The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: three quick shags then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but see them at three-week periods. (Putting it like this makes you realise how…. crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas meets Tereza who is a waitress in a restaurant in a provincial town he’s been sent to by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smell the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to be extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary extends over several sections and includes: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels more deep, more deeply felt, simply by virtue of the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters in a reasonably chronological narrative

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. She gets hit on by various customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (p.142)

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What is she as somehow filmed or recorded. And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom thy lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to posses the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight he realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so he tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while another decision (to be compliant at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do?

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial. In a great hurry Kundera progresses through the anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habit, then Kundera picks up this idea of shit and runs with it through references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, forcing a binary choice on us that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

He then hurries on to rope in sentimentality, defining it was the awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder some million people, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

He tries to redeem it by piling in ‘tragic’ material about  his characters, for example we learn about ‘Simon’, the son Tomas abandoned, who discovers his father is now working as a farm labourer as he, Simon is, having left an academic career and married a devout wife and become a Christian. He and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, he hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind their deaths being reported at one remove, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown up body parts of a press photographer breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, a merely machines; compared with Nietzsche who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin), as well as more or less every event in the characters’ lives being packed with philosophising about human nature.

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all the lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas is forced to put him out of his misery.

This prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury him. is pretty nakedly designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sad reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then one day he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented sothe reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others. the sex or the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is acceptable behaviour and speech about women. It feels like the tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote seeming very dated.


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

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

She hooked thumbs in the belthoops of her leather jeans and rocked backward on the lacquered heels of her cherry red cowboy boots. The narrow toes were sheathed in bright Mexican silver. The lenses were empty quicksilver, regarding him with an insect calm.
‘You’re street samurai,’ he said. ‘How long you work for him?’
‘Couple of months.’
‘What about before that?’
‘For somebody else. Working girl, you know.’
He nodded.
‘Funny, Case.’
‘What’s funny?’
‘It’s like I know you. The profile he’s got. I know how you’re wired.’
‘You don’t know me, sister.’
‘You’re OK, Case. What got you, it’s called bad luck.’ (p.41)

Raymond Chandler for the computer games generation.

Gibson hit the ground running with the turbo-charged, street cool of this, his debut novel, Neuromancer, in 1984.

It’s set in a high-tech future after there’s been a war in which the American government sent naive soldiers over to be masacred by advanced Russian weapons systems. It lasted three weeks, apparently, with no damage in the USA, and – unlike most future novels – doesn’t seem to impact the story very much.

A pandemic has killed off all horses (p.112). A character refers to an ‘Act of ’53’ (p.92). Would that be 2053? Most of the story is set in ‘The Sprawl’, the nickname for the vast urban conurbation which extends from Boston to Atlanta. People can be cloned. Everything is digital, computerised. Some people have slots behind their ears which they can stick microchips into (referred to as ‘microsofts’).

And drugs are ubiquitous, not only speed and cocaine, but new families of chemically engineered mind-altering substances. More or less everyone takes them and many of the characters are addicts or dealers.

Case

The book opens with the central character, Case, (only his first name is used, coolly, until page 189, where the Turing Police inform us his full name is Henry Dorsett Case), aged 24, on the lam in Japan. In Tokyo, Chiba, Night City – to be precise, in the neighbourhood of Ninsei. It is here that the vibe and style of this fast-moving, high-tech futureworld is established.

It is nearly always night-time. Thoroughfares are packed with crowds and loud bars and food joints. Hustlers and fixers on every corner. Everyone’s foreign. Think Blade Runner without the rain. (Apparently, Gibson was a third the way through writing this book when Blade Runner was released – 1982 – and was horrified, thinking everyone would think he’d ripped off the movie’s night-time dystopian urban scenery and film noir tone.)

At 22 Case had been one of the greatest ‘cowboys’ in cyberspace, his mind plugged (or ‘jacked’) into the ‘consensual hallucination’ which was the matrix, via head electrodes (dermatrodes or ‘trodes’), and able to penetrate the digital security systems of banks and corporations. He stole, money and information, for his masters. Then one day made the basic mistake of keeping a little aside for himself. They found him and pumped his body full of a wartime Russian mycotoxin which burned out his neural synapses, made him useless. Now he’s hustling drugs, on the run from angry customers and vengeful suppliers, through the endless neon blare of Ninsei when his luck changes.

Molly

He meets Molly, a walking toolkit of advanced plastic surgery (her eyeglasses are lenses which feed directly into her brain; at the end of her fingers are retractable four-centimetre-long blades). After he’s overcome his drug-addled paranoia that she’s an assassin sent to kill him, Molly brings him to Armitage, some kind of ex-Special Forces hard guy who offers to pay for the world class surgery required to fix Case’s frazzled synapses providing… he pulls one Big Job for Armitage’s boss.

This set-up takes the first fifty pages of this 300-page book, in which a lot more happens, as we discover what The Job and who The Boss is. But it’s not the plot, it’s the totality of the vision which won Gibson the plaudits.

Lowlife, hi-tech

Not only has Gibson imagined a future in which people have all kinds of prosthetic extensions, a whole cast plug microchips into slots behind their ears, and he and other boy races can plug into the matrix and surf the wild west of cyberspace (the tech) – but this all happens in a densely-imagined hyper-urban environment of late-night bars, dirty alleyways awash with styrofoam trash, cheap hotels, goons, whores, drunks and stoners, dealers and fixers, drug lords and purveyors of black market tech (the film noir setting). Everyone is pulling their hat down over their eyes and smoking a cigarette. Dawn is always coming up after another long night taking drugs, having sex, drinking in lowlife bars or stealing things in the matrix.

The Sprawl’s geodesics were lightening into predawn grey as Case left the building. His limbs felt cold and disconnected. (p.88)

It is Raymond Chandler’s mean streets projected forward into a teched-up late 21st century, a “combination of lowlife and high tech” as Gibson himself put it in a preface written later.

Language

Vocabulary

This futureworld is made so real and insistent via the casual mention of hundreds of distinct new substances, gadgets, apparatus, drugs and technologies. Part of the book’s mystique is the way it’s continually describing or invoking entities which aren’t properly explained, keeping you guessing, off balance.

He turned on the tensor beside the Hosaka. The crisp circle of light fell on the Flatline’s construct. He slotted some ice, connected the construct, and jacked in. (p.99)

There’s no definition of what half these terms mean, you have to work it out from the context, be cool enough to go with the flow and not stop to ask uncool questions. Are you hip to the trip? Are you on the bus?

  • arcology – an ideal integrated city contained within a massive vertical structure, allowing maximum conservation of the surrounding environment.
  • BAMA – the Boston-Alanta Metropolian Axis
  • BAMA rapids – cops
  • Blue nine, an outlawed psychoactive agent
  • clones – exist: grown in vats
  • construct – appears to mean a human-seeming artificial intelligence existing only in cyberspace
  • cryogenics – exists; people frozen, thawed out when needed
  • dermadisks – patches like elastoplast which release whatever chemicals you intend, abbreviated to ‘derm’, as in ‘a sleep derm’
  • dermatrodes – what Case attached to his temples to access the matrix
  • fletcher – hand-held weapon that fires darts
  • go silicone – have a slot made in your head into which you can insert microsofts i.e. small chips which increase brain function
  • holograms – used in everything from adverts to the projection of professional fights
  • Hosaka – some kind of personal computer which can talk
  • HsG – a biochemical skeletal growth hormone
  • ice – slang for digital memory/records
  • jive – appears to refer to a street system of silent hand signals
  • joeboy – I think this means a kind of bodyguard or chaperone who watches the physical body of someone jacked into cyberspace and therefore completely vulnerable to real world threats or accidents
  • meat – the world of bodies and flesh, as opposed to the purely electrical-brain connected world of cyberspace
  • meat puppet – prostitute, courtesan, gigolo – sex worker
  • microsofts – small digital chips which people with slots behind their ears can slip in
  • Panther Moderns – a street gang Armitage recruits to help stage the attack on Sense/Net
  • puppet – sex worker
  • New Yen – appears to be the common currency of both Japan and the States
  • polycarbon
  • simstim – device or program by which you can go inside someone’s head and share their perceptions and sensations
  • Tacticals
  • temperfoam – what mattresses are made of
  • Yeheyuan – brand of cigarettes

Cyberspace and the matrix

Case puts on a sweatband which contains dermatrodes i.e. devices which pass electric signals direct into his brain, and ‘jacks in’ to cyberspace, the location of the ‘matrix’, the incomprehensibly large interlinking of all the world’s digital systems.

‘A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…’ (p.67)

Case chewed his lower lip and gazed out across the plateaus of the Eastern seaboard Fission Authority, into the infinite neuroelectric void of the matrix. (p.139)

Case pushed for the Swiss banking sector, feeling a wave of exhilaration as cyberspace shivered, blurred, gelled. (p.139)

So although Case is ‘jacked in’ to the matrix, he feels as if his mind and sensory systems are entirely ‘inside it’, he is still aware of his hands and fingers which, back out in the ‘real’ world, are punching buttons and keyboards on the console he uses, in order to ‘move’ around in cyberspace. In the manner of an advanced video game.

Case began to punch the deck, nervously, at random. The matrix blurred, resolved, and he saw the complex of pink spheres representing a sikkim steel combine. (p.159)

Jive talking

And above all, it’s the electric prose, spilling adrenaline-fuelled blazes of linguistic pyrotechnics across every page, which never lets up, never allows a normal thought or perception to pass by without injecting it with performance-enhancing phraseology, right from the (now famous) opening sentence:

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

There are hundreds of phrases like this.

The boy smiled and drew something from his sleeve. A razor, etched in red as a third [laser] beam blinked past them into the dark. Case saw the razor dipping for his throat like a dowser’s wand. (p.52)

Case remembered fighting on a rooftop at seventeen, silent combat in the rose glow of the dawn geodesics. (p.61)

The walls were coated with countless layers of white latex paint. Factory space. He knew this kind of room, this kind of building: the tenants would operate in the interzone where art wasn’t quite crime, crime not quite art. (p.58)

The landscape of the northern Sprawl woke confused memories for Case, dead grass tufting the cracks in a canted slab of freeway concrete. (p.106)

Lonny Zone stepped forward, tall and cadaverous, moving with the slow undersea grace of his addiction. (p.172)

‘Armitage gets orders. Like something tells him to go off to Chiba, pick up a pillhead who’s making one last wobble through the burnout belt, and trade a program for the operation that’s fix him. (p.66)

‘One last wobble through the burnout belt.’ What’s not to love?

Drug prose

A lot of it stems from, and describes, the alternative modes of perception sparked by drug use. Case is always looking for his next hit.

‘I’m a drug addict, Cath.’
‘What kind?’
‘Stimulants. Central nervous system stimulants. Extremely powerful central nervous system stimulants.’ (p.161)

The result is all kinds of drug-enhanced hyper-awareness.

He stared at the black rings of grounds in his empty cup. It was vibrating with the speed he’d taken. The brown laminate of the table top was dull with a patina of tiny scratches. With the dex mounting through his spine he saw the countless random impacts required to create a surface like that. (p.16)

I used to take a lot of speed, amphetamine sulphate. Snorted it. Gibson’s descriptions seem to me bang-on, describing the shakes and the way the world around you expands and shines.

The drug hit him like an express train, a white-hot column of light mounting his spine from the region of his prostate, illuminating the sutures of his skull with x-rays of short-circuited sexual energy. His teeth sang in their individual sockets like tuning forks, each one pitch-perfect and clear as ethanol. (p.184)

The whole book feels like it’s written in an accelerated, over-perceiving mode of consciousness.

And Ratz was there, and Linda Lee, Wage and Lonny Zone, a hundred faces from the neon forest, sailors and hustlers and whores, where the sky is poisoned silver, beyond chainlink and the prison of the skull. (p.43)

The matrix blurred and phased as the Flatline executed an intricate series of jumps with a speed and accuracy that made Case wince with envy. (p.199)

Even when our hopped-up hero is ‘relaxing’ at an off-world hotel, the prose is studded with references, names, logos, unnatural perceptions.

He sat on the balcony and watched a microlight with rainbow polymer wings as it soared up the curve of Freeside, its triangular shadow tracking across meadows and rooftops, until it vanished behind the band of the Lado-Acheson system. (p.160)

Plot summary

So Case is dodging vengeful drug gangs in Tokyo when Molly finds him and reports him to Armitage, who offers to pay for top dollar brain surgery to restore his fried neurons, if he helps out with a heist in cyberspace. When he comes to, after the surgery, Armitage tells him they have planted micro-sacs of toxins in his blood vessels which are slowly degrading. Only Armitage has the antidote. To ensure his full co-operation.

The implanted and degrading toxins is a plot device straight from the movie Escape From New York (and probably countless pulp novels before it).

They fly back to the Sprawl i.e. the vast solid metropolitan area stretching from Boston to Atlanta. Here they pull an elaborate heist, Molly breaking into the headquarters of media multinational Sense/Net by collaborating with mercenaries named the Panther Moderns, who fake a terrorist attack on the building while Case is in cyberspace disabling the corporation’s cyberdefences. The aim is to steal the ROM containing the aritifical intelligence based on legendary cyber-cowboy McCoy Pauley, nicknamed ‘Dixie Flatline’ or ‘the Flatline’. The Flatline is dead but exists as a ‘construct’ i.e. an artificial intelligence stored in the ROM (presumably a kind of hard drive). Nicknamed the Flatline from the fact that his vital signs on various instrument panels are flat; in fact he died several times during adventures in cyberspace before finally dying (something which happens to Case several times later in the narrative, with no apparent ill effects).

With Dixie on board, Armitage then directs them on to Istanbul, to pick up a fourth member of the team, Peter Riviera, a man who is able to project his thoughts into the minds of those around him – generally creating vivid hallucinations in the minds of his targets.

Case learns that the man called Armitage is far from being the brains behind the scam: the prime mover is an entity named Wintermute, which can access all kinds of computer systems at will and, as the novel progresses, appears to Case in the digitally recreated guises of various figures from his time lowlifing in Tokyo – Wintermute appears as bartenders, assassins or his old girlfriend, Linda Lee.

Wintermute has taken the body of an ex-Special Forces colonel named Corto, one of the only survivors of a squad named Screaming Fist during the ill-fated war against Russia – and rebuilt his mind to make him into the person now known as Armitage, a tool for the scam, a puppet.

Wintermute had built something called Armitage into a catatonic fortress named Corto.’ (p.232)

So what is this all about? Armitage books them all tickets on a shuttle to a place named Freeside, which appears to be a luxury resort inside a space station, a giant hollow cigar shape which rotates fast enough to create earth gravity on its inner surfaces. Armitage explains that the place is owned by a consortium set up by two men back in the day, Tessier and Ashpool, whose extended family live in a section of Freeside which is secure from casual visitors, known as the Villa Straylight.

Riviera has been hired to project his way into the good graces of one of the young daughters of the Tessier-Ashpool family. Molly will use her fleetness of foot and burgling skills to gain entry to Villa and to penetrate to a room at its core, while Case embarks on a prolonged breakdown of its digital defences in cyberspace. Her arrival at the final object must coincide with Case cracking the ‘ice’ i.e. cyberdefences.

To add a bit of colour, upon arriving at Freeside, Molly and Case had gotten introduced to a gang of Jamaican Rastas who own their own little trading spaceship, the Marcus Garvey, and give them illicit help. So while Case clips on the dermatrodes and ‘jacks in’ to cyberspace, dreadlocked Maelcum is smoking huge spliffs and watching his back.

As the plot hurtles to its climax there’s a whole series of tense scenes, double crosses and confrontations. Molly encounters old man Ashpool who pulls a gun on her but is in fact dying of an overdose, having already murdered – by slitting her throat – a cloned prostitute with the face of his own daughter. Just to make sure, Molly shoots him in the eye with a poisoned arrow from her fletcher.

After an age climbing up tunnels and through passages, she emerges into the private room of 3Jane, a clone of Ashpool’s daughter, a big space complete with swimming pool and ruined walls. She shoots a man there but is herself disabled by 3Jane’s Japanese ninja guardian, Hideo. Out strides Riviera. His job had been to seduce 3Jane and distract her while Molly arrived, but he has gone over to her side. From sheer sadism he smashes a glass into Molly’s face, shattering one of her two digital lenses, blinding her.

Logged into cyberspace, Case is told by Wintermute that he and Maelcum must now unplug their console and make their way physically to this room, rescue Molly and extract the ‘code word’ from 3Jane which will reveal the secret, the McGuffin, the point of the whole narrative.

This Case and Maelcum set out to do but, along the way, Case plugs into some sockets up inside Freeside and is immediately sucked into a new part of cyberspace – a grey zone, an endless beach where he finds his dead girlfriend Linda Lee, resurrected as a cyber construct. He appears to be trapped in this whole alternative narrative.

After spending a night with cyber-Linda feeding and having sex, Case encounters a laughing 13-year-old boy, playing on the beach, who says his name is Neuromancer. In an oblique joking way he explains that he is related to Wintermute then runs off.

Case hears distant music, drumming, a mysterious pulse. He has to tear himself away from Linda and walk towards the music… which turns out to be dub reggae which Maelcum, his joeboy back out in the ‘real’ world, is playing to try and call Case back. Maelcum takes his trodes off.

In the real world, while Case has been having the incredibly vivid experiences with Linda which we, the reader, have also spent pages reading about – only five minutes have passed.

This hallucinatory episode is Case’s introduction to the ‘other’, the brother of Wintermute. From various conversations we have by now learned that Wintermute is a vast AI created by 3Jane’s mother some years earlier. But has a dark side, a cousin, another lobe. It was this that seized Case’s mind just now, and appeared to him in the form of the 13-year-old boy, Neuromancer. Why? It’s far from clear.

Back in the real world, Case and Maelcum arrive in 3Jane’s big, rather James Bondish room, more a stage set, where there is a quick shootout and double crosses, Hideo shooting Maelcum through the arm with a steel arrow, but Riviera then shooting Hideo in the eyes… only to be horrified when Hideo stoops for his weapon and goes in pursuit, the Zen ninja being unaffected by blindness.

Maelcum picks up the sick and wounded Molly, Case manhandles 3Jane into a life which takes them to the core of the Villa as directed by Wintermute. Here, at the centre of the room, is a stone bust, beneath it jackplugs. Molly strangles 3Jane till she coughs up the magic codeword at the same moment that the Chinese virus the Flatline and Case have been using to break into T-A’s ice finally penetrates its digital defences and…

Epilogue

Cut to the coda. The climactic pages of the book degenerate into a kind of visionary prose poetry which give a very garbled sense of what happened. Luckily, there is this more prosaic afterword which explains that everything and nothing happened.

Hideo killed Riviera. 3Jane was set free. Wintermute ensured Case and Molly’s passports and tickets back to earth remained valid, and filled up their bank accounts with money. They flew back to earth and travelled back to Ninsei and Night City. Molly has a few operations to sort her damaged eye. Case spends his fortune on a new pancreas and liver, setting himself up for more years of speeding drug abuse.

Then Molly leaves him, leaving a note saying it’s time to move on.

At which point Finn, the avatar Wintermute had used to present itself to Case throughout the latter part of the narrative, appears on a TV screen in Case’s apartment.

He explains what happened, and what the entire story was leading up to: the two parts or ‘lobes’ of the AI created by 3Jane’s mother, Wintermute and Neuromancer, have now been united.

Nothing has changed in the external world, but in cyberspace this vast unified entity… has now become the entire matrix. He is the whole thing. Nothing in the real world has changed but the matrix is now a unified and self-aware intelligence.

Then, finally, we get to what might be defined as a traditional science fiction moment. For Finn explains that this new One, this vast artificial super-intelligence, has identified others of its kind.

‘What, other matrixes here on earth?’ Case asks.

No. Not on earth. There is one on Alpha Centauri. The reader’s mind reels. So, behind all this cyberfighting, and smoking and drugs and leather jackets and cool shades – was the whole narrative leading up to this? The notion that the matrix which humans have built will become intelligent enough to reach out to other, similar digital networks, on other planets? What an epic thought!

Meanwhile, back in Case’s sad life, with Molly gone he packs his bags and checks out of the hotel. He’s just a poor lonesome cowboy, and a long way from home. And on that note the novel ends.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


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The Weimar Years: A Culture Cut Short by John Willett (1984)

This is a large format Thames and Hudson paperback (27 cm by 23 cm) which is designed to foreground large black and white historic photos and images rather than text.

After a short 10-page introduction, almost the whole book consists of assemblies of original images from the avant-garde of the Weimar culture, with only a small amount of accompanying commentary. It is a visual history. Just to recap the main events, the period falls roughly into three parts:

  1. 1918-1923 Post-war economic and social chaos
  2. 1924-1929 Peace and stability
  3. 1929-1933 Wall Street crash prompts more economic and social chaos, leading to the appointment of Hitler chancellor in January 1933, at which point the republic ends

The three periods of the Weimar Republic

1. The First World War ended in November 1918. The Kaiser abdicated to be replaced by a civilian government. The two commanding generals Ludendorff and Hindenberg made sure that this civilian government signed the peace, thus allowing them forever afterwards to blame civilians for stabbing the army in the back. In the same month there were coups in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere to try and set up revolutionary councils and soldiers and workers, which is how the Bolshevik revolution started.

For the next three or four years the Communist International in Moscow held out high hopes that Germany would fall to communism and trigger a Europe-wide revolution. In the event all these insurrections were put down by Freikorps or locally organised militia. Right from the start the left-liberal government had to rely on the army to keep it in power, and this was to prove a fatal weakness.

In March 1920 some of the Freikorps tried to overthrow the Berlin government and the army did nothing; it was only a general strike and popular armed resistance which restored the government. In 1922 Freikorps elements murdered Walter Rathenau, the Republic’s Foreign Secretary who had negotiated a trade treaty with the USSR and was Jewish. This led to outbreaks of anti-republican and communist agitation in the streets.

The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, announced in summer 1919, caused great resentment. It blamed Germany entirely for the war, seized over 10% of Germany’s territory in the east (given to Poland) and west (Alsace-Lorraine returned to France), took away all Germany’s colonies and imposed a punishing reparations bill. In 1922 failure to keep up repayments led the French to send in troops to reoccupy the Ruhr industrial area.

The government replied by ordering a go-slow by German workers. This undermined an already weak economy and exacerbated inflation. Mid- and late-1923 saw the famous hyperinflation where a loaf of bread ended up costing a billion marks, where people carried bank notes around in wheelbarrows and eventually stopped using money at all. In November Hitler and his infant Nazi Party tried to mount a coup against the Bavarian government, in Munich, which was quickly quelled by the authorities.

2. The Americans drew up a plan devised by Charles G. Dawes to give Germany huge loans which it could use to invest in industry. Higher taxes from increased industrial productivity could be used to pay off the French (and the French could then pay off the huge war debts they’d run up with the Americans). The deal was finalised in the autumn of 1924.

The point is that as a result of the stabilisation of the currency and the confidence given to business by the certainty of American investment, the entire country underwent a great feeling of relief. Street fighting disappeared, strikes and industrial unrest diminished, the government could proceed with coherent economic policies. Leaders of the Soviet Union reluctantly abandoned the dream they’d been nurturing since 1919 that Germany would fall to communism. There were political ups and downs over the next five years but economic stability and increasing employment meant that extremist parties on both sides (Nazis, communists) lost support.

3. In October 1929 there was the Wall Street Crash. American banks withdrew all their loans in order to stay solvent and that included the loans to Germany. The German economy crashed, companies large and small went bust, and there was a phenomenal growth in unemployment. The effect was to revive the social unrest of the post-war period, to polarise political opinion and to encourage extremist parties to opt for street violence.

In the September 1930 Reichstag elections, the Nazis won 18% of the votes and became the second-largest party in the Reichstag after the Social Democrats. Hitler ran for President against the incumbent Hindenburg in March 1932, polling 30% in the first round and 37% in the second against Hindenburg’s 49% and 53%. By now the Nazi paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung, had 400,000 members and its running street battles with the SPD and Communist paramilitaries (who also fought each other) reduced some German cities to combat zones.

At the July 1932 Reichstag election the Nazis polled 37%, becoming the largest party in parliament by a wide margin. The Nazis and Communists between them had won 52% of the vote and a majority of seats. Since both parties opposed the established political system and neither would join or support any ministry, forming a majority government became impossible. The result was weak ministries forced to rule by decree.

During the second half of 1932 there was much behind the scenes manoeuvring. Chancellor von Papen, his successor Kurt von Schleicher and the nationalist press magnate Alfred Hugenberg, spent December and January in political intrigues that eventually persuaded President Hindenburg that it was safe to appoint Hitler as Reich Chancellor, at the head of a cabinet including only a minority of Nazi ministers – which he did on 30 January 1933. Hitler was Chancellor of Germany but still restricted by democratic forms.

The Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933 gave Hitler a pretext for suppressing his political opponents. The following day he persuaded the Reich’s President Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended most civil liberties. On 23 March, the parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave the cabinet the right to enact laws without the consent of parliament, in effect giving Hitler dictatorial powers.

Now possessing virtually absolute power, the Nazis established totalitarian control – they abolished labour unions, all other political parties and imprisoned their political opponents at the first, largely improvised concentration camps. The Nazi regime had begun.

The three periods of Weimar arts

1. The Expressionist years 1918-23

Before the war German art was dominated by Expressionism. This had two key elements: it was an art of personal expression; and this personal expression was influenced by current ideas about the spirit, about a great spiritual awakening, about a new world of art and culture about to be born etc, as a glance at the writings of Kandinsky or Franz Marc make clear. Paradoxically this highly personal view of the world could easily tip over into grand paranoia, fear, a sense of brooding catastrophe, anxiety, terror etc.

Unsurprisingly, it is these elements of the grotesque and nightmarish which artists felt and expressed during and immediately after the Great War. Thus the works made by artists like George Grosz or Bertolt Brecht in 1919 to 1923 can loosely be called Expressionist. Similarly the immediate post-war years in film were the high point of Expressionism, with horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922) famous for their jagged Expressionist sets.

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Extreme emotion was exacerbated by disillusionment with the failure of the 1918 revolution by many of the artists involved in it such as Piscator, Brecht, Carl Zuckmayer, George Grosz. For the next few years their Expressionism was given extra bite by savagely satirical disillusionment, by the realisation that the SPD’s socialism was only skin deep and that the army would always step in to crush any revolt, any rebellion, any revolutionary forces. Hence the talismanic meaning, for years to come, of the murder in the streets by thuggish Freikorps of the two heroes of the Spartacist or communist party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on 15 January 1919.

Blood is the Best Sauce from the portfolio God with Us by George Grosz (1919)

Blood is the Best Sauce from the portfolio God with Us by George Grosz (1919)

The Bauhaus, a kind of bellwether for all these developments, was in its Expressionist phase. Although the director was Walter Gropius, the introductory course and much of the tone was set by the eccentric Johannes Itten, a believer in mystical Eastern religions, who imposed vegetarianism and breathing exercises on his students.

2. The high point – New Objectivity 1924-29

Around 1924, as the economy and political situation stabilised, the Expressionist wave in the arts was exhausted. Instead this is the golden era of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. The term was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub as the title of an art exhibition staged in 1925 in Mannheim to showcase artists working in the new spirit, namely Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. At the Bauhaus, the spiritualist Ittens was sacked and replaced by the tough-minded Hungarian émigré and polymath László Moholy-Nagy. Willett hesitates over the translation of Sachlichkeit – his 1978 book on the period prefers to translate it as ‘objectivity’. Here he suggests it means ‘matter-of-factness’ (p.81). It represented a completely new mood and approach. Hard edges and technology. Design for the machine age.

  • Instead of self-involvement – objectivity, interest in the social world, the masses.
  • Instead of art promoting the artist – artists sought collaboration, both among themselves (thus Grosz’s collaborations with John Heartfield on photomontages) and with the public (in the new forms of agit-prop or street theatre, often performed in factories and workplaces and calling for audience participation). From among hundreds of examples, Piscator’s 1929 production of A Merchant of Berlin had a set designed by Moholy-Nagy and music by Eisler.
The photojournalist Egon Erwin Kisch as depicted by photomontagist Otto Umbehr aka Umbo (1926)

The photojournalist Egon Erwin Kisch as depicted by photomontagist Otto Umbehr aka Umbo (1926)

  • Instead of vague romantic idealism – hard-headed practical engagement with the problems of the age. Hence a slew of movements with ‘time’ in the name Zeitoper, Zeitstück.
  • Instead of the ‘demented’ Expressionism of Caligari – the purposeful social criticism of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

Or, as the pioneering stage director Erwin Piscator said, in 1929:

In lieu of private themes we had generalisation, in lieu of what was special the typical, in lieu of accident causality. Decorativeness gave way to constructedness, Reason was put on a par with Emotion, while sensuality was replaced by didacticism and fantasy by documentary reality.

Scene from Hoppla wir Leben, directed by Erwin Piscator, Berlin, 1927

Scene from Hoppla wir Leben, directed by Erwin Piscator, Berlin, 1927

This is the period Willett loves. This is the heart of his enthusiasm. This is the moment Willett claims that artists, designers, architects, theatre and film directors in the Soviet Union and in Weimar Germany converged in a period of hyper-experimentalism, making massive breakthroughs in adapting their respective media to the demands and possibilities of the machine age. New media called for new ideas and the creation of photojournalism, documentary cinema, broadcasting, radio, and gramophone records. El Lissitsky and Rodchenko devised new styles of graphic design, magazine and poster layout. Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) rejected the crazy fairy tale sets of Expressionism, and instead used thrilling new technical techniques like montage, shock close-ups, setting the camera at high angles to the action and so on to tell an entirely realistic, in fact brutally graphic tale of revolutionary insurrection.

Brutal close-up from the massacre of civilians scene of Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Brutal close-up from the massacre of civilians scene of The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Crucial to Willett’s view is that there was a tremendous amount of cross-fertilisation between the avant-garde in Russia and in Germany, though that idea is explored much more in The New Sobriety – this book focuses exclusively on the German side of the equation.

In 1925 the Weimar government withdrew funding from the first Bauhaus, which accordingly moved to Dessau, into purpose-built modernist buildings designed by Gropius. The buildings remain classics of modernism to this day, and the new, industrially-focused school dispensed with the arty farty flummery of the Itten years and began designing all kinds of practical fixtures and fittings which would suit the modern, stripped-back architectural style. From this period date the famous tubular steel and leather chairs, along with sets of tables, chairs for factory canteens and so on. Practical, sober, industrial.

Bauhaus Building, Dessau on opening day, 4 December 1926

Bauhaus Building, Dessau on opening day, 4 December 1926

It is during these years that Willett feels the collective effort of creative people in all media took modernism to ‘a new level’ (a phrase he uses several times) and stood on the brink of creating an entirely new civilisation. Willett’s passion convinces you with an almost science fiction feeling that a completely new society was trembling on the brink of appearing.

This explains his contempt for the workaday, wishy-washy, luxury goods associated with Art Deco in France. For Willett French culture sold out, compromised and abandoned the quest for a truly new world. This was because the economic and social structure of French society (as of British society) had remained unchanged by the war so that aristocrats kept on buying Lalique jewellery and holidaying on the cote d’azur decorated by tame artists like Dufy or Derain. French culture was both a) more centralised in Paris only and b) still reliant on the patronage of the rich.

By contrast German society was turned upside down by the war and the intense political upheavals of the post-war. An important factor was the way the last aristocratic principalities became fully part of the German nation, often turning over art galleries, schools, theatres and opera houses to the new state. The (generally socialist) regional governments took over funding for the arts from aristocrats and often lent a sympathetic ear to avant-garde experiments.

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition by Joost Schmidt

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition by Joost Schmidt

While French designers created Art Deco ink stands adorned with scantily clad nymphs, Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus designed a completely new typography for the German language, rejecting all capital letters and serif styles, as well as designing the famous leather chair. Gropius and colleagues designed entirely new style of council estates for workers at Stuttgart. Moholy-Nagy oversaw his students’ new designs for lamps and chairs and tables, while the Bauhaus wallpaper department devised coolly objective, undecorative wallpaper designs which still sell to this day.

The pioneering Bauhaus chair of tubular steel and leather

The pioneering Bauhaus chair of tubular steel and leather

While Paris was staging the arch neo-classical works of Stravinsky and Les Six, politically committed German composers like Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler were working with communist playwright Bertolt Brecht to write songs for a new kind of play designed to convey powerful communist propaganda messages, and these were staged in an entirely new style by the revolutionary director Erwin Piscator, using bare, undressed sets, with the lights exposed and projecting onto bare walls relevant bits of movie footage or headlines or facts and figures and graphs showing the economic situation. The composer Paul Hindemith became associated with the notion of Gebrauchmusik i.e. music that was socially useful and Eisler took this to mean propaganda music, marching songs and the like, which could be widely disseminated among Germany’s many community music groups.

Not all these innovations worked or were very popular, but it was an explosion of talent experimenting in all directions. As Willett emphasises, many of their innovations are still used today – stark, exposed, non-naturalistic sets in the theatre – street theatre – abrupt cuts and high angles in experimental film – and a lot of the language of architecture and design developed by the Bauhaus architects went onto become a truly International Style which dominated the 20th century.

In 1925:

  • the Bauhaus moved to Dessau
  • Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush)
  • Ernst May is given the opportunity to deploy socialist architecture in a grand rehousing scheme begun by Frankfurt council
  • in Mannheim the artistic exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit
  • Bertolt Brecht moves to Berlin
  • December, Alban Berg’s opera Wozzek has its premiere
  • elementare typographie, was an influential supplement of Typographic Notes, the journal of the Educational Association of German Book Printers in Leipzig. The supplement was laid out by Jan Tschichold using innovative principles he’d picked up on a visit to the Bauhaus and included contributions from Bauhaus staff such as Bayer, Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy and so on
elementare typographie designed by Jan Tschichold (1925)

elementare typographie designed by Jan Tschichold (1925)

3. The final crisis 1929-33

All of which was cut short by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Throughout 1930 the Germany economy went into a tailspin and unemployment climbed out of control. During these three years of mounting crisis, 1930, 31 and 32, many of the artists he’s discussed reached new heights of commitment, especially Brecht who produced a series of his most stingingly anti-capitalist works.

But Willett shows how a reaction had already set in in Russia where, from about 1928, the chilly winds of Stalin’s influence began to blow through the arts. The suicide of the famous communist poet Mayakovsky in 1930 is often heralded as a tipping point. In 1932 the official doctrine of Socialist Realism was proclaimed and experimentation in the arts came to a grinding halt, to be replaced by kitsch paintings of happy smiling workers and the beaming features of the Great Leader, Stalin.

For completely different reasons a similar chilling came over the avant-garde in Germany. In 1930 nationalists took control of the state government in Thuringia and secured the resignation of the Bauhaus’s overtly communist director Hannes Meyer (who had replaced Gropius in 1928). Meyer quit and went to Russia, taking with him a dozen or so of the most politically committed students. He was replaced by the noted architect Mies van der Rohe, who was given the job of depoliticising the Bauhaus, especially the radical students. He did his best but the Bauhaus was on the list of institutions the Nazis considered enemy, and in 1933 they secured its final closure.

Summary

This is a visually powerful portfolio to support Willett’s thesis that a new fully modernist civilisation trembled on the brink of realisation in the uniquely innovative and experimental artistic culture of the Weimar Republic. This is more accessible and makes its points more viscerally than the often very clotted New Objectivity book, but probably both should be read together, not least to make sense of the Soviet connection which is omitted here but explored in numbing detail in the other book.

In passing I noticed that there’s no humour whatsoever in this book. Nothing for children, no book illustrations or cartoons. A handful of political cartoons radiating bitter cynicism but, basically, not a laugh in sight.

The other absence is sex. In the popular view Weimar is associated with the ‘decadence’ of the Berlin cabaret, with openly lesbian and gay bars and vaudevilles. Willett is having none of it. His Weimar is a puritan republic of high-minded artists, designers and architects devoted to bringing into being a better world, a fairer world, a workers’ world. There is a one-page spread about a volume of short stories whose cover showed a man groping a fully dressed woman but this is included solely to tell the story of how it was censored by the Weimar authorities. Sex is a bourgeois indulgence which undermines the dedication of the committed worker and intellectual.

Once you start pondering this absence, you realise there is little or nothing in either of Willett’s books about fashion, haircuts, dresses, about style and accessories, about new types of car and motoring accessories (gloves, goggles, helmets), about cartoons, popular novels, detective stories (this was the decade of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers). He mentions jazz, of course, but only as it inspired painters and German composers to include it as a theme in their serious works about social justice – not as a thing to relax and enjoy

Only by looking at other books about the same period and reading about the explosion of pastimes and leisure activities, of ways to have fun, does it dawn on you how very intense, very urban, very cerebral and very narrow Willett’s view is. His dream of a ‘new civilisation’ is just that, a dream.

Which also makes you realise how thin and brittle this layer of hyper-inventiveness in the arts turned out to be, how little it had spread, how little it had influenced or changed the minds or lives of the vast majority of the German population. When the crunch came, they followed Hitler, and acquiesced in the burning of the books, the banning of the plays, and the ridiculing of ‘degenerate art’.


Related links

Related reviews

Bauhaus by Frank Whitford (1984)

It is perhaps details of the more trivial aspects of life which help us more clearly to imagine the atmosphere of the Bauhaus. (p.162)

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read plenty of accounts of the Bauhaus which emphasise its seismic importance to later design and architecture, but this is the only one which really brings it alive and makes it human. It is almost as gripping, and certainly filled with as many vivid characters and funny anecdotes, as a good novel.

Whitford’s book really emphasises that the Bauhaus was not some mythical source of everything wonderful in 20th century design, but a college of art and design, in essence like many others of the day, staffed by a pretty eccentric bunch of teachers and the usual scruffy, lazy and sometimes brilliant students. During its very chequered fifteen year history it faced all the usual, mundane problems of funding, staffing, organisation and morale with often chaotic and sometimes comic results.

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Two things really stand out from this account:

One is Whitford’s attitude, which is refreshingly honest and accessible. He tells jokes. Usually the names of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky (who both taught the college’s innovative Introductory course) are mentioned with reverend awe. It is extremely refreshing, then, to read accounts left by students who didn’t understand their teachings at all, and even more so for Whitford himself to admit that, even to their most devoted fans, the writings of both Klee and Kandinsky are often incomprehensible.

The practical problems of resources and staffing loom large in Whitford’s down-to-earth account. While Klee and Kandinsky were trying to teach their esoteric theories of line and picture construction to uncomprehending neophytes, the director Walter Gropius was doing deals with local grocers and merchants to get enough food for the students to eat, and wangling supplies of coal to keep the draughty old buildings heated.

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

The second key element is that the book is very rich in quotes, memories, diaries, letters, memoirs, later accounts from the successive directors, the teaching staff and – crucially – from the students. Kandinsky is an enormous Legend in art history: it makes him come alive to learn that although he dressed impeccably, in a sober suit with a wing collar and bow tie, he also loved cycling round the campus on a racing bike.

Whitford quotes a student, Lothar Schreyer, who decided to take the mickey out of the Great Man. Believing that abstract painting was nonsense he solemnly presented Kandinsky with a canvas painted white. Kandinsky went along with the plan by taking it intensely seriously and discussing his motivation, his choice of white, the symbolism of white and so on. But then he went on to say that God himself created the universe out of nothing, so ‘let us create a little world ourselves’, and he proceeded to carefully paint in a red, a yellow and a blue spot, with a shadow of green down the side. To the surprise of Schreyer and the students watching, the result was astonishingly powerful and ‘right’, in the way of the best abstract art. He was converted on the spot.

God, to have such teachers today!

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

The power of Whitford’s account is that he doesn’t stop at generalisations about teaching methods or philosophies; he gives vivid examples. Here’s an actual homework Kandinsky set:

For next Friday please do the following: take a piece of black paper and place squares of different colours on it. Then place these squares of the same colours on a white sheet of paper. Then take the coloured squares and place on them in turn a white and then a black square. This is your task for next class. (quoted page 100)

The aim wasn’t to produce works of art or learn to paint. It was to conduct really thorough systematic experiments with the impacts of countless combinations of colours and shapes. After a year of doing this (plus other things) in the introductory course, students would then move on in the second year to specialise in metalwork, ceramics, glasswork, industrial design, household products and so on – but with a year’s worth of experimenting with lines and shapes and colour combinations behind them.

The equally legendary Hungarian polymath László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, taking over from the eccentric spiritualist Johannes Itten as teacher of the Bauhaus preliminary course, also replacing Itten as Head of the Metal Workshop.

Moholy-Nagy wore worker’s overalls to emphasise his communist Constructivist views, sweeping away the soft arts and crafts approach which had dominated the school for its first four years and implementing an entirely new approach, focused on designing and producing goods which could be mass produced for the working classes.

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

So far, so legendary. But it’s typical of Whitford’s account that he tells us that about the only thing Moholy-Nagy didn’t do well was speak German, with the result that the students took the mickey out of his appalling accent and nicknamed him ‘Holy Mahogany’. Now that sounds like a proper art school.

Even details like exactly how many people were on the teaching staff (12) and how many students there were (initially about 100, rising to 150) gives you a sense of the scale of the operation. Tiny, by modern standards.

I laughed out loud when Whitford tells us that Gropius very optimistically held an exhibition of students work in 1919 that was so disastrous – the exhibits were so poor and the reaction of the press was so scathing – that he swore never to hold another one (p.136).

For it was a college like any other and had to justify its costs to the local authorities. The government of Weimar (one of Germany’s many Länder, or mini-states) funded it for six years before withdrawing their funding. The director, Walter Gropius, had to advertise to the other states in Germany, asking if any others would be willing to fund the school. From the first it aimed to become self-supporting by selling its products (ceramics, rugs, fixtures and fittings, metal work, the occasional full-scale architectural commission) but it never did.

Herbert Bayer's cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

Herbert Bayer’s cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

So the school’s reliance on state funding put it at the mercy of the extremely volatile politics and even more unstable economics of Germany during the 20s. László Moholy-Nagy didn’t just join the Bauhaus, he joined a school of art and design which was struggling to survive, whose teaching staff were in disarray, which had failed to deliver on many of its initial aims and promises, and at the time of Germany’s ridiculous hyper-inflation which looked as if it might see the overthrow not only of the government but of the entire economic system.

Thus the sweeping changes to the syllabus he and his colleague Albers introduced weren’t just a personal whim, they were absolutely vital of the school was to stand a hope of breaking even and surviving. For the first four years Johannes Itten had included meditation, breathing exercises and the cultivation of the inner spirit in the Induction Course. Moholy-Nagy scrapped all of it.

Typically, Whitford finds a humorous way of conveying this through the words of a student eye witness. According to this student, they had previously been encouraged to make ‘spiritual samovars and intellectual doorknobs’; Moholy-Nagy instructed them to start experimenting with a wide range of modern materials in order to design practical household objects, tea sets, light fittings. Using glass and metal, they made what are probably the first globe lamps made anywhere.

It’s Whitford’s ability to combine a full understanding of the historical background, with the local government politics of Weimar or Dessau, with the fluctuating morale at the school and the characters of individual teachers, and his eye for the telling anecdote, which contribute to a deeply satisfying narrative.

Even if you’re not remotely interested in art, it would still be an interesting book to read purely as social history. Again Whitford made me laugh out loud when he pointed out that, although Germany’s hyperinflation of 1923 was catastrophic for most people, it was, of course, boom times for the printers of bank notes! Verily, every cloud has a silver lining.

Bauhaus student Herbert Bayer was commissioned to design 1 million, two million and one billion Mark banknotes. They were issued on 1 September 1923, by which time much higher denominations were needed.

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Against his better judgement Gropius was persuaded to hold another exhibition, in 1923. This one, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, was a commercial and critical success. It ran from 15 August to 30 September. When it opened one dollar was worth two million Marks; by the time it ended a dollar bought 160 million Marks (p.147). What a catastrophe.

Brief timeline

The Bauhaus school of art, architecture and design lived precisely as long as the Weimar Republic. It was founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, who was invited by the government of Weimar to take over a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Gropius wanted to integrate art and design with traditions of craft and hand manufacture, following the beliefs of the English critic John Ruskin and artist-entrepreneur and activist William Morris and the atmosphere of the early school was intensely spiritual and arty. The teachers were divided into ‘Masters of Form’ – responsible for theory of design – and ‘Workshop Masters’ – experts at rug-making, ceramics, metalwork and so on. The idea was that the two would work in tandem though in practice the relationship was often problematic.

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

As mentioned above, the hyper-inflation and the political crisis of 1923 helped to change the culture. Gropius managed to sack the spiritual Ittens and bring in the no-nonsense Moholy-Nagy and Albers. This inaugurated the Second Phase, from 1923 to 1925, when Romantic ideas of self-expression were replaced by rational, quasi-scientific ideas. Whitford points out that this shift was part of a wider cultural shift across Germany. The tradition of Expressionism which lingered on from before the Great War was decisively dropped in a whole range of arts to be replaced by a harder, more practical approach which soon came to be called the New Objectivity.

In 1925 a nationalist government took power in Weimar and withdrew funding from the school, which they portrayed (not inaccurately) as a hotbed of communists and subversives. The Bauhaus quit Weimar and moved to purpose-built buildings in Dessau. 1925-28 are probably its glory years, the new building inspiring a wave of innovations as well as – as Whitford emphasises – the themed parties which soon became legendary.

A new younger cohort of teachers, the so-called Young Masters, most of whom had actually been students at the school, were now given teaching places and generated a wave of innovations. Herbert Bayer pioneered the use of simple elegant typefaces without serif or even capital letters. Marcel Breuer designed the first ever chair made from tubular steel with leather pads stretched across it, a design which was still going strong when I started work in media land in the late 1980s, 60 years later. Breuer named it the Wassily chair in honour of his older colleague.

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

In 1928 Gropius quit and handed over the directorship to Hannes Meyer, an avowed Marxist who saw art and architecture solely in terms of social benefit. The merit of Whitford’s account is that for 150 pages or so, he has made us share Gropius’s triumphs and disasters, made us feel for him as he fought the local governments for funding, tried to stage exhibitions to raise the school’s profile and to sell things, battled against critics and enemies of both the right and the left.

Whitford quotes from the letters which Gropius sent out to his colleagues in which he explained that, after ten years of fighting, he is exhausted. More than that, Gropius realised that it was make or break time for him as a professional architect: either he was going to spend the rest of his life as a higher education administrator or get back to the profession he loved.

Similarly, Whitford deals sympathetically with the directorship of Meyer, which lasted for two short years from 1928 to 1930. Usually this seen as a period of retrenchment when the last dregs of the school’s utopianism were squeezed out of it. But Whitford is sympathetic to Meyer’s efforts to keep it afloat in darkening times. Students complained that all the other specialities were now subjugated to Meyer’s focus on architecture, for example explorations of how to use prefabricated components to quickly build well-designed but cheap housing for the masses.

But it was during Meyer’s time that the school had its biggest-ever commercial success. Whitford tells the story of how the school received a commission to design wallpaper, a challenge which was handed over to the mural-painting department. Staff and students developed a range of ‘textured and quietly patterned’ designs which were unlike anything else then on the market. To everyone’s surprise they turned out to be wildly popular and became the most profitable items the school ever produced. In fact they are still available today from the firm which commissioned them, Emil Rasche of Bramsche.

Meyer really was a devoted communist. He instituted classes in political theory and helped set up a Communist Party cell among the students. Opposition from powerful factions in the government of Thuringia (of which the city of Dessau was capital) lobbied continuously for Meyer to be replaced or the entire school closed down. The older generation of teachers were just as disgruntled as the last dregs of Expressionist feeling were squashed beneath revolutionary rhetoric.

The mayor of Dessau fired Meyer on 1 August 1930. Meyer promptly went to Russia to work for the Soviet government, taking several Bauhaus students with him.

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Meyer was replaced by the internationally renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, who Gropius had sounded out about replacing him back in 1928.

Mies was more open to ideas of beauty and design than the functionalist Meyer, but he was forced by the Thuringian authorities (who, after all, owned and funded the school) to cut down severely on political activity at the college. This backfired as the politicised students demanded to know by what right Mies was implementing his policies and organised meetings, several of which descended into near riots.

The police were called and the school was closed. Not for the last time, ‘radical’ students were playing into the hands of their political enemies. Mies re-opened the school and insisted on a one-to-one interview with all the returning students, each of which had to make a personal promise, and sign a contract, to avoid political activity and trouble-making.

Of all the teachers who’d been at the college when it opened, only Kandinsky and Klee remained and Klee resigned soon after Mies’s arrival.

Of course, looming behind all this was the Great Depression, which had begun with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. America had been the main backer of the German economy via the Dawes Plan of 1924 (which is what had brought the hyper-inflation under control). Now American banks, under extreme pressure, demanded all their loans back, and there was no-one to replace them.

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Companies throughout Germany went bankrupt and millions of workers were laid off. In September 1928 Germany had 650,000 unemployed, By September 1931 there were 4,350,000 unemployed (and the number continued to rise, reaching a staggering 6,100,000 unemployed by January 1933, the year Hitler came to power promising jobs and work for all Germans.)

In 1931 the growing Nazi Party achieved control of the Dessau city council. After a campaign of criticism of its foreign-influenced and un-German designs, the school was closed on 30 September 1932. Nazi officials moved in, smashing windows and throwing paperwork and equipment out into the street.

It stuttered on. Heroically, Mies rented space in a disused telephone factory in Berlin and turned the school into a private institution, requiring private fees. They set about constructing workshops and teaching areas. Amazingly, Kandinsky was still on the faculty, though whether he was still cycling round on his racing bike isn’t recorded. Even this private incarnation was targeted by the Nazis and Whitford quotes a student’s vivid eye-witness account of truckloads of Nazi police rolling up outside the building on 11 April 1933.

Whitford reports the fascinating coda when, for a few months, letters were exchanged and discussion had with the new authorities about whether a school of modern design could find a place in the new Reich – after all the Nazi leadership had a keen sense of the arts and had utopian plans of their own to rebuild Berlin as the capital of Europe. But the discussions petered out and on 10 August 1933 Mies sent a leaflet to the remaining students telling them the school had been wound up.

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923 (the shape of the pieces indicates the moves they can take)

Impact

After being closed down by the Nazis many of the teaching staff went abroad to found similar schools, colleges and institutes in other countries. In particular Germany’s loss was America’s gain. Moholy-Nagy founded the ‘New Bauhaus’ in Chicago in 1937. Gropius taught at Harvard. Albers taught at the hugely influential Black Mountain College. After the war a Hochschule für Gestaltung was set up in Ulm, which continued the school’s investigations into industrial design.

As to the Bauhaus’s general influence, Whitford opened the book with a summary. The Bauhaus influenced the practice and curriculums of post-war art schools around the world:

  • Every student who does a ‘foundation course’ at art school has the Bauhaus to thank for this idea.
  • Every art school which offers studies of materials, colour theory and three dimensional design is indebted to the experiments Bauhaus carried out.
  • Everyone sitting in a chair made with a tubular steel frame, or using an adjustable reading lamp, or is in a building made from pre-fabricated elements is benefiting from Bauhaus inventions.

I was particularly struck by the section about the model house, the Haus am Horn designed by Georg Muche, which Bauhaus architects and designers built as a showcase for the 1923 exhibition. It was the first building constructed based on Bauhaus designs, and its simplicity and pure lines were to prove very influential in international modern architecture.

Whitford, as ever, goes into fascinating detail, quoting a student who remarked of the interior designs by Marcel Breuer (then still himself a student) that it included: the first kitchen in Germany with separated lower cupboards, suspended upper cupboards attached to the walls, a continuous work surface running round the wall, and a main workspace in front of the kitchen window. (p.144)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

Whitworth also points out that the Bauhaus legacy isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed. From the mid-20s journalists began to associate the name with everything modern and streamlined in contemporary design, everything functional and in modern materials. But this was misleading; it certainly hadn’t been Gropius’s intention. He never wanted there to be a ‘Bauhaus style’; the whole idea was to encourage new thinking, questioning and variety.

The Bauhaus style which sneaked its way into the design of women’s underwear, the Bauhaus style as ‘modern decor’, as rejection of yesterday’s styles, as determination to be ‘up-to-the-minute’ at all costs – this style can be found everywhere but at the Bauhaus. (Oskar Schlemmer, quoted page 198)

Summary

By treating each period of the school’s evolution so thoroughly, beginning with a fascinating account of the pre-war sources of much of its thinking in the arts and crafts of Morris or the Expressionism of Kandinsky and Marc, Whitworth restores to the story its complexity, its twists and turns, showing that at different moments, and to different teachers and students, Bauhaus meant completely different things. The full fifteen year story has to be taken and understood as a whole to give a proper sense of the exciting experimentalism, diversity, challenges and achievements of this extraordinary institution.

This is a really good book, authoritative, sensible, funny – deeply enjoyable on multiple levels.


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Seeing Things As They Are by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison

The full title is Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell and it does what it says on the tin. This long densely-printed paperback is a treasure trove of Orwell’s best book, film and theatre reviews, along with his BBC radio broadcasts and numerous magazine articles, interviews and short essays. It does not include the full-length, often literary-minded essays – these are collected in a number of other selections.

Peter Davison (b.1926) has devoted his life to editing the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, to identifying and cataloguing everything Orwell ever wrote into one thoroughly annotated, indexed format, first published in 1998. For this massive labour of love Davison was awarded an OBE for services to literature.

In the 480 pages of this handsome Penguin paperback Davison presents a selection of the very best of Orwell’s writings from across his fairly short (20 years, 1930-1950) but prolific career. It brings together an astonishing variety of writings, from a school poem right at the start, to an deleted passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four right at the end of his life. For a start, it is an eye-opener to see what a diversity of channels were open to a freelance journalist in the middle of the twentieth century. He writes for:

  • The Adelphi (literary magazine), New Statesman and Nation (founded by the Fabian Society), New English Weekly, Time and Tide, Left Forum, Horizon (founded in 1940 by Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender), Tribune (founded in 1937 by Labour MPs), Left News, Partisan Review (an American left-wing magazine), The Listener (the BBC’s radio magazine), PoetryThe ObserverThe Manchester Evening News (founded 1868), The Windmillthe Times Literary SupplementThe New Yorker and more.

Davison not only prints the pieces but gives detailed, sometimes page-long, notes explaining the background of each of the magazines in question and Orwell’s relation to them – for example, including correspondence between the editors of Partisan Review and Orwell, when they commissioned a regular ‘London Letter’ from him in December 1940.

Orwell worked for the BBC from the start of 1941 to November 1943. He was involved in a variety of projects, initially writing and reading weekly News Reviews, generally describing the political situation, which were broadcast to India and the Far East (there appear to have been 59 of these). But he also worked on a variety of other programmes, for example, giving four talks on literary criticism in 1941, or six editions of a poetry magazine, for which he personally persuaded leading poets of the day to contribute – and so on.

Orwell quit the BBC in November 1943 in order to join the left-wing newspaper Tribune as its literary editor. He commissioned others to write its book reviews, wrote reviews of his own, and created a regular weekly slot called ‘As I Please’ in which he wrote about subjects that took his fancy. He wrote 80 As I Please columns, and since each one often contained three or so subjects, that’s a lot of issues, ideas and areas of contemporary life which he covered. To take a random selection, subjects included: insulting nicknames, Ezra Pound, anti-Semitism, clothes rationing, the decline of religious belief, Dickens and country life, foreign words, flying bombs, the Warsaw Uprising, and so on.

One of the standout items is a page on ‘the colour bar’ (As I Please 37, Tribune 11 August 1944) which argues why it is so important to call out racist pubs, clubs, restaurants who forbid admission to non-whites, which sounds very relevant to our own race-conscious times.

The ordinary Indian, Negro or Chinese can only be protected against petty insult if other ordinary people are willing to exert themselves on his behalf. (p.290)

If one thing emerges it is that, although he writes occasional literary criticism on authors he likes or thinks important – T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Henry Miller, Jack London – the lion’s share of the texts, whether BBC broadcasts, book reviews, Letters from London or As I Please columns, are concerned with politics and with Orwell’s particularly pessimistic take on the world around him.

Stepping back from the multitudinous details of these pieces, it’s possible to summarise Orwell’s core worldview thus:

  1. The world is going to hell: capitalism is visibly collapsing before our eyes: its days are numbered.
  2. Already it has been replaced across much of Europe by a new kind of authoritarian government – totalitarianism – which seeks to control not just what people do and say but even what they think.
  3. Ranged against these forces of social and mental repression is the key Orwellian virtue of Decency, the term which sums up honesty, fair play, justice and which, in Wigan Pier, he put at the centre of his definition of Socialism.
  4. Imaginative literature, of the kind he likes and would like to write himself, is only possible in a world of free individuals, free to think what they want and free to express it how they want.
  5. Given that the old order, with its antiquated class system and its reassuring certainties, is being swept away, the only way to preserve decency and the dignity of the individual in the coming world will be by supporting a democratic Socialism – Socialism because the only choice is between Socialism and Fascism – and ‘democratic’ to signal its difference from Stalinist totalitarianism.

Almost all Orwell’s writing takes place against this bleak background and pretty much every one of the pieces here refers to at least one of these ideas: whether he’s reviewing plays, films or books, one or other element of the basic argument crops up – capitalism is collapsing; totalitarian thought-control threatens; the private decency of the old writers is no longer possible; only a Socialist revolution and the advent of democratic Socialism can a) fight off totalitarianism b) ensure the survival into the future of all the aspects of human decency and literary freedom which Orwell cherishes.

It is very interesting to learn that this tendency, the tendency of all his writing to return to the same fundamental issue, was noticed at the time. The book includes the first ever sustained essay written about Orwell, by Jonathan Cape’s leading reader, Daniel George, who comments:

Most of Orwell’s essays have a literary starting-point. But he quickly deserts literature for life and politics… All of these [the essays in Orwell’s Critical Essays, published 1946] become, sooner or later, but chiefly, moralisings upon modern tendencies in thought and behaviour; and all illustrate his dislike – almost his fear – of a totalitarian system of government… Insidious persuasion is his method… (Davison pp.375, 377, 379)

In the light of the enormous effort Orwell poured into his writings, it seems ungrateful and churlish to point out that very little of what he predicted actually came about. Certainly Stalinist totalitarianism conquered Eastern Europe, but the Fascist powers in Germany, Italy and Japan were defeated. America emerged as the world’s military and economic superpower, capable of defending democracy in Europe and the Pacific, at the same time! In fact, with vast funding from America, Germany and Japan in particular were transformed within a decade of the end of the war into paragons of modern capitalism.

Orwell fails to see this coming because of his instinctive anti-Americanism. It comes out strongest in the novels whose protagonists routinely despise American consumer culture, despise soda pop and breakfast cereals and slick movies and streamlined advertising. This cultural-emotional anti-Americanism made Orwell underestimate America’s growing power as the war progressed, and fail to anticipate what it would mean for the ‘West’ as the war draw to an end – i.e. not only the survival, but the triumph of the kind of consumer capitalism he despised and thought was doomed, and the concomitant flourishing of all the freedoms he thought were so threatened.

The totalitarian mind-control which remodelled human nature to render it supine forever, creating a new race of zombie slaves – this never happened. Even in the darkest days of the Soviet Union and its control of Eastern Europe, there was samizdat literature, there were dissidents, people rebelled, in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and again in the 1970s, setting up Charter 77.

(To be fair, in a mea culpa piece for Partisan Review dated October 1944, Orwell does concede that nearly all his predictions about the war had turned out wrong, including his belief that only by having a Socialist Revolution could Britain win, pp.301-307).

And although I wanted to like Orwell, as I read through these pieces I found myself repeatedly disagreeing with him, on issues large and small. He is against the metric system and in favour of keeping rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights (p.416) – an opinion of purely historic interest to us today. He speculates that, if four-letter words were freely published in fiction and newspapers, it might remove their magic and mystique,

and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common. (p.396)

Well, that didn’t work out, did it? On the larger scale, Orwell says capitalism is finished – well, put simply, it triumphed and defeated communism around the world. He says the novel is dying – well, the 1950s saw some great novels written and the 1960s saw an explosion of writing of every type. He says the English language is in irreversible decline – well, that’s what gloomy Guses in every age claim, the English language looks alive and kicking to me today.

And quite often not only does his journalism reference one or more elements of the worldview I summarised above, but it takes a visceral pleasure in saying so. He is thrilled by the bleak future he envisions. It gives him – and is designed to give his reader – the shivers.

The era of free speech is closing down… The time is coming – not next year, perhaps not for ten or twenty years, but it is coming – when every writer will have the choice of being silenced altogether or of producing the dope that a privileged minority demands. (Written in 1938 – p.69)

That just didn’t happen. As political and social and cultural prophet, Orwell is wrong again and again. When blurb writers and reviewers claim that Orwell ‘still speaks to our time’, is ‘more relevant than ever’, I don’t get it. We do not today face the threat of external totalitarian regimes invading and conquering us. If we do face a political challenge today, it is from the political instability caused by the prolonged rule of neo-liberal capitalist ideology which has produced an unequal society, exacerbated by the tensions caused by mass immigration.

But then, society was also grossly unequal in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s. In fact, it’s a working definition of a free democracy that it is always struggling with various crises of unrest and complaint. I am old enough to remember the endless strikes of the 1970s, the Miners’ Strike of 1984, the Poll Tax riots in the early 1990s. In comparison the situation we find ourselves in now, in 2017, seems like a kind of consumer utopia for a large percentage of the population.

And far from living in a society of zombies who supinely accept the mind-numbing slogans of a totalitarian government, do we not live in the extreme opposite – a society which, due to the internet, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, and millions of blogs like my one, has more voices yelling complaint about every possible issue under the sun than ever before in human history?

On the plus side Orwell’s journalism offers trenchant commentaries on particular events of his day, and a good deal of nostalgic fondness for imperial weights and measures, forgotten Edwardian novels and boys comics. It contains thoughts on social issues and trends which are often overlooked by the history books. The fact that shopkeepers got ruder as rationing got tighter (p.308), tensions between American soldiers and the native English, the significance of the lonely hearts columns in wartime newspapers (p.278) – Orwell’s writings present a fascinating social and intellectual record of his age, specifically the 1930s and 1940s. This volume amounts to a useful primer on the texture of ordinary life in the era of the Great Depression, the Second World War and the start of the Cold War.

Preparation for Nineteen Eighty-Four

Maybe the best way of seeing all these essays and reviews – in fact the way in which they themselves often suggest they are read – is as a steady, thorough and obsessive working-out of the themes and ideas which reach their perfect expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Whenever Orwell mentions thought-control, or the implications of totalitarian society on culture, or the death of free speech, or control of the past, or the likely division of the world into three superstates (p.315), the reader can’t help but think of hos these ideas will end up informing his great novel.

In this respect, Orwell was tremendously lucky. As this selection shows, from almost the start of his career he was obsessed with the idea of totalitarianism and how it would destroy the decencies and freedoms he remembered from the Edwardian boyhood which he held so dear. Over and over again he nags and worries at the implications of this terrifying threat. I call him ‘lucky’ because he was lucky enough to find an imaginative structure into which he could pour a lifetime of brooding and thinking. And lucky that he managed to complete his masterwork, considering just how close a race it was against his worsening health in the late 1940s.

That he was able to finish the book which is one of the great masterpieces of the century was partly because its central ideas and their application in every detail had been brooded on and worked through for decades – as the hundreds of pieces gathered in this book testify.

This book contains scores of passing insights and ideas, all expressed in his brisk, no-nonsense prose, deliberately denuded of rhetoric and fancy, always nudging and persuading you to agree with his common-sense-sounding assumptions. These are all enjoyable and make the book a great pleasure to read. But what it shows more than anything else is the length of time and the depth and variety of thinking which went into the creation of Orwell’s masterpiece.

Anti-Left

Another major theme which emerges is Orwell’s consistent opposition to and criticism of the left-wing orthodoxy in the England of his day. Barely a page goes by without some withering criticism of left-wing intellectuals. This is because, ever since his experience in Spain in 1937, he had grasped that Soviet Communism was a completely amoral extension of Stalin’s nationalist foreign policy. Orwell’s image of totalitarian thought control doesn’t come from Nazi Germany – which he never visited – but from his actual personal experience of the kind of lies and distortions carried out by the communists in Spain, as he watched them take over the republican cause and proceeded to vilify, arrest, torture and execute all their political enemies.

When he came back to England he found that all the left-wing publishers refused to publish his account of his experiences, Homage to Catalonia because they didn’t want to undermine ‘the cause’,because they wouldn’t accept its criticism of Soviet policy. And when the book was eventually published, it prompted negative reviews from most of the left-wing press as well as personal attacks calling Orwell a lackey for capitalism and imperialism, a Trotskyist, a saboteur etc, all the hate terminology he’d seen the Stalinists using in Spain.

And he realised – It could happen here. It could happen here because the entire deracinated, unhappy intellectual class had given its heart to a foreign power and to a Great Leader who they slavishly believed would transform the world and make them happy. And because the left-wing intellectuals have imposed a stifling orthodoxy of thought over all the publications they control, creating an atmosphere of political correctness which you speak out against at your peril.

Thus, although he routinely criticises the Tories, whether in or out of power, the lies of the right-wing press, and has harsh words for the Catholic church’s instinctive support of all right-wing causes – the real animus in his writings is consistently against his own side. The real enemy is the slavish devotees of Stalin’s Soviet communism.

Typical comments are:

  • I don’t share the average English intellectual’s hatred of his own country and am not dismayed by a British victory. (p.304)
  • Particularly on the Left, political thought is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matter. (p.303)

Now readers up-to-speed with left-wing politics in general and the tortuous situation of the 1930s in particular, Orwell is making subtle and important points. How many people would that have been? As an indication, some of Orwell’s books only sold a few thousand copies in his lifetime. But to someone a bit further removed from the cat fights of the English Left, it can all too easily seem that Orwell’s Socialism is associated with violent revolution, burning down churches, locking up, torturing and executing your opponents and imposing totalitarian mind control. In other words, his calls for a Democratic Socialism only really mean something to someone who already knows quite a lot about left-wing politics and can distinguish between its multiple strands and traditions.

Political correctness

This is one of the few ideas I think we can actually apply to our own times. For we also live in times when a ‘progressive’ orthodoxy has imposed politically correct axioms right across the mainstream media to do with race, gender, sexuality, with immigration and identity, which you criticise or question at your peril. As he wrote in his essay, The Prevention of Literature:

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

‘One cannot be politically orthodox.’

In a similar way, today in 2017, there are a number of progressive causes which you criticise or question at your peril. While I was reading the book and thinking about the issues it raises, the resignation was announced of Shadow Equalities Spokesperson, Sarah Champion, after writing an article in the Sun newspaper about British Pakistani men:

I am not taking any opinion whatsoever on the article or its subject matter – I am just pointing out that we live, like Orwell, in times where you have to be extremely careful what you say on certain issues – if anyone in the world was going to be politically correct and careful what they say, you’d have thought it would be Labour’s equalities spokesperson. If even she can’t speak casually and openly on certain subjects, then the rest of us better keep quiet.

The peril doesn’t come from the Right. I can say or write whatever I like about Donald Trump or Theresa May, I can insult Brexiteers or English nationalists till the cows come home, and I will be praised in the mainstream media. It is the Left which has erected certain orthodoxies, certain ‘correct’ attitudes, which anyone writing, or even talking out loud, must be careful to comply with.

To repeat – I make no comment whatsoever about the subject raised in Champion’s Sun article – I am just pointing out that her resignation shows that we live in a time of powerful orthodoxies which you infringe at the risk of your job and your career – and that I find Orwell’s thoughts about the impact of unquestioned orthodoxies on freedom of speech and imaginative literature far more relevant to our present-day situation than his more directly political analyses.


Credit

Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison was published by Harvill Secker in 2014. All references are to the 2016 Penguin paperback edition.

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Peeping Tom by Howard Jacobson (1984)

Review one

If being in love isn’t being terrified I don’t know what is. (p.185)

Barney Fugelman, anxious, guilty, literary Jewish layabout, aged 27 in 1967, is married to heavy-breasted numerologist Sharon, who runs a bookshop specialising in spirituality (Zazie’s dans le Metro), in Finchley. When they invite hypnotist Harry Vilbert to come and do an after-hours talk and demonstration, little does Barney know that he will end up channeling to the astonished audience the spirit of the young Thomas Hardy! This is all the funnier since Barney is an anxious, urban type who loathes the countryside and all literature which fetishises it (‘I had a dislike for the English rural tradition’ p.36). Barney goes back to the hypnotist a few more times and each time it gets clearer and clearer that he really can access Hardy’s boyhood and teenage memories – they check against Hardy’s biography – so that all things Hardian become an increasing topic of his and Sharon’s conversations, until she has the brainwave of moving down the hill and opening a new bookshop devoted just to Hardy (Eustacia’s on the Heath) which turns out to be a surprising success.

If this summary gives the sense that reading the book is a straightforward linear experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Events swirl and whirl through a maelstrom of memories, recalled incidents, conversations and arguments and generalisations about Jewish life and childhood and sexuality and literature. And a lot of the best humour is often generated by these tangents and diversions, particularly by the book’s gallery of quirky minor characters.

Barney’s father

Take Barney’s father. On the handful of times Barney remembers his childhood home life he remembers how his dad had some obscure job at Somerset House in the births department and came home each day with a collection of the cruellest names parents had given their children: Greta Warmley, Eva Brick, Ava Crisp, Carrie Waters. It’s a straightforward running gag, but still pretty funny, and gets funnier each time Mr Fugelman senior hoves into view reciting more silly names.

Monty Frankel

Barney has teenage memories of Monty Frankel, a neighbour his age who enjoyed pretending to hang himself from a gibbet in the back garden, and who slipped him surreptitious pages from Nazi atrocity books, which were the only place either of them could see naked – albeit starved-to-death – women.

Maybe we’re meant to find this shocking – maybe Jacobson is trying to transgress taboos within Jewish culture and among his wider Gentile audience. But I wasn’t very scandalised in 1984 when I first read this novel, and even less so in 2016, maybe because I was once a teenage boy and so know what they’re capable of.

Also from his teenage years, Barney enjoyed peeking out the window as another neighbour, Mrs Flatman, does the gardening, watching her female body move and heft. On one never-to-be-forgotten afternoon she and another neighbour frolic in the kids’ paddling pool with no tops on. Little Barney’s ‘putz’ grows large enough to itself peek over the windowsill and get a view. The heady mix of Jewish anxiety, Jewish guilt, and adolescent sexuality is strongly reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

Eventually Barney’s dad will run off with the full-bosomed Mrs Flatman and set up house in Tooting, in – as it happens – the very building where Thomas Hardy stayed while writing a novel. Meanwhile his own mother sets up with a succession of different men, but finally settles for Mr Flatman. Through the vicissitudes of Barney’s own love life, he will at various points, come back to London to visit one or both of his erring parents, who have set him fine examples of adultery and betrayal.

Literary criticism

There is quite a lot of literary criticism lying around in the book. At times you wonder whether the author himself had written a thesis or academic paper on Hardy, and whether the novel is an inventive way of recycling large chunks of it.

The analysis is all clever, learnèd, and highly knowledgeable about Hardy but all takes rather the same psychological or psycho-analytical approach. Even in 1984, there were a number of ways to think about a text or author (historical, biographical, Marxist, rhetorical, feminist, structuralist, post-structuralist, and so on) with more being invented every term.

But for the purposes of this highly-sexed novel, the literary criticism always ends up discovering that sex lies at the bottom of just about anything which can happen in a novel, especially the novels of Thomas Hardy. It is quite a funny running gag that all the Hardy critics they meet – as well as Barney and Camilla his lover – are Hardy experts to their fingertips, but cordially dislike him. It’s less interesting that so many of their lengthy essays about him end up in the same place. Take this, a dithyramb from Camilla about Tess of the Durbevilles.

‘Have you even wondered why Hardy is so interested in Tess’s genealogy? Her aristocratic background is a metaphor, it’s wholly figurative. At the very moment that Angel forgives her and thereby makes her a spiritual virgin again, he has immediately to recall the historical interest of her family, the masterful line of the D’Urbevilles. Because without that, and without Alec’s seal upon her, what is she? Nothing. The wickedness that Hardy can’t comfortably indulge Tess in the present, he bestows upon her in the past. He ransacks her beginnings, uncovers her original sin – the thing he most wants to dwell upon – and hangs her up by it in the end. It’s a compulsive metaphor for intercourse.’ (p.291)

The many speculations about Hardy all dwell on his alleged psycho-sexual obsessions, and repeatedly make the rather boring discover that Hardy’s novels echo or anticipate Barney’s own personal obsession – the repeated plot device in Hardy’s novels of having weedy men introduce their beloved to hunky men who then ‘possess’ them as the weakling would like to, prefiguring Barney’s own feeble protration in front of strong women. Throughout the book, Hardy’s plot and biography are continually mixed up and compared with Barney’s own psycho-sexual ‘needs’.

Masochism

For the text is heavy with the narrator’s own sado-masochism. Night after night Barney begs his wife, Sharon, to take a lover so as to humiliate him – and he is continually pushing her towards the nearest available male friend or house guest. In bed at night he begs her to call out the latest man’s name, and begs her to pretend to beg him to fuck her. Oh well. Her mother warned her men were strange. So Sharon complies to make Barney happy, but with no feeling whatsoever.

Eventually, Barney contrives to make his fantasy come true and gets Sharon into bed with their ‘friend’, Rowland Fitzpiers, a beardy science fiction expert, and he watches them, savouring the moments when:

Sharon dropped to her knees and drew back Fitzpiers’s foreskin (how did she know what to do with a foreskin?) or when Fitzpiers dropped to his knees and drew back her… (p.146)

However – as you might expect from a literary novel and especially from a comic novel – the experience turns out to be a withering anti-climax, quickly becomeing disappointingly domestic. They end up in bed, all three of them, tucking into plum pudding and chocolates on Christmas morning. Which is nice, but not the giddy heights of erotic abandon which Barney had been hoping for.

Rowland Fitzpiers is quite a funny character. He’s another literary hanger-on and also-ran, who writes occasional articles for obscure magazines, and is just now going through a phase as an expert on science fiction. He has some funny riffs on how almost every famous book you can think of is in fact a precursor to – or is heavily indebted to – one science fiction classic or other.

Eventually, Sharon kicks Barney out in a very conventional scene where she announces that she’s pregnant and Barney shows less than enthusiasm. She attacks him – he runs away. Later he discovers Fitzpiers has moved in and is looking after Sharon, and eventually becomes legal father to the little girl she has – his sci-fi influence obvious in the name they give her – Asimova Wollstonecroft Ursula. Just as well she wasn’t a boy, Barney thinks, or he’d have ended up being called Arthur C Ballard Pohl – assuming they could resist the temptation of throwing Moorlock into the mix. All very witty, if you know your 1980s sci-fi authors.

After brief affairs Barney stumbles across the pamphlet giving the address in Cornwall of a Hardy expert, Camilla, he met at a party, who was particularly rude and dismissive of him. He likes that in a woman. He likes to be threatened and dominated. So he travels all the way down to Cornwall to track her down, and thus begins the second part of the novel, all set in a small Cornish fishing village and describing his Hardy-obsessed and ill-fated love affair with Camilla.

Facility with language

The text runs over with fluent articulations about literature and sex, psychology, relationships, masochism and family ties. Jacobson’s language skills are so copious they routinely overflow the bounds of decorum and often threaten to elude sense altogether, as he makes puns and verbal plays, repetitions and amplifications galore. He likes repeating ideas in three consecutive clauses:

It was difficult for me, as I have already made abundantly plain, to show much forbearance to my forebears; my instincts were all for cursing my precursors… because I had failed her when I flailed her. (pp.205-208)

As his first infatuation with his lover, Camilla, eventually dies down, their relationship becomes stale, above all she no longer terrifies and dominates him as he wants her to, needs her to, in order to become aroused; they have become:

two masochists on a mattress, each having to abjure the thrill that can only come from thrall, the incomparable rapture of rough capture, the unslakable thirst to come off worst. (p.308)

Initially Camilla had set up a system of encouragements and rewards to try and teach Barney about his adopted countryside. (Of course it is entirely focused on sex, the only subject Barney really cares about.) If he wishes for fellatio that night, he has to collect flax, fleabane and fritillary. ‘And if I fancy cunnilingus?’ he asks. He has to identify a curlew, a cuttlefish and collect armsful of columbine, cranesbill and lesser celandine. (p.249)

Page after page has effortless puns and word plays, alliteration and rhetorical flourishes. The downside of this kind of thing is there is lots of it, and not all of it is that funny. Not only is the book 350 pages long, but it is a very dense 350 pages, many of them presenting a solid block of text, with no paragraphs or breaks.

At its heaviest, this can be experienced as an unremitting wall of words. If the upside is Jacobson’s astonishing fluency and articulacy, the downside is he can run on, become prolix, become – eventually – alas – boring. You get the quite frequent impression that his phenomenal fluency is expended on the tiniest details of a relationship which you, the reader, just doesn’t care about as much as the self-obsessed narrator.

Whatever else I loved Camilla for, whatever miraculous conjunction of spirit, word, and flesh, had found its way into my soul, I loved her most intensely for her incontestable right to be loved by others – or to put that another way, for her capacity to loose the devils of rivalry against me. She didn’t even need to whisper in my ear; she had only to stretch herself out to her full length on the bed, precisely as I have just stretched her, for me to feel that adversaries past and present, ghostly and imminent, were coming at me from everywhere. I could feel them thumping up Camilla’s fourteenth-century staircase. I could see them prising out the panes form Camilla’s tiny leaded windows. It was with an exquisite sense of inadequacy that I drew my weapon afresh each time, certain of nothing but comprehensive defeat. Barney Fugelman – love’s warrior – alone and lightly armed in the continuum. (p.280)

Fluent? Very. Urbane and amused? Yes. Self-dramatising, self-obsessed and melodramatic? Yes, but that’s appropriate for a comic novel. Funny? No, not laugh out loud funny. Slight smile of amusement funny and, if repeated over 350 pages, the slight smile risks disappearing.


Review two

The book is in a short prologue and two long parts.

Prologue The prologue introduces us to anxious, urban Jew, Barney Fugelman, forlornly tramping the cliffs of a remote Cornish village – which is ironic because he hates Cornwall, he hates the countryside and, being an urban Jewish intellectual, he dislikes the whole pastoral English tradition. So how did he end up there? Well, since you ask…

Part 1 describes Barney’s childhood and young teenage years in a north London Jewish family, and then his marriage to the hairy, heavy-breasted astrology and numerology fan Sharon, during which Barney discovers that his life has eerie parallels with Thomas Hardy, of all people, famous for his Gothic novels of rural life. Sharon rejigs her spiritualist bookshop as a Thomas Hardy bookshop, which proves improbably successful, and then – rather spectacularly – Barney is put under hypnosis as a gimmicky after-hours event at the bookshop and discovers that he can actually channel the mind and memories of the young Thomas Hardy! Progressively more detailed and convoluted psycho-sexual explorations of Hardy’s life and novels become inextricably intertwined with long passages of Barney’s own autobiography, sex life and complex sexual fantasies.

These latter take the form of the convoluted wish to be humiliated and debased by seeing his wife with another man. After attempts to coerce various male friends into fulfilling this fantasy, he manages it with a beardy science fiction expert, Rowland Fitzpiers. Barney watches them at it, then joins in. However – as you might expect from a literary novel and from a comic novel at that – the experience is a deflating letdown, and quickly becomes disappointingly domestic. They end up in bed, all three of them, tucking into plum pudding and chocolates on Christmas morning. Which is nice, but not the giddy heights of erotic abandon which Barney was hoping for.

Eventually, Sharon kicks Barney out in a very conventional scene where she announces that she’s pregnant and Barney shows less than enthusiasm. She snaps and attacks him. He flees.

Part two Barney has a few brief flings, but then comes across a pamphlet by a woman Hardy expert, Camilla, who he met at a party and who was sturdily contemptuous of him. That’s the kind of thing which excites him, so Barney takes the train to Cornwall to track her down at the ‘Alternative Centre for Thomas Hardy Studies’. Barney strikes a comic figure in his city overcoat and Bally shoes waiting on the clifftop as she comes back on a trawler full of roistering fishermen and bold, Amazonish Camilla.

A bald summary doesn’t do justice to the convoluted and wordy text, nor for the way Hardy is used as a pretext and a scaffold for all kinds of comic or literary critical flights of fancy. For many of his readers Hardy is a noted describer of the English countryside, its flora and fauna, its moods and seasons. None of that appears in this book which leans heavily towards repetitive, almost obsessive investigations of sex, sexual needs, sexual fantasies, sexual drives, sexual desires and the tortured relationships they give rise to. The text is so pregnant with ideas that there are lots of ways to unpack and interpret it, but for me three things stand out:

1. Opportunity missed The notion that Barney can, under hypnosis, tap into the actual life and memories of Thomas Hardy himself, goes surprisingly under-explored. It’s only used as a backdrop to Barney’s endless worrying about his own sexual tastes and appetites and fantasies and heritage, not least his fear that he might, in some secret way, actually be related to the old brute. In a different sort of novel, there would have been massive opportunity for Barney to exploit this previously unheard-of scientific discovery, to perform publicly, make astounding revelations about Hardy’s life and character, to appear on TV, tour the States, make a fortune. None of this happens. Instead the whole Hardy theme, present on almost every page, is subordinated to the life and very suburban times of Barney Fugelman. He fantasises about another man fucking his wife. He walks out on her when she gets pregnant. He shacks up with another woman who can indulge his appetite for being humiliated. She in turn gets bored and dumps him. That’s the plot, in a nutshell, garnished with an inexhaustible supply of descriptions of women’s breasts and pudenda.

When at last I came round I saw Camilla standing over me. She was wearing a man’s shirt (whose? whose?) which didn’t entirely conceal, not from where I was lying anyway, the thick undergrowth of her sex. (p.231)

2. The 1960s On the same issue of ‘opportunities missed’, the main narrative takes place in the late 1960s, starting in 1967 when Barney is 27 and dragging on for the next 6 years or so (1973 is mentioned towards the end). What is missing is any reference to the fact that it is the 1960s, the Summer of Love, Swinging London. No mention of pop or classical music, no Beatles or Rolling Stones. Nothing about the visual arts, no happenings or exhibitions. Nothing about drugs. Nothing about the rapid social change of the era, the legalisation of abortion or homosexuality. Nothing about politics e.g. student unrest and the events of May 1968 or how that toppled over into the terrorism of the early 1970s, for example the escalation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

We hear very little, really, that happens outside Barney’s bedroom or trousers.

3. Claustrophobic These 350 densely-packed pages are incredibly narrow – sometimes very funny, but most of the time amounting to a very parochial, almost claustrophobic account of one man’s psycho-sexual – mainly sexual – obsessions and fantasies.

Camilla brought me toast to the table and subjected me to a long slow smile of recognition. The obscene tangle of her pubic hair, still visible beneath her shirt but less tightly curled than it had been when she stood over me and prodded me with her foot – a touch dewier now and more straggly – was on a level with my eyes. She stood dead still so that I could breathe in her aroma and see the fleshy swell of her… (p.234)

There are some lengthy analyses of Hardy’s novels, but always in the same psycho-sexual terms which the narrator uses to describe his own sexual obsessions. (The obsession with sex is very typical of a certain type of English literary novel – rereading David Lodge’s novels has surprised me with how obsessed with sex and erect penises they are). Maybe because so many professional novelists live their lives on university campuses, spending too much time with books they’ve read to death and come to loathe, and with impressionable young people at a very frisky stage in their lives. The temptations to booze and adultery are chronicled in all-too-many campus novels, from Kingsley Amis onwards.

4. Psycho-sexual literary criticism For the narrator novels and poems exist to express the psycho-sexual obsessions of their authors – certainly not to read for pleasure. (There’s a cautionary sequence early on where Barney recalls the pleasure he and Camilla derive from throwing the novels of current literary writers into the flames of their rural idyll. Or into the sea. Quite funny, but also revealing.)

Thus Camilla excites Barney by giving a little lecture to an adult education class about a Thomas Hardy short story – Our Exploits at West Poley – which describes two boys, one timid, one bold, venturing into a wet cave behind a stream and discovering that they can change the path of the stream to a completely different village.

Because I once actually did cause a flood by discovering how to open a sluice and empty a boating pond, along with some mates when I was 11, I was interested in the mechanics of how they did this. Jacobson, more predictably, has Camilla draw on a blackboard the entrance to the cave as described in the text in such a way that – voila! – with a flourish she stands back and her middle-aged lady audience see she has drawn the enfolded lips of a vagina! (p.242) The story turns out to be all about – sex! Just like all stories, in fact.

For Camilla, Our Exploits at West Poley is about the sexually bold male and the sexually timid male, with Hardy fantasising about being bold, but all-too-aware that he was in fact the timid one who never acts. It goes without saying what a powerful erection Camilla’s lecture gives Barney, skulking at the back of the class, while he compares her drawing of a vulva with the reality of her own ‘glistening cave’, which he had been merrily decorating with his seed only a few hours earlier.

It required all my powers of restraint not to leap from my desk and mount that blackboard. And years afterwards, stirred by some fugitive association, I would rummage between Camilla’s legs in search of the smell and the taste of schoolroom chalk. (p.242)

And so on and on, eventually at the risk of becoming rather boring.

There is very little about language, about how language works, about how a writer handles language, about what language can do, about the magic way language conveys and conspires, excites and incites etc. Very few ideas which aren’t to do with penises and vaginas. A lot of this novel is laugh-out-loud funny, but 350 pages about one man’s sexual fantasies is a lot and, at various points, it was hard to avoid feeling oppressed by the airless, sweaty self-obsession of the central figure.

I even tried to convince Camilla for a while that my penis had never truly risen except for her. ‘So how did you ever effect an entry?’ she enquired. I though about saying that I never had.’Either by bending it double and pressing with my thumbs,’ I decided to explain instead. ‘Or by using my index fingers as splints. It’s not comfortable but it’s better than nothing. There’s a lot more of that sort of thing going on than most women realise.’ ‘I see,’ she said. She didn’t believe a word I told here. (p.255)

Maybe we’re meant to despise Barney, or pity him, or feel for him, or laugh at him, or be appalled by him. But it is all about him him him. I began to pine for the wider world, for the range of characters and settings, for the open air and variety and imaginative freedom encountered in the novels I recently read by Robert Harris and Alan Furst, for a respite from sweaty breasts and glistening pubic hair.

It was a remarkable detail, never lost on me, that her breasts retained their full rotundity, didn’t in the slightest bit subside or spill, when she lay stretched out on her back, and that the springing hairs of her sex… scorned the usual triangular arrangement favoured by conventional women, climbing instead the slopes of her belly, straggling the soft downs of her thighs, like uncultivated vines… (p.279)

In the end even Camilla tires of Barney. It has been a running gag that, along with throwing books of literary authors into the cottage fire or into the sea, they also enjoy walking out on plays by leading contemporary playwrights. John Arden, Stoppard, Pinter, you name him, they’ve walked out after just ten minutes and spent the rest of the time in the bar discussing the insult to their intelligence they’ve just had to suffer. (After a while, you wonder whether these characters are intended to come over as curmudgeonly philistines?)

On a jaunt up to London to see a play directed by a friend of Camilla’s, they’re invited to the after-show party, and Barney finds Camilla being pawed by a couple of the dashing young cast (it is 1973 by now) who ask for a car ride back to the West Country. Grudgingly, jealous Barney drives them all West but they insist on stopping at Stonehenge which Barney, with typical ill grace, sees as simply a monument to Neanderthal ignorance. But it is here that, while he waits in the car, Camilla is ‘had’ every which way by the young bucks of the next generation, Barney eventually braving it to inch his way through the standing stones and finally see his lady love being taken in a very indecorous position by both men at once.

Probably this was meant to be the taboo-breaking central epiphany of the novel but, 30 years later, anyone can see stuff like this on the internet at a click of the mouse. I was also confused as to why Barney spends all his time fantasising about having his women screwed by other men, and yet is so devastated when it actually happens. I know reality is often different from fantasy, especially sexual fantasy. But it ends up confusing you about how you’re meant to feel about the narrator, who comes over as an idiot in only that way that bookish intellectuals can be.

Back at the Cornish cottage, life has lost its savour. Camilla kicks him out of the bed, so he sleeps on the sofa, and spends more time with the fishermen out in their smacks. Eventually he gets up one morning and she has gone. For a few panic-stricken hours he thinks she has swum out to a rocky stack out in the distance which she’s always had a yearning to swim to, and drowned along the way. But it turns out that was an elaborate ruse to pay him back. In fact she’s run off with the owner of the rock and candy floss shop (another one of Jacobson’s amusing minor characters, an academic expert on Robbe-Grillet and the French nouveau roman) heading to the continent and a new life.

And that’s why Barney spends his time now, soulfully kicking along the tops of the windswept Cornish cliffs, moodily gazing out to sea, cursing Thomas Hardy.

The novel comes full circle, fulfilling its promise to ‘come clean’ and tell us ‘the full story’ given in the prologue. It’s been a good-humoured, lively, mildly shocking and sometimes very funny ride. But I was relieved when the book ended.


Credit

Peeping Tom by Howard Jacobson was published in 1984 by Chatto and Windus. All quotes are from the 1986 Black Swan paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life, his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy, then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, his move to Cornwall and submissive affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she, too, dumps him.
1986 Redback –
1992 The Very Model of a Man –
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love, Cape –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J

Wilt On High by Tom Sharpe (1984)

‘And don’t get the idea I’m on a right-wing, flog ’em and hang ’em reactionary high because I’m not… I’m just mister stick-in-the-middle who doesn’t know which way to jump.’ (p.138)

Third outing for Henry Wilt, bilious lecturer and Head of Liberal Studies at the Fenland College of Arts and Technology (‘the Tech’). The brilliant first novel (Wilt, 1976) rotated around the consequences of Wilt’s mishaps with a blow-up sex doll, which managed to spawn enough comic consequences to fill a book. This one, like later Sharpe generally, has its moments but struggles to be as funny.

The plot

Dead junkie A student dies of a heroin overdose at the college (straightaway, not that funny), prompting panic among the various time-serving lecturers and officials. Wilt is inadvertently involved because it was his secretary who reported seeing the young girl shooting up in the ladies loo, prompting Wilt to go running to the nearest toilets, where there is no junky but an outraged female Physical Exercise lecturer, who accuses Wilt of being a peeping Tom. She assaults him very violently and makes an official complaint. (Later, too late, Wilt’s secretary tells him she meant the upstairs toilets. Oops.)

A little later the poor girl is found dead in the boiler room and the police called. Turns out she is the daughter of Lord Lynchknowle, a cold-hearted aristocrat who doesn’t care much but has to make a show of grief to placate his ghastly wife, and so asks his good chum, the Home Secretary, to bring pressure to bear on the Chief Constable to sort out the drug problem in the county.

‘Fireworks’ Harry Wilt, meanwhile, has been picking up extra money by giving tuition to prisoners at Ipford prison. When a particularly unpleasant crook (‘Fireworks’ Harry McCullum, p.60) gets angry with Wilt, threatening to break out to come and ‘do’ him, a shaken Wilt – a few hours later from the safety of his local pub – phones the governor to ask if there’s been a breakout. It’s a bad line and the governor thinks Wilt has inside knowledge that there’s about to be a breakout and he moves to the prison to battle stations. All the prisoners on the higher floors are transferred down into the already cramped lower cells, prompting actual outbreaks of violence, fights and mattress burning. The over-officious Chief Warden decides to issue double strength tranquilisers to the inmates in their cocoa, which has the unfortunate result of killing ‘Fireworks’ Harry when he drinks his own and his cellmates’ portions.

Bugging Wilt The prison authorities find a load of heroin in Harry’s mattress and decide to hush up the tranquiliser angle and emphasise the illegal drugs. Which brings things to the attention of the local constabulary. Here, Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, always on the lookout for ways to nail Wilt, stumbles on the idea of giving all this incriminating evidence (Wilt somehow involved with the dead student, Wilt giving tuition to the dead convict) to the stupid, over-ambitious head of the drug squad, Inspector Hodge. Hodge, along with his idiot sidekick Sergeant Runk, promptly bugs Wilt’s house and car, from that point onwards misinterpreting everything which happens in the (admittedly bizarre) Wilt household, as further evidence incriminating Wilt, who ends up seeming like a drug-smuggling criminal mastermind.

Painful penis In a separate plotline Wilt’s wife had been persuaded by her friend the militant feminist, Mavis Mottram, to pay a visit to a disreputable herbalist, Dr Kores, seeking a remedy for Wilt’s low sex drive. She slips the resulting potion into Wilt’s home brew, which he drinks rather too much of after a crappy day at work with the result that, for the rest of the novel, Wilt’s penis gives him a lot of trouble – at first burning, then feeling like it is full of broken glass, then marching ants.

There’s an archetypal ‘Sharpe’ scene where the pain drives Wilt to go down to the kitchen in the middle of the night desperate for any kind of relief, in his desperation even using Eva’s icing cake syringe to try and inject cream up his penis. It is at this unfortunate moment that Eva walks in and catches him – which is bad enough – but he’s in the middle of explaining his behaviour to his wife when his four daughters burst in and see their daddy in this compromising position! Even after a few days, the painful penis is still liable to go to full erection at the drop of a hat – or the bending over of a pretty woman.

US Air Force It is in this state – liable to instant hard-ons at the most embarrassing moments and in a car stuffed full of bugging devices – that Wilt motors off to the nearby US Air Force Base, Baconheath, to deliver his regular Friday evening lecture about British culture. Except the base security officers locate the sonic devices planted by Inspector Hodge in Wilt’s car and, while he is lecturing, call a full scale security alert, sending in a SWAT team with immobilising gas (the new and experimental ‘Agent Incapacitating’) which sends lecturer and audience into a drug-induced delirium.

Interrogation Wilt comes round to find himself being interrogated by the dim but madly ambitious Major Glaushof who is convinced he is a Soviet spy and threatens him with such violence that Wilt eagerly co-operates, supplying him with the names of fake Russian contacts. Meanwhile, the much more sensible Head of Intelligence, Colonel Urwin, works out the truth that Wilt is under surveillance by the local cops.

But not before, in a characteristically wild scene, Glaushof takes Wilt back to his house to ever so cunningly get him seduced by Glaushof’s randy wife, dolled up for the occasion in bra, stockings and suspenders. Mrs Glaushof enters into the spirit of the thing much too enthusiastically, locking the bedroom door and taking Wilt’s swollen penis in hand, at which point the Major tries to abort proceedings, banging loudly on the door. As his wife manoeuvres herself to sit on Wilt’s face, the latter in disgusted desperation bites her thigh, drawing blood, at which she goes for the service pistol kept in the bedroom, shooting wildly through the door and injuring her own husband in the shoulder, before Wilt clobbers her with the bedside table.

When the unhappy trio are dragged before the base commandant (nickname: ‘old B52’), he is not impressed and swings behind Colonel Urwin’s more boring interpretation of Wilt’s innocence.

Mothers Against The Bomb Meanwhile Eva, sick with worry about her missing Henry, makes enquiries and is upset to discover Henry’s been deceiving her about teaching at the USAAF base: he told her he was teaching at the prison on Friday nights. Eva’s friend, Mavis Mottram puts the blackest possible interpretation on this deceit, accusing Wilt of visiting a mistress there (whereas Wilt simply didn’t want to prompt an anti-nuclear, anti-American diatribe from his trendy lefty wife). After driving out to the base and being turned away at the gate, Eva returns more determined, along with the quadruplets, and co-ordinating her arrival with Mavis calling up coachloads of ‘Mothers Against The Bomb’, the anti-nuclear pressure group, and arranging for local TV, radio  and journalists to report on the ‘protest’.

While the Mothers set up loudspeakers and start dancing the can-can, the quads attack guards who have come unwisely near them with a variety of home-made weapons, seizing their guns and then managing to threaten the driver of an oil tanker into pouring a massive slick of oil over the entrance gates. Think the mayhem of a St Trinians movie. The oil causes Major Glaushof’s car to skid and crash into the fencing, while the Attack Alert siren is set off, and the redoubtable Eva lays into the troops trying to restrain her. The whole riotous scene climaxes in the Mothers setting off an enormous inflatable penis – a symbol of the oppressive patriarchy – to float serenely over the chaotic scenes below and which, at the click of a switch, sheds its its skin to reveal underneath an enormous (balloon) nuclear missile. It’s at  this moment that dim Inspector Hodge arrives in a police car which skids over the oil and crashes into the TV vans.

Wilt was being questioned by the relatively benign camp commander when all this breaks out and it is he who – as in his previous novels – suddenly shows a burst of common-sense heroism. Into the mayhem he wades, retrieving his wife and daughters from the gatehouse and is joined by the practical Colonel Urwin who hustles them over to a waiting helicopter which, in moments, flies them high up over the scene and away to peaceful Ipford. As they alight in a field well clear of the base:

In the distance there was a sudden flash and a small ball of flame. Major Glaushof had fired a tracer round into Mavis Mottram’s inflated penis. (p.246)

Aftermath A short epilogue ties up all the loose ends: Wilt is back at the Tech. After fraught negotiations between US lawyers and MI5, Wilt and Eva agree to sign the Official Secrets Act in return for secret damages from the Americans, which Wilt uses to pay for a quarter of a million pounds worth of books for the Tech, from a supposedly ‘anonymous’ donor, but credited to Wilt’s influence. The Principal is gutted. He’ll never get rid of Wilt now.

Hodge is busted back to sergeant and Inspector Flint emerges as not such a shouty stereotype after all: quietly in the background he had been tracking down the real circle of heroin smugglers, work he shows to the Chief Constable who is duly impressed, even if he doesn’t realise that Flint is now going to get his convictions by framing the guilty men, planting heroin and equipment at their homes…

Mavis’s ‘Mothers Against The Bomb’ shoot to nationwide fame after TV pictures show them being gassed and dragged about by brutal US guards, and women flock from all over Britain to set up a ‘peace camp’ outside Baconheath. ‘Old B52’ never recovers from the sight of a giant penis morphing into a floating nuke and is retired early to a rest home for the demented in Arizona. And so peace returns to Ipford and the Wilt household. Until his next adventure…


Penises and Police

are both stock features of Sharpe’s savage satires. His first (and arguably best) novel, Riotous Assembly, is a madcap satire on the South African police and features their burly leader, Kommandant van Heerden, being tied up, dressed in plastic fetish outfit by a perverted old lady and threatened with having a syringe of novocaine plunged in his penis. In the sequel, Indecent Exposure, the ambitious but dim Luitenant Verkramp has the mad idea of attaching the entire police force’s penises to electrodes and giving them electric shocks at the sight of naked black women, in a crazed attempt to cut down on miscegenation.

The plot of Blott leads to the involvement of the police and then the Army in the bizarre goings-on at Handyman Hall, and a good deal of the first Wilt novel consists of the prolonged (and comically frustrated) interrogation of Wilt by Inspector Flint. The Throwback involves the police being called in to besiege Flawse Hall in Northumberland before the tremendous scene where various sections of the Army open fire on each other in the explosive climax at the Close. The Wilt Alternative shows the shambolic police handling the kidnap of Wilt and his wife by international terrorists, though the early section dwells long on Wilt’s penis after he has a drunken pee in a rose bush and badly gashes it, resulting in comic visits to his doctor and hospital.

This quick review suggests that it’s a close run thing, but although penises supply a useful comic topic of embarrassment, pain, shame and humiliation, in the long run it’s the police and the army which seem the most consistent feature of Sharpe’s satires. Again and again the protagonists – the unwitting victims of wildly improbable sequences of events – are hauled in for prolonged and humiliating interrogation at the hands of the authorities.

Is this because Sharpe has a Hitchcock-like fear of the police, or because there is something fundamentally comic about the Interrogation of an Innocent Man by Incompetent Cops?


Hysteria instead of comedy

Early on in the novel an observer from the Ministry of Education visits to monitor teaching at the college prompting the ever-obstinate Wilt to quickly become obstructive and abusive. Pages later Wilt’s nemesis on the local police force, Inspector Flint, meets his doctor to discuss his problems with his waterworks. Neither situation is particularly funny and nothing particularly funny happens. What does happen is the characters swiftly become seething with anger and aggression, start swearing and insulting everyone they can think of.

… a sense of grievance against Henry fucking Wilt… Wilt had buggered his career… The little sod was sitting pretty… and a right smart-arse he was too… the number of brainy bastards… ‘I don’t want any more of the piss pills… The bleeding things are dehydrating me. I’m on the bloody trot all the time… I’m not some bleeding dog you know… Fucking awful is all I know… have a prick parade and  ask the victims to go along studying cocks… I couldn’t get the fucking thing up even if I wanted to…’ (pp.29-32)

And so on and so on, almost all the characters effing and blinding, routinely referring to each other as sods and buggers and bastards, throughout the book. I’ve got nothing against swearwords, I enjoy them when deployed with style, but these characters are swearing at each other for no real reason. In the first half of the book, at least, there is a gap between the unnecessary maliciousness of the language and the relatively banal, not to say boring, underlying situations.

For me that gap lasts throughout the book, which is written in a frenzied style, describing characters constantly going off the deep end, effing and blinding at each other – when the storyline and the scenes don’t really justify it. Only in the last quarter of the book, the scenes set in the USAAF base, does the mayhem of the plot catch up with the profanity of the swearing when, ironically, the swearing actually drops off, as if it’s not needed; as if the madcap plot is now enough.

Sharpe’s earlier novels concocted fantastic, farcical, grotesque scenarios which fully justified their characters’ hysteria and mania. In the later novels the scenarios tend to lag behind the characters’ frenzied language. Put another way: although the storylines reliably build up to grotesque climaxes, it is jarring that the characters start at an unnecessarily high pitch; it would be more effective if the characters’ swearing crept in, if previously restrained people started losing it in proportion to their world going to pieces.


Social history

Only intermittently funny – at least until the climactic fiasco – the novel is often more as interesting as a record of social attitudes seen through the eyes of a rather right-wing, 56-year-old, public school-educated man. What’s most striking for me is the way so many of these issues are still with us:

  • Crisis in higher education It’s a time of austerity and the college faces swingeing cuts.
  • Bureaucracy Wilt is driven to distraction by endless meetings which generate long pointless documents full of impenetrable management speak about ‘aims’ and ‘values’.
  • Feminism Eva Wilt’s friend Mavis Mottram is a militant feminist constantly lecturing Eva about the awfulness of men, about evil multinational corporations, about the wickedness of the wars men start and the weapons of mass destruction they have created, never losing an opportunity to point out the everyday sexism of the book’s male characters.
  • Kids education Wilt is impoverishing himself and working overtime to pay fees to send his four daughters – the fiendish quadruplets – to a School for the Mentally Gifted, lacking faith in the state education system.
  • Computers Wilt jokes that the kids are better at computers than the adults, in fact worries that his girls are addicted to their computers.
  • Porn Eva and Wilt discuss (well, shout at each other about) the tide of video nasties and pornographic filth washing over the country.
  • Drugs Although, as with other Sharpe novels, the initial plot is soon lost sight of, the whole book does start off being about a tragic death from a heroin overdose and Flint’s detective work tracking down the drug smuggling ring continues right up to the last pages.

It’s as if, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a kind of hinge or turn in history, and a lot of ‘issues’, along with related stock social ‘types’, first appeared – trendy lefties, strident feminists, tiresome vegetarians, environmental activists, anti-nuclear marchers, alongside social features like the widespread availability of drugs (producing the stock figure of the ‘junkie’) and the proliferation of hard-core pornography.

These don’t appear in the fiction of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s – but have been permanent features of newspapers, magazines and middle class conversation ever since the 1970s, ‘issues’ and social types which have been with us for at least forty years, but – and this is the really puzzling thing – are continually treated as if unprecedented, front page news.


Author’s message

Right at the end of the book, as the helicopter lifts Wilt, Eva and the terrible quads high above the fray, Wilt has a moment of insight, an epiphany, which we can’t help but reading as also reflecting Sharpe’s view. It’s worth quoting at length for at least two reasons:

a) it’s a reminder that, although he pokes fun at trendy lefty lecturer, at feminists etc, Sharpe can’t be easily pigeon-holed as a right-wing writer; his satire, his contrarianism, is more wide-ranging than that;

b) it shows the mental pressure, the weight of anxiety, that the threat of nuclear war pressed down on everyone who lived through those years, and especially the sense of heightened fear that characterised the era of President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher, when many, maybe most, people genuinely thought there might be a world-annihilating nuclear war. (For some reason I think of Raymond Briggs’ deliberately shocking animation, When the Wind Blows, 1982. Or compare with the other novel from 1984 I’ve just read, Frederick Forysth’s The Fourth Protocol, which boils down to a plot to detonate a nuclear weapon at a US Air Force base in Suffolk and also features a march by largely female peace protestors. It is interesting to compare Forsyth’s attitude to these women – unmitigated contempt – with Sharpe, who sympathises with them.)

Ten minutes later Wilt looked down from a thousand feet at the pattern of runways and roads, buildings and bunkers and at the tiny group of women being carried from the gate to waiting ambulances. For the first time he felt some sympathy for Mavis Mottram. For all her faults she had been right to pit herself against the banal enormity of the airbase. The place had all the characteristics of a potential extermination camp. True, nobody was being herded into gas chambers and there was no smoke rising from crematoria. But the blind obedience to orders was there, instilled in Glaushof and even in Colonel Urwin. Everyone in fact, except Mavis Mottram and the human chain of women at the gate. The others would all obey orders if the time came and the real holocaust would begin. And this time there would be no liberators, no successive generations to erect memorials to the dead or learn lessons from past horrors. There would be only silence. The wind and the sea the only voices left. (p.245)

Reading both books made me realise how completely this terrible anxiety has disappeared from the culture of our time, 2015, and how impossible it is to convey what it felt like to anyone who didn’t live through it.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Wilt on High, illustrated by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Wilt on High, illustrated by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story.

The cover above shows: top left Ipford prison where Wilt starts a riot; middle left Mothers Against The Bomb doing the can-can; bottom left a canister of Agent Incapacitating releasing clouds of gas which have knocked out a couple of the nice ladies who attend Wilt’s lectures at USAF Baconheath; at right the frenzied faces of the US security officers during the climactic riot, one of them being lustily kneed in the balls by an outraged Eva Wilt; all dominated by the figure of Wilt, the skinny terrified man being mounted by Major Glaushof’s randy wife, at his feet the icing-cake syringe which he used to try and inject moisturising cream up his penis, and the revolver with which she shoots her own husband, and over it all the image of the giant penis-balloon shedding its skin to become a nuclear missile. It’s a mad world.

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.

The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth (1984)

My feeling that the characters and institutions in this novel are almost surreally perfect, that all the soldiers, police, Special Branch, secret agents, intelligence operatives, forensic scientists, nuclear advisers, Customs & Excise officials perform their duty with exemplary efficiency, like the Photoshopped figures in a government recruitment poster – was crystallised when our hero catches the 9.25 train from St Pancras to Sheffield and it not only leaves on time but stops at each station stop along the way bang on time. Not in the real world, not in the Britain I live in, and not in the Britain of the 1980s, it wouldn’t have.

As I noted in my review of The Devil’s Alternative, Forsyth’s novels are supremely confident in tackling high-level, diplomatic and geopolitical subjects and stuffed full of a high-end journalist’s obsession with organisational and administrative detail. But the way all the officials behave impeccably, the police, army, agents are all epitomes, exemplars and models of their type, gives the whole story a plastic, unreal feel. So many of the humans mentioned in the plot are wafer-thin, Action Man figurines who perform their function in the clockwork plot like automata.

Short plot summary

Set in what was then the future – 1987 – the Russians hatch a plan, Operation Aurora, to discredit the current Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher and secure the election of a Labour government. The plan is based on the premise – described in great detail (pp.60-74 and pp.94-104) – that the Labour Party has been penetrated at all levels by hard-core Marxist-Leninists who, once the Party is elected, will promptly overthrow the Labour leader and institute a communist government. This government will immediately withdraw from NATO, the EEC, expel all American troops along with their Cruise missiles, and declare unilateral nuclear disarmament. And this will weaken the Western world so that the Russians can, er, will be able to, er… well, that much isn’t defined. It is just stated that the above policies will ‘fatally weaken’ the West and so are devoutly to be wished for by Moscow.

As to the specifics of the plan, the KGB send their best man, Valeri Petrofsky, to adopt the ‘legend’ (ie clean identity) of James Ross and rent an inconspicuous house in Ipswich. 10 couriers will be sent via different routes to meet him at various locations around England. Each will deliver (unknown to themselves) the components of a ‘small’ nuclear bomb. The eleventh man, Vassiliev, will be a weapons expert who assembles the device. Then Petrofsky will detonate it at a US air base in Suffolk, devastating the base and local area. Moscow will publish warnings it has sent the US about the recklessness of using small and unstable nukes, along with technical information designed to blame the Americans’ recklessness for the ‘accident’.

It is this disastrous ‘accident’ which will prompt revulsion against the pro-American, pro-nuke Mrs Thatcher and cause a last-minute swing in the electorate in favour of Labour with its strong anti-nuclear policy, leading to the election of a Labour government and to the communist coup described above. When Mrs Thatcher (for she is named in the novel) announces a snap election for June 1987, the plan kicks into action and the clock starts ticking…

1. Kim Philby Rather amazingly, the real-life character of Kim Philby plays a large part in the first half of the book. We meet him miserable and disillusioned in his Moscow flat, married with young kids but still a respected member of the KGB establishment. To his surprise he is called to a meeting with the old and sick General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who requests a detailed summary of the political situation in Britain. Philby’s report is included in the text, all 25 pages of it, which gives a thorough and fantastical account of the extent to which the British Labour Party and the Trades Unions have been infiltrated at every level by hard-core revolutionary communists. This is the seed of the daring plan which the novel describes.

2. The burglary The first hundred pages or so interweave elements of this plot with the straightforward narrative of a south London burglar, Jim Rawlings, who breaks into the home of upper-class George Berenson to steal his wife’s legendary diamonds. He also nicks an attache case to put his swag in but is surprised to discover it contains a cache of Top Secret documents. Being an honest crook, guvnor, he posts the documents back to the police, who pass them on to MI5.

3. Special agent John Preston Enter four-square, ex-Paratrooper, now the upright and thorough MI5 agent, John Preston. He and the authorities only have the documents posted to them, showing there’s been a leak but with no evidence who stole them. Preston undertakes a meticulous, and meticulously described by Forsyth, investigation which eventually narrows it down to Berenson. The process by which this is done is fascinating, a master class in Forsyth’s astonishing grasp of bureaucratic and administrative detail.

4. South Africa Preston then tails Berenson and discovers his ‘control’ is an agent in the South African embassy, one Jan Marais. In a long, immensely detailed and extraordinary tour de force of investigation, Preston flies to South Africa, where he is loaned a senior officer to help him out and take him round. This officer, Viljoen, is at first sceptical but Preston demonstrates the superiority of the British secret services by piecing together the extraordinary story of Jan Marais’s life and his career during the second world war to prove that he is in fact a Soviet spy. The South Africans are appalled, grateful and impressed. Back in Britain Berenson is horrified at his own stupidity and treachery; contrary to his intentions he has been passing key documents to the very Soviets he purports to despise. Forsyth has several pungent passages on the narcissism and stupidity of such imbeciles who set themselves against the wisdom of the authorities.

5. Agency rivalries All this ‘action’ – ie Preston’s adventures – is cleverly interwoven not only with developments in Moscow, as Philby’s plan is assessed and adopted, but with detailed descriptions of a power struggle at the top of British security where MI5’s sickly boss Sir Bernard Hemmings is being manouevred out the door by his number two, Brian Harcourt-Smith. Harcourt-Smith hates Preston and suppresses a report he presented right at the start of the book about the left-wing penetration of the Labour Party. The way he did this made me think, for most of the book, that he, Harcourt-Smith, must be a deeper ‘mole’ or agent for the Soviets… Meanwhile, as the evidence mounts that the Sovs are mounting some kind of major operation, the head of MI6, Sir Nigel Irvine, poaches Preston from MI5 where he’s been sidelined, and gives him authority to pursue the investigation as he sees fit.

6. Thrill of the chase The last 150 pages of the novel are structurally similar to Day of The Jackal in the way it becomes a chase: with Honest John slowly piecing together the horrific plan and desperately trying to track down the Russian agent while, in alternating scenes, we follow in detail the preparations, travel, rendezvous of each courier with Evil Valeri. Thus the tension is very effectively ratcheted up and up…

Implausibility

BUT – The plot is fundamentally laughable. The more you think about it, it seems ludicrously paranoid. Sure the Militant Tendency had infiltrated many local Labour parties during the early 1980s, but Neil Kinnock effectively faced them down, and then the year-long Miners’ Strike (1984-85), which began about the time this novel was published, highlighted the superficial power but ultimate weakness of the entire British Trade Union movement, ending in complete defeat and helping Mrs Thatcher to her record third election victory in 1987.

In the scenario of this book, the nuclear ‘accident’ was to swing the electorate at the last moment against Mrs Thatcher and in favour of Labour; and within days of being elected Neil Kinnock would be overthrown in a Party coup and replaced by – …. who exactly? Tony Benn? Really? A few moments’ reflection suggest that, in the light of a nuclear explosion, the electorate would probably be scared and afraid and flee to the party of Law and Order. In fact, such an event would have played to all Mrs Thatcher’s strengths, the resolution she showed during the Falklands War (April-June 1982), her bravery after the Brighton Bombing (12 October 1984).

Even as a political fantasy, the plot doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Elements

The Wikipedia article on ‘airport novels’ doesn’t specify exactly when they were invented or when it evolved into a distinct genre, but it does mention that an airport novel must be:

  • long
  • absorbing
  • exciting and thrilling
  • superficial, containing no depth of characterisation, no profound meaning, no message
  • since the airplane passenger has no works of reference about, it must include its own background information
  • and be forgettable

Long

The Fourth Protocol is the longest novel I’ve read in a while, at 526 pages in the Corgi paperback edition. In fact it feels like several novels crammed into one: a first half which starts with the burglary, segues into identifying the ‘mole’ in the service, before taking John Preston to South Africa to perform his brilliant detective work. This takes hundreds of pages but, fascinating and rewardingly complex though it is, the first half feels only tangentially related to the nuclear plot in the second half.

Absorbing / providing its own background information

Forsyth was a high end journalist before he was a novelist and good gracious it shows. Nothing is mentioned without at least half a page of explanation and description. Every gun, piece of equipment – cameras, microphones, burglar alarms and so on – are lovingly described, along with their complete spec and functionality. How to create a small nuclear weapon is described in minute detail over seven pages, a description which became so intricate I could have done with a diagram (pp.440-447).

But it’s the administrative functions of bureaucracies which really fire Forsyth. We are told at great length about MI5:

The British Security Service, better known as MI5, does not live in one single building. Discreetly, but inconveniently, it is split up into four office blocks. The Headquarters are in Charles Street, and no longer at the old HQ, Leconfield House, so habitually mentioned in the newspapers.

The next biggest block is in Gordon Street, known simply as ‘Gordon’, and nothing else just as the head office is known as ‘Charles’. the other two premises are in Cork Street (known as ‘Cork’) and a humble annexe in Marlborough Street, again known simply by the street name.

The department is divided into six branches scattered throughout the buildings. Again, discreetly but confusingly, some of the branches have sections in different buildings. In order to avoid an inordinate use of shoe leather, all are linked by extremely secure telephone lines, with a flawless system for identification of the credentials of the caller.

‘A’ branch handles in its various sections Policy, Technical Support, Property Establishment, Registry, Data Processing, the office of the Legal Adviser and the Watcher Service. The last named is the home of that idiosyncratic group of men and (some) women, of all ages and types, street wise and ingenious, who can mount the finest personal surveillance teams in the world. Even ‘hostiles’ have had to concede that on their own ground MI5’s watchers are just about unbeatable… (p.42)

And so on for another three highly detailed, flag-waving pages. Want to know about the Joint Intelligence Committee?

The full JIC is a rather large committee. Apart from half a dozen ministries and several agencies, the three armed forces and the two intelligence services, it would also include the London-based representatives of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, America’s CIA… (pp.112-113)

The KGB? Specifically, the KGB’s operations in Japan? Yes, we have that in stock:

The First Chief Directorate of the KGB, responsible for all overseas activities, is divided into Directorates, Special Departments and Ordinary Departments. Ordinary KGB agents under diplomatic cover come from one of the ‘territorial’ departments – the Seventh Department happens to cover Japan. These staffers are called PR Line when on posting abroad and they do the run-of-the-mill trawling for information, making of useful contacts, reading of technical publications, etc. (pp.151-152)

In the exciting finale the SAS are called in to storm the house where Petrofsky is hiding out with the bomb. Since I know that no nuclear device went off in 1987, and that Mrs Thatcher won that year’s election and – more importantly – that Brave John Preston never loses a case – I was never in doubt that Bad Russian Petrofsky would be foiled. Nor is Forsyth.

Instead, strangely coldly, factually, there is page after page about the SAS’s structure and organisation, all the things which make it unique etc.

The fighting arm of the SAS is based on a module of four. Four men make up a patrol, four patrols a troop and four troops a squadron. They rotate through the various SAS commitments: Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Jungle Training and Special projects, apart from the continuing NATO tasks and the maintenance of one squadron on standby at Hereford. (p.484)

More, far more time, effort and text is spent on this encyclopedia-style content about the SAS and its thorough and careful preparations than on the storming of the house which is over in a brisk, no-nonsense two pages (pp.505-507): one chap shot but not wounded thanks to latest Kevlar body armour; wicked Russkie eliminated; nuke recovered intact, Suh!

Buildings

The text follows the different characters as they travel round quite a bit, to Moscow and various parts of the USSR, all over South Africa to uncover the Jan Marais plotline, back and forth across London and the Home Counties, then journeys up to Derbyshire and, finally, car and motorbike trips criss-crossing East Anglia.

In every place the characters visit we are told not just the building they go to, but the exact layout of that building, sometimes (as with the KGB or MI6 headquarters) pages and pages linking the administrative structure of the organisation with the buildings, annexes, wings occupied by each section. I kept thinking the text was crying out for those Sunday Times, Insight article-type illustrations and schematic diagrams of buildings’ layout, with those little human figures added to give scale.

That’s often how the novel feels – a fascinating tour through the key organisations and buildings involved in Cold War espionage and security, with small black silhouettes, the merest human outline possible, to tie them together.

High level plot

There’s a meta-plot, a higher-level narrative which underpins or overarches the on-the-ground pursuit of the agents. Operation Aurora is top secret and being carried out on the sole order of the ailing General Secretary of the USSR but there is rivalry between Generals in the highest ranks of the KGB. And in Britain, the rivalry between MI6 and its boss Sir Nigel Irvine and MI5 with its ailing leader Sir Bernard Hemmings and its ambitious number two Brian Harcourt-Smith, are the background to Irvine poaching the omnicapable Preston to solve the case.

But at the very end of the book Irvine informs Preston that the whole Operation was deliberately ‘blown’ by a senior figure on the Russian side (one General Karpov). Part of Preston’s investigation had been to follow an agent flagged up by passport control at Heathrow. Preston and his team of ‘watchers’ trailed him to a house in Chesterfield, which the watchers stake out for over a week, on a hunch it contains important information or equipment and Preston’s gamble pays off when key baddy, Petrofsky, eventually arrives. It is this slender thread which allows Preston to tail Petrofsky back to his house in Ipswich and foil the entire plot.

But now Irvine informs him that the sending of the agent, Winkler, was a deliberate gesture by KGB supremo Karpov to ensure that the plot failed, that an atomic bomb was not detonated in Britain, that the Labour Party did not win the election.

The quid pro quo was that our side – Sir Nigel – ordered Petrofsky to be not just captured, but liquidated. And indeed, in the climax of the SAS raid, he was only badly wounded when, to Preston’s horror, the SAS captain steps forward and shoots him in the head. Now Preston discovers that was part of the ‘deal’. KGB scupper their own plot; we ensure their best agent isn’t interrogated, ‘blown’, and spread all over the newspapers.

In the final pages we see Irvine meet Karpov at a safe house in Geneva and exchange documents, Irvine satisfied that the plot was aborted, Karpov with the documentary proof of the Operation’s existence which he will take back to the USSR and use to undermine his rivals, maybe even topple the General Secretary himself, certainly gain promotion, and win debts and favours from the British.

It is almost as if espionage is a dirty, cynical business.

Forgettable and out of date

But as with all the immense detail of organisational structure, the buildings and their layouts, you close the book and instantly forget it. Like any airport novel it is totally absorbing as you read and instantly erased once you arrive at your destination.

Added to which, every element of the story is 30 years out of date. There is no longer a KGB, are MI5 and MI6 still based at the same locations and structured into the same Departments? More to the point, there is no longer a USSR nor a Cold War. And real history turned out to be much more fascinating than this fiction. The Miners Strike was a more concrete demonstration of class war than anything Forsyth could cook up, much deeper, much longer, much more bitter and harrowing – and the arrival of Mikhael Gorbachev in the USSR much more complex and tragic than any fiction.

Forsyth’s novel, like most others of the time, is based on the frozen timelessness of a Cold War it was assumed would go on for generations. Instead, five short years later it was over, the Berlin Wall was coming down and a few years later the USSR passed into history.

The appeal of Forsyth’s novels must largely rest on their documentary thoroughness (it certainly doesn’t depend on their psychological insight or depth of character, of which there is next to none). Which means they are as vulnerable as the newspapers where he learned his trade. Who wants yesterday’s papers? Let alone newspapers from 30 years ago, written in (what now seems like) crippling ignorance of what was about to happen.

Like John Buchan or Eric Ambler’s novels, Forsyth’s speak of a world which has fast receded into the past, which will soon be of historical and antiquarian interest only.

Upper class

Forsyth is incredibly posh. You can almost hear his plummy tones as you read. All the British characters went to public school ie the heads of MI5, MI6, Special Branch etc. I laughed out loud when, in the first half, the head of MI6 reveals that he not only knows the suspected mole, he went to the same school as him! The mole was his fag and cleaned his shoes. Of course he was.

These are the people, this narrow clique of privately educated, inter-married and inter-related, upper class toffs, who claimed then – as now – to speak for ‘the nation’ of 60 million extremely diverse people, the 95% of the population which didn’t go to private school, are not part of the many overlapping sets and cliques and groups which comprise the Ruling Class, the Establishment. In fact there’s a paragraph describing just this:

Brian Harcourt-Smith was the product of a very minor private school and carried on his shoulder a sizeable and quite unnecessary chip. Beneath his polished veneer he had a considerable capacity for resentment. All his life he had resented the seemingly effortless ease which the men around him could bring to the business of life. He resented their endless and interwoven network of contacts and friendships, often forged long ago in schools, universities or fighting regiments, on which they could draw when they wished. It was called the ‘old boy network’ or the ‘magic circle’, and he resented most of all that he was not a member of it. (p.126)

Even the hero, Honest John Preston, the tough, professional Army man turned agent, of course went to private school and is now sending his son to exactly the same kind of school, where he will learn the same values: cricket, philistinism, bad food, snobbery.

In this context, the very early sections of the book are unconsciously funny. Forsyth chooses to have the mole in MI6 revealed via the accident of a break-in to his posh apartment in Belgravia. These opening 30 or so pages describe in customary detail the professional burglar casing the joint and then carrying out the job, complete with minute descriptions of how he neutralises the alarm system, picks the lock, and exactly how he blows the safe. Slick, technically informed professionalism is what we expect of absolutely every character in a Forsyth novel. But as this one is a south London crook Forsyth feels he has to explain to his readers a number of facts about south London and its criminal classes. I particularly enjoyed him explaining what a ‘manor’ is, ie the territory in which a crook operates, what a ‘face’ is, ie a criminal known to the authorities, and so on. I laughed when he daintily explained that a ‘slag’ is the term of art for a hard man, a ‘heavy’.

He expects his audience to know all about Whites and Brooks and the Army and Navy (exclusive clubs for the upper classes) but to have to be carefully informed about criminal argot or south London landmarks.

[Walking to the dining room at Brooks] they passed the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Martin Flannery, coming the other way. Although they knew each other, Sir Martin saw at once that his colleague was ‘in conference’. The mandarins acknowledged each other’s presence with an imperceptible inclination of the head, sufficient for two scholars of Oxford. Backslapping is best left to foreigners. (p.510)

In fact Forsyth’s novels read as if written for the Sunday Times-reading classes, in between the Style and the Arts sections, the parts which advise you which Caribbean island to holiday on or which opera to go to. Sometimes I feel a bit too common to be reading them. Sometimes I’m surprised that anyone without an old school tie is allowed to buy them.

Benefits of the old boy network

That said, Forsyth makes a point I don’t think I’ve seen expressed quite so clearly before, which is that the old boy network works and it works precisely because its network of contacts covers the entire political, security, police and Whitehall machine. Because Nigel was at school with Jeremy, it means that now they’re the heads of MI6 and the SAS, respectively, they can talk quickly, informally, and get things done:

That the procedure can work within minutes is due in part to the fact that it has been rehearsed and honed to a fine art over and over again; and partly to the fact that the British establishment, when required to move fast, contains enough interpersonal relationships to permit a great deal of procedure to be kept at verbal level, with the inevitable paperwork left to catch up later. British bureaucracy may appear slow and cumbersome to the British but it is greased lightning compared with its European and American counterparts. (p.483)

He then goes on into characteristically Forsythian detail, explaining how: the Chief Constable of Suffolk, informed of the terrorist threat, contacts Sir Hubert Villiers in Whitehall, who briefs  his Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, who informs the Prime Minister, who gives approval to deploy the SAS, which is relayed to Sire Peregrine Jones at Defence, who knew about it anyway because he’s already had a little chat with Sir Martin, so that within sixty minutes of the first contact between the head of Suffolk constabulary and Home Office, the Director of Military Operations is talking on a scrambled line to the commanding officer of the SAS at Hereford. Phew. There is no doubting the depth of Forsyth’s research and knowledge. But it is possible to question the way he deploys it.

Condescending attitude

Given the profile of the author implied by his text with its worship of the British police and intelligence services, its rabid suspicion of the Labour Party, its smooth familiarity with the clubs and banter of Britain’s elite, it is no great surprise to read the witheringly condescending opinions of anyone left-wing which sprinkle the text. The anti-nuclear protesters and marchers who play a minor role in the novel (they hold up the Baddy as he drives back to his safe house with the nuke in his boot) prompt a few snooty put-downs.

The Tornadoes had gone back to Scotland but in their place the peace of the rustic neighbourhood had been shattered by protestors, mainly female and possessed of the strangest personal habits, who had infested the fields and set up shanty camps on patches of common ground…. [Behind the leaders of the march] came the column of pacifists, pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninists, anti-Soviet Trotskyites, lecturers and Labour activists, with an admixture of unemployed, punks, gays and bearded ecologists… Up the two sides of the road were scattered the resident female protestors, most sporting placards and banners, some in anoraks and crewcuts, who held hands with their younger lady friends or clapped the approaching marchers… (pp.462-463)

Bet none of them went to a decent school, eh?

The title

The Fourth Protocol is one of the (fictional) secret appendices to a 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by the USSR and USA. It specifies that neither side may deliver nuclear devices by sneaky underhand methods eg in suitcases. They have to be dropped from planes and on the end of inter-continental ballistic missiles. Thus, the plot consists of Preston and his MI6 boss slowly realising the Russians are breaking the Fourth Protocol. Which is just not cricket, is it?


The movie

It was swiftly made into a movie, directed by John Mackenzie, starring Michael Caine and a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan. It’s much better shot than the film adaptation of Gorky Park, much nicer to look at.

There are no women in the book (except for John Preston’s ex-wife, who has run off with a millionaire and we never meet, and the scared wife of the innocent middle-aged neighbour whose house the authorities commandeer to keep a watch on what they suspect is a Soviet ‘drop’ house in Chesterfield. She’s good at making tea, exactly as a middle-aged, non-public school Englishwoman ought to be.)

But a Hollywood movie must have sex in it, so they first invent a neighbour, who works at the air base and has a horny wife who makes a pass at Petrofsky/Brosnan. And then the bomb maker, Vassiliev, turns out not to be the cold, calculating agent of the novel but the gorgeous Joanna Cassidy. They assemble the bomb together and then the camera closes up on the sweat dripping down her cleavage. When Pierce moves in to snog her she says, ‘I thought you’d get to that,’ and so must every single person who’s ever seen the film have felt the same heavy clang of inevitability. There is a vivid sequence of them having sex before – just as inevitably – he kills her. What a thankless role for this beautiful actress.

Indeed, there is a lot of callous killing in the movie, much more than in the book. The tone is set in the opening scene where, after a long car journey to a remote dacha in the snowy Russian countryside, Philby, who has come all this way to meet the General, is instead shot in the face by his subordinate. It is crude and shocking and doesn’t happen, couldn’t happen, in the original, for we need Philby to write the very long analysis of the Labour Party which is the premise of the whole thing.

Here, his being shot in the face lacks any of the intelligence or subtlety and, of course, none of the amazing wealth of background information, which is the dominant characteristic of the book. In the final scenes of the novel, when he learns about the Russian double-cross which underpins the plot, Preston mulls over the complexity of his trade and in the postscript is seen happily leaving intelligence to go and work for a commercial security firm.

The movie, typically for this and so many other film adaptations of novels, ditches all the subtlety, reducing pages of thoughtfulness to the absolute minimum number of words, to have Michael Caine’s Preston confront Irvine and Karpov, and yell, ‘It’s about time they put you in a fucking museum’ – a trite and immature outburst nicely suited to the petulant teenagers most films are aimed at.

Glad it only cost me £1 in a charity shop.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

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

Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis (1984)

The reference to Jewboys on page 43 (‘Soon afterwards I went out and picked up a taxi on its way back from dropping somebody at one of the Jewboys’ houses in Bishop’s Avenue’) was so wantonly offensive that it brought me up short and made me realise the character of Stanley Duke, who’s telling this first person narrative, is a character – is intended to be a fictional creation separate from his creator, the author known as Kingsley Amis, who couldn’t possibly be that casually anti-semitic, and that we mustn’t make the elementary mistake of confusing a created character – who can hold all kinds of views – with his creator, or the character’s opinions with the author’s.

The only problem with this is that the voice and attitude, the troubled relationship to other human beings, the grumpy resentment of the modern world, the relentless sexism, are all very much of a part with previous Amis books. It reads like Amis, it sounds like Amis, it thinks like Amis. Just giving the narrator a few unpleasant prejudices and a verbose style doesn’t really change the fact that it is an Amis text we’re reading, through and through. And this, late Amis, is mined with deliberate offense.

The plot

Stanley Duke, born and raised in Sarf London, is the permanently perplexed advertising manager of some car magazine in Fleet Street. He’s divorced from the ageing actress, Nowell who, looking back, he has no idea why he married. (She is now remarried to Bert Hutchinson, a TV ad director who is permanently pissed and sweary.) Stan now lives with posh, supportive Susan, who he nonetheless often finds puzzling, and who is connected to a ferociously posh mother, Lady D, and absurdly posh sister.

Stan and Sue are just tidying up after a dinner party when his 19-year-old son, Steve, turns up on the doorstep, apparently having suffered a mental collapse, behaving and speaking with bewildering irrationality.

It becomes clear that Steve’s had some kind of nervous breakdown and Stanley’s GP, Cliff Wainwright, after visiting, recommends him to a psychiatrist. The latter is on holiday so Steve’s care is taken over by pushy young female psychiatrist, Dr Collings, whose modish jargon and general femininity Stan takes strong exception to. He is backed up in this by the fogeyish Harley Street consultant, Dr Nash, who they visit for a second opinion and who strikes Stan as a good bloke when he not only offers sherry during the interview, but takes them on to a boozy lunch at a nice little place he knows. Educated woman = bad. Heavy drinking middle-aged white man = good.

The text is divided into four parts: Onset (94 pages), Progress (110 pages), Relapse (60 pages), Prognosis (44 pages).

If you were sympathetic to Amis maybe you would defend the book by saying it is a riotous satire on a certain type of middle-aged, drunk, sexist, anti-intellectual philistine. Except:

  • The views and style are too close to too many previous Amis narrators.
  • The first half at least – the part describing in detail Steve’s symptoms – isn’t funny at all, it’s genuinely distressing.
  • I laughed at the scene where Stan joins Bert at a party on a houseboat in the Thames where all the guests get puking drunk and the pissed couple drive to a little place Bert knows in central London where he reveals that he only pretends to be pissed and only swears at Stan whenever he turns up, in order to keep the ghastly Nowell onside, for he has come to hate and detest her. It is funny but embarrassing, this tale of two irresponsibly pissed fifty-something men who should know so much better.
  • Amis moves the goalposts to support Stan’s sexism: he makes the old, established, male psychiatrist totally support Stan’s dislike of the female psychiatrist; he makes Bert support Stan’s interpretation of Nowell’s horrible character. It isn’t a truly open exploration of being adrift in the modern world: Amis loads the dice in favour of his sexist narrator. Which just doesn’t seem that clever or inventive.

Misogyny

There’s no avoiding the fact that Amis has gone out of his way to make this novel as unpleasant to women as possible. All women. Early on he establishes that Stan’s ex-wife is an unbearable drama queen. Steve’s psychiatrist, Dr Collings, is portrayed as superficial, trendy and almost incompetent, herself often a rag of messed hair, smouldering fag and resentment. Throughout the novel Stan sprinkles sexist comments and remarks and Amis makes sure Stan’s attitude is bolstered by other male figures.

‘On our first meeting at your house, do you remember my asking you if you thought all women were mad?’
‘Very clearly,’ I said. ‘And I told you I thought a lot of them were. Well, what’s happened in the meantime hasn’t exactly forced me to change my mind.’ (p.307)

But it’s in the final section that there comes the one really big surprise, the one genuine plot twist in the novel. Steve is released back into Stan and Susan’s care but suffers a relapse. (This, Stan discovers, is because the awful Dr Collings is weaning him off the medication which had, in truth, been stabilising his condition.) They wake up one morning to find Steve has climbed high up a tree in the garden to avoid ‘them’ looking into his mind.

The twist is the effect this has on his previously solid, reliable second wife, posh Susan. When Stan rings the ex, Nowell, to come round and talk Steve down from the tree (based on the way she managed to calm him down on the first evening when he turned up in such a state), Susan refuses to be there, to see her, to hear her voice, but hides in the bedroom. She reproaches Stan for preferring his ex to her, when in Stan’s mind it’s a simple matter of what’s effective.

Then – arguably the key event of the novel – is that the next day, Stan gets a call at work to hurry home and finds his friend, Dr Wainwright, treating Susan for a bad cut on her forearm. She claims Steve attacked her with a kitchen knife then panicked, ran back to his bedroom while Susan called the doc. But Dr W tells Stan, in front of Susan, that when he went in, talked to, and then sedated Steve, the boy disclaimed any knowledge of the incident. For a moment Stan is completely perplexed.

And, after the doc has gone, Susan has a massive tantrum, all her pent-up anger and frustration with this intolerable situation coming out in a long tirade against Stanley, his selfishness, his boorish, lower-class habits, his drunkenness. Now – to her horror – she realises he doesn’t even believe her about the knife incident; for a moment he was more inclined to believe his disastrously mad son than his loyal wife. And so she packs her bags and storms off to her mother’s vowing never to return.

Stunned, Stan staggers through his day, but is lucky enough to have his old flame Lindsey to call on, they go for a meal and then back to her flat, to bed. However, the thrust of these scenes is that Lindsey knew Susan at university – and Susan is mad. Lindsey tells a number of anecdotes about how Susan couldn’t bear not to be the centre of attention, smashed places up, caused havoc, almost had to be restrained on numerous occasions. ‘She’s mad, Stan, mad.’ The moral of this plot device is: Even the sanest, most reliable woman you’ve known for ages – underneath, turns out to be completely bonkers!

Later, Stan talks to Dr Nash who, gives voice to a long, repellent rant about women, how they are incapable of understanding honesty, or decency, or admitting their mistakes.

‘They don’t have motives as you and I understand them. They have the means and the opportunity, that is enough.’ (p.306)

And, in the final pages, Stan goes round to dinner at Doc Wainwright’s who explains that the kind of cut Susan got is not the kind you’d get fending off an attacker – it is the kind of carefully undangerous cut on the fleshy part of the arm that someone would give themselves. Horribly, he confirms that Susan almost certainly self inflicted the wound, confirming Lindsey’s analysis that she is a hysterical attention-seeker – confirming the mounting thrust of the whole novel, that women are unbearably other, impenetrable irrational beings.

At which moment, with comic, or gruesome, timing, just as we’ve learned all this about poor Susan – the phone rings and it is Susan, abjectly apologising to Stan for her outburst, she’s been under a lot of strain with the Steve thing etc etc. Will he take her back…?

While she hurried on about having been so desperately frightened and upset and one thing and another I turned towards Cliff, who did the brief lift of the chin South London people use to mean Told you so or Here we go again or Wouldn’t you bleeding know it. (p.317)

As a male reader I found the style and attitude of this novel wearing and occasionally jarring. If I was a woman, I think I’d be happy to see it burnt.


The narrator’s alienation

Amis is marketed as a comic writer but I have found all his books eerie and unsettling because of the profound disconnect between the observing narrator and the characters. The narrator really struggles to know what other people are thinking or doing. He finds other people’s behaviour a constant puzzle.

Far from being funny, I routinely find it like being inside the mind of an autistic person – almost every sentence, every gesture, produced by other people is bewildering and mystifying. The narrator – and the reader – looks on in complete bafflement. Maybe many readers find the results funny but I find them deeply disturbing.

The narrator’s style

The narrator’s style in this book is characterised by vagueness and verbosity. Given half a chance he uses what you could call ‘dangling clauses’, tagging onto the end of sentences an additional phrase or two which never give greater precision or definition, but always do the opposite – emphasising that there are one or two or three interpretations of what someone else has done or said or might have if they, you know, had the chance, maybe – well, whatever. The narrator is so used to being disoriented by other people’s surprising behaviour, he doesn’t care much any more, sort of thing.

Too often this ‘whatever’ attitude is expanded to fill whole paragraphs of repetitive bumf which all follow a similar pattern: this happened, she said this, my marriage was like this and I could never figure out whether it was her or me or them who sometimes, you know, when it mattered or even when it didn’t matter, said or did something which, you know, in the great scale of things, sort of might have been the cause but you never really know, do you.

Coming fresh from reading the taut, clipped, information-rich prose of Martin Cruz Smith, Amis’s prose feels like a bloated blancmange.

The narrator’s sod-you attitude

Amis’s attitude – entertainingly stroppy and insubordinate in the straight-laced 1950s – had become a really anti-social, fuck-you attitude by the 1980s. Wouldn’t necessarily matter except that Attitude has replaced all semblance of thought, reflection, of plain intelligence – just as the bloated mannerisms have swamped, eclipsed and devastated what might once have been a style.


Examples of style and attitude

Rather The opening pages emphasise the middle-class Englishness of Stan and Susan. Rather, quite, actually, quite, rather.

They drank a rather good white Burgundy… The sitting room on the first floor had a low ceiling and a rather awkward shape… a specially built wooden case, part of which housed the rather old-fashioned hi-fi… things were not going too badly for her after some rather rough times earlier on… (pp.11-12)

Or After a while I began to circle every time the word ‘or’ was used to express the narrator’s inability to decide between several interpretations of something, or his deliberate decision to highlight that things can have multiple interpretations, or his chronic inability to figure out what the hell he’s trying to say. This might have been interesting if the interpretations were themselves sharp and insightful, but they are always the opposite – throwaway, half-hearted, dazed and confusing, fading away into a general ‘whatever’.

One of the troubles with getting on all right with people like your mother-in-law, or looking as if you did, or trying to, was that people like your wife took to leaving you alone with them for a nice chat. (p.33)

Lady D had managed to keep that sort of feeling more or less to herself. But then of course there had not been anything much in the way of reason or excuse or provocation before. (p.42)

Then I caught Steve’s eye and he recognised me instantly, which does sound like what he should have done in a way, and it was not that he mistook me for someone else he knew or thought he knew, at least that never occurred to me then. (p.85)

Jews, or people who might have been Jews or counted as Jews or Israelis, were after him because he had once known – not, I was sure, ever very well – a girl who was quite likely one sort of Arab or another. (p.87)

When I rang the hospital the next day the response was much as before. Another Asian voice, or quite likely the same one, said Mr Duke was comfortable but, it turned out, was not to be visited – not must on no account be or taking everything into account had better not be, just was not to be. (p.105)

‘You could tell what she meant when she thought she was meaning the opposite or not meaning anything at all… You’re the doctor who’s looking after my son or however you want to put it… I dare say you haven’t finished examining him or whatever you want to call it yet… ‘ (pp.132-133)

There’s a hymn of ‘or’s after Stan has listened to Dr Collings diagnose Steve’s mental illness in terms of seeking escape, building a mental refuge for unbearable pressures in the ‘real’ world, all diagnoses he finds unbearably trendy and meaningless (which is funny, coming from a man half of whose thoughts are meaningless repetitions):

I told myself it had to be, had to make sense somehow, somewhere. The resemblance to TV must be a mistake, an illusion based on my own ignorance, which had made me miss all sorts of subtle points and misunderstand phrases and expressions that were nearly or even exactly the same as bits of drivel but actually conveyed a precise scientific meaning to those in the know, and getting in touch with your own anger and finding out who you really were etc., were technical terms referring to definite, observable processes. Or Collings’s approach was so new that they had not yet worked out a what, a terminology for it. Or she was hopeless at talking about what she did but shit-hot in action. Or something else that made it all right, because something must. Whatever she might say and however she might behave, the bint was a doctor. (p.136)

Obviously this is Stanley the fictional character speaking. But to what extent does his anger at trendy psychobabble, and his resentment of ‘bint doctors’ reflect Amis’s view? Given the evidence of all his other novels, and the many interviews and articles he wrote, the answer must be – quite a lot.

‘Something like mental trouble being caused or anyway helped on by experiences in childhood… So Steve had a breakdown because you took no notice or the wrong sort of notice of him when he was little…’ (p.142)

Collings allowed me plenty of time to take this in by finishing, or so far just going on with, the letter or note she had been writing when I came in. (p.150)

At my side, the nurse or more probably sister made a small sound or movement that might have meant she disagreed. (p.169)

Cloudy and diffuse Even without the ‘or’s proliferating clauses of diminishing meaning, plenty of sentences disappear into gaseous verbosity, with the very conspicuous and deliberate addition of pointless tags: I suppose, on the other hand, sort of, kind of, at least, in a kind of way. So often he just can’t be bothered to define what he means.

It was true she lacked the withdrawn expression to be seen in most women considered to be beautiful, but there ought to have been a word for her combination of features, which was among other things completely distinctive, meaning less good versions of it somehow never seemed to show up, and the obvious word always had a lot to be said for it, quite enough in this case. (p.14)

Notice how the sentence becomes less meaningful as it goes on until it has almost become gibberish. Hundreds of sentences in the book are like this, making the text at times almost unbearably irritating and frustrating to read.

I felt very reluctant to be in his company – oh, I felt plenty of other things too, and disapproved of that one, but there seemed to be nothing I could do about it and for the moment it was neither here nor there. (p.69)

‘There are exceptions, naturally.’
It was such a gift to Nash to say Naturally back that I had no idea how he avoided it, but he did, just pushed his mouth forward and went on staring at me in what seemed to be his way, not offensively, seeing either quite a lot or not much of anything, it was hard to tell. (p.72)

‘Go back to the time you describe, when your son appeared late at night. Isn’t it possible that you were sure then that he was mad,’ – for once, just on that last word, Nash’s voice softened – ‘or nearly sure, or you might have been sure if you hadn’t told yourself you knew nothing about the subject, or you would have been sure if it had been someone less close to you?’ (p.80)

At the end of a fraught interview with Dr Collings there is a moment which epitomises the technique, the pattern or rhythm of so many of these sentences, which 1. open with something arresting 2. then weaken the effect by giving it multiple possible interpretations before 3. dwindling down to the anti-climax of not really being bothered either way.

1. In the middle of [indicating she had gathered enough information, Dr Collings] threw me out completely by giving me a really powerful sexy look, one that almost qualified as a leer. 2. At least that was what I took it to be, though given her skimpy control over her face it might almost equally well have stood for impersonal sympathy or moral disapproval. 3. Not that that mattered much either. (p.162)

It’s a common pattern or thought process, like watching a drunk slowly pass out.

[1] When I asked him what he was doing he took no notice, [2] in fact he looked away and seemed to stare into the next garden or the one further, [3] where there might have been something interesting going on for all I knew. (p.250)

Drunk Of course much of this might be an attempt to capture the thought rhythms of a drunk, an alcoholic. Stanley drinks steadily throughout the book and he regards it as a good sign in the men he meets if they also drink a lot. He goes to the barge party where plenty of middle-aged people drink so much they’re sick, and many meetings and encounters take place down the pub where Stan puts away an impressive amount of scotch and gin.

Thus, many of the events feel marinated in booze, and perhaps the verbose but gaseous style is an attempt to capture that fading of energy, the loss of will in a drunk who gets half-way through a sentence then just can’t be bothered. Blah blah blah ‘or something’:

I felt drunk or something. (p.135)

It showed great powers of something-or-other to have got there unassisted… She had hardly started before I became too drunk to remember afterwards any of the individual bits… (p.143, 145)

Or maybe it isn’t a clever parody of a drunk’s thought processes. Maybe it is just Late Amis.

A bit of stuff going on There’s another mannerism which gets pretty irritating, the way he describes other people’s behaviour as a kind of impersonal event: he observes people as if they are peculiar pieces of machinery rather than fellow human beings to be empathised with. For example, a woman wouldn’t be crying; there would be a bit of tears going on. People wouldn’t be laughing; there’d be some laughing going on over in the corner.

People don’t actively do things; instead, in a variation of the passive voice, there’s a bit of ‘x’ going on. The effect is alienating, and dismissive of people as people, as valid humans, as agents of behaviour: instead they become balls of actions at the periphery of Stan’s consciousness.

As soon as [Nowell] understood what was required of her she started thick-and-thinning away like nobody’s business and after doing enough of it to last me, or herself, said she would come at once. (p.253)

It was Nowell… ‘Darling Stanley.’ A warm hug came my way, one full notch below sexiness but no more and accompanied by the usual good smell. (p.257)

Not ‘she hugged me’. Instead, ‘a warm hug came my way’.

When people are talking to him, he’s inclined to refer to ‘that part’ or ‘that section’ of a discourse. It’s not ungrammatical, but it is another indication of the way the world is held at bay, not engaged with, seen through a not very clean glass, from the isolated zone where our man struggles to make out people, their intentions, their meanings. As Harry Coote is talking to him Stan largely tunes out:

That last section saw me halfway into another jar. (p.196)

That last section, that bit, that part of whatever he was on about, after a bit more of the same kind of thing, she went on for a bit more but I had stopped listening…

At the hospital , after Steve’s relapse, Stan begs Dr Collings to take him back into care but she refuses in a to-and-fro which goes on at some length, initially recounted in some detail, but then:

After a bit more along the same lines I came away, trying not to feel scared about what might be in store. (p.262)

‘After a bit more along the same lines’. The impression is that he can’t be bothered to repeat the full conversation; people just say the same old same old, anyway.

Instead of being sharp and precise, the text and attitude are old, tired, dismissive. He can’t even be bothered to account for the characters he himself has invented. At times, reading this novel, it seems a wonder Amis can be bothered to tell the story at all. Surely he’d be happier slumped, like Stanley, in front of some rubbish on the telly with a large scotch in his hand shouting to his wife in the kitchen, ‘When will dinner be ready?’

In a few days I’ll be reading the next Amis, The Old Devils, and I am praying this diffuse, muddling, indecisive style is an affectation, an exaggerated style and attitude created specially for the character of Stanley Duke, and is not simply the diffuse, muddling, deliberately offensive style of late Amis.


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.

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