The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Old Tune by Samuel Beckett (1960)

GORMAN: Miss Bertha so sweet and good.
CREAM: Sweet and good, all right, but dammit if she doesn’t take me for a doddering old drivelling dotard…

The Old Tune is a free translation by Samuel Beckett of Robert Pinget’s half-hour-long 1960 radio play La Manivelle (The Crank). In Pinget’s original play two garrulous old Parisians, Toupin and Pommard, meet in the street and spend half an hour reminiscing about the old times and each other’s families. Beckett turns the Parisians into two old Dubliners he names Mr Cream and Gorman. The Old Tune was first broadcast on BBC on 23 August 1960 with Beckett stalwarts Jack MacGowran as Mr Cream and Patrick Magee as Gorman.

They’re good, aren’t they, MacGowran and Magee. MacGowran’s voice is very effectively that of a bluff old codger even though, when you actually see him, he’s quite tall and thin, and Magee’s voice has something of the weedy vulnerability which made him, in my opinion, so sensationally haunting in Beckett’s radio play, Cascando, written the year after this production. Both bring out the Irish flavour of the language and setting.

A plot of sorts

An old organ grinder, Gorman, is struggling to keep his knackered barrel organ playing on a street in Dublin. It plays a few bars, falters and he thumps it, it plays a few bars more and then lapses into silence. At that moment who should come down the street but old Mr Cream who recognises Gorman as an old friend and they start talking and reminiscing. Beckett had free choice of the tune the organ was to play since none is specified by Pinget and chose The Bluebells of Scotland, presumably suggested by the mention of a bank of bluebells near the start of the play (see my comments about the play’s title, below).

Pinget and translations

It might seem odd that Beckett, by now a name to reckon with, should have undertaken a translation of someone else’s work, but a) he had worked as a professional translator before and after the war and, of course, composed half his own works in French and then translated them back into English, so was very used to moving between versions of texts in different languages; b) he was good friends with Pinget, who had himself translated Beckett’s radio play All That Fall into French; indeed, Pinget’s play Lettre Morte was presented on a double bill with Krapp’s Last Tape at the Théâtre Récamier in Paris. So the more you look into it, the less surprising it becomes.

Anyway, it was less a favour to a friend than an opportunity. What’s striking is how utterly Beckett makes the originally French play by someone else sound as Irish as himself and the two garrulous old men sound entirely like Beckett characters, wittering on about the perils of motor cars and how it all used to be country round here and the lack of compassion of the young, tut tut, in the manner of Beckett’s countless gaga old men.

In fact the basic structure – two old codgers misremembering and bickering over trivia – is a primal element in Beckett’s works, from Mercier and Camier in the novel named after them, to Vladimir and Estragon in Godot, to Hamm and Clov in Endgame.

As to content, well it consists of a steady stream of senile old reminiscence marked by extreme attention to banal detail: Cream explains he is now a widower and had been living with one of his daughters, Daisy, but how, since her death, he has moved in with the other daughter, Bertha (Mrs Rupert Moody). Gorman tells us that his wife is still alive. Both men, we learn, are in their seventies, Gorman is seventy-three, Cream is seventy-six, and on they rattle, swapping reminiscences and half memories, about cars, about serving in the army, about an old law case, and so on.

Looking in a bit more detail you see that, as in so much Beckett, although the actual content is trite and trivial, the interest is in the treatment. Two aspects stand out, the repetition and the gaps.

Repetition

The verbal repetition of the play is both a kind of naturalistic depiction of the highly repetitive speech rhythms of the old and forgetful, but at the same time a highly stylised dissection of language and the dislocating effect created by incessant repetition, repetition which threatens to empty language of meaning.

CREAM: 1903 , 1903 , and you 1906 was it?
GORMAN: 1906 yes at Chatham.
CREAM: The Gunners?
GORMAN: The Foot, the Foot.
CREAM: But the Foot wasn’t Chatham don’t you remember, there it was the Gunners, you must have been at Caterham, Caterham, the Foot.
GORMAN: Chatham I tell you, isn’t it like yesterday, Morrison’s pub on the corner.
CREAM: Harrison’s. Harrison’s Oak Lounge, do you think I don’t know Chatham. I used to go there on holiday with
Mrs Cream, I know Chatham backwards Gorman, inside and out, Harrison’s Oak Lounge on the corner of what was the name of the street, on a rise it was, it’ll come back to me, do you think I don’t know Harrison’s Oak Lounge
there on the comer of dammit I’ll forget my own name next and the square it’ll come back to me.
GORMAN: Morrison or Harrison we were at Chatham.
CREAM: That would surprise me greatly, the Gunners were Chatham do you not remember that?
GORMAN: I was in the Foot, at Chatham, in the Foot.
CREAM: The Foot, that’s right the Foot at Chatham.
GORMAN: That’s what I’m telling you, Chatham the Foot.
CREAM: That would surprise me greatly, you must have it mucked up with the war, the mobilization.
GORMAN: The mobilization have a heart it’s as clear in my mind as yesterday the mobilization, we were shifted
straight away to Chesham, was it, no, Chester, that’s the place, Chester, there was Morrison’s pub on the corner and
a chamber-maid what was her name, joan, jean, jane, the very start of the war when we still didn’t believe it,
Chester, ah those are happy memories.
CREAM: Happy memories, happy memories, I wouldn’t go so far as that.
GORMAN : I mean the start up, the start up at Chatham, we still didn’t believe it, and that chamber-maid what was her name it’ll come back to me. [Pause.]

The repetition of themes, or of names and snatches of phrases, this repetition with variations, can be compared to the way music is composed, with the statement of certain themes which are then subjected to elaborate variations. It’s certainly not snappy dialogue designed to convey information, the opposite – it is a fog of misinformation which is more concerned with the music-style twirls and repetitions of key phrases and words.

Silent pauses and noisy traffic

There is an obvious correlation between the misfunctioning of the barrel organ which stops and starts and then sputters out a sentimental tune, and the misfunctioning of the two men’s minds, as if their brains, like the machine, require thumps and bangs to make them function.

More than that, in the handful of places where it intrudes into the narrative, the fragmented tune played by the barrel organ almost suggests that, in some eerie way, it is somehow underpinning reality itself. At several points not only the tune stops but the entire play stops with it, everything stops, and there is dead silence.

GORMAN: Do I remember, fields it was, fields, bluebells, over there , on the bank, bluebells. When you think … [Suddenly complete silence. 10 seconds. The tune resumes, falters, stops. Silence. The street noises resume.] Ah the horses, the carriages, and the barouches, ah the barouches…

It’s relatively understated, for Beckett, but I think this eerie, almost science fiction element, is suddenly apparent, in one or two haunted moments…

Different titles

One other point, Beckett clearly added entirely new content or the English equivalent of the French original content, such as naming British Army regiments and pubs in English towns (Chatham, Caterham etc). But it’s worth pausing a moment over the change in titles. Pinget named his play La Manivelle which translates as The Crank. I’m not sure whether this refers to the person or to the metal tool you’d use to hand-crank something like a barrel organ, or whether there is a deliberate play on words to refer to both. Either way, Beckett has chosen for his title something completely different, referring to neither a character nor the machine, but to the music itself. He has brought to the fore the role of music in the play.

Now the barrel-organ music doesn’t actually occur many times during the performance so it’s easy to think that Beckett, also, intends a pun, and that he is using the phrase ‘the old tune’ not only to refer to the piece of music the barrel organ plays, but to the entire style of doddery reminiscence of the two old boys.

On this reading, the title becomes a sly reference to the super-familiar Beckett idea that people just talk and talk and talk to fill the space, to give themselves the strength to go on, to fill up time, to create their own being; it is talk which means nothing and gets nowhere and changes nothing, which defines the self but is as impoverished and empty as that self.

The words ‘the old tune’ sound innocent enough, indeed they have an unusually sentimental ring for a Beckett title. But at the same time they allude to the world of bleakness, emptiness and struggle to go on, which is Beckett’s core concern.

Pauses and traffic

Back to the idea of the two eerie silences in the play and the numerous pauses the text contains. Having noted them, it’s worth going on to say that there are, in fact, not nearly so many pauses in The Old Tune as in Beckett’s other radio plays of the period. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the pauses aren’t so pointed and stylised. Although the stage direction ‘[pause]’ occurs regularly, it is placed to as to reflect realistic pauses in the ebb and flow of two old geezers’ garrulousness, rather than to interrupt the action altogether, in the self-consciously disruptive way which we find in his other plays of the time.

In fact the flow of words is interrupted more by a positive, intrusive element than by the negative element of silences and pauses, and this is the incessant roar of passing cars. This is something the audience can very plainly hear and which the pair of codgers directly comment on in a passage devoted to noisy traffic and the precise brand of car they’ve seen whizz by, before the drop the subject and move onto others. But every few minute before and after this passage, another car roars by, interrupting their maunderings (‘bloody cars!’).

So many times that it makes you reflect that the two old men are almost literally (and, as we’ve observed, rather eerily) tied to the outdated and clapped-out Victorian technology of the barrel organ, stuttering stopping and starting as it does, while the modern world – in the form of the steady stream of shiny, noisy motor cars – is literally passing them by (‘bloody cars!’).

Irishry

The commentary points out that Beckett drew on the stylised language of John Millington Synge, who had a similar middle-class upbringing to him, along with the verbal excesses of Seán O’Casey, who had a more working class provenance. The listener is certainly struck not only by the Irish accents but the Irish locutions used throughout:

GORMAN: Slipping along what would you want slipping along and we only after meeting for once in a blue moon.

I’m not familiar with Synge but I studied O’Casey’s play, Juno and the Paycock at school, and I remember the way the characters use a high heroic diction which contrasts with their shabby, impoverished circumstances. It’s a contradiction which is both comic and tragic at the same time, and you can think of that fundamental dichotomy – between characters who are physically and mentally impoverished using not only highfalutin language but invoking high philosophical concepts or dropping references to Dante and so on – as a really basic structural idea which underpins Beckett’s entire oeuvre, typified by the characters in The Beckett Trilogy crawling through the mud, pulling themselves through the mire, their heads full of garbled philosophy and obscure references to Dante.

The Old Tune is often overlooked by critics because it sticks out as an anomaly, a throwback, in Beckett’s steady progression towards evermore abstract and highly stylised dramaturgy, towards works which are more stage direction and choreography than dialogue and character. It’s like a last flaring-up of a more straightforward humanist view of character and an invocation of the Irish accents and speech rhythms of his youth, which he was rarely to use again.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Night by Elie Wiesel (1960)

In front of us those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.
(Night, page 28)

Eliezer ‘Elie’ Wiesel was 15 when the authorities in his Hungarian hometown, Sighet, rounded up all the Jews and forced them into a tiny ghetto. A few months later, with terrifying suddenness, the Germans arrived, arrested all the Jewish elders, packed the rest of the population into cattle trucks and sent them to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

On arrival men and women were separated in a matter of minutes, then marched off to their separate dooms, to be stripped naked, forced into the gas chamber, then incinerated in the crematoria. The bewildered boy watched his mother and sister lined up with the other women and marched off, and that was the last he ever saw of them. Wiesel and his father were selected for labour and sent to a men’s barracks where he survived, enduring privations and the anguish of watching his father’s steady deterioration.

In August 1944 he and his dad are transferred to Buna camp where the entire focus of existence becomes getting enough food. They witness terrible scenes. Hangings, shootings. There is the terrifying ordeal of a ‘selection’, all the inmates passing naked before the legendary Dr Mengele, his pencil hovering, ready to add your number to those selected for gassing. Eliezer and his father pass. Then Eliezer develops an infected foot and is sent to the infirmary. He is terrified they will amputate his leg, but it is only an abscess which needs lancing.

Only days later, with the same suddenness, the same midnight panic, the Block elders announce the Russians are now close, so the Germans are evacuating the camp. It is January 1945, the depths of bitter frozen winter, when Eliezer and his father join the 60,000 inmates who are driven on a death march west. Cold, snow, thousands not walking but jogging, forced to run by hundreds of SS guards with machine guns. Respite in a snowed-in ruined factory, prisoners falling asleep in the snow never to rise. Then roll call and more jogging, the body an empty machine, cold, the pain, arriving at a new camp named Gleiwitz, bodies collapsing on each other, squeezing out breath and life.

Someone had lain on top of me, smothering me. I couldn’t breathe through my mouth or my nose. Sweat was running down my forehead and my back. This was it; the end of the road. Silent death, suffocation. No way to scream, to call for help. (p.94)

Three days in the derelict camp without food or water. Many die. They can hear the cannons of the advancing Russians. Then the SS rouse them and march them further west, to the middle of a field by a railway. They are packed into open-roofed cattle trucks, 100 per truck, which travel in bitter cold under the snow. Most die of exposure and are thrown out of the trucks. Light-headed, weak, hallucinating, starving, it is always night, the freezing snow is everywhere. Eliezer slaps his father to keep him awake, to stop him being stripped and thrown overboard. They pass through German towns, German workers throw bread into the wagons and Eliezer watches people literally fight to the death for scraps of bread. Someone tries to strangle him. Night. Snow. Someone dies, someone else starts keening and before long the entire wagon is a frozen hell of corpses and keening wailing lost souls.

Amazingly, Eliezer and his father are just about alive when they arrive at the gates of Buchenwald. 100 entered their wagon. 12 leave.

Everyone is starving. Everyone is dying. At the rest stop in the factory on the death march, Eliezer had talked to a rabbi he knew who was pitifully looking for his son amid the night and snow and corpses. He realised he had seen the son forging ahead on the march, having left his father, having abandoned his father, hoping to survive without the impediment which was his sick, ailing father.

Now, at the most searing moment of the narrative (which Wiesel had already told us about in the Preface to the book) young Eliezer repeats this ultimate act of impiety, unfiliality, inhumanity. He lies terrified on the upper bunk of a bed while he hears his frail father being beaten on the bunk below by an SS officer. He is too terrified to move or protest but must listen to each blow landing on his father’s frail skull. It was 28 January 1945. And the worst thing? Deep inside – he is relieved.

The process of dehumanisation is complete. He is a shell. Two and a half months are covered in a few pages. Details, descriptions, living no longer matter to him. Soup and bread are all that matter. In April the Germans announce a systematic selection and gassing of the inmates. But on 11 April the inmates rise up and disarm the SS guards. Later that same day, units of the Sixth Armoured Division of the United States Third Army arrive at the gates. They are liberated. Eliezer eats. He gets sick. He recovers.

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.
The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me. (p.115)

History of the text

It is almost unbelievable that anyone could continue living after these experiences, but Wiesel settled in Paris and attended the Sorbonne university, before getting a series of jobs as a journalist. It was only ten years later that the French novelist, François Mauriac, encouraged him to write it all down. The first manuscript was in Yiddish and 850 pages long. He went through and reduced this to 245 pages and, titled Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent’) it was published by a Jewish publisher in Buenos Aires in 1956.

Wiesel translated it into French and sent this manuscript to Mauriac, who tried numerous publishers who all rejected it. Eventually Samuel Beckett’s publisher agreed to take it, cut it down to 175 pages and changed the title to La Nuit. This French version came out in 1958.

Wiesel’s agent had similar problems interesting an American publisher until Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang in New York agreed to take it. He commissioned an English translation by Stella Rodway – which was further trimmed down to 116 pages – and published it as Night in 1960. It sold little to begin with, but became a word-of-mouth classic and stirred interest among Jewish literary figures.

As interest in the Holocaust revived among historians, academics and the wider culture, as more documentaries, films, plays and novels were written, Night grew steadily more important as testimony. In the early 2000s his publishers commissioned a new English translation from Wiesel’s wife, Marion, and upon its publication in 2006 it was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club, which led to a surge in sales and awareness.

Although first-hand testimony in its own right, Night – for good or ill – is now also part of the substantial cultural enterprise known as ‘Holocaust studies’.

(This textual history – and including the mention of Holocaust studies – is described in Wiesel’s own preface to the Penguin edition.)

Style

The book’s textual history explains its style. It is the result of not one but two translations, and an extensive process of revision and paring down. It has been extensively filtered. It is no surprise, then, that some critics have commented on its ‘minimalism’. By this they mean the style is polished. The sentences are mostly short. But they are pregnant with meaning. And suppressed emotion.

They ordered us to run. We began to run.

The old Jew, Moishe the Beadle, who he used to pore over the Zorah with, is shipped off with all ‘foreign’ Jews but, by a miracle, months later, reappears to tell everyone what happened to his transport i.e. they were lined up in a forest and shot, then piled into pits. He was wounded, played, dead, escaped to come back and warn everyone. But as in a fairy tale – or nightmare – no one will listen.

Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. (p.7)

Short sentences, simple forceful ideas conveyed in unfussy vocabulary. It has the power of a folk story. Or a sci-fi apocalypse.

Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb. (p.17)

Also, it is very fragmented. There are nine distinct chapters (though they don’t have titles or numbers) but within them the text is made up of short bursts, page-long sections. And – at least in the earlier part – each one starts with an indication of the time – ‘and then’, ‘one day’, ‘suddenly’. Cumulatively, they make the text feel punchy, staccato, like being punched. Thus pages eight to 20 have ten separate sections, which start like so:

  • Spring 1944. Splendid news from the Russian front.
  • Anguish. German soldiers – with their steel helmets and their death’s-head emblem.
  • The eight days of Passover.
  • Two ghettoes were created in Sighet.
  • Some two weeks before Shavuot. A sunny spring day…
  • For a moment we remained alone.
  • The ghetto was awake.
  • The small ghetto.
  • Night.

Diary format. Short entries. Each one situated in time, their brevity conveying the sense of hurtling headlong. And that is part of the point. It all happened very suddenly at night, arrests, orders to pack all your belongings, to be outside by 10 o’clock. And continues. In short staccato bursts. Facts. At pace. Bewilderment. Horror.

The Oberkapo was arrested on the spot. He was tortured for weeks on end. He gave no names. He was transferred to Auschwitz. And never heard from again. (p.64)

At six o’clock the bell rang. The death knell. The funeral. The procession was beginning its march.
‘Fall in! Quickly!’
In a few moments, we stood in ranks. Block by block. Night had fallen. (p.84)

God

As a Jewish comedian commented, if God especially loves the Jews, he has a funny way of showing it. The first twenty pages or so describe young Eliezer as devoutly religious. His family want him to be the learned one, the scholar. He prays day and night with fervent feeling, and finds rabbis to study the Talmud and Kabbalah with, he fasts to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

But of course, rounding up into the ghetto knocks his faith and then the journey to the camp and even what he sees in the first few hours, destroys it. There follows the long slow lingering terrible extermination of his faith in God, man or anything. He walks past trenches full of gasoline into which Germans and camp kapos are throwing live babies and infants. Alive. Into the flames (p.32). People around him mutter prayers or reproaches against God.

Jewish and Christian literary critics make much of this central strand of the text. When Wiesel describes walking past a young boy who is being hanged, he overhears someone saying: ‘Where is God?’ to which, inside, he replies: ‘Here, hanging from this gallows’ (p.65). The exchange has prompted literary critics to give fancy interpretations of the boy as symbolising the crucified Christ and thus uniting Christian and Jewish blah blah blah.

I can see the imaginative, psychological, religious and literary power of such moments and such interpretations, but I find them blasphemous. For me, there is no God, no hint of God, no way of hiding, no way out, no redemption. Just humans reduced to animals scrabbling in the dirt by systematic and sadistic evil. To elevate any of this, to invoke any kind of ‘spiritual’ aspect to any of this, seems to me a blasphemy. It is the quintessence of human evil. Talk of God is absurd, irrelevant, inadequate, grotesque.

But then, What do I know? I have never had any remotely comparable experience. I am just a reader.

Youth and identity

I’ve recently read two other Holocaust texts, The Periodic Table by Primo Levi and This Way to the Gas by Tadeusz Borowski. Levi was 24 when he was sent to Auschwitz and had graduated as a chemist. In other words he had an adult identity. He credits his scientific training with saving his life, because it caused him to be transferred to the laboratory where he could steal things to exchange them in the camp for food (specifically the metal rods which he barters for the bread which keeps him and his friend Alberto going to the camp’s liberation – as told in the story ‘Cerium’ in The Periodic Table). But in a subtler way, it meant he had an identity based on science, scientific knowledge, the scientific method, and which related him to the entire scientific tradition of the West. The full depth and resonance and psychological power of this tradition is what gives such weight and force to his masterpiece The Periodic Table.

Borowski was twenty when he was sent to Auschwitz, and was already as a writer of poems, short stories and novels. He also had an adult identity which, in some way, helped him. Even as he unloaded the human freight onto the ramp at Auschwitz, maybe he was shaping and forming the experiences into words to write down.

Comparison with these two (still very young) men highlights Wiesel’s youth. All he had by way of vocation and ambition, was to become a religious scholar. So it wasn’t just his faith he lost in the camp, but  his entire purpose, his entire identity. And that is why, more completely than Levi or Borowski. His account conveys a sense of utter desolation. The others had an adult identity which could, to some extent, step back and rationally analyse the events.

Once stripped of his family and his religion, Wiesel had nothing. He is completely gutted, abolished, vacuated.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame. (p.37)

My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now… (p.68)

Controversy

Alas, Night has been dogged by controversy. At one extreme, some people have claimed Wiesel was never at Auschwitz and the whole thing is a fake. The ‘evidence’ for this and the counter-arguments are laid out in this article:

A lot of the criticism of Night and broader attacks directed at Wiesel and his works stem from his outspoken support for the state of Israel, and for its policies of holding onto the land seized in the 1967 war, and building Jewish settlements on Arab land. Plenty of anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish critics see all of his writing as compromised by his support of Israel.

Then there are critics who broadly support Wiesel, but claim that Night is not a work of fact, but of documentary fiction. Criticism in this vein can range from quibbling about various factual inaccuracies through to questioning entire episodes from the book. Much of this is summarised in this review of the new translation of 2006.

I am not qualified to comment on Wiesel’s stance on Israel or on debates about the book’s factuality. All I can comment on is the text before me. And reading some of the criticism mentioned above did crystallise in me some misgivings about the book, namely:

Harrowing and terrifying though it is, ultimately the book’s shape seems a bit too pat and convenient.

In particular, the last twenty pages or so are designed to wring the very last ounce of anguish from the story of his dying father. Despite all the confusions of multiple transports, endless roll-calls, despite being split up into different Kommandos and work details, despite going through selection procedures and being shuffled from one barracks to another, Eliezer is never separated from his father. Through the confusion of the death march when others were dropping dead, there’s his dad. In the brick factory, he keeps his dad awake and alive. In the open freight car he supports his dad. In Buchenwald his first thought – on getting his soup or his coffee or his bread – is always his dad. He goes to several doctors to get them to treat his dad for dysentery. He cradles his dad as he gives him the water he asks for. After the SS man beat up his dad, he is still just about alive and Eliezer cradles his head for a long time before he finally retreats to his own bed exhausted. Then he wakes the next morning and his father is gone, died in the night and spirited away. At which point the son bitterly laments he had no opportunity to light the candles and say the prayers and perform the Jewish ceremonies over him.

I won’t say it rises to Hollywood levels of sentimentality – but it did feel laid on with a trowel. If you were going to craft a story designed to tug, pluck and finally rip to shreds your heart strings, this is how it would go.

And this sense of artifice is reinforced by the careful way Wiesel sets up earlier father-and-son anecdotes to anticipate his one. As mentioned earlier, on the death march an old rabbi gets separated from his son and young Eliezer doesn’t have the heart to tell him he saw his son steaming ahead, looking grateful to have ditched the old liability. And again, in the open train to Buchenwald, Eliezer claims to witness a burly son beat his own father to death for the sake of some bread thrown into the truck by passing Germans.

The point being that the final operatic Oedipal climax to the narrative has been carefully prepared and anticipated in the narrative – almost like a Shakespearean tragedy in which minor plots are designed to parallel and comment on the main action. Having witnessed the two earlier father-and-son betrayals allows Eliezer to feel even more distraught when he, also, fails the test.

I have absolutely no idea how much of this is fiction, fact, false or ‘faction’, but a seed of doubt is planted in your mind.

For this reason, I would recommend new readers seeking a first encounter with Holocaust testimonies to start with Primo Levi’s If this Is A Man, and would also recommend Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman to Night.


Credit

As described above, Night was published in French in 1958, Stella Rodway’s English translation was published in 1960, and Marion Wiesel’s revised English translation was published in 2006. All page references are to the 2008 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Related reviews

For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming (1960)

Bond liked cheerful, expansive people with a zest for life. (p.146)

Five short stories. Four of them started life as plots for a TV series that was never made, indicating: a) how happy Fleming was to engage in popular culture, and b) how keen to monetise his creation. The hardback editions had a sub-title which seems to have been dropped from my paperback version – Five Secret Occasions in the Life of James Bond.

1. From a View to a Kill
2 For Your Eyes Only
3 Quantum of Solace
4 Risico
5 The Hildebrand Rarity

1. From a View to a Kill

Although he lost his virginity there on a wild night when he was 16 (p.6), Bond has cordially disliked Paris since the War. ‘One cannot drink seriously in French cafés.’ (p.5) Paris has been pawned to East Europeans, tourists, Germans. In his opinion, you can only actually see it properly for two hours between five and seven am; after that it is hidden by a thundering stream of black metal (p.8), ie monstrous traffic (and this is 1959!). Bond is feeling stale after a mission to extract a Hungarian from the East went wrong (the defector was blown up in a minefield).

Into Bond’s ennui bursts a car screeching to the pavement and a glamorous woman walking right up to his table. Turns out to be Mary Ann Russell from the service; there’s a flap on at Station F. Bond is driven there and briefed. A motorbike courier to SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) has been shot and his Top Secret documents stolen. Bond drives to the SHAPE headquarters in northern France, is greeted by the unhelpful American Colonel Schreiber in charge, and sets about interviewing everyone.

Slowly Bond puts pieces together and is particularly intrigued by the story of a group of gypsies who recently vacated a clearing along the Route Nationale where the cyclist was shot. Bond investigates and finds a suspicious-looking mound at the vacated site. He dresses in camouflage and returns to stake out the clearing. After a very long time, to his amazement, the mound divides in two and people come out of it: a motorcyclist dressed in NATO uniform, helped by two assistants. Off he drives, the assistants withdraw inside the secret hideaway, then the mound slowly closes up. Bond waits a long time then slips away.

Next day he borrows a NATO motorcyclist outfit and sets off on the morning run. He is not surprised when an identically-dressed motorbike courier cruises up behind him. Before the assassin can take a shot, Bond himself swerves his bike and shoots the baddie, who goes flying into a tree. Dead.

Bond motors to the clearing where NATO troops are waiting. When he enters with the bike, the mound opens as the assistants think it is their leader; but when he doesn’t reply to some question put in Russian, a fight breaks out. Shots are fired, Bond is jumped on by one of the baddies who pummels him to the ground and the baddie is making for his gun when a shot rings out and the baddie’s body goes flying. Bond looks up to see Mary Ann Russell striding among the soldiers, dressed in brown shirt and tight jeans, a smoking .22 pistol in her hand. Lucky, eh? And sexy.

This story is so silly it’s hard to know where to start. I sympathised with the notion of Paris ruined by traffic, and enjoyed descriptions of the cafés and geography of north Paris where Bond likes to stay. After that… nonsense.

2. For Your Eyes Only

Introducing a posh old couple, the Havelocks. Their family have owned one of the best estates in Jamaica for 300 years, given it by a grateful Oliver Cromwell to an ancestor who signed King Charles’s death warrant (just as Honeychile Riders’ ancestor was alleged to have done in Dr No, and just as falsely).

Out of the blue they are visited by three Hispanics, led by a Major Gonzales. They represent a businessman in Cuba who wishes to buy the property. Gonzales unzips airline bags which contain half a million dollars cash and offers to pay on the spot. Mr Havelock refuses and angrily tells the three to leave his property, at which Gonzales sighs, signals to his two assistants, who step forward and pump the Havelocks full of bullets. They return to their car, which is stolen, drive down to the bay and abandon it, take a dinghy out to a waiting yacht and sail away.

Cut to M briefing Bond in London. He is uncertain and shifty because he is personally involved: turns out he was best man at the Havelocks wedding in 1925. Gonzales is the hit man for an ex-Nazi, von Hammerstein, who’s made a fortune working for the Cuban dictator Batista’s Intelligence Service. Now it looks like Castro’s communists might take over, von Hammerstein, like others, is getting his money out of Cuba and investing in nearby property, ie in Jamaica. Now the same gang is intimidating the Havelocks’ daughter, Judy, into selling. What does Bond think?

Assassinate them, says Bond. M gives him the file marked ‘For Your Eyes Only’ which shows that von Hammerstein, Gonzales et al are holed up in a luxury ranch near a place called Echo Lake in Vermont, USA, up near the Canadian border.

Bond flies to Canada (he doesn’t like the new faster, bigger jets: less luxury, everything more cramped and rushed; it’s interesting that Fleming records these journeys in such detail just as luxury travel began to be degraded by the advent of mass tourism.)

Bond meets a security man from the Mounties, Colonel ‘Johns’, who humorously says this whole operation is off-the-record but they’ll give him all the help they can, before handing over maps, a hunting rifle and permits, directions, clothes, a hired car.

Bond drives off south, crosses the border into the States on foot, finds his way to the lakeside house – very nice – tests his sights, waits for sunrise except – a voice tells him not to move! A young woman dressed like an Amazon is pointing a bow and very modern steel arrow right at him. She is Judy Havelock and she has also come here to kill von Hammerstein, to avenge her parents, and if Bond gets in her way, she’ll shoot him too.

After some bickering they reach an agreement that Judy has first shot. The group of baddies come out to frolic in the morning sunshine, von Hammerstein an ugly, squat, hairy, pasty man, Gonzales a creepy Hispanic. The two goons have an impromptu competition to shoot empty champagne bottles thrown in the air, the winner gets a night with one of the two scantily-clad hookers who are fawning and simpering around them.

As von Hammerstein goes to dive off the edge of the quay into the lake a steel arrow shoots him through the heart. In a second Bond has shot dead one of the goons with his hunting rifle, then turns to the next one, misses, then hits. But all this has given Gonzales time to let off bursts of machine gun fire into the woods where Bond and the girl are hiding and then push over and hide behind a steel table on the lakeside lawn. After taking pot shots at each other, Gonzales makes a break for the house and Bond stands and nails him with one shot.

Then he finds Judy, wounded and bleeding, hit by one of the goons’ bursts of firing. Disappointingly, she has been transformed from no-nonsense Amazon into simpering girly. When they originally met and were bickering Bond said several times ‘This is man’s work’ and I was hoping she would humiliate him, somehow save him when he got into trouble and generally kick this saying back in his teeth. Alas, the narrative, Fleming and Bond all confirm the saying, as poor girly Judy now says she had no idea it would be so brutal and so horrible and, as Bond ties a tourniquet round her bleeding arm, allows him to kiss her, then kiss her again.

I enjoyed the banter and repartee with the Canadian Mountie, ‘Colonel Johns’, who sets things up for Bond, the working bond created between two professionals who know what each other are about. But the entire hit man storyline is morally dubious, and then the last minute ‘James you’re so manly!’ conversion of tough woman into fawning girl is as sick-making as the similar ‘sudden conversion’ ending of Goldfinger.

3. Quantum of Solace

This is the standout story of the collection, and in a different class from the others.

Bond has done a job in Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, a place he cordially dislikes because it is so disgustingly rich. The job was throwing firebombs into two ships carrying arms to Castro’s forces in Cuba. (Historical note: Castro’s communist forces officially overthrew Batista on January 1, 1959.) Now Bond’s just had to endure a gruellingly formal and dull dinner party at the Governor’s place, but the other guests – a Canadian natural gas millionaire and his chatty wife – have left and, over drinks, after a bit of chat, the Governor settles in to tell Bond a story.

The Governor was telling it in a rather elderly narrative style which gave it a ring of truth. (p.106)

It’s about a man the Governor was at Oxford with, ‘let’s call him Philip Masters’, who won a place in the Foreign Office and was posted to Nigeria. Very shy, troubled childhood (parents divorced, brought up by an aunt) he found happiness among the kindness of Nigerians. On a flight back to the UK he is strapped in and generally fussed over by a stunningly attractive air stewardess, Rhoda Llewellyn. By the end of his flight, he invites her for a date, one thing leads to another, and they get married. Then he is posted out to the Caribbean which is where the Governor ran into him again, in Bermuda.

Briefly, the wife slowly gets bored of being the wife of a colonial official, it’s not at all as glamorous as she’d imagined. They take up golf but she far outshines her husband and enjoys flirting with the men at the club. Eventually, the inevitable happens and she takes up with one of the rich young men in the fast set, son of a millionaire with his own speedboat etc. Doesn’t bother hiding it, brazenly open, demands a separate bedroom from her meek retiring husband, walks all over Masters, humiliates him in public.

The Governor calls Masters in for a meeting, tells him he’s getting a terrible reputation, says he’s packing him off to Washington for five months to handle trade negotiations, during which he must sort out his private affairs.

During those five months, while her husband is away, the millionaire playboy gets tired of Rhoda and, prevailed on by his parents, very publicly dumps her. Chastened and suddenly shunned by posh and smart society, she decides to change her ways and is ready to be meek and obedient when her husband returns. Unfortunately, Masters has also changed and returns utterly ruthless, focused and decisive. He announces he is divorcing her in one year. His private detective has gathered all the evidence required for a quick legal action. For that year their house will be partitioned in two so their paths never cross, he will never see her and, from this point onwards, never speak to her. She pleads, she begs, she breaks down in tears – he doesn’t relent.

By now Bond, despite himself, is genuinely hooked. And this is where the Governor introduces his theory: human relationships can be repaired and made to work as long as there is a bare minimum amount of affection between the partners, just enough warmth for communication to remain open – as long as there is a quantum of solace, the tiniest particle of warmth and sympathy. That gone, everything is gone.

So none of Rhoda’s pleading made any impact, the couple put up a diplomatic facade of man and wife for the rest of his posting, but had not a shred of affection. In his final week before Masters leaves for his next appointment – not taking her – Rhoda pleaded for some money to live on after he left and he rubbed salt in the wounds by grudgingly giving her the car and the radiogram (the house had been rented for the duration of his appointment). When she goes to the car dealer, after Masters had departed, she finds both car and radiogram were themselves hired and have outstanding bill on them, which she has to pawn her belongings to pay. Masters has systematically reduced her to poverty.

Rhoda carries on for a while, eking a living hanging round with the flash set at the golf club, being passed from one man to another until she has sunk to the level of being a sort of posh courtesan. Finally, one of her patrons, a lofty Lady who disapproved of all her behaviour but still pitied her, got her a job as receptionist at a hotel in Jamaica, where she moved, relieved to flee the Bahamas at last.

Throughout the narrative Bond has occasionally commented on the story or the Governor has paused so they can top up their drinks or light a cigar. Reminiscent of the many chaps-chatting-over-port-and-cigars frame narratives of Victorian and Edwardian times, found in Sherlock Holmes stories or, most famously, in the long after-dinner narrative which makes up Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness.

By this point in the story, the Governor and Bond have left the panelled drawing room and walked through the landscaped grounds down to the security gates. The pace of the frame narrative has been beautifully timed to accompany or bring out the detail of the main story.

It is here, at the gates, that the Governor turns and adds the conclusion of his tale. It was while working as receptionist that Rhoda made an impression on a rich guest, a millionaire from Canada. They got married and have been very happy ever since, Rhoda turning out to be the most devoted and loyal of wives.

And – in the unexpected, simple and breath-taking twist – the Governor reveals that this was the very couple who Bond had shared such a dull dinner with earlier that evening, the Canadian millionaire and his twittering wife.

Bond laughed. Suddenly the violent dramatics of his own life seemed very hollow. The affair of the Castro rebels and the burned out yachts was the stuff of an adventure-strip in a cheap newspaper. He had sat next to a dull woman at a dull dinner party and a chance remark had opened for him the book of real passion – of the Comédie Humaine where human passions are raw and real, where Fate plays a more authentic game than any Secret Service conspiracy devised by Governments. (p.128)

The Wikipedia article on this collection says one of the stories was a conscious homage to Somerset Maugham. Surely it is this one, with its leisurely, slow-paced account of human weakness, set against a civilised after-dinner frame story, reminding me of the urbane and brilliantly persuasive stories in Maugham’s own spy novel, Ashenden.

4. ‘Risico’

It’s interesting to see that herion smuggling was enough of a topical issue/concern in 1959 to base fiction on.

Bond is sent to Rome to contact an Italian heroin smuggler-turned-CIA-informant, Kristatos. Kristatos tells him the Big Man behind the smuggling into Britain is the padrone of the very restaurant where they’re eating, one Enrico Colombo. And sure enough we see Colombo a) eating his spaghetti like a pig b) conferring with his beautiful German concubine/assistant, Lisl Baum c) using gadgets hidden in a chair to record Bond and Kristatos’s conversation, during which K says he’ll break up the smuggling ring if Bond will kill Colombo. So Colombo discovers Bond is out to kill him. It’s all written so as to make us think Colombo is a Drax-Dr No style baddie.

Colombo and Baum then play act a massive row, complete with her throwing wine in his face, just as Bond is leaving the restaurant, so that Bond steps in as the English gent and offers her a lift in a taxi back to her hotel. This is a long enough journey for her to tell Bond she’s moving onto Venice tomorrow, and she’ll be sunbathing out on the beach of the Lido, if he fancies meeting.

So Bond takes the train (and is amusingly grumpy about the rudeness and discomfort of Italian trains), checks into a hotel, then goes out to the Lido. Here he traipses across the beach to find the almost naked blonde bombshell sunbathing, as promised. But barely have they started flirting before three goons in dark suits start approaching up the beach. Bond walks fast towards the village end of the strand in a bid to escape, but two of the men cut of at an angle across the spit of sand until BOOM! one of them is blown up – it is an abandoned minefield which the Italian authorities, typically, haven’t got round to clearing. Gruesome.

Meanwhile, Bond had arrived at the concrete sea-wall and was walking along it towards a group of fishermen and safety until – he realises the fisherman are all pointing their spearguns at him and the fat one in the middle is Colombo! They have just begun to have typical good guy-bad guy banter (‘So Mr Bond…’) when the third of the goons sneaks up behind Bond and knocks him unconscious with the hilt of his Luger.

Bond comes to in a ship at sea. The door is open and he goes on deck to find Colombo tremendously happy and chatty. In the TWIST or volta in the story, Colombo tells Bond that Kristatos is the one who is running the heroin smuggling operation into Britain. Sure, Colombo is a smuggler and a crook, but he absolutely refuses to touch drugs. Bond finds himself trusting the open, smiling, hearty man before him who gives him his gun back. Somehow they have become friends.

And – in what is becoming a routine revelation – it turns out the heroin which goes through the pipeline to Britain to hook and undermine the nation’s youth is supplied by Russia, from her poppy fields in the Caucasus. No matter how remote and fantastical the plot, somehow Fleming always manages to make SMERSH at the root of it.

Colombo explains that their ship is about to enter the harbour of Santa Maria, where they will find Kristatos’s gang of hired Albanian thugs loading massive rolls of newsprint (remember the massive rolls of newsprint towards the end of Moonraker?) onto a ship moored at the quay.

Colombo’s boat comes alongside and throws grappling hooks into the Albanian ship and the shooting starts immediately. Bond saves the day by shooting out the man in the warehouse who was using a machine gun on our boys, then dodges behind the warehouse to see Kristatos a) set off a boobytrap, which blows up the warehouse b) jump into his car and speed off. Third shot lucky, Bond shoots him in the back and the car careers out of control.

Bond is taken back onto Colombo’s ship with much back-patting and Italian gratitude for shooting the machine gunner in the warehouse. Now, the Italian assures him, this massive drug peddling pipeline has been closed down. To round things off, Colombo tosses Bond a hotel key: the key to the room of Lisl Baum – she’s waiting for him.

So he saves the day for England, makes a new foreign friend, and gets to sleep with the pretty blonde. Job done!

(P.S. The title ‘Risico’ is how Kristatos pronounces ‘risk’: so there’s an irony in Kristatos’s word being taken as the title, since the whole adventure turns out to be not just risky, but fatal for him.)

5. The Hildebrand Rarity

The story opens with Bond scuba diving in the Seychelles, and shooting a massive sting ray. Apparently, Fleming himself had scuba diving lessons in Jamaica from the legendary Jacques Cousteau, so knew what he was talking about – but the ability to convey the wonder and beauty of the underwater world is entirely his own.

Bond is in the Seychelles at the order of M to investigate alleged sabotage and infiltration by communist forces. He finds nothing to report on and is left with a week in hand, hence the diving. His local contact, Fidele Barbey, member of an influential local family, picks him up on the beach and says he knows Bond is bored and so has got him a few days helping out with the diving on the luxury yacht of an American millionaire who’s visiting the islands.

Bond takes an instant dislike to the millionaire, a rude and boorish man (of German descent) named Milton Krest, who insists on calling the galley the kitchen, the luxury yacht – the Wavekrest – ‘it’ (instead of ‘she’) and generally outraging all good naval traditions and Bond’s sense of the proprieties. Krest is rude about Britain, then about Europeans generally, before going on to insult the Seychellois.

Turns out Krest commissioned his yacht as a tax fiddle: he tells the US taxman it is engaged on ‘scientific research’ expeditions. To justify this he has to find and send back specimens to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. He has already, crudely and corruptly, bought most of the specimens on the list he was given from local zoos and aquariums: all he needs now is the extremely rare Hildebrand Rarity.

Bond and Barbey are introduced to Krest’s (stunningly beautiful) English wife, Elizabeth, and the crew of hard-faced Germans, and then they set sail to remote coral islands where the Rarity was once sighted before the war.

Over dinner, Krest gets drunk, insults everyone and lets it be known that he not only verbally abuses his wife, but whips her with a dried-out stingray tail, which he calls ‘the Corrector’. Bond is fascinated by her craven ‘slave’ mentality, and the word slave recurs numerous times throughout the story, for although Krest routinely reduces her to tears, Elizabeth defends her husband to the others.

What must this woman have to put up with, this beautiful girl he had got hold of to be his slave – his English slave?… There was something painfully slavish in her attitude towards him. (pp.194-195)

The Wavekrest anchors off an isolated atoll and Bond and Barbey go snorkelling although, ironically, it is the shouting, can-do Yank, Krest, who actually spots the Rarity. He kills it – and everything else around it – by pouring a five-gallon drum of poison into the water. (Bond shows an unexpected but actually quite characteristic sensitivity about killing – murdering – all these beautiful innocent sea creatures, and describes their death throes in pitiful fashion.)

That night Krest gets more drunk than usual, abuses Bond and Barbey, tells his wife he’s going to beat her tonight, despite her tearful pleading to be ‘forgiven’ and, when he finds Bond out on the after-deck with her, for just a moment, threatens to kill Bond – or have him killed by his thuggish crew. As he walks drunkenly back into the main cabin, Krest’s silhouette looks like a baboon. Yes, he is a very bad man.

Resisting the temptation to beat the daylights out of him, Bond instead sleeps out on deck and hears Krest clamber drunkenly into his hammock several decks away. In the middle of the night he’s woken by the sound of choking and struggling. He gets to Krest’s deck to find the millionaire has been choked to death, with the Hildebrand Rarity rammed down his throat.

Bond coolly assesses this, the umpteenth scene of a violent death which he’s encountered in his career, and decides to fake the cause of death. He removes the fish and replaces it in its specimen jar in the main cabin, then carefully frays one of the ropes supporting Krest’s hammock, snaps it, and throws Krest’s body overboard. The best he can do to make it look like an accident.

Job done. Now Bond is intrigued to discover which of the other two did it: the wife has an obvious motive but Barbey is hot-blooded and was getting angry at Krest’s racist taunts over dinner. Next morning both turn out to have a lazy breakfast and sunbathe as if nothing had happened. Eventually Bond gets impatient and asks after their host, sparking a search, during which the crew discover the broken hammock, signs that the disoriented, drunk man may have fallen over the guard rail etc.

The crew are horrified and radio the authorities, but neither Mrs Krest nor Barbey are at all upset. Mrs Krest – lithe, beautiful bikini-wearing Mrs Krest – asks Bond if he will accompany her for the four-day cruise on to Mombasa. Suppressing  his suspicions that she is the murderer, Bond agrees. A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do…

The story features a very exotic location and the (then) luxury pastimes of snorkelling and diving; Fleming’s dislike of the vulgar rich, and of vulgar rich Americans in particular; along with an extended, if rather shallow, treatment of the sado-masochistic master-slave relationship, some superficial pondering why women stay with men who beat and abuse them. But all reconciled in the promise of four days of sexual pleasure with the said abused wife. And so a trite, sailing into the sunset wind-up.

You can see how the four treatments for TV episodes have the quick, violent action necessary for TV, the lack of depth and the cheap resolutions. As stories they are entertaining enough, but Quantum of Solace is in a class of its own.


Credit

For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming was published in 1960 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1960

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 Picturegoers by David Lodge (1960)

First Hilda, then Damien, then Mark. Hilda’s life was ruined – she was a complete neurotic. Damien was all queer and twisted because he had thought she liked him when she didn’t. And Mark – he would never make a priest. He would end up as another frustrated religious failure like herself and Damien. Religion had ruined him. Religion had ruined them all. (p.208)

David Lodge’s first novel, published when he was 25. Short and powerful, it confidently establishes techniques and themes which will dominate his later writing.

Multiple characters The most obvious feature is the technique of featuring a dozen or so characters and continually cross-cutting between them. The novel is divided into three parts but within them there are no chapters, no sense of moving between big blocked-out scenes. Instead there are a hundred or more relatively short (sometimes less than a page) sections of prose, each devoted to one or a pair of characters, their dialogue, thoughts, decisions, actions, feelings.

This is a very economical, snappy approach. Compare and contrast the directly opposite approach of his friend Malcolm Bradbury who, in his debut novel Eating People Is Wrong for example, opens one chapter with a page-long description of the ‘moral’ development of one of the characters (Emma Fielding), as if rewriting a Jane Austen novel. Unlike Bradbury, Lodge is actually in the 20th century and realises that cutting between short cameo scenes means you don’t have to give yourself the labour of writing – and the reader the burden of reading – long establishing sequences. Bang! You’re there!

The title, The Picturegoers, is not as mysterious and cryptic as I initially took it to be: the book literally describes a cast of picturegoers ie a group of (generally young) people who, on the evening described in part one, all converge on their local, run-down cinema in the fictional town of Brickley, and for whom the cinema flickers in and out of the warp and weave of their lives over the next few months.

Dramatis personae

  • Mr Maurice Berkley, one-time manager of the music hall which declined, was shut down, and replaced by the new cinema, which he sadly manages, lamenting the passing of the glory days.
  • Mr Mallory, kind-hearted middle-aged man, head of a vast Catholic family, eyes the cinema-going young girls in their tight dresses, but warmly loves his wife.
  • Patrick and Patricia Mallory, two of their younger children, who bicker and argue their way to the cinema; when Patricia leaves early a middle-aged man moves next to Patrick in the dark and puts his hand on Patrick’s thigh – there is a short description of the panic of a pubescent boy at being touched up before Patrick is brave enough to get up and flee the building.
  • Clare Mallory – only recently arrived home after abandoning her vocation as a nun, still full of piety and innocent emotions, good and honest and pure and who immediately bewitches the new lodger, Mark.
  • Mark Underwood, recently arrived with the Mallorys as their lodger, is a lapsed Catholic who unexpectedly finds himself responding to the Irish Catholic atmosphere of the Mallory household, initially because he fancies the beautifully innocent Clare. He is a would-be writer, depressed at having his stories rejected for publication, and so presumably the representative of the ‘author’ in the text ie a more educated, ironical observer of the life around him, and with more space than for other characters devoted to his early life, his upbringing in a stifling lower-middle-class household in the respectable suburb of Batcham.
  • Damien O’Brien, cousin of the Mallorys over from Ireland, rat-faced, intensely pious, seething with jealousy over the casual way Mark Underwood asked Clare out, takes her to the pictures and has generally become her boyfriend – exactly what Damien obsessively wants to be.
  • Father Martin Kipling, naive and innocent, is on his first visit to a ‘cinema’, in order to see the pious Song of Bernadette. He trips over feet in the dark, wants to chat to neighbours and then is appalled at the scantily clad ‘actresses’ on the screen whose sole purpose seems to be stirring up lascivious passions in their audience. He woefully discovers the Song isn’t on this evening, instead he is watching the legendary Hollywood actress Amber Lush in a variety of scenes which show off her taut buttocks and pert bosom.
  • Len, working class man, in love with Bridget, is frustrated by both his poverty and the knowledge he is about to be called up for National Service.
  • Bridget, Len’s girlfriend.
  • Doreen the usherette who dreams of having the kind of life those stars up on the screen enjoy and sort of fancies the older, married, Mr Berkley.
  • Harry, a wound-up, monosyllabic, very angry youth, dressed in black, who fantasises about hurting everyone he meets, carries a flick knife and – very spookily – follows Bridget home down dark roads and across bombed-out lots so that I was beginning to worry I might be about to read a rape scene, but no, she gets home just in time, making herself a cocoa with her hands shaking. Makes me realise that in all the other Lodge novels, in the Amis novels and Bradbury novels which I’ve been reading, there are few if any actual criminals – men obsessed with sex in every one, sure, as the authors themselves seem obsessed with sex; but men who break the law, through theft or vandalism or violence ie a type of man who obviously exists in the real world in large numbers — none.

Part one

All the characters converge on the knackered old Palladium cinema, bringing their hopes and fears into its sweaty, smoky interior, as per the thumbnail sketches above.

Part two

Six months later. We learn that the serio-comic result of Father Kipling’s visit to the cinema was a fervent sermon he gave denouncing film as the work of the devil and announcing he would be moving the Thursday Benediction to Saturday nights, as an alternative, and launching a crusade against the Cinema. Six months later, a mere 12 parishioners are turning up for it and he ruefully regrets the enmity created with the cinema manager, who complained to Kiplings bishop about the boycott, the bishop then, embarrassingly, over-ruling Father Kipling and saying there was nothing ungodly about the cinema.

Meanwhile, the Mallory’s lodger, Mark, who started out pretending to be religious in order to seduce Clare, really has undergone a conversion back to his boyhood Catholicism and, ironically, now finds himself the pious one in the relationship, while Clare herself has completely redirected her libido towards him – with tearful results.

Damien is the furtive watcher, the ‘creeping Jesus’, who is always spotting them in the street or kissing in a doorway or overhears their endearments on the front doorstep, as his crush on Clare curdles into hatred and contempt.

The old cinema manager Mr Berkley is now having an affair with the once naive and innocent usherette Doreen, happy now to strip off in the manager’s office and climb into their makeshift bed for office sex, before they get dressed again, he drives her home and then returns to his wife.

Harry, the would-be rapist, takes his stalking of Bridget to another level, lying in wait for her in a bombed-out lot near her house but – to our relief – miserably fails to assault her; he’s barely got his hands over her mouth before she bites his fingers down to the bone and screams her head off, sending him running off down the street.

Central to this part is the evening when a number of the key characters converge on The Palladium to see The Bicycle Thieves, the 1948 Italian Neorealistic classic which Mr Berkley is showing as part of an effort to liven up the cinema and draw in a new crowd. In this it is a complete failure, a depressing and inconclusive movie which reminds most of the visitors of their own cramped lives, except for Mark, of course, who incisively and intellectually analyses it for Clare, who understands nothing, but nods approval in her doomed infatuation.

Part three

Two months after that evening things have moved on for all of the characters. This third part again features an evening at the cinema; after the failure of trying contemporary European movies Mr Berkley has booked the latest Rock’n’Roll movie, blaring with its Bill Haley soundtrack. This time there are queues around the block of Teddy Boys and their pony-tailed, bobby-soxed girlfriends. And in this final 40-page section Lodge winds up the stories of our ten or so characters:

Clare and Mark have a painful showdown in which he declares his wish to join the Dominican Order and try his vocation. Clare is furious at him leading her on, leading her to abandon the last of her religious feelings which she transferred to secular love, only to be dumped.

Mark walks back to the Mallory house where he is mortified to discover Mrs Mallory has stumbled over some of his scribblings about love and Clare and sex, explicit notes and thoughts jotted down for a story. She thinks he’s revealed himself as immoral when, ironically, he is reaching the height of his religious faith and completely disavows the writings. He offers to leave immediately and makes his way, disconsolately but firmly back to the stifling purgatory of his suburban home, determined to apply to a religious order.

Devastated after their final argument, Clare wanders the streets in a daze, passing the cinema and its huge queue of jitterbugging rockers but, with no money to spend, ends up, ironically, in the local Catholic church. Here – as it happens – she is press-ganged into being a witness to the rushed wedding of Len and Bridget.

After the sad service she finds herself in the church alone with Father Kipling and realises for the first time how feeble and unsatisfactory he is, and how sadly conscious he is of his shortcomings as a priest. Depressed, she emerges to find Len and Bridget having cheap photos taken and then is further press-ganged into accompanying them to the nearest Lyons Corner House for their wedding ‘reception’.

As she listens to their tale of poverty – nowhere to stay, Len’s poor widowed mother, his miserable time doing National Service in the Army – Clare is overcome with compassion and writes them a cheque for £5 to pay for a few days’ honeymoon at Margate or somewhere, and promises to talk to Father Kipling about a little church flat which she knows has become empty because the old lady who was living in it has gone into hospital.

These scenes could hardly convey a more depressingly miserable, black-and-white, cramped, austere, limited, narrow ration books and National Service existence. How awful the 1950s sound.

If the two main characters, Mark and Clare, end in disarray, minor characters have unexpected epiphanies. Harry, the would-be rapist, hanging round outside the cinema, finds himself drawn in and then the Teds and Rockers who are packing the place start getting out of their chairs and dancing to Bill Haley in the aisles. To his amazement a pretty little blonde girl asks him to dance and he turns out to be able to do it and it makes him smile and even laugh, for the first time in years; later that night he walks her home and, after a quick peck on the cheek, makes an date to see her at the Monday night hop.

We eavesdrop the thoughts of Mr Berkley, the cinema manager – initially happy at the big box office takings then concerned at the way the Teds are getting out of their seats – as he dismisses rock’n’roll for being unmusical, simple-minded etc. He predicts it will only last a year then be replaced by the next fad. But we have seen, in the story of Harry, that simply dancing, that music and dance and physical expression, can liberate the soul.

At the end of Part Two Lodge showed us Mr Berkley having sex with Doreen in his office, for the first time not using a condom as he had run out. Now, two months later, Doreen is pregnant. Mr Berkley knows his (Catholic) wife will never divorce him in that guaranteed-to-make-everyone-as-miserable-as-can-be way of theirs, so he gives Doreen a load of money and the address of a boarding house in Newcastle where she can go to have it. In almost the last scene we see her confidently on the Newcastle train getting into conversation with a likely cockney lad also going the same way. Might love be about to blossom…

It is a multi-stranded ending to a multi-stranded novel and a triumph, unexpected, moving, insightful, poignant.

Themes

David Lodge’s three themes are Catholicism, sex and Eng lit academics and all are present here.

Catholicism In the point of view and thoughts of the priest and every member of the Mallory family (Dad, Mum, Patrick, Patricia, Clare) as well as the reconverted Mark and the Irish cousin Damien – that’s seven characters who all provide different perspectives on faith and belief and sin and the rest of it, so we have the thoughts of the cradle Catholic, the convert, the zealot, the lapsed Catholic, the teenage Catholic, the ex-nun, and so on. Enough Catholicism for most tastes.

The common mistake of outsiders, that Catholicism was a beautiful, solemn, dignified, aesthetic religion. But when you got inside you found it was ugly, crude, bourgeois. Typical Catholicism wasn’t to be found in St Peter’s, or Chartres, but in some mean, low-roofed parish church, where hideous plaster saints simpered along the wall, and the bowed congregation, pressed perspiration tight into the pews, rested their fat arses on the seats, rattled their beads, fumbled for the smallest change, and scolded their children. Yet in their presence God was made and eaten all day long, and for that reason those people could never be quite like other people, and that was Catholicism. (p.173)

Pilgrimage A long section at the end of Part Two describes how Mark, in the grip of his new Catholic fervour, undertakes the pilgrimage to Walsingham in Norfolk; it is referred to by other characters and Mark gets out and rereads his diary of the experience which suddenly gives us a blast of full-on first person narrative. This is the first mention of the pilgrimage theme which will also be present in Lodge’s later novels, in comic form in Small World, and more seriously in the concluding sections of Therapy.

Sex Mark starts out simply wanting to seduce Clare. Damien is obsessed with Clare but sublimates his feelings into fierce religiosity. Clare was expelled from the convent where she had been a novice nun, for her passionate/lesbian involvement with a teenage girl pupil, and now finds herself actively wanting Mark’s masculine touch. Old Mr Mallory enjoys watching the pretty young things dolled up on a Saturday night, but also enjoys making love to his plump wife. He is disappointed when Mr Berkley experiments by showing contemporary foreign films, namely the depressing The Bicycle Thieves.

Where were the luscious slave-girls with swelling breast and buttocks like ripe fruit, on which he could feed his harmless, middle-aged lechery. (p.130)

Mr Berkley enters Doreen in his office. Len, on their wedding night, blissfully ‘broaches’ Bridget, Damien sees couples in the sunny park, men’s hands up girls’ dresses, driving him wild with anger/frustration.

I am, I hope, an averagely-sexed middle-aged man and no prude, but I find the relentlessness of the Male Gaze in all Lodge’s novels a little hard to take.

[Mr Berkley] stood at the back of the packed auditorium. There were people standing all along the back, and down the sides. He watched with interest a young girl in front of him in tight trousers. Her buttocks were twitching rhythmically to the music. On each alternate beat a hollow appeared in her left flank. (p.226)

In a touching scene the confused 17-year-old Patricia, who has a crush on Mark, has a chat with him about how isolated she feels in the family and how she wants to run away from home. All very sensitive apart from one false note. She’s wearing a faded old dressing gown buttoned up to the neck, but: ‘Beneath the faded material was a figure full of promise.’ (p.169) Who makes this remark? Not Mark, who is in his newly moral religious phase. Not Patricia herself. It is the narrator, the creator, the author, creating all sorts of women whose shapes and naked bodies he can then lovingly describe.

[Patrick, 16] had slipped into a rather alarming habit lately of looking at every girl or woman he encountered to see how big her bust was. Bust. That was a new word he had just discovered. There were several words that meant the same thing. Bust, bosom, breasts…  (p.136)

All the way back in 1960 I wonder if Lodge’s novels were praised for their frankness and honesty and lack of shame about sex. I can see the merit in his not shying away from the fact that sex does indeed dominate lots of men’s thoughts lots of the time. But it is a bit like the food in a certain restaurant always being a bit too salty or spicy or oily. Lodge is great at what he does, but the relentlessness of the sex sex sex, and the way it’s always the horny male view of sex, sometimes gets a bit too much.

Literature Mark is a would-be writer, still very young, self-conscious and unpublished, he keeps a notebook which he fills up with bons mots and insights, is constantly on the lookout for material, feelings and incidents which he can turn into a short story, and he is considerably more intellectual than the other characters. He shares his sophisticated insights into The Bicycle Thieves, into the warmth and piety of the Mallory household; he gets the lengthy theological passages tossing to and fro about the religious life and sin and redemption and forgiveness etc, in this respect the precursor of all the other Lodge protagonists who will agonise over Roman Catholic faith, sometimes at very great length. Most 20th religious novels document the painful fading of a character’s religious faith – I thought it original enough to see a young man following the opposite trajectory.

Humanity Lodge’s style is cold and blank, not deliberately heartless but always factual, clear, unambiguous, unsentimental. For example, he describes Clare’s feelings when Mark dumps her, but doesn’t really wring the reader’s heart; same for Mark’s increasing sense of devotion, specially in a Mass he attends. But if there aren’t extremes of emotion, not emotion in the language, anywhere in his work, there is often a kind of cool, limpid humanity; an implicit sympathy for the sadness of so many people who life has let down. Thus Clare, after being dumped by Mark, finds herself observing Father Kipling as if for the first time, as if for the first time really understanding something about other people and their pain. Without any comment from the author it dawns on me that she is possibly finding within herself the compassion and charity for others which she was too young to experience when she was a novice nun.

[Father Kipling] stooped over the sink, leaning heavily on locked arms, and staring at his hands, flattened against the bottom of the bowl. The sense of failure which haloed his bowed head made Clare conscious for the first time of his identity as a person. He had never been an impressive priest –  dispensing sacraments, sermons and whist-drive announcements with the same patient ennui, like a weary shopkeeper who has forgotten why he ever started to sell. But now, at this moment, she understood his inadequacy in personal terms, realised what it meant to him not to be able to move people, not to be able to find the encouraging word, the inspiring slogan. (p.217)

With its understated humanity, with its confident handling of the multi-character cast, in its quiet way I think this is a very good, a very powerful and moving novel – and quite amazing considering it was his first.


Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – Ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, amid numerous lectures on artificial intelligence, cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s. Tiresomely predictable.
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

The Doomed Oasis by Hammond Innes (1960)

‘Come to the point,’ said Gorde impatiently. (p.151)

This is Hammond Innes’ longest novel to date, 336 pages in the Collins paperback edition. It is a slow-burning tale of oil prospecting on the politically sensitive border between sheikdoms in the Empty Quarter of Arabia, given flavour by the soap opera theme that the young man who travels out to Arabia and triggers the narrative is the bastard son by a Welsh serving girl of the posh Arab expert and obsessive oil prospector, Colonel Charles Whitaker.

The story is a first-person narrative told by the Welsh solicitor, George Grant, who sets out to investigate the young man’s subsequent death and who becomes the reluctant eyewitness to the story’s key developments and tragic denouement.

The plot

Like many a movie, the book opens in a court where staid solicitor George Grant is called on to give the evidence which will decide the fate of the man in the dock, a ‘national hero’, a ‘global figure’, who is on trial for murder. So what led up to this scene?… cue shimmering film effects and travelling-back-in-time music…

1. Escape to Saraifa Well, it all began four years earlier when Grant is called to a house in Swansea where he finds that a 19-year-old boy, David Thomas, who’s escaped from Borstal, has returned to the family home and hit his father so severely that he’s caused a fatal stroke. It quickly emerges that the assault took place because the boy has discovered he’s not the man’s son at all; all this time both his ‘parents’ have lied to him – and he is actually the bastard son of the legendary adventurer and oil prospector in Arabia, Colonel Charles Whitaker, who they used to refer to as ‘Uncle Charles’.

Grant has been called in because his firm handles the monthly payments that come from Whitaker’s bank in Bahrain to the mother’s account – maintenance, or guilt money. When the ‘father’ dies as a result of his blows, David is arrested – but promptly escapes police custody to arrive, wet and injured, in Grant’s office where, against his better judgment and all his professional training, Grant helps the boy stow away on a ship bound for Arabia.

Old Captain Griffiths likewise takes pity on this intense, unhappy young man, allowing him passage on his ship and helping smuggle him ashore in Arabia, where he’s collected by his father’s men. The last Grant hears is a letter saying that David’s met his scary father, Colonel Whitaker (beak nose, patch over one eye, feared by his men, close confederate of the sheikh) and is beginning courses in oil drilling, with a view to helping him with his prospecting.

2. Enquiries of an executioner Three years later Grant is shocked to receive a letter saying David is missing, presumed dead, in the Empty Quarter of Arabia. During that time Grant had become the UK solicitor for Colonel Whitaker, receiving funds from all kinds of business and sheikhs, before disbursing them to buy the equipment for a major oil prospecting expedition. Whitaker is obsessed with the quixotic idea that the profitable Saudi oil seams carry on into the small sheikdom of Saraifa. The shocking news that David is dead is confirmed by an obituary in The Times. And then Captain Griffiths turns up in Grant’s office with a package a harassed David had given him before his fateful, final mission, to be delivered to Grant by hand.

Is David really dead? How did he die? Was he murdered? Was he about to make a great discovery? Who was he working for? —- Trying to answer these questions is the motor of the plot driving Grant to meet and interview as many people connected with the events as possible for the middle 200 pages of the book.

The package contains a last will and testament – for David senses he will die on his last prospecting mission – along with a pledge to drill in specified locations on the Saraifa-Hadd border, which David hopes Grant can force the CEO of the oil company he and his father work for – GODCO – to sign. To make that happen Grant will have to fly to Arabia…

3. The Empty Quarter

Grant flies out to Bahrain and encounters various players including the cool, calculating Erkhard, MD of GODCO in his high-rise office. Tricky and evasive, he nonetheless convinces Grant that the company did everything it could to mount a search & rescue operation for David, but found nothing. Grant goes on to the hospital to meet David’s twin sister, Susan, a nurse working out there. He meets an Italian journalist Ruffini, who is rooting round looking for a story. He meets Sir Philip Gorde, the GODCO boss, who refuses to sign David’s document requesting drilling at key locations, which Grant has been instructed to present to him.

To explain why, Gorde flies Grant over the desert to see the locations, to show him they are on the politically sensitive border between Saraifa and Hadd, players in a centuries old blood feud. But to Gorde’s own surprise, from the plane they see a team drilling illegally and land on a gravel stretch of desert to quiz them. The drilling is being led by one Entwistle, who had met and respected David and now is, unofficially, following up David’s hunch about the oil on the border.

Grant’s dialogue with Entwistle is made up of characteristic Innes evasions.

Entwistle hesitated… ‘It isn’t easy to explain,’… he hesitated… Entwistle hesitated… He hesitated… unable, apparently, to put it into words… Again the hesitation… (pp.149-50)

When Grant gets to ask Entwistle whether he thinks David is still alive there is more evasion.

He hesitated… ‘What are you suggesting?’ I asked. ‘He hesitated…. ‘I don’t rightly know,’ he muttered… (p.153)

4. The doomed oasis

To Grant’s horror, Gorde flies off leaving Grant with Entwistle and his drilling crew in the middle of the desert, and five minutes later they’re attacked by armed bedouin. They flee in the Land Rover and drilling lorry and, after an arduous journey across desert sand and gravel, arrive at the much-mentioned Saraifa oasis, where they are promptly arrested by the ruler, sheikh Makhmud. He is very angry that they’ve been drilling on the border as it could trigger a war with the neighbouring Emir of Hadd. A tense counsel of the bedou elders is interrupted when  one of the precious water pipes to the village, the falajes, fails and Entwistle makes a quick getaway in the Land Rover. Should Grant go with him?

‘I don’t know’, I said. I didn’t know anything for certain… He hesitated. (p.166)

Grant meets Khalid, the son of sheikh Makhmud and, as usual, the encounter is marked by hesitation, non-communication, evasion.

There were many things I wanted to ask him but this didn’t seem the moment. (p.170)

There was a moment then when he hesitated as though about to tell me something…. he replied ‘I don’t know.’… before I could question him he had drawn back… (p.172)

And then, finally, he meets the mysterious and legendary Charles Whitaker. He lives in a few rooms in a large empty mansion in the village and, it turns out, has the same conversational style as every other Innes character.

He didn’t say anything… He made no comment… He shrugged… the silence between us hung heavy as the thick night air… ‘It’s not easy to explain. You don’t understand the situation.’

What is clear is that: the little sheikdom of Saraifa, a castle and village based in an oasis, is under constant attack from the sands of the desert. It is only protected by a line of thorn trees and it only produces dates and rice etc thanks to an ancient system of falajes or water pipes, bringing water some thirty miles from the mountains. There used to be dozens but they have fallen into disrepair, now there are only six, and the men from Hadd are sabotaging these last ones, threatening to destroy all of them and, with them, Saraifa itself, if the illegal drilling continues.

There is a confusing scene where Erkhard flies in and appears to agree with Whitaker that the company will drill the disputed location – this leads sheikh Makhmud to organise a massive celebration feast, described in detail. But then Gorde arrives and, in front of everyone, tears the agreement up. In light of the blowing up of the falaj and some other violent exchanges, Gorde says neither his company nor any other will take the risk of triggering a war. He stalks out and the atmosphere turns very ugly as the jubilant Arabs give vent to their frustration. Whitaker returns to his half-empty palace. Grant returns to the isolated turret room the sheikh had allotted him. Crowds gather in the village square and are harangued by hotheads, and appear to go off and blow up one of the westerner’s airplanes. Grant is afraid.

5. The Quicksands of Umm al Samim

Now GODCO has definitively sworn off drilling on the border, Whitaker tells Grant he wants to liquidate all his assets in the UK and do the drilling out on the border himself as a freelance – although he knows he risks being murdered by Hadd’s men. Grant gets into a Land Rover driven by Whitaker’s servant to leave Saraifa  but they reach the village square only to be blocked by armed men and Grant is returned all over again to his room in the turret.

In this tense atmosphere Grant is brought before the sheikh’s son, Khalid, who tells him David is alive. David’s mysterious disappearance/death was a set-up. The previous 200 pages, and all of Grant’s investigations so far, have been for nothing, based on a false premise.

Before that can sink in Khalid’s bodyguards whisk Grant into a Land Rover and they set off on a journey to Whitaker’s oil drilling rig thirty miles south. Here they learn that Whitaker has ordered his team to pack up and set off to drill on the dangerous border (leaving this reader to ask: why didn’t they quiz Whitaker about this back in Saraifa? Why don’t they simply order the drilling crew not to move?).

From there they drive at speed to a friendly village, Dhaid, and have barely been greeted by the hairy old sheik and his ragamuffin crew, before Khalid receives the message that the men of Hadd are massing for an attack on Saraifa, the doomed oasis. Khalid must return to his father – but he insists that Grant must change into native garb and be taken by a guide who doesn’t speak English into the remote quicksands of Umm al Samim, for this is where David is hiding out. Crikey.

Why did David fake his own death?

Khalid explains that he and David cooked up the idea of David’s disappearance for the publicity, to get it reported in the press, to bring pressure to bear on the oil company to drill in the contentious locations and encourage the British government to secure the disputed territory for Saraifa. (What a silly plan.) But it has completely failed: Gorde, the head of the oil company has expressly banned the drilling, war with the men of Hadd now looks inevitable, and the British government is (wisely) refusing to get involved – the exact opposite of everything David hoped for.

Khalid tells Grant he must go on this mission to find David and a) bring him back to be reunited with his father, to persuade him to call off the drilling b) then go to the British Political representative in Bahrain and beg for men and guns to defend Saraifa from the men of Hadd and their allies.

— Innes’ description of Grant’s journey through the desert and then across the treacherous quagmire of Umm al Samim is powerfully evocative. Around this stage of the book the longeurs which had dogged Grant’s quest for David begin to be replaced by more frequent and vivid descriptions of the desert, the harshness of bedouin life, a mounting sense of violence and impending tragedy.

Disaster

And then – very quickly, in the space of twenty pages – the situation and mood are turned upside down. As David and Grant ride their slow camels back towards Saraifa they learn that the men of Hadd have already attacked the doomed oasis. First they find the neighbouring village, Dhaid, full of wobegone refugees cowering behind the walls. Then they come to Saraifa itself, where all the falajes have been blocked, there is no drinking water, and the desert sands are blowing freely across the date gardens.

They ride out to the first watering hole where they discover the wreckage of a battlefield. Here Khalid and his men were ambushed by the men of Hadd and massacred, rusty old rifles against modern automatic weapons. All the bodies have been half-eaten by hyenas. David finds Khalid’s body, buries it with tears in his eyes, then swears vengeance on the men of Hadd.

They ride on past scattered corpses and out into the desert until they come upon Whitaker who is setting up his mobile drilling at the contentious locations, regardless of the consequences. Grant witnesses the reunion between son and the father who thought he was dead, and it is not a happy one. David is mystified as to why Whitaker is bothering to drill at all since, in David’s mind, the drilling was always about generating oil revenue to pay to restore the falajas and save the oasis. He is appalled to realise that for Whitaker it is just about confirming his lifelong theory that the oil is here, and about money. He has done a deal with the Emir of Hadd, got his approval to drill, and will pay him a commission.

David, thirsting for revenge, begs his father for men to help him carry out an attack on Hadd but Whitaker (sensibly) refuses. Whitaker asks Grant to help him make David see sense. In his turn, David asks Grant to come with him and help with his attack. Almost without realising it, Grant agrees with the latter and, along with four Arabs, they set off on camel-back for Hadd. —More evocative descriptions of the desert by day and night. And an atmosphere of real threat and tension.

The small team arrive at Hadd by night. David blows up its three wells (ha! revenge for Saraifa!) then they climb the old fort which backs onto the town. The battle – or more accurately, siege – which forms the climax of the novel, has begun.

6. Fort Jebel al-Akhbar

By this stage the novel has become gripping. Maybe it’s the introductoin of the visceral excitement of war and bloodshed – but it’s also the sense that the various strands of the plot are reaching a climax: Grant’s long association with David, which gives their relationship its depth; and David’s enmity with his father; all overlaid by his thirst for revenge for the killing of Khalid and the strangling of Saraifa, the doomed oasis.

David, Grant and their Arabs hold out in the commanding tower for days. They snipe at anyone trying to fix the wells. They successfully repulse every attack, sometimes with grenades. Three Land Rovers arrive with boastful Arab warriors and they immediately destroy two of them.

Under cover of dark, David encourages Grant to escape, blacked out, dressed as a bedouin, hiding against rocks as another wave of attackers climb the hillside. Grant stumbles across the attackers’ camels, steals one and heads west in the hope of coming across the tracks to Whitaker’s camp. —More convincing, and terrifying, descriptions of the pitiless desert.

By fluke, Grant makes it to Whitaker’s camp and his news angers the old man: he has helped set the Emir against him just as his dreams of drilling were coming true. Whitaker is torn between grief at the inevitable death of his son and hatred of him for scuppering his lifelong ambition.

The incident has been reported and one Colonel George for the British Army drops by to ensure Whitaker and his men are alright. He is accompanied by Ruffini, the snooping Italian journalist Grant first met in Bahrain. Lucky. Grant briefs Ruffini who flies out with Colonel George and manages to smuggle the story out to the British press. The next day it is dominating the national papers and a question is asked of the Foreign Secretary in the House. David’s siege has become an international incident. Over the next few days David is cast, by a jingoistic press, as a national hero. Grant watches all these developments with amazement.

Colonel George had radioed one of his patrols, led by a Captain Berry, to collect Grant and take him back to Bahrain but they divert to the border with Hadd and then, after a few days, the fuss in the press not going away, they are ordered to proceed to Jebel al-Akhbar to broker a deal.

Captain Berry and Grant are given safe passage by the Emir up the hill to the fort and meet David, more dead than alive, wounded and parched with thirst. He refuses to leave. He doesn’t trust the Emir not to assassinate him, and he thinks with a few more days holdout the British government will be forced to intervene and save Saraifa. Berry and Grant leave him some water and bandages and return to keeping a watching brief with their platoon of troops on the Saraifa-Hadd border.

Next thing they see a posse of the Emir’s men ride by in the direction of Whitaker’s drilling – then several hours later, riding back with Whitaker. The Emir is forcing Whitaker to confront his son and make him surrender.

Hours later Berry and Grant and the men hear a single shot ring out from the distant hill. They receive radio instructions that the government is brokering David’s surrender and a helicopter flies into the mountain top to bring him out. Ruffini the journalist is there to record the scene as the semi-conscious David is brought down to Berry’s camp, just enough time to whisper hello to Grant, before being flown on to hospital in Bahrain.

The Emir rides out to the camp in the dignity and simplicity of bedouin dress on a camel and harangues the British troops: they care nothing for the deaths of innumerable Arabs, but maybe they will mind the death of a white man. And one of his Land Rovers roars up and deposits the body of Colonel Whitaker onto the sand, shot in the face.

Did David shoot him? Is he a national hero or a national disgrace? Ruffini promises to write up a version that the Emir’s men treacherously murdered Whitaker, and Grant is full of hope. But Whitaker’s old friend and sparring partner, Sir Philip, says it is Grant’s fault for smuggling David out here in the first place, a dockside water-rat, a criminal wanted by the police, a rough illegitimate boy who had vowed to kill his father, one of the finest Arabists of his generation, a legend in the Peninsula, and a hero. It is all Grant’s fault.

Which is true? Which version will prevail?

Back in court

And so the narrative returns to the opening scene, a court room where Grant has been called to give evidence for the prosecution against David Thomas. The preceding 300 pages amount to a summary of his evidence, what he saw and experienced and witnessed. What will the court decide…?


Innes’ ‘secrets’

The ‘secrets’ at the core of these Innes novels of the later 1950s are often pretty trivial:

  • In The Wreck of The Mary Deare the crew were ordered to sink the ship as part of an insurance scam, but the captain managed to keep her afloat and beach her on rocks near the Scillies. That’s it. But it takes the narrator about 200 pages of painful obstructions and evasive conversations to prise this out of the ship’s captain.
  • In The Land God Gave To Cain Three engineers survive crash landing in the wilds of Labrador, where one goes mad and tries to kill the other two, one of whom just about survives, escapes and hushes it all up. The narrator, a radio ham in England, picks up a radio signal from the murderer, left out in the wastes, a week after he was officially dead – that’s the puzzle or mystery – and it takes him 200 pages of interviewing innumerable evasive and obstructive company officials and eyewitnesses before he gets to the (unsatisfyingly simple) truth.

Innes only manages to spin 200-page novels out of these thin scenarios by having everyone in them appear slow on the uptake and have long, fruitless conversations in which they refuse to ‘spit it out’. Everyone is evasive about everything. In the 1950s this might have passed for the creation of ‘pace, tension and intrigue’ but tastes have changed. We expect a modern thriller to be cleverer than the reader, to outwit us with multiple levels of deceit, layers of duplicity which are slowly peeled away to reveal something truly shocking or dazzling.

Instead, for the majority of this book, as in the previous two, I experienced a growing sense of frustration as every conversation consisted of evasions and hesitations. Not for any cunning and clever reasons but simply for Innes to create a false sense of tension and spin things out.

It’s made worse because the real explanation is obvious so early on in the novel – when David’s death is reported I thought it was a bit pat and convenient, so it came as no surprise 200 pages later to realise he isn’t dead at all. The only thing that puzzled me was, Why? And the revelation that it was a publicity stunt to push the company into signing a legal commitment to drill at the contentious locations just seems ludicrous, a ludicrous failure to understand how multinational oil companies work.

Evasions and frustrations

A classic example is the conversation between the solicitor Grant and David’s twin sister, Susan, out in Arabia. Almost every one of her replies for about five pages of dialogue is hesitant, evasive, reluctant – and, doubling the frustration, part of it is her recounting a conversation with her brother in which he had been hesitant and evasive.

But since we, the readers, know that the plot boils down to David and his father disobeying oil company policy and drilling for oil in a politically sensitive region, the evasions seem unnecessary, willed and wilful, only there to delay and retard the plot, to inject a factitious sense of intrigue into a situation which is relatively simple.

She paused there… ‘Dedicated to what?’ I asked… but she couldn’t tell me… she gave a slight shrug… she didn’t answer for a moment… she hesitated… She paused, at a loss for words… I asked her what it meant but all she said was… ‘I don’t know,’ she said… she didn’t answer for a while… she shrugged… ‘I don’t know’… She didn’t seem to want to talk about it, for I had to drag it out of her… She admitted it reluctantly… she hesitated.. ‘I can’t explain’… she couldn’t put it into words… ‘He wouldn’t tell me anything’… ‘Now?’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t know…’ she shook her head… she shrugged… ‘I don’t know…’ (pages 123-130)

Similarly, when Grant meets David, blackened and seared by six weeks hiding out in the desert, you’d have thought he’d be desperate to explin the situation and find out what’s happened in his absence. But the scene is marred by Innes’ characteristic slowness and evasiveness.

His voice faded and once more he was staring out into the void… He didn’t say anything for a long time, sitting there lost in thought… He said it with deep bitterness and afterward was silent for a long time… (pp.233-235)

‘What happened?’ I asked him.
‘Nothing,’ he replied tersely. And after that he sat for a long time without saying a word. (p.251)

If Raymond Chandler is the king of quickfire repartee, Innes is the master of long, slow, slack, evasive and frustratingly inconclusive dialogue. How I wish I had a pound for every time a character shrugs, or hesitates, or says ‘I don’t know’.

Shellfish

There’s a physical concomitant to these evasions which is the tendence of all the characters to perform the same psychological act of turning in on themselves, withdrawing from the conversation, or looking off into the distance. It’s something I noticed a lot in The Land God Gave To Cain and it’s here in spades. This would be fine if there was anything interesting they were pondering or looking at – but they aren’t.

He had withdrawn into his own thoughts. (p.178)

He didn’t say anything. He seemed suddenly to have withdrawn into himself. (p.181)

Colour

On the other hand, Innes is good at local colour. As the plot becomes more Arab, as the westerners get left behind and Grant enters the world of the desert Arabs, the ‘plot’ may be spurious, but the text of the novel really picks up pace and intensity from Innes’ vivid description of Arab clothes and appearances, speech and customs, and the changing face of the vast and terrifying desert.

We travelled all that night without a break. The moon turned the desert to a bleak, bone white, and in the early hours a mist came up and it was cold. By then I was too tired to care where I was going and only the pain of the saddle chafing the inside of my thighs, the ache of unaccustomed muscles, kept me awake. The dawn brought a searing wind that whipped the mist aside and flung a moving cloud of sand in our faces. Lightning flashed in the gloom behind us, but no rain fell – just the wind and the driving sand particles. (p.225)

His prose is clear and functional, isn’t it? Devoid of the class-conscious grammatical correctness of Graham Greene’s prose, it is lucid and easy to read. There are no obstacles to quick comprehension and it is this ease of absorption, it is the speed you can read it at, which compensates, especially in the final section of the novel, for the frustrations of the first half of the plot.

As you put the book down it is the quick vivid descriptions of battle in the desert, along with the gathering sense of danger as Grant gets sucked into the siege on the hill, which ultimately outweigh the shortcomings of the earlier human interactions, so that overall I found it a rewarding, memorable and moving book. But I can see why nobody tried to make it into a film. And also why, like so many other Innes books, it is now largely unread.

Related links

Original Collins hardback cover of The Doomed Oasis

Original Collins hardback cover of The Doomed Oasis

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene (1960)

‘At the end you find you haven’t even got a self to express. I have no interest in anything any more , Doctor.’…
‘When a man comes here too late the disease has to burn itself out.’ (p.46)

‘Querry may be also a burnt-out case,’ the doctor said… [Burnt-out cases are] the lepers who lose everything that can be eaten away before they are cured.’ (p.110)

Plot – part one

A mysterious figure trying to escape his past life has taken the river boat as far as it will go into the heart of Congo. He gets out at the end of the line, where there is a leper colony. It is Querry, a (supposedly) world-famous religious architect, whose picture was on the cover of Time, and who built a number of churches in the modern style. Now he gets permission to stay at the local Catholic seminary and gets to know the Superior, the various fathers, and Dr Colin who runs the leproserie – a clinic for the many local lepers.

It quickly emerges that Querry is at the end of his tether, having left both his mistress and his architectural practice. He no longer feels a vocation, he no longer feels desire, he feels nothing, he wants nothing. He sits around and chats about the meaning of life and how to get the generators working, with the Superior, with the various priests and with Dr Colin, who he develops a wary friendship with. They are both lapsed Catholics.

Catholicism

Of course, this being Greene, almost all the characters are Catholics who, therefore, all start talking at the drop of a hat about divine and earthly love, who worry about their rosaries or whether God is watching or whether they should or shouldn’t attend mass, etc. The immediate earnestness with which they debate these ‘Big Questions’ seems so remote and alien in the age of sexting and 50 Shades of Grey. I think of black and white TV programmes from the early 1960s with Malcolm Muggeridge and a bishop earnestly debating the Question of Faith, or some such. At one point, the exchange:

‘Remorse is a kind of belief.’
‘Oh no, it isn’t.’ (p.76)

made me laugh out loud. He’s behind you. Yah boo. Love is hate and God is pity but pity kills and man killed God but God kills man every day, but man kills God in  his image every day, blah blah blah. Along with much harping on Greene’s favourite theme that love is dangerous, it demands victims, that pity can kill, that all the supposed virtues lead to their opposites. Well – if you read Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene, you see that they often did for Mr G, forever entangled in the tortuous affairs with numerous women he ‘loved’ and wounded. But not necessarily for everyone else…

‘Liking is a great deal safer than love. It doesn’t demand victims.’ (p.82)

Etc. I’ve written elsewhere about Greene the preacherman. As I read the leisurely discussions about ‘the vocation of saints’ and ‘the true meaning of love’ between Querry and the Superior, Dr Colin and Querry, and the Superior and the priests, and the priests and Querry, it occurred to me that Greene might have liked the Catholic church, apart from all the other reasons (like being saved and going to Heaven) because it gives you endless opportunities to pontificate.

The scope for preaching is vast and the system much larger and more coherent than the inadequate Anglicanism he was raised in. Much larger, much more intense, much more blood and pain and suffering and sacrifice, very appealing to a suicidal adolescent or a depressive young man. And, once you’re in, there is literally endless scope to ravel out vast skeins of verbiage and rhetoric, scores of pages, entire books, from its infinitely varied, easily disputable and garish theology.

From a purely practical point of view, if you are a writer struggling to support a family (and various mistresses and prostitutes) and are paid by the word, then having troubled characters explore the voluminous entrails of Catholic theology is an extremely attractive and practical strategy for generating copy. Is extreme humility just, in fact, an inverted form of extreme pride? Aha, good for a short story. Is the truest love the one which denies its own expression? Aha, might work up into a full novel. Repeat ad infinitum

‘You are a man of humility.’ ‘If you knew the extent of my pride…’ (p.91)

‘If you feel in pain because you doubt, it is obvious you are feeling the pain of faith…’ (p.92)

‘Perhaps a man can be judged by his rashness.’ (p.99)

‘Behind all of us in various ways lies a spoilt priest.’ (p.110)

‘We none of us really know ourselves.’ (p.111)

‘Perhaps it’s true that you can’t believe in a god without loving a human being or love a human being without believing in a god.’ (p.114)

‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition.’ (p.122)

‘Love is planted in man now… Sometimes, of course, people call it hate.’ (p.124)

Suburban

This might have blossomed into some kind of existential meditation on life and death, on the developed and undeveloped world, on psychological illness (ennui) juxtaposed with the appalling symptoms of the physical ailment, leprosy, on the nature of colonialism in Africa.

But in Greene’s hands it becomes strangely suburban. The nearest town, Luc, is meant to be hundreds of miles away along disintegrating roads and yet we are quickly introduced to small-town, gossipy colonial life there, complete with raffish Monsignor (‘you may kiss my ring’), the insufferably self-centered Rycker – owner of a palm oil factory – and his poor young wife who he alternately tyrannises and wheedles into bed with him, the short, pompous governor and his wife, fussing about drinks at their cocktail parties. Before he knows it, Querry, who had hoped to find peace and anonymity in the depths of the jungle, is the nearest thing to a ‘celebrity’, his every move reported in the tiny world of unhappy colonists.

George Orwell notoriously pointed out that the basic plot of The Heart of the Matter (police inspector has affair with younger woman) could have taken place in Surrey, not Sierra Leone. Here, also, although it is very hot and there are ‘boy’ servants (and lepers) everywhere, the plot could actually be reset in any remote part of the British Isles where a jaded man goes to escape his success but ends up becoming the subject of local gossip. Viewed from another angle, it could almost have been an Ealing comedy, starring Alec Guinness as the unassuming architect.

Comedy

In fact, there are numerous moments of quiet comedy scattered through the text. Loser Takes All and Our Man In Havana marked a new ability for comedy in Greene’s work, a new maturity – if we define maturity as the ability to laugh at the world’s absurdity rather than be adolescently tortured by it.

Father Jean was tall, pale, and concave with a beard which struggled like an unpruned hedge. He had once been a brilliant theologian before he joined the Order and now he carefully nurtured the character of a film-fan, as though it would help him to wipe out an ugly past. (p.83)

And there’s a tension in this text between the melodramatic finale Greene forces on it and the numerous small ironies he quietly records between the characters, along the way.

Descriptions

The pace of the first half of the novel is as slow as the wide, muddy river which flows past the leproserie, allowing plenty of time for some wonderful descriptions.

On the other shore the great trees, with roots above the ground like the ribs of a half-built ship, stood out over the green jungle wall, brown at the top like stale cauliflowers. The cold grey trunks, unbroken by branches, curved a little this way and a little that, giving them a kind of reptilian life Porcelain-white birds stood on the backs of coffee-coloured cows, and once for a whole hour he watched a family who sat in a pirogue by the bank doing nothing; the mother wore a bright yellow dress, the man, wrinkled like bark, sat bent over a paddle he never used, and a girl with a baby on her lap smiled and smiled like an open piano. (p.27)

The plot – part two

I don’t know why critics say Greene is political when he is entirely personal. Congo, where this novel is set, achieved independence in the year the novel was published, 1960. The lead-up to this momentous achievement must have been intricate and fascinating. None of this appears in the novel, only a few passing references to ‘riots in the capital’, which could be any capital, anywhere.

No, alas, after the slow amiable conversations of part one, part two descends quickly into a bedroom farce which Greene then forces to become some kind of tragedy.

Part two (the novel is actually divided into six parts, but very clearly falls into two halves) begins with the arrival of a fatuous (and fat) journalist named Montagu Parkinson, who has been alerted to Querry’s presence by the histrionic, self-dramatising Catholic factory owner, Rycker, back in Luc. Parkinson has looked Querry up in the files of his magazine and uncovered some dirt, mainly about past affairs and mistresses. Like Greene himself.

After a week or so he departs but a month or so later Querry hears that Parkinson has published the first of a sensational series about the successful architect who gave it all up to minister to lepers in the jungle, a Saint, a Figure For Our Times etc. Disgusted, Querry drives the long distance to give Rycker a piece of his mind, in fact to thump him. But he finds him ill in bed and his pretty young wife quickly confides how unhappy she is and she fears she is pregnant. Somehow Querry finds himself driving her off into Luc that night with a view to visiting a doctor the next day to get a confirmation, or not, of the pregnancy. He gets them seperate hotel rooms. She can’t sleep so he tells her a long parable about a young man who believes in an invisible king (a transparent allegory of his own Catholic faith). Next day they bump into the ubiquitous Parkinson, but Rycker turns up, enraged, histrionically convinced his wife has run off to have an affair with Querry. This is such rubbish, Querry simply walks away.

Several days later the priests at the seminary have a little party to celebrate putting the roof-tree onto the new school building Querry has designed for them. There is a heavy rainstorm with (Gothic) thunder and lightning. In the middle of all the bangs and flashes, the priests get a call from the convent down the road that Rycker’s wife, Marie, has arrived there, exhausted, after 3 days on the road alone. She is insisting not only that Querry is her lover, but that she is pregnant by him!

Ridiculous! Querry goes to talk to her but realises she is quite ready to lie her pants off because it will get her away from the husband she hates and, ultimately, back to Europe where she longs to return.

As the thunder and lightning crash around the seminary, the priests are discussing whether Querry can be allowed to stay with them – since there will inevitably be scandal, boosted by the vile journalist Parkinson – and Querry is brushing it off and discussing divine and earthly love and which building they need to build next with Dr Colin – when the infuriated, histrionically Catholic, ‘wronged husband’ Rycker arrives, blundering about in the tropical rainstorm shouting Querry’s name and waving a gun around.

Farce or tragedy

Go on. Guess what happens next. Rycker shoots Querry dead. How did you guess? Oh yes, because it was crashingly inevitable. — Greene is so aware that a novel which could have offered fascinating insights into Congo on the eve of independence or about the treatment of leprosy and medicine in the developing world or about one man’s quest to escape the world – has turned into yet another novel about adultery, just like The Heart of the Matter and The End of The Affair, and a rather ludicrous one at that, that he has one of the priests point out that it’s all a bit like a French farce.

Rycker made for the door. He stood there for a moment as though he were on stage and had forgotten his exit line. ‘There isn’t a jury that would convict me,’ he said and went out again into the dark and rain…
[Father Jean said] ‘…It’s a little like one of those Palais Royal farces that one has read… The injured husband pops in and out.’ (p.190)

Quite. Greene visited some amazing places at just the right historical moment – London during the Blitz, Freetown 1942, Vienna 1948, Vietnam 1952, Cuba 1955, Congo 1959 – and sets novels in each of them. But novels of adventure? Novels of profound political insight? Novels which shed light on the great movement of post-colonial independence which swept the world in the decades after World War Two? Nope. Novels about unhappy upper-middle class professional men who steal other men’s women or have their women stolen by other men. The key characters are always Greene-proxy – woman – other man.

If only Greene could have devised a comic resolution to what is in so many ways a straightforward comic situation. But no. Bang bang. ‘The horror the horror,’ Querry dies quoting Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness… actually he doesn’t, his dying word is the 1950s existentialist buzzword, ‘absurd’. But just quoting the buzzword of fashionable existentialism doesn’t make your entire work an existentialist novel. It is too urbane, too relaxed, right up till the end too untroubled for that.

Envoi

With crashing inevitability there is a final conversation between the Superior and sad Dr Colin designed to make us empathise even more with the tragic hero.

‘They would never have left him alone.’
‘Who do you mean by “they”?’
‘The fools, the interfering fools, they exist everywhere, don’t they? He had been cured of all but his success; but you can’t cure success, any more than I can give my mutilés back their fingers and toes. I return them to the town, and people look at them in the stores and watch them in the street and draw the attention of others to them as they pass. Success is like that too – a mutilation of the natural man.’ (p.197)

Poor Graham. Rich, successful, famous. Wives, mistresses and lovers coming out of his ears. Still so unhappy. Still such a grievance against the world.

In the end the plot boils down to a farcical joke: middle-aged philanderer is shot down by the jealous husband of the one woman he hasn’t bedded. Bitter irony. Life isn’t fair. The world is absurd. Geddit?

Style

All that said in criticism of the plot and the bucket theology, the novel is very pleasurable to read. His style, though not flashy or ostentatious, is dry and suave. Greene had been writing novels for 30 years by this stage. He knows how to achieve a host of little effects by juxtaposing people’s thoughts or words with their opposite in reality or other people’s minds, sly little dramatic ironies to be found on every page.

You almost feel the bucket Catholicism is part of a contractual obligation he feels required to deliver in each novel; whereas it is the ‘wisdom’ embodied by these small verbal strategies, the sense they give of listening to a man of the world, who is alert to all the little comedies of social life, of being alive and alert to human ironies, which is the real pleasures of the text. Not even the characters, as such, but the words that create the characters, and the way they move and dance against each other.

After reading Modesty Blaise and the Quiller spy novels, it was an enormous relief to read a text which is so sophisticated, urbane, reflective, mature.

Related links

Greene’s books

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

Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green (1960)

First of all, what a fabulous name! Where does the Lancelyn come from? His name is redolent of all the Puffin paperbacks, about Troy and King Arthur especially, which I read as a child, curled up in a snug corner and transported to faraway lands.

Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-87) was an Oxford scholar, a younger member of the Inklings group of Oxford English scholars which included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He is well-known for his series of books for children telling the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur and the myths of ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt and, as here, of the Norsemen.

To an extent I wouldn’t have appreciated as a child, he uses the same limited, fragmented, scholarly sources as everyone else (in the preface he credits the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda and the Volsunga Saga) and cheerfully admits the challenge of making one coherent narrative from them:

Norse mythology is the very antithesis of Greek from the reteller’s point of view. The wealth of literature and legend available for studying the gods of Olympus is positively embarrassing, and the problem there is one of selection. The gods of Asgard, on the other hand, remain strangely aloof: the difficulty here is to find enough about them. And when the scanty material is collected, it is still harder to fit together the incomplete jigsaw-puzzle which is all that remains to us. (Author’s Note)

He does a great job, a really great job, of splicing all the scattered material into one coherent and thrilling narrative. One can take a diachronic or a synchronic approach to myths ie narrate the Creation story and how the pantheon grew from its primal origins; or accept the mythic landscape and tell the stories which occur within it. RLG combines the two: swiftly retelling the Norse creation myth before moving on to tell the main stories, but skilfully weaving in asides about the origins or relevant features of the supernatural protagonists of each adventure to fill out their personalities and divine attributes. Thus:

Chapter 1 – Yggdrasill the World Tree The creation story, Ymir the frost giant, Yggdrassil the Worldtree, Audumhil the World Cow, Odin the AllFather, Asgard the abode of the gods, Gladsheim the gods’ palace, Valhalla Odin’s hall of heroes (the Einheriar) and the Valkyries, Midgard the earth of humans, Bifrost bridge from Asgard to Midgard. — Heimdall the bright roams through Midgard disguised as Rig the Walker, breeding the three human classes of thrall, craftsman and lord.

Chapter 2 – Odin in search of Wisdom Realising he needs wisdom and knowledge to prepare for the coming war with the giants, Odin roams the universe. He gives one eye to Mimir to be allowed to drink from the well of Wisdom at the root of the WorldTree. He hangs himself on Yggdrasil for nine days in order to understand death. Gullveig the beautiful giantess provokes war with the Vanir, the gods of the air, until peace is made with their leader, Niord, lord of Vanaheim, who settles in Asgard and fathers the fertility gods, Frey and Freya. Mimir and Honir, Odin’s brother, go to live among the Vanir as hostages. Mimir is beheaded. Odin keeps his living head by him to speak wisdom. — The long story of Kvasir the wise, murdered and his blood turned into kvas, the Mead of Inspiration, by dwarves, which is then stolen by the giant Suttung. Odin in disguise tricks the giant Baugi into helping him enter the dungeon where the Mead is guarded by the beautiful giantess Gunnlod whom Odin seduces, swallowing all the Mead and turning into an eagle to fly with it back to Asgard.

Black and white illustration of dwarves killing Kvasir and draining his blood to make the Mead of Inspiration (Image: Franz Stassen, 1920. Public domain)

Dwarves killing Kvasir and draining his blood to make the Mead of Inspiration (Image: Franz Stassen, 1920. Public domain)

Chapter 3 – The apples of Iduna The arrival at Asgard of the minstrel and harpist Bragi, son of Odin and Gunnlod who obviously became very familiar in the cave of Kvasi (see above). Accompanied by beautiful Iduna who keeps the gods supplied with the golden apples of eternal youth. Wandering through the world Odin and Honir encounter Loki, part giant and all trickster. Carried off by the Storm Giant Thiassi Loki promises to deliver him Iduna, who he leads into a wood where Thiassi, as an eagle captures her and carries off to his castle in Thrymheim, Kingdom of the Winds. Loki promises the Aesir to rescue her and flies to Thiassi’s castle as a falcon and carries Iduna back in the shape of a nut. Thiassi as an eagle, chasing, is burned by the fire at the threshold of Asgard. His daughter Skadi demands vengeance and is married to an Aesir she chooses by his feet from behind a curtain. It is Niord of the Vanir, and of their union are born Frey, Lord of peace and fruitfulness, and Freya, Lady of Love and Beauty.

Painting of “Idun and the Apples” by James Doyle Penrose (1890. Public domain)

“Idun and the Apples” by James Doyle Penrose (1890. Public domain)

Chapter 4 – Loki and the Giants From the start Loki’s ambiguous status in Asgard, Odin has made blood brothers with him but Loki is quite prepared to betray the Aesir if it suits him. Along with Odin and Honir he helps the peasant save his son Rogner from the giant Skrymsir who has vowed to eat him, by hiding him in an ear of corn, a swan’s feathers, a flatfish roe. — A man appears who promises to build a wall which will keep out the Rime Giants and Hill Giants in three years. He demands Freya and the moon and the Sun. Loki advises they contract to give him Freya if he can do it in one year since that’s obviously impossible. The gods agree but the man proceeds to almost build it with help from his supernatural horse, Svadilfari. Loki transforms into a beautiful white mare and steals Svadilfari away. The man turns into a monstrous giant who threatens Asgard until Odin casts down the sheild Svarin which was hiding the sun which turns the giant to stone. Loki returns some months later with Svadilfari and a foal, the eight-legged superhorse Sleipnir who will become Odin’s magic steed.

Loki as a mare distracting the stallion Svadilfari (Image: Dorothy Hardy, 1909. Public domain)

Loki as a mare distracting the stallion Svadilfari (Image: Dorothy Hardy, 1909. Public domain)

Chapter 5 Loki makes Mischief Loki copulates with the giantess Angurboda three monsters: Odin sends Hela down to the underworld of Nifelheim, protected by the bloody dog Garm; and he flings the monster serpent Jormungand out into the sea where he grows until he stretched right round the world and bit his own tail; the giant wolf Fenris grows larger, the gods try to bind him in two chains which break; then Frey commissions a magic chain from the Black Dwarfs of Svartalfheim, Gleipnir and the gods trick Fenris into trying it on, but only if one of them places his hand in the wolf’s mouth. The war god Tyr does so, Fenris is bound until Ragnarok, and Tyr loses his hand. — Secretly angered, Loki cuts off the hair of beautiful Sif, wife to Thor, who goes berserk. As recompense Loki commissions Dvalin, chief of the Black Dwarfs, to make the spear Gungnir for Odin, the ship Skidbladnir for Frey, and new golden hair for Sif. But rivalry breaks out among the dwarfs and Loki bets his head that another dwarf, Sindri can’t do better. Sindri proceeds to make Gullinbursti, a golden boar, for Frey, Draupnir the magic ring to Odin, and Mjolnir the hammer to Thor. a) Loki, as a gadfly, distracts Brok while he’s pumping the bellows, so Mjolnir’s handle is a trifle short; b) the gods deem Sindri’s gifts best and prepare for Loki to be beheaded until Loki says Brok can have his head – but not his neck! Angered, the dwarf sows Loki’s lips shut.

'Loki loses his bet' by Lorenz Frølich (1885. Public domain)

‘Loki loses his bet’ by Lorenz Frølich (1885. Public domain)

Chapter 6 Freya the Bride  Freya is happily married to Odur and lives in Folkvanger. She goes walking in Midgard and sees the Brisingamen, the Brising necklace, being forged by Black Dwarfs. She is bewitched; they will only give it if she spends one night with each four of them; and she does. Shamefully she returns to Asgard and hides the necklace. but Loki steals it form around her neck and shows it to Odur who wanders off distraught. Freya goes searching for him through Midgard dropping golden tears of sorrow. — Frey sits in Odin’s chair Hlidskjalf and sees a beautiful giantess, Gerda; he sends his companion Skirnir to woo her (which involves threatening her with the sword of sharpness). She says yes. Marriage feast in the wood Barri, where Freya reappears reconciled to Odur.— In the night someone steals Thor’s hammer. Loki flies to Thrymheim for it has been stolen by Thrym the Giant of Noise and buried 8 miles deep in the earth unless he can marry Freya. Thor is dressed as a woman and accompanied by Loki goes to Thrymheim where he plays the part until the hammer is brought out whereupon he kills Thrym, his sister and all their kin.

Frey riding the golden boar Gullinbursti, Freya driving her chariot pulled by cats (Image: Donn Crane. Public domain)

Frey riding the golden boar Gullinbursti, Freya driving her chariot pulled by cats (Image: Donn Crane. Public domain)

Chapter 7 – Thor’s visit to Utgard The giants sue for peace and invite Thor to Utgard, in the heart of Jotunheim, to stay with Utgardhaloki. En route they sleep in a vast hall which turns out to be Skrymir’s gloves. As he sleeps Thor three times tries to kill him with Mjolnar, each time the giant complains it tickles. Arriving at the giant’s castle they are challenged to an eating contest, a running contest, then Thor is invited to drink from a horn, to lift a cat off the ground then wrestle with an old lady. As the gods leave Utgardhaloki reveals he was Skrymir and Thor’s three hammer blows knocked valleys in a mountain range. The foot race was against Thought. The eating contest was against Fire. The other end of the drinking horn was in the Ocean and Thor drank a lot of it, creating the first tides. The cat he lifted off the floor was the world snake Jormungand, and the old lady was Age.

The Giant Skrymir and Thor (Image: Louis Huard/Wikimedia Commons)

The Giant Skrymir and Thor (Image: Louis Huard/Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 8 – Odin goes wandering The tale of the brothers Agnar and Gerrad, how they stay with Odin and Frigga pretending to be kindly humans; how they sail back to their kingdom but Gerrad pushes Agnar and his boat out to sea, inherits the kingdom, but Agnar returns to be a poor servant in his brother’s court; and how upon visiting Odin in disguise is ill-treated and tied between two fires for 8 days, until he sings a song about the creation of the heavens and Gerrad in his hurry to release him trips over his own sword and impales himself. — Odin wins a knowledge competition with the giant Valfthrudnir. — Odin challenges the giant Rungnir to a horserace between Sleipnir and Golden Mane. Odin wins and invited Rungnir into Asgard where he gets drunk and insults everyone. Thor challenges him to a fight at Giottunagard. Rungnir’s hone smashes into Thor’s hammer in midair. The hone is shattered scattering all the flint we find in the earth. Mjolnir kills the giant, but a) a fragment of flint enters Thor’s head b) the giant’s leg pins Thor to the ground until his three year old son comes to free him. The sorceress Groa recites spells to loosen the fragment and Thor tells her how much the gods love her husband Aurvandill.

Odin tied between fires in King Gerrad's castle (Image: Emil Doepler. Public domain)

Odin tied between fires in King Gerrad’s castle (Image: Emil Doepler. Public domain)

Chapter 9 – Geirrodur the Troll King Loki is trapped by Geirrodur into inviting Thor to his palace without his armour or hammer. En route Thor is entertained by the friendly giantess Grid who gives him a girdle of power and a magic staff. When he sits in a chair in Geirrodur’s castle it rises to crush him against the ceiling but he uses the magic staff and Geirrodur’s two daughters beneath the chair break their backs. As Thor approaches the giant he suddenly seizes a rod of white hot metal from the fire and throws it at Thor who catches it and throws it straight back; it passes through a stone column, through Geirrodur’s body, through the castle wall and outside into the earth. Thor leaves the crippled family and returns to Asgard. — The adventures of Thorkill the traveller who comes to Geirrodur’s kingdom some time later, surviving various hazards and witnessing the carnage of Thor’s visit.

Gerrod watches Thorkill by Alan Lee

Gerrod watches Thorkill by Alan Lee

Chapter 10 – The Curse of Andvari’s Ring Wandering through Midgard with Odin and Honir, Loki sees an otter eating a salmon and kills both with one stone. They arrive at the castle of Hreidmarr who recognises his dead son Otr and calls  his brothers Fafnir and Reginn. They keep Odin and Honir hostage while Loki gets a net off Ran the goddess of shipwrecks and captures the dwarf Andvari in the shape of a pike. Andvari hands over all his gold but curses the ring. Loki returns and stuffs and covers the dead otter with gold. The cursed ring is the last piece, covering the last hair. The gods depart but Hreidmarr’s sons kill him over the gold hoard and then Fafnir takes it off to Gnita Heath and turns into a dragon. Reginn goes to find employment as a smith with Hialprek, King of the Danes.

Here arrives the wife of the dead King Sigmund, once blessed by Odin, as a boy the only one able to pull the magic sword placed by Odin in the tree in his father King Volsung’s hall, but when his fate decreed, met by Odin in battle and his sword shattered. Reginn raises Sigmund’s son Sigurd filling him with tales of glory and especially about the gold hoard on Gnita Heath. The young hero asks Reginn to make a sword: twice he makes inferior ones which Sigurd smashes against the anvil; for the third one he asks Queen Hjordis for the fragments of Sigmund’s sword and forges the sword of power, Gram. On the advice of a strange old man with a broad brimmed hat and one eye, Sigurd builds trenches where Fafnir comes to drink. Lying in wait he thrusts up into the dragon’s body: there is a death colloquy. Reginn asks Sigurd to burn the dragon’s heart and as he cooks it Sigurd touches it, burns his finger and sucks it, tasting the dragon’s blood. Instantly he understand the conversation of the birds who are warning that Reginn plans to kill him. Without hesitation Sigurd decapitates Reginn.

He hears the birds singing of a maiden in Hindfell, surrounded by fire. He rides his horse through the fire and wakes the maiden from her sleep. It is Brynhild, a Valkyrie who disobeyed Odin and was pricked by a sleeping thorn. She serves him mead. They plight their troths. She encourages him to deeds of prowess so he rides out of the flames to the court of King Guiki. Sigurd wins fame with Guiki’s sons Gunnar and Hogni but their mother witch Queen Grimhild magics his drink to that he forgets Brynhild and falls in love and marries Gudrun. Then one day Gunnar decides to go try his hand at the maiden who lives behind fire, but he can’t ride through, not even when Sigurd lends him his horse, Grani. Only when they exchange shapes, so that it is Sigurd in the shape of Gunnar riding Grani can he cross the flames. Now he wins the surprised Brynhild who marries Gunnar and comes to live at King Guiki’s.

One day at the river Gudrun reveals the deception to Brynhild. Gunnar never rode through the flames. Brynhild is distraught. She confronts Sigurd who knows the truth but has kept silent to honour his blood brotherhood to Gunnar. Distraught Brynhild tells Gunnar that Sigurd lay with her and Gunnar and Hogni commission their thick brother Gutthorn to murder Sigurd in his bed. Brynhild kills herself. they are both burned on a pyre.

The widowed Gudrun is married by King Guiki to King Atli (Attila the Hun). He invited the brothers Gunnar and Hogni but captures and tortures them to reveal the location of Fafnir’s hoard. Atli cuts out Hogni’s heart. He binds Gunnar and throws him into a pit of snakes. Gudrun sends her brother a harp which he plays with his toes to charm the snakes, all except one which bites and kills him. In revenge Gudrun conspires with a thrall to murder Atli in  his bed then burn down his stronghold, killing everyone in it. She throws herself into the sea and the curse of Andvari’s ring is finally quenched. (Source: The Volsunga Saga)

Sigurd/Siegfried killing the dragon Fafnir (Arthur Rackham/Wikimedia Commons)

Sigurd/Siegfried killing the dragon Fafnir (Arthur Rackham/Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 11 Ægir’s brewing kettle Ægir is the Ocean Giant, husband of Ran whose net Loki used to catch Andvari. Ægir holds feasts on an island in the Kattigut for the souls of drowned sailors, waited on by his nine Wave-Daughters. He invites the Æsir to a feast but only if they can provide a kettle big enough. Tyr says his grandfather the giant Hymir has such a kettle so he and Thor journey to Hymir’s castle. Hymir invites them fishing, and while Hymir catches two whales Thor hooks the serpent of Midgard, Jormungand, until Hymir cuts the line at which Thor smacks him in the head. Back on dry land they feast on the whales. Then Thor must win the kettle by shattering a beaker. His mother tells him the secret; it can only break against Hymir’s thick skull. Having broken the beaker Thor picks up the mighty kettle and wears it like a helmet. — Back at the river Elivagar which divides Midgard from Jotunheim Thor has a long flyting with the one-eyed ferryman. It is, of course, Odin ho ho ho. (Sources: Hymiskviða, the Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda)

Chapter 12 The Death of Baldur In Breidablik on the island of Ida dwelt Baldur the beautiful and his fair wife, Nanna, and his blind, gloomy brother Hodur. He foretells his death. Odin rides on Sleipnir to the river Gioll, the border of Nifelheim with Hel where the dead who don’t die in battle go. The skeleton maid Modgul guarding the bridge lets Odin pass to ride through the Iron Wood to confront the hellhound Garm and turn aside to raise the dead prophetess Volva to predict Baldur’s death. — Arriving back at Asgard Odin finds Frigga has made everything in the universe promise not to harm Baldur; the gods are amusing themselves throwing spears and arrows and axes at the indestructible Baldur. But Loki changes into an old crone and questions Frigga who concedes she didn’t extract the promise from one thing, the mistletoe which grows on an oak east of Asgard. Loki fetches the mistletoe, sharpens and stiffens it using magic and then guides blind Hodur’s hand to kill his beloved brother. — Baldur is set on his longboat Ringhorn and as she bends to kiss him Nanna falls dead. Only a giant can push the flaming boat out to sea and a great cry goes up from heaven and earth (the same cry as greeted the death of Osiris and the agony of Christ). — Hermodur the messenger of the gods rides down to Helheim, past Modgul and Garm to confront Hela and ask for Baldur back. Only if every living thing weeps for him says Hela so Hermodur returns to incite the whole universe to weep over Baldur and it does except for Thokk the wicked giantess. And so Baldur remains in Helheim and Odin knows Thokk is none other than Loki.

The Death of Baldur by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816. Public domain)

The Death of Baldur by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816. Public domain)

Chapter 13 Vali the Avenger Odin tasks Hermodur with riding Sleipnir to the far north to bind Rossthiof the wizard in his castle of green ice and force him to foresee who the avenger will be. Rossthiof says Odin must woo Rinda. — So Odin travels across Midgard to the kingdom of King Billing; he gains control of the king’s armies and leads them to victory, but Rinda rejects him. He returns disguised as Rosstheow the goldsmith and offers Rinda a priceless bracelet and rings, but she rejects him. A third time Odin appears as an ardent young lover and Rinda asks him to come to her bower secretly but her dog barks and wakes the whole palace who come running. Odin touches her and makes Rinda mad. Days later he reappears as the crone Vecha and promises King Billing to cure his daughter if left with her for a day and a night. This is what it takes to woo and impregnate her. Some time later a little boy with a bow and arrow walks up Bifrost Bridge to confront Heimdall the watchman. It is Vali. He grows in size even as the gods watch, takes his bow and arrow to the woods where blind Hodur is walking and despite  his magic shield and spear shoots him dead. Vali rejoices. Hodur’s spirit goes down into Hel to meet his dead brother Baldur. (Source: book III of the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus)

Chapter 14 The Punishment of Loki Loki goes and hides at the Frananger falls. Odin sees him from his chair Hlidskjalf.  The gods find a hlaf-finished net and finish it and trawl the river for Loki in the shape of a salmon. As he leaps out of the water Odin clasps him tight which is why salmon’s tails are so slender to this day. They bind him with magic sinews to three enormous rocks in a cave under Midgard and suspend over him a venomous snake which drops agonising poison onto him.

The punishment of Loki (Image: Louis Huard / Wikimedia Commons)

The punishment of Loki (Image: Louis Huard / Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 15 – Ragnarok Odin visits the prophetess Haid who foretells Ragnarok. The Fimbal Winter will come covering the earth for 3 years. Depravity and greed will ruin man. The Wolf Skull will swallow the moon and the sun. Fenris Wolf breaks free. Jormungand swims ashore flooding Midgard. The ship Naglfar made of dead men’s fingernails approaches. The sky splits open and the Surtur leads the sons of Muspel over Bifrost bridge which breaks beneath them. Loki is set free and comes with Hymir leading the frost Giants and the hellhound Garm. Surtur kills Frey who gave his sword to Skirnir to win the giantess. Garm and Tyr kill each other. Thor kills Jormungand but staggers 9 paces away and dies from its venom. Loki and Heimdall fight to the death. Odin is swallowed by Fenris who is killed by Odin’s son Vidar. Triumphant Surtur spreads fire over the entire universe which is consumed in flames.

And yet a new world will arise from the flames, pure and clean and beautiful and new gods will govern it wisely and a new race of men will be born, fair and good.

“The sagas of Midgard, whether the heroes be Gunnar or Grettir, or Sigurd himself, all end in tragedy – in the picture of the brave man struggling in vain  against the powers of fate – ‘And how can man die better than facing fearful odds?’ – This was the Norseman’s view of life – and the deeds and fate of the heroes of saga must have been but the earthly counterpart of the deeds of the Gods of Asgard in their struggle against the Giant forces of Nature so apparent to the men of the North, and of the doom, the Ragnarok, which was to overtake them.”

Related links

Sagas

%d bloggers like this: