The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle (1957)

‘Nice place you’ve got here. Have some tea?’
‘Thanks, it’s very kind of you.’
‘Not at all.’ (p.95)

If Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet is a kind of Swiftian satire which glossed over the practical aspects of space travel in order to concentrate on making its moralising points, The Black Cloud is the exact opposite, a showcase of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and factual accuracy.

It is set slightly into what was then the future, the narrative opening in January 1964. The blurb on the back has already told you that it’s about a black cloud which enters the solar system heading towards the Earth, so there’s no surprise about the central fact of the story, but any suspense about whether this is going to be an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world shocker is killed stone dead by the first few words of the prologue. This is set fifty years in the future (2020) and immediately establishes the jocular tone and worldview.

It is a humorous letter from a chap at a jolly nice Cambridge college, Dr John McPhail, and he describes the advent of the black cloud as ‘an interesting episode’, so jolly interesting that it was the subject of the thesis which won him his fellowship at Queen’s College, Cambridge. Good show.

So – we realise immediately – the world is not going to end, and also we are going to be dealing with jolly decent chaps from Cambridge and the Royal Astronomical Society. Thus deprived of key elemens of suspense, the interest in this early part of the text derives from:

  • a highly accurate description of the state of astronomical knowledge circa 1957, along with the technology they used then (the different types of telescope, techniques for comparing prints of photos taken of deep space, a long description of punching the tape required in a very early computer)
  • some very detailed calculations about the probable velocity, density and direction of the cloud which the characters do on blackboards as they discuss it, and which are reproduced in the book (you don’t often see extensive mathematical formulae in a novel)
  • some of the terminology and phraseology: I was particularly struck by the way that the word lab, being a contraction of laboratory, is printed as ‘lab.’ throughout

Introduction to the star character, Professor Christopher Kingsley

So a group of astronomers in America notice that something is progressively blotting out stars in a particular part of the sky, while at the same time an amateur astronomer tips off the British Royal Astronomical Society that the orbits of the larger planets in the solar system seem to have shifted. Sceptical experts redo the observations and conclude that something massive is causing them to wobble.

At the meeting where these figures are first discussed we are introduced to the irascible figure of the Cambridge-based theoretical astronomer, Professor Christopher Kingsley, age 37, tall with thick dark hair and ‘astonishing blue eyes’, a man apart, who follows arguments to their logical conclusion no matter how unpopular, who gets cross with anyone slower on the uptake, and manages to be both highly intelligent and a figure of fun to his colleagues – and is without doubt the central character in the book.

All these chaps analyse the findings, draw formulae on blackboards, puff on their pipes and conclude that a cloud of unknown gas is going to engulf the Sun and Earth in about 17 months time. They estimate it will take about a month to transit past, during which time, if it blots out the heat from the sun, most animals on earth will die, along with most humans. Seeds in the soil should survive so the planet’s flora will kick off after the cloud has left.

As in Arthur C. Clarke, the pleasure comes from the scientific accuracy of the speculation at each stage of the narrative i.e. we eavesdrop while the American and British scientists discuss and interpret each new set of data and information as it comes in and then discuss the possible consequences. So one of the pleasures of the book is enjoying the temporary illusion that you are as clever as these top astronomers.

In these early pages Hoyle paints a stark contrast between the cultures of Britain and America. In Britain the astronomer royal visits Cambridge, where it is cold and damp and foggy and depressing – although the college fellows treat themselves to four-course dinners, and then sit by roaring fires drinking vintage wine.

By contrast, when Kingsley flies over to California to meet the astronomers there, he is hosted by astronomer Geoff Marlowe, who takes him for a drive out into the Mojave desert, then to a restaurant where they speculate about the forthcoming world-changing event – then onto a party at a rich property developer’s house, whence Kingsley goes on to a smaller, more intimate party where he tries to dance with a sexy broad, disapproves of American bourbon, doesn’t like the raucous music on the gramophone and generally comes over as an uptight limey. A dark-haired lady offers him a lift back to his hotel, but they go via her apartment where, since she’s forgotten her keys, he helps her break in, and he ends up spending the night

the contrast between big, rich, scenic, partyful and sexually promiscuous America, and cold, foggy, damp, austerity England where there don’t even appear to be any women, let alone loose women, couldn’t be more striking.

The scientists make a base in the Cotswolds

The book is full of what, to the modern reader, seem like all sorts of oddities and eccentricities. The American and British astronomers, over the course of a series of meetings, become convinced that an enormous cloud of gas is heading directly for the sun, though whether it is cold or hot, full of electrical or radioactive activity, or inert, they cannot say. If it’s hot it might boil the earth’s atmosphere way, killing all life. Even if it’s inert it will probably block the light from the sun, as described above, killing nearly all terrestrial life.

There are at least two oddities: one is the way they sit around in their Cambridge rooms, puffing their pipes and offering each other tea and biscuits while they speculate about the likely impact. The other is that both teams decide to conceal the fact from their respective governments. They think politicians will only interfere and cause panic.

In the event news does leak out to the civil service and the Home Secretary comes to meet Kingsley, who, deploying his ‘easy-going, insulting manner’ (p.128) is immensely rude and confrontational, telling him quite openly that he despises politicians and civil servants. We are then party to the Home Secretary reporting back to the Prime Minister and so on. It seems inconceivable that one man’s personal arrogance (Kingsley’s) can influence so much.

In the event a secretary to the PM, Francis Parkinson, comes up with the suggestion that the scientists be given their own research base to study the cloud, and Whitehall settles on the manor of Nortonstowe in the Cotswolds, a nice country mansion which the Ministry of Agriculture had just finished converting into a research centre for agriculture. It is co-opted for the astronomers. Kingsley is their undoubted leader and makes all kinds of demands as rudely as he can of the politicians.

The place us surrounded by military police, and servants rustled up from the nearby new housing estate, while Kingsley rounds up the best minds available and hounds the ministry into installing state of the art telescopes, photography equipment and so on (no computers). Kingsley makes the inexplicable demand that anybody who comes to Nortonstowe will not be allowed to leave. Thus the Whitehall aide, Parkinson, is inveigled into being stuck there, but Kingsley then pulls a deceitful trick by inviting a string quartet he knows from Cambridge to come and perform and, only on the morning after the performance, happening to tell them that, now they’re here, they won’t be able to leave.

Kingsley behaves like a cross between a dictator and a spoilt child and everyone has to put up with it because Hoyle makes him the great genius who knows or calculates or spots or thinks things through far faster than anyone else. The core of the novel is the dynamic between Kingsley and the small court of scientists he has assembled, including:

  • Geoff Marlowe the American
  • British astronomers Dave Weichart and John Marlborough
  • technicians Roger Emerson and Bill Barnett and Yvette Hedelfort
  • the woman leader of the string quartet Ann Halsey (who seems to spend her time making endless pots of coffee for the Big Brains around her and is on the receiving end of some breath-takingly sexist put-downs from Kingsley)
  • Knut Jensen from Norway via the States
  • Harry Leicester from the University of Sydney
  • John McNeil, a young physician, who ends up writing the prologue and epilogue to the narrative
  • and a Russian physicist who happened to be visiting Britain, Alexis Alexandrov, and soon becomes a comic figure because of his habit of speaking in extremely brief, pithy sentences, for example: ‘Gulf Stream goes, gets bloody cold’

Global devastation

Finally the cloud arrives and it is almost as an afterthought to the absorbing conversations between chaps puffing on their pipes and scribbling on blackboards, that Hoyle casually mentions the devastating impact it has on the rest of the human race. They thought the cloud would block the sun and cause a big freeze. They hadn’t anticipated that it would reflect the heat of the sun with increased force. Thus the world experiences unprecedented heatwaves.

Conditions were utterly desperate throughout the tropics as may be judged from the fact that 7,943 species of plants and animals became totally extinct. The survival of Man himself was only possible because of the caves and cellars he was able to dig. Nothing could be done to mitigate the stifling air temperature. The number who perished during this phase is unknown. It can only be said that during all phases together more than seven hundred million persons are known to have lost their lives. (p.120)

The really odd thing about the book, its most striking characteristic, is how the chaps at Nortonstowe carry on discussing theoretical physics and puffing on their pipes through it all. The vast rise in humidity led to atmospheric instability which led to an epidemic of wildly destructive hurricanes around the world. In fact the manor house at Nortonstowe is itself destroyed in one of these hurricanes and one of the astronomers, Jensen, killed.

All this was caused by heat reflected from the cloud. When the cloud itself begins to arrive and blot out the sun’s light and heat temperatures plummet. As Hoyle briskly summarises it:

Except in the heavily industrialised countries, vast legions of people lost their lives during this period. For weeks they had been exposed to well-nigh unbearable heat. Then many had died by flood and storm. With the coming of intense cold, pneumonia became fiercely lethal. Between the beginning of August and the first week of October roughly a quarter of the world’s population died. (p.127)

The scientists notice something strange and ominous. The cloud is slowing down. There is a great deal of scientific speculation about how it could do this which settles on the idea that it is sending out great pellets of ice which are acting like rockets to slow its velocity. Most vivid proof is when one of these enormous ice pellets hits the surface of the moon causing a massive spurt of moon dust which can be observed through earth telescopes. The cloud is slowing down and looks like stopping.

The Prime Minister pays a visit to what’s left of Nortonstowe (where things appear to be carrying on in the same civilised way, with tea and biscuits, despite the house itself having been wrecked) and tells Kingsley he’s pretty cross with the scientists. They said it would only occlude the sun for a month. It’s been there longer. Kingsley gets cross and says that’s because they have no idea what’s going on. Scientists aren’t gods, their knowledge is limited to what is known by observation, the cloud is a completely new phenomenon.

The cloud now does something else unexpected – it changes shape. It slowly changes from being a big amorphous cloud into the shape of a disk. This has the effect of allowing the earth to leave its shadow and emerge back into sunlight. Slowly humanity climbs out of its frozen caves to try and rebuild amid the ruins.

From a pure science point of view what sustains the book is that each stage of the cloud’s progress – from initial sighting through to enveloping the earth – the chorus of scientists Kingsley has assembled at Nortonstowe give voice to every possible interpretation of scientific possibilities. From one perspective the book is like a sequence of seminars on the successive stages of approach and envelopment by a gas cloud, which, altogether, cover a huge range of geographical and terrestrial phenomenon – the scientists discuss the possibility of global warming, global cooling, a new ice age, the atmosphere being heated until it boils, the entire atmosphere being torn away from the earth leaving it barren as the moon, the atmosphere freezing, and so on.

With the cloud now having completely halted and assumed a disc-like shape, and the earth having orbited out of its shadow, the astronomers have to tell the Prime Minister that it might become a new element of life on earth, that twice a year, in February and August, the earth will travel into the cloud and, for a few weeks, lose sun, warmth, life everything. It will be a completely new global condition.

Radio communication

There then follows a lengthy chapter which appears to be going off on a tangent. In preparation for the cloud arriving Kingsley had had the bright idea of installing not just telescopes and so on at Nortonstowe, but an array of the very latest radio equipment. This is because, in the coming disasters, he foresees that a centre of global information will be required. This chapter set out in minute detail the experiments with different wavelengths required to escape the interference caused by the cloud’s upsetting of the atmosphere. But during their experiments a pattern emerges: put simply, every time they change the wavelength, there is ionisation activity at the edge of the earth’s atmosphere which acts to neutralise it.

Kingsley astonishes the chaps by drawing a mad but logical conclusion: the cloud is blocking their radio transmissions; and if it is doing this no matter what wavelength they use, it must contain intelligent life.

Life in the cloud

Then there’s an interesting chapter devoted to the chaps arguing about how the cloud could possibly contain intelligent life and what form it could possibly take. Although Sir Fred Hoyle was the man who coined the expression Big Bang, he did it critically because he himself didn’t believe in the Big Bang theory i.e. that the universe had a definite beginning. Hoyle believed in the Steady State theory i.e. the universe has no beginning and will have no end. This chapter dramatises his theories of how intelligent life might have begun in vast gaseous clouds as electrical activity among groups of crystal molecules which formed on the surface of ice particles.

As routinely, throughout the book, the fact that half the earth’s population has just died, that agriculture and the environment have been devastated, economies ruined, ecosystems destroyed, are all completely ignored while a bunch of chaps sit around having a jolly interesting chat about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

Talking to the cloud

They make the decision to send regular pulses into the cloud as signs of intelligent communication. To cut a long story short, the cloud replies and within just a few days they are talking to the cloud. One of the technical johnnies rigs up a system whereby the electronic pulses the cloud sends back can be translated into words via one of those new-fangled televisions and, bingo! They can hear the cloud talk! And he speaks in exactly the tone of a jolly interesting Cambridge academic! This is the first message they hear from the cloud:

Your first transmission came as a surprise, for it is most unusual to find animals with technical skills inhabiting planets, which are in the nature of extreme outposts of life. (p.170)

One of the workers from the housing estate who had tended the gardens and tried to supply the scientists with fruit and veg through all the disasters, was a simple-minded gardener named Joe Stoddard. The technical johnny who rigs up the signals from the Cloud to come through a loudspeaker has, for a joke, used the voice pattern of Joe Stoddard. In other words, mankind’s first communications with the first intelligent extra-terrestrial life it’s encountered are translated into the phraseology of a Cambridge Common Room as expressed through the speech of a Gloucestershire peasant.As a result the scientists unanimously nickname the Cloud, ‘Joe’. Joe says this, Joe says that.

Joe proceeds to tell them all about himself. The universe is eternal and Joe thinks he has existed for some five hundred million years (p.178). He creates units of replicating life and seeds other clouds as he passes. Thus life is spread throughout the universe. He explains that intelligent life on planets is very rare for a multitude of reasons, for example the difficulty o gaining energy from surroundings by processing vegetable matter, and the thickness of skulls required to protect the brain militates against the brain growing in size. Plus the requirement of converting the intangible process of ‘thought’ – in reality a blizzard of electrical signals throughout the brain – into ‘speech’ i.e. the mechanical operation of jaw, lungs, vocal chords etc – a very primitive way to communicate.

This is fascinating and thought-provoking.

The hydrogen bombs

Back in the plot, word gets out to the politicians who are still running the governments of Britain, America and so on, that communication has been established with the Cloud. The governments insist on listening in on a ‘conversation’. This particular conversation is about human reproduction – sex – and its irrationality; it has to be irrational (love, lust) in order to overcome its very obvious pains and risks. The cloud opines that this may be why intelligent life on planets is so rare: the effort required for planet-borne life forms to communicate and to reproduce both tend to emphasise the irrational. Joe thinks the chances are humanity will over-populate the Earth and kill itself off.

After the ‘conversation’ is terminated, the conversation among the scientists continues with a few choice criticisms of politicians everywhere. Then one of the technicians points out that the politicians are still on the line. They have heard the scientists, particularly Kingsley, being as rude and dismissive of political interference as imaginable.

They then get a call from the American secretary of Defence to whom Kingsley is immensely rude and confrontational. When the Secretary threatens Kingsley, Kingsley foolishly replies that he can, with a few suggestions to Joe the Cloud, annihilate America if he wants to.

This seems tactless and rash even for Kingsley and the consequences are bad. As so often happens in 1950s Cold War sci-fi, the American and Russian governments decide the Cloud is a threat to their existence and launch missiles carrying hydrogen bombs at it.

The Nortonstowe scientists learn of this and warn the Cloud who is extremely cross, peeved wouldn’t be too strong a word. Kingsley explains that Earth is ruled by a variety of autonomous governments and that this decision has nothing to do with him or the other scientists. The Cloud announces he will simply return the missiles to their places of origin – with the result that El Paso and Chicago are wiped off the map, along with Kiev. About half a million people are vaporised.

In this, as in the reports of worldwide devastation, the really interesting thing is how offhand and disinterested Hoyle is about these, the melodramatic elements, of his story. Hundreds of millions die, hurricanes destroy the environment, H-bombs destroy American cities… but this is always forgotten whenever the chaps at Nortonstowe make a new discovery about the Cloud.

(And I never understood how Hoyle reconciles the fact that the entire manor house at Nortonstowe is destroyed in a hurricane with the fact that all the scientists carry on meeting in oak-panelled rooms, pouring each other cups of tea, puffing their pipes and discussing the various fascinating problems thrown up by the cloud. Where does all this happen? In a cave?)

The cloud departs

Then Joe the Cloud tells them that another cloud in the vicinity (i.e. hundreds of millions of miles away) has suddenly gone quiet. Joe tells us that this sometimes happens, none of the clouds know why. The clouds themselves are not omniscient. There are many aspects of the universe which are mysteries to them.

In the last few days before the cloud departs, our chaps ask it to tell them more about its vast knowledge. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

‘Now, chaps, this is probably one of our last chances to ask questions. Suppose we make a list of them. Any suggestions?’ (p.204)

Weichart volunteers to sit in front of a series of TV monitors hooked up by Leicester, the TV man, to the Cloud’s wavelength. The transmission begins and vast amounts of information leap across the screens. Slowly Weichart goes into a trance or hypnotised state. His temperature rises, he becomes delirious, he has to be dragged away from the screens to a bed, where he dies.

Then Kingsley announces he will do the same only they’ll ask the Cloud to transmit at a greatly reduced pace. Caring Ann tries to get the other scientists to persuade Kingsley not to do it. Obstinately he insists. He too sits in front of the monitors, his brain is bombarded, he goes into a fugue state, has to be dragged away and sedated. When the sedation wears off he looks deranged and then starts screaming. More sedatives. He dies of brain inflammation. The cloud simply knows too much for a human brain to process, although a couple of the scientists speculate that there might be a subtler reason: it could be that the Cloud not only overloaded his primitive brain with information but that what he learned was so at odds with human understanding, so completely contrary to all the scientific theories which Kingsley had devoted his life to, that he went mad.

Epilogue

A short epilogue explains the end of the affair. It is written by John McNeil fifty years later. He had been co-opted to Nortonstowe as a young physician and was an eye witness to all the key events and discussions. It was he who treated and failed to save Kingsley.

He now explains that the fact that the Cloud was intelligent and the entire course of all its discussions with humans, as well as the fact that it decided to move on out of the solar system, were kept hidden from the public, from the world. A handful of politicians and the tiny cohort in the Cotswolds knew but both decided to keep it secret, for their various reasons.

This text is therefore in the nature of being a bombshell for the human race.

Only now, fifty years later, is he revealing all in this long narrative, addressed to a young colleague of his Blythe. Why Blythe? Well, he’s a fellow academic, but another reason is that he is the grandson of Ann Halsey, the classical musician trapped at Nortonstowe and who – from a few dropped hints – we suspect had an affair with Kingsley while they were confined to the Cotswold mansion. So Blythe is Kinbgsley’s grandson as well (I think).

Now McNeil is leaving Blythe the full narrative of events and leaving it up to him whether to make the whole thing public. He also bequeaths him a copy of the punched card ‘code’ which Kingsley et al used to communicated with the Cloud. What he does with it now is up to him.

Comments

The science is fascinating, and takes on a whole new twist once we realise the cloud is intelligent. But from start to finish what should be appalling, epic events – unprecedented heat wave, blotting out of the sun and unprecedented freeze, death of quarter of the world’s population etc – take a firm back seat to detailed accounts of the conversations between the various chaps, led by the grotesque Kingsley – and these conversations are of such a 1950s, man-from-the-ministry, ornate style that it is really most frightfully difficult to work up the sense of awe or horror a science fiction novel should strive for. Instead one finds oneself more distracted by the Oxbridge and Whitehall Mandarin style of the dialogue than by the epoch-making events the book describes.

This is from the long conversation between secretary to the Prime Minister Parkinson and Sir Charles Kingsley at the latter’s rooms in his Cambridge college. We know they’re getting on because Kingsley offers Parkinson a second cup of tea, puts more logs on the fire, and then makes his demands of the British government thus:

‘I want everything quite clear-cut. First, that I be empowered to recruit the staff to this Nortonstowe place, that I be empowered to offer what salaries I think reasonable, and to use any argument that may seem appropriate other than divulging the real state of things. Second, that there shall be, repeat no, civil servants at Nortonstowe, and that there shall be no political liaison except through yourself.’
‘To what do I owe this exceptional distinction?’
‘To the fact that, although we think differently and serve different masters, we do have sufficient common ground to be able to talk together. This is a rarity not likely to be repeated.’
‘I am indeed flattered.’
‘You mistake me then. I am being as serious as I know how to be. I tell you most solemnly that if I and my gang find any gentlemen of the proscribed variety at Nortonstowe we shall quite literally throw them out of the place. if this is prevented by police action or if the proscribed variety are so dense on the ground that we cannot throw them out, then I warn you with equal solemnity that you will not get one single groat of co-operation from us. If you think I am overstressing this point, then I would say that I am only doing so because I know how extremely foolish politicians can be.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Not at all.’ (pp.83-84)

It’s a little like the end of the world as Ealing Comedy.

‘Would you like to talk to the first intelligent life from outer space that humanity has ever encountered, Charles?’
‘Oh, that’s frightfully kind of you, Algernon, but I was going to make a fresh pot of tea. Why don’t you take first dibs?’
‘Well, that’s jolly decent of you, old chap. Two lumps for me.’


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1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (1957)

Moomins hibernate from November to April, but not this winter. A stray moonbeam wakens Moomintroll and he can’t get back to sleep. He tugs at Moominmamma, but she is dead to the world. Thus he is condemned to go exploring the mysterious and rather scary, silent, snow-covered world of winter, beginning with the mysterious pair of eyes under the cold sink in the kitchen. The Dweller Under The Sink.

He meets Too-tickey, a plump practical person in a red-and-white striped jumper, who lives in the Moomins’ bathing house during the winter, with a suite of shrews who are so shy and retiring they have become completely invisible. When they serve dinner it looks like the plates and bowls are floating.

Little My is woken by a brainless squirrel nipping at her sleeping bag, gets up and quickly adapts to the new conditions. She cuts holes in a tea cosy and borrows a Moomin tea tray to go tobogganing. Little My emerged in the last book, Moominsummer Madness, as a favourite character. Very small, very feisty, she looks forward to disasters and embarrassments with relish. A canny contrast to the timid, over-polite Moomintroll.

Back in the cold, empty Moomin house, a spooked Moomintroll discovers random objects have disappeared, including a tea cosy and a tray. Outside he discovers someone has built an enormous snow horse with a broom for a tail and small mirrors for eyes, which disconcert the young Moomin. Too-Ticky refuses to be worried or upset, and tells Moomintroll about the Great Cold that is coming, and begins to sing a winter song.

Suddenly Moomintroll snaps and starts bawling out a song of summer. He is so lonely, so wants someone to talk to, someone from the summer world to share memories with. At that moment there’s a swoosh and out of nowhere flies a high-speed tea tray which knocks him over into the snow. He hears cackling laughter which can only come from one person, Little My!

He gushes with relief at having a friend from the summer days but, characteristically, Little My doesn’t give a cuss for his sentimental maunderings – she wonders whether greasing the tin with candle wax will make it go faster. Too-ticky immediately joins in with suggestions. Moomintroll looks at them both and reluctantly realises he has to join their world.

Too-ticky warns all the snow animals, namely the brainless squirrel, that the Lady of the Cold is coming.

Too-ticky, Moomintroll and Little My retreat to the bathing house and fuel up the stove, then go out to scan the horizon. There is one among many, many beautifully simple and evocative descriptions of this mysterious midwinter landscape.

They went out onto the landing-stage and sniffed towards the sea. The evening sky was green all over, and all the world seemed to be made of thin glass. All was silent, nothing stirred, and slender stars were shining everywhere and twinkling in the ice. It was terribly cold. (p.46)

Descriptions which transported me as a child and which I still find powerful and evocative as an adult.

They retreat inside the bathing house as the Lady of the Cold walks by, beautiful and terrible, shedding freezing rays in her path. They watch her stop to tickle the brainless squirrel under the chin and he drops, frozen solid. Moomintoll is upset; Little My wonders if she can make a muff out of its tail!

They hold an impromptu funeral procession for the brainless squirrel, laying its frozen body at the feet of the snow horse. To their surprise, the snow horse comes to life, chucks the squirrel onto its back and goes cantering and neighing over the frozen lake and into the distance. Moomintroll feels oppressed by a strange magic he doesn’t understand. He asks Too-Tickey to get his old blue bath gown out of the cupboard in the bathing house. Too-Tickey makes him turn his back and promise never, ever, ever to open the cupboard door himself. She hands him the gown and Moomintroll rummages in it for some memory of happy summer days. He finds a pebble from the beach, perfectly round and smooth.

He closed his paws round the pebble. Its roundness held all the security of summer. He could even imagine that it was still a little warm from lying in the sun. (p.50)

The Moomin books are full of unexpectedly poignant and moving moments like this, unnecessary to the plot, but bathing them in a wonderful sense of human feeling, depths of feeling and oddities of feeling, which you don’t often encounter even in supposedly ‘adult’ fiction.

Moomintroll goes along to the great Midwinter Fire. Too-tickey explains that this ritual marks the return of the sun. Hosts of strange creatures dance and frolic round an enormous bonfire but Moomintroll, once again, feels left out, a spectator at other people’s festivities. The Dweller Under the Sink is there and Moomintroll tries to make friends with it but the little furry thing doesn’t speak his language and becomes progressively more irritated by Moomintroll’s clumsy attempts at friendship. ‘Radamsah!’ it exclaims. ‘Radamsah! RADAMSAH!’ and scuttles off.

Then the Groke comes. The Groke wanders the world trying to be warm but takes with her everywhere her eerie, extinguishing cold. She sits on the fire to warm herself but there is a great ssssssss and when the Groke gets up the fire has frozen. She ambles over to Moomintroll’s lamp, goes to hold it and puts it out.  The winter creatures disperse. The fire ceremony is over.

It’s worth pointing out how many of these characters are female. Little My is a feisty, fearless little tomboy. Too-ticky is an imperturbably practical female (apparently based on Jansson’s female partner, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä). The Groke in her bewildered search for warmth, is female. And so too is the tall and terribly beautiful Lady of the Cold. And underpinning the whole narrative is the calm, accepting figure of Moominmamma who occasionally mutters reassurance to her son, even in her deep winter sleep.

I love this femininity of the books. I love the way that, if in doubt, chances are a new character will be female, and interesting. With no special pleading or fussing, Jansson offers a bewitching array of female types and possibilities.

Next day Moomintroll finds Too-ticky fishing beneath the ice. Sometimes the sea level sinks and leaves a space between water and the frozen ice sheet. She loves to sit on a rock there, quietly fishing and enjoying the view of miles of spectral green under-ice seascape.

I say ‘day’ but one of the things depressing Moomintroll has been the way the wintertime ‘day’ means only a sort of grey smudgy light which appears briefly and is gone. Now, for the first time, actual daylight appears and a thin sliver of red sun crosses the frozen horizon. He dances and sings and slides about on the ice. Little My watches him with disdain. Then the sun disappears back below the horizon. ‘Well, you wouldn’t expect it to come all at one, would you?’ says Too-tickey.

Angry and frustrated Moomintroll storms off to the bathing house and does what he’s been told not to, wrenches open the cupboard door. Is there some terrible monster behind it? No. A little grey thing is sitting there staring at him, then scuttles for the door. A remorseful Moomintroll tells Too-tickey what he’s done, she tuts and explains that the wizened old troll is his ancestor, the Moomin ancestor from 1,000 years ago.

It is another one of those breathtakingly odd and imaginative moments which fill this (and the other) books. Wow.

Moomintroll is appalled by this wizened old spectre and rushes home to leaf through the family album for reassurance. Yes, there they all are, generations of fine upstanding Moomins, big-snouted and formally dressed. Surely their ancestor can’t have been that funny little hairy thing. But then he hears a jingling in the chandelier.

When Moomintroll approaches, it scoots into the cold stove and slams the door behind it. Discombobulated, Moomintroll climbs out of the attic window and down the rope ladder he’s arranged over the surrounding snowdrift, to go see the others. Little My is waiting with a caustic word, as usual.

‘Well, how d’you like Grandfather!’ Little My shouted from her sledge-slide.
‘An excellent person,’ Moomintroll remarked with dignity. ‘In an old family like ours people know how to behave.’ Suddenly he felt very proud of having an ancestor. (p.73)

Dry humour. Character-based humour.

That night the ancestor rearranges every single item in the Moomin house to suit its tastes, hanging all the pictures upside down. In the morning Moomintroll finds this strangely reassuring and makes a new base for himself in the cosy space behind the stove. Maybe they are more closely related than he first thought.

Although the sun rises a little higher each day it is still bitterly cold and the frozen valley starts to see the arrival of refugees from the cold. Sorry-oo the dog comes howling along with a Little Creep, a distressed Fillyjonk and many others. Little My lets on about the big supply of jam stashed in Moomin house and the starving creatures beg Moomintroll for food. Reluctantly, Moomintroll excavates a tunnel through the snow to a window of Moomin house and finds himself doling out provisions to an ever-growing horde of visitors.

Brashest of all the new arrivals is a loud sporty Hemulen, who arrives skiing, blaring on a trumpet and wearing a jazzy, striped yellow jumper. He tries to organise everyone for winter sports, insists on early starts and cold baths in the frozen river. All the other creatures hate him; they want to curl up next to fires.

The Hemulen teaches Little My to ski. She is of course a natural, learns everything she can, and then goes off by herself to the highest mountains to take insane risks. By contrast the Hemulen only manages to get Moomintroll onto skis once and he has a disaster, his legs getting all criss-crossed and crashes into a deep snowdrift.

The creatures all skulk away to hide with Too-tickey under the ice. The Hemulen tries to recruit Sorry-oo but even the sad dog slinks away. Sorry-oo dreams of running with the wolves he hears howling every night.

In a comic but typically touching sequence, Too-ticky and Moomintroll agree that they’ve got to get rid of the sporty Hemulen who is driving everyone nuts, and suggest they tell him the Lonely Mountains are the best place ever for skiing. ‘But the Lonely Mountains are all crags and precipices,’ Moomintroll wails. ‘He’ll love it,’ Too-ticky replies in her no-nonsense way.

So a bit later Moomintroll stiffens his nerve and, as agreed, sets about telling the Hemulen what fabulous skiing there is in the Lonely Mountains. But as the Hemulen gets more excited, Moomintroll feels more guilty about lying to him until he snaps, abruptly reversing his story, back-tracking and telling the Hemulen how dangerous it would be in the mountains, and in his gushing guilt goes on to tell him how much they all like him and they don’t want him to go, anyway. The Hemulen is touched and promises to stay. Moomintroll is humiliated at his failure and wanders off into a snowstorm which, to his surprise, he finds rather bracing and lifts his mood.

Eventually making it back to the bathing house, Moomintroll finds all the creatures gathered round the fire and Too-ticky gently mocks him. They’ve heard about his miserable failure to persuade the Hemulen to leave.

More importantly, Salome the Little Creep has got lost in the snowstorm. (They don’t know it but Salome had overheard Too-ticky and Moomintroll conspiring to send the Hemulen to the Lonely Mountains. She set off to warn him not to go, but is too small and got caught in the snowstorm.)

They set off to find her but it is the Hemulen who, now he stops to think about it, realises that she often pestered him for a chat and for advice on winter sports but he was in too much of a hurry to listen. Now he feels guilty and pads over the snow in his tennis-racket snowshoes seeking her trail. Hemulens are good at this kind of thing and so he quickly comes to the spot where she’s buried in snow and gently excavates her, tucking her up in his warm jumper and taking her back to the bathing house. All is well.

And you know what? He tells Moomintroll he’s going off to the Lonely Mountains anyway, yes yes they’re dangerous but the snowstorm will have filled in the crevices and, besides, think of the fresh air! Off he sets, blowing his Hemulen horn, while Moomintroll and Too-ticky exchange glances.

Meanwhile the little doggy Sorry-oo has decided to make his fantasy come true and has set off for the woods at dusk determined to join the wolf pack. It gets dark. The howling of the wolves gets closer. Yellow eyes appear in the black under the trees. He realises he’s made a terrible mistake.

Just at that moment, as the danger is drawing near, he hears the blowing of the Hemulen horn and the big yellow-jumpered Hemulen yomps into the clearing on his snow shoes, as the wolf eyes disappear. ‘Ah, nice doggy,’ he says, ‘waiting here for me. Coming to the Lonely Mountains with me?’ and the Hemulen yomps off with Sorry-oo scampering behind him.

This extended sequence, starting with the little creep’s unrequited devotion to him and then the big blustering Hemulen realising he’s ignored her and, almost carelessly, saving her life, and then – again without realising it – blundering into the clearing and saving Sorry-oo’s life – is not only sweet and touching but feels like it’s telling you something quite profound about the confusions and unintended complexities of life, all cast in a happy mood but none the less moving for that.

The creatures celebrate by having a wild winter olympics.

Then they all pack up and start drifting home. Too-tickey turns her red cap inside out to mark the approach of spring. Moomintroll surveys the Moomin house – what a mess! He struggles with the snowed-in front door and finally manages to open it against the weakening snowdrift. A big night cold gale sweeps in the door and through the house. ‘The room was filled with the smell of night and firs.’

In the final chapter spring slowly arrives. Every day the sun rises a little higher. Jansson’s observations of the changes in the natural world are quite marvellous. How the red bark of the birch trees slowly becomes noticeable through their snow covering, how the sun melts the drifts creating intricate dripping honeycombs of ice.

Little My is out skating at top speed over the ice when Too-ticky and Moomintroll, standing on the shore, hear far out at sea the first reports of the ice cracking and breaking up. On the horizon are angry white waves. Black cracks spread over the thick ice. Little My, the devil, skates right out to the outermost extent of the ice sheet, where the sea is lapping, just to see it and then turns and skates at top speed towards the shore. The description of ice cracking and fissuring as Little My skates away from it is thrilling.

She’s nearly at the shore when the entire ice sheet disintegrates into little floes. Moomintroll goes jumping out from floe to floe to rescue her. Little My climbs on his head and clutches his ears as he jumps back towards the shore. At the very last jump he slips and falls into the freezing sea (Little My, of course, skipping free to land at the last moment – her sort always come out on top).

Too-ticky helps pull Moomintroll out and takes him to the bathing-hut but Moomintroll bad-temperedly refuses her ministrations and insists on going home. He snuggles down under duvets and sneezes loudly.

And it is the distressed sneeze of her son, not the howling storm or the winter snows nor the cracking ice, but the sound of her son in distress, which wakes Moominmamma.

She quickly takes everything in hand, not minding at all about the mess, fixing Moomintroll a cold cure and, while he sleeps, tidying up. When he wakes he feels better, and notices everything is back in its proper place, the pictures have been rehung and there is the cosy sound of washing dishes from the kitchen. Little My and Too-ticky have told Moominmamma what a hero Moomintroll was to save her. She is glad the jam was all used to feed hungry people. She is an unflappable, calm, accepting force of nature.

Next day the rest of the Moomin clan are woken up by the sound of Too-ticky playing an old-fashioned barrel organ. One by one they come to life and set about their habitual occupations, mother making food, father off to fix something, the Snork maiden finds the first crocus of spring. Moomintroll is so overcome with happiness that he breaks into a run down to the now-completely-defrosted bathing house and sits watching the waves of the sea, remembering when it was all solid ice stretching to the horizon.

Deeper style

All the books have magical marvellous moments but I remember as a child being that much more entranced by Moominland MidwinterAll of it is strange and uncanny.

In the previous books the extended Moomin family or Sniff or Snufkin are there to reassure Moomintroll and give him courage. Here, he has to survive by himself in an alien landscape. None of it is genuinely scary or threatening; but it is strange and uncanny throughout. If children’s fiction is meant to teach anything, this book presents numerous scenes in which Moomintroll learns to overcome his fears and nervousness, to be sensitive to the wishes and personalities of other people very different from himself (Too-ticky, Little My, the Hemulen), to make his own decisions, to become a person.

Which is why the final chapter about the return of spring contains paragraphs of real wisdom, paragraphs which could come from a grown-ups’ book.

Now came spring but not at all as he had imagined its coming. He had thought that it would deliver him from a strange and hostile world, but now it was simply a continuation of his new experiences, of something he had already conquered and made his own. (p.118)

And a little later, when Moomintroll asks Too-tickey why she wasn’t more sympathetic to him when they first me:

Too-tickey shrugged her shoulders. ‘One has to discover everything for oneself,’ she replied. ‘And get over it all alone.’

Marvellous Moominmamma

Moominland Midwinter is dedicated to Jansson’s mother. Her avatar in the stories, Moominmamma, even though she doesn’t much appear and certainly doesn’t wake up until the very end – hovers over the whole story, a protecting guardian for lonely Moomintroll, the wisdom of the house, the wisdom of countless female ancestors.

This female inheritance is brought out more explicitly than in any previous book. When Moomintroll creeps up to his mother’s sleeping body and asks her where the things they’ll need for the squirrel’s funeral are, even in her sleep Moominmamma is wonderfully helpful and reassuring:

Then Moominmamma answered, from the depths of her womanly understanding of all that preserves tradition… (p.52)

When, right at the end, Moominmamma has woken up, she not only swiftly restores the house to complete order, rehanging the paintings, putting the furniture back in place, sweeping, dusting and tidying up, she makes a special traditional remedy for Moomintroll, who caught a cold rescuing Little My from the breaking-up ice.

She found a few sticks of wood from behind the slop-pail. She took a bottle of currant syrup  from her secret cupboard, as well as a powder and a flannel scarf.
When the water boiled she mixed a strong influenza medicine of sugar and ginger, and an old lemon that used to lie behind the tea-cosy on the topmost shelf but one.
There was no tea-cosy, nor any teapot. But Moominmamma never noticed that. For safety’s sake she mumbled a short charm over the influenza medicine. That was something her grandmother had taught her…. (p.129)

A bit later Moominmamma comes out to join her son and the other little ones playing snowballs. As she makes one she casually mentions that she’s not upset about her entire store of jam having been eaten by the guest, nor the furniture being rearranged or having gone missing. The house will look a lot less cluttered without it! Moomintroll watches and listens to her and a great feeling wells up in his chest to have such a wonderful wonderful mother.

Moominmamma scooped up a handful of snow and made a snowball. She threw it clumsily as mothers do, and it plopped to the ground not very far away.
‘I’m no good at that,’ said Moominmamma with a laugh. ‘Even Sorry-oo would have made a better throw.’
‘Mother, I love you terribly,’ said Moomintroll. (p.134)

And it’s hard, at the end of this short but quite intense, wonderfully imaginative and sometimes quite moving story, not to feel that this is Jansson’s heartfelt tribute to her own mother. Did any mother ever have a better tribute than the Moomin books?


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

Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus (1957)

The deep, clear water, the hot sun, the girls, the physical life – there was no other form of happiness in this country. (page 49)

Camus’s later writings are more literary than logical. His biggest attempt at a philosophical work, L’Homme révolté, met with such harsh criticism on its publication in 1951 that he never again attempted a full philosophical work. Instead these later writings rotate around ‘ideas’, which are really more like symbols, complexes of meaning and emotion, with as much psychological or sociological as logical content.

For example, the early idea of the Absurd, which he developed in the 1930s/early 1940s drops away and is replaced by the more wide-ranging, richer idea of ‘exile’. ‘Exile’ can have several meanings:

1. The philosophical or maybe spiritual meaning of ‘exile’ is brought out in the section of The Rebel which deals with Nietzsche:

From the moment that man believes neither in God nor in immortal life, he becomes ‘responsible for everything alive, for everything that, born of suffering, is condemned to suffer from life.’ It is he, and he alone, who must discover law and order. Then the time of exile begins, the endless search for justification, the aimless nostalgia, ‘the most painful, the most heartbreaking question, that of the heart which asks itself: where can I feel at home?’

In the godless universe, where on earth can the thoughtful man feel at home?

2. But ‘exile’ can also refer to literal exile from one’s homeland, legal banishment, expulsion from your community. Many of the revolutionaries who figure in The Rebel were unhappy exiles, in fact exile is often an intrinsic aspect of the life of l’homme révolté.

3. And there is a third sense of exile, biographically specific to Camus, whose life was stricken when his homeland, Algeria, rose up in revolt against French colonialism and the untroubled paradise of his boyhood memories ceased to exist, becoming instead a site of murder and torture, which it was now very dangerous to return to. He found himself exiled from this childhood.

‘Where can I feel at home?’

All these forms of exiles are looking, in their different ways, for ‘the kingdom’, real or imaginary, which they can return to, where they will finally feel ‘at home’, where exile will end, where values and meaning, love and security, will be found.

This polarity, this tension, this plight, is, as Camus himself might have put it, the climate in which the six short stories in Exile and the Kingdom were all written, the situation which, in different ways, they each explore.

  1. La Femme adultère (The Adulterous Woman)
  2. Le Renégat ou un esprit confus (The Renegade or a Confused Spirit)
  3. Les Muets (The Silent Men)
  4. L’Hôte (The Guest)
  5. Jonas ou l’artiste au travail (Jonas or the Artist at Work)
  6. La Pierre qui pousse (The Growing Stone)

1. The Adulterous Woman (La Femme adultère)

The woman is Janine, tall, middle-aged but still alluring. She married short, bug-eyed Marcel, not so much because she was attracted to him, but because he so obviously needed her. His love made her real. That was 25 years ago, when Marcel was an ambitious law student. Things have changed. When his parents gave up their dry goods business, Marcel decided to abandon the law in order to run it. Then the war came with its privations. Soon their joy rides in the car stopped, the outings to the seaside ceased. Marcel became obsessed by the business. She became a shop-keeper’s wife. They had no children. Her life became entombed in the shuttered apartment above the shop.

After the war Marcel wanted to expand his sales to ‘the villages of the Upper Plateaus and of the South’, and that is why she is sitting jammed up next to him on the hard seat of a filthy local bus bumping its way through a sandstorm on the edge of the desert in the freezing cold.

They get to a town and Janine tags along after Marcel as he tries to sell his wares to Arab merchants. They end up going up onto the parapet of the local fort and looking out over the cold stony desert. They go to bed, Marcel falls asleep. But Janine is tormented by the lost years and the vanished opportunities.

She sneaks out of bed along the hotel corridor, and then runs through the dark streets back to the fort and up the stairs to the parapet where she looks up into the billions of stars in the freezing black sky and has an epiphany.

Not a breath, not a sound – except at

intervals the muffled crackling of stones that the cold was reducing to sand – disturbed the solitude and silence surrounding Janine. After a moment, however, it seemed to her that the sky above her was moving in a sort of slow gyration. In the vast reaches of the dry, cold night, thousands of stars were constantly appearing, and their sparkling icicles, loosened at once, began to slip gradually toward the horizon. Janine could not tear herself away from contemplating those drifting flares. She was turning with them, and the apparently stationary progress little by little identified her with the core of her being, where cold and desire were now vying with each other. Before her the stars were falling one by one and being snuffed out among the stones of the desert, and each time Janine opened a little more to the night. Breathing deeply, she forgot the cold, the dead weight of others, the craziness or stuffiness of life, the long anguish of living and dying. After so many years of mad, aimless fleeing from fear, she had come to a stop at last. At the same time, she seemed to recover her roots and the sap again rose in her body, which had ceased trembling. Her whole belly pressed against the parapet as she strained toward the moving sky; she was merely waiting for her fluttering heart to calm down and establish silence within her. The last stars of the constellations dropped their clusters a little lower on the desert horizon and became still. Then, with unbearable gentleness, the water of night began to fill Janine, drowned the cold, rose gradually from the hidden core of her being and overflowed in wave after wave, rising up even to her mouth full of moans. The next moment, the whole sky stretched out over her, fallen on her back on the cold earth. (Page 29)

What with the lying prone and the moans it would be easy to interpret this as some kind of sexual experience. And the title – the adulterous woman – suggests that she is being sexually unfaithful (somehow). But I think that’s too easy.

In the last few sentences Janine retraces her steps to the cheap hotel, slips back into bed beside Marcel, who wakes up to find her weeping inconsolably.

Camus had a kind of gift for making everything he wrote seem pregnant with meaning, with allegory or symbolism. But the obvious level of meaning is, here, also the most powerful. It is a story about loss – lost time, lost life, lost love, the loss which is somehow central to life.

2. The Renegade or a Confused Spirit (Le Renégat ou un esprit confus)

This is a weird one, a real oddity in the Camus I’ve read so far. It is the dramatic soliloquy of a man who’s gone mad. He was a not very bright student at a theological seminary. He came out to Algeria to preach the Word of God. He had a personal mission/obsession with suffering, with undergoing ‘the offence’ all the better to demonstrate to the heathen how superior his God was, how it enabled him to turn the other cheek, and so on. So he ran away from his seminary in Algeria heading south until he reached the region around Taghaza in the country to the south of Algeria, Mali.

Here he was captured by brutal, pagan ‘natives’ who tortured and beat him. He was imprisoned in their ‘House of the Fetish’, home of a primitive idol, and here he witnesses various holy ceremonies conducted by the Sorcerer, which include beating a number of native women and then choosing one to mate with, like an animal, in the face of the Fetish.

The narrator is imprisoned in this pitch black hut made of salt and mud and fed on grain thrown onto the floor, while defecating in a hole he gouges. He is reduced to a condition of complete animality. On one occasion a native woman enters and apparently offers herself to him sexually, which he is beginning to act on when the Sorcerer and other tribesmen enter, beat him up and then tear out his tongue, making him pass out with pain. He comes round to find his bloody mouth stuffed with grass.

As his brutal treatment continues the narrator makes the transition to becoming the willing slave of the Fetish, a wordless devotee of the tribe and its god.

All this is being narrated as flashbacks from a ‘present’ in which he is lying in wait for a missionary. He heard, from his prison inside the House of the Fetish, French voices, apparently two army officers explaining that they are going to garrison twenty men outside the village to guarantee the safety of a Christian missionary who is on his way. The slave narrator decides to escape the House of the Fetish and kill the missionary. He wants to spark an incident, to get the French to retaliate against the tribe in order to cause a Holy War, and (in his fantasies) prompt the tribe to invade and conquer Europe overthrowing the wretched God which he now curses and despises.

And so, through the slave’s garbled consciousness, we gather that he does indeed waylay the missionary and beat him to death, as he tells us how good it feels to strike ‘goodness’ in the face with a rifle butt.

I laugh, I laugh, the fellow is writhing in his detested habit, he is raising his head a little, he sees me – me his all-powerful shackled master, why does he smile at me, I’ll crush that smile! How pleasant is the sound of a rifle butt on the face of goodness…

But the tribe has noticed his absence and come looking for him, and start to beat him up. As they approach, knowing he’s going to be punished, beaten, humiliated again, the narrator experiences a confused longing to escape, to be free of his demented damaged mind, to go home.

Here, here who are you, torn, with bleeding mouth, is it you, Sorcerer, the soldiers defeated you, the salt is burning over there, it’s you my beloved master! Cast off that hate-ridden face, be good now, we were mistaken, we’ll begin all over again, we’ll rebuild the city of mercy, I want to go back home.

But here, right at the end of the ‘story’, there is one short throwaway last line, apparently spoken by a new, third-person, narrator, which brutally describes the demented man’s pitiful death.

A handful of salt fills the mouth of the garrulous slave.

***********

Wow. This is a strong story, a fierce imagining, told in a rambling, demented style completely different from Camus’s usual philosophical detachment (the gra gra describes the sound he makes with his tongueless mouth), with long disjointed sentences conveying the persona’s mad raving.

What a jumble, what a rage, gra gra, drunk with heat and wrath, lying prostrate on my gun. Who’s panting here? I can’t endure this endless heat, this waiting, I must kill him. Not a bird, not a blade of grass, stone, an arid desire, their screams, this tongue within me talking, and, since they mutilated me, the long, flat, deserted suffering deprived even of the water of night, the night of which I would dream, when locked in with the god, in my den of salt. (p.48)

Literary critics have gone to town with numerous interpretations and the ideas invoked – colonialism, Christianity, the death of God, his replacement by a savage idol, sexual submission maybe rape, the denying of language to the white man (his tongue being torn out), his Stockholm Syndrome identification with his tormentors, his mad nihilist desire to provoke a Holy War and the conquest of Europe by Muslims hordes – there’s plenty of dots here to join up more or less any way you want.

I choose a psychological interpretation. I think it is Camus letting off steam in what amounts to a really long cry of agony.

3. The Silent Men (Les Muets)

They are silent because these men, the handful who work at a small cask-manufacturing workshop in a city on the coast, had gone out on strike for twenty days but then, eventually, been forced back to work for the usual reasons – the need for money, the refusal of the boss to back down. And so they file one by one into the knackered old workshop and, in silence, start up the old routines of work.

One by one, they went to their posts without saying a word. Ballester went from one to another, briefly reminding them of the work to be begun or finished. No one answered. Soon the first hammer resounded against the iron-tipped wedge sinking a hoop over the convex part of a barrel, a plane groaned as it hit a knot, and one of the saws, started up by Esposito, got under way with a great whirring of blade. Saïd would bring staves on request or light fires of shavings on which the casks were placed to make them swell in their corset of iron hoops. When no one called for him, he stood at a workbench riveting the big rusty hoops with heavy hammer blows. The scent of burning shavings began to fill the shop. Yvars, who was planing and fitting the staves cut out by Esposito, recognized the old scent and his heart relaxed somewhat. All were working in silence, but a warmth, a life was gradually beginning to reawaken in the shop. Through the broad windows a clean, fresh light began to fill the shed. The smoke rose bluish in the golden sunlight; Yvars even heard an insect buzz close to him.

The owner, M. Lassalle, tries to be friendly with his workers but they all resolutely silent. He thinks they’re sulking, but as Yvars, the lead figure in the story, explains to himself, that:

they were not sulking, that their mouths had been closed, they had to take it or leave it, and that anger and helplessness sometimes hurt so much that you can’t even cry out. They were men, after all, and they weren’t going to begin smiling and simpering.

I liked this story very much because it’s about work and manual labour at that, and so, for once, Camus actually gives sustained descriptions of things, of the world around him, rather than his usual retreat into characters’ feelings which almost always become extreme meditations on death and God and meaninglessness and so on.

It’s an oddity that the man who made so many general statements about the joyful physicality of the body really devoted so few pages to its description. I’ve done scores of manual labouring jobs. I grew up in a village shop and gas station, working in the shop from age 11, working on the pumps from age 16 and then working in the dark, oily, noisy tyre bay, handling the long heavy wheel jacks and the pneumatic bolt remover to undo the bolts holding a wheel to the car axle, alongside other lads swapping banter, walking past the Pirelli calendar on the wall, washing your hands in the tub of swarfega, sitting outside sharing a fag in the sun between jobs.

Descriptions of work, real physical work, of manual labour, are so rare in polite and ‘serious’ fiction that I always relish them.

Again the hammers rang out, the big shed filled with the familiar din, with the smell of shavings and of old clothes damp with sweat. The big saw whined and bit into the fresh wood of the stave that Esposito was slowly pushing in front of him. Where the saw bit, a damp sawdust spurted out and covered with something like bread-crumbs the big hairy hands firmly gripping the wood on each side of the moaning blade. Once the stave was ripped, you could hear only the sound of the motor.

There is a story of sorts, more an incident. Half way through the afternoon the foreman, Ballester, rushes through to say the owner’s little girl has had a fit. He dashes off to fetch an ambulance, which arrives soon after. At the end of the day the owner returns to the workshop to say a very pale and listless goodbye. Now the workmen don’t know what to say because they are embarrassed by their emotions of pity and compassion which, being rough men, they can’t express.

And so the story contains two kinds of silent men, or men who are silent in two ways. Even in this slight text Camus can’t help being schematic.

Yvars cycles home, admiring the darkening sea. He is 40 now, married to Fernande and they have a school-age son. He wishes he was 20 again and could go swimming in the warm sea. More than that,

If only he were young again, and Fernande too, they would have gone away, across the sea.

Another man who lives where he has lived all his life, who has a job, a wife and child but… but… somehow is not at home.

4. The Guest (L’Hôte)

Daru is schoolteacher in a really remote part of southern Algeria, atop a barren plateau. This year has seen an appalling drought, with Daru becoming a distribution point for government food aid. Now it has suddenly and unexpectedly snowed, in the middle of October. He’s looking out the schoolroom window when he sees figures approaching. It’s the local gendarme, Balducci, riding a horse and leading an Arab on foot with his hands tied together.

They greet Daru who welcomes them inside. Balducci explains that the Arab (who is never named) is under arrest for murdering his cousin in a nearby village, apparently in an argument over grain, cutting his throat like a sheep. Now the Arab is docile, edgy, silent.

To Daru’s horror, Balducci announces that he’s handing over the prisoner to Daru, going back to his post, and it will be Daru’s responsibility to take the prisoner on to the police headquarters at Tinguit! Daru emphatically doesn’t want the responsibility. He doesn’t want to be involved. It’s not his business. Nonetheless, Balducci makes Daru sign a document accepting responsibility, then leaves, first giving Daru his spare revolver.

There follows an uneasy night. Daru behaves decently if gruffly. He undoes the rope binding the Arab’s hands and makes them both some food. The Arab appears puzzled by this kindness but, after some hesitation, eats. Then Daru makes up two camp beds in the schoolroom, but lies there awake. In the middle of the night there is the promise of some excitement when Daru becomes aware that the Arab is getting up, with infinite slowness and stealth.

You and I have seen a thousand Hollywood thrillers so we’re expecting the Arab to make a move on the apparently asleep Daru. So does Daru. He pretends to be asleep and watches the Arab, in the event, quietly leave the schoolroom. Daru breathes a long sigh of relief thinking his onerous responsibility is over. Except that a few moments later the Arab returns. He had gone to the loo. After this act of not attacking him or escaping, Daru is able to fall asleep.

Next morning he makes them both breakfast and then orders the Arab to get dressed and follow him. He leads him some way south of the school building but then stops the Arab and hands him a package of food and 1,000 French Francs. Darus is not going to take him anywhere.

Instead Daru shows the Arab two alternative routes: the track south leads to the nomads who will give him shelter. Then he shows the track heading east. A day’s travel in that direction is the police station at Tinguit. It’s the Arab’s free decision.

Daru turns and heads back towards the school. After a little way he turns and looks and sees the Arab still standing in the same spot. OK. Daru continues. Closer to the school he turns again and at first can see no-one in either direction. Then, straining his eyes, he realises he can make out the figure of the Arab amid the vast stony waste of the desert. He is on the path east to Tinguit, presumably to hand himself in.

Is this a comment on the docility, the lack of independent-mindedness, the village stupidity of the Arab? Or his sense of honour? Or his reluctance to hand himself over to the nomads?

Whatever the Arab’s motivation, Daru grunts and returns to his school building. But not to his former life. That is gone for good. For on the blackboard he finds a simple sentence has been scrawled, presumably by Algerian rebels: ‘You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.’ Daru thought he had behaved decently. He thought he had given the Arab the freedom to choose his destiny. He thought he’s managed not to get embroiled in the conflict between the Algerian rebels and the French authorities. Looks like he was wrong on all counts.

Daru looked at the sky, the plateau, and, beyond, the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.

This story really sums up a lot of the qualities of Camus’s prose and fiction which you hear so much about. The setting is bleak and elemental. The prose is pared down and simple. It is factual, descriptive, minimal, and yet pregnant with meaning.

The schoolmaster was watching the two men climb toward him. One was on horseback, the other on foot. They had not yet tackled the abrupt rise leading to the schoolhouse built on the hillside. They were toiling onward, making slow progress in the snow, among the stones, on the vast expanse of the high, deserted plateau. From time to time the horse stumbled. Without hearing anything yet, he could see the breath issuing from the horse’s nostrils.

Interpretation

Like almost all Camus’s story it is a parable, designed to have higher meanings read into it.

1. Contemporary readers had no difficulty reading it as a comment on the by now three years-old Algerian War (which started in 1954). Daru is caught between two worlds. Not part of metropolitan French culture, but not part of the native Arab world. The French authorities try to drag him into the conflict. He refuses to take part, insists on treating the Arab decently, and even gives him his freedom to decide his fate. Although this could also be interpreted as trying to shirk his responsibilities. But, either way, his fine intentions are turned to dust by the last-page promise of revenge. He is caught up in the conflict whether he wants to or not, regardless of what he does.

2. There is also the ‘existentialist’ interpretation. (Camus insisted he wasn’t an existentialist – ‘I do not have much liking for the famous existential philosophy and, to tell the truth, I think its conclusions false’, Resistance, Rebellion and death, page 58 – and Sartre said he wasn’t an existentialist, and having looked at their respective philosophies I am perfectly clear why Camus wasn’t an existentialist – nonetheless, when you read essays about him many if not most commentators casually describe him as an existentialist.)

Anyway, the existentialist focuses on the image of a man alone in the vast desert, abandoned by God etc, thrown back on himself. According to Sartrean existentialism, he has to create himself by means of his actions, which are utterly free, for which he must assume complete responsibility. Thus he shrugs off the duty imposed by the state and acts out his independence. But according to Camus’s very different philosophy of the Absurd, Daru rebels not only against the duty imposed on him, but also against the world of blood and death which the Arab represents. He seeks – as the long argument of Camus’s philosophical work, The Rebel, requires, to revolt against the world of bloodshed and against the world of binary choices – France v. Algeria. He seeks to create a space for individual freedom and dignity. He gives the Arab his own choice and human dignity back.

In this reading, the final message on the blackboard asserts the primacy of Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd over Sartre’s philosophy of freedom because it highlights the limits of Daru’s freedom. We can only operate within the restraints of the society around us. We are not absolutely free, as Sartre claims.

3. A third interpretation simply picks up the theme of exile. A long passage describes the impact of the summer-long drought on the villagers of the region and Daru’s role in trying to help them. It is designed to show the primal experiences and human solidarity which tie Daru to this bleak barren landscape. And by extension suggest the huge tug Camus felt for the land where he grew up and where he felt tremendous solidarity with the poorest of the poor pieds noirs, the most impoverished of the European settlers in Algeria, and therefore the acute pain of his exile once the war began.

The little room was cluttered with bags of wheat that the administration left as a stock to distribute to those of his pupils whose families had suffered from the drought. Actually they had all been victims because they were all poor. Every day Daru would distribute a ration to the children. They had missed it, he knew, during these bad days [of the recent snowfall]. Possibly one of the fathers or big brothers would come this afternoon and he could supply them with grain. It was just a matter of carrying them over to the next harvest. Now shiploads of wheat were arriving from France and the worst was over. But it would be hard to forget that poverty, that army of ragged ghosts wandering in the sunlight, the plateaus burned to a cinder month after month, the earth shriveled up little by little, literally scorched, every stone bursting into dust under one’s foot. The sheep had died then by thousands and even a few men, here and there, sometimes without anyone’s knowing. In contrast with such poverty, he who lived almost like a monk in his remote schoolhouse, nonetheless satisfied with the little he had and with the rough life, had felt like a lord with his whitewashed walls, his narrow couch, his unpainted shelves, his well, and his weekly provision of water and food. And suddenly this snow, without warning, without the foretaste of rain. This is the way the region was, cruel to live in, even without men – who didn’t help matters either. But Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled.

5. Jonas or the Artist at Work (Jonas ou l’artiste au travail)

Astonishingly, this is a comedy. Yes, it’s funny. Many parts of it could come from Oscar Wilde or Saki, with their dry sardonic humour. Even the protagonist’s name is English – Gilbert Jonas is an artist. Usually Camus’s stories are set in real time: the previous four stories all take place in the course of a day, or 24 hours, or even a brief hour or so with flashbacks (as in The Renegade). But this story gives a bird’s eye view, so to speak, of Gilbert’s entire career, his appearance, his rise, his peak and his fall.

There are numerous incidents but the outline is simple: Gilbert casually takes up painting; to his surprise his work is popular, he acquires an agent who successfully sells it. He allows himself to be married to sweet Louise who loves him with a selfless devotion, and they move into a cramped apartment characterised by an enormous studio with high windows. But as word gets around fashionable Paris, critics and society ladies drop by his little apartment, followed by disciples asking his opinion of their work, the phone is ringing all the time with invitations to lunch or dinner, his wife produces one, two, three babies who are parked around the flat, bawling continuously, until Gilbert is living in a state of siege.

His friend, Rateau, sardonically observes his friend’s rise into fan-infested chaos, observing his productivity slowly drop off, and also his inspiration. Gilbert finds himself going out during the day to avoid the scrum of fans and socialites in his flat, at first to find ‘subjects’ in the streets and parks but quickly taking comfort in snug little cafés and then in the snug little arms of the complaisant women he encounters there.

Drunk and unfaithful, his output tails off, until a tear-stricken scene with the faithful Louise reveals all and he promises to reform. But the crowds continue to throng the studio and they are now joined by Louise’s sister and her daughter, come to help, so that eventually Gilbert constructs a kind of loft flat high up in the big studio room, climbing up there by a ladder each morning and not coming down. His fans, his disciples, the critics and the ladies who lunch decide he is being hoity-toity now he is famous and start to abandon him. Rateau hears the critics dismissing his work and a once-loyal disciple remarking that Jonas is now ‘finished’. His agent calls to say sales are falling off and he will have to reduce his monthly stipend to Gilbert. But Gilbert sits every day in his loft, oblivious to the world around him, his eyes glazed over, now reduced to complete inactivity, staring blankly at an empty canvas all day long.

**********

The story is an obvious satire on the perils of fame, and of the type of people who infest Paris’s intellectual world. But it’s actually quite a simple-minded portrait. In its simplicity it kept reminding me of Oscar Wilde’s elegant witty fairy tales for children. It has a tenderness, a gentleness and charm which are all the more surprising when set against the unremittingly harsh, bleak, bare desert world of the other stories. Here is Gilbert gently struggling to conceal from his wife that her stealthy creeping around the studio puts him off painting much more than loud bold interruptions would do. There is a sweet kindness in every sentence and in the entire sentiment which is missing from pretty much everything else Camus published.

But when the rooms were full of paintings and children, they had to think up a new arrangement.
Before the birth of the third child, in fact, Jonas worked in the big room, Louise knitted in the bedroom, while the two children occupied the last room, raised a great rumpus there, and also tumbled at will throughout the rest of the apartment. They agreed to put the newborn in a corner of the studio, which Jonas walled off by propping up his canvases like a screen; this offered the advantage of having the baby within earshot and being able to answer his calls. Besides, Jonas never needed to bestir himself, for Louise forestalled him. She wouldn’t wait until the baby cried before entering the studio, though with every possible precaution and always on tiptoe. Jonas, touched by such discretion, one day assured Louise that he was not so sensitive and could easily go on working despite the noise of her steps. Louise replied that she was also aiming not to waken the baby. Jonas, full of admiration for the workings of the maternal instinct, laughed heartily at his misunderstanding. As a result, he didn’t dare confess that Louise’s cautious entries bothered him more than an out-and-out invasion. First, because they lasted longer, and secondly because they followed a pantomime in which Louise – her arms outstretched, her shoulders thrown back, and her leg raised high – could not go unnoticed. This method even went against her avowed intentions, since Louise constantly ran the risk of bumping into one of the canvases with which the studio was cluttered. At such moments the noise would waken the baby, who would manifest his displeasure according to his capacities, which were considerable. The father, delighted by his son’s pulmonary prowess, would rush to cuddle him and soon be relieved in this by his wife.

The concern for his wife and his children; the comic observation of people’s foibles: it is all touching and sweet and gentle in a way you wouldn’t have thought Camus capable of.

6. The Growing Stone (La Pierre qui pousse)

‘I used to be proud; now I’m alone…  I never found my place. So I left.’

D’Arrast is a French engineer. He is driven by a black driver, Socrates, through the jungle of Brazil to Iguape, a remote settlement on the coast. Here the pompous Mayor and drunk Chief of Police make a fuss of this great man, honouring them with his presence, who has come to build a jetty to protect the town from the periodic floods of the vast river. D’Arrast for his part is a man adrift. He nods and shakes hands but his mind is elsewhere. He asks to be taken to the miserably impoverished Negro quarter and into a typically squalid hut.

Socrates introduces him to a black ship’s cook who tells him about the town’s precious stone statue of Jesus which is kept in the Garden of the Fountain. The story goes that one day it floated up the river and was found on the bank. Supposedly you can chip bits off the statue as relics, as good luck charms, and the stone regrows. The ship’s cook was in a ship which sank. He was going to drown and prayed to the stone Jesus, promising he would carry a 100 pound stone on his head in the annual procession, if he was spared. Jesus heard his prayer, the waters were stilled and he was able to swim to shore. Now he is going to carry his weight in the procession which takes place tomorrow. He asks D’Arrast if he ever made a promise, and asks him to help him keep his.

That night D’Arrast meets up with the cook and family, for a meal and then onto the hut where he witnesses, and takes part in, a prolonged pagan ceremony, involving frenzied dancing, howling and barking, supervised by a sorcerer. Although different in detail, it recalls the pagan sex ceremonies witnessed by the demented missionary in The Renegade.

The next morning D’Arrast is taken by the Mayor to watch the official Catholic celebration, consisting of a procession round the town with a statue of Jesus. This is the procession his friend the ship’s cook vowed to accompany bearing a heavy stone on his head. By the latter stages of the procession, though supported by his family, he is staggering. D’Arrast leaves the balcony where the mayor had taken him to run down and be with the cook. Suddenly his ordeal and his promise seem important to the Frenchman. When the stone falls off the cork mat which is protecting the cook’s head and falls to the ground, the Frenchman bends down, puts the mat on his head and the enormous stone on top of it.

And then staggers after the Christian procession into the main square. But he abruptly turns away from the church and heads off towards the poor black quarter he had visited the night before. Despite the yelling of the crowd to turn round he staggers on towards the poor hut of his friend and there throws the stone into the primitive fireplace where it comes to rest in the flickering flames and ashes.

Exhausted, D’Arrast slumps against the wall, and the shattered cook, his brother and the rest of their family join him.

No sound but the murmur of the river reached them through the heavy air. Standing in the darkness, D’Arrast listened without seeing anything, and the sound of the waters filled him with a tumultuous happiness. With eyes closed, he joyfully acclaimed his own strength; he acclaimed, once again, a fresh beginning in life. At that moment, a firecracker went off that seemed very close. The brother moved a little away from the cook and, half turning toward D’Arrast but without looking at him, pointed to the empty place and said: ‘Sit down with us.’

It would appear that in the last few sentences of the last story one, at least, of Camus’s characters does finally overcome their feeling of exile and in some way manages to ‘come home’.


The irrational in Camus

The book’s title and most of the commentary I’ve read about it foreground the cool rational concepts of ‘exile’ and ‘kingdom’, but in fact the stories also contain a lot of the irrational – the two descriptions of frenzied pagan rituals, the demented monologue of the mad missionary, the semi-sexual epiphany of Janine on the parapet of the fortress, even the brutal murder committed by the unnamed Arab in The Guest – all suggest that the book is just as much an exploration of the irrational, the animal and the bestial in human nature as of dry intellectual ideas.

There’s far more of the weird and strange, of the uncanny, in Camus than his critics usually bring out.

The night was full of fresh aromatic scents. Above the forest the few stars in the austral sky, blurred by an invisible haze, were shining dimly. The humid air was heavy. Yet it seemed delightfully cool on coming out of the hut. D’Arrast climbed the slippery slope, staggering like a drunken man in the potholes. The forest, near by, rumbled slightly. The sound of the river increased. The whole continent was emerging from the night, and loathing overcame D’Arrast. It seemed to him that he would have liked to spew forth this whole country, the melancholy of its vast expanses, the glaucous light of its forests, and the nocturnal lapping of its big deserted rivers. This land was too vast, blood and seasons mingled here, and time liquefied. Life here was flush with the soil, and, to identify with it, one had to lie down and sleep for years on the muddy or dried-up ground itself. Yonder, in Europe, there was shame and wrath. Here, exile or solitude, among these listless and convulsive madmen who danced to die.


The translation

Like all the Penguin editions of Camus I’ve read, this one is clumsily translated. The clumsiness is demonstrated in at least two ways: word order and idiom; and the use of subordinate clauses.

As to word order, almost every paragraph contains sentences where the original French word order has been kept and sticks out in English.

By subordinate clauses, I mean that although Camus’s prose is regularly praised for its spare simplicity, the actual texts we have in English are very often characterised by the addition of subordinate clauses which make his sentences long and clunky.

Modern spare prose was pioneered in English by Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s. Rule one is for each sentence to contain only one declarative statement, with one main verb and no subordinate clauses. A quick search of the internet reveals that there is an online Hemingway app. The first thing it does for you is identify long complex sentences in your prose and show how they should be split up into shorter, simpler ones.

At its most characteristic, Camus’s prose is certainly like as simple as his fans describe:

The coffee was ready. They drank it seated together on the folding bed as they munched their pieces of the cake. Then Daru led the Arab under the shed and showed him the faucet where he washed. He went back into the room, folded the blankets and the bed, made his own bed and put the room in order.

But there are also numerous places where the translation literally follows the French way of describing things, including the tendency to dangle subordinate clauses qualifying the object of the sentence. This is contrary to Hemingway rules and also to good English style.

Homeless, cut off from the world, they were a handful [of nomads] wandering over the vast territory she could see, which however was but a paltry part of an even greater expanse whose dizzying course stopped only thousands of miles farther south, where the first river finally waters the forest. (The Adulterous Woman)

This sentence should be split in two after ‘see’, the next sentence starting ‘And this itself was…’

Struck by the change in his voice, D’Arrast looked at the cook, who, leaning forward with fists clenched and eyes staring, was mimicking the others’ measured stamping without moving from his place.

Again, the sentence should end at ‘cook’, and a new sentence start ‘He was leaning forward…’.

Sentences like this give you a continual, slightly uneasy sense that this is not English prose, make you aware that it is a translation from a foreign language with its own rhythms and rules. And from time to time the text crosses a border to become completely alien in style and voice.

She did know that Marcel needed her and that she needed that need, that she lived on it night and day, at night especially – every night, when he didn’t want to be alone, or to age or die, with that set expression he assumed which she occasionally recognized on other men’s faces, the only common expression of those madmen hiding under an appearance of wisdom until the madness seizes them and hurls them desperately toward a woman’s body to bury in it, without desire, everything terrifying that solitude and night reveals to them. (The Adulterous Woman)

Could be simpler, couldn’t it? The paragraph should probably be split up at ‘die’. The next sentence could begin something like: ‘On those occasions he had the set expression which she occasionally…’ To go full Hemingway this second sentence should stop at ‘faces’, the next sentence starting ‘It was the expression common to all those men who gave an appearance of wisdom until…’ But even with these surgical repairs, this sentence is still a mess.

In particular, the French obviously has a habit of qualifying the key noun in a sentence with a subordinate clause which can’t help but break up the flow.

When D’Arrast, his head in the vice of a crushing migraine, had awakened after a bad sleep, a humid heat was weighing upon the town and the still forest.

There is too much going on here. It should be two sentences:

D’Arrast awoke after a bad sleep to find his head in the vice of a crushing migraine. A humid heat was weighing upon the town and the still forest.

Even this could be phrased better, but it’s a start. From this and scores of other examples the reader learns that French obviously allows for, permits or encourages more convoluted sentences than English normally does, sentences made up of two or more clauses whose stitching together often leads to the inversion of traditional English word order. None of the Camus translations I’ve read are without plenty of these blemishes.

If I had my way I’d commission a new edition of Camus, rewriting all the prose to put it into English word order and rhythm, and properly introducing and annotating every text. Both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel are, at an absolute minimum, crying out for proper indexes. It is a scandal that Penguin are still republishing the same badly translated and unannotated editions which are 60, sometimes 70 years old.


Credit

L’Exil et le royaume by Albert Camus was published in France in 1957. This translation of Exile and the Kingdom by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1958. It was republished as a Penguin paperback in 1962. All quotes & references are to the 1974 reprint of this Penguin edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming (1957)

Bond put the thought of his dead youth out of his mind. Never job backwards. What-might-have-been was a waste of time. Follow your fate and be satisfied with it, and be glad not to be a second-hand motor salesman, or a yellow-press journalist pickled in gin or nicotine, or a cripple – or dead. (p.148)

From Russia With Love has 28 chapters divided into two parts: 1. The Planning 2. The Execution.

Part one – The Planning (chapters 1 – 10)

The opening chapters introduce us to Donovan Grant, ‘Red’ Grant, a psychopath who loves killing. He discovered this as a violent young man in the countryside of Northern Ireland, graduating from going out at full moon to kill animals, to slitting the throats of tramps and vagrants for fun, and then getting employment for his special talents with the local Sinn Fein/IRA.

Grant was sent off to do his National Service in Germany, where he promptly defected to the Russians who realised his special value, and selected and trained him intensively to become a perfect killing machine. In fact he has been made Chief Executioner for Bond’s nemesis, SMERSH, the execution department of what he calls the MGB (p.36). Now Grant is called Krassno Granitski, codename ‘Granit’.

Cut to the head of the SMERSH (Colonel General Grubozaboyschikov, known as ‘G’, p.39), the Head of Army Intelligence and a few other Soviet high-ups having a major conference. The Politburo is unhappy that Soviet intelligence has suffered recent setbacks (they mention a few recent examples, e.g. the unmasking of the atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs, a real event which took place in 1950). The Politburo has decided they must strike a decisive counter-blow against Western Intelligence. One by one, the assembled heads make a systematic review of all the NATO countries, assessing their intelligence services, until they come to England.

Here there is some shameless jingoism as Fleming has Soviet Intelligence marvelling at how the English secret service punches so much above its weight, with operatives who are paid a pittance and get no special privileges.

‘It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’ (p.55)

Very reassuring. And comments which link Bond effortlessly back to the Public School adventurism of Kipling, Rider Haggard and John Buchan.

So the Soviets agree to mount a high-profile attack on English Intelligence. But targeting who? Its head (M)? The public has never heard of him, he is secretive and well-protected, so it wouldn’t have much propaganda value. Well, what about this agent called Bond? Yes, he caused them a lot of trouble in the Le Chiffre affair (CasinoRoyale), and then by breaking up the Mr Big network in America (Live and Let Die), and then by foiling the Drax plan (Moonraker). Yes. They will assassinate James Bond to demoralise and humiliate Western intelligence.

The Head of the MGB calls in the head of SMERSH’s Directorate II (Operations and Executions) who turns out to be Rosa Klebb, a dumpy, frog-like woman (so memorably played by Lotte Lenya in the movie) and briefs her. We see her consulting with World Chess Champion and SMERSH strategist, Kronsteen (Head of the Planning Section of SMERSH, p.77), who is introduced to us in a taut scene at the climax of a major international chess game.

Then there is the scene where Klebb calls in Comrade Corporal Romanova, the stunningly beautiful and naive MGB operative who they are going to set up as the ‘honey trap’ for the well-known womaniser, Bond.

In a gruesome twist, after Klebb has terrified the rather simple Romanova into agreeing to the mission and briefed her, Klebb pops out of the room for a minute and then reappears in ‘something more comfortable’, namely a see-through nightie, and lies on a couch, dimming the lights, expecting to seduce Romanova. The latter obediently turns off the main light, but then runs out the door and down the corridor, apparently not to be punished for rejecting Rosa’s advances.

In the final chapter of Part One, we see Klebb restored to full uniform and complete control, verbally sparring with Kronsteen in SMERSH headquarters as they put the finishing touches to their plan. They choose Turkey as the location for the humiliation of the British Secret Service, since it is so close to the East, Bulgaria in particular.

The girl will lure Bond with the promise of giving him one of the Russians’ top secret Spektor coding machines. Grant will then be despatched to carry out the assassination. They will have cameramen and writers ready to capture Bond’s humiliation and death, written and film content they can then distribute via communist-controlled media (especially – Fleming says with a dig – in communist-dominated France).

Part two – The Execution (chapters 11 – 28)

Now we see it all from Bond’s point of view. James is bored. It’s a year since his last assignment (Diamonds Are Forever).  It’s August in London, hot and muggy and half the office is on holiday. And, we learn, his romance with Tiffany Case (who he picked up in Diamonds) has collapsed – she fell in love with an American Marine and went back to the States, leaving Bond to brood.

This allows Fleming to show us Bond at his most domestic, waking naked in bed, doing his morning exercises and, above all, having breakfast! Breakfast consists of:

  • Two large cups of very strong black coffee, no sugar, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex coffee-maker.
  • A single egg, boiled for three and a third minutes, served in a dark blue egg cup with a gold ring at the top. It must be a fresh, speckled egg from the French Marans hens owned by a friend of his housekeeper, May’s, in the country.
  • Two thick slices of wholewheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter, and three jars of jam: Tiptree Little Scarlet strawberry jam, Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade, and Norwegian Heather honey from Fortnum’s.
  • The coffee pot and the silver on the tray are Queen Anne. The china is the same dark blue and gold as the egg cup. (p.127)

The housekeeper who attends on James at the pull of the bell rope, the fussy breakfast, the morning paper just so – this snug and cosy portrait of moneyed bachelorhood takes us back to the Edwardian age or before, to the reassuring Baker Street rooms of Holmes and Watson and their ever-loyal housekeeper, Mrs Hudson.

M calls Bond to the office and briefs him: Head of the Turkey station, Darko Kerim, has received the strangest approach from ‘the other side’. One Corporal Tatiana Romanova of the Russian Security Service made an appointment to meet him on the Bosphorus ferry and explained that she has fallen in love with Bond on the basis of his photos alone and wants to defect with a brand-new top-secret Spektor machine – but only on condition that Bond in person receives her.

It’s so crazy it might actually be true, and so Bond packs his bags and catches a flight to Istanbul.

Flying to Istanbul

Just like previous plane journeys (from Florida to Jamaica in Live and Let Die, across the Atlantic then on to Las Vegas in Diamonds Are Forever) Fleming gives a very detailed account of the whole procedure, the make of plane, the sound of the jets, the view out the window etc. And, just as in Live and Let Die, the plane hits turbulence and Bond is genuinely afraid – his hands gripping the arm rests, his palms wet with fear (p.150). Realistic.

Darko Kerim

After checking into an uncharacteristically seedy hotel in Istanbul, Bond is taken to meet the head of Station T (for Turkey), Darko Kerim, who he immediately warms to.

It was a startlingly dramatic face, vital, cruel, debauched, but what one noticed more than its drama was that it radiated life. Bond thought he had never seen so much vitality and warmth in a human face. (p.160)

Kerim briefs him on the Russian girl, the offer of the Spektor machine, and the general situation in Turkey. The ‘other side’ are up to something, but he can’t put his finger on what. Kerim tells him about his life, raised one of 15 children in a harem of women kept by the biggest, strongest fisherman on the Black Sea. A spell as a circus strong man, when his father was contacted and paid by the English Head of Station T to report on Russian comings and goings. Darko was taken on the payroll and, with his extensive family and connections, ended up its head.

Bond warms to Darko and his simple, unashamed enjoyment of life in primal, Balkan passions.

Spying on the Russians

Kerim takes Bond up a secret underground passageway, in fact a huge water pipe built by the Byzantines, filled with thousands of rats and bats, until they are beneath the Russian Embassy.

Here Kerim’s people have fixed up a submarine periscope which allows them to see into the main meeting room of the Russian Embassy though not, alas, to hear anything. Bond watches some obviously senior Soviets meeting and then the arrival of Tatiana Romanova, a tall, elegant, obviously ballet-trained blonde girl, who looks strikingly like Greta Garbo.

The men look at her oddly, as if she is a prostitute. We know this is because they all know the nature of ‘the plan’ – for her to use her body to lure Bond into a ‘honeypot’ trap. But Bond doesn’t know this; he thinks she is concealing the fact that she wants to defect and so is puzzled by the mingled lasciviousness and contempt he sees in the Russians’ faces.

Catfight at the gypsies’

That night Darko’s Rolls Royce collects Bond from his hotel and they motor to the outskirts of Istanbul, to a dingy open-air cafe by a big, walled orchard. This is the base of the gypsies who work for Darko. Bond is introduced as a friend to the leader of the gypsies, Vavra, given pride of place at the head of the table and forced to eat along with the others the main part of their feast, a very hot stew to be eaten by hand, with bread to mop up the juice and raki to wash it down.

Turns out they’ve arrived at a bad moment: two young women have declared they’re in love with Vavra’s son, and are prepared to kill the other for his sake. The son has been sent to the hills and now, after the group feast, bolts are drawn back and Bond gets to watch along with the others a ferocious, vicious catfight between two gypsy women, Zora and Vida, who start off only wearing rags, and soon tear these off to emerge naked, sweat gleaming on their shapely breasts and rumps. Fleming knows how to write good pulp fiction.

Shootout at the gypsies’

And as if to prove it, right in the middle of the fight there’s a loud detonation as a group of Bulgarian assassins blow up the perimeter wall of the gypsies’ orchard and come streaming in, guns blazing. The women and children retreat into the trees while the men spring into action, Bond among them, saving Darko’s life at least twice, shooting dead several attackers in the massive fight which now develops, until a figure by the wall, the attackers’ leader Krilencu, blows and whistle and calls a retreat. They hop onto the scooters they arrived on and are gone into the darkness.

The gypsies tend to their wounded, the women return to the scene of the battle. Darko thanks Bond who sweeps aside his gratitude and wants to know why they were attacked. They go over to where the gypsies are torturing one of the surviving attackers, who says that they had orders to kill Darko but very specifically to leave Bond alone.

Bond gets the feeling he is a pawn in a bigger game. He and Darko make their thanks and apologies to Vavra and leave, but not before the proud, stern-faced gypsy says that, by killing so well, he can have final decision about which one of the wildcat women lives and which one dies.

Sickened by the slaughter, Bond insists that they both survive, throwing in as primitive reasoning that Vavra will need them to breed new sons for the tribe. Vavra is visibly displeased. Bond couldn’t care less.

The assassination of Krilencu

Immediately following the gypsy shooutout, Darko has Bond accompany him in his chauffeur-driven Rolls to another part of Istanbul, where they know they’ll find Krilencu, leader of the attackers on the gypsy camp, at the apartment of his mistress.

Darko explains that he’ll send in some of his sons masquerading as police and flush Krilencu out the secret escape hatch which Krilencu doesn’t know that Darko knows about.

With added pulp macabre-ness, this escape hatch is a trap door in the side of a hoarding used for advertisements. As Darko positions himself and assembles his lightweight rifle, Bond tries to make sense of the events of the evening. At a signal, Darko’s sons go into the building; a minute later the trapdoor in the wall opens and a figure drops to the sidewalk, crouches, turns to run and… Darko shoots him dead with one bullet.

They pack the rifle away, and Darko drops Bond back at his hotel where, characteristically, he has a long shower to wash off the blood and horror of the day.

Tatiana Romanova

Back out of the shower, it is only as he approaches the hotel bed that Bond realises someone is in it and hears a girlish giggle. It is the Russian beauty, Tatiana Romanova, wearing only a black velvet choker. Fleming knows his S&M accessories.

What is interesting in this scene – as in the one where Rosa Klebb briefed her – is Fleming’s attempts to see things through Tatiana’s eyes. We are privy to her thoughts as she struggles to follow her simple instructions (seduce Bond and persuade him to take the Orient Express back to London). Except that the reader knows – and she does not – that once aboard the train, Bond will be murdered by Red Grant.

It’s not exactly James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but the mere fact that Fleming tries to reproduce the girl’s stream of consciousness (as he did, to some extent, with Tiffany Case in Diamonds) is interesting.

While she is trying to remember her lines, Bond tries to focus on the plausibility of her story and the feasibility of her plan to a) flee with the Spektor machine this very evening and b) flee aboard the Orient Express.

The reader knows full well it is a trap and it’s pretty thick of Bond not to realise it, but then, if he did, there would be no story.

Bond gets into bed with Tatiana, clasping her breast with its (as usual for a Bond girl) hard nipple, slipping his hand down over her tummy and watching her eyes flutter under the closed eyelids.

Cut to the next morning and Bond wondering whether he was too rough with her, thus bringing out the S&M feel of the scene. (The theme is continued a few pages later, where he leans down to Tatiana in bed, seizes her by the hair and pulls her head fiercely back before kissing her ‘long and cruelly’ on the mouth, p.199).

Meanwhile, as they move and writhe on the bed, Russian MGB operatives are filming it all on ciné cameras pointing down through the two-way mirror in this, the ‘honeymoon’, suite o the hotel. Everything has been set up in advance.

I like Umberto Eco’s point about Fleming writing to the endoxa or received opinions of his readers, with a strong tabloid flavour. Thus Fleming goes the extra mile to make the men filming Bond not just clinical operatives, but dirty voyeuristic perverts, noting how:

the breath rasped out of the open mouths of the two men and the sweat of excitement trickled down their bulging faces into their cheap collars. (p.186)

The Orient Express

It is the evening of the next day. We learn that Bond made love to Tatiana again, that morning, before she went off to work at the Russian Embassy. Now he is in the Istanbul railway station waiting for her by the Orient Express, as she requested. Exactly as it begins to move she calls out from a window and he leaps aboard. Here a) he again tries to figure out whether Tatiana is telling the truth and b) we see inside Tatiana’s mind as she continues to parrot the lies she was instructed in by her SMERSH masters.

Kerim is on the train, waiting outside their sleeper compartment and he and Bond share a cigarette while Kerim points out that three SMERSH agents are aboard the train. He says he’ll look after them, not killing them, but getting them thrown off. And by bribing the conductor, Kerim does get two thrown off the train but not the evil-looking third one, a ‘Herr Benz’.

Kerim and Bond have further talks about the girl, pondering what’s really going on, a conversation which expands on the various types of ‘game’ they are playing and which – by implication – the narrative is engaged in (see note below).

Bond toys with getting off the train with the girl and the Spektor machine but decides – dilettantishly, in Kerim’s view – to ‘play the game out to the end’. He is woken in the early hours by an alarmed conductor and taken to Kerim’s compartment. There is his friend, stabbed to death by ‘Benz’. But in his death throes, Kerim had himself managed to stab his assassin. The two men’s bodies are interlocked in a gruesome death embrace.

At Thessaloniki, one of Kerim’s sons boards the train only to be told the horrible truth. There is an eight hour waitover, so the son takes Bond and the girl to his flat, invites them to eat and drink the provisions laid on for them, while he makes sundry phone calls, and Bond looks out the window, smoking, full of remorse at getting his new-found friend into this plight and then killed, and still wondering whether to abandon the train. He makes one phone call to M in London, who suggests that he sends along a local British officer as back-up.

He doesn’t, and as they get back onto the train at the crowded station he sees an obvious Englishman making for the train among the thronging crowds. It must be the ‘back-up’ M had suggested sending to help out.

The over-dressed Englishman introduces himself as Norman Nash but we, the readers, know it is Red Grant, the SMERSH assassin. Grant knows all the correct passwords and has Service paraphernalia, but everything about him feels fake and wrong. Bond wonders if he might be mad. But Grant makes himself useful, is introduced to Tatiana, joins them for dinner, all as if acting a part, clumsily (which he, of course is).

At dinner he slips a sleeping draught into Tatiania’s wine, then, as she passes out, helps Bond get her back to the sleeper compartment. He says he’ll stay and keep first watch and Bond lies back on the lower bunk to sleep.

In the middle of the night Grant kicks Bond awake with a new tone of authority in his voice. He announces that he is a SMERSH agent, tasked with killing Bond. They’ll make it look like he murdered Tatiana, because she was blackmailing him with the tapes of them having sex, and forcing him to take her to England – and then had killed himself.

Left-wing journalists in France will give the story front page coverage, causing maximum embarrassment to his Service and country. Also the Spektor device is booby-trapped to kill the Service scientists who inspect it. ‘Quite a tidy little package, eh, old man,’ says Grant in his fake posh accent.

All the time Bond has been desperately cooking up a plan, asking to be allowed to smoke a cigarette then concealing the cigarette case inside the cover of his (Eric Ambler) paperback so that – when the climactic moment comes, just as the train enters the Simplon Tunnel, Bond moves the book and case over his heart just as Grant fires.

Bond falls to the floor of the compartment as if shot and finds himself conveniently close to the briefcase which he’s carried all over Europe and which, as you might expect, contains a few fancy tricks supplied by Q Department, including razor sharp knives which can be extracted from its base.

Bond waits till Grant has both feet on the bunk above him, and is preparing to shoot the sleeping Tatiania, when Bond suddenly corkscrews upwards, plunging the dagger deep into Grant’s groin then pushing more. But Grant in his death throes falls, grabs Bond’s ankles and starts pulling him off the bunk preparatory to strangling him. Desperately, Bond scrabbles for Grant’s gun, turns it towards him and fires the gun five times. There is a horrible gurgling noise then Grant’s body collapses to the floor.

After taking some time to recover, Bond sets about tidying up the compartment using his bedsheets to soak up the blood which covers it like an abattoir. He wakes Tatiania in time for the train’s arrival in Dijon, where they finally leave the train, after four nightmare-ish days putting his feet on blessedly solid unmoving ground.

Coda

Before shooting Bond, while explaining the details of the plot to frame and humiliate him and his Service, Grant had mentioned that he would then head to a rendezvous with the mastermind of the conspiracy, Rosa Klebb, at the Ritz Hotel in Paris the next day.

Instead – having contacted his friend Mathis from the French Deuxième Bureau to a) look after Tatiana b) despatch the booby-trapped Spektor case to London – it is Bond who keeps the appointment.

He goes up to the room and knocks and enter. Klebb is disguised as a wizened old crone, clacking away at her knitting in a luxury suite. She keeps up the pretence while Bond takes a chair opposite and announces who he is. Her hand goes to a bell pull and only some instinct makes Bond leap sideways as a hidden gun in Klebb’s chair shoots holes in the Bond’s now vacant one.

And then she is on him with the knitting needles which, Bond realises, have poisoned tips. He kicks one out of her hands then grabs a luxury Empire-era chair and traps her body in it, pushing it back up against the wall to trap her.

At which point Inspector Mathis enters with two assistants carrying a large laundry basket. Klebb will be drugged and flown to England and interrogated. But just as Bond slackens the chair to let the French agents get to her, Klebb lashes out with the poisoned tip of her shoe and stabs Bond in the calf.

The poison works in seconds, Bond going numb and cold from the legs up, before crashing unconscious onto the rich, red, carpeted floor. The End.


Good food

Bond/Fleming loves his food and conveys his enjoyment and relish very vividly. For example:

  • In his hotel in Istanbul, looking out over one of the most famous views in the world, Bond enjoys thick creamy yoghurt in a blue china bowl with ripe, ready-peeled green figs and jet black Turkish coffee (p.157).
  • With Kerim in the market he eats sardines en papillote and raki (p.136), followed by kebab tasting of smoked bacon fat and onions along with Kavaklidere, a rich coarse Balkan red wine (p.180). Bond, for once, is not impressed.
  • At the gypsy camp Bond eats along with everyone else a greasy ragout with bread and raki. Peasant food.

The Turks

Bond is surprisingly dismissive of the Turkish people.

So these dark, ugly, neat little officials were the modern Turks. He listened to their voices, full of broad vowels and quiet sibiliants and modified u-sounds, and he watched the dark eyes that belied the soft, polite voices. They were bright, angry, cruel eyes that had only lately come down from the mountains. Bond thought he knew the history of those eyes. They were eyes that had been trained for centuries to watch over sheep and decipher small movements on far horizons. They were eyes that kept the knife-hand in sight without seeming to, that counted the grains of meal and the small fractions of coin and noted the flicker of the merchant’s fingers. They were hard, untrusting, jealous eyes. Bond didn’t take to them. (p.153)

Fleming makes Darko, himself the son of a Turkish fisherman and an English mother, be very dismissive of his fellow Turks, in a whole stream of comments condemning their dirtiness and their poor, peasant cuisine.

As soon as his hoteliers discover that Bond is a guest of ‘Effendi Kerim’, they pack his things and move him into the best room in the place – the so-called ‘Honeymoon suite’ – bending low and apologising. Bond is sickened by their grovelling subservience (p.171). The more he sees of the generality of Turks, the more he thinks of them as ‘this country of furtive, stunted little men’ (p.173).

Later, as he accompanies Darko to the alley where they will assassinate Krilencu, Bond is overcome by repulsion at Istanbul.

From the first, Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were the only population. His instinct told him, as it has told other travellers, that Istanbul was a town he would be glad to get out of alive. (p.220)

Even as they prepare to catch the Orient Express out of town, Fleming makes time to say how much he dislikes the main Istanbul railway station.

The Orient Express was the only live train in the ugly, cheaply architectured burrow that is Istanbul’s main station. (p.241)

Finally, as the Orient Express enters Italy with the promise of France ahead, Bond is hugely relieved to be ‘among friendly people, away from the furtive lands’ (p.283).

Everyone and their cat can accuse Fleming of sexism, racism and many other -isms, nothing could be easier. But I found it odd that people rarely seem to comment on the  solid anti-Turkism which runs throughout this book.

Naked

Bond routinely is naked, highlighting his sensuous self-awareness. He gets out of bed naked (p.123); on returning from the trip through the sewers to spy on the Russians Bond returns to his hotel, has a hot bath and a cold shower and sits naked sipping a vodka and tonic and enjoying sunset over the Bosphorus (p.193); at the end of the adventurous night with the gypsies Bond returns to the hotel room and enjoys the feel of the night breeze on his naked body (p.229).

Gadgets

The movies make ‘Q’ into a character, a grump old grey-haired inventor who provides Bond with nifty gadgets. In the books there is no person named ‘Q’, there is only a ‘Q branch’ which manages technical matters. For example, it is Q branch which supervises the skin graft on Bond’s right hand which takes place between Casino Royale and Live and Let Die.

This is the first book where they provide anything like a gadget, namely a hand-carried attaché case which contains:

  • two flat rows of 25 bullets packed between lining and case
  • in each side a flat throwing knife made by Wilkinson
  • a hidden compartment in the handle which, at the press of a button, would deliver a cyanide pill into Bond’s hand
  • a thick tube of Palmolive shaving cream which unscrews to reveal the silencer for his Beretta hand-gun
  • and a belt of 50 gold sovereigns slipped into the upper lining (p.145)

Play the game

‘It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’ (p.55)

According to tradition, the Public School ethos taught its pupils to ‘play up, play up, and play the game.’ As we all know, the rivalry between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia in central Asia in the last decades of the 19th century was known as The Great Game. It was the background to Rudyard Kipling’s most successful novel, Kim, set among spies in north India. And throughout the Great War and on into the Imperial conflicts of the 1920s, ’30s and the Second War, upper-class Brits were taught to ‘play the game’, the archetypal Imperial game, of course, being cricket.

It comes as no great surprise, then, to note the importance of ‘the game’, of ‘game playing’, in the Bond books. After all the very first novel in the whole series entirely rotates around a complicated card game which requires the author to explain its rules in great detail along with the odds and how to gamble on it.

Similarly, Moonraker‘s first part is devoted to a long and detailed exposition of a game of bridge which Bond rigs in order to win and so humiliate his rich opponent, Hugo Drax. Similarly, Live and Let Die features a short but powerful scene at a gambling table in Las Vegas which again requires the author to give a detailed explanation of the game and its rules.

So it is pretty obvious that games are central to the Bond novels. And it is only a small step up to notice that Bond conceives of each separate assignment as a ‘game’ in the same spirit. When the downmarket hotel he’s checked into unexpectedly bumps him up to the best room in the place, Bond reflects they might be deferring to his acquaintance with Darko Kerim. Or maybe there’s something more behind it.

Bond decided not to care if there was. The game, whatever it was, had to be played out. If the change of rooms had been the opening gambit, so much the better. The game had to begin somewhere. (p.173)

And so, 70 pages later, once Tatiana has persuaded him to take her aboard the Orient Express but Bond is trying to assess whether she’s telling the truth or not,

Bond calmly admitted to himself that he had an insane desire to play the game out and see what it was all about. (p.258)

It is this devil-may-care whimsicality, this seeing the whole Cold War struggle as a kind of extended game of cricket, which sets the British apart from the Americans or the Russians, making them sometimes – in the spy novels of Le Carré or Deighton – seem laughable and absurdly amateurish. But in the more jingoistic lineage of John Buchan or James Bond, it is what gives our playboy heroes their effortless superiority.

He reflected briefly on the way the Russians ran their centres – with all the money and equipment in the world, while the Secret Service put against them a handful of adventurers, underpaid men, like this one, with his second-hand Rolls and his children to help him. (p.198)

The game-playing rhetoric becomes a little more interesting in chapter 23 in an extended conversation with Kerim. Kerim points out the way M and Bond are both alike in being gamblers; they are taking a risk on the girl and her story and are interested to find out what the game is about. Kerim contrasts their English adventurism with the Russian national game, chess, which the Russians play with ruthless professionalism:

These Russians are great chess players. When they wish to execute a plot, they execute it brilliantly. The game is planned minutely, the gambits of the enemy are provided for. They are foreseen and countered. (p.271)

This of course reminds us of the scenes in Part One featuring Kronsteen, Russian world champion chess player who also happens to be head of planning for SMERSH, and who we see planning with Rosa Klebb every detail of the conspiracy to murder Bond.

Bond says: ‘All I ask is to go on with the game until we find out.’ But Kerim counters with his own position. ‘I was not brought up “to be a sport”‘, he says sarcastically about the well-known English addiction to playing with a straight bat etc.

‘This is not a game to me. This is business.’ (p.273)

And we have seen doe ourselves how well-organised Kerim’s operation is and how it extends to his own sons and nephews; it really is a business.

Now Kerim makes a further analogy. Bond is playing the game as if it was a game of billiards. He has hit the white ball with perfect accuracy at the red which will, with complete inevitability, go into the pocket. But what if an airplane crashes on the billiard hall or a gas main blows it up. All the rules of billiards continue to be true, but they are destroyed by the broader context. Thus Bond’s silly game playing – his childish wish to play things out and see what happens – is trumped by the complexity of the real world – by the infinite multiplicity of other games which overlap, impinge on, and trump the small, neat, logical one Bond thinks he is playing.

It’s not that either one is right, it’s that Fleming takes so much time talking about games, and games within games, which is fascinating.


Bond biographical details

Each book tells us a little more about our hero. In this one we learn that Bond is six feet tall (p.159). That Bond’s flat is not just off the King’s Road, it is in a plane-tree’d square off the King’s Road (p.123). His Scottish housekeeper, May, can never bring herself to say ‘sir’, but sometimes adds an ‘s’ to the end of her sentences. The only newspaper Bond reads is The Times (p.124).

The early section has the MGB officials reading out Bond’s full file, which includes the facts that he commenced work with the Service in 1938 and was awarded the CMG in 1953 (p.68).

In Diamonds Bond told Tiffany he was in effect ‘married’ to his boss, M. Here, he sits in M’s office and looks across ‘at the tranquil, lined sailor’s face that he loved, honoured and obeyed’, deliberately echoing the Anglican marriage service (p.134).

Interestingly, on the flight to Istanbul Bond reads The Mask of Dimitrios, often thought of as the best of Eric Ambler’s pre-war thrillers (p.144 and p.302) and which is set, or at least starts off, in Turkey. A very deliberate hommage.

We learn that the British Secret Service debriefs enemy agents at a secluded house nicknamed ‘the Cage’, near Guildford (p.269).


Credit

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming was published in 1957 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of the Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean (1957)

On the second or third chapter of The Guns of Navarone I had the simple insight that MacLean’s later thrillers (and by extension many other thrillers of the period) transfer the experience of war into civilian life: the sense of a virtuous hero, with a small group of skilled colleagues, battling an evil foe whose ranks include hardened psychopaths (and the occasional more human figure), a battle carried out against the odds, in the face of pitiless Nature and involving terrible injuries and suffering and sacrifice, but which will ultimately be triumphant, even if being forced to do this ‘dirty job’ often leaves a ‘bad taste in the mouth’ – this formula is more or less repeated in his subsequent 26 books, and in countless others of the same genre.

Style

This is MacLean’s second novel and coming to it after the ones written a decade or 15 years later, it feels tauter, better written, more exciting. The jokey tone and fashionable 60s dollybirds which rather mar Puppet on a Chain and Bear Island are not present. Whereas in those books the prose lumbers with heavy humour, random quotes, clumsy jokes and long arthritic sentences, here the prose is, for the most part, lean and focused.

Though not as dazzling as Chandler or as skilful as Le Carré, MacLean’s prose in these earliest works does the job: it is taut, factual, to the point.

All day long they lay hidden in the carob grove, a thick clump of stunted, gnarled trees that clung grimly to the treacherous, screestrewn slope abutting what Louki called the ‘Devil’s Playground’. (Chapter 11)

They came to the cave at dawn, just as the first grey stirrings of a bleak and cheerless day struggled palely through the lowering, snow-filled sky to the east. (Ch 6)

Plot

It’s the fourth year of the Second World War, in the eastern Mediterranean. The Brits had optimistically dropped men onto all the Greek islands partly as a message to neutral Turkey about who ruled the area, but now the Germans are counter-attacking and have killed or captured the forces on most of the islands. Over a thousand British troops are marooned on the last remaining island of Kheros unless they can be taken off by ship. The Navy refuses to do it because the sea to the North is mined and the only two approaches to the island, so close to the Turkish coast, are governed by the massive German gun emplacement at Navarone. The novel starts with an attempt to bomb them from the air which fails because they are protected by a massive rock overhang.

Therefore the hard-bitten British major falls back on plan B – sending a hand-picked selection of the best men available, a small elite team, to scale the 400-foot sheer cliffs on the south of the island, make their way over inaccessible mountains to the heavily defended fortress which contains the guns, and blow them up. And within three days, for that’s when the Hun is going to move in on Kheros.

Three days to save over a thousand men!

Characters

  • The novel is told in the third person, though the mission is seen through the eyes of the tough, lean survivor whose reluctant lot it is to lead it, the world-famous (of course) New Zealand mountain climber Keith Mallory.
  • Andy Stevens is the young climber who, unbeknown to his colleagues, has lived his whole life scared of failing to live up to his bullying father and successful brothers; he suffers appalling injuries but redeems himself with an act of mountain-top heroism.
  • Dusty Miller, the cynical Yank, brought along for his explosives expertise, is always ready with a quip or a cigarette.
  • Casey Brown is the dedicated Scots engineer whose job it is to navigate the broken-down old trawler they use to reach the island.
  • and Andrea is the Greek man-mountain with a deep grudge against the invading Germans, who has worked alongside Mallory in occupied Cyprus and is as solid as a rock.
  • There are two native Greeks they rendezvous with and, unlike the movie, no women, no love interest whatsoever.

Thrilling incident

A thriller amounts to a stream of thrilling encounters, with just enough plot to justify them and keep them coming, and to keep the reader biting their nails in high suspense at the outcome of each new situation of peril and jeopardy:

  • the Levantine spy at the door
  • intercepted by a German caique at sea which they blow up
  • take shelter in an island river mouth from a fierce storm to awaken and find it overlooked by a German guardpost, so they have to fool the Germans that they are drunk Greeks before killing them
  • discovered by German guard at top of the cliffs of Navarone, who they kill
  • captured by Germans in the mountains and taken to their local headquarters, from which they shoot their way out
  • encircled and hemmed in among the Devil’s playground of volcanic rock on the way into town, and then dive bombed by Stukas using incendiary bombs
  • playing cat and mouse with the Germans in the fortress town of Navarone

All of which builds up to the genuinely nailbiting climax as our heroes battle against the odds through the heavily guarded fortress and into the presence of the mighty guns themselves!

The technician

All the books enjoy (what was then unquestionably) the male preserve of technical expertise.

Quickly he taped the ends of two rubber-covered wires on the insulated strip, one at either side, taped these down also until nothing was visible but the bared steel cores at the tips, joined these to two fourinch strips of bared wire, taped these also, top and bottom, to the insulated shaft, vertically and less than half an inch apart. From the canvas bag he removed the TNT, the primer and the detonator – a bridge mercury detonator lugged and screwed to his own specification – fitted them together and connected one of the wires from the steel shaft to a lug on the detonator, screwing it firmly home. The other wire from the shaft he led to a positive terminal on the battery, and a third wire from the negative terminal to the detonator. It only required the ammunition hoist to sink down into the magazine – as it would d as soon as they began firing – and the spring-loaded wheel would short out the bare wires, completing the circuit and triggering off the detonator. (Ch 16)

Fell how confident and fluent the prose is. No equivocation or straining for the right word. Everything clearly understood and clearly explained. A history of thrillers is, among other things, a history of guns and gadgets. I wonder if one’s been written, showing how evolving technology has affected evolving plotlines and styles…

Stormy weather

MacLean likes storms at sea. HMS Ulysses is one long terrible storm; Fear Is the Key starts off in a Miami court-room but fear not, within a few chapters the hero is taking a boat out to sea in an incipient hurricane; most of Bear Island describes the fearful voyage of the converted trawler into an Arctic storm; When Eight Bells Toll is set in the stormy waters around the western isles of Scotland; and though Puppet on a Chain is set in various locations around Amsterdam, there is a humming scene where the hero hitches a ride on the drug smugglers’ boat before slipping overboard and then swimming for the mainland where he emerges into the pouring rain. In this The Guns of Navarone is no exception and completely unlike the movie which shows the Greek island setting in tourist-brochure sunshine. No, the novel revels in a terrible storm at sea which leads them to take shelter in a remote creek; more rain-lashed storm as their boat is smashed to pieces against the fearsome rocks; freezing snowstorms up in the mountains; and climaxes in a magnificent downpour over the famous cliffs and guns.

Forty minutes later, in the semi-darkness of the overcast evening and in torrential rain, lance-straight and strangely chill, the anchor of the caique rattled down between the green walls of the forest, a dank and dripping forest, hostile in its silent indifference. (Ch 3)

Just at the doorway he paused, began to search impatiently through his pockets as if he’d lost something: it was a windless night, and it was raining, he saw, raining heavily, the lances of rain bouncing inches  off the cobbled street – and the street itself deserted as far as he could see in either direction. (Ch 15)

Related links

There was, of course, a film of the novel, one of the better ones, starring David Niven, Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn (1961). It’s still schoolboy hokum, one of the suite of war films which came out in the 1960s and are part of the cultural background of my generation of men – Where Eagles Dare, Lawrence of Arabia, 633 Squadron, the Battle of Britain, along with the Connery Bond films. I guess these are just books – and films – for boys of all ages, but they have a sort of dignity to them, and the men appearing in them actually seem to be grown men which most modern films, acted by overgrown teenagers, completely lack.

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

Ice Cold In Alex by Christopher Landon (1957)

An alcoholic British officer, Anson, and his faithful NCO and mechanic, Tom Pugh, work in the ambulance corps in Tobruk, during the North Africa campaign. As the Afrika Corps advances to seal off the city and capture it, Ansom is ordered to flee with two nurses, trying and escape eastwards to the safety of Alexandria (‘Alex’). To avoid the advancing Germans they take the risky decision to head south and cross the hostile desert in their leaky old ambulance. On this off-road trip they pick up a ‘South African’ officer they slowly come to suspect is a German spy and go on to face danger, privation, enemy attack but, worst of all, the challenge of the most inhospitable environment on earth, the Sahara Desert.

The title refers to Captain Ansom’s vow that he won’t drink until they reach a particular bar in Alex, where he will buy his motley crew a round of ice-cold lager. Having read the book I realise this isn’t just the opportunity for a Carlsberg ad, Anson is a genuine alcoholic and the first part of the book details his attempts to stop drinking hard liquor: the vow isn’t that he will have a beer when he reaches Alex; it is that he won’t drink any alcohol until he drinks that ice cold beer in Alex.

The novel Ice Cold in Alex was 12 years in the making and the struggle shows. Laondon’s style is very uneven: For the most part it’s a kind of mid-20th century British English like, maybe, Graham Greene; but then there are sudden spells of tough guy Hemingwayesque simplicity – simplicity of adjectives, no contractions – should not, had not, would not – which come in whenever Landon is conveying an atmosphere of manliness, the unspoken bonds between real men in a tight spot etc, for example describing the very masculine theme of the alcoholism which Captian Ansom is battling:

He threw the whiskey back in the locker and they did not speak again until they had been challenged at the tank screen. So thin, so pitifully few. (Page 13).

The Hemingway simplicity alternates with Landon’s default style which is often clotted and unclear, often surprisingly badly written. (Compare & contrast W. Stanley Moss from Eton, the author of Ill Met By Moonlight, schooled in Latin and Greek, whose thoughts and prose have a wonderful clarity and crispness, a sublime confidence that he and his plight can be viewed from above, detached, olympian, ironic, amused.)

Landon’s story, by contrast, is of ordinary men right at the end of their tether, of nervous exhaustion, alcoholism barely held in check, men at snapping point. Whereas the posh Billy Moss and Paddy Leigh-Fermor aristocratically don’t even know the Morse Code for the vital signal they have to send, in Ice Cold it is inly Anson’s detailed knowledge of the desert and Pugh’s mechanical know-how which save them. Two utterly different worlds.

Experimental To my surprise in the middle of what had seemed a workaday if thrilling story, there appeared some experimental stream-of-consciousness sections – We get the direct stream-of-consciousness of the dying nurse – we see the point of view of the struggling Anson and then of Zimmerman the German spy. But then, to my absolute amazement, there is a delirious section seen from the point of view of the ambulance, Katy! This delirious flight of fancy passingly reminded me of William Faulkner’s more baroque hallucinations.

But then I realised the notion of making an ambulance talk about itself, its pistons and cam shafts and horse power etc, reminds me of the 1895 Kipling short story, The Ship That Found Herself, which is little more than a description of how all the parts of a newly made ship hold it together and grow into their roles on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Making me also realise how Kipling – the man who celebrated work and the work ethic and especially the work of the unsung mechanics and engineers who built the Empire, the man who wrote McAndrew’s Hymn, the love song of a Scottish steamer engineer for his engines – would have liked this story and the character of Pugh, the bluff, unflappable mechanic, in love with his engines, solid and reliable.

The appearance of James Joyce and Rudyard Kipling in the novel, along with Ernest Hemingway, confirm my sense of Landon’s effort to find a voice of his own. In this respect, the novel not only tells its gripping and highly moral story, but its style enacts the author’s battle with the English language of the early 1950s, tired from the War, tired of its stiff-upper-lipness, but struggling to find its own voice, a voice to adequately describe the modern world, all the time assailed by the powerful influence of America on one side, and the siren call of fashionable Modernism on the other.

Love As well as a war story ICIA is a love story but from a far-distant time: we learn early on that stolid dependable Pugh’s wife was killed in an air-raid and then, very slowly and very plausibly, he and Murdoch the nurse fall in love. However, even this tender love story jolts the modern reader because they suddenly progress from common kindness to holding hands and then – bang! – proposing and being accepted. Autres temps… The whole bitter-sweet universe of sex, the subject of so much modern fiction, is simply skipped. You can feel and taste the sweetness and innocence, gone forever from our knowing world…

The movie The book had such impact that it was made into a film the very next year, 1958. The film is remembered and marketed as a classic war movie but it is a travesty of the book. John Mills plays Captain Anson and is a slight, weedy, unmanly, unthreatening figure, not in the slightest authoritative or scarey. When he faints Harry Andrews’ Tom Pugh picks him up as if he was a girl. In the book he is a man’s man driven by nervous exhaustion to make some bad judgements but whose deep knowledge of the desert ultimately saves them; in the film John Mills is a weedy berk who makes one bad decision after another, whose stubbornness is directly responsible for the nurse dying, whose mad overdriving breaks the springs, who nearly locks the engine by overheating it, and so on.

It is therefore inexplicable that the ravishingly beautiful Sylvia Sims should fall for such a loser. Only the need to pander to the lowest common denominator of the sentimental movie-going public mars the film with such an unbelievable and and crass gesture.

Meanwhile, the quiet, shy Tom Pugh, deeply damaged by the death of his wife, who pours his soul into the loving tender care for the ambulance and its failing motor is played by the badly miscast bluff, brawny bruiser Harry Andrews. He plays it with restraint and sensitivity but he isn’t the character from the novel and so it’s not surprising the scriptwriters (who included the original author) are forced to make Sylvia Sims fall for the weedy John Mills. It would have had more integrity if the woman, for once in a movie, didn’t fall in love with someone.

And Pugh’s tender loving, knowledgeable care for Katy, the ambulance, a central thread which holds the novel together and gives it such a special flavour – is almost completely absent from the movie.

Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957)

30 December 2011

Half way through reading Dr Zhivago in the Hayward and Harari translation (1958), in a lovely yellow-spined old Flamingo imprint. (Ann Pasternak Slater wrote a Guardian article comparing this translation with the newer one by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear).

  1. DZ is divided into short numbered sections, often only a page long, like snapshots. In fact it could be compared to a photo album, a collection of key moments in the lives of the protagonists.
  2. There are more protagonists than in the film, and their relationships are more complex. It fills me with admiration for the screenwriter, Robert Bolt, who reduced the complex novel to the essential elements of the love story and brought its disparate elements into balance.
  3. I’m dismayed by the casual violence the characters display. Whether it’s the children fighting in the lily pond, or the iron master beating his apprentice, or Komarovsky beating his dog, a high level of verbal and physical violence seemed to be acceptable at all levels of the Russian society that Pasternak portrays. In tandem, there is little or no humour, no understatement or irony. People seem to tell each other exactly what’s on their minds and it’s always primal and immediate. There’s no detachment. The anger, verbal aggression and low-level violence of the pre-revolution prepares you and, arguably, prepared the Russian people, for the sickening violence of the revolution and civil war.

The Rise of The Novel by Ian Watt (1957)

The novel appears as leisure time spreads among the middle classes (and their servants), particularly women.

Ease of consumption

It is easy; the novel is the easiest literary form to digest: what it shares with the other new textual forms of the 18th century – the newspaper and the magazine – is ease of consumption. Encouraging a swift, transient, impressionistic form of reading, solely for the pleasure of the moment; forgotten within hours if not minutes.

The opposite of every other literary genre in history which required

a) expert literary knowledge
b) time spent assessing its merit

Realism

Defoe, Richardson, Fielding – the 18th century novelists – what distinguishes their book-length prose works is their attempt at realism. But Watt cleverly defines realism not in treatment or style – which vary hugely. What they all have in common is, they don’t appeal to any literary forebears, they don’t ask us to judge the works by any literary tradition or formulae – they ask us to judge them according to our own experience of reality, of the world.

[Defoe’s books were all published as ‘true historical accounts’, not dissimilar to the autobiographies of highwaymen and other felons being hanged which were knocked out overnight to sell to the watching crowds. Richardson’s books were published anonymously, again as a collection of real correspondence of which he is the modest editor. Fielding appeals to us because he ironises this convention, and makes himself a comically self-conscious author of his ‘history’, which he knows we know isn’t ‘true’ – except that the sentiments it raises in our breasts are true to our experience of reality.]

When Defoe wrote his biographical fictions he – as a non-aristocratic, non-conformist outside the world of the Augustan elite – ignored the complex critical theories of an Alexander Pope or a Jonathan Swift – and instead created stories according to what was plausible. This rejection of literary tradition in favour of individual validation is as momentous as Descartes rejecting the whole world and beginning again from his Cogito. As Descartes founded modern philosophy, Defoe founded modern fiction.

The General versus The Particular

Many Augustans wrote that Literature had to deal with the generality – with all those tedious Abstract Nouns which make 18th century literature so boring (and which the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds does in his painting: trying to manoeuvre the particular portrait sitter towards more heroic Ideals.)

Defoe’s highly detailed descriptions (of the 1720s) break with this entirely. Their reward is their immediacy. Yet by the 1740s, Joseph Andrews is still awash with Abstract Nouns, and very very light on details (do we get a description of any of the inns? Descriptions of the countryside? Is a single species of plant, flower or tree mentioned in a book whose plot takes place entirely in the countryside? No) and all the more boring for it.

Characteristics of the novel

  • appeal of plot & character to verisimilitude
  • appeal to Individualism – individual experience over general ‘types’
  • new plot (2 senses of ‘novel’ intertwined) ie not a classical story retold or allegorised – a completely new story
  • realistic i.e. plausible Names
  • realistic i.e. plausible Timeframe
  • realistic i.e. plausible depiction of Space

On all these fronts Fielding comes off worse of the big three, Defoe, Richardson, Fielding – the most still-rooted in Augustan silly names, absurd coincidences, ancient plotlines (concealed identitie and all). Defoe has no plots; Fielding has fairy tale romances. Richardson chooses one of the oldest plots in the world – the wooing – but goes into it in mind-boggling detail.

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