Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (1994)

‘Many tricky dicks walk the trail.’ (Jean-Baptiste Porteur, p.88)

I saw this book in several second-hand bookshops before I picked it up for a pound imagining, from the stylish cover, that Davidson was one of the new young generation of thriller writers.

How wrong I was. Davidson was born in 1922 and published his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas, in 1960, the year before John le Carré made his debut – i.e. he is very much one of the old generation of thriller writers.

After Wenceslas Davidson published a novel every couple of years throughout the 1960s and early 70s until 1978 when he disappeared from view. After a gap of 16 years he returned with Kolymsky Heights, his last novel, which gained rave reviews.

Is it any good? What’s it about? Does it make me want to go in search of his other seven thrillers?

Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights is relatively long at 478 pages and quite quickly you realise this is because Davidson’s defining quality is a long, drawn-out and frustrating, round-the-houses approach.

We are introduced to a fusty old don in Oxford, Professor Lazenby. His secretary, Miss Sonntag, opens a letter from Sweden which turns out to be empty. Until the prof roots around in the bottom of it and finds some cigarette papers. These contain indentations. He calls in a pupil of his who now works in ‘Scientific Services’ and who, a few years earlier, had called on the Prof and asked him to do a little gentle spying – in fact more like ‘alert observation’ – when he was attending a conference in the Eastern Bloc.

Lazenby calls up this man, Philpott, to come and interpret the cigarette papers. They realise the bumps on the surface contain a message coded as a set of numbers. These turn out to relate to books of the Bible, giving chapter and verse numbers. By piecing together the fragmented quotes they arrive at a message which, in an elliptical way, refers to a dark-haired man from the north who can speak tongues and who the writer wants to visit him.

If you like crosswords, I think you’d like this book. Or if you’re partial to railway timetables. Precise hours and timings are given for everything, and become vitally important in the later stages of the book.

Philpott passes the message up to a level of the British security services where it is shared with the Americans. They have spy satellites patrolling the earth and photographing every inch of Russia, especially secret installations. Recent satellite photos indicate that a well-established camp in the heart of Siberia has had an explosion and fire, and shows figures tramping amidst the ruins. The guy in charge of monitoring this, W. Murray Hendricks, calls in a second opinion, a naturalist who confirms that… the figures walking around appear to be… ape-men! They have the stance of men but… their arms and legs are the wrong shape!

This chimes with the opening section of prose right at the start of the book, a (characteristically unexplained) preface which appears to be a message written from someone working at a Russian security base, writing to a colleague who is about to join him. It describes the way a baby mammoth was found deeply embedded in ice, was chipped out and transported back to the base, where it turned out not to be a mammoth at all but a human, a woman lying on her side, who had fallen into a crevasse along with some bags and a tusk, and was heavily pregnant (big and bulky with tusks – that’s what caused the initial mistaken diagnosis).

So we have learned that: a 40,000-year-old frozen pregnant woman is brought to a top secret Russian research base. Some time later, American satellite photos show ape-like men at a top secret Russian research base. Are we dealing with a 1990s version of The Island of Dr Moreau?

If we are, it takes a bloody long time to get there, because we are still with Philpott and Lazenby trying to interpret the coded and elliptical cigarette-paper message. Eventually it dawns on the Prof that the reference is to a dark-haired, native American from British Columbia, a man known by his clan name of ‘Raven’, a man he met at a scientific conference in Oxford some 15 years back, which had also been attended by some Russians.

About the Raven

The novel then switches to give us Raven’s complicated biography. Christened Jean-Baptiste Porteur, he was brought up in the matrilinear society of the Gitksan people in the Skeena river region of British Columbia, north-west Canada, before being dumped into the care of a local missionary. Porteur was taught English enough to excel in his studies but then ran away to sea for a few years. Eventually he returned to settled society and took up serious studies, becoming known as Johnny Porter.

Porter is a super-gifted linguist, one of the few people to be in a position to make academic studies of the families of languages spoken by the natives of the Pacific North-West from the inside. He publishes work on the subject, is awarded a PhD and academic prizes, but remains, nonetheless, a surly non-player of the academic game.

Now he comes to think about it, Prof Lazenby remembers getting really drunk with Raven and another man, a Russian research scientist named Rogachev, at a conference in Oxford years ago. This Russian, Rogachev, then disappeared off the grid some 15 years ago, rumoured to have joined some secret research facility. They have (through a series of deductions which I found too obscure to follow) decided that the man sending the cigarette messages must be Rogachev. And that he wants to talk to Raven.

So then the CIA are tasked with tracking down Johnny Porter and find him in a remote fishing village in British Columbia. Lazenby flies out there accompanied by Philpott who hands him over to a fresh-faced young CIA man  named Walters. The CIA are now heavily involved. At least I think it’s the CIA. Langley is referred to (the world-famous headquarters of the CIA) but the agency itself is not mentioned explicitly. Davidson prefers to keep things shadowy and instead refers to ‘the plan’ which appears to be shared by the Brits and the Yanks.

They finally track down Porter to a backwoods cabin, and present him with all the evidence that Rogachev wants him to travel to a top secret Russian research base in deepest Siberia. In fact, its precise location is still unknown (I found this a little too obscure to understand: I thought they had satellite photos. Like most of the novel, these early passages required rereading to try and figure out what was going on, and even then I often gave up trying to understand the minutiae and just read on regardless.)

Raven becomes a Korean seaman

A vast amount of effort then goes in to describing Johnny’s trip by tramp steamer from Japan up into the Arctic Ocean.

As soon as he said yes to the mission, Raven (shall I call him Raven or Porter? Raven has more mystique) was taken to some kind of camp where he was trained in spying and spycraft.

This experience, which took several months, is not actually described in the book, simply referred back to as and when necessary. During his time in ‘the camp’, the surly, secretive multilingual academic Raven has been rather magically transformed into a kind of superspy, a man who will turn out to be capable of carrying out secret rendezvous with other agents, of picking up new outfits and passports and changing identities and carrying himself off as a whole range of different people, fluent in an impressive array of languages (English, Japanese, Korean, half a dozen tribal languages and Russian) which I found increasingly unbelievable.

Thus the next chapter skips over the training camp episode to give us Raven flying into Tokyo where, with typical stubbornness, he promptly refuses to do what the Japanese CIA agent, Yoshi, tells him.

The CIA plan is for Raven to masquerade as a Korean merchant seaman aboard a Japanese tramp steamer, Suzaku Maru, which is scheduled to puff up along the northern, Arctic coast of Siberia, till it gets to the nearest port to the fabled research base.

I still didn’t understand how they know where the base is, or how Johnny will know that, or how they know the ship will stop there, or anywhere nearby. Probably I should have reread the first hundred pages again, to try and piece together the highly elliptical clues. Davidson keeps his cards very close to his chest and only tells the reader the relevant bits of the plan, just before they fall due, and are about to kick in, sometimes only after they’ve happened. The result is a permanent sense of confusion.

Thus it was only a hundred pages later that the reader learns that ‘they’ (presumably the CIA) had approached one of the crew of this tramp steamer, Ushiba, and bribed him with a lot of money to take a pill which mimics the symptoms of yellow fever. He becomes extremely ill just as they dock in Japan. The captain transfers the sick sailor to an ambulance, and Raven just happens to be hanging round and have contacted the ship’s manpower agencies, as it arrives. So he is quickly hired, masquerading as a rough Korean merchant seaman, Sun Wong Chu, complete with pigtail, speaking the language with a slight speech impediment to the Japanese crew, who despise and ignore Koreans anyway.

There’s some tough sailor stuff, in particular a brutal fight with the bosun, who breaks his nose, but Raven works his passage and is gruffly accepted by the others. The ‘plan’ is for he himself to take a yellow fever pill so that, as the ship approaches Green Cape on the Arctic coast of Siberia, it is forced to put in to port and unload him. This he does, and the captain and bosun think he has somehow picked up the earlier sailor’s disease, maybe from infected sheets, mattress etc.

He is treated at Green Cape hospital by several doctors including a woman, Dr Komarova. Then, in a move which bewildered me, Dr Komarova hands him over to the Russian militia who put him on a flight to Yakutsk, where he is transferred to an Aeroflot flight to Murmansk – because that is where the steamer Suzaku Maru, was heading and where, they assume, he will want to rejoin his ship once he is well.

Except that, after recovering for a day or two at a seaman’s mission, Raven goes to a rendezvous with an agent, picks up from him a suitcase containing new clothes and identity papers, goes to the gents loos and shaves off all his hair and Korean pigtail, and emerges with a new identity as Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan, a member of the Chukchee people from the Siberian east, and catches a plane to Irkutsk, changes to one to Yakutsk, then another local flight on to Tchersky, the nearest airport to Green Cape.

Hang on. If it was so easy to get there, to fly there – what was the point of the scam about him pretending to be a Korean sailor? Why the enormous complication of bribing the seaman he replace to take a pill giving him fever (and trusting that the feverish sailor wouldn’t give away the plan) – and then making Raven grow a ponytail and pretend to be Korean for weeks, and get beaten up by the bosun and nearly crushed by dangerous equipment and then take the same damn pill and seriously endanger his health when… he could have just flown there in the first place?

I read all this carefully, but remained completely puzzled. I am obviously missing something and I would say that that sense – the nagging sense of missing some vital piece of the jigsaw – is the permanent and frustrating feeling given by reading this book.

So Raven is now Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan. As planned, he proceeds to the vacant apartment of one Alexei Mikhailovitch Ponomarenko. It turns out that this man was on holiday in the Black Sea when he was approached by the CIA who knew he was a drug smuggler. They threatened to tell the authorities unless he extended his stay on the Black Sea and let his apartment in Tchersky be used by their man Raven. More, it turns out that Khodyan is a friend of Ponomarenko’s, whose identity they have borrowed to create a ‘legend’ (fake identity) for Raven.

Raven discovers Ponomarenko had a gossipy old housekeeper, Anna, and a big brassy girlfriend, Lydia Yakovlevna, both of whom we are introduced to, and both need careful (though very different) handling. Our suave superspy is up to both challenges.

Once unpacked and settled in, Raven goes straight to the Tchersky Transport Company and get a job as a long-distance lorry driver. A great deal of description goes into detailing the work of truck companies in the frozen north of Siberia, and the organisation of this particular company, and the shouty director, Bukarovksy, and various foremen who Raven has to sweet-talk into getting a job – and then we learn a great deal about the different types of trucks.

Davidson very powerfully transports us to a completely strange world, with its language, customs, slang, prejudices and the sheer, backbreaking nature of the work. In summer everything melts, the ships can bring in goods but they can’t be distributed because the countryside is a bog. In winter the ocean freezes over – no more ships – but so does the landscape and so trucks can now drive across it. Especially, it turns out, along the rivers, whose flat, deep-frozen-ice surfaces make perfect highways.

(Davidson gives historical background to the economy of the area, which began as appalling forced labour camps in the 1930s and 40s, but was transformed by the discovery of gold and other minerals in the 1960s to something like a viable, if gruelling, mining economy, pp.188-189)

Raven of course knows how to drive all the trucks (including the small, all-purpose ‘bobik’). He has – by impersonating a Korean seaman, surviving a brutal fight with the bosun, surviving a bout of yellow fever, carrying out a secret rendezvous in an airport and completely transforming his appearance and emerging a fluent Chukchee-speaking truck driver – established himself as a kind of spy superman, speaking as many oriental languages as required and capable of blending in anywhere as a member of the minority Siberian native peoples.

Raven is signed up as a driver and does the work well, earning respect and friendship among the rough crews. At a party of truck drivers Raven is horrified to notice the woman doctor Komarova, who treated him as the sick Korean seaman a few weeks earlier, taking an inordinate interest in him. (Didn’t anyone writing this grand plan foresee that he would meet one set of people as sick Korean and then, returning in a completely different guise, risked bumping into the same people again?)

She comes over and talks. She is interested that he is a Chukchee. She invites him to come and meet her mother who lives in a community of Chukchee. Raven goes and we meet the little old lady and her Chukchee friend who, it turns out (the Chukchee community being so small) was present at his birth!!

Luckily, Raven has memorised the ‘legend’ prepared for him so immaculately that he is able to talk to this old lady about his numerous relatives and their mutual acquaintances (all the time, obviously, speaking in Chukchee). I found this wildly improbable.

On the way back from the little tea party, Raven determines to kill the doctor who has been asking more and more suspicious questions about his background. He gets as far as putting his arm round her neck and is on the verge of snapping it (he is a big, strong lad) when she squeals that she is in on The Plan, she is part of The Plan, she is his contact with Rogachev!

After that they go back to her place, she explains some of the background (her father and Rogachev were in the same labour camp together; she knew him as a kindly uncle when she was a girl), and the big revelation that it was she who bribed a merchant seaman who she was treating to take the coded cigarette papers which Rogachev had smuggled out to her, placed in a letter and addressed to Prof Lazenby, the fateful letter which was opened by his secretary in her calm Oxford office all those months earlier.

Then they have sex. Obviously. Most women I know like to shag a man who’s just tried to murder them.

She was not as well found as Lydia Yakovlevna; lankier, less yielding. But she was lithe, controlled, and quite used, as she said, to getting what she wanted. She was also very much more genuine, arching without histrionics when her moment came, and he arched at the same time, and afterwards she kissed his face and stroked it. (p.247)

Now they work together to smuggle Raven into the research base. This new plan stretched credibility to breaking point and beyond. It turns out the research base is very heavily patrolled and guarded (of course), but is serviced by a rotating squad of native Evenk people, selected from the large Evenk tribe which makes a living herding reindeer nearby. The Evenk are honest and reliable and deeply clannish i.e. don’t talk to outsiders, and, anyway, don’t do anything more secret than laundry, cooking, humping heavy equipment about. None of them has any idea what the research going on at the base is about.

Dr Komarova will smuggle Raven in by using a ruse. The ruse is this:

Rogachev, head of the research station, is attended by one of the Evenk tribe, Stepan Maximovich. Stepan inherited the job from his father. He never leaves the base. Raven will be taken to meet the clan leader of the tribe, Innokenty, and pretend to be one of them, an Evenk, but who moved as a boy to Novosibirsk in the distant south (to explain his rickety accent). He will then give a long complicated story about how he met down in the south some members of a white (Russian) family, worked for them, got to know and admire them, but how the father, some kind of scientist, was sent by the state off to some kind of ‘weather station’ in the north 15 or 16 years earlier. Money was sent the family, but no letters, Then the mother of the family died young, but the daughter survived, grew up, got married and is now pregnant. But she herself is now ill. A few months ago he got a letter from the daughter begging to see him. Raven goes sees her and she begs him to track down her father for her, name of Rogachev. He poked around in local offices and got a hint that M. Rogachev was posted somewhere in the Kolyma region. This woman begged Raven to travel to the north to find her father, and ask him to give her unborn child a name, it being the role of parents to name new babies.

This sob story will persuade the Evenk to smuggle Raven into the top secret research facility, hand him on to the personal assistant Stepan, who is the only one who can gain him admittance to the presence of the legendary scientist, Rogachev – so that Raven can hand deliver to him the letter written by his daughter.

And this is what happens. Dr Komarov takes Raven to a meeting with Innokenty and the tribe (flying there by helicopter on the pretext of making a routine medical visit). The Evenk elders completely accept Raven’s long cock-and-bull story (pp.262-268). They offer to give him all the help he needs (incidentally, also accepting his use of the Evenk language, which is different from the Chukchee Raven has been using in his persona as Kolya. He is, it will be remembered, a super-linguist).

There then follows the cloak and dagger business of smuggling Raven into the site. Raven poses as the driver of a lorry full of parts and goods which Dr Komarova is taking to the base. They pass through the security barrier, the guards checking her and her Chukchee driver (Raven)’s passes and wave through. Then, as is usual, some of the Evenk porters come out into the snow to help unpack the truck in the sub-zero conditions.

Komarova chooses a moment when the guards’ backs are turned and Raven swaps clothes with one of the Evenk tribesmen. This Evenk dresses as Raven, then accompanies Pomarova back to the truck, heavily swathed in scarves and muffles and is signed back out of the complex, while Raven, also heavily muffled, is accepted on the inside by the cohort of Evenk tribesmen currently working there – because they are all in on the conspiracy of him smuggling the letter from the pregnant woman to Rogachev, as agreed off by headman Innokenty. In fact they are almost too much in on the conspiracy as they all smile and grin and wink at the doctor and Raven so much they become tensely afraid the Russian guards will notice something is wrong. But they don’t. They think the native peoples are nuts, anyway.

There follows yet more cloak and dagger as, late that night, when the Evenk have gone to bed in their dormitory, Stepan the personal assistant comes and smuggles Raven out of the Evenk dormitory, through secret passages in the research base, and finally into an enormous luxury underground library, with a gallery running round the bookshelves dotted with masterpiece paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt and so on, and leaves him there.

There’s a whirring of motors and Rogachev, the man who started this whole preposterous series of events, whirs into the library in his wheelchair. Wheelchair. That explains why he couldn’t have gone anywhere to meet a western representative.

First Raven explains the subterfuge which has got him this far, i.e. that he’s delivering a letter to Stepan from his pregnant but ill grand-daughter, and they get an envelope and scribble on a blank sheet which Raven can show to the Evenks as the grateful father’s reply.

That out of the way, Rogachev can at last explain to Raven, and to the impatient reader, what the devil the whole thing is about. What it’s about is this:

The mystery at the heart of Kolymsky Heights

Rogachev tells Raven that the Russians have been experimenting for generations to try and breed a type of intelligent but hardy ape who can function as labour in this bleak, sub-freezing terrain.

(I blinked in disbelief at this point. We know that during the 1930s, 40s and 50s they used slave labour to work these areas. If Russians don’t want to do it nowadays, why not pay the local tribespeople, or do what the rest of the West does and import cheap immigrant labour? Breeding an entire new species seems a rather costly and unpredictable way of solving your labour problem, the kind of fantasy idea which only exists in science fiction novels.)

Rogachev tells a cock-and-bull story (this novel is full of them) about his predecessor, Zhelikov, being in a labour camp, but being plucked out and flown to Moscow after the war to meet the great Stalin because the dictator had read a scientific paper about hibernation. This planted the seed in Stalin’s mind that he might not die but be preserved alive. Zhelikov listened to Stalin’s musings and realised they were his passport out of the labour camp, and so nodded wisely, and agreed to set up a research base to bring suspended animation / hibernation/ cryogenics to the peak of perfection which would be required before they could try it on the Great Leader. Stalin rang up Beria and told him to make it so.

Zhelikov asked that the existing weather research base at Tcherny Vodi, near the labour camp of Tchersky, be greatly expanded. They’d have to dig down into the small mountain it was built on, to build multiple levels below the surface, levels for scientists, for ancillary workers, all the laboratories and so on. Stalin said, Make it so.

With the result that the best of Soviet engineering built the James Bond-style secret underground base which Raven now finds himself in, quaffing sherry amid the bookshelves, surrounded by masterpieces by Mondrian and Matisse. All quite bizarre. I didn’t know if I was meant to take this as a parody of a James Bond movie, where the mad scientist reveals his plan for world domination amid symbols of uber-wealth and corruption. All it needed was for Rogachev to be stroking a white cat. Are we meant to take it seriously?

Once the base was established Zhelikov wrote to Rogachev describing the work they were doing and inviting him to join. So he came and had been there ever since.

Now the mad scientist in the wheelchair introduces Raven to his star patient. It is an ape named Ludmilla, lying in bed in a dress, wearing lipstick and glasses and reading. She says hello to Raven. Raven says hello to Ludmilla. The reader wonders if he is hallucinating.

Rogachev explains that the research program to breed intelligent apes made great advances but suffered a fatal flaw: they found they could produce either intelligent apes, or hardy apes, but never the two together. They had been exploring all aspects of the problem including brain circuitry. The discovery of the pregnant neolithic woman and her foetus led to a breakthrough, but not the one they were expecting.

By a series of accidents the research stumbled across discoveries to do with eyesight. Davidson goes into mind-numbing but incomprehensible detail as Rogachev describes the step-by-step progress made, first with rats, then with experimental apes, by which they blinded the subjects – but then used a ‘harmonic wave’ which they had accidentally stumbled across, and which turned out to ‘restore eyesight’ (explained from page 315 onwards).

This ‘harmonic wave’ had several practical applications and Rogachev shows Raven one of them. Turns out Ludmilla the talking ape had been badly injured in the explosion at the research lab which had been detected by American satellites all those months earlier. Her eyes had been damaged and infected (the explosion released some kind of contamination, we aren’t told what).

The point is that Russian grasp of this harmonic wave technology is so advanced that they were able to build a) glasses which convert light into digital information which is then b) transported along wires in the wings of the glasses to electrical contacts which c) interact with contacts embedded behind the subjects’ ears, contacts which they have wired up to the optical regions of the subject’s brain so that d) the blind can see through their glasses!

All this is taking us a long, long way from the initial idea of ape-men and H.G. Wells. Now we are curing the blind. But even this turns out not to be the secret at the book’s core.

Because tests of the harmonic band wave had another unforeseen consequence: it completely disrupts the electrical signals which are used to direct guided and intercontinental missiles. By accident, the base has stumbled over a perfect defence system against all kinds of missile attack!

Rogachev now hands Raven two of the shiny square plates which we used to call computer floppy disks, back in the early 90s (p.326). These floppy disks contain all the information needed to recreate the Russian experiments and build harmonic wave machines and so develop their own anti-missile defences. But they must be opened in laboratory conditions, at lower than 240 degrees below freezing, or they will self-destruct.

I will die soon, Rogachev says (he, too, was infected in the explosion and fire). These will be my legacy. Goodbye. And he turns and whirs out of the room in his wheelchair. Raven goes back to the main door and a few minutes later Stepan opens it and lets him out, they retrace their steps to the Evenk dormitory and smuggle him in. In the morning Raven tells the Evenk that the grateful father has given him a letter and a ring to hand on to his beloved daughter. the Evenk think he is a hero and grin at their own involvement in the kind-hearted plot. A few days later Dr Komarova returns for more medical treatment and Raven is again swapped for the Evenk driver, this time the other way round, the Evenk returning to the dormitory, Raven reverting to his role as driver, driving Dr Komarova out of the complex and away, back to Tchersky. Mission accomplished. Well, first part anyway.

Complications

Unfortunately, there are two complications. One, at a literally very high level, is that the Chinese launch two test rockets during this period, designed to fly the length of China. Both fail due to direction mechanism failure. Davidson takes us into the nitty gritty of the designs and the failures but the upshot is they’re being interfered with by Russian satellites which hover in fixed position way up over the Asian landmass. Is this going to become important? Are the Chinese going to interfere in the story somewhere?

Closer to home, the drug dealer Ponomarenko, unhappy by the rainy Black Sea, hears on the radio that the state is announcing an amnesty for drug dealers. He checks with a lawyer and the cops and then comes forward to report that he has been blackmailed into lending his flat in Tchersky to some dodgy operators, who also wanted to know all about his friend Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan.

The Black sea cops contact the small police office in Tchersky. They put out a warrant for Kolya/Raven. Dr Komorova hears about it in her capacity as a senior government official in the region. She warns Raven. One escape plan had been for Raven to fly out of the region. Or maybe take another ship. Both now impossible with the authorities checking all papers. Good job he had made a back-up plan.

The bobik

The whole Siberian section of the story has taken several months, during which Raven has wormed his way into the good books of the Tchersky Transport Company, undertaking long distance and countless short distance drives for them. The ‘plan’ had made provision for ‘extracting’ him from the location once the mission was accomplished. But Raven is stroppy and contrary by nature and had begun to make an independent escape plan. Just as well.

This plan is to a) cosy up to the chief engineer at the Tchersky Transport Company and b) persuade him to let him have all the component which make up a bobik light truck so he can build one himself from scratch.

On one of his many delivery trips around the region Raven has discovered a big cave, hidden by frozen bushes, big enough to turn into a workshop where he can secure a block and tackle to the ceiling, instal lamps around the place, store food, a sleeping bag and blankets – and then, slowly steadily, week after week, persuade the head engineer at Tchersky, to let him have more and more pieces of bobik and drop them off at the cave, and build a truck from scratch, by himself!

Implausible doesn’t seem an adequate word to describe how wildly improbable and unnecessary I found this. Why not just pile Dr Pomarova and a load of food into one of the existing bobiks he gets to use perfectly legally, set off on a long, perfectly legal trip, and just keep going? No. In Davidson’s story, he has to build his own!

The Tchersky militia led by Major Militsky become more officious and search every house. Raven hides in Dr Komarova’s cellar. Then she drives him out to the cave with food and he does back-breaking work constructing the bobik. She is due to come next night at midnight. Is hours late. He goes out to watch. Tension, stress.

She turns up with food and the battery, the last component needed to complete the bobik, and news that the hunt is getting serious. In fact it has become a region-wide hunt and a general from Irkutsk has flown in to take charge of it. Pomorova tells Raven how much she loves him. Oh darling. Oh sweet man. Yes, yes, says Raven, but realises that she is the only official allowed into Tcherny Vodi. They will interrogate her. They go over her story, trying to plant red herrings. Then kiss goodbye. ‘I will see you again, won’t I, my love?’ She asks. ‘Of course,’ he replies, lying.

She leaves. He tries to sleep. He can’t. He gets up and starts the bobik and inches out onto the frozen river. Half an hour later a military patrol passes by. He has got out just in time.

Raven on the run

Raven drives east. On the map there is a tributary of the main river-highroad which the map says is impassible. It is certainly strewn with rocks embedded in the ice, but he drives slowly and carefully and the bobik is designed to be indestructible. After several hours Raven comes to a hump-backed bridge which carries the highway from Tchersky to Bilibino (p.377). At a succession of Road Stations, Raven cruises in silently with his lights doused, parks and siphons petrol from the tanks of other bobiks in the car parks, the drivers tucked up inside the warm lodges. Not weather to be outside. He is heading east into a big range of mountains known as the Kolymsky Heights. Aha.

In parallel, a security forces general flies into Tchersky from Irkutsk and takes charge of the search. Having interrogated Ponomarenko, he realises this is a sophisticated spying project mounted by foreign powers. He realises the agent will have left the area. He orders all transport within a 500 mile radius to be frozen and checked.

Basically these last 100 pages turn into quite a nailbiting chase, Raven a clever resourceful fugitive, pitted against the General who is also a very intelligent and thorough investigator. While Raven drives East in a bobik the General is misled by several false clues into telling his forces to search to the south for a missing rubbish truck. But when that avenue runs dry, follows other clues, until he is right on the tail of our man.

The cold calculation of the fugitive, and the clever deductions of the general (I don’t think we’re ever given his name) reminded me strongly of the similar set-up in Frederick Forsyth’s classic thriller The Day of the Jackal. A chase.

Raven drives on on on through the snow, hiding under bridges for snatched sleep, surviving on bread and salami, driving over a thousand kilometers, with a number of close shaves, and just squeezing past security barriers along the way, until he arrives at a tiny settlement named Baranikha which has an airport sure enough, but no flights in our out due to a fierce blizzard.

Raven hooks up with a drunk Inuit who he lets drink all his vodka till he passes out, whereupon Raven takes his coat and boots and backpack and skis and identity papers and hustles himself onto the first plane which is now leaving the airport as the snow lifts, to a tiny place out east, towards the Bering Strait, named Mitlakino.

Here he signs in with a jostling noisy scrum of other workers but in the dead of night retrieves his papers, backpack and steals a snowplough. The geography now becomes crucial. Baranikha and Mitlakino are way out at the easternmost tip of Siberia, on the blocky peninsula which sticks out into the Bering Strait and faces on to Alaska. Raven hadn’t planned it this way, it was pure fluke that the only plane flying from the airport was heading here. But now he’s here he conceives the plan of crossing the Bering Strait from the Russian side to the American side, and freedom. (Although Davidson nowhere explicitly explains this, the reader eventually deduces that at this time of year – the winter solstice – the Bering Strait is completely frozen over. Since it is only 50 miles wide, a man could walk it, admittedly hampered by the fog, snow and frequent blizzards.)

To cut a long story short, the security general has caught up with Raven’s trail, they’ve found the drunk Inuit at the airport as he sobers up and complains that someone’s stolen his papers, they’ve followed the trail to the workers dormitory at Mitlakino, the general yells down the phone to the dopy head of the Mitlakino settlement who does a search and discovers a snowplough is missing. They deduce Raven must be heading to the coast and the general dispatches helicopters from a nearby military base.

The border between America and Russia runs down the middle of the Bering Strait. There are two islands there, the Greater Diomede Island is on the Russian side of the sea border, the Lesser Diomede Island is on the American side.

Raven drives his snowplough through a blizzard along the coast till he gets to a settlement called Veyemik. He hides the plough and knocks on the door of the biggest house, waking the headman of the local tribe of native peoples, Inuit. Here he pretends to be an Inuit on the run from the authorities. The people take him in. Next morning they all go out fishing to iceholes they cut in the deep frost covering the sea. Raven asks to go with them. They take him in a motorised ski-bus out to the hole where the Inuits split up to fish different holes. Raven has asked a series of questions establishing that they are almost within sight of Greater Diomede Island. He slips away from the Indians and sets out on skis.

But there is unusual helicopter activity overhead. The general has figured out where he is, and even has men at Veyemik interrogating the inhabitants, and now knows the fugitive is out on the ice. The general mobilises the defence forces on Greater Diomede who turn out in ski busses, little ski scooters and on skis. Plus the helicopters overhead.

After some complicated hide and seek, during which Raven, in the ongoing blizzard fog, isolates and knocks out a security soldier and steals all his equipment, he eventually realises the general has created a solid wall of trucks and soldiers with headlights and torches on, 250m from the border. Raven climbs up a cliff on the eastern side of Greater Diomede and hides in a cave, but then a helicopter flies slowly low along the cliff, guiding a truck of soldiers which uses a mortar to fire gas mortars into every cave. Raven tucks himself back against the wall but the mortar which shoots into his cave bounces on to his chest and explodes leaving him deaf and half blind. Only a little later do we discover it blew out one of his eyes.

Half-blinded he crawls to the cave entrance and shoots down the militia in the jeep, then half climbs half falls to the ground, crawls to the jeep, and half drives it. The chase becomes horrible now, as the militia close in and shoot out the tyres and lob mortars at the engine (the general has shouted down the phone to the local commander that the fugitive must be taken alive). A mortar detonates on the bonnet which blows shards of metal into Raven’s body. He cannot hear and barely drive or think. The wrecked jeep slews in circles but…

Once again and for the final time I was confused by Davidson’s elliptical descriptions and by the way he intrudes into this vivid description, parallel accounts of the aftermath and what the Russian authorities discovered in the cave and along Raven’s trail. All of this fooled me into thinking he made it just to the edge of the international border but was captured by the Russkies.

Which turns out to be wrong. The first the reader realises of this is when we are told that Raven is being rushed to hospital in Anchorage. I.e., although it is nowhere explicitly stated that he crossed the border, and there is no description of anything the American troops did on their side or how his body was recovered or anything – next we know we have entered a different type of register as the book becomes like an official record of events, describing at high-level the transport of the body. Then we are told that Raven’s severely injured body packs up and he dies. Lost one eye, blinded in the other, shot through one knee, chest cluttered with shrapnel, lost one lung, it packs up and Raven dies. His funeral is attended by officials from Russia, who apologise for this sorry incident and for how a confused native must have wandered by accident into a military exercise. And who, naturally, make a note of everyone who attends the funeral.

Which is why none of the CIA officials attend, obviously. In fact no-one attends except the mortician and coroner.

But another reason no-one attends is that Raven isn’t dead. Davidson’s last trick in this very tricksy narrative is the not-altogether-unexpected revelation that the agency spirited the heavily-wounded Raven away to a super-advanced hospital, and swapped his boy with that of an unknown vagrant who had been – very conveniently – run over and trashed. That’s the heavily-bandaged body which is placed in a coffin and whose funeral the Russkies attend and who is cremated.

Meanwhile, Raven recuperates, given the best medical treatment the agency can provide.

And, in the final pages, there is the ring. You may recall that Rogachev gave Raven a ring, supposedly a blessing to his ‘daughter’, part of the cover story which got Raven into the compound. The ring was in fact Rogachev’s weeding ring which, knowing he is soon to die, he gives to Rogachev. Inside is engraved the motto As our love the circle has no end. After he’d been extracted from the base, among many other things Raven showed the ring to Dr Komarova, who has fallen deeply in love with him. Later, after he has fled the tightening net, Komarova goes to check out the cave where Raven had built the bobik. He has very professionally completely emptied it of every trace of his presence (loading it into the bobik and disposing of most of it in faraway ravines on his escape drive east). But she finds a small scrap of paper scrunged up. Inside is the ring with its motto.

Now, on the last page of the book, Dr Komarova has quit her job in Kolymsk and moved west to Petersburg (despite a shrewd interrogation by the general, she managed to throw the investigators off her trail and survived the whole episode without reproach). And three months later she receives a letter, containing an open-ended air ticket to Montreal, an immigration department slip bearing her correct name and passport number. And tucked away at the bottom of the envelope a tiny slip of cigarette paper bearing a single line of writing: As our love the circle has no end.

As love stories go, it has to be one of the weirdest I’ve ever read, but then the entire novel is meticulously detailed, powerfully atmospheric, often completely preposterous, sometimes incomprehensible but despite everything, exerted a very powerful tug on my imagination and memory.


Maps

There are four maps in the novel (more than you sometimes get in history books). Good quality ones, too, showing

  1. the whole of northern Asia (pp.32-33)
  2. the coast of British Columbia, where Lazenby and the CIA man go to find Raven (p.76)
  3. Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait region (p.158)
  4. the Kolymsky Region (p.417)

But there is the same sense of oddity or something wrong about these as theres is over the whole book. Very simply, the two latter maps should be reversed.

The central section of the novel is set in the Kolymsky region, so the detailed map of the area – which shows Cape Green where the ship docks, Tchersky where the doctor lives and Raven gets his job on the lorries, the location of the research centre and even of the cave he discovers and uses to build his bobik – quite obviously this map should go at the beginning of that section instead of where it is actually positioned, well after that whole section has finished (?)

Whereas it is only on page 410 that we first hear of the small settlement of Mitlakino and Raven decides to take the plane there. At which point the precise geography of the area becomes vital to his plans for escape, and for the final nailbiting descriptions of his escape across the ice – and so this is where the map of Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait should go – not 250 pages earlier, where it was completely irrelevant and didn’t register as important. It wasn’t important, yet.

Is this an editorial mistake, a mistake in the printing of the book? Or yet another subtle way of blindsiding the reader and keeping us puzzled, as the suppression of so many other key facts in the narrative succeeded in puzzling me all the way through.

Style

Flat descriptions Although the book is set in some dazzling and awe-inspiring landscapes (the seascapes and frozen landscapes of Siberia) Davidson is not that at descriptions. He gives the facts, but they rarely come to life. Here’s an example of his prose.

He got up and walked about the room. In a recess beside the stove an icon was on the wall. The stove was cold, the house now electrically heated, very stuffy, very warm. Books were everywhere, on shelves, tables. He couldn’t make out the titles in the dark. (p.243)

You can see the bit of effort Davidson has made to create something more than flat factual description in the use of the verbless phrases ‘very stuffy, very warm’. Not very inspiring, though, is it?

Martin Cruz Smith’s sequel to Gorky ParkPolar Star, finds his Moscow detective, Arkady Renko way off his beat, working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea. It’s the same location as the coastal scenes of Kolymsky Heights, at about the same time (Polar Star 1989, Kolymsky Heights 1994). Smith’s book is sensationally vivid in description and atmosphere. I think it’s the best of the eight Renko novels because you can feel the icy temperature, the salt spray in your face, the harshness of frozen metal.

None of that is captured by Davidson’s prose. It is flat and functional. Eventually, by dint of repetition of the facts, you get the powerful sense of brain-numbing cold, of ice and snow and blizzards. But it is done rationally, by repetition of factual information, not by the style.

Instead of jazzy and vivid description, Davidson has a few mannerisms of his own.

Echoing One is a kind of dumb, blank repetition of events. Very often he’ll end a paragraph saying so-and-so plans to do x, y or z. And then the next paragraph begins with ‘And so-and-so did x, y, or z.’

‘I have thought how this could be managed’.
He explained how this could be managed. (p.306)

He was contacting them himself immediately.
Which, immediately, he did. (p.443)

It’s a kind of rhetorical echolalia. It doesn’t add to atmosphere or even tension. The opposite. I found it helped harden the colourless carapace of Davidson’s prose, often making it even harder to work out what was happening and, in particular, why.

I suppose, it also creates an effect of inevitability. Someone says something is going to happen. And that’s what happens. Maybe the effect is to create a subtle sense of fatefulness and predestination, to give the narrative a very slightly mythic quality.

‘Sure, Kolya. You’ll take the job – just when we get the call.’
And they got the call, and he got the job. (p.197)

It all falls into place, more as if it’s a myth or legend or fairy tale, than an ordinary sequence of contingent human events.

Phrase reversal Another tic is reversing the usual structure of an English sentence, from subject-verb-object to object-subject-verb.

His present job he greatly disliked. (p.281)

With his security chief Beria he had discussed this idea. (p.299)

This idea he suddenly found himself discussing in the most bizarre circumstances… (p.300)

The route to Anyuysk she knew, and he stayed under a blanket in the back while she drove. (p.348)

This ridiculous situation he had promptly ordered Irkutsk to deal with… (p.385)

It’s a stylistic mannerism, a not very successful attempt to jazz up Davidson’s generally flat prose.

I suppose it might be argued that playing with the word order of conventional English like this goes a little way towards mimicking the various foreign languages that are spoken in the book, and maybe creating a sense of the ‘otherness’ of Russia and the Russian-speakers who the second half is set amongst. Maybe.

Her intense nervousness she covered with an air of impatience. (p.386)

To Zirianka a long-distance helicopter was required… (p.404)

Italics In the extended account of Raven’s meeting with Innokenty and the Evenks, Davidson used an excessive amount of italics to make his points, often rather unnecessarily. This reminded me of John le Carré’s nugatory use of italics to try and make his dialogue more dramatic.

Since they started their careers at almost the same time, this made me wonder if it’s a feature of the fiction of the time: was there something about emphasis in the late 1950s, a historic idiolect from that period which lingered on in their prose styles.

If they merely hovered over his route, they would catch him now. How far, in three or four minutes, could he have gone? (p.444)

For me, the random use of italics didn’t intensify the reading experience but created a rather annoying distraction.

Gaps and absences

I read the book with a permanent sense that I kept missing key bits of information about who was going where, and why.

Unless this is simply part of Davidson’s technique: to leave key bits of information and motivation out of the novel so as to leave the reader permanently off-balance.

Possibly, a second reading of the book, knowing in advance information which is only revealed later on in the text, would help you make sense of all the hints and obliquities early on in the narrative. Maybe the pattern only fully emerges after several readings. Maybe this is why Philip Pullman is liberally quoted on the front, the back and in the short introduction he provides for the book, describing it as ‘the best thriller he’s ever read’. In the introduction he says he’s arrived at this opinion after reading the book four times. Maybe that’s the amount of effort required to see the full pattern. But certain inexplicabilities would still remain: why did Raven undertake the long sea voyage if he could just have flown to Tchersky any day of the week? And nothing can eliminate the truly bizarre scene where Raven shakes hands with an ape in a dress named Ludmilla. The final hundred pages of fast-paced chase revert to something like conventional thriller style. But shaking hands with a talking ape? I still have to shake my head to be sure I actually read that. Did someone spike my drink?


Related links

Primitivism and Modern Art by Colin Rhodes (1994)

This is another in Thames and Hudson’s extensive ‘World of Art’ series, which means it has a serious and thorough text but that, of the 207 illustrations, only 28 are in colour, and all of them are small.

In Primitivism and Modern Art Rhodes aims ‘to give an overview of, and to highlight and clarify the often confused major issues and values at stake in the Primitivist world view through a discussion that focuses on the modern artists most closely associated with it’ – which straightaway explains the central theme and also gives you an example of the book’s rather clotted prose style.

Primitivism and political correctness

I was expecting there to be a fair amount of political correctness and I wasn’t disappointed, both in terms of sweeping generalisations and characteristic sociological jargon:

In [the late 19th century] the female body was deemed to be less specialised and women were generally typed as being essentially instinctive as opposed to rational thinkers. This conveniently situated them in a position closer to nature and so in this way the generic woman was defined, silenced and contained in male discourses of culture in precisely the same way as the savage.

‘Precisely’?

It is no coincidence that Pechstein’s image of female fecundity should be titled Early Morning (1911). The curving form of the apparently pregnant, exoticised woman is echoed in the arching sweep of the primordial landscape, suggesting that here creation can be understood simultaneously as a literal dawn, the dawn of time and as the promise of new life. (p.62)

For Rhodes, paintings are Evidence for the Prosecution, indictments of painters who are charged with being complicit in the racist, sexist, homophobic, imperialist value systems of their day (the book lingers longest on the imperial heyday at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries).

The artists’ work needs to be paraded before us so we can ridicule their absurdly antediluvian attitudes. After all, are not we in our own time, completely and perfectly enlightened? Are our times not the acme of human moral achievement? Do these old white guys from over a hundred years ago not merit our scorn and criticism?

For me it smacks too much of Hitler’s exhibitions of ‘Degenerate Art’ or Stalin’s persecution of any artist, musician, performer who failed to carry out the wishes of the Party. After all, was not the Soviet Union the Workers’ Paradise and the most morally advanced society in human history?

The art illustrated here and much of the detailed commentary is interesting, but there is too much of the intolerant commissar, permanently straining at the leash to find some aspect of every single painting and sculpture to criticise and judge to make it a very enjoyable experience.

Some of the criminals and their crimes

Here are some of the indictments on the charge sheet against white Western male art.

  • Paintings of women can only exploit their sexuality and offer the male viewer (apparently, no woman ever looked at a painting) ‘an eroticised vision of women’ resulting in ‘a sort of culturally endorsed voyeurism’ (p.82)
  • The artist (any artist) is guilty of using ‘the artist’s controlling gaze’ (p.81).
  • Gauguin, in finding Tahitian men and women rather androgynous, is guilty of ‘crude evolutionary reasoning’ (p.72).
  • Matisse’s odalisques are guilty of connotations of ‘white slavery and socially unacceptable indulgences’ (p.83).
  • Oskar Kokoschka is guilty of an ‘uncritical acceptance of a need to distinguish between different types of humanity and to classify them accordingly’ (p.83) and of ‘voyeurism’ (p.84).
  • Klee and Kokoschka are guilty of ‘conventional ideas about the Orient’ (p.84).
  • Orientalist paintings of the 19th century are, it goes without saying, guilty of voyeurism and racism (p.90).
  • The West was guilty of using ‘notions of the primitive’ as ‘mechanisms of domination and control over “outsiders”‘ (p.133)

Guilty guilty guilty. Rhodes fearlessly names and shames the guilty men, and indicts whole eras of history for their pitiful ignorance.

Cultural appropriation

The politically correct view of ‘primitivism in modern art’ is that white, Western male artists had run out of steam and inspiration by the turn of the twentieth century, and so invented modern art by ‘appropriating’ (i.e. stealing) images, motifs, ideas, designs and so on from the supposedly ‘primitive’ societies of Africa and Oceania (the Pacific).

They were able to do so because in the last years of the 19th century the European empires reached their zeniths i.e. ruthlessly exploitative imperialism was imposed over a huge part of the globe and countless artifacts were looted from the powerless inhabitants and sent back to European museums, art boutiques or junk shops.

Thus white male artists can be accused of a kind of double whammy, stealing ideas from already-stolen goods. And, being men, they are of course guilty of all kinds of sexism, conscious and unconscious.

Guilty three times over.

This idea of the criminal ‘cultural appropriation’ of non-European art was well-established in Rhodes’s day (1994), and has only grown more clamorous and strident as ‘identity politics’ have replaced effective class-based politics, especially in university humanities courses. (Thus the recent exhibition about Matisse in the studio was awash with the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ and earnest discussions of its wickedness.)

I don’t really understand the idea of cultural appropriation, in the sense that it seems to me to have been the basis of human culture since records began. Cro-Magnon man appears to have adopted aspects of Neanderthal culture. Japanese language and court ritual is based on the much older Chinese characters and etiquette. Christianity is a wholesale appropriation of the books, teachings and beliefs of Judaism. Islam incorporates elements of Jewish and Christian traditions. Notions of hellfire and damnation apparently derive from Persian Zoroastrianism. The Greeks took much of their astrological and numerical knowledge from the Egyptians. The Romans ripped off the Greeks wholesale. The Germanic tribes which overran the Roman Empire copied the laws, language, architecture and ceremonies of the Romans. And so on. Every culture we know of can be shown to have incorporated aspects of other cultures they came into contact with or defeated.

The suspicion is that white western-educated intellectuals only really apply the notion of cultural appropriation to themselves in a spasm of liberal guilt at the wickedness of western empires. In a tiresome example of reverse snobbery, is cultural appropriation something all cultures in all of recorded history have done, but is only bad when done by white people?

Problems with ‘primitivism’

What surprised me is how difficult it proves for Rhodes to sustain this idea, for a number of reasons. In fact the fundamental problem the book struggles with is that Rhodes’s definition of ‘the primitive’ is set far too wide to be effective:

1. Western history is full of the quest for the ‘primitive’

For a start Western civilisation is itself drenched in a huge number of intellectual movements which have sought to rejuvenate the present (generally seen as decadent and over-refined) by invoking some long-lost, more simple, utopia of ‘primitive’ belief or culture.

Jesus thought he was trying to restore Judaism away from the complex rules and regulations devised by the Sadducees and Pharisees back to its pure belief in the one God. 1,500 years later Martin Luther tried to throw out the vast intellectual edifice of the Roman Catholic church in order to restore Christianity to its pure founding beliefs.

On the pagan side, the ancient Greek and the Romans developed the idea that there had once been an early Golden Age, simpler, more peaceful and rural, before men fell into the corruption of the cosmopolitan cities. This fundamental dichotomy – rural innocence, urban corruption – has been a central thread of literature ever since. Part of the huge cultural movement known as the Renaissance wasn’t trying to be ‘modern’, but saw itself (as the word explicitly says) as a rebirth, a return to the ancient knowledge of the ancients, restoring their lost skills in sculpture, painting and perspective.

Politics and religion aside, just in the narrow field of art, there was a constant series of movement which all claimed to be returning to and restoring earlier, purer values and practices.

  • Rococo artists thought they were returning to a simpler, rural idyll after the extremely heavy, over-wrought emotion of the Baroque Counter-Reformation.
  • Jacques-Louis David and his neo-classical followers at the time of the French Revolution thought they were overthrowing the courtly decadence of the Rococo in order to revive the sterner, purer idealism of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  • The pre-Raphaelites did what their name suggests and tried to return to an idealised idea of medieval and early Renaissance art, before it was ‘corrupted’ by the perfectionism of Michelangelo and Raphael.

And so on.

In other words, western politics, religion and culture have repeatedly sought to restore, refresh and renovate themselves by seeking out more basic, simpler, more ‘primitive’ antecedents. The discovery and taste for African and Pacific art should surely be seen as the latest in a long line of quests for rejuvenation from idealised ‘simple’ and ‘pure’ sources.

2. Discussion of ‘primitive’ societies and artifacts belongs to anthropology not art criticism

Who exactly is Rhodes accusing and blaming? The opening pages make it clear that the main accusation is against late-Victorian biologists, anthropologists and ethnographers, figures like Ernst Haeckel the biologist, Herbert Spencer the social theorist or the French ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. Rhodes quotes them writing dismissively about ‘primitive’ cultures, ‘savage’ races, ‘inferior societies and so on, and it is not very difficult to indict them of racism, sexism, orientalism and so on.

These are the figures who took Darwin’s theory of evolution and remodelled it into Social Darwinism, the theory which applied the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to human societies (justifying the poverty of the poor by saying they just weren’t up to the struggle for life), and then applying it to the colonies of the huge European empires, whose populations, it was claimed, were savages, primitives, children who needed to be guided and nurtured until they evolved up to the level of our wonderful Western societies.

1. It’s easy to get whip up outrage against these kind of writers but:

  • It was quite a long time ago
  • Pointing out that the writings of some German sociologist of the 1880s was ‘racist’ is not exactly news. It’s the opposite, really. It is quite tediously well known.

2. Same with Imperialism. Rhodes thinks it was bad. Really? Golly. May I suggest that this is no longer news.

3. Overall, this is an argument to take up with modern anthropologists and social theorists. An art critic wading into the writings of pioneer anthropologists and ethnographers is bound to be able to find all kinds of quotes which offend modern sensibilities. His conclusion is ‘they were all sexist and racist’. This is so boring and predictable as to turn me off the whole book: is it all going to be written at this kindergarten level?

There’s something about art and literature critics who make a foray into completely different disciplines in order to froth and rage against the appalling racism and sexism of people writing 150 years ago. It’s so easy. It’s like Edward Said getting cross about the ‘orientalist’ writings of supposed ‘experts’ on the Middle East or Africa, who were writing in the 1850s.

And of course Rhodes and Said’s readers, their audiences (art students, literature students), are not experts in these fields – they are completely unqualified to comment on how the attitudes of 1880s ethnographers or orientalists have been superseded and transformed over the past 140 years – and so are liable to hoover up this sense of undifferentiated anger untroubled by detailed knowledge of how the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography have changed in the 140 years since then.

3. The assumption of influence

A second objection is that Rhodes makes the dubious assumption about these racist writings, namely that they are representative of everyone’s views at the time.

Were they? Has he carried out extensive historical researches into the attitudes of the entire colonial-administrative-government-ruling class attitudes? Or of ‘ordinary’ non-university-educated people? Because in Britain there was a broad range of Liberal and Socialist opinion which was passionately opposed to Empire and imperial discourse. The Indian National Congress party was established in 1885 on the initiative of a British official and had many British Liberal supporters.

Instead Rhodes cherry picks only the most outrageous bits of text he can find. It’s as if some art critic in 100 years’ time gives his students selected quotes from Donald Trump and then says, all Americans at this time agreed with everything Donald Trump said and wrote. We can all see that that’s a ludicrous simplification, right? Well, why apply the same kind of gross simplification to people 100 years ago?

The second dubious assumption is that the artists of the day (1880s, 1890s, 1900s) were in some way unquestioningly influenced by these imperialist, racist writings. Was Picasso a keen reader of the biology professor Haeckel? Was Matisse a devotee of Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer? I doubt it. And to claim that they somehow picked up these attitudes because they were ‘widespread’ or ‘in the air’ or ‘the spirit of the times’ is lazy and insulting.

Do you, the person reading this, share the widespread anti-democratic, right-wing populism which is without doubt ‘the mood of our times’, in the States, in Britain, and across Europe? Rhodes’s assumption is that everyone in a bygone era shares one unified set of values, the values he personally wants to assign them in order to then criticise and flay them.

This is an insultingly simplistic view of history or of society.

4. ‘Primitivism’ is just too vague a term for such an enormous cultural movement

Rhodes shows how the idea of the ‘primitive’ was much much bigger than just African masks and fetishes. The leading post-Impressionists in the 1880s (Gauguin and van Gogh, in his own way Cézanne) were already moving away from the Impressionist aim of giving a more accurate account of what the artist saw, towards emphasising what the artist saw made him feel.

And then the decade of 1900 to 1910 saw the decisive breaks with figuration of Matisse and the Fauves, of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism. Meanwhile, in Germany, in Scandinavia, in Russia, other artists were experimenting with rejecting traditional academic painting in favour of styles which emphasised feeling, seeking out more basic, simpler, starker effects.

In other words a whole generation of artists was rejecting the 450-year-old tradition which began with the Renaissance, the tradition of striving for a super-realistic depiction of reality, complete with realistic perspective, naturalistic colours and so on – the window on the world idea – and which had been brought to a peak of perfection in the academic Salon painters of the mid- and late-19th century.

In their different ways the post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, the Expressionists, Munch, Kandinsky, all across Europe leading artists sought ways to escape from this tradition, to free painting up so it could express a more modern variety of feeling and sensibility.

Rhodes shows that this is what spurred the Turn to the Primitive, in the broadest sense and that most of  this art had nothing whatever to do with African or Oceanic artefacts.

4. ‘Primitive’ is a crude umbrella term for all kinds of art

Because, in this broadest sense, ‘the primitive’ could refer to almost any type of art – any source of styles and images and metaphors and traditions and ways of seeing – which was simply not the sophisticated Western academic one. Thus Rhodes admits that the term can include:

  • medieval and very early – or ‘primitive’ – Renaissance art
  • children’s art – the artists of the German Blue Rider group were particularly interested in children’s art and published it untouched in their magazines around 1911-13
  • peasant art – simple motifs in textiles, cloth, curtains, ceramics and glass
  • folk art – just as the classical composers of the period went out into the field to collect folk songs and melodies
  • the art of the insane – a key work is Artistry of the Mentally Ill by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, published in 1922 which influenced Paul Klee’s exercises in mad drawing
  • the art of the self-taught, like Henri Rousseau
  • outsider art, such as the backdrops, masks, costumes, sets and designs for circuses, cabaret, vaudeville, puppet theatres and so on

The interest in African and Pacific art which came in around 1905 has to take its place in a far, far wider cultural movement, and among a whole range of ‘primitive’ sources, which the book goes on to describe.

To give just one example, Neo-primitivism was a specific Russian art movement which took its name from the 31-page pamphlet Neo-primitivizm by Aleksandr Shevchenko (1913). Shevchenko proposed a new style of modern painting which fused elements of Cézanne, Cubism and Futurism with traditional Russian ‘folk art’ conventions and motifs, notably the Russian icon and the lubok. ‘Primitive’ is in the very name but it has nothing to do with the art of Africa or the Pacific.

The best definition of this very broad ‘cultural primitivism’ Rhodes can find comes from a book written as long ago as 1935, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, whose authors Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas define it as:

The discontent of the civilised with civilisation, or with some conspicuous and characteristic feature of it. It is the belief of men living in a highly evolved and complex cultural condition that a life far simpler and less sophisticated in some or all respects is a more desirable life. (quoted on page 20)

Reading this I think, ‘but when was this impulse not present in Western culture (or indeed others, such as Chinese and Japanese culture)?’ I think of Spenser’s Fairie Queene which ends with the desire to escape the corruption of courtly life. Or back to the Roman poets of the early Empire, all fondly imagining a life among pie-tooting peasants.

Maybe the period at the end of the 19th century was distinguished by the fact that a lot of artists and writers really did leave the big cities to seek out a simpler life, among peasants or abroad? But not really – Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists and, later, the Surrealists stayed resolutely in the city.

Primitivism and modern art

So, I had all kinds of questions about the relatively short introduction to the book. I think Rhodes is trying to cover a subject which is too vast and stretches over a bewildering range of modern disciplines. The book is much more confident and interesting once it starts looking at specific artists in detail.

Gauguin is routinely criticised for ‘appropriating’ the style, motifs, myths and stories of the South Sea Islanders he went to live among in the 1890s. In fact Gauguin emerges as possibly the number one criminal cultural appropriator for ‘stealing’ South Sea motifs, styles, people (depicted ‘patronisingly’ in his paintings) and their language (which he used liberally written across his works).

But as Rhodes points out, Gauguin had already spent some time living among Breton peasants in the village of Pont-Aven, which is where he really developed his ‘primitive’ style, with its strong black outlines defining garish expressive areas of colour, the figures drawn in a deliberately naive, angular way.

In other words, Gauguin had established a powerfully ‘primitive’ art way before he went looking for ‘tribal’ art.

And he wasn’t the only one: Wassily Kandinsky went to stay in the Bavarian town of Murnau where he decorated the house he stayed in with folk crafts done in naive styles, as well as actually dressing like the local peasantry. Die Brücke painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner went to live among the peasants of Frauenkirch in Switzerland. Nothing African involved anywhere.

Rhodes mentions the Omega Workshop set up by English critic Roger Fry in 1915, including Duncan Grant and continued an Arts and Crafts vision of working with ‘primitive or peasant’ motifs and patterns in the making to textiles and furniture. They withdrew to a country house Sussex in 1916 and formed a kind of posh commune. Maybe they used tribal art as inspiration for some of their angular designs, but any account of their lives demonstrates their wish to rediscover simpler, rural patterns.

A similar ‘back to nature’ impulse lay behind the founding of the schools of art in Newlyn as early as 1882 (and would lead to the St Ives school of painting being set up in the 1940s). In fact Rhodes says it was a sign of the times, with ‘artistic colonies’ being set up all across the Western world, from America to Russia. Some 30 artists’ colonies existed in Germany alone.

All this coincided with the advent of nudism or naturism as a popular movement. The first serious book advocating naturism’s social and psychological advantages was published in 1902 (Nacktkultur by Dr. Heinrich Pudor).

Though Rhodes doesn’t mention him, the grand-daddy of this ‘back to the country’ spiritual cleansing was Count Leo Tolstoy who rejected his urban youth and successful middle age, to go live among the peasants on his country estate, progressively renouncing his earthly goods (such as the copyrights in all his books), and writing scores of essays promoting the simple good life.

Tolstoy’s powerfully-phrased arguments affected – among millions of others – young Mohandas Gandhi, who entered into correspondence with Tolstoy in 1909 and went on to preach a) non-violent revolt and b) a return to the ‘primitive’ culture and trade of rural India (in opposition to its sophisticated cities).

Graffiti Another way of rejecting the academic was to incorporate writing into pictures. Artists as varied as Mikhail Larionov, Picasso, George Grosz did just that. Jean Dubuffet’s work from after the Second World War is particularly brutal and primitive. I can see how it anticipates the interest of someone like Basquiat in graffiti.

To put it another way, it’s interesting to learn that graffiti as a ‘strategy’ for primitive art existed long before Basquiat reignited it in the 1980s.

Conclusions

The book goes on, pushing familiar buttons, repeating Edward Said’s criticisms of ‘orientalist’ artists of the 19th century and sniffing out ‘orientalist’ tendencies in early modern artists (stay behind for detention, Matisse), using key post-modern terms like ‘the other’, ‘difference’, ‘discourse’, ‘situate’, negotiate’, ‘subvert’ and so on, in the approved style, and making frequent mention of the ‘bourgeoisie’ (the people all these radical artists were endlessly trying to shock).

This limited vocabulary and stereotyped litany of ‘isshoos’ is mind-numbingly boring.

Some conclusions:

The primitive is too big As mentioned above, the idea of ‘the primitive’ is much, much more complex than it first appears, and its impingement on modern art is so complex, manifests itself so differently in every one of the major and minor artists from the 1880s until, say, the 1940s, that an overview like this may, in the end, be impossible to write. Just telling the story of the impact of ‘primitive’ art on Gauguin or Picasso or Matisse would take an entire book.

Tribal art Thus, the way Rhodes defines ‘the primitive’ and ‘Primitivism’ makes the African and Pacific art which I thought the book would be all about, only a part, only a sub-set of this much larger and in the end, very unwieldy idea of back to nature, outsider art, the art of children, the art of the mad and so on.

No definition of tribal art When we do get to the part of the book devoted to African and Pacific art, Rhodes appears to distinguish it from the very broad category of ‘the primitive’ by calling it ‘tribal art’. I was very disappointed that he nowhere gives a working definition of ‘tribal art’ which I thought itself sounded a bit simple-minded. Do all African and pacific peoples live in ‘tribes’? I doubt it. Is there no more nuanced and refined term for this kind of art?

Along with no working definition of ‘tribal art’, Rhodes nowhere gives any sense of its history and development in Africa, or the Pacific (or in north-western America, which also gets referenced).

He nowhere attempts an overview of its main features or aspects. It’s a shame and also surprising.

Among my most favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes in the British Museum, which I find riveting, dazzling, awesome, and I was hoping to read something which put into words their impact and power. But there is no mention of them.

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Contemporary writers on tribal art In fact by far the best writing about ‘tribal art’ comes from the artists and critics of the time. The people Rhodes accuses of patronisingly racist views, ironically, have much more sophisticated and interesting responses to this art than he does.

Take the German writer on modern and primitive art, Carl Einstein, who wrote an essay African Sculpture (1915) written after a stay in Paris where he’d met Picasso’s circle. His key insight is that African sculptures are self-contained. They are:

‘oriented not toward the viewer, but in terms of themselves’. They function, he continues, not so much as representations, but as things in themselves: ‘the art object is real because it is a closed form. Since it is self-contained and extremely powerful, the sense of distance between it and the viewer will necessarily produce an art of enormous intensity.’ (Quoted page 117)

When I myself have tried to put into words the impact of the African art I like, I’ve always ended up saying that these works feel somehow complete, utterly finished. They totally achieve what they set out to do. They have complete mastery of form and technique, so I was delighted to come across Einstein’s similar formulation of their self-containment.

Picasso on tribal art Probably the single most famous statement about the impact of ‘tribal art’ on a Western painter is Picasso’s own, a description he gave of his first visit to the Museum of Ethnography in Paris in 1905.

Picasso was no intellectual; he was one of the most instinctual artists who ever lived. He doesn’t even react to them as ‘works of art’, but far more profoundly reacts to their imaginative, spiritual force.

Men had made these masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realised that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as mediation between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desire. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way. (p.116)

A passage of prose as vivid and expressive as his art. Many artists did directly copy motifs and patterns from ‘tribal art’ into their own works. But in this passage you can see that, for many others, it wasn’t a one-for-one transcription of individual pieces, it was the realisation that there was a whole other way of conceiving of the visual and of crafted objects, completely outside the Western academic tradition.

The general thrust of the book is that artists of this generation were looking for ways to escape the dead hand of the academic tradition and that they tried all kinds of routes – going off to the country, living among peasants, stripping naked, copying the art of children, peasants, the insane, anything.

And that ‘tribal art’ was just one among many means of escape, but one which opened a particularly powerful and massive door.

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

A narrowly politically correct reading claims that Western artists ‘stole’ the worldview, designs and motifs of tribal peoples. A more relaxed view suggests that the art of tribal peoples helped to crystallise alternative visions and ideas which artists and sculptures right across Europe were already looking for.

The artists who are blamed for exploiting tribal art are the ones who popularised it The avant-garde artists who Rhodes so casually criticises for ‘appropriating’ tribal and ‘primitive’ art, are in fact the means by which tribal and ‘primitive’ art itself became visually acceptable, stylish, fashionable and, in time, valued and judged in its own right.

The politically correct can (and do) slate off all those dead white men for stealing non-European ideas, motifs and designs, but there is a mirror image way of thinking about this: that all those dead white men placed tribal and ‘primitive’ art smack bang in the centre of modern art and so forced their viewers, buyers, collectors and curators, to take tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously.

Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists, the Surrealists – they made us see tribal and ‘primitive’ art as more than the relics of ‘savage’ or ‘degenerate’ or ‘backward’ cultures, but as the sophisticated products of cultures every bit as worthy of respect and serious study as any aspect of Western culture.

They created the attitude of taking tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously from which the very critics like Rhodes, who criticise them so fiercely, have personally and morally benefited – and then use this late-coming sense of moral superiority to lambast the very people who helped to develop it.

Gauguin Writing about art – writing about what you actually see, how it is made and how you respond to it – is difficult. It is far easier to give in to the easy temptation of criticising everything you see for not living up to your own impeccable moral standards. Being politically correct. The easy choice.

The forty or so illustrations of tribal artifacts which the book includes are infinitely more powerful than anything Rhodes can write about them. In fact nowhere does he attempt any kind of description of individual pieces of tribal or ‘primitive’ art; by and large they are used as evidence for the prosecution against the wicked, white, male artists who appropriated them.

One of the few really insightful bits of writing about art is a quote from (that wicked cultural appropriator) Gauguin, who wrote in 1888:

I love Brittany; here I find the savage, primitive quality. When my clogs echo on this granite ground, I hear the dull muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting. (quoted on page 26)

‘The dull muted, powerful sound…’ Wow. That’s a really brilliant description of the hard outlines and slabs of colour you get in Gauguin’s works.

So by the end of this ambitious but unsatisfactory book I came to the conclusion that the African and Pacific art itself, the art of the Western painters who copied or were inspired by it, and the writings of those artists and their contemporary critics – are all more illuminating, exciting and inspiring than the clunky prose and lame politics of modern art critics and scholars.


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Art Nouveau by Alastair Duncan (1994)

This is one of the extensive ‘World of Art’ series published by Thames and Hudson. On the plus side the texts in this series are always readable and authoritative. On the down side, most of the illustrations are in black and white, and very small. It’s a series in which to read about art and art movements, but not necessarily to enjoy the actual art.

A revolt against Victorian mass production

Duncan emphasises that Art Nouveau wasn’t a style, it was a movement. What he means is that around 1890 a whole generation of designers, illustrators, craftsmen, architects and artisans right across Europe revolted against the heavy hand of mass-produced industrial products, dull designs and routine architecture, and against the Victorian home filled with a horrible mish-mash of clutter and bric-a-brac from all styles and periods – and determined to produce something fresh and new, and integrated in style and look.

He attributes the revolt against mass-produced, machine-made, shoddy tat, and the call to return to the values of hand-crafted, beautiful objects, created in a unified style – to William Morris, who emerges as one of the most influential men in the history of Western Art. Right across Europe, designers, artisans, ceramicists, decorators, fabric-makers and so on took up his Art and Crafts ideas with a passion.

The ubiquity of the impulse and its Europe-wide provenance is reflected in the bewildering variety of names given to it.

In Austria it is known as Secessionsstil after Wiener Secession; in Spanish Modernismo; in Catalan Modernisme; in Czech Secese; in Danish Skønvirke or Jugendstil; in German Jugendstil, Art Nouveau or Reformstil; in Hungarian Szecesszió; in Italian Art Nouveau, Stile Liberty or Stile floreale; in Norwegian Jugendstil; in Polish Secesja; in Slovak Secesia; in Russian Модерн (Modern); and in Swedish Jugend.

The name Art Nouveau simply comes from the Maison de l’Art Nouveau (House of the New Art), a gallery opened in 1895 by the Franco-German art dealer Siegfried Bing to publicise and sell objects made in the ‘new style’, such as the ground-breaking new jewelry by René Lalique. The interior was designed by Henry van de Velde and the American, Louis Comfort Tiffany, supplied the stained glass. The gallery became the place for rich and fashionable Parisians to buy objects in the ‘new look’.

A few years later the art critic turned entrepreneur, Julius Meier-Graefe, who had founded the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) magazine Dekorative Kunst in 1897, opened La Maison Moderne, a gallery that showcased Art Nouveau works in Paris in 1898. These two boutiques led the fashion.

Elements of Art Nouveau

Although Duncan goes into immense detail about the regional variations in the style, I looked in vain for a really definitive verbal description of the characteristic Art Nouveau ‘look’, so recognisable when seen, so hard to put into words.

So I drew up a list of common features. Art Nouveau consists of linear simplicity, but the lines are always curvilinear, with tall sinuous curves explicitly or implicitly based on the stems of flowers – the word ‘tendrils’ recurs, and ‘stems’. The ‘eyes’ in the tails of peacocks became an obsessive motif. 

Chair by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1883)

Chair by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1883)

The slender, parallel black lines in Mackmurdo’s pioneering chair design (above) anticipate Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations from the 1890s (below). The Beardsley drawing below actually features a peacock as the source of the peacock-feather head-dress worn by Salome and the luxurious long arabesque lines ending in stylised versions of peacock ‘eyes’.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

As an example in a different medium, take this Peacock vase produced by the undisputed master of Art Nouveau design in glass and glassware, the American Louis Comfort Tiffany. He had signed an exclusive contract with Bing and via Bing’s boutique became the latest thing in glassware.

Peacock vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1896)

Peacock vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1896)

Japonisme was important. The fashion for Japanese style derives from the treaty signed between the Japanese and American governments in 1854 which opened up the country for trade after centuries of self-imposed isolation. World fairs held in the 1860s and 70s included more and more Japanese products, but it was the delicacy, the deliberate flatness and decorative design of Japanese woodcuts by the likes of Hiroshige and Hokusai which influenced European artists and designers.

Blossoming Plum Tree with Full Moon by Ando Hiroshige

Blossoming Plum Tree with Full Moon by Ando Hiroshige

Slender, tall, undulating, curving lines with a flower motif underpin the most famous aspects of the style. New at the time, just looking at something like this makes you feel how heavy it would be and how…. dated. The kind of thing you see in junk shops, tarnished and striking but totally out of place in a modern home.

French Art Nouveau glass and bronze table lamp by Emile Gallé

French Art Nouveau glass and bronze table lamp by Emile Gallé

The Glasgow School which flourished from the 1890s was dominated by The Four, comprising the painter and glass artist Margaret MacDonald, architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, MacDonald’s sister Frances and Herbert MacNair. The Four defined the Glasgow Style’s fusion of influences including the Celtic Revival, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Japonisme. Among their works were the wall decorations for the Glasgow Tea Rooms, which highlight the movement’s interest in tall, elongated figures, in slender, elegant curved lines, in highly stylised flower imagery, and in simplified human features (‘ghost-like visions of attenuated young women’, p.50, ‘attenuated virgin maidens’, p.71). Note the heavy heads of hair of the maidens in this painting, similar to the hair in Beardsley, ornate and heavy like flower-heads.

The Wassail (1900) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

The Wassail (1900) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

In Paris the most famous Art Nouveau artifacts to be seen today are Hector Guimard’s entrances to a number of Métro stations. Note the curves, the flower and plant motifs in the ironwork – and also the wonderful lettering.

Hector Guimard's Art Nouveau entrance to the Abbesses station of the Paris Métro

Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau entrance to the Abbesses station of the Paris Métro

There was never an Art Nouveau school of painting. Art Nouveau was a way of thinking about design, not fine art. That said, many painters shared Art Nouveau themes such as: the simplification of form, the flattening of space, the evocative powers of an undulating line and an affinity for the decorative elements of symbolism.

Duncan singles out Gauguin’s technique of flattening the subject into areas of raw colour divided by strong black lines, before going on to describe the work of his devotees, the self-styled Nabis painters of Paris, and then goes on to namecheck Odilon Redon, Jan Toorop, Burne-Jones, Gustave Moreau and Ferdinand Khnopff – pretty much the same roll call of artists I’ve just worked through in two books about Symbolism.

He ends with Gustav Klimt, the nearest thing to a real Art Nouveau painter, for his use of surface decoration, flowing curves and rich ornamentation, ephemeral beauty, and symbolic female imagery tinged with decadence.

Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Art Nouveau was more at home in commercial posters than in painting. The big names are the pioneer Jules Chéret, who produced some 1,000 posters in the 1880s, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who produced 32 highly distinctive posters in the 1890s, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlein (who I know from Sue Roe’s book In Montmartre was one of Picasso’s favourite artists) and the great Alphonse Mucha.

Michael Gibson’s big book of Symbolism has an interesting section on Mucha which contains several black-and-white photos Mucha took of his female models, placed next to the resulting finished posters. What is immediately obvious is how Mucha made the poster girls not only prettier than the models they were based on – more simple, sweet and innocent – but also more curvilinear – shoulders or arms which are more or less straight in the photos life were given curves and contours to soften them.

In this poster note the elaborate framing of the central image, which echoes the curvilinear and plant-like design of the ironwork in the Guimard Metro entrance, above.

Poster Advertising 'Lefevre-Utile' Biscuits by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

Poster Advertising ‘Lefevre-Utile’ Biscuits by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

If flowery maidens were much in evidence in Mucha’s posters, naked young ladies swarmed across Art Nouveau sculpture. New techniques of manufacture and an interest in new materials, especially combinations of metals with glass or wood or marble or ivory or shell, led to an explosion in objets d’art which featured lithe, elongated nymphs with perfect bodies and rose-tipped breasts.

The book includes examples of nymph-adorned table lamps, electric lamps, inkwells, candle holders, dishes, candelabra, vases, wall brackets, tobacco jars and clocks.

Obsession and Dream, gilt bronze candelabra by Maurice Bouval (1898)

Obsession and Dream, gilt bronze candelabra by Maurice Bouval (1898)

Architects built buildings in the new style all across Europe. Something I noticed many of them had in common was a kind of semi-circular arch above the windows, often ballooning out wider than the window itself. Plus the inevitable fantastical, slender curved lines of the cast iron balcony.

Villino Broggi-Caraceni, Florence by Giovanni Michelazzi (1911)

Villino Broggi-Caraceni, Florence by Giovanni Michelazzi (1911)

It’s a zoomorphic look which finds its climax in the genuinely weird Casa Batlló in Barcelona designed by the great but eccentric Antoni Gaudí in 1904, a building which is evolving into a living organism, made up of biomorphic surfaces and undulating forms.

Casa Batllo, Barcelona by Gaudi (1904)

Casa Batllo, Barcelona by Gaudi (1904)

The decline of Art Nouveau

A key aspect of Art Nouveau is how brief it was. Its high point was the Paris World Fair in 1900, where Siegfried Bing displayed a series of ensemble rooms created by his three top designers, Colonna, de Feure and Gaillard, showing how every element in a modern room could be tailored to the new look. The Fair featured the glassware of Tiffany and the jewellery of Lalique, which were at their peak of popularity.

By 1905 it was all over. Meier-Graefe closed his shop in 1903, as sales fell off. Bing closed his gallery in 1904 and died the next year. The Belgian Art Nouveau, La Libre Esthétique, had dissolved by 1904. Morris died in 1896, Beardsley in 1898, Whistler the great devotee of Japonisme in 1903, Émile Gallé the leading Art Nouveau glass-maker in 1904. Mucha, the great Belle Époque posterist, returned to his native Czechoslovakia in 1910.

It had all seemed so new and exciting in 1895 – but seemed old and boring by 1905. One Mucha poster looks sensational – twenty begin to look predictable. In furniture, lamps, wallpapers, art and architecture, ‘the look’ began to seem tired, not least because (ironically) these lines and motifs had themselves been absorbed into the consumer capitalist machine, copied and mass produced in huge numbers of inferior versions, and in such quantities that the market was flooded. The rich, who set the pace, were looking for new thrills.

Looking back on it from a century later, Art Nouveau – which saw itself as reacting against Victorian clutter and tastelessness – itself seems merely a variation on the same over-stuffed world. Photos of Art Nouveau interiors – a revolution to their contemporaries – now look just as wooden, dark and cluttered as their immediate predecessors.

Art Nouveau dining room at the Casa Requena

Art Nouveau dining room at the Casa Requena (1905)

It’s only with De Stijl, Russian Constructivism and the emergence of the Bauhaus after the Great War, that we feel we are in an entirely new century of open, uncluttered space and modern streamlined furniture.

Key phrases

In trying to nail down what Art Nouveau really means, I noted down tell-tale phrases Duncan uses about architecture, interiors, furnishing, lamps and lights and so on:

  • serpentine configurations… abstracted plant gyrations… curves and fancies… curvilinearity… elaborate and complex ornament… sculpted decoration… integrated design… lavish mouldings and sculpted decoration… the use of nature, specifically the flower and its components… flair for the bizarre… floriform…

And two new terms struck me:

  • Femme-fleur – The dream-maiden with long strands of hair resembling vegetation tendrils, often intertwined with marine-like plant-forms, found in Art Nouveau designs.
  • Femme-libellule – dragonfly lady or damsel.
Femme Libellule by René Lalique (1898)

Femme Libellule by René Lalique (1898)


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You Can’t Do Both by Kingsley Amis (1994)

‘This makes all the difference. Well, quite a lot of difference.’ (p.142)
Robin tried to make it clear, but not too clear… (p.128)

Amis was born in 1922, so he started secondary school just as Herr Hitler took power in Germany (1933) and reached manhood during the Battle of Britain (1940). He grew up in a middle-class, South London household and went to the local grammar school.

Maybe writing his Memoirs (published in 1991) brought a lot of his teenage years back. Whatever the cause, You Can’t Have Both is, for most of its length, an easy-going third-person narrative about an Amis-like boy, then young man, named Robin Davies, which is surprisingly mellow and forgiving about his parents, his chums at school and Oxford, and about the hapless young ladies he clumsily tries to seduce.

The use of a throwaway everyday phrase for the title is characteristic (I Like It HereI Want It Now) and highly symptomatic of the casual, half-baked thought processes and style of the narrator and all the characters – they sort of, kind of, in a way, vaguely, maybe did something, or not – or something, at any rate.

From his earliest novels, Amis’s prose style, and the attitude it’s built on, have always struck me as oddly detached and alienated – a style which regards everyone around the narrator as creatures from another planet whose behaviour is unfathomably mysterious and unpredictable. There are glaring examples of his bewildered attitude on every page. That said, from time to time the prose reads like the work of someone who is actually trying to be funny, and fairly regularly – in among the strange attitude and clotted prose style – succeeds.

It’s divided into four chapters:

Chapter 1

Robin is 14 or 15, at Grammar school, good at Latin, with the usual small circle of school chums. He lives with his extravagantly normal dad, who insists on having manly heart-to-heart conversations and referring to him as ‘old boy’, as well as his mum, who likes to prepare the sitting room so they can have one of their ‘chats’. When neither of them are around the teenage Robin’s acts of assertiveness or rebellion are very much of their time (around 1936?) – plugging in and listening to the radiogram without his father’s permission; smoking a cigarette till it makes him feel sick and giddy; listening to Louis Armstrong at a friend’s house (reminding me of one of the few true-feeling scenes in The Crime of the Century, where the detective and the boy hero discuss just what it is that’s so exciting about Armstrong-era jazz).

Into this stiflingly boring world comes the 20-year-old son of one of his mum’s friends, Jeremy Carpenter, who is at Cambridge, knows about jazz and smoking and poetry, and is generally a god-like idol.

In the second half of this act, Robin is packed off to stay with his father’s relatives in Wales, who are made out to be yokel gargoyles. His one clumsy attempt to kiss his much older cousin, Dilys, who had led him on a bit, ends in disaster. But then, to Robin’s astonishment, Jeremy turns up in Wales, saying he was staying with friends in nearby Shropshire anyway. Jeremy takes him out for the day, treats him to a slap-up lunch with wine, then a drive out to a sunny hillside. Here it all comes to grief when Jeremy asks young Robin whether he has any experience of ‘the other’ i.e. of boys i.e of homosexuality. Robin blushes and says no, Jeremy quickly asserts that he hasn’t either, they repair to the car, and Jeremy drives him back to his Welsh relatives’ house, before reversing the car and disappearing. Robin trudges up the lane to the cottage blind with tears, his idol-worship smashed (one of the few times I can remember any Amis character revealing a weakness or expressing any emotion apart from bewilderment).

Chapter 2

Jump forward a few years to Robin now at Oxford studying classics. Expecting some local colour or  history? Forget it. We learn almost nothing about the university, his particular college, the wider city or the period it’s set in. Instead, the text claustrophobically focuses on Robin’s consuming need to seduce a fellow student, Barbara Bates. He eventually gets her into bed where – it’s difficult to make out through the evasions and euphemisms to which the 70 year-old Amis is still prey – but it seems he performs badly, or his post-coital attitude is maladroit, and so she ends up avoiding him.

No problem, though, because in the rooms of his best mate, Embleton, at another Oxford college, he meets young Nancy Bennett, just 17 and not at the university. She works at a record shop in the High Street and they go on a few dates before he is invited to meet her parents (her dad standing behind the bar in his lounge and delivering politely menacing threats). Then Nancy is invited to spend a weekend at his parents’ house, in London.

Here they take advantage of his parents being out unexpectedly long one day, to go to bed and have full intercourse. There follows an excruciatingly embarrassing scene, when the parents return, of his dad asking Robin on his honour whether anything untoward took place when they were out. Robin lies but Nancy goes bright red with shame and then the secret comes tumbling out.

The book describes in horrible detail the embarrassed way Robin’s dad, a decent bloke really, himself doesn’t really know what to do and, after consulting his wife, decides they must ask Nancy to leave. This causes upset for all the people concerned – Robin, his dad, his mum, and Nancy – effectively blamed and humiliated – which takes some time to simmer down.

Chapter 3

The timeline jumps again to After the War (1946?). Robin had been called up, managed to secure officer rank, won a medal and, in its final stages, was taken prisoner and saw the war out in a German POW camp. In this long third section there are two important storylines:

1. His father is diagnosed with cancer and the book describes Robin and his older brother George’s efforts to deal with it, to visit the visibly failing old man in hospital, and then to organise the cremation at a dreary suburban crematorium.

2. But by far the bigger amount of time is devoted to the fact that – on returning from hearing his father’s diagnosis – Robin has fierce life-affirming sex with Nancy (who, surprisingly, he’s still going out with, years and years after the initial embarrassments recorded in the previous chapter) but – oops – she gets pregnant, a disaster at a time when abortion was illegal and being an unmarried mother carried a crippling stigma.

These is a long sequence which describes their stuttering immature attempts to think through all the solutions, given Robin’s extreme reluctance to get married, her reluctance to become an unmarried mother, and the impossibility of getting an abortion.

Eventually, via their shady landlady, they are put in touch with an abortion clinic in Wales (always Wales in Amis’s books), Robin borrows the necessary £100 from his older brother, George, and he and Nancy catch a train down to Cardiff, there to stay at a boarding house which is part of the package.

The accretion of detail – albeit filtered through Amis’s tortured prose – slowly and effectively creates an air of suspense and expectation and muted horror, both Robin and Nancy behaving and talking ‘normally’ while their unconscious minds are obviously screaming. It all builds to the climactic scene where Robin takes her to the clinic, leaves her in the room where she is to prepare for the operation – then hears her burst into tears and goes back into the bedroom to find her flung on the bed and absolutely distraught. In more or less the only decent act of his life, Robin realises he is being a selfish bastard. He packs her stuff for her, whisks her away and, in the train waiting room at Cardiff, proposes to her. Wow. Quite a turnaround.

There is then a sub-plot where Nancy’s staid mother and father refuse to attend the hurried registry office wedding which Robin has organised within just a few days, until Robin’s own mother insists on going to a face-to-face meeting with them and, surprisingly, gets them to change their minds.

In parallel to all this are several scenes where Robin visits his brother George and is witness to the appalling hell of having a child – in his brother’s case his little girl, Marian – who screams and bawls and throws food everywhere and is generally a monster all day long. Some of this is very funny but mostly it confirms Robin in his horror of fatherhood, marriage, commitment – the whole shebang.

And so to the title of the book. As he discusses in one of the many long-winded and obtuse conversations which dominate the text, this one down the boozer with brother George, you can’t have both: you can’t have commitment and marriage – and at the same time remain a footloose bachelor, free to screw around. Why? Why can’t you have both? Because you have to bloody well grow up!

After his dad’s funeral Robin and his mother have one of their chats in which he is disconcerted to realise how transparent his character is to other people – how self-centred all around realise he is, how unreliable and shifty and duplicitous. God, is it really that obvious? He’s not even a shallow character. For all his endless calculating and his smart-arse pedantry about the Classics (his own private name for Xenophon’s Anabasis being How To Fuck Up A Good Story, ho ho p.212) – when it comes to relations with other people, he is barely human.

Chapter 4

A short, 15-page epilogue, in which our hero is revealed, nine or so years later, to have becomes a Reader in Classics at a Midland University and we think we are just going to be shown his boring after-life as a respectable middle-class, middle-aged paterfamilias. And certainly we see him motoring home at lunchtime to kiss his wife, the very same Nancy, and his two rambunctious daughters, Margaret and Matilda.

But there’s a sting in the tail. For quite quickly we realise that Robin, despite being respectably married, is still having extra-marital flings. In fact he’s off to one in London now, making up a cock-and-bull story about having to go do academic work or attend a conference. And so he takes the train to the Smoke, the tube to Fulham and checks into the quiet boarding house where he commits his deeds of darkness there to await… none other than the now rather stout Dilys, his cousin, older than him and who flirted with him in Wales when he was a pimply adolescent.

They have barely finished an aggressive act of congress before the phone rings in the rented room and, when Robin absent-mindedly picks it up, it is Nancy on the other end. She is downstairs. She has followed him. In fact she’s had him tailed by a private detective. She knows everything. Has done for months.

Robin creeps downstairs like a naughty schoolboy and there has to put up with a massive harangue about what a self-centred little shit he is, Nancy alternately shouting in his face or bursting into tears. She says she’ll take him back for one last chance but if anything like this happens again, she’ll leave him and take the girls and he’ll never see them again. Then she lands him a colossal punch in the face.

This might seem like a come-uppance, and almost like some kind of moral reckoning, but it isn’t. It feels exactly like the end of Take A Girl Like You from 26 years earlier, in which northern lass Jenny Bunn ends up marrying the caddish Patrick Standish despite knowing that he’ll never change; or like That Uncertain Feeling where we watch John Lewis lured into an adulterous affair which really, deeply hurts his loving wife, and so upsets the reader. Men who have the strength of character of a goldfish.

Similarly, the worldview behind this novel hasn’t shifted a jot in Amis’s 30-year-long career. If he thinks painting a warts-n-all, brutally self-flagellating portrait of this kind of man and this kind of character somehow redeems or justifies the behaviour, it doesn’t. Some readers have found the book moving, but I found the overall affect depressing and lowering. There is no joy to this compulsive coupling: just a brainless addiction, shallow deceptions and an aftertaste of ashes.


Amis’s sort of vague & diffuse style or something

It’s a real oddity that Amis wrote many essays and at least one book about English usage, and yet his own style is so contorted and obscure as to be sometimes almost unreadable.

His central tactic is to include in the narrative prose and dialogue the kind of throwaway, ‘whatever’ phrasing that many people use in everyday life (or used – the exact diction is, of course, very dated throughout). But in his hands it has become a mannerism with half a dozen specific elements or aspects, all contributing to make the characters and narrator sound infuriatingly vague, so casual in what they’re describing that it often becomes difficult to follow, so persistently offhand as to become wilfully obscure.

The tactics include:

The pointless qualification

Adding an extra clause at the end of a sentence, ‘or something’, to any previously firm statement, in order to make it feel weaker and vaguer.

  • ‘This makes all the difference. Well, quite a lot of difference.’ (p.142)
  • ‘I see all that, some of it anyway.’ (p.145)
  • At other times, or even at the same time… (p.149)
  • He thought he’d make me like it by being around too much when I was a nipper, or not being around enough or something.’ (p.158)
  • He assured himself, with some truth, that in wartime such arrangements, or non-arrangements, were common, or not uncommon, (p.162)
  • Actually a different accent might have done his cause some good or at any rate less harm. (p.169)
  • The temple or secular chapel or whatever it was they entered… (p.204)
  • ‘What did you make of that extract or oration or whatever it was that your brother read out?’ (p.207)

Deliberate vagueness

Almost all the perceptions and thoughts which occur to any character are deliberately vague. There is a willed blurriness about what or who people or things are.

  • If anything the last bit was a faint surprise to Robin who had vaguely supposed…
  • Robin was mildly disconcerted by this approach, or lack of it…
  • And it is my business a bit, after all…
  • He’s always been one for speaking his mind, that’s to say some of his mind…
  • Oh he’ll be as nice as pie to you, or he’ll do his best to be…
  • Robin tried to make it clear, but not too clear, that he spoke largely in jest…
  • They sort of have to fall back on being very fed up…
  • ‘I see all that, some of it anyway…’ (p.145)

The passive voice

I hadn’t previously noticed Amis’s use of the passive voice in oddly inappropriate settings. I’m sure it’s a new tactic in his campaign of undermining the English language’s ability to state facts and convey information.

  • The half-dozen little glassed-in cubicles, known to some as audition booths… (p.99)
  • He switched the wireless on and music from a brass band was to be heard. It was not a very agreeable noise… (p.119)
  • Food was visible, but dishing-up time went on being not yet. (p.168)
  • An indifferent recording of some archaic quasi-religious piece of music made itself heard for a minute or so… (p.204)
  • No actual detritus of food or make-up was to be seen… (p.232)
  • A solitary flash of gold was to be seen among his teeth. (p.239)
  • A man’s voice was soon to be heard… (p.242)

Amis’s laboured jokes

It’s meant to be a comic novel, but Amis was never simply funny in the way Tom Sharpe or Howard Jacobson or even David Lodge are funny. Right from the start there was always a substantial amount of knotty, difficult or ambiguous ‘real life’ in his books. Since his novels mostly tell of unappealing characters, from another era, conveyed in his peculiarly convoluted prose, these grapplings with serious issues or unpleasant experiences aren’t necessarily the good or enjoyable bits.

Sometimes his perceptions are just funny, no effort required.

She wore a dark garment that resembled, and perhaps in former days had actually been, a page’s tabard in some historical pageant. (p.89)

He, Robin, could on his own accord have wished for nothing better in its line than the absence of Mr and Mrs B from his wedding, except naturally for their absence from his life for a trial period of say fifty years. (p.273)

But sometimes his long-winded style makes you work considerably harder before you get to the punchline, at which point you ask, Well, was it worth it?

Robin’s bedroom, even when not given over to Nancy, boasted a gas-fire of curious three-dimensional design, with gnarled black burners instead of the more familiar straight white ones, a legacy of some previous owner of the house. It probably threw out no more heat at no greater cost than more conventional appliances, but its unusual horizontalised appearance made it not a thing to be trifled with, in other words not a thing to be used except at times of imminent glaciation. (p.130)

The punchline made me smile, but note the deliberate tone of vagueness and so-whattery – some previous owner, probably more heat. The narrator – well, Amis – just isn’t very interested in the world about him, except for girls and sex, a monomaniac compulsion which becomes very boring. As Robin himself confesses to brother George:

‘As long as I can remember I’ve thought about almost nothing but getting my end away…’ (p.147)

His older brother invites Robin and Nancy to accompany him and his girlfriend to the cinema. What an opportunity that could have been for adding in the detail of the films people went to see in the 1940s, with a snappy one-liner about Cagney or Bogart, a phrase encapsulating George or Robin’s character, a flash which would make the text come alive.

Instead George throws away the remark that the movie they’re planning to see is ‘some gangster thing’. A small example of the way none of the characters nor the narrator really notice or care very much about the world around them.

Amis’s acting

Everyone is acting and performing and hyper-aware of it, timing their performances of such business as laughing, smiling, frowning, shouting, hesitating, putting on a show. These performances come in blocks and chunks; instead of a flow of time the reader gets disconnected excerpts, sections, bits of stuff, sequences of performance by one or other character.

  • After doing a certain amount of laughing about something or other…
  • The tea was made, with hot water standing by but no fanciful extras like slices of lemon. Robin managed not to grin at the very unwatchful way Nancy watched for consumer reaction to what she had prepared. To be on the safe side he limited his show of approval to minor noises and faces. (p.146)
  • He tried to get reliability and and unplumbed experience into the way he tilted his head forward and over to one side. (p.178)
  • This section lasted only a short time. (p.239)
  • Silence and pretended shame seemed called for… (p.219)
  • [George got] to his feet with caricatured haste. ‘Right on cue. I’ll have to go and do some welcoming home.’ (p.221)
  • [Marian attacked her tea] in the spirit of someone registering appetite in a silent film. (p.223) (p.231)
  • ‘Beck,’ he announced, stooped over Nancy’s hand and vigorously shook Robin’s, then did some more chuckling and went on with a good imitation of ferocity. (p.238)
  • When he answered he tried not to overdo his appreciation of the justice of her diagnosis. (p.259)
  • There followed a sort of silent film couple of moments in which Mr Bennett laid his hand on his wife’s arm and she went through a hurried series of reactions, from a start or jump of sheer physical surprise through mild indignation to acceptance and gratitude. When this reached completion, he said to Robin’s mother… (p.274)
  • Jeremy showed himself in good form as entertainer, as old friend, as affectionate and attentive son but not too much of either. (p.288)
  • He had tried bewilderment shading into muddled protest just now and had cut no ice at all. (p.301)

Sometimes these descriptions of the characters’ permanent acting for each other is funny.

‘Oh yes, Mum, you did quite right to tell me,’ said Robin, hanging out situation-well-in-hand signals as he spoke. (p.152)

This is the kind of thing you read about the young Amis keeping his mates in stitches with at Oxford, and which the early books like Lucky Jim are stuffed to the brim with. But equally as much of the time it feels oddly alienated and detached, almost robotic. It feels weird.

  • Either she was doing a marvellous imitation of a girl quite uninterested in the impression she was making, or she was such a girl. The latter, he thought, and good for her. He knew it was bad luck on her to have got tied up with a chap who hardly knew what it was not to care how he seemed to other people. (p.165)
  • It was one of those rare times when he forgot to care how he seemed to other people. (p.166)

And in fact at some moments, it feels almost panic-stricken. The comedy is so close to panic fear, to a Kafka-esque level of alienation from other people, from the world and from himself, that it’s impossible to even smile, let alone laugh. In the climactic scene when Nancy confronts him with his stupid, selfish promiscuousness and threatens to leave:

A great fear of being altogether alone swept over him, as if she might take from him not only herself and their life together but everything familiar to him, all his reference points, whatever made it possible to steer through the hours between waking up and falling asleep. (p.302)

It’s ironic that Amis once or twice is quoted as taking the mickey out of continental philosophy, especially the Sartrean existentialism which was fashionable as Amis came to notice – because all of his novels, for me, far more than the superficial comedy, bespeak a really powerful terror of existence, a nausea in the face of other people and great yawning chasms of Time which cannot be faced or handled without a multitude of tricks, pulling faces, negotiating bits of time, manipulating other people, drinking and a pointless pursuit of sex. In  his way, Amis is the great English existentialist novelist.

Sections of time and bits of stuff

There’s a particular mannerism which bugs me, which is when a character gets cross or happy or delivers a speech or something – and then the narrator or protagonist or some characters refer to what we’ve just heard as a performance or, even more vaguely and demotically, as ‘a bit’, or ‘that lot’, or some ‘stuff’.

Instead of characters responding to each others’ dialogue, they just sit through it, regarding it all as ‘stuff’ that has to be endured. After Mr Davies very mildly criticises them for being indecent in his house, Nancy retreats to the bedroom to recover and Robin goes to ask if she’s alright.

‘I’m fine. I just sort of wanted to rest for a moment before the next lot.’
‘Oh, there won’t be a next lot for quite a time.’ (p.116)

  • Robin had had time to prepare some of that…. He would probably not had the cheek to blurt out the last bit… (p.154)

Time itself is broken down into sections which have to be defined and then navigated. Absolutely nothing flows naturally. Here he is in bed with Nancy and failing – I think – to get an erection.

  • The particular kind of embrace that should have come next seemed no less firmly indicated, but that was only to start with. After a minute or so he found he had nothing much to go on with, not enough, in fact. Such a thing had not happened to him since the time before he met Nancy and he was put out, though not as much as much as he might have been in the absence of anything else to claim his attention. (p.243)

Time gets tied up in knots in Amis’s prose. It is the one issue – even more than sex – which his characters are always fretting about.

  • ‘If we go along there now we can set about filling in the time to some purpose.’ (p.277)

Beady-eyed

Above all, the protagonist has a permanent, beady-eyed air of calculation, calculating the impression he’s making on people, manipulating and manoeuvring everyone around him in order to give himself the easiest ride and, above all – obsessed with getting women into bed. Even if it’s to a disappointing experience, even if it involves unhappiness and regret, it doesn’t matter – women women women, bed bed bed sex sex sex. The real world barely exists.

For the next couple of minutes, Robin’s attention was not on the shops and such about him as he walked, which surely must have changed since he last saw them but in no way that interested him or caught his eye. (p.153)

As a typical example, it emerges that – surprisingly – while on active service during the war, Robin won a medal. His friend Jeremy asks him about it.

‘Does that thing above your pocket mean you were very brave about something?’
‘No, just that I was somewhere in particular at a particular time.’ (p.157)

Everything is downplayed, underplayed, dismissed, not taken seriously, it’s just stuff to sit through and be endured while you act whatever part the tedious old shags around you require, till you can get free to have a smoke, better still a couple of jars with a mate, best of all a bunk-up with some dolly bird in a rented room.

Between then and the time fixed for Robin’s departure for Oxford the next morning nothing of great significance happened. (p.184)

Most of life apparently consisted of being in a minority of one, a status worth going to some lengths to alleviate at events like your father’s funeral. And old Emble had intrinsic merits too, seeming older than Robin, actually being richer and posher, also staid of demeanour, just the sort of fellow whom luck or good judgement could turn into a means of mitigating or even removing some minor disagreeableness like having to chat to an uncle or find an erstwhile business colleague a seat. (p.202)

In other words, his best ‘friend’ is in fact merely a convenient tool for assuaging the protagonist’s inescapable solipsism.

Feeling and meaning

Surprisingly, the text rises to a handful of moments of something like real emotion – for example, when the narrator describes the scenes around his father dying or at the climax of the abortion plotline. But I couldn’t make out whether the feeling was really in the text, or just me supplying it because I knew it was appropriate.

Certainly, most of the time, the reader has to add their own feelings to animate scenes which seem to lack any emotion on the part of the calculating protagonist. For example, to the later scenes when his mother tells him what his dead father really thought of him, or when his gay friend Jeremy lets loose a stream of 1940s prejudices about queers and women.

But for the most part I felt little or no emotional involvement with any of the characters, since I was repelled in almost every sentence by Amis’s weird prose style and his deliberately vague and alienated worldview.

Towards the end, it dawned on me that the frequent use of the passive voice has a moral dimension, too. It typifies the protagonist’s sense that he isn’t responsible for events. Things just keep on happening to him, damn it, and his only concern is how to negotiate ‘this bit’ and live through ‘the next section’ and handle the ‘stuff’ that keeps on coming his way, and do some ‘welcoming’ or ‘laughing’ or making polite small-talk, or whatever guff it takes to appease the irritating old duffers who seem to populate the world around him.

He could think of no other way of passing the next hour or so, and concluded that this was one of those times when you had little choice in what you were to do. (p.183)

Objects are seen; voices are heard; people are said to appear; houses come into view; expressions are registered. The passive voice not only indicates the strange alienation from the world of the protagonist and narrator, it also points towards his continuing evasion of responsibility. His brother George surprises Robin by saying that for most of his life his father had a nickname for him – O.O. Davies – standing for Options Open (p.220) – describing the way he can’t get anywhere near committing to anyone or anything because he is always calculating and gambling on something better coming along.

Thus Robin has a reasonable amount of self-knowledge: he knows he is self-centred, only after one thing, casually hurtful – he knows he is ‘selfish, self-indulgent, lazy, arrogant and above all inextinguishably promiscuous by nature’ (p.245) –  and the narrator doesn’t spare him, just as he didn’t soft pedal the unpleasantness of so many previous protagonists, like adulterous John Lewis in That Uncertain Feeling or Patrick Standish, the compulsive fornicator in Take A Girl Like You.

This unflinching honesty may be admirable, up to a point, but it doesn’t really compensate the reader for having to wade through what is, more or less, the same kind of story about the same kind of unpleasant, selfish and, above all, unimaginative – in fact aggressively anti-imaginative – character.

The streets [of London] were not crowded, but there were enough people in them, moving rapidly enough, for Robin to become aware of his small and shallow experience of the city he had been born in, not because he had been brought up near its distant edge but inevitably, not at all exceptionally. He would live and die without having found out anything much about it, anything personal to him, perhaps nothing worth remembering about anything. (p.229)

The casual sexism and homophobia will presumably outrage the politically correct, or even averagely decent, modern reader. What upsets me far more is the deliberately and insultingly vague and obtuse vision of the world and the people in it, a wilfully unobservant, ignorant and uninterested view of life which is lamentably narrow, dull and self-blinkered, and which becomes extremely wearing far before the book reaches its end.


Credit

You Can’t Do Both by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1994. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Flamingo paperback edition.

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.

The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth (1994)

In the quiet of the Oval Office George Bush sat behind the great desk, backed by the tall narrow windows, 5 inches of pale green bullet-proof glass, and beneath the seal of the United States. Facing him was General Brent Scowcroft, the President’s National Security Adviser. (p.354)

Forsyth writes documentary thrillers. They are very closely meshed into historical fact, routinely feature real (and very eminent) people and organisations, are often set against real events, and are described in the kind of brisk, factual prose you would expect of an in-depth current affairs feature in the Sunday Times or Economist.

Of course there is a story, there is a plot, but embedded in a dense texture of facts and information which often threatens to swamp it and regularly holds up the flow of the narrative. If you’re looking for in-depth psychological investigations of a handful of characters, he really isn’t your man; if you like cleverly plotted and high stakes thrillers, backed up by blizzards of facts and information, you’re in luck.

The Gulf War

This long novel (624 pages) is effectively a retelling of the Gulf War, starting a little before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, following the creation of the anti-Saddam coalition at the United Nations and then the deployment of the vast numbers of mainly American military men and materiel at the frontier between occupied Kuwait and neighbouring Saudi Arabia (Operation Desert Shield). It then moves seamlessly into the month-long air war against Iraq (17 January – 23 February) before the pulverising Operation Desert Storm which killed large numbers of Iraqi troops, destroyed their hardware and drove them out of Kuwait (24 to 28 February).

Forsyth is enamoured of the men, machines, the hardware, planes and tanks, the radar and missile launchers, the regiments and divisions, the pilots, planners, generals and strategists involved in this colossal effort. Reading this book is much more like reading a factual book called ‘Weapons of the Gulf War’ than a novel.

336th Squadron out of Al Kharz [had been assigned] a big SAM missile site north-west of Baghdad. The SAMs were controlled by two large radar dishes… With twenty-four Strike Eagles in the squadron, 20 January was going to be a multi-mission day. The squadron commander, Lt.-Col Steve Turner, had allocated a twelve-plane detail for the missile base. A swarm of Eagles that large was known as a ‘gorilla’. The gorilla was led by one of the two senior flight commanders. Four of the twelve planes were packing HARMS, the radar-busting missiles that home in on infra-red signals from a radar dish. The other eight carried two long, gleaming, stainless-steel-cased laser-guided bombs known as GBU-10-I. When the radars were dead and the missiles blind, they would follow the HARMS and blow away the rocket batteries. (p.413)

Hundreds of pages are like this. Reading The Fist  involves immersing yourself in exhaustive explanations of military hardware and military planning, in scenes describing the geopolitics and strategies of the various nations involved, in a highly detailed account of the war seen from a solidly pro-Coalition, military-minded and very male perspective.

Storylines

Among the factual briefings and threaded into the historical timelines, there are a number of fictional storylines (though not as many as you might expect for such a very long book).

Mike Martin The main one is the story of Mike Martin, a dark-skinned SAS man, fluent in Arabic, who is dropped into Iraqi-occupied Kuwait to pose as a Bedou, radio back reports to his masters and wage a small campaign of destruction. This he does, meeting some of the Kuwaiti underground, training and organising them, providing explosive and ‘intel’. After a tense few weeks he is pulled out and redeployed into Baghdad itself, where he is given the ultra-dangerous mission of renewing contact with a senior spy in Saddam’s entourage, code-named Jericho.

Terry Martin It so happens that Mike’s brother, Terry Martin, a professor of Arabic at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. It was he, in an early meeting with a member of the Intelligence Services, who recommended his Arabic-speaking brother for the mission. Terry ends up serving informally with the Medusa committee, set up to interpret reports coming out of Iraq during the crisis, and so provides a handy ‘in’ to the discussions and debates among the SIS officers as the novel unfurls.

Baghdad boyhood Both the Martins were raised as boys in Baghdad of the 1950s when their engineer father lived there – a factor in Mike’s selection for the mission, and which allows Forsyth, through Martin’s eyes, to give us detailed descriptions of the geography and feel of Baghdad, as it was then, and as it is now, 40 years later.

Gerald Bull and the Babylon Gun Right at the start of the novel we meet the true-life figure of Dr Gerald Bull, and get a thorough review of his career as an engineer and developer of supersize artillery, before his true-life assassination on 22 March 1990. After his death the Press was full of reports about the ‘Supergun’ he had been designing for the Iraqis, but Forsyth cannily goes beyond the known facts to fictionalise the idea that the Iraqis did manage to erect one of Dr Bull’s 150-metre long supersize guns. In this fictional version, the Iraqis built it to lie along the incline of a hill in an isolated and mountainous part of Iraq, where an entire military support base supporting it is completely camouflaged.

In a whopping great coincidence it turns out that the engineer who master-minded the erection of the gun and the complete concealment of the military base, attended the same Baghdad prep school as Mike and Terry, Osman Badri, who we see supervising its construction and who then plays a crucial role in its destruction, 500 pages later. But for the central part of the novel, this whole supergun plotline is forgotten while we follow Mike Martin’s adventures, a staggeringly detailed account of Operation Desert Shield, and then the start of the air campaign against Iraq (January 17 1991).

For most of the book, if there is one central concern it is the issue of the top Iraqi spy code-named ‘Jericho’.

Jericho

We learn that the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, had been contacted years earlier by a very senior figure in Saddam’s Ba’ath Party government who wanted to sell them secrets. He was ‘run’ for three years by a Jewish member of a United Nations Mission to Iraq. However, with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, UN staff were pulled out and contact with Jericho ceased. When US and British intelligence find out about this, they send in their own man to re-establish contact with the mysterious Jericho via an elaborate system of safe houses and secret signs. This man is Mike Martin, posing as an old, dirty, Iraqi gardener living in a cottage in the grounds of the Soviet Embassy and equipped with very well-forged ID and a covering letter from the Soviets.

Jericho resumes contact with Martin, neither ever seeing the other, but leaving messages written on thin air-mail notepaper deposited at various dead letter drops around the city, and throughout the book Jericho provides vital and wholly accurate information about Iraq’s hidden weapons factories, troops and armament positions etc.

Leila al-Hilla In a vivid side-thread we are introduced to the high class courtesan, Leila al-Hilla, whose main client is General Abdullah Kadiri, Commander of the Armoured Corp of the Army of the Republic of Iraq, and who she routinely seduces with clinical efficiency. Afterwards, in a drunk post-coital haze, he is easily coaxed into discussing the latest developments in Saddam’s Army Council. Leila then takes hand-written accounts of these late-night murmurings to St Joseph’s church, where she hands them over to the ‘priest’ hearing confession. This priest turns out to be Hassan Rahmani, Head of Counter-Intelligence of the Republic of Iraq, but who is excluded from the further promotion and from the really inner circles of Saddam’s advisers, because he is neither family nor from Saddam’s home village of Tikrit but who is gathering useful information against the day when the Americans overthrow the Rais (p.319-22).

The Winkler Bank Another Jericho-related strand is set in Vienna, where Mossad know the payments Jericho demands for his work are sent to an old and venerable bank, the Winkler Bank. They rack their brains about how to access details of Jericho’s bank account in order – I think, because after a few hundred pages the original motivation becomes difficult to recall – to seize back all the money they’ve paid him. After realising they cannot blackmail or in any other way get at the dry-as-dust owner of the bank, Herr Wolfgang Gemütlich, they focus their efforts on his spinsterish secretary, Edith Hardenberg.

Karim seduces Fräulein Hardenberg Mossad select a handsome young Jew from the seduction section, one Avi Herzog, who poses as ‘Karim’, a Jordanian student studying in Vienna, and sets about seducing the middle-aged, repressed Miss Edith with cynical efficiency. Two or three page descriptions of Karim slowly worming his way into her affections, getting her to take him to classical music concerts and art galleries, to smart dinners and so on, punctuate the long descriptions of the military hardware or of Mike Martin’s adventures in Baghdad, until Karim finally takes her to bed. Even then he waits a few sessions before asking her about her funny old job at the funny old bank and where does funny old Mr Gemütlich keep all the most secret accounts, then? At which point she laughingly tells him that the big antique desk in his office contains secret compartments where the account details of the VIP customers are kept… So. Mossad have their information, and within days break into the office, find the compartment, and photocopy all the papers kept there, including the all-important Jericho papers. Karim has dinner with Edith and tells her he has to go back to Jordan because his mother is ill. Edith is by now swooningly in love and bids him God speed, little realising that’s the last she’ll ever hear of him.

The air offensive

Once the air war begins the pace of events speeds up and many of these plotlines reach (brutal) conclusions. General Kadiri catches Leila in the act of writing a secret message, has her tortured to reveal her contact, and killed. Jericho discovers that his own counter-intelligence people have realised that coded radio messages are being sent from somewhere in the diplomatic quarter and so are closing in on Martin. If they catch and torture him he will give enough evidence to incriminate him, Jericho, so he leaves a message telling Martin to get out.

The Fist of God

But not before his final set of messages convey the blockbuster fact at the centre of the novel. To a shocked audience of his Cabinet and Army officers, Saddam announces that Iraq does have a nuclear weapon – the Qubth-ut-Allah or Fist of God (p.365) and the delivery mechanism to attack the infidel aggressor. Jericho emerges, like the rest of the Iraqi high command, stunned at the news. Straightaway he leaves message for Jericho, who immediately relays it by coded radio message to his handlers in Riyadh.

After reading the final, warning, message from Jericho Martin doesn’t go back to his cottage, with its incriminating radio set and mini satellite dish, but (in his plausible disguise as poor, working class gardener) cadges lorry rides west of the city. He buys a few goats as cover and then treks south to the motorbike he and his SAS colleagues buried in the sand weeks earlier for precisely this reason. He rides through the empty desert and crosses the invisible border into Saudi Arabia, before being picked up by a patrol and returned to a hero’s welcome among the small group of intelligence minders who’d been running him.

Nuclear verification

Meanwhile, as you can imagine, the news that Iraq has the bomb, or at least one bomb, comes as a thunderbolt to the Allied commanders. On one level a top priority call goes out to all the Intelligence services to double check how this can be true. In this workstream Mike’s brother, Terry, plays a crucial role. Earlier in the book a stray shell from a US fighter-bomber blew the roof off a non-descript factory. Satellite photos show strange objects and the Iraqis’ feverish efforts to repair them. It is Terry who takes the photos to Livermore University in California where the young guys there have no idea but mention a retired prof who lives out in the woods who might know. Terry drives up into the mountains where the grey-haired old man stops chopping wood long enough to explain that the objects are ‘calcutrons’, primitive devices to separate Uranium 238 and 235 to create material for a bomb. He gives Terry a long, Forsythian encyclopedia explanation of how they work, how they were used to create the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, how the plans to make them are freely available in the Library of Congress, and how it looks like the Iraqis have made some and so will have a more advanced bomb than the Allies calculated. Which backs up Jericho’s claim about the Iraqi bomb.

Mike’s mission

Mike has barely had a shower, shave, devoured some steak and chips and fallen asleep on a decent bed for the first time in weeks, when he is woken and ordered to yet another intelligence meeting. Obviously, the next question asked of Jericho after the bombshell that Saddam had a nuclear weapon was – where? His last message back to Martin, and the last one Martin radioed back to his minders, was a precise map reference far in the north-east of Iraq.

While Martin was exiting Iraq, an observation plane had overflown the co-ordinates and established there was nothing there except hills and valleys and a few villages. Shown the aerial photos Mike points out that the villages are fake – there isn’t enough forage in the area for all their livestock. There’s obviously a military base there but so well hidden nobody can pinpoint it. The risk is that the Allies start to bomb in one part of the quadrant and that tips off the Iraqis who have time to fire their nuclear missile. Which would be bad. So there’s no alternative: they’re going to need a team of men on the ground to ascertain the precise location – and Mike volunteers.

After the multiple plot strands and blizzards of technical spec which characterised most of the book, the last forty pages boil down to a nailbiting account of the preparation and parachuting of Mike and three SAS colleagues into this remote region where they do, in fact, locate the well-concealed supergun – the Babylon Gun – and call in a fighter-bomber which successfully destroys it. High fives all round!

In fact the fighter-bomber is shot down by Iraqi AAA defences, but Mike and  his team locate the pilot and together march East towards Iran, hiding out until the 100-hour Desert Storm is over, at which point they radio to call in helicopters to rescue them.

In fact, it is news that the Babylon Gun has been taken out which allows General Schwartzkopf later the same day to give the go-ahead for Operation Desert Storm to commence. Thus, right to the end, Forsyth skillfully intertwines his fictional adventure with the real events of the war; in fact makes reality hinge on his fictional protagonist and his daring exploit.

Epilogue

Karim, now equipped with papers reproducing all the details of Jericho’s account, visits Winkler’s Bank pretending to be Jericho’s son, ‘Aziz’, and empties the account of the ten million dollars in it.

When Herr Gemütlich tells Miss Hardenberg this surprising bit of news and describes ‘Aziz’, she realises it is Karim and, in a flash, how she has been comprehensively used and exploited. She scrubs her flat clean of his presence, drives out to the woods, and hangs herself.

While the war is raging to the south and the country is in chaos, an Israeli agent undertakes a daring mission into Baghdad and leaves a last message for Jericho. Days later, and after the 100-hour war is over, Jericho, following the detailed instructions in that message, approaches the Kuwait border in a Cadillac, where he is met, as arranged, by British and American generals. He is spirited through the lines and onto a plane which sets off flying – so he is told – to freedom. Instead, however, he is in the hands of Mossad agents, who give him a muscle-paralysing drug then throw him out of the aircraft to smash to pieces on the sea below. For Jericho, it is now revealed, was all along none other than Brigadier Omar Khatib, head of Iraq’s secret police, and personally present at several extremely disgusting torture interrogations which the book had described, besides the thousands he has authorised over the years. It was this unique position which he used to extract information about, first the progress of the Iraqi A-bomb, and then of the hidden Babylon Gun, before passing it on to the Allies. But this usefulness can’t outweigh the evil he has done.


VIP characters

There is a cast list at the start of the book which goes on for three pages and lists 73 characters, many of them real historical personages. Forsyth is not shy about describing the most powerful people in the world in exactly the same factual, deadpan he way he does a taxi driver or a street cleaner. Thus, at various moments, there are scenes featuring speaking parts for President George Bush, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, head of the CIA William Webster and General in command of Coalition Forces, Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf; for Mrs Thatcher and John Major; for the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir; for Mikhail Gorbachev; and for Saddam Hussein himself.

The ladder of fiction extends from the bottom to the very top of not just one but quite a few nations, in juxtapositions which are almost Shakespearian. It takes some chutzpah to imagine the scene as George Bush looks out the window of the Oval Office, agonising over the possible effects of Saddam’s poison gases on the men and women he’s sending into battle (p.354); or to describe a conversation between Shamir and his smooth Deputy Foreign Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, nowadays himself leader of Israel. Yet the reader quite quickly gets used to Forsyth’ extraordinary assurance at putting words into these people’s mouths. He is quite nerveless.

Gorbachev features because senior representatives of the CIA and SIS are sent to ask his personal permission to give Mike Martin a cover story as gardener to the Soviet Embassy in Iraq.

I had forgotten that Mrs Thatcher’s fall to power happened in the middle of the crisis – she resigned on 22 November – after an unexpected sequence of events following Geoffrey Howe’s embittered resignation prompted Michael Heseltine to make a formal leadership bid. This triggered a secret ballot of MPs which Mrs Thatcher won, but not by a big enough majority to quell her doubters who eventually persuaded her, in tears, to resign. The narrative stops dead while Forsyth describes her fall and, very characteristically, gives us four reasons for it (p.315) in one of scores of sections of the novel which could easily be converted into Powerpoint presentations.

Technique and style

I’ve just read three John le Carré novels from the 1990s and the techniques and prose styles of the two writers could hardly be more different. Le Carré starts in the middle of the story, with a significant or important scene played out at great length, often for a quarter of the entire book, as in The Tailor of Panama. Only slowly do we get flashbacks, memories and references which paint in the backstory in fragments which we, the reader, have to assemble. Often we don’t get main characters’ names or key relationships until over 100 pages into the text (as in Single & Single). And all this is done in a style which I personally find very overblown, full of ironic exaggeration, facetious myth-making, public schoolboy slang and the repetition of key moments in the lives of a small number of key protagonists which are designed to build up a kind of accumulated psychological portrait of them.

By contrast Forsyth manages a cast, if not of thousands, of at least 73 named and described characters, and tells the story in a strong, clear chronological order, introducing characters and giving their full CVs and careers in a brisk, no-nonsense, journalistic prose style. There is some flashback – we witness Dr Gerald Bull (real historical figure) get assassinated in the opening pages, then get a long résumé of his career as a leading designer of military rockets and artillery, all of which is background to the development of the ‘Supergun’ he was commissioned to design and build for Saddam Hussein, which lies at the heart of the plot. And there is some backstory attached to the Martin brothers, their early days in Baghdad, and to the US fighter pilot Tom Walker, the one who ends up destroying the Babylon Gun at the climax of the novel and who had popped up from time to time in the previous 600 pages.

But by and large the narrative proceeds in a steady forward direction, unfolding much as it did to the world during those tense, anxious months, and reading a timeline of the key events as seen through a military hardware magazine which had special access to some previously unknown aspects of the story (the supergun, the bomb).

What I found a relief after le Carré’s reams of pages of depth psychology, is the way Forsyth tells us as little as we possibly need to know about the psychology of his characters to understand their roles.

  • We learn about poor Fräulein Hardenberg’s one and only love affair when she was 20 and how she was heartlessly dumped, only because it explains her sour, spinsterish demeanour when we meet her in the present, 20 years later, and in order to explain the task her Mossad seducer has to undertake.
  • Mike Martin has one or two moments remembering the prep school he attended in Baghdad when he was a kid, but only because they shed light on the geography of modern Baghdad or because one or two of his Iraqi schoolmates have gone on to hold positions in the regime.
  • Jericho’s motivation is explained simply: he expects Saddam to be overthrown and wants to position himself with the Allies as a candidate for high office in the new regime.
  • Leila’s motivation is simple: she wants to save up the money Rahmani gives her for spying so she can give up being a prostitute and retire to a luxury villa in Tangier.

In the dense 620 pages, that’s about all the psychology there is. The scores and scores of other characters don’t have psychology, they simply have motivations – they are trying to achieve X so they must do Y. A is blocking Y so they’ll have to do Z instead. Instead of psychology or emotion, strategy and logic. Every character and every incident fits into the overall machinery of the plot like cogs takes their place in the apparatus of a beautifully constructed Swiss watch.

Le Carré uses repetition of words or phrases (on the micro scale) and the repetition of key memories or moments (on a macro scale) to build up a sense of character. Forysth never uses that kind of incantatory rhetoric in his prose, and rarely if ever repeats memories or talismanic moments, because he has little or no interest in psychology – his aim is to keep the narrative as clear and open and transparent as a factory blueprint.

Facts facts facts

There’s nothing Forsyth likes better than explaining things: the structure of military, government or intelligence organisations; Gerry Bull’s career; how jet fighters or tanks or semtex-H or a nuclear bomb work. What is the reader to do with this bombardment of information?

The CIA employs around 25,000 officers, the KGB at its peak around 15,000 but the Israeli Intelligence service employs only around 1,500; but these are supplemented with a large diaspora of helpers or sayanim. Richard Sorge was the most important spy in history, because his reports that Japan was not about to attack Russia in 1941 allowed Stalin to move large numbers of tanks and soldiers to the Western front, where they brought Hitler’s advance to a halt and turned the course of the war and of world history. Within 1,000 tons of uranium ore there is enough actual uranium, Uranium 238, to make a block the size of a cigar case; but an atom bomb requires Uranium 235 and you could only extract enough of this to slip under the nail of one finger. The Americans have a top secret reconnaissance plane which flies on the fringes of inner space at a speed of Mach 8, riding its own fireball – a phenomenon known as ‘the ramjet effect’.

And so on for hundreds of other facts and figures.

The Scud missile was a Soviet weapon, weighing just under 1,000 pounds with a range of 300 kilometers, and the Iraqis began to fire a heavily-altered version of the missile into Israel on the second day of the air war. The Air Interception Missile (AIM) 7 is known as the Sparrow, the AIM-9 is known as the Sidewinder. There are three denominations of Christians in Iraq, comprising 7% of the population.

For stretches it is much more like reading an Encyclopedia for Boys than a novel but, if you enter into the Boys Own spirit of the thing, very absorbing. Just some of the phrases, acronyms or tradecraft which stood out:

  • AMAM – Iraqi intelligence service, also known as the Mukhabarat.
  • ATO – Air Tasking Order: lists of targets and tasks for Allied air force, generally over 100 pages long which Forsyth explains in detail.
  • AWACS – Airborne Warning and Control System, Boeing 707s with huge radar dishes above the fuselage: detects movement in the air ie enemy planes.
  • B-52s, the longest-serving US airplanes, were referred to as BUFFs, which stood for Big Ugly Fat Fucker (p.439).
  • BDA – Bomb Damage Assessment, crucial part of ongoing intelligence.
  • CENTAF – Central Air Force.
  • CIA – for the umpteenth time I read that insiders refer to the CIA as ‘the Company’ and the Brits refer to American intelligence generally as ‘the cousins’
  • DZ – Drop Zone for parachutists.
  • ENPIC – National Photographic Centre, Washington DC.
  • HARM – high speed anti-radiation missile.
  • LUP – lying up position as adopted by the SAS where necessary.
  • J-STAR – Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System: detects movements on the ground eg enemy tanks.
  • LANTIRN – Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infra-Red for Night technology.
  • MMFD – The Americans wonder why the Brit pilots so often report being over a location referred to as MMFD. Where is this mysterious MMFD? Only late on do the Brits reveal it refers to ‘Miles and Miles of Fucking Desert’ (p.344).
  • NVG – Night Vision Goggles.
  • PAVEWAY – name of the technology which allows an airplane-fired missile to follow an infra-red beam to the target.
  • Plinking – USAF slang term for destroying enemy tanks.
  • The Rais – Iraqi for President ie Saddam.
  • RTB – Return to Base (Air Force).
  • SAM – Surface to air missile.
  • SATNAV – Forsyth explains how Satnav works, a technology which has, of course, become completely domesticated in the past twenty years.
  • SEAD – Suppression of enemy air defences.
  • SOP – Standard Operating Procedure.
  • Tabbing – trekking across country with equipment: SAS version of ‘yomping’.
  • TACC – Tactical Air Control Centre.
  • TARPS – Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System: cameras hanging under an observation plane.
  • SIS – Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, misleadingly known as MI (Military Intelligence) 6, used to be referred to as ‘Century’ because it occupied the rundown Century House near Waterloo.
  • ‘Wizzo’ – slang for WSO, Weapons Systems Officer, the number two in a fighter plane.
  • Department Z at Lawrence Livermore University monitors the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Third World.

Point of view

From time to time in this vast sea of dry, factual prose Forsyth lets slip a point of view. He has no time at all for liberal hand-wringers, ban the bombers, the London chattering classes and the idiocy (as he sees it) of political correctness. He is an obvious fan of Mrs Thatcher, the security services, the Army and especially of the SAS (who appear in the four novels preceding this one – I wonder if they appear in all Forsyth’s novels). If he is dryly sarcastic about specific failings of this, that or the other military or intelligence organisation, it is always well understood that he is nonetheless entirely behind their ethos and existence.

But in the Final Note of the book Forsyth drops all pretence of fiction and speaks in his own voice to draw two conclusions from the Gulf War, as if his book really had been a history book all along and not a novel at all. These are:

  1. It was insane of the 30 industrialised nations of the world to make a nice profit selling arms to a regime like Saddam’s, motivated by ‘political foolishness, bureaucratic blindness and corporate greed’. In the end it cost far more to attack and destroy what we sold him than all the profit made from it. And, although he didn’t deploy chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, he would have if he could have; it was a close-run thing.
  2. Governments, military and intelligence agencies were all so dazzled by the technical advances of the 1980s and 1990s that they thought tech could fight the war for them. But in the end it was discovered the Iraqi regime had hidden much firepower and resources from even the most sophisticated spy planes and satellites. In other words there is no replacement for human intelligence, for eyes on the ground and for – although he doesn’t explicitly say this – heroes like Mike Martin.

It is an interesting intellectual exercise to reflect on how these general strictures have held up in the 22 years of troubled history which have passed since the book’s publication.


Credit

The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 1994. All quotes from the 1995 paperback Corgi edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

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

Faith by Len Deighton (1994)

‘If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s being able to sort out complicated technical material so it can be understood by the layman.’
‘Yes, you have a mechanical mind, Dicky, I said.
‘So why don’t you wind it up this week? Yes, I’ve heard that joke, Bernard. It’s time you got some new ones.’
Naughty Bernard: no coffee for you today! (p.275)

Recapping the Bernard Samson novels

Deighton is happier in his first-person narratives. This book’s predecessor, Violent Ward, also a first-person narrative, was warm and funny, unlike the two before that, MAMista and City of Gold, which felt hard-hearted, cold and cruel.

This is the first of the third and final trilogy of novels starring 40-something British intelligence officer Bernard Samson and it is, as most of its predecessors in the series, told in the warm, friendly, ironic tones of Bernard himself.

Bernard lives in London and works for MI6. In the first trilogy (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match) his gorgeous, clever wife Fiona was exposed as a high-level ‘mole’ in the Department and forced to flee in a hurry to East Berlin. He is understandably upset she has lied to him for so long and finds himself falling for a new, rather gorgeous young Department employee, Gloria.

In the first two novels of the second set (Spy Hook, Spy Line) Bernard began to suspect – and then had it abundantly confirmed – that Fiona was in fact a triple agent and had been working for us all along. Her defection, and all her ‘spying’ against us before it, had been stage-managed solely to allow her to go East posing as a hero of Socialism, adopt a high-level KGB role in East Berlin, and then spy for us. Although this revelation explains lots of things which have been puzzling Bernard, it in some ways makes her deceit and betrayal even worse. In the second trilogy young Gloria moves in with him and becomes a new mother to his two young children, Billy and Sally.

Eventually, after several hard draining years in East Berlin, Fiona’s mission there is concluded and the Department arranges for her return. But the rainswept night of her final escape back from the East to our side turns into a bloodbath: Samson and Fiona manage to escape but the young agent accompanying Bernard – and Fiona’s sister, Tessa, who had drunkenly tagged along for the ride – are shot dead in a confused shootout, as are the East German agent Stinnes and another bystander, Harry Kennedy.

After Bernard and Fiona have fled the scene, the ex-CIA psychopath-cum-hitman Thurkettle who, unknown to both of them, has been masterminding this carnage, burns Tessa’s body in one of the cars left at the scene, and throws the bodies of British agent, Stinnes and Harry into a deep ditch – part of the roadworks where the whole shambles took place – where they will be covered with concrete and never found. He then motorcycles off to meet the middle-man who is due to give him his money – only to be himself assassinated and his body hidden. The whole sequence is shockingly brutal and cynical.

Still reeling from this bloodbath, the reader progresses to the third book of this second trilogy, Spy Sinker, which abruptly departs the storyline altogether and a) is told in the third person b) goes all the way back to 1977 to recap the events which led to Fiona’s ‘defection’. In line with my theory about Deighton’s points of view, this third-person narrative is much more detached and harder-hearted than the previous five, warm and chatty first-person narratives. It reveals that just about everyone in his life has lied to and betrayed Samson, who emerges as an unwitting pawn in numerous scams and stratagems, and paints a very unpleasant picture of human nature.

Among many other revelations is that it was the head of the Department himself, the D-G, and nice old Silas Gaunt, who cooked up the plan to smuggle Fiona back out of the East and conceived the idea of murdering her sister, Tessa, in order to sever her head and replace it with a model of Fiona’s head containing a set of teeth which perfectly match Fiona’s (!) The intention is to make the East German security police, the Stasi, think their defector boss, Fiona, really had died in a tragic car smash and burn-out. They will thus be lulled into a false sense of security and carry on using the same codes etc, while our chaps debrief Fiona in a safe house in California, and so we can go on tapping the Ossies for a bit longer.

For this end, apparently, Fiona’s own sister was deliberately murdered, decapitated and burned. Call me old-fashioned, but the horror, the cruelty, as well as the stupidity and callousness of such a plan burned out of me all sympathy for the MI6 depicted in these pages. And the charming, humorous banter of the earlier books, Bernard’s droll first-person commentary on his bosses and colleagues in ‘the Department’, was irreparably undermined.

Damaged mood

So when we open this novel, the first in the third and final trilogy, to find Bernard’s narration picking up the story in late 1987 – cheerfully telling us he and Fiona have more or less recovered after a long period of recuperation and debriefing in California – and are now back in London, and back at work together – the reader cannot read his breezy tones in the same way as before. We now know his point of view is limited and plain wrong about numerous key issues. We know he is the victim of a terrible conspiracy. Moreover:

a) Even a reasonably gullible reader like me cannot really believe that a woman can see her own sister shot dead in front of her (some of Tessa’s blood spattered onto Fiona’s coat and face), know it’s partly her fault, and then soon be completely back in the swing of the old job, fussing about the furniture and the trivia of office politics. It doesn’t hang properly. She would be devastated.

b) We, the readers, are nervously aware that, sooner or later, the secret of what happened to Fiona’s sister will come out – and the consequences will be terrible for everyone, including us.

The Bernard Samson universe

It’s a longish book, 360 pages, but it flies by. For some reason Deighton seems at home in this story and his prose is warm and relaxed. It’s tempting to say that the cocky young narrator of the Ipcress novels has grown up, has a wife and kids, but still has the same dry sardonic attitude towards his bosses or his pompous old father-in-law, here showing off about his expensive new artist’s ‘studio’:

‘It’s a place I come when I have to think,’ said David
‘Do you spend much time here?’ I asked.
Fiona glared at me but it went right over David’s head. (p.170)

Bernard and Fiona have been left a swish, Mayfair apartment in Tessa’s will, her husband – George Kosinski, Bernard’s brother-in-law – having moved to Switzerland for tax reasons. They are reunited with their children who, during their sojourn in California, have been looked after by Fiona’s pompous but wealthy father down in Leith Hill, Surrey. And they immediately go back to work full-time, getting reinvolved in Departmental politics, notably lots of fussing about whether their boss, Dicky Cruyer, will get promoted from Head of Ops to Deputy DG of the ‘Department’, and fretting about which office the newly-promoted Fiona will get, and so on. When I was off work with stress, I was only allowed back in stages, initially working part-time, given careful increments of work to re-adapt, monitored and subject to weekly meetings with HR to make sure I could cope. None of that here. Everything is back to ‘normal’ in one leap.

For example, Dicky hosts an excruciatingly embarrassing dinner party where his wife, fed up of all his affairs, is drunk and sarcastic in front of the usual characters – Bernard, Fiona, Gloria, Bret. There is a similarly fraught social Sunday at the father-in-law’s, attended by old Silas Gaunt, the shaggy, overweight, retired but still very influential eminence grise of the Service who we know, but Bernard doesn’t, conceived and carried out the entire Operation Sinker to send Fiona to the East and the blood-curdling plan to bring her back.

Early on Bernard flies back to Berlin where he stays with old Tante Lisl who we last saw wheelchair-bound but who’s had hip replacements and is noticeably more mobile and sprightly. He visits the elderly Frank Harrington, head of the Berlin Field Unit, friend of Bernard’s dad, still hankering after a move back to London and a ‘gong’. Then he hitchhikes down to Zurich to visit his best friend from his Berlin childhood, Werner Volkmann, who has left Lisl’s niece, Ingrid, to take up again with his youthful, go-getting but deeply untrustworthy girlfriend, Zena.

In other words, the old gang’s all here. The plot feels mostly concerned with taking Bernard to all his familiar places and touching base with all the faces we’ve gotten to know so well from the previous six novels, so that we can sink back into the warm comfort zone of the Bernard Samson soap opera.

There is a plot about spies and stuff but really, rather than a spy story which shows us some of the agents’ private lives, these novels feel more like a soap opera about a circle of middle-class people, with homes in Mayfair and the Home Counties, who have Sunday lunches, dinner parties, evenings in cooking and moaning about the office – and ever so occasionally, go off and do some dodgy dealing behind the Iron Curtain. All swathed in, delivered with, Samson (and Deighton)’s trademark dry humour.

As I said it, a movement in the next row of machines revealed the inquisitive and unfriendly eyes of a man named Morgan peeping over the top of the bull-pen. Morgan was a malevolent denizen of the top floor who was working on a PhD in gossip. (p.134)

Gloria

And threaded throughout the book is the domestic difficulty Samson has with the fact that, not only did he shack up with the gorgeous Gloria after Fiona ‘betrayed’ and ‘abandoned’ him, and end up falling seriously in love with her; but that, now Fiona is back, both women are working for the same Department, in the same building, on the same floor. Samson has painful conversations with Fiona, who can’t forgive him for ‘betraying’ her with another woman (er, hang on); and even more painful conversations with Gloria, who can’t bear it that she’s suddenly been shut out of his life.

The Gloria-Fiona thread is another way in which the novels feel more like a soap opera, with lots of tearful accusations and bitter recriminations etc, than a straight spy thriller.

(And there is a Gloria sub-sub-plotline: She refers now and then to her father, who was an émigré from Hungary, came to London as a trained dentist and ended up as a contractor to the Department, for example doing dental work on deep undercover field agents so their teeth looked like they’d had bad Eastern Bloc dental work. She mentions here and there that, while Samson was recuperating in the States, her father’s contract with the Department was terminated, very aggressively; officers came and removed all of his dental equipment. Thus rendered unemployed he has taken up the offer of a job back in Hungary, even though it is still communist and he might be running some risks for ever having left. –Now we know something neither Bernard or Gloria know, which is that the key to the whole swap-Tessa’s-body-for-Fiona’s plan was to supply Tessa’s corpse with a young woman’s head (burned beyond recognition) which contained teeth identical to Fiona’s – and, I don’t think it was 100% confirmed, but the strong presumption in the earlier novels is that it was Gloria’s father who supplied the head with the fake dental work ie he was a crucial element in the conspiracy and this explains, to the alert reader, why he has been shut down and shuffled off abroad. Where, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if something bad does happen to him as Gloria frets to Bernard in their one or two conversations on the subject.)

The plot

Collecting VERDI

Samson is asked to go over the Wall to visit a senior KGB man who might want to defect, code name VERDI. So he goes across the Wall and is driven to the rendezvous by a callow new agent, Robin. When they arrive at the spooky silent house in an East German village the guy they’re due to meet is dead in an armchair, his head blown off. As they leave, they are tailed by a car, so Samson stops on a deserted country road, gets out in an initially friendly way but then shoots at the car, hitting one of ‘their’ men, before jumping back into his own and screeching off.

The Delius network

Samson and Robin drive to a friendly church, the base of one of the many ‘networks’ we ran over in the East (this one code-named Delius). They are welcomed and sheltered by the pastor and this enables Deighton to expand on, or refresh our memories about, the Fiona-defecting plotline. To recap: Bret Rensselaer had identified a decade earlier that the East German churches might form a perfect channel of resistance to the communist regime. So Fiona was chosen to volunteer to spy for the KGB to build up a cover here in the West, before ‘defecting’ to the East, where she could take up her double agent role. There, from her senior position in East German intelligence, she began her real work for us, networking with German churches and encouraging them to speak out against the regime.

Fiona’s mission

You can see what Deighton is doing here, tying his heroine to actual developments in the real world, for the East German churches genuinely were among the focal points for growing resistance to the régime in the late 1980s. But, also in the real world, all the unrest – from churches to other civic groups, intellectuals and opposition parties – was only allowable because of the example of perestroika set by Gorbachev in Russia. It was Gorbachev lifting the lid which led to the collapse of the Eastern bloc, not the subversive activities of nice, public-school-educated English ladies. Deighton’s sleight of hand works… up to a point.

On a practical point: wouldn’t Fiona’s KGB bosses have noticed her anti-KGB activities? Just a little? Wouldn’t she have been very closely monitored indeed, followed every hour of the day, by her touchy new employers? She probably couldn’t go to the loo without them knowing: how, then, could she possibly have arranged meetings with all the leading subversive forces in the country and given them support, money, advice, without the KGB knowing a thing about it, in fact all about it? — Best to put the implausibility of the whole plotline to one side, and enjoy the show.

Rendezvous with Werner

After getting safely back to the West, Samson hitchhikes down to Zurich to see his old mate, Werner Volkmann. For some reason, on the way he has a punishing fight with the trucker who picks him up, leaving him uncertain whether it was an assassination attempt or just a psycho trucker. And the lift after that is with a police inspector who menacingly warns Samson that he better not cause any trouble or get arrested, or else he will have a hard time in the cells. Maybe these two encounters are to establish the tough, manly world of the thriller, the ‘real’ world of crime and law enforcement, of beatings-up on dark rainy nights, which we are meant to be in…

In Zurich there’s some business about safe houses, and having to contact Werner via secretive émigrés and the like, all enjoyable spy hokum, which gives way quickly to the two old buddies meeting up and having long chats about women and life. Werner has been sidelined by London, again (even though we know Werner was Fiona’s case officer, or official liaison channel with London, through her years in the East and so was, at one point, central to the biggest operation in MI6’s history). It feels like that has been quietly forgotten in order to restore the buddies-against-authority vibe Samson and Werner had in the earlier books. Much of the plot has a strong sense of déjà vu, not in the details, just in the feel and recurring situations. In fact more than once Samson himself comments on it, saying he feels like he’s been at this dinner party, or had this conversation with Frank, before. And he has. But the reader doesn’t mind because it’s all done with good humour and intelligence. We like these dinner parties. We like these clever conversations.

Dicky Cruyer’s plan

It transpires that Dicky Cruyer wants to make his name and secure promotion by smuggling VERDI out of the East. VERDI is something to do with the KGB’s vast new computer database and so would be able to tell us all their secrets. However, he was also involved in the investigation into Fiona / Tessa’s death. Samson keeps telling people, especially Werner, that deep down Fiona is traumatised and will never be the same. (That’s what Deighton has to have him say to give the novel some kind of psychological plausibility, but it doesn’t actually show it much. In all the conversations at home, in the office, dinners at home, meeting the kids, dinner parties out and Sunday lunches at her father’s, Fiona comes over as an absolutely normal, pukkah, upper-middle-class gel without a shadow of trauma. Deighton tells but doesn’t show her alleged unravelling.)

Meanwhile, we learn that Fiona hired an American ex-agent and freelance snoop, Timmerman, to go looking for Tessa out East. And late on in the novel we discover it was his body that Samson found at the rendezvous, not VERDI’s. Was Timmerman murdered because he had discovered too much? What does ‘too much’ actually mean? Remember, Samson himself doesn’t know anything about the conspiracy to murder Tessa and try and con the other side that her body was Fiona’s. (Most of this novel seems to be about the way various different characters either know this murderous truth and are probably hiding it (Rennsaeler? Frank Hutchinson? The DG?) or are blissfully ignorant of it and groping to find out (Fiona, Tessa’s husband George, and Samson himself)).

VERDI’s version

Eventually VERDI ie Andrey Fedosov is successfully smuggled out of the East and Samson and Werner are charged with looking after him, though Samson is very unhappy that it has to be in a Departmental flat in Marylebone instead of the big country estate surrounded by CCTV and security guards which they usually employ for the purpose. The latter, Dicky tells him, is being refurbished due to ‘asbestos in the roof’.

In one of his first presentations to our boys, Fedosov tells Werner and Samson that Tessa was never killed! At the confused shootout by the Autobahn in the rain, it was the KGB woman officer charged with getting Fiona back and despatched to intercept her as soon as the KGB knew she’d done a bunk, it was this KGB woman who was shot! What? And that the drunk Tessa we saw climbing into Samson’s transit van as he left a hotel party to collect Fiona, and who we saw shot in the confused handover, was not shot at all but seized by the opposition in all the confusion and taken to a Stasi interrogation centre. What? This is completely against all the versions of events we’d previously read. Can it possibly be true?

Either Deighton is giving himself an ‘out’, a way of providing the happy end to the Tessa affair that we softer-hearted readers would like to see pulled out of a hat. Or, more true to thriller conventions,  Fedosov has been allowed to defect and to tell this story in order to put Samson off the grisly reality which Spy Sinker seemed to describe: that Tessa was deliberately murdered on the orders of people in his own Department. This way it looks like the woman killed was a baddy and Tessa is alive: this gets the Department higher-ups off the hook and, hopefully, will ease Fiona’s guilt. Then if Tessa proves irrecoverable or her body turns up, it can conveniently be blamed on the evil KGB instead of our own bad guys.

A family affair

And so, despite cursory nods in the direction of glasnost and the vast social and political changes affecting the world in 1987, the plot has turned into an entirely family affair. Again. Maybe the whole trilogy will circle round the question: Who killed Tessa? Was she actually killed at all? Will Fiona’s investigations uncover the truth? Will the bad guys in the Department manage to keep the real events a secret? Will Samson get to the bottom of things or will he continue to be the patsy for much larger, much cleverer forces, that he was revealed to be in Spy Sinker?

Having told his version of the Tessa affair with a big smile on his face, Fedosov settles back into an armchair in the safe house, and is promptly shot through the heart by a long range sniper bullet. Werner and Samson throw themselves to the floor and crawl across to check but… yep, he was killed instantly. It’s almost as if someone wanted him to come West, tell his fiction about Tessa and then… bang!

The novel ends with Werner and Samson awaiting being called into the official enquiry into why and how they let Fedosov be assassinated. There’s another strong sense of déjà vu as, once again, Samson and his pal are in the doghouse – but also a familiar feeling that the entire trilogy will be about unravelling just one ‘secret’, as the previous trilogies – despite all the local colour – boiled down to one question: Is Fiona really a Russian spy?

Will Deighton manage to pull it off, to supply enough twists and turns to keep us reading, and yet deliver an outcome which is both unexpected and emotionally satisfying? The only way to find out is to read on, which is what makes this, like all the novels in the series, so fiendishly complex, entertaining and compelling.

Credit

Faith by Len Deighton was published by Harper Collins 1994. All quotes and page references from the 1995 HarperCollins paperback edition.


Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

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

Crusades by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira (1994)

[By 1240] crusading had become a system for teaching ideological war and intolerance. (p.181)

Terry Jones is of course one of the famous Monty Python team, he has scripted and appeared in TV comedy, directed their feature films as well as written numerous children’s books and poetry. He has always been interested in history and has also written a number of books about the Middle Ages, about Chaucer’s knight and about Vikings, as well as hosting several light-hearted TV series about The Ancient World, Medieval Lives, Barbarians and so on.

Crusades

Crusades was published in 1994 ‘to accompany the acclaimed BBC television series’. It is a relatively short book (196 pages of text) in which to tell such a long complex story. I wouldn’t really recommend it as an introduction let alone a serious overview of the subject because:

  • Its brevity makes it quite confusing. Some characters appear only once or twice: you can tell they’re quite important but are skimmed over very briefly, which makes it hard to remember who’s who.
  • Thus the most vivid section is two-thirds through, about Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, but even this felt rushed – I bet there are scads of better books about both men.
  • Throughout it is marked by snappy sentences, comic insights and sarcastic asides which probably work when delivered on camera, but sit dead on the page.

In September the French raided the suburbs of Nicaea, treating the Christians of the region with legendary nastiness: burning babies on spits, that sort of thing. They returned to camp very pleased with themselves and their booty. (p.23)

  • This facetiousness feels inappropriate. Lots of sentences end in exclamation marks to emphasise the wacky grin they’re being delivered with! But there are only so many times you can point out that the crusaders turned out to be mercenary and forget all about religion! Or that the Arabs could have expelled the Christians from Jerusalem at any point if only they stopped fighting among themselves!
  • The most vivid, that is, until the end of the book when Terry lets rip with his criticism of the Fourth Crusade, whose main achievement was sacking Constantinople, accompanied by a three-day orgy of murder and looting. From this point onwards Terry’s anger becomes more obvious and the book becomes easier to read because, instead of blizzards of new hard-to-remember Arab names on each page, Terry makes more general points:
    • by combining Christianity with a mass movement, the Crusades invented Ideology
    • for the popes the Crusades were never about seizing Jerusalem from the infidel; they were about regaining total control of Christendom, crushing the Eastern Orthodox church
    • more, in the hands of Innocent III, the crusade was the first totalitarian movement, dedicated to stripping every citizen of all relationships with anyone except the Pope-Führer who could deploy armies of fanatics against anyone who opposed his complete domination

These Big Ideas are enjoyable and memorable because so simple. Who knows whether they stand up to scrutiny, you’d need to read a more thoughtful and detailed account to test them…

Meanwhile, on almost every page and whenever he made another sarcastic remark about how the oh-so-holy crusaders set about besieging another Christian town, or allying with muslims against other Christian rulers, I couldn’t help wondering: If Terry loathes the Crusaders for being the violent and stupid psychopaths he makes them out to be – why is he bothering to write about them?

In the end, more sober, considered histories of terrible events are more telling because they don’t flatter, patronise, speak down, ironise, ridicule or dress up the story: the more seriously they take terrible events, the more seriously the reader is obliged to enter into full understanding of them, the more scathed and appalled we are in our imaginations.

The book would have benefited hugely from a chronology or timeline. I’ve tried to create one in another blog post:

Consequences

The crusades:

  • Reopened the Mediterranean to commerce and travel, enabling Genoa and Venice to flourish.
  • Helped create a centralised Catholic Church under strong papal leadership, identifying the Pope as a powerful political leader in his own right, often in open armed conflict with other European rulers. But which also spawned criticism, rebel movements and theology, seeking to escape Rome’s totalitarian, rich and corrupt practices. Leading, after several false starts, to the Reformation in the 1520s.
  • Poisoned relations between the Roman and Eastern churches down to this day.
    • The fourth Crusade, by sacking Constantinople, severely weakened the Eastern Empire contributing (arguably) to its fall to the Turks in 1453.
  • Poisoned relations with the Muslim world. Invoking them, to this day calls up images of barbarian brutality, bloodshed and infidel arrogance.
  • Badly affected relations with Jews. The Rhineland Massacres of 1096 were the first outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence in Europe and were still being cited by Zionists in the 19th century as showing the need for an independent Jewish state.
  • And they were the source of centuries of literature, history, poems, plays and operas about ‘heroism’ and ‘chivalry’ and ‘nobility’ and ‘duty’ for centuries afterwards.

Crusader words

Crusade comes from the French croisade ie derives from the Latin words for cross, croix, crux.

Before the 16th century the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’ were rarely used by Europeans, who commonly wrote about Saracens, a word derived via French from an obscure Arabic origin.

Outremer From the French: outre-mer, meaning over-seas – the name given to the Crusader states established after the First Crusade viz. the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Saladin Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb in Arabic and Selahedînê Eyûbî in Kurdish, because he was actually a Muslim of Kurdish origin.

Related links

The Life of Graham Greene volume II 1939-1955 by Norman Sherry (1994)

It’s lucky I have a masochistic trend and a feeling for squalor. (p.114)
I do seem to muck up everyone I love. (p.406)

The three volumes of Professor Norman Sherry’s epic life of Graham Greene were published in 1989, 1994, and 2004. This volume, number two, covers the period 1939 to 1955, which saw the publication of the three novels which constitute Greene’s claim to greatness: The Power and The Glory (1940), The Heart of The Matter (1948), The End of The Affair (1951).

Sherry spent 28 years on his biography, travelling to all the places Greene visited, interviewing everyone who’d ever known him, and the man himself. Critics have mentioned Sherry’s occasional odd phrasing or uneven attitude towards his subject, but any faults pale into insignificance beside the scale of the achievement and thoroughness of his detective work. This volume is a fascinating and detailed insight into Graham Greene, a wretched, miserable man who had the gift of making everyone close to him wretched and miserable while becoming widely revered by the world of letters for producing a stream of novels about wretched, miserable men.

Greene’s character

Suicidal Surely Greene was the most suicidally depressed of all significant British authors. A shy, sensitive boy, he was bullied at school and made a series of suicide attempts before his parents sent him to a psychoanalyst. But thoughts of suicide stayed with him all his life and much of his behaviour can be interpreted as (to quote the title of his autobiography) ‘ways of escape’ from an existence he routinely found unbearable. (I am struck by the fact the one way of escape Greene didn’t consider was physical exercise: walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, jogging, tennis or team sports? Nope, not a glimpse, not a mention. Drinking, feeling sorry for himself and writing about misery were his main occupations. And sex with prostitutes and adultery.)

Part Five of the biography, covering his travels to the Far East during the period of the Malaya Emergency and the Vietnam Insurgency, is titled The Death Seeker. Again and again he hopes his plane will crash or he will be kidnapped, shot or blown up by the rebels in the countries he visited. Libby Getz is quoted as saying Greene’s deepest wish was to be ‘crucified on an anthill in a third world country.’ (p.385)

Longed for death to come here with an ambush, on this coloured evening. (p.386)

Selfish He was a monster of selfishness and egotism whose biography can be reduced to a fairly simple, and familiar, formula. 1. He was profoundly depressive and suicidal since adolescence. 2. He could only escape these moods by writing, drinking or being ‘in love’ – in a small way, going with prostitutes, in a bigger way, having love affairs. Thus: He was unfaithful to his wife Vivien, with Dorothy Glover, for some 8 years; then he dumped her when he ‘fell in love with’ the married American woman, Catherine Walston. These tangled relationships, and the permanent sense of self-pitying guilt he felt about them, gave Greene the material for Heart of The Matter and End of The Affair.

Now, millions of people have had affairs, got divorced, got on with their lives (for example most of the classic American male novelists). They have a tough-minded practical approach. But not Greene. On page 288 Sherry says Greene confessed, while discussing his affairs, to his own moral cowardice. This is the key to the man and the works. He was psychologically sensitive and weak enough to fully imagine the pain and hurt he was causing his loved ones by betraying them; but he lacked the character, the morality, the backbone, simply not to do it: not to have affairs; not to hurt the ones he loved. The trap in which Scobie and to some extent Bendrix find themselves isn’t a sophisticated moral and theological predicament – as it is blown up to be in the books. It is a trap entirely of their own making and caused entirely by their own feebleness.

A few priests and Catholic friends modestly suggested he not have affairs but stay true to his marriage vows, faithful to his wife and religion. On page 278 he goes to confession with an unfamilair priest. The priest listens to the whole sorry saga and suggests he return to his wife, give up his adultery, and stop seeing his lover. Quite rational practical advice. It is entertaining to read how outraged Greene was. ‘You’ve never heard anything so fantastic,’ he writes to Catherine about the experience, and he storms out of the confessional, saying, ‘Father, I have to find another confessor’. Ie one who will acquiesce in his immorality, unfaithfulness and sinning. That is the picture of Roman Catholicism that emerges from this book: you can pick and choose the rules you want to obey, and shop around for a priest who will indulge your sins, all the time feeling smugly superior to those ignorant atheists who know nothing of the majesty of your suffering.

There’s no doubt Greene was miserable as sin a lot of the time; but also that he kind of reveled and glories in this specialness this gave him.

When his long-suffering wife confronts him with his adultery and reminds him of his marriage vows and a father’s responsibility to his children, Greene resorts to emotional blackmail and threatens to kill himself (p.286). It beggars belief that his fans hold up this selfish, hypocritical weakling as a moral or spiritual guide to the times.

Love of destruction When War came and Greene was in London during the Blitz, he revelled in it. He wasn’t the only man to see war as a potential solution to his intractable personal problems, not least the dilemma of choosing between wife or mistress. The Wikipedia article on the Blitz states: ‘Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed.’ Though horrified on a human level at the suffering he witnessed, on an imaginative level, Greene loved it.

Greene appeared to relish destruction and death: indeed, he seemed to believe that the world deserved it. (p.52)

This is one version of the ‘trahison des clercs‘: wanting to see the whole world punished for what, in the end, were his own very personal misery (suicidal depression), intellectual confusion (twisted Catholicism) and squalid deception (affair with Dorothy Glover). Malcolm Muggeridge knew Greene well throughout this period ‘and I remember the longing he had for a bomb to fall on him.’ (p.53) an attitude repeated in the fiction.

Death never mattered at those times – in the early years I even used to pray for it. (The End of The Affair, p.70)

Just possibly plenty of other Londoners didn’t relish the Blitz, being blown to pieces, killed and maimed and seeing their City destroyed. But wherever he went, the world and all the people in it were, for Greene, just an incidental backdrop and bit part players in the melodrama of his personal anguish.

Writing machine

Greene was a writing machine. Fear of returning to the absolute poverty he and his wife had experienced in the early 1930s drove him on to accept all the work he was offered, and he was continually pitching ideas for articles, reviews, series, features, short stories, pamphlets and so on, to his agent, newspapers, magazines and publishers. His output is formidable.

From life

Everything was grist to the mill. He recycled huge amounts of his own life into (often thinly-veiled) fiction. His big foreign trips to West Africa (1935) and Mexico (1938) were turned into travel books, but also formed the bases of the big novels, The Heart of The Matter and The Power and The Glory. His wartime experiences of the Blitz were recycled into The Ministry of Fear; his passionate affair with Catherine Walston provides the basis for The End of The Affair. His post-War visits to Vietnam provided the atmosphere and many of the characters of The Quiet American.

Libel worries In the latter book he admits in the Dedication giving a lead character (a call girl) the same name as one of his hosts, Phuong. Presumably she didn’t mind. However, copying real people directly into his fiction caused problems more than once:

  • Journey Without Maps was withdrawn soon after publication because the publishers, Heinemann, feared a libel case.
  • Greene was forced by his publishers to pay the costs of reprinting pages in his breakthrough novel, Stamboul Train, because JB Priestly thought the satirical figure of a contemporary Northern popular novelist was based on him.
  • The Power and the Glory had to be tweaked because the dentist figure, Mr Trench, who, rather incongruously, appears at the opening and end of the novel, was rather too obviously based on a dentist who Greene met in Mexico, one Mr Carter.
  • The End of The Affair is based on his own all-consuming affair with Catherine Walston, and while he manages to change her name to Sarah in the novel, Catherine’s husband’s name was Harry and the fictional Sarah’s husband’s name is Henry. Some of Henry Walston’s friends encouraged him to sue, not only about the name but the resemblance of aspects of his private life to the ficitonal Henry.

On the other hand, non-white people could be used at will. Scobie’s ‘boy’ in Heart of the Matter is named Ali, the name of Greene’s ‘boy’ in Freetown. He was unlikely to sue.

Spy

Greene’s uncle, Sir Graham Greene, was one of the founders of Naval Intelligence in the First War. His sister, Elizabeth, worked as secretary to the head of SIS in the Middle East, Cuthbert Bowley. She later married the head of SIS Cairo section, later in charge of Turkey. Working for the intelligence services was in the family.

  • Throughout 1941 he is canvassed by the Secret Information Service (SIS), precursor to MI6 and eventually recruited. October & November training at Oriel College, Oxford. December 1941 sails for West Africa. 3 January 1942 docked at Freetown, Sierra Leone. 13 January flies to Lagos. 8 March transfers back to Freetown. He is agent 59200, attached to Freetown CID. During his training Greene was managed by Kim Philby.
  • From Freetown he hired and paid agents to spy on the neighbouring colonies run by Vichy France, searching ships coming through Freetown for industrial diamonds vital for the German war effort, trying to identify and, if possible, ‘turn’ German agents in Sierra Leone.
  • By March 1943 he was back in Britain having argued with his immediate boss, been offered another position but resigned. He reported to SIS headquarters in St Albans where for a year he ran espionage operations in Portugal, a nest of intrigue, under the direction of Kim Philby. They regularly had lunch at the local pub in St James’s.
  • June 1944 resigns SIS and goes to work at the Politicial Intelligence Department, developing a propaganda pamphlet to be dropped on Vichy France. Greene later doubted it was ever dropped.

Sherry’s account of Greene’s spying career is absolutely fascinating and includes excerpts from contemporary training manuals and memos which explain the trade.

Though Greene’s formal and recorded work for SIS ceases there, towards the end of this volume spying returns in several forms.

  1. Greene makes two extensive visits to Vietnam in the early 1950s, travelling widely, including to the frontline, speaking to a number of the key players. Ostensibly he was being paid a tidy sum by Life magazine but Sherry speculates that he may have been passing information back to the ‘old firm’. The French authorities certainly thought so.
  2. On a side note it is interesting to learn that the British film producer Alexander Korda, who produced The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, was an MI6 spy. He was asked to leave Britain at the start of the War (for which he was heavily criticised in the Press) and set up film production offices in New York and Los Angeles to provide cover for British agents working in still-neutral America. He received a knighthood for his services.
  3. Greene became strikingly anti-American during these years: his light-hearted membeship of the Communist Party came back to haunt him in adult life when, under McCarthyism, the American authorities became very difficult about issuing him a visa and he experienced hassle at customs and was expelled from Puerto Rico. It is well-known that this anti-Americanism suffuses The Quiet American, which is an indictment of the naivete of US policy in Vietnam. Sherry speculates that Greene’s anti-American stance may have been an elaborate ‘cover’ which gave him closer access to anti-American movements aroud the world – information which could be fed back to ‘the old firm’.
  4. Lastly, there is Greene’s notorious loyalty to his friend Kim Philby, the charismatic and effective spymaster who nearly made it to head of MI6, and was revealed as a KGB double agent in 1963 when he fled to Moscow. He wrote articles defending Philby’s ‘loyalty’ to an idea, and wrote an introduction to Philby’s self-justifying autobiography, My Silent War. This caused a storm of criticism to fall on his head. Sherry makes the interesting speculation that this, also, was a ‘cover’; that Greene very clearly positioned himself as almost Philby’s only friend in the West- and thus kept a lifeline open to him if he had wanted, in any way, to feed information back to ‘the old firm’. Sounds unlikely. But once you’ve read enough true-life stories about espionage – about agents, double agents and triple agents – you realise stranger things have in fact happened.

To the extent that he established contact with Philby after his defection, Greene was helping his country’s intelligence services, and, in a larger sense, was patriotically defending its security. (p.496)

Films

Greene was spectacularly successful in getting his fictions turned into movies, generally very good ones. Sherry’s book contains fascinating insights into the amounts involved, the negotiations, and the process of turning novels into screenplays.

  • In May 1942 the Hollywood movie version of A Gun For Hire was released as This Gun For Hire, directed by Frank Tuttle and starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.
  • In December 1942 his short story The Lieutenant Died Last is converted into an impressive film, Went The Day Well, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and produced by Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios.
  • Towards the end of 1942 he completed The Ministry of Fear in Sierra Leone (published in 1943) and his agents sold it to Parmount Studios for £3,250, leading to the movie version, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds, released in October 1944.
  • In June 1947 producer Alexander Korda and director Carol Reed contacted Greene about filming his short story, The Basement Room. Greene adapted his own story into a screenplay which was then shot the next year and the film released in September 1948 under the title The Fallen Idol.
  • Korda wanted to capture the strange atmosphere of post-War Vienna on film. He asked Greene if he had anything and Greene produced the famous sentence about having been present at a funeral and then months later seeing the buried man walk by him in the Strand. From this seed was born The Third Man, released to much acclaim in August 1949.
  • Greene did some work on the Hollywood version of his novel The End of The Affair, released in 1955, directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson, Peter Cushing and John Mills.

Key events

  • 1940 – The Power and The Glory is published just as the War enters a new and more serious phase, thus ensuring bad sales.
  • 1940 – Greene packs his wife Vivien and children off to the country and promptly takes a mistresss, Dorothy Glover, a short, stocky, unprepossessing woman of strong character. As the War progresses Greene keeps putting Vivien off, cancelling visits to her and the kids. But it takes years and years of painful correspondence, arguments and tears before they confront the situation and arrange a separation in 1948. Despite Greene’s repeated threats to commit suicide, Vivien refuses to divorce him.
  • 1940-41 – Greene serves as an air raid warden during the Blitz, seeing terrible things and running great personal risks. The experience cements his relationship with Dorothy, who is with him throughout the dangerous times.
  • Works at the Ministry of Information from April to September 1940. Farcical bureaucracy, satirised in the short story, Men At Work.
  • By Spring 1941 he is running the arts section of The Spectator single-handed.
  • 1941 October & November SIS training at Oriel College, Oxford. December sails for West Africa.
  • March 1943 – June 1944 works for SIS in St Albans, then St James’s, London.
  • July 1944 leaves government service to work for publishers Eyre and Spottiswoode.
  • June-October 1945 weekly Book review slot for the Evening Standard.
  • 1947 and 48 collaborates with Carol Reed on the Fallen Idol and The Third Man.
  • October 1948 resigns as director of Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • 1948 – climax of his emotional life as he separates from his wife, splits from his lover of eight years, Dorothy, and commits to his American lover, Catherine Walston, who, however, torments him by her absences and by continuing to take other lovers, while all the time living with her husband (who himself has affairs). As you can tell from her behaviour she is, of course, a devout Roman Catholic.
  • 1948 – September: Publication of The Heart of The Matter, which becomes a bestseller and makes him world-famous.
  • 1949 – the movie The Third Man reinforces Greene’s celebrity. Now he is photographed and mobbed wherever he goes, has to give readings and signings and is bombarded with requests for interviews.
  • 1950-51 – travels to Malaya to observe the Emergency, then on to Vietnam to observe the communist insurgency against the French. All the time he is fleeing the unhappiness of his relationship with Catherine Walston who refuses to leave her husband to marry him. In Vietnam he smokes his first pipe of opium.
  • 1952 – back to Vietnam and witnesses real military action and the decay of the military-political situation.
  • 1952-3 – Greene writes and is heavily involved in the production of his first play, The Living Room – young Rose offers herself to Michael, her mother’s executor, they have a brief affair, but he can’t commit to her as his Catholic wife refuses a divorce. Sound familiar? The anguished Rose kills herself. The play was a success, but critics were getting used to Greene’s Catholic schtick. One wrote: the real protagonist was ‘the conscience of Mr Greene tying itself in knots and taking heavy punishment in the process’. Another described the play as: ‘An orgy of sin, suffering and tragedy in the true Graham Greene manner.’
  • Nobel Prize: the play was premiered in Stockholm in 1952 and was violently criticised by Artur Lindkvist, who hated Greene and hated Catholicism. Unfortunately for Greene, Lindkvist was chair of the body which decides Nobel Prizes and he went on record as saying Greene would get the Nobel Prize for literature over his dead body. And he never did.
  • Autumn 1953 – tours Kenya to observe the Mau Mau insurgency (all the while hoping to be killed).
  • August 1954 – first trip to Haiti, later to be the setting of his novel The Comedians.
  • October 1954 – the French officially withdraw their forces from Vietnam. Greene continues writing The Quiet American which is published December 1955, and whose anti-Americanism provokes a storm of anti-Greene criticism in the American press.

Main publications during this period

  • 1940 The Power and The Glory
  • 1943 The Ministry of Fear
  • 1948 The Heart of The Matter
  • 1951 The End of The Affair
  • 1953 The Living Room (play)
  • 1955 The Quiet American

Related links

Greene’s books

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