Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (1970)

One of the most dazzling, mind-boggling and genuinely gripping novels I’ve ever read.

The story is set in the future, after the customary nuclear war which happens in so many futurestories. The twist on this one is that, after the radiation died down, the world’s powers agreed under something referred to as ‘the Covenant’ to put Sweden in charge, handing over all nuclear devices to a country big enough to manage them and keep the peace, but small enough not to have any global ambitions of her own.

Thus liberated from war, humanity – again, as in so many of these optimistic futurestories from the 1950s and 60s – has focused its efforts on space exploration using the handy new ‘ion drive’ which has been discovered, along with something called ‘Bussard engines’, helped along by elaborate ‘scoopfield webs’ to create ‘magnetohydrodynamic fields’.

Reaction mass entered the fire chamber. Thermonuclear generators energised the furious electric arcs that stripped those atoms down to ions; the magnetic fields that separated positive and negative particles; the forces that focused them into beams; the pulses that lashed them to ever higher velocities as they sped down the rings of the thrust tubes, until they emerged scarcely less fast than light itself.

The idea is that the webs are extended ‘nets’ a kilometre or so wide, which drag in all the hydrogen atoms which exist in low density in space, charging and channeling them towards the ‘drive’ which strips them to ions and thrusts them fiercely out the back of the ship – hence driving it forward.

Several voyages of exploration have already been undertaken to the nearest star systems in space ships which use these drives to travel near the speed of light, and fast-moving ‘probes’ have been sent to all the nearest star systems.

One of these probes reached the star system Centauri and now, acting on its information, a large spaceship, the Leonora Christine, is taking off on a journey to see if the third planet orbiting round Centauri really is habitable, as the probe suggests, and could be settled by ‘man’.

Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests that as any object approaches the speed of light, its experience of time slows down. The plan is for the Leonora Christine to accelerate for a couple of years towards near light speed, travel at that speed for a year, then slow down for a couple of years.

Five years there, whereupon they will either a) stay if the planet is habitable b) return, if it is not. Due to this time dilation effect those on the expedition will only age twelve years or so, while 43 or more years will pass back on earth (p.49).

(Time dilation is a key feature of Joe Haldeman’s novel, The Forever War, in which the protagonist keeps returning from tours of duty off-world to discover major changes in terrestrial society have taken place in his absence: it is, therefore, a form of one-way time travel.)

The Leonora Christine carries no fewer than fifty passengers, a cross-section of scientists, engineers, biologists and so on. Unlike any other spaceship I’ve read of it is large enough to house a gym, a theatre, a canteen and a swimming pool!

Two strands

Tau Zero is made up of two very different types of discourse. It is (apparently) a classic of ‘hard’ sci fi because not three pages go by without Anderson explaining in daunting technical detail the process workings of the ion drive, or the scoopnets, explaining the ratio of hydrogen atoms in space, or how the theory of relativity works, and so on. Not only are there sizeable chunks of uncompromising scientific information every few pages, but understanding them is key to the plot and narrative.

Starlike burned the hydrogen fusion, aft of the Bussard module that focused the electromagnetism which contained it. A titanic gas-laser effect aimed photons themselves in a beam whose reaction pushed the ship forward – and which would have vaporised any solid body it struck. The process was not 100 percent efficient. But most of the stray energy went to ionise the hydrogen which escaped nuclear combustion. These protons and electrons, together with the fusion products, were also hurled backward by the force fields, a gale of plasma adding its own increment of momentum. (p.40)

But at the same time, or regularly interspersed with the tech passages, are the passages describing the ‘human interest’ side of the journey, which is full of clichés and stereotypes, a kind of Peyton Place in space. To be more specific, the book was first published in instalments in 1967 and it has a very 1960s mindset. Anderson projects idealistic 1960s talk about ‘free love’ into a future in which adults have no moral qualms about ‘sleeping around’.

Before they leave, the novel opens with a pair of characters in a garden in Stockholm walking and having dinner and then the woman, Ingrid Lindgren, proposes to the man, Charles Reymont, that they become a couple. During all the adventures that follow, there is a continual exchanging of partners among the 25 men and 25 women on board, with little passages set aside for flirtations and guytalk about the girls or womentalk about the boys.

When a partnership ends one of the couple moves out, the other moves in with a room-mate of the same sex for a period, or immediately moves in with their new partner. It’s like wife-swapping in space. In a key moment of the plot, the ship’s resident astronomer, a short ugly anti-social and smelly man, becomes so depressed that he can no longer function. At which point Ingrid tactfully gets rid of the concerned captain and officers and… sleeps with him. So sex is deployed ‘tactically’ as a form of therapy.

Sex

He admired the sight of her. Unclad, she could never be called boyish. The curves of her breasts and flank were subtler than ordinary, but they were integral with the rest of her – not stuccoed on, as with too many women – and when she moved, they flowed. So did the light along her skin which had the hue of the hills around San Francisco Bay in their summer, and the light in her hair, which had the smell of every summer day that ever was on earth. (p.62)

Feminism

From a feminist perspective, it is striking how the 25 women aboard the ship are a) all scientists and experts in their fields b) are not passive sex objects, but very active in deciding who they want to partner with and why. One of the two strong characters in the narrative is a woman, Ingred Lindgren.

Characters

  • Captain Lars Telander
  • Ingrid Lindgren, steely disciplined first officer
  • Charles Reymont, takes over command when the ship hits crisis
  • Boris Fedoroff, Chief Engineer
  • Norbert Williams, American chemist
  • Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, Planetologist
  • Emma Glassgold, molecular biologist
  • Jane Sadler, Canadian bio-technician
  • Machinist Johann Freiwald
  • Astronomer Elof Nilsson
  • Navigation Officer, Auguste Boudreau
  • Biosystems Chief Pereira
  • Margarita Jimenes
  • Iwamoto Tetsuo
  • Hussein Sadek
  • Yeshu ben-Zvi
  • Mohandas Chidambaran
  • Phra Takh
  • Kato M’Botu

Thus the ship’s progress proceeds smoothly, while the crew discuss decorating the canteen and common rooms, paint murals and have numerous affairs. Five years is a long time to pass in a confined ship. And meanwhile the effects of travelling ever closer to light speed create unusual effects and, to be honest, I was wondering what all the fuss was about this book.

When Leonora Christine attained a substantial fraction of light speed, its optical effects became clear to the unaided sight. Her velocity and that of the rays from a star added vectorially; the result was aberration. Except for whatever lay dead aft or ahead, the apparent position changed. Constellations grew lopsided, grew grotesque, and melted, as their members crawled across the dark. More and more, the stars thinned out behind the ship and crowded before her. (p.45)

Tau

Anderson gives us a couple of pages introducing the tau equation. This defines the ‘interdependence of space, time, matter, and energy’, If v is the velocity of the spaceship, and c the velocity of light, then tau equals the square root of 1 minus v² divided by c². In other words the closer the ship’s velocity, v, gets to the speed of light, c (186,00 miles per second), then v² divided by c² gets closer and closer to 1; therefore 1 minus something which is getting closer to 1 gets closer and closer to 0; and the square root of that number similarly approaches closer and closer to zero.

Or to put it another way, the closer tau gets to zero the faster the ship is flying, the greater its mass, and the slower the people inside it experience time, relative to the rest of the ‘static’ universe.

The plot kicks in

So the narrative trundles amiably along for the first 60 or so pages, interspersing passages of dauntingly technical exposition with the petty jealousies, love affairs and squabbles of the human characters, until…

The ship passes through an unanticipated gas cloud, just solid enough to possibly destroy her, at the very least do damage – due to the enormous speed she’s now flying at which effects her mass.

Captain Telander listens to his experts feverishly calculating what impact will mean but ultimately they have to batten down the hatches, make themselves secure and hope for the best, impact happening on page 75 of this 190-page long book.

In the event the ship survives but the technicians quickly discover that impact has knocked out the decelerating engines. Now, much worse, the technicians explain to the captain and the lead officers, First Officer Lindgren and the man responsible for crew discipline, Reymont, the terrible catch-22 they’re stuck in.

In order to investigate what’s happened to the decellerator engines, the technicians would have to go to the rear of the ship and investigate manually. Unfortunately, they would be vaporised in nano-seconds by the super-powerful ion drive if they got anywhere near it. Therefore, no-one can investigate what’s wrong with the decelerator engine until the accelerator engine is turned off.

But here’s the catch: the ship is travelling so close to the speed of light that, if they turned the accelerator engines off, the crew would all be killed in moments. Why? Because the ship is constantly being bombarded by hydrogen atoms found in small amounts throughout space. At the moment the accelerator engines and scoopfield webs are directing these atoms away from the ship and down into the ion drive. The ion drive protects the ship. The moment it is turned off, these hydrogen atoms will suddenly be bombarding the ship’s hull and, because of the speed it is going at, the effect will be to split the hydrogen atoms releasing gamma rays. The gamma rays will penetrate the hull and fry all the humans inside in moments.

Thus they cannot stop. They are doomed to continue accelerating forever or until they all die.

It is at this point that the way Anderson has introduced us to quite a few named characters, and shown them bickering, explaining abstruse theory, getting drunk and getting laid begins to show its benefits. Because the rest of the novel consists of a series of revelations about the logical implications of their plight and, if these were just explained in tech speak they would be pretty flat and dull: the drama, the grip of the novel derives from the way the matrix of characters he’s developed respond to each new revelation: getting drunk, feeling suicidal, determined to tough it out, relationships fall apart, new relationships are formed. In and of themselves these human interest passages are hardly Tolstoy, but they are vital for the novel’s success because they dramatise each new twist in the story and, as the characters discuss the implications, the time spent reading their dialogue and thoughts helps the reader, also, to process and assimilate the story’s mind-blowing logic.

A series of unfortunate incidents

Basically what happens is there is a series of four or five further revelations which confirm the astronauts in their plight, but expand it beyond their, or our, wildest imaginings.

At first the captain and engineer come up with a plan of sorts. They know, or suspect, that between galaxies the density of hydrogen atoms in the ether falls off. If they can motor beyond our galaxy they can find a place where the hydrogen density of space is so minute that they can afford to turn off the ion drive and repair the decelerator.

This is discussed in detail, with dialogue working through both the technical aspects and also the emotional consequences. Many of the crew had anticipated returning to earth to be reunited with at least some members of their family. Now that has gone for good. As has the original plan of exploring an earth-style planet.

And so we are given some mind-blowing descriptions of the ship deliberately accelerating in order to pass right through the galaxy and beyond. But unfortunately, the scientists then discover that the space between galaxies is not thin enough to protect them. Also there is another catch-22. In order to travel out of the galaxy they have had to increase speed. But now they are flying everso close to the speed of light, the risk posed by turning off the ion drive and exposing themselves to the stray hydrogen atoms in space has become greater. The faster they go in order to find space thin enough to stop in, the thinner that space has to become.

The astronomers now come to the conclusion that space is still to full of hydrogen atoms in the sectors which contain clusters of galaxies. They decide to increase the ship’s velocity even more in order not just to leave our galaxy, but to get clear of our entire family of galaxies. This they calculate, will take another year or so at present velocities.

Thus it is that the book moves forward by presenting a new problem, the scientists suggest a solution which involves travelling faster and further, the crew is told and slowly gets used to the idea, as do we, via various conversations and attitudes and emotional responses. But when that goal is attained, it turns out there is another problem, and so the tension and the narrative drive of the book is relentlessly ratcheted up.

And of course, the further they travel and the closer to light speed, the more the tau effect predicts that time slows down for them, or, to put it another way, time speeds up for the rest of the universe. Early on in the post-disaster section, the crew assemble to celebrate the fact that a hundred years have passed back on earth: everyone they knew is dead. It is a sombre assembly with heavy drinking, casual sex, melancholy thoughts.

But by the time we get to the bit where they have flown clear of the galaxy only to be disappointed to find that inter-galactic space is too full of hydrogen for them to stop, by this stage they realise that thousands of years have passed back on earth.

By the time they fly free of the entire cluster of galaxies, they know that tens of thousands of years have passed. And eventually, as their tau approaches closer and closer to zero, they realise that millions of years have passed (one million is passed n page 136).

For when they do eventually fly beyond our entire family of galaxies they encounter another problem which is discovering that empty space is now too dispersed to allow them to decelerate. Even if they turn off the ion drive and fix the decelerating engine, there isn’t enough matter in truly empty space for the engine to latch on to and use as fuel to slow them (p.147).

Thus they decide to continue onwards, letting their acceleration, and mass, increase until they find a part of space with just the right conditions.

The accessible mass of the whole galactic clan that was her goal proved inadequate to brake her velocity. Therefore she did not try. Instead, she used what she swallowed to drive forward all the faster. She traversed the domain of this second clan – with no attempt at manual control, simply spearing through a number of its member galaxies – in two days. On the far side, again into hollow space, she fell free. The stretch to the next attainable clan was on the order of another hundred million light-years. She made the passage in about a week. (p.151)

On they fly at incomprehensible speed, while various human interest stories unfurl between the ship’s crew, until they (and the reader) reach the blasé condition of feeling the ship’s hull rattle and hum for a few moments and a character will say, ‘There goes another galaxy’.

Now if this was a J.G. Ballard novel, they’d all have gone mad and started eating each other by now. Anderson’s take on human psychology is much more bland and optimistic. Some of the crew get a bit depressed, but nothing some casual sex, or a project to redecorate the canteen can’t fix.

The main ‘human’ part of the narrative describes the way the ship’s ‘constable’, Charles Reymont who we met back on the opening pages, takes effective control from the captain. Initially this is basic psychology, Charles realising it will help discipline best if the captain becomes an aloof figure beyond criticism or reproach while he, Charles, imposes discipline, structure and purpose – allotting the crew tasks and missions to perform to maintain their morale, and letting them hate or resent him for it if they will. But over time the captain really does lose the ability to decide anything and Charles becomes the ship’s dictator. This is complicated by the fact that he discovers the woman who had suggested they become a couple, Ingrid, in someone else’s bed though she swears she was only doing it for therapeutic purposes. They split up and Charles pairs off with the Chinese planetologist, Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, leading to a number of sexy descriptions of her naked body. But Ingrid continues to hold a torch for him and he for her. That’s the spine of the ‘human interest’ part of the novel.

Hundreds of millions of years have passed and indeed, in the last 40 pages or so a character lets slips that it must be over a billion years since they left earth.

it’s at this stage that the book becomes truly visionary. For, after some delay and conferring with colleagues, the astronomer comes to the captain and Reymont and Lindgren to announce that… the universe itself is changing. The galaxies they are flying through no longer contain fit young stars. Increasingly what they’re seeing through their astronomical instruments (not the naked eye) is that the galaxies are made of low intensity red dwarfs.

The universe is running down.

So many billion years have passed – one character estimates one hundred billion years (p.170) that they have travelled far into ‘the future’ and are witnessing the end of the universe. The stars are going out and the actual space of the universe is contracting.

Anderson’s vision is based on the theory that the universe began in a big bang, has and will expand for billions of years but will eventually reach a stage where the initial blast of energy from the bang is so dispersed that it is countered by the cumulative gravity of all the matter in the universe – which will stop it expanding and make it slowly and then with ever-increasing speed, hurtle towards a ‘Big Crunch’ when all the matter in the universe returns to the primal singularity.

Face with this haunting, terrifying fact, the scientists again make calculations and act on a hunch. They guess that the singularity won’t actually become a minute particle but will be shrouded in ‘en enormous hydrogen envelope’ (p.175), the simplest chemical, and calculate that the ship will be flying so fast that it will survive the Big Crunch and live on to witness the creation of the next universe.

‘The outer part of that envelope may not be too hot or radiant or dense for us. Space will be small enough, though, that we can circle around and around the monobloc as a kind of satellite. When it blows up and space starts to expand again, we’ll spiral out ourselves.’ (Reymont, p.175)

And this is what happens. Anderson gives a mind bogging description of the ship reaching such an infinitesimal value of tau that it flies right through the Big Crunch and out into the new universe which explodes outwards (pp.181-3).

Indeed it is travelling so fast, and time outside is moving so fast, that they can chose how many billions of years into the history of the new universe they want to stop (p.184). A quick calculation suggests that it took about 10 billion years for a plenty like earth to come into being and establish the conditions for life to evolve, and so they calculate their deceleration to take place that far into the future of this new universe.

Epilogue

And this is what they do, and the last few pages cut to Reymont and Ingrid, the lovers we met in the opening pages falling dreamily in love, now lying under a tree on a planet which has an earth-like atmosphere but blue vegetation, three moons and all sorts of weird fauna and flora, as they plan their lives together (pp.188-190)

We left plausibility behind a long time ago. Instead the book turns into an absolutely gripping rollercoaster of a ride, one of the most genuinely mind-blowing and gripping stories I’ve ever read. What a trip!


Style

the foregoing summary may give the impression the story is told in language as clear as an instruction manual, but this would be wrong.

Putting the plot to one side, one of the most striking features of Tau Zero is its prose style – an odd and ungainly variant of standard English which makes you pause on every page.

Leonora Christine was nearing the third year of her journey, or the tenth year as the stars counted time, when grief came upon her. (p.63)

Anderson was born in America (in 1926) but his mother took him as a boy to live in Denmark where she’d originally come from, until the outbreak of war forced them to return. For this or the general fact of growing up in an immigrant Scandinavian family, Anderson’s English is oddly stilted and phrased. It often sounds like it’s been translated from a Norse saga.

She gave him cheerful greeting as he entered. (p.52)

They would live out their lives, and belike their children and grandchildren too (p.53)

He stood moveless (p.58)

Nor would he have stopped to dress, had he been abed. (p.64)

Telander must perforce smile a bit as he went out the door. (p.69)

Fedoroff spoke. His words fell contemptuous. (p.80)

He clapped the navigator’s back in friendly wise. (p.159)

She rested elbow on head, forehead on hand. (p.161)

Every pages has sentences containing odd kinks away from natural English. As a small example it’s typified by the way Anderson refers throughout the story not to the ship’s ‘crew’, but to its folk. Another consistent quirk is the way people don’t experience emotions or psychological states, these, in the form of abstract nouns, come over them.

Soberness had come upon her. (p.100)

Dismay sprang forth on Williams. (p.105)

Anger still upbore the biologist. (p.106)

Dismay shivered in her. (p.116)

Hardness fell from him. (p.125)

Weight grabbed at Reymont. (.167)

Sometimes he achieves a kind of incongruous poetry by accident.

Footsteps thudded in the mumble of energies. (p.70)

Ingrid Lindgren regarded him for a time that shivered. (p.71)

The ship jeered at him in her tone of distant lightnings. (p.84)

Sometimes it makes the already challenging technical explanations just that little bit more impenetrable.

Then again, maybe this slightly alien English helps to create a sense of mild dislocation which is not inappropriate for a science fiction story, especially one which takes us right to the edge of the universe and then beyond!


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1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson (1970)

Hardly had Fillyjonk thought of spring-cleaning when a wave of dizziness and nausea overcame her and for one terrifying moment she was hanging over the abyss. She knew: I shall never again be able to clean. How can I go on living if I can neither clean or prepare food? (p.72)

Tove Jansson and the Moomins

Jansson began her career as an illustrator in the late 1930s. The first sketches of the Moomins appeared late in the Second World War while she was producing adult caricatures for a Finnish satirical magazine, Garm. The first Moomin book was barely published (in 1945) before she was commissioned to produce a daily comic strip featuring the characters, in Finland. When this strip was picked up by the London Evening Standard and syndicated to other European newspapers in the early 1950s, it grew to reach a readership of 20 million people a day. The contract to produce these daily comic strips provided Jansson’s main income for nearly thirty years. It was the kind of long-running daily comic strip found in newspapers to put alongside the likes of Peanuts, The Far Side, Hagar the Horrible, B.C. etc.

Fairly quickly there came requests for other spin-offs, first the book-length novels, then large-format picture books, then real-world stuff like dolls & merchandise, plays, TV adaptations, even an opera, and so on.

a) Running the commercial empire while producing an entertaining comic strip every day must have been exhausting. b) It must have used up a lot of plots and stories and gags. Over the years Jansson must, presumably, have separated out the timely topical subjects for the strip, from the much deeper, stranger, humorous or elliptical plots for the books. c) 25 years – from 1945 to 1970 – is a long time in anyone’s artistic output. Much can change and develop.

d) The previous Moomin book, Moominpappa at Sea, seemed to me to have lost almost all the joie de vivre of the earlier books. It contained strange and eerie moments but hardly any real humour and was dominated by the settled depression of the main character, Moominpappa, and the less obvious discontent of Moominmamma and even Moomintroll. Above all, it dropped almost all of the big cast of ancillary characters to concentrate on this rather claustrophobic family triangle. Only the inclusion of Little My with her pert, rude humour stops the book becoming inconsolably gloomy.

e) As any glance at Jansson’s biography shows, during the writing of this, the final Moomin book, her beloved mother died. She struggled to the end of Moominvalley in November, but – for her – the Moomins were over. She could never go back to that happy valley.

Moominvalley in November

There are a lot of chapters, 21 to be precise, in this 157-page book (since the text starts on page 9, that’s 148 pages of actual text: 148/21 = 7 pages per chapter). So they’re more like short anecdotes than chapters in an ongoing narrative. One chapter is as short as two pages. They are quick impressions. Snapshots. Moments which provide insights into the characters.

And the narrative is very character-based, not event-based. Previous stories followed Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin as they, for example, set out for the Lonely Mountains as a team, a gang, a group of children on an adventure. Moominvalley in November concentrates on the individuals as monads, as solitary individuals thrown together by chance and only slowly learning to get on with each other.

The premise is simple: half a dozen disparate characters, in different ways and for different reasons, decide to shake off the winter blues by visiting Moominhouse in the Moomin Valley, to recapture memories of happy summers they’ve spent there.

But it isn’t summer, it is rainy winter. And the Moomins are not there. At the end of Moominpappa at Sea we saw them decide to really settle on the isolated island which Moominpappa had taken them to. This exile seems to be confirmed when Snufkin looks into Moominpappa’s magic crystal ball in the forest and sees an image, far away, in the deep depths of the ball, of a stormy sea and a light flashing with a regular beat. Obviously, the Moomins are still on lighthouse island.

And so the six characters bump into each other and, despite each of them wanting to be left alone with their memories (and fears and anxieties), slowly, one by one, they have to learn to rub along and live with each other.

Six characters in search of the Moomins

We all know Snufkin, the solitary traveller, from Comet in Moominland and its sequels. He heads vaguely towards the house trying to capture a tune which flits in and out of his head.

The Mymble decides to come and visit her kid sister, Little My. She doesn’t know that My is off with the Moomins on their desolate island.

Toft is a small boy who hides in the hemulen’s beached boat, and decides to go to the Moominhouse. No very clear reason is given except that he seems to have detailed dreams and fantasies about such a house, and spends hours longingly painting it in ideal features in his imagination. Once there, Toft discovers a big scientific book about creatures which live on electricity and becomes convinced such a creature is hiding in the house, or nearby woods. Again, he uses his imagination to paint the Creature in ever more vivid detail and almost – it seems – does actually conjure it into existence. He hears it roar in the woods. He sees it gnash its big teeth by the black pool in the forest.

So far, with these three characters, so relatively straightforward. What makes the book decidedly weird is that the other three characters all suffer from what might be termed quite serious mental disorders.

Grandpa-Grumble can’t remember who he is, what he’s doing or why. He quite cheerfully accepts his early Alzheimer’s, in fact he’s very proud of having forgotten almost everything, but occasionally gets very cross. Grandpa-Grumble isn’t his name, but he needs some kind of identity before he can get up and exist. This is one among many that floats through his mind soon after we meet him, so he adopts it. For the time being…

The Fillyjonk is as full of fear and anxiety as when we first encountered her in the short story collection, Tales from Moominvalley. Suburban breakdown neurosis.

As soon as the Fillyjonk touched a broom or a duster she felt dizzy, and a giddy feeling of fear started in her stomach and got stuck in her throat. (p.46)

Within moments of meeting her, as she anxiously goes about her housekeeping, she manages to fall out of window onto a sloped tiled roof and slither down towards the sheer drop, only just managing to cling to the guttering and then pull herself up by the lightning rod and back into the room. For a while she becomes nothing but a tatter of flesh clinging to the side of an enormous empty house.

Now she was nothing at all, just something that was trying to make itself as flat as possible and move on. (p.22)

Once she’s recovered she decides to travel to the Moomin house to seek out others, to be among other people whose bustle will fill her day so that ‘there was no time for terrible thoughts’. But once she’s there, the others automatically recoil, smelling the ‘fear’ which she emanates, fear of life, fear of existence. She reminds me a bit of a Samuel Beckett character.

As does the hemulen, living in the same small seaside town as Toft. (In fact Toft hides in the hemulen’s sailing boat which he proudly owns but never in fact uses.) The very opening words of the hemulen’s introductory chapter describe a person who struggles to find a reason to live.

The hemulen woke up slowly and recognised himself and wished he had been someone that he didn’t know. He felt even tireder than when he went to bed, and here it was – another day which would go on until evening and then there would be another one and another one which would be the same as all days when they are lived by a hemulen. (p.28)

Quite grim, eh? Tired of living. An almost existentialist facing-up to the monotonous emptiness of existence, this could come from Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

The empty house

One by one they bump into each other, misunderstand each other, cautiously enter the cold empty house and commandeer rooms. Snufkin remains outside in his tent. Toft takes Moominpappa’s old room. The hemulen has a typical moment of existential crisis:

and then to undress and confess that yet another day had become yet another night. How did things get like this, he thought, quite dumbfounded. (p.40)

and so forces his way into Snufkin’s tent, boisterously declaring he wants to enjoy ‘the outdoors life’.

Things happen. There is a big rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The Mymble somehow absorbs all this lighting and becomes a ball of crackling energy. Grandpa-Grumble catches a big fish and Snufkin advises him that the Fillyjonk is a great cook. In fact, she finds that preparing a big meal for everyone does something to calm her nerves. Almost. Though when she opens the linen cupboard she has a terrifying vision of zillions of creepie-crawlies escaping everywhere and spends the rest of the book hearing them scuttling behind the wallpaper and the wainscoting in a barely controlled panic.

Grandpa-Grumble finds the Moomin’s little hairy ancestor hibernating in the cold stove. But he soon forgets what it looks like and, when he opens the cupboard door which has a mirror in it, he mistakes his own reflection for the ancestor and (comically) gets to like and respect him. His reflection, too, is old, eccentrically dressed, and knows how to keep quiet.

Towards the end of the book the Fillyjonk organises a big party, with welsh rarebit to eat and cider to drink. The hemulen recites a poem and then the Fillyjonk puts on a lantern show, hanging a white sheet from the ceiling, placing a lamp behind her and moving a cutout of a boat with the three Moomins and Little My in it in a boat-on-the-sea kind of way. Mymble is moved, so are the others.

Toft goes outside to find the Creature which he has created with his imagination in the pitch black night but it moves away, it is nowhere, it is nothing.

After the party, the Fillyjonk sits by herself amid the mess of the dining table, picks up Snufkin’s mouth organ and turns out to be brilliant at making music on it. Mymble had said she was ‘artistic’ earlier in the day. Maybe she is. Maybe things will be alright. Maybe she can put her fears and anxieties behind her.

Next day the Fillyjonk organises a massive clear-up of the house, dusting the surfaces, cleaning the windows, sweeping all the corners, and the others join in and make the place spic and span. Something has been achieved, something has been finished and the Fillyjonk and Mymble shake hands by the bridge and head off home. Grandpa-Grumble confronts his own reflection in the clothes-cupboard mirror and, when it doesn’t reply, pokes it with his stick. The mirror shatters, the fragments falling to the floor. There’s only one thing for it – to hibernate – he tucks himself up on the living room sofa and goes to sleep.

Snufkin invites the hemulen to come out in the sailing boat. The hemulen – who owns a dinghy back in the seaside town which, as we know, he never actually uses – is absolutely terrified, and thinks he’s going to throw up, but is forced to take the tiller when Snufkin simply moves forward into the bow leaving the tiller unmanned.

Back at the house the hemulen embarrassedly admits to Toft that he was terrified and that he will now never have to use the dinghy back home. He too has found some kind of resolution and sets off home the next day.

That leaves just Snufkin and Toft. The latter walks out to look at Moominpappa’s crystal ball deep in the forest. The first snow has come and the forest is white and frosty. The crystal ball is completely empty.

Next morning Snufkin strikes camp and walks down to the sea where the song at the edge of his mind finally comes into it, fully formed, simple and beautiful. He heaves his pack on his back and walks straight into the forest.

Next morning Toft goes to the crystal ball in the snow and sees a tiny lamp in it, the lamp attached to the Moomins’ sailing boat mast. He wanders into the forest, getting quite lost, and slowly his imaginings about the Moomins – and especially the mother that he never had and fantasises about – Moominmamma – fade out, his mind becomes completely blank, like the landscape.

Emerging from the forest at the foot of the hills.Toft climbs the biggest one and far, far out at sea, sees the Moomin sailing boat heading towards the land. If he walks straight back down, he calculates that he’ll get to the bathing house just in time to greet them, catch the line and tie the boat to the jetty.

And that is the last line and last thought in the complete set of Moomin novels.


The dialectic of fear and cosiness

By emphasising the mental problems of some of the characters I’m at risk of giving a misleading impression of the book. It contains plenty of very calm, semi-mystical passages about nature and the seasons, painted in Jansson’s beautifully crisp, descriptive prose. Here Snufkin and the hemulen wander down to the empty, disconsolate bathing house the morning after the big storm.

A dark bank of everything that storm and high water had thrown up, discarded things, forgotten things, all jumbled up under seaweed and reeds, heavy and blackened with water, covered the beach as far as the eye could see. The splintered timbers were full of old nails and bent cramp-irons. The sea had devoured the beach right up to the first trees, and there was seaweed hanging in the branches. (p.69)

But for every purely descriptive passage like that, there are many others which move from the outer world of nature to the troubled realm of the psyche within. For example:

The quiet transition from autumn to winter is not a bad time at all. It’s a time for protecting and securing things and for making sure you’ve got in as many supplies as you can. It’s nice to gather together everything you possess as close to you as possible, to store up your warmth and your thoughts and to burrow yourself into a deep hole inside, a core of safety where you can defend what is important and precious and your very own. Then the cold and the storms and the darkness can do their worst. They can grope their way up the walls looking for a way in, but they won’t find one, everything is shut, and you sit inside, laughing in your warmth and your solitude… (p.10)

Many of the descriptions do this – they tend to become psychologised, to switch from the outer world to dramatise internal feelings – often of a rather troubled kind.

Because the same overall feeling emerges again and again. Repeatedly, whatever the situation, each of the characters, or the narrator in her generalisations, seeks for peace and solitude and escape from others.

All the creatures want to be by themselves, repeating what is very obviously their author’s mantra, that peace and quiet and solitude are best.

[Toft] wished that the whole valley had been empty with plenty of room for dreams, you need space and silence to be able to fashion things sufficiently carefully. (p.88)

[Toft] wanted to be alone to try and work out why he had been so terribly angry at the Sunday dinner. It frightened him to realise that there was a completely different toft in him, a toft which he didn’t know and which might come back and disgrace him in front of all the others. (p.116)

Snufkin overcomes his longing for the Moomin family by realising that maybe they, too, just want to be left alone in peace (p.92).

Hemulen likes Moominpappa’s old room because it is ‘a place where one could be by oneself’ (p.94).

Because I happen to have recently read the famous play by Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis Clos, I couldn’t help finding echoes of it in the plight of six characters who have all converged on one place, seeking solitude and summer only to find the exact reverse, bleak winter and irritating company. The text is alive with the idea of places of refuge and sanctuary, of just being left alone:

  • The big pool was a gloomy place in the autumn, a place to hide oneself and wait. (p.117)
  • ‘[The Moomins] went to the back garden when they were fed up and angry and wanted a bit of peace and quiet.’ (p.119)
  • Of course, when you hibernate you’re much younger when you wake up, and you don’t need anything but to be left in peace. (p.144)
  • [The dark forest] is where Moominmamma had walked when she was tired and cross and disappointed and wanted to be on her own… (p.156)

There is one way out, one way to escape other people or your own alienated or anxious thoughts – and that is to cease being conscious altogether.

This, maybe, explains why there are so many scenes where one or other of the characters makes themselves a cosy little snug and goes to sleep. (Obviously, children’s stories are more often than not designed to be read to children at bed-time, so this partly explains why the little creatures fall asleep at the end of almost every chapter.)

But still – falling asleep in the dark Nordic nights is a recurring leitmotif. Despite the ‘optimistic’ ending, the text tells us that the creatures (before they all leave) are sleeping longer and longer as the nights draw in.

And we know that even though the Moomin family are (supposedly) heading home, they will barely have arrived before they, too, have their last meal of pine needles and bed down for the long winter hibernation. One day, perhaps, they’ll go to sleep and never wake up.

As we all do.


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Camus by Conor Cruise O’Brien (1970)

O’Brien (1917-2008) was Irish and had a long and varied career alternating between politics (Irish Foreign Office, United Nations, MP), journalism (editor-in-chief of the London Observer) and teaching (at universities in Ghana and New York). So he was well-placed to give an all-round assessment of Camus’s role as a novelist, playwright and above all, politically engaged writer and intellectual, 10 years after the Frenchman’s tragic death.

Only when I’d finished it did I understand the blurbs on the back of the book which point out that the entire study is written to a thesis, with a particular political interpretation in mind.

The Arab problem O’Brien starts by briskly outlining Camus’s biography and then gets on with ruffling feathers and questioning received opinion. He quotes a French writer on Camus who claims that all the working class inhabitants of the slum where Camus grew up were happily inter-racial. No, they weren’t says O’Brien; that kind of community is always troubled and there is evidence of outbreaks of unrest throughout Camus’s life.

O’Brien quotes some of Camus’s earliest essays which already make generalisations about Mediterranean Man, invoking images of Greek temples and so on. Absolutely nowhere in these portraits of his homeland does he mention mosques, muezzin, nowhere in any of his fictions is Arabic spoken. (Arabic was, in fact, banned in Algeria’s French-controlled schools.) Just a few pages into his study, O’Brien claims that, regardless of his conscious intentions, throughout his career Camus’s concept of ‘Mediterranean culture’ – by completely erasing Arab culture – served to legitimise French colonialism.

The Outsider (1940) Tough attitude, eh? O’Brien takes it on into his reading of L’Etranger. Here he points out that the account of Mersault’s trial is misleading. a) Mersault’s defence lawyer would have shown that he was defending himself against an Arab who had drawn a knife and had already attacked his friend, Raymond. Chances are a French court would only have charged him with manslaughter and possibly let him off altogether. No way it would have condemned him to death for self-defence against an Arab. b) The entire trial subtly implies that Frenchman and Arab had identical legal and civil rights in French Algeria, but they didn’t.

By gliding over this basic fact, the entire novel softens and conceals the harshness of French rule. This partly explains why the entire second part, devoted to the improbable trial and a schematic encounter with the prison priest, although its central to the plot, is less well remembered than the first half, set in the streets of Algiers, the beach, the desert heat.

O’Brien voices the misgivings I myself had on recently rereading L’Etranger, that the killing of the Arab is not really real. It is for his entire detachment from society that we feel Mersault is convicted – and this mood of rebellious detachment appeals now as it did then to adolescent minds everywhere. But no longer being a troubled adolescent, for me what stood out was the way the Arab has no name, never speaks and goes completely unlamented.

The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) O’Brien suggests this long essay is less a work of philosophy than the soliloquy of an artist meditating on suicide and death. He questions the novelty or viability of Camus’s notion of ‘revolt’, claiming that the post-God stance was the common currency of the time, and that every nation had rebelled against the Nazi occupation. O’Brien says that nonetheless the book had a big imapct on him and  his contemporaries because of its vivid affirmations of life in the face of death and despair.

The Plague (1947) O’Brien says The Plague is a masterpiece but it is not a novel; it is an ‘allegorical sermon’, and quotes Camus who himself referred to it as ‘a tract’.

O’Brien points out its flaws. For a start, Camus was apparently influenced by a recent article of Sartre’s on bourgeois fiction, to drop the notion of an omnipotent narrator. Apparently this explains why there is a fallible ‘Narrator’ who makes a fuss explaining how he has collated other documents, including Tarrou’s diary, to create his text, but this subterfuge is a) not consistently carried through – it ought to have had more newspaper reports or other sources to give it a real documentary feel b) is clumsily undermined when the text reveals at the end that ‘the Narrator’ is none other than Dr Rieux – who has been its central character! Puzzling and unsatisfactory.

But O’Brien goes, once again, for its most striking feature – the complete absence of the Arabs who, of course, made up eight-ninths of the population of Oran, the supposedly Algerian city where the plague breaks out.

O’Brien suggests they have to be erased from the narrative if it wants to be an allegory of the Nazi Occupation of France; for that allegory to work the chosen city must be a purely French city; the presence of Arabs complicates the allegory, in fact would ruin it, because you would have an oppressed population within the oppressed population. But O’Brien speculates that Camus might also have been aware of a more subversive interpretation of his allegory: that it was the French in Algeria who were the plague, the violent conquerors of the free Arabs.

By now O’Brien’s tone is scathing. He refers to the erasure of Arabs from the novel as ‘an artistic final solution to the problem of the Arabs’ – and points out how breath-takingly hypocritical it is that this genocide of the imagination takes place in a book stuffed so full of worthy characters calling for ‘total honesty’ about describing their situation; in a book whose central message is honesty and integrity in the face of the world’s injustice. Ha!

The Rebel (1951) O’Brien concentrates on the political message of The Rebel, specifically its anti-communism, using it as a focus to trace the slowly increasing vehemence of Camus’s anti-communism from the ambivalence of the Resistance days, to his final speeches and essays.

Argument with Sartre (1951) Camus’s attitude to communism was the crux of the break with Sartre when a journalist reviewed The Rebel unfavourably in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps Modernes. O’Brien, surprisingly, takes Sartre’s side by suggesting it needed more integrity to stand up to the immense weight of anti-communist feeling at the time, much of which was stoked up by CIA-funded publications and journalists. Sartre never joined the communist party but for writing in general terms about revolution he was subjected to lots of criticism. Via the same agents of cultural control, Camus found himself being championed as an exponent of liberal democracy and freedom (which he largely was, but with the vulnerabilities O’Brien is pointing out).

Colonialism O’Brien thinks the mounting vehemence of Camus’s hatred of communism and the historical/philosophical arguments he put forward in The Rebel to argue that communist regimes were uniquely, and inevitably, evil and repressive – masked a very bad conscience about the equally inevitable violence and repression of the French Empire, which had started as soon as the World War ended with violent suppression of independence movements in Algeria and Indo-China, to name the two biggest.

Exile and the Kingdom (1957) O’Brien dates these six short stories to just before the Algerian war broke out. Interestingly, O’Brien sees La Femme adultère and Le Renégat as a diptych contrasting heaven and hell. In the first a bored ignored wife has a mystical experience under the stars of the Algerian night sky; the latter is the demented monologue of a Christian missionary to native tribes who has had his tongue ripped out and been reduced to madness.

O’Brien notices how all the stories, even the realistic one about workers at a small workshop in Algiers who go on strike – have a dream-like quality. Everything he wrote, no matter how brutally realistic, was pulled towards a kind of allegorical abstractness.

Actuelles III (Chroniques Algériennes) In 1958 Camus published an entire collection devoted to bringing together all his writings on Algeria, O’Brien is correct to describe them as ‘depressing’. I have just read those of them which Camus selected to be included in his selection of journalism, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1961). What’s depressing is their growing irrelevance, which is matched by a steady escalation of high-minded sentiment.

O’Brien catches this in a neat formulation, when he describes them as ‘categorical and resonant in tone, equivocal in substance.’ Yes, it’s the categorical style of all Camus’s factual writing which I find so wearing, the sense that every sentence is pointing out important distinctions and subtleties in what are, in actual fact, a depressingly narrow range of ideas – freedom, oppression, death, life, suicide, freedom, death, rebellion, freedom. Round and round like hamsters in a cage.

The Algerian War of Independence broke out with attacks on French military and civilians on 1 November (All Saints Day) 1954. After a year of escalating massacres and political deadlock, in January 1956 Camus went in person to Algeria and held a public meeting at which he presented his one contribution, the idea of a ‘truce for civilians’ which both sides could abide by. (The speech is reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.) He was barracked by the Europeans and ignored by the Muslims and the meeting broke up in disarray. He wrote numerous articles and interviews, but that was his one and only public intervention. His suggestion sank like a stone. The massacres continued for another six years, spreading to mainland France and leading to the widespread use of torture, before the French eventually conceded defeat and granted Algeria independence on 5 July 1962.

O’Brien is cutting. The Algerian war fatally undermined Camus’s position.

  • In his articles Camus was always careful to balance both sides. This sounds fair but what it really means is that he can’t bring himself to come out and state the fact that the entire disaster is the result of French colonialism, government incompetence, cultural arrogance, and systematic repression (rather like the defeat of France in 1940 – almost like there’s some kind of pattern).
  • Camus consistently ruled out any negotiation with the Front de Libération Nationale (the FLN, the leaders of the Algerian revolt), insisting that: 1. Algeria be restored to peace before 2. discussions with moderate Arab representatives could take place, but 3. Algeria could never be given independence because of its economic and social backwardness. But Camus’s central positions – no negotiation with the FLN, no independence – echoed and in effect supported the main French government policy and the military strategy which, with horrible inevitability, led on to the torture and massacres, and to the rise of the French terrorist organisation, OLS, which would end up trying to assassinate the president and organise a military coup in France. It was a complete dead end.

The volume of essays, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, counterpoints the writings on Algeria and his trip there in 1956, with Camus’s two long pieces about the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet control which took place on October-November of the same year. O’Brien dwells on the way Camus really goes to town on the evil repression of the Hungarian Uprising, and repeats in summary form the argument of The Rebel that communism is somehow uniquely and especially inhumane and violent. Camus tries here (as everywhere in his later writings) to be balance the two sides in the Cold War, to talk about two poles of repression. He goes out of his way to mention that the West, too, practices its oppressions and injustices, but he doesn’t even mention the stupid fiasco of Suez (another great triumph for French strategy and arms) and nowhere gives any sense that Western imperial repression was perceived as just as total and unjust as he thinks communist oppression. He can’t escape his Eurocentric point of view.

For O’Brien, although Camus continued for the last few years of his life with his ‘categorical and resonant’ defences of freedom, in practice he was now a right-wing apologist for the colonialist French government.

The Fall (1956) Camus’s third and final novel began life as a short story for the Exile and the Kingdom  volume. Like many of those stories it has a strong dreamlike quality, what with its fairy tale setting in a foggy, allegorical Amsterdam.

O’Brien brings out the centrality of Christian themes and imagery in this story of a successful society lawyer who loses his confidence, who comes to realise he is a fraud, who undergoes voluntary exile in Amsterdam and can only find release (like the Ancient Mariner) by buttonholing strangers and telling them his strange confession. (Having aligned Camus with the French colonialist government and now emphasising the essentially religious nature of his imaginative vision, for a moment I thought O’Brien might go on to predict that, given another 20 years, Camus might have turned into a crusty, right-wing French chauvinist and Catholic. But no.)

O’Brien says that, in contrast to the short stories of Exile and the Kingdom which are (mostly) hard and unrelenting, The Fall involves a return to irony, pleasure, mystery – the positive and enjoyable qualities of his two earlier novels. He has an interesting reason for this. He speculates it’s because the short stories – especially The Guest – dramatise Camus’s excruciating in the early 1950s, caught between two cultures and two irreconcilable armed camps. Whereas, by the time of The Fall a year or so later, Camus has to some extent reconciled himself to his position as an outsider from both sides.

Thus the Amsterdam of the novel is not only, in thematic terms, the anti-Algeria: foggy and wet to Algeria’s blazing sunshine. Its political significance derives from the narrator of The Fall‘s insistence that it is also like the Limbo of the theologians, neither heaven nor hell, a place outside time, a dream-place where one man sits condemned to tell his story over and again. It is the corner into which Camus has painted himself.

Conclusion

O’Brien heads towards the thundering conclusion that Camus’s political position was flawed and wrong. O’Brien believes that Sartre was right and if Camus had allied himself more equivocally with the Sartre group in criticising Western imperialism, much trouble in both Algeria, and then Vietnam, might have been avoided.

He seriously undermines the idea of Camus as some kind of secular saint, a hero of free speech and humanism. Instead, he sees Camus as the most representative voice of Western consciousness and conscience of his era, not because he was a great liberal, but because he had a crippled, fatal relationship to the colonised Third World.

Trying to do the right thing but according to an entirely Eurocentric set of values, incapable of understanding the rights and demands of the colonial peoples, putting up one impractical idea after another while all the while, in effect, acquiescing in the repressive policies of his government – and finally forced into a humiliating silence – he is the representatively troubled intellectual of the Great Decolonising Era, of the end of the European empires.

This is all brought out much more clearly in the title the book was given in America – Albert Camus of Europe and Africa. It is a grimly tragic view of the man and his stance, but I find it very persuasive, having myself noted the elimination of the Arab presence in his novels, the vehement anti-communism of The Rebel and the surprising presence of Christian themes and ideas throughout his work.

And it isn’t all negative. O’Brien also pays reverence to the strengths of his three flawed but haunting novels and, in particular, his deeply political interpretation of the man and his times lends a new depth and resonance to the short but haunting masterpiece, La Chute.


Credit

Camus (Modern Masters) by Conor Cruise O’Brien was published as part of the Fontana Modern Masters series in 1970. All quotes & references are to the 1976 paperback edition (which cost me 65p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle for France

The Algerian war of independence

Out Of The Shelter by David Lodge (1970)

This is a really good novel, head and shoulders above its predecessors. A plainly-written memoir of a London childhood during the second world war and into the early 1950s, it grows in its later sections into something rich and moving.

Autobiography

Having described his two years’ National Service in Ginger, You’re Barmy, and what it feels like to be a poor, harassed, Catholic, academic researcher in The British Museum Is Falling Down, the latest part of Lodge’s fictionalised autobiography revisits his childhood during the Blitz and his teenage years in the Age of Austerity which followed the war.

Bildungsroman

No real plot. In fact, it raises the question, What is a ‘plot’ and what is just a sequence of the kind of random, arbitrary events which make up an ordinary life? The Germans had thought about this. As long ago as 1819, they invented the term Bildungsroman, a ‘formation-novel’, what we might call a ‘coming-of-age’ novel, where the focus isn’t on a set of discrete events shaped into a ‘plot’, but on how a character is changed and moulded by the forces acting on it during a person’s most impressionable years. Cohesion isn’t created by the progression of one or more storylines in the real world, but by the centrality of the main character who experiences, learns and ‘grows’ through the events which happen to him.

Famous 20th century Bildungsromane include Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence (1913), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916), The Catcher In The Rye (1951) and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960).

Whereas those novels are famous for the intensity of their imagining and the power of their style, Lodge’s contribution to the genre is – in line with the tone and character of the previous two novels – a much more modest, plainly-written account of a shy, timid, arty boy brought up in a narrow, parochial, lower-middle-class environment who, in the book’s second half, begins to feel his intelligence is exceptional and singles him out from his insular environment.

He looked at their faces, seeing his success reflected unselfishly there, and for the first time in his life he sensed the possibility that he might not be entirely ordinary. It was a wonderful feeling, but there was no vanity in it: he merely accepted it humbly, like a grace which had descended upon him. (1985 Penguin edition, p.212)

Sections

The novel (or lightly novelised autobiography) is divided into four sections:

1. The Shelter (pp.3-53)

Lodge was born in 1935 to parents who lived in south-east London, so would have been 5-years-old during the Blitz. The central character, Tim Young, is the same age, as we see through his eyes the terrifying world of grown-ups – his father an Air Raid warden, his uncle Jack in the Air Force, his harassed mother and much older sister – as they eat little meals, worry about the war, and cower in the small metal shelter at the end of the little garden from the Nazis’ murderous bombs. One catastrophic night the house of his best friend is bombed, and so he and his mother are evacuated to the countryside.

There were no more nights of getting up and going up the road to Jill’s house. Jill’s house wasn’t there any more, and Jill had gone to heaven and so had her Mummy, and her Daddy had gone back to the Air Force. Timothy and his mother went to live in the country where they didn’t have air raids. They lived in a place called Blyfield, in a dark narrow house near the gasworks. The house belonged to Mrs Tonks, who was fat and smelled funny. (p.15)

Anyone who’s read their Eng. Lit. will recognise the influence of James Joyce, who starts The Portrait of The Artists As A Young Man in baby language appropriate to the very earliest memories of the protagonist, before slowly maturing the language and phraseology to match the development of his hero. Lodge does the same here, but in his characteristically low-key, undemanding way. Whereas Joyce is deadly serious and makes it completely programmatic for his text, Lodge takes what he needs to create the effect but doesn’t apply it slavishly. His attitude can either be seen as dilettantish or as relaxed and realistic. He is no Modernist pioneer. It is 1970 and all the good ideas have been had.

2. Coming out (pp.57-117)

It is 1951, the Festival of Britain is on, and Tim, now a timid, but precociously intellectual 16-year-old, is invited out to Germany by his much older sister, Kate, who started off working for the American forces in England, and was invited first to Paris, and then onto Germany, where she has settled. Her horizons have been hugely expanded and she invites her kid brother to come and share.

The text is full of convincing details and descriptions of a teenage boy leaving home for the first time. It powerfully conveys the sense of trepidation, embarrassment and excitement at leaving a suburban, parochial England of small minds and narrow horizons, to escape abroad, crossing the Channel then getting the train to Heidelberg by himself, alert to the dizzying foreign smells and situations and languages.

The train stopped three times in Brussels, but nobody got out. On the contrary, hundreds more people got in. The corridor filled up. His bag disappeared under a mountain of other people’s baggage, and he was unable even to reach it. The air was thick with pungent cigarette smoke, the odours of cheese, garlic and perspiration, and a mixture of foreign accents – French, German and something in between which he thought was probably Flemish. (p.78)

Once arrived at the historic and picturesque old city of Heidelberg, Timothy mingles little with the German population, instead moving in the charmed circle of his sister and her swanky, exciting American friends and the book conveys the dazzling impact of American wealth: mountains of food, burgers, fries, milk shakes and sodas, huge cars, drive-in movies; everything designed for pleasure and convenience, the precise opposite of his cramped, Little England Catholic family, where everything seemed designed for embarrassment, failure, shame and humiliation.

3. Out of the Shelter (pp.121-259)

In this, the third and longest section, Timothy learns about life. He (and we) enjoy trips to the Alps, dinners at restaurants half way up mountains, cruises in huge American cars, as we find out more about Kate’s circle of go-getting Yanks, the two cheerleaders Vince Vernon and Geoff, and a handful of couples with their bickering and jealousies, all observed and mulled over by Timothy with growing confidence. But Vince is the most interesting character, a playboy fun guy but who shows a surprisingly deep feel for the Nazi regime, its successes and failures and weirdness.

Another thread is the character of Don Kowlaski, separate from the group, intellectual, restlessly haunted by the Holocaust, left wing in an American way, feeding Timothy ideas about the rights and wrongs of the war.

In another strand, Timothy befriends a young German boy, Rudolf, a bit older than him, who fought in the Hitler youth and lost an arm in combat, before being captured and sent a prisoner of war back to England. Timothy goes cycling with him, visits his down at heel Nazi father, ekeing out a living in a dismal village, and is confronted by the confusion of war and the post-war, comparing his own life to Rudolf’s, puzzled by the contradictions of adult life.

It all came back to him suddenly, and it was as if a cloud had passed over the sun. Jill and Auntie Nora, killed in the garden. And Uncle Jack afterwards, shot down over Germany. He felt a sudden coldness for Rudolf. Not that he was to blame personally: but it seemed a kind of betrayal of the dead to be, to be… well, too easy and friendly with a German. Surely if two countries hated each other enough to kill each other in hundreds and thousands, the hate ought to last a bit longer than six years? (p.185)

While all this thoughtfulness about the war is going on, on the one hand – as well as Timothy’s never ending bewilderment at the sheer wealth and luxury of the Americans in their sealed-off camp – he is also discovering sex. A friend of Kate’s lets him camp out in her room in a young woman’s hostel while she is away on holiday, on condition that he stays hidden until the girls have all left for work. He is old enough now to get erections, to be looking at girls his own age and a little older and imagining them naked.

In a great scene, Timothy realises that the room’s walk-in wardrobe has cracks in it which allow and even amplify the sound from the next room, and one night he overhears a young couple going for it hammer and tongs next door, and finds himself ejaculating unavoidably. I worried this might give rise to shudders of Catholic guilt but here, as at the other moments of Timothy’s sex life, Lodge is blissfully realistic and accepting of teenage male sexuality.

Similarly, I feared that at the pinnacle of the novel, Lodge would impose the kind of melodramatic incident which concludes Ginger, You’re Barmy; that there’d either be a garish tragedy – someone would die or commit suicide – or his sexual experiments would lead to disaster – discovery and punishment by some girl’s parents.

In the event, to my immense relief, neither of these things happens. The love strand slowly evolves over the last 50 pages as Timothy attends a brilliantly observed teenage party (aboard a cruise boat on the river), featuring the American girl he’s been shyly making eyes at and – wonder of wonders! – when the lights go out, she not only lets him kiss her, but lets him touch her breast. In fact, he manages to invite her the next day to his room at the women’s hostel where they lie all one afternoon, shyly kissing then exploring each other’s bodies, in a natural, unembarrassed and touching scene.

Which moves straight into the next and final tableau, the climax of the adult strand, where all the grown up gang of Kate’s friends are invited to a party at Vince and Geoff’s flat which looks over the town on the night of the big fireworks display. They are getting drunk, badly loudly drunk, oohing and aahing at the fireworks, when Vince impishly brings out his collection of Nazi regalia and persuades them all to dress up. Tim’s sister, Kate, is already rebelling against the dark mood of the party, when Don, the left-leaning academic Yank arrives, and insists Kate and Tim leave with him, and – in the section’s final flourishes – throws the accusation at Vince that he is gay and having an affair with Rudolf, the young one-armed ex-Hitler Youth boy.

– I think I know what you are, Vernon, said Don. You get off on one-armed guys, do you?
Timothy felt Vince’s grip loosen on his sleeve and fall away.
– That Kraut… he said thickly.
– He didn’t say much, but I can read between the lines, said Don. (p.259)

And there it ends, abruptly and puzzlingly, not really explained, like so many events and encounters in ‘real’ life.

4. Epilogue

Some 15 years later Tim is a successful academic, with a wonderful wife and two gorgeous children and has been invited by Kate to come meet her at a resort in southern California. In these last pages they chat about his Heidelberg trip, so long ago, so formative, his first experience of the big wide world. And then Tim realises his big sister is crying. She never married and hasn’t thought about those far-off happy times for years and is somehow crying for her lost, carefree youth.

Go swim, she says, and as he dives into the warm American pool he thinks how lucky he has been, not to be snuffed out in a war, not to have died in a car crash, to be alive now, in the warm pool under the blue Californian sky, in love with his wife, in love with life. And the book ends with an almost panic-stricken moment as he feels how wonderful life is, but how fragile, something terrible could happen at any moment, as he swims over to embrace his wife in the water.

Style

The classic coming-of-age novels I mentioned above are all famous not only for their taboo-breaking treatments of childhood and adolescence, but for the innovative style they used, whether set in Nottingham, Dublin or New York.

Lodge is not an extravagant stylist. In this novel you can see him shedding some of the more literary pretensions which clung around the earlier books in favour of a plain-speaking style, generally devoid of metaphor or simile, avoiding description or the lengthy creation of a scene and setting for their own sake, preferring a brisk set-up and then factual notation of what is done and what is said.

The news of his GCE success made Timothy suddenly anxious to get home, to reconnect himself with reality again. He had made a mistake, he felt, in agreeing to stay in Heidelberg for another week, just for the sake of seeing a fireworks display. The weekend of their return from Garmisch was dull. The rain continued. (p.213)

In his previous novels Lodge had demonstrated an interest in the architectonics of literature ie he gave a lot of thought to shaping, to structuring what was essentially (quite banal) autobiographical material, in order to give it more interest, whether by adding a rather melodramatic plot (Ginger) or elaborate literary parodies and pastiches (British Museum). Both felt rather bolted-on.

This novel felt distinctly more mature, in that the events were left to speak for themselves. If there were any ‘themes’ they emerged quite naturally from the conversations of the characters, from the inevitable events of his holiday. Nothing felt contrived or heavy-handed.

When he is on the bed in the hostel room with the 16-year-old girl, slowly stripping and ‘petting’, he tries his best but ejaculates the moment she touches him and then is overcome by mortification and embarrassment. What makes the scene is the way she touches his back and says his name, and recalls him, and then they talk sweetly and honestly for many more pages. It feels sweet and uncontrived and natural and candid.

Similarly, I had a bad moment when Vince, the Nazi regalia-loving party animal, at the height of his rather crazy party, as he is describing how Hitler’s last days led up to his suicide, put an antique Luger to his head, and I thought ‘Oh Christ, he’s going to kill himself’, and it will ruin the book by shedding a melodramatic and lurid light back over the entire novel.

But, thank God, he doesn’t. The gun just goes click and the worst that happens is Don says, ‘Come on Kate, let’s get out of here,’ and throws the accusation that Vince is gay at him in such a quick veiled way, that his guests wouldn’t understand even if they heard it over the loud party jazz.

And that’s it, the end of the main text. These are the kind of memorable but not particularly earth-shattering things which do happen and which you remember as changing your opinion about something or someone, giving you insights into people and the world. They’re the kind of fairly striking but not epochal moments which fairly ordinary lives are made out of, but are rarely so well captured in fiction.

And that’s why I think this novel is a real triumph, one of the best books I’ve read in ages, for the quiet undemonstrative way it captures the fabric of actual lived life, and makes it interesting and memorable, without melodrama or contrivance. Very difficult thing to do, to judge by how rare it is.

And so the short Epilogue is intensely moving, not because it ties up any particular loose ends or reveals any great secrets, but because it has the presence of real, lived experience – building on the laborious detail of the previous 260 pages, Timothy’s sense that he has lived a charmed life and then his small panic at the fragility of it all, seems suddenly as intense and real as one of your own thoughts or feelings.

This is a really good novel -I’d strongly recommend it to anyone.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Out Of The Shelter

Penguin paperback edition of Out Of The Shelter

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses
1980 – How Far Can You Go?
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Bomber by Len Deighton (1970)

The book’s sub-title says it all: ‘Events Relating to the Last Flight of an RAF Bomber Over Germany on the Night of June 31st, 1943‘. At 550-pages long this is an epic description of a fateful 24 hours in 1943, starting on an RAF bomber base and following in detail the lives of the RAF crews and relatives who are about to take part in a massive night bombing raid on a town in Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley, simultaneously introducing and describing a wide range of German air force, army and civilian characters who will be on the receiving end.

Eventually, so intertwined do the characters’ stories become that Deighton is able, for example, to intersperse dialogue between crew in a bomber in the air with dialogue between the German radar team tracking them on the ground in alternating sentences. This ‘sandwich’ technique is deployed numerous times at the book’s climax creating multiple levels of dramatic intensity.

Emotional impact

Once the bombing begins, the death toll commences. It is difficult to cope with getting to know such a large cast of characters (maybe 50-plus named individuals), only to see almost all of them die horribly – eviscerated, burnt by wildfires or phosphorus, blown up, shot to pieces, cut in half, exploded, beaten to death, crushed under rubble and much more – I am still upset and stunned. The emotional impact is devastating. What horror, from start to finish, what inconceivable waste and pain and suffering. What terrible ordeals the people alive during this time (like my parents) went through. This novel is a great warning, a sober, understated plea from the past.

Information strategy

Deighton’s Ipcress novels (1962-66) used a wide array of metatextual tricks and gimmicks, including photocopies of letters, ‘secret’ files, footnotes and detailed appendices (plus free pullout spy kits in the early hardback editions) to give the text a sense of verisimilitude (and larky fun).

You might have expected this deeply historical novel, with its claims to documentary accuracy and thoroughness, to have used a similar strategy – maybe appendices on the structure of German air defence, diagrams of the main types of bomber and fighter involved, and so on (granted, there are copies of two official letters in the epilogue).

But Deighton adopts a different approach, incorporating all the technical information into the text and narrative. This means some pages read rather like encyclopedia articles and the text as a whole is very information-heavy, but has the advantage that the right information is presented in the right place, at its most dramatically relevant point.

Sobre style

In the Ipcress novels Deighton delighted in writing cryptically and allusively, deliberately omitting explanatory sentences in events large and small, so the reader was continually pausing to put two and two together or having to reread whole sections to figure out what just happened. These tricks and turns are part of what make the Ipcress novels so inventive and entertaining.

The style here is much more traditional, conservative, even, as, after all, is the subject matter. There must be hundreds of WWII novels – how many of them are experimental in tone or style? No, in this novel chapters open by setting a scene or introducing a character, and move on to dialogue or dramatic events, in an entirely traditional way.

Arguably, the space occupied in the Ipcress novels by jokey playfulness has been replaced by the dense weight of technical information. Only very occasionally, half a dozen times in the 550 pages, does the old tricksy Deighton twinkle for a moment.

Historical knowledge

Readers who don’t relish technical descriptions of planes and bombs and guns and radar etc might feel overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of Deighton’s knowledge of the period, not just the detailed descriptions of preparing, fuelling and flying a WWII bomber, but of every single part of all the equipment involved, as well as the attention he pays to ranks and decorations and uniforms and bureaucracy of the German side, the Luftwaffe, Wehrmacht and SS.

It amounts to a dazzling display of knowledge of the period, completely convincing you of every detail. You are there, the text integrating awesome amounts of technical information into its brisk heartless storylines until you just take it for granted that Deighton’s account of the most arcane aspects of bomber design or SS protocol is correct, and concentrate on the characters and the hideous sequence of brutal ends which overwhelm them.

Which is an enormous tribute to how seamlessly Deighton weaves a vast amount of factual information into his fictional narrative.

Clinical detachment

Deighton is a warmer writer than, say, Frederick Forsyth. There is an undercurrent of humour throughout his writing. The delineation of the characters may be a little schematic – the efficient bomber captain (Lambert), the sneaky station commander (Sweet) brown-nosing for promotion, the lonely wing commander (Munro), the humane German radar commandant (August Bach), the housekeeper half his age who loves him (Anna-Luisa) – but Deighton goes to lengths to humanise them, giving them all detailed and persuasive backstories. If the characterisation doesn’t have the depth and range we associate with non-genre ‘literature’, it is enough for a novel like this which in the end isn’t really about humans, but about the grotesque, vast killing machine of modern warfare.

But very often (too often?) the carefully constructed personality of one of the characters, someone we’ve got to know and sympathise with, is cruelly and clinically ended. After following August and Anna-Luisa’s love affair for over 500 pages it is hard to know what to feel when, on the verge of being freed from the cellar where she’s been trapped with Bach’s young son, she opens her mouth to speak and she, the boy and all their rescuers are vapourised by a British high explosive bomb. It is typical of Deighton’s clinical approach that he explains in flat, technical detail the process by which the delayed fuse reached the point of exploding at precisely that moment.

This abrupt, brutal end is typical of most of the characters in the book but the emotionless description of the mechanical process which results in such devastating loss of life is also typical. Deighton makes no comment. The comment is implicit in the telling. But nonetheless it leaves the reader high and dry, stunned, not knowing where to look or what to feel except a steadily mounting sense of horror and numbness.

A sample

This passage epitomises the technical, the clinical and the dramatic approach of this harrowing novel.

Three 20-mm MG FF cannons were fitted in the nose of Löwenherz’s Junkers 88R. In sequence of threes there was a thin-cased shell containing 19.5 grammes of Hexogen A1 high-explosive filling, an explosive armour-piercing shell with a reinforced point and an incendiary that burned at a temperature betwenn 2,000 and 3,000 degrees centigrade for nearly one second. Each cannon was firing at the rate of of 520 rounds per minute and was fed by a drum containing 60 rounds. So in seven seconds all of the cannon drums were empty and 180 shells had been fired at [the Lancaster bomber]. The target measured 300 square feet, and 38 struck the aeroplane. Theoretically 20 shells would have constituted an average lethal blow.

‘My legs,’ screamed Fleming. ‘God! Help me, Mother, Mother, Mother!’

The first shell that penetrated the aircraft came through the forward hatch. Missing the bomb aimer by only an inch, it exploded on contact with the front turret mounting-ring. It dislocated the turret, severed the throttle and rudder controls, burst the compressed-air tank and broke open the window-spray glycol container. In the airstream the coolant atomised into a cloud of white mist. One twenty-sixth of a second later the second shell came through the bomb compartment and exploded under the floor of the navigator’s position. In the mysterious manner of explosions, it sucked the navigator downwards, while blowing the astrodome, and the wireless operator standing under it, out into the night unharmed. Although without his parachute.

Three shells – one HE, one AP and one incendiary – exploded in glancing contact with the starboard fuselage exterior immediately to the rear of the mid-upper turret. Apart from mortally harming the gunner the explosion of the HE shell fractured the metal formers at a place where, after manufacture, the rear part of the fuselage is bolted on. The incendiary shell completed the severance. A structural bisection of [the Lancaster] occurred one and a half minutes later and two thousand feet lower. Long before this, another HE shell passed through the elevator hinge-bracket of the tail and blew part of the servo trim assembly into the rear turret with such force that it decapitated the rear gunner. Those six hits were the most telling ones, but there were thirty-two others. Some ricocheted off the engines and wings and penetrated the fuselage almost horizontally.

He couldn’t hold her, he couldn’t. Oh dear God, his arms and legs! Dropping through the night like a paper aeroplane. ‘I’m sorry, chaps,’ he shouted, for he felt a terrible sense of guilt. Involuntarily his bowels and bladder relaxed and he felt himself befouled. ‘I’m sorry.’

It was no use for Fleming to scream apologies; there was no one aboard to hear him. He outlived any of his crew, for from 16,000 feet the wireless operator falling at 120 mph (the terminal velocity of his weight) reached the ground ninety seconds later. He made an indentation twelve inches deep. This represented a deceleration equivalent to 450 times the force of gravity. He split open like a slaughtered animal and died instantly. Fleming, still strapped into the pilot’s seat and aghast at his incontinence, hit the earth (along with the front of hte fuselage, two Rolls-Royce engines and most of the main spar) some four minutes later. To him it seemed like four hours.
(HarperCollins 1995 paperback edition p.373)

Bomber is a devastating book, a masterpiece of historical reconstruction and dramatic imagining.

Related links

Cover of a paperback edition of Bomber

Cover of a paperback edition of Bomber

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Running Blind by Desmond Bagley (1970)

How in hell did Kennikin get ahead of me? That was my first bitter thought.
But idle thoughts were no use and action was necessary. (Chapter 5, III)

This is a first-person spy thriller told by British counter-espionage agent Alan Stewart and set in Iceland, where he has gone to do a simple courier job which goes badly wrong, and where he also has an apartment and a girlfriend who swiftly gets dragged into the turmoil.

Facts

Being Factual Bagley, the location is the cue for plenty of facts and figures about Icelandic geography, history, language, food and customs.

I frowned. Most people think that because Greenland is covered with ice and is wrongly named then so is Iceland, and there’s not much ice about the place. They’re dead wrong. Thirty-six icefields glaciate one-eighth of the country and one of them alone – Vatnajökull – is as big as all the glaciated areas in Scandinavia and the Alps put together. (Ch 4, II)

There’s even a brisk summary of the most famous of the Icelandic sagas, Njal’s saga.

Voice

The narrator’s voice is mostly very flat and factual. This is Bagley’s default style – no metaphors or similes, precious little description – just facts. But having just read Landslide, where Bagley creates a credibly ballsy Canadian persona, I know it’s also a deliberate choice. The most noticeable element of the style is how much the hero swears, saying ‘bloody’ and ‘bastard’ a lot, in a way he didn’t in the earlier books, and Alistair MacLean never does. I blame it on the Permissive Society.

‘I don’t know, damn it! I wish to hell I did.’ I retrieved the carbine. ‘Let’s get on with it.’
So on we went along that bastard of a track, round and round, up and down, but mostly up, until we had climbed right to the edge of Vatnajökull, next to the ice. (Ch 4, III)

Phony philosophy

‘There’s only one way of opting out of the world and that’s by dying,’ said Slade with phony philosophy.

Adventure stories are primarily entertainment and the entertainment is in exercising the predatory parts of our brains, either in calculating and scheming against the enemy or in direct physical action. Adventure authors could be distributed around a graph with axes for cerebrality and action, with Le Carré at the chess-playing pole, MacLean at the blood and gore physicality pole and Deighton a rather confusing combination of the two.

Bagley is an odd case because there’s quite a lot of cold factual information (gleaned from enyclopedias and then sown into the text) but no subtlety at all. There are none of the abrupt twists and unexpected revelations which make MacLean’s books so riveting, there is none of the super-subtlety of le Carré’s psychological battles or the clever-clever gaming of Deighton’s texts.

Bagley’s simple heros commit to a course of action and then see it through, overcoming various physical challenges on the way and getting the girl in the end. The goodies remain goodies. There is a clean-cut, honest innocence about Bagley’s novels. Although they make a few fashionably jaded comments about contemporary life these are just Daily Mail whinging ie they don’t penetrate the surface, they aren’t fully dramatised in the story. Characters may spout a bit of philosophy or politics at the appropriate moment in the plot – ‘If only the people back home knew what wicked deeds were done to keep them safe’ or some such – but it is phony philosophy, untroubling and easy-to-digest oiling for the machinery of the plot.

In this overtly spy novel he makes a stab at the cynicism and world-weariness which are associated with the genre – his boss seems to be playing a double game, sending one of his colleagues in to assassinate him and threatening to alert his KGB opposite number to his whereabouts – but it is an easy and obvious cynicism, expressed, in this example, in the tritest metaphor of all for espionage, the game of chess.

Graham was dead – a pawn suddenly swept from the board. He had died because he obeyed orders blindly, just as I had done in Sweden; he had died because he didn’t really understand what he was doing. (Ch 3, II)

If that’s meant to have dramatic impact it fails because Bagley is announcing as news what have become, in the 45 years since this novel was published, the basic clichés of the genre: trust no-one, everyone is out to get you, your own side are more dangerous than the nominal ‘enemy’, we’re all just disposable pawns in a Great Game.

Similarly, although the novel gives the appearance of plot twists, there aren’t really any: Stewart hates his boss, Slade, from the start and, it turns out, justifiably; he fears his Russian enemy Krennikin from the start and is right to do so; he is saddened that his old mate Jack Case seems to be siding with Slade, but he turns out to be the ‘Genuine Buddy Who Is Cruelly Betrayed’ figure. What would have surprised me a bit is if his long-term girlfriend had turned out to be spying on him but this is Bagley so, no, she is as good as he paints her from the start, in fact comes up trumps and saves the day.

Decisive action beats idle thoughts

This book dates from before the Great Cynicism of the 1970s and suffers from its simplicity and honesty. But whereas crashing obviousness is not a problem for the high-spirited heroes of such straighforward actioners as The Golden Keel, The Vivero Letter, Landslide or The Spoilers who just have to biff the bad guys, it is a problem when Bagley attempts a genre which has come to signify subtlety, complex undercurrents and confusion. He is good at action, at the practicalities of disposing of a body, fording a river, stalking an assassin, dressing a wound and the rest of it – a lot less good at psychology.

We expect our spies to be clever if nothing else. The Ipcress narrator is always several steps ahead of the reader, as is Le Carré’s Smiley. Bagley’s Stewart is the opposite, slower than the reader. It is one thing to admit you’re at a loss in an adventure story, especially when you’re a Bagley hero masquerading as Joe Ordinary and wanting to involve the reader in your perilous plight. But we expect our spies to be smart and are disappointed when we can figure out things quicker than them.

‘I don’t know,’ I said despondently. ‘It’s too damned complicated and I don’t know enough’… I needed more than help, I needed a new set of brains to work out this convoluted problem.

These remarks come under the category of identifiers, phrases designed to help or make the reader identify with the hero. Bagley does this more than MacLean; he is known for the (supposed) ‘ordinary’ nature of most of his heroes. Thus the ‘thoughts’ of a Bagley protagonist given in the text are at least as much to rope the reader in, to make the hero accessible to the average reader, as an actual attempt to mimic the thought processes of a spy. If they are meant to be his thought processes, then he’s pretty dim.

This playing to the gallery also explains his late ’60s sexism.

I set out toward the Land Rover at a dead run, holding Elin’s arm, but she dragged free. ‘The coffee pot!’
‘The hell with it!’ Women are funny creatures; this was not a time to be thinking of domestic economy. I grabbed her arm again and dragged her along.

These kinds of remarks aren’t interesting for anything they tell us about Mr Bagley, they are much more interesting as an insight into how he conceives of his audience, its reflexes and expectations, ie middle-aged, middle England, Daily Mail-reading men, complete with their prejudices against women, the trendy young, foreigners and so on. The steady stream of not-too-demanding quips, would-be cynical remarks, moans about Modern Life or very obvious quotes from the only poet his readers have heard of, Shakespeare, paint a vivid portrait of the target audience for this kind of flat, efficient, clichéd melodrama. It’s effective and professional at what it does, but this is not a good book.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Running Blind

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Running Blind

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

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