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.


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Words and Music by Samuel Beckett (1961)

Another work from Samuel Beckett’s ‘radio phase’, when he experimented with the possibilities of radio between about 1956 and 1961. It’s a short text (just eight pages in the Faber Collected Shorter Plays) for voice and music, so it tells you a lot about the contribution of musical interludes and silences, that the fully dramatised piece stretches to over 40 minutes.

Characters

There are three entities or ‘characters, Words (who speaks a lot), Music (whose parts consist entirely of patches of music) and a human character named Croak. Right at the beginning, before Croak arrives, Words makes it plain he detests Music:

Music: How much longer cooped up here, in the dark? (With loathing.) With you!

Word tries to keep himself going by giving himself a topic for discourse, namely Sloth and rattling off a paragraph of bombastic nonsense on the subject, before breaking off because he can hear the ‘Distant sound of rapidly shuffling carpet slippers’.

Croak

Croak arrives. He apologises for arriving late, saying something about a face on the stairs. Croak appears to be a lofty impresario who gives subjects for Words (who he calls Joe and who, in reply, calls him ‘My lord’) and Music (who he calls Bob) to describe or embroider as if in a competition. At moments Croak shouts at them, calling them ‘dogs!’, at other moments calls them ‘my comforts’, ‘my balms’. At the beginning he tells them to be friends, reinforcing the impression given by Words’ opening words, that the two hate each other.

The competition of Words and Music

And then, as if at the start of a familiar routine, Croak gives them their first topic for the evening. First Words has his speeches, then Music makes its noise. Croak signals the change between each with the loud thump of a club, presumably on the floor.

After Words and Music have each had a go (accompanied by Croak’s groans and comments) one section is drawn to an end, and then Croak gives them another topic. The topics are:

  • Sloth (ad libbed by Words)
  • Love
  • Age

Morton Feldman’s music

‘Music’ is meant to produce actual music and various composers have risen to the challenge of writing music to represent the contribution of Music to the dialogue. In the original BBC radio production the music was written by Beckett’s cousin, John Beckett, who wrote the music for a number of Beckett’s productions.

The earliest version I can find is this production which features the music of Morton Feldman, the highly experimental avant-garde American composer. I’ve always liked Feldman’s music, it has a slowly penetrating, atonal, modernist simplicity, and its sparseness seems a perfect accompaniment for Beckett’s sparse words and scenario.

A twentieth century masque

Because I’ve been reading 17th century literature recently, this work strikes me as being a kind of twentieth century masque, in which allegorical Types compete for the favour of a judge or adjudicator, in just the same way that, in the classic 17th century masque, allegorical performances were put on for the enjoyment of the king himself (King James or King Charles), who were sometimes asked to display their wisdom and authority by deciding stylised debates between classical virtues or attributes.

Except that, it being the twentieth century and Beckett a writer of the absurd or of nihilistic futility, the words of Words are a meaningless farrago, a pastiche of Shakespearian eloquence whose booming clichés elicit only groans from his master, Croak.

‘What is this love that more than all the cursed deadly or any other of its great movers so moves the soul and soul what is this soul that more than by any of its great movers is by love so moved?’

It’s like a Shakespeare sonnet which has been put through a blender, grammatically it makes sense but has been deliberately mashed to sound like repetitious nonsense, making the rather obvious, schoolboy point that Shakespearean rhetoric comes from an age convinced of its own values and coherent worldview, whereas in our own oh-dear-so-disillusioned age, that kind of confidence and fluency is no longer possible. Alas and lackaday.

Sex

Sex is surprisingly present in many of Beckett’s works, albeit in deliberately harsh, absurdist and anti-romantic forms. Take the second part of Molloy, where Moran casually tells us about his masturbating, or the hint of BDSM sex in Murphy, the narrator of First Love having sex with Lulu, Sam having sex with every woman in the neighbourhood despite being confined to a wheelchair in Watt, references to gay sex and being ‘sucked off’ in Mercier and Camier, MacMann folding his penis up and trying to stuff it in Moll’s dried-up vagina in Malone Dies. Many of the prose texts go out of their way to use the rudest words possible, starting with bugger and shit and working up to the f word and the c word.

My point is we shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging sexual references or vocabulary just because it’s in Nobel Prize Winner. The opposite, he thoroughly enjoyed ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’ as Leslie Fiedler put it, with rancid descriptions of sex and the crudest sex words.

There’s another element which is the surprising presence of the memory of a love affair in Krapp’s Last Tape. Krapp obsessively repeats the memory of a moment when he lay with an unnamed young woman, his hand on her breast.

I don’t for a minute find it a moving memory. Beckett is anti-sentimental. I find it more interesting to entertain the notion that Beckett refined a rhetoric of paucity and impoverishment, of senility and forgetfulness, of mechanical repetitions, he created some great scenarios (man plays tapes of his younger self, woman buried up to her waits in sand who accepts it as perfectly normal, old man conjures Words and Music to compete with each other) but then doesn’t know what to do next and so resorts to sexual imagery and content.

Exactly as this play’s immediate predecessor, Rough For Radio II, starts out being about two characters supervising the violent torture of another but, about half way through, loses interest or gets distracted from the nominal theme, when the pretty young stenographer is asked to take off her overalls, when the torture supervisor orders her to kiss the torture victim and when the torture victim’s chief memories seem to be of a full, milky breast.

I find most of Beckett’s scenarios powerful and impressive, but am quite regularly disappointed by the lack of subject matter. Or the fact the two men in the bunker and the woman up to her waist in sand and, as here, the allegorical figures of Words and Music have so little to say for themselves. Are incapable of anything but tittle tattle and trivia, as when all Words can think of to describe Age is:

‘Huddled o’er . . . the ingle (Pause. Violent thump. Trying to sing.) Waiting for the hag to put the … pan … in the bed…’

Waiting for a hag to bring a bedpan, is that it? So I’m not surprised that, rather as Krapp’s Last Tape runs out of ideas and is forced to resort to a basically sexual memory of the young man lying with his hand on the woman’s breast, so Words and Music appears, similarly, to run out any ideas for content and resorts to… breasts.

… flare of the black disordered hair as though spread wide on water, the brows knitted in a groove suggesting pain but simply concentration more likely all things considered on some consummate inner process, the eyes of course closed in keeping with this, the lashes . . . (pause) . . . the nose … (pause) … nothing, a little pinched perhaps, the lips….. tight, a gleam of tooth biting on the under, no coral, no swell, whereas normally… the whole so blanched and still that were it not for the great white rise and fall of the breasts, spreading as they mount and then subsiding to their natural… aperture…

As a heterosexual man I am all in favour of heaving bosoms but their appearance in three of Beckett’s plays in a row suggests a pattern, one of the oldest writing strategies in the world… if you run out of inspiration, put boobs in it! Maybe you can dress it up quite considerably more academically than that, but that’s what it appears to boil down to – Beckett doesn’t have much to say, what he does have is either gibberish versions of Romantic rhetoric or pseudo-philosophical speculation, images of decrepitude and decay, or, to keep the thing going a little longer (which is, after all, THE central Beckett theme) sex, the most basic, primeval aspect of human nature. If it is a description of a woman’s young nubile body, then her natural… aperture, is obviously her ****.

Which brings me to my final point. We have heard Words describing the heaving bosom, and Croak cry out ‘Lily!’ as if Words is evoking a memory of a woman called Lily (so similar to the repeated memory of the woman’s breast in Krapp’s Last Tape). The final passages of Words and Music have Words repeating the same idea in the same phrases over and over again:

…the brows uncloud, the nostrils dilate, the lips part and the eyes … (pause) … a little colour comes back into the cheeks and the eyes (reverently) … open. (Pause.) Then down a little way (Pause. Change to poetic tone. Low.)
Then down a little way
Through the trash
To where … towards where…

Then down a little way
Through the trash
Towards where…

All dark no begging
No giving no words
No sense no need…

Then down a little way
Through the trash
Towards where
All dark no begging
No giving no words
No sense no need
Through the scum
Down a little way
To whence one glimpse

A glimpse of what, we wonder?

Through the scum
Down a little way
To where one glimpse
Of that wellhead.

What is a wellhead? ‘Wellhead is a general term used to describe the pressure-containing component at the surface of an oil well’ (Science Direct website). Pictures show it to be rather phallic in shape, and it contains pent-up, high-pressure liquid.

So is Words evoking a memory of a woman named Lily giving Croak a blowjob? Moving down, down, past the tummy fluff and pubic hair (the trash and scum) down to his pressure-containing equipment?

And is that why Croak drops his club, says nothing more, and shuffles off, thus ending the play? Is the memory of such unforced (‘No giving no words/No sense no need’) bliss too much for the old man to bear, just as the memory of young Krapp cupping a young woman’s breast in a field is too much for old Krapp to bear?

Long pauses

Maybe. But maybe the more dominant impression of hearing an actual production of Word and Music like this one is of the immense, yawning silences it contains. Pauses. Gaps. Emptinesses. You have to be in just the right mood, very attentive, totally engaged, in order to let the full tapestry of sounds and silence entrance you. Otherwise, all those silences run the risk of alienating the less engaged listener. And repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Beckett’s main literary technique. Beckett’s main literary technique.

The face. (Pause.) The face. (Pause.) The face. (Pause.) The face.


Credit

Words and Music by Samuel Beckett was written towards the end of 1961 and broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 13 November 1962.

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

A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

This is another gripping read from Arthur C. Clarke which, although entirely sci-fi in its setting, is one of the most genuinely gripping and exciting books I’ve read in years. It knocks the contrived plots and zero characterisations of Isaac Asimov into a cocked hat.

The disaster

The premise is simple: It’s the 21st century. Man has established several colonies on the moon, the main one being big Port Clavius, a cluster of heated domes with an earth atmosphere and a population of about 25,000.

Nearer to the dark side of the moon is the smaller Port Roris. This is a jumping off point for scientific expeditions to the dark side, but also for a popular tourist attraction – a ‘bus’ trip across the huge Sea of Thirst, an ancient volcanic crater which has slowly sifted up with moon dust over millions of years.

20 tourists have signed up for today’s trip in the cruise ship Selene, which has been designed to skim over the surface of the dust-filled sea. It is captained by Pat Harris who likes to put on a show by turning the cabin lights off to let earthlight flood in through the portholes, or by skirting close to the sheer cliffs which border the sea.

What nobody knows is a big bubble of gas has been building up beneath the thin crust of rock at the bottom of the sea for hundreds of thousands of years. Now, after millennia, it finally works loose and, for a few minutes, bubbles up through the thick moondust, bursts and dissipates into the moon’s thin to non-existent atmosphere. For those few moments it creates an inverted cone of dust whose loose sides run down to fill up the gap of its passage. Unfortunately, this all happens at just the moment that the Selene is passing above. The dinky little dust-cruiser tips head first down into the cone and the horrified captain and passengers watch through portholes as the moon dust rises to cover the bus as it disappears beneath the surface of the dust which slowly covers it over.

Soon all is perfectly quiet again, the surface of the dust sea is as flat as ever, there is no trace of any disturbance – and the Selene and its passengers are buried 15 metres beneath the surface!

The hunt

When Moon base fails to receive its hourly signal from Selene a sequence of alarms is raised, at first fairly routine, but soon escalating to a serious alert. And it’s here that the book becomes interesting. Because this serious but essentially small incident allows Clarke to give a fascinating and very believable overview of lunar society, science and organisation.

The book introduces a surprisingly large cast of characters who are presented in realistic human postures rather than Dan Dare heroism. Thus some are irritated about the incident, or worried about the bad publicity, or concerned about the cost of any rescue on an already over-stretched budget.

The way a small incident ramifies out to involve so many people, and expose so many professional and personal relationships, reminded me of the classic disaster movies from the 1970s.

There’s the head of the moon colony (Chief Administrator Olsen) worried about what to say to the relatives of the missing passengers, the Head of Lunar Tourism Davis, who is understandably worried about the adverse publicity, the heads of engineering Moonside and Earthside.

Things are complicated when the leading expert on lunar geology – who happens to also be a Jesuit priest, Father Vincent Ferraro S.J. – gives disastrously misleading information. Because his instruments detected tremors on the surface, and because searchers dispatched to the area discover there have been big rockslides from the mountains bordering the Sea of Thirst, he misleadingly decides that the Selene must have been buried under an avalanche – with no chance of survival, and the authorities set about informing the families of their sad loss, and worrying how to recuperate their losses for this tourist season.

BUT – there is a maverick young scientist, Dr Tom Lawson, based on Lagrange II, a satellite in permanent position halfway between earth and moon, who, at first word of the crisis, starts to take infra-red readings of the Sea to see if he can detect the heat trail of the Selene and so work out its final position. When Tom hears a later news broadcast confirming the Jesuit theory of a fatal avalanche, he abandons his work. But not before having taken an infrared photo of the surface of the Sea of Thirst, just out of habit. Then he goes to take his allotted sleep (he’s on a space station where everyone sleeps in fixed rotation).

But something is niggling at his subconscious and he wakes up after only a few hours and goes to recheck his photo. Looking very closely he now sees that his photo shows the hot tracks of the Selene passing through the avalanche zone and out the other side into a further patch of the Sea, before just ending in a bright red infrared hotspot. As if it exploded. Or blasted off into space. Or… sank!

It is typical of Clarke that even now Lawson hesitates about informing Moon Control. He has his reputation to think of. If he’s right, he’ll be a hero, but he’s aware that he is unpopular and if his theory leads to some kind of search which is excitedly broadcast by the media and he turns out to be wrong, then he’ll be the laughing stock of the solar system.

It’s not exactly Tolstoy, but it’s the pains he takes to think through the very human concerns of his characters which makes Clarke’s books so believable, and therefore imaginatively effective.

Finally he just about decides he ought to take the risk and contacts the lunar base. the authorities there themselves calculate whether it’s worth mounting a rescue mission on the basis of one fuzzy photograph, but give it the go-ahead.

Next thing Lawson knows he’s been squeezed onto an earth-to-moon shuttle which is redirected to collect him, much to the irritation of its captain and passengers. He is landed at Port Roris, packed into a spacesuit (during which he has a very powerfully described and realistic attack of claustrophobia) and taken out on the sort of dust-skis (Duster One and Duster Two) which are used to whizz around the moon’s surface.

At every step of the journey Clarke gives realistic attention to the practical problems and how they’re overcome, and to the emotions and conflicts in his characters. As to problems, Lawson’s infra-red detectors have to be carefully strapped to the side of one of the dust-skis, he’s worried on the whole journey that it will work free and disappear – plop – into the treacherous moon dust. And, I haven’t mentioned this so far, but it is a big factor in ratcheting up the tension – the sun is rising over the moon’s surface, slowly climbing over the nearby mountains and beginning to shed its light on the Sea of Thirst. As soon as its rays get anywhere near the Selene’s by-now quite old trail, it will obliterate all trace of its routes. The clock is ticking…

In the Selene

And, of course, all this time the clock is ticking inside the trapped tourbus. The narrative maintains tremendous momentum by hopping from one (the rescue in the wider world) to the other (the tiny claustrophobic inside of the buried bus). Here Clarke gives us a thorough run through all the available disaster movie tropes.

Captain Pat Harris has to take charge. He reassures the scared passengers that they have enough food and drink for a week and that the Selene is designed to withstand extremes of heat or pressure.

But the captain quickly discovers one of the passengers is none other than the legendary Commodore Hansteen, who led the expedition to Pluto and has set foot on more planets than any other man.

Hansteen offers his services to Harris, who gratefully accepts, but for the rest of the narrative Harris has a nagging doubt that he handed over authority, and relinquished power too easily: that he ought to have been more of a man; a conviction which resurfaces later in the story to effect the outcome of the plot.

Hansteen is used top managing crews in dangerous circumstances and he quickly organises the other passengers into a series of games and activities. A pack of cards is made which takes care of the hard core poker players. Then he gets them to pool their books and reading matter, and gets one of the passengers (the diminutive Nihal Jayawardene, Professor of Zoology from Ceylon) to set off on a public reading of the classic Western Shane.

As a break from that, he sets up a parody law court in which each of the passengers is called up and cross-questioned about their motives for wanting to come to the moon, often with humorous results, as we find out more about the cross-section of stereotypical characters on board (the retired lawyer, the ex-vaudeville dancer who is now loud and fat, the plummy Englishman who fusses about his tea, the tiny Sri Lankan who reads Shane in a precise accent, and so on).

In between this fun and games, there are the scenes, familiar to us from so many disaster movies, where the captain and the commodore huddle sweatily in the control room and tell each other what is really going on. ‘What are our chances, captain?’

Here Clarke plays expertly with our hopes and expectations by having one of the passengers be an Australian physicist, Dr Duncan MacKenzie. He gives the captain and commodore a nasty shock by telling them that, way before the food and water give out, the mounting heat will kill them. Immersed in insulating moondust the ship has no way to get rid of the heat being generated by the passengers and all its life support systems. He has been measuring the slowly rising temperature and estimates that they will only be able to survive for one more day!

The suspense

So will young Tom Lawson’s infrared equipment, hurriedly transported to the moon and strapped on to a dust-ski, be able to locate the buried ship? Even if it does, how will the authorities be able to lift an immensely heavy object from as much as forty metres down buried in dense moondust, using just two flimsy easy-to-tip-over dust-skis?

Meanwhile, inside the Selene, which of the passengers will be first to crack, which one will notice that the interior is heating up and it’s getting harder to breathe, and there is no sign of rescue? Which one will put two and two together and reach MacKenzie’s conclusion that time is much shorter than they thought? And how will the commodore and the captain manage the resulting panic?

This is the situation half-way through the story and, believe me, there is a whole moonfall of further unexpected hazards and dangers to be confronted and surmounted.

Although the whole thing is, on the face of it, a simple setup, Clarke handles it with real confidence and pacing, keeping the scenes short and punchy, and switching between locations (inside the bus, with Lawson on the dust-ski, at panicky lunar control, and so on) to create a really gripping narrative.

Unlike the preposterous plots and ruinous prose of Isaac Asimov, or the blizzard of hard science emitted by James Blish, Clarke’s grasp of technology feels rock solid. He doesn’t have to keep inventing new gizmos, quantum drives or atomic blasters to get his characters in and out of trouble.

When science and technology do give twists to the story – like MacKenzie’s revelation of the heating inside the bus, or Lawson’s rush to get clear infrared pictures of the Selene’s trail before the sun rises and obliterates all traces in its overpowering heat – they feel entirely accurate and true accounts of actually existing physics.

And it hugely helps that the characters are given adult characterisations, unlike the puppets in Asimov and the improbably perfect John Amalfi of Blish’s Okies series.

OK, Clarke’s people are still recognisably types from sci-fi and disaster movies, but they have real, approachable concerns, worries, interests and pressures which the reader can relate to. You are told enough to be able to distinguish between them, and care for them, in a way that was barely possible in the works I’ve recently read by Asimov, Blish and Bradbury.

For example, I particularly liked the head of lunar tourism fretting about the impact of the disaster on his visitor figures. I’ve worked with people like him. And there’s also an earth newspaperman who happens to be on the shuttle diverted to pick up Lawson, who gets wind of what’s going on and sees a great opportunity to get a scoop by arranging the live televising of the rescue efforts.

It’s not Tolstoy but the human-ness of Clarke’s characters, and the care he takes to depict their foibles and worries, makes the stories real and compelling.

Fresh from reading Asimov and Blish’s vast galactic space operas, reading Clarke is a huge relief. This story is the opposite of galaxy-wide conspiracies conducted by cardboard characters wielding impossible technologies. The story focuses on a very homely, small-scale accident, which Clarke magically turns into a humorous, informative and thought-provoking cross-section of his sci-fi future society, and, as the rescuers face one technical challenge after another and, as the Selene slips deeper into the moondust and faces a whole series of unexpected dangers and hazards – into a genuinely gripping and thrilling read.

A note on race

The key protagonist of the later stages of Childhood’s End, the only human ever to visit the Overlords’ planet and who ends up being the last man on earth – is a person of colour, the black man, Jan Rodricks.

And in this novel, it’s only three-quarters of the way through that we learn that the tough Australian Dr MacKenzie who Captain Harris comes to rely on in moments of crisis, is in fact not a white Australian but an Aborigine.

Not only that but, as the situation inside the moonbus becomes more critical, the captain has the bright idea of putting almost all the passengers to sleep using the painkilling drugs the ship carries in its first aid pack, in order to slow their respiration right down and preserve oxygen. The one person he chooses to stay conscious with him is MacKenzie. The pair then have to keep each other awake by talking in order to be ready when the rescuers arrive, and to periodically administer blasts of oxygen from the reserve supplies, to the other passengers.

It is telling that, during this long lonely vigil, Clarke chooses to have MacKenzie talk about his aborigine roots, telling Captain Harris some of the more appalling behaviour of the white settlers of Australia to the native population, such as deliberately poisoning them and hunting them down (pp.144-147) and then gives him a speech about how lacking literacy or technology didn’t mean his ancestors stupid, they had developed a lifestyle in perfect harmony with their environment,which is more than modern ‘civilisation’ can say.

This racial awareness of Clarke’s feels very advanced for 1961. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in both books Clarke is making a polemical point about the need for racial tolerance, and is also confidently predicting how the future will inevitably be multicultural.

And hard not to be very impressed at his prescience, holding these views, as he did, some 60 years ago, in very different times. Admirable.


Related links

Arthur C. Clarke reviews

  • Childhood’s End (1953) a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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

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

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus (1960)

I loathe none but executioners.

This is a selection of 23 essays from Camus’s entire journalistic and speech-making output chosen by the man himself in the year of his death, 1960. By then Camus had published three big collections bringing together all his journalism, in 1950, 1953 and 1958 – this is a selection from those books.

The three collections were titled Actuelles I, II and III. ‘Actuelle’ is a French adjective which can be translated as ‘current’, ‘contemporary’, ‘relevant’ and it is straightaway noticeable that almost all the pieces address pressing contemporary political and social issues of his day. Collected essays by a novelist and playwright might be expected to include some studies of favourite forebears, of Racine or Zola, say. Not here. The pieces are nothing if not engagé, as the contemporary catch-phrase had it. For example, Actuelles III is entirely devoted to Camus’s collected writings on Algeria, from 1939 to 1958.

The pieces are short

The most obvious thing about the pieces is that they’re all very short. Half a dozen of them are from Combat, the underground Resistance paper Camus helped to produce during the Occupation and for a few years afterwards, often only three or four pages long. Others are ten-minute speeches, short addresses, brief replies to critics of his plays, and so on. By far the longest piece is the essay on the guillotine, a hefty 60 pages long, which brings together a career of thought to argue vehemently against the death penalty.

They cluster round two active periods

Then there’s their dates. Very roughly there are two active periods – the War (1944-45) and the late ’50s (1955-58). The speeches to Christians and the freedom pieces from the early 50s appear as interludes between these two main clusters of productivity, which obviously reflect moments when France was actually at war, with Germany, and then in Algeria.

The War

  • Letters to a German Friend (1943, 1944, 1945) [summarised below]
  • The Blood of Freedom (Combat, 24 August 1944) Short editorial exhorting his comrades to victory during the Liberation of Paris. This and the next one are, apparently, of historic importance.
  • The Night of Truth (Combat, 25 August 1944) Short editorial on the night before the German surrender of Paris.
  • René Leynaud (Combat, 27 October 1944) Short piece commemorating the execution of his friend.
  • Introduction to Poésies Posthumes by René Leynaud (1947) Longer piece giving potted bio and memories of his resistance friend.
  • Pessimism and Courage (Combat, September 1945) Irritation at bourgeois critics attacking the alleged pessimism of Sartre, Malraux and the existentialists, arguing that absurdity must be faced because it is the climate of the time.
  • Defense of Intelligence (speech given to L’Amitié Française, 15 March 1945) We must not give in to hatred; we must descend to insult; we must debate with respect. ‘There is no freedom without intelligence.’

Speeches to Christians

  • Speech given at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg (1948) He admires them for their Christian faith but honestly disagrees. ‘the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds.’
  • Why Spain? (Combat, December 1948) An article replying to criticism of Camus’s play State of Siege made by the Christian existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, who asked why it was set in Franco Spain and not Communist East Europe? Because we have still not expiated France’s sin of collaborating with Franco, Camus replies.

It seems to me there is another ambition that ought to belong to all writers: to bear witness and shout aloud, every time it is possible, insofar as our talent allows, for those who are enslaved. (p.83)

Freedom

  • Bread and Freedom (Speech given at Labour Exchange Saint-Etienne, May 1953) Intellectuals and workers must be united: if either is attacked, it is by the forces of oppression and injustice; if both stand together, they can bring freedom closer.
  • Homage to an Exile (Speech given to honour President Eduardo Santos, driven out of Colombia by the dictatorship, 7 December 1955) Really fulsome praise in his role as newspaper editor who defended other people’s rights to speech, in which he explains that those who ‘bear witness’ to oppression decrease the solitude tyranny depends on, and increase the sense of common cause and solidarity among the oppressed.

Algeria

  • Preface to Algerian Reports (March-April 1958) Actuelles III was a book-length collection of all Camus’s writing on Algeria from 1939 to 1958. This is the introduction to that volume. It is convoluted and mealy-mouthed, dutifully condemning extremism on both sides but you feel he knows in his heart of hearts that his suggested solution – Algeria to be split into federal units, some European, some Arab, along with a lot of reform and investment from France – was hopelessly impractical.
  • Letter to an Algerian Militant (to Aziz Kessous, Algerian socialist, October 1955) On 20 August 1955 FLN militiamen massacred 37 Europeans in the Algerian coastal port of Philippeville, gang-raping the women, hacking the babies to pieces. In reply, French paratroopers massacred Muslim peasants at nearby El-Halia, while surviving colons lynched hundreds of Muslims in Philippeville. Just two months later, Camus, in anguish, writes to support his friend Aziz Kessous who has set up a newspaper to try to create a space where the opposing sides can meet and debate. Forlorn hope.
  • Appeal for a Civilian Truce (Lecture in Algiers, February 1956) A speech Camus gave to a mixed audience in Algiers hoping to launch a movement to get both sides to agree at least not to target civilians. It is pitiful  to see how ineffective the stirring rhetoric of his essays and books is when it comes to the real world. And makes you realise how Eurocentric his rhetoric is. The FLN wanted their own country back; no amount of fancy rhetoric about liberty or terror or man had any hope of changing that.
  • Algeria (A personal statement, 1958) Camus thinks the FLN demand for full-blown independence is ludicrous. 1. What would happen to the 1.2 million French living in Algeria? 2. It’s all part of a conspiracy to create a pan-Islamic empire. 3. Algerians alone don’t have the economic know-how. 4. Insofar as the FLN are supported by Russia it would amount to a communist takeover of the southern flank of Europe. And so on. Camus proposes a federal structure like Switzerland, with the Muslims having one part of government, the French another. The more he elaborates the details of this complex scheme, the more unrealistic it becomes. After this final intervention, Camus retired into hurt silence and the war escalated.

Hungary

  • Kadar Had His Day of Fear (Franc-Tireur, 18 March 1957) In October-November 1956 the Hungarian people spontaneously rose up against their communist leaders. After some hesitation, the Soviet Union sent in tanks and troops to put down the revolution, killing some 3,000 civilians during days of street fighting, and sending tens of thousands of the country’s best and brightest to forced labour camps in the months that followed. Camus writes with searing anger at the naked totalitarian tyranny of the Soviets and with disgust at the hypocrisy and self-hatred of French communists who supported the Soviet intervention.
  • Socialism of the Gallows (Interview published in Demain magazine, February 1957) An equally angry and disgusted repudiation of communist totalitarianism and its supporters in the West. Totalitarianism means above else a state with only one party in it. This will inevitably crush all debate, all art, all possibility of criticism and improvement. It guarantees repression, secret police, the gulag. It also guarantees that there can never be any change or progress. By contrast, the only form of society which can guarantee at least some progress is one which allows multiple parties and viewpoints. Liberal democracy. — The anti-Marx section of The Rebel should certainly be read alongside these two pieces which unambiguously convey Camus’s violent anti-communism.

The death penalty

  • Reflections on the Guillotine (A long excerpt from a book-length symposium organised by Camus and Arthur Koestler, 1957) Anyone who’s read this far should realise that Camus is against the death penalty. Vivid description of the effect of the guillotine drive home how disgusting it is. If the aim of capital punishment is to deter, it would be on prime time TV. But most murders aren’t pre-meditated, are committed on the spur of the moment – so capital punishment cannot be a deterrent. Capital punishment degrades the executioners, as memoirs testify. Replacing it with hard labour gives the opportunity for rehabilitation. Only God has 100% knowledge; capital punishment is a hangover from the time of Christian faith in an all-knowing God, but the justice system is far from all-knowing: a steady stream of innocent men have been executed. Even one miscarriage should invalidate it forever. Most profoundly, man’s deepest virtue is revolt against the human condition, meaning death. The death penalty undermines human solidarity and community at its most vital place; this is why so many modern people feel degraded because it attacks our deepest, most animal instinct – for life.

The writer in our time

  • The Wager of Our Generation (Interview in Demain, October 1957) Back in those days ‘the writer’ had a prophetic role and authority which has completely vanished. Camus says the writer is caught between immersion in the history of his time and duty to his art, and this is a ‘dangerous’ situation. Not really.
  • Create Dangerously (Lecture given at the University of Uppsala, December 1957) A sustained 20-page expression of his view of the role of the artist, the lecture emphatically conveys Camus’s sense that a) there is such a thing as Grand Art, Art Which Matters b) the Artist has some kind of Special Responsibility to engage with his Society c) this makes Art dangerous for repressive societies and potentially for any Artist who takes them on. In other words, all the premises, conclusions and rhetoric come from a pre-Post-Modern world, the grey decade of McCarthyism, Kruschev, Hungary and Suez. 1957 was the year the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, and the first Aldermaston March took place the following year. Nuclear weapons haven’t gone away, nor various tyrannies around the world, but the sense that the world is perched on the brink of a vast catastrophe and that Artists and Writers and Intellectuals play a privileged role in explaining it all to us lesser mortals, and leading us to Freedom – this has gone for good. Five minutes after Camus died people started getting colour televisions, Andy Warhol making silk screens of Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles dropped acid, and the gadget-driven consumer paradise started up which we still live in. The core of the speech gives a history of the development of art in 19th century France leading up to the irresponsible doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, and contrast this with the aggressive doctrine of Socialist Realism, demanded in the Communist Bloc and supported by many Western intellectuals. In other words, this is an interesting analysis of the position of the European writer in 1957, but it is 60 years old and shows it.

The message

Having now read all of Camus’s main works, I think I can summarise his position as killing people is always and everywhere wrong. The foundation text in this respect is the Letters to a German Friend. In these Camus admits that he and his Nazi friend both shared the same pre-war sense of the complete bankruptcy of traditional bourgeois values and the utter meaninglessness of life in a world bereft of God or any transcendental values – but they drew very different conclusions from it.

The Nazi concluded that the only value in the world is the animal virtue of power and, like so many of his countrymen, submitted to a leader and an ideology devoted to the worship of power. Apart from the obvious consequences (invading and devastating the rest of Europe) this led to an instrumentalist point of view which saw Europe solely as a larder of oil wells, wheat fields, arms factories and so on to be used in the relentless conquests of the Master Race, and its population, similarly, as objects to be used for the Master Plan.

Camus, by contrast, saw that there is a fundamental, irreducible value in the world, and that is man’s revolt against his destiny (i.e. an arbitrary death).

Man’s greatness lies elsewhere. It lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition. (p.39)

We are the only animals to be aware of our condition and to seek to rise above it. This is a value, a position, a basis for appealing to justice and against the wanton mutilation of ‘life’ and the murder of millions represented by the Nazis (and, later, the Communists). Taken collectively, or read on the social plane, this revolt becomes man’s rebellion against oppression.

I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man, and our task is to provide its justifications against fate itself. And it has no justification but man; hence he must be saved if we want to save the idea we have of life. With your scornful smile you will ask me: what do you mean by saving man? And with all my being I shout to you that I mean not mutilating him and yet giving a chance to the justice than man alone can conceive. (p.29)

As to proof of the existence of these things – Art, culture, civilisation is the collective record of the revolt of individuals against the limits of the human condition; and rebellions in the name of justice are an undeniable fact of history, and were in train all across Europe as Camus wrote, no matter how confident the Nazis were of their total power.

These fundamental values – revolt and rebellion – are the seeds which will grow into The Rebel, Camus’s enormously long attempt to devise a philosophy or worldview which starts in the post-war waste land and works its way upwards towards a viable basis for a world of humane values, of human dignity and freedom.

Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. (p.73)

The image of the individual having to decide whether to acquiesce in the triumph of tyranny or whether to stand against it, at the risk of their own lives, is obviously derived from his experience working with the French Resistance against the Nazi Occupation and is made very real in his account of the capture and execution of his friend, fellow resistant and would-be poet, René Leynaud.

But it is an image, a pose, an attitude Camus carried on into the post-war era of the Cold War, when a new tyranny dominated Eastern Europe, as Communist governments in the Eastern Bloc set up new secret police forces, torture chambers and slave labour camps. Hence the two pieces here about the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

It is Camus’s misfortune that his most famous and most accessible texts – The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus – stem from his early, ‘nihilist’ period; both were drafted around 1940. To really understand his thought, it would be better to focus on his later, far more humane works – The Rebel, the late short stories, and these essays – which move towards a whole-hearted support for a liberal democratic society which enshrines competing parties, voices, and freedom of speech.

In the later essays and speeches references to his personal theory of ‘the Absurd’ disappear and, although ‘revolt’ still crops up occasionally, really the final period of Camus’s life was devoted to the ideas of Justice and Freedom, and the need to speak out against Oppression and Injustice wherever they are found.

Europe and colonialism

It was Camus’s consistent opposition to Soviet tyranny which brought down on his head the wrath of the communist-minded Paris intellectual élite but which now, of course, make him look like a hero. Except the image is troubled because of the darkness shed over his later years by the outbreak of war in Algeria, his homeland. The four pieces on Algeria bring home his inability to agree with the colonial wish for independence; he just refuses to accept it as a possibility because it implies the exodus of 1.2 million French from Algeria (which is what in the end happened).

They also shed light on another limitation of Camus’s thought. It is very Eurocentric. In the Letters to a German Friend he discusses Europe’s histories and values in a way which remains very much within the European arena. The Algerian tragedy is a violent reminder that there is a very big world outside of Europe, its tragedies and civilisation, and it is a world where European philosophy, rhetoric, political and cultural values, may simply be irrelevant.

In fact, the more I’ve read about Camus’s position on Algeria the more I’ve been disappointed by his complete silence about Vietnam. For eight long years from 1946 to 1954 the French tried to put down the Vietnamese struggle for independence, as described in histories like The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow.

Hindsight is easy. I’m being unfair. Taken altogether what these essays show more than anything else is what an extraordinarily troubled era he lived through. Foreign invasion and humiliation, the threat of violent revolution bringing the utter loss of freedom and human dignity, the collapse of European empires all round the world, the real risk of nuclear armageddon – it was a difficult time to understand, to grasp, and in which to hang on to fundamentally humane, decent values. Camus did his best, despite his flaws.


The comedy of being French

These essays are intensely serious. You’d think smiling had been banned, let alone laughing. The British ridiculed Hitler (who only had one ball, the other was in the Albert Hall). By contrast, the French invoked the long history of their grandeur and prestige and their gloire. In this respect – obsessing about France’s special destiny, invoking its unique civilisation, and so on – Camus is no different from the grand rhetoric of de Gaulle. I couldn’t help smiling at Camus’s Frenchness i.e. his conviction of his country’s invincible superiority to all other nations, despite the rather prominent evidence to the contrary.

For history is the record of what actually happened, not of what writers and philosophers would like to think happened. And having recently read Alistair Horne’s massive history of the Battle of France I know that France fell to Germany in 6 quick weeks because French society was ruinously divided, demoralised and defeatist (as described from the inside in Jean-Paul Sartre’s great Roads To Freedom trilogy).

In this respect Camus’s Letters to a German Friend perform a prodigious feat of philosophical prestidigitation. They explain that France’s bad management, lack of preparation, appalling military and political leadership, defeatism and swift surrender turn out all to be indicators of France’s spiritual and moral superiority. France wasn’t ready to fight because it was too dedicated to the noble arts of peace. It was too good to fight. Ha!

More – by losing the actual battle France turns out to have won the moral war, because it took her four long years to overcome her natural repugnance to warfare, her superior preference for happiness and civilisation, in order to fight back. Sadly, of course, the Germans never had these superior moral qualities. And so, announces Camus, with a Gallic flourish -the German victory in 1940 was in fact an indication of Germany’s spiritual defeat. Voilà!

Camus goes on to give a quick overview of European civilisation (which in fact turns out to be largely based on French achievements) in order to show how the Nazis only regarded Europe as a collection of resources – oil wells, wheat fields, arms factories – to be exploited, whereas the superior French – naturellement – see Europe as a glorious repository of civilisation and intelligence. At which point Camus rattles off some characteristic landmarks of European civilisation, such as the cloisters of Florence, the gilded domes of Krakow, the statues on the bridges over the Charles River, the gardens of Salzburg. And then tells his German friend:

It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. (p.24)

‘We’? ‘We’ would have to liberate them? The French?

Did the French ‘liberate’ Florence, Cracow, Prague or Salzburg? No. Did the French even liberate France? No. On D-Day 73,000 American, 61,715 British and 21,400 Canadian soldiers landed in Normandy, 4,400 of whom died on the first day.

And the Russians. They helped defeat the Nazis a bit.

Many of the Combat essays read as if they should be sung by Edith Piaf at her most histrionic:

We know this fight too well, we are too involved through or flesh and our hearts to accept this dreadful condition without bitterness. But we also know too well what is at stake to refuse the difficult fate that we must bear alone. (p.35)

You’d think the Spanish republicans, the Czechs, the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, the Finns and Danes and Dutch and Belgians, let alone the Russians at Leningrad or Stalingrad, none of them had experienced anything like the French, who alone knew the tragedy and, oui, mon brave, the nobility of suffering!

The Paris that is fighting tonight intends to command tomorrow. Not for power, but for justice; not for politics, but for ethics; not for the domination of France, but for her grandeur. (p.36)

a) Camus’s French arrogance – his complete omission of the vital role played by the Anglo-Saxon countries in standing up to Hitler and then overthrowing the Nazi regime – his sublime confidence in French exceptionalism, matches the haughty grandeur of de Gaulle, and is just as ludicrous.

b) On a more serious note, this willful omission mirrors his neglect of the colonial issue, the post-war problem of France’s Empire – and specifically the massive war in Vietnam which kicked off as soon as the World War ended  – until he was absolutely forced to confront it when his own homeland went up in flames.

If Camus’s notions of French grandeur and prestige and gloire turned out to be a fatal dead end, nonetheless his championing of human freedom and dignity against Nazi and Communist tyranny remain impressive and inspiring to this day. It set the tone and helped spread the language of resistance to communist tyranny – of being a ‘witness to truth’, of art’s capacity to unite people against oppression – which echoed on in the writings of, for example, Václav Havel and Polish Solidarity. 


Credit

The English translation by Justin O’Brien of Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus was published by Alfred Knopf in 1960. All quotes & references are to the Vintage paperback reprint of this 1960 translation.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The battle for France

The Algerian war of independence

Thunderball by Ian Fleming (1961)

Bond laughed, partly in admiration. ‘You’ve been taking mescalin or something. It’s a damned good sequence for a comic strip, but these things don’t happen in real life.’ (p.168)

Shrublands

The tremendous battering Fleming has submitted Bond to over the previous seven novels begins to show, as M – a recent convert to healthy living and wholefood diets – insists he takes a rest cure at a sanatorium in Sussex named ‘Shrublands’. Fleming’s description is amusingly sardonic throughout, from the brylcreemed youth who drives him in a taxi to the spa, through the old health food ‘doctor’ who prescribes his rest cure treatments, to the repellent, fat, old men and women who populate the place.

Bond submits with bad grace to the round of massages, hot baths, and the starvation diet of nut cutlets and dandelion tea, though there are several highlights: 1. He flirts with the unusually pretty, firm-bodied and ‘strict’ health therapist Patricia Fearing until, with dumb inevitability, while she’s massaging him he reaches up and kisses her. For all her flurried objections, Bond knows it is a done deal, and (rather callously) describes bonking her in her little bubble car up on the Sussex Downs.

2. More importantly, someone tries to kill him. He notices a tiny tattoo on the wrist of another ‘guest’, the handsome six-foot Count Lippe, then makes a bad mistake by phoning the Cipher Section of the Service to ask about the tattoo, from a public payphone in the sanatorium’s corridor. Turns out the tattoo is the sign of the Tongs, a secret society based in Macau.

Later the delectable Ms Fearing straps Bond into a complicated spine-stretching apparatus as part of his treatment and leaves the room – only for Lippe to sneak in and turn the machine way up past the danger zone, so that Bond’s body is literally being torn apart. It is only the accidental return of Ms Fearing a bit earlier than scheduled that saves his life. Bond laughs it off as a mishap but plans his revenge and, on the last day of his stay, ambushes Lippe who is sitting in a ‘sweat box’. Bond turns its thermostat up to a scalding 180 degrees.

Bond leaves Shrublands feeling lighter, toned up, fitter and more focused than for years, having bonked a pretty nurse and scored a petty act of revenge.

What he doesn’t realise is that he has impinged on a conspiracy to shake the governments of the world! Chapter five introduces us to Ernst Stavro Blofeld – the most notorious Bond baddie – giving his full backstory as a gifted Polish engineer who set up a bogus spy ring in pre-war Poland and screwed money out of various buyers, before setting up another ring in Turkey during the war itself, then clearing out to South America. Now he is back and he has invented SPECTRE, SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, as a clearing house for all kinds of criminal activities.

Meeting of SPECTRE

In the next scene we are introduced to a meeting of the top men in SPECTRE at a non-descript house in Paris. They are all allotted numbers, and comprise cells of men recruited from the French and Italian Mafia, SMERSH, American underworld gangs etc. Their undisputed leader is Blofeld. Blofeld reads out the monthly summary of profits from their various criminal activities – then melodramatically moves on to punish one of the members seated round the big table. This man is accused of violating a young girl who had been kidnapped, and SPECTRE had promised to return unharmed. Blofeld announces that SPECTRE returned half the kidnap ransom and now the guilty man is punished by the activation of electric pads in his chair which electrocute and virtually cook him. His smoking body slumps onto the table. The other members take this as due justice. This is SPECTRE. Blofeld’s word is law. They then proceed to discuss ‘the Omega Plan’.

This scene feels every bit as overblown and teenage as the movies.

The letter

Next thing Bond knows he’s called in by M who gives him a letter claiming SPECTRE has hijacked an RAF bomber (the fictional Vindicator) carrying two atomic bombs. The governments of the West have one week to hand over £100,000,000 or they’ll explode one of the bombs at a site worth exactly that amount. Then, a day later, if no money is delivered, they’ll explode the other bomb at a major world city.

Frankly, this threat made me nervous and edgy in light of our current geopolitical situation, and I didn’t enjoy thinking about it. Bond is told that the intelligence forces of the Western world have gone into overdrive, everyone and everything is being thrown at the problem. But M has a hunch: before it disappeared off the radar the hijacked Vindicator descended into the main East-West Atlantic traffic (to conceal itself). A few hours later the American DEW radar system detected a plane making a sharp turn south, just off the US coast. M has a hunch it was the baddy plane, and goes to investigate maps of the region. As a result, M thinks the Bahamas might be a perfect hiding place for the crooks, out of the way but not far from the US mainland, no real military or radar presence – good place to ditch a plane. So he is dispatching Bond to the Bahamas to see what he can see. Bond is disgruntled because he thinks he’s being sent on a wild goose chase.

Capturing the plane

There is then a long sequence which describes, in retrospect, how the Italian ‘observer’ on the hijacked plane, Giuseppe Petacchi a) poisoned the five man crew by opening a cyanide capsule in the cockpit, then b) pulled the bodies out of the way and flew the plane single-handedly down into the busy East-West Atlantic commercial plane traffic, then veered south towards the Caribbean, exactly as M hypothesised. Here, overcoming nerves, he locks onto the radio signal then onto the landing lights put out by SPECTRE and skillfully crash lands the plane on the surface of the sea. Proud and happy he walks along the wing of the slowly settling plane towards the motorboat of SPECTRE men who have come to meet him and the first one aboard casually slips a stiletto up under his jaw and into his brain which kills him immediately. Not very nice people.

We are introduced to Number 1 (SPECTRE numbers rotate on a monthly basis) Emilio Largo, a superbly fit figure of a man, Olympic swimmer, fencer etc (p.126), scion of a noble Roman family, with a hooked nose, the mouth of a satyr and enormous hands. He supervises the concealment of the sunken plane and the retrieval of the two atom bombs – using the facilities of his superb, purpose-built, luxury catamaran, the Disco Volante (Italian for ‘flying saucer’, p.134).

There is a tame nuclear physicist on board the ship and on the payroll, Kotze, who is given a speech explaining how you defuse an atomic bomb, then arm it with a timed fuse so you can drop it somewhere and make your getaway. As he explains all this to Largo (and the reader), Largo is wondering when the moment will be right to ‘eliminate’ him. Not very nice people. The bombs are stashed in a remote coral island, and this phase of the mission is complete.

Bond in the Bahamas

Once again Bond is in the sunny Caribbean – in this, as in many other respects, Thunderball feels like a rehash of themes and settings. Bond has quickly latched onto Largo’s mistress, Dominetta ‘Domino’ Vitali, an independent-spirited, beautiful young woman. (The way she is named after a game is reminiscent of Solitaire.) He accidentally on purpose bumps into her in a general store in Nassau and invites himself for a drive in her sporty MG then a drink and get-to-know-you. (We see Bond through her eyes, six foot, black hair, scar on right jaw, cruel smile, confident, p.145).

There is then another flashback, taking us how through Bond got to this point (exactly as the letter from the terrorists was followed by the account of the hijack of the plane which preceded it).

So we learn that Bond arrived in Nassau and went straight to a High Priority meeting with the Governor, Police Commissioner etc. He said he’s looking for a group of 10 or 20 or 30 men, decent and respectable, engaged on a completely innocent purpose, who probably arrived in the fairly recent past. The Police Commissioner mentions the annual Treasure Hunt crew: every year a yacht goes looking for legendary sunken treasure. This year it’s the Disco Volante owned by Emilio Largo, who has been joined by about twenty shareholders in the venture. Bingo!

—This is a really glaring example of the general rule that there is no detection in James Bond. Mr Big, Hugo Drax, Goldfinger, they are all identified very early on as the bad guys – the narrative interest comes not from slowly unveiling the truth, but from the elaborate skirting round each other, which leads to the torture scenes and then the final showdown. a) M had a hunch the hijacked plane flew to the Bahamas and, guess what, he’s dead right b) the police suggest the Largo’s treasure hunters are the only group that fit Bond’s bill and, guess what, they’re dead right.

Bond has identified the baddies by page 180 of this 350-page novel, though admittedly he isn’t absolutely certain they are the ones and, as his snooping makes him more and more certain, he still doesn’t know where the bombs are hidden. 170 pages remain of, well, snooping round, getting caught, getting beaten up, chatting up the girl, escaping, probably a climactic shoot-out of some kind…

Felix Leiter

Bond had asked for help from the CIA and goes to the airport to meet the agent who’s flying in with a state-of-the-art Geiger counter. It is – with heavy inevitability – Felix Leiter, his old bosom buddy with the metal hook instead of a hand (the result of being half-eaten by a shark in Live and Let Die). Leiter allows Fleming to really let his hair down and write loads of American pulp dialogue, with Bond joining in; their buddy conversations are always fun to read. But this is all very familiar territory.

Bond tells Leiter everything and invites him to go with him out to the Disco Volante, Bond posing as a rich Londoner who wants to buy the house Largo is currently renting. Largo is hospitality itself and shows them all over the impressive catamaran and promises to get his ‘niece’ (Domino) to show him the beach-front house. Leiter and Bond depart in their rented motorboat debating whether Mr Largo is really as squeaky clean as he seems – he didn’t show them about half the volume of the boat but then it is on a secret treasure hunt so why should he? And they didn’t see any of the ‘shareholders’ but then it was siesta time, maybe they were all napping…

There may be suspense for Bond, but there is none for the reader.

Confirmations

In quick succession:

1. Bond goes to the Nassau casino that evening where he meets Largo and Domino. First – in a scene which echoes the intense card game scenes in Casino Royale or Moonraker, Bond takes on Largo at baccarat and just about wins. He deliberately spooks Largo by mentioning the word ‘spectre’ several times to see what affect it has. Then Largo encourages him to go have a drink with Domino. She tells him her extended fantasy about the man portrayed on the front of packs of Players cigarettes, an entertaining piece of whimsy which reminds us that Fleming was also the author of the smash hit children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For the purposes of the plot, she lets slip that her real family name is Petacchi and that she has a beloved brother who is something in the air force. Like the Italian observer flying in the Vindicator. What a coincidence.

2. Bond borrows a scuba diving kit and swims underwater out to the Disco Volante. He confirms that there is a great seam in the hull which probably opens to allow ingress and egress of possibly naughty machinery. Barely has he done so than he is clobbered by the butt of a compressed gas harpoon and has a vividly described fight with an underwater guard, presumably from the boat which ends when the guard is attacked by a six foot barracuda. Dazed, Bond just about makes it back to shore and the waiting policeman who has accompanied him.

3. Bond and Leiter rent an amphibious plane and go scouting low over the sea, looking for the sunken plane. The odd circling of three sharks prompts Bond to go back to a particular area, land and again scuba dive to the ocean bed where, sure enough, he finds the plane hidden under a large tarpaulin. Fleming again gives a vivid description of the foulness of the water, polluted with the five corpses, and of their wrecked appearance, half eaten by sea creatures. He is particularly memorable on the interior of the plane which is absolutely stuffed with small octopuses which are eating the dead air crew. For the purposes of the plot he discovers a) the atom bombs are not on board – they have been removed, b) the body of Giuseppe Petacchi, and snaps off his identity tag, along with the rest of the crews, before finally escaping the nightmare scene and resurfacing by the flying boat.

While flying around and scouring maps, Leiter and Bond had discussed possible targets for SPECTRE’s attacks. They speculate that the first one might be against the NATO missile-firing base ‘at a place called North-West Cay at the eastern end of the Grand Bahamas’ (p.199). They fly near it, observing the rocket gantries, missile launchers, radar beacons and the rest of the paraphernalia.

Bond and Leiter had been keeping their respective services informed of developments and now are told that senior military men are flying in and Washington has dispatched a nuclear submarine, no less, to Nassau. Bond and Leiter must obey these orders, but have still not located the exact location of the bombs.

Snogging Domino

Back from the flight, and having assimilated the responses of their services, it is still daytime and Bond phones Domino at the house she and Largo are renting and casually asks if she’d like to go swimming. She gives directions to the beach where she’ll be and Bond races there in a Land Rover borrowed from the Governor’s staff. There follows a strange interlude which is meant to be moving: for Bond is affectionate and kind to her, all the time knowing he is about to break the news to her that her brother is dead, and that he was more than likely involved in a massive conspiracy to blackmail the world’s governments.

She emerges from the sea with some bits of black sea urchin in her foot and Bond very gently, very sensuously, sucks them out for her. Then carries her up to the primitive changing rooms and there they make love. And only then, does he tell her the truth. Tears. Recriminations. I hate you. Slowly she recovers as he presses on her the importance of the situation. Eventually he recruits her: will she agree to go on board the Disco Volante with the Geiger counter-disguised-as-a-camera which he will give her and snoop about: if she finds something come on deck; if nothing, remain in her cabin.

Bond leaves her to be collected by the Disco Volante and motors back to the docks to join the police who are now keeping it under surveillance. There is a message to join Leiter for the arrival of the nuclear submarine.

Nuclear submarine

The USS Manta arrives and Leiter and Bond go onboard to be greeted by the cheerful, confident commander P. Pedersen. They brief him on the whole situation including the crux that they don’t know where the bombs are. At this point they are all informed the Disco Volante has weighed anchor and steamed off north-west. The girl didn’t come up on deck, the pre-arranged signal that there were no bombs aboard, if she managed to carry out her search and not get caught, that is…

But Bond is still concerned: a) If the sub intercepts the Volante, they still won’t have the bombs and it’s just possible some other team is gathering and deploying them; b) Captain Pedersen informs Bond and Leiter the catamaran can skate easily over the countless reefs and shallows in the area, whereas the Manta can only follow guaranteed deep water channels, so they can’t give close chase to the baddies.

Aboard the Disco Volante

Cut to the interior of the Disco Volante, where Largo has called an emergency meeting of the ‘shareholders’ ie the other SPECTRE crooks. He announces to the shocked meeting that Domino was found snooping round with a camera which, on closer inspection, turned out to a Geiger counter: looks like someone put her up to it, so someone is on to them.

Domino has been detained and will be tortured to find out who commissioned her snooping. Meanwhile, the Omega plan goes ahead. The meeting is disrupted by one of the Russian delegates who sows seeds of doubt, saying while some of them are being frogmen accompanying the bomb to its destination, who’s to say the boat won’t weight anchor and scarper, leaving them in the lurch. Largo replies by shooting the complainer three times. We get the picture: SPECTRE are ruthless people.

Then Largo goes down to the cabin where Domino is tied spread-eagled to a bed, rips off her clothes and leans over her naked vulnerable body with a lighted cigar and a bucket of ice cubes, and starts to torture her. [This feels like it steps over a line: Fleming torturing Bond is one thing, as happens in the earlier novels – Bond is the hero and at least part of the mind of the male reader is experiencing the physical ordeals vicariously and wondering how he would fare. I think this is the first time we’ve seen a woman be tortured, really sadistically, cold-bloodedly tortured, and it’s not only not entertaining, but it feels wrong for Bond’s persona, for the feel of the books.]

Underwater fight

Bond and Leiter are aboard the American sub. The commander is under orders to take their orders, so Bond gives out a plan of battle to the best ten hand-picked men. They will wear skin-diving outfits, use makeshift spears, and attack Largo’s men wherever they find them.

Hours later the sub makes contact with the Wavekrest anchored off North-West Cay, the missile testing base, just as Bond and Leiter had speculated. Bond, Leiter and the ten best men suit up and exit the submarine with their makeshift weapons. They approach in a flanking movement the SPECTRE crew, but Bond immediately realises the odds are against them, as there are many more of the baddies, who have also got little propeller packs on their backs giving them greater mobility. In the middle of his posse sits Largo, riding an underwater sub which is towing the bomb.

A massive fight breaks out, Bond skewers several bad guys, before himself getting cut, cuffed, then saves Leiter’s life as a bad guy is about to shoot him, then escapes the melee to hunt down Largo. Largo is still riding the mini-sub and Bond throws himself onto it, they have a desperate cat-fight, but Bond manages to slip back onto the rudder and twist it so the machine rears up and breaks the surface, throwing them both off.

Exhausted Bond sinks to the bottom, only for Largo, still fighting fit, to approach him spear-gun at the ready. In a typically Flemingesque ghoulish detail, Largo clamps a baby octopus over Bond’s mask then puts his enormous hands round his throat to strangle him (ah, those enormous hands which have been continually referred to) and Bond is passing out, everything is going black, when….

The pressure has gone, Bond wipes the octopus away, Largo is on the ocean bed flailing with a big spear through his neck, and the girl Domino is behind him, harpoon gun in hand, her body covered in ugly red burn marks from the torture. Together, the wounded hero and heroine struggle to the surface.

Bond has been cut by a harpoon, clubbed in the head, exhausted himself fighting the rudder of the min-sub and then nearly strangled to death, all but blacking out before Domino saved him – but this, like many of the other scenes, felt to me rather like going through the motions: Bond has to be beaten to within an inch of his life because this is what happens in all Bond novels – it doesn’t necessarily follow from the actual action.

Certainly it was a tough fight, but doesn’t compare to being nearly incinerated at the climax of Moonraker, tortured to a bloody pulp in Casino Royale, or subjected to the degrading punishment in Dr No. His suffering, like so much else in the novel, feels willed in order to fit a formula.

Epilogue

Bond in hospital, as at the end of so many other adventures. Leiter visits and tells him what happened: CIA, MI6 et al now know all about SPECTRE, have identified Blofeld (who got away), their plan had been to bomb the missile launching base, then make Miami the second target. 10 men from the yacht including Largo were killed, six of the 10 volunteers from the submarine ditto, both bombs were successfully recovered. And, wow! that girl – she escaped by squeezing through a porthole with a diving suit and a harpoon gun, and saved Bond’s life. Totally believable.

Then Leiter’s gone – but all Bond wants to know about is Domino: Is she alive? How is she? Bond’s doctor comes in next and Bond feverishly asks after the girl. After hesitation, the doc tells Bond she’s next door, still in great pain from having been cruelly burned and tortured. Bond staggers into the next room, holds Domino’s hand as she regains consciousness and weakly murmurs to him, then collapses to the floor and passes out. She moves her pillow so she can lie and watch him.

The book may be manipulative, sentimental slop concocted from preposterous escapades and ridiculous escapes, but something in the desperation of their commitment, the fierceness of their ‘love’, made me burst into tears. Maybe all really fierce, heart-breaking loves are emblems of all others.


Co-authorship

By 1960 Fleming was deeply involved in various schemes for turning his creation into TV series or movies. Thunderball the novel itself originated as the screenplay for a movie which was a collaborative effort between Fleming and four others – Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ivar Bryce and Ernest Cuneo. After he published the novel, Fleming was sued by two of the collaborators who claimed part authorship of the plot, and the part ownership of the copyright explains why two movie adaptations were subsequently made, by different production companies (Thunderball 1965 and Never Say Never Again 1983 both, rather confusingly, starring Sean Connery.)

I may be influenced by this knowledge, but I think you can feel this troubled origin in the book: in certain turns of phrase which are unusual for Fleming, and in the way the plot – although just as garish and grandiose as other Bond novels – is somehow also very heavy and lumpy. Nuclear weapon threatens major city was the plot of Moonraker; the Caribbean was the setting of Live and Let Die, Dr No, the opening of For Your Eyes Only and tropical diving was the theme of The Hildebrand Rarity.

By this, the ninth book, it feels like the building blocks of a Bond novel have become so well-defined that they are transforming into clichés in front of the reader’s eyes.


Credit

Thunderball by Ian Fleming was published in 1961 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1961

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.

Call For The Dead by John le Carré (1961)

[Smiley] hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass-media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century. Everything he admired or loved has been the product of intense individualism. (p.138)

This, John le Carré’s first novel, introduces British intelligence officer George Smiley, who will go on to appear in seven subsequent le Carré books. The first chapter gives his biography – public school, Oxford, scholarly interest in 17th century German poetry, recruitment into the intelligence service, running agents in 1930s Europe – and contrasts his unromantic, intensely intelligent and scholarly character with that of his flamboyant wife, Lady Ann Sercombe, who he surprises everyone he knows by marrying – and then who surprises no-one at all by leaving him for a glamorous Cuban racing-car driver before the novel begins.

The plot

The British Intelligence Service receives an anonymous letter pointing out that Foreign Office staffer, Samuel Fennan, was a communist party member in the 1930s. Intelligence officer George Smiley is tasked with interviewing him and gives a standard and sympathetic interrogation while they stroll round St James’s Park, and concludes by telling him he has nothing to worry about. The next day Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. Why?

With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind Fennan’s death, namely that he was murdered by an East German spy ring. Unknown to Fennan, his wife was a spy and had been copying the classified documents he brought home, then meeting with her controller to give him copies. Fennan wrote the anonymous letter accusing himself because he knew it would activate an enquiry, and call in Intelligence, at which point he would be able to air his suspicions of his wife. Following his interview with Smiley, Fennan had sent the latter a note inviting him to meet again for lunch. Presumably at this lunch he would have stated his suspicions – but someone saw him in St James’s Park with Smiley, thought (correctly) that he was about to reveal his suspicions – and murdered him.

The same person, later identified as a tall, blonde assassin, Mundt, is intruding in Smiley’s flat in Bywater Street, when Smiley arrives home after meeting Fennan’s wife. Smiley hears noises, rings the bell as if a visitor, notes the man who answers the door, makes his excuses and walks away – noting the numbers of all the cars in the street.

The CID man on loan to Smiley helps track one of these cars to a dodgy south London car salesman who, after a bit of pressure, admits to loaning out the car at regular intervals to a foreign gentleman. Smiley is inspecting the car in question in the dealer’s yard when someone attacks him savagely, beating him about the head. He comes round in hospital. A few weeks later the car salesman’s body is found in the Thames.

Throughout this time Fennan’s widow, Elsa, had claimed to Smiley that Fennan was the spy, and had been murdered by his controllers. She span an elaborate story about how Fennan was recruited on the Continent, and about his controllers, with lots of detail describing how messages were sent between them. But on closer investigation various details just don’t ring true, especially the letter from Fennan inviting Smiley to diner: why send it then kill himself? Smiley begins to suspect the wife. And when his people discover that the East German Steel Delegation was being run by a man named Dieter Frey, the pieces slot into place.

Because Smiley had himself run Frey as an agent against the Nazis during the War. Clearly he had survived the War and gone on to become an important figure in East German intelligence.

At the climax of this short novel Smiley uses his knowledge of Frey’s old procedures to send a (fake) emergency request meeting to Elsa Fenner. When she rendezvous with Frey in a crowded theatre, the latter realises it’s a set-up, that British Intelligence are on to him. He silently and shockingly strangles Elsa in the theatre, then makes his getaway through the exiting crowds and the foggy streets. But the persistent CID man tails him to a houseboat near the Lots Road power station, and it is here that Smiley meets him and, as Frey attacks and beats Mendel, charges into the fight, battering Frey and accidentally pushing him over the embankment wall into the oily, black Thames where he drowns.

Comments

All the components of le Carré’s fiction are here in this first, highly-finished novel. It is deeply imagined and eminently plausible, detailed in description of people and procedure, and agreeably jaded and world-weary in its analysis of human nature. What I didn’t like is the snobbery and the Lady Ann plotline.

Lady Ann Smiley appears in no fewer than eight le Carré novels, and the ongoing saga of his unfaithful wife follows him like a tiresome puppy. This runaway wife schtick always seemed to me too pat, too improbable – as portrayed she genuinely is too glamorous and exciting to have ever married a quiet, thoughtful nobody like Smiley – and it is a sullying of Smiley’s integrity. As if Conan Doyle tried to persuade us that Holmes had a hot little mistress on the side. It is inappropriate and not necessary. Smiley’s character, and the storylines, are better without her.

Snobbery In the early pages of the novel, as he skims through his biography, le Carré emphasises that Smiley went to an ‘unimpressive’ public school and an ‘unimpressive’ Oxford college – but the snobbery and elitism of this tiny world are present in the very need to demarcate him so much from the priviliged few who went to impressive public schools and impressive Oxford colleges. It is all part of their closed code. These people represent less that 1% of the population, and yet, to hear them talk, they are the only people who matter, they are Britain and the Empire etc. Some of the ‘best’ of them, of course, turn out very gratifyingly to have been vile traitors. (And Kim Philby’s treachery is the basis of le Carré best-known novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.) Le Carré may be satirising and condemning aspects of this tiny world – but he still speaks from inside it.

On a more superficial level, Smiley is just as comme il faut as James Bond: fastidious about eating at the ‘correct’ restaurants, and drinking the ‘correct’ wine with the ‘correct’ dish; noting the place in the elaborate class hierarchy of non-public school characters, the precise calibration of their accent, whether their trousers have a neat crease in them or not, and so on.

This book was published in 1961, just before the attack on deference and class consciousness which was, allegedly, a key achievement of that noisy decade ie we should maybe forgive its dated attitudes. Still, the continual drip-drip of the just-so restaurant and the florid chaps calling each other ‘old man’ and ‘old bean’ over the whiskey or the port, grate a little on the nerves of someone who didn’t happen to go to a public school, impressive or otherwise.

Resignation

Only a few chapters into the novel Smiley resigns. He is already portrayed as over the hill, superceded by younger, flashier men in a much-expanded Security Service and he is enraged by his boss’s attempts to smooth over the murder. Thus he conducts the majority of the investigation unofficially, with the key aid of the CID man and Guillam, who remains ‘on the inside’, and can use the Service’s resources. At the end of the novel his smooth boss – Maston – sends him a letter urbanely rejecting the resignation, understanding that he was ‘under a lot of strain’ etc etc, of course consider yourself still employed. Smiley sends back a rejection of the reinstatement and takes a flight to the south of France to be reunited with his wife. But we know he’ll be back.

Credit

Call For The Dead by John le Carré, Gollancz, 1961. Quote from the 1979 Penguin edition.

Related links

The movie

Call for the Dead was made into a movie in 1966 with the title The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring James Mason as the Smiley figure (renamed Charles Dobbs), with impressive support from Harry Andrews as the solid English copper Mendel, Simone Signoret as the spy Elsa Fennan and Maximilian Schell as the old friend-cum-spymaster Dieter Frey.

It is not a good watch because of the Mason character; instead of Lady Ann, the screenwriters have lumbered the Smiley figure with a wife half his age, and foreign, and instead of Lady Ann’s tactful absence, this woman is there whenever Mason gets home, and they have horribly intense and realistic rows.

As so often in his later films, Mason comes across as a very tortured soul and the intensity of these scenes with his unhappy young wife completely overshadow the espionage plot. The whole thing is shot in a virulent technocolour which makes everyone look as if they’ve died and been badly made up by a cheap undertaker, and, given the gloom of the characters and the constant rain and the locations in the crappy back streets of south London, it seems wildly inappropriate that the film has a bright and breezy bossa nova soundtrack.

Poster for The Deadly Affair

Poster for The Deadly Affair

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Dark Crusader by Alistair MacLean (1961)

This is a cracking thriller, but with a significantly different tone from the earlier books. It seems like Fear Is The Key is the first of MacLean’s thrillers to adopt self-deprecating humour in the first-person narrator which would become a trademark. In The Dark Crusader, the next in the series, the same lighter tone is present in spades, along with a snappier writing style, using facetiousness, self-deprecation and repetition for comic affect.

‘OK, friend,’ I said. I meant it to sound cool and casual but it came out more like a raven – the hoarse one – croaking on the battlements of Macbeth’s castle. ‘I can see it’s a gun. Cleaned and oiled and everything. But take it away, please. Guns are dangerous things.’ ‘A wise guy, eh?’ he said coldly. (Ch 1)

I prised open the hatch cover. Nobody shot me. Nobody shot me because there was nobody there to shoot me, and there was nobody there to shoot me because no one but a very special type of moron would have ventured out on that deck without an absolutely compelling reason.  Even then he would have required a suit of armour… Enormous cold drops of water, so close together as to be almost a solid wall, lashed the schooner with a ferocity and intensity I would not have believed possible. (Ch 2)

Less than three hundred yards further on I found the end of the tunnel. I rubbed my forehead, which had been the part of me that had done the finding, then switched on the tiny pencil-beam of light. (Ch 6)

‘Some Hong Kong beer before we go?’ ‘Sounds fine, Professor.’ So we went and drank his beer and it was as good as he promised. We had it in the living room where he’d first taken us and I looked at the various exhibits in the glass-fronted cases. To me they were only a mould collection of bones and fossils and shells, of stone pestles and mortars, of charred timber and clay utensils and curiously shaped stones. It was no difficulty at all not to show any interest and I didn’t show any interest because the professor had shown signs of being wary of any person interested in archaeology. (Ch 4)

My jaw seemed alright. It hurt, but it was still a jaw. (Ch 6)

I turned the operating screw of the shark-repellent canister and a darkish evil-smelling liquid – it would probably have been yellow in daylight – with extraordinary dissolving and spreading qualities spread over the surface of the sea. I don’t know what the shark-repellent did to the sharks, but it certainly repelled me. (Ch 7)

The humour, the facetious tone, make it more bubble-gum, more fun. The Last Frontier felt very earnest, the experience of the book heavily affected by the ‘serious’ political and philosophical discussions, but more so by the simple facts of what the people of Hungary went through between the wars, during the Nazi occupation, during the Soviet era, which are recounted by various characters. No laughing matter.

But this novel – about a dastardly plot to capture the Navy’s new secret weapon rocket – is good-natured hokum, the cutting-edge-of-British-science theme, along with the jokey, facetious tone of the Secret Agent hero, and his pairing with a stunningly good-looking agentess, all reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s Thunderball, published in the same year, 1961.

Some of the Bond novels were serialised as comic strips in the newspapers. These could be the same. In six short years MacLean has moved a long way from the earnest tragedy of HMS Ulysses and Navarone to a light, bright style which anticipates the 1960s bubblegum antics of TV series like the cool but ridiculous Man From UNCLE. The Fontana cover features a long-legged dollybird in a colourful 60s miniskirt being protected by a knife-wielding dude with a more than passing resemblance to Steve McQueen, even down to McQueen’s Bullit-era hush puppies.

‘Mind if I rip this sleeve off?’
‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘But mind you don’t rip the arm off at the same time. I don’t think there’s a great deal holding it in place.’ (Ch 8)

The third person

A noticeable part of the routine is for the protagonist to think or talk about himself in the third person, generally in exasperation or self-criticism.

‘Good old Bentall,’ I said savagely. ‘Never misses a thing… Ten to one he had a concealed mike down in that hold which let him know whenever Bentall, the Einstein of espionage, made such shattering discoveries.’ (Ch 6)

It was then that I heard the singing. This was it, Bentall’s tottering reason had gone at last, the shock of what I’d just seen and done had overstrained more than the facial muscles. Bentall unhinged, Bentall round the bend, Bentall hearing noises in  his head. What would Colonel Raine have said if he knew his trusty servant had gone off his trolley? (Ch 6)

Good old Bentall, I thought bitterly, nothing of the common touch about him, whenever he wishes for something it has to be really unattainable. (Ch 7)

The evidence was all before me now, Bentall with the blinkers off – at last – and I knew the truth, also at last. Counter-espionage, I thought bitterly, they should never have left me out of the kindergarten, the wicked world and its wicked ways were far too much for Bentall, if he could put one foot in front of the other without breaking an ankle in the process that was all you could reasonably expect of him. On flat ground of course. (Ch 10)

God, I should have known this was coming, I thought of her face twisted in pain, the hazel eyes dark in agony, it was the most obvious thing in the world. Only Bentall could have missed it. (Ch 10)

This tendency becomes epidemic by towards the end where our hero, seriously beaten, bitten, shot and whipped, blames himself for everything which has gone wrong. Not sure I’ve read another book in which the protagonist spends so much time beating himself up.

Raymond Chandler influence

I was wondering where this breezy light-hearted tone had come from when I read the following sentence:

I became vaguely aware that Anderson and the red-faced man, whom he addressed as Farley, were talking together and then the vagueness vanished. I heard a couple of words that caught and transfixed my attention the way a tarantula in my soup would have done. (Ch 8)

Possibly the most famous of Raymond Chandler’s many colourful similes is this:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food. (Farewell, My Lovely, chapter 1)

I’d already noticed some Americanisms in among MacLean’s usually very British prose, and some of the wisecracking had an American tone. This small clue clinched it. Consciously or unconsciously, it seems to me MacLean is paying homage to the master of snappy, thriller prose. Now the surprising thing about Raymond Chandler, for anyone new to him, is how funny he is, what a wise-cracking joker his protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is, mostly at his own expense, mostly at the expense of the mistakes and errors he makes in all his cases, often blaming himself for the (generally fatal) consequences. Chandler demonstrates that you can write quite noir material about kidnaps and drugs and murder – and be stylish and witty about it too.

Seems to me MacLean has swallowed Chandler whole and is attempting his own version of it, in the light-hearted, self-deprecating tone which is to become the characteristic of the first person narrators of his all thrillers from now on.

I grunted something appropriate and as short as it could decently be and went for that dirnk like a thirst-stricken camel for the nearest oasis. (Ch 3)

I didn’t expect to find anything there that I wouldn’t have found in any other kitchen, and I didn’t. But I found what I was after, the cutlery drawer. (Ch 5)

Three yards ahead of me a bush moved. Shock froze me into involuntary and life-saving immobility, no relic dug out by the professor was ever half so petrified as I was at that moment… I lowered myself back to the ground like a gambler laying down the last card that would lose him his fortune. I made a mental note that all this stuff about oxygen being necessary for life was a tale invented by doctors. I had completely stopped breathing. (Ch 5)

It would be ridiculous to deny that I was frightened, and so I won’t. I was scared and badly scared. (Ch 7)

‘Take a good look,’ LeClerc said. ‘That’s all you’re here to do – to take a good look.’
I took a good look. (Ch 10)

My left arm and the left side of my face were engaged in a competition to see which could make me jumpmostr and the competition was fierce, but after a while they gave it up and the whole left side of my body seemed to merge into one vast and agonising pain. (Ch 10)

Heavy-handed

However, unfortunately, MacLean is not the master of English prose that Chandler is, and along with the new note of humour goes a new kind of overcomplex sentence, a new heavy-handedness in the prose, which wasn’t so noticeable in Ulysses or Navarone where he had focused on describing the action as curtly as possible. Generally, he can’t resist adding a second clause where one would be enough, or adjectives where they would best be cut.

He broke off as a side door opened and a girl walked into the room. I say ‘walked’ because it is the usual word to describe human locomotion, but this girl didn’t locomote, she seemed to glide with all the grace and more than the suggestion of something else of a Balinese dancing girl. (Prologue)

No pickpocket ever lifted a wallet with half the delicate care and soundless stealth that I used to lift one of these baulks out of position and lean it against its neighbour. (Ch 6)

The lights still burned in the professor’s window, I would have taken odds that he has no intention of going to sleep that night, I was beginning to know enough of his nature to suspect that the exhaustion of a sleepless night would be a small price to pay for the endless delights of savouring to the full the delightful anticipations of the pleasures of the day that was to come. (Ch 7)

And humour is difficult. Unless you have done it with impeccable timing, nothing dates as fast as strained jocularity.

I looked awful. One horrified glance at me would have had any life assurance salesman in the land jumping on his fountain pen with both feet. (Ch 6)

I’d get no Oscars for counter-espionage, but as an arsonist I was neck and neck with the best. (Ch 7)

‘Good Lord! A female!’ Although biologically accurate enough it struck me as a singularly inept term to describe Marie Hopeman. (Ch 8)

If it wasn’t for the fact that my nervous system seemed to have completely stopped working, I’d probably have jumped a foot. If I’d the strength for any gymnastics like that, which I hadn’t. (Ch 8)

Great read

Aspects of style sometimes interest me more than the subject or plot, but it’s worth emphasising that The Dark Crusader is a gripping and exciting thriller, which moves fast and puts its hero into a satisfyingly varied range of perilous situations – it’s about a very contemporary (to its date) issue (inter continental missiles and nuclear armageddon) – and which had one big surprise left at the end which I hadn’t anticipated at all. As usual the reader is conscious of the absurdities and illogicality of the plot but these are over-ridden by the sheer page-turning excitement of the steady succession of twists and turns and jeopardies which MacLean is such a master at constructing.

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Dark Crusader

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Dark Crusader

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

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

First person narrator – the classic novels

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

Third phase

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

Bad

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

Fear Is The Key by Alistair Maclean (1961)

Up till now we had no evidence whatsoever, all along the way your back trail was divided into a series of water-tight compartments with locked doors. Royale locked the doors by killing everybody and anybody who might talk. Incredibly, there wasn’t a single solitary thing we could pin on you, there wasn’t a person who could split on you for the sufficient reason that all those who could were dead. The locked doors. but you opened them all today. Fear was the key to all the doors. (Chapter 12)

Categorising MacLean’s novels

Fear Is The Key was the sixth novel Alistair MacLean published. I devoured them aged 12 and 13 in the early 1970s but by the time of Dusty Death and Breakheart Pass were published (1973 and 74) I felt they’d gone badly off; that or I’d outgrown them. Now, thanks to his Wikipedia entry, I learn that MacLean’s 28 novels are divided into four periods (by whom? fans? scholars?):

  1. HMS Ulysses through to The Last Frontier. Four novels with third-person narratives, a somewhat epic tone and are mostly set during World War II. The Last Frontier contained overt philosophical and moral themes that were not well received. MacLean then switched gears to…
  2. Night Without End through to Ice Station Zebra. Six novels all featuring first-person (and sometimes unreliable) narration laced with a dry, sardonic, self-deprecating humour, and were all set in contemporary times. These are MacLean’s most intensely plotted tales, masterfully blending thriller and detective elements.
  3. When Eight Bells Toll through to Bear Island – six novels that still maintained a generally high quality, with some books harking back to each of the first two periods but usually taking a more cinematic approach (not surprising since he began writing screenplays during this time).
  4. The Way to Dusty Death to the end (twelve novels). No more first-person stories, and his prose is thought to have often sagged badly, with excessive dialogue, lazily described scenes, and under-developed characters. Some show these faults more than others, and all the books sold reasonably well, but MacLean never regained his classic form.

Unity of time

Probably not deliberately, MacLean falls in with Aristotle’s unity of time: once the plot gets cracking it unfolds in nearly real time ie you follow the harassed protagonist minute by minute as he breaks out of the court-room, kidnaps the girl, gets involved in a long car chase, returns to the motel and gets knocked unconscious. All in the first few pages…

Eight minutes after Larry had died and exactly twenty minutes after I had left Kennedy and Royale in the cabin I was back there, giving the hurriedly pre-arranged knock. (Ch 11)

Trivial as it may sound, the unity of time means there is no let-up: from the minute the touchpaper is lit the plot consists of relentless hi-tension drama: every minute is crucial, even a slight distraction could spell disaster for the hero and his machinations. That’s why this book is so hard to put down.

The Volta or Anagnorisis

Anagnorisis is the term Aristotle used in his Poetics for the moment in a play when a character makes a critical discovery. It originally meant ‘recognition’ in its Greek context, not only of a person but also of what that person stood for. Anagnorisis is the hero’s sudden awareness of a real situation.

Similarly, the volta is the moment in a sonnet (or, by extension, other type of poem) when the train of thought takes a dramatic turn or swerve.

Both of these could be applied to the moment in this novel when the truth is revealed. For the first half of the novel we think John Talbot really is the hardened criminal who shoots his way out of a court-room in small-town Florida, killing a policeman on the way and kidnapping an innocent bystander woman, before engaging in a prolonged and thrilling car chase, before stealing another car and returning to the motel where he was arrested, before being knocked unconscious by a corrupt cop who heard the police alert and is determined to collect the reward in person from the father of the kidnapped girl, who turns out to be a multi-millionaire oil tycoon. The revived Talbot is taken along to the country mansion of the tycoon who seems to be surrounded by surprisingly tough thugs, who seem to dominate his life.

By this point I’d been wondering about Talbot, whose first-person narration was zippy but essentially innocent. I mean there was no psychology, no sense of emotions or conflicts or any psychological depths. The first person narrator is just a peg to hang a relentless sequence of nailbiting incidents on. No sense of criminal motivation or remorse for killing the policeman.

All is revealed when the volta or anagnorisis comes and Talbot reveals he is in fact a special agent working for the British government. The arrest and the entire court-room scene down to the shooting of the cop were staged and fake. The judge was in on the scam and had invited the millionaire’s daughter so that Talbot could stage the break and kidnap. the crooked cop who sapped him in the motel room was, in fact, his partner. The entire plot has been a scam to inveigle his way into the tycoon’s house, and into the good graces of the mob who are using him and his oil rig because — because all along it turns out a plane crashed off the Florida coast carrying hundreds of millions in gold and jewels, and the baddies have stolen an experimental bathyscaphe, concealed it aboard the tycoon’s oil rig, and now need a salvage expert to fix and drive it for them to the underwater crash site.

It is here, confined in the tiny machine, 500 feet under the storm-tossed Atlantic that there is a second and genuinely chilling volta: for here Talbot reveals that he was partner in the air charter firm whose airplane full of treasure was shot down by the baddies; and that aboard were his brother and wife and three-year old son. It is this rather harrowing revelation which convinces the baddies when Talbot says he’s disabled the flotation tanks and they are all going to die with him in this underwater tomb. As the oxygen runs out and they panic, Talbot gets the baddies to confess every detail of their elaborate plot.

Only then does he make the final revelation – he can refloat the scaphe and the microphone has not only been on all the time, but their confessions have been recorded by agents back on the oil rig, and will certainly send them to the electric chair.

Technical expertise

As always MacLean’s technical knowledge – of guns, airplanes, submarines and oil rigs – is fascinating (for this very untechnical reader, anyway). This is particularly true of his depiction of the sea. The second half of the novel is set aboard an oil rig off the coast of Florida and includes numerous details about the rig and the pressurised equipment necessary to raise and float the thing, and then drill down into the earth’s core, as well as very detailed descriptions of the bathyscaphe which is, after all, the setting of the novel’s final scenes.

Pushed to extremes

I felt old and tired and empty and dead. (Ch 6)

‘What does it matter now?’ Even to myself I sounded tired, defeated. (Ch 8)

I felt unutterably tired, I didn’t know whether it was because of the pain or the foul air or just because of the overwhelming sense of the emptiness of living. (Ch 11)

It is part of the genre that the male hero is stretched to the limit. They generally start severely tired and then get pushed way beyond the bounds of endurance. No surprise, when they have to cope with the hailstorm of nailbiting situations which their author throws at them in quick succession with no time to rest.

The scenes on the oil rig are set as a major storm approaches. At its height characters can only make their way across the platform by clinging onto wires stretched between key locations, while they’re nearly blown overboard by the gale force winds.

We had to lean at an angle of almost forty-five degrees against the wind to keep our balance and at the same time hang on to one of the life-lines. If you fell and started rolling along that deck you wouldn’t stop until the wind had pushed you clear over the side: it was as strong as that. It sucked the breath from your lungs and under its knife-edge hurricane lash the rain flailed and stung the exposed skin like an endless storm of tiny lead shot. (Ch 9)

All the shooting, beatings and suspense take place in a context where people are already stretched to the limits of survival.

Typically for the genre – think of the beating James Bond takes in every one of his novels – Talbot gets pretty badly damaged. A particularly unpleasant sidekick, a bug-eyed junkie, not only shoots him in the shoulder but smashes his teeth and lip with the barrel of a gun so that the hero is in agony for the last few hours of the plot.

Psychologically, this kind of story exercises and exorcises the male wish to be tried, to be physically tested to the limit, and to come through. Dr Johnson said every man thinks less of himself for not having been a soldier, and these novels cater to that male wish to have taken part in trial unto death (without actually having to move from the comfort of your sunlounger).

The dead sidekick

If the hero gets a beating it is nothing compared to his faithful sidekick – in this instance, the corrupt cop Jablonsky, who turns out to be his partner and one of the good guys – who is shot dead. The consistency with which this happens in MacLean or Bond or Chandler suggest it is a corollary of the above psychological need to be tested: the death of the closest associate demonstrates a) just how close death is, just how damn serious this job is, and b) allows the hero to show how toughly male he is by rejecting sappy feelings and determining to get his revenge. ‘It’s what X would have wanted,’ he says, tight-lipped.

It is the transparency of these psychological gratifications which makes thrillers – despite being so gripping – ultimately so childish, which disqualifies them from literature ie from the more concerted attempt to depict psychological depth or complexity.

Mary the heroine

The kidnapped heroine is called Mary (Ruthven). In line with the dictum that the hero must suffer, although she slowly realises he is a good guy and, by the end, is risking life and limb to help him – and he saves her life – in the end she stays true to her love for the family chauffeur (who had turned out to be a rock of dependability in a number of hairy moments). It’s a Hemingwayesque tough guy moment in a style that, as soon as Hemingway invented it just after the Great War, flooded literature, flooded books and movies and discourse, and survives to this day: this style, this attitude, this tough way of being a man which would have been a mystery to Dickens or Collins or Ruskin or Morris or Wilde, let alone George Eliot, Henry James or Virginia Woolf.

Mary saw me, hesitated a moment, then came across the sidewalk, to where I was standing. Her eyes seemed dark and curiously blurred but maybe I was imagining it. She murmured something, but I couldn’t make out what it was, then suddenly, careful not to hurt my left arm still in its sling, she put her two arms around my neck, pulled down my head and kissed me. Next moment she was gone, making her way back to the Rolls like a person who couldn’t see too well. Kennedy looked at her coming towards him, then lifted his eyes to mine, his face still and empty of all expression. I smiled at him and he smiled back. A nice guy.

It is cinematic, made of understated gestures which convey more than they say, and everything is about the manly suppression of emotion, focusing on actual bodily movements and practical details (the sling) and avoiding all possible psychology, any hint of feeling.

Related links

Like almost all MacLean’s novels, FITK was made into a film which is available on DVD. The clip below is just a part of the 20-minute long car chase which made it notorious in its day, complete with jazz-funk soundtrack and hi-intensity strings which make it sound like an episode of Starsky and Hutch.

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

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

First person narrator – the classic novels

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

Third phase

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

Bad

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

The Franco-Prussian War by Sir Michael Howard (1961)

Distinguished military historian Sir Michael Eliot Howard, OM, CH, CBE, MC, FBA published his definitive history of the Franco-Prussian War in 1961. In the foreword he apologises for adding to the enormous literature on the subject. This is ironic since nowadays it’s quite hard to find books about this conflict, compared with, say, the endless flood of books about the two world wars. While many of the other texts he refers to seem to have disappeared, his has emerged as the best one-volume history, even fifty years after publication.

Howard sets the tone on page 57:

Thus by a tragic combination of ill-luck, stupidity and ignorance France blundered into war with the greatest military power that Europe had yet seen, in a bad cause, with her army unready and without allies.

Background Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia, engineered wars with Denmark (1864) and Austria (1866) in order to unify as many German statelets as possible under Prussian leadership. Tension had been growing for some time between Prussia and France and Bismarck, convinced war was inevitable anyway, seized the opportunity provided by a squabble about the vacant crown of Spain to trick France into becoming the aggressor. The Spanish government had invited a German prince to become king of Spain; this was the so-called ‘Hohenzollern candidature‘. The French government of Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of the famous French general and emperor Napoleon I) protested. Bismarck made the German prince back down, but then engineered a situation where France felt so insulted at the way she had been treated that Napoleon III – his regime shaky and counting on the boost a quick victory would bring him – declared war on Prussia on 19 July 1870.

Bad idea. The Prussians had been busy harnessing their rapid mid-century industrial development to an efficient military machine; they were ready. They had a strategic plan to use their railways to carry troops to the border, they had better-designed artillery, they had been grooming an élite General Staff capable of providing everything necessary for big campaigns – food, uniforms, ammunition – their mobilisation plans were in place.

French military organisation was the opposite in every respect: chaotic, lacking guns and ammunition and uniforms, with no defined central authority, topped off with a lamentably poor standard of generalship.

The War – Part One Having declared war the French mobilised and  invaded Prussian territory at Saarbrucken.  After an initial victory they were halted, repelled and from that point never stopped retreating. Outside the fortress of Metz the Prussians divided the French armies: General Bazaine’s army was bottled up inside Metz for what turned into a two-month long siege, while General MacMahon’s army found itself pushed back towards the Belgium border until it was comprehensively defeated in the hills north of the town of Sedan. The Emperor Napoleon III was himself taken prisoner. In France the name ‘Sedan’ became synonymous with national humiliation for a generation.

Napoleon III went into exile in England, settling in Camden Place, Chislehurst (which can still be visited today) where he died in 1873. His last words were about Sedan.

The Line of Fire by Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (1886)

The Line of Fire by Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (1886)

The War – Part Two The Prussians expected the war to end with these military victories. But although the Imperial administration of Napoleon collapsed when he ran away, a new administration arose in Paris, declared itself the Third Republic, and pledged to continue the fight. The Prussians had to invade a lot more of northern France, surround and besiege Paris, and fight big battles around Orleans and to the east in the Vosges to secure their victory. December was a month of catastrophes for both armies which continued attacking and retreating through deep snow. The suffering was immense.

The End One of the most interesting parts of the book is how long it took to end the war. Howard sheds fascinating light on how difficult it was for the various conflicting elements on both sides to line up to any kind of agreement, with extremists in both countries calling for a continuation of guerre a l’outrance or to ‘the bitter end’. In fact, there had to be a succession of temporary agreements starting with negotiations in January and passing through various vicissitudes until the final Treaty of Frankfurt was signed on 10 May 1871.

Consequences

  • All Europe observed France’s fall from top military force in Europe, replaced by Prussia.
  • The remaining southern German statelets now joined the North German Confederation which Bismarck had set up, creating for the first time a unified German state, under the rule of Kaiser William. Bismarck arranged for it to be called not just a country, but the German Empire or Reich and for a reluctant King William to be crowned emperor – or Kaiser – Wilhelm, on January 18, in the conquered Palace of Versailles.
  • Germany annexed from France the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, thus creating an enduring cause of resentment among the French.
  • France was left humiliated and demoralised. The psychological impact lasted a generation.
  • Howard identifies the biggest consequence as the widespread realisation that small professional armies were a thing of the past; the future belonged to states which could mobilise entire nations for war, harnessing their industrial strength, educated classes, the practical intelligence required for planning and logistics. All the nations of Europe saw and learned this lesson. The Treaty of Frankfurt led to 43 years of peace in Europe, but it was an uneasy peace haunted by the new ways of warfare, and kept in uneasy balance only by the clever diplomacy of Bismarck. After the next Kaiser, Wilhelm II, sacked the ageing Bismarck in 1890, he inaugurated a more reckless and aggressive German foreign policy which was to lead to disaster 24 years later (the First World War).

The book At 450 pages in my old, library, hardback copy, this is a long, meaty, thorough and detailed account. Howard gives very good descriptions of individual battles, and the hundred and fifty pages which describe the French army’s fighting retreat from Metz until it is annihilated at Sedan have a nightmareish quality, a continual chase which erupted into messy and bloody battles at a score of locations across eastern France before the final debacle.

He adds to these detailed accounts a sparing selection of judicious and interesting reflections. For me the most striking learning was the way the technology of primitive machine guns and breech loading rifles had changed the nature of battle from everything which preceded it. Cavalry was rendered obsolete; every use of cavalry in the war was a pointless bloodbath. The power of the new guns meant that neat advancing lines of infantry were mown down in massacres. Clever generals (ie the Germans) realised they had to delegate authority down to unit officers to advance in ragged sections, using initiative and cover. It seems barely conceivable that these lessons were forgotten by the time the Great War broke out 24 years later, and had to be heartbreakingly relearned at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Related links

Milton’s God by William Empson (1961)

The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people act on moral convictions different from your own. (p.261)

This I take to be a piece of humanism in the Lionel Trilling tradition.

What is more it has been thought from Aeschylus to Ibsen that a literary work may present a current moral problem, and to some extent alter the judgement of those who appreciate it by making them see the case as a whole. (p.261)

Ditto. On this view literature contributes to the ‘debate’, which is a fundamental of democratic societies.

What is literature?

By contrast, in my opinion, the term or concept ‘literature’ is an artefact

a) used in various ways in various times and places over the past 3,000 years, and part of its study should be a study of what people of the past have meant by ‘literature’; and a study of the conditions under which it has been i) produced ii) received iii) preserved
b) constructed under specific conditions in Western universities over the past 200 years or so, and it’s worth spending a little time pondering the history of the creation of departments of ‘literature’, studying the history of the subject itself…

In contrast to the varying theoretical views of ‘literature’ put forward by professors, in the real world writers have written for a wide variety of reasons & motives – but the single biggest one has been to earn a living. In this sense most ‘literature’ is motivated not by any belated idea of contributing to a ‘debate’ – but by the wish for fame, fortune, praise and money (from the ferocious competition among the ancient Greeks to win the palm for their tragedy, to Dr Johnson claiming no-one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.)

Milton’s God

It is a great shame that Empson only makes his ideological convictions clear in the final long polemical chapter, Christianity. It is especially regrettable that only on p.267 does he explain the rationale for the entire book, viz. modern Christians have a great amount of leeway in what they believe, can even incorporate bits of Darwinism, science etc into their syncretistic Christianity; and they tend to interpret Christian poets from the past as if they had the same easygoing faith. But Donne, Milton et al were stuck with Christianity – even when their consciences rebelled against its obvious harshness and cruelty. It was a struggle to accept many of its tenets. And so it is the revolt of Milton’s finer feelings against the harsh strictures of Christian belief that Empson sets out to map in this book, via close readings of cruxes to do with, in order, Satan (55 pages), Heaven (54), Eve (35) and Adam (29).

The one great message of this book is to refute the soft lit crit idea that you have to soak yourself into the time and mind-set of a writer in order to appreciate their work: Empson insists that an uncritical acceptance that Milton was a simple Christian belies the evidence of his personal theological work, De Doctrina Christiana, which is full of heresy and worry about God’s justice – and that this nagging doubt, worry & ambiguity are to be found at important cruxes in Paradise Lost.

Empson thinks that when Milton set himself the task of turning ‘the figures of the briefly recorded myth into high-minded intelligent characters’ he led himself into a world of woe, exposing almost every exchange to multiple ambiguities of the type he (Empson) loves to tease out. He thinks scores of these cruxes reveal that Milton actually had deep ambivalence about the myth and the kind of God it reveals – i.e. a sadistic bastard.

I think this is wrong-headed, and that, in a poem of 12,000 lines, there are bound to be anomalies, mistakes, contradictions which can be teased out and presented as deeply meaningful – but are in fact, just mistakes. I believe Milton’s aim and beliefs are clear and consistent.

Empson is a man enormously amused by his own eccentricity, who thinks he is a rebel (by standing out against the tide of neo-Christian critics spawned by Eliot) and a close reader (his tedious over-examination of words) and a humourist (imputing jokes to God, telling anecdotes about the Far East), but is in fact a muddle-headed bore.

By wrong-headed I mean the way Empson cheerfully insists that God really, deep down wanted Eve to eat the apple (p.163).

This is a foolish and ignorant book which demonstrates just how unscholarly, unsystematic, slapdash, unconsidered, inaccurate, wrongheaded, prejudiced, narrow-minded and short-sighted a so-called ‘literary critic’ can be, and why so many sensible intelligent people have looked down their noses at literary criticism as a dubious type of parlour game.

Empson is against Christianity, fine. But he uses his prejudice to interject no end of wrong-headed interpretations of Milton’s lines.

This book is like the school of criticism L.C. Knights lampooned in his 1933 essay, How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? i.e. criticism which investigates characters as if they were real people in the real world instead of figures in a total poetic, aesthetic system. It tends, therefore, to highlight logical flaws in the poem/play. As everyone knows, Shakespeare’s plays are full of anomalies, e.g. the non-functioning time schemes – but these don’t affect their dramatic plausibility or aesthetic impact. Thus, Empson picks on hundreds of different cruxes to show that, in each case, some lines – Raphael’s explanation of this or Eve’s understanding of that – imply something different from Milton’s overall and obviously Christian aim. Well, Empson’s readings might help to understand particular passages, but it in no way invalidates Milton’s obvious overall aim. I.e. all his examples don’t build up to a systematic critique.

His chapter ‘Critics’ would be useful to this day if it in any way summarised the debate over Milton as it stood in 1961. But it doesn’t, consisting of a muddle-headed skipping from one randomly-selected quote to another, not properly summarising, explaining or critiquing the famous views of Leavis, Lewis or Eliot.

Satan

I’ve just read his 50-page chapter on Satan and I’ve really no idea what it said. Towards the end he seems to be saying that Satan had very good reasons for believing what he did i.e. that God is a tyrant, that God is not the creator but the angels made themselves etc. This seems to me rubbish: whether Satan does or does not believe this is irrelevant to the overall thrust of the poem’s obvious Christian orthodoxy – and to the overall portrayal of Satan who starts off a heroic rebel and steadily degrades himself by the use of Wrong Reason. If we identify with him so much it is because we also are fallen creatures, liable to Satan’s foolish pride (ie erroneously believing there is no God; we made ourselves etc).

Heaven i.e. God is a bad God

Empson produces a list of moments where God seems a very bad God:

God rules Heaven badly

  • God produces a Heaven in which a third of the population rebels against Him; not a good sign.
  • God produces a heaven in which Satan (and presumably other devils) obsequiously and slavishly worship Him, while secretly wishing to overthrow Him.

God fails to win Satan round – in effect, encouraging him to rebel

  • If Satan simply requires proof of God’s omnipotence, why doesn’t God simply produce them – instead of leading Satan on to open rebellion and then orchestrating the whole chain of events which lead to the Fall.

God allows the Fall to happen

  • God lets Satan step out of his chains remarkably easily.
  • God sets Sin and Death in control of the gates of Hell – talk about crazy.
  • God lets Satan travel across Chaos, when a whiff of divine breath would have blown him off into infinity.
  • When Satan is discovered by Gabriel, God sets a scale in heaven to tell Gabriel to let Satan go!
  • Thus God sets a guard on Adam which turns out to be utterly hopeless – and of course he foreknows that.

God has perfect foreknowledge of the Fall – but still lets it happen

  • On the issue of foreknowledge, a parent who foresaw that its children would be mortally injured in an accident – but let it go ahead and happen – would be imprisoned or judged insane.

God encourages Raphael to plant the seeds of the ideas which Satan will exploit to successfully tempt Eve to eat the apple

  • I.e. Raphael tells them they will become like Gods – so later Eve falls for Satan’s argument that eating the apple will make her a god.

Eve

Repeats the same thesis as the whole book which is that God is a bastard who orchestrates and encourages Eve’s fall; namely by getting Raphael to describe Adam & Eve’s possible translation to heaven – which she thinks the serpent will facilitate…

pp.161 he comes to the core of the anti-God argument: a parent who punished an erring child’s first offense with a lifetime of torment and torture, disease, war and famine for all its posterity, would be locked up.

One expects the morality of a God to be archaic, but this God seems to be wickeder than any recorded society.

Adam

Concentrates on when and how Adam learns that his entire posterity will be blasted for the Fall. But mainly quotes a string of texts from De Doctrina Christiana to show just how nervous & ambivalent Milton was about the ideas of the Fall, of infinite punishment being visited on innocent people, of innocent souls being deliberately placed in fallen, impure bodies, etc. how difficult Milton found it to justify God’s justice.

Empson points out that a line in De Doctrina seems to indicate Milton’s rock-bottom position: that if there were no God how come we all have a sense of right and wrong. This is an argument C.S. Lewis uses widely – the so-called Moral Law inherent in the universe. Well, a modern materialist says it is implanted in us by our parents, carers, creating what Freud called the superego, part of our mind which absorbs the rules and regulations laid down by years of moulding by parents, teachers etc.

Milton had nowhere else to go. No intellectually credible alternative to Christianity existed. He was stuck with his God.

I’ve found Christian belief in various people to be a matter of a handful of firm convictions – about right and wrong, or about a purpose to life etc – and then they’ve used these handful of convictions as a foundation on which to ease themselves into the vast a) social organisation b) intellectual system, of Christianity. But Milton is exceptional because he refused to shy away from the logical conclusions of the Christian myth.

Which brings me to a point which arises usefully out of Empson’s book – Milton was a lifelong arguer and controversialist – Paradise Lost is mostly dialogue, most of which is devoted to people argufying. Empson thinks it unlikely that there is any argument about any aspect of Christianity that Milton won’t have considered. Hence the intellectual interest, like watching a philosopher or lawyer make a case.

Thoughts

It is my position that Milton put down in black and white the essential elements of the Christian religion – and that many Christians are extremely embarrassed to see it written down so openly, would prefer there to have been more ‘mystery’, ‘spirituality’ i.e. for it to have glossed over the uncomfortable facts. But Milton was a zealot, convinced of his cause. There is no subtle sub-text here – Milton wrote what he believed.

But the unappealingness – the moral bankruptcy – of the poem’s theology, need not put us off either enjoying it or rating it highly as a work of art. After all, the Iliad and Odyssey and arguably the Aeneid are morally bankrupt – the Aeneid written to justify the rule of a tyrant and murderer as implacable as Stalin – Homer expounding a cruel and sadistic bronze age warrior code.

The appeal of Paradise Lost is multi-levelled and you don’t have to give a Yes/No answer to Milton’s efforts on each individual level: sometimes it works, sometimes less so:

  • first is the sheer music of the verse; but he can be dull
  • then the breathtaking scale; but this can lead him into silliness, arguably the entire allegory of Sin & Death
  • then the psychological acuity of various moments, expressed in beautiful poetry, from Milton’s Invocations to, say, the soliloquy of Satan
  • after a lot more levels you eventually reach ideology, and I think it’s perfectly possible to be struck, at some moments, by the beauty of some aspects of the Christian story – say, the road travelled by Adam and Eve from bitter recriminations to a final resolve to help each other – that is moving and instructive on a human level – but other moments are almost embarrassing, particularly when God is trying to wriggle out of any blame – and whenever you stop and think it is pathetic that a supposedly omnipotent Father can’t either a) protect or b) heal his mortal children.

Why does it have to be 1,000 years before Christ appears to redeem mankind? And why do Sin and Death continue to triumph after the resurrection? Why do we have to wait another 2,000 years of torture and suffering for the so-called Second Coming?

If God is going to forgive and heal mankind – why wait, incurring worlds of pain? Why not forgive us the next day? That’s what you do to erring children…

The Tragic Sense

Empson’s nitpicking approach and facetious generalisations would look pretty stupid if applied to, say, the Iliad. You can imagine him dismissing the argument between Agamamnon and Achilles – why doesn’t Agamemnon just return the girl? Why didn’t the gods let Clytemnestra’s warning about Hecuba’s dream be heeded? Etc There are a 1,000 places where the event could have been prevented…

But to intervene constantly in this way is to miss the wood for the trees. The Iliad presents a tragic vision of life. It has its profound impact because millions of its readers have shared this profoundly tragic worldview and admire the poem for describing it in unflinching and moving detail. To nitpick about this or that aspect of the logic of the story is to completely fail to understand the emotional / psychological / aesthetic appeal.

Same with Paradise Lost. At the end of Empson’s book of nitpicking, he has clarified some points and maybe highlighted Milton’s ambivalence on certain points of Christian theology – but nothing he writes can alter the impact the poem has as a profound, brilliantly structured, and dazzlingly written meditation on the tragic view of human life – which is then overcome by a triumphantly optimistic will for redemption. The psychological factors at play in the broad outline of the story far far outweigh Empson’s individual points.

Conclusion

The book of Genesis works as a vague and metaphorical creation myth – but when it – and the rest of Christian theology implied by it – is written out as a literal narrative, as in Paradise Lost – giving the reader days or weeks to turn it over in great detail – it turns out to be immoral nonsense.

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