The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

Related reviews

The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.

Epilogue

Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs (1975)

David Nobbs’ fictional character Reginald Perrin proved to be quite a success. The book was popular and quickly spawned the TV series starring Leonard Rossiter, itself a hit, prompting Nobbs to create two further novels both themselves quickly converted into TV series. In 2009 the character was resurrected in a new BBC TV series played by Martin Clunes.

Three things of note in this, the first novel in the series:

1. Funny In the first half it is regularly very very funny, peopled by excellent comic caricatures, constructed from marvellously comic scenes, littered with observations of a kind of subdued, English, domestic surrealism.

‘This is a happy house, Mr Potts,’ said Mr Deacon [the landlord]. ‘And as regards the lights going off suddenly, don’t worry. They only do that when we watch BBC2.’ (p.224)

Davina sat at the bedside.Uncle Percy Spillinger’s breathing was laboured. His wardrobe doors were open. Davina closed them quietly. It didn’t seem right that his last moments should be witnessed by all his suits. (p.209)

He led Constable Barker into the living room. It was comfortable in the impersonal way of furnished flats. Whatever could conceivably have a tassel, had a tassel. (p.277)

2. Clipped It is written in an oddly clipped, functional prose. Short sentences. Brisk paragraphs. Brief descriptions. Punchy dialogue. Almost as if worked up from a screenplay.

‘Listen to those damned dogs,’ said Uncle Percy Spillinger.
Davina listened. She could hear no dogs.
The wardrobe doors opened again with a shuddering groan. Again Davina shut them. (p.209)

If you compare book and TV series, it is striking how very closely the TV follows the book, right down to exchanges of dialogue. Ready-packaged.

3. Despair Beneath it all runs a dark river of despair. It is about a 46-year-old respectable executive in a fruit puddings company (Sunshine Deserts) having a mid-life crisis. Unable to have sex with his wife. Fantasising about his secretary. Driven mad by the routine crapness of life –

  • his morning train is always 11 minutes late
  • the lifts don’t work
  • the clock on the tower of the Sunshine Desserts building has been stuck at 3:46 since 1967)

– Reggie feels impelled to:

  • write increasingly rude letters to his suppliers
  • implementing madder and madder schemes eg taking a map of Bedfordshire and drawing the outline of his secretary’s handbag on it and then presenting it to a subordinate as the ‘target sales area’ for a new fruit ice cream.
  • hold a dinner party for his boss and colleagues at which he doesn’t actually serve any food but drives them mad with frustration before announcing he has sent a cheque for the value of the food to Oxfam to feed the starving millions.

Finally Reggie fakes his own suicide, leaving a pile of his clothes on a beach late at night, swimming about a bit, then exiting the sea to dress in new clothes, taking the cash he’d been extracting from banks, and setting off into a new life, adopting a variety of madcap identities along the way…

Comic characters

Work

  • CJ, head of Sunshine Deserts and famous for his catchphrase ‘I didn’t get where I am today…’, applied in more and more ludicrous situations eg ‘I didn’t get where I am today without knowing a real winner when I see one’ (p.9), ‘I didn’t get where I am by being blown up in the end of the world!’ (p.230)
  • Mrs CJ: very nervous, justifiably so as CJ is always ferociously criticising her.
  • CJ’s office chairs: anyone called for a meeting in CJ’s office runs the gauntlet of his cheap plastic office chairs which more often than not emit a loud farting sound when you sit on them, or get up.
  • David  Harris-Jones: nervous, sycophantic colleague at work: ‘Super CJ’.
  • Tony Webster: smooth, sycophantic young colleague at work: ‘Great CJ.’
  • Joan, his secretary. For eight long years she’s taken dictation of his boring letters to suppliers and retailers and now, when he makes a pass at her, he is astonished when she responds enthusiastically and throws her clothes off.
  • Doc Morrisey: wizened, rubbish old doctor who himself, comically, suffers from much the same male menopause symptoms as Reggie.

Personal

  • Elizabeth: his long-suffering wife, who every morning holds his bowler hat and umbrella and picks fluff off his suit before he sets off to work. She is sweet and loving and kind and Reggie can’t get an erection for her any more and can’t bear living this stifling, predictable clockwork life.
  • His mother-in-law: we never meet her but early on Reggie, his mind slipping, associates her with a hippopotamus, one of the most visually memorable gags in the TV version.
  • Jimmy: his brother-in-law, failed Army type, hopeless at organising anything hence his frequent visits at inappropriate moments with the catchphrase ‘bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, which can also be applied to most other fronts eg, ‘Well, Mark, how’s things on the acting front?’ (p.53)
  • Mark: his grown-up son, a failing actor, scrabbling for work in obscure provincial theatres, routinely popping home for ‘a bit of a loan’.
  • Linda: his grown-up daughter, running to fat and married to Tom.
  • Tom: Linda’s husband and Reggie’s son-in-law, incredibly boring, earnest, bearded, alternative type, keen on composting, not disciplining the children and so on. Catchphrase ‘I’m a x person’ as in ‘I’m very much a stone person’ (p.201).
  • Uncle Percy Spillinger: distant relative, posh, slightly deaf, very eccentric, arrives for the dinner party in full black tie, talks about his collection of curios including a finger bought in Hong Kong, chats up busty Davina, one of the secretaries from work, though puts her off a bit by mentioning his six previous wives, all of whom have died and been buried in Ponders End. He dies and Davina moves fast to secure his inheritance.

Farcical scenes

  • When his wife goes to stay with her mother Reggie invites his secretary round one Sunday for sex and they’ve got as far as stripping naked in his (grown-up, long departed) son’s bedroom when there’s a knock at the door.
  • David Harris-Jones gets so drunk at Reggie’s dinner-party-without-food that he passes out and the other guests have a bet what colour underpants he’s wearing. When the men unzip and pull his trousers down they discover they’re white pants with a bog face of Ludwig van Beethoven on them, something he is never allowed to forget.
  • Early on Reggie suggests taking Elizabeth, Tom and Linda and their two little children to a safari park. It is a hot stifling day and the adults’ blandness and the children’s whining drives him so mad, that when the car overheats and breaks down in the lions enclosure Reggie gets out to go and talk to them. Except that they get to their feet and come loping towards him with an increasingly hungry look in their eyes, Reggie turns and runs screaming and it is only a park guard shooting one with a tranquiliser gun before Reggie makes it back into the car that prevents an early departure for our hero.

Despair

In 1849 the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote: ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,’ and that could be the epigraph for the Perrin books and TV show, the horribly spirit-slaying, soul-crushing requirements of the daily commute to a pointless, unfulfilling job. Despite the comic flourishes, a lot of the book is just plain depressed.

The corridors of the hospital smelt of decline and antiseptic, and they reminded Reggie of his future. (p.81)

The first few TV episodes follow Reggie being driven over the border of rage and frustration into active despair by everyone and everything around him – by his insufferable brother-in-law, his ghastly son-in-law Tom, his overbearing boss CJ, his horribly cheery colleagues Tony and Adam. The episodes end with Reggie screaming, doing a heartfelt Munch-like scream of soul-pain, as the credits start to roll. Funny? Maybe, but painfully so, disturbingly so.

He was alone, utterly alone. No family. No friends. Not even a friendly bank manager in the cupboard. He began to cry. He lay on his bed and wept, until there were no more tears and he was exhausted and empty. (p.219)

In my review of The Wilt Alternative (1979) I wondered why so many of the novels of the 1970s are about unhappy middle-aged men (see the novels of Kingsley Amis, of David Lodge, the Wilt series, this). Chuck in the depressed, shuffling protagonists of John Le Carré’s Smiley novels, and then the smothering presence of the patron saint of suicidal depressives, Graham Greene (The Human Factor, Dr Fischer of Geneva), to give a powerful sense that it was, at bottom, for this cohort of middle-aged white men, a decade of despair.

One old man had a compulsive snort. As he listened to the compulsive snort Reggie thought about that old man’s life. His first rattle, his first step, his first word, his first wank, his first woman, his first conviction, his first stroke, his first compulsive snort. The history of a man (p.220)

Finale

After faking his suicide Reggie travels across the west of England, changing his name and appearance to try out new personalities, with often ludicrous results. Finally, he realises how lonely and unhappy he is and moves back to London. He gets a job as an under-gardener in a mental hospital and takes to hanging around his old house in his spare time. Eventually, he reveals his true identity to his daughter, Linda, who tells him the family are holding memorial service for him. Reggie attends it in the fake persona of a long-lost friend, Martin Wellbourne. Elizabeth takes to him. He seems strangely familiar…

And in the final scene of the book, after some weeks of seeing each other, of dates and drives and dinners, Elizabeth announces to a surprised family that she is going to marry Martin Wellbourne (in fact, Reggie). They hold an engagement party for the family. Linda corners Elizabeth in the kitchen. ‘Mother, there’s something I have to tell you. Martin, he’s not… he’s not who he seems.’ But Elizabeth amazes her daughter by revealing that she knows Martin is really Reggie, has known for some time. But it will be fun to be married again, to give it all another chance, to live a little.

After trawling down to some pretty grim depths, the novel finally ends on an upbeat note, leaving the reader smiling. Thank God.

TV series

The three Perrin books were made into three BBC TV series starring Leonard Rossiter, which aired in 1976, 1977 and 1979 respectively.

Related links

The Reginald Perrin novels

  • The Death of Reginald Perrin (1975, later reissued to tie in with the TV series, as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin)
  • The Return of Reginald Perrin (1977)
  • The Better World of Reginald Perrin (1978)
  • The Legacy of Reginald Perrin (1996)

Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe (1975)

Between Porterhouse Blue (1974) and Wilt (1976) Sharpe published Blott on the Landscape (1975). For some reason I found this funnier than the other two, maybe because I’m getting a feel for a Sharpe novel, what it does and does not try to do. In particular, a feel for the genre of Farce:

‘Farce – a comic dramatic piece that uses highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters, extravagant exaggeration, and violent horseplay… Farce is generally regarded as intellectually and aesthetically inferior to comedy in its crude characterizations and implausible plots.’ (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Plot Sir Giles Lynchwood, MP for the fictional constituency of South Worfordshire, hates his fat wife, Lady Maud, and is casting round for a way to leave her but without initiating a divorce – which would mean he loses the riches she brought to the marriage. He stumbles upon the idea of getting a motorway extension driven through her Family Seat, the home they both share, Handyman Hall – as husband he would get the substantial compensation the government would pay and Lady Maud wouldn’t get a thing. Perfect! However, having pulled the necessary strings in Whitehall to get the ball rolling, he makes every effort to appear to his wife and the local gentry to be leading the campaign against it, a feat of Machiavellian hypocrisy.

Thus starts a farcical sequence of events drawing in:

  • a senior judge tasked with running the public enquiry who is stoned and bottled out of town by the yokels of Worford – easily bought by Lady Maud with gallons of free beer
  • a naive man from the Ministry, Dundridge, who is swiftly made drunk at a local golf club party and photographed in compromising positions with an obliging local beauty, leading to contorted blackmail schemes as the photos change hands
  • the eponymous Blott, a German Prisoner of War who managed to stay on after the War as the gardener at Handyman Hall and who Lady Maud tasks with spying on Sir Giles and his mistress in London
  • Mrs Forsyth, the mistress in London, who is paid to (reluctantly) tie up Sir Giles in a variety of bondage outfits

and much, much more. We witness:

  • Blott getting the motorway demolition men drunk, especially the one in charge of the wrecking ball who he persuades to show off his skill and ends up inadvertently demolishing half of Worford High Street and setting on fire a row of historic almshouses.
  • Blott digs up his stash of World War Two weapons and transforms the triumphal arch-cum-lodge where he lives into a fortress, filling it with concrete, ringing it with barbed wire, from which he holds off both the local police and the Army with machine guns and rocket launchers.

So sucked are you into the crazy logic of Sharpeland that you accept it when Lady Maud gets the Hall converted into a safari park in seven days flat, so that when a tipsy Sir Giles returns from a sojourn in London he is surprised to find his home surrounded by a barbed wire fence and, once he has broken in, very surprised to encounter real-life lions in his rose garden. Hungry lions.

Farcical stereotypes 

  • the fat sexually voracious woman (here, Lady Maud; Porterhouse Blue Mrs Biggs; Wilt Eva Wilt)
  • her ineffectual male victim (here, Dundridge; Porterhouse Blue Lionel Zipser; Wilt Henry Wilt)
  • the Machiavellian committee man (here, Sir Giles Lynchwood; Porterhouse Blue Sir Godber Evans; Wilt Dr Board)
  • the Neanderthal but obstinate prole (Skullion, Blott)
  • the obtuse police (here, Henry Percival; Wilt Inspector Flint)
  • the inadequate Army

Sex farce The English are embarrassed by sex (well, the polite English middle classes are). Hence all those Whitehall Farces with titles like Run For Your Wife and Whoops, There Go My Trousers! Once you accept these novels as farce, it is easier to accept the multitude of excruciatingly embarrassing scenes which the plot generates. Thus the completely sexless nature of Sir Giles and Lady Maud’s marriage drives them both into farcical mishaps with other partners, Sir Giles into the chains and straps of Mrs Forsyth in St John’s Wood, Lady Maud into the hilarious attempt to seduce Dundridge. Both Dundridge and Sir Giles are stripped naked and photographed at their most abjectly humiliated. Something very Freudian going on with this humour.

Bureaucracy There is also something intrinsically farcical about bureaucracy, which so often fails or results in the opposite of what was intended. (When Kafka read his great novels about bureaucracy to his friends there were, apparently, tears of laughter running down his face.) Thus Sir Giles’ cunning plan to route a motorway through his own property for the compensation money drags in the Ministry of Transport, with its hierarchy of twitchy civil servants, each devoted to protecting their own backs right up to Cabinet level. Although it’s from a different era the accumulated nitwittery of the men from the Ministry reminded me of the wretched civil servants who have to cope with the girls of St Trinians (books 1948-53; films 1954-60).

Compulsory purchases This kind of fuss about a proposed bypass or motorway seems rather dated. The protests about the extension of the A30 which led Swampy to prominence were in the 1990s. I think it was during the 1970s that this kind of protest first became widespread, as the government hugely expanded the motorway and A-road network. The entire premise of The HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is that Arthur Dent’s protest about his house being knocked down to make way for a town bypass is ironically mirrored by the entire planet being demolished to make way for a galactic bypass. That was broadcast in 1978, presumably written in 1976 or 77 ie the same time as his novel.

Prose style I love Sharpe’s prose. It is clear and unconvoluted. It is made up of crisp sentences which clearly describe the concatenations of cataclysmic actions and schemes. There is as much description of place as is required to locate the narrative’s hopeless puppets. The comic plot fits together like a Swiss clock, all the interlocking pieces immaculately clean and precise. In this scene Dundridge has been reluctantly forced to seek shelter for the night at the home of the sexually voracious Lady Maud. He thinks he has managed to be given a room of his own, but…

Dundridge went across to the window and opened it and then, moving carefully so as not to stub his toes, he went back and got into bed. As he did so he knew there was something terribly wrong. A blast of Chanel No.5 issued from the bedclothes overpoweringly. So did Lady Maud. Her arms closed around him and with a husky, ‘Oh you wicked boy,’ her mouth descended on his. The next moment Dundridge was engulfed. Things seemed to fold round him, huge hot terrible things, legs, arms, breasts, lips, noses, thighs, bearing him up, entwining him, and bearing him down again in a frenzy of importunate flesh. He floundered frantically while the waves of Lady Maud’s mistaken response broke over him. (Page 110)

The novel is like a series of Donald McGill postcards come to life, bawdy, crude, brilliantly inventive, wonderfully funny. Speaking of illustrations…

Jacket cover of Blott on the Landscape by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Blott On The Landscape – illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story (the ferocious Lady Maud dominates this cover, sprinkled with the incriminating blackmail photos of Dundridge, a rhinoceros horn peaking out form her left buttock and the buildings of Worford being demolished at top left). You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Crime of The Century by Kingsley Amis (1975)

You couldn’t be our man, because it would have to have meant a bloke who writes detective stories had started setting up a detective story in real life, and that kind of thing only happens in detective stories. (p.129)

Amis was commissioned by the Sunday Times to write a detective serial to run in the paper in the summer of 1975. Just two years earlier he had published another murder mystery, The Riverside Villas Murder, suburban in setting, domestic in subject, historic in period (1936) and with much extraneous semi-autobiographical material about the lead figure, the 14-year-old boy, Peter Furneaux.

So, as he explains in the 1986 introduction to the paperback edition, Amis set out to use the ST commission to try and write something at the other end of the spectrum: grand, big public crime, hundreds of coppers called in, meetings in Whitehall, nation’s best minds on the case, etc. And, due to the serial nature and tightness of space in a newspaper, forcing him to drop almost all extraneous elements of his style in order to focus on plot, plot, plot (multiple red herrings) and more plot.

It’s his shortest text so far, at 130 pages in the Penguin paperback, divided into seven chapters, each with a cheesy cliff-hanger – ‘when they tore off the attacker’s mask, the two men stepped back in amazement’ / ‘At that very moment the two men in the hall heard the sounds of gunfire from an upstairs room,’ sort of thing.

Plot

Young women are being murdered in London, stabbed multiple times, then dumped with a couple of letters cut out from newspapers pinned to their clothes. First one has S and O. Next one U and T. Gruesomely, s-o-u-t-h-e-a-s-t is being spelt out.

Quickly a ‘committee’ of national experts is convened, including a top civil servant, a psychiatrist, a hang ’em and flog ’em politician, a famous barrister, several senior coppers and – a little unexpectedly – a famous rock star who turns out to have extensive underworld contacts and to have helped the authorities before, and Christopher Dane, the well-known crime writer.

Each chapter throws up wildly false clues and trails:

  • The barrister is seen returning home suspiciously late on the night of one crime, knowing his alcoholic wife is in a drunken stupor but will provide him with an alibi if required.
  • A gang of three chancers calling itself itself the British Liberation Army starts sending in blackmail notes – give us £200,000 or there’ll be another stabbing – and when they refer to unpublicised details of one of the victims, the authorities are forced to comply, a reluctant senior copper meeting one of them on an unnamed heath with a bag of loot, the heath completely surrounded with plain clothes men, but the crook astonishing them all by climbing on to a horse tethered nearby and galloping off faster than any man could pursue. This line of plot gets more complicated when one of the three says he plans to continue the blackmail scam after the others agree to quit while they’re ahead; so they kill him and dump his body with cut-out newspaper letters on it, to confuse…
  • Meanwhile, a creepy man named Mr Addams goes down to the shed at the bottom of his garden, locks himself in while his wife is in the main house watching TV, and places flags with the victims’ names on a big map of London on the wall, adding their cases to the creepy file he is keeping, fingering his knife. Hmmm. Towards the end of the novel he sits bolt upright, walks into the living room, asks his wife where his bike is (he should know), cycles to the nearest police station and hands himself in for the murders. The psychiatrist the police call up declares Addams has total amnesia combined with some sort of copycat psychosis.
  • In a separate development two men drink up at a pub while the bosomy barmaid closes up. They offer to walk her home but she says it’ll be fine, not far to go, and sets off through the empty streets. Very empty. Very creepy. And then someone darts out from a darkened doorway. A hand goes over her mouth, another hand moves a blade to her chest — but she is a strong lass, seizes the smothering hand and knife hand, head butts the attacker as others come running out their houses, attracted by the noise, and they pull of his mask to reveal…. (this is one of the cheesy chapter-ending cliff-hangers)… the crime writer? the radical psychiatrist? the leading QC? No, the disgruntled she’s dumped a few days earlier. Oh.
  • All the time there is a kind of meta-fiction at work, because the work opens with a page of crime detection which we are just getting into when it is revealed to be the first page of Dane’s next crime thriller; he is having trouble with it, but had been working on a plotline of a number of girls getting murdered. Is he acting out his own storyline? Is someone reading his typescript and acting it out? Preposterous. In the committee meetings, he appears to make predictions about the next developments which are proved to be eerily true.
  • In fact, quite early on Dane develops the theory that someone on the committee itself is responsible, and shares it with the only two men who have cast-iron alibis, the two policemen on it, Barry and Young. Their escalating suspicions lead them to set a police guard on all the committee members, with subsequent discussion/debate/assessment of which of them it could be and what their motivations and how strong their alibis, and so on.

After this orgy of disinformation and wild goose chases, the most suspected individual (the reactionary MP) himself tells the police he thinks the whole thing is part of a conspiracy which – abruptly and implausibly – is targeting the Prime Minister himself! Just as an anonymous phone call comes in that ‘the last one will be at 2.30’ ie Prime Ministers Questions!! It is 2pm!!! Police cars career across London, the MP and Barry race into Parliament, through the lobbies, arriving among the throng just as Big Ben rings the half hour, and… and…

Whodunnit? Get a hold of a copy and find out.

Thoughts

The restriction on space immeasurably improves Amis’s style by making him dump all the mannerisms I have enumerated in previous reviews. Every scene, every encounter, every scrap of dialogue is pared to the bone and serves a purpose, generally fleshing out the half dozen or more red herrings which keep the ‘plot’ ticking over nicely. It is an easier, slicker read than any of his previous books.

That said, plot is not Amis’s strong point. An enjoyable enough concoction, a beach read, I didn’t believe a word, and laughed at the supposed thrilling climax. Recently I reread Frederick Forsyth’s debut, The Day of The Jackal, surely one of the best thrillers ever written.

It is linked to this novel because both have as a central feature a committee trying to solve the case from which vital information is leaked to the perpetrator. The comparison makes Forsyth look like the Terminator and Amis like an affable geezer who likes crosswords.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

Changing Places by David Lodge (1975)

This is Lodge’s fifth novel and the one that made his name and cemented his reputation as a leading exponent of the ‘campus novel’ ie comic novels depicting the foibles and absurdities of modern university life. It is a comic masterpiece, still very funny 40 years later. It won the Hawthornden Prize and the Yorkshire Post fiction  prize.

Plot

It is 1969 and Philip Swallow, down-trodden and rather directionless English teacher at shabby Rummidge university (clearly based on Birmingham Uni where Lodge taught from 1967 to 1987) has been awarded the opportunity to teach for a term in the beautiful setting of Euphoria university in the fictional state of Euphoria (a thinly disguised version of Berkeley university, San Francisco). Meanwhile, high powered and ruthless academic operator, Morris Zapp, has likewise been offered the chance of teaching at Rummidge. And so they are changing places.

Schematic

We have observed in Lodge’s earlier novels a fondness for structuring devices – the use of three distinct timeframes for Ginger, You’re Barmy and the use of the day-in-a-life structure for The British Museum Is Falling Down, along with the deployment of literary pastiches.

Basic parallelism Changing Places is similarly self-aware. The fundamental structure (job swap) is not just the starting point for the novel but structures the entire plot: the novel opens by cross-cutting between their flights  – which are occurring at the same time – and goes on to describe their arrivals in their respective cities, their struggles to find accommodation, their first impressions of their new campuses and colleagues. The most obvious parallelism is that, after various amorous adventures and mishaps, they both find themselves having affairs which each other’s wives.

The parallelism isn’t subtly buried. It is prominent from the start, in the opening chapter where the narration cuts between the two protagonists in their respective flights, coping with airplane food and eccentric fellow passengers.

And the obviousness of the devices is part of their humour. Lodge is saying: ‘See! It is all a construct, all a game.’ The overtness of the contrivance contributes to its comic effect.

Literary forms This is further emphasised by the use of Modernist literary devices ie the novel is divided into six part, several of which are written in highly artificial, very literary, formats. Section three – titled Corresponding – contains letters between the errant professors and their wives, who have stayed at home. It is a homage to, or pastiche of, the classic epistolary novel of the 18th century (in fact the earliest novels all consisted entirely of letters between the main characters eg Pamela or Clarissa). Section four – Reading – moves the plot on by means of cuttings taken from newspapers, press releases and student newspapers. And the final, sixth, section – Ending – describing how the two professors and their wives converge on New York for a summit conference about their marriages – is cast in the form of a movie screenplay (cut to… close up of… sound effect… etc).

The funny thing is that none of this detracts from the comedy. On the contrary, it makes the reading experience more enjoyable, makes you feel the book is smart and witty, and makes you feel smart and witty for ‘getting’ it.

Watered down It is noteworthy, in passing, how the use of effects like this – first, and often best, deployed in the great masterpiece of Modernism, James Joyce’s Ulysses – caused outrage and confusion back in 1922 – but 50 years later has been tamed and domesticated. What was – and still reads as – an epic disruption of the entire notion of reading in Joyce’s hands, has been made totally acceptable to a Sunday supplement audience in what is, essentially, a tale of suburban wife-swapping.

Maturity

Describing it as a ‘masterpiece’ makes it sound a little too hard-edged, a little too cut-throat for the amiable Lodge universe. What makes it so brilliant and so much better than its predecessors is, I think, its imaginative depth. Given the extent of the overt schematic described above, the surprising thing is how persuasive the characters and incidents are: they manage to be predictable but also, unexpectedly ‘real’.

For example, both professors have difficulty finding accommodation in their new cities, and the stereotypical depiction of Rummidge’s freezing, unheated and badly plumbed houses is as funny as Swallow’s adventures in wonderfully convenient but liable-to-subsidence Californian apartment. The topic is all-too-predictable, but the treatment is highly observant and full of persuasive details.

The irksome English student, Charles Boon, who Swallow encounters on the flight out and fancies he’ll impress with his knowledge of America, takes him and the plot by surprise by turning out to be a kind of student radical superstar, with his own radio phone-in show, leading various protests, totally at home in the world of pot parties and very available young women.

I smiled when Zapp discovers his flight to England is populated almost entirely by young American women travelling here to take advantage of the newly-liberalised abortion laws. He is disconcerted by the questionable morality of this, but sinks his head in his hands when his blithely confident neighbour explains that she’s not only pregnant but the father is her Catholic priest. O tempora, O mores. So far, so wryly funny. But this woman, Mary Makepeace, goes on to play a larger role than you might have expected, turning up later on in a strip club Zapp visits on a bored weekday, having decided not to go through with the abortion but finding herself penniless. Zapp helps her out of that situation and, through a series of comic coincidences, into finding accommodation and then friendship with Swallow’s wife, Hilary.

In a peculiar way, the very schematicness of the design ends up giving the story greater plausibility. Comedy needs the right ambience: there must be an establishing mood which permits laughter. (Although, admittedly, you can still have the comedy of hate or of despair.) But the right kind of humane comedy can go to a deeper level, where it mingles with or reveals – not epically profound truths about human nature – but what we recognise as something like the actual warp and woof of experience, unexpected turn-ups, strange coincidences, who’d-have-thought-it moments.

The wives

This depth of experience is exemplified by the wives in the novel, Desirée Zapp and Hilary Sparrow. It would have remained a kind of comedy of manners and an exercise in comparing rainy embarrassed Englishmen with sunny go-ahead Yanks, if not for the presence of Desirée and Hilary. They very effectively throw cold water on their husbands’ horny fantasies. They remind us of the difficulties and challenges of middle age, of looking after children, of responsibility, which the holidaying men are all too ready to throw off.

Possibly the funniest part of this consistently funny book is the series of letters between husbands and wives in part three. Lodge shows how the epistolary form is still remarkably effective because it allows the characters to express what’s important for them in a quick, flexible way, without the author having to set up and describe elaborate scenes. A character can just write ‘Oh and another thing…’

A lot of the comedy comes from the wives’ deflation of their husbands’ heroic self-images, but they quickly emerge as strong, well-defined characters in their own rights. Desirée is a tough, no-nonsense, ‘ball-breaker’ as her husband describes her, who, during the course of the novel, discovers and starts taking part in the new Women’s Liberation movement. A lot of her repartee is laugh-out-loud funnily frank and blunt and crude and spot-on in its skewering of her pretentious husband.

But I found myself coming to like Hilary most of all. She is the model of the harassed, embarrased, prudish English stay-at-home wife, worrying if they can afford central heating and whether the irritating knocking noise from the washing machine means they need to buy a new one. Her response to Philip’s furtive admission that he’s been unfaithful is both funny and oddly moving. She responds with cold fury (she goes straight out and buys the central heating system she’s abstained from for so long) but is also plunged into confusion about how to deal with the horny advances of Professor Zapp – now Philip has been unfaithful, should she match him? (It is one among many comic strands that Zapp, fed up of eating TV dinners, is interested at least as much in her wonderful cooking as her body.)

Hilary’s disorientation, her on-again, off-again reponses to the randy Yank, her uncertainty about how to cope with the completely unprecedented situation, are at the same time very funny, but also moving and ‘real’. And also a fascinating indication of the social history of the time, when millions of traditionally-minded people were having to assimilate radical disruptions in society and behaviour.

Hilary to Philip

… But quite apart from the expense and the problem of the children, Philip, I don’t think I would want to fly out anyway. I’ve read through your letter very carefully and I’m afraid I can’t avoid the conclusion that you desire my presence mainly for the purpose of lawful sexual intercourse. I suppose you’ve been frightened off attempting any more extra-marital adventures, but the Euphoric spring has heated your blood to the extent that you’re prepared to fly me six thousand miles to obtain relief. I’m afraid I’d find it a strain coming over in that kind of context, Philip. Even the 17-day excursion fare costs £165-15-6, and nothing I can do in bed could possibly be worth that money. (1978 Penguin paperback edition, page 150)

It’s funny. It’s clever. It’s moving. It’s thought-provoking. Changing Places is a really brilliant novel.

Related links

Oh happy day

This song is referenced in the text as a hit of early 1969, on the radio in the background while the characters go about their adventures.

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go?
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth (1975)

Christmas Eve 1957. A young RAF pilot takes off in his de Havilland Vampire from Celle airfield in Germany to fly back to England. But somewhere over the North Sea his instruments fail. And when he radios for guidance, all 12 channels are dead. Beneath him is an unbroken sea of cloud, giving no indication of landmarks or his position. With only 50 minutes of fuel left, he realises he is flying blind, and begins to fly in triangles, a standard emergency procedure, hoping radar monitors will spot him.

With only five minutes of fuel left he is nerving himself to fly East, blindly out over the North Sea (to avoid crashing on land, into inhabited areas) and bail out into the freezing water. He’ll be dead in under an hour.

And it’s at  this point he notices that a plane has appeared just above the cloud layer and is shadowing his triangles. He descends low enough to see the pilot through his perspex canopy signalling him to follow. Controlling his panic, our man indicates he only has five minutes of fuel left. He is amazed to see his guide is flying an old turbo-prop de Havilland Mosquito, a relic of the war. He follows it in a wide circle and then the other pilot indicates they’re going to plunge down into the fog layer.

Because all the description up to this point in the narrative has been so technical, with lots of detail about navigation aids and signals, about how radio direction finders work, even about how fog forms easily off the Norfolk coast, that the description of the pilot’s fear is all the more gripping. He signals with controlled panic to the other pilot that his fuel gauge is now on zero. He can feel the sweat making his suit stick to his back.

The other pilot guides him down through the fog and suddenly there are the lights of an airfield. He pushes down onto the landing strip then clamps on the brakes, bringing the Vampire to a juddering halt just yards from the end of the runway. It takes a while for an old lorry to come lumbering out to him from the airfield buildings, which all seem to be dark for some reason.

A super-annuated and rather tipsy Flying Lieutenant Marks greets him and drives him back to the base buildings. He isn’t at RAF Merriam St George, as he expected, but at a disused, all-but-abandoned airfield called RAF Minton, which was decommissioned soon after the war. The narrator confidently puts to Marks his theory that one of the pilots from the weather station at RAF Gloucester, who still use Mosquitoes, must have guided him in. But when he phones RAF Gloucester there have been no flights that evening, and they stopped using Mosquitoes months ago. He calls RAF Merriam but they haven’t had their GCA location finder equipment turned on that evening. He is deeply puzzled. Who was his mystery saviour? And why guide him to this almost derelict airfield?

The only other employee on the base, an old boy named Joe, fixes the narrator a bath then a hot meal of bacon and eggs. There’s an old photo in the bedroom he shows him to, of a certain Johnny Kavanagh, star of the Mosquito squadron which was based there during the war. Joe explains that Johnny was the best pathfinder in the squadron, could fly blind through fog and rain. Once back from missions, he made it a personal task to go back out to find any heavy bombers which had been damaged during their mass raids on Germany, guiding them back to the nearest landing field in England.

Having eliminated all the other possibilities of who the mystery Mosquito pilot was, the narrator now builds an elaborate theory around this ‘Johnny’. Must have retired, built up a nice business, maybe bought one of the old Mosquitoes and kept it as a going concern himself. Must have been him who found the narrator and guided him to safety with literally only seconds to spare as his fuel ran out.

‘Oh no,’ says Joe the servant. ‘Johnny went out on his last patrol on Christmas Eve 1943. Never came back.’ Then… then… was the narrator rescued by… a ghost?

***

This is a nice, tidy Christmas ghost story, told with Forsyth’s habitual concern for practical and technological detail, all of which ground it in a prosaic reality – and with a typically short story-esque shock ending.

The slender text is padded out into a slim 120-page long paperback by the wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white illustrations of Chris Foss. There are lots of them – I counted 48, sometimes filling two pages – and they vividly convey the black and white night-time ambience of the story, with especially vivid wide shots showing the plane in the huge empty sky, or looking like a tiny toy on a huge airfield, or a vivid picture of the restlessly cold waves of the North Sea.


Credit

The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 1975. All quotes and references are from the 2016 Corgi paperback edition.

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.

The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury (1975)

Melissa Todoroff walks towards the door, precariously carrying her glass of wine; she says, ‘I’m going right back there into that party and then, wow, watch out.’ At the door she stops. ‘I don’t care what your friends say about you, you’re a good guy,’ she says, ‘a radical’s radical. And if you really work at it, you could be a radical’s radical’s radical.’ (p.228)

The History Man has the reputation of being one of the defining novels of the 1970s, one of the most influential comedies of the decade etc. It is certainly written in a tone of detached irony but it is rarely actually funny. In terms of technique, it is an interesting experiment to write an entire novel in the present tense, but you soon get used to that and what really characterises the book is its insistently flat and lifeless prose.

Howard and Barbara Kirk – the early years

The focus of the novel is the marriage, and the rocky relationship underpinning the marriage, of Howard and Barbara Kirk. The only parts I really liked were the relatively straightforward account of their upbringings in Northern non-conformist communities, their struggles to get to university (in Leeds), how hard they studied, then the poverty and insecurity of being struggling post-grads.

Then the 1960s started – in 1963, apparently – and they found themselves experimenting with infidelity, soft drugs, new ideological approaches, as well as the new pop music and fashions, their minds opening to a new world of possibilities. The reiteration of phrases like ‘they felt, ‘they grew’, ‘they shared’, after a while reminded me of D.H. Lawrence and his sweeping descriptions of the ebb and flow of family relationships seen as part of nature’s great tides, seen here as part of wider social or ‘sociological’ forces.

Although Bradbury is keen to satirise the Kirks at every turn, I found these descriptions of their early lives very traditional and rather moving, as well as shedding interesting light on a particular historical period, as refracted through the prism of these small-town characters.

Howard the hypocrite

The central idea is simple. Howard Kirk has evolved from earnest hard-working student in the early 1960s to being, a decade later, a sneaking, manipulative egomaniac university lecturer who uses his power to get his way, whether it’s at home dominating his wife or at work bullying students who disagree with him or anywhere else, trying to seduce every woman he meets.

This supposedly repellent specimen is depicted as a monster of his times because he dresses up his manipulations in the trendy buzzwords of the day, in the teachings of his fashionable subject – sociology – in canting concerns about the importance of feeling ‘liberated’ and fully expressing social conflicts and role playing and fighting against ‘repression’, and so on.

There are several problems with this:

1. It feels so dated. Academics aren’t like this at all now: most are concerned about managing their mission statements, securing research grants and the feedback their students post on the faculty website.

2. Second, it is routine in campus fiction to depict academics as over-intelligent hypocrites, spouting high-minded rhetoric while all the time scheming to ruin their rivals and bed their students. I couldn’t see anything innovatory here.

3. Insofar as this novel adds the targets of radical chic and fashionable leftiness to the traditional stereotype, many of the targets Bradbury selects as, in their day, laughably trendy, have now become established parts of the social landscape. He laughs at organic food and women’s lib. Well, organic food has its own aisle in every supermarket alongside farmers markets, while feminism shouts from the front of every magazines and newspapers, there is a Minister of Women, one of the most newsworthy features of David Cameron’s reshuffle (May 2015) is it resulted in 30% of ministers being women, and so on.

At the big party which is the core of the novel, we overhear women discuss their orgasms and maybe this was an example of the ridiculous pretentiousness that had contemporary readers hailing it as ‘ruthless satire’, but that kind of thing is quite routine in supermarket magazines and newspapers nowadays.

Similarly, the characters are quick to spot and criticise signs of racism and sexism and maybe this is part of what led early reviewers to describe it as ‘clever, sardonic, horribly accurate’ in its skewering of what were, at the time, caricatured as ‘right-on’ attitudes, and only 20 years later came to be described as ‘political correctness‘. But discrimination on the basis of race or gender or sexual persuasion is now banned by law. When I started work with a government department, the longest section of my two-day induction was devoted to raising our awareness of issues around race, gender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, religious belief and disability.

In other words, a lot of the social attitudes which Bradbury was poking fun at, and his early middle-class reviewers joined in laughing at, have now triumphed and become the social norms we all operate within.

4. What has disappeared, and is therefore of historical interest, is the assumption of Howard, his wife and most of his students and friends of a Marxist world-view, complete with all the revolutionary jargon and phraseology – that all bourgeois discourse is ideologically committed to concealing the basis of capitalist society in exploitation and domination of an immiserated proletariat etc etc. I remember this kind of talk dominating newspapers, magazines, school debates and conversations in the pub throughout the 1970s and carrying on in more embittered tones during the Thatcher years.

Although a lot of liberal, soft left opinion endures to this day, nobody now uses ‘bourgeois’ as an insult or sounds off at dinner parties about their solidarity with the proletariat. This strand of the novel is as dead as the dinosaurs. But one of the disappointing things about the novel is the way it doesn’t really delve into this lost underworld. Because Howard is a sociologist – not a lecturer in politics or history – his insights are all about situations and personas and happenings, not about political theory. When he is shown conspiring to get a right-wing speaker invited to the university to stir up trouble among the students, it isn’t as part of a concrete political strategy, to change anything, but simply to make life more ‘interesting’.  All the other characters are depicted as being in it for the kicks. His colleague Flora consents to sleep with him only if he brings along some sociologically interesting subject matter to discuss. He agrees and, after sex, gives her a detailed rundown on the sad marriage of his friends Henry and Myra. Flora, for her part, thinks his psychoanalytical interpretation of Henry and Myra’s marriage was interesting enough to justify her putting out.

Is that it? Dressed up in fancy jargon, does the plot just amount to horny academics shagging each other and bitching about colleagues? I was hoping for something a lot more insightful.

Dead tone

The tone is not really comic at all. It is coldly factual, observing the characters’ external behaviour with a clinical precision often reminiscent of the most dead-eyed thriller. Howard wakes up, has a pee, brushes his hair, trims his moustache, selects an outfit from the wardrobe. Page after page is like that.

He picks up his briefcase, and goes along the hall to the front door. He steps out of his domestic interior into the day and the pouring rain. The city world takes him in again; the puddles shimmer on the terrace. The morning begins; the edge of nameless melancholy with which he started the day begins faintly to lift. He walks round the corner, adapts to the anonymous world, watches the traffic light glint, the umbrellas move in the street, the yellow bulldozers churning the mud of demolition. Up the hill he goes, to the square; he finds the van, and starts it. He drives back down to the terrace, and the front door opens to his hoot. Barbara stands on the steps; she ushers out two huddled, miniature figures in red wet-look raincoats. They run through the rain, and pull open the passenger door, arguing about who will sit in front, who in the back. On the steps, Barbara waves; the children climb in; Howard starts the van, and turns it in the terrace, and drives, past his long, thin house to the business of the main road up the hill. (p104)

Not so many laughs. This is very flat writing, with no metaphor or simile, no interesting, unexpected use of language. After a while, rather like eating cardboard. I find it staggering that Peter Ackroyd, no less, in his review refers to ‘the sustained and beautiful surface of Bradbury’s prose.’ Really?

If Bradbury’s purpose was to lament the absence of morality and human sympathy from a superficial contemporary culture caught up in surface attitudes and vapid pursuit of the next excitement, the next ‘happening’ – then it was profoundly counter-productive to do it in a language which itself denies human feeling and linguistic warmth and instead epitomises the very focus on surfaces and empty shells which it criticises.

Plot

The plot only covers a couple of days: it centres on a party given by sociology lecturer Howard Kirk with his wife Barbara at the Georgian house they’ve done up in the fictional university town of Watermouth on the first day of the autumn term, 1972. Lots of booze, people smoking dope and arguing about Hegel and women’s rights. Howard takes a student, Felicity Phee, down to his study and screws her there, while his wife is screwing another guest elsewhere (the husband of a woman who’s been taken to hospital going into labour), while an old friend of both of theirs (Henry Beamish) cuts his arm open on a smashed window in a bedroom as a cry for help because his bored wife is leaving him.

A tale of ‘liberal’ academics screwing around and being miserable. Not such a funny plot. There are stagey set pieces: the swinging party, which is observational but not particularly amusing; and a faculty meeting which is long-winded and argumentative with a particularly tiresome American feminist shouting ‘castrate the sexists’ at every opportunity. The meeting has been called because of a sub-plot -Howard is conspiring to get a leading geneticist with controversial views invited to speak at the university solely so he can whip up opposition to it, organise a strike and petition and sit-in, generally stir things up. The meeting is described at really great length.

The pile-drivers thump outside; the arguments within continue. The sociologists, having read Goffman, know there is a role of Chairman, and a role of Argumentative Person, and a role of Silent Person; they know how situations are made, and how they can be leaked, and how dysphoria can be induced; they put their knowledge to the test in such situations as this. Benita Pream’s alarm has pinged at 14.00 hours, according to her own notes; it is 14.20 before the meeting has decided how long it is to continue, and whether it is quorate, and if it should have the window open, and 14.30 before Professor Marvin has managed to sign the minutes of the last meeting, so that they can begin on item 1 of the agenda of this one, which concerns the appointment of external examiners for finals. (p.155)

Here, as throughout the novel, Bradbury risks being as long-winded and otiose as the thing he is satirising. It is less satire, in fact, more like plain description with a bit of exaggeration.

Dialogue

Is the dialogue any better? Sharp, witty, fast-moving, wise-cracking? No. Like the prose it is slow and leadenly lifelike. After they’ve had sex Flora asks Howard about his family, which prompts this exchange:

‘Well, of course, it’s the old story.’ ‘Oh, Howard,’ says Flora, ‘I want a new story. Which old story?’ ‘Well, when I’m up, Barbara’s down,’ says Howard, ‘and vice versa.’ ‘When you’re up who, Barbara’s down on whom?’ asks Flora. ‘Flora, you’re coarse,’ says Howard. ‘No, not really,’ says Flora. ‘And Barbara’s down now?’ ‘Well, I’m up,’ says Howard. ‘Things are happening to me.’ ‘You ought to watch Barbara,’ says Flora. ‘Oh, it’s the usual things,’ says Howard. ‘We battle on, emissaries of the male and female cause. Barbara says: “Pass the salt.” And then, if I pass it, she smirks. Another win for the sisters over the brothers.’ ‘Marriage,’ says Flora, ‘the most advanced form of warfare in the modern world. But of course you usually pass the pepper.’ Howard laughs and says: ‘I do.’ ‘By accident,’ says Flora. ‘Oh Flora,’ says Howard, ‘you should have married. You’d be so good at it.’ The bed heaves; Flora pushes herself up from her place against Howard, and sits in the bed with her knees up, her hair loose, the bedside lights glowing on her flesh and casting sharp shadow. ‘Isn’t it amazing?’ she says, reaching across to the table at her side, and picking up a packet of cigarettes and a lighter, ‘Why is it that married people always say “Come in” when everything they do says “Get out”? They talk about their miseries and then ask you why you’re unmarried. No, Howard, I prefer to stand on the sidelines and watch. I really find it much safer.’ Howard laughs; he reaches out, and runs his hand round the curve of Flora’s breast. ‘It has its compensations,’ says Howard. ‘You’re never lonely.’ ‘I know you aren’t, Howard,’ says Flora, ‘but it seems to me that you’ve demonstrated that the main compensation of marriage is that you can commit adultery. A somewhat perverse argument.’ (p.177)

It is noteworthy that the text here, as throughout, is in the present tense. It is noteworthy that Bradbury puts his dialogue into chunky continuous paragraphs, rather than giving each reply a new line or paragraph, as is conventional. Noteworthy, but hardly the daring experimentalism some reviewers made it out to be.

And the actual content of this conversation – it’s banal, isn’t it? They could be discussing other conversation killers like the price of houses or how your kids are doing at school. Marriage suits some people and doesn’t suit others, well, fancy. It’s not a particularly comic subject; it isn’t handled in a particularly deft or witty manner, and the style itself, the use of words, is flat and unimaginative.

We read fiction for compelling stories, for flashes of insight into human nature, for brilliant turns of phrase. Not much of that to be found here.

Finale

The last 40 pages or so threatened to bring a smile to my lips as, in the wholly conventional way of all bedroom farces, Howard’s hens come home to roost. The student he screwed volunteers to babysit for his wife, and turns out to be a remarkably efficient and subservient housekeeper; but when Howard tries to kick her out she cuts up rough and threatens to turn the students against him. Myra, the mousey wife of his old friend Henry, who he spent the evening dissecting for the amusement of his lover, Flora, inconveniently turns up on his doorstep begging sanctuary.

But then the novel abruptly cuts to another party, the party the Kirks host at the end of term in the run up to Christmas. It gives the text a rather tiresome symmetry to bookend it with two similar events which allow us to compare and contrast, to be told about the changes since the first one. And, briefly, these are that: Howard successfully got the conservative student expelled; he himself escaped scot-free from the student’s threats to tell everyone about his immoral sex life; instead Howard was able to twist it into making himself appear a martyr to the repressive ‘establishment; the visit of the right-wing speaker is cancelled but not before his student proteges have organised a sit-in, miniature riot, attempt to set fire to the campus and ransack the office of his long-suffering friend, Henry.

In the last pages Howard is shown down in his study screwing the pallid English lecturer he’s had his eye on all along and – in a final, jarringly bitter note, his wife is shown upstairs rubbing her arm along the broken glass of the bedroom window in a sign of her desperate unhappiness. Comedy? No.


Taking the mickey

From the satirists’ point of view the 1960s saw an explosion not so much of lifestyle possibilities and liberating freedoms, but of wonderfully satirisable new tribes: mods and rockers, Beatlemaniacs, flower people, hippies, womens libbers, dropouts, playboys, the jet set and so on. There were numerous sub-sets of left-wing and trendy Marxist intellectuals, who enjoyed the trappings of bourgeois society from safe within its bosom – Tom Wolfe coined the term radical chic to describe taking up radical causes (black power, revolutionary Marxism, women’s rights) in order to be seen to do so, as a fashion statement, as early as 1970.

In a way what’s disappointing about this book is that the characters aren’t extreme enough. Howard is a bit of a swine but he takes the kids to school, helps with the shopping, turns up at work on time. Sure he bullies his students (like the hapless conservative student George Carmody in chapter 8) but my teachers and tutors often gave me or my friends a hard time. Sure he argues with his wife, but I’ve witnessed numerous arguments between married friends. Sure he sleeps around a bit, but so do most characters in modern novels. Sure he dissects his friend’s marriage for amusement, doesn’t everyone comment on their friends’ marriages?

Focusing on one rather boring couple and their tamely ‘wild’ parties (a window was smashed, some people got stoned, it went on till four o’clock!), narrating in swift flashback a bit of campus unrest (the students empty Henry’s Teasmaid onto his nice shagpile carpets!) – all feels like a very limited portrait of the world in 1972 – the year which saw Bloody Sunday and the start of the IRA’s mainland terrorism campaign, the Easter Offensive in Vietnam, kidnappings, hijackings and political assassinations across Europe not least by Germany’s Red Army Faction, the horrible Munich Olympics massacre in September, the fateful Watergate break-in.

It’s a bit mind-boggling that this small-time provincial character, described in such flat lifeless prose, made such a powerful impact on the literary world of its day.


Dating the text

Although it was published in 1975 The History Man is set in 1972, deliberately datable by the reference on page 1 to Senator George McGovern’s forlorn anti-war campaign against incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon, which ran up to the election on Tuesday 7 November. So the party which is the focus of the first half of the novel is on the first day of the Autumn term 1972.

Ie it isn’t really satirising the 1970s, which had barely begun, but the turn of the decade, the way the bright optimistic 1960s had turned into something grimmer and more calculating in just a few short years.


Taking the mickey on TV

Taking the mickey out of aspirational groups is a well-established English tradition. Contemporary TV series sprouted to poke fun at anyone who stepped outside a kind of cosy, Daily Mail normality:

  • The Good Life (1975-78) lampooning middle class types who want to get back to nature
  • Fawlty Towers (1975 and 1979), not only skewering the deranged protagonist but allowing for a weekly turnover of period stereotypes
  • I Didn’t Know You Cared (1975-7) with its catchphrase, ‘That’s not very young executive, Carter’
  • The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79) which moved from satirising the stupidities of corporate life to ridiculing Reggie’s attempts to set up a commune
  • Citizen Smith (1977-80) about a ludicrous suburban ‘revolutionary’

The TV series

The History Man TV dramatisation slipped right in alongside all these other digs at contemporary trends. It was broadcast by the BBC as a four-part serial in 1981, starring Antony Sher as Howard Kirk and Geraldine James as his wife, Barbara. Apparently, it was a great success and had a big impact at the time, crystallising many people’s impression of politically correct, seedy and corrupt academia – but it was living on borrowed time. Mrs Thatcher had been in power for two years. The trendy leftiness it satirises was about to be confronted head on, embittered by cuts and conflict and, eventually, liquidated.

Related links

Malcolm Bradbury’s novels

1959 – Eating People Is Wrong
1965 – Stepping Westward
1975 – The History Man – Howard Kirk is a repellent sociology lecturer.
1983 – Rates of Exchange
1987 – Cuts: A Very Short Novel
1993 – Doctor Criminale
2000 – To the Hermitage

Yesterday’s Spy by Len Deighton (1975)

I looked at him for a long time. ‘The days of the entrepreneur are over, Steve,’ I told him. ‘Now it’s the organisation man that gets the Christmas bonus and the mileage allowance. People like you are just called “heroes”, and don’t mistake it for a compliment. It just means has-beens, who’d rather have a hunch than a computer output. You are yesterday’s spy, Steve.’ (p.49)

Backstory

The improbably-named Steve Champion was a successful British spy in Nazi-occupied France during World War Two, where he ran one of the few resistance networks that lasted, based in Nice, in the south of France. A 19-year-old newbie SIS agent was secretly landed from a British submarine to join the group and work undercover, eventually witnessing the arrest of Champion and other key members, who are tortured or killed.

The present day

Thirty years later, that newbie is the narrator, Charlie, who is meeting Champion for drinks in a London club. All very sociable and chatting about the old times – but from there he goes to report to his superior, Major Schlegel, an American seconded to British Intelligence. (This is the same Schlegel who we met in this novel’s predecessor, Spy Story, but this narrator, with his war spent in the French Resistance, is definitely different from the narrator of the Ipcress novels and Spy Story.) For whereas Champion left the Service, the narrator didn’t, and he has been tasked with investigating rumours which have begun to circle around his old idol.

The first half of the novel consists of a series of encounters with figures from Champion’s and Charlie’s pasts:

  • Charlie travels to Wales to meet Champion’s ex-wife, Caty, and son Billy (Champion married her partly out of guilt because she was sister to Marius, the Catholic priest who was in their cell but who was eventually caught, tortured and murdered by the Nazis).
  • In Champion’s London flat he joins Schlegel and Special Branch men stripping it for evidence that Champion has killed and disposed of his girlfriend, Melodie Page…

Then, traveling to the south of France, specifically Nice, location of their wartime cell, Charlie meets:

  • Pina, the embittered daughter of one of the members of the cell, whose husband and two children were murdered in Algeria
  • Claude l’avocat, part of the wartime cell who is revealed as having been a German spy all along, and has continued on into peacetime, now working for German Intelligence
  • Serge Frankel, a passionate Jewish communist

Through this network of characters Deighton is able to explore the way wartime loyalties have evolved and changed and cost their characters very dearly. Frankel in particular has made the long journey from committed communist to avowed Jew and supporter of Israel, prompted by the vicious anti-semitism of the Soviet Union and the USSR’s support of the Arabs in their wars against Israel. Now, he tells a surprised Charlie, Champion is working to supply the Arabs with a nuclear warhead. He has even accepted a military rank in the Egyptian Army; a fact apparently confirmed when Charlie travels to Geneva to meet a high-ranking Egyptian diplomat who is, in fact, a double-agent for British Intelligence.

So far, so rational but, in a confusing sequence, Charlie is ‘arrested’ by two French Security policemen who drive him to the abandoned quarry a) where the wartime cell used to hide out b) which Champion bought, along with the neighbouring house, after the war and has made his home. As they pull into the quarry, there’s an unexpected shoot-out between Pina, who was being held hostage in a quarry building, and her captors. The French ‘security’ men join in, at which point Charlie pulls his gun and shoots them. Pina and Charlie survive, hide the bodies, and beat a hasty retreat in the car. The whole thing was a set-up but why? Were they going to frame Charlie for murdering Pina? Why?

Barely has he returned Pina to her flat, than, back at his hotel, Charlie is arrested by real French police but – in the deus ex machina manouevre which we’ve encountered in numerous previous Deighton thrillers – an authority figure (either good old Colonel Stok or, as here, his boss Major Schlegel) intervenes to persuade the French that Charlie is wanted for the murder of Melodie Page back in London.

Hiatus in prison

What happens now is a little improbable. The Department agrees with Charlie that he will be prosecuted for Melodie’s murder and sent to prison, but in a case so badly managed that his appeal lawyer should be able to get him released. And this is what happens. He outs up with a few weeks in Wormwood Scrubs before his (frustratingly incompetent) lawyer gets him release. And then Charlie goes on the tramp, sleeping rough, hanging out with other vagrants.

Why? Well, this unconvincing charade is designed to signal to Champion that Charlie has now well and truly severed his ties with the Department. Hmmm. a) I don’t believe it, it seems a wildly elaborate and unconvincing strategy b) Champion does contact him after a week or so, but he doesn’t believe it either c) the whole agent-going-to-prison-to-prove-he-no-longer-works-for-the-Service thing was done much better by John le Carré in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold ten years earlier.

Working for Champion

So Champion picks him up in his chauffeur-driven car and says, ‘Right boyo, do you want to come and work for me?’ The narrator melodramatises this as him ‘disappearing from view’ and ‘going off the grid’ which also doesn’t make much sense because as soon as Charlie is ensconced in Champion’s base (the big house by the Tix Quarry outside Nice) he immediately starts using his days off to pop in on his old mates – Serge, Claude, the Falstaffian restaurateur Ercole and, of course, his boss and ‘control’, Major Schlegel. All in all, the opposite of disappearing.

Charlie spends his time running low-level chores for Champion, the most interesting of which is handling low-grade intelligence from a worker at the nearby French Army test range; playing with Champion’s son, Billy; and screwing the nanny with the James Bond name Topaz, who one night came to his bedroom wearing only a skimpy shift which, in James Bond fashion, fell to the floor…

It’s on one of these visits that Frankel surprises Charlie by announcing Champion is scheming to get hold of a nuke and sell it to the Arabs. Can that be right? Or is it Frankel’s anti-Arab paranoia? Either way, travelling back from Nice in the chauffeur-driven car with Champion and Billy, the car is pursued by a motorbike rider with a pillion passenger who abruptly shoots the driver, causing Champion et al to have a very high-speed crash. Charlie crawls from the wrecked vehicle, rescues Billy, then saves Champion’s life by unobstructing his windpipe and giving him the kiss of life. Who the hell did it? And why?

Few days later, and back at the mansion where the comatose Champion has been transferred, Topaz arrives in Charlie’s bedroom at dusk and offers sex but when Charlie demurs pulls a gun and keeps him under guard while lots of Arabs clump around the house. Are they kidnapping Champion? Removing precious documents or jewels or what? Into the darkened room comes an Arab and when Topaz talks to him, he opens fire with a shotgun and blasts the sexy Topaz in half, while Charlie keeps absolutely still in the blacked out room…

When things have quietened down he sneaks down to the garden where he finds Billy hiding, and drives the back way into Nice, where he deposits Billy with Pina and tells her to fly to London then travel to Wales to be with Caty.

Then Charlie continues on to Frankel’s flat, where he finds Claude l’avocat in attendance as French police deal with Frankel’s corpse. And that of the low-level contact from the Army base. More murders. By who? And why? It is here that Claude tells Charlie that although he, Claude, was a double agent within the wartime cell, it wasn’t him but Champion who betrayed them all, the betrayal which led to the arrest and death of Marius.

Finale

The ending is also confusing. Charlie finds himself summoned and flying by helicopter to the German border, there to find Schlegel interrogating two hitch-hiking hippies who are carrying detonators and ammunition across the border. After some chat they realise this is a diversion. Schlegel tells Charlie five heavy-duty superlorries unloaded a large consignment from Nice docks and are driving up the Autobahn into Germany. Is the hitch-hiker thing a ploy by Champion to distract from that? Is there a plot to carry out some kind of Arab terrorist outrage in Germany? They helicopter over to where the trucks have been pulled over by French police at the border. No. The trucks are empty.

Maybe both were ploys, two levels of distraction, to decoy away from the real scam which is happening back in Nice? Cut back to the Tix mansion which Schlegel and Charlie find full of lights and activity. Charlie creeps in, using his knowledge of the house, and discovers a secret lift in a room he was never allowed to enter. It goes down into the old mine workings. After a few scrapes, Charlie follows a tunnel which emerges into the main bowl of the old quarry to find it filled with the inflated body of an airship! Melodie Page had sent messages back to the Department on postcards with images of airships crashing in flames. Topaz, the randy nanny, had a PhD in thermo-chemistry. Lots of pieces of the puzzle start clicking together. Sort of.

In a very James Bond climax, the floodlights go on and Charlie is caught like a rat in a trap. ‘Put down the gun, Charlie.’ Champion then comes forward and, while his minions make the final preparations to the airship, explains the whole plot. They have tunnelled under and up into the French Army base stores and stolen nuclear shells (not bombs). These they are going to load into the airship which will carry them across the Med to an Arab country. ‘It is too late, Mr Bond, nothing can stop me now.’

Charlie suddenly realises Champion has been bluffing him, they have already loaded the shells and are about to take off. With sudden desperation he pushes Champion down the stairs and empties all the bullets from his gun into the petrol tanks of the engines of the airship, then runs as fast as he can back into the tunnel and up the mine workings before he hears an enormous explosion and the blast and flames follow him up the tunnel, lifting and burning him. The airship is destroyed, all the Arabs and Champion incinerated.

Epilogue and explanation

Recovering in hospital (just as the narrator of the previous novel ends up recovering in hospital) Charlie explains it all to Schlegel. Champion never even broke into the French Army store, never touched a nuke. He was going to fly to an Arab country and claim to have sold them to Egypt, which would confirm the sale. The more the French authorities denied it, the more no-one would believe them. Champion would technically have committed no crime and been free to return to France, but the Egyptians would have gained a big psychological bargaining chip with Israel.

I don’t believe a word. It just isn’t convincing, in a world and a milieu which thrives on real threat and violence, I don’t believe Champion’s plan was feasible. To put it mildly, Israel would check. And the French would devise some way of throwing Charoie in prison. All this cunning and violence has been expended on what seems like a very dumb scheme.

I think the complex of double crosses, the description of the way wartime loyalties had been compromised, the revelations of past and present betrayals, as well as the deaths of Topaz and Frankel, were meant to move the reader. But they don’t. They feel like lifeless tokens being moved about on a Monopoly board.

Deighton’s novels have many virtues – namely his understated humour and technical expertise – but genuine tension and psychological depth are not among them.

I opened the car door, and began to get out. I said, ‘I’ve no inclination for all this play-acting, late-night TV spy stuff.’ (p.140)

Related links

1979 paperback cover of Yesterday's Spy

1979 paperback cover of Yesterday’s Spy

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 Snow Tiger by Desmond Bagley (1975)

Unlike its two predecessor spy novels, The Snow Tiger is less about suspense and more of a prolonged account of legal and administrative procedure, making it read more like one of Hammond Innes’ sober, factual adventure yarns – right up till the detailed and gruesome avalanche at the book’s climax, at which point it becomes quite a hard-core ‘disaster novel’.

The Snow Tiger

The entire text takes the form of an official Commission of Inquiry into a major catastrophe – a massive avalanche which destroyed the mining town of Hukahoronui in the south island of New Zealand, killing 54 people and injuring many more. The first two-thirds remind me of the slow documentary lead-up to a pre-announced disaster which characterises several Hammond Innes novels, such as the catastrophic sinking of the landing craft (also with loss of life of some 50 people) in Atlantic Fury, the lengthy Board of Inquiry which forms the core of The Wreck of The Mary Deare, or the detailed description of the Court Martial in Maddon’s Rock.

Similarly, this book is divided into the thirteen consecutive days during which the Inquiry into the avalanche sits. Each chapter starts with a detailed and pedantic account of the cross-questioning of key witnesses, then segues into a presentation of the scene itself.

Briefly, Ian Ballard returns from England to New Zealand, to the town where he grew up, sent there to take control of the town’s struggling gold mine, which is owned by his strong-willed, patriarchal grandfather, back in London. Ballard encounters all sorts of opposition, not least from the Peterson family, a powerful clan in the little town (population 800) who reckon they own the land the mine is built on and were swindled out of it by Ballard’s grandfather. What’s more they also hold an ancient grudge that Ballard was responsible for the death by drowning of one of the Peterson brothers 20 years ago – so they pick fights with Ballard whenever possible.

But when the friend Ballard made skiing in Switzerland a few years earlier, a snow expert, Dr Mike McGill, turns up to visit, he immediately points out that the steep hillside covered with snow which sweeps down to the mine entrance, and to the town itself, is dangerously unstable, a problem exacerbated when all the timber was cut down to build the mine and new houses.

While the various characters are bickering about whether to contact the authorities a minor avalanche takes place, blocking the narrow entrance to the valley, trapping all the townspeople and knocking out the electricity and phone lines. McGill takes charge of the Town Council and begins planning emergency accommodation, food and heating, and is in the middle of detailing people to find safe shelter and training some of the men in snow rescue, when the Monster Avalanche suddenly occurs.

Two strands

Around the middle of the book the contemporary strand – the description of the Inquiry slowly working its way through the evidence of the eyewitnesses – gets a new angle, a new overlay of meaning, when an old lawyer friend of Ballard’s mean grandfather flies in. This man, Stenning, announces that the grandfather sent Ballard back to Hukahoronui as a test, to see if he could handle the antagonism of the locals and the shabbiness of the mine operation. For the mean old man had – astonishingly – consigned all his shares in the parent company to a Trust. If, in Stenning’s opinion, Ballard does show himself to be man enough, the trustees will vote him onto the Board and, since this has the largest single block of shares in the corporation, at a stroke Ballard would take control of a multinational corporation valued at around £232 million! Far from being the black sheep of the family despised by the old man, he turns out to have been the old man’s last hope!

Thus the two strands – past and present – significantly pick up pace for the last 100 pages (of this 250-page book):

  • In the present Ballard has to decide whether he wants the money – and, if so, prove that he has the balls to take on the Peterson brothers and the lawyers for the union and the local management of the mine, who are all manoeuvring to make him the scapegoat for the disaster. Spice is added when Ballard falls in love with the Petersons’ winsome sister, Liz, and the most thuggish Peterson brother, Charlie, threatens to murder Ballard if he keeps on seeing her…
  • In the flashbacks (which are also proceeding in chronological order, reflecting the accounts given in the courtroom). Even though we know the outcome ie the disastrous avalanche, nonetheless the scenes become increasingly tense as catastrophe looms. From the first avalanche and the power being cut, I found it genuinely hard to put this book down, in fact I kept on reading it into the early hours.

Disaster!

When the avalanche comes it is described at length and in detail. As in the ‘disaster movies’ which were so popular in the 1970s, the creator lingers in loving detail over the range of macabre, cruel and sadistic deaths he has contrived for his character:

Rawson is getting medical supplies when the avalanche smashes through the wall smashing a big jar of hydrochloric acid all over him.

Rawson was buried about twenty yards away and was dying slowly and quite painfully as the acid ate at his flesh. Fortunately, when he opened his mouth to scream it filled with soft snow and he died mercifully and quickly of asphyxia. (p.191)

Tastes have changed. I found the relish with which so many deaths were described revolting.

  • The drinkers in the local hotel are all killed, devastated by flying bottles and broken glass.
  • A lot of the town’s old people have gathered in the mayor’s house half way up the slope opposite to the danger one: nonetheless, the 200-mile-an-hour pressure wave makes the house explode as if hit by a ten-ton bomb, and survivors describe it as a butchers’ shop covered with blood and slabs of flesh.
  • Cameron, the mine manager, is trapped in the cab of his lorry which rolls over and over in the avalanche, his foot caught between pedal and brake until he comes to rest hanging upside down, with numerous broken bones, a position he stays in until he hears the water of the river, blocked by avalanche snow, beginning to fill the cab to drown him.
  • Nice old Mrs Sawnton who manned the telephone exchange is told to make for safety but as she’s getting up the phone rings, she stays to answer it, and the entire mine building, lifted by the hurtling snow, falls on the exchange crushing her.
  • Dave Scanlon is caught in the open, hit by a flying truck which mashes him ‘to a bloody pulp’.
  • Len Baxter is killed by flying bricks then buried by snow.
  • Phil Warrick is thrown against the red-hot stove he’d been feeding all morning, forced to embrace it and burned alive.

And so it goes on, a long list of ‘innocent’ townspeople – fictional characters – killed, tortured, eviscerated, mashed, crushed, burned to bloody messes. It is compelling, gripping but not pleasant reading.

Even when the avalanche has subsided and mountain rescue teams arrive, led by a squad of notably efficient and helpful Americans, accidents still occur. An American tourist, Newman, had taken shelter in a small cave in the avalanche’s path, and is trapped in it with half a dozen others, most of whom lose hope in the claustrophobic dark. But he heroically tunnels out of the cave using a ballpoint pen, and it takes 24 hours of relentless digging for him to make it almost to the surface of the sow, a full 60 feet above him, when one of the rescuers treads through the narrow layer of snow just as he approaches the surface, stepping directly onto his head, making him lose his grip and fall the 60 feet back down the narrow twisting tunnel, breaking his neck. The others, still left in the cave are rescued alive.

These closing pages are full of vignettes like that, which are – I suppose – somehow intended to make the reader feel horror at the randomness of Fate. Perhaps you’re meant to feel more manly, because you’re tough enough to read all these horrors. Perhaps it has the same appeal as gruesome horror movies.

What makes it a disaster movie As mentioned, a number of Hammond Innes novels describe major disasters and loss of life, but only when I read this Bagley novel did I for the first time think that there might be a category of ‘disaster novels’ like there are ‘disaster movies’. I think the difference between an adventure novel with a catastrophe in it, and a ‘disaster novel’ would be the lip-smacking voyeuristic descriptions of gruesome individual deaths. In Atlantic Fury the sinking of the landing craft and loss of life is essentially a backdrop to the narrative, and we mainly read about just the narrator’s experience: here in The Snow Tiger, the detailed description of a lot of  grotesquely horrible deaths is at the imaginative heart of the enterprise, and the plight of the main protagonist (Ballard and his love affair) pales next to it.

The narrator takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in pointing out that, even after the avalanche has finished, tragedy continues, the striking example being the mid-air collision of a rescue helicopter – loaded with injured survivors – which takes off vertically into the path of a light airplane overflying the valley. Both plummet to the ground in flames. Pye, the local policeman, and Quentin, the union official, rush forward to open the helicopter doors and try and free the trapped passengers.

It was at that moment that the petrol ignited. He saw a white flash and felt searing heat, and when he inhaled his next breath he drew flaming petrol vapour into his lungs. He felt no pain and was dead before he knew it, and so was Bill Quentin, Mrs Haslam, Harry Baker and his co-pilot. (p.230)


Style

The style is clear, factual Bagley. Despite being set in the stunning mountain scenery of New Zealand, there are few if any extended descriptions. Instead Bagley is interested in the minutiae of the exchanges in the court room, or in the hotel at Hukahoronui. Just before the avalanche occurs he devotes several pages to a Wikipedia-style explanation of the complicated physical processes snow undergoes which make an avalanche happen. And when the catastrophe happens and scores of people die in garishly gruesome ways, Bagley’s flat, police-record-style descriptions make the suffering all the more vivid, disgusting and compelling.

Title

The title doesn’t refer to the animal, the white tiger – but to a proverb by the snow expert Matthias Zdarsky: ‘Snow is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it is a tiger in lamb’s clothing’. Similarly misleading, I thought the cover image (below) might refer to some kind of chase, as if this were an espionage novel – but it is not, it is a disaster novel, and the image depicts the gruesome moment, described above, when the helicopter and plane collide.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Snow Tiger

1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Snow Tiger

Bagley’s books

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

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

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

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