The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera (1972)

Kundera’s third novel feels shorter and more streamlined than the first two. At 184 pages (cf The Joke pp.267 and Life Is Elsewhere pp.306) it is a slim, quick, funny, if sometimes shocking read. The first two novels, though comic in tone and often in content, contained big wodges of serious, sometimes tragic material about politics and repression under the Czech communist state. In The Farewell Waltz some of this content intrudes, in the character of Jakub the embittered political dissident. But apart from him, the rest of the story feels much closer to a farce, a sex comedy. According to the internet, a farce is:

a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations

That doesn’t really describe this book, but it does gesture towards the way The Farewell Party begins with a predicament and then goes on to wring as many comic situations and variations out of it as possible, placing its characters in improbable and unlikely situations in order to extract as much comedy, and plain absurdity, as possible.

The plot

First Day (Monday)

Klima is a famous Czech jazz trumpeter. Two months before the action starts he played a gig at a health spa in the country, he and the band were treated to an after-gig party by a rich American staying at the spa for his health (Bartleff), and Klima ended up shagging one of the spa nurses, Ruzena. Now she’s pregnant, and on the second page of the book she rings him up to let him know. Thus the ball is set rolling. The book is divided into five sections titled simply First Day, Second day etc. and it all happens over this tight, compressed timespan.

Klima is a coward, a timid man, who takes advantage of his fame to seduce women, but always feels nervous about it beforehand, guilty about it afterwards. Deep down, he is deeply, sincerely in love with his wife.

He tells the band he’s rehearsing with about the call, and his bandmates are sanguine, suggesting a variety of tactics to fob her off. The young guitarist (18) even suggests bumping her off in a supposed ‘road accident’. The reader is a little startled.

Klima thanks them all, then phones Ruzena and says he’ll come and visit her tomorrow. Then goes home and cobbles together a cock-and-bull story to tell his wife, Kamila, about having to play some socialist party youth conference or other. She doesn’t believe a word. She is well-attuned to his infidelities and lies. He knows he doesn’t believe her.

Second Day (Tuesday)

Klima motors to the spa and looks up Bartleff, the American patient with the bad heart, who hosted the party where Klima met the fateful nurse. He shares his problem (he’s gotten a nurse at the spa pregnant) with this bluff man of the world, who offers various suggestions.

Klima is surprised to learn that Bartleff paints religious pictures. There’s a new one, of Saint Lazarus, on the wall of his apartment. Bartleff explains it is blue because real saints’ halos really are blue. Klima is only paying half attention.

Klima phones Ruzena at the bath where she’s working and arranges to meet her after work, at 4pm. Then Bartleff takes him across the way, to the clinic, to meet Dr Skreta, the leading specialist at the spa.

IRONY The spa exists to treat infertile women. The place is packed with well-off, middle-aged women who can’t get pregnant. It is therefore a primal, structural irony that the entire plot rotates around a young woman who has gotten pregnant, after just one act of hurried coitus, but the father wants to terminate it.

Throughout the conversations with his band, and then with Bartleff, and now with Dr Skreta, the men discuss women as a problematic category, in an objectifying way, which I imagine most modern readers would find horrifying. I couldn’t tell whether the guitarist’s casual suggestion that they murder the nurse, and Klima’s casual acceptance of it, was meant to be ironic or straightfaced. The book is stuffed with men casually discussing the trouble with women and the problem with women and how to handle women and the differences between blondes and brunettes – dismissive and gross generalisations, which would give a feminist a heart attack.

Anyway, when Klima and Bartleff explain Klima’s problem, Skreta is immediately sympathetic. He tells them the next abortion committee meeting is on Friday and he can slot Klima and Nurse Ruzena straight in. And he shares a private passion of his which is that he is himself a keen jazz drummer. Could Klima maybe see his way to playing a gig with him, and a bassist who also works at the spa?

So anxious is he to secure the decision for an abortion that Klima would agree to anything. Good, yes, whatever. They set the concert date for this Thursday, the day after tomorrow. Galvanised, Dr Skreta vows to set about creating the posters and printing up tickets.

Klima meets Ruzena at 4pm outside the baths and takes her to the spa dining rooms. Here he commences his strategy: he tells Ruzena that he loves her so much that’s why he didn’t phone her at all for two months after their liaison; it was because he was afraid of the intensity of his emotions. He carries on despite her sceptical protestations, to assert that of course he will leave his wife, and wants to marry Ruzena – she begins to soften and swoon – BUT: the first few years of any marriage are the most blissful and he wants to spend them with her, unobstructed, unencumbered with a new baby. And that’s why he thinks she should terminate the pregnancy.

He suggests they get out of the dining rooms – where he is uncomfortably aware that everyone in the place can see him. Ruzena is impressed that he has a car, and so is easily persuaded to go for a drive in the country. Klima puts his arm round her as he drives and presses home his advantage, spinning fantasies about where they’ll go once he’s divorced his wife and married her.

He stops the car at a scenic spot and they walk into the country. He kisses her, a long lingering passionate kiss. He is in the middle of describing how Italy will be the first stop and he’s in the middle of painting the beauties of Italy when she surprises him by giving in. Yes. OK. Alright. She’ll place herself in his hands. She’ll agree to go to the abortion committee on Friday. (p.44)

Klima can’t believe his luck. In the end it was so easy. They walk back to the car, her head on his shoulder, but as they get there realise a motorbike is parked next to it and the motorcyclist looms threateningly up to Klima and starts telling him that, just because he’s famous, he thinks he can get away with anything; well, not this time, buddy! Klima hasn’t a clue what’s going on, Ruzena tells the man to shut up and go away and scrambles into the car, as the man turns towards her side, Klima jumps in his side and accelerates off. She explains he’s a maniac who stalks her. We will, in fact, come to learn that this is Ruzena’s boyfriend, a local rough named Franta, who has had sex with her and who may, indeed, actually be the father of her baby…

Arriving back at the spa, Klima escorts Ruzena to her nurse accommodation in the stylishly named Karl Marx house, before walking thoughtfully to Bartleff’s flat. He knocks and when there’s no answer, tentatively opens the door. For a moment he is awed. The room is lit by a soft blue glow. Remember the dialogue when Bartleff explained that he liked painting religious pictures? And that he had painted St Lazarus’s halo blue because that is actually the colour of saints’ halos? Well… Klima backs out and quietly closes the door, but next minute it is opened by Bartleff looking fresh and wearing the same clothes he had on that morning, who welcomes him inside, rejoices when he hears that Ruzena has given in and agreed to an abortion, and plies him with food (crackers and tinned ham). Then waves him off as Klima leaves, belatedly, to drive back to the capital and explain why his day took so long to his long-suffering wife.

Third Day (Wednesday)

A friend of Dr Skreta’s arrives. This is Jakub, who was in trouble with the authorities in the grim years after the 1948 coup, and for whom Dr Skreta knocked up a blue pill of concentrated poison, so that if Jakub was arrested, before he was tortured, he could control his own destiny and end it all. Now he announces he is leaving the country, he has official permission and is going to a teaching position abroad. He wants to return the pill. Dr Skreta won’t hear of it and pushes it back into Jakub’s hand when it is proferred.

(There is some very casual comedy, when Skreta forces his friend to accompany him into the examination room where a woman is lying on her back, naked, with her legs wide open so Skreta can examine her. It is a feature of Skreta’s character that he takes all this in his stride and tells the nurse to fetch his fellow doctor a white coat, and then confidently asks for his second opinion. So that the lady on the table is not discombobulated by the presence of another man looking at her privates, but quite flattered to have two specialists examining her case. Dr Skreta’s boundless self-confidence will recur at important moments later in the story.)

Jakub is here because he’s come to say goodbye to his ‘ward’, Olga. This young woman is the daughter of a friend of Jakub’s who was arrested and executed by the communists in the purges of the early 1950s when Olga was just seven. Jakub vowed to look after her, became her legal guardian, and when she left school got her a job here at the spa, via his old friend Dr Skreta.

Skreta says Olga is fine and tells Jakub which accommodation block to find her in. He also tells him about a) the famous jazz trumpeter Klima, his problem with the pregnant nurse, and how Skreta is going to play in a concert with him this Thursday. And b) about his latest money-making scheme. You know the rich American, Bartleff? He paints oil pictures. Skreta is trying to persuade Bartleff to let him become his agent and sell the paintings to gullible ladies at the spa, and take a commission.

Jakub shakes his head. He’s known Skreta since school, and he is continually coming up with hare-brained schemes.

We are introduced to Olga. She is bright but not excessively so. She fusses and frets about her appearance and figure. She is called out of the pool by Nurse Ruzena who she cordially dislikes. She makes a fuss about what to wear for Jakub, makes a decision then goes to meet him for lunch in the spa dining room. He tells her he’s leaving the country.

She is sad but, as usual, they end up discussing her father. Recently she’s been receiving letters claiming he wasn’t the political innocent Jakub’s brought her up to believe, but himself a hardline communist and arrester of others, till he himself was consumed.

Jakub’s thread introduces the serious themes of History or, to be precise, the tragic history of Czechoslovakia’s early years under communist rule, when some 100,000 opponents of the regime were imprisoned or sent to camps, and there were successive waves of executions of enemies of the state, traitors and saboteurs. Olga’s questions prompt several basic reflections from Jakub:

1. It was all a long time ago. The Farewell Party was published in 1972, 24 years after the 1948 communist coup, and that’s been long enough for Jakub to reflect that the younger generation can have no idea what it was like and, indeed, even people like himself who lived through it, are starting to forget what it was really like.

‘Time flies so fast, and the past is becoming harder and harder to understand.’ (p.60)

2. And, cynically, he remarks that if he’s learned anything from the experience of living through those times, it’s that, most people spend most of their lives living in a small bubble of family and work, but if History intervenes, and if the situation becomes stressed and difficult, then people will do anything to survive. Now the dust has settled, he thinks there was no ultimate difference between the communist authorities who locked up all those innocent people, and the victims. People are people.

There isn’t a person on this planet who is not capable of sending a fellow human being to death without any great pangs of conscience. At least I have never found anyone like that. (p.61)

Cut to Ruzena’s morning at work, where her fellow nurses flock round her and ask how her meeting with the famous trumpeter went. They are disappointed when she says he’s persuaded her to terminate the pregnancy. One of them gets a tube of pills out of a drawer and gives it to Ruzena, tranquilisers to calm her nerves.

Exiting the building she is again confronted by her young man, Franta, who begs her to be friendly and loving to her, but she has set her sights high, on a national celebrity, Klima and tells him to bugger off. She tells him he’s driving her frantic, he’ll drive her to suicide if he keeps harassing her! (p.66)

Back in Olga’s room, she and Jakub continue their conversation. He tells her about his friend Dr Skreta and his eccentric ideas. On an impulse he pulls out the blue pill, the suicide pill, and explains how Dr Skreta made it for him with no questions asked, just before Jakub was hauled off to prison. (He was lucky; he only served one year.)

Blue symbolism The colour blue recurs in key symbols. The sky is blue above this rather fairy tale spa. The mysterious halo in Bartleff’s room is blue. And the pill of death is blue.

The dog squad

As well as an irritating young boyfriend, Ruzena also has an embarrassing old dad, who has joined some cockamamy squad of old codgers who’ve decided to round up all the waifs and strays which are pooing and peeing all over the spa. The importance of this for the plot is that it triggers the deep dislike between Jakub and Ruzena. For Ruzena has just finished her shift and is walking between buildings, her head full of thoughts about the two worlds she inhabits: the stifling provincial one of the spa, characterised by hordes of fat middle-aged women and hardly any eligible men, only biker losers like Franta – and the big wide glamorous world of Prague and beyond, with which she associates Klima. Throughout the book she vacillates between going along with his request for an abortion, and then in a panic realising having his baby is her only hope for escaping her sad little destiny.

She is in just such a wavering state when she sees her dad and a few of the other dog squad emerging from bushes where they’ve been hunting dogs with long poles with wire nooses at the end. They’ve captured a dachshund. Suddenly Ruzena sees Jakub walking along the pavement towards her. He was sitting with Olga earlier, Olga who she hates for her superior manner. Now Jakub calls to her ‘Come here, don’t be afraid, come to me’ and is startled until, a second later, she realises he is talking to a dog, to a squat ugly bulldog which was behind her. He has completely blanked her in preference for some ugly mutt! The humiliation!

As Jakub picks it up to protect it from the dog hunters Ruzena steps forward and grabs its collar, telling him he’ll report him to the authorities. They engage in an absurd tug of war which is also a highly battle of two worldviews: she, driven by resentment and humiliation and anger at her cramped small-town life, burns to take revenge on this smarmy, self-confident, big city intellectual. He, for his part, sees in her exactly the petty-minded, bureaucratic, vengeful, small-minded party zealot who, in their thousands, supervised the arrest, stage trials and imprisonment of him and a hundred thousand like him, epitome of all those ‘prison guards, inquisitors and informers.’ (p.75)

In fact it’s even worse: Ruzena is the type of the bystander who rushes to help the executioner, rushes to pin the victim down so his throat can be cut, and full of pious self-justifying high-minded rhetoric about society and morals – a type who came to prominence in the century of calamity.

In this moment History returns in the form of a man and a woman absurdly tugging at the collar of a mutty old bulldog. Jakub wins, and yanks her hand away, turning and quickly entering the building where Olga lives. For a moment their eyes meet in a look of pure hatred.

Jakub takes the dog up to Olga’s apartment where Dr Skreta arrives and, with his usual confidence, announces the dog is well known, named Bobis, and belongs to a couple a little way out of town. Now he takes Jakub with him to Bartleff’s apartment, explaining on the way his latest hare-brained scheme, which is to ask the American Bartleff to adopt him, Dr Skreta, so that Skreta immediately becomes an American citizen and can travel freely outside Czechoslovakia!

The three men gather for a convivial chat on many subjects. It is now that we explicitly learn that Bartleff believes halos are a consequence of experiencing oneness with the Godhead, divine delight and are, indeed, blue. Doesn’t think this – knows it (p.78). Moving on from this eccentricity they discuss Klima’s predicament, and then conversation turns to fertility in general. Jakub, clearly established now as the Cynic, gives a suite of reasons why he thinks human beings should not procreate, climaxing with the Big One, that procreating implies an absolute affirmation of human life which he, personally, after his life experiences, feels unable to give. After all, as even the usually bullish Dr Skreta is forced to admit:

‘Humanity produces an incredible number of idiots.’ (p.92)

Olga leaves her water treatment and finds a note on her door telling her they’re all at Bartleff’s. There she joins Bartleff, Skreta and Jakub for a convivial private diner, brought to them by a waiter (Bartleff is a rich American, remember) during which he holds forth with a pet theory about the religion of the saints, namely that is was built on a thirst for admiration rather than holiness, as such.

Then the meal is interrupted by a beautiful little girl of 12, in a white dress tied with huge bow behind which looks like angel wings, appears to tell Bartleff he has another appointment. About this stage – what with his knowledge of halos and religion and the arrival of this little angel – I began to wonder whether Bartleff would be a redeeming saving angel in the story: whether it would have a truly supernatural element, as all these little symbols and moments suggest…

Bartleff leaves and Olga, with the callousness of youth, dismisses him as a posing self-dramatist. Skreta and Jakub walk her back to room and then go for a stroll under the big August moon. And it is now that Skreta lets Jakub in on a profound secret: all the women he treats for infertility and who get magically pregnant (including Bartleff’s own wife) – he, Skreta, has created a frozen store of his own sperm, and he is inseminating them all with his own seed. He is creating a world of brothers. No end of communist rhetoric craps on about a world of equality, where brothers and sisters share a common interest, and common values. Well, he, Skreta, is taking steps to really bring it about!

But, as so often in Kundera, his interlocutor, Jakub, is miles away, thinking about his conflicted feelings for Olga, and whether to leave tomorrow or not. He only half hears what Skreta tells him, and thinks it’s another one of his hare-brained schemes.

Fourth Day (Thursday – 47 pages)

Mrs Klima knows all about her husband’s infidelities and they drive her wild with jealousy. As soon as he said some communist committee obliged him to play a benefit gig at some spa resort with a pickup band including a doctor, she knew he was lying. Now, Thursday morning finds them in bed and he lies all over again and can see in her face she doesn’t believe a word. She goes to work. She works in a theatre. She used to be a famous actress but fell ill and her stage career ended. Now she asks if she can have the afternoon off. She’s going to take the train to this bloody spa and confront Klima with his lies!

Olga is having her morning dip in the spa pool among all the naked fat middle-aged women when a young dud in jeans walks in, then a few more. They’re a film crew, they’re filming a documentary about the spa. Olga is outraged, gets out and flings a towel round her, before storming off to her cubicle, leaving the woman supervising the pool, nurse Ruzena, fuming.

Jakub has been persuaded to stay an extra day. The bulldog he saved from the dog squad, and which Skreta told him belongs to a couple out in a village, he drives the dog back to their owners, a young couple with a baby. They’re grateful and give him lunch and present their squawling new baby. What a big nose it’s got, rather like Dr Skreta’s comic banana nose. Hang on! Jakub asks if they were treated by Dr Skreta? Yes! How did he know. So maybe Skreta’s hare-brained scheme about breeding a little generation of brothers isn’t mad after all.

For Franta, Ruzena is the only girl he’s ever slept with, she made him a man, she is his world. To watch her swanning off with this big city musician makes him furious. He finishes a fridge repair job (that’s his work) and motorbikes into the spa, heading for the concert hall to watch Klima practice for that night’s gig. For the rest of the day he will be Klima’s shadow.

Jakub drives back to the roadside restaurant where he’s arranged to meet Olga. He doesn’t notice Klima’s car there or Franta’s motorbike. Klima is waiting impatiently for Ruzena and when she arrives he guides her impatiently to a table by the window. She’s been realising Klima is lying to her and begun to be full of righteous indignation. Klima grasps her hand and is half way through telling her how much she loves him when she announces that she’s changed her mind: she’s going to have the baby after all. Klima’s world collapses around him. Glancing out the window she sees Franta peeking out at them from behind some bushes. God, he’s following her everywhere. Feeling harassed she remembers the tube of pills her nurse friend gave her, pulls it out and opens it and pops one of the blue tranquilisers. Klima takes both her hands in his and begins some long speech and then it crosses his mind to take her for a cruise, maybe being in the car will bring back the mood of yesterday.

So up they get and leave. Jakub has been watching all this from across the restaurant and now goes over to the vacated table (the one with the best view in the place). He notices the vial of blue pills Ruzena has left on the table and picks it up and idly plays with it before opening it and being struck how the pills inside are the identical colour as the famous suicide pill Dr Skreta made for him. He gets the suicide pill out. He toys with it in his hand. Playfully he slips it inside Ruzena’s glass vial.

And just at the exact moment Ruzena appears at the table asking for her pills back. She’d got all the way to Klima’s car then realised she’d forgotten them. Jakub hesitates. Ruzena insists. they both recognise each other as the antagonists over the lost dog. Their hatred revives. She reaches out for the vial and he moves his hand up out of reach while he blusteringly tries to think of an excuse, then she screams at him to hand them over, and suddenly something snaps in him. Coldly and ceremoniously, he hands over the vial with the poison pill in it.

For the next seventy or so pages of the book, whenever we come back to Jakub, he will be agonising that he has just condemned the young nurse to death and that – given his political history – this makes him no better at all than the inquisitors and executioners who murdered his friends.

Mrs Klima gets a train to the spa to spy on her friends and is pleasantly surprised to come across the film crew who so upset Olga. They are old friends, they persuade her to come for a lunchtime drink.

On the drive it occurs to Klima that what might persuade Nurse Ruzena that he loves her would be if he made love to her again, if they reconnected on a primal level. Come and see me after the concert, he says, and drops her off.

Ruzena is walking through town at a loss what to do when he hears a voice calling. It’s the three-man camera crew who she let into the pool this morning and so upset Olga. They call her to join them and the pretty woman with them (Klima’s wife).

Jakub hurries his meal with Olga to an end and then rushes to the concert hall where he finds Skreta and Klima rehearsing. He asks if either of them have seen Ruzena, which they haven’t. Suddenly it dawns on him that this is the fulfilment of a deep unconscious wish. He is now proving his most cynical tenet true: there is no difference between the persecutors and the victims. He is thrilled to be murdering one of the petty-minded little bullies. He is horrified.

In the nook at the outside pub the three film crew being chatting up the two women, the director rubbing Mrs Klima’s thigh with his, while the cameraman puts his arm round Ruzena and accidentally on purpose touches her breast. Things are heading towards a drunken orgy when Ruzena suddenly sits bolt upright. She has recognised Kamila as being Klima’s husband. Suddenly it feels like the whole universe is mocking her. The men laugh at her sudden outburst of propriety, and she is longing, longing to tell them she carries the fruit of the loins of oh-so-high-and-mighty Kamila the famous actress. She reaches into her handbag to get the vial of tranquilisers, when she feels a strong hand grip her wrist.

It is Bartleff. His intervention just as Ruzena was about to pop the suicide pill feels divine, and emphasises even more his magic and mysterious powers. A big confident man he sits down with the crew – who make the resentment at this intrusion obvious – and takes charge of proceedings, asking the boy waiter for the best wine in the house, insisting the owner comes to join in a toast, and toasting Ruzena’s beauty. Suddenly she feels transformed from a squalid small town girl to an angel.

Bartleff gets up and accompanies Ruzena off. The party atmosphere of the others collapses. Kamila feels suddenly revolted by the film crew, gets up and leaves.

The concert Jakub takes Olga to the concert. As they settle in, he sees Bartleff and Ruzena sitting not far away and believes more than ever that things have been arranged by a malicious God. The concert starts and, after a few numbers, he begins to get up to go and talk to them but at that moment a) Olga grabs his hand and tells him to sit down b) Bartleff and Ruzena themselves get up and exit the hall.

Klima had noticed them coming in but now notices Ruzena’s chair is empty and begins to flag. Dr Skreta is drumming like crazy behind him and won’t let him stop.

Bartleff takes Ruzena back to his apartment and tells her he loves her, he has always loved her. His words are like honey, like magic, she warms and stirs and for the first time for as long as she can remember is not full of self-hatred and doubt. As Bartleff describes how beautiful she is, Ruzena begins to believe it. As he begins to strip her, her body turns to him like a sunflower towards the sun.

As the concert ends Jakub takes Olga back to her room. His mind is obsessed with Ruzena and the pill and he goes round and round in circles trying to decide whether he is a murderer or a hypocrite or an angel of death or the instrument of some higher purpose. He hardly notices when Olga leans forward and kisses him.

Mrs Klima elbows her way through to the dressing room after the concert. She is convinced her husband is having an affair, and expects the arrival of some dollybird any moment, watching him like a hawk. But he just seems tired, and tells Dr Skreta and the bassist the same. Tired and just wants to go to his room.

Olga kisses Jakub again and leads the absent-minded older man over to the couch where she starts loosening his shirt.

Franta was at the entire concert and now tails the trumpeter to the dressing room, hangs around, and then out towards his temporary flat… but where the devil is Ruzena? Franta knows she was going to meet the trumpeter after the show, where’s she got to?

Three acts of love

Kamila and Klima walk to the building and apartment Dr Skreta has arranged for them to stay in overnight. It’s in the same corridor as Olga’s and Bartleff’s. In one room Bartleff is showing Ruzena the most wonderful night of her life; not because of his sexual technique as such, but because he has a magical way of really making her feel beautiful and loved.

Next door Olga has stripped and laid on the couch and Jakub is quietly appalled to find himself in the position of having to make love to her lest he embarrass and humiliate her on the last time they’ll ever spend together. Reluctantly he tries to rise to the occasion, despite a world of details reminding him that she is his ward and charge.

And in the third bedroom, Kamila slowly strips for Klima but he knows she is only doing it, provocatively, because she is convinced he had some erotic escapade lined up. He hates her jealousy and, in his bitterness, his penis shrinks away from her ministrations, convincing Kamila even more that it is not she her husband had been planning to make love to that night.

Meanwhile, Ruzena has never known love like it. She realises she has her whole life ahead of her. There is no need to rush into anything. She falls asleep snuggled in Bartleff’s arms and, when she wakes in the middle of the night, notices he dark room lit by a strange blueish glow. Is he a saint?

Fifth Day (Friday – 34 pages)

Next morning Klima gets up early to go and find Ruzena but she isn’t at her work, or in her dormitory. Unknown to him he is tailed everywhere by Franta, who’s been waiting outside Ruzena’s dormitory all night, frantic with jealousy. Eventually, Ruzena exits from Bartleff’s apartment and is confronted in quick succession by both men, Klima desperate that she is going to come with him to the abortion committee at 9am as they agreed yesterday.

Jakub wakes and immediately calls the bathhouse asking for Ruzena. They say she’s busy right now. An enormous weight lifts from his shoulders, and he thinks: what if the pill Dr Skreta made him was harmless? Yes, that would be the act of a true friend. And he spends a page expanding on this idea that Skreta, the true friend, would never have given him poison. Phew! What a relief!

Klima waits in the waiting room outside the spa pools where Ruzena works till 9. She emerges and he escorts her in silence to the abortion clinic.

Jakub dresses and tiptoes out of the room without waking Olga. He bumps into Mrs Klima who is just leaving their room. They introduce each other and walk downstairs, cross the road into the park. Jakub is absolutely staggered by Kamila’s beauty. Now, on the verge of leaving his homeland forever, he is overcome by a sense that he has never understood the world of art beauty and culture. Suddenly, on impulse, he tells her he is going away, he is leaving the country, he is never coming back, and that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Then he turns and walks away leaving he standing, watching him, till he disappears from view.

The abortion clinic is grim. Abortion is frowned on in the communist state. The country needs more patriotic citizens. The waiting room is plastered with posters encouraging procreation and praising motherhood.

Jakub returns to Olga’s room. She’s awake now, and inordinately pleased with herself. She is no longer a passive creation of men, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s ward. She has asserted her personhood. Jakub sadly says he really is leaving. He offers to walk her to the pool. On the way she comes over as so gushingly girly, so sweetly indifferent to the fact that he’s leaving his homeland forever, that he realises he has, once again, misjudged the situation. The only thing he knows, is that he knows nothing.

The meeting of the little abortion committee should be grim but is comical. Dr Skreta chairs the session, flanked by two chunky communist party matrons, and he has their measure to perfection. He puts on a tone of aggrieved sternness, and reads the unhappy couple a lecture about the joys of procreation and the needs of the socialist state etc. The matrons nod heavily. But then, with a sigh, he turns to the psychiatric report saying Mrs Klima is in a delicate state, a divorce might kill her. And we don’t want young nurse Ruzena to suffer the indignity of single motherhood. And so, with a heavy heart, Skreta declares that, alas and alack, he is going to sign the form for the abortion to go ahead. The matrons sternly lecture Klima and the nurse and then in turn sign the form. He goes to get up but they say, ‘Not so fast’. They dismiss Ruzena but announce that Klima has to remain behind to ‘volunteer’ to give blood. Cheap at half the price.

Finally, they allow Ruzena to leave, but she finds an angry Franta waiting outside, who blasts her with accusations and follows her down the stairs despite seeing she is distraught.

Having made all his goodbyes, Jakub crosses the spa, and comes across a group of schoolchildren being taken on a nature trail. Looking closely he sees that more than one of them looks like a little Dr Skreta and feels giddy, feels a sense of unreality. All his life he has been close to the centre of things, to the heart of the action, to politics and weighty affairs. What if all that was nonsense? What if the real beating heart of a country, a nation, of the thing we call reality, is miles away and other than we can possibly imagine?

Furious Franta follows Ruzena across the spa and into the hall where she works, up the stairs and along the corridor and into the hall lined with beds where women patients rest in cotton dressing gowns after their dip, shouting all the way that it is his baby and how dare she seek to terminate it. (Franta is under the misapprehension that Ruzena is pregnant with his baby and has somehow paid or blackmailed the trumpeter to pose as its father in order to secure a termination. The much worse reality hasn’t dawned on him.)

At the climax of their argument Ruzena reaches into her handbag, pulls out the vial of tranquilisers, fetches out the one at the top and pops it into her mouth, moments later feels a stab of pain in her tummy, folds double and falls the floor, dead.

The aftermath of nurse Ruzena’s mystery death

Franta gets even more hysterical and starts shouting that he killed her, it was him, he drove her to it. Another nurse runs to investigate then goes off to get a doctor. A dozen semi-naked women patients cluster round the figure on the floor. Everyone is pricked with curiosity to see death.

At the very same moment, Jakub is making his goodbyes to his old friend Dr Skreta. He decides to come clean about Olga’s father. He was not a persecuted hero, the contrary. It was Olga’s father who sent him, Jakub, who was a friend of his, to prison, in fact he thought he was sending him to his execution. Olga’s dad felt very heroic because it showed that he could put the principles of the revolution above personal concerns. Six months later he himself was arrested, tried and executed, and Jakub was eventually released. This revelation leads Skreta to make a complicated analysis of Jakub’s mixed motives in looking after the girl, which Jakub disagrees with and then they’re both in full flood when the phone rings, Skreta picks it up and learns there’s an emergency over at the baths.

Crucially, they don’t tell him nurse Ruzena has dropped dead, so he doesn’t tell Jakub. Instead they do a big handshake and part for ever, walk down the corridor and out of the building, then Jakub makes for his car, and Dr Skreta hurries to the halls.

A police inspector has arrived. He is standing over the prostrate body interviewing witnesses and trying to keep the frantic Franta at bay, who keeps on yelling that he did it, he drove her to suicide. (And indeed, for the rest of his life, he will carry this conviction like the mark of Cain on his forehead.

There is now some sharp comedy for Dr Skreta demonstrates his superhuman ability to grasp a situation and say the best thing. Since Franta is so loudly claiming the baby was his, Skreta immediately falls in with this lie, and then explains to the inspector that Klima had accompanied her to the abortion clinic because he was doing a kindly deed and volunteering to appear to be the father, so that Ruzena wouldn’t be forced to marry Franta.

Jakub drives off in blissful ignorance of how his chance gesture with the poison pill played out. He spends three densely argued and highly intellectual pages worrying about the meaning of his act, and comparing it unfavourably with Raskolnikov’s famous murder in Crime and Punishment. Here, as elsewhere throughout his works, a Kundera character reflects that whereas in the old days life was heavy and tragic, now it seems almost unbearably light, as if it can blow away in a puff of wind. (p.171)

Klima has finally finished giving blood and walks briskly over to Dr Skreta’s office to find the doctor out. When the doctor finally walks in looking a bit ruffled, Klima grabs his hand and thanks him profusely, for playing such a great set on the drums, but for stage-managing the abortion committee so smoothly. Well, it turns out not to matter since Ruzena is dead.

Klima continues shaking the doctor’s hand, his mouth agape, his brain trying to process this news, which lifts the nightmare burden he’s been labouring under for so long. Quickly, Skreta fills him in. It looked like suicide, and her boyfriend has been telling everyone that a) he’s the father and b) she threatened to kill herself if he didn’t leave her alone. So – Skreta explains to Klima – on the spot he devised the story that Klima had done the chivalrous thing in accompanying Ruzena to the clinic, but was in no other way involved.

He’s in the clear! They shake hands a bit more then Klima leaves the office and staggers back to the room to meet his wife. He kisses her face and neck and shoulders and then sinks to the floor and kisses the hem of her skirt, God he is so grateful, more grateful than words can express. They carry the bags down into the car, and he asks her to drive back to Prague and all the way there her beauty fills the car like a fine fragrance.

But then we go over to her mind, and we see her slowly realising, for the first time, that maybe the only thing that holds her to Klima is her jealousy. But that strange man who stopped her in the park and simply told her she was beautiful before walking off… he made her think. She is beautiful, and strong and independent. If she overcame her obsessive jealousy of Klima what would be left? Precious little. For the first time she can envision a future without him. And she smiles.

And Klima, completely misinterpreting her smile, looks over at her smiling and is filled with love and relief.

The inspector

The last ten pages are taken up with a mixture of broad comedy, clever paradoxes and cunning reversals. Olga arrives in Bartleff’s apartment to find him, the inspector and Dr Skreta discussing the death. Bartleff is absolutely firm that the night before nurse Ruzena had experience a spiritual experience unlike any other in her life, and had seen a world full of new possibilities, and that suicide is absolutely the last thing he would have done.

Several of his remarks irk the inspector who decides to put the American in his place by devoting a page to demonstrating how all the existing evidence could in fact be stacked up to prove in a court of law that Bartleff was the murderer, the motive being to shut the nurse up before Bartleff’s wife arrives later that day. A tense silence. Then the inspector laughs. He was just showing how evidence in such an ambiguous case can be twisted anyway you want (which makes a distant link with Jakub’s remarks at several places about ‘revolutionary justice’ which incarcerated him and thousands like him).

The inspector shakes hands and leaves and Bartleff goes to his room to change. Alone with Dr Skreta, suddenly Olga remembers the blue pill, the suicide pill, which Jakub showed her, could… might it… was that… She asks him straight out: Did he ever prepare a poison pill for Jakub?

‘That’s absolute nonsense. I never gave him anything of the kind,’ Dr Skreta replied with great firmness. Then Bartleff returned from the other room, wearing a different necktie, and Olga took her leave of both men. (p.182)

I love Dr Skreta.

And the end belongs to him. On the penultimate page, as he and Bartleff are strolling to the railway station to meet their wives, he hesitantly asks if Bartless can adopt him. Initially surprised, Bartleff lets himself be talked into it and announces it will be great fun.

And then, as the two wives get off the train and walk with their husbands, Mrs Bartleff shows them all her new baby. And they all comment on how very like Dr Skreta he looks ha ha ha. Only we know that this is because Skreta inseminated Mrs Bartleff with his sperm. The baby really is his son. But also his brother, since Bartleff has just adopted him. And so the two happy couples walk from the train station towards the resort, laughing and joking about the brotherhood of man under a big autumn moon.

Thoughts

Clever, isn’t it? Very clever. Very beautifully assembled like a Swiss clock, with all the parts fitting together just so.

The Farewell Party is funny and a little mysterious (the blue halo and the saint) and thought provoking (Jakub’s political musings about human nature and betrayal), but in the end, there’s no getting around the fact that the central premise is how to shut up and repress a difficult woman, so all concerned can go back to their philandering ways – and that the only solution turns out to be killing her.

I came to really like Dr Skreta’s combination of eccentricity with his whip-smart ability to manage situations (the abortion committee, his immediate exculpation of Klima when he is called to the dead nurse). He was the purest comic creation, not least in his plan to create a real brotherhood of man by inseminating all his patients.

Jakub is a more complex creation, like a bitter ghost overthinking everything but, as always, I warmed to his accounts of the political repression of the country, and of the grim logic of revolutions i.e. people betray their best friends in order to show their revolutionary zeal.

I hoped right to the bitter end that the mystique surrounding Bartleff (blue halo, painter of saints, big hearty ability to put people at ease, the angelic little girl who appears at his dinner party…) would mean that he would somehow, magically, be able to revive Ruzena. After all, the point is made at the start of the novel that he has just painted a portrait of a saint named Lazarus, named after the man Jesus raised from the dead. I can’t overcome a deep sense of disappointment that this didn’t happen, that he didn’t somehow raise Ruzena from the dead… Maybe, on reflection, that is the point.

Klima is a cipher – the harassed philanderer. It’s often the minor characters which intrigue and linger in your mind. Mrs Klima – Kamila – doesn’t appear much but when she does her jealousy, her own status as once-famous actress, and her dawning realisation that she might be able to go it alone, these make for a potent character. And Olga is a minor character but has a lingering effect: Jakub is appalled that she takes their act of love so lightly; but in this she represents precisely the lightness and inconsequentiality of the young generation.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson (1948)

This is the third of the Moomintroll books, published in 1948 and translated into English by Elizabeth Portch in 1950. All the Moomin books bring back lovely memories, the feelings of wonder, adventure and safety I had when I read them as a boy.

The plot

Winter comes and the Moomins eat a last meal before hibernating.

In the spring Moomintroll wakes up to find Snufkin has woken before him and is sitting on the bridge over the little river. They wake little Sniff and decide to go for an adventure, to climb to the top of the nearest mountain and make a cairn of stones there. Instead, when they get to the top they find a big black top hat, which they don’t realise is the Hobgoblin’s magic hat.

(In fact this, the centrepiece of the plot, gives its title to the original Swedish-language version of the book, Trollkarlens hatt, ‘The Magician’s Hat’. [Jansson was Finnish but spoke and wrote in Swedish.])

The first hint of the hat’s magic is when Moomintroll absent-mindedly throws the shell of his hard-boiled egg into it. A while later five fluffy clouds emerge from it and hover in the garden. They are soft as cotton wool so, one by one, Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin, the Snork and the Snork maiden climb up on them and discover you can make them move by moving your feet and leaning to either side. Soon they are playing bumper cars on the magic clouds!

They comfort the Hemulen who is crying because he has completed his life’s work of collecting every stamp in the world. After some thought they suggest he starts a new collection (Hemulens need a project to keep them going) of botany. Every plant in the world! Aha! He suddenly beams with happiness and goes off to collect samples.

The Hobgoblin’s Hat shows a darker side when Moomintroll goes to sleep under it and emerges in a completely different shape, as a skinny elf. The others are afraid and then disgusted when he keeps pretending to be their friend Moomintroll. In tears he begs Moominmamma to accept that it is he, Moomintroll. She looks long into the tearful eyes of the stranger and then decides, yes, it is him. Typical of her role as the accepting, comforting, all-wise Mother.

They decide to play a trick on the ant lion who lives on the beach. They capture him and throw him into the hat, which they cover with a Dictionary of Outlandish Words. After a while the hat starts flowing with water (which is what the sand has changed into) and a profusion of peculiar little creatures (which is what the Outlandish Words have changed into) and then a small, bedraggled hedgehog emerges (which is what the ant lion has changed into).

Moominmamma and Moominpappa decide the hat is too dangerous to keep and throw it into the river. Late that night Snufkin wakes up Moomintroll and they go and find the hat has run aground on a little sand bank. Moomintroll wades out to rescue it and discovers that the river water flowing into it is coming out as raspberry juice, and that fish entering it fly out as canaries!

They decide to hide the hat in the cave by the sea which Sniff found in Comet in Moominland. Next morning the Muskrat is peacefully reading his big book, On The Uselessness of Everything when his hammock string breaks and he lands with a bump on the ground. He indignantly tells Moominpappa he can’t put up with the children’s pranks any more and announces he is going off to live in the cave. We follow him as he marches off to the cave, makes himself comfortable, and then settles down for a snooze, first putting his false teeth into the top hat for safekeeping.

Moominpappa only tells the rest of the family about all this at lunchtime, at which Moomintroll and Snufkin let out a squawk and go running towards the beach. On the way they hear a series of screams and pass the Muskrat running the other way. The cave is empty, though the sand is mightily disturbed. The Muskrat never tells anyone what had frightened him so much. We will have to use our imaginations!

Now everyone is down by the sea, they find a washed-up boat in fairly good condition. After some squabbling they name it The Adventure, pack lots of goodies and set sail. The first island they come to is the Lonely Island surrounded by reefs and combers. None of them know that this is the island where the legendary Hattifatteners congregate once a year before setting off on their mysterious odyssey no one knows where (or why).

They split up to go exploring. The Hemulen takes his magnifying glass botanising but stumbles across the clearing where the Hattifatteners hold their gatherings. Suddenly they are closing in on him and he retreats to the pole in the centre of the clearing, then scampers up it to find a barometer at the top.

His screams bring the others who suggest he rocks backwards and forwards to scare the Hattifatteners off. That does the trick but the Hemulen insists on bringing the barometer as a souvenir back to the tents which Moominmamma and Moominpappa have erected on the beach.

A massive and dramatic storm batters the island. Moominmamma tucks everyone up in the safe and cosy tents she has prepared. In the middle of the night Moomintroll is woken up by strange spectral figures moving about in the tent. It is the Hattifatteners, who have been electrically charged by the storm and so are glowing slightly, looking for their barometer. They find it in the Hemulen’s corner, seize it but wake him up and there is much screaming and pandemonium before the Hattifatteners made off.

The Snork maiden discovers to her woe that the electric buzz of the Hattifatteners has singed off her little fringe which she was so proud of. Moomintroll tries to tell her he never liked it really, but she is inconsolable.

Next morning they recover from all this excitement with breakfast and then split up to go swimming or sunbathing. The Snork finds a reef of gold inland, but the others find lots of wreck washed up by the sea – a life belt, a snow globe but most impressive of all is the big ship’s figurehead which the Snork maiden finds.

All the animals share their finds and the Snork maiden very graciously gives the big painted figurehead to Moomintroll. They pack all the discoveries onto a raft tied to the back of The Adventure and sail back towards the mainland. Moomintroll is in the middle of describing how beautiful the painted figurehead is when he becomes aware that the Snork maiden has gone quiet with unhappiness. Very sensitively, he then tells the maiden she is much more beautiful than any figurehead. He likes her much more. The Snork maiden blushes with pleasure.

A few weeks later it is boiling hot August. Moominmamma agrees to let the children go and set up a base in the seaside cave. They make themselves comfortable and Snufkin tells him stories he’s heard (from the Magpie) about the Hobgoblin, who collects rubies and rides about on a magic black panther.

But above all the Hobgoblin is consumed by a quest for the biggest ruby of all, the King of Rubies. He has travelled around the solar system looking for it on each of the planets. Currently he is searching the moon, and it is from there that his hat fell to earth and landed on the big mountain where Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin found it. All the creatures feel a thrill of fear and excitement go through them.

They wake next morning to find it is raining strong steady rain. Counter-intuitively they decide to go fishing. Meanwhile Moominmamma decides to tidy up Moominhouse. Among all the bric-a-brac she rolls up some of the Hemulen’s old botanical specimens and, without thinking, throws them into the hat in the corner – uh-oh – then goes for a well-earned nap.

The children have a fabulous adventure in the boat, and catch an enormous Mameluke fish which drags the small boat around like a whale until it eventually gives up the ghost. They sail it back to shore and then struggle to carry its huge carcass back to Moomin valley.

Where they discover that the whole house has become completely overgrown with vines and creepers and fruit trees which have all erupted from those botanical specimens which we saw Moominmamma throw into the hat. They have to hack their way into the cellar to gain entrance, while Moominpappa is breaking Moominmamma free from the bedroom where she’s been blocked in by thick vines and creepers.

Once this is all sorted out, the children have a wild afternoon playing Tarzan and Jane, swinging from the creepers hanging from the drawing room ceiling.

Outside the Hemulen gets bored of guarding the fish in the rain. When it eases off a bit he gets some matches and starts a fire, initially to keep warm but then decides to roast the fish. So the family ends all its jungle adventures just in time to come outside for an open air, fresh fish barbecue!

Next morning Thigumy and Bob arrive, two little creatures who speak their own language and have brought a heavy suitcase. They are taken in by Moominmamma, like all other creatures, fed milk and soon find a corner of the Moominhouse to live in. They tell the Moomins the suitcase really belongs to the Groke and she’ll probably come looking for it. Sure enough that night the air goes chill and the big sad Groke appears on their doorstep. After staring morosely, she slips away without saying a word. (When I was a boy it gave me some kind of frisson that so many of the key characters are female; I can’t define it exactly, but it added to the books’ exoticism, compared to lots of English children’s stories which were more often than not about boys.)

The Snork is very pompous and bureaucratic. He tries to organise a court to prosecute Thingummy and Bob for stealing the Groke’s suitcase. Thingumy and Bob blow cherry stones at him through their peashooters. All the characters are allotted roles like prosecuting lawyer and jury. It is all great fun.

Suddenly there is a chill over the forest, the sun goes behind a cloud, all the colour leeches out of things. The Groke has returned. But it’s not the suitcase she wants back, it’s the contents. Thingumy and Bob refuse. Moominmamma has a brainwave and goes and gets the Hobgoblin’s Hat: will the Groke accept the hat instead of the contents of the suitcase? To prove its magic they put a couple of cherries into the hat and – luckily for everyone – these turns into rubies. The Groke is impressed, takes the hat, disappears and is never heard from again.

In the final chapter it is the end of August ‘when owls hoot at night and flurries of bats swoop noiselessly over the garden’. Moomintroll is woken by Snufkin and they go down to the bridge they sat on at the start of the book. Snufkin announces the time has come to be on his way. He is a restless soul. And he sets off that very moment, walking into the distance playing his mouth organ.

Moomintroll wanders sadly back to the house where Thingumy and Bob try to cheer him up by taking him to the secret dell they’ve made in the bushes and revealing the contents of their suitcase. It is an enormous magical ruby which changes colour. Stunned, Moomintroll realises this must be the King of Rubies the Hobgoblin is seeking.

Back at the house disaster has struck – Moominmamma has lost her handbag. A Wanted advert is placed in the paper offering a reward for the finder – a Huge Party will be held in their honour. Word spreads. Soon every creature in Moomin Valley is searching for Moominmamma’s handbag. But it turns out that Thingumy and Bob had stolen it, because its pockets were just the right size for sleeping in. Since everyone has been so kind to them they reluctantly decide to go and fetch it from its hiding place and present it to a delighted Moominmamma.

The scene is set for a vast August Party, with loads of food and drink to which all the creatures of the valley are invited.

At the height of the party an excited Thingumy and Bob present a big surprise, by opening their suitcase and revealing the King’s Ruby which lights up the entire valley with its wonderful red glow. It is even visible from the mountains of the moon where the Hobgoblin is still searching. Quick as anything he leaps onto his magic panther and flies back to earth, arriving in the heart of the party.

There is a stand-off in which the Hobgoblin asks for the ruby but Thingumy and Bob steadfastly refuse. Oh well, the Hobgoblin is consoled with a delicious plum jam pancake and then declares that, since it’s a party, he will grant everyone’s wish. One by one the characters ask for wishes which the big sad Hobgoblin grants – for example Moomintroll wishes for the feast table they’re sat at to be sent to his distant friend Snufkin and immediately it levitates and flies off. Moominmamma, with a mother’s wisdom, wishes that Moomintroll should cease pining for his friend, and immediately his heart is freed from sorrow.

The Hobgoblin can make everyone happy except himself. Thingumy and Bob ponder this, go into a corner to confer and then – say that their wish is for the Hobgoblin to have a ruby as big and dazzling as the King’s Ruby – and lo and behold, the valley is filled with twice as much red light, as a ruby of equal splendour – the Queen’s Ruby – appears!

And so the Hobgoblin spends the rest of the night making everyone’s wishes come true and, as dawn rises over the happy valley, everyone goes home to bed.

The illustrations

At least half the pleasure of reading the Moomin books is the sheer visual pleasure of the illustrations. There’s a major one on almost every page.

The appeal stems from:

  • the essentially humorous, baby-like conception of the characters themselves
  • the clarity of line, the precision and deftness of the drawings
  • in the more complex ones, the wonderfully evocative effect of the cross-hatching and shading
  • the Heath Robinsonian intricacy of the more detailed illustrations (like Sniff at the telescope in Comet)
  • or the childlike simplicity of some of the smaller, incidental illustrations

The illustrations are themselves just part of the whole visual apparatus which surrounds the text. This includes a map of Moomin Valley as well as an introductory letter to young readers from Moominmamma and the numerous incidental small illustrations.

In addition there are chapter headings which give detailed summaries of each chapter’s events – and, at the top of every page, a few words summarising the events on that page (as a boy I used to love checking these summaries to see how closely they matched up with what actually happened on each page, and spotting mistakes).

Thus the books are packed with incidental information and decoration so that every aspect of the book’s production helps create an all-enveloping, fascinating and transporting environment.

Moomin facts

In this book we learn that:

  • Pine needles are the best thing to eat last thing before hibernating for the winter.
  • Snufkin’s best tune on the mouth organ is ‘All small beasts should have bows in their tails’.
  • Moomins can’t sing but they are excellent at whistling.
  • Hemulens all wear dresses (even the male ones). So when they’re being polite, male Hemulens curtsey.
  • All the bedrooms in Moomin house have rope ladders on the windows – quicker than using the stairs.
  • If the first butterfly of the year you see is yellow, it will be a lovely summer.
  • The Hattifatteners congregate every June on the Lonely Island before setting off on their endless quest for nobody knows what. Hattifatteners can’t speak or hear.

Nature

Moominhouse is the only house in the valley. These are extremely rural stories, as close to nature as can be: no other houses or people at all, let alone cars or trains or any element of the modern world. Instead, the Moomins live right by nature, immersed in its rhythms (hibernating and waking with the seasons). Many of the chapters start by indicating the month and then describing the kind of weather to be expected, the heat or coolness, the state of leaves in the trees, the noisiness or subduedness of the forest creatures.

And a really strong feature is the way the Moomin world is teeming with life. When they go for walks in the woods the trees are rustling with little forest creatures, the seaside is bristling with crabs and shellfish – nature is alive with voices and creatures and sprites and spooks and tree spirits combing their long black hair.

And all these weird and wonderful creatures talk and wish you the time of day as you stroll past, or join in silly games, or reveal wonderful mysteries. Everything is not exactly enchanted but open and free and calm and happy. Nature is open and available.

Moomintroll kept close behind Snufkin as they went through the wood. There were rustlings and patterings on both sided of the path and it was almost a bit frightening. Sometimes small, glittering eyes stared at them from behind the trees, and now and then something called to them from the ground or from the branches. (p.48)

Having recently visited the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery about Tove Jansson I know that the lakes and seashore of Finland were extremely important to her, scene of many happy holidays with her family. The sea, in particular, is a recurrent subject, described very brilliantly in all its uncanny beauty. Here is the storm beginning to brew up on Lonely Island.

The sea had changed. It was dark green now with white-horses, and the rocks shone yellow with phosphorus. Rumbling solemnly the thunder-storm came up from the south. It spread its black sail over the sea; it spread over half the sky and the lightning flashed with an ominous gleam. (p.69)

And the characters’ response is the response of any adventurous 8- or 9-year-old.

‘It’s coming right over the island,’ thought Snufkin with a thrill of joy and excitement.

How wonderfully she captures the excitements and thrills of childhood.

Moominmamma

As usual Moominmamma is the unheralded heroine of the books, the calm accepting practical centre around which the world revolves, anchoring the tremendously safe, secure, happy and loving Moomin household, ‘a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow’ (p.16).

Strange new guests and even stranger events are all calmly welcomed, room made for them at the big table, while the steady routines of domestic life continue with Moominmamma calmly and sensibly making jam and pancakes.

Good things

This is linked to the way that everything that happens is exactly the kind of things which a child would want to happen. Climbing a mountain, finding treasure, owning a Magic Hat, sailing to an unknown island, weathering a Big Storm, finding washed up booty, night-long parties with dancing and fireworks – it is all the ingredients of a kind of perfect summer adventure holiday, of ideal childhood fantasies, all brought to life in vivid prose which has a strange dreamlike inconsequentiality.

And food, the yummy scrummy children’s food which Moominmamma is always preparing and serving. For example, the provisions they take to the cave, much of which is exotically non-English – betraying their Scandinavian origins – but recognisably yummy-sounding: raisin-pudding, pumpkin jam, bananas, marzipan pigs, sweet maize and pancakes. Always pancakes. Lots of pancakes.

Same with the amazing-sounding punch Moominpappa makes for the Big Party, out of almonds and raisins, lotus juice, ginger, sugar and nutmeg flowers, one or two lemons and a couple of pints of strawberry liqueur (p.140). Wow. Make mine a double.

Good prose

And the prose style is so wonderfully straightforward, good humoured, taking the most amazing events and ideas completely in its stride, plain and simple but capable of awesomely pregnant meanings and significances.

Outside the snow fell, thick and soft. It already covered the steps and hung heavily from the roofs and eaves. Soon Moominhouse would be nothing but a big, round snowball. The clocks stopped ticking one by one. Winter had come. (p.13)

Isn’t the rhythm marvellous, the diminuendo towards the last three-word sentence. And the subtle use of alliteration (hung heavily) and assonance (roofs and eaves). The simple use of baby language (‘big, round’). The brevity heavy with symbolism and meaning – ‘The clocks stopped ticking one by one.’

You know you are in safe hands.


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

Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre (1948)

How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid you are to soil your hands! All right, stay pure! What good will it do? Why did you join us? Purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. You intellectuals and bourgeois anarchists use it as a pretext for doing nothing. To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your sides, wearing kid gloves. Well, I have dirty hands. Right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently? (Act V)

This is by far the longest of the four plays in the Vintage collection of Sartre’s plays – Huis Clos is one continuous act of forty pages; The Respectful Prostitute is even shorter at 30 pages – whereas Les Mains Sales has seven acts and is 120 pages long! And I think it’s also the most enjoyable because the characters have time to breathe and expand and become believable.

The plot

It is 1944 in the fictional East European country of Illyria and the Russian Army is coming closer. Olga is in a flat used by the Illyrian communist party. Hugo arrives. He has just been released from prison. He is young, handsome, talkative. He has just served two years for the murder of the communist leader, Hoederer. A knock at the door and he hides. Olga opens the door to representatives of the Party, tough guys with guns. They’ve come to kill Hugo, they’ve trailed him here, he’s a liability, a loose cannon, he must be liquidated. Olga pleads for his life and says, ‘Give me till midnight to find out what really happened.’ The tough guys grudgingly relent and leave.

Hugo comes out the bedroom where he’d been hiding. Olga explains he must tell her everything; maybe she can protect him, persuade the others he is trustworthy after all. ‘Tell me everything, right from the start.’ The stage darkens and now begins the majority of the play, which is told as a long flashback detailing the events leading up to the assassination of Hoederer.

(Setting up the threat of Hugo’s ‘liquidation’ in the present is a Hitchcock-like trick, like seeing the bomb being placed on the bus: everything that happens subsequently is charged with menace and suspense. Simple but effective.)

So the rest of the play shows in detail the build-up to the assassination and explores the very mixed motives of young Hugo the assassin.

Act II

It is 1942, Hugo has broken with his rich bourgeois family to join the People’s Party. As a callow young intellectual, he has been given the task of editing the party paper and is horribly intimidated by the ‘real men’ of action who surround him.

After a turbulent meeting of the party heads Louis explains to him and Olga that the party’s general secretary, Hoederer, is planning to sell the party out. He is persuading the central committee to go into an alliance with the Fascists and the bourgeois party after the war to create a government of national unity.

Olga and Hugo can’t believe he is a sell-out. Louis hesitates then lets them in on a plan to assassinate Hoederer. Hugo will get a job as Hoederer’s personal secretary. On a night to be arranged he will open the door to the assassins. Hugo bridles: he wants to be a man of action. Let him assassinate Hoederer. Louis hesitates but Olga speaks up for Hugo: let him. OK, says Louis. Pack your bags and take your new young wife, Jessica, with you (oh, he’s married, we realise). Move into Hoederer’s house. Become his secretary. Await orders.

The next few acts introduce us to the shrewd watchful Hoederer, surrounded by tough guy bodyguards (George, Slick and Leon). But by far the most interesting character is Jessica, Hugo’s attractive flighty nineteen-year-old wife. She and Hugo play baby games, play act, role play and neither are sure when the game is over or when they’re playing. This could have been a tiresome embodiment of Sartre’s ideas about people playing roles for others’ consumption, but in fact their young married flirting and flyting is done with a surprisingly light touch and I found very believable. It is Huis Clos but in a comic mode. When Hugo swears Jessica to secrecy then whispers that he’s here to assassinate Hoederer, Jessica bursts out laughing. Hugo’s plight is that no-one will take him seriously. He can’t even take himself seriously.

HUGO: Tell it to me now.
JESSICA: What?
HUGO: That you love me.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But mean it.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But you don’t really mean it.
JESSICA: What’s got into you? Are you playing?
HUGO: No, I’m not playing.
JESSICA: Then why did you ask me that? That’s not like you.
HUGO: I don’t know. I need to think that you love me. I have a right to that. Come on, say it.
Say it as if you meant it.
JESSICA: I love you. I love you. No: I love you. Oh, go to the devil! Let’s hear you say it.
HUGO: I love you.
JESSICA: You see, you don’t say it any better than I do. (Act III, p.156)

The next scene is set in Hoederer’s office, the representatives of the two other parties arrive, the Fascists and the Liberals. There is some interesting political analysis as Hoederer points out to the other two that, with the USSR on the horizon, the Proletariat Party, though numerically in a minority, will soon be supported by the conquering Reds: so they’d better do a deal now. At which point Hugo jumps to his feet, outraged that Hoederer is prepared to do a deal with the bourgeois he so despises, with the bourgeois party leader (Karsky) who actually knows Hugo’s own father and made a point of mentioning it to Hugo on the way in.

The bomb

Hugo is on the verge of pulling out his revolver and shooting Hoederer then and there, when a bomb goes off in the garden, shattering the window, throwing the characters to the floor. The political leaders are ushered into a safe room, leaving Hugo, the bodyguards and a terrified Jessica. There is now some dramatic irony because Hugo had blurted out ‘the dirty bastards’ just as the bomb went off. He was describing the cynical politicians making this stitch-up, as he worked himself up to shooting, but now has to pretend to Hoederer’s suspicious bodyguards that he was referring to the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb. In fact Hoederer had already (unwisely) given Hugo a few drinks before the politicians arrived, and now he has a few more to recover from the shock with the result that he gets hammered and starts drunkenly skirting round the fact that it is he who has been sent as an assassin.

They’re not particularly subtle, but these scenes where the callow Hugo teeters on the brink of giving himself away, unhappily revealing himself to be precisely the over-talkative intellectual he’s trying to stop being, while his quick-witted wife covers for him, are more dramatically complex and satisfying than anything in Sartre’s previous plays, whose characters have tended to be schematic and one-dimensional.

In particular, Jessica’s innocent quick-wittedness is a joy to behold. In an earlier scene, when Hoederer’s goons had insisted on searching the new arrivals’ room, Jessica had quick-wittedly hidden Hugo’s revolver in her dress and brazenly invited one of the bodyguards to search her who was, as a result, so red-faced that he only did a cursory job, not finding the gun.

Now Jessica quickly interprets Hugo’s drunken babblings as anger against the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb and devises other ways of masking what Hugo’s saying. In fact she encourages him to drink more, lots more, until he passes out and Slick and George just laugh at him, thanking their lucky stars they didn’t have a rich privileged upbringing.

Olga in the summerhouse

Cut to the summerhouse which is Jessica and Hugo’s quarters, and Olga is tending the unconscious Hugo, when Jessica returns to the room with a cold compress for his head. The two women confront each other over Hugo’s unconscious body – the scheming, hard, political woman versus the politically naive but sensuous and sharp woman. They wake a groggy Hugo and Olga tells him it was she who threw the bomb. The party’s getting impatient. It’s been ten days and Hoederer’s still alive. She came to finish the job off but botched it. Hugo’s got till tomorrow, then they’ll come en masse. Anyway, whatever happens, the party thinks Hugo’s sold out – he is in big trouble. Being blown up by the bomb would have done him a favour. Olga leaves, climbing over the wall and escaping.

Jessica confronts Hugo with the reality of what he’s promised. For the first time they’re not playing. Hugo admits he can’t believe it, can’t believe he’s a killer, can’t believe that Hoederer’s bright quick eyes will go dull, that blood will seep into his suit, all because he, Hugo, has pulled a trigger. He is over-thinking and over-imagining the deed. But Jessica is no Lady MacBeth; the opposite, she begs Hugo to reconsider and, instead of just murdering Hoederer, discuss the issues, arguing him out of whatever it is that Hugo so vehemently opposes.

At which moment there’s a knock on the door and Hoederer himself enters, to check up on his secretary. The goons told him he’s drunk himself unconscious: is he alright? Having made certain, Hoederer makes as if to leave but Jessica jumps up before him. Now, now is the time for Hugo to do it? For a moment we the audience and Hugo are flabbergasted: what? shoot Hoederer now? No, Jessica means now is the time for the two men to talk, to thrash out their differences, for Hugo to find out if it’s really necessary to kill Hoederer (Jessica obviously doesn’t say this out loud, but we know from the previous dialogue with Hugo that’s this is what she means).

Hoederer explains Realpolitik to Hugo

And this is the lead-in to a very enjoyable scene where Hoederer a) explains the political situation in Illyria b) explains why a political deal with the other parties is necessary c) taunts Hugo with his naive intellectual purity. He’s more interested in principles than men, Hoederer taunts. He doesn’t want to get his pretty little bourgeois hands dirty. Well, Hoederer’s hands are dirty all right, covered in blood and filth.

This works very well as drama; it is written really effectively with Hoederer’s arguments battering Hugo’s feeble denials. When Hoederer has left, even Jessica can see that his arguments were right and, worse, that Hugo knows it, despite all his denials, despite his intention to stay true to his original mission, Hoederer converted him.

But I was also fascinated by Hoederer’s analysis of the situation in this fictional East European country because it closely parallels the analyses of the post-war communist takeover of Europe I have just read in Anne Applebaum’s brilliant history, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. Hoederer argues that:

  • The Proletariat Party cannot take power by itself; the proletariat only make up 20% of the population and not even all of them support the party. Hugo naively says, ‘Let’s seize power’. Hoederer replies that if they seized power, they would quickly be suppressed by the Peasants Party which represents 55% of the population, in alliance with the Fascists who control the army and police.
  • Hence the need to enter power peaceably in a national coalition.
  • Hoederer has suggested to the leaders of the Fascists and Bourgeois parties that they set up a national government with six on the fulling council and the Proletariat Party will have three of those delegates. He even – and this chimes exactly with Applebaum’s description – wouldn’t want most of the ministries, just two: the interior and defence, because those are the only two that matter.
  • But, Hugo says, the Red Army will be across our borders in weeks: why don’t we ride their coat-tails to power? Because, my naive friend, replies Hoederer, they will still have to fight their way across the country and many will be killed; the Soviets will be blamed. Because they Party will forever after be thought to have been imposed by a foreign power rather than rising up to represent the people. Because, even for the national unity government, the country will be a wasteland when peace finally comes, difficult decisions about law and order will have to be taken; the Party can represent itself as a natural outgrowth of the nation and people, and can present itself as opposing these unpopular policies from within government. With control of key industries it can slowly isolate the leaders of the other parties and wait till the time is right to stage a coup.

Hugo hates all this because it is messy and unprincipled and yuk. Hoederer laughs at his naivety and bourgeois prissiness.

Act VI

Next day, the day of the deadline Olga told Hugo he must act or else. Before the working day begins Jessica comes into Hoederer’s office and after a little flirting reveals that Hugo has a gun, and has been tasked with assassinating him. Hoederer knew it all along. Hugo knocks at the door, Jessica exits through the window (reminding me of all the ins and outs through windows in The Respectful Prostitute).

Now Hoederer toys with Hugo, continuing the discussion over whether Hugo has it in him to be an assassin or whether he is too much of an intellectual. Because assassins don’t think at all, have no imagination, just kill. Whereas Hugo has too much imagination, can not only picture the dead body and the blood, but has grasped the political consequences, the cause of the Party set back, no single leader to greet the Red Army, its chance for power maybe irrevocably lost. He deliberately turns his back and fixes a cup of coffee, while Hugo gets the gun out his pocket and holds it trembling, very obviously struggling with himself. Hoederer turns, faces him, says ‘Give me the gun’ and takes it. Hugo collapses, virtually in tears, and says, ‘You despise me.’

Hoederer says he remembers being a naive principled young man. He can help Hugo to maturity, guide him, mentor him. Hugo is almost in tears. But he won’t give up his opposition to the political pact. Don’t worry, says Hoederer: he’ll go to town tomorrow and square it all with Louis (the guy who sent Hugo in the first place). Go back to writing, it’s what you do best; and he dismisses Hugo.

Re-enter Jessica who’s been perched on the window ledge all this time (!) She heard everything. She thinks Hoederer is noble. In fact, she’s realised she’s not in love with her silly immature husband, she realises she wants a ‘real man’ (p.232). Oh dear. The 21st century reader’s heart sinks a little. They look at each other in silence. She’s never thrilled to a man’s touch, sex with her husband makes her giggle. ‘Are you frigid?’ Hoederer asks. ‘I don’t know,’ Jessica replies. ‘Let’s find out,’ says Hoederer and embraces and kisses her.

At just this moment Hugo re-enters the office. Oops. Incensed, he accuses Hoederer of lying to him and stringing him along and sparing him and promising to make him a man because all along he’s just wanted his wife. Hugo springs for the desk where the revolver was left, seizes it, Jessica screams, Hugo fires three shots at Hoederer who crumples in his chair. Enter the bodyguards, George and Slick with guns aimed at Hugo but Hoederer with his dying breath tells them to spare him, it was a crime of passion, that he – Hoederer – was sleeping with Hugo’s wife. And dies.

Act VII

Lights go up on the setting of the first act, as Hugo finishes pouring his heart out to Olga. She keeps asking, ‘So did you assassinate him because of our orders,’ and Hugo honestly doesn’t know. In a typically Sartrean way, Hugo isn’t even sure that he did it: or was Chance the key agent? If he’d opened the door two minutes later or earlier, it wouldn’t have happened. In fact, he was coming back to ask for Hoederer’s help.

It was an assassination without an assassin. (p.234)

Hugo is crushed by a characteristically Sartrean sense of his own unreality. But Olga is pleased. She thinks she can fend off the men who want to kill him. And here comes the punchline, the cynical climax of the play. For Olga explains:

The party line has changed. When they despatched Hugo to murder Hoederer communications with Moscow were poor. Later they discovered that Moscow did, in fact, want the party to go into a government of national unity with the Fascists and bourgeois parties. It would mean saving many lives among the Illyrian army (which would immediately lay down its arms). It would save Moscow embarrassment with the Allies (Britain and the US). The new plan is for the party to join a 6-man government, and the party to have 3 delegates. Hugo is amazed and then bursts out laughing. This is exactly what Hoederer intended, what we saw him proposing to Hugo just a few moment (two years) ago down to the last detail.

Yes, Olga explains, but Hoederer was ‘premature’ in his policy. Meanwhile, another man, now dead, has been officially blamed for Hoederer’s assassination. Now Hoederer has been rehabilitated and… Hugo joins in, ‘You’re going to put up statues to him after the war. You’re going to make him a hero of the party?’ Hugo collapses into helpless tear-filled laughter of despair.

Olga tells him to snap out of it, the Party killers are about to arrive. She is ready to tell them he is a new man, rehabilitated, he will go along with the party line, he will lie about Hoederer’s assassination, he will forget all about and never mention to anyone that he did it. He will live a life of deceit and lies for the greater good.

But Hugo refuses. The only thing that kept him going in prison was that he fired – maybe for personal reasons – but in accordance with the party line. To learn that the line has changed and the act become completely meaningless is too much to bear. He thought that killing someone would make him feel real, give him weight and substance – but he carried on feeling horribly unreal and contingent. Now, now he has the chance to stand up, to act for himself, to make himself real. Olga begs him to stop but as the killer’s car draws up outside, Hugo stands up and walks to the door. He will proclaim his guilt and force them to kill him. It will be his final, defining acte.


Reactions

Apparently the big and powerful Communist Party of France disliked the play. You can see why.

In purely political terms, this was the decade when Moscow’s concept of Socialist Realism came to be enforced all across the Eastern Bloc. Art, music, literature, all had to be high-minded and inspiring, showing happy workers exceeding their quotas and merrily bringing in the harvest. It’s hard to imagine a more nihilistic, defeatist, cynical and plain anti-communist narrative than Les Mains Sales, hard to imagine anything more completely contrary to the spirit of Socialist Realism, focusing as it does on the amoral political manoeuvring, the lying to its membership, the cynical alliances with its class enemies, and the pointless infighting and murders of the communist party.

Politics aside, the communist party of Illyria comes over as a mob of gangsters, little different in terms of threat and violence from Al Capone and Chicago gangsters of Prohibition. Time and again I am reminded that Sartre and Camus were writing their intense, man-holding-gun fictions during not only the rather obvious violence of the Second World War, but also during the heyday of Hollywood films noirs which they both hugely enjoyed. Camus cultivated a Humphrey Bogart look with his collar turned up and a Gitanes cigarette permanently smouldering in his mouth. The romance, the glamour of being the dude with the shooter, calling the shots. Specially if you yourself are mostly the chap in the library with the pipe and the thick glasses.

As a specimen of intellectual French film noir, as a dissection of the worldview of communist politics in 1947 and 1948, and as pure entertainment, I think les Mains Sales is by far the best of these four plays.

Jessica and sexism

All the male characters utter contemptuously sexist comments either about Jessica in her absence, or to her face, which would get you locked up nowadays. They casually refer to her political naivety, her inability to do anything significant for the Revolution and her liability as distracting ‘bait’  for all the male characters. This was, after all, 25 years or so before the birth of Women’s Lib.

It is, for example, offensive to modern readers when the bodyguards make remarks about Jessica’s attractiveness in the first scene in the big house, and Hoederer is no better, dismissing her as a distraction, saying why doesn’t she ‘scratch her itch’ with Slick or George.

More to the point, there is something sexist about the entire conception of the play which sets the world of passive sensuality (Jessica) against the ‘active’ network of male politics and action (Hugo and Hoederer). With crashing stereotyping the main woman character represents Sex, anti-Politics (although, to be fair, she is balanced by clever calculating Olga, who is smart enough to try and save Hugo, and who, after all, throws a bomb in the middle of the play.)

But despite what we nowadays would describe as the #everydaysexism of the text, Jessica is, by and large, the most attractive character in the play. She is the least hoodwinked, the least deceived. She knows nothing about politics but she knows more about life than her over-intellectual husband, tricks the bodyguards with her nimble-wittedness and is quite a match for Hoederer. She is the only one who sees through the men with all their high-handed rhetoric to ask the real questions, specifically; why does Hugo want to murder a man he respects and, by the end of the play, has come to love? Why? Fool!

Although it’s ostensibly a play about tough guy men politicking and conspiring, Jessica is – for me – the star of the show.

The movie

Despite being ‘the philosopher of the century’ it’s damn difficult to get hold of the movie versions of Sartre’s plays. The Respectful Prostitute seems impossible to track down in any shape or form. Here’s a print of the film version of Les Mains Sales, made in France in 1951. There are no sub-titles and the sound is out of synch for a lot of it, but it gives a stark sense of how stagey the story is. And how French.

Apparently, the French Communist Party carried on being so angry about it, that they tried to organise a boycott of cinemas where the film was showing.


Credit

Les Main Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre was first performed in Paris in April 1948. This English translation – Dirty Hands – by Lionel Abel was published in the United States in 1949. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Heart of The Matter by Graham Greene (1948)

Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgiveable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practises. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation. (p.60)

Background

During World War II Greene was recruited by British Secret Intelligence (later MI6) and sent to Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, from 1942 to 1943, to spy on Axis activity in the region. He used this location as the setting for what many people think is his ‘finest’ novel.

Overview

This book has a completely different feel from its immediate predecessor, the ‘entertainment’  or surrealist thriller, The Ministry of Fear (1943) which was, frankly, a shambles.

The Heart of The Matter moves slowly and realistically, building up our sympathy with a handful of carefully contructed characters through an accumulation of psychological insights, and depicting the reality of the humid African setting through an accumulation of perceptive details.

He stood quietly for a while breathing in the heavy smell of the sea. Within half a mile of him a whole convoy lay at anchor, but all he could detect were the long shadow of the depôt ship and a scatter of small red lights as though a street were up: he could hear nothing from the water but the water itself, slapping against the jetties. The magic of this place never failed him: here he kept his foothold on the very edge of a strange continent. (1983 Penguin paperback edition, p.37)

The Heart of The Matter

Major Henry Scobie, ‘a squat grey-haired man’, is Assistant Commissioner of Police in the capital of the unnamed West African country, has been been there for 15 long, hot, demoralising years. Honest and upright he is therefore the target of malicious gossip and criticism. He is hard on himself, with a permanent sense of guilt for having persuaded his wife – ‘poor Louise’ – to come to this hell-hole and then doing little or nothing to gain promotion and a move away.

Their only child, a daughter, died age nine back in England. People laugh at his wife behind her back, calling her ‘Literary Louise’ and she appears to be clinically depressed, unable to get out of bed, frequently weeping and needing constant reassurance from her beloved ‘Ticki’, her nickame for Scobie. She is desperate to escape, to go to her imagined El Dorado of South Africa. They love each other and hate each other and are stuck with each other.

This miserable marriage is painted with an abundance of psychologically acute detail.

A newcomer to the colony, podgy inexperienced Wilson almost immediately ‘falls in love’ with Louise and combines clumsy attempts to seduce her with a steadily growing hatred of Scobie, especially after the older man witnesses him in several compromising situations: Wilson can’t forgive Scobie for having seen him cry.

As the novel opens, the current Commissioner retires and Scobie is passed over for promotion, adding to his wife’s misery. Scobie tries to borrow money to pay his wife’s passage to South Africa, but the bank turn him down. And he breaks all the rules by taking pity on a Portuguese merchant captain who was hiding a letter to his daughter in Germany. Scobie finds it, confiscates it, should hand it in and report the captain: instead he burns it. Scobie’s decline is made of a series of small and forgiveable transgressions like this. The heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies are each said to have one fatal flaw. Scobie’s is his sense of pity.

Eventually, out of pity for his miserable wife, Scobie borrows £200 from the slippery Syrian mechant, Yusef and is able to despatch Louise to South Africa. But the loan, of course, has consequences. There is a rival Syrian merchant Tallit, and soon his spies are spreading rumours that Scobie has accepted bribes. Yusef pulls the trick of telling Scobie Tallit is smuggling diamonds out on the next neutral ship. When the ship is searched the diamonds are found; but slowly it emerges that Yusef planted them in order to implicate his rival. The real result is that Tallit complains to the authorities and a Colonial Administrator comes to visit for what is, although everso British and polite, in effect an interrogation of Scobie about the affair. He robustly admits his friendship with Yusef, says he knows both are liars scheming against each other, neither has bribed him etc. But his integrity has, for the first time in  his career, been questioned.

The next act in this tragedy is Scobie being sent to the border with the neighbouring colony to receive the survivors of a merchant ship which has been sunk by Germans. It is a harrowing scene: they have been in an open boat for 40 days. Scobie finds himself having to pretend to be the father of a poor little boy who is on his death-bed, to give him some last moments of reassurance. Pity, again.

The whole book is like that. Although it’s about a simple adulterous affair, almost every scene seems to involve moments when the author can comment about the extremes of human experience, of life and death and pain and despair. One of the survivors is a young woman, Helen Rolt, newly married, whose husband was drowned. Once they’re shipped back to the capital Scobie makes a point of checking up on all of them but finds himself drawn to the young woman.

Book Two describes with a multitude of persuasive detail, how he slowly, painfully falls in love with this scrawny immature woman . On one visit she talks about her childhood and he finds himself speaking honestly about his feelings for the first time in years. Suddenly, without planning it, they are kissing. They sleep together. They are having an affair. So far so ordinary, so suburban.

What makes it Greene is that Scobie makes promises to look after her, to make her happy and he takes these promises with pathological seriousness. Of course the colony vultures are gathering in the shape of the jealous Wilson who, we discover, is actually some kind of spy sent out from London (a kind of ironic self-portrait by the author, who played this role in Freetown?).

The final parts of the tragedy slot into place when Scobie’s wife unexpectedly (and implausibly) announces she is returning from South Africa. She realises her mistakes, selfishness etc, things will be different this time. Well, they certainly will because instead of doing the sensible thing and chucking in the affair with Helen (which she actually suggests he do) – or splitting up with his wife and committing to Helen – he does neither and places himself in what you could call the Optimum Graham Greene position: a situation where he can revel in an orgy of despair because he has made promises to two people which he cannot keep.

Enter the Catholic Voodoo when Louise insists they celebrate her return by going to communion. Before which you must, as a Catholic, have had full and complete confession of your sins. But Scobie puts off going, then finds that he cannot properly repent. He (and the author) use the casuistry (‘a specious, deceptive, or oversubtle reasoning, especially in questions of morality’) that by breaking his promise to help Helen he will somehow be abandoning her to ‘despair’ and (pathetically) to the advances of various seedy single men in the colony. Hmm.

Either you accept that a man like Scobie feels bound by this rather silly promise even if it means his death; or you feel that Greene is contriving, just this side of plausibility, a scenario which has been designed solely to justify the very heavy freight of moralising which the last pages of the novel carry.

For in the final 30 or 40 pages Greene revels in showing us a man ‘at the end of  his tether’, torn between two women to whom he has made what he regards as unbreakable vows, and forced (so he says) to lie to his God. This unleashes a torrent of ripe Greeniana:

When he came out of the [confession] box it seemed to Scobie that for the first time his footsteps had taken him out of sight of hope. There was no hope anywhere he turned his eyes: the dead figure of the God upon the cross, the plaster Virgin, the hideous stations representing a series of events that had happened a long time ago. It seemed to him that he had only left for his exploration the territory of despair. (p.222)

Thus, not properly confessed, he allows his wife to take him to Mass and to take the wafer of bread and wine in the full knowledge that, according to Catholic theology, he is damning himself to eternal hellfire. This scene is an operatic farrago of self-pity, as Scobie insists that he stay loyal to his vow to Helen, taken out of pity for her, watches the priest’s skirts moving closer with horrified clarity, feels his mouth go dry, and then makes the fatal gestures etc.

In the last sections Greene rubs Scobie’s face in the dirt.

  • Out of the blue it is announced that he will be promoted to Commissioner after all ie it was all unecessary: it is what Louise wanted so he need never have sent her away, need never have been tempted and fallen with Helen etc.
  • Helen herself fails to understand the sacrifice he has made for her. She doesn’t at all believe his Catholic hoodoo, saying he is free to leave her any time (as he, of course, is). Helen becomes the mouthpiece, within the text, of the sceptical reader, allowing Greene to anticipate criticisms of the situation and rebut them via Scobie.
  • And finally, he comes to distrust his loyal houseboy of 15 years, Ali, and half-knowingly allows the slimy Yusef to arrange for him to be murdered in the dirty wharf at night. Finding his body drills in to Scobie’s mind the depths to which he has fallen, how evil he has become.

Oh God, he thought, I’ve killed you: you’ve served me all these years and I’ve killed you at the end of them. (p.247)

He becomes, in his own mind, an infection, a disease. (Exactly the metaphor frequently used by the protagonists of the early novels and especially by the whisky priest about himself in The Power and the Glory).

I’m carrying my corruption around with me. It’s the coating of my stomach… I can’t bear to see suffering, and I cause it all the time. I want to get out, get out. (pp.232-3)

He foresees only one end, the ultimate sin for a Catholic, the sin of despair and the unforgiveable act of self-murder. The last pages chronicle Scobie’s methodical way of going about faking the symptoms of angina, to the doctor, to his wife, to his boss and in the diary which he knows will be examined by the coroner and insurance investigator.

O God, he prayed, his hands dripping over the wheel, kill me now, now. My God, you’ll never have more complete contrition. What a mess I am. I carry suffering with me like a body smell. Kill me. Put an end to me. Vermin don’t have to exterminate themselves. Kill me. Now. Now. Now (p.252)

There follows the hallucinatory last day and hours and minutes of the suicide as he realises he is seeing everything, saying everything, smelling and touching and feeling everything, for the last time. He bids his wife goodnight, makes his last – deliberately unfinished – entry in  his diary, and takes the overdose of painkillers, collapses and dies.

Postscript

In a technique he experimented with in the early novels and perfected in The Power and The Glory, there is a postscript. And just as in Power its purpose is to undermine the protagonist’s tragedy; to set it back in the shabby everyday world; to highlight how pointless and futile it is to think that anybody can escape the relentless mundaneness of other people’s trite opinions, of our little lives.

The postscript has three quick scenes where we see:

  • Louise with Wilson, telling her he loves her. There is the bombshell revelation that she knew all about Scobie’s affair with Helen all along, in fact that’s why she came back from South Africa: the entire colony knew and one of the wives wrote and told her. Wilson reads Scobie’s diary and notices the way the remarks about sleeplessness – one of hte symptoms of angina – have been written in later in a different shade of ink. He floats the thought that Scobie might have committed suicide.
  • Helen with the cad, Bagster. Drunk, he tries to seduce her. Numb with loss, she lets him. In his twisted soliloquies Scobie had persuaded himself that continuing to love Helen saved her from emptiness and the attentions of the Bagsters of this world. If so, he has completely failed.
  • Louise with the priest Father Rank. She’s obviously shared Wilson’s suspicion that Scobie killed himself. They begin the debates which have continued in millions of readers’ minds, in reviews and scholarly articles and books for the past 66 years: Will God forgive Scobie? Does God’s mercy supercede the laws of the Church? Did he love either of his women? Did he only love himself? Did he truly love God?  and on and on, endlessly…

Critique

The Ministry of Fear was a laughable shambles of a novel: it was almost as if Greene deliberately threw together the most bizarrely surreal scenes he could conceive, along with great screeds about suicide and despair, and then set himself the challenge of pulling it all back into some shape by pretending it was a (wildly implausible) Nazi spy conspiracy thriller. It is a reckless satire on the thriller genre, with a whole vat of Catholic guilt thrown into the mix.

The Heart of The Matter is of a different order. It is a serious and sustained effort to portray contemporary characters in depth and detail. It is (rather grandly) divided, like a Victorian novel, into Books, themselves sub-divided into parts, themselves sub-divided into chapters, themselves sub-divided into short 3 or 4 page scenes. Pretty much every one of these scenes is written with thrilling power and accuracy. You could put the  book down after every single one of them to savour and admire their craft and force.

The first 120 pages, or Book One, are an immensely powerful portrait of an unhappy marriage, the Scobies’ marriage. The details are so perceptive and familiar to anyone whose marriage has been through rocky patches: the timeworn rituals, the midnight reassurances, the quiet lies to bolster each other’s confidence: the way two people can torture each other and yet stick to each other, is horribly convincing.

And the creation of Wilson as the immature outsider who naively thinks he’s fallen in love with Louise Scobie, and in effect becomes a witness to the outside appearance of these details, these pained looks and furtive deceits, is masterful. And outside this three the ring of ‘others’, the various officers and officials of the colony and their bitchy wives, and the claustrophic sense of being tightly cocooned by ever-present watchful eyes and malicious gossip, are wonderfully conveyed.

And the character of the slimy merchant Yusef who offers Scobie the bait of a loan of £200 which Scobie, with nowhere else to turn, accepts, in order to pay for his so-miserable wife to be despatched to sunny South Africa. Every scene between the knowing Scobie and the infinitely subtle Yusef are gold. In fact, scene after scene is written with tremendous psychological insight, with a terrifying precision of scene and setting, tone of voice, detail and dialogue.

Whether you accept the final conclusion to the tragedy – whether you intellectually and emotionally accept the premises which lead Scobie to his suicide – will vary from reader to reader, and from mood to mood. If you are a more emotional person or in an emotionally labile mood, then I think you will come away feeling this is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Many critics have claimed it as such.

I am a more detached, intellectual (and older) reader and, while I praise the craftmenship of many of the novel’s individual scenes, in the end I felt too manipulated to give in to the novel’s spell. Either you are ‘inside’ the fiction and feel the author’s relentless comments about pain and despair are truly telling you something about the Human Condition. Or, like me, you are ‘outside’ the fiction, can admire the professionalism and expertise of its assembly, but are immune to its emotional and psychological manipulations.


The Heart of The Matter feels like a truly great novel. Nonetheless, it still reveals certain enduring aspects of Greene’s approach.

The plotlessness of GreeneWorld

As discussed in my previous posts about Greene, his mental landscape is one of unrelieved gloom, depression fermenting into suicidal thoughts. Freud diagnosed many mental illnesses as being essentially repetitive: the unconscious making repeated attempts to break into the conscious mind, the conscious mind erecting defences against it, a permanent gridlock which results in obsessive and compulsive patterns of behaviour or thought.

Applied to Greene’s fiction, this helps explain why his plots are so thin. His novels don’t really have plots they have predicaments – the whisky priest’s story in The Power and The Glory isn’t really a story at all, it’s a plight. Or even if one of his books does have a plot of sorts, you don’t have any sense of progress or movement by the end of the book. Everyone is still trapped. Maybe a bit trappeder. A Beckett-level of inanition and futility.

Although a plot can be extracted from Heart ie a sequence of events which propel the protagonist to his final disaster, viewed from another angle, the plight of the colonists remains much the same at the ending as it did at the start. Greene’s all-encompassing worldview of despair doesn’t really budge. On page one Wilson feels ‘intolerably lonely’. Towards the end of  Scobie’s life, ‘It seemed to him that he had never been so alone before.’ (p.235) Stasis.

The developing world is an ideal setting

As with revolutionary Mexico inThe Power and The Glory, the poverty and degradation of Africa here allow Greene free rein to his gift for finding seediness, shabbiness, moral squalor and decay at every turn. Could it be that his best novels are set in the developing world because there he could indulge to the full his personal obsessions with the (to him) terrifying futility of human existence?

Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst. (p.36)

Not only do developing countries set Greene’s imagination free but his melodramatic existentialist crisis-stricken protagonists somehow seem more plausible in faraway exotic lands than they do in, say, London. They just seem rather ridiculous in a London where they take their place among the millions of people we know who just get on with their lives, most of whom are right at home in the world, thank you very much, and completely oblivious to Greene’s brand of Catholic Despair.

In Mexico, Africa, post-war Austria, Vietnam, Haiti and so on, the setting itself has very conveniently justified a sense of poverty, corruption, easy death and despair before the author even lifts a finger to create a character.

Related links

The movie

Greene was phenomenally successful in getting his novels converted into films. The Heart of the Matter took 5 years, appearing in 1953, directed by George More O’Ferrall and starring Trevor Howard and Elizabeth Allan with sterling support from young Maria Schell as Helen, creepy Denholm Elliott as Wilson, slippery Gérard Oury as Yusef, and handsome Peter Finch as father Rank.

It is an astonishingly wooden film. The blurb claims Howard gives the performance of his career but this seems to mainly consist of pushing his cap up his forehead and rolling his eyes.

As usual the medium of film strips away all the subtlety and interest of a text and omits scores of the incidental scenes which help build up the plausibility of the novel. Thus reduced to its bare bones it’s hard to see why Scobie either ends up in love with two women or is so incapable of dealing with the situation like a rational adult.

But if the first hour and a half of the movie are a woodenly directed sketch of the novel, the last five minutes are a complete travesty: in the novel one of Scobie’s last and filthiest betrayals was telling Yusef that he thought Ali, his loyal boy, was spying on him and then acquiescing in what he half knew would happen, Yusef arranging for Ali to be murdered. He then proceeds to overdose on the painkillers he’s been carefully hoarding, passes out, collapses and dies.

In the movie, in a completely different ending, Scobie drives down to the docks to shoot himself but, while he cradles his loaded revolver pondering the whys and the wherefores, hears the screams of the usual night-time fights among the ‘wharf rats’ and goes running off to break it up. He is himself set upon and shot just as his faithful Ali comes running up to him. His good and faithful servant cradles Howard in his lap as he delivers the film’s last line: ‘Tell Mrs Scobie God make it alright.’ Roll credits, not a dry eye in the house.

It is a staggering indictment of the inability of film to bear witness to its literary sources or to make even the most modest gesture towards seriousness and difficulty.

Penguin cover of The Heart of The Matter

Penguin cover of The Heart of The Matter

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

The Blue Ice by Hammond Innes (1948)

The bumf at the front of this book explains that when Innes’ previous novel, The Lonely Skier, was made into a movie, Snowbound (1948), the income from that film gave him the financial freedom to fulfil his dream of travelling, ideally by yacht. One of his first destinations was Norway, where he travelled much of the territory which features in this novel. His first-hand knowledge is evident in the very detailed descriptions: of the yacht they sail in, the whaling station they stop at, of the glacier and mountains they climb and ski across in the long snow-bound chase which is the climax of the book.

A mystery

This is another first-person narration: ‘Big’ Bill Gansert has been for eight years Base Metals and Industry (BM&I)’s production chief at their alloy plant in Birmingham. During that time he had opened a nickel mine in Canada, and helped BM&I develop a new lightweight alloy from thorite although sources in the States were so meagre, he’d been forced to abandon it. The story opens as he’s quit BM&I to go sailing in the Mediterranean in his yacht, Diviner. But at the last minute he is persuaded by BM&I’s chairman, Sir Clinton Mann, to change his plans and go to Norway because of a mystery.

The mystery is that Sir Clinton has been sent a great chunk of thorite from Norway, wrapped in whale blubber with a note apparently signed by one George Farnell. Everyone thought Farnell was dead. He was a leading metallurgist before the war but in 1939 was convicted of defrauding his business partner for £10,000 in order, he said, to fund mineralogical expeditions to Norway. Convicted and sent to prison, Farnell managed to escape his escort and flee the country.

Now, recent Norwegian newspapers reveal that he fled to Norway where he adopted a new identity and became a hero in the anti-Nazi resistance but that his dead body has just been found as if fallen from a notorious glacier in the central mountains. Gansert had known Farnell from a spell working together in Rhodesia, and he knew Farnell knew those mountains better than any Norwegian. Could his death have been foul play? Why?

Hooked by this mystery – and tempted by the apparent discovery of a new source of thorite – Gansert then discovers Sir Clinton had cheekily put an advert in the papers saying he was sailing to Norway, before the decision was even finalised, asking anyone with information about Farnell to come and see him at the yacht’s berth by the Tower of London.

With the result that a motley crew of four strangers arrives on his yacht, each in their way curious about Farnell. To sort it all out Gansert, in cavalier fashion, simply casts off and sets sail for Norway with them all aboard, with no warning. They are allowed to cable their companies or hotels but most accept it meekly and settle down to the three-day sail to Norway. And along the way we get to know more about each of the characters, their (sometimes poisonous) relations among each other, and with the deceased Farnell.

These characters are described in the Dramatis personae below.

There is some drama caused by poisonous enmities aboard such a small yacht, but the real action starts when Gansert arrives at the whaling station, Bovaagen Hval, where Farnell’s message and sample of thorite appear to have been sent from. How could it have been sent on the 9th and yet his body discovered on a glacier miles away on the 10th? Is he actually dead or faking it somehow? But why?

The Innes voice

To be honest, Gansert’s voice is pretty much the same as every Innes hero, tough, resourceful, mature, well-travelled, but also puzzled, blocked, feeling his way in the dark, trying to formulate a plan, solve the problem. But always indomitable. Fundamentally unsinkable. He never gives up. We are safe in his hands, in the tense but ultimately comforting cradle of the narrative. Not least because all these narratives start out by explaining that they are being written after the successful conclusion of the case. We know the author survives. Because of this no amount of jeopardy really scares us; all the novels carry this underlying reassurance.

The plot thickens

Once the crew arrive in Norway more characters join the chase, notably the fat, jolly, untrustworthy whaling captain Lovaas. He it is who captures a a man trying to hide under a false identity on his whaling boat and turns round to return him to the whaling station where the other characters are waiting. They think he is Hans Schreuder, supposed witness to Farnell’s death.

But Schreuder eludes them all by jumping overboard then disappearing in thick fog. As they steam back after failing to find him, they notice a crew of divers operating from a boat not so far away and suspicion falls on them. So much so that it becomes a chase to track down the main diver, Sunde, down, and our heroes grab him at gunpoint from Lovaas’s crew, and whisk him off in the yacht to interrogate him: Who was Schreuder? Why was he so scared he jumped into the freezing sea? Why is Sunde so nervous? Did he have some arrangement to pick up and hide Schreuder? Where is Schreuder now?

Finding the answers to these questions takes Gansert further into the Norwegian coastline, up the mountains to the glacier of blue ice, deep into the treacherous legacy of the Nazi occupation of Norway which still casts a long shadow, and finally into a long agonising chase across icy mountain heights to track down the man who has the key to all the questions.

Thrillers carry wartime mentality into peacetime

These first post-War novels are heavy with its legacy: blackmailed deserters in Killer Mine; Nazi gold in Lonely Skier; Russian silver in Maddon’s Rock; the bitterness between Nazi collaborators and resistors in Blue Ice. Tending to confirm the theory I developed in reading Alistair MacLean, that the modern thriller carries the violence, tension, excitement and absurdity of wartime into peacetime situations. Thrillers are like the outbreaks of miniature wars, accompanied by all their corollaries – sudden violence, desperate situations, strangers thrown together, horrible deaths.

After shooting the man who had them at gunpoint in the high mountain saeter, Sunde, the diver who turns out to be a veteran of the Norwegian resistance, comments:

‘Anybody’d fink we was at war again.’… To Sunde this was just one more man killed up in these mountains. This was the sort of thing he’d been doing all through the war. (p.176)

Quite.

In the end of The Blue Ice there isn’t a direct clash between goodies and baddies, between collaborators and resistance. In the end different parties all with something at stake converge on a skiing-climbing chase of the missing man, for hours and hours, climbing snowy  mountainsides, skiing down them, blundering across glaciers, with shoot-outs in isolated mountain huts. When the climax comes it is tragi-comic, accidental, absurd, and the narrator struggles at the end of the book to make sense of Farnell’s obsession and achievement.

Love interest

And all the time Gansert, exactly like Innes’ previous heroes, is slowly falling in love with the only nubile woman in the drama, 26 year-old Jill Somers, tall, active, a proficient sailor. She had had a brief fling with Farnell, but adversity brings her and Garsent conveniently closer together.

She looked cold and remote and delicately lovely in her navy blue ski suit and red socks and scarf. Red woollen gloves lay on the floor at her feet. She was the sort of girl that never let up once she had decided on something. (p.195)

There are some amusingly sexist moments which would give a modern feminist fits, like when he despatches her to the galley to fix the meals, something all the rest of the crew and she herself take for granted. But in among the lovey-dovey stuff, there’s an interesting exchange about the difference between men and women:

‘You, for instance. Have you never been in love?’
‘Many times,’ I answered.
‘But not really. Not so that it was more important than anything else.?’
‘No,’ I said.
Her hands suddenly tightened on mine so that I could feel her nails biting into my palm. ‘Why?’ she cried softly. ‘Why? Tell me why? What is there more important?’
I didn’t know how to answer her. ‘Excitement,’ I said. ‘The excitement of living, of pitting one’s wits against everyone else.’
‘Meaning a wife is an encumbrance?’
‘For some men – yes.’ (p.132)

‘The excitement of living’. That’s not a bad summary of Innes’ thrillers. Far-fetched though most of the plots are, and a bit too reliant on madmen to provide the narrative drive, nonetheless the books are filled with plenty of incidental moments which convey the beauty of the natural world and the sheer joy of being alive in it, of swimming, sailing, skiing, rejoicing in the wonder of existence.

Mad Innes baddies

  • The Trojan Horse  – Nazi spy Max Sedel
  • Wreckers Must Breathe – the frothing Gestapo man
  • The Killer Mine – old man Manack who kills almost everyone
  • The Lonely Skier – the maniac who stole Gilbert Mayne’s identity and tries to kill everyone
  • Maddon’s Rock – mad Captain Halsey kills one ship’s crew and most of another
  • The Blue Ice – obsessed mineralogist George Farnell
  • The White South – mad Erik Bland who rams our hero’s ship and mad Dr Howe who gets his revenge

In fact the women, the heroines of these stories, although clothed in 1940s/50s attitudes, stand out as pretty much as tough as the men (and a lot less bonkers). Maybe not physically as strong, but as skilled and brave and resolute.

Strong Innes women

  • The Trojan Horse – Freya Schmidt, sailor.
  • Wreckers Must Breathe – Maureen Craig, feisty journalist.
  • The Killer Mine – Kitty Manack, strong swimmer.
  • The Lonely Skier – the countess is a strong feisty woman, if not the love interest
  • Maddon’s Rock – Jenny Sorrell
  • The Blue Ice – Jill Somers

Jenny Sorrell in Maddon’s Rock and Jill Somers here are both very capable sailors (as is Freya Schmidt) and it is no accident that it is at sea, in the freedom of a boat on water, that these relationships blossom. Innes writes with tremendous gusto about physical activity. There is energy and vim in his descriptions of the natural world and especially of his favourite means of seeing it, from a sailing boat.

Sailing

Innes was a very experienced sailor and it shows. A large part of Maddon’s Rock describes in great detail the journey by yacht to the cursed rock. Here, about two-thirds of the text describe the journey of the Diviner from Tower Bridge, down the Thames and up the North Sea, along the Norwegian coast and then into the fjords.

Innes’ writing about sailing combines technical detail with poetic description. The combination of experience and deep feeling behind these passages goes a long way to help make the sometimes implausible plots seem much more realistic, urgent, convincing.

As soon as [Jill] had relieved Dick, I called to Carter and we got the mainsail up. The canvas cracked as the boom slatted to and fro in the weird red and green glow of the navigation lights on either side of the chartroom. As soon as peak and throat purchases were made fast and the weather back-stay set up I had the engine stopped and I ordered Jill Somers to steer up Barrow Deep on course north fifty-two east. The mainsail filled as the ship heeled and swung away. In an instant we had picked up way and the water was seething past the lee rail. By the time we had set jib, stays’l and mizzen the old boat was going like a train, rocking violently as she took the steep seas in a corkscrew movement that brought the water gurgling in the scuppers at each plunge. (p.36)

The machine of grab

Innes used this phrase in an earlier book and now again, here.

Nothing to Jorgensen was a man who had no power over other men. Power was what he loved more than anything. Power over men, possibly women, too. The sleek smoothness of the man! Even in borrowed clothes he achieved a kind of bourgeois respectability. And yet behind it all was this violent delight in power. It was there in his eyes, in the quick, down-drawn frown of his thick eyebrows. But never exposed, never revealed. The iron claw in the velvet gloves. I’d seen it all my life. This man belonged to the ranks of the controllers of the machine of grab. (p.65)

He is not a socialist as such: the world is full of corporations which his heroes work for with no qualms. He is not as overtly anti-Big Business as Ambler. But he dislikes the greed and power-lust which so often hide behind the veneer of bourgeois respectability.

And his heroes are regularly outsiders, lawbreakers. Jim Pryce in Killer Mine is a deserter; Jim Vardy in Maddon’s Rock is convicted of mutiny; George Farnell in this novel is an ‘ex-convict, swindler, forger, deserter, murderer’ and yet the hero of the story, a man whose artist’s passion for minerals redeems him.

Prolepsis/anticipation

As usual the text is sprinkled with ominous anticipations of doom, or at least bad events which the text foreshadows. To build tension and anticipation. To underpin the idea that this is a chronicle set down in peace and quiet after it is all over, ie the author knows what the final outcome will be.

The fat, jovial voice with the sing-song intonation of Eastern Norway had left me with the impression of a big man – a big man who enjoyed life and was also a rogue. I was to get to know that voice too well in the days that followed. But I was never to revise my first impression. (p.69)

These anticipations colour our perception – of the individuals or moments to which they’re attached – but also confirm the author’s authority as master of his narrative.

His air of command had taken me by surprise. Before the next few hours were out Alf Sunde was to give me several surprises. (p.160)

You English…

Most of Eric Ambler’s pre-War novels set, as they are, abroad and featuring, as they do, many foreign characters, also feature moments where the characters gently laugh at the Englishman’s political naiveté or emotional frigidity. This is also true of Innes’s novels. It happened at a couple of prominent moments in The Lonely Skier and happens in this novel, too. Does it reflect a general view the English held of themselves in the 1930s and 40s? Or is it a convention of the thriller genre that foreigners are allowed their little joke at our expense? Or is it simply inevitable that anyone concocting dialogue for foreigners will at some point slip in one or two jokes about us Brits?

‘You English – you are like bulldogs. You never let go. You can ignore anything and concentrate on the one thing that matters to you.’ [Dahler] (p.56)

Dramatis personae

  • ‘Big’ Bill Gansert: for eight years BM&I’s production chief at their alloy plant in Birmingham, developed a nickel mine in Canada, worked with Farnell in southern Rhodesia. Packs it in to go sailing in the Mediterranean but at the last minute is persuaded by
  • Sir Clinton Mann: Chairman of BM&I
  • George Farnell: aka Bernt Olsen: the missing man, the McGuffin, the motor for the plot. Dark and short and convicted for defrauding his business partner, before escaping and assuming a Norwegian identity and becoming a war hero. BM&I come into possession of a lump of thorite sent wrapped in whale blubber with a quote from Rupert Brooke’s farewell sonnet, The Soldier. What does it mean?
  • Bill’s crew
  • Dick Everard: 28, tall, freckled, talented Navy captain, demobbed and at a loose end.
  • Carter: the quintessential Scottish naval engineer, never happier than tinkering with the engines. ‘Ye dinna ha’ to fash yersel’ aboot the engine, Mr Gansert.’ (p.26)
  • Wilson: other crew member
  • Visitors
  • Jill Somers: 26, tall, active, competent sailor. Daughter of Walter Somers, partner in Petersen and Somers.
  • Major Curtis Wright: heavily built, red hair, regular Army. Farnell’s commander at the Malöy Raid, after which Farnell went deliberately awol.
  • Dahler: Norwegian, half-paralysed, once owned a fleet of coastal steamers, bitterly hating Jorgensen who he accuses of collaborating with the Nazis. But then Jorgensen accuses Dahler of collaborating with the Nazis.
  • Knut Jorgensen: powerful confident CEO of a Norwegian mining company, wants to do a deal with Gansert and BM&I.
  • Norwegians
  • Captain Lovaas: fat, jolly, untrustworthy whaling captain. Once he realises there’s big money involved he’s prepared to use his harpoon gun against the Diviner if he thinks it will gain advantage.
  • Sunde: weak and scared salvage diver, who transforms in the second half of the book into super-capable ex-Resistance fighter, skiier and tracker.
  • Kielland: manager of the Bovaagen Hval whaling station who gives our heroes an in-depth tour of the facilities and explanation of the whaling business.
  • Hans Schreuder: Austrian Jew who escapes to Norway, collaborates with the Nazis. He enrolled as crew on Lovaas’s boat but was recognised, locked up and escaped just as Gansert came alongside, jumped overboard and disappeared.

Related links

White Circle Pocket edition of The Blue Ice

White Circle Pocket edition of The Blue Ice

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

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