The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera (1978)

We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. We anxiously follow what we suppose to be important, while what we suppose to be unimportant wages guerrilla warfare behind our backs, transforming the world without our knowledge and eventually mounting a surprise attack on us.
(The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, page 197)

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts, each of which is a self-contained story although, as the recurring titles suggest, with recurring themes:

Part One – Lost Letters
Part Two – Mother
Part Three – The Angels
Part Four – Lost Letters
Part Five – Litost
Part Six – The Angels
Part Seven – The Border

Short sections

And each story is itself broken up into numerous, very short, numbered sections, often as short as a page long. For example, the first story, Love Letters, is 22 pages long and is divided into 19 sections.

The reading experience is dominated by this fragmentation of the narrative into short sections. Kundera uses the ‘short section technique’ for a number of purposes.

One is to continually change perspective on events, shedding ironic light on his characters’ mixed motives and misunderstandings. The most obvious way is to describe a piece of dialogue or event, and then devote separate sections to the speakers’ often wildly differing interpretations of what they just said or meant.

It also allows him to switch from close-up description of actions carried out by the protagonists, to higher-level reflections, about human nature, the character of irony or comedy, generalisations about men women and love, or about fate and destiny – and especially about Czech history, and of course, focusing on the most traumatic event of his lifetime, the communist coup of 1948 and its consequences.

The ‘short section technique’ allows Kundera to set off a train of events and then to step right outside them and present them from the perspectives of the different characters, revealing – more often than not – that they completely misinterpret each other’s motives. This has been the bedrock of his authorial approach since his first novel, The Joke – the basic premise that people really, really don’t understand each other, and that pretty much all our intentions and aims and plans turn out to be wildly miscalculated, and consistently backfire.

I read all Kundera’s books back in the 1980s when he first became very fashionable, and I had remembered Laughter and Forgetting for being lighter and funnier than its predecessors – but this, I think, was a misleading memory. Although the text is much more broken up and ‘bitty’, more interrupted by digressions and ideas – the actual content is just as grim as its predecessors. The opening story, in particular, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

1. Lost Letters

It is 1971 and Mirek is a dissident who played a prominent role in the 1968 Prague Spring, then, after the Russian tanks and half a million Warsaw Pact soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia, was thrown out of his job and became an unperson. Since then he’s religiously kept all his diaries and journals and the records of meetings of him and dissident friends, despite them all advising him to burn or destroy them. But:

It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. (p.3)

When we read that grand opening sentence back in the early 1980s (the book was published in English in 1980) we all thought it said something profound and beautiful about human nature and politics and society, and the need to resist the ever-growing forces of oblivion (as well as being a good example of Kundera’s straight-out, intellectual, almost academic style. No long paragraphs setting the scene or describing dawn over Prague or an unmarked car drawing up outside a house, none of the normal conventions of fiction. Instead Kundera goes directly to the beliefs and ideas of his main characters.) Anyway, rereading the story today, I realise this simple interpretation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The main event in the story is Mirek driving out to the village to meet up with an old flame of his, his first love in fact, Zdena. Why? Because she has a big cache of all the letters he wrote to her and he wants to secure, protect and guard his archive. Also, there is a deeper psychological reason. He wanted:

to find the secret of his youth, his beginnings, his point of departure. (p.18)

The body of the short story concerns Mirek’s thoughts and reflections about Zdena, for example the fact that, back when they were going out, she was plain and ugly, his friends, and even she herself, were surprised that he was going out with her. Nobody knew that he was timid and shy and a virgin.

As he drives, Mirek realises that his car is being followed, by a car driven by a couple of security goons who make no attempt to hide. When Mirek stops at a friend’s mechanic shop to get the car tuned up, the goons stop too, and watch him, with a smirk.

So that when he finally arrives at Zdena’s house, and is reluctantly invited in, and makes his pitch to ask for his letters back, and she surprises him by saying a categorical NO… Mirek is convinced it’s because she is in league with the security men, and is keeping the letters to hand them over to the authorities, preparatory to his arrest and trial etc. She always was a communist die-hard, a party fanatic, even when they were going out together, as he now remembers bitterly.

But the narrator has told us otherwise. He has explained that Zdena was not a party fanatic but simply clove to the party after Mirek dumped her. After he dumped her, she needed to have something she could trust and base her life on and his became an absolute faith in the Party. It was Mirek who made her what she is.

And, we learn, she is not at all in league with the security men, who she doesn’t even know about. She is simply scared – scared witless, scared of how it’s all got too big and scary, how they’re arresting people, how he might be bringing trouble into her life. She is simply too paralysed by fear to hand the letters over.

Demoralised, Mirek gets back into his car, the security men get back into theirs, and they tail him back to Prague, despite a small interlude when he throws them off in a village and sits parked by the railway station, dazed, pondering his past and future.

The narrator now picks up the theme about memory and forgetting which was announced at the beginning, reflecting that Mirek’s true motive in seeking the letters wasn’t because he never loved Zdena, or regretted loving Zdena. It’s because he loved Zdena so much and is now embarrassed about being associated with such a plain, if not ugly woman, that he wants to erase her from his past. Which leads us up to the author’s message, a characteristically jaundiced view:

By erasing her from his mind [by finally repossessing the letters] he erased his love for her… Mirek is as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting that they want a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. the past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten. (p.22, italics added)

So 1. that grand opening statement turns out to be a lie. Mirek is lying to himself. His grand claim to want to preserve the past from forgetting is completely contradicted by this analysis of his motives. According to his creator, Mirek is every bit as mendacious and controlling as his enemy, the Communist Party.

And 2. when Mirek arrives home he discovers the police are already there, have ransacked his apartment, and read through all the diaries and journals in which he recorded meetings with other dissidents, their criticism of the Party, their analysis of its tyranny after the crushing of the Prague Spring. In other words, they have seized all the documents in which he foolishly implicated and betrayed his closest friends. The last sentences of the ‘story’ are bleak and unforgiving.

After a year of investigatory custody he was put on trial. Mirek was sentenced to six years, his son to two years, and ten or so of their friends to terms of one to six years. (p. 24)

So let us return to that ringing opening line – ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’: it now appears to be contradicted in at least two ways.

  1. Although it’s Mirek’s own line, we have seen that, when push comes to shove, he doesn’t believe it; his quest to reclaim Zdena’s letters is, according to his creator, a quest to erase and rewrite the past as completely as the Communists want to.
  2. Worse, it turns out to be a ludicrously selfish and self-serving position and one which ended up condemning his best friends – and his own son – to years and years in prison.

Could it be that the opposite is true? That maybe the past ought to be forgotten? Certainly I think so. I completely disagree with the old cliché “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s the other way round. Those who obsessively remember the past, are doomed to walk within the confines and categories it imposes on us. In Northern Ireland throughout my life and in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, there were groups of people who clung on to the past, cherished and nurtured their grievances, thirsted for revenge, determined to re-enact the past (the freedom struggle of the Irish people, the freedom struggle of the Serbian people) but this time to win. it seemed back then that it is precisely those who remember the past, who are doomed to repeat it.

Maybe the content of the story proves the complete opposite of that ringing opening declaration.

2. Mother

Marketa and Karel are married. At first they lived with his parents, but Marketa and his mother had daily run-ins, which became so intense that they eventually moved to the other end of the country to be as far as possible away. Then Karel’s father died and Mother was left alone, and Marketa, as she got older, softened. It is Easter and Marketa invites Mother to come and stay for a week, Saturday to Saturday, because they’ve something planned for Sunday.

This is an orgy, well a ménage à trois. Marketa knows Karel has a high sex drive. Early on in their marriage it became clear that he would be the unfaithful one and Marketa would suffer but enjoy moral superiority. Then one day, in a sauna at a spa (the Czechs and their spas!), Eva walks in, naked, beautiful and confident, and starts chatting to Marketa. Soon they are good friends and it makes Marketa feel in control when she introduces Eva to Karel and they become lovers.

The irony is, we learn a few pages later, that Eva and Karel had been lovers for years before this. Their first meeting and love-making is very erotically described. It had been Eva who suggested that she approach Marketa. And so the three of them have settled into having periodic three-way sex. Sunday evening has been set aside for one such session.

But Mother mischievously declares she will only leave on Monday and both Karel and Marketa fail to argue her out of her decision.

On the fateful Sunday evening, the girls have slipped off to the bedroom to change into their sexy outfits (a negligee so short it reveals her pubes, for Eva, a pearl necklace and garter belt for Marketa) and are about to return to the living room, where they’ve been chatting and drinking for Karel, for the erotic entertainment to begin… when Mother comes in!

Now, the saving grace is that Mother has gotten pretty short-sighted and so doesn’t even realise the girls are wearing next to nothing (Marketa scampers out to throw on a raincoat). In fact Karel maliciously welcomes her untimely visit because he’d been getting irritated with the girls. And the story is unusually sympathetic to Mother – unusual in the sense that almost all Kundera’s narratives focus on horny men. She has stumbled back into the living room because she is troubled by the memory of reciting a poem which she had described earlier, over dinner, to Marketa and Karel. She had told them it was a poem about the Austro-Hungarian Empire which she recited at the end of the war. But Karel points out that she left school well before then. Alone in her bedroom, it dawns on her that he is right, and that it was a Christmas poem, not a patriotic one, and that she had recited it years earlier. And now she blunders back into the living room – just as the orgy is about to begin – to set them all right. And, in this odd, ludicrous setup, proceeds to recite the poem again, reviving the distant memory of her girlhood.

And then she goes one further by pointing out that Eva reminds her of Nora, a friend of hers when she was a young woman. And all of a sudden Karel has a flashback, remembers being four years old, in some spa town, and being left in a room, and a little while later the tall, statuesque naked body of Nora entered the room and took a nightgown off a hook. The memory of being four, of being small, and looking up at this huge naked Amazon, has stayed with him ever since.

Having said her peace and fused a bit more, Mother goes quietly back to her room, whereupon Karel arranges Eva as he remembers Nora in that distant memory, and kneels down so she is towering over him. Fired with lust, Karel proceeds to make love to both women furiously.

But, as with all Kundera, there are other perspectives. While he is tupping them, Marketa is miles away, tries to reduce Karel to a headless machine. And afterwards, as the girls are lying on the couch, Eva quietly reinvites Marketa to come away with her and have a threesome with her husband. And Marketa quietly accepts.

Karel may be lost in his childhood reveries, but this doesn’t stop the other characters – his wife and mistress – carrying on living their own lives, pursuing their own goals and agendas.

3. The Angels

The angels are those who believe the world is full of order and rationality. They are humourless imposers of order and pattern and meaning. They are terrifying because they want to abolish all the muddy, confused, speckled, mongrel mixedness of the actual world and real people. Kundera identifies them with the Communist Party, Soviet tyranny, feminists, modern literature teachers, and with hypocrites like the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard, who wrote inspirational poems about Freedom while at the same time supporting the Czech regime which sent poets to their deaths.

To begin this assault Kundera creates a pair of earnest and utterly humourless American feminist literature students who don’t understand that a play by Ionesco is meant to be absurd and funny. And when they do grasp this basic fact, he satirises the funny little choked breathy noise they make. He is referring to their laughter.

The students have a narrow, dogmatic literature teacher, Miss Raphael, who is lonely. She is looking for a circle of like-minded believers to dance with. She has tried the Communist Party, the Trotsykists, the anti-abortionists, the pro-abortionists (this pairing is included to show that she has absolutely no moral underpinnings or beliefs, but is just looking for a gang she can join).

Then Kundera describes the way the idealistic young people, students and writers and artists, danced in the street after the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, danced and laughed, even as innocent politicians and poets and artists were being executed in prisons just a few miles away.

Thus they danced in circles, the high-minded angels, laughing their laughter of joy because the world is so ordered and rational and just. And – in a touch of magical realism – their dancing bodies slowly lifted off the ground till they were dancing in the air.

Similarly, when the two humourless feminist students give their humourless interpretation of Ionesco to their class, their humourless teachers joins hands with them and they, too, rise up into the sky.

But not everyone can join a circle. Circles, in fact, can’t be broken. Unlike ranks. Anyone can slip into the ranks of an army, they are designed to allow any number of new members to fit right in. But getting into a circle is hard, if not impossible, without momentarily breaking it. Circles are exclusive.

Kundera very forcefully emphasises how he doesn’t belong to the flying circles of dancing angels, sublimely convinced of their own rectitude. He was once a Communist, he once danced in those circles, but he was unwise and tactless and expelled from the party, and forbidden to work. He was kicked out of the circle and he has been falling ever since (for nearly 30 years, by the time this book was published) falling falling falling like a meteorite broken loose from a planet (p.66).

Then he gives us an extended example of how his misplaced humour prevented him from ever dancing with the angels.

Forbidden to write for any official outlet, friends got Kundera a job writing an astrology column in a popular magazine for young socialists. It was harmless work, and not particularly well paid. But after a few years, the intelligent young woman editor – known only as R. – who had given him the job was called in for questioning by the security police. Does she realise she is ridiculing socialist youth? Does she realise she is mocking the people? Does she realise she has been associating with notorious enemy of the people Kundera?

She is promptly sacked from her job and when she turns to others in the media, they all cold shoulder her as well. Her career is through. Her life is over. She meets Kundera in a borrowed apartment and she is so terrified by what is happening to her, that she has to keep going to the toilet, her bowels are that upset.

And as he listens to her repeated flushing of the toilet, Kundera realises he has become a curse to those he knows and loves. He really cannot go on living in his homeland, bringing bad luck down on everyone he knows. He will have to go into exile. He will have to carry on falling, falling, falling away from the circles of the angels, the laughing angels, laughing because they know the Truth about a world which is orderly and rational and for the best, rejoicing in how:

rationally organised, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on earth was. (p.62)

4. Lost Letters

The title makes you think it might return to the character Mirek, who we met in the first story. Not at all.

It concerns Tamina. She is a Czech exile, working in a café in an unnamed Western town. She and her husband fled Czechoslovakia illegally, pretending to go on holiday. Thus she never brought all her belongings. Her husband got ill once they were abroad, sickened and died. Hollow and sad, she works at the café, listening to every customer who wants to bend her ear.

One day one of the customers, a tiresome wannabe writer named Bibi, mentions that she and her husband are thinking of going on holiday to Prague. Suddenly Tamina wakes from her sleep. Back in Prague, in a drawer in a desk in her mother’s flat, is a bundle of all the diaries she kept during her eleven-year marriage to her husband.

Suddenly Tamina is fired up and wants them back. She has been living like a ghost. The prospect of repossessing them promises to fill in her life, colour it in, give it detail and background and depth. The rest of the story details her struggles, first of all to get her mother-in-law to unlock the desk and get out the notebooks (every phone call to Prague costs her an arm and a leg), then to persuade her father to take it from the provincial town where they live to Prague where he can hand it over to Bibi.

Just about everything which could go wrong does go wrong, but the ‘story’ is really a peg for Kundera to hang miscellaneous thoughts on. One of these is an extended disquisition about graphomania, namely that back at the beginning writing promoted mutual understanding. But in our current state of graphomania, the opposite is true:

everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without. (p.92)

and again, a bit later:

The proliferation of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, women on the delivery table, mistresses, murderers, criminals, prostitutes, police chiefs, doctors and patients proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out and into the streets with a cry of ‘We are all writers!’

And then:

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and misunderstanding. (p.106)

This was written over forty years ago. How prophetic of the age of Facebook and twitter.

Another theme of the story is how fatuously stupid Westerners are. Several scenes and characters exist solely to satirise the West. For example Bibi dreams of being a writer but comes over as a narcissistic fool. They do contrive a meeting with a real published author, Banaka, who comes over as a pompous bore. One day he turn up in her cafe drunk and on the verge of tears because he was the victim of a poor review in a newspaper. Pathetic.

A professor of philosophy holds forth about the nature of the novel. On a separate occasion Tamina’s with Bibi, her husband and a Japanese woman, watching TV on which two authors get irate. One of them is insisting that the fact that he spent his entire childhood in the village of Rourou is important, very important, vitally important if you are to understand his work. In the room Joujou tells them, straight-faced and humourlessly, that she rarely used to have orgasms, but now she has them regularly. Bored, Bibi remarks offhand that what they really need round here is a revolution to shake things up.

Since all Kundera’s work up to this point describes what a revolution really looks like in practice i.e. the repression, the arrests, the executions, and the systematic humiliation of the entire population, it is difficult to think of anything she could say which would be a more damning indictment of her empty-headed idiocy.

After struggling to get through to her bloody family in Czechoslovakia, Tamina finally gets through to her brother and persuades him to travel to the provincial town and gather her diaries and notebooks from her mother-in-law. He reports that he’s done so, but found the drawer unlocked and the notebooks ransacked. Her mother-in-law has been through them, maybe read everything. Suddenly they don’t feel so precious…

Bibi abruptly announces she is not now going to Prague so Tamina shifts her attentions to Hugo, a young man with bad breath who regularly visits the café and is in love with her. Torpidly, she lets herself be taken out for a date, then back to his place, and stripped naked and penetrated, all without any excitement or interest, solely because Hugo says he will go to Prague and get her things. But he is irritated at her complete passivity. In subsequent meetings she just sits there dumbly while he craps on about his big plans to write a book, yes a book! a book all about power and politics. And then he tells her he has published an article about the Prague Spring which means he will not be allowed to travel to Czechoslovakia. He is sure she understands, he had to, he owed it to the world to share his article.

And suddenly she is so revolted by him, and the memory of him penetrating her, that she runs into the toilets and copiously strenuously throws up. And her vomiting seems, to this reader, to also be a reaction to the self-deception, narcissism and superficiality of the spoilt West.

There was only one thing she wanted, to preserve the memory of her husband and their time together untainted. And just about everyone she knows has conspired to foil that endeavour and desecrate his memory.

She went on serving coffee and never made another call to Czechoslovakia. (p.115)

What this story has in common with the first Lost Letters is how bleak it is.

Part Five – Litost

Kristyna is in her thirties. She lives in a small town with her husband, a butcher, and their little boy. She is having an affair with a mechanic who she allows to penetrate her in the locked security of the garage tyre bay. Then she meets the student, home from university for the vacation, and is seduced by his ways with big words and poetic quotations. He is desperate to make love but she wants him to remain on the level of poetry and ideas. Saying yes would drag him (and her) down into the world of the mechanic. So she meets with him in out-of-the-way places and lets him kiss and touch her but always refuses to go all the way. Finally the holidays end and they make a last-minute pact: she will come up to Prague and stay the night in his accommodation. They both know what this means.

Litost is a Czech word which combines grief, sympathy, remorse and an indefinable longing (p.121). It is ‘a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self’ (p.122). Kundera gives us some stories from the student’s past to flesh it out.

The night Kristyna is coming to stay, the student’s professor, who Kundera wittily names Voltaire, tells him the greatest poet in the land is having a get-together that night and he’s invited. The student is thrown into a quandary: sex or literature? He is young. He chooses sex.

When Kristyna arrives in Prague she is horrified at the seedy little restaurant he’s arranged to meet her in, the kind of place the butcher takes her to. It’s dirty and full of drunks and they give her a table by the toilets. By the time the student arrives, she’s ready to give him a piece of her mind. But he also is chagrined: she is wearing the most embarrassingly provincial clothes imaginable, including heavy strings of pearls and black pumps.

He tries to mollify her and they go out into the streets. She had dreamed of nightclubs and theatres and glamour – but he is only a poor student, after all. He takes her to his garret; it is small and shabby. Suddenly he has a brainwave. He tells her about the evening of poets, and says he’ll go (he can’t take her, it’s men only) but he’ll take a book and get it autographed by the greatest poet.

She willingly agrees, chooses a book off the poet’s shelf and settles down while he hurries off.

Kundera, with the airy candour which has become second nature, tells us that he’s writing all this in 1977. He eventually couldn’t put up with life in communist Czechoslovakia and drove west, as far west as he could till he stopped in the Breton town of Rennes. Now he is setting this passage fifteen years earlier, in the happier days of 1962. He paints a charming eccentric portrait of an evening’s drinking and squabbling among a variety of poets he humorously names after famous poets in the Western tradition, namely Goethe, Verlaine, Petrarch, Yesenin, Lermontov, and the cynic and anti-poet Boccaccio.

This extended depiction of a bunch of boisterous drunken poets is mildly entertaining but I was struck by the echoes of his novel, Life is Elsewhere, about a lyric poet, in which we met Lermontov quite a few times. And by the way Lermontov, in this book, dismisses all the rest of the poets as ‘Mama’s boys’ (p.141) – exactly the accusation Kundera threw at lyric poets as a class in the earlier novel.

Eventually the party breaks up and all the poets group together to help carry Goethe downstairs because he is very old and can’t walk without crutches. Then Lermontov gets in the taxi and volunteers to take him home and handle Mrs Goethe, who is a dragon and always cross when he husband is out late.

The student walks with Petrarch who tells him lots of things about love, for example love and laughter are opposites. Then rushes back to his garret where Kristyna is awaiting him. He presents her with the book of poetry which he got Goethe to sign and indeed write a long personal message for her, and she is genuinely thrilled. He tears off his clothes and jumps into bed with her and she kisses him back but then, when he tries to part her thighs, refuses. And refuses and refuses and refuses. All night long, For hours. He is fired up and hard as rock. But she still wants to preserve the student on a different plane from the rest of her life. (Also, the delivery of her son was so difficult the doctors told her she must never again get pregnant or it would endanger her life.)

Eventually the student rolls off her body and onto his back and, for some obscure reason, Kristyna reaches out and grasps his rigid member, but doesn’t move it or do anything to relieve the pressure. Just holds it. Like a mother, like a sister, passionlessly.

Litost!

Part Six – The Angels

This begins as a literary-political essay about Prague which Kundera calls a city of forgetting. In the works of Kafka Prague is a city which has forgotten its own name, full of unnamed streets and even the characters have forgotten their own names – Josef K. Kundera then moves on to discuss T.G. Masaryk, seventh president of Czechoslovakia, who was installed by the Russians in the aftermath of the crushing of the Prague Spring, and who is known as ‘the president of forgetting’ (p.158). Among other things he sacked some 150 Czech historians, as part of a repressive policy of obliterating the past and writing a new official version.

Tamina reappears, she of Part Four. She is sad because she has forgotten so many details about her husband, not least after making love to the despicable, smelly Hugo. Her plight reminds Kundera of his father, whose dementia meant he slowly lost the power of speech until finally all he could say was one phrase: ‘That’s strange!’

Kundera’s father was a musicologist and had been working on a study of Beethoven’s variations. With the airy confidence with which he slips so much factual content into all his books, Kundera proceeds to stop the narrative while he writes a page or two about the profundity of the variation form, ‘the form of maximum concentration.’ Indeed:

This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, a sense of which fades into the distance. (p.165)

And the figure of Tamina is at its heart, the faithful lover who struggles to remember her beloved.

The rest of the story is odd, and reminds us that, although we remember the sex, and the politics and the philosophy, dreams and fantasy are also a recurring theme in Kundera’s work.

A nice-looking man named Raphael comes into the café, knows Tamina’s name, and asks her to leave with him. They go outside and get into his sports car, and drive off, drive into the country, the green landscape turning sandy, then ochre. It reminds Tamina of the landscape her husband was forced to work in, when he was kicked out of white collar jobs and ended up working a digger on building sites.

He parks by a river and points down towards where a boy is holding the painter of a boat. As in a dream she gets into the boat and he starts to row, but she takes over, rows and rows, they arrive at a strange strand, are greeted by children, she disembarks and is shown the way to a dormitory where she’ll be sleeping, the children tell her that only children live on the island (she walks along the shore and ends up back where she started), and are divided into ‘squirrels’ and ‘tigers’, they are fascinated by her mature breasts and black pubic hair, and she finds herself at night being touched and stroked so she achieves a strange kind of climax, until one day one little urchin twists her nipple hard and she throws them all off, she tries to join in their games, like hopscotch, but gets things wrong, they chase her, catch her in badminton nets, a little like other outsiders in science fiction scenarios, finally she runs down to the seashore and swims, while they yell at her from the shore, she’s a strong swimmer and swims all night imagining she must reach the other side, but when dawn breaks she realises she’s only a few hundred yards from the island and is overcome with fatigue.

Some of the children come out in the rowing boat to watch her curiously, they make no offer to help her, and watch, while she goes under, once, twice, and then drowns.

Part Seven – The Border

This appears to be a whole-hearted satire of life in the West. Jan is from the East and observes the people round him like a zoologist. Jeanne likes to sit cross legged like the Buddha while she traces the outline of the coffee table before her, drawing attention to herself and her asinine comments. Jan drops in on the Clevis family. They are card-carrying liberal progressives, who subscribe to all the best liberal opinions and when he drops in they’ve just finished watching a TV programme on which representatives of all the schools of thought debated one of the big issues of the day, which is whether women should go topless. Jan listens to their fourteen-year-old daughter shout that she’s not going to be anybody’s Sex Object, while her mother cheers her on. The narrator reflects that millions of women across the west have burned their bra and now go about their days work wobbling as Nature intended.

They remind me of the right-on, vegetarian, socialist feminist family, the Webers, in the Posy Simmonds cartoon strip. And any number of other right-on families who were mocked and satirised in the 1970s.

The Clevises point out that poor Jeanne has gone through tragic times because her son ran away for a few days. Jan reflects on what the term tragic means in his country and how trivial it is in this country.

Jan is seeing a girl from a sports rental company. She is an orgasm fanatic. She is determined to have as many as possible, and gives him a running commentary when they’re making love, telling him just what to do when, and where to put his hands and whether to speed up or slow down. She’s like the cox of a rowing eight.

There’s a lot more discussion of sex. Jan speculates there are three kinds of erotic history: all the women you’ve had; all the women you could have had but let slip; and then all the women you could never have had. He is alarmed that more and more women seem to be slipping into this category. Is it because they have ‘begun to organise and reform their perennial fate?’ (I take it he’s referring to feminism).

There’s a passage about the male gaze (presumably Kundera was introduced to all these ideas, along with humourless feminist students, only once he’d arrived in France, in 1975), which he takes for granted as already being a well-known concept. This was forty years ago. Less well known, he asserts, is the fact that the object can look back. The object can cease to be an object, open its eyes, and unsettle and unnerve the gazer, and his protagonist goes on to discuss about various examples of women who bite back, with his girlfriend Edwige, the feminist.

For example, their friend Barbara is known for giving orgies (who are these people? how did he get to know so many women obsessed with sex? how come I never met or heard of anyone like this when I was a young man?) One day she invites their friend Ervin who arrived to find two pretty women and Barbara. Barbara got out an egg timer then the three women stripped naked. Then she told Ervin to strip naked which he quickly did. Then she set the egg timer and said he had precisely one minute to get a hard on or they’d throw him out. And all three women stared at his crotch laughing. Then they threw him out.

Then Jan and Edwige discuss rape. Jan sees rape as integral to eroticism, whereas castration is its negation. Edwige says if rape is integral to eroticism, then we need to develop a new form of eroticism. He defends women who say the word ‘no’ when they don’t mean it. She gets angry and says ‘no means no’. He trots through a repertoire of sexual scenes – the woman acting coy, having to be brought round, concealing her charms, the man having to talk her round, persuade her to reveal herself, and so on. He calls them time-honoured images. She says they certainly are time-honoured – and idiotic! Time to change them all!

And so it goes on, the never-ending ping-ping game between men and women.

Meanwhile, the notion of the border is applied to several situations. A friend is dying of cancer. Jan reflects how very close death is all the time to each of us. The border is an inch away. Ten years ago he used to be visited by a woman for sex. They both stood and stripped in the same hurried way each time. One time she caught his eye and smiled a sad sympathetic smile. Jan was inches away from bursting out laughing, which would have ended their sexual affair. The ‘border’ was there filling the room. But he stifled his laughter, stayed this side of the border. Another time he chatted up a young woman on a train but it just wouldn’t click, despite taking her to the dining car, then out into the corridor and lifting her head into the light as he had done a thousand times before. There was a border of seduction, but he just couldn’t cross it.

There’s also a border when it comes to repetition. Every time something is repeated it loses part of its vital force. Every action therefore has a border, this side of which it retains meaning, that side of which it has become meaningless automatism.

Similarly, many of Jan’s fellow exiles initially felt great attachment to their old country and fiercely vowed to fight for its freedom. But that passion faded, and now many are scared to admit they have passed beyond a psychological border where they realise there is no cause and no fight. And no purpose.

Their friend Passer dies of cancer. At his funeral the hat is blown off the head of Papa Clevis and in successive gusts blown to the feet of the solemn funeral orator. Everyone strains to contain their laughter. Then it blows into the grave itself. When the orator bends to throw the first earth into the grave he is stunned. The watchers strain every sinew not to burst out laughing.

Jan attends one of Barbara’s legendary orgies and is appalled to discover what a bully she is, pushing and arranging and goading and forcing everyone to have a good time. Jan buddies up with a bald man who quips ‘Major Barbara’ and comments that she’s like a coach training her team for the Olympics. Barbara spots them chatting and separates them, taking the bald guy off to a corner where she starts masturbating him, while Jan finds himself being handled by the clumsy provincial stripper who had started proceedings. He finds himself looking over at the bald man, and coming up with more jokes and references and ludicrous metaphors, and suddenly both he and baldie burst out laughing. Barbara is furious. He expels Jan from the party.

Sex is a serious business. It cannot stand being mocked. Now, as Jan moves into his forties (Kundera was nearly 50 when this book was published) he finds himself more and more aware of all these borders: death just inches away; absurdity underlying all our behaviour; sex just a facial flicker away from guffaws.

In the last sequence in the book, just before he goes abroad for good (to America, I think), Jan takes his feminist girlfriend to an island which is a nudist colony. In their rented cottage they strip off, then walk down to the beach to join grandparents, parents, teenagers and toddlers, all stark naked.

Here his misunderstandings with Edwige – and the entire novel’s theme of misunderstandings – reaches a kind of climax. She is obsessed with ‘the Western Judaeo-Christian’ tradition of shame of the body. But Jan is thinking about something quite different. More and more he has been dreaming of a state of bodily arousal which is pleasure but innocent of climax; a pre-sexual state, which he associates with the Greek myth of Daphnis and Chloe.

They sit on the beach in the sun, watching all the naked people around them, and Jan murmurs ‘Daphnis’. Edwige hears this and pounces on it, convinced he shares her feelings about a feminist escape from the Judeao-Christian sexist tradition. He nods agreement although he is sick to death of her trite, stupid obvious ideas, the way she feeds everything into the same half dozen, half-baked ‘issues’. Instead he is consumed with a sense of the sheer absurdity of human existence, and this conviction – so similar to the recurring obsession of his author and creation – is cemented in the vivid image which ends the book.

A group of Edwige’s nudist friends has just come up and been introduced to Jan, and Edwige has mentioned Jan’s throwaway idea that they should name the anonymous little island Daphne.

Everyone was delighted with the idea, and a man with extraordinary paunch began developing the idea that Western civilisation was on its way out and we should soon be freed once and for all from the bonds of Judeo-Christian thought – statements Jan had heard ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand times before – and for the time being those few feet of beach felt like a university auditorium. On and on the man talked. The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand. (p.228)


Thoughts

Are these stories continually interrupted by multiple digressions into interesting topics? Or essays on interesting topics into which ‘characters’ and their slender narratives are occasionally inserted?

Of the five books by Milan Kundera which I’ve read so far, this one has by far the most ‘interruptions’ and digressions; it feels the most finely balanced between narrative and editorial, between story and lecture.

For example, the story titled Litost, with its rhetorical questions and technical explanations (of foreign words and their etymologies) keeps reverting to the nature of an academic essay, a quality demonstrated by one of the last sections which is titled Further Notes for a Theory of Litost. 

Or take the section about the two types of laughing, the demonic which celebrates chaos, and the angelic which celebrates order, which underpins the sections about Angels i.e. that their laughter is repressive.

Or Kundera’s touching memoir of his senile father, and the way he (Kundera) came to understand his father’s scholarly fascination with the variation form.

In fact Part Six has an extended passage remembering much more about his father the musicologist: how he explained to the young Milan the structure and purpose of the key system, before Kundera himself goes on to give his account of the collapse of that system, as overthrown by Schoenberg, the reluctant revolutionary, who ushered in the twelve-tone system, which was to dominate international classical music after the Second World War.

There’s a lot lot more topics like this: on the nature of absurdity and human intention; on the nature of love; on the nature of political and cultural forgetting.

A cultural conservative?

Although he is a striking radical in the technique he brings to the novel, in chopping it up into these bite-sized sections, and inserting all kinds of authorial asides, and with the brisk no-nonsense way he gets straight to the gist of a character’s thoughts… in other ways, when you look at what his discussion values, Kundera can come over as a surprisingly cultural conservative.

In this book he thinks ‘beauty’ is a thing of the past which has been buried under a deluge of pop music and public announcements. He thinks Schoenberg murdered music and, as with the three-hundred page diatribe against lyric poetry which is his second novel, Life Is Elsewhere, he did it with the best of intentions. His innovation represented the death of classical music, but he made it with excitement and daring, and his post-war devotees were zealots and extremists of the kind Kundera deplores.

Bleakly, he says that everyone who spouts the big word Progress, imagines it means progress towards a bright new future. They don’t realise that what they are moving towards is death (p.179).

He hates pop music. There are a couple of pages comparing the Czech pop singer Karel Gott with the president of forgetting, T.G. Masaryk, in the sense that both want to bury the past. Pop music is ‘music without memory’, music deprived of the legacy of Bach to Beethoven, music reduced to the stumps of its basic elements, mindlessly repeated over a nightmareishly amplified totalitatarian beat.

Towards the end of the book he rubbishes the entire notion of ‘progress’.

Jan had never shared Passer’s enthusiasm for observing how things change, though he did appreciate his desire for change, considering it the oldest desire in man, mankind’s most conservative conservatism. (p.215)

Pessimistic stuff, isn’t it?

Lost in the West

In this the book represents Kundera’s uneasy transition to the ‘free’ society of the West. In a sense, it was easy to write in the East because art, poetry and literature were taken seriously, especially by the regime, which paid artists and writers the great tribute of locking them up and, in the Soviet Union, of murdering them.

In the communist East there was not only a shortage of food and consumer goods (cars, fridges), which meant you made do with a much more threadbare lifestyle – but a shortage of types of lifestyle. At its simplest, you were either for the regime or against it, and everyone trod a very careful path so as not to put a foot wrong and be dragged off to prison.

This was Kundera’s first book published since he defected to the West (in 1975) and although his technical achievement (the chopping up of narratives into micro-sections and their interleaving with meditations on all kinds of subjects) has reached giddy heights, it seems to me that he is struggling with the sheer profusion of narratives available in the West.

Put simply, there’s so much crap. Radios are on everywhere blaring out idiot pop music, muzak in lifts and supermarkets, so much cheap food the inhabitants make themselves sick and fat, shiny adverts bombard you from radio, TV, cinema and huge hoardings.

And people fuss and fret about such trivia – epitomised by the monstrous superficiality of the would-be novelist Bibi in Part Two, or the ludicrous self-centred ‘tragedy’ of Jeanne in Part Seven, or the stupid television debates about whether women should or should not go bare breasted on beaches. Is this it? Is this what thousands of years of human civilisation dwindle down to? An endless froth of trivia?

Maybe this is what he means when he says that the entire book is about Tamina, protagonist of the fourth and sixth stories, which is at first a puzzling statement, since a number of the other characters (Mirek and Karel spring to mind) are well defined and memorable. But:

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror. (p.165)

And who is Tamina? She is an exile in the West. She loves her country and feels she left her soul there. But all her attempts to reclaim it are foiled. She is appalled by the superficiality (Bibi) and selfishness (Hugo) and pretentiousness (the writers bickering on TV) of ‘cultural’ life in the West. And what happens to her in the end? She drowns.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson (1978)

Eleven short stories:

  1. Art in Nature
  2. The Monkey
  3. The Cartoonist
  4. White Lady
  5. The Doll’s House
  6. A Sense of Time
  7. A Leading Role
  8. The Locomotive
  9. Flower Child
  10. A Memory from the New World
  11. The Great Journey

After reading The Summer Book and The Winter Book, which are mostly stories about, or told from the point of view of, a small girl, stories set in the autobiographical settings of either the Jannson family’s house in Helsinki or on the island in the Gulf of Finland where the Jansson’s owned a cabin – it was a relief to turn to a set of stories about adults, where each of them is set in a different location with different characters. I.e. this is much more like a traditional short story collection, than her first two collections.

The characters argue, fight, swear, get drunk, make fools of themselves, cheer each other up, seethe with resentment. They are, in other words, people like us.

Except that they almost all possess the same central attribute of people in Jansson’s fiction – which is that they are disquieting. It’s not science fiction or violent, they’re tales of very ordinary people. But all the stories have a consistently disquieting and oblique, unexpected slant on human nature.

Part of the effect stems from the prose. It is very simple. Short sentences. Simple vocabulary. Things are described, or reported. But that only makes the sometimes disquieting feelings all the more disturbing. The obsessive-compulsive thinking. The absolute necessity of routine and order. The constant nagging sense of failure or embarrassment, the continual sense that you are making a fool of yourself. These are all the more unnerving for being reported so matter-of-factly, as if everyone was this anxious, as if anxiety is the normal state.

And, on reflection, maybe they haven’t strayed that far away from Jansson’s personal experience.

In Art in Nature the old curator of an art exhibition at a gallery which has outdoor grounds and a jetty onto the sea, first of all chats to an old lady who comes and sits next to him then, on his late night walk round the ground comes across a middle-aged couple arguing about a work of art they’ve bought. The title couldn’t be plainer. It is about art in an outdoors space, art in nature.

The Monkey seems like a straight portrait of Jansson’s father, the frustrated sculptor, and his guanon monkey, which we had met in a story in her first collection, The Sculptor’s Daughter. So many of her stories rotate around characters going through very humdrum routines, permanently looking for mental peace and rest and never finding it. Her father tidies up the studio then takes the monkey bundled in  his coat to the nearby bar where his arty mates are rude and they get into a bitter argument. On the way home the monkey escapes and flees up a tree, even though it’s bitterly cold and the sculptor reflects, bitterly:

You poor little bastard. It’s freezing but you’ve got to climb. (p.27)

The Cartoonist is a long and mesmerising account of the way a seasoned old cartoonist, Allington, who has created the smash hit ‘Blubby’ cartoon, and written it day in day out for twenty years for a Finnish newspaper which syndicates it around the world, suddenly disappears, no one knows where. The story focuses on his replacement, Samuel Stein, who is buttered up by the paper’s management, eased into the new job, and finds himself effectively abandoned in the cartoonist’s old room, drawers full of his old bric-a-brac. At first he’s too busy in a panic sweat trying to replicate the great man’s style and mapping out storylines which will last for months into the future to care. But slowly he rummages through the drawers, gets poignant hints of the cartoonist’s life and… realises he has to set out to find him. — Well, this is Jansson’s own plight, spectacularly successful creator of the Moomin strip cartoon who found herself shackled to her creation.

White Lady is named after the revolting cocktail and describes an outing of three middle-aged ladies, one of whom is a successful artist, Ellinor, (the Jansson figure) who catch a ferry from the island to a bar on the mainland where they chat about the old times, seem to spend a lot of time in the ladies loo, order strong cocktails, reminisce about some Italian count and then get caught up with a group of young people who are polite enough but are, well, young, dance to their incredibly loud blaring music, until the three ladies stumble back into the night, towards the jetty and the ferry home.

In The Doll’s House two gay men retire, Erik an old-fashioned upholsterer and Alexander a banker, but discover they can’t really bear being stuck at home all day in each other’s company. Then the upholsterer has the bright idea to make a large doll’s house, an exact replica of a house and the project becomes an all-consuming passion, at first on the kitchen table, then taking over half the kitchen but emitting so much glue and paint fumes the banker asks him to build a partition across the kitchen, then spreading into the living room and so on. When the upholsterer stumbles across an electrician who can help with the tiny wiring needed to light the house, the two become close collaborators, excluding the gay banker more and more. Eventually the story explodes in an unusually violent climax but with a typically Janssonesque twist or quirk.

In A Leading Role Maria, a so-so actress, is offered her first leading role and worries about how to become the mousy put-upon character required. Until she remembers a cousin, the mousy little Frida. She invited Frida to come and stay in her big house by the sea and we, the readers, know she’s only done it so she can observe every aspect of Frida’s personality and facial expressions and movements in order to steal them for her performance. Except that even the mousy Frida realises something is up, and it dawns on her that she’s being exploited.

Themes

Allington quit drawing cartoons because he was ‘tired’, simple as that, a phrase which recurs throughout these stories like a bell. In the very last page of White lady Ellinor is ‘tired’. When the sculptor wakes up he feels ‘tired’. When the locomotive obsessive tries to explain his passion to a strange woman he is overcome by tiredness. Flora’s husband, in A Flower Child, looks tired at his own wedding! Johanna, who looks after her sisters after they’ve emigrated to America in A Memory from the New World, is tired by the responsibility.

Tiredness is a leitmotif. Jansson was 64 when these stories were published in 1978, though one can assume they were published over a scattered period before that. Tiredness and its opposite sleep. Sleep is escape from not only fatigue but anxiety and unease. Sleep and just a nip of madeira. Or champagne, as it is in The Flower Child. A nip of booze to help kick start the long day which is characterised by anxiety and tiredness until you can slip gratefully back into your bed.

This is the underlying feel of the stories, a longing for peace and quiet, the characters’ quest for a calm, ordered, safe place without any other people and where routine and regularity keep at bay all the bad thoughts, the incipient panic, which constantly threaten.

Identities

Once we’re well into the book there are two genuinely strange stories in which the narrator’s identity becomes radically unstable, in which the conventions of fiction are mixed up before our eyes.

In A sense of time Lennart is very concerned about his grandmother and her senile loss of time, waking him up at nighttime closing the curtains at dawn. But half way through the story the point of view switches to the grandmother and we realise that it may be Lennart who’s the odd one.

In the long text called The locomotive the possibly deranged narrator – a commercial draughtsman working for a train company who has secret fantasies about taking long train journeys all over the world – keeps changing points of view from narrating as ‘I’ to describing ‘him’. The text keeps breaking down as he describes and notates  his fleeting thoughts and uncertainties: Stop here. Start again. I need to revise. Delete this section. With the text sometimes breaking down in mid-sen

When the story reaches its rather gruesome climax that climax comes in three separate versions. In fact in a mini-welter of versions, and we realise we have no idea how much, if anything, of this fabrication is ‘real’.

These stories are in no way comforting or charming. Jansson practices tough love on herself and on her characters. Deceptively simple,fairy-tale prose conveys a gimlet-eyed perceptiveness, a constant anxiety, a completely dis-enchanted view of the world and people.

Disquieting.


Credit

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal, was published by Sort of Books in 2006.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

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

Short story collections

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

The Human Factor by Graham Greene (1978)

He told himself that he was a free man, that he had no duties any longer and no obligations, but he had never felt such an extreme solitude as he felt now. (p.215)

Greene was 74 the year this novel was published. The pace of the book is slow and steady and unhurried, the opposite of, say, the helter-skelter of violent incidents in a thriller like Len Deighton’s SS-GB, published the same year. And the prose of this, Greene’s later period or style, is similarly cool and clear and unhurried, lucidly unfolding descriptions, events, thoughts, dialogue, in a measured, stately pace. You can open it at almost any page and immediately start enjoying the clear, declarative sentences, arranged in a logically advancing order in beautifully weighted and judged paragraphs.

Sample quote

Colonel Daintry had a two-roomed flat in St James’s Street which he had found through the agency of another member of the firm. During the war it had been used by MI6 as a rendezvous for interviewing possible recruits. There were only three apartments in the building, which was looked after by an old housekeeper, who lived in a room somewhere out of sight under the roof. Daintry was on the first floor above a restaurant (the noise of hilarity kept him awake until the small hours when the last taxi ground away). Over his head were a retired businessman who had once been connected with the rival wartime service SOE, and a retired general who had fought in the Western Desert. The general was too old now to be seen often on the stairs, but the businessman, who suffered from gout, used to get as far as the Carlton Club across the road. Daintry was no cook and he usually economised for one meal by buying cold chipolatas at Fortnum’s. He had never liked clubs; if he felt hungry, a rare event, there was Overton’s just below. His bedroom and his bathroom looked out on a tiny court containing a sundial and a silversmith. Few people who walked down St James’s Street knew of the court’s existence. It was a very discreet flat and not unsuitable for a lonely man. (pp.84-85 of the Penguin paperback edition)

Textual analysis

This, the opening paragraph of Part Three, Chapter 1, Section 2, is packed with information:

  • There is no physical description of Dainty. His physical appearance is of little or no concern.
  • Instead noscitur a socio – one is known by the company one keeps – and Daintry is firmly situated in a web of relationships which place him very solidly in the security wing of the military establishment. His flat was previously used by MI6; was passed on by a fellow security officer; his neighbours are an ex-SOE officer and ex-Army officer.
  • Geographically, he is located in the heart of London’s Establishment clubland, in St James’s Street, opposite the Carlton Club If you consult a map you’ll see this is just behind The Ritz, on the way down to St James’s Palace, and just round the corner from the Reform Club and the Travellers Club, which both feature in the novel.
  • An upper-class mindset which extends to his shopping habits: not Sainsbury’s, not Waitrose – Fortnum’s.
  • The one glimpse of what you might call real life – the noisy restaurant downstairs – is mostly there to emphasise his solitary, unclubbable nature, and to highlight the contrast with the sad final words of the paragraph – ‘a lonely man’.
  • But in among this litany of loneliness is a sliver of winter sunlight: the view from the bedroom onto the (inevitably small, this is central London) court which contains ‘a sundial and a silversmith’. This is an unusual splash of (admittedly wintry) alliteration from so cold and uncolourful a writer as Greene. And it has a subtle symbolism: the sundial evoking the inflexible passage of time and, by implication, the withered, near-retirement mentality of the unhappy Colonel, and somehow the second-rate, silver nature of his existence. (Elsewhere Greene describes the gold-rimmed glasses of his main South African interrogator and the gold ring the second, thuggish, interrogator has on his punching hand – from which he extrapolates that South Africa itself is a virile, sun-filled, golden country. But not cold, cramped England. The best we can hope for a thin parings of silver…)
  • Because the whole passage feels very English and Londony and cramped and confined and claustrophobic:
    • In terms of Daintry the man, we are told of his appallingly limited diet: he is rarely hungry and then only buys cold chipolatas, symbolising the notorious absence of gastronomic savoir faire in the public school-educated British upper classes so satirised by the French and Italians. (In other scenes there are a number of discussions about food, especially Lady Hargreaves’ famous steak and kidney pudding; the characters spend half a page contrasting steak and kidney pudding with steak and kidney pie.)
    • And the flat itself is such a cramped, inconvenient space: the noise of the restaurant below keeps him awake, the view is into a tiny court. Can you imagine an American security officer putting up with these Dickensian conditions for a minute?
  • Finally, if we reread the paragraph we can admire the logic and clarity with which the information unfolds, is set down in an orderly manner almost like an intelligence report except that, unlike a report, it has dots of imagery which convey the information in a different sort of way: the cold chipolatas sum up a lifetime of bad food; the noisy restaurant symbolises everything Daintry excludes himself from; the tiny courtyard offers a bleak, superficially impressive, but ultimately empty recompense for the life of secrets and evasions which Daintry has chosen, and which – we later learn – has resulted in his divorce and all-but-estrangement from his only child, a grown-up daughter.

There are similar amounts of precise information and imaginative wealth on almost every page of the novel, which is why I think it is so good.

The plot

Maurice Castle is an anxious, middle-aged man, living in a suburban house in Berkhampsted, commuting every day to his office in St James’s, bantering with his younger colleague Davis, wryly amused by the latter’s frustrated lust for their uninterested secretary, Cynthia. What makes him different is he works for MI6, in a department known as 6, his section is 6A, and he and Davis receive encrypted messages from a network of agents in southern Africa. Slowly, in his stately late-period prose, Greene paints a very realistic portrait of the little office with its daily frustrations, lunch at the pub, drinks after work at one of the London clubs.

Castle is called in to meet ‘C’, the head of the organisation, who we also see at his large country house, entertaining various other officers on ‘the firm’ on a pheasant shoot: Watson, Castle’s section chief, Percival, the sinister ‘doctor’ and senior adviser, and Daintry, who’s been called in to do a security review of Castle’s section. Because there is a leak. Some of the information about situations in south African nations is getting to the other side. We witness conversations between Daintry and C and between C and Percival where they speculate who the leak is; on the flimsy basis that Daintry caught Davis taking an office file in his briefcase out to read over lunch, and that Davis told Castle a white lie – that he was going to the dentist when he was in fact taking Cynthia on a lunch date – the finger of suspicion, in a very amateurish way, points towards Davis. Castle contributes his pennyworth by describing to C the way Davis is restless, unhappy and wants a foreign posting. Aha. Chap wants an easy escape once we rumble him, eh?

Indeed, the whole story is set in the world of ‘chaps’. They all went to public school, then knew each other or of each other, at Oxford or Cambridge, before going on to eminent careers in the law, medicine, in the Army, in government, in Whitehall – running the country. Daintry, a little outside these circles, provides an uneasy contrast when he attends the shooting weekend at C’s, finding it hard to read the code and manners of the English upper classes. The (completely innocent) suspect, Davis, is outside the magic circle altogether, having gone to a grammar school and Reading university, the poor fellow, part of the reason it’s so easy to dispense with him…

While this is going on, Castle reflects anxiously on his past, on his time as an MI6 agent in South Africa, how falling in love with a black woman broke SA’s race laws, resulting in him being called in for interrogation by South Africa’s police, and the oblique threats made by the intimidating BOSS interrogator against, not him, but his lover, Sarah. Released from questioning, Castle used his contacts in the anti-apartheid underground to spirit him and Sarah across the border to Mozambique, and on to England, where he married Sarah and, when she had her baby (by another, black, lover) was happy to adopt the boy – Sam – as his own son. She is the (colourful, foreign) love of  his life.

Now, in a grand irony, the very same BOSS officer who interrogated him seven years ago, has flown to England to be liaison between BOSS and MI6 on a new project, Operation Uncle Remus. It is explained to Castle (and the reader) that a capitalist South Africa is vital to Western interests, as the free world’s largest supplier of gold, diamonds and uranium. Threatened by Soviet-backed communist guerrilla forces in Namibia and Mozambique, Operation Uncle Remus plans to bring together intelligence from SA, the CIA, MI6 and other western agencies, to guarantee SA’s government. At its heart is the plan to develop tactical battlefield nuclear weapons which would be deployed against any communist forces invading from those countries… with obviously devastating consequences not only for the force targeted but all the nearby civilians.

Half way through the slow unfurling of this story, with its multiple characters, settings, strands and dynamics, two major events take place.

  1. We had previously witnessed the sinister Dr Percival discussing in a speculative way with Hargreaves and Daintry the various ways to poison or kill a man so as to leave no trace. To this reader’s surprise, he goes ahead and poisons Davis (one of their own operatives) with a natural fungal toxin, designed to build up, make someone ill and slowly die over a period of time with symptoms identical to liver failure. In fact, Davis dies unexpectedly quickly, within 24 hours. C flies back from Washington for the funeral, knows Percival murdered one of their own men, but is merely irritated. Colonel Daintry remembers the creepy conversations he’d had with Dr Percival and strongly suspects Percival murdered a man on little or no evidence and silently disapproves. Castle keeps his suspicions about Davis’s death to himself. But they all accept this murder of one of their own men which I find completely extraordinary.
  2. Not least because, in the major revelation of the book, we learn that Davis was completely innocent because it is the protagonist of the novel – Castle himself – who is the spy leaking information. Having been merely a harassed middle-aged office worked in part one, in the second half of the novel – once his secret is revealed – we delved deeper into the psychological motivation and and experience of being a double agent, a traitor. We witness Castle going to a safe house to meet his control, a Russian named Boris, and Greene fascinatingly explores the psychological dependency of the agent on his master. For Boris is the only person in the world who knows the complete truth about Castle and to whom he can be completely honest. Not to his wife, not to anyone else can he pour out his burdened soul. Their conversations are like therapy or (of course, this being Greene) like the Catholic confessional, from which he emerges purged and lighter in heart. In these scenes it is revealed that Castle’s treachery is not ideological – he liked some communists he met in SA but is not himself a believer – but due to simple gratitude: it was a communist, Carson, who was instrumental in smuggling Sarah to freedom when she was in danger of being arrested by BOSS. Castle owes him/the Party her life and all his subsequent happiness. His betrayal is based on love. Aha… It is the same psychodrama as fuels so many other Greene novels where it is the ‘finer feelings’ which lead us into squalid betrayals (cf Scobie’s pity for Helen Rolt which leads him into a love affair with her and then to break various police rules in order to help her, in The Heart of The Matter).

Greeneland

1. Apothegms This is a very familiar Greene trope, one of his favourite paradoxes – love is more dangerous than hate – up there alongside ‘pity is more fatal than anger’ and ‘betrayal is the greatest form of fidelity’, and so on. There are typically grand-sounding Greene apothegms scattered through this text:

‘We are grateful to you, Maurice, but gratitude like love needs to be renewed daily or it’s liable to die away.’ (p.260)

I guess many of his devotees like these wise sayings and ‘profound insights into human nature’ which are always inserted at the appropriate moment in the appropriate place – but I don’t. They come too easy, they are too glib for my taste and, on examination, most of them turn out to be empty rhetoric – but in this novel there are not too many of them. There is more of the slow steady encrustation-of-detail type writing that I quoted above, writing which embodies its meaning via literary techniques – assonance, imagery, rhythm – rather than proclaims it in sound bites like t-shirt slogans.

2. Downbeat And, skimming back through the novel now, I realise a lot of the sections end on a miserable downbeat: Castle thinks that Davis, in death, is finally ‘free’; Sarah wonders if Castle will ever be ‘free’ to tell her the complete truth; Castle dreams of drifting down an African river to a mythical place called Peace of Mind; Castle’s secret sorrow is that he failed to protect his first wife, killed by a buzz bomb during the Blitz; steady drip-drip of images of misery…

He took the glasses to the kitchen and washed them carefully. It was as though he were removing the fingerprints of his despair. (p.211)

It sometimes seems as if books like this are written to make their middle-aged, menopausal, miserable male readers feel less wretchedly alone. Feminists of my generation talk glibly about how the world is run by men, by the worldwide Patriarchy who own, run and control everything. Why, then, are the older male characters in the novels of Greene, Le Carré, Len Deighton or the contemporaneous ‘comedies’ of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge or Tom Sharpe, so bloody miserable?

[Daintry] felt guilty of failure – a man in late middle age near to retirement – retirement from what? He would exchange one loneliness for another. (p.169)

[Halliday said] ‘It’s been a lonely life, I have to admit that.’ (p.219)

But what makes this one of Greene’s best novels – for me – is that he doesn’t belabour these points: there aren’t entire sections lecturing the reader about love and hate and betrayal and guilt and all the rest of Greene’s miserabilist worldview. The tangle of motivations are embodied in the story which, because of its slow, convincing accumulation of the details of the lived life of its numerous interlocking characters, are more emotionally and imaginatively powerful than the blunt lectures and fancy aphorisms which disfigure so many earlier Greene novels.

More plot

After Davis’s death, Castle writes his Russian control a letter saying he daren’t send any more information. If they now adopt radio silence it will persuade his firm that the innocent Davis was the leak and guarantee his – Castle’s – safety. However… He then has the interview with Muller, the man from South African security, who tells him about Operation Uncle Remus, including the possible use of atomic weapons which would, of course, slaughter large numbers of black civilians as well as any invading forces, were they to be deployed… And so, in a typical Greeneism, it is pity and concern which betray Castle into betraying himself, which prompt him to make one last communication with a control who might, for all he knows, have left the country, with a word-for-word copy of Muller’s notes which the BOSS man left for him at their meeting. Except that the BOSS man’s report was a trap, deliberately filled with standout phrases different from all other versions; if this one is leaked, the case against Castle will be conclusive.

And now Castle gives way to paranoia and the final 80 pages or so of the novel successfully convey his increasingly sickening feeling that his superiors are onto him. He sends Sarah and Sam to his mother’s house, telling her to tell some cock-and-bull story that they’ve had a big row – but in fact because he wants to face whatever happens next alone. After waiting a tense day in the empty house he is visited by Daintry, himself a disillusioned loner, who chats about Davis’s death and his marital problems. Castle unwisely assures him Davis was innocent. Of course, he could only be sure of this if he knew someone else was guilty, and only be 100% certain of it if the guilty man was himself. Daintry drives off, stops at a pub and phones in a report to Percival and C, saying he strongly suspects Castle is the leak. Muller has already driven out to Sir Hargreaves’ country pile to tell him the same thing, based on his meeting with Castle. Ports and airports are alerted with copies of Castle’s photo. The net is closing in.

Then, as he sits sweating and panicking in his house, one of Castle’s contacts unexpectedly knocks on the door – not at all the man he was expecting  – an English communist party member of long standing, who drives him to a hotel near Heathrow while they debate the rights and wrongs of Soviet communism a bit half-heartedly. Here Castle is to wait for the next link in the escape chain but, most unfortunately, bumps into an acquaintance from America who insists on making a date for a drink at the bar. Once safe in his hotel room Castle has barely settled before another stranger knocks, identifies himself as the next link in the escape route, trims Castle’s hair and eyebrows, applies a thin fake moustache and gives him a white cane and fake passport. Castle is to pretend to be blind and catch the next bus to the airport and the next flight to Paris. In the lobby the American he met earlier runs up to castle as he walks by, recognising Castle’s outline – but then thrown by the strange face and white stick… He stands staring as Castle enters the bus…Will he call the authorities…?

The narrative switches to Sarah’s point of view as she arrives and stays with Castle’s unfriendly mother, and the unfriendly days pass and Sam doesn’t like his new school and Sarah has no-one to talk to and the reader is wondering whether the Yank tipped off the authorities and Castle is being held and interrogated.

None of Greene’s novels really strike me as thrillers because a thriller must grip and thrill with the excitement of fast-moving action. I’m not sure any of Greene’s novels do that; what he excels at is creating an atmosphere of dreadful anxiety and unease, with a growing feeling of suicidal despair.

The reader’s anxiety is laid to rest when the narrative switches back to Castle in Moscow. He has escaped. He is safe. We see him being introduced to his ‘luxury’ flat by a grumpy KGB officer (jealous because it has furniture), and to other exile English spies, a uniformly sad bunch. But all Castle wants is for Sarah and Sam to be brought out to him, to be reunited with his only love.

But history never repeats itself; there is no Carson to arrange her escape as in South Africa. And Greene twists the knife deep into the heart because Sam, the beloved son who he unquestioningly adopted and raised as his own, turns out to be the stumbling block. Sam is too young to have been put on Sarah’s passport. She could be smuggled out somehow, but neither officially nor unofficially would she make it with a young boy in tow, too obvious.

And so the novel ends with a heart-breaking phone call when, after weeks of frustration, Castle finally gets through to his mother’s number, Sarah answers the phone and they have a page declaring their love for each other and stuttering over how and when they will ever see each other again. Then, receiver still in hand, she realises the line to Moscow has been cut. It isn’t stated explicitly, but the strong implication is that they will never be reunited. All his secret work and betrayal was motivated by the one desire to keep them together and it has, instead, forever torn them apart. I, for one, had tears streaming down my face.

Related links

Penguin paperback cover of The Human Factor, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Penguin paperback cover of The Human Factor, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Greene’s books

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

SS-GB by Len Deighton (1978)

A gripping, thrilling and powerful alternative history, depicting what happens to Britain when it is defeated by the Nazis – making a sort of trilogy with Kingsley Amis’s Russian Hide-And-Seek (1980) and Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992).

SS-GB

In this alternative universe, Hitler successfully carried out Operation Sealion, a sea-borne invasion of England, their unstoppable Army fighting its way up from Portsmouth, from points along the South Coast, up through Kent and Surrey into London and through to Essex, where last ditch defending allowed some of the forces to make an escape by sea. By February 1941 it is all over and Britain has capitulated: Churchill has been executed, King George VI is in the Tower, a puppet government has been installed and various elements of the government machine have been taken over by the relevant Nazi departments, the Wehrmacht, the SD, the SS, the Gestapo.

Now it is a cold foggy September and Deighton paints a persuasive picture of a run-down, rationed, dirty and dingy country, covered in unrepaired ruins, reminders of the devastating battle which the English, eventually, lost.

Archer of the Yard

Against this setting Inspector Douglas Archer of Scotland Yard (now answerable to the cunning affable Gruppenführer Fritz Kellerman of the SS) is assigned a new murder case, a young man shot dead in an antiques shop in Shepherd’s Market, Mayfair. He has made the preliminary steps when he’s surprised to learn that an abrupt, no-nonsense SS officer, Standartenführer Huth, arrives from Berlin with orders from the great Himmler himself to personally supervise the investigation. Huth and Kellerman are quickly revealed as enemies at daggers drawn as Archer finds himself drawn into a high-level, fast-moving, cunningly plotted and conceived battle of wits.

The plot has all the twists and turns of Deighton’s classic early Harry Palmer novels, now told in a much clearer, no-nonsense prose. Key developments include:

  • Archer realising there are various fishy aspects to the Shepherd Market murder. He discovers the antique dealer was not Peter Thomas, as claimed by neighbours and his card, but some kind of scientist, probably named Spode, and that the place is a rendezvous for the British Resistance.
  • At a classy party of arriviste spivs and salesmen, Archer meets four senior members of the Resistance and learns their plan is to release the King from the Tower of London and smuggle him somewhere where he can validate the Free Government represented by General Connolly (a General de Gaulle figure) who is struggling to gain recognition in Washington. Big stakes. Enormous stakes.
  • At this swanky party he also meets (for the second time) American war correspondent Barbara Barga, ‘the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen’ who, in a James Bondish scene, he dances with and she immediately wants to go to bed with him; which they do, later that night, at her flat. From that point on they are an item in a very dangerous town, full of factions all plotting against each other. In fact, despite falling love with her Archer finds himself asking, Whose side is she on? The Resistance, it seems, at some points; or is she an agent for the American government…?
  • Soon afterwards Archer finds weird astrological diagrams in Huth’s papers which he is then explicitly told refer to experiments with radiation and an atomic bomb. The British had been conducting research into such a bomb but SS Reichsführer Himmler will only take the idea seriously if it is wrapped up in the black magic, astrological voodoo which he is partial to. As the tortuous plot proceeds Archer learns of the intimate link between the atomic secrets and the King’s release: Resistance leader (and pillar of posh society) Colonel Mayhew is promising the Wehrmacht the former, if they can arrange the latter…
  • Late one night Huth takes Archer on a madcap motorbike-&-sidecar ride to his ruined house in Cheam, where the fighting on the approach to London was fiercest and where nearly everything was destroyed. Here Huth shows him, tied to the wrecked double bed in his former bedroom, the tortured carcass of the young detective Archer had tasked with finding out more about the Spode brothers and a certain Professor Frick. This is to show Archer that the Resistance means business, and that they are after Archer himself for being a collaborationist.
  • This is confirmed later that day when someone follows Archer through the foggy streets of London – at first he thinks it’s a shadow set by Huth – but who then tries to assassinate him by stabbing him on the escalator of the Piccadilly Circus tube, the longest on the system. In a grim struggle among screaming commuters, Archer is cut with the knife before kicking and punching the assassin who tumbles the full length of the escalator crushing his skull.

That takes us to about half way through this elaborate and action-packed novel. There are many more twists and turns before its bitter and disillusioned climax.

Backdrops

Many thrillers feature a backdrop of events which build to a symbolic climax. Here, not dominating but trucking along in the background, is the preparations being made across London for a week-long pageant celebrating Nazi-Soviet Friendship, a major highlight of which is the digging up of Karl Marx’s coffin from his grave in Highgate Cemetery. Dignitaries fly in from both dictatorships, von Ribbentrop for the Nazis, Molotov representing the Soviets. With a certain inevitability the carefully stage managed event turns into a slaughterhouse when a massive bomb explodes, killing many of the dignitaries and sparking a massive crackdown by the Army, in which Archer’s deputy and former girlfriend are seized, and which significantly ratchets up the tension and the stakes everyone is playing for.

Nazi bureaucracy

Part of what makes the book feel so authentic is Deighton’s fluent display of his immense knowledge of German wartime organisation under the Nazis. Deighton had already displayed an awesome grasp of technical and administrative expertise in his 1970 documentary novel, Bomber. SS-GB comes between his historical factual books, Fighter (about the Battle of Britain) and Blitzkrieg (about the rise of Hitler up till Dunkirk). The breadth and depth of Deighton’s factual research shines from every page and underpins a novel which is, ultimately, about the labyrinthine and convoluted relations between the various warring factions with the Nazi state.

Thus Archer confirms to his Resistance contacts that the SS man Huth might actually want the King to be spirited out of the Tower as it, and he, are guarded by the Wehrmacht who would be plunged into such ignominy that his arch-enemy Kellerman would probably have to resign and the SS would step in to run things previously administered by the Army. Certainly, Huth has made clear that every detail of the investigation must be kept absolutely confidential and known only to himself and Himmler (!). But this doesn’t stop Archer reporting back key developments to Kellerman, keeping all his options open in case Huth somehow fails and falls. And all the time he is trying to puzzle out the true motives of the enigmatic Colonel Mayhew of the Resistance who seems to be playing all the sides off against each other…

Harry Palmer

In his astute manipulation of conflicting superiors, as well as his ongoing puzzlement about what’s really going on, as also in his dry wit and his shrewd assessment of men and situations – even when he repeatedly discovers he’s got it wrong – Archer reminds me very much of the unnamed narrator (‘Harry Palmer’ for movie purposes) of The Ipcress File. He’s cool company to keep. This is a great book.


Related links

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 that 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 unnamed 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 in the Battle of Britain.
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.
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 i.e. nine 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 this is designed to make Bernard defect East and was 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 (i.e. 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 Throwback by Tom Sharpe (1978)

The Throwback by Tom Sharpe (1978) continues his vein of aggressively crude and violent farce, often with hilarious results. As I read it I realised that, if the plots are designed to be convoluted and contrived and the characters grotesque and improbably naive or fiendish or weird, in order to bring about ludicrous scenes and situations, then it makes sense that the language used is similarly crude and extreme. The characters certainly f and blind with ease.

Plot Old Flawse, 90-year-old owner of Flawse Hall in bleakest Northumberland, had a daughter who died giving birth to a bastard son during a hunt. The son is named Lockhart. Old Flawse hands the boy over to the gamekeeper Mr Dodd to be brought up in Puritan cleanliness of body and mind, dedicated to hunting on the moors. His doctor says he’s looking a bit peaky, so they both go on a cruise where they encounter calculating divorcée, Mrs Sandicott, whose husband has died leaving her with a dozen properties in Surrey, and a naive but stunning daughter, Jessica. The fortune-seeking Mrs Sandicott marries the old man, Lockhart marries Jessica, the old people maliciously calculating against each other, the young people ruinously naive about the realities of sex.

Back in Flawse Hall Old Flawse imposes a byzantine will on Mrs Sandicott by which she will inherit the hall but only on condition she never leave the house, never updates its ramshackle amenities etc. Though all these stipulations fall if young Lockhart can find his unknown father – and then thrash him within an inch of his life – whereupon he will inherit.

Meanwhile, young Lockhart moves in with his wife in Sandicott Close, East Pursley, Surrey and finds it very different from the wilds of Northumbria. He would very much like the money from selling the properties but finds himself constricted by modern tenancy agreements which mean the tenants of the 12 houses Jessica owns can’t be evicted. Ah, but they can be terrorised out of their properties – and this the bold huntsman proceeds to do, through a succession of evermore bizarre, violent, inflammatory and explosive techniques.

This goes on for some time, is very elaborate and very funny. Lockhart posts the two little old ladies in number 7 a variety of sex toys and a gigantic vibrating penis with realistic testicles, which they are unwrapping and wondering how to operate just as the vicar’s wife makes an impromptu visit and faints clear away, to come around to find herself on the kitchen table, being given the kiss of life by one old lady while the other approaches sinisterly with the gigantic penis – at which she leaps up and runs out of the house screaming: that gives a good flavour of the scenes. Another brilliant sequence is when Lockhart gives the retired Colonel’s bull-terrier LSD and it starts hallucinating prehistoric monsters everywhere, running round howling biting fences and telegraph poles and cars and policemen and fire engines before running off into the nearby bird sanctuary to cause untold mayhem…

Daily Mail Old Flawse and young Lockhart share a dislike of officialdom and, in particular, the Taxman and the VAT man. One of the latter is mercilessly hounded and hospitalised (as he approaches Flawse Hall Dodd opens the sluices of the nearby reservoir which washes him, and his car, miles along the Fell.) The accumulated gripes about the government, the taxman, the  corrupt ineffectiveness of bureaucracy, the collapse of our manufacturing economy, the collapse of the currency, the balance of payments deficit blah blah blah, begin to have the affect of being stuck at the bar with a drunk, middle-aged Daily Mail reader determined to go through his list of everything which is wrong with this blasted country, what.

Longeurs The book is funny – outrageously, savagely, brutally, funny – but ultimately rather wearing. (There’s a lot less violence in the Anglo-Saxon poetry I’ve been reading recently.) Like a lot of Sharpe’s books, you’re quite exhausted by page 180, but it goes on to start up a whole new series of outrages, in this case, the approach of the VAT men to Flawse Hall which is interrupted because Lockhart has buried loads of loudspeakers across the moor, and made recordings of the nearby Army training exercises complete with shellfire and machine guns – which recordings he suddenly turns on at full blast leading the terrified men to think they’re in the middle of the Battle of the Somme, some falling to the ground and covering their ears, some jumping into the reservoir to escape the banshee wailing, some running away screaming.

Practical jokes Farce as a genre is the Practical Joke transferred to the stage or page, crude physical humour designed to prompt explosive laughter. Pure farce is a narrative or text whose only concern is to hurry you on to the next practical joke, the next outrageous physical debacle.

Pan paperback cover of The Throwback with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of The Throwback with 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. You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

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.

Jake’s Thing by Kingsley Amis (1978)

The thing about you and your wife making love was that it made things all right, not often forever but always for a long time and always for longer than the actual love-making. In that it was unique; adultery could make life more interesting but it couldn’t make things all right in a month of Sundays. And as for booze you must be joking – as well expect a fairly humane beating-up to do the job. (p.180)

Jake Richardson is 59, a grumpy Oxford don who lives in London outside the short Oxford terms, with his ‘fat’ wife Brenda. It is a narrow, comfy, settled-down kind of life, trips to the supermarket, to the off-licence, dinner in front of the TV, never any entertaining, rarely going out to parties, never to the cinema or theatre. However, the novel opens with Jake seeing his GP because something’s wrong: he has of late lost all interest in sex, he knows not why, it has just evaporated – disconcerting for a man who’s had several marriages and countless affairs, a man hitherto obsessed with girls and sex. What’s his problem?

Answering that question sparks the quest which underpins this relatively long novel (280 pages) and whose main purpose, on the face of it, is to take us into the world of 1970s sexology for primarily comic purposes. Jake is passed from his GP to a sex psychologist (Dr Rosenberg) who prescribes various ‘wacky’ activities, like non-sexual stroking and companioning sessions (‘non-genital sensate focusing’) with his wife, to a hilarious scene where he is fitted up with a device to his penis in front of a number of medical students and shown various pornographic photos and texts to measure his (negligible) arousal, through to an encounter group (run by long-haired ‘Ed’) where he and Brenda are meant to share their problems with a selection of complete, and predictably off-the-wall, strangers.

Plot

A lot of the plot is taken up with Jake grumpily going about his usual tasks and responsibilities, punctuated by the escalating sex therapy ie trips to the psychologist, the humiliating trip to the lecture theatre, the first encounter group and so on. But three sub-plots emerge which flavour the narrative:

One Eve is the college secretary. He had a fling with her a decade ago (as did many men) but she’s been happily married for ages and is now very respectable. A casual, everyday hello leads to her spotting Jake is not, in fact, OK and this leads Jake to half-heartedly invite her out to dinner, where she makes her position as a married woman plain, he says of course we’re just old friends chatting and then, at the start of the next chapter, there is a long, comically inevitable and bitterly funny description of his shattering hangover and his slow realisation that he’s in an unknown bed, his head on an unknown pillow and he stretches his hand out to encounter – an unknown buttock. Yes, he got so drunk he ended up pleading to sleep with Eve but, once the deed was done, in true male chauvinist pig style, turned over and started snoring. The next morning Eve lets him have both barrels of her contempt and he crawls away feeling like a worm (although, in a not very funny follow-up chapter, we see him retelling the whole story to a gay don, maliciously exaggerating Eve’s awfulness and, more germane to the novel’s theme, wondering what’s gone wrong with his radar, with his normal sense of decorum, with his life?).

Two One of the more florid members of the encounter group, Kelly, follows him and Brenda home after the first session, invites herself in, and recounts a cock-and-bull story about trying to incriminate Ed, the encounter group facilitator – though when pressed on details she backs down and Brenda eventually persuades her to leave. Clearly deranged. Weeks later she turns up uninvited in Jake’s rooms in Oxford and makes a pass at him, which he vigorously rejects, whereupon she hurls an impressive array of modern abuse at him before collapsing in tears etc. Deranged and dangerous.

Later still it is through her that Jake learns that the encounter groups, which Brenda has continued going to, are building up to an encounter weekend. Mildly disquieted that Brenda hadn’t told him about it, Jake finds himself asking the shrink to be re-included in the group and invited to the weekend.

Barely have they arrived at the hotel-cum-conference centre than Kelly corners Jame again, making him promise to come up to her room soon after midnight. Jake wisely tells all this to Brenda who wisely advises him not to go – and so he doesn’t. Which is regrettable because in the early hours Kelly is discovered having taken an overdose and scribbled a suicide note; presumably she intended Jake to find her soon after she’d swallowed the pills and so his decision not to go put her life in real jeopardy.

a) This suicide bid ie real psychological pain, has a damping effect on the comic tone (as it does in Malcolm Bradbury’s classic of just a few years earlier, The History Man). Even before this development, Jake (and Amis) had found themselves noting the depth of Kelly’s misery with unsettling acuity. When Kelly bursts into tears after he’s rejected her,

Jake had come across lachrymose females before too, but never one who gave such a sense of intolerable pressure within, as if what was being wept over was growing faster than it could be wept away. (p.216)

Real misery is often uncomfortably close in Amis, despite the comic ranting, the bleakness of the human condition emerging into the light of day in novels like Girl, 20 and Ending Up. Being forced to see view world from this perspective forces the fully adult reader of this novel to see Jake as the spoilt, overgrown schoolboy he actually is; it is the triumph of Amis’s style and its vigorous, insulting humour to conceal this obvious conclusion for such long stretches of the novel.

b) Kelly’s suicide attempt prompts the climax of the main thread of the novel, because Jake is genuinely outraged at the matter-of-fact way his psychologist and the group facilitator blandly discuss the Kelly situation as just one more piece of interesting case study, even as she’s being rushed off to hospital in an ambulance. So he has a king-size go at both of them, a set-piece speech criticising their supposed ‘method’, the main thrust of which is his attack on the basic premise of therapy, that dragging everything out into the light of day will make it better when, he asserts, more often than not it does the opposite. He cancels all his sex therapy and storms out.

[In its way this big anti-therapy speech struck me as being as incoherent and unimpressive as the other set-piece scene, Jake’s ‘playing devil’s advocate’ speech in front of the college Governing Body. That scene is complicated because Jake starts out arguing (against his own beliefs) in favour of admitting women, but then finds himself being goaded by a few donnish questioners into eventually dropping his allotted role and delivering a fiery diatribe against women and against admitting them to male colleges. Jake’s rant boils down to saying, ‘Do you really want loads of nattering gossiping chattering women everywhere who will destroy the cosy, all-male cameraderie we all enjoy’? Hardly earth-shattering arguments and not a very persuasive performance and not particularly funny. For a woman reader, inoculated against its immature boyish humour, probably very offensive. The same happens here in the anti-therapy speech. Is this the best Amis can do, is this the strongest case he can make against the 1970s fashion for therapy? Jake is meant to be a clever academic, and Amis was a very clever man, but his attempts at consecutive argument are generally dire. He is always better, much more persuasive, powerful and funny, at his true métier, comic abuse.]

Three There is a very effective dramatic moment early in the novel when, after his and Brenda’s first joint meeting with Dr Rosenberg, Jakes continues about his day doing odds and ends and then goes to bed and various stuff goes through his mind and then, only as he is dropping off to sleep, has he got nothing left to keep him from facing the Big Revelation of the day: that after he had had his say to the therapist about not fancying women any more, Brenda had flabbergasted him by delivering a coherent and deeply-felt, fifteen-minute-long monologue about how he didn’t care for her any more, never showed any affection or interest in her doings, how any shared interests they had had evaporated, how their marriage had become an empty shell. The way this thought, and the anxiety it causes him, is held back and revealed only late in bed as something Jake has been repressing from himself all day, is very effective. But in terms of plot or theme it introduces the idea that it’s not just Jake who’s unhappy.

Therefore, when Jake drops out of the weekly encounter sessions after just one visit but his wife continues going, I thought, hello: suspicious. Other things happen (the fling with Eve, the don’s meeting and suchlike) but when, a lot later, Kelly tells Jake about the long weekend encounter meeting at a retreat in Gloucestershire and Jake realises Brenda hadn’t told him, aha, my suspicions revived. And although Brenda acquiesces in Jake’s decision to go along (once he’s learned about it) and although, once they’re there together, she sticks by him pretty firmly after Kelly’s suicide bid and even after the earlier stuff about Kelly trying to seduce him in Oxford (which Jake hadn’t told her about) comes out — well, even so, I wasn’t at all surprised when, once they are back in London, recovering after this traumatic weekend, Brenda simply announces she’s leaving him.

That she’s doing so to move in with the gimpy husband (Geoffrey) of her unbearable best friend (Alcestis) is a surprise and a kick in the teeth for Jake, but his emotional response is very underplayed: he is mostly concerned about who will do the housework and prepare the meals. Maybe he is the unfeeling, self-centred, male chauvinist pig everyone says he is. Oh well. So be it.

What was before him left him cold, and he didn’t mind. (p.33)

The novel ends with Brenda moved out, the awful friend coming round to offer to do their shopping together but – fortunately – nothing more, no hint of a pass or them shacking up, and Jake settling in quite well to living on his own and eating heated up dinners in front of the telly.

Attitude

So much for the plot which boils down to clever elaborations or examples of two related themes – male impotence and the battle of the sexes. Or the awfulness of middle-aged men…

But the engine of the book, the reason for reading it and the main source of enjoyment, is less the ostensible ‘plot’ but Jake’s Amis-like disdain, contempt and exasperation at almost every aspect of modern life and every other living soul, a rage expressed at numerous levels of the text, from long set-piece scenes designed to highlight the rubbishness of today’s youth or whatever, to conversations discussing the multitudinous forms of modern crapness or themselves demonstrating the inability of anyone to understand anyone else, down to casually satirical or dismissive turns of phrase – this attitude saturates the book on every page and is often very, very funny.

The fundamental comic trope is the howling disjunction between Jake’s well-educated mind, manner, clothes and pukka tone of voice — and the roaring, raging, spitting fury at the shabbiness of the modern world and the vast stupidity of everyone else which seethes inside his skull, constantly expressed in fantasies of Neanderthal violence:

To distract himself from restraining himself from kicking Geoffrey in the balls Jake said, ‘What’s whatsisname like, Ed, the fellow who runs these do’s?’ (p.158)

It was all that training with Miss Calvert and some of his other pupils, all that not going for them with the sitting-room poker at each new display of serene apathy, which restrained him now, he would have alleged, from jumping feet first at Ed’s face. (p.166)

It is exaggerated for comic effect but it makes it even funnier to think that Amis the author means it too, that such appalling curmudgeonliness and omni-directional enfuriated exasperation once walked the earth (as a glance at either his Letters or biography swiftly confirm).

Oxford

There is, of course, another big side or aspect to the novel: Oxford. Jake is an Oxford don and this entails scenes set in Oxford: a total of one (I think) actual tutorial, a lot of tasty lunches and dinners, high-falutin conversations with other dons etc. But the Oxford sections are, on the whole, weak and boring. Unless you are going to make them grotesques from the start (as Tom Sharpe does, in Porterhouse Blue his satire on Cambridge), then you have to spend a bit of time, and take reasonably seriously, dons and their subjects and the bitching and back-biting over sherry in their rooms or over rack of lamb at high table, and so on and so on. And this has all been done before, a thousand times: Jake’s irritation at college life feels clichéd (after all his debut novel, Lucky Jim, is one of the original taking-the-mickey-out-of-higher-education novels). It lacks the wild energy of, say, the opening scenes of Evelyn Waugh’s classic Decline and Fall and certainly lacks the originality and bite of his virulently expressed dislike of other aspects of modern life. The energy level drops in these scenes.

They are given coherence of a sort by making them address one of the ‘issues of the day’, the aggressive campaigning by young women to be admitted to all the (then) male-only colleges. This results in a string of would-be hilarious scenes based on this theme: for example, on his arrival back at Oxford for the new term, Jake has to run a gauntlet of bra-less feminists blockading the entrance to his (fictional) college, Comyns, who rub their breasts against him and tweak his pecker through his trousers. And, as mentioned, he then gets lumbered with representing the womens-admissionist point of view in the debate the dons stage. And the one tutorial we witness is him trying not to slap a slack, lazy, dim woman student of his. Interspersed are scenes of him discussing these incidents or others like them in rooms or over dinner with the other dons, which are a festival of sexist comments about women this or women that, the casual misogyny and sexism of male academics talking safely among themselves. Which we know were pretty similar to Amis’s own attitudes, the ones he exaggerated more and more coarsely as he grew older.

But, no matter how offensive, most of the Oxford scenes felt slack and half-hearted. For example, his college has a porter, Ernie, who talks with a funny west country accent and always manages to block the narrow gateway into the college whenever he’s in a hurry to get in or out. The accent is quite funny, funny voices having been an Amis speciality right from the start of his writing career, but the idea itself somehow doesn’t get traction.

Not only are the silly traditions of Oxford colleges remote from most people’s experiences, but the entire women’s-lib-era issue of whether to admit women to the male colleges is a fight which is of purely historic interest now, which seems immeasurably distant, like the suffragettes. This also dims its relevance for a contemporary reader.

Anger and energy

What the Oxford sections for the most part lack is the comic edge provided by the real anger Amis generates about his other targets: like young people, juke boxes in pubs, ‘convenience’ food, jet airplanes, the modern design of anything, modern architecture, modern trains, buses, bus conductors, shop assistants, children, trendy psychologists and so on. And on.

All the dishes were firmly in the English tradition: packet soup with added flour, roast chicken so overcooked that each chunk immediately absorbed every drop of saliva in your mouth, though the waterlogged Brussels sprouts helped out a bit there, soggy tinned gooseberry flan and coffee tasting of old coffee pots. (p.246)

In the pub, Jake pulls over a stool,

finding that its top was covered with the same stuff as the bench. Apart from being so covered it was too convex to suit a normal bum like his, pleasing as that convexity might well have been to the trend-blurred eye of whatever youthful fart had designed it. (p.91)

Not to say that some of the Oxford moments aren’t very funny. Before the Governing Body of his college gets round to debating the admission of women, they deal with other relatively insignificant issues, including the purchase of a new set of chairs for the library, an example being brought in and all the dons liking it, until they are told the cost – £125 per chair!

… and all over the room there were wincing noises, rather like but in sum louder than those made by Brenda on getting into a cold bed. For a chair! they all kept saying – for a chair? Not quite all. Of course it seems a lot, said Jake to himself, but haven’t you noticed that everything seems a lot these days, you fucking old fools? (p.205)

(The swearing, the intemperate use of language, is intrinsic to the comic effect, and it is noticeable that Amis uses the f word a lot in this book.) You almost wonder whether Amis had compiled a list of targets and was working his way through it with the aim of insulting just about every category of person and object in existence. Grumpy old man doesn’t begin to capture it.

Funny how everything horrible or foolish was worse if it was also American. Modern architecture – modern American architecture. Woman who never stops talking – American ditto. Zany comedian. Convert to Buddhism… (p.154)

Conclusion

Outrageously (ie rudely, abusively) funny for the first 100 pages, the novel loses energy in the Oxford scenes which appear in the middle, and then the group therapy weekend – which I was hoping would provide a farcical apogee – is instead a depressing anti-climax, Kelly’s suicide attempt too close to the bone and Jake’s ‘sod psychotherapy’ speech not as coruscating or persuasive as it should have been. Plus the fairly intense misogynistic sentiments expressed throughout the text might well put off a lot of women readers or reasonably-minded readers of any gender.

That said, it still contains hundreds of burningly funny, violently contemptuous, frustrated, angrily witty and humorous scenes, asides, turns of phrase or moments of dialogue which are hugely enjoyable. And the best joke is saved for the very last line of the novel, which wonderfully sums up Jake’s situation, his attitude, his plight, and his bloody-mindedness. You’ll have to read it to find out why.

The title

The apparently throwaway title, Jake’s Thing, has at least four meanings that I can think of:

  • the overt subject, his medical issue, his impotence
  • a slang expression for his penis
  • in the argot of 1970s therapy lingo, his thing, man, his (generally very negative) attitude
  • and his ‘issues’ with women i.e. his deep-seated misogyny

Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

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

Flyaway by Desmond Bagley (1978)

I awoke in daylight to find a man looking down at me. He was dark-skinned and wore nothing but a loincloth and, in his right hand, he carried a spear. Behind him was a herd of cattle, healthy-looking beasts with piebald hides and wide-spreading horns. And beyond them was a group of hunters carrying bows, some with arrows nocked to the string. I blinked in surprise and sat up and stared. The man was nothing but paint on the wall of the cave, and so were the cattle and the hunters. (p.196)

Max Stafford is head of a medium size security firm which specialises in helping commercial companies prevent industrial espionage. A sequence of incidents occur which turn his life upside down.

First, a non-descript clerk, Paul Billson, who works at one of the firms he provides security for, is reported missing; after a bit of digging Stafford discovers this ‘clerk’ was earning much more than officially recorded, but for some reason this was kept a nervous secret by his bosses. Not only that, but the clerk is the son of a famous ‘flyer’ from the 1930s, the breed that set the earliest records for flying across the Atlantic, across America etc. Seems Paul’s father – Peter Billson, known by his nickname of ‘Flyaway’ Billson, who named his planes ‘Flyaway’ – took part in a newspaper-sponsored air race from Europe to South Africa in 1936, but went missing over the Sahara. Now, 40 years later, a scurrilous newspaper article has dug up this dusty old story and accuses the long-dead Peter Billson of faking the crash and conspiring with his long-dead wife to claim the hefty insurance payout.

When Stafford goes to meet Billson’s half-sister, the slight, dark Alix Aarvik, Stafford learns that the article tipped his son, Paul, who has harboured a life-long obsession with his vanished father, over the edge: Paul cashed in his life’s savings, went to London where he threatened the journalist who wrote the article, before buying a Land Rover and assorted supplies and flying to Algiers.

Now a) after making enquiries about Billson at the newspaper office where he made his threats, Stafford is surprised to be halted in the street and soundly beaten up by three professional thugs. He is laid up in hospital for a few weeks (then again, he’s ex-Army and works in security, so he’s not as freaked out as you or I would be). b) His business partners visit and point out he hasn’t had a holiday in four years; maybe he should use this enforced interruption to delegate his workload to a new up-and-coming partner and go for a long recuperation in the sun. c) It just so happens that Stafford’s marriage is falling apart and when he comes home early from the hospital he finds another man in his wife’s bed.

Thus events conpsire to make him think: what the hell? might as well go on a wild goose chase to Africa to find this strange man as do anything else. Good practice to be out in the field again. Where’s my passport?

And so Stafford tells his directors what he’s up to, leaves contact details with his lawyer and Billson’s half-sister, and flies to Algiers.

Algeria and Innes

This fairly brief set-up has taken about 50 pages. The remaining 200 pages are all set in Algeria and south across the border into Niger and are significantly different to anything of Bagley’s I’ve read before.

This book is very like a Hammond Innes novel, in that it is really an extended travelogue in a remote and exotic location. On almost every page I was shadowed by memories of Innes’ long novel set in the Empty Quarter of Arabia, The Doomed Oasis, which also contains lengthy descriptions of the physical geography and of the strange elusive spirit of the desert.

The main difference is that this story doesn’t have one of the main characteristics of Innes’ fiction: As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Innes’ novels often have ‘overlays’ of coincidence: main characters are related, inherit antipathies or by coincidence end up in the same place or on the same quest: Innes novels are built up by placing layer upon layer of connection and coincidence between characters like a layer cake. The effect is initially far-fetched but, when it comes off, sometimes lends a kind of mythic or archetypal depth to the story.

Bagley’s stories are completely different. They are linear. There’s a mystery. Our guy sets off to solve it. In The Tightrope Men our guys have to extract secret weapon technology which has been buried on Soviet soil: and they do. In The Enemy our guy has to find out why industrialist Ashton went on the run: and he does. In this one, our guy has to find out why so many people are concerned about a plane which crashed in the desert 40 years ago: and he does. Despite everything the bad guys throw at him.

‘You wouldn’t take the warning back in London. You had to play the thick-headed hero and meddle in things that don’t concern you.’ (p.216)

The plot

The next step in the ‘plot’ is that, soon after Stafford arrives in Algiers, Peter Billson’s former lover, Hesther Raulier (17 back in 1936) and still living there, contacts him for an interview (ie to give us important parts of the back story). She describes the kind of man Peter was, how unlikely it is he would pull a con, and recommends he contact an American named Luke Byrne in his next scheduled stop, the southern town of Tamanrassett. Byrne has been living in the area since World War Two when the US bomber he was piloting crashed in the desert and he was the only survivor. At that moment he made the decision to desert from the armed forces and has lived thereabouts ever since, making a living as a camel breeder and from the salt trade.

From the moment Stafford meets him, the novel is really Byrne’s. He knows the varied (and awe-inspiring) terrain like the back of his hand, he knows the numerous different tribes and peoples of the desert, he speaks their various tongues, he has all the kit needed to survive, from Land Cruisers to camels, and he knows how to survive sandstorms, armed attack, how to bypass police checkpoints, how to shimmy the bureaucracy in the towns: he is Desert Superman, and Stafford becomes his adoring puppy, following him everywhere and learning gobbets of Bagley-style potted information on every page. As does the reader.

Briefly: after Byrne agrees to help Stafford, they do much searching of the desert and find Paul Billson, in a remote gully, shot and left for dead. They patch him up, get him basic medical aid, then after a lot of driving round, making excuses to the police, escaping out of town, heading south, breaking down, camping under the stars, reaching another town and realising they’re being followed etc we learn a bit more.

We learn that a Brit called Lash has put a contract out to have Billson killed and it is being carried out by a sinister Brit named Kissack who, however, is screwing it up. Stafford gets to hear these two arguing among themselves, Lash obviously the brains and very irritated with Kissack’s incompetence. Meanwhile, Byrne distributes a leaflet to the desert Arabs promising ten camels reward to anyone who can give information about the missing plane.

Throughout the text our heroes (Stafford, Byrne, the patched-up Paul and a couple of Tuareg helpers) are continually on the move and the text is studded with references to new locations, gravel plains, rocky peaks, classic sand dunes, with plenty of background information from Byrne, acting as guide, about how these geographic features were formed, about the language and customs of the local peoples, about food and water and survival. For long stretches it comes very close to reading a jaunty, slangy guidebook.

Finally, our guys are tipped off by a desert Arab about a likely sounding plane wreck up north and the narrative settles into a journey from Bilma, past Seguedine (in Niger) back up into Algeria, to Djanet and up onto the Tassli Plateau, a vast plateua criss-crossed by pre-historic watercourses and home – in its many caves – to thousands of stunning pre-historic paintings and carvings.

Here our heroes finally find the wretched plane, Flyaway, which this long and long-winded quest has been about. For the record, it is a Northrop ‘Gamma’ 2-D. They confirm that Peter Billson did crash in the desert and it wasn’t an insurance scam, probably because someone sabotaged the compass in the Algiers stopover. Then they find what’s left of Billson senior’s body in a cave, along with the harrowing diary of his slow death from starvation and dehydration.

The climax

They build a cairn over his body and leave a rough plaque, then begin to ride away. At the last minute (and contrived entirely for plot purposes) Paul Billson wants to go back and take a few last photos. Moments after he’s departed, Byrne and Stafford are ambushed by the baddies: Lash the boss, Kissack the hired killer, and a couple of Arab thugs. There follows a standard series of tropes: our boys are securely tied up; every time they wriggle the knots only get tighter; but Stafford has some old pre-historic ax heads he’d found, in his pocket; they wriggle back-to-back and start to undo each other’s ropes; meanwhile, the four baddies load the plane with petrol and set it on fire, so that it blows up; they question Byrne, he refuses to answer, psycho Kissack kicks him in the ribs, head man Lash says, ‘I detest violence’ — thriller clichés going back to Dashiel Hammett and beyond.

All the time I’d been wondering where Billson was and why the narrator made him wander off just moments before the ambush – when suddenly there’s a shot and Kissack’s head explodes. Ah. Billson has returned with the rifle. Stafford makes a dive at Lash’s legs and knocks him sideways long enough for Byrne to throw off his mostly-cut-through rope shackles, to grab the dead Kissack’s gun and to shoot Lash, and also one of the hired Arabs who’s going for his gun. It’s all over in seconds. The other Arabs flee and our boys are free, albeit Stafford has collected a bullet in the shoulder. Byrne, the all-purpose action man, sets the wound, they tidy up the scene of the crime, dispose of the bodies at some distance from the still-burning plane, mount the baddies’ camels, and set off plodding back to ‘civilisation’.

Why

So what the hell was so important about this damn plane in a desert, lost on a long-forgotten damn fool publicity air race? I was thinking smuggled diamonds, Nazi gold, any of the standard McGuffins which drive this type of book…? But no… Shall I tell you? Oh alright, then. When he gets back to London, Stafford does some undercover investigating. And when he has all the evidence, photocopied and secure with his lawyer, he confronts the Chief Baddie, Lord Brinton and tells him this story:

  • John Anderson, born Canada 1898. Comes to England, trains to be an engineer. Specialises in planes. Is engineer to Peter Billson in the famous 1936 air race. In Algiers tampers with Billson’s compass and puts sugar in the fuel tank. Billson disappears; his widow gets the £100,000 insurance payout. Anderson seduces Billson’s not-very-bright widow. Marries her in 1937, uses the £100,000 to set up his own plane construction company. Second World War, he makes a fortune, then, during the property boom of the 1950s, diversifies into property, becoming a multi-millionaire. Eventually created Lord Brinton, captain of industry, having long ago ditched Billson’s widow. She, dumped and poor, takes up with another man and has a daughter (Billson’s half-sister, Alix). Brinton discovers this and points out that, as they never formally divorced, Alix is illegitimate, and uses this threat to blackmail Peter’s widow and buy her silence for the rest of her miserable, impoverished life. It is Brinton who got Billson’s stupid son, Paul, a job at his friend, Lord McGovern’s firm, the latter acquiescing in Paul being paid more than he merited. It is Brinton who got Paul’s half-sister, Alix, a job as secretary at the same firm – the idea being they would both have nice stable jobs and never be tempted to find the truth about their father.
  • But Billson junior turns out to have been a man obsessed by his father. The random appearance of an article libelling him is all it takes to make Paul Billson pack in his job and go off on a mad quest into the desert to vindicate him. Lord Brinton can’t afford to have evidence which might incriminate him ie the crashed plane with its broken compass and petrol tank full of sugar, brought to light: so he hires Lash to cover it up, who hires Kissack to kill Paul Billson. First they beat up Stafford in London, as a warning. Then they track down and shoot Billson in the desert, but fail to finish him off. Then they follow and chase Stafford and Byrne at various points in the narrative which we’ve just read, finally cornering them by the plane – with the results described above.
  • Now, back in London, Stafford discovers that, when he left the country, his disgruntled wife sold Brinton her shares in Stafford Security. Brinton has also found out Stafford’s business partner has (the classic) personal debts and so is able to pressurise him into joining his cause; altogether they have a controlling interest in Stafford’s company and are planning to carry out far more aggressive investigations and security penetrations, generally destroying the tone and aim of the company Stafford set up. Max isn’t happy.
  • But now Stafford has photographic, documentary and eyewitness proof to verify the account given above – that Brinton’s fortune is based on murder, fraud and blackmail. Does Brinton want to go to prison for murder? At his time of life? Or will he accede to Stafford’s demands, being:
    • one and a half million pounds to go to a Peter Billson memorial trust which Stafford will administer for Paul and Alix
    • 17.5% or £262,500 for Stafford
    • Brinton to sell his shares in Max’s company back to him
  • Then Stafford will buy out his partner – the one who was betraying him to cosy up to Brinton – he’ll promote the up-and-coming man who ran things while he was away, and he will retake control of the company he loves.

Conclusion

It was a long, rather directionless haul in the middle – and the ‘secret’ driving the narrative always felt like it might be underwhelming, as – I think – it does turn out to be. But the sheer length of time and imagination we’ve spent in the desert with Byrne have changed us, the reader, as well as the characters. In the final paragraphs, having achieved everything he set out to do, Stafford stands in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and has an epiphany.

At the thought of Byrne I stopped suddenly and looked about me. I was in Piccadilly, at the Circus, and the lights and crowds were all around me in the evening dusk. And it all seemed unreal. This, the heart of the city at the heart of the world, wasn’t reality. Reality lay in Atakor, in Koudia, in the Aïr, in the Ténéré, on the Tassili.

I felt an awful sense of loss. I wanted to be with Byrne and Mokhtar and Hamiada… I wanted to say hello again to the giraffe in Agadez, to sit beside a small fire at an evening camp and look at the stars, to feel again the freedom of a Targui. (p.251)

Like so many Englishmen before him, Stafford has caught the desert bug, and so he decides to return give Byrne his fee in person. Although it’s only a half page of text, this moment of longing – not the rather sordid and accountant-dry dealings with Brinton which immediately precede it – feels like the true climax of the novel, a moment of deep emotional release after 250 pages of build-up, in a way the one genuine emotion in the whole book.

Related links

1978 Fontana paperback edition of Flyaway

1978 Fontana paperback edition of Flyaway

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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