stress of the situation, how she becomes an invaluable ally in his attempts to avoid being killed.

But by the same token, once the pressure is off, once Graham has escaped his killers, right at the end of the novel, we share his sudden revelation of how squalid she is – all along her husband had been waiting to extract money from Graham for enjoying her ‘favours’ when they get to Paris. In the cold light of day, sober and free of his nightmare plight, Graham suddenly realises how seedy the whole arrangement is, that his ‘love’ or whatever he calls it was purely the product of his journey into fear; so he gives them some money but walks away. The end.

Both these themes – the prolonged threat of death and the rise and fall of his passion for Josette – are handled at length and very persuasively, and are both brought to satisfying and persuasive ends. Which is why, despite the absence of much ‘action’, I think this is the best, the deepest and most emotionally satisfying, of Ambler’s six pre-War novels.

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1943 movie version

As so often with these thriller/gangster/noir novels it took only a few years to be turned / translated / processed into a (strangely short) Hollywood movie, produced and directed by Orson Welles and starring himself and Joseph Cotten. RKO paid Ambler $20,000 for the rights (Here Lies, p.170). Ambler lists some of the problems the film encountered: Welles was quarreling with the RKO front office. Shooting began without a completed script. On the first day a technician had an accident and died. Eventually RKO took over control of the film and edited it themselves. ‘The result was scrappy.’ (Here Lies, p.223).

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.

Wreckers Must Breathe by Hammond Innes (1940)

Hammond Innes

(Ralph) Hammond Innes OBE wrote some 34 novels, as well as children’s and non-fiction books, in a career spanning nearly 60 years from his first book, The Doppelganger (1937) to the last one, Delta Connection (1996). After private school he drifted through a number of jobs including journalist for the Financial News, all the time working on his early novels.

He was chuffed to get his first novel accepted by a publisher but not so pleased to find himself tied into a four-book deal at a low fee. He rattled these first four books out pdq before switching to new publishers with a better deal. Later in life he conceded that this first burst of piece-work taught him the craft.

Wreckers Must Breathe

Wreckers Must Breathe (1940) is Innes’ 6th book ie still very early. It’s a ripping yarn about a journalist/drama critic, Walter Craig, on holiday in Cornwall. His fishing boat is nearly rammed by a U-boat which he and the local fisherman mistake for a shark. Returning from the beach he falls in with a man wading ashore, leading him to suspect something odd is going on. That night he goes down to the shore with a local fisherman, Big Logan, only for both of them to be caught at gunpoint and taken aboard the aforementioned U-boat.

There is a thrilling sequence where the U-baot is forced to dive and our heroes wait as suspensefully as the german crew while a British cruiser tries to depth charge them. The U-boat survives and Craig and Logan are taken prisoner to a secret underground U-boat base worked into the remains of a ruined Cornish tin mine. (The book includes a clear diagram of the layout of the base which becomes very useful as the novel progresses.) Here they are forced to work helping maintain the small fleet of U-boats and all the time wondering how to either escape or blow the place up.

Maureen Weston’s story

Craig’s first-person narrative is interrupted half way through by a collection of documents which tell the story from the point of view of a lady journalist, Maureen Weston. She is contacted by Craig’s London paper to investigate his disappearance and her investigations are chronicled in telegrams, letters and transcripts of phone calls which the narrator claims to have later assembled. This harks back to the Victorian use of letters and other media in popular stories (think of Dracula) and is a reminder of the eternal problem of point-of-view in a novel.

These pages, Maureen Weston section of the novel, have their own distinct tone and style, different from Craig’s first person narrative, that of a tough, sardonic woman journalist. She’s a very modern and enjoyable character.

Weston pieces the bits of the jigsaw together and begins to realise:

  • the U-boat base is a disused tin mine right on the coast
  • it was abandoned after a disastrous flood
  • it was subsequently bought by an out-of-town businessmen who got local miners to dig a set of new exploratory shafts fanning out from a central cavern
  • he then supposedly abandoned his efforts
  • but they were in fact finished off by Germans brought over by U-boat.

She only completely confirms this on a trip down the mine with three local miners when they stumble into the base and are themselvescaptured and locked up in the cell next to Logan and Craig. The prisoners in the two cells realise they can communicate by morse code.

Tension

The situation might have drifted but great urgency is lent the story because early on Craig had discovered that the secret coastal meeting which they blundered into right at the start of the book was between a German spy handing over a naval document stolen from London to the U-boat captain. This document gives the co-ordinates for a rendezvous of Royal Navy ships in the North Sea. Thus tipped off the U-boats are planning to attack and sink the lot, with not only loss of British lives but giving the Germans important propaganda early in the war.

Showdown

In a sustained and bloody climax to the novel Logan, Craig and the three miners take out their guards on a submarine they’re loading, then seize large amounts of weapons and start a small war. They blow up the tunnels leading to their dock and use the U-boat’s main gun to destroy the entrance to the cavern, then fight off all-comers with small arms and hand grenades.

In a strange and haunting finale Craig sets fire to oil and petrol above a seam of limestone, knowing it will reduce the stone to quicklime and release large amounts of carbon dioxide. Our heroes lock themselves in the U-boat with its handy air supply and oxygen apparatus. The Germans try to break in using oxy-acetylene cutting equipment and are half way through cutting the U-boat hatch open when all sounds of activity cease.

When our heroes emerge, weating the oxygen masks, they find hundreds of Germans collapsed all over the docks due to asphyxiation. They escape into the older mine workings which they are cutting their way through when they are discovered and rescued by a Royal Navy party.

We, the readers, have known that all along the Craig’s newspaper had been informing the police about what Maureen Weston was discovering, and that the police had contacted MI5 who had pieced the whole story together and alerted the nearest naval force. Who come triumphantly to the rescue and take the Germans prisoner.

Thriller tropes

The opening passages of Wreckers Must Breathe are very interesting purely as social history. They capture the mood of England on the days leading up to the outbreak of World War II, giving a vivid sense of the fears and anxieties of ordinary people – and then the horrible sinking feeling as war is declared.

But once into the main body of the story, it is fascinating to see just how many tropes it contains which are staples of later thrillers, scenes I’ve read about or seen in movies countless times:

  • Crew trapped in a submarine while an enemy ship depth charges it, everyone silent, holding their breath, looking up.
  • The enormous elaborate underground U-boat pen built in an abandoned Cornish tin mine is described in great detail and sounds very like the secret baddy bases of the James Bond movies.
  • An impression reinforced when it is the setting for the final bombing and shooting spree which our heroes unleash as they try to escape, five of them taking on over 500 Germans.
  • The lady journalist is presented as genuinely strong, feisty, intelligent. But she also happens to be good looking and ‘startlingly provocative’. And, given the presence of a lady, certain tropes are inevitable:
    • inevitably she falls behind and the big strong fisherman has to go back to ‘rescue’ her
    • inevitably both he and the pretty lady are then captured and used by the Germans as human shields
    • inevitably, as the Germans open fire, big strong fisherman is able to nudge the machine gun their guard is using to open fire on Craig, thus saving his life – obviously he is then gun-butted in the face, a moment I’m sure I’ve seen in scores of movies
  • In a scene I’ve read and watched scores of times (Where Eagles Dare, The Great Escape) there is bitter enmity between Gestapo and ‘ordinary’ naval officer: for example the scene where the Gestapo man orders Big Logan to be tied up and whipped – and watches the scene with a sadistic glint in his eye – but on the second lash the commandant storms in demanding to know who gave the order for this, has a flaming row with Mr Gestapo which escalates until he punches Gestapo man and orders his guards to arrest and drag him off.
  • And the cavalry – well, Navy – arriving just in time to save our gallant heroes, as they’ve done the bulk of the work but when their strength is flagging and just as they think they’ll never be able to dig their way through the final rockslide.

I’d love to know whether these tropes were already established when Innes wrote (by whom?) Were they part of the pulp thriller underworld by then? Are any his creation?

The ghost of Conan Doyle

If thriller writers’ disclaimers actually reveal their influences, whose shadow they’re trying to escape from – if Desmond Bagley’s characters’ frequent claims that they aren’t James Bond tell you not so subtly what influence Bagley is seeking to evade – then the one literary reference in this book is to a much older but acknowledged master of popular tales and yarns who was publishing eerie stories right up until 1930. As Maureen Weston writes of her descent into the abandoned mine workings:

The whole thing is so fantastic. Do you remember Conan Doyle’s Tales of Horror and Mystery? Well, I feel as if I’m writing the diary of one of his tales of horror that will be found after I am dead and from which others will draw the wildest conjectures. Suppose there is an underground race and they are coming to the surface to conquer us? Stupid! But when you are deep in the bowels of the earth anything seems possible… (page 128)

And the final scene where the five breathing English survivors pick their way through the landscape of Germans asphyxiated by carbon dioxide is also from a different type of text than a straightforward War novel.

The sight was amazing. The whole dock seemed to be strewn with the bodies of German sailors. It was like rowing in some fantastic crypt filled with the dead. I looked at Davies, pulling steadily on the oars, his face obscured by the awful futurist mask. So one might depict a modern Charon rowing a new-comer to Hades across the river Styx… There were men everywhere, but not a soul stirred. It was like a place of the dead. And we five masked figures looked like five horrible ghouls picking our way amongs the dead. (p. 185)

This reads like Conan Doyle in fantasy mode. Or the sci-fi of HG Wells. One of the pleasures of Innes’ novels is that they are a little unstable; they admit other influences and styles which later, more professional thriller writers, more completely exclude. But here, early in his career and in the history of the genre, there is room for experimentation. Witness the strong Edgar Allen Poe Gothic feel of one of his first post-War novels, The Killer Mine.

Related links

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wreckers Must Breathe

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wreckers Must Breathe

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A long, bewildering, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Trojan Horse by Hammond Innes (1940)

As I saw it, this wasn’t just a single spy or a single criminal I was up against. It was organised espionage. The organised espionage of a power notorious for its efficiency and ruthlessness. (p.52)

Hammond Innes wrote over 30 novels from the mid 1930s through to the 1970s, becoming a byword for fast, thrilling adventure stories, and forming a link and father figure to the following generations of thriller writers (Alistair MacLean first pubd 1955, Desmond Bagley first pubd 1963).

This is his fifth novel, begun as Russia invaded Finland and published right at the start of the World War II. It is unusual in not being set abroad but almost all taking place in London.

The plot

Told in the first person by sensible barrister Andrew Kilmartin who is visited by ‘a tubby little Jew’ whose photo, he realises, he has seen in the newspapers because he is wanted for the murder of an engineer in Wales a few weeks previously. The visitor quickly reveals that he is Schmidt, a brilliant Austrian engineer who was forced to flee after the Anschluss (1938) and was taken in by his Welsh in-laws. Turns out he has invented a new lightweight alloy which will handle the strains of the new generation of diesel naval or airplane engines. Lighter alloy, lighter engines, faster ships and planes. The balance of the war could hang on this discovery. Schmidt claims he had nothing to do with the Llewellin murder and departs with cryptic clues about who is really responsible.

Kilmartin starts out sceptical and after Schmidt leaves is inclined to phone his friend at Scotland Yard. But he visits Schmidt’s old flat only to find it has been ransacked. One of the books on the floor has the same title as Schmidt’s clue and, when he takes it to his friend David Schiel the photogrpaher over on Shaftesbury Avenue, they discover a coded message written in ultra violet characters at the back of the book. Then David’s flat is ransacked.

Slowly a vast conspiracy is uncovered which includes the big and reputable industrial concern, Calboyd, along with its famously patriotic chairman, as well as one of the shrewdest financial journalists in the City, Max Sedel. He and David pick up on a clue in Schmidt’s coded message and drive down to Cornwall to discover it the hiding place of Schmidt’s daughter who has smuggled out the only existing prototype of the new engine on a motorboat. But as they arrive the motorboat is being impounded by the Royal Navy coastguard and they realise the impounding is only the first step in the boat being mysteriously stolen from naval dockyards, and then cunningly smuggled out of the country aboard a ship publicly proclaiming to be taking arms and munitions to our gallant allies in Finland.

1. Down in the sewer

But Kilmartin leaves it just a bit too late, he wants to sow up all the loose ends just a bit too perfectly and is just on the verge of contacting the police with all he knows when he finds himself suddenly captured and locked in a deep vault under a City of London bank. Only after some time has passed in despair of ever getting released or rescuing the boat does he see a rat disappear into a hole in the vault and set about a desperate attempt, first to dig out the mortar between some of the oldest stone and then, once he’s knocked a hole through, Kilmartin discovers he is in the maze of ancient sewers beneath the City of London. And he hasn’t gone far when he hears voices and sees torchlight and realises the baddies are after him… And so into a genuinely thrilling and very vividly described chase.

2. The Battle of Thirlmere

Once free Kilmartin discovers the police are now after him having been fed incriminating evidence by the network of enemy spies, and that Schmidt’s pretty daughter, Freya, has been kidnapped by them. He goes down to the Pool of London to see the very public sending-off the Thirlmere a boat ponsored by Calboyds and carrying arms and ammunition to Finland. Only Kilmartin knows that everyone involved is a German agent and that, once it leaves British territorial waters and its Royal Navy escort behind, it will alter course and steam to Germany not only with the supplies, but with the crucial prototype engine aboard.

Suffice to say Kilmartin smuggles himself aboard, along with his aide David, they rescue Freya from her cell then, along with Schmidt who had stowed away in disguise, they smuggle themselves into one of the half dozen or so tanks on the decks. Once the RN has departed, the ship hoists Nazi flags, the ‘aid volunteers’ arrest the loyal crew and the ship turns towards germany. But Schmidt, Kilmartin et al use the tank’s gun to blow up half the bride and machine gun half the enemy agents, release the loyal crew who set a new course back to England before the situation escalates even more with squadrons of British and German airplanes fighting it out in the skies above them.

Once back on English soil the authorities reveal that they managed to piece together all the evidence and clues AK had left them. Our man has saved the day! and won himself a pretty, brave fiancée!!

Disclaimer

There is the usual disclaimer that, although it reads like a melodrama/adventure/spy story, it isn’t really.

‘There’s no such thing as adventure, except in retrospect. You read stories or hear people talk of adventures. They sound exciting. But the reality is not exciting. There’s pain to the body and torture to mind and nerves, and a wretched death for most adventurers.’ (Fontana 1973 paperback edition, p.52)

Dramatis personae

  • Andrew Kilmartin: sober, sensible King’s Counsel: the lead protagonist in exposing a network of German agents in England, drawing on his experience of Intelligence work during World War I
  • Franz Schmidt: Austrian Jewish refugee from the Nazis, world-leading engine designer
  • Olwen Llewllin: married Schmidt; beaten in the street for being married to a Jew and dies in prison
  • Evan Llewellin: brother of Schmidt’s wife, who takes him in in Cardiff; murdered by Nazi agents
  • David Shiel: bohemian photographer with studios on Shaftesbury Avenue, becomes intimately involved as Kilmartin’s assistant in the adventure
  • Calboyd’s Diesel Company: leading British firm in this sector chaired by well-known captain of industry and philanthropist Sir James Calboyd, key members of the Board are exposed as Nazi agents
  • Desmond Crisham: Kilmartin’s contact at Scotland Yard who he drip-feeds his revelations for fear they are so scandalous Crisham will reject them out of hand – ‘one of the bulldog breed’
  • Cones of Runnel: buoys/landmarks off the Cornwall coast which are a key to Schmidt’s code, and help Kilmartin and Shiel track down Schmidt’s daughter
  • Freya: Schmidt’s daughter: an experienced sailor and engineer
  • Max Sedel: top City journalist, expert on aircraft industry and others; refugee from Germany: the fact that he has an uncontrollable hatred of Jews kind of suggests what is then revealed, ie he is the king pin of the Nazi organisation – a gangster, ‘a fanatic with boundless ambition’
  • John Burston: on the Board of Calboyds he discovers what is going on and is murdered
  • Baron Ferdinand Marburg – financier, Society figure, philanthropist – German agent
  • Sefton Raikes – works manager of Calboyd’s who disagrees with the direction of travel and is murdered
  • The Thirlmere – the steamer supposedly to take arms and munitions to plucky Finland; in fact loaded with tanks and weapons and Schmidt’s lightweight diesl engine

Related links

Pan paperback edition of The Trojan Horse

Pan paperback edition of The Trojan Horse

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A long, bewildering, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene (1940)

This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven. (p.125)

In 1938 Greene was commissioned by the publisher Longman to go to Mexico to report on the revolutionary government’s repression of the Church and anti-clerical pogroms. The trip produced the factual travel book, The Lawless Roads, published in 1939, and the novel The Power and The Glory, in 1940.

A worldview finds a home

God, Greene must have been thrilled to bits when he saw Mexico. In London or Brighton, in a sensible well-organised civilised and boring country, Greene’s bleakly pessimistic worldview combined with his fondness for an atmosphere of menace and fear often seem more than a bit ludicrous.

In revolutionary Mexico, on the other hand, the sense of life’s futility, its cheapness, squalor and poverty, along with a constant menace from the revolutionary authorities, streaked through with a melodramatic heroism of the repressed Catholic church – this is the world he had been looking for, had been expressing in fiction for a decade – and it actually existed!

I’ve argued that his previous books had been themes and worldviews in search of a plot which could justify them – the bitterness, the horror and the menace expressed by characters and narrator in his first half dozen or so novels never really being justified by the small-scale, petty and often silly plot structures.

Here, in the brutal, poverty-stricken, violent, repressive, godforsaken south of Mexico, he found the living embodiment of everything he imagined, everything he loathed and feared and hated and which his fiction revels in: life at its most squalidly cheap and nasty; a cast of vicious, pathetic, defeated human animals set against a pitiless and abandoned landscape.

The Power and The Glory is routinely described as Greene’s first great novel. I am arguing it is ‘great’ because he has finally found a subject which justifies his obsessions and the bleak, cold-eyed style he had developed to express them.

As a small example: in these early novels the characters often feel uniquely cursed, as if they carry a blight, an evil fate around with them, like Pinkie in Brighton Rock or D. in The Confidential Agent who, as I’ve noted in a post on that novel, repeatedly uses the word ‘infection’ and typhoid to refer to himself. But the whisky priest is finally a character who can really justify the solipsistic self-pity so many Greene characters feel, for the army starts taking hostages from the poor villages where he passes and shooting them if no-one will betray him.

Nobody would stop him, saying a woman was ill or a man dying. He was a sickness now. (p.64)

He alone carried a wound, as though a whole world had died. (p.68)

A virtuous man can almost cease to believe in Hell, but he carried Hell about with him… Evil ran like malaria in his veins. (p.176)

Plot

There is no plot. The unnamed whisky priest has been hiding for ten years (!) while his colleagues are either shot by the authorities or give in and marry, abandoning their vows. The army, led by the unnamed lieutenant, are after him but not very hard.

For most of the novel there is no sequence of events linked by meaningful interactions, or unfolding of a plot. It is not even a chase, more of a trudge or traipse or godforsaken stumble through the jungle and landscape of southern Mexico in which the priest has encounters with various people. He covers hundreds of miles from the banana port where he tangles with Mr Tench the dentist, to his home village of Concepcion where the peasants are desperate to get rid of him, to some place where he sees the child (Coral) he fathered illegitimately – thus, oooh, placing himself in a state of mortal sin – then crossing some river, getting latched onto by a probably criminal half-breed, then on to the capital where he buys wine only to see it drunk by idiots and gets thrown into a squalid prison cell stuffed with crims, then back to the mud village.

Maybe it’s intended as a kind of parody of the Stations of the Cross but it’s more like Waiting For Godot in that, at every one of his stopping points he loses a belonging: his missal, his smart clothes, his wine, finally the last scraps of writing he has. He staggers blindly scores of miles accompanied by an Indian woman he can’t communicate with, who’s carrying the corpse of her three year-old son, murdered by some Yankee gunshooter. Slowly, steadily the protagonist is humiliated and stripped of all dignity until he is reduced to a bestial level, sucking the moisture from his wet trousers, fighting with a crippled dog about a bone with some raw meat still on it.

The text is divided into four parts, the first and longest two describing his steady deterioration on the run. In part three there is an interlude: he stumbles over a civilised plantation run by two German Lutherans, where is is fed and rested and recuperates. He is given money and food and is actually on the mule which will take him north to the city in the next state, to safety and lights and civilisation, when the mestizo from earlier in the novel appears like an evil daemon to tell him the Yankee gunshooter is lying dying and has asked for confession. He knows it is a trap, but the whisky priest goes, nonetheless.

It is a trap – the Yankee is there but dies absurdly without giving confession or receiving the last rites. In every possible way Greene makes his priest a failure. The army lieutenant, who was lying in wait, takes him back to the capital, they have some pseudo-philosophical discussions, but then the priest is locked in a cell to drink the last of the brandy and cry with fear.

Part Four uses the same technique as the final part of A Gun For Sale, namely it’s a short round-up of the fate of all the minor characters in the text: which has the modishly distancing affect of showing that life goes on (in what Greene sees as its silly tawdry way): Captain and Mrs Fellows bicker about whether to go back to England; the unnamed peasant mother finishes reading the life of a young martyr to her impressionable children. The heart of this alienation or distancing technique, is that Mr Tench the dentist who we met on the first page, is doing dental work of the chief of police at the moment the whisky priest is executed, and we witness the execution through his eyes, as he looks down from the chief’s office into the courtyard.

And in the final paragraphs, late one night, to the house of the believing woman, arrives in the final sentences of the novel – another anonymous priest. The Church’s work goes on! Although I didn’t enjoy a lot of what went before, the sheer theatricality of these final passages and the boom boom ending give a rewarding sense of completeness.

Characters

Greene is skilled at creating vivid characters with deft pen portraits of their physical appearances.

The lieutenant walked in front of his men with an air of bitter distaste. He might have been chained to them unwillingly – perhaps the scar on his jaw was the relic of an escape. His gaiters were polished, and his pistol-holster: his buttons were all sewn on. He had a sharp crooked nose jutting out of a lean dancer’s face; his neatness gave an effect of inordinate ambition in the shabby city. (p20)

The Chief of Police came breezily in, a stout man with a pink fat face, dressed in white flannels with a wide-awake hat and a cartridge-belt and a big pistol clapping his thigh. He held a handkerchief to his mouth: he was in distrees. ‘Toothache again,’ he said. (p.21)

The old man sat [the renegade priest] on a packing-case in the little dry patio. He was very fat and short of breath; he panted a little as if after great exertion in the heat… He wore only a shirt and trousers; his feet were bare, but there remained something unmistakably clerical in his manner. Forty years of the priesthood had branded him. (p.28)

[The mestizo] was wearing a shirt, a pair of white trousers, and gym shoes through which one big toe showed – plump and yellow like something which lives underground. He scratched himself under the armpits and came chummily up to the priest’s stirrup. (p.86)

On the first floor a man dressed in formal dark trousers and a white skin-tight vest came out of a bedroom with a towel over his shoulder. He had a little grey aristocratic beard and he wore braces as well as a belt. (p.106)

Theology and existentialism

I’m not interested in the Catholic ‘theology’. In Greene’s hands it’s mostly morbid self-pity dressed up as principle. Eg:

Why should anyone listen to his prayers? Sin was a constriction which prevented their escape; he could feel his prayers weigh him down like undigested food. (p.151)

‘Theologically’, I think this is meaningless. Dramatically, it is yet another of the thousands of ways, of phrases, Greene uses to make the priest feel sorry for himself.

I was more struck by the way the novel creates an archetypal landscape, a symbolic landscape, depicting man’s abandonment in a godless universe etc, a very existentialist notion, very of its time, very dated. And an idea, like many of the others in the book, which is rammed home by repetition.

He bellowed after [the departing boat], but it wasn’t any good: there was no sign of a [anaesthetising] cylinder anywhere on the quay. He shouted once again, and then didn’t trouble any more. It didn’t matter so much after all: a little additional pain was hardly noticeable in the general abandonment. (p.18)

He knew what it meant: the ship had kept to timetable: he was abandoned. (p.19)

Their little shameless voices filled the patio, and he smiled humbly and sketched small gestures for silence, and there was no respect anywhere left for him in his home, in the town, in the whole abandoned star. (p.30)

There was a sense of abandonment, as if he had given up every struggle from now on and lay there a victim of some power…(p.96)

It was an odd thing that ever since that hot and crowded night in the cell he had passed into a region of abandonment… (p.147)

It was loneliness he felt now – even the face had gone, he was moving alone across thatblank white sheet, gong deeper every moment into the abandoned land. (p.157)

His head drooped between his knees; he looked as if he had abandoned everything and been abandoned. (p.205)

Greene manufactures characters by giving them a handful of fictitious memories which the text then adverts to again and again to create a spurious sense of personality. Something similar might be said of the ‘themes’ of the novel: that repeating them is an attempt to deepen them, to give them more meaning. Not for me. They remain outdated clichés, like Dickens’ sexless heroines or Fielding’s hearty squires: they are sociological constructs of the era – the conflicted 1930s – which we look back at with interest and detachment.

The Greene Creeps

Greene is never happier than when nosing out pain and suffering and humiliation and shame and embarrassment and squalor and seediness and sexual failure and bitten fingernails and balding scalps and bad teeth and then recklessly using these as ‘proof’ of the whole universe’s beastly heartlessness.

[His father’s dental cast] had been [Trench’s] favourite toy: they tries to tempt him with meccano, but fate had struck. There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. The hot wet river-port and the vultures lay in the wastepaper basket, and he picked them out. We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere. (p.12)

It infuriated [the lieutenant] to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy – a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew. (p.25)

The novel gives hundreds of instances, great and small, of people’s shabby physical appearance and sordid behaviour. A high/low point in Greene’s love of the squalid is when the priest is stuffed into a prison cell crammed with people and reeking from the overflowing bucket of faeces, and he hears the unmistakable moaning of a woman as somewhere in the filthy stinking darkness a couple have sex.

Details

I don’t much like the lengthy theological self-pity, and find a lot of the dwelling on squalor so pathological as to be unintentionally funny. But what I enjoy most about Greene’s novels is the attention to detail: the deft character creation from a few strokes, the handful of details which create a locale, the steady stream of arresting details. Details expressed in clear, uninflected language, details which leap from the page carrying complete conviction, details which indicate how deeply Greene has imagined the scene.

Suddenly, out of the forest, a hundred yards away, an officer rode. In the absolute stillness you could hear the creaking of his revolver-holster as he turned and waved. (p.72)

A rout of pigs came rushing round the corner of a hut, taking no notice of anybody. The soldier finished his puttee and stood up. The sunlight coming up above the forest winked on the bottles of the gaseosa stall. (p.77)

The mestizo watched the mules pick their way along the narrow stony path with a look of wistful greed; they disappeared round a shoulder of rock – crack, crack, crack, the sound of their hooves contracted into silence. (p.184)

As Evelyn Waugh pointed out: Greene has a very unsensual use of language, no particular use of symbolism, no unusual vocabulary. All is plain and blunt and limpid. It is the arrangement of the aperçus, of the detailing, their quick juxtaposition, the lack of linking passages, almost like cuts between shots in a movie, which give Greene’s prose its imaginative power.

Related links

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Power and The Glory: illustration by Paul Hogarth

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Power and The Glory, illustration by Paul Hogarth

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 Last Tycoon by F.Scott Fitzgerald (1941)

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on 21 December 1940. He was just 44 years old. He left unfinished his final novel, The Last Tycoon, which was published posthumously in 1941. He had shot to fame aged just 24 with the super-romantic This Side of Paradise (1920), followed two years later by The Beautiful and Damned, and a steady stream of short stories about the bright young things of Manhattan which helped define the Roaring Twenties, a brittle doomed mood he captured in with his best-known book, The Great Gatsby (1925). A difficult decade followed as America was hit by the Wall Street Crash and Depression, Fitzgerald’s partying slid into alcoholism and his marriage to Zelda hit the rocks as she experienced increasingly severe psychological problems. It was nine long difficult years before he published his last completed novel, Tender Is The Night, in 1934, to mixed reviews.

The Last Tycoon

The 1941 edition of the novel was assembled from surviving manuscripts and fragments by his friend, the critic Edmund Wilson and, 70 years on, is the version still published by Penguin. It is a short 150 pages long, divided into half a dozen chapters, themselves spliced together from short scenes, before the text breaks down in mid-paragraph, and the remaining 40 pages are made up of a synopsis of the rest of the plot pieced together from various sources, a letter to an agent sketching the plot, a diagram Fitzgerald left, and then increasingly fragmentary bits until it is just individual sentences from the notebooks.

In 1994 Cambridge University press published a version which included significantly more scholarly apparatus, more fragments, reordered part of the text and restored Fitzgerald’s preferred title, The Love of The Last Tycoon.

Plot

The plot is simple as a fairy story. It is 1935 (not long after the introduction of talkies in the late 1920s) and Monroe Stahr (based on the film executive Irving Thalberg) is the boy wonder executive at a big Hollywood studio. Stahr is phenomenally capable, supervising numerous films simultaneously, handling moaning actors, incompetent directors, drunken writers. All the while he nurses the hurt that his beautiful film star wife, Minna Davis, died and abandoned him. And another secret: two different doctors have told him that his time is limited. He has heart disease. He is going to die.

Stahr closed his eyes and opened them again. Zavras’ silhouette had blurred a little against the sun. He hung onto the table behind him and said in an ordinary voice.
‘Good luck, Pete.’
The room was almost black, but he made his feet move, following a pattern, into his office and waited till the door clicked shut before he felt for the pills. the water decanter clettered against the table; the glass clacked. He sat down in a big chair, waiting for the benzedrine to take effect before he went to dinner. (Ch 4)

(‘Clacked’? A characteristic Fitzgerald touch.) One day, during an ominous and allegorical earthquake which causes some damage on the sets, he sees the spitting image of his lost wife. The rest of the fragment describes his pursuit of her, variously named in the fragments Kathleen or Thalia.

Point of view

Interestingly, there are two points of view: the opening chapter and some subsequent episodes are told through the eyes of the daughter of one of Stahr’s business partners, Cecilia or Celia Brady. She loves Stahr from afar and takes a passionate interest in his doings but, though only ten years or so older than her, Stahr is in a different stratosphere, with inconceivable pressures and problems. All the other scenes are told by a traditional omniscient narrator. The only other novel I can think of which does this is Dickens’s Bleak House. Fitzgerald doesn’t handle the switch with subtlety: ‘This is Celia taking up the narrative in person…’

Fitzgerald in Hollywood

Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood in 1937 and, although he continued to make most of his income from short stories he went to get involved in the film industry. He spent some time working on scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, including some unfilmed work on Gone with the Wind, a project about Madame Curie, a complete script titled infidelity and so on. In 1939, MGM ended the contract and Fitzgerald struggled on as a freelance screenwriter.

Like Chandler, Fitzgerald is aware of the depth to which movies enter people’s souls, affecting their thought patterns and behaviour: entire generations have modelled their hairstyles, clothes, look and dialogue on the super-sharp figures on the silver screen. Thus Cecilia, fantasising about getting Stahr to love her, realises her deepest ideas about love might themselves have been formed by the man she is pursuing:

I still like to think that if he’d been a poor boy and nearer my age I could have managed it, but of course the real truth was that I had nothing to offer that he didn’t have; some of my more romantic ideas actually stemmed from pictures – 42nd Street, for example, had a great influence on me. It’s more than possible that some of the pictures which Stahr himself conceived had shaped me into what I was. (Ch 1)

Though a fragment, the novel paints a vivid, detailed and persuasive portrait of a wunderkind Hollywood studio head. Stahr is seen from all angles and portrayed as a demi-god, the last of Fitzgerald’s sequence of hero-worshipped leading men.

Though Stahr’s education was founded on nothing more than a night-school course in stenography, he had a long time ago run ahead through trackless wastes of perception into fields where very few men were able to follow him. (Ch 1)

The omniscient narrator places him in numerous professional situations, managing directors, designers, actors and actresses and writers. He is described as, and we see the evidence that he is, a master of his trade.

Stahr was a marker in industry like Edison and Lumiere and Griffith and Chaplin. He led pictures way up past the range and power of the theatre, reaching a sort of golden age. (Ch 3)

Celia is important because she adds a different angle and point of view from the omniscient narrator. Because she has a passionate crush on the great man she allows Fitzgerald to indulge the Ivy League golden boy tones of his early work, mixed with Ayn Rand-like admiration for the superman. She is the device which allows Fitzgerald freedom to write at his most gushing:

Stahr had flown up very high to see, on strong wings, when he was young. And while he was up there he had looked on all the kingdoms, with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun. Beating his wings tenaciously – even frantically – and keeping on beating them, he had stayed up there longer than most of us, and then, remembering all he had seen from his great height of how things were, he had settled gradually to earth. (Ch 1)

These two points of view, plus the sheer number of scenes in which we see him in action, build up a fascinating portrait of an American mogul. The steady accumulation of detailed descriptions of the minute-by-minute work and decisions and the decisive management of people and deadlines and material and technology are the reason people still call it the best novel ever written about Hollywood.

The first dictagraph messages blew in through the warm morning. While he shaved and had coffee, he talked and listened. Robby [the studio fixer who put in a full day the day before] had left a message: ‘If Mr Stahr wants me tell him to hell with it I’m in bed.’ An actor was sick or thought so; the Governor of California was bringing a party out; a supervisor had beaten up his wife for the prints and must be ‘reduced to a writer’… There was early snow on a location in Canada with the company already there – Stahr raced over the possibilities of salvage, reviewing the story of the picture. (Ch 3)

In fact chapters three and four consist solely of a prolonged account of one day in the life of the head of a Hollywood studio and make fascinating reading.  Raymond Chandler made his bitter hatred of Hollywood and its lousy morals abundantly clear in his sequence of Philip Marlowe novels. But Fitzgerald, despite his own adverse experiences, has nothing but admiration and respect for the talent and skill and hard work that went into the movies. Although he sounds a little world-weary, he is never cynical.

Style

Fitzgerald’s early style was a wonderfully starry-eyed youthful romanticism. The first two novels tell the story of very young men and women falling in love in the privileged world of East Coast Ivy league universities. But it was always an uneven style, with the odd use of words and bumpinesses of phrasing. Nowhere near as simplified and mannered as Hemingway, nor as curt and crisp as Chandler’s pulp style.

In this, his final, text he combines practical A to B prose, with romantic phraseology, and a stream of wonderfully expressed psychological insights, especially about love. He is old-fashioned. He uses ‘whom’ a lot, twisting sentences round to fit it. Various things are brought ‘forth’. Chandler would puke.

From where he stood (and though he was not a tall man, it always seemed high up) he watched the multitudinous practicalities of his world like a proud young shepherd to whom night and day had never mattered. (Ch 1)

Fitzgerald persistently uses words oddly, almost as malapropisms. ‘Multitudinous’? Not wrong, just unexpected. He has a strangely-angled vision of the English language and I can see why he might have struggled to produce the straight-shooting dialogue which movies require and Chandler covers whole pages with. In the ‘Stahr had flown’ quote, above, the use of ‘tenaciously’ and ‘frantically’ are not quite right and yet the force of the image overcomes the slight hesitancy of its expression. That sense of something not quite expressed right occurs on every page. But at the same time these slight unexpectednesses, the possible malapropisms, work to create odd insights:

‘Mr Stahr’s Projection Room’ was a miniature picture theatre with four rows of overstuffed chairs… Here Stahr sats at two-thirty and again at six-thirty watching the lengths of film taken during the day. There was often a savage tensity about the occasion – he was dealing with faits accomplis – the net results of months of buying, planning, writing and rewriting, casting, constructing, lighting, reshearsing, and shooting – the fruit of brilliant hunches or of counsels of despair, of lethargy, conspiracy, and sweat. (Ch 4)

‘Tensity’?

Something else again happens in the central sections of the text, the marvellous scenes where Stahr drives Kathleen, the image of his dead wife, up to his half-built millionaire house near the sea and there, in the half-built house, their souls meet and mingle, and then they go down to the shore to watch a local phenomenon, the night-time inrush of silver fish, and have a strange midnight encounter with a black man who is capturing the fish. That the star-crossed lovers might find themselves on a romantic outcrop over the sea is Hollywood ie expected. The strangeness of the mood, and the very strange but intensely memorable scene with the black fisherman on the beach, has all the weirdness of real life and a pregnancy of meaning which makes it literature. The next day Stahr wonders if it even happened:

Was it a trick? As the whole vision of the last night came back to him – the very skin with that peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it – he thought whether it might not be a trick to reach him from somewhere. Not Minna and yet Minna. The curtains blew suddenly into the room, the papers whispered on his desk, and his heart cringed faintly at the intense reality of the day outside his window. If he could go out now this way, what would happen if he saw her again – the starry veiled expression, the mouth strongly formed for poor brave human laughter. (Ch 4)

The papers whispering, his heart cringing… these phrases are slightly heckneyed – but they come from a more innocent time, a less knowing time, a more forgiving time. Right to the end Fitzgerald wasn’t afraid to be starry-eyed, romantic.

Probably because I’ve been reading him recently, the love scenes remind me of DH Lawrence, specifically the way the thing that passes between Stahr and Kathleen is seen as a force bigger than them, and is identified with Life. Lawrence died in 1930 but his influence was immense among intellectuals looking for a purer life of feeling and freedom. This is from the scene where Stahr tracks down and meets the woman who he had glimpsed the day before, and whose likeness to his dead wife haunts him:

There she was – face and form and smile against the light from inside. It was Minna’s face – the skin with its peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it, the mouth with its warm line that never counted costs – and over all the haunting jollity that had fascinated a generation.
With a leap his heart went out of him as it had the night before, only this time it stayed out with a vast beneficence…
Stahr’s eyes and Kathleen’s met and tangled. For an instant they made love as no one ever dares to do after. Their glance was slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call.
Stahr interrupted… but there were no words for what he really said. She listened closely without shame. Life flared high in them both… (Ch 4)

 ‘With a vast beneficence’? ‘Slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call’? You can hear his friend Hemingway chortling at the clumsy phrasing, his rival Hollywood hack Chandler sneering at Fitzgerald’s naive romanticism.

We’ll never know whether the finished novel would have hung together – and in his surviving outline the latter part of the plot becomes surprisingly convoluted – but this unfinished text contains numerous powerfully written scenes which shine with Fitzgerald’s undying sense of awe and wonder.

There is never a time when a studio is absolutely quiet. There is always a night shift of technicians in the laboratory and dubbing rooms and people on the maintenance staff dropping in at the commissary. But the sounds are all different – the padded hush of tyres, the quiet tick of a motor running idle, the naked cry of a soprano singing into a nightbound microphone. Around a corner I came upon a man in rubber boots washing down a car in a wonderful white light – a fountain among the dead industrial shadows. (Ch 2)

Cover of 'The Last Tycoon'

Cover of ‘The Last Tycoon’

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Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (1940)

‘For a private dick you certainly have a wandering kind of mind.’ (Chapter 24)

Chandler’s second novel is significantly longer than the first – 41 chapters agaist 32, 200 pages of dense type compared to 160. More happens and a lot of that more is Marlowe getting beaten up: he is knocked unconscious twice, strangled, checked in by unfriendly police to a private hospital where he is pumped full of dope (heroine?), threatened, shot at and makes a number of hair-raising escapes.

There’s the familiar but ever-wonderful mix of smart-arse similes and tough-guy attitude.

Tough guy

I used my knee on his face. It hurt my knee. He didn’t tell me whether it hurt his face.

He lay smeared to the ground, on his back, at the base of a bush, in that bag-of-clothes position that always means the same thing. (Ch 11)

He had a battered face that looked like it had been hit by everything but the bucket of a dragline. It was scarred, flattened, thickened, chequered and welted. It was a face that had nothing to fear. Everything had been done to it that anyone could think of. (Ch 2)

He had a gun in the drawer of course. They always have a gun in the drawer and they always get it too late, if they get it at all. (Ch 27)

This attitude we take for granted. For the seventy years since Chandler’s debut crime fiction, movies and TV have swamped us with images of tough guys, real men, American heroes. The attitude isn’t so new or impressive. What remains immensely impressive is the style and the wit.

Similes

The text is awash with plenty of florid comparisons, including probably the most-quoted one from any of  his works:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula  on a slice of angel food. (Chapter 1)

The big man purred softly, like four tigers after dinner. (Ch 1)

The handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly. (Ch 8)

The smile fell off his face like a soiled rag. (Ch 27)

Spliced plots

But mostly this greater length gives Chandler an opportunity to try out more and a lot of this more is more plotting, as a series of apparent coincidences intertwine into a really knotty sequence of complications. It explains a lot to learn that Chandler created his novels by splicing together the short stories he’d been writing since the early 30s; Farewell, My Lovely splices together three completely unrelated stories (Try the Girl, Mandarin’s Jade and The Man Who Liked Dogs) and then has fun trying to paper over the joins. The final chapter is devoted to Marlowe and his girl talking through the motives of everyone involved so that they make sense. I’m not sure they ever do. Still:

a) Improbably convoluted plots are a feature of ‘pulp’ fiction (as of opera). Pulp means crude. Everything is cranked up. Broads are in peril. Bad guys reach for their guns. The cops are corrupt. Rich guys can buy anything. Entire cities are owned by hoods. Jewels. Drugs. And, in the same way, plots are garish and vivid, throwing up corpses and gambling dens and spooky private clinics and car chases and gorgeous blondes coolly smoking and lots and lots of scenes in police stations.

b) Not only are the plots improbably convoluted, but they know they are improbably convoluted. The people caught up in them point it out. When Harry Jones is leading up to the revelation he hopes Marlowe will pays him 2 Cs for, he himself says ‘Act One’ and then recounts the build-up; then announces ‘Act Two’ for the important sequence of events. In a tell-tale moment in The Big Sleep, when Marlowe has to find an isolated house near an isolated garage out on some canyon road, Chandler simply has his car get a puncture just around the right place, and remarks, ‘Fate stage-managed the whole thing. (Ch 27)’ No. the author stage-managed the whole thing. There are a number of references to Shakespeare in FML: ‘My God,’ she wailed. ‘You look like Hamlet’s father.’ (Ch 27)

c) In the penultimate chapter (40) Marlowe and his squeeze, Anne Riordan, settle down with a scotch apiece to try and piece together the multiple events and disconnected fragments which make up the narrative we’ve just read. They start by parodying the ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’ set-up, joking that they ought to be at a dinner party in a country house, surrounded by servants and an odd assortment of guests one of whom is the murderer, until the butler faints and all is revealed!! Except, says Marlow:

‘It’s not that kind of story. It’s not lithe and clever. It’s just dark and full of blood.’

Except, you know what? It is lithe and clever, very lithe and very clever, the three stories like three snakes which dance around each other, the style very highly-wrought and knowing. And also – not that full of blood. In this long novel five people are murdered (the manager of Jovian’s, Marriott, Mrs Jovian, Moose, the cop in the final chapter) only one of which you actually see, the other four being static descriptions of corpses or remote accounts. So: light on actual murder scenes. Vastly more effort is put by Chandler into his stylish similes and longer, poetic descriptions, and by the character Marlowe into his snappy banter, sometimes so much effort it’s difficult to follow what he and the hood or cop or blonde are talking about.

Style over plot

So it comes as no surprise at all to read this quote from RC:

‘My whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn’t matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style.’

It gives the author’s imprimatur to what is clear already from sentence after wonderful sentence throughout the text. Chandler isn’t about plot or even attitude, which is the dime-a-dozen pupl tough guy attitude: Chandler is about style.

The most often noted aspect of his style is the bottomless well of smart analogies:

Clever

The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk. (Ch 3)

The voice dragged itself out of her throat like a sick man getting out of bed. (Ch 5)

The coffee shop smell was strong enough to build a garage on. (Ch 13)

To be fair, not all of them work;  sometimes they can come over as cheap and contrived:

Contrived

Then suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully. (Ch 5)

Thick cunning played on her face, had no fun there and went somewhere else. (Ch 5)

He came back softly, holding his pork pie under his arm, debonair as a French count in a college play. (Ch 30)

But other times they can be eerily accurate, saying something deeper than the immediate occasion demands, suggesting the ‘literary surplus’ which I referred to in my previous post, that extra something over and above what the situation requires:

True

Her eyes were a dead grey, like half-frozen water. (Ch 40)

The motor sounded like a small car. It had that contented sound that comes with moisture in the air. (Ch 10)

The boat slid up and down the swell now with a sinister smoothness, like a cobra dancing. (Ch 35)

I sat there and puffed my pipe and listened to the clacking typewriter behind the wall of the office and the bong-bong of the traffic lights changing on Hollywood Boulevard and spring rustling in the air, like a paper bag blowing along a concrete sidewalk. (Ch 14)

Stream of consciousness

But it also gives Chandler the opportunity to do more ‘literature’. Not once but several times Chandler treats us to quite a few pages of stream-of-consciousness. Was this ‘invented’ by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf as my teachers told me? Whatever, by 1940 it was common currency, available as a technique to anyone who felt the need. After he has been knocked unconscious in some deserted canyon, chapter 10 opens with a tour de force of internal monologue as Marlowe, confused and disorientated, slowly regains consciousness:

I put my right hand back on the ground and took the left off and swivelled it around until I could see my watch. The illuminated dial showed 10.56, as nearly as I could focus on it. The call had come at 10.08. Marriott had talked maybe two minutes. Another four had got us out of the house. Time passes very slowly when you are actually doing something. I mean, you can go through a lot of movements in very few minutes. Is that what I mean? What the hell do I care what I mean? Okey, better men than me have meant less.

OK it’s not Virginia Woolf. It’s more Chandler having fun performing variations on the usually sober linear narrative. Exactly the same happens when he wakes up 50 pages later having been incarcerated in a private clinic and injected with heroine – his disorientation allows Chandler to try out more rhetorical tricks and we can enjoy a master of English prose performing like a seal at the zoo:

Time passed again. I don’t know how long. I had no watch. They don’t make that kind of time in watches anyway… Half an hour of walking and my knees were shaking but my head was clear… I walked back to the bed. It was a lovely bed. It was made of rose-leaves. It was the most beautiful bed in the world. They had got it from Carole Lombard. It was too soft for her. It was worth the rest of my life to lie down in it for two minutes. Beautiful soft bed, beautiful sleep, beautiful eyes closing and lashes falling and the gentle sound of breathing and darkness and rest sunk in deep pillows… (Ch 25)

Part of what makes the books so enjoyable is sharing Chandler’s sense of playfulness. Despite a few corpses these are essentially comic books where the detective comes through just fine and all the loose ends are sown up but the comedy is in the knowing, rich, muscular, always humorous prose. There are numerous passages of pure descriptive pleasure:

I walked on slowly. Beyond the electroliers, beyond the beat and toot of the small sidewalk cars, beyond the smell of hot fat and popcorn and the shrill children and the barkers in the peep shows, beyond everything but the smell of the ocean and the suddenly clear line of the shore and the creaming fall of the waves into the pebbled spume. I walked almost alone now. The noises died behind me, the hot dishonest light became a fumbling glare. Then the lightless finger of a black pier jutted seaward into the dark. This would be the one. I turned to go onto it. (Ch 36)

And then – in among all the tough guy attitude and hard-cop banter and florid similes and blondes and gats and dope – there is something else peeking through. Something deeper, which finds expression in simple words arranged into haunting rhythms, something I think we’re justified in calling poetry.

It got darker. I thought; and thought in my mind moved with a kind of sluggish stealthiness, as if it was being watched by bitter and sadistic eyes. (Ch 34)


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