Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson (1946)

‘You must go on a long journey before you can really find out how wonderful home is.’
(Snufkin, page 93)

Inspired by the current exhibition about Tove Jansson at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I am rereading the Moomin books. I’ve been meaning to for ages. I’m reading the old Puffin paperbacks my parents bought me back in the late 1960s when I was 8 or 9. Just handling them brings back memories, and immersing myself in the stories brings back a wonderful warm feeling of safety and adventure.

The plot

The Moomin family have settled into Moomin Valley after the great flood carried their house there. Moominpappa has built a little bridge over the river and Moominmamma is making jam. Moomintroll and his friend Sniff go exploring, make friends with the silk-monkey, then discover a wonderful cave by the sea, and Moomintroll goes diving for pearls. But everywhere they go secret signs have been laid out – carved in trees, marked in the sand, laid out in pearls – the sign of a circle with a flaring tail.

One dark and stormy night a bedraggled visitor knocks at the door. It is the muskrat who is welcomed in and made at home by Moompappa. The muskrat is a philosopher who lies around in a hammock all day contemplating the pointlessness of everything.

The muskrat tells Moomintroll and Sniff that a great comet is coming. To find out more they must go to the observatory high in the Lonely Mountains. So Moominmamma packs their bags and makes sandwiches and off they go on a raft down the river. They avoid an attack of crocodiles by throwing them a pair of Moomintroll’s woollen trousers (that’s the way to handle crocodiles). On a bare barren strand they hear the beguiling sound of a mouth organ and steer to the shore where they meet and befriend Snufkin, a wanderer over the land.

He takes them up into some hills. In a ravine they see garnets twinkling. Sniff loves jewels and clambers down to collect them but he is terrified by a large dragon and only just manages to scramble back up to safety!

Snufkin joins their expedition. Floating along on the raft, he tells them about the time a volcanic vent opened up right next to where he was sleeping and erupted a torrent of fire spirits. One of the weaker ones fell into a nearby stream and wailed for help so Snufkin scooped him out, though he got a bit burned in the process. The grateful fire spirit gave Snufkin a bottle of underground sun-oil.

He’s barely finished this story before the raft goes over a tumultuous waterfall and then into a long black tunnel which gets narrower and narrower.

Just as the river (and the raft) are about to plunge down a black hole, it gets jammed by the mast and, looking up through an opening in the tunnel roof, Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin are able to attract the attention of a Hemulen who is collecting butterflies up above. He is most surprised to pull up three little animals in his butterfly net. Hemulens are big and rather slow. They love collecting things.

The trio climb up into the mountains and are attacked by a massive eagle. But when the eagle misses the three little creatures cowering against the rockface, it goes off in a huff. Eagles are very proud creatures, you know. Up in the misty mountains they come across a gold ankle bracelet which Moomintroll retrieves from a ledge.

Then they come to the observatory on the Lonely Mountains and quiz the professors about the comet. The professors are irritated to be bothered and interrupted. They also say the Moomin group isn’t the first to do so; they recently had a visit from a Snork maiden who mainly fussed about a lost bracelet. Sniff manages to get one of the professors to talk, who tells him that the comet will collide with the earth on the seventh of October at 8.42pm. Possibly four seconds later.

Well, there’s only one way to cope with the end of the world:

‘Then we must hurry home as fast as we can,’ said Moomintroll anxiously. ‘If only we can get home to mamma before it comes nothing can happen. She will know what to do.’ (p.76)

So they hurry home. When Snufkin explains the game of rolling boulders over mountain cliffs, Moomintroll accidentally falls over the cliff, too, and is only saved because they are all roped together. Moomintroll is becoming obsessed with rescuing the Snork maiden whose ankle bracelet he found.

They discover the Hemulen at the bottom of the mountain with a bump on his head from falling stones. They don’t tell him it was they who are responsible.

Then they hear screams and run to the rescue of the Snork and his sister, the Snork maiden, who is being attacked by a Snork-eating bush. Moomintroll fights the bush, rescues the Snork maiden and gives her back her ankle bracelet, at which she goes a fetching shade of pink and asks Moomintroll to go and collect blue flowers for her; they’ll set off her colour adorably. (She is rather a preening, beauty-obsessed young person.)

The Snork maiden makes a lovely fruit soup with some berries and the last of Sniff’s lemonade, and they all go to sleep in the forest on a mat she has woven under the baleful red glow of the comet which is looming larger and larger in the sky.

Next day they come across a little village store in the woods, where they buy more lemonade and the Snork buys an exercise book to write down what to do if a comet hits the earth. Moomintroll buys the Snork maiden a beautiful pocket glass. That evening there is a party in the forest, where Snufkin plays his mouth organ accompanied by a giant grasshopper on a fiddle. Tree-spirits and water-spooks come out and all the little forest creatures dance till the early hours and everyone falls asleep.

Next morning Moomintroll and Sniff, Snufkin, the Snork and the Snork maiden come to the sea and discover it has completely dried up, leaving a vast muddy basin littered with seaweed. So they find planks and poles and saplings and make stilts for themselves and stilt-walk across the abandoned sea bottom. They come to a ruined old hulk of a ship which contains treasure but also a huge octopus which tries to attack Moomintroll till the Snork maiden uses the pocket glass to shine light in its eyes and make it slope away in fear.

They come across some enormous sea shells, the biggest of which is singing softly to itself the age-old song of the sea.

‘Oh!’ sighed the Snork maiden. ‘I should like to live in that shell. I want to go inside and see who is whispering in there.’
‘It’s only the sea,’ said Moomintroll. ‘Every wave that dies on the beach sings a little song to the shell. But you mustn’t go inside because it’s a labyrinth and you may never come out again.’ (p.122)

Next day they climb back up out of the sea basin to dry land and approach Moomin Valley. Everyone is fleeing the comet, the paths are full of little forest folk pushing wheelbarrows full of belongings. They come across a very disgruntled Hemulen whose stamp collecting has been upset by all the bother. (He is a cousin on his father’s side of the butterfly-collecting Hemulen they left in the Lonely Mountains.)

They come across a fleet of Egyptian grasshoppers who are eating everything in their path. And then a tornado which originated in Egypt and has turned into a devastating wind comes blowing through Moomin valley. They persuade the Hemulen to take off his dress (Hemulens always wear dresses), all grab hold to the frills of the hem and are blown high into the sky, coming to rest in a tall plum tree.

Next day they finally arrive home at Moomin House to find Moonmamma putting the finishing touches to a lovely birthday cake for Moomintroll, with pale yellow lemon peel and slices of crystallised pear. Moominmamma rushes out to meet them and her son introduces her to all the newcomers, including the bashful Snork maiden. The Muskrat has already told Moominmamma that the comet is due to crash right in Moomin valley, which is very vexing because she has only just weeded the vegetable patch.

Now they tell Moominmamma and Moominpappa about Sniff’s cave and everyone decides it will be the best place to hide from the comet. They all run round gathering provisions to see them through. They hurry off to the cave with a wheelbarrow of belongings and also the house bath (of course) which they squeeze through the doorway and put Moomintroll’s cake into for safekeeping. At the last minute the Muskrat shows up, and withdraws into the shadows. After a few minutes they realise he has sat on the cake. Oh dear.

‘My cake too,’ groaned Moomintroll. ‘In my honour!’
‘Now I shall be sticky for the rest of my life I suppose,’ said the Muskrat bitterly. ‘I only hope I can bear it like a man and a philosopher.’ (p.149)

At the last last minute Moomintroll realises they’ve forgotten the silk-monkey and goes rushing back out into the woods to find her, managing to track her down and rushing with her back to the cave. Barely has he thrown himself through the curtain they’ve hung up over the entrance than there is a tremendous whooshing sound and the comet flies right through the valley, out the other side and flies clear of planet earth. A tiny bit closer and, well, none of us would be here to read this. But it all turned out OK. Phew.

Moominmamma reassures the terrified little creatures and tells them to cuddle up against her while she sings them a lullaby.

Snuggle up close, and shut your eyes tight,
And sleep without dreaming the whole of the night.
The comet is gone, and your mother is near
To keep you from harm till the morning is here. (p.155)

The next morning the sky is blue again – no longer the horrible red caused by the comet – and the sea is flooding back into its bed, gleaming like soft blue silk. All the little creatures of sea and land are coming out and frolicking and singing. Snufkin wakes up and starts playing his mouth organ. Moomintroll digs up the pearls he buried in the cave right at the start of the story and gives them to the Snork maiden.

But the last and biggest pearl he gives to his beloved Moominmamma.

The illustrations

Half the pleasure of a good children’s book is the illustrations, but in this case more than half. What is it about Jansson’s line drawings which are so airy, fantastical and yet so utterly charming? The preciseness of the line drawing (as opposed to the fuzzy style of, say, Edward Ardizzone). The vivid three-D effect of the cross-hatching and shading. Maybe the key is the essentially humorous, baby-like conception of the characters themselves, which have survived translation into film and animation and models and puppet form. Sometimes it’s the Heath Robinsonian intricacy of the more detailed illustrations (like Sniff at the telescope). Other times the big simplicity of awe-inspiring images, like the comet coming close.

The worldview

Jansson doodled the first Moomin characters into existence during the war. It is no coincidence that in these early books the Moomins represent stability, love and optimism in the face of great disasters (a flood, a comet rushing towards the earth).

What comes over for me, in the books, is their groundedness in the enormous sense of safety and security created by the Moomins’ loving parents. Whatever happens, the little ones – Moomintroll and Sniff – know they can be home in time for plum jam and tea. Nothing can ever be seriously wrong as long as Moominmamma is darning socks and decorating cakes. Moominmamma will know what to do.

Because Moominmamma is the central character. Moominpappa is a rather remote character, an eccentric handyman who builds bridges and fixes things, but is mostly in his study, puffing his pipe and writing memoirs about his adventures. It is Moominmamma the little ones go running to, who accepts all their adventures calmly, who packs bags full of practical items they’ll need on their journey (a frying pan, an umbrella) who never panics, who is calm and capable.

It is this wonderful warmth and all-accepting calmness of Moominmamma which sits at the centre of Moominworld, carrying on the quietest of domestic activities – arranging shells around the flower beds, making plum jam, arranging lemon peel on a cake – and in doing so, creating, securing and safeing a whole world.

In the kitchen Moominmamma found Moomintroll and Sniff curled up together in a corner, tired out by their adventures. She spread a blanket over them and sat down by the window to darn Moominpappa’s socks. (p.21)

Good things

Everything that happens is exactly the kind of thing which a child would want to happen. The book features a kind of greatest hits of childhood fantasies. Just to take the first 30 pages, Moomintroll and Sniff find a secret path in the woods, have an adventure with a new friend (the silk-monkey), discover a cave – and not just any old cave, but the perfect ideal cave, with rocky walls and a sandy floor – Moomintroll goes diving for pearls (and finds lots), they set off down a river on an adventure on a raft, fight crocodiles and fry pancakes on a camp fire amid the roots of an ancient tree. Wow. It’s like the best holiday ever.

It’s not just that some of these things are exciting: pretty much every single one of these events is a devout fantasy wish of any adventurous 6, 7 or 8 year old.

Good prose

And the style is so straightforward, so warm and good humoured, taking the most amazing events and ideas completely in its stride.

On the very top of the jagged peak above them stood the Observatory. Inside, scientists made thousands of remarkable observations, smoked thousands of cigarettes, and live alone among the stars. (p.71)

As with everything in the books, the child reader thinks ‘How wonderful!’ To be a grown up and smoke cigarettes and be a fascinating professor and live lonely and remote among the stars. God, what a dream!


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

The Respectful Prostitute by Jean-Paul Sartre (1946)

A slender play which is hard to take seriously and more a testament to the chronic anti-Americanism of 1950s French intellectuals than any kind of ‘analysis’ of the race issue in America. Like many of Sartre’s plays it presents a plight, a fraught and melodramatic situation, designed to bring out his eternal themes of freedom and responsibility.

The plot

Scene one

It’s a short piece, one act comprising two scenes set in the same rundown front room. Lizzie is a prostitute. There’s a ring at the doorbell. It’s a big black guy in a panic. The lynch mob is coming for him. They’re saying he raped her on the train. ‘Please promise to tell them it ain’t true.’ She promises. He runs off.

Last night’s ‘client’ comes out of the bathroom where he’s been freshening up during all this. He’s a repellently arrogant young white man named ‘Fred’ who treats Lizzie roughly, at one point nearly strangling her, telling her she’s a sinner and the Devil and their bed smells of ‘sin’. That kind of self-hating sex addict. She reminds him that he was kind and loving last night. He violently denies it and contemptuously gives her just ten dollars for her night’s work.

Anyway, this hard-edged conversation reaches a revelation when Fred asks Lizzie if she was raped by the black man on the train last night. His pal, Webster, told him (Fred) that she (Lizzie) was raped. To be precise, Webster told Fred that two black men were raping a white woman when a bunch of white men went to her help, one of the blacks flashed a razor and a white man shot him dead, the other black escaping and jumping off the train. They’ve been chasing him ever since.

Ah. Now we know why the black guy turned up in such a panic at her door just a few minutes ago.

Except that – startled – Lizzie denies this entire story and describes what really happened. Four white guys got on the train pissed as farts, began touching her up, two black guys intervened to protect her, and a drunk white man shot one, the other escaped i.e. the one we just saw knocking on her door.

Fred now asks if that’s the story she’s going to tell (blacks intervening against whites) when she’s brought before the judge tomorrow? Because he – Fred – comes from a famous family, the Clarkes, his Dad is a senator, and he knows the white man accused of the shooting, Thomas, and ‘let me tell you, he is a fahn upstanding member of the community’, and he doesn’t deserve to go to gaol.

Fred offers Lizzie $500 if she’ll tell the judge his version of the story, i.e. lie to incriminate the black man. In fact, he now reveals that he has her testimony to this version of the story already printed out and ready for her to sign. In fact – it now emerges – that’s the main reason he came to visit her last night, to get her to make a false statement. The rest (having sex) was just a, er, distraction.

Lizzie for her part is no angel and fairly racist. She says (in the extremely blunt language of the play) that she doesn’t like blacks (‘I don’t like n******’ p.269) and wouldn’t sleep with no black man. But she insists she can’t lie, she won’t lie, so Fred threatens her some more.

At which point the police knock and enter. They accuse Lizzie of being a prostitute, which is illegal. When she denies it, Fred points to the money on the table which he says he has just paid her i.e. far from meaning all his sweet words of love last night he has utterly used and compromised her in order to blackmail her, and force her to sign the false testimony. And now, we realise, the racist police are in cahoots with him.

Thus the cops swing in behind Fred’s demand that she lie to the judge: they tell her she’ll go to prison for 18 months unless she incriminates the black man before the judge at today’s hearing.

Lizzie still refuses to sign and Fred gives a vile speech asking what value the life of a two-bit whore has in comparison with a ‘fahn upstanding gennelman’ like Thomas? He grabs her and is physically forcing her to her knees to reverence a photograph of fine young Thomas, when his father, Senator Clarke, walks through the door. Intimidated, the cops step aside and Fred lets Lizzie go.

The handsome, soft-voiced Senator then does his spiel, gently reassuring Lizzie that it’s fine, just fine, to tell the truth about what really happened on the train, he admires her, he really does… but maybe she should stop and think, just for a minute, about fine old Mary, his dear old sister, a fine old grey-haired lady, mother of this poor unfortunate boy, Thomas, and how – if Lizzie goes ahead and incriminates him and he gets sent to gaol – well, it’s going to break fine old Mary’s heart.

Furthermore – and at this point the play begins to move from the realm of the extreme into the realms of fantasy – the Senator then does an impersonation of Uncle Sam, speaking kindly to little ole Lizzie and asking her, as with the voice of America itself:

“Here are two men I have raised in my bosom, young Lizzie – a fine upstanding white boy who comes from one of our oldest families, went to Harvard and owns a factory which employs 2,000 workers, ‘a leader, a firm bulwark against the Communists, labour unions and the Jews’ (p.264).

And on the other hand, here is a black man who chisels and dawdles, sings and ‘wears pink and green suits’. Now, which of these should we save, which one is the better American?”

Bamboozled and confused by the Senator’s gentle but grand and domineering manner, by his fine noble appearance and his stirrin’ patriotic tones, Lizzie finds herself in a daze signing the fake testimony — at which point the Senator, Fred and the cops drop all pretense of kindness and concern and simply sweep out. At the last moment Lizzie repents and runs to the door… but it’s too cotton-picking late!

Scene two

The much shorter second scene is set in the same dingy living room, 12 hours later, the evening of the same day.

The Senator returns to say that Thomas was let off and has been reunited with his dear old mother who has kindly sent her a letter. Lizzie opens the ‘letter’ to find a hundred dollar bill enclosed – not even the $500 which Fred had at one stage promised her – and not even a note of thanks. She is crushed by the contempt, the ingratitude.

The Senator is not fazed by her visible scorn and marches respectably out. Next moment the desperate black guy from scene one climbs in through the window. (I know it’s meant to be dead serious, but all these panic-stricken entrances and exits kept reminding me of the Keystone Kops.) A lynch mob is closing in on him. Just in case we don’t know what that means Sartre spells it out. the lynch mob will tie him up, whip him across the eyes to blind him, then pour gasoline over him and set him on fire (p.269). Maybe castrate him first, you can never be sure.

Lizzie gingerly admits to the black guy that she did reluctantly sign the false testimony confirming that he raped her — but she bitterly regrets it now and she promises to hide him from the mob. She offers him a revolver so he can shoot his way out, but he repeatedly refuses to take it. ‘Ah can’t shoot white folks,’ he repeats, piteously. ‘Hide in the bathroom,’ she tells him.

A couple of lynchers knock on the door and demand to search the place, until Lizzie reveals, to their surprise, that she is the woman who was raped and is the pretext for the hue and cry.

Sartre twists the knife by giving stage instructions that the lynchers are not only shocked, but look at her with fascination and desire, too. Filthy white American hypocrites! Daunted by her claim, they run off to search the rest of the building but kindly promise to come fetch her when they catch the varmint so she can watch them torture him to death.

The black guy comes out of hiding in the bathroom and there’s a brief dialogue. Lizzie is overwhelmed: the whole town, all the men she’s met, the police, the senator and Uncle Sam, the entire country is saying he’s guilty and that she was raped, so insistently that she’s beginning to doubt her own experience. And the black guy, too, admits that he’s feeling guilty, despite having done nothing. Why? Because, as he puts it, ‘they’re white folks’. Thus he is shown as being not just a physical victim, but – worse – a psychological victim of white racism, which uses every institution and implement in its power to convince him he is inferior and guilty.

There’s another knock on the door and the terrified black guy runs back into the bathroom. Enter Fred who excitedly tells Lizzie that they’ve caught and lynched and burned to death a black guy. Admittedly, it was the wrong guy, but hell, all black people are guilty of something, right? Anyway, the point is that watching a black guy being burned alive has made Fred feel horny as hell. He’s run all the way over here not knowing whether he’s going to murder Lizzie or rape her, but now he’s here he’s got a good idea which, and he grabs her and she starts to scream.

In response the black guy comes running out the bathroom. Fred draws a revolver but the black guy pushes him out the way and runs out of the door. Fred runs after him and we hear two gunshots. Lizzie takes the revolver she tried to give to the black guy earlier on, and hides it behind her back as Fred re-enters. She points the gun at him, threatening him. Convinced she’ll do it, the cowardly Fred starts begging for his life.

There then happens a frankly astonishing thing. You might expect a man faced with a gun held by an angry woman to beg for his life or try to coax her round. Instead, Fred gives a long speech pointing out that she can’t shoot him because the Clarke family he comes from are the embodiment of American history and American values!

The first Clarke cleared the forest hereabouts and killed all the Indians. His son was friends with George Washington and built this town and died fighting for American Independence. His great-grandfather saved a bunch of people during the great fire of San Francisco. His granddaddy came back to town and built the Mississippi Canal and was elected Governor. His daddy is Senator and Fred aims to become Senator, too.

In other words, Sartre makes this vile, hypocritical, bullying, psychopathic racist into a proud epitome of American history and culture, placing his disgusting personality at the centre of the American narrative.

You can’t do it, Fred says. ‘A girl like you can’t shoot a man like me’ (p.275) and, in fact… she can’t.

Fred walks up to Lizzie and takes the gun out of her hands. He tells her that in fact he missed the black guy with those two gunshots she heard, but, what the hell, here’s what he’s going to do for her. He’s going to set her up in a nice place of her own, with plenty of black servants and more money than she ever dreamed of and he’ll come and ‘visit’ her three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the weekend. Will she be happy with that? A happy little ole girl?

And, come on now baby, tell papa the truth – Did he really give her a thrill last night when they were making love? ‘Yes,’ she meekly replies. ‘That’s my girl,’ he says patting her cheek.

And that’s the end.

The Wikipedia article says this play ‘explores the theme of racism in the American South in the 1940s’. I’d suggest it doesn’t ‘explore’ anything, it hits you over the head with the crudest characters and bluntest plotline Sartre can conceive in order to ram home the shockingly corrupt, hateful and racist situation in the American Deep South of the 1940s. All it lacks is actually burning a black man to death onstage – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if modern, digitally-enhanced productions didn’t include old footage of lynchings, where they exist – to ram the point home.

The ‘n’ word

Putting aside the Keystone Kops entrances and exits, and the cartoon racism of all the white characters, in a way the most shocking thing about the play for a modern reader is the extremely frequent use of the ‘n’ word. This makes it problematic to quote and I wonder how it is handled in modern stagings.

If you search the online text you find the ‘n’ word is used 39 times in the text (somehow it seems like much, much more, maybe because of the word’s poisonous power) – but what really comes over is the hatred and contempt the white characters pour into their use of it.

More than the hokey plotline, it’s the virulence of the racist attitudes displayed by absolutely all the white characters which is so hard to take, to read, to cope with.

Anti-American

Apparently, when staged in the States the play produced a backlash among critics and audiences claiming it was anti-American. Well, it is. Massively, deliberately, contemptuously, calculatingly. It chimes with what I’ve been reading in Andy Martin about Sartre’s time in New York i.e he hated America, really profoundly hated everything about it.

And it gives substance to something else I’ve read about Sartre. Although he never actually joined the Communist Party, Sartre became steadily more of a Marxist as the Cold War progressed, supporting revolutionary communist aims and devoting his later writings to trying to integrate orthodox Marxist beliefs with his theory of existentialism.

So the way America treated its black population gave him a permanent argument against any claims for the moral superiority of the West vis-a-vis the communist bloc.

Whenever he was quizzed about the horrifying repressiveness of the communist regime in Russia which it was imposing during this period on all the countries of Eastern Europe – namely Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Yugoslavia – Sartre and his fellow Marxists were always able to respond with examples of the appalling racism, the Jim Crow laws, the discrimination and racist violence in America.

Twenty years later, they would be able to throw in the Vietnam War for good measure.

Intuitively, you’re inclined to think that there’s no comparison between, on the one hand, the communists systematically imposing totalitarian rule over an entire society, giving no-one any freedom of speech, assembly or publication, systematically clamping down on any dissent, sending people to labour camps for speaking out of turn, and so on – and the state of contemporary America where most people were free to assemble, speak, write, sing, publish and perform how they wanted to. During this period plenty of black entertainers got very rich – from jazz performers like Duke Ellington and Count Basie through singers like Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jnr. I.e there was a perfectly liberal, anti-racist cosmopolitan white America which was as appalled by the Deep South as any person of colour, and which campaigned and lobbied against racism.

But then again, maybe this is a hopelessly white point of view. Maybe – although I’ve read about it, seen art exhibitions and documentaries and movies about it – maybe I still can’t properly imagine how appalling it must have been to be a black man or woman, particularly in the systematically racist South, but even in many other places in the States, and subject to almost universal derision, discrimination, humiliation and violence, for most of the twentieth century.

A theatrical production

This trailer to what I think is a modern live stage production gives a sense of how scary and intense a really well-staged production of the play might be – though surely some of the hammy plot devices would have to be eliminated to bring out a real sense of terror.

The clip also gives a sense of the how much better the French language is suited to tragedy, to intense emotion and fear, than English, which is an intrinsically farcical language.

The movie

There’s also a French movie version of the play dating from the 1950s, which looks like it substantially expands the action, starting as it does in a nightclub. Alas, it seems this movie is not available on YouTube or via Amazon and so has, effectively, vanished from the face of the earth. Quel dommage.


Credit

The Respectful Prostitute was first performed in Paris in November 1946. This English translation by Lionel Abel was published in the United States in 1948. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The End by Samuel Beckett (1946)

… and anyway no one understands a tenth of what you say…

Before the war Beckett had begun composing experimental prose pieces in French. After the war he wrote these four short monologues entirely in French. Breaking free of English has the effect of cleansing his palate so he can start anew. The Beckettian themes –

  • a shambling decrepit protagonist
  • trapped in total solipsism
  • autistically close observation of their own physical gestures
  • obsessive-compulsive repetition of gestures, words and thoughts
  • physical decrepitude, old age, decay
  • memory loss, vagueness about his own name, age, identity, biography
  • the impossibility of communication

emerge cleaner and sharper in these short monologues than in the pre-war books, where they tended to be buried under a crust of mock heroic, mock academic bombast and pedantry.

Things, especially the underlying nihilism, are expressed clearer and bleaker.

But the biggest single breakthrough is that these are all monologues. In More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy Beckett had had to create ‘characters’ and ‘dialogue’, no matter how artificial or stained.

Now he doesn’t have to bother. Other people come in and out of focus as the half-deranged narrator requires and fragments of conversation can appear, inconsequentially, puzzlingly, allusively, without any tiresome requirement to delineate a character or further a ‘plot’.

The result of freedom for Beckett’s imagination, freedom to wander, surrealise, dream and spool out endless filaments of free-associating fantasia.


The plot

‘They’ – the same kind of all-powerful faceless ‘they’ as in the other short monologues – give him money, clothes and tell him to push off, this time from some kind of charitable institution rather than his own home.

(It occurs to me that all four of these stories – First Love, The Calmative, The Expelled and The End repeat the same basic premise of someone being ‘kicked out’; they are variations on a theme; as the texts themselves contain little eddies and whirls of repetition.)

Alas he has to leave all his favourite furniture, including the stool where he used to sit, immobile, waiting for bed-time. He begs to be allowed to stay in the cloister. Mr Weir lets him but, come 6pm and the end of the rain, he’s kicked out. He walks the streets completely confused, not knowing where he is, before coming across an apartment block where a woman rents him a basement room, feeds him once a day, takes away his chamber pot (the body’s effluvia being a very Beckettian concern).

The Turkish or Greek woman extracts six months’ rent in advance then disappears, and the real owner of the house arrives back and kicks our man out. He takes a bus to the countryside, dosses in a barn, (apparently, it’s hard to make out) rolls about in animal dung, which explains why he’s thrown off the buses he tries to catch into town the next day.

He tries to track down the Greek woman with predictably useless results.

I don’t know exactly what happened, whether I couldn’t find the address, or whether there was no such address, or whether the Greek woman was unknown there…

He thinks he sees his son, but it is a hairless old man. He meets a man leading an ass. He mounts the ass and is taken to the man’s cave beside the sea, which is described with great moronic lyricism. — All this seems wilfully surreal, with the logic of dream not world.

He is left with a cow which he tries to milk, failing handsomely, before being dragged by the cow out into the open air where he lies by a cart track trying to get a lift or pity, discovers an old pair of glasses in his pocket, begs, with much detail on the size, shape and angle of the begging tin(s) he employed.

He begs, scratches himself, pees, sends a boy for milk. One day he comes across a car in which an orator is talking about Marx and suddenly points our man out to the crowd as a down-and-out, ‘old, lousy, rotten, ripe for the muckheap’, a ‘living corpse’.

He finds a new base in an abandoned estate near a river. Here in the boat shed he adapts a beaten-up old boat for his needs, fitting handholds, boards over  his body, though he can barely be bothered to poo outside it, or pee – the reader imagining it becoming slowly more befouled. In the final pages he appears to have a vision of being at sea, winkles out the plug at the bottom of the boat and, as it begins to sink, takes his ‘calmative’, presumably some kind of suicide pill – the narrator of the previous story mentioned cyanide – and, presumably, dies.

Back now in the stern-sheets, my legs stretched out, my back well propped against the sack stuffed with grass I used as a cushion, I swallowed my calmative. The sea, the sky, the mountains and the islands closed in and crushed me in a mighty systole, then scattered to the uttermost confines of space. The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.


Nihilism and decay

The estate seemed abandoned. The gates were locked and the paths were overgrown with grass

I understood then that the end was near

Vagueness

It is true I did not know the city very well. Perhaps it was quite a different one. I did not know where I was supposed to be going…

Now I didn’t know where I was. I had a vague vision, not a real vision, I didn’t see anything…

I don’t know how long I stayed there…

Normally I didn’t see a great deal. I didn’t hear a great deal either. I didn’t pay attention. Strictly speaking I wasn’t there. Strictly speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere…

I knew it would soon be the end, so I played the part, you know, the part of – how shall I say, I don’t
know…

I slept very little at this period, I wasn’t sleepy, or I was too sleepy, I don’t know, or I was afraid, I don’t know.

I don’t know how long I stayed there…

Pointless pedantic precision about minute physical actions

It was at this time I perfected a method of doffing my hat at once courteous and discreet, neither servile nor insolent. I slipped it smartly forward, held it a second poised in such a way that the person addressed could not see my skull, then slipped it back. To do that naturally, without creating an unfavorable impression, is no easy matter. When I deemed that to tip my hat would suffice, I naturally did no more than tip it. But to tip one’s hat is no easy matter either. I subsequently solved this problem, always fundamental in time of adversity, by wearing a kepi and saluting in military fashion, no, that must be wrong, I don’t know, I had my hat at the end.

As for holding out my hand, that was quite out of the question. So I got a tin and hung it from a button of my greatcoat, what’s the matter with me, of my coat, at pubis level. It did not hang plumb, it leaned respectfully towards the passer-by, he had only to drop his mite. But that obliged him to come up close to me, he was in danger of touching me. In the end I got a bigger tin, a kind of big tin box, and I placed it on the sidewalk at my feet. But people who give alms don’t much care to toss them, there’s something contemptuous about this gesture which is repugnant to sensitive natures. To say nothing of their having to aim. They are prepared to give, but not for their gift to go rolling under the passing feet or under the passing wheels, to be picked up perhaps by some undeserving person. So they don’t give. There are those, to be sure, who stoop, but generally speaking people who give alms don’t much care to stoop. What they like above all is to sight the wretch from afar, get ready their penny, drop it in their stride and hear the God bless you dying away in the distance. Personally I never said that, nor anything like it, I wasn’t much of a believer, but I did make a noise with my mouth. In the end I got a kind of board or tray and tied it to my neck and waist. It jutted out just at the right height, pocket height, and its edge was far enough from my person for the coin to be bestowed without danger.

Decay, humiliation and abasement

What would I crawl with in future? I lay down on the side of the road and began to writhe each time I heard a cart approaching.

Often at the end of the day I discovered the legs of my trousers all wet. That must have been the dogs.

Penises, poo and psoriasis

The narrator is not shy about mentioning his penis – as in the other three short monologues – but without much affection or interest.

I lay inert on the bed and it took three women to put on my trousers. They didn’t seem to take much interest in my private parts which to tell the truth were nothing to write home about, I didn’t take much interest in them myself. But they might have passed some remark.

And is really just part of the wider disgust with human bodily fluids and activities.

The vilest acts had been committed on the ground and against the walls. The floor was strewn with excrements, both human and animal, with condoms and vomit.

The result is ‘Down and out with Samuel Beckett’:

I unbuttoned my trousers discreetly to scratch myself. I scratched myself in an upward direction, with four nails. I pulled on the hairs, to get relief. It passed the time, time flew when I scratched myself. Real scratching is superior to masturbation, in my opinion. One can masturbate up to the age of seventy, and even beyond, but in the end it becomes a mere habit. Whereas to scratch myself properly I would have needed a dozen hands. I itched all over, on the privates, in the bush up to the navel, under the arms, in the arse, and then patches of eczema and psoriasis that I could set raging merely by thinking of them. It was in the arse I had the most pleasure. I stuck my forefinger up to the knuckle. Later, if I had to shit, the pain was atrocious. But I hardly shat any more…

So I waited till the desire to shit, or even to piss, lent me wings. I did not want to dirty my nest! And yet it sometimes happened, and even more and more often. Arched and rigid I edged down my trousers and turned a little on my side, just enough to free the hole. To contrive a little kingdom, in the midst of the universal muck, then shit on it, ah that was me all over. The excrements were me too, I know, I know, but all the same..

Back in 1946, presumably, this was shocking. Now, in our unshockable age, it seems just more of the systematic degradation of the image of man, the defacating on human dignity, which these texts so assiduously aim for.


Credit

Samuel Beckett wrote The End in French in 1946. It was only published (in Paris) in 1954, some time after the success of Waiting For Godot. It was translated into English by Beckett and Richard Seaver in 1967 and gathered, along with The Expelled and The Calmative, into a volume titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

These three short pieces – The ExpelledThe Calmative and The End – were reprinted, along with First Love, in a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and Other Novellas, which is where I read them.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I’ll tell myself a story, I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself…

The via negativa

In 1946 Beckett wrote four short prose pieces – The CalmativeThe ExpelledThe End and First Love – which announce the arrival of the post-war Beckett, fully formed in his half-comic nihilism and his bookish but spavined style, by turns surreal, literary, pedantic, coarse, but always afflicted by anxiety, obsessions, worries, panics.

Hence the title – in this piece in particular, the narrator unreels an almost stream-of-consciousness flood of half memories and blurred fantasy occurrences, anything, any narrative, any story, to keep the panic and the nothingness at bay.

Obsession with the body, its repetitive behaviour, its decay

His own body is the most important factor in any of these narrator’s stories, its decrepitude, decay, collapse, inability, frailty and so on.

But it’s to me this evening something has to happen, to my body as in myth and metamorphosis, this old body to which nothing ever happened, or so little, which never met with anything, loved anything, wished for anything, in its tarnished universe…

Amnesia and uncertainty

Beckett heroes can never remember the past, not completely, only fragments. After all, to remember it clearly would establish a framework and meaning to their lives and that’s exactly what the texts want to deprive them of. Hence all of them sound the same in that they only recall fragments.

Yes, this evening it has to be as in the story my father used to read to me, evening after evening, when I was small, and he had all his health, to calm me, evening after evening, year after year it seems to me this evening, which I don’t remember much about, except that it was the adventures of one Joe Breem, or Breen, the son of a lighthouse-keeper, a strong muscular lad of fifteen, those were the words, who swam for miles in the night, a knife between his teeth, after a shark, I forget why, out of sheer heroism…

do you remember, I only just…

And they’re never sure of anything – or, rather, they emphasise their uncertainty, at every opportunity, for the same reason, to create a fog of uncertainty around everything:

I say cathedral, it may not have been, I don’t know…

Suddenly I was descending a wide street, vaguely familiar, but in which I could never have set foot, in my lifetime…

It might have been three or four in the morning just as it might have been ten or eleven in the evening…

He said a time, I don’t remember which, a time that explained nothing, that’s all I remember, and did not calm me…

If it’s not a rude question, he said, how old are you? I don’t know, I said.

A permanent mental, perceptual and cognitive fog.

My mind panting after this and that and always flung back to where there was nothing…

The surreal

Surrealism began in the early 1920s partly as a response to the madness of the Great War. It was a dominant visual and literary mood of the 1930s. Impossible and bizarre juxtapositions are presented deadpan, as (allegedly) happens in dreams. Beckett was of his time, combining it with his own pessimism to create a kind of surrealistic nihilism in which the impossible and absurd is quietly accepted.

I don’t know when I died. It always seemed to me I died old, about ninety years old, and what years, and that my body bore it out, from head to foot. But this evening, alone in my icy bed, I have the feeling I’ll be older than the day, the night, when the sky with all its lights fell upon me, the same I had so often gazed on since my first stumblings on the distant earth. For I’m too frightened this evening to listen to myself rot, waiting for the great red lapses of the heart, the tearings at the caecal walls, and for the slow killings to finish in my skull, the assaults on unshakable pillars, the fornications with corpses.

In which the patently ridiculous is calmly discussed. In which the absurd is carefully weighed.

Is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.

Sex

All four of these stories have suddenly graphic and crude references to sex. Sex erupts unexpectedly. Certainly not sensually. Maybe it erupts from the texts as it erupts in real life, rupturing the bourgeois tranquillity with its animal crudity.

Are thighs much in your thoughts, he said, arses, cunts and environs? I didn’t follow. No more erections naturally, he said. Erections? I said. The penis, he said, you know what the penis is, there, between the legs. Ah that! I said. It thickens, lengthens, stiffens and rises, he said, does it not? I assented, though they were not the terms I would have used. That is what we call an erection, he said.

Mottoes of pessimism

All I say cancels out, I’ll have said nothing.

I couldn’t get up at the first attempt, nor let us say at the second, and once up, propped against the wall, I wondered if I could go on…

The core and kernel of Waiting For Godot and all the rest of his plays, of his entire worldview, iterated again and again, are all present.

Die without too much pain, a little, that’s worth your while.

Into what nightmare thingness am I fallen?

How tell what remains? But it’s the end.

This kind of sentiment can be repeated potentially infinitely which is what, in effect, Beckett’s oeuvre amounts to.

To think that in a moment all will be said, all to do again…


Credit

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett was written in French in 1946 and published in Paris in 1954. It was translated into English by Beckett in 1967 and published – along with The ExpelledThe End and other shorter works, into a volume titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

The ExpelledThe End and The Calmative were then collected, along with First Love, into a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and Other Novellas, which is where I read them.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

The Expelled by Samuel Beckett (1946)

Beckett’s big artistic breakthrough was to start writing in French. All four short stories in this volume were originally written in French (in 1946) then translated back into English by Beckett alone or (like this one) with Richard Seaver.

I’m glad I read More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy first, because they give a sense of how Beckett’s writing in English had become an over-filled attic stuffed with arcane terminology and wilful obscurancies. He needed to break free of the tendency to clutter, to aggregate and add to his prose.

Writing in French represented the opposite direction – towards leaner and cleaner. French has a fraction of the vocabulary of the great woolly mongrel, English. Writing in it always sounds purer, clearer and more intense. And the English translation from it, though it still contains oddities and Irishisms, is considerably lighter and slicker than his earlier style. (An article about Irishisms.)

The plot

Like the narrator of First Love the first-person narrator of this short text is a man, of apparently retarded mind, obsessed with the immediate physical presence of his body, who is booted out of the family home now that his father is dead, by ‘them’, ‘they’, an unnamed host of enemies.

He’s walking away from the house in the gutter when a policeman tells him to walk on the pavement not in the road. He bumps into a fat lady. A funeral passes, with everyone crossing themselves. There’s a hansom cab and he climbs into its snug interior. He gets pally with the cabman who tells him about his life. He treats the cabby to lunch with money he has somehow. The cabby offers to drive him to a few apartments looking for one to rent, with no luck. They light the lamps on the cab. The cabby offers him a bed for the night in his stable, introduces him to his wife. The narrator goes down the ladder to the stable where the horse is munching hay. Unable to sleep in the straw he climbs into the snug cab, but still can’t sleep. He discovers the cab door is jammed and so has to – ridiculously- force his way out of the small cab window, his hands on the stable floor his waist lodged in the small window, while the horse looks on. Then he leaves.

Dawn was just breaking. I did not know where I was. I made towards the rising sun, towards where I thought it should rise, the quicker to come into the light. I would have liked a sea horizon, or a desert one. When I am abroad in the morning I go to meet the sun, and in the evening, when I am abroad, I follow it, till I am down among the dead. I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.


Comedy pessimism

The text is much more ‘about’ decrepitude and decay, with the result that it becomes a kind of device capable for turning out hundreds of bleak little pessimistic phrases. I imagined I heard a cash machine going ching-ching! every time a new one appeared.

Memories are killing.

No need then for caution, we may reason on to our heart’s content, the fog won’t lift.

But does one ever know oneself why one laughs?

We did our best, both of us, to understand, to explain.

No reason for this to end or go on. Then let it end.

It wasn’t easy. But what is easy?

I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another.

Reassuring words for the angst-ridden teenager in all of us. Note the way they only have full resonance when appearing in a paragraph about something else. They need to be embedded to really drive home, to be the conclusion or climax of a series of sentences.

They lived above a stable, at the back of a yard. Ideal location, I could have done with it. Having presented me to his wife, extraordinarily full-bottomed, he left us. She was manifestly ill at ease, alone with me. I could understand her, I don’t stand on ceremony on these occasions. No reason for this to end or go on. Then let it end.

They need to bubble up out of the everyday situation, suddenly emerging in their sackcloth and ashes, the wisdom of Aspergers.

Asperger’s Syndrome

“Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger’s, is a developmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. As a milder autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it differs from other ASDs by relatively normal language and intelligence. Although not required for diagnosis, physical clumsiness and unusual use of language are common.” (Wikipedia)

  • Difficulty in social interaction
  • Restricted interests
  • Repetitive patterns of behavior

This accurately describes all Beckett’s protagonists. Surely thousands of other commentators must have pointed out the similarity between Beckett’s men and the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. Surely someone must have speculated whether Beckett himself was on the spectrum.

Hyper-obsession with the simplest physical activities

There were not many steps. I had counted them a thousand times, both going up and coming down, but the figure has gone from my mind. I have never known whether you should say one with your foot on the sidewalk, two with the following foot on the first step, and so on, or whether the sidewalk shouldn’t count. At the top of the steps I fell foul of the same dilemma. In the other direction, I mean from top to bottom, it was the same, the word is not too strong. I did not know where to begin nor where to end, that’s the truth of the matter. I arrived therefore at three totally different figures, without ever knowing which of them was right. And when I say that the figure has gone from my mind, I mean that none of the three figures is with me any more, in my mind. It is true that if I were to find, in my mind, where it is certainly to be found, one of these figures, I would find it and it alone, without being able to deduce from it the other two. And even were I to recover two, I would not know the third. No, I would have to find all three, in my mind, in order to know all three.

If he thinks too much about walking, he falls over.

I set off. What a gait. Stiffness of the lower limbs, as if nature had denied me knees, extraordinary splaying of the feet to right and left of the line of march. The trunk, on the contrary, as if by the effect of a compensatory mechanism, was as flabby as an old ragbag, tossing wildly to the unpredictable jolts of the pelvis. I have often tried to correct these defects, to stiffen my bust, flex my knees and walk with my feet in front of one another, for I had at least five or six, but it always ended in the same way, I mean with a loss of equilibrium, followed by a fall. A man must walk without paying attention to what he’s doing, as he sighs, and when I walked without paying attention to what I was doing I walked in the way I have just described, and when I began to pay attention I managed a few steps of creditable execution and then fell.

His protagonists are capable only of minute attention to present physical activities or remote rarefied meditations on philosophy and life, and completely lack the vast middle ground most of us inhabit, of chores and showers and buses and jobs and shopping and cleaning. It is nearly, but not quite, obsessive compulsive disorder.

He was lighting the lamps. I love oil lamps, in spite of their having been, with candles, and if I except the stars, the first lights I ever knew. I asked him if I might light the second lamp, since he had already lit the first himself. He gave me his box of matches, I swung open on its hinges the little convex glass, lit and closed at once, so that the wick might burn steady and bright, snug in its little house, sheltered from the wind.

Relishing the crudest physical functions

If you have no mental capacity to formulate rational plans and strategies, then you live in a permanent present where the most pressing concern is the condition of your body.

I had then the deplorable habit, having pissed in my trousers, or shat there, which I did fairly regularly early in the morning, about ten or half past ten, of persisting in going on and finishing my day as if nothing had happened. The very idea of changing my trousers, or of confiding in mother, who goodness knows asked nothing better than to help me, was unbearable, I don’t know why, and till bedtime I dragged on with burning and stinking between my little thighs, or sticking to my bottom, the result of my incontinence. Whence this wary way of walking, with the legs stiff and wide apart, and this desperate rolling of the bust, no doubt intended to put people off the scent, to make them think I was full of gaiety and high spirits, without a care in the world, and to lend plausibility to my explanations concerning my nether rigidity, which I ascribed to hereditary rheumatism.

The horses were farting and shitting as if they were going to the fair.

Not long before the farting horses, the narrator had mentioned Heraclitus, making a sort of joke, implying that the Greek philosopher’s famous nostrum could be rewritten, ‘You can’t bathe in the same gutter twice’.

It is fundamental to Beckett’s technique to juxtapose the learned and the bathetic: Heraclitus and horse shit. Whether you find this entertaining, or funny, or a bleak comment on ‘the human condition’, depends on your sense of humour.

Prose poetry

But as often as there are the nihilist sententiae, there appear moments of beautiful perception.

We saw nothing, by the light of these lamps, save the vague outlines of the horse, but the others saw them from afar, two yellow glows sailing slowly through the air. When the equipage turned an eye could be seen, red or green as the case might be, a bossy rhomb as clear and keen as stained glass.

Good, isn’t it? Fragments of sweet sensual Joyce in the arid obsessiveness of Beckett’s brain-damaged vagabonds; and part of the odd poetry is the slightly show-off lexicon – equipage, rhomb – but anyone who’s read this far knows to take these nuggets of knowledgeableness with a pinch of salt, as part of the package,

Their mere brevity of these pieces certainly helps, but taken as a whole, the weird combination of elements – the retarded narrator, his high-falutin style, his oddity of observation, his lack of any normal sense of his predicament, the oddity of the entire vision – makes these short monologues strangely compelling. Very rereadable.


Credit

The Expelled by Samuel Beckett was written in French in 1946 and published in Paris in 1954. A translation into English by Beckett and Richard Seaver was published in 1967, in a collection along with The Calmative and The End and titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

All three – The Expelled, The Calmative and The End – were then then collected, along with First Love, into a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

First Love by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know.

Between the publication of Murphy in 1938 and this suite of short stories written in 1946, came the small matter of the Second World War. Beckett spent it in embattled France rather than in neutral Ireland. For some time he was involved in the French Resistance, enough to merit being awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance.

While on the run across France he worked on the manuscript of another novel, Watt, which finally saw the light of day in 1953. In 1946 he wrote the four very short novellas, more like short stories, First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End which in the 1950s were gathered into one volume.

First Love – the plot

First Love is a short narrative, told in the first person, more a dramatic monologue. The narrator is mentally challenged, talking like a simpleton about his visits to his father’s grave, his fondness for hanging around in graveyards, his liking for the smell of the dead. He has an adolescent’s fascination with the unpleasant aspects of the human body – its farts, arses and sticky foreskins. There’s a passage where he ponders the different types of constipation and fondly imagines Jesus at stool, pulling his buttocks apart to help his stool descend.

The other members of his father’s household never liked him, or barely tolerated him.  – He reminds me a bit of the idiot in The Sound and the Fury, dimly trying to make sense of things which other people are always doing to him. – He remembers his father saying, ‘Leave him alone, he’s not disturbing anyone’ as if the other people in the house, who he refers to as ‘the pack’, think he should be, what? Taken away and put in a home?

When his father died, they promptly kicked him out the house – more precisely locked his door and piled all his things up outside it. He left, wandering off into the great outside. He sleeps for successive nights on a  bench by a canal until disturbed by Lulu, a prostitute.

(The pattern of a self-obsessed man being interrupted, disturbed from his self-absorption by a woman recurs in most of the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks, and in Murphy where the solipsistic protagonist is also troubled by the attentions of a streetwalker, Celia.)

After a few night-time encounters with Lulu, the narrator goes off to find shelter in a barn in the country, rather absurdly reduced to tracing her name in cow pats. He returns and allows himself to be taken to her small apartment where, with the obsessive-compulsive behaviour typical of a Beckett figure he empties the room he’s given of every scrap of furniture, piling it all in the hall outside. He hears Lulu – who he has renamed Anna – having sex with clients in the other room. I think they have sex a few times, though it’s hard to tell.

Anna gets pregnant. She strips and shows him her belly and breasts swelling. The protagonist realises he must leave. One night he hears the baby being born, the screams and cries. He gets dressed quietly, exits the house, but wherever he goes he still hears the baby crying.

Not a conventional romance, is it?


The style

What the war, or something, has done to Beckett’s prose is to transform it. Most obviously, almost all the arcane and deliberately obscure words he clotted the earlier books with has vanished. Almost. There are a few regressions.

Are we to infer from this I loved her with that intellectual love which drew from me such drivel, in another place? Somehow I think not. For had my love been of this kind would I have stooped to inscribe the letters of Anna in time’s forgotten cowplats? To divellicate urtica plenis manibus?

‘Divellicate’ meaning ‘to tear apart or off’ and urtica plenis manibus meaning ‘handfuls of nettles’. Nothing profound here; the ‘joke’ is in the elaborate over-telling of a humorously mundane action.

A handful of really obscure phrases aside, the prose is by and large much less racked and clotted than in the earlier books. That said, the majority of the text is still ornate, mock academic, falsely pedantic and orotund in tone.

As to whether it was beautiful, the face, or had once been beautiful, or could con­ceivably become beautiful, I confess I could form no opinion.

‘I confess’ – the tone of the ancient clubman over whiskey and soda, or the Oxford professor over sherry. This tone of arch contrivance predominates throughout.

But in amidst it are all kinds of other registers. Most enjoyable, on its occasional appearances, is the poetic prose.

When the voice ceased at last I approached a little nearer, to make sure it had really ceased and not merely been lowered. Then in despair, saying, No knowing, no knowing, short of being beside her, bent over her, I turned on my heel and went, for good, full of doubt.

At the opposite pole is schoolboy crudity.

  • The smell of corpses, distinctly per­ceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find un­pleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how in­finitely preferable to what the living emit, their feet, teeth, armpits, arses, sticky foreskins and frustrated ovules.
  • Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.
  • I considered kicking her in the cunt.

A crudity, an aggressiveness, which may be interpreted as part of the character’s mental disturbance, his lack of socialisation.

There is the minute, the obsessive description of mundane physical activities which hamper all Beckett’s characters. Having piled all the furniture in the hall, he’s made it difficult to get in or out of his room, and so difficult to get to the toilet (which we know he needs because of his sometimes heroic constipation he mentions right at the start). They decide a chamber pot will be necessary. But Anna does not possess a chamber pot. Oh dear. And so they discuss the options in mind-numbing detail, the obsessive triviality – and the sordid subject matter – being the point. Oh woe is mucky material man.

Give me a chamber-pot, I said. But she did not possess one. I have a close-stool of sorts, she said. I saw the grandmother on it, sitting up very stiff and grand, having just purchased it, pardon, picked it up, at a charity sale, or perhaps won it in a raffle, a period piece, and now trying it out, doing her best rather, almost wishing some­one could see her. That’s the idea, procrastinate. Any old recipient, I said, I don’t have the flux. She came back with a kind of saucepan, not a true saucepan for it had no handle, it was oval in shape with two lugs and a lid. My stewpan, she said. I don’t need the lid, I said. You don’t need the lid? she said. If I had said I needed the lid she would have said, You need the lid?

‘Recipient’ presumably used in the sense of ‘recipient of my poo and pee’ – any receptacle. And ‘the flux’ is an archaic term for what we nowadays call dysentery – carefully combining the turdy reality of human existence with a somewhat arcane historical terminology – the classic Beckett manoeuvre!

Learned wit

All this can be seen as part of Beckett’s deployment of ‘learned wit’. 65 years ago Professor D. W. Jefferson wrote a classic essay explaining the long literary tradition of ‘learned wit’ – the type of humour which takes the mickey out of academic knowledge by exaggerating it to grotesque proportions. There is a long tradition of this approach and style, dating from the classical world which runs strong through medieval, Renaissance and 18th century literature.

Beckett is strongly in this line of smart-arse, show-off humour, taking the mickey out of its own estimable knowledgeableness. One element of it is dressing up the crudest physical bodily functions in elaborately academic periphrasis, littered with learned references and classical quotations. (The great example of this in Western literature is The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1530-1560) by François Rabelais, describing the gross adventures of the two giants of the title in a comically pedantic style.)

So Beckett’s obsession with farting, pissing and pooing is slap bang in the middle of this tradition – as is another element, the making of long, pedantic lists out of all proportion to the triviality of the subject matter. Thus, for example, the narrator doesn’t just complain about his pains, but goes on to sketch out a theory of  his pains, and draw up a deliberately ridiculous list:

I’ll tell them to you some day none the less, if I think of it, if I can, my strange pains, in detail, distinguishing between the different kinds, for the sake of clarity, those of the mind, those of the heart or emotional conative, those of the soul (none prettier than these) and finally those of the frame proper, first the inner or latent, then those affecting the surface, beginning with the hair and scalp and moving method­ically down, without haste, all the way down to the feet beloved of the corn, the cramp, the kibe, the bunion, the hammer toe, the nail ingrown, the fallen arch, the common blain, the club foot, duck foot, goose foot, pigeon foot, flat foot, trench foot and other curiosities.

And this quote also demonstrates that long-windedness can be comic (in intent, anyway) – although in Beckett, over-long sentences oscillate between being humorous and becoming the unchecked logorrhoea of the mentally disturbed. You can never be sure.

Retard or hyper-intellectual?

This raises the issue that, although the narrator lives in squalor, can’t remember his name or things that have happened to him, has a brain-damaged fixation with his own body and an autistic inability to communicate with others – nonetheless, all this is conveyed in an incredibly ornate, articulate, intellectual and educated register. It is precise and finicky, a tone of academic detachment and pedantic precision.

It is this unlikely clash or dichotomy which produces the peculiar effect of Beckett’s prose – the feelings of a retard expressed in the language of a scholar.

Yes, there are moments, particularly in the afternoon, when I go all syncretist, à la Reinhold. What equilibrium! But even them, my pains, I understand ill. That must come from my not being all pain and nothing else. There’s the rub. Then they recede, or I, till they fill me with amaze and wonder, seen from a better planet. Not often, but I ask no more. Catch-cony life! To be nothing but pain, how that would simplify matters! Omnidolent!

The thoughts of a simpleton couched in the terminology of an Oxford professor.

Poetic

And then there’s another, mostly buried, aspect. Amid all the other tones and registers, just occasionally a poetic voice peeks out and hints at a completely new direction out of the mire of obfuscation, the bleak way of the lost and forlorn. Sometimes, in fact fairly regularly, there are phrases which are neither nihilistic, ridiculous or disgusting, but haunting and touching. There are quite a few moments which, despite the clammy negativity, actually emerge as sweet and doleful.

Thus, right at the end of the text, the speaker is haunted by the cries of Anna’s newborn who is in fact his own son, despite the fact that he has abandoned them both and is walking away as fast and as far as he can.

As long as I kept walking I didn’t hear them, because of the footsteps. But as soon as I halted I heard them again, a little fainter each time, admittedly, but what does it matter, faint or loud, cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease.

Not ‘a cry is a cry’, but ‘cry is cry’, making it sound more elemental, profound, harrowing. To be cynical, this kind of rhetorical twist, this sudden incursion of a portentous tone, will be Beckett’s schtick for decades to come. But, if you are not repelled by the subject matter, if you put yourself mentally in a place where you accept the incongruity of a simpleton who talks like a Cambridge graduate, if you accept the lying in cow pats and the autistic behaviour and the deliberately vague sense of other people, the drift and the decay – then there are regularly moments when the prose achieves a kind of epiphany of sadness, a rather hard-faced poetics of desolation.

These four short texts are weirdly compelling. I read all of them twice.


Credit

First Love by Samuel Beckett was written in 1946. It was first published in 1976. Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

The Second World War

Waiting For Godot (1953)

  • All That Fall (1957)
  • Endgame (1958)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Embers (1959)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • Eh Joe and other writings (1967)
  • Without Words (1967)

1969 – awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The Lost Ones (1972)
  • Not I (1973)
  • First Love (1973)
  • Footfalls (1976)
  • All Strange Away (1976)
  • Company (1980)
  • Rockaby and other short pieces (1981)
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981)
  • Worstward Ho (1983)
  • Stirrings Still (1989)

This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski (1948)

Anything can be done to a human being.
(Introduction, page 12)

Sometimes, after a transport had already been gassed, some late-arriving cars drove around filled with the sick. It was wasteful to gas them. They were undressed and Obershadrührer Moll either shot them with his rifle or pushed them live into the flaming trench. (p.96)

In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz’s 1953 book describing the experiences of his generation in Poland, there are chapter-length portraits of four fellow writers who, in their different ways, ended up acquiescing in, and collaborating with, the communist takeover of Poland. The most haunting is the profile of short story writer Tadeusz Borowski, who had a blazing reputation for a few years after the war, lapsed into writing increasingly shrill communist propaganda, and then committed suicide by gassing himself in 1951, aged 28.

This review is divided into three parts: Borowski’s biography and reviews of short stories from his first, and then second, books.

1. The short harrowing biography of Tadeusz Borowski

Just reading Borowski’s biography is harrowing enough, before you even get to his prose fiction.

Borowski was born in 1922 in modern-day Ukraine, to Polish parents. When he was 4 his father was sent to a Russian labour camp above the Arctic Circle, to work on the infamous White Sea Canal, as punishment for having been a member of a Polish military organisation during the Great War. In 1930, when he was 8, Borowski’s mother was deported to another Russian labour camp, leaving the boy to be raised by his aunt. In 1932 his father was released, and the family was repatriated to Warsaw where, in 1934, his mother, released from her camp, rejoined them.

Borowski was 16 when the Nazis and the Soviets invaded Poland in September 1939. He had been studying at a Franciscan school but had to complete his secondary schooling in secret. He then progressed to studying literature among the clandestine groups which made up the underground Warsaw University.

In 1943 his fiancée was arrested for her role in the underground and, when Borowski went looking for her at the flat of a mutual friend, he too was arrested. He was held in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison for two months. The prison was on the edge of the ghetto and from his window he could watch German soldiers throw grenades into tenement buildings before systematically burning them to the ground.

In April 1943 Borowski was sent to Auschwitz and was tattooed with the number 119 198. He was 20 years old. His fiancée arrived separately and was sent to the women’s camp. Eventually he was able to make contact with her and the ‘story’ Auschwitz, Our Home includes the letters he sent to her. Both survived because of the ‘lucky’ accident that Aryans had stopped being sent to the gas chambers just three weeks earlier; from now on only Jews would be gassed and cremated en masse.

Borowski had a range of jobs – carrying telegraph poles, night watchman, hospital orderly, before a spell working at the railway station. Supervised by brutal SS guards with machine guns and whips, he was one of the kapos or non-Jewish inmates, who met the endless freight trains of Jews sent from all over Europe, sorted the desperate, confused victims into lines of men and women, and saw them loaded into the trucks which drove them off to the crematoriums. Within the hour everyone on the train was dead, gassed, burned and contributing to the black smoke climbing from the crematorium chimneys.

In the final days of the war Borowski and the surviving other non-Jewish workers were marched from Auschwitz to Dachau concentration camp and it was here, on 1 May 1945, that he was liberated by the US Seventh Army. From the liberated American zone of Germany in 1946, Borowski published a collection of stories in collaboration with two friends. He stayed with the liberated Poles in Bavaria; had a dissolute spell in Paris; discovered his fiancée was alive and well and living, for some reason, in Sweden, but then decided to return to Poland. Here, in 1948, he published two more collections of stories, Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria), mostly about Auschwitz, and a set of short stories about the immediate post-war environment, set in displaced persons camps, Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone).

In the same year Borowski joined the Communist Party of Poland and began writing impassioned articles praising the communist future and violently critical of the decadent West. Despite encouragement from friends he wrote no more stories or poetry. In his profile, Miłosz calls Borowski ‘the disappointed lover’, and interprets his journalism as a state-endorsed vehicle where he could express his rage and despair against the world. In the introduction to this volume, Jan Kott (the noted theatre critic, who was himself an enthusiastic Stalinist until the upheavals of 1956) writes that Borowski:

could not resist that most diabolical of temptations – to participate in history, a history for which stones and people are only the material used to build the ‘brave new world’. (p.19)

His earlier stories had attracted criticism from the communist party for their bleakness and nihilism: the Party demanded prose which praised socialist heroes and proletariat solidarity, even in Auschwitz. According to Kott, the newly communist Borowski at first believed that Communism was the only political force truly capable of preventing a future Auschwitz from happening. In 1950 he received the National Literary Prize, Second Degree for this more ‘Socialist Realist’ work.

So favourable was he with the authorities that in the summer of 1949 Borowski was sent to work in the Press Section of the Polish Military Mission in Berlin. Here he may possibly have carried out some kind of intelligence work. When he returned to Warsaw he had become involved in an extramarital affair.

Soon afterwards, however, a friend of his (the same friend in whose apartment both Borowski and his fiancée had been arrested back in 1943) was imprisoned and tortured by the Communists. Borowski tried to intervene on his behalf and failed; he became completely disillusioned with the regime. Maybe the whole apparatus of arrests and transports to labour camps was starting up all over again. Maybe nothing could stop the Auschwitz world.

Thus, politically disillusioned, trapped by his affair, and perhaps unable to cope with the long-term trauma of what he’d seen, on July 1, 1951, at the age of 28, Borowski committed suicide by breathing in gas from a gas stove. His wife had given birth to their daughter three days previously.


The short stories

The Penguin paperback, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, brings together all of the Holocaust-related stories from his early collections of short stories, being:

  • This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (21 pages)
  • A Day at Harmenz (32 pages)
  • The People Who Walked On (16 pages)
  • Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter) (45 pages)
  • The Death of Schillinger (4 pages)
  • The Man with the Package (5 pages)
  • The Supper (5 pages)
  • A True Story (4 pages)
  • Silence (3 pages)
  • The January Offensive (10 pages)
  • A Visit (3 pages)
  • The World of Stone (4 pages)

It would have been extremely useful if the editors of the Penguin edition had made it clear which of these stories come from Farewell to Maria and which from A World of Stone. Since the book doesn’t say and I can’t find anything on the internet, I am guessing that the first four are from the first volume about Auschwitz, and the final eight from the world of displaced persons camps.

This guess is based on the fact that the first four are long and diffuse, often divided into sections and containing numerous stories or anecdotes, while the final eight stories are strikingly short, much more polished, generally focus on one event, and in their brevity and ellipticism, are marvellously charged with meaning.

2. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman

It’s no accident that the editors place this story first and name the entire collection after it, since it plunges us straight away into the horrors of Auschwitz, with its unflinching first sentence.

All of us walk around naked.

The inmates are naked because their only clothes, their striped pyjama uniforms have been temporarily taken away to be deloused. They are being fumigated in Zyklon B,

an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.

Note this tone and attitude which, right from the start, is laconic to the point of cruelty. Borowski’s narrator has had all his ‘outside world modesty’ burned away. Now he accepts all the facts of Auschwitz, no matter how grim and grotesque, as facts of life, and his prose, by stating these facts plainly and evenly, draws you into his world far more effectively than if he raged or wept. Borowski saw the worst things humans can do to other humans and describes it all the more upsettingly for being conveyed in such a flat factual style.

From the rear blockhouses we have a view of the F.K.L. – Frauen Konzentration Lager; there too the delousing is in full swing. Twenty‐eight thousand women have been stripped naked and driven out of the barracks. Now they swarm around the large yard between blockhouses.

Some critics, and the introduction, dwell on Borowski’s style, his use of simile and so on, or concut lengthy analyses of his moral position. But what comes over strongest to me, and what is in a sense most shocking, is the implicit attitude in the story that – it was just a job, a tough hard physical job, certainly, but a job which, like countless other labouring jobs, has its shitty bits but also its perks, moments when you can relax, share a cigarette or some food or vodka with workmates, enjoy the sunshine and feel pretty content with life.

It is the everydayness of the work which keeps drawing you in, Borowski’s persuasive descriptions of the mundaneness of it all – until you remember the purpose of all this activity – the systematic extermination of millions – millions – of human beings. Here is the ramp, where the cattle trains packed with Jews from all over Europe are unloaded, just before a new transport arrives.

Meantime, the ramp has become increasingly alive with activity, increasingly noisy. The crews are being divided into those who will open and unload the arriving cattle cars and those who will be posted by the wooden steps. They receive instructions on how to proceed most efficiently. Motor cycles drive up, delivering S.S. officers, bemedalled, glittering with brass, beefy men with highly polished boots and shiny, brutal faces. Some have brought their briefcases, others hold thin, flexible whips. This gives them an air of military readiness and agility. They walk in and out of the commissary – for the miserable little shack by the road serves as their commissary, where in the summertime they drink mineral water, Studentenquelle, and where in winter they can warm up with a glass of hot wine. They greet each other in the state‐approved way, raising an arm Roman fashion, then shake hands cordially, exchange warm smiles, discuss mail from home, their children, their families. Some stroll majestically on the ramp. The silver squares on their collars glitter, the gravel crunches under their boots, their bamboo whips snap impatiently.

Tadeusz’s job, along with his gang of kapos, is to open the doors of the trucks, pull out the bodies, some still alive, many dead, all of them stinking of faeces and urine. they have to force the living to line up to be loaded into lorries which will drive them off to the changing rooms, the gas chamber and the crematorium or throw the corpses onto other lorries which will also go to the crematoriums. On one level all very manageable, especially with SS men standing behind you with whips which they are quick to use, and behind them the guards with machine guns.

The shitty part was cleaning out the cattle trucks after they’d been emptied of the Jews locked up in them for days, if not weeks, without food or water.

We climb inside. In the corners amid human excrement and abandoned wrist‐watches lie
squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies.
We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand. (p.39)

The narrator looks around for one of the Jews awaiting loading into a lorry to take the dead babies off his hands. An SS guard makes a motion as if to start shooting the reluctant Jews and so a tall grey-haired woman steps forward and takes them. ‘My poor boy,’ she whispers to Tadeusz. If he has any moral or psychological or emotional response, it is not included. He just feels momentarily tired and leans against the side of the truck and then, when his pal Henri tugs at his shirt, confesses that he is angry at the victims. He could beat them and throw them into the ovens himself. It’s their bloody fault that he’s here doing this disgusting job. Damn them, damn them all! Henri says it’s normal: everyone hates the people weaker than themselves.

Once the lorries have all been loaded and every last Jew, alive or dead, has been packed off to be incinerated, once all the cattle trucks have been cleaned out, you can wash your hands and settle in the sun alongside your mates till the next shipment arrives.

The great perk of the job is that the kapos can keep all the food and drink they find among the suitcases and clothes the Jews are ordered to abandon on the loading ramp. Gold, jewellery and valuables were taken by the supervising Germans – and it’s true that any labourer caught stealing valuables was shot – but the food, nah, help yourselves.

With the disconcerting result that, in all these stories, food-wise, the kapos were pretty well off; especially if you include the astonishing fact that they were allowed to receive letters and food parcels from their relatives. Thus the narrator of these stories, Kapo Tadeusz, has a pretty healthy food stash including onions and tomatoes from his father’s garden, Portuguese sardines, bacon from Lublin and sweetmeats from Salonica.

This is all the harder to read if you recall Primo Levi’s descriptions of how the Jews in Auschwitz were systematically starved to death, supplied with pitifully inadequate rations which left them permanently ravenous. Tadeusz, by contrast, lives the life of Reilly. Oh, apart from his entire situation and plight. It is this constant oscillation, between moments of ‘normality’ and humdrum human foibles – and sudden moments of complete horror – which make the stories almost unbearable to read.

I shut my eyes tight, but I can still see corpses dragged from the train, trampled infants, cripples piled on top of the dead, wave after wave . . . freight cars roll in, the heaps of clothing, suitcases and bundles grow, people climb out, look at the sun, take a few breaths, beg for water, get into the trucks, drive away. And again freight cars roll in, again people.

The narrator

These longer stories are narrated in the first person by a deputy kapo, Vorarbeiter Tadeusz. the fact that he has the same name has led generations of readers to identify him directly with the author. But the introduction and various articles I’ve read contest this: apparently, other survivors testify that the actual Borowski was kind-hearted and charitable.

This kind of debate is entertaining but ultimately irrelevant to the stories: what matters is the workings of the text. In these, the narrator tries to be tough as nails but keeps failing. He knows he cannot afford to become at all connected to the people he is chivvying along to the gas chamber but, despite himself, he keeps making human connections and then feeling sick, more deeply nauseated than any of us reading this can possibly imagine.

He witnesses a mother furiously denying her small child who is running after her, calling out ‘Mummy, mummy’. The woman thinks she might survive if she has no child, so ignores and walks away from it. An enraged Russian kapo punches her in the face, tells her she is a rotten mother, and throws her onto one of the lorries and then her child after her. A watching SS man grunts his approval, ‘Gut gemacht, Gut, gut, Russki’.

More screaming wailing humanity shuffles, walks, staggers past. Then amidst the squalor, Tadeusz sees a vision, a beautiful young blonde woman, miraculously fresh and clean who asks him point blank: ‘What is happening? Where are we going?’ He can say nothing, there are literally no words to convey the situation. She nods her head and says, ‘I know’ and walks purposefully over to a lorry. That is all the author describes. We must imagine how he feels. And even getting a fraction of the way there is devastating.

To say the narrator is untouched by all this seems wildly wrong. He is stricken.

I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions. I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back… (p.45)

Later he reaches into a truck full of still-steaming corpses, goes to grab the first corpse and, as in a horror movie, the apparently dead hand closes round his.

I seize a corpse by the hand; the fingers close tightly around mine. I pull back with a shriek and stagger away. My heart pounds, jumps up to my throat. I can no longer control the nausea. Hunched under the train I begin to vomit. (p.48)

Yes, he very obviously and severely is affected by what he is doing.

Similes

Among the functional but carefully chosen prose, glisten occasional, telling similes.

  • Now [the occupants of the cattle trucks] push towards the open doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand. (p.37)
  • A huge, multicoloured wave of people loaded down with luggage pours from the train like a blind, mad river trying to find a new bed. (p.37)
  • Trucks leave and return, without interruption, as on a monstrous conveyor belt. A Red Cross van drives back and forth, back and forth, incessantly: it transports the gas that will kill these people. The enormous cross on the hood, red as blood, seems to dissolve in the sun. (p.38)
  • The morbid procession streams on and on – trucks growl like mad dogs. (p.41)
  • Again weary, pale faces at the windows, flat as though cut out of paper, with huge, feverishly burning eyes. (p.42)

Shining out like jewels in mud.


3. Silence

As mentioned above, I think the last eight of the stories here, being much shorter and generally set after the liberation, must come from his second collection, A World of Stone. Not only shorter, and describing a different period, but substantially different in style. More polished and canny.

Here is Borowski’s short story, Silence, in its entirety, as translated by Barbara Vedder.

Silence

At last they seized him inside the German barracks, just as he was about to climb over the window ledge. In absolute silence they pulled him down to the floor and panting with hate dragged him into a dark alley. Here, closely surrounded by a silent mob, they began tearing at him with greedy hands.

Suddenly from the camp gate a whispered warning was passed from one mouth to another. A company of soldiers, their bodies leaning forward, their rifles on the ready, came running down the camp’s main road, weaving between the clusters of men in stripes standing in the way. The crowd scattered and vanished inside the blocks. In the packed, noisy barracks the prisoners were cooking food pilfered during the night from neighbouring farmers. In the bunks and in the passageways between them, they were grinding grain in small flour-mills, slicing meat on heavy slabs of wood, peeling potatoes and throwing the peels on to the floor. They were playing cards for stolen cigars, stirring batter for pancakes, gulping down hot soup, and lazily killing fleas. A stifling odour of sweat hung in the air, mingled with the smell of food, with smoke and with steam that liquified along the ceiling beams and fell on the men, the bunks and the food in large, heavy drops, like autumn rain.

There was a stir at the door. A young American officer with a tin helmet on his head entered the block and looked with curiosity at the bunks and the tables. He wore a freshly pressed uniform; his revolver was hanging down, strapped in an open holster that dangled against his thigh. He was assisted by the translator who wore a yellow band reading ‘interpreter” on the sleeve of his civilian coat, and by the chairman of the Prisoners’ Committee, dressed in a white summer coat, a pair of tuxedo trousers, and tennis shoes. The men in the barracks fell silent. Leaning out of their bunks and lifting their eyes from the kettles, bowls and cups, they gazed attentively into the officer’s face.

“Gentlemen,” said the officer with a friendly smile, taking off his helmet-and the interpreter proceeded at once to translate sentence after sentence-“I know, of course, that after what you have gone through and after what you have seen, you must feel a deep hate for your tormentors. But we, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness. We must show our respect for the law. I assure you that the guilty will be punished, in this camp as well as in all the others. You have already seen, for example, that the S.S. men were made to bury the dead.”

“. . . right, we could use the lot at the back of the hospital. A few of them are still around,” whispered one of the men in a bottom bunk.

“. . . or one of the pits,” whispered another. He sat straddling the bunk, his fingers firmly clutching the blanket.

“Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?” Now listen to what the American has to say,”a third man, stretched across the foot of the same bunk, spoke in an angry whisper. The American officer was now hidden from their view behind the thick crowd gathered at the other end of the block.

“Comrades, our new Kommandant gives you his word of honour that all the criminals of the S.S. as well as among the prisoners will be punished,” said the translator. The men in the bunks broke into applause and shouts. In smiles and gestures they tried to convey their friendly approval of the young man from across the ocean.

“And so the Kommandant requests,” went on the translator, his voice turning somewhat hoarse, “that you try to be patient and do not commit lawless deeds, which may only lead to trouble, and please pass the sons of bitches over to the camp guards. How about it, men?”

The block answered with a prolonged shout. The American thanked the translator and wished the prisoners a good rest and an early reunion with their dear ones. Accompanied by a friendly hum of voices, he left the block and proceeded to the next.

Not until after he had visited all the blocks and returned with the soldiers to his headquarters did we pull our man off the bunk – where covered with blankets and half smothered with the weight of our bodies he lay gagged, his face buried in the straw mattress – and dragged him on to the cement floor under the stove, where the entire block, grunting and growling with hatred, trampled him to death.

Commentary

It is short, and it is beautifully shaped. It has the brevity of one of Hemingway’s earliest stories and like them, is heavy with meaning beyond what it says.

You can, of course, have a 6th form debate about the morality of the prisoners murdering the man (presumably a Nazi guard or camp official) –

“Are the prisoners justified or ‘right’ to take revenge? Discuss”

But as regular readers of this blog know, I’m not very interested in morality, because it is generally an excuse for long-winded tergiversation which never arrives at a useful outcome. And also because nine times out of ten morality is, as Freud said somewhere, obvious. Making a song and dance out of it is generally a way of avoiding the obviously correct decision.

Quite obviously it is wrong to kill anyone, therefore they ‘shouldn’t’ kill the Nazi. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a moral debate, it’s a work of literature. The point is the tremendous artistry of the story.

1. Dramatic contrast Note the skill with which the clash of moralities, which is the ostensible ‘subject’ of the story, is fully dramatised. It isn’t an abstract debate but beautifully embodied in the contrast between the American officer and the unnamed mob. And everything about this confrontation or polarity is brought out by wonderful details. ‘The young man from across the ocean’ is not only young, he wears a freshly-pressed uniform. A whole clause is devoted to the state of his pistol, dangling with Yankee casualness against his thigh. Confident, happy, yet somehow superficial.

His speech is calm and fair and reasonable. It praises the Enlightenment values of Reason and Justice. It sounds like Lincoln at Gettysburg or the Founding Fathers in full flood:

We, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness.

Shucks. Compare and contrast the undisciplined mob who confront him, bickering inmates who steal from the nearby farms and are preparing food in filthy, unhygienic ways, chopping meat on dirty wooden slabs, throwing potato peelings all over the floor, gambling for stolen loot (the cigars). The filth and squalor of the barrack couldn’t contrast more vividly with the freshly-pressed uniform of the clean-cut young American.

2. Tension and suspense I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed the identity of the man they kill. No, he isn’t identified anywhere. It’s not even clear that he is a Nazi. This anonymity makes his lynching all the more… uncanny and… bestial. Generalised. Unfathomable.

In a similar way, I had to read the story twice to be really clear that the ‘company of soldiers’ running down the camp’s main road are indeed Americans. You have to wait through the long description of the men in the barracks, cooking and gambling, before you get to the word ‘American’ describing the officer. Only with this one word does the situation become clear and the whole scene is flooded with new meaning. An American is addressing the barracks. Then this must be after the liberation from the Germans. So this one word explains the freedom of the inmates’ behaviour, cooking and gambling and picking their fleas. They are free. And the soldiers running down the main strip, they must be Americans, too. Surely. Although a flicker of doubt remains. Not logical doubt, aesthetic doubt.

Similarly, I didn’t understand the whispered conversation among the three inmates while the American was still speaking, or why the third whisperer was angry, until it is revealed – after the American has left – that all three were stifling under the blankets the man they intend to kill and are impatiently discussing where to dump his body. That’s why the third man says, ‘Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?’ i.e. wait a few more minutes till the American leaves. Which indicates how impatient they are to carry out their revenge; how deep it runs.

You have to read the story at least twice for it to reveal its meaning.

Borowski’s deliberate delay or suspension of understanding is tremendously effective – in such a small space – in charging the text with energy. Arguably, the strategy carries on beyond the end of the story because we never get told the identity of the murdered man. 70 years later, we’re still waiting, and will wait forever. Some things are never explained.

Human psychology It is a portrait of men as they are, not as writers or philosophers would have them be. The point, the crux, the convincing thing about it, is the way the barrack full of filthy men cheer the American to the rafters. They admire him. They are grateful to him. They agree with everything he says. They are going to completely ignore him. When he leaves he is ‘accompanied by a friendly hum of voices…’ – what a brilliantly convincing detail – the American officer departs, proud of his virtue and the fine example the New World is setting the Old. Good man.

But morality has nothing to do with it. Animal passions, lust for revenge, lynch mob mentality take over. The entire story is an ironic comment on the fatuous other-worldly innocence of the American, of anyone who hasn’t lived through the camp, who hasn’t survived in the bestial world of the Lager.

Two minds

And it is also a subtler comment on human nature – not the obvious fact that people can behave like animals, we all know that. The slightly more interesting point that the same people can, with one part of their mind, listen, understand and agree with all the finest points of moral philosophy and ethical debate – and with another part trample and tear a fellow human being to pieces. The same people.

It is this fundamental schizophrenia of the human animal which comes over from all Borowski’s stories. In the story Auschwitz, Our Home, the narrator has a relatively cushy time  since he has managed to wangle his way onto a course to train as a hospital orderly. The hospital is lovely, with fine views of tree-lined roads, plenty of food, and the lessons are interesting. Of course, he knows that some of the surgeons are carrying out experiments on live human beings with no anaesthetics, removing their organs one by one to see how long they survive, just down the hall. But the symphony orchestra the hospital staff have organised is really wonderful, and you should see the canteen!

Or take another moment, described in the story, The People Who Walked On, when the narrator’s taking part in the regular football match between hospital staff and runs to retrieve the ball from the touchline. From here he can see through the barbed wire to the train ramp where he used to work, and the road leading off to the crematorium. Along it are trudging a new trainload of Jews to the gas chambers. He throws the ball in and continues playing the game. Five minutes later the ball goes out again, and he goes to fetch it from the same spot by the fence. Now the road and ramp are empty. Between two throw-ins of a football match 3,000 people have been gassed and incinerated.

Is it a searing indictment of the human mind that it can enjoy Bach while across the hall human beings are being tortured to death? Or a tribute to the human mind that it can find order and beauty in the midst of such horror, of such degraded surroundings? Kicking a ball around while people just like us are being gassed to death?

Or, as I read Borowski’s stories, do none of these trite and easy formulae fit the bill? The world is what it is and people do what they can to survive in it. That’s all we can know.

The earlier, longer, more diffuse stories are full of scenes of horror. They are documentary records of the kinds of tasks and sights encountered in Auschwitz, written as unflinching testimony. They are crafted to give an sense of duration and intensity, of the long days full of unremitting labour, and the day after day mundaneness of horror.

But the second set of much shorter stories are, for me, on a different level altogether. Their compactness, their brilliance of detail, their psychological insight combine with their elusiveness to escape summary or interpretation. They are wonderful and mysterious, like pebbles worn by a stream.

They offer no moral consolation but they are not fashionably nihilistic, either. They offer no answers or resolution. They are what they are, no more, and it is partly this restraint which makes them such powerful works of art.


Credit

Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria) and Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone) were published in 1948. This selection of stories from them was published under the title Wybor Opowiadan in Poland in 1959. This translation of that selection, by Barbara Vedder, was published by Penguin in 1967. Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition.

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