The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera (1972)

Kundera’s third novel feels shorter and more streamlined than the first two. At 184 pages (cf The Joke pp.267 and Life Is Elsewhere pp.306) it is a slim, quick, funny, if sometimes shocking read. The first two novels, though comic in tone and often in content, contained big wodges of serious, sometimes tragic material about politics and repression under the Czech communist state. In The Farewell Waltz some of this content intrudes, in the character of Jakub the embittered political dissident. But apart from him, the rest of the story feels much closer to a farce, a sex comedy. According to the internet, a farce is:

a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations

That doesn’t really describe this book, but it does gesture towards the way The Farewell Party begins with a predicament and then goes on to wring as many comic situations and variations out of it as possible, placing its characters in improbable and unlikely situations in order to extract as much comedy, and plain absurdity, as possible.

The plot

First Day (Monday)

Klima is a famous Czech jazz trumpeter. Two months before the action starts he played a gig at a health spa in the country, he and the band were treated to an after-gig party by a rich American staying at the spa for his health (Bartleff), and Klima ended up shagging one of the spa nurses, Ruzena. Now she’s pregnant, and on the second page of the book she rings him up to let him know. Thus the ball is set rolling. The book is divided into five sections titled simply First Day, Second day etc. and it all happens over this tight, compressed timespan.

Klima is a coward, a timid man, who takes advantage of his fame to seduce women, but always feels nervous about it beforehand, guilty about it afterwards. Deep down, he is deeply, sincerely in love with his wife.

He tells the band he’s rehearsing with about the call, and his bandmates are sanguine, suggesting a variety of tactics to fob her off. The young guitarist (18) even suggests bumping her off in a supposed ‘road accident’. The reader is a little startled.

Klima thanks them all, then phones Ruzena and says he’ll come and visit her tomorrow. Then goes home and cobbles together a cock-and-bull story to tell his wife, Kamila, about having to play some socialist party youth conference or other. She doesn’t believe a word. She is well-attuned to his infidelities and lies. He knows he doesn’t believe her.

Second Day (Tuesday)

Klima motors to the spa and looks up Bartleff, the American patient with the bad heart, who hosted the party where Klima met the fateful nurse. He shares his problem (he’s gotten a nurse at the spa pregnant) with this bluff man of the world, who offers various suggestions.

Klima is surprised to learn that Bartleff paints religious pictures. There’s a new one, of Saint Lazarus, on the wall of his apartment. Bartleff explains it is blue because real saints’ halos really are blue. Klima is only paying half attention.

Klima phones Ruzena at the bath where she’s working and arranges to meet her after work, at 4pm. Then Bartleff takes him across the way, to the clinic, to meet Dr Skreta, the leading specialist at the spa.

IRONY The spa exists to treat infertile women. The place is packed with well-off, middle-aged women who can’t get pregnant. It is therefore a primal, structural irony that the entire plot rotates around a young woman who has gotten pregnant, after just one act of hurried coitus, but the father wants to terminate it.

Throughout the conversations with his band, and then with Bartleff, and now with Dr Skreta, the men discuss women as a problematic category, in an objectifying way, which I imagine most modern readers would find horrifying. I couldn’t tell whether the guitarist’s casual suggestion that they murder the nurse, and Klima’s casual acceptance of it, was meant to be ironic or straightfaced. The book is stuffed with men casually discussing the trouble with women and the problem with women and how to handle women and the differences between blondes and brunettes – dismissive and gross generalisations, which would give a feminist a heart attack.

Anyway, when Klima and Bartleff explain Klima’s problem, Skreta is immediately sympathetic. He tells them the next abortion committee meeting is on Friday and he can slot Klima and Nurse Ruzena straight in. And he shares a private passion of his which is that he is himself a keen jazz drummer. Could Klima maybe see his way to playing a gig with him, and a bassist who also works at the spa?

So anxious is he to secure the decision for an abortion that Klima would agree to anything. Good, yes, whatever. They set the concert date for this Thursday, the day after tomorrow. Galvanised, Dr Skreta vows to set about creating the posters and printing up tickets.

Klima meets Ruzena at 4pm outside the baths and takes her to the spa dining rooms. Here he commences his strategy: he tells Ruzena that he loves her so much that’s why he didn’t phone her at all for two months after their liaison; it was because he was afraid of the intensity of his emotions. He carries on despite her sceptical protestations, to assert that of course he will leave his wife, and wants to marry Ruzena – she begins to soften and swoon – BUT: the first few years of any marriage are the most blissful and he wants to spend them with her, unobstructed, unencumbered with a new baby. And that’s why he thinks she should terminate the pregnancy.

He suggests they get out of the dining rooms – where he is uncomfortably aware that everyone in the place can see him. Ruzena is impressed that he has a car, and so is easily persuaded to go for a drive in the country. Klima puts his arm round her as he drives and presses home his advantage, spinning fantasies about where they’ll go once he’s divorced his wife and married her.

He stops the car at a scenic spot and they walk into the country. He kisses her, a long lingering passionate kiss. He is in the middle of describing how Italy will be the first stop and he’s in the middle of painting the beauties of Italy when she surprises him by giving in. Yes. OK. Alright. She’ll place herself in his hands. She’ll agree to go to the abortion committee on Friday. (p.44)

Klima can’t believe his luck. In the end it was so easy. They walk back to the car, her head on his shoulder, but as they get there realise a motorbike is parked next to it and the motorcyclist looms threateningly up to Klima and starts telling him that, just because he’s famous, he thinks he can get away with anything; well, not this time, buddy! Klima hasn’t a clue what’s going on, Ruzena tells the man to shut up and go away and scrambles into the car, as the man turns towards her side, Klima jumps in his side and accelerates off. She explains he’s a maniac who stalks her. We will, in fact, come to learn that this is Ruzena’s boyfriend, a local rough named Franta, who has had sex with her and who may, indeed, actually be the father of her baby…

Arriving back at the spa, Klima escorts Ruzena to her nurse accommodation in the stylishly named Karl Marx house, before walking thoughtfully to Bartleff’s flat. He knocks and when there’s no answer, tentatively opens the door. For a moment he is awed. The room is lit by a soft blue glow. Remember the dialogue when Bartleff explained that he liked painting religious pictures? And that he had painted St Lazarus’s halo blue because that is actually the colour of saints’ halos? Well… Klima backs out and quietly closes the door, but next minute it is opened by Bartleff looking fresh and wearing the same clothes he had on that morning, who welcomes him inside, rejoices when he hears that Ruzena has given in and agreed to an abortion, and plies him with food (crackers and tinned ham). Then waves him off as Klima leaves, belatedly, to drive back to the capital and explain why his day took so long to his long-suffering wife.

Third Day (Wednesday)

A friend of Dr Skreta’s arrives. This is Jakub, who was in trouble with the authorities in the grim years after the 1948 coup, and for whom Dr Skreta knocked up a blue pill of concentrated poison, so that if Jakub was arrested, before he was tortured, he could control his own destiny and end it all. Now he announces he is leaving the country, he has official permission and is going to a teaching position abroad. He wants to return the pill. Dr Skreta won’t hear of it and pushes it back into Jakub’s hand when it is proferred.

(There is some very casual comedy, when Skreta forces his friend to accompany him into the examination room where a woman is lying on her back, naked, with her legs wide open so Skreta can examine her. It is a feature of Skreta’s character that he takes all this in his stride and tells the nurse to fetch his fellow doctor a white coat, and then confidently asks for his second opinion. So that the lady on the table is not discombobulated by the presence of another man looking at her privates, but quite flattered to have two specialists examining her case. Dr Skreta’s boundless self-confidence will recur at important moments later in the story.)

Jakub is here because he’s come to say goodbye to his ‘ward’, Olga. This young woman is the daughter of a friend of Jakub’s who was arrested and executed by the communists in the purges of the early 1950s when Olga was just seven. Jakub vowed to look after her, became her legal guardian, and when she left school got her a job here at the spa, via his old friend Dr Skreta.

Skreta says Olga is fine and tells Jakub which accommodation block to find her in. He also tells him about a) the famous jazz trumpeter Klima, his problem with the pregnant nurse, and how Skreta is going to play in a concert with him this Thursday. And b) about his latest money-making scheme. You know the rich American, Bartleff? He paints oil pictures. Skreta is trying to persuade Bartleff to let him become his agent and sell the paintings to gullible ladies at the spa, and take a commission.

Jakub shakes his head. He’s known Skreta since school, and he is continually coming up with hare-brained schemes.

We are introduced to Olga. She is bright but not excessively so. She fusses and frets about her appearance and figure. She is called out of the pool by Nurse Ruzena who she cordially dislikes. She makes a fuss about what to wear for Jakub, makes a decision then goes to meet him for lunch in the spa dining room. He tells her he’s leaving the country.

She is sad but, as usual, they end up discussing her father. Recently she’s been receiving letters claiming he wasn’t the political innocent Jakub’s brought her up to believe, but himself a hardline communist and arrester of others, till he himself was consumed.

Jakub’s thread introduces the serious themes of History or, to be precise, the tragic history of Czechoslovakia’s early years under communist rule, when some 100,000 opponents of the regime were imprisoned or sent to camps, and there were successive waves of executions of enemies of the state, traitors and saboteurs. Olga’s questions prompt several basic reflections from Jakub:

1. It was all a long time ago. The Farewell Party was published in 1972, 24 years after the 1948 communist coup, and that’s been long enough for Jakub to reflect that the younger generation can have no idea what it was like and, indeed, even people like himself who lived through it, are starting to forget what it was really like.

‘Time flies so fast, and the past is becoming harder and harder to understand.’ (p.60)

2. And, cynically, he remarks that if he’s learned anything from the experience of living through those times, it’s that, most people spend most of their lives living in a small bubble of family and work, but if History intervenes, and if the situation becomes stressed and difficult, then people will do anything to survive. Now the dust has settled, he thinks there was no ultimate difference between the communist authorities who locked up all those innocent people, and the victims. People are people.

There isn’t a person on this planet who is not capable of sending a fellow human being to death without any great pangs of conscience. At least I have never found anyone like that. (p.61)

Cut to Ruzena’s morning at work, where her fellow nurses flock round her and ask how her meeting with the famous trumpeter went. They are disappointed when she says he’s persuaded her to terminate the pregnancy. One of them gets a tube of pills out of a drawer and gives it to Ruzena, tranquilisers to calm her nerves.

Exiting the building she is again confronted by her young man, Franta, who begs her to be friendly and loving to her, but she has set her sights high, on a national celebrity, Klima and tells him to bugger off. She tells him he’s driving her frantic, he’ll drive her to suicide if he keeps harassing her! (p.66)

Back in Olga’s room, she and Jakub continue their conversation. He tells her about his friend Dr Skreta and his eccentric ideas. On an impulse he pulls out the blue pill, the suicide pill, and explains how Dr Skreta made it for him with no questions asked, just before Jakub was hauled off to prison. (He was lucky; he only served one year.)

Blue symbolism The colour blue recurs in key symbols. The sky is blue above this rather fairy tale spa. The mysterious halo in Bartleff’s room is blue. And the pill of death is blue.

The dog squad

As well as an irritating young boyfriend, Ruzena also has an embarrassing old dad, who has joined some cockamamy squad of old codgers who’ve decided to round up all the waifs and strays which are pooing and peeing all over the spa. The importance of this for the plot is that it triggers the deep dislike between Jakub and Ruzena. For Ruzena has just finished her shift and is walking between buildings, her head full of thoughts about the two worlds she inhabits: the stifling provincial one of the spa, characterised by hordes of fat middle-aged women and hardly any eligible men, only biker losers like Franta – and the big wide glamorous world of Prague and beyond, with which she associates Klima. Throughout the book she vacillates between going along with his request for an abortion, and then in a panic realising having his baby is her only hope for escaping her sad little destiny.

She is in just such a wavering state when she sees her dad and a few of the other dog squad emerging from bushes where they’ve been hunting dogs with long poles with wire nooses at the end. They’ve captured a dachshund. Suddenly Ruzena sees Jakub walking along the pavement towards her. He was sitting with Olga earlier, Olga who she hates for her superior manner. Now Jakub calls to her ‘Come here, don’t be afraid, come to me’ and is startled until, a second later, she realises he is talking to a dog, to a squat ugly bulldog which was behind her. He has completely blanked her in preference for some ugly mutt! The humiliation!

As Jakub picks it up to protect it from the dog hunters Ruzena steps forward and grabs its collar, telling him he’ll report him to the authorities. They engage in an absurd tug of war which is also a highly battle of two worldviews: she, driven by resentment and humiliation and anger at her cramped small-town life, burns to take revenge on this smarmy, self-confident, big city intellectual. He, for his part, sees in her exactly the petty-minded, bureaucratic, vengeful, small-minded party zealot who, in their thousands, supervised the arrest, stage trials and imprisonment of him and a hundred thousand like him, epitome of all those ‘prison guards, inquisitors and informers.’ (p.75)

In fact it’s even worse: Ruzena is the type of the bystander who rushes to help the executioner, rushes to pin the victim down so his throat can be cut, and full of pious self-justifying high-minded rhetoric about society and morals – a type who came to prominence in the century of calamity.

In this moment History returns in the form of a man and a woman absurdly tugging at the collar of a mutty old bulldog. Jakub wins, and yanks her hand away, turning and quickly entering the building where Olga lives. For a moment their eyes meet in a look of pure hatred.

Jakub takes the dog up to Olga’s apartment where Dr Skreta arrives and, with his usual confidence, announces the dog is well known, named Bobis, and belongs to a couple a little way out of town. Now he takes Jakub with him to Bartleff’s apartment, explaining on the way his latest hare-brained scheme, which is to ask the American Bartleff to adopt him, Dr Skreta, so that Skreta immediately becomes an American citizen and can travel freely outside Czechoslovakia!

The three men gather for a convivial chat on many subjects. It is now that we explicitly learn that Bartleff believes halos are a consequence of experiencing oneness with the Godhead, divine delight and are, indeed, blue. Doesn’t think this – knows it (p.78). Moving on from this eccentricity they discuss Klima’s predicament, and then conversation turns to fertility in general. Jakub, clearly established now as the Cynic, gives a suite of reasons why he thinks human beings should not procreate, climaxing with the Big One, that procreating implies an absolute affirmation of human life which he, personally, after his life experiences, feels unable to give. After all, as even the usually bullish Dr Skreta is forced to admit:

‘Humanity produces an incredible number of idiots.’ (p.92)

Olga leaves her water treatment and finds a note on her door telling her they’re all at Bartleff’s. There she joins Bartleff, Skreta and Jakub for a convivial private diner, brought to them by a waiter (Bartleff is a rich American, remember) during which he holds forth with a pet theory about the religion of the saints, namely that is was built on a thirst for admiration rather than holiness, as such.

Then the meal is interrupted by a beautiful little girl of 12, in a white dress tied with huge bow behind which looks like angel wings, appears to tell Bartleff he has another appointment. About this stage – what with his knowledge of halos and religion and the arrival of this little angel – I began to wonder whether Bartleff would be a redeeming saving angel in the story: whether it would have a truly supernatural element, as all these little symbols and moments suggest…

Bartleff leaves and Olga, with the callousness of youth, dismisses him as a posing self-dramatist. Skreta and Jakub walk her back to room and then go for a stroll under the big August moon. And it is now that Skreta lets Jakub in on a profound secret: all the women he treats for infertility and who get magically pregnant (including Bartleff’s own wife) – he, Skreta, has created a frozen store of his own sperm, and he is inseminating them all with his own seed. He is creating a world of brothers. No end of communist rhetoric craps on about a world of equality, where brothers and sisters share a common interest, and common values. Well, he, Skreta, is taking steps to really bring it about!

But, as so often in Kundera, his interlocutor, Jakub, is miles away, thinking about his conflicted feelings for Olga, and whether to leave tomorrow or not. He only half hears what Skreta tells him, and thinks it’s another one of his hare-brained schemes.

Fourth Day (Thursday – 47 pages)

Mrs Klima knows all about her husband’s infidelities and they drive her wild with jealousy. As soon as he said some communist committee obliged him to play a benefit gig at some spa resort with a pickup band including a doctor, she knew he was lying. Now, Thursday morning finds them in bed and he lies all over again and can see in her face she doesn’t believe a word. She goes to work. She works in a theatre. She used to be a famous actress but fell ill and her stage career ended. Now she asks if she can have the afternoon off. She’s going to take the train to this bloody spa and confront Klima with his lies!

Olga is having her morning dip in the spa pool among all the naked fat middle-aged women when a young dud in jeans walks in, then a few more. They’re a film crew, they’re filming a documentary about the spa. Olga is outraged, gets out and flings a towel round her, before storming off to her cubicle, leaving the woman supervising the pool, nurse Ruzena, fuming.

Jakub has been persuaded to stay an extra day. The bulldog he saved from the dog squad, and which Skreta told him belongs to a couple out in a village, he drives the dog back to their owners, a young couple with a baby. They’re grateful and give him lunch and present their squawling new baby. What a big nose it’s got, rather like Dr Skreta’s comic banana nose. Hang on! Jakub asks if they were treated by Dr Skreta? Yes! How did he know. So maybe Skreta’s hare-brained scheme about breeding a little generation of brothers isn’t mad after all.

For Franta, Ruzena is the only girl he’s ever slept with, she made him a man, she is his world. To watch her swanning off with this big city musician makes him furious. He finishes a fridge repair job (that’s his work) and motorbikes into the spa, heading for the concert hall to watch Klima practice for that night’s gig. For the rest of the day he will be Klima’s shadow.

Jakub drives back to the roadside restaurant where he’s arranged to meet Olga. He doesn’t notice Klima’s car there or Franta’s motorbike. Klima is waiting impatiently for Ruzena and when she arrives he guides her impatiently to a table by the window. She’s been realising Klima is lying to her and begun to be full of righteous indignation. Klima grasps her hand and is half way through telling her how much she loves him when she announces that she’s changed her mind: she’s going to have the baby after all. Klima’s world collapses around him. Glancing out the window she sees Franta peeking out at them from behind some bushes. God, he’s following her everywhere. Feeling harassed she remembers the tube of pills her nurse friend gave her, pulls it out and opens it and pops one of the blue tranquilisers. Klima takes both her hands in his and begins some long speech and then it crosses his mind to take her for a cruise, maybe being in the car will bring back the mood of yesterday.

So up they get and leave. Jakub has been watching all this from across the restaurant and now goes over to the vacated table (the one with the best view in the place). He notices the vial of blue pills Ruzena has left on the table and picks it up and idly plays with it before opening it and being struck how the pills inside are the identical colour as the famous suicide pill Dr Skreta made for him. He gets the suicide pill out. He toys with it in his hand. Playfully he slips it inside Ruzena’s glass vial.

And just at the exact moment Ruzena appears at the table asking for her pills back. She’d got all the way to Klima’s car then realised she’d forgotten them. Jakub hesitates. Ruzena insists. they both recognise each other as the antagonists over the lost dog. Their hatred revives. She reaches out for the vial and he moves his hand up out of reach while he blusteringly tries to think of an excuse, then she screams at him to hand them over, and suddenly something snaps in him. Coldly and ceremoniously, he hands over the vial with the poison pill in it.

For the next seventy or so pages of the book, whenever we come back to Jakub, he will be agonising that he has just condemned the young nurse to death and that – given his political history – this makes him no better at all than the inquisitors and executioners who murdered his friends.

Mrs Klima gets a train to the spa to spy on her friends and is pleasantly surprised to come across the film crew who so upset Olga. They are old friends, they persuade her to come for a lunchtime drink.

On the drive it occurs to Klima that what might persuade Nurse Ruzena that he loves her would be if he made love to her again, if they reconnected on a primal level. Come and see me after the concert, he says, and drops her off.

Ruzena is walking through town at a loss what to do when he hears a voice calling. It’s the three-man camera crew who she let into the pool this morning and so upset Olga. They call her to join them and the pretty woman with them (Klima’s wife).

Jakub hurries his meal with Olga to an end and then rushes to the concert hall where he finds Skreta and Klima rehearsing. He asks if either of them have seen Ruzena, which they haven’t. Suddenly it dawns on him that this is the fulfilment of a deep unconscious wish. He is now proving his most cynical tenet true: there is no difference between the persecutors and the victims. He is thrilled to be murdering one of the petty-minded little bullies. He is horrified.

In the nook at the outside pub the three film crew being chatting up the two women, the director rubbing Mrs Klima’s thigh with his, while the cameraman puts his arm round Ruzena and accidentally on purpose touches her breast. Things are heading towards a drunken orgy when Ruzena suddenly sits bolt upright. She has recognised Kamila as being Klima’s husband. Suddenly it feels like the whole universe is mocking her. The men laugh at her sudden outburst of propriety, and she is longing, longing to tell them she carries the fruit of the loins of oh-so-high-and-mighty Kamila the famous actress. She reaches into her handbag to get the vial of tranquilisers, when she feels a strong hand grip her wrist.

It is Bartleff. His intervention just as Ruzena was about to pop the suicide pill feels divine, and emphasises even more his magic and mysterious powers. A big confident man he sits down with the crew – who make the resentment at this intrusion obvious – and takes charge of proceedings, asking the boy waiter for the best wine in the house, insisting the owner comes to join in a toast, and toasting Ruzena’s beauty. Suddenly she feels transformed from a squalid small town girl to an angel.

Bartleff gets up and accompanies Ruzena off. The party atmosphere of the others collapses. Kamila feels suddenly revolted by the film crew, gets up and leaves.

The concert Jakub takes Olga to the concert. As they settle in, he sees Bartleff and Ruzena sitting not far away and believes more than ever that things have been arranged by a malicious God. The concert starts and, after a few numbers, he begins to get up to go and talk to them but at that moment a) Olga grabs his hand and tells him to sit down b) Bartleff and Ruzena themselves get up and exit the hall.

Klima had noticed them coming in but now notices Ruzena’s chair is empty and begins to flag. Dr Skreta is drumming like crazy behind him and won’t let him stop.

Bartleff takes Ruzena back to his apartment and tells her he loves her, he has always loved her. His words are like honey, like magic, she warms and stirs and for the first time for as long as she can remember is not full of self-hatred and doubt. As Bartleff describes how beautiful she is, Ruzena begins to believe it. As he begins to strip her, her body turns to him like a sunflower towards the sun.

As the concert ends Jakub takes Olga back to her room. His mind is obsessed with Ruzena and the pill and he goes round and round in circles trying to decide whether he is a murderer or a hypocrite or an angel of death or the instrument of some higher purpose. He hardly notices when Olga leans forward and kisses him.

Mrs Klima elbows her way through to the dressing room after the concert. She is convinced her husband is having an affair, and expects the arrival of some dollybird any moment, watching him like a hawk. But he just seems tired, and tells Dr Skreta and the bassist the same. Tired and just wants to go to his room.

Olga kisses Jakub again and leads the absent-minded older man over to the couch where she starts loosening his shirt.

Franta was at the entire concert and now tails the trumpeter to the dressing room, hangs around, and then out towards his temporary flat… but where the devil is Ruzena? Franta knows she was going to meet the trumpeter after the show, where’s she got to?

Three acts of love

Kamila and Klima walk to the building and apartment Dr Skreta has arranged for them to stay in overnight. It’s in the same corridor as Olga’s and Bartleff’s. In one room Bartleff is showing Ruzena the most wonderful night of her life; not because of his sexual technique as such, but because he has a magical way of really making her feel beautiful and loved.

Next door Olga has stripped and laid on the couch and Jakub is quietly appalled to find himself in the position of having to make love to her lest he embarrass and humiliate her on the last time they’ll ever spend together. Reluctantly he tries to rise to the occasion, despite a world of details reminding him that she is his ward and charge.

And in the third bedroom, Kamila slowly strips for Klima but he knows she is only doing it, provocatively, because she is convinced he had some erotic escapade lined up. He hates her jealousy and, in his bitterness, his penis shrinks away from her ministrations, convincing Kamila even more that it is not she her husband had been planning to make love to that night.

Meanwhile, Ruzena has never known love like it. She realises she has her whole life ahead of her. There is no need to rush into anything. She falls asleep snuggled in Bartleff’s arms and, when she wakes in the middle of the night, notices he dark room lit by a strange blueish glow. Is he a saint?

Fifth Day (Friday – 34 pages)

Next morning Klima gets up early to go and find Ruzena but she isn’t at her work, or in her dormitory. Unknown to him he is tailed everywhere by Franta, who’s been waiting outside Ruzena’s dormitory all night, frantic with jealousy. Eventually, Ruzena exits from Bartleff’s apartment and is confronted in quick succession by both men, Klima desperate that she is going to come with him to the abortion committee at 9am as they agreed yesterday.

Jakub wakes and immediately calls the bathhouse asking for Ruzena. They say she’s busy right now. An enormous weight lifts from his shoulders, and he thinks: what if the pill Dr Skreta made him was harmless? Yes, that would be the act of a true friend. And he spends a page expanding on this idea that Skreta, the true friend, would never have given him poison. Phew! What a relief!

Klima waits in the waiting room outside the spa pools where Ruzena works till 9. She emerges and he escorts her in silence to the abortion clinic.

Jakub dresses and tiptoes out of the room without waking Olga. He bumps into Mrs Klima who is just leaving their room. They introduce each other and walk downstairs, cross the road into the park. Jakub is absolutely staggered by Kamila’s beauty. Now, on the verge of leaving his homeland forever, he is overcome by a sense that he has never understood the world of art beauty and culture. Suddenly, on impulse, he tells her he is going away, he is leaving the country, he is never coming back, and that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Then he turns and walks away leaving he standing, watching him, till he disappears from view.

The abortion clinic is grim. Abortion is frowned on in the communist state. The country needs more patriotic citizens. The waiting room is plastered with posters encouraging procreation and praising motherhood.

Jakub returns to Olga’s room. She’s awake now, and inordinately pleased with herself. She is no longer a passive creation of men, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s ward. She has asserted her personhood. Jakub sadly says he really is leaving. He offers to walk her to the pool. On the way she comes over as so gushingly girly, so sweetly indifferent to the fact that he’s leaving his homeland forever, that he realises he has, once again, misjudged the situation. The only thing he knows, is that he knows nothing.

The meeting of the little abortion committee should be grim but is comical. Dr Skreta chairs the session, flanked by two chunky communist party matrons, and he has their measure to perfection. He puts on a tone of aggrieved sternness, and reads the unhappy couple a lecture about the joys of procreation and the needs of the socialist state etc. The matrons nod heavily. But then, with a sigh, he turns to the psychiatric report saying Mrs Klima is in a delicate state, a divorce might kill her. And we don’t want young nurse Ruzena to suffer the indignity of single motherhood. And so, with a heavy heart, Skreta declares that, alas and alack, he is going to sign the form for the abortion to go ahead. The matrons sternly lecture Klima and the nurse and then in turn sign the form. He goes to get up but they say, ‘Not so fast’. They dismiss Ruzena but announce that Klima has to remain behind to ‘volunteer’ to give blood. Cheap at half the price.

Finally, they allow Ruzena to leave, but she finds an angry Franta waiting outside, who blasts her with accusations and follows her down the stairs despite seeing she is distraught.

Having made all his goodbyes, Jakub crosses the spa, and comes across a group of schoolchildren being taken on a nature trail. Looking closely he sees that more than one of them looks like a little Dr Skreta and feels giddy, feels a sense of unreality. All his life he has been close to the centre of things, to the heart of the action, to politics and weighty affairs. What if all that was nonsense? What if the real beating heart of a country, a nation, of the thing we call reality, is miles away and other than we can possibly imagine?

Furious Franta follows Ruzena across the spa and into the hall where she works, up the stairs and along the corridor and into the hall lined with beds where women patients rest in cotton dressing gowns after their dip, shouting all the way that it is his baby and how dare she seek to terminate it. (Franta is under the misapprehension that Ruzena is pregnant with his baby and has somehow paid or blackmailed the trumpeter to pose as its father in order to secure a termination. The much worse reality hasn’t dawned on him.)

At the climax of their argument Ruzena reaches into her handbag, pulls out the vial of tranquilisers, fetches out the one at the top and pops it into her mouth, moments later feels a stab of pain in her tummy, folds double and falls the floor, dead.

The aftermath of nurse Ruzena’s mystery death

Franta gets even more hysterical and starts shouting that he killed her, it was him, he drove her to it. Another nurse runs to investigate then goes off to get a doctor. A dozen semi-naked women patients cluster round the figure on the floor. Everyone is pricked with curiosity to see death.

At the very same moment, Jakub is making his goodbyes to his old friend Dr Skreta. He decides to come clean about Olga’s father. He was not a persecuted hero, the contrary. It was Olga’s father who sent him, Jakub, who was a friend of his, to prison, in fact he thought he was sending him to his execution. Olga’s dad felt very heroic because it showed that he could put the principles of the revolution above personal concerns. Six months later he himself was arrested, tried and executed, and Jakub was eventually released. This revelation leads Skreta to make a complicated analysis of Jakub’s mixed motives in looking after the girl, which Jakub disagrees with and then they’re both in full flood when the phone rings, Skreta picks it up and learns there’s an emergency over at the baths.

Crucially, they don’t tell him nurse Ruzena has dropped dead, so he doesn’t tell Jakub. Instead they do a big handshake and part for ever, walk down the corridor and out of the building, then Jakub makes for his car, and Dr Skreta hurries to the halls.

A police inspector has arrived. He is standing over the prostrate body interviewing witnesses and trying to keep the frantic Franta at bay, who keeps on yelling that he did it, he drove her to suicide. (And indeed, for the rest of his life, he will carry this conviction like the mark of Cain on his forehead.

There is now some sharp comedy for Dr Skreta demonstrates his superhuman ability to grasp a situation and say the best thing. Since Franta is so loudly claiming the baby was his, Skreta immediately falls in with this lie, and then explains to the inspector that Klima had accompanied her to the abortion clinic because he was doing a kindly deed and volunteering to appear to be the father, so that Ruzena wouldn’t be forced to marry Franta.

Jakub drives off in blissful ignorance of how his chance gesture with the poison pill played out. He spends three densely argued and highly intellectual pages worrying about the meaning of his act, and comparing it unfavourably with Raskolnikov’s famous murder in Crime and Punishment. Here, as elsewhere throughout his works, a Kundera character reflects that whereas in the old days life was heavy and tragic, now it seems almost unbearably light, as if it can blow away in a puff of wind. (p.171)

Klima has finally finished giving blood and walks briskly over to Dr Skreta’s office to find the doctor out. When the doctor finally walks in looking a bit ruffled, Klima grabs his hand and thanks him profusely, for playing such a great set on the drums, but for stage-managing the abortion committee so smoothly. Well, it turns out not to matter since Ruzena is dead.

Klima continues shaking the doctor’s hand, his mouth agape, his brain trying to process this news, which lifts the nightmare burden he’s been labouring under for so long. Quickly, Skreta fills him in. It looked like suicide, and her boyfriend has been telling everyone that a) he’s the father and b) she threatened to kill herself if he didn’t leave her alone. So – Skreta explains to Klima – on the spot he devised the story that Klima had done the chivalrous thing in accompanying Ruzena to the clinic, but was in no other way involved.

He’s in the clear! They shake hands a bit more then Klima leaves the office and staggers back to the room to meet his wife. He kisses her face and neck and shoulders and then sinks to the floor and kisses the hem of her skirt, God he is so grateful, more grateful than words can express. They carry the bags down into the car, and he asks her to drive back to Prague and all the way there her beauty fills the car like a fine fragrance.

But then we go over to her mind, and we see her slowly realising, for the first time, that maybe the only thing that holds her to Klima is her jealousy. But that strange man who stopped her in the park and simply told her she was beautiful before walking off… he made her think. She is beautiful, and strong and independent. If she overcame her obsessive jealousy of Klima what would be left? Precious little. For the first time she can envision a future without him. And she smiles.

And Klima, completely misinterpreting her smile, looks over at her smiling and is filled with love and relief.

The inspector

The last ten pages are taken up with a mixture of broad comedy, clever paradoxes and cunning reversals. Olga arrives in Bartleff’s apartment to find him, the inspector and Dr Skreta discussing the death. Bartleff is absolutely firm that the night before nurse Ruzena had experience a spiritual experience unlike any other in her life, and had seen a world full of new possibilities, and that suicide is absolutely the last thing he would have done.

Several of his remarks irk the inspector who decides to put the American in his place by devoting a page to demonstrating how all the existing evidence could in fact be stacked up to prove in a court of law that Bartleff was the murderer, the motive being to shut the nurse up before Bartleff’s wife arrives later that day. A tense silence. Then the inspector laughs. He was just showing how evidence in such an ambiguous case can be twisted anyway you want (which makes a distant link with Jakub’s remarks at several places about ‘revolutionary justice’ which incarcerated him and thousands like him).

The inspector shakes hands and leaves and Bartleff goes to his room to change. Alone with Dr Skreta, suddenly Olga remembers the blue pill, the suicide pill, which Jakub showed her, could… might it… was that… She asks him straight out: Did he ever prepare a poison pill for Jakub?

‘That’s absolute nonsense. I never gave him anything of the kind,’ Dr Skreta replied with great firmness. Then Bartleff returned from the other room, wearing a different necktie, and Olga took her leave of both men. (p.182)

I love Dr Skreta.

And the end belongs to him. On the penultimate page, as he and Bartleff are strolling to the railway station to meet their wives, he hesitantly asks if Bartless can adopt him. Initially surprised, Bartleff lets himself be talked into it and announces it will be great fun.

And then, as the two wives get off the train and walk with their husbands, Mrs Bartleff shows them all her new baby. And they all comment on how very like Dr Skreta he looks ha ha ha. Only we know that this is because Skreta inseminated Mrs Bartleff with his sperm. The baby really is his son. But also his brother, since Bartleff has just adopted him. And so the two happy couples walk from the train station towards the resort, laughing and joking about the brotherhood of man under a big autumn moon.

Thoughts

Clever, isn’t it? Very clever. Very beautifully assembled like a Swiss clock, with all the parts fitting together just so.

The Farewell Party is funny and a little mysterious (the blue halo and the saint) and thought provoking (Jakub’s political musings about human nature and betrayal), but in the end, there’s no getting around the fact that the central premise is how to shut up and repress a difficult woman, so all concerned can go back to their philandering ways – and that the only solution turns out to be killing her.

I came to really like Dr Skreta’s combination of eccentricity with his whip-smart ability to manage situations (the abortion committee, his immediate exculpation of Klima when he is called to the dead nurse). He was the purest comic creation, not least in his plan to create a real brotherhood of man by inseminating all his patients.

Jakub is a more complex creation, like a bitter ghost overthinking everything but, as always, I warmed to his accounts of the political repression of the country, and of the grim logic of revolutions i.e. people betray their best friends in order to show their revolutionary zeal.

I hoped right to the bitter end that the mystique surrounding Bartleff (blue halo, painter of saints, big hearty ability to put people at ease, the angelic little girl who appears at his dinner party…) would mean that he would somehow, magically, be able to revive Ruzena. After all, the point is made at the start of the novel that he has just painted a portrait of a saint named Lazarus, named after the man Jesus raised from the dead. I can’t overcome a deep sense of disappointment that this didn’t happen, that he didn’t somehow raise Ruzena from the dead… Maybe, on reflection, that is the point.

Klima is a cipher – the harassed philanderer. It’s often the minor characters which intrigue and linger in your mind. Mrs Klima – Kamila – doesn’t appear much but when she does her jealousy, her own status as once-famous actress, and her dawning realisation that she might be able to go it alone, these make for a potent character. And Olga is a minor character but has a lingering effect: Jakub is appalled that she takes their act of love so lightly; but in this she represents precisely the lightness and inconsequentiality of the young generation.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Expressionists by Wolf-Dieter Dube (1972)

[In Expressionism] the expression was to determine the form, and no longer be obliged to appear in the guise of nymphs, heroes and allegories… [Expressionism is] the process whereby the colours and forms themselves become the repositories of the pictorial idea. (p.7)

1972 is a long time ago, before the politically correct mindset, before feminism, anti-racism and post-colonialist discourse took over university humanities departments. Therefore this book is a remarkably straightforward account of the various groups of German artists who are generally lumped together as ‘the Expressionists’, with none of the usual naming and shaming of artists as sexist, racist, imperialist cultural appropriators, which is so common in art history nowadays (for example, in Colin Rhodes’s book on Primitivism, or Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art and Society).

The German character

Wolf-Dieter Dube was a senior curator at the Bavarian State Art Collection (home to an extensive collection of paintings by the Blue Rider group of Expressionists) and the book was translated from his original German by Mary Whittall. His German-ness is interesting because it allows Dube to make generalisations about German culture and German character which might not be allowed to non-Germans nowadays.

Comparison of Wilhelm Leibl or Hans van Marées, however much we may admire them, with Courbet or Manet, illustrates how difficult if not impossible it is for a German to produce ‘pure’ art. The harmonious equilibrium of form and content, ideally achieved in a ‘pure’ picture, is all too easily upset by the weight of philosophical concepts, by idealism or Romanticism. This fundamental trait of the German character was to be the mainspring of Expressionism… (p.7)

So a ‘fundamental trait of the German character’ is the impossibility for ‘a German to produce “pure” art’ because ‘the harmonious equilibrium of form and content … is all too easily upset by the weight of philosophical concepts’? Interesting thing for German art curator to say.

Half-Naked Woman with a Hat (1911) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Half-Naked Woman with a Hat (1911) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Pre-critical theory

It’s also interesting to read a 46-year-old text because it reminds us what used to fill up books like this before the various elements of post-modern art and critical theory came along. For politically correct criticism, among other things, gives the critic something to write about i.e. a whole checklist of indictments which can be applied to anyone and require little or no knowledge or sensitivity to art. For example, it requires only a casual knowledge of Paul Gauguin’s biography or works (pictures of South Sea islanders where he settled in the 1890s) to be able brand him as a racist, sexist, paedophile exploiter of under-aged girls in Tahiti. And so:

Feminist post-colonial critics decry the fact that Gauguin took adolescent mistresses, one of them as young as thirteen. They remind us that like many men of his time and later, Gauguin saw freedom, especially sexual freedom, strictly from the male point of view. Using Gauguin as an example of what is ‘wrong’ with primitivism, these critics conclude that, in their view, elements of primitivism include the ‘dense interweave of racial and sexual fantasies and power both colonial and patriarchal’. To these critics, primitivism such as Gauguin’s demonstrates fantasies about racial and sexual difference in ‘an effort to essentialize notions of primitiveness’ with ‘Otherness’. (Wikipedia article on Primitivism)

Easy, once you’ve picked up the lingo. Thus modern art critics often read as if they’re doing the job of the police, acting as a kind of ‘history police’. If he’d been alive today, Gauguin would have been sent to prison and put on the sex offenders register.

Modern critical theory is all the more useful as a device for generating large amounts of text because modern academics are under unprecedented pressure from the terms of their university tenure to continually generate new essays, articles, lectures and conference papers, to show output and productivity.

So, applying the insights of modern critical policing to the biography, writings and paintings of dead white male artists is an invaluable method for generating copious pages of much-needed text. If you interpret Gauguin’s attitudes as (in effect and despite his own claims to the contrary) a form of collaboration with the French colonial powers to ‘constrain and contain’ the native populations within ‘the visual discourse’ of ‘colonial power’ (and so on and so on), you might be able to spin it out for a whole chapter, possibly even a book. And so justify your job and salary.

But for Wolf-Dieter Dube, writing back in the early 1970s, this entire Armoury of Accusation wasn’t yet available. So, lacking the rhetoric of modern critical theory/moral accusation, Dube fills his text by repeating and amplifying the artists’ own intentions. He takes the artists at their own word in a way which would look terribly naive in a modern critic.

Thus this book includes very generous extracts from the writings, especially the letters, of all the artists mentioned, as well as by eye-witnesses like their art college tutor Fritz Schumacher. These numerous quotes help build up a really strong feeling of what the Expressionists were trying to do and how they felt about it.

The book is based on first-hand evidence and so, although its critical approach may be dated, the numerous quotes remain very relevant today. He quotes enough from each artist that you not only get a sense of their distinctive styles of painting, but of writing and thinking, too.

Under the Trees by Max Pechstein (1911)

Under the Trees by Max Pechstein (1911)

Art in Wilhelmine Germany

Dube sets the mood of Wilhelmine Germany (i.e. Germany under the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II – or ‘Emperor William’ II) at the turn of the century. For a start Germany had only recently been ‘unified’ (in 1871) and its different component parts, the states or Länder, still had very strong regional identities. Cities with good technical schools included Dresden, Cologne, Munich and so on, but Berlin was the only truly metropolitan city. Even Berlin couldn’t match Paris for artistic tradition and glittering cultural production. German art was dominated by a late academic realist style, as taught in all the state art schools.

In the generation before the Expressionists, all the main cities with art schools had experienced ‘secessions’, when artists influenced by Impressionism had found their works rejected by the academies and salons and had set up independent progressive groupings – the Munich Secession in 1892, the Dresden Secession in 1893, the Vienna Secession under Gustav Klimt in 1897, the Berlin Secession in 1898.

Another sign of the times was the number of artists’ colonies which were set up in remote rural locations, starting with Worpswede in the 1890s (whose most lasting member was the woman artist Paula Modersohn-Becker). According to Colin Rhodes’s book on Primitivism, by 1910 there were about 30 artists’ colonies based in remote rural locations around Germany.

And the 1890s had also seen the founding of the German branch of Art Nouveau (known as the Jugendstil) in Munich in 1896. Like parallel movements elsewhere in Europe, the Jugendstil was dedicated to rejecting the accumulation of clutter which had encrusted Victorian furniture and handicrafts, and returning design to simpler, purer lines and more co-ordinated interiors.

As to the French influence, Dube explains how Impressionism came late to Germany, only being gathered and exhibited in a significant amount around the turn of the century. In fact it was almost immediately overtaken by Post-Impressionist works which were much more up to date and were exhibited at about the same time.

Of the Post-Impressionists, Van Gogh and Gauguin were the primary influences on the new young generation of German artists – the former for his emphasis on vibrantly thick brush strokes to convey strong feeling, and the latter a) for his odysseys, first to rural Brittany then to remote Tahiti, in search of the ‘primitive’ and ‘authentic’, and b) for his quest to simplify painting into thick black outlines containing areas of garish colour. And so Dube includes early works by Heckel, Kirchner and so on which are obviously influenced by van Gogh’s thick bright brushstrokes (Brickworks by Erich Heckel, Lake in the Park by Kirchner).

Histories of German Expressionism tend to focus on two main groups, Die Brücke (meaning ‘the bridge’) and Der Blaue Reiter (‘The Blue Rider’). Many artists joined these groups, then left, were simultaneously members of other groupings like the various ‘Secessions’, set up splinter groups, and so on. It was a fluid, fertile scene. But these two groups were the most organised, produced manifestos and held exhibitions, and so are easier to write about.

Origin of the term ‘Expressionism’

The term ‘Expressionism’ itself has about half a dozen possible sources. No one group ever claimed to be Expressionists, the word seems simply to have become current among journalists, critics and reviewers soon after 1910. An exhibition held in Cologne in 1912 referred to ‘the movement known as Expressionism’ and the first academic monograph on the subject was written in 1914, positioning it (inaccurately) as the German equivalent of French Cubism and Italian Futurism – so it was being used by contemporaries by those dates. But it never became the badge of a clearly defined group (unlike Impressionism in France).

What is certain is that the term was only just becoming widely known when the war broke out and art movements all across Europe were decimated.

Die Brücke 1905-13

Die Brücke was formed in Dresden in 1905. The four founding members were Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (who was still alive when this book was published). Later members included Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. They considered themselves a ‘bridge’ which would link together all the young artists of their time who were driven by the need to express themselves more forcefully, clearly and purely than academic conventions permitted. As manifestos and interpretations multiplied, they also saw their work as a ‘bridge’ to the more spiritual ‘art of the future’.

The four founder members were all originally architecture students, which explains why they felt free to take liberties with the tradition of figure painting. In their quest for new forms and visions they were all attracted to the technique of woodcut prints, which naturally accentuate stark outlines and sharp contrasts between light and shade.

Nowhere do severity of construction, strength of contrast and an uncompromising emphasis on plane and line find so complete fulfilment as in the woodcut… (p.26)

Their drawing technique was deliberately crude, and colour was garish and unnaturalistic, both devices to emphasise their freedom of expression. Kirchner wanted ‘free drawing from the free human body in the freedom of nature’.

Crouching woman by Erich Heckel (1913)

Crouching woman by Erich Heckel (1913)

Die Brücke harked back to the German tradition of harsh angular work by Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Typical of their polemical intent was the programme published in 1906 and which Kirchner carved in wood:

Believing in development and in a new generation both of those who create and of those who enjoy, we call all young people together, and as young people, who carry the future in us, we want to wrest freedom for our actions and our lives from the older, comfortably established forces. (quoted page 21)

Elsewhere they wrote that they belonged to a generation:

who want freedom in our work and in our lives, independence from older, established forces.

They wanted to apprehend art as ‘intensified, poetic life’ (p.37).

Looked at in the cold light of day, most of the manifestos, letters and other writings of both the Bridge and the Blue Rider seem extremely anodyne (in fact Dube concedes that this is the conventional modern view of them). After a century of impassioned manifestos, proclamations and statements of intent, the Bridge’s writings seem little more than codified excitement about being young and full of confidence in their burning mission to change the world.

The four would-be artists hired an empty butcher’s shop in a working class area of Dresden which they decorated extensively, packing it with paintings, drawings and prints. Nudity of both sexes was common – making it all sound very like a idealistic but scruffy commune from the early 1970s, just when Dube was writing. In summer they frequented the Moritzburg lakes, which features in many of their landscapes and nudes.

Summer by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1911)

Summer by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1911)

Dube devotes separate sections to each of the important Bridge artists – namely, Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Pechstein and Mueller – outlining their development over the key years from around 1905 to 1914. He follows them into the maelstrom of the Great War and beyond, with liberal quotes from their writings to help the reader really understand the aims and intentions and developing style of each of them.

Kirchner was the dominant personality and the best artist of the group. In 1913, as the Bridge began to drift apart, Kirchner wrote an account of the history and development of the group which the other three disagreed with so strongly that it precipitated the final break-up. Sic transit gloria iuventae.

Der Blaue Reiter 1911-14

The Blue Rider was slightly later. It was founded in 1909 in Munich by a group of artists who rejected the official art school there. Broader based than the Bridge, its founders included a number of Russian emigrants, including Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, as well as native German artists such as Franz Marc, August Macke and Gabriele Münter. The Blue Rider also lasted till the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Village Church (1908) by Wassily Kandinsky

The Village Church (1908) by Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky was the central figure. Some people thought the name derived from an early painting of the same title by Kandinsky, created in 1903, but Kandinsky himself later wrote that it came from Marc’s enthusiasm for horses and Kandinsky’s love of riders, combined with a shared love of the colour blue.

Kandinsky was an intensely spiritual person. Indeed it’s one of the ironies of Expressionism that it looks so harsh, angular and repelling to us today (and especially in contrast to the softness of the French tradition — even the garish Fauves eventually led on to the decorativeness of Matisse and Dufy) – and yet all its proponents thought of themselves as highly spiritual visionaries, returning to nature, depicting the human soul, and other essentially gentle, hippy ideals.

For example, for Kandinsky blue was the colour of spirituality: the darker the blue, the more it awakens human desire for the eternal (as he put it in his seminal 1911 book, On the Spiritual in Art). All the other colours had similar spiritual connotations.

The history of the group is complex as it formed after the collapse of a previous group which had itself been created in opposition to the Secession Munich. All that takes a bit of explaining.

But the key point that emerges is that the Blue Rider’s main claim to fame is that its central figure, Kandinsky, was one of the first painters in Europe to push beyond Expressionism into pure painterly abstraction. This seismic event took place in or around 1910.

Certainly the Blue Rider was a large group whose intentions and ability varied from artist to artist. Broadly speaking, they all rejected the realist academic tradition and wanted to create a more spontaneous, intuitive approach to painting.

Their interests ranged from European medieval art to children’s art, to the ‘tribal’ art from Africa and the Pacific which was becoming fashionable in the latter part of the 1900s, and they were all well aware of contemporary developments in Paris – especially of Fauvism (1905) and Cubism (1908).

Portrait of a Young Woman in a Large Hat by Gabriele Münter (1909)

Portrait of a Young Woman in a Large Hat by Gabriele Münter (1909)

The Blue Rider group organised two exhibitions – held from December 1911 to January 1912, and from March to April 1912 – that toured Germany.

The Blue Rider almanac

In May 1912 they published an ‘almanac’ which included contemporary, primitive and folk art, along with children’s paintings. It contained reproductions of more than 140 artworks, and 14 major articles. A second edition was planned but never published because of the outbreak of war.

The Blue Ride Almanac is a fascinating record of the ‘turn against the European Tradition’ in the way it was dominated by primitive, folk, and children’s art, with pieces from the South Pacific and Africa, Japanese drawings, medieval German woodcuts and sculpture, Egyptian puppets, Russian folk art, and Bavarian religious art painted on glass.

The five works by Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Gauguin were outnumbered by seven from Henri Rousseau and thirteen (!) from child artists.

The group broke up with the advent of war, in which both Franz Marc and August Macke were killed, while Kandinsky was forced to move back to Russia. It had a ghostly post-war existence when Kandinsky, Feininger, Klee and Alexej von Jawlensky were persuaded to form Die Blaue Vier (the Blue Four) group in 1923 as a money-making scheme to exhibit and lecture around the United States from 1924.

The Blue Rider painters one by one

Dube moves systematically through the main Blue Rider painters (Kandinsky, von Jawlensky, Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc, Auguste Macke, Paul Klee, Heinrich Campendonk, Alfred Kubin) detailing their evolution from their beginnings, through their key contributions to the movement, and into the Great War, explaining the origin and development of their styles, quoting liberally from their letters and diaries.

  • Wassily Kandinsky – older (b.1866) Russian, earnest and spiritual, in the late 1900s he moved quickly through Fauvist garishness to achieve the breakthrough into pure abstraction (Cossacks, 1911)
  • Alexej von Jawlensky (b.1864) Russian, brilliantly coloured works exhibited in 1905 at the same Salon d’Automne show which gave birth to the term ‘les Fauves’, his portraits of women are popular but the war shocked him out of Expressionism and into semi-abstract religious painting – Saviour’s face, 1919
  • Gabriele Münter (b.1877) German – Kandinsky divorced his first wife to marry Münter and they lived in a house in Murnau which became known locally as ‘the Russian house’. She painted woman and landscapes with strong outlines and colours – Jawlensky and Werefkin, 1909
  • Franz Marc (b.1880) highly eloquent writer of art theory, and beautiful painter of animals, specially horses, evolving a steadily more abstracted style before his untimely death in 1916 – the Mandrill, 1913
  • Auguste Macke (b.1887) younger than Marc with whom he became close friends, Macke was – unusually for this gang – light and unspiritual. He frequently went to Paris, entranced by the experiments in colour of the Fauves and Delauney. He painted light, bright depictions of scenes of real life – Zoological gardens, 1912. Macke was developing quickly towards a lighter more abstract palette when war broke out and he was killed almost immediately, in September 1914.
  • Paul Klee (b.1879) from early on Klee had a facility for fine line drawing but found it hard to combine with colour. In 1914 he went on a two-week trip to Tunisia with Macke which has become famous in art history because both artists found it crystallised their styles and helped Klee, in particular, paint in watercolour washes which were to define his mature style – The Föhn Wind in the Marcs’ Garden, 1914. Klee went on to teach at the Bauhaus school.
  • Heinrich Campendonk (b.1889) friends with Marc and influenced by his animal paintings, Campendonk went on to develop a decorative, fairy-tale style – Cow, 1914.
  • Alfred Kubin (b.1877) A highly-strung Austrian print-maker who developed a grotesque style of illustration based on things he saw under a microscope and is perhaps more appropriately labelled a Symbolist, though he befriended and exhibited with the Blue Riders, before abandoning art altogether to become a writer in the 1920s.

Kandinsky has gone down in history as the most important figure because of his decisive move into complete abstraction – but Marc comes over as the more charismatic and fascinating character. Marc initially devoted himself to studying anatomy in order to do nudes better but, eventually repelled by humans, concentrated for his key four years (1910-1914) on wonderful stylised and colourful paintings of animals.

Tiger by Franz Marc (1912)

Tiger by Franz Marc (1912)

The Expressionists’ reversal of values

By now (about three-quarters of the way through the book) what is clear is that these two groups – the Bridge and the Blue Rider – taken together, had effected a complete revolution in thinking about art, quite literally reversing the priorities of 400 years of post-Renaissance painting:

Colour is not there to serve the representation of an object, or something material, but the object serves as the starting-point for the arrangement of colours. (p.114)

In the words of Franz Marc, their works were seeking:

the completely spiritualised, de-materialised inwardness of perception which our fathers, the artists of the nineteenth century, never even tried to achieve in their ‘pictures’. (quoted page 125)

Released from nature, colour is able to radiate its essence for, as Herwarth Walden put it:

Art is the gift of something new, not the reproduction of something already in existence. (quoted page 155)

As the preface to the third exhibition of the Neue Sezession, held in Berlin in spring 1911 put it:

Each and every object is only the channel of a colour, a colour composition, and the work as a whole aims, not at an impression of nature, but at the expression of feelings. (quoted page 159)

Or as Marc put it:

We no longer cling to reproductions of nature, but destroy it so as to reveal the mighty laws which hold sway beneath the beautiful exterior. (Marc, 1912, quoted p.132)

It comes as a surprise to learn that Marc’s very last paintings abandoned the subject altogether and became completely abstract exercises in vibrant colour and form. He was hard on Kandinsky’s footsteps and who knows where he would have gone next. But he had barely started when he was called up, then killed in the war. Which is why history remembers Kandinsky as the great pioneer of abstract art.

Berlin and Vienna

By this stage, 150 pages into the text, I felt overflowing with words, pictures and ideas. But there’s more! The book continues with a final fifty pages or so exploring other contemporary painters of Berlin and Vienna who were working in the same style, devoting four or five pages to an overview of the artistic scenes in those cities before going on to consider the individual works of:

  • Max Beckmann (b.1884) German painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, and writer, Beckmann experimented with a late realistic style influenced by Munch (who met and advised him) until the war came and the experience of horror and murder led to a nervous breakdown in 1915, after which Beckmann completely rejected his earlier work and went on to perfect a style of highly figurative, angular caricatures, becoming part of the post-war taste for the grotesque. – The Night, 1918
  • Lyonel Feininger (b.1871) German, had a successful career as a political cartoonist, but during the later 1900s developed a sort of shimmering semi-Futurist way of depicting natural scenes, using ‘crystalline or prismatic construction’. – Bicycle race, 1912 He went on to work at the Bauhaus school.
  • Ernst Barlach (b.1870) German, part of the new generation, Barlach however rejected the move to the abstract, and produced prints and sculptures of stylised but essentially natural figures, mostly of a religious nature. – The Cathedrals, 1922
  • Ludwig Meidner (b.1884) German, Meidner was a prolific writer who studied in Berlin, then Paris, scraped a living by writing and painting until, at age 18 in 1912, he suddenly began expressing himself in vivid and violent religious visions. – Apocalyptic landscape, 1913.
  • Oskar Kokoschka (b.1886) Austrian artist, poet and playwright, a major figure whose physical pain and psychological unrest drove him through a series of styles. Most famous is the swirling angularity of a work like The Bride of the Wind, painted just before the war – note the nervously clenched hands of the male figure.
  • Egon Schiele (b.1890) staggeringly gifted figurative painter and draughtsman who developed a distinctive style depicting angular, naked or half-clothed bodies, reminiscent in the use of decorative mosaic-style detailing of his mentor Gustav Klimt, except Schiele removed all the gold and luxury from the designs, austerely emptying them out into starker elements surrounding and threatening his subjects. Schiele caused scandal with his nudes but was also widely recognised in Vienna and Germany. – Embrace, 1917, Self portrait

The Great War killed off Expressionism as a movement (not least by killing some of the most promising Expressionist painters). Germany lost the war and in short order saw the abdication of the Kaiser, the end of the Empire and street fighting in Berlin and Munich as Communists tried to declare a revolution. These disturbances were brutally crushed by right-wing militias and then the Weimar Republic settled into an uneasy, bitter and disillusioned peace.

In this context, long-haired artists going off to remote communes to paint sensitive nudes amid nature seemed like sentimental hogwash. The Dada manifesto of 1918 mocked Expressionism for being hopelessly out of date. Artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz painted bitter pictures of post-war poverty, corruption and prostitution, the Weimar Germany of Brecht and Weill’s bitter satires.

In 1925 an exhibition was staged of the new satirical artists with the name Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and this became the slogan of the new generation.

Summary

Although old-fashioned in tone and approach, this is a really informative book, made extra valuable by the extensive quotes from the artists themselves, their friends and lovers, contemporary critics and writers – a collage of quotations which conveys a really powerful sense of the artists, their time and place, and their determination to create something really new and enduring. Which they did.


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Symbolist Art by Edward Lucie-Smith (1972)

Symbolist art does not depict nature as it actually exists, but brings together various impressions received by the mind of the artist, to create a new and different world, governed by its own subjective mood. (p.151)

Although this book is 45 years-old, I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop to compare and contrast with Michael Gibson’s account of Symbolism. Gibson’s massive books is packed with brilliant full-colour reproductions but, as I read it, I did increasingly find myself wondering where ‘Symbolism’ ended and where the simply fantastic or morbid or sensationalist began. So I read this book to further explore whether Symbolism was really a movement in a narrow definable way – or is just the word given to a kind of mood or feeling of other-worldliness apparent in a huge range of artists between about 1880 and 1910.

The World of Art series

Symbolist Art is a typical product of Thames and Hudson’s renowned ‘World of Art series’ in that, although there are 185 illustrations, only 24 of them are in colour. So you’re not buying it for the pictures, which can be better seen, in full colour, in numerous other books (or online); you’re buying it for the text.

Edward Lucie-Smith

Lucie-Smith was born in 1933 and is still alive (aged 84). Public school, Oxford, the RAF during the war, then freelance poet, art critic, essayist, author and curator, he has written over 100 books. His book comes over as significantly more learned and informative than Gibson’s.

Symbolism in Renaissance painting

He starts with a basic consideration of symbols in art starting back in the Renaissance. Renaissance art is packed with symbols – classical gods and goddesses are accompanied by their attributes, kings and queens are shown in allegorical paintings accompanied by war or peace or the triumph of the arts and so on.

To get the most out of Renaissance art you undoubtedly have to have a good eye for its religious, political and cultural symbolism. For example, spot the symbolism in this masterpiece by Rubens.

(In this picture the portrait of Marie de’ Medici – daughter of the Grandduke of Tuscany – is being presented to Henry IV, the king of France, and her future husband. The gods of marriage and love – Hymen and Amor (Cupid), to the left and right – hover in midair. From up in heaven the king and queen of the gods, Jupiter and Juno, look down in approval. Jupiter’s symbol, the eagle of war, clutching lightning bolts in his talons, is literally being squeezed out of the picture, to the left, while Juno’s symbols, the peacocks of love and peace strut (the male) and look down at the scene of love (the female). A pink ribbon symbolising their marriage binds them together. The chariot the peahen sits in bears a gold relief on the front showing Cupid standing on/triumphing over (another) eagle, and holding a garland (symbol of marriage). Behind Henry stands the personification of France, wearing French blue silk embroidered with gold fleur-de-lys (the coat of arms of the French monarchy). She is reassuring Henry that it is a good match for the nation. The burning town in the distance and the dark clouds to the left of the picture, beneath the eagle, symbolise War, as do the helmet and shield at the foot of the painting. These must all be abandoned so that Henry can concentrate on the lighter, feminine arts of peace, subtly emphasised by the light source for the whole scene coming from the right, the side of the Future, peace and harmony.)

Lucie-Smith draws the distinction between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ symbolism.

Open symbolism is the use of publicly available and traditional imagery. All of the symbolism in the Rubens picture is ‘open’ in the sense that any educated person could spot it.

Closed symbolism refers to ‘secret’ knowledge, available only to ‘initiates’. Renaissance and post-Renaissance art features numerous painters who included closed symbolism in their works: some has been investigated and explicated by later scholars; some remains obscure to this day.

Watteau

In other words, symbolism as a strategy or technique, is absolutely intrinsic to the Western artistic tradition.

What Lucie-Smith brings out is the strand of artists over the past few hundred years who brought something extra to the idea: who incorporated open symbolism or straightforward allegory (where x stands for y, where, for example, an hourglass stands for ‘Time’), but something else as well.

He takes an example from the wonderful Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). On the face of it Watteau was painting fashionable fête galantes for the French aristocracy, scenes of dressing up and carefree flirtations in an idealised classical setting, thus:

Yet (apart from the fabulous rhythmic compositions, the draughtsmanship of the figures, the wonderful use of colour) what makes Watteau ‘magical’ is the sense he achieves of a deeper meaning which somehow diffuses a mysterious influence around itself. According to Lucie-Smith, Watteau:

had already abandoned conventional allegory in favour of a use of symbolism which was more pervasive, more powerful and more mysterious. (p.21)

Something else is conveyed above and beyond the ostensible subject and its over symbolism. Somehow it achieves a sense of mystery.

The Romantic roots of Symbolism

There follows a chapter about Romanticism, a movement which I, personally, find boring, maybe because I’ve read too much about it and seen too many times the same old paintings by Fuseli (The Nightmare), Goya (The sleep of reason produces monsters) or Caspar David Friedrich (The Cross in the mountains).

Lucie-Smith’s purpose is to show that ‘Romanticism’ is (quite obviously) the godfather to modern Symbolism – in its use of obscure but meaningful images, nightmares and dreams, scary women and looming monsters – in the use of pseudo-religious imagery which has lost its literal meaning but acquired a spooky, Gothic, purely imaginative resonance.

Victorian symbolists

The next chapter looks at symbolist currents in British art during the 19th century, starting with the self-taught mythomane, William Blake. It then moves on to consider the group of artists who claimed to be his followers and called themselves ‘the Ancients’, including Edward Calvert and the wonderful Samuel Palmer, with his strange visionary depictions of rural Kent (Coming from Evening Church).

Then we arrive at the pre-Raphaelites. Lucie-Smith identifies Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the most ‘symbolist’ of these young idealistic painters, not least because his technique was quite limited. Rossetti wasn’t very good at perspective or realistic settings and so his mature paintings often have a vague, misty background which helps to emphasise the ‘timeless other-worldliness’ of the main subject (generally cupid-lipped, horse-necked ‘stunners’ [as the lads used to call them] as in Astarte Syriaca).

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Burne-Jones and Watts

Lucie-Smith credits Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) with developing the medieval and dream-like elements of pre-Raphaelitism to their fullest extent and in so doing creating a stream of late works devoted to expressionless women moving through heavily meaningful landscapes.

Burne-Jones exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889, where he won a first-class medal. (Intriguing to think the Impressionists were almost entirely excluded from this show and forced to mount an exhibition at the nearby Café Volpini – as described in in Belinda Thompson’s book about the Post-Impressionists.)

French symbolist artists were well aware of Burne-Jones’s work. But the most overtly ‘symbolist’ of the late Victorian artists was George Frederick Watts. He was quite clear about his intentions and his own words give quite a good summary of the symbolist impulse:

I paint ideas, not things. I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied me, I use painting; my intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall please the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall speak to the imagination and to the heart and arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity. (quoted page 47)

His many contemporary fans and supporters considered Watts a ‘seer’ and suggested his work be hung in a temple not a gallery (an ambition which sort of came true with the dedication of his final home and studio in the village of Compton, Surrey, to his work, a venue you can now visit – the Watts Gallery).

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

‘The dweller of the innermost’ is obviously someone important, and something very meaningful is going on in this painting – but who? and what?

Symbolism

All this background is covered in the first 50 pages of this 220-page book in order to get us to the Symbolist movement proper.

Symbolism in the narrow sense was a literary movement, embodied in the poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé in the 1870s and 1880s. They used real world images but set in shimmering, vague and allusive contexts. By the late 1880s this kind of literary worldview overlapped strongly with a revival of a so-called ‘decadent’ style, in both writing and painting. It was largely to distinguish between the two outlooks that the minor poet Jean Moréas in 1886 wrote the essay which introduced the term ‘symbolist’ and ‘symbolism’.

According to Moréas, both symbolism and decadence turned away from the oppressive mundaneness of the everyday bourgeois world but whereas the symbolists emphasized dreams and ideals, the Decadents cultivated heavily ornamented or hermetic styles and morbid subject matter.

Lucie-Smith asserts that the first phase of symbolism lasted from Moréas’s 1886 essay until he himself rejected the name in 1891. Its central figure was the poet Mallarmé. Lucie-Smith lists the qualities of Mallarmé’s poetry, and points out how they can also be found in the symbolist painters of the day:

  • deliberate ambiguity
  • hermeticism (i.e. closed to easy interpretation)
  • use of the symbol as catalyst i.e. to prompt a reaction in the soul of the beholder
  • the idea that art exists in a world separate and apart from the everyday one
  • synthesis not analysis i.e. while the Impressionists analysed light and its effects, the symbolists brought together elements of the real world – from tradition, myth and legends – into strange and new combinations or syntheses

An important element of synthesis was not only the unexpected combination of real-world elements, but the notion that all the arts could and should borrow from each other. Symbolism always hovered around the idea of a ‘total work of art’ which combines music, dance, art, even smells and touches. Everyone in the 1880s was entranced by Wagner’s massive operas which aspired to just this condition of being Gesamtkunstwerks or ‘total works of art’. The idea was very powerful and lingered through to the First World War – the Russian composer Scriabin composed works deliberately designed to evoke colourful fantasias and artists like Wassily Kandinsky in the 1900s theories about the closeness of painting and music.

Here’s a Symbolist depiction of the hero of one of Wagner’s massive operas, the pure and holy knight Parsifal.

Gustave Moreau (1826-98)

Moreau is the painter most associated with the first phase of Symbolism. He developed an ornate jewel-studded style of treating subjects from the Bible or classical legend.

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Reviewing the Salon of 1880, the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans singled out Moreau’s work for being mysterious and disturbing. Four years later in his classic novel A Rebours, which describes a decadent aristocrat who retires to his country house to cultivate sensual pleasures and experiences, Huysmans singled out Moreau as the patron painter of his decadent lifestyle, using a lexicon of late-19th century decadent terms: Moreau’s art is ‘disquieting… sinister… sorrowful symbols of superhuman perversities’ and so on.

Of his own painting Jupiter and Semele, Moreau wrote:

It is an ascent towards superior spheres, a rising up of superior beings towards the Divine – terrestrial death and apotheosis in Immortality. The great Mystery completes itself, the whole of nature is impregnated with the ideal and the divine, everything is transformed. (quoted page 66)

That gives you a strong sense of Symbolist rhetoric.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Huysmans also includes Redon in his short list of artists favoured in the country sensorium of his decadent hero, Des Esseintes. Redon seems to me by far the more symbolist painter of the two, and the polar opposite of Moreau. Whereas Moreau paints relatively conventional mythical subjects in a super-detail-encrusted fashion, Redon strips away all detail to portray the subject in a genuinely mysterious and allusive simplicity.

Redon wrote of his own work:

The sense of mystery is a matter of being all the time amid the equivocal, in double and triple aspects, and hints of aspects (images within images), forms which are coming to birth according to the state of mind of the observer. (quoted page 76)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98)

Puvis wanted to revive the academic tradition and his compositions of figures in landscapes in one way hearken back to the posed landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1661). But he did so in a strange dreamlike way which pointed forward, towards the semi-abstraction of Cézanne. He wrote to a friend that he preferred low skies, solitary plains, bad weather – a temperament which resulted in melancholy often mysterious paintings.

I don’t like Puvis because of what I take to be his rather ropey draughtsmanship – his figures seem angular and uncomfortable, especially the faces.

Eugène Carrière (1849-1906)

Lucie-Smith doesn’t like Carrière much because he developed one subject – family members, especially mother and baby – and painted them over and over again, in a very distinctive way, as if seen through a thick brown mist. I can see how this would quickly grow tiresome, but in brief selections Carriere comes over as a powerful element of the symbolist scene.

At about this point in the book it struck me that a quick way of distinguishing between post-Impressionist and Symbolist painters is that the former were experimenting with ways of depicting reality, whereas the latter are experimenting with ways to try and depict what lies behind reality. Of the former, contemporary critics asked, ‘What is it meant to be depicting?’, of the latter they would ask, ‘I can see what it’s depicting – but what does it mean?’

Paul Gauguin and the Pont-Aven school

Gauguin the post-Impressionist is included? Yes, because in the several summers he spent painting at Pont-Aven in Brittany, Gauguin attracted young disciples who both inspired him to become more abstract and ‘primitive’, but also came back to Paris to spread his influence.

The young Paul Sérusier organised a group of like-minded young artists at the private art school of Rodolphe Julian, which included Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis – and christened them the ‘Nabis’ (Hebrew for ‘prophets’). Without really intending to, Gauguin found himself being lauded as a prophet to the Symbolists. When he set off for the Pacific he was given a going-away party by the Symbolists, presided over by Mallarmé himself.

Here’s a work from Gauguin’s South Sea period.

Lucie-Smith says it is symbolist work because it has mystery, ambiguity and is clearly an invitation to seek some deeper meaning lying beneath the surface. Well, yes… I find several works by other Nabis more convincingly symbolist:

Lucie-Smith devotes a chapter to the Salon of the Rose+Cross founded by Joséphin Péladan in 1892, which held a series of six exhibitions from 1892 to 1897 at which they invited Symbolist painters to exhibit. Featured artists included Arnold Böcklin, Fernand Khnopff, Ferdinand Hodler, Jan Toorop, Gaetano Previati, Jean Delville, Carlos Schwabe and Charles Filiger.

The Salon combined rituals and ideas from Medieval Rosicrucianism with elements of Kabbala and other aspects of esoteric lore. Charming and distracting though much of this arcane knowledge may be to devotees, it is also, at bottom, a profoundly useless waste of time and intellect. However, the Salon of the Rose+Cross’s practical impact was to bring together and promote a wide range of painters who shared the symbolist mindset:

More impressive are Soul of the Forest by Edgar Maxence (1898) and:

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)

An illustrator who created line drawings in black ink, Beardley’s big breakthrough came in 1894 when Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, was published in a version with Beardsley’s woodcuts and caused a succès de scandale. Well aware of fashionable taste, Beardsley tackled favourite Symbolist themes like the medieval dreamworld of King Arthur, the femme fatale, Wagner’s operas, and pretty risqué pornography, as in his illustrations to the classic play, Lysistrata.

Beardsley’s clarity of line and hard-edged arabesques make him one of the founders of Art Nouveau.

Symbolists in other countries

This summary only takes us up to half way through the book which beings to risk – like Gibson’s book – turning into simply a list of relevant painters with a paragraph or so on each.

Part of this is because Symbolism was so thoroughly international a style, with offshoots all across Europe. Lucie-Smith makes the point that it was a little like the Mannerism of the end of the 16th century – the product of a unified and homogenous culture, and of a social and artistic élite determined to emphasise the gap between itself – with all its sensitivity and refinement – and the ghastly mob, with its crude newspapers and penny-dreadful entertainments.

Later chapters describe the Symbolist artists of America, Holland (Jan Toorop, Johan Thorn Prikker),  Russia (Diaghilev, Bakst and the World of Art circle), Italy (Giovanni Segantini, Gaetano Previati), Czechoslovakia (Franz Kupka), Germany-Switzerland (Arnold Böckin, Max Klinger, Otto Greiner, Alfred Kubin, Ferdinand Hodler, Franz von Stuck).

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

I particularly liked:

The books ends with extended sections devoted to James Ensor, Edvard Munch (who Lucie-Smith considers the most avant-garde painter working anywhere in the mid-1890s) and Gustav Klimt.

Modernists who had symbolist phases

Like Gibson, Lucie-Smith points out that a number of the great Modernists first passed through identifiable symbolist phases before finding their final styles.

Two great examples are Wassily Kandinsky, whose pre-abstract paintings are admittedly influenced by Fauve and Divisionist techniques but as, Lucie-Smith points out, depict undeniably Arthurian and medieval subject matter, and so qualify for the symbolist team.

The other is Piet Mondrian, the Dutchman nowadays known for his black-lined grids of white squares and rectangles, enlivened with the occasional yellow or red exception. But before he perfected the style that made him famous (about 1914), Mondrian had gone through a florid Symbolist period in the 1910s – in fact he was a keen theosophist (member of a spiritual movement akin to Rosicrucianism).

In a final, surprise move, Lucie-Smith makes a claim for Picasso to have gone through a Symbolist phase, before becoming the father of modern art.

He quotes Evocation, which does look remarkably like something by Odilon Redon (Picasso was only 19 at the time) and whose subject is a characteristically fin-de-siecle one of suicide and death. Or take Life, which uses a handful of meaningful figures to address this rather large topic, not unlike the confessional approach of Edvard Munch just a few years earlier.

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Finale

As with Michael Gibson’s book, I felt that Lucie-Smith pulled in so many outriders and fringe symbolists that he watered down the core vision and essence of Symbolism.

Beardsley? Gauguin? Whistler? Ye-e-e-s… but no. Beardsley is an illustrator who anticipates Art Nouveau design. Gauguin is a post-Impressionist. Whistler is a type of Impressionist with little or no interest in ‘religion’ or ‘the beyond’…

But that is the difficulty with the Symbolism as an-ism, it is extremely broad and covers themes, topics, ideas which spilled over from earlier movements, spilled into contemporary movements, which touched artists (and illustrators and designers) of all types and genres. At its broadest, it was the spirit of the age. All we can say with complete certainty is that the Great War utterly destroyed it, and ushered in a new, anti-spiritual age, in literature, poetry, music and the visual arts.

And, turning back to the immense and beautifully illustrated Gibson coffee-table book, I’d say that if you were only going to own one of these books, Gibson’s is the one: Lucie-Smith’s text is thorough and informative but Gibson’s illustrations are to die for.


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The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972)

When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind. Papa worked at his desk. The nets were set out and taken in. They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace. (p.41)

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is famous for writing the Moomin comic strips, picture books and stories which are still phenomenally popular 70 years after the first book was published (1945), and have been turned into cartoons, animations, TV series, movies, plays and even an opera, as well as a world of merchandise.

The last Moomin book is the sad and melancholy Moominvalley in November, published in 1970. It’s around this time that she made the transition to writing fiction for adults. The semi-autobiographical Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir came out in 1968 (her father and mother were both artists). But her big breakthrough came with The Summer Book, published in 1972, which has come to be regarded as a classic across Scandinavia.

The Summer Book

It’s short, at just 150 pages of text. It’s divided into 22 ‘chapters’ or sections i.e. the average length is just under seven pages.

The shortest is Moonlight at just two pages. Little Sophia wakes in the middle of the night to see the fire in the stove reflected several times in the windows. She tugs her Grandmother’s plait and Grandmother wakes up and reassures her that all is well. Slowly little Sophia drifts off to sleep again. Her father gets up and puts more wood in the stove.

As this chapter/story/anecdote suggests, the tales are all set on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland (very like the ones Jansson spent her childhood on and, specifically, like the one where she built a cabin and lived with her partner for most of adult life).

They focus on the relationship between an unnamed Grandmother and little Sophia. Grandmother is 85 (p.108). Her husband is long dead and referred to only once. The only other member of the household is Sophia’s father – Papa – who occasionally appears but never speaks. He is in his room writing, tending the house, fixing things around the island or – in the one story he dominates, The Enormous Plastic Sausage – buying loads of bulbs and saplings to plant across the island.

We learn that Sophia’s mother is dead (p.25), not least in the story where they make a little model ‘Venice’ out of stones and twigs on a mossy bog near the house and Sophia imagines her mother living inside a splendid palace on the Grand Canal.

The family has lived on the island for 47 years (p.101). They know every inch, they know the impact of the seasons, they know the feel of all the winds and every type of sunrise or storm.

It’s not really a novel. Certainly the same characters recur in every ‘chapter’ but there is no continuous narrative and no attempt to explore the ‘development’ of character, two attributes of your traditional novel.

It’s more like a collection of epiphanies or insights, what reading the American Beat writers taught me to think of as moments of satori, a Buddhist term for enlightenment.

The cat

Their point is their apparent inconsequentiality, an elliptical quality which is, nonetheless, charged with meaning. In The Cat Sophia is given a fisherman’s kitten which quickly grows out of being fluffy and cuddly and turns into a lean killer. Sophia grows to hate the way it brings bird corpses into the house. She shouts at it but the indifferent cat stalks out to do more hunting. Neighbours arrive by boat with a fluffy cat which they thought would catch mice but doesn’t, so they agree to swap fluffy for Sophia’s killer. Sure enough fluffy is lovely and cuddly and docile to stroke, and snuggles on Sophia’s pillow at night. After a few days she wants her killer cat back.

What you make of that, what conclusions you draw about human nature, about love, about the relationship between humans and animals or their pets – well, it’s all entirely up to you.

Unsentimental

So the anecdotes are not sentimental, they are not ‘nice’. The blurb around the book suggests it’s about one summer when a grandmother and her grand-daughter grow close but that’s very misleading. Grandmother is not a nice old lady. She smokes (though she’s struggling to cut down), fumbles with her false teeth, feels dizzy, and needs regular rests – an accurate depiction of old age.

The old woman stood up too quickly. Her walking stick rolled down into the pool, and the whole rock became an uncertain, hostile surface, arching and twisting in front of her. (p.64)

And, strikingly, she’s not even that fond of the child.

‘Bloody nitwit,’ Grandmother muttered to herself. (p.63)

Quite regularly she just wants to get away from the needy, whining, little girl to have a nap or be by herself. She gets angry. She has another crafty fag. She swears.

‘The fishing’s bloody awful,’ Grandmother said. (p.62)

She creeps off into the little pine forest by herself or lies on the moss watching the leaves or looks down at the tadpoles in a pool. She is very ungrandmotherly. She is, in other words, entirely human and wonderful.

Sophia is persistent but capricious. She’s probably what middle-class English mums I know would call rude. Certainly blunt.

‘When are you going to die?’ the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, ‘Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.’
‘Why?’ her grandchild asked.
She didn’t answer. She walked out on the rock and on towards the ravine. (p.22)

Their lack of English good manners and hesitancy are a big part of the appeal. Quite routinely, they get pettish, fretsome and plain angry – very angry – with each other.

Both of them tend to obsess about little things and then forget them and walk away. Jannson magically conveys the strange, intense but shallow passions of childhood. ‘Oh well, it’s broken, let’s play a different game now.’

Many of these involve making and creating. Grandmother is always carving shapes out of driftwood or building a little Venetian palace out of balsa wood and she inspires her grand-daughter to follow suit.

Satori is a term from Zen Buddhism and the stories’ elliptical quality keeps prompting comparison with haikus or Chinese painting, with traditions of art which are a) set in an unspoilt natural world b) spare and minimal in style, with the minimum amount of brushstrokes or description c) hint and suggest some deeper meaning or purpose but are never vulgar enough to spell it out.

Nature notes

Sophia and Grandmother’s little adventures play out against the massive unchanging landscape of this isolated Nordic island and, like a painting, between the moving human figures, you see all kinds of glimpses of the natural world – the trees, the rocks, the moss, the lichens, the seaweed and driftwood, sometimes described plainly and factually, sometimes charged with Jansson’s special tone, a kind of matter-of-fact marvelling, or a matter-of-fact prose style in which the marvelling is implicit, immanent.

It’s a funny thing about bogs. You can fill them with rocks and sand and old logs and make a little fenced-in yard on top with a woodpile and a chopping block – but bogs go right on behaving like bogs. Early in the spring they breathe ice and make their own mist, in remembrance of the time when they had black water and their own sedge blossoming untouched. (p.32)

The poetry is in the simple knowledgeability which, because it is conveyed in such spare prose, reads like wisdom.

Moss is terribly frail. Step on it once and it rises the next time it rains. The second time, it doesn’t rise back up. And the third time you step on it, it dies. Eider ducks are the same – the third time you frighten them up from their nests, they never come back. (p.29)

Since most of us live in towns and cities and spend all our work time and most of our leisure staring at screens (as you are right now), anyone with real in-depth knowledge of the natural world now appears to us like a shaman from a distant tribe, bearing wisdom most of us have long lost. So there’s a basic nature nostalgia running through the book. This was, after all, 1972, 45 years ago. We’ve destroyed a lot of the natural world since then. Anyone who comes with reports of the world beyond our air-conditioned offices is treated like a messenger from exotic worlds.

She heard the cry of the long-tailed ducks. They are called scolders, because their cry is a steady, chiding chatter, farther and farther away, farther and farther out. People rarely see them. They are as secretive as corncrakes. But a corncrake hides in a meadow all alone, while the long-tails are out beyond the farthest islands in enormous wedding flocks, singing all through the spring night. (p. 33)

Some of the decorating and arts and crafts playing with bits and bobs from the natural world morph seamlessly from childreny crafts into the beginnings of pagan ritual.

Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk, and listen to the movements of the birds in the thicket. (p.31)

And some of the stories reference Nordic traditions which are novel to us Anglo-Saxons, like the big celebrations on Midsummer’s Eve which, however, are treated to Jansson’s anti-romantic, dis-illusioned approach. The Midsummer Eve described in Midsummer is a total washout, with torrential rain preventing almost any fires being lit, and all but one of the fireworks bought for the occasion being too wet to light.

Setting the tone

All these elements are very well announced in the opening paragraphs of the first story, which set the natural scene, the irritating inquisitiveness of the little girl and the short-tempered character of Grandmother.

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Sophia.
‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’ (p.21)

Anthony Burgess suggested that all novels should be read twice, once to find out what happens, and once to see how it was done. But this is a book to read multiple times, in order to savour the sharp tang of the dry, astringent prose, and to let the brisk unsentimental depiction of people and the natural world sink really deep into your soul.


Credit

Sommarboken by Tove Jansson was published in Finland in 1972. This translation by Thomas Teal was published by Random House in 1974. Page references are to the Sort of Books paperback edition published in 2003.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)

Not only Walter, she realised suddenly. They would all be out looking for her, cruising the road with flashlights, spotlights. How could they let her get away and tell? Every man was a threat, every car a danger. (p.124)

Plot

A clean-cut, white, all-American young family move out of the big bad city to the idyllic small town of Stepford. The lead character, Joanna Eberhart, is oppressed by how domestic and submissive so many of the other wives are. Her husband joins the men-only Men’s Association, vowing to change it from within. Slowly, through an accumulation of details, Joanna begins to suspect there’s something actively wrong with all the other wives.

Eventually, as her two closest friends are transformed overnight into compliant, characterless housewives, she – and the reader – realise they have all been murdered and replaced by robots, androids created by the town’s menfolk, in order to create a race of ideally servile, completely submissive, domestic servants and sex slaves.

Satire

Obviously the novel is a satire on a certain kind of male backlash against the women’s rights, women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s, combined with equally topical anxieties about androids, robots, artificial intelligence, to create a short powerful horror story-cum-parable. It had a big cultural impact on its publication in 1972 though it is a little hard, in 2015, to recapture the thrill of either strand.

It could be (and obviously was) read as being ‘about’ Women’s Liberation, as Rosemary’s Baby is ‘about’ Satanism and The Boys From Brazil is ‘about’ ex-Nazis. But all three novels are also canny commercial moves to exploit hot cultural issues of the day in order to create thrilling narratives – and make money.

Points

The main things I noticed are:

  • it’s short and quick, as the best parables often are (eg Animal Farm), a brisk two-hour read
  • it’s another novel told largely from the perspective of a young woman (cf Rosemary’s Baby)
  • it takes the classic narrative template of the narrator arriving in a new community and slowly realising it is the setting for a horrifying conspiracy (cf RB)
  • a surprising number of the secondary topics and issues which it references are still with us
  • Levin’s casual, make-it-up style is fresh and easy compared to the stodgy prose of contemporary English writers

Women’s Liberation

Apparently the term Women’s Liberation refers to the late 1960s/early 70s, early forms of the feminist movement, nowadays referred to as second wave feminism. 1970 was a pivotal year:

– A snapshot of some of the events and books published 45 years ago, as Levin was writing this novel.

According to Wikipedia, 45 years later, we are currently in third wave feminism. Compared to the post-structuralist, Derridean deconstruction of gender, race and identity stereotypes implied in TWF, the discussions of Levin’s lead character, Joanna, seem rather simplistic – her most articulated concern is simply that it’s unfair and out of date to have a men-only club. Then again, she’s not a tenured academic expert in Queer Studies, and a lot, an awful lot of thinking – academic and political – has taken place in the 43 years since the novel’s publication.

Other issues

Town versus country The Eberharts have made a decision to leave the big bad city (‘the filthy, crowded, crime-ridden, but so-alive city’ p.8) now their children are 7 or so, a debate had by almost all the parents of children of the same age who I know. The city is polluted, stressful but exciting; the country is peaceful, clean but boring.

There is a familiar Gothic strand to the story: in how many novels and movies have a young couple moved into their ideal suburban house only to find it contains dark secrets?

And in a way the sci-fi fantasy element of the story is not only about mad male scientists concocting sexist robot slaves; it is the uncanny way the stress and inhumanity of the city follow urban exiles, revealing the country to be even more artificial, constructed and manipulated than the city.

Androids Androids have appeared in a range of 20th century novels, movies and TV series with increasing frequency from the 1970s onwards – in Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Terminator franchise, to name some obvious ones. Almost always they are bad.

As to the thinking about artificial intelligence at the precise moment when Levin published this novel, it is tempting to link it with the sci-fi movie Westworld (1973) in which the androids in a futuristic kind of Disneyworld malfunction and start attacking the paying guests. Though the plot and even the plot archetype are different, novel and movie both share an anxiety about the anti-human, destructive potential of lifelike robots.

Feminism and a male backlash against feminism; the perils of artificial intelligence; the suburban Gothic horror story – The Stepford Wives can be viewed as a text where a number of contemporary anxieties or tropes meet and up the ante on each other.

(I note that female androids have been named gynoids.)

Pesticides and pollution As topical as women’s liberation – the ostensible subject of the book – was concern about pollution. The early 1970s not only saw the formation of the first women’s groups, but were also a period when the first Green parties were set up to reflect widespread concern about the destruction of the natural envinronment, and all forms of industrial pollution.

Levin is, therefore, tapping into another very newsy and hot topic when he makes Joanna’s only friend among the wives, Bobbie, as she begins to realise something is wrong, point the finger at the local drinking water supply. She suspects there is effluent from the industrial estate just outside the town which has got into the water and is causing the zombification of the women.

She’s right to be afraid of industry – for these are the computer and tech companies where the men work and have realised they have the combined skills to create lifelike androids – but just wrong about which aspect to be blaming.


Style

As usual the style, the way with words, interests me as much as the subject matter. Levin is bright and breezy, coining neologisms and phrases with Yanky confidence.

She was about a third of the way down the stairs, going by foot-feel, holding the damn laundry basket to her face because of the damn banister, when wouldn’t you know it, the double-damn phone rang.

She couldn’t put the basket down, it would fall, and there wasn’t enough room to turn around with it and go back up; so she kept going slowly down, foot-feeling and thinking Okay, okay to the phone’s answer-me-this-instant ringing. (p.19)

As with Rosemary’s Baby it’s partly the jazzy modernity of the characters’ attitudes and phraseology which makes the story all the more plausible, and the heavy leaning on the female protagonist’s point of view, as the walls close in, which make it all the more terrifying.


Conclusions

From one point of view Rosemary’s Baby and this are identical: the husband in a young married couple completely betrays his wife into a horrifying conspiracy. In Rosemary the husband betrays her to satanists in order to further his acting career; this one goes further as the husband, Walter, acquiesces in the murder of his wife.

The novels are pulp, or horror, or genre fiction because no consideration is given to the husband’s character or motivation. The plot is purely a pretext to create (again) the character of a vulnerable young(ish) woman and then terrify the daylights out of her (and the audience). It’s intelligently and precisely done, but it’s exploitative nonetheless.

References to the story (and the title, after all) generally focus on the perfect wives; but all the wives are dead. It’s actually about a town of male murderers, about a community of men who have ganged together to murder all of their wives. Imagine what JG Ballard would have made of that – I can’t believe they wouldn’t all be pretty damaged by the act, some of them would become unhinged, and therein would lie some really interesting fictive material.

But the purpose of this book is to be a quick, intense jolt of horror and so the entire psychology of the men is excluded; in the final hunting down of Joanna, who goes on the run across country in the winter snow, the men appear (very effectively) just as silhouettes holding the bright torches which surround her, simply as ‘shapes darker than the darkness’ (p.126).

They are the eternal bogeymen of our childhood nightmares.


The movie

Two movies have been made: the 1975 version directed by Bryan Forbes with a screenplay by William Goldman, starring Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman and Tina Louise; and the 2004 version, directed by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Faith Hill and Glenn Close.

Related links

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the truth.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972) Young housewife Joanna Eberhart moves with her husband and two children to the idyllic small town of Stepford where she slowly realises the men are part of a conspiracy to murder their wives and replace them with perfectly submissive androids.
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)

Close-Up by Len Deighton (1972)

‘Two goats in the Mojave Desert. Have you heard it, Viney?’ Weinberger shook his head.

‘They find a tin of film. One of them nuzzles it until the lid falls off. The film leader loosens around the spool and the goat eats a few frames. The second goat eats some too, and they all pull the film off the reel until they have eaten the whole of it. There is nothing left except the can and the spool. The first goat says,”Wasn’t that great?” and the second goat says,”The book was better.”‘

Stone laughed heartily and Weinberger joined in although he’d heard it before (p.191)

Filmworld

After spies, comedy and war, this is another deliberate new departure, or experiment by Len Deighton – this time into the glitzy glamorous world of movie-making and Hollywood film stars.

Deighton had quite a bit of experience of the movie world and no doubt that’s what gave him the inspiration and much of the material for this book. His hugely successful début, The Ipcress File, was turned into a movie in 1965 and there are plenty of photos of Deighton showing its star, Michael Caine, how to cook. Deighton formed a production company with photographer Brian Duffy to produce the film adaptation of his own comic novel, Only When I Larf (1968), and the same company helped produce the screen version of the hit stage play Oh What A Lovely War, for which Deighton also wrote the screenplay (1969), one of the classic British movies of the 1960s.

Thus Deighton knew what he was writing about when he turned to creating a novel about an English actor caught up in the Hollywood machine. However, there isn’t exactly a shortage of novels about Hollywood, quite a few of which reveal that it’s a cut-throat business full of cynical studio bosses, jaded directors, egotistical stars, gagging starlets, alcoholic writers and so on and so on.

What Deighton did for the spy novel (bring a completely new, wonderfully fresh and irreverent style to it) he doesn’t do for the movie-world novel. Close-Up is well-imagined and well-written but it doesn’t break any moulds. In fact, considering the extravagance, cynicism and obscenity of some of the competition, Close-Up is quite cosy and conservative. It fits very snugly into ‘the mould’.

Characters

Marshall Stone is the main character. He’s in his late 40s, risen from suburban dullness (real name Edward Brummidge) to work his way up the ranks of provincial stage actors, before being spotted and given the lead in the wildly successful Western Last Vaquero (1949) (no, it doesn’t exist and doesn’t sound as if it could have been a classic Western). He manages to keep a foot on the English stage with a decade-defining Hamlet i the 1950s, before making more movies through the 60s and now, in the early 1970s, reaching his 50th birthday, he faces difficult personal and professional choices, which the novel describes and dramatises.

Leo Koolman is the unsmiling head of a Hollywood studio who is over in London partly to fête Stone, to make sure he turns up for the filming of his current project, Stool Pigeon, but mainly to coerce him into signing up for a series of TV dramas, a move Stone is understandably reluctant to agree to.

Jake Weinberger (Viny), former publicity manager who is now Stone’s long-suffering agent and confident, and who is being squeezed by Koolman to bring pressure on Stone to sign the contentious TV deal.

Kagan Bookbinder, the stocky producer of Stone’s breakthrough movie, who appears in numerous subsequent scenes as his career intersects with Stone’s, espcially in the climactic scenes where Stone gets talked into starring in an ill-fated independent movie of Bookbinder’s which goes seriously wrong.

Edgar Nicholson, another English actor who appears in the famous breakthrough movie, but whose part is savagely cut to foreground Stone, and whose career never recovers, who appears in verious subsequent scenes as a permanent reminder of the price others paid for Stone’s success.

Suzy Delft is Stone’s illegitimate daughter, now in her early 20s and herself trying to break into the movies. Something odd is going on because since puberty she has had to fend off Stone’s rather more-than-fatherly embraces and outright groping. Is he an incestuous pedophile? Or is Suzy, in fact, not his daughter at all?

Peter Anson was a one-time movie hopeful whose career was shafted and so became a writer. Now he’s been commissioned to write Stone’s biography, so gets to meet him and his family and poke around in his past. Given added piquancy because he is married to Stone’s former wife, Mary.

Slow plot

There are lots of leisurely long scenes between these and a few other characters which allow Deighton to display his knowledge of the finances, deals, technology and psychology of movie-making. The novel is long on leisurely conversations (it’s 345 pages in length) and fairly short on plot.

There’s some technical interest in the way chapters alternate between an omniscient third person narrator and the first-person narrative of Peter Anson as he compiles his biography.

And in the way the time frame leaps around, rooted in a present where Stone is feeling his age, insecure, unhappy filming his latest movie and stressed about the TV deal, but abruptly switching to Stone’s youth in the 1940s, to scenes surrounding the making of his breakthrough Last Vaquero, Anson gets hold of Stone’s first wife’s diary of the late 1940s and 1950s and these are reprinted verbatim.

All this is cleverly handled but there is no tension or forward pull to the narrative. It could have gone on like this for a few hundred more likeable pages. Deighton is always engaging, if never quite believable, company.

I thought the business with a lover of Stone’s in his early days, who Koolman says is blocking his career and needs to be got rid of – I thought it might emerge that she was murdered or something. There’s also a permanent shimmer of uncertainty around whether Suzy Delft is or isn’t the illegitimate daughter Stone claims her to be… And there are unlikely suggestions that Stone’s ex-wife had an affair with Koolman…

But none of these build up to anything: there is no big plot revelation at the end. Instead, in the final pages the book becomes unexpectedly post-modern as the biographer, Anson, confronts a Koolman gloating about finally persuading Stone to do the TV deal – and then, in a slightly surreal way, Anson announces he’s not going to write a factual biography of Stone anyway, he’s going to turn the actor’s story into a fiction – ‘A book of fiction can get closer to the truth than a biography.’ (p.344) whereupon the studio owner enthusiastically joins in, suggesting ideas: how about they call the star actor ‘Marshall Stone’; and how about the scheming mogul is called ‘Koolman’ – ‘Say, that’s not a bad name for me – Koolman: cool man, yes, I like it.’ Thus the fiction closes with the fictional characters creating it and the entire book ends with Anson saying he’s just composed the opening to his novel – and quoting the opening paragraph of this book 🙂

Clever though this kind of ending is, it doesn’t add to or undermine the preceding fiction, which we have engaged with too much (or to little) to be swayed by a final throwaway device. I already knew Koolman and Stone were fictions. They’re in a novel. Having the novel say they are fictions doesn’t alter my experience of the text in the slightest.

The risks of writing a Hollywood novel

Writing a Hollywood novel is a high-risk undertaking from the start for at least three reasons: 1) fictitious movie star names and movie titles always seem silly 2) it quickly dates 3) you can’t out-gross the gross things we already know.

1. There is a very big, costly publicity machine working all the time to make sure everyone in the world knows what the new movies are, who the top actors are, who’s making what with whom, and all the gossip and scandals of their private lives. The advent of the internet hasn’t exactly damped down celebrity culture. The reverse, it’s become an all-consuming, hyperactive machine and goes at an incredible pace. Everything in it dates so fast, product moves to dvd and then box set in months and we have moved onto the next thing, it’s impossible to avoid the daily diet of ads or news snippets, reviews on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines, espcially the annual brou-haha about the Oscars. Hundreds of millions of consumers pride themselves with being bang up to date about the movies.

Thus we are all sensitised to the names of the actors and actresses and hit movies of our time – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson – without trying, I feel I know all about them. They are, in fact, very ordinary names (George) but attached to people of extraordinary skill and amazing charisma who, through their talents (and good looks) and the efforts of a multi-billion dollar multinational industry, have become household words or brands. Name recognition is immediate and total, the mind is flooded with images and emotions evoked by their roles like the palate is by the taste of chocolate.

No work of fiction can compete with that depth of aura. Marshall Stone, Valentine Somerset, Suzie Delft – heard of them? They are the made-up names of the ‘hugely famous’ movie stars in this novel. Except they are not remotely famous. And so their names fall flat. When le Carre invents the spy George Smiley or Forsyth invents Inspector Lefebre, their names barely matter, they are ‘ordinary’ people we would never have heard of. Their character emerges from their actions in the narrative. But the movie novel must persuade us that the whole world knows Marshall Stone, he is mobbed wherever he goes, everyone’s seen his movies, as the premise of the story, for it to make sense. But we haven’t heard of him and we don’t really care what happens to him.

Creating names for fictional movie stars is uniquely difficult because we know to within a millimetre all the names of current and previous generations of stars, as well as having warm feelings for eg Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen. To insert ‘Marshall Stone’ in among such names in the narrative is like a bad special effect, is like the appearance of Zelig with famous people in the Woody Allen movie of the same name, or the scenes where Forrest Gump meets famous people – instead of weaving his characters into a seamless fiction, namedropping real movie stars only highlights the empty, connotation-free, arbitrary quality of the fiction.

2. And nothing dates quicker than this topical knowledge. The text references recent industry-changing hits like The Sound of Music (1965), Easy Rider (1969) and Love Story (1970), suggests that Tom Jones or Andy Williams sing the title song of the new movie, Laurence Olivier is namechecked as the actor Stone most resembles and Stone’s 20-something daughter is mistaken for Nancy Sinatra, or is it Jane Fonda? It all seems such a long, long time ago.

3. Out-grossing the gross. Part of the appeal of the Hollywood movie is its ‘thrilling revelations’ about the scandalous behaviour of the stars and bureaucrats – look they take drugs, wow they screw starlets, God the studio boss is a cynical Machiavelli! But this is hardly news. The 1959 classic Hotel Babylon set a new low in its scurrilous stories of movieland’s cynicism, corruption and criminality. Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 bestseller Valley of the Dolls didn’t pull its punches about the sex and drugs world of 1940s and 50s Hollywood.

By contrast, the way Deighton’s studio head is a calculating manipulater who sometimes loses his temper, or the main character a 50-something male actor who’s a bit selfish and egotistical, seem very pale revelations indeed. It seems that the girl he was having an affair with in the early days died having a backstreet abortion and Stone paid for a fake story about her dying in a car crash to appear in the newspapers. That seems to be the most scandalous event in the book.

Deighton is too nice, too decent to give real bite to his satire, let alone convey real fear at Stone’s plight. And although Stone appears to have been cunningly stitched up by Koolman in the end, what does that amount to? He has to make a Dirty Harry-style movie and then ten episodes of the TV spin-off for a vast fee. Oh what a terrible fate.

This is an amiable 350-page read, with lots of the usual pleasures of a Deighton novel eg the crisp sentences, the understated humour and the interesting factual stretches packed with knowledge about cameras and lighting and directing and editing, and with topical conversations which are now quite interesting social history, where characters worry about TV killing off cinemas or the impact of the newfangled technology of tape cassettes on the movie business … but it isn’t the Deighton novel you’d recommend to newbies.

Related links

Paperback edition of Close-Up

Paperback edition of Close-Up

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.

Declarations of War by Len Deighton (1972)

Deighton’s only collection of short stories, a baker’s dozen of tales about war.

The short story puts a premium on setting the scene quickly, thus many of the stories open with a traditional description and feel rather old-fashioned…

Until you realise that many of them have some kind of gag or twist, like the two which lead you to sympathise with what you think are British fighters, until they are revealed to be Germans in the final sentences. Boom boom. The ‘conceits’ or tricks in A New Way To Say Goodnight and Bonus For A Salesman made me laugh out loud. The pay-offs are funny, but at least in part because they’re so cheesy. Ending a short story is the hard bit.

  • It must have been two other fellows WWII. Set in the present, a travelling salesman pulls into the garage where his former colonel is fixing a car. They reminisce about the time at a farmhouse in Italy during the War where the salesman rescued a tank, but both have drastically different memories of the incident.
  • Winter’s Morning WWI. A fighter ace, his partner and a new boy go for an early morning patrol and engage in a fierce firefight with enemy planes. Only on landing are we told the ace is German, something which jolts our whole understanding of the story.
  • First Base Vietnam. Two GIs driving a truck get lost in rainy weather on minor roads in Vietnam before stumbling across a deserted US military base where they accidentally crash the truck. One of the soldiers sustains fatal burns and dies after a few days, the other burying the body. Then the survivor hunkers down with years worth of rations, and he may be there still. A JG Ballard effect of collapse and abandonment.
  • Paper Casualty WWII. An invasion exercise is being carried out early in the war in Kent. Deighton withholds the context for a while, deliberately misleading the reader to believe he is describing a real invasion of Kent by enemy forces. The senior officers guiding the exercise are assembled in a country house when an ‘enemy agent’ (ie  British soldier play-acting an infiltrator) gets past their security and pins a piece of paper with the word ‘bomb’ on it to the meeting room door – thus ‘killing’ all the senior staff, much to the colonel-in-charge’s chagrin.
  • Brent’s Deus ex Machina WWII. Interview between working class Flying Sergeant Brent who is overcome with stress and fear piloting his bomber, and upper class doctor Hassal. The former is eventually so overcome with anger and hatred that he goes on to become one of the most fearless and decorated pilots in the squad.
  • *A New Way To Say Goodnight 1930s. A young lecturer and his distinguished air ace guest discuss contemporary politics, the economic troubles, all the students into sex and drugs, and a keen young new political movement which is going to overthrow the corrupt old order – you are led to believe it’s at an old Oxbridge college and a contemporary (1970) setting, until the last line when the lecturer says thank you, Herr Göring. It’s meant to sucker you in to seeing how you would react to the political bromides the General airs, but it was such a sharp trick it made me laugh out loud.
  • Lord Nick Flies Again WWI. A young British pilot gets the unenviable task of flying a dilapidated biplane back from France across the Channel. At the end of a nailbiting flight all he can think of to say to the sergeant who starts fixing his plane, is to quote from a Biggles-style comic of his youth.
  • Discipline American Civil War. A ragtag squad of Union infantry take the mickey out of their sergeant till the most troublesome four are ordered down to the valley bottom and up the other side to see if rebel forces are there. They are. The four are all shot.
  • Mission Control: Hannibal One Ancient Rome. First person narrative by a Roman comanding a reconnaissance troop when Hannibal’s elephants come over the Alps.
  • *Adagio WWII. Adagio is the Italian word used to describe a slow movement in classical music. This is a riveting account of a British Hurricane pilot closing on a flight of Heinkel 111s and the thoughts that go through his mind as time slows right down, and we are shocked to realise the entire story takes place during 1 minute. As completely absorbing and convincing as Bomber.
  • *Bonus For A Salesman 1930s. Starts as a letter from a bedraggled lower-class salesman who makes a living travelling round God-forsaken south American countries, who’s been pulled off a bus and arrested in the middle of a revoluçion. Turns out he’s carrying samples of weapons and is asked to demonstrate them to the soldiers and finds himself taking over supervising an ambush against loyalist troops, then managing the transport of the dead leader’s body to the capital and – by the end – it becomes clear that he himself was installed as the new Generalissimo, and is now looking back at the odd chain of events which brought him to power. Clever. Funny.
  • *Action WWII. This is more like the tricksy Deighton of the Ipcress spy novels: a bomber pilot and his friend seem to be recalling the squalid airfield digs they shared during the war. Slowly and obscurely it dawns on you the narrative is hopping between a conversation they are having in 1943 and the memories and conversation of the same two men 30 years later. But there is in fact a further twist on the last page, where you realise they’re both in fact watching a rough cut of a movie which has been made about the pilot’s life, and which refers to real incidents he and his friend remember but which have been altered in the film to make a better story. Genuinely moving.
  • *Twelve Good Men and True 1920. Twelve squaddies travel by train through the ferocious heat of the north Indian plain, decamping hungry and thirsty before marching up to a base in a deserted village where, only slowly, we realise they have been brought in from outside to perform an execution by firing squad of a mutineering Irish soldier.

Maybe because I’m old and tired the depiction of the old bomber pilot in Action, and the combination of the genuine sentiment, the sense of loss and old wounds, with the clever-clever of the interpenetrating time zones (1943 and 1970), has stayed most in memory. And it is a story about memory and fiction and the way both betray ‘reality’. Whatever that is.

He could hear a Lanc on the circuit. The trees of Dirty Lane hid the great machines as they passed over Grebe Fen village. When they came into sight to the right of the church steeple you could watch out for the bank of the wings as they came on to finals. You could tell then: you could tell if they were badly shot up or the driver was not at his best. ‘Not at his best’ was the Wingco’s way of saying half dead. That Wingco: a cold fish. The red Very lights had already been fired to keep the other planes circling and clear of the cripple. The sky behind the church was dark, and he couldn’t see the aeroplane. He felt for his spectacles and put them on before he realised that the sound he could hear was traffic on the Great North Road. The planes had all landed a quarter of a century ago; there were no more to come. The blackboards had long since been wiped clean, the telegrams sent, the widows paid, the war won. (Action, p.142)

Related links

1970s paperback edition of Declarations of War

1970s paperback edition of Declarations of War

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.

The Levanter by Eric Ambler (1972)

After talking so much rubbish and telling so many lies I was exhausted. (p.185)

Just finished reading The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth and was a bit hard on it for reading like a 400-page project plan, a ‘handbook for mercenaries’, rather than a novel, with a rather small (10-page) firefight at the end – ie a huge amount of mind-numbingly practical detail topped off with a tiny dollop of excitement.

I’d forgotten that Eric Ambler can be the same – a novel like Passage of Arms (1959) dominated by the practical details of shipping a consignment of arms around the Far East, or A Kind of Anger (1964) concerned with the convoluted arrangements for selling details of a conspiracy to the highest bidder.

This novel is similarly long on practical detail and historical context and quite short on action or excitement, until the last twenty pages or so.

The plot

It is set against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s of Palestinian terrorism. There are three narrators who narrate alternating chapters. The first, Lewis Prescott, an American journalist in Lebanon, is approached by an attractive young woman who tells him she is press officer for the (fictional) Palestinian Action Force (PAF). She arranges an interview with its unpleasant leader, Salah Ghaled at a safe house in the mountains.

In his strand Prescott gives us a lot of factual background to the Arab-Israeli conflict, from the Balfour Declaration (1917) on through the second world war, the formation of the state of Israel, the various exoduses of Palestinian refugees to Jordan and Syria, the repeated attempts by the Arabs to defeat Israel, in 1956, 1967 and 1973, and the growth of Palestinian terror groups. This leads up to Prescott’s long, tedious interview with this Ghaled character who trots out the standard denuniations of ‘the Zionist state’ and his readiness to use all means available (ie killing innocent bystanders) to overthrow it.

In the other strand, the main narrative, the central figure, Michael Howell, tells his story. Despite his English name he’s descended from an East Mediterranean (Levantine) family who, for several generations, have run factories and businesses in and around Syria. After the Ba’ath Party comes to power in 1968, Howell is forced to bend with the prevailing wind and try to work with the authorities, all the time knowing they could confiscate or ‘nationalise’ his businesses whenever they want. It is against this uneasy background that he discovers his latest reluctant co-venture with state officials, to manufacture batteries, has been hijacked by Ghaled and his terrorist gang.

When his secretary/mistress Teresa tells him invoices show the factory is receiving consignments of odd raw material, Howell insists on driving to the factory immediately, that night. On arriving, they catch the terrorists red-handed using his equipment to make bomb detonators. You’d have thought, somehow, they were in the right, but in fact Howell and Teresa are surrounded by goons with guns and, in a weird scene, are forced to swear allegiance to Ghaled and the PAF. Moreover, they are compelled at knifepoint to sign incriminating documents confessing their full involvement with the terrorists which, if released to the authorities, would lead to their immediate arrest. Arrest and then torture and then life imprisonment. In a Syrian prison. Thus they are conscripted, very much against their will, into the ‘movement’, and are immediately plunged into the technical problems Ghaled is facing creating detonators and small missiles.

After a harrowing evening, Howell and Teresa are then allowed to leave and return to their villa, the terrorists confident they won’t go to the authorities, as their sworn confessions would lead to their immediate arrest etc. Logically this works – but psychologically it doesn’t feel quite right, which is problematic because the whole of the rest of the novel depends on it…

So, Howell and Teresa find themselves drawn into the preparations over the coming weeks for a large-scale terrorist attack on Israel. Howell has to tread a dangerous course, pretending to help the terrorists with a host of engineering, chemical and logistical problems – not least hiring one of his own ships to cruise along the coast of Israel on the night of the attack – while also trying to tip off the authorities. Not the Syrian authorities, obviously – the Israelis. Ghaled has ordered Howell to order one of his ships to cruise 6 miles off the Israeli coast where it will be used a) to launch missile attacks on Tel Aviv b) to send radio signals to detonate bombs which will have been planted on commercial airplanes.

In 1972 maybe this scenario was meant to evoke horror and fear in the reader and create a sense of nailbiting suspense. For me it failed – maybe because, since 9/11, the chaos of the Iraq and Afghan wars, and the almost daily bombardment of horrors associated with ISIS in Iraq, the setting, the plot, although dismayingly topical in some respects, also seems terribly dated.

Eventually Howell manages to make contact with Israel’s security man in Cyprus (a sort of comic scene in which the Israeli agent is surprisingly ungrateful and even rude about the risks Howell is running, of being detected and then ‘punished’ by the cell) and get at least some of this information across, but not enough because he himself is still in the dark about the details of the plot. And later, Howell manages to despatch Teresa back to her native Italy with a brief to stay in touch with the authorities. So she’s safe.

But then Howell himself is forced to go aboard the ship, along with the terrorists and their devices, on the night set for the attack. The novel reaches its climax as Howell takes what steps he can to sabotage the terrorists’ plan, including ordering his captain to steer out of range of Israeli soil, while trying to conceal this from the terrorists. All the time he is desperately hoping Israeli security will have picked up and understood the cryptic radio messages he’s managed to make on the boat’s radio warning of the threat, and are on their way to intercept the boat.

Thriller?

There is never any real suspense because we are told on page one that Howell is telling ‘his side’ of the ‘Green Circle affair’ (named after the logo on the batteries manufactured in his factory which are then smuggled into Israel to act as detonators for numerous bombs). So we know he survived. Not just survives completely unscathed but is revealed, in the final pages, to be still living in his large mansion and pool, attended by servants providing cocktails, which is where he invites the journalist Prescott to come and hear his side of the story.

Only here, in these last few pages, does Ambler’s characteristic suavity emerge. Ambler’s ironic good humour is the best, the most winning feature of his novels, especially the post-war ones (for example, Passage of Arms, despite its serious subject matter and gaudily violent climax, is essentially a light comic novel; the two novels featuring the fat anti-hero Arthur Simpson are broad comedies). But his polish and aplomb are lamentably absent for most of this book, emerging only in these last few pages when Howell is portrayed as an essentially comic figure, full of preposterous indignation at the way he’s been vilified in the Press.

Teresa

One of the chapters is narrated by Howell’s mistress, Teresa Malandra, who sheds a bit of light on Howell’s character, and has a healthy contempt for all the men involved. First time there’s been a female narrator in Ambler. Bully for her.

Vibe

Maybe someone who knew nothing about the Arab-Israeli context would find the lengthy background information contained here interesting (if very out of date).

Maybe some readers would find the premise stated on the first page – that the entire text is by way of being an explanation of the well-known ‘Green Circle Incident’, which has been widely reported in the media – creates tension and expectation. It did the opposite for me. The self-evident survival of the main protagonists confirmed that everything ended ‘happily ever after’ and this undermined any element of mystery or suspense.

After The Dogs of War I was looking for visceral excitement or sophisticated entertainment – but this text was heavy-going and involved wading through lots of mundane and boring practicalities:

  • the long background to the Middle East conflict
  • long sections explaining the business activities of Howells’ grandfather, father and himself
  • lots of detail about successive government changes in Syria and the resulting changes of direction in its industrial policy
  • a lot of technical detail about how to manufacture dry batteries, how to manufacture wet batteries, how to establish new factories, with pilot projects test running new products, and various foreign markets for various manufactured goods
  • a lot of detail about a certain Dr Hawa, the publicity-seeking Minister of Industry in the Syrian Ba’ath government who threatens Howell with confiscating all his businesses unless he co-operates with government plans
  • lots of discussion of how to make the best bomb detonators, with analysis of the different types of nickel wiring required

Conclusion

The lasting memories of the book are:

  • Ambler’s claustrophobic portrait of the oppressive corruption, venality, bribery-soddenness and inefficiency of the Arab countries he’s describing. Every single individual he employs or does business with requires some kind of backhander or baksheesh, unless they are actively threatening to confiscate his businesses and bankrupt him (the government officials) or to torture and kill him (the terrorist group).
  • A horrible sense of being trapped: once they are in the grip of the terrorist cell Howell and Teresa are helpless, powerless. If a key element of the thriller genre is the sometimes superhuman competence of the hero, the figure of Howell is the opposite – a helpless pawn, powerless to escape: and even at the end, when he does escape with his life, the baddies defeated, he is still vilified in the Press the world over and is being forced out of his homeland. He is a powerless loser, and reading about his plight is a strongly negative experience.

The Levanter is, in other words, an uncharacteristically grim text, by turns grindingly technical or uncomfortably threatening, and it is no coincidence it is largely devoid of the urbane humour which made so many of Ambler’s earlier books so attractive.

The title

A levanter is defined in an epigraph to the novel as: a native or inhabitant of the Levant; a ship trading in the Levant; a strong easterly wind in the Mediterranean; one who absconds, especially after losing bets.

Thus, it is implied, the Levanter of the title is the main character and narrator, Michael Howell.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Levanter

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Levanter – note the batteries with the ‘green circle’ logo

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of their plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth (1972)

‘You youngsters today don’t realise what it is to be proud of being a German. It lights a fire inside you. When the drums beat and the bands played, when the flags were waving and the whole nation was united behind one man, we could have marched to the ends of the world. That is greatness, young Miller, greatness your generation has never known and never will know. And we of the SS were the élite, still are the élite.’ (p.292)

Forsyth’s follow-up to the sensationally successful Day of The Jackal (1971) and published just one year later, The Odessa File is also a historical novel – in fact set in the same year, 1963, as Jackal. It is also a ‘documentary thriller’ ie it is deeply based on real events, organisations and figures which require a good deal of factual explanation in order to situate the foreground narrative into the full historical, geopolitical and diplomatic context. So much so that, at numerous points, the book reads like an encyclopedia or a Dictionary of Nazi Biography.

In Jackal the reader has to be informed about the war of independence in Algeria and its impact on French politics in order to understand the plot – here, there is a great deal of background information about the SS, their crimes against humanity during the war, how many of their officers managed to escape at the end of the war, and about the secret organisation – the Odessa – which helped those escapees and which then continued to provide a support network to former SS men in post-war Germany.

The hero

Peter Miller is a successful German freelance journalist. He made a packet tracking down and selling early photos of the Beatles from their Hamburg nightclub days, so he can now afford to pick and choose his stories, which he then sells to glossy magazines. He lives in a penthouse apartment in Hamburg with his girlfriend, Sigi, a bosomy stripper at a local club. Although a man of the world with many contacts in post-war Germany, he is surprisingly ignorant about both Nazi crimes during the war and the extent to which contemporary German society is still riddled with former Nazis. On one level the novel is a pilgrimage, a journey to understanding, in which we follow the investigative journalist as he – to his horror – discovers the power and extent of the Odessa.

The Forsyth approach – ruthlessly honed

Nothing can match the hurtling pace of Jackal as the stories of the various characters all accelerate towards the fateful day of the assassination attempt. In The Odessa File the narrative is, to start with, more discursive and contingent, slower to coalesce – although right from the start Forsyth is keen to convey the high stakes of his narrative with a bit of classic thriller prolepsis.

It is always tempting to wonder what would have happened if… or if not. Usually it is a futile exercise, for what might have been is the greatest of all mysteries. But it is probably accurate to say that if Miller had not had his radio on that night he would not have pulled in to the side of the road for half an hour. He would not have seen the ambulance, nor heard of Salomon Tauber or Eduard Roschmann, and forty months later the republic of Israel would probably have ceased to exist. (p.14)

This paragraph reveals what is at stake in the book – former Nazis are supplying technology to help the Egyptian government build long-range missiles which they intend to pack with radioactive material and bubonic plague bacilli and rain down on Israel, destroying both people and country.

(On a psychological or style level, the first two sentences of this paragraph are interesting in that they are so obviously waffle – you skip through them in order to cut to the chase, to the facts. Pace Forsyth, there is in fact a thriving section of historiography dedicated to ‘counterfactual’ history, an entire intellectual discipline which has shed light on all kinds of historical events. Granted, it barely existed in 1972, but nonetheless those first two sentences are the sound of Forsyth dispensing with abstract thought, with intellectual matters, with the Imagination – in order to focus on his core offering – ruthlessly-honed, thoroughly-researched, relentlessly-focused factual thriller narrative.)

The plot

Freelance journalist Peter Miller is driving along the Autobahn when he hears the news of President Kennedy’s assassination (November 22 1963). He pulls over in shock. Because he is pulled over he sees an ambulance hurtling past. The journalist in him follows out of habit. The ambulance stops at a shabby apartment block. An old man has gassed himself. The police are on the scene and Miller recognises a detective he knows. He meets him a few days later for a drink and the detective hands over the diary of the old man, Saloman Tauber who, it turns out, was a Jewish concentration camp survivor. The journal is, understandably, harrowing stuff, describing what he witnessed in the Riga ghetto in Latvia, and singling out the SS commandant Eduard Roschmann for his cruelty and sadism.

Just as in Jackal, the narrative now divides into several streams which run parallel, but are joined by the same timeline, so you can see various protagonists, and the various strands of this complex international plot, as they interweave and slowly pick up speed. The plotlines are conceived with mathematical precision, fitting together, interlocking with the accuracy of an engineering blueprint.

  • We follow Miller as he explores the world of Nazi hunting in 1960s Germany. He uncovers widespread reluctance to talk about the past in German society at large – even in official organisations like the police or the state Attorney General’s office. Miller meets numerous people before encountering Leon and his Jewish Nazi-hunters – and making an ill-fated attempt to pose as a former SS man to infiltrate the Odessa…
  • We meet the German community in Cairo who are working with the Egyptian authorities to recruit German scientists to come help the Egyptians develop long-range rockets to attack Israel: their aim is to a) carry on Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews b) establish their reputation and begin to build up power again…
  • We meet the heads of the Israeli secret services, particularly Mossad, and are privy to their top secret meetings about how to deal with the Egyptian missiles, how to deter German scientists from joining the project, up to and including assassinating them…
  • We don’t quite meet the Americans but they are important in the larger diplomatic context: for JFK was leaning heavily on the German chancellor to supply Israel with tanks and munitions, which the Israelis desperately need, knowing they face attack from the Arab nations at any point. The Nazis hope that, with JFK dead, his successor Lyndon Johnson will put less pressure on the Germans to supply arms. For their part, the Israeli government must avoid embarrassing the German government for that will give the anti-Israel lobby the argument they need to cut off arms supplies to Israel. And this explains the official line that comes down from the Israeli Prime Minister, to all the security services, and down to the level of Leon and his group in Munich – do not hunt and pursue ex-Nazis, and do not carry out reprisals, as these will damage the high-level negotiations between the two governments and jeopardise the arms sales…
  • And we meet the head of ODESSA, the secret organisation of ex-Nazis in Germany, codename Werwolf, who alone knows that the MD of a popular radio factory is none other than the Eduard Roschmann Miller is looking for (his codename Vulkan) and that his factory is clandestinely developing the radio targeting devices which are all the Egyptians are waiting for to complete their anti-Israel missiles…

So, without knowing it, and simply out a sense that he ought to do something for old man Tauber, Miller sets out to find this commandant Roschmann and finds himself stumbling into a complex web of intrigue, involving a large number of institutions and organisations with competing agendas, and with agents from all sides following him and trying to stop him.

Forsyth is not shy about taking us into the innermost thoughts of the highest figures in the land – the head of Mossad, the Israeli Prime Minister, the head of Odessa. Maybe it is his journalistic background (Reuters, BBC) which makes him so confident at handling and describing in a straightforward, virile style the conversations, thoughts and actions of such a wide array of real, historical characters.

Also, it is impossible to tell from the text where real events and characters end and the fiction begins. Wikipedia tells me that Roschmann was a real-life figure and that his life on the run – assuming new identities, fleeing then returning to Germany – which Miller slowly pieces together from various sources, is completely true. Similarly, I knew that Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, was a real character. Presumably the heads of Mossad and so on are real, named characters, certainly the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, is.

The completeness with which historical events and characters are woven into the narrative gives the entire text an exciting sense of factual accuracy completely unlike any of the other thriller writers I’ve been reading. For long stretches it barely feels like a fiction, more like something you’d see in one of the double-page Sunday Times Insight investigative pieces – a dramatised version of completely authentic events.

Peter Miller’s story

Miller meets a succession of people in order to track down Roschmann – the Hamburg policeman, the Hamburg DA, the Z-Commission of Nazi hunters, the Jewish Archive, the Press officer in the British Embassy in Bonn, the long-standing British official Cadbury who kept personal files of the war crimes trials. This pilgrimage then takes him to London to meet Lord Russell, former legal advisor to the British Military Government, who remembers dealing with the Roschmann case after the latter was caught by Allied soldiers in December 1947. Russell advises him to seek Simon Wiesenthal, the noted Nazi-hunter. (How on earth did Wiesenthal feel about being cast into a novel, about having dialogue invented for him?)

The Wiesenthal sections consist of pure information, big slabs of backstory, as Wiesenthal fills the naive young reporter in on how tens of thousands of SS men prepared their escape from Germany well before the end of the war, were spirited south to Italy, helped by the German cardinal in Rome and often housed in Catholic monasteries, before being shipped on to South America using blank passports issued by the friendly authorities in Argentina. (Hence the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, in Buenos Aires in 1960.)

Wiesenthal advises Miller to try the Jewish Centre in Munich and here his request to the receptionist for information about returnees from the Riga ghetto is overheard by a survivor who introduces Miller to his organisation, a secret group of camp survivors dedicated to tracking down and killing former SS officers. Miller is blindfolded and taken to a safe house where the leader of the group, Leon, asks him if he is prepared to adopt a false identity and pass himself off as a former SS man in order to penetrate and expose the Odessa. When Miller agrees he is transported to the house of a repentant and reformed SS officer in Bayreuth where he undergoes intensive training. The false passport, the new identity, the haircut and new appearance, the training and preparation – are all reminiscent of the Jackal’s meticulous preparations before the assassination.

In this case, however, things go almost immediately wrong. Leon and his group forge letters of recommendation for Miller – now renamed Kolb after a recently deceased SS member whose identity they steal – to the local SS bigwig. What none of them know is that this man is also the Werwolf, the leader of the Odessa in Germany, who has been given the priority task by the Nazi leadership in South America with keeping Roschmann, in his guise as head of the radio factory, completely secure so he can finish the radio guidance system for the Egyptians.

Werwolf interrogates Miller – who has been well-briefed and passes scrutiny – then gives him a letter of recommendation to one Bayer who can provide safe accommodation in Stuttgart while they get the Odessa’s forger to provide Miller/Kolb with a new identity. But – in one of those accidental details which are so crucial in detective/thriller fiction – Miller can’t be bothered waiting for the delayed train to Stuttgart and so drives to Stuttgart in his distinctive black jaguar with a yellow stripe. Big mistake. He parks the car some distance from Bayer’s house but is seen by his wife out attending a charity do. Later Werwolf phones Bayer to check Kolb/Miller got there alright, and the wife answers the phone and says, ‘Yes, I saw him getting out of his car, a lovely English one, a jaguar.’ Yikes.

Parallel storylines

At a stroke Werwolf realises Kolb is a fake and is overcome with chagrin. For, in a parallel strand of the book, he has been receiving reports from around Germany that a nosy reporter is asking questions about Roschmann, and so he has activated the Odessa’s assassin, Mackensen, to find this troublesome reporter and liquidate him. And to think he had the man Miller in his front room for three hours masquerading as one of the Kameraden!

Werwolf rings Mackensen and tells him Miller is in Stuttgart, downtown with Bayer, a jolly fellow who has taken Miller into town to dinner and is getting drunk with him. Mackensen tracks the pair to Miller’s room in a seedy hotel but is not expecting what transpires – which is that Miller suddenly pushes the drunk Bayer into a chair, ties him down and begins to threaten him, demanding he tell where the forger lives. Miller is really very violent, beating Bayer and eventually snapping his little finger, at which point Bayer tells him the forger is named Winzer and lives in Osnabrück. Miller stuffs a gag in Bayer’s mouth, secures his bonds and disappears out the fire escape, walking to his car and setting off for Osnabrück.

It takes Bayer several hours to shuffle over to a bedside lamp, knock it to the floor and use a shard of broken glass from the broken bulb to cut his bonds. Finally he stands up, goes to the window and throws it open – only to be killed with one shot by the Odessa assassin who has been waiting all night at a window opposite for Miller to show himself. But even as he packs up his rifle, Mackensen knows he’s made a bad mistake. He reluctantly phones Werwolf who is enraged at his incompetence and orders him to follow Miller. Werwolf immediately phones Winzer in Osnabrück and tells him a nosy journalist with violent tendencies is on his way to interview him, and orders him to disappear into the Alps for a week’s ‘holiday’.

It is typical of Forsyth’s approach that, when the Odessa forger Winzer is introduced, we are given about ten pages detailing his entire biography from birth, paying special attention to the series of events which led him to become such a proficient forger, and a detailed account of  his work for the SS during and after the war. The forward momentum of the novel completely stalls while we read this, but it is presented so crisply and with such complete authority that it doesn’t damage the novel, on the contrary, like all the similar sections about how the SS escaped or how Israeli intelligence is structured, or how the Nazi cell in Cairo functions, it adds tremendously to the sense of documentary accuracy which characterises Forsyth’s books.

In another, parallel strand of the plot, when Leon, head of the Jewish group in Munich, contacted his controllers in Israeli intelligence and told them about the whole Kolb/Miller plot, the Israelis demanded a) that Miller not only find Roschmann, but go beyond that to get the names and contacts of all the senior figures in Odessa b) that they put their own man, identified simply as Josef, a trained agent, onto trailing Miller. Again, we get a potted biography of Josef, Mossad’s agent, as he packs and flies to Germany, land of the people he hates.

So as Miller drives to Osnabrück to find the Odessa’s secret forger, his steps are being dogged not only by an SS assassin, but also by an Israeli agent.

Miller goes to Winzer’s house and his flirtatious housemaid makes it plain that Winzer has been tipped off about his arrival and left, only 20 minutes earlier. Where? The Alps, which is too vague a location for Miller to pursue or track him down.

The gathering speed of Miller’s manhunt comes, temporarily, to a halt until, after some food and a rest, he returns and re-questions the housemaid who mentions Winzer’s aunt, lying dying of cancer in a sanatorium. Miller bluffs his way past the doctors, pretending to be the aunt’s nephew and questions her, eliciting the unexpected news that Winzer keeps a ‘file’ as insurance against being caught. Miller phones a burglar he knows, one of his many contacts in the Hamburg underworld, and persuades him to catch the train to Osnabrück to do a little job for him.

Together they break into Winzer’s house and crack the safe: the burglar keeps all the money, Miller takes Winzer’s file, the Odessa File, a list of all the SS men Winzer has forged passports for. Leafing through it Miller recognises Roschmann’s file, complete with all details about his new name and identity. Miller phones his girlfriend in Hamburg and asks her to drive to meet him and to bring with her the gun he keeps in his flat. When she arrives some hours later they have sex, almost as an aside he proposes marriage to her – then he drives off to confront Roschmann at the hilltop mansion of the now-rich industrialist.

At which point the narrative gets very tense and very complicated, and you’ll need to read it yourself to find out what happens in the final Grand Confrontation scene, and why Miller’s quest turns out to be not at all what it seemed…


Hardware

Cars, planes, guns, ships, tanks. The detail and precision of naming and branding of boy’s toys is like an edition of Top Gear or a special Nazi supplement of Jane’s Defence Weekly.

On those winter manoeuvres in the woods around Bad Tolz, Top Sergeant Ulrich Frank commanded his first tank, an American-built M-48 Patton. It was his last manouevre with the Patton. Waiting for the troop back at camp was a row of shining brand-new French AMX-13s with which the unit was being re-equipped. Faster, more heavily armed than the Patton, the AMX would become his in another week. (p.149)

These tanks have a dual significance: they happen to be on manoeuvres and so hold up Miller in one of his various car journeys; but, although Top Sergeant Frank doesn’t know it, they are almost certainly among the soon-to-be-decommissioned weapons which are the subject of the diplomatic wrangles between Bonn and Tel Aviv. And, as it turns out, this tank is to be the subject of the final paragraph in the book, at the end of the epilogue which lists what became of all the characters in the book: this tank is traded to Israel and plays its part in the 1967 War, ending the novel with the image of it ‘caked with dust and oil, scored by bullets, its tracks worn to wafers by the rocks of Sinai’, rolling to a halt on the east bank of the Suez Canal.

Thus, even small details and episodes in the novel are drawn into the complex web of 20th century geopolitics which underpins the narrative at almost every step.

For a different kind of focus on technique, pages 251 to 253 give an unadorned, factual account of what you need to buy from which kind of store to make a home-made car bomb. Mackensen buys the ingredients and lovingly prepares one to blow up Miller’s car, with maybe predictably unintended consequences…

It is characteristic of Miller, and of this very male text, that the journalist is in love with his Jaguar which, initially, is deployed to give us a sense of his success and his young man’s enjoyment of shiny toys. Later it is used ironically by Forsyth, for it is Miller’s decision to use his car rather than the slow train which gives Miller away to Bayer’s wife and thus blows his cover before he’s even begun to infiltrate the Odessa. And it is in Miller’s car that Mackensen plants his home-made bomb, with explosive consequences… The car is a Jaguar SK 150S.

At a touch of the button the 3.8 litre engine beneath the long sloping bonnet of the Jaguar SK 150 S thundered once and settled down to its habitual and comforting rumble like an angry animal trying to get out of a cage. (p.14)

The movie

After the success of the Jackal novel (1971) and movie (1973), it’s no surprise that Odessa was snapped up and made into a movie, released in 1974, directed by Ronald Neame and starring Jon Voight.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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