Perelandra by C. S. Lewis (1943)

As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it also is dreadful?

This is the second in C.S. Lewis’s theological science fiction trilogy, which consists of:

  • Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
  • Perelandra (also known as Voyage to Venus) (1943)
  • That Hideous Strength (1945)

A recap of Out of The Silent Planet

In the first novel the Cambridge philologist, Ransom, was kidnapped by the physicist Weston and his partner Devine, and flown in their space ship all the way to Mars. Escaping from his captors Ransom discovers that Mars is inhabited by three very different but intelligent life forms who have forged a peaceful working relationship – the Pfifltriggi, the Hrossa, and the Sorns.

Elwin (it’s only in this second book that we learn his first name) Ransom – being a philologist by trade – swiftly learns the language of Mars which is called Hressa-Hlab. he also learns fellowship from the otter-like hrossa, hears wisdom from the tall, willowy sorns, and is taken to the sanctuary of the master spirit or oyarsa who rules Mars which, he learns, is called Malacandra in the local language.

Ransom also learns:

  • That what humans take to be the empty space between planets is in reality teeming with spirits which the human eye can barely detect, named eldila. What humans call space should really be referred to as ‘Deep Heaven’.
  • That each planet in the solar system (or ‘Field of Arbol’ as it is called) is ruled by a kind of tutelary spirit and that these spirits can communicate across space.
  • But that some kind of primeval disaster afflicted the Earth way back in its history, so that its spirit became wicked, or ‘bent’ as the hnau (intelligent creatures) of Mars put it. Hence Earth’s name in their culture is Thulcandra, which means ‘the silent planet’. (And hence the title of the book, ‘Out of The Silent Planet’.)
  • Thus Earth has been ‘enemy’-occupied territory since before history began (Chapter 15).
  • Movement in and out of the silent planet was banned eons ago, to prevent the rest of the solar system from becoming ‘infected’ with its wickedness.

It is symptomatic of Lewis’s goal of sacramentalising the universe that he says we must learn to refer to space not as ‘space’ – it is not empty space – it is teeming with mystical life forms and replenishing energy – it should be referred to as ‘Deep Heaven’.

Looming behind and above the eldila and each planet’s oyarsa appears to be the highest power of all, which the hnau refer to as Maleldil. It isn’t made totally explicit, but I think we are meant to take this to mean ‘God’.

Towards the end of Out of the Silent Planet the baddies Weston and Devine force their way into the sanctuary of the tutelary spirit, Oyarsa, and, after disarming them, Oyarsa tells them he will send them back to Earth. Ransom is given the choice whether to stay or to go, and reluctantly agrees to return with them.

All the way home, on what turns out to be a gruelling journey, the humans are watched over by eldila who will, Oyarsa tells them, decompose/destroy their space ship within minutes of its safe arrival – to prevent their ever returning.

The space ship just about makes it back to Earth, despite running low on food, water, oxygen and flying so close to the sun that Ransom fears the three men’s sight will be permanently damaged. Ransom clambers out of the ship’s manhole cover-type hatch into good old, pouring English rain and stumbles to the nearest pub (the ship has, of course, landed in rural England) where he asks for a pint of good old English beer!

Lewis in the postscript

But of all the strange things that happened in Out of The Silent Planet, for me the strangest was the postscript in which it is revealed that the narrator all along has been named ‘Lewis’, that this ‘Lewis’ is a friend of Ransom’s, and that ‘Lewis’ has agreed to write up this account of Ransom’s adventures, changing his (Ransom’s) name, and simplifying other matters, in order to make it into a publishable book.

Thus, right at the very end the text includes a letter supposedly from ‘Ransom’ politely objecting to some of the simplifications which ‘Lewis’ has made in order to lay the tale before the public.

Perelandra

Anyway, if you hadn’t read Out of the Silent Planet it hardly matters, since almost all of this material is recapped at the start of this, the second book in the series. Once again we are in the mind of the first-person narrator, ‘Lewis’, as he walks through the gathering darkness of a summer evening towards Ransom’s remote cottage, where Ransom has invited him to come and meet him.

But as he walks towards the cottage, Lewis finds himself experiencing a mounting sense of terror, as well as all kinds of hysterical fears – of the dark itself, and a sudden fear that Ransom is maybe not on the side of the angels, but has been recruited by the Dark Side of the universe to wreak harm on earth. By the time Lewis arrives at the cottage he feels almost hysterical, and feels a physical force barring his way, as if every forward step is having to be fought for.

Finding Ransom out, Lewis lets himself into the cottage. A little later Ransom returns and cheerily explains that, yes, the house is under attack by dark forces, by ‘bent’ terrestrial eldila. it was they who placed all those terrifying thoughts in Lewis’s mind to stop them meeting. Ah. That explains the vivid fears Lewis has shared with us readers.

And it is an oblique comment on the period when the book was written. In chapter 15 we learn the story is set in 1942, a dark time for Lewis and his British readers.

Now Ransom also explains that the big, coffin-sized object in the hallway of his cottage is some kind of extra-terrestrial transport device. It turns out that Oyarsa has been in contact and told him (Ransom) that he is going to be sent on a mission to Venus, or Perelandra as it’s known by the hnau.

Why? Ransom is not sure but thinks it’s because the dark archon, the bent oyarsa of Thulcandra, is planning some kind of attack on Venus. Obviously not in person, since he cannot pass beyond the orbit of the moon without being repulsed by the other oyarsa and eldila (as explained earlier). So he must be planning to use some other means – and Ransom is being sent to thwart them.

Ransom and Lewis then carry the coffin-shaped object, made of some ice-cold white material, out into the garden, Ransom strips naked, climbs into it, Lewis places the lid on top, and – it vanishes.

A little over a year passes, with all the ongoing threats and alarms of war briefly referred to, and then Lewis receives a message from Oyarsa (he doesn’t dwell on how) and hurries down to Ransom’s cottage, accompanied by a mutual friend who is a doctor.

They stand in Ransom’s overgrown garden as a casket-shaped thing is briefly silhouetted against the sun, then glides down at their feet. They open the lid to discover Ransom nude and covered in what appear to be red flower petals, but:

glowing with health and rounded with muscle and seemingly ten years younger. In the old days he had been beginning to show a few grey hairs; but now the beard which swept his chest was pure gold

The canny reader instantly suspects that, whatever tribulations Ransom might have gone through on his year-long trip into space, Lewis is going to emphasise the fundamental justness, beauty and healthiness of the universe. Although we have no inkling of just how much he is going to do that.

Once he has awoken and had a wash and shave and gotten dressed and been thoroughly checked over by the doctor, Ransom is ready to tell his story, thus:

Ransom lands and finds the Lady

The first thing he remembers is awaking to find the coffin-spaceship disintegrating and throwing him into an enormous sea amid vast waves as big as mountains under a multi-coloured sky.

The waves tower as high as alps then plunge again, but the sea is warm and the sky is the colour of gold. Eventually he sees a huge mat-like material going past on the surface of the sea, swims towards it, clambers ‘ashore’, and falls asleep.

When he awakes he is in a kind of wonderland of beauty, sweet scents, delicious colours, wonderful food.

The world had no size now. Its boundaries were the length and breadth of his own body and the little patch of soft fragrance which made his hammock, swaying ever more and more gently. Night covered him like a blanket and kept all loneliness from him. The blackness might have been his own room. Sleep came like a fruit which falls into the hand almost before you have touched the stem.

He discovers that the mat is big, big enough to contain woods and clearings, it lies flat on the surface of the gently undulating sea, and it is – a form of paradise.

Over his head there hung from a hairy tube-like branch a great spherical object, almost transparent, and shining. It held an area of reflected light in it and at one place a suggestion of rainbow colouring. So this was the explanation of the glass-like appearance in the wood. And looking round he perceived innumerable shimmering globes of the same kind in every direction. He began to examine the nearest one attentively. At first he thought it was moving, then he thought it was not. Moved by a natural impulse he put out his hand to touch it. Immediately his head, face, and shoulders were drenched with what seemed (in that warm world) an ice-cold shower bath, and his nostrils filled with a sharp, shrill, exquisite scent that somehow brought to his mind the verse in Pope, ‘die of a rose in aromatic pain.’ Such was the refreshment that he seemed to himself to have been, till now, but half awake. When he opened his eyes – which had closed involuntarily at the shock of moisture – all the colours about him seemed richer and the dimness of that world seemed clarified. A re-enchantment fell upon him.

In fact Ransom quickly learns that it really is paradise, for on another ‘island’ floating nearby he sees a human form which, when the ‘islands’ drift closer, he realises is a full-grown naked woman coloured green.

They wave at each other until Ransom nerves himself to take a risk and plunges into the sea to swim over to her island and…

Realises he really is in the garden of Eden. This woman is wonderfully simple, innocent, trusting and pure. The animals lovingly follow her. She has no ‘home’, there is no village or settlement, there are no ‘others’. Ransom quickly feels himself to be a blunt, ugly creature intruding into a world of prelapsarian harmony. Every single one of his questions prompts the lady to pause and think and he quickly realises that she is so innocent and unspoiled that even the sophisticated assumptions behind his questions are new and puzzling to her. He realises he must be careful, chaste, polite and restrained in what he tells her about the other worlds he knows about (Earth and Mars).

The only other one of her type she knows is ‘the King’, and she says she will take Ransom to meet him. The King is on the land of green pillars, which she points out. Ransom had glimpsed these pillars amid the floating islands, and now has it confirmed to him that they are on fixed dry land, marked by a set of enormous green columns towering into the air.

The lady calls dolphin-like creatures to the edge of their island and invites Ransom to climb astride one, as she does. The dolphins carry them to the island. They walk around it, Ransom delighting to be on good solid ground again. But then they see a black shape bobbing closer through the waves. It seems to be spherical in shape. Ransom has a bad feeling. It looks exactly like the spherical, steel and glass spaceship in which he, Weston and Devine flew to Malacandra in the first book. Is this the form the ‘attack’ is to take?

Yes it is. For indeed Weston comes towards the island rowing a little collapsible canoe. Up the beach he clambers and pulls a gun on Ransom, confirming the latter’s worst fears. However, the Lady has not, of course, seen a gun before. Lewis has painted such a convincing portrait of her complete innocence that we believe it when she simply walks away from the two strangers, down to the beach and takes a dolphin off the island.

Now during the lengthy conversations she and Ransom have had, she has let slip that Maleldil has given her everything she needs for a sweet life, but on one condition, with one rule to be obeyed – that she must not spend the night on the island, she must not sleep on solid ground.

Ransom (being a fallen human) is curious to find out why not. ‘Because it is His will,’ she replies, simply. All else is allowed, everything is free. But to show her obedience to her maker, to make that obedience light and free, there is just this one rule.

This explains why, with night coming on, the Green Lady had hastened down to the shore, quickly whistled up some dolphins (she is followed everywhere by admiring animals) and ridden off. Leaving Ransom to confront Weston.

Ransom and Weston’s theological argument

Now Ransom finds himself forced into an absurd theological argument. Here on the shore of an island among mountainous seas on a strange planet thirty million miles from home, he finds himself listening to a mad rhodomontade from Weston.

Perelandra was written at exactly the same time as Lewis was giving a series of BBC radio talks about religion (1941-44) which were gathered together into his most popular work of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity.

In his popular Christian works, Lewis not only defended Christian belief and put forward various (light and accessible) ‘philosophical’ arguments for Christianity, but also listed and attacked various ‘modern heresies’, i.e. types of contemporary belief which, he thought, were not only un-Christian but tended towards man’s unhappiness, if not the active promotion of evil.

So it is that he pro-Christian arguments and anti-‘heresy’ arguments which Lewis was working out at this period spill over into Perelandra. Or, probably more likely, he developed the arguments and counter-arguments, and then decided which would be appropriate for radio presentation and which would work best in a fictional setting. And also which could be shown in a fictional setting, such as the peace and harmony of all beings on a prelapsarian planet.

Anyway, it is obvious that Weston is made to represent what Lewis took to be the central strand of contemporary scientific and philosophical thought which he thought had brought the world to the disaster in which it found itself, had led to the rise of Fascism and Stalinism, and the plunging of the whole world into war.

Back in the first book, Weston had stood before the oyarsa of Malacandra and given a long speech declaring it was ‘man’s destiny’ to colonise the other planets of the solar system and then reach out into space. The implication – that ‘man’ would liquidate or take control of all the inhabitants of all the other planets of the solar system – was clearly depicted as totalitarian if not fascist in tone, a symptom of the disease afflicting the darkening world it was written in (1937-38).

Now Weston shows that he has adapted his beliefs and made them bigger. Previously he had talked about mankind. Now he claims that all organic life is driven by a ‘Spirit’, a Spirit which drove evolution from the very beginning, finding expression in higher and higher beings. This theory was known as ‘Creative Evolution’ and was very popular among the scientifically minded of Lewis’s day, among democrats and socialists who rejected orthodox religion, but still wished to find some kind of purpose or forward goal in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Ransom asks whether this ‘spirit’ is good or evil, but Weston sweeps the distinction aside, saying Ransom is too shackled by traditional religious dualisms. The spirit may take ‘good’ or ‘bad’ forms, it’s irrelevant, the thing is its forward, upward momentum, from triumph to triumph (echoing the triumphal rhetoric of the totalitarian states).

And he, Weston, now knows that he has been chosen as the vessel of the Spirit of Man, to take it to the next level. How? because he hears the Spirit speaking to him, whispering the secrets of the universe. The Spirit helped him create the space ship and it helped bring him here.

Now a notable thing about C.S. Lewis’s Christianity is that he took a great deal of Christian belief literally with a kind of bluff, hearty good sense – he took the stories of Jesus casting out devils, raising the dead and performing miracles, as literal truths – much to the scorn of his ‘sophisticated’ fellow dons at Oxford. But it was a simple. bluff, literal attitude which rang a bell among a less sophisticated public and made his radio broadcasts and theology books immensely popular.

Thus Lewis believed in a literal Devil who tempted people. Whereas sophisticated Oxford theologians argued that the devil and hell were allegories or symbols or psychological states, Lewis saw them as literal persons who you could meet and who could talk to you, persuade you, or possess you.

Thus the point of this scene in Perelandra is to show how Weston’s belief in the inexorable triumph of some amoral ‘Spirit of Man’ is not only a mistaken belief which results in shockingly immoral behaviour (Weston quite happily admits he would sell England to Nazi Germany if the Spirit told him), but is the result of Weston’s literal possession by an evil spirit.

And so, listening to Weston’s increasingly demented ranting, it dawns on Ransom that whole schools of modern thought might be heresies in the most literal sense – that they are inspired by the Devil.

That opposite mode of thought which he had often mocked and called in mockery The Empirical Bogey, came surging into his mind – the great myth of our century with its gases and galaxies, its light years and evolutions, its nightmare perspectives of simple arithmetic in which everything that can possibly hold significance for the mind becomes the mere by-product of essential disorder. Always till now he had belittled it, had treated with a certain disdain its flat superlatives, its clownish amazement that different things should be of different sizes, its glib munificence of ciphers.

In case there was any doubt about Weston’s demonic possession, Lewis makes it perfectly clear at the end of the scene when, as a result of Ransom’s persistent rejection of Weston’s arguments, the latter works himself up into a frenzy and then collapses and – for a moment – Ransom can see the helpless mortal man writhing in the grip of its evil demon and trying to escape.

‘Idiot,’ said Weston. His voice was almost a howl and he had risen to his feet. ‘Idiot,’ he repeated. ‘Can you understand nothing? Will you always try to press everything back into the miserable framework of your old jargon about self and self-sacrifice? That is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call that Force into me completely. . . .’

Then horrible things began happening. A spasm like that preceding a deadly vomit twisted Weston’s face out of recognition. As it passed, for one second something like the old Weston reappeared – the old Weston, staring with eyes of horror and howling, ‘Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake don’t let them…’ and instantly his whole body spun round as if he had been hit by a revolver-bullet and he fell to the earth, and was there rolling at Ransom’s feet, slavering and chattering and tearing up the moss by handfuls.

If this is like a scene from The Exorcist it is because Lewis did believe in literal devils and did believe they could literally possess people, as Weston is here, quite clearly, possessed.

His ‘wrong’ beliefs about the self-importance of Man, his denial of anything, any God or Moral Law beyond man, set him down the road to becoming the mortal instrument of spirits set on evil.

The result of this conversation, and of Weston’s collapse, is that Ransom spends the rest of the novel vividly aware that the thing he is facing is not human and this is conveyed with a real thrill of horror.

The thing sat down close to the Lady’s head on the far side of her from Ransom. If you could call it sitting down. The body did not reach its squatting position by the normal movements of a man: it was more as if some external force manoeuvred it into the right position and then let it drop. It was impossible to point to any particular motion which was definitely non-human. Ransom had the sense of watching an imitation of living motions which had been very well studied and was technically correct: but somehow it lacked the master touch. And he was chilled with an inarticulate, night-nursery horror of the thing he had to deal with – the managed corpse, the bogey, the Un-man.

The garden of Eden

What if earth had once also been a paradise? What if that is why the sights and smells and sounds of Perelandra seem not only sweet to Lewis, but deep, as if they recalled ancestral experiences from the origins of his race?

It was strange to be filled with homesickness for places where his sojourn had been so brief and which were, by any objective standard, so alien to all our race. Or were they? The cord of longing which drew him to the invisible isle seemed to him at that moment to have been fastened long, long before his coming to Perelandra, long before the earliest times that memory could recover in his childhood, before his birth, before the birth of man himself, before the origins of time. It was sharp, sweet, wild, and holy, all in one, and in any world where men’s nerves have ceased to obey their central desires would doubtless have been aphrodisiac too, but not in Perelandra.

What if the ancients myths and legends, recorded in the old books, are not – as sophisticated modern atheist philosophy has it – the childish stories made up by illiterate inhabitants of the Dark Ages, but the opposite? What if they are actual memories of people and values from an earlier time, when humans were closer to some prelapsarian truth, memories which lingered on after the spiritual disaster which overtook mankind?

He remembered his old suspicion that what was myth in one world might always be fact in some other. He wondered also whether the King and Queen of Perelandra, though doubtless the first human pair of this planet, might on the physical side have a marine ancestry. And if so, what then of the man-like things before men in our own world? Must they in truth have been the wistful brutalities whose pictures we see in popular books on evolution? Or were the old myths truer than the modern myths? Had there in truth been a time when satyrs danced in the Italian woods?

Lewis’s science fiction books are not only an excuse for fantasy – for the kind of fantasy mountains, flora and fauna, animals, skies and so on, that you might get in Wells and other sci-fi fantasists – but for fantasy underpinned by Lewis’s feel for both theology and ancient literature and myth.

From without, most certainly from without, but not by the sense of hearing, festal revelry and dance and splendour poured into him – no sound, yet in such fashion that it could not be remembered or thought of except as music. It was like having a new sense. It was like being present when the morning stars sang together.

Throughout the book the reader is given numerous extended descriptions of the sheer joyousness of the this Venusian paradise, less in ideas than in countless detailed physical sensations – Lewis very powerfully conveys the idea that Perelandra amounts to a kind of holiday from the normal sensations of his body.

He was riding the foamless swell of an ocean, fresh and cool after the fierce temperatures of Heaven, but warm by earthly standards – as warm as a shallow bay with sandy bottom in a sub-tropical climate. As he rushed smoothly up the great convex hillside of the next wave he got a mouthful of the water. It was hardly at all flavoured with salt; it was drinkable – like fresh water and only, by an infinitesimal degree, less insipid. Though he had not been aware of thirst till now, his drink gave him a quite astonishing pleasure. It was almost like meeting Pleasure itself for the first time.

The very names of green and gold, which he used perforce in describing the scene, are too harsh for the tenderness, the muted iridescence, of that warm, maternal, delicately gorgeous world. It was mild to look upon as evening, warm like summer noon, gentle and winning like early dawn. It was altogether pleasurable.

Eden is full of pleasure:

He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed. It could not be classified. He could never tell us, when he came back to the world of men, whether it was sharp or sweet, savoury or voluptuous, creamy or piercing. ‘Not like that’ was all he could ever say to such inquiries.

And blissful physical sensations:

He was approaching a forest of little trees whose trunks were only about two and a half feet high; but from the top of each trunk there grew long streamers which did not rise in the air but flowed in the wind downhill and parallel to the ground. Thus, when he went in among them, he found himself wading knee deep and more in a continually rippling sea of them–a sea which presently tossed all about him as far as his eye could reach. It was blue in colour, but far lighter than the blue of the turf–almost a Cambridge blue at the centre of each streamer, but dying away at their tasselled and feathery edges into a delicacy of bluish grey which it would take the subtlest effects of smoke and cloud to rival in our world. The soft, almost impalpable, caresses of the long thin leaves on his flesh, the low, singing, rustling, whispering music, and the frolic movement all about him, began to set his heart beating with that almost formidable sense of delight which he had felt before in Perelandra.

So in Lewis’s theology, pleasure, bliss and joy are not the temptations, are not the wicked things. The temptation is the fundamental mistake of not crediting God with creating everything.

We can all enjoy bliss such as we have never known – but it is all contingent on a right and proper and correct acknowledgement that God made us, that we are created beings and that the created should endlessly acknowledge the Creator for the gift of existence in all its wonder.

The beautiful setting, the lovely sky, the lapping waters, the docile creatures and the innocently dignified Lady – all make a luminous background against which Weston’s narrow-minded, egotistical, godless philosophy and pointlessly cruel behaviour, stand out all the more as wicked and squalid.

Temptation

Ransom takes a dolphin out to an island where he arrives in darkness, goes ashore and sleeps. When he wakens it is still dark and he overhears Weston tempting the Lady.

Maleldil’s prohibition of sleeping on the island clearly performs on this planet the role that God’s forbidding Adam and Eve from eating the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil performed on Earth. it is the one rule that must be obeyed. it is the stumbling block. Meaningless in itself, it is a marker of the creature’s obedience to the Creator.

Ransom feels sick as he listens to the subtle arguments that Weston is making to tempt the Lady: that sleeping on the island will make the Lady wise, make her more of a woman, will earn the King’s respect, why should she always know less and be subservient to him? And so on.

The Lady resists his arguments. Good triumphs. Ransom falls asleep again.

When he wakes again it is to find some of the frog-like creatures he had observed among the Lady’s animal followers have been maimed and mutilated. To his horror he follows a string of their writhing bodies, each one ripped open along the spine, until he finds Weston at work, torturing one of them, for no reason, just for the random cruelty. When Weston looks up from his work, Ransom for the first time realises what a devil looks like.

The smile was not bitter, nor raging, nor, in an ordinary sense, sinister; it was not even mocking. It seemed to summon Ransom, with a horrible naïveté of welcome, into the world of its own pleasures, as if all men were at one in those pleasures, as if they were the most natural thing in the world and no dispute could ever have occurred about them. It was not furtive, nor ashamed, it had nothing of the conspirator in it. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence. It was beyond vice as the Lady was beyond virtue.

The days begin to blur into one another. Over and over Ransom wakes to hear Weston keep up his unending siege of the Lady’s obedience. Forced to sit by most of the time, as he has to wait for the Lady to ask his opinion, Ransom (and we the reader) witness the prolonged battery of arguments launched from every side with which the un-Man assails the Lady.

This long passage is a sort of tour de force in which Lewis imagines just what the Devil said to Eve in the Garden of Eden, how he overcame her innocence, how he persuaded her that Maleldil had not banned her sleeping on the island in order to ban it as such, but so that she could grow in maturity and confidence, so that she could show both Maleldil and the King that she was no longer a child. Yes both of them would be pleased if she would only disobey the ban.

These and hundreds of other monotonously similar lies Ransom has to listen to again and again, And he is horrified to see it working. Ransom observes the Lady, under Weston’s ceaseless corrupting barrage, for the first time adopting a rather theatrical manner, no longer unself-consciously laughing and speaking but slowly becoming aware of herself, and beginning to pose. Weston gives her a hand mirror which initially surprises here, and which he uses to emphasise her importance, her supremacy, flattering her position of First Woman.

Always the weakest point of people is shown to be their egotism – their sense of self. Always their strongest point (in Lewis’s vision) is their sense of something outside themselves, of something greater, more powerful, to which they owe gratitude and obedience.

The decision

Eventually there are several pages describing Ransom’s agonised realisation that sitting by and watching primal innocence be corrupted isn’t enough. He has had no communication from Oyarsa, none of the eldila have told him what to expect or what to do.

And again, this is part of Lewis’s strategy in these fiction books and in his apologetics: he makes the very powerful point that it is up to us. In a roundabout sort of way this chimes with the contemporary message of the Continental Existentialists (apart from the obvious fact that they were mostly atheists) – but they both lead to the same conclusion – it is up to us to fight evil, often with little or no help from outside.

Everyone must make their decision and everyone defines themselves by their decisions. We are free to make or unmake ourselves, says Lewis, as clearly as his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre.

So Ransom has had no outside help from the moment he arrived, no communications, no hints or advice or guidance.

Now, after days of agonising, he decides that there is no alternative – he must kill Weston. Yes, it’s immoral, yes maybe he will damn himself – but he cannot stand by and allow the alternative – the corruption and damnation of an entire planet. And at this point he does hear a voice in his head. ‘It is no coincidence’, the voice tells him, ‘that his name is Ransom: he must be the price paid for the preservation of this world’.

The chase

This leads into what turns out to be a very prolonged and gruelling chase sequence.

1. Ransom gets up, goes and finds Weston and, without any warning, attacks him. They claw, scratch, bite, kick and punch each other. Eventually, the struggle breaks off as Weston staggers through forest down to the shore and straddles a dolphin fish and is away, Ransom pursuing. Day and night, night and day, falling asleep, nearly falling off, confronting the strange mute faces of the mermen beneath the waves, Ransom rides the dolphin-like creature in pursuit of the equally dazed and wounded Weston.

2. A day comes when Weston’s fish is exhausted and he stops running, turns and paddles it over beside Ransom. ‘Please,’ he wheedles, and then goes into another long, tempting speech, pretending that he is now simply Weston and that his devil has fled. Except he isn’t and it hasn’t. Only slowly does it reveal its devilish intent. Weston’s wheedling slowly turns into a grand vision of the horror and pointlessness of life, we only live briefly and then are pushed out of the bright atmosphere of the world into the darkness beneath it, squealing in pain and fear. It doesn’t matter whether there is a God or not, all that matters is escaping the darkness, the void, the horror… at which point Ransom realises that ‘it’ is still a devil, and also realises that he has been given an insight into what it means to be a devil, self-excluded from the grace of God.

3. The devil grabs Ransom’s arm and then lunges across from his dolphin, tackles his body, wrapping himself round Ransom’s waist and thighs and dragging him down, down under water. This leads to a nightmareish struggle in the cold depths of the sea, when you wonder if they will both drown and go to the underworld (anything seems to be possible).

But instead Ransom awakes to find he is in some kind of shingly beach in the pitch darkness. He finds Weston’s body and strangles him to death and breaks his ribs for good measure, and then collapses exhausted. Hours later, Ransom awakes again, again into pitch darkness, and begins to explore the ‘beach’ only to discover that it is a cave. By some chance he and Weston in their death-embrace have been washed into a cave, maybe deep under the waterline in some cliff. He tentatively tries easing down into the water but it is breaking against the sides with such violence that, in the dark, it is impossible to gauge its power and depth and Ransom has no way of knowing how much of a swim, and in which direction he should go, to escape out of the cave and make it back to the surface.

Instead Ransom sets off to explore the innards of the cave and see if he can escape that way, in a passage of nightmare intensity, bumping into walls, pulling himself up onto ledges, inching along in pitch darkness, stubbing his toes, scratching every inch of his exposed naked body, always climbing, with no idea where he is going or if there is any hope.

This passage is a form of Pilgrim’s Progress. It isn’t made explicit, but it is a Christian soul climbing up out of pitch darkness driven only by faith.

Only after a prolonged and increasingly hallucinatory climb does Ransom finally see a sliver of light up above, and walk up along a sloping stretch of rock to discover a fissure of light high above him.

He has to build a platform from loose rocks and jump up into the crevice, clinging on by his fingertips, then inching his way along it, his back against one wall, his knees and feet against the other, painfully upwards to emerge in a huge wide cavern illuminated by the light from a sheer drop at one end. He goes over to it and discovers it drops sheer, hundreds maybe thousands of yards down into raw, moiling fire.

As he turns from the blinding light back to the cavern, Ransom sees Weston, as in a dream, as in a nightmare, pull himself slowly up out of the fissure and stumble towards him. Half-mad, hallucinating, delirious, Ransom grips the nearest sizeable rock, says, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,’ runs at Weston and smashes his face in, smashing it literally to a pulp.

He then drags the mashed-face corpse over to the ledge and tips it over to plummet down down into the fiery lava beneath. Surely, finally, he has finished his task.

Days of climbing follow in a delirium of pain and exhaustion. Finally, crossing some cave, Ransom slips and falls into a fast-moving stream which sluices him out of a rock face and into a pool outside, on a mountainside, under the golden sky of Perelandra where he lies for days, drinking the stream water and reaching his hand up for sweet fruit, delirious, unconscious of the days and nights, slowly healing in body and mind.

Eventually, after many days, healed and ready to walk, the eldila appear, fragments of light in the daytime, silently telling  him that he must set off for some kind of happy valley, there beyond the hills.

The coronation

Ransom walks a long way, up hill, down dale, somehow knowing he must seek the hidden valley, climbing high into the mountains before finally descending to the most beautiful place he has seen in either of the two planets, Malacandra or Perelandra.

Here, drawn up in front of a natural temple, he encounters the oyarsa of the planet, and then witnesses an enormous horde of friendly animals attending the King and the Lady as they land at the beach and slowly progress up to the temple.

There follows an extraordinary extended coronation scene in which the Lady and the King are transformed into Tor and Tinidil, and receive stewardship of the planet and everything on it from the oyarsa. In extended speeches Ransom is told that the King and the Lady have learned about evil not by doing it, as Adam and Eve did – but by resisting it.

In this grand performance Ransom played a crucial part, allowing the Lady to learn just enough of the bad to be able to resist it, before himself disposing of the evil in a way no creature of Perelandra could have, without sullying itself.

Only a fallen man could deal with another fallen man. Ransom receives the fathomless gratitude of the King and the Lady. And in this whole story Weston, like Judas, played a preconceived role.

‘Little did that dark mind know the errand on which he really came to Perelandra!’

After the theology is explained there is a tremendous passage of three or four pages made up of twenty paragraphs, every one of which is a hymn to Maleldil, ending with the repeated phrase, ‘Blessed be He!’

‘All things are by Him and for Him. He utters Himself also for His own delight and sees that He is good. He is His own begotten and what proceeds from Him is Himself. Blessed be He!’

Not the kind of thing you get in a regular novel.

The prophecy

With no interruption, the King washes and laves Ransom’s battered body (in an obvious echo of Jesus washing his disciples in the New Testament) even the gash on his heel where Weston bit him, and which stubbornly refuses to heal.

Then the King lays Ransom in the ice-cold white coffin which has now appeared before them, of the same type which Ransom travelled there in, seals the coffin and Ransom is gone.

But not before the King has made this final prophecy, a prophecy about the Final Battle for the soul of earth, or Thulcandra, a prophecy which obviously sets the book up for its sequel, the final novel in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength.

We shall fall upon your moon, wherein there is a secret evil, and which is as the shield of the Dark Lord of Thulcandra – scarred with many a blow. We shall break her. Her light shall be put out. Her fragments shall fall into your world and the seas and the smoke shall arise so that the dwellers in Thulcandra will no longer see the light of Arbol. And as Maleldil Himself draws near, the evil things in your world shall show themselves stripped of disguise so that plagues and horrors shall cover your lands and seas. But in the end all shall be cleansed, and even the memory of your Black Oyarsa blotted out, and your world shall be fair and sweet and reunited to the field of Arbol and its true name shall be heard again.


The Discarded Image

In my review of Out of The Silent Planet I mentioned the way that most of Lewis’s books, after his conversion to Christianity in 1931, were driven by the urge to explain and proselytise for his Christian belief. Perelandra is even more overtly Christian than its predecessor, or rather all the ideas are based on Christian theology.

His openly Christian works of apologetics like Mere Christianity, the popular comic books like The Screwtape Letters, the famous series of Narnia books, and this, his science fiction trilogy, are all powered and underpinned by Lewis’s profound Christian belief working at various levels of explicitness, from High Theology about the Fall through to incidental insights about human nature – how we are less when we are selfish and self-centred, and more when we turn outwards and acknowledge others.

But to focus on the Christian element is to ignore the other, very large, possibly even larger, part of Lewis’s imagination, which was shaped by his deep and scholarly knowledge of ancient, medieval and Renaissance literature, knowledge which underpins the fantastical and beautiful sumptuousness of much of his imagery, and his sense of the stateliness and courtesy of the pure, of his spirits and kings.

I myself did a very old-fashioned English Literature degree for which I had to learn Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, and in preparation for which it was assumed that I would have read all of the Bible, Homer, the Aeneid, Ovid and Horace.

In studying Gawayne and the Green Knight or Chaucer or The Faerie Queen by Spenser, I found Lewis’s literary criticism of these works invaluable, not only for his detailed knowledge of individual facts or symbols – but for his matchless feel for the values of long-lost cultures.

Lewis’s final book was a scholarly work – The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature – a deliberately brief, almost note-form summary of the sources of much of the imagery and belief system of medieval and renaissance literature. It lays out very clearly and usefully key aspects of ancient and medieval cosmology, explaining their sources in a handful of seminal works, mostly from the ancient world, explaining (in the words of Wikipedia),

the structure of the medieval universe, the nature of its inhabitants, the notion of a finite universe, ordered and maintained by a celestial hierarchy, and the ideas of nature.

My point is that Lewis was absolutely drenched in the imagery and thought of the classical and medieval world, and in my view it is this – just as much as his Christian faith – which gives his fictional books their special feel, a really deep feel for older values, for ancient symbolism and allegory. It explains why the image from Narnia of children placing chains of flowers round the neck of a peaceful lion feels not just fanciful, but somehow profound.

That isn’t an image from anywhere in the Bible. But it is the kind of heraldic image anyone familiar with medieval texts, poems, marginalia or tapestries would appreciate. It is this – a sense of the medieval world somehow reborn across time and space – much more than the explicit Christian theology, which I kept being reminded of as I read Perelandra.

At Ransom’s waking something happened to him which perhaps never happens to a man until he is out of his own world: he saw reality, and thought it was a dream. He opened his eyes and saw a strange heraldically coloured tree loaded with yellow fruits and silver leaves. Round the base of the indigo stem was coiled a small dragon covered with scales of red gold. He recognised the garden of the Hesperides at once.

Lewis actually uses the medieval word ‘heraldic’ several times to convey the sense of dignified, richly felt, medieval symbolism which he is striving to create.

She had stood up amidst a throng of beasts and birds as a tall sapling stands among bushes – big pigeon-coloured birds and flame-coloured birds, and dragons, and beaver-like creatures about the size of rats, and heraldic-looking fish in the sea at her feet. Or had he imagined that? Was this the beginning of the hallucinations he had feared? Or another myth coming out into the world of fact…

They made the circle of the plateau methodically. Behind them lay the group of islands from which they had set out that morning. Seen from this altitude it was larger even than Ransom had supposed. The richness of its colours – its orange, its silver, its purple and (to his surprise) its glossy blacks – made it seem almost heraldic.

The heavens had vanished, and the surface of the sea; but far, far below him in the heart of the vacancy through which he appeared to be travelling, strange bursting star shells and writhing streaks of a bluish-green luminosity appeared. At first they were very remote, but soon, as far as he could judge, they were nearer. A whole world of phosphorescent creatures seemed to be at play not far from the surface – coiling eels and darting things in complete armour, and then heraldically fantastic shapes to which the sea-horse of our own waters would be commonplace

When his imagination looks for the beautiful, it is not to the Jewish imagery of the Bible, but to medieval iconography which Lewis turns, imagery forged of the strange union between popular folk tales and legends with the high art of Norman courtly chivalry, mixed in with the myths and strange arcane beliefs of the ancient world.

It is the formal beauty, the poise, the ceremoniousness, the tremendous feeling of correctness about this medieval imagery which gives Lewis’s fictional books – the Narnia books and this science fiction trilogy – a large part of their powerful imaginative impact.

The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir (1500) Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir (1500) Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

Note the ubiquity of the animals in this famous medieval tapestry, both regal (lion and unicorn) and sweetly domestic (dog, rabbits, foxes, lambs).

All of creation, not just human beings, are incorporated in Lewis’s vision – and this, again, reflects his medieval imagination, where animals peep out from the corner of tapestries or intrude into Chaucerian stories.

The comedy of Oxford dons

Although we are transported to other planets and subject to heady worlds of theological and courtly seriousness, Lewis lightens his sci-fi trilogy with an occasional sense of humour, particularly when it comes to taking the mickey out of his own world of stuffy and pedantic Oxford dons. Right in the middle of discussing the future of the whole world, they will be brought up short by a pedantic quibble about a point of grammar. Thus Lewis asks him, before he leaves, about the language he expects to find spoken on Venus:

‘And you think you will find Hressa-Hlab, or Old Solar, spoken on Venus?’
‘Yes. I shall arrive knowing the language. It saves a lot of trouble – though, as a philologist I find it rather disappointing.’

Similarly, once he finds himself in the pitch black cave under the sea, initially convinced it is simply night-time and he must wait for the dawn, Ransom sets out to pass the time thus:

He recited all that he could remember of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Æneid, the Chanson de Roland, Paradise Lost, the Kalevala, the Hunting of the Snark, and a rhyme about Germanic sound-laws which he had composed as a freshman.

‘A rhyme about Germanic sound-laws which he had composed as a freshman.’ 🙂

Once Ransom has finally decided to kill Weston, once he is in the black cave astride the enemy’s chest, squeezing its throat with both hands, he finds himself, to his own surprise, shouting out a line from the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon. I studied the Battle of Maldon at university and I have reviewed it for this blog. I would dearly love to know which line Ransom shouted out.

And it is typical of the hyper-scholarly nature of his characters that Ransom declares, towards the end, that, comparing the experience of being on the two planets, Mars and Venus:

Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre.

Surprised by joy

But the final memory and impression of reading the book is Lewis’s wonderful, delicious, intoxicating depictions of Eden, what bliss it would be, how it would feed all the senses without glutting or tiring them: how it would be made perfectly for men and women to delight in.

Two things account for the popularity of Lewis’s popular Christian books. One is that they are simple. He turned complicated theology or philosophy into the language of Daily Mail editorials, into terms understandable by almost anyone, but without any sense of being patronising. He just sets out at a popular level and then keeps on at that level.

But just as important, I think, was his immense capacity for conjuring up images, motifs, descriptions, settings, words and phrases to convey an immense, bountiful, overflowing feeling of happiness.

I’ve met and debated theology with Christians who have had bad experiences in their lives – rape, abuse, suicide of parents – and they all testified to the importance of Lewis’s writings in helping them find a meaning and a purpose in their lives, in leading them through darkness to greater faith. Helped by its promise that even the most horrific experiences can be transcended because of the beauty and love of the world God has prepared for us.

In a thousand different images, this is the confidence, the faith in beauty and bliss, the deep optimism, which all Lewis’s books radiate and which helps to account for their enduring appeal.

But he said ‘Hush’ to his mind at this stage, for the mere pleasure of breathing in the fragrance which now began to steal towards him from the blackness ahead. Warm and sweet, and every moment sweeter and purer, and every moment stronger and more filled with all delights, it came to him. He knew well what it was. He would know it henceforward out of the whole universe – the night-breath of a floating island in the star Venus.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines, and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibsonthird of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which young hacker Bobby Newmark discovers there is a lot more to cyberspace than he ever imagined.
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre (1943)

Sartre had been interned in a German prisoner of war camp (Stalag 12D) immediately after the fall of France, in the summer of 1940. There he wrote and staged a play (with a surprisingly Christian theme, set on Christmas Eve and titled Bariona, or the son of thunder).

After nine months he was released in April 1941 and returned to his job in Paris, teaching philosophy while also writing fiction and essays, but he had caught the theatre bug. More precisely, he had seen how theatre could dramatise a plight shared by the author and audience. However, no play which even remotely criticised the German occupation could get past the censors, so he had to look for a subject which would be officially acceptable, but still provide a vehicle for his sentiments.

Historical subjects were safe, the classics even more so. Sartre settled on the ancient Greek legend of Orestes, the centre of a cycle of stories which had been dealt with in plays by the famous ancient Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

The original myth

The Trojan prince Paris is asked to judge which of the three great goddesses is most beautiful. Hera (goddess of power) promises him kingdoms and empire, Athena (goddess of wisdom) promises him wisdom and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) offers him the most beautiful woman in the world.

He gives the award to Aphrodite who then helps him undertake a friendly tour of the Greek kingdoms. In In Sparta he is entertained by the city’s king, Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, just happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world. That night Paris, with Aphrodite’s divine aid, steals Helen down to the ship and he and his comrades sail back to Troy.

Next morning Menelaus is outraged and contacts his brother, Agamemnon, chief among Greek kings. Agamemnon calls for an alliance of all the Greeks to sail 1,000 ships to Troy and besiege it till the Trojans return Helen.

The entire fleet is assembled and ready to sail but there is no wind. A soothsayer tells Agamemnon he must sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to please the gods and so – shockingly – Agamemnon does, a wind arises and the fleet sails to Troy, which they besiege for ten long years.

The Greeks eventually win the war due to Odysseus’s clever ruse of the Trojan Horse and Agamemnon returns to Mycenae. But his wife, Clytemnestra has never forgiven the murder of her daughter and so, along with the lover she has taken in Agamemnon’s absence – Aegistheus – she murders Agamemnon.

Before he left for the war, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had had three children. Iphigenia was, as we saw, sacrificed. Electra has stayed with her mother. But their son, Orestes, by now a young man, was not present in Mycenae for the murder of his father. When Orestes does return some years later, he avenges his father by killing his mother and Aegistheus. He is then pursued by the Furies, who hound all evil-doers.

In the last of the trilogy of plays on the subject by Aeschylus, the goddess Athena intervenes between Orestes and the Furies to institute the first ever trial, in which Orestes is spared. It is a fascinating text in which the playwright uses the story to examine and defend the social structures of his day.

Sartre’s play

The outline of the plot is the same. Orestes turns up in the city ruled by Aegistheus and Clytemnestra 15 years to the day after Agamemnon’s murder. He quickly bumps into his sister, Electra, who is fed up with being forced to skivvy for the raddled and haunted queen. After initial hesitations Orestes proceeds to kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, then flees with Electra to seek sanctuary in the temple of Apollo.

There are two key differences: the city has been plagued by an infestation of flies ever since the murder; and Aegistheus has instituted a religious festival, the Day of the Dead, in which the town’s dead are meant to rise from their graves and haunt the living for 24 hours. This encourages the living to fall on their knees and acknowledge all their crimes and sins. Act two takes place at the mouth of the cave where these dead ghosts appear, in a ceremony overseen by king Aegistheus in his pomp, to which a reluctant Electra has to be dragged.

That’s the action, but the play actually consists of a lot of dialogue and discussion between the characters, thus:

  • Zeus king of the gods is a leading character (unlike the ancient versions) who introduces himself as ‘Demetrios’ to both Orestes and Aegistheus, before dropping his disguise and speaking openly about the nature of kingship and rule.
  • Orestes’ slave is also his tutor, meaning the pair can be left alone to have philosophical dialogues, allowing Orestes to speak his thoughts out loud – the same function as Horatio to the prince in Hamlet.
  • Electra is initially reluctant to acknowledge Orestes as her brother, then becomes keen to kill the king and queen, then suffers fierce remorse, ageing overnight.
  • In the final and third act the Furies appear and speak, as in the original plays, explaining their role and the punishments they have in store for the errant children.

Issues

There’s a lot of words about murder, killing, justice, revenge, retribution and so on, which could keep moralists talking for days.

But the central ‘existentialist’ message seems relatively straightforward. Orestes ‘develops’, ‘evolves’, ‘changes’ from a hesitant and curious visitor to his home town, to a man reluctant (in conversation with Zeus or Electra) to intervene, into his final position of a free man who Strikes For Justice.

In a pivotal scene between Zeus and Aegistheus, the god explains what they both know, that the great secret of kingship is that men are free but are frightened of their freedom. This is just as well as he and Aegistheus both like Order. It explains why Aegistheus has instituted the utterly bogus Day of the Dead – it helps weight people down with their guilt, it makes them look backward, it makes them feel in thrall to their past actions and incapable of breaking free.

Zeus also offers another vision of unfree human nature to Orestes when he paints himself as the god of Nature and Good. Orestes defies him, in a sequence of speeches which, I think, we can be confident are the Author’s Message:

Neither slave nor master. I am my freedom.

Suddenly, out of the blue, freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet. Nature sprang back, my youth went with the wind, and I knew myself alone, utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning universe of yours. I was like a man who’s lost his shadow. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give me orders.

Zeus tempts him: come back to me, believe in me, I will give you peace and forgetfulness. But Orestes is having none of it.

Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you – but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way. (p.119)

That’s the existentialist message: man is hopelessly, irredeemably, unavoidably free. He has no excuses but bears full responsibility for all his actions. Full acceptance of  this crushing weight is the only authenticity.

Zeus says, ‘tut tut I won’t give up without a fight,’ and exits. Electra is distraught at the plight her brother has thrown her into, and runs after Zeus begging his forgiveness i.e. she gives in to religious belief.

The slave enters to tell Orestes that the mob is at the door baying for his blood. Orestes heroically declares that he murdered Clytemnestra and Aegistheus to set them free, to abolish silly superstitions like the Day of the Dead which are meant only to keep them in their place. Orestes confronts the mob and says he will willingly, consciously bear the responsibility and the guilt of the deaths and take away the punishment, the ghosts and the flies. And so Orestes exits pursued by the Furies.

That’s the end, so we never find out what the reaction of the puzzled populace is.

You can see how, not far at all beneath the superficial classical storyline, is the narrative of a man who freely and fully accepts the responsibility for committing murder in order to free his people.

On a philosophical level, it is about a man who rejects all the consolations of false beliefs and ‘bad faith’ in order to act out his freedom.

And, on a political level, about a man who is a Resistance fighter prepared to accept the guilt of murder in order to free his people from the plague of flies i.e. the German occupation.

The diagrammatic nature of Sartre’s intent explains his changes to the traditional story, the most obvious of which is the downplaying of Clytemnestra’s role; in the myths she is the prime mover for the murder of Agamemnon and it is her murder – the terrible crime of matricide – which triggers the advent of the Furies to torment Orestes. But Sartre has no interest in the ‘crime’ of matricide which carries with it a huge freight of basic emotional, let alone Freudian, overtones.

He is more interested in political philosophy and so Aegistheus – a shadowy figure in the myths – is much more prominent in this play: as the figure of the (Nazi) tyrant, as the figure of the man imposing a spurious superstition on the people (the Day of the Dead), as the king Zeus debates the arts of kingship with, and then as the representative of all the repressive forces in the play (and occupied France) which Orestes must slay.

Thus Orestes kills Aegistheus onstage and it takes several blows with a sword during which they continue to have a philosophical dialogue; whereas Clytemnestra is slain off-stage: we only hear her piercing screams while Electra gives us a running commentary on her own feelings.

I’m no feminist but Sartre’s play is much more masculine that the original. In the Aeschylus plays, Clytemnestra, the Furies and the goddess Athena all play key roles in a text which explores femininity, law and society. Two and a half thousand years later, for Sartre, justice and freedom are essentially men’s talk.

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra [having just murdered Agamemnon] (1882) by John Collier. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London


Credit

Les Mouches was first performed in Paris in 1943. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene (1943)

If you believed in God – and the Devil – the thing wasn’t quite so comic. Because the Devil – and God too – had always used comic people, futile people, little suburban natures and the maimed and warped to serve his purposes. When God used them you talked emptily of Nobility and when the devil used them of Wickedness, but the material was only dull shabby human mediocrity in either case. (p.33)

After his prolific output in the 1930s, Greene published just two novels during the Second World War, The Power and The Glory (1940) about the Mexican whisky priest, which he’d been working on before the war’s outbreak anyway, and this one, his only real war novel. He was busy with other things:

  • on the basis of his previous travels in the region (chronicled in Journey Without Maps, 1936) he was recuited by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and sent to Sierra Leone to spy on Axis activity in West Africa from 1941 to 1943, an experience which would provide the background for The Heart of the Matter (1948)
  • later in the War he signed a contract with MGM’s London agent to produce film scripts

Apparently, by the year this novel was published, 1943, Greene had acquired the reputation of being the ‘leading English male novelist of his generation’. For decades to come he would – rather defensively – continue to categorise his long texts as either ‘entertainments’ (most of his 1930s thriller-ish output, of which he was politely dismissive) or ‘novels’ (the ‘serious’, Catholic-themed works like The Power and the Glory, The Heart of The Matter, which he intended to be more ‘literary’).

The Ministry of Fear

Fear is one of the ‘entertainments’ and, like most of those, has a strong whiff of the absurd about it which only gets stronger. It opens with a surreal scene where the protagonist, the lonely, poor and downtrodden Arthur Rowe, stumbles across a fête taking place in bombed-out Bloomsbury. Beguiled by boyhood memories (contriving childhood memories for his characters is central to Greene’s fiction-making process) of village fêtes in rural Cambridgeshire, Rowe wanders in and spends pennies at various stalls. For some reason the palm reader tells him the exact weight of the Guess-the-weight-of-the-cake stall and he accordingly wins it. But at the last minute a late-comer to the fête arrives by taxi, runs to the palmist’s tent, then dashes out and over to the cake stall. The stallholders suddenly clamour for Rowe to give the cake back to the stall in a charitable gesture. Irritated, Rowe refuses and takes the cake back to his seedy boarding house.

Thus starts the plot. Because the cake quite clearly conceals a secret which ‘they’ want to get back. In the next chapter a strange man invites himself round to Rowe’s room and there is another hallucinatorily odd scene where he ingratiates himself to Rowe, saying they are both intellectuals, above the ignorant masses, while all the time both hear German bombers droning up the Thames towards them and the crump of falling bombs. At the climax of the conversation, just as the stranger is saying ‘they’ want the cake back and ‘they’ are willing to pay, a bomb lands directly on Rowe’s boarding house, ripping the roof and front wall out, plunging Rowe in his chair down to the ground floor. The mysterious stranger is stunned, then collected by his ‘friends’.

Misery and unhappiness

As a teenager Greene was mercilessly bullied at school because his father was the headmaster. Finally, he had a breakdown and was sent for treatment to a psychotherapist. The analyst suggested he write as a form of therapy. This saved his life but didn’t change his character. He was psychologically troubled, given to suicidal depression, from an early age and it shows in everything he wrote. His characters are poor, lonely, miserable men with few possessions living in shabby surroundings.

Greene’s imagination is a kind of ‘squalor-finder’ which can flush out and vividly describe the sad, failed, dirty and sordid in anybody, any place or situation.

Mrs Bellairs’ house was a house of character; that is to say it was old and unrenovated, standing behind its little patch of dry and weedy garden among the To Let boards on the slope of Camden Hill. (p.51)

The stranger who tries to take the cake off Rowe not only has mishapen shoulders, having been crippled at birth, but a nervous habit of using his fingernails to pick out the dandruff from his hair, and then pick it out from under his nails and drop on the floor. Typical.

Hammond Innes’ thrillers radiate physical health and the tremendous exhiliration of being alive in wild, bracing scenery. His protagonists are healthy, forthright, decisive men. Greene’s imagination luxuriates in shabby people with squalid habits in seedy little rooms, not doing much except feeling depressed, sorry for themselves or actively suicidal.

The sordid details accrue, for example: When Rowe visits a failing detective agency it is on the fourth floor with no lift. The reception room boasts a plate bearing a half-eaten sausage roll. He opens the door on the shabby-looking proprietor trying to hide a bottle of booze in a drawer. He notices a porn magazine in the In tray. The private detective turns out to have ill-fitting dentures and yet is puffed up with a ludicrous sense of his self-importance.

And so it goes on relentlessly, a litany of shabby, seedy, failed, horrible, balding, middle-aged men bumbling round in Greene’s ludicrous and barely existing plots. It is powerfully portrayed and horribly depressing, a vision of  ‘infinite hopelessness, pain and reproach.’ (p.58)

Very far away a taxi-horn cried through an empty world. (p.57)

He wanted to dream, but all he could practice now was despair… (p.73)

Even if a man has been contemplating the advantages of suicide for two years, he takes time to make his final decision… (p.87)

He missed Mrs Purvis coming in with the tea; he used to count the days by her: punctuated by her knock they would slide smoothly towards the end – annihilation, forgiveness, punishment or peace. (p.87)

There was an exhiliration in the absurd episode; he had made up his mind now about everything – justice as well as the circumstances of the case demanded that he should kill himself (he had only to decide the method) and now he could enjoy the oddness of existence. (p.97)

He felt like a man in mortal sin who watches other people go to receive the sacrament – abandoned. (p.155)

He seemed consumed by a passion of hatred and perhaps despair. (p.175)

His key words are: insignificant, stained, weak, defensive, anxiety, scared, secretive, shabby, seedy, dry, weedy, weak, blackheads, distaste, trashy, dim, lurid, small, shifty, damp, ragged, out-of-elbow, grey, abandoned, trumpery, flimsy, despair, gloomy, failure, defeat, waning, ugly, solitary, brooding, misery, ugly, horror, hideous, helpless, pain, whimper, suicide.

If you can’t come up with a decent plot, resort to Catholic melodrama

The plot is pathetic. The cake-won-at-a-fête opening is nonsense, twaddle. Rowe engages the feeble private detective to get to the bottom of the ‘mystery’, then goes to the offices of the charity which organised the fête. There he meets the enthusiastic Austrian emigré brother & sister, the Hilfes. They take him to meet one of the women who ran one of the fête stalls and who is now having a séance with an ill-assorted mob of typical Greene losers. During the séance the man next to Rowe is murdered and everyone suspects him! Lawks a-mercy!

Rowe half-heartedly goes on the run ie sleeps in an air-raid shelter (dirty, squalid strangers snoring or pawing each other). He walks across London to dun his old friend Henry Wilcox for money but arrives just as a (surreal) funeral procession is starting for Wilcox’s wife, killed in her air raid duties.

Compared to Ambler or Innes, Greene can’t write a suspenseful plot to save his life. What he can and does do is:

  • inject feeble characters with the overwhelming freight of his own misery and thus lend them a fake ‘depth’
  • rope in Roman Catholicism to prop up the feeble plot and give the book an entirely spurious sense of ‘profundity’

Thus Greene inflates the nondescript character of Rowe – and tries to lift the feeble plot of his novel – by making Rowe a) a Catholic who b) performed a mercy killing on his wife who had some fatal illness. Oooh. The ersatz seriousness. Oooh. The factitious depth. Oooh. The fake meaningfulness.

This allows Rowe to go on at length about being a murderer and knowing what murder is like and suffering from the guilt of murder etc – without for one solitary second even faintly convincing you that he is actually a murderer. The Postman Always Rings Twice gives the reader a thousand times more sense of what it is like to murder someone, how difficult, how gruesome, how haunted you are by the deed. Rowe’s ‘murder’ is a glib fiction which allows Greene to ring the changes on his favourite themes, a convenient text-generating device. As an examination of the actual consequences of carrying out a mercy killing on a loved one it is almost an insult to the intelligence of the reader.

After all, he belonged to the region of murder – he was a native of that country. (p.60)

This kind of rhetoric sounds good but, on a moment’s reflection, is meaningless. It is not how real murderers think or talk. It is how a death-obsessed, depressive writer thinks and talks.

Thus Rowe is turned, for the next 220 pages, into a handy vehicle for Greene’s familiar suicidal soliloquies, for his long ruminations on life and death and futility, the grand-sounding but empty orations about God, Destiny, Justice; it means he can drop into quoting the Litany or any other Catholic text at the drop of the hat, giving the text utterly spurious depth and ‘meaning’; it gives him carte blanche to spout the same depressed point of view of all Greene’s characters because it is Greene’s own worldview:

There were times when he felt the whole world’s criminality was his; and then suddenly at some trivial sight – a woman’s bag, a picture in a paper – all the pride seeped out of him. He was aware only of the stupidity of his act; he wanted to creep out of sight and weep; he wanted to forget that he had ever been happy… It is easier to kill someone you love than to kill yourself. (p.40)

And long-winded. Endless. Greene is capable of spinning basically the same despairing solipsism out into an infinite number of pseudo-profound ‘insights’ or horrified descriptions:

It is impossible to go through life without trust: that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself. (p.43)

In a dream you cannot escape: the feet are leaden-weighted: you cannot stir from the ominous door which almost imperceptibly moves. It is the same in life; sometimes it is more difficult to make a scene than to die. (p.56)

Conventions were far more rooted than morality; he had himself found that it was easier to allow oneself to be murdered than to break up a social gathering. (p.71)

Not one of them guessed that what had come over him was the horrible and horrifying emotion of pity. (p.66)

Pity kills… we are trapped and betrayed by our virtues. (p.74)

It is only if the murderer is a good man that he can be regarded as monstrous. (p.88)

The music had stopped, the lights had gone, and he couldn’t remember why he had come to this dark corner, where even the ground whined when he pressed it, as if it had learnt the trick of suffering… He couldn’t move an inch without causing pain. (p.67)

Like a boy he was driven relentlessly towards inevitable suffering, loss and despair, and called it happiness. (p.130)

Wasn’t it better to take part even in the crimes of people you loved, if it was necessary hate as they did, and if that were the end of everything suffer damnation with them, rather than be saved alone? (p.132)

‘Pity is a terrible thing. People talk about the passion of love. Pity is the worst passion of all: we don’t outlive it like sex.’ (p.172)

High-sounding twaddle.

Instead of plot…

…most of the book is a sequence of surreal and bizarre scenes, lent a macabre, de Chirico flavour by the backdrop of the Blitz, bombs at night, ruins by day. The bizarre urban fête with its absurdist flock of posh helpers which kicks off the novel would be badly out of place in a serious thriller, but is an appropriately amateurish way to start a half-humorous picaresque through bomb-ruined London.

In a way it’s a shame Greene didn’t have the courage of his psychoses and write a genuinely haunting hallucinatory fantasy about the London Blitz, in which ineffectual marionettes obsessed with suicide and death drifted across a flame-tormented city spouting page after page of bucket philosophy and cod theology while the bombs dropped around them. It might have been a high art or cult classic. Instead, as usual, he tried to corral his psychological obsessions into something much more conventional, into something absurdly contorting itself to be an espionage thriller.

After the scene at the fête, there follow:

  • the meeting with the seedy detective
  • the encounter with the over-enthusiastic emigré brother and sister, the Hilfes
  • the weird séance at which one Mr Cost is killed and everyone accuses Rowe of the murder
  • so he flees, spending the night in a Tube station converted into an air raid shelter
  • the failed attempt to dun an old friend, Wilcox, for money but he is distracted by organising the (surreal) funeral procession for his wife
  • Rowe leaning over the Embankment in Battersea Park contemplating suicide
  • decoyed into helping a shabby bookseller carry a suitcase of books across London
  • persuaded to carry this suitcase down hushed surreal hotel corridors to the room of one Travers: there is no Travers. When he enters the room there is the sister, Hilfe. They both realise that They are out to get them, that They are getting closer, that They are slowly turning the doorhandle, as in a surreal dream
  • the bomb in the suitcase goes off and Rowe wakes up in a convalescent home-cum-mental hospital having forgotten all his past life. Having forgotten he killed his wife, he is happy, happy…
  • until Anna Hilfe visits and stirs unfortunate memories; when the doctors try to lock him up he makes a schoolboy rebellion and breaks out of his dormitory (exactly as the real life Greene did at his school)
  • listens to the partly-mad colonel Strong in a straitjacket in his cell say he’s there because he came across Dr Forester and Poole doing something shifty – then on returing to his room Rowe is confronted by the furious Dr Forester who violently refreshes his memory of who he is, telling him he is a murderer
  • prompting Rowe to make a break for it to the nearest railway station, arriving at London to turn himself in to the police…

This isn’t a plot, it is a series of incidents, a travelogue. It is no surprise that Rowe feels manipulated:

He felt directed, controlled, moulded, by some agency with a surrealist imagination. (p.95)

Yes. That agency’s name would be Graham Greene.

Finally, some meaning

The book is divided into four parts:

  • The Unhappy Man, the long farrago of weird incidents in London
  • The Happy Man, the short interlude of the memory-less Rowe in the private clinic run by the sinister Dr Forester
  • Bits and Pieces, where the police take charge and swiftly clarify the plot
  • The Whole Man

It is only on page 150, around three-quarters in, that Rowe arrives at Scotland Yard and the feel of the novel changes dramatically because the detective Prentice is a rational adult and briskly reveals to the hopelessly self-pitying solipsistic Rowe the nature of the conspiracy which joins together all the ludicrous incidents we have had to endure in the main part of the book. It still doesn’t make a lot of sense but is the best we’re going to get: A ring of German spies have photocopied military secrets. The microfilm was hidden in the cake (ludicrously). Poole came round for tea and was going to steal the cake when the bomb landed. Nonetheless, the gang still couldn’t trust Rowe so invited him to the séance, framed him with Cost’s murder, forcing him on the run from the police. Got that? Believe any of that?

For short spells it almost begins to seem like a normal thriller or detective novel, though the holes in the plot yawn like the Mariana Trench and the pages are still larded with Greene’s trademark bunkum about justice and pity and fate and love and death and misery blah blah blah.

  • the Scotland Yard detective Prentice tells Rowe that the man sitting next to him at the séance, who he thought he killed – is alive and well – it was a stitch-up by Them to scare Rowe underground, to prevent him going to the police
  • Prentice explains the Nazis have a book recording the weaknesses of everyone in power, influential, useful, in order to blackmail them; it is a kind of Ministry of Fear set over the high & mighty
  • briskly, Prentice takes Rowe and the manager of the hotel where the bomb went off to a tailor’s in the City where they confront the not-murdered Cost who is also identified as the ‘Travers’ who booked the hotel room – ie he is one of Them but, before they can quesiton him, he kills himself (with a tailor’s cutting scissors)
  • and then on to the house of Mrs Bellairs and the séance where Rowe was framed for the murder that never was
  • and then by car out to the country house location of Dr Forester’s clinic where they discover that his underling Johns has shot dead both Forester and his sidekick Poole (none other than the sinister man who came to tea at Rowe’s flat right at the start of the story) after they have murdered the half-mad Stone. Why? Because Stone saw them burying the remains of Jones, the detective hired to tail Rowe, in the clinic’s grounds

Whereas Chandler or Hammett or Innes or Ambler would have the decency, the courtesy to the reader and the craft to convey these (preposterous) incidents accurately and clearly, Greene, like an amateur chef, leaves no incident to speak for itself but drowns everything in page after page of pseudo-intellectual gloop.

The doctor had been too sure of Johns: he had not realised that respect is really less reliable than fear: a man may be more ready to kill one he respects than to betray him to the police. (p.182)

Happiness should always be qualified by a knowledge of misery… One can’t love humanity. One can only love people. (p.184)

He was learning the lesson most people learn very young, that things never work out in the expected way. (p.201)

There are moments of surrender when it is so much easier to love one’s enemy than to remember… (p.204)

It isn’t being happy together, he thought as though it were a fresh discovery, that makes one love – it’s being unhappy together. (p.207)

They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice; they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much. They would never know what it was not to be afraid of being found out. It occurred to him that perhaps after all one could atone even to the dead if one suffered for the living enough. (last page)

Bromides. Truisms. T-shirt slogans.

Terrible dialogue

Instead of dialogue which develops the plot, dialogue which analyses the situation and generates insights into tricky scenarios and plans for escape (in which the reader can excitedly share), instead of needle-sharp exchanges which add to the tension, like the snappy exchanges to be found in Chandler or Innes or Ambler – there is next to no plot in Greene and so little or no suspense and so the dialogue is desperately un-tense, consisting of shabby people talking at cross-purposes or suddenly all agreeing they’re in danger without the circumstances providing the slightest justification for it or, at a slightly higher level, exchanging the same sort of truisms about life and death which fill the editorialising narration.

Greene’s dialogue does a number of things but it doesn’t move the plot along because there is almost no plot. A lot of the dialogue is 5th form philosophising. In fact the dialogue seems to take a kind of pleasure in portraying the characters as hopeless, childish, inadequate to the adult world.

He picked up [the heavy brass candlestick]. ‘He tried to kill me,’ he explained weakly.
‘He’s asleep. That’s murder.’
‘I won’t hit first.’
She said, ‘He used to be sweet to me when I cut my knees. Children always cut their knees… Life is horrible, wicked.’ (p.202)

In the last 20 pages Rowe discovers that the dying Cost made his last phone call to the Hilfes’ flat. Rather than calling the police like an adult he sets out on a boyish ‘adventure’ to collar them himself, only to take pity on Anna (who he now mysteriously ‘loves’) and, instead of capturing Hilfe outright, allowing his sister to have moments alone with him, during which he hands over a useless copy of the photographs and she, like an imbecile, lets him escape.

Rowe pursues him in a taxi to Paddington station and, again as the bombs fall closer and closer, in the characteristically seedy setting of the Gents lavatories, Hilfe finally hands over the negatives in exchange for the gun with one bullet in it. Whereupon Hilfe maliciously a) reveals to Rowe his full past ie the oh-so-gruseome fact that he poisoned his wife and b) shoots himself, thus depriving the police of valuable information about the spy ring. Rowe is a cretin.

Now, with a fully-restored memory and fully-restored to normal Greene levels of suicidal despair, Rowe returns to Anna, pledges his love to her but conceals the fact that Hilfe told him about his past; he is going to pretend to still be the happily post-bomb trauma amnesiac; and so he consciously commits to deliberately lying to her for the rest of their lives together. Oooh.

This is obviously meant to be some profound insight into the horror of human nature or the human predicament or something. More obviously, Greene has just justified a lifetime of infidelity to his wife. It is therefore entertaining to read in biographies of him that he was a philanderer on an epic scale, both with other people’s wive and countless prostitutes. His wife’s later admission that maybe he was not suited to married life counts as one of the geat understatements of literary history.

Obsessive thinking

His helpless, ineffectual characters are doomed to discover the same shallow ‘truths’ again and again, because the same depressive thoughts circulate obsessively in Greene’s mind throughout his life. This explains why the novels feel so static – why there is so little sense of progression or revelation.

Fear ends with Rowe as depressed and suicidal as at the beginning. The all-encompassing gloom is there from the start, the suicide-ometer levels bump up or down a bit during the text, but has returned to Deep Despair by the end, possibly intensified by the final flesh-creeping bollocks about entering into a lifetime of lies in order to ‘protect’ his beloved.

When you open a Greene text you enter the gloomy Greeneworld and continue in the same place of shadows and despair till you put it down. There is no psychological dynamism or progression because you remain in the same place.

An aspect of the ‘plot’ of a novel is that the characters somehow change. They learn things. They are altered. This doesn’t really happen in Greene. The whisky priest starts The Power and The Glory as hopeless as he ends it; Scobie is as miserably tied to his depressed wife at the start of The Heart of The Matter as he is at the end. Greene may cobble together ‘plots’ of a sort for his novels, but his grim worldview is so stifling and ubiquitous that the characters never really change. At most, they degrade.

The thriller’s compulsory reference to thrillers

Seems to be a law that all thrillers have to refer to the way their plot is turning out very like a thriller. In one of the many dreams or dream-like fugues which colour Rowe’s consciousness, he addresses his long-dead mother (Greene’s mother, also, died when he was young):

‘It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it, but the thrillers are like life – more like life than you are, your lawn, your sandwiches, your pine tree. You used to laugh at the books Miss Savage read – about spies, and murders, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but dear, that’s real life: it’s what we’ve all made of the world since you died. I’m your little Arthur who wouldn’t hurt a beetle and I’m a murderer too. The world has been remade by William Le Queuex.’ (p.65)

On his arse

When asked at the séance what he does, Rowe replies, ‘sit and think’. He has an independent income of £400 a year and so doesn’t need to work. This inanition accurately reflects the novelist’s own lack of involvement in the productive life of the world around him. He travelled, he seduced lots of women, he had famous acquaintances, but he spent most of his time sitting and thinking, mostly about how depressed he was, turning over and over the same obsessive negative thoughts endlessly.

Graham Greene’s novels aren’t novels, they are the compulsive symptoms of a deep-rooted psychological illness.

Related links

Movie version

Hollywood was quick to pounce on the novel, gutted it for the melodrama about an insidious spy ring, and released a movie version, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Ray Milland, just one year after the book came out. The whole second part about Rowe losing his memory of killing his wife, the entire sequence about the private hospital in the country and all the patients and the murdered private detective and Johns killing Forester – all that is deleted to make a much simpler plotline revolving round Rowe falling for Anna and both of them exposing her spy brother. Given the continuous melodrama of the plot, the film is surprisingly static and inert. My wife fell asleep, and I struggled to keep awake.

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 Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin (1943)

The Minister looked round with a very nice, rather practiced-looking smile and said, ‘These are the backroom boys, eh?’ (p.32)

Ever heard of the novelist Nigel Balchin (1908-70)? No, me neither. Came across this because it was adapted by Powell and Pressburger into a movie in 1949, starring David Farrar, a pretty much now-forgotten leading man of the time who also starred in Black Narcissus. As forgotten an actor as Balchin is a novelist.

Balchin’s biography

Balchin went to private school then Cambridge where he took a Natural Sciences degree before going to work for sweet manufacturers as a consultant, and where ‘he was intimately involved in the design and marketing of Black Magic chocolates and, he claimed, responsible for the success of the Aero and Kit Kat brands’ (Wikipedia). Sounds like early brand management.

Balchin wrote business books and screenplays besides his 15 or so novels. Another notable novel is Brightness Falls From the Air set during the Blitz. His first novel was published in 1934 which makes him roughly contemporary with Ambler (first book 1936) and Innes (first book 1937).

During the war he worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of Food and it is the crossover between research science and bureaucratic administration where this novel sits. It is not a war novel in the conventional sense. There is no action, no fighting, not even the Blitz, until the last 20 pages or so. Instead this novel is a riveting and completely convincing account of Whitehall gossiping and in-fighting. A wartime version of Yes, Minister. When the slimy civil servant Pinker tells the book’s hero that a new, rather notorious Minister is being appointed, he goes on to reassure him:

‘Oh, he’ll be alright. He’ll do as he’s told. In his last job I’m told they had a marvellous technique for dealing with him. They just used to tell him that he mustn’t bother with detail because  his time was too valuable. The old boy ate it, and they got him to the point eventually where they only sent him about two papers a week. They called it his ration.’ (1968 Collin hardback edition, p.112)

The first 160 pages are all like this, conversations in which lots of clever people talk about how they are going to control and manipulate other clever people.

The Small Back Room

The book consists of a first-person narrative by one Sammy Rice, lead research scientist in a down-at-heel experimental arms laboratory in England during the Second World War. We’re thrown straight into its office politics and relations, his subordinates Tilly and Corporal Taylor, his boss Waring, the Old Man, Professor Mair, in charge. People tired, wearing patched up clothes, smoking vile pipes, working in a dingy back room, talking spiffing.

Ideas have to be vetted, reports written up, updates presented at the monthly meeting, everything turned out in a hurry for a surprise visit by the Minister. Almost all the ideas are rubbish. The other civil servants are permanently manoeuvring for power. Rice is continually involved in conversations he doesn’t quite understand as departmental politics and alliances shift around him. Through a series of encounters he realises his demanding boss is being slowly surrounded by enemies and lined up for a fall in which he is unwittingly manipulated into playing a part.

The tone is unhappy, veering from long-suffering sarcasm to bitter satire. At its lightest it is similar to the tone of Len Deighton’s early novels which are also much concerned with Whitehall bureaucracy.

The Minister looked round and said, ‘Well, there’s certainly a lot of most interesting work going on here, Mair. Most interesting.’ Just to show how fascinated he was he made for the door. (p.32)

I worked in a government ministry for a while and experienced exactly such visits from the gods where my bosses rushed to put out the shiny goods and fell over themselves to demonstrate our achievements to the Big Man, while we foot soldiers laughed up our sleeves. When Rice meets the mover and shaker Sir Lewis Easton the latter complains that different groups aren’t co-ordinated, everyone works in silos instead of being joined-up. This issue was still being ‘tackled’ in the three ministries and government agencies I worked for in the 2000s. 1943, 1963, 2003: nothing appears to change.

And was wartime research really carried out by the bored technicians, ignorant managers and mealy-mouthed civil servants portrayed in this book – how terrifying!

The focus of the Whitehall scenes is a disagreement about the viability of the Reeves gun. Balchin’s book conveys with searing accuracy how one project can become the focal point for multiple storms: it divides opinion within Rice’s little team, sets his managers at loggerheads, provides a stick for the Army to beat the government agency responsible with, and becomes the pretext for a power grab by the seasoned committee man Sir Lewis Easton.

Around the middle of the novel there is a masterful account of a committee meeting where the warring factions converge and in which the narrator, as the technician with the figures, is put right at the epicentre of the argument, to his acute embarrassment.

Eventually the inevitable happens and Rice’s superior, the head of the Research Section, is squeezed out to be replaced by a man hand-chosen by Sir Lewis, who will toe the corporate line, who will cancel most of the informal (and most interesting) work they’re doing, and limit their (previously uncoordinated) work to official commissions coming through official channels.

It went on like that for about twenty minutes. He’d no idea what things were, or who the people were, or what we were doing, or whether it mattered. All he knew was that he was going to stop pretty nearly the lot. (p.149)

Is there anyone who’s ever worked at a large organisation, who hasn’t had an experience like that?

Oedipus

A decade before the story starts the narrator had his foot amputated and replaced with an artificial one, but it hurts all the time which makes him irritable. First novel I can remember reading which is narrated by someone in constant low-level pain. Not a comfortable read. And it colours his troubled relationship with fiancée Susan, particularly at the end of each day when he has to decide whether to take painkillers, drown the pain in whisky, or stay sober and tetchy.

His battle with alcoholism has escalated into peculiar role-playing with his girlfriend: on their ‘problem’ evenings they play act to diffuse the situation. On this evening, when he’s really angry with her for being late and leaving him alone with the bottle of whisky, he storms off down the pub, and it’s pre-arranged that she turns up there too, pretending not to know him, pretending to chat him up. This enables him to pour out all his bitterness and anger against her, to her, in her playacting role as shoulder-to-cry-on. And when he’s finally spewed it all out, they go back to the flat and have sausages and mash with wartime cabbage.

These are odd scenes. They’d seem weird even in a modern novel but are positively surreal set against the posh chaps-with-bowler-hats scenes of daytime Whitehall. (This sense of two rather different types of novel existing side by side in the same book is compounded by the advent of a third theme in the surprisingly nailbiting climax, see below).

The story of an inadequate man

Around page 120 there’s a fascinating scene between Rice and his girlfriend where she really indicts his personality, systematically showing him that he always chickens out of big decisions and then blames everyone else. This is disarmingly the kind of conversation real people have in real life, nothing like the brisk, plan-making of the thrillers. Rice denies it but Susan gives him such powerful examples he’s forced to accept it and go to sleep wondering if he really is such a loser, someone who evades decisions, avoids confrontation, always does what’s easiest, and then moans and complains when things don’t turn out as he wants.

She said, ‘You really are hopeless, Sammy. You seem to go out of your way to make – to make yourself useless… You won’t face things – not real things that are difficult. You just work on little easy things, like whether you like people or have known them a long time or something. You just want to be safe. When it gets difficult you run away.’ (p.126)

Unexplosive finale

These two strands come together in the last thirty pages of this short novel. In among all his other calls and contacts, Rice had had a few conversations with one Captain Dick Stuart about a spate of explosions killing peple who had picked up some kind of booby-trapped device. Rice met Stuart a couple of times and helped him with technical advice. At just the time that the big changeover comes between Rice’s easy-going old boss and the new, more by-the-book chap, Rice receives another call from Stuart who says they’ve found two examples of the device, unexploded on a Welsh beach, and asks for his help.

Relieved to be able to drop office politics and the criticism of his girlfriend, Rice takes the train to Wales only to be told, on arrival, that Stuart was blown up and killed trying to dismantle the first device. In a nerve-jangling final twenty pages to the novel, Rice follows Stuart’s notes as he dismantles the second device.

He is racked with nerves, becomes drenched in sweat, can barely see, and unscrews the tight fuse cap of the device with shaking hands. We feel the muscle in his thigh begin to twitch uncontrollably, the wire from the phone line around his neck brush for a second against the detonation terminals, we feel every inch of his fear.

And there, right at the climax of the novel, comes its great question: Rice spends an hour-and-a-half defusing the bomb, and, by a lucky chance, realises the location of the second fuse. By this time he is too weak and shaky to unscrew the second cap and it is done in a jiffy by the brave, strong, virile and whole-bodied lieutenant-colonel Strang, who has been overseeing the operation. Rice lies back and almost weeps. He had been determined to completely solve the problem or die in the attempt. He was at the same moment petrified it would explode and didn’t give a damn. But he ends up with the worst of both worlds, surviving but convinced he is a failure who ended up needing someone else to finish the job.

The question is: Is he right to feel this way? Is he a failure or a success? He is alive whereas Stuart is dead. He spotted the vital clue which Stuart missed. Using his method all similar bombs will be able to be defused. But he chooses to dwell on his physical weakness at the vital moment. Similarly, he retains his job where others have been fired. But he chooses to focus on how he missed earlier opportunities, offers from the oleaginous Pinker in a pub or in meetings with Sir Lewis Easton, where he could have manoeuvred himself into a better position. Sure he’s kept his job but with the grumpy resentment that he’s now being managed by idiots. Is he the self-pitying failure his girlfriend accuses him of being? Or is he actually reasonably successful but just twists everything so that it seems like failure in his tortured mind?

He returns to London completely demoralised and, on the last page, wanders into Hyde Park after dark at the end of his tether.

The moon was just going down behind a tree. I decided that when it disappeared I’d get up and go. I sat and watched it going and I knew there was no answer. If I’d been a bit sillier, or a bit more intelligent, or had more guts, or less guts, or had two feet or no feet, or been almost anything definite, it would have been easy. But as it was, I didn’t like what I was, and couldn’t be what I liked, and it would always be like that. (p.192)

This is an odd ending to an odd book. If it had stuck to the Whitehall merry-go-round theme and found some kind of fitting Yes, Ministerish ending to that plotline, it would have been one of the best books about office politics I’ve ever read. But it has this peculiar and insistent counter-theme which is almost tragic, or has a whiff of existentialism, concerning a man who is physically maimed and psychologically damaged and cannot be at ease with his own existence. That is the flavour which lingers when you close the book, and tends to eclipse the earlier, more humorous sections.

And then there is the nailbiting final sequence about bomb disposal, presumably a very early amateurish and more or less unsupervised bomb disposal, which also makes a powerful impression.

I think it’s the way it doesn’t really satisfactorily plumb the depths of any of these three subjects which has helped this novel sink into relative obscurity. But it’s a much more serious and searching piece of literature than the thrillers I’ve been reading recently, and well worth investigating.

Style

After the gripping narratives of Ambler and Innes it’s a shock to engage with Balchin. There is little or no dynamic to the story until the (exceptional) last twenty pages. Up till then everyone is stuck in the ruts of their boring nine-to-five, circling and conspiring against each other in the best bureaucratic tradition.

And after the thriller writers’ stripped-down, practical prose and dialogue, it’s like stepping into another world to hear Balchin’s characters talk: He and everyone he interacts with speak in old hat, clichéd, posh banter. Old chap, old man, old boy, sort of thing, for the love of Mike, the professor’s an old friend of the Minister, bung ho, what ho, oh I was at school with him, good show, good man, first-rate, frightful rot, ra-ther, get the wind up, prang, on the q.t., cheerful sort of cove etc etc.

(Note: It’s consistent with the jolly Battle-of-Britain bantering style, that – according to Wikipedia – this novel helped popularise the terms ‘boffin’ and ‘backroom boys’. If I’d read it in its year of publication I’d have wondered – like the protagonist does – whether anyone in Whitehall actually wanted to win the War or whether they were all too busy with their vicious little departmental in-fighting.)

All this said, Balchin does have a nifty way with a phrase. Earlier sections, in a nightclub, in a pub, in the office, sustain an entertainingly detached, satirical, sarcastic tone and pithy phrase-making:

He sat for a bit and stared into the distance as though he had known it once but proposed to cut it now. (p.82)

Easton turned his head very slowly and gave me the flat hard stare that served him as an expression of anger, surprise, interest and amusement, depending on the context. (p.85)

The doctor was a rather fat chap, very bald, with a red face and brilliant blue eyes. He had a hearty slap-you-on-the-back manner which he switched on and off like a motorist dipping his headlights. (p.99)

Dramatis personae

  • Sammy Rice: the narrator: research scientist with an amputated foot and artificial replacement, an inferiority complex and a drink problem. In love with…
  • Susan: his fiancée, who has to put up with Rice’s moods, bad temper, struggle with the booze. Also secretary to…
  • Waring: his boss, not a scientist, a PR man in Civvy Street, blissfully unaware of the complicated Whitehall politics surrounding him and his team – or is he? Is he in fact just effortlessly competent at playing the game?
  • Tilly: co-worker and scientist, the numbers man, always punching stats into his primitive calculating machine.
  • Joe Marchant: victim of the new broom who comes in and sweeps him right out of the department.
  • Corporal Taylor: working on fuses but troubled by his foreign-looking floozy of a wife.
  • Corporal Ellis: working on micro photographs.
  • Professor Mair: ‘the Old Man’, in overall charge of the research unit, we see him perform at various departmental meetings, before being ousted.
  • Dick: Sammy’s younger brother, twice-decorated RAF pilot.
  • Pinker: creepy civil servant acquaintance who’s always pushing for inside info about the department and conspiring to get other civil servants sacked: he’s managed 14 to date.
  • Iles: arrogant bureaucrat Rice encounters at a nightclub who thinks the services don’t deserve the wonderful civil servants who provide for them.
  • Sir Lewis Easton: chair of National Scientific Council. Extremely experienced political player ie slippery fish. Manages to get Mair ousted and replaced with his appointee, Brine, who knows absolutely nothing about their work.
  • Knollys: a pre-War friend working in a different lab, who has a whole sub-plot to himself exemplifying the utter absurdity of Whitehall life.
  • Hereward: Knollys’ boss who only signs off on ideas he’s persuaded he thought of himself.

The movie

Adapted into a movie by the famous British film-making team of Powell and Pressburger in 1949. Balchin himself worked on the script. It is long and pretty faithful to the novel but very wooden and stilted – though just about worth watching for the fine array of British character actors (Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack, Geoffrey Keen, Robert Morley, Patrick Macnee and a very young Bryan Forbes).

Surprisingly, given P&P’s reputation for oddity and the involvement of the author, they change the ending: the novel’s puzzled irresolute inconclusion is transformed into a happy ending: Rice defuses the bomb all by himself, returns to London feeling like a hero, on the back of this success is offered a job running his own department, and his beautiful wife rushes into his arms. The perennial cowardice of film makers.

It tells you a lot about the standards of the day that it was nominated for a 1950 BAFTA Award as ‘Best British Film’.

Related links

Cover of an early American edition of the Small Back Room

Cover of an early American edition of the Small Back Room

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