Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera (1969)

This is a collection of seven short stories by Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, that first appeared in Czechoslovakia in 1968, during the thaw in the communist dictatorship known as the Prague Spring – but was then banned after the Russian invasion of August 1968 reasserted communist censorship and oppression.

All the stories are about love – more crudely, about sex – and about the ridiculous misunderstandings and ludicrous behaviour it provokes in people.

1. The Hitchhiking Game

A young man and his girlfriend are driving out of town to a holiday in the country. They start bickering. She needs to stop for a pee so he pulls into a gas station. She finishes and walks a way down the road, and when he pulls out of the gas station onto the road, she puts out her hand and pretends to hitch-hike. He pulls over and adopts the character of a driver offering a lift to a pretty young woman, and she slips into the character of an innocent young woman being picked up by a strange man.

And for the rest of the story they both play these roles but the point of the story is the way they both quickly find them tiring and constraining. The interest is in the way the two protagonists find the game opening up unexpected vistas within themselves, parts of their psychology they didn’t know they possessed.

To cut to the chase, they end up at some restaurant and hotel where, through a string of casual comments, the game develops into her playing a cheap hooker and he being her bored client. This excites both of them and they hurry up to the bedroom. She surprises herself because – once liberated from her usual constraint and good manners by the role playing – she becomes foul mouthed and foul-acting, really playing the part of an experienced whore and, to her amazement, having a fierce and deep erotic experience.

Unfortunately, as Kundera explains, the young man worshipped her rather than loved her. He worshipped an image of her. And the role-playing destroys that image of purity and innocence which he so wanted to possess. He fucks her and rolls off and refuses to touch or talk to her. And then hears her begin to sob. ‘Can we stop playing the game now?’ she asks. But he remains silent as her crying becomes louder and louder.

Not a very cheerful start to the collection.

2. Let The Old Dead Make Room For The Young Dead

Two characters, a man and a woman, bump into each other in the street in a provincial town. Twenty-five years ago she got married and lived here briefly before moving to Prague. Ten years later he husband died and asked to be buried here. Once a year she returns, but is upset to discover that the lease on the grave has expired and his body has been removed and replaced with another. The surly official at the cemetery gives her this gnomic excuse, which gives the story its title: ‘Let The Old Dead Make Room For The Young Dead’.’

Wandering the streets, waiting for the return train to Prague, she bumps into an old acquaintance. The local cafes are filthy so he invites her to his apartment for a coffee and a chat. He notices she is old. The veins on her hands stick out. He himself is worrying about ageing. He’s 35 and has just noticed the bald patch appearing at the back of his head.

They go back to his apartment (the reader used to Kundera’s stories feels an ominous sense of inevitability that they will end up having sex). And indeed it turns out they were in love fifteen years ago, and had a brief fling, one night of love in his student accommodation, but he was too timid and shy to really appreciate it, she stripped in the dark, he couldn’t see her face, she moaned something as she climaxed and to this day it haunts him that he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t understand. She is like a lost secret.

Now they have met again and both look back at their affair 15 years earlier, with regret, but really with a kaleidoscope of feelings which are continually changing shape and colour as their dialogue develops, shedding new light on past events, and how they’ve misinterpreted and misremembered them.

He eventually takes her in his arms and begins caressing her, and for a moment she becomes once again the mature sexual woman of 15 years ago, like riding a bike it all comes flooding back. But when he goes to french kiss her it crosses some psychological boundary and she clams up. Suddenly she sees herself as she knows she looks in the mirror, blue-veined hands, wattled throat.

And she realises that she had been seeing herself through the prism of his 15-year-old memory of her. He had been describing their night of love 15 years earlier and she had enjoyed being fifteen years younger. Now he threatens to strip her and reveal what fifteen years have done to her body and that will shatter the image he has created by his words and which she treasures. She says No.

Really, the story is like a short play, but with the author continually arranging events so as to prompt a steady stream of psychological insights. When I reviewed the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, I came across the fact that the French have a tradition of a ‘theatre of ideas’ which the Anglo-Saxon world lacks i.e. a long tradition of accepting that the ‘plot’ is arranged in order to throw up and display interesting and stimulating ideas.

Well Kundera’s fictions are ‘fictions of ideas’ in exactly the same sense. There’s a story, of sorts, in these tales, but it is swamped by the weight of witty, unexpected, paradoxical and sometimes penetrating insights which the author garlands them with.

Thus it is that the older woman has one of those blinding insights which Kundera characters are prey to, in which she realises that the past is pointless, that all monuments to human achievement will crumble, and that therefore her attachment to her dead husband (and her annual pilgrimage to his grave) and her attachment to the idealised version of herself and her body which the nameless man has preserved from their one and only, distant sexual encounter, all of this will crumble and fade.

And so, in wilful defiance of the passage of time and of her entire former attitude towards preserving the past, she stands and begins to take her clothes off. The idealised past will be annihilated by the present, no matter how imperfect.

3. Nobody Will Laugh

Klima is a lecturer in art history. He is a modernist who rattles the conservatives at his college. He is a womaniser, who has had plenty of women traipsing through his flat over the years, as well as lending it to friends, who often have loud parties, thus he has acquired a bad reputation with the building housing committee.

The story has a Kafkaesque feel in that the protagonist is subjected to an inexplicable and, ultimately, destructive persecution. It all starts when a funny little man, an unemployed scientist, contacts Klima and asks him to review an article about an obscure artist which he has spent three years researching and writing. In a light-hearted moment, over a bottle of slivovitz with his girlfriend, Klara, Klima dashes off an ironically effusive letter to this Mr Zaturetsky, vaguely promising a review. For Klima is a joker –

I waved my hand, declaring that the purpose of life is to give amusement, and if life is too lazy for this, there is nothing left but to help it along a little. (p.69)

But, as we know from The Joke, even the most casual off-hand quips can have catastrophic consequences.

Thus, in a light-hearted gesture begins a sequence of unfortunate events which ends up with Klima sacked from his job, kicked out of his apartment and dumped by beautiful Klara. Because Zaturetsky proceeds to haunt his life. He sends more letters asking when the review will be ready. He turns up at the college to find out what days Klima lectures on, and then is present every day. Klima changes the days on which he lectures (in secret, and so illegally). Zaturetsky pesters his secretary, Mary, with questions, until one day she weakens and admits  his real address.

Next day Klima is out but Klara is in when Zaturetsky knocks at the door. He is a funny little man. Klara tells him Klima isn’t there, which is true. Next day Zaturetsky catches Klima at his office, forcing Mary to let him in.

Klima has an inspiration. Trying to reverse the direction of attack, he accuses Zaturetsky of indecently propositioning his girlfriend. Zaturetsky is horrified, indignant and then furious. Flippant Klima regrets his stroke of fun. A few days later he gets a letter from Mrs Zaturetsky threatening legal action unless he withdraws his accusation.

And so it goes on. The Zaturetskies discover that Klara works in a clothes factory and bully their way into it, to track her down. Fortunately, they are both short-sighted and miss her. Still Klima now feels like a hunted animal, and so does Klara.

What gets her is that Klima won’t simply write the wretched review. Just do it, for God’s sake! Klima tries to explain that some of his lies – about Zaturetsky propositioning her and so on – are his lies which he owns, part of him, part of his character. Writing a review praising Zaturetsky’s wretched article would be an objective lie, forced out of him by alien means and an enduring untruth. Klara’s got no idea what he’s on about.

Finally he is called in to a meeting of the local communist party committee. This – like all such committees in all such stories – is populated by vengeful harpies and toxic apparatchiks who completely twist every aspect of Klima’s life to make him out to be an unreliable class enemy. The women on the committee extract admission of his womanising lifestyle which offends them and which they dress up as making him completely unsuitable for teaching the pure new young generation. The male bureaucrats accuse him of giving up lecturing altogether, thus breaking his contract. They both bring to a head his unpopularity with just about every other inhabitant of the apartment building.

Klima finally has a meeting with Mrs Zaturetsky, the tall thin unwell working woman who adores her husband and won’t hear anything bad said about his character or his essay, which she is convinced must be a masterpiece. He tries to explain why it is a second-rate collection of plagiarisms, but she can’t hear him. He loses everything.

All at once I understood that it had only been my illusion that we ourselves saddle events and control their course. The truth is that they aren’t our stories at all, they are foisted on us from somewhere outside; that in no way do they represent us; that we are not o blame for the queer path that they follow. They carry us away, since they are controlled by some other forces; no, I don’t mean by supernatural forces, but by human forces, by the forces of those people who, when they unite, unfortunately still remain mutually alien. (p.88)

4. The Golden Apples of Eternal Desire

The unnamed narrator is in awe of his friend, Martin. Martin is happily married to a beautiful wife who he adores, and has just turned 40. Nonetheless he carries on an extraordinary game: absolutely wherever he and the narrator go they carry out a compulsive ‘game’ of chatting up almost every single or available woman they see. It is so compulsive it has become an obsession, and has a number of rules. The most obvious is dividing the meetings with women into registrations and contacts. A registration is where you simply find out the name of a woman you’ve noticed. A contact is where you make a date. It is not at all necessary to actually take this forward to the next step i.e. physical intimacy. In fact this doesn’t appear to have a name within the system. The idea is not at all to reach consummation. It is about celebrating the Eternal Chase.

All this is explained by the narrator in the course of a particular ‘adventure’. This begins when Martin spots a pretty young woman in the cafe where they’re drinking. They follow her to the cloakroom where Martin insists on slipping into her bag the heavy book the narrator has just borrowed from the library. Perplexed by his quick talking, the woman agrees to take the book and look it over. She is a nurse at a town outside Prague. She promises to meet them at the town on the coming Saturday.

On the big day the narrator borrows a nifty little Fiat from a friend and he and Martin motor out to the town. On the way they stop at a lake and quickly slip into trunks and go for a swim (this is all so unlike my own experience of life in England – borrowing other people’s cars, pulling over when they see people with wet hair and asking the way to the lake – that it might as well be happening on another planet).

Martin spies a beauty in a bikini facing the lake, and asks a couple of local kids for her name. When one of them tells our guys her name, the narrator explains that that is a registration. One more name has been added to the ever-expanding list of names of girls they could sleep with in the future. Happy with having made a registration, they get back in the car and drive on.

Then they arrive at the hospital and find the nurse, who says she’s got a friend to pair off with the narrator. She arranged to borrow a house on a nearby lake for the evening. (There’s a lot of borrowing of cars and properties in these stories.) She has to go back to work, she’ll see them this evening.

For the next couple of hours the pair chat up more or less every woman they meet, taking names (registration) and even making more arrangements to meet (which they cheerfully fail to keep). Their insouciance is surreal. Eventually they arrive back at the hospital and park outside and wait. I’ve forgotten to mention that Martin, during the course of the afternoon, had mentioned to his pal that he has to be back in Prague by nine o’clock! His wife had a bad week at the office and he wants to be kind to her and return by 9 so he can play a nice game of rummy with her!

The narrator is surprised but not that surprised. He knows Martin loves his wife. In fact, now he thinks about it, he can’t remember any of the registrations a contacts from the last year or so getting anywhere near consummation. Not to worry. They wait a bit and become impatient. Finally the narrator sees in the rear-view mirror a couple of nurses done up to the nines emerging from the hospital. He abruptly declares they’ve waited long enough and need to leave now to be sure of getting Martin home in time for his wife. Martin doesn’t complain and off they roar.

I felt at that moment that I liked Martin and that I also liked the banner under which he had been marching all his life: the banner of the eternal pursuit of women. (p.113)

This is a strange little story about male obsession and its weirdness, which wasn’t helped by the fact that it’s in a poor translation.

5. Symposium

The interesting thing about this story is the headings. Five doctors sit around chatting about sex (of course), and even the smallest events or parts of the conversation are given their own headings. Thus nurse Alzhbeta, from the start, is flirting with handsome, mature Dr Havel and earns an admonition from him. And so the next section is headed Havel’s admonition even though it is only one paragraph long.

Thus the entire text is broken up into micro-sections and each one is given a name. This has the effect of making the whole thing extremely stagey, or like the screenplay for a movie – very artful, very arranged, very just so. Taken out of the messy river of life, these moments stand alone, cleaned up and displayed for our inspection and for the author to make an endless stream of witty, paradoxical comments about.

It is a comedy of sexual errors. Five doctors are chatting after hours, three men, two women, and the entire story is as tangled a web of erotic misunderstandings and emotional misreadings as you can imagine.

The chief physician is having an affair with a mature woman doctor. Dr Havel is wise and attractive to all women, and so has earned the nickname of Death, because ‘he takes [i.e. screws] everyone’. Although he hasn’t slept with Nurse Alzhbeta, who really fancies him, fancies him so much that, late on in proceedings, when they are all quite drunk, she does a mime striptease, elaborately bumping and grinding and pretending to take off all her clothes, while remaining fully dressed, swinging and swaying her big breasts right above Dr Havel’s embarrassed head.

When she has finally finished and goes to sit down on Havel’s lap, he moves his legs, without thinking, merely because he wants to avoid contact with her – but with the result that she falls to the floor with a bump. Humiliated, Alzhbeta gets up, marches to the door, dramatically declaring, ‘You don’t know, you don’t understand.’ and exits.

The others continue their endless droll conversations about sex and desire and the erotic, and who fancies who, they nickname the chief physician Don Juan, and there is a characteristic Kundera-esque section where he explains how, in the good old days, Don Juan was a conqueror of women but in our fallen times, with women being so much more docile and willing (and nobody believing in God any more) Don Juan is more of a collector, a different kind of figure altogether (pp.140-141).

The youngest person present is the lanky, slow-witted junior Dr Flaischman. He is comically convinced that the thirty-something woman doctor is secretly in love with him and sending him coded signals throughout the evening. In one of the genuinely comic moments, he makes it clear to everyone that he’s going outside for a leak, and winks at the woman doctor, convinced she will follow him.

Down the corridor he goes, out into the ground, finds a nearby tree and is just unzipping when he hears footsteps approaching. Without looking round he says, ‘I knew you’d come’, and the chief physician replies, ‘Yes, I prefer peeing outside’. That made me laugh.

On the way back, though, Flaischman smells gas. It’s coming from Nurse Alzhbeta’s room. The door is unlocked, he bursts through it, a ring on the oven is on spewing out gas, the nurse is lying sprawled stark naked on the bed (of course). He turns the gas off, flings open the windows and calls for help. Several hours later, after the patient has been pumped full of oxygen and had a blood transfusion and is well on the way to recovery, the remaining four characters reconvene in the drinking room to reflect on what just happened.

The story is like a play, an intellectual play, not least because it is made up almost entirely of dialogue with precious little description. Every single piece of dialogue introduces new ideas, the dialogue packed with theories and counter-theories about love and sex. Kundera loves paradox. He freely uses the word ‘precisely’, in the way of European intellectuals, to make each thought appear that much more incisive and logical.

Thus the passages where they speculate why Nurse Alzhbeta tried to kill herself are called The Chief Physician’s Theory, Dr Havel’s Theory, and the Woman Doctor’s Theory, and each one is witty, plausible and false, for they all relate her action to her strip-tease and to her frustrated love for Dr Havel. All wrong. Even wronger is poor Flaishman’s conviction that Nurse Alzhbeta (like the woman doctor) is secretly in love with him, Flaishman. He reproaches himself for having not treated her better. He blames himself for her suicide attempt. Next day he takes her flowers in her hospital bed, chats to her, pats her shoulder, convinced she is forlornly in love with him. All ludicrously wrong.

The actual reason is that much earlier in the evening, Dr Havel had given the nurse some ‘pep’ pills because she was tired after a long day and wanted to perk up for the little drinks party. Only what he gave her were actually sleeping pills, because he wanted her to feel super-tired and bugger off and leave him alone. Drunk and shattered, Nurse Alzhbeta had then gone back to her room, popped a little pan of coffee on the hob and taken the pills as she got undressed, by which time they took effect and she fell asleep on the bed (stark naked, of course), while the pan boiled over and the water put out the gas flame but the gas kept on pumping into the room.

So it was not suicide caused by any of the clever theories the doctor’s cook up. It was cock-up not catastrophe. Beneath all humanity’s grand plans and theories lies… randomness and accident.

A story like this makes you marvel at Kundera’s brevity. Whole dazzling verbal and intellectual effects are created in half-page snippets of dialogue.

But there is a downside to his technique which is that – no human beings ever spoke like this. Nobody was ever this witty and concise, and paradoxical, and intellectual and incisive. In this way, Kundera’s fictions are rather like Oscar Wilde’s. Dazzlingly witty, pithily expressed, always graceful and alert and sometimes very funny – and yet, somehow, ultimately, often, strangely empty.

And contrived. Ultimately, I didn’t really believe in any of these characters. The tone of some of the stories is more like a fairy tale than an adult fiction, and the characters are more like ciphers than human beings. In some of these stories the clockwork machinery which propels the automata around the stage for our amusement seems just a little bit too contrived and neat.

6. Dr Havel After Ten Years

Dr Havel is ten years older and no longer so attractive as he was when we met him in the previous story. In Symposium the other characters nickname him Death, because he ‘takes’ (meaning he sleeps with) everything.

Now he is old and ill, he suffers from gall bladder failure, he is often in pain, it is sometimes all he can do to walk around the block. So he sends himself off to a spa to recover. (This is yet another exotic and wonderful element of Kundera’s fiction; his Czechoslovakia is dotted with spas and his Czech characters are often popping off to them or work at them [The Farewell Party is entirely set in a spa, a key meeting in the poet’s early life in Life Is Elsewhere takes place at a spa. Whereas in my entire life I don’t think I’ve ever been to a spa, not to ‘take the waters’: I’ve been to Bath or Buxton as spas but neither time did I take any waters, just wandered around like all the other tourists.)

At the spa he is treated by a muscular blonde administrator of the cures and baths, who he tries to chat up but who completely ignores him. He flirts with a posh horse-faced woman guest who also ignores him. He tries it on with several other women who all ignore his advances. Tut tut, Dr Death’s powers have gone.

In his consultant’s room, on a whim he asks to phone his wife, who he’s left at their apartment back in Prague. She is gorgeous, a movie star, younger than him and famous. And crazed with jealousy. She almost prefers it when he’s ill, because then he knows he’s not on the pull. Whenever he’s absent from her, she knows he can sleep with any woman he wants. Or used to be able to… She can’t initially believe he is sincere, but he begs her to come and visit her at the spa, so she does, the next day.

Dr Havel is deliriously happy when he sees her bus draw in, and escorts her round the spa and the town. Everywhere they go his wife draws admiring glances and he takes special care to ensure the muscular bath supervisor, the horse-faced lady, and all the others who have turned him down, see him kissing, canoodling and joking with his stunningly beautiful and famous wife.

With the result that, the next day, after she’s left (she’s due to do some filming back in Prague) Dr Havel encounters the same series of women but this time they all make it abundantly clear that they will talk to him, and even meet for a date and a drink, with hints of lots more if he wants it. His association with the film star has transformed him in their eyes. By sleeping with him, some of her glamour and meaning will rub off on them.

This is so unlike the behaviour of any woman I’ve ever met or read about that I can only consider it a kind of middle-aged, male fairy tale. Read in this spirit it has the child-like inevitability and good humour of a parable or fable, like real life refined and purified and simplified and made charming – as real life so rarely is.

7. Edward and God

Most commentators I’ve read consider this the best of the seven stories, and I agree. I think it’s because it has the most formal beauty, it has the most satisfying shape. Most of the others are fairy tales or fantasies but ‘deformed’ by elements of adventitiousness or arbitrariness or accident. Edward and God, on the other hand, has the kind of perfection which real fairy tales have, which have been handed down over the generations and worn smooth like pebbles in a stream so that only the absolutely essential elements of the story remain, so that the narrative unfolds with  wonderfully pleasing sense of inevitability.

Edward is a young teacher. He is in love with beautiful Alice. But despite going on numerous dates with her she is prim and proper and upright, kisses him with dry kisses, won’t let him touch her breast etc. (Yes, this is yet another story about a randy young man desperate to sleep with a young woman, but in this case this plot device really works.)

One day she surprises him by asking if he believes in God. Of course not, he says. He’s a communist, a modern man. They debate the existence of God etc a little but it dawns on Edward that if he is to get into Alice’s pants he must ape her faith. So he starts going to church with her and, when he starts singing and when he kneels and prays, to his great surprise, he finds it reassuring and comforting. He becomes quite devout. He even begins to outdo Alice, kneeling more often, praying louder, and crossing himself in the street, when they come across an ancient cross pinned to a wall.

Which triggers an unfortunate sequence of events. Because Edward is spotted by the school janitor who reports him to the thin, ugly directress of the school, and Edward is called before the school committee, who are ready to come down on him like a ton of bricks. To suspend or even sack him.

But suddenly, in this fraught situation, Edward has a blinding revelation. Rather than deny their accusations and play into their hands, he must go along with their conception of him. Denying the accusation will make them angry because it defies the conclusion they’ve already reached and therefore their intelligence. Immediately confessing in full will flatter their intelligence.

And so Edward immediately admits that, although he is a modern man, a communist, a man of the people, a man of the future and so on, he just can’t help believing in God. The most vehement accusers breathe a gratified sigh. They were right all along. And now they can set about helping this poor wrongheaded young man back to the light.

To cut a long story short, Edward is handed over to the school directress for improvement and rectification. She has a reputation for being attracted to younger men. Over the course of their first few re-education sessions together, Edward continues to play the role of misguided youth, yearning to be re-educated out of his wrong-headed belief in God i.e. he lies his face off in order to play to the role his accusers have assigned him.

As you might expect from a Kundera story, the central events turn around sex, namely that, as the re-education sessions progress, the directress brings out wine, adopts a more friendly tone, says she understands the torments of youth and she is here to help – in an increasingly meaningful and suggestive way.

The comedy reaches a climax when, at the third of fourth session, she has a little too much to drink, puts on the radio and insists that Edward dances with her. He knows what is coming next and is terrified that his body won’t respond. The directress is fearsomely ugly, skinny, with a long narrow face, scrappy black hair and a prominent moustache. As they dance he feels his manhood recoiling and shrinking in terror. She kisses him. She places his hand on her breast. Then she disappears into the bathroom telling him she’ll be back in two ticks and reappears in the doorway wearing a see-through nighty.

The moment has come but as the directress approaches, Edward backs away, the directress follows him, until they end up chasing each other round and round the coffee table in the middle of her living room.

It is a farce. But a very clever, very funny one. For suddenly Edward has another of his blinding revelations. He stops dead and says he can’t. His faith won’t let him. God won’t let him. And while the directress is spluttering something about don’t be so ridiculous, Edward suddenly commands her to kneel. KNEEL. Bewildered the directress does so. AND PRAY. She begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer. And, looking down at her as she prays, looking down at this image of communist power brought low, of the head of his school obeying him, and of a half naked woman paying obeisance to him… suddenly his manhood experiences a surge of power. He tears off his clothes and takes her there and then, fiercely and unforgivingly.

And to his amazement it is the most fulfilling sexual experience of his (admittedly young) life. The directress is overjoyed and tells him his re-education is coming on in leaps and bounds. Who knows, soon he may merit a promotion.

Meanwhile, Alice, remember her? The sweet virginal devoted Christian who refused barely even to kiss Edward? Next time they meet, after he’s been hauled before the school committee, she is all over him and, to his amazement she kisses him with soft wet kisses, and she lets him touch her breasts, and even… wander below the borderline at her navel. And she has arranged for them to borrow a relative’s country cottage for the weekend! Wow! Why the complete change? Because he is a martyr for the faith. The story is all over school and beyond of how he stood his ground against the persecutors and stood up for the Lord!

Edward is at first astonished that this legend about him has sprung up so quickly, and then disappointed that Alice can abandon her principles so easily. One minute she is telling him God has forbidden adultery and sex before marriage and vehemently, vigorously prevents him touching any naughty parts of her body; the next minute she’s all for illicit sex.

He realises, with a sinking heart, that in her own way she is just as malleable and manipulative of principles as everyone else. Despite now being able to get his wicked way, Edward is disappointed.

And then, as you might predict, their night of love at the borrowed cottage is similarly disappointing. She insists on closing all the curtains and having the light off, and then she ‘sacrifices’ his body to her. But everything about it seems staged and false to Edward and, again, he finds his manhood hesitating and not rising to the occasion. By various strategems he manages to keep it up and complete the act of love but next morning he finds himself having an argument with her, about her lack of principles.

So in the end he ‘wins’ Alice, but discovers her type of narrow-minded officiousness repels him and, after a harsh argument dumps her; while he discovers that he has something immeasurably better if inexplicable with the skinny ugly directress who, nonetheless, when she kneels before him and prays, unleashes erotic forces he didn’t imagine were possible.

This story feels as perfectly formed as a fairy tale in the sense that all the elements fall into place with a lovely inevitability, and that the ‘moral’ of the story is also pleasingly counter-intuitive but, on reflection, psychologically satisfying. And it contains some very funny moments: there is intellectual comedy in the way Edward strings the committee along with his play-acted shame and comradely regret; and there is basic physical comedy in the skinny half-dressed sex-mad directress chasing the harassed young man round her coffee table.

Thoughts

I know the word ‘loves’ is in the title, but after a while I got fed up of the unrelentingness of the predatory male sexuality depicted in each of the stories. I longed for even a page which didn’t mention sex or love or erotic adventures. In amidst the relentless sexualisation of the stories, I sometimes found passages about age or youth, or about politics or religion, which were like oases, where, for a brief moment, you could get away from the oppressive sense of hairy men, young and old, relentlessly obsessed with getting their end away, whatever the cost.

But just a little below the surface concern with sex and breasts and bodies, underlying all the stories, is Kundera’s very mid-European sense of the sheer Absurdity of human existence, the sense that whatever we think we’re doing, the world has other ideas.

This is the way life goes: a man imagines that he is playing his role in a particular play, and does not suspect that in the meantime they have changed the scenery without his noticing, and he unknowingly finds himself in the middle of a rather different production. (p.229)

All the characters without exception are misguided and misinterpret each other.

The narrator’s voice

The vital element in all Kundera’s fiction is the quality and character and technique of the narrator’s voice. If you concentrate just on the plots and storylines you are missing the elephant in the room, which is the immense self-confidence with which he makes himself part of the narration, with which he creates a confidential, witty and incisive narratorial voice, interrupting and arranging the narrative just so, clinically dividing it up into neat, pre-packaged sections designed for him to make a witty or thought-provoking comment about love or human nature.

Sometimes the stories approach closer to the character of a lecture than a traditional fiction. The paradox is that, the more archly and overtly intrusive the narrator is, the more effective the story often is.

Thus Edward and God is the ‘best’ story, but it is also the most artificial. Several times the narrator addresses the reader in paragraphs which begin ‘Ladies and gentlemen…’, as if he’s the impresario of a theatre appearing in front of the curtain and directly addressing the audience before or after a play has been performed.

Kundera’s books came to attention in the West in the early 1980s at the same time as the wave of Magical realists from South America. They share a rejection of the ‘naturalist’ tradition, and an openness to elements of magic and fantasy. But Kundera’s stand alone and distinct in the extreme staginess of his voice, always guiding, pushing and coaxing his characters, and constantly commenting on the action and digressing with his own thoughts about politics and death and human nature and, of course, sex.

Not just staginess, but age and wisdom. Kundera’s voice is older and wiser than those of his characters and, by implication, than of us, the reader. It gives the sense of having experienced everything, and understood everything and forgiven everything, and now he is going to present some puppets for our entertainment, put them through their paces, and take every opportunity to reminisce and share the wisdom gained from a long and rich life:

  • Let us try to understand… (p.33)
  • We should perhaps find in her dismay something akin to the dismay of a very young girl who has been kissed for the first time… (p.45)
  • We can advantageously start Edward’s story in his elder brother’s little house in the country
  • We must recall (for the sake of those to whom perhaps the historical background of the story is missing)… (p.209)
  • Ladies and gentlemen, these were weeks of torment… (p.210)
  • Let us stop and consider this word… (p.237)
  • Ah, ladies and gentlemen, a man lives a sad life when he cannot take anything or anyone seriously. (p.242)

If you can put aside the fact that he is almost always talking about sex, love and eroticism, many of these interventions could be those of a wise grandfather, telling a time-honoured tale (and, at bottom, all these tales of love and loss are time honoured, repeated in every generation).


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

And all the secrets we discovered were
Extraordinary and false
(from August for the people by W.H. Auden)

Kundera’s second novel, Life is Elsewhere, is – at least to begin with – a bit of a disappointment after the pyrotechnics of his first, The Joke. The former book was packed with sophisticated ironic effects by virtue of being told by half a dozen narrators who all had different perspectives on the central event. If nothing else, this made for a dynamic reading experience, as the reader was often ahead of various characters in understanding what was going on, or was enabled to assemble the ‘meanings’ of various events from multiple points of view – the cumulative effect being to produce a narrative not only of events, but of what those events ‘meant’, how the meaning of the events was continually changing and, by implication, a sustained meditation on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

Life is Elsewhere is much more traditional and boring in this respect, being told by one, omniscient narrator who has a rather smothering claustrophobic presence. And the story itself takes the time-honoured shape of the Bildungsroman, a straightforward, linear description of the ‘psychological and moral growth’ of a central character.

So there’s only one central character. And we are told his story in chronological order.

The character in question is a fictional poet, who Kundera names Jaromil. We are told how his parents met and married, how he was conceived, and his precocious way with words when still a toddler. This is all set in the early 1930s, not very distant from Kundera’s own birth year of 1929. Jaromil is the apple of his mother’s eye. She makes posters of his childish sayings and hangs them on the wall of the room he is given when still a boy. And he himself shows a precocious ability at drawing although, for some reason, he gives all his human figures dogs heads – a childish eccentricity.

Then, suddenly, it is 1938 and France and Britain hand over the Sudetenland to Germany without a fight. A year later German troops are in Prague, and then the Nazis start rounding up students, communists, socialists and shipping them off to concentration camps. We are told about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in June 1942 and the ferocious reprisals the Nazis carried out.

But Jaromil and his Mother are too young to be caught up in all this and go to a spa, where they meet an artist who gives a professional opinion on the young boy’s youthful drawings.

The novel is 300 pages long and feels long. But what struck me is its fairy tale quality, the feel of a fable. In the real world, work and the hassles of parenthood fill up time with a never-ending sequence of harassing demands. Whereas a fiction like this is able to alight on certain key moments – the moment of Jaromil’s conception, the moment his mother begged his father to inseminate her once again so she could have a baby girl, but the father withdrew and curtly announced he wanted no more children.

These are talismanic moments, selected like the ones in a fairy tale because they are key to the overall fable, while all else is rejected.

We selected this episode out of dozens in order to show that the pinnacle of happiness Jaromil had experienced up to this point in his life was having a girl’s head on his shoulder. (p.110)

It comes as no surprise, when Jaromil and Maman arrive at the spa that they find it in a beautiful rural setting, so much so that it appears to young Jaromil to be ‘a fairy-tale world’ (p.29), in fact, once I’d noticed it, I realised that a succession of milieu through which Jaromil moves are described as magical or fairy tale.

  • Through the magic of poetry (which is the magic of inexperience)… (p.111)
  • A poem is a magical land where rivers change their course. (p.194)
  • ‘The magical thing about it is, ‘continued Jaromil… (p.196)
  • Tears signified to him a magic elixir… (p.257)
  • Through the magic of poetry all things become the truth… (p.271)
  • It seemed to him that the magic moment was returning, the magic evening when he had sat in her room and they had had eyes only for each other… (p.293)

His nursery. His infant school playground. The spa. The artist’s studio. All these settings are just so, just exactly the ones required to tell a story like this, of the psychological and spiritual evolution of a sensitive soul. Moments are selected like jewels, spangling against the grey cloth of the everyday, and presented for the reader’s delectation, along with authorial commentary.

Maman ends up having an affair with the artist – that’s to say he successfully seduces her, and then submits her to an interesting, amusing and erotic series of transformations. He doesn’t just paint or draw her, he paints on her, stripping her and decorating her body with modernist lines, and then taking photographs of her. Then making passionate love to her. Pages are taken up with Maman’s bewildered reflections on these events.

Meanwhile, Jaromil hits an early puberty and begins to fantasise about the body of the family’s maid, Magda. There is an extended, mildly comical account of one night at home, when his parents have gone out, and he knows Magda is taking her evening bath, and Kundera describes the more and more contorted pretexts Jaromil tries to contrive to enable him to walk breezily into the bathroom, see the maid’s naked body, and walk out again. But he fails to carry them through. He is too shy.

Xavier

Part two of the book, commencing on page 65, is titled Xavier and is deeply confusing. A young man bursts through a woman’s window and reassures her that he means no harm, but at that moment her husband lumbers upstairs towards the bedroom, so the young man hides under the bed, the big husband carries the woman to the bed, the young man sneezes, the big husband hears and goes to the wardrobe to see if a man is hiding there, the young man bursts out from under the bed and pushes the husband into the wardrobe and locks it, and grabs the young woman and takes her on an adventure, he wakes up in another room and…

And so, slowly and confusedly, we realise the entire section is made up of the never-ending adventure of this character, Xavier, who goes from one half-fulfilled dream to another, repeating the same general contours of adventure and excitement and rescuing young damsels against an ever-changing backdrop.

It’s only well after the section has concluded, back in a section about Jaromil, that we discover the by-now teenage poet invented a character named Xavier and wrote down his poetic adventures. So what we have just read is a version of Jaromil’s journal. OK. It was bewildering and left-field when it first appeared…

Other lyric poets

When we return to Jaromil’s story it is to discover that his father is arrested and executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. But the real innovation in this section, something which dogs the rest of the story is the appearance alongside Jaromil, of a shopping list of the greatest lyric poets from the entire European tradition.

The narrator makes explicit comparisons between Jaromil’s background, upbringing, family situation, early life experiences and shows how closely they mirror those of the great lyric poets such as the Czechs Frantisak Halas and Jiri Wolker, the Germans Rilke and Hölderlin, the Russians Esenin, Mayakovsky, Blok and Pushkin, the Englishman Shelley, the Frenchmen Baudelaire and de Nerval, but most of all  the French boy wonder poet, Rimbaud, and the short and easily offended Russian poet, Lermontov.

(It is Rimbaud who gives the book its title, a quote from one of the prose poems he wrote in a storm of creativity when he was just 17: La vrai vie est absente – the real life or just ‘real life’ is absent. I wonder why Kundera shortened this to ‘life’ is absent.)

These other lyric poets start out as comparators for Jaromil, but quite soon they start to take over the text. I mean that, after many sections describing this or that about Jaromil, a new section will set off describing ‘him’ and you have to have your wits about you to realise it’s now describing an event in the life of Rimbaud or Lermontov. More and more their names are scattered across the text as Kundera uses the events in  Jaromil’s fictional life to bring out the resemblances between the lyric poets – Baudelaire, aged 40 and still scared of his mother, de Nerval mesmerised by the mother who died when he was a boy, and so on…

Jaromil, we come to realise, is not-that-subtly being presented as a type, as a category of European thought. The Lyric Poet. And the essence of the Lyric Poet (in Kundera’s view) is that he is an immature mummy’s boy.

  • The lyric poet spends a lifetime searching for signs of manhood in his face. (p.97)
  • Tenderness is the fear of maturity. (p.112)

Jaromil wants to be a man, a real man. He wants to possess a woman, many women. He wants to write great poetry, he wants to be accepted by the other poets.

In the last third of the book Jaromil is a young man and is introduced to writers and poets through the artist, the one he had the lucky meeting with at the spa when he was a boy, the one he went to for art lessons, the one who seduced, stripped, painted and photographed his mother (in what are, arguably, the book’s most memorable scenes).

The poets meet upstairs in a pub, argue and get drunk a lot. The format of their arguments is uncannily like the format of the rhetorical questions the narrator asks all through the text: is Surrealism a revolutionary movement? Can poetry help build the new socialist society? And so on.

On the periphery of the poets he meets a sweet and soulful young woman. But she is as innocent and virginal as Jaromil and many pages are spent describing their painful and embarrassing fumbles. These are counterpointed with his now-adult encounters with the artist, and his bohemian coterie, who Jaromil shocks with the vehemence of his revolutionary nihilism, and with the arguments of the established, published poets, who grumble on during the era of the 1948 Communist coup and beyond, endlessly nagging at what kind of poetry is revolutionary, whether it’s kitsch rhymes for the masses, or the hyper-modern Russian avant-garde style poetry which rejects all the old bourgeois forms.


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

Kundera’s narrator doesn’t just intrude a bit on the story: he selects, presents and displays events for our delectation. He whips the text up out of nothing. He is an impresario of the text.

The most obvious symptom of this is his use of rhetorical questions to set up each new section or scene, a tactic which is present from the very first sentence of the book.

Exactly when and where was the poet conceived? (First sentence, page one)

and litters the text thereafter:

  • And what about her son’s soul?
  • But why did Jaromil continue to be an only child? (p.24)
  • And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world? (p.33)
  • Was she thus telling him the real truth at last? (p.54)
  • For Jaromil it [the concept of death] was infinitely far away; it was abstract; it was not reality, but a dream. What was he seeking in that dream? (p.104)
  • What was the source of her sorrows? Who knows… (p.143)
  • If Jaromil had become a zealous functionary, whose work affected the fate of adults, can we still maintain that he was on the run? (p.163)

All these rhetorical questions are a bit reminiscent of a certain type of academic presentation, of a lecture, reminding us that Kundera was indeed a professor of literature for many years (1952-75). They cut to the chase. They eliminate the need for hundreds of sentences setting up a location and a time of day, and a place wherein a great spiritual turning point is going to happen. No, Kundera can simply ask, ‘And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world?’ and then get on with answering his own question.

Not having to paint in any kind of background or set any scenes liberates Kundera to get right to the psychological point he wants to make about his characters. It makes the text very cost-effective.

The royal ‘we’

Related to this is the way Kundera he freely uses the royal ‘we’, the authorial ‘we’, to establish his own narratorial omniscience, and to forge a knowing acquaintance with the reader, the ‘we’ coercing us to acknowledge shared assumptions and experiences. The rhetorical questions are often answered by the authorial ‘we’. Why was Jaromil unpopular at school?

  • We are almost embarrassed to say: it was not wealth, it was mother love (p.20)
  • We don’t know why she laughed. [the young woman Jaromil was feebly trying to make love to] (p.133)
  • If we were to ask Jaromil how old the two characters were [in a long poem he’s just written] he’d stammer in embarrassment… (p.138)

And

  • Other [pictures] of certain scenes which we had better pass over. (p.36)
  • We don’t wish to imply that Jaromil was not interested in bodily beauty. (p.110)

Which is related to the use of the phrase ‘let us’, in the sense of ‘let us explore this moment  / word / event a little further’, which also brings out a strong scholarly, academic tone of the narrator.

  • He was one of the elect. Let us examine this word a little closer. (p.99)
  • Ah, let us mercifully skip over some fifteen or twenty minutes of Jaromil’s torment. [he is trying to undress a young woman who is refusing to help] (p.132)
  • Let’s keep Jaromil’s picture before us a while longer. (p.219)
  • Let us also recall the historical context… (p.230)
  • Let us leave our novel for a little while, let us carry our observatory to the end of Jaromil’s life… (p.271)

This ‘we’ is not embarrassed about picking up the narrative, fiddling with it, and plonking it back down right where he wants it.

  • At the end of the last section we left Jaromil in the redhead’s bed. (p.186)
  • Do you hear the distant sound of Death, impatiently stamping its feet? Let it wait, we are still here in the flat, in another novel, in another story… (p.286)

Analysis and italics

Kundera is the kind of author – or thinker about his stories and characters – who is continually analysing their every thought and gesture and turn of mind and habits. One tell-tale sign of this is his use of italics. He is keen not just to explain what they’re thinking or doing, but to delve ever deeper, to really dig down into their psychological sub-strata. In doing so he is keen to clarify the ideas and motivations of the characters he has invented and displayed for our entertainment. And to do this he often finds himself writing like an expository writer, rather like the new theory French writers of the 1960s, who felt compelled to show where they’d revealed a new depth of analysis, by writing it in italics.


The plot part two – History intrudes

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it moves away from the cloyingly claustrophobic relationship between mother and son which dominates the first half, and focuses increasingly on politics and the tragic political, social and personal consequences of the Communist takeover of power.

Kundera has by now established that all the great mummy’s boy lyric poets were enraptured by the idea of Death and ran off to be soldiers with no idea of the reality – from Shelley travelling to Dublin with pockets stuffed with incendiary pamphlets designed to spark an insurrection (p.175), to Lermontov, a sickly misfit who insisted on joining the Russian army and died in a pointless duel, from Rimbaud who fantasised about manning the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 (but was too young) and who instead terminated his precocious poetic career by going off to become a gun-runner in Africa, to Byron who fantasised about joining the great Pan-Hellenic Fight For Freedom, but ended up dying of a mosquito bite in Missolonghi. They were sickly and died pathetically young, like John Keats coughing his lungs up in Rome.

All mother’s boys, all struggling to escape the apron strings, and above all, to prove themselves real men. Kundera throws in withering comparisons with the students of his day – 1948 in Prague – and at the time he was writing the novel – 1968 in Paris – who wrote lyrical slogans all over the walls, calling for a new world, revolution and overthrow.

Slowly we realise what form this wish – the primal wish of the lyric poet to hurl himself into a Cause, to run towards battle and engage with the real world and wrestle with death and stop being a mummy’s boy and become a Real Man – will take for Jaromil.

In the context of the Communist takeover of power in Czechoslovakia, it means he wilfully becomes hard-hearted, he joins the young zealots, he publicly derides the art and poetry of his mentor, the old artist. He derides his own earlier poetry. He quotes the Soviet poet Mayakvsky, who said he stamped on the throat of his own, earlier, bourgeois poetry. Jaromil writes Stalinist poems for workers.

And now Kundera skillfully uses the interplay he’s created between his fictional poet and the real-life poets and the events of 20 years later – 1968 – to begin to scathingly criticise the unthinking, stone-faced, hard-hearted zealotry of the young. For:

Revolutions are lyrical and in need of lyricism. (p.193)

Counter-intuitively, and to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that the entire book is going to be a condemnation of lyric poetry and of the role it plays in revolutions; is devoted to showing the linkage between the immature absolutism at the heart of revolutions and of youthful lyricism. The way both are totalising, both want to overthrow the complex messy real world, and create a new one of compulsory beauty and harmony and order.

Kundera dissects the psychology behind the lyric impulse: Unable to confront the complexity of adult life, the lyric poets create an alternative world, beautiful and perfect and utterly unreal.

This is the basic situation of immaturity. The lyrical approach is one way of dealing with this situation: the person banished from the safe enclosure of childhood longs to go out into the world, but because he is afraid of it he constructs an artificial, substitute world of verse… He becomes the centre of a small universe in which nothing is alien, in which he feels as much at home as an infant inside its mother… (p.219)

The rousing slogans Jaromil finds himself called upon to create for revolutionary youths marching in the streets of Prague in 1948, are identical to the ones the zealous French students of 1968 will paint all over the walls of the Sorbonne (p.172) calling for the complete overthrow of the existing order and the installation of something which is only a dream and a fantasy, slogans like:

  • Beneath the pavement, the beach!
  • Be realistic – demand the impossible!

In everything I’ve read about the Paris évènements (simply the French word for ‘events’) of 1968, in every documentary, every film, and every art exhibition I’ve seen which references them — the presenters, producers and curators are one hundred per cent behind the students and nostalgic that they themselves weren’t there during this heady lyrical revolutionary time!

It is a bracing surprise and antidote to come across a noted and world famous liberal’ author – who is wholeheartedly against the students and their high-minded slogans, and has gone to such trouble to create such an extended and scathing indictment of the youthful, revolutionary, lyric impulse as an entity.

In amidst the confusion of the 1948 coup and its aftermath, Jaromil has dumped the frigid girlfriend, but then wasted a huge amount of time fixating on a pretty blonde shop assistant from a department store. He tails her everywhere like a useless puppy, and, back in his bedroom, masturbates continually as he imagines finally losing his virginity to her. One evening he is waiting at the department store when her not-so-pretty red-headed friend exits and, before he can bolt, she walks right up to him. She claims to know that he has a crush on her. She’s noticed him looking at her in the shop. She’s noticed him hanging round the shop every evening. On one notable occasion Jaromil had followed the blonde home to her apartment and hung around in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her – only to see the red-head at the window. And she saw him!

Of course she has utterly misinterpreted the situation when she thinks Jaromil carries a torch for her, but Jaromil is too terrified to put her right.

They walk and before he knows it are kissing, she invites him up to her place and he is about to go through the usual existential agonies when she simply puts her hands between his legs and touches his penis. Which is rock hard. The rest follows like clockwork. Afterwards, as they lie in bed, she asks how many women he’s had and our lyric poet smirks and remains mysteriously silent. The reader laughs because we know the answer is ‘None’ and that he has just lost his virginity.

But, as is always the way with Kundera characters, with Kundera men, as soon as Jaromil has acquired a basic fluency at sex (and above all mastered the technique of undressing a woman, something which has caused him agonies of embarrassment throughout his adolescence) he becomes dissatisfied with the redhead. She natters on all the time. Especially about her family.

The janitor’s son

At school Jaromil had been picked on as a weakling and had formed only one friendship, with the janitor’s son. Now, years later, the janitor has risen to become a senior policeman. He makes a friendly call on Jaromil’s mum, leaves an invitation. So Jaromil goes round to the big building of National Security, signs in his name, and is met by the janitor’s son. (I don’t think we ever learn his name. He is always referred to simply as the janitor’s son, presumably to keep ever-present in our minds the way he, too, is taking revenge for having been an outsider and bullied at school.)

They settle into his office and the man swanks about his heavy responsibilities and the challenge the police face in these difficult times, rounding up enemies of the revolution.

Kundera emphasises that Jaromil, living in a lifelong bubble of mummy’s love, is blissfully unaware that tens of thousands of his fellow Czechs have been arrested, many of them tortured, some of them executed, all on trumped-up charges. All Jaromil sees is the janitor’s son’s manliness. He is a real man. He has manly responsibilities. He has a gun strapped to his belt. This is the real life Jaromil’s been seeking all his years. The Real Life that Shelley and Rimbaud and Lermontov were ever-seeking. A life of Action and Responsibility.

And thrown into the mix, is the long long long, very long list of humiliations public and private which Jaromil has lived through and the book has described, from being bullied at school, to not knowing how to take a girl’s bra off, from being ridiculed in assemblies of mature poets and authors, to being mocked by editors and publishers for being one more among thousands of aspiring poets, and – in a tragi-comic scene towards the end of the novel – being forced to turn down the offer of sleeping with a beautiful woman film-maker because he is crushingly conscious that he is wearing the big grey flannel pants which his mother still lays out for him every morning, as if he were still a schoolboy!

The zealot, Kundera suggests, is overflowing with a thirst for revenge. But not the wide-minded, imaginative revenge which helps to usher in a New World. Just revenge. Just punishment. Just the ability to threaten, intimidate, bully, arrest and, if necessary, torture all those who mocked and persecuted him when he was a boy.

The revolution hands over the running of society to small-minded bullies.

The betrayal

Jaromil is invited to an evening of poetry at a police academy in the countryside arranged by his friend the janitor’s son. Improbably, he is a fan of Jaromil’s Stalinist poetry. A dozen poets attend and Jaromil finds himself drawn into the intense question and answer session which follows the recitals. At the front of the audience is a stunningly gorgeous woman who keeps looking at him. The last stretch of the novel is characterised by Jaromil’s hapless attempts to sleep with her. On the occasion referred to above she invites him up to her apartment but at the last minute he is embarrassed at the thought of his big grey pants. Then he is invited to take part in a film, where he is taken to some country location and asked to recite his poems amid bucolic scenery. But Jaromil is so terrified of her and of the whole situation that he forgets the words to his own poems and, while the whole crew mocks him, is eventually ordered just to stand dumbly opening and closing his mouth while the director assures him they’ll dub the poems on later. Humiliation.

It is in this mood of maximum frustration and humiliation that the tragedy occurs. The redhead is late for their next meeting and Jaromil flies into a fury. She at first says she had to stay late to comfort a colleague who’s having trouble in love. Jaromil is even more angry that some shopgirl comes before his feelings, so the redhead quickly retraces her steps and says she is in fact late because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother (the one she once shared a room with, to Jaromil’s intense immature jealousy, and who she’s always wittering about).

Now she tells him that her brother is planning to flee the country illegally the next day. This triggers a tremendous argument in which Jaromil says how can she be such a traitor – she should have told him the truth straightaway – she doesn’t really love him if she’s prepared to lie to him. He reduces the woman to tears, which (obnoxiously) he finds magical and soothing.

By this stage, I think we are safe in concluding that Jaromil is a thorough-going sneak and bastard.

Next day he dresses smartly and goes to see his friend the janitor’s son at the building of National Security, looking across the table at him ‘as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man.’ And he calmly betrays his girlfriend and her brother to the security police. The janitor’s son calls in other officials. They take down the girlfriend and her brother’s names and details. Jaromil feels like he is in the real world now, this is Real Life. Jaromil leaves the building feeling Big and Full of Destiny.

He goes home and tries to write a poem but then gets restless and takes a tram to the redhead’s apartment and is surprised to see two men waiting outside it. He hides. When she turns up around 6pm, from work, the two men approach her, they talk for a moment, then they take her to a waiting car and drive off. He goes home troubled. Next morning he goes to see the janitor’s son who thanks him profusely for his prompt and patriotic action, and sends him off with a pat on the back. For the last few pages of this section Kundera shows us the inner workings as the despicable Jaromil decides that the sacrifice of one skinny freckled red-haired girl is well worth it in order to create a better future, a perfect future, in which politics and love will be identical and everyone will do the right thing.

The red-headed girl

The penultimate section up sticks and shifts perspective to years later, telling what happened next.

The redheaded girl was locked up in prison for three years. In this short epilogue, upon release from prison she goes to the train station to take a train to her home town but then hesitates… and decides instead to go to the apartment of… her older lover. He is forty. They met when she was seventeen, erotically talented and eager to please an older man. Not only herself, but she organised some straight and some lesbian orgies for his pleasure. Then she met and fell in love with a young poet, obviously Jaromil, though he goes unnamed.

The older man was happy; he didn’t want any of his mistresses becoming too dependent on him. He guided her through their courtship, gave her advice, and kept the poems Jaromil wrote her, though he despised them.

Then one evening she came to tell him she was leaving him, that she really loved the young poet and was going to dedicate her life to his. She was late leaving and late arriving for her date with the poet. He was cross. She made up an excuse about a colleague at work and when that didn’t wash, invented a story about her older brother preparing to flee the country. She had no inkling that the poet would report her and her brother to the police, or that she’d be arrested, or sentenced to prison.

Now the older man tells her that the poet died soon afterwards. He just got ill and died, nothing dramatic or lyrical. His mother moved away. Nobody remembers him anymore.

The redhead turns away: even her plans to cold shoulder and ignore the poet have come to nothing. It was all a meaningless nightmare. For nothing.

And suddenly the older man realises why she hesitated at the train station about whether to go straight home, and then… and decided to come and see him first. Her brother, totally innocent, was also arrested. She thinks he is still in prison somewhere. So that when she finally faces her family, how will they believe that it was not her who betrayed him and destroyed their family, but some unknown young man who isn’t even alive any more?

Overcome with pity, the man stretches out her hand to touch her cheek… and she bursts into tears.

For me, these last fifteen or so pages were better than all the rest of the novel put together. Jaromil is a vile creature and creates a slow-building sense of contempt and anger. And somehow, intertwined with this, is all the tricksiness of Kundera’s narratorial devices and conceits, the transposition of eras and the merging of Jaromil’s story with episodes from all the other lyric poets of the European tradition. Very clever.

Whereas this short section feels like a straightforward account of a terrible event. Most of Kundera’s stories are cerebral, detached, witty and paradoxical. They prompt admiration. But this tragic epilogue, like the coalmining scenes in The Joke, convey you to a genuine time and place in history where life was terrible, and so have real emotional depth.

The final end

In the short final passage we learn how Jaromil died. He was not yet 20. He is invited to a party at the film director’s. It is full of literati and artists. One of them, a big bluff fellow, confronts Jaromil and asks him if he knows what’s happened to the old artist, the one we saw spot Jaromil’s talent at the spa and then paint his mother? He was declared a a bourgeois enemy of the people, deprived of his studio and paints, and forced to work on a building site. Unlike Jaromil, who has become a Stalinist lickspittle. Jaromil takes a feeble mummy’s boy swipe at the big man, who grabs his arm, turns him round, picks him up by the collar and seat of his pants, and throws him out into the freezing cold (it is a Christmas party).

Absolutely humiliated, and without his coat or jacket, Jaromil can’t leave and travel across town, but he is too frightened to go back into the party, not for hours, not until the last guest has left. By that stage he is shivering uncontrollably. He tiptoes in, collects his jacket and coat and staggers home where he takes to his bed, hallucinates a bit, looked after and tended, as always, by his loyal dutiful Maman. And dies.

Concluding thought

What actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (p.270)

This is a complicated thesis, and the book presents a complex case: it seems to be arguing that youth, and the vigour and idealism of youth, and its partner – wonderful, boundless, inspiring passionate lyrical poetry – are all intimately tied in with the crushing annihilating force of the police state which is always unleashed by revolutions: in France, in Russia, in Iran, in the Arab Springs – the intoxicating, life-affirming springtime of peoples is always followed by mass imprisonment and the zealous repression of anything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the revolutionaries’ impossibly other-worldly and lyrical ideas.

Thus this long densely argued book conveys a bleak lesson, but one which Kundera himself lived through, so his testimony carries weight.

Enough weight to overthrow the prejudices and conventions most of us have accepted most of our lives, that lyric poetry is inspiring and uplifting?

Maybe not to overthrow it… but certainly to trouble it.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking (1988)

The whole history of science has been the gradual realisation that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order. (p.122)

This book was a publishing phenomenon when it was published in 1988. Nobody thought a book of abstruse musings about obscure theories of cosmology would sell, but it became a worldwide bestseller, selling more than 10 million copies in 20 years. It was on the London Sunday Times bestseller list for more than five years and was translated into 35 languages by 2001. So successful that Hawking went on to write seven more science books on his own, and co-author a further five.

Accessible As soon as you start reading you realise why. From the start is it written in a clear accessible way and you are soon won over to the frank, sensible, engaging tone of the author. He tells us he is going to explain things in the simplest way possible, with an absolute minimum of maths or equations (in fact, the book famously includes only one equation E = mc²).

Candour He repeatedly tells us that he’s going to explain things in the simplest possible way, and the atmosphere is lightened when Hawking – by common consent one of the great brains of our time – confesses that he has difficulty with this or that aspect of his chosen subject. (‘It is impossible to imagine a four-dimensional space. I personally find it hard enough to visualise three-dimensional space!’) We are not alone in finding it difficult!

Historical easing Also, like most of the cosmology books I’ve read, it takes a deeply historical view of the subject. He doesn’t drop you into the present state of knowledge with its many accompanying debates i.e. at the deep end. Instead he takes you back to the Greeks and slowly, slowly introduces us to their early ideas, showing why they thought what they thought, and how the ideas were slowly disproved or superseded.

A feel for scientific change So, without the reader being consciously aware of the fact, Hawking accustoms us to the basis of scientific enquiry, the fundamental idea that knowledge changes, and from two causes: from new objective observations, often the result of new technologies (like the invention of the telescope which enabled Galileo to make his observations) but more often from new ideas and theories being worked out, published and debated.

Hawking’s own contributions There’s also the non-trivial fact that, from the mid-1960s onwards, Hawking himself has made a steadily growing contribution to some of the fields he’s describing. At these points in the story, it ceases to be an objective history and turns into a first-person account of the problems as he saw them, and how he overcame them to develop new theories. It is quite exciting to look over his shoulder as he explains how and why he came up with the new ideas that made him famous. There are also hints that he might have trodden on a few people’s toes in the process, for those who like their science gossipy.

Thus it is that Hawking starts nice and slow with the ancient Greeks, with Aristotle and Ptolemy and diagrams showing the sun and other planets orbiting round the earth. Then we are introduced to Copernicus, who first suggested the planets orbit round the sun, and so on. With baby steps he takes you through the 19th century idea of the heat death of the universe, on to the discovery of the structure of the atom at the turn of the century, and then gently introduces you to Einstein’s special theory of relativity of 1905. (The special theory of relativity doesn’t take account of gravity, the general theory of relativity of 1915, does, take account of gravity).

Chapter 1 Our Picture of the Universe (pp.1-13)

Aristotle thinks earth is stationary. Calculates size of the earth. Ptolemy. Copernicus. In 1609 Galileo starts observing Jupiter using the recently invented telescope. Kepler suggests the planets move in ellipses not perfect circles. 1687 Isaac newton publishes Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) ‘probably the most important single work ever published in the physical sciences’, among many other things postulating a law of universal gravity. One implication of Newton’s theory is that the universe is vastly bigger than previously conceived.

In 1823 Heinrich Olbers posited his paradox which is, if the universe is infinite, the night sky out to be as bright as daylight because the light from infinite suns would reach us. Either it is not infinite or it has some kind of limit, possibly in time i.e. a beginning. The possible beginning or end of the universe were discussed by Immanuel Kant in his obscure work A Critique of Pure Reason  (1781). Various other figures debated variations on this theme until in 1929 Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that, wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving away from us i.e. the universe is expanding. Working backwards from this observation led physicists to speculate that the universe was once infinitely small and infinitely dense, in a state known as a singularity, which must have exploded in an event known as the big bang.

He explains what a scientific theory is:

A theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make… A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: it must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

A theory is always provisional. The more evidence proving it, the stronger it gets. But it only takes one good negative observation to disprove a theory.

Today scientists describe the universe in terms of two basic partial theories – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. They are the great intellectual achievements of the first half of this century.

But they are inconsistent with each other. One of the major endeavours of modern physics is to try and unite them in a quantum theory of gravity.

Chapter 2 Space and Time (pp.15-34)

Aristotle thought everything in the universe was naturally at rest. Newton disproved this with his first law – whenever a body is not acted on by any force it will keep on moving in a straight line at the same speed. Newton’s second law stats that, When a body is acted on by a force it will accelerate or change its speed at a rate that is proportional to the force. Newton’s law of gravity states that every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres. But like Aristotle, Newton believed all the events he described took place in a kind of big static arena named absolute space, and that time was an absolute constant. The speed of light was also realised to be a constant. In 1676 Danish astronomer Ole Christensen estimated the speed of light to be 140,000 miles per second. We now know it is 186,000 miles per second. In the 1860s James Clerk Maxwell unified the disparate theories which had been applied to magnetism and electricity.

In 1905 Einstein published his theory of relativity. It is derived not from observation but from Einstein working through in his head the consequences and shortcomings of the existing theories. Newton had posited a privileged observer, someone outside the universe who was watching it as if a play on a stage. From this privileged position a number of elements appeared constant, such as time.

Einstein imagines a universe in which there is no privileged outside point of view. We are all inside the universe and all moving. The theory threw up a number of consequences. One is that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, or E = mc². Another is that nothing may travel faster than the speed of light. Another is that, as an object approaches the speed of light its mass increases. One of its most disruptive ideas is that time is relative. Different observes, travelling at different speeds, will see a beam of light travel take different times to travel a fixed distance. Since Einstein has made it axiomatic that the speed of light is fixed, and we know the distance travelled by the light is fixed, then time itself must appear different to different observers. Time is something that can change, like the other three dimensions. Thus time can be added to the existing three dimensions to create space-time.

The special theory of relativity was successful in explaining how the speed of light appears the same to all observers, and describing what happens to things when they move close to the speed of light. But it was inconsistent with Newton’s theory of gravity which says objects attract each other with a force related to the distance between them. If you move on of the objects the force exerted on the other object changes immediately. This cannot be if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, as the special theory of relativity postulates. Einstein spent the ten or so years from 1905 onwards attempting to solve this difficulty. Finally, in 1915, he published the general theory of relativity.

The revolutionary basis of this theory is that space is not flat, a consistent  continuum or Newtonian stage within which events happen and forces interact in a sensible way. Space-time is curved or warped by the distribution of mass or energy within it, and gravity is a function of this curvature. Thus the earth is not orbiting around the sun in a circle, it is following a straight line in warped space.

The mass of the sun curves space-time in such a way that although the earth follows a straight line in four-dimensional pace-time, it appears to us to move along a circular orbit in three-dimensional space. (p.30)

In fact, at a planetary level Einstein’s maths is only slightly different from Newton’s but it predicts a slight difference in the orbit of Mercury which observations have gone on to prove. Also, the general theory predicts that light will bend, following a straight line but through space that is warped or curved by gravity. Thus the light from a distant star on the far side of the sun will bend as it passes close to the sun due to the curvature in space-time caused by the sun’s mass. And it was an expedition to West Africa in 1919 to observe an eclipse, which showed that light from distant stars did in fact bend slightly as it passed the sun, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory.

Newton’s laws of motion put an end to the idea of absolute position in space. The theory of relativity gets rid of absolute time.

Hence the thought experiment popularised by a thousand science fiction books that astronauts who set off in a space ship which gets anywhere near the speed of light will experience a time which is slower than the people they leave behind on earth.

In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving. (p.33)

Obviously, since most of us are on planet earth, moving at more or less the same speed, everyone’s personal ‘times’ coincide. Anyway, the key central implication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is this:

Before 1915, space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place, but which was not affected by what happened in it. This was true even of the special theory of relativity. Bodies moved, forces attracted and repelled, but time and space simply continued, unaffected. It was natural to think that space and time went on forever.

the situation, however, is quite different in the general theory of relativity. Space and time are now dynamic quantities. : when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time – and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe. (p.33)

This view of the universe as dynamic and interacting, by demolishing the old eternal static view, opened the door to a host of new ways of conceiving how the universe might have begun and might end.

Chapter 3 The Expanding Universe (pp.35-51)

Our modern picture of the universe dates to 1924 when American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that ours is not the only galaxy. We now know the universe is home to some hundred million galaxies, each containing some hundred thousand million stars. We live in a galaxy that is about one hundred thousand light-years across and is slowly rotating. Hubble set about cataloguing the movement of other galaxies and in 1929 published his results which showed that they are all moving away from us, and that, the further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving.

The discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. (p.39)

From Newton onwards there was a universal assumption that the universe was infinite and static. Even Einstein invented a force he called ‘the cosmological constant’ in order to counter the attractive power of gravity and preserve the model of a static universe. It was left to Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann to seriously calculate what the universe would look like if it was expanding.

In 1965 two technicians, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at Bell Telephone Laboratories discovered a continuous hum of background radiation coming from all parts of the sky. This echoed the theoretical work being done by two physicists, Bob Dicke and Jim Peebles, who were working on a suggestion made by George Gamow that the early universe would have been hot and dense. They posited that we should still be able to see the light from this earliest phase but that it would, because the redshifting, appear as radiation. Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987.

How can the universe be expanding? Imagine blowing up a balloon with dots (or little galaxies) drawn on it: they all move apart from each other and the further apart they are, the larger the distance becomes; but there is no centre to the balloon. Similarly the universe is expanding but not into anything. There is no outside. If you set out to travel to the edge you would find no edge but instead find yourself flying round the periphery and end up back where you began.

There are three possible states of a dynamic universe. Either 1. it will expand against the contracting force of gravity until the initial outward propulsive force is exhausted and gravity begins to win; it will stop expanding, and start to contract. Or 2. it is expanding so fast that the attractive, contracting force of gravity never wins, so the universe expands forever and matter never has time to clump together into stars and planets. Or 3. it is expanding at just the right speed to escape collapsing back in on itself, but but so fast as to make the creation of matter impossible. This is called the critical divide. Physicists now believe the universe is expanding at just around the value of the critical divide, though whether it is just under or just above (i.e. the universe will eventually cease expanding, or not) is not known.

Dark matter We can calculate the mass of all the stars and galaxies in the universe and it is a mystery that our total is only about a hundredth of the mass that must exist to explain the gravitational behaviour of stars and galaxies. In other words, there must a lot of ‘dark matter’ which we cannot currently detect in order for the universe to be shaped the way it is.

So we don’t know what the likely future of the universe is (endless expansion or eventual contraction) but all the Friedmann models do predict that the universe began in an infinitely dense, infinitely compact, infinitely hot state – the singularity.

Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, this means that the general theory of relativity… predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down… In fact, all our theories of science are formulated on the assumption that space-time is smooth and nearly flat, so they break down at the big bang singularity, where the curvature of space-time is infinite. (p.46)

Opposition to the theory came from Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle who formulated the steady state theory of the universe i.e. it has always been and always will be. All that is needed to explain the slow expansion is the appearance of new particles to keep it filled up, but the rate is very low (about one new particle per cubic kilometre per year). They published it in 1948 and worked through all its implications for the next few decades, but it was killed off as a theory by the 1965 observations of the cosmic background radiation.

He then explains the process whereby he elected to do a PhD expanding Roger Penrose’s work on how a dying star would collapse under its own weight to a very small size. The collaboration resulted in a joint 1970 paper which proved that there must have been a big bang, provided only that the theory of general relativity is correct, and the universe contains as much matter as we observe.

If the universe really did start out as something unimaginably small then, from the 1970s onwards, physicists turned their investigations to what happens to matter at microscopic levels.

Chapter 4 The Uncertainty Principle (pp.53-61)

1900 German scientist Max Planck suggests that light, x-rays and other waves can only be emitted at an arbitrary wave, in packets he called quanta. He theorised that the higher the frequency of the wave, the more energy would be required. This would tend to restrict the emission of high frequency waves. In 1926 Werner Heisenberg expanded on these insights to produce his Uncertainty Principle. In order to locate a particle in order to measure its position and velocity you need to shine a light on it. One has to use at least one quantum of energy. However, exposing the particle to this quantum will disturb the velocity of the particle.

In other words, the more accurately you try to measure the position of the particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa. (p.55)

Heisenberg showed that the uncertainty in the position of the particle times the uncertainty in its velocity times the mass of the particle can never be smaller than a certain quantity, which is known as Planck’s constant. For the rest of the 1920s Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac reformulated mechanics into a new theory titled quantum mechanics. In this theory particles no longer have separate well-defined positions and velocities, instead they have a general quantum state which is a combination of position and velocity.

Quantum mechanics introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. (p.56)

Also, particles can no longer be relied on to be particles. As a result of Planck and Heisenberg’s insights, particles have to be thought of as sometimes behaving like waves, sometimes like particles. In 1913 Niels Bohr had suggested that electrons circle round a nucleus at certain fixed points, and that it takes energy to dislodge them from these optimum orbits. Quantum theory helped explain Bohr’s theory by conceptualising the circling electrons not as particles but as waves. If electrons are waves, as they circle the nucleus, their wave lengths would cancel each other out unless they are perfect numbers. The frequency of the waves have to be able to circle the nucleus in perfect integers. This defines the height of the orbits electrons can take.

Chapter 5 Elementary Particles and Forces of Nature (pp.63-79)

A chapter devoted to the story of how we’ve come to understand the world of sub-atomic particles. Starting (as usual) with Aristotle and then fast-forwarding through Galton, Einstein’s paper on Brownian motion, J.J. Thomson’s discovery of electrons, and, in 1911, Ernest Rutherford’s demonstration that atoms are made up of tiny positively charged nucleus around which a number of tiny positively charged particles, electrons, orbit. Rutherford thought the nuclei contained ‘protons’, which have a positive charge and balance out the negative charge of the electrons. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered the nucleus contains neutrons, same mass as the proton but no charge.

In 1965 quarks were discovered by Murray Gell-Mann. In fact scientists went on to discover six types, up, down, strange, charmed, bottom and top quarks. A proton or neutron is made up of three quarks.

He explains the quality of spin. Some particles have to be spin twice to return to their original appearance. They have spin 1/2. All the matter we can see in the universe has the spin 1/2. Particles of spin 0, 1, and 2 give rise to the forces between the particles.

Pauli’s exclusionary principle: two similar particles cannot exist in the same state, they cannot have the same position and the same velocity. The exclusionary principle is vital since it explains why the universe isn’t a big soup of primeval particles. The particles must be distinct and separate.

In 1928 Paul Dirac explained why the electron must rotate twice to return to its original position. He also predicted the existence of the positron to balance the electron. In 1932 the positron was discovered and Dirac was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Force carrying particles can be divided into four categories according to the strength of the force they carry and the particles with which they interact.

  1. Gravitational force, the weakest of the four forces by a long way.
  2. The electromagnetic force interacts with electrically charged particles like electrons and quarks.
  3. The weak nuclear force, responsible for radioactivity. In findings published in 1967 Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg suggested that in addition to the photon there are three other spin-1 particles known collectively as massive vector bosons. Initially disbelieved, experiments proved them right and they collected the Nobel Prize in 1979. In 1983 the team at CERN proved the existence of the three particles, and the leaders of this team also won the Nobel Prize.
  4. The strong nuclear force holds quarks together in the proton and neutron, and holds the protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. This force is believed to be carried by another spin-1 particle, the gluon. They have a property named ‘confinement’ which is that you can’t have a quark of a single colour, the number of quarks bound together must cancel each other out.

The idea behind the search for a Grand Unified Theory is that, at high enough temperature, all the particles would behave in the same way, i.e. the laws governing the four forces would merge into one law.

Most of the matter on earth is made up of protons and neutrons, which are in turn made of quarks. Why is there this preponderance of quarks and not an equal number of anti-quarks?

Hawking introduces us to the notion that all the laws of physics obey three separate symmetries known as C, P and T. In 1956 two American physicists suggested that the weak force does not obey symmetry C. Hawking then goes on to explain more about the obedience or lack of obedience to the rules of symmetry of particles at very high temperatures, to explain why quarks and matter would outbalance anti-quarks and anti-matter at the big bang in a way which, frankly, I didn’t understand.

Chapter 6 Black Holes (pp.81-97)

In a sense, all the preceding has been just preparation, just a primer to help us understand the topic which Hawking spent the 1970s studying and which made his name – black holes.

The term black hole was coined by John Wheeler in 1969. Hawking explains the development of ideas about what happens when a star dies. When a star is burning, the radiation of energy in the forms of heat and light counteracts the gravity of its mass. When it runs out of fuel, gravity takes over and the star collapses in on itself. The young Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated that a cold star with a mass of more than one and a half times the mass of our sin would not be able to support itself against its own gravity and contract to become a ‘white dwarf’ with a radius of a few thousand miles and a density of hundreds of tones per square inch.

The Russian Lev Davidovich Landau speculated that the same sized star might end up in a different state. Chandrasekhar had used Pauli’s exclusionary principle as applied to electrons i.e. calculated the smallest densest state the mass could reach assuming no electron can be in the place of any other electron. Landau calculated on the basis of the exclusionary principle repulsion operative between neutrons and protons. Hence his model is known as the ‘neutron star’, which would have a radius of only ten miles or so and a density of hundreds of millions of tonnes per cubic inch.

(In an interesting aside Hawking tells us that physics was railroaded by the vast Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and then to build a hydrogen bomb, throughout the 1940s and 50s. This tended to sideline large-scale physics about the universe. It was only the development of a) modern telescopes and b) computer power, that revived interest in astronomy.)

A black hole is what you get when the gravity of a collapsing star becomes so high that it prevents light from escaping its gravitational field. Hawking and Penrose showed that at the centre of a black hole must be a singularity of infinite density and space-time curvature.

In 1967 the study of black holes was revolutionised by Werner Israel. He showed that, according to general relativity, all non-rotating black holes must be very simple and perfectly symmetrical.

Hawking then explains several variations on this theory put forward by Roger Penrose, Roy Kerr, Brandon Carter who proved that a hole would have an axis of symmetry. Hawking himself confirmed this idea. In 1973 David Robinson proved that a black hole had to have ‘a Kerr solution’. In other words, no matter how they start out, all black holes end up looking the same, a belief summed up in the pithy phrase, ‘A black hole has no hair’.

What is striking about all this is that it was pure speculation, derived entirely from mathematical models without a shred of evidence from astronomy.

Black holes are one of only a fairly small number of cases in the history of science in which a theory was developed in great detail as a mathematical model before there was any evidence from observations that it was correct. (p.92)

Hawking then goes on to list the best evidence we have for black holes, which is surprisingly thin. Since they are by nature invisible black holes can only be deduced by their supposed affect on nearby stars or systems. Given that black holes were at the centre of Hawking’s career, and are the focus of these two chapters, it is striking that there is, even now, very little direct empirical evidence for their existence.

(Eerily, as I finished reading A Brief History of Time, the announcement was made on 10 April 2019 that the first ever image has been generated of a black hole –

Theory predicts that other stars which stray close to a black hole would have clouds of gas attracted towards it. As this matter falls into the black hole it will a) be stripped down to basic sub-atomic particles b) make the hole spin. Spinning would make the hole acquire a magnetic field. The magnetic field would shoot jets of particles out into space along the axis of rotation of the hole. These jets should be visible to our telescopes.

First ever image of a black hole, captured the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The hole is 40 billion km across, and 500 million trillion km away

Chapter 7 Black Holes Ain’t So Black (pp.99-113)

Black holes are not really black after all. They glow like a hot body, and the smaller they are, the hotter they glow. Again, Hawking shares with us the evolution of his thinking on this subject, for example how he was motivated in writing a 1971 paper about black holes and entropy at least partly in irritation against another researcher who he felt had misinterpreted his earlier results.

Anyway, it all resulted in his 1973 paper which showed that a black hole ought to emit particles and radiation as if it were a hot body with a temperature that depends only on the black hole’s mass.

The reasoning goes thus: quantum mechanics tells us that all of space is fizzing with particles and anti-particles popping into existence, cancelling each other out, and disappearing. At the border of the event horizon, particles and anti-particles will be popping into existence as everywhere else. But a proportion of the anti-particles in each pair will be sucked inside the event horizon, so that they cannot annihilate their partners, leaving the positive particles to ping off into space. Thus, black holes should emit a steady stream of radiation!

If black holes really are absorbing negative particles as described above, then their negative energy will result in negative mass, as per Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc² which shows that the lower the energy, the lower the mass. In other words, if Hawking is correct about black holes emitting radiation, then black holes must be shrinking.

Gamma ray evidence suggests that there might be 300 black holes in every cubic light year of the universe. Hawking then goes on to estimate the odds of detecting a black hole a) in steady existence b) reaching its final state and blowing up. Alternatively we could look for flashes of light across the sky, since on entering the earth’s atmosphere gamma rays break up into pairs of electrons and positrons. No clear sightings have been made so far.

(Threaded throughout the chapter has been the notion that black holes might come in two types: one which resulted from the collapse of stars, as described above. And others which have been around since the start of the universe as a function of the irregularities of the big bang.)

Summary: Hawking ends this chapter by claiming that his ‘discovery’ that radiation can be emitted from black holes was ‘the first example of a prediction that depended in an essential way on both the great theories of this century, general relativity and quantum mechanics’. I.e. it is not only an interesting ‘discovery’ in its own right, but a pioneering example of synthesising the two theories.

Chapter 8 The Origin and Fate of the Universe (pp.115-141)

This is the longest chapter in the book and I found it the hardest to follow. I think this is because it is where he makes the big pitch for His Theory, for what’s come to be known as the Hartle-Hawking state. Let Wikipedia explain:

Hartle and Hawking suggest that if we could travel backwards in time towards the beginning of the Universe, we would note that quite near what might otherwise have been the beginning, time gives way to space such that at first there is only space and no time. Beginnings are entities that have to do with time; because time did not exist before the Big Bang, the concept of a beginning of the Universe is meaningless. According to the Hartle-Hawking proposal, the Universe has no origin as we would understand it: the Universe was a singularity in both space and time, pre-Big Bang. Thus, the Hartle–Hawking state Universe has no beginning, but it is not the steady state Universe of Hoyle; it simply has no initial boundaries in time or space. (Hartle-Hawking state Wikipedia article)

To get to this point Hawking begins by recapping the traditional view of the ‘hot big bang’, i.e. the almost instantaneous emergence of matter from a state of infinite mass, energy and density and temperature.

This is the view first put forward by Gamow and Alpher in 1948, which predicted there would still be very low-level background radiation left over from the bang – which was then proved with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965.

Hawking gives a picture of the complete cycle of the creation of the universe through the first generation of stars which go supernova blowing out into space the heavier particles which then go into second generation stars or clouds of gas and solidify into things like planet earth.

In a casual aside, he gives his version of the origin of life on earth:

The earth was initially very hot and without an atmosphere. In the course of time it cooled and acquired an atmosphere from the emission of gases from the rocks. This early atmosphere was not one in which we could have survived. It contained no oxygen, but a lot of other gases that are poisonous to us, such as hydrogen sulfide. There are, however, other primitive forms of life that can flourish under such conditions. It is thought that they developed in the oceans, possibly as a result of chance combinations of atoms into large structures, called macromolecules, which were capable of assembling other atoms in the ocean into similar structures. They would thus have reproduced themselves and multiplied. In some cases there would have been errors in the reproduction. Mostly these errors would have been such that the new macromolecule could not reproduce itself and eventually would have been destroyed. However, a few of the errors would have produced new macromolecules that were even better at reproducing themselves. They would have therefore had an advantage and would have tended to replace the original macromolecules. In this way a process of evolution was started that led to the development of more and more complicated, self-reproducing organisms. The first primitive forms of life consumed various materials, including hydrogen sulfide, and released oxygen. This gradually changed the atmosphere to the composition that it has today and allowed the development of higher forms of life such as fish, reptiles, mammals, and ultimately the human race. (p.121)

(It’s ironic that he discusses the issue so matter-of-factly, demonstrating that, for him at least, the matter is fairly cut and dried and not worth lingering over. Because, of course, for scientists who’ve devoted their lives to the origins-of-life question it is far from over. It’s a good example of the way that every specialist thinks that their specialism is the most important subject in the world, the subject that will finally answer the Great Questions of Life whereas a) most people have never heard about the issues b) wouldn’t understand them and c) don’t care.)

Hawking goes on to describe chaotic boundary conditions and describe the strong and the weak anthropic principles. He then explains the theory proposed by Alan Guth of inflation i.e. the universe, in the first milliseconds after the big bang, underwent a process of enormous hyper-growth, before calming down again to normal exponential expansion. Hawking describes it rather differently from Barrow and Davies. He emphasises that, to start with, in a state of hypertemperature and immense density, the four forces we know about and the spacetime dimensions were all fused into one. They would be in ‘symmetry’. Only as the early universe cooled would it have undergone a ‘phase transition’ and the symmetry between forces been broken.

If the temperature fell below the phase transition temperature without symmetry being broken then the universe would have a surplus of energy and it is this which would have cause the super-propulsion of the inflationary stage. The inflation theory:

  • would allow for light to pass from one end of the (tiny) universe to the other and explains why all regions of the universe appear to have the same properties
  • explain why the rate of expansion of the universe is close to the critical rate required to make it expand for billions of years (and us to evolve)
  • would explain why there is so much matter in the universe

Hawking then gets involved in the narrative explaining how he and others pointed out flaws in Guth’s inflationary model, namely that the phase transition at the end of the inflation ended in ‘bubble’s which expanded to join up. But Hawking and others pointed out that the bubbles were expanding so fat they could never join up. In 1981 the Russian Andre Linde proposed that the bubble problem would be solved if  a) the symmetry broke slowly and b) the bubbles were so big that our region of the universe is all contained within a single bubble. Hawking disagreed, saying Linde’s bubbles would each have to be bigger than the universe for the maths to work out, and counter-proposing that the symmetry broke everywhere at the same time, resulting in the uniform universe we see today. Nonetheless Linde’s model became known as the ‘new inflationary model’, although Hawking considers it invalid.

[In these pages we get a strong whiff of cordite. Hawking is describing controversies and debates he has been closely involved in and therefore takes a strongly partisan view, bending over backwards to be fair to colleagues, but nonetheless sticking to his guns. In this chapter you get a strong feeling for what controversy and debate within this community must feel like.)

Hawking prefers the ‘chaotic inflationary model’ put forward by Linde in 1983, in which there is no phase transition or supercooling, but which relies on quantum fluctuations.

At this point he introduces four ideas which are each challenging and which, taken together, mark the most difficult and confusing part of the book.

First he says that, since Einstein’s laws of relativity break down at the moment of the singularity, we can only hope to understand the earliest moments of the universe in terms of quantum mechanics.

Second, he says he’s going to use a particular formulation of quantum mechanics, namely Richard Feynman’s idea of ‘a sum over histories’. I think this means that Feynman said that in quantum mechanics we can never know precisely which route a particle takes, the best we can do is work out all the possible routes and assign them probabilities, which can then be handled mathematically.

Third, he immediately points out that working with Feynman’s sum over histories approach requires the use of ‘imaginary’ time, which he then goes on to explain.

To avoid the technical difficulties with Feynman’s sum over histories, one must use imaginary time. (p.134)

And then he points out that, in order to use imaginary time, we must use Euclidean space-time instead of ‘real’ space-time.

All this happens on page 134 and was too much for me to understand. On page 135 he then adds in Einstein’s idea that the gravitational field us represented by curved space-time.

It is now that he pulls all these ideas together to assert that, whereas in the classical theory of gravity, which is based on real space-time there are only two ways the universe can behave – either it has existed infinitely or it had a beginning in a singularity at a finite point in time; in the quantum theory of gravity, which uses Euclidean space-time, in which the time direction is on the same footing as directions in space it is possible:

for space-time to be finite in extent and yet to have no singularities that formed a boundary or edge.

In Hawking’s theory the universe would be finite in duration but not have a boundary in time because time would merge with the other three dimensions, all of which cease to exist during and just after a singularity. Working backwards in time, the universe shrinks but it doesn’t shrink, as a cone does, to a single distinct point – instead it has a smooth round bottom with no distinct beginning.

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

Finally Hawking points out that this model of a no-boundary universe derived from a Feynman interpretation of quantum gravity does not give rise to all possible universes, but only to a specific family of universes.

One aspect of these histories of the universe in imaginary time is that none of them include singularities – which would seem to render redundant all the work Hawking had done on black holes in ‘real time’. He gets round this by saying that both models can be valid, but in order to demonstrate different things.

It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description. (p.139)

He winds up the discussion by stating that further calculations based on this model explain the two or three key facts about the universe which all theories must explain i.e. the fact that it is clumped into lumps of matter and not an even soup, the fact that it is expanding, and the fact that the background radiation is minutely uneven in some places suggesting very early irregularities. Tick, tick, tick – the no-boundary proposal is congruent with all of them.

It is a little mind-boggling, as you reach the end of this long and difficult chapter, to reflect that absolutely all of it is pure speculation without a shred of evidence to support it. It is just another elegant way of dealing with the problems thrown up by existing observations and by trying to integrate quantum mechanics with Einsteinian relativity. But whether it is ‘true’ or not, not only is unproveable but also is not really the point.

Chapter 9 The Arrow of Time (pp.143-153)

If Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct and light always appears to have the same velocity to all observers, no matter what position they’re in or how fast they’re moving, THEN TIME MUST BE FLEXIBLE. Time is not a fixed constant. Every observer carries their own time with them.

Hawking points out that there are three arrows of time:

  • the thermodynamic arrow of time which obeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics namely that entropy, or disorder, increases – there are always many more disordered states than ordered ones
  • the psychological arrow of time which we all perceive
  • the cosmological arrow of time, namely the universe is expanding and not contracting

Briskly, he tells us that the psychological arrow of time is based on the thermodynamic one: entropy increases and our lives experience that and our minds record it. For example, human beings consume food – which is a highly ordered form of energy – and convert it into heat – which is a highly disordered form.

Hawking tells us that he originally thought that, if the universe reach a furthest extent and started to contract, disorder (entropy) would decrease, and everything in the universe would happen backwards. Until Don Page and Raymond Laflamme, in their different ways, proved otherwise.

Now he believes that the contraction would not occur until the universe had been almost completely thinned out and all the stars had died i.e. the universe had become an even soup of basic particles. THEN it would start to contract. And so his current thinking is that there would be little or no thermodynamic arrow of time (all thermodynamic processes having come to an end) and all of this would be happening in a universe in which human beings could not exist. We will never live to see the contraction phase of the universe. If there is a contraction phase.

Chapter 10: The Unification of Physics (pp.155-169)

The general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics both work well for their respective scales (stars and galaxies, sub-atomic particles) but cannot be made to mesh, despite fifty of more years of valiant attempts. Many of the attempts produce infinity in their results, so many infinities that a strategy has been developed called ‘renormalisation’ which gets rid of the infinities, although Hawking conceded is ‘rather dubious mathematically’.

Grand Unified Theories is the term applied to attempts to devise a theory (i.e. a set of mathematical formulae) which will take account of the four big forces we know about: electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.

In the mid-1970s some scientists came up with the idea of ‘supergravity’ which postulated a ‘superparticle’, and the other sub-atomic particles variations on the super-particle but with different spins. According to Hawking the calculations necessary to assess this theory would take so long nobody has ever done it.

So he moves onto string theory i.e. the universe isn’t made up of particles but of open or closed ‘strings’, which can join together in different ways to form different particles. However, the problem with string theory is that, because of the mathematical way they are expressed, they require more than four dimensions. A lot more. Hawking mentions anywhere from ten up to 26 dimensions. Where are all these dimensions? Well, strong theory advocates say they exist but are very very small, effectively wrapped up into sub-atomic balls, so that you or I never notice them.

Rather simplistically, Hawking lists the possibilities about a complete unified theory. Either:

  1. there really is a grand unified theory which we will someday discover
  2. there is no ultimate theory but only an infinite sequence of possibilities which will describe the universe with greater and greater, but finite accuracy
  3. there is no theory of the universe at all, and events will always seems to us to occur in a random way

This leads him to repeat the highfalutin’ rhetoric which all physicists drop into at these moments, about the destiny of mankind etc. Discovery of One Grand Unified Theory:

would bring to an end a long and glorious chapter in the history of humanity’s intellectual struggle to understand the universe. But it would also revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe. (p.167)

I profoundly disagree with this view. I think it is boilerplate, which is a phrase defined as ‘used in the media to refer to hackneyed or unoriginal writing’.

Because this is not just the kind of phrasing physicists use when referring to the search for GUTs, it’s the same language biologists use when referring to the quest to understand how life derived from inorganic chemicals, it’s the same language the defenders of the large Hadron Collider use to justify spending billions of euros on the search for ever-smaller particles, it’s the language used by the guys who want funding for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), it’s the kind of language used by the scientists bidding for funding for the Human Genome Project.

Each of these, their defenders claim, is the ultimate most important science project, quest and odyssey ever,  and when they find the solution it will for once and all answer the Great Questions which have been tormenting mankind for millennia. Etc. Which is very like all the world’s religions claiming that their God is the only God. So a) there is a pretty obvious clash between all these scientific specialities which each claim to be on the brink of revealing the Great Secret.

But b) what reading this book and John Barrow’s Book of Universes convinces me is that i) we are very far indeed from coming even close to a unified theory of the universe and more importantly ii) if one is ever discovered, it won’t matter.

Imagine for a moment that a new iteration of string theory does manage to harmonise the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics. How many people in the world are really going to be able to understand that? How many people now, currently, have a really complete grasp of Einsteinian relativity and Heisenbergian quantum uncertainty in their strictest, most mathematical forms? 10,000? 1000,000 earthlings?

If and when the final announcement is made who would notice, who would care, and why would they care? If the final conjunction is made by adapting string theory to 24 dimensions and renormalising all the infinities in order to achieve a multi-dimensional vision of space-time which incorporates both the curvature of gravity and the unpredictable behaviour of sub-atomic particles – would this really

revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe?

Chapter 11 Conclusion (pp.171-175)

Recaps the book and asserts that his and James Hartle’s no-boundary model for the origin of the universe is the first to combine classic relativity with Heisenberg uncertainty. Ends with another rhetorical flourish of trumpets which I profoundly disagree with for the reasons given above.

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. (p.175)

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this is a hopelessly naive view of human nature and culture. Einstein’s general theory has been around for 104 years, quantum mechanics for 90 years. Even highly educated people understand neither of them, and what Hawking calls ‘just ordinary people’ certainly don’t – and it doesn’t matter. 

Thoughts

Of course the subject matter is difficult to understand, but Hawking makes a very good fist of putting all the ideas into simple words and phrases, avoiding all formulae and equations, and the diagrams help a lot.

My understanding is that A Brief History of Time was the first popular science to put all these ideas before the public in a reasonably accessible way, and so opened the floodgates for countless other science writers, although hardly any of the ideas in it felt new to me since I happen to have just reread the physics books by Barrow and Davies which cover much the same ground and are more up to date.

But my biggest overall impression is how provisional so much of it seems. You struggle through the two challenging chapters about black holes – Hawking’s speciality – and then are casually told that all this debating and arguing over different theories and model-making had gone on before any black holes were ever observed by astronomers. In fact, even when Hawking died, in 2018, no black holes had been conclusively identified. It’s a big shame he didn’t live to see this famous photograph being published and confirmation of at least the existence of the entity he devoted so much time to theorising about.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

The environment

Human evolution

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

This was Vonnegut’s sixth novel and his commercial and critical breakthrough, quickly becoming a classic of counter-culture literature, its anti-war message chiming perfectly with the widespread protests across America against the Vietnam War, and then given an extra boost when it was made into a hit movie in 1972.

Both the anti-war message and Vonnegut’s laid-back, sardonic attitude are captured in the book’s jokey author biography:

Kurt Vonnegut Jnr
A fourth-generation German-American
now living in easy circumstances
on Cape Cod
[and smoking too much],
who, as an American infantry scout
hors de combat,
as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany,
‘The Florence of the Elbe,’
a long time ago,
and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel
somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic
manner of tales
of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers
come from.
Peace.

That final ‘Peace’ says it all. You can almost smell the dope and patchouli oil.

Vonnegut was an American POW during the Second World War. He was taken to Dresden and set to work along with other POWs – among other things in a syrup factory – and so happened to be there during the notorious Allied bombing raid which flattened this beautiful and historic city on the night of 13 February 1945.

Vonnegut survived because he and other POWs had been billeted in a disused slaughterhouse. This happened to have no fewer than three levels underground of natural cold rooms where meat had been stored. Vonnegut, fellow POWs and their guards took refuge there on the night of the Allied raid and firestorm.

Vonnegut gives this experience and much else of his own life to the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, but mixes it – bewilderingly but powerfully – with a science fiction story wherein Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. And with a third element – which is that during the war Billy came ‘unstuck in time’ and from then on, periodically through the rest of his life, Billy’s consciousness keeps moving between different key moments of his life – one moment a POW captured in the snow in 1944, the next making a speech to fellow Lion’s Club members in 1967, one moment a boy of 12 taken to the Grand Canyon by his parents, the next a middle-aged man at his daughter’s wedding, and so on, for a number of other cardinal scenes in his life.

The text therefore mostly consists of fragments, any lengthy description of a particular scene liable to switch, with no warning, to another.

The odd thing is that despite this staginess, this artifice – it works. In fact it works more effectively than any straightforward account of the facts could have.

Even despite the opening chapter (pp.9-22) which consists mainly of fragments describing Vonnegut’s repeated failure to write this book. In these introductory pages he describes his visits to fellow war veterans and how, after a few drinks, they found they had nothing to say to each other. He candidly admits that, as a middle-aged man, he has gotten into the habit of staying up to late with a bottle of scotch, getting drunk and then ringing up old friends and acquaintances from the past, sometimes maundering on to complete strangers.

In other words, he sounds fucked. But it’s the inclusion of the admission of his failure to make his traumatic memories cohere, and his openness about the obvious emotional toll they’ve taken on him, which make the narrative which follows, deeply fragmented though it is, all the more powerful.

Billy’s biography

Despite all the apparent tricksiness, it is not too difficult to piece together Billy’s biography, in fact Vonnegut summarises most of it right at the start of chapter two, which is where the narrative proper begins.

Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. (p23)

Vonnegut likes short declarative sentences. And short paragraphs. He worked on newspapers for a while. Then as a press officer. Which taught him to keep it short. And snappy.

Bill Pilgrim was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York, the only son of a barber. He grew up to be tall and gangly, looking like a Coke bottle. He attended the Ilium school of optometry for one term before being drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner during the German advance of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). There is an extended sequence describing his miserable march through the snow with two scouts and an aggressive bullying corporal named Roland Weary. The scouts eventually leave them and, a little later, they hear them being shot by a German patrol. So it goes.

He and hundreds of other American POWs were transported by overcrowded trains to a POW camp. The bully who gave him such a time on the march, Roland Weary, dies on the train. The base is really an extermination camp for Russian soldiers who were being starved to death. Within this camp was a small number of British officers who’d been captured at the start of the war and were living very well on Red Cross parcels. After various incidents here (such as witnessing the British stage a production of Cinderella). Billy starts laughing at this, the laugh becomes uncontrollable and turns into a shriek. They give him a shot of morphine. So it goes.

Then he is shipped to Dresden where he is billeted in a disused slaughterhouse and set to various labouring jobs, clearing rubble, and helping out in a syrup factory (where everyone steals as much syrup as they can eat).

One night 600 Allied bombers come and destroy Dresden, sparking a firestorm which incinerates everyone above ground. When Billy and the Germans emerge they discover the entire city reduced to smoking rubble littered with what seem planks of burning wood but are, in fact, smouldering corpses. So it goes.

Billy is liberated by the Russians, repatriated to Allied lines, and then back to the States. He re-enrols in the Ilium School of Optometry and becomes engaged to Valencia, the fat, ugly daughter of the founder of the school, who is addicted to eating candy bars and cries on their wedding night because she thought no-one would ever marry her.

In 1948 Billy suffers a mental breakdown and checks himself into a ward for nonviolent mental patients in a veterans’ hospital near Lake Placid, New York.

Here he meets a character mentioned in previous novels, namely Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the works of a prolific science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout (who will be one of the two main figures in Vonnegut’s next novel, Breakfast of Champions). Later on, in 1964, Billy bumps into Trout, as he tyrannises the pack of newspaper boys who he bullies into delivering papers, his only form of income since nobody will publish his numerous novels and, even if they do, Trout never sees any money from them. Rosewater has a big trunk of Trout’s sci-fi novels under his bed and during his stay in the hospital, Billy becomes a big fan.

Then he checks out and resumes his career as an optometrist. Marrying the boss’s fat daughter was a shrewd career move. His father-in-law gifts him a successful optometrist’s practice and Billy goes from strength to strength. He gets rich. He has two children, Barbara and Robert. Barbara marries an optometrist. Robert has a troubled school career (alcoholic at 16, desecrates graveyards) but turns his life round when he joins the Marines and goes to Vietnam.

In 1964 Billy meets Kilgore Trout and invites him to a party of optometrists. Trout chats up the most sensationally sexy woman in the room. When, in his excitement, he coughs on a canape, fragments of wet food land in her cleavage. Trout is that kind of character. Vonnegut is that kind of writer. Billy had planned to give his wife a big jewel as a wedding anniversary present, but is overcome with memories.

In 1967 Billy claims he was kidnapped by Tralfamodorians and taken to their planet in a flying saucer, where he was put in a zoo for the entertainment of Tralfamadorian crowds, and was soon joined by former movie star Montana Wildhack. Billy is laid back about the experience. He’s seen worse. He’s seen nearly the worst that human beings can do to each other. But Montana is hysterical for the first few weeks. Eventually they settle down together in their cage and mate, much to the cheers of the Tralfamadorian crowds.

In 1968 Billy is aboard a planeload of optometrists flying to a convention which crashes into Sugarloaf Mountain, Vermont. Billy is the only survivor. His wife, Valencia, in her worry, drives to the hospital but at one stage hits the central reservation, scraping the exhaust off the car. By the time she gets to the hospital where Billy is she is suffering from a fatal dose of carbon monoxide poisoning, and dies. So it goes.

After getting out of the hospital Billy goes to New York City where he gets airtime on a radio station telling everyone about how he was kidnapped by aliens from outer space and kept in a zoo. His grown-up daughter, Barbara, is furious and insists on coming to look after him (which feels a lot to Billy like nagging, hectoring bullying).

Billy is killed on 13 February 1976. Remember the soldier who died on the train, Roland Weary. Well another soldier, a really unpleasant psychopath named Paul Lazzarro, gives Weary his word of honour that he’ll take care of the dirty rotten fink who Weary blames for his death – the entirely innocent Billy.

And so it is that in 1976 that same Paul Lazzaro assassinates Billy using a laser gun with telescopic sights, while Billy is addressing a big rally about his flying saucer experiences. So it goes.

(It’s worth noting that, in a few throwaway sentences, Vonnegut tells us that by 1976 the USA has been divided into twenty smaller nations ‘so that it will never again be a threat to world peace’. Chicago has been hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen, p.96. This is not intended as any kind of prediction, it just continues the vein of pointless absurdity.)

POW

Central to the impact of the book is the powerful account of being taken prisoner, packed into cattle trucks so full people take it in turns to lie down, for days surrounded by the smells of poo and piss, and then arriving at the death camp more dead than alive. The surrealism of the brisk well-fed British officers among the starving Russians (kept in a separate area, behind barbed wire) and then onto the detailed, first hand account of a) labouring in Dresden in the build-up and then b) the night of the firestorm and then c) the aftermath.

These scenes, in their winter misery, reminded me of concentration camp memoirs I’ve read:

They also account in a roundabout way for the comment Vonnegut makes about the nature of his own book (he is prone to stop and comment on the text at random moments.)

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters. (p.110)

This fictional worldview, or attitude towards fiction, is related to the way Vonnegut repeatedly refers to people as machines. All the inhabitants of Tralfamadore are machines and don’t understand why the inhabitants of planet Earth won’t just accept this simple truth.

Tralfamadore

From the start of his career Vonnegut played the textual/fictional joke of having characters from one novel reappear in others.

Thus the town Billy’s born in, Ilium, is the setting for the first part of the novel Cat’s Cradle as is its General Forge and Foundry Company.

In hospital Billy is put in a bed next to Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord of Harvard, official Historian of the United States Air Force. This is a coincidence because the main character and master of destiny in The Sirens of Titan is Winston Niles Rumfoord.

The biggest recurring topic is the planet named Tralfamadore (which appears in five of Vonnegut’s novels). Anyone who’s read The Sirens of Titan knows that, on one level, it is all about a denizen of Tralfamadore marooned on Titan after his spaceship breaks down, and that all of human history (in this version, anyway) has in fact been shaped entirely by his home planet sending messages to him.

In Slaughterhouse-Five we learn that Tramalfadorians are:

two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time.

So far, so frivolous and silly. But the biggest thing Billy learns from the Tramalfadorians is that:

’The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.’

Various other aspects and quirks of Tralfamadorian life and thought are made up for our amusement (such as that the Tralfamadorians have five sexes, all of which are required for successful reproduction). But this is the key one. They explain a) how all moments of time exist simultaneously so b) that is why Billy can slip between them so easily and c) that’s why it doesn’t matter. Which brings us to ‘so it goes’.

So it goes

The book popularised Vonnegut’s catch-phrase, ‘so it goes’.

The author writes this every time he describes anyone dying, either in the war or by accident or of old age. It appears several times on each page, and 99 times in the whole (relatively short) book. Once upon a time it was cool but I eventually found it irritating and distracting.

But on the same page as he explains the Tralfamadorian way of thinking about, and seeing, time, he also explains the phrase’s origin:

‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”’

So this phrase ‘so it goes’ turns out to have more philosophical (or theological) than first appears. It indicates why the Tralfamadorians are relaxed about death – because it is only one stage in a person’s existence, and all the other stages of his or her existence continue unaffected by their death. And so it indicates how the author, too, has adopted this point of view.

That’s the nominal aim. But having read the first chapter in which Vonnegut describes the psychological problems he had writing this book – plus the scenes of Billy Pilgrim in the mental hospital – it’s difficult not to read the entire ‘so it goes’, throwaway kind of levity as in fact a form of psychological defence mechanism.

As he describes atrocities, random deaths, cruel accidents, suicides, immolations, plane crashes and the endless dumb pointlessness of the world, it’s hard not to see the ‘so it goes’ mentality as the coping mechanisms of a very unhappy man.

Folk wisdom

Vonnegut is addicted to sharing his wisdom with us. He is in the line of what Saul Bellow described as ‘reality instructors’, a line which goes back to Thoreau and beyond.

All Vonnegut’s novels are designed to persuade us that there is no meaning to life… and it doesn’t matter.

The same thing is said time and again. Thus a German guard punches an American POW, knocking him to the ground. The American asks: ‘Why me?’ The German guard replies: ‘Vy you? Vy anybody?’

Similarly, when the Tralfamadorians abduct him, Billy asks them: ‘Why me?’ to which they reply that they are all of them just embedded in this moment of time, like a prehistoric ant embalmed in amber.

‘There is no why?’ ‘Why?’ is the wrong question to be asking.

You can see why this Zen-like sidestepping of the anxious questions of Western philosophy appealed to the 60s generation, the spirit that made Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance such an instant best seller when it was published in 1974.

But pretty often it sounds no different from homespun folk wisdom, with no particular secret or mystique about it. Here’s Billy chatting with a Tramalfadorian:

‘But you do have a peaceful planet here.’
‘Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments – like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’

‘Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’ Not a dazzling revelation, is it? But then the thing about living wisely – as of eating a healthy diet – is everyone knows what they ought to be doing, it’s just that most people can’t or won’t or don’t do it.

Vivid writing

Notwithstanding that Vonnegut’s baseline style is the crisp brevity of newspaper journalism, he routinely comes up with great lines, descriptions and verbal effects.

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table-two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.

This description is charged by the fact that Billy is himself lying in a hospital bed, too weak to get out.

Elsewhere Vonnegut nails aspects of his society and times with an accuracy made all the more lethal by the calm simplicity of his phrasing.

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

Set pieces

And like the other Vonnegut novels I’ve read, it is just crammed full of stuff. Characters, events, insights, jokes, wisdom, the author’s own hand-drawn illustrations.

While he is in the prison camp Billy meets an American traitor, Howard W. Campbell Jnr who is trying to raise an American Nazi regiment to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. Obviously he’s a traitor Fascist, but he is not stupid and Billy reads the lengthy monograph Campbell has written which is a cunning blend of truths and falsehoods about the American character, and which allows Vonnegut to slip in some pretty bitter home truths:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves… It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor… Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since Napoleonic times.

In a different mode, there is an impressive writerly tour de force where Billy has a vision of the bombing of Dresden happening in reverse, with miraculous old buildings rising from a rubble-strewn wasteland, friendly planes flying over hoovering up all those nasty bombs, flying back to England in pretty poor shape but, luckily, fleets of fighter planes meet them and suck out all the bullets and flak so that they finally land back at their airfields in pristine condition, and everyone is happy!

Shell shocked prose

But the most consistent style or tone is shell-shocked numbness. The author tells things in sequence like a zombie. Zombie prose. Then this then this then this.

Billy survived, but he was a dazed wanderer far behind the new German lines. Three other wanderers, not quite so dazed, allowed Billy to tag along. Two of them were scouts, and one was an antitank gunner. They were without food or maps. Avoiding Germans they were delivering themselves into rural silences ever more profound. They ate snow.

Dazed wanderer prose. Sometimes, when applied to actual combat, to soldiers shooting each other or planes dropping bombs, you can see how describing things in this simpleton, child’s eye way, is designed to undermine the army press release, conventional ways of seeing atrocities. To force us to realise that ‘combat’ means one bunch of men trying to send bits of metal at high velocity through other men’s bodies.

But at other moments this numb, dumb, dazed, zombie prose seems to me to convey nothing more than shell shock. Mental disturbance. An inability to function which isn’t glamorous or counter-cultural, but masks deep pain and unhappiness.

As a part of a gun crew, [Weary] had helped to fire one shot in anger-from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of a zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.

What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes.

Telling what happened with no emotion, affect or intellectual intervention, no defences, no assimilation. The wound still red raw and gaping.

It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that Vonnegut suffered from chronic depression, and within a few years of Slaughterhouse being published, a difficult break-up with his wife and his son’s mental collapse prompted him to start taking anti-depressants. In 1984 he tried to commit suicide. I think you can hear not only Vonnegut’s war-torn past, but also his troubled future, in the prose of Slaughterhouse-Five.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

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 future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall 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 – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel 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 comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings 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 Kent, gets caught up in 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
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 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
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
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

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke 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
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
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Ubik by Philip K. Dick (1969)

His revulsion became, all at once, a weird nebulous panic. (p.88)

Ubik is set in the same year as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1992, although it is a different 1992 (itself making a point about ramifying realities and fissiparous futures). Instead of androids, this future is plagued by telepaths, telepaths who can read your mind and some which can predict the future.

The telepaths – known collectively as psis – have become such a menace that companies have grown up which offer the services of anti-telepaths, human mutants who also have psionic mind powers, but of a purely negative kind, to counteract them. The businesses are known as anti-psi prudence organisations; the anti-telepaths are known as ‘inertials’.

Types of telepaths include: teeps, kineticists, precogs, resurrectors and animists (p.22).

One of these prudence organisations is Runciter Associates, run by ageing Glen Runciter. His people irritate him by ringing him early one morning to tell him they’ve lost track of ‘the top telepath in the Sol system’, S. Dole Melipone. He is the only known telepath who can generate ‘68.2 blr units of telepathic aura’. Melipone is employed by Ray Hollis, who runs an organisation for psis and is by way of being the book’s baddy.

Runciter immediately flies to Zürich to consult his dead wife, Ella, who is kept in a state of suspended animation – in ‘cold-pac’ – at the Beloved Brethren Moratorium run by Herbert Schoenheit von Vogelsang. Family members who have passed away can be kept in cryogenic storage and you can ‘wake’ them and communicate with their brain patterns via special headphones, the ‘electronic communing equipment’ (p.223).

In the event, Ella’s thoughts are hijacked by a dead person being kept in a casket next to hers, Jory Miller. Because he’s younger, Jory’s cerebronic patterns are stronger than hers. Runciter is outraged and demands his wife be moved to a secure unit.

These half-deads are, the reader reflects, yet another kind of altered consciousness, Dick’s main theme – as are, of course, the florid range of telepaths and inertials we meet throughout the book. Other kinds of minds.

Runciter Associates had sent one of their own telepaths, G.G. Ashwood to the hotel where Melipone was last seen. Now Ashwood turns up at the flat of the chronically impoverished Runciter Associates employee, Joe Chip.

Ashwood has brought a new find, a girl of about 17 who has a spectacular new power. She seems to be able to rearrange the past in order to suit the needs of the present. I.e. if she sees something she or someone else wants to change she has the power, not to travel in person, but to send her mind back into the past to alter the course of events in order to change the present to suit. She proves this by showing Joe the initial evaluation of her which he carried out and which was very unfavourable. In the narrative we just read she had slowly stripped off to get ready for a shower, which swayed Joe towards giving her a more favourable valuation. This – the stripping version – is version two of events. She went back and changed everything that happened from the moment she came into his apartment.

Joe doesn’t believe it. To prove it Pat gets out of her blouse the valuation he wrote for her in the first course of events. It’s his writing, alright. It appears to be true that she can go back in time and alter the course of events. Wow.

Commentary

All this has happens in the first 40 or so pages of this 230-page-long novel. As usual Dick has plunged us not only into a story, but into a densely imagined world of wonders where weird elements are not just everyday but so taken for granted that they’re given typically American nicknames.

The futureness of it all is created and reinforced by a raft of gadgets and gizmos in the brave new world of 1992.

  • Runciter obviously travels to Switzerland and back super-fast, maybe via rocket. The existence of rockets is confirmed when Runciter takes his team of inertials to Luna (the moon) by the company rocket, Pratfall II.
  • Runciter’s hovertaxi drops him on the roof of his company building, from where he takes a ‘descent chute’ down to the fifth floor.
  • People don’t have newspapers, they have ‘pape machines on whose screen they scan through today’s headlines and, if an article takes their fancy, ask the ‘pape machine to print it off so it can be read. (Reading this in 2019 you wonder why Dick didn’t make the logical connection and just have people read the whole article off the screen? Why bother with cumbersome printing? I guess the culture-wide tradition of reading from paper was too all-encompassing for even Dick to see beyond.)
  • People talk via vidphone (as they also do in Android).
  • Money has stopped being in dollars and is now counted in poscreds.
  • For weaponry people carry laser tubes (as they do in Android).

The plot

The main plot concerns a client, Stanton Mick, a billionaire who is developing a new hyperspace drive on the moon. He suspects his operation has been infiltrated by psis from Hollis’s organisation. The fear is that they will carry out industrial espionage, getting into his scientists’ minds, stealing all the secrets, possibly sabotaging the project.

So he sends a secretary, Miss Wirt, to ask Runciter Associates to send up a team of their best inertials to counter the psis.

It all has a broadly comic tone. The inertials Runciter assembles are a strikingly random ill-matched bunch of freaks wearing deliberately kooky outfits – the red triangular glasses, the fashionable elastic bands which push a woman’s breasts together – who even their employer, Runciter, finds it hard to take seriously.

They fly to the moon (in one hour) and are ushered by Stanton Mick’s people into the underground rooms of the lunar base. The bizarre figure of Micks, with waist-length white hair, appears, but they’ve barely begun discussing arrangements before Mick inexplicably floats up to the ceiling and explodes.

Many of the inertials are injured, Runciter fatally. Joe takes charge and carries Runciter’s body with another anti-psi, along with the rest of them they escape in a lift up to the surface, make it to the spaceship, and blast off, leaving Joe wondering: if the entire ‘job’ was a set-up by Hollis, why did he let them get away?

Comedy

The novel is surprisingly funny. Or obviously funny at unexpected moments. One humorous element is Dick’s fondness for improbable-verging-on-grotesque businesses. I noted it in the Van Ness Animal repair shop in Androids and here it surfaces in the Beloved Brethren Moratorium and its unctuous Teutonic owner.

The rundown of the eleven inertials who go to the moon is a parade of grotesques in outlandish costumes, done for broadly comic effect.

There’s another thread of broad comedy running through the text in that, in the future, many basic household functions and implements – such as a door, a shower, a bath – require cash payments up front before functioning. You have to slip a nickel or a dime or twenty cents into the slot before they’ll work. This need dogs Joe Chip wherever he goes because Joe, a shambles of a man, is permanently hard-up, with the result that doors won’t open for him, coffee dispensers won’t serve him, showers don’t operate, and so on, so that he is continually begging everyone around him for spare nickels and dimes, which becomes a kind of catchphrase or repeated failing.

Entropy

The plot so far led me to expect that there would be all kinds of cat and mouse, psi-chasing shenanigans between inertials and psis on the moon base. But this turns out tobe a complete red herring. From this point onwards the novel is about something completely different.

Immediately after the fake Stanton Mick bomb explodes, Runciter’s team all hurry back to the rocket and blast off back for earth.

And begin to notice what turns out to be The Big Theme of the second half of the book. Everything starts ageing and retrogressing. The cigarettes crumble in their hands. Coins seem out of date. The ship’s computer rejects information from the yellow pages when they try and phone the moratorium number.

They fly direct to the Beloved Brethren Moratorium in order to get Runciter’s body into a cold-pac as soon as possible, to preserve whatever is left of his consciousness and there is fuss and comic business with the funereal Herbert Schoenheit von Vogelsang, who insists on playing heavy classical music (Beethoven, Verdi) till they yell at him to turn it off.

But things are retrogressing. Joe stays the night at the moratorium hotel and in the morning is horrified to discover one his fellow inertials, Wendy Wright, turned into a dried-out mummy. She had obviously come to see him in the night but maybe be stricken by some sort of physical degeneration and crawled to the closet where she curled up and atrophied.

Joe flies back to New York where he finds a meeting of the inertials being led by Al Hammond. They have all noticed that their cigarettes are always too old to smoke. They get their money out and lay it on the table only to discover that Runciter’s head has replaced Washington on all the coins and notes. One of the inertials has a box of matches they bought weeks ago which carries an advertisement featuring Runciter’s face and telling them he is selling a product from a corporate HQ in Des Moines.

Joe takes Al from the meeting to his office where the remains of Wendy are in a plastic bag. They confer feverishly about the situation then decide to pick a city at random. Baltimore. They fly to Baltimore and visit a store at random. The woman in front of them at the checkout complains that everything she’s bought from the store is either dying or dead. Al and Joe check out the packs of cigarettes; all of them crumble in their fingers. Something is ageing the world. Something that aged Wendy to death.

They pick a carton totally at random from a huge pile of cigarette cartons and, when they open it, there’s a message from Runciter inside, telling them the situation is critical, he must get in touch with them, apologising about Wendy. What the hell is going on? There seem to be two forces, one in which everything is ageing, another in which Runciter is taking over the world, or revealing aspects of it (money, vidphone, products).

Joe takes a punt and buys a brand new tape recorder from the store. They fly back to New York. By the time they hand the tape recorder over to Runciter Associates’ chief technician the recorder has morphed into an old tape-driven version, at least 40 years old. Al looks at the instruction booklet and it claims the machine was ‘Made by Runciter of Zürich’ which has a North American office in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s as if lots of bits of Runciterness are leaking into this world. How? Why?

They take a lift back to the meeting room where they left the others, but on the way Al has visions of the lift itself reverting to a 1910s metal frame elevator complete with elevator guy. He is phasing back and forth between the present and a degenerated past. As they walk the corridor towards the meeting room Al fades. He asks to go into the men’s room where they find a graffito:

JUMP IN THE URINAL AND STAND ON YOUR HEAD
I’M THE ONE THAT’S ALIVE. YOU’RE ALL DEAD

The lights go out. Joe hears Al’s voice fading. He’s going the way of Wendy and begs Joe to leave. There is a terrifying page which takes us inside Al’s head to experience the sense of the entire present world turning to a barren desert of rocks and ice.

The conference room is empty. The other inertials have split. The big TV screen broadcasts a news announcement of the death of Runciter and a big funeral to be held at the Simple Shepherd Mortuary in his home town of des Moines. This cuts to a message for a product named Ubik, followed by a message from Runciter himself, saying that he knew he was going to be assassinated on the moon, thanks to some company preconfigs. He knew this deterioration would set in (though he doesn’t explain why) and says he posted an aerosol of Ubik which Joe can use to spray around him and stave off the decay.

Joe, the reader notices, is taking all this very calmly. Dick’s characters generally do. When they have nervous breakdowns it’s not because of the weird stuff that happens in the stories. Anyway, Joe ponders: the graffiti in the men’s room implied that Runciter is alive and that somehow all the other inertials are dead. Maybe the bomb on the moon killed all of them save Runciter and he somehow managed to get them all into cold-pacs. Maybe this is what being half-dead feels like, like the world carries on but rots and regresses until eventually it’s just the bleak desert which Al saw.

But that theory is contradicted by this TV newscast which, along with the text of the matchbox ads, appears to show that Runciter genuinely is dead. Only answer is to get to des Moines for this supposed funeral.

Joe takes a hovertaxi back to his apartment building. Here there is an extended passage where Joe discovers that every single element in his apartment has regressed – the fridge, phone, TV, everything have ceased to be their shiny plastic 1992 editions and gone back to the 50s, 40s and 30s.

When he exits the apartment (held up, as usual by the front door demanding its nickel) he is scared of taking the lift in case the same thing happens to him as happened to Al, so he walks down the stairs. By the time he gets to the front door it has an old fashioned electric buzzer. There’s a package in his post cubby hole but it doesn’t contain the Ubik spray Runciter promised, but Ubik Liver and Kidney Balm, some old-fashioned snake oil.

The substance designed to reverse the regressive change process has itself regressed. (p.145)

His car has reverted back into a petrol and combustion engine car. He’s never driven one before. A key ring is in his pocket with the ignition key in it so he starts it up and hesitantly drives towards the nearest airport.

By the time Joe gets to the airfield it is lined with old hangars and all the planes have propellers. In the time it takes to be directed towards some flyers who might be prepared to take him to Des Moines these have degenerated further to biplanes. the quaintly dressed pilots a) look at his outlandish (futuristic) clothes b) reject his unknown (to them) money and c) agree to fly him in exchange for his 1939 LaSalle motor. But when Joe takes them to see it it has regressed further to a black 1920 Model-A Ford (p.149).

The pilot isn’t interested in the car but notices the bottle of Ubik on the passenger seat. It has regressed since Joe left it to an apparently rare ointment – Elixir of Ubik – in a vintage bottle. Looking at it closely Joe sees the label has changed and there’s another message from Runciter:

Don’t do it Joe. There’s another way.
Keep trying. You’ll find it. Lots of luck.

The pilot says he’ll fly Joe to Des Moines in exchange. Weird though all this regressing has been, it has in a sense been easy enough to grasp – the world is moving backwards in time relative to one privileged character who remains the same and observes it rationally.

Next day he arrives at Des Moines airfield more or less in one piece, struggles (as always; it is his signature schtick) to find a nickel to use in the payphone, rings the Simple Shepherd Mortuary to be told that the service for Runciter has started, to be followed by a lying in state.

Joe finds all the other inertials who had been to the moon and were involved in the blast attending the funeral. They all crowd round him and it’s immediately obvious that they too have experienced the regression. They all see the same ‘reality’ as him, namely – from a newspaper he saw – that it is 13 September 1939 i.e. the Second World War has just broken out.

They confer and agree that they need to keep together. But one of them, Edie, had returned to her hotel in town feeling ‘tired’. they jump into the two available cars to get to the hotel and help her. On the way Joe is pulled over by a motorbike cop who writes out a citation. When he reads it, Joe sees it is in Runciter’s handwriting, warning him that Pat is… and then stops. At the bottom is an ad for a druggist, Archer’s Drug Store.

Joe enters the nearest shop and asks where the druggist is. The owner points across the road. Joe realises the building is pulsing in and out of time. For moments he can see it as an automated shop from 1992. Then it reverts to an era even before 1939. In one of its old moments he enters and asks the shop assistant for a jar of Ubik. On the label is yet another message from Runciter, warning that Pat is lying, Pat the time changer may be behind all of this.

Joe goes onto the hotel foyer and confronts Pat with the part of the message on the traffic violation at which moment his world explodes. It is dark, darkness which slowly resolves to grey streaks, and he can hear voices concerned for him. Basically he is dying and disintegrating just like Wendy and Al did. Pat accompanies him as he slowly, agonisingly makes his way up the stairs to the room he’s been allotted, taunting him all the way. Joe realises she is really evil. She was sent by Hollis to infiltrate Runciter Associates and kill them all, but this is a horrible way to do it.

The chapter describing this is really horrible, with an acute description of what feels like a heart attack only much worse – the sheer agony of trying to lift his feet and move one step further is nightmarish to read – and made ten times worse by Pat’s cold, heartless, taunting of him at, literally, every effortful gasping step of the way.

But when he finally, just about makes it into the room, and collapses to the floor, prepared to shrivel into a bag of dusty bones… Runciter is there and sprays him with wonder-working Ubik, at which he is almost immediately restored to normal life and function!

Runciter explains his view of the situation. Ashwood, Melipone, Mick and Hollis have been conspiring for months, maybe longer to lure them to Luna and blow them up. Now they are using Pat to transport them back in time. Why stop at 1939? Because that’s as far back as Pat’s powers extend.

Joe doesn’t believe him. In a complex dialogue Joe forces Runciter to admit that all the inertials were killed in the bomb explosion. They were quickly stored in cold-pacs. Pat herself was mortally wounded and is in a cold-pac. Runciter admits that he is sitting in the lobby of the Beloved Brethren Moratorium while Joe is in a cold-pac. Reluctantly, Runciter admits that the sense of atrophy and decline, things ageing and falling to pieces – they’re all common features of what all ‘half-lives’ experience, a mournful sense of decay.

And the regression in time? Initially Runciter tells him that is the work of Pat’s half-life mind taking them as far back as she can go. But, Joe asks, who is sometimes killing them, sometimes making it worse? Joe doesn’t believe it’s Hollis and his gang. It’s too arbitrary, too malicious for that. An almost childish delight in breaking and fixing, like a kids pulling wings off a fly. He nags Runciter into admitting that he, Runciter, doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s left all these useful messages and yet… he can’t actually save or improve the situation.

Runciter breaks off contact and the text cuts to him sitting in the lobby taking off the apparatus which lets you talk to the half-lives. And back to Joe in the fake 1939. There’s a knock at the door and one of the gang of inertias, Don Denny is there with an old-time doctor. Joe tells the doc he doesn’t need his help, but the doc inspects him anyway, while Joe tells Denny what he’s learned and what Runciter told him.

Denny tells him they’re all going to die. Even Pat. He just came from Pat expiring on the stairs. She seemed surprised. Yes, says Joe, she thinks she’s doing this, but she isn’t. She’s in the cold-pacs like all of them. Joe persuades Denny to use up what’s left of the Ubik spray, might do him some good. Denny sprays himself and when the nimbus of aerosol disappears, it isn’t Denny at all. there stands some gawky, misshapen teenage kids. He tells them his name is Jory, Jory Miller.

He is the gawky crude teenager who was in the cold-pac next to Runciter’s wife who invaded her thought patterns near the start of the book. Now he’s doing it to all of them.

There now follows an elaborate game as Jory gets rid of the doctor and explains that everything, everything he sees about him, was created by he, Jory. He eats the other half-lives, he consumes them, he has eaten all Joe’s colleagues. Joe attacks Jory but Jory sinks his teeth into his hand and tells him he is invulnerable. Joe turns and tries to escape out the hotel room, down the stairs, hails a cab in the street. Asks the cab to cruise around town and then out of town.

Joe knows that creating this world and keeping it stable costs Jory a lot of effort. He wants to make it hard. Cruising round they come across a pretty young woman. Joe kerb crawls her and says he’d like to take her to dinner. He is beginning to feel tired again, and cold, signs that the Ubik is wearing off. The young lady is kind and courteous and compassionate whenhe begins to fade and look rough. And then she announces that she is Ella Runciter, Ralph’s wife. She has been fighting a long war against Jory ever since he arrived in the moratorium.

She gives him a certificate for a lifetime supply of Ubik which he can get at any of two pharmacies in town. She says she is soon to be reborn (reborn? there’s a whole new angle) and wants him, Joe, to take over as Ralph’s sleeping partner, the person he comes to consult. They stop the cab. She gets out and bids adieu.

Hugely relieved, Joe gets the cab to drive to the first pharmacist. But almost as soon as he’s inside he realises the pharmacist is a version of Jory, who quietly gloats that he has ‘reverted’ all the Ubik in the store back to its 1930s version, pure snake oil, useless for healing. He hands him a jar of the useless stuff. Joe bends all his heart and soul and spirit on trying to force the thing to regenerate back to 1992, to be the proper Ubik, bending every nerve to make it so.

He fails. He gives up. He walks out the store. He is now feeling weak again. Oh no he’s going to have to go through the appalling weakness and cold he experienced back in the hotel when Pat was taunting him. He lies down on the bench at a bus shelter.

And a pretty woman bends over him and offers him a can of up to date, effective Ubik. She sprays it on him and she comes back to life. She is a representative of the manufacturer. She gives him a plausible sounding explanation of how it is a biochemical agent which retards the inevitable fading effects of being in a cold-pac on half life. ‘Hey, you want to go to dinner?’ he asks her. ‘Next time,’ she promises and fades away.

Ubik

Throughout the book every chapter has started with a spoof little advert text selling Ubik as a wonder product, a brand of beer or coffee, a type of brassiere which pushes up and shapes those boobs, Ubik hair conditioner, Ubik sleeping pills.

On one level these read to me like the kind of satirical spoof ads you get in late 1960s comedy movies, Woody Allen films and suchlike, the knockabout spirit of the original M*A*S*H movie (1970), taking the mickey out of grotesque American consumer culture.

But quite obviously, on another level, Ubik is portrayed as some kind of magic force all the way through the novel. The entirely biochemical explanation the young lady gives at the end is not quite enough to explain the imaginative force it has had in the text. So it comes as no surprise when the epigraph to the short final chapter reads.

I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be. (p.223)

So is Ubik just a chemical compound created by Ella Runciter within the world of the cold-pacs (and it’s pretty hard to see how that would be physically possible seeing as their bodies are completely static)? Or is it meant to be some shape-shifting force which stands – within the half-life world – for God?

To be honest, by this stage of the novel, on the penultimate page, I was too exhausted by the continually shifting realities of the previous 221 pages to care. That kind of point blank interpretation seems to me to be dead and stultifying.

What makes the novel live is the extraordinary and apparently endless succession of surprises it pulls on you. It is the narrative dynamic which appeals and works. Stopping to think about the logic of the plot or the symbolism for very long tends, in my experience, to make the whole house of cards collapse.

Futures and pasts

Both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik are set in 1992, a giddy 24 years from when they were written. Dick predicted that by then we’d have hovercars, colonies on the moon and Mars, lasertubes, androids and telepaths.

In the real world 1992 was notable for the UK General Election which was won by John Major who went on to govern Britain for five years and is most remembered for setting up a traffic cones hotline.

Thus the difference between the dazzling techno-worlds of science fiction – and between Philip K. Dick’s deliriously proliferating alternative worlds – and the big grey underpants of reality.


Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) (1962) In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
  • Ubik (1969) In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’ but the novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974)

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 future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall 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 – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading the human giants to rebel 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 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 Kent, gets caught up in 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
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 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
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the Overlords who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
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

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of quicksand-like moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
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
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman transformed into galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

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

To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne (1969)

General Altmayer, who seemed tired out and thoroughly disheartened, wept silently on his bed. (p.575) [A typical example of the behaviour of senior French militaryfigures during the Battle of France.]

This is the third of Sir Alistair Horne’s trilogy about the three great wars fought between Germany and France, the others being The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-1 and The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. (I have also recently read his classic account of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962.)

To Lose A Battle is about the German invasion of France in May 1940, the most perfect example of the Wehrmacht’s new Blitzkrieg strategy that it ever carried out.

It is a long book (680 pages) because Horne starts by giving a several hundred page-long detailed account of the historical, cultural, political and military background leading up to the debacle. Once this is done, part two begins, no fewer than 400 pages devoted to an incredibly detailed account of the Battle of France itself.

(I particularly wanted to read this book for the social background chapters, to provide context for the trilogy of Jean-Paul Sartre novels which I’ve just read and which are set initially in 1938 and then during the self-same Battle of France. Indeed Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir are quoted several times as epitomising the defeatist spirit of pre-war France – which is certainly how The Roads To Freedom read to me.)

Background

French army Most European nations considered the French Army which emerged from the Great War to be the best in Europe. Horne goes to some length to describe and explain the widespread feeling of:

that ineradicable, mystical self-assurance of the invincibility, in extremis, of the French Army. (p.246)

With typical chauvinism the French preferred to downplay the role played by her allies, Britain and, latterly, America, in the Great War and to insist she was the victorious power. Psychologically, this has much truth since France lost more men dead in the war than any other nation (1,315,000, 27% of all French men aged between 18 and 27 were killed), a fact which deeply scarred its psyche, and affected its economy, for a generation.

But this pride/arrogance/over-confidence in France’s armed forces lingered on into the 1930s, well after it had been made redundant by Hitler spending a fortune creating the super-efficient new German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. (Horne describes very thoroughly the military, strategic, financial, technological and all-round ‘revolutionary dynamism of the Wehrmacht’, p.514.)

French politics and society were deeply riven by conflicts: the creation, with encouragement from Lenin’s Comintern, of the French Communist Party in 1920, crystallised the revolutionary forces of the Left. The PCF not only entered into a permanent dispute with the French Socialist party and other less revolutionary left-wing groups, splitting the left into endless squabbling – but also prompted the rise of far-right political parties such as Action Francaise and Croix-de-Feu which helped to splinter political parties of the Right. The extreme position of these parties, along with France’s persistent economic crises, bedevilled French politics for the whole inter-war period.

It was also an era which saw an astonishing turnover of governments, many lasting only a few months, some only days. Between mid-1932 and the outbreak of war in 1939 France had 19 different government with 11 different premiers. Symbolically, on the day Hitler came to power in 1933, France had no government. Seven years later, on the very day Germany invaded, the premier had just resigned and had to be persuaded to return to office to run France.

In this culture of political chaos nothing could be decided. No consistent line was taken in any area, finance, diplomacy or defence. Although the Treaty of Versailles gave France enormous power over German territory as well as a whole new empire in the Middle East, she never had the continuous administrations or strong leaders to set a consistent policy and to use her power effectively. Instead, political France became a nest of vipers, of extreme political factions who hated each other more than their external enemies. By the middle of the 1930s it had become an established saying on the Right that ‘Better Hitler than the Reds’. They really meant this and many people at the highest levels were, in effect, traitors.

The Great War In political terms, all this was obviously due to the legacy of the cataclysmic Great War: the Great War causes Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which causes the creation of violently revolutionary communist parties across Europe, which causes the creation of counter-revolutionary, proto-fascist parties across Europe – and the advent of both these extremes causes new levels of rhetorical, and real, violence against opponents. The process is described in harrowing detail in Robert Gerwarth’s recent book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (2016).

A generation exterminated But Horne makes a simpler, bleaker point which is that a lot of the educated officer classes who might have provided bourgeois, old-fashioned, consensual and parliament-based political leadership, had been wiped out  in the trenches. Polite parliamentary politics didn’t go out of style; it was killed off. The new generation of leaders were unashamedly proletarian: Mussolini’s father was a blacksmith, Hitler’s father was a customs official, Stalin’s father was a cobbler. Daladier, the French Premier who sold out the Czechs, was the son of a baker; Reynaud, the man who replaced him, was the son of farmers.

Corruption Probably unrelated was the fact that a series of scandals enveloped many senior figures in France’s political elite in the run-up to the war, each case of embezzlement, jobs for the boys, swindles and cynical abuse of power further alienating the population at large. Why fight to help a pack of crooks keep their snouts in the trough?

Losing the war

As to why France lost the war, and so quickly, there is no shortage of reasons.

  • France’s Great War experience for four long bitter years had been entirely of the static defence of trenches. The centrepiece of their war had been the defence of the fortified complex at Verdun. They had no experience of the fluid, fast-moving war which took place in the East where the Germans fought the Russians and ranged over huge areas, or in the Middle East where the British fought the Turks. Building on the idea of static defence, the French High Command became mesmerised by the idea of creating a network of Verdun-like fortifications, buried deep underground with only impervious guns set in concealed hillsides to indicate their presence. This was commissioned in 1930 by a Defence Minister named Maginot and so became known as the Maginot Line.
  • But – as every schoolboy used to know – this line stopped short at the border with Belgium for a number of reasons: no one could decide whether to build it along Belgium’s border with the beastly Hun (thus defending the Belgians) or along the French-Belgium border (thus excluding the Belgians). Ans building just the 87 miles of sophisticated subterranean defences from Switzerland to the Belgian border had cost a fortune and continued to cost a fortune to maintain. So there was incompleteness, uncertainty and delay.
  • Tanks In the Great War the French used their primitive tanks spread thinly across a wide front, where they tended to make short-lived breakthroughs but then run out of petrol and so allow the enemy to regroup before the infantry could catch up. Thus French military thinking rejected the tank in favour of static defences in depth – the Maginot Line – linked by static landlines, phone lines – themselves vulnerable to being damaged.
  • Planes While the Germans built up their Luftwaffe under the ebullient Marshall Goering and with the aid of Germany’s best designers and technicians, the French sank half their military budget into the quite literal black hole of the Maginot Line buried forts.
  • All this contrasted with the Germans who
    • remembered the experience of fast-moving attacks in the East, and learned from it
    • designed superior tanks
    • built more planes, lots more planes
    • developed a theory of air and land attacks co-ordinated by new and better radio communications i.e. not vulnerable to lines being broken.
  • Blitzkrieg Taken together these were the bases of the Blitzkrieg theory, as outlined by Panzer commander and military theorist Heinz Guderian in his revolutionary pamphlet Achtung – Panzer! This was published in 1937 but never translated into French or English and – like Hitler’s Mein Kampf – went unread by the Allies.
  • Camaraderie In a fascinating section Horne brings out another really important element which was the tremendous esprit de corps and camaraderie in the German military. He describes the upbringing of men in Nazi Germany, passing through the Hitler Youth into the army, these boys becoming men had undergone punishing physical fitness regimes followed by demanding training designed to instil obedience and confidence.
    • The result was a generation of superb physical specimens, indeed there is a slightly homoerotic tinge to some of Horne’s descriptions of young German engineers stripped to the waist building pontoon bridges across the River Meuse and on other occasions.
    • The Germans believed in their leaders, in fact they had a fanatical devotion to the Führer and the Fatherland rarely seen in history. They really wanted to fight.
    • And Horne explains how the German army cultivated closeness between officers and men. They shared the same food, sleeping quarters etc, so the men knew and liked and respected their commanders, based on their ability. This contrasted with the French army which kept in place old-fashioned class ideas, officers never socialised with the men and often had bought commissions or had them on the basis of aristocratic family tradition.

French demoralisation

Horne’s book lists a long catalogue of errors and follies on the French side which start at the very top.

Politicians held in contempt Premiers of France came and went through a fast-moving revolving door. These senior politicians jostling for power all hated each other and did whatever was best for their careers. All their civil servants and soldiers followed suit. The population despised them.

Timidity bordering on cowardice Half the French cabinet were ‘doves’, hoping against hope that no war would come, and frightened of doing anything aggressive in case they incurred Hitler’s wrath. Thus although France declared war on Germany in September 1939 ostensibly in order to help Poland which Germany had just invaded, the French army only advanced a few miles into the German Saar land and then stopped. Plenty of foreign observers came to see the French soldiers peacefully camped out on hillsides watching German soldiers bathing in the river. ‘Why don’t you shoot at them?’ asked the American or British journalists. ‘Well, then they’d shoot back,’ replied the puzzled French officers. Commentators were amazed at the lack of French spirit. Meanwhile, Poland was cut in two between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, its people subjected to six years of barbarity.

Old timid leaders The High Command was led by General Gamelin, aged 68. The new French premier, Paul Reynaud,  wanted to sack him for his lack of aggression, but Reynaud needed to keep the former premier, Daladier and his faction in the cabinet to support his new government and Daladier stood by Gamelin and so… Reynaud’s attempts to get rid of Gamelin were blocked.

In fact, on the eve of the war, Horne shows that there was a massive cabinet fight over Gamelin and, discovering that he couldn’t sack him, Reynaud instead resigned. Once again France had no government. That was on 9 May. Germany attacked in the early hours of the next day, whereupon Reynaud was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw his resignation, and reluctantly forced to work with Gamelin – who now knew that his political boss didn’t trust him. What a mess.

No wonder the country at large referred to the national Assembly as ‘the swamp’ and all its politicians as corrupt crooks.

Out of touch Gamelin was not old-fashioned in his approach but criminally out of touch with his forces. He and his staff never visited any of the troops during the long, long period of the Phoney War, between September 1939 when France declared war on Germany and May 1940 when Germany attacked. We now know that Hitler had kept very few forces on his western flank when he invaded Poland in September 1939. If France had attacked in overwhelming force in September 1939 she would have swept aside Germany’s token defences and in all probability pushed on to Berlin and ended the war before it had properly begun. But she didn’t. She didn’t want to risk it, or risk anything.

Timid Gamelin and the rest of the general staff preferred to hunker down behind their impenetrable defence of the Maginot Line and wait for the enemy to come to him. Horne’s book reveals that Hitler actually wanted to attack France as soon as Poland was pacified, in November 1939, but was put off by his generals who were convinced they didn’t have the manpower or tanks – and then by the intervention of winter weather. And then in the spring of 1940 there was the side show of Norway, which Britain tried to help and Germany decisively invaded and occupied.

That takes us through to April, then into May 1940 as the Germans prepared their plan to invade France. This was initially named the Manstein Plan, or to give it its full title – Aufmarschanweisung N°4, Fall Gelb. Horne gives a fascinating account of how the plan went through a large number of iterations as a result of discussions, and arguments among the German General Staff – moving from an initial aim to thrust through Belgium as in the First World War, then the slow growth of a different strategy – an armed thrust through the supposedly ‘impenetrable’ Forest of the Ardennes, south of the Belgian border. This turned out to be a lucky decision as the French had posted their weakest units there, sending the stronger ones north to Belgium where they thought the attack would come. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of France’s best soldiers seeing little or no action until they were cut off and surrounded.

Among all its other virtues To Lose A War is a riveting insight into how a modern army strategy is developed and managed.

No communication Meanwhile, Gamelin’s headquarters in a chateau at Vincennes had no radio communication with his troops. Every day at a set hour despatch riders rode off with the orders of the day to a nearby radio station. Obviously this proved completely useless once the battle started. Quickly the joke went around that Gamelin’s HQ was like ‘a submarine without a periscope’ (p.440).

Terrible French morale There are scores of eye-witness accounts of the surly, unco-operative, insubordinate attitude of the French troops. The widespread strikes of the 1930s, the ubiquity of bolshy socialism and the arrogant aloofness of their officers had created a terrible attitude among the bulk of the French army. Sartre’s novels are ostensibly a fictional embodiment of his existentialist philosophy, but – having just read them – what comes over most powerfully is a portrait of an entire society paralysed by indecision and futility, by lack of focus or direction, by a shabby unhappiness.

And an army reflects its society. The picture of the common soldier given by Horne – working from countless eye-witness accounts of the time – is of men who refuse to salute officers, reluctant to obey orders, keen only to take leave where they could get blind drunk (special sobering-up rooms had to be created in train stations behind the Maginot Line to cope with the epidemic of drunk soldiers returning from leave).

Within days of the German attack (on 10 May 1940), French troops began surrendering in their thousands, laying down their arms and trudging wherever they were told, policed by a only handful of German soldiers. Or gave way to blind panic, inflamed by rumours that they were surrounded – ‘The Panzers are here!’ – and the almost universal cry that they were ‘betrayed’, had been sold out by traitors, by fifth columnists, blaming everyone – except themselves. They just wanted it all to be over. They just wanted to go home.

It is these defeated sheep who are portrayed in Sartre’s novel Iron In The Soul, a novel written from experience as Sartre himself served in a second-line battalion which surrendered and was imprisoned without a fight.

Subjectively, from the inside of his characters, Sartre depicts the defeat as an inexplicable catastrophe in which each man is thrown back on his own resources and must make an existential choice about how to live, about how to act, about who he wants to become.

But from the outside, to us looking at French society and this debacle 70 years later, the novel reads like a complete collapse of national will, a lapse into comfortable nihilism, the utter failure of an entire society.

And in other ways Sartre was very representative of his generation which blamed the British for not fighting harder, blamed the Americans for not coming to their aid, blamed the Soviet Union for signing the Nazi-Soviet pact with Hitler – in fact, the French blamed everyone except themselves. Even when they had been liberated by the British and Americans four years later, they carried on hating us. They couldn’t forgive the British for liberating them. But they reserved their main hatred for the Americans, the key force in their liberation from Nazi rule.

It’s hard to come away from this book without really despising the French.

Quotes which convey the French attitude

For sheer arrogant folly, the Barthou declaration of 17 April 1934 [‘France will henceforth guarantee her security by her own means’] is hard to beat; A.J.P. Taylor remarks: ‘The French had fired the starting pistol for the arms race. Characteristically, they then failed to run it.’ Yet it has its parallel in more recent times, when in 1966 de Gaulle informed the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance that henceforth he felt strong enough to dispense with its benefits. There are moments when one feels that – like the Bourbons, only worse – France has learned nothing and forgotten everything. (p.83)

The British Air Force representatives were driven mad by the reluctance of the French Air Force to take to the air and attack the invading Germans.

By the end of the 10th [May] Air Marshall Barratt’s temper was barely under control, his view of his apparently torpid ally all but unprintable. (p.278)

Counter-attacks on 13 May were repeatedly postponed or cancelled because the Corps or Division in question said it couldn’t make the starting point in time or couldn’t be ready amid a welter of hopeless excuses.

The sluggishness and lack of punch with which these first ripostes were executed characterised almost all the French counter-attacks subsequently carried out at various levels. (p.331)

The battle at Sedan on 14 May was over so quickly there are hardly any records of it.

On the French side , there would be but little time to enter up the regimental diaries; whole pages of the story that day have disappeared forever with the participants. Others are, alas, so shaming to French amour propre that, like the details of the mutinies of 1917, they will probably lie forever hidden from sight in the archives contained in the gloomy dungeons at Vincennes. (p.345)

In attempting to isolate the reasons for the breaking of the Sedan gunners, one comes face to face again with the twenty-four corrosive years separating the poilus of Verdun from the men of Sedan; here is the terrible harvest of those years of mutual mistrust, disunity, despair at the losses of 1914-18, je-m’en-foutisme and defeatism in France. (p.361)

There’s a typical vignette about the 47mm anti-tank gun sent up to Monthermé to face the advancing Panzer tanks, and which was discovered by them, abandoned by its French crew without having fired a single shot. (p.381)

A few days later, as the Panzers break out into northern France, Karl von Stackelberg, travelling with the 6th Panzer Division, is astonished to meet French troops marching towards the Germans in perfect order, having thrown away all their weapons, and politely asking who to surrender to. Eventually this amounted to 20,000 French troops – French soldiers who just gave up without a fight and handed themselves over to the enemy.

‘It was inexplicable. How was it possible, that after this first major battle on French territory, after this victory on the Meuse, this gigantic consequence should follow? How was it possible, these French soldiers with their officers, so completely downcast, so completely demoralised, would allow themselves to go more or less voluntarily into imprisonment?’ (quoted on p.416)

And the French Air Force?

Typical of the feebleness of the French air effort on the 15th [May] was the nocturnal bombing of one Heinkel base by a solitary French aircraft, which dumped its missiles in woods more than a quarter of a mile from the barracks and then headed home. (p.432)

On 16 May Churchill flew to Paris to meet the French leaders and try to put some backbone into them. Horne’s depiction of the scene is hilarious. For all his manifold failings Churchill comes across as the only man in the room, as the various French leaders, civilian and military, flop in their chairs and burst into tears.

Turning back to Gamelin, Churchill asked point-blank: ‘When and where are you going to counter-attack the flanks of the Bulge? From the north or from the south?’ Gamelin’s reply was: “Inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method” – and then a hopeless shrug of the shoulders.’ There was no argument. Here was the admission of the bankruptcy of a whole generation of French military thought and preparations. (p.459)

Rommel’s lightning attack through North France on 16 May, continuing all through the night, took the French completely by surprise.

One of Rommel’s Panzer commanders recalled simply shouting, loudly and impudently, at the French troop columns to throw away their weapons: ‘Many willingly follow this command, others are surprised, but nowhere is there any sign of resistance.’ (p.478)

Surrendering just by being shouted at! By May 19 the Ninth Army had ceased to exist. As one of Gamelin’s liaison officers recorded;

‘Complete disintegration. Out of 70,000 men and numerous officers, no single unit is commanded, however small… at most 10 per cent of the men have kept their rifles… However… there were no wounded among the thousands of fugitives…’ [No wounded because none of them fought] (quoted on p.518)

A complete shambles. A shameful humiliation. I’ve noted the rage of Britain’s Air chief Barratt at French inability to organise air raids on the long vulnerable Panzer columns. In the final stages of the battle Horne turns his attention to the growing frustration of the British Army’s two leaders, General Edmund Ironside, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and General Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. When Ironside visits General Billotte, the commander of the French 1st Army Group, he has to literally shake him to rouse him from his defeatist stupor. Later, Ironside wrote in his diary:

‘I begin to despair of the French fighting at all. The great army defeated by a few tanks!…. God help the B.E.F… brought to this state by the French Command.’ (quoted p.573)

It was only on 19 May, as the German Panzers approached the Atlantic coast, that they first encountered British troops for the first time, and found them a different quality from the defeatist French.

At 1300 [on 20 May] they [General Reinhardt’s Panzer Corps] ran into their first British at Mondicourt, who – in the words of the 6th Panzer War Diary – ‘in contrast to the French, cause surprise by their tough way of fighting and are only overcome by a one-hour battle.’ (p.561)

After the Germans had reached the Atlantic coast, cutting off key divisions of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force into a shrinking pocket of territory along the north coast of France, the French placed their hopes on some kind of counter-attack to cut through the ‘Panzer Corridor’.

This ‘counter-attack’ was associated with the new Army Chief Weygand, who by now – in mid-battle – had replaced the discredited Gamelin – but three days were lost in indecisiveness as Weygand insisted on  flying into the ‘pocket’ to get first-hand knowledge of the situation. During these crucial few days the head of the B.E.F., Gort, received no information or instructions whatsoever from the French and, driven to ‘despair’ by French inaction, and in the absence of any other orders, finally realised that he would have to evacuate the B.E.F. (and as many Frenchmen as he could) back to Britain.

This is the background to the famous episode of Dunkirk (Horne doesn’t go into ‘the nine-day epic of Dunkirk’, as he calls it (p.631), being outside the scope of his book). As Churchill, progressively more disillusioned by French defeatism and incapacity, put it:

The whole success of the Weygand plan was dependent on the French taking the initiative, which they showed no signs of doing. (p.604)

So it didn’t happen, and we withdrew as many men and planes as we could from France, in order to defend our island.

French despair

The tendency of the entire French military leadership to shrug their shoulders, collapse onto chairs and burst into tears, their tendency to give way to fathomless despair at almost any setback, sheds really profound light on the hold the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre had over an entire generation of French intellectuals.

‘Boo hoo’ might well sum up the attitude of both French military and cultural leaders.

As the German army, having liquidated the last pockets of resistance in the north, approached Paris, on 11 June Churchill made his fourth and final trip to France, to see the French government which had now fled to the provinces. Weygand was now ‘all defeatism’, claiming he didn’t have enough troops, he didn’t have enough resources etc. He blamed the entire idea of fighting a 1940 war with 1918 forces and equipment, he blamed the Belgians for capitulating, he blamed the British for evacuating at Dunkirk. He blamed everyone else. Churchill’s emissary, General Spears recalls:

The Frenchmen [the French government and senior military] sat with white faces, their eyes on the table. They looked for all the world like prisoners hauled up from some deep dungeon to hear an inevitable verdict. (p.650)

Reading this enormous book, soaking yourself in the political chaos, military mismanagement, je-m’en-foutisme and universal defeatism of the French character, makes you wonder whether, when Sartre describes the futility of human existence, the ‘anguish’ caused by realisation of our complete freedom, the paralysing sense of ‘abandonment’ in a world without God, and the agonising need to make decisions which you find so difficult to take – he is not describing the wretched ineffectiveness of ‘the human condition’ at all. He is solely describing the wretched, spineless French character of his day.

After the meeting [with Churchill], Reynaud was violently reproached for raising the peace issue, by Mandel and the president of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, Jeanneney and Herriot; the latter was in tears. (p.657)

What a shameful disgrace. I never appreciated what a debacle it was until I read this stunning book.


P.S. Don’t believe newspapers

At the start of each of the 12 or so chapters which deal with the actual battle Horne quotes a clutch of newspaper reports from the relevant day, from papers like the New York Herald Tribune, the Sunday Chronicle, the New York Journal, The Times, Le Temps, L’Époque, Havas, the Manchester Guardian and so on.

These reports were generally based on French government accounts, a government which initially was itself hopelessly out of touch with events on the ground, and then put a deliberately optimistic gloss on the situation.

The newspaper reports are, in other words, hopelessly wrong and misleading. As such they become an increasingly ironic chorus to the main action – as the Allied papers give increasingly glowing accounts of the battle, assuring their readers that the German advance has faltered, or the French counter-attack has succeeded or that Allied air forces dominate the skies – while in fact the Germans were breaking through, breaking out and taking territory at record speeds.

As the book progresses, the newspaper reports veer more and more wildly out of kilter with the reality on the ground, and this modest narrative device reminds you for the umpteenth time that you really shouldn’t trust anything you read in the newspapers – particularly in times of crisis or conflict.


Related links

Related reviews

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis (1969)

Another voice spoke then, but I never remembered to what effect. I know only that, after some lapse of time, I was standing in front of my house while a car – a Humber Hawk, perhaps – receded into the distance. I felt like a man on the moon, almost weightless, or as if on the point of disembodiment, like myself after a heavy night and a heavy lunch, like a child, observant without expectation, curious and disinterested. (p.151)

Maurice Allington

53-year-old Maurice Allington keeps a pub-cum-restaurant in the south Midlands, west of Cambridge, which the guide books refer to as haunted. He has a surly, unhappy teenage daughter, Amy, by his first wife. He’d been separated from her for 18 months when the wife died in a road accident and Maurice had to take over caring for Amy but they’d never discussed the accident and their relationship is… blocked.

He is married to Joyce, an attractive blonde he enjoys having sex with, but who has become unhappy because he doesn’t talk to her, he’s always distracted and he’s always drunk. Maurice is fairly friendly with the local GP, Dr Maybury and his wife Diana, who he has recently spent some time trying to seduce. Maurice’s 80-year-old father has his own room in the accommodation part of the pub, and potters about a fixed schedule of habits, breakfast, crossword, walk into the village, coffee and buy the paper, potter back to the pub etc with Maurice fussing and fretting about him. Running the pub is a full-time job, in which he’s helped by Joyce, by a Spanish administrator and a new young assistant, David.

Maurice drinks a phenomenal amount of alcohol. As first-person narrator of the story he takes this for granted but it slowly emerges that all the other characters think of him as a drunk, and we the readers also realise there are frequent spells of time and actions which he can’t account for – we witness him going round guests in the pub dining room unable to remember what he’s said to them even minutes earlier, an alcoholic amnesia which is almost upsetting. In this respect, and possibly others, he is an unreliable narrator.

He is also a world class hypochondriac – in a state of permanent worry about his health, continually monitoring every twinge and ache in his body, registering every sensation, especially the newish irregularity of his heartbeat and the pain in his lower back which has recently started: is it cancer? Is it kidney disease? There are numerous sequences of detailed description of every flicker of his body or consciousness, which includes lengthy descriptions of the jactitations he experiences before falling asleep ie the twitching of limbs often accompanied by half-dreams of falling or stumbling.

At this level of intensity jactitation is associated with hypnagogic (onset-of-sleep-accompanying) hallucinations. These antecede jactitation, taking place when the subject is more fully awake, or even wide awake, but with the eyes closed. They are not dreams. They might be described as visions of no obvious meaning seen under poor conditions. (p.16)

Although given to standard rants about the modern world, about pop music, TV, junk food and so on, Amis goes out of his way to make Maurice as different as possible from his previous protagonists, for example giving him an informed appreciation of art and statues, books and history and – being a publican – wine – we hear a lot about various chateaux and vintages and how they should be prepared and drunk etc.

The character’s interest in history is necessary to underpin his scholarly investigations into the ghost which is said to haunt the pub and he does show a consistent interest in, say architecture and in statuary. But these attempts to distinguish Maurice from other Amis’ anti-heroes are eclipsed by the character’s consistency with his predecessors:

  • his obsession with sex and orgasm, pages devoted to describing his congress with his wife and his mock-military campaign to seduce the GP’s wife, accompanied by offensive insults of women, their yapping and simple-mindedness or whatever crude dismissals
  • his drunkenness
  • his bloody-mindedness

In fact the sex theme goes a step beyond what we’re used to because Maurice is not only scheming to seduce and sleep with Diana – his real goal is to arrange a threesome between himself, Diana and his wife. Thoughts and fantasies about t his ‘orgy’ occur on almost every page.

Plot

The book is in five chapters but falls naturally into two halves, a build-up in which we only see occasional hints and tips, and the terrifying revelation.

Part one

Sets up Maurice and shows him going about his usual occasions, managing the pub and the staff, stubborn Ramon and capable deputy David, managing his sullen unloved daughter Amy, keeping up a continual inner monologue about his physical and mental sensations, estimating the chances of bedding Diana. Dr and Mrs Maybury have dropped in for dinner when Maurice’s father dies abruptly of a cerebral haemorrhage. On the day he makes the funeral arrangements he drinks so much he can’t remember driving back to the pub. He makes love to his reluctant wife and the next day he successfully mounts an operation to have sex with the doctor’s wife, at the back of his mind calculating how to drop hints about his ultimate goal of setting up a threesome.

But, on top of the disturbance caused by his father’s death, and his almost permanent drunkenness, something new emerges. In amongst this daily business he sees, or thinks he sees, people who are there one minute and gone the next: a woman standing at the top of the stairs, a man at the top of the stairs, disturbances in the air. When his son Nick and his unsympathetic wife Lucy come to stay to support Maurice over the funeral period, they end up discussing the reality (or not) of ghosts at some length, each giving different opinions on the subject, Maurice nervously keen to gauge the others’ responses. These conversations crystallise Maurice’s sense that the occurrences are taking place more frequently. He begins to wonder whether his father’s death was… caused by something…

As if by accident he finds himself pulling down an old history of the pub and coming across a passage he can’t remember seeing before, about a manuscript by the supposed previous owner of the house and its ghost, one Dr Underhill, which is supposedly stored at Cambridge. He contacts his old tutor at nearby Cambridge and goes to explore the library of All Saints’ College, whose reluctant librarian eventually tracks it down for him, and leaves him to read it. The manuscript sheds light on Underhill’s beliefs and practices. Back at the pub, Maurice stumbles across notes he appears to have made while in a drunken fugue of a conversation he had with Underhill’s ghost in which the latter said there is more to be discovered at Underhill’s grave. Did the conversation really happen? Is Maurice going mad?

Part two

Picks up speed and rapidly achieves disturbing, and then terrifying, intensity. After having sex with her again, Maurice persuades his mistress Diana to help him dig up Underhill’s coffin and inside, as he’d expected, finds a metal canister which contains a silver figure and a further manuscript. From this it becomes clear that Underhill was an advanced necromancer, child abuser and murderer. He could call up demonic visions, generally of an orgiastic nature, terrifying the 14- or 12-year-old girls he’d enticed to his room, allowing him to have sex with him, then killing them.

Underhill also appears to have been able to call up a demonic wood giant, a fifteen-foot figure made of bits of tree, bark, branches etc, which does his bidding and which must have been responsible for not just murdering his wife, but tearing her limb from limb, a murder associated with him in the history books but for which he was never convicted. The monster’s appearance, 300 years earlier, explains the look of horror on the faces of the ghosts Maurice has seen.

The manuscript instructs he who finds it to make sure he is alone in the house, with all his family and servants asleep, by midnight. Maurice vows to fulfil this instruction.

Interview with God

Maurice has returned to the pub with the manuscript and silver figurine and is going about his pub-running business when he notices the noise of an approaching tractor is slowing down and so is the racket from his daughter’s TV. They both grind to a standstill and he realises he is in a kind of pocket where time continues while everything around him has frozen.

And then he sees a smart slender man in a nice suit sitting in the armchair who starts speaking in a dry, ironic, educated voice and recognises – it is God! He is talking to God. An ironic allusive God who makes it plain he is an experimental God, not in full control of the universe, himself limited by rules and regulations he laid down in the early ages, himself only slowly discovering their consequences, not possessed of foresight or predestination, not able to answer some of Maurice’s questions. But he makes it clear Maurice will need help in the coming confrontation and throws him a beautiful crucifix. Was JC your son, asks Maurice. Yes, the young man replies:

‘That was coming out into the open, wasn’t it?’
‘Mm. I must have been bored, I suppose. I thought, why not? Then I thought I was heading straight for disaster. I needn’t have worried, need I? He hasn’t made much difference to anything, as you see.’ (p.144)

And then he has gone, and time starts up like a clockwork turntable, the noises slowly resuming.

Ménage à trois

To the reader’s surprise and Maurice’s amazement, his wife Joyce casually acquiesces in the suggestion that she make up a threesome with Diana. He is disconcerted when Joyce tells him that everyone knows Diana is bitterly unhappy with her husband – Maurice had never realised this. His obtuse lack of knowledge about others, and the readiness with which Joyce agrees to the threesome, makes me wonder if he is completely missing a lesbian theme between the two women.

That afternoon he finally meets the two women in the hall, takes them to an accommodation annex, locks all the doors and starts to strip. However, before he’s even got his shoes off the two women are in bed clasping each other close, kissing and caressing and in what, I suppose, is a basically comic scene, Maurice finds it impossible to insert a hand or arm or any other part of his anatomy between them. They are completely obsessed with each other and completely heedless of him and so he eventually gets dressed, hangs a ‘Do not disturb’ sign on the door and strolls back out to the pub. Oh well.

The thought of two women making love can be an exciting one, but let me tell you that, when they are totally absorbed in each other as these two were, the actuality is sedative. (p.136)

Climax

The fateful day moves on into the evening and, no longer afraid or even puzzled, Maurice prepares in the only way he knows how by driving into the nearest town and, after failing to distract himself at a cinema, proceeding to down countless drinks at a pub and getting so drunk he doesn’t remember driving back or the crash he’s involved in when he overtakes on a bed into an oncoming car, and drives off into the grassy verge before hitting a tree. Someone gives him a lift back to the pub and deposits him in a bad state a little before the appointed hour of midnight. He drunkenly ensures everyone is asleep as the manuscript demanded, all the staff sent home, his wife asleep, his daughter too and settles down to wait.

But at midnight nothing whatever happens so Maurice patrols around and drinks some more. But at 1 o’clock precisely Underhill appears, greets Maurice as his acolyte, as the only one clever enough in 300 years to follow the trail of clues he has left.

And then Underhill conjures up orgiastic visions, of prehistoric men and women, grotesquely sexually endowed, dancing and screwing in frenzies, with a terrifying feel they might mutate into unhumans at any moment, and with a set of piercing red eyes staring threateningly at Maurice continually from the black depths of the cavern wherein all this takes place.

And as the visions rise to a climax Maurice realises he can hear a strange shifting and creaking and loud noise outside and goes to the window where he sees the Green Monster emerging from the woods and… his daughter Amy in her pyjamas out in the road. And the Monster making straight for her. In a flash Maurice realises that Underhill has chosen him of all the subsequent owners of the house to reveal himself to, because he, Maurice, has a daughter of the age Underhill likes and, if Underhill can’t seduce her, he can at least terrify and murder her.

Maurice runs out into the road and screams at Amy to run down into the village and then himself makes for the green giant. He attacks but is knocked to one side, the giant crushes the family cat and is closing in on Amy as she runs screaming when Maurice flings Underhill’s silver figurine back into the graveyard. In some voodoo way this undermines Underhill’s power and causes the green giant to explode.

Epilogue

Maurice gets the trendy vicar (cue Amis-like rants about trendy vicars) to carry out an exorcism on the pub, during which he hears the distant voice of Underhill begging for forgiveness then screaming. Then he drives the vicar up to the dell where he had sex with his mistress and which he has come to realise plays a special role in the haunting, to carry out another exorcism. Here Maurice sees evidence of boughs and branches broken off, as if was here that the green monster was created and, in a last flurry of the supernatural, spots a small whirlwind emerge from the woods and aim right at the vicar – until Maurice pushes him out of the way. Maurice destroys the fateful figurine by smashing it up with a hammer and distributing the parts around the graveyard.

Back at the pub Maurice’s wife announces she’s leaving him, for Diana, they have discovered their lesbian selves. He feebly tries to keep her, but acquiesces when she insists. When his daughter asks him if everything she saw last night was real he hesitates a moment and then tells her the truth: she realises this and it in a flash brings them closer together. Not only did he save her but he respects her enough to tell her the truth. (He had previously told the sceptical Dr Maybury that he found Amy sleepwalking in the street.) He finds himself reconciled with his son Nick and more respectful of his wife Lucy who, after all, listened more seriously to him than anyone else. Both Nick and Amy suggest they move away and Maurice realises he has to sell up and go somewhere else…

He is sort of at peace. Though knowing now what kind of God runs the whole show and knowing that even after death he will not escape him, though he will be hugely relieved to discard his ill, obsessive, alcoholic, driven, unhappy self.

Self-consciousness

All Amis’s novels show a hyper self-consciousness on the part of their characters. Amis notates the ever-changing moods and states of awareness, the fluctuating consciousness, thoughts and impulses of Lucky Jim Dixon and all his successors in minute detail. By and large these fleets and flickers of the mind are played for laughs, the first person or third person narrators erupting in a continuous fountain of unexpected and outrageous perceptions, thoughts, witty insights and insulting one-liners.

However, behind the comedy or where the comedy lapses for any period, you become aware that this is a writer with a peculiarly intense feel for the inner landscape of the mind. This tendency really comes to the fore in the ‘experimental’ (ie not written for laughs) The Anti-Death League, especially in the perceptions of the main male character, James Churchill. Oppressed by the gruesome military operation he has been briefed about and then by the sudden illness of his girlfriend, Catharine Casement, he is given several prolonged passages describing how he senses the presence of death, described as a ‘node’, as both an area of deathliness, and as a plate-shaped object, threaded with a string, which hovers over matrices of relationships, with some figures on the periphery but Catharine herself transfixed by the thread.

Strange and eerie perceptions, which don’t owe much to traditional tropes and images of death, and seem much closer to tropes from Amis’s beloved science fiction.

The same happens in this novel and to an even greater extent – partly because it is a first-person narrative and so we are continually immersed in Maurice’s disquieting mind. Maurice keeps a running commentary on his sensations, feelings, thoughts, on his consciousness. It isn’t portrayed in the experimental techniques developed by the Modernists eg Joyce or Woolf. It is conveyed in traditional declarative sentences. But the feeling of becoming drunk, of falling asleep, of twinges of pain in his lower back and so on are described in minute, disconcerting and morose detail.

I was putting the Volkswagen into gear when a dull pain of irregular but defined shape switched itself on in my left lower back, a little below the waistline. It stayed in being for perhaps twenty seconds, perfectly steady in intensity, then at once vanished. It had been behaving in this sort of way for perhaps a week now. Was it sharper this morning than when I had first noticed it, did it come on more frequently and stay for longer? I thought perhaps it was and did. It was cancer of the kidney. It was not cancer of the kidney, but that disease whereby the kidney ceases to function and has to be removed by surgery, and then the other kidney carries on perfectly well until it too becomes useless and has to be removed by surgery, and then there is total dependence on a machine. It was not a disease of the kidney, but a mild inflammation set up by too much drinking, easily knocked out by a few doses of Holland’s gin and a reduction in doses of other liquors. It was not an inflammation, or only in the sense that it was one of those meaningless aches and pains that clear up of their own accord and unnoticeably when they are not thought about. Ah, but what was the standard procedure for not thinking about this one, or any one? (p.39)

And so glumly on, for page after page. Not many laughs here. Maybe Maurice is cast as a hypochondriac partly to explain this super-sensitivity, partly also to explain the hyper-sensitivity which is an important element in his seeing or not seeing the ghosts, but the same could be said of his alcoholism and his losing track of time and consciousness.

Conclusion

What a strange unsettling book, not least because it appears to be two or three different novels all crammed between one cover. There is the late 60s social satire of the mistress-orgy-lesbian theme – there is the very obvious and, at its height, genuinely scary ghost story element – there is the strangely off-the-cuff theology of the encounter with God, an odd and rather dominating thing to happen in any novel.

But the dominating impression of the novel is of the disconcertingly intense interiority of Maurice’s consciousness, hag-ridden by compulsive tics and mannerisms, haunted by strange visions, driven by unremitting sexual predatoriness, and laid waste, bombed and blasted by a truly incapacitating alcoholism.

If this is any kind of reflection of Amis’s own state of mind, what a hellish existence.

Much sooner than I could have expected (I had not really had any such expectation), I found I had begun to understand the meaning of the young man’s prophecy that I would come to appreciate death and what it had to offer. Death was my only means  of getting away for good from this body and all its pseudo-symptoms of disease and fear, from the constant awareness of this body, from this person, with his ruthlessness and sentimentality and ineffective, insincere, impracticable notions of behaving better, from attending to my own thoughts and from counting in thousands to smother them and from my face in the glass. He had said that I would never be free of him for as long as the world lasted, and I believed him, but when I died I would be free of Maurice Allington for longer than that. (p.175)

The TV series

The novel was made into a three-part TV series for the BBC, starring Albert Finney as the haunted boozer.


Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

The Striker Portfolio by Adam Hall (1969)

The gun smashed upwards into his face and didn’t go off because the blow was directly on the wrist-nerve to paralyse the fingers before the index could contract, but there was risk attached and I had to sweat it out until the gun hit the ground with a negative thud and didn’t blow our legs off. (p.114)

Elleston Trevor was a prolific writer who used a large number of pseudonyms across a range of genres. He conceived and wrote the first novel about the tough secret agent, Quiller, in 1965 and there followed 18 more Quiller novels at two- or three-year intervals until the final one in 1996.

The Striker Portfolio is the third in the series. I didn’t really enjoy the first two because I found the protagonist’s behaviour frustratingly irrational, and the pace of the novels grindingly slow, with large amounts of self-centred self-analysis swamping a relatively small amount of plot, which itself depended on too-random accidents.

The plot

Someone is causing a series of crashes of the latest NATO fighter plane, the Striker, in or near their German bases. If this were a normal thriller an agent would be sent to find out why, working from clues and tips. But the Quiller books immediately establish a strange, disoriented atmosphere, where Quiller is manoeuvred into asking to go to Germany and ordered to put himself ‘in their way’, even though neither his bosses nor we know who ‘they are’. Where there should be intelligent detective work, there is Quiller’s weird, robotic psychometrics: endless paragraphs speculating what ‘they’ will do and how ‘they’ operate and so on. It’s meant to be fashionably psychological and insightful, but it comes over as laboured and very very slow.

No sooner is Quiller established in Germany than his contact is thrown out a hotel window, it’s made to look like suicide, but isn’t.

Then Quiller gets caught up in a car ‘tagging’, which sees him forced into a cul de sac, from which he is taken by gunpoint to a wrecked car lot, where he just manages to escape being shot by dodging the bullets, climbing over barbed wire and running across an Autobahn between cars.

Quiller hangs around the Luftwaffe base where a forensic centre has been set up to analyse the crashes, meeting pilots, attending a party, being propositioned by one of the wives.

Quiller makes contact with the defector (I didn’t understand how) who is visibly terrified, and manages to mention a clockmaker’s shop in a little town named Neueberg. Almost immediately two men arrive at the motel bar where they’re talking, and take the defector (Bendikt) upstairs (why doesn’t Quiller intervene?) and when he goes up to his room 15 minutes later, Quiller finds the defector strangled to death and his room trashed.

Quiller gets into his car in the car park (worrying it might be booby-trapped), drives out onto the road heading north only to realise he’s being followed by a huge Mercedes. He tries several U-turns at high speed on the empty mountain road but eventually the Mercedes catches up with him and pushes him off the road and into the trees. High speed car crash!

Quiller survives the crash, crawls out of the wreck, flags down a car and makes it to the flat of the pilot’s wife whose proposition he turned down earlier. He phones his director from her place and arranges for new car and papers. Walks to an A&E department to get stitched up, walks to the car and sets off for more driving round. He’s stopped at a police checkpoint and what should be a tense moment is the opportunity for several pages explaining the Bureau’s relationship with other countries’ agencies.

Quiller drives to the clockmaker’s shop in Neueberg which the dead defector mentioned, and hasn’t been casing it for long before one of the assassins from the early scene in the junk car lot turns up, is inside for an hour or so. When he leaves, Quiller ‘tags’ him on a midnight drive through forest down to a spooky abandoned sector of the border with East Germany.

Quiller follows the assassin to his rendezvous the other side of the border, and is picked up by East German security – featuring the stereotypical gorgeous Nazi-turned-Communist Ice Maiden of every boy’s fantasies. Despite trying to bluff it as one of their own agents, the East Germans know exactly who Quiller is and lock him up in an insane asylum used for ‘re-educating’ dissidents. This is done by the simple expedient of feeding salty food and denying any kind of liquid. In his detached, clinical way the narrator observes his own rapid mental decline until, after a few days, he is hallucinating water everywhere.

Five or so days into Quiller’s ‘torture’ he (and the reader) is surprised when the door is opened not by a security guard but by a ‘friend’ who gives him water and helps him escape through the asylum wire. Quiller stumbles across fields and – amazingly – comes across the Ice Maiden with her car. She drives him to the frontier and tells the story. Within the asylum is a cell (Die Zelle) itself separate from the East German state, dedicated to creating a new, unified Germany. They know the Americans won’t allow this while West Germany is a heavily-armed part of NATO. Therefore the plot to crash high-profile planes is designed to get America to withdraw Germany’s NATO membership.

The Ice Maiden – Helda – lists the key members of Die Zelle, who drive from the asylum to Berlin for a monthly conference. She drops Quiller where the Ostis collected him and he stumbles through the wire and is picked up by British soldiers. Once tidied up, Quiller is able to pass all this information on to his director, Ferris. The British intelligence response will be to drop special forces into E. Germany to kidnap the Zelle leaders on their monthly car trip to Berlin.

Quiller drives back to the Luftwaffe base and confronts one of the young pilots, Römhild, the one whose unhappy wife Quiller got involved with. Quiller confronts him with what he’s worked out – Römhild is the son of the leader of Die Zelle, who coerced him into leading the Striker-busting operation. His partner, Wagner, rotates around the bases and slips toxic pills into the standard pilot box of tranquilisers. At high altitude they kick in = crashed plane, dead pilot.

Quiller suddenly realises that as he drove up to the base he had seen a plane taking off. He sprints to the control tower and furiously insists they get the flyer to abort the flight and come down now now now. It works. The pilot survives. The guilty Römhild shoots himself. Quiller explains all to his director, Ferris, and then asks if he can accompany the drop into the East to take out the Zelle leaders. He wants to persuade the Ice Maiden to come back out with him. Aaaah.

Quiller characteristics

Tagging

My heart sank through my boots when I saw that Quiller’s instructions are – once again – to vaguely get in the way of ‘the adverse party’ without knowing who they are or why. This involves – just like the previous two novels, loads of bloody ‘tagging’ ie you following ‘them’ and ‘them’ following you, and both trying to ‘flush’ the other ie lose them. He tags the adverse party around Hanover. He tags the assassin from Neueberg to the border.

It was No go

And my heart also sank when I read this phrase, which I will now forever associate with the intense frustration of reading Quiller’s wordy, self-conscious narrator as he considers various options and then concludes ‘it was no go’. Again and again and again.

  • A pilot’s wife offers herself to him ‘but it was no go’.
  • He toys with shooting his car seat backwards into the man sitting in the back holding a gun to his head ‘but it’s no go’.
  • He considers the life of a defector: ‘They see quite suddenly that it’s no go.’
  • The defector is killed: Quiller phones London to say: ‘I made contact. But it was no go.’
  • ‘Even if they sent the best man in the Bureau he still wouldn’t be one hundred per cent reliable. No one is. It was no go.’
  • They are interrogating him in East Germany and offer him a break. ‘It’s no go,’ I said.

Technocratic view of the human body

The controllers’ orders, through the media of his memory and his motor-nerves, were operating the fixator muscles of his finger so that it remained still, three millimetres from the end of the primary spring’s travel, two millimetres from the end of the secondary spring’s travel and the percussion. (p.30)

Wherever possible, the narrator reduces human activity – human intention – to a cold, physical description, to a clinical, detached observation of the self, of ‘the organism’, as of a specimen. A very male manoeuvre.

Whatever I now possessed they were going to arrange that it would shortly amount to no more than a pattern of memory traces fading on the surface of a dead cortex. (p.70)

In a way the narrator doesn’t just do spy things, the narration amounts to a tedious running commentary about the state of his mind and body, while he is doing spy things.

The dread had passed. Perhaps it had been automatically set up by the organism in its own defence. The situation was dangerous and could be mortal but the necessity of working out the mechanics hadn’t allowed the onset of base fear: and a situation becomes more dangerous if there is no fear present to alert the nerves and prepare the body. Blood should be drawn to the internal organs, draining from the digestive and secretory glands and skin by contraction of the arterioles so that the heart, brain and muscles can be fed. Breathing should quicken so that the muscles can be given an oxygen reserve. The eyes should dilate, admitting more light. (p.74)

Yes, it’s not so much a spy novel, as a combined psychologist’s, biologist’s and training instructor’s commentary on a spy novel. In fact, when the narrator pretends in the early part of the novel to be a psychologist in order to interview the Luftwaffe base staff and pilots, it is in fact just a natural extension of his everyday clinical approach. The more I read of this detached, observational style, the more I realised it’s a way of avoiding any human interaction at all.

In cases like this there is a defeat mechanism: the psychic system suddenly can’t take any more because it’s overloaded. (p.66)

If you like this approach, page after page analysing the reactions of the human mind and body to stressful situations and how to train them to cope with being tagged and threatened with guns, then you’ll like this book.

The whole of the organism was prepared to arrange its survival if it could: run, fight, beat out flames, bind blood in with a tourniquet, free itself from wreckage. The components were immediately available: nerve, sinew, gas-interchange process, adrenalin supply. Intelligence alone was absent. The organism had to be told what to do, and nothing knew. (p.79)

He never uses ‘my’, referring to his mind or body or their parts, when he could use ‘the’ instead, distancing his own experiences from his controlling mind. He goes out of his way to dehumanise himself at every opportunity.

There was pain in the organism but not enough to limit movement…Quite a lot of the organism was coping well enough… the right upper forearm was still in the healing stage and the left hand wanted stitches and the rib-cage and shoulders were bruised…The subconscious had been working busily during the crisis and now it presented its findings… The memory had had to pull it out of some very cold storage… After the first few kilometres I could feel the ciliary muscles contracting and relaxing… Nervous hallucinations set in after thirty minutes or so… The will-power was coming into its own at this stage: the body had at last recognised that things were serious…

In every one of the sentences above he’s referring to his body, fore-arm, memory, and so on., but treating them like specimens in a bottle.

Brain-think / stomach-think

One of the countless ways he psychologises every situation is frequently dividing his thoughts into brain-think or stomach-think, permanently trying to conquer the latter which is regularly telling him to run or do the simple, instinctive thing. When you think about it, a pretty crude division. ‘The little animal brain inside the back of my skull was snivelling about the risk.’ (p.76)

It had been mostly stomach-think, not brain-think: the instinctive need of a trapped animal to free itself, the temptation to go as the hare had gone, ears flat and feet together. Brain-think had warned me. (p.98)

Deliberate obscurity

This, the third Quiller novel, seems to have taken a leaf out of Len Deighton’s Ipcress novels, in using deliberately obscure juxtapositions. But Deighton does it with tremendous style and humour. Hall does it dead. There is no life, humour or colour to these concrete-grey texts. Chapter Seven begins:

It happened at precisely 0951 hours: I checked my watch from habit.
‘She is beautiful.’ The manager nodded.
Most of them had gone, much earlier. (p.53)

Takes a while to figure out what each of these three sentences refer to, none of them actually very interesting (there’s another crash at 0951, the manager also sells china figurines and is in the middle of showing Quiller one, the motel is empty because most of the guests have gone.)

Training manual

Vast swathes of the text don’t tell you anything about the plot or story at all. They tell you about what it’s like to be a spy, to work in stressful situations, how to control your body, your thoughts, your subconscious mind, how to use various guns, how to escape from a car covered by two men with guns, about the psychology of being a defector, a detailed comparison of the specs of a Mercedes and an NSU, about the application of psychology to the stress experienced by fighter pilots, and so on and so on. Reams of top advice.

Never destroy a mike: it can sometimes be used to carry false information. (p.132)

There is as much lecturing as plot in the book. Large chunks read like paraphrases of the Bureau’s operational manual, including a long passage explaining the Bureau’s relationship with other national agencies.

Of course the Bureau could do nothing officially: it doesn’t exist. But no network on a world scale is ever isolated: there’s always a fringe overlap especially when something big is on the programme and any given agency will bump elbows with most organisations from the national civil police authorities up through the CID, Special Branch, MI5, MI6 and various select departments whose chiefs are known only to the PM and Home Secretary. On an overseas mission you won’t get far before you cross lines with the SID, the CIA or the Deuxième Bureau according to the area being worked. (p.100)

There are two pages like this, giving a detailed breakdown of working relations between the Bureau and other national and international agencies. And what is our man doing at the time? What prompts this disquisition? He has been stopped in a police roadblock set up following the discovery of the body of the murdered defector, Benedikt, and he is showing his false papers claiming he is a German mechanic to the police. Ie it should be a moment of drama and tension, but Hall’s texts routinely translate suspense into scads of technical and scientifically objective description. Sometimes the techno-precision can be a little laughable.

I had slept from early morning till one o’clock and was ninety-eight per cent alert and two per cent under the continuing influence of the barometric pressure. (p.105)

Conclusion

So, although it is obviously a spy novel in design and specification, the actual reading experience is more like reading the creepy diary of a disturbed and unhinged man, obsessed with monitoring, measuring and testing his own mental and physical reactions, to the almost complete neglect of any normal interaction with other human beings.

Although marketed as a spy novel – and although my summary of the plot makes it sound pretty good – it’s actually like reading an account of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, it is almost autistic in the sense the narrator gives of being locked in his own body and mind and super-obsessed with the slightest twitch of either of them, finding patterns, incapable of communicating fluently with other characters in the novel and, arguably, with the reader.They are unpleasantly claustrophobic to read.

Which is why I won’t be reading any more Quiller novels. The covers say: spy fun; the texts themselves turn out to be – no go.

Related links

Cover of The Striker Portfolio

Cover of The Striker Portfolio

The Quiller novels

  • 1965 – The Berlin Memorandum Quiller tangles with a group of neo-Nazis led by Oktober, trying to get details of their organisation til the capture and interrogate him to get the details of his organisation.
  • 1966 – The 9th Directive Quiller is in Bangkok where he uncovers a plot to assassinate ‘a leading Royal’, which he incompetently fails to realise is really a disguised plot to kidnap him. After much shooting and a high speed road chase the Royal is exchanged for an enemy spy on the Chinese border.
  • 1968 – The Striker Portfolio Quiller investigates the unexplained crashes of NATO’s latest high speed jet and uncovers a sinister conspiracy.

Caravan to Vaccarès by Alistair MacLean (1969)

The plot

This is a short (188 pages), intense action thriller, told in 10 chapters, but whose action can be divided into four or so parts.

Prologue A terrified young gypsy, Alexandre, is pursued through a sequence of eerie limestone caves, until he is cornered, murdered and buried under rubble. His killers are other gypsies who he has, in some way, crossed.

Part one Sets the scene in exclusive, luxury hotel, Les Baumanière, in the south of France, situated close to the dramatic cliffs of Les Baux upon which lie the remains of a formidable medieval city. Here are encamped hundreds of gypsies in their brightly painted caravans, en route to the big annual gypsy festival south of Arles. We are introduced to a small cast of colourful characters who will appear throughout the narrative:

  • Czerda – chief baddie gypsy
  • Ferenc – his son, just as bad
  • Koscis and Hoval – sidekicks
  • Neil Bowman – hero, unarmed tough guy, obviously some kind of agent
  • Cecile Dubois – one of the pair of girls staying at the hotel
  • Lila Delafont – her friend
  • the Duc de Croytor – an immensely fat, continually eating aristocrat who is posing as a folklorist and expert on gypsy life

The first chapter opens with Bowman flirting with the girls and expressing admiration of the gypsies. They wander round the booths of the fair the gypsies are setting up, and Bowman humorously has his palm read by a succession of old soothsayers – they tell him he will be married soon and this forms the basis for a running flirtation with Cecile.

Later that night he goes snooping round the caravans long enough to see Alexandre’s mother, sister and fiancée weeping his disappearance in their caravan, and then, in another caravan, to see Czerda pointing something on a map out to his accomplices. But almost immediately Bowman is spotted by baddies who give chase with nasty-looking knives. He takes brief refuge in Cecile’s room, before fleeing across the patio, down the stairs and off up into the ruined city on the cliffs. Bowman has no weapon so the chase becomes a genuinely tense cat and mouse affair, but he manages to bump off two of the baddies, by tricking them and throwing them off the cliff to the vast distance to the plains below. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh. Very cinematic.

Bowman returns to Cecile’s room and tells her she has to pack and leave since the baddies now think she’s with him. He persuades her to give him the keys to her car, finds it in the darkened car park, starts it up and roars off to meet her at the back of the hotel, en route running Ferenc over. Shame. Bowman and Cecile flee with the gypsies in hot pursuit in their jeep – except Bowman has let its tyres down so it slews across the main road and rolls down the embankment, badly injuring the villains.

Cecile demands an explanation which Bowman doesn’t give. Instead he pulls over only a mile down the road, turns and drives quietly back to the hotel, parks and tiptoes up to Czerda’s caravan. Here he finds father and son nursing their injuries and promptly knocks them both unconscious with Ferenc’s gun, which he picked up in the chase. Cecile looks on as he tears the caravan apart, looking for something: he finds a roll of 80,000 francs which he confiscates, and a letter in code, takes it and leaves. Who are you? Cecile asks. Bowman doesn’t say.

Part two They drive to Arles to arrive on annual festival day where Bowman checks into a hotel, ditches the car, puts on skin colouring and a fake moustache and hires fancy dress for himself and Cecile. As in a caper movie all the characters from Les Baumanière turn up in Arles, notably the Duc de Croytor in his lime green Rolls Royce, driven by a pretty chauffeuse dressed in lime green uniform, and accompanied by Cecile’s friend Lila. Here also are all the gypsies, as well as the mysterious silent Chinese couple, and some new characters, namely a defrocked priest, Simon Searl. In a horrible sequence we see him consulting with the vile Czerda, and then see Alexandre’s innocent sister go into confession with him, encouraged by her mother to use him to contact the authorities. Instead, the next time we see her she is lying in the women’s caravan and her back has been whipped, flayed, till it is raw, as punishment for speaking out. But about what?

Bowman drives with Cecile out of town, suspecting he’ll be followed, and he is. He stops round a corner blocking the road so the tail is forced to stop in a hurry whereupon Bowman approaches the driver, Pierre Lacabro, with a wheel brace for weapon. There follows an intense fight in which Cecile plays the stereotypical dollybird role of standing to one side wringing her hands while the tough guys slug it out. Like many of the scenes, it seems written to go straight into a movie. Bowman gets the better of Lacabro who ends up thrown over the ravine into the waters of the river Rhône. Or has he miraculously survived…?

Back in town, Bowman and Cecile make another costume change and drive off: observed by the Duc de Croytor (who is he? what is his interest?) and the Chinese couple (who are they? why do they keep cropping up?).

Part three They drive south to a makeshift bullring set up by the side of the road at a place called Mas de Lavignolle and surrounded by hundreds of gypsy caravans. This is not a Spanish corrida where the (big) bull gets killed but the Provençal cours libre where nobody gets killed by the (smaller) bull though the bull-fighter or razateur still runs a mighty risk (p.131).

Bowman parks up and sneaks (again) into one of the baddies’ caravans, where he finds three men manacled to the wall. He is just identifying them as Count le Hobenaut, M. Tangevec, and an unknown third, when Czerda appears in the doorway with a gun. Oops. He and his henchman have also caught Cecile. Double oops.

It is at this moment that the Duc de Croytor makes his appearance, booming his way into the caravan and over-awing the baddies, young Lila in tow. He immediately starts berating them for their failure to get rid of Bowman. When one of them addresses him as Gaiuse Strome, the Duc cheerfully cuffs him round the face, before explaining to poor, confused Lila that the real Duc is presently on a trip up the Amazon and so he has ‘borrowed’ his identity. So Le Duc was the Mr Big all along. Aha.

The baddies return their attention to Bowman. He is going to come with them to the bull-ring. And if he refuses? A grisly henchman tears the back of Cecile’s dress down to the waist and presents the same whip which flayed Lily’s back. Ah. OK, says Bowman. He allows himself to be dressed in the costume of one of the clowns who entertain the crowd between fights and then to be dragged into the ring by Czerda et al (also dressed in clown costumes, to make the scene all the more grotesque).

Cut back to the caravan where a baddie is guarding the girls, along with the Duc. To everyone’s surprise the Duc asks where Bowman is and, when told he’s been taken to be killed in the ring, throws a paddy and clouts the baddie with the gun. Quick, he yells at Cecile: run and save your boyfriend. What! Can it be that the Duc is a goodie after all, masquerading as a baddie!! Damn MacLean and his unexpected plot twists!!!

In the ring Bowman is bloodied and bowed but just about still on his feet and dodging the bull, the crowd laughing their heads of and applauding the achievements of this formidable razateur. Suddenly Cecile appears in the stand yelling his name and Bowman realises she is free – he leaps over the wooden barrier and runs for it. Back in the caravan Le Duc, back in character as leader of the baddies, tells an amazed Czerda to find and bring Bowman to him at the Miramar Hotel in Saintes-Marie.

He then watches from the caravan as Bowman makes a break from his hiding place in a changing room and leaps onto a horse and gallops off. Czerda follows suit with a pack of baddies and there is a thrilling chase across the mudflats of the Camargue. Until Bowman’s horse throws the exhausted hero into a patch of quicksand. He is resigned to dying until Lacabro reluctantly gets a laryat from his saddle and throws it to Bowman.

Finally, everyone is gathered together in Czerda’s caravan (the Duc, Czerda and the baddies, the two women and Bowman) and the Duc uses the opportunity to go through the plan – and tell the reader what the devil the book is about. Turns out the three manacled men are nuclear scientists from behind the Iron Curtain. They were kidnapped in the Eastern bloc and have been smuggled out in gypsy caravans (which the authorities – superstitiously – never search) and are due to be put aboard a ship bound for China, in a deal worth millions.

Part four The Duc’s Rolls Royce and the baddie’s caravan arrive at the quayside and unload Bowman, the two girls, the three scientists and their wives into a speedboat which will take them out to the waiting Chinese ship. Bowman pulls a gun and negotiates his escape and that of the two girls. Then he jumps into the Rolls and there is a very filmic chase, as the Rolls drives along the canal road parallel to the speedboat, Bowman and the baddies exchanging shots. He accelerates ahead of them and hijacks a local fishing boat, and there is a waterborne chase scene worthy of a 1970s Bond film. It is here (page 175) that Bowman reveals to the frightened boat owner that he does, in fact, work for the British Secret Service. Ah.

There’s some more shooting, some more chasing until Bowman’s boat rams and sinks the speedboat (hooray) but the baddies jump aboard his boat (boo), they return to the quayside. In the quest for the money Bowman stole from him, Czerda takes them all back to the caves where the novel started, where Czerda and his men implicate themselves in Alexandre’s murder in front of witnesses.

It is here, finally, that the Duc de Craytor reveals himself, as I’d been suspecting for the past 80 pages or so, not only as a goodie, but actually as Bowman’s boss: they’ve been working together for some years tracking gypsies smuggling things across the Curtain and were tipped off by the Russians about the kidnapped scientists.

In a final, cartoon-like twist, the two girls themselves turn out to be agents working for the Navy (?), tasked with keeping an eye on Bowman and the Duc. Cue crooked smiles all round, Cecile running into Bowman’s arms, end credits, theme music.

Style

The plot is thrilling, fast-paced, visceral, written with the film adaptation in mind. But MacLean’s style is awful, ham-fisted and mealy-mouthed, laboriously arch and contrived.

He wanted to learn more and learn it quickly for the prospect of hanging around that brightly illuminated window indefinitely lacked appeal of any kind: there was something in the brooding atmosphere of tragedy inside that caravan and menace outside calculated to instil a degree of something less than confidence in the bystander. (p.37)

Every page has its clunking infelicity.

The expression on what little could be seen of Lacabro’s face registered a degree of unhappiness that was not entirely attributable to his sufferings: he had about him the wounded appearance of one whose injuries are not being accorded their due meed of loving care and concerned sympathy. (p.114)

Maybe some of it is meant to be funny, sharp or witty.

They appeared to have a craving for anonymity, a not unusual predilection on the part of would-be murderers. (p.145)

But mostly it comes over as an almost pathological inability to write plainly and clearly, without adding in redundant adjectives, clauses and laboured circumlocutions.

As Searl made to cross the road he had to step quickly and advisedly to one side to avoid being run down by Bowman’s horse. Bowman, Le Grand Duc could see, was swaying in the saddle to the extent that even although he had the reins in his hands he had to hold on to the pommel to remain in his seat. (p.156)

Sometimes it barely makes sense.

The watchers remained motionless on their horses: the impassiveness on their faces was frightening in its suggestion of a total implacability. (p.160)

The movie

The novel was turned into a movie, released in 1974 and directed by Geoffrey Reeve, starring David Birney, Charlotte Rampling and Michael Lonsdale. Surprisingly – given that the book reads like a novelisation of a movie rather than a novel in its own right – they changed the plot quite a bit.

It doesn’t seem to be available on DVD, and is only available as a second-hand VHS on Amazon, though the whole thing can currently be viewed on YouTube.


Related links

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.

Still pretty good

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.

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene (1969)

I was sunk deep in my middle age. All the same I laid my head against aunt Agatha’s breast. ‘I have been happy,’ I said, ‘but I have been so bored for so long.’ (p.256)

This is quite a long (260 pages), slow, calm, easy-going comedy, very relaxed, very funny, very enjoyable.

Greene’s periods

Looking back over Greene’s career to date, it falls into roughly three periods:

  • the hyper-production of rackety thrillers and entertainments in the 1930s
  • the classic period from the Blitz to the mid-1950s when his tortuous private life and the refinement of his writing and structuring skills helped him write the Big Three: The Power and The Glory, The Heart of The Matter, The End of The Affair (and his most successful films eg The Third Man)
  • and then, from the mid-1950s, a less intense, more comic tone begins to emerge: in the outright comedies Our Man In Havana and Loser Takes All, or mingled with tragic elements in A Burnt-Out Case and The Comedians

In this book you have the sense that the intense emotion and unhappiness and Catholic guilt which produced the tragedies of Matter and Affair have burnt themselves out leaving a kind of calmness and equableness, an acceptance of life’s absurdity and that – new for Greene – life might actually be for enjoying rather than an arena for tormenting oneself and others.

The plot

Henry Pulling is a middle-aged, retired bank manager. He never married, he has no children. He lives in a nice suburban house in Southwood, grows dahlias and attends the Conservative club every Tuesday night. At the funeral of  his agèd mother, into his life sweeps the powerhouse which is his unconventional Aunt Augusta. Immediately she reveals that Henry is not his mother’s son, he is the son of a woman his father impregnated but wouldn’t marry, but his ‘mother’ stepped in to marry his father and raise him. This shocking revelation is still sinking in as aunt Augusta takes Henry to her flat above a pub and introduces him to a large, virile black from Sierra Leone named Wordsworth, who he slowly realises is his aunt’s lover. How unconventional, how 1969, how very unlike the dull life of his own parents.

But aunt Augusta is bored and restless, subjecting Henry to an unstoppable torrent of stories about her outrageous escapades during a long eventful life. She drags him down to Brighton to look up an old friend Hatty with whom she proceeds to reminisce at length about their days in a traveling circus and then working for a fraudster who set up a church for dogs (!)

Aunt Agatha then conceives a grander scheme and commands Henry to accompany her on a trip on the Orient Express to Istanbul. They meet a young American woman who bemoans her rich, indifferent parents and introduces Henry to the pleasures of ‘pot’. At the Italian stop aunt Augusta meets the son of the one great love of her life, Mr Visconti, before they continue on to Turkey where, to his astonishment, Henry realises his aunt has been smuggling gold bullion in her luggage, with a view to investing with crooks. Their hotel room is visited and searched by the ageing Colonel Hakim (maybe it’s a common name, but maybe this is an affectionate nod to the Colonel Hakim who appears in several of Eric Ambler’s classic pre-war thrillers). The police have uncovered the whole plan and are prosecuting the Turkish end but have no evidence against Agatha who stands up to their search and questioning with old-fashioned British sang-froid.

The Turkish authorities do, however, deport them on the next flight back to London. Henry doesn’t hear from his aunt for several months and settles back down into the peacefully watering his dahlias, chatting to the colonel next door, and wistfully remembering the one possible love of his life – Miss Keene, daughter of one of his best customers at the bank, who he came within an ace of proposing to 25 years earlier, and who still writes wanful letters to him from South Africa where she emigrated, with a permanent undertow of sadness at what might have been.

It’s as if he faces two alternative futures: replying to Miss Keene’s sad letters, inviting her to return to Southwood, to the sound of the bells of the local church, the dahlias, the annual fete; or his aunt’s amoral world of adventures, of foreign lovers, smuggling and criminal exploits, con-men, fraudsters and fun.

In Part Two of the novel he receives a letter from his aunt informing him she is in South America and never plans to return to England, commanding him to sell her flat and all its contents, apart from a handful of items including a framed picture, and fly to Buenos Aires. After a little hesitation he obeys, then finds a message to take a boat up the river to Asunçion in Paraguay.

All kinds of sinister characters are aboard the boat and Henry is astonished to meet Wordsworth, his aunt’s black lover, in the middle of nowhere: he is loyally following aunt Agatha but heart-broken that she has abandoned him for the Italian. For at Asunçion, Henry discovers that aunt Augusta has been reunited with the famous Signor Visconti, the great love of her life of whom she has told so many stories. Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen on hard times and Agatha has spent all her money bailing him out. Initially Henry thinks this is a colossal mistake and that the crook Visconti has absconded with the money and left his aunt impoverished.

There is a flicker of trouble from an American named Tooley (who it slowly emerges is CIA) and who points out that Visconti was a war criminal, and a burst of definite trouble when Henry blows his nose on a scarf aunt Augusta lent him, a red scarf she’d given him to wear on the Paraguay national day, and it turns out he’s just blown his nose on a scarf of the national colour of the ruling party outside their party headquarters. He starts a small riot, is beaten up and is lucky to escape with his life, ending up in gaol. The CIA man Tooley visits Henry in gaol and fixes his release, in exchange for which he wants Henry to broker a meeting with aunt Augusta and Visconti.

At this meeting Visconti hands over a priceless sketch by Leonardo da Vinci which he nabbed during the War when he was working closely with the Gestapo to ‘export’ Italy’s art treasures. In exchange Tooley agrees to drop US harassment of him. At first deeply sceptical of Visconti, who is not at all the tall elegant man he’d imagined but a short fat bald man with bad teeth, Henry slowly comes to like him and, after his aunt and Visconti hold a grand party for everyone who is anyone in Asunçion – the chief of police, the head of customs, leaders of all the poliical parties – Henry realises that, with the right bribes to the right people, they can probably make a real success of the ‘export-import’ business they’ve been discussing ie smuggling whiskey and cigarettes at a massive profit.

The big house they’ve bought is now grandly furnished, aunt Augusta is happily in love, the money starts rolling in and Henry takes his place using his bank manager expertise as head accountant for the new crime syndicate. It is only a detail or afterthought that he finds the body of poor Wordsworth, Augusta’s abandoned black lover, in the large gardens, where he had (presumably) been bumped off by Visconti’s bodyguard. His death is unlamented, there is no mention of a funeral, even.

Right up to the end Henry has been hankering after returning to Southwood and domesticity. But in an abrupt paragraph on the last page we leap 6 months into the future, after the Grand Party, to discover that Henry has made his decision, choosing his aunt, adventure and Life!

Style

The hippy girl they meet on the Orient Express, on her way to Istanbul and then on the hippy trail to Kathmandu, introduces Henry to pot and mentions acid. Back in England he hears Beatles songs drifting through open windows from radios.

But in fact the style of the first-person narrator, Henry Pulling, sets its face against 1969, and is deliberately staid, old fashioned and conventional.

Greene’s prose style is not great: it is nearly always concise and efficient but, if it occasionally rises to sudden aperçus, descriptive or psychological insights, it just as often appears a bit slapdash and clunky. His OK style of the 30s and 40s has lived on into another age, and I wonder if the germ of the plot came as much from the insight that his style was out of date, as the notion that his character was; as if the lead character is less a human being than an embodiment of old-fashioned grammar, syntax and vocabulary come to life.

Related links

The movie

The novel was made into a movie, released in 1972 and dominated by an over-the-top performance from Maggie Smith, for some reason pretending to be Winston Churchill.

Greene’s books

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